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Monday, May 31, 2021

Iain Sinclair & London Experimental Ensemble - Dark Before Dark (577 Records, 2021) *****

By Stuart Broomer

Iain Sinclair’s writing is characterized by inspired leaps, often wringing ranges of inference from localized material. During a long career he has moved through artful fiction to undefinable prose works likeLondon Orbital: A Walk around the M-25,Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London or American Smoke, travels in American Beat literature, touching variously on municipal politics, literary history and a personal vision at once acute, occult, arcane, folkloric, cellular and, somehow, of assistance in negotiating the blind alleys and blistering solar flares of contemporaneity. Dark Before Dark has assumed several forms. It began as a short text, subtitled A Brief Account of the Curious Properties and Eccentric Travels of a Whalebone Box (Tangerine Press, 2019), published in a limited edition and now sold out. In 2020 it became material for The Whalebone Box, a free-flowing film, directed by Andrew Kötting, tracing Sinclair’s pilgrimage across England and Scotland. In 2019 Sinclair collaborated with the 13-member London Experimental Ensemble on the performance heard here.

The mysterious box is springboard to an obsessive account of its meaning and history. Made by a Scottish sculptor, the box passes from artwork to mystery, an “animal battery”, a ritual element somehow cursed, a Pandora’s box. It must be carried back to Scotland to be buried on the grounds of a deconsecrated church (“Don’t open the box! Don’t open the box! The horrified cry echoes through the ether.”) It’s Sinclair’s genius to imbue his tale with terror and a simultaneous speculative analysis of the object’s significance. He’s even funny: an incidental 19th century mystic keeps fresh linen and a toothbrush for the returning Christ. In this improvisatory collaboration, Sinclair reads and improvises with the text, moving from straight declamation to fragmenting and repeating its segments and individual phrases. The looming power of the text and its performance mates perfectly with the special gifts of the orchestra. It may be that the transformative, rather than discursive, content of the text makes it particularly apt for collective musical elaboration.

Previously heard in a realization of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (Split Rock, 2018) and a radical reading of Child Ballads (Split Rock 2019), the London Experimental Ensemble is made up largely of veteran participants in Eddie Prévost’s long running improvisation workshops. Among the interactive methods practiced there was one in which a group of three or four members of a large grouping collectively improvised, each gradually ceding his or her position so that another musician might take it, creating a continuous improvisation with an ever-shifting band. The group here assumes the same strategy, creating an improvisation that can adjust readily to Sinclair’s episodic participation, while creating moods of almost supernatural eeriness, transforming their instruments’ sounds and blurring metallic and electronic sounds with abrasive string textures. The group avoids the pitfalls that arise accompanying language. Musical phrasing doesn’t get too close to Sinclair’s own, and the group develops its own contours, a kind of loose shroud as fraught with surprise and menace as Sinclair’s own. The tightrope of marrying improvised music to relatively fixed text mirrors the text’s pulsing connection between anecdote and metaphysical dread.

The composition of the group leans heavily to electronics and strings.

Tony Hardie-Bick plays piano and electronics, while Ken Ikeda and Daniel Kordik play synthesisers; a middle ground is occupied by Keisuke Matsui on electric guitar and N.O. Moore, credited with “guitarism”; Elo Masing plays violin, Jordan Muscatello, bass, and Ed Pettersen, 8-string dobro.

The winds include saxophonist John Eyles, trombonist Edward Lucas and trumpeter Mirei Yazawa, Emmanuelle Waeckerle, voice and amplified wooden flute, singer Yifeat Ziv.

The closest listening can sort out their individual contributions, whether it’s a repeated bass smear from Lucas or a similar bowed low note from Muscatello; the electronic maze that might issue from any and all of Hardie-Bick, Ikeda, Kordik and Moore; or the timeless folk whispers of a dobro. Yifeat Ziv’s quiet phonetic vocal sometimes gathers behind Sinclair’s narrative. You might also distinguish the cries and screams of horns, violins and electronics at word of a box that has caused a tear in the fabric of the universe. Surrender. What matters most is in one of Sinclair’s repeated phrases: “the sounds of the world tearing itself apart.” You’ll hear infinitely more by accepting this ensemble’s complex of pooled resources and shared voices than trying to parse individual instruments amid this ideal hive mind. Whether complementing Sinclair’s narrative or creating dense interludes and adjunct commentaries, the London Experimental Ensemble is in the foreground of large-scale collective improvisation.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

An interview with PEK (Leap of Faith)

Leap of Faith at work: PEK (l), Glynis Lomon (r) photo by Raffi

 By Nick Ostrum

PEK is the indefatigable organizer, the mastermind, the man-of-many-hats and -even-more-instruments, and, ultimately, the driving force behind Evil Clown Records and the Leap of Faith collective. Just since the pandemic began, he has released has released 19 and counting solo releases (among them two meticulously constructed/produced 3-disc sets), two Leap of Faith (LoF) duos with cellist and vocalist Glynis Lomon, two Metal Chaos Ensemble releases with percussionist Yuri Zbitnov and one with Zbnitnov and bassist Mike Gruen and one from his horn ensemble Turbulence. That is not to mention the prolific output over just the last few years by the aforementioned units, various Leap of Faith Sub-units including the massive Leap of Faith Orchestra, his strings-cum-sax ensemble String Theory, his one-off music and spoken word group Axioms, and various other projects that have come into being, sometimes for just a brief spate of recordings and performances, over the last few years. Many of these and future recordings are also livestreamed and archived on the label’s Youtube page.

Amidst all of this activity (in terms of production, about a quarter less than PEK’s annual production over the last few years) and a day job, PEK agreed to sit down and answer a few questions via email over the course of March and April of this year. As you can see, PEK is deeply thoughtful about his music and affably loquacious. Regarding the former point, he assures me that this interview and some of his other ideas conveyed through CD liner notes and periodic newsletters are just the beginning to a more systematic explanation of his musical system (his “Big Idea” as explained below) to be published on the Evil Clown website later this year. I, for one, am very much looking forward to that. As you can see, what we cover below is just the tip of the LoF iceberg.

-Nick Ostrum

FJB: In a discussion we had about the sheer and growing volume of your catalog, you once mentioned that individual releases and performances “are solutions to aesthetic problems posed by big ideas.” What did you mean by this?

PEK: This question goes right to the meat of the matter. I have a very specific response that will take quite a few words to relate, but hopefully will make clear my artistic intent and the processes I use to achieve that intent.

Free Jazz started in the late 50s or early 60s and Free Improvisation a decade or two after that. The original players were looking for a way to make music which does not rely solely on melodic / harmonic relationships in a fixed harmonic rhythm and meter. Over time, a widely-practiced style of improvisation has developed where texture has replaced the melodic / harmonic relationships and action density has replaced regular rhythms as the core organizing principles of the music. This is the Big Idea of the improvisation scene from the 1950s to the present, and many musicians and ensembles have created successful and highly varied solutions to this aesthetic problem.

I have been a student of this approach since the early 1980s when I started listening to Coltrane, Ornette, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, etc. All these artists use preplanned structural elements or even composed Structures at least some of the time. Eventually it became more common for ensembles to improvise without any predetermined Structural elements, I call this kind of playing pure improvisation and it is how I would categorize almost all my music. Merely because there is no preplanning does not mean there is no Structure: Structure is an emergent property of the decisions made by and the interactions between the performers. Chaos Theory describes complex systems such as the weather or the economy where the observable patterns are similarly emergent properties of those complex systems.

I use set theory to think about texture. Timbre Sets are collections of similar sounds from similar instruments (for example, sounds made by the saxophone family of instruments or sounds made by wooden percussion instruments). Sonority Sets are the Set of Sonorities (regardless of timbre) available to an ensemble or a performance (combinations of instruments and timbres). The word “Sonority” means different things to different people and has multiple dictionary definitions, but to me it means the overall effect of the combined sounds from the entire ensemble at some particular point in time or across some particular duration.

In my observation, many ongoing improvisation ensembles establish a fairly consistent Sonority Set which they use across all performances. They work towards complete control of the selected set and refine that sound over time. Lot’s of really great music has been achieved in this way, but in my opinion, there is a fundamental limitation in this approach. Traditional western music achieves Development within the environment of melodic / harmonic relationships by melodic variation, harmonic development, modulation, and other devices which date back centuries. Pure improvisation must achieve Development via other means. Ensembles that make new improvisations on the same or similar Sonority Sets every time make music which is similar over time. Any one performance may be incredible, but the next performance may be very like the previous one in Sonority.

To me, this limitation is overcome when the music Transforms between distinct Sonorities over the length of the work. Skilled ensembles can achieve these transformations within a fairly small Sonority Set by utilizing extended techniques and having each player always focus on the transformations to the overall unit sound. However, a path to the widest possible world of Transformation lies in increasing the size of the Set of musical resources as large as you can to make available a larger number of distinct Sonorities to the Sonority Set. Over the duration of a work following this approach, each section may be comprised of completely different Set of sounds than any other section. Most Evil Clown albums have at least 20 or 25 distinct movements.

So, here is my Big Idea: Assemble a huge collection of instruments and a huge roster of musicians and take fundamentally different sections through these resources for different projects and recordings. The idea of Transformation focused improvisation and the associated performance techniques are the same on different pieces of music, but the Sonority Set is different for each performance due to the Set of resources utilized and the resulting music is therefore different each time.

The first aesthetic problem for me individually is to learn to make as broad a palette of sounds as possible. I play instruments from at least the following Timbre Sets: Saxophones, Clarinets, Double Reeds, Flutes, Free Reed Aerophones, Strings, Electronics, Electro-Acoustic, Wood, Metal, and Membranes. Unlike in conventional Jazz, where I would not use a new instrument until I achieved the significant mastery of the scales and control of the sound to “correctly” navigate the chord changes with “correct” tone, I will use new instruments as soon as I can make interesting sounds. Anton Webern pioneered the idea of klangfarbenmelodie in the early 1900s. Sequences of sounds from different instruments or timbre sets are another method of decoupling Development from melodic or harmonic Structure.

I make a distinction between naïve instruments and instruments that I have formal training on. I studied saxophone and other woodwinds for many years privately and at the Berklee School of Music in Boston from 89 to 91. I play many other instruments that I have not been formally trained on which I categorize as naïve, but this does not mean that I lack a sophisticated understanding of how to leverage and control that instrument’s sound. An example is the Sheng, which is an ancient polyphonic Chinese Free Reed Aerophone. I have had a modern keyed version of one of these since 2015 and was able to use it immediately in my bands at that time. Over the years since, I have increased my vocabulary on this instrument dramatically despite being largely ignorant of the ordinary use of this instrument in traditional Chinese music. My solution to the first aesthetic problem continuously evolves as I acquire new instruments and extend my control and vocabulary on these instruments.

Musical instruments are systems which take in physical input and output sound. Designers optimize the layout of instruments to achieve some goal: For example, scale pattern, drone notes, dynamic responsiveness, polyphonic or monophonic sound, microtonal or continuous pitch, quality of attack and decay, or many others. In conventional jazz improvisation, the player is supposed to understand the scales that are implied by the chord changes and construct improvised melody which fits the harmonic motion: Pitch selection is the most important element of the music, the sound or tone is far less important. In my music, sound is much more important than pitch selection.

Any instrument provides immediate feedback data to the player when it reveals what sound output results from what input. For simplicity, consider just my woodwind instruments: Control of the sound of each instrument is achieved by a whole group of physical inputs which act in concert. Among these are air speed, armature position, throat position, diaphragm backpressure, angle of mouthpiece or air stream, pressure on mouthpiece or reed, and finally, at the end of the list, fingering. I can make dozens of very different sounds on a woodwind without changing the finger position. Some instruments, like a saxophone, have a huge variety of possible sounds while others, like a foghorn, make basically one sound. To me, the aesthetic problem of learning any new instrument to broaden my overall Sonority Set boils down to leveraging the instrument’s physical system and creating a mapping of the set of input techniques to the set of sounds created.

My rhythmic concept uses Phrasing rather than strict alignment with a meter or time signature. I can Phrase equally well to a metered or an ambient environment with no clear beat. This rhythmic concept is transferable across all the instruments I use, and together with the ability to make at least a few interesting sounds on a new instrument, allows me to use most new instruments immediately. Deciding what sound to make and when to place it is a learned skill which stretches across all my instruments. While my control over the new instrument improves over time, I accumulate new vocabulary and can use the instrument for greater stretches of time within a performance.

The second aesthetic problem has to do with ensemble organization. My DIY record label, Evil Clown, produces recordings of my music in a bunch of different bands. These bands are defined more by selection of Sonority Sets than conventional bands which are defined by selection of band members. The bands are all highly modular and have different players and instrumentation for different sessions. Here is a list of some of my ongoing ensembles.

· Leap of Faith / Leap of Faith Orchestra – Core duet of myself and Glynis Lomon (cello, aquasonic, voice) with various guests to make ensembles varying in size from duet to orchestra of 25. This band dates to the early 90s and my association with Glynis a few additional years.

· Metal Chaos Ensemble – Core duet of myself and Yuri Zbitnov (drums, percussion) with various guests. This band features metal percussion instruments and rock elements including grooves which are not present in the other bands. Recently, there is a stable sextet version of this band which has created a sequence of albums.

  • Turbulence – ensembles comprised of only, or mostly horn players who may also double percussion or electronics.
  • String Theory - ensembles comprised of me with string players.
  • PEK Solo – performances by myself with or without studio construction (overdubbing).
  • Sub-Units – performances by a small group of Evil Clown roster members not assignable to one of the other band names.

Each of these “bands” uses a different focused subset of the total Evil Clown resources and therefore creates music fundamentally different that the others. I encourage the other musicians to play multiple instruments and I make the percussion instruments in the Evil Clown Arsenal available to the other performers. The number of different Sonorities available within a performance increases substantially as the number of multi-instrumentalists increases.

The third aesthetic problem concerns output. The whole system is consciously defined to create a great deal of highly varied music which is different in Sonority but shares the same theoretical underpinnings. I think of my work as the collected work of all the ensembles, so I put out on CD and on the net recordings of virtually every session. Interested observers can trace the evolution of the ideas over time and perhaps track back to the Big Idea.

We use a sports clock to track the elapsed duration, so each performance is well timed to fit on a CD (typically, 70 minutes). One session produces one CD’s worth of music, and since the music is nearly always recorded Live-to-2 track, there is a minimum of mastering required. Typically, it should take a week or less to record the music and put it out on bandcamp, YouTube, and Soundcloud, to submit the recording for small run CD production, and to do some promotion on facebook.

The final aesthetic problem in this discussion is performance. Once the players and the instrumentation have been selected for a session, we play the whole duration of the work continuously. Sometimes we discuss the Sonority selection for the opening or the closing of the piece, and sometimes certain sections have minimal preplanning (for example, recent Metal Chaos Ensemble CDs have thematic spoken word sections drawn from movies and literature which are recited during quieter sections). Each performance is a specific and distinct solution to the aesthetic problem posed by the Big Idea and constrained by the decisions made on the specifics of the resources utilized.


FJB: How does the art of the solo performance play into this big picture?

PEK: Solo performance constrains the Sonority Set to resources that I alone use and to me alone as the performer. As with larger ensemble Evil Clown sessions, the planning involves selecting sound resources from the massive Evil Clown Arsenal and setting up the studio with these instruments to allow rapid changes in instrumentation and therefore in Sonority.

The PEK Solo albums fall into four categories:

1) One continuous track (no overdubbing) of PEK playing one or many instruments with or without signal processing.

2) One continuous track of PEK playing one or many instruments with a prerecorded mix of samples drawn from the Evil Clown Catalog or specially recorded at Evil Clown Headquarters. Solo albums from before 2020 fall into the categories 1 & 2.

3) A Quartet of PEKs – Four continuous tracks of one PEK each playing many instruments on each pass. Some of these use broad pallets and some use very focused pallets.

4) An Orchestra of PEKs – Many tracks of PEKs performing on a broad section of the Arsenal.

This system provides a framework to create solo works that are sufficiently different from each other that I can continue to produce new work at something close to Evil Clown’s usual production rate even while I can’t perform with others.


FJB: Since last March, you have released something like 16 solo releases, and several duo and trio releases with a pared-down Leap of Faith and Metal Chaos Ensemble. How has the Covid quarantine forced you to reconsider your approach to music, which previously revolved around a large circle of collaborators?

PEK: As described in some detail above, my basic approach to music is to define a set of resources for a particular performance optimized for creating transformation over time. When Covid came along I cancelled all the sessions for groups. I caught up all my old business: web site, social media, distribution, and the other non-musical activity required to drive the enterprise. Then I took a month off… my biggest rest since I started up in 2015 after my long hiatus from music making to focus on my day gig. In mid-May 2020 I started up again, conceiving some new means of producing some of the enormous output normally achieved by Evil Clown (described in the previous response). In the Fall I did a huge series of solo works along with a few Metal Chaos Ensemble sets with Yuri and Mike Gruen.

Both me and my housemate Raffi are diabetic and therefore at elevated risk from Covid and we have been extraordinarily careful. In 2020, I did a few duets and trios, but when the virus ramped up hard before Christmas, I stopped everything except the solos. You can’t wear a mask and play a horn at the same time.

While the kind of output has changed due to the virus, I don’t think I have reconsidered my approach to music generally in any way. The set of aesthetic problems posed by solo work is a bit different than the set posed by ensemble work. I have simply used my existing approach to solve problems of a specific subgroup of the whole class of aesthetic problems I work on.

In general, I consider pure improvisation to be fundamentally about the moment. As an improviser, I predict and react to the evolving Sonority as I make my musical statements. For this reason, I have always preferred playing music that is performed entirely in the moment with all the players simultaneously interacting. When I have used sampling and electronic transformation of samples in works prior to the virus, I controlled those premixes in real time while the performance of the live instruments is proceeding to preserve the sense of real time decision making.

One thing that I have done, which is brand new since Covid, is to use overdubbing and studio construction techniques to create category 3 and category 4 performances as defined in the previous response. The studio technique mimics the interactions between players in ensemble improvisation with a few key differences:

· The interaction is one way. The current track reacts to the previous tracks and not the other direction.

· The waveforms of the previous tracks are visible in the recording software and provide definitive information about Phrasing that is estimated and predicted in real-time ensemble performance.

· The Phrasing used on the other tracks is my Phrasing. It is super-easy to respond to and match my own Phrasing concept.

· I plan, in advance, some instrument selections based on what has been established in the previous tracks.

· I plan, in advance, opening and closing Sonorities in much greater detail than in ensemble performance.

Unlike studio technique used in rock and other studio recording where one instrument or a small group of instruments are recorded at a time and for small sections of the overall work, I fill the room with instruments and microphones and record the full duration of each track of the work with many instruments serially. This is still very similar to how you perform working in real time with an ensemble.

One impact of the Virus is it has both slowed down my production and increased the amount of time actively spent playing. The studio construction works (Categories 3 & 4) require at least 4 1/2 hours of my performance compared to 70 minutes for a regular ensemble set. Those recording sessions are stretched over days instead of concluded in the real time duration of simultaneous ensemble performance. The Orchestra of PEKs performances have taken as much as a month to do a single disc, since the intermediate mixes used as a basis of samples for the premix are also recorded over days. Since 2015, Evil Clown has generally had over 30 releases per year, instead of just over 20 achieved in 2020.


FJB: To flip the question, what role do you see for improvised music during pandemic and post-pandemic times? How has the meaning, importance, or feasibility of creating such progressive music changed?

PEK: I see the pandemic as a stupid interruption which we simply need to wait out. People need to experience art and some people need to make art (myself included). The audience for pure improvisation is small, but enthusiastic. Improvisation performance is best experienced in person – the music is about the moment, so the audience being present in the same moment matters to their perceptions. They can see the performance actions that result in the Sonority produced which helps many to process such abstract music.

I don’t see a change in the role of music or art of any kind, just a limit on availability. When the Virus is over, live performance will resume and the interruption will be over. One wrinkle for Evil Clown is that Outpost 186 in Cambridge where I have had a monthly residency for years may not survive, or at least not reopen soon. While I search for reasonably priced performance space in the new world, performances will be streamed live to YouTube as often as I can schedule them from Evil Clown Headquarters.

Difficult music challenges public perceptions of “just what is music?”. As with all art, the avantgarde pushes boundaries and broadens art for everyone. This is the important role of progressive music. Access has been interrupted, but the music continues, and its importance is unchanged.


FJB: How have the temporary restrictions on live performances affected your craft and vision?

I love Live Performance. There is a feedback loop between performer and audience that does not occur in other music performance environments. For me, Live Performance forces a narrowing of resources by the amount of equipment I am willing to haul, the space available in my van, and the time available in the venue for set up. This constraint on the Sonority Set focuses the aesthetic problem posed to the performance.

As I have responded to some of the previous questions, different constraints on the Sonority Set in no way change my craft or artistic vision, it merely forces the aesthetic decision making of performance onto a different Sonority Set.

I do miss a real audience, and look forward to performing in public again as soon as it is safe to do so.


FJB: You frequently stream your recording sessions in your studio, creating a virtual live performance accessible via and archived on YouTube and recording of that specific performance. I, for one, have been mesmerized by seeing how you and Yuri Zbitnov navigate your Arsenal of instruments in real-time. What is your objective with offering so many points of access to the performance?

PEK: My main goal is to get my ideas on the record. When I came up in the 80s and 90s, Live Performance was how people consumed your music except for a few CDs you might sell. Now, the internet has completely changed everything, and people have widely different preferences on how they consume music. Back in the day, Leap of Faith would draw a pretty good audience for every performance, but those people would be basically the only ones to experience it: A small group of improvisation fans in the Boston Area. Now the internet provides worldwide exposure, so I try to get my work on as many platforms as possible to spread my ideas as widely as I can. It has simultaneously become much more difficult to put asses in seats for Live Performances. Some fans are YouTube viewers, some download from bandcamp or Itunes, some buy CDs from bandcamp, Downtown Music Gallery, Squidco, Amazon, etc. Some fans stream on Spotify, Soundcloud or other vendors. The way to maximize your exposure to the listener pool is to leverage as many platforms as possible. I keep detailed records tracking the steps I take for each release, to make sure that everything goes on every platform. Generally, those steps for each release should be completed within one week of performance.


FJB: Way back when you released the three-disc Some Truths are Known, I considered it a sort of crown of your recent solo explorations. Since then (July 2020), however, your solo output has more than doubled. And, indeed, recent releases like the dense EAI of Electrolysis, the surprisingly “jazzy” and saxophone focused For Alto: For Anthony Braxton and the somewhat bare and vulnerable Requiem for Raymond are each something different from the cacophony of Some Truths. Then, of course, you released another formidable three-disc solo exploration, Semantic Notions. How has your approach to your solo projects evolved over the course of the quarantine and between projects?

PEK: Some Truths are Known took me almost two months to create. It was the first recording to carry An Orchestra of PEKs in the name of the ensemble, but actually was a follow-up to Schism which was recorded very early in the pandemic before I conceptualized the 4-category system of solo works described above. After Some Truths Are Known, I did maybe 8 albums in 8 weeks in a frenzy of Category 1, 2, & 3 releases. I used some of those releases as the part of the sampling basis for Semantic Notions .

For Alto , Elaborations and a few of the others are category 1 releases which are fundamentally like my solo releases prior to 2020 in execution. Requiem for Raymond was performed a few hours after I learned of the death of my father in September. It is completely different from every other offering in my catalog in that its driver was my profound sense of loss over his passing. Its subject matter was my grief in that moment – generally, my music is abstract – it is not “about” anything in particular. I consider myself to be a cerebral rather than emotional player. Usually, I do not see a correlation between the sounds that I produce and any emotional state. For Requiem for Raymond there was almost no thinking, the sound just poured out and I was completely drained by the end.


FJB: As the pandemic abates, opportunities for collaboration are slowly opening again. Do you have any plans to pick up where you left off, when the Evil Clown collective was set to have its biggest year, yet? Or, has the period of solitude and the hyper-focus on the potentialities of solo work changed the course you see your projects moving in the future?

PEK: I think all the players who were on the scheduled sets that were cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic are eager for more. Evil Clown is a very attractive opportunity for improvisers since I have structured things in such a way as to minimize their effort. All they must do is show up with their instruments and play – I do everything else including all the administrative work that most musicians dislike.

I expect that Leap of Faith, Metal Chaos Ensemble and Turbulence sessions will be scheduled at rate of 3 or 4 sessions a month. While I will continue to do PEK Solo releases, they will probably return to my previous schedule of 2 or 3 a year instead of 20. I miss playing with others and look forward to resuming a full schedule with larger ensembles. My solo albums for the last few years have typically been realized during some lull in the overall schedule.

My housemate Raffi and I will both be fully vaccinated by mid-May. I will open Evil Clown Headquarters to members of the roster who are also fully vaccinated then. Some of the players, like Glynis Lomon and Bob Moores (trumpet, guitar, electronics) are ahead of us, so there may be some duets or trios that otherwise would be larger ensembles at the beginning of the newly scheduled events. For the near term, I will just do Live Streaming to YouTube shows, with Raffi running the 8-camera real-time video mix. As mentioned above, Outpost 186 where I have enjoyed a multi-year monthly residency, is in a dispute with the city of Cambridge and may not reappear for a while or at all. Once we have returned the good old days of willy nilly intermixing with people, I will find a new venue for regular public performances if I need to.


FJB: This may be a naive question but given how much you have been recording over the years and especially recently, it seems fitting. How do you ensure that one album, maybe a given solo release, is not like the others that might have come just a few weeks before? Do you enter a session with preconceived ideas, tonal paths, or written instructions? Are there structured aleatory elements? Or, do you simply let the moment guide you?

PEK: My Big Idea is structured to produce a large amount of distinct works; each is about a distinct moment in time and all the moments are necessarily different. I am constantly acquiring new resources, either instruments or performers, those new resources are used in an appropriate context and lead to a session specific aesthetic problem to be solved in performance. This is my plan, and I think that it works. Most of my fans who purchase downloads and CDs are repeat customers… Once they find out about the music and like something, they try something else, eventually becoming repeat customers when they find the releases they buy all interesting and sufficiently different from each other.

There is one very important Evil Clown project that has not really been discussed in this interview yet, The Leap of Faith Orchestra. For this project, I produce Frame Notation Scores that show the players instructions made up of English language descriptions and simple symbols on a timeline (the ensemble tracks the time on a sports clock). These works address the aesthetic problem of how to have a large improvisation ensemble play a concert length work without becoming total chaos. The Orchestra of PEKs solo sessions address this same aesthetic problem from a completely different angle. Six of these performances occurred between 2015 and 2019 and are documented in my usual places including detailed discussion on my webpage at this URL. These are the only mature works in my catalog that involve detailed preplanning. They are compositions with no melodic or rhythmic information specified, designed to split the difference between composition and improvisation – They also are designed to be performed without being rehearsed beforehand, neatly solving the difficult logistical problems of rehearsing a 25-player band.

There is also a body of 13 LOFO shows (25 CDs) performed at Third Life Studios between 2017 and 2019 which were used to prepare for the scored orchestra performances. Unfortunately, this venue had to close before the pandemic due to unachievable increases in the rent. When that happened I put out a box set which you can check out here. These performances do not use scores but did provide practice at unstructured improvisations with the ensemble size from about 7 to 15. Each show (except one) started with short 15 or 20 minute sets by small Sub-Units of the orchestra (usually trios or quartets).

I have composed a seventh score ( Systems of Celestial Mechanics ) which I plan to mount at some point in the future… There is a lot of advance work to do before I can do that including locating an affordable venue, raising the ensemble, and creating the parts customized for those players. I’d like to get this project up and running on a regular basis again, but it is a huge amount of work for me, and I think I will focus on smaller and medium sized ensembles for a while. Time will tell.

The Orchestra of PEKs solo albums address the same aesthetic problem as the Frame Notation Scores for The Leap of Faith Orchestra: How to ensure music with a really large amount of available resources does not turn into chaos with no Development. The Orchestra of PEKs sets use an entirely different mechanism to solve this problem: Instead of specifying activity on a timeline, I conceived of an algorithm for the steps in the studio construction. Following the algorithm results in a work which is compositional, in that it is planned, while all of the sounds are still improvised

The first step is to prepare Premixes (sometimes as long as the whole CD) of multiple tracks with instruments from the same Timbre Set. These Premixes have used the Timbre Sets of wood instruments, metal instruments, hand chimes, saxophones, clarinets, double reeds, bass sounds, string instruments and others. Next, I select several different Premixes and take samples ranging in duration from about 30 seconds to 10 minutes. I transform these samples on the computer by speeding up and slowing down and moving the pitch up or down. Sometimes I build new Premixes from the samples at this stage to create really thick textures from the samples of the same Timbre Set. Once a set of Premix samples is prepared and selected, I arrange the samples on to a 75 minute or so timeline in the DAW software. This arrangement is a Density Map, where each section of the work has a single Premix sample, a few overlaid Premix samples, many overlaid Premix samples, or no Premix samples. Finally, I perform the full duration of the work multiple times with different instrument sets available on each track. The last pass or several passes are typically mostly horns. I have offered many of the Premixes as bonus download tracks on the releases where they were used. In addition to Orchestra of PEKs sets, I have used this algorithmic approach with Yuri Zbitnov on Don Quixote , a Metal Chaos Ensemble studio duet construction, and we started a second one last fall titled Dante’s Inferno which we will finish when we can resume our work.


FJB: That is interesting about Dante’s Inferno. I have really been drawn to the recent Metal Chaos releases and have found Don Quixote one of the most engaging yet. I imagine the Inferno will lend itself at least as well to the disjointed narration and premixing.

Speaking of recent and upcoming releases, where would you suggest the unseasoned listener just coming to the PEK catalog to start? Are there any individual releases that you feel are more complete or compelling realizations of your aesthetic, or maybe just a good introduction to the Evil Clown universe?

The Evil Clown catalog is wide and deep: According to my master spreadsheet, the total release count as of 4/6/21 is 312. The earliest albums are from 1991 or 1992. I was very active in the Boston Improvisation Scene with Leap of Faith and other projects from that time until 2001. I then took a very long break to focus on my day gig: I was very busy at the job and I preferred to lay out rather than do music with just half my ass. I started up again in 2014, when I spent a few months digging through my DAT tapes of performances and making a bunch of new releases from the Archival period. In January of 2015, Leap of Faith started up again in a quartet version with Me, Glynis, Steve Norton (reeds) and Yuri Zbitnov (drums, perc). Very soon after that Yuri and I started Metal Chaos Ensemble, and the other contemporary Evil Clown Ensembles followed.

So, this question is tough to narrow down to just a few titles, but here are four good recent albums you could start with: One each from Leap of Faith, Metal Chaos Ensemble, A Quartet of PEKs and An Orchestra of PEKs…

Leap of Faith Orchestra - The Photon Epoch (2019): The most recent Frame Notation Score for the Leap of Faith Orchestra performed at the Longy School of Music.

Metal Chaos Ensemble - The Riddle of Steel (2020): The fourth release by the stable Sextet Edition of MCE which features spoken word interludes from movies and literature. This sextet band will be very active again quite soon.

PEK Solo, A Quartet of PEKs - Strange Beauty Out of Chaos (2021): This set just finished on 5 April uses the quartet concept on a very broad palate.

PEK Solo, An Orchestra of PEKs - Semantic Notions (2021) : A four-hour studio construction in three 80-minute movements on 3 CDs.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Leap of Faith - Principles of an Open Future (Relative Pitch, 2020) ****

Where to start with a review of Leap of Faith? The group, the orchestra, the one man band, the duo, begins with woodwindist David Peck aka PEK and spirals forth from his home base in Boston. PEK identifies with fractals, as far as I know, it is the motif of all his many archival and more recent recordings. I think that it serves as a strong metaphor for his musical relationships and prodigious output. As for the mathematical explanation of a fractal, I recommend starting perhaps with Wikipedia, I'm not going to be able to do any justice with that. For my purposes here, I'm sticking to the iconic visualizations that capture broadness, specificity, flatness, and infinite depth.

This branch of the fractal, equation, subset what have you, is the core of Leap of Faith, a group that PEK and co-conspirator Glynis Lomon have been working with since the 1990s. The group has been documented in many formulations: trio, quartet, orchestra, but rarely as a duo. After long term percussion Yuri Zbitnov exited the trio last year, it seems that LoF decided to stick to these roots for a bit. This is also where Kevin Reilly and Relative Pitch Records appears: Reilly, a long time supporter of LoF offered the chance for them to record as a duo and release on it the Relative Pitch label, which is, as far as I know, is the first time LoF has recorded outside PEK's own Evil Clown label.

I kind of wonder why it took so long. It was Reilly who first introduced me to the work of PEK and LoF in an email that I somehow vividly recall while waiting for the train to New York City from Commuterville, NJ. Now years later, I have reviewed several of LoF's recordings and other colleagues from the blog have picked up on them as well. I kind of see it as a fractal of influence, a spreading of colorful musical ideas.

Principals of an Open Future - a hopeful title and one that seems applicable to imagining both a world free of authoritarian figures and one of infinite musical possible, stretching out with fractal intensity - begins with some percussion. The group, as mentioned earlier, is the duo of PEK on clarinets, saxophones and flutes, and Glynis Lomon on cello, aquasonic and voice. The percussion, if you ever see a LoF concert, you know can consist of everything from tiny bells to sheet metal (here, I think PEK may be playing a radiator), sets a ground layer. Sounds begin swirling around until an organ appears - or maybe it's not an organ at all, it's hard to tell. It is playing atonally, or rather, mutli-tonally, or maybe the idea of tonality needs to be stretched and folded on itself a bit too. It is a conversation between two absolutely free thinking musicians with a long history of collaboration, it hardly needs a set up or scaffolding, rather the scaffolding is real and PEK has appropriated it into his set up! About five minutes in, we hear the two core instruments: woodwinds and cello. I think it is a bass clarinet, woodsy and resonant, delivering sonorous lines. The cello scrapes and slides, glissandos and elongated tones slice through the air. Then in the middle of this first track, percussive tones and chimes and wordless vocals provide a break and then a renewed sonic direction.

The title track, which is 35 minutes (the first one, 'Changing the Basis,'  was also 35 minutes, you get your money's worth here!), starts off with an unusual percussion and cello interaction that is simultaneously abstract and compelling. When PEK returns to woodwinds - this time I believe a Bb Clarinet - the mix with Lomon's cello, it feels natural, like a stroll through their collective subconscious, where dissonances do not jar and consonances just happen. Some lovely, expressive passages begin around the 7-minute mark and continue for a long while.

It would require an even larger fractal of words to describe the music in technical detail, which is okay because this is emotional music anyway - it is better to enjoy in its fully expanding, contrasting, folding, and unfurling colors and textures. The world of the Evil Clown: Leap of Faith duos, trios, quartets, orchestras, percussion duos, and solo woodwind is just as rich of an experience, beautiful and terrifying at turns. It's there for you to explore and Principles of an Open Future is a great place to begin.

PEK Solo, A Quartet of PEKs - The Strange Theory of Light & Matter (Evil Clown, 2020) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

What hath coronavirus wrought? In relative isolation, mad wizard of improvisation Dave Peck, (PEK), found himself refracting inwardly, becoming, in a way, a living and self-contained realisation of the fractal artwork gracing the covers of Leap of Faith albums. The first of now a half-dozen PEK quartet albums, The Strange Theory of Light & Matter kicked off a series of multi-track improvisations that have grown new sub-sets of musics for both quartet and orchestral self-groupings, all instruments performed by PEK.

Here’s what the construction of a piece like “The Strange Theory of Light & Matter” looks like: The individual tracks are album-length improvisations, as he writes, “Each PEK plays the complete duration, while listening to the previous tracks.” Thus, the fractal-like self-spawning nature of the project, with improv 1 leading to improv 2x1 which becomes 3x(2x1) and finally there’s 4x(3x(2x1). True to its internal math, the instrumentation spread across the four tracks includes over 30 instruments:

  • Clarinets (soprano, b flat, alto, bass, contralto, contrabass)
  • Saxophones (sopranino, alto, tenor, bass)
  • Double reeds (oboe, musette, shenai, nadaswaram, guanzi, English horn, contrabassoon, tenor & bass tromboon)
  • Flutes & whistles (C flute, alto flute, Christmas flute, large bamboo flute, 3 hole Russian flute, penny whistle, Ocarina)
  • Recorders (alto, tenor)
  • Free-reed aerophones (sheng, melodica)
  • Other winds (tarogato, wind siren, game call)

How to approach the results? Personally, the sections featuring the double reeds like musette and English horn, and assorted recorders are among the most engaging. Like Peter Brötzmann, PEK makes the tarogato absolutely sing, and the musicality of interlaid improvisations are occasionally difficult and often gorgeous. Truly, listening to this is not unlike some classic AACM woodwinds recordings, like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” quartet with Joseph Jarman, Henry Theadgill, and Wallace McMillan; Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 76” recorded with Threadgill and Douglas Ewart, and again with Mitchell and Jarman; and even Threadgill’s X-75 ensemble, with Ewart, Jarman, and McMillan (plus four basses and vocals). Similar to these other compositions, “The Strange Theory of Light & Matter” displays its own internal logic structure, with sets of material bent through layers of improvised (re-)interpretation. Conceptually, it’s a high-wire act, with some beautiful sections of harmonized flutes and whistles and long melodic lines that take some time to reveal their shape.

As mentioned, The Strange Theory of Light & Matter is merely the opening to the new world of PEK quartets. From the woodwinds-focused Schematic Abstractions for the Clarinet Family , Fixed Intentions for the Saxophone Family , and Completeness for Flutes and Double Reeds , to the broad palettes (including string, electronics, and percussion) of Unifications and Strange Beauty Out of Chaos , PEK is pushing the possibility of the self-contained quartet to some outer limits.

All albums are available via Bandcamp.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey - Uneasy (ECM, 2021) *****

By Martin Schray

On Uneasy, his seventh album for ECM Records, Vijay Iyer presents an immensely powerful new trio, which he has formed with two outstanding musicians from New York’s jazz scene: bassist Linda May Han Oh, who is featured on an Iyer recording for the first time, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who was already part of Iyer’s superb sextet album Far From Over in 2017. Uneasy mainly consists of Iyer’s own compositions plus two cover versions - Cole Porter’s “Night and Day“ and Geri Allen’s “Drummer Boy“ - and was recorded in 2019. Actually though, Iyer started the recording process in 2010, which makes the album a sort of overlap, a new interpretation of past pieces brought to life again with a fresh group. In the liner notes, Iyer points out, mutatis mutandis, that back then the band named the album Uneasy in allusion to the uncertainties they sensed beneath the surface of things. It was their alias for an emerging unrest in American life. A decade later, as systems have shaken and crumbled, the word “uneasy“ seems like an ironic belittlement, almost inappropriate for these devastating times. But as the word contains its own opposite, perhaps it reminds people that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and located in deep unrest, and conversely, the most turbulent music can contain peace, balance and lust for life.

Some of the album’s original compositions are obviously about the humanitarian crisis in the US (“Children of Flint”), referring to the lead poisoning water scandal in Flint/Michigan, or civil rights (“Combat Breathing”). Iyer composed the latter after the death of Eric Garner in 2014, amid waves of protest linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. The 11-measure-structure refers to the eleven times Garner cried out “I Can’t Breathe“ in his dying moments. There has been an increased frequency of such events, lately culminating in George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which makes the piece even more relevant given these days’ social climate, as Tyshawn Sorey puts it. That’s why it’s possible to think about Uneasy as a form of re-focussing, a re-evaluation of found material or past experiences through music. As a conclusion, Vijay Iyer’s album is sociological, reflecting the turmoil that has shaken the US in recent years, from political instability to police violence to the precarious economic conditions of the pandemic. Iyer has translated this into music by an extreme forcefulness which drives the central pieces “Combat Breathing“ and “Uneasy“. After melancholic beginnings, the musicians virtually gallop through the compositions, Iyer’s runs are bubbling over exuberantly, his block chords pumping up the music so that it almost seems to burst. Before that happens, however, Tyshawn Sorey repeatedly sets rhythmic counterpoints, he stops his drum rolls with whip-like snare shots. Han Oh’s lyrical bass slides into the pauses with little melodies, but they are quickly recaptured by the seriousness and severity of Iyer’s piano playing.

However, there is more than restlessness and brooding despair running through Uneasy, namely simple beauty - and it shakes us in radical ways. It’s joy and it gives joy, it’s an expansion and enlargement of our being - both that of the musicians and that of the listeners. As mentioned before, there’s a certain terror inherent in the beauty of the music on Uneasy, for its perfection gives us pause, leaves us in a dizzying limbo. All it takes is a focus on the dabbed arpeggios in Iyer's solo interlude “Augury“, whose roughened harmony one might call unreal. Or the tenderness in “Entrustment“. This experience of beauty is in turn also political, for it makes us believe in a saved world spared from adversity, as if, far from all subjectivity, there was an experience superior to all intention. What is more, this can also be compared to the turbulent creative process Iyer describes as to the making of this album.

So, is Uneasy edgy and freely improvised? No. Is it excellent jazz? Absolutely. An early candidate for the album of the year.

Uneasy is available as a CD and on double vinyl (from May, 28th on).

Watch the video for “Combat Breathing“ here:

Thursday, May 27, 2021

John Butcher / Sharon Gal / David Toop - Until The Night Melts Away (Shrike Records, 2021) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Until The Night Melts Away documents the musical meeting of three exceptional British free-improvisers - sax player John Butcher, vocalist and electronics player Sharon Gal and David Toop who plays here on lap steel guitar, flutes, bass recorder, African chordophone, and various objects. Gal has performed before with Toop as a duo, and Toop has written liner notes to a few of Butcher's releases, however, as far as performances go, this date from London’s Café Oto in April 2019 was the first, and so far, only meeting of all these of these interdisciplinary and idiosyncratic sonic explorers, who are  interested in feedback and unusual acoustics (Butcher), embodiment, the psychology of sound and the relationship between people, sound and space (Gal), and crossing the boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials (Toop).

Until The Night Melts Away is also the first release of the newly-founded Shrike Records. The 36-minute recording begins with Gal’s quiet sound of bells, extended breathing techniques of Butcher, and distant and sustained lap steel guitar lines, and soon these sparse sounds feel like melting into each’s other, sketching an imaginary, leisured and breezy scenery. Slowly, Butcher, Gal and Toop expand this delicate and suggestive sonic envelope in unpredictable ways and with imaginative sounds - subtle electronics and feedbacks, bubbling breaths, exotic flutes and resonating percussive objects, but maintain the collective trio sound. Gal acts like she was possessed by an enigmatic shamanic spell with her wordless vocalizations, processed voice and assorted bells, while Butcher’s brief and urgent blows on the sax and Toop’s noisy and distorted sounds build the tension.

But even in the most abstract and almost silent segments, Butcher, Gal and Toop operated in mysterious and poetic ways, always attentive to every gesture but letting the sounds and their fragile dynamics lead them all. The interplay becomes more intense and fierce only in the last minutes of this improvisation when Gal’s processed shouts collide with the tortured breaths of Butcher and the distorted lap steel guitar sounds of Toop. But, surprisingly, Gal opted to conclude this arresting improvisation with an emotional, caressing touch, beautifully answered by Butcher and Toop.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Fraser / McCowen / Weinberg - Thip (Tripticks Tapes, 2021) ****

By Keith Prosk

Contrabassist Henry Fraser, clarinetist John McCowen, and saxophonist Sam Weinberg play a contemplative, tensive chamber noise on the four-track, set-length Thip.

Fraser and Weinberg are a familiar duo that have established themselves as an apogee of the noisier spheres in improvised music, releasing Drolleries - with percussionist Jason Nazary and guitarist Andrew Smiley - and Foment - with drummer Tyler Damon - in 2019 and Grist with percussionist Weasel Walter in 2020. Thip is their first release with McCowen whose own gravitations towards noise can be witnessed in Two Energy Cops At 3 AM (for Bb) and parts of Live @ ISSUE Project Room (for contra) from 2020. Recorded in 2019 at ISSUE Project Room, Thip captures the cathedral reverb of the space and leverages it as musical material to become a defining characteristic of the performance.

The trio whines, screeches, and squeals, sometimes such a pure noise to be indistinguishable from each other, but with enough glimpses of the metallic chirp and chime of saxophone, the nasal wood of clarinet, and the coarse scratch of rosined strings to never totally lose the sources. Soundings are more often attacks alone in space - though with exceptions in each piece, the falling/rewinding lines of “Ayeda,” the tropical bird calls of “Arunae,” the percussive repetition of “Nur” - with relative sparsity and alien tonalities lending an unfamiliar and volatile viscosity to the movement that recalls the disorienting holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt traced through Maneri / Maneri / Phillips. Communication is contrapuntal, more often sounding in unoccupied spaces than together to weave its snaking lines. But the reverb and echo of the room eliminates any silence, extends the sounds, and chains the discrete noises to make a continuous pulse. It’s hard to pinpoint, but there’s an intonation in the instruments that suggests they acknowledge and incorporate the reverberations into the group, maintaining a density and dynamics in such a range as to always allow it and to never drown it out, seemingly giving as much play time to their echoes as to themselves.

There’s a bonus track of the trio with trumpeter Joe Moffett recorded in a park, with air planes, birds, and a whirring silence from portable equipment recording outdoors, but no echo, encouraging some sustained soundings and energetic interplay not heard as often in the ISSUE performance.

Thip is available digitally and on cassette.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Paul Van Gysegem Quintet – Square Talks (El Negocito, 2021) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Paul Van Gysegem will turn 86 this year but he hasn’t been prolific, in a way remaining out of sight even for people, like me, who obsessively hunt older and more recent unknown treasures. Listening to Square Talks I must admit that is a pity. This live recording from September 2019 consists of Gysegem himself on double bass, Cel Overberghe on tenor and soprano sax, Patrick De Groote on trumpet and flugelhorn, Erik Vermeulen on the piano and Marek Patrman on percussion and trumpet on one track.

The five musicians declare right from the beginning their will to communicate and interact as a unity. Beginning with the first track, Haaks, they intend to make clear their collective approach. All of them are not newcomers in this risky game called improvisation. They know each for quite a while (decades actually) and they have played together in various formations and groupings.

As improvisers they try to stay focused in their collective approach: you will not hear solos or someone standing out as an individual. Instead they form small groupings within the quintet’s sound, leaving also silence and sparse noise making to lead the way. I loved the way they balance between bold aggressive audio choices from their acoustic instruments and at the same time providing lyrical statements. This needs experience and spending many-many hours (not just playing but also reflecting and discussing on it) trying to succeed.

But what is success in any case? In this quintet’s sound I think it’s the use of different ingredients that have dominated jazz based musics for the past five decades –but making them feel fresh anew. They improvise with a lyrical sense, using a collective language. The music (clocking in fifty fruitful minutes) is clearly hard to categorize, bringing me back to the initial thought (easy to describe it, really difficult to achieve) about balance. And an egalitarian way of playing.

For many of us who still love jazz but find it difficult to describe (and differentiate maybe) between what seems fresh and exhilarating while using some older codes and what is not, Square Talks is one of those albums that belong to the former category. What a nice surprise it was, a cd that I found solace in it. El Negocito is slowly -out of sight sometimes- building a great catalogue for those who want to listen outside of the hip sounds.


Monday, May 24, 2021

Arthur Hnatek Trio - Static (Whirlwind 2020) ****

By Matthew Banash

Liner notes can be an asset and they are with this release. However, I always like to read them afterwards to see how my listening compares and contrasts to the notes. It is an effective way for me to stay engaged in a world that seems more needy of interaction yet hesitant in many ways. It is important to listen to the music first, without any prep. Having written that, here is a little objective info on Static by Arthur Hnatek Trio. It is the Zurich based musician is first trio record: joined by bandmates Fabien Iannone on bass and Francesco Geminiani on tenor sax.

All players are new to me but the label, Whirlwind is familiar to me for many other quality releases.

I have been listening to and seeking out a fair amount of European music lately, letting my ears expand to hear the Jazz Diaspora, if you will. What I have learned is that the human element has always been the common denominator in whatever you call this music, it is the fuse that drives the creative arc from long ago to the now.

“Monotonous” opens the album with a mélange of sound and tempo but also establishes the trio’s approach as distinctions between instruments and time blur and finally dissolve.

Iannone’s percussive bass opens the second track, “27”, and Hnatek joins in with some grooving tintinnabulation that lures Gemiani into to uncurl and unfurl some reptilian lines from his horn. I like a little bit of electronic scuzz thrown into the mix, too.

Geminiani contributed “Brew” and here’s where lines really blur. The horn and drums play and ricochet off each other as Hnatek layers the beats and then Geminiani joins in to scale to heights languidly. It is a nice contrast and a hallmark of the effort. Then at four minutes or so Iannone asserts himself with the burning brogue of the bass that morphs into an arcane rhythm. Finally, something approaching a Disco beat shows up as the trio flashes it chops illustrating humanity in rapport.

“MIDI San Frontiers” Midi without borders, ha! That is what two months of Duolingo got me… But this is ethereal balance b/w the bass and midi and horn and muted drums of Hnatek It is a moody, beautiful piece. Geminiani’s horn approximates a trumpet’s clarion call at times while a shift near the end emphasizes by contrast.

The album’s subtle diversity shines through on “Nine B” with more of a world aesthetic as they make use of the studio to deepen their sound as Iannone’s bass and Hnatek’s drums lock in tight. It is my personal favorite.

“In Three” starts off with and industrial clang and a veneer of analog before sax bounces about jauntily with stereo in full effect as percussive effects tickle both ears stereophonically

The tune “Static” carves out its own space with found objects as much niche as a traditional kit. The hum of analogue technology humanizes the music, the pace invites you in and the coy but dynamic shifts and tones keep you and entertain you.

The last song, “The End,” is an echo, a coda, a fare thee well tease that left me looking forward to more music and creativity from this trio and individual talents alike.

It took a few listens for me to enjoy this recording. It is not inaccessible, but the first few passes left me with impressions of monotony and echoes of Christian Lillinger or Mark Guiliana with more of a DIY aesthetic. But something kept tugging at my mind and ears; there is a deeper sense of humanity at work and play here between the artists, the instruments, and the technology. Static is a good title, there is that sound of static, and a sense of stasis, but also, underneath there is a vibrant creativity unfolding in some places one never thought to look or listen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Will Glaser - Some Drum Sounds (s/r, 2021) ****


By Sammy Stein

Will Glaser is an in-demand drummer and percussionist who has played alongside Soweto Kinch, Dame Cleo Laine, Kit Downes, Nikki Iles, Dinosaur, Martin Speake, Yazz Ahmed, Eddie Parker, Freddie Gavita, Liam Noble and Sam Leak, to name a just a few fellow jazz musicians. He has been involved with Sam Eastmond's Spike Orchestra, Sam Rapley's Fable, Union Division with Moss Freed and many more. In 2020 he released New River Ramble with James Allsopp. Some Drum Sounds is a solo recording released May 6th.

'Crazy Hour' opens the album and is aptly titled. Sounds of children playing, people talking, and various percussive sounds are railroaded out by an improvisation across the top on djembe, the tight skin offering echoed sounds that resonate deep within the barrel of the drum. The piece is built through improvisation on some of the rhythmic and melodic ideas. As the track grows and builds, the textural quality improves and deepens, making this a terrific opener and introduction to the album.

'Broom with a View' begins with gentle drum hits and nuanced phrases, the rhythm patterns set and then worked around resulting in changing dynamics, with the pauses becoming as meaningful as the strikes. The rhythm intensifies in the second third with a free improvised section before returning to more established rhythms in the final phrases.

'Durations 1: In house Heckle' is the first of three tracks where Glaser duets with himself. Glaser describes these as "structured by different durations of time that are a loose compositional tool to structure improvisation and create chance moments." Those chance moments are introduced in the form of gongs, whispering touches and brush strokes which impart a sense of exploration and a brief delve into the drummer's mind. Some ideas are whimsical - a gong strike here, a cymbal there, whilst others are random, and ideas flow around the rhythmic patterns created.

'Panglossian People' is a track based around a 12 bar structure. The introduction, which precedes the composed track, is three minutes plus of rhythm workings that take several journeys across the basic structure, finding variations each time. The track itself is similar in length to the introduction and based on the 12 bar structure still but with freely improvised sections. The structure is such that the listener is carried on mesmeric pathways that differ and vary, with clear references right through to the original construct.

'A Hymn for Him' is a dedication to American jazz drummer Milford Graves and is a loosely improvised rondo form with the theme alternating with atmospheric improvised sections creating a reflective number. The final phrases work into a regulated rhythmic pattern which is mesmeric and engaging.

'Durations 2: Self-Talk' is subtle yet inspired by its rhythmic changes and generous ebbs and flows, the contrasts creating subtle changes in atmosphere, which are effective and vast, from the resonant bass to the trinkling cymbals. 'Scribbles' is short, fast and manages to get huge contrasts of tone and pattern into just over a minute of free drumming, whilst the strangely titled ' Porcupine Herder' begins with spaced-out beats and builds into a multi-layered soundboard. ' Durations 3: Didactic Discord' explores different rhythm patterns, sounds and techniques both freely improvised and structured.

Of the recording, Glaser says, "I'm really proud of this record. It doesn't get much more personal than this, and it was lovely to find ways of expressing my relationship with the instrument and focus on what I love. It's a strange little thing and hopefully comes across with the warmth I had in mind. It's all heavily improvised but with a few little tweaks."

The warmth and exploration of the drums and percussive sound come across loud and clear. What is really good about the tracks are the rhythmic patterns, diversions, returns, and improvisations built around structured foundations. This introduces familiarity to parts of the tracks, which means whether you enjoy freely improvised music or prefer a more structural format, this has appeal.

An engaging listen and a formidable recording. It is released initially on Bandcamp, with further platforms becoming available soon. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Christopher Hoffman - Asp Nimbus (Out of Your Head Records, 2021) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Cellist Christopher Hoffman has played an integral role in the growth of Henry Threadgill’s groups Zooid, Double Up, and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg for around ten years. Threadgill has embraced Hoffman’s sound and approach, centering him on several key albums, especially the renowned In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Like guitarist Liberty Ellman, he has also been composing his own music and defining a unique language and set of concepts. For as much as the shadow of Threadgill is expected to loom, it’s to both Hoffman and Ellman’s credit that their voices have become so independently recognizable. I wrote about the presence of Hoffman on Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, as well as drummer Craig Weinrib, and it was promising to see them together on this new album. One thing that’s helped Hoffman stand out is his open embrace of musical forms, deconstructing genre contexts to push his groups to some fresh and excitingly challenging places.

Asp Nimbus, Hoffman’s latest, features the radical setting of cello, drums, vibraphone, and bass, with Bryan Carrott and Rashaan Carter rounding out the lineup. Deepening the sound briefly, Hoffman has David Virelles guest on piano for “Dylan George.” Of course, any intriguing instrumentation would be little more than a novelty, were it not for captivating, even earwormy compositions. “Discretionary” slides in with a RZA-like vibe from the drums and vibes, Hoffman and Carter joining on parallel walking lines. It’s a super catchy kick-off to the album, and the solos set up a dazzling improvisatory conversation that extends through the entirety of the album. For as much as this is Hoffman’s album, it’s the communication between him, Carrot, Carter, and Weinrib that makes every moment transporting.

Much like Steve Lehman’s albums, Asp Nimbus is compact, funky, and addictive. Take “Orb,” a three-minute trip-hop dive into cell and vibes, taking a left turn in the final minute to a scattered multi-partite improvisation. It’s the kind of workout Lehman similarly drops into the middle of an album to remind listeners how fearless the group is. Given Hoffman’s discography, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to move on from this group. But the potential is writ large, especially with the album being on Out of Your Head, which also runs a sub-label Untamed… that helped several groups release rare live recordings in the past year. With all that opportunity, let’s hope there’s more Asp Nimbus in the future.

One last thing, for those readers who are fans of vinyl and album art, TJ Huff created a masterful woodcut, “The Death of Cleopatra,” for the cover art. It’s one you’ll definitely want on your shelves.

Limited-edition vinyl and digital available at Bandcamp

Friday, May 21, 2021

Mario Pavone (1940 - 2021)

Mario Pavone (photo by Peter Gannushkin)

By  Martin Schray

Mario Pavone was a fighter - in real life and in his music. For 17 years he has fought cancer and they way he played his bass looked a bit like fighting as well - with a lot of force, keeping his strings a little high and overplaying them. He said that his style was rather sculptural. In any ways, it was spectacular watching him.

Pavone, who was born in Waterbury/Connecticut in 1940, was actually an engineer and had no formal musical training in his youth. The initiatory experience that led him to music was something special: John Coltrane’s seminal residence at the Village Vanguard in 1961. Shortly after that he began playing the bass and settled in New York City, where he got to know pianist Paul Bley and trumpeter Bill Dixon. That’s how he became part what would later on be called the first loft era.

In 1968 he went on a European tour with Bley, with whom he worked until 1972. In the early 1970s he performed with vibraphonist Bobby Naughton and was a member of Bill Dixon’s Orchestra of the Streets, as well as John Fischer’s Interface. In 1975 he formed the Creative Music Improvisers Forum (CMIF) in New Heaven with Bobby Naughton, Wadada Leo Smith, Gerry Hemingway, and many others, before he began his 18-year collaboration with Thomas Chapin in 1980. His most important formation with Chapin was the trio with drummer Michael Sarin, one of the most important bands of the downtown Knitting Factory scene. From 1990 to 1996 the trio was very productive and toured in Europe and the U.S. After Chapin's untimely death in 1998, Pavone began a long recording career as a leader and worked with almost everyone who’s important in the New York free jazz scene - from Tony Malaby to Steven Bernstein, Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey, to name only a few. 

 Recently, Pavone had focused his musical energies on the classic piano trio format, reconnecting with Paul Bley for a recording, releasing a live disc with Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver, recording 3 CDs with his Dialect Trio featuring Matt Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey, the latest to be released in July 2019 on Clean Feed Records. In a recent interview with Downbeat Magazine he said that he planned to “make a final artistic statement, in two parts“. He recorded sessions in 2020, with two quartets including six new tunes approached from different perspectives. Blue Vertical (Out of Your Head) was for his ongoing “implied time” trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, plus trumpeter Dave Ballou. Isabella (Clean Feed) was for the grooving “overt time” of Mario and “the three Mikes” - his son Michael Pavone on electric guitar, altoist Mike DiRubbo and drummer Michael Sarin, his longtime collaborator from the days with Thomas Chapin. “I’m just happy to get these two releases done,” Pavone said in the interview with Downbeat. “It took every bit of energy, and the music is what got me through. I’ve had a great life and I’m so appreciative of all the players who jumped in and generously contributed, from the heart. I’m grateful, happy, satisfied with my life, ready to move to this next cycle.”

On Saturday, May 15th, Mario Pavone lost his fight against cancer. It’s sad to know that he isn’t there anymore.

Watch a performance with his excellent trio with Matt Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey:


Reflections on the Recordings

Writers of the Free Jazz Blog contributed their thoughts on some of their favorite Mario Pavone recordings.

Martin Schray  

Thomas Chapin Trio - Anima
(Knitting Factory Works, 1992)

Pavone’s bowed for Chapin’s saxophone hook line in the title track is among the most beautiful moments of all the downtown scene releases.

Bill Dixon - Son of Sisyphos (Soul Note, 1988)

Pavone counters John Buckingham's ultra-deep tuba tones with his lightning-fast, scurrying intervals. Dixon's trumpet and Laurence Cook's drums float above things. Free jazz can be so beautiful.

Stephen Griffith

My first conscious exposure to Mario Pavone (I guess I'd heard him on Bill Dixon’s Son of Sisyphus previously but it didn't leave as immediate of a positive impression) was on one of the Thomas Chapin Trio’s seven releases on Knitting Factory Works; maybe Third Force. Whichever one it was (I eventually got them all) it grabbed me immediately with how full of a sound an alto sax, bass and drums (Steve Johns or Michael Sarin) achieved moving rapidly through post Ornette originals that were catchily complex and became immediately familiar. Pavone was the foundation rock on which all was built with his large but uniquely dancing sound. Ride (Playscape, 2006) sticks out in my mind because it was released in 2006 posthumously after Chapin’s passing, a 1995 North Sea Jazz Festival performance which brought back all the previous magic one last time.

I tried Chapin releases with other bassists on different labels who played well with other musicians I like but it just wasn't as good a fit as with Mario Pavone.


Kenneth Blanchard

Mario Pavone’s passing reminds me of how easy it is to take something for granted. I do not recall listening to one of his recordings over the last year because… they will always be there. I won’t. This morning I am listening to Orange (2003) one of the Nu Trio recordings. What a wonderful piece of music! Pavone’s playing is superb and you can hear his softly singing behind his solos. He is one of those leaders whose genius was contagious. Every member of the band is sharp and luminous. I can also highly recommend Deez to Blues (2006).


Lee Rice Epstein

Ancestors ‎(Playscape Recordings, 2008)
Arc Suite T/Pi T/Po (Playscape Recordings, 2010)

Early in his career, Mario Pavone joined Bill Dixon, beginning with the iconic November 1981. Starting with this group, it was clear Pavone and Dixon had one of those deep and special connections. Twenty-five years later, Pavone recorded “Half Dome (For Bill Dixon)” a gorgeous two-minute tribute. These back-to-back albums, Ancestors and Arc Suite T/Pi T/Po, feature the larger groups Double Tenor Quintet and Orange Double Tenor are undeniably modern classics. Both showcase the depth and sensitivity of Pavone’s compositional approach. Tony Malaby and Jimmy Greene tease out the warmth and these melodies. On the second album, Dave Ballou extends the groups sound, but he had already been arranging for Pavone for a while, and continued to do so for several albums following. Pavone and Ballou clearly shared a deep connection, much like his earlier one with Dixon. The arrangement of “Iskmix” for example, brings a spaciousness to the complex, overlaid time signatures and free rhythms. Space was a specialty of Pavone’s  playing and composing, and his sounds and silences will be missed equally.


Paul Acquaro

Does it make sense to post Understanding by Bobby Naughton Units? The vibraphonist's 1974 JAPO release features both a young Mario Pavone or Richard Youngstein on bass - the album was a mix of a live and studio recording. Regardless, it's an early document of Pavone's recorded work and puts him in the company of the late great Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage. Pavone's solo on the track 'Snow' is a lovely, slowly unfolding part within a lovely, slowly unfolding piece.


Past Reviews:

Mario Pavone – Vertical (Clean Feed, 2017) 

By Troy Dostert

A reunion record of sorts, with bass legend Mario Pavone getting together with some long-time colleagues of old in a sextet format. And the results are predictably excellent: multiple horn parts giving life to Pavone’s thorny compositions, a strong yet occasionally unpredictable rhythmic current, and superb musicianship throughout. Read more.


Mario Pavone's Dialect Trio - Philosophy (Clean Feed Records, 2019)

By Olle Lawson

Double bassist Mario Pavone’s latest album Philosophy could equally have been entitled ‘Aphorisms’ considering how concise these eight mini manifestos are. Pavone is a selfless leader who none the less stamps his authorial mark on all of his multifaceted line-ups. This is the third Dialect Trio LP with pianist Matt Mitchell – best known for his work with Tim Berne – and the inimitable Tyshawn Sorey. Read more.


Mario Pavone Dialect Trio - Chrome (Playscape, 2017) 

By Derek Stone 

 For me, 2014’s Blue Dialect was one of those releases that, merely by virtue of the players involved, absolutely insisted on being heard. In particular, two names grabbed my attention: Tyshawn Sorey (on percussion) and Matt Mitchell (on piano) ... Chrome is another fantastic entry in Pavone’s discography, and it offers yet more proof that he is one of the finest composers/bandleaders around. Read more.



Thomas Chapin - Night Bird Song ('Olena Productions, 2016) 

By Paul Acquaro

The film, using footage, photos, documents and interviews, presents Chapin's life in two parts: the first a rather chronological log of his life growing up in Connecticut, his family, his growing musical interests, and his studies at Rutger's in the early days of its renowned jazz program. The film moves on to his work as music director of the Lionel Hampton big band, the fury of his group Machine Gun, and finally the creation of the Thomas Chapin Trio with bassist Mario Pavone and drummers Steve Johns and Michael Sarin. In watching the arc of Chapin’s foreshortened career, you cannot help but see how his ambition and focus were always underscored by his humanity and genuine curiosity. It can be humbling to watch. Read more.

Mario Pavone – Blue Dialect (Clean Feed, 2015) 

By Troy Dostert

It’s great to see Clean Feed adding a veteran of Mario Pavone’s stature to its roster.  The label has done such a fine job in recent years of documenting many of the most creative and forward-thinking artists in jazz and free improvisation, and bassist Pavone certainly deserves to be in the conversation as one of them, especially when it comes to the piano-bass-drums trio format, arguably the most appropriate showcase for Pavone’s distinctive talents.  A couple years ago Pavone released Arc Trio, an exceptionally fine outing with Gerald Cleaver and Craig Taborn. Read more.


Mario Pavone – Arc Trio (Playscape, 2013) 

By Troy Dostert

On this terrific piano trio record, veteran bassist Mario Pavone unites with pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a live outing from Greenwich Village, allowing us to gain a fascinating glimpse into the levels of musical collaboration possible between three masters of their respective instruments. Read more.


Mario Pavone - Arc Suite T/Pi T/Po (Playscape, 2010)

By Stanley Zappa

Calling Mario Pavone's Double Orange Tenor arc suite t/pi t/po commodity jazz is hardly meant to be an insult (unless you're offended by he notion of such a cleve) because as far as commodity jazz concerned, this is as good as it comes. Yet clever arrangements with latin sections, well crafted solos with themes, variations and other well loved compositional elements have an ability to asphyxiate in our post-Coltrane day, despite the level of craft and dedication required in their realization. Read more.

Mario Pavone - Ancestors (Playscape, 2008)

Bassist Mario Pavone has been in the forefront of modern jazz for the last four decades, and even if many of his generation got stuck in the style for which they were once in the vanguard, Pavone has kept evolving, and still does. He is most known from his collaborations with Paul Bley first, and Bill Dixon later, then Thomas Chapin, yet his own Nu Trio/Quintet and sextet bring his music, in an always very recognisable style. Read more.


Thomas Chapin Trio - Ride (Playscape, 2006)

By Stef Gijssels

This is Thomas Chapin's last recorded live date, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague in 1995. Chapin died from leukemia in 1998 at the age of 40. This is one of his better albums, and as often his trio consists of Mario Pavone on bass and Michael Sarin on drums. The band is at its peak, after having toured for years, and they play with conviction and with joy. Read more.