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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Palle Mikkelborg, Jakob Bro, Marilyn Mazur - Strands (Live at the Danish Radio Concert Hall) (ECM, 2023)

By Don Phipps

On their album Strands, Guitarist Jakob Bro and his cohorts, percussionist Marilyn Mazur and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, offer up a meditative landscape of music which evokes red desert sunrises, blue ocean vistas, and sparkling celestial skies. The album, recorded live at the Danish Radio Concert Hall in February 2023 is a testament to collaborative playing, as each musician brings a combined sensitivity to coloring and phrases.

For the most part Bro takes an understated approach. It is only in his and Mikkelborg ‘s composition “Returnings” that he projects a forceful modern and piercing line. Elsewhere, however, he stays low key, creating an air of intimacy with the notes he generates. Mikkelborg also stays with a reserved approach, preferring long legato notes that perfectly capture the music’s broad themes. But the real star here - if such a colloquial expression can be proffered - is Mazur, who uses her percussion to create tension, foment motion, and add splashes of bright colors to the often wide-angle panoramas.

What strikes one most about this music is its ebb and flow. It paints the reddish glow of a morning sunrise over a rocky desert canyon, the quiet solitude of a dark nook, or the glowing embers of the night sky. There’s both joy and sadness here, a subtle complexity obscured within delicate lines.

On his composition “Strands,” Bro begins with a pastoral theme and Mikkelborg reiterates it. One feels immersed in the sound – like laying at the bottom of a pool and staring up through the water at the sky shimmering above. The effect is intimate beauty. An interaction occurs here in its own language – a language shared by each of the three musicians. Mazur’s cosmic percussion concludes the piece with whale-like howls.

Bro and Mikkelborg began playing together over a decade ago. They began their collaboration with Mazur in 2020. Bro said of the collaboration, “It seemed a natural extension of the music, which has continued to develop since then…. There is air in the music, great freedom, and a shared desire to create something that cannot necessarily be explained but felt.” True that. The feelings here are always genuine, never contrived, and touch the deepest parts of whatever one considers the fabric of reality.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Stemeseder & Lillinger - ANTUMBRA (PLAIST, 2024)

When it comes to earnestness, Christian Lillinger cannot be faulted – he takes himself and his vision extremely seriously, leaving him wide open to ridicule from anyone who chooses not to come along for his ride. Cruel YouTube and Instagram comments liken his drumming style to an epileptic fit, slandering his atonal music as “pretentious” and “shit.” Thankfully, he has developed a (velour) suit of armour, ignoring the sea of up-turned noses, pushing relentlessly forward, with no “trace” of a fuck to be given.

Releasing one album after another, numerous collaborations, running his own label (PLAIST), playing and conducting “research” in locations as diverse as Cairo and Johannesburg, how Lillinger has any time left to coif his signature pompadour in between is a mystery.

On the other hand, equally prolific keyboard/synth/electronics maestro Elias Stemeseder shuns all forms of social media, and opts rather to build his accolades in the shadows. Aside from playing in countless ensembles among the jazz scene in Germany, he has quietly collected esteemed titles such as the Deutscher Jazz Preis Keyboardist of the Year 2023, and fourth place in the El Intruso award for Keyboards, behind winner Jozef Dumoulin, (then Craig Taborn and John Medeski).

Together in the last year, Stemeseder and Lillinger have taken their duo concept on the road, performing and recording in a plethora of different studios globally: Mexico City, Athens (Georgia), New York, Cerkno, Bezau, Florence, and more. Last year the pair closed out Lillinger’s own PLAIST Festival in Munich with PENUMBRA: a polarising audio/visual assault on the senses, complete with colourful, strobing visuals by Mr & Mrs (Katrin) Lillinger. Not all patrons remained, to leave was their prerogative. Live, loud, experimental sounds, rumbling bass tones, and flashing pictures over busy, complicated music. Not for the faint of heart.

The second part of the trilogy, UMBRA, consists of guest collaborations, the duo inviting Peter Evans (piccolo trumpet), Russell Hall (bass), DoYeon Kim (gayageum), and Brandon Seabrook (banjo, guitar) to contribute. This sophomore album is more of an outlier in that regard, released on a different label (Intakt), featuring cover artwork that is not in line with the other two in the series. But as far as the concept is concerned, inside an Umbra shadow one experiences total occultation, not partial. There is a collective “wholeness” in standing behind the object and watching the light peek out from the sides, together.

It’s difficult to know what to expect when the press release for an album is so wordy it almost becomes redundant. Lillinger and Stemeseder have attempted to explain what happens when you listen to ANTUMBRA but the read itself is so complicated, it prompts an uneasy feeling of trepidation. Talks of “utopian vision," “folk musics," and beats that should be “unfailingly embodied while ambiguously gravitational” conjures up expectations of “…wtf?”

But this should not be a deterrent to ANTUMBRA – its description is just as labyrinthine and trippy as the music itself. Rest assured, you do not have to fully understand what is going on in order to be able to fully enjoy it.

Through acoustic instrumentation (gayageum, banjo and lautenwerk) together with creative sampling and sound curation, Lillinger and Stemeseder have elevated the production in ways previously unimaginable. It’s so far from an incoherent mish-mash; rather, a meticulously selected mosaic, deeply intense, for those prepared to open their hearts. Not to downplay the original, but ANTUMBRA is sonically and conceptually so well executed, it makes the former innovations of part one (PENUMBRA) sound like mere jam sessions in comparison.

The bells and glockenspiel plinks that open Lux create a kaleidoscopic, disjointed Fantasia, with Squarepusher-esque drums & bass. It creates a particularly reverb heavy space with abrupt, present drumming, that's warm, lush and expansive – you are inside it, and it is happening all around you. All that is left is to let it guide you. Drums and bells spontaneously drop out leaving only a mere solo “pluck” – the equivalent of an avant-garde trance breakdown. This weirdness is paired with a familiar and beautiful piano, and proceeds with distortion: it’s epically cinematic. There is even time for a reverse-bass womp-fest towards the end of the song, which has absolutely no right to be as phat as it is. And this is just one of a myriad of songs. One song, multiple worlds.

Drop Shadow offers a different type of portal: Lillinger’s impeccable drums leading the way through musical corridors with “splashes” of clustered, bright samples, accompanied by a carpet of strangely detuned instrumentation. This culminates in a finale that conjures up images of an intergalactic traffic jam, complete with imaginary whirring sirens and stuttering car horns.

Album closer Umbra Granularis another piece that packs an enormous punch for its 1:31 runtime. Gritty, thick, dark electronics thoughtfully paired with some kind of LSD-infused mandolin solo that sounds like That’s Amore after the drugs have well and truly kicked in.

The album artwork by Thissen and Katrin Lillinger is, therefore, completely appropriate: The combination of the light source hitting the head works itself brilliantly into the “Antumbra” concept. From Bandcamp: Antumbra (pre-shadow; from Latin ante, „before“, the region from which the occulting body appears entirely within the disc of the light source) . Translation for those who don’t speak high brow? “That’s some brain-bending stuff, man” . But is the light hitting the head, or is the head projecting the light? Through the act of opening the mind enlightenment can be achieved. This is not reserved for scholars. Give it a try, see how it makes you feel.

Indulge yourself in the full audio spectrum – the dynamic range extends all the way to the very peripherals of your speakers’ capability. One does not simply sit and listen to the noise, rather, one is consumed by it. It is a beautiful form of surrender, to be taken by the hand and trip-sitted through an ever evolving “utopia”. Sonic worlds are presented as snapshots, sometimes vast reverberant universes, sometimes tiny rooms with tiny blips and taps. It is a glorious blend of organic vs mechanic, and one which, despite its weird overall nature, feels viscerally harmonious. The fact that it all comes together and somehow works is nothing short of a triumph.

Christian, Elias – voll geil gemacht, Jungs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Jelle Roozenburg & Han Bennink Live At Galloway Studio (SON, 2024)

By Sammy Stein

My Dutch is limited, so when I got the blurb about a recording from JIN Vinyl Club and Sound of Niche Productions, I was finding it hard to read (until Desiree from the label took pity and sent it in English at my request), but my attention was caught by some things: Han Bennink for one thing, and vinyl, live recording, and limited edition.

Sound of Niche (SON) is a collaboration between the Galloway Studio and Lay Bare Recordings. They aim to produce high-quality vinyl albums by original artists. They have struck gold with their first recording and release. Han Bennink needs little introduction as one of the foremost drummers of the current age. He can turn his talents to other instruments but is known mostly as a drummer. Bennink has played with most luminaries of the jazz world and also lesser-known musicians in collaborations that span the decades. Jelle Roozenburg has yet to solidify his place as a legendary jazz musician but is on the journey that so many have travelled before. He is a composer and participator in many different projects and ensembles, including the New Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra, Bonsai Panda, Showbills, and more.

The title says it simply on this first release from SON - Jelle Roozenburg & Han Bennink Live At Galloway Studio. The album features Bennink swapping ideas with Roozenburg, swapping ideas, changing rhythms, dropping vocal lines in the mix as and when it feels right, and creating music that is the stuff of improvisational dreams. Live, in the moment, and inspired.

The album was recorded in one take in front of a live audience, at Galloway Studio, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and produced for JIN Vinyl Club (part of Podium JIN: Jazz & Impro Nijmegen) with a limited edition of just 300 vinyl copies. JIN Vinyl Club organizes adventurous and unique live concerts in the Nijmegen Galloway Studio and big names from jazz are combined with young talents, recorded live in one take, and released on vinyl in a limited hand-numbered pressing of 300 pieces. Such an undertaking could have been folly, but their first high-quality pressing looks set to become a collectors’ item.

There is tension, intimacy, quality, and above all, intuitive improvisation in this recording. Bennink affords Roozenburg space and freedom to make his guitar expressive, while effortlessly re-acquiring the spotlight at others and re-directing the momentum toward his percussion. He does this effortlessly because Bennink has the ability to pick up the slightest alteration in rhythm and set off with it as his own. A stand-out track on this nine-track album is ‘All or Nothing At All’ where the two musicians are in deep sonic immersion, with each introducing individual takes on the repeated theme.

Throughout tracks, there are also classic and familiar rhythms, from swing to a sassy, rocking beat which Bennink thumps out with enough energy to fill any room. While it is Bennink who captures the ears with his diversity, Roozenburg throws many challenges to the veteran drummer, each of which is either ignored or returned with what feels like glee. Roozenburg develops some of the tracks, the guitar’s warping notes carrying emotive quips and at times working his themes across Bennink's sustained rhythm pattern which he sets up and continues until the guitar works something equally rhythmic across the top. Roozenburg is a revelation and times, particularly on ‘Prairies Cowboy’ and in other sections, where his fast-fingered delivery is impressive.

The album is a fascinating exchange of rhythms, ideas, and noisesome delight. There are glorious moments when the listener cannot help but marvel at the complexity of rhythms that co-exist in Bennink’s head. He seems to create patterns and rhythms with lives of their own. Sometimes his playing feels like an eavesdrop, particularly on ‘De Sprong O Romantic Der Hazen’ (rough translation is ‘The Leap of Romantic Hares’), where he sings nonchalantly along to his intricate rhythms. The artwork is Bennink’s too. With just 300 copies, this is a find for any vinyl, jazz, or improvised music enthusiast.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Kate Gentile - Drummer-Composer Goes for Broke

Kate Gentile & International Contemporary Ensemble - b i o m e i.i (Obliquity Records, 2023)

Andrew Smiley & Kate Gentile - Flagrances (Obliquity Records, 2023)

Kate Gentile - Find Letter X (Pi Recordings, 2023)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Earlier in 2023, drummer/composer Kate Gentile kicked off her and pianist Matt Mitchell’s new independent label Obliquity Records with two remarkable releases, one a chamber symphony for the International Contemporary Ensemble—flutist Isabel Lepanto Gleicher, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, bassoonist Rebekah Heller, violinist Jennifer Curtis, pianist Cory Smythe, percussionist and vibraphonist Ross Karre, and Gentile on drums and percussion—the other an improvised duet with Gentile and guitarist Andrew Smiley. Later, Pi Records then dropped what is, to date, her magnum opus, a three-volume book of compositions for the quartet Find Letter X, with Mitchell, bassist Kim Cass, and reeds player Jeremy Viner.

The opportunity to have of b i o m e i,i, Flagrances,and Find Letter X all at once are a perfect platform for digging into what sets Gentile apart. In short, there are extremely few composers who are pushing themselves to such engagingly rich, abstract spaces. The touchstones are all there in the music—as well as other coverage—prog, metal, swing, blues, bop, free improvisation, through composed material; there’s a thrilling density to Gentile’s music, delivering on all the above with humor, wit, and, often, yearning. If b i o m e i.i is the chamber symphony, Find Letter X is the symphony, in three discs in the place of three movements.


International Contemporary Ensemble dazzles right from the opening of  “drobe,” with its slowly building waves of trills and bell-like percussion. Classifying b i o m e i.i as a chamber symphony may be slightly, but unintentionally, deceiving. Unlike canonical chamber symphonies, b i o m e i.i clocks in at nearly an hour, with 13 distinct movements. The piece, however, is scored for chamber ensemble of seven players, and Gentile crafts striking, resonant lines. Throughout, Rubin and Heller harmonize expertly, with Karre and Gentile play winding percussion lines across the entire composition.

Flagrances presents a suite-like set of improvisations from Gentile and Smiley. A combination of songs assembled in post-production and duets composed in realtime, the music is rich and evocative, as Smiley’s guitar occasionally skitters, weeps, and snarls. Longer tracks, like “Shrinking Games,” “Ingrained Deviance,” and “Grousing In Turn” show Gentile’s knack for creating billowing clouds of sound.

And then there’s Find Letter X, a monumental achievement in a year of them. As mentioned above, the quartet of Viner, Mitchell, Cass, and Gentile tackle three discs of music composed especially for this group. Fans of Gentile’s will note the group is similar to her Mannequins quartet, with Cass replacing Adam Hopkins. The music feels markedly different, as evidenced by the tense clusters on “laugh magic,” which opens the first disc, after the brief throat-clearing “pulse capsule.” Much like “trapezoidal nirvana” from Mannequins or “stretch goal” from Mitchell’s own Phalanx Ambassadors, the extended soloing and addictive melody of “laugh magic” invites listeners in for a fantastic ride. Later, on the lyrical ballad “subsurface,” Cass slips into something like a Ray Brown mood, while Viner channels John Carter and Mitchell plays a series of delicate, angular chord structures. Gentile’s compositional fearlessness pushes the players right to the edge, and it’s amazing hearing how far they stretch out. Where disc one highlights the band’s acoustic chops, discs two flips to a more overtly electric mode, and disc three presents the band finding a kind of settled balance between the two. Fans of Tony Williams Lifetime and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society will especially love discs two and three. The band absolutely rips; give a listen to the epic “raze” or “open epoch,” both of which feature brilliantly turbulent rhythms and from Cass and Gentile. Throughout all three volumes, motifs seem to recur, like resonant, novelistic symbols. Certain tonal clusters and refracted melodic lines call you back—for example, I’ve listened to the full set five or six times through, some individual tracks upwards or 10 or 12 times. A surefire classic.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lara Jones - Sunday Interview

Photo by Jess Rose

  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    The sharing of an unspoken language and the ability to express and communicate with people you might hardly know before playing together. It’s magical and after you know that you have shared a part of yourself with each other. It takes a lot of trust and when it works, it’s beautiful.

  2. What quality do you most admire in the musicians you perform with?

    Their boldness

  3. Which historical musician/composer do you admire the most?

    Ahhh I find it so hard to pick one musician or composer or a favourite anything. I’ve been inspired by so many incredible composers and performers and I don’t think I can pin it down to one. I suppose I’ll never forget first listening to John Coltrane ‘Love Supreme’ as cliche as it is, that was a pretty pivotal moment for me.

  4. If you could resurrect a musician to perform with, who would it be?

    SOPHIE, may she rest in power.

  5. What would you still like to achieve musically in your life?

    I’d love to perform in more countries around the world. I’ve always wanted to travel and traveling with my music is definitely a dream of mine.

  6. Are you interested in popular music and - if yes - what music/artist do you particularly like

    I like a lot of popular music, i think it serves a purpose that the world needs. I rate Troye Sivan and Kylie and Britney will always be my gals.

  7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

    Lots of things hah! Mostly I have a terrible memory, i’d love to be able withhold information for longer and also I would get rid of my anxiety!

  8. Which of your albums are you most proud of?

    Mm probably ‘Enso’ which was my first solo release and the first time I started to prioritse making what I wanted to make.

  9. Once an album of yours is released, do you still listen to it? And how often?

    No, never. I spend so much time listening to my music when producing and mixing that once it’s released it’s a marker to me that it’s done and my time with it is complete. It’s no longer mine, it’s everyone else's. You gotta hand it over and let it all go.

  10. Which album (from any musician) have you listened to the most in your life?

    I don’ t think I can answer this, there are soooo many albums I’ve listened to on repeat and many albums I’ve transcribed which means i’ve listened over and over intently. It honestly could be anything from Paul Desmond to Eminem…

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?

    Recently i haven’t been able to stop listening to ‘Playing Robots into Heaven’ I’ve played it so many times a day since its been released. Also Lowkey.

  12. What artist outside music inspires you?

    I’m really inspired by athletes mostly women's football - that’s an art right?

Lara Jones' Saxophone - Ensō was reviewed in the compilation "Solo Sax".

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Fire! - Testament (Rune Grammofon, 2024)

By Martin Schray

On the one hand, Fire! (as always Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin) are absolutely predictable. That’s not meant in a negative way at all, it’s a bit like drinking a spectacular wine you know, but you haven’t had it for three years - and now you’re looking forward to tasting it again. Anticipation is the greatest joy, we all know that. Also, because on the other hand, Fire! albums are never the same.

On Testament, their eighth album, the trio concentrates on the essentials for the first time: saxophone, bass, drums. No flutes (which Gustafsson has recently discovered for himself in his other projects), no electronics (actually an integral part of Fire!), no guests and no other bric-a-brac. The album was recorded live in the studio on analog tape at Steve Albini’s studio (of Nirvana/Shellac/Stooges etc. fame) with the master himself at the controls. It’s a bit as if what belongs together has come together here.

Fire! have always been about finding the essence by getting to the core of the music. On Testament, it becomes clearer than ever before how strongly the trio literally refers back to the roots of ancient jazz and blues structures. Field hollers, call-and-response, an interplay - in this case of three instruments - that have a kind of conversation with each other and thus create a certain density and tension. This is particularly evident in the opener “Work Songs For A Scattered Past“ (but also in the following three pieces). Johan Berthling’s bass is the basis, Werliin's drums support him more stoically than usual, and Gustafsson lets his dark lines buzz over this base. Intensity, tempo and sound are then varied, Gustafsson pivots on Berthling’s bass motif to give Werliin room for excursions. In its simplicity, this is simply great art and almost tears your heart out.

This approach is further refined in the second piece, even more minimalist, three notes on the bass, the drums almost like a metronome. Gustafsson plays long, lonely lines, interspersed with an interlude of short outbursts that seem as if a guest musician has snuck in. A highlight of the album is “Running Bison. Breathing Entity. Sleeping Reality“. The bass is as light as a feather, the drums almost free of tom, bass drum or snare, even the saxophone floats free of suffering or longing. It’s the continuation of Fire!’s masterpiece She Sleeps She Sleeps, especially when the obligatory outburst comes in the middle of the track and the bass then returns with even more verve. You might even want to jump from your sofa and dance - just to realize that the last track, “One Testament. One Aim. One More To Go. Again“, is different. All three instruments spin freely, there is no longer a gravitational center, it seems as if one is drifting completely free through the orbit. The piece is a throwback to the band’s other mainstay, namely krautrock/progrock - and here Can in particular (coincidentally, the review was written the day after Damo Suzuki’s death). Like Can, Fire!’s music also oscillates between demonstrative boredom and ecstatic outbursts, you think you know what’s going to happen - just to find out that your expectations won’t be fulfilled.

It’s only February, but are we talking about an album of the year? Hell yeah. 100%.

Testament is available as an LP (in a limited edition on clear vinyl), as a CD and as a download.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Guiseppe Doronzo - Futuro Ancestrale (Clean Feed, 2024)

By Sammy Stein

Guiseppe Doronzo is one of the most innovative free music musicians currently on the scene. Focussing mostly on his baritone saxophone, Doronzo explores music and creates his distinctive voice, which brings together influences including contemporary classical, jazz improvisation, non-western sounds, and rhythms. He has worked with Michael Moore, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Han Bennink, Robin Eubanks, Steve Potts, Benjamin Herman, and Jim Black to name just a few.

Doronzo’s ability to draw international musicians to his music is demonstrated on Futuro Ancestrale (Cleanfeed Jan 2024) where UK guitarist Andy Moor (Ken Vandermark, Paal Nilssen-Love, Thurston Moore) and Puerto Rican drummer Frank Rosaly (Thurston Moore, Fred Lonberg-Holm trio, Jason Adasiewicz) join him. All three have bases in the Netherlands and the live recording was made in Amsterdam. Doronzo lays baritone saxophone and Iranian bagpipes on the album.

To comment that this album is eclectic and features essences from many diverse sources would be an understatement. The journey through this album is intense, variable, and, at times, challenges perceptions. Even given the varied backgrounds and influences of all three musicians, the sounds produced at times seem to come from some new place, where the music voyages into previous unchartered voids places avoided before but Doronzo, unwavering in his determination to explore unchartered areas, launches fearlessly into – with astounding results. From the weird, barely decipherable voiced background line of ‘Digging The Sand’ – a track which incidentally has an appropriate title because it evokes a sense of pulling through something that keeps giving way, changing and shifting as the track develops – to the strange ascensions from the guitar and driving rhythms developed by the baritone saxophone in ‘Hopscotch’, the album challenges, entrances and delights in more or less equal measure.

‘Hopscotch’ deserves more mention because this extended, mesmeric track is an outstanding development of free music, with an intimate connection between the musicians as they listen to each other, connect on an intrinsic level, and create music that extends that communication to the listener, bringing them into the sonic journey.

‘Magma’ features flavours from the Orient and is a noisy, beautifully worked piece, including the ethereal phrases of the Iranian bagpipes, with their lusty keening adding a distinctive voice to the track while ‘ Graduate of Witchcraft ( Bonus track) is a shorter but very sweet interaction between the three musicians in a melodic, rhythmic number which is as entrancing over the short period it plays, as any other track on the album.

The album is impressive (another understatement) and although it is just January, it is going to be difficult for any improvising group to better this. The communication, expertise and musicianship are phenomenal. The rise and fall, the ebbs and flows of this music, give it continuous energy and dynamism which means the listener finds themselves constantly surprised – and there is more revealed with each listen, for example in the final track, there is an intricate back beat carried on in the percussion – and so it goes on, more to discover, more to enjoy and engage with – improvised music at its best.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Gush - Afro Blue (Trost Records, 2024)

By Ferruccio Martinotti

First thing first, for the sake of the transparency to the readers, in our less than humble opinion Mats Gustafsson is the one and only legitimate heir of Kaiser Brotzmann, an indispensable, larger than life musical landmark who encompasses all the features of a true artist: open, brave, maverick, insane, outrageous, label-less, pigeonhole-less, unstoppable, untamable, drive-forward only. Luckily for us, the Man is also hyper-prolific on the 360 degrees of his musical scope, offering to our insatiable palates a gorgeous menu made of bands (Fire!, Fire! Orchestra, The Thing, The End, Fake the facts, Nu Ensemble etc); lateral projects (Hidros etc); countless collaborations (Brotzmann, Sonic Youth, Moore, O’Rourke, McPhee, Vandermark, Merzbow, Nilssen-Love, Chippendale, Zu etc); solo works and even an exhilarating book about his “discaholic” addiction as compulsive records collector. Simply put, a sheer free soul. Shouldn’t be enough (surely, it’s not enough...), thanks to the always commendable Trost Records we have now the chance to discover some shining pebbles from his past: four pieces captured live in Stockholm at the Jazzclub Fasching on December 17, 1998, under the flag of Gush, a trio that, along with Mats (soprano, tenor sax) sees Sten Sandell (piano) and Raymond Strid (drums). 

To shine a light on what Gush was (is?), let’s listen to the story as told by Mr. Gustafsson himself in the liner notes of the disc. The group, born as a drone-oriented project inspired by the sound of the duduk, an Armenian double reed instrument made of apricot wood, soon developed onto new sounds and sailed towards roaring sonic waters, investing a tremendous amount of time in rehearsing, playing and travelling together. Frozen the group on a long hiatus, after 25 years Raymond Strid discovered by chance the original DAT of the above mentioned gig that has been then mastered by the Austrian guitarist Martin Siewert, granting an astonishing sound to our grateful ears, hearts and minds. The core of the recording is the 19-minute song that named the album, a Mongo Santamaria tune, delivered to the immortality by John Coltrane, the perfect paradigm of Gush’s music, described by Mats as “composed ideas, drone based structures with clear harmonic centers”. We could’ve been able to find a better claim. It's just imperative to add that, if the sax is already quintessentially Gustafsson, it deserves to be highlighted the terrific, colorful, with some Monk-esque nuances, piano of Sten Sandell, that sometimes is paving the way for the telluric Mats’ blasting screams but often is pouring himself nitroglycerin to the fire. Waiting for a better understanding if Gush will (hopefully) be fully back on the tracks, don’t miss such a beautiful piece of the infinite puzzle built along the years by this incredible musician, because, quoting him in the end, “NOW is the time. NOW is always the time. It is ALL about time. It is all about now...NOW”.

Gush - Afro Blue (Trost Records, 2024)

By Stef Gijssels

John Coltrane's "Live In Japan" (1991), starts with a phenomenal thirty-eight minute long rendition of the Latin jazz composition "Afro Blue" by Mongo Santamaria from his 1959 album "Mongo". (On the same Coltrane album, "My Favorite Things" lasts even fifty-seven minutes!). The original Coltrane version appears on "Live At Birdland" (1964), and Coltrane and band demonstrated already then how a joyful and entertaining tune can be moved to a completely different plane, one of authentic emotional power and depth, of spirituality and aesthetic vision. The tune became a standard in Coltrane's repertoire, as much as "My Favorite Things", "Naima", "Impressions" and a few others. 

It's a challenge to bring a rendition of Coltrane's favorite tunes, and to make it work. The Swedish power trio of Mats Gustafsson on saxes, Sten Sandell on piano and Raymond Strid on drums take the risk. And they do more than survive, so much so that I have been replaying the same tune again and again for the last days. All three musicians give it their best, and Gustafsson's howling tenor is truly magnificent, as are Sandell's dramatic and ominous piano parts, and Strid's rumbling percussion. It is a phenomenal track that made me laugh out loud of sheer listening joy. It lasts around nineteen minutes, half of Coltrane's performance on "Live In Japan", and I truly wish that it did not stop. But it does, with a tremendous finale, and with a solid dry beat on the drums. So replay. Again. Gustafsson howls and wails and roars like only he can do it, with a wonderful sense of keeping the tune somewhere intact flying through this sonic hurricane. 

The album starts with two strong Sandell compositions, "Behind The Chords V" and "Behind The Chords VI", two equally long tracks, excellent pieces, very much led and structured by the piano, and with Gustafsson again outperforming himself. The compelling compositions come from Sandell's album "Behind the Chords", which was just released then in 1998, when this live performance took place at Jazzclub Fasching in Stockholm. Both pieces are long enough to give each musician ample solo time, including a truly captivating percussion solo by Raymond Strid, halfway the first track. Sandell's playing incorporates many styles, from subtle lyricism over grand chords to percussive powerplay. 

The album ends with a near silent encore, just two minutes long, a kind of lullaby to calm our spirits after all the incredible tension. 

Don't miss it!

Repeat button ...

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Joe McPhee & Clifton Hyde - New Forms, New Sounds - Music for Alain Kirili (Acitoxe Records, 2023)

By Don Phipps

This fascinating duo consisting of the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, whose contributions to the free jazz idiom are most noteworthy (check out his work with Trio X!), and Clifton Hyde, a noted film composer who has played with the likes of Michael Stipe (R.E.M), Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Lou Reed, and The Kinks Dave Davies, offer up an album that documents a 2006 live performance at the Roulette (located in lower Manhattan at the time of the recording but which has since moved to Brooklyn) in honor of then living French sculptor Alain Kirili.

Kirili was an artist known for creating new and innovative ways to not only view sculpture, but to experience it as well. And the 15 pieces here likewise encapsulate new and innovative avenues of sound experiences.

While a virtuoso on both saxophone (tenor, alto, and soprano) and trumpet, McPhee here stays with the alto sax and pocket trumpet. Hyde, a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, mandolin, zither, piano, baritone saxophone, and French Horn (among other instruments), uses only guitars and the mandolin. Together, the two produce a kaleidoscope of music that shatters and reforms, like some kind of CGI reversal of reality. Both musicians create sputters and outbursts that at times suggest the energy of a bucking bronco, while, in other moments, use long legato notes to blow or strum solemn, almost reverent lines.

The music here has a wide emotional range that is both captivating and at times jarring. For example, towards the end of “Lacoon Deux,” the notes sound like a kind of chemical experiment gone haywire. On “Improvisation Tellem,” Hyde provides a bluesy undercurrent, revealing his Mississippi roots. On “Nudite,” Hyde adds vocal utterings and screams like someone being murdered in a dark foreboding forest while McPhee’s sax wails like a screaming eagle. On “Generations,” the music has a sadness, like a stray dog wondering what’s next in life.

Hyde adds unusual texture to the music by using his guitars to create percussive effects. He at times reverts to hillbilly-like strums while McPhee develops phrases in response. Sometimes the music breaks into a demonic dance while at other times it sounds like foghorns in the distance, an early morning harbor call between ships.

Hyde performs a wonderful solo rendition of Ornette Coleman’s masterpiece, “Lonely Woman.” Oddly, the title given is “Femme Seule,” which according to one translation, means “a woman alone.” One wonders why the piece was renamed on this album.

McPhee ends the concert with a soliloquy that reflects on the “difficult” and “dangerous” life of the artist. He says that it’s up to each person to decide “what’s real and what’s not real.” Most telling is his statement that “listening (to free music) is not a passive experience…. It’s an active experience.” True words – and this concert is most certainly active, a fascinating interplay of two masters of their instruments and the sounds they create.

Joe McPhee & Clifton Hyde – Live at the Stone, NYC (March 27,2007) (Acitoxe Records, 2023)

By Don Phipps

This set of live duets (recorded in 2007 at the Stone – an experimental NYC music venue created by John Zorn) captures multi-instrumentalists Joe McPhee (here on alto sax and pocket trumpet) and Clifton Hyde (guitars and mandolin) navigating the contours of music in both intense and intimate ways. It follows on the heels of their excellent recording of a similar meeting a year earlier at the Roulette (“Joe McPhee & Clifton Hyde - New Forms, New Sounds - Music for Alain Kirili”).

Hyde again uses the guitar for percussive effects (those poor guitars!) and strums, picks, and fashions challenging replies to McPhee’s sax and trumpet phrases. For his part, McPhee gives listeners an assortment of stop and go runs and dances.

There are also surprises. Take “Centering Posts Amok,” which begins with Hyde’s march strums as McPhee orchestrates long legato notes that fill the space. There are sax blasts that flash and blind (“Losing the Ring”) atop Django Reinhardt-like guitar. And the somber reflections and energetic blasts posed by the music in “Gales of Winter” give voice to the space and eerie sounds of a snowy windy night.

McPhee’s technique remains flawless on both sax and trumpet. Given the totally different embouchure requirements required to play both instruments, he puts on quite a display of virtuosity. Take for example his ability to play the trumpet in an almost imperceptibly shushed manner. Or the way he creates musette-like tones from the alto sax. Or the sax overtones and circular breathing he elicits on “The Players Are Ready.” And even though his music is spontaneous and improvised, it is also extremely disciplined. Hyde does not falter in reply. You can hear flamenco, tango and blues as well as a bit of Robert Fripp in his playing. There are even times when his guitar sounds like a koto.

The result? Music that ranges from peaceful to violent, smooth to discrete, quiet to howling and everything in between. On this album, these two expert musicians demonstrate that they can create soundscapes that both surprise and confront.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Free Jazz Blog on Air: Black History Month

Listen to Free Jazz Blog's Martin Schray and radio host Julia Neupert on SWR2 for an exciting hour of Free Jazz talk and music, this Wednesday, February 21st, at 9 p.m. (CET) on SWR 2 - and streaming online for the following week.

Martin explains, "The show is on Black History Month and about how Black history is told by jazz musicians. There will be music by Jason Moran, Matana Roberts, James Brandon Lewis, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wadada Leo Smith and Matthew Shipp."

Guillaume Belhomme - Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography (Wolke Press, 2023)

By Paul Acquaro

A couple of years ago, the French publisher Lenka Lente published a slim biography on the ever influential and somewhat enigmatic Eric Dolphy, and at the end of 2023, an English version appeared from the German Wolke Press. At 112 pages, the book is like an energy bar of biographies, packing all of the calories in an easily accessible packet. Rich with information, Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography provides a thorough and concise overview of the musicians life and development, but this also comes with a gentle warning: the translation could use a little more work.

Sentence structure aside for the moment, what Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography does really well, and with an absolute economy of words, is present well developed sketch of a gentle musical giant. Dolphy (at least to me) was always a bit of a mystery because the avant-garde aspect of his playing was so well integrated into whatever structure or setting he was in. My first recording of his was the oft published Conversations, recorded in 1963, and as I found out from the book, a part of a session organized by Alan Douglas that also yielded the title Iron Man. However, as I also learned through the book, Dolphy's ability to color so well inside and outside the lines was both his USP, as well what perhaps has kept him a bit mysterious. Further revealed throughout the book is how this approach was very much tied to his reserved and rather adaptable personality. So, along with requisite recording dates and personnel listings, the book makes gentle connections between Dolphy the person and Dolphy the musician, suggesting that with his untimely and avoidable early death from diabetes, that the artist had not yet achieved the music that he was likely capable of creating - obvious when someone passes away in their mid-30s, but poignant nevertheless to read and ponder anew. Additionally, Dolphy's work and connection with Coltrane and Mingus are equally explored and detailed. The book has chapters of about three to four pages, each one, as the title expresses, it is more a sketch of the life and times of Dolphy, with an account of all the known sessions he took part in.

Now to turn to that tiny elephant in the room, the translation. Perhaps, I am a bit over sensitized to language, as a residue of my professional activities perhaps (Quick note, I am also aware that I could be much better with my own writing!), but what I want to simply convey is that some sentences and passages can be a bit confounding as they resolve into a certain poetry. Not a deal breaker, just a gentle warning. 

Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography is an excellent book for both the Dolphy-aware and the Dolphy-curious. While it may not cover previously unknown bombshell insights into the inner workings of the saxophonist who was, for his time, Out There and Out to Lunch, it does provide a really nice grounding in his life story and development of as a musician. I've personally found myself returning to the aforementioned recordings, as well as the newly discovered and released Evenings at the Village Gate with John Coltrane from 1961 with a renewed inquisitiveness.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Kyle Jessen - Primitive (Relative Pitch, 2023)

By Jury Kobayashi

Hailing from Omaha, Kyle Jessen is a saxophonist making really compelling and powerful music. His latest and first full-length album release Primitive is a raw and uncompromising solo saxophone album. This album is another wonderful release from Relative Pitch Records in their series of solo instrumental albums.

I have always had a soft spot for solo albums and this one does not disappoint. The first thing that struck me when I listened to this album is the complexity of Jessen’s sound. The initial track, Death Trap, bursts out with a barrage of multiphonics, blisteringly screaming from the saxophone. Jessen wields these sounds with care and crafts a complex language that yields a tune built out of layers of multiphonics. Ambushed By The Spray of Lead, takes a different approach, a clear tone slurps up to a whistle and back down with growls interjecting throughout.

I am struck constantly by how patiently this album builds each improvisation. It is not a relaxed album but the methodical nature by which Jessen dissects, grows, or expands each musical gesture feels calm and calculated. Despite the screams and violence mentioned in the album description provided on Bandcamp there is also tranquility in the way that Jessen sculpts each song; this album is somehow both minimal and maximal at the same time.

My favourite track is the title track of the album that appears last on the record. Jessen covers the range of the saxophone squeaking out perfect altissimo pops against low bellowing notes. The dimensions of the altissimo multiphonics are staggering, and the bending of pitches, are almost harmonica-like. The leaps in register catch me by surprise in each listening of the track.

Primitive is a really exciting, impressive, and carefully crafted album. I encourage everyone who is a fan of this music to check it out.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Michael Bisio - Sunday Interview

(Photo Albert Brooks)

1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music? 

The connections. At their best these connections are beyond, they are all encompassing, ever expanding, and profoundly intimate, our higher selves. Surpassing what I can hear, see or feel in the ordinary sense, yet the journey begins with these. And if everyone (musicians, audience and beyond) is willing, an environment is created that envelops everyone, everything in unbelievable beauty and joy. Don’t postpone the joy !!!

2. What quality do you most admire in the musicians you perform with?

Their decision to initiate the process leading to joy and the courage to follow the path.

3. Which historical musician/composer do you admire the most? 

There is easily a boatload, an ark load even. Impossible to pick one. The first that come to mind are Charles Mingus, Hampton Hawes, John Coltrane, Karl Berger, Ornette Coleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Charlie Haden. Recently I have developed a deep admiration for Yusef Lateef. Each one leads to another.

I do understand from my very short list these are all artists who have moved through the tradition. The tradition is to move the tradition forward.

4. If you could resurrect a musician to perform with, who would it be?

Pablo Casals

5. What would you still like to achieve musically in your life? 

I would like to travel more. At my advanced age probably an unusual goal. I might not travel as well as I did when I was younger but am certainly willing and never quite understood why it didn’t/doesn’t happen more.

6. Are you interested in popular music and - if yes - what music/artist do you particularly like?

I guess it depends on what you mean by popular music. I read it as current, contemporary. If that’s true I will admit to a passing interest at best. The other day I heard Eminem on the car car radio and dug it. Does that count ? Certainly Jimi Hendrix has more than lasted for me as have Sam Cook, Marvin Gay, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison, James Brown and certain Leonard Cohen works.

7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My confidence level. Only when I reach the beyond do I feel confident.

8. Which of your albums are you most proud of? 

This seems a slippery slope so I’ll just say the next one .

9. Once an album of yours is released, do you still listen to it? And how often?

The route to release has many facets. Usually by the time it is out and the initial promotion completed I’m ready for a break. That break can last months or years, usually both. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it. It means I need distance to move forward. When times passes I generally appreciate them more not less. That being said: “And how often?” Not very often, but it is nice/comforting to revisit old friends.

10. Which album (from any musician) have you listened to the most in your life? 

It would have to be either The Great Concert, Charles Mingus or Complete Communion, Don Cherry

11. In hindsight, what would you have done differently during your career?

I might have become a luthier.

12. What are you listening to at the moment? 

Just the other day a component of my stereo system burnt. I’m sad to say I’m not listening to anything at the moment. The system was given to me by my friend/producer Mike Panico of Relative Pitch Records. He also worked for SONY and when they were moving they were simply going to dispose of it. I pulled up in front of the building and Mike rushed out with it. It has great sentimental value to me, as well as sound and I’m trying to get it repaired. So far it is proving very difficult to find someone to work on it. Suggestions are appreciated.

Reviews featuring Michael Bisio on our Free Jazz Collective - Without a doubt a steady flow of reviews since our very beginning in 2007. Check them out!

Saturday, February 17, 2024

New compositions by Jürg Frey

By Eyal Hareuveni
Swiss composer-clarinetist Jürg Frey celebrated his 70th birthday last year and the two new albums reviewed below represent only part of his rich activity, focusing on exploring wide, quiet sound spaces.

Keiko Shichijo - Jürg Frey: Les Signes Passagers (elsewhere, 2023)

Les signes passagers (passenger signs) offers seven pieces for solo fortepiano written by Frey in 2021, commissioned by the Japanese, Amsterdam-based, contemporary pianist Keiko Shichijo (who performed before Frey’s Piano Pieces, Nr. 1-3 (1991)), and performed on a replica of early fortepiano (after Anton Walter, ca.1792, with equal beating victorian tuning, close to equal temperament), which Shichijo already explored before. These pieces were premiered by Shichijo at the Concertgebouw Brugge In Belgium during the SLOW Festival in February 2022, and recorded at the same location in April 2023, with the presence of Frey. Frey painted the cover artwork.

Frey says: “If the modern piano tries to get a constant brilliance over the whole keyboard, in the fortepiano there are worlds between the middle, the high and the low register. The whole construction of the instrument is so subtle, and every movement, the slightest change in registers and density of chords immediately opens a variety of colors, new perspectives and emotions”.

Frey and Shichijo offer an untimely sense of time and space with the vintage keyboard instrument. Shichijo’s masterful playing stresses the fragile, breathy and spacious tones and overtones of the fortepiano, with all its shades and silent pauses, and explores anew its distinct sonic range. Les signes passagers suggests ascetic and subtle, emotional landscapes that “sometimes shine through, not on the surface”, as Frey noted, but sonic landscapes that draw the listener deeper and deeper into its hypnotic atmospheres.

Quatuor Bozzini - Jürg Frey: String Quartet No. 4 (Collection QB, 2024)

String Quartet No. 4 is the third string quartet Frey composed for Canadian, Montréal-based contemporary ensemble Quatuor Bozzini (first violinist Alissa Cheung, second violinist Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, violist Stéphanie Bozzini and cellist Isabelle Bozzini) over twent years of collaboration (the first one, String Quartets, was recorded in 2004, Edition Wandelweiser Records, 2006). This 65-minute, five-movement composition was written between 2018 and 2020 (and completed before Frey composed Les signes passagers). It was first premiered - virtually - at the MaerzMusikl Festival in Berlin in March 2021 and performed live for the first time at the Only Connect Festival in Oslo in April 2022 and refined during the recording with Quatuor Bozzini in Montréal in May 2023.

Frey describes this composition as “slow, sometimes static, often delicately shifting between standstill and movement. And yet, after more than an hour, this music has arrived at another place. Standstill, little happens, — it is this atmosphere from which my music emerges and to which it always returns. Sometimes it just stays there. This is my world”.

String Quartet No. 4 is a calm and beautiful composition that radiates a rare sense of poetic weightlessness in search of silence in sound, with a profound emotional effect. It is developed slowly, with minimalist and slow shifts and almost transparent dissonances, always hinting about its deeper, secret wonders, evoking a musical garden that asks you to appreciate its delicate, changing colors as they blossom in their own accord. And, like all Frey’s compositions, it is performed masterfully by Quatuor Bozzini with precise sensitivity for color, sound and silence in Frey’s aesthetics.

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If you want to listen to Frey and violinist Mrekel discussing the compositional process with composer Benjamin Tassie on Resonance FM:

Friday, February 16, 2024

“Give The Brummer Some” – An Encounter with Ches Smith

Ches Smith @ Festival Sons d’Hiver – Paris, January 2024. (c) Margaux Rodrigues

Alas, fate had other plans for former-pizza-maker turned pro-brummer/congwriter, Ches Smith. When the pizza place relocated, the owners announced to their beloved employees that the moving process could take a while. If anyone wanted to pursue alternative career paths, “Perhaps now would be a good time.”

With a glint in his eye and a gentle smile, Ches speaks fondly of his time working at Escape from New York Pizza, recalling the good old days with waves of nostalgia. One might think he almost regretted his decision to follow the path of "professional musician."

An in-joke from this era, quoted from a colleague in the kitchen, inspired the very title of Laugh Ash, his latest album released February 2, 2024. 
With a similar fondness, he chats about the recording process with a different team of workmates, and the inspiration and gusto each band member brought to the project:

“Everyone was so great – really threw down with the music and all that. [The strings] would just sit there and shed their parts together. And when James [Brandon Lewis] would come over and look at stuff, where he’d call me, it felt good. Shahzad totally too. And he can be a bit of a wild card, but he just was like, 'Yeah, let's do this.' He really learned the music.” The full roster of Laugh Ash’s blockbuster lineup includes a total of ten extraordinarily talented musicians, the coordination and recording of which was indeed serious business. The recurring theme of catering for the massive ensemble, however, became something of a running gag.

“I ordered, like, WAY too much food each day. It kinda got funny when there was like 40,000 pounds of sushi one day. Then, seriously, like 20 pizzas. And people were like, 'I don't think we can eat all this, man.' I just like to make people have a good time.”

And that he does at the very least through the display of his extraordinary talent on the skins.

To watch Ches play live is nothing short of exhilarating. In the constellation of Marc Ribot’s rough and punky Ceramic Dog , cymbals adjusted sky high allow for harder hits, resulting in not only a louder crash, but a noodley spectacle of long flailing limbs. Over the course of the recent European tour, six snare heads were destroyed. He is also known for his "1000 faces" – animated, rubbery, and cartoony facial gestures amplified by the occasional tilting of his long neck. It’s always an endearing, passionate performance: professional, but with a goofy-twist. A bit like Napoleon Dynamite when he’s dancing.

He’s looking remarkably youthful and healthy. Perhaps this can be traced to a relatively clean, mostly vegetarian/pescatarian lifestyle, and a tendency to avoid drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, especially on tour. After performances, however, open Red Bulls and half-drunk coffee cups can be found scattered around the drum kit. Ches’s energy levels are always somewhere on the border between falling asleep on his feet and hyper focused, almost certainly as a result of over-caffeination. “I’m just gonna fill this up,” he commentates at breakfast while placing a mug under the coffee machine, and hitting the double-espresso button a grand total of three times. Maybe this is the secret to his success.

And if it’s any measure of that success to name his collaborators, here are just a few: Tim Berne, Mary Halvorson, Bill Frisell, Trey Spruance, Jamie Stewart, Sean Ono Lennon, John Zorn … Regardless, It is pointless to try and list all the prominent musicians Ches has worked with. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that he has worked with them all. Suffice to say, he does not experience the sensation of being “star struck,” or at least he hasn’t done so since 1999.

“I didn’t expect it, but when I talked to Ian MacKaye [Fugazi], I was super weird, because I had that feeling… I guess starstruck for someone I had admired from afar, but I didn’t realise it until I came into contact with him. That’s the last time I remember, it’s possible there was another, because that’s a long time ago.”

The Haitian drumming scene however, still causes him some degree of intimidation: “These master drummers that I’m playing with grew up in the tradition, and I’m coming at it from the outside… I don’t do it enough, I think. I wish I could spend a lot more time, but I really have to do all this other music too.“ 

Ches fell into the Haitian scene by accident, after a stand-in was required at a graduate school dance class. His paleness, thankfully overlooked, Ches describes the moment as something like: “Hang on - we can work with this.” It was love at first thump, and ever since that day, his passion has developed into a borderline addiction, sometimes catching himself making up excuses to cover up his sneaking out to go “Vodou” drumming. Never a man to do things by halves, Ches’s study of Haitian culture has even gone as far as learning the language of Haitian Creole – this effort of assimilation in turn earning him a deep level of respect and trust from Haitians worldwide, multiple true friendships, and even a god-daughter. But for someone as committed as Smith, it’s never quite enough: “Last week, I almost gave up Haitian drumming forever. The amount of practice and commitment required to be at the level I want to be at… [but] I’m not going to quit. It's been a while since I played [a ceremony]… It’s something you have to be in shape for, for sure.”

It’s quite a unique situation: one minute performing a Zorn-composed opera piece alongside Barbara Hannigan at the packed out Paris Philharmonic, the next minute immediately Ubering across town, sneaking out to go Haitian drumming (again) in a private, seven-person, Vodou ceremony in a Paris basement. The Haitian preoccupation manifests across the spectrum of Ches’s work, notably his We All Break project, (featuring Matt Mitchell, Nick Duston, and Markus Schwartz to name a few). The compositions draw heavily from traditional Haitian instrumentation, vocals, and rhythms, but are tastefully blended with piano and other "western" accompaniments.

Ches finds ways of incorporating diversity wherever possible, even amongst the rapid-fire genre switching pieces by John Zorn: the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, minute long, machine gun works, for example: “In those small bursts, I try to include that [the Haitian influences] as much as I can.” Taking part in a huge number of eclectic collaborations, and never one to shy away from the role of frontman, some of his most notable projects include the percussive Congs For Brums , the experimental These Arches, and the impressive post-covid combo of Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, Matt Mineri on Interpret it Well. The cover art for which is a sketch by none other than artist Raymond Pettibon, famous for his work with Black Flag, and his almost comically iconic Sonic Youth’s “Goo” album cover. Ches humbly remarks: “We couldn’t believe we were allowed to use it.”

Matt Hollenberg once stated his theory that drummers can take on more projects because they "don’t have to worry about notes." “Oh yeah, that's true,” agrees Ches, “I think you can memorise more music – I find it easier to memorise music when I'm playing drums than vibes, for instance, but there are other challenges. I think it all ends up being the same.” Once declaring that he was “looking forward to playing more jazz and less of that classical shit,” he now officially retracts this statement. Ches Smith would like to clarify that he believes classical music is not shit: ”I think I was talking about the amount of dense music I had to have in my head [at the time]. I think after concert after concert of that, it's nice to just kind of swing. That's what I felt I probably meant. Sometimes I say things in a ham-fisted kind of way.”

Further traces of Ches’ ham-fisting can be found scattered around his discography, with songs and album titles such as: “Hammered”, “My Motherfuckin Roda!”, or “Speak Up If You Hate This”. So what is it that drives a man to label a serious tune “The Most Fucked”? “[It was] a kind of version of what I was trying to do, like there were versions where it was super streamlined. You know, without all that shit going on… [That title] just stuck.”

Festival Sons d’Hiver – Paris, January 2024. (c) Margaux Rodrigues

With the Big Ears Festival on the horizon, the brummer can be found playing in no less than four supergroups: Ceramic Dog, Laugh Ash, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie à Quatre, and Secret Chiefs 3.

On reuniting with Secret Chiefs 3: “I’m looking forward to it. I was just relearning the music today and it kind of all came back really fast, and it's a lot of tunes I've played a lot, but it's just been a long time. I'm glad Shahzad’s back in it, too. And Shanir [Ezra Blumenkranz] together. There's like two on every instrument: Kenny Grohowski and myself, Shahzad and Shanir, Matt [Hollenberg] and Trey [Spruance]... It's fun. It’s really a fun band to play in.“

According to Ches, there’s two things in life that he was born to do: play the drums and be a dad. A devoted husband and father of one, he can often be found juggling meetings and commitments abroad with simultaneous phone calls back home. His passion for his little family clearly runs deep, as he frequently recalls family-related anecdotes amongst his everyday conversations. Although he relishes the natural excitement of touring, the underlying desire to return home and be with them is omnipresent. In terms of priority, “family” always dominates.

Having said that, he did maybe tell a teeny tiny fib to the love of his life about buying a full octave-and-a-half set of orchestral bells. “I told her I was not gonna buy them. And then suddenly there were just…” he trails off. “[John] Zorn was using them more than once. I kept having to borrow them from Kenny Wollesen and I found a set that I could afford, and I was like, ’I'm just doing this.’ But everyone thinks it's completely ridiculous. It’s like the heaviest instrument I own, easily. It’s like metal bars and a huge frame with a pedal.”

In this all-too serious world, it’s refreshing to know that artists like Ches are out there keeping it fun. God knows, the scene could certainly benefit from an occasional injection of humour. But what does the future hold, and where does he see himself in 5 years time?

“I wanna be the first legacy artist on Bandcamp'… I said that? That was a joke, man.
… but I do see myself as a legacy artist on Bandcamp.”

Additional Bandcamp links: