CD Reviews – Issue 3

ILIA BELORUKOV/ ROMAN STOLYAR/ ANDREY POPOVSKIY/ ALEXANDER FUNTIKOV – DOTS AND LINES

 

Label: Ermantell Records

Release Date: 2007

Tracklist: Allegro espressivo; Interlude 1; Adagio cantabile; Interlude II; Scherzo; Interlude III; Finale. Poco morendo,

Personnel: Ilia Belorukov – alto & baritone sax; Roman Stolyar – piano, melodica, soprano & alto recorders; Andre Popovskiy – acoustic guitar, deychk-pondr; Alexander Funtikov – trumpet, ocarina, flute, percussion.

 

It’s extremely refreshing to hear music this good coming from somewhere outside the UK-USA axis that so often predominates in coverage of free jazz/improv. Of the players on this album, saxophonist Ilia Belorukov is the only one I was aware of previously. As documented on a slew of recent CD-R and internet releases, Belorukov is a great talent, giving his all whenever he plays, in contexts varying from the free-jazz/rock stylings of ‘Wozzeck’ to the more inquisitive pokings and scratchings of the ‘Totalitarian Music Sect’ (their album ‘Warm Things Vol. 2’ was reviewed in the previous issue of eartrip). His presence alone seems to guarantee that something interesting will result, and his collaborators on this album are also well up to the mark.

The album takes its name from a passage of Wassily Kandinsky, quoted on the back of the album sleeve. Kandinsky defines the roles of ‘dots and lines’: a dot is a rest and a line is “internally mobile tension”. Through these two figures, the artist can create a series of connections and ‘crossings’ which result in an internal language, at times deliberately obscured by obvious ‘obstacles’. Could that be said to describe what goes on in the music?

For me, it seems to invite a more linear approach than Kandinsky’s large compositional fields, but, despite the specificity of his artistic prescriptions, I doubt the musicians envisage anything so schematic anyway. Kandinsky or no Kandinsky, it’s an unusual listen, particularly for the instrumentation and the way this constantly shifts: none of the four players stick to just one instrument.

‘Allegro Espressivo’, the disc opener, starts out as a particularly dark-sounding piece of free jazz brawn (Belorukov blowing baritone sax over Stolyar’s pounding piano), but the sounds descend into something more elusive, everyone switching instruments and gliding into a more meshed texture, a oneness. Four minutes in and Stolyar is playing left-hand piano figures full of tension, leaving spaces in between to be filled by slow drifting sax and muffled yelping trumpet, with the scrapings of (presumably) Andrey Popovskiy’s deychk-pondr. An intriguing instrument, it comes across, in Popovskiy’s hands, as somewhere between a guitar and a stringed percussion instrument. Thus, we have a sound that can occupy at once the scratchy high registers of a Barry Guy or John Edwards (and thus occupy the function of the date’s absent double bass), while also gravitating towards the role of a ‘front-line’ instrument.

Ilia Belorukov’s playing in other contexts tends to be in a free jazz mould (though he is nothing if not diverse). Here, the music tends to have more of the spaces associated with free improve; the tension and complex texture building and twittering rather than the all-out no-holds-barred screamfest. Check ‘Interlude 1’ for the delicious way the saxophone’s held-in breath barfs (at one point bursting out to a cut-short scream) prevent release, before the guitar, suddenly, seamlessly, finds it way into a series of Tal Farlow-style jazz chords, over which hangs singing sax, and the performance ends with a period of silence.

‘Adagio Cantabile’ finds Stolyar’s sustain-pedal giving his mysterious harmonic investigations an aural halo, a shine and shimmer to the sound that only enhances its ghostliness, sax and guitar stretching their melodic spirals over the constantly, gently motoring piano line in worried languor.

The second interlude is again a duet, Stolyar now on recorder, with Popovskiy on guitar. The piece swirls round the atmosphere of folk-tunes, alternating between more melodic passages where recorder shrills out over undulating guitar strums, and passages of chattering breathiness and spiky guitar.

‘Scherzo’ is far from rumbustious, beginning with inside-piano and low-toned guitar rummaging, with barfs from the saxophone functioning more as rhythmic disturber than ‘lead instrument’. Stolyar’s move from strings to keys brings in Belorukov for more linear playing (on baritone), and the music becomes more skittish, filled with the tension that characterises this disc, but with a dancing quality to it. Soon, however, the dancing turns lumpen and heavy, baritone and piano in a Bartokian motor-run which drowns under its own momentum as the music slides into Belorukov blowing over a watery piano backdrop, still constantly-sounding but this time more flowing, ending as the last few sounds hang by a thread over impending silence.

The third and final interlude finds the baritone sax intent on unfolding a slow, linear discourse, at first supported by Stolyar’s swelling melodica note hums, then resisted, with fierce squeaks. Stolyar moves to piano, again insisting on sprightly rhythmic figures that break up the sax’s course, as they both once more stride into the area of jazz/Bartok-tinged motorism; Belorukov changes tack, to chattering high yawping, while Stolyar pounds out a serious parody of sturm und drang romanticism. Melody drifts back even while the piano’s rumble still dies away, Belorukov returning to the opening course, chastened, ending just at the right point on a melodica phrase that sounds initially playful, but mocking when it stops.

The final piece on the disc begins with saxophone screech-hold over (once more) the dying rumble of piano chords, then moves down the ‘mysterioso’ line with some odd, trembling ‘Clangers’ sounds on ocarina – just one example of the group’s desire to maintain a consistent variety, to make the unusual (but by no means spuriously ‘weird’ or ‘kooky’) their domain, even their raison d’aitre.

Overall, despite the formal constraints implied by the naming of individual tracks after classical tempo markings (Allegro; Scherzo; Adagio, etc), the music has a definite freedom about it, roaming over much emotional and colouristic territory, but with something avowedly introspective underlying even the most energetic passages. Watch out for more from these young players in the near future, which for them should be bright indeed.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

TONY BEVAN/ CHRIS CORSANO/ DOMINIC LASH – MONSTER CLUB

 

Label: Foghorn Records

Release Date: December 2008

Tracklist: I think that’ll be ok….; Monster Club; This is Murder; You’re telling me!

Personnel: Tony Bevan: soprano, tenor & bass saxophones; Chris Corsano: drums and percussion;

Dominic Lash: double bass .

Additional Information: Recorded live at “The Wheatsheaf”, Oxford, England by Chris Trent on the 6th July 2008. CD available from the Foghorn Records site, at http://www.foghornrecords.co.uk/.

 

            Brief mention only for this, as it was recorded at a gig on which I gave a fairly detailed report last issue. Not that I want to imply that gig and album are interchangeable – of course there’s a subtle difference (at times I think the CD sounds even more intense than the gig itself!), and this could be the space to comment on the disparities between live performances and recordings, which is still a big area of debate. It could be the space, but maybe it’s not, not without due consideration of all the salient points and details and points of view. As things stand, then, the intense trio gig I witnessed six months ago has now become the CD I have in my hands. The audience for the ‘product’ will presumably be much bigger than for the live flesh moment of creation, which is a shame, if you look at it a certain way – but maybe that’s just a fact we can’t afford to get all mopey about– ‘comment c’est.’ 

            What about the music? The gig represented the first encounter for this particular trio, and retains the freshness of that, while perhaps sacrificing a certain tightness which a little more fine-tuning, through subsequent performances, could have created. Reservations aside, there are plenty of fine things to listen out for, but I’m going to resist the temptation to tell you what they are (though I will note that Bevan’s soprano is extremely direct and forceful on the 2-minute opening track, giving the disc an immediately arresting impact). Yes, folks, this may be a monster’s club, but the beasts within are well able to speak for themselves, and with some eloquence. Dig what they have to say.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

CARLA BLEY & HER REMARKABLE BIG BAND – APPEARING NIGHTLY

 

Label: WATT

Release Date: September 2008

Tracklist: Greasy Gravy; Awful Coffee; Appearing Nightly At The Black Orchid; Someone To Watch; I Hadn’t Anyone Till You.

Personnel: Earl Gardner: trumpet; Lew Soloff: trumpet; Florian Esch: trumpet; Beppe Calamosca: trombone; Gary Valente: trombone; Gigi Grata: trombone; Richard Henry: trombone; Roger Jannotta: alto saxophone, flute; Wolfgang Puschnig: alto saxophone, flute; Andy Sheppard: tenor saxophone; Christophe Panzani: tenor saxophone; Julian Argüelles: baritone saxophone; Carla Bley: piano, conductor; Karen Mantler: organ; Steve Swallow: bass; Billy Drummond: drums.

 

This disc consists of much of the repertoire played at the Vienne Jazz Festival in 2006 when Carla Bley’s big band was one of the highlights of that year’s event. It is great to now hear this music again, this time recorded in the New Morning Club in Paris. The only disappointment is that the re-arrangement of material from her epic “Escalator over the hill” that formed a substantial percentage of the set hasn’t made it to this release. However, this is not to distract from a very good CD indeed.

As the cover and liner illustrations clearly suggest, this record plugs in more than any other of her releases into the earlier traditions of big band jazz.  As a consequence, this has to be one of her strongest efforts with a larger ensemble. This is not to say that this record is anything but contemporary, but although all but the arrangement of Ray Noble’s “I hadn’t anyone till you” are originals, there is a knowing wink and nod to material from  the Swing Era. Indeed, the wonderful “Greasy Gravy” (a feature for Wolfgang Pushchnig’s alto) ends on a quote from Tony Jackson’s “Pretty Baby” that some may recognise from the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings and was a hit in the teens of the last century. In fact, the alluding of other compositions is very much a feature of this album, the “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid” suite is an attempt to depict a mythical jazz club from yesteryear and opens with Bley’s piano quoting “My foolish heart”, “Night & Day and “Here’s that rainy day” before a quote from Monk’s version of “Sweet and lovely” introduces Steve Swallow’s bass and, ultimately, the rest of the band. As opposed to being hackneyed, this is executed with Carla’s typical sense of irony and the composition eventually develops into a minor key with the theme picked up by Gary Valente’s trombone, sounding like a refugee from a much earlier Duke Ellington band. Throughout the record, the Steve Swallow and Billy Drummond provide a wonderfully sprung rhythm section with Karen Mantler’s organ occasionally adding a bit of extra colour. As usual, Lew Soloff handles all the trumpet solos.

Elsewhere, “Awful coffee” is a brisk bop-ish theme and opens with a baritone solo by Julian Arguelles.  The writing for the brass in this arrangement is edgy and dissonant, recalling somewhat the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra of the late forties.  A harmonically distorted quote from “Tea for two” appears as a riff behind Andy Sheppard’s tenor before culminating on an eccentric combination of “Salt peanuts” , “You’re the cream in my coffee”, “Watermelon man” and “Hey, Pete, let’s eat mo’ meat” that somehow manages to sound entirely natural. The penultimate track, “Someone to watch” starts off with more tenor from Andy Sheppard under-pinned by Steve Swallows springy bass lines and once again comparisons with earlier vintages of jazz writing are apparent.  Puschnig also get a chance to stretch out on what seems like a contrafact  – no prizes for guessing which upon tune though. To conclude, Carla Bley has arranged “I hadn’t anyone to you” but much of the theme is paraphrased in her unique style and the writing so idiosyncratic that this is, to all intents and purposes, very much her own work. This track epitomises her skill at creating something wholly original and interesting whilst working within a tried and test milieu.

 All told, Carla Bley may have come a long way since the late 60’s and early 70’s when she seemed to be at the very cutting edge of jazz but a record such a “Appearing Nightly” demonstrates just how she has matured to become one of the most readily recognisable voices in the history of big band writing. That she now seems capable of equally satisfying the curiosity of more adventurous listeners and those from a more orthodox big band tradition simultaneously is testament to her talent as a composer. This is a hugely enjoyable record and I have no reservations about thoroughly recommending it.

 

(Review by Ian Thumwood)

 

CADAVRE ESQUIS – IMPERFECT SILENCE: CADAVRE ESQUIS COMPILATION 1

 

Label: Whi-Music

Tracklist: Imperfect Silence

Personnel: Gosia Bazinska, Barry Chabala, Paolo Cruciani, Bruno Duplant, David Grundy, phil hargreaves, Bret Hart, Massimo Magee, Lee Noyes, Matt Sekel, Glenn Smith, Glenn Weyant

Additional Information: Access the Cadavre Esquis project at http://www.cadavreesquis.whi-music.co.uk/. Download the album from http://www.imperfectsilence.whi-music.co.uk/.

 

            Once again, Mr Phil Hargreaves has come up with an ingenious and intriguing idea for a musical project, dealing with ideas of communication in the information age and more besides. I think he’s best placed to introduce this record, so I’ll leave the first two paragraphs of this review to him: “Cadavre Esquis is an online collaboration of musicians from the online community. Here are the rules of the game: A track is seeded by a musician providing a starting track. Someone else will then download that track, add a further layer and then post the result. Overlayers are not confined to the most recent track, and can reach back into the history of the track to fork it.”

“Born out of the discussion site freejazz.org, nearly 1Gb of MP3 files (and a number of other postal and real-life collaborations).  This disk pulls together some of those moments: not a ‘greatest hits’ or even a ‘finest moments’, it’s merely my personal journey through the material that is there.”

            Cadavre Esquis, as readers I’m sure will know, was a Surrealist technique, somewhat similar to the parlour-game ‘Consequences’, in which single segments (a drawing, a word, a phrase) from individuals are put together to make a strange new creation. Indeed, it’s not unprecedented for this to be applied to music, with composers including Virgil Thomson, John Cage and Lou Harrison apparently collaborating on ‘Exquisite Corpse’ pieces, where each composer would only be privy to one measure of music. Of course, things become easier when dealing with improvised music, which one might argue goes through something of the same process in its ‘normal’ form; where one has to second-guess, to react instantaneously to the sudden appearance of fresh and surprising material with whatever mental and physical resources are to hand at that particular moment.

            The dangers that arise from such situations are perhaps, for many musicians, their principal joys –failure could be embraced as success, change and mutability as fundamental facts and thus not to be decried from a stood-still position. ‘Imperfect Silence’ (flawed noise?) suggests such failure. There are certainly plenty of strange overlapping sounds here, the joins sometimes showing awkwardly (read: interestingly). I very much doubt that any of the material here is as its creators originally envisioned it, for things are at a further remove on the CD than even on the website, as Hargreaves is keen to stress that this is his “personal experience” of the material – but it never feels as though he’s acting as composer, shaping the work of others into his own vision. Instead, he’s more like the curator of this living museum, allowing the sonic exhibits to merge into each other: ‘remixing’ them, if you will. As someone who’s had some involvement with the Cadavre Esquis project myself (and as any visitor to the website could tell you), what’s started off with often becomes completely transformed once several new layers have been added. Electronics will warp, new instruments will reveal and add different shadings and contrasts, to original pieces: the subjective intentions of individual soloists are submerged into a kind of odd collectivity, a miasma of soloistic off-unison.

            Given the diversity of the line-up, it’s not surprise that there’s a wide variety of playing styles – in the first piece, the more avant-improv you might expect (squawking sopranos, hard-toned tenors, exploratory trumpet) exists alongside a whimsical vocal reminiscent of Bjork, and, at times, the acoustic and electric guitar material that drifts in and out (probably that of Barry Chabala, though Hargreaves has left open the question of who’s playing what, when, ambiguous) adds a lyrical, dreamy, almost nostalgic touch.

            Quite a few different pieces seem to have coalesced into one during this opening portion of the disc, to provide a 25-minute suite. Track two is longer: several seconds of silence, and we begin again with trumpet and sax over boxy percussion, twanging spirals of acoustic guitar, and a bass providing an underlying pulse that sets no limits because it exists on a different level to the furious activity overhead, and thus adds a fruitful tension – it’s felt more as a contradictory pulse than as dictatorial beat. At some point, the bass imperceptibly merges into an electronic drone, the trumpet becoming mournful and introverted and electronics rising in pitch and intensity as a new piece emerges, chunky bowed cello in duet with guitar, with a queasy electronic backdrop; a distant, echoing piano joins the fray. The electronics start to feel more and more haunted, ghostly, clashing with and questioning the guitars’ impersonation of finger-picking virtuosity and the cello’s exploration of the slow wail and grave sonorities of Modern Classical (for want of a better generic tag).

In another truly masterful transition, raucous trumpet and sax come in for another of those moments where perception of which instrument melts and sound alone is what there is –as the ear starts to pick out what’s going on, this time it’s free jazz over an electronic layer (involving backwards sounds, perhaps a remix of existent material) – there also seems to be walking bass somewhere down in the lower reaches of the music, creating the same uneasy familiarity as the previous guitar. And suddenly we’re back to the vocals with which we opened the disc, on a parallel lyrical flight with trumpet, guitar plucking a gentle pathway underneath. Words start to drift in…“Even in his youth he was afraid…wrapped in a cloth and protected.” Playing with the words, with notes, with the silences that surround the halting song. Moments of fragile delicacy that would seem out of place, conceptually, if they didn’t fit in so well with the album’s flow.

            Radio voices bring things back to the exploratory terror, growling bass clarinet and plucked cello. Drums will play a part in this next, almost acerbic, exploration, too. Then a spoken voice, English-accented; one imagines the speaker exhibiting the same kind of actorish, sinister demeanor as Vincent Price. “I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey…From the day he was born, he was troubled.” The words connect to the song from before, but this time it’s the cue for a strange instrumental march, trilling recorder fading in and out of the textural forefront, a fairground rhythm, barely audible, adding an air of perceptible menace. Rhythm is abandoned for a slow, grinding electronic background wash, all sorts of sounds emerging from within: slowed-down and backwards fragments of voices, snivelling laughter, whooshes, whispers, like escaping steam.

Words again: “from the day that I was born.” If there are themes here, they emerge organically from the collective consciousness. Bad beginnings. Portents of doom, nevertheless exerting a powerful pull on helpless victims. “I just had to see it. I just had to see it.” Curiosity killed the cat. The texture thins as recorder comes back in, then voices build up and it’s the pulling, chugging cello, tenor sax over the increasingly splintered and fractured electronic backdrop, before things, fairly quickly, grind to a halt. One more voice has the last word: “Well you never can tell…perfect sounds.” The semantic ambiguity typical of the enterprises’ collective creative chaos.

And so I could round things off nicely with that favourite reviewer’s trick, the rhetorical question: how else could it end, but in such an appropriate manner? And then of course I would have to pull myself up by realising that it could in end in about a million other, different ways….

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

BILL DIXON – 17 MUSICIANS IN SEARCH OF A SOUND: DARFUR

 

Label: AUM Fidelity

Release Date: June 2008

Tracklist: Prelude; Intrados; In Search Of A Sound; Contour One; Contour Two; Scattering Of The Following; Darfur; Contour Three; Sinopia; Pentimento I; Pentimento II; Pentimento III; Pentimento IV

Personnel: Bill Dixon: trumpet, composer, conductor; Graham Haynes: cornet, flugelhorn; Stephen Haynescornet, flugelhorn; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn; Dick Griffin: tenor trombone; Steve Swell: tenor trombone; Joseph Daly: tuba; Karen Borca: bassoon; Will Connell: bass clarinet; Michel Cote: Bb contrabass clarinet; Andrew Raffo Dewar: soprano sax; John Hagen: tenor sax, baritone sax; J.D.Parran: bass saxophone, bamboo flute; Glynis Loman: cello; Andrew Lafkas: bass; Jackson Krall: drums, percussion; Warren Smith: vibes, tympani, drums.

Additional Information: Recorded live on June 20th, 2007, at Vision Festival XII, New York City.

 

            Dixon’s discography is sparse, and consists mainly of stripped-down settings, such as the solo ‘Odyssey’ box set or duets with Tony Oxley; ’17 Musicians in Search of a Sound’, then, is a welcome chance to hear his orchestral conception on a wider stage (last year’s fine disc with the Exploding Star Orchestra found him in an orchestral setting, to be sure, but as guest rather than leader). I say ‘orchestral conception’ because, throughout his career, Dixon’s control of colour, dynamics and timbre has shown a concern with a particular richness and range of structure and texture: in a sense, Dixon has always thought in orchestral terms, even when playing alone.

            For me, probably more so than in previous recordings, ‘ 17 Musicians’ is not really ‘jazz’ per se (though of course avant-jazz sensibilities are manifested in the improvised solos by the likes of Taylor Ho Bynum). For one thing, there’s no ‘rhythm section’ – you’re more likely to hear tympani or vibraphone than a drum set – and the pace is often slow, with massive blocks of sound looming up into crescendos in a way that reminds me of the approaching monolith in Kubrick’s ‘2001’.

            The mood is generally quite bleak, as befits the ‘Darfur’ appendage, although there appear to be no specific political/programmatic elements to the work. The first few pieces concentrate on composed material, with solo voices occasionally emerging to make pithy statements. Particularly powerful are ‘Contour Three’ and ‘Darfur’. These lead up to the central movement, ‘Sinopia’, a near 25-minute work which contains the most impressive music on the disk, rising to massive climaxes in which multiple soloing has tremendous visceral force (yet still, perhaps because of the context, with a different feel to the free jazz ‘freakout’ that is its nearest aural cousin). Check out the three trumpets blowing separate lines, with Karen Borca’s bassoon snaking around underneath. It’s great to hear Borca get a chance to shine – though best known for playing with husband Jimmy Lyons and on a few Cecil Taylor sides back in the 80s, she is, for my money, one of the most interesting voices around, on any instrument, mingling a slightly rough lyricism with a piercing sense of investigation into possibilities and pathways in sound.

            After ‘Sinopia’, a wind-down of a sort: four short ‘Pentimentos’ – a term borrowed from the terminology of visual art (one of Dixon’s impressive abstract acrylic-on-paper paintings takes its places on the front cover), referring to an artists’ layering of a new painting over an original, abandoned conception. Thus, these pieces reprise the ‘monoliths’ of the opening movements, changed not so much in terms of the sounds in themselves, but by the cataclysmic context of following ‘Sinopia’: reflection following the storm. Though Dixon as a trumpet player is generally subsumed into the ensemble, with soloing left in the capable hands of the other band members, this is undoubtedly his conception through and through – the work of a major composer. (Review by David Grundy)

 

PAUL FLAHERTY/RANDALL COLBOURNE – BRIDGE OUT!

 

Label: Family Vineyard Release Date: June 2008

Tracklist: Scorched Onslaught; Marauding Toxic Fungus; Ice Spike; Rhubarb; Gilded Plague; Thirsty Thorns; More Lasting than Bronze; Spiders In Her Hair

Personnel: Paul Flaherty: alto and tenor sax; Randall Colbourne: drums.

 

‘Bridge Out’ – “You play the bridge and take it out” – a title scoffing at any such formalistic concerns as the duo travel by means of improvisational freedom instead, ignoring the bridge’s easy route over the gorge of musical danger.  That’s one way of taking it, anyway; ‘lyricism’ means a lot in this context, a hell of a lot, but more as a particular way of feeling, an echo or ghost in Flaherty’s voice, the sense of wounded-in-face-of-the-world despair – more this than the structural concerns that ‘lyric’ would imply, as we trade in ‘song’ for ‘scream’.

Things begin with the eight minutes of ‘Scorched Onslaught’: the familiar application of war metaphors to free jazz which I find at once appropriate and troubling – lurking behind it a kind of rather unsavoury machismo, the idea of the (invariably male) saxophonist’s gun-weapon (the free jazz equivalent of cock-rock). There are political implications, obviously (which is what made me think of the ‘gun’ idea in the first place – Shepp’s famous idea about using his sax as a machine-gun for the Vitecong) – and in that sense the title ‘freedom fighter’ would be extremely appropriate.

In this particular case, anyway, the idea of war and conflict is most definitely being deplored: an evocation of horror rather than a call to arms. Flaherty is off into extreme altissimo register within the first thirty seconds, and what is impressive is not just that he does this (many do, in this field) but how long he stays doing it – he will sustain a note of extremely high pitch for quite a while. So it is in ‘Scorched Onslaught’; he holds a note, and Colbourne’s drums seem to gain an extra bass boost, to become more sonorous than the ‘melody instrument’ they ‘accompany’. And then once sax has swooped down for lowbarks, unexpectedly a solo. Mid to low register, then vocals (a sort of humming) underlining (or smearing) the line and the sounds of struck sax-keys giving all a bodily thrust, an intimacy. If this was a movie, imagine the camera to pull in from its wide-angle shots of widespread devastation to focus on a human instance, a human detail, then to pull out again as Colbourne’s drums thrust Flaherty back to scream-woof-land.

I think Flaherty may be the most despairing player in free jazz. Whereas Brotzmann gives off a sense of sheer energy that is as much exciting as draining (and there’s that slightly manic sense of humour as well, particularly when he’s playing with Bennink), while Ayler and Frank Wright may come from a folk-tradition of African-American joyshouts, and Zorn has an anarchic spirit unlikely to remain too long mired in despair, the places Flaherty goes are much darker. Perhaps most nakedly on ‘Whirl of Nothingness’, he is, to borrow the  title of a track from the Archie Shepp/Philly Joe Jones duo record, ‘Howling in the Silence’.

In that sense, Colbourne’s presence is perhaps necessary to ease the torment, as something with which to measure the dose (even though he also seems to be driving Flaherty on). The drummer’s playing always has a sterner, less desperate feel, a sense of ritual, and as on the solo from ‘Marauding Toxic Fungus’, a momentum and rolling pace which pursues a different trajectory to Flaherty’s essentially static wails. That said, the bowed cymbals of the short solo ‘Ice Spike’ are as grinding and direct as Flaherty’s upper register, frequencies to set the teeth on edge. Colbourne is by all means along for the ride.

            But I’d venture to suggest that the most despairing parts are often those which seem the most melodic, the most ‘lyrical’ – their desolation, their essential un-adornment that necessarily arises at the moment of realisation: that you have no place to go. Where do all the multiphonics and flying fingers and flying wails, hoarse barks lead? Nowhere but to such a “still, small voice,” the most terrifying of all. (Review by David Grundy)

 

GINNUNGAGAP – CRASHED LIKE WRETCHED MOTH (EP)

 

Label: Conspiracy Records

Release Date: October 2006

Tracklist: Crashed like Wretched Moth

Personnel: Stephen O’ Malley: piano

Additional Information: Single-sided LP, available in a limited edition of 500 copies.

 

            ‘Ginnungagap’, on this outing, is Stephen O’ Malley solo (when previously used, on the Indian-flavoured album ‘Remeindre’, the alias referred to a drone super-group of sorts). Using overdubbed piano rather than guitar gives a different sound and a slightly different feel to his work with Sunn O))); though of course the music is similarly dark and low-toned, there’s greater textural variety. There are important structural differences, too, and perhaps I can best explain how these work by way of an analogy. Sunn’s music is pretty much a wall of sound, and ‘Moth’, while not nearly so loud or overpowering, does build something of an edifice itself, but it’s an edifice where you can picture the individual bricks being used to construct the wall. It evolves into its final shape, whereas Sunn begin with the shape fully formed, and the evolutions in their music occur on the level of slightly morphing the contours of said shape, while retaining its basic structure and character. I wouldn’t see it as necessary to expand this into an evaluation of the relative merits of O’Malley with Sunn or O’Malley on his own – he’s trying to do different things in the two contexts, but both are valid parts of his artistic conception.

            Well, I say that, but one caveat I do have with regards to this release is just how seriously it seems to take itself. Let’s look up the word ‘Ginnunungagap’: ah yes, “in Norse mythology, Ginnungagap (“seeming emptiness” or “gaping gap”) was a vast windy emptiness that existed before the ordering of the world.” That’s weighty stuff indeed (or ‘weightless stuff’, ha ha), and, probably, the music wants to aim for the same sort of atmosphere – but, for me, Sunn O))) are interesting because they simultaneously take themselves dead seriously and see the funny side of the situation (their performances may be ‘rituals’, but they also involve consuming a bottle of wine each on-stage, and thus getting (presumably) quite sloshed – and drunkenness doesn’t carry with it quite the same mystique as blowing your mind on LSD). Hell, I don’t mean to suggest that no one should take music seriously – I just happen to rather like the almost comedic edge to some of Sunn’s work (an element of self-parody is always lurking when Julian Cope gets involved, as on ‘My Wall’ from ‘White 1’). Then again, I also like (or am at least impressed by) the tremolo hell of ‘It Took the Night to Believe’, or the sounds of Malefic groaning from inside his coffin. I guess you can have it both ways.

            Anyway, enough about Sunn, and let’s take ‘Crashed Like Wretched Moth’ on its own terms. Sure, it may not challenge the man who seems its obvious inspiration – Charlemagne Palestine – in the hypnotic/disturbing stakes, but when heard in the right context and in the right mood, it can mess with the head in the same bizarre way – like being punched repeatedly over the head by a hand made solely out of water. And, if you get bored, you could always try to spot the fleeting jazz allusion at 16:13 (blink and you’ll miss it) – it’s probably completely coincidental, but I can’t help associating one of the upper-register phrases O’Malley plays with the opening phrase of Mingus’ ‘Sues Changes.’

            Arguably more beautiful than the music itself is the sleeve-art by Seldon Hunt. (Incidentally, Hunt wrote the liner notes that accompanied the 2005 re-issue of Sunn O)))’s ‘Grimm Robe Demos’– well, not exactly traditional liner notes; let’s call them pagan meditations. During April 2006, he also held a week-long joint exhibition with O’ Malley at the Domino Festival in Brussels, for which ‘Crashed Like Wretched Moths’ served as the soundtrack). Hunt’s contribution to CLWM is a silver etching on the second side of the LP, and, perhaps more importantly, a couple of photos on the front and back covers. There’s some wonderfully rich colour and great depth to these images of a bushy expanse in front of a particularly glorious gold/ochre hinterland haze, and a woodland clearing touched by the faintest fringes of that haze. The first of these seems to hinge on the contrast between dark woods and bright sky (fading to white at the top, hinting at a mushroom-cloud and suggesting that things aren’t as serene as they seem), yet things aren’t that simple – the sunset seems to inhabit the bushes, to invade ground level even though the shot composition ostensibly suggests otherwise. It’s not just that the sky reflects in the pools of water seen in the foreground, but something more mysterious. I can’t put my finger on any specific tweaks that Hunt has given the image: I think, more than anything, it’s the combination of the two photos that gives them their strange power.

            One might draw a parallel to the way that O’ Malley builds up layers in the music, obscuring the original piano motif until eventually it is so absorbed into the overall texture that it seems not be there at all – though its presence still inhabits the music in much the same ways as the sunset inhabits the bushes and woods in Hunt’s images, as a constant quasi-drone. Of course, being more cynical, one might say that this record was more about the product than the music itself – the vinyl LP as aesthetic object, beautifully packaged and making a virtue of its incompleteness (could the single-sided pressing be an attempt to latch onto the mystique surrounding Ayler’s ‘Bells’?). It’s a strategy notably employed by the Brothers Opalio, of ‘My Cat Is An Alien’ – though some of the musical quality in their many releases is arguably very variable (I still feel a little queasy recalling the awful Thurston Moore piano piece, ‘American Coffin,’ on one of the volumes in their series ‘From the Earth to the Spheres’), Roberto Opalio’s artwork at least makes sure that the albums will look nice on your shelves (maybe you could frame them and put them up on your wall).

            In itself, I quite like that fusion of visual art and music – and, of course, it’s one that’s always been there, in jazz and other genres (not that O’ Malley is anywhere near jazz, or wants to be, ‘Sue’s Changes’ allusion or no) – think Blue Note Records, ESP, CTI, or !Impulse!. This sort of ‘lovingly-assembled’ package obviously foregrounds the amount of thought that’s gone into it a lot more than the lo-fi/lo-budget ethos of something like Tiger Asylum records, some of whose releases are reviewed in both this and the previous issue of ‘eartrip’ – but it’s arguable that equal care has been taken in both cases, as to what sort of feeling the listener has about the release, even before they’ve actually listened to it. For me, that goes beyond just marketing and into craftsmanship; why shouldn’t musicians care about that side of things?
            O’ Malley (or the people at Conspiracy Records) haven’t just thought about the design aspect, though; one feels that the distribution is limited not so much because of the difficulties of making the album (though pressing those single-sided white wax LPs and printing the art-work/etchings must be a pain in the ass/labour of love (whichever way you want to look at it!)) – but to give the album an added mystique. O’Malley, after all, is something of a superstar in the admittedly very ‘underground’ world of drone music (probably because of the metal connection). So is the whole ‘limited edition’ aspect just a way to get more people to buy the album by paradoxically limiting the audience? Maybe it is, though I give O’ Malley enough credit artistically for that not to matter. ‘Crashed Like Wretched Moth’ remains an interesting, if not essential item in his discography.

(Review by David Grundy)

 

GOLIA/ JOSEPHSON/ KAISER/ KENEALLY/ MORRIS / SMITH/ WALTER –HEALING FORCE: THE SONGS OF ALBERT AYLER

 

Label: Cuneiform

Release Date: 2007

Track listing: New New Grass / Message From Albert; Music is the Healing Force of the Universe; Japan/Universal Indians; A Man is Like a Tree; Oh! Love of Life; Thank God for Women; Heart Love; New Generation; New Ghosts / New Message.

Personnel: Vinny Golia: reeds; Aurora Josephson: voice; Henry Kaiser: guitar; Mike Keneally: piano, guitar, voice; Joe Morris: guitar, bass; Damon Smith: bass; Weasle Walter: drums.

 

            We might note that the record is titled ‘the songs of Albert Ayler’. (Although, truth be told, ‘Japan’ is by Pharoah Sanders, a short track which appears on ‘Tauhid’. Its simple and gentle melody sits well alongside some of the other tracks though, and, for my money, it goes more interesting places than Sanders’ version, which was content simply to let the melody play out as an interlude between the ‘meatier’, longer tracks on the album.) So, as I said – songs. There is an accent on melody, and that was the problem people always had with Ayler’s late work – yes, there had always been melody, catchy melody, repetitive melody, but the form didn’t feel as constrained as when he fitted his burning flights into strange vocals, backing choruses, backbeats, 60s hippie/religious lyrics. What this release does so successfully is to merge the two Aylers – the late-period songster with the one struggling to get out in tracks like ‘Masonic Inborn’ (a rambling, overdubbed bag-pipe duet).

            But it is reconciled within the form. It helps that years have passed, perhaps, and avant-garde and popular musics have, in some spheres, moved closer together, as well as drifting ever further apart in others in terms of sales, audiences, reception. The two best-known players on this record provide good examples of this: Weasel Walter has worked with no-wave and free-jazz musicians alike, and Henry Kaiser too has moved from playing with Derek Bailey to tackling the legacy of Miles Davis’ 70s work (itself a fusion of elements of rock with more ‘out’ forms of jazz) in the Yo Miles! project, also released on cuneiform. The two spheres can thus move side by side without seeming forced together, in order to create something which feels a lot more like a natural whole than Ayler’s experiments.

            Apart from one misplaced Kaiser solo on ‘Music is the Healing Force’, the album stays on the side of good taste, its very sincere treatment of Ayler’s religious protestations fitting into the unlikely filtering of the radical hopes of the 60s through the petulance and aggression of the 80s and 90s – thus ‘New Generation’ seems equal parts punk, no-wave and hippie (in attitude, anyway). The musicians know when to take things straight – a lot of these are cracking tunes, after all, let’s not forget, whatever you think of Maria’s lyrics – but the tone is generally more experimental than on the originals, so that the dissonant delivery of ‘Oh Love Of Life’ surpasses even the oddness of Ayler’s own original vocal.

Singer Aurora Jospehson avoids such lapses in judgement as the ‘naïve’ vocals of Mary Maria on ‘Island Harvest’ and goes for straight sincerity – with the ability to keep up with the other musician’s improvisational flights once things get heated. Listen to her control on the final song, testifying about the holy ghost: one phrases repeats itself utterly. Also worth a mention is Vinny Gollia on a variety of reeds (including, somewhat surprisingly, flute (on ‘Heart Love’), as well as New-Orleans tinged clarinet). The collective chanting which occasionally surfaces mostly avoids 60s hippiedom – it’s almost thuggish on ‘New Grass’, giving it a frightening force which contrasts with the child-like flute/sung melody. And, even though the ensemble chanting of Ayler’s own words as the opening track does have a rather sickly sentimental guitar backing and might best be skipped on a second playback, as an opening statement it does at least go to show that this group of musicians is willing to take Ayler seriously, as he deserves.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

MATTHEW HERBERT BIG BAND – THERE’S ME AND THERE’S YOU

 

Label: !K7

Release Date: October 2008

Tracklist: The Story, Pontificate, Waiting, The Yesness, Battery, Regina, The Rich Man’s Prayer, Breathe, Knowing, Nonsound, One Life, Just Swing

Personnel: Eska Mtungwazi: vocals; Peter Furness: clarinet (tracks 6, 7 & 9); Andy Findon: flute (tracks 6, 7 & 9); Adam Linsley, Andrew Cook, Graham Russell, Stuart Brooks: trumpets; Ashley Horton, Gordon Campbell, John Higginbotham: trombones; Chris Coles: trombone (track 2); Ben Castle, Bob Mackay, Dave O’Higgins, Howard McGill: saxophones; Martin Williams: saxophone (track 2); Rebecca Gibson: saxophone (track 10); Matthew Herbert: keyboards, piano, arrangements; Phil Parnell: piano; Dave Okumu: guitar (track 1); Torben Bjoernskov: bass; Espen Laub: drums

 

            As President-Elect Barack Obama is preparing to take office on Tuesday, January 19th, one might choose to reflect on the Bush Administration’s previous eight years of power.  Yes, there have been countless blunders, large and small, as well as immeasurable damage done to not just American citizens, but to people all over the globe.  However, amid this catastrophe, W. and his cohorts have managed to inspire a group of people who are driven by something other than bloodlust and greed: musicians.  From Green Day to the Dixie Chicks, American musicians came out strong to oppose the President, but there didn’t seem to be much foreign output on the subject.  With There’s Me and There’s You, The Matthew Herbert Big Band takes the protest album to new heights in terms of symbolism, intelligence, and artistic execution.

            The music itself is moving at times, but requires some research to alleviate the uncertainty associated with its frequently ambiguous lyrics.  The album’s liner notes and artist website (matthewherbertbigband.com) reveal the source of every sound used on each track.  This information makes the music very interesting because it allows the listener to explore social commentaries, intended or contrived, embedded within the songs.  For example, “Battery” features noises from one McDonald’s Filet O’Fish, one snap of a soda can, and one plastic garden chair.  Are these objects referring to increased laziness and the obesity epidemic?  There are also sounds from one airplane and a battery charger.  How odd?!  In an online interview Herbert says the song is based on information gathered by David Rose of The Observer newspaper about a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Bisher al-Rawi, who was flown around the globe for possession of a battery charger, which they believed could be used to manufacture an I.E.D.  After a closer listen, the pops of electric shock crackling behind a computerized voice chanting lyrics like “Blindfold goggles/In the harness/Shackled/Handcuffed” and “Tell me all the people/Tell me all of their names/The names of the people/All of the people that you’ve ever met/That you’ve never met/That you’ve wanted to meet” become mildly more decipherable and it’s apparent that Herbert is recreating an interrogation.  The song is certainly off-putting, but its intended message could easily go over the head of a casual listener who didn’t have the time or patience to perform due diligence. 

            Symbolism is at the core of this album.  The majority of sounds used have a far deeper meaning than what can be perceived aurally.  “Waiting,” for example, contains the noise of rattling matches recorded in the corridors below The House of Parliament, where each match represents 100,000 people dead in Iraq.  “Nonsound” starts out as a beautifully peaceful tune with the Brass section playing over a somber piano and brushed drums.  Eventually nonmusical sounds, something like an open-air market, are layered in.  What follows is an outbreak of gunshots and shouting.  According to matthewherbertbigband.com the sounds are of “Israeli I.D.F. soldiers shooting protestors (Palestinian and internationals) against the wall.”  It’s eerie and extraordinarily sad to hear music accompany the loss of human life.  An argument for indecency and disrespect could be made against this song, but this is a form of protest and I firmly believe the intent is to bring awareness to the dead and not to capitalize on this tragedy for dramatic effect.

            “One Life,” on the other hand, is fantastic on its own and the hidden meaning actually enhances repeated listenings.  On the surface it’s about living life for the moment.   Eska Mtungwaz’s  voice is comforting, mature, and urgent, which gives seemingly elementary lyrics like “Simpleness gets harder when you’re older” and “Grip the hands of someone you’re in love with/There’s your answer” a sage-like wisdom. Similarly, the funeral-ready piano playing and nearly triumphant trumpet create an unexpected emotional synergy that keeps the song from entering the realm of 1980’s cheese-anthems like Van Halen’s “Right Now.”  Keeping time is a rapid-fire drum machine that seems to simulate life’s quick passing by cranking out 32nd and possibly 64th notes (if I could count that fast I’d be sure).  In reality each beat represents 100 people killed in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 to October 2006 and serves as the most sobering and most subtle form of protest on the album. 

            Being an artist is not easy.  For one, it requires an immense amount of talent, which Herbert certainly has.  It also requires the ability to use that talent to create a cohesive work that stimulates the minds of its observers, which There’s Me and There’s You accomplishes.  But, I don’t believe this work reaches its full potential.  Music, as the sole medium, limits what an artist can convey, and this piece would benefit from visual accompaniment.  It’s like going to 2001: A Space Odyssey with your eyes closed.  When I hear this album I feel like I’m missing out on something grander.  There is just too much symbolism in the items used to create this music that the listener can easily miss out on.  However, this piece would make an excellent stage performance.  Certain sounds, like the cutting up of 70 credit cards (“The Rich Man’s Prayer”) and 70 simultaneous text messages (“Knowing”) could be recreated live and projection screens could be utilized to flash the slogan  “We are empowered and inspired to make a world that is desired by the next generation and admired right now” used in “Pontificate.”  The piece could even be presented in the form of an actual protest considering the large number of people it took to record: 18 musicians, a choir of 27, and a 70 member “orchestra of noise.”

            This is not an easy album to listen to.  It’s confusing, vague, and dense.  But art should not always be easy and should never be looked down upon for challenging those who witness it.  The Matthew Herbert Big Band has created a commendable work of art.  It is highly cerebral and requires a great amount of attention, research, and open-minded thought to fully grasp its intentions.  Any artist with the ability to organize and execute such a well thought out and passionate work deserves to be heard and, at the very least, deserves our respect.

(Review by Aaron Hicks)

 

RICK JENSEN QUARTET – THE MOSAICIST

 

Label: Clinical Archives

Release Date: November 2008

Tracklist: The Mosaicist

Personnel: Rick Jensen: Tenor Sax/Alto Clarinet;

Phil Somervell: Piano; Colin Somervell: Bass;

Paul May: Drums/Percussion

Additional Information: Recorded live at The Vortex, London, UK by Helen Petts 15/6/08. Download release, available from http://www.clinicalarchives.spyw.com.

 

 

            Recorded on one of John Russell’s ‘Mopomoso’ nights at the Vortex Jazz Club, this performance is all about relentlessness. Even during the quieter, slower sections, one never feels much sense of rest or calm: the gorgeous series of piano chords in the final few minutes seem about to lead into a jazz ballad, but Paul May’s twitching drums ensure something much spikier. The closing chord could just as well be about to lead onto a fresh set of improvisations as to create any sort of conclusion; in fact, it is this very uncertainty that makes it such a fine, none-too-obvious closing moment, poised as it is between cessation and continuation. As a jazz performance, it might come across as something of a damp squib – ‘you’re going to let the music fizzle out like that?’ – but, in this instance, it feels more appropriate than, say, the Brotzmann device of suddenly stopping while seemingly still in the middle of things, signalling the end of the piece by leaping four feet into the air. Of course, different groups and different players develop different strategies to cope with the problem of knowing when and how to stop, but these often remain unspoken, emerging from what might call a subconscious musical intelligence that has developed through successive performances. So you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get – and that’s why even the more hesitant examples, such as this one, are so valuable; they reveal just how far out on a limb these players go, every time they play. It’s what I love about freely improvised music – sure, all sorts of structural problems can be raised, which may be very tricky to negotiate, but it is in that negotiation that the most interesting things tend to emerge.

            New-Zealand born but London-based, Jensen has a very individual tone on tenor sax. Though the music’s impact is totally different, perhaps David S. Ware is the closest equivalent I can think of. This is evident most readily in terms of tone – both Ware and Jensen have a particular propensity for low barks, rather than the ‘screeching’ altissimo passages that characterise a lot of free jazz – but it’s also true of phrasing: there’s a tendency to work round a figure, to repeat a phase with slightly altered phrasing or to play a succession of different phrases with the same rhythmic content. Sounds emerge in sharp bursts, twirling round in tight, compact jabs, while short pauses allow the assault to maintain a consistent momentum (breathing points, the slightest rest to develop new directions or ideas). And because there’s a constant dialogue going on underneath as well, the music feels continuous – choppy piano chords or linear patterns add a rhythmic emphasis sometimes also taken up by bass and drums, sometimes abandoned for scraps and blurts of sound more in the vein of ‘English improv’.  In this way the group avoid the problems which might arise from the sax + rhythm section line-up – namely, a lack of textural variety.

            And it’s not all hard-edged free jazz either (though things tend to remain on the bleak and aggressive side): about twenty-three minutes in, Jensen breaks out his alto clarinet over the piano’s ominous low tread, unobtrusively underlined by arco bass and sympathetically groaning percussive scrapes and screeches. A subsequent return to tenor leads, perhaps inevitably, to eventual echoes of the opening mood (this time with some fine high saxophone whoops) – and then to that fascinating conclusion, as just piano and drums find their way to silence, like someone squeezing through a narrow gap, slinking off down a narrow alley into the darkness.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

MIKE KHOURY/ WILL SODERBERG – VOLUMEN DREI

 

Label: Tiger Asylum Release Date: 2008 Tracklist: Untitled tracks Personnel: Mike Khoury: violin; Will Soderberg: electronics Additional Information: Recordings from mid-2007. CD-R release available from http://www.tigerasylum.com.

 

            Shoots the demented pinball set up full of holes in future deserted arcade. Glass broken underfoot crunches calamitous triggering kaleidoscope flurries, in the corner of your eye. Violin’s low lonely howl seems human in the now slow-whirr of electronic cold chamber; but the violence of stretched animal gut over shaped wood is an acknowledged paradox as string scrape’s delay-pedal near drowns in feedback fuzz. Noise could not be white here, the blinding happened before in this post-holocaust world where sound equals noise equals sight, or its lack: sounds there to guide conjure the mind-picture of echo factory, empty while violinman squats in corner, sometimes stands scarecrow-dark, the Paganini devil whose energy is all spent. Did he find this battered instrument by chance, or is it that he has been wandering the rounds, prophet of reverberation triggers deep bell, echo distorts and bounces in endless circles round the four wall prison which won’t keep out the demons. Merges to howl, emerges to be lost forever; human voices would be hauntings here.

(‘Review’ by David Grundy)

 

STEUART LEIBIG/ TEE-TOT QUARTET – ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED

 

Label: pfMENTUM

Release Date:

Tracklist: 07-04-00; serenade; wrong how long; stutterstep; fearless; clean, shaved and sober; bobtail; cooked and chopped; chucktown; mercy kitchen; sunshine candy; barrelfoot grind; lonewoolf

Personnel: Dan Clucas: cornet; Scot Ray: dobro; Steuart Leibig: contrabassguitar; Joseph Berardi: drums, percussion

           

I guess whether you will enjoy the album or not depends very much on what you think of leader Steuart Leibig’s compositions. For me, and this will seem strange, they are just a little too polished – and I know that the music’s charm comes partly from the less-than-polished sounds of twanging electric dobro and growling cornet. But the tunes themselves feel just a little too expert in their careful balance of consonance and dissonance (or ‘consonant dissonance’, which is maybe a term closer to the sort of thing that’s happening here); every piece is constructed in virtually the same manner (‘mercy kitchen’ being something of an exception), with a unison statement of the theme from trumpet and dobro, drums usually playing a fairly steady beat and bass either accentuating this with an insistently repeated riff (on the more rockish pieces, such as the opening track), or playing counter-lines, often somewhat stop-start in nature. The melodies reappear in between solos as well as in opening and closing statements, and the solos thus feel rather crammed in between the melodic expository stuff.

            Interesting things are happening in these solos, however: Clucas in particular has an attractive voice on cornet, full of the sort of smears and growls that one might associate with Taylor Ho Bynum, on the same instrument, and which indicate a growing interest in ‘vintage’ players such as Buber Miley (although arguably this was an important lineage with the free jazz players of the 60s also). The electrified dobro’s sound gives a nicely unusual texture, somewhat appropriate to the cover photograph of a wide, ochre-lit stretching road: and Ray’s solos can be quite exciting, in a way that almost comes to resemble the finger-flying excitement of superior jazz fusion, and at other times is nearer a distorted version of twangy, slide-guitar bluegrass. But he does tend to rely on the same tricks in several solos – for instance, sliding up and down a string for a see-saw effect which feels more like an ‘interesting’ flourish than something which really contributes to the emotional/logical development of the piece, or the solo.

            There are basically two species of tune on display here: the crisp, fast, ‘cool’ edginess of the faster numbers (which take up much of the album), and tracks like ‘serenade’, which are slower, more ‘open’ and melancholy-sounding (though there’s always a sense of hidden menace). In the end, thirteen pieces comes to seem like overkill, particularly given the similarities in construction and execution which I’ve outlined: one can’t help wishing that more space could have been given to showcasing these players’ soloistic voices, or to the group interplay (double soloing by trumpet and guitar on ‘cooked and chopped’), rather than reverting so schematically to the predictable tread of similar compositions. In this case, longer tunes would undoubtedly have meant more, not less variety.

            But I always feel churlish giving negative reviews: for a more positive (and perhaps, more perceptive) analysis of the music, Bill Barrett’s liner note is exemplary, pointing out the Quartet’s transfiguration of ‘roots music’ (a result of instrumentation as much of anything, I’d suggest). Whether you agree or not, it’s an interesting angle. For my money, a more interesting example of this sort of ‘left-field Americana’ would be Erik Friedlander’s recent solo cello disc, ‘Block Ice and Propane.’ (Review by David Grundy)

 

DONNY McCASLIN – RECOMMENDED TOOLS

 

Label: Greenleaf Music

Release Date: August 2008

Tracklist: Recommended Tools; Eventual; Late Night Gospel; Excursion; Isfahan; The Champion; Margins of Solitude; 3 Signs; 2nd Hour Revisited; Fast Brazil.

Personnel: Donny McCaslin: tenor sax; Hans Glawischinig: bass; Jonathan Blake: drums

 

Such is the history of tenor plus bass and drum trios that any saxophonist willing to work in this format is, however unwittingly, making a statement about his ability as an improviser. Any results will, by necessity, be compared with the sterling work of such past masters as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. As a consequence, many musicians have left the tenor trio well alone at least until they have reached what they hold to be the requisite level of maturity.

 Having just turned forty, Donny McCaslin has released this disc with companions Hans Glawischinig on bass and Jonathan Blake of drums stating in interviews that he now feels totally prepared to meet this challenge. The year 2008 saw a lot of critical praise being heaped on McCaslin –  no doubt due to some impressive performances in bands as diverse as “Steps Ahead”, Dave Douglas’ quintet and Maria Schneider’s big band.  Is “Recommended Tools” therefore, evidence then that McCaslin has now evolved into the fully mature jazz soloist?  I would suggest that the answer must be an unreserved “yes” and demonstrative that, since the untimely passing of the great Mike Brecker, he is clearly his heir apparent.

 Caught somewhere between Brecker’s convoluted and sophisticated approach to improvisation and the more wayward style of Joe Lovano, this is an impressive performance by anyone’s standards. However, the album is largely made up of originals that do not quite match the quality of his writing on the previous latin-inspired record “In pursuit” and the one non-original, a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” is unlikely to replace Johnny Hodges’ lyrical approach in fan’s affections.  The imbalance of truly memorable themes is, perhaps, the one weakness in this disc but this is countered by some wonderful flights of improvisation. Certainly, his writing on “In pursuit” seemed to hit pay dirt with every track seemingly a great tune whereas the first half of this latter record is not quite of the same calibre. Throughout the CD, McCaslin is clearly the star of the performance as the bassist and drummer seem to lack the personality to match the leader although they provide more than adequate support and some sympathetic accompaniment too on the more introspective compositions such as “Margins of solitude.” The better material occurs in the second half of the record with the track “The Champion” the clear pick of the bunch. At one stage, he performs entirely solo and yet the shear swing with which he launches in make the absence of the bass and drums barely noticeable. On “3 signs”, there is a degree of rhythmic interplay where the trio really starts to open up and close attention to McCaslin’s improvised lines reveals just how inventive he is with his use of time. If anything, these ideas are taken even further on the following “2nd hour revisited” with Blake being allowed to stretch out even more behind his kit and the tenor saxophonist almost seeming to evoke Sonny Rollins in his approach with motifs continually chewed over and reinvented.   Like the elder musician, McCaslin can make the potential for these permutations seem endless. The disc concludes with a romp through “Fast Brazil”, a number that has also appeared on his previous release.  On this version, the gloves have come off and the trio abandons itself to some of the most uninhibited and knotty playing on the whole session.

Possessing a readily recognisable tone and an intelligent approach to the improvised line, this is a hugely impressive record. However, had the whole record been quite as good as the exuberant closing three tracks or “The Champion”, we would have been talking about an exceptional tenor trio –  a potential classic. As it stands, it is sufficient to say from the evidence of “Recommended Tools” that Donny McCaslin has now arrived as one of the most significant tenor saxophonists of our generation and produced a very worthy addition to the canon of the tenor trio. (Review by Ian Thumwood)

 

STEPHEN O’ MALLEY/ ATTILA CSIHAR – 6oFskyquake

 

Label: Editions Mego

Release Date: January 2008

Tracklist: 6°Fskyquake

Personnel: Stephen O’Malley: HP 200CD & Travis Bean / Fender Twin Reverb; Attila Csihar: Vocals

Additional Information: Room recording at TEAM Gallery, NYC 10th, 11th & 12th June 2007. Vocals recorded at Château Csihar, Budapest June 2007

 

Like the other Stephen O’ Malley release reviewed in this issue (‘Crashed Like Wretched Moth’, released under the Ginnungagap moniker), ‘6°Fskyquake’ was originally designed to accompany an art gallery exhibition – in this case, two simultaneous solo shows by sculptor Banks Violette, during summer 2007.

One senses that some of the work’s original impact may have been lost – not just because it is no longer in situ, alongside Violette’s sculptures (the only residue of these being the cover art photo), but because the original 8 and a half hour duration of the piece has been reduced to a mere 33 minutes. This recording then, is only a fragment, an example, a sampling. One wonders why a longer portion could not have been released: given the capacities of even a single CD, which will held 80 minutes of music, just over half an hour seems like a very small slice of the pudding.

However, upon listening, one realises that this is probably as adequate a representation as any. The album release is inevitably going to be a different beast to the installation, and what might seem legitimated by its gallery context cannot be so excused during home listening. Presumably, no one stayed during the entire 8 hour plus show, and it is even less likely that anyone will sit in front of their stereo for over half a day (this is hardly ‘stoner music’).

 As on Sunn O)))’s most recent release, the marvellous ‘Domkirke’, O’Malley is joined by Norwegian vocalist Attila Csihar, who, in probably his ‘artiest’ context yet, proves once again his skill as a singer of operatic power, with an ability for conjuring (often oppressive) atmospheres. On ‘Domkirke’, Csihar’s delay-treated bass rumblings provided the perfect peg for reviewers looking for a way into the latest drone odyssey: much could be made of the live concert recording’s location in Bergen Cathedral, a reconciliation of sorts between Black Metal and the Church, in which the singing could be described as Gregorian, particularly when placed over the tectonic progress of Steve Moore’s organ playing on the first track, ‘Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in the Clouds’. On ‘Skyquake’, singing his own texts based around “journeys inside imperial Tokyo,” it seems that Csihar was brought in to impose a more human element over O’Malley’s unwavering electronic drones.

            With Domkirke’s handy historical peg removed, one is forced to concentrate on the voice itself, on its qualities as sound, rather than just skipping straight onto its qualities as signifier. Even if Csihar is singing texts, you’ll be hard pressed to make out words; it seems instead that one is presented with the idea of words, with the sound of word-like constructions being formed, constructions which nevertheless don’t exist to ‘mean’ as much as to simply exist, inaccessible and abstract. This voice as sound opens up cavernous depths which forever conflict with the constant high sine pitches overhead; or rather, which enact not so much a conflict as a state of being. By this I mean that they are never going to come into resolution, a condition which has been accepted as the basis for their existence from the start – and perhaps it is the listener’s realisation, and acceptance, of this fact, that is the true resolution. Resolution only comes once one stops looking for a resolution; conclusion when one realises that there is no conclusion (hence the sudden cut-off at the end of the CD).

O’ Malleys drones are not continuous: instead, the work unfolds sectionally, often in fairly short bursts which last for maybe two minutes at a time. Nevertheless, the fact that there is little structural and sonic difference between these sections, and that they are so slow-moving, makes the work seem more continuous than it actually is. Csihar’s vocals stay in the same range, generally accompanied by O’Malley’s drones, which are at either extremely high or extremely low pitches (and often both at once). In between the vocal/drone meat of the piece are sounds which can less easily be traced back to their sources, such as the flutterings at 19:20, which sound like a giant paper bag being continuously rustled, or the various whispers/breathing sounds which occasionally replace vocal rumbling. Even more occasionally, short, organ-like bursts occur, vaguely reminiscent of that opening track from ‘Domkirke.’

The ‘ritual’ tag applies well here, ritual being sectional and repetitive in the manner that this music is sectional and repetitive. ‘Skyquake’, though this, lacks the essentially progressive nature of ritual, the sense of movement towards a goal. There is no equivalent to the mystical act at the heart of the ritual performance (the taking of Communion, let’s say) – that act which ensures that there is always a movement towards something, however slow.  What we have here, then, is the enaction of a ritual experience without the underlying purposefulness: ritual for its own sake which renders its usefulness and purpose as ritual questionable. In that sense it would not be stretching things too far to claim that, even if the piece itself is not religious, its concerns are religious ones, or ones connected with religion: how to deal with the religious impulse when one no longer believes.

The press release, when discussing the shared themes of O’Malley’s sound installation and Banks Violette’s sculptures, raises the idea of a “lost evocative experience.” One might argue that this experience itself is evocative – but of something which one can’t quite place, an evocation not of nothing, nor or something, but of a realm in-between. Csihar’s vocals may seem to explicitly reference Gregorian Chant, but are prevented from accomplishing the same function: placed in an art gallery, they are enclosed in a space similar to a Church in its sense of scale and reverence, but, all white light and bright lights, far removed from the Gothic darkness of Gregorianism. The only other specific references, or at least, associations (provided one cannot decipher Csihar’s texts) are to other electronic musics (drone, no-input) which are themselves challenging and disturbing because of their lack of overt referentiality. In that sense, there is a sharp contrast to the 60s work of La Monte Young or Terry Riley, with its very definite intention to evoke/create the conditions for another lifestyle, one associated with the drones of Indian music (‘The Tambouras of Pandit Pran Nath’) and in some sense with the countercultural movement (ancient traditions filtered through a very historically specific climate – that of 1960s America). O’Malley and Csihar’s drone-world is far more disturbing, and, arguably, far more engaged with the problems of existence in the modern world. (Review by David Grundy)

 

WILLIAM PARKER – DOUBLE SUNRISE OVER NEPTUNE

 

Label: AUM Fidelity

Release Date: August 2008

Tracklist: Morning Mantra; Lights of Lake George; O’Neal’s Bridge; Neptune’s Mirror

Personnel: William Parker: double reeds, doson’ngoni, conductor; Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Rob Brown: alto sax; Bill Cole: double reeds; Sabir Mateen: tenor sax, clarinet; Dave Sewelson: baritone sax; Jason Kao Hwang: violin; Mazz Swift: violin; Jessica Pavone: viola; Shiau-Shu Yu: cello; Joe Morris: guitar, banjo; Brahim Frigbane: oud; Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay: voice; Shayna Dulberger: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Hamid Drake: drums.

Additional Information: Recorded live June 19 & 20, 2007 at Vision Festival XII by Stefan Heger

 

I’ll let William Parker introduce the concepts behind this record in his own words. In his liner notes, he writes: Double Sunrise was born of a concept I call universal tonality, which is based off of the idea that all sounds like human beings come from the same place. All sound has a heartbeat and breathes the same as each human being. Some sounds are born in Africa; others are born in Asia, Europe, Australia or America. These sounds pass through certain human beings. We don’t invent sounds, we are allowed to encounter them; we don’t own them, they existed before we were born and will be here after we are gone.”

For me, Parker’s faith in music, that of a true, devout believer, ultimately remains too simplistic to fulfill its own promises. That’s not to say that I don’t believe music has a power, but I’m not sure the project lives up to the immense claims made for it. Parker’s notion is of a genuine ‘world music’ (more than that, a ‘universe music’): a force that unifies all human beings, no matter what social/racial/political barriers seem to make them unalterably divided. Trouble is, no music could really live up to that description – like it or not, the sounds we here and the context we here them in are invariably socially, culturally and politically defined. Most of the theories around free jazz and improvisation rest ultimately on their status as oppositional musics (Derek Bailey’s opposition to composition and the European classical system, the New Thing artists’ opposition to racism and American foreign policies, etc). Parker’s goal, though it is in opposition (to war, killing, racism, and other ills – all things that would presumably also be opposed by the artists just mentioned), ultimately seeks a state of utter transcendence, where there is no need for opposition – a utopia realized, (though exactly how is never very well defined), through music.

Conceptually, then, I’m not really convinced by Parker’s argument. Will the sonic material win me over any more? Discarding for a moment the claims Parker makes for it, and taking it simply as sound on its own terms, it’s a pleasant listen, though too often it fails to reach the heights of which he is capable. Structurally, the approach is a little unvaried: a bass-line will be repeated over and over again, providing an easy groove for various long, rhapsodic solos to unfold over. (These bass-lines are played by Shayna Dulberger rather than Parker, who sticks to dousson’gossi and double-reeds). At its best this repetitive riff effect can be hypnotic, if laidback (none of the rhythmical pounding of Miles Davis’ 70s ensembles here), but fairly soon the music has fallen into the Pharoah Sanders ‘Karma’ syndrome: an attractive bass figure, repeated over and over, which tend to encourage noodling more than focussed improvisation.

Nonetheless, Parker’s ensemble sounds more ‘authentically’ non-western than Sanders, even if the rhetoric surrounding it breathes that same rather naïve air of 60s idealism. Some of the most compelling moments on the album result from the unusual timbres of Parker and Bill Cole’s double-reeds, duetting in swirling ecstasies of note-cycles. Indian singer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay also entrances with her melismatic, wordless improvisations, though the sections where she sings Parker’s lyrics have less force. Here, there is a similar problem to 2007’s ‘Cornmeal Dance’: the lyrics are very worthy in intent, but feel too vague, too New-Agey, to construct any real opposition or alternative to the current modes of life and living which they try to stand against.  (Review by David Grundy)

 

STEVE PETERS – THE WEBSTER CYCLES

 

Label: Cold Blue Music

Release Date: 2008

Tracklist: The Webster Cycles

Personnel: J.A. Deane: trombones

Additional Information: Recorded in 1997

           

The CD itself comes with minimal packaging: no explanatory booklet (recording details are printed in small gold type on the inside cover), leaving the album art to do the job of somehow representing the music, or capturing some of its particular flavour. Thus we have a dark, sombre cover with a faint yellowing glow light round about the middle of the image, and a swirling smoke haze, just caught by light, on the back. And that’s perhaps the treatment this music requires.

However, though there is no liner note to speak of, Cold Blue Music have released further information on their website, as has Peters on his own blog, and it might be worthwhile to consider what the knowledge of the mode of composition could add to the listening experience.  “A single 30-minute piece that straddles the fence of structure and improvisation: all of the words in the dictionary that use only the letters A-G, arranged in alphabetical order. Each word is played for the length of one long breath, and within that the letters/notes are played spontaneously, as are dynamics, timbre, etc.”

            In some way this seems to relate to what, for me, is the particular sadness of this work. Not in that it’s reflected programmatically, but more as a meditation on the fundamental abstraction of music, and perhaps of words, in a certain climate. The Webster Cycles, as if revolving round and round, but without the resolution. The schematics of letters tied to notes adding to this cycling, as notes re-cycle (but without the growth that implies). The six overdubbed layers more often than not separated, the extremely heavy reverb itself another layer underlying it all like insistent massive fridgehum. At some points all six rise to mournful utterance, high and low. And there are occasionally other sounds, a breath parp or unidentified electronic ticking, but mostly it is the ‘pureness’ of it that dominates.

Partly, I suspect, this music’s virtue will be its openness, and you have to be in the right frame of mind – somewhere where total concentration merges with that ‘ambient music’ state whereby one’s consciousness is dimly aware of the music as presence, rather than registering its details.

On his blog, Peters describes this particular version as ‘lush’: for me, it has far more of a ‘chill’ to it than that description would allow. But, on second thoughts, I can see what he means: some quality to Deane’s tone, his swelling slurs, the rounded fatness of his desolation. Indeed it would be perfectly possible to listen to this as ambient music, taken in the sense which Eno defined for it in his ‘Music for Airports’ liner notes, but I’d argue that it’s full impact only occurs with this other type of listening I’ve just defined – perhaps one could call it liminal.

            In any case, the multi-tracked layerings create effects of distance, giving the music a real spatial dimension, something explored very much in Webster’s more recent works (such as a ‘Chamber Music’ series, based on field recordings of the frequencies in empty rooms). This was clearly something that preoccupied him as far back as 1980: Deane’s trombone begins close-up a far-off calling horn, between a distance and unreachable call to a mournfulness more close-up, breaking down the boundaries between the distant and the intimate, as the occasional bite sends ripples through the endless (be)calm(edness) of the sonic ocean.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

SONIC YOUTH/ MATS GUSTAFFSON/ MERZBOW –

ANDRE SIDER AF SONIC YOUTH

 

Label: SYR (Sonic Youth Records)

Release Date: July 2008

Tracklist: Andre Sider af Sonic Youth

Personnel: Mats Gustaffson: saxophone; Merzbow: electronics; Thurston Moore: guitar; Lee Ranaldo: guitar, kraaklebox, bells; Kim Gordon: guitar, trumpet, voice; Jim O’ Rourke: guitar, keyboard, measuring tape, mixing;  Steve Shelley: drums, percussion

Additional Information: Recorded live at the Roskilde Festival, 1/7/2005 by Barok Films.

 

Here’s the blurb: “This installment of Sonic Youth’s series of experimental and mostly instrumental releases is available in a CD-only edition on the band’s own SYR label. Andre Sider af Sonic Youth presents the complete “Other Sidesof Sonic Youth” improvised live performance from the 2005 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, featuring Sonic Youth (with Jim O’Rourke) and guests Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Japanese sound artist Masami Akita (a.k.a. Merzbow). The single piece performed was a structured [???] improvisation which for 60 minutes added and subtracted musicians one by one until only Akita was left onstage. Black Sabbath followed.” [Did they seem tame after the last feedback wail and electronic grinding had died into tinnitus?]

Sonic Youth’s own ramblings, which cover the first 15 minutes or so, are made to seem tame when, first Merzbow, then Mats Gustafson enter. Immediately, things come into purpose, have a point to them, as Gustafson’s wails – no other adjective I can think to put to it that is more appropriate than soulfully – over Merzbow’s machine-thrash and interlocks shreds of guitar feedback and hum-strum.

Wailing trumpet and electronic moans join with Kim Gordon’s flatly desperate voice as the unleashed machine chaos meshes with a very human desperation – the two can’t be separated. Everything blends into one amorphous sound mass, electronic malfunctioning siren piss-cry and derange-tuned guitars. We might compare another collaboration between Merzbow and an experimental rock group – Japanese doomers Boris – for the effect that he has, thrusting them out of conventionality into new realsm, while at the same time their presence give some more easily identifiable ‘direction’ to his pure thickets of noise.

            But how subversive really is ‘noise music’? How much is it a cathartic experience in the sense that it expresses a sense of disillusionment with the world, of pain and all its negative emotions, and then allows you back to yr existence having wallowed in the misery artistically? How far does it rely on the misery of that existence to exist itself? What alternative does it posit? Is it nihilistic? What the hell is Jim O’ Rourke doing thrashing around with measuring tape on his guitar (see the video on the Sonic Youth website)? Why does Merzbow always look so calm? How do you talk about such completely ‘music-less’ music, its lack of referentiality, without falling into the trap of metaphorical description, of trying to give it a referentiality it doesn’t have? Does it bludgeon words to death? Does it even bludgeon music to death? Does this remind you of anything?

 

kill yr. idols
sonic death
it’s the end of the world
and confusion is sex

 

            In this sexualised space of noise, a death-orgasm howl, a ‘death rattle’ without Leone’s stateliness, a howl. Dissolved. You don’t just kill yr idols, you destroy all idols, all ideals, all ideology, in feedback howl. Nothing feed backs, positive feedback, negative, it’s just there. Just fucking there.

            Gustafson is barking against terror. As he is lung-blowing-blast at top-voice Merzbow quite casually just flicks his wrist and taps home his mouse and elephant-roar just kills it, just shreds everything into that one drunk scream. It’s tempting to see it as some sort of ritual sacrifice, free jazz at the altar of noise music, noise music killing free jazz, with all that movement’s spiritual hope implications, for just sheer utter nihilism and wail. Wail. Wail. Wail. Gustafson’s last sounds are the dying bleats of the sacrifice, as he leaves Merzbow alone.

 

(Review by David Grundy)

 

VANDERMARK FIVE – BEAT READER

 

Label: Atavistic

Release Date: January 2008

Tracklist: Friction (for Gyorgy Ligeti); New Acrylic (for Andreas Gursky); Any Given Number (for Bernd and Hilla Becher); Signposts (for Lee Friedlander); Speedplay (for Max Roach); Compass Shatters Magnet (for Paul Rutherford); Further From The Truth (for Walker Evans); Desireless (for Daido Moriyama).

Personnel: Ken Vandermark: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet; Dave Rempis, alto and tenor saxophone; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello and electronics; Kent Kessler: bass; Tim Daisy: drums.

 

Ken Vandermark’s mugshot ought to accompany the definition of “restless” in your Colliers or your OED. In jazz terms, he’s as promiscuous as they come, leaping from project to project, starting new bands, resurrecting old ones. – one-offs, touring ensembles, tributes, film music, intriguing collaborations… If it’s adventurous, he’s game. Once the tally is complete, I expect he’ll have released hundreds of recordings. But for better than a decade, he’s always returned to the Vandermark 5. That any working jazz unit has endured today’s climate for eleven years is truly remarkable; that it has managed to hold Vandermark’s interest is miraculous.

            There have been lineup changes, of course, but the core dictum of pushing free music in all directions has remained undisturbed. The V5, as it currently stands, is the exciting Dave Rempis on alto and tenor saxophone, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, Kent Kessler on bass, Tim Daisy on drums, and Vandermark, who here sticks to the low end of the register, playing baritone sax and clarinet. It’s a good choice, because he spends much of Beat Reader’s 69 minutes exploiting the guttural qualities of the baritone to an effect similar to his work on Bridge 61’s (excellent) 2006 release Journal, which is to say that a lot of the time the thing flat-out rocks.    

Vandermark’s gift is his combinatory approach; simply, his palette is larger that most. Punk, rock and funk are as ripe for pillaging as are blues, jazz, classical, what have you. This inclusiveness is what has always marked the great Vandermark 5 releases (Single Piece Flow, Target or Flag, A Discontinuous Line), and here it means that the quintet veer from spastic energy to containment and austerity in the blink of an eye. They are simultaneously controlled and unhinged; propulsive and passive, as appropriate. Lonberg-Holm’s cello is capable of centering the proceedings in a way that Jeb Bishop’s guitar could not. Similarly, Rempis’ tenor pushes things further into the funk realm. All in all, it is what we have come to expect from the V5: more of everything, the world in an hour. I wouldn’t dare slight Ken Vandermark for his restlessness and his creative hyperactivity. It simply results in too much incredible music. But I do hope he always calls the Vandermark 5 home.

(Review by Andrew Forbes)

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