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Sunday, March 31, 2024

Kate Gentile - Sunday Interview

Photo by Peter Gannushkin
  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    When the music is really great - like when it’s on the level of an album I’d listen to - being in the moment with it and feeling the aliveness of the RIGHT NOW.

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

    There’s not one thing; I admire each person for their strengths relative to the specific musical situation.

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

    Miles, Tony Williams, Xenakis, Ferneyhough, Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Parker, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Feldman, Zappa

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

    This doesn’t interest me that much…there are already more musicians alive that I want to play with than I have time to - which is a great problem to have

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

    There’s many more albums I want to make. Without giving away too much of my plans, some things include achieving certain aims with quartertones, guitar-oriented albums that are a more metal-influenced extension of what I already do (like disc 2 of Find Letter X but taking it farther), solo albums where I play multiple instruments, electronic music, finding ways of paring down my kind of material to make more improvising-oriented bands (which is basically what we’re doing in the Find Letter X live performances now, but there’s more ways to explore this), and more Gloatmeal things including a “wall of sound” approach where we record in various ways, overdubbing and layering and editing, grafting on composed material to improvisations.

    I’d also love to do more composing for more chamber-like groups, like the album I did last year with ICE (biome i.i). Doing that out of pocket is too expensive for me, but if I get any more commissions or opportunities like that I’d love to dive deeper into what some other instrumentations and skill sets inspire.

    Oh- and I want to work more as a sideman. I love being a sideman, even with music that’s totally different from my own.

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

    Popular music of right now? Not really. I’m interpreting that as the top songs/artists on Billboard, which I just had to search since I don’t really pay much attention to it.

    I dug early St. Vincert- like that album Actor- and she’s become kind of a bigger star, so maybe that counts.

    I like music that was popular in other eras though….Jimi, Stevie, The Beatles, XTC, etc. And music that’s pop-influenced like Ryan Power or Georgia Anne Muldrow.

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

    I’m trying to work on my jump shot…

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

    Find Letter X. Everything, but especially Find Letter X. It challenged me deeply in many ways - I went through and overcame so much in the process of making that album, both musically and otherwise, and had to push myself harder than I ever have.

    But the reason I’m proud of it is because I sat down and imagined a ridiculous way to ‘up the ante’ after Mannequins - imagined what the music would be like, had specific ideas for it - and then I actually *did* it: the album musically achieves what I wanted it to. When I imagined it I remember thinking “oh my god this will be near impossible but totally crazy if I manage to pull it off”. And I was completely right about how hard it would be….but I’m a pretty fucking determined individual - which is 100% out of love, for the music and for everything.

    And the band sounds great- I feel like it’s a great showcase of a wide spectrum of Jeremy, Matt and Kim’s playing.

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

    Yes- it’s irregular, so hard to say. Keep in mind that in the editing/mixing/mastering process, you often end up listening many many times, so by the time the album is out, the ‘play count’ is already super high.

    With favorite albums of others’ I’ve listened to a lot, I want to remember every detail so I can play it in my head whenever I want. With my own music, the details are already permanently internalized so there’s less need to reinforce it - except when I do forget something, and then it’s really fun to listen and feel like I’m listening to someone else or have dementia…

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

    It would be really cool to actually know the answer to this! There are 3 big factors that skew the stats:

    1. Transcriptions and playing along with whole albums (Miles - Milestones, Nefertiti, 1964 live concert; Tim Berne Bloodcount DVD from Seconds)

    2. Childhood listening when I only owned 3-4 CDs and would just listen on repeat (R.E.M., Green Day - Dookie, TLC - 'Waterfalls' single)

    3. Working in coffee shops in the early 2010’s where the “common ground taste” with co-workers would often result in stuff like Dirty Projectors on a daily basis (Rise Above, Bitte Orca, Swing Lo)

    As for music unaffected by those factors, my guess is either Alasnoaxis - Alasnoaxis or Ben Monder - Flux. Possibly Cardiacs - Guns or Bob Drake - The Skull Mailbox.

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?

    Cardiacs - the Special Garage concerts (live)

  12. What artist outside music inspires you?

    Most outside-of-music things/places/people that inspire me aren’t artists, but Steve Byram has been very inspirational- he let me audit a class he teaches, and it was mind-opening. Also Basquiat.

Reviews featuring Kate Gentile on the Free Jazz Blog:

Saturday, March 30, 2024

James Brandon Lewis – Transfiguration (Intakt, 2024) *****

By Don Phipps

One might think that tenor saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis would need to recharge his musical batteries. After all, his albums Eye of I and For Mahalia, With Love topped many critics best of 2023 jazz lists. But Transfiguration most certainly will add to his accolades. The album is a turbulent sea of emotions brought forth by Lewis’s compositional dexterity and the amazing virtuosity of both he and his bandmates, Aruán Ortiz on piano, Brad Jones on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums.

While at times feverish, Lewis’s sax playing is always tuneful and full throated. His energetic and powerful solos, improvisations and developments never cease to captivate the listener. And one must simply marvel at his compositional skill. Take the opening number, “Transfiguration.” There’s an almost Latin flavor to the composition – one that is menacing, dark and powerful. On “Trinity of Creative Self,” the lines methodically climb to higher and higher intensity. “Swerve” is an abstract funk. “Per 6” generates the feeling of a car cruising at speed around curves. “Black Apollo” uses a robotic line in an odd time meter to create a dark foreboding. “Empirical Perception” feels like riding in a careening subway car – being pushed and pulled as it makes its way through dark tunnels. “Triptych” offers a driving syncopation. And last but not least, “Elan Vital” gives the sensation of sunrise in a forest of tall trees – the light exploding everywhere in long effervescent streams.

Of course, all of this emotional intensity is greatly aided by the outstanding efforts of his sidemen and the moments where they step forward and create their own unique contributions. For example, Ortiz offers up modal bluesy abstractions on “Triptych” and “Per 6” that have distant echoes of McCoy Tyner, and his clever fingerings throughout the album command attention. Jones offers solid bass lines, and his work on “Per 6” is especially noteworthy - with dynamic and challenging upper register bass plucks that explode like fireworks. And Taylor’s rim shots, cymbal work, and drumming never fail to emphasize the musical themes or funky bluesy lines of the various compositions. There are even times when one can hear the influence of Ed Blackwell’s West African drumming style in his playing.

All of this may lead to questions like “Is Lewis the new Coltrane?” or “Is this what Coltrane would sound like if he were in jazz today?” But such questions can be quickly dismissed. Lewis is a force in jazz that must be appreciated in the here and now. And one should be grateful and happy to be alive to hear it!

Friday, March 29, 2024

Sylvie Courvoisier - Chimaera (Intakt, 2023) *****


By Stef Gijssels

The sole reason why this album has not been reviewed before, is due to a simple form of humility with the question of how on earth I can do credit to it without creating a suboptimal view to potential listeners of the quality of the music they will hear. I have been mesmerised by it since the first time I listened to it, and  I guess I've reached the milestone of one hundred times in the meantime. 

Throughout her musical career, Swiss pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier has explored the possibilities of smart and adventurous music in the space that covers composed and improvised idioms, including her recent take with Cory Smythe on Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps/The Rites Of Spring, a formal acknowledgement of the classical elements that always permeated her sound. 

"Chimaera" is a jump forward in my opion, and at the same time a logical though unexpected step in her career. 

First, there is the line-up, interesting because of the instruments, and fascinating because of the musicians who perform on them: Wadada Leo Smith and Nate Wooley on trumpet, Christian Fennesz on electric guitar, Drew Gress on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums and vibraphone, and of course Courvoisier on piano. Fennesz's guitar plays a critical role in the overall sound, yet it's as brilliant as the dual trumpet front of Smith and Wooley, who each with their individual sound and approach create something fully unique, Smith out there in the skies, Wooley solidly grounded in avant-garde and blues, the first time ever these two trumpet giants performed on record. Courvoisier adds: "I really wanted to write something special for these amazing musicians that I admire and respect so much. I had this band in mind when I composed.

Second, there are the compositions. These are incredibly complex even if light-textured, with lots of changes, themes disappearing and re-emerging, with sometimes short structural themes that last only for a thirty seconds in a very long composition, like unexpected fruit on long branch. The music shifts between moments of gentle shimmering to moments of dramatic power, sometimes moving gradually into one another, sometimes juxtaposed in harsh contrast, and even if you follow the logic after so many times of listening, it's still so full of unpredictable aspects, that you keep being surprised. Courvoisier adds "This music is really influenced by the ambient world of Christian Fennesz and the spirit of Wadada, Nate, Drew and Kenny". 

Third, there is the sound, obviously the result of the first two points: band and compositions, but surely conceptually there in the first place. The music is inspired by 19th Century French painter Odilon Redon, whose works of art are further described below. Redon is known for his transition from figurative to abstract art, but of course primarily for weaving mysterious dream aspects into our familiar world, of contrasting reality with illusion, or even stronger, as he described it himself: 

"I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased."

That is how the music sounds, like a dream from which the burdensome formal structures have been gradually stripped or subtracted only to leave the real quality of the sound intact, no longer burdened in scaffolds or structural supports, offering a sense of absolute freedom, fragility and and implicit sense of structure. Courvoisier adds "I had a pretty clear idea of the sound of the band when I wrote the music, but of course, they make it sound better than what I could imagine. So the end result is pretty much what I had in mind, even if it is developing at the rehearsal and performance, so I can’t wait to do more concerts with this band, as it will develop even more!"

The end result is multifaceted, unique, exceptional, precise and carefully crafted. 

The title refers to the strange animal from Greek mythology: "The term "chimera" has come to describe any mythical or fictional creature with parts taken from various animals, to describe anything composed of disparate parts or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling. In other words a chimera can be a hybrid creature"(Wikipedia). At the same time, so is the sound of the music here, as are the compositions: "composed of disparate parts or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling".

The first track is called "Le Pavot Rouge", illustrated below. The twenty-one minute composition is possibly the one that will be easiest to remember. It starts with a great solo bass intro, followed by Courvoisier's jazzy theme on the piano, and the mid-tempo rhythm guitar dragging the listener in the piece, easily, gently, building up to the beautiful core theme on the horns. After exactly one third of the track, the theme starts collapsing into its base ingredients, without clear arrangements, breaking up the existing reality into a weird dream world, where delight and fear live together, where cognitive control leaves the way for creative invention with no background but with the occasional anchor point to keep the continuity of the piece. Fennesz's guitar offers a dark undertone for the bluesy piano pieces, the light-footed vibraphone and the soaring trumpets. It's hypnotic. It's infectious. It's captivating. It's perfect.

Le Pavot Rouge (1890)

The second track is called "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse" (Sempervivum arachnoideum) also a plant whose name is slightly and creatively altered by Courvoisier, because it sounded more fun ("aragnaineuse" instead of "araigneuse" (spider-like) because, according to Courvoisier "it sounds more mysterious"). It starts with a very dark undertone of the guitar, a slow piece, with implicit compositions yet obvious structure, more volatile and ethereal than the opening track, again setting darkness and light against each other, or weight versus weightlessness. It flows, it progresses, it surprises, it shifts in gradual sonic colours. 

The third track is called "Partout des prunelles flamboient", (meaning "Everywhere Eyeballs Are Ablaze" from The Temptation of Saint Anthony), inspired by the drawing below. It's a strange composition, with sudden changes and brusque moves, alternating almost quiet moments with angular themes full of high excitement and volume, possibly as if Saint Anthony has moments of burning lust and deep regret or resignation. It's fun. It's unpredictable. It's odd. 

Partout des prunelles flamboient (1888)

The next pièce de résistance is "La Chimère Aux Yeux Verts" (The Chimaera with the Green Eyes), also from the same portfolio on the Temptation of Saint Anthony). It starts with a strong and solid rhythm section with piano and guitar, that dissipates into thin air after a few minutes, giving Wadada Leo Smith the floor for his typical spiritual sound, singing over the shy piano and guitar in the background, but then, without warning, the fast speed picks up again, with the entire rhythm section playing for just twenty seconds when it disappears again into a meditative trumpet moment for Smith, soaring, jubilating. It's grand. It's special. It's ominous. 

Odilon Redon | La Chimère aux Yeux Verts (1888) | Available for Sale | Artsy

La Chimère Aux Yeux Verts (1888)

"Annâo" is again a slow piece, floating somewhere in imaginary dreamscapes, with beautifully light-touched piano sounds, implicitly following some inner logic that is hard to grasp yet sounds coherent and planned, and Nate Wooley gives one of the most moving and bluesy trumpet phrases that I've heard in a while. 

The album ends with "Le Sabot de Venus" (Cypripedium calceolus) (Lady's Slipper), like "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse", the name of a flower. Courvoisier comments: "These names are my own derivatives from plants, names that sound 'good' to me, but they also do sound like names of paintings by Odilon Redon. I like to imagine how Odilon Redon would paint these plants … and I like to imagine that the listeners imagine a painting by him that is called "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse" or "Le Sabot de Venus".  This last track is equally completely unpredictable, a kind of an imaginary sonic landscape, dream and nightmare at the same time, with slow moving sequences, and brutal moments full of harsh sounds that shock and recede, giving space back to quiet, beautiful, precise and subtle interactions. It's a place you want to be for its intense beauty, yet equally afraid of what might come next. 

In sum, the whole album oscillates between solid and free forms, between material and immaterial worlds, between patterns and the unexpected, between the familiar and the imaginary, between waking and dreaming, between peace and angst. It is a fascinating album by many measures as I mentioned. The unique musical vision of Courvoisier works incredibly well in the hands of these master musicians, whose playing is wonderfully adapted to create her dreamworld. Brilliant!

Don't miss it. 

Further explorations: 

The black and white drawings presented above are part of a portfolio of work by Odilon Redon, called "The Temptation of Saint Anthony". The entire portfolio can be viewed here on the website of MoMa. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

It is also interesting to watch one of the first live performances of the album, here at Roulette, New York on Nov 16, 2022, before the second trumpet part for Wadada Leo Smith was added and recorded the next year. 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Laws of William Bonney Saxophone Quartet 1993 - 2007: self-titled (Acheulian Handaxe, 2023)

By Martin Schray

At the beginning of the 1990s Jeffrey Morgan, an alto saxophonist from Seattle, came to Cologne. In 1993 he, Stefan Keune (sopranino and tenor saxophones), Martin Speicher (sopranino and altosaxophones) and Joachim Zoepf (sopranino and altosaxophones) formed a saxophone quartet that was different from most of what had been heard in the field of free improvisation up to then - and in fact to this day: The musicians focused on sound production, but also on a high degree of expressivity. The challenge was not only to push the saxophone’s possibilities to its limits, but also to combine the different playing styles and attitudes of the different players into a punchy whole. On the one hand, it was all about musical interaction and communication, confrontation and invitation at the same time. On the other hand, it was also about violence, outcast status and ultimate freedom, which was also to be understood as a reference to the irony of the project’s title. After all, William Bonney was no one else but Billy The Kid.

As a consequence, The Laws of William Bonney - a collection of musical fragments from over 14 years of the band’s existence - still demands a lot of the listeners. Beautiful melodies are nowhere to be found, nor are uniform beats. Instead, a million different ideas and different interjections shoot out of every corner. The quartet spared no risk “often coming precariously close to the limit of falling off without ever losing the desire to cross it. Safe paths were unknown to the quartet, even though each of them knew how to contribute their personal and tested ingredients“, as the liner notes reveal. Morgan, Keune, Specter and Zoepf hurtle through the stratosphere and generate an enormous density of information through frenzied speed and subtlety. This is mainly achieved through the use of contrasts. Often, one of the four produces deep, dark drones, another swings off in a barely recognizable manner, while the other two fire away like snipers. “XI - 2006“ is exemplary for their philosophy of music. Here you can see all their artistic skill, which is never celebrated as an end in itself, it’s simply radiant beauty. It’s a pool of chirps, tongue beats, bubbling and cascades of sound, driven to a point where everything comes together. As a listener you cannot escape this pull. The music is exhausting in the most positive sense and relentlessly self-referential. When dialogical improvisation transforms a quartet into a kaleidoscopic wonder of sound, when saxophones transcend worldly boundaries, it’s like 45 minutes of fireworks.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that the quartet remained an insider tip in the underground. It was avoided by so-called jazz connoisseurs anyway, because they regarded free jazz as formless and amateurish, but even traditional free jazzers knew little about it because the quiet sound explorations meant nothing to them. What is more astonishing is the fact why a label like FMP didn’t bother with this music, especially as they released a related project with Duets, Dithyrambisch by Wolfgang Fuchs, Hans Koch, Evan Parker and Louis Sclavis (although this was about alternating duets) in 1990.

As a consequence, the end of this adventure came in 2007. It’s therefore all the more welcome that the decision has been taken to make this forgotten gem accessible again.

The Laws of William Bonney Saxophone Quartet 1993 - 2007 is available as a download.

The album is also available as a CD. You can order it here: and here

You can listen here:


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Aruán Ortiz - Pastor's Paradox (Clean Feed, 2023)

While it may pain the conservatives to admit it, Martin Luther King Jr. was and remains a radical figure for human rights in the US and all over the world. Despite the decades-long concerted effort of whitewashing his legacy, his life's work extends beyond the "I Have a Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act; he opposed the Vietnam war, was critical of capitalism and the ineffectual apathetic tendencies of the white moderates of his day, he was an advocate for women's rights and was a strong proponent of reparations, knowing that real equality would only be achieved by levelling the unfair playing field black people, and minorities generally, have been subjected to for centuries up to today.
Pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz is very aware of Dr. King's radical nature and for this album dedicated to his memory he wrote equally radical music, performed by a quartet consisting of himself on piano, Don Byron on clarinet, Pheeroan akLaff on drums and Lester St. Louis and Yves Dhar alternating on cello duties, with occasional contributions from spoken word artist Mtume Gant, who interpolates bits and pieces of some of King's speeches into the music.

This album features world class musicianship from world class musicians who operate as a well-oiled machine, playing with incredible synergy and showcasing great interplay, often mimicking and expanding on each other's ideas and melodies (despite the deeply atonal nature of the music) and matching each other's energy, with Ortiz in particular doing a fantastic job as bandleader, always serving the music first and being willing to step aside and give each musician the spotlight, something that requires restraint, faith in your collaborators and confidence in the merits of the music itself.

And the music on this record is, simply put, absolutely brilliant, with energetic tracks such as the opener "Autumn of Freedom" taking the listener on a journey of wailing clarinet lines, exploring the whole range of the instrument effortlessly and with purpose while the tense cello moans, fluid and endlessly churning drums and Ortiz' staggered note clusters provide the perfect foundation for the wild instrumental explorations and Gant's recitation of passages from the aforementioned "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Turning the Other Cheek No More" is of a similar nature but ramps up the energy even more, the clarinet more daring, the interplay tighter, the drums managing to sound unpredictable and fresh while introducing some elements of Latin American rhythmic sensibilities and the piano hammered with even more ferocity and passion, resulting in a deeply compelling listen merging the energy of free jazz with hints of the atonality of some of Howard Shore's more audacious compositions.

The music on this album is not simply a tour-de-force of nonstop flurries of notes, however, and, as most good music often is, it's a music of contrasts. While the slower pieces might eschew the ferocity and give the listener a break from the breakneck pace, the teeth-gritting energy still bubbles underneath the surface of the quiet compositions like the title-track "Pastor's Paradox", a deceptively simple piece: St. Louis' cello and Byron's clarinet swim in the murky pond of dissonant-yet-delicate chords from the piano for the first half of the song, the second half introducing shimmering, pristine high piano notes that, while never approaching something that could be considered consonant, give a great sense of finality to the emotional crescendo of the track.
"The Dream That Wasn't Meant to Be Ours" is a multifaceted, deeply somber piece that begins with a whimper: a beautiful duet between the cello and the drums cradles the spoken word performance of a portion of "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon, only to be later joined by the piano and clarinet exchanging their own personal and subdued dialogue for the remainder of the track that never quite turns into a bang, rather a sort of controlled demolition, a slow implosion of deeply moving and affecting music with many moving parts that work greatly on their own, even better in the context of the other instruments and perfectly as a whole; a fantastic achievement and the best piece on the whole release.

The album ends with one final sendoff, "No Justice, No Peace, Legacy!" featuring all musicians on vocals rhythmically chanting the title of the piece before grabbing their instruments of choice for one last performance, a constant crescendo in honor and in memory of Dr. King's legacy, urging us all to do more and do better, in the hopes of reaching true equality and justice one day.

The recording matches the music in its liveliness and rawness, with the piano mics sometimes on the verge of clipping from the sheer intensity of Ortiz' playing, the audible clacking of the clarinet keys in the most involved passages and the buzzing of the snare making you feel like you're in the room watching the band perform right in front of you, but you don't have to rely on your memories to revisit these fantastic performances, you can just listen to the album again.

Released digitally and on CD by Clean Feed, radical music in honor of a radical man.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Old Mountain – Another State of Rhythm (Clean Feed, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Another State of Rhythm by Old Mountain, a quintet which features Pedro Branco on piano, Tony Malaby on tenor sax, Joao Sousa on drums, and two bassists, Joao Hasselberg and Hernani Faustino, offers bluesy and soulful introspection within music of grace and beauty parsed with free playing elements and abstractions.

The musicians draw upon a wide range of historical idioms – for example, the opening number, “Goodnight Irene,” a 1933 Leadbelly composition, offers a mix of Branco’s free playing juxtaposed with Malaby’s soulful melodies and the gentle rocking rhythm of the bass players and Sousa’s drums.

One is also struck by the solemn expressions of some of the numbers. For example, “The Sixth Commandment” offers a subtle repose, with agitating bass lines and harmonic piano abstractions underneath Malaby’s pleading wails. In “Ballad for Paul” the piano overtones provide a sorrowful counterpoint to the bass plucks and bowing that underlie the harmonics (captured magnificently by recording engineer Eduardo Vinhas). And, featuring Sousa’s colorful cymbal and drum work, “Blend in By Standing Out” combines moments of grace beneath its despondent themes.

Perhaps the most interesting tune on the album is also its longest – “Montanha” – which in Portuguese means mountain. It opens with Branco’s wistful lines which seem to imply a distant view of some mountain landscape that stretches forever. Importantly, Branco’s efforts are given space by the other musicians to fully come to life. After a pause, the music turns bluesy again – almost like a New Orleans funeral procession – suggesting the odd combination of sadness and joy. And for those who like pure free playing, the number “Freebus,” will not disappoint. Especially enjoyable here is Branco’s use of the upper registers of the piano to add sprinkles, flavor, and hops to the mix.

Those who enjoy a diverse palette of musical influences interspersed with improvisations that challenge while remaining grounded will most certainly enjoy Another State of Rhythm. Its compositions tinged with melancholy are a relevant reflection of today’s increasingly disappointing world.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Carlos Bica - Playing with Beethoven (Clean Feed, 2023)

By Stuart Broomer

This recording sat around for a while, collecting my increasing interest, I confess, without me getting around to engaging with it to the extent it required. I was initially drawn to it by a 50-year fondness for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Opus '70 (1969), a work for an improvising quartet using materials drawn from Beethoven. Playing with Beethoven is the work of a well-travelled veteran, bassist, composer and bandleader Carlos Bica, whose playing possesses a tremendous elegance, his arco playing often sounding more like a cello than a bass. He’s accompanied by a collection of fine musicians, though their instruments hardly form a typical alignment: Daniel Erdmann, plays tenor and soprano saxophones, João Barradas, accordion, and DJ Illvibe, turntables. Whether it’s the musicians, the instruments or the material, composed over generally familiar Beethoven themes, everything is inspired and worked with a kind of transcendent lyricism. Especially on tenor, Erdmann possesses one of the great lyric tones, as compelling in its own way as Getz or Coltrane. It’s immediately apparent on the opening “Leonore”, composed by Carlos Bica “after” Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No.3”.

Part of the recording’s genius is that, in a world of improvised music, it’s almost “overcomposed”, composed to the point where methodologies collide, fracture or, most happily, elide into new sonic worlds. Each of the 11 tracks is both “after a Beethoven composition” and also credited to an individual—eight to Bica alone, one to Bica and João Paulo E. da Silva, one to João Barradas (a luminous solo) and one to DJ Illvibe, but it hardly stops there. Beethoven/Bica’s “Tiny Change” has Illvibe inserting and altering a hefty sample of Tom Wait’s “Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)” then altering Erdmann’s tenor as well with bubbles of pitch- shifting entering the saxophonist’ lines. “Euch Werde Lohn In Bersern Welten” has a recording of chanting and a great stereo duet by Erdmann and Erdmann. Illvibe’s “Kids See Ghost Sometimes” is the turntablist’s solo piece constructed on the ruins of “Moonlight Sonata” with an R&B vocal, a distorted trumpet and a mangled horror movie theme adding to the haunting.

Whether individually or collectively, the group creates its own radical space out of a sense of reverence and/or playfulness — apart from Ill Vibe everyone is essentially a lyrical musician (maybe him too), with Barradas a kind of national treasure of accordion tunefulness, possibly sampled in repeating chunks by Illvibe.

The special joy of this music is that you can put it on repeat and it will always sound both the same and different (“Leonore” really is more beautiful with every pass), almost like a collection of radios tuned to random stations. Oddly, it intrudes not on the listener but on itself, the easy listening music of chaos, something the world itself can’t stop making and for which we have a legitimate need, as in this wondrous product that makes classical beauty at once classic and beautiful in a fresh way.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Mathieu Bec - Sunday Interview

  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    The intensity of the exchanges in real time, like a deep and enriching dialogue, a conversation between friends where there is little need to speak to understand each other, the simplicity of the meetings, interactions nursed with benevolence.

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

    Respect for listening to the silence which is a deep telepathy and a common inaudible tempo. This silence unites us in the present time.

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

    Milford Graves, Bartók, Ligeti, John Coltrane... There are many and most of them are jazz or classical composers. If I had to pick just one it would be John Coltrane.

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

    I have a lot of love for the African influence and wisdom of Milford Graves and the solar energy of Elvin Jones... Both have brought me a lot.

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

    Find a jazz trio or quartet which would be open to improvisation instead of reproducing standards played ten thousand times.

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

    No, I have to admit. A long time ago I played in punk bands and loved The Stooges, MC5 but those days are gone.

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

    I’d love to have the possibility to travel more with my music.

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

    Flyin Sufi with Boris Blanchet on sax and Standards combustion with Daunik Lazro and Benjamin Duboc.

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

    I don’t listen to myself very much. The next project is always the one I’m looking forward to.

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

    Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Lux aeterna by Ligeti.

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?

    Miles Davis’ Nefertiti and Milford Graves’ Stories.

  12. What artists outside music inspires you?

    David Lynch is a superior example, sometimes an inspiration as well as the disquieting strangeness of reality… I like “The Blair Witch project” film, psychological thrillers where everything is suggested and not shown. The dark paintings of Caravaggio, the chiaroscuro de Georges de La tour, J.M.W. Turner’ fire… And poets such as Rimbaud, Michel X Côté, Serge Pey.

Reviews with Mathieu Bec on the Free Jazz Blog:

Also, Mathieu Bec will be performing in duet with Daunik Lazro at Domaine de Montbarri (France), on Sunday, June 23, for a tribute to John Coltrane and others.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Giuseppe Doronzo - Futuro Ancestrale & AVA Trio

By Guido Montegrandi

Giuseppe Doronzo - Italian saxophone player, composer and educator based in Amsterdam - is one of the most interesting voices in the European free music scene. His last two records mark a further step into his creative development that mixes free improvisation and ancient musical cultures. He also has a talent for choosing the people he plays with. Both the AVA Trio (which is one of his long standing project) and the trio of Doronzo, Moor, Rosaly exhibit a remarkable level of interplay and musical taste.

Giuseppe Doronzo, Andy Moor, Frank Rosaly - Futuro Ancestrale (Clean Feed, 2024)

Futuro Ancestrale documents the debut performance of the trio composed by Giuseppe Doronzo (baritone sax and Iranian bagpipe) Andy Mooor (electric guitar) and Franc Rosaly (drums and percussion) at the Amsterdam’s Bimhuis in June 22.

Somehow developing the concept of music from an imaginary land that Doronzo conceived with his AVA Trio in 2017, the music in this album explores sounds, infiltrate contemporary takes and echoes of ancient musical cultures developing an explicitly non linear storytelling made of noises, broken rhythms drones and melodies.

Futuro Ancestrale (ancestral future) tells of futures coming from or going to the past –which direction? Your ears, your choice or maybe you don’t have to choose, that’s the beauty of oxymoron.

An direct reference to a non linear approach is given by the track Hopscotch whose title mirrors the English translation of Cortazar 1963 stream of consciousness novel Rayuela. This piece of music is made of erratic segments that combine in a continuous flux of exchanging parts between the musicians - Moor scraping guitar and Rosaly broken drumming are crowded by Doronzo quasi melodic figures and then the other way round.

In Magma, Doronzo leaves the baritone for the Iranian bagpipe creating an exotic sound tapestry on which Moor and Rosaly display their patterns until in the finale the bagpipe is left alone on sparse percussions.

The final piece, Digging the Sand, is a re-imagination of a piece of the AVA trio here taken to its outer limits by the slow and imaginative beat and the meandering sax and guitar.

The music that this meeting has produced has an imaginative quality that develops in the space that each musician creates for the others to play in alternating bursting moments to sparse sound and noise sections and you can even encounter melodies! I really would have loved to be there that night.

But if like me, you weren’t there, you can buy and download it from bandcamp.

You can also read another point of view on the album, see Sammy Stein's review here

AVA Trio – The Great Green (Tora Records – 2024)

AVA Trio is:

Giuseppe Doronzo - baritone saxophone, ney anbān, longar double flute
Esat Ekincioglu - double bass
Pino Basile - frame drums, tamburello, percussion

Words and colours and sounds.

Ancient Greeks did not have a specific term to indicate the colour blue - more specifically the colour of the sea, and the story told in the booklet accompanying AVA Trio's The Great Green focuses on this twilight zone of language telling of a fisherman’s quest for the name of the colour of the Great Green just to discover in the end that “The Great Green is not green after all. The Great Green reveals his true colours with every rolling wave, million of different hues yet to be named”.

And this quest takes us into a journey of sounds and melodies and rhythms that move and meander offering to the listeners unexpected glimpses of musical brilliance.

An upright solo opens Didima just to be carried away by the encircling sound of Basile frame drums doubled by a distant and melodic baritone melody that slowly gains the center stage.

Basile performance is outstanding, it’s the real backbone of the entire work, while Doronzo and Ekincioglu dig deep into a music that often evokes eastern-like scales and melodies, Basile’s percussions create the environment and the horizon of the journey. The result is almost 40 minutes of stimulating music that carries on a sonic research through and around the Mediterranean Sea, evoking sounds and melodies that could have existed. From Music from an Imaginary Land (2017) to Digging the Sand (2019), Ash (2023) and now The Great Green, the AVA Trio continues its musical archaeology extracting sounds from ancestral memories and introducing them into future. The use of traditional reeds in some of the pieces (Tsamikos and Didima) emphasizes the ethnic roots of this music but, just like in the case of the percussion set used by Pino Basile, these sounds are perfectly integrated in a sonic search that is well rooted in contemporaneity.

A meaningful record.

You can buy and download it on bandcamp.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Moor Mother – The Great Bailout (Anti-, 2024)

Although Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) has received justified acclaim for her vocal work with Irreversible Entanglements, that praise has to some extent overshadowed the attention given to the substantial series of solo albums and other collaborative projects she has pursued since the 2010s. Perhaps that will change with The Great Bailout. With a harrowing and relentless interrogation of Great Britain’s legacy of slavery and colonialism, this uncompromising artist sketches a world in sound that demands to be heard. It is a listening experience both challenging and immensely rewarding.

This is Moor Mother’s ninth studio album under her own name, and her third with the Anti- label. Her previous Anti- release, 2022’s Jazz Codes, was a kaleidoscopic engagement with the jazz tradition itself, drawing from a pan-idiomatic template in celebrating and scrutinizing the work of artists from Woody Shaw to Joe McPhee to Mary Lou Williams. The sound collages on The Great Bailout continue to mine the resources of jazz, but they appear as fugitive traces rather than sustained explorations. But they are no less powerful for that, to be sure.

The opening strains of “Guilty” establish the trajectory of the album, with a disarmingly lilting soundscape undergirded by harpist Mary Lattimore and vocalists Lonnie Holley and Raia Was, before Moor Mother’s emphatic entrance in which she questions and confronts the historical weight of oppression through half-whispered, half-shouted entreaties. It is a dichotomous effect that recurs throughout the record: the music, which is sometimes quite beautiful, is continuously disrupted and threatened by the horrific subject matter.

Each track is tightly constructed, without an emphasis on spontaneous improvisation. The voices from the jazz world are instead woven deftly into the fabric of each track: “Liverpool Wins” contains haunting echoes from Sarah Vaughan, while Lester Bowie’s trumpet winds its way through “God Save the Queen,” and Angel Bat Dawid’s inimitable clarinet moans like a wraith through the brutally grim “South Sea.” But as with Jazz Codes, these elements are filtered through Moor Mother’s broad stylistic prism, one that seeks to move beyond musical category altogether, into a much more amorphous realm.

The album’s title is a reference to England’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which resulted in a massive taxpayer-funded effort to compensate British slaveholders when slavery was finally abolished in the empire. The fortunes of thousands, including the ancestors of Prime Ministers William Gladstone and David Cameron, were enlarged through this unprecedented act of government largesse (or theft, more accurately). While the attempt to obtain justice for the long legacy of slavery both in Britain and elsewhere will undoubtedly remain pressing for generations to come, recordings like The Great Bailout will continue their vital work of disturbing, troubling, and probing the consciences of those who will have to heed this call.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Dell, Lillinger, Westergaard (DLW) - Beats II (Plaist, 2023)

I've waited too long on this one. I've been determined to review it for months now, and there have been a number of false starts and public declarations (to whomever could hear me) that Beats II would be my next review. So what went wrong? It's not the album, that's for sure ... so, if there is any reason that could shift the blame from myself, it would be that it's hard to tell where to begin with it. DLW creates music that can be hard to pin down. It has a way of unsettling your equilibrium, and on first approach it can be quite formidable.

The trio, vibraphonist Christopher Dell, drummer Christian Lillinger, and bassist Jonas Westergaard have been working together for several years, developing a musical 'grammar' that has been documented in several trio releases over the years, starting with Grammar (gligg, 2013), Grammar II (PLAIST, 2019), Beats (PlAIST, 2021) and now Beats II.

Some of the press around Beats II spoke of "multiperspectivity" and "multidimensionality," which is likely not a bad way to capture in words the fractional beats and cut-up nature of the recording, but it is a bit foreboding. The music itself, however, is not. It was recorded as one long improvised piece then processed/reprocessed in such a way that individual tracks became sharp fun-house mirror reflections of each other. Hard cuts between the songs suggest beginnings and ends, but they also could be middles and related pieces that don't necessarily follow in a recognizable pattern, but as suggested by the names of the pieces, represent (or are represented by) colors.

Thus, I think there is where, possibly, I got hung-up. The colors, the cut-ups, the short tracks that both work with and against each other, and my wobbly balance after listening. However, if one lets go and allows Lillinger's staccato hits and Xacto-knife slices of the beat to simply propel Westergaard's commanding bass lines and Dell's highly syncopated loop-like melodic statements, it is quite easy to slide into the musical world that they have been fastidiously building over the years. The opening 'red' lasts all of 16 seconds, but in its short brutal life, it establishes that what you are hearing will require your full attention. In the follow up, 'yellow' (a generous two and a half minutes) finds Dell playing a looping set of chords over slightly shifting time-frames and on 'wine' (a color in the Crayola Crayon 64-pack, right?) it's Westergaard who embodies the fluctuating pulse. Throughout the 20 short tracks, nothing is solid, but everything is hard and sharp. The music is utterly compelling, and at some point, the shards of fun house mirrors become more like a kaleidoscope of fascinating sound.

Beats II ... once you find your way in, you'll start hearing shapes and tasting colors anew.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Fundraiser for Steve Beresford

We do not typically post funding requests but when it comes to the health and well-being of a creative musician who has given so much to the musical community, we see it fit to make an exception.

"Hi. I am Steve Beresford. I’ve played the piano since I was 7 and now I’m 74. Sometimes I was a university lecturer. I mainly play improvised music and up until Covid had an OK time. But my savings went during Covid, my pension is small and post-Covid gigs are sparse. I need financial help, not least because I’ll be having an operation for a thing I’ve had since birth. I’d appreciate your help."

Mary Halvorson – Cloudward (Nonesuch Records, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson has become a mainstay of the free music scene – her albums winning accolades for their innovative compositions and challenging abstractions. Cloudward is no exception – with eight compositions whose musical ideas seem never to touch the ground, but prefer, instead, to suspend themselves in mid-air.

Her choice of bandmates on this outing certainly help to make this happen. In addition to Halvorson, the sextet is comprised of Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Nick Dunston on bass, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, and Patricia Brennan on vibraphone. The band is large enough to add colorful voicings to the outing yet small enough that each musician has the space to contribute. The sextet is even joined on “Incarnadine” by Laurie Anderson, who chips in on violin.

The dissonant and abstract tunes are not harsh or difficult. Instead, they are seasoned with just enough sauce to provide a tasty gumbo of sounds and effects. Each has its own captivating themes and there’s plenty of counterpoint to establish these themes in clever and enticing ways.

One can marvel at the way the group navigates the compositions both together and apart. Take the first number, “The Gate,” where Halvorson and O’Farrill open with joint guitar and trumpet over Dunston’s engaging bass. Or the abstract picking and electronics Halvorson uses on “The Tower,” which migrates into Brennan’s gentle vibraphone phrases. As the tune progresses, the music seems to disassociate, almost like a tapestry unraveling into different strands.

For variety, there’s the industrial rock found in “Desiderata,” with its electronic distortions and cascading guitar notes juxtaposed against the vibraphone arc, as Brennan’s lines pilot the turbulence like a moth flying in circles around some distant light. Fujiwara drives the bus forward with some excellent drum work underneath the eerie guitar and dream-like vibraphone phrases.

Perhaps the most fascinating number is the final one – “Ultramarine,” Dotson opens the piece with adroit maneuvering on the bass and he’s joined by Halvorson, whose twangy tones sound almost banjo-like. As the number moves forward, it develops a gentle swing, highlighted by the abstract bluesy chords created by Garchik’s trombone and O’Farrill’s trumpet atop Halverson’s arpeggios. O’Farrill’s contribution is particularly noteworthy – as his trumpet slides up and down the registers like butter on a hot skillet.

There’s more of course – from the odd time meter employed in “Unscrolling” to the discombobulated Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole effects generated by the group on “Incarnadine.” Cloudward certainly displays Halvorson and colleagues at their best – a stunning exhibition of musical ideas and fluid musicianship.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

George Cartwright - three recent recordings

By Gary Chapin

George Cartwright’s Curlew was a bellwether for me in my foundling days, opening my ears in so many ways it’s hard to imagine how I would hear the world if I hadn’t encountered them. If nothing else, I owe Cartwright a lot for introducing me (sonically) to Tom Cora, the late, great cellist.

Three recordings recently crossed my transom, and they are all worth your time and consideration.

George Cartwright and Bruce Golden - Dilate (sr 2024)

Dilate is a duo recording of George Cartwright, ostensibly a saxophonist but on this record so much more, and Bruce Golden, Curlew drummer but on this record … you get the idea. With characteristic drollness, Cartwright is credited with the “licked sounds” and Golden with the “nailed sounds.” I don’t find the question of “who did what” all that compelling for music like this. Just like when the AEC play their little instruments, I don’t really care if it’s Mitchell or Jarman banging on the bicycle frame. I just let it happen to me.

This is an abstract and wild set, with much electronics and concrete going on. It has the humor and storytelling I associate with Cartwright, and the intrigue. As we move through sections, I am driven forward thinking, “I wonder how this is going to turn out.” Some overdubbing, a lot of production tweaking the envelope in a theatrical way. A great record.

George Cartwright’s GloryLand PonyCat - Black Ants Crawling (Mahakala 2024)

GloryLand PonyCat is the name of the trio, with Cartwright’s tenor (and alto, it says, but I hear almost entirely tenor), Alden Ikeda, drums, and Adam Linz, bass. Conceptually, this is a much easier record to grasp than Dilate. It’s a sax trio from the avant jazz world, a live 2003 recording from the Clown Lounge in St. Paul, originally released on Innova. Now reissued on Mahakala.

Calling it conceptually graspable is not a knock on the record. Sometimes you want to be clever, sometimes clever is the wrong thing to be and the right thing to do is just play some amazing music for an hour, and that’s what the trio does here. Much of the record is in clear post-bop territory, but there’s a lot of drift. Linz and Ikeda are excellent both as support for Cartwright and as musical groundswells in their own right. All three push their instruments to their limits, with one track, “God Has Smiled On Me,” evoking Albert Ayler in the best way.

George Cartwright - Ghostly Bee (Mahakala, 2023)

This one is from a bit further back, but since we’re talking about Cartwright, I couldn’t help but bring it up. Another reissue of an Innova disc from 2005 — this reissue series is a real service to our community. We’ve got a quintet with Cartwright, Golden, and Linz, joined by Chris Parker on keyboards, and Dave Williams on guitar.

And if you stood up and cheered when you read Davey Williams name, there, I wouldn’t blame you. I was not not surprised that Williams (long time Curlew doyen) infused this disc with his wonderfulness, but I was pleasantly revelated. Like Cartwright and Tom Cora, Williams sound is so unique, rich, and vulgar—it’s a gift.

Maybe it’s another one of those age things. I listen to musicians I love and think, “Has he ALWAYS been this amazing?” Maybe it’s just gratitude.

Ghostly Bee comprises two three part suites, that each have their own syntax and storylines, but those familiar with Cartwright’s work will recognize the sweet spot he’s in.

Monday, March 18, 2024

John Dikeman/Aleksandar Skoric/Giotis Damianidis/Petros Damianidis live @Giapi, Thessaloniki, March 16th, 2024

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

In the post-pandemic era, at least in these parts of Europe, there still exists the thrill of catching the energy of live music. One of the many results of the Covid dystopia is that it left us in Greece with very few opportunities to enjoy a, for a nevertheless marginalized music as John Dikeman put it before the gig, live act.

This Balkan (as the Damianidis’ brothers come from Greece and Skoric from Serbia) with a little help from America alliance is Dikeman on tenor saxophone, Skoric on the drums, Giotis Damianidis on electric guitar and Petros Damianidis on the double-bass. The first leg of their tour started in Thessaloniki and it will take them to Northern Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria.

The four of them played for the first time as a quartet, even though they know each other –at least in duo formations. Their free jazz with a lot improvisation take on music was a joyous affair of high energy, free thinking blowouts. There are certain moments when you don’t expect (or don’t know, or, even, just wait for the shadow of the impromptu to cover you tenderly) something in particular, and the music, the players that they produce it, offer you the best way to forget anything that bothers, itches or hurts inside you. This night was one of those instances.

Even though this is a free jazz quartet that plays in unison, a procedure that consists a lot of listening and caring, I can’t and won’t avoid a mention to Aleksandar Skoric. Having never caught him live before, I was not prepared. Not prepared for his energetic, organized chaos of joyful polyrhythmic drumming. Not prepared on how much he enjoyed it, letting go, playing and interacting outside the codes. His drumming resembles and combines the ecstasy of children that play games and the ferocity of the best drummers around at this time.

But, obviously, Skoric was not alone. Dikeman was equally eager to offer us sax blowouts and wait fervently, stepping aside for his fellow players. Notes were spitted and growled with aggressiveness. Petros Damianidis, a quiet force for the quartet, managed what seemed to impossible, considering the volume of their sound. He was an equal partner, using the double-bass as a percussive instrument too. Giotis Damianidis utilizes his electric guitar as a bridge. He fills the gap between intensive rock playing, improvising at moments, while –with the help of effects- creating his own idiolect, one that has ears for his fellow players.

When we talk about improvised music, there shouldn’t be surprises (because you are surprised only when you expect “bad” and you get something “good”), only expectations. Expecting that the music will transcend you, fill you with joy or whatever other feeling is there. I already mentioned that this night was one of those nights, and many of us felt it from the start. Catch them live, if you can.

By the way, Giapi means building under construction.


Sunday, March 17, 2024

Anna Webber - Sunday Interview

Photo by Cristina Marx/Photomusix

  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    The disintegration of self.

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

    Deep listening, timbral curiosity, commitment.

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

    It varies from day to day! But currently I've been thinking a lot about Coltrane.

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

    I'm not too interested in wishful thinking.

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

    A career spanning 50-60 years.

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

    Currently really digging Horse Lords. Is that popular music?

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

    I always want to be better at being present.

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

    All of them.

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

    Basically never. I'll usually listen to it once around release day, but aside from that, I've usually had enough of it by the time it comes out...

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

    There are so many...

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?

    Checking out a bunch of stuff that's been released in the last month or so - the new Mary Halvorson record, the new Tim Berne record... I always try to stay on top of what's going on currently.

  12. What artist outside music inspires you?

    James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon

Reviews with Anna Webber on the Free Jazz Blog:

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Strinning & Daisy – Castle and Sun (Veto Records, 2023)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I really like Tim Daisy’s drumming and the way he utilizes every inch of his drum set. Even though he definitely comes from a lineage of free jazz drummers, his approach is unique and allows a lot of pleasure to those of who believe that the drummer should not be confined to the role of the timekeeper.

As a fan of his music, I must comment that duos and small ensembles are one of his chosen paths to express his musical ideas. Here, with Sebastian Strinning, who plays tenor saxophone on this recording, seems at his best again. Actually they both sound on top form.

The sax and drums duo, so well documented, recorded and commented in the history of modern music, never stops to appear fruitful. If I had to guess, I’d say that this is happening because it relies on a basic form of human connection and understanding. Two people of whatever age, gender or sexuality always enclose the core (or the start in numbers maybe) of people’s exchanging in ideas and feelings.

Here on Castle and Sun, another very good free jazz release from Veto Records, they rely on interaction and listening to each other first. Listening first, playing after that: this is the very heart of improvisation. Their playing on Castle and Sun is linear, like they are following each other’s path, leaving room for ideas to blossom and following each other’s ideas and gestures.

Strinning’s tenor sax spreads phrases in a humble way like trying, always, to leave room for his fellow player. Even though I tend to avoid blowouts from saxes these days, if I had to make a criticism on this fine recording, I would say that some more energetic passages would help me as a listener. But his subtle approach is so much more closer to his partner playing, that the aforementioned thought makes me believe it’s just me nagging a bit…

I cannot say if the two have played together before, but, certainly, they seem to know each well. And above all they definitely seem to use fluently this non verbal way of communication called improvisation.

Listen here:


Friday, March 15, 2024

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis - self-titled (Impulse, 2024)

By Martin Schray

Sometimes I DJ with my buddy Thomas in a bar. Neither of us knows what the other has taken with him, we like to surprise each other. Last time Thomas presented James Brandon Lewis’s Eye of I album and played “Fear Not (feat. The Messthetics),“ and what can I say: It blew me away! What surprised me most was the fact that this is obviously a blatant rock song - and Thomas doesn’t actually like rock. “Well, the exception proves the rule“, he answered with a smile. In contrast to him, I’ve always had a soft spot for rock and immediately fell for the descending chords, the melodrama of the sound, the sweeping gesture, the Bad-Brains-meet-Pharoah-Sanders moments. And indeed: The interesting thing about this collection of musicians is the cultural clash of hardcore and jazz, because the Messthetics consist of the two former Fugazi members Joe Lally (bass) and Brendan Canty (drums) plus guitarist Anthony Pirog, the latter being the link to jazz. His solo albums Palo Colorado Dream and In Side have already shown him as an exceptional musician. He’s also the one who made the connection to James Brandon Lewis, as both have known each other from sessions with iconic free jazz drummer William Hooker, which resulted in Hooker’s 2018 album Pillars... At The Portal. “Since day one of knowing Anthony, me and him just fit,” says Lewis. “We looked at each other after that William Hooker session, and we was like, ‘Damn, this shit is on point’.” After Pirog then took part in Brandon Lewis’s An Unruly Manifesto, it was only a logical decision to release a complete Messthetics album with the saxophonist.

However, anyone expecting a simple continuation of the previous collaboration will be disappointed. Just the opposite is the case, as some of the nine tracks are ballads (“Asthenia“ or “Three Sisters"), weird swing numbers (“Railroad Tracks Home“), post punk à la The Psychedelic Furs (“Emergence“), hard funk (“That Thang“) and almost classic jazz rock (“L’Orso“). Only “Fourth Wall", the album’s finale, is reminiscent of “Fear not“, since it’s an uptempo rocker par excellence. On that track, as so often on the album, Pirog and Lewis play their solos one after the other, but you can still hear a certain tension and connection between the two. When Lewis ends his statement with a gloomy howl, Pirog takes up the saxophonist’s last remarks with a soulful line. What is more, diversity is a theme on the album in other ways. Like in a giant cooking pot, many things are mixed together, rhythmic and harmonic hooks are constantly added. This can again be heard in “Emergence“, when the piece literally explodes in the chorus, as if you were shifting up a gear in the car, which happens here - as often in the pieces - through Brandon Lewis’s saxophone. It’s one of the characteristics of the band’s music. The blind understanding between guitar and saxophone “pushed the song like crazy,“ Joe Lally recalls of a passage when Lewis and Pirog when Pirog and Brandon Lewis started throwing wild solos back and forth to each other during a live set before the band went to the studio to record. It was a moment when intensity was physically palpable and which almost lit Lally up: “You’re just holding on and (keep) going“, he remembers telling himself.

This vibe can be felt on almost all the tracks and it’s possibly most evident in “Boatly“. The track starts like a trip-hop ballad - imagine Portishead unplugged - with drum brushes and a sluggish groove, but after four and a half minutes it transforms with an irresistible, yet simple increase in tempo and leads into a breathtaking coda in which Lewis’s overblown screams and Pirog’s plucked chords sound like a young Archie Shepp meets Bill Frisell. Anthony Pirog describes this part as a highlight of the album - and I gladly second that.

Another important surprise is the label. Impulse! is still regarded as something like the holy temple of jazz - and this album is by no means always jazz. However, the sound and the force with which Lewis plays here is clearly reminiscent of John Coltrane as well as the aforementioned Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. And even in the 1960s, the label was always in tune with the times, as it is now with this album. Joe Lally says that he can hardly wait to see his band’s name next to the unmistakable orange, white and black Impulse! logo. “I’m trying to be cool about it,” Brendan Canty says about the fact of being associated with such a legendary catalog. “Hopefully nobody’s going to figure out that I’m the imposter in the temple.”

This is certainly not to be feared, because The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis will guaranteed be one of the highlights of this year.

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis is available on vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

Watch “Emergence“ here: