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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Magda Mayas' Filamental - Confluence (Relative Pitch, 2021) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

In 2019, German pianist Magda Mayas was appointed as one of the curators of the Music Unlimited Festival 33 in Wels, Austria (alongside Joe McPhee and Kazuhisa Uchihashi). She seized this opportunity to fulfill a long-time dream, putting together a large string ensemble, Filamental, referring to a filigree fiber, or a thread, a texture that is playfully explored, a psychologically embodied state and approach.

Confluence refers to the two rivers that meet and merge in Geneva - the Rhode and the Arve. These rivers have different temperatures and colors. They travel in different terrains, they carry different volumes of water and have different depths. The score for Confluence consists of 12 photos, observing the merging waters, the artificial wall dividing them, the earthy, blue and green colors blending. The score offers the possibility to focus on tiny details, transitional areas, or to stay in one area for a long time over the course of the performance. Confluence is a frame for exploring minute changes collectively, Confluence is also an entrance into a certain mindset, a state of being, with which to carry through the performance.

Magda Mayas’ Filament consists of like-minded, experimental improvisers - violinist Angharad Davies, cellists Anthea Caddy and Aimée Theriot, harpists Rhodri Davies and Zeena Parkins, clarinetist Michael Thieke and alto sax player Christine Abdelnour. Fortunately, I experienced Filament opening the Music Unlimited Festival and the recording of Confluence assured me again that this masterful performance was one of the highlights of the festival. Mayas created a dream-like sonic space where delicate and almost transparent threads and colors are interwoven, disintegrate and then are attached and resonate together again, patiently, organically and almost seamlessly. This kind of suggestive and collective dream state dynamics slowly gains more nuance, volume and power with a few brief intense and dissonant eruptions that cement its profound emotional power and exquisite aesthetics.

During the live performance, I was fixed to the inventive sonic palette of Davies and Parkins. But the recording allows the listener to focus on the idiosyncratic vocabularies of all the octet musicians, each one with his own personal language and his own extended techniques, and all unite into a mysterious sonic entity. Moreover, to experience again and again how all the musical threads and colors keep flowing and shifting and eventually accumulate into inspiring and intriguing texture.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Narada Burton Greene (1937 - 2021)

Burton Greene in 2018. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Martin Schray

For Burton Greene, the most important thing was having your own musical voice. On the other hand, it was also no contradiction for him to 'know your roots.' He once said that he had known about three hundred bebop standards before he played a note of free jazz. Greene started his career in Chicago and the Black musicians there would have gotten on him if he had just copied his idols. In a 2003 interview with Dan Wharburton, he said: “I came off the stand one time after a jam session, I was strutting like a peacock, wow, I nailed it, and a cat came up to me and said: 'What is that shit you playing, Jack? You from the North side, right? I suggest you go home and practice. I don't wanna see yo ass in here unless you play who you are.' From then on, Greene liked to break the rules, he liked to smash the form, everything was about personality. The last thing he was interested in was to recreate the museum, as he called it. And he truly did succeed on his effort.

Greene, whose mother was a classical pianist, first studied classical music in Chicago at the Fine Arts Academy from 1944 to 1951, then modern jazz from 1955 to 1956. He moved to New York City in the early 1960s, where he became part of the free jazz scene. With Alan Silva he founded the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble in 1963, which was dedicated to free improvisation early on. In 1964, he was a founding member of the Jazz Composers' Guild with Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor, who became one of his main influences. The following year he formed his own quartet with Marion Brown and Henry Grimes. In the years to follow he played with all the alpha dogs on the scene: Rashied Ali, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, Byard Lancaster and Sam Rivers (among others) and recorded albums for the avant-garde label ESP before leaving for Asia and then Europe in 1969. After a brief stay in Paris, he moved on to Amsterdam. In Europe, he first worked with some of the great ex-pats such as John Tchicai, Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, as well as first class European musicians like Maarten Altena, Johnny Dyani and Willem Breuker, and also with fusion bands like Gong. Since exploring new sounds was part of his musical DNA, he became interested in synthesizers just to plow this field extensively, even if he would later return to his roots. During the 1980s he began to dig into the klezmer tradition (Greene had a Jewish background) from the perspective of jazz music and founded the group Klezmokum, in which he performed regularly with Perry Robinson (then in 2003 the quartet The Klezzthetics, as a smaller formation). In the last part of his career Greene made a number of solo records, for example for CIMP and NoBusiness, plus several works with smaller ensembles like Compendium (Improvisational Being, 2017).

There are several reasons why Greene’s style is so unique. He claims that he was the first one in free jazz to use the inside of the piano. He put golf balls in there, he scraped the strings with the tuning hammer, he even used a garbage can cover. But that’s not all. His free outbreaks were spiced with lyricism, swing, and drive. He became deeply involved with yoga and the meditation techniques of Swami Swatchidananda and studied Indian classical music music as well as the folk and art music of Eastern Europe, which is also audible in his music. His sound is incredibly crisp, lush, direct and fluid at the same time, a true pleasure to listen to.

Greene has left a large oeuvre, among it some outstanding albums. Quite recommendable is his first album, Burton Greene Quartet (ESP 1966), with Marion Brown on alto sax, Henry Grimes on bass, and both Dave Grant and Tom Price on percussion. Another excellent one is Presenting Burton Greene (Columbia, 1969) with Byard Lancaster (alto sax, trumpet), Steve Tintweiss (bass) and Shelly Rusten (percussion) and, of course, Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, with Gary William Friedman (alto sax), Jon Winter flute), Alan Silva (bass) and Clarence Walker (percussion), which he recorded in 1964 and was only released by Cadence in 1998. If you are interested in his klezmer recordings, Nagila Monsters (Tzadik, 2008) may be a good start. Live at Kerrytown (NoBusiness, 20212) is a wonderful solo album.

On Monday, June 27th, Narada Burton Greene passed away at the age of 84. He will surely be missed.

Watch a solo performance here:

Joe McPhee/John Edwards - Tell Me How Long Has Trane Been Gone (Idyllic Noise, 2021) ****

By Martin Schray

Almost every recording with Joe McPhee builds a bridge to the past. Especially at live gigs, he likes to begin his performances with introductory words, often addressing where the music he plays comes from. These openings are often filled with socio-cultural, political, and religious references. This also goes for Tell Me How Long Has Trane Been Gone. McPhee preaches in the style of Martin Luther King - supported by John Edwards’s tremolos and slabs on the bass - about John Coltrane’s death and the impact it has had for the community by making hints to the work of the writer James Baldwin. Doing this, he uses typical stylistic devices: metaphors, repetitions, biblical and literary allusions. It takes more than four minutes before he lets his saxophone ring - in typical John Coltrane style, of course.

Tell Me How Long Has Trane Been Gone was recorded at the artacts festival in St. Johann/ Austria and is considered one of the most wonderful moments in the festival’s long history. For the first time McPhee played in a duo with John Edwards (as a trio the two already worked with drummer Klaus Kugel) and the combination of Joe McPhee’s emotional spirituality and John Edwards’s enormous playfulness was rightfully celebrated by the audience.

The two of them demonstrate the whole range of what free improvised music has to present today. Of course, Joe McPhee is not a mere imitator of John Coltrane’s music, but has developed his own distinctive style. This becomes clearest in “Whispers of Naima“, when he blows next to the mouthpiece, so to speak, and thus sings and plays the instrument at the same time. John Edwards counters the created overtones and the almost exaggerated vibrato with delicate, jotted notes. Then again, they show another side of their interplay on “A Sojourner’s Truth", when McPhee’s blues-soaked lines meet a bass almost reminiscent of a didgeridoo.

Lastly, a word about the post-production: Idyllic Noise is a small, young label. For the future, it would certainly be desirable not to release the whole concert uncut on vinyl, but to leave out the unimportant stuff. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t apply to the music as such, but do almost three minutes of applause and acknowledgements between the end of the last piece and the encore really have to be there? The same goes for people talking during the performance. This might support a certain immediacy, but if you ask me less would certainly have been more here. But that shouldn't stop you from buying this LP.

Tell me How Long Has Trane Been Gone is available on vinyl.

You can buy it from the label:

Monday, June 28, 2021

Ayler Records is Back (Part II)

This is part two in a two-part series. The first installment ran here .

Ayler Records is back. After an encomium here on FJB and a year of inactivity, the label returned in 2020 and, since then, has released six albums (with a couple more in various stages of production) that, simply put, pick up right where the label left off, almost as if there were no hiatus at all. Much of this is not jazz by any stretch, though it is all avant-garde in some sense. 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 Jan Ström fashion, the occasional American release to keep things fresh, rooted, and trans-Atlantic.

Here we go again, from the top.

Nicholas Souchal, Michael Nick. Daunik Lazro, Jean-Luc Cappozzo – Neigen (Ayler, 2021)

Neigen, as the liner notes make clear, is German for “to tend towards.” It can also mean lean, slant, and bend. Neigen tends toward gently strained and breathy abstractions. However, this is only a proclivity. It may lean in this direction, but it is compelling because it is so elastic. It leans and bends, but also balances the extreme end of disembodied huff and puff with an infectiously obtuse (or obtusely infectious) slanted melodicism that seems to have become a sine qua non of the Parisian scene that these musicians inhabit and labels such as Ayler, Fou and Dark Tree have been documenting over the last few years.

Daunik Lazro (here on baritone and tenor sax) and Jean-Luc Cappozzo (trumpet, flugelhorn, and objects) are widely known entities in certain circles, Nicholas Souchal (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Michael Nick (various violins) maybe less so. As the opening track Neigen shows, however, they came to these sessions with like minds. The breathy malleability of the sound is a perfect open to an album that continues along these lines of windy expressionistic abstraction. (Think thick and tactic, like Joan Mitchell, rather than dense and striated like later Jackson Pollock.) The music is quite abstract. When the musicians clique, they sometimes construct thorny, ascending vines, sparsely placed rosebuds and all. Or they evoke an electrified and glitched out bagpipe, meticulously rent apart. In pieces such as Narcisse Watered and Siper Spell, Souchal and Cappozzo conjoin in ways evocative of Peter Evans and Nate Wooley duos, though with less abandon. Indeed, Nick and Lazro are there to moderate any fierce attack with their own extended technique contortions and lyric yelps. The reverse is true as well. This music simmers, but rarely boils. And even when it boils, it never boils over.

In short, Neigen, is very much in line with what I was expecting. It is less melodic than Garden(s), the last Lazro/Cappozzo collaboration on Ayler. Instead, it showcases the viscosity that can come with drags, draws, gasps, and breath. At its core, Neigen sounds spacious but coherent, like a layer by layer deconstruction of some piece that once was whole and still maintains some of that initial integrity, even if its pieces are dispersed.

Baptiste Boiron, Bruno Chevillon, Frédéric Gastard – Là (Ayler, 2021)

resulted from a several month residency that saxophonist Baptiste Boiron spent at the Domaine de Kerguéhennec in Brittany, where he composed the album. On this recording, Boiron is joined by Bruno Chevillon on double bass and Frédéric Gastard on bass saxophone.

There is a lot to two this double release. In a sense, it fits into the bunch covered here, though largely because it is a far step from the spiritual free jazz and free improv that made Ayler such a formidable label in its early days. Traces of that inspiration remains in the syncopation, the periodic tortured elements, and some of the phrasing. , however, sounds more like an opus out of the conservatory. It balances neoromantic melodies with post-jazz extended technique, yet it combines these poles rather than pushes them to their extremes. One can hear this already on the first track, MAlin né délivré, which offers a lively study of sweet and spirited phasing. The alternately honking and wispy second track, Là, and the racing Trace de Fard Gris and hAt noyant Bronx, show that Boiron, Chevillon, and Gastard have their textural sound painting chops. Then come some of the more airy and probing compositions like the J’etais cet homme, the fluttering Trace de Fard Gris, and more intimate statements such as avec StyLe and Prayer (Keith Jarrett). Mixed among these are the utterly serene Fleurette Africaine (Ellington), the shorn abstraction of Lonnie’s Lament (Coltrane), and the damp, sweltering noir piece, Le sourire à travers les larmes, which is a fitting tribute to Charlie Chaplin and Tom Waits. (I hear the Waits influence, though whether it’s from his pre-Swordfishtrombones ballad days or his early millennium Kurt Weil/postindustrial blues I cannot say. And, now that the idea is in my head, I can certainly picture Chaplin expertly stumbling around on a flickering black and white screen to this music at some contemporary live-accompaniment retrospective.)

This brings me to another fun peculiarity of this release. If you were curious about the odd track names and unconventional capitalization, join the club. Most of the titles are anagrams of artists who have inspired Boiron in the construction of the album. Sometimes, these anagrams help unlock a musical puzzle. Other times, it seems these pieces are less odes to an individual than delicate amalgamations of disparate influences. Many will be familiar, even if they are worked into in bits, pieces, deconstructions and, sometimes, full pieces: Anthony Braxton (hAt noyant Bronx), Roscoe Mitchell, Thelonious Monk (nus, MonoliThe ok), Stravinksy, Reich. The musicianship is clearly here. The meticulous conceptualization is, as well. As much as those features, however, it is the wide breadth of musical territory traversed over these two discs, and the compelling reconciliation of the contemporary classical, contemporary jazz, and other experimental acoustic worlds that make this album such a success. A true standout among a string of strong releases and currently among my favorites of 2021.

Dennis González Ataraxia Trio + 2 – Nights Enter (Ayler, 2021)

This release has a notable provenance. Apparently, Stéphane Berland, who runs Ayler Records, encouraged Dennis González to compose music to accompany a piece of art Dennis had created with his granddaughter. (See the cover for the artwork.) Dennis obliged, pulled together a group of collaborators (bassist Drew Phelps and percussionist Jagath Lakpriya of González’s Ataraxia Trio, moog-man Derek Rogers, and harpist Jess Garland) and created this wonderfully ethereal and probing release.

Nights Enter is somewhat of a departure for González’s work on Ayler, though it certainly evokes the meditative fusion of Ataraxia’s first release, Ts'iibil Chaaltun. Much as on the previous release, Phelps’ bass and Lakpriya’s table and djembe keep the music grounded and speak to an atavistic ritualism. Roger’s moog, Garland’s harp (especially on the wistfully brittle Approaching Dawn), and González’s distant and sometimes echoed trumpet, however, lift Nights Enter into a different realm that touches on ECM ambience, but maintains a warmth, roughness, and oddity (Göbelki Tape) that keep this release a thing apart. For his part, González’s playing is impeccable, and stylistically more evocative of Markus Stockhausen than his choppy downtown free jazz work. Even for those who are already steeped in González’s catalogue, this one is a real treat.

Catherine Jauniaux, Xavier Charles, Jean-Sébastien Mariage – L’amour (Ayler, 2021)

L’amour begins softly, with lone and softly layered tones, decays, ringing, and other noises. It builds in intensity, still quietly. The extended tones fluctuate and stretch. A hiss comes into the left ear, coy squeaks into the center and a bowed(?) guitar persists in the right. The track shimmers and crackles. It heaves at points, before crumbling into a few phrases of carefully articulated French, then ceases.

Each of the eleven tracks on L’amour follows a different course, but the basic contours and certain elements – the hushed guitar of Jean-Sébastien Mariage, the extended clarinet of Xavier Charles, and the dynamics between the lyrics, all in French, and the experimental vocalizations of Catherine Jauniaux – bind them, as does the text that inspired this project. I do not know French, so the lyrics, all excerpts from Marguerite Duras’ 1971 cinematic novel L’amour, are lost on me. Catherina Jauniaux’s powerful delivery, however, is not. Indeed, I might even hear more of the inflections, the drags and stops, and the sonority than I would were the lyrics in a language I understood. This album, moreover, was recorded after the trio toured Moscow, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, and Paris, reconnecting these major cities in which French once dominated as a literal lingua franca potentially to audiences who, like me, were able to bask in the vocals as estranged and beautiful sound. I am not sure how far the point about reasserting French as a regional language of culture should be taken, but, if not the language itself, Jauniaux, Charles, and Mariage are certainly elevating the French experimental scene in some of the experimental hubs of Europe, and without watering it down with Anglicism.

The musicians of L’amour form an unconventional trio based on what seems to be an unconventional text. At times, its quiet dynamics remind me of some of the more variegated releases of Creative Sources and Insub. (In fact, it sounds to me like a more developed take on a spoken word, gurgly improv style that the Guez Trio, released years ago by Insub’s predecessor netlabel, had experimented with.) That, of course, is not to detract from its distinctiveness. Indeed, although I recognize a lot of the elements on L’amour, I have not heard them combined and staged quite like this. If you know French, I imagine there are layers of meaning accessible to you that I simply cannot speak to. And if you do not, it is certainly enough to let the sounds speak for themselves.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Mario Pavone - Blue Vertical (Out of Your Head, 2021) *****

By Ron Coulter

Blue Vertical is a posthumous release from bassist, Mario Pavone (1940-2021) and his Dialect Trio + 1. The +1 here is trumpeter, Dave Ballou joining the trio of Pavone, Matt Mitchell (piano), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums).

Dialect Trio has been working together since 2014 and that history is apparent in their playing, as the group has developed a distinct musical dialect that is most apparent in their concept of time (periodic/in-tempo and aperiodic/free). They have a beguiling way of eliding into and out of a unified tempo into free playing or multiple, simultaneous tempi. They do this so smoothly, so fluidly, that the development is often unnoticeable; at moments the listener is left unsure of what is in-tempo and what is free, not to mention what is in between. The album’s final track, 'Face Music,' showcases the organic nature of the group’s approach to time, with very patient free playing, polytemporal playing, and moments of in-time playing from two or three members converging to a single tempo…or perhaps that is an assessment of hindsight and it’s just four great musicians improvising together at the highest of levels.

Six of the tracks on this record use the traditional jazz form of head/solos/head as their basic structure. The opening track, 'Twardzik' is a clear example of this, where the constrained playing of an angular, composed melody abruptly drops into beautifully organic improvising led by Pavone’s low, rich bass lines. The track concludes with a restatement of the melody following an open drum solo. 'Philosophy Series' utilizes the same form and features a churning bass line worthy of mention.

The second track, 'OKWA' is a fine example of this group’s ability to move almost indistinguishably from composed material to improvised material and from a single tempo into free playing and back again with ease and total continuity.

The final two tracks on the album, 'Legacy Stories' and 'Face Music' appear to be freely improvised with no composed elements. 'Legacy Stories' starts free and develops into medium-up swing with interruptions of free playing and ultimately resolves into a medium swing groove that dissolves back into free playing. 'Face Music' presents as ballad-like, becomes pointalistic and then briefly develops into one of the most rhythmically dense textures on the album.

'Blue Poles' is unique on the album with its very short composed melody (three bars of 4/4 or six seconds in length) played in unison by all four players that is stated once at the beginning of the track and never restated. This track also demonstrates Pavone’s playful and tricky use of rhythmic displacement audible within the first few seconds of in-time improvisation after the short melodic statement.

It must be noted that the sound quality of this album is superb. The audio capture, mixing, and mastering is excellent, making it a pleasure to return to for repeated listenings.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating and highly enjoyable record, finely created, from the audio production to the compositions, arrangements, and especially the improvising. It is another high quality release from Out of Your Head Records, which showcases striking artwork on each album it releases–Blue Vertical is no exception. The beauty of this record is the ensemble playing, which is creative music making of careful listening, empathy, and deft reflexivity. Listening to this record is like eavesdropping on a casual conversation between old friends where there is much more than just the words heard–there is a deep history and understanding there too.

For listeners that may be new to Pavone’s work, this is the kind of album that will compel them to search out more of his recordings, as well as more work from the Dialect Trio and Dave Ballou. This is also the kind of album that will seduce those unfamiliar with creative music to fall in love with it.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Spoonhunt Three

Dominic Lash has been a presence on the jazz scene for over a decade and has connections with a wide and diverse community of musicians and music people. He has launched his label, Spoonhunt in 2015 and now releases three CDs featuring a range of players and 3 different line-ups. On Limulus (CD001) Lash on bass, is with Javier Carmona on drums, Ricardo Teiero on alto saxophone and Alex Ward on electric guitar – this is the Dominic Lash Quartet. The recording is from Café Oto January 2019.

On Distinctions (CD002) the ensemble is Consort with a line up consisting of Douglas Benford on harmonium and percussion, Steve Beresford on electronics, Marjolaine Charbin on piano, Chris Cundy, Yoni Silver and Mark Langford on bass clarinet, Seth Cooke on steel sink and metal detector, Angharad Davies on viola, Phil Durrant on modular synth, Matthew Grigg on guitar/amplifier, Bruno Guastalla and Hannah Marshall on ‘ cello, Martin Hackett on Korg MS10, Tim Hill and Helen Papaioannou on baritone saxophone, Tina Hitchens on flute, Sarah Hughes on zither, Dominic Lash on double bass, Yvonna Magda on violin and Alex Ward on clarinet/amplifier. ‘Distinctions’ was recorded at Café Oto on January 13th, 2020.

Discernment (CD003) is Lash on double bass, John Butcher on tenor and soprano saxophones, Mark Sanders on drums and percussion and the late, great and extremely versatile John Russell on guitar. The recording was made at Café Oto on January 13, 2020.

All 3 CDs have different qualities and here is a brief look at each. They can be bought as a bundle too.

Limulus begins with ‘Alexithymia’ which is just under 9 minutes of wonderful, music with more than hints of melody. The track begins with tuneful meanderings which, Lash informed me was completely notated ,before the unleashing of powerful guitar and a devilment from the saxophone which is uplifting and beautifully nuts. The middle section is wonderfully rhythmic with bass, drums and guitar powering under improvised sax followed by a 3-way interlude between bass, drums and guitar before the guitar takes it high and loud. The whole atmosphere then plunges down to reveal a bass line, sonorous and bowed, rising from the depths.

Distinctions is just over 46 minutes of free and interactive music. It is composed with verbal and amplification notations. The ensemble (formed in 2013 and flexible in line up) fulfil their ‘raison d’etre’ which is to explore the possibilities of combining sustained tone music, improvisation and the relationship between acoustic and amplified sound.

The instruments are heard in many different combinations and explore sounds using sustained notes over tight rhythmic patterns. They see what you can do with a metal detector and kitchen sink and how single sustained notes can have any manner of sounds going on underneath, whilst still maintaining the purity of the open sound above. Nearly every part of every instrument, from the strings to the body of the stringed instruments are used and different sounds emerge, from the thuds and parps produced by the blown instruments to the electronic, ear splitting notes of the synthesised sounds. There are drones, sine waves, brief melodic statements, gentle murmurings from bass clarinets and more. There is a lot of texture and colour, even in the harder to listen to sections where the electronics mask the beauty of the interactions. The entire 46 minutes of the recording is a journey into sound-making, precision and different connections between instrumental sections. Each instrument can be heard, yet melds into the ensembled whole. Around the 35-minute mark there is a rising of strings and the double bass acts as the foundation around which they whirl. There is a life to this recording and the interaction between a good number of musicians at any one time is engaging. The final phrases reveal high, sharp pitched sounds rising over deep, relentless bass.

Discernment is four tracks ‘Discerning 1,2 and 3’ with the final track titled ‘Discerned’. As might be expected from the improvisers Lash is playing with here the sound is rich, full at times, light and gently layered at others and slightly bonkers at others. There is always conversation between the three improvisers I am familiar with – Russell, Butcher and Sanders and Lash’s additional input here is both impressive and discerning as he swells with deep textures, any gap. You hear how intuitive he is as a musician here. The combination is an interlude in time, a suspension of belief where different textures ease in and out, never forcibly but subtly and in a way which makes you think back and wonder when the sax joined in, when the bass added that deep tone and when the heck did the guitar come in with that particular rhythm? Russell always adds life and energy to music as well as a kind of restrained gentleness when others come to the fore and he does so several times when he bows to Butcher’s sax stretches and Sander’s drum intricacies – so they can be heard. There are hardly any gaps because each musician senses the patterns so well.

The 3 CDs work alone or as part of a 3-way package where you can hear different combinations, different interactions between big and smaller ensembles, musicians familiar or not so familiar with each other.

Lash has done a good thing here.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Duck Baker - Confabulations (ESP Disc, 2021) *****

By Paul Acquaro

Fingerstyle guitarist Duck Baker with Derek Bailey, Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Mark Dresser, John Edwards, Michael Moore, Steve Noble, Roswell Rudd, Alex Ward, and Joe Williamson. 

Yes, let that list sink in for a bit. This latest offering from Baker, a master musician across so many idioms, is so many things at once. The releases is a series of duo (and a trio and a quartet) recordings from 2002 to 2017, and a document of Baker's ability to adapt to many free and formidable styles. Baker has, of course, worked out Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols works for solo guitar (link) and Emanem released a compilation a few years back, Outside, that collected Baker's free jazz solo work from between 1977 to 1983, so Confabulations is exciting addition to the avant-garde side of Baker's discography.
The opening track 'Imp Romp 2' is a free-ranging collaboration with saxophonist Michael Moore that also reveals a very free side of Moore, which is delightfully matched by Baker. It begins with an unwinding and free melody from the guitar to which Moore latches onto in his controlled tone. Halfway through, the two dissolve into exploratory territory where rough sounds replace their more deliberate playing. Guttural and scratchy, the sounds are nearly unforgiving at moments, but resolve towards the track's end. The next track is one of two collaborations with bassist Mark Dresser, 'Shenandoah' contains elements of the beloved folk song, expressed through high harmonics on the bass and gentle partial chords from Baker. They extrude so much from the song that you can almost see bar lines on a score with holes where the notes originated, however, there is still a tenderness behind this abstract reading. Track three is 'Indie Pen Dance,' a duet with archetype of solo avant-garde guitar, Derek Bailey himself. Recorded in 2002, you know who are hearing the moment the track begins. Scratchily, fizzily, plink for plonk, the two engage in a complex, co-created choreography. 'East River Delta Blues' features trombonist Roswell Rudd in a rich exploration whose connection to the blues seems far removed from the form, but present in the wisps of melody. 'Duo for 225 strings' finds Steve Beresford on piano and like in the other duets, Baker deftly adapts to the terse interplay that happens inside and outside of the piano. 'The Missing Chandler' pairs up Baker with saxophonist John Butcher for a captivating performance that rewards the patient listener handsomely.  Butcher employs his highly personal approach, starting out reservedly with movements of air slowly turning into audible notes while Baker teases out gentle notes. As the track continues, the two pour more and more of themselves into it without ever overshadowing each other.

The two tracks beyond the duo format, one a trio with clarinetist and guitarist Alex Ward (a frequent collaborator) and bassist Joe Williamson, and the other a quartet again with Ward, bassist John Edwards, and drummer Steve Noble, again broadens the musical palette. 'Ode to Jo,' with the trio, begins with a reference to Beethoven's classic, and in a more traditional swing-jazz style. Ward's solo is melodic and flowing, however Baker's solo takes its own free path, referencing the famous melody after a bricolage of deliberately jazzy 'licks'. The quartet's 'Tourbillion Air' begins quietly with everyone involved contributing their own legato ideas, building in tension until breaking free.

Confabulations is a wonderful collection that reveals the power of the acoustic - and possibly lightly amplified electric(?) - guitar. Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Available Jelly – Missolonghi (more from 2004) (Ramboy, 2020) ***½

By Troy Dostert

Those familiar with Michael Moore’s work with the Clusone Trio in the 1990s know him to be one of the most stylistically omnivorous musicians to come out of the jazz avant-garde. Any encounter with a Clusone Trio album—I Am an Indian (Gramavision, 1994) comes especially recommended—entailed a fasten-your-seatbelts ride through huge swaths of the jazz tradition and beyond. Anything from Dewey Redman to Hoagy Carmichael to Saint-Saëns could put in an appearance in music that could be as sentimental and even sublime as it was deranged and madcap. Multi-instrumentalist Moore’s anything-goes antics were enhanced by the other two thirds of the trio: cellist Ernst Reijseger and drummer Han Bennink, both paragons of the Dutch avant-garde that placed its stamp so authoritatively on European free jazz.

While Moore’s other group, Available Jelly, dialed down the zaniness a notch or two, it provided a similarly expansive vantage from which to interrogate the jazz tradition, only with a larger ensemble. Trumpeter/cornetist Eric Boeren, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Deilus, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, bassist Ernst Glerum and drummer Michael Vatcher proved themselves more than capable of realizing Moore’s idiosyncratic vision, most recently on an excellent live two-disc release from 2012, Baarle-Nassau (Ramboy), which perfectly captures the band’s semi-anarchic spirit. Prior to that release, the band hadn’t recorded since 2004, with the fine Bilbao Song (Ramboy). And now, almost twenty years after that studio date, the group is releasing a collection of out-takes, near-misses and other ephemera from the session. While Missolonghi is predictably a bit scattered and unfocused at times, it nevertheless manages to convey the unique charms of the ensemble, with a window into its distinctively panoramic approach to music-making.

There are some annoyances that must be endured with a project of this nature. The bouncy, Ellingtonian flavor of “Cumbersome” is plagued by a few interruptions due to false starts, and the otherwise charming “O’er the Irish Sea” contains several multi-second dropouts. “[I]mp #2,” meanwhile, consists principally of the horns’ assorted splutterings, growls and cries. But when the band settles in on a hard-driving cut like “Flap Ears,” its ability to swing mightily while leaving room for spontaneous freedom is amply demonstrated. “Cheese” provides more of the same, with a smart groove that ignites some terrific simultaneous solos from the horns.

And there are the little unexpected gems scattered throughout the album, like the gorgeous two-minute opener, “Showbiz,” chorale-like in its stately beauty. Or the moody “Premonition,” remarkably restrained and harmonically rich. Moore has a way with a tune, and the lovely ballad “You Can Stop Now,” with a show-stopping solo from Boeren in tribute to Lester Bowie, is a reminder of just how much Moore reveres a strong melody.

It may not be consistently at the level of Available Jelly’s best work, but fans of Moore and his associates will still find a lot to like here. One hopes this release signals something coming soon in the pipeline, as new music from the band is long overdue.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Cecil Taylor Quintet - Lifting the Bandstand (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2021) ****

As expected, the death of Cecil Taylor initiated a heightened interest in wrapping up his body of work with recordings that weren't released during his lifetime. Rather than being of interest solely to completists, they also provide insight into aspects of his music that were previously unavailable. One group that was oddly excluded from his official recordings, although not YouTube footage, was a quintet which sporadically performed in Europe from October 31, 1997 through May 15, 1999. The quintet, building upon the relationships begun in the 1988 FMP Berlin Taylor residency with cellist Tristan Honsinger and drummer Paul Lovens (whose reticence to play with Taylor was noted here), was supplemented by soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström, who had performed off and on with Taylor since 1990, and bassist Teppo Hauta-Aho added specifically for this group. An October 31, 1998 performance at the Tampere Jazz Happening was recorded by the Finnish Broadcasting Company where the tape apparently was set aside until the recent uptick of interest brought it to someone's attention.

The performance of “Desperados” - a free improvisation composed by the quintet (oddly divided into two parts in the digital version despite there being no obvious point of demarcation in the stream of sound) was a piece repeated elsewhere in other European settings. It was pointed out in the liners that Taylor enjoyed this group as a collective effort to the point of referring to it as such. Sjöström had wanted to play with him for a long time and appeared in other groupings such as a quartet with Jackson Krall and Dominic Duval who had two live recordings from the Iridium in NYC on Cadence Jazz Records and who I saw play at a Knitting Factory festival in the late nineties. Harri’s playing fits in well, darting in and out of Taylor's ideas with distinctive lines and is surely the saxophonist with the longest musical tenure with Cecil other than Jimmy Lyons. The beginning of the composition begins with ritual chanting but Cecil is joined in this by at least Honsinger, no stranger at vocalizing on his own recordings, and Sjöström. The piece takes its time building momentum, with the bass and cello being struck with soft mallets on the body and strings as Lovens and others add subtle percussion figures from things shaken or struck before the string instruments become plucked and bowed. Cecil and Harri enter briefly together to complete the participants. Taylor is still the eye of the hurricane but he's quite comfortable backing off to let others be featured at times only to subsequently return assertively. Lovens is clearly over his initial trepidation of playing with Taylor and joins the ranks of superb percussionists interacting well with the pianist with his unique approach, although the micing of the cymbals sometimes drowns out the strings during some of the more bombastic passages. But for most of the performance Lovens employs more delicate cymbal figures, not dissimilar to the Oxley approach while still being distinctly different, including using the bass drum pedal much more emphatically at times. Hauta-Aho and Honsinger add a dueling string presence lacking in Taylor’s small groups since the late 70s Unit with violinist Ramsey Ameen and bassist Sirone. The interplay among all the subgroups is never less than interesting as Taylor emphasizes the importance of having distinctly individual approaches as being key to group success. The title of the recording was given by Steve Lacy enthusiastically appearing backstage spontaneously and framing the performance appropriately.

Although there's a certain peril in not knowing what will unaccountably be uncovered in the future (I just received a Bandcamp notification of a 1990 live recording by the Legba Crossing group), this should close the book on Cecil's recorded work in terms of discovering working groups existing more than a year based on sessionographies. This recording does more than just fill in a previous vacuum; it adds a new chapter. Listeners interested in learning about the full scope of his music are advised to partake of this.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

أحمد [Ahmed] - Nights on Saturn (Communication) (Astral Spirits, 2021) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Beginning about 7 years ago, pianist Pat Thomas, bassist Joel Grip, and drummer Antonin Gerbal began playing and recording together as اسم [Ism], a name that represents something of a state of being that the group transforms into a richly layered, complex mix of forms and gestures. While the trio continues to explore new concepts—furthering the language of conventional Western concepts of a quote-unquote traditional jazz piano trio—shortly after this first album, they added altoist Seymour Wright and formed the flawless jazz quartet أحمد [Ahmed]. And, make no mistake, every single album they’ve recorded has been absolutely flawless, some of the highest high-wire group improvisation, with a tension and drama that I can barely imagine experiencing live. Lucky for us, the first two albums, and now their third, present أحمد recorded live, first in 2016, then 2018, and on the recent Nights on Saturn (Communication) in 2019, at Café OTO in London.

I first heard Grip when we ran an interview with him and reviewed the first Neuköllner Modelle album (I loved that one so much, I jumped to review their second album .) His playing is insistent without being pushy, energetic and urging, when paired with Gerbal’s surprisingly swinging, frenetic style. The opening of “Nights on Saturn (Communication)” has Gerbal laying down a funky shuffle, right before Wright and Thomas jump in with… but actually, none of it is what you think. In any other context, this quartet would be at the top of any list, the underpinnings of their collective movements are that strong. But, go crate digging and drop a needle (or press play) on “Nights on Saturn” from 1961’s The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik or “Communication” from 1962’s Sounds of Africa (or, you can hear both on the 2003 reissue Jazz Sounds of Africa, although why they went with that title, who can say). The first 30 seconds of both أحمد and Abdul-Malik’s recording sound almost exactly alike, but that’s where every expectation begins its gradual upendment: because the music أحمد is making isn’t merely a namesake nod to the great bassist’s compositions, it’s a kaleidoscopic reimagining of his works.

It seems hardly a coincidence Abdul-Malik was one of Monk’s core players: there is, in Monk, a constant refracting of his compositions, and many of the later performances, especially the live ones, showcase a group that appears to be playing through all previous realizations of that one song. And there’s something of that in a performance by أحمد, where the track being revisited, so to speak, is almost a conceptual framework, as opposed to a chart to perform. Thomas, who sometimes (read: often) is awkwardly ignored by USA jazz press, dominates his instrument, not unlike Cecil Taylor or Keith Tippett. His approach is multifaceted in the way Taylor’s was, amplified by richly emotive traverses through all ends of the keyboard, like Tippett. But even those contextual frames underplay Thomas’s innovations on the piano. In fact, it might be more appropriate to think of Thomas like Anthony Braxton, whose music Thomas has also performed , in this way: he (and, clearly, Wright, Grip, and Gerbal) thinks deeply about the historical-cultural throughlines of musical ideas, as well as the racist Western blockade that stifled or objectified many of those throughlines, carving gulfs of otherness between interconnected musics. And so, when Wright and Thomas jump in with chordal blocks and piercing harmonics, they’re pulling together so many different threads, it can be a challenge to keep up with. Add to that, the fact that Grip and Gerbal can move for an hour at uncomfortably fast tempos, and you’re in for a wash of improvisation that’s just dazzling. The music isn’t pried apart in the Western deconstructive context, it’s luxuriated in, realized anew, and expanded upon like a wave receding from a shore and echoing back through countless incoming breakers. Astonishingly, أحمد doesn’t really let the listener rest for a full 40 minutes, even on revisits I’ve been at the edge of my seat. Wright is remarkable on alto, his performance like a snarling, squealing fury buzzing in and around the group. When Grip takes a solo later in the song, Wright performs a brief buzz-by, a slight teasing exit before the spotlight on their namesake’s primary instrument. It’s an honorable gesture, like the cover photo of the man himself posing with his instrument, and draws a clear line back to the solo-trading of slightly more conventional bop. But it’s soon gone, as the remainder rejoins Grip, and the four of them go fussily forward, Wright squawking, Thomas parking chunky blocks in formation, and Gerbal almost breezily swinging forward. One can just make out a smile forming, possibly on all their faces. Oh, how I would love to be there next time.

Monday, June 21, 2021

DLW (Dell Lillinger Westergaard) - Beats (PLAIST, 2021) ****

By Martin Schray

After listening to DLW’s Beats again and again, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually a heavy metal album (okay, imagine Frank Zappa playing Mr. Bungle songs). Unplugged. Does that sound weird? A trio that consists of a vibraphonist (Christopher Dell), a double bassist (Jonas Westergaard) and a drummer (Christian Lillinger) that is usually linked to avant-garde/new classical music is said to play metal? However, if you put the electric guitars, the rather still ordinary melodic line and the enormous volume aside, there are astonishing parallels - even if the musicians might not agree. What’s immediately striking about Beats is DLW’s astonishing grace and dexterity with monotonous riffs and nervous, abstract grooves. Also, the individual pieces employ classic DLW philosophy: for example, cycling through the steps of a riff and webbing together the spaces between notes with rays of primness and super-dry minimalism. Dell’s vibraphone sounds like a sonic jack-o’-lantern, Westergaard’s pumps away grimly and Lillinger’s hectic activity threatens to pull the pieces apart.

Beats is the trio’s third installment. The recording offers a continuation of their research from Grammar I and Grammar II . Unlike its predecessors, however, Beats operates differently: “In Grammar I and II, large forms were created by processing minimal structures. On the other hand, the musical research in Beats cuts a large superstructure into minimal units, which are then processed through the procedures of iteration and reconfiguration,“ Christopher Dell explains. The result is that Beats swings less abstractly than the other albums. Therefore, it rather rocks. Still, the beat remains in the focus, which isn’t really surprising when three rhythm instruments are at work. In the process the three instruments merge into a monstrous, sprawling percussion generator. Although melodies often only appear in repetitive riffs (“Configuration II“ and “Configuration IX“), this music is by no means overly-intellectual. It breathes and refreshes. Discreetly placed tones form a web that might not invite humming along, but is not atonal either. Notes come hesitantly from the vibraphone, which in combination with Westergaard’s bass strokes form a steady lava flow that irresistibly pushes the music forward. The drums set splintered beats against it, several time signatures chasing each other like a drum’n’bass machine that's gone wild. What is more: Everything is of an enormous collective discipline. And yet there are shimmering moments when the pieces seem airy (“Configuration XII“). It’s not only mathematically interlaced sequences that build up tension, but also lovingly dabbed, tender sounds directly taken from a French Nouvelle Vague film from the 1960s.

The sound, which was consciously produced and designed, is very vivid, powerful, almost hyper-real. Besides the instruments, you can hear the musicians breathing, which brings the listener even closer to the action. Under these conditions, the pieces turn into acoustic conundrums. They call this “multi-perspectivity“ or “structured improvisation instead of free-jazz gadgetry“, as Christian Lillinger puts it.

At its best, Beats can be breathtaking by surprise, with stunning moments nested inside already unexpected settings. Great album, no doubt.

Beats is available on vinyl and as a CD. You can buy it from the label or from Christian Lillinger’s bandcamp site, where you can also listen to “Configuration II“:

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Susana Santos Silva & Torbjörn Zetterberg — Tomorrow (Porta Jazz, 2021) *****

 By Stef Gijssels

Two observations:
  1. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing how a famous classical music conductor coached a young string quartet he had never met before. He urged them to "stop playing the music and start being the music". He gave them concrete suggestions to go deeper into the music, to go deeper into themselves, to listen better to the others, to play with more abandon, to use their emotional energy, to go to the essence of the composition, to fully use the power of their instruments, and much more ... The result was remarkable (after a dozen attempts and corrections): a bland performance became a powerful rendition of the Bach piece. The musicians themselves were surprised by the result.
  2. I have these endless discussions with friends who cannot understand how the music I like (and you like) can in any way be called 'beautiful', 'artistic', 'aesthetic', or how these musicians have any sense of instrumental skill, discipline or even musical knowledge. I have long given up to convince them, using my standard phrase that music is a subjective experience and that I get a lot of satisfaction from this music that I cannot get from any other type of music. 

You probably already guess where this is going. First, both Susana Santos Silva on trumpet and Torbjörn Zetterberg on double bass deliver their music without restraints: they have become their music. It is intense, heartfelt, full of passion and delivered with the wonderful paradox of discipline and abandon. Second, this album is at the same time of a rare accessibility that it might even convince my friends of its beauty. It's hard to see what's not to like about this music, by anyone. 

Both musicians are life partners, and they have performed and recorded in many ensembles in recent years, including the Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, with Espen Aalberg's "Basement Sessions" with another review here, with Zetterberg's "Den Stora Frågan", "Om Live Och Död",  "The Great Question" and "Are You Happy", on Santos Silva's "Impermanence" and "The Ocean Inside A Stone", on "Life And Other Transient Storms", on "If Nothing Else" and "Hi! Who Are You?" with Hampus Lindwall, on Chris Pitsiokos "Child Of Illusion",  and not to forget Fire!'s "Actions". And I may have missed some. 

This is their second album as a duo, after the equally acclaimed "Almost Tomorrow" from 2013. This one is better by any measure. It's surprising that it took so long for the musical couple to record another duo album, but it is stellar and possibly worth the wait. The music is more creative, intense and with an astonishing interplay between the trumpet and the bass. The music was recorded earlier this year, on April 2nd in the St. Peter's Church in Stockholm. The environment sets the tone for a very expansive, spiritual kind of music, resonating in the space. 

The opening track sets the scene beautifully, with a drone-like arco bass and a similar low-pitch trumpet jointly creating a deeply resonating single sound, dark and ominous. The second track starts with high-pitched trumpet and plucked bass, the former reverberating in the space, the latter close and intimate. Both instruments seem to hesitate in a very human way, moaning and sad. On "Tomorrow", the trumpet soars, jubilates, with microtonal shifts accompanied by a solid bowed bass, and it evolves into a solemn subdued ending. "Observing The One" is more exploratory, with voiceless trumpet interacting with sparse notes on the bass. "Dreamers" is a kind of updated version of the "Song Of The Whales", with piercing flageolet tones and flute-like sounds from Santos Silva on her trumpet creating a light, eery, ephemeral soundscape. On "Contemplating The Other", a dark drone-like sound from the bass is juxtaposed by pure ascending lines by the trumpet, both resonating deeply in the church's space. The longest piece, "A Cry For Light" is my favourite. Zetterberg's plucked bass delivers little sonic bubbles, quite intimately, while Santos Silva's trumpet howls and wails with an uncanny human sonority. 

They manage to make each piece unique with a musical voice that is unheard of.  They have left the beaten track of any genre, while at the same time welcoming listeners to join the experience, appealing to deeply rooted universal feelings. The inventiveness of the sounds, and the fact that both musicians feel the same things with the same depth is possibly among the album's greatest strength. Everything has weight. Even in the simpler parts, every note and interplay has value and is of high quality. It is an ambitious album, and it delivers on its aspirations. 

Both musicians give themselves fully. They are the music. I truly hope this will give them the broader audience they deserve. I will start by convincing my friends. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Four Duos of Pianist Elisabeth Harnik

By Eyal Hareuveni

Austrian, classically-trained pianist Elisabeth Harnik loves the duo format. In recent years she toured and recorded with double bass master Joëlle Léandre, trombonist Steve Swell, and reeds player Frank Gratkowski. Her recent duos focus on meetings with distinct drummers-percussionists (and one lloopp software player), all highlighting her deep listening dialogs, her qualities as improvisers and spontaneous composer, and her rich and nuanced language.

Andrea Centazzo & Elisabeth Harnik – Duophonic Landscape (Klanggalerie, 2020) ****½ 

Harnik recorded Duophonic Landscape with Italian-born American composer-percussionist- multimedia artist and the Ictus record label founder Andrea Centazzo at a winery dug in a rock in Gorizia in Northern Italy in 2019. Both Harnik and Centazzo are well-versed with contemporary music and both are experienced in free-improvised meetings, and both have developed idiosyncratic languages. Centazzoo uses an array of about 200 percussion instruments - many of them are cymbals and gongs, and the latest models of digital percussion linked to the computer. Harnik uses the whole piano - keyboards, strings and its wooden body, as her playground.

The seven, distinct parts of Duophonic Landscape offer mysterious, imaginative and detailed improvisations. These improvisations enjoy the unique acoustics of the winery and explore ideas from exotic rituals and sonorities, expansive modern forms and engaging free improvisation, but never losing its focus and its refined sense of using the process of improvisation as means for spontaneous composition. Harnik often uses the piano as a percussive instrument that extends the sonic palette of the percussion instruments of Centazzo. Centazzo employs his sampler to introduce, suggestive, cinematic narratives, especially on the third part of Duophonic Landscape. In the fifth part, Harnik and Centazzo suggest a delicate and highly resonating, meditative texture that blossoms into a beautiful and gentle melody.

Trombonist Steve Swell, who recorded a duo with Harnik (Tonotopic Organizations, Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2020) ‎and in a quartet With Centazzo (Latecomers, Ictus, 2013), observes in his short liner notes that Duophonic Landscape is the “perfect antidote to another day in the confines of the Corona-Virus Blues”. He concludes: “the improvisations on this recording radiate with life and provide an expansive look into the deeper reaches of our minds”, and he is absolutely right.

More here:

Elisabeth Harnik & Michael Zerang – Dream Disobedience (Not Two, 2021) ****

Harnik recorded a live concert with Chicagoan sax hero Dave Rempis and drummer Michael (Triple Tube, Not Two, 2020), a day after recording her duo with Zerang, Dream Disobedience. This album was recorded live at Španski Borci, Ljubljana, Slovenia in March 2019.

Dream Disobedience offers a totally different atmosphere to the piano-drummer-percussionist format. It distills a decade-long collaboration into a 35-minute reserved and introspective suite. Both Harnik and Zerang avoid conventional techniques and forms and rely on their inventive extended techniques - rubbing and attaching objects to the skins of the drums and bowing the cymbals or playing inside the piano and attaching resonant objects to the strings. Here Harnik and Zerang act as highly inventive sound artists who make full use of the wood, skin and metal sonic properties of their instruments, but always attentive to each other’s gestures and always letting the music flow in its own course and its own time. There are times in the first half of this suite when it is difficult to know who is doing what. Mid-piece Harnik and Zerang assume the roles of a pianist and a drummer and settle for a brief and intense free jazz duet, but soon return to their very own abstract and enigmatic, and sometimes even dreamy sound-oriented conversation.

 More here: 


Elisabeth Harnik & Paal Nilssen-Love – Tangram (Catalytic Sound, 2020) ***½

, Harnik’s live duo with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was recorded at the Sugar Maple club in Milwaukee in June during the Okkafest. All proceeds from this album will go to the no-profit organization Stand by Me Lesvos, founded by Lesvos residents who have created a safe, positive space, where local Greeks, refugees and international team members are all working side by side, just a walking distance from the overcrowded Moria.

On Tangram, Harnik and Nilssen-Love assume the roles of free jazz pianist and drummer, employing the piano and the drum-set in more conventional manners, but, obviously, in a highly creative and powerful free-improvised setting. Harnik attempts to conceptualize the first piece “Flying Bird” as an instant composition, with a loose theme and structure, but the intense, free-flowing interplay with Nilssen-Love proves otherwise. Nilssen-Love takes the lead on the second 32-minute of “Lying Bird” and frames it first with intense and energetic sonic searches, but later visiting even abstract, resonant and noisy sonic territories, all with the same level of uncompromising energy. Harnik is a perfect partner to this kind of open-ended and inventive improvisation that demands constantly super-fast responses. Mid-piece she suggests a minimalist and lyrical melody that triggers a gentle and introspective abstraction by Nilssen-Love, but he knows how to bring this improvisation back to its fiery course and catalytic coda.

Elisabeth Harnik & Christof Kurzmann - Prozession (Catalytic Sound, 2021) ***½

Prozession is the exception in this series of duos. Harnik meets here fellow-Austrian, Viennese player of the lloopp software Christof Kurzmann for a live performance at Echoraum, Vienna in October 2020. Like Tangram, all proceeds from the sale of Prozession will go to an charity, in this case the Austrian charity Flüchtlingsprojekt Ute Bock ("Refugee Project Ute Bock") that offers free, supervised accommodations to asylum seekers.

Kurzmann expands the sonic spectrum of the piano with electronic magic sounds, injecting mysterious, resonant undercurrents to Harnik’s playing on the keyboard and inside the piano. Harnik responds immediately to Kurzmann’s sounds and creates again and again brief and abstract sonic storms that trigger, in their turn, more electronic abstractions by Kurzmann. This delicate negotiation of distinct and contrasting sonic options is going on throughout the 25-minute of ”Prozession I”. On the shortest, following piece Harnik and Kurzmann sound like some kind of twisted strings instrument players and offer a strange kind of noisy-chamber soundscape. ”Prozession III” suggests an intense, almost free jazz improvisation. ”Prozession IV” is an open-ended, poetic conversation between these imaginative sound artists. The last piece adds exotic and enchanting Far-Eastern sounds to this refined dialog.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Ochs/Robinson Duo A Civil Right (ESP-Disk, 2021) ****½

By Stuart Broomer

Saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Don Robinson have enjoyed a long musical partnership, dating from their joint membership in Glenn Spearman’s Double Trio in the early 1990s. Since then, Robinson has been a regular member, with Scott Amendola, of Ochs’ Drumming Core, while as a duo, Ochs and Robinson have previously released The Throne in 2015.

Only strong affinity could sustain so long a partnership, and it’s evident in the first moments of the opening improvisation, “Arise the Poet.” Ochs establishes immediately that he’s a poet of myriad voices, from a shofar-like call to prayer, to a burst of signature free jazz squall, to a lower register blast. The unflappable Robinson seemingly reacts to none of this, gradually creating a moving, rolling set of rhythmic possibilities, at first seemingly attendant only to itself. As the sustained piece assembles, Ochs explores various paths through the fields of shifting rhythms and sonorities that Robinson presents, including cymbal taps against snare pattern, all of it admirably lucid and almost ceremonial as Ochs creates an episodic narrative, finding a timbre, wedding it to a phrase, developing the pattern through incremental shifts in dynamics then making wholesale changes. There’s a long stretch in which he lights on a kind of Caribbean nocturne, absolutely lucid, with hints, too, of the Eastern Mediterranean as well, but utterly unexpected in terms of its beginnings, and limpidly majestic enough to suggest, say, Webster and Hawkins essaying “La Rosita,” than Ochs’ likelier references to Coltrane, Shepp and Ayler.

Robinson’s “Yesterday and Tomorrow” begins with bursts and splashes of cymbals before Ochs enters on sopranino with a melody suspended between the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Only lightly accompanied by Robinson, it’s the gentlest exploration, piping highs and Morse code rhythms, music oddly piquant and sweet.

There’s a military roll and an aligned insistence at the outset of Robinson’s “A Civil Right,” and a truncated, martial, if still slightly reflective, melody. Ochs slips from warm, low blasts to hollowed-out, upper-register shrieks as he develops his tale, a kind of blues-drenched lament, as resolute as sorrowful, as laconic as it is rich in inference, Robinson essentially keeping time, as sparely as possible, time as witness, as Ochs ultimately contrasts upper-register eloquence with low-register sighs.

Ochs’ “The Others Dream” is an extended exploration on tenor, announced with the briefest of melodies on sopranino. It builds through forceful shouts and truncated moans, gradually assembling power with Robinson’s building drums. Eventually Ochs unrolls a powerful, secure voice, bending modal phrases in his lower register until there’s a rare oratorical power resembling no one other than Ochs himself, gaining in force and focus until the ever-supportive Robinson comes to the fore in a solo of militaristic precision and economy. When Ochs returns, he’s on sopranino, pressing the high-pitched horn through bending phrase and high-pitched cries to a muffled middle-register episode that sounds like the murmurs of nesting birds before Robinson plays it out to the conclusion.

Ochs’ concluding “Regret” seems more reflective than regretful, a ballad-tempo tenor meditation that serves to encapsulate a sometimes stark, brilliantly focussed program.

While the saxophone-and-drums format may suggest a certain excess, Ochs and Robinson invert the expectation, creating profoundly elegiac music with an economy that only magnifies its power. Recorded in 2018/19, it might suggest a Trump-era Jeremiad; heard in 2021, it’s larger than that: wise survivors reassembling, still whole, facing the difficult prospects of renewal.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Anthony Braxton – 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 (Firehouse 12, 2021) - Part 3

By Keith Prosk

Compositions 418, 419, 420

In 2018, freshly wedded, my partner and I decided to honeymoon in Naxos and Thera. Nearly all the flights seemed to connect through London and, since we’re not frequent international travellers, I took this as perhaps the only chance I might ever have to visit Cafe OTO, a kind of mecca for this music, if there was something amazing happening. A three-day Anthony Braxton residency, presenting some new ZIM system, serendipitously aligned with our return trip from the Cyclades. So we booked it. And we honeymooned with Braxton. At the time, I wasn’t able to find much information on ZIM but I now know we saw the septet of Braxton (reeds), Taylor Ho Bynum (brass), Jean Cook (violin), Jacqueline Kerrod (harp), Adam Matlock (accordion, aerophones), Miriam Overlach (harp), and Dan Peck (tuba) perform compositions 418-420, the last three performances presented on 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017.

A few flashbulb memories. The oppressive heat of the first night, every performer sweating through their clothes before even beginning to play, possibly enfeebling performance and seemingly cutting it short - though you certainly can’t hear it in this recording. The startling immediacy and intensity of Adam Matlock’s voicings, some operatic vibrato alternating intonations between the funereal and braggadocio. Miriam Overlach’s own otherworldly voicings into the harp soundboard. The scrape and hiss and depth of Jean Cook’s tensive string noise. The many embouchures of Taylor Ho Bynum emitting a menagerie of sounds and the occasional humor of it, like a wet smothering mouthing sounding like some flustered water fowl. Peaking over to see a player’s notes containing some confusion around aspects of the language musics no doubt relatable to many experiencers. And catching a glimpse of some Z-series inserts, seemingly some evolution of the pulse tracks developed around the time of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet. The ensemble a parabola with Braxton and Bynum co-conducting at the roots. The enthusiasm of Braxton’s hand signaling. Indeed how the energy of the sound imbued Braxton with an uninhibited genuine joy that permeated the room. And of course the dizzying density of the music.

Like the performatively impossible density of ZIM notation requires players to extract a performance from it, the density of a performance - let alone the mass of this set of twelve - requires a listener to extract an interpretation. And like this extraction process creates a gradient of valid performances and interpretations, the salient characteristics of ZIM all deal in gradational processes or gradient logics, the eleventh of Braxton’s foundational language musics. It’s telling that many of my memories are of textural techniques, and I think that listeners will find ZIM among the most textural of Braxton’s systems. Compared to discretized pitches in tonality, the pervasive use of extended techniques in these compositions illuminate the spectrum, or gradient, of timbral identities. The ensemble does something similar on the macroscale, transposing patterns across instruments, the tuba picking up a melodic line from the accordion that picked up the melodic line from the trumpet, like fluid percolating through the various local porosities of a material. A gradational zooming, most obvious in Braxton’s sax, occurs too, the smooth curves of melodic lines transitioning back and forth between flurries of notes like the raw data points that form the curve. And the music is always mercurial, its dynamics and densities swiftly traversing hilly countries, a constant contraction and expansion, sometimes together through complete stop-start strategies or a noirish orchestral throb. Extramusically, this particular ensemble might resemble some gradationial synthesis of genre, with apparent roots in jazz and classical but other musics too, the tuba and accordion perhaps recalling oompah or polka, the harps something Appalachian.

By virtue of its density and duration and nature, especially when taken as a set of twelve, ZIM performances - each seemingly beginning and ending in media res - might induce a feeling unfixed states, unsure how you got there and where you came from, how you are there and where you are, how you’re going to get there and where you are going. It invites you to zoom in but it takes time to hear the trees for the forest. So I hope it’s understandable, if still unsatisfactory, that it’s difficult to describe individual compositions. Various players have their nights in the spotlight, and I think you’ll hear the whole ensemble become increasingly energized from 418 to 419 to 420. 419 might emphasize stop-start strategies and 420 transposed patterns. But, as with all grand statements of Braxton’s systems, there’s a special joy not in knowing its nooks and crannies upon meeting but in knowing it is an endless well of new experiences with each listen.


Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3