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Monday, September 27, 2021

Miguel Ângelo - Dança dos Desastrados (Porta Jazz, 2021) ****½


By Jim Marks

For his fifth release as a leader on the Porta Jazz label, the bassist Miguel Ângelo enlists his frequent collaborators João Guimarães on alto, Joaquim Rodrigues on piano, and Marcos Cavaleiro on drums. He also maintains his preference for program music, in this case, presenting the tracks in three “chapters” relating to the “clumsy” individuals of the title, who are imagined to be performing “possible traditional dances” (the concept is explained—in Portuguese and English—on a website, which also offers a whimsical video game interface for the music).

A fairly brief group improvisation introduces each of the three chapters. “Capítulo I” starts things off, setting a tone of anticipation announced by the piano and sax with some brushwork and bass notes in the background. “Era Uma Vez” then presents an engaging theme that develops into a groove with some tasteful soloing. “Caminho dos Perdidos,” another strong mid-tempo number, offers especially nice interplay between the leader and Rodrigues. The title track closes out the first chapter, with Cavaleiro’s cymbal and snare work cleverly suggesting the clumsy dancing while at the same time driving a clever, knotty solo from Rodgrigues and a lovely, birdlike solo from Guimarães. “Capítulo II” resets the program with a vaguely menacing exchange among the instruments starting with the bass. The two tunes that make up this chapter are somewhat more meditative than those in the first. “Valse do Solitário” moves along in a stately manner buoyed by Guimarães’ gentle tone. In “Soldado Desconhecido,” dynamics and interplay that give the track a cinematic feel. The saxophone starts “Capítulo III” off with a feeling of resolution that animates the closing tracks. The piano and bass join in a lovely duet to open “Vira do Avesso” before the sax and then the drums join in a recurring interlocking melody to convey the “inside out” feeling of the title. “Réquiem do Insignificante” rounds out the set, developing from a languid sax and bass duet into a gentle farewell from the group to the (now presumably weary) dancers.

Dança is a fine example of the benefits of sympathetic musicians playing together over an extended period of time. The members of the quartet clearly appreciate each other and know how to bring Ângelo’s compositions alive. Rather than fiery solos, the group creates and resolves subtle resonances and tensions within the tunes in ways that reward repeated listening. Like all Porta Jazz releases, this recording sounds great; fittingly, the bass is full and distinct whether in a supporting role or soloing, and all four instruments are crisp and well separated. Longish at 54 minutes, this record doesn’t drag but progresses satisfyingly through its three “chapters.” While never sad, the music suggests the themes of uncertainty, loss, and isolation in ways that are both timeless and, unfortunately, timely.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Catalyitic Sound Festival with Ken Vandermark and Brock Steussi

By Paul Acquaro 

We are excited to have had a chance to touch base with Ken Vandermark and Brock Steussi of the Catalytic Sound co-operative about the Catalytic Sound Festival. The second edition of the festival will be taking place in October, in Vienna, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Chicago, NYC, Trondheim, and Washington D.C. - and mostly viewable online.

Paul Acquaro: Last we spoke, the first Catalytic Sound Festival 1 was in the works. I know it was a while back now, but how did it go? Any surprises (good ones, ones to learn from)?

Ken Vandermark: The first Catalytic Sound Festival was originally intended to be an in-person set of concerts taking place during July of 2020 in Chicago, but because of the pandemic, we retooled the event to be streamed online. This necessary change actually yielded many positives. Because everything was online, there were no travel costs and we were then able to present all of the co-op musicians on the festival (plus guests), who reside in both the United States and Europe. This was one of the first times the collective was perceived as a group by the public. In addition, we all learned a lot about presenting streamed material, that pre-recording audiovisual pieces could be easier and more effective than running the performances completely live. From the standpoint of reaching an audience, the CSF 2020 was a tremendous success, with more than 200 viewers a day over the 3-day festival.

This led to the recent Catalytic's audiovisual 2x27, presented in August of this year, in which almost all of the co-op artists submitted a 2-minute film, many of which ranged far beyond conventional performance footage. So I believe these events helped musicians develop and experience new strategies for how to create music for online presentations, which were needed alternatives to playing conventional, in-person concerts during the more than 18 months when those kinds of performances were impossible.

Brock Steussi: While Sam Clapp was manager during Catalytic Sound Festival 2020, I was beginning work on my master's thesis in ethnomusicology about Catalytic Sound. Because of this, I had a unique outside/inside perspective as someone who had worked with Catalytic Sound during 2018-2019 and transitioned to researching and writing the project in 2020. To expand on what Ken mentioned, I think the festival in 2020 was one of the first times both the musicians and the public caught a vision of Catalytic Sound as much more than record store. The incredible creativity and community on display that weekend was a strong testament to the power of what is going on at Catalytic Sound. Specifically, I think the festival made clear to everyone involved that we are thirty musicians and a few staff collaborating to create better circumstances and situations for the creative improvised music scene through the direct support of those who appreciate the music.

PA: This year it seems a little different - maybe a more international affair? As far as I know, it's a pretty unique approach to a festival (in person, live-stream, and multi-continent). Can you elaborate a bit on the plans? Who are your international collaborators?

KV: As mentioned above, the first CSF was completely international as well. However, what Catalytic is tackling this year is something unique in my experience. There are many festivals that present an international program, but what we've organized though 6 events in 6 different cities, both located in the States and in Europe- I haven't seen this before. And we will combine the in-person concerts with online streaming, learning from what has been developed over the last year and a half, to be able to best present the music to listeners who can't attend the performances.

Because we always work with an extremely tight budget, Catalytic realized early that the original goal of bringing musicians from Europe to the U.S., and vice versa, wouldn't be possible. This created the idea of presenting "regional" programs curated by Catalytic musicians based in Austria (Christof Kurzmann), Netherlands (Andy Moor, Terrie Ex, Ab Baars, Ig Henneman, Jaap Blonk), Norway (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love), New York (Brandon Lopez, Zeena Parkins, Nate Wooley), D.C. (Luke Stewart), and Chicago (Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, myself). In each location, the focus is on the Catalytic artists who reside in those areas but also musicians from the incredible pool of talent based in these places, many who audiences may not know about yet.

The events will take place each weekend in October with at least two nights of concerts in each location, starting in Vienna, then Netherlands, Chicago, NYC, and on the last weekend of the month, both Trondheim and D.C. will present their programs, Trondheim during the day (in the States), and D.C. at night. There is also a special pre-recorded performance by Akira Sakata and Nana Omori, created specially for the CSF through grant funds from the Japan Foundation, and this will be streamed between sets at one of the nights of each of the NYC and Chicago events.

BS: I think the uniqueness of the 2021 iteration of the festival reflects the uniqueness of Catalytic Sound writ large. While there have been many collectives and cooperatives in the history of improvised music, all that I am aware of, perhaps with the exception of something like the New Music Distribution Service, have been local or regional. Catalytic Sound is bicontinental, dispersed, online, and, through our network of musicians, has connections with many different scenes. Turning to the festival, these connections are key, because, as Ken alludes to, we have allowed the musicians in each respective scene to plan their dates pretty much autonomously. We even have local visual artists making posters for the events in Chicago, Trondheim, and New York. Centrally planning an event like this, especially with the resources we work with, would be a herculean task. Thankfully, as the project manager, I’m not in charge of that and have time to focus on things like the overall budget, fundraising for the US shows, and promotion.

PA: How can people see the shows?

KV: If people cannot attend the shows in person, as many of the concerts as possible will be streamed live (there are some complexities with a few of the venues in Europe), and these will be ticketed events that people can purchase for access to the programs though the Catalytic Sound Festival 2021 website. In addition, all Catalytic members will get full access to the streamed concerts through their subscriptions on Patreon. So it's a good time to become a member!

PA: The Catalytic Sound Cooperative roster seemed to expand a bunch this past year - why do you think that is?

KV: In the spring of 2020 we added a half dozen musicians, and there was a final round of artists that we wanted to invite to participate in the collective in January. Thankfully, they were all interested, and we now have an incredible pool of brilliant individuals that all have a huge range of creative interests that often extend beyond music, which are helping the co-op find better ways to put more economic power into the hands of artists.

BS: I think a big part of that expansion had to do with the circumstances of the pandemic. Because Catalytic Sound mostly deals with selling and distributing records online, our model was fortunately not very affected by the circumstances of lockdown. In fact, we saw an increase in both sales and membership during the time of Covid. However, as I think we are all well aware, the musicians themselves, who make most of their income through performance fees, were not so fortunate. Since we operate on a profit-sharing model, we saw an opportunity to share the successes we were experiencing with as many people as possible. Part of this was expanding the roster of musicians — the other part has to do with trying to share and spread the model of Catalytic Sound to other groups of musicians. This last point became clear with the realization that Catalytic Sound can only represent so many musicians, it feels like it is currently at its limit. However, we did not want to be a gatekeeper within the scene. As a response to this sentiment, we are currently working on the late stages of a book that documents Catalytic Sound’s history and philosophy. We hope it will be a playbook of sorts for building cooperatives that leads to more situations like Catalytic Sound.

PA: Is everyone in the collective a part of the festival?

KV: Tomeka Reid and Nate Wooley's schedules made it impossible for them to perform, but they're only musicians out of the 30 in the collective who couldn't make an appearance.

PA: This year you released digitally audio recordings of the sets from the last festival for sale on the CS band-camp site, do you have plans to do this again?

KV: There are plans to record as many of the performances on the CSF 2021 as possible, with the hope to let the musicians utilize them for release, and to also create new documents digital and hopefully physical to issue through Catalytic Sound.

BS: We are currently in the process of rethinking our membership service to include access to more exclusive content from the musicians in the collective. In the vein of the Catalytic Artist Albums we have been doing and the access for the festival streams, we hope to add things like the CSF 2021 recordings into this patron support system. As Ken said earlier, it’s a great time to become a member! 

More about the festival:

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Free Jazz Blog Talks on Situation Fluxus

On September 30th, if you happen to be in the Albany, NY area around 10 a.m., tune in to 90.7 WGXC-FM. The Free Jazz Blog's Paul Acquaro and Stef Gijssels join Tyran Grillo, author of the ECM dedicated blog and book Between Sound and Space: ECM Records and Beyond on radio host Cheryl K.'s show Situation Fluxus. Cheryl deftly leads the three in a conversation about writing, managing a blog, authoring a book, and trying to wrestle the essence of Free Jazz into words. 

If you are not in the area then (or even if you are), you can listen now, here.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Brandon Lopez Trio - Live at Roulette (Relative Pitch, 2021) ****

By Keith Prosk

Brandon Lopez (contrabass), Steve Baczkowski (saxophones), and Gerald Cleaver (percussion) - with Cecilia Lopez contributing synthesizer to “Born Slumming It” - freely play propulsive grooves seemingly drawing as much from heavy metal aggression as free jazz freakouts on the six-track, 51’ Live at Roulette.

The trio is a familiar working group and have recorded together on Triptych from 2020 and with Cecilia Lopez on Diptych from the same year. Brandon Lopez has worked with each in other contexts too, documented on The Industry Of Entropy with Cleaver, Old Smoke with Baczkowski, and lopezlopez , DOS, and Guilt Tripping with Cecilia Lopez. Cecilia Lopez’ Red (DB), released on Relative Pitch concurrently with Live at Roulette, also features Cleaver and Brandon Lopez.

Baczkowski’s reeds sound more shawm than saxophone, stuck in some limbo of perpetual overblow, their acoustic distortions imparting a crunch to the music and their snaking lines dancing over the sinister and doomed romp of the rhythm section save for some moments of tangential textures like the clicking rhythm machine of “Dance Motherfucker,” the vocal multiphonic yawps of “My Hearts in the US Fall Apart,” the high contrast, low saturation overtones of “Time is Up or Lite Jazz Patina.” Brandon Lopez and Cleaver are most often locked into a martial groove, assembled and disassembled, sometimes stumbling, faltering, reeling from their own displays of low end power, aggressive not in tempo or even volume but heavy force and presence, the physicality of gestures revealed in Brandon Lopez’ voicings like exhalations after throwing a punch. Cleaver might play variations on the same rhythm through the set, freely shifting from its plodding beat to dizzying hecatoncheires frenzies. Beyond the beat of bow strokes in “March Motherfucker,” Brandon Lopez most often plucks though as often with an eye to color as rhythm, in the spiderlike hammerings of “Dance Motherfucker,” the triadic harmonics of “My Hearts in the US Fall Apart,” the errant lyricism of the set’s final moments. Cecilia Lopez’ synthesizer adds throbbing and rippling distortions to a particularly high-gravity doom beat. All together they make a music more conducive to headbanging and slamdancing than sitting and whatever else jazz audiences do.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Evan Parker - Winns Win (Byrd Out, 2021) ****

I recently read about Evan Parker’s encounter with pianist Charles Farrell, in the book, A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing and The Mob written by Farrell, where he describes playing with Parker on two memorable occasions. I last saw Parker play at The Vortex jazz Club in London with John Edwards on double bass and John Russell on guitar and this was also memorable. His playing has lost none of his visceral approach, outlandish phrasing and dramatic changes during his decades of playing and he remains an influential saxophone player with good reason. On Winn Win, Parker has recorded music inspired by the designer and activist, William Morris. It was recorded at Morris’ home in Walthamstow, London, which now houses the William Morris Gallery.

The working title for the album was 'Barbarism Once More', taken from a longer quotation from Morris, which reflects the passion, spontaneity and iconoclastic nature of Evan's playing. After Russell’s death the album was re-named because of Russell’s home on Winns Avenue, Walthamstow, next to the gallery. Evan decided to offer a tribute to Russell, naming the album ‘Winns Win’. The album consists of nine spontaneous compositions that are very intense, yet also offer melodic phrasing which adds richness and depth to the content.

Parker uses pattern and repetition to reflect Morris designs and ‘Winns Win’ is a musical experience which brings the saxophone up close and personal. The album release date of 1st October coincides with the 125th anniversary of Morris's Death (3 October 1896). The original artwork is ‘Design for Flowerpot Embroidery’ (designed c.1876) by William Morris, with additional design by Oliver Bancroft.

‘WW1’ builds from a delicate start to an intense, spirited and vibrant number with repeats, loops and swirls of phrasing which spin in never decreasing velocity until the final phrase which drops to a single note and a delicate flourish.

‘WW2’ continues the theme of repetition but is tempered with a rise and fall with variations in the intensity and phrasing, interrupted only by Parker’s essential need to draw breath. The middle section dips lower, with a rhythm change before it rises to the repeated motif again – and again. At times the notes are so smoothly melded the sax takes on the essence of a stringed instrument played arco. By the 4.30 minute mark the intensity has risen to fever pitch and the wonder is that Parker’s fingers seem to not miss a key.

‘WW3’ is a gentler, delicate variation and melodic phrases are tempered by the crazy-fast patterns Parker weaves into the fabric of the number. Using intricate techniques and forceful, yet somehow restrained phrasing, Parker delivers a number full of texture, balance and colour.

‘WW4’ is atmospheric, winsome and holds a mysterious quality, enhanced by the way Parker allows the phrases to hover, the notes just discernible as individual entities whilst the second half holds phrases with extended notes which add emotive touches to the energy infused number.

‘WW5’ is just one minute forty-five seconds and feels as if it is the introduction to a longer study, the reedy repeats on very few notes, each phrase begun with a startling slap-tongued ‘blat’ before relatively gentle phrases provide thoughtful interludes. ‘WW6’ makes up for the short number preceding it by delivering over eight minutes of explorative and evocative music. Musical ideas fly in and out, phrases repeated, are abandoned and return. The track is, at times, uneasy listening and at others sublime.

‘WW7’ contains soaring phrases contrasted with slower, pulled interludes where Parker creates a sense of leaning into the phrasing. The energy here is mind-boggling and the moving between keys and registers interesting, particularly in the middle section when Parker introduces shapes to the phrasing with warps to rises and falls.

‘WW8’ begins with a high treble motif which is repeated and developed, growing more melodic with intricacies added to and around the pattern, which grows in intensity and rapidity, while ‘WW9’ which closes out the album is short, palpably sweet, with stut notes, slap tongue and rolling, intricate phrases all captured in its just over one minute’s length.

This album is fitting as a tribute both to Morris and the incredible talent of John Russell, who was Parker’s friend as well as musical companion. John Edward told me that as a trio, the three – Parker, himself and Russell, understood each other and caught each other on stage. Here, Parker on his own is outstanding as a player. The patterns and colour woven into the fabric of the music in their sometimes outlandish but relevant manner offer tribute to Morris too. The spatial quality of some of the phrases also imparts reference to Morris’ fantasy writings. There is familiarity in the tracks which demonstrate the mindset and place of the musician at the time of recording perhaps but there is more to be heard with each listen of the tracks and this album has an intensity reflective of the power of Parker and his music.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Barre Phillips, John Butcher, Ståle Liavik Solberg ‎– We Met - And Then (Relative Pitch 2021) *****

By Stuart Broomer

The wonderful thing about free improvisation is that musicians might assemble in a traditional format and then proceed to do something that seems unlike the tradition. Consider the tenor saxophone/ bass/ drums trio, a format employed by Sonny Rollins (Live at the Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite), John Coltrane (the quartet when McCoy Tyner dropped out ‒ “Chasin’ the Trane” or “Impressions”) and Albert Ayler ( Spiritual Unity and Prophecy) on some of the most memorable recordings of improvised music from 1958 to 1964, enough to make the tenor trio a classic format, extending to different sides of the tradition embodied in Joe Henderson’s Art of the Tenor or anything you might care to cite by the Parker ‒ Guy ‒ Lytton trio.

We Met – and Then might seem to break with the few commonalities of those recordings. While Phillips and Solberg play “time,” it might seem far from the metrics (swinging, polyrhythmic, implied) heard above. It’s time as grain, time as suspension, time as interruption or corroboration of an infinite movement, but then, time in any of those significant precedents is always complex, multiple, not something to be checked for consistency but rather its own plurality as well. The distinction may be the extent to which this music reflects the slowness of the passage of time, the gradually emergent equivalence of voices, the tone as drone, the harmonic as window, the deconstructed and disintegrated line. Heard here consistently is an expanding sense of the possibilities of individual voice and timbre, including closeness, something continued here in that sense of harmonics as transparencies. The line is a collective invention, individual sonic events that are also, somehow, a conversation, a soundscape.

The first 34 minutes come from a 2019 Oslo performance. It’s the more intense of the two contributing performances, especially in the long opening title track, the three achieving mystery as well as confluence. There’s a mimetic possibility here, a welcoming of birds, voles, other creatures. In the sightless world of the CD, we’re returned (repeatedly) to the art of the cave, the flickering of sound and the immediate call for attention, whether identification or curiosity, caution or reward. Solberg’s role is central here, often as the measure of space, but also continuously turning his drum strokes into the narrowest of melodies, insisting on the significance of inflected pitch shifts.

But then (that word itself the anticipation of the future in the past), Phillips is that rare musician who spans creative generations (it’s a gift to, of, from bassists, apparently, consider Reggie Workman as well, and the special durability of Henry Grimes, Richard Davis and Cecil McBee) Phillips a messenger from that past previously alluded to, sign of the persistence of creativity (consider the recent solo recordings End to End and Thirty Years in Between, the latter taped at Victoriaville, between the two sets represented here) from recordings with Jimmy Giuffre and Archie Shepp to now.

The final 20 minutes come from a 2018 Munich concert with more emphasis on the group’s components than the totality. The initial “Travelling” is a Phillips’ solo, the same kind of graceful, melodic resonant reflection apparent on his solo discs, sounds sometimes swelling in volume as well as meaning after they’re plucked. The duo of Butcher and Slavik is more insistently ancient, ceremonial. The final piece, “We Met”, is, then, both the conclusion of the CD program and the earliest trio piece heard here, already meaningful, the three playing micro phrases, a pedal tone, a glissando, a wisp of melody, finding their way into one another’s sounds, processes and vocabularies, establishing identities and presences, all with the sense of sacrifice and growth within the possibilities of the encounter.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Christian Broecking - This Uncontainable Feeling of Freedom: Irène Schweizer - European Jazz and the Politics of Improvisation (Broecking Verlag, 2021)

By Martin Schray

For her 75th birthday, the music department of the Lucerne University and the Broecking Verlag published a comprehensive biography of jazz pianist Irène Schweizer. Now, five years later, the English version of the book has been released, translated by trombonist Jeb Bishop.

In this detailed biography Schweizer is honored not only as a central figure in the development of European free jazz, but also as a committed pioneer for the equality of women in art and society. In her early years, for example, she stood up for the artistic and economic autonomy of artists and fought against discrimination against people on the basis of gender, origin or sexual orientation. The German critic Christian Broecking, who sadly passed away this year, has created an elaborate, diligent work with lots of case studies. What is more, the book consists of many interviews with Schweizer and over 60 contemporary witnesses, which turn out to be insightful as to her life's work.

Chronologically, the biography begins with Schweizer’s youth. She grew up in a pub owner’s family in Schaffhausen and after her first attempts on the accordion she discovered the piano and joined the Crazy Stokers, a Dixieland band, at the age of 16. In 1957, that alone was a sensation. Shortly after that she landed in the top ranks at the Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival playing soul jazz and hardbop. The prize was a man’s shirt and a pack of cigarettes - no one could imagine that a woman would be able to win the first prize. 

A little later, Schweizer attended a language school in Great Britain, where she immersed herself in the London jazz scene (mainly Ronnie Scott’s club), before returning to Zurich. At the "Africana" jazz club she met drummer Mani Neumeier and bassist Uli Trepte, who also formed her first trio. When the two men converted to rock music in 1968 and formed the underground band Guru Guru, Schweizer’s long-time collaboration with drummer Pierre Favre began. Their music sounded increasingly wild and free, which earned the pianist invitations to the Total Music Meeting in Berlin - the annual pilgrimage site for free jazz fans. As a woman, however, she was on her own and had to assert herself against the male alpha dogs, which resulted in her more playful, sensitive style. Since that time Schweizer has been a regular guest on the avant-garde stages in Berlin, Willisau, Chicago and New York, she has played with Don Cherry, Louis Moholo, Hamid Drake, Andrew Cyrille and George Lewis, her solo performances show her as a leading pianist of European jazz. In the last years of her career, she was finally deemed worthy of playing in the temples of high culture, a late triumph.

As in his interview collections Christian Broecking is more interested in sociocultural conditions than musical investigations, often touching on issues of material survival or gender politics: Irène Schweizer had to work part-time as a secretary for a long time to make ends meet, and she came out as a lesbian at an early age.

Broecking’s biography is diligently and thoroughly researched, it is at its best when it tells anecdotes. One chapter addresses the chronic underpayment of jazz musicians, one deals with "Knitting as Provocation." Time and again, the author inserts digressions to explain a fact even more explicitly and places it in a social context. As a result of Schweizer’s consistent advocacy against apartheid (she has had very good connections to the South African expats in London) and for women's rights, she was part of the so-called Fichen scandal, in which she was surveilled by the Swiss secret service. 

Nevertheless, the pianist continued to be active in the feminist and lesbian scene. She has kept on provoking and challenging, mostly in a musical way with the Feminist Improvising Group FIG, the European Women's Improvising Group EWIG, the Swiss-French-English trio Les Diaboliques and the organization of the first women’s jazz festival in Switzerland. All in all: Anyone who wants to be comprehensively informed about the life of the “grande dame“ of Swiss jazz can’t go wrong with this book.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Out on Intakt (Day 2 of 2)

Angelika Niescier - Alexander Hawkins - Soul In Plain Sight (Intakt, 2021) ****½

Germany based saxophonist Angelika Niescier and British pianist Alexander Hawkins share an intimate and explosive 52 minutes together on Soul in Plain Sight. The album, which was recorded after a series of concert dates last year in Europe was committed to tape (or hard-drive) at the somewhat legendary Loft in Cologne in September 2020. The music is a rich mix of improvisation and compositions. Most are credited to the duo, while "Un:Tamed", "Nexus" and "Tar'ai" are by Angelika Niescier and "Scops" and "As Hemispheres at Home" are by Alexander Hawkins, and "Arhythm Songy" is a track composed by Muhal Richard Abrams.

The album kicks off with a series of notes from the piano and then a quick run and squall from the saxophonist introduces the aptly titled 'Brawls and Squabbles'. After the explosive start, the two carry on in a dynamic choreograph of energetic enjoinders and punctuating phrases. The aforementioned 'Arhtym Songy' follows and is captivating as the two get into an ever accelerating centrifuge of melodic ideas.  The third track 'Why Don't You' takes the concise energy of the first track with the precision of the second and fuses it into an fascinating swirl of sound. The longest track, 'Nexus', begins with a jaunty be-bop influenced sax riff that intersects with some choice clipped chordal accompaniment before unrolling into a dynamic dialog comprised of syncopated phrases and  extemporaneous outpourings, while 'Metamorphose einer Karelle' is a lovely, dark hued ballad.

A rather stunning album that basically asks does 1 + 1 really equal 2? There is a hell of lot happening on Soul in Plain Sight.

Michael Formanek - Imperfect Measures (Intakt, 2021) *****

I think it was the long-COVID-year talking. Many artists had turned inward and developed solo projects due to the various social restrictions during the pandemic, and I thought for a moment that maybe I'd pass on bassist Michael Formanek's solo release Imperfect Measures. I suppose I was looking for something with 'more' instruments on it. In my minds eye, I see you already shaking your head at me, and you're right to do so: Imperfect Measures is absolutely riveting. Formanek delivers a performance that draws out all the gravitas and sonority from his upright bass possible and shares it generously with his listeners.

I am going to skip talking about the individual tracks, I think this is a really best considered as a single piece. I hear a painting, rich images arranged alluringly on a canvas, even though the work is composed of thick, boldly suggestive brush strokes. My ears readily fill in the details. It is these impressions (fill in your own, please!) that Formanek communicates through the hearty resonance of plucked and bowed tones. He builds musical structures full of rhythm, melody, and counter melodies that feel as complete and detailed as if there were a drummer, piano and saxophone at his side. 

Just wow.  

Broken Shadows - Broken Shadows (Intakt, 2021) ***½

By Stephen Griffith

Tim Berne likes to keep a lot of irons in the fire. Although Snakeoil relieved a long dry spell of the alto player not leading a working group, it was only a matter of time until his other interests started chafing for attention. While Berne, along with Marty Ehrlich, has carried the torch of his mentor Julius Hemphill for years, it's difficult for an alto player of this type of music not to be influenced by the fellow Fort Worth, Texas saxophonist, Ornette Coleman and his longtime tenor associate Dewey Redman. In fact Tim was one of three altoists playing Zorn’s thunderous thrash rock versions of Coleman’s music on Spy vs Spy on Tzadik in 1988. But Broken Shadows addresses a lot of empty spaces in the Berne oeuvre: playing cover versions, no rehearsals, no sheet music and short solos. Tenor player Chris Speed was in the mid 90's Bloodcount and very familiar with Berne's way of doing things (plus he often employs a big open Dewey Redman tone). The Bad Plus rhythm section, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, have played together for 35 years so are obviously simpatico. So book some gigs in Brooklyn restaurants when schedules permit and see what happens.

What happened was obviously a success as they raced through the persistently appealing melodies and created instantly well crafted solos. Coleman’s songs have an almost immediate familiarity but a surprise on this recording is how well Hemphill’s “Body” fits in (a new version of “Dogon A.D.” is always welcome particularly with different instrumentation). If nothing else the Coleman songs remind the listener of the consistency of the quality of songwriting that seemed almost effortless. The songs were originally released as part of a vinyl subscription package by Newvelle Records in 2019. Thanks to Intakt for making it more widely and conveniently available.

Aki Takase, Christian Weber, Michael Griener - Auge (Intakt, 2021) ****

Apologies, you just read my colleagues take on Auge yesterday. Unthinkingly, I did not follow my own coordination efforts and also wrote about it. So, for better or worse ...

Berlin based pianist Aki Takase's musical styles and approaches is rather sweeping. She is inventive re-interpreter of classic styles of jazz, like her work with Fats Waller's music to the music of Eric Dolphy, as well her duos with her husband, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and so much more. Her music also can have a sly wink to it, often expressed by the blending of these different styles and approaches like for example, her duo with saxophonist Daniel Erdmann on the recent Isn't it Romantic (BMC, 2021). Anyway, here, with swiss bassist Christian Weber and German drummer Michael Griener, Takase explores the traditional piano trio set-up but with the idea that no one instrument is front and center. 

The opening track 'Last Winter' at first seems to both undermine and underscore this notion of equality. Takase's delicate piano introduction is front and center, with Weber and Griener offering subtle support. However, the piece wouldn't work as well with piano alone, the bassists counter melody lends important counterweight and the drums fill in the gaps. It's a short piece, and soon we are at 'Drops of Light' which kicks off with a rapidly percolating melody and rhythmic uncertainty. The piece thrives on the interactions between the trio - a figure introduced by Takase is reflected by Weber and refactored by Griener - and is lively a demonstration of their musical compatibility.  'Are Eyes Open' is a reminder of the humor and playfulness that ripples through Takase's music. The sunny melody, which seems straight forward quickly starts revealing quirks and then seemingly dies out. 'No Tears' is a rather stately ballad that would seem to be quite at home on an ECM recording,  with all three developing a somewhat shimmering but unsettling atmosphere. The 'Face of the Bass' is another fun one. Takase and Weber seems to be locked into a frantic, friendly melee of sorts. This one seems to be more freely improvised than the other lightly structured pieces, but it's actually quite hard to say what it and isn't composed as the musicians seems to be deeply in tune with each other.

Read Day 1

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Out on Intakt (Day 1 of 2)

Fred Frith + Ikue Mori - A Mountain Doesn’t know it’s Tall (Intakt, 2021) *****

These duets were recorded in 2015 in the context of projects in Switzerland with Werner Penzel, first a score for his radio play Zen Is the Biggest Lie and then one for Zen for Nothing, his documentary film about the Antai-Ji monastery in Western Japan. On the final day of the collaboration, Penzel suggested Frith and Mori record together, thus initiating this CD, their first wholly improvised recording in forty years of collaboration. For Mori, the spirit of the music may be continuous with work on the film soundtrack: “…it was about playing with everyday noises that arise when cooking, playing ping-pong, and especially when laughing.”

The CD is as spontaneous as music might want to be. Mori plays laptop electronics while Frith plays home-made instruments and various toys and objects, restricting his electric guitar (it’s luminous on “Now Here”) to two of the 15 short tracks, which range from a minute to 5’28”. The individual pieces are evanescent delights. Mori has a genius for creating sounds that seem to be shot from nothing, take unpredictable trajectories, indicate points of light and then disappear into the firmament. Sometimes, too, she imitates airplanes and cathedral organs. That heady abstraction is here complemented by Frith’s virtuosic handling of small acoustic instruments and household objects, to the extent that their sounds can become indivisible. A piece like “Shōdōka” is so subtle that it sounds like it is inventing itself; “Hishiryō” reveals a continuous sound that moves between engine, flute and voice. Heard on headphones in a mid-summer inner-city garden, the music is porous, inclusivist, reaching out to include, accept or illuminate wind, traffic, dogs and keyboard clicks.

Aki Takase, Christian Weber, Michael Griener – Auge (Intakt, 2021) ****½

A long-time fan of Aki Takase’s work, I finally caught her live with Rudi Mahall in Berlin in 2019 and was blown away by the wild swing from piece to piece, from classical-inspired broken fugues to barroom stride to playful romps on a toy xylophone to a piano etudes accompanied by an opera singer who had concealed herself among the crowd. Takase is clearly out there, sometimes through composed and rehearsed pieces; other times through instant pro- and reactive improvisations that capture the magic of a fleeting moment. The Berlin performance was a combination of these elements. Auge, however, captures the other side: straight-up Berlin free improv.

On Auge, Takase finds herself in a classic piano trio with fellow Berliner Michael Griener on drums and Swiss workhorse Christian Weber on bass. What is especially compelling about this release is the counterveiling forces of spontaneous improvisation (none of the tracks are formal compositions) and the tendency of Takase, Weber, and Griener to fall into unison. Often, it sounds as if Takase, a reluctant leader, arrived with melodies and bare-bones structures for Griener and Weber to fill. Then, of course, the trio break off into less structured terrain, but regardless of who breaks free first, the other two follow into complementary sonic space. This is no small feat, given the stylistic leaps taken between more tempered pieces such as Last Winter and While in Rome and the jangly energy of much of the rest of the album. 

Echoes of that clunky, self-consciously amelodic cacophony of early Euro improv, but Takase, Weber, and Griener always stop short of getting there, surrendering themselves to the pull of melody, the structure of classical progressions, or just the jingle-jangle lure of their clear jazz inspirations, especially on 'Calcagno' and 'And If Not Why Not'. I am less familiar with Weber and Griener, so I will not venture into how conventional or unconventional this is for them. As far as Takase, goes, however, this is another beautiful and wonderfully tortuous addition to her already impressive oeuvre.

Chris Speed – Light Line (Intakt, 2021) ****½

By Anthony Simon

After decades of leading bands and collaborating on projects that have resulted in umpteen creative and inspiring recordings, Chris Speed has released his first solo album. Light Line (Intakt, 2021) is just him, his clarinet, and fifteen pieces that make for truly luminous listening.

Some may know him better for playing the saxophone, but he’s been recording on clarinet since at least the mid-90s with Human Feel, Tim Berne, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn. More about his work can be found on his website and his massive discography .

Last year, Chris Speed gave an interview where he talked extensively about his relationship with the clarinet, his motivation for crafting a personal sound, and his approach to playing and composition. In preparation for recording Light Line, he worked on Bach’s partitas for some aspects of technique development. But you won’t find any Bach compositions on this album—instead, Speed presents versions of John Coltrane’s “Sun Ship,” Ornette Coleman’s “Enfant,” Julius Hemphill’s “Rites,” and Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann,” among others. How can practicing Bach aid in performing the works of free jazz titans such as these? It's beyond simple me, but the results sound incredible.

In addition to the above, this recording features compositions from his colleagues Skúli Sverrisson, Andrew D'Angelo, as well as a handful of works written by Speed himself. More than half of the tracks are under 3 minutes, and the two longest ones don’t exceed 5 minutes. This results in melodic themes being presented in their immaculate essence, and this manner of focused expression through the unique vehicle of a solitary clarinet often reveals new facets of the song. On “Rites” for instance, Hemphill’s original from the classic album Dogon A.D. is incantatory and rapturous. On Light Line however, Speed exposes a longingness in the theme, and a sprightly curiosity in the harmonic elaboration.

Speed’s version of “Sun Ship” is also revelatory. In Coltrane’s original, the extremely short theme repeats in bursts, pushing and pushing an explosive, fiery ensemble performance. In Speed’s solo clarinet version, while his playing approaches the pace and dexterity of the original, the sonic quality conjures visions of a spirited dance within an enchanted forest.

Come to think of it, enchanting well-captures the feeling I get from listening to the luminous sound Speed evokes, and his original compositions on this album do much to deepen this experience. “Light Line” flutters and soars like a bird darting about the bright blue sky, and a mischievous melody on “Cat Heaven” charms the listener. The album concludes with an achingly beautiful rendition of the Paul Motian Trio’s “It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago.” In email correspondence, Speed expresses reverence: “One of the most important bands for my generation was the Paul Motian Trio and this is just a gorgeous composition that I’ve been listening to for 30+ years.” It’s a tender conclusion to a fascinating album, available as CD or digital download.

Tom Rainey Obbligato – Untucked in Hannover (Intakt, 2020) ****½

By Tom Burris

Untucked in Hannover is a live album consisting of American standards – apparently, it's the third one the band has done. To present these ancient songs in a manner that consistently surprises is no small feat. The twists and turns often render the tunes unrecognizable with impressionistic splatter; but the skeletal forms generally - and amazingly - remain intact. The music is never less than completely fascinating.

Percussionist Rainey and bassist Drew Gress typically stay within their alliance as the Rhythm Section (caps intentional) while Ingrid Laubrock's warm sax dances with Ralph Alessi's brittle and sharp trumpet over Jacob Sacks' incredibly deft balancing act of goosing the rhythm section while finding a third counterpoint for whatever web Alessi and Laubrock are weaving. In addition to this difficult job, you should know that he is replacing the magnificent Kris Davis on this particular date. And he is crushing it. (Check him out about halfway through “I Fall In Love Too Easily” for a stellar example.)

Rainey and Gress propel the band individually while anchoring them collectively – and that's what makes them such a special team. Rainey does get a solo on his own band's album (between “What's New” and “There Is No Greater Love”), but one that tastefully displays the ways in which he colors the music. No grandstanding or show-off bullshit. And the way the band pulls together to play a the standard head of “Long Ago & Far Away” is the best dessert at the end of a hearty meal I've had in quite some time. Definitely gonna check out those other two albums of standards now.

Read Day 2

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Irène Schweizer and Hamid Drake – Celebration (Intakt, 2021) ****

By Nick Ostrum

If you have heard Irène Schweizer’s duos with drummers (including many of the free jazz luminaries of the last forty years, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille, Günter Sommer, Pierre Favre, Louis Moholo-Moholo and, more recently, Joey Baron), you likely know what you are in for, even if the percussion is always a world in itself.

Schweizer, of course, is a singular pianist. Her love of melody (apparently, many borrowed from South Africa, in this case) is matched only by her ability to detour into a free territory that combines the discipline of the classically trained with the roots, rhythms, and chops of the keenest practitioners of jazz in its myriad forms. Just listen to the grooving 'Good Life', the Vince Guaraldi-styled 'Blues for Crelier', and the infectious 'Song for Johnny – In Memory of Johnny Dyani' for examples of her rootedness. Then, there is also the potentially more obvious free improv influence, evidenced in most of the pieces included on Celebration, that stretches back a half-century to Schweizer’s days at the forefront of free playing in Europe. Indeed, her performance on Celebration, capturing her and Hamid Drake live at the 40th Festival for Free and Improvised Music in Nickelsdorf, Austria in 2019, that Schweizer, approaching 80 years of age, has still got it, and in abundance, at that.

Drake, a decade-and-a-half younger, requires about as much introduction as Schweizer. And Drake does his thing as well as Schweizer does. Both musicians play impeccably, ride the improvisational waves convincingly and zig-zag beyond the usual script, but rarely into spaces beyond the wide zones they have trodden before. That invites, of course, one of the big questions with improvised music. To what extent are improvisors expected to continually push stylistic boundaries and to what extent should they dedicate themselves to perfect their own style at the expense of such free-wheeling exploration? Schweizer and Drake strike a balance that leans toward the latter, here, with notable exceptions such as 'Stringfever'. At the risk of sounding trite, Schweizer and Drake communicate immaculately and, in the process, sound as much like themselves as I have heard them. And that is part of what makes this album so delicious. This is two master musicians from different scenes and generations, who clearly appreciate each other’s journeys and strengths, playing some damn fine music.

Irene Schweizer and Intakt Records - a Celebration

Irene Schweizer, in concert in 2015. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Paul Acquaro

This year the Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer celebrated her 80th birthday.  The writers at the Free Jazz Blog have covered the influential pianist's work over the years and we thought it would be an appropriate celebration of her milestone year by reviewing not only her most recent release on the Intakt label, Celebration, a duo with Chicago percussionist Hamid Drake, but also survey some of the recent releases from the label, which is closely associated with Schweizer.

Intakt, based in Zürich, Switzerland, was founded in 1986, and is still run, by Patrik Landolt. The label was initially begun in order to feature the work of Schweizer, who although had a number of solo and collaborative recordings on the German labels FMP and SABA, as well as Harry Miller's Ogun, had a backlog of work that she was ready to release. In fact, according to a profile by arts critic Kurt Gottschalk, of the first 10 releases from the label, 8 featured the pianist.

Intakt continues to this day with an impressive release schedule. In fact, as we assembled this short tribute with reviews from 2021, another new set of releases came out (a de facto to be continued). Additionally, aside from a focus on developing artists and groups, another feature of the label is that its releases are typically complete with extensive liner notes (pure treasure for us music obsessives!). The liner notes are even included with full album downloads from their robust Bandcamp store.

Anyway, we hope you enjoy the set of reviews that will post over the next few days. Today we begin with a review of Celebration by Schweizer and Drake written by Nick Ostrum.

Already covered this year from Intakt are:

Friday, September 17, 2021

GBSR Duo with Mira Benjamin - Barbara Monk Feldman: Verses (Another Timbre, 2021) *****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Barbara Monk Feldman is a contemporary Canadian composer (b. 1950s, Québec) of mostly delicate and minimalist, chamber and piano works. She studied with Morton Feldman, to whom she was later married. Verses is a collection of five chamber works from Monk Feldman written between 1988 and 1997 and performed by the contemporary British GBSR Duo - percussionist George Barton and pianist Siwan Rhys, with Apartment House’s violinist Mira Benjamin on one work. Verses is the second album of GBSR Duo for Another Timbre, following last year’s Oliver Leith: Good Day Good Day Bad Day Bad Day.

The GBSR Duo is a devotee of Monk Feldman's work and was fascinated by her austere, quiet and poetic compositions as well as her extraordinary level of sensitivity to subtle color, “the most intangible aspect of the music”, as Monk Feldman describes it. The duo describes Monk Feldman's music as having a meditative, unassuming quality, “but it is also hinted at a kind of heroic internal quest: always quieter, always purer, always less affected, as if stripping away the layers of the sounds themselves”. Monk Feldman herself has written in the past that “decay in the piano and vibraphone brings them closer to the background ‘wall’ of silence…. Sound and silence become attached to each other, not unlike sculptural figures attached to a wall”. A close description to the one of Morton Feldman who once highlighted how music slips away from us even as we are hearing it: “this departing landscape”.

In an interview with Rhys and Barton, Monk Feldman says that she thinks about the relationship of sound and silence as “about an inside and an outside for art itself, and how ephemeral that is. For example, an unexpected moment in the sculpture of Giacometti, where it’s as though you suddenly have a brief glimpse into infinity. Or where in Cézanne you have an equally unpredictable experience in a fleeting recognition of something transient in the landscape. These moments are like a kind of recognition – and ironically, they include something that seems to come to us from the inside”.

The five works radiate Monk Feldman’s “sense of the musical imagery hovering in one place, as it were, attended by a fluidity in the slow transitioning of the harmonic color”. GBSR Duo’s performance captures beautifully this kind of elusive sense of imagery. Rhys’ piano melts gently into the resonant, floating sounds of Barton’s vibes and vice versa. Their performance has a subtle, venerable intimacy, constantly flirts with silence and flows naturally with meditative and almost transparent ripples. The two extended pieces - “The I and Thou” (1988) for solo piano and “The Northern Shore” (1997), after the Gaspé peninsula in eastern Québec where the St. Lawrence river meets the Atlantic ocean, a place that Monk Feldman visits every summer, for the GBSR Duo with violinist Benjamin - demonstrate best the inspiring, poetic qualities of Monk Feldman.

GBSR Duo’s performance of Monk Feldman’s music offers a rare sense of quiet, healing catharsis, music that stretches into timeless distances. It gently molds a profound but unpretentious spiritual listening experience, with highly nuanced colors and a remarkable balance between sound, silence and space. Monk Feldman herself, when answering Rhys and Barton asked her if it is possible to write a musical version of haiku or haibun (haiku and prose), suggested her own haiku:

river flows by

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mark Cisneros / Nik Francis / Luke Stewart - We Were Here Before (CAA, 2021) ****½

By Matthew Banash

We Were Here Before, Parts I and II, is a recording dedicated to the late musician Aaron Martin by the trio of Mark Cisneros, Nik Francis, and Luke Stewart released by Catalytic Sound via its Catalytic Artist Album fundraising program which helps raise money for and awareness of for organizations that work in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and social justice. The trio has suggested that all donations received from the sale of this digital album should go to Empower DC, which since 2003 "has advanced racial, economic and environmental justice by investing in the leadership and organized political power of DC’s lowest income residents and communities."

A recording that reveals integrity in a fluid din of disparate sounds in variegated unity as subtle shifts in playing compound the trio's potency. Easily a release to get lost in. I have started and scrapped several efforts to highlight specific parts and it is not like there are any passages where the musicians shine and transcend. But words fail me with this release.

Luke Stewart on bass illustrates his chops and why he is in such demand, Mark Cisneros, reeds, and percussion is fluid and creative, spontaneous but locked into the groove and Nik Franci, who delivers a diverse smattering of sounds underneath it all that always keep you guessing and progressing, is a revelation for me; he is a drummer/percussionist who uses his whole kit and serves the music extremely well without surrendering his identity. The same can be said about Cisneros and Stewart but subjectively the drums center this release for me and that is no slight to the other two artists.

It is a flat-out immersive experience and following the outline provided in the release below is helpful but not required.

I. Beginning - Family/Culture/Origin

II. Escape - Leaving/Searching/Taken

III. Crossings - Danger/Struggle/Unknown

IV. Equality - Rights/Assimilation/Bigotry

V. Identity - Work/Art/Pride/Family/Allies

VI. Action - Advocacy/Activism/Engagement

VII. New Beginning (Closing theme)

It can be daunting to find the words and examples to declaim the achievements of this recording. One risks being obtuse to extoll its passion. It is best to let it wash over you, opening your mind to its cinematic but direct qualities.

Art is more than asking questions and certainly more than giving answers but offering a new, personal authentic perspective.

This release offers the flip side of having been here before. Struggle strengthens you. We Were Here Before is a marvelous album for its depth, diversity, and integrity of purpose. And it grooves, wails, screams, and hits the Soul.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Ingrid Schmoliner & Hamid Drake – Awon Ona (Klanggalerie, 2021) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

Throughout this album, the listener is taken from one suprise to the next. The music is an unreal mix of structural and compositional cleverness, improvisational inventiveness and stylistic collision and harmony. 

You cannot possibly find two more different musicians finding a common voice. Austrian pianist and composer Ingrid Schmoliner comes from a classical avant-garde background, with experience in free improvisation. Chicagoan Hamid Drake is one of the most versatile jazz drummers around, the king of polyrhythms and with an encyclopedic knowledge of rhythmic patterns from around the world. 

The combination is extraordinary in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. This is not world music, because the genres do not blend into some in-between-state, but keep their strength and character while being in full harmony. Schmoliner and Drake find themselves on various levels: the rhythmic complexities, the shamanistic singing, even if the styles are again totally different, their openness to new forms and the universal language of music, the solemn freshness and the natural organic flow of their sounds. 

Schmoliner's style on her prepared piano is all her own: rich, intense, harmonic, with lots of repetitive and rhythmic elements, dramatic at times, cinematic at others, and she has the incredible power to be controlled and full of musical abanon at the same time. Harmonically, her playing remains deeply rooted in the classical idiom, not in jazz. She is also a trained singer, specialised also in overtone singing and yodeling.

The album tracks and the title all come from the Yoruba language from Nigeria, at least from what I could deduct from some internet searches (Keke (wheel), Igbi (wave), Eeru (ash), Afefe (air), San (stream), Ina (fire), Joidi (?), Emi (me), Aago (time), E Dupe (thank you), Gbogbo Ibi (everywhere). The album's title could mean "ways", an apt description of the different roads in music can all lead to the same place. 

"Emi" is an amazing 13-minute mesmerising piece built around repetitive phrases and with a steady rhythm, that first flows like rapids, relentlessly, wild and powerful, allowing Drake to show is artistic mastery of adding even more complex rhythms to the endless stream of notes and harmonies that gush from the piano, and even later in the piece, when the speed diminishes, she produces a superfast repetitive playful phrase with her right hand, and Drake is with her, despite the change, despite the sudden shift in mood. 

On "Joidi", Schmolinger's singing brings an update from "Kumts" on "Watussi" from 2013, an incantation that demonstrates her vocal skills and spiritual force. 

"Aago" is built around sustained deep tones, possibly the result of strings being stroked inside the piano, with Schmoliner singing. Drake emphasises the eery feeling and sense of anticipation. The darkness of the percussion and the single repeated piano note contrast with her bright singing and beautiful melancholy tone. 

"E Dupe" starts with some incredibly rich drumming by Drake, inviting Schmoliner in with her own percussive repetitive fireworks, and evolving into Drake's Arabic spiritual chanting, without any of the intensity of the piano or drums losing any of its power. 

I will not review all improvisations, but the combination of contrasts and alignment, its bifurcation and convergence is omnipresent, of the modern with the ancient, the particular with the universal, the boundary-breaking with the traditional, all blending into this wonderful co-creation of relatively unique and often spectacular music. 

The first CD was recorded in "Live At Artacts" festival in Austria on March 6, 2020, the second CD at the Jazz Cerkno Festival in Slovenia on September 19, 2020. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Monday, September 13, 2021

Joëlle Léandre / Pauline Oliveros / George Lewis - Play As You Go (Trost, 2021) *****

By Eyal Hareuveni

French double bass master Joëlle Léandre and American accordionist and electronics player Pauline Oliveros and electronics player and trombonist George Lewis are great pioneers of free and experimental music on both sides of the Atlantic, influential thinkers and role models and inspiring educators. Play As You Go is the only recording of these three masters sharing the same stage, captured by the national Czech radio station during the festival VS. Interpretation in Prague in July 2014.

But these musicians have known each other since the early eighties. Léandre first met Oliveros in New York when she was performing British-American composer Bernard Rands’ “Memo 1” for solo double bass, and later played with her in festivals all over Europe. In 2002, Oliveros and Fred Frith invited Léandre to be a visiting professor, teaching improvisation and composition at the Mills College in Oakland. This cooperation led to the recording of The Space Between (482 Music, 2003, with shakuhachi player Philip Gelb and pianist Dana Reason). Léandre first recorded with Lewis in 1982, as a free-improv quartet with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, 28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982 (Fou, 2014). Two years later Lewis invited Léandre to record his seminal composition Rainbow Family with Bailey, Steve Lacy and Douglas Ewart (Carrier, 2020), and throughout the eighties, they continued to collaborate with outfits led by Irène Schweizer and Anthony Braxton. Their last collaboration as a duo was recorded at the 2008 edition of the Vision Festival, Transatlantic Visions (RogueArt, 2009).

Play As You Go accumulates decades of experience in improvising and spontaneously composing at the moment. Obviously, and as sax player and scholar Tracy McMullen mentions in her insightful liner notes, deep listening, sonic awareness are essential for such a meeting, or as Oliveros taught us: full attention and openness to another, another which is sound, includes the sound that you make. Deep listening demonstrates that we can conceive of our relationship to the other not in terms of being recognized, but in terms of generous giving. Lewis adds to Oliveros Buddhist-tinged concepts the idea that we can live in an ever-present now and this idea denies the reality of history and the habits and momentum that shape our racist, sexist, capitalist present, and this leads to a resistance to accept the dualisms of the West. Our practice is to perceive things clearly, respond appropriately (that is ethical, born out of clear-perception) and to understand the biggest picture: that the ignorance of the world is not the world. Léandre wraps these notions in a simpler way: have fun and love each other. Then, at a certain point, we may find ourselves in a space where no instruction is needed, no remembering is needed.

Play As You Go offers 44 magical minutes. This piece draws you immediately into a colorful, almost psychedelic and spiritual sonic adventure that has its very own timeless logic and highly expressive language. It may sound at first as a secretive, exotic language that only Léandre, Oliveros and Lewis share but very soon you may feel quite proficient in their coded, layered messages, imaginative but refined dialects and fascinating nuances. Eventually, you will feel that these generous listeners-improvisers see you - the listener - as an integral part of their journey, and want to share with you the deep joys of celebrating being in the moment, a moment that holds at once all of our past and all of our future. An emotional and poetic moment that goes beyond the dichotomy of free and not free, acoustic vs. electronics, or improvised vs, composed. For a brief 44 minutes Léandre, Oliveros and Lewis become one with the music, sharing and enriching each other’s ideas and making it bigger than themselves, feeling the rare elation of reaching such close and profound understanding, but not taking themselves too seriously, and insist on having fun.

A masterpiece.

vs. Interpretation 2014 - Play as you go - George Lewis / Pauline Oliveros / Joëlle Léandre from Agosto Foundation on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Benoît Delbecq 4 – Gentle Ghosts (Jazzdor, 2021) ****

Some music grabs me by the shirt collar, seizing my attention and refusing to let go, perhaps with an irresistible melody, or an infectious groove. Other music accosts me with a melee of sonic projectiles, bombing and blasting, daring me to search for something stable to grab onto. And still other music extends me an invitation to consider entering a space containing a wide variety of phenomena—details that can be appreciated from a distance, or curiously examined up close, or anything in between. To my ear, this album of quaintly intricate tunes mostly inhabits the lattermost description. (Of course, there’s also music that achieves all the above and more, praise be!)

The performing ensemble on Gentle Ghosts (Jazzdor Series, 2021) is led by Benoît Delbecq, who wrote all compositions, plays piano and prepared piano, and simultaneously contributes real-time electronic feedback through a fascinating process he terms “post-radiophonic.” Mark Turner plays tenor saxophone, and has been in Delbecq’s ensembles since at least 2003. Gerald Cleaver plays drums and John Hébert plays bass, with whom Delbecq has played on two excellent albums as the John Hébert trio. These four artists’ prior recording was the wonderful Spots on Stripes (Clean Feed, 2018).

On the heels of The Weight of Light (Pyroclastic, 2021), Delbecq’s remarkably creative solo effort from earlier this year, his Gentle Ghosts album endeavors further innovation—the aforementioned “post-radiophonic.” It involves a software that records each performer and permits Delbecq to immediately playback fragments of an individual statement, or of the entire ensemble. The feedback is often quieter, rather in the background, and processed with subtle effects that can give it a bent translucence, like a playful phantasm. During the recording, each musician hears and spontaneously responds to periodic intervals of feedback that Delbecq initiates. The video “album teaser” gives a good sense for how this shapes the musical interplay.

To my ears, one of the finest tracks is “Gentle Ghosts.” Delbecq’s undulating piano work is pensive, gorgeous, as he duets with slightly refracted apparitions of his playing (i.e., post-radiophonic). Turner’s sax brings a warm and slightly bluesy glow, and a current of nostalgia swirls in the mix that is persistently unsettled by rhythms that stumble gracefully and chords that fray at the edges. Hébert culls just a few choice notes that hang in the air, and Cleaver’s rustling brushwork casts a deep hush.

In the film about the making of The Weight of Light, Delbecq offers insight about his music: “The ‘let me show you my emotion in art’ aspect is not so interesting for me in music. I’m interested in others doing that, in peers doing that. But that’s not my method. I prefer to conceive states that may be luminous, showing a music that has a certain type of illumination, into which one will be able to dive—and I leave the choice of emotion to the listener.” Indeed, Delbecq’s style on the piano can be clinical, or playful, or impressionistic, but it rarely feels like it nudges the listener in a particular emotional direction. To my ear, Turner shares some of these qualities, but when paired with Delbecq’s piano, his tone reveals bits of emotional valence, occasionally wistful. Indeed, Delbecq’s playing, which can be beautifully spare, on this recording is injected with a good deal more energy and fullness, courtesy of the measured drive and dynamism brought by drums, bass, and sax.

Three of this album’s compositions also appear on The Weight of Light, and it's interesting to compare versions. In the case of “Anamorphoses,” the theme is charming, almost Monk-ian, but the spare and even monastic feel of the solo version has become a jaunty swinger in the hands of the quartet. With “Chemin sur le Crest,” the solo version offers the slightly tense theme with a completely decentered sense of rhythm, while the quartet version gives the tune’s pace a pliable yet firm drive, even while the sax and piano explore the theme with a contrasting oblique rhythm. This tune has some colorful “post-radiophonic” shading that sometimes blends indistinguishably with its original utterances just moments earlier, like the edges of a mirage slowly revealing what’s actually there.

All the songs on this album hang together well, similarly inhabiting the unique sound of this ensemble—curiously sweet, playfully elusive, with an understated serenity that invites introspection. What do you think?