CD Reviews – Issue 4

FABRIZIO BOSSO/ ANTONELLO SALIS – STUNT

Label: Parco Della Musica

Release Date: 2008

Tracklist: Caduta Libera; Body and Soul; Moschito’s Chase; Roma Non Fa La Stupida Stasera; Tibet; Caravan; Stregati; Georgia On My Mind; Solo un Incubo; Mack the Knife; Before Sunday; Domenica e Sempre Domenica; Burst Blues;

Bésame Mucho

Personnel: Fabrizio Bosso: trumpet, electric trumpet; Antonello Salis: piano, accordion, voice

Best known as a fine post-bop trumpeter, Bosso proves well capable of matching Salis’ freer inventions, plugging out air-heavy-hisses and pops such as those which open the disc, while Salis’ prepared piano emits percussive clacks and rumbles ominously. It’s all one continuous performance, which makes it seem much more than what it is – a recital of standards mixed with originals. Rather, it comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness journey through a very unique interpretation of jazz history, mixed in with free improvisation and touches of Italian folk music (particularly when Salis switches to accordion).

Given a tendency towards heart-on-sleeve emoting – often, indeed, towards full-blown melodrama – a transition as marked as that between the gloomy drama of ‘Before Sunday’ and the affirmatory shout of Salis’ vocals and accordion playing on the piece immediately following – ‘Domenica e Sempre Domenica’ – feels perfectly natural; Bosso’s trumpet bursting out in majestic melody, Salis’ running up and down in accordion-voice sync behind him, glorious release.

‘Burst Blues’ brings in Bosso’s electric trumpet, quoting Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’. Things turn joyful here, and album closer ‘Besame Mucho’ displays a manic exuberance, Bosso’s slides and smears and growls amped and echoed up, Salis’ voice and accordion underneath, a drunken but colossal folk vision. (David Grundy)

HENRY GRIMES & RASHIED ALI – GOING TO THE RITUAL

Label: Porter Records

Release date: 2008

Tracklist: Hidden Forces Aggregate; Easternal Mysticism, Virtue And Calm; Gone Beyond The Gate; This Must Have Always Happened

Personnel: Henry Grimes: bass, violin, voice; Rashied Ali: drums

Additional information: Recorded in concert at WKCR studios, Columbia University, NYC, 2007

The re-discovery of bassist Henry Grimes 35 years after he vanished from the music scene in 1967 is by now well known but no less astonishing and indeed welcome for that. Grimes was found by Marshall Marotte, a social worker and fan in LA, where he had been living in a small flat, doing such jobs as labourer and janitor, during a long period of self imposed absence and self examination. His bass had long been sold, back in 1968, after landmark recordings with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Don Cherry amongst many others. After expressing his desire to begin making music again the call for a new bass was answered by fellow bassist William Parker who gave an instrument and much encouragement. Grimes began to practice and after a period of time tentatively re-introduced himself to live playing in a variety of contexts and has been very active once again since 2003.

This CD sees Grimes united with the visionary drummer Rashied Ali, most famously a member of various John Coltrane groups. A meeting of minds and certainly a meeting of equals; two inventive and serious members of the jazz avant-garde, here playing their hearts out and respecting each other and the music.

In addition to bass, Grimes also plays violin and recites one of his spoken word pieces. The spirituality and integrity of Grimes and Ali is beyond doubt and both have been to hard places (especially Grimes) in order to keep the music alive and breathing. The musicians interact as all of their experience would suggest though they never coast and certainly display an earnestness and seriousness with reflects a lifetime of hard work in an uncompromising music and social environments. It is hoped that they are now getting some of the dues that they deserve. I’m not sure that the best way of entering the music of either of these superb musicians is via this particular duo – certainly both have been involved in other less austere surroundings. However, for an unvarnished view of the technique and a close listen to a duo comprising two of the finest rhythm players in jazz, it is a worthwhile exercise.

I can commend wholeheartedly commend Marc Medwin’ excellent sleevenotes and hope that you were able to catch the BBC Jazz on 3 broadcast of the Profound Sound Trio (Grimes with Andrew Cyrille and Paul Dunmall). Make an effort to catch either musician in some of their other contexts and above all be very grateful for the news that Henry Grimes is playing once again! These guys are giants of jazz and the new music and but for musicians like them we wouldn’t be where we are now. (Nick Dart)

 

JOEL FUTTERMAN/ IKE LEVIN/ ALVIN FIELDLER – TRAVELLING THROUGH NOW

Label: Charles Lester Music

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: Primal Center; Illumination; Ascendence; Life’s Whisper; Dance of Discovery; Moment Dweller; Outertopeia; Connextions; Triple Question; Freescapes

Personnel: Ike Levin: tenor sax, bass clarinet; Joel Futterman: piano, soprano sax; Alvin Fieldler: drums, percussion

Joel Futterman tends to be a somewhat overlooked figure in the free music press: perhaps that’s inevitable, given that he plays the sort of high-octane, technically brilliant and thrillingly fast music which inevitably brings to mind comparisons with Cecil Taylor (though his melodic patterning is arguably very different). That’s an impression reinforced even more by the fact that he made some important recordings with Taylor’s saxophonist of choice, Jimmy Lyons – though this in fact might indicate a difference from Taylor, given that Lyons would hardly be happy playing with a pianist dealing in second-hand imitation (particularly as his own groups tended to dispense with keyboard altogether, pairing him with Karen Borca’s bassoon and Paul Murphy’s drums).

Given, then, that Futterman is undoubtedly worthy of stepping out from Taylor’s shadow – given, in fact, that he did so long ago, it’s just that the critics haven’t moved out with him – any project in which he is involved will always be one to look out for, will be an important event for those with an interest in improvised music which possesses particularly qualities of energy, particular elements of force, and of direct, but varied emphases.

He’s certainly in good company here: percussionist Alvin Fieldler is, again, another overlooked musician, but one with a hugely important role in a large slab of African-American creative music in the latter half of the twentieth century, as indicated by Hank Shteamer’s online mixtape, presented at the ‘Destination…Out’ blog a few months ago. Ike Levin, meanwhile, on tenor sax and bass clarinet, seems determined to match everything the other two cook up, while his playing on the quieter sections demonstrates an able command of jazz-based balladry.

Track titles suggest intent and intensity, ambition and desired philoosophical weight: ‘Illumination’, ‘Ascendance’, ‘Life’s Whisper’, ‘Dance of Discovery’. On a more specific level, a short spoken word introduction establishes the music’s method: “three different personalities playing – one might be playing slow, one might be burning, the other might be playing just colours. That’s the way we normally play.” A minute into ‘Primal Center’, Futterman’s roiling melodic figures, rising ever upward from both left and right hands simultaneously, suggest boogie-woogie taken to a particularly manic extreme; over the top, Levin lays down longer notes, and Futterman underneath throws in a little McCoy Tyner as the band transforms into the 1965 John Coltrane Quartet for a few seconds.

But, while, as with Coltrane’s group, there’s a sense of necessity, of compulsion, this music is by no means a throwback: Futterman is less inclined to stay in one place, on one plane, than McCoy, quickly moving from those dark, shadowy chords to rolling round the upper register or playing with echoes of idiom; sometimes, too, digging out his soprano sax in concordance with Levin, as on the held tones and questing fanfares of ‘Illumination’. With the absence of bass, it’s often left to Fieldler to fill in that part of the sonic palette – his busy bass drum and Futterman’s rumbling left hand, always building to some peak, falling away then back again, ascending, building momentum, or sometimes, just running on the spot, temporarily arresting the music’s onward urgent flow, while Levin smears shrill enquiry to the wind.

After the opening few tracks, connections with jazz become more explicit: ‘Life’s Whisper’ moves in and out of being an old-fashioned ballad, though kept at a pitch of tension by Futterman’s inside-piano work and by the way he stretches out the pauses between phrases, delaying expectation and suddenly springing the next figure, which might be a chord no less shimmering and lovely for being the sort of thing you always find in a ballad feature, or might be a dissonant single note (leaving it open for Levin whether to respond in kind or to resolve into a swooning jazz motif). The jazz connection segues straight over into the next piece, ‘Dance of Discovery’: a knocking figure from Fieldler’s drum-kit asks the question ‘where’s this going?’ as things begin tentatively, mysteriously: slow-paced swing from Levin and Futterman soon falls back into less syncopated, more meditative work, but the pace picks up again, and as the track gathers momentum, Levin’s increasingly impassioned bass clarinet improvisations over Fieldler’s steady rhythms and Futterman’s deliciously inevitable chordal patterns recalls Frank Wright’s work with French rhythm sections on the albums ‘Kevin, My Dear Son’ and ‘Shouting the Blues’. What follows is a perfect example of Futterman’s ability to turn on a dime from a series of repeated, set chords, to wild, scampering sweeps; and, indeed, on the final track, these two modes seem to grow out of each other, the difference between the two erased in the maelstrom, Futterman pounding out consonant chords with one hand while the other traverses into more ‘avant’ territory, both simply manifestations of the same impulse, the desire to play hard, to play to the limits, whether that means repetition or a frantic, helter-skelter search for new material.

Indeed, if there’s anything that characterises ‘Travelling Through Now’, it’s this easy and natural move in and out of idiomatic playing – or rather, from one idiom (relatively ‘straight’ jazz) to another (free jazz), as if they were the most natural bedfellows (and they are). If the album title suggests something ‘just passing through’, it would do well to remember that ‘now’ is where we always are, and as the series of ‘nows’ captured here go on to exist in more ‘nows’ as they are played and re-played in who knows how many different contexts, the chain of events is potentially infinite. Being a ‘moment dweller’, as these three are, might, then, actually be more lasting than other kinds of supposed ‘permanence’; an unstable stability, to be sure, but what in life isn’t so? (David Grundy)

PHIL HARGREAVES/ BRUNO DUPLANT/ LEE NOYES – MALACHI

Label: Insubordinations

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: porter attention à ce qui va suivre; se lever avant le jour; garder les choses comme elles sont; parfois ne penser à rien; oublier que le temps passé; demander à la poussière; s’aimer le temps d’une éternité; croire que tout est possible; écouter systématiquement son coeur

Personnel: Phil Hargreaves: tenor and soprano sax; Bruno Duplant: bass; Lee Noyes: drums, percussion Additional Information: Released under a Creative Commons license by Insubordinations netlabel: http://insubordinations.net.

Despite the optimistic-sounding titles (‘believe that all is possible’, ‘listen to your heart’) the music tends to the brooding and mysterious, Hargreaves’ saxophone and Duplant’s arco bass unfolding fragments and melodies and fragments of melodies while Noyes works round into the cracks, prodding and poking, leaping and landing. ‘Se Lever Avant Le Jour’ starts exactly like that; then Noyes ups the volume, crashing, not-keeping-still on either side of the stereo picture. Hargreaves flutters upper register whispers and starts barfing out in little bursts, centring around the initial whispers then alternating hard-edged flurries with shrill shrieks, not forgetting trills, everything kept in suspension as Duplant continues to bow and Noyes falls to near silence, the occasional tap rising up. Duplant’s scratchy, see-saw rhythm finds Hargreaves playing with anxious yearning, single notes and simple figures emerging, squeezed out with what sounds like great fragility though the saxophone tone remains tough and firm. The track ends with just Hargreaves, a moment staring into the blur, articulating some inexplicable and inexpressible loss.

            The reverie’s not so much snapped out of as gradually moved away from: ‘garder les choses comme elles sont’ opens with what sound like handclaps but which turn out to be slapping sounds from Hargreaves’ saxophone. A repeated plucked bass figure from Duplant is half-playful, half-ominous; Noyes’ use of his kit demonstrates some delightful lateral-thinking, as he refuses the semblance of a groove by means of gentle yet menacing crashes and thuds, a perfectly-placed strike on the triangle, what sounds like a kind of contained manic approach – great activity, but at a low volume, scratching and rumbling not so much in the background as, again, filtering through textural gaps, bringing out nuances and shades to the other men’s playing (to which it would not always seem to ‘relate’ in a conventional sense).

Three personalities emerge, then: Hargreaves, building variations and near-repetitions to long, held, high tones, sometimes full of delicate yearning, stretching themselves out as long as they can in the hope of grasping some barely-glimpsed essence, sometimes yawping with a beautifully-sustained wild ugliness, the sound of the deliberate mistake, the reed shriek, the multiphonic wail; the embrace of grime, mess, impurity. Perhaps nowhere better is this demonstrated than on ‘s’aimer le temps d’une éternité’, where his saxophone comes to sound almost like a theremin, a quavering, near-melodramatic sound sustained yet unstable, on the verge, on the edge (of crisis and catastrophe more than any easy breakthrough).

Duplant, meanwhile, tends towards repeating figures which one could almost call grooves or ‘basslines’ – but which are kept from that, which allow the music to move into the free territory it inhabits so well through their rhythmic elasticity, the constant yet almost imperceptible variation of tempo, the ability to sustain mood and atmosphere without falling into the trap of dictating these, allowing Hargreaves the freedom to discourse widely, Noyes to scuttle round edges, breaking twigs, stepping on leafs, leaving no stone unturned. (David Grundy)

JON HASSELL – LAST NIGHT THE MOON CAME DROPPING ITS CLOTHES IN THE STREET

Label: ECM

Release Date: February 2009

Tracklist: Aurora; Time and Place; Abu Gil; Last Night the Moon Came; Clairvoyance; Courtrais; Scintilla; Northline; Blue Period; Light on Water

Personnel: Jon Hassell: trumpet (1-4, 6, 8-10), keyboard (3, 6); Peter Freeman: bass (1-6, 8-10), percussion (2), guitar (7), samples (9); Jan Bang: live sampling; Rick Cox: guitar (1, 2, 4, 7, 9), strings (4); Jamie Muhoberac: keyboard (1, 2, 4, 9), drums (4, 9); Kheir Eddine M’Kacich: violin (2-5, 7); Pete Lockett: drums (2); Eivind Aarset: guitar (3, 8-10); Helge Norbakken: drums (3, 8, 10); Thomas Newman: strings (4); J. A. Deane: live sampling (6, 7); Steve Shehan: percussion (6, 9).

            A word of warning to begin: it’s worth nothing that, at over an hour, ‘Last Night’ is quite a lengthy listen, and, given the uniformity of the ECM production, and the tendency of the rhythm section to noodle a little, it does tend to meander rather too lazily at times – perhaps a little trimming might have helped. Then again, maybe I’m being a little harsh on Eicher’s production – after all, I do seem to criticise it whenever I review an ECM release, and by now I should know what to expect, so maybe I’m just being unrealistic, or contrary. In any case, a little heavy reverb is quite nice now and again, and it bathes this music in a soft, hazy glow, a muted radiance which emphasises floating washes of texture rather than picking up on the edges of individual line (title track ‘Aurora’ is a fine example). That’s not to say that detail isn’t picked up: the low rumble of the bass in particular gives the music a sense of direction, a rhythmic edge which it might otherwise lack, compared to, say, Hassell’s 1979 release ‘Earthquake Island’, where a mesmeric tension was generated by the encounter between the introspective trumpet lines and the apparently conflicting rhythmic drive of the repeated jazz-fusion figures in the bass, the crisp handclaps (shades of ‘On the Corner’, almost), and the insistent percussion.

            Speaking broadly, one might say that ‘Last Night’ is much more about overall atmosphere– a quasi-ambient setting which allows one’s attention to drift, only to suddenly focus on an emergent detail (often, the note-bending electric violin figures of Kheir Eddine M’Kacich). Given some further thought, though, it seems obvious that that’s always been Hassell’s speciality (since he moved away from experimental minimalism and came up with the concept of ‘Fourth World’ music, in any case). He’s not interested in being a virtuoso, spotlighting himself as a jazz or rock musician might, and he demands the same from those in his band, with the result that everyone seems to hang back. The music, therefore, requires something of an adjustment: expecting someone to make a definitive statement, one slowly realises that the real declaration of intent, the real statement, is that which has been unfolding for the last ten minutes without one noticing it – that background haze is the real foreground of this music, and you’d better start listening to it more closely.

            This is a great attraction: we’re so used to someone standing in front of a bassist and a drummer and proclaiming themselves ‘leader’ by playing louder and longer than everyone else. Hassell, though is the opposite of an up-front player: his phrases, inflected by the melismatic twists of Indian vocal music and the breathy delicacy of jazz balladeers like Miles Davis or Chet Baker, seem to hang out even after they’re over – playing less, but meaning more through it. His tone-control, meanwhile, demonstrates that his lip is in pretty fine shape for a man in his 70s, with further minute and subtle alterations in timbre achieved through electronic attachments: among other things (I think), the octave-divider which Miles experimented with during the ‘Jack Johnson’ sessions. But whereas Miles used it to create a low-down, dark and dirty groove, transforming his trumpet into something like an electric guitar, Hassell wants to sound like a choir, floating notes into the air like released doves.

            Combine this with the use of live sampling and the reverberant production, and you have the kind of texture that probably wasn’t possible back when Hassell was in the early stages of creating his trademark sound. Truth be told, the sampling tends to slip into the background much of the time (though at the beginning of ‘Northline’ and ‘Blue Period’, it starts to get a little more fractured, or at least, more noticeably crackly and phasered). This is probably the aim: to create something to which you can pay close attention, but which works best as a shifting miasma of elements, interacting with and flowing into each other – the kind of uncertainty experienced at that stage of half-sleep just before you drift off or just after you wake up.

            Having said all this stuff about the overall sound being the key, it might be best to end the review with a few particularly notable details: on ‘Last Night the Moon,’ the string sample, apparently made by guitarist Rick Cox on a portable recorder at another recording session (probably for a film soundtrack, though Hassell isn’t sure); on ‘Courtrais’ the sudden and unexpected appearance of what sounds like birdsong, a fleeting background detail which seems to affect everything Hassell places afterwards (even though, given the way the record was put together, with much layering and altering of the live studio recordings (themselves using various pre-recorded elements), that’s likely just to be my fancy, the semblance of something not really there). Best of all, on the thirteen-minute ‘Abu Gil’, Hassell keeps referencing the opening part of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’, like an itch he can’t quite shake off; an itch which spreads to the other musicians, as the melody keeps threading its way in and out of the texture – hinted at, played with, tossed aside, only for someone else to whisper it back into contention. It’s a bit like the album itself: when it starts to wander, there’s sure to be a fresh twist round the corner, a flash of invention, of unexpected conjunction, the spiraling of new directions out of the old – though those old directions hover like ghosts alongside, never quite disappearing, even if they don’t re-appear in exactly the same form. ‘Soundscape’ might be the word that comes most readily to mind, but I prefer to think of ‘Last Night’ as an overlapping dialogue where whispered words can’t quite be heard, but where something is always being said.

(David Grundy)

MASSIMO MAGEE/ LEE NOYES – ALL ANGLES

Label: Array Music

Release Date: April 2009
Tracklist:
DISC 1. Prelude— ‘Round Midnight; Part 1: Lo-Fi—Guitar Solo (Noyes); Friction (Magee); Drums and Sampler Solo (Noyes); Relativity (Magee); Part 2: Patchwork—Patchwork Piece DISC 2. Part 3: Live—Live 2; Live 1 [extract]. Postlude— In A Sentimental Mood

Personnel: Lee Noyes – Drums, Percussion, Guitar, Sampler, Loops, Tapes, Bells;
Massimo Magee – Tenor, Alto and Sopranino Saxophones, Clarinet, Trumpet, Amplifier with Headphones and Preparations, Keyboard, Tapes, Tape Recorder, Laptop, Homemade and Found Drums and Percussion, Cymbals, Radio, Tube, Bell, Jaw

Additional Information: Downloadable from http://arraymusic.wordpress.com

Massimo Magee and Lee Noyes, both of whom feature on the MP3 compilation album companion to this issue, have also both been involved in various projects whose genesis in some way began on the freejazz.org website – the multi-musician Cadavre Esquis project and the freejazz.org samplers. Living in Brisbane, Massimo has less opportunity of finding a flourishing free improv community as his counterparts in America or Europe, which has perhaps led to a greater focus on polishing his own solo style, leading to a mastering of orthodox jazz playing and the use of an impressive range of extended techniques.

Given this isolation, the internet has proved an important way of making himself heard, and, alongside the aforementioned freejazz.org projects, he has set up Array Music, a net-label/blog to release his latest recordings, which are often lengthy solo experiments, employing elements of musical vocabulary which have much in common with electro-acoustic improvisation, as well as more linear, jazz-influenced pieces. He writes: “An array is a way of considering manifold possibilities simultaneously. When we are no longer bound by the constraints of time, the past-present-future, the beginning and end, it is then that we must turn to concepts like arrays that allow us to consider all the endless possibilities that would be available to us simultaneously in that one endless moment outside of time. It is in considering this that we might be able to reach something beyond our own earthly existence. Array focuses on improvisation as a tool for attempting to touch that state outside of time by examining these endless possibilities.” In practice, this means a laudable generic openness (without by any means adopting a scattershot or unfocussed approach), a willingness and an ability to test out an multiplicity of instrumental approaches and of different instruments.

‘All Angles’, the tenth release on Array, mixes Magee’s solo work with that of New Zealander Lee Noyes, as well as featuring collaborations between the two men. Divided into three sections, it’s clear that there’s something of a constructive plan behind the collection of pieces, rather than simply throwing together haphazard moments. Thus, the first section uses some deliberately lo-fi recordings, apparently arising from Magee and Noyes’ desire to recreate the ambience of 1980s experimental cassette tape releases. In some ways this feels rather too artificial, but I suppose it’s no more artificial an aesthetic choice than the way most musicians choose to present their recordings, and, while one could argue that the obscuring of detail that the lo-fi medium tends to encourage mitigates against the textural subtlety of this music, in practice, it provides a nicely rough edge to the improvisations. This is particularly the case with Noyes’ rhythmic ‘Guitar Solo’, where creaks and scrapes, fingerpicking twangs and snappy harmonics, give it the quality of a field recording, invoking the ghostly presence of vinyl hiss – such a vital part of the way we hear much folk music – while at the same time remaining true to the reality of the improvised moment (the blare of an MSN sound alert is left in, unedited), rather than falsely archaic.

The vocalised harmonics three minutes into Magee’s tenor sax solo ‘Friction’ come out as particularly unearthly given the lo-fi recording method, while the clicks and pops of his fingerwork sound out, not with the resonance of natural chambers, as in John Butcher’s recent work, but with a kind of boxy, constricted quality that intensifies their hardness, their physical strength and impact. At times, Magee’s playing calls to mind feed squeaking on a polished floor, the clatter of claws from animals’ rushing feet on wooden floorboards; at others, it is intensely vocalised, with some particular startling, screaming yawps which are exhilarating but also almost threatening.

The shrill circularities of the following soprano solo, ‘Relativity’, while often piercing, take place within a somewhat lighter sonic environment: the slight background buzz (which could be traffic roar, or a more natural sound) affords a greater space, a less claustrophobic setting for lines which swirl round ideas in which can be found the joy of constant invention. Tumbling note cascades shrill up to repeated, bird-like calls (there’s a particularly notable example six minutes in), exploiting the soprano’s capacity for clarity and its beguiling, sometimes dizzying upper-register possibilities.

Another Noyes solo, for drums and sampler, is more spacious and fleeting yet, distant squeaks and echoes, clangs and cymbal crashes never assuming the linear melodic single-mindedness of Magee’s improvisations.

Part Two, ‘Patchwork Piece’, the longest track on the album so far, would seem to have been constructed via e-mail collaboration (given the title). While the solos preceding it tended to be more developmental and strongly focussed on where they were going – unhesitatingly directional – this begins much more slowly, electronic sounds punctuating silences with noisy bursts alternately harsh and strident. A keyboard improvisation four minutes in battles silence, trilling up to cluster chords, arpeggiating into more melodious territory, is joined by high, sine-like drones and Noyes’ quasi-militaristic snare-playing, before distorting into a barrage of sharp noise, a higher and more piercing sine tone, the chipmunk whiz of a tape machine with the fast-forward button held down. Cassette tape buzz, magnified up in the mix over a yawping saxophone improvisation, gives way to a drum solo, again slightly militaristic, concentrating as it does on a regular, repeating pulse. Saxophone re-enters and dominates the mix, the whole texture always altering underneath – sometimes guitar, sometimes keyboard, sometimes drums – the music never content to pursue any one direction at the expense of other possibilities. A fade-out on what sounds like yet another new section, at the end of the piece, indicates that the conversation is far from over, the musical potential far from exhausted.

The second disc contains Part 3, the album’s live section. Once more, things start in dialogue with silence, buzzes and hisses and whines from Noyes matched by Magee, who is trying, it seems, to make his saxophone sound as electronic as possible. The use of pre-recorded (or perhaps live sampled) sounds adds to the textural complexity and unpredictability of the music, while not detracting from its curious, almost trance-like pull, as Magee breathes out a sustained single note with a lonely persistence that here passes for the most human and lovely sound available. Compared to the ‘patchwork’ collaboration, this is more focussed, more attuned to the moment, rather than busy with the buzz of electronically-stitched possibilities; it’s the sort of synchronicity and collaborative sensitivity that’s only really possible given real-time interaction within the same acoustic space.

Another, briefer excerpt from a live recording begins with Noyes alternating foreboding picked guitar figures wand distorted strums, Magee dramatically holding notes and overblowing in tandem. An aural jump cut finds Magee now playing trumpet with the brassy insouciance of a Donald Ayler, the faint sound of his soprano sax unobtrusively sampled in the background, Noyes now in gentler, acoustic fingerpicking mode. It’s an odd but rather effective textural combination.

The album opened with one jazz warhorse, ‘Round Midnight’, rendered as a rather sprightly and perhaps also rather fraught lo-fi showcase for soprano and drums; ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ ends proceedings, Magee’s clarinet more flowing and lyrical, Noyes’ acoustic guitar picking lines around his companion’s effulgent melodicisms in more inquisitive fashion. (David Grundy)

 

JIM McAULEY – THE ULTIMATE FROG

Label: Drip Audio

Release Date: 2008

Tracklist: DISC 1 – Improvisation # 12; nika’s Love Ballad; Improvisation # 5; November Night; Improvisation # 1; Escape Tones; A Ditty for NC; Improvisation #6; The Zone of Avoidance; Froggy’s Magic Twanger; Huddie’s Riff; Il Porcellino; DISC 2– Jump Start; Improvisation # 9; Bullfrogs and Fireflies; Successive Approximations; Improvisation # 11; Five’ll Get Ya’ Ten; Work with Warp; “no snare!”; Improvisation # 10; Angie Moreli Truly Confesses; Okie Dokie; For Rod Poole

Personnel: Jim McAuley: guitar; Leroy Jenkins: violin, viola; Nels Cline: guitar; Alex Cline: percussion; Ken Filiano: bass

Probably best known playing as part of the ‘Acoutic Guitar Trio’ with Nels Cline and Rod Poole, Jim McAuley here appears in duet with a number of other musicians, including Cline (and his brother, Alex). Poole was murdered in 2007, and the disc ends with a short tribute. Leroy Jenkins, too, died before the album’s release (his contributions were recorded much earlier than the others, back in 2002), and it’s a nice opportunity to hear once more the way his violin and viola lines sing out with confidence and with strength.

Like Jenkins, McAuley is a melodic acoustic player, but he isn’t afraid of more ‘avant’ sounds. Nate Dorward’s liners note how sympathetic a playing partner McAuley is, his personal, private-seeming approach (which isn’t so much reservation as an intense awareness of self) not precluding the ability to interact with others. This is an innerness which is not compromised by reaching out; which may, in fact, know itself more fully for having shared and stretched itself outside the confines of the closed-off individual, of solipsism. As a whole, McAuley’s playing makes the record sound quite folky, almost Americana-ish at times, but he’s never happy to settle into that mode, employing a variety of techniques and sounds, with plenty of twanging and slide guitar as well as harmonics and Bailey-esque spacings and shadings. Mostly, he alternates between the realms of the quiet and mysterious or more scrabbly explorations.

            Disc One opens with Jenkins displaying his elegance and keen melodic sense as ever, while ‘Nika’s Love Ballad’ has the grace and tenderness one might expect from the title, Nels Cline and McAuley quietly strumming; a second duet with Jenkins is frantic and shorter. ‘November Night’ is the first piece to feature percussion, but is the quietest yet, Alex Cline’s bells complementing McAuley’s own bell-like guitar. As the track proceeds, McAuley starts to spin out more lines, more notes, but it all unfolds absolutely at its own pace, as unhurried as it can be. There’s a certain pathos to it, the spinning out of remembered sorrow, wistfully contemplating events floating past on reverberations of bells, events threading together on spirals of memory. There spins a story, darker, lower guitar scramblings leading to gongs, rising winds, then higher melody chimes to rest.

The third Jenkins duet sounds like it might be hinting at jazz; with pizzicato violin and plucking guitar it’s a scrabbly-jazz flavoured improv at first before Jenkins starts bowing with that characteristic tone of his and it turns flowing, violin melody lines over guitar accompaniment, ending beautifully as Jenkins repeats high notes with guitar harmonics punctuating the silent background.

‘Escape Tones’ marks the first appearance of bassist Ken Filiano, tracing parallel, nicely symmetrical lines alongside McAley. ‘Ditty for NC’, their second collaboration, finds McAuley exploring bell sonorities reminiscent of ‘November Night’, but with more of a gamelan tinge. Seesaw bowed bass and a repeating dark guitar pattern take over, before the mood turns to wonder with tinkling guitar and yearning high arco playing. A ‘solemn jazz’ bass solo in the vein of Dave Holland’s 70s work dies away into more ‘seesaw’ playing before McAuley ends it.

The sixth improvisation with Leroy Jenkins opens with solo violin; upon entering, McAuley takes an accompanying role, echoing and shading Jenkins’ playing with some twangy, Beefheart-esque sounds, interspersed with more picky textural material. There’s a lot of variety to the accompaniment but it never sounds pick ’n mix, and it always manages to relate to what Leroy’s doing. The longest track on the disc, at over 7 minutes, it ends with Jenkins’ repeating high pitches.

‘The Zone of Avoidance’ has quiet, almost-bleak guitar sprinkled with harmonics and tripping melody through chromaticism and fret squeaks. Once Ken Filiano enters, McAuley’s playing expands out to high yearning before the piece ends in similar vein to that which it begun.

It’s nice to hear an improv disc which concentrates on short, crafted tracks such as the above – not that this in any way limits their freedom or imaginative scope; rather, they’re like small, extremely well-crafted artefacts, existing in their small scale for what they are, touching on varieties of textural combinations, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic developments, modes of musical thought and emotional pull. Whether it’s accompanied by certainty or uncertainty, there’s always a strong sense of purpose. In fact, it often sounds as though a written melody opens the tracks in some cases, so that we have is almost theme-solos-theme: or perhaps simply an ability to remember and to return, to give the tracks a pleasing circular developmental aspect, though at times things are more open-ended, the way they subside suggesting future possibility rather than the exhaustion of a particular set of ideas.

‘Froggy’s Magic Twanger’ finds McAuley and Cline exploiting some alternative guitar textures: their combined glassy strums sound as if they might suddenly shatter and disappear. Balalaika tinkling, tactile jingling. Things turn increasingly ominous as low rumbles offset the higher pitches (Nate Dorward’s liners describe this section as a “dark hullabaloo”).

Alex Cline’s percussion enters almost imperceptibly a minute into ‘Huddie’s Riff’; he then determines to make the occasional crashing, non-standard drum sound while McAuley runs away with repeating low slide guitar, stopping before it reaches too much of a frenzy and his slide turns twangy, as (perhaps) he imagines himself sailing down the river just as ‘Deliverance’ is about to get nasty. Cline is still there with hovering cymbals and all sorts of busy sounding things. The near-random force of his percussive strikes somehow still manages to sync with the guitar, a combination which increasingly comes to resemble a spirited stomp that’s somehow gone wrong. After that, this first disc ends with ‘Il Porcellino’, a thoughtful-sounding solo track.

By way of contrast, the ‘Jump Start’ to disc two is a playful duet with Nels Cline, in which both guitarists play noticeably separate lines much more than on the previous tracks. Things become a little more wonderingly exploratory, a little more mysterious in mood. A ninth improvisation with Leroy Jenkins is again playful, pizzicato violin in tandem with scrabbly guitar. Ken Filiano’s bowed drone bass on ‘Bullfrogs and Fireflies’ changes the pace: like Disc One’s ‘November Night’, with which it shares titular affinities, its hanging sounds approximate silence, a filled space which seems endlessly open and free. The most serene track for a while, it does turn a little more sombre as McAuley starts playing slide, and the mood is once more mysterious on ‘Sucessive Approximations’, as he picks his way carefully over Filiano’s arco harmonics. Leroy Jenkins’ playing on ‘Improvisation # 11’ is again jazz tinged and melodic, with McAuley taking more of an accompanying role; on ‘Five’ll Get Ya Ten’, it’s Alex Cline’s turn to be the more understated of the playing partners, with McAuley spinning out lyrical patterns.

Moving on via ‘avant’ sounds on the double-guitar ‘Warp’, ‘No Snare’ finds Alex Cline’s drums a little busier, though that’s a relative assessment: Cline never really plays loud, and neither is he obtrusively or squarely rhythmic – rather, he seems at all times to be concerned with extracting the most appropriate and varied textures he can.

‘Improvisation # 10’ – bowed guitar and breathy viola: if it was possible to make a bow sliding over animal gut sound like a human mouth, Leroy Jenkins could find a way, testing his instrument’s capacities at the same time as evincing a profound respect for its limitations, playing to its strengths, as it were. It feels as if there is a lot compressed into this track, a lot of (dare one call it emotional?) pressure. That the piece doesn’t implode under the weight of all this stuff that’s brought to it is testament to the musicians’ unwavering focus.

Another of the ballad/mysterious pieces, ‘Angie Moreli Truly Confesses’; ‘Okie Dokie’, a purposeful beginning and a nice meaty improv with Filiano refusing to merely ‘accompany’, giving the guitar solo a real propulsive urgency, creating conditions in which the music cannot stand still.

And then e album closes on a poignant note, with McAuley’s solo tribute to Rod Poole. Is the sound of falling rain at the beginning really a necessary adjunct to the piece which speaks for itself? Well, it is hard to deny that it adds something, gives the track an intimate feel, as if McAuley was just picking away in his room on a dark day when it seemed to be thoughts of his absent friend that made the skies grey as much as any cloud formations. (David Grundy)

NILS PETTER MOLVAER – HAMADA

Release Date: 2009

Label: Sula Records

Tracklist: Exhumation; Sabkah; Icy Altitude; Friction; Monocline; Soft Moon Shine; Monocline Revisited; Cruel Altitude; Lahar; Anticline

Personnel: Nils Petter Molvaer: trumpet, voices, percussion, programming; Eivind Aarset: guitar, bass, programming; Jan Bang: live sampling, field recording, programming; Audun Erlein: bass; Audun Kleive: drums

I’ve always been quite fond of Nils Petter Molvaer’s wispy trumpet melodies and ambient atmospheres, though I must admit I’ve tended to encounter them only in passing, and my appreciation couldn’t thus be described as either that of a true ‘fan’ or a particularly informed critic. So I tried an experiment, playing Molvaer’s 2002 album ‘NP3’ back-to-back with this latest offering from 2009. In an interview on the All About Jazz website, Molvaer describes ‘NP3’ as his angriest album, and hints at a political dimension which he perceives in the way he works: “just playing music—that’s communication at a very high level. Working together to make something sound good, working together to make the other people sound better, more honest—this sort of interaction is, to me, a political act, especially in contrast to this chaos we’re living in.” Coming in the midst of a discussion on the use of samples, this pricks up one’s ears – but, while I’m not asking for conceptual music or for a really stringent socio-politico-cultural-geographical-anthropological approach (no, really, I’m not!), the reality is that even looking for a smaller challenge or attempt at engagement is going to be disappointing. Making the music ‘political’ seems to be limited to the second track, ‘Axis of Ignorance’, where the voices of fundamentalist preachers are sampled alongside a set of beats which are a little more crunky and hard-edged than usual. There’s also a video of a 20-minute NPV live performance which ends by sampling ‘Bushwhacked’, British satirist Chris Morris’ cut-up of George Bush’s state of the union address. In itself, ‘Bushwhacked’ is a masterly piece of work, bitter yet with a fierce some of humour that is, occasionally, perversely childish, without losing its politico-polemical edge (Bush, for instance, is made to say “The American flag stands for corporate scandals, recession, stock market declines, blackmail, burning with hot irons, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, terror, mass murder, and rape”, but also, more absurdly, “we must offer every child in America three nuclear missiles”). Yet just to play it underneath some beats and trumpet atmospherics doesn’t seem to me the most political act, doesn’t seem to do much more than invoke politics as a surface, an afterthought, an add-on, rather than something sunk deep into the marrow of form.

            So, I played ‘NP3’ alongside ‘Hamada’ and trying to distinguish any major stylistic, structural or textural shifts. The ‘political’ bent seems to be gone in favour of atmosphere; while the reviews I’ve read have described it as being very dark and challenging, to me it sounds pretty similar to the rest of his output – melancholic (the ambient ‘Icy Altitude’), mysterious and cryptic (the opening of ‘Friction’), fragile and delicate (‘Soft Moon Shine’).

            Well, is it beautiful? Yes, a little bit, maybe, whatever beauty means – let’s substitute ‘pretty’ in for that, it’s pretty and calming and those self-help kind of things, introspective and moody as we like it when we put on our ‘Miles Davis for Lovers’ compilations. And at moments Miles really does seem to be in the house, which isn’t really pastiche on NPV’s part, his sidling breathy muffled whines and soft songs are established as his own now and he does them well. Perhaps too well, and perhaps too often, though: it’s just too predictable. When the beats whip up and the guitar rips out some distortion and shreds a bit (on the second half of ‘Friction’ and on ‘Cruel Altitude’) one has to ask, if that burst of guitar sounds ferocious, isn’t that just because the rest of the album is otherwise too monotone, too one-track? Apart from the aforementioned exceptions, each piece is virtually indistinguishable from the next; ‘Hamada’ forces one into background listening, forces one to shy away from detail or even some broader, yet still engaged zone of activity. It neatly spreads itself out as aural wallpaper which looks a little edgy but which doesn’t ultimately have very much to it. And those exceptions, those explosions, are very managed explosions, brief highs to enable one’s blood to rise a little so that the next incline feels like a gentle release, a gentle float down to calmer climes rather than a let-down, yet another melodic and peaceful, gently sorrowful piece keeping us in the valley when we want to climb the mountain for a more interesting view.

NPV is playing jazz lines a lot of the time (albeit from a rather strange perspective, which, like Arve Henriksen, builds on the quiet, ballad aspects of Miles Davis and takes that as the supreme starting point), but the background isn’t jazz – OK, nothing wrong with that. But let’s compare Jon Hassell’s latest, which, on the surface, is pretty similar in its combination of electronic trumpet musings with ambient backgrounds and occasionally faster paced beats. NPV’s sense of texture is far less acute: too often, it feels that the other musicians are simply delivering backgrounds, occasionally spiced up with a ‘world music’ field-recording, for him to play over – even though, it must be said, he’s not a flashy jazz soloist. Hassell, meanwhile, manages to integrate himself a lot more into the overall texture, so that the music feels more like real-time interaction or even post-production crafted interaction – for example, the way the band toss around the motif of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ on ‘Abu Gil’. There’s nothing really comparable on ‘Hamada’. And it must be noted that, whereas Hassell’s rhythmic sense comes from years of studying and thinking about the musics of other cultures, NPV owes a lot more to the fare more simplistic assimilation of rhythmic ideas into modern pop. The problem for me is that, while the sheer overburdening of repetition, the manic, mechanical, super-fast thrash found in the more extreme forms of modern electronic/dance music (let’s say, the usual suspects – Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher), is trying to accomplish something specific which can be remarkably compelling within its own limits and contexts, NPV is simply using the basic sounds of such music as something to go underneath some inoffensive trumpet playing which kills its thrust and momentum stone dead, which neutralizes it, sterilizes it. Even the opportunities to soar into a delicately anthemic climax a la the better moments of Jaga Jazzist are skipped – 1:40 into second track ‘Sabkah,’ a soft wash of sound beautifully compliments Molvaer’s trumpet lines, but drops out almost as soon as it appeared – it’s a telling sense of hesitancy, of holding back, or simply of too much comfort, of staying inside the confines that one sketched out for oneself years ago and outside which one feels no particular inclination to stray. (David Grundy)

JOE MORRIS – WILDLIFE

Label: AUM Fidelity

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: Geomantic; Thicket; Crow; Nettle

Personnel: Petr Cancura: alto and tenor saxophones; Joe Morris: double bass; Luther Gray: drums

            Joe Morris is widely known as the improvising guitarist who rigorously avoids all extended techniques, ‘effects’ and noise elements from his playing to concentrate on harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and dynamic methods of non-repetitive musical interaction. Here he breaks new ground by playing the whole album on double bass. It’s still what is usually known as freebop, improvised from beginning to end. To call the overall method of working ‘time no changes’ would not be too much of an exaggeration, even if the walking style Morris cultivates is fluid enough to accommodate all the changing inventions of his colleagues. There is none of William Parker’s endlessly volatile style of ensemble playing.

            To quote from the liner notes:- ‘Wildlife improvises openly and collectively. Sometimes a fundamental musical idea can be enough to offer clear direction. Tempo, relation to pulse, line, repetition or the decision to change direction might be all we use or need…’ Morris, as might be expected, uses no extended techniques, nor does he even bow. Cancura uses multiphonics occasionally, as well as vocalizing his timbre, but hints of all-out mayhem of the ‘power trio’ persuasion are only hints here; the intensity simmers, below the surface maybe. Gray’s drumming stays relatively muted too, even on his solo spots. Morris’s solos are not unduly extraverted either; not for him the flamboyance of a Mingus or a Barry Guy, but he works out his ideas clearly and logically, not that the level of virtuosity approaches his guitar technique.

On the longest track Thicket (not as dense as the title might suggest) he introduces proceedings with what might be called a polyrhythmic ostinato, and the harmonic development is reminiscent of a free take on modal improvising, with a strong flavour of 1970s New York lofts.

            Morris has played live little enough in Britain, and the recording that was made during his 1996 visit with Hession/Wilkinson/Fell revealed , despite some highly engaging moments, something akin to ‘language difficulties’ or differences in idiom. In 2007 he performed again with Simon Fell at the Vortex in London and, given the venue’s mediocre (at best) acoustics and ambience, some remarkable music was played. The other musicians, Tim Berne, Gail Brand and Steve Noble seemed to achieve a better blend. Of course the best musical setting for Morris in this country would, I think, be the circle of players loosely associated with Gary Coombes, Neil Metcalfe, John Rangecroft, Gary Todd and Nick Stephens.

            What we really need is more venues where this kind of music can be heard every night into the small hours. (Sandy Kindness)

PHOSPHOR – PHOSPOR II

Label: potlach

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: P7; P8; P9; P10; P11; P12

Personnel: Burkhard Beins: percussion, objects, small electrics; Axel Dorner: trumpet, electronics; Robin Hayward: tuba; Annette Krebs: guitar, objects, electronics, tape; Andrea Neumann: inside piano, mixing board; Michael Renkel: prepared nylon string acoustic guitar via computer; Ignaz Schick: turntable, objects, bows

Additional Information: Recorded Tesla, Berlin, September 2006

Hiss. Scratch. Drag of needle on vinyl, click, buzz, blowing breath. ‘P7’ sounds in some way industrial. Activity might be too strong a word for it; it’s more like the technological apparatus in David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’, always threatening some action (maybe even catastrophic) but never quite breaking out into that, locked in constant tension. Later in the track, one jazz guitar chord. It sounds wonderful, isolated in this context. No need to follow it up. Just another sound, not even a consciously deployed generic element, no need for that sort of thing. The structure is extremely well-managed, small examples throwing into sudden clarity just how much control the musicians have in their freedom: the same mouthpiece blow with which Dorner opened the record sounds again after a longish silence half-way through, almost like a return to a theme. Again, this need not and does not translate into a pattern or precedent: it’s just there as itself, in the moment it takes to sound out, and then something else has taken its place.

Similarly, on ‘P11’, when Dorner actually blows a couple of recognisable, conventional trumpet notes on the fifth track, the shock (or the catch in the throat) thus provoked is not dwelt on. The atmosphere is almost melancholic, a singing bell sounds, a triangle taps, lonely in isolation. It’s not sustained: radiator hiss, swishing metal pan, harrumphing – another zone entered, quietly left before it establishes itself too comfortably.

‘P8’: at first, sustained, quiet but piercing sine tones dominate. Hayward’s tuba is thus far playing the ‘conventional instrument’ role the most out of anyone’s, although mostly that just means single notes as one small element in the overall hissing texture. A few minutes in, it issues what develops into a drone-like section, not ‘atmospherics’ in the vein the word ‘drone’ might imply, but still, as close to atmospherics as this disc gets, and lovely for it. A really sharp and loud scratching sound rips the veil without completely shredding it asunder, allows nothing to be too serenely unquiet.

‘P9’: musical boxes, little pinging metal tones, guitar strums, Webernian uncertainty, barely. Buzzes. Things building, then Dorner’s loud aeroplane take-off imitation (as on the first piece of his mesmerising solo album, ‘Trumpet’), far from the near-serene delicacies with which the track began. High, bird-tweet rhythmic patterns: like lots of the sounds here, these sound as if they’ve emerged from small machines set in motion, re-constructed loops, a workshop of mechanical miniatures.

The group that made this album is fairly large, and the restraint displayed throughout is impeccable. Even those sections (not so much ‘climaxes’) loud enough to be particularly intense and near-devastating in impact (when heard on headphones) are often initiated and sustained by just one person, most often Dorner. Transitions are so delicate that one wonders whether they can really be called ‘transitions’ at all; full attention is therefore needed to appreciate the full range of sonic events, and the relations between them. Yet when such close concentration is applied, it becomes clear that this music does not risk loss; rather, it is blessed with absolute clarity, its textures often a challenge – as they must be, in order to avoid too much ready comfort – but always a real pleasure. (David Grundy)

ODEAN POPE – PLANT LIFE

Label: Porter Records

Release date: 2008

Tracklist: Two Dreams Part 1; Happiness Tears; Plant Life; I Want To Talk About You; Scorpio Twins; Thoughts; Multiphonic; Two Dreams Part 2

Personnel: Odean Pope: tenor saxophone; Sunny Murray: drums; Lee Smith: bass

Additional information: All compositions by Pope, except Happiness Tears and I Want To Talk About You by Murray. Recorded at Rittenhouse Recording, Philadelphia May 18th 2008

Many readers will have first become familiar with Odean Pope through his tenure with the Max Roach Quartet. This trio finds Pope playing with another drummer of similarly legendary status, this time the free jazz firebrand veteran Sunny Murray. This is at first hearing a workmanlike and honest run through of a number of original themes from three excellent musicians which whilst being solid does not distinguish itself from many similar efforts. However, further listenings reveal subtleties in every piece and Murray is exceptional throughout, using his vast experience to move the trio along whilst never playing explicitly on the beat – a truly remarkable man.

The set is bookended by versions of Pope’s song Two Dreams and on the first version the theme is played in a slow stately manner before being improvised on and underpinned by strong walking bass from Smith. After a drum and bass interlude the theme is restated at a slightly faster pace before Murray brings the piece to a close. Happiness Tears is the first of Murray’s songs, the theme being somehow clumsy but superbly cushioned by Murray himself – concentrate just on Murray’s playing and try to work out how he relates to the written notes and improvising of Pope and Smith!

The title track lopes along at a bossa nova pace and Smith locks into a groove to which Murray responds with as near to a regular pulse as he gets on this CD. Pope is tonally strong throughout and contributes original scores which enable Smith and Murray to contribute equally to the fabric of the music.

I Want To Talk About You is almost definitively how a jazz ballad should sound and it’s instructive to think that it came from Murray’s pen. An improvising drummer and contributor to so many free jazz ensembles over forty odd years he has also clearly amassed excellent compositional technique as well. Pope’s reading of the song is sensitive and the piece sounds as if it could have come from almost any period in the development of jazz. Murray is inventive throughout; he never seems to play the same fill twice; and Smith includes several quotes from standards in his solo.

Sorpion Twins commences with a Smith bass introduction before Pope and Murray enter with Pope playing in unison with Smith. Pope’s Coltrane influence are evident as he works improvises on the theme before bringing it to a close. Thoughts contains quite simply Pope’s standout playing on the CD. It is played solo using circular breathing and multiphonic techniques and interest doesn’t waver. Sensitive recording captures the entire instrument, including pad movements and this ballad is every bit as good as Murray’s though containing, almost be definition, more of Pope. Multiphonic starts with arco bass which gives way to plucking before Pope’s entry above scattering rhythmic tattoos from Murray. Smith’s arco then follows Pope closely as the song develops and his personality is allowed to surface more readily than on any of the other tracks.

Two Dreams finishes the set in duo fashion, with Murray seemingly not on the track. This CD may not immediately grab you and demand attention but over the course of a number of listens it is well worth persevering with – a tenor led trio which will reward your patience. (Nick Dart)

ANTONELLO SALIS – PIANOSOLO

Label: CAM Jazz

Release Date: February 2006

Tracklist: Zuraba Blue; Cerra al Libertador; Con L’Acqua Alla Golla; Totem; To My Wife; Hola; La Dolce Vita; Salismaninoff; Graffo di Costa; Nightmare N.20; Financial Time

Personnel: Antonello Salis: piano, voice

Sardinian pianist Antonello Salis is, I must admit, a recent discovery for me, my acquaintance with the Italian scene mostly being limited to players who tend to work in more mainstream contexts, such as the trumpeters Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu. On the evidence of this disc, though, and of his the more recent duet recording with another trumpeter, Fabrizio Bosso, I may have some serious catching up to do. This solo outing alternates between swooning jazz-ballad runs, thick, dense, low-register clusters (Salis seems particularly fond of the lower area of the keyboard, utilising for a number of different effects and in a number of different contexts), percussive prepared piano playing, and the hearty, deliberately exaggerated pounding out of melodies. Salis’ total commitment to the music he’s making doesn’t mean an entirely serious focus: or, rather, he demonstrates a generous spirit, a loveable directness, an emotionalism and brash risk-taking which – dare one say it – can seem a little vulgar at times, though more often than not it entirely succeeds in sweeping one up in its flow.

There’s plenty of humour, as when he accompanies his piano playing with some gargling on ‘Con L’Acqua Alla Golla’. The voice, in fact, is an important part of the whole experience, imparting a real sense of physical engagement to the playing that manages to translate through the recorded medium. One might contrast the way he sings along to Keith Jarrett’s similar vocalisations; in Jarrett’s case, the singing is part of a whole manner of introversion, a total concentration, the public manifestation of a very private loss into another world, whereas Salis is determined to take everyone else along with him into that world. While this means that he’s perhaps a little more slapdash than Jarrett (or maybe just more loose), the ultimate feel is of a great pleasure being taken in what is being done, of a great joy that travels from musician to listener in warm-hearted exchange. (David Grundy)

IRENE SCHWEIZER/ FRED ANDERSON/ HAMID DRAKE –

WILISAU AND TAKTLOS

Label: Intakt

Release Date: 2007

Tracklist: A Former Dialogue; Trinity; Schwandrake; Wilisau

Personnel: Fred Anderson: tenor sax (tracks 2-4); Irène Schweizer: piano; Hamid Drake: drums

Additional Information: Recorded August 28, 2004 at Jazzfestival Willisau by Schweizer Radio DRS2 and March, 28, 1998 at Taktlos-Festival Zürich.

The opening track is a 20-minute dialogue for Schweizer and Drake, and Cecil Taylor’s many duets with drummers immediately spring to mind, but of course aren’t slavishly adhered to in the slightest. The piece is beautiful for its constant invention, Drake matching Schweizer’s energy in boiling waves of sound. Schweizer’s preference is for a dialogue between hands – she’ll play a phrase higher up the keyboard and then answer it, either by repeating it or producing some recognisable variation on it, lower down: or the process will be reversed. If that sounds somewhat mechanical, in fact, it’s a technique so internalised as a means of musical thinking that it occurs at lightning speed. About seventeen minutes into the consistently intense duo, Schweizer’s playing segues into jazz in a way that’s both utterly unpredictable and totally inspired; in truth, it was signalled three minutes earlier, as the thickness of her assault began to imperceptibly become less dense, her dizzying right hand runs accompanied with some gorgeous thick chords. Her playing becomes more and more spacious until she drops out altogether, leaving Drake to draw the line between edgy fleet-footedness and pummelling, cymbal-accentuated waves which build themselves up into faster and louder clusters of energy before dropping back slightly for the next go. Schweizer’s return is at once crushing and limpid, sonorous left-hand melodic statements giving at once an air of finality and preparing us for more.

Fred Anderson’s playing isn’t always my cup of tea, it has to be said – I find a little wearing his recourse to be-bop vocabulary and to particularly licks which tend to get repeated several times in every solo he plays – but he’s on top form here, going places I wouldn’t have guessed he was capable of. Whereas in his preferred trio format, he tends to coast a little, bass and drums (often Drake, in fact) locking into

easy or hard grooves over which he can blow as he knows, here, Schweizer makes that impossible. It’s not that she forces either Anderson or Drake to go ‘her way’; more, her spirit of restless invention motivates them to reach similar levels of musical agility, improvisational athleticism.

She begins ‘Trinity’ as she ended ‘A Former Dialogue’, with granite, stylised bass-register melodies. Tinkling Cecil Taylor licks, bolstered up by Drake’s loud rolls, bring in Anderson and saxophone and piano exchange streams of molten melody, Schweizer alternating between strongly rhythmic and jazzy runs which provoke Anderson to some of his harshest honks, as if to disassociate himself from the be-bop aspects of his musical vocabulary which Schweizer at one moment encourages, the next refuses (for her playing rarely stays still, never focuses on just one place, one area of musical activity). The drops and rises in this trialogue are just mesmerising to hear; Schweizer sounds like she would never run out of ideas, and is one of those players who provoke whoever’s sharing the stage with her to a similar prodigious joy in the unending realms of creative possibility. And it continues for another forty minutes, until Schweizer flings out cluster-splurges to signal the end of the manic dance which Drake’s gusto-filled oom-pahs have half-parodically been leading, leaving Anderson’s final two honks to bring in the screams. (David Grundy)

ARCHIE SHEPP – PHAT JAM IN MILANO

Label: Archie Ball

Release Date: April 2009

Tracklist: Dig; Ill Biz; Kashmir; The Life we Chose; Revolution; Casket; Ill Biz (Radio Edit)

Personnel: Archie Shepp: tenor sax, vocals; Oliver Lake: alto sax; Cochemea Gastelum: tenor sax ; Napoleon Maddox: vocals; Joe Fonda: bass; Hamid Drake: drums

Additional Information: Recorded live in concert at Teatro Manzoni, Milano, Italy, on November 19th, 2007.

As ever when Shepp releases a new disc these days, one has to ask: what’s new about this? Well, on the surface, a few things: Napoleon Madox, beat-boxer and rapper from group IsWhat? provides rhythmic amplification with his voice and delivers some rap polemix. Oliver Lake’s there too, not a bad thing. But listen to ‘Phat Jam’ and it’s clear that Shepp’s riding the same crest he’s been riding for the past few decades. For instance: has he been performing ‘Revolution/Mama Rose’ inordinate amounts of times since it first appeared on 1969’s ‘Poem for Malcolm’? Well…yes. At least he doesn’t trot out his other very old warhouse, ‘Steam’, again, I suppose. The new tracks are pleasant enough – ‘Casket’ is, as far as I can tell, derived from ‘A Night in Tunisia’, ‘Kashmir’ has a certain urgency to it, ‘Ill Biz’ is a fairly catchy anti-Bush rant by Madox: decent jazz-rap. But the context in which Shepp places himself allows for absolutely no surprises; his playing, though still peppered with bluesy honks and free-jazz-ish yelps, has none of the edge that it did in the 60s. Whereas recordings like ‘Coral Rock’ or ‘Kwanza’ or even ‘Attica Blues’ worked pretty well as politically-conscious, heavily-R&B-tinged versions of jazz, in which Shepp’s rough-edged sax had a forceful impact over surging rhythms and righteous riffs, the space he’s in now is an odd sort of compromise between frankly dull traditionalist jazz (by traditionalist, I mean hobbled to clichés, rather than in the fresh and necessary dialogue with traditions which Shepp presumably hopes to be engaging in) and token nods to new styles of African-American music.

Once upon a time Shepp wouldn’t have been interested in being bigged up by Napoleon Madox (‘Dig’) and would have just launched straight in to blowing the joint off the sucker. Not any more. It’s almost as if he needs to be constantly reminded that he’s a ‘great jazz artist’, and that such a reminder leaves him free of the need to take risks, rather than spurring him on to keep it fresh.

So, ‘Phat Jam’ is totally listenable and probably quite good fun if you’ve never heard anything else of Shepp’s, but, Madox’s presence excepted (and, let’s be honest, while beat-boxing along to the rhythm section is cool enough, it doesn’t exactly offer the possibilities that Beaver Harris did), things ARE what they used to be in the musical world of Archie Shepp, and it’s time for a change. The music’s not BAD – but, for someone of his stature, that’s not enough. (David Grundy)

SUNN O))) – MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS

Label: Southern Lord

Release Date: May 2009

Tracklist: Aghartha; Big Church; Hunting&Gathering (Cydonia); Alice

Personnel: Stephen O’ Malley: electric guitar; Greg Anderson: bass guitar; Attila Csihar: vocals; Julian Priester, Steve Moore, Stuart Dempster: conch shell, trombone; Dylan Carlson: electric guitar; Oren Ambarchi: electric guitar, electronics, cymbal, gong, wolf log, oscillator; Cuong Vu, Tony Moore: trumpet; Taina Karr: English Horn, oboe; Josiah Boothby: French Horn; Hans Teuber: clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute; Eric Walton: piano; Rex Ritter: Moog Synthesizer, Korg Synthesizer; Steve Moore: Korg synthesizer, organ; Mell Dettmer: hydrophone, tubular bells; Melissa Walsh: harp; Eyvind Kang, Timb Harris: violin, viola; Keith Lowe , Moriah Neils , Tim Smollen: double bass; William Herzog: electric tamboura; Brad Mowen: bass drum, percussion; Jessika Kenney, Angela Kiemayer , Jutta Sierlinger , Verena Bodem, Katharina Einsiedl , Loma Döring , Stephanie Pfeffer: female choir; William Herzog, Brad Mowen, Daniel Menche, Joe Preston: male choir; Eyvind Kang, Jessika Kenney, Steve Moore, Randall Dunn, Stephen O’ Malley: arrangers

Stephen O’ Malley and Greg Anderson are known for their wide range of tastes beyond the expected avant-metal, with be-bop and Miles Davis’ electric period somewhat surprisingly cited in interviews. And it seems they’ve made a conscious effort to draw on that latter influence in particular here: ‘Aghartha’ of course references Davis’ seminal 1975 album, while ‘Big Church’ riffs on’ ‘Little Church’, a haunting little whistle and trumpet number with Hermeto Pascoal from ‘Live-Evil.’ That might be expected, given the similarly dark, dense and electric thickets of sound Miles was creating in the ’70s, but, as this record shows, the Krautrock-esque, blissed-out space-jazz sections of ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ may have been just as important. Especially so given that the final piece is a tribute to the late Alice Coltrane, creator of string-dominated devotionals whose trance-inducing, Indian-influenced ecstasies might at first seem the polar opposite of Sunn’s extended emphasis on ‘doom’ (compare, for instance, the title track of ‘Universal Consciousness’ to ‘Belülről Pusztít’ off the live album ‘Oracle’, where, underneath the monotonous growls of the lead vocalist, what sound like electric drills chatter alongside distant wails, groans, cries, and throat singing, like the sound effects for a particularly grim horror film).

The ‘standard’ massive, doomy drone barrage that opens the record is as heavy and effective as ever – rather like the Richard Serra piece which fronts the package in stark black-and-white, it plants itself firmly in the foreground and refuses to leave, though made up in its massiveness by minute gradations in texture and shade. However – and this may be where the Davis/Coltrane influence really comes into its own – it’s when Sunn branch out into more texturally varied worlds that interesting things really happen (this release sees them working with the largest number of collaborators on any of their records). Part of their strength has been the great variety they find in areas of similar texture and mood – the sustained power chord, black metal’s monotone landscape taken to its furthest extreme – yet it seems they’re not afraid of venturing out, of opening up their palette. The result is neither merely typical Sunn with added trimmings, nor insanely over-ambitious. As ever, it skirts parody and the ridiculous – but that’s an essential part of the Sunn experience, and without it, the impact would be nowhere near as powerful, nowhere near as viscerally arresting and emotionally draining.

On opener ‘Aghartha’, Attila’s vocals are atmospheric as on the LP-only ‘Domkirke’, where they really took off with the accompaniment of a massive church organ – an ambience part Gothic horror movie, part religious exploration. Here it’s a full-blown orchestra, multiple strings screeching and scratching and sliding like the creaking of a ghost ship around the words which he half-spits, half-mutters in his trademark growling bass register. Further ‘dimensions’ are added by the unearthly sounds of conch shells played by no lesser figures than ambient music pioneer Stuart Dempster and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi-sideman Julian Priester.

There’s something of a shock when ‘Big Church’ opens with a melodic female choir not that far off John Taverner, and even more when expectations are doubly subverted as Anderson and O’Malley enter with a set of power chords more intense than ever. The combination of throbbing electric guitars and full-blown choir isn’t, in fact, as crazy as it sounds; in any case, it’s nothing like the gently melancholic, mournfully wistful Miles Davis miniature it half-name-checks, as rumbling whispers, half-Gregorian chant, half speaking-in-tongues, build up until stilled by the tolling of a tubular bell. Somewhere in the mix are Earth frontman Dylan Carlson and avant-jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu; but, whereas Vu’s frequent associate Bill Frissell fitted right into the heavy Americana of Earth’s latest release, ‘Big Church’ aims for grander things, and there’s not much space for individual lines to make themselves heard. In the process, it must be admitted, the piece comes close to sounding like overblown and simplistic classical music, but the concept is so strange that it just about comes off, and it’s hard not to be carried along with the relentless force of the track’s ear-splitting climax.

‘Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia)’ substitutes the female choir for massed male voices, who replicate Attila’s droning growl. Rex Ritter’s Moog synth occasionally verges on bad taste but comes into its own as the track ends in desolate, howling feedback.

But it’s not until the final piece, ‘Alice,’ that the album really comes into its own. Starting off more like the aforementioned Earth album – with slowed-down and almost twangy riffs rather than sludgy power chords, each repetition underscored by swelling orchestral washes and ominous masses of screeching strings – the rest of the track then turns into a bizarrely uplifting extended climax as a trio of trombones enter, crawling out melodies at suitably tortuous speeds. What’s so impressive is the way the whole thing’s sustained – inevitability, and perhaps even predictability, are not problems, but the bedrock of its success; concerns about where things are going are hardly relevant when one’s actually listening to the track unfold. One knows exactly where things are going, in a general sense – it’s hard not to latch on when things happen so slowly – yet some details (such as the indefinitely-suspended sound of Oren Ambarchi’s cymbals) completely escape attention until when realizes they’ve been there for minutes, and it’s the unexpected moments which have the greatest impact: most notably, the lovely way the track concludes, Alice Coltrane-style harp arpeggios causing everything to melt away except Priester’s trombone, playing out a simple last phrase which, in context, attains an almost unbearable poignancy.

It’s hard to say at exactly which point full ecstasy is reached, or even to chart the stages, so skillfully does the whole thing sweep one up in its wake. The conclusion must be that it’s the overall momentum, the way things build and build – much as one can pinpoint moments such as the first appearance of the oboe’s counter-melody 11 minutes in, the entirety of Julian Priester’s five-minute solo, those final swells and ebbs – they would not be the same without their cumulative and reciprocal impact. All this demonstrates a masterly handling of form which, while it appears to be working on a fairly simple level, at a fairly low peak of information density, in fact requires enormous skill to pull off. However you choose to label them – composers, sound artists, improvisers, or elements of all three – Sunn continue pursue total, mind-and-body-encompassing musical experiences, and ‘Alice’ may be their finest yet.

(David Grundy)

AKI TAKASE & RUDI MAHALL – EVERGREEN

Label: Intakt

Release Date: 2008

Tracklist: Mood Indigo; I’ll Remember April; Bel Ami; Tea for Two; Moonglow; You and the Night and the Music; How Long has This Been Going On?; Cleopatra’s Dream; Beginnng to See the Light; Two Sleepy People; Good Bait; You Took Advantage of Me; It’s Only a Paper Moon; Lulu’s Back in Town

Personnel: Aki Takase: piano; Rudi Mahall: bass clarinet

            ‘What can I but enumerate old themes?’ asked W.B.Yeats in his poem about writer’s block, Circus animals’ desertion. But if you imagine that a selection of show tunes, Ellingtonia and bebop numbers (by Tadd Dameron and Bud Powell) involves the kind of looped tape of the ‘tradition’ as practised by neo-cons, nothing could be less true.

The Art ensemble of Chicago’s famous blend/clash of satire and reverence for the past is more like it, but Takase and Mahall go beyond this. The attitude is there in Ganelin’s headlong, anarchic take on Summertime and Mack the Knife, some of Braxton’s marches and other excursions into time signature once considered ‘corny’, maybe some of the musical cartoons of Willem Breuker and Han Bennink; farther in the past another precedent for the highly expressive vocalized exchanges of this duo is the replication of the sounds of spoken human dialogue on Mingus and Dolphy’s What love.

            For all that, these two as a duo (but also in their other projects) have developed an immediately identifiable sound. The unreserved immersion in left-hand stride patterns on piano, often subverted into wild dissonances, Mahall’s unparalleled attack on bass clarinet with its dynamic extremes, sparing use of extended techniques, let loose when they do occur with the impact of an explosion- can this kind of playing actually be applied to, say, I’ll remember April? Hard to believe, till you’ve heard it; yet, standards like April or How high the moon (not included here) in their original sung form were appreciably slower than the tempos used by jazz musicians as a matter of course.

            The reply to the Yeats quote at the beginning comes of course from his contemporary Ezra Pound who said ‘make it new’ in relation to translating poetry, but the relevance here should be clear. The songs are not so much reharmonized in their theme statements as given a new life in the improvisations, which harmonically may seem to be at so many removes from the original changes as to be on another planet. But Takase and Mahall obviously subscribe to the view expressed by Dolphy, Ornette and Booker Little among others that there’s no such thing as a wrong note.

            What may put some listeners off is the relentless expressiveness. Intense is not the word; whatever is the opposite of expressionless, this is it. The CD blurb calls Mahall the world’s best bass clarinettist, whatever that means, but there can be little debate that since Dolphy, and unlike most of the saxophonists who double or dabble on this instrument, you can hear him and say not just ‘that’s a bass clarinet’ but ‘that’s Rudi Mahall.’

Track 9 begins with an outburst of atonal piano, gradually joined by bass clarinet, and after about a minute the strains of the Ellington song become recognizable- ‘I never cared much for moonlit skies, I never wink back at fireflies…’ Before the reprise of the theme the meanest sustained reed multiphonics of the whole set precede a headlong section of at least double the speed of the theme. Two sleepy people is played as straight as any number here, apart from some clarinet ululations and some pretty oblique harmonies from the piano. If you were to walk into a music space and be confronted with extreme skronk, glottal, guttural, fricative, plosive, with key and time signature left in suspense and then recognize the sound of Lulu’s back in town, this is the kind of impact the final track has.

            In this age of all-too-mechanical reproduction the neo-cons’ replication of great music, ancient to c.1960s has a marked resemblance to those pop singers on Top of the Pops who mimed to their own records; whereas this CD resonates and vibrates with all manner of echoes from the past, allusions and counter references, holding out some real hope for tradition in and around jazz as a basis for creative music in the future.

            For those readers lucky enough to hear these two in 2006 either in Appleby or London (or elsewhere) this will, I hope make sense. For others who might be interested in their approach to music, but have an aversion to standards (not that this is ‘repertory’ music), I’ve added details of a few other albums which shouldn’t be too hard to find.

RECOMMENDED

  • Takase and Mahall – The dessert (Leo). Original themes with improvisations.
  • Rudi Mahall Quartett (Self-titled on Jazzwerkstatt Llabel). With Takase, Johannes Bauer, Tony Buck. Improvisations.
  • Takase- St.Louis Blues (Enja). With Mahall, Fred Frith, Nils Wogram and Paul Lovens. Mostly re(de-)constructions of W.C.Handy numbers.
  • Aki and the ‘Good boys’ – Procreation (Enja). With Mahall, Walter Gauchel, Johannes Fink and Heinrich Köbberling. Original themes with improvisation, a small amount of verbal input.
  • Takase and Silke Eberhard- Ornette Coleman anthology (Intakt 2 CDs) Reinterpretations of OC tunes for piano/reeds duo.
  • Takase and Mahall- Free zone Appleby 2006 (psi). A series of improvisations in permutated ensembles with Paul Lovens, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Phil Wachsmann.

 

(Sandy Kindness)

VARIOUS – SPECTRA: GUITAR IN THE 21st CENTURY

Label: Quiet Design

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: Three Small Pieces [Tetuzi Akiyama]; SIX [Sebastien Roux + Kim Myhr]; Nylah [Mike Vernsuky]; Music for Microtonal Guitars and Mallets – Edit [Duane Pitre]; Fermion [Cory Allen]; The End of the World [Erdem Helvacioglu]; Fragment from a Response to Cardew’s Treatise [Keith Rowe]; The World Stops [Jandek]

Personnel: Tetuzi Akiyama, Sebastien Roux, Kim Myhr, Mike Vernusky, Duane Pitre, Cory Allen, Erdem Helvacioglu, Keith Rowe, Jandek: guitar

The ‘Three Small Pieces’ by Tetuzi Akiyama occupy the same sort of territory as Taku Sugimoto’s work, at the stage before he turned even more drastically to minimalism and the extreme spacing-out of musical events. In such a context, each event, each gesture, becomes enormously weighted, though at the same time this leads to a slight sameness of atmosphere which allows things quite easily to slip into background listening. Maybe, in a way, that’s the point – while at some moments the intensity of focus demanded may raise one’s consciousness in a way that is quite non-spiritual: a heightening of sense, of perception, of attention to detail (I’m sure one could claim that it was spiritual if one was that way inclined, and these may indeed be aspects of some so-called ‘spiritual’ experience) – at others it forms something much more subliminal, much more integrated into one’s whole environment and awareness, in time with a rhythm of being. The two are closer than one might think – partly because it’s easy, when one reaches a certain level of focus, to slip out of that focus into a kind of half-aware, dream-like state, perhaps because of the difficulty of maintaining the initial state for a sustained period of time. I may have demonstrated an unwillingness to pin things down with ‘spiritual tags’, but it’s hard not to make philosophical connections with – for example – meditation practices, and I don’t feel that’s too ideologically weighted a claim to make.

The piece by Sebastien Roux and Kim Myhr again has a particular non-western quality to it, the timbres created a little reminiscent of a gamelan ensemble. Again, there’s quite an intense focus on small events, though in this case these are reversed and looped in a way that’s more circular, less linear than Akiyama’s approach. Much as I’d hate to reduce it to background music for a movie in the head, I can’t help being reminded of one of those modern short films, not so much unfolding as just hovering there in extreme close-up: shots of barely-disturbed liquid, occasional ripples in lazy outflow.

Mike Vernusky’s piece again has certain affinities with certain films and certain types of film music: the faintly-troubled drone, humming, building, gliding, faintly booming, comes across almost as the ambient sound-effects accompanying an uncertainly eerie scene, though to these it does manage to keep itself clear of becoming mere atmospherics.

Duane Pitre, a former skater turned guitarist and composer, creates music more in common with classic early minimalism: hushed drones and static microtonal not-quite melodies, zinging bowed tones leading to growing chorused abrasiveness simultaneous with a trembling rise in volume, with more microtonal strums to end.

Label founder Cory Allen builds ‘Fermion’ on metallic loops, over which what sounds like a distant choir rises and falls over. Water washes swell and fade, crackles move up and out. Erdem Helvacioglu comes across as a little more placid, his ‘End of the World’ being rather too new-agey for my liking. Drones, tinkles, and delay-pedal guitar strums play around for what seems like rather too long, though an increase in volume and a folky tinge to the guitar playing do vary things later on.

If things risked sinking into the rather inconsequential there, Keith Rowe doing Cardew’s Treatise firmly restores the balance in favour of the decidedly non-pretty. In fact, Rowe seems to be the odd one out on the disc as a whole – while he’s undoubtedly influenced a lot of the other players, a lot of whom are doing the same sort of things as him – using drones, loops and metallic sonorities – the textures he produces tend to sound more harsh, and, perhaps more importantly, the music he creates is packed much more full with event and sonic variety, is much more unpredictable in the way it unfolds.

And then Jandek caps things off – harsh in a completely different way to Rowe, and with completely different effect. There’s not a drone in sight here; rather, we have a guitar and a harmonica freed from its role syruping cowboy campfires or punctuating the verses with melodic refrains in Bob Dylan songs, smearing instead wild desolate loneliness and uncertainty.

As a whole, ‘Spectra’ covers a territory where improv crosses to composition and composition to ambient and ambient to sound art. One is slightly wary of the kind of art gallery aesthetic that settles over the whole thing – it’s easy to imagine this disc playing beside some frigid white piece of closed-off eye-candy for the ‘sophisticated’ arty wing of today’s rich. But then again, maybe it’s some howl in the science-fiction night, technology’s quiet scream, its metallic sheen in which we see our own mesmerised faces. So to listen to this disc is to lose oneself in its not-really comforting maze. (David Grundy)

WEASEL WALTER/ HENRY KAISER/ DAMON SMITH – PLANE CRASH

Label: ug explode

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: The End; Becalmed; Untamed Talents; Justice and Good Order;

The Guessing Game; In the Field; An Exchange of Prisoners; Palaces;

The God of Blue; Second Stories; Home; Sad Experience Teaches Us;

The Wedding; The End and Afterward

Personnel: Henry Kaiser: acoustic and electric guitars; Damon Smith: bass;

Weasel Walter: drums

Playing with Weasel Walter, Kaiser has to raise his game (by which I mean play harder faster and noisier) because Walter is almost always full trip pounding with his drum-sticks. This is not the kind of free-jazz drumming you get in the cymbal washes of Rashied Ali; rather, Walter’s cymbal-work comes out more as ringing ticking splashes than watery rolling flow, like the jet-stream of the crashing plane. And Damon Smith’s bass playing, once you stop to think about it, demonstrates phenomenal energy levels to keep up with it all. Yet despite the title and the jokey play in the liner notes, which make out that the musicians died after the recording (as if the studio energy killed them – the engineer ‘at the controls’ of the juggernaut-aircraft that was this recording session), this isn’t as full-bore as Walter’s ‘Firestorm’ (a large-group live album featuring Marshall Allen) or his new large ensemble album (‘Mysteries Beneath the Planet’). OK, most people will probably be listening out for the electric noise-spasms – which aren’t, however, Thurston Moore texture-clouds, but three independent instrumental lines all playing full-bore at once – i.e. more texturally complex, maybe more in the tradition of European free improv, but with the power quotient kicked up by Walter’s furious thrashing. But these noisier pieces only take up just over half the disc, which leaves quite a few acoustic pieces which the liner notes compare to the SME and which do certainly demonstrate a different side to the band.

            ‘The End’ finds Walter playing a beat which gives a military tattoo edge to things, and Smith playing figures which are almost riffs underneath Kaiser who is just nasty, his low buzzing frenzy constantly switching into feedback’d shriek. ‘Becalmed’ is a different beast, quick short suppressed cymbal bursts, high eerie strangled tweeting birds, low metallic guitar. Though Walter’s machinations ensure that this is still full of incident, it’s probably the least busy of the acoustic tracks on the record, concentrating on Smith charting out his high song-lines and Kaiser complementing that with his hollow sound-rings.

            It’s not necessarily always the case that the electric tracks are loud and pounding in contrast to quiet acoustic tracks, though: ‘Palaces’ (acoustic) is still knotty and dense, though Walter has to tone down his playing to accommodate the reduced volume of the acoustic guitar. Back to electricity, ‘The God of Blue’ is dominated by Kaiser’s use of some sort of feed-back effect which has similarities in timbre to the computer/math-rock elements of later Luttenbachers (let’s say, ‘Destructo Noise Explosion’).

‘Second Stories’ places us in familiar Walter noise-land once more with what sounds like someone screaming, bass and heavily-distorted guitar sliding around all over the place like kids frantically back-pedalling arms wildly waving in the air as they try to control themselves on the oil-slicked slope.

As we head for ‘Home’ things don’t seem likely to resolve themselves into whatever you were expecting: Walter is scratching, clicking, making Kaiser’s melodic trail sound elegantly worried; Kaiser, who is both rubbing off on that frantic business and at the same time standing in contrast to it, a relatively unflustered kind of picking.

The final few tracks now, and some new emotional territory is reached or at least reached out to: take Smith’s arco playing on ‘Sad Experience Teaches Us’, melody trying to poke its head through the strangling electric thicket, and the even more explicitly mournful edge to ‘The Wedding’. But ‘The End and Afterward’ is just (im)pure filth guitar, rolls to a growl and thump and ends there. (David Grundy)

TREVOR WATTS/ JAMIE HARRIS – LIVE IN SAO PAULO, BRASIL

Label: Hi4Head Records

Release Date: 2006

Tracklist: Multiki; Tribal; Eastern Eyes; Sopata; Anna B; Three Part Invention; Ancestry

Personnel: Trevor Watts: saxophones & percussion; Jamie Harris: percussion & voice

Additional Information: Recorded July 27th 2005 at Teatro Popular Do Sesi, Sao Paulo.

Given the primarily rhythmic thrust of the music, freer playing is left to one side for this date: although on occasion Watts breaks into the sort of sounds associated with free improvisation and/or free jazz, this is more as a particular technique, deployed for a particular purpose within the context of the song, than as ‘free’ invention. (It’s more like the rougher, non-standard sounds you might hear at the emotional climax of a jazz song.) That said, his playing is free and flowing, melodically inventive and delightfully joining with Harris’ rhythmic pulses, varying speeds while engaging in the same melody, working round refrains (as vocalised by Harris on the final track), repeating phrases until new material shows through the cracks, returning to melodies, relishing them.

When I think about it those are all traits of ‘folk musics’ or ‘world musics’ (the latter a term which basically just means the combination of the folk musics of the world, I would have thought). Of course, Watts and Harris are coming through the jazz tradition (which is itself another folk-music), but with a freedom to move away from jazz, which the stripped-down setting allows more than if this had been a duet with a standard jazz instrument – even a drum-set. Thus, Watts’ middle-eastern tones come across not as exotic colouring within a fixed jazz context (as they tended to even in the work of Yusef Lateef), but as genuine moves into different types of music, as part of a discourse not limited by generic imperatives, but allowed to roam by its rhythmic restrictions: a freedom to travel across the similar points in different terrain, to exploit the tightenings and loosenings of the pulse, dancing across sounds and countries at will, but with respect. (David Grundy)

TREVOR WATTS/ PETER KNIGHT – REUNION: LIVE IN LONDON

Label: Hi4Head Records

Release Date: 2007

Tracklist: Reunion, I-IV

Personnel: Trevor Watts: alto & soprano saxes; Peter Knight: violin

These two musicians worked together from 1983 onwards, and then, after a period spend apart, decided to do a Reunion at the Queen’s Arms in Islington, in 1999. Interestingly, not only did they decide the music would come out best without any practice, they also decided the music would come out best without even any discussion about what they were going to play. Bold. And it worked. I would say. The result is a CD of one track, lasting fifty-minute, the last fifty-three or so of which are devoid of almost any crowd banter.

There is a pervading sense of peace and meditation in this music. Even in sections of atonal multiphonics from the soprano or scratchy ‘sul ponte’ bowing from the violin. Granted, at the times when they are using Eastern modes or even more simply banging up and down the pentatonic scale, it is easy to do this, but as I say, the variety of music included here makes the ubiquity of this sense an achievement. They are truly natural at passing over the focus of attention, even if it is not in order to actually play anything approaching a melody, something in the tone of each player sort of ‘wakes up’ as the other hands over.

At times it does admittedly become essentially a jam for Trevor Watts over Peter Knight’s strumming of one chord, and in fact, I would say that there is more Watts soloing than Knight soloing, but that is probably inevitable given the violin can function as a harmony instrument in a far more malleable way than the saxophone. (Watts himself eschews the traditional conception of ‘soloist’, preferring to think of all the playing he does as part of the collective sound.)

Watts is unusual in that as well as having taken in a lot of the techniques of post-Evan Parker free playing on the sax, he is also up for playing over just one mode for several minutes, with attention only on melody, tone-quality and articulation. Slap-tonguing, flutter-tonguing and multiphonics feature in his vocabulary, along with the kind of running around that comes straight from Ornette Coleman.

Knight takes a solo more like a melancholy cadenza from a Romantic Violin Concerto around the twenty minute mark, with Watts now in full French-mode alto playing, mostly juxtaposing material with Knight, but occasionally unable to reply in kind to certain motifs or sounds.

With such space, their minute intervals and long notes, creeping into microtones invoke Xenakis or Ligeti, especially because of the lack of rhythm section – at times if it were transcribed it would not be out of place at a contemporary classical concert.

Relatively little time is given over to solo performance, but given the space with which each can accompany, this is hardly missed.

I suppose some people will find the focus on modal and scalic playing limited, and others will observe the lack of jazz language in the phraseology. However, this, for me, makes the music all the more fresh and certainly a lot of this is down to the folk inflections and roots of Knight’s playing and Watts’ awareness of the musical situation in that respect. (Oscar Lomas)

SEYMOUR WRIGHT – SEYMOUR WRIGHT OF DERBY

Label: Self-released

Release Date: 2008

Tracklist: In the Wright place at the Wright time (three years earlier); REED ‘N’ WRIGHT!; The Wright balance; Wright-O!

Personnel: Seymour Wright: alto saxophone

Additional Information: Track 1 recorded by John Lely, Davener’s, New Cross, 2005; Track 2 recorded by Tom Wallace, Barefoot Studios, Brixton; Tracks 3 & 4 recorded by Sebastien Lexier, Goldsmith’s College, New Cross, 2007 & 2008.

Despite the intentional and affectionate archaisms in packaging and presentation – the record’s named after Wright’s fellow townsman, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, and the track titles are reminiscent of the sort of cringe-worthy puns that cropped up on all sorts of 1960s Blue Note Records – this music is at the cutting edge of saxophone playing. Yet of course that edge exists in relation with what came before it, and what might have come before it: in a brief note, Wright describes the music on this record as “improvised and about the saxophone – music, history and technique – actual and potential”, suggesting that choosing certain possibilities need not mean the automatic dissolution or disruption of other choices, other possibilities. Thus, he works to incorporate advances made by his fellow musicians as inspiration for his investigations of what is often uncharted territory, claiming in an interview that he feels it’s a ‘moral duty’ to match the sort of advances made by the likes of John Tilbury and Sebastien Lexier in what can be done with a piano, on a commonly-played instrument, full of timbral possibilities which are only just beginning to be explored.

The result sounds nothing like most saxophone playing emerging from the jazz tradition, nor even much like that of free improvisation, which still tends to share a lot of its timbral qualities with at least the outer limits of jazz: I’m thinking Mats Gustaffson, Evan Parker, John Butcher, the latter of whom probably comes nearest to Wright in his ability to transform his instrument into something which sounds utterly unlike itself (or how it’s supposed to sound), yet a vocabulary created with painstaking care, attention to detail, and strong musical logic. Wright’s aesthetic is more obviously ‘reductionist’ than Butcher’s, and that’s particularly noticeable on this series of solo recordings, which one might describe as a mini-compilation of where Wright’s technical and mental experiments have taken him thus far. Butcher has been working a lot with feedback and with amplified and natural resonances of late, his sounds tending to be sustained, to hang in the air, in no way lacking a real bite and hard edge, but with a kind of spaciousness that’s created primarily from sound, rather than silence. With Wright, however, one feels that it’s almost the other way round: the sounds fit in around the silences, or, if not the silences, the ‘ambient’ noises present in the rooms where the recordings are made.

That’s the impression, though in fact, most of the sounds heard here are produced by Wright; the one uncontrolled sound I can think of is a distant police siren on the third track, and, for the most part, what might at first sound an unintended sonic occurrence, out of the performer’s reach, turns out to be a deliberately employed musical element which gives rise to a whole new structural and textural direction in the piece. Most notable in this regard is a moment from the same track, where what sounds like a creaking door (whether this is an actual door or a sound sample is unclear) extends its creak a long way beyond the normal length of a door-opening to underpin a fresh burst of activity. In context, it sounds extremely noisy, so deliberately paced is this music, although, truth be told, it requires a high-volume and sensitive headphones to pick out the full nuances.

The shorter tracks which open the album are both more fleeting and more hesitant than the much more lengthy second-half, Wright’s manipulation of the saxophone keys providing a cautiously rhythmic element which never quite settles on the straightforward time-keeping it suggests, his hisses and bursts of breath sharing the space with static and muffled voices from a radio which seems to be triggered in some way by the reed instrument. It’s not always easy to pick out what’s making which sound, though it seems that most of what you hear actually does come just from Wright’s alto saxophone, which makes this a real feat of musical inventiveness and resourcefulness, and something of a showcase, as well as an utterly absorbing listen in its own right.

This, then, deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting among the online improv community, and, what’s more, it can be downloaded for free. Even if there’s a danger of fetishising this one release, of building up over-inflated expectations about what it can do for the development of the music and the saxophone (when in fact it’s Wright’s continuing live work, solo and in groups, where the development is actively happening), it seems to me that is a very significant recording. (David Grundy)

C. SPENCER YEH – THE STRANGLER

Label: Chocolate Monk

Release Date: 2009

Tracklist: Escape Artist; Comedy FX; The Stranger

Personnel: C. Spencer Yeh: voice, samples

Additional Information: Artwork by ‘Wyvern’.

The title of the third piece and of the album as a whole play on the difference between ‘strangler’ and ‘stranger’: the stranger making these strange sounds could be more than just the outsider (artist); he could be strangling your throat with his sounds, the villain on the edge, sound murderer who lives below you and spends his life working how best to lay waste to the world of sounds you are so comfortable in/with. In truth this is wacko: comedy FX at first makes you chuckle for two reasons – the ‘inherent’ funniness of the sounds themselves (or so we have been trained to associate them, whether they are ‘inherently’ funny is of course another matter); and the knowing way in which Yeh is making music out of them. One can imagine him searching through old cartoons and TV shows looking for the FX and laugh tracks and in his glee splicing them into a piece of his own. Then it actually turns pretty fucking sinister, the clown’s face is sad because something is desperately wrong and the only way he can tell you about it is by enacting the opposite of what he feels, painted happy. This track is about surfaces, it is nothing more than surface in a sense; it is not ‘deep’ or ‘spiritual’. Is it enough that it knows this, and that self-criticism is built in as a mode of criticising a whole lot more? Emptiness and shallowness of TV laughter, cultural construction of humour, appropriate and inappropriate sounds, etc. Let’s admit that track one is, OK, simply a ticking metronome/ squelchy handclap for 13 minutes, occasionally grinding out to silence or being swamped in static only to start up again with renewed lifeless vigour. Conceptually I’ll accept that, but to actually listen all the way through? The growled and slobbering voices of the ‘stranger’ on the third track might come up with the answer: delirious and delighted and yet somehow horrified at having put as through that and at the fact that we have listened, all the way through, waiting for the punchline – the effect is near-nihilistic. If it was a joke, our laughter soon froze but the mirthless smile was too stuck to turn to tears. It’s all quite deadening, and maybe that’s the ‘point’; but I’m not sure I want to take this particular lesson again, to find out how deadened I am by being deadened through music.

(David Grundy)

AMI YOSHIDA/ TOSHIMARU NAKAMURA – SOBA TO BARA

Label: Erstwhile

Release Date: April 2009

Personnel: Ami Yoshida: voice; Toshimaru Nakamura: no-input mixing board

Additional Information: Recorded separately by Yoshida and Nakamura in June 2008.

If music is being made by a human, how can it ever be ‘inhuman’? I think it’s a fair point, and that the presence of a voice should somehow add ‘humanity’ to proceedings, should ‘humanise’ the ‘cold surfaces’ of this kind of improvised electronic music, is dispelled by the way in which Nakamura’s fuzzes and clicks interact with the curiously repetitive nature of Yoshida’s voice, focussing on similar notes and overtones, nightmare scream-repetition (in a controlled way – this isn’t in-your-face scream-therapy). The record is quiet and there are silences, but it feels claustrophobic too (if I’m permitted to apply the spatial metaphor to sound), closing in; if a silence exists for longer than to create utmost tension it is quickly broken, most often by Yoshida. Maybe Nakamura’s sounds become a new kind of silence, an underpinning that does not so much accompany (for lead voice is not the issue here) but insinuates its way in to become fragile bedrock – bedrock maybe for the listener’s own thoughts or their physical reactions to the sound, who knows.

And that question of tension – can the music be said to be tense (it is tensile, sure) when it brings to bear that certain flattened repetitive quality? That may not be so much a result of actually repetition, minimalism-style; rather, the use of materials and palette is notably (and deliberately) restricted to a small range of gestures reconfigured and re-examined in multiple relations. So that feeling comes across as something of a quality of the types of sound produced and the types of ‘atmosphere’ explored, much as one might want to pin these down to some concrete source: e.g. the restriction of gesture or the adoption of certain combinations of timbre – grating yet pure multi-layered vocals with impure (frequency-mixed) electronics wherein the appearance of a pure sine-tone (more occasional than one might expect given our expectations of Nakamura) serves at once to bring out the ‘pure’ side of the music and to emphasise its ‘impurity’.

Is ‘emotion’ the question here? Well, the music makes me feel certain things, maybe the result of my particular mood when I put it on, but it’s not so much that it can inscribe whatever you bring to it, that it’s some kind of emptied surface for you to fill – yet nor is it the case that the primary aim is to ‘communicate emotion’. Hell, the music might just be made without thinking about ‘listeners’ at all, just existing for itself and for those who make it, whose activity it encapsulates yet lives beyond. (David Grundy)

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