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Urs Leimgruber (ss), Jacques Demierre (spinet)

9/4/2020. Manufaktur, Schorndorf

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik: Christian Lillinger (d), Petter Eldh (b), Kaja Draksler (p)

9/2/2020. Au Topsi Pohl, Berlin

Mariana Cyrino (f), Tony Buck (d), Mazen Kerbaj (t)

August 2020, ifa Galerie Berlin, Berlin

Tobias Delius (sax), Christian Lillinger (d)

August 2020, Schöneweide Industriesalon, Berlin

Kasper Tom (d), Olaf Rupp (g), Rudi Mahall (bc)

July 2020, Jazz am Kaisersteg, Berlin

Friday, September 18, 2020

Kaja Draksler Octet – Out for Stars (Clean Feed, 2020) *****

By Nick Ostrum

Kaja Draksler is at the forefront of the next wave of free jazz pianists. One can hear it in her previous recordings. The curious virtuosity. The unreconciled tension between radically deconstructive postmodernism and contemporary composition. The flights of melodies into solemn, brittle phrases.

Draksler’s Octet, however, is somewhat different than projects like Punkt.Vrt.Plastik or her collaborations with Eve Risser or Susann Santos Silva. It seems more fully realized, and acts as a space to pursue a clear love of poetry and the vanguard musical forms of the past. This means less noise and clatter, fewer mesmerizing disjointed spirals and more balladry and dramatic harmonies. It means more spacious starts and stops, a smoother blurring of stylistic modalities, and a greater focus on the potential of choreographed simplicity (with eight members, no less).

Based on works by Robert Frost (whose voice appears on the wistfully hopeful Away!) and compositions by Draklser (including a transcription of Handel’s Dixit Dominus), Out for Stars is simply stunning. Romantic melodicism gives way free jazz break-outs which open to baroque harmonics. Soft, haunting vocal chorales drift into sprightly, stilted reeds. Violins and humming winds wisp the voices away and brush the sax and clarinet to the background. The dynamics and dissonance are strong for such otherwise bucolic motifs and brings to mind a darkly transcendentalist take on Charles Ives. This is an album of lamentation and celebration, of oblations to nature and a humanity, of stunningly reconciled contradictions. At its ebullient peaks, one hears the wail of Ab Baars’ sax and Laura Polence and Björk Níelsdóttir’s spiraling polyphonic balladeering and Nordic harmonizing. At its troughs, one hears the hums of a sometimes glittery, sometimes desperate longing. For her part, Draksler is somewhat understated, especially considering the project bears her name. This, however, only means that when she does step to the front, her presence is felt that much more forcefully.

Take, for instance, The Last Mowing. It starts as a euphonic country/gospel vocal duo of the first stanza of the poem (There's a place called Far-away Meadow/We never shall mow in again,/Or such is the talk at the farmhouse:/ The meadow is finished with men.) With “men,” it falls into a heavy drum and bass groove -something akin to Archie Shepp’s “Down Home New York” - that turns the duet into something more powerful than its mellifluous tones in isolation had allowed. This is where both song and poem transition from a meditation on an abandoned farm - doubtlessly tragic for the previous toilers - into a defiant protest by nature’s most humble. The flora accepts its exposure to new threats, as Polence and Níelsdóttir repeat and contort the phrase, “Before trees, seeing the opening,/March into a shadowy claim.” In doing so, they cleverly impose an urban- and protest-rooted – and therefore, anthropocentric - musical format onto a song about nature basking in the retreat of a society.

The piece marches on through pastures of sax squeaks (right) and more linear blues lines and squonks (left). Draksler’s piano then steps forward to reconvene the lost voices and finish the poem. In another twist, several additional voices join the duo as they revisit the first two lines (“There’s a place called Far-away Meadow/We never shall mow in again”) which they transform into a mantra of escape and salvation.

There is something genteel about all of this, but there is also something jarring. It is dulcet, but unnervingly so. Some moments are painfully delicate, as in the series of string solos in the first half of Never Again Will the Bird’s Song Be the Same. Others are more forceful and open, as in the second half the Silken Tent, which playfully glides into the spiraling Handel piece. Or, in the euphoric procession that leads to Robert Frost’s appearance in Away!

If you have heard the Octet’s Gledalec , you likely will not be surprised by what you hear on Out for Stars. This album has a similar balance of traditional and contemporary musical elements, a similar wafting beauty that comforts with its familiarity but haunts with its eerie configurations, repetitions, and deviations. Nevertheless, Out for Stars stands on its own. Its musical inspiration seems somewhat more American and less old-world folk than Gledalec. And, its lyricism often reflects that of Frost, himself: deceptively simple and measured, vernacular but precise, and deeply embedded in both the present and the past that made it.

Kaja Draksler Octet is:

Laura Polence and Björk Níelsdóttir: voice; Ada Rave: tenor saxophone, clarinet, mouth organ; Ab Baars: clarinet, tenor saxophone, mouth organ, voice; George Dumitriu: violin, viola, mouth organ; Kaja Draksler: piano, kalimba, cowbells; Lennart Heyndels: double bass, voice; Onno Govaert: drums, percussion, mouth organ

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Two Lisbon Large Ensembles

By Stuart Broomer

Ernesto Rodrigues is apparently tireless, whether recording projects for his Creative Sources label, organizing a multitude of permutating large ensembles or presenting a broad spectrum of the Lisbon improvising community in groups of assorted sizes. His Creativefest takes place in November, and the most recent edition, XIII, ran for six days at the festival’s home base, O’Culto de Ajuda. The CDs here present two of Rodrigues’ on-going large ensembles, one recorded at XIII, the other from XII.

String Theory- Tin (Creative Sources) ****

String Theory, heard here in its 2019 performance, presents a single piece entitled Tin, consistent with Rodrigues thematic explorations of contemporary physics and the table of elements. The CD is a single piece, 34 minutes in length, in keeping with a consistent time restriction for the festival’s sets. What makes Rodrigues’ ensembles fascinating (something that extends to other large improvising ensembles‒a key to both their values and their value as contemporary social organisms) is the combination of restrained, disciplined, even selfless playing‒a genuine community orchestra‒and the combination of exceptional instrumentalists.

In what must be the most cellist-rich improvising community for a city of its size, Lisbon here offers Miguel Mira (notable for his membership in Rodrigo Amado Motion trio), Ulrich Mitzlaff (regular collaborator with the most eminent Carlos “Zingaro”) and Ricardo Jacinto (charter member of two brilliant trios, The Selva and Garden). The three create a ground for this music, a rich orchestral middle, thickened by two bassists, Sofia Queiroz Orê-ibir and Hernâni Faustino.

The high strings of Rodrigues’ viola and Maria do Mar’s violin are free to balance all this weight by living in their upper registers, where, of course, the others are free to join them. Beyond the usual category of the string ensemble, the tentet includes pianist Mariana Carvalho, who emphasizes plucked sustained strings, and guitarists Pedro Bicho, playing an acoustic, and Abdul Moimême, playing a horizontal 12-string. Together the ten create a web of whistling harmonics and sustained thrum that become a timeless and textured musical centre.

Isotope Ensemble- Radium (Creative Sources, 2020) ****½

If an ultimate test for any large improvising ensemble is to maintain movement and density at very low volumes, then Rodrigues’ Isotope Ensemble ranks very high. Radium is a single 27-minute piece from 2018 that spends much of its time at the level of a whisper, a hive of tiny sonic gestures in which even foregrounded events scrape silence. It’s a 22-member ensemble made up of diverse instruments, with only Rodrigues (this time on baroque violin), do Mar, Carvalho and Moimême appearing from the later String Theory line-up. The other bowed strings are down to two cellos and a bass, with three guitars present, including Luis Lopes on electric, and such traditional instruments as Brazilian zither and psaltery. That broader palette then includes three woodwinds, three brass, a fan organ (a small electric reed organ that seems to sound like an accordion at some points), and two people on electronics, Carla Santana and Carlos Santos, the last an essential figure in Lisbon music and the Creative Sources world, here responsible for mixing, mastering and graphic design as well.

Though the volume picks up briefly around the 23 minute mark, during which a tuba (I think, the other possibility, a euphonium is operating quietly in the background) sounds briefly obstreperous (it’s only “loud” in context), it ultimately reinforces the strange quietude here, as if the activities of a busy shopping mall were carried on under a vow of monastic silence: a wisp of string, a burble of keyboard, an unidentifiable tapping, a collective rustle. It’s beautiful and original, at once compelling and therapeutic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Christopher Icasiano - Provinces (Origin Records, 2020) ****½

By Gregg Daniel Miller

I had to listen to this record for months before I could write about it. It’s that different. Percussion solo records are an interesting breed, and this one doesn’t remind me of anything.

Icasiano’s percussiveness is all about the pacing and grouping of the beats. Clusters, clusters, driving and then receding, with crisscross patterns emerging from the maelstrom. Psychedelic. Disorienting. There is no “one,” and while everything is on repeat, nothing is repeated.  There are footpedals or pads (sometimes with the reverse key down) which provide a counter-sonority to the stick work, so the patterned clusters weave in and out with looping drone tones and electronic effects, sometimes sampled found sounds. Icasiano hits you with repeating figures until you forget they are happening, and then under your nose they alter, changing the mood and feel, or abruptly stop, leaving you with what had been merely drifting, incidental noises as the principal song. Lost in the rhythm, you forget where you are.

The 5-movement “Provinces” opens with a hint of dark foreboding. Then 1000 relentless dry snare hits alternating with closed high-hat taps.  The foreboding returns like exhalations. Slight alterations (there’s a human there, this is not an algorithm, or rather, it is a body’s algorithm) of tempo and subtle dynamics. A pulsing thumping kicks in, and without realizing it, we’ve got embattled sonic textures with four overlapping tempos like a Steve Reich puzzle. The relentless snares withdraw leaving a cascade of shifting notes (Sigur Rós style), only to return as a dense, interactive accompaniment to the long tones. The piece moves into a free section with some backward pedal action, gentle, intentional cymbal work, and then the smoothest rolling from snare to toms to cymbals. Technique and taste and musicality. Now a kick drum under a trance beat, wind and hum providing the melody. It is the same and different, and somehow free-jazz to metal to trance to pop candy cavalcade makes musical sense, with each section providing commentary on the others.

The 3-movement “Taho” opens in a similar fashion as “Provinces.” Instead of the snare/cymbal cycle, here we get relentless toms/cymbal, again over shifting long tones, and almost inaudible field recordings gesturing outward from the hermetic sound field. At a certain point, under wind and weather, something—shakers, and then brushes on plastic sitting atop the snare maybe—takes center stage, then retreats behind oscillating scratches and noise. Brush bursts on snare take hold, again under wind and weather, which releases into that smoother than smooth round-the-horn tom-snare-rims-cymbal party. The energy reduces to a kick drum and toms motif which relaxes into the end of the recording, found sounds from the Philippines.

This record is a feast. And, it’s solo percussion!

I understand there is a limited print-run of vinyl, if you’re into that sort of thing. CDs and bandcamp downloads, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Agamemnon Moustakas, Perseas Rizos, Stephanos Chytiris – Tragelaphus (self-released,2020) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

One of the key elements in Tragelaphus (which in Greek means crying and laughter at the same time) is the ferocity of the trio playing. I do not mean that in terms of sheer volume. It’s basically the inner intensity of the trio’s playing, the engagement and the pathos involved. If you want a point of reference, yes, the Schlippenbach Trio could be it, but by labeling the trio’s music I’m not being fair to them, because Tragelaphus stands on its own.

The CD lasts for over seventy minutes divided in five tracks. Moustakas plays the piano, Rizos is on the tenor sax and Chytiris on the drums. Unfortunately for the guys the CD came out during the Greek lockdown (in the meantime the imbeciles in power opened up the borders for tourists without any precautions, so things are worse), a situation that does not allow them to present this great CD live.

It would have been a blast if they could. The way they interact, the energy which is transmitted through it screams that this is something you should listen to live. Sometime, a year ago (maybe a bit more) I caught the trio live. In the meantime they really struggled, through rehearsing together, to form a sound of their own and Tragelaphus clearly states that.

There are no highs or lows on the CD, only a constant flow of energy and ideas. The final mix is also a very rewarding job from George Priniotakis. All the instruments are equally involved in the outcome of it, a fact that allows the listener to feel it like it’s a live recording. Moustakas playing is very vibrant. He moves through the keyboard in a percussive way, while his interaction with the tenor sax of Rizos makes you think they are playing together for years. Chytiris provides a solid backbone for the other two, while the rhythms he produces seem even flexible on their own.

The thing I didn’t realize from the beginning is the small dialogues that go on in duos or sometimes as a trio. This feels like they are in a constant dialogue between friends, a non linear discussion that evolves into track five which is called Part V. Clocking in 28 minutes, it seems like the centerpiece for Tragelaphus, while it consists all the aforementioned elements. A great piece of free improvisation even though not everything is spontaneous on Tragelaphus. There are ideas in there, ready to be discovered since you, as a listener, have only one obligation: to listen repeatedly with the same level of engagement they play.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze - unfurling (Another Timbre, 2020) ****

By Keith Prosk

Angharad Davies (violin), Klaus Lang (harmonium), and Anton Lukoszevieze (cello) play freely for one track lasting 53 minutes on unfurling, an enchanting, cyclical soundscape. Davies and Lukoszevieze are long-time collaborators in various new music performance groups, perhaps most famously on the first disc of Wandelweiser und so weiter and in Apartment House. This is the first time either played with Lang, though the harmony here would belie that, especially considering the trio spent just a few minutes discussing broad structural elements before playing.

Those structural elements separate unfurling into three recognizable ~15 minute sections that generally begin with a spacious, harsh, low-volume sound created by extended techniques and grow to a dense, mellifluous, booming music that is more familiar. The early parts of each section contain what I think is pumping but not playing the harmonium to create something that sounds like a glitched recording of someone shifting in a pew, creaking, chirping, squeaking, scraping, and whining from all three instruments, some light sawing that can almost mimic the undulating waves sometimes emitted by the harmonium, some plucked strings. Without too much notice, this gives way to the full warm throb of the organ flanked by see-saw strings, with descending glissandos met with ascending glissandos from the other, alternating, and deep dense woody bowing to more closely match the color of the organ. Or sometimes the strings might sync to create a siren. Or one might bow a melancholy melody. The total sections certainly play with extremes in volume, density, and timbre, while the latter parts of them tweak pulse and pitch to create a mood of serenity out of one that may otherwise be shocking in its contrasts. These are the broad strokes, but each section and their parts are distinct, with each seemingly becoming more emotive, cathartic, or film-soundtrackesque along the way.

Being able to evoke a range of responses in one piece by manipulating the basic components of music like volume, timbre, and density demonstrates a special mastery at work here. And, I think it’s hard not to enjoy the rich sound of organ and these strings.

unfurling is available digitally and on CD.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E & F Sides (International Anthem, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

In two earlier reviews from this year (on two re-issues by drummer Rashied Ali ), I raised the question to what extent there can be new developments in jazz today, or whether many things are just a refinement of what is already musically known. Today, this discussion will be deepened with two further examples: Makaya McCraven’s new album is in the focus but there will also be some short references to Jeff Parker’s album Suite for Max Brown, which was reviewed by Lee yesterday.

Both Chicago-based drummer, pianist and composer Makaya McCraven and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker belong to a new musical world, which they seem to know like the back of their hands - but they still rediscover it again and again with the eyes of children. In this avant-garde, the established elements don’t create a cosmos we know.

Neither is its novelty pastiche or postmodernism; it’s a different way of baling, stretching, contracting and reading the time that has passed between free jazz or fire music than one might imagine when thinking in categories such as “reference“, “quotation“, “nostalgia“ or “revival“, as the German critic Diedrich Diederichsen has pointed out. What you recognise in this music are certain elements we might define as jazz - the swing, the blue notes, the rhythm, some typical sounds of the instruments.

At the moment you can listen to a lot of music, which is different, unheard, hip, contemporary “jazz“ and it often refers to the revolutionary freedom and soulfulness of the 1960s, but also to funk and hiphop. Some jazz artists and labels could even be called en vogue - at least for a certain in-crowd - and have played a central role in this “hype“ in the last years (just think of Matana Roberts’s ambitious Coin Coin project, of the prolific British scene around Shabaka Hutchings, of the way hiphop superstar Kendrick Lamar has integrated jazz sounds in his music). One of the spearheads of this new Black avant-garde is the International Anthem label - and Makaya McCraven and Jeff Parker are two of their most prominent representatives.

On his previous records the drummer was known more for mapping new worlds between fire music and wicked bass grooves. On his new album, an extension of his opus magnum Universal Beings, he continues to spin this wheel. Once again he uses classical jazz elements and enriches them with lots of funkiness, hiphop beats and drum’n’bass sounds. In this way, he brings the problem of jazz’s staleness to the point that historical consciousness must not stop at the adoration of the achievements of the forefathers (McCraven’s parents are both musicians), but can hit the nerve of a younger generation when viewed from the perspective of a newly added subjectivity. You don’t look at the historic fire music like an artefact in a museum (this would be the Marsalis approach), but at their novelty character, and thus it’s how it acquires a new social relevance.

Universal Beings was put together from recordings of four live shows at four different locations, each of which featured different musicians (again Jeff Parker among them). A short documentary film with interviews and studio scenes is now available. The soundtrack to this film is the present album Universal Beings E&F Sides, which works like a supplement to Universal Beings, however here McCraven manages to present relatively short miniatures of 1:27 to 4:36 minutes as a distillate of his music (Universal Beings also included some longer tracks). Based on polyrhythmic cells and melodic-harmonic motifs, these new or redesigned compositions also perfectly integrate the practices inherent in digital culture. Thus, the instruments of this ensemble reproduce the processes of filtering, looping, and remixing musical works, as is the case in hiphop or electronic music, with the difference that these processes are performed in real time by traditional instruments and by musicians experienced in jazz practice, who combine improvisation with excellent musicianship. This sometimes reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest’s hiphop masterpiece The Low End Theory, e.g. in “Everybody Cool“ with its repetitive vibraphone motif and dry bass lines. “The Hunt“ goes back to the deep triphop sounds of the 1990s, say early Massive Attack. “Half Steppin’“ delves into the breakbeat madness of Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Form. Jeff Parker’s approach on Suite for Max Brown is similar, when he uses samples like in the very short “C’Mon Now“ but also more jazzy, e.g. in “Fusion Girl“, a reminiscence to Herbie Hancock’s jazz/rock phase.

This style mix of samples and loops is an important characteristic of modern avant-garde jazz culture. On the one hand, McCraven integrates everything that is around him into his music, on the other hand he is deeply rooted in the musical tradition (with his Hungarian-Jewish mother he recorded Eastern European folk songs, his African-American father, also a drummer, introduced him to jazz at an early age). Jeff Parker goes even further: He covers John Coltrane’s “After the Rain“. In the film McCraven says that his band always starts jamming in a completely chaotic way and then creates something organized out of it. If you - seemingly out of nowhere - find the one moment when everything comes together, then you have to hold it and from that point on you have to develop something worth to be elaborated. In the new pieces, short, repetitive saxophone and guitar interjections meet complex rhythm and relaxed bass lines like in “Dadada’“, which reflects the sound of big cities in its hyper-nervousness. Everything flows into each other. “Kings and Queens“ could also be on a Sons of Komet album.

Some people might be disturbed by the fact that the new album, like many of McCraven’s productions, is a live recording reworked in the studio with cuts and repetition loops and therefore might ask whether he wants to create “organic“ music that re-imagines the spontaneously improvisational flow of a concert, or post-produce beats like a studio artist. The underlying accusation is whether this can work. Of course it can, and it’s a possibility how modern jazz can attract a new, young audience.

Universal Beings E&F Sides is available on vinyl (in September), as a CD and as a download.

Watch the documentary here:

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Jeff Parker & The New Breed - Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem/Nonesuch, 2020) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

In 2016, Jeff Parker released two albums that probably expanded listeners’ preconceptions of what kind of artist he was: The New Breed, an ode to his father, and Slight Freedom, Parker’s first solo guitar album. With both, Parker stretched beyond what we’d heard with his trio, his work with Tortoise, and other collaborations he’d recorded with dozens of artists. What he delivered were two deeply passionate, rich and layered albums, celebrated by critics and beloved by listeners.

A guitarist like few others, Parker plays with a gorgeous tone and avant-garde sensibility that often finds him coming at projects from unexpected angles. And here comes Suite for Max Brown, credited to The New Breed, the band. It’s mostly a one-person show, but Parker uses the concept of a group to weave nearly a dozen collaborators—including, once again, his daughter Ruby Parker—into his tapestry: Paul Bryan, Josh Johnson, Katinka Kleijn, Rob Mazurek, Nate Walcott, Makaya McCraven, Jay Bellerose, and Jamire Williams each contribute to the whole, with Parker performing and shaping like a maestro. In the liner notes, Parker is credited with “drums, vocals, piano, electric piano, electric guitar, Korg MS20, sampling, editing, bass guitar, percussion, glockenspiel, sequencer, JP-08, midi strings, midi programming, pandeiro, [and] mbira.” But, what’s exceptional about Suite for Max Brown is how delicately and expertly all of these instruments are stacked together, centering Parker’s guitar with layers of counterbalanced rhythms and harmonies. Much like The New Breed, Suite for Max Brown is a loving reflection on family, this time Parker’s mother, who graces the album cover. Originals, like the opener “Build a Nest,” with Ruby Parker on vocals, highlight a fractal-like approach to composition, with numerous instruments echoing and hocketing. Later, towards the end of “Fusion Swirl,” Parker plays a solo with a slight restatement of the opener’s theme. It’s another tantalizing hint of how many looping motions throughout the entire album will bring a listener back to center.

Among the many excellent originals, Parker has two standout covers. The first is a lovely take on John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” emerging from the storming 1-2 of “C’mon Now” and “Fusion Swirl.” It’s one of those classics that still inspires some amazing interpretations. Then comes, for me, one of the highlights of the album, a gnarly, churning take on Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus.” Titled, appropriately, “Gnarciss,” it’s got this fun, inspired feel that’s become a standard feature of International Anthem albums, as the label continues to support a free-flowing vision that updates both sides of the jazz coin, straight and free. It also has the largest lineup of any track, a sextet with McCraven on drums, Bryan on bass, Kleijn on cello, and Johnson and Mazurek the two-person horn section, At two minutes, “Gnarciss” packs a mighty punch (don’t be shocked if a limited-edition 7” drops next record store day, and if it does, expect it to sell out in minutes).

Constructed from three more-or-less 10-minute sections, Suite for Max Brown flips through sonic Polaroids, 8mm reels, stacks of postcards, letters read and reread, lovingly creased along their fold lines, all interpreted through the dozens of instruments used to create its soundworld. Towards the end, McCraven returns for the Aftrobeat-laden “Go Away,” closing out the second section of the album. For the finale, Johnson, Bryan, Williams, and Walcott join Parker on the 10-minute “Max Brown.” Kicking off with percussive beats, keyboard, and a teasing solo from Parker, once the angular melody gets introduced, “Max Brown” lifts off. Johnson’s been up-and-coming in LA for several years. His playing is like the next generation of that Pi Recordings house sound; fans of Mahanthappa and Lehman will surely take note. In particular, check out his solo around minute five, buoyed by Williams’s expertly skewed backbeat, Bryan’s bass, and Parker’s keyboards. This is the kind of loose, lengthy track that will make listeners yearn for the return of live music. “Max Brown” settles into a groove near the end that rivals some of Parker’s work with Tortoise, amped up by the individual energy of these players. With Suite for Max Brown, Parker’s delivered on his unspoken promise of 2016, he’s taken us even higher. It doesn’t matter what comes next; for now, we’ve arrived.

Buy from International Anthem:

Buy from Nonesuch

Friday, September 11, 2020

Recent Releases from Joëlle Léandre

Readers of the blog are familiar with some (at least) of the work of French master of the double bass Joëlle Léandre. But Léandre is not one that would rest on her reputation. She resists any form of status quo and always enjoys challenging herself with old and new comrades.

Joëlle Léandre / Myra Melford / Lauren Newton - Stormy Whispers (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2020) *****

The trio of Léandre, American pianist Myra Melford and American, Germany-based vocal artist Laure Newton is a new-old one. Léandre and Newton have been collaborating together, mostly as a duo, since 1994, and Léandre and Melford are playing together in the Tiger Trio with flutist Nicole Mitchell. This trio was initiated by the International Festival of Improvised Music Ad Libitum that took place in Warsaw October 2018 under the headline: Women Alarm! This trio was supposed to be a counterpoint to another all-women trio of Léandre, the legendary but defunct Les Diaboliques, with Swiss Irène Schweizer and British vocal artist Maggie Nicols.

The new trio shares many similarities with Les Diabolique: the shameless eccentricity, a sense that anything can happen, any time, the boundless, creative imagination, but the strong personalities of Léandre, Melford, and Newton take this trio to different sonic territories. Newton tells completely different stories than Nicols, wordless ones but with suggestive emotional intensity, and employs an array of extended vocal techniques of her own. Melford playing is rooted in the American blues, jazz, and free jazz legacies but she fits perfectly into the liberating, free-improvised atmosphere. Léandre does what she does best, pushing her comrades to higher, freer realms of articulation, and solidifies the interplay with her one-of-a-kind personality. 

All pieces are titled “Whisper” but all are very stormy, distinct, and quite intense and highly expressive. From the first second to the last one of Stormy Whispers Léandre, Melford, and Newton play as if they are possessed by a higher calling. There is no way to stop Newton’s powerful train-of vocal gestures on the first piece. Léandre, Melford, and Newton embrace an abstract, introspective mood, still very powerful, on the following piece, The duet of Léandre and Melford on the third piece alternates between lyrical, chamber atmosphere and a playful, impressionistic one that nods to early jazz. The following duet of Léandre and Newton is an emotional meeting of like-minded friends, knowing each other inside and out and do not need more than a few, modest gestures to ignite an imaginative, nuanced conversation. The fifth piece is a free-improvisation that follows Newton operatic-rhythmic vocal games as an introduction to the talkative-amusing sixth piece, where Léandre summarizes her views on countless, urgent issues with the word “shit”. Melford takes the lead on the most stormy piece here, the seventh one, offering a strong rhythmic conception to the intense and most expressive diel of Newton’s spellbound breaths and Léandre’s magical bow work. The last piece is an urgent, somewhat melancholic farewell, with Newton delivering the joyful-sad tone with colorful throat singing, and only when it’s over you may realize that the last 46 minutes flew in an instant.

Great trio, magnificent performance.

Jubileum Quartet (Joëlle Léandre / Evan Parker / Agustí Fernández / Zlatko Kaučič)- A UIŠ? (Not Two, 2020) ****½

This pan-European, super-quartet played first at the Kraków Autumn Jazz Festival in October 2015. That performance at the Alchemia club - the whole quartet Léandre duets with British sax player Evan Parker, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández and Slovenian drummer-percussionist Zlatko Kaučič - was released on Léandre’s box-set A Woman’s Work (Not Two, 2016). The second time that this quartet convened, now under the royal title Jubileum Quartet, was to celebrate Kaučič’s 40 years anniversary of professional career as a musician at the Cerkno Jazz Festival in May 2018.

Léandre and Parker (who plays here only the tenor sax) belong to the first, revolutionary wave of European free-improvisers while Fernández and Kaučič joined the European free-improvised scene only in the nineties. They all played with each other in different formats and constellations and on A UIŠ? they play one, 45-minutes free-improvisation.

The opening minutes offer an intense but highly democratic free-improv dynamics where the four strong-minded improvises articulate four distinct courses that seek common ground. But then Fernández and Léandre take the lead and form a powerful but playful game, triggering Parker and Kaučič to expand this vein and soon the Jubileum Quartet sound as diving deep into intense, free jazz territory with Parker’s dominant tenor sax soaring above the massive rhythmic eruptions. Léandre stops this course abruptly with few clever bowing gestures, marking a subtle, introspective detour that slowly intensifies and highlights the imaginative sonic languages of Fernández and Kaučič and the immediate affinity that Léandre has established with Fernández. Later, Parker with his turbulent circular breathing techniques pushes the course again to a brief, climactic one and the quartet alternates this course with the one offered by Léandre for a while but eventually heads for a cathartic, explosive conclusion.

Joëlle Léandre / Pascal Contet - Area Sismica (We Insist!, 2020) ****

Léandre and French accordionist Pascal Contet began to collaborate more than 25 years ago when they recorded a self-titled self album (Grave, 1994). The live album Area Sismica, recorded at the club by the same name in Forli, Italy, in April 2019, is their fourth as a duo. Contet, like Léandre, is a classically-trained musician, who performs contemporary music but also plays free-improvised music.

The seven pieces offer unique insights into Léandre and Contet colorful conversational tone. Léandre and Contet play as close friends who talk after a long time they have not met, exploding with stories and anecdotes they want to share, some are clearly more joyful than others, keep commenting on each other’s experiences, and keep crisscrossing each other’s ideas and thoughts. Both have developed a close, emphatic interplay, share a similar kind of passionate urgency and a sense of invention and eccentric humor. You can feel the instant, free-associative shifts of moods as Léandre and Contet whisper a secret at the beginning of the third or seventh piece, then build the tension and the effort to contain and resolve this delicate tension, with Léandre taking the more decisive role, playing-vocalizing with great emotional pathos, triggering Contet to shift his modest-romantic mode into a free and intense mood. Léandre solo playing on the sixth part is fantastic. She sounds possessed by a higher power and offers another masterpiece to her extensive repertoire.

Alexandra Grimal / Joëlle Léandre - Désordre (Montagne Noire, 2019) ***½

The title says it all. Désordre - disorder- captures the anarchistic essence of the first-ever recorded duo meeting of French sax player (she plays the tenor and the soprano saxes)-vocalist Alexandra Grimal, who has played in Léandre Tentet last recorded performances of her composition “Can You Hear Me?” (Ayler, 2016), and Léandre. They call it a “desired disorder”, swift, playful, and messy where they do not determine anything but simply follow the music.

The 15 brief duets were recorded between June 2017 to February 2018. Grimal and Léandre stick to basic ideas - a jazzy interplay, extended bowing, and circular breathing techniques, chatty or introspective dialogs, telling stories, or just playing rhythmic games, anything goes and is gone quickly. They play with these simple ideas, most of the time real fast but with no rush to reach a cathartic climax, and they do not attach themselves to any gesture, pulse or tone, just move on to the next one. The tone of most duets is serious, even lyrical and sometimes also melancholic, but the spirit is of resistance and focused on having fun. As Joe McPhee said once, you have to take your fun seriously.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra – Faces of Souls (Leo Records, 2020) ***½

By Troy Dostert

It is a shame that Mark Harvey isn’t more widely known outside Boston, where he has been an anchor point for the jazz community since the 1970s. An exceedingly ambitious trumpeter and bandleader, Harvey’s commitment not only to traditional and avant-garde jazz but also to fostering political awareness has enabled him to craft music that consistently manages to speak to broader social and cultural realities. A case in point is the recently released Rite for All Souls (Americas Musicworks, 2020), a live recording from 1971 of his eponymous quartet (featuring woodwind specialist Peter Bloom and percussionists Craig Ellis and Michael Standish) in which the group blended jazz and performance art in protesting the Vietnam War. And then there’s his leadership of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble that also traces its origins to the early 1970s and which has frequently tackled politically and socially conscious themes. The group’s Democratic Vistas (Leo, 2018), for example, includes such unsubtle topical commentary as the “Trumputin Tango” and Fake News Blewz.”

On their latest, Faces of Souls, the Aardvarks’ message is as relevant as ever, with the sprawling, seventeen-minute title track inspired by Charles Ives’s “Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common,” a piece Ives dedicated to the famed sculptor’s tribute to the Massachusetts 54th, the fabled all-African American Union regiment in the Civil War. Other Harvey pieces on the album, such as “Of the People” and “Lament for the City” seem to touch especially upon the contemporary challenges America faces surrounding racial injustice, even though the music here, recorded live in a number of performances between 2015 and 2019, predates the most turbulent urban unrest of the summer of 2020.

The band is a good-sized one, with around twelve musicians on average, allowing Harvey lots of possibilities to create music that often defies category. The opener, “Meltdown,” pulses with abstraction and freedom, with shifting tonal centers, only taking a more definitive shape toward the end with a hard-swinging finish. “Sisyphus,” conversely, is a funk-driven workout that highlights the bluesy guitar of Richard Nelson and some terrific ensemble playing from the horns.

Other pieces are substantially more elliptical, pointing to the extensive use of space that often characterizes Harvey’s compositions. “Consecration” reveals Harvey’s deep debt to Ellington, although the piece unfolds very gradually, the central theme not emerging until almost four minutes into the track. And “Greta” is even more measured, with lots of room for an extensive flute solo from Peter Bloom and most of the band limited to occasional, muted interjections. “Faces of Souls” is another expansive effort, with some gorgeous moments in a piece that wears its classical influence on its sleeve, with especially stirring playing from cellist Rob Bethel alongside Nelson during the opening segment. The piece has an elegiac quality that is quite compelling, and the piece’s restrained tranquility is thoroughly uncharacteristic of what one typically expects from a jazz big band, possessing only fleeting glimpses of swing or conventional jazz harmonies. In contrast, “Of the People” traverses the full gamut of jazz modes, with up-tempo swinging energy and in-the-pocket funk alternating with its more languorous and abstract moments.

As a reliable vehicle for Harvey’s muse for well over 40 years, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra continues to make creative and unconventional jazz with a big-band template. Given the monumental challenges of maintaining any jazz ensemble—of any size—for four decades, its very existence is a minor miracle, and Faces of Souls is another reason to celebrate its longevity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Paul Lovens/Ignaz Schick/Clayton Thomas - Meeting the Past (Zarek, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

When we talk about rhythm in jazz (even in free jazz), we refer to the basic element of this music. When rhythmic moments in a piece are said to reveal something essential, it always implies that something original is exposed. It’s often said of the style-defining moments in music that they are breathless, that all movement in them is stretched to a kind of standstill on the one hand, and to breaking point on the other. What blows our minds, e.g. in the experience of musical happiness, often occurs very silently or uncompromisingly intense. Yet, often the subtle moments in particular are easily overheard, be it because the roar of the other instruments is too loud, the communication noise too dominant, the irradiation of the other acoustic sources too determining, if not even violent (which can be very fascinating, just think of the large formations and the intensity mentioned above). Drummers are often responsible for this intensity, however the best of them stand out for their restraint and subtlety. Without any doubt it’s obvious that if you want to absorb sound in free jazz in its full dimension, you have to experience the drums as something essential, perceive them as real substance and not just as a dull clock. Outstanding drumming is clarity, it’s colourful, it’s pulsating, even if it is freed from time playing, it’s the foundation on which all creative work of value grows. Paul Lovens has embodied all this for me since I first saw him.

Lovens, who has been living in Nickelsdorf in Austria for quite some time, has always been close to the members of the Berlin improv scene. One day, two protagonists of that scene, Australian bassist Clayton Thomas* and German saxophonist Ignaz Schick met for an acoustic session, which went very well from the beginning. They both decided that they wanted to expand their new-born duo to a trio, which meant that they needed a drummer. The story goes that several suggestions from Thomas were immediately declined by Schick, who had the perfect idea: Paul Lovens. The result is Meeting the Past, an album that presents two live concerts which took place in 2010. And Lovens adds precisely what Thomas and Schick needed: his higher-pitched snare drum, the millions of little click sounds he’s famous for, hummingbird-like whirring, the hissing of ultra-precise cymbals - in short: the subtlety of rhythm.

Meeting the Past is a programmatic title in a certain respect because especially saxophone and bass always fall back on the jazz tradition. Schick does this mostly with bebop melodies, Thomas and Lovens with swinging bass or drums. But mainly Lovens prevents a drifting off into too cheesy realms, when he steers the improvisation back to freer paths. A good example of this is “First Meeting (Set 1)“. A very calm, ballad-like parts seems to dissolve into free hardbop, Thomas’s walking bass grounds the improvisation, Schick plays melodies that you can almost whistle along. But Lovens, who’s definitely up for such fun parts, always captures both of them. Still, the music is at its best when almost all harmonic and rhythmic restrictions are abandoned. Then Schick’s runs sound like arabesque melodies floating over debris avalanches. Another highlight is “Third Meeting (Set 2)“ with its merciless, relentlessly forward-driving, swinging passages, which are repeatedly interspersed with brutal drum intermezzi. This is Lovens at his best.

The label decided to present the entire concert also including the audience reactions and musician comments between the tracks in order to give us in an authentic impression of the atmosphere.

*Clayton Thomas left Berlin in 2015 and lives in Australia again.

Meeting the Past is available as a download only. You can listen to it and buy it here: