By Paul Acquaro
|Luis Vicente. Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música|
|Broken Shadows. Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música|
By Paul Acquaro
|Luis Vicente. Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música|
|Broken Shadows. Photo by Vera Marmelo – Gulbenkian Música|
The improvised duet is a form with its own particular risks, liable to fall into the traditional pattern of melodic lead and accompaniment or, worse still, the instruments parroting one another in a kind of virtuoso mimicry. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen with these three distinct combinations. Each consists of two closely related instruments, and each strives for both a pointed layering and a detailed exploration of a special sonic combination, whether it’s a matter of locale or pitch range. Operating in different zones of free improvisation, each possesses a profound acuity to sound.
The most dramatic packaging and locales undoubtedly belong to the Lithuanians Mockūnas (playing sopranino, soprano, tenor, bass and keyless overtone saxophones) and Kazlauskas (on soprano, alto and baritone). The two LPs are presented in a gatefold jacket of stunning heft and a rich brown tone suggesting the earth itself dictated the presentation.
The first LP, The Bog Sessions, was recorded in a Latvian peat bog, the second, with audience, in a Peat Amphitheatre, constructed by artist Jānis Gutāns-Grasis and oriented to the path of the sun. The two sites serve as environmental and cultural stimulation, the peat bog both site of human sacrifice and preserver of human bodies and source of heat. The spongy material also emphasizes bass frequencies, giving special weight to the lower horns.
The journey into the peat bog may be considered a speculative study of resonance and material, but there’s also a lot more going on. “Taka” is a squall of alternating honks, sounding like a combative robotic dance (flesh into metal into flesh) in which the inhabitants of Doctor Moreau’s island and Metropolis ‒ animals, humans, robots or various interspecies and changelings ‒ have gotten together for doomsday. “Madla” sounds like Albert Ayler delivering a tenor sermon with Charles Tyler providing a baritone refrain.
Moving to the Peat Amphitheatre, the duo again explores multiple voices: “Turbs” is an extended duet that includes free lines in propulsive rhythmic unison; “Šmekla” emphasizes low-pitched plosives; “Zilās Sūnas” is intense, blues-driven free jazz. “Strāuwa” begins in the light metallic percussion of tapping on a saxophone or rapid fingering, likely without blowing through it; eventually becoming dense two-part music, one saxophone sounding like a flute recording played backwards. “Gyvatyne” begins as a kind of mad barnyard pecking at the edge of meaning, gradually evolving into a kind of strange trio, likely Kazlauskas playing baritone while Mockūnas plays soprano and sopranino simultaneously.
This Portuguese duo seems to explore landscape in a similar way, though the scale of their instruments ‒ Pinheiro’s grand piano and Carneiro’s marimba with quarter-tone extension ‒ confines them to a concert stage. Pinheiro may be best known for his role in Red Trio, the Lisbon-based group with a 13-year history that has recorded memorable collaborations with John Butcher and Nate Wooley, though his expressive range extends to noise-edged electric piano in Luis Lopes’ Lisbon Berlin Quartet. If Carneiro sounds like a classical virtuoso, it’s because he is, a distinguished performer and conductor who has been engaged with improvised music for at least a decade, performing in small groups with violinist Carlos Zingaro. Pinheiro’s grand piano is a wonder of resonance, but so too is Carneiro’s marimba, producing echoing pedal tones that reverberate around a room, and sometimes suggest the music of Harry Partch. Each musician improvises with a heightened precision, a refinement that might even suggest that they are reading, though no scores are apparent nor are there individual composition credits. Instead, the two move with a kind of natural fluency, ears wide open to the exchange, one’s phrase launching the other’s in music that often possesses an ecstatic flight and drift.
“Étude 4: On Impact and Orbit” (the titling emphasizes classical roots) might suggest Debussy and Scriabin, a wondrous marriage of the vague and the precise, an ideally blurred clarity in which the complexity of the flight is perfectly delineated, blurred only in the listener’s reception. “Étude 5: On Resistance and Mass” explores and contrasts the instruments’ sounds, Pinheiro’s almost arch clarity seemingly leading, while Carneiro’s liquid, low-pitched, reverberant sounds seem to burble up from oceanic depths until the two converge in near unison patterns, sounding like a single vast instrument occupying multiple elements.
What Pinheiro and Carneiro do for low frequency wood and strings, Armaroli (prepared xylophone) and Turner (drums & percussion) do for high-pitched metal, their sounds often suggesting a metal that shatters like glass…continuously and of its own free will. If the previous recordings reference “free jazz” and “classical” music respectively, Armaroli and Turner may insist on the elusive “non-idiomatic improvisation”, somehow a category without analogues. However, their work, here and elsewhere, is rich in analogies. Armaroli’s recent recordings include the brilliant Deconstructing Monk in Africa (Dodicilune) with trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini, on which Armaroli plays a broad range of African percussion. Here his xylophone manages to sound both whimsical and random. Turner, who brings a brilliant 50-year career in free improvisation to bear here, simultaneously emphasizes early jazz techniques, a narrow pitch spectrum emphasizing bright high sounds and astonishing rates of sonic event: he’s very fast, reminding one that the more profoundly engaged a music is in its instantaneous present, the harder it is to describe its passage through time.
The music begins with a sufficiently light fleetness to suggest the possibility of the Red Norvo trio (the one with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus) playing a John Cage chance composition on 52nd Street 70 years ago. The analogy may seem extreme, but there‘s a kind of simultaneous attentiveness to the nanosecond and a special relationship to historical time, a rapid invocation and a quick erasure, reminding one that, in the 1940s, avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham engaged New Orleans drum pioneer Baby Dodds for a duet performance. It’s all music of light (as if the sound of that breaking glass percussion came from light bulbs) from the brilliant play of “Rhumba Valley” to the underwater nocturne of “Charlotte’s Underwear Dance” and the distinctive mysteries of “Breath-In”.
More info here.
By Tom Burris
2020 was a bad experience for everyone. And if you were a musician you pretty much lost your gig. Recordings don't pay enough to sustain any of our outcat heroes – and they couldn't get together in a studio to record anyway due to the unpredictable nature of a potentially fatal virus wreaking havoc on all of humanity. We know what happened next; and although it wasn't ideal it was still great. We got to see things we never would have seen otherwise, most likely. Highlights of the online streaming concert experience included watching chickens walk on processed sound sources in Aaron Dilloway's house and getting up close and personal with Dave Rempis in his practice closet in the Unity Lutheran Church in Chicago. A new and different world wields new and different experiences – and streaming concerts helped soothe and/or stimulate most of us in a time of need - players, promoters and listeners alike.
For his solo closet sessions, Rempis got back to playing standards quite a bit. It appears that going back to one's roots happened frequently for people during 2020. I logged more time listening to the Stones, Velvets, Dylan and old blues records than I probably had in the last 20 years. There's comfort in them there grooves. It's where I came from. It's home. So it's not surprising that Dave dug up the old standards to cope with the new and shitty world that was being heaped upon us and repeatedly made worse by a U.S. government that mismanaged literally everything in sight – and that also doubled down on the incompetence with red-faced belligerence whenever it was called out. Good times. My sincerest best wishes for the people of Brazil and India, who are still in the heat of it all. What can we do other than throw money at the problem? This could become an entire essay that would take away from the matter at hand – but we are all unfocused as the US and Europe slowly open back up to something resembling “normalcy”. Everyone I know is stressed and questioning almost every aspect of their lives. The one thing I think we can all agree on is that we should never go back to the way things were before. We should use this time as an opportunity for positive change. We could do worse than to use the model of the streaming concert as an example of how to cope – and move forward. Sound naive? Then you weren't there. Beauty counts. Kindness counts. Musicians and venues brought it and we paid for the experience in kind. It benefited everyone who participated. We got through (most of) the pandemic together via computer screens, which as I said before isn't ideal, but it's what we had & it did the fucking job. Now if we could figure out a way for some of these folks to make a decent living from their art... Onward!
Where was I? Oh yeah, Rempis and standards. These solo pieces are an absolute joy. Joe McPhee's “Knox” kicks off the first disc with a succinct introduction to the approach he'll take on most of them: long, soulful, sometimes mournful tones that alternate with perfectly timed blasts of inspired freedom. “Just A Gigolo” is played slowly and sweetly. Legato – not at all punchy like Monk's version(s) but just as effective. Rempis says it's an appropriate tune for his online performance hustle. Not sure I agree as it feels more like a gift than a business transaction. He flutters his way through “On Green Dolphin Street” like he was born to play it, constantly flowing between melodicism and free ecstatic lines of ornithology. The closer for the entire double-disc set is Duke and Strayhorn's “Isfahan,” which shows Dave's apparent love of the melancholy standard in blazing lights. It's a stunner. He could have easily compiled a solo disc of these, but I think I like it better in this format: solo tracks alternating with group collaborations. Breaks everything up nicely.
The collaborative tracks here were recorded at Margate Park in Chicago, with the exception of “Toron” with Tim Daisy, which was laid down at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee. “Toron” is a standout, beginning quietly as a bicycle wheel's spokes are struck with playing cards (not literally) accompanied by a wheezing threat. Rusty squeaks and junkyard pounding follow, building tension until Jazzbo the Snake Charmer shows up for a slow musical poem before the snake dances its way out the hat. And what a dance! Daisy matches Rempis' loping, fast lines with precision and fire. Rempis gets a solo spot in the middle that is inventive as hell, free as the blazing sun – then Tim re-enters swinging like Klook, the snare accents so infectious you can't help but move your feet. They kick back and forth between swinging bop and unhinged freedom like it's nothing – and it's incredibly exhilarating. The remaining collaborative tracks have more of a bootleg feel to them, which works incredibly well aesthetically. The outdoor setting lends itself to a flat sound, but is perfectly rounded out by the environmental sonics that inevitably slip into the recordings. The trio that Rempis has with Joshua Abrams and Tyler Damon on “Skin and Bones” sounds like a modernized version of the classic Sonny Rollins Trio to me – and I'm not exaggerating. Tomeka Reid and Abrams form automatic chords effortlessly on “In The Wild,” which Rempis weaves swift lines above – perhaps an homage to the birds present that day. Cicadas attempt to take over by the end of the piece, and there is a natural response from the musicians. “Glitch” is probably my favorite of the collabs and features percussion wunderkind Tyler Damon. He takes a nice long stretch to feel his way toward an addictive groove before Rempis joins in, with Damon adding incredibly interesting variations on the groove. Clyde Stubblefield and ecstatic Trane. Then suddenly there is calm. Long notes from Dave and wind chimes from Tyler. Builds to an interstellar storm, but more BYG than Impulse. The last several minutes barrel out like absolute best of the freedom sixties. Superb.
By Tom Burris
On their way to a gig in Geneva, the Rempis Percussion Quartet encountered issues with the train they were riding. Specifically, the train lost the use of its braking system and came to a dead stop on the tracks. After much difficulty and stress, the band thankfully made the gig which is lovingly preserved right here on the band's tenth official release. All of the titles here reference the railway hassle with the exception of “Odwalla” which is an Art Ensemble of Chicago cover that casually leads into an original composition called “Evacuation,” which is also this recording's centerpiece. But let's start at the beginning...
“There's a Jam on the Line” starts tentatively, like an engine sputtering through multiple starting attempts. When it gently fires the hum is barely noticeable. Movement happens trepidatiously but gathers steam and purpose after a couple of minutes. The twin engine percussionists Tim Daisy & Frank Rosaly, fifteen years in the chassis, spark bold melodic statements from reed man Dave Rempis and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten as support steadily strengthens. A slow groove cushions Rempis' first swing for the fences easily and smoothly. Rosaly and Daisy now reveal why they've had a lock on this band for so long. They are perfect foils for each other, consistently filling in for one another and contrasting styles in a way that supports the music as a whole. Flaten becomes an extra catalyst, pushing the others forward until the entire unit is in full flight, unraveling and revealing new music rapidly and with precision.
Next up is “Odwalla / Evacuation,” which follows a similar performance model as the first track, but stretches and extends it in terms of both time and construct. The build from the beginning is nearly seven minutes long, which made me a bit impatient for the payoff to be honest – but good things come to those who wait, and if you skip over those first seven minutes it's just not going to have the same result. Trust me, I went back and listened to it that way later. You have to listen to all of the pencils, pots, squeaks and kettle taps. Out of that Rempis emerges playing circular patterns while Flaten rumbles (mainly) on a single note. Finally the slow build reaches an ecstatic plateau. This one is so much higher than the heights reached in “There's a Jam on the Line” - and this seems entirely impossible. If the first track takes you into the realm of rapture, this one is a complete out-of-body experience. It lasts for quite a while – but not nearly long enough. Extraordinary.
Rempis takes a solo at the beginning of “Late Arrival,” alternating free overblown insanity with more conventionally melodic runs. The trio arrives in a blast from underneath, with Flaten's bowing serving as a flapping magic carpet. By the 2:30 mark, the entire band is weightless and barely able to hang onto their own clatter – approximating the panic involved when one is hopelessly late for an appointment. Conversely, the last three minutes are an accurate interpretation of the exact moment of arrival, as they are as peaceful, relaxing, and extremely winded.
By Nick Ostrum
Pickups and analog alchemist Tim Olive could easily fall into doldrums of repetition, or variations so subtle only the performer and the most well-honed ears could detect them. However, he somehow manages to create something distinct with each release, even if his recordings carry certain recognizable elements that fall into the Olive aesthetic. These releases are no exception.
Rasputitsa is Russian for “the season of bad roads,” an annual part of spring wherein the ground is not quite defrosted enough to absorb excess water but the ground temperature is not quite cold enough to maintain the sheets of snow and ice that had built up over the winter. Hence, a period wherein ice and water coexist but do not mix, wherein one might be best to stay inside when they can find respite and maybe even jam with a recent acquaintance.
Although this was recorded in Kobe, Japan, a locale that does not experience a Rasputitsa like electronicist Sergey Kostryrko’s native St. Petersburg, the title perfectly captures the sense of isolation, solitude, and detachment that Rasputitsa, the album, conjures. Culled from hours of recordings from just a couple of nights of collaboration, these four tracks are carefully constructed crossed frequencies in a soundworld of abandoned warehouses, corroding industrial complexes, and desolate snow, or rather that brief part of a verdant spring when one can see the end of winter’s quarantine but one cannot quite touch it. (NB: This was recording in March 2019, long before the pandemic.) Rasputitsa seems a narrative of human contact warped by electronic media. A distant radio mashes static, industrial ambience, and textured electronic crackles. Muffled engines churn and hollow tones agitate to rise above the underlying ambient susurrations. Detached hisses ride atop jangling metallics. The result sounds somewhat flat, but all electro-improv does not have to plumb the sonic depths or create wormholes of noise. Instead, Rasputitsa seems content to survey time and two-dimensional space, evoking radio transmission from an unknowable sender, intertwined with other ambient electronic fragments whose origins and meanings remain cryptic.
Eidolon , Greek for a figure, representation, or phantom, presents a wonderful contrast to Rasputitsa. I would like to attribute as much of this to the different musical setting and list of collaborators as to any particular vision Olive himself brings to the table. Stated differently, as much as he and Kostyrko are responsive to one another and adapt their playing in real time to the moods and sounds that surround them, Joda Clément, Mathieu Ruhlmann and Olive are, as well, and to quite different an effect.
With Clément on MS-20, harmonium, glockenspiel, field recordings, and feedback, Ruhlmann on ukelin, cymbal, tapes, and various objects and Olive on an assortment of deconstructed electronics, Eidolon sounds full, even crowded. Although many of the sonic scraps brought to the table are muted and sound distant, the overall effect has more auditory depth and direction (minus the linearity implied) than Rasputitsa. Some of this may come from the periodic surfacing of distorted voices which hint at a narrative that remains elusive to me. Some may come from the found sounds and field recordings, which are prevalent, and the acoustic instruments which serve to deepen the daze and abruptly break the spell, or at least switch the scene. Even the electronics adopt an acoustic timbre through much of this. The result is Eidolon, a finely crafted electro-acoustic session by three of the foremost practitioners of this type of spectral EAI minimalism. Another fine addition to the catalogs of Olive, Ruhlmann and Clément and very much in the vein of what those familiar with the Caduc and 845 Audio sound might expect: abrasive and deceptively static at times, but textured, meandering, and hauntingly beautiful, like an aural exploration of Jasper Johns’ phantasmic experiments with gray on gray.
Despite his penchant for collaboration, Olive has, from time to time, embarked on recorded solo ventures. Spot of the Foul (total mass retain) is his second ever and first in 13 years.
Spot of the Foul is heavier than Rasputitsa and Eidolon and, for that, I would even say it is stronger. Olive’s music is always engaging and thoughtful. Here, however, it seems he was able to set aside his aptitude for responsivity and shaping his sound to that of his collaborators and pursue a project wherein he only needed to respond to himself.
Spot of the Foul is dark and dense. It leans more toward noise than most of his more variegated EAI collaborations have. As the listener allows themself to get lost in the thick morass of drone and pulsing mechanics that characterize the album, however, they might begin to notice the delicacy and intricacy of it all. This is not just a wall of sound, albeit one filtered through Olive’s unique array of tools (magnetic pickups, metal plates, springs, wire, tuning forks, electromagnets, bow, breath, dental floss, envelope generator, fuzz, spring reverb, preamplifier) and sensibilities. It is a textured and undulating interweaving of the subtle and the amplified. His characteristic creaks, radar beeps, and engine thrumps are there. Here, however, they are complemented with a heavy underlying bass, mechanical growls, grinding feedback and a density of gloomy and harsh atmospherics uncharacteristic of Olive’s other work. This creates a dense but variegated fabric of entangled, metallic threads. Together, they clash, rattle, and resonate in some very intriguing ways.
Spot of the Foul shows another side of Olive, one that apparently required solitude to coax out. It is gloomier than much of his other output, more doom and heavy, multihued drone than the EAI, wavering between patient minimalism and electro-clatter, that Olive frequently explores. I am not sure whether Olive intends to continue exploring these darker corners, but, if he does, Spot of the Foul bodes well for what he will find.
By Stef Gijssels
We love solo bass albums, and it seems that they keep coming in great numbers. The overview below is indeed nothing more than that: an overview, a list that allows bass afficionados to be informed on new material and see what pleases them by clicking on the links. I think that I have not listened enough to each album to provide a star rating.
Needless to mention it, but several of the albums have been recorded during lockdown moments across the world, from Argentina over Portugal to the United States and the United Kingdom.
William Parker - Live Ateliers Claus (Les Albums Claus, 2021)
We will start with William Parker, who has already been very prolific lately. This album was recorded in June 2014 in the somewhat less known Ateliers Claus in Brussels, a concert venue with a very independent choice of artists in any genre or style. They have now started releasing albums with the strong recognisable visual approach (the photo of a tool against a white background).
Parker offers us two very long improvisations, one of 37 and the other of 28 minutes. The first is a surprisingly calm piece for plucked bass, and the occasional spontaneous emergence of a steady rhythm never lasts long. On the second piece he takes his bow, and the intensity increase as does the pace of the music.
Despite his huge output during his long career, William Parker has only released six solo albums, including this one: Testimony (1996), Lifting The Sanctions (1998), At Somewhere There (2010), Crumbling In The Shadows Is Fraulein Miller's Stale Cake (2011), Option Audio 005 (2018).
Even if the album does not add much to his catalogue musically, fans will surely want to check it out.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Gonçalo Almeida - Monologos A Dois (A New Wave Of Jazz , 2021)
Portugese double bass player Gonçalo Almeida has been residing in Rotterdam for many years, performing with jazz musicians from both countries, and with lots of positive acclaim: Wilbert de Joode, Martin van Duynhoven, Raoul van der Weide, Susana Santos Silva, Rodrigo Amado, Luis Vicente, to name just a few. He is also known from the very idiosyncratic music of bands like Albatre, Spinifex and Tetterapadequ, of which more can be found through our search engine.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Hernâni Faustino - Twelve Bass Tunes (Phonogram Unit, 2021)
We know Hernâni Faustino probably best from the wonderful RED Trio and many other ensembles. Type his name in the search engine on our blog and you'd be suprised how many albums show up. Primarily self-taught, Faustino's has his own approach, combining a natural lyricism with an equally natural sense of creating anticipation. The twelve pieces he serves us are quite intimate, with such a good production quality that you feel real close to the music, as if he's playing next to you. The pieces are varied, with slowly built narratives revolving around silence (as in Pertença Do Gato Grande), more abrasive and exploratory tracks (as in Luar) or the dark Com Venus. One of Faustino's greatest strengths is his capacity to build tension in every piece.
This is his first solo album.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Noah Punkt - Scene/ Yet Very (Otherunwise, 2020 & 2021)
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Maximiliano Kirszner - Isla (Ears & Eyes Records, 2020)
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Dion Nijland - I Play Me (Trytone, 2021)
Listen and buy from the label.
Dominic Lash - Necessity (TakuRoku, 2020)
Listen and buy from the label.
Asger Thomsen - Solipsis (Polyjuxta Records, 2021)
What he does on "Solipsis" is uncompromising and that he deserves credit for this. His music is a very physical exploration of the possible sounds of his instrument, including extended techniques, and this in a coherent way (as in the opposite of experimental sounds for the fun of coming up with unheard noises) to create musical narratives. He uses his instrument as it is on all tracks, except for "Samsa", the longest piece for which he prepared his instrument, allowing to have multilayered sounds and different sonic dynamics.
His music will not be to everyone's taste but you can only admire Thomsen's willingness to "go for it".
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Nat Baldwin - Autonomia III - Endnotes (Tripticks Tapes, 2020)
American bassist Nat Baldwin has made it a speciality to release solo bass albums, with his first one, called "Solo Contrabass", dating from 2003. His stylistic scope ranges from singer songwriter over folk rock to avant-garde. Some of his solo albums showcase his songs, accompanied only by his bass.
On the "Autonomia" trilogy, he takes his art deep into the minimalist avant-garde, reducing the sound of his instrument to repetitive, often monotonous and muted bows. His musical vision is quite singular and requires some effort to listen to. This will not be to everyone's taste, and that's a compliment.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
The way that I relate to Jen Shyu’s work has evolved. When I first listened some years ago, it eluded me. But the more I learn about what’s behind and inside the music she makes, the more curious I get, and the more incredible it becomes.
Zero Grasses began as a musical-theatrical work that was commissioned by John Zorn, and it premiered onstage in October 2019. Earlier in that year, Shyu was in Japan, had planned to be there for six months of research for Zero Grasses, but it was cut short when she was notified that her father had suddenly died. The album Zero Grasses is dedicated to him, as well as being “a mourning and reckoning for women and people of color, across time and into this pandemic” (album liner notes). After the pandemic struck, Shyu was moved to rework and re-record most of the songs that made it onto the album, entrusting a timeliness and urgency that also captures the renewed social demands for racial justice following numerous tragic events in the U.S. during 2020.
Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses is an album of resolute compositions—attending to “joy and anger, sorrow and happiness”—expressed through evocative improvisions. The pieces were composed by Shyu, and in addition to singing she plays piano, Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, and percussion. She performs with a deeply talented ensemble called Jade Tongue, comprised of Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Mat Maneri (viola), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums). While Shyu’s voice and lyrics are often the sonic focal point, they hang on a canvass of the ensemble’s creative instrumentation.
Throughout Zero Grasses, Shyu integrates a multitude of socio-cultural, historical, and personal influences of her art, all while giving a masterclass in vocal styles and techniques. She sings in at least five languages (of the ten she speaks). “Display Under the Moon” is a traditional Japanese song with Shyu on the biwa, a wooden lute which she plays with a piercing, aggressive string attack, like shots fired amidst the gentle exploratory tangle of the ensemble. Morgan’s bass playing has an unexpected and uncanny rapport with Shyu’s assertive biwa. Also, Shyu’s voice has an arresting quality and range—bold, then restrained, then raspy, then breaking. This is the longest track on the album, and positively avant garde in its execution.
To really appreciate this album, and much of Shyu’s music, it may be important to see her performing. Afterall, Zero Grasses was born from its greater theatrical work, and listening to the music without having any sense for the physicality and visual dimensions of Shyu’s art, significant aspects are missed—a bit like watching a movie with the mute on. At least for me, hearing and seeing her perform has been revealing. To get a sense, you might spend some time with this striking performance: Jen Shyu & Tyshawn Sorey - at The Stone, NYC - Aug 3 2014
Zero Grasses opens with a four-part suite titled “Living’s a Gift,” whose lyrics were authored by middle school students (Mimi Broderick’s choir students at MS 51William Alexander Middle School, Brooklyn, NY). Shyu captured their written reflections, which contrast the joys of springtime in 2020 with the concurrent sorrows of the pandemic, and offer us a glimpse into the adolescent mind struggling to make sense of it all and cope. Due to the pandemic, plans to record the middle school choir for the suite had to be scrapped, and instead Shyu multi-tracked her own voice to depict the themes of each part of the suite, including lush harmonies, call and response, mimicked sounds of nature, and polyrhythmic stops and starts. Throughout, the Jade Tongue ensemble plays with oceans of space. Akinmusire and Maneri dialog mournfully, Weiss colors with delicate brush and symbol work, and Morgan’s warm bass tones anchor everything.
“Lament for Breonna Taylor” remembers the Black medical worker killed by police in Kentucky in March 2020, an event that further fueled wide-scale demands and protests for racial justice in the U.S. The first half of the song is a hushed instrumental dirge, coalescing into a funeral march with Weiss’ subtle snare rolls, and culminating in a heartrending cry of voice, trumpet, and viola. Shyu sings the words of Ms. Taylor’s mother, adapted from interviews after her daughter was killed.
There’s so much happening on this album—I liken it to looking a massive multi-panel painting, where every space has something different, but equally compelling, going on. From the song lyrics sourced from disparate historical and cultural texts, to instrumentation and vocal styles that Shyu has honed during years of multinational research and study, to the mesmerizing conversation happening among the deeply talented improvisers—the listener really needs to take time with it all. I find that when I listen to this album, I can’t really be doing anything else. It demands my full attention. And judging by the kinds of recognition she’s received—the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Doris Duke Award, among others—her work deserves close listening.
For more listening opportunities: Shyu has produced numerous albums as a leader, including the first female-led and vocalist-led album Pi Recordings has ever released, and has multiple lauded recordings with her Jade Tongue ensemble. She’s performed and recorded extensively with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements ensemble, has a duo album with Mark Dresser titled Synastry (Pi, 2011), performs on Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E (New Braxton House, 2011) and Trillium J (New Braxton House, 2016), Bobby Previte’s Rhapsody (RareNoise, 2018), as well as Dan Weiss’ Sixteen (Pi, 2016)
Samo Salamon and Danish guitar master Hasse Poulsen deliver new sounds at the nexus of jazz and folk music from around the world with String Dancers, modern guitar compositions for two acoustic guitars.
Yet. somehow, I cannot take the opener at its word. "Ultra Serieux," the only title in French, seems tongue in cheek, as the duo gives the listener a little of this and a lttle of that underscored by deeper notes. Salamon and Poulsen stake their claim from the get-go; the music will be varied, lively and fun but will never slight its sources.
“Austrian Lake” a fine early example in the recording of the two finding the groove and a swing in their interactions. Taking a hint from the title the music here is pastoral but plumbs depths investigating what is above and what is below the surface.
“Coverless” illustrates the duo’s connection but again, never at the expense of the music or listener. Who plays what? Does it matter? Is there a tone to distinguish or a vibe? To my ears their aim on this track is to blend creatively, spontaneously. Mission accomplished.
“Two Sides of a Mountain” is “harsh” or heavier with a bass line wiry and taut but again another groove with one guitar in the lead while the other pushes, one charging the other supporting. Its slightly abrasive opening, with its rising and falling notes toying with lightness and darkness, this cut insinuates itself into your ears.
The two get a little more abstract on “Sometimes a Bird” changing the pace for good measure. Unique in the context of the album it shines light into dark corners and seems longer than 3’30’ in a most pleasing way.
“Free Noses” at first glance I read Noises for Noses, but I can read into things, though playfulness is present. The duo plays in unison and gives space for discordance as well but it's a song like “Free Noses,” where Salamon and Poulsen suspend the music between those two points that the two’s music finds its yin and yang.
“Soft Grass” is a recumbent but tense 5’48” that relies on some deft aural contrasts to create a mood but delivers a complete, whole song as well.
Now we come to one of my two favorites on the album, “String Dancers.” Its aptly named as the medium tempo conjures up fluid emotive bodies dancing through space. The starts and stops are notable and at 4’28'' or so is the album’s satori for me as Salamon and Poulsen are everywhere and nowhere at once, lost in the music, two musicians playing their instruments, not just getting sounds out of guitars. The relatively abrupt ending feels like they have nudged you to a mountain top then disappeared leaving you with the echo of their art and an infinite vista ahead.
The next track, “Mind Fuel,” indulges the artists’ interaction with their guitars as vehicles for expression rather than static objects; its length never belabors the point but does not dodge the topic at hand either. So, it's not a blowing session but it is a work where two musicians find a lot of possibilities in their art then explore those discoveries deftly as well.
“Cornering,” another personal favorite, has a walking bass back porch blues vibe that sings the global reach of the guitar. It is a favorite on an album of ones that grow on you.
Salamon and Poulsen are playfully competitive on “The Scent of Rain” with its kitchen sink pastiche in rhythms and tones that are engaging and dynamic.
The album concludes with “A Word We Heard,” a solemn percussive finish that appeals as a proper bookend to the opening. I’m a sucker for ambient sounds in a recording and the two deliver here with squeaks and scrapes as they animate their guitars and songs with an intense approach that again asserts and culminates, for now, their partnership.
In approaching a duo or even a trio recording I admit to preconceptions or expectations but not necessarily requirements. Will the musicians play off against and with each other? Will there be a variety of tones and timbres? In this case I was worried there wouldn’t be instruments to keep my toes tapping because to me, groove, in all its permutations, is essential. Thankfully, the music is immersive, and its syncopations, rhythms and tempos animate toes, fingers, and minds as well.
Salamon and Poulsen are an elastic duo with a strong rapport who know when and how to engage, unite, and diversify the “jazz diaspora” on these twelve tracks.
Cologne-based, Austrian pianist Philip Zoubek integrates many fascinating sonic universes. You can find in his composed and free-improvised music echoes of the chamber jazz of Jimmy Giuffre, the free jazz of John Coltrane but also ideas coming from innovative, contemporary composers like John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Gérard Grisey. Here are a few recent releases of the prolific Zoubek where he plays on the piano, prepared piano and synthesizer.
The unique instrumentation of this free-improv trio - fellow, Cologne-based tubist Carl Ludwig Hübsch also plays on various objects, Canadian, Montreal-based Pierre-Yves Martel on the rarely-heard viola da gamba, harmonica and pitch pipes and Zoubek on piano and synthesizer - defines its mysterious, almost transparent sound. This trio is an anomalous reconfiguration of chamber classicism but also suggests a patient, minimalist and almost static aesthetic, expanding and transforming the Morton Feldman-esque and AMM legacies. This trio began working in 2012 and Ize is its fourth album, recorded at the Loft Club in Cologne in November 2018. Hübsch and Zoubek collaborated before in several projects and Hübsch and Martel collaborated in another band Fleur de chaos, with Candian vocalist Joane Hétu and synthesizer player Émilie Mouchous (HMMH, Ambiances Magnétiques, 2019).
The five pieces emphasize that Hübsch, Martel and Zoubek are not only resourceful and imaginative improvisers. Naturally, they excel in the fine art of deep and sensitive listening, but all are well-versed in the art of spontaneous and instant composition, while keeping a delicate balance and organic fluidity. Together they create a mostly acoustic entity with minimalist electronic layers, subtly incisive, with a poetic collective entity, where the three musicians sound as extending each other’s palette of sounds. The static oscillations of “Any'' introduce the minimalist, reverberating aesthetics of this trio. The hypnotic vibrations of the dark “Kolt” echo the innovative work of John Tilbury. Hübsch, Martel and Zoubek turn their instruments to noisy, sonic objects on “Letik” and suggest an enigmatic-cinematic drone on “Bard”. Only the last piece ‘Kult” attempts to offer vivid contrasts between the dissonant, sparse piano chord of Zoubel and the quiet deep tones of Hübsch and Martel. A fascinating masterpiece, that is guaranteed to send you looking for more albums of these master improvisers.
Zoubek plays the piano in a quartet with Berlin-based reed player Frank Gratkowski (who teaches in a conservatory in Cologne, Zoubek and Gratkowski also collaborate in the quintet Shift), and fellow, Cologne-based, double bass player Robert Landfermann and drummer Dominik Mahnig (who also plays in Zoubek's Trio). The quartet has performed sporadically since 2016 and its debut album was recorded at the Loft club in Cologne in February 2020. This quartet borrows guitarist-producer T-Bone Burnett’s description of string theory to describe its art: “Beneath the subatomic particle level, there are fibers that vibrate at different intensities. Different frequencies. Like violin strings. The physicists say that the particles we are able to see are the notes of the strings vibrating beneath them. If string theory is correct, then music is not only the way our brains work, as the neuroscientists have shown, but also, it is what we are made of, what everything is made of. These are the stakes musicians are playing for”.
The interplay of this free-improv quartet is intense, even in its most sparse and contemplative pieces, and stresses the strong-minded personalities of Gratkowski, Zoubek, Landfermann and Mahnig. Gratkowski is the natural leader of the quartet, even though all the pieces are credited to the four musicians, and he often sets the uncompromising, energetic tone and uncompromising course of the pieces. But Zoubek, Landfermann and Mahnig are ready for this roller coaster challenge. Zoubek shines on “First Echo'', where he takes the quartet into a series of poetic and lyrical conversations. He balances Gratkowski’s furious and muscular energy with elegant and playful gestures, especially on the last piece, the explosive “Catalyst'' and the hidden, untitled piece, both demonstrate the strong, vibrating fibers that connect this quartet.
Zoubek plays here in another free-improv trio with French guitarist and electronics player Ivann Cruz, and Polish drummer and electronics player Marcin Witkowski, recorded at La Malterie in Lille, France, in December 2017. Radium is a meeting of prepared piano, primed guitar and extended drums, aimed at deconstructing the respective instruments in a search for challenging electro-acoustic ambient textures and unstable harmonies. Zoubek, Cruz and Witkowski are driven by the idea of building a meta instrument, an egoless creative process to open up new sound worlds and to explore uncharted musical territories.
Radium is the first opus of this trio, conceived after two years of working together. The sounds of the prepared piano, the effects-laden guitar and the prepared drums never cease to metamorphose or fade. Their inventive sonic palettes collide, bang, crackle, resonate and intertwine to seek a counterpoint of strings, skins and electronic sounds from which enigmatic harmonic landscapes and weird sounds and noises emerge. Each piece explores a distinct soundworld, moving from the rhythmic and suggestive to the atmospheric, from the urgent and energetic to the intriguing, symphonic drones, and from the sparse and the minimalist to the noisy and intense, mainly on the dark, sci-fi textures of “Tungsten” and “Lithium”. Then the piano, guitar and drum-set soar and lose their original syntax and vocabulary in favor of a new, brave one.
Zoubek plays on his solo album Vortex the prepared piano. He composed all pieces and recorded this album in December 2018 at the Loft club. This is the second solo album of Zoubek playing the prepared piano, following Air (WhyPlayJazz, 2014). The sonic palette of the prepared piano is manipulated with wooden objects, e-bows, rubber, and a variety of plastic and metal screws and transforms the acoustic piano into an exotic, futurist orchestra of fascinating, precisely layered sounds.
Zoubek’s prepared piano explores the full resonating characteristics of the keyboard, strings and wooden body and corresponds with far and traditional music legacies. Zoubek creates a vortex of cyclical-hypnotic soundscapes with a great sense of focus, coherence, and percussive force. Zoubek patiently exposes more percussive layers of the piano that becomes an abstract sound generator, and later finds more playful nuances throughout the percussive qualities of the prepared piano. There is also an enigmatic texture in Vortex, suggesting an ancient, meditative, ritual, and another texture that alternates between hymn-like segments and highly emotional elements. The last one travels to faraway, industrial galaxies.
The sophomore album of Zoubek trio - Zoubek on piano and synthesizer, double bass player David Helm and drummer Dominik Mahnig, was recorded in December 2019. This trio experiments with new dynamics in the classic format of the piano trio. Often these dynamics may sound at first listening as diving into deep chaos, with its extreme, emotive twists and turns, but this trio executes its radical and complex vision with precision and clear joy, as well as constructive spontaneity.
Philip Zoubek envisioned Nonplaces as poetic, imaginary places that do not yet fit into the usual categories, or as a strange dream. The trio alternates between intense dynamics, and never settles on familiar narratives but maintains a coherent dramaturgy in which improvisation and composition exquisitely separate and combine. Zoubek, Helm and Mahnig sound as colliding with each other with fierce energy on the opening “Alarms” and the last piece, “Alarms Postlude”; searching for sparse yet mysterious sonic territories on “Mirrors”; deconstructing and re-construction the pulse on “Memento” and “Kran”; sketching balanced beauty on the ballads “Silver”, “Those” and “The Other Life”; enjoying a fast, comic interplay on “Gorilla” and “Mind at Play”, and always sounding fresh, restless and eager to expand its sonic envelope.
TAU5 is the Berlin-based electro-acoustic quintet. Zoubek focuses here on the synthesizer and plays with sax player Philip Gropper (who leads the PHILM quartet), bassist Petter Eldh (of Koma Saxo and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik), drummer Moritz Baumgärtner and electronics player-producer Ludwig Wandinger, who edited and mixed the original improvisations of Zoubek, Gropper, Eldh and Baumgärtner, conducted in 2015 and 2017. The reliance on electronic, manipulated and processed sounds and shifting, rhythmic patterns sends this band far away from the legacy of modern or free jazz bands, even the ones that have integrated electric instruments into their aesthetics, into the territories of prog-space-rock, post-rock, noise and even hip-hop and IDM territories. The focus here is not on composing melodies or clear narratives but on the elastic and transformative qualities of all sounds and how these sounds can be deconstructed and reconstructed into an uncompromising amalgam of new, weird sounds and complex and irregular rhythms. Or as TAU5 articulates its mission: “We send our blindfold signals / to a listener in dim Andromeda / We send out our folded signals / to the listener in all Andromeda / hoping for dreading response /Alpha rhythms delta rhythms / dark transmissions old as a sandstorm / wild as pop / beetween the communiques / another sleep-form new invented / toparies upwards outwards”.
Some years ago, I sat with a former student discussing jazz. I won’t mention his name since I have not asked permission, but James Graham paints the kind of thing that might appeal to someone who likes avant garde jazz. James suggested I listen to William Parker. I did. Parker was, more than anyone else, the catalyst for my interest in the far edge of jazz.
Two wonderful recordings stand out in memory. Matthew Shipp’s Pastoral Composure, and Parker’s trio album Painter’s Spring. Similar covers. Parker on both. They both occupy that sweet spot in avant garde jazz where narrative is never dispensed with but is no longer in command. Instead, it is the emotional weight and wavelength of distinct sections of music that is the substance of the composition.
Painter’s Spring (2000) features Hamid Drake on drums and Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, clarinet, and flute. Listening to it again, I immediately recalled the impact it had all these years ago. It reminds me of the Steve Lacy trio, except more visceral than abstract and with a much more energetic pace. It’s the sort of thing that will convince you that you like that sort of thing.
Painter’s Winter struck me as an almost ominous title, given its appearance two decades after the former. Not to fear. Parker says this on the liner notes: “Painters love the winter. They hunker down and begin masterpieces.” The trio reunites for five Parker compositions. Groove 77 is a twelve-minute meditation on themes that will sound familiar to anyone who loves O’Neal’s Porch. The title cut is most interesting for the dialogue between Parker on Trombonium and Carter on flute.
The last three numbers are a showcase for Parker’s awesome compositional genius. Happiness features a steady buildup of intense and beautiful passion. The acoustic space created by Drake is occupied but never crowded now by the horn, now by Parker exploiting pretty much everything a bass usually does. Painted Scarf is a wonderful duet between Carter and Parker on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo instrument. The two weave on top of a deft shading by Drake. The colors and lines explored in the first four compositions are all on brilliant display in the final cut, 'A Curley Russel.' You do not want to miss Parker’s solo or the way that all three instruments splash lavish colors around 8:35, and that only a little more than halfway through the song. I say put this one on your wall.
William Parker is as generous as he is prolific. You can find hours of live performances on YouTube. Check out this one, “ Painter’s Autumn ,” which includes Parker, Carter, and Drake plus pianist Cooper Moore.
I confess that I was a little skeptical as first listen. In the initial track 'Tabasco' the guitar still seems to me to be a bit too dominant. Perhaps it was only me getting in tune with the trio’s intention, but I warmed to the music more with each listen. In the second track 'Rocas Rojas' the interplay between the acoustic and electric spirits becomes richer and more compelling.
The third track 'Domingo' is my favorite. Parker walks his bass along while Mendoza works in large, smeary sound behind him. The composer likes to talk about “painting with sound.” This song reminds me of one of those Fred Gutzeit paints, where a set of bold, colorful lines seem to be painting on a sheet of glass that was then laid down on the almost finished canvas.
Cleaver takes command in the title track, rapidly weaving percussive canvases for the other two to paint on. This, and the final two compositions, are about twice as long as the previous three. One these, Mendoza produces a set of new patterns, from bell-like reports to rapidly spinning ray-gun blasts. In this half of the album, space is more explicitly the place.
You can listen to the trio here
And you can see them here: