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Saturday, April 30, 2022

Three Zorns

By Gary Chapin

These reviews are ridiculously overdue, but sometimes I have to listen to a thing for a while to get a handle on it. I appreciate your forbearance.

John Zorn and Bill Laswell - The Cleansing (Tzadik 2021)

Two old friends who seldom have played together (at least in proportion to their huge discographies) come together during a COVID window in 2021 when the restrictions were briefly lifted. They emerge from their riverside burrows and merge to improvise a set of six pieces named for mystics, but which are not “mystical” or “spiritual” in any musically stereotypical way. This cleansing is harsh, like all good cleansings. A cosmic clearing of the throat. The hottest of hot showers. A scouring.

Zorn has worked with a vast number of creative persons in his career, many of whom have been equally as powerful in terms of vision and invention. I’m having a hard time, though, thinking of an instance of Zorn sharing the creative reigns of a project equally with others in the room. Maybe The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet or Spy vs. Spy?

On The Cleansing, they are true partners. Zorn is not the Leader, the Composer, or the Conductor. And neither is Laswell. They are equally titanic on the field, improvising six pieces that join their sound worlds in a way that almost never happens (I don’t I count their Painkiller trio, since that was an homage to Japanese hardcore).

One thing I’m reminded of: I love both these guys as players. It sounds odd to have to say it, but their work is often very fascinating conceptually. The simple joy of Zorn and Laswell improv chops can sometimes be under-appreciated. The saxophone is skittery and unpredictable, with a vibrato so variable it’s like different voices. The bass is thick and wavy, sounding like high tension ropes instead of strings. One shudders giddily to imagine what characters these sounds would represent (as in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf). Further electronics from Laswell create scenes and moods in ways that are intriguing, if cinematically familiar.

John Zorn - A Garden of Forking Paths (Tzadik 2022)


The forking paths mentioned in the title seem more like inputs rather than outputs. The album has a wonderful coherence to it. Featuring music written for the trio of acoustic guitarists – Bill Frisell, Juliane Lage, and Gyan Riley – the collection of nine pieces has a unity that satisfies wonderfully. Zorn has called on some rarely referenced influences this time.

What do I hear? The Incredible String Band. John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. There’s a folkish, medievalistic implication, but it is neither folk nor medieval. Meters shift extravagantly and the harmonies extend beyond reason. The three guitars are weaving together melodic lines more than chords or finger-style patterns. One of the guitars will be in the lead, while the other two support. Roles change regularly, though it’s hard to tell one guitarist here from the others. Without their distinctive timbres, production preferences, and compositional voices, these three geniuses sometimes fall into each other.

John Zorn - New Masada Quartet (Tzadik 2021)

I don’t know if it’s a character flaw or strength that music provokes such vivid associations in me. I love the Masada project (object?), and love all of its permutations with few exceptions. But each embodiment of this set of tunes places me so firmly into a genre, ethos, or point in history that it colors my whole experience of it. The original Masada quartet—sax, trumpet, drums, bass—was Ornette-ish to a degree that Zorn was annoyed at how often people pointed it out. Yes, there was other stuff (surf music, skronkity-skronk, klezmer, etc.), but all that stuff was presented in what sounded to me like an OrnetteQuartet shaped frame.

The new Masada Quartet features sax, guitar, bass, and drums playing eight of the same tunes, but they seem to be coming from a completely different space or time. Julian Lage’s guitar adds some solid rock ‘n’ roll timbres (nailing down that surf music connection). Jorge Roeder and Kenny Wollesen drive the engine with a reckless joy that absolutely makes my day. At one point you can hear Zorn as conductor shouting, “Go, go, go!”

That perfectly encapsulates the Zorn mission for me. Not only creatively great and joyful in himself, but provoking greatness and joy in others.

Friday, April 29, 2022

MC3 - Sounds of The City (Phonocene, 2022)

Matt Clark continues to push forward with his combinations of musicians with different takes on jazz music. Sounds of The City is released on 3rd June 2022 on Matt's new label, Phonocene Records. His collaborators on the album are Charlotte Keeffe ( Charlotte Keeffe Quartet, London Improvisers Orchestra, Andrew Woodhead's Pendulum) on trumpet and James Edmunds ( Daisy Chute, Tara Lily) on drums with Matt ( Caaw, Matt Clarke Three) on guitar. Matt explores different soundscapes based on experiences and senses evoked by cityscapes with his trio.

Matt Clarke's previous releases have explored moving through a city during lockdown, and compositions had a sense of wanting to escape, seeking solace during times which were tricky but here Clarke's music has a sense of energy and re-emergence which is prevalent throughout the recording.

'Existentialism For trumpet' opens the album and is a track of wonder and evocative delights, the trumpet's voice dissonant and fierce, the guitar contrastingly laid back and the drums frenetic, frequently altering emphasis and pattern, creating a track that is at once mellifluous and at the same time dynamic and packed with sound. The trumpet sound blares, dies back to the instrument's throat, and then screeches freedom, with the guitar deftly slotting astute phrasing into any gaps. A short but exquisite opening.sound

'Back On North' is a track of contrasts, with subtle guitar over unsubtle trumpet – which works a treat. There is undeniable joy and release as the track weaves between bluesy backdrops and intense, delicately improvised sections.

Conversation #1( Dispatches) is a frolic of improvised delight with the guitar picking the path and laying the keys, over which the trumpet flies and wails its breathy counter melodies. Keeffe's trumpet sounds are tremendous in their range and versatility. The dialogue between the three musicians is at fever pitch in places and quieter, more contemplative in others. The final section sees a to and fro between guitar and trumpet, which is mesmerising.

'Altercations' is seven minutes or so of interweaving voices of guitar, drums, and trumpet, which is both engaging and intriguing, the atmosphere sliding between sleazy, laid-back nonchalance to dynamic, circling improvisation. The drums prove key to the second half of this track, as they switch the tempo up and down, laying down rhythmic patterns, which the other two musicians follow.

Conversation #2 ( In Hari's) is a crazy, laid-back, rolling track with improvised trumpet sighing across the top of well-structured guitar work and intricate trickery from the drums. The trumpet blares, blasts and moans, demonstrating Keeffe's sublime ability to change the mood instantly.

'Autobiography of A Poet' is a journey through different sound experiences, from soft, crazily improvised phrases to solid, melodic motifs, all fitted around the regular guitar from Clark. The middle section is a modular insert of its own as the trumpet and percussion add different elements to the musical pathway along which the trio is leading us towards the final third, where all three musicians are imparting stories and ideas to the listener.

'Traffic' is a track with movement, stops, starts, and forward motion, countered by a rolling gait, which is frequently interrupted, and the rhythmic patterns change. Aptly titled as Keeffe's trumpet sounds at times like a speeding racing car and at others like it is screeching to a halt. The middle section is rhythmic, steady, and feels like the traffic is moving before again, rhythms change, horns sound, and the cacophony of city traffic is felt—a superbly crafted track.

'Conversation #3' (Stray Cats) is short and perfectly titled as the trumpet works itself into a frenzy, sounding just like cats fighting, hissing, spitting, and causing mayhem.

This album is a real lift well suited to the times we are in post-pandemic. The sense of release, freedom and sheer joy in the music is palpable – you can almost feel the delight the three musicians have at being unrestricted and at large to create music that reflects the sense of liberation that most of us have finally found. It is also brave and experimental as if the boundaries have shifted somehow – anything is allowed, and as long as it makes sense – which this album does totally – it is okay.

Good music, superb musicians – what more could you ask?

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The OGJB Quartet - Ode to O (TUM Records 2022)

By Gary Chapin

It doesn’t seem appropriate to have a feeling of nostalgia when listening to an autre disc such as this, but that’s what I had. Listening to the first tune, “Ode to O,” dedicated to Ornette Coleman, I was transported back to the mid-seventies Arista/Freedom records (think of Frank Lowe, for example) that would cover ground from Ornette flavored bop to energy music and non-idiom. Anthony Braxton’s Five Compositions 1975 began, for example, with “You Stepped Out of a Dream” before heading off to the places he headed off to. I’m not saying they all did it, or even most, just that it’s become embedded in my aesthetic as a beloved trope.

OGJB is a collaborative quartet of Oliver Lake, reeds; Graham Haynes, cornet and electronics; Joe Fonda, bass; and Barry Altschul, drums. They bring their collective 180 years of playing experience and bear equally the duties of composition.

The first piece, “Ode to O,” is by Altschul, a fairly straightforward head and solos structure. Like Altschul’s other piece on the record, “Da Bang,” it’s an entryway (or speed ramp) to improvisations. When Lake takes off, the ceiling for everyone is raised. Lake is constitutionally incapable of playing a boring solo. He’s like a kettle boiling over. His entire career is one creative explosive moment after the next. That remains true for all ten tracks, here.

“Justice” (by Lake) begins with what sounds like a drum-kit rolling down a hill (in the best way possible), with the horns playing reasoned, even, harsh arguments. The duet improv (cornet and sax) is a choreographed fight scene, an intricate partnership describing conflict. “The Me Without Bela” (by Fonda) is a suite that starts with skittering nature, small actions that emerge without apparent intention. We shift from the landscape to the ride, the regular rhythm of a train or a nighttime car ride. It’s a noir scene (warning, author bias might be intruding) where someone’s going somewhere, thinking and worrying.

As the recording proceeds it becomes more of a whole and less a collection of tracks. Two totally improvised tracks continue the tradition carried up from the quartet’s first album, Bamako . One new element is Haynes incorporation of live electronics into one of his compositions and one of the improvisation. It’s a light touch, but creates narrative possibilities for the group. A new space for everyone to play in. More room to breathe.

I’ve sung the praises of Lake already. Haynes, Fonda, and Altschul are predictably great at this. I’m not going to call it effortless, but there’s an ease to the group that comes from their decades of experience and the naturalness of their musical relationships. To me, OGJB represents a great time in the past, and a great time in the present.

More info: OGJB - Ode to O at TUM Records

See an older performance here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Julieta Eugenio – JUMP (Greenleaf Music, 2022)

By Matty Bannond

High buildings scrape the sky in the New York City. In nearby Connecticut, the blue space overhead enjoys a gentler touch from leafy treetops and rolling meadows. For her debut album JUMP, Julieta Eugenio’s compositions reflect the landscape and spirit of both of these places – and aim to inspire listeners to reach for the stars.

Argentinian tenor saxophonist and composer Julieta Eugenio is joined by bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber on JUMP. The three friends are frequent performers at clubs in New York City. When the pandemic slammed those venues shut, the trio escaped to Connecticut to keep making music. It marked a big turning point in Eugenio’s life. “In all that darkness, I decided to go for it and record an album,” she said. “Now, I want this music to inspire listeners to go on a journey of sensations – then take a leap of faith and do what makes them feel free, or alive. To express themselves. To jump.”

Open-hearted and funk-dusted

From the very first track, Efes, Eugenio’s cream-and-honey saxophone voice tells the tale of two locations – swooping like a butterfly in a wide-open pasture, then zipping around like a mosquito trapped in a bottle. The title song, Jump, is a laid-back swingy number that bumbles from one sweet flower to the next. La Jungla has a faster tempo with longer, boppier sax phrases and a frenetic drum solo. A ballad, For You, is an open-hearted piece that trusts the listener to fill in the blank spaces.

Racoon Tune is a highlight. Dwonszyk’s bass delivers a hopping, funk-dusted riff. Barber’s drumming is permitted more space to expand and explore. A downward-squirming sax pattern sets the tone early, infused with a smiling spirit of fun and freshness. Eugenio’s vocabulary of trills, encapsulations, fall-offs, flicks, tricks, growls and vibrato is phenomenal on every track. On Racoon Tune, she is in scintillating form. “I’m a big believer in energy,” Eugenio said. “And the energy was there. It was beautiful.”

Standards and stand-outs

The Earl Bostic composition Flamingo is the first of two standards, and provides cast-iron proof of the command of traditional playing that underpins the trio’s avantgarde excursions. The second standard is Crazy He Calls Me, written by Carl Sigman and often associated with Billie Holiday. Eugenio’s gigantic tenor tone is a natural fit for ballads, and this sparse arrangement amplifies her gift beautifully.

Another Bliss stands out for the slight sharpening of the saxophone voice, with a more incisive and concentrated force. The mood grows frenzied, there is less control, the drums kick and thrash, Eugenio accelerates her lines and spends more time in the altissimo range. Jonathan Barber snatches some space and lunges headfirst into a zigzagging solo. The album’s motivational message is loud and clear.

Track 9 is Snowbirds, a fast swing number where drums and sax engage in a vigorous call-and-response. Tres then gives listeners a final chance to bask in Eugenio’s balladry. It’s a sensual, spaced-out, sound-driven and soft-edged piece with a searching and soaring spirit. A perfect choice to round-off the record.

A brave and exciting talent

JUMP is a debut album with big ambitions. It seeks to combine the atmosphere of very different places, as well as blending diverse musical styles and influences – while spreading a profound message of inspiration too. After taking a leap of faith, Eugenio has not landed on Easy Street. This expressive, impressive and less-is-more album introduces a brave and exciting talent to the world.

“That time of reflection gave me a much deeper and closer connection with the music,” Eugenio says. “It was a realisation… I want to do this and I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. I felt very good. But I don’t want to make it too much about me. It’s about inspiring people to go on an inner search. That’s the idea. If you want to do something, go for it. Take the jump. Right?”

The album is available on CD and as a digital download here .

Check out this trailer video:

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Steamboat Switzerland – Terrifying Sunset (Trost, 2021)


By Nick Ostrum

I remember seeing Caspar Brötzmann , Michael Wertmüller and Marino Pliakas at the A’larme Festival in 2012. If my memory is accurate, they were the final act of the night and had a rocky start, as the equipment was not set to their desired volume. Once they got started and pummeled out their first notes, I was grinning, or gritting my teeth in excruciating ecstasy, or just staring dumbly ahead until I regained my composure. By the end of their set, they had cleaned the room like I had never seen before. I exaggerate slightly, as I was not the only person who attended that night to see them and a previous set by Peter Brötzmann, Caspar’s father and bandmate of Wertmüller and Pliakas in Full Blast, and Keiji Haino and I was not the only one who persevered. Still, they had cut attendance by about half by the end.

Since then, I have picked up much of what Pliakas produced with the Brötzmänner but have rarely heard him in other settings. In Steamboat Switzerland, Pliakas (on e-bass) is joined by the Swiss rhythm section of Lucas Niggli on drums and Dominik Blum on Hammond organ and voice.

The result is Terrifying Sunset. It was recorded live at Photobastei Club Zurich/Switzerland in September 2020. It is loud and it is raw. It is metal. (Just listen to the opening shriek at the beginning of the second and final track Tiger=East=Face.) Or, maybe it is metallic-tinged racket. Or cosmic doom fusion. Whatever it is, it veers into heavy noise landscaping that Pliakas has spent years cultivating. Niggli is a perfect companion, splitting the air with crashes and matching in intensity Pliakas’ heavy thrums when necessary and playing sparsely when they wander into the tempestuous eye. Blum is wildman on Hammond, with a penchant for the spacier realm of Krautrock as well as its heavy Neubauten manifestations. I cannot say I am still so dumbfounded by this most intense and grating corner of the free music world as I was a decade ago. And, for what it is worth, Steamboat Switzerland dip in and out of its ear-bleed extremities, focusing on swells and layered nuances in some spaces and massive prog blasts in others. Still, every once in a while, someone from this corner hits the right notes and the right dynamics and rides the resulting wave until it crumbles dramatically on shore. Someone balances that shock value with a surprising musicality and vision that creates a perfect storm. Excuse the mixed meteorological metaphor, but Terrifying Sunset is that storm.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Where did all the stars go?

Stars ... from Wikipedia

Dear Readers,

After a long and impassioned discussion amongst the folks here in the Free Jazz Collective and supported by a survey of the writers, readers, promoters, and musicians, we have collectively decided to drop the star ratings on reviews. We will still have a "five-star" marker of some nature to denote exemplary recordings, but no longer offer star ratings on each review. 

The majority opinion was that the star ratings do not contribute enough in a positive manner. The Free Jazz Blog, as a rule, tries to write about what we think are good, and thus the ratings skewed towards four and four-and-a-half stars on average, meaning good ratings of three or three-and-a-half star were seen as negative (even though it was not meant that way by the writers) and could have an unintentional impact on the review.

Anyway, we'll try it out. Maybe it will turn out that there were unknown advantages to the star ratings after all and we will re-calibrate and re-introduce them. Let us know what you think.

Best,
The Collective

Whit Dickey Quartet - Astral Long Forms: Staircase in Space (TAO Forms, 2022)

Drummer Whit Dickey emerged on the Avant Garde, free jazz scene in the early 1990’s, and kept busy playing behind David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman, and Rob Brown. He began recording as a leader at the end of that decade. Two years ago he launched a new label: TAO Forms. One of the recordings issued by that label is James Brandon Lewis’ Jesup Wagon, reviewed here by yours truly . The Quartet includes Rob Brown on alto sax, Matt Manieri on viola, and Brandon Lopez on bass.

Much free jazz achieves maximum intensity by increasing the speed, volume, and density of the sound. That is no criticism, but it is not the only way to do it. On Astral Long Forms, Dickey and crew begin from a slow or even mournful pace. This allows them to achieve intensity without losing the articulation and texture of the various instruments. If you are looking for an abstract presentation that retains all the emotional tone of good jazz, this is a place to start.

The first and longest cut, “Blue Circuit” begins with a hollow drum beat and then bowed strings gradually cut in. Brown’s horn enters center stage with the drum justifying the text on the left channel and the strings on the right. The horns create a wave function like sound and then Lopez’s bass gets more percussive while viola and sax create parallel lines. Toward the middle, we get a nice four-way dialogue with some high, plucked strings. At about 13 minutes, the intensity I mentioned presents: power without any loss of individuality. The drumming is exquisite.

The second cut “Space Quadrants” opens with a string duet, both producing viscous surfaces. If stringed instruments could do no more than that in jazz (hint: they can) it would justify their inclusion. I like that feel, as of a washboard under a thin layer of velvet. Brown’s sax now deftly touches the music here and there, eventually producing short lines of color.

“The Pendulum Turns” begin with a nice minute and a half drum solo. The sound is muted, as if the drum is just upstairs, but articulate. Lovely horn playing follows, and then the viola plays over drums and bass, both of them providing punctuation. It is Brown next who gets to provide percussion. Is the title a mixed metaphor? Not for this music.

“Staircase in Space” is the most muted in both pace and sound, which makes the slow burn of horn and strings all the more searing.

The last cut, “Signify” is hymn to the manipulation of signal. Brown, for one, really cuts loose on the range of chirps and scrapes that his horn can produce.

This is fine free jazz. If you want more genius from the strings of Brandon Lopez’s bass, I suggest the trio’s debut recording Expanding Light (Dickey, Brown, and Lopez) and especially the second cut “Desert Flower.” You can find a beautiful review right here .

For something rather different from the trio, check out the double issue Whit Dickey Tao Quartets . “Peace Planet” joins Dickey and Brown with Matthew Shipp and William Parker. “Box of Light” has Dickey and Brown joined by Steve Swell on Trombone and Michael Bisio on bass. The above are available on Bandcamp (may its name be praised!) and you can read a review here at The Free Jazz Collective (may its praise be named!).

Finally, for a more classical feel, try Dickey’s work with Shipp and Ivo Perelman. I can recommend The Clairvoyant and The Art of Perelman-Shipp. Both are featured on Amazon Prime Music.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

“Out of that Surprise, You May Get Joy” - An Interview with William Hooker

William Hooker

By Nick Metzger

I had a quick call with William earlier this year to discuss his new album Big Moon which is out now on Org Music, portions of which are transcribed below. We discuss the making of the album, William’s creative processes, working around Covid restrictions, and what is to come from one of our favorite artists in this follow up to Cam Scott’s 2020 interview.

NM: How was the band for Big Moon assembled? Was it people that you knew already?

WH: I had put together three or four different bands and realizing I had the opportunity to record at NYU, I called the people that were all associated with me and brought them all into the studio at once. And I already had an idea of what I wanted to do. That's the way that happened.

NM: How do you give direction to a group that size?

WH: You point to people. I'm sitting at the drums and I point to whoever I want to do certain things at certain times. It's not like I'm a conductor or anything standing in front of people because I'm playing at the same time. And that's the way it worked.

NM: It's got to be challenging to direct from behind the drums.

WH: There are many sections where I want different people to work together, I would have to get up and actually have to point to them and have them do what I preordained them to do. So it's really not like you're just sitting there behind the drums continuously. It's a moving set up.

NM: I heard some similarities between Big Moon and Symphony of Flowers, but they're completely different. I mean, strikingly different. Is there a narrative that ties your releases together, or does each one come from a different place? Or maybe it's a combination of both?

WH: No, each one comes from a different place because you have to recognize that while all those recordings are happening, there are also live gigs happening. There are different kinds of situations where I'm playing in different places with different people. So it's not really as if one thing just naturally flows into the other. I can't really think that way because we're in the middle of COVID, number one. So because of that, you can only go into the studio so many times, and that's another. I mean, there are a lot of little restrictions that you have to deal with, and that breaks up the continuity of what you want to try to do naturally, which makes sense.

NM: Yeah, and speaking of COVID how are things in New York? Is it becoming less restrictive there?

WH: Not to my mind. Not to my mind. There are people out doing all kinds of things and a lot of people just walking around buying stuff and being in the parks and going to various situations, going to the grocery stores. And it's pretty normal, but I can't say it's pretty normal, everybody with a mask on, but it's much better than it was.

NM: Are there near term plans to tour in support of Big Moon specifically?

WH: No, I'm not going to play until May. I canceled gigs and canceled all the things that are supposed to happen, except for the fact that in January and March, I'm supposed to go back in and do a couple of other recordings. But it's very sparse right now and I'm not taking the chance. I'm just not taking the chance. There's too many restrictions and there's too much that has to be done centered around playing for people and centered around playing in certain places. And I kind of don't have the energy for all of that, the logistics of it. You know what I mean? It's really too much. You've got to ask people for proof of all the shots, proof of the booster they have to sign things. It's just like a whole big world, and I don't want to go through all of that. It's too much.

What's going to be happening is that I'm going to play in a lot of different places. And also right now we're just trying to book the gigs, and I'm just trying to get the kind of funds that it takes to be able to do it. And I think it's going to be mostly from the East Coast to the Midwest. I won't be able to go to the West Coast, not yet. And so far, that's what's been happening as well as I have a grant that has to be dealt with, and that's an ongoing process. So you got a lot of things going, a lot of balls up in the air all at once. So you have to deal with each one as they come along. But there is no real, what can I say, orderly process, nothing like that in the sequence of events. It's just a matter of trying to deal with each individual thing and trying to put as much as I can into it and use the proper people. And that's the way it's going to work.

NM: As someone who listens to a lot of music and writes reviews and things like that, which are all my interpretation, what would you tell someone listening to Big Moon to listen to or to listen for?

WH: Just listen to the whole thing and listen to it with an open mind. That's basically all I would tell them and just enjoy it. It's very simple. The process is just very simple. I'm not trying to direct anybody to do certain things, to get whatever are my preordained conclusions. I'm just hoping that people enjoy it, and hoping that people will just put it on and listen and just get as much out of it as they can. Because we're all different. It's not like we're all listening for the same things. It's not like it's like a 1+1=2 kind of thing. It's not factual. It's very interpretive. And different people interpret things in different ways. I just ask people to give themselves the opportunity.

NM: When you're playing live or recording, what's your thought process as a piece plays out, where do you kind of go mentally? Could you remark on what your thought process is when you orchestrate a large band like this?

WH: There isn't too much thought process, to tell you the truth, because you're asking the sound to direct your actions. And if the sounds don't work, you change it. But it's not really like you're thinking of something and your automatic thought is what it is, because it's two different things. One is logical, based on very staid processes. And another is interpretive in terms of you're dealing with sound. You're dealing with the being that is sound. It's not like putting all the blocks in a row and then you have a straight row. It doesn't work that way for me. That's the way I look at it. And if it's wrong, I change it. If it's right, I go with it. And it's a very simple process, actually. It's not something that you think too much about with your logical mind, I'm saying. So it's like two different ways of looking at an aesthetic. One is a little bit more interpretive and another one is a little bit more… Well, it's not self directed. It's really an interpretation of me working with whatever the sound is. It's almost like looking at color. If you look at something and you put blue on it and like blue, you add yellow. So then you'll get green. It's that kind of a thing. You know what I mean? It's not like anything that I wrote is going to be what I think it is because it sounds completely different and also based on the people that I'm using because each person interprets things a little bit differently. So it's a very creative kind of a thing, very creative kind of a thing, very open and surprising. And out of that surprise, you may get joy. And that's kind of what I'm trying to do for myself and all the other people that are playing. That's what it is. It's like the creative process.

NM: You’ve also written poetry and performed spoken word for a really long time. How does that thought process or that creative process contrast with your musical process?

WH: It doesn't at all. I don't look at it that way. I don't look at it as something so different that I'm putting in something different. I look at it just as one long continuum. And you use all of the different things that you are to try and make that particular piece work and try to make that particular piece joyful and say what you want it to say in terms of the amount of time that you have to be able to do it. But I don't really look at it as separate disciplines. That's a very formalistic way of looking at things. A lot of people look at things like that, but I don't. So that's basically in my mind, it's quite a simple but interpretive kind of a situation. It's an intuitive kind of situation. It's a system of give and take. It's not really like I put my stamp on it, and it is what I say that it is. It's not like that, it doesn't work that way. Am I making sense to you?

NM: Absolutely.

WH: I'm not trying to avoid the questions. It's just that I want you to understand this is a very open scheme of things, a very open palette, which I think is what makes it beautiful, because I don't do things that you could just put a stamp on it and then you put it in its category. It doesn't work that way for me. It may work that way for some people. So because of that, they say, Jazz is this is, and not that. This is not that at all, what I'm doing anyway. You can't fit into those boxes.

NM: When you sit down to either play music or write. Do you typically start with an idea of what you want to do?

WH: That's a good question. It's really when the opportunities present themselves. I'll look at all the different opportunities. I'll look at all the different options I have. I'll look at all the different people that I would like to have fulfill this particular idea. And then I try to put them all together, and hopefully I know where they're coming from. And then I try to use that time that they are all together so that they can all work together. So it's not really just like me with inanimate objects, because these people also have their own pulses. They have their own way of looking at things. So then I try to find out what's going to work, what people can work together, how I have to approach various people's attitudes about what I do and about what the project is.

And then I try to put it in some sort of an orderly fashion so that it works out, and then it comes out as a work of art, a piece of art. And if it doesn't, then I can edit it well, not in a live situation, but you're using a lot of different elements. It's not just you with a pencil and paper and you're writing down an idea. You're dealing with others. You're dealing with different sounds other musicians have. You are dealing with their attitudes about the music and also the way that they interpret themselves through their musical instrument. And you're dealing with a lot more elements than you would with just writing. Every person is different. Every person is different. I have to stress that. And you have to be sensitive to the way different people are, you know, so it's not just accumulating a bunch of facts and writing these things down because you are talking about human beings. You're not talking about what's in your own head. You're talking about people that also have things in their heads too. So that's the way I look at it.

And I would also say that I try to respect what it is that I come across. So that it's not really like I'm trying to impose an idea on someone else that has a different way of thinking about what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to meet them halfway and trying to have them interpret what it is that I'm thinking about and respecting where they're coming from. I think that's the most important thing, just to respect the other human being and knowing that if they have the ability to do what it is that I'm asking them to do, I'm asking them for a reason. I'm asking them because I see something in what they're trying to do that can make a significant contribution to whatever the whole is. So that's what it is.

NM: What are you working on currently?

WH: Some of the things that are happening that I'm working on now. Let's see, what can I say? There's going to be another recording that's going to be coming out at the end of this year and also probably during the summer. I just finished the film, which is an hour and 46 minutes long, and that's going to be in at least three different venues here in New York City before it's released widely. It's a documentary, and beyond the mainstream. And people who are of my generation that had a lot to say about music and have contributed a lot to music in our culture. And that's what that's going to be about. And I'll be playing live, as I said, and I'll be doing a couple of grants, a couple of situations where I'm dealing with New York State House through the arts and grants and basically just trying to put things back in motion because I think that by that time, hopefully and hopefully I'll be able to travel at least in the States a little bit better.

I'm not really sure about what's going to happen with Europe yet, but it's a whole other thing. You work with what you're given right? You work with what you can work with. Yeah, definitely. And there's going to be quite a few gigs happening, and many of these gigs are going to be live streamed as well as playing live. So everyone will be able to see the things. And I'll be making these announcements pretty frequently through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and my site, which I invite you to join my site and invite you to have all of your readers join my site and the people in Free Jazz Blog so that we can communicate better. I know a lot of people come in, they go out, but it's really good to carry on a dialogue. Dialogue is important. And a lot of people, I think that they forget that this is a worldwide network. This is not just me sitting here in my apartment and you sitting here in your apartment. It's a dialogue amongst all of these countries, all these places, all these people that experience this music.

And if we can keep this dialogue going, I think that we can change the way that people think. And I think we can change a lot of the things that people are doing right now, which are really detrimental to our being on this planet. But that's a whole other story. We'll talk about that another time, because I don't want to bring it down, but I really do want these people to communicate and tell me what your thoughts are. Tell me how they feel about certain things and what they're enjoying and how they're uplifting their spirit in the middle of what we are in right now. Because that helps me a lot. It makes me want to continue. I'll put it that way. We're looking at this particular record, Big Moon, in terms of the entire year. We're looking at myself in the record label. We're looking at it in terms of all the different things that are going to happen throughout the whole year regarding this record. Because if you notice the CD came out first. The CD came out something like three and a half months before the vinyl came out.

NM: Yeah, it was September, and then the vinyl was out in December.

WH: Exactly. I think that for those people who like vinyl, they are just starting to review it. Just starting to pick it up. There's a lot of CDs that are out there all the time. And now they're seeing that this thing has its own life and has different manifestations. So because of that, we're still trying to get it across that it's out there and it has a lot of different manifestations, a lot of different ways of looking at it. And that takes time and it takes time for people to write about. It takes time for people to tell their friends about it. So I'm really thankful. I'm really thankful that you're calling and hopefully you're letting all your people know that this thing is around, because otherwise there's a lot of music out there now on Bandcamp and all kinds of things.


See Nick Metzger's review of Big Moon here.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

William Hooker - Big Moon (Org Music, 2021)

Please note: the review will be followed with an interview tomorrow.

By Nick Metzger

Big Moon might be William Hooker’s most intriguing album to date, and I really hesitate to say that because he’s been part of some really, really intriguing records over the years. This one finds the master improviser wielding a large ensemble and serving double duty as both chief percussionist and conductor. The format allows the music to manifest naturally and uninhibited as Hooker, much like the eponymous celestial body, exerts his steady but subtle pull, either directly through instruction or passively through his drum kit. The band on this stellar release is composed of saxophonists Stephen Gauci and Sarah Manning, pianists Mara Rosenbloom and Mark Hennen, synthesist Theo Woodward, flautist Charles Compo, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, and percussionist Jimmy Lopez joining Hooker on skins. I’ll note that Gauci, Rosenbloom, and Woodward were all a part of the ensemble for Hookers excellent Symphonie of Flowers which was released by Org Music back in 2019, and which I would argue is a sister album to this one with regards to its personnel and approach. Big Moon is a magnificently dense and infinitely listenable offering that demands subsequent spins to unpack all its detail.

The album kicks off with “What Can I Say…Human Family'', a swirling assemblage that forgoes a steady focus on any one element and rather sets the stage for the sensory overload to come with rapid smatterings of voice, flute, piano, reeds, contrabass, and electronics. The shifting ferocity of this first track resolves directly into the steady conga rhythm of “The Council Chamber '', forcing the overwhelmed brain of the listener to lock into the groove. The duration is just long enough to get your guard down before the next wave of discord is leveled via wild dueling pianos and toothy reeds. Now set in motion, Hooker swoops in beneath the free falling mélange, shaping and splintering forms as they are becoming. “Extra-Planetary Otherness” is a bouncing dynamo, driven by its polyrhythms and menacing low end undertow, Hooker accents his percussion with ecstatic shouts and hollers as electronics swarm the endearing staccato flute lines and the horns growl in response. Some continuity is maintained in the rhythm as the album drifts into the next track “The Great Lives”, swapping flute for piano, sax, and distinctly wet sounding electronics. The track seemingly fragments, disintegrating into digital confetti even as it segues into “Major Planetary Centres” with its explosions of percussion transmuting into a breathy veil of woodwinds, keys, and electronics.

“Right Speech” builds up layers of sound atop Parker Wells’ righteously funky bass line. What starts as soft piano accents and hand claps gradually picks up momentum as instruments are added. Excellent playing from Compo here (a long time colleague of William) as well as the saxophonists, and Hooker absolutely dominates the latter half with an all-out assault on his kit. On “Ring-Pass-Not” the band continues the burning pace with a notable uptick in the electronic embellishments. This one finds the whole ensemble improvising freely, the vastness of the sound almost overwhelming. “Sequence of the Form” begins in a frenzy of manic percussion, electronics, and saxophone before relaxing to explore cooler regions. “Seven Rays” tumbles from the gates in a loose bundle of group play. The congas reemerge, pulling the double bass into a dance that Hooker menaces with cymbal shrapnel while stabbing piano chords and weird electronics compete with Compo for daylight. The track stops abruptly and there is a quick flurry of percussion that segues to a brief duet b/w piano and sax. “Stations of Power” provides a reprieve from the melee with its tempered pace and slight, tuneful piano melodies that dissolve into swells of synth wash and electronics. The final track “Synthesis of Understanding” builds up a quickening swing that teeters like a drunken funambulist before finally tipping over and spilling back into free ensemble play. Around the midpoint there are simultaneous but off-set call and response interactions b/w sax and piano and flute and synth which resolve into more billowing and introspective piano chords accented with double bass’ pizzicato and flushes of woodwind before closing out the album with some wonderfully bizarre electronics. This great new album from an all-time favorite that rewards diligent listening and will command your attention once you’re under the influence of its gravity.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Albert Ayler - Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings (Elemental, 2022)

By Lee Rice Epstein

What can any of us add to the legacy of Albert Ayler? What can be said that hasn’t been said better by his own horn and vocals? In 2004, on the Holy Ghost box, listeners finally heard Ayler’s final performance, a short set from July 28, 1970, with his last quintet, Mary Maria Parks on soprano sax and vocals, Call Cobbs on piano, Steve Tintweiss on bass, and Allen Blairmen on drums. The audio on that set is dull and a bit tinny, with Ayler’s high notes getting lost in the mix. It’s crucial for giving us the last possible recording of Ayler, but it doesn’t do enough to complete the canon. To get there, we needed something a bit bigger in scope that captures the previous days’ recordings in full.

Ayler’s July 25 and July 27 Fondation Maeght performances previously appeared on Shandar and ESP-Disk’ as Nuits De La Fondation Maeght 1970 and Live On the Riviera, abbreviated releases with potentially dubious paths to production. But here comes Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings. One of the most fascinating discoveries here is that there was something to be discovered: online sessionographies at ayler.co.uk and jazzdisco.org list only what was previously released, leaving no hint that each night held a full two hours of music and that the sets were not only abridged but were, in the case of Shandar’s sets, disastrously out of order.

The previous summer, Ayler recorded his final studio sessions with Bobby Few on piano and Muhammad Ali on drums, leaving the door metaphysically open for Frank Wright on his way out—as heard on a number of Wright’s albums, Few, Ali, and longtime Ayler-cohort Alan Silva play with the same gorgeous fearlessness that Ayler pioneered. By mid-1970, however, Ayler reunited with some key players, including Tintweiss, who performed with him on and off for half a dozen years and already established himself as a clever collaborator, able to lift the melodies to abstract heights, then ground the open improvisation with furious, driving lines. Likewise, Cobbs had an especially astute understanding of Ayler’s vision, both literally and intuitively—Cobbs helped direct his bands and played with wild abandon, something like Ayler’s sax fed through a pianist’s fingers.

For July 25, the group was caught out with Cobbs getting delayed by customs officials. In true Ayler spirit, however, they took the stage as a screaming quartet. Ayler plays a yearning, pleading solo to lead off “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe.” Full of anguish, perhaps thinking of his brother at the time, he leans back to let Mary Maria sing the opening verse, then takes off to an astonishingly high register. The sound is pure Ayler, cutting a path straight to the sky. Tintweiss is fantastic, pivoting from arco to walking lines, and the mix brings in so much of the low end, it sounds as fresh as a new recording. “Ghosts” has long been the highlight of the Riviera set, but maybe that’s only because we didn’t have the hour of material that followed, much of it improvised. “Love Cry” stretches way out, contrasting the recorded ensemble’s Cherry-esque vibe with a looser, headier performance.

Much of Revelations pulls from the 1969 Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe and The Last Album sessions. The setlists give the impression of an artist seeking to meld his earlier and later compositions under a unified vision. Arguably, the leaner lineup grants Ayler more freedom to explore and experiment with songs like “Desert Blood,” “A Man Is Like a Tree,” and “Island Harvest.” In addition, there are a number of collective improvisations, here titled “Revelations 1–6.” These alone, largely unheard, make up about an hour of the set’s previously unreleased material (“Revelation 1” appears on Live on the Riviera as the first part of “Oh! Love of Life” but is separated here to clarify how Ayler was directing his groups’ improvisations, as opposed to their organized, composed songs). A good deal of searching and trying takes place, the improvisations aren’t always quite at the level one might expect, but there is something interesting at each turn.

On the July 27 opener, a relatively brief “Truth Is Marching In,” you hear a band with incredible control and confidence. Cobbs had just arrived after a two-day delay—the band had pulled off the unexpected but delirious quartet set on July 25. It’s interesting to hear them in this context now, knowing Blairman would soon record with Mal Waldron, as he and Cobbs are generally regarded as a fascinating study in contrast—Cobbs reportedly did not consider the rhythm section a well-meshed group. In truth, the abridged recordings more or less bear this out, the sound is not round enough, the group not quite loose in the way Ayler and Cobbs had managed most of their prior sessions. And yet, to hear the complete two hours, the story flips dramatically. Blairman’s cymbal-heavy playing shines alongside Cobbs, especially on the lengthy “Holy Family,” which gets an airy, rich upgrade and eases into “Revelations 5,” a 20-minute improvisation with Ayler teasing several melodic lines throughout, playing variations upon variations in his somewhat cubist mode. Where the previous night sounded almost distressed at times, the second night is brash and thrilling. On the 20-minute “Holy Holy,” Mary Maria sounds more assured on soprano, perhaps buttressed by the full rhythm section. (Having collaborated with Cobbs on Ayler’s Impulse albums, she may have felt slightly more comfortable with him on stage; we can only guess, of course, but it seems possible, given what we know about their work together on previous sessions.) Either way, by this point in the set, nothing seems to be holding this quintet back: the “Spirits Rejoice” call is responded to with Blairman’s snare, but the group quickly drops into open improvisation mode. Serving as a tribute to the absent brother, this is one of the mellower versions of Donald Ayler’s composition. The applause is tremendous.

As hinted above, this is one area where the running order is dramatically different from Nuits De La Fondation Maeght—”Spirits” follows “Spirits Rejoice,” which makes some sense out of Cobbs echoing the latter’s theme on piano. “Thank God For Women,” then leads into the finale: “Spiritual Reunion” and “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe.” Compared with the previous set’s opening performance, the closer leaves everything on the floor, and then some. More raucous applause and rousing cheers at Ayler’s opening notes spiritually ground the quintet, as Cobbs toys with the chords underneath Mary Maria’s initially restrained vocal. She extends the notes a bit more here, leaning into the song. Although the full quintet plays, even in remastered form, it has the feel of a vocal-saxophone-piano trio. Mary Maria wraps the event with a brief message for the crowd, “We love you very much.” In four months, Ayler would be found dead in the East River. Cobbs would be killed during a hit and run the following year. The torch has been picked up and passed along by countless others, but Revelations reminds us just how bright Ayler’s flame burned, hot and beautiful, wild and unrestrained, and brilliant in every way.

Note: There is reportedly film of the performances, only about two minutes of which have circulated online. If anybody knows more about this, we’d love to hear about it.


Available on limited-edition vinyl for Record Store Day 2022

https://www.elemental-music.com/albert-ayler-revelations-the-complete-ortf-recordings-limited-5lp-box-set-4cd-digipack-edition-rsd-2022/


Available on CD and digital via Bandcamp

https://elementalmusicrecords.bandcamp.com/album/albert-ayler-revelations


Ballister & Ken Vandermark/Nate Wooley/Paul Lytton at the Cleveland Bop Stop 4/19/2022

Nate Wooley. Photo by Don Sebian

By Stephen Griffith

Throughout this pandemic and the official reaction to it, it's been a bad time to see live music. Navigating shifting requirements of proof of vaccinations and masking requirements yielded a blanket “no thanks” from me. So its been a barren two years of concerts for me.

A local college radio disc jockey sends out a weekly “Jazz Calendar” listing upcoming performances at clubs and concert halls, including events months in the future. He has been doing this for decades so the last two years has produced mostly eye rolling on receipt of updates. Imagine my surprise a couple weeks ago to see a twin bill at the Bop Stop of Ballister and Ken Vandermark/Nate Wooley/Paul Lytton for Tuesday April 19. No masks or proof of vaccination were required so I grabbed tickets immediately.

Paul Lytton and Ken Vandermark. Photo by Don Sebian

Driving there last night I didn't know what to expect. These concerts attract a varying number of aficionados during the best of times so I was unsure what to expect but on arrival the place was pleasantly full of familiar faces. The organization booking the concert, New Ghosts, dedicated to preserving the memory and spirit of Albert Ayler, was relieved to be able to return to doing what they do. In some ways this was an ideal booking to get things started again. Cleveland has been a longtime waystop of Chicagoan Vandermark for his midwestern tours. Dave Rempis became part of the Vandermark orbit through the Vandermark 5 before making appearances with Triage, duets with Tim Daisy and currently Ballister. Likewise fellow Chicagoan Fred Lonborg-Holm. Norwegian Frode Gjerstad has made Cleveland a frequent stop on his US tours along with his younger drummer, Paal Nilssen-Love, who has also teamed up with Vandermark in addition to The Thing and Large Unit. Nate Wooley played at least one duet gig with Vandermark. Paul Lytton played a one off date in 2007 or 2008 with Vandermark and Phillip Wachsmann as a followup to Cinc, a limited release on Okkadisc; everyone in attendance was fascinated by his technique and had hopes for his return before now.

The program began with the Vandermark/Wooley/Lytton group. Fortunately the acoustics of the club allow for very soft playing to be easily heard because there were a lot of quietly percussive tongue slaps on tenor sax and clarinet, and breathy brass sounds along with unusual objects used for percussion. At times it was hard to figure out what instruments were contributing which sounds to a collective drone effect. There were also more uptempo numbers in which Vandermark let loose with emphatic tenor sax yawps, in case anyone was misled into thinking it was overly ethereal and subdued. Nate Wooley also used a flexible metallic rectangular sheet and mutes effectively as sound modifiers. A very satisfying set of music. This was the only stop on the current Ballister tour featuring this group.

Dave Rempis, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Fred Lonborg-Holm. Photo by Don Sebian 

The release of this might have been the motivating force behind the timing of the tour. As mentioned in the review, Ballister’s approach is much more physical and visceral and this date was no exception. Starting with PNL’s first snare shot the audience was on notice that this would be a rolling and tumbling adventure with Lonberg-Holm’s cello pickups injecting discordant noise into the mix. Rempis was masterful on tenor, baritone and alto saxes, combining a sweet melodicism with a relentlessly probing forward momentum.

From all available evidence the return to live free jazz in Cleveland was an overwhelming success.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Charles Mingus – The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance Records, 2022)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Arguably more than any other label, Resonance Records—and particularly producer and co-president Zev Feldman—understands that, despite the middling quality of recordings circulating on the bootleg market, nothing beats a properly mastered archival release. And for a recording like this one of Charles Mingus playing live at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, from August 1972, the long-circulating bootlegs have met a King Kong of an archival release in Resonance’s brand-new The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s.

1972 was already a fascinating period in Mingus’s history—he played a couple of orchestra sets that winter, turned 50 in April, then went to Europe in summer with a new sextet for a brief tour. The lineup provided Mingus with a chance to shake things up: Roy Brooks moved in on drums, briefly filling the seat for Dannie Richmond; John Foster took over on piano, the role had lapsed a bit since Jaki Byard’s departure and wouldn’t really pick up again until Don Pullen joined in 1973; and Bobby Jones joined on tenor, though he would soon be replaced by George Adams; and trumpet player Jon Faddis concluded his brief tenure with Mingus that fall. Only Charlie McPherson, alto sax, provided Mingus with the anchor he needed, familiar enough with the charts but daring enough to keep pushing forward. For anyone with even a passing interest in Mingus, 1972 must seem like a gestation period, signaling what was coming without quite delivering. It’s possible he needed a few more rotations on the bandstand, but this Ronnie Scott’s recording definitively shows he was moving in many directions at once. And if Foster and Jones wouldn’t stay long in the group, they certainly helped Mingus figure out where he wanted his piano and tenor sounds to go next.

Like several of that summer’s tour stops, the shows at Ronnie Scott’s club were professionally recorded. Mingus intended these to be released in his lifetime, and he exhorts the crowd to clap for the band and be captured on the mics for posterity. The release is simultaneously lengthy and compact, with five of the nine tracks taking up most of the album’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The band jumps right in with “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” a classic that had already been recorded at least a dozen times (and performed dozens more). The setlist then focuses on a couple of short-lived compositions, “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” (sometimes called “Blues In F”) and “Mind Readers’ Convention in Milano.” Brooks plays musical saw here, tipping the group slightly towards avant-garde with its skewering of the timbre—yes, yes, Mingus famously hated being associated with the free jazz and avant-garde crowds, but we all know his music landed its octopodal feet firmly planted in all worlds. Later, Faddis blows a bold solo to open the classic “The Man Who Never Sleeps,” returning to its classic sextet setting after recording an orchestral reading the previous year. The time away seems to have renewed something in the smaller arrangement, and the group jumps right on Faddis’s lead. McPherson and Jones meld beautifully with Faddis—considering the line didn’t last long under Mingus’s leadership, they play extremely well together. It would be challenging to call this sextet a missed opportunity, because the Adams-Pullen lineup is exciting in a hundred ways. But it’s thrilling to hear Mingus paired with Brooks, who has a different feel than Richmond and pulls the bassist to some subtly interesting places. And the mastering gives listeners a great opportunity to listen closely to the drums and bass, eclipsing whatever might have been heard on previously circulating bootlegs.

Depending on the sources, there are somewhere between 15 and 20 recordings of “Fables of Faubus,” one of the most brilliant and fiercest of Mingus’s compositions, a songbook filled with fiery protest songs. On some 1964 recordings, a composition that long hovered around 15–20 minutes finally crests 30 minutes. And at Ronnie Scott’s, Mingus and group lean way in and take it to 35 minutes. There’s no way to know for sure, but these recordings come just after the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. Nixon was about to sail into reelection following McGovern’s sad bid. For someone as astute as Mingus, it doesn’t seem a stretch to hear the anger rattling around as an equally furious rebuke to the state of the Democratic party, Faubus’s once home. Mingus performs a fantastic solo, with a number of quotes, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” eventually moving into a read of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s a dual reminder of what a strong bass player Mingus was and what encyclopedic knowledge he had of American music. There’s a hint of Albert Ayler here, not that Mingus embraced what the saxophonist was doing fully, but their parallel ideas of weaving together blues, spirituals, and folk music to define jazz as a crucial Black American art form continue to drive the development of the music. With the arrival of sets like this one, we can continue to learn new things from Mingus, to hear more of what he was doing as he tried to continuously rewrite his personal songbook. In the pantheon, it’s easy to see where this sits: for Mingus fans, The Lost Album from Ronne Scott’s is like the celebrated release of Coltrane’s One Down, One Up— it highlights a moment when Mingus was on fire and also warming up to his next great version of himself. In two years, he would be recording Changes One and Two, and this sextet would be mostly replaced by a new lineup. Nevertheless, it is both vital as a standalone and evocative as more connective tissue in Mingus’s evolution.

Available direct from Resonance.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Phil Freeman - Ugly Beauty (Zero Books, 2022)



As I began writing this review, I was about half-way through Phil Freeman's Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century. I had been picking it up and putting it down for a week or so, which is no fault of the author, rather I blame my computer-mediated attention deficit disorder. The thing is, Ugly Beauty is perfect for this approach to reading. The stories, anecdotes and encounters with musicians, choice quotes woven in from longer interviews, and smartly detailed tangents linking the musicians, the gigs, and the music are served well in short richly detailed chapters.

It is clear from the start that Freeman has listened to a wide and varied assortment of music and has done a painstaking job of keeping the details of the recordings, encounters, and concert dates straight. A sampling of artists are profiled in each chapter, but the subjects of the chapter are embedded in various networks. The enumerations of who has played with who, releasing this or that album, paints a picture of artistic development of both the artists and the scene they come from. Each artist/scene is treated to a similar presentation and by the end of each neatly structured chapter, you may, like me, find yourself popping off immediately to search your collection or check Spotify for one or more of the recordings you've just read about.

Freeman begins with the mainstream musicians, capturing several in the mid-point of their careers, including JD Allen, Ethan Iverson, Wayne Escoffery, Jason Moran and Orrin Evans. In Part II, he moves into the somewhat more experimental players, the ones who are reshaping 'jazz' and blending genres, like pianist Vijay Iyer, whose music straddles mainstream and avant-garde, as well as other fan favorites like Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Linda May Han Oh, Nicole Mitchell and Tyshawn Sorey. Throughout, the writing is crisp and smart. For example, an anecdote leads to Iyer through a concert from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and various offshoots. These connections, be they through people, places, or events, serve as path markers.  

That is what this book does best, connecting the dots, giving shape to what jazz is today, though what it actually looks like, is fuzzier than ever before. Freeman starts with his nodes, offering a somewhat solid taxonomy, with each "part" of the book exploring a branch of the jazz family tree. To improve on that metaphor, I would recommend thinking of a giant Mangrove tree. In addition to what is on the page, the more the reader fills in the interconnections, the more this slim book fills in. Hell, this is the type of stuff we used to do teasing every piece of possible information out of LP liner notes.

In addition to the aforementioned topics, Freeman dedicates a chapter to spiritual jazz, rooting the work of Shabaka Hutchings, Yazz Ahmed, Makaya McCravan, Kamasi Washington, and Darius Jones (among others) loosely to the forebears: Albert Ayler, John and Alice Coltrane, and the general spiritual movement in the 60s and 70s. Then, he moves on to a set players of a specific instrument, the trumpet. He also notes that each player in this part, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Kenyon Harold, Theo Crocker and Marquis Hill also incorporate hip-hop into their music. In the final part, and maybe what it was all leading up to anyway, the work of Jamie Branch, James Brandon Lewis, Matana Roberts, Kassa Overall, Moor Mother and Luke Stewart is connected through its raw and uncompromising genre-bending urgency.

This book will likely sit near to the Penguin Guide to Jazz by Brian Morton and Richard Cook on my shelf, whose thin pages of tiny font I once poured over religiously, seeking connections, trying to understand what I needed to know to 'know Jazz.' Here we follow Freeman doing the same. Ugly Beauty is less of a reference and more of a living history, where he's putting what these musicians are doing right now, into the context of, well, jazz in the 21st century. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Eventless Plot – Anisixia (Edition Wandelweiser, 2021) ****


By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Greece is a small country with those who make music out of the norm (on a more bitter comment: those who don’t make hip-hop, punk or some other hip music styles) scattered mainly around the two big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki. Some very brave musicians leave even outside those two cities. The absolute lack of any kind of a scene (with its helpful connections and engagements) for experimental music, makes it even more difficult for anyone to continue. The absence of spaces (there are but few in numbers with the pandemic minimizing their number) makes these musics almost invisible to anyone but the cognoscenti.

The trio of Eventless Plot hails from Thessaloniki and has covered a lot of distance until today, where they’ve become part of the sophisticated catalogue of Edition Wandelweiser. Back in the late 00’s they were one of the few avant rock/electronic Greek acts. Slowly, at least in my eyes, they abandoned the comforts that labels like rock or electronica provide. On anisixia (restlessness in Greek) they are the trio of Vasilis Liolios on psaltery e-bow, Aris Giatas on analog synth, Yiannis Tsirikoglou on electronics with the addition of Nefeli Sani on the piano, Eva Matsigou on flute and Chris Cundy on bass clarinet.

This CD, clocking just over thirty six minutes, is a composition (a score if you prefer) that was recorded before the pandemic started. It is one long track that gradually builds up, but never climaxes. There’s a hidden, cinematic feeling willing to unveil itself after repeated listening. Thankfully the group doesn’t resort to the well traveled path of a climax in the end of the recording. On the contrary their collective playing stays within inaudible limits. At the same time they manage to produce a music that incorporates an internal contradiction (in comparison with my aforementioned remark) that the music will at some point explode, will make you, the listener, feel that something totally out of the blue might happen.

I consider this probably the biggest quality of anisixia. From the first second up until the last they build a cohesive atmosphere between likeminded artists. Even though as a listener I would prefer that the instruments would be clearer in the final mix, it is exactly this unity of the different sounds and timbres of the instruments that produces a final satisfying mix. The title itself (I’m always stuck with the why’s of track titles) is revealing for the music. It is as if this cd is one of the available versions of anisixia, producing an expectation of listening to some other version live or on a future date on cd. Restlessness (like Beckettian failure) makes the music world go round. Hopefully.

@koultouranafigo

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Relatives - The Relatives (Tripticks Tapes, 2022)


By Keith Prosk

T.J. Borden, James McKain, and Leo Suarez freely play two sidelong tracks for cello, tenor sax, and percussion on the trio’s debut recording, The Relatives.

McKain and Suarez have recorded together on the duo The Video Taped Man and on The Running of the Bulls with Kevin Murray (percussion), Jared Radichel (contrabass), and Tom Weeks (alto sax). Other shared documents are sparse but some recorded reference points for Borden might include his work with MIVOS Quartet or a realization of Matt Sargent’s Tide with Erik Carlson.

This is high energy, fiery. Propulsive in its consistently elevated speed and/or volume with shifts in momentum most often signaled in texture. Hoarse horn’s buzzing fly shawm and bellicose purr, sax kisses and wet raspberries, folk-inflected triadic spirals like dancing satyrs flute, warbling vibrato conjuring ghostly overtones with strings sawing, plucking tripping over itself, and wooden growls with a percussive menagerie of nervous sounds, stick clicks, stray snare hits, and wood block pops from which sinister seducing grooves might appear recalling some dark cave dance like Liquid Liquid. The emphasis on texture makes this not another blowing session. And they summon a sonorous depth not just in immediately sounded textures but beating patterns cultivated from ethereal harmonic play and some siren song that seems close to a pure sine tone. A stunning balance between driving force and diverse hues.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

MingBauSet – Yakut’s Gallop (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2021) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

This may just be my own limited perspective, but experimental vocalists seem to be a thing now in a way they have not been for some time. Yes, singers such as Maggie Nicols, Maja S.K. Ratkje, Phil Minton, Thomas Buckner, Yamantaka Eye, Jaap Blonk, Mike Patton, Anne Rhodes and others have been floating around improvisational circles for decades. However, many others, who hitherto were under the radar, have finally been getting some recognition and slowly winning me over as of late. Add the Schweizerin Vera Baumann to that list.

MingBauSet consists of Bauman, guitarist Florestan Berset - like Baumann, part of the Luzerne scene - and drummer Gerry Hemingway. Hemingway is the only member of the trio I had encountered before. This setting, however, seems to push him to new spaces. Hemingway is attentive and responsive, but focused on sound, space and timbre rather than in his rhythmic escapades in Day & Taxi. For his part, Berset complements him well, leaning on abstract cascades of color and scratchy atmospherics. At many points, one could mistake Berset’s lapping waves as emanating from a mixing board or computer program, or even Hemingway’s percussive array, rather than an electric guitar.

What really stood out to me and my own newfound appreciation for the human voice, however, is Baumann. She is surprisingly soulful at points, singing lines that remind me of Leena Conquest’s poetic chants. At other times, she is utterly indecipherable, in a fashion similar to Saadet Türköz with slightly less abandon, or maybe just more grounding in some new music/concert-hall tradition. At times, the layerings sound like some avant-rock music replete with cosmic soundscaping and absent the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure or, really, any traditional metered or chordal structure associate with rock music. Instead, Yakut’s Gallop is about interweaving sounds, hypnotic extended motifs over which Baumann’s infectious chants prance. For his part, Hemingway really gets space to extend, here, and alternately embrace and shed his instrument’s rhythmic past. Listening through Hemingway, this is a completely different experience from Taxi & Day. Actually, listening through almost any lens, one could say the same. However, much like Run, the Darkness Will Come!, Yakut’s Gallop is well worth a close listen, and another, and another…

Yakut’s Gallop is available on CD or as a download: