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Friday, April 30, 2021

James Brandon Lewis' Red Lily Quintet - Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms, 2021) ****½

By Kenneth Blanchard

One of my few memories from South Elementary School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was watching a film about Dr. George Washington Carver. Carver was the genuine Renaissance man. Born the legal property of another man, he was four years old (or so) when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. He studied music and art, and then agricultural engineering. He is most famous for advancing the use of peanuts as a crop to restore exhausted soil. Here is a man.

He was a frequent subject of heroic paintings. It is doubtful, however, that anyone can ever produce a more beautiful tribute than James Brandon Lewis has in Jesup Wagon, his recording for the new label TAO forms. The latter is out of the gate with such artists as The Ivo Perelman Trio and Matthew Shipp.

Lewis composed the music and plays tenor saxophone. Most of the compositions are centered on dialogues between his sax and Kirk Knuffke on cornet. William Parker, in my opinion one of America’s greatest living jazz composers, plays bass on two tracks. Chris Hoffman is on cello. Chad Taylor plays drums and Mbira on one track, a traditional instrument from Zimbabwe that looks like a set of table knives packed for travel and sounds like a miniature metal drum.

The jazz is simply exquisite. Each theme is richly romantic and follows traditional form: the theme stated and used as portal to new realms of design space. Lewis’s horn reminds me of David Murray in albums such as Ming and The Hill. If you like Murray, you’ll like this.

Listening to “Fallen Flowers,” a call and response theme, did that avant garde thing to me, that feeling I had found it. There is a moment when a phrase that you expect will be played by a horn is instead articulated by the cello. That is a mark of genius in leader and composer.

If the former composition demonstrates Lewis’s surgical skills in the tissue of the human heart, the next one, “Experiment Station,” presents the raw power of his horn. Here is the hard boil of edgy jazz. The next cut, “Seer,” feels more in the mood of a church service. The mbira is a constant reminder of where we all come from. The last cut, “Chemurgy,” a term for the industrial use of raw materials, is a metaphor for jazz itself with an explicit Ornette Coleman vibe.

Did I mention that I liked this album? Don’t miss it.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Ayler Records is Back (Part 1)

By Nick Ostrum

This is part one in a two-part series. The second installment will run in a few weeks.

Ayler Records is back. After an encomium here on FJB and a year of inactivity, the label returned in 2020 and, since then, has already released six albums, with a couple more in various stages of production. Simply put, the label picked up right where the label left off, almost as if there were no hiatus at all. Much of the recent releases are not really jazz or free jazz, though they all lay somewhere on the musical fringes. Taken together, these releases point to interesting and unpredictable things to come for a label that has become increasingly dedicated to documenting a truly eclectic French scene, with, in a nod to Jan Strom’s original project, the occasional American release to keep things fresh, rooted, and trans-Atlantic.

Here we go, from the top.

Frederick Galiay – Time Elleipsis (Ayler, 2020)

Time Elleipsis comes across as a Theravada-inspired suite, wherein each track covers one section of an epic narrative of creation and destruction, or, at least, the return to such ontologies through ritual. Frederick Galiay is the director, composer, and bassist, and is joined by a line-up that, in their somewhat heavy instrumental arsenal, speak to the doomy art-rock that follows: Antoine Viard on electrified baritone saxophone. Jean-Sébastien Mariage on electric guitar, Julien Boudart, analog synthesizer, and Sébastien Brun & Franck Vaillant on drums acoustic and electronic percussion sets.

What unite Time Elleipsis are the persistent dark aesthetics frequently resting upon an undulating, engine-like thrump. Over this, heavy progressive metal drumming gives way to slow, hazy spacious environments informed by Galiay’s 2019 residency in southeast Asia. Glitched out distorted guitar shines at points, but, despite some violent thrash, is only able to break free from the ambient bass and synth morass for a few minutes at a time. Then, the beautifully dark guitar, plucky electronics and multihued drone seep to the fore. Admittedly, the drum-forward sections and guitar contortions are some of the most attention-grabbing. The potency of this release, however, resides more in its plodding gravity and the ways in which its focus on tonal decay and refraction contribute to a sense of suspended time. A sleeper hit from 2020.

Pinkish Black and Yells at Eels – Vanishing Light in the Tunnel of Dreams (Ayler, 2020)

I am a big fan of the González family and, really, everything they have released on Ayler. With the dark psychedelia of Pinkish Black, however, this is somewhat different from Yells at Eels’ previous classic free jazz reprise output. In short, I really dig it. Beyond those few words, I defer to Stef and his excellent assessment of the album from the middle of last year.

Eric Brochard & Fabrice Favriou – Derviche (Ayler, 2020)

This one might normally be a stretch for the blog, but that is hardly a criticism. It is more of a testament to the way Ayler Records has opened itself from its early mission to archive clunky Scandinavian and American free jazz.

Derviche is conscientiusly repetitious and gradually accumulative. Brochard and Favriou’s loops repeat, layer, and distort for an entrancing 7-14 minutes, but feel like they could do so endlessly. What is more, it rocks. Rather than the jazz tradition, Derviche seems more at home among the slow, ritualistic doom of fellow Frenchmen Aluk Todolo, the distorted incremental punk-rock drone of Dead Neanderthals (especially evident in Sequence IV and V), and the progressive instrumental post-rock of Mogwai and Godspeed!. This album really grew on me and, if any of the aforementioned projects or Utech Record’s recent output are your thing, I highly recommend checking this one out.

Sylvaine Hélary – Glowing Life (Ayler, 2020)

Ayler has been experimenting with less-conventional line-ups since Stéphane Berland took the reins in 2009. On Glowing Life, composer, leader, flutist, and vocalist Sylvaine Hélary is joined by Antonin Rayon on Hammond organ b3, Moog synth, piano, clavinet, Benjamin Glibert on electric guitar, electric bass, and Christophe Lavergne on drums. A perfect storm of musicians for a weltering of progressive freak rock fusion.

Somehow, I prefer this to Sylvaine Hélary’s deeply inspired Spring Roll|Printemps, which was conceived and recorded in response to the waning of the Arab Spring. Glowing Life has a stronger art-rock vibe, channeling, as the liner notes aptly attest, Henry Cow, Robert Wyatt, Arto Lindsay, and Stereolab. Add Zappa and whoever pioneered minimalist contact mic gargling to the list, and I think we are almost there. Naturally, there are jazz elements, but, again, this reaches far beyond that tradition. Hélary’s compositions are catchy and jumpy, and as much as the instrumentation drives the music, her vocals shine. Most of the lyrics are French and, therefore, sound sweet but inscrutable to me. The final track, Where It Begins, however, derive its lyrics from the PJ Harvey poem of the same name. What is not to like?

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Microtub - Sonic Drift (Sofa Music, 2021) ****

 By Eyal Hareuveni

Microtub claims to be the first and most likely the only ensemble that plays microtonal tubas - British Robin Hayward on the microtonal F tuba, and Norwegian Peder Simonsen and Martin Taxt on the microtonal C tubas. This trio explores just intonation and the rich harmonic potential of the tubas and creates high nuanced and highly resonating drones that create the elusive sonic sensation of “doors of the underworld slamming”.

Sonic Drift is the fifth album of Microtub, and recorded at Studio Paradiso in Oslo shortly before the European-wide lockdown started in March 2020. The title piece corresponds with the trio’s previous album, Chronic Shift (Bohemian Drips, 2019). It was originally composed by Hayward for the Bohemian Drips festival and performed at the Großer Wasserspeicher (large water tower, a circular tower built to supply Berlin’s population over 100 years ago) in Berlin in June 2018 and was inspired by the exceptionally long reverb within this unique acoustic space. “Sonic Drift” is an evolution of “Chronic Shift”, developed through the process of live performances but still drifts and rotates through ‘neutral’ harmonies based on the 11th, 13th and 29th harmonics and subharmonics contained within the microtonal tuba tunings. The three microtonal tubas sound like one, sonic entity, sending meditative reverberations and overtones that offer a profound and immersive listening experience. Try to imagine yourself floating in the Großer Wasserspeicher space, gently caressed by the microtonal tubas harmonics subharmonics.

The second piece “The Pederson Concerto” is a collective composition by Microtub. It uses multiples of the 7th and 11th partials to create detuned perfect fifths and fourths, along with the unusually flattened minor third ‘169:144’. The piece features Simonsen oscillating through the brief intervals and triggering the other two players, using the electronic sounds of a Moog synthesizer. This delicate tension between the revelations sounds microtonal tubas and the subtle and almost transparent undercurrents of the modular synthesizer add a mysterious aroma to the extraordinary complex but always arresting deep tones of Microtub.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Andrzej Przybielski & Oleś Brothers - Short Farewell - The Lost Sessions (Audio Cave, 2021) ****

 By Stef Gijssels

In 2011, shortly after Polish trumpeter "Major" Andrzej Przybielski's death, the wonderful album "De Profundis" was released, a trio with the equally virtuosic Oleś brothers, with Marcin Oleś on bass and Bartłomiej 'Brat' Oleś on drums. It was only their second trio album after "Abstract", from 2005. Both albums come highly recommended because of the sheer musical and instrumental mastership of the three musicians. They feel each other, they share the same notion of jazz and improvisation. 

Now, ten years after Przybielski's death, this equally beautiful album finds the light of day. The album is even more special because the material was thought to be lost. The trio had a joint session in 2003 in a studio. Brat Oleś started talking to the studio people, and amazingly enough, some of the pieces were still found on tape. Not everything, unfortunately, and of some of the improvisations only traces were left on the tape. 

As a result, the album contains five tracks of less than a minute, excerpts of longer pieces that have been lost to humanity. Luckily that leaves us with six tracks that are a little bit longer, and one track of a full twelve minutes. The drummer managed to recreate with all the bits and pieces an album that can stand on its own. Przybielski was a colourful figure, a man who did not believe too much in rehearsing, who trusted his own skills and especially the skills of the people he performed with to do what was needed to make something meaningful. 

The outcome in the great presence of the Oleś brothers is also easy to recommend. This is free jazz, with all its nervous energy, its dynamic interaction between highly skilled instrumentalists, its warm feeling and sense of pulse, its creative possibilities of freedom to go wherever you want and still stay focused. The trumpeter's sound is unique, and the rhythm section of the Oleś brothers has been lauded before. The combination is a true joy to listen to. 

"A Short Farewell" is what it says. A far too short album that gives another farewell to the great trumpeter, ten years after his death. But it exists, and it is excellent. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Monday, April 26, 2021

Some Recent Solo Percussion

By Nick Ostrum

Scott Clark – This Darkness (Out of Your Head Records, 2021) ****

Apart from a few references on OOYH materials (he is involved with the label), I was largely unfamiliar with Scott Clark’s work. A quick search online, however, shows the drummer and composer has released a few albums as leader for Clean Feed (Bury My Heart and To Now), and he seems to have another ten or so releases under his belt. He is young, but seasoned. And, as This Darkness reveals, he has a striking musical maturity, evident in his patience and precision.

The Darkness is a departure for OOYH, which hitherto has released numerous more straightforwardly “free jazz” and contemporary composition/improv releases. On this album, the track titles are an excerpt from a Rilke poem, “Let this Darkness Be a Belltower,” a poem about perseverance and adaptation, finding one’s self and purpose in a period of gloomy uncertainty. The titles read: “Quiet friend/who has come so far/let this darkness/be a belltower/and you the bell.” Quite fitting for this loose verbal score, The Darkness is an album of gloom and gloam, but also of discovery and, toward the end, something approaching clarity. The sonic range extends from Quiet Friend, who evokes Kraftwerk’s quirky techno-ritualism to minimalist metallic clang and drum-set scrapes, rattles, and thuds to the final track, And you the Bell, which consists of tempered full-set work. As many solo percussion albums, The Darkness narrates a story, or trace a journey, in this case through tenebrous spaces.

The quarantine inspiration may seem obvious. However, recorded a year too early in May 2019, This Darkness seems to speak either of a more personal and intimate experience of the lugubrious, or of a wider, non-Covid shadow cast across the land. Either way, cue that fatalistically optimistic epic line from New Speedway Boogie: “One way or another, this darkness got to give.” This Darkness seems to be making a similar statement of resigned resilience albeit in a more abstract, amelodic shape.

This Darkness is available as a digital download and vinyl, which is currently being pressed.


Susie Ibarra – 7.11.19 (Otoroku, 2020) ****½

I had not listened to any new Susie Ibarra material since the mid-2000’s, when she went on hiatus from recording. A quick internet search indicates this break was brief, and, by the mid-2010’s, she was back on the scene. (Incidentally, this is around the time I caught her and Evan Parker on a magical night at the old Stone.) Ibarra had always stuck out to me as a drummer of unusual vision in the free jazz world. She had the chops, but she always seemed to be pulling her drums into a more progressive (prog minus the rock) direction than many of my favorite drummers who were happy to keep digging deeper into the jazz and clangorous avant-garde traditions.

Like Clark, Ibarra seems more interested in the development of the piece than virtuosic eruptions or catch-all machine-gun strafe. Instead, 7.11.19 undulates. I have listened several times now and the 40-plus minutes fly by. Or rather, time stretches. Or, something happens wherein I simply get lost in the performance. 7.11.19 has a time bending ceremony to it, but Ibarra takes the performance beyond the conventional repetition and layering with playing that is subtly commanding and varied, and affecting. This is no small feat. Although I love the idea of isolating an instrument and pushing it to its limits, solo percussion albums often appeal to me more in theory than in practice. Despite some strong efforts (and too many exceptions to name), they too often fall into the background for me after a few listens. This is not the case with Ibarra. She plays with unwavering concentration and meticulous attention to the details of textures and timbres that is all the more impressive given that, as far as I know, this is improvised. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly Ibarra does differently than others, here. Maybe it is her confident restraint, and attention to bricolage as process rather than product. Maybe it is her still firm free jazz chops, which inform her playing more than adorn it. Whatever it is, Ibarra’s got it. Just take a listen.

7.11.19 is available as a digital download via the Otoroku shop.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Notes from a Live Stream: Featuring Paraphrase (Berne/Gress/Rainey)

This was how it ended. Paraphrase live streaming from SEEDS: Brooklyn

By Gary Chapin

Why is there no sound! Wait. I forgot to turn off the mute. A fitting way to begin a live stream at the end of Year Zoom.

Paraphrase is the improvising trio of Tim Berne, Drew Gress, and Tom Rainey. It’s a trio that I’ve enjoyed somewhat for years, but have always cast it as an oddity. One of the things I love most about Tim Berne (and I DO think of it as a Berne group, even though it is a collective … I apologize) is the compositions and this is Berne without the compositions. It’s not a huge barrier or anything, just a bias that I’m pointing out.

This afternoon (4/22/2021), streaming from SEEDS: Brooklyn, Paraphrase played an almost uninterrupted hour. I took notes during the hour! Note that the time stamps you see are not necessarily when things happened, but when I noticed they were happening. At the beginning, I notice Berne has a pretty impressive white beard and mane. Rainey is masked. Gress is wearing the beanie and the bass practically obscures him from view. It all begins slowly, like they’re getting on a speed ramp, gearing up for the highway.

At the 3:11 mark, Rainey is using his flat hand on the snare and brushes for the cymbals. Gress is plucking half and whole note drones (I actually don’t know if they’re half or whole, just that they are long). And Berne is building a mid-tempo melody out of short (less than bar length — if there even are bars), repeated figures. I know I’ve been listening to more than my fair share of Berne this year, but his improv style feels so idiomatically his. He’s got a unique, unmistakable voice.

At 6:18 we have been whipped into our first frenzy. It’s pretty quickly ratcheted back. For a while there’s a minimalist, medium tempo even vibe going on. Gress and Berne mirror rhythmic figures between them (if not the actual melodies).

At 8:36 Rainey is playing all the cymbals all the time, including the high hat. A shimmer settles into the space. Then the bass drum punctuates— dropping bombs? Then the snare. Each piece of the kit being given its own chance to make an entrance.

After a bass drum duet around, some steam starts to build ( 12:08). Berne comes in repeating a figure from before. A nice callback. Small spasms of post-bop phrases pile one on top of the other. The density and the dynamics escalate. at 14:40, Gress is bowing, Rainey sustaining patterns. Seven consecutive hits on the snare with two sticks ! Tension is building!

At 15:29 they go off the cliff. Berne and Rainey fall into a quieter space. Gress continues to bow, but what had been a support for chaos now becomes the ground on which the trio builds ritual space. Bernes tone raises into the highest octave, right on the edge of decay, some high squealing, before he heads into the lower, warmer registers. Rainey drags the sticks on the cymbals for quiet screaming.

17:30 , the harmonies implied by Gress and Berne’s interaction are unnerving.

Let’s stop for a minute and talk about this phenomenon that happens a lot in improvised music — building to a frenzy, pulling back, building to another frenzy. I remember a conversation I had with Marilyn Crispell nearly thirty years ago where she told me that the challenge of playing completely free music was trying to break out of the oscillating cycle where the only things that get varied are texture, tempo, and dynamics. Clearly, I think she was able to cope with and conquer that challenge. But it is why I tend to appreciate the composers in “free music” or folks like Butch Morris and John Zorn who come up with strategies to allow storytelling and freedom to coexist. Still, the rise and the fall happens four times in the hour with Berne, Gress, and Rainey. It’s a thing. It happens.

At 26:01 Rainey and Gress duet, but it’s really a showcase for Rainey. First there’s a kind of madness. “The quality of percussion is not strained, it drops onto the world …” Then silence and I wonder if it’s a break, but it’s not. Rainey begins to rattle his sticks, creating a found sound situation. Then punctuates with points on the xylophone (or glockenspiel, couldn’t tell).

31.05 sees a good dose of the skronkity-skronk. This is not a noise group, by any measure. Paraphrase never overdrives the headlights. They do have their moments of reckless abandon, but not too reckless or too abandoned.

At 34:34 the ensemble is so of one voice. When they are together like this it’s like a fire. When a fire starts in a room it begins in one small space. Spreads to other items. Then to the walls or curtains. Then it climbs to the ceiling and explodes across the ceiling and suddenly the room is on fire!

So, at 37:16 you pray. I don’t know what makes this section seem prayerful, but it is.

Berne plays a solo at 39:06. He is so very good at this, creating melodies. It begins diatonically. A child could sing this. But it doesn’t stay there. Worlds within worlds.

At 50ish I realize we’ve entered a train rhythm of sorts, and the group winds down, first in volume, then in pace. Then they stop. Berne checks the time and says “We’re going to play a four minute and forty-six second song to fulfill our contractual obligation.” Which feels like a very Tim Berne thing to say. Then they play for four plus more minutes, a knotty conundrum of an improvisation that is completely unrelated to what went before. The well of invention is not dry for Paraphrase, but the stream did, as it ended mid-phrase.

This pandemic can go feck itself, but I am glad of the live streams it has produced — I’ve watched lifelong heroes from France, England, Brooklyn, etc. — and I will be sorry if they end. Even so, there aren’t many and they don’t seem to be scheduled far in advance.

A few upcoming streams:

April 25, Tom Harrell live streams from The Village Vanguard, as well as a small library of past streams.

April 28, 3:30 to 4:30 Michael Formanek Drome Trio at SEEDS: Brooklyn

April 29, 3;30 to 4:30 Harish Raghavan Quartet at SEEDS: Brooklyn

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp - Special Edition Box (SMP, 2020) ****½

Hey, does anyone have a Blu ray player I can use?

This slim, attractive box set from saxophonist Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp is, well, quite appealing. The orange textured heavy stock paper box, closed by magnetic clasps, opens to reveal a CD, Blu ray disc, and a substantial booklet by writer and musician Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. While one may wonder if another documentation of the prolific pianist and the preternaturally productive Perleman is warranted, do not think about it for too long, Special Edition Box is limited in number - almost as if they were worried about letting too much goodness out into the world.

Let's start with the booklet: entitled 'Embrace of Souls', it is a passionately written and wonderfully flowing account (kudos to Andrew Castillo's translation) of Perelman and Shipp's musical partnership. Schouwburg, a free jazz vocalist and writer from Belgium, has provided context for the duo's musical connection that mixes personal observation with copious musical insight. Schouwburg convincingly  connects Perelman's continual development to the sound and techniques of John Coltrane, and the duo to precedents like Mal Waldron/Steve Lacy and Veryan Weston/Trevor Watts. He discusses Shipp and Perleman both alone and together and dives deep into the duo's sixteen duo recordings (I think I got that number correct) and touches briefly on several other combinations in which the two have worked. The quote from the booklet's back cover is well chosen: "The two improvised in symbiosis, as if they were bound to each other by invisible physical, mental, and emotional ties, in constant accord, as if neither was playing the role of soloist or backup."

Which is a perfectly good way to describe the recording that comes in this box, Procedural Language. Recorded in early 2019, it is in a way a companion piece to the Shipp/Perelman release Efflorescence Volume 1. Of that 4 CD release, Sammy Stein concurs with Schouwburg when she writes: "There is intuition and sensitivity in the playing, an understanding between the musicians yet many times, the character of each emerges."

It is somewhat challenging to find new adjectives and metaphors for the two musicians and their telepathic connection; yet, it is also tempting to try. From the moment that Shipp appears on track 1, he offers deliberate, wide-apart intervals, to which Perelman joins in with a pleading tone. The two intuit the next steps, but never give into habit or routine. After all, after so many recordings and such a long partnership, just how different can track 1 from Procedural Language be from track 12, or say from 2018's opulent Oneness? I am not sure, but somehow, they are. The same two instruments, in the hands of such consummate improvisors, spark different fires each time. Track 12, by the way, begins playfully, Shipp plays begins with wide intervals, but spicier, and Perleman's scales and runs are coltish.

I continue to scour the neighborhood for a player in order to watch the concert video that comes in the box. It is a July 2019 performance from Perelman's hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil. I suspect it was chosen because it exemplifies the traits that Schouwburg writes about and the effortlessness that the CD demonstrates, but with its own sense of self.

Special Edition Box is limited to 360 pieces, so go quickly to if you want one.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra - Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem, 2020) ****½

 By Stef Gijssels

The Exploding Star Orchestra is one of the many musical faces of Chicagoan composer and cornetist Rob Mazurek. Next to his sober and experimental solo work, he expanded on jazz with his Chicago Underground ensembles and his Brazilian São Paulo Underground adding even more electronics and modern beats. 

The Exploding Star Orchestra is one of my favourite ensembles because of its totally unique sound and approach. Mazurek was once thrown off his feet when he heard Sun Ra perform, impressed by the massiveness of the total approach. The space travel imagery may come from that experience too. Add some modern classical music, some Bill Dixon and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and you have some other inspiration. Despite the influences, the Exploding Star Orchestra is its own thing: tightly composed, tightly arranged, grand in its ambition, grand in its themes, compelling in its rhythms, optimistic in its journey through space, full of wonder about the new discoveries, offering at the same time a trip into humanity itself, and finally you can add some jubilant performances by a great band. 

For this seventh album, the Orchestra consists of Rob Mazurek as director, composer and performing on piccolo trumpet, electronic renderings and modular synth, Damon Locks on vocals, electronics, Nicole Mitchell on flutes, Macie Stewart on violin, Tomeka Reid on cello, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jeff Parker on guitar, Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Angelica Sanchez on acoustic and electric piano, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass, Chad Taylor and Mikel Patrick Avery on drums and percussion, and John Herndon on drum machines. 

The most memorable sounds of the album are Damon Locks' recitation of his texts or poetry that, in its kind of distant and muted sound, almost acts like the Greek choir commenting on the action like in an ancient tragedy. Locks has been part of the Orchestra almost from the beginning, but his impact on this one is more elaborate and more determining. It would have been good to add the texts to the album, and they're also not to be found on the internet, unfortunately. The second most memorable aspect are Nicole Mitchell's beautiful and melodious flute parts, flying high over the complexities of the orchestra, giving the music its signature. There is not much soloing on the album, with the short exception of the guitar or the cornet. This is very much a tight ensemble effort. 

Mazurek himself is the real leader, again delivering stellar and complex compositions, with wonderful arrangements guiding the twelvetet on its spectacular and joyful journey through the universe. Some of the compositions will haunt you for many days to follow, such as the incredibly agitated insistent theme of the title track, wonderfully contrasted by the calm single cornet tones. As usual Mazurek's music is beyond categorisation. It's eclectic but then so inventive and creative that it takes its own incomparable genre. 

I hope will take many more years before the Exploding Star Orchestra reaches the boundaries of our universe. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Workers - Altbüron (Wide Ear Records, 2020) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Workers is a new Swiss, cross-generation, free-improv quartet. The eldest member is soprano sax player Urs Leimgruber Soprano Sax, known from his trio with pianist Jacques Demierre and double bass master Barre Phillips as well as his previous collaborations with sax players Steve Lacy and Joe McPhee and fellow double bass player Joëlle Léandre; in between are alto sax and flute player Omri Ziegele, who collaborated before with Leimgruber in the all- reeds Schweizer Holz Trio (Love Letters To The President, Intakt, 2008) and the leader of Where’s Africa band Flute (1959), Where’s Africa; and double bass player Christian Weber Bass, who collaborated before with Zielgele and his Tomorrow Trio and is known for his collaborative work pianist Aki Takakse, sax player Ellery Eskelin and turntablist, Joke Lanz; The youngest one is drummer Alex Huber, who recorded before with Leimgruber (Lightnings, Wide Ear, 2015), and is the co-founder of Wide Ear Records and the one who recorded, mixed, mastered and produced this debut album of The Workers at bau 4, Altbüron, Switzerland in October 2018.

These highly experienced and strong-minded musicians know the game of free improvisation inside out, from its constant quest to always take risks to its need for deep listening. The 43-minutes piece 'Altbüron' suggests that The Workers are not bound by a distinct improvisation strategy and all four musicians, individually and as a collective, let the music flow, almost naturally and according to its own liquid-kind of inner logic, but they also know how to steer it. This piece begins with an abstract, sound-oriented segment, but soon the profound and poetic conversational interplay of Leimgruber and Ziegele, including Ziegele’s spoken poetry asking the listeners to “Open the door” to the joint - musicians and audience alike - and adventurous journey of free-improvisation. Weber and Huber alternate between coloring imaginatively the nuanced conversations of Leimgruber and Ziegele and acting as the rough, quick-tempered and pushing-forward rhythmic center that abstracts and transforms the implied rhythmic patterns in the sax players playing.

“Nobody said it is is easy / You got to do it /Now”, Ziegele recites mid-piece about the essence of this spontaneous and collective process of music-making, and his flute playing adds Mediterranean folk motives to The Workers vocabulary. The open, supportive interplay leaves generous room for individual solos and emphasizes that the sum of these idiosyncratic musicians is larger than them playing apart. Eventually, when it sounds as if The Workers head towards a powerful and cathartic conclusion, the quartet opts for a surprising and eccentric detour that demands from all four musicians their most inventive palette of sounds. Then, The Workers work on a wild but playful and sometimes even noisy free dance but end this piece with a quiet and meditative coda. Ziegele asks the listener to pay attention to the “Beauty of the stars / The beauty of the mind / The beauty of the flower / We pass by / Without lifting your head”.

Waiting anxiously to see, smell and experience many blooming flowers in the follow-up album of the Workers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Craig Scott's Lobotomy - I Am Revolting (s/r, 2021) ****

By Sammy Stein

Inspired by dissatisfaction with improvised music's transience, Craig Scott has released his second album, Craig Scott's Lobotomy, 'I Am Revolting', a combination of electronica and improvised jazz music. Abetted by a host of like-minded individuals, including Joost Hendrickx on drums, Sam Bell on Batta drums and congas, Michael Bardon on double bass and cello, Johnny Richards on piano, Oliver Dover on clarinets and saxophones, Matthew tiffany on violin, Lawrence Marshall on trombone/Suzaphone and one-man band, John Scully on trumpet, Matthew Cliffe on flute and Craig Scott himself on guitar and drums. Scott also composed the music. 

It is an extraordinary recording, bringing together strong improvisational elements with live recordings of acoustic instruments and field recordings which are assembled and disassembled to create music which Scott describes as a 'genre-defying allegory of our navigation of the digital age - as the lines between ourselves and digital anima become blurred, we are overwhelmed with the exponential growth of information and consensus reality crumbles...'  

The album took five years to pull together and has been meticulously arranged, disarranged and put back together using Scott's own recording equipment. It is available in the form of a pink concrete brain, which houses a USB stick, a limited vinyl run of numbered, lathe cut vinyls, and digital platforms. There are five tracks on the album. The first ' 'I am revolting' is created by percussive sounds over piano, which repeats the motif repeatedly - the sounds at the beginning sounding uncannily as if they originated in a kitchen. As the track progresses, although it repeats, the theme is extended, shortened, and in one place, an almost orchestral interlude breaks complete silence. A series of silences and explosive injections of noise create a disconcertingly engaging succession of sounds, which disorientate and shatter the senses. Ending eerily with birdsong and strange electronic sounds, and what sounds like a chronograph, it is a strange track indeed but also one which attracts you back for several listens. 

'Surfing or Drowning' emerges seamlessly from the first track's ending and is worked around a 7 note motif that is strangely ear-wormish but also irksome - intended possibly. The sense of a laboratory where sound and essences of emotion are put together, taken apart and then reworked to create some kind of amorphous universe, the secrets of which are only known to a few, is uncanny. The sheer differences of noise are incredible. The chaotic ending is tempered by playful piano, which teases the heck out of a few notes. 

'Innuendo and Out The Other' sounds like a standard that has been surgically dissected, the parts re-arranged in random order and re-assembled into a stumbling, careening animal which drips little motifs and phrases as it ambles along. Strange, crude sounding yet also striking. The uneven tempos and time changes work wonders for the temperament. The end portion is manic, energy-filled, and again, the sense of being in a music laboratory is strong. 

'Everyone is Revolting' is noisy, very noisy, yet the noises are interrupted by profound silences. The explosive anarchy of the instruments is overtaken by a sense of disharmony and the sounds being separated, yet conjoined by some cunning alchemist. Amongst the sounds, you can decipher a violin and clarinet in tuneful mood, some sweet birdsong and a regular heartbeat, whilst all around is chaos.  

'Sounds Like You Had Fun Making It' is the strangest shot in the arm. Beginning with percussive sounds, which develop into a rhythmic, marching, brassy opening section, a big band parade and then applause before it speeds up and turns into something of a disassembled hotch-potch which is at once difficult listening and at the same time quite mesmeric. No criterion can be attached or explanation given for what Scott has done to the sounds here. And why would you need to attach a genre to this?  

The album is short but this music has a huge presence. Not for the purist, that is for sure, but for the improvisers who enjoy hearing sounds reworked into something extraordinary, this is one to hear. The human elements of fun, experimentation and a good dose of traditional jazz values are all here within a wrapping of sheer indulgence. Brilliant. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Petter Eldh and Christian Lillinger: Quantum Mechanics with Sudden Interruptions

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (Kaja Draksler/ Petter Eldh/ Christian Lillinger) - Somit (Intakt, 2021) ****½

Koma Saxo – Live (We Jazz, 2021) ****½

These two bands are tied together by the presence of two musicians, Swedish-born, Berlin-resident bassist Petter Eldh and German drummer Christian Lillinger, who together are creating some of the most interesting and insistent music around and doing it from the ground up of the traditional rhythm section of upright bass and drum kit. The two first recorded together a decade ago, in 2011, in a trio with alto saxophonist Wanja Slavin, a group that would later become the quartet Amok Amor with the addition of trumpeter Peter Evans. The bands discussed here are a trio and a quintet, each CD is a group’s second release. Both are mechanically precise, highly inventive and subject to sudden interruption. Rhythms seem to come apart in unsolvable ways only to reassemble unpredictably in short order, somehow in two places at once, as if traditional notions of rhythm had entered the realm of quantum mechanics.

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik ‒ pianist Kaja Draksler, Eldh and Lillinger ‒ assumes the form of the traditional piano trio then proceeds to reinvent it, catching something of the feeling of a roomful of unsynchronized sewing machines.

One of the group’s essential characteristics is insistence, subsuming both repetition and attack; another is dislocation, related as well, as if the intensity of the insistence is slightly unhinging. Together the three musicians insist on something that is simultaneously dislocating and dislocated, moving away from where you might expect it, but also, temporarily, settled, ensconced, placed, where it seems to have already arrived, creating at once a temporal and spatial dislocation that signals a point of freedom in the mechanism of composition and execution.

Its kinship with tradition resides in a certain resemblance to the great early-to mid-‘60s trios of Paul Bley, if Bley had resisted his own fluidity in favor of tighter knots, while eschewing melodists as partners in favor of machines, apparently randomizing ones at that. It is, therefore, a complete update, not only on the Bley model but on the format itself. The knotting is never clearer than on the title track, Lillinger’s “Somit”, which times in at a mere 1’23”, insistently going nowhere, merely repeating, worrying its own knottiness. Within these remarkable relationships of parts to wholes, other tracks stand out as well. Lillinger’s “Membran” is rapid-fire arpeggios that test time as well as confining it, while Eldh’s “Natt Raum” has the melodic feel of an errant national anthem, that is, an anthem wandering in search of a nation. The qualities of energy, fixity, mechanism and mobility seem to arise in new configurations on every track.

Koma Saxo’s 2019 debut was a breakthrough, the combination of a high-energy saxophone-dense free jazz band with Petter Eldh’s extensive studio post-production, so overt as to have the band enter playing backwards. This time the band is, insistently, Live (recorded at the 2019 We Jazz Festival in Helsinki) but is otherwise intact, with Eldh and Lillinger and the returning reed complement of Swedish tenor saxophonists Otis Sandsjö and Jonas Kullhammar and Finnish alto and baritone saxophonist Mikko Innanen.

The band consistently manages to be both precise and explosive from the outset, with Eldh’s “Euro Koma” holding together while on the verge of flying apart, subordinate riffs suddenly emerging, picked up and discarded. Kullhammar’s “Fanfarum For Komarum” combines shifting rhythmic patterns that are at once complex, by turn driving, demonic and playful, while the tenors launch proceedings with an introductory circular-breathing phrase that sounds like a loop from the band’s debut. The mood? It sounds like an Ayler-suffused band that has just been employed by a Caribbean nation to launch a new anthem for a recently annexed ancient Eastern European principality. Is there chatter and laughter in the background? Of course, and there’s even more on the Lillinger-composed “Blumer”. Works from outside the band have diverse sources. The surprisingly lyrical “Waltz Me Baby, Waltz Me All Night Long” was composed by guitarist Even Helte Hermansen for the Norwegian metal band Bushman’s Revenge. The program is capped off by a rousing version of Lev Knipper’s “Stepp, Min Stepp”, also known as “Polyushko-polye” and instantly recognizable whether associated with the Red Army or Swedish college students.

Each of these groups is making an original statement, realizing genuinely fresh musical possibilities. They deserve the widest possible hearing.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Bye Bye Free Jazz Blog by Email

Dear Email Subscribers,

We are very unhappy to report that Google is removing the automated email function from Blogger (which is used to host the Freejazzblog).

Here is what they say:

"FollowByEmail widget (Feedburner) is going away
You are receiving this information because your blog uses the FollowByEmail widget (Feedburner).
Recently, the Feedburner team released a system update announcement, that the email subscription service will be discontinued in July 2021.
After July 2021, your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported."

While the RSS feeds should continue working (we hope, we use those too!), we are unsure if we will be able to re-establish the daily email digest at this time - the previously working solution was simple and free. Damn it. 

So, please make sure you visit us on the site and follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter!

Free Jazz Blog

PS- if anyone has a suggestion how to generate an automated, free email to the list, we're interested!

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Thumbscrew - Never Is Enough (Cuneiform Records, 2021) ****½


By Anthony Simon

We listen to music for many reasons: to relax, for inspiration, to connect to feelings both held deeply within and shared among others—the reasons are manifold. The critically-praised works of Thumbscrew have offered satisfaction in all these ways and more, and they continue to build on their impressive oeuvre with a sixth album of all-original compositions titled Never Is Enough. A widely-revered trio of diverse artistic statements and virtuosic playing, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, bassist Michael Formanek, and guitarist Mary Halvorson each contribute three pieces to this album, recorded during the same sessions that resulted in their brilliant tribute The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform Records, 2020).

Fujiwara’s “Camp Easy” begins the album by conjuring visions of strolling through a grassy meadow, but with a kind of wobbly giddiness imparted by Halvorson’s signature slippery sound. The rhythm has a lumbering propulsion, and folksy melodies feel like warm sunlight on your face. The second track, composed by Halvorson, takes us into driving rock territory, delightfully askew with discordant harmonies from the guitar and a melodic line anthemically declared by Formanek’s electric bass. His excellent double bass playing is frequently featured on this project through inspired soloing, sound mixing that puts his instrument prominent and clear, and the judicious use of electric bass on a couple tracks widens his sonic palette in service of the song. A mesmerizing example of the latter is his brooding composition “Scam Likely,” which has us drifting in an extra-terrestrial sonic drone, sparsely punctuated by sundry percussive taps and textures from the masterful Fujiwara. When Halvorson enters with chiming notes that announce and uplift, the percussion gradually combusts before the song eventually returns to the hazy electric space from which it arose.

Never Is Enough can be challenging in all the satisfying ways that devotees of creative music crave, but its occasional touchpoints in rock’s rhythm and structures will give it an appeal to a wider audience. This music is beautifully communal, with each member equally sharing their unique voice to create an artistic statement that indeed may never be enough.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Ingrid Schmoliner, Adam Pultz Melbye & Emilio Gordoa - Griff (Inexhaustible Editions, 2020) ****½

 By Stef Gijssels

The first track of the album starts with a single repetitive bass tone, played with power and insistency. After 2.30 minutes, a single piano tone brightens the sound of the bass, with ascending notes, after which the vibraphone joins too. The single insistence continues, as does the anticipation and tension. The trio are Adam Pultz Melbye on double bass, Ingrid Schmoliner on piano, and Emilio Gordoa on vibraphone. Gradually the piano and vibraphone chords start moving at different rhythms and instead of emphasising the bass, they now alternate in shifting movements. The listening experience is at the same time refreshing and destabilising, especially as the overall tone gets more dramatic and keeps shifting, slowly moving back to a somewhat altered initial state.

The second track starts with repetitive piano chords, an opening for the other musicians to color the space between, with quiet rumblings, percussions and other sonic bits.

The third track opens with an maddening uptempo neverending circular loop, supported by a slow arco bass and interspersed with high feedback tones. Again, the rhythms shift, and background and foreground switch places. The effect is mesmerising, especially as the density increases and heavy piano chords create a sense of foreboding. The piece turns into an industrial mechanic machine, relentless and tense.

The last track continues in this totally mad intensity of repetitive insistency, and the world sounds different when it suddenly stops. 

The CD also contains a hidden track, called "Which Itch", which I unfortunately do not have.

The trio has managed to create its own personal type of music, merging minimalism with repetitiveness (à la Reich and Glass) and more modern influences from jazz and improvised music. The result is unique and performed with skill.

More than worth looking for.

The titles on the album are based on this poem by Andrew Choate which - I assume - itself is based on the performance by the trio. The bold underlined parts are the titles of the tracks.

Candles Aren’t Water But Still: Drink Drink Drink

We want language to be real, or maybe we just want it to sound real.
Or do we want language to not sound real, but be real, or make real.
Real language is the stuff we hear, they say.
The sound makes it real.
When it goes from real – outside the body – back into the body, via earhair and fleshcushions, more realness.
Undulate with me, but preferably against me.
Reverberate like flesh.
Piano to double bass to vibraphone: which itch, what scratch?
Reverberant bell skin.
Tin rattle pitched to dent.
A new bell, a new skin.
Off-pitch dent muster, creeping plant vine.
Moss on rock.
Rock with moss.
Glow of moss on rock.
Race to slow down, longest.
Growth of fire from two stones.

Music as the ultimate time-lapse sequence.
Real-time zoom-in magnification of infinitesimal to durational.
Shimmering in thanks as response to doubt: now can walk further afield.
Finally unbaffled.

The fatally thankful clunderclap: now a single loose string to tauten or not.
Achieving inexactitude perfectly.
Measures and methods of perfecting inexactitude.
The just-so of an exact presence purring with immateriality.
Practiced polysemy, practical polyphony.
Make a sense to exercise the sensation of meaning.

The how? No please; no thanks.
Pleasure and gratitude are better than that.
Bones are made of flutes not the other way around.
Forget opposites, it’s contradictions in thirds, the better to stick and fit.
The strength of triangles for the ultimate supportive throb.
Candles aren’t water but still – drink drink drink
The moment of losing the intimidation of plants.
An angel made of water lighting candles.
Wilderness of detail delivered in static reframing.
Big, dark, open spaces illuminated with small, light, faint things.
A candle flame always roughly the same size.
But O the shapes.
Half human, half fire.
Half candle, half water.
The parabola of the vital thwack of life.


Friday, April 16, 2021

A Context for Mutual Aid Music

By Keith Prosk

Mutual Aid Music has a history. Its first audible bud might be Battle Pieces from 2015, featuring half of the double quartet from Mutual Aid Music - with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Matt Moran on vibraphone, and Nate Wooley on trumpet - which would continue to develop Wooley’s social music on Battle Pieces 2 (2017) and Battle Pieces 4 (2019). The title, Battle Pieces, still given to the framework notations that constitute Mutual Aid Music, is presumably assumed from the collection of poems by Herman Melville - a Wooley favorite - that calls upon the charity of the national community during reconstruction after the US civil war and notably approaches history not through policy, economy, or tactics but through people and personalities, signaling the intentions of the music. Knknighgh (Minimal Poetry For Aram Saroyan) from 2017 - with Dre Hočevar on drums, Brandon Lopez on contrabass, Chris Pitsiokos on alto saxophone, and Wooley on trumpet - uses a similar approach. And so too does Seven Storey Mountain and its ever-evolving ensemble, perhaps beginning with the first in 2009 but most explicitly in Seven Story Mountain VI (2020), its Wooley-written liners describing the individualized direction, communal choice, and the risks and benefits of challenging the self and the community towards directions new to all. In the 24th, Winter 2020 issue of Sound American, the vital experimental music journal for which he is editor-in-chief, Wooley further expands on the intentions of the approach in “ Social or Mutual Aid Music,” with thoughts on leveraging the natural complexity of the people making this music and their social interactions to make complex music, creating an environment structurally distinct from previous models of improvisation and indeterminacy to cultivate the communication of these people, and illuminating the cardinal moral that the community of an ensemble ought not only make something complex and new but model the society they wish to see, in which power is balanced and the input of all is equally valued. A conversation between Ash Fure and Wooley in the 2021 Winter issue of Chamber Music Magazine expands on this purpose and reveals some recent collaborations that influenced it, including: Fure’s own approach to cultivating the mood, communication, and synergy of people outside of the music to intensify and amplify the immediacy and intimacy of the music they perform; Éliane Radigue’s individualized, mutual, variably-communicated composition style for her occam series; and Annea Lockwood’s openness and generosity to new environments, new events, new sounds, and the personal narratives intertwined with them. Bringing us to the present are the succinct and thorough liners of the release, Mutual Aid Music, which serve as a digest of the context above but I think are too humble in conveying the radical yet simply humane convictions that form the foundation of Mutual Aid Music.

What is Mutual Aid Music? On this release, it is performed by the Battle Pieces quartet, people known for pushing the boundaries of improvisation in music but with strong interpretive capability, plus Russell Greenberg on vibraphone and percussion, Joshua Modney on violin, Mariel Roberts on cello, and Cory Smythe on piano, people known for pushing the boundaries of composition interpretation in music but with strong improvisational capability. The nuts and bolts of notation and process are best described in the liners. But each person receives their individualized Battle Piece, or a framework score, along with additional materials concerning dynamics, timbre, concepts, and other aspects of sound; it’s my understanding that these are conveyed according to the comfort of the individual and the capability of the composer, in traditional notation, text, images, and/or other preferences. Each concerto consists of a Battle Piece, with one person asked to freely improvise their contribution, and the others given the choice to improvise or choose among the additional materials to build upon the framework. Every step of the way, from germ through the moment-to-moments of performance, asks the people to communicate mutually and always requires a choice in consideration of their own needs and wants and those of the ensemble community. It might remain unclear how this structure is much different than other music along the spectrum of through-composition and improvisation or indeterminacy, or how it challenges individuals and the ensemble towards new music but, returning to the primacy of the people making this music, I suspect the ensemble culture and a complicated collective communication outside and through this open musical structure encourage the subversion of traditional models.

Why is Mutual Aid Music? The aforementioned history discusses the intention behind the model, with the assumption that something new and something complex, generously interpreted, is desirable, choosing a solution that tries to avoid tired paths of genre or music theory and build upon the already complex people making the music and their nuanced social interactions. Wooley is quick to point out that the approach isn’t necessarily new, referencing some music of Lester St. Louis and Christian Wolff & Ryoko Akama in “Social or Mutual Aid Music.” Practically, how might this make something new? Using composition or other methods to subvert the personal performance idioms that form in free improvisation is an old issue. While indeterminate events create unique outcomes, the uniqueness of the performer’s language is often muffled if not silenced in favor of the composer’s conditions. Through mutual decisions outside and through the music, Mutual Aid Music strives to equilibrate the power balance between the will of the performer and the will of the composer, as well as the needs and wants of the individual and of the ensemble. It offers comfort in real community and the value that instills in others and the self. So too does the individualized conveyance methods for the sound material. And that’s the difference. Whereas Ornette Coleman suggested using unfamiliar instruments to create pure improvisations or new sounds, and whereas Company dropped classical performers and folk musicians into foreign improvisation environments for something new, Mutual Aid Music offers every comfort capable so musicians can focus all of their energies on the taxing task of actually listening to and engaging with the sounding ensemble community. Not soloing their style, not automatically aping the page, engaging. Rather than agitating people to see what will happen, it tries to provide ideal conditions to grow and develop together, to take risks together.

A lot of the language around Mutual Aid Music is about risk. The Seven Storey Mountain VI liners state “virtuosity is the possibility of collapse;” in the liners for this release, “Mutual Aid Music is as much a conceptual risk for me as a composer as it is a performative one for the musicians;” and in email exchanges with Wooley, “Mutual Aid Music is about the possibility of failure for all of us.” In reference to my own perception of similarities to Sarah Hennies’ treatment of failure - including Monologue for Wooley, the title of Primary Material for Failure One, and the expressed desire to expand the language of the trumpet from something like the theatrical extremes of “singing, crying, screaming, laughing” towards something more like “the sighs, the intimate way we talk to the people we love and are comfortable with, the unintended sounds, the sounds when we’re not being our best selves” “to create the feeling of intimacy in performance that one gets from being in a room with a person humming, sniffing, mumbling, talking about things that are not deep,” “to lift the everyday humanity of the voice by appreciating the profundity of things we take for granted,” and “to find a way to express that kind of flawed humanity,” Wooley says via email that “the virtuosity of failure is something I think a lot about right now, stemming from a questioning of what virtuosity is.” It might be hard to imagine someone collectively considered a master like Wooley could engage in real risk when evaluations of their work are so often laudations, but the feeling is genuine, even wearily saying of the instrument for which he is a leading light, “the trumpet and I battle every fucking day.” I assume the product of virtuosity in a creative field is creation - something new - and new is risky. But community absorbs risk. Like the resiliency of extended family, the collective boon of co-operative models like Catalytic Sound and their answer to Spotify in Catalytic Soundstream, or, conversely, the absurdity of the genius alone, community makes something risky, something new possible through real stability. And I believe Wooley recognizes this, stating in the Seven Storey Mountain VI liners, “It is terrifying to tempt failure in a solo setting, but the act of throwing yourself off a musical cliff within an ensemble takes on a singular dimension: you have to consider that the people around you are doing the same thing. The best way to avoid failure is to embrace those that jumped with you in an attempt to create something buoyant.” So, the natural complexity of the people that make the music and their nuanced interactions, with enough available energy to actually engage, practically necessitate making a music that is complex and new, and the comfort and stability of community create sustainable, reliable conditions for it to happen recurringly.

“The point [of Mutual Aid Music] is to give material in which the musicians make very personal decisions and the social interactions around those decisions make up the structural elements of the music” says Wooley, “it’s really quite messy, but so is any social interaction.” “We are all moving in different directions, with shifting priorities, and rapidly changing perceptions in ways that are profoundly rapid and deeply complex. Let’s fucking celebrate that! How insane! It’s incredible when you think about it.” And I think it’s incredible that Wooley has the ingenuity to tap that endless well of humanity for one of music. All of this is to say nothing of the success of the sound itself, but Wooley has cultivated a musical community of ethics and intention and sustainable development with Mutual Aid Music. Development not just through compounding the personal growth of the musicians already involved but with an eye towards expanding the community. I think that’s something worth celebrating.

Nate Wooley - Mutual Aid Music (Pleasure of the Text Records, 2021) *****

By Paul Acquaro

I think it is easy to get a little intimidated by a new Nate Wooley recording. There is usually a concept that tries to answer a question about the process of creation and creativity that he presents eloquently and humbly, but as a listener you may be inclined to wonder, as I sometimes find myself doing, 'will I get it?'

It's easy to let this happen, but let me say right now, 'don't let it!', especially with Mutual Aid Music, there is no professional development needed to enjoy the music that pours forth from this generous recording. You can just as easily forget discussion of battle pieces and mutual aid, and realize that what the composer and trumpeter has done is entrusted a group of top-notch musicians to co-develop his musical vision by relying on - and sometimes questioning - their musical intuitions. The result, as I have already more than hinted at, is a marvel.

So who here is involved? Wooley plays trumpet and he augments the group that has played on the previous Battle Pieces recordings, namely saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, vibraphonist Matt Moran, with additional piano from Cory Smythe, percussion from Russell Greenberg, and string work from violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts. The aforementioned Battle Pieces group has released three albums to date on Relative Pitch, vols 1, 2, and 4, and following the extensive liner notes, it seems that this enhanced group is building on the currently unaccounted for vol 3. A Battle Piece, as far I currently understand it, draws on composed snippets of music in the service of constructing longer pieces. As Wooley himself puts it, “Mutual Aid Music provides material as a form of limitation that allows the mind to free itself of egoistic concerns, in turn, keeping the players from relying on muscle and musical memory as they enter and retreat from the slowly forming chaos of the group sound." For more context to this approach see Keith Prosk's excellent piece 'A Context for Mutual Aid Music.' For my purposes, what is most important here is that what Wooley and company develop is engrossing from the start to end of this double album.

The album begins with 'Mutual Aid Music I' and over the course of 10 minutes it shifts and morphs in unexpected but inviting ways. Moran's vibraphone and Wooley's trumpet are the first sounds to be heard. The shimmer of the slowly shifting tones of the vibraphone gives the trumpet a supportive and open canvas to work on. One of the pianos slowly takes over the harmonic layer, as Laubrock fills in some of the sonic gaps. Halfway through the track, the cello leads the group to a close after which a new movement begins. Now, the strings are more prominent. Modney's violin skates, scratches, and skips along with the other instruments for a while before the focus again shifts.

I started looking for parallels or obvious structural elements in the set up on the recording and jumped to the next 'disc' (virtually, as I'm listening to mp3 files) to listen to 'Mutual Aid Music I-I' but did not locate them. This version begins with a strong statement from the percussion family, but instead of the vibraphone, it is the crash/splash of a gong, which is then followed by the two strings in an extended duet. The violin skitters across the octaves while the cello provides a shifting foundation of low drones and slippery runs.

Flipping back to disc one, 'Mutual Aid Music II' starts with Laubrock and Wooley edging into the sonic center from opposite sides. They connect with snippets of melody and counter-melodies and eventually are joined by the vibraphone, giving the configuration a unique, floating sound. This piece in particular picks up the tempo with a piano's energetic contribution. To stick to the pattern I've begun, 'Mutual Music Aid II-I' on the other disc begins like a gentle ballad, the piano introducing a gentle melody, to which the violin provides textural plucks and a sonorous improvised line from the cello. Some of the passages on this track grow tense at times, while others introduce more playful moments.

I suppose one could keep flipping back and forth for a bit longer, as there is a lot of music to discover. It is also probably safe to say that there is not an uninspired part of the album over the course of the two discs. So, either the system that Wooley has been developing has worked to great effect or the musicians involved have brought such an invigorating and fresh perspective to the performance that nothing could derail them. I suspect the final output here is a mixture of the two, and regardless of how it is constructed, Mutual Aid Music is a fantastic listen.

Watch a performance at Roulette in NYC: 


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Andrew Barker + Jon Irabagon Duo – Anemone (Radical Documents, 2021)****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Livingon the margins of Europe makes it very easy to miss out a lot of the current interesting stuff happening in the world of free jazz and free improvisation. Especially when we are talking about what has always been (and will be) the nucleus of jazz based music –the live performance- not many artists come to play in a country torn by an endless financial crisis and amoral politicians. I know by fact that many othem would be thrilled to visit by the way…

This would be the case for Jon Irabagon (who plays tenor saxophone on Anemone) if I hadn’t caught, live in Athens, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, a quartet that incorporated all the basic elements of free improvisation and free playing – humor, collectivity and not taking yourself seriously. Even if I haven’t listened to many other of Irabagon’s recordings, this gig made me realize how open, engaging and ready to go everywhere his playing was. I have written before about Andrew Barker (here on drums and percussion) here. His balance between playing freely and integrating parts of the great jazz tradition in his playing adds up to, already, being one of my favorite percussionists in duos with reedists (for example: Charles Waters).

It was about that time that I wrote something about Radical Documents, a Los Angeles based small label that (I do not want to say specializes, I hate this word) focuses on weird sound ranging from acoustic improvisation and experimentation up to free jazz blow outs. For all of you free anything aficionados, I urge you to check out the duo of Ben Hall and Don Dietrich from 2019, some stuff from Crazy Doberman (John Olson from the Wolf Eyes is involved there) and the latest quartet from Fritz Welch, Pat Foley, Andrew Barker and the great Daniel Carter. They are all amazing and worth buying.

What about Anemone though? This four track recording is a free jazz, quite improvisational workout that ranges from noise blowouts up to the almost microtonal percussion work of Barker. The two artists know their way into collective playing, sharing thoughts and ideas, leaving room to each other. But Anemone is not about soloists who also leave space for each other. There’s a constant flow of duo playing (one that could remind us the seminal Rashied Ali/Frank Lowe duo perhaps) that grasps you, leaving you no other choice than to listen and is so relaxed at the same time. I, kind of at least, believe that Barker’s playing is responsible for this. His presence is commanding and crucial to Anemone, but not by getting in they of his fellow musician

There’s a leaderless ethos in all four tracks of the cd –another integral part of playing free. The tenor sax of Irabagon is a treat but you need to listen repeatedly. In the beginning he seems like he is following, trying to bring some melody into his fierce playing, but as the music evolves, one has no other solution than to realize that he was at the front from the beginning, exchanging ideas and energy with the drums. Not so many silences, but a continuous play (and playful) in all four tracks. Go buy the cd, both the artists and the label deserve it.