ARTHURS / HOIBY / RITCHIE – EXPLICATIONS
Label: Not Applicable
Release Date: March 2008
Tracklist: Blind Chance; Expulsion; Strangely Wired; Up from Sloth; Untitled # 1; Leaves; Chocolate and Zucchini; Second Base
Personnel: Tom Arthurs: flugelhorn, trumpet; Jasper Hoiby: bass; Stu Ritchie: drums
This is an interesting group, who display some very promising signs for the future, though their concept is not quite fully developed at this stage (and it’s probably unrealistic to expect it to be). Probably the biggest problem is that, at times, things could be said to be somewhat lacking in emotion, which leads to things seeming rather clever-clever and clinical, but without the same level of deep intellectual engagement generated by the best free improvisation and free jazz (full engagement of mind and body). It’s a criticism you could also layer at the mathematically-based work of Fieldwork, and one that has frequently (and mistakenly) been leveled at Anthony Braxton, who is accused of being ‘cerebral’ when his playing can actually be distinctly ‘hot’.
Arthur’s duo with pianist Richard Fairhurst from last year, which yielded the album ‘Mesmer’, also on Babel, focused more on the hushed, the delicate, the barely-there; ‘Explications’ is a little more aggressive, even if at times it can feel a little constricted, set within rather tight bounds – and perhaps that accounts for the emotional constriction, too. At these moments, it’s very controlled, but more in the sense that such control limits the music’s possibilities, than that it leads to greater freedom, to a furtherance of expressive means (as in, say, ‘reductionism’, where playing quietly and with silence could be said to be a restriction, but allows the performer to reach deeper into themselves).
Let’s focus on the positives though – while, ultimately, this just lacks something, some full level of engagement, it’s still a very fine album. Compositionally Arthurs shows a lot of promise, his themes sounding like the sort of musical figures that could emerge in one of his improvisations (‘Blind Chance’). There’s an angularity here that recalls the linear, up-down dissonance of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music, though without quite the same level of textural (or musical) complexity. Arthur’s choice of the flugelhorn allows him to explore more sonorous, darker low registers, though well-placed smears and little upward squeals are an essential part of the way he constructs his solos and builds tension. Hoiby and Ritchie tend to keep things going without really drawing attention to themselves, though they are afforded concise solo features at times. Thankfully, they don’t take these slots as opportunities for grandstanding, but play in a way that furthers, or develops, the overall momentum, their contributions at the service of the music rather than of ego. One senses that the trio have really worked hard at developing this level of interaction, perhaps devising certain strategies to ensure freshness – or maybe it all happens spontaneously, which would be all the more remarkable.
Formally, it’s frequently interesting – repeating ostinato figures (usually from bass and drums, though sometimes initiated by Arthurs) often signal, or force, a chance of direction, ensuring things never stay still for too long. When the band fall into a groove, then, it’s not for easy coasting, something to fall back on when they fall out of ideas, but frequently to build intensity (as on the conclusion of ‘Second Base’). Perhaps, as I’ve suggested, this trio’s interest in ‘explications’ (detail, and structure), overshadows the need for a stronger emotional component, but they should by no means abandon their investigations into these areas – it’s refreshing to see jazz musicians engaging with them in this way, and Arthurs/ Hoiby / Ritchie are definitely ones to watch.
(Review by David Grundy)
AUTECHRE – QUARISTICE/ QUARISTICE (versions)
Label: Warp Records
Release Date: January 2008 (digital release) March 2008 (CD/LP release)
Quaristice – Altibzz; The Plc; IO; plyPhon; Perlence; SonDEremawe; Simmm; paralel Suns; Steels; Tankakern; rale; Fol3; fwzE; 90101-5l-l; bnc Castl; Theswere; WNSN; chenc9; Notwo; Outh9X
Quaristice (versions) – Altichyre; The PlclCpC; IO (mons); Phylopn; Perlence range 3; SonDEre-ix; Tankraken; fol4; 90101-61-01; chenc9-x; nofour
Personnel: Sean Booth, Rob Brown (Autechre): electronics
Additional Information: The digital release (MP3 and FLAC) can be downloaded from bleep.com. Also available, through bleep.com and iTunes, is a 13-track EP, consisting of alternate takes from the album. The EP is entitled ‘Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae’.
Autechre’s latest is a bit of a mish-mash, hit-and-miss effort, it has to be said. Rather than the lengthy pieces which fill up many of their other albums, we instead get fifteen short tracks, mostly around three minutes in length, which never really settle down to make a unified statement, to make up a consistent whole – although unity of a sort is provided by the way that beat-less, quasi-ambient pieces open and close the album. Maybe repeated listenings would reveal some sort of arc, and that’s one of the disadvantages of reviewing new releases for a magazine – there’s often simply not the time to digest things as much as you would want to (though I do try to give each album several hearings, rather than simply going by first-listen impressions). So perhaps the fact that ‘Quaristice’ doesn’t seem to work is my fault, rather than Autechre’s.
Still, I have the sneaking suspicion that they have just rather got ideas overload.
Listening to Disc 2 of ‘versions’ reinforces this impression. On the ‘proper’ version, with the shorter tracks, something’s lacking – but it’s not just that Autechre have ‘sold out’ their machine-like grittiness for a more commercial edge. True, the tracks are shorter, but, though there’s nothing to compare to the 11-minute musique concrete of ‘Fol4’ on the longer album, there’s still some pulverising stuff. Thing is, it never lasts long enough to achieve the cumulative, repetitive intensity that Autechre’s best music possesses: instead of a juggernaut of jittery dance music, we have something that feels more elliptically robotic. As dance music in itself (i.e. music to shake your body to) it’s not the greatest, and as a listen (i.e. sitting down in ‘reviewer’ mode), it’s a bit too inconsistent – fragments come and go, none really being developed (or repeated) for long enough to hold the attention. That’s why ‘Versions’ really should have been the ‘proper’ release – the ambient pieces cross over into ‘satisfying listen’ territory.
The pieces that do seem to be there to give the album some sort of arc, such as the opener, ‘Altibzz’, or the synth-pad textures of ‘parallel suns’, end up feel somewhat cheesy, like the soundtrack to an 80s sci-fi film with dated computer animated special effects, rather than the majestic aura they were presumably aiming for. That said, you can never be sure that what they’re doing doesn’t have something of the ironic, bitter joke about it – they may not be tricksters in quite the same nihilistically black-comic way as Aphex Twin, but they do have the same irreverent streak.
(Review by David Grundy)KETIL BJORNSTAD/ TERJE RYPDAL – LIFE IN LEIPZIG
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: The Sea V; The Pleasure is Mine, I’m Sure; The Sea II; Flotation and Surroundings; Easy Now; Notturno (fragment); Alai’s Room; By the Fjord; The Sea IX; Le Manfred/Foran Peisen; The Return of Per Ulv.
Personnel: Ketil Björnstad: piano; Terje Rypdal: guitar
Additional Information: Recorded live in Leipzig, October 2005.
Two Norwegians with long-standing reference on the ECM label play a live album, recorded in Leipzig, Germany. Björnstad on piano, Rypdal on guitar. Two musicians that are not alike at all in style, yet very close in mood. Björnstad is classically trained, and plays in a rich romantic, impressionistic style. Rypdal comes from a rock background, and has hence a much more direct approach, not hindred by a broad guitar technique. But technique is one thing, playing music and making music is something else, and both are absolute masters at that, Rypdal even more than Björnstad, I think. But in essence, both are romantics, and it’s not surprising that they meet in a jazz environment. Despite their difference in approach and style, they meet each other in perfect harmony of mood and musical vision. Rypdal’s typical distorted high-toned full chamber full reverb guitar sound clashes with the piano’s unadultered sound, but only initially. Once you get used to the combination, it works.
It is clear that Björnstad has the lead, setting out the themes of the songs, with Rypdal reacting in counterpoint, or giving harmonic depth to the melody, or expanding it in wild improvisations. “The Sea II” demonstrates the full range of what these musicians can offer : emotional power, sentimental and musical explorations without becoming cheap, playing music that is as much Debussy as it is Pink Floyd or jazz. On the last-but-one track Rypdal takes the lead from Björnstad, creating a dark multilayered guitar synth environment full of echo and feedback, as a lead-in to the grand finale, which is jubilant, joyful and as expansive as you might hope for.
I once was a fervent fan of Rypdal (especially for his “Odyssey” (vinyl version) or his trio with Miroslav Vitous and Jack DeJohnette, both on ECM and highly recommended), but lost interest once he became too mellow and déjà-vu. But this one is great. Melodic, intimate and expansive, and the audacious confrontation between the soft and subtle piano with the sustained wailing guitar works well, works very well.
(Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com)
BY ANY MEANS – LIVE AT CRESCENDO (2 CD)
Label: Ayler Records
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: CD 1 – Introduction; Zero Blues; Hearts Joy; We Three; Different Stuff; Love One Another; Straight Ahead Steps/ CD 2 – Peace Inside; Machu Picchu; Cry Nu; Eternal Voice; No Sorrow
Personnel: Charles Gayle: alto sax; William Parker: bass; Rashied Ali: drums.
Additional Information: Recorded on October 19, 2007 at Club Crescendo, Norrköping, Sweden. Available from www.ayler.com
It is probably a very personal and subjective thing, but there is nothing in jazz that beats the clean, direct and undistorted naked sound of small improvising ensembles. It is often music straight from the heart of the musicians, without complicated arrangements or post-editing, but with depth, also speaking directly to the heart of the listener. And that is what I like about Charles Gayle. He is often criticized for his screaming and wailing, and sure, not everything he does is successful, but on this performance, recorded in Norköpping in Sweden in October last year, he is in great shape, as are of course William Parker and Rashied Ali, performing together under the band name “By Any Means”.
This is free jazz, free bop and free blues in its purest form, and a real joy from beginning to end. Gayle has the strange habit to play the main theme of the different tunes in a blaring, almost unrespectful way, as if he can’t wait to start improvising, but once he starts doing that, his tone becomes warmer, richer, deeper and a real pleasure to hear. Parker and Ali are also at their best, both acting as full members of a trio, equally represented in getting the credits for the tracks as for the solo time they have.
One of the highlights of the album is “Macchu Picchu”, which starts with a sensitive five-minute sarco “intro” by Parker, which evolves into a slow and bluesy improvisation by Gayle. On the following track Ali shows all his skills, both in power-play and in rhythmic subtleties. The second part of the set is much more powerful than the first one, with Parker really bringing out the best in Gayle, in a more free environment, more expressive and creative, with Ali in a role which could befit Paul Motian, suggesting rhythms and accentuating where necessary. A strong performance.
(Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/)
ROY CAMPBELL – AKHENATEN SUITE
Label: AUM Fidelity
Release Date: March 2008
Tracklist: Akhenaten (Amenophis, Amenhotep IV); Aten and Amarna; Pharaoh’s Revenge (Akhenaten) Intro Part 1; Pharaoh’s Revenge Part 1; Pharaoh’s Revenge (Tutankhamun) Intro Part 2; Pharaoh’s Revenge Part 2; Sunset On The Nile.
Personnel: Roy Campbell: trumpet, flugelhorn, recorder, arghul; Billy Bang: violin; Bryan Carrott: vibraharp; Hilliard Greene: bass; Zen Matsuura: drums.
Roy Campbell has always been one of my favorite musicians, because of the unbelievable emotional strength of his trumpet playing and his musical vision. For this album, recorded live at the Vision Festival in 2007, he teams up with some of his former band-mates and musical friends : Billy Bang on violin, Bryan Carrott on vibraharp, Hilliard Greene on bass and Zen Matsuura on drums. Truth be told, I am not a fan of the violin (in a jazz context) nor of the vibraphone (in general), with some exceptions of course. Luckily, this is one of those exceptions.
Campbell has always had an interest in ancient Egypt, and this is his second Nile Suite if you want, the first one is the one with Dennis Gonzalez (highly recommended). This album is very much in the same vein, with long slow pieces, full of middle-eastern scales and spiritual yearning. The pieces all are relatively traditional in their format, with a strong rhythmic basis and a recognisable theme. The rhythms are jazzy, middle-eastern and even a little Latin at times. The themes are long, broad, dramatic, cinematic, impressive and imposing, nicely evoking the power and the spiritual vision of the great pharaoh Akhnaten, who – in order to break the power of the ruling classes of priests – claimed that there was only one god. A major epidemic outbreak swept through the region, killing a large part of the population. His opponents claimed that this was caused by the wrath of the gods. His son Tutankhamun succeeded him on the throne at the age of nine. After his reign, his religious beliefs were overruled by the class of priests, and both father and son were even deleted from all records in the pharaoh’ lineage.
So – drama enough to inspire Campbell’s fantastic suite, in which his trumpet-playing deservedly plays a major role, with Bang and Carrott nicely contributing and offering the necessary depth and contrast. Campbell’s soloing is melodic but above all wailing and crying, varying between intimacy and powerplay, and emotionally strong in a way that few trumpeters can equal. Green and Matsuura’s contributions are excellent and very functional in helping to create the overall coherent atmosphere. Grand and majestic music!
(Review by Stef Gisjells (http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/))
BARRY CHABALA/ PHIL HARGREAVES – MUSICK FOR TWO MACHINES
Two CDs of solo improvisations, each consisting of 38 different tracks, recorded at different times, on different locations, with different instruments, and by different people; when played simultaneously on CD players in shuffle mode, these make up the album, ‘Musick for Two Machines’. This provides an intriguing dilemma for the reviewer, in that no two experiences of the recording will be the same (perhaps there is a one-in-a-million chance of the same random duplication of tracks – I haven’t calculated the probability).
There can be no claim to have had the last word on what is heard, then – and, lest we forget, criticism is a subjective art, so I suppose the position I’m put in here is little different to that I’m normally in, however I may try to obscure it elsewhere. Essentially what I’m going to do, then, is to highlight my personal listening experience (or at least, one of those experiences). Putting the ‘critic hat’ on for a moment, though, one might worry or expect that such Hargreaves’ and Chabala’s self-conscious play with the mechanics of listening (and playing) could result in something unsuccessful, a case of concept dominating at the expense of musical cohesion. Well, perhaps cohesion isn’t the point – but is that at the expense of (that oh so subjective term), musical value?
In fact, having said that cohesion is not what’s aimed for, what surprises me on hearing this is the way that the two discs do chime together in such a sympathetic way, even though programmed on shuffle mode. This is far less a Cageian investigation into chance than a music (or musick) that oscillates between togetherness and apartness, cohesion and separation, collusion and contradiction. Of course, there are occasional jolts, when one track continues while another shifts to something different, but that’s to be expected, and it’s not all that different to the sort of interactions and structural approaches in a lot of improv which doesn’t have this set-up.
My two CD players chose to pick track one on the Hargreaves disc and thirty-four on the Chabala; a particularly nice combination of guitar drone and long, held notes/pauses on the saxophone. Of course, the point is not to program in combinations which will somehow lead to the ‘ideal format’, the album that nestles within the package. This isn’t a puzzle in which the bits will join up together to create the same picture every time; there is no code, no ‘solution’. The quotation from Andre Breton printed on the back of the CD seems particularly apposite: “beuaty must be convulsive, or not at all.” That applies to the shifts, the jolts I mentioned earlier; and perhaps, after all, these are where the real value of the music lies – not in the moments of always-surprising cohesion, but in the moments of jolt, of dislocation, fragmentation, as when the end of one guitar track coincides with a hard-edged saxophone blurt. Elsewhere, there’s collision between fragments of almost neo-classical guitar melody, completely silent tracks, a short mellow, jazzy saxophone line, and scraping, machine-like laptop sounds.
This all avoids the product-making of music, emphasizing its uniqueness as an encounter, an experience, rather than a repeatable commodity (and thus avoiding the problems with recording improvised music that Cornelius Cardew addresses in ‘Towards an Ethic of Improvisation’). Paradoxically, the status of music as a one-off experience is something that was widespread only before the age of recording technology, yet here it is re-created by utilizing the technology of the CD. Such issues and concerns obviously preoccupy Hargreaves, as seen in several of the releases on his label, whi-music: last year’s collaboration with Glenn Weyant, ‘Friday Morning Everywhere’, or the ‘Cadavre Exquis’ project, in which different musicians layer new improvisations on top of those previously posted to the site, so that the completed tracks ends up sounding nothing like the original (if, that is, it can ever said to be ‘complete’). Ideas of ‘completion’ are thus challenged, left right and centre, and the listeners’ fluid relationship to the work reasserted over its possession by marketing men and record companies who pretend to give us what we want (while manufacturing these wants).
(Review by David Grundy)
CLOAKS – SERENE
Label: Students of Decay
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: dream tape number one; improvisation for guitar and piano
Personnel: Cloaks (Spencer Doran): piano, guitar, electronics.
Additional Information: 5” CD-R, released in a limited run of 100 copies (currently sold out). Available from www.studentsofdecay.com.
Portland-based musician Spencer Doran’s early work has tended towards the beat-based (on an EP of remixes), but it’s as ‘Cloaks’ that he really seems to have made his most interesting music so far. The lengthy, blessed-out ambience of last year’s ‘A Crystal Skull in Peru’ resembled a more electronically-minded Popul Vuh, and it sets the trend for this sublime release, its follow-up. The minimal liner notes inform us that this was recorded at various different cities during 2006 and 2007, on borrowed pianos; very much a D.I.Y. enterprise, then. Mind you, I think that element could have been taken further: I would have liked to see (or, more accurately, hear) a little more of the lo-fi grit that’s suggested by the ‘tape’ in the title of the first track (and by the opening and closing effects placed on the music), mixed in with the ecstatic swirl of piano, guitar, and little bursts of voice (the latter occurring at moments of extreme happiness). That said, perhaps it was best to keep the FX side of thing subdued, in order to avoid them overwhelming things – and they still play an important role in the construction of the music, as the various overdubbed tracks (mainly piano generated) swirl around each other, clanging, whizzing and wheezing past in reversed format, or blurring through other electronic treatments.
The best description I can think of for this kind of music would be ‘ecstatic drone’ (even if there’s not always a drone to speak of, the effect of the repeating fragments is to suggest one, to induce a similar state). Ultimately, as its title suggests, it is about serenity – about the state of sereneness, of being at peace with oneself. At the same time, the sort of ecstasy it expresses always seems to be reaching for something higher. A piano phrase repeats at regular intervals, yet it seems about to be played a lot more, just never quite managing it. There’s a strong yearning quality, a mixed human experience that speaks so much of joy and satisfaction yet contains the realization that this cannot go on for ever, that the moment can only be suspended so long. In other music of this type, that feeling of things passing is partly due to the physical limitations of the performer – one can only hammer at single notes and repeated phrases for so long before hands start bleeding and the whole body becomes exhausted, a la Charlemagne Palestine. I guess Palestine’s repeated piano work, such as ‘Strumming Music’, is where this takes its cue from, although it’s a different aesthetic.
It’s music of blur and haze; but what’s not really important is individual phrases, but the overall effect. As in the best (early) minimalism, shifts occur without the listener consciously noticing them – put the track on at 10 minutes, listen for a minute, then at 20, and you’ll notice a big difference, but listen to all in one go (as you should) and it drifts along. Particularly on ‘dream tape number one’, there is the feel a long drawn out crescendo; but, unlike Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, where you can witness the gradual increase from beginning to end, it is only the centre of a crescendo that this music inhabits. There aren’t any particularly startling dynamic shifts, and it unfolds at pretty much the same level (though there are notable moments of climax, of increased intensity (such as the chiming high note figure that comes in at around the 30 minute mark)). Yet it has the feel of crescendo, just as it has the feel of serenity – it inhabits performer, listener and state. I’ll stop there, before I get dangerously close to New Age hippyisms, pausing only to note that track 2 is more of the same, though a little more stripped down, a little less hazy, with a little more clarity about it. And, just in case I haven’t made myself clear enough already: I can’t recommend this highly enough.
(Review by David Grundy)
THE CONVERGENCE QUARTET– LIVE IN OXFORD
Release Date: May 2007
Tracklist: Miscellaneous; Goad; Convergence; Goodbye, Sir; mm (pf)
Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn; Alexander Hawkins: piano, small instruments; Dominic Lash: bass; Harris Eisenstadt: drums
Additional Information: Recorded live at the Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building, Oxford.
Even in ‘progressive’ music circles, it can still seem that a kind of skewed nationalistic thinking predominates: Brotzmann’s aggressive image and sound is somehow the embodiment of part of the German national psyche, Derek Bailey’s playing embodies the attitude of the of down-to-earth, ‘unfussy’ Sheffield man (so often descriptions of him seem to be as much about the way he conducted himself on stage as about what he played), etc. But, as projects like this indicate, there’s often a lot more common ground between musicians of different nationalities than there may between people of the same nationality. What’s more, this is a group of young musicians, living in an age when contact with those from different national jazz scenes is a lot easier. The internet has a lot to with this, in all probability, and, indeed, the quartet are billed as “the first fully-blogging jazz group.”
Blogs or not, the thing that really matters is that they’re all fine individual musicians, but have combined to create group that’s noticeably co-operative in intent: each one contributes a composition (Bynum offers two, which bookend the disc), and no one seems particularly concerned with grabbing a leadership role. One could say that the group itself is the leader – and where the collective music happens to be heading at any particular time is where things lead. In other words, there’s something nicely loose and relaxed about strict structure, though it’s never directionless (and, one suspects, is often under strict supervision from at least one player).
Pianist Alexander Hawkins shares such an ethos: can be expansive in his approach – he clearly has the technique to be as florid as he likes – but he is also tightly controlled and keenly aware of what’s going on around him, so that he’s as likely to be providing textural detail, by plucking the strings inside the piano or using ‘small’ instruments (undoubtedly an AACM influence, although sparingly employed), as he is to roam the length and breadth of the keyboard.
Meanwhile, Taylor Ho Bynum’s experiences with Mr Braxton have obviously taught him a great deal, but here, he moves beyond those limits to a more overtly jazzy approach than that required by the Ghost Trance Musics. Mind you, that doesn’t mean he dusts off his Clifford Brown hard-bop licks – it often seems that he’s deliberately avoiding a ‘clean’ tone for lots of brarps and growls which hark back instead to early ‘primitives’/pioneers. Such expressive effects, and a wicked sense of timing, impart his playing with a cheeky sense of humour, too. So, as ‘miscellaneous’ opens, he rumbles away over what sound like slightly slowed down jazz piano lines and the clattery clangingness of Eisenstadt’s drums – the whole thing feels deliciously woozy, though the melody reveals itself to have an obsessional quality that is shot through with dark beauty. That melody doesn’t come in for several minutes, though, and that’s one thing I particularly like about the disc: there’s plenty going on, but there’s always plenty of space for it to happen. Rather than rushing through the ‘head’ to get onto the solos, the quartet test the waters first, establishing a mood and atmosphere out of disparate fragments which gradual converge – once some sort of collusion is reached, the texture and musical direction may then be subtly altered, abruptly departed from, or indeed, continued, by the written parts.
Of course, the idea of ‘convergence’ seems to be an important one, given the name of the group – I won’t go into at great length here, but I will note that the titles on this disc just beg to be picked up on as a way of describing the music. ‘Goads’, the second track, opens with low register piano and breathy trumpet squals; Eisenstadt seems to be the one functioning as the ‘goader’, prodding Bynum to blow a few brash phrases as the piano builds up rolling low-tones, then suddenly departs for more skittering insect-jazz. Meanwhile, it’s tempting to see Hawkins’ ‘Goodbye Sir’ as a half-respectful, half-disrespectful nod to jazz tradition: respect for the things that makes the music fresh, disrespect for all sterility and cliché. If ‘Live in Oxford’ is anything to go by, the group’s 2009 UK tour is looking as if it could be one of the musical highlights of next year.
(Review by David Grundy)
THE NEIL COWLEY TRIO – LOUD, LOUDER…STOP!
Release Date: March 2008
Tracklist: His Nibs; Dinoasaur Die; Scaredy Cat; Ginger Shepp; Clumsy Couple; Captain Backfire; Well; We are Here to Make Plastic; Synaesthesia Traffic; Streets Paved with Half Baguettes Pt 2
Personnel: Neil Cowley: piano; Richard Sadler: bass; Evan Jenkins: bass
Neil Cowley dusts the cobwebs off boring old strait-laced jazz and reinvents it for the modern age as something relevant and exciting once more…Yeah right. This release represents an approach to jazz which is becoming worryingly typical of many young bands (almost de rigeur, one might say). Yet have its fawning admirers considered the possibility that it is actually less interesting than the sort of more conventional/ historically-placed approach that those described by one reviewer as “hoary old relics” revere so much? Is eclecticism in itself a good thing, or is relentlessly following your own path more a case of sticking to your guns rather than picking-and-choosing elements to try and create a patchwork individuality? Let’s have variety, sure, but not for the sake of it, not because we must reject compartmentalizing at all costs, but because it makes musical, intellectual and emotional sense to do so: because the music makes it necessary, rather than external factors making it necessary. I’m not so sure that Cowley and all the other magpie musicians realize this distinction, and if they do, it doesn’t show in their music, which doesn’t feel vital in the way that great jazz (or music of any genre) does.
OK, so some of the music is admittedly quite engaging – ‘His Nibs’ has a gothic, almost horror-film ambience about it, as Cowley obsessively pounds out loud chords over a rock beat – not going to reward much repeated ‘deep listening’, but quite entertaining while it lasts. As is made clear by the following track, ‘Dinosaur Die’, though, they really just want to be a rock band – substitute guitar for piano playing those chords and you are in the world of Radiohead, and in their more conventional rock guise as well.
On ‘Clumsy Couple’, an off-kilter melody loses all its promise as the band can find little to do with it apart from repeat it at different volume levels. Cowley’s touch is frequently very heavy, the beat is simplistically rockish (as opposed to the more slightly interesting approach of the Bad Plus’ Dave King, which really added a muscular energy that Evan Jenkins’ more prosaic, straightforward pulse can’t sustain – though that is what they’re aiming for). Essentially, this is instrumental rock music, and to claim it as jazz is wrong. It’s like they’ve taken the Bad Plus’ attitude without the deconstructive element – postmodernism becoming regression in the guise of the new. In the second half, as Cowley takes the melody into more reflective, tinkling realms, with the sustain pedal depressed throughout, it attains a sort of delicacy which is once again engaging, but the temptation to build things up for another noisy climax proves too much.
The title of the record indicates the template from which most of the tracks are constructed – and, while it’s useless to complain about noise levels (free jazz doesn’t exactly go easy on the dynamics, after all), it does seem fair to complain that Cowley seems to think noise substitutes for invention, for having anything to say. Rock bands often work out on just a three-chord riff, by plugging it in and belting it out – Cowley’s attempt to do the same sort of thing in a jazz context just doesn’t work, and, as often happens with these uneasy fusions, ends up consisting of the worst of both worlds.
(Review by David Grundy)
ANDREW D’ANGELO – SKADRA DEGIS
Label: Skirl Records
Release Date: January 2008
Tracklist: Lame; Egna Ot Waog; Fam Hana; 25 Hits; Rutloosic; Tune Blue; Morthana; Be Bo Bee Bee; Fichtik; Gay Disco
Personnel: Andrew D’Angelo: alto sax, bass clarinet; Trevor Dunn: bass; Jim Black: drums, electronics.
Three big names of modern jazz: Andrew D’Angelo on sax, Trevor Dunn on bass and Jim Black on drums. When I first listened to the CD, a strong memory of the Thomas Chapin trio arose: a powerful sax trio, which often starts tracks with a strong riff-like vamp, as the kick-off for great improvisations, always with a strong sense of melody and rhythm, fierce, hard-hitting yet at times sentimental and romantic: in other words : a weird combination but it works. The three musicians have been working in various fields of jazz, always on the look-out for new adventures, new trials and opportunities to enlargen their own horizon, mixing styles and blending genres, and it’s good to hear them in such a straight-ahead trio format, yet the amazing thing is that they kind of integrate the findings from their adventures into rock, avant-garde, balkan and electronic jazz in the acoustic music they bring here. Andrew D’Angelo and Jim Black also play together in Hilmar Jenson’s Tyft, and in The Human Feel, with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Chris Speed, but the music is not comparable. The Human Feel brings more composed avant-garde jazz – and I wasn’t too impressed with last year’s “Galore”, but on this record, feeling is much more imporant than form. This album is also miles away from D’Angelo’s Scandinavian aggressive hard noise free jazz adventure with the Morthana trio.
One of the many qualities of this band is the variation in the compositions. The first track is powerful free bop adventure, the second starts with a strong bass line for four minutes of melodic polyrhythmic joy (with Dunn leading the dance), the third a kind of ballad that goes haywire without loosing focus, the fourth a relentless hard-hitter (with Black in a leading role), followed by the romantic more abstract “Rutloosic”, which starts with a great and intense conversation between bass clarinet and arco bass, “Morthana” is built around a joyful boppy tune on alto, while “Boo Be Boo Bee Bee” (great title!) is a dark moody avant piece with long abstract lines and bowed bass evolving into pure madness alternating with an almost classical melody, collapsing into madness again, etc., while “Fichtik” is full of tender sentiment, and “Gay Disco” brings us back to Thomas Chapin territory : a high enery full speed melodic and powerful theme as lead-in for improv, with bass and drum demonstrating what it means to have rhythm! … This combination of raw energy, melodic themes, musical adventure and emotional expressiveness works well for D’Angelo. He gets the freedom here that he seems to have missed in the past. Great album!
Note: In January 2008, Andrew D’Angelo was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Here is an extract from the official press release: “like many Americans, Andrew has no health insurance. A fund has been established to help with the costs of his surgery and recovery. Donations can be sent via PayPal at email@example.com. We deeply appreciate any efforts that can be made to spread the word about Andrew’s situation.” Profits from the sale of ‘Skadra Degis’ also go to help covering the costs of the surgery.
(Review by Stef Gisjells (http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/))
PAUL DUMNALL / NICK STEPHENS / TONY MARSH – ALL SAID AND DUN
Label: Loose Torque
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Unfinished Pleasure; Walking Back; Coming Round; All Said and Dun
Personnel: Paul Dunmall: tenor sax; Nick Stephens: bass; Tony Marsh: drums
In an online interview with Philip Gibbs from the year 2000, Dunmall has this to say: “I’m not looking to break new ground, I just want to have my own voice and have a great sound, like Dexter Gordon – but used in a free improvisational context. I feel that there are a lot of free players who don’t have a great sound, like perhaps most of the more traditional players do, and that’s a real drag, it detracts from the music. Freedom in the music making is great but this shouldn’t exclude a certain amount of discipline from the instrumentalist.” All fair enough, and Dunmall has produced some very fine playing – notably on his solo bagpipe record (released by FMR in 2003) and in orchestral settings, where he manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that seem to befall so many jazz musicians utilizing that instrumentation.
This, too, is a decent CD, and one which will be undoubtedly appreciated by the saxophonist’s many fans in the free improv world. And yet, and yet…I feel uncharitable criticizing the work of such a clearly dedicated musician, particularly when it’s presented on such a laudable venture as Nick Stephen’s Loose Torque record label, but Dunmall sounds like he’d be happier playing in a more explicitly jazz-based context: his playing here lacks the sustained intensity of Coltrane, while frequently echoing his vocabulary (to a greater extent than normal, perhaps because he sticks to tenor).
Stephens and Marsh are both impressive, generally staying more in the background – but, despite what I’ve said about Dunmall, this is, after all, free improvisation, and so there’s obviously a greater level of interaction, particularly between bass and drums. Stephens, in particular, is clearly a very responsive musician, as also indicated by his duo with trumpeter Jon Corbett (as the ‘Schizo Quartet’), reviewed elsewhere in this issue – alive to the nuances of a method of music-making in which change could be around every corner, and well able to make the adaptations necessary for continued flow and invention. Dunmall is also capable of demonstrating similar qualities – a particularly nice moment occurs on the closing track, ‘All Said and Dun,’ which opens with the closing tremolo of ‘Coming Round’ transposed up, like a thought resumed after a pause, looked at from a slightly different angle.
Committed and sometimes delightful music, then, but can’t quite manage to shake off my doubts about Dunmall – for me, his playing lacks that edge, that sense of advancing things, exploring things, furthering things, that I get from a less well-known player, Jason Moritz from the Chris Welcome Quartet. It makes me feel churlish to criticize the record in this way, and I know that there are some who think Dunmall a genius. For me, his bagpipe work is perhaps the most interesting area of his musical explorations, the space where he comes closest to justifying that weighty tag. And, in other contexts he can be much sharper, much less expected– an upcoming duo with violinist Roman Mints, from the clip I have heard, sounds very promising, as does his work with Birmingham-based pianist Mike Hurley – but perhaps one must realize that, in the case of an artist so prolific, obviously not every album is going to be equally good.
(Review by David Grundy)
PAUL DUNMALL/ ROMAN MINTS – EXODUS
Release Date: July 2008
Tracklist: Exodus I; Exodus II; Exodus III; Exodus IV; Exodus V; Exodus VI
Personnel: Paul Dunmall: soprano saxophone; Roman Mints: violin
Additional Information: Available as CD or MP3 download from the Quartz website (www.quartzmusic.com)
Now this is a very compelling disc of improv. You can’t really approach it any other way than on its own terms – it doesn’t invite the sort of grandiloquent analogies and metaphors that critics (myself included) are so fond of using. As my listening experience goes at least, it’s more evocative of mental than pictorial states. In other words, it deals in states of mind: those of the players, in the narrower sense of what they were thinking/ feeling as they played this music in that room, during the time that the improvisations took to unfold, but also in the broader sense of a general method of thought (musical and in a more general sense), a way of approaching situations and dealing with challenges – a way of being creative that is unique to the individual, but also cross-fertilizes so that there is also a kind of shared state of mind. And that state is one that is shared with the listener as well – ‘Exodus’ is intellectually engaging and has a sense of the mysterious about it that is most appealing (as in the opening of ‘Exodus III’, where Dunmall’s watery questionings hesitantly appear, then disappear, over the almost breathy sustained backdrop of a viola-range violin drone).
As I stated in my review of ‘All Said and Dun’, it’s on tenor that Dunmall’s Coltrane tendencies are most pronounced – his soprano owes far less to the reedy, oriental wail of the great man, and is more reminiscent of Evan Parker in its burnished flowing quality, but his use of the instrument is very much his own. Perhaps because Mints is primarily a classical player, this collaboration owes rather less to jazz, again, than the tenor work – though of course jazz does haunt the music, makes itself felt as a ghostly presence guiding fingers over keys and strings, the memory of a be-bop lick turned round and made strange again – so much so that it’s hard to see it as a be-bop lick at all.
This is not a combination of instruments you get very often, perhaps because saxophone and violin can sound so similar when played in certain ways. The worry, then, would be that they might cancel each other out. In fact, Dunmall and Mints exploit this crossing-over at various points on the album, creating an eerie illusion that there are more than two musicians playing at the same time. A low saxophone note will be answered by a low violin one, over which the saxophone moves up into a higher register. In fact, such a description sounds is too strictly linear– there’s considerable overlap, a blurring of individual lines and tones to produce a duo sound that is both the sum of its parts and more than this. The effect is like a see-saw, but one where both ends manage to be simultaneously up and down at the same time. For such interaction to occur, lighting-quick reactions and a really symbiotic partnership are required – the mark of a successful improvisational partnership. The musicians also delight in making the instruments sound unlike themselves, in making them do things that aren’t normally done – such as a passage, towards the end of ‘Exodus III’, where particularly bizarre soprano over-blowing, like a mutant duck-call, both combines with, and opposes, scratchy violin. This doesn’t last long, and soon they’ve swept up into high register patterning – never standing still for too long, but with a crucial awareness of the importance of space. Just the right balance, then, and one that is maintained throughout in these peak-level improvisational interactions. (Review by David Grundy)
FLOWER/ CORSANO DUO – THE RADIANT MIRROR (2006)
Label: Textile Records / Release Date: 2006 / Tracklist: Earth; Wind; Fire
Personnel: Mike Flower: Japan banjo (shaahi baaja); Chris Corsano: percussion
‘The Radiant Mirror’ is a couple of years old now, but this is one of those discoveries I felt I just had to share. So it might be surprising to note that I’m not sure how much innate value it has in it. One could even argue that it’s not very ‘good’ music. The pieces all have a similar structure: Flower wails away, heavily distorted, until he finds a repetitive, head-nodding figure to repeat into climactic peaks; Corsano bashes away like Elvin Jones, building up in volume and complexity, from single patterns to polyrhythms. In addition, the sound (in terms of both volume level, and general texture) is fairly similar throughout – though it is impressively BIG, and often sounds like several people at once.
And yet, description aside, to actually experience the music as it occurs is for these doubts to be blown aside. It’s only in the moment of reflection, after the fact, that doubts enter the picture; to listen is to be utterly convinced by the duo’s commitment (at least, for as long as the listening lasts), and entranced, excited, overwhelmed by the music created. Flower’s and Corsano’s approach is intriguing in the way that it is truly psychedelic, sounding vaguely like a more abstract and eastern-flavoured version of a Jimi Hendrix jam session – yet, and this is the crucial point, taken further out, towards the places that Jimi perhaps would have gone if he’s survived. At the same time, it’s further in, for, despite the complexity and skill involved in what both men are doing, it focuses on smallness, on repetition, through which, paradoxically opens up a sense of vastness, of space. To fully appreciate it might involve momentarily disregarding the ‘critical ear,’ but, once that’s done, it shouldn’t be hard to appreciate this on its own terms, as something gloriously kinetic, gloriously strong, existing for itself, for the moment it creates and inhabits. (Review by David Grundy)
KAHIL EL’ZABAR’S RITUAL TRIO FEATURING PHAROAH SANDERS – OOH LIVE!
Label: Bright Moments/ Katalyst Entertainment
Release Date: February 2008
Tracklist: Autumn Leaves; In the Land of Ooh!; This Little Light of Mine; Ka’s Blues
Personnel: Pharoah Sanders: tenor sax, vocals on ‘Ka’s Blues’; Ari Brown: piano, tenor sax on ‘Ka’s Blues’; Malachi Favors: bass; Kahil El’ Zabar: drums
Additional Information: Recorded live at the Hot House, Chicago, 10th September 2000.
Kahil El’Zabar has this magical touch to turn all his music into a pure joy, full of playful spirituality, reverent and fun at the same time. And yes, he tends to repeat himself at times, but who cares when the performances of his Ritual Trio or the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are always great to excellent? What more can you want? This one is recorded live in 2000, with Ari Brown on piano (predominantly) and sax and the late Malachi Favors on bass, and with special guest Pharoah Sanders.
The album starts with a long piano trio version of “Autumn Leaves”, a favorite of El’Zabar and already recorded several times in various live settings. Only on the second track does the great Pharoah make his appearance, first slowly, entering in all quietness, quite bluesy, but as the piece evolves, energy and tension rise, and Sanders becomes really wild, howling, screaming, full of power, opening his soul, pulling the other musicians with him on his sonic journey, and they not only follow suit, but they spur him on to go even further, to go even higher, to go even deeper emotionally, … and he does! … and then this monolith of sophisticated and sometimes less sophisticated emotional power calms down, in halts and sputters, still wailing, now singing, then screaming, then back to subdued lyricism, moving into a rhythmic tune, a signal for Brown to start a nice piano solo, with boppish walking bass and El’Zabar’s drums in full support.
The third track is again a piano trio, with great bass and drums solos, but without Sanders, and the fourth track brings us back into uptempo blues or boogie land, the enthusiastic crowd shouting out its excitement, with Sanders joining again, on sax and vocals. Throughout the performance El’Zabar sticks to his drumkit, without using his thumb piano, playing much more jazzy and without any direct African musical references as we are used from the Ritual Trio.
The album will not be on my list of preferred Ritual Trio albums, but it is still great fun, with four musicians clearly enjoying themselves, with the second track as an absolute killer. (Review by Stef Gisjells –http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/)
AGUSTI FERNANDEZ / EVAN PARKER / BARRY GUY / PAUL LYTTON – TOPOS
Label: Maya Recordings
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Coalescence; Open Systems; In Praise of Shadows; Air/Luft; Still Listening; Moon over BCN; Smart Set; This One is for Kowald; Inner Silence
Personnel: Evan Parker: soprano and tenor sax; Agusti Fernandez: piano; Barry Guy: bass; Paul Lytton: drums
Additional Information: Recorded in Barcelona, March 2006.
In a sense, we know about Parker, Guy and Lytton – and this isn’t meant to diminish their abilities in any way – but the real draw on this disc is the pianist, Agusti Fernandez. He’s been on the scene for a while, but is still, I feel, rather underappreciated. I saw him live with Parker’s electro-acoustic ensemble a couple of years ago, where he particularly impressed with a solo that most effectively maintained a balance between the florid and the ripplingly dramatic. On the recording front, his fascinating duo disc with Marylin Crispell, ‘Dark Night, and Luminous’, is over ten years old, and, in recent years, there have been duos with Derek Bailey (‘Barcelona’) and Mats Gustaffson (‘Critical Mass’). Despite all of this activity, it is as a member of Parker’s quartet that he’s best known, and they suit each other well, Fernandez banishing all memories of Schlippenbach as he dives inside the piano, the better to complement and comment on Parker’s soprano wheezing, Lytton’s abstract sound scribbles, and Guy’s hyperactive flurries of textures and details.
While at times the group seem perhaps too comfortable to let things take their course in almost predictable fashion (most often when Parker gets going on the soprano circular breathing), in general they reassert themselves as the sonic explorers they are, every one of them wired and hyper-alert, darting around silence like an artist constructing his painting around the white of his canvas. This is helped by the varied instrumentation – the disc consists of a series of duos, trios, and quartets, each of them featuring Fernandez. The most impressive track – or, at least, the one that builds up the most sheer propulsive drive – is ‘Moon over BCN’. It starts off firmly in ‘insect music’ territory, Parker screeching then following up with muffled phrases that die away almost as soon as they’ve begun, Fernandez scratching and plucking on the piano strings, mixed in with all sorts of dribbling and tapping from bass and percussion. Then, about three minutes in, Fernandez picks up on Parker’s typically flowing circular patterns with some of his own, the two men combining with devastating force, fading the intensity slightly before ending the piece with just tenor and piano, clicking saxophone keys a ghostly presence haunting this release of controlled energy. (Review by David Grundy)
FIELDWORK – DOOR
Label: Pi Recordings/ Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: Of; After Meaning; Less; Balanced; Bend; Cycle I; Pivot Point; Pivot Point Redux; Ghost Time; Cycle II; Rai/ Personnel: Steve Lehman: saxophone; Vijay Iyer: piano; Tyshawn Sorey: drums.
Progress in music requires progress in our methodologies in writing about music. Certain vocabularies and methods of comparison that were adequate for writing about jazz in the past are no longer efficacious, or desirable.
For one thing, the notion of linear progress and progression in so-called jazz music has been a myth for some time now, as long as 50 plus years depending on who you ask. As the field of influence for improvising musicians continued to widen over time, it made less and less sense to insist upon clear lineages and predecessors. All of this is worth mentioning as an introduction to a review of Fieldwork’s new album Door, because the music doesn’t fit neatly into any preconceived box or precedent, so we have to approach it with a right understanding of methodology in order to convey at least some of its essence.
Fieldwork has had more than one lineup, but as of this writing, the lineup is Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey. The previous two albums have only Vijay Iyer in common, and the previous release has both Lehman and Iyer – to my ears and understanding, Sorey is a natural progression and fit for the band and its concept, and I hope this lineup stays intact for future efforts. Door’s street date is April 22nd, the same day as Vijay Iyer’s new quartet record, Tragicomic, and Fieldwork is scheduled to play an album release show at Joe’s Pub on May 31st.
Door is a truly collaborative effort, with each musician contributing compositions: six by Tyshawn Sorey, three by Vijay Iyer and two by Steve Lehman. The group feel is emphasized no matter the composer, with each musician sharing rhythmic and melodic duties and layered interplay that defies the basic traditional roles if each member’s instrument. Sorey and Iyer have a particularly strong rhythmic connection and rapport throughout, with some incredibly tight and telepathic improvisatory passages. As I’ve come to expect from a certain group of musicians, the line between improvisation and composition is blurred throughout Door, reflecting a strong affinity with processual predecessors in the AACM and elsewhere.
It’s interesting to note that given the change in lineups for all three of Fieldwork’s albums, this recording sounds like a logical continuation of the band’s ethos from the past two records. Sorey leaves a distinct mark on the album, both compositionally and with his incredible musicianship. Given Sorey’s take-no-prisoners chops and abilities to tackle any rhythm or polyrhythm, his own compositions downplay his own instrumental abilities in favor of examining permutations of themes, and a more minimalist angle than both Iyer and Lehman’s writing. Sorey lays down some positively sinister beats and fills throughout the album, summoning John Bonham as often as any other easily identifiable influence. Although I haven’t heard it myself, I’m told that the writing here is consistent with what Sorey did on his first solo album That/Not, a record that I really need to pick up after hearing his compositions on Door.
I’ll tell you what Fieldwork is not: it’s not your grandpa’s jazz, it’s not free improvisation, it’s not a postmodern hodgepodge or pastiche, and it’s not light listening. It’s much more difficult to say what exactly it is. It certainly reflects the unique musicality of the three participants, and the singular alchemy that occurs when the three of them come together. There is no shortage of risks taken, and the music reflects this with occasionally thrilling results. The end product is diverse but coherent, varied but focused. It certainly sounds like the vanguard of the music that I pay attention to, and as such it should come as no surprise that it’s on Pi Recordings, a label that continues to put out the most consistently interesting music of any label I can think of.
This is very challenging music – it’s an album that in my multiple listens required undivided attention to get a feel for what was going on musically. If that kind of affair is your bag, then you will find Door a highly rewarding collection of music.
(Review by Daniel Melnick)
fURT PLUS – EQUALS
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Solution A; Solution B; Solution C; Solution D; Solution E; Solution F; Zagreb
Personnel: fURT (Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer: electronics), in trios with John Butcher: soprano and tenor saxophone; Rhodri Davies: celtic and concert harps; Paul Lovens: percussion; Phil Minton: voice; Wolfgang Mitterer: prepared piano, electronics; Ute Wasserman: voice.
Additional Information: Recorded at the SWR New Jazz Meeting in December 2005.
Why is it with fURT’s music that I feel no need to talk of ‘influences’, whereas , however much I try to curb the urge, it emerges again and again with nearly every jazz CD I listen to? Whatever the reason, it’s to fURT’s credit that generic considerations are pushed to one side so that one can enjoy a more purely aesthetic experience. This disc consists of more music from the sessions that yielded last year’s ‘Spin Networks’, which focused on larger group configurations. Here, the duo of Barrett and Obermayer are joined in turn by a solo performer (with a final duo track to round things off). But this set-up is never as simple as a ‘trio’; because the sampled sounds used by fURT are taken from every single player, it may result in the impression that there is more than one guest. For example, Butchers’ saxophone and Lovens’ percussion feature prominently in the Wassermann piece, to create an eerie ensemble of the not-there.
This leads one to question what ‘instrument’ is and what individual ‘voice’ is. When one can detect an instrument – piano, voice, saxophone, harp – an attempt is made to obscure the normal qualities one would associate with said instrument. Hence, Wolfgang Mitterer and Rhodri Davies’ use of preparations, and Butcher, Minton and Wassermman’s use of extended techniques, creating a sense of strangeness exacerbated by the unstable electronic sound-world with which they are in dialogue.
When Paul Lovens joins the duo, the music that results is actually less full of rhythmical jolts than the vocal tracks, which are stretched full of plosive pops, belches, whistles, and creaking door roars – not percussion as such, but far more percussive in effects. On John Butcher’s piece, it as if fURT has rubbed off on his playing, which merges in so that the acoustic instrument seems just as electronic as the electronics themselves (and we must also note that acoustic samples are being used, so it cuts both ways). And yet, in this context, the saxophone can sound comfortingly human, inhabiting area of human/ alien, breath/machine overlap that these types of recordings explore. Using arguably the two best improv vocalists around foregrounds these concerns all the more, giving license to create and explore sounds far beyond the reach of the traditional singing voice.
It all risks being too much to handle, too much for one to relate to – but there are also moments which really hit home, in which it is uncomfortable to stay for a long time. Because this is most definitely uncomfortable music, direct, sometimes even ugly, at the same time as being intellectually gripping. And yet, despite all the complexity, some of the simplest moments are also the most effective (or at least, the most memorable), as in the Wassermann piece, where a repeating, almost vehement rhythm gives way to a doomy sounds over which Wassermann lets out a sort of demonic toad-belch, before a conclusion with the semblance of chiming bells.
Another notable example would be the extraordinary intrusion (inclusion) of a tonal section in the Wolfgang Mitterer trio, where a loop leads to mournful, almost ambient two-note piano alternations, as other sounds squiggle around it, assault it, clamour for attention –electronic piano samples, the chatter of disembodied voices, percussive clicks and clangs. On reflection, it’s probably the least successful section of the disc, as it reduces the extraordinary sound barrage to some sort of gimmicky accompaniment to the piano line. But the equivalent moments on the other tracks are a lot more integrated, less fore-grounded. Each piece reaches what I’d term an ‘ecstatic point’ (though Mr Barrett and Mr Obermayer would probably strongly disagree with my introduction of such emotionally-coloured description), where an idea is repeated by the guest instrumentalist/vocalist (as in the droney sounds at the end of Butcher’s appearance).
At times it can feel that the music is haunted by a manic fear of repetition: there’s a constant feel of overload, often with three or more directions going at once, always changing, never stopping. Do you pick one track to follow or try and follow all of them at once and risk becoming lost, without a direction to lead you through the dense unfolding textures? It’s a similar dilemma to that faced by us all in western societies today. The twenty-first century is an age of greater complexity than ever before; a technological world; a world in which information comes at us from every quarter, only fragments of which can be taken in. Obliquely, fURT’s music seems to try and formulate an answer to the question of how art should respond to these challenges, these changing conditions. This is perhaps dealt with even more explicitly on ‘Equals’ than on ‘Spin Networks,’ and, as such, it’s more forbidding, but perhaps even more thought-provoking. I mean it when I say that this is some of the very best music being created today.
(Review by David Grundy)
VIJAY IYER – TRAGICOMIC
Label: Pi Recordings/
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: The Weight of Things; Macaca Please; Aftermath; Comin’ Up; Without Lions; Mehndi; Age of Everything; Window Text; I’m All Smiles; Machine Days; Threnody; Becoming.
Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Stephan Crump: bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums.
Vijay Iyer’s Tragicomic opens with an invocation entitled ‘The Weight of Things’, an evocative title and opening to the album to my mind and ears. There’s a series of titles about things amongst musicians I admire: ‘Evidence of Things Unseen’ by Don Pullen, ‘The Flow of Things’ by Roscoe Mitchell, ‘Things to Come From Those Now Gone’ by Muhal Richard Abrams, to name a few. Maybe I’m reading too much into these things, but I see a connected interest in the ineffable amongst all these artists, and a similar view of expressing these things through music.
Now that I’ve already gone and described the opening track as evocative, I’ll go ahead and apply the label to the whole album. Isn’t all good music evocative in some sense? Perhaps, but this music falls into a category of evocation that I deem particularly noteworthy. Tragicomic finds Vijay Iyer splitting time between his established quartet and a more stripped down setting of the trio, and there is even one track treating the listener to a solo piano excursion that is so enjoyable that I hope Vijay will consider recording an album of solo piano at some point.
I did something with Tragicomic that I like to do if I’m afforded the luxury of time – listen to the artist’s recordings leading up to the newest (this is just his music under his own name as a leader, not including collaborative efforts such as Fieldwork). Following the progression of Mr. Iyer’s work throughout his career, I am definitely hearing a honing of process and compositional voice. It’s difficult to describe, but amounts to an identifying of some kind of essential string of musical voice that you can easily hear throughout that becomes more prominent in improvisations and composition as time goes on.
There is an aesthetic in Vijay Iyer’s music that I’d described as eclectic unity, the incorporation of seemingly disparate elements rhythmically, melodically or harmonically that make sense in the context of the whole. We hear hints of reggae in ‘Comin’ Up’ both in feel and in a subtle delay (a production technique that recurs a few times on the album with great success to my ears) on the snare drum at a dub like break, a confident sense of swing in his solo piano excursion, and a whole lot more that isn’t easily labeled.
An accepted fact to my ears when listening to and parsing Vijay Iyer’s music is that rhythm is always a centrally propulsive element in the music. Propulsive not always in the sense of frenetic or pushed, but more in a sense of centrality in its role in the music as a whole. Even in ‘Mehndi,’ the brooding meditative piece that places the listener awash in the ceremonial dye of its namesake, the rhythmic feel and pulse is very precise and most of all purposeful. In this realm of rhythmic prowess, no genre is off limits, and new genres are formed through rhythmic alchemy.
Tragicomic is a great album. Vijay Iyer has continued to hone his musical vision and it is fully formed on this release. To speculate a bit, I hear a point of inflection with this album that I think is going to lead to new and different things in future releases with this or other bands. The concept and vision is there and now the question is what will he do with it next? (Review by Daniel Melnick)
ILTON JN – THE RATS RAIN DOWN
Label: Clinical Archives
Tracklist: Perseverance is Useless; Tenebrae; Obselitism; Laxx; The Somerset Yeomanry; Beyond the Night
Personnel: Ilton JN: electornics
Additioan lnforamtion: Released on the Clinical Archives netlabel, and available as a free MP3 download (with artwork) from their website – address – or from archive.org.
The glitch has become part of the vocabulary of electronic music, providing a certain amount of ‘dirtiness’ in even its quite mainstream forms, Ilton JN here reminds us how unsettling and unbalancing a device it can be.
The artist himself claims that, in these improvised pieces, he is trying to use electronics in a similar manner to Derek Bailey’s guitar. Certainly, there’s a similar sense of dislocation, of a deliberate avoidance of easy development, the constant appearance of new ideas, new events that, more often and not, do not seem to logically connect with the ones preceding them. The opener, ‘Perserverance is Useless’, is hard to listen to, even for a seasoned experimental music buff, what with its unpredictable bursts of what sound like very small snippets of a sampled track. The music isn’t allowed to settle into either silence or noise – thus, however difficult the approaches of, say, Merzbow or Axel Dorner (to represent the noise/silence polarity), at least they tend to focus more on that – this doesn’t do that, it doesn’t allow the listener to settle down, it hovers on the brink constantly. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Track 2, ‘Tenebrae’, deals in booming sounds, at first suggesting an ambient direction, but soon sounding more like music to an experimental horror film, with various glitches leaping up like half-glimpsed beasts from the sonic cavern before things stutter out in what sound like waves breaking, interrupted by silence.
‘Obselitism’ is more rhythmic, moving at a slightly-faster-than-pulse-rate and, again, various squelches pop up in seemingly random order on both stereo channels, creating a feel of unsettling uncertainty. What strikes me is that, while someone like Eddie Prevost can be ideologically opposed to the idea of repetition as fundamentally opposed to the ideals of improvised music, Ilton JN is approaching what can often be a beat-based music (and the glitch tends to be a rhythmic device, however stuttering and awkward) in a way that renders what comes out not in the least predictable.
‘Laxx’ builds on a bassy sample, gradually bringing in fragments of what sound like strings, or a string synth patch, and ends up resembling a glitchy version of Autechre’s ambient tracks. ‘The Somerset Yeomanry’ opens with the spoken word reminiscence of a soldier. Treated fragments of his voice, transformed into mocking chirrups (perhaps the voices of the titular raining rats), build up into electronic clouds that threaten to overwhelm the words, and periodically do so, before hushing and allowing them to be heard. All the while, a barely audible bass (base) drone adds a menacing air to things. As the annecdote takes a darker tone – “the devastation in the town was something I’d never imagined, or could have imagined; the whole streets were blown to pieces…” – JN brings in bursts of machine-gun rat-a-tat and radio fuzz which at once add appropriate atmosphere and seem to mock this devastation – unknown, inhuman forces which are, at best, indifferent to, and, at worst, amused by the suffering. Thus, there’s no melodramatic close. Horror is dealt with in a way that is much more disturbing – it is greeted with indifference.
‘Beyond the Night’ opens in a much minimal manner, and, though at moments it builds in volume and intensity, it never reaches the peak desired. Of course, the artist is not the one who ‘desires’ this peak; and what he’s doing might be a more interesting way of creating intensity. Certainly, it is an unusual one: a constant tension, a defeat of expectations that lovers of improv should welcome.
And yet, the overall effect is, more so than the music of Autechre (which is often criticized for the same thing), ‘inhuman’, cold and robotic. It’s music with no obvious emotional pull, as suggested by the title ‘Perseverance is Useless’. This is the point, of course. But it does make it goddamn hard to engage with – it doesn’t overwhelm you like noise music, or you draw you into a more concentrated, hushed state of concentrated being like reductionism/ eai. It exists on margins. Still, it’s fascinating work, and this sort of challenging listen is always welcome. So, it would be well worth your time to pop over to the clinical archives website and grab this as a free download.
(Review by David Grundy)
LINDHA KALLERDAHL – GOLD
Release Date: April 2008
Tracks: A King; Body and Soul; Gold; Doj; Gold Arrow; Balga; Ori; Jean-Loui; Bless; All of Me; Beautiful Love; Hawai; June; Raw; Alice; Blue-Eye; Midnight Express.
Personnel: Linda Kahllerdahl: voice, piano, organ.
ESP is a label associated firmly with the 1960s free-jazz scene, a position cemented by an extensive reissues programme undertaken in recent years, but Bernard Stollman has also begun recording new artists, one of whom is Swedish singer Kallerdahl. In some ways, this pushes the re-issues for sheer emotional power, and for sheer oddness too. An acquired taste, it took me a few listens to really appreciate it, but, once it ‘clicked’ for me, it really clicked.
Like a more extreme, jazz version of Bjork, Kallerdahl’s voice seems to be perpetually straining at extreme emotional registers, from hyper tension or despair to quiet moments of peace, all the more precious and beautiful for being hard won. Her piano work is unfussy and contributes greatly to the mood, serving to complement her voice with simple riffs or chord shadings. The best example is on the record’s most jazzy track, a version of the standard ‘Beautiful Love’, which is rendered at once playful, fragile, and just that little bit unstable: witness the little swoops she inserts into the melody, or the slightly off-key dissonances in the piano part, or the mad scat (is that scat? I don’t really know what else to call it…) near the end, alternating between sharp plosive spitting and rolling and the screaming out of nonsense syllables. She gives back to jazz singing what it so often seems to lack – a sense that what’s being sung really means something. It’s a long way from what ‘jazz singer’ can sadly seem to mean nowadays: a lounge act singing Cole Porter.
In fact, to call her a jazz singer gives completely the wrong impression: Kallerdahl often resembles a coloratura soprano, and the emotional pitch is raised to operatic levels. The short tracks each enact miniature musical dramas rather than coasting along, content with creating a pleasantly relaxing or melancholy mood.
Perhaps there’s something a little melodramatic about it, and there are times when Kallerdahl sounds slightly uncomfortable singing in English – the passages where she sings in Swedish flow much more easily off her tongue, as do the wordless vocalized sections. But most importantly, it’s not music that allows you to remain in your comfort zone. At times she reaches uncomfortably loud and high pitches, and holds them – both a formidable technical feat in itself, and something that really works on the listener, that forces them to either engage or reach for the ‘off’ button. Hard to feel ambivalent about such strong stuff.
Another danger is that sometimes present in the work of avant-garde vocalists – a feeling of gimmickry, through the use of devices such the orgasmic scream, the strangled gasp, and so on – but Kahllerdahl avoids this, for the most part. The track that comes closest is the closer, ‘Midnight Express’, which is essentially an effects piece, imitating the sound of a train, but otherwise, the experimentation pays off, as on ‘Ori-Ori’, which adds a little studio reverb, to great effect.
Some of the best tracks are for solo voice. ‘Raw’ occupies exactly the space that its title suggests, although it ends with a figure that recalls the Bach/Gounoud ‘Ave Maria’ – but this has nothing in common with Bobby McFerrin’s treatment of said work, which feels like a showpiece. Meanwhile, I venture to suggest that ‘Blue-eye’ is a perfect track,
mesmerizing for its short life-span of 1 minute and 47 seconds, as it delivers an emotional journey in under two minutes.
A short piece, on a short record; it’s just over half-an-hour long, but there are 17 tracks, so there’s a lot of variety. Kallerdahl takes up no more space than necessary, though that doesn’t mean the tracks are cluttered – often, there are long pauses and slow tempi. She knows not to outstay her welcome, and in the process delivers one of the best jazz vocal albums I’ve heard. (Review by David Grundy)
DAVE LIEBMAN/ ELLERY ESKELIN/ TONY MARINO/ JIM BLACK – RENEWAL
Label: Hat Hut
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: Cha; The Decider; Out There (Tk. 2); Renewal; Palpable Clock; Dimi and the Blue Man; IC; Free Ballad; Out There (Tk. 1)
Personnel: Dave Liebman: tenor saxophone (left channel), Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone (right channel); Tony Marino: bass; Jim Black: drums and percussion
Dave Liebman seems to have been in ‘free mode’ recently: first taking part in an unlikely performance with British improv veteran Evan Parker at London’s Vortex, and now finding himself alongside another free tenor player, Ellery Eskelin. The encounter with Parker, broadcast on British radio but not, as far as I know, recorded for album release, was, admittedly, not much of a success: Liebman’s post-Coltrane vocabulary drew out that side of Parker as well, and the music consequently occupied a somewhat uneasy place which was never really very adventurous, despite being loud and propulsive throughout. Here, though, things are different. Despite the two-sax line (Liebman perhaps feeling he can’t go far enough ‘out’ on his own, so needs a freer player to spur on him), the feel is not so much that of the sax ‘duel’ as a relationship of mutual building. The rhythm section is very tight, but not as glibly ‘funky’ as seems to be the tendency nowadays – they impart a real urgency to the music. Perhaps the best example of this comes at the end of the first track, ‘Cha’ (written by drummer Jim Black), in which bass and drums seem to be carried on by their own continuing momentum and play on for another thirty seconds after the horns have finished. Like a lot of the album, it feels at once spontaneous and carefully organized; there’s a careful balance between the freer and jazzier elements.
In general, this is, I suppose, what Liebman attempts to do with his playing (though with how much success is a matter for debate). His comments in a 2004 interview for American website All About Jazz reveal his angle on things: “I like to delve in and out of a lot of things, rhythmically and harmonically. I like the line between the in and the out and the up and the down. I just like yin and yang stuff, you know, floating between the two…I like art that goes between very abstract and very inside and then keeps the listener or the person who is the receiver, I think, curious. I like to see stuff that makes me think, “What are they going to do next?” I know what people like about me and I can go there in a minute and I will go there, but I also have to remember that I have to go where I don’t know.”
What’s most interesting about this album is when Liebman goes where he “doesn’t know”, as when he begins to explore a different lineage from that of Coltrane. The lack of a keyboard instrument helps – harmonically, things can be a little looser, as on the breathy meanderings of ‘Free Ballad’, with Marino and Black’s support at times hinting at the interactive rhythm/horns relationship of Ornette Coleman’s early groups. On ‘IC’, meanwhile, the solos, if not the theme, occasionally take on a Dolphyian, register-leaping/swooping tinge, so it’s appropriate that the band also include two attempts on one of Dolphy’s compositions, ‘Out There’. Like Dolphy’s, this music is situated somewhere between the mainstream and less recognizable waters, which is always an interesting place to be. Fine stuff.
(Review by David Grundy)
LYCANTHROPE OBOE – HIDING IN THE LONG GRASS/ STARING AT THE WAKING SKY
Label: Petula Records
Release Date: 2006
Tracklist: And truly the wolves have an easy prey; the building are wreathed in a cold amber haze; of sleep and sickness; A light buzzing in the rain
Personnel: Jacken Waters (Lycanthrope Oboe): electric and acoustic guitars, ebow, radio.
Additional Information: Available for free download, or as a CD-R on request. For more details, go to www.soundclick.com/lycanthropeoboe.
Lycanthrope Oboe is the solo project of Hereford-based guitarist Jacken Waters (also a member of the bands Desdemona Lives and Sleepwalk Something). The music he creates tends to be centred around the use of layered, manipulated guitar, slowly building up washes of sound which increase in volume, then fade back to silence, while single, simple, repeating riffs provide an anchor for the sonic driftage. To date, Waters has produced two CD-R albums under the Lycanthrope moniker, which are also available as free internet downloads.
Live, as opposed to on record, he’s a somewhat different prospect – obviously, there’s less possibility for overdubbing and post-improvisational tweaking, and hence he concentrates on sound and noise rather than on the intricate interweaving of different melodic layers, or fragments. Because of this, I’d venture to suggest that ‘Hiding in the Long Grass/ Staring at the Waking Sky’ is a little easier on the ear than the live work – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Poised somewhere between a quiet ecstasy and a brooding melancholy, the music is simple in conception (or construction), rising from gentle, strummed guitar figures to peaks of overdubbed lines and swooshing, stereo-switching radio static and electric guitar feedback/ drone; audibly a part of the lo-fi/ DIY aesthetic, but with something of a sheen to it that makes it very easy to listen to. Things are frequently taken down to a bare minimum – as on the opener, ‘And truly the wolves have an easy prey,’ where the sort of chord structure that might underpin your two-a-penny pop song forms the basis of the entire piece, its repetition gradually subsumed by the rising drone haze, before it re-emerges in a return to the simple clarity of the opening.
While I’d always hesitate to apply overtly programmatic designs onto music (particularly in the drone genre, where so much of the appeal is based on the abstraction, the open-endedness, the active role of the listener in bringing to the sounds what they will), it does seem singularly appropriate that, through song titles, cover art, and general aesthetic, a somewhat whimsical, folky, nature-focused aesthetic emerges. Not the first thing you’d connect this with, but, for me, it has something of the same appeal as John Surman’s recent ‘The Spaces in Between’ (although, given Waters’ anarchist political beliefs, his rural vision is likely to be a bit idyllic than Surman’s). Perhaps a rather more subjective response than usual, then, in this review: perhaps not. Either way, I’d definitely recommend this music. (Review by David Grundy)
LONDON IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA / GLASGOW IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA – SEPARATELY AND TOGETHER
Label: Emanem Records
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: Impro Intro; On the Point of Influence; PW to AW; Study for Oppy Wood; AW to AB; Hive Life; Too late, too late, it’s ever so late; Seven Sisters (for Barry Guy); Stagione; Big ideas, images and distorted facts; 811 Joint Response; 1 + 1 = Different; Outlaw.
Personnel: London Improvisers’ Orchestra: Harry Beckett, Roland Ramanan, Ian Smith:, trumpet; Robert Jarvis:, trombone; Catherine Pluygers: oboe; Terry Day:, bamboo flutes; John Rangecroft: clarinet; Chefa Alonso, Lol Coxhill, Adrian Northover: soprano saxophone; Caroline Kraabel: alto saxophone; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone; Alison Blunt, Susanna Ferrar, Sylvia Hallett, Philipp Wachsmann: violin; Ivor Kallin, violin, viola; Hannah Marshall, Marcio Mattos, Barbara Meyer: cello; Dominic Lash, David Leahy: double bass; John Bisset, Dave Tucker: electric guitar; Veryan Weston: piano; Jackie Walduck: vibraphone; Javier Carmona: percussion.
Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra: Aileen Campbell; voice; Matthew Cairns, trumpet; Robert Henderson, trumpet; George Murray, trombone; Emma Roche, flute; Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, flute; John Burgess, bass clarinet; Raymond MacDonald, alto saxophone; Graeme Wilson, baritone saxophone; Peter Nicholson, cello; Una MacGlone, double bass; Armin Sturm, double bass; George Burt, guitar; Neil Davidson, electric guitar; Chris Hladowski, bouzouki; Rick Bamford, Stuart Brown: percussion.
Additional Information: Recorded live at the Red Rose, Finsbury Park, London, as part of the 2007 Freedom of the City festival.
The improvising orchestra is a tricky proposition. A balance has to be found between settling too easily into steady grooves that everyone can easily slot into and tentatively noodle around, and having complete anarchy on one’s hands: a muddy musical mess. Hence the frequent use of some sort of framework, as seen in pieces by Barry Guy or Simon H. Fell, or the ‘conduction’ of Butch Morris and the ‘soundpainting’ of Walter Thompson. The role of this individual would seem, then, to be vital: a ‘sound organiser’ who can allow a piece to develop in adventurous way, without the musicians feeling they have to compromise, or tone down their approach, to avoid chaos.
David Leahy, in his liner notes, approaches it from a different perspective, posing the question: “What is the role of a conductor with a group of talented improvising musicians, who have more than enough experience to not need someone in front of them telling them what to do?” And, to be honest, it is often hard to tell whether the music is being conducted or improvised. The first disc focuses a little more on the dramatic, theatrical side of things, seen most notably in Terry Day’s ‘Too Late, Too Late, It’s Ever so Late’, one of his spoken word pieces, themed around human mismanagement in relation to climate change. The second is more concerned with the music as music: the creation and solution of problems, the appearance and disappearance of different ideas, the evolution of varying collective textures (as one might expect from an orchestra of this size, the focus is more on this collective sound than on the individual musicians, fine soloists though most of them are).
So much is happening here that I don’t feel I’ve fully grasped it enough to make any analysis more detailed than the above – and that’s perhaps not my role. I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises or future pleasures that these discs have to offer– because this is as much a journey of discovery for the listener as it must have been for the performers. Or, as Massimo Ricci puts it in his review of the album for ‘Touching Extremes’, “these materials demand a lot from the players but especially from the audience. A single listen won’t do it – a minimum of five is required before starting to understand at least the basic connections.” (Review by David Grundy)
THE BENNIE MAUPIN QUARTET – EARLY REFLECTIONS
Release Date: April 2008
Tracklist: Within Reach; Escondido; Inside the Shadows; ATMA; Ours Again; The Jewel in the Lotus; Black Ice; Tears; Not Later Than Now; Early Reflections; Inner Sky; Prophet’s Motifs; Spirits of the Tatras.
Personnel: Bennie Maupin: bass clarinet, tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute; Michal Tokaj: piano; Michal Baranski: bass; Lukasz Zyta: drums, percussion; Hania Chowaniec-Rybka: voice (4, 13).
Bennie Maupin! The name strikes fear in the hearts of those who knew him as a foil to Miles Davis on Bitches Brew and On The Corner, a companion to Herbie Hancock throughout the 1970s, and as a powerful musician wielding a mighty bass clarinet in addition to flute and other reeds. You might not have his 1974 release as a leader, The Jewel In The Lotus, but when you hear the name Bennie Maupin it conjures aural imagery of digging deep in a funk riff, freaking out over synthesized keyboards and electrifying drum grooves.
If you did hear his 1974 release, you might have realized that while Bennie Maupin certainly could play that dirty electrifying funk, it wasn’t necessarily the vibe of his own music. Jewel In The Lotus reflected a different aesthetic, and Maupin obviously had his own sense of direction and purpose in his music (incidentally, Jewel In The Lotus finally made it to CD). If you need more convincing, with their usual vision and foresight Destination: Out was on the scene before the CD reissue to tell you why Jewel In The Lotus is a gem.
After a lengthy hiatus from recording as a leader, Bennie Maupin rose from the ashes to record Driving While Black in 1998, and then 8 years later in 2006 recorded a fantastic album for Cryptogramophone, Penumbra. Only two years later, a quick turnaround in the context of Maupin’s career as a leader, we now have Early Reflections, an album featuring Maupin and a trio of Polish musicians. It’s a very different affair than Penumbra was, but equally rewarding to my ears.
The title and cover art of the album are appropriate: this is early morning music, reflective, contemplative, shaking off sleep and greeting the sun music. That’s not to say that it doesn’t reach energetic musical heights, but it takes its time getting there, with the patience of sunrise. Maupin is joined by three Polish musicians who have been his touring ensemble for the past two years, all young players who he met while doing some of his own studies in Poland.
Early Reflections is a striking album – carefully composed, no wasted notes or excess, sensitive dynamics and a clear musical vision. It achieves all of this without becoming wallpaper music, dinner music, or coffee shop music. It’s far more stirring and purposeful than the album Maupin’s old comrade Herbie Hancock recently won a Grammy for. It is what it is, to spin a tautological truism, and it is a largely meditative affair with some flourishes and flairs that provide the necessary contrast to make it all worthwhile. Maupin squeezes every ounce out of the CD format, packing in 76 minutes of music that alters the space time continuum in the way only good music can.
(Review by Daniel Melnick)
Label: L. White Records
Release Date: January 2007
Tracklist: Here; Torikabuto; Pigeon Car
Personnel: Masami Akita (Merzbow): electronics
Additional Information: Released in a limited edition of 500 copies (digi-pack).
I guess this is what you might call ‘standard’ Merzbow – somehow, quality judgments are just one of the many things that are thrown into doubt by Masami Akita’s output (this latest release was apparently recorded in his Tokyo Bedroom last year). In a sense, many of his releases are interchangeable, which could be construed as a protest against the perceived need to arrest the natural flow of things, to see each album as a separate product rather than as part of an ongoing creation.
But what’s the effect of the music itself? On listening to ‘Here’, I was struck by how noise music, Merzbow’s in particular, has immense physicality at the same time as (presumably non-physical) ‘inhumanity’. An unlikely way of getting some sort of theoretical grip on my vague thoughts was afforded by reading Peter De Bolla’s book on aesthetics, ‘Art Matters.’ De Bolla argues that the paintings of Barnett Newman make the viewer define him/herself in relation to them, blurring the boundaries between the observer and the observed, blurring the human’s sense of being a separate, individual self (at the same time as reminding one that aesthetic experience is very much an individual thing). In other words, what happens when looking at a Barnett Newman is not simply a process in which one remains separate from the artwork, but a more symbiotic occurrence.
In both Newman’s and Merzbow’s case, that effect is created by overwhelming the viewer – Newman with serene colour and scale, Merzbow with ‘transgressive’ noise and volume. Perhaps the music is even more effective at insinuating itself into one’s being, sounds having physical correspondences that are not necessarily cast-iron, and may rather be catalysts as much as equivalent metaphors. Thus, the rough drone equates to a frantic heartbeat, and the quipping zips that overlay it to a pulse, while the high-pitched whine and white noise seems to be produced by the ears rather than the CD player. It’s disturbing – the music seems to possess one, to come from oneself even if one has not willed this – yet, oddly enough, there’s a kind of serenity to be found here too. The title, ‘here’ is appropriate: forcing one to (consciously or unconsciously) consider the ‘hereness’ of being in/with the music. (Review by David Grundy)
EVAN PARKER/ TRANSATLANTIC ART ENSEMBLE – BOUSTROPHEDON
Tracklist: Overture; Furrow 1; Furrow 2; Furrow 3; 4; Furrow 5; Furrow 6; Finale
Personnel: Evan Parker: soprano saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell: alto and soprano saxophone; Anders Svanoe: alto saxophone; John Rangecroft: clarinet; Neil Metcalfe: flute; Corey Wilkes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Nils Bultmann: viola; Philipp Wachsmann: violin; Marcio Mattos: cello; Craig Taborn: piano; Jaribu Shahid: double-bass; Barry Guy: double-bass; Tani Tabbal: drums, percussion, Paul Lytton: drums, percussion.
Evan Parker’s certainly modified his views from those days when, while not quite arguing that there was a binary opposition between composition and improvisation, he definitely favoured the latter over the former. Now, he’s written a new, partially-composed work – and while it’s true that the cast is packed with leading European and American improvisers, and improvisation plays a key role, arguably giving the piece its substance, those used to his freely improvised performances on tenor and soprano saxophone will be in for surprise at the kinds of musical strategies and the musical language that is generally adopted. It’s not often, for instance, that you hear a Parker album which features jazz-inflected soloing over repeating rhythm section riffs, or written passages that at times recall European folk music, at others, the work of the ‘Third Stream’ composers.
The brief overture opens with the staggered entry of different instruments playing the same (or very similar) melodic fragments, before the appearance of another device frequently used on this disc: a dramatic tutti chord, followed by a pause, and then the re-utterance of that chord for added dramatic effect. This alternating pattern, between apartness and togetherness, soloist and ensemble, the written and the composed, is a key feature of ‘Boustrophedon’. Dislocation abounds – though never the sort of disintegration you might expect. In fact, things on the whole can seem rather muted: that is, if you discount the solos by the more jazz-based musicians, such as Roscoe Mitchell or trumpeter Corey Wilkes (who provides a yelping, brassy conclusion to ‘Furrow 4’ which is particularly effective). Also note-worthy is the mechanistic repeating piano figure that crops up in ‘Furrow 5’, alternating with dark-hued bass duets and speeding up every time it re-appears, in a manner that creates a real sense of dramatic intensity.
What is most surprising about the work is the way that Parker seems to have deliberately backgrounded himself as performer, taking only one solo on the entire record (during the opening five minutes of ‘Furrow 6’). Indeed, during the finale, everyone in turn gets a solo apart from him. This means that attention is focused, firstly on the textures he creates as composer/ conductor, and then on the capable bunch of improvisers he’s gathered. Things are intriguing, but I can’t help feeling some sort of loss from the improvised language he normally uses. Thus, it’s the track on which he appears that is my favourite, the dark string backing underneath his trademark swirling notes giving them a real emotional tilt that’s not the first thing you’d associate with his playing, and encouraging him into some heartfelt slurs that add a whole new dimension, while not compromising his position. That’s followed by Roscoe Mitchell’s more (free) jazz-inflected, and more questing solo, over a piano vamp from Craig Taborn that somehow feels rather disappointing – not the sort of thing you expect to hear on an Evan Parker record – too much of a comfort-bed, surely?
One could argue that Parker is an improviser – he’s supposed to defy expectations, and that, in effect, should be his whole ethos, the raison d’etre of the music he’s been involved in for decades. Perhaps, in adopting a writing style that occasionally nods, as with this piano vamp, towards more conventional musical methodologies, he is actually challenging himself more so than if he chose to create an aleatoric, Cage-ian strategy. Yet, while I can see where such an analysis would be coming from, I still believe that there is enough to surprise and challenge in the numerous other contexts in which he finds himself – and, perhaps even more so, in those contexts which he has been working for years (such as the Schlippenbach Trio, where, as he’s noted, new possibilities for almost telepathic communication opens up, due to intense the three men’s familiarity with each other’s playing. Thus, those seeking to hear Parker at his best, his most exploratory, would actually be advised to hear him in the more ‘familiar’ context of the Schlippenbach Trio’s latest album ‘Gold is Where You Find It’, or his work with another pianist, Agusti Fernandez, on ‘Topos’, released on Barry Guy’s Maya record label. I applaud the endeavor here, and parts of it are very effective, suggest interesting new directions for Parker as composer, but I rather feel that the strategies he is working on in other contexts offer more possibilities. Parker fans will want to hear this, as will fans of creative music in general, and there are many enjoyable moments, but, as with this disc’s companion piece, Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Composition/ Improvisation, Nos. 1, 2 & 3’, it’s not as good as it could have been.
(Review by David Grundy)
THE SCHIZO QUARTET – DON’T ANSWER IT
Label: Loose Torque
Tracklist: Loose Talk; Why So Blue?; Don’t Answer It (A) You Three are a Right Pair (B) If Ever There was One; Sunday Meeting; That Reminds Me; In Vino Veritas; Smoking Room; Happiness is a Warm Zippo
Personnel: Jon Corbett: trumpet; Nick Stephens: double bass.
For an improv disc, this is quite a light-hearted affair, but that’s not to suggest that the Stevens’ and Corbett’s approach is in any way overly comfortable or slapdash – just nicely relaxed in feel. Both musicians are full of quick reflexes, melodic inventiveness, and a sharp control of musical movement, and this ensures that things are always interesting, as well as allowing for occasional serendipiditous moments which, almost by accident, capture something perfectly – a quick half-glimpsed image for the ear, and then it’s gone.
In essence, ‘Don’t Answer It’ is a series of musical conversations, the players constantly complimenting and complementing one another, as on ‘Loose Talk’, where Corbett dashes off a quick dash for the upper register before landing back down with a huffy growl, while Stevens bows his bass inquisitively, then introduces a bluesy walking phrase over which some more leisurely, melodic trumpet lines can unfold. Of course, within a matter of seconds, they’re off on another tack, though the transitions are seamless. It all unfolds with delicious logic, though with a slightly manic side which raises more smiles than it does frowns. Sensibly audacious is how I might put it best. The album gets its title, by the way, from a moment when a distant phone rings, Stephens carrying on unperturbed as he barks out “Don’t answer it!” I’m not sure whether it was inserted afterwards as a jokey accoutrement, or whether it really happened during recording, but, either way, it just about sums up the spirit of these sixty-one minutes of joyous invention – concentrated on the controlled present moment but allowing for the unexpected future flash of inspiration.
(Review by David Grundy)
WADADA LEO SMITH’S GOLDEN QUARTET – TABLIGH
Release Date: July 2008
Tracklist: Rosa Parks; DeJohnette; Caravan of Winter; Tabligh
Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Vijay Iyer: piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer; John Lindberg: bass; Ronald Shannon Jackson: drums
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has always been one of my favorite musicians, and that is confirmed again by the new release of his Golden Quartet, which consists of an entirely new line-up. Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors and Jack DeJohnette having been replaced by Vijay Iyer on piano and Fender Rhodes, John Lindberg on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. The new musicians are of course not comparable to the former band, and that is easy to notice. It’s the same high quality, but the approach is different. And Vijay Iyer and John Lindberg are also among my favorite musicians of the moment.
On “Rosa Parks”, the first track, the four musicians venture back into electric Miles territory, with a soaring staccato trumpet, wah-wah pedal on the bass, thundering drums and with the electric piano filling in the spaces with interspersed chords and fast runs on the keys. The piece starts and ends with slow and meditative solo trumpet with a highly rhythmic very intense middle part. The second track is called “DeJohnette”, aptly starting with fierce drumming by Ronald Shannon Jackson, joined by Vijay Iyer who surely is one of the most lyrical and rhythmically adroit pianists of the moment, he moves the track into free jazz regions, very abstract and dissonant, joined by John Lindberg on arco, then there’s a moment’s pause and Wadada’s rhyhtmic trumpet invites the other musicians for an uptempo improvisation, which falls quiet for a long lyrical and abstract center part, which slowly gathers speed and momentum again : electrifying and beautiful. The third track, “Caravan Of Winter”, is slow and mysterious. The last and longest track is called “Tabligh”, which is Arabic and means as much as “the duty to convert”. The spiritual connotation of the piece is evident, with Wadada Leo Smith playing slow, precise and piercing trumpet tones over a sparse acoustic piano background to start with, then the piece explores a variety of moods, alters intensity and even styles. The four musicians complement each other quite well. And if the first track was reminiscent of Miles, the music evolves into the more spiritual areas of the late phase Coltrane, creating vast expanses of sound, but with a relatively open texture, unhindered by fixed concepts, free, yet clearly structured. The soft lyrical approach of Lindberg and Iyer is in stark contrast to Ronald Shannon Jackson’s hammering and pounding, which is absolutely essential here to bring the rawness needed in this journey, to create depth and variety. And Wadada Leo Smith spans everything. He is lyrical, intense, soaring, powerful, meditative, hard, soft, deep … and offering lots of space to the other players. The amazing feat is that the quartet – and this really is a quartet album, rather than that of an accompanied soloist – integrates much of the lightness and almost zen-like fragility of Wadada’s solo or duo releases. An amazing and paradoxical album, full of musical inventiveness, human feelings and spiritual moments. For sure one of the highlights of this year. (Review by Stef Gisjells –http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/)
MATANA ROBERTS – THE CHICAGO PROJECT
Label: Central Control International
Release Date: February 2008
Tracklist: Exchange; Thrills; Birdhouse 1; Nomra; Love Call; Birdhouse 2; South
By West; For Razi; Birdhouse 3.
Personnel: Matana Roberts: alto saxophone; Josh Abrams: bass; Jeff Parker: guitar;
Frank Rosaly: drums; Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone (3, 6, 9).
I’m so happy to hear a new Matana Roberts album. Her Sticks & Stones records are worth looking for, especially Shed Grace, because she is a wonderful synthesist, integrating the best of modern free jazz in her music, as she does here. At least the sound quality is much better than last year’s Utech release (see also her comment about this). Her quartet consists of herself on alto, Jeff Parker on guitar, Josh Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums, all Chicagoans, hence the title. Her compositions are very melodic and rhythmic, yet very free at the same time, very soulful and bluesy, in the best AACM tradition. And the great thing here is the variation she brings into every piece, which are well-structured, with lots of style variations, rhythm and tempo changes, while maintaining this free edge.
The addition of Jeff Parker on guitar is a good one, because his playing is at times harsh and unpredictable, pushing Roberts into new musical areas, and at other times, gentle and traditional as can be, as on “Nomra”. Roberts’s tone is warm and clear, and her indebtedness to Coltrane is clear, both in her playing as in her composing, especially on “Love Call” and “South By West”. The first is initially as expansive and spiritual in its approach as Coltrane himself, yet moving into Brötzmann territory, the latter ends in a beautiful duet with Parker’s guitar. Fred Anderson is her sparring partner on three sax duets : “Birdhouse 1”, “Birdhouse 2” and “Birdhouse 3”. Despite these tracks’ improvisational abstractness, the soulful and bluesy undertone remains a constant. Yet the most beautiful piece is “Exchange”, which shifts from a free boppy high intensity start, past some abstract unisono transition into an absolutely wonderful bluesy melody, then to free improv, and back again. A rich, creative, expressive, varied and synthetic album. We need more of this. (Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com)
JOHN SURMAN / HOWARD MOODY – RAIN ON THE WINDOW
Release Date: May 2008
Tracklist: Circum I; Stained Glass; The Old Dutch; Dancing In The Loft; Step Lively!; Stone Ground; Tierce; Circum II; Rain On The Window; Dark Reeds; O Waly Waly; A Spring Wedding; I’m Troubled In Mind; On The Go; Pax Vobiscum
Personnel: John Surman: soprano and baritone sax, bass clarinet; Howard Moody: church organ
Additional Information: Recorded January 2006 at Ullern Church, Oslo.
Organist and conductor Howard Moody previously appeared with John Surman when he conducted ‘Proverbs and Songs’, Surman’s orchestral/choir project from 1996. Here, they form a stripped-down duo, with the usual ECM sheen heightening the resonant grandeur to an appropriate max. The pieces they perform are mostly originals, though with are a few surprise choices – ‘O Waly Waly’ and the Negro spiritual ‘I’m Troubled in Mind’ – but, as I always seem to end up saying when reviewing ECM discs, it is all rather one-mood, which, if that’s what you’re after, is fine. There’s little to distinguish it from Surman’s previous ‘English pastoral’ exercises, apart from the unusual instrumentation – and church organ goes much better with saxophones than you might expect, partly because of Surman’s characteristically flowing lyricism, partly because Moody is such a subtle, unobtrusive accompanist (this is very much Surman’s date). I remember hearing a concert which paired trumpeter Arve Henriksen with Stalle Storlaken on church organ, and both that date and this are proof that such instrumentation which worked well, in a similarly hushed context.
The most effective tracks find Surman on baritone, his rich sound either mixing with organ lower notes to create a melancholy a little more brawny than usual on ‘Dark Reeds’, or sitting up against a soft, barely heard chordal accompaniment on ‘O Waly Waly’ (the water is wide). Surman back to his roots, choirboy tradition etc. For me, it’s not as compelling as his preceding release, ‘The Spaces in Between’, which made it onto my list of the top 10 records of 2007 in the first issue of ‘eartrip’, but those who enjoyed that CD should enjoy this. Basically, you know what to expect, and, on that score, Surman delivers. (Review by David Grundy)
GHEDALIA TAZARTES –HYSTERIE OFF MUSIQUE (2007)
Label: Jardin Au Fou
Release Date: September 2007
Tracklist: Soul 1; Soul 2; Soul 3; Soul 4; Soul 5; Country 1; Country 2; Country 3; Country 4; Country 5; Jazz; Bonus
Personnel: Ghédalia Tazartes: samples, electronics, voice, instruments.
Ghédalia Tazartes trace his roots to North African Sephardic tradition. His recordings exemplify the most prosperous marriage ever of ethnic vocalizing and imaginative electronic collage. Tazartes’ strength lies in his dynamic, rhythmic and harmonic restraint. The element of surprise, while ubiquitous, does not rely on the shock of opposites. Rather, his compositions flow naturally, always apportioning tasty ingredients, but in an organic, gradualist fashion.
His activity now spans three decades, yet his music is hors temps. Over the years, his bequest has graced many visual performances, but has stood on its own among the most accomplished French creations. From emotional psalms to shamanic hymns, Tazartes vocal eclecticism makes his art unclassifiable and distant from the electro-acoustic orthodoxy in his country.
His recording output dried out in the 1990s and many feared that the legend had been silenced forever. It is, therefore, with great expectations that fans of sonic asymmetry hail his return to a more prolific form.
Soul 1: The recording does not “open”, but breaks through the wall, imploding and rapidly mutating into old man’s lament. Increasingly discernible and sometimes nasal, the sorrowful voice will be accompanied by a piano abandoned on the desert hill.
Soul 2: Change of scenery. We are in a deep tropical valley as depicted earlier Jorge Reyes’s electronic landscapes. Tazartes’ art is less linear, though, with multiple harmonies emanating from a ringing synthesizer and interrupted by a crashing guitar feedback. The static spectacle is further enriched by hollow, impersonal voices flattened through the phone lines.
Soul 3: An apocalyptic moan, most probably in Hebrew, emerges from a cocoon of barely audible synthesized strings and subtle bass drone. We are close to post-“Imperium” era Current 93, but when Tazartes falls into the title Hysteria, the effect is less exaggerated than in David Tibet’s case. Soul 4: A stylistic mystery tour, mountain calls from the Caucasus, stern Coptic choirs, plaintive Arabian voices – all masterfully cohesive in this short sample of Tazartes’ mixing genius.
Soul 5: Electronic whispers, slothful electric bass, sinusoidal harmonics and dovish sobbing all return in loops of various lengths. The nocturnal quality of this fragment relies on the changing piano-forte combination of these four elements. Country 1: Scraps of acoustic guitar tuned similarly to Haino’s Black Blues give way to a love poem recited with a falsely foreign accent. The poet forsakenly expresses his love for a ‘little French girl’. When several violin notes intervene, the text begins to alternate credibly between English and French.
Country 2: A sharp electric guitar loop cuts through the previous track’s poem. Without the sudden ruptures, this would be a blues. But again, unruly children’s voices, weather events and lost chamber quartets distract the listener. Country 3: “Yes – this is a Love Song”, an old man’s voice announces. Self-ironic and very carnal song, indeed, follows. There is a marked contrast between the accompaniment by a congenial bowed acoustic bass, and the singer’s drunken, limping snort.
Country 4: After these short vignettes, the longest track on the CD unfolds with cinematic strings, oppressive seagulls and majestic ship horns. By the time we visualize a Titanic or Lusitania tragedy, a parody of jazz scat explodes, as if filtered through a long tube. Sustained echoes from Deep Listening tradition, electronic clicks, and finally an uncertain melody all posture in front of the cinematic theme. Tazartes sounds here like an adult impersonating a naughty kid, but not without some humorous twists. The blues guitar loops back in, briefly echoing an earlier passage in a structural formation reminding of 1970s progressive suites. It then becomes the main focus; harder, and as decisive as Albert Collins’s. The last two minutes are sent to us from another world: a falsely demure Japanese girl (Yumi Nara), a choking wah-wah guitar, an opera mezzosoprano and crashing drums.
Country 5: To the accompaniment of two guitars – acoustic and wah-wah, Tazartes sings out his regret of not being a Spanish nobleman. His characteristic, weeping manner, never breaks into self-parody.
Jazz: The title is a misnomer for a heavy guitar cum strings fresco carried over by angelic voices. Tonality is shaky. Half-uttered morphemes and electronically edited percussion reinforce the increasingly staccato guitar and it’s a relief when the fuzz ebbs away. Still, the strings will not reign on their own. The guitar hits back and the string section becomes more articulate, pushing the track to another level of intensity. Ultimately, the kettle drum adopts a function of a belated referee.
Bonus: A frightening virago takes it out on her entourage just as a southern comfort guitar relaxes with calculated indifference. It is up to the listener to infer the meaning… Familiar howling will close this chapter. (Review by Tomasz Nadrowski, originally published at http://sonicasymmetry.wordpress.com/)
TOTEM – SOLAR FORGE
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: Blooming Ore; Austentized; Hephaestus’ Wrath; Annealed
Personnel: Bruce Eisenbeil: guitar; Tom Blancarte: bass; Andrew Drury: drums.
One would have to describe the line-up for this group as a ‘guitar trio’ – but that makes them sound too chamber-jazzy for comfort. In fact, there’s very little to do with jazz at all in these unsettled and unsettling improvisations. The worry on listening to the opening minutes of the CD is that there’s going to be lack of variety (in terms of texture and dynamics), but in fact it turns out to be fairly compelling listening, and the more all-out assault of ‘Blooming Ore’ makes way for the more scurrying, improv-y sound of’Austentized’. Derek Bailey’s work with Japanese group the Ruins springs to mind – lots of squelchy, charred guitar, clattering and darting drums, and dirty, dark-hewn bass.
The second half of ‘Hephaestus’ Wrath’ sees the guitar creating weird drone-ish clouds of noise, though with a fuzzy, scratchy edge enhanced by the assorted door-like creaks and scrapes of the percussion and a frantic string-hopping bass. It’s uneasy music, grey and not designed to comfort anyone; there’s something almost inhuman about it, perhaps due to the texture; there are none of the vocalised sounds you might get from a saxophone or trumpet, which at least add some human element – here, the metaphors I reach for tend to be material, to do with objects rather than with people.
Overall, the group tends to oscillate (though with some cohesion) between noisy ‘wall of sound’ style textures (evoking some sense of the large-scale) and focussing in on more jittery, miniscule detail (evoking an opposite sense of the microscopic). While, overall, it may be a little too monochrome for my tastes, it’s good evidence that ESP are capable of recording interesting contemporary artists, as they were doing in their 60s heyday. While their re-issues programme is obviously where they concentrate their main activity, albums like this indicates that it’s worth keeping an eye on their new releases too. (Review by David Grundy)
VIOLENCE JAZZ – PROTECTION
Label: Tiger Asylum
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Album consists of six untitled tracks
Personnel: Luke Moldof: electronics, guitar, vocals, saxophone; Gabriel Birnbaum: saxophone, drums, vocals; Eugene Lee – saxophone
Another CD-R release from Tiger Asylum (see below), departing from the Brooklyn-centric orientation that much of their catalogue displays by presenting this Boston-based trio (who have, it transpires from a quick internet search, renamed themselves Catholic Skin since this album came out). While the group’s (original) name might imply the screaming, no-holds barred version of free jazz currently being practiced by the likes of Weasel Walter, in fact, there are just as many influences from other genres – loud, distorted drones echo various forms of electronic music, and the growling, low-end guitar owes a good deal to metal. The instrumentation contributes to this: while free jazz bands often stick with the basic line-up of the straight-ahead jazz group – at least, as far as bass and drums go – here, the squalling dual (even triple) saxophones are about the only jazz trace left. Furthermore, what’s really important is the dense overall texture – there are no solos as such, and, indeed, it’s the ‘background’ elements that tend to get highlighted over what would otherwise be the primary focus – the ‘lead instruments’. Thus, track two gains its momentum from a heavy guitar riff, amplified by thunderous, repeated left-hand piano notes (presumably a sample, as the credits don’t list anyone playing piano), to which the saxophone playing relates as a kind of mutant decoration.
Particularly on this track, there tends to be a muddiness to the sound at the points of most extreme volume, as if the recording equipment can’t quite cope with the sheer force of sonic activity. This fits in, I suppose, with the CD-R label, lo-fi aesthetic, but, for me, diminishes, rather than contributes to the music – the group doesn’t need this added roughness to make their thing happen. It does perhaps indicate that the group’s vision isn’t quite fully developed – such tactics appear almost juvenile, or display a lack of faith in the power of their instruments to convey the sort of feelings they are otherwise so good at conveying.
In this sense, Violence Jazz are clearly coming from a different context to the 60s free jazz pioneers – one that includes the use of technology, and embraces a certain subversive streak that is almost ‘post-modern’ (as well as the more straight-out anarchy/defiance of their forbears). If there’s a sense of humour here, it’s one that’s as twisted as the mangled car wreck depicted in the cover art: in the midst of track 2’s lumbering doomscape, for instance, the intrusion of a speeded-up vocal sample (someone rambling about sticking a glow-stick up their ass while tripping on acid) at once deflates any sense of tragedy, any sense of a heroic “fuck-you” flung in the face of uncaring or hostile forces. It’s perhaps a little crude, a little too self-consciously disruptive a device to really further what the piece has already accomplished, and it also prevents the listener from experiencing the full power of what is otherwise the disc’s most intense track (for sustained tension, if not for levels of volume and aggression). The mocking laughter latent behind this humour feels almost too controlled, too thought-through, and that’s something again a worry on the penultimate track. A jazzy saxophone, playing some more melodic sounds, is drowned out by howling feedback, and soon gives up the quest for some respite as the band launch into the longest piece (on what is a fairly short record), a fifteen-minute barrage which doesn’t resort to such trickery and is all the better for it. Overall, then, despite a few quibbles, this is a fine album which makes a definite impact. (Review by David Grundy)
CHRIS WELCOME – QUARTET
Label: Tigerasylum records
Release Date: April 2007
Tracklist: #1+2; #3; #4; #5; #12; #8+15+6; #7; #9; #10; #11+13; #14
Personnel: Jonathan Moritz: tenor and soprano saxophone; Chris Welcome: guitar; Shayna Dulberger: upright bass; John McLellan: drums
Additional Information: Recorded February 11th, 2007, at Wombat Recording Studio, Brooklyn, New York. Released as both CD-R and 12“ vinyl LP. The album can be ordered from http://www.tigerasylum.com.
This is one of a number of intriguing releases on bassist Jordon Schranz’s excellent Tiger Asylum label, and I think that credit and an explanation for that wider enterprise should precede a discussion of this particular album. Probably the best explanation appears on the label’s website, and I think the best thing I can to do is to reproduce it in full. “In response to the growing disinclination of most of the record labels with whom he was working to support the various vinyl formats, Jordon Schranz started Tigerasylum Records in 2005 to release LPs by his group, the Eastern Seaboard. He has since expanded to include CDR releases, as well as additional vinyl formats, and broadened the roster to include other key players in the avant-garde and experimental music scenes of the Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods of Brooklyn. With a heavy emphasis on young artists performing improv and experimental jazz, the label brings together the sounds of noise, pysch, no-wave, neo-classical, free jazz, and the European avant-garde – everything that’s happening.”
So there you have it: diversity is the key – but not diversity for the sake of it; rather, diversity because interesting music shouldn’t be (and isn’t) restricted to any one genre. Note also the key phrase “young artists” – but, again, this is not simply a case of promoting these musicians simply because they are young, and therefore might provide some sort of ‘hope for the future’ (the sort of gesture that has become rampant in the UK, and that one suspects is in the absurd over-feting of musicians like Gwylim Simcock or the Neil Cowley). Instead, this is genuinely exciting music-making, with a freshness and fearlessness about it that is perhaps best exemplified by the work of trumpeter Peter Evans, who features on another Tigerasylum release, with the group The Right Moves, and whose quartet album for Firehouse 12 was one of my picks for the top 10 albums of 2007 in the previous issue of ‘eartrip.’ It’s not just Evans, though – all the artists on Tigerasylum’s roster demonstrate a set of varied approaches not beholden to jazz tradition, working in this areas which are hard to classify according to the sort of narrow generic strictures that we’re used to working with.
And so on to the Chris Welcome Quartet. Theirs is a music that doesn’t give up its secrets on first listen – and I choose the word ‘secrets’ deliberately, for this is music that can be said to ‘know’ something: some dark hidden recess which it thoughtfully explores in carefully structured, uncluttered atonality. This music knows, for instance, how to use silence and a liberating limitation of palette– drummer McLellan, as indicated in his solo intro on piece #12, tends to focus on just one area of the kit at a time (in this particular instance, letting cymbal swish predominate), using whatever tools he has chosen for colour rather than for overtly rhythmic, ‘time-keeping’ purposes (though rhythm there is, of a more fractured kind that fits in with the group’s aesthetic). It’s an approach that shows a great deal of patience, and a subtle understanding of musical flow and texture – certainly, one that is more rewarding than the rather simplistic, overly busy, rock-style drumming that seems to be favoured nowadays in a number of jazz contexts.
The same sort of thoughtful musicianship is demonstrated by every member of the group: Moritz’ tenor playing moves between a smooth yet urgent caress gliding up into piercing high notes (#1+2), and a straining, almost desperate wheeziness (#5). Elsewhere, his soprano playing at times suggests Evan Parker, but without the streams of expression and constant bubbled flow generated by Parker’s circular breathing and general approach – instead, Moritz leaves lots of gaps, as if letting the music breathe in the silence – as if that is where the meat of the music actually lies.
Welcome, meanwhile, though the nominal leader, is about as un-flashy and un-showy as you can get. He prefers to let sustained tones hang than to play lines (there’s nothing approaching a be-bop fretboard workout here). When he does choose to play lines, there’s normally a very good reason to do so; when introduced, they are pithy and advance the music, adding a little burst and edge of intensity which spurs on Moritz or leads the music in another direction, perhaps adding textural variety or a change of mood. Mood is vitally important to this album, and reviewers elsewhere have identified an almost-gothic moodiness that pervades things (and which is certainly suggested by the haunting cover art). For me, though, it can’t even be tied down that far – it’s far too evasive, gorgeously abstract, challenging and almost self-defeating in its conflicting/shared impulses towards the intellectual/ cerebral and the emotional pitch strained to the utmost, like the taut muscles of a neck craning up at something just out of clear sight. The fact that this self-defeat is completely avoided makes this music all the more valuable – on the edge is where the most interesting things happen, after all.
(Review by David Grundy)
ALAN WILKINSON / EDDIE PREVOST – SO ARE WE, SO ARE WE
Label: Matchless Recordings
Release Date: February 2007
Tracklist: On Green Street; East, East, East London; Supa, Supa; For Marlene; So Are We, So Are We
Personnel: Alan Wilkinson: baritone and alto sax; Eddie Prevost: drums
Additional Information: Cover art by Gina Southgate
Alan Wilkinson is, for me, one of the best British players currently working in what I suppose one would term a free jazz vocabulary, and I’m bemused as to why I’ve only just come across this disc, which came out last year. I’ll try to remedy that error of timing, anyhow. I’ll also fall into the trap of mentioning ‘Interstellar Space’, as Brian Morton’s liner notes do, and as other reviews do, but only to note that such comparisons really have little use in this context. Wilkinson comes less out of Coltrane (in contrast to, say, Paul Dunmall) than Ayler – but neither of these comparisons really cover his style, which can have a particularly gruff quality yet is never overly harsh. His honks often lead to rhythmic passages, building to a sense of sheer joy that expresses itself best when he takes the horn out of his mouth for some enthusiastic vocalising, vaguely reminiscent of a tribal holler. Prevost’s playing, meanwhile, is a lot more jazzy here than it can be elsewhere, often including passages where he plays time (though never any one rhythm for any long stretch) when it suits the music, but above all it’s responsive and it creates response. It’s less about Rashied Ali washes of sound than about breaking things up, keeping things moving, making the drum kit respond to his touch, and to Wilkinson’s exhortations and explorations, with colours and light rather and energy.
Particular highlights include Wilkinson’s bright and adventurous alto on the opening piece, or the conclusion of ‘East, East, East London’, where his sucking noises work with Prevost’s pianissimo patterings as the track bubbles away to almost nothing before a final surge wraps things up. Best of all, on ‘For Marlene’, are his baritone musings over Prevost’s slow tom-tom tread – the drums constantly hinting at and promising faster rhythms which never quite come, and thus generating a constant tension. Eventually this leads to some sort of climax, but it’s not the free jazz blow-out one might expect: instead, Wilkinson briefly abandons melodic lines for restrained multiphonic screeching and trilling (if such a thing sounds impossible, listen to the music, then come back to me!), with Prevost still maintaining a dark-hued semi-funereal tinge underneath. As best illustrated by this track, there’s never any sense that one man is ‘leading’ the music at the expense of another – it’s a nicely shared experience, with of course the third factor of the listener added as well. ‘Sharing music’, then, but with none of the rather twee, ‘nice’ connotations that phrase might convey – committed and direct improv all the way. Wilkinson and Prevost mean business. (Review by David Grundy)
GETATCHEW MEKURYA/ THE EX – MOA ANBESSA
Thought I’d give this one a short mention, even though it’s two years old now, as it’s the sort of thing that could easily get overlooked. Oddly enough, it was on a BBC TV broadcast from the Jazz/ World stage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival that I first came across Mekurya, performing with Ethiopiques: I was struck by a saxophone tone that reminded me, with its clarion-crisp, burning power of the melodic statements of Pharoah Sanders. Doing a little further research, I find out that the style he plays in is of his own invention – called the Shellele, it incorporates traditional war songs, and was not influenced by free jazz but developed separately. A striking corroboration, then, of the African roots that so many free jazzers claimed as informing their playing.
Anyway, after the TV broadcast, I duly tracked down his appearance on the appropriate disc in the Ethiopiques series, where the organ backing gives a lounge/ exotica kind of touch – and then came across this, a more unusual (or at least, unlikely) proposition which pairs him with Danish punk veterans the Ex. Hearing him soar out over beefy sax riffs (from a guest horn section) is a delight, though I’m not sure that the half-shouted vocals are always such a good fit. Still, this album is really about Getatchew, and he delivers some stonkingly good sax playing. Highly recommended.
(Review by David Grundy)
PAT METHENY – DAY TRIP
In the last issue I gave rather a negative review of Metheny’s collaboration with Brad Mehldau. I’m pleased to report that this is much better – though I still couldn’t claim to be a great Metheny fan, and though this isn’t really my thing so much these days, it’s clearly a very solid record in a straight-ahead jazz vein. Whereas Metheny and Mehldau seemed to be rather hesitant, skirting round each other, afraid of standing on each other’s toes, the trio format allows the guitarist to deliver some unfussy jazz playing – what he does best. None of the dodgy fusion trappings, synclavier et al, here. I prefer the guitarist on acoustic, which, thankfully, he sticks to for the most part (his ‘rock’ sound is demonstrated on ‘Red One’, which also sees him switching to a brief burst of reggae accompaniment for the bass solo). And while ‘Is this America? (Katrina 2005)’ is perhaps a bit sentimental / manipulative (could you get away with the music if it wasn’t a piece with political shading its title?), the bass solo redeems it. Indeed, what makes ‘Day Trip’ stand out for me is the bass playing of Christian McBride, who gets in some marvelous, melodic solos – definitely cementing his reputation as one of the top players on his instrument today. (Review by David Grundy)
RETURN OF THE NEW THING – ALCHEMY
If you like creative, genre-bending, fully improvised, expansive and energetic free jazz, then you will surely enjoy this. The British-French quartet, consisting of Dan Warburton on piano and violin, Jean-Luc Guionnet on alto sax, Francois Fuchs on bass and Edward Perraud on drums, has a real take-no-prisoners approach. The three long tracks (approx. 29, 24 and 17 minutes, aptly titled 29:09, 24:41 and 17:20), are a pure powerhouse of full-speed intensity and unrelenting energy. Once in a while the wall of violence slows down for spiky and intense interactions between the four musicians, but not for long, because it swells again and becomes another giant wave that pulls and pushes everything along that crosses its path until it eventually comes crashing down, with splatters of piano notes, crashing cymbals and throbbing strings flying in all directions. The second track starts very quietly, creating bizarre soundscapes, evolving into a double-tempoed quartet, with sax and drums playing up a storm, while piano and arco bass compete for slowness, but it doesn’t take long before they too are sucked up by the passing tornado, violent and powerful, which after a while unexpectedly disappears, evaporates or whatever those things do, to leave the empty space to dispersed sound debris, bits and pieces of music scattered all over the place with no clear order, each individually meaningless, and which, surprisingly, reassemble to become, yes, another juggernaut, another behemoth of sound, moving hard, moving fast, occupying all space, propulsed forward, sucking up everything that it encounters on its way, and even more surprisingly, full of velvet sensitivity. (Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/))
SPRING HEEL JACK – SONGS AND THEMES
The British duo of sampler Ashley Wales and multi-instrumentalist John Coxon, better known as Spring Heel Jack, continue their search for new sounds and musical sculptures, combining electronics with the expressive openness of free jazz. And true to their former releases on the Matthew Shipp’s Thirsty Ear label, the musicians performing here are of the highest calibre : Roy Campbell on trumpet, John Tchicai on sax and bass clarinet, John Edwards on bass and Tony Marsh on drums, with guests Orphy Robinson on vibraphone, J Spaceman on electric guitar and Mark Sanders and Rupert Clervaux on drums. This is possibly their lightest and most accessible release to date, with slow moving atmospheric pieces, over which Campbell and Tchicai weave their often melancholy solos, with some exceptions. On “1000 years”, J Spaceman builds a wall of guitar noise, and on the beautiful “Folk Players”, Edward’s arco bass, accentuated with vibes and percussion, produces some heartrending sounds. Another highlight is “For Paul Rutherford”, a subdued homage by Campbell, accompanied by one lonely drum, for the trombonist who died last year. True, the editing takes away a lot of the spontaneity and emotional expressivenes we expect from jazz, but on the other hand, Coxon and Wales do it with so much respect for the material, with so much eye for subtlety, and with a great coherence, looking for new musical avenues, that the end result is really great.
(Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/))
TOTALITARIAN MUSICAL SECT – WARM THINGS: LIVE AT GES-21, VOL. 2
Ilia Belorukov is a player to watch (OK, if you want to be precise, a player to listen to). Very young, but with an extraordinarily well-developed voice, I doubt that many will have heard of him, apart from on his local Russian scene, but I happened to stumble across some of his work on the internet, and I think that he’s a real discovery. Much of the music he has made has been released for free, on net-labels – I haven’t managed to catch up fully with it all yet, but, in all probability, will have more to say on some of the albums in the next issue. On this particular recording, he’s part of a trio in which he doubles on alto sax and flute, Vitaliy Kucherov doubles on electric guitar and flute, and Dmitry Khakhovskiy is on the bass.
‘Thing Six’ begins so quietly that you can barely hear what’s going on, but after the first tentative saxophone sounds about a minute in, things build in volume. About five minutes, there’s a very curious effect, as guitarist Kucherov dusts off some Sonny-Sharrock-style guitar squalls, but quietly, in the background. Ten minutes in, and things have simmered down to a beautifully desolate passage of saxophone musings over repeated bowed bass notes, functioning drone-style; but the bassist’s decision to start springing up and down his strings leads to insect-energy, the guitar squeaking and buzzing while alto and bass pursue similar exploratory tangents. There’s bass solo, with some arco playing which reminds me very much of Barry Guy – and, in fact, the kind of interaction displayed on that disc recalls Guy’s work with Evan Parker – before the track ends with shaking bells and flute.
‘Thing Seven’ gets off to a stuttering start, then becomes woozy and nauseous, before, towards the end of the track, we’re treated to some dissonant, distorted guitar shredding. Guitar again dominates the texture on ‘Thing Eight’, as the track ends with repeating guitar chords, Belorukov not so much soloing over the top as providing an unsettling counterpoint. Though self-produced, the recording quality is good throughout. Download from http://clinicalarchives.blogspot.com. (Review by David Grundy)
TREVOR WATTS / JAMIE HARRIS – ANCESTRY
Brilliant! British alto saxophonist Trevor Watts and percusionnist Jamie Harris play 13 songs of free improvisation, but how : rhythmic, free, melodic, intense, jubilant, sad, with musical influences from around the globe : Africa, Asia, the Middle-East, Europe, and then jazz of course. Time-Out Magazine announced their life performance last year as an “intoxicating tribal jazz-dance”, and that’s a pretty good description. Watts has of course decades of musical experience, and he has played in all kinds of genres and ensembles, from the avant-garde Spontaneous Music Ensemble to his own Moiré percussion bands, which blend African rhythms with free blowing. On this album, he brings the music back to its barest essence, and as usual – for me at least – that works best. And his technique is superb. On “Maribor Memories”, for instance, he plays the entire tune through circular breathing and extremely melodic, with tempo changes and all, instead of the usual repetitive drone you might expect. If there is one downside to the recording, it’s the fact that some tracks are just extracts from the performance, with fade-ins and fade-outs. I hate that, especially when the music is so good, because it just gives you a taste of what you have missed. (Review by Stef Gisjells, originally published at http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com/))
NORMA WINSTONE TRIO – DISTANCES
While pieces such as ‘A Song for England’ could be said to echo John Surman’s investigations into Englishness (in his duo with Howard Moody, also reviewed in this issue), this is a much more cosmopolitan record overall. The words to ‘Ciant’ are written by an Italian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, while the music is by a Frenchman, Erik Satie, and the album (which features Italian and German collaborators) was recorded in Udine for release on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. Indicative of the pervading mood is the fact that, in ‘Giant’s Gentle Stride’, Coltrane’s ‘Giant Step’s is turned into a plaintive ballad, with oblique lyrics seemingly referring to the saxophonist (“every song was a prayer”) but also fitting in with the general air of whimsical fantasy that becomes more explicit on songs such as ‘The Mermaid’ and ‘Here Comes the Flood’. At times both lyrics and music verge on the sentimental (‘Remembering the Start of a Never-Ending Story’) – in particular, Klaus Gesing’s piercing soprano flights become a little wearing (it would have been nicer to hear him play a little more bass clarinet, to complement the darker, deeper side of Winstone’s voice, which is such a refreshing contrast to so many piping, coquettish little-girl jazz singers). Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant listen, if not the most important item in Winstone’s discography. (Review by David Grundy)
Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra: Aileen Campbell; voice; Matthew Cairns, trumpet; Robert Henderson, trumpet; George Murray, trombone; Emma Roche, flute; Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, flute; John Burgess, bass clarinet; Raymond MacDonald, alto saxophone; Graeme Wilson, baritone saxophone; Peter Nicholson, cello; Una MacGlone, double bass; Armin Sturm, double bass; George Burt, guitar; Neil Davidson, electric guitar; Chris Hladowski, bouzouki; Rick Bamford, Stuart Brown: percussion.
Personnel: John Surman: soprano and baritone sax, bass clarinet; Howard Moody: church organ
Additional Information: Recorded January 2006 at Ullern Church, Oslo.