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Monday, May 25, 2020

Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits - The Coandă Effect (Relative Pitch Records, 2020) ****½

By Olle Lawson

“The Coandă Effect is the tendency of a stream of liquid – or air – to stay attached to a convex surface . The jet keeps the object some distance from the exhaust and gravity prevents it from being blown away.

Recorded live at the Sultan Room, Brooklyn, last autumn altoist Tim Berne offers us a complex duo slab of evolving sound, with an astounding contribution from drummer Nasheet Waits.

The album is spilt into two pieces of uneven length, the first – ‘Tensile’ – clocks in at a cool 39 minutes. I’d envisioned a slow building progression over a track of such duration but Berne is up to 10. within three mins of the opening note; blowing with sustained intense poise, but never empty abandonment. Floor toms cascade into flowing propulsive momentum, Waits lays forth a condensed textural palette – like the concept was to drum out the deeper tones of the kit. Tolling out and prodding the evolving base rhythm.

As in his epic performance on Rob Brown’s live album Unknown Skies (a bass-less trio) Waits plays with particular intelligence to cover the full tonal sound space, with emphasis on the kick drum and floor toms creating huge rolling presence. He deploys a lot of ‘Africa’ in his mode of playing in the first tom-heavy ‘solo’ – with a deep break that could be channelled direct for Ghana, or perhaps Nigeria. This is Waits in his Tamarindo-style of playing – but at faster tempo, matching Berne’s burn. Flowing. Pushing in flow.

As the saxophonist advances and expands into the half-way mark of ‘Tensile’ he plays with increasing conceptual repetitions and urban calculation, before slowing into a solo space – searching and questioning the emotional edges of some oblique city environment, yet here with more spontaneous urgency than his recent ECM work.

A second drum space works up a deep, revolving build and reaches an evocation of feeling through cymbals. The drum level perfectly balanced in the mix, the live recording mastered by David Torn.

As ‘Tensile’ enters its last passage, intense angled spirals of alto sear into the apex of the piece, circling into one another before settling into a perfect descent. With the duo appearing surprised that they have been creating at such a level for nearly forty minutes.

In its mere ten minutes, second track ‘5see’ unfolds amongst skitterish brushwork and a more abstract tonal tract before the drumming unrolls into itself until it sounds like it’s being played backwards. Berne tightens into a circular snake-horn call with Roscoe Mitchell Chant-like revolutions; cells of notes repeated over and over, introducing minute variations of enduring hypnotic spirals right into its pin-point resolution.

A wonderful set – and recording – capturing in its most concentrated form a duo of unique power and intent: overflowing with intricate ideas.

Recommended – at volume – from a balcony, or through headphones – out walking the deserted city.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gordon Grdina Makes Music That Is Important for Humanity

The Canadian, Vancouver-based guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina knows that making art is a political act, especially in today’s world dominated by xenophobic and white supremacist leaders. This musical-political act becomes even more important when your art draws inspiration from one of the Muslim world and Middle-Eastern ancient musical traditions and asks to enrich jazz and free-improv musical universes with these legacies.

Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow - Safar-e-Daroon (Songlines, 2020) *****

Grdina imagines with The Marrow quintet - double bass player Mark Helias, cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Josh Zubot and percussionist Hamin Honari, a peaceful music universe where the Middle-Eastern ancient musical traditions - the Arabic - maqam- and the Persian - dastgah - modal systems, extend African folk music, Western chamber music, jazz, and free-improv ethos and legacy. Safar-e-Daroon (Inner Journey) is the sophomore album of The Marrow, following Ejdeha (Songlines, 2018), and is probably the most ambitious album of Grdina so far, defining a bold and organic aesthetics of a true, genre-bending band.

Safar-e-Daroon was recorded in Vancouver in October 2018 and features nine compositions, six are credited to Grdina and three for Helias. The album is structured like a sonic journey where the meticulously arranged compositions continue to add new meanings and insights to the musical adventure and sketch a compassionate, rich vision. The Marrow play like a mature, working band, with a great sense of passionate playfulness, fluidity and precision, and poetic elegance.
The opening, title-pieces already sets the musical territory, an Arabic maqam that developed naturally into an Iraqi folk georgina 10/16 rhythm, lead by Grdina who solely plays the oud on this album. Helias’ “El Baz” highlights The Marrow tight, intense but swinging dynamics. “Mini-con” was conceived after talks about fake messiahs and semi cults led by charlatans and “their ability to manipulate people is based on consistent cons that have some shred of truth to them. It’s like many little mini-cons leading to a big manipulation”. Here, as on “El Baz”, violinist Zubot takes the lead with Grdina and offers a fiery yet lyrical solo that navigates between colorful and imaginary, lost kingdoms, Eastern and Western ones. Helias “Calling on You” enables Grdina and Zubot to develop a new kind of interplay, raw, and free-improvised by Zubot, but more rhythmic and in the Middle-Eastern tradition by Grdina who recognizes Helias experience with famous Lebanese singer-oud player Marcel Khalife.

“Shamshir” stresses the crucial role of Iranian-Canadian percussionist Honari and cellist Roberts who weave together an engaging melody that unites Arabic percussive traditions with Indian-like raga cello solo. “Convergence” expands the musical journey to Africa where Grdina’s oud invokes an innocent and touching folk melody that pays tribute to the cyclical songs of Egyptian oud player Hamza El Din and Malian guitarist-singer-songwriter Boubacar Traoré. “Illumination” brings to the fore Honari who leads The Marrow while creating a sensual vibe with the daf, his Persian-Arabic with metal ringlets. Helias’ short “Outsize” challenges The Marrow with its focus on an open and free contrapuntal approach that injects an element of ambiguous tension. Safar-e-Daroon ends with the most beautiful, choral-like song of “Gabriel James”, based on a rhythmic riff that Grdina’s 4-years-old son strummed on the oud, now arranged as a dream-like, harmonious melody.

Gordon Grdina Septet - Resist (Irabagast Records, 2020) ***½

Resist unites Grdina with close comrades - his East Van Strings quartet’s violinist Jesse Zubot (the brother of Josh Zubot), violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Peggy Lee; drummer Kenton Loewen (his partner in the Peregrine Falls duo and the Grdina Trio), bass player Tommy Babin (who also played in the Grdina trio), and adds versatile sax player Jon Irabagon, who released the album on his label. The album was recorded in July 2017, a day after the sextet played its first and only performance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

“It seemed like there was a huge change happening socially and politically,” Grdina says about Resist. “Xenophobia, homophobia, and racism were raising their heads again. I wanted to dedicate this music to everybody that’s fighting against these ideas all the time, whether they’re doing it as a defendant or just at the dinner table. Making art is a political act; it’s important for humanity, to make our lives better and to express our resistance to these hindrances”. The album cover reflects this notion and borrows Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting Christ’s Descent into Hell, created around 1550, and depicting Christ tearing through the gates of hell to save the souls that are wrongfully condemned there, as he falls upon a land of pure chaos and danger.

The 23-minutes ambitious title-piece suite radiates faithfully this melancholic spirit with its somber, chamber arrangement for string instruments. Grdina, who alternates between guitar and oud and appears only six minutes after its introduction, let the string instruments dominate this piece. But his evocative oud playing, as well as Irabagon urgent and intense cries, stress the even further the mournful atmosphere and the call for resistance. The following, shorter four pieces offer more optimist perspectives, beginning with the lyrical and emotional solo miniature “Seeds”; “Varscona”, titled after an iconic theater in Edmonton, Alberta, with Irabagon leading and the interlocking rhythmic games of Loewen and Babin, is a post-bop, playful celebration; “The Middle” finds a delicate balance between the intensity and powerful rhythmic patterns of Irabagon, Loewen, and Babin and the more abstract and associative improvisations of the string section, including Grdina himself; The last “Ever Onward” attempts to suggest a better future with a moving, engaging melodic theme based on Middle-Eastern scales, delivered by Grdina on the oud, and definitely adds “something beautiful into the world”, as he concludes.

Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio - Nomad (Skirl, 2020) ****

Grdina teams up with New York-based pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black and presents a new trio that recorded its debut album after a short Canadian tour. Grdina wrote six compositions with Mitchell and Black in mind, and in a way, this body of work reflects the seminal influence of one of his musical heroes, Tim Berne, a close collaborator of both Mitchell and Black.

Grdina’s compositions suggest episodic compositional themes that leave plenty of space and freedom for improvisation and personal contribution and transform each one into a challenging journey, a nomadic process. Grdina usually sketches snaky-labyrinthine, melodic lines on his electric guitar that call Mitchell and Black to inject more jazz-based harmonious and irregular rhythmic variations. This way, the trio builds its layered dynamics in an organic manner before it locks on a tight, irresistible groove.

The title-piece stresses the precise balance of this trio and its profound rhythmic sense. The subtle “Benbow” develops beautifully the delicate balance between the melodic core and the immediate and sudden improvisations as well between intimate introspection and the powerful stratospheric coda. Black takes the lead on “Thanksgiving” and the trio builds the groove from the bottom up, intensifying by the determined work of Black. Grdina plays the oud only on the last, lyrical “Lady Choral” where the trio goes into a seductive, nomadic journey, highly playful and exotic one.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Catching up with Gordon Grdina…again

By Nick Ostrum

Oudist and guitarist Gordon Grdina spanned the new year with three releases that caught my ear. So, here is a second compendium of Grdina’s recent work to complement Eyal’s from September 2018. Apparently, it is about time. (Editor's note: Eyal will be catching up again, tomorrow!)

Matthew Shipp, Mark Helias, and Gordon Grdina – Skin and Bones (Not Two, 2019) *****

I am sorry I missed this last year, because this would have hovered around the top of my year end list.

Skin and Bones is the first of two piano trios, consisting of the incomparable Matthew Shipp on keys and Mark Helias on bass. The title comes from a concert series dedicated to experimental music that has brought a slew of contemporary free jazz (and related music) luminairies to Canadan’s Okanagan. In 2018, trio consisting of Shipp, Helias, and British Columbia native Gordon Grdina were among them.

Inspired by their clear rapport, the trio decided to cut a studio album of completely improvised material, judging by the titles, apparently inspired by boxing. But, starting with the first track, it is clear they are doing much more than providing the soundtrack to some bout of fisticuffs. It begins with a starkly romantic run by Grdina that quickly gets swept up in a gust of piano and pizzicato bass. Over the course of the first track, “Bob and Weave,” the musicians seem to oscillate more with the vagaries of the weather than bob and weave with the determined pugnacity of a boxer. Indeed, there seems more surrender to melody and course, and some sort of naturalism, in this piece that may be absent the controlled and aggressive space.

And, it seems, the rest of the album follows with a series of boxing-themed titles that, if the listener were to embrace the music’s naturalism, relaxed flow, and titular double entendres (“Stick and Move,” “Feather Weight” [rather than featherweight]). Indeed, it is not until the stormy “The Onslaught” over 40 minutes into the album that I hear any real aggression. Tension and virtuosic rapidity, of course, pop in and out of previous tracks. Most, however, are slower, more contemplative and, even, listless (“Solitary Figure”), and lyrical. That is not to say that these traits are entirely absent from boxing; the most obvious example is Muhammed Ali’s marriage of verbal and physical poetry, and his vernal analogy of the boxer, the butterfly, and the bee. And, sure, we can trace this back through Hellenistic ideals of naturalistic male beauty and performance. I am cannot say the trio intended such a reading, but this album seems to draw similar connections between the humanly brutal and the deceptively whimsical natural realms. And beyond this album contains 72 minutes of absolutely engaging and absolutely stunning improv. Then again, from these three musicians, would one expect anything less?

Gordon Grdina Quartet – Cooper’s Park (Songlines, 2019) ***1/2

This quartet seems to be working its way into one of Grdina’s more stable working groups. Coming off their 2017 release Inroads, Cooper’s Park is a solid collection of five, primarily mainstream jazz pieces. Although the musicianship is impeccable and them music periodically breaks into stilted melodies and abstract group improvisations, this album shines less than the other two reviewed here. Drummer Satoshi Takieshi lays swinging grooves over which Oscar Noriega navigates his reeds and through which Ross Lossing weaves his keys (piano, Rhodes, and clavinet). For his part, Grdina gives a solid performance and shows that he can rein in his more exploratory impulses. Because of the music’s creative conventionality (neologism or nonsense?) and its gentle dynamism (especially the in tracks like “Seeds” and the titular “Cooper’s Park” the effort is much tighter than Grdina’s more freewheeling releases. And, Cooper’s Park does venture beyond the contemporary funk-laced jazz into prog rhythm and restrained free jazz discordance. At times, as in the enchantingly delicate ten-minute introduction to “Wayward”, first Grdina, then Lossing, followed by Noriega and Takieshi shine through an understated economy rather than forceful superfluity of melody and consonance. These excursions and extended blissful passages, however, remain the exception and the result somewhat less compelling than some of Grdina’s more out recordings.

Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio – Nomad (Skirl Records, 2020) ****½

Nomad is the newest of the bunch and the second piano trio. On this disc, Grdina is complemented by Matt Mitchell (who, especially as of late , has been showing himself to be one of the premier pianists in the scene) and Jim Black on drums.

Coming off listening to Skin and Bones, it is clear from the very first notes of the opener “Wildlife” that Nomad is a different beast. It has a more rhythmic, free rock vibe. It has more recognizable melodic progressions and harmonies. Some of this may be attributable to the fact that Grdina composed all tracks himself. That said, Nomad is still open and heavily improvisational. Grdina may set the direction, but Mitchell and Black help take us there. Take “Wildfire.” It begins with discordance. Grdina meanders around his electric guitar; Mitchell plods around a plucky series of chords and rhythms; Black fumbles around and crashes magnificently. It is difficult to hear what is composed apart from maybe the mood of the starting point, the basic trajectory of the piece, and a coda at the end. Then again, the piece is unified. Despite a lot of freedom to wander, the track moves to a singular effect. Most other tracks, including the eponymous “Nomad,” are of a similar ilk, even as their compositions come out more clearly in repeated melodies that lay the groundwork for the improvisational meat that follows. This is fusion, tending toward thick guitar lines and stilted, heavy melodicism, minus the soaring (and showy) flourishes that the latter label evokes. It is not that the band plays with Bauhaus/new objectivity instrumentality or shuns displays of virtuosity; rather, when they do embellish, they do so with purpose. The end-products are more meditations on converging styles or a mood than the start-stop melodic jumbling that a lot of composed guitar music of this type tends toward. The final cut, “Lady Choral,” is a seductive, Iberian outlier, wherein Grdina, unplugs and turns to the oud for an extended solo. The result is a sparser, but deeply emotive piece that seems to reference classical Arabic music even more than the heavier guitar music that drives the rest of the album. A moving and meditative departure, and perfect conclusion to a compelling excursion to the fault where hard(er) rock and free jazz merge (or deviate).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Threadbare - Silver Dollar (No Business, 2020) ****

By Sammy Stein

Threadbare are a trio of Chicago musicians comprising Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Ben Cruz on guitar and Emerson Hunton on drums. Stein has enjoyed a long career as an avant-bass clarinetist in Chicago, as well as a string of releases spread across different projects, including playing with Ivo Perelman on 'Spiritual Prayers'. He leads Locksmith Isidore and his own Quartet and co-leads Hearts and Minds and Nature Work.

Guitar player Ben Cruz is an Oberlin College graduate and a versatile guitarist. Drummer Emerson Hunton is also an Oberlin graduate and has both power in his rhythms and an understanding of when to cut, tinker and dive right back in. Both Cruz and Hunton play in indie band Moontype, and Hunton is a Modern Dance Accompanist at the Hyde Park School of Dance, and Music Program Manager at Logan Square's Comfort Station art space. They share composition of tracks on this CD.

The opening track, 'And When Circumstances Arise' is a great example of how a track is built around the musicians who are creating it. The opening is bass clarinet playing phrases of 4, 6 ,4,5, notes with the drum thudding at the end of each phrase before the rhythm changes very briefly to triads and the piece segues into a rock-leaning number - the guitar and drums continuing the rhythm whilst the bass clarinet follows and diverges away into patterns of its own. What is also very creative is the guitar in the background, which changes rhythm apace with the clarinet. By the halfway mark, Stein is travelling the full registers of the clarinet whilst the drums and guitar work around his lead, crafting supporting webs which lift and bounce the bass sounds aloft. The quieter final section is instigated by the drum dropping back and the bass clarinet soaring into upper registers and takes the listener by surprise in its gentleness.

'Threadbare' is calming, tentative almost at the start with extended, breathy bass clarinet notes and atmospheric cymbals and guitar. The introduced ascents developing in the bass clarinet lines stress the quietude - and the gaps between the notes also play their part. A track with changing rhythms, emphasis and a sense of building. After the five minute mark everyone is improvising along their line and it gets really interesting, with Stein way up on the register and then switching down with ease. The final two minutes are glorious.

'70 Degrees and Counting Down' is introduced by guitar, over which the clarinet sighs a gentle melody - for about 30 seconds before the drums introduce a heavier rhythm and the others respond. Then a sudden drop to a gentle interlude which in turn morphs again into a rocky, pounding section before bass clarinet solos. The guitar joins and there is a dialogue, into which the drum rudely wedges itself but proves worth the room as it leads the trio with the heavy, determined beat, to heady heights and Stein comes into his own - inspirational.

'24 Mesh Veils' sees the trio investigating varied patterns and the guitar is given space to solo, proving the choice of Cruz for the role an excellent one. Here Stein largely shows his supportive side as he now provides the steady underlying support over which the guitar sings. At times the huge, deep sound of the bass clarinet come across so clearly, it is as if there is a bass onside as well.

'Funny Thing Is' is snappy, riotous and light from all players initially before the natural progression to a deeper, more textured sound prevails and the rapid paced drums, steady guitar and slightly deranged speedy progressions and drops from Stein make this a delight to hear.

If 'Threadbare' is meant to show what the band Threadbare are about, it serves its purpose. In this track there is free flowing improvised music with Stein on stut notes and popping his wood, as well as more traditional leaning towards pop/ rock and ensemble playing. There is noise, there is travel through genres, there is space and delight in the beauty held within the notes.

'Silver Dollar' announces its intent with crashing drums, chords on guitar and loud belly rumbles from the clarinet. What strikes here is the vitality and importance of the tight support over which Stein rises, falls and rolls. Stein here is pretty amazing and he demonstrates nearly all that a bass clarinet can do. This track is full-on; it is huge; it is fiery, intense noise and it is musical. If you turn the headphones up it nearly takes your head off - wonderful music. The standout track on this album of beauties.

'Untitled' completes the album and this track is a contrast, with the first minute taken up by weird and wonderful guitar over which the sax offers breathy extended notes and later gentle phrases, delivered slow and then rapid-fire in upper register of the bass clarinet, creating at times an almost metallic purity. By the halfway point the track is heavier, developing layers, skins and texture and it is the drums again which largely emphasis the changes both in rhythms and pattern. Cruz is given space in which to solo, which he takes and produces a well structured delivery. An explorative track which highlights the importance of each musician.

Together Crus and Hunton provide a solid, bubbling rhythm section , tight against Stein's fluid and effervescent bass clarinet. They never overshadow the genius of Stein but they also know when to up the ante and become showy in their own right.

Throughout, the playing on all sides is excellent, both tasteful and forceful at once. Jason Stein demonstrates the exquisite possibilities of the bass clarinet and hearing Cruz and Stein trade off on this album is an absolute thrill. Yet the valuable presence of Hunton on drums and percussion cannot be underestimated. It is often the drums which direct, change the tempos and lead - subtly but with an authority not often seen in such a young player. this combination makes for an intelligent, well delivered and bloody marvelous listen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Tatsuya Nakatani, John Edwards, Rafael Toral – Live in Lisbon (Noise Precision Library, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Since seeing him live solo and with his gong orchestra in Columbus, OH, in 2017, I have wanted to review Tatsuya Nakatani.  I even picked up several albums that evening.  Some, however, were too old.  Others were good (and recommended) but did not come close enough to capturing what I experienced live.  His music is music you feel, literally, through vibrations.  The layers of sound gather in the eardrums and resound throughout the room and surround the audience.  (Yes, this is an unapologetic endorsement for seeing him live whenever you get the chance.)    It is just too difficult to capture on record what makes Nakatani so unique live.  

Technical limitations aside, Live in Lisbon does an admirable job of capturing some of that physicality.  And, much of that has to do with his bandmates Rafael Toral and John Edwards.  Edwards, of course, is a legend of the English free improv scene.  Toral, however, was unfamiliar to me when I first listened to this.  FJB has covered him before and, as it turns out, he actually has appeared on several Sei Miguel releases I own.  It seems Toral gets around the Lisbon scene.  This album showcases why.  He has big ideas, concerted restraint, and a lot of talent. 

Recorded live in Lisbon and Cascais (a little west of the capital) in 2009, Live in Lisbon is a metallic (not metal) soundscape aficionado’s dream.  The three tracks are live recordings, and they sound like live recordings.  And, between the scrapes, crashes, sawing, electronic flutterings, space sounds, ball-bearings rolls, and, yes, even some straightforward walking bass and set drumming, it works remarkably well.  This music does not sound muddled or muted, as some of these live sessions do.  Instead, it sounds full. 

The musicians give each other space, but not too much space, and the sounds frequently bleed into each other.  The bass at times sounds like muffled beeps from Toral, whose electronic scrapes converge with Nakatani’s acoustic ones.   At other times, all three musicians forage through a thick morass of low tones, only to break out in an inspired collective improvisation of a caliber that I have rarely found in such line-ups. Often, electronics simply fill the background or shatter the eardrums.  Not in this case.  All three musicians expertly oscillate between back- and foreground, between lead and arrhythmic rhythm. 

All three tracks are powerful and deploy a similar bag of tricks, albeit to subtly different effects.  The first and second tracks – Lisbon and Cascais I - are wide-ranging, exploring the gamut from minimalist sound-sculpturing to brief, but satisfying explosions of sound, to spacy harmonies of bass, electronic, and bowed gong drones that you can almost feel.  Those movements lead into an extended stream of classic free improv (with electronics) explorations based as much on subtle sonic textures and wending contours as on the driving rhythm section.  The third track, Cascais II, paves a similarly brooding but glistening path.  A real pleasure, through and through.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Few -Beauty at Low Temperatures (s/r 2019) ****½

The Few, a trio from Chicago, released Beauty at Low Temperatures last Autumn. The CD was swept atop my piles of music over the winter, where it stared it at me expectantly for months. Then, a rather random post on Facebook following the meme of "post the cover of an album each day that has influenced you ... " had me searching my other other piles of music for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Karyobin. This elusive gem from 1968 (my version is the beautifully remastered one from 2017 from Emanem) featured the mouth-watering collective of John Stevens, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, and Dave Holland, fully engaged in a new, holistic approach to improvisation. It was a little later this same day, coincidentally, that I put on the album from The Few that had been patiently waiting on my desk. 

The Few is Macie Stewart, whose violin and voice often blend into a sound of its own; Charlie Kirchen, who is patient and expressive on the bass; and Steve Marquette whose approach to the guitar has absorbed the deconstruction of the aforementioned Bailey as well as American folk (among other influences). The group, which can be strikingly delicate, can also be delicately striking, mixing gossamer haze with confident pulsations. They have no problem generating a big sound, even as they embrace the acoustics of the their instruments to create music that celebrates the sounds of strings and wood, weaving the threads of improvised music together into their own wholly new approach.

The first track of Beauty at Low Temperatures is called "Hideout" and was recorded at the Hideout in Chicago in November 2018, while the other track, "May Chapel," was recorded just about a year earlier in December 2017 at Chicago's May Chapel. Between these two tracks, there are not so much 'stand out' moments as there is an aggregation of many smaller, absorbing ones, ideas that emanate from the musicians, manifest on one instrument and carry over to another. "Hideout" is dark, sometimes even a bit spooky. What begins with a strike of harmonics on the guitar and taught, edgy overtones from the strings (I assume the violin), evolves into an delicate dance as the three musicians play off of each other, building something together. The track's tempo picks up at times, especially when Kirchen's thrumming bass notes seem to be sloughing off the violin glissando. In "May Chapel" there is long evolving passage that taps into the collective Americana subconscious, which after long run, like a premonition of the current American unraveling, does the same.  

Finally, here is where my earlier thoughts come in: it feels like these three young musicians are quietly and confidently defining their own music, which a bit like SME, subsumes the individual and rewards deeply felt interactions. There are no solos, though there are passages where Stewart's violin and voice, or Kirchen's bass, present themselves solo; however, even when this happens, it serves to continue the collective's idea. Maybe I just primed myself by listening to the other album prior, but I'd like to think that even though the instrumentation is completely different, the players are from continents separated by an ocean, and the recordings were made over 50 years apart, that it is rather something about the deep connections and purposeful sounds that helped me draw a connection. Beauty at Low Temperatures is ephemeral, but solidly rooted, like the music that still intrigues from Karyobin. Drawing from a deep well of creativity and musical trust, the The Few has developed a timeless sound that they capture on this fantastic recording. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Karl Evangelista with Alexander Hawkins, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Trevor Watts - Apura! (Astral Spirits, 2020) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

A double-slab of extended improvisation featuring a cross-generational meeting of masters musicians. As the joke goes, take my money! But seriously, this is one of those superb projects, where a musician like guitarist Karl Evangelista is able to simultaneously collaborate with and pay tribute to living legends in the free improvisation community. Bringing together saxophonist Trevor Watts and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (who have not recorded together in several decades) is the rare long-delayed reunion that far exceeds one’s expectations.

Born in 1939 and 1940, respectively, Watts and Moholo-Moholo have taken their playing to the very far edges of free , both settling into late-career partnerships with talented pianists. Watts has recorded several albums with Veryan Weston, from duets to the latest quartet configuration. And Alexander Hawkins has shown himself to be Moholo-Moholo’s partner in spirit, as well as in music. Bringing these three together is Evangelista, a Filipino-American guitarist living in California’s Bay Area. Why are geography and heritage worth mentioning here, now? I think (maybe hope is a better term) most of the readers are familiar with the history among these players, but for those who don’t know about Moholo-Moholo, he, along with the charter members of the legendary Blue Notes (including Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, and Chris McGregor), escaped from apartheid in South Africa during the 1960s. The pain of discrimination and the vitality of community has been at the center of Moholo-Moholo’s art for over 50 years, and players like Evangelista, Watts, and Hawkins know how to bring their own struggles to the fore on songs like “Utang Na Loob,” “Resist,” “Harana,” and the superb “Refugees.”

For Evangelista, this was really my introduction to his playing. I was aware of him as a fellow Californian, but Apura! is the first I’ve had a chance to dig in and listen to his technique, get a feeling for his perspective. For a lineup that strongly hints at Derek Bailey’s long shadow, Evangelista’s found a path that’s more punkishly angular, further down Noël Akchoté’s lineage. You can hear this in the opening minutes of “Apura!” where he and Watts chase a winding melody, punctuated by Hawkins’s block chords. I’ve written about Hawkins and the historical depth he brings to his playing. Hearing him and Evangelista both, as they pay homage to and gently push away from their elders highlights just how deep the respect goes. Were it not for Watts and Moholo-Moholo also simultaneously grasping for and rejecting the playing of their elders, free improvisation wouldn’t be where it is today. Thus, the only logical path forward requires some respectful tension. “Utang Na Loob” opens with a restrained, almost melancholic vibe, before settling into a riveting, fiery dance between Evalgelista, Hawkins, and Moholo-Moholo.

It’s impossible to resist a title like “I Eat Death Threats for Breakfast,” a bold, pulsing track that kicks off the outstanding middle section. Watts again sits out, but he opens “Resist” in the very upper register, like trailing smoke rising to the sky. Gradually, the rest of the band members follow his lead, with notes spiking up and out of various corners of the mix. In the final minutes, Moholo-Moholo kicks the quartet into action, and the result is something like the musical equivalent of a sequence from The Battle of Algiers.

“Balikbayan” features some pointed duetting from Hawkins and Evangelista. The title, a Tagolog word for someone returning to the Philippines, hints at the extended lines of family and community drawn across the album. Where do we belong? What identity defines or contains us? How do we reach across oceans, borders, walls? In the end (almost literally, as the final song is titled “Consummatum Est”), it’s music and art that transcend the physical realm. As “Consummatum Est” spins forward in its closing minutes, Hawkins settles into a mid-range figure that Watts picks up and runs with, the two sprinting towards the finish, handing off the baton to Evangelista for a subtle, final statement. At nearly two hours, I wasn’t even close to feeling ready for it to end. Just like with Hawkins’s own Unit[e] and Angelika Niescier Trio’s The Berlin Concert, Apura! is another modern classic, sure to sit alongside the many records that inspired it, and hopefully the future albums it spawns.

The album is available for purchase here.

Karl Evangelista is performing a solo show on Friday, May 22, to celebrate the album release. Details here:

Monday, May 18, 2020

Angles 9 10 – Today is Better than Tomorrow (Underflow, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

A vinyl and digital album, Today is Better than Tomorrow is a collection of two live sessions. The first, track one and side A, is performed by the tentet and was recorded at the International Jazz Festival Saalfelden in 2013. The second, both tracks on side b, were recorded by the nonet at Zomer Jazz Fiets Tour Groningen in 2018.

The pieces on this recording are not new in themselves. Today Is Better Than Tomorrow/In Our Midst, combines one of Angles’ “go to” anthems (Today is on both Epileptical West - Live in Coimbra (Angles 6) and By Way of Deception - Live in Ljubljana (Angles 8)) recorded in 2009 and 2013 respectively. The second half of this combo, In Our Midst, comes from the eponymous Angles 9 release from 2013. From side B, Ubabba was featured on the 2009 release Injuries (Angles 10). Love Flee Thy House (Breslau) was first captured on the Angles 9’s 2017 releaseDisappeared Behind the Sun. In other words, Today is Better than Tomorrow is something of a re-visitation of the last decade of the Angles’s evolving rotation.

Along with Mats Gustaffsson, Andreas Werliin, and Johan Berthling’s Fire!, the Martin Küchen-led Angles have become the international face of Scandinavian efforts to bring soulful fire music, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. (Werliin and Berthling, in fact, are party to both projects.) Today, however, is hardly just a nostalgic recapitulation of some admittedly stellar studio recordings. Compared to those, the music actually seems somewhat tamed, or maybe aged in the deepened, enological sense of the term. The “fire” rarely reaches too high, though the flame frequently burns a brilliant blue and flitter in fantastic patterns. Indeed, the spacious extended passages and the reconfiguration of recognized compositions and configurations make this release a beast of its own nature, something much greater than a “greatest hits live.”

When a live album like this works, it does so because it transforms the music. Familiar melodies appear out of a churning unfamiliar morass. Just listen to introduction to Today is Better than Tomorrow, which substitutes lamenting horns for the prolonged percussion and vibe invocation that introduces the Epileptical West version. Or, jump to the tempered transition bridging Today and In Our Midst, whose long and winding procession imbues this track with a new ritualistic potency.

Flip to side B and the listener is greeted by a spirited rendition of Ubabba. Werliin and Berthling and their compadres in the boiler room, Mattias Ståhl (vibraphone) and Alexander Zethson (piano), are in complete sympatico as they forge an infectious groove over which the horns bluster and moan. Especially compared to the first side, this piece is a big band extravaganza a la late Sun Ra Arkestra (RIP Danny Ra Thompson). As the fanfare subsides, Ubabba bleeds into a dirge-like introduction for Love Flee They House, which, at around three minutes, switches gears into a driving, salsa rhythm and horn flourish. The piece deviates into a few billowing horn solos, then falls back into the undulating funereal march, which drives the song forward until its final decrescendo.

Angles is an incredible project and Today is Better than Tomorrow is testament to that. However, I was equal parts excited and cautiously curious when I first came across this. On the one hand, I thought, “Another Angles album?!?! Sign me up.” On the other hand, I wondered whether another live album of compositions previously released and recorded live was really necessary (to the extent that “necessary” has meaning in the age of digital reproduction.) For those who already own the rest of the Angles catalogue but stop short of being completists, this is likely unessential. Some of the detours are surprising and the first side, in particular, moved me more than other recordings of those tracks separately had. Still, there is nothing shocking about the direction the band is travelling or the means it uses to get it there. Then again, this is straight up Angles caught on some pretty magical nights, and for that alone it is at least worth a listen. And, for those of you who are new to the group, harken: this is as fine an introduction as any.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Patty Waters

Patty Waters – Live (Blank Forms Editions, 2019) *****
Patty Waters – An Evening in Houston (Clean Feed Records, 2020) *****

By Cam Scott

Vocalist Patty Waters is an icon of avant-garde jazz, in spite of her relatively slim discography. Discovered by Albert Ayler in the early sixties, her 1965 debut on ESP-Disk matches a set of her own compositions, graced with the wisdom of longing, to a scalding rendition of the Scottish folk song ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.’ The song has been a jazz staple since Nina Simone’s sultry resuscitation, but Waters’ version is a different beast, pairing an alternately screamed and whispered vocal with tumultuous backing. Pianist Burton Greene was once derogated by Amiri Baraka as an “anti-spiritual” musician for playing the inside of the piano with violent abandon; but here the entire group strains at the limits of musical idiom, maintaining a breakdown for almost a quarter hour. If the A side of ‘Sings’ is haunted, the B side is surely possessed.

In spite of only intermittent performances since her iconic recordings of the 1960s, Waters’ reputation has continued to grow, affirmed by the praise of subsequent generations of listeners and the warmth of reception that attends her few appearances. In a happy development for admirers, both of her 2018 live appearances—in Brooklyn and Houston respectively—were documented for release. Featuring Burton Greene on piano, Barry Altschul on drums, and Mario Pavone on bass, these two documents are distinctly indispensable in spite of slightly overlapping setlists; for a band of this pedigree is to be cherished.

Released by Blank Forms, a label and curatorial platform based out of New York, Live presents selections from the group’s April 5th performance at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn. From the first chords of ‘You’ve Changed,’ one of several standards altered forever by the voice of Billie Holiday, a mist of wistfulness envelops the listener. This is a coy choice of opener, addressing the passage of time before her multigenerational audience; and Waters sings with tremulous incredulity.

The album is almost entirely comprised of exquisitely weird, or deceptively subdued, standards; the emphatically slurred chords of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ purr below Greene’s fingers in response to Waters’ falling intonation, before the melody abruptly dissipates in a repetitive whimper; while Pavone and Altschul, who played together in Paul Bley’s trio, communicate deftly across a searching rendition of ‘Lover Man.’ Side A concludes with Waters’ best known composition, and the first track from her debut album, ‘Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight.’ The melody’s chromatic descent remains as haunting here as in its initial, stripped-down version, but Greene invites the lyric’s lovesick wanderer to come inside, as it were, contributing a bluesy warmth, as Altschul embellishes Waters’ spacious phrasing with almost scalar fills and beautiful brushwork.

The album continues with a deconstructed medley of ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Nature Boy’—two powerfully overdetermined staples of the Great American Songbook, popularized by Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole respectively. For this central statement, the music dissolves into an array of percussive effects distributed across the entire group, making the seam between the two songs a matter of lyric discretion. This sequence links two disparate pastorals: the upsetting scenery of ‘Strange Fruit,’ which describes a lynching by way of the disinterested landscape, and the mysterious visitation of ‘Nature Boy,’ which takes on a different, haunted character as a result. This suggestive pairing is followed by a version of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman,’ featuring Waters’ own words. This is one of two lyric versions in circulation; Waters’ version was previously recorded with The Marzette Watts Ensemble, while another lyric by Margo Guryan has been recorded by Chris Connor, Freda Payne, Radka Toneff, and others. Here in particular, Waters’ vocal weeps with a pathos that other, more restrained versions avoid; and skittish cymbals summon the inedible original.

Released by Clean Feed Records, An Evening in Houston was recorded only days after the Brooklyn concert, on April 9th, as part of the Nameless Sound series. The album opens with a palpitating version of ‘You’re My Thrill,’ a duo for voice and drums. Altschul’s brush work introduces the record, and Waters approaches the familiar lyric as a loose recitative, as though discovering the words in air. ‘Moon, Don’t Come Out Tonight’ is somehow woozier, more languid, as Waters’ voice—beseeching, searching, psithuristic—gives the impression of a whispered secret.

‘Lonely Woman,’ which began in Brooklyn as an ominous piano invocation, opens on unaccompanied tremor in the voice, a moment of mimetic inspiration. Moody and wounded, this take is a highlight. So is a stripped down version of the standard ‘Don’t Explain,’ in which Pavone’s bass and Waters’ vocal circle each other conversationally. “You know I love you,” Waters sings, at which point a simmering snare picks up beneath the duo; subtle as a change in temperature. Greene’s lightly prepared piano announces ‘Hush Little Baby,’ an abstracted nursery rhyme that originally appeared on Waters’ second album, 1966’s College Tour. On the original recording, a fricative hiss blends the sizzle of the cymbals in a menacing lullaby. Here, Waters repeats the lyric pleadingly, intelligibly, as the band fidgets beneath.

Each of these recent albums close on ‘Wild is the Wind,’ which appears on College Tour as a companion piece to ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.’ Both songs, after all, were staples of Nina Simone’s repertory, debuting on her 1959 album Nina Simone at Town Hall, and Waters and co. give them a similarly chilling treatment. Much as Waters makes a central incantation of the word ‘black’ in 1966, she catches upon the keyword ‘wild’ in these takes, becoming that keyword.

These releases are not companion pieces in any sense; perhaps they are echoes of a sort. But each setlist gives the uncanny feeling of hearing something familiar for the first time. Simply put, if you want either one, you’d best get both. A group this lean and yet meandering, with this much history behind them, is rare.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Sothiac feat. Paul Jolly - Superluna (Sothiac/33 Jazz Records) ****½

By Sammy Stein

Pat Moonchy is a vocalist who has performed across the globe as a solo artist and with various collaborators including Todd Tobias, Alfa Neu and more. She ran the alternative community hub, The Moonshine Pub until 2015 and her interest in art is integral to her persona and music. She has studied shamanism and her discovery of the tanpura - a long necked Indian stringed instrument - was integral to the development of her vocal technique. Past bands include Doublegänger with Lucio Liguori, (grandson of free drummer Lino Liguori), Gopala and collaborations with many experimental musicians as well as solo projects.

Lucky Liguori is a multi instrumentalist and electronic sound creator. Together Moonchy and Liguori are Sothiac. The duo have played with many different musicians in many different settings. Based in London they have toured China, Europe and Japan. Their most recent albums are Sothis (2016) and Erebia Christi (2017) which blend elements of free jazz, landscape, industrial_noise and psychedelic/doom. Over the last twenty years they have played with Faust, Sawada, Angelo Avogadri, Lino Liguori, Angelo Contini, Dirk Dhonau, Lars Nicolaysen.

A meeting of the duo with bass clarinet player Paul Jolly led to a new collaboration and project, with Paul featuring on this recording. Just two tracks - one of over 20 minutes and the other just over 8 minutes the interactions between the vocals, electronics and bass clarinet is different, extraordinary and there are moments of exquisite amalgamations where the sounds meet in a place outside normal range but where the imagination knows no bounds. The recording was made during a period when all the musicians were in lock down, which makes it all the more extraordinary. It is hoped the collaboration continues once everything goes back to some kind of normality.

Phase 1 is 20 minutes plus of extraordinary sounds. A cymbal opens the number and sets the atmospheric theme with bass clarinet entry high, reedy and then dipping right down to a growling presence, over which the eerie wail of the vocals rises and soars over the top; not so much of an emergence, more of a falling on to the solidity of the echoic backdrop of the electronics and bass clarinet. The vocals are exemplary and Pat Moonchy seems to have an ability to hit the notes the brain is missing when seeking coherency in this music. In some cases her extended vibrato is almost impossible to believe.

Sothiac is the Egyptian name for the Dog Star and fits well in this case with the spacey, atmospheric feelings around this music as the voice searches, extends and pushes whilst the bass clarinet plugs the gaps in tonal, rounded sounds, contrasted by raw, breathy upper register notes which add a sense of intrigue into the framework. The spiritual quality of this music is implosive, overpowering and the imagination runs riot as crackling, throaty sounds are intertwined with the explorative clarinet and electronic background.

The vocals are astounding as they soar creating swirling, achingly beautiful wreaths of sound. As 'Phase 1' develops the sense of the ethereal is difficult to shake off and there is a sense of a wraith, passing across the land, dipping down every so often to give sounds which are audible to human ears but also wafting into the ether where no ear can follow. It is an experience listening to this music, the vocals , powerful, exploratory ; the electronics and percussion temporal yet permanently present and the bass clarinet offering at time melodic phrases and at others jittery notes which counter the spiritual vocals with their sense of grounding. Considering the difference in range and pitch between Moochy's voice and instrument, the bass clarinet is an inspired choice and very effective in this combination. The last third sees the vocals stretched almost beyond credulity whilst the clarinet continues its path, low and sonorous, motifs responding to clear linear sounds from the voice. Strings and electronic sounds lead for a while and the vocals rest and then re-enter and it is at this point the pattern to the voice becomes clear. A repeated phrase, a line or two taken, re-invented but the same line used again, the use of patterns creates familiarity. It is quite, quite extraordinary how listenable this is, the sense of the lost, wandering spirit over grounded bass, and the knowledge that because this music inspires the imagination, everyone will have different images when they hear it.

'Phase 2' is again announced by a gong-like cymbal but there is a deeper emphasis to this part of the recording, the clarinet more apparent, the vocals more constructed and stronger then before even. The way the cymbals and clarinet work and weave together is extraordinary, the enhanced echoes of the percussion resonating over the sound work of the clarinet line. This is a great phase where 3 exploratory improvisers are listening and bouncing off each other to create deeply textured and interesting interactions.

Pat Moonchy's voice has inborn vocal characteristics and a distinctive signature, both of which have been enhanced by training and are now tools honed to almost perfection, which she uses at will. 'Lucky' Lucio Liguori brings a sense of exploration, electronic skills and instrumental combination techniques and Paul Jolly brings his experience, musicality and explorative skills, all of which serve to create something intense, extraordinary and quite lovely.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Astroturf Noise - Astroturf Noise (577 Records, 2020) ***½

By Martin Schray 

Two years ago, after listening predominantly to free jazz and avant-garde music for about ten years, I somehow became tired of this kind of music. So, I rediscovered different genres that I had neglected: hiphop, delta blues, soul, new wave/post-punk and …. country and bluegrass. Digging the music of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Del McCoury, Flat & Scruggs and many others was really fun. I’ve always liked American roots music for its sophistication, the carefully elaborated arrangements, the outstanding musicianship, the women’s angelic singing and the fact that it has always carried the traditions of melody and lyrical subtlety. Unfortunately, there are only few albums that have tried to bring (free) jazz and country/bluegrass together successfully. There’s Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (what a cover !), on which he improvises over songs like “I’m An Old Cowhand“, Willie Nelson has recorded two albums with Wynton Marsalis (Nelson has always had an inclination to jazz), Bill Frisell has released some excellent country/jazz albums (e.g. Good Dog, Happy Man and Music IS), John Zorn has included country snippets on some of his post modernist Naked City albums and Susan Alcorn has been rooting down the sound of the pedal steel guitar in the free jazz world (for example, on Invitation To A Dream with Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark or on Max Johnson’s In The West).

That’s why is was really intrigued when I heard about Astroturf Noise, a project by Sam Day Harmet (mandolin/effects), Sana Nagano (violin/effects), Zach Swanson (bass), which was also supposed to exist at the intersection of free improvisation, effects-heavy noise music, and American folk traditions. For their self-titled debut they are augmented by guest artists Billy Martin (percussion, effects) and Sarah Bernstein (violin, effects). From the very beginning the clash of the two genres is very weird (in a positive way). While the bass tries to keep a steady 2/4 time, the mandolin and the violin are warped and a bit off. This effect doesn’t only result from the askew playing but mainly from the use of a lot of effects, particularly after the melodies have been introduced. Sometimes it sounds as if Sun Ra  had snuck into a bluegrass band's rehearsal barn. In “Metropolitan Special“ the group combines its bluegrass drive with the destructive power of early Arto Lindsay albums, but tracks like “Blue Comet Bankruptcy“ are also reminiscent of John Zorn’s Filmworks series and Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes melodies. Furthermore, I was also reminded of pinball machines in a gambling den and, last but not least, the aliens in Mars Attacks!. (It might seem a bit ironic that bluegrass music is fatal for them).

Astroturf Noise is definitely a wild mix, Country music purists will probably turn up their noses. Then again it’s really an innovative attempt to do something new. Well worth a try.

Astroturf Noise is available on vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

You can buy the album and listen to it here:

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Daniel Bernardes & Drumming GP - Liturgy of the Birds: In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen (Clean Feed, 2020) ****

By Stuart Broomer

There are few 20th century composers who possess as much relevance for the present as Olivier Messiaen, whether as an early user of electronic instruments, a regular public improviser, a musician who went to great lengths to incorporate bird calls in his works or as someone who composed, rehearsed and performed a modernist masterpiece as an inmate of a concentration camp. His spiritual vision reached outward as well as inward, creating a musical language that extended and combined scales and rhythms from a global storehouse. If Messiaen’s musical language was unique, it was because it invented, compounded and synthesized so many elements.

Just the birds, the improvisation, the adaptation of the Ondes Martinot and the concentration camp might conspire to make him a figure of contemporary relevance. Stanley Crouch thought it was worth attacking Cecil Taylor for being influenced by him, while other improvisers have openly paid tribute. There’s the fine Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen (Boxholder, 2001) by Keith Yaun’s quartet, subtle, free explorations of some Messiaen chamber works with fellow guitarist Bern Nix, Mat Maneri (on baritone violin [a violin or viola with strings thick enough to get it to the cello range]) and drummer Johnny McLellan, a CD (and leader) that deserves to be far better known. More recently there’s Steve Swell’s Music for Six Musicians: Hommage à Olivier Messiaen (Silkheart, 2017), a better-known recording that includes saxophonist Rob Brown and violinist Jason Kao Hwang in music inspired by Messiaen.

Portuguese pianist/composer Daniel Bernardes’ group here combines his own trio, with bassist António Augusto Aguiar and drummer Mário Costa, with the ensemble Drumming GP, a quartet with leader Miquel Bernat on marimba and percussion; Jeff Davis as vibraphone soloist and percussion; João Dias on glockenspiel and percussion; and Pedro Góis on vibraphone and percussion. The sonic richness of the music is a joint reflection of Bernardes, Aguiar and Costa’s warm, spare lyricism and the flashing brilliance of the struck metal and wood figures of Drumming GP, Aguiar and Davis particularly coming to the fore as soloists.

Bernardes’ approach to Messiaen is more conservative than either Keith Yaun or Steve Swell’s, the pianist’s compositions structurally organized and integrating elements of Messiaen’s tonal and rhythmic language into a formal approach to modern jazz. If Yaun and Swell approached Messiaen from a post-Taylor perspective, Bernardes’ Messiaen expands on third stream approaches originating in the 1950s, think Bill Evans’ Scriabin, even Harry Partch’s recently recorded piece for Chet Baker, or a host of explorers as divergent as George Russell and Dave Brubeck. My own previous experience of the adroit Porto-based Drumming GP was a tribute to Max Roach’s percussion ensemble M’Boom, heard at Jazz em Agosto in 2013.

The opening “19” is an episodic work with multiple tempo shifts, luminous from its beginning, with bowed long tones from one of the vibraphones that give way to percussive ostinatos. It’s the shimmering resonance of the instruments that colours this music most strongly, conditioning the hard-edged precision of the trio’s theme statement. “Bolero” takes a slow ruminative melody through a tropical forest of sound, sudden swirling glockenspiel, woody marimba, and bright hanging metal reverberant in the air. At times melody proceeds under the bright wash of cymbals. In the solos Davis and Bernardes are prominent, the former emerging from the percussion ensemble as a significant individual

and a link between the two groups. It’s beautiful, but in a way that struggles with prettiness, resembling such John Zorn projects as The Dreamers and Electric Masada and creating relationships between Messiaen, Martin Denny and Cal Tjader. Evidently Messiaen can be related to all sorts of things that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Contrasts between fast and slow segments abound: on “Globular Clusters,” a complex, rapid-fire theme gives way to lyrically liquid improvisations from Aguiar and Bernardes. “Sobre Kieslowski I” may be the most delightful of Bernardes’ themes, an exotic dance of fleet, bright keyboards (piano, marimba, glockenspiel) with an underlying hint of Balinese pentatonics set against a slow fundamental tempo. It evolves through another beautiful interlude provided by Aguiar, accompanied by isolated notes of cymbal, marimba, vibraphone and other percussion, eventually becoming the trio’s most achieved collective moment. “Ostinato, Interlúdio e Canção V” is a sequence of movements recapitulating many of the moods and dimensions here, with Bernardes touching on both his balladic gifts and some driving two-handed rhythmic counterpoint to bring this fascinating program to a close.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Masahiko Satoh - Then and Now

By Taylor McDowell

Pianist Masahiko Satoh has been a seminal figure in the history of Japanese free jazz since he came on the scene in the 1960s. More recently he has been involved in a number of commendable projects, playing with free jazz luminaries such as Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, Paal Nilssen-Love (and let us not forget the outstanding 2018 record with Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi )... His highly percussive, aggressive attack and stylistic affinity for jazz pianism and swing makes his playing wonderfully addictive, especially when we hear him sparring with such peers. These two releases, one from the vaults and the other more recent, offers snapshots of Satoh’s playing now and 20-years ago.

Masahiko Satoh & Subu Toyozumi - The Aiki (NoBusiness, 2019) ****

Here’s one from the archives: a 1997 performance with percussionist Sabu Toyozumi. Toyozumi, also one of Japan’s first generation of free jazzers, has led a long distinguished career in Japan and in the international field (a notable fact: he became the first non-American member of the AACM in 1971). Despite their long, intertwining careers, this is the only recorded evidence of a duo performance between Satoh and Toyozumi. The album’s title, Aiki, is a reference to a Japanese principle associated with the martial arts, whereby the practitioner redirects an attacker’s motion and energy with their own minimal physical expenditure.

The concept seems appropriate in the context of Satoh and Toyozumi’s playing. Satoh feels like the antagonizer here - his highly percussive approach and scalding attack often leading the charge. Toyozumi is a nimble and clever drummer who coolly fields Satoh’s momentum, deftly herding the energy with quick responses and playful rhythmic gestures. Satoh and Toyozumi leave it all on the table across two extended tracks (37 and 19 minutes, respectively). Much of their playing is characterized by the construction, reordering and fragmentation of rhythmic motifs, usually at breakneck speeds. Satoh’s playing has a distinctly “jazzy'' feel with an understated sense of swing in his atonal lines, broken up with manic flurries or pounded clusters that recall Cecil Taylor. Toyozumi provides colors by emphasizing the individual parts of his kit. I’ve read descriptions of his playing characterized as “melodic,” which sounds appropriate when listening to how he singles out the toms, cymbals, bells, etc. and gives voice to those parts. Of course, when the duo approaches climaxes (and there are many), keys and kit collectively form a dense wave of percussive might that reaffirms my love for this kind of music.

Highly communicative in spirit, and full to the brim in intensity, this is a virtuosic display by two monolithic figures of the Japanese vanguard. Highly recommended.

Masahiko Satoh, Otomo Yoshihide & Roger Turner - Sea (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

Sea finds Satoh in fine form, joined by fellow countryman Otomo Yoshihide on guitar and British percussionist Roger Turner. This 2016 performance comes off as a rambunctious free jazz-meets overdriven Hendrix-esque haze. The real meat of Sea is the 30-minute “On the Rock.” From the beginning, Satoh establishes an insistent motif that functions like a rollicking vamp while Turner lays out a turbulent, pan-rhythmic undercurrent. Yoshihide’s liberal use of effects creates a thick fog that is alive with electricity. It swells, moans, undulates and fills in the smallest cracks that exist between the dense interstices of Satoh and Turner’s playing. Piano and drums tend to be busier and kinetic in their output. Satoh’s playing, much as it was 20-years prior, is loquacious and spry. His playing becomes more assertive as the piece progresses until it seems like he is in the driver’s seat, piloting the group dynamics from a bottomless well of motivic developments. Turner’s busyness suits Satoh’s playing well, and together they climb to dizzying heights. Though far from being the black sheep of the group, Yoshihide follows a different muse than his partners - unfurling waves of texture and thorny shards of noise. His presence, though not always directly involved in the melee between piano and drums, is always felt: analogous to a dark figure that looms overhead, occasionally slicing through the mix with shrapnel-like outbursts.

The relatively brief, “The Saw,” rounds off the record and is an entirely different animal. Indeed, Yoshihide brings the aviary to this playful track with what sounds like a duck call, and his guitar can only be described as bird-like. This sunny affair is enlivened by a whimsical melody on piano and Turner’s quirky assortment of light percussion. The strikingly different tones of both performances make one wonder what other tricks these three have up their sleeves.

Sea is available as a CD from the label.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Samo Kutin and Martin Küchen – Stutter and Strike (Sploh, 2020) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Martin Kuchen is hard to pin down and there’s no reason to try. Being so prolific, hε still manages to move easily between improvisation as a way of thinking in music making and a more organized, compositional approach. Even in cases like his, most of the times it is not so difficult to understand when and where a musician feels most relaxed, most at home maybe. Not in his case.

Checking out his recent discography, I believe that I see a bit of a pattern. Yes, still trying to pin him down… he seems to find fit in improvisation through smaller units, even duos like this one, while in larger ensembles he operates differently. But this is a duo. And a pretty good improvisational one. I was not familiar with Samo Kutin’s music until I heard Stutter and Strike. Both musicians seem to hit on from the beginning, achieving really high levels of interaction. Kutin is on modified hurdy gurdys, acoustic spring reverbs, percussion, objects while Kuchen plays alto and sopranino sax, some percussion and utilizes some pre-recorded sounds.

The duo is clearly in an improvisational work ethic. They seem to use all nine tracks of the cd as reference points for the listener. Any time I tried to listen to the cd, I had a strong feeling of continuity among the tracks. Kutin’s presence is crucial to Stutter and Strike. His various sounds provide the cohesion needed for such a recording. His use of the hurdy gurdy bring the percussive qualities of the instrument. It can be even misleading when someone, I think, tries to use an instrument totally differently that the normal way. Ok, this is not so new to the world of improvisation, but the very notion of total change (in sound but not only) remains a risk and a radical move. The only flaw I realized in Kutin’s playing is that the percussive sounds, their rhythmic and a-rhythmic repetitions, became too familiar for me, too easy even.

As you listen to the cd, you realize that the approach I already mentioned (one of continuity) lacks the highs and lows you many times expect from a free thinking recording. But that happens intentionally in Stutter and Strike. And it is no coincidence I believe. They choose to follow this path and they do it with persistence. This recording is taking its form little by little without bypassing the difficult parts in communicating through improvisation.


Monday, May 11, 2020

Reissued and unreleased music by Rashied Ali (Part 2)

Rashied Ali Quintet - First Time Out: Live At Slugs 1967 (Survival Records, 2020) ****

In Rashied Ali’s recording archive two 7' reels with boxes were found, actually the first recordings of the great drummer as a bandleader. They were made at a performance which took place at Slugs (or Slug’s Saloon), one of the well-known New York venues for contemporary jazz of the 1960s and early 1970s (the Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot were other famous ones). The club was located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at 242 East Third Street between Avenues B and C, an area which was rather run down, contaminated with crime and dangerous at that time. Slugs also became sadly famous because Lee Morgan was fatally shot there by his wife.

According to the excellent liner notes, the gig was a last-minute booking, the band - Rashied Ali on drums, Ramon Morris on tenor saxophone, Dewey Johnson on trumpet, Stanley Cowell on piano and Reggie Johnson on bass - had probably never played together before and had to be put together under time pressure, there’s no evidence of another concert in this combination.

In the spring of 1967 Rashied Ali was still officially working with John Coltrane when he assembled this band. At that time he was one of free jazz’s most promising and energetic drummers, his playing was a swarm of sound, using timing as a blast-off. Within his loosely-structured compositions his bandmates could focus on other things. Stanley Cowell’s playing on this album is remarkably free and different from the mainstream jazz musician he was to become. Here he sounds like a mixture of Burton Greene, Dave Burrell and Paul Bley. Ramon Morris is the next surprise, he presents himself definitely influenced by Coltrane, which you might not have expected if you listen to his funky jazz-rock album Sweet Sister Funk, which was to release only six years later. Less surprising is the choice of Dewey and Reggie Johnson. The first one had played with John Coltrane on Ascension (Impulse!, 1965) as well as with Paul Bley on Barrage (ESP, 1965). The latter was already familiar with Slugs; he had worked there, alongside Ali and Cowell, across the previous two years. Later on he played with Marion Brown and Archie Shepp.

First Time Out: Live at Slugs 1967 presents four pieces between 22 and 15 minutes. At the center there are “Ballade“ and “Study for As-Salaam Alikum“, both compositions that were supposed to accompany Rashied Ali during his whole career. Of course, Coltrane influences can be found everywhere in the compositions. “Ballade“ starts with a tender melody but like on the other tracks on this album, the instruments quickly leave the given compositional paths and use them only as a rough guideline. Here Johnson delivers a sad solo delicately accompanied by the rhythm section. Rather melodic at the beginning, it soon becomes more and more angular. Morris’s saxophone takes over, and from the start it’s a very spiritual moaning, he plays long and winding lines sounding like a brash version of Coltrane on his Ballads album. Then the band is reduced more and more, first there is a blues-soaked little piano solo, before the focus is put on the bowed bass, which abstracts the given frame the farthest with reluctant lines and harmonics, only accompanied by scarce piano chords and brushed drums, until the whole composition almost comes to a standstill. Ali’s following drum solo “shows his penchant for a pluralistic stream of ideas, focused mainly on the drums themselves (snare, toms and bass drum) and less on the cymbals“, as the liner notes rightfully point out. “Study for As-Salaam Alikum“ has the same structure as “Ballade“, the theme is followed by a trumpet solo in which Johnson seems to just about squeeze the notes out of his horn. Morris’s following part is a highlight of the whole album, it’s an expressive breakout between Pharoah Sanders, Ayler and Trane. Over Ali’s rolls he uses the entire range of the instrument, he screams and shrieks and overblows in brittle, yet vibrato-ladden tones (there’s a similar passage in “Composition I“, in which he literally explodes in front of a swinging background). This seems to have inspired Cowell, whose fingers fly over the keys before they bundle the notes into heavy, oblique chords. The ending is left for another solo by Reggie Johnson. All the players came to burn, they crackled and glowed in the fire of Ali’s pieces.

If there’s a negative aspect to this recording, it’s the sound. Listening to the music one might speculate that the recorder was set near Ali’s drums, often both the piano and the bass can scarcely be made out, while drums and horns are fine. As a result, the quintet sometimes sounds like a duo, for example midway through “Composition 1“ and whenever the horns are present in “Composition II“. As soon as they drop out Cowell is able to present a spectacular solo and one would have loved to hear him more clearly before.

Nevertheless, this recording gives us a great impression of what live gigs at that time sounded like (just imagine you were sitting next the drums) - with all the turmoil and chaos from those turbulent times. It is a piece of contemporary East Village jazz history.

Coming back to where we started from, both Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions and First Time Out: Live At Slugs 1967 are far away from seclusion and whether they seduce musicians to retreat from innovative ideas just to sound like their heroes is at least speculative. Free Jazz and Improv don’t exhaust themselves in a manic escape into the archives. On the one hand there’s nothing wrong making excellent music easier accessible (in the case of Duo Exchange) and on the other hand why should one not add another piece to the mosaic of a great musician’s work that contributes to the understanding of his music? In his book Reynolds doesn’t provide a solution to the (interesting) questions he comes up with. However, imagine it was true that there was nothing radically new, what would that mean for the quality of today’s music? One might question if a radical new thing is even possible in days of post-post-modernism. Maybe we shouldn't wait for something new to appear out of nowhere, maybe we should watch out what happens at the micro and not at the macro level. In the meantime we can enjoy old recordings, reissues and even bands that have dedicated themselves to the sound of the old masters without having a guilty conscience. In this context both albums by Rashied Ali are highly recommended.

First Time Out: Live at Slugs 1967 is available as a two-LP set or as a digital download (although the digital version of this release contains only a portion of the material of the vinyl version). You can listen to it here: 

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