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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Frank Paul Schubert, Olaf Rupp, Lothar Ohlmeier - Entropy Hug (Not Applicable, 2024)

By Martin Schray

Actually a simple thing. Three men come together - all prominent representatives of the Berlin Echtzeit scene - to record an album. Frank Paul Schubert is one of the best European saxophonists, who often plays with English musicians such as Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers, Mark Sanders and John Edwards, but also with Matthias Müller or Alexander von Schlippenbach. Olaf Rupp is also an old acquaintance, his releases with Rudi Fischerlehner (Xenofox), his various duos (for example with Ulrike Brand or John Hughes) and his trios with Rudi Mahall and Jan Roder (or with Kasper Tom) have already been discussed on this website almost euphorically. Lothar Ohlmeier, who has also been around for over 35 years and is one of the unsung heroes of his instrument, is definitely one of the most exciting European clarinetists. Three real warhorses, nothing spectacular, you might think, but the combination of sonic possibilities is somewhat unorthodox: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and guitar. Real tonal contrasts come together here with the clarinet and the sax. And then a guitar?

The question seems to be what kind of music is displayed here. Is this chamber music, as the liner notes claim? Music that takes the idea of the classical piano trio (violin, piano, cello) further into contemporary improvisational music and opens up completely new possibilities with the diverse expressive possibilities of the three instruments, free from stylistic or dramaturgical restrictions, to transform the color of individual notes and combined sounds into a lively texture? Or is it this kind of free jazz respectively improvised music, which is decidedly “European“, but whose existence would be inconceivable without American jazz, and which is nevertheless a language of its own?

In any case, we listen to sonic serpentine lines, driven to a point where intensity and sound unite to create intellectual pleasure. Almost 50 minutes of exuberant sound abstraction by the two reeds, held together by the spider’s web of open guitar chords. In their dialogs, the two wind players make furious use of their instruments. They buzz, creak, chatter and smack, chirp, whisper and grunt. The musicians give musical form to the exhaustive tonal variations in long improvisations: expressive and emotional, sometimes hectic and rushed. It is often Schubert who shapes the pieces with his idiosyncratic melodic style, with slowly developing, minimalist figures that intensify and break off again and which are taken up, modified or counteracted by his partners. Then again, wide ellipses seem to be thrown in the mix (especially by Ohlmeier), whose lines approach, overlap, diverge again and circle around an imaginary pole. In the quieter moments, the three explore the sound possibilities of their instruments and their interplay; in the faster moments, Schubert alternates furiously between the homely warmth of the low register and the icy coldness of the high register. Olaf Rupp cushions these designs with his arpeggios and harmonics, but also with shrill interjections with a somnambulistic lightness - best heard in “Old Dog New Trick“.

This is music that opens the ears and at the same time is unconventionally exhausting (but easy at the same time) to listen to and relentlessly self-referential. Entropy Hug is an excellent album, no doubt.

You can buy and listen to the album here: 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Frank Gratkowski: Recent Recordings

By Eyal Hareuveni

German reeds player-composer-bandleader Frank Gratkowski traverses broad context of contemporary improvised music. There is no clear distinction between composition and improvisation in his work, as his recent albums testify.

Frank Gratkowski & Ensemble Modern - Mature Hybrid Talking (Maria de Alvear world edition, 2024) 

The democratically organized Ensemble Modern was founded in 1980 and at home in Frankfurt am Main with aesthetic spectrum includes musical theatre works, dance and multimedia projects, chamber music, ensemble and orchestral concerts. In 2022 a ten-musician version of Ensemble Modern, with Gratkowski as conductor and playing flute, alto sax and bass clarinet, performed Gratkowski’s Mature Hybrid Talking, dedicated to composer Iannis Xenakis, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to an author James Joyce, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ulysses, as both had a major impact on him, and Gratkowski was one of the leaders of the Multiple Joy[ce] Orchestra.

Mature Hybrid Talking was inspired by the rhythm and sound of Joyce's language, with its almost constant accumulation of complex utterances, connected and within themselves in a way that seems to echo the precipitous wordplay of Finnegans Wake, and Xanakis’ unique architectures. British electronics player Richard Barrett (who played in Gratkowski’s Trokaan project and the Skein ensemble), who contributed insightful liner notes, observed the wise manner in which Gratkowski applied his personal, non-idiomatic improvisational strategies, with the kaleidoscope of colors, densities and unpredictable shifts of direction, to the notated score, in terms of rhythm and pitch (incorporating quartertones for all the instruments that can play them), and the structure of the composition. Gratkowski conducted the composition using hand signals to gather and channel the ensemble’s collective imagination and contributed the cover photo.

This complex and arresting chamber composition captures the immediate, unpredictable spirit of spontaneous, improvised dynamics when anything might happen at any time but its has a mysterious, cohesive structure, consistency and interconnectedness that testifies to Gratkowski’s ability to compose for the distinct, articulate voices of Ensemble Modern. And as Barrett concludes, “It’s authentically 21st-century music, combining a maximum of freedom with a maximum of discipline in a way that represents a significant and vital tendency in contemporary musical thinking”.


Frank Gratkowski’s Entrainment (Klanggalerie, 2024) 

Gratkowski’s Entrainment is a power quartet featuring long-time comrade, Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi (of Altered States and Otomo Yoshihide's seminal Ground Zero), who has worked with Gratkowski in his Trokaan Project and the second incarnation of the Skein ensemble and keeps performing with Gratkowski as a duo; Norwegian, Berlin-based electric bassist Dan Peter Sundland, and American, fellow Berliner drummer Steve Heather (who plays in Sundland's Home Stretch, Splitter Orchestra and before in Tristan Honsinger's Hopscotch). Gratkowski’s Entrainment played its first performance at the Free Jazz Festival Saarbrücken in April 2022, where this album was recorded, and later performed only a few times in Berlin.

The expressive music of Entrainment is freely improvised and corresponds with experimental and psychedelic rock and spiritual jazz, but sounds fresh and unpredictable with no stylistic restrictions. It is raw, urgent and high-octane and meant to push Gratkowski into ecstatic terrains and beyond. Uchihashi’s guitar solos take the quartet into cosmic and hazy atmospheres and the tough, propulsive rhythm section of Sundland and Heather keeps all on their toes. Entrainment enjoys the feeling of release that follows the crossing of a certain energetic threshold and knows how to channel the mighty waves of energy into cathartic climaxes.

Frank Gratkowski & Elisabeth Harnik - Bullungga (Klanggalerie, 2021) 

Bullungga is the second album from Gratkowski with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik, following Burrum-bah (SoundOut Recordings, 2020), and like the first album, it was recorded live in 2020 at Klangspuren Schwaz during the Austrian Festival For New Music and at the German Moers Festival. The title of the album refers to the Aboriginal taxonomy of Australian animals, and bullungga is Eastern Quoll or Eastern Native Cat (Dasyurus viverrinus), as Gratkowski and Harnik first played together in Canberra, Australia, during the SoundOut festival in February 2020.

The music is freely improvised and captures these gifted improvisers at their best. Harnik employs preparations and extended techniques while pushing the piano into otherworldly terrains. Gratkowski alternates between alto sax to soprano sax, clarinet and bass flute. Their dynamics are immediate, deep and poetic, as Gratkowski and Harnik are highly imaginative and bold sonic explorers-painters, masters of their instruments. Gratkowski and Harnik are always searching for new and unpredictable sonic territories, with mischievous playfulness, captivating energy and touching lyricism, great sense of form and structure and deep listening. A perfect showcase of free improvisation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Jazzdor 16, June 4-7, 2024


By Paul Acquaro

Tucked into Berlin's Kulturebrauerei, a former brewery turned cultural center with a museum, a university outpost, performance spaces and restaurants, the German branch of the Jazzdor festival displaced the Kesselhaus events space's more typical programming of 90s dance parties and tribute bands with four evenings of contemporary music.

It was the festival's 16th edition in Berlin, which itself is an offshoot from the main festival activities in Strasbourg, France that have been going on since 1986. The festival, under the long-term leadership of Phillipe Ochem, also has a presence in Dresden at the underground Jazzclub Tonne runing concurrently with the Berlin festival and featuring a selection of the groups (see also my 2023 review).

Jazzdor brings together musicians from France, Germany and the US presents music that is just as diverse, with rich improvisation and compositions straddling classical, modern, and even a bit of free jazz. Regardless of the genre or where the needle points on the experimental spectrum, the results are nevertheless ear opening, both introducing heretofore unknown projects and musicians to new audiences as well as supporting already known collaborations. This year, for example, the Steve Lacy / Ornette Coleman inspired Prospectus quartet from France made their German debut; the long-standing collaboration Axiom brought back together top notch musicians from Germany, France, Switzerland and the USA; and the colossal French big band, "Orchestre National De Jazz," presented their ambitious work with American saxophonist Steve Lehman, realizing a critical update to the jazz big band operating system.


Tuba Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The festival began with the somewhat unusual pairing of piano, drums and tuba with French tubist Michel Godard's Tuba Trio. Somewhat unusual because one could imagine the tuba as an ersatz bass, which would make this a rather usual trio, but Godard's tuba playing does not replace a bass, rather he brings a whole rich tapestry of sound and motion to the configuration. 

As the set began, pianist Florian Weber hit a sharp chord, abrupt, clean, precise, another soon followed. Godard responded in kind and soon enough the two, along with the drumming of Anna Paceo, began ramping up the intensity. From Weber, there was an increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that gave the tuba great spaces to fill. From classical inspired passage to evolving melodies to loping grooves, the harmony and melody segued fluently between Godard and Weber. On some tunes, like the one dedicated to the late fluegel hornist Herbert Joos, Godard switched to the Serpent, a mystical looking ancestor to the tuba, whose sound seems to melt between the stark proclamation of a trumpet and the warm blast of a trombone. It was a mournful tune, gently expressive and appropriately hopeful at times. In other places, Paceo's drumming was given more prominence, while other tunes were more playful and rhythmic.

 Sophie Bernado 4tet. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The second set of the night was by bassoonist and world music enthusiast Sophie Bernado and her 4tet. The set's start was beset with a technical problem of some sort, where the buzzing, electronically effected blast of her bassoon was not right. After a few attempts to rectify, the third being the charm, the corrected atonal, electric and buzzing introduction led to an atmospheric, acoustic-electric, trance-like swirl of sound. Underscored by vibraphonist Taiko Saito's ringing figures and drummer Franceso Pastacaldi's steady pulse, the music was flowing. The group's approach generally was to layer long tones and shifting chords, and from these gentle grooves, the musicians took solo turns. Joachim Florent's first bass solo kept close to the band's heartbeat, until it didn't anymore and escaped daringly. Saito's punchy jazz-oriented soloing captured the spotlight at times as did Bernardo's own playing. There were some pop-rocky moments as well, when Bernardo sung lyrics with simple, catchy melodies. After the last tune ended with a prog-rock flourish, a humming of the last melody was audible in the audience.

As it turns out, an original member, Marie-Pascale Dube, a vocalist with a specialization in Inuit throat singing was replaced last minute by drummer Francesco Pastacaldi. The group's sound, however, was quite cohesive, and it is tricky to imagine the musical directions the music could have taken.


Prospectus. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The evening began with Prospectus, a quartet out of France that was formed around the work of Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy. In fact, they took their group name from Lacy's 1983 album Prospectus. It is actually quite possible to form an impression of the group's music just from this fun fact, but it would be unfair to stop there. The group also lists Eric Dolphy, Steve Coleman, Rob Brown and Rob Mazurek as influences, and the music they played on the Jazzdor stage on Wednesday night was an infectious blend of a classic free jazz and refined musicianship. Playing songs from their debut 2020 recording Prospectus I and II, as well as this years METEORIE, the winners of the French 'Jazz Migration' prize (which supports younger musicians), wore all of these influences on their sleeves as they proceeded to make the music their own. 

The first tune started with a jaunty rhythm with a in-tandem melodic blast from Lea Ciechelski's sax and Henri Peyrous' bass clarinet, this led to some delicate harmonization between the horns while bassist Julien Ducoin and drummer Florentin Hay kept the atmosphere swirling. Ciechelski's first neat disassembled solo was a true breath of fresh air, and Peyrous' brought out the aromatic bouquet of tones that inhabit the bass clarinet, invoking the gentle ghost of Dolphy in the process. The next tune saw Ciechelski on flute and Ducoin on soprano sax spinning a melody around the firmly planted bass figure. The tune introduced some middle eastern scales and other subtle flavors and it is fair to say that switching up the wind instruments, as well as the musical ideas, kept things moving engagingly. The band is cohesive, and despite its leaderless quality, it surly seem to know where it is going. 

Orchestre National De Jazz. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder 

After a generous break in which the myriad equipment of the Orchestre National De Jazz (ONJ) was set up, the 18-piece strong big band revealed the sound of our current future. My colleague Troy Dostert reviewed the album Ex Machina when it was released last fall and captures the details especially well but for just a quick backstory, celebrated saxophonist Steve Lehman and ONJ director Frederic Maurin composed the music heard on Ex Machina specifically to use the now popular concept of generative AI to be an integral component of the music. 

On the stage live, from the opening moments, one could feel the power of the group and peering over the band, back in the corner where one may expect to see say Timpani drums or such, were two laptops with Dionysios Papanikolaou at their helm. Listening to the music, however, one was not overwhelmed by electronics. The initially slow moving grooves created a level of tension in the space as the array of acoustic instruments added tones and textures, while fraught solos from Lehman led the music to thrilling peaks. The inclusion of two vibraphonists also had a rather profound impact on the sound - Stephan Caracci and Chris Dingman's percussive and melodic playing, sometimes delivered together, added a certain and urgent sheen. 

The first noticeable interaction with the AI seemed to be with a solo from Lehman, whose circular phrasings and atonal lines were picked up and reimagined (is it right to say that about a computer program?) by the electronics. The sounds were sometimes disarming, with a certain ill-boding imbued in the AI reactions, but nevertheless provided a fascinating glimpse into creative human/computer collaboration. Other solos followed, like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson's multiple attention grabbing spots or flutist Fanny Menegoz's stint in the latter part of the program.

The penultimate tune was interesting as it left the accessible rhythms behind and opted more for exploration of tones - for a bit, as it ended in a rather strident groove. I would have been happy with that neatly ending the night, but a final piece that dug even deeper into the tonal possibilities followed. Obviously, much had gone into the construction of the music, the seamlessness of the sounds, and the mix of accessibility and challenge felt nothing short of a paradigm shift.


As Thursday evening rolled around, I was a bit concerned. The first two nights featured two groups per night and by the end of each, I had felt musically saturated. Now that we were approaching the weekend, there were to be three per night. Would I make it?

Marie Krüttli Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Sure I did. And it was excellent. The night began slowly, with the very ECM-spirited Marie Krüttli Trio. The piano, bass, drum trio started out on an austere note with Krüttli introducing some simple, sustained chords. Gautier Garrigue's drums were spacious and patient, and along with bassist Lukas Traxel, the three generated a gentle, suspended atmosphere. Dreamy excursions on the piano had a distinct tinge of classical music interspersed with jazz-like voicings and flair. Perhaps it stayed a little too long in the dream-state, but when it finally woke up, it did so vigorously, the gentle flow becoming an intense groove of repetitious rhythmic figures. The set-long piece ended satisfyingly with a series of ever greater climatic moments.

Axiom. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The next group, drummer Dejan Terzic's Axiom started out nimble and pointedly. Saxophonist Chris Speed exuded gentle but complex ampersand-like phrases, as bassist Bänz Oester and Terzic engaged in akimbo accompaniment that fit together like lethally sharpened jigsaw puzzle pieces. As the music continued, the pieces began lock together ever more tightly. Adding to the momentum and growing musical tension were tonal colors that keyboardist Bojan Zulfikarpašić brought in through the use of the Fender Rhodes in addition to his expressive piano playing. However, one could also sense that they were still holding back a bit. As they got into their second piece, Speed's lithe melodies hardened, and with the group's dense thicket of sound, they began approaching goosebump-raising territory. For a moment, Speed stepped into the backstage darkness which highlighted the high-speed and fiery interaction between Oester and Zulfikarpašić. During a following ballad, which found Terzic introducing intriguing polyrhythmic shifts, two chat prone people behind me decided at the quietest moment to clink glasses to celebrate just how sophisticated they were. Hmm. I would have supported saying "Prost!" to the quartet on stage for their infectious and tireless energy. 

Bonbon Flamme.  Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the evening was the highly anticipated - at least by me - French, Portuguese and Dutch collaboration of Bonbon Flamme. Guitarist Luis Lopes had told me earlier that they would be playing all new music this time. He was referring to the Bonbon Flamme album released last year under cellist Valentin Ceccaldi's name on Clean Feed records. The group had composed pieces separately over the past year and then spent a few days together somewhere in France to rehearse, and tonight was their first public performance of the repertoire called Calavaras Y Boom Boom Chupitos (which seemed to cause a ripple of giggling each time it was announced from stage). I had caught a wiff of the group at the Quasimodo club during Jazzfest Berlin. It was a wild event, with chanson and noise rock mixing liberally. This new repertoire seemed to build on the last, but perhaps going deeper into song craft. 

The set began with light harmonic overtones from Ceccaldi, which seemed to get amplified by keyboardist Fulco Ottervanger before slowly coming to life. The beginning however was just to build the atmosphere and the slow start did indeed grow brash and exuberant. Just as unexpectedly, the music took on a Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits vibe with guitarist Luis Lopes channeling Marc Ribot's iconic "Jockey Full of Bourbon" riffs. From beautiful skronk to Mexican dance to prog-metal, there was no end to versatility of the musical pastiche, as well as no lack of absurdist humor. For example, Ottervanger's old-time jazz tune that he started with an accordion-like sound slowly transformed into lurching rock with an early 90s downtown NYC scene vibe. The eclectic set however ended with a somewhat serious emotive and atmospheric coda.


The final day of the festival ended with three quite different groups, the affecting Lotus Flower Trio, La Main's angular post-rock jazz of, and the Emile Parisien 4tet's energetic modern jazz

Lotus Flower Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Of the three, the Lotus Flower Trio was the most unexpected. The trio, comprised of pianist Bruno Angelini and saxophonists Sakina Abdou and Angelika Niescier, were making their German premiere. The group's name draws on an idea (and a song) from the composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter who embraced the the lotus flower on his album Emanon, which he explained as "the lotus exists only in the swamp, in our world of turmoil, and the blooming flower purifies the water around it." Indeed, Angelini's compositions for the group effectively connected sounds to the impressions of people who have shone a light of resistance through darkness, embracing figures such as civil rights activist Rosa Parks, environmentalist Berta Cacérès, and anti-apartheid activist and politician Nelson Mandela. 
The opening song, apparently a Wayne Shorter piece, featured flowing piano with a gentle, pendulous lilt. Then the saxophonists came in with a melody that rode the expressive melodic contours. The next song, started by Niescier, was a more energetic piece full of short, explosive phrases. The two woodwinds provided a wonderful contrast, as Abdou's tenor provided a subtler solo to Niescier's edgier approach. Later in the program, Abdou's exuberant solo and near vocalizations were captivating, as was Angelini's own solo spot, which veered into a classical styles while still making reference to jazz. The final piece was the most arresting, starting with an intense furnace-blast of free playing that resolved into a gentle, nurturing melody. The overall impression, aside of course from the impressive musicianship, was the emotional level that the group reached repeatedly through the set.

La Main. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Following the trio was the quintet of La Main, also making their first German appearance. The group, led by guitarist Gilles Coronado, is apparently typically a trio with trumpeter Olivier Laisney and drummer Christophe Lavergne, however this evening they were joined by clarinetist Catherine Delaunay and the synthesizer work of Sarah Murcia, both members of the Orchestre National De Jazz. The music was varied, from tight rhythmic passages that emphasized a single note and built tension through repetition to long musically economic pieces that referenced the sonic landscapes of post-rock. The individual playing was quite good - Lavergne was delightfully wild at times, and Laisney's tone was sharp and incisive. The inclusion of Murcia's synthesizer added a welcome bass element and Delauney's playing provided a strong jazz flavor. Coronado's compositions felt somewhat brittle and uneven, delicately hanging in a balance between motion and disintegration. For example, one composition was rather static and did not seem to really go anywhere at all, while its follow up began with a gripping intensity between the guitarist and the drummer.

Emile Parisien 4ET. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the festival was the now 20-year running Emile Parisien 4ET, who focused on their latest recording for the ACT Label, Let Them Cook. And, much like the title suggests, they did. This final set was a pleasant surprise. I had thought the album was fine but had not really engaged me, however, the concert was completely the opposite. In fact, it has me going back to reassess my original impression. 

The group began with a droning backdrop while Parisien introduced a smokey melody. A splash of percussion from Julien Loutelier and dabs of melody from pianist Julien Touery followed, each adding extra flavor. With the help of bassist Ivan Gelugne, the group began crafting an intensity, slowly drawing in the audience. Parisien often turned to a table of electronics set up to his side to layer effects on to his soprano's lachrymose tone. 

The result of the group's potent and seamless interplay was effective, and the feature spots for the  musicians were engaging in their own right. At one point, a fervid solo melody from Tourey raised the energy level on stage to a point at which Parisien seemingly could not resist moving to. The melodic maelstrom intensified on the next tune that saw the saxophonist playing to the edge of self-control. With the additional assortment of tools like prepared piano as well as electronic accents from Loutelier, the music never settled into formula or routine and the final moments reached nearly ecstatic peaks. Not a bad way to wrap it up at all.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Angelica Sanchez - Chad Taylor - A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven't Met Yet (Intakt Records, 2024) *****

By Don Phipps

Judging from the music on the album A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven’t Met Yet, less is more. Who needs a bass and horn if art can be achieved without them? Case in point: the exuberant duo of Angelica Sanchez on piano and Chad Taylor on drums, who here provide a fascinating musical journey – one that is powerful and intricate. The two weave together music that embraces modern abstract note clusters that stretch outward without breaking apart, held in place by web-like structures found in each composition. One feels the controlled energy. Everything is on the line. Nothing is held back.

For example, the number “Animistic” offers high drama – a rolling intensity over syncopated beats. Then there’s the outstretched bluesy abstractions of “Holding Presence in Time.” And Taylor’s explosive all over drumming greets the listener on the opening of “Holding Space.” The album is chock full of these kinds of exceptional mood shifting colors and textures.

Sanchez’s piano playing is electric. She plays outside and inside the piano, creating intriguing stop-go sonic effects (for inside playing, check out the title cut and “All Alone Together,” or her harp-like ethereal strokes across the strings on “Tracers of Cosmic Space”). But what marks her brilliance is the way she spreads her left and right hands to achieve notes at both ends of the keyboard collectively or in sequence. It’s clear she relishes dissonant chords, that while hinting at formalism, are augmented with modal and bluesy qualities. And she uses her command of the instrument to create dynamic runs up and down the length of the keyboard.

Taylor’s work on the album is equally impressive. His precise use of various percussion, cymbals, and drums provide astounding counterpoint and nuance to Sanchez’s lines, and, at times, he simply takes over. His beats can be dance-like (check out “Liminal,” “Myopic Seer,” and “Threadwork”), and his cymbal work is special, sometimes sounding like great waves hitting ocean rocks. His superb footwork on the bass drum pedal and his technique on the toms and cymbals provide fluid backdrops behind Sanchez’s efforts. He even plays what sounds like a thumb piano on the title cut, using the instrument to craft a strong rhythmic motif.

The music of A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven’t Met is packed full of spicy heat – a heat that feels alive and riveting. Sanchez and Taylor’s buoyant sonics laid atop strong rhythmic frameworks is music that demands to be heard.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

John Butcher - Sunday Interview

Photo by Cristina Marx/Photomusix

  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    You mean apart from the money and garlands …..? I’d say it’s when you have that feeling of creating, perhaps simply uncovering, something that wasn’t really possible to imagine, or plan, beforehand. Beyond the basic nuts and bolts of how things work, I mean. It could be conceptual, or emotional, or relational or technical - all of which are obviously interdependent. The feeling is not as straightforward as joy. It often seems that I’m moving towards something that’s always going to remain slightly out of reach

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

    That they’re working with music that comes from themselves, that’s not generic. And that it’s not hermetic or fixed, so they can really shape their playing in collaboration.

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

    An impossible question. There are so many and it changes over the years. I wouldn’t like to try to rank them.

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

    Seems a touch macabre … and music’s so tied into time, place and culture. Maybe I could go back, as a different person, and play a little drums behind Lester Young.

    I would enjoy the chance to talk to John Stevens and Derek Bailey again. In the light of what I’ve learnt since the time I played with them.

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

    Playing music is, for me, a continuing process and not primarily goal oriented. Mind you, “When I Paint my Masterpiece” I hope I can recognise it ……
    I guess we all want to keep making music that connects to our history but still feels fresh and relevant. Staying enthusiastic about experimenting and working in new situations is important. I’ll see what comes from that.

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

    Yes - isn’t that where most of us start from? My likes are scattered pretty incoherently around the place but with the 21st Century noticeably underrepresented. Recently I’ve listened to Jeff Buckley, Ray Charles, Roza Eskenazi, Karen Dalton, Spiritualized, Bob Dylan, Low and Sly Stone.

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

    Date of Birth.

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

    Records are just a small part of the musical work. I can’t really judge them like this. Some of the distant releases - my first solo “13 Friendly Numbers”, the “News from the Shed” group, “A New Distance” with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble for instance - take me back to a vanished world. I like the new ones “Fluid Fixations” - a piece for large group, and “The Very Fabric” - the latest of my responses to unusual acoustics. But there are some pretty good ones in between too.

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

    Not usually for some time - but when I hear old tracks (especially unexpectedly) it’s intriguing how I usually hear it quite differently than I did at the time. One has no choice but complete immersion in the work when you’re making it. Then time lets you step back and you can feel a bit like a listener to someone else’s music. You care less about the how, and more about the what and the why.

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

    Probably the Beatle’s “White Album” - but I got it for Christmas in 1968, so I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from that.

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?

    The last three records I’ve sat down with and listened to all the way through are Tony Oxley’s “February Papers”, “Cat Power sings Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert” and John Tilbury playing John Cage’s “Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano”.

  12. What artist outside music inspires you?

    Like most of these questions, this one would have been easier to try to answer 40 years ago.

    Remember the list of inspirers (sounds unfortunately like influencers …) on “Freak Out”? So much enthuses you when you first encounter it. Over time it gets more amorphous. Maybe the inspirations have had time to sink in deeper, and you don’t quite recognise them anymore.

    I find I’m interested in looking at an artist’s work over a long period - how they change and how they stay the same. Recently I’ve been thinking about this with regards to Yasujiro Ozu, Philip Guston and Yoko Ono, for instance.

John Butcher on the Free Jazz Blog:

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Sonic Tender - Odd Objects (Robalo Music, 2024)

By João Esteves da Silva

Odd Objects, the debut album of Lisbon-based trio Sonic Tender, is an odd object indeed. I’d say straight away that its music is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. The closest thing to it I can recall is perhaps Formation < Deviation, an album by German-French trio Crane (featuring Matthias Müller, Eve Risser and Christian Marien) released by Relative Pitch Records in 2021, but its overall conception is a vastly different one. Sheer distinctiveness, however, would not have sufficed for it to be a worthy (artistic) object. A certain amount of convincingness is required, too. And, at least broadly speaking, a convincing object it is.

The trio - comprised by Guilherme Aguiar on piano, João Carreiro on guitar and João Valinho on drums - self-describes as being “dedicated to transmute sonic sources into a unified object of sound.” And, indeed, this music is not at all about interaction between different voices, but of a blending of voices (and its respective timbres) into a single (multi-layered) unit. In this respect, and though some of the sonic material employed might remind us of so-called free music, it represents a radical break with it. Besides, just as there is no room for dialogue, there is no room for wandering: each piece is an extremely focused object (usually dense, consisting mostly of vertical gestures, and requiring extraordinary concentration and single-mindedness to be pulled off), with virtually no sense of narrative progression involved. (There lies the main contrast with Formation < Deviation, which comprises two longish journeys of a single but mutating body of sound.) However, despite the lack of such progression within individual pieces, akin to largely static objects (or perhaps objects turning around a fixed point, and nonetheless exhibiting inner goings-on of some sort), they are juxtaposed in such a way so as to form a particular path, thus conveying a certain narrative structure to the album when taken as a whole.

It is far too early to make any kind of definitive judgement on such idiosyncratic music, but I do believe Aguiar, Carreiro and Valinho have struck gold here. I guess there is still room for improvement, both in terms of conception-execution and recording, but an uncharted territory may well have been found(ed).

Friday, June 7, 2024

Miguel A. García, Abdul Moimême, Alex Reviriego, Ernesto Rodrigues, Carlos Santos - Mars Reveri (Creative Sources, 2024)

By Stuart Broomer

This recording documents a Bilbao performance from 2019 by a quintet of Spanish and Portuguese musicians, with Miguel A. Garcia and Carlos Santos, electronics; Abdul Moimême, guitar and metals; Alex Reviriego, double bass; and Ernesto Rodrigues, piano harp & viola, with Ibonrg the guest voice on the fourth track, "Tulse Dunn". I'm familiar with the work of the Portuguese musicians here (Santos, Moimême and Rodrigues) not so with the Spanish (Garcia and Reyiriego), but everyone is clearly compatible, to the degree that individual contributions merge in the collective action.

The credits list Garcia as mixing and editing the performance and dates these to 2023-24. Given the density and character of the quintet’s sound, that seems reasonable. Whenever it was recorded and released, this music would demand attention. Sounds that come to the fore will sometimes have highly distinct qualities: strings are prominent, whether strummed or scraped, whether guitar, violin or piano harp, but they’re decidedly steel strings and there’s tremendous reverberation and resonance, likely both situational and electronic. Metal, whether struck or scraped, or applied to strings, whether directly or as resonator, is prominent. It’s the collective and cumulative sound, an echoing aura, that makes the greatest, and most prominent, impression.

There is, for this listener, a strong sense of conflict in this music suggested by the title reference to Mars, as god of war, but there’s also “reveri”, the suggestion of reflection or meditation, It’s an intensely visually suggestive music, perhaps based on the gestures required to produce it. The most resonantly prominent sound I hear is likely the metal piano frame being struck with a percussionist’s mallet with the sustain pedal pressed down, being close miked. It’s also joined by other percussion, something sounding like boxes being struck with close miking or heavy amplification. There are also sounds in the band's electronics that might pass for a turbine, something like a close call with an airplane under power.

All of this environmental power is achieved with little resembling the conventional artifice of what we think of as musical. Here the resonating gesture is everything, essentially a blow, like the dead steer in the grand piano in Le Chien Andalou, behind a plough with reclining priests aboard. It’s that kind of song, though it also feels less unpopulated, like an abandoned space station redeployed as a dedicated echo chamber. If that doesn’t sound like a positive endorsement, you just haven’t heard it yet.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Moers Festival 53rd Edition, May 17-24, 2024

By Eyal Hareuveni

A first time at one of the oldest festivals in Europe and one of the few ones whose program is focused on free and improvised music, in its most explicit political essence, courtesy of the International Visitors Program of North Rhine-Westphalia Cultural Initiative. This year’s program highlighted the festival's long-term connection with the Japanese free scene (that began already in 1974 with a performance of the legendary Yosuke Yamashita Trio, with reeds player Akira Sakata and drummer Takeo Moriyama) and features Namibian musicians (and Namibia was where Germany exercised genocide for the first time).

1st Day

London’s Cafe OTO scene was presented with the quartet of British pianist Alexander Hawkins and long-standing comrade, double bass player Neil Charles with young German violinist Julia Brüssel and cellist Emily Wittbrodt who performed last December at Cafe OTO and now reconvened at the Rodelberg open-air stage (all events were held around the large park of the Moers town). This free-improvised set featured the wise and subtle way Hawkins channeled the string players into a cohesive narrative, adding ornamented sparks of playful irony. But at the same time, it also stressed the strong-minded voices of the young Brüssel and Wittbrodt who enjoyed this emphatic challenge. 

Michiyo Yagi

Japanese hyper-koto player Michiyo Yagi first played at the Moers Festival in 1992 as an apprentice of the great koto player Kazue Sawai. Now she was back with her young pupil Hiroko Takahashi. Yagi’s first performance at the festival was at the Evangelical Stadtkirche with its unique acoustics and focused solely on her composed pieces. Yagi plays on 17 and 21-string kotos, with bows, drumsticks and many other effects. Already on her first piece, Yagi created a stormy and exciting texture, using a bow and effects to create a series of metallic, distorted overtones that filled and echoed throughout the space of the church and radiated an irreverent sense of sound that corresponded with drone aesthetics of Sunn O))). Later on she transformed the koto into a twisted organ and you could sense her attacking the koto in a way that Keith Emerson attacked his organ, Yagi finished this inspired set with the touching and beautiful piece “Remembrance” from her debut album (Shizuku, Tzadik, 1999), and ended it just as the bells in the nearby church began to ring. Talking about a divine intervention.

2nd Day

Loui Yoshigaki

The morning free improvised sessions were held at the local musical school courtyard. They featured ad-hoc outfits of musicians from different backgrounds, often with musicians who had never played before or most likely never heard of each other before playing together. It was a joy to discover in these sets young Japanese guitarist Loui Yoshigaki, son of great drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki (of Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet, Altered States and ROVO), who first visited Moers as a roadie of Yoshihide ensemble. The young Yoshigaki adapts many of the sonic tricks of Fred Frith, attaching many objects to the strings of the electric guitar, but has an imaginative and genre-defying sound and language of his own, stressed in his solo performance, playing with fellow Japanese alto sax player Nonoko Yoshida, or improvising in one of these ad-hoc ensembles. 

The second set of this morning's session featured the young quartet of violinist Brüssel, Japanese alto sax player Masayo Koketsu and double bass player Takashi Sugawa (of Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio) and German drummer local Max Andrzejewski. This quartet clicked fast thanks to the powerful playing of Koketsu and the propulsive rhythm section of Sugawa and Andrzejewski.

Later on this day at the main festival hall, a series of sets offered a sonic rollercoaster. German pianist Stefan Schultze introduced his visionary concept - HYPERPLEXIA: remapping the piano, with two prepared grand pianos, one of which is played in a conventional manner and the other is equipped with a self-playing mechanism that is triggered by Schultze via MIDI data (with software developed by Falk Grieffenhagen), plus laptop, sampler and virtual piano, and live visuals by Paul von Chamier. You can trace in this complex and thought-provoking project the iconoclastic ideas of modern composers Conlon Nancarrow and Iannis Xenakis but Schultze managed to offer a highly captivating and immersive audio-visual experience that blurs the lines between composer, performer and remixer; conductor and interpreter; improvisation and scripted performance. 

Zeena Parkins & Michiyo Yagi

The second set of Yagi matched her with a like-minded fearless and adventurous explorer of her string instrument, American harpist Zeena Parkins (who played before at the Moers festival with Frith and John Zorn). Parkins played before with American koto player Miya Masaoka (in the trio MZM with pianist Myra Melford) but this was her first performance with Yagi, and both employed preparations to their instruments and employed many effects. Yagi and Parkins stormed from the first second with ecstatic and powerful dynamics and never ceased to surprise with poetic sonic inventions and passionate energy, as they pushed each other to the most extreme sonic territories. 

Conny Bauer

Following this explosive set, German hero trombonist Conny Bauer, 81 years old, and of the first generation of German free improvisers, teamed with Japanese, Berlin-based pianist Rieko Okuda, for a completely different, free improvised set. This set focused on a contemplative and introspective dialog spiced with the playful abstraction of fleeting melodies and relied on patient dynamics that highlighted the beautiful sound of Bauer’s sound and the great respect that Okuda - as well as the audience - had for this great musician.

And again, the atmosphere in this hall changed drastically with a “world premiere” of German, New York-based drummer Joe Hertenstein's new project XCountry Bungalow, featuring Dafna Naphtali on live processing and voice, Eliad Wagner on modular synths, bassist Kellen Mills, and performer Daisy Payero locked in the so-called tiny bungalow (trumpeter and electronics player Liz Albeecould not make it). This hyper-active, hyper-sonic set rolled like a “headless snake that has no beginning and no end” and was meant to “cleanse our sick society from bigotry and trigotry, 45 minutes at a time”. In its wild and manic manner, it delivered what it promised with endless waves of nervous energy that demanded full surrender.

3rd Day

The morning sessions began with an energized set of three restless sonic artists - Belarusian, Cologne-based synth player Oxana Omelchuk, Israeli-American Dafna Naphtali on vocals and live processing and Japanese Elico Suzueri on a keyboard. They continued with an even wilder and powerful set of Yagi on the 21-string koto with German double bass player David Helm and drummer Joe Hertenstein. This ad-hoc trio served as an introduction for another new trio of Yagi with Japanese double bass player Takashi Sugawa and German drummer Christian Lillinger, which played in the afternoon at the Rodleberg stage. This performance began to explore the great potential of the trio as Yagi, Sugawa and Lillinger are opinionated improvisers with distinct vocabularies and improvisation tactics that worked brilliantly together but at the same time constantly challenged each other.

On the same stage performed another great trio, German local drummer hero Erwin Ditzner with double bass master Sebastian Gramss and pianist-synth player Philip Zoubek (Gramss and Zoubek play together in the Slowfox trio, this trio recorded Live At Enjoy Jazz Festival 2021, Fixcel, 2024). This free jazz set relied on the propulsive rhythmic drive of Ditzner but juggled wisely with tension building and release, rhythmic layers and hypnotic grooves, and stubborn and fascinating exploration of the sonic palette of the double bass and the piano, all in a powerful, telepathic interplay that exhausted the best from the three musicians and never subscribed to familiar routes.

Later in the afternoon, at the hall of the musical school, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and her partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura played an intimate and moving set. This most beautiful set sounded like a profound conversation between imaginative and like-minded artists who share secrets, insights, observations and ironic ideas with succinct, precise tones, all exploring the rich musical universes of Fujii and Tamura. 


Back at the festival’s main hall, the highlight of the festival and clearly the most audience-attracting performance was BRÖZZFRAU, a tribute to the late great German reeds player Brötzmann, who lived not far away from Moers, in Wuppertal, who performed for the last time in the festival in 2018. It was part of a series of homages to Brötzmann (with an earlier one in London’s Cafe OTO and later one in Warsaw’s Pardon To tu club, plus a planned photo book by Ziga Koritnik), with his son Caspar Brötzmann on bass, German trombonist Conny Bauer, drummer Achim Krämer, Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris, Japanese alto sax player Masayo Koketsu, Russian alto sax player Alexey Kruglov, and American bass player Kellen Mills and drummer Lesley Mok. Surprisingly, Yagi, who toured and recorded with Brötzmann, was not part of this performance. The subtitle of this performance was: Melancholie rechnet sich nicht! (Melancholia doesn‘t pay!), with a drawing of Brötzmann as an angel playing the sax and soaring above the stage, and, indeed, none of the musicians attempted to replicate the primal, raw sound of Brötzmann or the brutal, post-rock sound of Caspar Brötzmann’s Massaker. But the eight musicians, each in his own distinct way, showed how much the legacy of Brötzmann still feeds and motivates their art and how his total commitment shines on their art. This emotional performance reached a few cathartic climaxes but its strength lay in its communal spirit of music-making.

This busy day was concluded with a solo performance of Zeena Parkins at the Evangelical Stadtkirche dedicated to her compositions or compositions written for her, all expanding the sonic possibilities of the acoustic harp with effects and objects. One of the most fascinating compositions was the conceptual “Lace” (Chiakin, 2023) which imagines graphic notations of figures of lace and alternates cleverly between minimalist, slow-shifting moves to discordant chaos, stressing Parkins’ commanding and rich language of the hyper harp.

4th (and last) Day

The morning sessions featured another unconventional Japanese koto player and another disciple of the great Kazue Sawai, Miyama McQueen-Tokita, with fellow Japanese alto sax player Nonoko Yoshida, American bassist Kellen Mills and German drummer Simon Camatta, for a set that adopted the default option of pushing forward with full power.

One of the slogans of this year's edition of the festival was “...Nix Berauschendes (Nothing mind-blowing). It was also the name of the ad-hoc female quartet Japanese alto sax player Masayo Kotetsu, French explorer of the vintage keyboard ondes martenot, Russian pianist-vocalist Karina Koshevnikova and Brazilian drummer Bruna Cabral that performed at the Rodelberg open-air stage and highlighted, again, the commanding and charismatic presence of Kotetsu.

Next, on the same stage, Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio with double bass player Takashi Sugawa and drummer Ittetsu Takemura, who just landed, at the beginning of a short European tour, and performed pieces from its last album Jet Balck (Libra, 2024). The wise and subtle compositions of Fujii as well as the clever dynamics of this trio do not surrender easily and are delivered as surreal or labyrinthian textures that only in their conclusions you can fully appreciate its elaborate architectures, the deep listening, freedom and the profound trust of these gifted musicians. A masterful and stimulating performance of a great trio, led by Fujii who keeps challenging herself and her devout listeners.

The following set at the same stage was by the local trio Carpool Kino with double bass player Sebastian Gramss, New York-based violinist Carolin Pook, and drummer (with a mask) Daniel Schröteler. Its playful set showed how free improvisation corresponds with contemporary music and demonstrated again the commanding extended techniques of Gramss on the double bass.

Back at the festival’s main hall for the final performances, but before these performances, the festival’s artistic director Tim Isfort read a long statement denouncing any form of violence and hatred, and repeating the festival's mission to be a “safe environment” that would encourage music and culture as communal, universal vision.

The first one was of French bagpipe player Erwan Keravec (who plays with Mats Gustafsson in the duo Luft) and his ensemble of eight pipers (Gaël Chauvin, Mickaël Cozien, Erwan Hamon, Gweltaz Hervé, Guénolé Keravec, Vincent Marin and Enora Morice) in a program dedicated to the early and classic compositions of Philip Glass (“Two Pages”, “Music in Fifths”, “Music in Fifths” and “Music in Similar Motion”). The performance began when two pipers were on the farthest sides of the main stage, two pipers behind the audience, and four pipers on the main stage, letting the infinite and simple repetitive tones and overtones unfold and occupy the whole space. But even when all eight pipers convened on the main stage and explored nuanced timbral layers, the hypnotic effect of the ethereal drones only intensified and filled the space with reverberant, almost meditative vibrations, similar to the effect of North African Gnawa music or spiritual, classic Indian Music. 

Arto Lindsay

The last performance was of the American no-wave hero Arto Lindsay (of DNA, Ambitious Lovers and Golden Palominos fame), accompanied by Austrian sound designer Stefan Brunner (credited with “space”). Lindsay keeps perfecting his unique art of Tropicália skronk, singing brief, openly emotional songs in a soft and sensual voice while producing noisy blasts with his 12-string guitar and effects. The naked and raw yet totally passionate delivery of Lindsay, with subtle sonic layers of Brunner, only intensified the suggestive power of his songs, and Lindsay sounded and looked in top form, enjoying the enthusiastic audience who seemed that would have listened to Lindsay performing all night long, maybe until the next edition of Moers Festival.