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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Dell Lillinger Westergaard & Maneri - Monuments (edition niehler werft, 2022) ****

By Martin Schray

DLW is a music collective consisting of Christopher Dell (vibraphone), Christian Lillinger (drums) and Jonas Westergaard (bass), which likes to augment itself with another musician. In other words: it works as a plug-in structure creating space for guests, who bring their specific character of playing into the band’s sound - as the promotional text puts it. Among others these have been John Tchicai (saxophone), Evan Parker (saxophone), Tamara Stefanovich (piano) and Johannes Brecht (electronics). For Monuments they chose the American viola virtuoso Mat Maneri, with whom they have collaborated for several years. Despite the different sound colour Maneri adds here, the most important characteristic of DLW’s music is also highlighted here: the field of conflicts of a given compositional precise framework, which presupposes their joint playing, and the complete freedom of improvisation. Form and substance, structure and content, concreteness and abstraction.

The result is that the music on Monuments is like a restless sea, whose waves swell up and down, an uncertain expanse that is turbulent and calm at the same time. For us listeners this means that we are hardly able to escape the intensity of the playing. Musical cornerstones are purposefully set, like buoys they serve as orientation. The music shows great attention to detail, which in turn forms an exciting whole. In “Monument 13“, a central piece, Dell’s chords on the vibraphone resemble pure heavy metal, organised like blocks against the wild lines of Mat Maneri’s viola. When Dell breaks up these chords into runs, the music fizzles like a henhouse invaded by a fox - nervous, mad, scurrying. Lillinger’s ultra-brutally fast drumming, which Dell then rivals, meets Westergaard’s stoic bass and Maneri’s tones at the threshold of pain.

Seven longer pieces, “Monuments", make the core of the album. Around them miniatures are grouped, so-called “Voids“, which dispense with everything incidental. They’re stripped to the bare, which means that repetitions, patterns, grooves and sound structures become recognizable. They allow you a glimpse to the work itself, the permanent rehearsals, performance strategies and finally even the mastering. The “Voids“ are the icing on the cake, like the 35 seconds in “Void 6“ with their cymbal crescendo and the viola notes tugging at the nerves, or the 41-second “Void 7“ dominated by Lillinger’s barrage, which prepare the listener for the calm, concluding “Monuments 16“. My favourite are the 77 seconds of “Void 4“, which culminate in an alienation of the drums towards the end that seems almost ghostly.

A bit earlier this year, it was announced that Christopher Dell will receive the Hessian Jazz Award 2022. The jury justified this by saying that he “is an exceptional musician (who) allows a unique complexity to emerge in the music with his analytical eye and structural way of thinking.“ They also praised his “expressive virtuosity and (his) fine feeling for the band sound“, saying that with him “rhythmic abstraction and the art of perfect harmonic phrasing are sometimes only mallet strokes apart.“ In particular, the importance of his Dell/Lillinger/Westergaard trio was mentioned. There is nothing to add to this.

Monuments is the second recording in the new retroactive series of Dell’s label edition niehler werft (enw). In 2015 the session was engineered at the Berlin Funkhaus-Studios, it was mastered in 2021.

Monumens is available on vinyl, CD and as a download. The vinyl version only contains 8 of the 15 tracks.

You can order the album here:

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Sothiac feat. Paul Jolly - Superluna (with 'phase 3,' vinyl release) (33Xtreme, 2022) *****

By Sammy Stein

I reviewed Superluna in 2020 after the first two phases were released. Now the trio - Pat Moonchy, Lucky Liguori featuring Paul Jolly has decided to release a vinyl version, with an additional phase. This is a good thing. Vinyl captures the sounds of this experimental trio somehow in a purer form, suiting their intricate, delicate nuances, which are more apparent.

Vocalist Pat Moonchy has performed across the globe as a solo artist and with various collaborators, including Tod Tobias, Alfa Neu, and more. Her activities with The Moonshine Pub and art, her study of shamanisms, and discovery of the tanpura are documented in my earlier review Sothiac feat. Paul Jolly - Superluna (Sothiac/33 Jazz Records). She and Multi-instrumentalist and electronic sound creator Lucio (Lucky) Liguori form an experimental, explorative combination known as Sothiac. They are known for their experimental creativity.

In Paul Jolly, they have found a kindred spirit, and since first meeting at The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London, the trio have played together at several events in different settings. Paul is well known as a reedsman and free jazz advocate, playing in the incredible free jazz combo the People Band with Terry Day, Davey Payne, Charlie Hart, Tony Edwards, and others and supporting many musicians through the 33 Jazz label.

The previous release, Superluna, consisted of just two tracks – one of twenty minutes or so and the other of just over eight minutes, and for the vinyl release, the third phase has been added.

Lucky approached me with this release and told me, "The Superluna album was conceived thanks to the willpower to make something new when everything stopped due to lockdowns. The making of Superluna has been a synergic work that engages everyone in an inner exploration aimed at bringing the listener into another dimension where they could find something apart from reality. The work inspired us to consider the relationships of the moon with the Earth."

The trio worked with visionary artist Lino Budano who directed the Superluna video, which was selected to be shown at the prestigious art gallery San Vidal – an arts organization based in Venice and a biennial exhibition called the Biennale Venice.

On 13th February, Superluna was shown at the Victorian Wardown Museum on the outskirts of Luton, UK, and sold out.

Since Sothiac joined forces with Paul Jolly, the three musicians expressed a desire to continue their association once things began to get back to normal. Their next date is on 9th April at the Hundred Years Gallery in London and on 24th April at the Vortex Jazz Club for the Mopomoso experimental event, instigated by the late John Russell. The album is dedicated to John, and The Vortex is where the trio met for the first time. More dates are due to be announced soon.

Listening to the album again, phases 1 and 2 have lost nothing of their effect on the first listen. The atmospheric vocals, crazily developed sonic textures and spiritual essence are very effective and utterly engaging.

'Phase 3,' added to the vinyl release, opens with multi-layered sonic effects over which the vocals enter, Moonchy's distinctive tones adding even more atmosphere on top of those already evoked. But it is the bass clarinet that is key to the eleven plus minutes of this third phase, creating a deeply textured background, over which the vocals and instrumental lines glide and softly weave tones of sonic bliss. The Banshee-like intonations of Moonchy's exquisite voice are of such delicacy that they might have been eked from the mist. Percussive effects add timbres and cleave sounds from the very air, offering tonal contrast to the vocals.

The clarinet sings and sighs, its voice at times steady and sonorous; at others, it works in the flexibility of melodic themes which last for a moment or several moments – their placement intuitive and deft.

For this listener, returning to Sothiac and Superluna is something I should have done a while ago, and the music has lost nothing of the effect it had on the first, second, or third listen. Deeply emotive, evocative, and coming from a place none of us knew existed until the combination of this voice, this guitar, and this bass clarinet made it materialize for us.


Pat Moonchy -voice and sound art
Lucky Liguori­­-prepared cithara, guitar, and gongs
Paul Jolly ­­– bass clarinet

Out 4/1/22 and available for pre-order from 33 jazz records 33Jazz Records

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 2

By Nick Metzger & Lee Rice Epstein

Featuring Damon Smith

A continuation of the conversation between Lee, Damon Smith, and myself talking about the recent Balance Point Acoustics releases among many other things. Also be sure to catch Smith on tour this April & May in a trio with Jason Stein and Adam Shead whose new album Volumes & Surfaces we discuss below. 


Sarah Ruth Alexander/Damon Smith - God Made My Soul an Ornament (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

Another standout in this roundup is “God Made My Soul an Ornament” from the duo of Smith and singer, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Ruth Alexander. The diverse array of instruments and traps Alexander utilizes makes for a full and heady listening experience, while her vocals add a much appreciated lyrical dimension. Smith provides a perfect complimentary aesthetic that sees him mining his range of sounds and techniques. - NM

DS: I went to Texas in I think, 2017 or something for a family health situation, and my girlfriend was at Harvard working on the Bauhaus show, the Bauhaus Centennial Show, and so she had that to do and when I didn't have gigs, I was pretty free. And I've been teaching remotely for years already by that point. So I could just go to Texas. So I went to Texas to kind of take care of her mom and be with her mom after she just got out of the hospital and stuff. And I brought my travel bass so I could practice because I was there for like two and a half weeks. The first time Stephan Gonzalez had a music series and Stephan wasn't available Sarah took it over and got in touch with me, found out I was there, and I didn't know when I went down at this time that I'd be able to play at all. She organized some concerts for me in Denton and in Dallas then I met and heard her on one of those nights. Then we got to know each other, she's got a lot of similar interests, there's a lot of similarities, and she gets a lot from literature and visual art and other things like that. And there's a lot of similar tastes that we have and then a lot of different tastes, which makes it interesting. But the fact that a lot of her influencers are coming from these other art forms was a really great place for us to connect. So we did several duo concerts, and then we made this duo recording, like two in the morning at North Texas State and it had been sitting for a while, and we wanted to do it.

She had been reading the Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which is a big one for me, and it turned out one of the interesting things is that my very first bass guitar teacher (Chris Daniels) was a student of Jaco Pastorius, which I thought was cool. But then I sort of lost touch with him, and then when I got in touch with him again, it turned out that he had learned Portuguese from working in kitchens and became one of the primary translators of Fernando Pessoa’s Heteronyms. He's got two books out and he gave me a Pessoa translation. I thought that was really exciting. It's a bold title in a way and I don't necessarily have a spiritual practice. I'm more like Barre Phillips who said, my religion is bass. I feel like art is a place where we can try to hover above our humanity and petty human squabbles rather than wallowing in them. I guess that can be thought of as a spiritual place, but I think of it as more of a subconscious space or whatever. So I'm not so much into God or souls necessarily, but I love this title. Ernesto Montiel is also a great musician, and he had all this beautiful artwork. And again, someone who I've talked to a lot about art and music and literature and these other things, and we are able to get this sculpture from him for the cover. So the design and the title of this one, not just the music, I love the music. Playing with Sarah, it's different every time. And more than anything, it embodies the concept that Bill Dixon used to talk about where he said each person is their own Orchestra. There's this architectural breadth between her and I where it's almost like anything could happen. There's the percussion and other instruments that she plays, like the dulcimer. But of course, it's really grounded in her beautiful voice, this pure classical voice, and everything hangs off of that thread, on this purity of the voice that she brings, it's so striking. But she doesn't overuse it either. I think there's just this breadth of playing with her in a duo that I feel like I feel like you've probably done ten or twelve concerts together by now as a duo, maybe more, maybe less, but we did a little tour last summer, and that's a lot for improvised music, and then each one is completely different and has a different range and a different way of doing things together. We've got some things planned for this year hopefully. We're talking about doing some stuff.

NM: This is another album that stands out like the Eternity Cult, it’s a lot different than the other ones. And to your point, she does a great job with all the different instruments and voice and contraptions and things. For it being a duo album, there's a lot of information there.

LRE: Going back to Kowald for a minute, he seemed to never stop exploring different modalities, different groups. He was constantly trying working with new players and creating work for dance, obviously, also. You also seem similarly interested in exploring new sounds that are exciting to you. Because I agree with Nick, this album. It was sort of interesting to put this one on and be like, wait a minute…(laughs)

DS: Yeah, definitely. When I heard Sarah for the first time, I was like, yeah, this is somebody doing original work. I want to play with her. It was the same kind of feeling as when I heard Sandy, honestly. She's got some great recordings, which I would recommend tracking down. There's one called Words on the Wind. It's about the Panhandle of Texas. It's amazing out, super bleak and beautiful. When I heard her. I was like, well, this is original work, and this is something that's important.

Mitchell/Ewen/Smith/Walter - A Railroad Spike Forms the Voice (ugEXPLODE, 2021)

Brilliant improvised set, with Mitchell in particularly fine form. Driving, grooving, swinging—whatever you expect, this is not what you expected. It’s much, much more. - LRE

DS: That whole thing happened because of Sandy. One of the last things I did in the Bay Area was a collaboration with a dancer named Micaela Gardner and a filmmaker Darren Hawk. And that's on YouTube somewhere. But we did these outdoor bass and dance pieces with the filmmaker kind of involved as an equal partner. And when I got to Houston, there was a dance film festival, and somebody knew that I had this film. I forget who it was. It was someone in Houston. And they said I should apply for this festival with that film, so I did and I got onto the festival. And then Sandy has a long term project with a belly dancer named Yet Torres, so I first saw her on film. I hadn't met her yet. And I was like, Whoa, that's original. I want to play with her. And so we started to play together in Houston, she was much younger than me. She's much younger than me. I think she's twelve years younger or something. But I started improvised music in my 20s, and she started it in high school. She had Keith Rowe workshops in high school. She was already a lot more experienced than your average person in her mid 20s at this music. When I started to work with her in Houston it was basically side by side. We were organizing things together, we were doing projects together, and of course I had a few more connections because I've been out in the world a little longer and stuff like that. I knew Roscoe just from being at Mills. I wasn't at Mills, but he had an Orchestra piece and Steve Cowert, one of the Mills professors, brought in Weasel and I to play in this Orchestra. He said ‘hey, do you want to come play in this Roscoe thing?’ and we're like, yeah! (laughs) And the funny thing, the other piece on the program was In C, and Weasel did the marimba parts for In C, and he did a fantastic job. And that was also an eye opening moment with Weasel. We had been working together for a bit, but then watching him just kill it on the In C part, even though it's fairly simple, it was still like Weasel Walter. It just expanded what we could do together. Roscoe came through Dave's organization, Nameless Sound, David Dove's organization and there was a workshop, and what we do in Houston, the workshops are free, and we'd all do it no matter who it was. We'd all come to the workshop because it was a musical thing, but it was also a social thing. We're all friends, and we're all going to come and come together at the Roscoe Mitchell workshop. So we're doing the workshop, And he's not really impressed with anyone except Sandy, he really loved what she was doing. And he said to a saxophone player, why don't you listen to her and try to play something like her? I could listen to what she's doing all day. So he heard what everybody else hears. So then after the workshop he said, hey, is there a beer around? So I get him a beer, and we're having a beer together and then he asked, what are you and Weasel doing? I said, oh, we just did an album with this guitar player. And he said, well, I'd love to hear that. We sent him the album, and he really liked it. So, Sandy is the reason why Roscoe knew me and Weasel and wanted to work with us. Obviously, he spent a lot of time talking to us, and there was a nice personal connection and everything, but there was no sense that Weasel and I were going to play with him until this.

And we got a gig at a place that has a really great chef. Paul Canales has a restaurant called Duende. It just reopened in Oakland, and he's been a huge fan of the music. He made dinner for Giani Gebbia and I in the 90s, like a big fancy dinner with Pigeon and all this great stuff. And he's a really cool guy, and I'd run into him at Amoeba buying CDs, and he's just this superstar chef that is really into this music. And then I said, hey, man, if Roscoe will play with us, will you pay him? And he said, oh, I know exactly what he'll want. And we'll pay him. It'll be great. So I asked Roscoe. And he said, yeah, that'd be great. And then we had it recorded. This concert was interesting because we had a bit more responsibility to present our music to Roscoe rather than to try to interface with his concept, if that makes sense. And that was kind of an exciting moment, because when I got to play with Cecil Taylor and things like that, you really want to get inside Cecil's music. That's the whole thing. You're trying to do that, and it's a great thing, but it's often harder in some ways because you're going outside yourself. The whole thing was that all of Sandy's playing on that album actually makes it a bit more than what it would be if it was me and Weasel. It wouldn't be bad, but I think she adds this whole other element. It's almost like an intersection of Sun Ra and AMM in a way. Working with Sandy and Weasel, these are also people that I'm friends with and I don't always like to push that, because I think one of the things folks used to always say is this is not about friendship. It should be about the music. But with Sandy and Weasel, they're definitely people I can get projects done with. So I know if I start a project with either or both of them, it's going to happen. It's going to get over the finish line, we can work together in all these other aspects of getting something done, which is why we’ve made so many albums together, things like that. In a certain way, I feel like Sandy and I have not made enough albums together for how much work we've done together. We've done some stuff that's important, but I think we could use a few more because we've just done a lot of things together. We've got a new duo that we recorded last year or the year before that, that I'd like to get out at some point. It was really beautiful and we got to some special places. And then we just recorded a couple of recent things, we just did a quartet project with Lisa Cameron, afantastic drummer, and Alex Cunningham, great violin.

LRE: This seems like Roscoe has come back to some of this long form improv.

There's been a lot of albums like Bells for Southside and Splatter, where it's almost compositional, but it's kind of exciting in a way to hear him sort of back in a real, long form kind of improv space, developing ideas over a much greater duration. I mean, I just love him. Just love him.

DS: Well, yeah. He's one of the greatest. in the Art Ensemble. I was saying that Odwalla the Juice Company is a name from the Art Ensemble, and they would pay to bring the Art Ensemble to the Bay Area every year. So I got to see the original quintet, I got to see the quartet formations, and I got to see that group a bunch of times. So they were just huge for me, and I got to see them. I saw the Art Ensemble before I was even involved in actually trying to play this music, back when I was still trying to have a Minutemen type band. One of the cool things about that Roscoe show was being able to listen to his music up until then and really dive into Roscoe Mitchell's music. One of the really exciting things is I went to my local record store in Houston, Vinyl Edge, and I found this LP. Do you guys have this one? (holds up Roscoe Mitchell, Tony Marsh, John Edwards LP Improvisations, otoroku, 2013)

(NM and LRE shake heads yes)

DS: Yeah. And that's another one where he's doing improvised music on a long form double LP with the great Tony Marsh and John Edwards, who I'm a big fan of. And so that’s kind of exciting. And in that time period, there wasn't a lot of that when I first started to do this music. If you wanted to know what the new releases were, you went to the record store and you looked.

It was one of the first times in a long time where I found an incredible album that I didn't know about in the record store that was relevant to what I was about to do. So it was a big moment to find that record, there's very few times since then.

NM: One more question on the Mitchell album. When you play with somebody like Roscoe Mitchell, who has led so many groups, and then kind of he's had all his orchestrations, he's done conducting, how does he communicate? Did you talk beforehand about what you wanted to do? You said that you were going to be more geared toward what you all play?

DS: Well, we knew that he liked the album, and that's why we asked him to play. And we didn't discuss that with him at all. He got out of stopwatch and used it a timer, and that's why it's a CD length. So I think we knew he was planning to play all the way to the end. I don't think he said it. We just knew. Maybe he said it, but there was some information whether he said it or whether it was there, that we were going to do one long piece. That was something we knew. And then when you know that, what's pretty cool is you can settle in and work with it. This goes into something that's a bit like thinking about what I think about as far as the audience. I don't ever want to compromise my music. And the kind of lucky thing for me is that's what my audience expects of me. My audience is not expecting me to please them. Right. I think you have to make these considerations about taking your music out of your bedroom and into the world. And the sculptor Lawrence Weiner, who I'm a big fan of, said you only make work for the public, so you have to think about them to a degree. One of the things I think about is that if possible, especially at a concert, my ideal concert would be a local series that has two 20 to 25 minutes sets. I think what you can give an audience is brevity if you're not working with scale. That's the way I always like to put it. If you're not working with scale, make things concise. But in this case, scale was part of it. We knew we're going to make one long piece. Right. So we know we're working with scale. And sometimes you just start working with scale. It's not discussed. It just happens. But like Feldman, when he knows he's going to write a four hour piece or whatever, he's working with that scale, he's trying to deal with long form decision making and stuff like that. And I think that's what happens in a concert, like with this quartet or recording with this quartet, we knew we were making a long form piece. We knew we're going over. We're kind of working with that time frame.

Ewen/Rowe/Smith + Gooseberry Marmalade - Houston 2012 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

A terrific double CD that combines a set from the trio of Ewen, Rowe, and Smith and Ewen’s Lady Band - working under the moniker Gooseberry Marmalade here) - with a set from the trio alone. of Ewen, Rowe, and Smith. The former was recorded live at 14 Pews, and the latter a couple of days later at KUHF. Both discs are excellent, very much in the spirit of Scratch Orchestra and the more subtle AMM releases, but also very different. Despite the large group, the Gooseberry Marmalade set is measured, even pointillist, as the band works its way through several scores selected by Rowe, Ewen, and Smith. The trio improvisations, likewise, are reserved pieces of sound art that detail how differently Ewen and Rowe approach prepared guitar, smith filling in the gaps with long bowed tones or animated grima. - NM

DS: Scale is something that Keith had often worked with in AMM. Keith is really influenced by Cage and also Rothko and the abstract expressionist painters and things like that who are dealing with scale and looking at scale in that way. And one of the things I did once it came up that would be possible to play with Keith is I would go to the Menil Collection in Houston, which definitely has some of the best artworks in the world that live there. Like, there's a 60 foot long Cy Twombly painting in Houston. It's the most work of his in America, and I think the most work in one place, and it's free. You can walk in there and look at this Cy Twombly anytime you want. And so I'd go sit in front of the 60 foot long side Twombly painting for like an hour, just working on my sense of scale and my concentration on the painting, looking at the painting and things like that. This is also something that was very much driven by Sandy in a way. Keith had come to Houston to do a concert for Dave Dove’s organization, Nameless Sound. And Texas has these great things called Ice Houses where you basically sit outside and drink beer. And there's a really iconic one called the Alabama Ice House. And we were there with Keith and that Ben Patterson exhibition was up, and I had done the Ben Patterson piece, and Keith was really excited and had a duo with Ben Patterson. I don't know if there's any recordings of that, but Patterson played an electric upright duo with Keith Rowe, and Keith was really into the connections between Fluxus and Scratch Orchestra and stuff. And so we're drinking and talking about that. Sandy was there and he knew her from before, he'd been coming to Houston for a while. They've done workshops and stuff like that. And obviously Keith is the first one to really put the guitar flat and have that as the primary working method. A crucial difference, but an important difference is he tests the guitar totally flat on a table, and then he has his objects on the table, and the guitar is rigid. Right. And one of the things about Sandy is the guitar is on her lap, and she uses her legs to move the guitar and to move the objects on her guitar, so some of it is coming from her legs as well. Almost like a drummer but it's not really percussive, but it's a whole body concept. And the fact that it's on her lap is an important part of the concept. That's not obvious. Like, you might just think I was just there because it's flat but also her legs come into the movement and the rhythms and the sounds that are happening. So her hands come into it and her legs under it are moving it and I think that is an important aspect of that. And then hearing her with Keith, you can kind of hear there's a different type of movement in her playing versus his.

I found out from the Keith Rowe film What is Man and what is Guitar, one of the things I took from that film was that he first put it on the floor, which is an interesting idea. I didn't know that he was thinking about Pollock working above the canvas on the floor, and putting the guitar on the floor. There's that connection with Sandy and Keith. But then the other connection was that Sandy had made this all female ensemble that changed his name every time. And it was always a name involving fruit and they came up with a new name every time. And then they would make up their own little pieces and things like that. And it was very much in the tradition of Scratch Orchestra in a way, even though she wasn't thinking that at all, if she knew about the Scratch Orchestra, it was in passing. She was around enough hardcore improvised music nerds that knew the history that I'm sure the Scratch Orchestra was mentioned in her presence at some point, but this was all her idea, to do this group with the women. She just felt like not enough women were present on the scene. And so it was open to people who were musicians or not. They didn't have to be musicians. They just had to be interested. There was a choir in the Bay Area called the Cardew Choir. And their thing was, if you're interested, you're already qualified. Okay. So we made that connection. We asked Keith to restage some Scratch Orchestra pieces with her all female ensemble, and that sort of brought the whole thing together. And we brought a Cy Twombly book of the paintings in Philadelphia, the 50 Days at Ilium, into the studio. We used that as a graphic score, but not really. It was just there. And then I was able to get photos from the Cy Twombly Foundation, liners from Brian Olewnick, and then from Rebecca Novak.



Jump to: Part 2 | Part 2b | Part 2c


Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 2b

Novak/Kamins/Ewen/Smith/Bryerton - Groundwater Recharge (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

Billed as “improvised music for quintet (+trios)” this is an excellent example of what’s meant by collective improvisation. All five players (six with Aluana Rubin joining on clarinet for one track) are given, and give, space to explore and collaborate. - LRE

DS: Groundwater Recharge is a window into what we were doing in Houston at that time. If Dave Dove was on that record, it would be even more of a clear window of what we were doing. But that was something where we had access to a really good studio, and Byerton came to town, and then these were the people that were there, Sandy and Rebecca Novak, who was in the Gooseberry Marmalade and wrote those liner notes. Sandy and Rebecca and Danny Kamins and I were doing a lot of different things together at the time and maybe even getting together and playing, which I don't do as much. It's just when I've got concerts, I feel like it's more important for me to practice at home and be ready for those concerts than to sort of do private sessions. I don't do a lot of that because I think it becomes, at a certain point, also work-life balance. If I've got concerts on the books and I'm practicing and then I'm listening, then it might be more important that I have a bike ride that day. I do get together and play with people privately. It's just important to make sure that you're ready in different ways. Rebecca Novak is a really interesting and important improviser in Houston, and she has a degree in French Horn and took that to a really high level in orchestral playing and classical music. But she's always been interested in this music. I believe she was roommates with Tim Mulvana who was the original drummer of the Vandermark Five in Chicago at a certain point. And then she took time off of music to really develop a visual art practice. It was primarily as a sculptor. And now she brings those things together in a lot of ways with installations and things like that. But also in concert, she'll have these objects like glasses and other objects in addition to Cornet and piano. But of course piano is such a hard thing because there's not a piano at every venue, but there was a piano in the studio. So she was able to play some piano on this album. But it's good to get that out because she's a really important musician and artist in Houston and because of the way that her music sort of overlaps with visual art and back, it's not super easy to document exactly what she does. When I was in Houston last, she was doing a really incredible installation at Project Row House, which I felt really captured the whole picture of what she works on. She’s an amazing person to work with. And then, of course, it's got a cover by Bryerton, a painting by Bryerton. I think it's really beautiful, and Rebecca came up with the titles for this one, too. So the titles have to do with her work in environmental justice.

Gregorio/Smith/Bryerton - Room of the Present (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

A must have recording of Smith and Bryerton in a trio with the great Argentine reedsman Guillermo Gregorio. Mainly trio improvisation, Gregorio conducts on “Moholy 2”, a graphic score he wrote inspired by the life and art of László Moholy-Nagy which is reproduced inside the cover. This is an exceptional release and really one of my personal favorites as I’ve returned to it numerous times. The trio is phenomenal and this album is just as patient in its small interactions as it is in its more explosive parts. The liners also give the listening notes for how the score was interpreted, as well as providing some insightful information on Moholy-Nagy himself. - NM

DS: Of course, Bryerton and I have been working together for many years. And if we talk about this album with Gregorio, Bryerton, and I had been working with Wolfgang Fuchs in a trio, Bryerton was living in Chicago and these recordings were done in 2006 and 2007, I believe, or 2007 and 2008, something like that. And one of the most interesting musicians who was in Chicago at that time was Guillermo Gregorio. I don't know if you know, do you know his Hat Art albums and things like that.

NM: Yeah, I own them.

DS: It's just fantastic. And I really love his music and I love his compositions and I love his concepts. And again, an original voice. And I love the intersection of this kind of Fluxus avant-garde thing, which was the Argentinian movement was called Madi Madi, and it was kind of a constructivist Fluxus thing that was really incredible. But then he also has a cool jazz-like way of playing and thinking, which is fantastic. And what's nice there is the Moholy pieces are prior to that. Our first duo recording is actually on this. And Gregorio is conducting, and my girlfriend Melissa Venator did the liner notes. She is a Moholy scholar, actually. And one of the chapters of her dissertation was on Moholy, and when she was at Harvard, she got to activate the Moholy’s light prop, which the Room of the Present is in reference to the title. And she wrote liner notes that are analyzing the visual aspects of the score in relation to Moholy’s work, which is really cool. And then the other interesting thing about this is we get a pretty fiery performance out of Guillermo on the improvisations, which is really exciting. And another interesting thing is right before this call, I just confirmed a concert of this group in May in upstate New York that Clifford Allen's putting on. So that's going to be pretty exciting as well. This group will be able to work a little bit.

Bryerton/Smith Duo - There Must Be A Reason for Generating Sounds (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

 Bryerton and Smith are powerful foils for each other, each one as restrained and fiery as the other, in this intense, touching, and searching tribute. - LRE

DS: We dedicated this to Wolfgang Fuchs, Bryerton and I had done a lot of different things with great players beforehand, actually the earliest recording of Bryerton is on one of my earliest recordings is called Sextessence with John Butcher and Henry Kaiser. On that album, we're doing John Stevens material and trying to improvise them. The first figure that we both work together with closely as a rhythm section or whatever you want to call what we do. John Cage used to have this saying that you don't have to call it music if the term offends you, so you don't have to call Bryerton and I a rhythm section of the term offends you. (laughs)

NM: I did watch some of your videos on your YouTube channel. I think you had at least one from Minneapolis, right? Yeah, it was really good.

DS: Yes, that was a great trio. And we could just set up and we could play anywhere and play that music. And it was such an important experience to work with Fuchs. And Fuchs is such an important figure. Not 100% forgotten, but I would say he's not in the front of everyone's mind about this music. But I think he's one of the very important figures in this music. And he was very serious. He had a great sense of humor, but his attitude towards the music was a little too serious for some people. And he could be a bit of a hardliner about improvisation and stuff like that and a bit spiky, kind of offended a lot of people. And the titles are things that he said, which were all really funny things. But he was close friends with the artist Max Neumann, who did all of his FMP covers. And we were able to get four drawings from Max, which is really nice. Four drawings from Max, which this album has a gatefold and all that with these drawings, which is really great.

NM: Yeah. I didn't realize that he and Newman were friends.

DS: Yeah, right. The cover to the first King Ubu, not the LP. It's like a more kind of a drawing, black and white. But the first CD with the two figures on it, and then also Fuch’s solo on FMP, those are so iconic and so amazing. So it's great to get those for the covers. And the CD comes with the bookmark, which I'm really excited about. It's kind of funny to me at this point in my work, and I'm just excited that I was able to make a bookmark, but I'm always looking for a bookmark, and I don't have one. And now I have all these bookmarks with this banner on it that Fuchs made. There must be a reason for generating sounds. And I think that's kind of a great thing. I'm using them in all kinds of books. It's a very useful item. This is something we did last year. Bryerton is in Chicago. I'm in St. Louis now.



Jump to: Part 2 | Part 2b | Part 2c


Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 2c

Hartsaw/Smith/Bryerton - Precipitation of a Decision (Balance Point Acoustics, 2022) 

“Precipitation of a Decision” is a double album that combines a trio performance from Hartsaw, Bryerton, and Smith on sax, bass, and drums (Disc 1) with a duo performance of Hartsaw and Smith (Disc 2). Incredible music herein, the trio performance is fantastic, patient improvisation. At this point the Smith/Bryerton mechanics are well oiled, and they conjure dynamic, knotty abutments of rhythm that support the dips and arcs of Hartsaw’s playing. The second disc is a set of intricate, low key pieces to which Smith adds touches of electronics and field recordings to the textural acoustic sounds. - NM

DS: And then there was just this idea, there's a nice studio in St. Louis where a lot of the recent work that I'm doing is being recorded by a great recording engineer named Ryan Wasoba. It's called Birdcloud, and it's in Collinsville, Illinois, which is right over the Mississippi. So we were able to do that there. And then, I don't know, six or eight months later, we did the Hartsaw Trio. And the first album that I did with Hartsaw and Bryerton also had the guitar player Kristian Aspelin on it, and it was dedicated to Joseph Beuys. And it actually had done well. And it was the first album that I felt comfortable, not just putting the money into it, but I felt that it was the first album with peers that I felt like I could really do as a CD because you want to act like there's no commercial considerations, but when you make a decision like that, there has to be some sort of … anyway the idea was that we were able to do that anyway. So then we were able to do this album. Hartsaw & Bryerton came to St. Louis , and then there was an outdoor series at that time. We did a little concert, that's where the photos are from, the outdoor concert. And it was really nice to be able to do this and Hartsaw. And I had a track from the duo album that had only lived as a digital recording, so the second disk is a duo disc of Paul Hartsaw from 2007. I think it's 2007. These titles are really important to me. It's an interesting layer to go into the way I get my titles, which I really am into, is Hartsaw and I made this duo, and then it just got shelved for no reason in particular. And then it had been a while, I forget when we revisited it to actually master it and put it out on the Internet, but it was quite a bit later. It was either between 2013 and 2016, somewhere around that period when we brought it out. So it was eight years later or more or less somewhere around there. So what I tried to do is I tried to think about something that I was really into at that time period that I was t less engaged with. Like, there's things that you asked me, I would say, yeah, I love this, but I'm not actively reading about it, pursuing it.

And Sigmar Polke, the German artist, was somebody who, just in the period of that recording, I was buying every Sigmar Polke catalog I could find. There's a lot of Polke around in the museums I was going to in Germany and America and I was seeing his work a lot. So I decided to pull titles from Polke. And then for the trio, I decided to get titles from another German artist that we're all into, which is Anselm Kiefer who published his notebooks recently. So these are all things that are in Anselm Kiefer’s notebooks. They're a little bit less poetic and a little bit more just talking about the processes of his work, and it's a little more banal in some ways, but also interesting. And then the final touch is the cover art by Eliot Daughtry. And Eliot is an artist in the Bay Area that was around a lot when I was playing at a place called 21 Grand, which is a real foundational place. And then Eliot and his partner were often around after shows, and we got to know each other just hanging out after shows and talking. And then Eliott was posting all these beautiful drawings on the Internet on Facebook and Instagram, and I just kept liking them. And Elliott had been working on these line drawings for a good several years. And then at a certain point, the colors started to come into them, they got really kind of even more exciting. And at a certain point, Eliot said, I'd love to do a cover for one of your albums. And I thought, that'd be great. And then the interesting thing about it is in some ways, when I picked the two drawings, I thought, oh, the one with the two circles will go with the trio, and then the two circles will go with the duo, and the three circles go with the trio. My designer, Alan Anzalone, who was there from the second CD, I don't really correct his work except for if there's a typo or something, right? So I just sent him the visual material and he picks and puts it together, and he picked the one with the two circles for the cover. Of course, there are three sets of lines, and it's abstract art, so these numbers don't have to add up. I just thought it was interesting that Alan did not decide to do anything in circles. And Paul kind of mentioned it too. But I thought I trusted Alan's design, and I think it's a really strong front cover, the two circles as well. So it's great. And that's one of the great things about again, going back to my concept of free improvisation, where I work with people, my concept of free improvisation has mostly to do with that. I don't want to work with someone that I feel I need to tell what to do. And so it’s kind of that way with Alan as well. I never know what color it's going to be in the very rarest of circumstances. I can't remember ever talking about a color with him yet, there might be something where I might have talked about a background or something like that. and so it's always exciting, even to this day, to send off all the elements to Alan and see what comes back. I send him these elements, and he comes back with a fantastic design that I never could have imagined. So it's been great. And in a certain way, the label is almost half his, and the visual identity of the label is all his, really. I mean, I picked the artwork or whatever, but this identity is really important, and it's fantastic to work with him.

Stein/Smith/Shead - Volumes & Surfaces (Balance Point Acoustics, 2022)

Recorded mid-pandemic in Chicago, combining live sets from Hungry Brain and Elastic Arts, Stein, Smith, and Shead make a strong case for the little-discussed bass clarinet trio. - LRE

DS: This was recorded in August. On the 29th, we did a studio session in the daytime at Elastic Arts, and then we went and played a concert at the Hungry Brain and Bill Harris made a beautiful recording and then he ended up mixing, mastering the thing. Him and Adam are tight. And again, the sound is just beautiful, vivid. And it was really great to hear the quality of those recordings and playing with these two. They had a great duo and have been working in a duo for a while. I did a duo concert with Andrew Scott Young, and then they were playing right afterwards, and I talked to them that night. Jason and I have intersected together over the years. He had been to concerts that I played with Fuchs, and we did a quartet in I think 2008 OR 2009 or something in Philadelphia in a quartet with Jack Wright. Jason is somebody whose music I've kept up with, and I actually buy his albums. There was just this funny time when you could buy all these downloads from EMusic. Do you remember emusic? And you pay $5 a month and you could get all these downloads. And I was getting all the albums that Jason was doing for Clean Feed, which were really great. And then I did a concert with Jason and Josh Berman and Sandy that was really good. And then after that, there was some talk about, hey, we should play with Adam. And then Adam pulled together this trio, which was really great. These recordings came out really well. One of the things that Richard Serra talks about is the volume of his sculptures and the way that the kind of the forged rounds express the volume. You can feel the way to them by looking at them. When you look at Cézanne’s still lifes of fruit, like apples or peaches, whatever. He's able to express the volume in the paint. And then that idea of the volume and the way that the bass clarinet expresses the air column of it more than other instruments, like, you feel the space inside that horn more than you do other instruments. And the other cool thing about Jason, I really respect someone who just picks a specific instrument and does not vary from it. It's almost like Sandy never picking up the guitar and playing a note on it, just being really dedicated to it being flat.

Now, this idea of Jason just playing the bass clarinet, I love that idea, and then I like the sense volume he gets from that horn, so that I was able to get titles from the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. At the Kemper Museum in St. Louis, there's a sculpture, a Chillida sculpture, that's probably my favorite artwork in St. Louis. And I have this kind of photographic memory, especially for art, and I can remember these things, but I can't ever hold the shape of that sculpture in my mind because it's a little too wily with the way it moves. And every time I've gone to look at it, I've got to reset what I think the shape of the sculpture is every time. And I've got a fantastic book of writings by Chillida, and he's mainly talking about the relationships between space and volume and time. And one of the great quotes that he has is that space is the twin brother of time. And then obviously, playing with Adam is really great. I love his playing. And Adam, this is an interesting thing about Adam is Adam and the violin player Gabby Fluke Mogul are the two people who were able to blow me away through a phone speaker. And they both posted videos of them playing in Instagram Stories, And I was just probably eating or drinking or coffee or something and just looking at Instagram Stories in Gabby's tone. Gabby was the first person to really grab me through a phone speaker, and their violin tone just cut right through everything. And it was just like, wow, this is powerful. And I've not been able to play with Gabby. We kind of tried when I was on the East Coast here, but I really want to. And then the next thing, Adam was posting these things that he was playing on Instagram Stories, just like him in the drum practice room playing some rhythmic things, and it was like, Whoa, this is really good. And then I messaged him. So it's been great to work with him because I think he's a very original drummer and he's fairly well educated. And one of the other thing I like about him is he's definitely someone who's working on how to engage with time in improvised music as well, because I think that's always a quandary. I think it's something we haven't solved yet, and it's something to work on always. And so we're finding our way to interface. We don't want to be too tightly connected, but I feel like we have a good time-feel together, and it's a very special situation and relationship.

NM: I'm looking forward to seeing the tour. I'll definitely come out to the Spot. I haven't been up there for a while, so I'm looking forward to it. I'm ready to get outside and not be inside anymore. I'm looking forward to concerts this summer all around. Just seeing who's playing where.


Ra Kalam Bob Moses/Damon Smith Duo - Purecircle (Balance Point Acoustics, 2022)

On “Purecircle” Smith duels with legendary New York (currently residing in Quincy, Mass) percussion master Ra Kalam Bob Moses on a rich and thorough exploration of propulsive rhythms and dynamic interplay. Recorded last year in Quincy and sporting Bob Moses cover art, the album combines duets with three eponymous tracks that find Smith overdubbing his bass parts over Moses’ beds (explained below). An exciting and inventive set from a duo we hope to hear more from. - NM

DS: So this obviously is huge, to play with Ra Kalam Bob Moses is fantastic. The last time I saw Alvin Fielder was when we did our trio with Joe McPhee, and then I just moved to Boston. I'd been in Boston a few weeks at that point, actually, Quincy, Massachusetts, which is basically Boston, but not quite. And I knew Moses lived there, and of course, I knew Moses' work, and I made contact with him so that Alvin could meet him and I brought Alvin over. So the first time I met him was in 2016, Alvin and I went over to his place and got to go hang out in his drum room and talk to him. Mainly those two just went into deep drum talk, and it was heavy, and I was just sort of the fly on the wall there. And Moses had a bass in his studio, so we played together a touch that day. And it was amazing because obviously talking about Adam working on how to bring time into improvised music in his way, and he's got an original take on it. I think, of course, Moses is like that. His whole life has been spent dealing with rhythm and time and how it can be free and how it can relate back because he still will play some things that are a lot more jazzy with different people when it makes sense. And he has one of the greatest time-feels in the world. This whole idea of Alvin's, of being adventurous with swing, obviously, is so intertwined in my playing, and I feel like that sort of prepared me a bit to make this album, to be able to get in with somebody with so many original rhythms and time ideas and then see how my material is going to sit with that way of playing. It's our fourth album that we've done. I actually overdubbed on an album of him and Mike Nock playing synthesizers in the 60s. That album is around. I forget the title, but he put that one out. And then obviously, Astral Plane Crash. And then the trio with Burton Green, which was fantastic, and I was living in there. We played together a fair amount. I would play sessions at his house, and then we would go play concerts.

And after the duo with Bryerton I really started to focus more on bass & drum duos, I had made a duo with William Hooker, and then I made the duo with Alvin. And there's these great duos with William and Hamid and a fair amount of other bass and percussion duos. It's not something that's unheard of, but it's got a specific challenge that I'm really into, and I'm a little bit more into it at the moment. I think it's a great thing to look at. There's just a lot to be done with that instrumentation with just bass and drums, because we kind of know what saxophone and drums will do, right? There's a way to make it new and interesting, but that's been very well explored. Not to say people shouldn't do it. It's always great to go into those situations. Something like a piano trio that's been well explored and see if you can do something innovative. But, yeah, I think the duo of bass and drums is so interesting and so unexplored that it's a really great thing to do. This music is the last thing that was recorded at Native Sound Studio, his home studio in Quincy, Massachusetts, and it's all in the order that we recorded it, and it's all the music that we did. And then these things that are called Purecircles, Moses has these things called beds that he makes that are for people to play over, and they might have overtones and stuff. And I took three of these beds to a local studio here, which was cool because he's got a bunch of them. And so he said I just felt like the album didn't have enough gongs and symbols. So maybe could you pick some of my beds that have that? So he let me pick the beds, which is really cool.

And then I went and recorded these minute long pieces over the beds. And then I came up with this title. The original title of the album was Let Your Fingers Sing The Pain, but then I wanted to find a single title for the pieces with the beds. And when I found Purecircle, I thought that was a good title. When I told Moses, he said, oh, man, it’s too bad that we can't use that as the title for the album, so I said, you know what? I was thinking the same thing. And so I agreed with him. The last piece was with the prepared bass and mallets, and he said something to me in the session that he wished I would work with the mallets for the whole piece, and it takes guts to sit there and play mallets with ra Kalam. It's a bit ridiculous on my end, but I gave it my best and I went for it. But you have one of the greatest drummers alive. I would say a master percussionist. The titles all come from Kandinsky's book of woodcuts and poems called Sounds like Who Led You In Deeper? That was the title I was able to use for that, which is pretty good. And that's another thing about, like, because I talked earlier about my version of spirituality, about art trying to sort of hover above our humanity a bit and not wallow in it. So I definitely have a version of it. But Moses is more engaged in spirituality than I am. And I thought Kandinsky was this nice middle ground. And I found this book right before I went on this trip, and so it was something that was really a great way to get the titles. And I even stole liner notes from the book, which is: dip your fingers in the boiling water, scald your fingers, let your fingers sing the pain.



Jump to: Part 2 | Part 2b | Part 2c


Saturday, March 26, 2022

Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 1

By Nick Metzger & Lee Rice Epstein

Featuring Damon Smith

Over the past couple of months Lee and I have been chatting with bassist, composer, and Balance Point Acoustics label head Damon Smith about his huge year of releases in an effort to learn more about what’s often missing from our reviews - the artist’s perspective. Even with excellent liners there is much about a record release that is unknown or even unknowable to those not intimately involved in the blood and guts of planning and execution. Some of these releases have histories that go back decades while some are brand new, which made for excellent conversations as old stories and insights unfurled alongside those of newer, fresher ones. Many of the collaborators on these albums (and in corresponding stories) are masters like Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Fielder, Keith Rowe, Jaap Blonk, Peter Kowald, Joëlle Léandre, Bertram Turetzky, Gino Robair, and Ra Kalam Bob Moses, either in duets with Smith or playing alongside heavies like Sandy Ewen, Weasel Walter, Rebecca Novak, Jerome Bryerton, David Dove, and Jason Jackson. If I learned anything for certain from these extended conversations, it’s that Damon is a generous guy. Generous with his time, his resources, and with his praise for his collaborators. Portions of the conversation are transcribed below along with blurbs for each album from Lee or I to give a brief listener’s perspective.

Blonk/van der Putten/Meurs, Blonk/Smith - Hugo Ball: Six Sound Poems, 1916 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021) 

“Six Sound Poems'' is a 1916 work from chief Dadaist and Cabaret Voltaire founder Hugo Ball. There are two fantastic renditions in this single package; the first album was recorded in 1989 with Blonk, Bart van der Putten (saxophone), and Pieter Meurs (double bass) and the second was recorded in 2013 with Smith (double bass). Excellent art & packaging with a terrific essay from Melissa Venator on Hugo Ball along with the original text for the poems. The instrumentalists are superlative on both sets, mainly buttressing and/or sparring with Jaap’s howls, screeches, and raspberries. If you’re looking for an entry point to Blonk’s music you could hardly do better than these sets. - NM

DS: I first saw Jaap play with my bass teacher, Lisle Ellis, Miya Masaoka, and Malcolm Goldstein, a fantastic group. And then about a year later, the first time I went overseas to Sicily was the Dream in California Festival in Palermo. I played with Garth Powell, a drummer from the Bay Area, and Gianni Gebbia and Jaap played with us then. That was the first time we played together and I bought some CDs from him around that time. And one of them was a solo of his, and the other one was the other disc in this set, which was a trio. Then we didn't work together for a long time, but then we found money for him to come play in Texas. We had a couple of working groups, one with Chris Cogburn and Sandy Ewen. We did some other stuff together, and then we had an off-day and we went and recorded. I said ‘I always wanted to do the Hugo Ball with you’ so we went and recorded and then put that CD out. I think we did 250 copies and then we repressed the cassette at 100 copies three times. So 550 copies, which is sort of a hit in this music, right? (laughing) And then I had this idea to put out the double CD, and was able to do that, which is really great. I'm happy to have it out. It’s got expanded notes by Melissa Vanader, who's my girlfriend, and an art historian, which are pretty fantastic. If you know about Hugo Ball at all you know that he did the sound poems, but people don't know what else was going on with him. This edition also publishes the poems themselves and some photos. I'm really excited to have that out.

Feichtmair/Smith/Robair -
The Shilling of Frogs (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021) 

A spacious and lovely set from 2003, Feichtmair, Robair, and Smith generate a great amount of drama from stretches of silence offset by an occasionally spiky tenderness. - LRE

DS: I met Tanja in Austria in 2002. I was playing the festival in her hometown of Ulrichsburg, Austria, with Fuchs & Bryerton, and we exchanged CDs and kept in touch and started working together. When she came to the Bay Area we recorded this trio with Gino. It was during a time when it was harder to get CDs out, you had to order 500 or 1000, there weren't a lot of options. A couple of people had figured out a way to get people to care about their CDRs, but it's really hard to do that. So these recordings just ended up getting lost and when I moved to St. Louis, I guess, two years ago. I was looking for something and this fell out of a box. And I put it on, and it was a pristine studio session mixed perfectly. Everything was there. And so all I had to do was get Weasel to master it. Scott Looney recorded it. Gino was one of the first people I played with, so it's a bit weird that he and I don't have that many things out together, so it was really nice to get this out with him. He had made these beautiful drawings, for Lelio Giannetto, the great Sicilian bassist who had just passed,and again, this is how albums can come together, you can have something sitting around but if you don't know what you want the cover to look like that's something that can really hold something up. I know it’s hard to imagine, but if you don't have a vision for the cover, how are you going to make a CD? You can't even create a Bandcamp release if you don't have a vision for the cover, even if it's just going to be a solid square or something. But Gino made these beautiful drawings In the Red for the cover, and he had posted them on Facebook. and I thought, oh, man, that would be a great cover.

I got titles from Ingeborg Bachmann. Because Tanja's Austrian. I wanted to find an Austrian poet to get titles from an Austrian source. At first I tried one of the Vienna Actionists, Gerhard Rühm, and that didn't work out. They just didn’t line up. Sometimes this title thing works really well and sometimes it doesn't. I live next to Forest Park, which is bigger than Central Park, and I was sitting in this little wetland area and looking through this book of Ingaburg Bachmann's and there were frogs in this pond, so it was a nice way to get the title and I think the title came out great and the cover and everything. Tanya is a very special player. She's got these rounded edges to the way she plays. She talked about being influenced by Francis Bacon who sort of distorted faces and things like that, the way he brutalized these human figures in his art. I think there's a really interesting way that she deals with pitch. If somebody can deal with pitch in an interesting way, I think that's an incredible feat in this time period because we're not abandoning it. That's the music part of improvised music. I think that the music part ends up being how we're linking the stuff back, how we're dealing with the traditional music. I think dealing in general, what we're often doing is dealing with the timbre, which I think is a really important thing to do and there's a lot to explore there. Reggie Workman does it, especially with a lot of portimento, which is when you slide into a note, the vocal quality of the way he plays, it's very special. What she does with notes and makes them swell and gives them shape is incredible. Gino is an incredibly innovative percussionist. He's one of the very first American percussionists to start working with the ideas that came from European free improvisation. And his work is a very early American version of that stuff. David Moss, who just does voice now, but David Moss, Alex Cline and I think Michael Zerang and I'm forgetting a couple others, but those are the people who were really in-there very early on.

Ulher/Smith/Cogburn - The Eternity-Cult (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

“The Eternity Cult” is pretty different from the rest of these releases in that it’s mainly timbral in its design. The trio utilize electronics in addition to sax, bass, and drums and often make it difficult to discern the acoustic sounds from the electric ones. Quiescent atonal sound fields pocked with all sorts of tasty textures played with a patient and steady confidence. - NM

DS: Brigit Ulher and Gino have a duo, they've worked together for a long time. And there's a connection with this, too, though, because the first time that I met Tanja I was on tour with Fuchs and Bryerton and the next place we went to after Ulichsburg was Wiesbaden in Germany, which is interesting because that's where the fluxus composer and artist Ben Patterson was living. I wasn't connected to his work at the time, but he was there. It's interesting to think about that. And I borrowed the bass of a fantastic bass player named Ulrich Phillipp. He has a great album called Put, and he gave me a copy of that, among other ones. I got in contact with Birgit and this is one of the things you could do in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is a weird place because Tech is so hostile to art and music. So there wasn't a lot of funding because Tech is the big money in that area. It was really hard to get money for music. There was a little bit around here and there. One of the people on the scene that would throw money into the music is actually a foundational partner of Pixar and Lucasfilm. So it's not like every person that worked in Tech, but just generally that industry. But this guy would sometimes put up money for the music and help out in a bunch of ways. So, it's not to say that across the board, but what you could say to a German is, ‘hey, I can get you concerts in the Bay Area. It's really nice here.’ And they'd show up. And then the thing about the Bay Area is there was improvised music every night. And you could have a concert in Oakland, a concert in Berkeley, and a concert in San Francisco, and different people would come to all three. So you can have a project and sort of tour the Bay Area with it and play to different audiences. I used to always say that the Bay Area had a giant, lazy audience. The benefit of that would be you could play a concert one day and 15 or 20 people would come and then you'd play a concert later in that week and a different 15 or 20 people would come. So improvised music was sustained at a local level. If you did something big, if you're bringing some German into town or whatever, then you get a really big crowd in each of these places. But at that time, at least, I don't know how it is now. I haven't been back since I did the Roscoe Mitchell album.

NM: The Eternity Call one is really different than all of the other releases. It just stands out as something completely different from a listening standpoint.

DS: Yeah, it was completely different to play, too, and in a way to kind of relate that back to the discussion Alvin had with me about ‘of all Cecil Taylor’s drummers Andrew Cyrille is the most adventurous with swing.’ One of the things about The Eternity Cult that makes it different from an EAI record is that there's a movement in it. I think that album has a sort of a momentum that I would call a very abstracted swing, and I think it's my most radical version of it on record to this day.

NM: Yeah. What makes it unique is like you said, that forward propulsion that's missing from a lot of that kind of music. I thought that was really interesting.

LRE: It's interesting, though, because poetry obviously plays a strong part in your work, but a thing that we're touching on here is narrative, a kind of dramatic narrative, as abstract as it might be.

DS: Right.

LRE: It's not telling a story but pulling a listener through the album. I think that The Eternity Cult is one example, but I also think it’s there in some aspects on both albums with Alvin Fielder, who does it extraordinarily well, one of the best at it. There is this, I don't want to say theatrical because that sounds like you're putting on theater, but it has that quality.

DS: Yeah, some kind of abstract version of it. I think, again, that kind of goes into the music part of improvised music because I think the two words are important, the improvised and the music part, the music and music's connection to things like lyrics - what lyrical even means when you say somebody plays ‘lyrically’. But there was something special that happened when we came together. This is a group that I wanted to do for a long time, actually. When I first moved to Texas, I'd played with Chris Cogburn in the 90s and he was doing a van tour of the country. We just did some private playing. I always liked him personally. I feel like both Birgit and Chris are people who are friends that I stay in touch with. And I really like both of them a lot personally. And I think that group came together and created something that night. And also Denton, it was recorded in Denton, Texas, which is a really magical place because you play these concerts and I think this one was a house concert and there's all these young people in their early 20s and late 20s, and you'll go to one of the concerts and they're running around and smoking and drinking and yelling and being young people and all that.

DS: And then the concert starts and then they all sit with just rapt attention. And there's some people who are constant through the scene who live there. In my experience since I first started playing in Texas and Denton, there's just a new set of these young people that have the same behavior where they're partying and they're doing the young people thing. And when the music starts, they're just incredibly quiet and there's a lot of them. And with this music you're not playing to, like, a room full of 20 year olds very often. And if you are, they're not silently sitting there with total focus. A lot of them are going to be North Texas students, but a lot of them aren't. And so there's a weird listening culture in the youth culture in Denton that keeps getting passed down. And it really changes things. It's an intense experience. The concert is full. That it's people that are used to playing to a bunch of, like, older dudes - to be honest in this music, that's what it is. And those people are very important too and I love every one of them. But Denton has a special atmosphere, and it changes the music. Then we were about to play the New Idea Festival, which is always super fun and super serious and really amazing in Austin. Chris puts that on. At the New Idea Festival, we actually did a quintet with Jim Denly and Tomas Lane, which was outstanding. 


Jump to: Part 1 | Part 1b

Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 1b

- The Very Cup of Trembling (Astral Spirits, 2021)

Phenomenal acoustic quartet, this is their second album after 2013’s From-To-From. Here (under titles written by the great Fred Moten), Fielder, Dove, Jackson, and Smith stretch even further out, as they again highlight their deep, powerful connection. - LRE

DS: When I moved to Houston I started to play with Thomas Helton and David Dove. I started playing with David Dove when I got there, trombone player, wonderful trombone player. He also has an organization called Nameless Sound. But the first Christmas that I was there, Alvin Fielder came to see his daughter and so on Christmas Eve we played a concert with this quartet, I believe it was Christmas Eve in 2010, and it was great. The group worked well together. David Devon and Jason Jackson have been working together for so long that they can improvise these tight horn lines together. That's sort of their thing. And so this group ended up being great because Dave and Alvin have a lot of history, and Jason has a good connection with Alvin, and Alvin and I were very tightly connected, and then Dave and Jason were tightly connected, and so then there’s this sort of freedom in those connections. I think that's what made that group so special is the way that Dave and Jason can make these horn parts together. Reggie Workman was one of my biggest influences, and I had him carved his initials into my bass when he used it. And on this album, a lot of times, this would be a thing that you wouldn't want to admit, but in a way, nobody really does Reggie's stuff, and on this album, for some reason, I played more like Reggie Workman than I ever have. And I'm kind of very excited about that. I'm not ashamed of it or anything. So it's exciting that that happens.

And then the thing that was really cool is there's an artist named Charisse Pearlina Weston who was working for Dave's organization, and we got to know her through that. And then her art career started to really take off, and she's doing all this important work, and then she just started posting all this great artwork on Instagram with these cinder blocks and the broken glass. I think the piece on the cover has two iterations, it has that piece, and then there's another version with the glass is unbroken. I always had the vision that her work would be the cover for my label. And then Astral Spirits agreed to do it. I have a strong design aesthetic and I think we talked about that one of the struggles of having a label is having musicians getting their mitts on the design too much.

And also Astral Spirits has such an important identity and such a beautiful concept for their design, which is different from my personal aesthetic, but I really like it. And the record collector in me makes sure to collect their work because of the identity of the label just as much as the music contained. But I really understand the importance of having a label identity. Nate was really cool and agreed to have Theresa's work on the cover and, of course, it's a great fucking sculpture. And then when I was going to get the titles, like we've talked about these other titles, a lot of times I'll get a poetry book that I feel has a similar atmosphere to the music and that captures and the way the poet writes has some kind of either cultural or other connection to the music. Fred Moten wrote this great book of poetry called The Feel Trio and Alvin and I had talked so much about Cecil’s music and I actually met Fred Moten for the first time at this place where Alvin had played as a teenager in College with Bobby Bradford, just doing, like, straight ahead jazz gigs to support himself while at Houston Pharmacy School in the 50s.

Fred did a reading at this place. It was called The Eldorado Ballroom and then I met Fred a couple other times down the road, and tried to stay in touch with him. I grabbed his book, The Feel Trio. I was going to steal titles and I thought, you know what? I'll ask Fred to do the titles for the album. I don't think this has been done before where someone's got a great poet to title the albums and I felt it was a bit like, I don't like to make too much of these rock comparisons, but I always thought it was neat that Blue Oyster Cult had the science fiction lyricist and didn’t write the lyrics to their own songs. I always thought that was an interesting thing about them. But anyway, Fred came up with these titles, and the album is really beautiful. And that title of the album, I think, is beautiful.

Alvin Fielder/Damon Smith Duo
- Songs for Chico (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

On “Songs for Chico” Smith and Alvin Fielder play a set of compositions and conversational improvisation that never lacks dynamic range despite the limited instrumentation. Fielder has such a unique voice on his instrument, and on this album Smith meets him where he lives. The duo’s rhythmic constructs experiment with swing in ways that reward close listening, so make some time and listen closely. You won’t regret it. - NM

DS: So, I have these backstories, like Jason and Dave couldn't make this that's not terribly interesting, but it's a bass and drum duo. A few months beforehand we had recorded this duo, Alvin and I, and this thing is interesting for a couple of reasons. In my mind, a lot of times the stuff that I'm talking about is fairly banal, like how the session came about and the social things around it or whatever. But there was a place in Houston where you could play a concert at an actual multi track studio, and then you could get a recording where the concert would basically pay for the studio fees. So Dave and Jason weren't available that time in Houston so I decided to do a duo with Alvin. Clifford Allen had actually suggested that I do a duo with Alvin. One of the times when I was booking the concert, I called Alvin and he said, ‘oh, let me get this other cat off the phone.’ And then he comes back on the line and the other cat was Chico Hamilton the great drummer, the Los Angeles drummer whose music I always really liked, especially his quintet music with Fred Katz on cello. Chico ended up dying a few days before the session so we improvised a little song for him where I had a fifth tuning in the bass. It was DADA. And then I tried to play some cello lines related to Fred Katz and Alvin did all these kinds of brushes because Chico Hamilton had this beautiful way of playing brushes.

And then we did two other compositions on this album, actually, which I don't usually do. I normally try to be, as much as possible, a full time free improviser, but we did a Cecil Taylor composition that Cecil wrote for Marco Eneidi Sextet on the album Final Disconnect Notice, and that group is Jackson Krall, Karen Borca, Wilbur Morris, William Parker and Marco on alto. Marco gave me the chart and I've worked up a solo bass version, the version that I now play is quite different from the one on here. The last piece is something that is really kind of exciting to have. I'm really into the bass player, Johnny Dyani, the South African bass player. I love his work. John Tchicai was just outside the Bay Area in Davis, California when I was coming up, and he was accessible, and I actually did a concert with him. I did two concerts with him, and he knew that I loved Dyani’s music so he brought Dyani charts each time we played together and this one, Roots, I believe, was unrecorded. I know Dyani’s discography pretty well, and I don't think this is in there at all. I think this was something that remained unrecorded. Then it ends with this long, beautiful drum solo by Alvin, which is great.

NM: That's a great album. Both of the albums with Alvin Fielder, really, the last two.

- Bass Duos, 2000-2007 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

Reissued set compiling three fantastic duos, the earliest of which (Mirrors - Broken But No Dust with Peter Kowald) was released 20 years ago. These are landmark sessions of contemporary improvised bass, this is one to own and revisit often. - LRE

DS: Peter Kowald was one of the reasons I started to play the double bass, I think I’ve made that pretty clear. I never thought I'd be able to play with him, obviously. And my friend Gianni Gebbia, who we talked about earlier from Sicily, passed on my contact information to Kowald and was telling him, hey, there's a young guy in Oakland, California, that plays like you and all this stuff. Then when he did that big tour in 2000, I started to get emails from him and one of the interesting things was that he wanted to do a duo. I was a little bit intimidated by that, I'm not ashamed to say. And I wanted to do a quartet with this drummer Spirit, a local drummer in the Bay Area who is fantastic, who has a Milford Graves or Louis Moholo-Moholo way of playing. He has a very small kit, so you could play with him acoustically. No amp on the bass. I wanted to do a quartet with him and Marco Eneidi - Marco and Kowald had played together on Bill Dixon's Thoughts, which has three bass players - and that quartet actually came out as Ghetto Calypso on Not Two. But Kowald wanted to do the duo, and bass duos were an important mode of working for him. And so we did it, and it was interesting because when you listen to it, it's one of those moments where, of course, that's me playing at that time, and I was able to do all those things, but my music wasn't quite at that level on a day to day basis in 2000. So Kowald really centered everything and made it so that we could play in this way. And I think he was really excited that I could deal with his material, because then it could be two of his ideas at the same time, which we unashamedly did. I did a lot of things that didn't come from him just for contrast. But one of the things we found out, I could do the throat singing, and I said, I can't do it. It's too much like you. And he said, ‘But I am here. We do it together.’ So we closed the album with the throat singing, and I do the throat singing a bit now. I don't do it a lot, but I'll do it when I feel like it's the answer and he's not there to do it.

NM: When you say played Kowald’s stuff, you mean just in his style, or did he have material that he'd bring?

DS: It was just the material that he had been doing that I got from his records, because Kowald, one of the ways he would play is he would kind of pick a sound and stick on that sound for a little bit. If he's in a group, he might change to another sound after 20 or 30 seconds on the one sound. And then in a group, he might change a little quicker, but it's a moment and a technique. And with him oftentimes, it's a technique. Pulling on the strings and doing glissandos was the way Kowald did it. It's interesting because, (picks up bass) there's this thing where Kowald would take the strings and pinch them together. Then the scraping where you mute the harmonics and then do this kind of scraping thing (bowing circular patterns). So that was one of the things that Kowald invented and then preparing the bass with the bow, detuning, that that was one of his things, detuning. But then the Italian bass player, Stefano Scodanibbio had been coming to the Bay Area.

And so there were a lot of things like, two handed harmonics, that Stefano. I'd taken a workshop with Stefano. I've been working on some of those techniques, and then my bass teacher was Lisle Ellis, so there's a lot of things that I got from Lisle that made it possible for me to differentiate myself from Kowald. I came from doing freestyle BMX and if you learned someone's trick, you had to take it to the next point to make it yours. It wasn't yours until you got it to the next point. So I always thought, instead of someone influencing me or trying to play their material, it's more about using that material as a starting point and looking at where someone had gotten something and trying to start where they left off or maybe even take it, not necessarily a forward direction, but maybe take it to the side or something like that, maybe do something else with it. But it's always a starting point to try to add something. So you always try to try to add something to the situation and try to see what you can do with it.

NM: I appreciate that. I appreciate the metaphor, too. We work in metaphors a lot and that's a good metaphor. (laughing)

DS: Yeah. You could take somebody's trick, but then how is it yours? You have to add something to it or make it go into something else. Make it transition to something else.

LRE: Can I ask something just real briefly? You're looking at, let's see, Kowald was born 44’ in Germany, and then, thinking about this set as a whole, you've got Joelle 51’, and Bertram in 1933. This approach that you bring to the instrument of, like, what have they done and how do you carry that forward? It really is kind of this chronological through-line.

DS: And Turetzky, of course, is the grandfather of the modern instrument, really. I mean, he is the person who started to try to pull away from classical double bass solo material. He didn't want to play that material, and that material is a rough go. Like I said last time, Mozart has an Aria for bass baritone voice that has an obligato double bass solo part, and then there's a lost Haydn bass Concerto, and the rest of it is pretty much written by bass players and not fantastic at best. It's third rate classical music, which isn't horrible if you're thinking Bach and Beethoven and all that first rate at the time. But it's not great music. It's just a secondary music at best until really until there's a Rossini bass and cello duo. There's a couple of things here and there if you really dig for them, and then you don't really get anything written for the instrument until Hindemith writes a bass and piano piece, and then you get a Henze Concerto at some point. But the Henze piece is actually much later than Bertram putting his work into the world. And Bertram just realized that if he would tell a composer that if they wrote a solo bass piece, that he would play it, that they would do it.

So his fellow students, I think he was going to school in Hartford at that time, he started telling people, hey, if you write a solo bass composition, I will play it. And so then at this point, there's like 400 pieces written for him specifically for the double bass. That's pretty spectacular. So at a certain point, he writes this handbook that is more for composers because he wants composers to know what the bass can do. And it's got all the prepared bass things up until that point, things that you could do with the voice, things that you could do with percussion on the bass, where all the harmonics are, where all the notes are, what notes are going to make sense together, what registers are possible. And then there was another guy in Europe named Fernando Grillo who actually played in the King Ubu Orchestru with Fuchs and did all this other stuff. But Grillo was kind of doing a similar thing in Europe with composers like Luigi Nono and Berio and stuff like that and Xenakis, but Turtezky, he got Cage, he got Pauline Oliveros to write something. So he's working with all the great composure of the time, getting these things, getting these things written for the instrument.

And then he also, at a certain point - because he actually wanted to be a jazz player and was really into Mingus before he got a classical education concurrently - but at a certain point, he just decided to stay in the classical thing. I forget what his reasons were, but he decided to stay in the classical thing, but he was always interested in improvisation. And by the time I met him, he was playing a lot with Vinny Golia, and he was really involved in improvisation. And he had his duo with George Lewis on Derek Bailey's Incus label, he had a trio with Wadada, a trio with George Lewis and Vinny Golia and all these other great things. So he was coming up to the Bay Area a lot. There was a bass quartet that I had put together, and then we did Minutemen songs with Mike Watt and this bass quartet and got some extra money to play at a rock club. And he just did his new music recital and then did a workshop after that and some other stuff. And that's where I made my connection with him.

But then his son lived in the Bay Area, so he would come up a lot, and I'd organize concerts and workshops and get lessons, and we became friends. And by this time, this is 2007, but anyway, we're on the phone, and one of us suggested - I can't remember who brought it up, me or him honestly - said we should do a duo the next time he comes up, and then he comes up and we're going to do it, and then about three days beforehand, I was just terrified. I was like, oh, my God, I got to play the duo with Bertram Turetzky - this giant of the instrument, but he was a friend. And this is a bit like the last thing we'll talk about, which is the duo with Moses. Same thing. He’s a total master, but we're friends, so that made the duo go a lot smoother. So anyway, that's kind of how that came about.

So then if we talk about the last disc here (with Joëlle Léandre), this was a really sad thing because Joëlle got brought to Mills College. I forget how I got in touch with her, but I knew plenty of people who knew her and then we actually had a bass lesson scheduled for the day Peter Kowald died. Obviously I got the lesson much later. I did take some lessons with her, but it was really sad because they were close friends and he was somebody I spent three weeks with when he was in the Bay Area and got to know a bit and knew his music really well and his music is probably still the most important music for me and very foundational. But she and Kowald were close friends, and he gave her a lot of early opportunities in improvised music. And he was obviously much older than her and they were really close and she was devastated. And at a certain point in that time period, those few days, Henry Kaiser said, hey, do you want to come over to my studio and make a solo recording for Kowald? And I said, yeah, but we should do a duo with Joëlle. And so we went and picked up Joëlle and brought her to Henry's studio, and we did the recording. I don't think the music is all that sad. It's a bit somber, but I think that we played together pretty well. We made something happen that day, but we just couldn't deal with it for obviously 17 years. I would either see her somewhere or we have another quartet album that we were able to get out.

This was just a little bit too sad to deal with. I'd f get it out and put it on, try to make up titles, try to think about editing, and then Joëlle wanted a better mix than what was there, because we just had a rough mix, there was no mix that was done, and then at a certain point, I just decided that this really needed to happen. I wanted to do this three CD box and Not Two was originally going to do it. No real good reason why it took so long. I think it was just busy when I was ready to do it, and I just did it myself and she got a good mix. And then I was able to find the titles, and I'm glad to have it out. I'm really glad to have that out. It’s the only previously unreleased disc in the set. The Kowald came out around 2002 when he was still alive and the Turetzky had like 100 copies that sold out really fast, so I knew that one needed a reissue.

LRE: Then how much? I mean, this is a bland logistical, sure, but I'm just curious because I do feel like it does start out with almost like one of those mourners wailing, like a keening whale.

I'm just curious, were there conversations beforehand to prepare or was it just like, here we go?

DS: Almost nothing. I don't remember a lot of talking. We each do a solo on it and that's the only one of these duos where there's solo pieces. And I think in her solo, she detunes the bass, that was something that Kowald did a lot. And I think that was a bit of her tribute to him. We never talked about it, but it was funny because Joëlle and I got to know each other at the time. She came to Mills twice and so we talked a lot about a lot of things, but we didn't really talk about what happened in this music. We just kind of did it, and it was there, and Henry Kaiser was there. I think it's cool that Henry Kaiser recorded it because Henry is a good friend. And obviously he didn't say much either. He might have even been the one to say each one do a solo, but there was not a lot of talking. I think we knew it was going well. There was a feeling that we were making something. We knew we were making it for Kowald, so it was a bit more than your usual improvised music duo, because we went in there knowing this is what's happening. I buy all of her albums and stuff like that, and by the time I met her, I probably had most of her albums up to that point. And so she was someone I still get every Joëlle album that comes out, there's a brand new solo on Ayler that's fantastic.

LRE: I love that one.

DS: So good. I mean, she's just so fantastic. And again, she was somebody who was like Turetzky in France. She was getting pieces from different composers. The composer Giacinto Scelsi wrote solo pieces for her. They were all dedicated to her. And she got a lot of other pieces written. And she worked with Cage and she's done a lot of new music. Now she's way more focused, but for many years it's been improvised music that is her main thing because she was close with Derek Bailey, but also some of that came from Kowald. But yeah, she was also just an absolutely foundational figure for me on the instrument from day one. And still I'm a huge fan. I'm buying everything. I make sure to get everything. She's just great. And still to this day, she's just playing better and better and better, more and more interesting.


Jump to: Part 1 | Part 1b