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Shoji Hano (dr), Hans Peter Hiby (ts)

Manufaktur, Schorndorf, May 2022

Elisabeth Harnik (p), István Grencsó (s), Paul Lytton (d), Ken Vandermark (s)

KM28, Berlin. May 2022

Frank Gratkowski (bcl), Wilbert De Joode (b), Achim Kaufmann (p)

W71, Weikersheim. May 2022

اسم[ism]: Pat Thomas (p); Joel Grip(b), Antonin Gerbal (d)

Autopsi Pohl, Berlin. May 2022

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Wadada Leo Smith - update galore

By Stef Gijssels

Last year, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith turned 80, an opportunity for the Finish label TUM - with whom he's been releasing most of his albums in the last decade - to honour him with an incredible amount of new music, or 18 discs in total presented in several boxes. 

Have I been listening to all of them lately? Yes, all of them several times, and then even more. There are times when you could think that this is overkill, that all this is too much, but Smith is creative and artistic enough to bring new sounds, and he is smart enough to surround himself with top level musicians who are not afraid to challenge him while at the same time understanding very well what his music is aiming for. 

Writing about this music is a challenge. There is no way that it can give sufficient credit to the quantity and quality of it. 

Wadada Leo Smith – The Emerald Duets (TUM, 2022) *****

"The Emerald Duets" offer us some of the most compelling trumpet and percussion duets you will find on record. The five discs in the box bring us music driven by four of the best drummers around: Pheeroan akLaff, Andrew Cyrille, Han Bennink and Jack DeJohnette, with the latter playing on two discs. 

Like on all his album, Smith's music is humanist and spiritual at the same time. It is about politics as much as it is about the thing that connects us all with each other and the universe. This generosity of thought and feeling pervades his sound, regardless of the configuration of his band members. It is not a surprise that the title of the first track is called "The Prayer: First Meditation From The Heart: The Beauty, The Beloved". Smith offers variation by switching to piano once in a while, as does Jack DeJohnette, who - as we all know - started as a pianist before focusing on the drums. 

Smith and Bennink have performed together before, but with little music released together. They seemed to have evaded each other in Marion Brown's "Porto Novo" and in the iconic "Company 6" and "Company 7" albums, each performing on different tracks. But here and now they meet, and how!

Pheeroan akLaff and Smith go back many years, as early on as "Song Of Humanity" in 1977 and he has been in Smith's bands until now, including basically all of his recent albums on TUM. 

Jack DeJohnette has been with Smith for all Golden Quartet and Great Lakes Quartet albums, and the brilliant duo album "America". 

The great fun of listening to all of this consecutively - if you have the time - is the stylistic difference between the drummers. Cyrille, Bennink, akLaff and DeJohnette have very different approaches to their instruments and even to sound. Bennink for instance loves his floor tom, creating mad rhythms and sounds on this single skin, while DeJohnette has a refined approach with lots of cymbal work. 

Vijay Iyer writes in the liner notes: "Music-makers of this level display a crystalline quality: hard-won and authentic luminosity, poise, composure, conviction, and in Smith’s phrase, ‘maximum sincerity.’ Each of these five beings has entered that phase of creative life known to some as ‘late style,’ in which everything they do is magical. These five discs are wondrous monuments to the art of living.

We could not agree more. 

Wadada Leo Smith's Great Lakes Quartet - The Chicago Symphonies (TUM, 2021)

With "The Chicago Symphonies", we get one of Smith's best ensembles, consisting of Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn, Henry Threadgill on alto, flute and bass flute - and replaced by Jonathon Haffner on alto and soprano on the fourth disc, John Lindberg on double bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The quartet is the same as on the "Great Lakes Suite" album from 2014. 

The idea of a symphony composed for a sextet was first presented by composer/performer Don Cherry in his classic recording Symphony For Improvisers in 1966,” says Wadada Leo Smith. “I have broadened this idea to include the social, political and psychological dynamic into the creative space. My Chicago Symphonies are intended to illustrate and preserve the powerfully unique cultural contribution that the Midwesterners made in helping to shape the American society.” The album is dedicated to the major artists from the Chicago area, from Louis Armstrong to AACM and politically from presidents Lincoln to Obama. 

The compositions are great, the music swings, the horns soar. John Lindberg again demonstrates what a fantastic and under-recorded bassist he is, and DeJohnette is nothing less but stellar. Both Lindberg and Dejohnette together are an absolute treat to the ear, especially in the more uptempo pieces (for instance on "Movement 2" and "Movement 4" of disc one), but also in the slower more meditative environments (as on "Movement 3" on disc two). Lindberg often sets the tone of the piece, whether plucked or bowed (as on "Movement 5" on disc four). 

Smith has his own personal sound and improvisational signature, and to Threadgill's credit, his alto forms the perfect counterpart for Smith's soloing. He keeps the spirit, the sound, yet works with it to present his own warm and expressive tones. 

Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette & Vijay Iyer - A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday (TUM, 2021)

One more album to cherish, now with Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Vijay Iyer on piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 and electronics, and with Jack DeJohnette on drums and percussion. As decisive as John Lindberg is in the sound of the Great Lakes Quartet, as ear-catching is the absence of a bass on this album.  Smith explains the reason in the liner notes : "The keyboards, drum-set/percussion and trumpet would create their own sonic ranges, and with no bass at the “bottom” of the music, Vijay, Jack and Wadada’s instruments could realize wider horizontal sonic fields and emotional ranges. Therefore, the performers could reveal a complete and complex melodic and harmonic spectrum in a clear musical exposition." And it does: the music is more ethereal, more light-textured, with less need for explicit rhythms. The music develops quietly, at its own pace, unhurriedly, valuing the precious quality of the sounds and the interaction, delivering the intimate feelings of love for Billie Holiday to whom this album and the first track are dedicated. 

All three musicians contributed compositions, with the last one a collective improvisation. The spacious sound is continued with Iyer's "Deep Time No. 1", a slow but intense composition in which the electric piano and percussion provide a mysterious and restrained sonic background, including the distant resonating voice of Malcolm X making his speech “By Any Means Necessary", over which Smith's trumpet harmoniously follows the chord changes, until DeJohnette's invigorating drumming fuels the piece with energy and Iyer's piano takes the lead, without changing the mystery of the overall sound. 

The centerpiece of the album is Smith's "The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision with Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera (For Anthony Davis)", dedicated to the pianist who performed in several of Smith's ensembles of the years. The composition evolves without a discernable pattern, which leads to moments of silence, moments of sudden shifts in tone, and possibly the only track on which the energy becomes nervous and agitated and more powerful, possibly in line with the elements described in the song's title. 

The next track is Jack DeJohnette's "Song For World Forgiveness", which we now from "Invisible Nature" (2002), his duo recording with John Surman, and also figuring on "Hudson" (2017) with Grenadier, Medeski and Scofield. The composition gets a much more spiritual touch on this rendition, more meditative, sadder too, but with an ending resonating with hope. 

The last track, "Rocket", is more funky, with Iyer's Hammond B-3 organ leading the piece with the instrument's known full sound. 

Despite Smith's incredible productivity, the quality of what he delivers is anyting but quickly produced. Quite to the contrary: the compositions are strong and the musicianship is as stellar as you can expect, among the best you can get and with a stunning coherent vision on the sound they create. 

Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Kaiser, Alex Varty - Pacifica Koral Reef (577 Records, 2022)

I have a love/hate relationship with guitarist Henry Kaiser. Sometimes I think he does excellent things, as on the "Yo, Miles!" albums and sometimes terrible things as on "A Love Supreme Electric", according to my subjective appreciation. There is no question that he's a technically excellent guitarist, yet great technique is not a guarantee for a great sense of music. On this album I can only applaud his approach, in the company of Alex Varty on guitar and Smith on trumpet. Varty is not a professional musician, but a music writer and like Kaiser, an amateur diver, which led to the theme of this album: the slow destruction of coral reef and an emotional musical plea to keep it intact. 

The combination of the acoustic and electric guitar works perfectly well. The album offers us one lengthy improvisation of 55 minutes, even if it was possibly recorded from several pieces. It flows nicely and does not really develop, even if some parts are a little more intense. There are no fireworks, but there are plenty of interesting moments when surprising effects and innovative sonic experiences are created. 

Even if Smith came up with the idea for the album, Varty surprisingly leads the dance, with an open-tuned acoustic guitar offering an 11 minute intro with raga-like sensitivities, when Smith and Kaiser join. 

The music is slow, precise, cautious, expressing the fragility and vulnerability of the coral reef. The fusion guitar sound that I so dislike, is quite tempered here, coloring the music from the background, with high piercing notes, while the acoustic instruments take front stage, and it works. Smith relishes the context. His trumpet appreciates the light-textured guitars, which allows for freedom to expand his improvisation, often with long sustained notes, moanful and deeply emotional. 

In the middle part, Varty takes the trio into a more rhythmic bluesy atmosphere. The album ends with Varty and Kaiser creating chime-like high-pitched arpeggios on their guitars, Varty with Asian sensitivities, Kaiser with deeply resonating effects, emphasising the precarious situation of the coral reef, but also a meditative moment of positive energy.

Wadada Leo Smith String Quartets No. 1-12  (TUM, 2022)

The "String Quartets" are a different kind of animal altogether. A massive work again, comprising no less than 7 CDs, the box presents Smith's compositions with a more classical aspiration. The core string quartet, the RedKoral Quartet, consists of Ashley Walters on cello, Andrew McIntosh on viola, and Mona Tian and Shalini Vijayan on violin. The quartet also features on Smith's composition "Rosa Parks: Pure Love" from 2019. 

This quartet is expanded with some additional musicians: Alison Bjorkedal on harp on CD2, when on String Quartet No. 6 (“Taif: Prayer In The Garden Of The Hijaz”) we also have Smith on trumpet, Lynn Vartan on percussion, Anthony Davis on piano, and Lorenz Gamma on violin, on String Quartet No. 7 (“Ten Thousand Ceveus Peruvianus Amemevical” (In Remembrance Of Dorothy Ann Stone)) we get Stuart Fox on guitar, and finaly on String Quartet No. 8 (“Opuntia Humifusa”), we have Smith on trumpet and Thomas Buckner on voice. 

The music is also different than on Smith's more jazz-influenced compositions, and I must admit that the abstract, often dissonant and dramatic pieces are not really my cup of tea. I am not a fan of avant-garde classical music in general, so I'll refrain from reviewing more deeply.

Over the years, Wadada Leo Smith's music has been been of consistently high quality. Even if his trumpet playing is easy to recognise, and even if it does not alter much in the different environments he's performing in, his musical creativity remains strong, even at 80. He keeps looking, searching for new ways to improve, to say more, to say it better. Obviously he manages to surround himself with stellar musicians who do not need much guidance to deliver great results, but that's a talent too. 

As said at the beginning, 18 discs is a lot to digest, and they've been omnipresent in my ears for the last few months. The albums in this review are ranked according to my preference, but I can only repeat that there are only subjective reasons to rank them thus. 


Watch a recording of his 80th Birthday Celebration: 

Friday, September 30, 2022

New Monuments – Language is the Skin (Torn Light Records, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

Coming off their 2018 release New Earth, I had high, and loud, expectations for Language is the Skin. Two-thirds of the core of the New Monuments group – Don Dietrich on sax and Ben Hall on drums – remains. However, here C. Spencer Yeh has been replaced by Dietrich’s daughter Camille Dietrich on cello, and e-bassist Tony Gordon has also joined the melee.

Language begins with some pulsing, which Dietrich quickly tears to shreds. Then come the drums and a steady, repeating single note bass (drum?) propulsion. And the New Monuments are off for a good 52 minutes and six tracks of anthracitic blast furnace explosion. Dietrich and Hall, of course, have some history together and their styles blend seamlessly. Dietrich rides atop it all, ululating like Ayler untethered from his hymnal and bop roots. Hall pounds away behind him, laying a rich textural foundation, which is equal parts askew jazz rhythm (he studied with Milford Graves, and it shows) and metallic noise. Gordon, meanwhile, absolutely shreds his bass with the gravity of Marino Pliakas and the speed of pure amphetamine. He also goes slow, low and heavy, introducing some sludge into the dissonant stew. Camille Dietrich is sometimes harder to distinguish from the rest of the ruckus, and her contributions more often fill out the sound than lead it. If one turns this up loud (as one must), though, one can really hear her cello fighting from the back of the turbulence, throwing out fuller tones, ominously recurring beeps and strangled shards of melody. She is somewhat less abrasive than Yeh could be in the group’s previous iteration. Still, as with Yeh, she uses effects to create scraping sonic environments one normal attributes to distorted electric guitar or other electronics. Indeed, Language is the Skin sounds more rounded (though not quite “polished”) than New Earth because of the interplay between Camille Dietrich and Gordon, who fill those spaces left by Don Dietrich and Hall’s maelstrom.

As impressive as New Monuments are as a unit, and a surprisingly tight one at that, Dietrich the elder still rises to the top. I just cannot get over how he is still able to, to steal a phrase from R. Crumb about Mats Gustafsson, torture his saxophone with such unrelenting fury for so long. Just listen to Reincarnation is Hard to Do, Lamprey Embouchure or Blush (a darkly ambient background barraged by Dietrich’s tortuous cries), or even the shorter numbers. Goddamn.

Language is the skin. Indeed, one can really feel this music, its energy, its unapologetic condemnation of (or lamentation for) a world in crisis. It sounds like New Monuments are still chasing that elusive new earth they pursued, whether better or dystopic, in their previous release. Especially if that pursuit involves raw, bestial numbers like those here, those that alternately give me giddy goosebumps and make my skin crawl, let’s hope they do not stop anytime soon.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Discover Camille Émaille

Camille Émaille. Photo by Peter Rabenda

By Martin Schray

The story has already been told a few times: when Peter Brötzmann belatedly celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert weekend at Café Ada in his hometown of Wuppertal, he invited many of the usual suspects who have accompanied him throughout his musical life - Hamid Drake, Full Blast, Mats Gustafsson (to name just the most prominent). However, one name on the list was completely unknown to almost everyone in the audience: Camille Émaille. What was even more surprising was the fact that she was introduced with a percussion solo set. When she entered the stage, some people in the audience (mainly a bit aged and male) were relatively unimpressed and had no intention of interrupting their conversations. But after 30 seconds at the latest, most people’s jaws literally dropped. Émaille set off an incredible firework of ideas, unheard even in the world of free improvisation. At the end of her 25-minute performance, there were standing ovations. She was definitely the (shooting) star of the festival.

Émaille was born in 1993 in Nice and studied at the Musik-Akademie of Basel (Switzerland) with Christian Dierstein on contemporary music and with Fred Frith on free improvisation. She received a bachelor degree in percussion with excellence in 2018. In 2016 she was a guest scholar at Mills College and studied there with William Winant, Fred Frith and Roscoe Mitchell. In 2017, she released her first solo album on the Portuguese label Creatives Sources. Recently, Èmaille has worked with many artists from varying fields, such as video and muppet theatre, and she has played in lots of musical projects like Oxke Fixu (a duo with Xavière Fertin on clarinet), Ghoast (a duo with American saxophonist Tom Weeks), ESCARGOT (her quintet with Timothée Quost on trumpet, Xavière Fertin on clarinet, Louis Frères on e-bass and Tom Malmendier on drums) and in a trio with Hans-Peter Hiby (saxes) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello). When she’s on tour she travels in her own van, because she only uses her own drum and percussion set, she doesn’t use sets that are provided to her.

Camille Émaille’s drum set

Camille Émaille - Belisama - The Metallic Roots (Takuroku, 2021/22)

If you’ve ever seen Camille Émaille’s percussion set, you’ve surely noticed the many metal elements. On her new album Belisama - The Metallic Roots she concentrates only on these instruments like gongs, cowbells, glockenspiels, agogôs, metal blocks, and many more for 53 minutes. Even if she is not the first or only percussionist to use such so-called extended materials, a radical focus on them is at least rare. In doing so, Émaille’s closeness to new classical music becomes obvious on Belisama, often the tones are produced by shaking or scratching and scraping sounds, the “instrument“ is rarely hit. In such a consistency this opens up an unheard sonic universe, the 53 minutes just fly by. Émaille’s talent for building tension also contributes to this. Once the listener has made himself comfortable in the sound space, he is torn out of it again by an unforeseen element and steered in another direction almost out of the blue. Belisama begins meditatively with long gong intervals that are not quite in time. After five minutes, a sort of drone joins in. This intro lasts seven minutes before another instrument appears. Slightly modified, the last three minutes take up this idea again, the rhythmic and tonal figure bookends the improvisation. In between, Émaille explores a smorgasbord of sonic possibilities like a curious child: her percussion set rattles, squeaks, clatters, hisses, clangs echoes, reverberates, scrapes. Here and there acoustic effects are deliberately used, they sound like electronic processing.

Belisama is a radical experiment, Émaille throws herself back to her origins. In the lines notes she says that she’s “going back to (…) my home, inside myself“.

Fascinating, new, and adventurous in the best sense.

Belisama - The Metallic Roots is available as a download and as a CD. You can download it on the Cafe Oto website

If you want the CD, you might write her an e-mail

Listen to an excerpt here:

Le UN - Le Havre (UNREC, 2022)

Camille Émaille is an outstanding solo performer but she’s also a great team player. Her duo album with Tom Weeks is excellent and at a concert I was lucky enough to see on their Germany tour in September she was the driving force in a trio with Hans Peter Hiby and Fred Lonberg-Holm. What is more, even in a 26-people large ensemble like Le UN her individual voice stands out in the improvisation.

Le UN is an unusual orchestra anyway. Musically located somewhere between the chamber music philosophy of King Übü Örchestrü and the expressive approach of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, it develops a unique sonic and improvisational power. The current version of the band was initiated by bassist David Chiesa in 2019 and the members self-conception is to act as an improvisation society. Apart from Émaille musicians like Sophie Agnel on piano and Michel Doneda on soprano saxophone are the most prominent names of this spectacular outfit. As to the liner notes of Le Havre, their first album, each member is involved in the artistic realisation as much as in the social, non-hierarchical organisation of the ensemble. The idea is that the individual voice is not lost in the collective, but that everyone participates equally in the orchestral improvisation. The most important aspect is that all the individuals contribute with their uniqueness to the success of the whole, without hindering its collective character. In this case Émaille works as the powerhouse of the orchestra, together with Benoit Kilian she is the coachman on the coach box, driving the orchestra so that their tension doesn’t get lost. Le Havre was recorded during a three-day residency at Le Volcan, Scène Nationale du Havre, in April 2021, where the band had a three-day residency. What you get to hear is work-in-progress, a music full of abysses and emotional refractions. It’s one of this year’s absolute surprises.

Le Havre is available as a limited LP, which also contains a CD (with bonus tracks). 

Also recommendable from Camille Émaille’s back catalogue:

Camille Émaille & Tom Weeks - Ghoast (2017)

Ghoast is an almost classic saxophone/drum duo album that showcases Émaille’s strengths nicely. She supports Weeks whether he’s exploring the sonic limits of the saxophone or blowing wildly. A good example is “Devil Mountain“.

Ghoast is available as a cassette and as a download.

You can buy it and listen to it here.

Camille Émaille - Bekkos (Creatives Sources, 2017)

If you want to get to know Camille Emaille’s acoustic and sonic world in the most ideal way, her solo debut is your best bet. 46 minutes she ignites all the stops of her incredible musical cosmos.

Bekkos is available as a CD and a download. You can listen to it and download it here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Shoe & Shoelace - Life In A Shoebox (Zvocni Prepihi, Sound Draughts, 2022)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Shoe & Shoelace is the duo of Jaka Berger on drums, preparations and modular synth and Jure Borsic on sax, clarinet and preparations. If I had to comment, straight on, about any resemblances, that would be XT, the duo of saxophonist Seymour Wright and percussionist Paul Abbott. Both duos seem to share a more experimental and electronic approach to the traditional free jazz duo of sax and drums.

Life in a Shoebox was recorded early on 2021 at the Club Metuji, but I’m not sure if this is a totally live recording. On the press sheet for the CD there’s a mention about the coexistence of organic and electronic (manipulated could be even more precise) sounds, which I consider as the key element to understand what goes on the CD. As some of you might have read (on a review here about Berger’s take on Cornelious Cardew’s Treatise), the Slovenian percussionist is at ease when changing styles.

His approach on the drums, on Life in a Shoebox, reminded his idiosyncratic take on Treatise, a work of music quite open but also one that carries a certain burden. Both musicians seem to follow an electroacoustic and less jazzy path for the chosen instruments, moving as far away from jazz as possible. But is this something to care about or, even, worth mentioning?

Well, I think it is. They willingly take the risk to get out of the comfort zone named jazz, without lowering the level of energy that jazz (at least jazz outside the classic jazz spectrum) requires. The both play aggressively and their interplay, the wordless communication is outstanding. At some points, I dare to comment, I felt that something new and never heard before is in the making. Plus, to be honest, the XT mention is always a compliment as the Wright/Abbott duo is one of the few that constantly keeps pushing things ahead.

Living on the peripheries of Europe, as both of them I guess they do, provides many times the antidote to the saturation of sounds that listeners of the big hubs, of the western world, for improvisation, suffer. Both artists seem to be on their own path, one that fortunately brings them together on this CD. Let’s hope they will continue this way. The artwork of Mateji Stupica adds more to this fine release.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Marta Warelis – a grain of Earth (Relative Pitch, 2022)

By Matty Bannond

Our planet’s story is plotted around cycles of collapse and renewal. Natural forces give life. They take life away. Summer’s abundance sickens in fall, expires in winter and is reborn in spring. Civilizations rise and recede. Each generation is ultimately replaced. Polish pianist Marta Warelis captures the deep-down truths of this perpetual rhythm in her new album, a grain of Earth.

Based in Amsterdam, Warelis has a capacity to fit in and stand out within any context. She appeared on the Dave Douglas album Secular Psalms released in April 2022. Previous recordings include participation in the Strings5 quintet and a quartet with Frank Rosaly, as well as various trio and duo formations. This time, she improvised all alone. “Playing solo is a very vulnerable yet powerful experience,” she says. “If you let yourself stream whatever comes, it is wonderfully liberating.”

Life’s endless cycles are reflected in the patterns that emerge and evaporate on the album’s first track, “Echo”. Fizzing and gonging sounds ring. When the piano enters, clusters begin to form. Matter sticks together. From this primordial soup, the listener observes complexity evolving as Warelis adds fragments from folk and classical traditions. From nothing, comes everything.

By the time she reaches “Trip of the Light Toe”, Warelis has hurled more cultures and species into the mix. It’s a restless piece. Monk-ish boppy elements lurk beneath the surface. Waves of sound surge up and down as if governed by the moon’s gravitational pull. “I knew it was going to be a very personal journey,” she says. “Kind of a closure of what I’ve been working on in the last few years musically, but also emotionally.”

The album’s title track has a balmy, soothing quality. The extreme weather and geographical violence have now passed. Warelis uses more repeated shapes, trills and technical tropes. This sonic soil is rich and sustaining. In the final moments, fragile and pretty shapes rise like optimistic green shoots.

a grain of Earth grasps the infinite universe and balances it on the outside edge of a very small proton. Marta Warelis explores the possibilities of her piano while steering the listener through an investigation of big ideas and microscopic subtleties. “There’s an arc of a journey for me,” she says. “Of my understanding, going through and experiencing the suffering and beauty of an earthly life.”

The album is available on CD and for digital download or streaming:

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Anton Fier (1956 - 2022)

Anton Fier. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Martin Schray

Anton Fier is an almost imperceptible but enormously important part of the soundtrack of my life. He was the rhythm machine in my free jazz epiphany: Peter Brötzmann’s März Combo Tentet, a band that brought rock and free jazz together on Brötzmann’s 50th birthday in Wuppertal. He also is the drummer on one of my all-time-favorite-top-ten albums, Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies. Unlike others who just try to keep the rhythm going, Fier often pulled strings from behind the scenes with his relentless driving groove.

In recent weeks, as the jazz scene has suffered some tragic losses, news of his death has almost gone under the radar. As announced on 9/21/22, Fier died back in August at the age of 66, cause of death is still unknown.

Born on June 20, 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio, Anton Fier moved to New York in the late 1970s, where he quickly made a name for himself in the downtown scene and was involved in many projects at the same time. He was a founding member of John Lurie’s experimental “fake jazz“ combo The Lounge Lizards, who released their debut in 1981. Even a year earlier, The Feelies released the aforementioned Crazy Rhythms, which was outstanding if only because, in an era of No Wave and punk, it relied on sprawling guitar chops, with Fier on drums as the actual driving force. On both album covers he looks like a high school student. A little later he formed the experimental band The Golden Palominos, a supergroup featuring John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, Nicky Skopelitis, Fred Frith, David Moss, Arto Lindsay, Jamaladeen Tacuma and others. The band was active with breaks until the end in different line-ups each time.

In addition, Fier played with Pere Ubu and Bob Mould’s first band (a spectacular gig at Frankfurt’s Batschkapp club is another great memory) and drummed for acts and greats such as Mick Jagger, Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Material, John Zorn or the Swans ... and that's just a sample of his output!

His eagerness to experiment and his playing, which therefore demanded constant innovation, made him an exceptional figure on the drums. In addition, he was a sought-after producer who produced Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the Grapes of Wrath and Joey Henry as well as albums by his own bands.

John Lurie wrote on Twitter. “The Lounge Lizards would never have gotten off the ground without him. He showed us how to work on music. Demanded it.”

In the famous superband in heaven I imagine him playing with Hendrix, that might be spectacular. I will miss him a lot.

Watch Fier with The Feelies playing “Crazy Rhythms“: 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Pharoah Sanders (1941 - 2022)

Pharoah Sanders. Photo from his website

By Martin Schray

At the tender age of 25, Pharoah Sanders experienced the greatest honor that jazz had to offer in the 1960s: The great John Coltrane took him into his band and shaped him forever with his concept of a spiritual free jazz. In interviews, however, Sanders honestly did not want to be asked about the old mentor and did not shy away from looking through the journalists’ questionnaires for the irritant word “Coltrane“, only to break the rule himself and tell anecdotes like these: Coltrane was said to have asked him whether he could play an F on the tenor saxophone (which is extremely difficult). “Yes“, Sanders replied, “but only if I lift my left leg while doing it - and I don't want to do that!“ Now the great saxophonist, sound inventor and activist, one of the greatest angry young men of jazz at the time, has died on September 24 at the age of 81 

Pharoah Sanders, whose real name was Ferell Sanders, was born October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He moved to New York City in 1961 after playing with rhythm and blues bands. There, he was homeless a few times, but he knew Sun Ra, who found him an apartment and encouraged him to use the stage name “Pharoah“. In 1963, he formed his own band with pianist John Hicks, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Billy Higgins. The group attracted the attention of John Coltrane. In 1965, Sanders began performing with Coltrane at live shows and in the studio regularly, playing on several of Coltrane’s albums, including Ascension, Meditations, Kulu Sé Mama, Live at the Village Vanguard Again! and many more. Simultaneously, Sanders started recording albums under his own name. In 1966, he signed a contract with Impulse! and released Tauhid in the same year. His most famous album, Karma, followed in 1969. In the 1970s, Sanders continued to produce his own recordings and also continued to work with Alice Coltrane, for example on Journey to Satchidananda.

He experimented with African rhythms on the 1971 album Black Unity and in general he became interested in all kinds of music, including R&B, modal jazz and hard bop. Throughout his life however, he retained the brute stylistic devices of free jazz such as overblowing, primal scream effects, and walls of sound, even when he returned to more conventional forms in the eighties. A perfect example of his wide musical universe is the fact that he traveled to Morocco in 1994 to record the album The Trance of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, which was produced by Bill Laswell, and in the same year also he did a trip hop remix of “The Creator Has A Master Plan“, his signature song from Karma.

Finally, in 2021, together with London electro musician and DJ Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, he had an unexpected late career hit. The meditative, nine-part suite Promises was exactly the kind of music with spiritual depth and emotional spark of hope that a beleaguered humanity needed in the second pandemic year.

Although the great saxophonist has recorded many excellent albums throughout his whole career, his work from the 1960s and 70s is considered to stand out from his rich and varied catalogue. Tauhid (1967, Impulse) with Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Dave Burrell on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, Roger Plank on drums and Nat Bettis on percussion was the blueprint for his most famous albums, which were about to follow, because it established the typical spiritual Sanders sound. Two years later, he released Karma (Impulse), possibly his greatest success, with a monstrous band consisting of Lonnie L. Smith jr. on piano, Julius Watkins on French horn, James Spaulding on flute, William Hart and Frederick Waits on drums, Richard Davis, Reggie Workman and Ron Carter on bass and the fabulous Leon Thomas on vocals and percussion. “The Creator has a Master Plan“ is the mother of all spiritual jazz tracks. In the years to follow, he released more wonderful albums on Impulse like Summon Bukmun Umyun (1970), Jewels of Thought (1970), Thembi (1971), and Black Unity (1972), all worth listening to. A personal favorite of mine is Izipho Zam (Strata-East, 1973), on which he again was joined by long time collaborators such as Leon Thomas (“Prince of Peace“ with him on vocals is my favorite Sanders track), Sonny Sharrock, Lonnie Liston Smith, Nat Bettis and Billy Hart plus Sonny Fortune on alto sax, Howard Johnson on tuba and Cecil McBee and Sirone on bass. Sanders was always at his best when he was backed by a band that had a great groove and expressed a lot of spirituality like on Africa (Timeless, 1987), where John Hicks (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass) and Idris Muhammad (drums) prepared a marvelous sound carpet on which Sanders could soar. “You’ve Got To have Some Freedom“ even works as a dance floor killer. Sanders was also especially great when he worked with musicians from Africa, for example with the aforementioned Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994). The music here is also of an outstanding spirituality, however very different from his albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it seems more ethereal and otherworldly. Promises with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra (Luaka Bop, 2020), was praised by many critics (including myself), but also criticized as being to kitschy. I liked its drama and comforting spirit a lot, though.

Though Pharoah Sanders has passed on, we will be comforted by the music he gave us all. Not only the jazz community will miss him.

Watch “The Creator Has a Master Plan“ with Pharoah Sanders - tenor sax, William Henderson on piano, Miles Danso on bass and Antoine Banville and drums live in London, 2011: 

Daunik Lazro, Jouk Minor, Thierry Madiot, David Chiesa, Louis-Michel Marion - Sonoris Causa (NoBusiness, 2022)

By Stuart Broomer

Extremely low frequencies are less a range than a realm. Below 30 cps they’re largely inaudible to the human ear, felt as vibration rather than sound, at high amplitude sometimes felt internally. 5 cps is less a tone than a tempo marking, 300 beats per minute, as pitch turns, ineluctably, into time. Bass vibrations have inspired Szilárd Mezei to form a band of four string basses and a tuba (see Szilárd Mezei Tubass Ensemble – Rested Turquoise (No Business, 2021)), while Anthony Braxton’s adventures in the lowest registers are numerous (read more here.)

Given a suspension between silence, power and terror, low frequencies exercise a special fascination for musicians, suggesting chthonic realms with low-pitched instruments in hyper-resonant spaces that are often vast, dark and enclosed. In 1993, in a prototypical gesture, Swiss saxophonist Werner Lüdi entered the Lucendro dam, taking along his baritone as well as his alto (Lüdi Solo: Lucendro, Unit Records, 1996). In 2000, Evan Parker and a Swiss wind quartet explored the sonics of an empty cistern above Zurich (September Winds, Creative Works). On their next meeting, Parker and band-member Peter A. Schmid were exploring the tubax, a form of contrabass saxophone, though they didn’t take the low-pitched horns to the cistern (Alder Brook, Leo Records, 2003).

That chthonic element is strong in Sonoris Causa (a pun on “honoris causa” but a hint, too, of what sound might bring into being. The quintet, recorded in 2003 at Festival Musique Action in Vandoeuvre, France, includes nothing but low pitches. Jouk Minor is playing a contrabass sarrusophone, certainly the most unusual instrument here. Similar in range to a contrabass saxophone (the bell appears at the top of the instrument and there are far more bends than in a saxophone—the recent tubax is similar in appearance), the instrument appears on one highly memorable 1924 recording, “Mandy Make Up Your Mind” by Clarence Williams’s Blue 5, where much of the track is devoted to a novelty solo by Sidney Bechet on the instrument (Louis Armstrong is also a member of the Williams band). David Chiésa and Louis-Michel Marion are both playing five-string double basses which allow a bassist to play a fourth lower than a conventional instrument. Thierry Madiot plays bass trombone and “telescopic tubes”, the name of which suggests something like a trombone in its function. That leaves Daunik Lazro, whose gruff, roaring baritone saxophone is the highest-pitched instrument in the band.

The basses are often bowed, emphasizing their resonance and a certain pitch variance. The harmonics of the basses and Lazro’s baritone emphasizing an echoing sub-pitch. Every instrument emphasizes fundamentals, while the bass reeds can render echoing wails that resemble winds blowing through canyons. Each wind instrument will repeat low-register plosives at one time or another, suggesting speech pitched below speech. What high pitches are here are always resonating in large-diameter columns. The music will thin, but the presence of three tracks is an illusion, there only to make the uninterrupted 66-minute performance easier to negotiate.

This sustained improvisation seeks mystery, power and a kind of occultation, even immuration, in sound, which the musicians seem to achieve. There are moments when they seem to be echo-locating, bouncing off one another’s sounds to achieve distance, stretching the stage to accommodate the sound, seeming to grow further apart, making and measuring a vast imaginary space. As it progresses, the music becomes more spacious, but also more meditative, the musicians more exploratory of this world of their own making. At the conclusion, however, the music returns to the suggestion of some ultimate trembling in the firmament.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Ü - Ü (s/r, 2022)

By Guido Montegrandi

Ü quartet was born in 2021 and this is their first work. The name comes from the 16th hexagram of the I Ching whose translation in Italian sounds like Ü il Fervore – hence also the title of the closing track

In stating their aesthetic Alessandro Luppi (clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax), Giovanni Falascone (piano, kalimba, live electronics), Filippo Abrate (percussion), Thomas Canna (percussion) tell us that "the group is oriented toward a rhythm and timbre research which has its foundation in jazz, electroacoustic, ethnic, contemporary and experimental music. The aim of this research is to investigate a ritual and evocative dimension where a performance can be built, a space for a search in balance between composition and improvisation."

In all of the tracks the listener can find references to jazz, to electroacoustic music, to ethnic music but all these references are incorporated into a personal project. It’s a quartet with no leading role, all of the four musicians bring their contribution to a sound that flows between freedom and structure. The interplay reminds me remarkably of the European free music of the 70 with a very well balanced poise among all of the instruments. Musical ideas are introduced as fragments of sound, as traces leading to places that dissolve into silence.

A deep sense of space characterizes the sound - Giovanni Falascone, responsible of the mixing process, told me that in order to avoid the two drums to fuse into a single sound, one of them has been placed on the left in the mix and the other on the right with piano slightly on the right and clarinet slightly on the left. This has created a precise static definition for the acoustic sound in the mix while the processed sounds and the electronics exploit the whole space expanding in a free and randomic way. A foreign sound that surfaces and take possession of the acoustic space.

Below, are my impressions of the pieces, just to give a personal hint of their attitude, given the fact that Ü appears like a continuous work and the various pieces interact and respond to each other creating some kind of path.

The opening track Dense 4 starts with sparse atmospheric percussion, slowly joined by reeds and piano, to build a nice free improvisation where the rhythm flows from the drums to the piano.

In Specchi, the sounds are isolated electronics and cymbals and drums with a reed singing a broken melody doubled in the end by an expressive drumming.

The clarinet introduces the theme of Ghana Blues again doubled by the percussions as if the statements of “Specchi” have to be continued, then it all fades into a stream of electronic sounds creating a change into the landscape and leaving in the end a very distant reed playing.

Suite for Milan has an almost canonical free jazz intro fading into silence which prepares for the central piece of the suite in tempo lento. Here the piano creates the environment for the other players to build their structures. Again, the collective creation of sound emerges. The sound get thinner and rarer until the reed leads to a fast free ending which seems to close the circle.

In Rumble, bass clarinet and percussions play seemingly in the distance, structured metallic noises fill the foreground until the percussion makes its statement, just a moment before silence.

Searching for Consciousness is marked by percussion, a lamenting reed, electronic noises and sounds that gradually take the lead followed and then surrounded by a constant drumming and long reed sounds, then silence (almost). From this cracked land, a rhythmic drumming, piano and reed emerge as if a path has been found but then again the melody slowly dissolves into silence.

Stripes is characterized by a ground of percussions in conversation with a meandering reed.

Il Fervore closes the album with the drums interacting with the piano and then with the reed weaving intricate patterns. When the sax is left alone it is like a cusp reabsorbed by the final notes of piano and drums again.

In conclusion, I consider Ü an intriguing piece of work that discloses sound and ideas that deserve further developments, certainly a good contribution to the search for a contemporary musical expression.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Bad Plus - The Bad Plus (Edition Records, 2022)

By Sammy Stein

American quartet, The Bad Plus comprises bass player Reid Anderson , drummer David King , guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed. Relaunching as a quartet (previously a trio with several changes in personnel around the founders Anderson and King), The Bad Plus is still delivering dynamic, ever-evolving music.

Twenty-one years after their landmark debut as a genre-exploding piano-bass-drums trio, the Bad Plus have reinvented themselves with the addition of guitarist Ben Monder and saxophonist Chris Speed. The Bad Plus sees the group continuing to challenge convention and push their unique jazz toward boundary-breaking directions. The band is undertaking a tour, taking in North America, Indonesia, the UK, and Europe.

Though the lineup may have changed, The Bad Plus remains unique in delivery and sound, and the group's unique musical language and undeniable drive and intent remain.

Now the lineup has no pianist, which makes for a different sound. However, new additions Monder and Speed come with a wealth of experience. Monder is known for his work as leader and sideman with David Bowie (Blackstar), Theo Bleckmann, Guillermo Klein, and Paul Motian, to name but a few–and saxophonist Chris Speed, an award-winning leader/co-leader of numerous modern ensembles and long time musical running buddy of both King and Anderson.

Intense rehearsals in the summer of 2021 saw the quartet poring over compositions by Anderson and King, emerging with a singular group sound that retains all of The Bad Plus's vaunted adventurousness while simultaneously setting them on a new pathway of genre-agonistic musical exploration. Working with engineer Brett Bullion, the band has fully maximized the sonic and dynamic possibilities of the new lineup, showcasing the virtuosity and musicality of Speed and Monder while maintaining their trademark pursuit of relentless invention and excellence, blazing with the very same attitude that has defined the group for over two decades.

'Motivations' is a beautiful track with the tenor sax and bass in counterpointed harmony while the steady keys and drums develop a supportive backdrop. The percussion is outstanding. There is immediately in this track a sense of maturity, settlement, and comfort. The unhurried essence of the melodies alongside the occasional changes is somehow reassuring.

'Sun Wall' is delightfully bonkers. In a controlled manner, the musicians develop rhythms around a central seven-spot uneven rhythm pattern, which works devilment with the listening brain in a wonderful way. The guitar is allowed free rein, which it seems to delight in, and the bass line is interesting, so a lot is going on in this track.

'Not Even Close to Far Off' is powerful, darker than the previous track, concentrating on the lower notes in the bass line, contrasting with the tenor line, and permeating the track with intensity. Speed then does a little unleashing of his own as he powers down a truly mesmeric solo over the top. A great number with a lovely change of feel around the four-minute mark - be prepared.

'You Won't See Me Before I come Back' is lyrical, melodic, and features an almost tender guitar solo section, while 'Sick Fire' pulls out the stops and is a foray into free playing. The sax is delirious over drums that sway and lean into the tempo, slowing it, pushing it on, and the number feels like a collective exploration. The verging on the manic soloing of Speed is grin-making material.

'Stygian Pools' contrasts with that which has gone before and is a well-developed, progressively deeper layer number with changing tempos, rhythms, and interactive reflections from sax, guitar, and percussion. Once again, Speed picks up the free potential, and his sax wails itself into other realms at times, while the rest of the band feels decidedly grounded, and Speed returns to melodic formats by the finish.

'The Bright Future' is ethereal, atmospheric, and tempered throughout by the percussive effects, from shimmering cymbals to dynamic powered threads. This is the track on the album where the cohesiveness of the quartet is strongest, each musician intensely picking up cues, developing lines and working harmonics to cerate something extraordinary, worthy of the class of musican here. The sax picks lines to develop and takes them up and away, while the centering bass and percussion allow spaces into which the guitar works.

'The Dandy' closes out the album and is almost minimalistic at the outset, with simple lines and short phrases interwoven to create a belying complexity. However, the track develops as layers are added; each musician gives an ingredient until the fullness of the track can be heard.

This album is engaging and pulls the listener in, but it has a tentativeness throughout it, which I could not shake off. At times, there is a true sense of collectiveness, while at others, there is a sense of still gelling, working out who is going where, and that intrinsic intuition that makes a natural blend was not there in spades. However, given the class of musicians here and the fact we are emerging from a pandemic situation s they have not played often together, it will be interesting and potentially incredible when the intuitiveness kicks in, and the true blending happens. The Bad Plus has a different sound than they did in 2019 ( check out the impressive Boffadem live studio session of that time), but they are getting used to a different format - so it is quite right they are re-setting The Bad Plus are back.