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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, December 4, 2020

Horace Tapscott & The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra - Ancestral Echoes - The Covina Sessions, 1976 (Dark Tree, 2020) *****

By Stuart Broomer

The Los Angeles-based composer/ pianist/ bandleader Horace Tapscott (1934-1999) has long been overlooked, whether because of his Los Angeles base or his commitment to community-based music. Most of the few commercial recordings he made as a leader that were released during his lifetime (Dark Tree, Aiee! The Phantom and Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam) were recorded during his last decade and presented him with celebrated support, including clarinetist John Carter, bassists Cecil McBee and Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille, suggesting to some extent an elitist, internationalized image of jazz. But Tapscott was very much a visionary community bandleader, his affinities more with Sun Ra than the music business, his relatively obscure orchestral recordings appearing on his own label or Nimbus West between 1978 and 1979.

Tapscott moved from Texas to Los Angeles as a child and played as a teenager with contemporaries like Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. Remaining in Los Angeles, he suffered from the largely racially defined economics of West Coast jazz: on one hand a bland and airy school of moonlighting studio musicians playing music of smug prosperity versus the hard-edged Watts-centered radicalism embodied in the work of Ornette Coleman, Cherry and Dolphy, music that shocked New York hard boppers when it escaped East.

Tapscott’s great community project has come increasingly into view in recent years. The French Dark Tree label, founded by Bertrand Gastaut, is named for Tapscott’s composition and the eponymous Hat Hut recording, and it’s also the title of a book that includes Tapscott’s work, Steve Isoardi’s 2006 study Dark Tree: Jazz and The Community Arts In Los Angeles (University of California Press).

Gastaut’s Tapscott project began last year with Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Great Voice of UGMAA: Why Don't You Listen?, Live at LACMA, 1998 , an intense union of orchestral and choral energies from the last year of Tapscott’s life. But Tapscott launched the band in 1961, almost three decades before that concert. Ancestral Echoes presents the band near the middle of that long run, in 1976.

There are four pieces, ranging from 10 to 27 minutes. Details of who plays on which track, apart from soloists, are unavailable, but there are 21 musicians in the list with three others added as possible participants. The band is called an Arkestra, and that’s no idle imitation: it’s a declaration of solidarity and identity, music played with an intensity that suggests it’s a way of surviving. The music sometimes suggests roots in Ellington, but more particularly Sun Ra, Coltrane and, especially, Randy Weston. It’s strong on polyrhythms and ostinatos with an abundance of bassists and reed and flute players. Many of the musicians’ names will likely be unfamiliar. The only ones that jumped out at me immediately were Red Callender, who gave Charles Mingus bass lessons, here playing tuba, and trombonist Lester Robertson, who played regularly with Gerald Wilson’s big band and may be most frequently referenced as the inspiration for Dolphy’s “Les.”

That lack of celebrity sidemen testifies only to the degree to which jazz is, in some dimensions, an almost anonymous art, a creative force outside celebrity that is, at many of its higher harmonics, a transformative, extra-personal force, an archetypal expression. The poet Kamau Daáood intones a poem at the opening of Tapscott’s “Ancestral Echoes” that invokes “the shoulders that have carried us here,” accompanied by Tapscott’s piano strings. When the words end, Tapscott plays a powerful solo that will reference folk songs and also suggest affinities and allegiances with his generation of pianist/composers, among them Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill, before settling on the complex ostinato that will bring the orchestra to the fore. The orchestra, a complex pulsing force, keeps pressing the soloists ‒ trumpeter Steven Smith and soprano saxophonist Jesse Sharps ‒ to reach individual peaks.

Tapscott’s “Sketches of Drunken Mary” is more richly orchestral, an Ellington throwback with wobbling rhythms and dissonant harmonies that drift toward Mingus. Alto saxophonist Michael Session plays with an emotionally rich blues flavor intermediate between Parker and Dolphy, while Aubrey Hart flutters forward on flute. “Jo Annette,” composed by alto saxophonist Guido Sinclair, an Arkestra member who doesn’t appear here, is closer to advanced hardbop than Tapscott’s own pieces, but it provides a strong bedrock for the rushing tenor saxophone extrapolations of Charles Chandler who stretches tumbling, Coltrane-like lines towards multiphonics, a kind of transparency that flows naturally to Wendell C. Williams’ burbling French horn.”

The final track is also the longest and most complex, “Eternal Egypt Suite,” composed by tenor saxophonist Fuasi Abdul- Khaliq. Moving through long solo passages by flutist Adele Sebastian (luminous) and Tapscott (pensive) it eventually collects its orchestral energies around a lock-step repeating figure in the third movement to launch trumpeter Smith. Then comes the fourth movement, Abdul-Khaliq’s own gathering firestorm a torrent of expressionist energy, first swarming and roiling against Tapscott’s insisting, ascending punctuations, then against the orchestra, then relaxing with Tapscott’s piano, only to build to a final paroxysm at once lyrical and manic, focussed and diffuse, before the ensemble encapsulation.

The liner booklet includes informative and moving reflections from several members and associates of the band, and a quote from Tapscott appears as epigram: “Our Music is contributive, rather than competitive.” It would have been nice if this music had appeared when it was made 44 years ago, but it’s just as significant that it appear now, with all its energy, meanings and relevance still intact.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

James Tenney - Acoustic Phenomena/Hymnic Sounds (Edition Wandelweiser, 2020) ****½

By Keith Prosk

On Acoustic Phenomena/Hymnic Sounds, Ensemble OPEN MUSIC Gera perform two James Tenney compositions, “Harmonium #2” and “Critical Band,” which highlight the late composer’s proficiency in sound synthesis, tuning systems, spectral music, microtonality, and listener perception trickery. Members of Zeitkratzer and Zinc + Copper plus local musicians formed the ensemble to bring more avant-garde performance to the German city, and they do so here with a unique expertise. Zeitkratzer recorded these same two compositions 10 years earlier on James Tenney [old school] , and at that time the compositions were already in the group’s repertoire for 10 years. Zeitkratzer’s Jeffery, Phillipp, and Schlothauer no doubt bring their deep experience with these compositions to produce a more refined recording. There’s less woody vibrato from the strings, less tinny distortion from the horns, the discrete contributions of the piano are abandoned for a more unified approach of only sustained instruments, and there’s a feint rattling (which I assume is from the piano) in that recording which is absent here. The sound seems more distilled. As extensions of Tenney’s climactic swell pieces and with their sustained instrumentation, these works at least succeed as exciting drone music. Of course, there’s more going on beneath the surface.

“Harmonium #2” is a complex layering of chords, fundamentals, and partials that causes the listener to reinterpret the previous chord, toying with the listener’s perception of dissonance. Sonically, sustained tones enter and exit like theatrical players, partially overlapping. Creating texturally rich chords as they do. Tones overlap most in the center of the piece, and the musicians build volume to accentuate this climax, gradually decreasing again towards the end of the piece. The sustain is less sinuous, more straight-line than many acoustic drone pieces. The feeling throughout is almost simultaneously tensing and soothing.

“Critical Band” gets its name from the psychoacoustic term for “a frequency range in which the ear combines excitations into a partial sensation.” Or, creating the illusion of harmonic beatings - clear, sinuous, pulsing resonances - by adding distant partials close to a pitch. From the beginning, a sine wave is at the forefront of the music, dancing like a dragonfly on a placid stream of quieter sustained sounds. The ear is drawn to its fluctuating frequency. There’s not audible synthesis or a polyrhythm of multiple resonances. The contributions are more frequent and overlapped; this is more conversation and less monologue than “Harmonium #2.” The sustained soundings build volume as the piece continues, growing louder than the wave, drawing the ear from the illusion to its components.

As with James Tenney [old school], there’s a bonus track here as well. A short Scholthauer composition, “Accidental Microtonal Sounds - Together.” Wholly alternating between silence and sustained tones from all the musicians. Of slightly varying duration throughout the piece. Like bold brush strokes on a fresh canvas. Like “Having Never Written a Note For Percussion” on the previous recording, it serves as a kind of quirky contrast to Tenney while also being inspired in how fitting it seems.

I’m ill-equipped to understand or talk about the theoretical or technical aspects of this music. But, the tensing/soothing emotivity of “Harmonium #2” clearly indicates its methods. And something about the resonance in “Critical Band” seems off, in its build and its character, queuing the listener to its trick. Most importantly though, I’m consistently drawn back to this recording simply for its sounds, its textures. Highly recommended for fans of the quieter, sustained side of conducted improvisation, as sometimes performed by ONCEIM , CoÔ , or Golden Fur .

On this recording, Ensemble OPEN MUSIC Gera is: Robin Hayward (tuba); David Hummel (violin); Hilary Jeffery (trombone); Elena Kakaliagou (french horn); Andreas Nordheim (slide trumpet); Ullrich Phillipp (double bass); Peer Salden (alto clarinet); Burkhard Schlothauer (violin); Rishin Singh (trombone); and Alan Torres (church organ samples).

Acoustic Phenomena/Hymnic Sounds is a CD-only release.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Matthew Shipp with Rob Brown, John Butcher and Thomas Lehn

Matthew Shipp and Rob Brown - Then Now (RogueArt, 2020) *****

John Butcher, Matthew Shipp and Thomas Lehn - The Clawed Stone (RogueArt, 2020) *****

By Gregg Miller

The piano/sax duo recording Then Now (RogueArt, 2020) captures Matthew Shipp and Rob Brown together at their assertive best. At the turn of the millennium, my CD copy of their Blink of an Eye (No More, 1997) had cracked unplayable. Then Now is their first duo recording since, and it’s remarkable how their playing today squares with my memory of them 20 years ago. The title, “Then Now,” seems less nostalgia than the realization that what was forward-leaning then feels right right now.

Though unrecorded as a duo since Blink of an Eye, Shipp and Brown have appeared together over the two decades since in many trios, quartets and other configurations. High marks include Right Hemisphere ((RogueArt, 2008) (where Brown and Shipp are ultra-sensitive over Joe Morris’s bass on “Red in Gray”), Magnetism(s) (RogueArt, 2017, a re-mastered re-release of a 1999 Bleu Regard disk with a bonus 2016 concert recording), and on the first disk of Whit Dickey’s double Tao Quartets release (Tao Forms, 2019).

Over a long career, Shipp has recorded with many extraordinary reed players: Roscoe Mitchell, Ivo Perelman, Joe McPhee, Marshall Allen, Evan Parker, lately with Matt Walerian on ESP-Disk, and, of course, David S. Ware who perhaps outshines them all. To my mind, Shipp’s playing with Daniel Carter and Rob Brown stands out for just how hand-in-glove natural they feel together. (Favorites with Daniel Carter include Strata (Hat Hut, 2004), Cosmic Suite (Not Two, 2008 and Not Bound (For Tune, 2017)).

Rob Brown is perhaps less storied than Shipp, but he has delivered his fair share of wonderful, Lower East Side NYC music, a mainstay, we might say, and like Shipp, his sound and musical idiom is distinctive and idiosyncratic. When my multi-gig library of music is set to random, Brown’s sound is instantly recognizable. Notable is his work with bassist William Parker’s groups In Order to Survive and the William Parker Quartet (I recommend O’Neal’s Porch (AUM Fidelity 2001)), and various trio and quartet outings under Brown’s name with Parker aboard (my favorites include Crown Trunk Root Funk (AUM Fidelity, 2008), The Big Picture (Marge 2004), and the early, indelible Breath Rhyme (Silk Heart, 1990), multiple outings in different configurations with drummer Whit Dickey (I love Trio Ahxoloxha’s Prophet Moon with Joe Morris (Riti, 2003), and a handful of notable recordings with cellist Daniel Levin. Special mention goes to Unexplained Phenomena (Marge, 2011), his Vision Festival performance with Chris Lightcap and Gerald Cleaver featuring Matt Moran on vibraphone. Y’all might also check out on youtube the 2018 free-for-all performance of Brown with venerable bassoonist Karen Borca, Michael Bisio on non-stop bass, and two percussionists (Whit Dickey and Jackson Krall) from VisionFest 23. In other words, Brown gets around.

The overall mood of Then Now is dry and fast-forward. There is very little use of silence. A singing sax over chunky chord progressions, gentle voicings, or vertiginous speed work, depending on the moment. Sliding patterns over sliding patterns. Brown’s sometimes piercing tone is pitch perfect. (For you sax geeks, I asked him many years ago and he said he plays a Ted Klum acoustimax. Sure sounds like the same mouthpiece on this recording.) Brown mostly plays it straight, allowing the natural pitches to do their work. The very occasional microtone or multiphonic. Otherwise he sings in a heartfelt, but reserved manner, and he takes the turns like how a professional skier might take on the black diamond slopes, wishing for just a bit more speed as the hazards effortlessly whoosh by. And damned if he doesn’t get it, mostly in the middle and upper registers. Brown plays squarely on the beat, and he doesn’t cheat. No swinging, but not mechanical either, with a subtle vibrato throughout. There is no flute on this record. I have loved Brown’s flute playing over many recordings: Orbit (Music & Arts, 1997) with Guerinno Mazzola and Heinz Geisser, and The Whit Dicky Quartet’s Coalescence (Clean Feed, 2004) (listen to the late Roy Campbell’s trumpet and Brown’s flute intertwine on “Steam”) come to mind. But that doesn’t show up here. Strictly alto sax.

Both Shipp and Brown play with intervals, goading each other into continuous alterations. Dance your way across a series of ladders lined up at different heights – no falling! Sometimes Shipp lays down heavy chord blocks, and Brown winds his way in and around them. Other times they are both running the numbers in, out and backwards—chasing bees weaving amongst the magnolias. Boxing and jazz seem like partners here, but they’re not trying to knock each other out; they spiral around each other like a double helix. Brown plays with a muscular assurance. Statement after statement. Nothing tentative. The patterns are under his fingers and his task is to sing out loud, select and edit, crop and extend. Shipp with his thick left hand clusters, and his right hand musical dance. Intimidating lower register stormclouds, and then descending intervals which set Brown off in a new direction. On track 5, Shipp plays solo as calm as calm; it stands in the center as a gentle respite from all of the jousting.

Moments on this record have more of a “new classical” feel than anything Shipp would have been willing to put out 20 years ago, more like some of his solo outings (c.f. One (Thirsty Ear, 2005) or Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear, 2013)) or the quieter moments on Piano Song (Thirsty Ear, 2017) than the impeccable onslaught of Prisms (Brinkman ,1996). If I think about Shipp’s playing from Prisms to Then Now, the expressionism remains, it is his lyricism which has unfolded. Track #3 is a lovely free ballad, perhaps the stand-out track of Then Now, though they are all variations of the same vibration, fragments of a whole. Some fire; some burnt embers. Perfection---in the sense that free music is a chance undertaking, and these two have done it so well and so long together that it comes out as shared self-expression.

The Clawed Stone is a different animal. A trio featuring Shipp, John Butcher on soprano and tenor saxes, and Thomas Lehn on electronics. Where Rob Brown’s patterns on Then Now are typically analytical, Butcher’s musicality is filled with pathos, like sorrow songs, and where Brown plays it straight, Butcher here plays at the outer possibilities of the saxophone’s sounds. Butcher’s twitchy-ness (“Off-Kilter”), flutter bird calls, throat effects (“Re(as)semble”), and overtones stand in contrast to Rob Brown’s note-forward assertiveness. Brown is claiming full responsibility for his sounds, while Butcher wants to share that responsibility with sound itself.

The Butcher/Shipp/Lehn trio has met before, on Tangle (Fataka, 2016), a live 2014 improvised recording at Café Oto in London. Tangle’s first 3 tracks are each called Cluster. There is a certain formality despite the free playing. Shipp and Butcher in turn imitate and support one another, carrying pulse, groove and melody. Thomas Lehn is the wildcard with his idiosyncratic electronic beats, squawks, muffled fuzz noise, oscillating atmospherics and other unexpected insertions. Lehn is less playing with the other two then seeing the big picture and asking: what else could we be doing with sound right now? On Cluster III, Shipp’s patient sound blocks over Lehn’s deep-world-turning-dangerous, and Butcher’s sax/feedback entrance: Exquisite beauty performed live.

In a 2016 interview with Victor Stutz, Butcher describe his process/ethos: “. . . the interest for me in improvisation is making that kind of music which you couldn’t really imagine before you find yourself in the middle of it.” That feels fair. There is an aliveness to his playing which thrives in this trio setting, and which for Shipp in particular reveals new aspects.

Compared with Tangle, on The Clawed Stone Butcher more consistently emphasizes the outside of tone-making for the saxophone. (For more (with more natural reverb), seek out Butcher’s tremendous solo record Bell Trove Spools (Northern Spy, 2012).) On Stone, you rarely hear that distinctive tenor lushness which appears on Tangle. At first, Thomas Lehn’s contribution is just to add some ear fuzz and grit, but then his manipulation becomes more intrinsic—always at the edges, but subtly off-setting what is central—phasing, adding vibrating harmonics, feedback, clicks, bumps — just enough random to make it feel alive and unpredictable. Shipp’s rotating triads subtly sync with Lehn’s colored fogs and echo bursts. The added feedback electronics place Butcher’s trilling and vocalizations in an environment governed by forward-looking intention rather than tradition. The Shipp/Butcher/Lehn effort allows the accidents and incidental electronics to have their own say. Shipp in particular allows more space to let be what will be. From the listener’s perspective, I find my ears a bit more open, too, wondering how the sounds will fill out a home together– the smooth, the raucous, and the rough. “Links on Canvas” is lovely delicate, truly the plum of this outstanding record.

Many of Shipp’s recordings (I’m thinking of those with Michael Bisio (on bass) in duo or trio settings (from The Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear 2011) to Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear 2012) or Floating Ice (Relative Pitch 2012) to The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear, 2015)) feel like a working out of his personal vocabulary in public. In trio with Butcher/Lehn, Shipp is able to take the focus off of his sonic vision and interface with wildly different sensibilities. Maybe he has to listen more for the unexpected, so it arrives.

The Clawed Stone feels like a movement forward musically for Shipp, where Then Now feels like home-cooking. Both are beyond excellent. Depends on what you’re in the mood for.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Køs - An Uncaught Bird (Forlaget Kornmod, 2020) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Køs is a young, experimental trio from Copenhagen featuring alto sax player Maria Dybbroe, electronics player Valdemar Kragelund, and percussionist Kristian Isholm Saarup, all also active in other local, alternatives groups. The trio has been making waves in the fertile Danish scene lately due to its unique sonic attitude but it has been working since 2014, released a self-titled EP in 2017, and collaborated with local sax players Lotte Anker and Lars Greve as well as poet Pia Tafdrup. Now Køs have released its first full-length album, An Uncaught Bird, on vinyl (with download option) with unique handmade covers lacquered on re-used vinyl-sleeves.
An Uncaught Bird is also a poem that inspired the titles of the nine pieces: “Earth’s green carpet. / The rushing sea. / An uncaught bird, / hovering, hovering // in lifting fog / as a reflection, / ascending, / through rays of light. / Freedom feathers”. This poetic attitude is reflected also in Køs’ free-improvised, electro-acoustic music, recorded in different locations in Denmark, and described by the trio as “music where the journey becomes what is interesting, and presence and energy is what matters”.

Køs’ soundscapes are based on melodic ideas expressed briefly by sax player Dybbroe, then extended by the synth and electronics of Kragelund and the drum-set of Isholm Saarup, slowly manipulated and mutated and expanded as the trio becomes one living, tangible organism. These soundscapes create sonic nuanced entities where the electronics extend the extended breathing techniques of sax and the drums add a resonating layer to the fragile, processed breaths.

The sax tone of Dybbroe and her gift to suggest instant, memorable melodies bring to mind early, experimental albums of Norwegian sax hero Jan Garbarek, Dis (which introduced the string instrument wind-harp that was recorded on the coast of southern Norway), and his solo effort All Those Born With Wings (ECM, 1977, 1987). Just listen to subtle, dreamy melodies of “Hovering, Hovering”, and “In Lifting Fog”, where Dybbroe’s sax playing soars and flys gently. Furthermore, An Uncaught Bird, like Dis, offers a strong thematic connection to the Danish nature sceneries, so close from any place in Denmark.

Køs’ sonic territories, however, reach further than the experimental voyages of Garbarek. “The Rushing Sea” and “As A Reflection” play with raw, noisy waves, and injects a poetic core to these rough soundscapes, and repetitive motives of “Through Rays Of Lights” sound like a walk inside a roomful of mirrors, but with choral-like, meditative qualities. Each piece tells its own poetic story but the last, “Freedom Feathers”, tells the most urgent and complex one, an evocative and cinematic one that informs of coming dark horizons.

Køs’ music is indeed is a thing with many unique feathers.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Rich Halley, Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio, Newman Taylor Baker - The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle, 2020) ****½

Saxophonist Rich Halley, hailing from Portland, has a background that begs metaphorical reading: he's a trained biologist who conducted research on rattlesnakes, likes to spend time in the wilderness, and ended up in the music business. Somehow his 2019 outing with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio, and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Terra Incognita, slipped through our purview undetected. With a line up like that, and with all indicators from just the opening tracks of this combo's new release The Shape of Things, the sudden onset of FOMO was justified.

Halley has a fiery sound on the saxophone - the adjective is basically a collocation, and an apt one at that. The album begins with the track "Tetrahdron" and it starts with a controlled blast from Halley, to which Shipp responds with a dry, and perfectly selected, cluster of notes. The cluster of notes - from both Shipp and Halley - become a theme, a short snippets patched together. The timing is uncannily good and they rapidly escalate the intensity.  Baker's percussion is light and precise, adding a bit more momentum - which almost seems unnecessary - but sounds so good when it is there. Bisio adds to the punch as well with pointed rhythmic comping. Perhaps that a secret to a quartet that works well together: each set of players works well on their own, but then adding another to the constellation makes it even better. 

One track that repeatedly has caught my attention is 'Vector'. The second track on the album is quite different than the opening track. Starting off with Halley playing a extended melody, he is joined by the trio in a more traditional sense. Newman's drum are swinging, Bisio's bass is walking, while Shipp tosses out harmonic firecrackers. The track builds with a controlled, logical intensity to the middle of the tune, which finds extended passages from Shipp and Bisio that each stretch the track in different directions. The pianist opens it up with percussive ideas that seem to spread the musical palette wider, while the bassist pulls it back, focusing inwardly, before Halley joins with a pointed melody taking that takes track out.

Shipp's trio plays a huge role on this album. Their playing is outstanding - they know what each other can do, but this fact does not hinder the music from sounding fresh. Shipp's acoustic piano work is electric as well, he provides just-in time scaffolding for Halley's kinetic lines and rhythmic stunts and provides his own structures. Bisio and Baker do the same, and thus while this is a infrequent grouping, it is one that really works together.

The album ends with 'The Curved Horizon' and all of the best traits of the group are present here. The track begins with at a high level of intensity and does not back down. A squiggly sax line runs into a tonal cluster-bomb from the piano as the bass line anticipates the pulse, and percussive clacks emphasize the urgency. Halley reaches the normal physical constraints of his instrument fast and pushes beyond them. A high energy ending to a great recording.

So, if this is a yearly meeting of the spirits, I hope it happens again (though we'll probably have to write off a 2020 gathering). Halley has a great rapport with Shipp, Bisio and Baker and will be nice to hear it develop even further.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch, 2020) *****

By Matthew Banash

“Cinematic”...okay, got that out of the way.

My Holy Trinity of Pedal Steel players are as follows: Bruce Kaphan, Hop Wilson, and Susan Alcorn. The pedal steel guitar in music other than Country & Western starts out like the elephant in the room, and then it becomes what it is music, be it “ambient,” “blues” or “jazz,” respectively. So now that fussy categorization is out of the way. Really it just gave me a chance to name check Bruce Kaphan and especially Hop Wilson.

Jazz may stress the collective in Alcorn’s case as opposed to the individual in the examples of Kaphan and Wilson but what ultimately matters is now what they play, but how they play it. Pedernal’s appeal is its serious playfulness. These aren’t heavy-handed artists making something for what it can be; they play see we can hear what is. As Alcorn is quoted in the press release, “I view the...pedal steel guitar, not as an object to be mastered but as a partner with which we share with the listener a meaning, depth and hopefully a profound awareness of each unique moment we’re together.”

Joining Alcorn on pedal steel we hear and enjoy Michael Formanek on bass, Ryan Sawyer on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Mark Feldman on violin. Though there are larger and smaller groups than a quintet, five musicians can make a dense sound. However, Alcorn utilizes dyads and triads in deft arrangements so each musician gets an opportunity to contribute, shine and move the music. It unfolds and progresses sometimes languidly, sometimes scaling heights, but it is never encumbered by theory. The separation of the production also allows each voice to have their distinct place from which to play along or contrapuntally.

"Pedernal," Spanish for “flint hill,” is a narrow mesa that lies on the north flank of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. It sets a conceptual and musical theme for the recording as well. Alcorn open appropriately as the heat shimmers and rises, any fata morgana dwarfed by the impressive mountains. Alcorn contrasts the solid contrasted with the ethereal throughout the album. The group is unified until the temp changes and we’re off to dyads and triads, loping and Frisellesque noodling as the tune allows all the players to settle in before concluding as it opens, with Alcorn’s doleful, sweeping pedal steel playing.

'Circular Ruins' was inspired by the Anasazi dwellings in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, between Cortez, Colorado and Blanding, Utah on the Cajon Mesa of the Great Sage Plain. Percussive rumbles open the tune then Alcorn and Feldman join sonic forces to ascend and Halvorson enters to counter Feldman’s mournful playing. Here, too is where a lot of the sound, though separated sonically, blends into a visual impression. Formanek takes a solo like a horn’s deep bellow. Alcorn again utilizes the dyads and triads effectively. The trio of Sawyer, Formanek and Feldman halfway through the piece allows your imagination to run wild.

'R.U.R', inspired by the science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots) and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction in 1921. It’s a fun track, with an almost bop opening before the strings splay it and the rhythm section urges them on into a free-form languid jam with echoes of Americana taking it out.

'A Night in Gdansk' is pensive, languid, piquant but can take flight at any moment. There is a contemporary despair to the tune, that feeling of misplacement across land and time zones. Yet at the 5’30” mark there's a sense of spiritual unity when the instruments and musicians find a common tonal ground. At the 8’30” mark we hear Alcorn's pedal steel not so much as the centerpiece of this album but more of the recording touchstone, its unique aural qualities defining the session’s “esprit de corps.” That the track sustains this over 13 minutes illustrates how time can get in the way of our perception.

'Northeast Rising Sun', influenced by road signs along I-95 in her native Baltimore is a joyous, playful, and soulful conclusion. After some open mic lessons from the band on how to count it off, which gives the track a loose, end of session vibe, Sawyer rolls in and fun commences. There’s a mini-orchestra tone to my ear as Alcorn again uses duos and trios, shifting dynamics and interplay and Formanek plays a nice solo. Blues cry with a classical pitch.

Susan Alcorn Quintet is composed of talented artists who use their skills and musical reference points not to reinvent the wheel or polishing the mirror. Under her aegis they simply and masterfully create a recording of grace, subtlety, unity, and compelling musicianship that balances and investigates the modern and the ancient.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Bill Orcutt – Warzawa (endless happiness, 2020) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Bill Orcutt’s contribution to what we could call adventurous music of the past three decades is surely underrated. Starting with the amazing Harry Pussy, a trio which deconstructed and reassembled rock –one of the last to do that during the 90’s – leaving a great legacy after their demise. Following his long hiatus, he has been back with us for just over a decade now. During this second period of his career, playing solo or collaborating (like his mesmerizing duo with another great, Chris Corsano) he has been constantly shedding traditions and genre boundaries. His music is bluesy, freeform, and sometimes closer to an idiomatic view of rock, others his own take on free jazz. Many times his guitar (electric or acoustic) seems like his best friend, an instrument that is pushing him to the outer limits of personal expression. Like the devil.

His musical trajectory moves quite easily between humor, self-irony, rage and hope. But not rage against the machine, if you know what I mean. This release for Endless Happiness is a surprise. It shouldn’t have been considering that on this small and very interesting label there have been echoes of the electricity madness coming from the outskirts of free rock (do check Thurston Moore’s collaboration with Adam Golebiewski on the label). But Warzawa finds Orcutt alone with his electric guitar presenting two untitled tracks for this cassette.

Both tracks clock at around sixteen minutes and if you think that you want more (Orcutt’s music is never enough, I know), you should listen to its raw bluesy music coming straight out of Orcutt’s never ending personal vaults. He approaches the instrument with less appetite for experimentation but full of hope of catharsis. The chords of the guitar seem ever flexible, bending under expressionistic pressure fully taking advantage of the ritualistic nature of electricity on the blues-rock tradition. Electricity rains all over this cassette. For good.

The sardonic nature of Orcutt’s choices in music and how to present his stuff, often hide his knowledge of the transcendence he tries to bring out of his guitar. When I started writing this piece –listening to Warzawa at the same time-, my rating was four stars. It has ascended to four and a half stars; a well needed sentimental ascension during dystopian times. Go get the cassette before it sells out.


Friday, November 27, 2020

Rempis/ Parker/ Flaten/ Cunningham ‒ Stringers and Struts (Aerophonic, 2020) ****

By Stuart Broomer

Stringers and Struts presents an ad hoc quartet of Chicago regulars and returnees. Saxophonist Dave Rempis had been playing in a duo with drummer Jeremy Cunningham, a strong post-bop drummer who plays regularly with Marquis Hill, and saw upcoming visits by two long-term associates, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, as an opportunity to expand the project. The group played a late-night after-session at Elastic Arts during the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, and this CD presents the results.

Rempis is a free jazz master, able to launch an extended improvisaton with a few fragments of melody and an underlying rhythmic force, and he’s in pretty much ideal company here, creating music with consistent drive and invention. There are three pieces here, two long and one short, with Rempis devoting one each to his tenor, alto and baritone saxophones.

“Cutwater” begins as a bittersweet tenor ballad gradually pulled together in the responsive lines of Parker’s guitar. A few unusual interval choices, sudden digressions and skewed runs gradually suggest the potential scale of its inner complexities, until Flaten and Cunningham pick up the pieces and set the ground for the coming maelstrom, a quicksilver dialogue to which every member contributes, until the bent metallic guitar chords, hortatory saxophone, dramatic drum rolls and extended strummed bass chords break up, giving ground to a Parker interlude. The guitarist builds his own strong music out of electronic flutters, colliding chords and eerie, fragmented fluttering runs, Flaten’s eventual bowed support creating strange string allegiances before Rempis’s incantatory, keening tenor and Cunningham’s own abstractions return. A four-way search for solid ground turns into an extended meditation that leads to an ultimate and powerful symmetry.

Apart from the fact that its form is spontaneous, the 25-minute “Harmany” has numerous touchstones, from a sweetly intense alto sound that can stretch from the fullness of Cannonball Adderley bop to the tartly inflected pitches of Jimmy Lyons, and a stylistic range that touches on up-tempo bop to blues and ballad and Latin jazz, including, early on, more than an “acknowledgement” of John Coltrane’s opening theme for A Love Supreme, initiated by Rempis and happily reworked by all concerned. “Harmany” is an occasion that each band member will rise to, whether it’s Parker’s glittering lyricism and hand-in-glove counter-melodies, Flaten’s rapid up-takes, making spontaneous shifts sound perfectly natural or Cunningham’s explosive and liberated hard-bop energies.

There’s more of that spontaneous composition on the brief concluding “Caviste,” made even more remarkable for its concision. It begins in an assembling of noises, baritone saxophone flutters and whispers, wayward guitar harmonics and a struck cymbal, only to assemble into the gentlest of spontaneous tunes from Remplis, with Parker gradually adding a counter line and Flaten and Cunningham putting together a dancing rhythmic undercurrent. The voices gather momentum, the groove strengthens until it’s a carnival explosion that disappears just as it arrived, a sweet evanescent melodic event.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The End - Allt Ar Intet (RareNoise Records) ****½

The End comprise Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (Fire!, The Thing), Norwegian saxophonist Kjetil Møster (Møster!, Zanussi 5), Ethiopian-born vocalist Sofia Jernberg (Fire! Orchestra, PAAVO), Norwegian guitarist Anders Hana (MoHa!, Ultralyd), and Norwegian drummer Børge Fjordheim (Cloroform). This release, the title of which translates roughly to 'All Is Nothingness' is their second. Anyone familiar with these boundary-pushing musicians will know their capacity for throttling ferocity and their ability to stretch music into brutal extremes with focused intensity. This was evidenced in The End’s 2018 debut, Svarmod Och Vemod Är Värdesinnen which featured Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier in lieu of Fjordheim. That album was recorded after only three gigs together but since then, the musicians of The End have come to understand each other and, as Moster says, 'play more as a single entity'.

In this release their continued exploration becomes apparent as they strike a balance between incandescent maelstroms and a more densely layered and haunting beauty.

“Everything really came together on this record,” Gustafsson says. “It’s still rough and dark, but I think we deal with the lyricism on a totally different level. The band consists of a very interesting mix of people, and the mix of brutal riffs and free jazz melodic material is, for me, a dream come true. I like simple, Neanderthal music too, but this has so many complex layers.”

The opening track 'It Hurts Me Too' is a version of the traditional blues song by Tampa Red and made famous by Elmore James . Karen Dalton's pared back arrangement requires a vocalist with pinpoint accuracy and emotive delivery. Sofia Jernberg is perfect for it and delivers in a style which becomes almost a harrowing cry - heartfelt and stirring. The emotive undertone is emphasised by Anders Hana's langeleik - a Norwegian zither. The song was a favourite of Gustafsson’s mentor in both music, life and literature, the late Harald Hult, who Gustafsson met whilst rehearing with the Aaly trio. Hult owned Stockholm’s renowned record store Andra Jazz and founded the Blue Tower Records label. The pair become firm friends and Hult taught Gustafsson to listen to music blindfolded - an experience which he feels gave him an immense insight into how to hear music, to find new layers and depths with each listen. He played this song often and Gustafsson played it at his funeral. The song is delivered with power yet an exquisite longing pervades.

Gustafsson's 'Dark Wish' is dedicated to Per Henrik Wallin, a pioneering jazz pianist who was influential in Europe and successfully spanned generations and styles in the Swedish jazz scene. He facilitated early opportunities for Gustafsson and his experimental cohort. Gustafsson comments, “Per Henrik basically came from Monk and that tradition. His friends and colleagues thought he was crazy to connect with me and drummer Kjell Nordeson, these young free-form dudes, but he heard something in us that he liked. He really taught me how to interact, how to trust your fellow musicians and learn to listen to signals. He looked at life in a pretty dark way, but had a great sense of humour so this is an attempt to celebrate his legacy.” Gustafsson charges through the track, introducing his energy-laden crescendos and rises which are such an integral part of his playing. It ricochets and rises until the surprising vocal entry, which is almost prog-rock and filled with spiritual menace. The forcing of the voice towards the reaches of its range is echoed by the sax and this threat-laden number is darkly beautiful, particularly when both saxes of Gustafsson and Moster and the searing vocals interact in the final section before a solo voice asks, 'why do I hide my wish?' several times to close. This track is a true revelation of Gustafsson's compositional and arranging skills.

Moster's composition, 'Intention and Release' is relentless, rhythmically intricate and uses repetitive rhythms subtly tweaked into different forms. These are echoed in the vocals as an almost lyrical intonation yet a darker sense is carried within, so it feels like a relentless walk towards the final end of death. Dark scratches, deep, loosely tongued sax notes and some male vocals which sound like torture add to the sense of a lurching, undeniable progression over which there is little control. The tongued sax outre is interesting. Even Gustafsson says this was one of the weirdest pieces he ever played. According to Moster it is about how the same thing can mean different things to different people -hence the echoed rhythms and alterations held within. He says, "I’ve been fooling around with rhythmic ideas for as long as I can remember, and this one is orchestrated to be really hard – not so dynamic, more static and driving like a slave march among the Egyptian pyramids. It was a struggle to record and I was getting more and more sweaty and stressed out until it suddenly fell into place. It often takes an effort to break through something challenging, but if you try long enough and really want something to work it usually works in the end.”

Hana's 'Allt Ar Intet' is fugue-like at its outset and works into a surreal and esoteric work of sheer beauty with strange vocalisations over gentle harmonics to start before it develops into a rhythmic, intrinsically detailed rocky number with inserted vocals, screams and ethereal voices over the never ceasing solid rhythms. The drums lead where the others follow. Gustafsson provided the lyrics for the number, which takes its name from the icon-inspired cover artwork provided by Gustafsson’s lifelong friend, artist Edward Jarvis. “Anders comes up with the best riffs and grooves,” Gustafsson says. “His background is in grindcore and metal music, but he’s also deeply into Scandinavian folk music. So he adds to the group a mixture of the raw brutality of grindcore but also a kind of melodic fragility.” A turbulent, brilliant track.

Hana delivers again with his composition ' Rorde Sig Aldrig Mer ( which translates oddly into ' Crow. Never Moved again' and is a tip of the hat to British poet Ted Hughes and his revered collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. The track begins with paired saxes and heavy drums, delirious vocals which sounds like someone being forcibly delivered to an asylum. A huge track, big sounds, extended harmonies and mad-cap phrasing. Absolutely outstanding but not at all relaxing. The bass and percussion lines in the central section sound Black Sabbath-like with wonderful guitar work, until the saxes work their way over the top delivering a contrasting maelstrom of blistering cacophony - very pleasing to the ears.

The final track is a cover of Dewey Redman's 'Imani'. The track seems to morph out of some primordial mist, as a swirling cacophony of vocal chirps, growls and grunts together with breathy rasps and fluttering flute. The vocals swing from rasping to delicate and tentative and the whole track flows from ecllectic couplings to a serene and powerful delivery of the original tune. Gustafsson holds Redman in high regard, saying, “Dewey is so deep and was a great composer as well. He deserves much more recognition, so I felt it was important to bring his legacy to people’s attention.”

In this album, it almost feels like a melding of people who should be in that place, that time and playing together. A strong connection between the musicians, an understanding and a hark back to the original free playing cohort makes this feel a comfortable place for Gustafsson in particular and this is felt in the relaxed yet boundary pushing manner of his playing which, more than ever continues to explore the length, breadth and depths of his instrument. Finding this sublime mix of fellow musicians has brought out the best in all of them and the vocalist is a revelation.

The album is tight, intense and shows a remarkable development of the musicians as an entity. Moster comments, “We all have varied and polarized tastes and quite inverted sides, Mats can play extremely subtle and articulated, but he can also be a storm. Sofia has an incredible soul and presence but also can generate these wild sounds" Of Jenberg, Gustafsson comments, " She is amazing and this is the most intense recording she has ever made, I really believe so'. The past year has been a roller coaster of emotions for some of the members of The End and the music reflects this, as well as the ever challenging , novel routes they choose to take to explore their music. An excellent recording. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Okkyung Lee - Yeo-Neun (여는) (Shelter Press, 2020) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

There is something to be said for patience, for allowing an artist’s work to blossom, not necessarily because the music “grows on you.” It’s more apt to say, with some albums it’s the listener growing into the music. When it comes to cellist Okkyung Lee—much like, say, harpist Zeena Parkins or trumpeter Peter Evans—there is an initial thrill upon hearing a new recording, followed by hours delightfully replaying, picking apart, and surrendering to it. In what ways joy and reckoning manifest largely depend on the album in question. Much like Parkins and Evans, Lee is a superlative musician, whose solo albums present myriad views of the player and her instrument and whose ensembles seem to have, over the years, ignited a renewable passion for reflection and redefinition. For, as light and airy an impression Yeo-Neun presents at first listen, there’s a heaviness to Lee’s newest album, as much an object to explore as it is a sonic work of art to surrender to.

The space within and around Yeo-Neun’s book owes much to the ensemble line up of Lee, Maeve Gilchrist on harp, Jacob Sacks on piano, and Eivind Opsvik on bass. The overlapping timbres of harp, piano, cello, and bass generate some plainly beautiful structures, suck as on the opening sequences in “Another Old Story (옛날이야기)” with Lee placing the quartet first in call-and-response duos, then stacking the voices, guiding them into a four-part improvisation. The stark melodies and timbral harmonics showcase Lee’s celebrated compositional gifts. Gilchrist, a Scottish musician who plays Celtic (or lever) harp, is a superb fit for Lee, who draws inspiration from Korean folk and pop, melding these musics with Western compositional tropes and free improvisation. With her wide-ranging work in Celtic, classical, soundtrack, pop, and folk music, Gilchrist’s harp provides Lee with a new sonic palette to draw from. On “Uiro (Up and Up and Up),” four lines move in counterpoint, with harp and cello knocking up against bass and piano. The fullness of Opsvik’s bass centers the album, especially when he’s paired with Sacks. Their duet on “The Longest Morning,” in which they are eventually joined by Gilchrist, is sublime. If there could be a standout on such a well-conceived album, it might be this one, which, like “In Stardust (for Kang Kyung-Ok),” contrasts a traditional Western melodiousness with a so-called avant-garde solo section. It’s not only that the contrasts exist but how they are connected that make these tracks particularly special.

What may be thought of as an inherent clashing of ideals is resolved by their mutual embrace, forcing a reframing of assumptions. It’s a space where Lee and Opsvik both have spent a lot of time, and the foregrounding of both cello and bass in the mix is viscerally thrilling. Yeo-Neun is, perhaps, Lee’s finest ensemble statement to date, and this quartet provides one of the best transitions between her extensive solo catalog and ensemble recordings. For all the reflective, autobiographical passages throughout her discography, the emotional openness presented here is powerful. And set to a music that subtly unpicks all the assumptions about what’s melody or harmony, what timbres are traditional or acceptable, what’s directed and what’s democratic or cooperative. These are the ways in which a listener gradually crawls further and further into the music, exploring the unanswered questions posed by this album. In all its 40 minutes, there are few moments as affecting as the final 10 seconds of “Then, There (그때 그자리),” the near-silence of the instruments fading away, the notes balanced as on a harmonic seesaw—precise, yet precarious.

Digital and limited-run vinyl available direct via Bandcamp:

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