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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Viennese Electronic Dreams

By Eyal Hareuveni

Set of recent releases of some of the prominent musicians in the Viennese experimental electroacoustic music scene, all are often associated with the musicians cooperative - ppooll software player-vocalist Christof Kurzmann, one of the forefathers of this scene, guitarist Burkhard Stangl, clarinetist Susanna Gartmayer and cellist Noid (aka Arnold Haberl).

Disquiet (Trost, 2021) *****

There are rare bands that succeed in materializing a sonic and poetic vision at the right time and at the right location as Disquiet does. Disquiet is a quartet formed and lead by Kurzmann for the 2018 edition of the Konfrontationen festival and featuring vocalist Sofia Jernberg (of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra), drummer Martin Brandlmayr (of Radian) and double bass player Joe Williamson. Disquiet, obviously, refers to the power of art to move us - emotionally and politically, but the title of the band and the album addresses the selfish and unhumanitarian policies of the reactionary leaders in Austria, Hungary and Italy towards the refugee movements to Europe. The location of the performance, in the far East of Austria and close to the Austrian-Hungarian border, and in festivals where there are no boundaries between musicians and the audience and where people from all Europe pilgrimage every year, deepens Disquiet humane vision.

Kurzmann created an unsettling and deeply emotional work that weaves a speech by Belgian Member of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, reprimanding the European Council President Donald Tusk and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for their opportunistic “not in my backyard” policy; an inspired borrowing of ABBA’s pop hit “S.O.S.” and the obscure “Think Small” of the New Zealand rock band Tall Dwarves. These quotes and songs are delivered by Kurzmann’s fragile but touching voice, devoid of pathos, but a voice that frames brilliantly the current, selfish political climate, and later concluded with a cover of Joe McPhee’s sober “Song for Beggars” (“this song won't feed the starving, / nor will conferences of hunger / with a fortune spent on TALKING / nor will it house the homeless, / or quench the thirst of millions / who will die of lack of water, / while the vampires drink THEIR blood…”), which Kurzmann, Jernberg, and Brandlmayr already covered before (Trost Jukebox Series #2, Trost, 2014). The wordless, moaning vocals of Jernberg, the imaginative drumming of Brandlmayr, and the deep-tones of Williamson intensify the disquieting, tense but poetic atmosphere of this 47-minutes piece. Guy Peters, who wrote the liner notes, observed that this fantastic work offers a “receptive attitude” for a much-needed change. “Each worthwhile collaborative endeavor - whether it is political, musical or anything else - starts with a simple but crucial act: listening”. Disquiet may be one of the most important, impressive and rewarding listenings you may experience in 2021.

Schnee: Christof Kurzmann & Burkhard Stangl - Cher (Mikroton, 2020) ****½


Schnee (snow in German) is the duo of Kurzmann and Stangl, a founding member of the electroacoustic supergroups Polwechsel and efzeg. Both have been working together on and off for more than twenty years now. Schnee focuses on sensory non-cerebral experience: the relationship between color, image and sound. Its music is set to imaginary, invisible films or makes music that relates to films that have not yet been shot, about resistance and liberated life. Cher (no connection to the pop icon, however the wordplay of the Cyrillic letters of the title mean snow, i.e. schnee), is the fourth album of Schnee (and the first one released on vinyl), and was recorded in Kaliningrad and Moscow’s DOM club in September 2018.  and is introduced by a quote of Swiss writer Robert Walser that captures beautifully Schnee’s poetic aesthetics: “I love plainness in color, monotony, snow is rather a monotonous tune. Why should color not give an impression of singing? White is like a murmur, a whisper, a prayer”.

The atmosphere of Cher is similar to the one of Disquiet but more intimate, introspective and clearly melancholic. Kurzmann’s highly imaginative way of reframing literary quotes, politics and pop culture within the poetic soundscapes ranges this time from a recitation of American poet Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” ( “...Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow”) on “Frozen”, an ironic cover of New Zealand’s Tall Dwarves’ “Think Small” (“... Let's all close our eyes / Let's all close our minds / Like life is nothing at all / We will think small…”) on “World”, Lou Reed’s urgent “There Is No Time” (“...This is no time for optimism / This is no time for endless thought / This is no time for my country right or wrong / Remember what that brought… “) on “Time”. The 21-minutes, last piece from the live performance in Kaliningrad includes American singer-songwriter Phil Ochs’ “No More Songs” (“...The rebels they were here they came beside the door / They told me that the moon was bleeding / Then all to my surprise / They took away my eyes / And it seems that there are no more songs…”). Beautiful and moving.

Susanna Gartmayer & Christof Kurzmann - Smaller Sad + Sadder Forms (Klanggalerie / SmallForms, 2020) ****


Gartmayer, who plays the bass clarinet here (and did the artwork for the covers), and Kurzman, first performed together at an open session in 2014 and continued to play together on a regular basis since 2018. Their music is mostly improvised but always focused on melodies and few songs. Smaller Sad was recorded in various locations at various times. Gartmayer explores methodically the deeper spectrum of the bass clarinet on “Smaller Forms” while Kurzmann expands these dark and resonant tones with mysterious and subtle waves of electronic sounds, in a way that feels that allow the acoustic and the electronic sounds to dance and embrace each other. “Little Rage” offers a more urgent and dense mode of interaction, where Kurzmann’s manipulation of human voices - sounding as samples of Tibetan monks - is transformed into an enigmatic choir that soars over Gartmayer’s articulation of a minimalist melody. “Dip” is a playful piece that employs the bass clarinet keys as percussive elements, resonated again and again in deeper and deeper electronic layers of Kurzmann’s ppooll-generated sounds. The last and longest “Novi Sad” develops patiently, first with quiet breaths and subtle electronic sounds, later intensifies and varies this delicate commotion with raw sounds from Kurzmann’s rubber bands act like twisted bass and exotic Far-Eastern instrument. Kurzmann sings here the poem of American poet e.e. Cummings “It is at moments after I have dreamed” (“ pierced moment whiter than the rest...”), echoed by percussive breaths of Gartmayer.

Sadder Forms completes Smaller Sad with a new, extended piece called “Former Small” where Gartmayer and Kurzmann alternate between raw and urgent gestures and introspective and contemplative modes, almost chamber ones. The last introspective segment leads to Kirzmann’s ironic and disillusioned interpretation (with some improvements) of American songwriter Mike Posener’s club-hit, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (“... You don't wanna be stuck up on that stage politicizing/ Stuck up on that stage politicizing / All I know are sad songs, sad songs…”), emptying this song from its original hedonist pathos. Later, Gartmayer and Kurzmann perform again “Little Rage” and “Dip”

Christof Kurzmann & Ken Vandermark - Consequent Duos: series 2e (Audiographic, 2020) ****

Chicagoan Ken Vandermark and Kurzmann began their collaborative work a decade ago in Kurzmann’s Infierno Musical (a tribute to Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, Mikroton, 2011), continue in Vandermark’s Made To Break quartet and more recently in Vandermark’s Entr’acte ensemble. Both recorded before as a duo Vandermark’s box-set Nine Ways To Read A Bridge (Not Two, 2014). This free-improvised recording was recorded at the Hideout club in Chicago in April 2014.

Vandermark plays here the clarinet, tenor sax, and the rarely heard, bass clarinet. Vandermark adds that he and Kurzmann did not attempt to replicate their collaborative work in other bands, though their dialog is informed by their mutual experience. In the first piece, Kurzmann sounds like orchestrating and layering Vandermark’s urgent playing on the Bb clarinet, often intensifying Vandermark’s ideas, but sometimes tries to discipline it in a completely different dynamics. Kurzmann creates a mysterious dreamscape in the second piece, while Vandermark caresses gently this quiet drone with his tenor sax. Vandermark plays the bass clarinet on the third piece and his dark and dense musings are blurred by minimalist, spacious interventions of Kurzmann. In the fourth piece, where Vandermark plays the tenor sax again, Vandermark and Kurzmann move in close courses, and sometimes Kurzmann sounds like the alien twin brother of Vandermark, interpreting his gestures in a cryptic but highly expressive language.

Black Burst Sound Generator (Moozak, 2020) ***½

Black Burst Sound Generator (BBSG) is the duo of electronics player Brigitta Bödenauer (BB), who is also an experimental film-maker and installation artist, and contralto-clarinet player Gartmayer (SG), known from the Vegetable Orchestra and the art-rock band broken.heart.collector. Both have been working together since 2012. The name of the duo comes from analog video technology, where a “black burst” is a reference signal for synchronizing video sources: an imageless video pulse in the nanosecond range, during which the video image remains dark. 

Darkness is a central element in the aesthetics of BBSG. Bödenauer and Gartmayer like to perform in dark spaces, with surreal, dark costumes that hide their faces and bodies. In these vague and dark sonic landscapes, the chilly and dry, and sometimes simply noisy polyrhythmic structures of Bödenauer’s laptop counteract the warm, harmonious, and organic outbursts of Gartmayer’s clarinet. BBSG has developed a minimalist, precise, and often ritualistic interplay but this interplay is also highly surprisingly colorful and totally unpredictable. Bödenauer and Gartmayer incorporate multi-idiomatic elements - electronica, IDM, ambient, and drone, but in every piece, BBSG succeeds to stretch their aesthetics furthermore and expand its vocabulary. The dark, woody sound of Gartmayer’s contralto-clarinet is simply addictive and corresponds remarkably with the abstract beats of Bödenauer. Bödenauer and Gartmayer offer complex forms of drama, as on “Dauerwelle” or the mysterious and cinematic “Viola”. Black Burst Sound Generator is released in a limited edition of 100 vinyl with hand-made silkscreen prints plus a download option.

Burkhard Stangl / Isabella Forciniti - Unsere Liebe könnte schön gewesen sein (SmallForms, 2020) ***½

Unsere Liebe könnte schön gewesen sein (in German: Our love could have been beautiful) is a collection of three solo pieces and one duet of Stangl, on guitar and electronics, and Italian, Vienna-based electronics player Isabella Forciniti, who ”thrives to release streams of thoughts at the margins of the unknown”. This duo is inspired by the book Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds by Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (Polity, 2000) and offers the quote: “Desire and love act at cross purposes. love is a netcast on eternity, desire is a stratagem to be spared the chores of net weaving. True to their nature, love would strive to perpetuate the desire. Desire, on the other hand, would shun love's shackles.”

The performance was recorded at Château Rouge in Vienna in May 2018. Stangl begins with the mysterious drone “02” that manipulates reeds sounds into a threatening alien texture. The following duet “il nostro amore avrebbe potuto essere bello” (in Italian: Our love could have been beautiful) is a delicate conversation between the sparse, lyrical and melodic guitar of Stangl and the delicate, crackling white noises of Forciniti. Stangl continues with another enigmatic drone, “01”, disturbed by raw, noisy overtones and feedback this time. Forciniti closes this performance with the 18-minutes of another quiet and atmospheric drone, but totally different in spirit, reaching into the margins of the unknown, far and deep space.

Gerard Lebik / Noid – Psephite (Inexhustible Editions, 2020) ***


Psephite brings together Polish sax player and sound artist Gerard Lebik, playing here on sound objects, and cellist and sound artist Noid (one of the developers of the ppooll software), playing here only on the cello. This meeting was recorded at BWA Studio Wrocław, Poland in October 2013.

Both Lebik and Noid share a similar interest in our perception of sound waves in time and in space. The four pieces are titled after sediments. All offer minimalist and almost silent, disorienting, and fragmented interactions between the acoustic cello of Noid, sporadically played in a conventional manner and more often as a sound generator with an extended array of bowing techniques, and the unworldly and mundane electronic sounds and noises of Lebik. Psephite is an uncompromising work of abstract sound art, developed patiently with unpredictable courses, and sketching dissonant, desolate, and alienated sonic landscapes, with rare and brief glimpses of musical comfort. Enigmatic and weird but also quite expressive (in its own unsettling interpretation of the concept of expressiveness).

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Han-earl Park, Catherine Sikora and Nick Didkovsky - Eris 136199: Peculiar Velocities (baf, 2020) ****


By Paul Acquaro
In the blurb on Bandcamp about Eris 136199: Peculiar Velocities the word ‘glitchy’ is used to describe the work of the trio of guitarists Han-earl Park and Nick Didkovsky with saxophonist Catherine Sikora. It is an apt word, as Park has an approach that is as much electronic impulses as it is human touch. Didkovsky too is a musician with a deep knowledge of computer programming but whose playing skews towards the heavier end of the music spectrum. Together the pair create an unusual foundation for Sikora's tuneful saxophone work.

The first track, ’Ballad of Tensegrity I’, is a masterful slice of trifurcated dialog. Park leans in on the lower octaves, deploying grunting tonal bursts, while Didkovsy provides atmospherics and harmonic ideas. The two act as a rhythm section for Sikora who weaves a sinuous melody throughout. The music takes turns at being haunting, gracious and grating. The next track ‘Ballad of Tensergrity II’ follows after an abrupt ending and carries on in a similar manner. By track three, ‘Peculiar Velocities I’, the guitars have adopted a slightly different aesthetic, using choppy, brittle sounds, they lay down a fractured soundscape replete with sonic barbs and suspended tones. Sikora finds her footing on this shifting ground and plays freely. As the track continues into ‘Peculliar Velocities II’ the fascinating part is realizing how connected the three actually are: this is not parallel play, rather it connects deep in the sub-systems. 

’Sleeping Dragon’, the next track, takes a different tack. Here, the guitars are in agreement and they create a tensile, scratchy film that only at the half-way mark does Sikora start to skewer. Her tone cuts like an exacto-blade, a thin, purposeful slice that is almost imperceptible at first. The slice begins to open up further, as Didkovsky begins to shadow the saxophone. “D-Loop I”, which comes at the middle of the album, begins with Sikora, whose intervallic introduction is complimented with a droning guitar tone. It becomes difficult to distinguish the two at times. The track changes direction as Park (I believe) takes a lawnmower like approach and overtakes the track. Sikora fights back and the track pulls together towards a energetic peak. 

There is more, but I leave this to you, hungry listeners, to discover as there is a lot to chew on in Eris 136199: Peculiar Velocities. Whether you are interested in a straight forward melodic approach, noisy electronic mists of sound, or the fantastic combination of it all, the trio delivers at just the right time. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Underflow – Instant Opaque Evening (Blue Chopsticks, 2021) ****

Underflow is a trio comprising Mats Gustafsson, David Grubbs and Rob Mazurek. Instant Opaque Evening is a double vinyl release and the follow up to their self-titled 2019 debut (Corbett vs Dempsey/Underflow Records). The recordings are taken from intensely focused live performances from January 2020 shows in France, Belgium, Italy, and Poland. The group enjoyed the freedom of surprising one another in different ways each evening. It works, and the material includes long instrumental improvisations and shorter works with the trio interacting as a whole. 'Instant Opaque Evening' conveys this broad sweep, from the full-tilt electronics of 'Self-Portrait as Interference Pattern' and the climax of the seventeen-minute 'Instant Opaque Evening' to the inspired, alternate universe chamber music of 'Planks' and 'A Thin Eternity'. The trio also recorded spontaneous arrangements of three previously recorded songs by Grubbs, 'Gethsemani Night', 'An Optimist Declines', and 'Cooler Side of the Pillow.'

The trio met in Chicago during the latter 1990s where they were individually participating in different events of free improvisation, experimental rock, and more. Gustafsson and Mazurek appeared as guests on Grubb's collaboration, Gastr del Sol albums Upgrade & Afterlife and Camoufleur respectively). Shortly after this, Grubbs and Gustafsson recorded two duo albums, including Apertura.

David Grubbs has played with Gastr del Sol, the Red Krayola, Squirrel Bait, Tony Conrad, Susan Howe, Pauline Oliveros, Will Oldham, and many others. He's the author of books The Voice in the Headphones, Now That The Audience is Assembled, and Records Ruin the Landscape.

Mats Gustafsson, is an improviser, composer and solo artist and has performed alongside Sonic Youth, Merzbow, Jim O'Rourke, Barry Guy, Otomo Yoshihide, Yoshimi, Peter Brötzmann, Neneh Cherry, Christian Marclay, Albert Oehlen, Ken Vandermark and the working groups FIRE!, THE END, LUFT, ANGUISH, and Gush as well as collaborations with contemporary dance, theatre, art, poetry, and projects with noise.

Rob Mazurek is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on electroacoustic composition, improvisation, performance, painting, sculpture, video, film, and installation. He spent much of his creative life in Chicago, then Brazil and currently lives and works in Marfa, Texas. He leads/co-leads ensembles of various sizes and shapes including his flagship large ensemble Exploding Star Orchestra, Chicago Underground and São Paulo Underground. He has collaborated with Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders, Roscoe Mitchell, Jeff Parker, Nicole Mitchell, Chad Taylor, Jim O'Rourke, Naná Vasconcelos, and many others.

'Instant Opaque Evening' sets out the recording credentials and is an exploratory number with a quiet start before developing into a series of interwoven lyrical meanders, with breathy sax and well placed electronic interludes. There is a sense of evolution as the piece progresses and the players interact with ever-increasing complexity and expansion, picking up on each others' musical ideas, interspersing their own. There is a slightly uncomfortable introduction of electronically enhanced sonorous tones over which the trio improvise and explore. The vocal effects add emphasis and atmosphere to the almost seventeen-minute long track.

'Planks' is ethereal and intense, whilst 'An Optimist Declines' is rich, heavy and the vocals are sung over chordal lines that weave into each other, with the sax emerging as a voice from a different origin. There is a Celtic feel as the sax and guitar create almost a bag-pipe sounding collision with the extended notes of the sax hanging over the guitar chords. It is both noisy and a delight.

'Self Portrait As Interference Pattern' is a crazy, constantly morphing track with reverberant, chordal guitar lines over which the brass and wood weave, rise and fall. The central section has trumpet soaring across the top in a frenzy of melodies before an almost static interlude on a single guitar note before the others join. The sax takes on a melody over a steely guitar before all goes quiet. A beautiful lyricism evolves to close - well almost. There is a nearly unnecessary ( but also rather lovely) explosion of noise at the very end.

' A Thin Eternity' is light, with 'Silencio' repeated in hushed voice over and over again at the start creating a sense of relaxing into the music. It works with flute and stut sax notes gently working their way into the senses, with deep intakes of breath clearly heard before the flute begins to play ever more complex phrases and the sax responds with emotion-filled notes and cries. The flute solos and there is calm, into which chords work their way gently but defiantly, creating a sense of gentle descent into nothingness.

'Not At My Funeral' is interesting for its experimental elements over intricate and varied rhythmic patterns before the trumpet soars across the top. The track develops over a series of notes that the sax holds, the guitar adding its flickering rhythms. 'Sound Of A Wet Leather Ball' begins with a delightful trumpet introduction, followed by constructed mayhem from sax, trumpet and later guitar. The wavering, loose-lipped sax interlude interjects an almost comical note and, given the title, that wet leather ball comes into mind, the image quickly chased away as the track develops into a rhythmic, pounding, powerful number which is both relentless and mesmeric. The sudden dropping out of the pounding rhythm in the final section serves both as a surprise and an encouragement to listen deeper.

'Gethsemani Night' is a song with lyrical vocals and well-structured support, showing a different side to this trio and again, there is an almost Celtic feel to the number. 'Purple Laquer Portal' begins with beautiful flute, interspersed with loud intakes of breaths and occasional shouts that take away any sense of calm before these decline and the flute tenderly sighs over the top of the other sounds which develop and envelop the number. In the second half, the sound switches to reverberating noise over a variety of rhythmic patterns. A series of sounds and stops adds a sense of excitement and menace, which, though present, never emerges in full and is negated by the final bars — a complex and intriguing number.

The closing track 'Cooler Side Of The Pillow' is a lyrical ballad and again demonstrates this trios ability to switch from experimental to a constructed format and there is naturally a switch form lyrical ballad to experimental improvisation.

This recording is both experimental yet shows the development of the relationships between the three musicians and their reading of each others' styles. A good listen and further testament to the fact that music works when you get the right combination of musicians.

Order here!

*Editor's note: today's review is a re-post from Jan 19th.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Jooklo Trio – It is what it is (Relative Pitch, 2020) ****


Bt Fotis Nikolakopoulos

It’s been a while since I heard the music from Virginia Genta (here on amplified tenor and sopranino saxes) and David Vanzan (drums, percussion). Not because they haven’t released anything, quite the contrary I’d say, they are quite prolific. Being a fan of their output, in all its guises, I sometimes have to kill the consumer of culture inside me, slow down on buying and listen more to the good stuff.

On the other hand being a fan means that I’m aware of their musical output that breaks many genre barriers. For them , if I’m interpreting correctly their “message”, jazz is a big tree which may have strong roots, but its branches are growing in many different directions. Like the duo’s music, quite like the music of this cd, a trio with Brandon Lopez on electric bass.

I’m must be frank here and admit that I do not particularly enjoy the electric bass in any jazz based music for reasons not really interesting to mention (let’s call it my taste in music). But It is what it is seems a wholly different situation. The music on this cd, six tracks that last from three up to eight minutes, is one of those occasions when you can comment that the music takes no prisoners along its way. All tracks are powerful excursions into a blurry territory between free jazz, power rock, even metal. If you have listened to their compatriots, Zu, then you certainly get the idea. Trully it is what it is and there’s no need to put a label on it.

Due to the density and energy of the recording you might, falsely, believe that it is all about power and machismo. Well, quite the opposite. The three of them play in unison, in a totally egalitarian way. Genta’s amplified reeds make a good choice. The saxes follow and lead, focusing on speed and volume. But volume isn’t a fixation , it is a statement. Following the big tradition of reedsmen playing their hearts out, but changing it since a woman (yes!) is on the reeds, they reverse some rules of the game in what we call jazz. A game, unfortunately still, dominated by men.

I was late in my intro to mention Brandon Lopez. Not because he is not worth mentioning though. His playing, totally from the hardcore side of rock I feel, solidifies the restless playing of the other two. Partners in life as in music, they have played together so many times, that it takes a lot of willingness to integrate their bond. Lopez manages that and at the same time (and quite intentionally) the Italian duo leave enough room for the electric bass to kick ass. Another diverse release from Relative Pitch, a label that one cd after the other moves at different directions all at the same time.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Lafayette Gilchrist Trio – Now (Morphius Records, 2020) ****½


By Nick Ostrum

I first came across Baltimore’s Lafayette Gilchrist on the schedule of my first Vision Festival in 2006. I had actually missed his act, but, intrigued by the description, I soon picked up his live duo with Hamid Drake (the recording of the Vision performance) and his septet release Toward the Shining Path. I liked his work with Hamid Drake and found his full ensemble recordings interesting enough, but the latter had a feel that was more funky-sleek than my tastes trended. I finally caught him at a Winter Jazzfest a couple years later in a trio setting and was more impressed. However, after that, he fell off my radar. Therefore, when I came across this trio release with Herman Burney (bass) and Eric Kennedy (drums), I was intrigued. It turns out, when someone such as Gilchrist ducks out of one scene, he might just be in another, working away and refining his craft.

The first of Now’s two-discs begins with a dark bass vamp and piano lines that soon fall into Gilchrist’s punctuated funk melodies. Yes, the blues and New Orleans stride is there. So is hip-hop’s predilection for churning repetition and grandiose bridges and breakdowns. Sans saxophone, this brings to mind some of Archie Shepp’s protest music in the 1970s. Gilchrist rarely falls into the sheer force whirlwinds that characterized a lot of fire music, but he nevertheless captures much of that potential energy itching for release. The more spirited moments also call to mind the soul-jazz pioneer Bobby Timmons were he to expand beyond the 4-minute statement and have the benefit of another half-century of musical developments.

Many of the pieces on Now have an aggression and clear urgency that might point to a stormy marriage between Shepp and Timmons, combined with the wounded but righteous force of Nina Simone. Indeed, the inspiration for tracks such as Assume the Position and Bmore Careful lie in contemporary social and racial strife, including the death of fellow Baltimore-native Freddy Gray. Such inspiration might not be surprising in itself, but the way the trio integrates these pieces into an album that also includes dramatic new-school ballads such as Old Shoes Come to Life and Purple Blues, and more glistening pieces such as Can You Speak My Language, Specials Revealed, and Newly Arrived (for the latter think a bluesier Charlie Haden Quartet West minus Ernie Watts), make those statements stand out that much more.

Since I first heard his work on Toward the Shining Path, it was clear that, even when the larger ensemble just seemed too formulaic and polished for the music, Gilchrist as pianist and composer had a unique sense of melody informed by everything from blues and gospel to bop to hip hop to fin de siecle classical. On Now, Gilchrist showcases these influences even more confidently and seamlessly than before. The melodies and beats are unapologetically simple, but catchy. And, Gilchrist and co. use them as a basis from which to launch into churning, extended variations. The tracks are invariably piano-forward, as in a classic piano trio, and inevitably fall back to the funk of the rhythm section before the solos burn out or stray too far afield. Normally, I would consider the final restraint a criticism. That said, it works here. Burney and Kennedy provide a welcome grounding and, thought the pieces follow a clear compositional formula, they rarely sound formulaic.

Gilchrist, Burney, and Kennedy clearly have their own thing going here. And, I, for one, am into it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Weston Olencki - Solo Works (Creative Sources, 2020) ****


By Keith Prosk

Weston Olencki violates the identities of trumpet, trombone, and euphonium, transforming them into harsh, pulsing noise machines, on Solo Works. Olencki achieves this through preparations, amplification, and introducing objects like unconventional mutes. But also through loud, long durations emphasizing textural strokes created by pressure changes and harmonic synthesis. This record is abrasive. Not so much for the noise itself but for the interfaces between noise and silence, which shellshock the ear. These imposing, visceral, textural, confrontational sonic swaths are the closest music might come to standing in front of a big, dark Rothko.

“seven stones (parallax)” begins with a breath. And then jolts with a wall of noise. A bass trumpet with deconstructed and augmented parts blown into a snare drum head sounds like a television test tone with static white noise like bees swarming and a distant jackhammer. It alternates with other sonic fields of corporeal, electric deep bass throbbings and absolute silences. The metal clamp lamp shade mute on “for trumpet” produces a similar static noise, with scraping, sucking, and squealing, and also employs the jarring juxtaposition of silence and high-volume sound. It sounds electronic, like feedback and distorted signals, but the intermittent close-mic’d breath reminds the ear of the acoustic, human source. The sidelong “capacity” offers a reprieve from the assault, with recognizable movement and farty timbres that retain the comic persona of the trombone, amplified here. Though this quickly moves to sustained durations with textural movement emphasizing varied pressures, with some resonant purrs and big foghorn blows. And “bisected mass” is an extended duration of breathy, airy tones shifting to screeching noise drone for euphonium with reeds and unconventional mutes. Like much of the music that preceded it, it begins to sound inhuman, electronic, if not for the short gasps for circular breathing.

With Solo Works, Olencki places himself in the lineages of pioneering horn players Nate Wooley, Greg Kelley, and George Lewis and their noisiest works. The unsettling, confrontational use of silence and noise recalls Polly Bradfield’s Solo Violin Improvisations, though this is much more noise than silence. This is one of the most challenging listens I’ve come across in some time. But the richly textural subversion of instrumental identities through novel preparations and simple but bold compositions keeps me coming back.

Solo Works is available digitally and on CD.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartett - Free Postmodernism, BBQ with Fred Frith - USA 1982 (SÅJ, 2020) *****

By Nick Metzger

I just about fell out of my chair when I saw this recording pop up in my Bandcamp feed this Fall, what an unexpected surprise! For the uninitiated, this is an archival recording made on the sole US tour of the Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartett (BBQ), a divinely pungent concoction stemming from the enlightened minds of Rüdiger Carl, Hans Reichel, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, and Sven-Åke Johansson. These gentlemen had worked together in various groups previously, most notably in bands of the Globe Unity Orchestra microverse, but the BBQ configuration first performed in Rostock in 1980. At that time Petrowsky lived in East Berlin and Johansson in West Berlin while Carl and Reichel lived in Wuppertal (Berlin is in the county of Brandenburg and Wuppertal in the region of Bergisch Land, hence the name of the group). In 1982 the band embarked on an East Coast tour of the US which required overcoming some fairly non-trivial obstacles. Firstly, Petrowsky had to obtain a West German passport, which he was able to do under the guise of going on tour there. Secondly, no one in the group had a credit card, so a friend in New York had to rent them a car for the tour. Fred Frith (who lives in New York and appears on the back half of this recording) helped arrange some of the dates along with various other unnamed (but never unappreciated, men and women of the cloth so to speak) East Coast organizers.

This release documents a stop in the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania with the aforementioned Fred Frith joining in on the back half of the set. The first piece is the longest and begins heatedly, the frenzied saxs running amok against a throttling rhythm. Reichel's thin and wiry guitar is sympathetic and controlled. It feels both a part of, and separate from the rest of the maelstrom, like an elegant gold leaf design framing a barn fire. The intensity wanes, the sax maelstrom softens to chatter, the rhythms turn to understated pattering and bowed metal, the gold leaf dissolves to a confetti of jangling strums, plucked harmonics, and behind the bridge tapping. Reichel unfurls bewildering plumes of delicate, hinted melodies. It's a shimmering undercurrent for the lamentive reeds and disintegrating percussion. The accordion introduces itself meekly as accompaniment for Sven-Åke who pontificates his screeds to a grateful and sympathetic audience before the piece dissolves into fragmented ambience. The second improvisation spits, and hiccups to life via Reichel and Johansson's jerky and spastic interplay. Around the midpoint their bizarre vehicle becomes mired in the viscous soup of hallucinatory Germanic free folk poured on by Carl and Petrowsky.

The third piece begins in a blast of wobbly Reichelian guitar before segueing once again into Sven-Åke's theatrical crooning and exploratory avant-polka. A stray lick from Moon River and the simmering grog boils over in a flurry of explosive percussion and Petrowsky's spit and splinters clarinet expressions. The cheerful laughter and scattered applause of the crowd during the fourth track hint at some unheard comedic gestures during the subdued beginnings. Reichel alternates rapidly slashed chords with a muted, lurching arpeggio and double bridge guitar techniques whilst the percussion and reeds slowly build up intensity. It's hard to pinpoint where the wave finally crests, but once it does the latter half of the track is a proper blow out lead by Carl and Petrowsky who put on a bit of the old shriek-and-wail for the delight of an appreciative audience.

From the fifth track onward the group is joined by Mr. Frith on violin, guitar, and electronics. Really great stuff. There is a wonderful joviality imparted to the music (which I'd kind of hoped for/expected given the parties involved) that manifests in both a spirited performance and a heavy re-stirring of the creative pot. Bouncing horns shuffle amongst a din of accordion debris, irregularly strummed guitar, and Frith's snaking Michel Sampson inflected bow work. At 7 minutes Reichel strums out a jarring, 4/4 riff that stands in stark contrast to everything else that's happening. He sustains it just long enough to remain peripheral then promptly lets it fall apart. The final piece initially pairs an accordion/guitar rendered-faux-tango with Sven-Åke's earnest stream-of-consciousness dialogue when the piece abruptly explodes in ecstatic communal chaos. The come down is a slow aftershower of flute, whistles, bird calls, and woozy guitar shimmer.

Free Postmodernism, BBQ with Fred Frith - USA 1982 is a rich sülze of performance art, mutant guitar, volksmusik, and free jazz from a group whose sound is about as unique as they come. This is only the 2nd official BBQ release after their eponymous debut on Amiga back in 1984, though there are a couple of live dates floating around on the web for those who are interested. And if this single set of unearthed, classic European free jazz isn't enough to get you excited, Sven-Åke hinted at more BBQ archival releases to come!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Aki Takase - Aki Takase Plays Fats Waller at Babylon Berlin 2009 (Jazzwerkstatt, 2020) ***(*)


By Stephen Griffith

It seems like fate dictated that this digital only release be made. While her husband, Alexander von Schlippenbach, has doggedly explored the Thelonious Monk catalogue through both solo piano and the Monk’s Casino quartet recordings, Aki Takase has likewise put her stamp on Fats Waller’s music with slight variations of this core group of drummer Paul Lovens, Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet (also a Monk’s Casino member), trombonist Nils Wogram and Eugene Chadbourne on guitar/banjo and vocals. While the Monk’s Casino group specialized in performances of all Monk compositions, innovatively rearranged and mashed together over the course of an evening, this recording is more closely related to the first generation AACM group Air, consisting of Henry Threadgill and the late Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, and their penchant for playing ragtime favorites in concerts and documented in all of Air Lore and “Chicago Breakdown” on 80° Below ‘82. And to put this live date in a more specific context, most of these songs are available in a 2003 studio recording on Enja under Takase’s name, Plays “Fats” Waller, adding Thomas Heberer on trumpet to the current group, and a 2004 JazzFest Berlin performance on Jazzwerkstatt including Heberer but no Wogram trombone. Only the current set ending brief “Two Sleepy People” isn't on the previous recordings.

Having established all that, you're probably wondering how the music is. Pretty good and a lot of fun. Waller’s music has been an integral part of the 20th century American songbook (I remember being confused as a teen hearing “Hold Tight” and “Your Feet's Too Big” on a Chubby Checker twist album) and always had a comic component producing the perfect setting for Chadbourne’s zany vocals (at one point in “Ain't Misbehaving” channeling Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan) as well as his excellent string work. Takase’s stride work is predictably excellent and Wogram’s blaring trombone adds a suitably brash element missing from the earlier live date. “Handful of Keys” is a piano/bass clarinet duet romp in all three settings with each being sufficiently different to not make comparing them side by side tedious. At times it seems that Lovens’ talents are being underutilized into a straight timekeeping function until “Way Down South Where the Blues Began” allows him to provide some creatively disruptive coloration and the shared intro with Takase on “Viper’s Drag" likewise loosens things up.

Although this covers familiar territory it's certainly worth hearing, both for unfamiliar listeners and existing aficionados.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Two From Sarah Hennies

By Keith Prosk

Composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies builds steam with each passing year. I cover three commissioned works for small ensembles across two releases here but 2020 also saw the release of the commissioned Primers from piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, percussionist Andy Meyerson’s performance of a few pieces on Extra Time , cellist Judith Hamann’s performance of Loss , solo percussion pieces performed by Hennies in Habitat , Waylaid , and Bed of Nails (the latter of which was commissioned for AMPLIFY 2020 ), a duo of the composer with Meridian bandmate Tim Feeney on Foragers , and a new performance of Fleas on Live Fleas, April 19, 201 9 with Hennies accompanied by a small bell choir. And I’m probably missing something. It would not be an exaggeration to call Hennies one of the most rousing composers in music right now, and her work released in 2020 is proof enough. The pieces here explore two concepts the composer frequently addresses, strain or failure and intimacy.

Spectral Malsconcities (New World Records, 2020) ****½

Spectral Malsconcities collects two pieces performed by two different ensembles. I think both pieces play with failure. On Hennies’ Loss, the performer is instructed to hum beyond their vocal range. On Falsetto, extended durations of repetitive soundings induce performance exhaustion. “Kisses” from Extra Time pushes a percussionist’s limb independence to the limit with four varying tempos, and they also have to toss objects into a bucket at increasing distances . This forced failure crumbles traditional virtuosity which, especially for a percussionist, might equate to dismantling normative ways of playing and part of the masculine identity of the drums . The liners of Music for Cello and Humming cast the transformative nature of failure, in which a performer must adapt to a new normal of incorporating their failures, as queer identity, because there is no longer right or wrong, binary sound, just sound. And the realism of Hennies’ more dramatic pieces might be made more real by the small frustrations and failures of the instrumental personae. Hennies composes for failure, and some of her explicit concerns in music - of queer & trans identity, intimacy, love, and psychoacoustics - are stronger for it. But what happens when something expected to fail doesn’t? The two half-hour pieces on Spectral Malsconcities explore failed failure.

“Spectral Malsconcities” is six diverse sections of contrapuntal polyrhythms performed by Bearthoven, which is Karl Larson on piano, Pat Swoboda on contrabass, and Matt Evans on percussion. The complexity of the composition implicitly intends the musicians to falter, but Bearthoven doesn’t. The result is an angular, off-kilter music that is surprisingly tight and steady. The first five minutes is simply the best music I’ve heard in a long time. The tenderly woven lyricism of it sounds like a rhythm Marion Brown might have composed, with a slight swing from the phasing bass and piano phrases (bass - piano - piano - bass - bass - piano - piano - bass - bass....). Each section lasts about five minutes, though some facet of the music from the previous section often lingers. Beyond evolving timbral and rhythmic material, sections are separated by silences or quieter, textural playing or nothing at all, with abrupt transitions. Almost as heavenly as the first section is the third, in which the piano plays a destabilized circus tune that transmogrifies into a nearly familiar lullaby before gradually disintegrating to a single hammered note, backed by quacking strings and four-on-the-floor bass drum. With some other particularly memorable moments in a rewinded contrabass growl in the fourth, or the single piano notes left to hang in the air, vibrating its neighboring strings in the last minutes of the last section. Beyond the conceptual, “Spectral Malsconcities” flexes the rhythmic and timbral skills of the composer and performers to create an addictively listenable experimental music.

In music, tension often breaks. The tempo slows back down, the density decreases again, volume returns to a baseline, cacophony relinquishes to melody. “Unsettle,” performed by pianist David Friend and percussionist Bill Solomon - or Bent Duo, doesn’t really allow that to happen. It is a slow build of single, gentle piano notes first left to hang in the air, with chromatic vibrations of adjacent piano strings suspended in the gossamer ectoplasm of metallophone resonance. To a hammered note, whose residuals clash with percussive overtones like chaotic splashing in the corner of a pool, to the point that it sounds like digital distortion to the brain. Abruptly shifting to a one note piano march towards a din of bells close to the end of the track. There should be tension release, as the tempo, density, and volume decreases and the ears are surely relieved of the simultaneously wondrous and absolutely tortuous noise between minutes 19 and 23, but there’s a recognition that it just begins again.

Spectral Malsconcities is available digitally and on CD.

The Reinvention of Romance
(Astral Spirits, 2020) ****

One strain I perceive in Hennies’ work is dramatic pieces, coaxing narratives from a non-narrative music in which the listener perceives the timbral and spatial relationships of instrumentation as action between the dramatis personae of the instruments. This is achieved through providing textual context around the piece. In Reservoir 1 , the traumatized unconscious of a percussion trio quite literally beats small behavioral manifestations into the conscious of the piano. In The Reinvention of Romance, performed by Ashlee Booth and Adam Lion - or Two-Way Street, cello and percussion “[examine] the care and empathy that emerge when two lives share space.”

The single hour and a half performance is spacious. Diverse in techniques and timbres but deliberate in time, giving the sense that it takes time to develop whatever intimacy the instruments do display. Sometimes they play together; sometimes they do not. Sometimes one timbre mimics the other; sometimes they are dissonant. One might play something new while the other continues on the same course. Percussive pizzicato cello might seem sympathetic to the other instrument, and sustained bowed metallophone too. They are more often in phase with each other but just as comfortable out, giving a very human sense that sometimes a mark of intimacy is being just as comfortable doing your own thing, knowing that the other person will always be there when you return. Within the last fifteen minutes, the silence between the two decreases, their pulses speed up, and they eventually resonate together in a throbbing climax. It could be interpreted as erotic love, but also the ecstatic resonance of two platonic souls. Beyond the dramatic personification of intimacy, the sound itself is intimate, recorded closely, with the spacious composition allowing you to spend time with and in each sound.

I acknowledge that a lot of what we might evaluate music on is extramusical, but the success of this music can feel crutched by the narrative outside of the music. Maybe that’s more an indicator of how attractive a narrative is to our brains, given just a crumb of information. Particularly during a time in which the narrative of this music might appear similar to the narrative of quarantined couples suddenly sharing more time and space with each other in 2020, prodded to develop an intimacy which might not have been present previously (though this was recorded in 2019). But even without the narrative, The Reinvention of Romance is a series of timbrally rich duo impressions framed with enough silence to let the sounds really live. It is a celebration of sounds, and their relationships, worth getting intimate with.

The Reinvention of Romance is available digitally and on LP.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Catalytic Sound Stream: Q&A with Ken Vandermark and Sam Clapp

During our conversation this summer, player, composer, organizer, and Catalytic Sound co-founder, Ken Vandermark, who at the time was in the thick of planning the Catalytic Sound Festival, dropped some hints of a in-development streaming service. At the time it was an intriguing aside, but now the service is live. To talk about the service, Vandermark and Catalytic Sound's manager Sam Clapp took some time to answer a few questions about the service. 

As for a quick review of the service, let me start out by saying that I have always been skeptical about streaming. I still want to own, or rather collect, my music in some tangible (even if it is digital) manner. There is my bias. If I don't own it, I don't trust it. Maybe I'll use Spotify to check out the latest from say, umm, well never mind, but if I value it, I want more than a stream.

However, over the past few weeks of trying out the Catalytic Sound Stream service, I find my attitude changing - a little. I mean, I still want my mp3, but the Catalytic Sound Stream is not meant to be a typical streaming platform. It does not offer a replacement of a physical collection, rather it is more like walking into a record store. It's curated, it's not "complete", and most likely you will discover something. Sure, Spotify has its playlists and recommendation algorithms, but this type of music really doesn't seem to fit that approach, it needs to be discovered. It is album-oriented music and the smallest connections - a player whom played with this other player or label names - spark interest, and this service certainly recognizes this. After all, it is a part of their pitch:
"Each month, subscribers will enjoy a constantly rotating set of over 90 albums on the Soundstream. Catalytic Radio presents a shifting assortment of records chosen by Catalytic artists and staffLabel Radio showcases a revolving selection of albums curated by the core group of Corbett vs. Dempsey, NoBusiness Records, Relative Pitch Records, and Astral Spirits, as well as at least one guest label each month. "
In addition to the discovery factor, or really, at least as equally important, there is also the fact that you are directly supporting the artists. This isn't a platform company that is making the biggest chunk of change. For me, this approach is a sweet spot for streaming. Just enough of it to keep me discovering new things to then collect.

Ok, now let's let turn this over to some folks who actually know something...

Paul Acquaro: Can you tell us about the streaming platform? (i.e. when did you start thinking about it, what was the catalyst that made you decide to create a streaming platform? And did you build your own platform?) 

Ken Vandermark: We first started thinking about building a music streaming platform at Catalytic more than two years ago.  Some preliminary design ideas were developed before 2020 (such as using Soundcloud technology to house the music files), but the real development took place throughout last year.

The main driver for me was anger and frustration toward existing streaming platforms for their lack of compensation to musicians whose work these platforms profit from.

With the help of two brilliant and generous web designers, Santiago Quintana and Max Oppenheimer, and with the assistance of Catalytic's head designer, Fede Peñalva, we were able to construct a system that works like a streaming platform for listeners, but utilizes technology we could afford.  Out of necessity it is more "hands on" from the organizational standpoint, which allows us to curate the albums, and give listeners more information about the music.

Paul: What makes this streaming effort different than say individual artists or labels using Spotify? I think there are some obvious answers here but I think it will be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Ken: In addition to having access to a rotating selection of more than 90 albums every month, subscribers will be supporting this group of artists and labels directly, with the knowledge that 2/3rds of the money they spend will be going to the musicians and the work they love, not into the pockets of corporations that profit off of content they don't create and who don't compensate the artists fairly. (1/3 of the Soundstream profits go to Catalytic to cover overhead expenses.) Also, this is a group of musicians working together as a collective, pooling profits and sharing them, not single artists or bands being represented separately from each other, presented as part of an algorithm.

Sam Clapp: Like Ken said, the financial disparity between Soundstream and a conventional streaming service is stark. For example, Spotify pays an average of $.003 - $.005 per stream. With only about 40 users so far, we’re already able to pay each of our co-op artists about $10 in streaming revenue each month. To receive that same amount in Spotify royalties, each artist would need to receive over 3,000 plays per month on Spotify. And that’s the situation just two weeks after Soundstream was released! As subscribers continue to sign up for what we believe to be a unique streaming site curated for a specific musical community, our payouts will far outpace any conventional streaming platform in artist support.

On top of the financial difference, there’s the fact that when a new album appears each day on the service, you’ll know that it has been hand-selected by a human being knowledgeable about the music. Spotify and other streaming keep listeners plugged in with a never-ending sequence of machine-generated playlists, which is great for serving listeners ads, but maybe not so great for presenting works of art.

Paul: What is available on the service?  

Sam: There are currently four different playlists on the Soundstream. Catalytic Radio showcases thirty albums every day, with a new record being rotated in every night. This playlist presents material featuring members of the Catalytic Sound co-op, and all of the albums are available in the Catalytic Sound store. 

The Label Radio playlist was added thanks to Astral Spirits Records’ Nate Cross. Like Catalytic Radio, this playlist features a rotating selection of thirty albums per day, and features a core group of NoBusiness Records, Astral Spirits Records, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and Relative Pitch Records. Each month, we’ll also feature guest labels. This month and next, the guest labels are Astral Editions, Notice Recordings, and Family Vineyard.

The Catalytic Artist Album playlist features the whole series of Catalytic-exclusive records, which are released to members each month.

Finally, the History Is What’s Happening playlist (an homage to The Ex) features a handpicked set of ten albums released before the year 2000.

(In case it’s useful, here’s a list of artists who are partners in the Catalytic Sound co-op, whose albums will be featured in the Catalytic Radio playlist on Soundstream. Each artist's label is in parentheses next to their name: Luke Stewart, Ig Henneman & Ab Baars (Wig), Andy Moor (Unsounds Records), Joe McPhee, Joe Morris (Glacial Erratic, Riti), Mats Gustafsson, Nate Wooley (Pleasure of the Text Records), Paal Nilssen-Love (PNL Records), Terrie Hessels (Terp Records/The Ex Records), Ken Vandermark (Audiographic Records), Tim Daisy (Relay Recordings), Ikue Mori, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (Sonic Transmissions), Elisabeth Harnik, Dave Rempis (Aerophonic Records), Ben Hall, Sylvie Courvoisier, Bonnie Jones, claire rousay, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jaap Blonk (Kontrans Records), Brandon Lopez, Chris Corsano (Hot Cars Warp Records).  Six musicians have just joined Catalytic in January, and their work will be added to the Soundstream shortly: Tashi Dorji, Christof Kurzmann, Damon Locks, Paul Lytton, Zeena Parkins, and Tomeka Reid.)

Paul: How do you choose what is available to stream?  

Ken: Because albums are added manually, we're able to have the musicians curate the programming, choosing albums from the Catalytic catalog that they find remarkable, and letting listeners know why.  The process of selecting albums by the Catalytic artists is limited to recordings we have access to in a digital format.  The labels on the independent label tier mentioned above curate their own programming.

Paul: What do you think subscribers will get from using the Soundstream? 

Sam: I’ve been using Soundstream for the last two weeks to get a sense of the listener’s experience. One of the best features of listening in this way is the flexibility—you can bounce around between wildly different artists, sampling whole albums that you might previously have had to mail-order. In some ways, Soundstream re-creates the loose, free-associative experience of hanging out in a record store, flipping through bins of records, but with the advantage of being able to hear each album as you go.

PA: How does the streaming platform support the Collective?  

Ken: It creates another revenue stream for the group, in addition to the physical and digital albums they sell through Catalytic, the Artifacts Membership, which offers monthly exclusive digital albums, and Full Membership,which combines the Artifacts Membership with Soundstream access.  Also, the Soundstream creates a new way for listeners to learn about the music, musicians, and independent record labels.  Through sharing musician-sourced information in addition to the music itself, the Soundstream helps to create another means of support for the collective- more understanding and knowledge, and possibly a deeper awareness of what's at hand and what's at stake for musicians everywhere.

Paul: What are your hopes and/or plans for the platform? Any “KPIs” so to speak?  

Ken: Primarily, we hope that the Soundstream's popularity will be another way to generate income for the musicians of the co-op.  In addition, we want to show that it is possible to pay musicians fairly for their work, and the content that they provide to streaming services.  And we hope that the creation of the Soundstream will motivate other musicians to organize and get more control of their work, how it's used, and how they can profit from it.

Paul: Did you ever think that you would be an internet entrepreneur?  

Ken: Ha, ha, ha- no!  But the way Catalytic has always worked was to be musician-forward, and to look at how we can be an added income driver for the musicians in the collective.  This leads to asking questions about what steps to take next, to look at the problems musicians are facing now, and to try and solve those problems.  It's an organic process, and we're fortunate to have some of the most creative minds in the world working with us to help create solutions.  So the Soundstream is an example of this group collaboration and problem solving.  We saw the problems with the existing streaming platforms and how they treated musicians unfairly, so the solution was to create musician-run alternative, and to show that it could be done.

Sam: Former Catalytic manager Brock Stuessi, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and writing about collectives like Catalytic, has the illuminating perspective that part of succeeding as an independent artist is engaging with the logistics of distribution. When vinyl records were the norm, musicians learned to engage with music publishing, record production, printing, and printing to get their work out in the world. Now, for better or worse, digital technology and the Web are the central mode by which most listeners consume music. Learning to work with platforms like Bandcamp and streaming services is one way to distribute music on the Internet. Here, we tried to go a layer deeper by working with some talented developers to create a site from scratch. As platforms continue to consolidate and monopolize the Web, it will become essential for musicians to develop technical skills and partner with technically skilled allies to maintain independence.

Paul: Regarding some of the technical/audiophile details that some of the Free Jazz collective have asked: 

Is it possible to listen offline?

Sam: As of this first release, you need an internet connection to access the Soundstream. 

What quality is the stream?

Sam: Since 2016, Soundcloud has streamed audio using 64 kilobit per second (kbps) Opus files. Opus, like mp3, is a "lossy" audio codec--basically, a piece of software that reduces the size of an audio file by removing non-essential sounds like ultra-high frequencies not audible to most people who are old enough to subscribe to a streaming service.

Some critics are skeptical of 64 kbps files because mp3s at that bitrate are regarded by some to sound thin or watery. Fortunately, Opus (finalized in 2012) is a significant improvement over mp3 (released in 1993), and most listeners would have a hard time distinguishing a Soundcloud stream from the original audio. For more information on Opus, mp3, and Soundcloud, be sure to check out this article on the subject..

Can you stream to smartphones? I.e. iPhone/Android apps?

Sam: The Soundstream is accessible on smartphones and tablets via a web browser like Safari or Chrome. As for an app: not yet. We'd love to create an iPhone/Android app, and are investigating the possibility of developing one.

You can subscribe for $10 a month for the streaming service, or $30 a month for the full membership (incl. stream). Learn more here:

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Piano sax duo

 By Stef Gijssels

The sheer volume of music released last year forces us to write combined reviews, now on the topic of sax and piano duos. There are many, as you will see, and we leave it up to the reader to further explore them and appreciate them. Some of them require more indepth attention and reviews, for sure, and that may still come. In the meantime, the reader is alerted to their existence. 

Peter Brötzmann & Fred Van Hove - Front To Front (Dropa, 2020)

German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove go back a long way. In 1970 they already released "Balls" together with Dutch drummer Han Bennink. The three men have been instrumental in determining the continental European kind of free jazz, iconoclastic, loud and raw and deconstructivist, but without taking themselves too seriously, and very expressive, creating music in which even more options and directions became available, not only pushing boundaries but completely doing away with them. Brötzman was 78 when this duet was performed, and Van Hove 82. Despite their age, they still play their music with the enthusiasm and even the freshness of young boys. I am not sure whether they could have dreamed this up back in the late 60s or early 70s, as both came under severe attack from even the more progressive side of the music establishment. They have opened our collective ears and continue to do so. 

This live performance dates from the Summer Bummer Festival in Antwerp in 2019. Fans for both musicians should definitely look to get a copy of the vinyl version. 

Matthew Shipp & Rob Brown - Then Now (RogueArt, 2020)

The duo of Matt Shipp and Rob Brown is also highly recommended (and more extensively reviewed by Gregg Miller here). The warm and lyrical tone of Brown's alto matches well with Shipp's unpredictable and sensitive music. Both artists released their first duo album "Sonic Explorations" in 1988, and they have continued to perform and release albums in various bands over the years. Possibly the most fascinating aspect of this album is the seamless interaction between both musicians, co-creating their music as they improvise, creating tight and focused music. Shipp is a star at creating micro-structures in his improvisations which vanish and are replaced by new ideas. Brown navigates these changes brilliantly. On two of the eight tracks, each musician has an unaccompanied solo moment. 

Agusti Fernandez & Liudas Mockunas - Improdimensions (No Business, 2020)

Every year, the „Improdimensija” (Improdimension) concert series is organised in Vilnius, Lithuanua, and is dedicated to improvised music. This duo performance of Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández and Lithuanian reedist Liudas Mockunas was recorded in two consecutive years, the A-side of the LP from December, 2019 and the B-side in November 2018. Both sets are equally intense, sometimes raw, closer to free improv, with no patterns to be discerned at all and lots of timbral explorations, and at other times both artists find a rhythm, however implicit, to drive things forward full of energy and power. The second session starts with lots of silence and weird sounds coming from inside the piano and a like-minded saxophone, shifting into high forward moving tension on the second piece. An amazing album that will keep its power with many listens. 

Catherine Sikora​​-Culpo Duo - The Paris Sessions, Volume 1 Mimesis (Self, 2020)  & Catherine Sikora & Christopher Culpo Duo - The Paris Sessions Vol. 2, Speaking In Tongues (Self, 2020)

I read in the liner notes that "In February 2020, Christopher Culpo and Catherine Sikora reconvened in Paris, where their collaboration started five years before, and spent four days recording at l’Atelier de la Main d’Or". Their music is more intimate than the albums reviewed above, chamber music, to be listened to in a smaller space. It is not expansive, but disciplined, measured, controlled even if improvised. Sikora's soprano has a warm and velvety sound, singing like a bird through the breeze of Christopher Culpo's piano. The music is smart, gentle and performed with great skill. 

The second album is the continuation of the first. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Christian Rønn & Aram Shelton - Multiring (Astral Spirits, 2020)

"Multiring" is a fascinating collaboration between Danish composer Christian Rønn and American saxophonist Aram Shelton. The music is available on limited edition cassette. The music is beyond genres. The first track is quiet and slow. Rønn's electric piano and Shelton's alto create a very unique sonic universe, with interesting harmonies and quiet intensity. The second piece is more dynamic with some vague connection to Ethopian jazz. On the third, the piano sounds more like a slow percussive instrument over which Shelton's alto weaves his lamenting sounds. Only one track, "Crawl", is a little more uptempo. The duo manage to create their own voice and a strong musical coherence with variation. 

The title is a reference to chemical bonding by multiple rings of atoms. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Daniel Carter & Matt Lavelle - The Piano Album (Self, 2020)

True, Daniel Carter also plays trumpet, flute, clarinet and saxophone, and piano, and Matt Lavelle also plays trumpet and bass clarinet. On their first duo album in 2004, both musicians used their horns. On the second - "Blackwood - Live At Tower Records" (2006) - the piano made its entry on two tracks, once played by Lavelle, once by Carter. Here, the roles are even more precise. Lavelle only plays piano, hence the title of the album, while Carter doesn't. Both musicians have performed many times over the years, including in streets and subways. But this far from being 'street music'. This is really subdued chamber music. In the liner notes, Lavelle is humble about his skills on the piano. And he shouldn't. It's the music that counts, and both artists have this natural sense of lyricism, of interplay and of soulful delivery, that their ensemble playing, in all its gentle interaction is a real pleasure to listen to, again and again. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Cooper-Moore & Stephen Gauci - Conversations Vol. 1 (577 Records, 2020)

Let's stay in New York. The title "Volume 1" already indicates that more is to come, and that is great. This intense duet of two of New York's free jazz mainstays is worth listening to. They developed their collaboration while performing weekly during a seven-month residency at the HappyLucky No. 1 Gallery in Brooklyn. The improvisations vary between high energy and more sensitive moments, with each track having its own character. 

The music is also released as a vinyl LP. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Marina Džukljev & Mia Dyberg - Circumscription (Self, 2020)

Another lockdown success. A duo performance created over the internet, with Danish saxophonist Mia Dyberg based in Berlin, Germany and Serbian pianist Marina Džukljev based in Novi Sad, Serbia. The entire album is fully improvised, which seems surprising at moments because of the quality of the interaction and the almost simultaneous co-creation. Both musicians describe their music as a diary of the lockdown. Even if some pieces are sad, other ones are more joyful and positive. A good remedy of positive thinking. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Frank Gratkowski & Elisabeth Harnik - Burrum-Bah (Sound Out, 2020)

The album consists of two long improvisations by German saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik. The first one is called "Macropus Giganteus" and the second is called "Cacatua Galerita", two animals who live in Australia where the album was recorded live in February of this year. The album title means "Where the kangaroo, the wallaby, bounces over the rocks". Both tracks are around 12 minutes long and are intense, nervous, agitated, with some moments of calm. It's difficult to make the link between the music and the titles (is it evocative of nature?), but that makes the music not less rewarding. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Alexandra Grimal & Giovanni Di Domenico - Down The Hill (Self, 2020)

French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and Italian pianist Giovanni Di Domenico have performed and released albums over the years, in different ensembles. This is their third duo album, after "Ghibli" (2011) and "Chergui" (2014). The two musicians continue their journey of rather accessible explorations of folk themes. The music is friendly and welcoming, yet it has character. Both musicians have a sensitive and even romantic approach to their music, but without being cheap. The music has a rare sense of innocence that is sincere, charming as well as convincing. Next to her excellent work on the soprano, Grimal also treats us to her worldless singing which even accentuates the overall atmosphere of clarity and sensitivity. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Jan Klare & Wolfgang Heisig  (Umland, 2019)

German artists Jan Klare on alto sax and Wolfgang Heisig on piano give us their rendition of the music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who "composed for player piano by progamming sound events via punched paper rolls. He was one of the first composers to use the technical possibilites of mechanical musical instruments making them play far beyond human performance ability", we read on Discogs. These compositions have strange structures and patterns, to the level of even sounding a little insane. Performing them is not a small feat, but the musicians go even a step further by composing their own pieces in the style of Nancorrow. They sound as mad, and they are equally mesmerising because of their insistent rhythmic patterns. Only "Study 4" gives us some breathing space and a jazzy tune. The last track, penned by Heisig, luckily drives us back into maddening rhythms and chords. A pleasure to listen to. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Renê Freire & Thelmo Cristovam - Lobo Temporal (Antena Art, 2020) + Renê Freire & Thelmo Cristovam - C-Agardh (Fictício, 2020)

We receive two albums by Brazilian musicians Renê Freire on piano and Thelmo Cristovam on sax. Both live and work in Pernambuco, in the north eastern region of Brazil. Interestingly Cristovam has an academic background in physics and mathematics, and he is also a researcher in psychoacoustics. Unpredictability and uncertainty may define our physical universe at the deepest levels, and so is this music. The music is restrained and even intimate at moments. Freire's approach to the piano is anything but jazz, with classical references, and sometimes closer to the sound of harpsichord than a piano. Except for "Insania", there is almost no raising of volume or noise to detect.  The second album is an EP with two short pieces. 

Their music requires to be discovered. It's not often that we get avant-garde improvisation from Brazil, so we hope to hear more. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp and Bandcamp.

Matana Roberts & Pat Thomas - The Truth (Otoroku, 2020)

Pianist Pat Thomas is possibly best known from his collaborations in the London free improv scene, linked to the Cafe Oto, and reviewed on numerous occasions on this blog, but he has also a more jazzy side, as testified by his recent solo album of Duke Ellington compositions. On this album too, and possibly because of the presence of Matana Roberts on sax, the interaction is free in spirit, open-ended in their journey, but solidly anchored in jazz idioms, the rhythms, the phrases, the harmonies. Matana Roberts thrives by the interaction with Thomas, creating wonderful jubilant, playful, angry or moaning tunes, navigating with dexterity the sudden changes and new ideas in the pianist's approach, while managing to keep the continuity in her playing. The long last title track is a good example of this, and by itself already worth the purchase of the LP. 

Strong stuff. 

Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell Duo - Spiders (Out Of Your Head Records, 2020) & Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell - 1 (Screwgun, 2020)

The duo of Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell offers us abstract and often complex modern music, improvised around composed themes and structures, with many stylistic influences and variation in the tracks. The album was already reviewed by Gary Chapin. Interestingly enough, Tim Berne releases another album with a duo with Matt Mitchell, but then recorded in 2010, on his own Screwgun label. This is possibly their first recorded collaboration. Other duo albums include "Førage" (2017), "Angel Dusk" (2018). 

Both are worth checking out. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp and from Bandcamp

Ingrid Laubrock & Kris Davis - Blood Moon (Intakt, 2020) + Ingrid Laubrock & Aki Takase - Kasumi (Intakt, 2020)

Not to forget, Ingrid Laubrock released two duets with pianists this year, one with Kris Davis, the other one with Aki Takase, both on the Intakt label. Matthew Banash already reviewed both albums here. Just to remind you to listen to both albums, as they are a little special. Playful, light-hearted, with lots of ear candy. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp and Bandcamp

Hugo Read & Thomas Rückert - Sirius Variations (Kreuzberg Records, 2020)

Both Hugo Read on soprano and alto, and Thomas Rückert on piano present a very serious, austere and refined album. Their technical skills on the instrument are excellent, but it's all a little bit too polished to my taste.