Click here to [close]

Monday, September 26, 2022

Marta Warelis – a grain of Earth (Relative Pitch, 2022)

By Matty Bannond

Our planet’s story is plotted around cycles of collapse and renewal. Natural forces give life. They take life away. Summer’s abundance sickens in fall, expires in winter and is reborn in spring. Civilizations rise and recede. Each generation is ultimately replaced. Polish pianist Marta Warelis captures the deep-down truths of this perpetual rhythm in her new album, a grain of Earth.

Based in Amsterdam, Warelis has a capacity to fit in and stand out within any context. She appeared on the Dave Douglas album Secular Psalms released in April 2022. Previous recordings include participation in the Strings5 quintet and a quartet with Frank Rosaly, as well as various trio and duo formations. This time, she improvised all alone. “Playing solo is a very vulnerable yet powerful experience,” she says. “If you let yourself stream whatever comes, it is wonderfully liberating.”

Life’s endless cycles are reflected in the patterns that emerge and evaporate on the album’s first track, “Echo”. Fizzing and gonging sounds ring. When the piano enters, clusters begin to form. Matter sticks together. From this primordial soup, the listener observes complexity evolving as Warelis adds fragments from folk and classical traditions. From nothing, comes everything.

By the time she reaches “Trip of the Light Toe”, Warelis has hurled more cultures and species into the mix. It’s a restless piece. Monk-ish boppy elements lurk beneath the surface. Waves of sound surge up and down as if governed by the moon’s gravitational pull. “I knew it was going to be a very personal journey,” she says. “Kind of a closure of what I’ve been working on in the last few years musically, but also emotionally.”

The album’s title track has a balmy, soothing quality. The extreme weather and geographical violence have now passed. Warelis uses more repeated shapes, trills and technical tropes. This sonic soil is rich and sustaining. In the final moments, fragile and pretty shapes rise like optimistic green shoots.

a grain of Earth grasps the infinite universe and balances it on the outside edge of a very small proton. Marta Warelis explores the possibilities of her piano while steering the listener through an investigation of big ideas and microscopic subtleties. “There’s an arc of a journey for me,” she says. “Of my understanding, going through and experiencing the suffering and beauty of an earthly life.”

The album is available on CD and for digital download or streaming:

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Anton Fier (1956 - 2022)

Anton Fier. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Martin Schray

Anton Fier is an almost imperceptible but enormously important part of the soundtrack of my life. He was the rhythm machine in my free jazz epiphany: Peter Brötzmann’s März Combo Tentet, a band that brought rock and free jazz together on Brötzmann’s 50th birthday in Wuppertal. He also is the drummer on one of my all-time-favorite-top-ten albums, Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies. Unlike others who just try to keep the rhythm going, Fier often pulled strings from behind the scenes with his relentless driving groove.

In recent weeks, as the jazz scene has suffered some tragic losses, news of his death has almost gone under the radar. As announced on 9/21/22, Fier died back in August at the age of 66, cause of death is still unknown.

Born on June 20, 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio, Anton Fier moved to New York in the late 1970s, where he quickly made a name for himself in the downtown scene and was involved in many projects at the same time. He was a founding member of John Lurie’s experimental “fake jazz“ combo The Lounge Lizards, who released their debut in 1981. Even a year earlier, The Feelies released the aforementioned Crazy Rhythms, which was outstanding if only because, in an era of No Wave and punk, it relied on sprawling guitar chops, with Fier on drums as the actual driving force. On both album covers he looks like a high school student. A little later he formed the experimental band The Golden Palominos, a supergroup featuring John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, Nicky Skopelitis, Fred Frith, David Moss, Arto Lindsay, Jamaladeen Tacuma and others. The band was active with breaks until the end in different line-ups each time.

In addition, Fier played with Pere Ubu and Bob Mould’s first band (a spectacular gig at Frankfurt’s Batschkapp club is another great memory) and drummed for acts and greats such as Mick Jagger, Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Material, John Zorn or the Swans ... and that's just a sample of his output!

His eagerness to experiment and his playing, which therefore demanded constant innovation, made him an exceptional figure on the drums. In addition, he was a sought-after producer who produced Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the Grapes of Wrath and Joey Henry as well as albums by his own bands.

John Lurie wrote on Twitter. “The Lounge Lizards would never have gotten off the ground without him. He showed us how to work on music. Demanded it.”

In the famous superband in heaven I imagine him playing with Hendrix, that might be spectacular. I will miss him a lot.

Watch Fier with The Feelies playing “Crazy Rhythms“: 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Pharoah Sanders (1941 - 2022)

Pharoah Sanders. Photo from his website

By Martin Schray

At the tender age of 25, Pharoah Sanders experienced the greatest honor that jazz had to offer in the 1960s: The great John Coltrane took him into his band and shaped him forever with his concept of a spiritual free jazz. In interviews, however, Sanders honestly did not want to be asked about the old mentor and did not shy away from looking through the journalists’ questionnaires for the irritant word “Coltrane“, only to break the rule himself and tell anecdotes like these: Coltrane was said to have asked him whether he could play an F on the tenor saxophone (which is extremely difficult). “Yes“, Sanders replied, “but only if I lift my left leg while doing it - and I don't want to do that!“ Now the great saxophonist, sound inventor and activist, one of the greatest angry young men of jazz at the time, has died on September 24 at the age of 81 

Pharoah Sanders, whose real name was Ferell Sanders, was born October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He moved to New York City in 1961 after playing with rhythm and blues bands. There, he was homeless a few times, but he knew Sun Ra, who found him an apartment and encouraged him to use the stage name “Pharoah“. In 1963, he formed his own band with pianist John Hicks, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Billy Higgins. The group attracted the attention of John Coltrane. In 1965, Sanders began performing with Coltrane at live shows and in the studio regularly, playing on several of Coltrane’s albums, including Ascension, Meditations, Kulu Sé Mama, Live at the Village Vanguard Again! and many more. Simultaneously, Sanders started recording albums under his own name. In 1966, he signed a contract with Impulse! and released Tauhid in the same year. His most famous album, Karma, followed in 1969. In the 1970s, Sanders continued to produce his own recordings and also continued to work with Alice Coltrane, for example on Journey to Satchidananda.

He experimented with African rhythms on the 1971 album Black Unity and in general he became interested in all kinds of music, including R&B, modal jazz and hard bop. Throughout his life however, he retained the brute stylistic devices of free jazz such as overblowing, primal scream effects, and walls of sound, even when he returned to more conventional forms in the eighties. A perfect example of his wide musical universe is the fact that he traveled to Morocco in 1994 to record the album The Trance of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, which was produced by Bill Laswell, and in the same year also he did a trip hop remix of “The Creator Has A Master Plan“, his signature song from Karma.

Finally, in 2021, together with London electro musician and DJ Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, he had an unexpected late career hit. The meditative, nine-part suite Promises was exactly the kind of music with spiritual depth and emotional spark of hope that a beleaguered humanity needed in the second pandemic year.

Although the great saxophonist has recorded many excellent albums throughout his whole career, his work from the 1960s and 70s is considered to stand out from his rich and varied catalogue. Tauhid (1967, Impulse) with Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Dave Burrell on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, Roger Plank on drums and Nat Bettis on percussion was the blueprint for his most famous albums, which were about to follow, because it established the typical spiritual Sanders sound. Two years later, he released Karma (Impulse), possibly his greatest success, with a monstrous band consisting of Lonnie L. Smith jr. on piano, Julius Watkins on French horn, James Spaulding on flute, William Hart and Frederick Waits on drums, Richard Davis, Reggie Workman and Ron Carter on bass and the fabulous Leon Thomas on vocals and percussion. “The Creator has a Master Plan“ is the mother of all spiritual jazz tracks. In the years to follow, he released more wonderful albums on Impulse like Summon Bukmun Umyun (1970), Jewels of Thought (1970), Thembi (1971), and Black Unity (1972), all worth listening to. A personal favorite of mine is Izipho Zam (Strata-East, 1973), on which he again was joined by long time collaborators such as Leon Thomas (“Prince of Peace“ with him on vocals is my favorite Sanders track), Sonny Sharrock, Lonnie Liston Smith, Nat Bettis and Billy Hart plus Sonny Fortune on alto sax, Howard Johnson on tuba and Cecil McBee and Sirone on bass. Sanders was always at his best when he was backed by a band that had a great groove and expressed a lot of spirituality like on Africa (Timeless, 1987), where John Hicks (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass) and Idris Muhammad (drums) prepared a marvelous sound carpet on which Sanders could soar. “You’ve Got To have Some Freedom“ even works as a dance floor killer. Sanders was also especially great when he worked with musicians from Africa, for example with the aforementioned Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994). The music here is also of an outstanding spirituality, however very different from his albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it seems more ethereal and otherworldly. Promises with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra (Luaka Bop, 2020), was praised by many critics (including myself), but also criticized as being to kitschy. I liked its drama and comforting spirit a lot, though.

Though Pharoah Sanders has passed on, we will be comforted by the music he gave us all. Not only the jazz community will miss him.

Watch “The Creator Has a Master Plan“ with Pharoah Sanders - tenor sax, William Henderson on piano, Miles Danso on bass and Antoine Banville and drums live in London, 2011: 

Daunik Lazro, Jouk Minor, Thierry Madiot, David Chiesa, Louis-Michel Marion - Sonoris Causa (NoBusiness, 2022)

By Stuart Broomer

Extremely low frequencies are less a range than a realm. Below 30 cps they’re largely inaudible to the human ear, felt as vibration rather than sound, at high amplitude sometimes felt internally. 5 cps is less a tone than a tempo marking, 300 beats per minute, as pitch turns, ineluctably, into time. Bass vibrations have inspired Szilárd Mezei to form a band of four string basses and a tuba (see Szilárd Mezei Tubass Ensemble – Rested Turquoise (No Business, 2021)), while Anthony Braxton’s adventures in the lowest registers are numerous (read more here.)

Given a suspension between silence, power and terror, low frequencies exercise a special fascination for musicians, suggesting chthonic realms with low-pitched instruments in hyper-resonant spaces that are often vast, dark and enclosed. In 1993, in a prototypical gesture, Swiss saxophonist Werner Lüdi entered the Lucendro dam, taking along his baritone as well as his alto (Lüdi Solo: Lucendro, Unit Records, 1996). In 2000, Evan Parker and a Swiss wind quartet explored the sonics of an empty cistern above Zurich (September Winds, Creative Works). On their next meeting, Parker and band-member Peter A. Schmid were exploring the tubax, a form of contrabass saxophone, though they didn’t take the low-pitched horns to the cistern (Alder Brook, Leo Records, 2003).

That chthonic element is strong in Sonoris Causa (a pun on “honoris causa” but a hint, too, of what sound might bring into being. The quintet, recorded in 2003 at Festival Musique Action in Vandoeuvre, France, includes nothing but low pitches. Jouk Minor is playing a contrabass sarrusophone, certainly the most unusual instrument here. Similar in range to a contrabass saxophone (the bell appears at the top of the instrument and there are far more bends than in a saxophone—the recent tubax is similar in appearance), the instrument appears on one highly memorable 1924 recording, “Mandy Make Up Your Mind” by Clarence Williams’s Blue 5, where much of the track is devoted to a novelty solo by Sidney Bechet on the instrument (Louis Armstrong is also a member of the Williams band). David Chiésa and Louis-Michel Marion are both playing five-string double basses which allow a bassist to play a fourth lower than a conventional instrument. Thierry Madiot plays bass trombone and “telescopic tubes”, the name of which suggests something like a trombone in its function. That leaves Daunik Lazro, whose gruff, roaring baritone saxophone is the highest-pitched instrument in the band.

The basses are often bowed, emphasizing their resonance and a certain pitch variance. The harmonics of the basses and Lazro’s baritone emphasizing an echoing sub-pitch. Every instrument emphasizes fundamentals, while the bass reeds can render echoing wails that resemble winds blowing through canyons. Each wind instrument will repeat low-register plosives at one time or another, suggesting speech pitched below speech. What high pitches are here are always resonating in large-diameter columns. The music will thin, but the presence of three tracks is an illusion, there only to make the uninterrupted 66-minute performance easier to negotiate.

This sustained improvisation seeks mystery, power and a kind of occultation, even immuration, in sound, which the musicians seem to achieve. There are moments when they seem to be echo-locating, bouncing off one another’s sounds to achieve distance, stretching the stage to accommodate the sound, seeming to grow further apart, making and measuring a vast imaginary space. As it progresses, the music becomes more spacious, but also more meditative, the musicians more exploratory of this world of their own making. At the conclusion, however, the music returns to the suggestion of some ultimate trembling in the firmament.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Ü - Ü (s/r, 2022)

By Guido Montegrandi

Ü quartet was born in 2021 and this is their first work. The name comes from the 16th hexagram of the I Ching whose translation in Italian sounds like Ü il Fervore – hence also the title of the closing track

In stating their aesthetic Alessandro Luppi (clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax), Giovanni Falascone (piano, kalimba, live electronics), Filippo Abrate (percussion), Thomas Canna (percussion) tell us that "the group is oriented toward a rhythm and timbre research which has its foundation in jazz, electroacoustic, ethnic, contemporary and experimental music. The aim of this research is to investigate a ritual and evocative dimension where a performance can be built, a space for a search in balance between composition and improvisation."

In all of the tracks the listener can find references to jazz, to electroacoustic music, to ethnic music but all these references are incorporated into a personal project. It’s a quartet with no leading role, all of the four musicians bring their contribution to a sound that flows between freedom and structure. The interplay reminds me remarkably of the European free music of the 70 with a very well balanced poise among all of the instruments. Musical ideas are introduced as fragments of sound, as traces leading to places that dissolve into silence.

A deep sense of space characterizes the sound - Giovanni Falascone, responsible of the mixing process, told me that in order to avoid the two drums to fuse into a single sound, one of them has been placed on the left in the mix and the other on the right with piano slightly on the right and clarinet slightly on the left. This has created a precise static definition for the acoustic sound in the mix while the processed sounds and the electronics exploit the whole space expanding in a free and randomic way. A foreign sound that surfaces and take possession of the acoustic space.

Below, are my impressions of the pieces, just to give a personal hint of their attitude, given the fact that Ü appears like a continuous work and the various pieces interact and respond to each other creating some kind of path.

The opening track Dense 4 starts with sparse atmospheric percussion, slowly joined by reeds and piano, to build a nice free improvisation where the rhythm flows from the drums to the piano.

In Specchi, the sounds are isolated electronics and cymbals and drums with a reed singing a broken melody doubled in the end by an expressive drumming.

The clarinet introduces the theme of Ghana Blues again doubled by the percussions as if the statements of “Specchi” have to be continued, then it all fades into a stream of electronic sounds creating a change into the landscape and leaving in the end a very distant reed playing.

Suite for Milan has an almost canonical free jazz intro fading into silence which prepares for the central piece of the suite in tempo lento. Here the piano creates the environment for the other players to build their structures. Again, the collective creation of sound emerges. The sound get thinner and rarer until the reed leads to a fast free ending which seems to close the circle.

In Rumble, bass clarinet and percussions play seemingly in the distance, structured metallic noises fill the foreground until the percussion makes its statement, just a moment before silence.

Searching for Consciousness is marked by percussion, a lamenting reed, electronic noises and sounds that gradually take the lead followed and then surrounded by a constant drumming and long reed sounds, then silence (almost). From this cracked land, a rhythmic drumming, piano and reed emerge as if a path has been found but then again the melody slowly dissolves into silence.

Stripes is characterized by a ground of percussions in conversation with a meandering reed.

Il Fervore closes the album with the drums interacting with the piano and then with the reed weaving intricate patterns. When the sax is left alone it is like a cusp reabsorbed by the final notes of piano and drums again.

In conclusion, I consider Ü an intriguing piece of work that discloses sound and ideas that deserve further developments, certainly a good contribution to the search for a contemporary musical expression.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Bad Plus - The Bad Plus (Edition Records, 2022)

By Sammy Stein

American quartet, The Bad Plus comprises bass player Reid Anderson , drummer David King , guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed. Relaunching as a quartet (previously a trio with several changes in personnel around the founders Anderson and King), The Bad Plus is still delivering dynamic, ever-evolving music.

Twenty-one years after their landmark debut as a genre-exploding piano-bass-drums trio, the Bad Plus have reinvented themselves with the addition of guitarist Ben Monder and saxophonist Chris Speed. The Bad Plus sees the group continuing to challenge convention and push their unique jazz toward boundary-breaking directions. The band is undertaking a tour, taking in North America, Indonesia, the UK, and Europe.

Though the lineup may have changed, The Bad Plus remains unique in delivery and sound, and the group's unique musical language and undeniable drive and intent remain.

Now the lineup has no pianist, which makes for a different sound. However, new additions Monder and Speed come with a wealth of experience. Monder is known for his work as leader and sideman with David Bowie (Blackstar), Theo Bleckmann, Guillermo Klein, and Paul Motian, to name but a few–and saxophonist Chris Speed, an award-winning leader/co-leader of numerous modern ensembles and long time musical running buddy of both King and Anderson.

Intense rehearsals in the summer of 2021 saw the quartet poring over compositions by Anderson and King, emerging with a singular group sound that retains all of The Bad Plus's vaunted adventurousness while simultaneously setting them on a new pathway of genre-agonistic musical exploration. Working with engineer Brett Bullion, the band has fully maximized the sonic and dynamic possibilities of the new lineup, showcasing the virtuosity and musicality of Speed and Monder while maintaining their trademark pursuit of relentless invention and excellence, blazing with the very same attitude that has defined the group for over two decades.

'Motivations' is a beautiful track with the tenor sax and bass in counterpointed harmony while the steady keys and drums develop a supportive backdrop. The percussion is outstanding. There is immediately in this track a sense of maturity, settlement, and comfort. The unhurried essence of the melodies alongside the occasional changes is somehow reassuring.

'Sun Wall' is delightfully bonkers. In a controlled manner, the musicians develop rhythms around a central seven-spot uneven rhythm pattern, which works devilment with the listening brain in a wonderful way. The guitar is allowed free rein, which it seems to delight in, and the bass line is interesting, so a lot is going on in this track.

'Not Even Close to Far Off' is powerful, darker than the previous track, concentrating on the lower notes in the bass line, contrasting with the tenor line, and permeating the track with intensity. Speed then does a little unleashing of his own as he powers down a truly mesmeric solo over the top. A great number with a lovely change of feel around the four-minute mark - be prepared.

'You Won't See Me Before I come Back' is lyrical, melodic, and features an almost tender guitar solo section, while 'Sick Fire' pulls out the stops and is a foray into free playing. The sax is delirious over drums that sway and lean into the tempo, slowing it, pushing it on, and the number feels like a collective exploration. The verging on the manic soloing of Speed is grin-making material.

'Stygian Pools' contrasts with that which has gone before and is a well-developed, progressively deeper layer number with changing tempos, rhythms, and interactive reflections from sax, guitar, and percussion. Once again, Speed picks up the free potential, and his sax wails itself into other realms at times, while the rest of the band feels decidedly grounded, and Speed returns to melodic formats by the finish.

'The Bright Future' is ethereal, atmospheric, and tempered throughout by the percussive effects, from shimmering cymbals to dynamic powered threads. This is the track on the album where the cohesiveness of the quartet is strongest, each musician intensely picking up cues, developing lines and working harmonics to cerate something extraordinary, worthy of the class of musican here. The sax picks lines to develop and takes them up and away, while the centering bass and percussion allow spaces into which the guitar works.

'The Dandy' closes out the album and is almost minimalistic at the outset, with simple lines and short phrases interwoven to create a belying complexity. However, the track develops as layers are added; each musician gives an ingredient until the fullness of the track can be heard.

This album is engaging and pulls the listener in, but it has a tentativeness throughout it, which I could not shake off. At times, there is a true sense of collectiveness, while at others, there is a sense of still gelling, working out who is going where, and that intrinsic intuition that makes a natural blend was not there in spades. However, given the class of musicians here and the fact we are emerging from a pandemic situation s they have not played often together, it will be interesting and potentially incredible when the intuitiveness kicks in, and the true blending happens. The Bad Plus has a different sound than they did in 2019 ( check out the impressive Boffadem live studio session of that time), but they are getting used to a different format - so it is quite right they are re-setting The Bad Plus are back.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Cameron/Horne/Flaten/Thomson - Place Is The Space (Personal Archives, 2022)

By Keith Prosk

Lisa Cameron, Jonathan Horne, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and Joshua Thomson freely play six tracks with percussion, electric guitar, contrabass, and alto saxophone on the 53’ Place Is The Space.

Cameron and Flaten have previously recorded together on Tau Ceti with Tom Carter. And Horne and Flaten have appeared together in The Young Mothers with Stefan González, Jason Jackson, Frank Rosaly, and Jawwaad Taylor, most recently on Morose , in Flaten’s Village Songs ensemble on Den Signede Dag , and with John Dikeman and Stefan González on Texas Butt Biters from 2022.

Loose elements coalesce into grooves smooth and peaceful. A plucked low end lyricism lends honeyed melodies as much as any rhythmic character. Catch small glimpses of guitar’s ecstatic attack as gestural as musical through its clean tones in snaking lines or its harmonic sustain for an organ-like haze. An interlude of music box lullabies from kalimba’s twinkling plucks. Saxophone sounds smoky and sultry, discrete notes smoothed to soft curves. And the kit sets the energy, skipping klang for cheery play, shimmering cymbals with bathing harmonies, hiccuping kicks and tapped snare and cymbal trance for meditative moments. Sometimes the group plays pointillistic dialogues and the closer “Welding An Inverted Flap” boils over the energy bubbling under the entire set, but more often the group approaches a space together and simmers, permutating there. In a calm mood that could be triangulated from In A Silent Way and the first half of Atlantis. Transporting the ear to other worlds in the outer and inner mind.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Butcher/ Davies/ Davis/ Lash/ Lazaridou-Chatzigoga – nodosus (Empty Birdcage Records. 2022)

By Stuart Broomer

Recorded at Café Oto in December 2017, this CD presents the quintet of saxophonist John Butcher, violinist Angharad Davies, trumpeter Matt Davis, bassist Dominic Lash and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga on zither. The term “nodosus”, previously unknown to me, would seem, given the character of the music, to refer to potamogeton nodosus, “a species of aquatic plant known by the common names longleaf pondweed and Loddon pondweed…the inflorescence is a spike of many small flowers arising from the water on a peduncle” (wikipedia). The design of the jacket, an aquatic watercolour by Beverey Waller, enhances the theme as does an accompanying text by Helen Frosi in which phrases describing water, creatures, plants and trees seem to radiate on a square sheet of paper, at the centre of which is the phrase “symptoms of epiphany”.

Apart from the quality of the musicians, nodosus is immediately distinguished by the presence of three string instruments in the group, among them the unusual zither, lending the music a distinctive texture. More significant, of course, is the way the instruments are being played. Central elements include high harmonics from Davies’ violin and contrastingly gritty, almost industrial bowed textures from Lash. Butcher and Davis, as well, frequently contribute sustained tones, and Davis, it should be noted, contributes tones so subtle that trumpet might elude identification. Butcher occasionally suggests a quiet quorum of small woodland creatures.

While most of the band members are familiar figures in the English improvising community, Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s name was new to me. She plays amplified zither, evidently with extended techniques because there is literally nothing here to make an enthusiast of traditional zither music suddenly exclaim, “Now that’s the zither I came to hear!” She previously recorded a duet CD with Martin Küchen, Bauchredner on Cathnor, and more recently a duet with Ferran Fages on Another Timbre, both of which I’ll be seeking out. Her contribution here must include much of a wealth of otherwise unattributable sounds -- rapid amplified, percussive strings, some bowing, some light rasping electronics, and some of the various bird-like sounds – all sounding perfectly apt.

The music is so rare and so calm, so deliberate and yet unpredictable in the evolution of its textures and events, including the organically arising passages of near-silence, that it might be the sacred music of an unknown creed, the state music of a eutopia, the dance music of an unknown species.


A word on Empty Birdcage Records: The label is a project of the guitarist Daniel Thompson who launched it in 2020, situating its activity in the period since the Covid-19 pandemic. After arriving in London in 2006, he studied with John Russell for two years, absorbing much of Russell’s wisdom, dynamism and wit in developing his own voice, all apparent on a brief solo tribute called John available as a download on the label’s Bandcamp page. Thompson has played with a broad spectrum of the London improvising community, and the label includes his duo recordings with saxophonist Colin Webster and violist Benedict Taylor as well as a trio with violinist Philipp Wachsmann and analogue synthesist Martin Hackett. Other releases so far include a solo recording by percussionist Steve Noble and Crunch, a Mopomoso performance by the trio of Hutch Demouilpied, trumpet and flutes; Matt Hutchinson, piano; and Sue Lynch, tenor saxophone and clarinet. Thompson is a conscientious curator and all the releases reward close listening.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Power Nap Trio - djape mare coa (s/r, 2022)

By Ron Coulter

The Serbian free jazz group, Power Nap Trio is Predrag Okilljević (tenor saxophone), Marko Čurčić (bass guitar/FX), and Aleksandar Škorić (drum set). djape mare coa is their first album, a digital release from December 2021; its six tracks come in at 46’58” in total duration.

The album can be summarized as alternating between rhythmic, Albert Ayler-esque melodicism (see track 1, djudja) and contemplative, melancholic soundscapes (see track 2, imam jednu zelju); in addition to the occasional combination of the two (see track 3, ceremonial shirts).

The trio really shines on the tracks featuring the more rhythmically active and folk-like melodicism (short, repetitive, singable melodic material) such as tracks 1 and 3. There is a sense of exuberance and joy in the playing, exemplified by the occasional vocal exclamation from one of the players (most likely Aleksandar Škorić on the drums). The interplay of the musicians is readily noticeable; they listen closely to each other and create accordingly, generating a smooth, coherent flow of ideas and sounds. This is a like-minded trio with a focused musical purpose. The result is an album with a cohesive musical statement.

Listeners will likely find themselves putting select tracks on repeat and enjoying them on many return listenings.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Matsumoto / Shiroishi / Watanabe - Yellow (Dinzu Artefacts, 2022)

By Keith Prosk

Kozue Matsumoto, Patrick Shiroishi, and Shoshi Watanabe play five pieces for koto, alto & tenor saxophones, and shakuhachi on the 46’ Yellow.

This is the first time these three have released a recording together. And it is the most recent point in a line through Shiroishi’s work that grapples with racism against Asian-Americans, including Descension for solo tenor saxophone, effects, and voice, No​-​No / のの for alto and tenor saxophones with percussionist Dylan Fujioka, i shouldn’t have to worry when my parents go outside for multi-instrumental arrangements, and Hidemi for solo multi-tracked saxophones, the last of which was accompanied by a chapbook titled Tangled that featured perspectives on the Asian-American experience from Tashi Dorji, Jason Kao Hwang, Susie Ibarra, Amirtha Kidambi, and many others.

The titles of Yellow convey racist concepts - “Skin,” “Peril,” “Fever” - and while the notes imply a positive turn in “Gold” and “Dandelion” because the music never brightens my interpretation recalls California’s gold rush coincident with the abuse of Chinese immigrants and the weed’s use in Chinese medicine which despite a growing turn towards holistic wellness is dubiously still considered dubious in western corners. Of course, the players are not Chinese but racism doesn’t parse nuances. But rather than songs of despair or hope the notes - and I concur - guide towards a navigation of identity. Where instruments deeply rooted in folk musics like koto and shakuhachi can play with but are not shackled by the expectations around how they sound.

Shakuhachi’s hardblown shoots and ghostly vibrato appear but less often than sustained sinelike whistles and the textured pulse of breath mediated through the instrument. Koto’s characteristic clusters of strummed chords in increasing density appear too but not as much as the harmony of its reverberating decay as deep as a piano’s and textural rhythms in soundboard scratching. Maybe there can be an Asian identity draped over an approach to the saxophone too, with many Japanese players’ sometimes generalized to austere articulation and shrill registers, but again more time is in effervescent whorls of triadic spirals and a deflating moaning Maneri-like vocal multiphonic that respectively illuminate the harmonics between tones and confuse tone movement. Instrumental identities are not allowed to be leveraged against themselves and tradition is neither abandoned nor limiting but instead provides springboards for a profound excavation of the elements of sound.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Paul G. Smyth / John Wiese - The Outlier (Weekertoft, 2022)

Until now, John Wiese was known to me - even if his music is well documented - only from C-Section, a recording with Evan Parker, which presents him rather as a sound berserker who can really let it rip. I was all the more surprised that his new album with pianist Paul G. Smyth goes in a completely different direction. On the one hand, the music here is more related to avant-garde or industrial music bands (think 23 Skidoo or Current 93) than the noise workout of C-Section. On the other hand, Smyth and Wiese evoke memories of the minimalist improvisations of AMM during the almost hour-long acoustic narration.

The beginning of the concert opens with circuitous textures of ambient sounds suspended in the vastness of a large concert hall and sparse, focused clatter of piano hammers, which deliver percussive accents. A rather dark atmosphere is created. Then, the sounds become more, louder and attack the listener from all sides, as if you were helplessly lost in an acoustic ambush. With closed eyes, one can definitely get scared here. The improvisation, however, is varied, rich in sounds and dramatic ideas. The musicians don’t present extreme highs and lows, they don’t look for reasons for escalation as far as loud/quiet passages are concerned, instead they concentrate on atmospheric, almost tender, acoustic soundscapes. To this end, they consistently build up an atmosphere of sensual electroacoustics. For this they often use subtle drones, hissing and creaking noises and small melodic explosions, for example when the piano is subtly dissonantly linked with electroacoustic noises. Here the somber and frightening atmosphere is also broken, especially when this minimalist phrasing approaches the realm of silence. Almost the entire section in the first third of the improvisation of the concerto is woven through with these dark details and dramatic undercurrents, but only to startle listeners again with purposefully placed clusters of noise. In this way, Smyth and Wiese succeed in condensing their sonic universe. The electronics then seek out more noise and post-industrial connotations, while the prepared piano counteracts this tension.

This ultimately creates multi-layered post-ambient music. The last eleven minutes in particular tear you back and forth between melancholic tones, post-industrial electronics, echo noises, synthetic stalactite cave sounds, and bumpy, atonal free jazz piano. You might cringe when the applause starts, it’s a sharp return to the reality of the concert and the real world.

The Outlier was recorded on 26 February, 2015 at Kevin Barry Room in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It’s emphasis on free-form sound exploration and lack of a sturdy framework provides a subtle intense listening experience. Very recommended.

The Outlier is available as a CD and as a download. You can listen to it and buy it here:

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Kayu Nakada and Tim Olive – Kanpuu (845 Audio, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

Tim Olive has as busy as ever. Just since October, he has released albums on Notice Records, MRM Recordings, Steep Gloss, Chocolate Monk, Verz Imprint and his own 845 Audio. Many of these have been solo efforts, which range from the barren (Okay Dependable) to his more characteristic blend of pick-ups, metallic noises and playback (Ribbon) to the strangely, smoothly ambient (Eye Hill, Arm River) to radio feed distortions (Chocolate Radio Band, The Golden Sceptre). Others have been duos, both Covid/distance efforts (Dissipatio with Matt Atkins) and, as reviewed here, live. Knapuu is a collaboration between Kayu Nakada on rhythm machine circuit boards and Olive on radios, magnetic pickups, and undokai.* I am tempted to say this one is a triumphant return to form, but I am not sure Olive really abandoned this style – just listen to Ribbon. Rather, it seems he has seized the pandemic moment to take detours, explore other tunnels he previously had just touched on and, as the solo output indicates, spend more time examining his own art in isolation, before reaching out again.

I am less familiar with Kayu Nakada’s work, though he and Olive had collaborated on 2021’sEntenka (Tsss Tapes), which is a strong recording in its own right and Olive’s first live collaboration release since the pandemic began. Kanpuu is his second.

Kanpuu runs just under 29 minutes. It begins with what muffled but festive undokai recordings over which Nakada and Olive project sizzles, buzzes and other mechanical whirrs. The festivities subside into the second minute as the industrial clatter and drones take over and take the listener through a relatively linear progression through the end. What matters, however, is not just the progression, but the textures, the distortions, the odd crackle and pop here, the odder modem-like proto-melodies there, and the fluttering in and out of those field recordings. It paints a picture, but a grainy one and a mysterious one. The dynamic range is minimal, but the depth seems almost endless. Likely because of the voices and smeared radio sounds, some of this does sound like a sound collage. However, it also sounds more interactive, improvised and alive than composed, as many of sound collages are. Nakada and Olive were likely unsure where exactly this session would take them. That curiosity, unpredictability and playfulness (especially on the second track) shines through.

Kanpuu is available as a download and CD. You can hear it and order it here:

* Undokai are recordings of Japanese school track meets that Olive has chopped up, stretched and woven throughout portions of this release. These mark Olive’s first use of “field recordings,” though, as he told me, that term seems too passive, whereas Olive conscientiously employs them as a malleable instrument rather than just a predetermined and rigid structural element.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Slight Deform - Inside (Self Produced, 2022)

By Eyal Hareuveni

Slight Deform is the Barcelona-based experimental duo of guitarist Ferran Fages and pianist Clara Lai. Fages, known from the free improvising bands like Phicus and Tàlveg, is a composer and sound artist with a keen interest in minimalist and austere approaches as well as decontextualizing the relationship between soft acoustic and electronic sounds. Lai, who plays in a trio with Phicus’ double bass player Àlex Reviriego, is a classically trained pianist describing herself as interested in exploring the subtle bridges between improvisation and composition.

Inside is the debut album of Slight Deform, and is released independently by the duo in a very limited edition of only 80 discs, only 50 of them are available on the duo's Bandcamp page and the rest in selected record stores and live performances. Fages uses here two different electric guitars, one of them with changeable tuning versus one with fixed tuning. Lai plays on an apparently divided piano approach, where the use of specific extended and prepared piano techniques differs from another more melodic and harmonic approach within the keyboard. Inside was conceived as two sonic blocks and narrative chapters (Inner and Sided) in order to open different expressive ways where both instrumental treatments complement each other and coexist within a contemporary sound language. The album was recorded at Rosazul studio in Barcelona in November 2020.

You can hear on Inside echoes of Fages’s composition for pianist Lluïsa Espigolé, From Grey To Blue (Inexhaustible Editions, 2020, in which Fages quoted Catalan poet Carles Camps Mundó’s line: “Barely anything: deformities of silence”), and in a way Inside is an extension of that minimalist composition. Inside, like From Grey To Blue, is informed by Morton Feldman's school of minimalism (and the cover art suggests capturing the minimalist essence of Inside), focuses on quiet, reserved playing, and investigates how the resonant timbres of the piano and the electric guitars blend into one dream (and, often, also unsettling nightmares)-like entities and float gently in space. The Inner Pieces slowly develop more tangible, restless kind of sonic deformities of sounds but remain minimalist. The Sided pieces are even more intriguing and dramatic, highlighting the close affinity between Fages and Lai’s inquisitive and idiosyncratic sonic approaches.

All of Fages and Lai’s slight deforms of sounds and silence are captivating with their suggestive, sometimes provocative power. These Inner and Sided pieces radiate a sense of melancholy. They stress the transient, poignant essence of all sounds as if these sounds are metaphors for life itself, with its fascinating but sometimes chaotic and distressing soundtrack.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Hermann Nitsch – Weinviertel Symphonie (Trost, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

“Hermann Nitsch, the notorious Austrian performance artist whose elaborate and grisly ‘actions,’ as they were called, often involved slaughtered and disemboweled animals, blood, feces and viscera and evoked Christian and pagan rituals...” So begins the New York Times obituary of Nitsch, who died in April of this year.

Fortunately, Weinviertel Symphonie, disaggregated from a physical “action” like those described above, spares the weak-stomached listener (such as myself) the gristle and gore and shock of some of Nitsch’s performance pieces and visual artworks. That said, knowing a little about Nitsch’s other artistic pursuits may help one get a better sense at the primal-numinous-ecstatic boundary that he dedicated his artistic life to exploring.

Weinviertel Symphonie was performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna in the able hands of conductor Michael Mautner in August of last year. It is reminiscent of other of Nitsch’s works – Albertina Quartet, Orgelkonzert – in musical devices: long plangent overlain drones that send the listener into a trance always skirting the line between a constructive examination of the inner, atavistic regions of the self and a bad trip. These commonalities may be part of the point, as the ritual is essential to the experience of Nitsch’s music. And as much as rituals require repetition, that repetition is never perfect and necessarily changes in presentation and precise meaning over time, while retaining some core practice and theme.

In several of the movements of this symphony, an entire string orchestra plays the role of a droning organ. The first two consist of finely hewed and glimmering extended crescendo falls into dramatic emphatic, overlain tones. This sounds like menacing and unadorned devotional music. The third movement, however, breaks the tension with a surprisingly sprightly (for Nitsch) though sharp series of glissando, followed by an onslaught of alternately shrieking, cutting and humming strings. The fourth further develops this non-melodic taste on sacred music with softer, floating lines that evolve into a chord that is both sinister and triumphant before retreating to more striated and discordant lines. The fuller tones inevitably follow, in a tug of war between dread, acceptance and redemption. Movement five begins with a jaunty dance, clapping and all, that would be fitting in the stuffiest of debutante socials, but is quickly overtaken by those same foreboding, at times almost lurid, tones. It seems redemption, or even a brief escape into the trappings of celebration, must be short-lived. It inevitably gets pummeled by an overwhelming wave of sound. The dance survives and returns, but at that point it is entangled with the resurging dark wave in an almost Hitchcockian sequence of delirium. The final movement starts dark and ascends from there, elongated tone by elongated tone, until it reaches lighter, softer and more hopeful territory.

This dark journey means something. Maybe it was ultimately edifying, even if it feels oppressive and even violent. There is some light or respite or something at the end of the ritual. Doubtlessly there is something deeply human about all these drones and shrieks and this ambivalence. Whether I can put my secular finger on it or not, there is something to this music. There is actually a lot to it. Moving and disturbing, which are part and parcel of the liminal spaces squeezed between the sacred and the profane, the primeval and the present, with which Nitsch engages.

Weinviertel Simphonie is available as a download:

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Julius Hemphill - The Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony (New World, 2022)

I’m not going to say Julius Hemphill (1938-1995) is unappreciated (at least by those who matter) or even underappreciated. I will say he is under-recorded. I mean that in the sense that if you ask me if there’s “enough” Julius Hemphill music out there—music by my literally favorite saxophonist/composer of the AACM/BAG new jazz nexus of the 1970s—the answer will be an unironic “no.” This boxed set of seven discs releasing 35 curated tracks found in Hemphill’s archives fills a real need, and, not coincidentally, improves my quality of life.

The Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony was the name Hemphill gave to a variety of his touring bands. Disc one shows us a few of those on the road. Two horns, cello and drums. Hemphill, Olu Dara on Trumpet, Abdul Wadud on Cello, Warren Smith on drums. Then Bakida Carroll—Hemphill’s “right hand man”—takes the trumpet spot, Philip Wilson on drums, and Jehri Riley playing guitar instead of Wadud’s cello. Finally, you bring in John Carter on clarinet, Alex Cline on drums, and Roberto Miranda on bass. So many familiar pieces of the Hemphill puzzle showing up right at the beginning.

All 35 tracks in the box are Hemphill compositions, making a point that didn’t maybe need to be made. 25 of them have never been heard on record before. Like other greats of this music, Hemphill’s genius included finding partners who could see the connection between interpretation and great improvisational voice. Both Bakida Carroll and Olu Dara, just for two examples are essential voices in Hemphill’s work. No one else could add to the pieces in the way that they did.

Disc two presents us with the Hemphill/Wadud duo, one of the all time great partnerships in music. Wadud is all over this set, but when it’s just the two of them, starting at the tunes, but getting broad very quickly, something unique happens. Wadud wasn’t the first cellist in improvised music, but his example is still sine qua non. These six tracks are from who knows where and who knows when. For tapes found among some papers, the sound quality is excellent.

Disc three gives us another Hemphill ensemble—a trio with Bakida Carroll and Alex Cline—with Wadud joining on two tracks. Long collective improvisations fill this time, with a few compositions also. One of those is the much beloved “Dogon A.D.” It’s the grooving-est piece in eleven you will ever hear and it changed the landscape when first heard. This performance is wilder (and shorter) than the Arista/Freedom record that shook the world in 1972. There can never be enough Dogon A.D.

Disc four is titled “Chamber Music,” and features other ensembles playing Hemphill music under the composer’s direction (conduction). Interesting here are three envisionings of Mingus tunes (including “Better Get Hit in Your Soul”) by the Daedalus String Quartet, and a solo piano piece played by Hemphill’s life-partner Ursula Oppens. This came as such a surprise in its gentleness among all the horns in the box. It’s as if Hemphill took all the lessons of impressionism and translated them through the lens of mid-20th century black St. Louis. I stopped and listened a few times.

Disc five is Hemphill in duo with two poets. First K. Curtis Lyle, and then Malinké Elliott. Both poets are excellent and compelling and work wonderfully in conversation with Hemphill. I am reminded of Joseph Jarman’s poetry. Lyle is quoted in Marty Ehrlich’s extraordinary liner notes, “Julius and I had long literary conversations. Ellison, Baldwin, the Harlem Renaissance. He was the first musician I talked with in this way. He in turn taught me how to use rhythm and cadence to make room for interaction. He taught me to read these poems from a musical point of view, to open up the space.”

Disc six returns to the changing ensembles of the Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony. Nel Cline and Jerome Harris show up, among the stalwarts playing Hemphill’s small group book. Disc seven is perhaps the most extraordinary of all, a home recording done on cassette by Bakida Carroll, recorded at Woodstock, NY, where Hemphill and Carroll lived at the time, along with two of their neighbors, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. Four tracks at just about 45 minutes, but it was, as Ehrlich says, “an on night.”

Get this boxed set at New World Records.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Amirtha Kidambi & Luke Stewart - Zenith/Nadir (Tripticks Tapes, 2022)

Amirtha Kidambi and Luke Stewart freely play seven environments for voice, bass, pedals, and amplifier on the 43’ Zenith/Nadir.

This is the first time they’ve released a recording together.

The context guides towards a motif of high and low. The words in the title carry not just a location but a quality, specifically of power and fortune. And the notes reveal the recording occurred in the months following George Floyd’s murder, in which intense despair and hope coexisted, for the truth of the matter and that it might finally provoke meaningful change. The sound reflects perhaps similarly polar things in several ways. In electric and acoustic sides. In the registers of this voice and bass. In peaks and troughs of electric current and pulsing resonances.

The fiery electric half hisses and pops like oil in a pan at its most simmering moments, maintaining through high volume, high density, or even just crackling pitch clarity a volatile presence. Bottle-rocket woos and EVP ululations accompany feedback freakouts. Maqamesque lines interlace over deep bass drones. Vocals choke alongside purring motor amplifier. Syncopation from distortion clipping for dystopian funk.

The subtler sounds of the acoustic side make clearer what was also in the first, that these two move together and complement each other in volume, density, and texture. But beyond the mellifluousness of its angelic chorus or plucked lyricism, melodic song or melancholy arco intonations, this half allows space for the sonorous resonance of bass’ big body and the rich harmonic depth of a full formant to interact.

I have a hunch this is the point. To not just present poles but the interaction or complementary action of them. From the complex feelings surrounding the context to the nearness of the words on the page in the title and the relativism of their meanings to the general principle of an improvising duo, the vibrancy of things is what is in between.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Tyshawn Sorey – Mesmerism (Yeros7 Music, 2022)

By Matty Bannond

Lazy labels cannot constrict him. An avalanche of accolades cannot contain him. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey is among the most prolific and revered musicians of contemporary times. With his trio album Mesmerism, Sorey is now giving his devoted listenership an unexpected shock by travelling in a completely new musical direction – straight ahead.

Mesmerism features pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer alongside Sorey on drums. They rehearsed for just a couple of hours before recording this six-track album of compositions from the likes of Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. “After having been typecast as being a so-called ‘avant-gardist’ for nearly two decades, I decided that it was finally time for me to make this recording date happen myself with musicians I deeply respect and admire,” Sorey says.

“Enchantment” by Horace Silver is one of the more faithful interpretations on the record, but the trio adds spicy subtleties to stimulate the listener on this first track. Sorey’s charismatic percussive force is never far from the surface, popping up and pushing onwards. Diehl teases open the sonic cracks, provoking an irresistible interplay of tension-and-release between three strong musical personalities.

The group dishes up a looser reading of Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time”. Nomadic piano patterns and percussive clunking form a precarious, thin-ice atmosphere. A closing melodic statement offers an optimistic sense of homecoming at the track’s conclusion. It’s a freer and more exploratory piece that showcases the trio’s expressive force.

“REM Blues” is the final track, a swinging number that Brewer nudges from bar to bar with a good old walking bassline. Sorey’s drumming holds a fairly straight lane, throwing out occasional tumble turns at the end of each 12-bar progression. Listeners are left in little doubt about the warmth and joy that Sorey and his buddies feel for this music. And the solos are proof, as if it were needed, that no musician is ever too widely admired or highly exalted to enjoy tearing the blues into a million shreds.

Listeners who are familiar with Sorey’s astonishing powers of imagination and invention may feel shortchanged by his decision to release a record featuring standards like “Autumn Leaves”, in the same way they might raise eyebrows if invited to watch Harry Houdini escape from a wet paper bag. Sorey has stated that his goal with this record was “not to reinvent the wheel or prove anything, but to document the unwavering love and appreciation I have for these songs in the most honest, earnest way I can.” Mesmerism is an album shaped by a spirit of fondness, familiarity and fun. And it contains more than a few surprises too.

The album is available on CD, digital download and streaming here

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Free Jazz Blog Returns to Situation Fluxus

If you happen to be in the Albany, NY area around 10 a.m. today (Sept 8th), tune in to 90.7 WGXC-FM. The Free Jazz Blog's Nick Ostrum and Fotis Nikolakopoulos join radio host Cheryl K.'s show Situation Fluxus to talk about the music that they love to listen to and talk about.

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Stephen Gauci Post-Lockdown Round-Up

By Nick Ostrum

Stephen Gauci is a fiery and tireless Brooklyn-based saxophonist. Locally, he is likely most recognized as the curator and frequent performer in the Bushwick Improvised Music Series. Despite such activities, he is also a frequent traveler, touring across the US and Europe and cutting a few stellar live albums in the process. In this sense of scrappy DIY dedication, unrelenting performance calendar and widespread musical documentation, he is very much a product and pathbreaker of his times. He is so much so, in fact, that when Covid hit, he turned to his own label to stage and release an impressive series of 19 pandemic duets with the likes of Matthew Shipp, Kevin Shea, Wendy Eisenberg, Daniel Carter and others. Once restrictions began to loosen, he started to tour again, as well as record an apparent solo farewell to quarantine. A selection of these most recent recordings – live and in studio – are reviewed here. All are available as limited-edition CD’s and digital downloads.

Stephen Gauci, Wendy Eisenberg, Francisco Mela – Live at Scholes Street Studio (gaucimusic, 2022)

This is an interesting one. Wendy Eisenberg has been carving out her space as one of the next generation of New York avant-garde over just the last few years. (Check out Lee Rice Epstein’s review of her wonderfully trenchant solo guitar and banjo release Bloodletting for just one recent example.) Francisco Mela is a percussionist of renown for his work in Latin and jazz circles, though, as Live at Scholes Street Studio shows, he has considerable free jazz chops as well. Often, he keeps a busy but non-linear rhythm in the back. Eisenberg and Gauci, meanwhile, pull the album into that arhythmic, (largely) amelodic, exploratory space that one has now come to expect from the two. Relentlessly dynamic and unpredictable, this fits comfortably into its scene. It is top caliber improvising. Eisenberg runs the gamut of guitar techniques, refusing to settle on a phrase or style for more than a few bars before detouring into new territory. Gauci meanwhile swings from more rapid-fire interlacing scales to the piercing upper registers in manner that falls somewhere between Ornette and Charles Gayle. Mela, meanwhile, is the welcome surprise. He offers just enough feverish bopish rhythm to keep the others form drifting off into atonal space but stops short of falling into anything too steady. Refreshingly contemporary, but also refreshingly downtown free jazz.

Stephen Gauci, Joe Hertenstein, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Jan Roder – Soundlift Berlin-New York (gaucimusic, 2022)

Soundlift Berlin-New York was recorded in Berlin in October 2021, when things started to fall into some sort of manageable normality, if not necessarily the normal that existed before. (I know, I know. Some observation like that will apply to many releases reviewed on this blog over the coming months.) Gauci, of course, trudged on through the pandemic extensively exploring the duo and doubling down on his own practicing. As did, it seems, his companions on this release, drummer Joe Hertenstein, bassist Jan Roder, and pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach. This one starts slow and romantic, first with some brittle piano, soft drums and elastic bass lines. Then Gauci steps in with a few blusey blows, and the session shifts from there into angular, amelodic territory. Each musician gets some space to show off a bit, but the core of this collaboration is its balanced group play. The result sounds organic, as if this were a practiced, working unit rather than, in essence, the combination of two long-standing duos. I am not sure this will surprise anyone familiar with these musicians, but it certainly will hit home with them.

Stephen Gauci, Liz Kosack, Dan Peter Sundland, Kevin Shea – Live at Sowieso, Berlin (gaucimusic, 2022)

Live at Sowieso, Berlin is another transatlantic collaboration, this time between pianist Liz Kosack, bassist Dan Peter Sundland, drummer Kevin Shea, and Gauci, that came together at the wonderful Berlin club Sowieso on October 23, 2021. Kosack, Shea and, of course, Gauci have been on my radar for some time. Sundland is an unknown entity to me, though a quick look at his bio and one spin of this recording indicate I have been missing out.

In short, this one runs hot. The first track sound like a bundle of energy trying to break out of whatever confines hold it. Longer, wilder runs give way to sections of choppier omnidirectional pulses which break into more extended full quartet pummeling. In this way, Live at Sowieso is similar to Soundlift Berlin-New York and I hear some Schlippenbach influence (or just a shared approach) in Kosack’s muscularity, classical sensibilities and boxy abstraction. Shea deploys a range of techniques most often intent on filling the air with as much fidgety clutter as he can. For his part, Sundland complements this well, laying into repeated pulsing single notes at times and running amok over the neck of the bass at others. I guess what I am trying to say is this has shed much of that distorted downtown influence on Live at Scholes Street in favor more Euro improv. (A notable exception comes through Gauci just before halfway into the third piece, but it is brief.) It has that sheer force and the unwillingness to strike a melody or steady groove for any amount of time. It has that restiveness. It also has the dynamics, which seem to be the driving force. Halfway through the first piece, the quartet goes quiet, then spends the rest of the piece in brief spasms, as if fighting to get back to that blast that commenced the set. The second piece picks up where the last left off but regains that initial energy quickly. At its eruptive peak, it reaches a blow-out of entangling but discrete threads, wherein the musicians are not struggling to be heard above the garble but are rising and falling together, each as a separate but essential component of the greater sonic whole. The third and fourth cuts are similar in range and jagged development, though the fourth is even more open and clattery than the rest, even if it retains that underlying energy that inaugurated the set.

Stephen Gauci – Solo Improvisations (gaucimusic, 2022)

Solo Improvisations was recorded in lockdown in 2020. It is inspired and introspective. And it is a short 29 minutes. Sometimes, that is just enough times, especially for a solo outing. Gauci says what he needs to in nine relatively terse cuts and then lays down his horn. The result is electric, whether jubilant or tortured or some instance sentiment in between. Much of this album focuses on the upper registers, periodically swinging down into torqued lower tone. Gauci goes down many a path with an inquisitiveness, energy and, when necessary, torqued melodicism that has distinguished him over his career. Notably, this release sounds a little more exposed than the others, as solo ventures tend to. Gauci plays as if he were compelled to embark on these solo explorations as a matter of coming to terms with the quarantine conditions. For Gauci, that pursuit unlocked new directions of exploration within his clunky, free-bop aesthetic. I am not sure where, exactly, this fits into his oeuvre, but it is certainly a fine addition and cap to his Covid era. Solid, riveting work, through and through.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Archival Downtown, Part Two

Andrea Centazzo, John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Toshinori Kondo, Polly Bradfield, and Tom Cora - Environment for Sextet (Remastered From Original Tape Reels) (Ictus, 2022)

John Zorn’s Olympiad - Vol. 2 Fencing 1978 (Tzadik, 2022)

George Cartwright, John Zorn, Polly Bradfield, and Charlie Noyes - Inroads 6/25/1982 (self-released, 2021)

By Lee Rice Epstein

For many years, the seminal free jazz meeting Environment for Sextet was available in a very good mix from drummer Andrea Centazzo’s Ictus Records. And yet, this brand-new remaster from the original tape reals is revelatory. Centazzo has recorded a number of times at Outside Inside Studio, so naturally he worked with Matteo Bordin on this remaster. One thing that’s been consistent about Bordin’s work is how expertly balanced his mixes are (see, for example, Konstrukt’s Molto Bene ). The album is a classic example of the formative approach to free jazz in the burgeoning downtown NY scene. On two early graphic scores by Centazzo, a sextet featuring the drummer with Polly Bradfield, Eugene Chadbourne, Tom Cora, Toshinori Kondo, and John Zorn play some of the most beguiling group improvisation. Remarkably, almost everybody here is fairly early in their careers: Bradfield, Chadbourne, and Zorn all appeared on Frank Lowe’s epic Lowe and Behold and had recorded School just ten months earlier; Kondo was fresh off recording Milford Graves’s Meditation Among Us; and this would be Cora’s first recorded appearance, to be followed by several Chadbourne albums. Only Centazzo had a sizable number of albums at the time, having performed and recorded with, among others, Steve Lacy for a number of years. But almost nothing predicts Environment for Sextet: the lineup is something of a miracle, gathered together as Centazzo was touring to meet and record with young players on both coasts. The initial album, U.S.A. Concerts, featured highlights from a number of sessions, but it was the release of “Environment” in two settings that made the biggest impact. Recorded live on the air at WKCR, November 7, 1978, the music displays an uncompromising dedication to the collective voice. Describing the mechanics of “Environment” would take away the magic of discovery, but the hallmarks of what we now consider collective improvisation all appear to be in place: smaller organized cells structured independently move in a gradual but nonlinear progression signaling something like momentum, but towards what remains undefined. There’s a charge in hearing these players so early in their careers, especially Bradfield, who remains relatively under-recorded, when she was still about a year from recording Solo Violin Improvisations.

Remarkably, another recording from 1978 has surfaced, featuring two performances of a classic Zorn game piece, “Fencing.” Before the guitar quartet Dither recorded a set of game pieces for Olympiad, Volume 1, “Fencing” had not appeared on any official recordings. Olympiad, Volume 2 starts with a quartet of Zorn, Chadbourne, and guitarists Duck Baker and Randy Hutton, recorded in July at the Theatre of Musical Optics, a setting Zorn devised in his own loft. On the second, Zorn and Chadbourne are joined by Bradfield in a trio setting, recorded in August at Bard College’s Center for Creative Education. While Zorn’s game pieces can be somewhat challenging without context, given patience, any listener can hear the early stages of Zorn’s later soundworld. As the game pieces came and went through the years, eventually getting folded into “Cobra,” additional elements have found their way into books like Moonchild, Nova, Simulacrum, and even more “classical” settings like the Hermetic Organ, Turner Études, and other notated works. The quartet gives some clear sense of the overarching concepts in “Fencing,” which, as Zorn quotes from the score in the liner notes, “is concerned with harmony and counterpoint: what to choose to play with, against (at the same time) another player, choosing the 3rd, 4th, 5th possibility of harmony, etc.: unusual juxtapositions the aim.” In the trio setting, where the quartet posed a set of duels moving about each other, instead Bradfield, Chadbourne, and Zorn are in constant motion, often using nontraditional techniques to broaden their vocabulary, using the game’s rules as a jumping off point to some of the most provocative and innovative group improvisation. If these recordings were released fresh today, without any archival framework, they would still be among the most innovative performances of the year. As much as these players pushed boundaries at the time, the places they went to are still out of reach of most groups.

One more recent recording surfaced in the past year putting Bradfield and Zorn out front, a live recording of the two in a quartet with saxophonist George Cartwright and drummer Charles Noyes. In an hour-long live set recorded at Inroads. Captured in 1982, Cartwright was just getting started with his radical downtown group Curlew. His piercing sax style pairs well with Zorn’s. Noyes had already played on some of Zorn’s game pieces and with Bill Laswell in Material, and his drumming brings an occasional crunchy edge to the performance. The players poke at and push each other forwards in equal measure. Admittedly, the audio is not as polished as on the formally remastered albums, but the playing is absolutely worth it. To hear Cartwright and Zorn together is an absolute treat, there haven’t been any other recordings to feature them both on sax together. And to have even one more recording of Bradfield is a gift, and much of the improvisation highlights Bradfield in trio with Cartwright and Zorn. A few years ago, Cartwright also released a performance from Inroads of his early trio Meltable Snaps It with Bradfield and Arto Lindsay. Hope springs eternal that he has even more radical free jazz in his personal archive.