AIDA SEVERO – AIDA SEVERO
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Hunter Gunter; Williams/Egan; Doce Ocho; Somervell/Somervell/Sarikis; Untitled; Williams/Somervell/Sarikis; For Bruno S
Personnel: Chris Williams: alto sax; Joe Egan: trumpet; Philip Somervell: piano; Colin Somervell: double bass; Vasilis Sarikis: drums
‘Aida Severo’ alternates ensemble material built around pianist Philip Somervell’s jazz-flavoured compositions with shorter free improvisations for smaller combinations of musicians within the group. The Brotherhood-of-Breath-tinged melody of ‘Hunter Gunter’ evolves into some raucous collective improvisation, spurred by Chris Williams’ alto sax, and climaxing about four minutes in with Joe Egan blowing fast, brash figures. From there the mood changes, Egan taking a solo which builds in burred tones over quiet, inquisitive bass, Somervell’s piano rising in volume to usher in another climax and to spark a new section, possessing intensity of a different kind, as piano and drums skitter around the woody thrum of a bass solo before roiling chords bring back the acclamations of the melody.
Following this comes the first of the free improvisations, a duet between Williams and Egan, which finds them mostly working complementary lines, ranging into faster flights but staying mostly in the fairly subdued mood with which they end. ‘Doce Ocho’ is another fine composition by Somervell, alternating a delicious, almost classically-flavoured moto perpetuo piano figure with a unison theme whose rhythmic and harmonic flavour seems fairly typical of much modern British jazz (think Guy Barker, Gerard Presencer, and the like). Saxophone multiphonics and sliding bowed bass initiate a creakily mysterious feel for an initially drumless group improvisation; when the drums do enter, Somervell’s piano becomes more skittish, though there is still plenty of space left during another solo by Egan, whose gruff, mid-range tone seems to owe something to Bill Dixon. A piano solo switches between jazz rhythms and rolling, quick-fire repetitions, ending on a series of repeated chords. The long, dying reverberations of the sustain pedal cue in a repeat of the composed material.
A free improvisation for the ‘rhythm section’ finds Somervell in discursive mood, staying within the lower to mid range of the keyboard, his brother plucking a steady but ambiguous course underneath, Sarikis contributing slowly emerging cymbal strokes and light taps which rise and fall along complementary melodic axes.
The next composition is ‘Untitled’, consisting of a song-like but slightly tricksy melody stated by bright, optimistic saxophone and trumpet over the darker hues of a unison piano and bass vamp. In terms of colour and harmony, this comees across rather like Miles Davis’ 1960s Quintet with Herbie Hancock: at one point, Somervell plays what sounds like a direct Hancock quote, and Egan’s trumpet, though venturing down into some lower-register growls, is much more within traditional jazz parameters here than elsewhere on the disc. It’s pretty and expertly executed – there can’t really be any complaints with that. The final improvised piece is also the shortest, and provides an immediate contrast: frantic altissimo saxophone, drums and piano going for it full tilt, with a nicely controlled conclusion keeping things concise.
Though it might not be immediately clear from the scratchy opening, ‘For Bruno S’ is the disc’s ballad, and I assume it’s dedicated to the actor who starred in Werner Herzog’s ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ and ‘Stroszek.’ Somervell’s melody is again a fine one, the man himself laying down some lovely chord progressions, the thing unfolding in a wistfully musing atmosphere, combining a certain aspect of melancholy with a more optimistic sense of beauty and contentment. The freer aspects, heard particularly in Egan’s trumpet playing, build on and move beyond this mood without destroying it: passion within the bounds of an adaptable but clear structural framework. It’s a lovely way with which to end what is, throughout, a very pleasurable listen. (David Grundy)
CORY ALLEN – THE FOURTH WAY
Label: Quiet Design
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Exedra; Telepathic Solve; Chordata Analysis; In Search of Miracul; All Suns; Chordata Analysis [Animal Aggreggation]; We Have Lots of Time
Personnel: Cory Allen: Moog, Fender Rhodes
‘The Fourth Way’ is ostensibly an album of beautiful, blissful drone material, but it contains some surprisingly harsh textures from the get-go, as the blistering clouds of static which open ‘Exedra’ refuse to give way to the choir-like chords which swell underneath. This doesn’t feel like a ‘battle’ though, which is particularly nice to hear, given the way that often supposedly ‘avant-garde’ artists end up reinforcing the old melody vs noise dichotomy by contrasting pretty sounds with harsher ones to convey some sense of ‘beauty under assault’, rather than attempting to break down barriers between what is accepted and not accepted as ‘beautiful’. In other words, their interest is in a rather old-fashioned kind of theatrics, rather than a more subtle textural approach. Of course, it’s true, on a certain level, that drones and chords of a certain type are more ‘pleasant’ on the ear than the harsh buzzings and cracklings with which they are ‘assaulted’; but, for me, Allen does more than simply contrast two sets of sounds. He realizes that to package off two aspects of experience and then to artificially pit them against one another is in some sense false, for the state of wonder is one of terror as well as blissful contemplation; states of mind, emotion and body are always combined in ways more complex than are simple dualistic categorisations allow. The effect of listening to a track like ‘Telepathic Solve,’ then, is like the effect of looking at the earth from space, of staring into the void-like distances beyond the stars, of watching shadows drift across the moon; a sense of a time that seems (whatever the reality) immeasurably slower than our own, where durations such as that of the human life hold very little meaning. It’s cold and frightening, lacking the touch of heat and fervour that makes us think our humble little lives mean something, but it also awakens a longing within us which takes us out of our box, our street, into a consideration of a kind of consciousness which one might call cosmic. There’s something soothing about this: a giving over of oneself to mystery –not in the sense that one has to abandon a critical, questioning sense, to fall into any traps of false faith or hope or trust – not in the sense that one is bludgeoned, but ushered, willingly, into quietude and a kind of necessary state of acceptance. (DG)
DARCY JAMES ARGUE’S SECRET SOCIETY – INFERNAL MACHINES
Label: New Amsterdam Records
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Phobos; Zeno; Transit; Redeye; Jacobin Club; Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar); Obsidian Flow
Personnel: Erica Von Kleist, Rob Wilkerson: flute, alto flute, soprano & alto saxophones; Sam Sadigursky: clarinet, soprano & tenor saxophones; Mark Small: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Josh Sinton: clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Seneca Black: lead trumpet; Ingrid Jensen, Laurie Frink, Nadje Noordhuis, Tom Goehring: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, James Hirschfeld: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone; Sebastian Noelle: acoustic & electric guitars; Mike Holoboer: piano & electric piano; Matt Clohesy: contrabass & electric bass; Jon Wikan: drum set, cajon, pandeiro, & misc. percussion
This debut CD has been much vaunted on a particular jazz website and it is fair to say that this big band is drawing audiences from beyond jazz. Impressive for a self-produced record, the appearance of Canadian composer Argue on disc represents a triumvirate of former Bob Brookmeyer students now finding themselves at the forefront of big band arranging, with Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck already having established their reputations. In some respects this band appears to sit in between the styles of his two colleagues, offering a compromise between the kind of themes of which Schneider is so fond (“Zeno”, for example) and the punchy approach of Hollenbeck that looks beyond jazz for inspiration. Indeed, this band even shares some of the same personnel with these other bands. More closely, the band puts a nod in the direction of some of Gil Evans’ 1970s work, albeit without the older man’s immediate impact. As this record shows, orchestral jazz writing has now become increasingly complex since the days of Evans’ more minimal scores.
Uncompromisingly contemporary in many respects and clearly a product of the composer’s generation, the dominant solo voice being the rock-edged solo guitar of Sebastian Noelle, the music works best when the ensemble is playing full throttle. There are other soloists who are given chance to shine, such as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and trombonist Ryan Keberle, but this is a record where the band itself is very much the star and the improvisation is a tad anonymous. On tracks like “Transit” you do sense the excitement built up in the head being dissipated within the first couple of bars of the trumpet solo, and you do wonder what a sprinkling of more established improvisers could have done for this music. Most of the names listed in the personnel are totally unknown to me. Argue’s approach eschews the traditional notions of Big Band writing with its combination of woodwinds, punchy brass, Fender Rhodes and a rhythm section that embraces rock and minimalism. Clearly, here is an original voice making itself known and it is fair to say that the superior writing does dominate.
As exciting as this record is, there are a few reservations. Much of the material is very similar and only “Transit” seems to pick up the tempo from the slow /medium compositions that dominate this disc. “Transit” represents one of the stand-out tracks and is followed by “Redeye” which starts promisingly with the mixture of acoustic and electric guitar before developing into a piece convincingly written to describe the state of tiredness at which you feel you are floating. Coupled with the similarly slow-moving “Habeas Corpus”, having reached this point in the record you begin to wish for a greater range of material and a bit more variety.
The other concern is the employment of an electronic percussion instrument to drive the band and whilst this certainly grabs your attention of the opening track “Phobos” with its gently throbbing guitar riff (think of the effect of Gil Evans’ “Lunar Eclipse” on the album “Priestess” and you will get the impression) , Argue later employs this instrument throughout “Jacobin Club” with the consequence that you desperately want to hear a proper drum kit to lift this chart beyond the almost mechanical crawl.
On the plus side, the album ends very strongly with “Obsidian Flow” where the melody is picked out by an alto saxophone underpinned by a slightly menacing riff which gradually builds up in excitement. Stopping mid-way through to change tack, the remainder of the chart features the alto soloing over another vamp until developing into some impressive orchestral writing over a bass pedal. The alto soloist returns once more over the riff which grows progressively louder and ferocious providing a fitting climax to this record.
In conclusion, this is a fascinating record and demonstrative of just how exciting the potential is for modern big band writing with arrangers fully conversant with contemporary Classical techniques and fully capable of creating their own musical identity. A more varied programme would have made this one of the most interesting releases of the year but, all the same, Darcy James Argue remains a name to watch for those interested in this field of jazz. (Ian Thumwood)
BARNACLED – CHARLES
Label: ESP Disk
Release Date: November 2008
Tracklist: Rattles; Losing Weight Through Prayer; Jennifer Plastics; Three Rapid Fire Shell Divisions; Language Barrier; Polyurethane; Simulacrum
Personnel: Frank Difficult: electronics/keyboard; Michael Jeffries: bass/baritone saxophone/modified Speak & Spell; Jason McGill: alto saxophone/percussion/shortwave radio; Matt McLaren: drums/ percussion; Alec K. Redfearn: accordion; Ann Schattle: horn in F; Erica Schattle: bassoon
‘Charles’, an album named for the friendly faced goat which adorns its cover, finds Providence, Rhode Island septet Barnacled charting the oft-perilous waters of ‘progressive’ rock. Barnacled’s brand of prog is not, however, that of those now infamous 1970s dinosaurs whose pretentious pseudo-classical excursions made them, ironically enough, icons of musical regress. Instead the group draw on the more whimsical style associated with bands of the so-called ‘Canterbury’ scene, filtering this sensibility through members’ interests in such varied musical terrain as punk, metal, and free jazz.
Barnacled’s oddball sound is quickly established on opening track ‘Title’, which begins with an insistent chromatic line from the band’s horn section (comprising bassoon, horn in F, alto and baritone sax) which suggests a harder-edged Soft Machine circa ‘Third’. Repeated variations on the opening riff eventually give way to a spacey, ambient drone over which the saxes wrangle in free jazz fashion, before the main riff returns once again. After a solo spot for drums and accordion the riff re-emerges and drives the piece to its conclusion, backed by thunderous percussion. The track’s overall reliance on repeated riffs and a hammering backbeat suggests that, despite the occasional stylistic reference to the free jazz of ESP forebears like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, Barnacled are at heart a ‘rock’ band – albeit an unusual one (there are no guitars, for starters).
Whilst ‘Title’ hints at the quick-fire barrage of hardcore punk and extreme metal, second track ‘Rattles’ is more openly indebted to such music, with its grinding, fuzzy bass-line and blasting drums – supplant the minor-key horn parts for tremolo-picked guitars and it could almost be black metal at certain points. The band eases up on the pace on ‘Losing Weight Through Prayer’, but retains a sense of underlying menace with the rhythm section’s uneasy groove, on top of which accordion and horns explore Eastern-tinged modal ideas: imagine Gong, but with the teapots and gnomes replaced by the monstrous beings of H. P. Lovecraft (as the liner notes astutely remind us, Lovecraft was also a native of Providence). It is these opening three tracks that best exemplify Barnacled’s darker, edgier take on the jazzy psych-rock of the Canterbury bands – whilst the humour and good-natured whimsicality remains, a clear affinity for the more angular, jarring qualities of other genres keeps any latent hippy tendencies safely in check.
Elsewhere on ‘Charles’ the band venture into more overtly experimental territory. ‘Jennifer Plastics’ for instance, is a noise piece employing electronics and radio; ‘Polyurethane’, meanwhile, alternates between a melodic horn refrain and whispered free improvisation in music that recalls the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Rather perversely, these forays into ‘avant-garde’ music don’t offer a great deal that is new or terribly exciting – certainly nothing to compete with the pioneers of such approaches. Other tracks, notably ‘Three Rapid Fire Shell Divisions’, find the band returning to repeated gestures, with throbbing rhythms redolent of minimalism – again, not something I find particularly thrilling, although Barnacled bring a (un)healthy sense of warped-ness to such material, making it a far cry from the sterile blandness of some minimalist fare.
Barnacled’s wilfully eclectic, polymorphous sound can prove enervating at times, and the unabashed incorporation of such diverse influences sometimes threatens to turn the music into a stylistic mishmash (perhaps this was intentional; postmodernism has, after all, made pastiche an acceptable aesthetic approach – according to some). Yet, even when they don’t quite get it right, Barnacled bring a sense of weirdness and daring to their music that many contemporary bands working within the broad idiom of rock-derived music lack, and for this they deserve credit. (Daniel Larwood)
MICHEL F. CÔTÉ/ A_DONTIGNY – LA NOTTE FA
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Ritmi di oggetti; Unlisted Card Number; Paxil Origami Club; Bounce Dat ARN; Lube Liqueur; Jumping Off Minoru Yamasaki’s Building; Visiones Noctunæ; target=”blank_”; Naines qui gesticulent; The Book Burner
Personnel: Michel F Côté: drums, percussion, micros, tapes, electronics; A_Dontigny: cut-ups, drum machines, dsp; Bernard Falaise: guitar on 4 & 9, keyboards on 9; Alexandre St-Onge: bass and sounds on 4 & 9; Alexander Macsween: additional drums on 1; Jean René: viola on 3
Jittery, cut-up music in which a barrage of samples – fragments of barely-recognisable speech, conventional instruments running a gauntlet of electronic distortion, snippets of grooves and beats that have been pulled and stretched and chopped to pieces – collide and (less frequently) cohere into a soundscape that can strike one at different moments as either fun, in a kind of crazy, sped-up way, or nightmarish, for pretty much the same reason. The starting point here would seem to be the more experimental moments of Autechre or Aphex Twin, with the tendency to repetitive, danceable beats knocked to one side to leave something which has a definite physical pull to it, but which isn’t going to make you dance to any sort of regular rhythm– rather, your stop-start spasms will give you away as a madman dancing to the disrespectful voices in your head. There’s no real question of ‘soloing’ here, or even of distinguishing between the various musicians, given the way that everything is mashed-up through electronics: the occasional beats which can be heard to come from a conventional drum-kit are soon overlaid with all manner of computerised sputters and run-away loops, and Jean René’s viola, which might have pulled things in a more ambient direction (à la Coil’s ‘Moon’s Milk’) is kept firmly to the bottom of the mix on his one contribution to the album. It’s rather like listening to a radio station with really fucked-up reception for an hour, the few moments of respite being provided through samples of Maurice Ravel’s ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’ and a Don Cherry trumpet piece that appear, are toyed with, mangled out of recognition, and then discarded for the next set of electronic whirligigging. Another comparison might be the sample-overload of early Public Enemy without the (relatively) stabilising element of Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s vocals, which are at least determinedly about something: no such reference points here. One is left to conclude, then, that it’s best to avoid looking for comparisons, for generic references, as they’re pretty much useless in describing music that’s so determinedly askew, so schizophrenically active, so resistant to easy digestion and to standardised comprehension as this; music as chemical substance, hurtling through the blood-stream, sparking all sorts of strange, shuddering journeys through the brain. (DG)
BILL DIXON – TAPESTRIES FOR SMALL ORCHESTRA
Label: Firehouse 12
Release Date: November 2009
Tracklist: (Disc One) Motorcycle ’66: Reflections & Ruminations; Slivers: Sand Dance for Sophia; Phrygian II; Adagio: Slow Mauve Scribblings; (Disc Two) Allusions I; Tapestries; Durations of Permanence; Innocenenza
Personnel: Bill Dixon: trumpet, electronics; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet, piccolo trumpet; Graham Haynes: cornet, flugelhorn, electronics; Stephen Haynes: trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn; Rob Mazurek: cornet, electronics; Michel Conte: contrabass clarinet, bass clarinet; Glynis Loman: cello; Ken Filiano: bass, electronics; Warren Smith: vibes; marimba, drums, tympani, gongs.
Additional Information: The physical release of the album (as opposed to MP3 versions), comes with a DVD documentary covering the recording sessions, entitled ‘Going to the Center’.
Bill Dixon’s most recent recordings have found him working in large ensemble settings, rather than the duo and solo format which makes up much of his recorded output, and the title of his latest release announces that the sound will once more have an orchestral dimension. As Stephen Haynes notes in his online journal/blog covering the recording sessions for this project,1 one of the challenges involved was providing enough distinction in the sound mix between five trumpeters/cornet players with similarly dark sounds. But Dixon does, after all, favour a dark palette, as amply demonstrated by his last album, ‘17 Musicians In Search of a Sound: Darfur’, where the slightly larger ensemble produced slowly emerging chord-clouds and slowly shifting unison passages in which the ensemble mesh was produced by individual instruments in near, but not quite, total alignment. The effect is a kind of blurring, produced by a very careful manipulation of individual detail; a more horizontal than vertical approach, with solos emerging as parts of the texture – like a colour highlighted in a particular portion of a canvas – rather than as monologues supported by an ensemble background. This has always been the case with Dixon’s own playing, particularly given his use of electronics, and the fact that the other trumpeters also deploy electronics, in some cases seeming to mimic his approach – muted growls, breathy whispers, repeated mid-register notes, high-pitched flurries cascading into silence – adds to the collaborative feel. That’s not to say that there aren’t solo spots, though – for instance, ‘Motorcycle ‘66’ starts with melodic material for unaccompanied bass which succeeds in forcing an initial concentration, in ushering the listener in to a music which needs to be heard with open ears. In any case, neither ensemble nor solo passages contain a wasted note; as Dixon puts it: “Listen to the space in the room. If you can’t do something more beautiful than that, shut the fuck up.” The result tends to a kind of substantial minimalism – very slow, seeming to lack any overtly linear development, predominantly atmospheric, almost trance-like. And yet even this apparent lack of activity – most pronounced on the sustained hush of ‘Adagio: Slow Mauve Scribblings’ – reveals itself upon closer inspection to consist of complex structural balances and connections. Low, slowly-shifting drones, shimmering vibraphone, occasional electronic tweaks, overlapping melodic lines, repeated upward flurries all combine to create a sound field that is unique in modern music. Inexorable yet fragile, ‘Tapestries for Small Orchestra’ is slow-moving, meditative, and deeply affecting. (DG)
MARC EDWARDS/ WEASEL WALTER GROUP – MYSTERIES BENEATH THE PLANET
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: A World Without Sun; Luminous Predator; Book of the Dead; The Coral Reef
Personnel: (Tracks 1 & 3) Marc Edwards: drums (right channel); Weasel Walter: drums (left channel); Tom Blancarte: bass; Peter Evans: trumpet, melodica; Darius Jones: alto saxophone; Paul Flaherty: tenor saxophone; (Tracks 2 & 4) Marc Edwards: drums (right channel); Weasel Walter: drums (left channel); Andre Barker: drums; Ras Moshe: tenor saxophone, flute, etc; Mario Rechtern: sopranino, alto & baritone saxophones, etc
What you get when you match up two drummers of such explosive power as Weasel Walter and Marc Edwards is a music that’s volatile and loud, and the two large ensembles they work with on these four tracks unleash a kaleidoscope of textures that fly past like super-fast flashes of light. Opener ‘A World without Sun’ is relatively brief. Walter and Edwards begin with drum textures before Tom Blancarte’s sawing, groaning-ship bass is joined by the multiphonic growls of the twin saxophones. As the full band rises from this textured opening to full-blast collectivism, Darius Jones’ alto and Peter Evans’ trumpet take on bouncy jazz inflections while Paul Flaherty unleashes throaty rasps on tenor. Blancarte’s bass is felt as an underlying vibration as much as it is heard playing bass-lines, while Walter and Edwards rise in alternating crests so that the texture is always filled with metallic pings, rumbles and rolls. The saxophones mesh together in thick, overblown impasto, and everyone drops out until the last sound heard is the click of finger on saxophone.
‘Luminous Predator’ has, at first, an almost Moroccan vibe, due to the abrasive, nasal, Jajouka-flavoured piping of Mario Rechtern on sopranino. Playing super-quick lines, tossing off shrieking flurries and melodic repetitions, he takes a brief solo under which the triple-drum backing of Walter, Edwards and Andrew Barker make up for the absence of a bass with a pulsating rhythm field that almost simulates an African drum choir in its self-generating propulsion. Once this launches into motion, its progress is assured, lurching and leaping under the shrill wails and scattergun blasts of Rechtern and Ras Moshe. As the music spirals higher and higher, the title seems entirely appropriate: music that is predatory in its speed and energy, grindingly intense in its timbral quality, but also somehow luminous and full of clarity in the total commitment, the sheer determination of its wailing, chattering possession.
While neither band exactly goes easy on the listener, the Evans/ Jones/ Flaherty/Blancarte line-up is in general slightly more concerned with the intertwining of melodic lines – or at least, the contrast of melodic line with more purely textural smears. This is in large part due to the brassy clarion of Evans’ trumpet in the ensemble passages, though when he actually solos on ‘Book of the Dead’ (seemingly with the aid of electronics) his harsh, grinding woofs, coupled with unnerving shouts and screams, lead to perhaps the shrillest passage on the entire record: the aural equivalent of white heat. Saxophones link in an unstable, see-sawing free jazz drone over arco bass and the circular motion of pounding drums: the contrast of repetition and ever-changing improvisation is nightmarish, edge-of-the-seat stuff, Evans’ brief declaration of what sounds like a ballad melody a brief throwaway, rather than signaling a change of direction. Indeed, things only get more intense as the musicians start exchanging rough screams, the half-heard voices of monstrous forces mockingly mimicking the vocalised trajectories of the saxophones. If the Rechtern/Mose/Barker group is ecstatic in a joyful sense, the group we hear on ‘Book of the Dead’ goes to some fearful places – exhilarating but terrifying, a modern sublime.
Ras Moshe’s flute imparts final track ‘The Coral Reef’ with a dancing delicacy: swirling loops and vocalisations, hints of the blues, mysterious exoticisms. Bagpipe drone, steadiness of looping melody, bird-flight flute. It’s a nice change from the saxophone-dominated orthodoxy of free jazz, takes things further on down the route Coltrane and Sanders’ were going before Coltrane died (‘To Be’ from ‘Expression’): music that borrows from other continents without losing its pulsating original force, which gains rather than loses from the association. Rhythmic car-horn honk on baritone and tenor, shrill, to-the-heavens piping, drumming that undulates and flows rather than dictating too-simple directions through the imposition of clichéd beats. It all ends suddenly (an edit? Maybe there wasn’t enough space for the whole piece one CD). And the fact that one wants the CD to continue – wants more of the same, not less – indicates the power of this record, which is both one of the most varied and one of the most excitingly forceful free jazz albums I’ve heard in recent years. (DG)
JOEL FUTTERMAN – TRANSITION ONE: SOLO PIANO
Label: Self-released CD-R
Release Date: September 2009
Tracklist: Part One; Part Two; Part Three
Personnel: Joel Futterman: piano
Additional Information: Recorded May 16, 2009.
Available from www.joelfutterman.com
The information that comes with the CD-R informs us that “each track is a complete unedited first-take with no overdubs, and is in the order in which it was recorded.” From the off, then, Futterman’s improvisational quick-thinking, honed by decades of practice and live experience, is in evidence, as he sprints the breadth of the keyboard’s register, his darts and dips from high to low notes often phrased with a marked jazz twist. The music at this early stage is characterised by the moving together and away of the two hands as independent units: for instance, the left hand will spin out a rhythm, however broken up and fractured by ‘extra’ notes (notes, that is, that do not quite conform to the pattern into which they are being slotted), while the right will fly with an apparently less controlled, more excitedly manic relish over a myriad of notes, unleashing a flurry of possibilities which unfurl at such speed that they cannot quite be taken in. Combine these two approaches and you have a great level of information density, with two or even three directions being explored at once, and at great speed. Such playing must exhausting to keep up at full stretch for extended periods (though Futterman is well capable of doing so), and might perhaps lead to a kind of shut-down in the listener’s mind – faced with such a sheer mass of sound, the prospect of attempting to organise it as it happens will prove too much, and the detail will become eradicated; an impression of something going on which shut out precisely what in a kind of generalised inattention. Of course, a similar, but more rewarding process, might be the paying of such close attention that a kind of trance-like state is reached: a total involvement with energy and rhythm, a perception of sound as pattern and movement, as an arrangement in space which involves and demands bodily participation.
On this occasion, though, Futterman doesn’t seek to total overwhelm in such a manner, and he’s careful to vary the dynamics and timings of his attacks. Much of this is down to pedalling – a quick press of the sustain pedal adds a different temporal and textural dimension to a traversal of the keyboard, even if this lasts only for a moment – but also to the ability to put on the brakes, to suddenly stop mid-flight and leave the silence hanging, either as a gap to be filled by more energetics, or as the beginning of a quieter, more tonal approach.
These tonal sections which gradually creep in tend to be primarily in the jazz idiom, though one rolling mid-register section almost suggests the country-raga of Koln Concert era Keith Jarrett (but without the exaggerated melodicism). Yet the use of such material is by no means a regression to ‘easier’ music, a concession to the listener overwhelmed by speed, volume and dissonance. Firstly, the way that Futterman uses it, the gravitas and delicacy with which he plays it, confers on it the legitimacy of emotional necessity (i.e. in no way is its use parodic, nor does the thought of this even arise when one hears it as part of the whole performance). In fact, the music’s ‘in-the-momentness’ is actually enhanced by the frequent returns to such material, which has the feel of a pre-structured jazz composition – even if, rather than elongated melodies or even quick refrains, what we have here are brief chordal sketches and patterns which aren’t quite fully-fledged ‘compositions’ as such. Particularly as the piece progresses, Futterman comes back again and again to a series of meltingly lovely ‘ballad’ chordal progressions, and, though he ruminates over them with loving care and attention, the pauses extended for maximum dramatic and emotional effect with the timing and grace we might associate in other fields with an actor or a dancer, there is always the sense that any moment he will break away from them into more abrasive or exploratory registers. There is then a very real sense of fragility, of the maintenance of a delicate balance, which is testament to Futterman’s self-confidence and also to his ability to lay himself and the music on the line for the sake of discovery and for staying true to what must be created in that moment, the running of risks to gain what could not be gained any other way.
Why ‘risk’? Well, for one thing, the contrast between the ‘beauty’ of jazz ballad chords and the ‘drama’ or ‘aggression’ of the ‘avant-garde’ material might easily create a rather facile oppositional feel, and Futterman has therefore to be alert to every nuance of every note which he plays, to ensure that none are wasted, that he neither overstates nor understates. So well does he negotiate this problem, in fact, that the relationship between the two types of material becomes symbiotic, rather than contrasting: like breathing in and breathing out, the one required before the other can take place. Thus, the ballad material affects the more dissonant runs through the way its rhythmic structure hangs over the music, in the form of a certain minute gradation in timing which I wouldn’t quite call hesitancy or diminishment of boldness in attack. Rather, it’s a split-second difference which nonetheless slightly alters the entire feel of what’s been played. As one realizes that this chordal fragment just won’t go away, the structure of the whole piece seems transformed. If it’s become impossible at this stage for Futterman to play with the exuberance and unceasing rhythmic force of the opening, he also makes sure that he doesn’t simply revert to playing on jazz ballad chord changes for the next twenty minutes (something which he would be very easily capable of doing very beautifully, but which present no real challenge in the spirit explored by the piece of the whole).
So, these two approaches do grow out of each other – the chords contain in themselves the possibility for lack of resolution, though they yearn so much for it, while the quick-paced runs can’t be sustained for ever (as a fact of the physical demands they place on the pianist – somewhere there has to be a pause, a transition). And perhaps that explains the record’s title, as well: the constant transition between these different types of playing, the weight accumulated by pauses and by changes of directions, by alternations and by alterations, by starting and stopping, pausing, slowing, accelerating, rising, falling. (DG)
GIGANTOMACHIA – THE NAKED FUTURE
Label: ESP Disk
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: We Binge on a Bloodthirsty God; We Boil the Raven’s Skull into Gold; We Engage the Monstrous with Our Mirrors; We Fly Beneath and Above the Flux; We Sleep in a Rabbit Hole.
We Binge On a Bloodthirsty God; We Boil the Raven’s Skull Into Gold
Personnel: Arrington de Dionyso: bass clarinet, contralto clarinet; Thollem McDonas: piano; John Niekrasz: drums; Gregg Skloff: amplified upright bass
Gigantomachia deliver free jazz (or free improvisation, what you will) with fantastically bad manners: it starts, it stops, it roars, it leaves inordinate long silences where it seems that the track must have come to an end, only for clarinetist de Dionysio to squeak things back into motion – an endlessly tense and teasing process which must play havoc with applause-ready club audiences, an extension of the kind of textural games Miles Davis played in his 1970s groups (in which he would cut out all but one member of the band with hand signals, so that the soloist was suddenly left totally out on their own), stretched even further than Miles himself dared. The amplified bass is played so hard that it sets off reverberations from the snare, which can be heard as a kind of involuntary rhythmic accompaniment; the piano playing is tremendously exhilarating when at its most gleefully, wholly deranged, smashing clusters, smears of sound with no regard for subtlety in that moment, though also with an odd obsessive quality also shared by de Dionysio (for instance, playing a Latin hook for well over half of the third piece while the rest of the band dances free time around it).
It all has a sound to it which is some way very different to a lot of other free jazz bands; entirely appropriate to the new vision of ESP, it possesses all the rawness of their original 60s recordings, now the classics from which de Anysio and co. learn, rather than the boundary-pushers of the moment, but takes things even further out from the realms of jazz (which does, however, rear its head in a few piano phrases now and again, and in the occasional hints of a walking bass (which might just be auditory hallucinations after yet another stop-start assault)). Even the punk and rock musics which David Keenan mentions in his enthusiastic and wholly appropriate liner notes don’t seem quite relevant; for though this music is hard and raw and aggressive as hell, it also has a sense of control and even of manipulation (perhaps down to de Dionysio’s role as ‘musical director’, in some way spontaneously shaping these collective improvisations as the band’s leader). In addition, you can rely on the band never to do the expected thing (when they do, as in the Latin vamp on the third piece, it becomes unexpected by dint of its rarity); this may in large part be due to the way drummer Niekrasz always looks to avoid the expected and tested paths there to tempt all percussionists (jazz time-keeping, punk rock emphatic mechanics, all-over Sunny-Murray sound-waves).
Special mention, too, must go to de Dionysio’s instrumental prowess; while most bass clarinettists working in this area of the music have carried on from where Eric Dolphy left off, propelling themselves into ever more raucous and athletic displays, de Dionysio’s playing on this disc is perhaps the most vigorous and elemental I’ve heard in quite a while, blaring over and egging on the collective fury of the band and, occasionally, engaging in breathy, tightrope-walk duos with Skloff’s arco bass that unsettle as much as they represent any sort of ‘calm’.
This, then, is a genuinely fresh recording: music with real spirit and bite, wholly inspiring and inspired. (DG)
ROY HARGROVE BIG BAND – EMERGENCE
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Velera; Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey; My Funny Valentine; Mambo for Roy; Requiem; September In the Rain;Every Time We Say Goodbye; La Puerta; Roy Allan; Tschpiso; Trust.
Personnel: Roy Hargrove: leader, composer, arranger, trumpet, fluegelhorn, vocal; Frank Greene: trumpet and flugelhorn; Greg Gisbert, : trumpet and flugelhorn; Darren Barrett: trumpet and flugelhorn; Ambrose Akinmisure: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jason Jackson: trombone; Vincent Chandler: trombone; Saunders Sermons: trombone; Max Siegel: bass trombone, arranger; Bruce Williams: alto saxophone, flute; Justin Robinson: alto saxophone, flute; Norbert Stachel: tenor saxophone, flute; Keith Loftis: tenor saxophone, flute; Jason Marshall: baritone saxophone, flute, reeds; Gerald Clayton: piano, arranger; Saul Rubin: guitar; Danton Boller: bass; Montez Coleman: drums; Roberta Gambarini: vocals.
This is the first recording by Roy Hargrove’s big band, which has been in existence since 1995. Over the years the trumpeter has produced an eclectic variety of records including hard bop, Latin, romantic strings and the pop-funk of RH Factor. This CD by his 19 piece big band is similarly no less wide ranging with the arrangements at times making the band sound like fellow trumpeter’s Tom Harrell’s orchestra on the opening “Velera” with others bring in mind such diverse groups as Charles Tolliver, Thad Jones / Mel Lewis (“Ms Garvey, Ms Garvey”) or even Dizzy Gillespie on the humorous rendition of “September in the rain.” There is even a nod to Chet Baker on “My funny valentine.” Most of the arrangements are, in fact, by Roy Hargrove with others such as Frank Lacey (who contributes the modal workout of “Requiem”) and up-and-coming pianist Gerald Clayton who is himself the son of arranger / bassist/ big band leader John.
It is probably a reasonable assessment to say that this is an extremely mainstream offering and it is fair to say that there is much on this record to please those who have grown up with more orthodox bands such as Count Basie’s. Personally, I think that this is something very much in its favour for, with the obvious exception of the ballads, most of these tracks swing like crazy. I particularly like “Mambo for Roy” which builds up a formidable head of Latin steam with some nice flute and piano before coming to a conclusion with a thundering cadenza from Gerald Clayton after which the band bursts in with a loud tutti and Hargrove unleashing a tumultuous break underpinned with odd punctuations from the drums. The piece then ends with a montouno and an ensemble riff – all told this is just about the most exciting couple of minutes of music I have heard put down on record all year. Every time I hear it, it makes you want to punch the air in delight.
“September in the rain” opens with Hargrove’s muted trumpet and sound very much like it was written in the 1950’s. The leader sings on this track after of good deal of your typical big band fair and the band respond in kind to Hargrove’s efforts in scat in the album’s most fun track. Dizzy would have approved. Although Hargrove may not be amongst the best of his fellow trumpeters in handling the vocals, a proper singer is fortunately on hand in the form of the wonderful Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini who delivers an impressive “Every time we say goodbye” backed by Saul Rubin’s gentle chart that intriguingly mutates into ¾ halfway through. This one track offers ample proof as to why some critics in the States are considering her to be even more technically accomplished than Ella Fitzgerald. I would have to agree with this consensus. This vocal performance is perfection. However, her second feature “La Puerta” which recalls the nostalgic music of the Buena Vista Social Club albeit with considerably more bite and snap is even better and another highlight on this album.
“Roy Allan” offers another approach to Latin music but this time refracted very much through a contemporary jazz lens and features the aforementioned Mr. Rubin’s Wes Montgomery influenced guitar. There is some terrific unaccompanied section work in this Hargrove chart where the level of energy that is built up is pretty staggering. The following “Tschpiso” again pushes the music into a more contemporary feel and concludes with a riff that culminates in yet another exciting crescendo before returning to the main theme. Again, this chart is not too dissimilar to the kind of music played by Tom Harrell albeit several notches higher in the excitement stakes. The album concludes with the gentle “Trust.”
All told, it is difficult to reign in my enthusiasm for this record. The music is very varied, there are some brilliant solos and the band creates much genuine excitement as opposed to simply running down some charts in the studio. This is a record that seems to get better and better with every listen. I think the band is terrific and the arrangements offer a contrasting programme that will appeal to most tastes. On top of this, the appearance of Roberta Gambarini is the icing on the cake. So far, this is the best new CD of 2009 in my opinion. I can’t recommend “Emergence” strongly enough. (Ian Thumwood)
VIVIANE HOULE – TREIZE
Label: Drip Audio
Release Date: October 2009
Tracklist: Mandrake; Molehills Mumps; Paperthin; Gratte-Moi Le Dos; Quiet Eyes; It’s Not the Moon; Betters and Bads; Finely Tuned is My Heart; Au Revas; A Little Storm; Bells Hung in a Tree; Song not for You; Curve
Personnel: Viviane Houle: vocals and texts, with; Peggy Lee: cello (1); Lisa Miller: piano (2); Coat Cooke: saxophone (3); Kenton Loewen: drums (4); Ron Samworth: guitar (5); Chris Gestrin: analog keyboards and live sampling (6); Jesse Zubot: violin (7); Jeremy Berkman: trombone (8); Paul Plimley: piano (9); Jeff Younger: guitar (10); Clyde Reed: bass (11); Brent Belke: guitar (12); Stefan Sumlovitz: kenaxis (13)
I suppose I would say that Houle’s voice, like the voices of Phil Minton and Maggie Nicols, is essentially dramatic, in contrast to Ute Wassermann or Ami Yoshida, whose voices undoubtedly have an impact intense enough to be called ‘dramatic’, but whose concern seems primarily textural. Nonetheless, she combines elements of the latter approach as well; given that she duets with such a wide range of musicians and instruments on the album, an ability for textural adaptation is a must. Generally, she stays away from anything resembling conventional song mode, preferring to unleash hag cackles, wordless, sung-spoken parodies of dialogue, and stretched moans from the back of the throat. When she’s paired with a musician who adopts a similar approach – focussing in on a particular range of sonic details, using ‘non-standard techniques’ – such a style comes across at both its most rigorous and its most disturbing/ emotionally arresting. For instance: the opening piece, with cellist Peggy Lee, where the ‘song-like’ cello sings out in a much more forceful and less elegant way than one might expect from classical repertoire, or the fourth track, where drummer Kenton Loewen begins with high-pitched scrapes that treat his kit as texture rather than rhythm (as on Sean Meehan’s duo album with Sachiko M), before picking up on a nervous, insect-like quality to Houle’s vocals as they dance round, rather than in, rhythm.
A few of the tracks have ‘lyrics’, sometimes quietly spoken as poetry, sometimes delivered as a kind of improvised, sung meditation with an inward-looking, melancholic quality to it like a less jazzy version of Patty Waters (the eleventh track, with Clyde Reed’s acoustic bass). Houle’s voice is also treated with echo and some other electronic means (as on the final, dark ambient style track); I’m not sure whether these were live effects or added at the post-production stage, and, in any case, it doesn’t really matter, as they provide an atmospheric quality without dominating at the expense of musical interaction.
In some ways, this album might have come across as something of a showcase – it is, after all, a debut, and Houle could be forgiven for showing off what she can do with her voice. Another danger might have been a lack of unity, given the variety of accompanists. I’m pleased to report, though, that both traps are successfully negotiated: there is variety, and Houle does do a lot of different things with her voice, but there’s also a careful, if lop-sided sense of ‘plot’ to the record (a plot dictated more by the ever-changing emotional response to stimuli than by any mechanical imposition). Juxtapositions between tracks are sometimes so seamless that one can barely tell one track has ended and another begun, and sometimes audaciously abrasive and noticeable– as when the quiet, jazz-tinged duet with Clyde Reed gives way to Brent Belke’s grungy avant-rock guitar and Houle comes out screaming. All in all, it’s a fine piece of work from an artist clearly dedicated to free improvisation, but also willing, in a manner that’s not at all self-conscious or superficial, to embrace the sounds of other genres: jazz, rock, ambient, electronic. (DG)
ANNETE KREBS/ TOSHIMARU NAKAMURA – SIYU
Label: SoSeditions Release Date: 2008 Tracklist: Wrr; Bsb
Personnel: Annette Krebs: guitar, mixing board, tapes, objects;
Toshimaru Nakamuru: no-input mixing board
Of the two musicians, Krebs produces the greater variety of textures (scrunches, clicks, klangs, percussion, fragments of speed-up tape, radio static), but the fading and swelling of Nakamaru’s unadorned sine tones is essential in creating the dynamics of the music, organising and shaping the sound. What emerges is not, like a sculpture, something you can step back and see as a whole, but an ongoing construction which creates itself anew each time it is played; a series of fortunate events, each melding into the next so you’d be hard-pressed to say where one ended and another began. Here we have mastery of transition1 – though that phrase implies a more nicely, precisely ordered structural edifice than ‘Siyu’ offers. Such structure is simply not what the listener’s ear will experience when faced with fifty minutes of very high sine tones and spluttering, splitting, flickering rhythm and crackle. Even the tape fragments of disembodied human voice become alien, in this, the electronic world’s intrusion into the comfort zone. Yet no more alien than a society technologized for war, at all costs intending to further brute instincts even if under veneers of ‘growth’, ‘progress’, ‘sophistication’, the ‘organic’ flow of oil and blood and armed men in coffins, pipelines, streets, screens, screams.
This alien voices the new song then, both as antidote to and as part of the problem; both the balm and the wound, to be heard, to be healed. In Krebs’ hands and in Nakamura’s hands music-making becomes an act, involving listening, being, reacting. That’s more music to me than what is well-executed (executed with the clean, swift blow of the axe – without a hint of rust, or of the blood that’s swept away (death without the body; the blank neatness of the controlled ending)). Of course, in its own realm, ‘Siyu’ is supremely well-executed (what-ever ‘well’ means.) Here, then, is what this well springs. (DG)
1 I use words like Event, Transition; maybe, however, it would be better to talk about overlapping spheres of activity (spheres might also be the form taken by the shapes in sound that Nakamura makes, if they were translated visually).
THE PEGGY LEE BAND – NEW CODE
Label: Drip Audio
Release Date: 2008
Tracklisting: All I Really Want to Do; Preparations; Offshoot 1; Not a Wake Up Call; Floating Island; Offshoot 2; Scribble Town; Tug; Offshoot 3; Walk Me Through; Shifting Tide; Lost in the Stars
Personnel: Brad Turner: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jon Bentley: tenor saxophone; Jeremy Berkman: trombone; Peggy Lee: cello; Ron Samworth, Tony Wilson: electric and acoustic guitars; Andre Lachance: electric bass; Dylan van der Schyff: drums
Not exactly free jazz (though there are three freely improvised pieces), this 2008 release is similar to the Tony Wilson Sextet’s ‘The People Look Like Flowers At Last’ (another all-Canadian album released on Drip Audio), in that its carefully structured arrangements, directed towards emotional climaxes, leave plenty of space for improvisation. Indeed, the compositional aspect isn’t ‘restrictive’ in the slightest; richly harmonized melodies give way to sections where it’s the responsibility of the individual players to sustain and expand on the texture that’s been established, while emphatic rhythms and repetitive riffs provide the transitional anchor between ‘themes’ and ‘solos’, so that things never feel merely schematic (‘we’ve played the head now, let’s get on and blow’).
A record of original compositions by band-leader Peggy Lee, and improvisations by various members of the group, ‘New Code’ opens and closes with pieces representative of its general intentions. Bob Dylan’s ‘All I Want to Do’ comes across as joyfully bubbling and flowing; the simple melody isn’t altered too much, though some rather nifty voicings for the horns and a nice little countermelody bolster it up a little, but once the solos come in, volumes rise and textures thicken, with high scribbling cello, babbling trumpet, wauling trombone and guitars that suddenly vault from the brink of atonality into a country-flavoured riff that smoothly ushers in the fade back to the original melody. The show-tune melody of Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’, meanwhile, is treated with what at first seems like a rather undue reverence; as the track builds, though, and the melody repeats in hymn-like unison over Dylan van der Schyff’s ecstatically crashing drums, it’s clear both that such reverence is not misplaced, and also that it’s not really reverence. Rather, it’s a confidence in treating treat pre-existing compositional material with an improvisational freshness and verve, while maintaining a keen sense of ensemble arrangement and an ever-present clarity of structure. The effect in this particular instance is a little similar to Otomo Yoshihide’s ‘Theme from Canary’, though it doesn’t build to quite such splendidly passionate heights (partly given that it’s so much shorter: most of the tracks on this record don’t average much more than five minutes each).
Both the Dylan and the Weill, then, are testament to this band’s fine sense of climax, their ability to imperceptibly switch gears and build up a fine head of steam from originally quiet foundations. Elsewhere, the process is reversed, as they transition smoothly (via a frantic fading loop) from the noisy, snarling fuzz guitar guitar solo of ‘Not a Wake Up Call’ to the harmonically ambiguous but serene guitar riff which lies under the swooning and rather sad horn melodies of ‘Fading Island’.
‘Preparations’ follows the opening Dylan cover, and is, at nearly nine minutes, the longest track on the album. After a rather hesitant improvised opening, which sounds rather like treading water until the ‘track proper’ gets under way, a simple three-note melody (very similar to one which appears on the recent album by one of the guitarists on this date, Tony Wilson) allows the band to build up a great head of steam. With space to stretch out, their playing has a passionate flow which characterizes the disc – Lee’s cello threads its way through trumpet, saxophone and trombone melodies and countermelodies, Dylan van der Schyff egging everyone on with cymbal flourishes, rolls and crashes. Some unexpected but delightful Gil Evans-flavoured thematic material closes the piece in fine ‘Sketches of Spain’ fashion.
The first of three ‘Offshoots’ – short improvisations for smaller groupings of the various band members – is a good opportunity to hear Jeremy Berkman’s woozily smeared trombone, as part of a prickly texture created by Ron Samworth’s hard-edged plucking and grinding and van der Schyff’s steel-jawed repetitions. ‘Not a Wake Up Call’ and ‘Floating Island’ I’ve already discussed, and they are perhaps the disc highlights. Another ‘Offshoot’ finds the duo of Lee and trumpeter Brad Turner opening with subdued complementary melodic lines; as these naturally spiral into denser and then more broken realms, Lee abandons smooth arco playing for crackling, physically immediate plucking and strumming approach that puts me in mind of Abdul Wadud’s fine solo recording from, ‘By Myself.’ ‘Scribble Town’ sets out its intentions from the outset, with brutal twin guitar under a melody whose constant repetitions drive things to panic in a manner which would make Bernard Hermann proud. It’s a panic which possesses Jon Bentley’s tenor sax as he takes the track’s only solo, lingering on a high register melody as if to resist it only to throw himself back into tonguing, multiphonics and sped-up jazz frenzies. The emotional atmosphere remains fraught on ‘Tug’ (it strikes me that Lee could write a fine film-noir score if she so desired); as if to arrest this, a secondary rhythmic figure becomes the primary focus, allowing Brad Turner to lay down a rather more mellow jazz solo over less distorted guitars, with Lee’s held notes easing out behind. The original melody returns, things fading out in a way that prepares ground for the third and final ‘Offshoot’, where Bentley’s almost Evan-Parker-like saxophone engages in inquisitive melodic bursts that are at first quietly melodic and gradually wind down to a more hushed uncertainty, complemented by Lachance’s unobtrusive prodding and Wilson’s high-pitched crackles. ‘Walk Me Through’ finds Lee solo for the first time, bowing sweet, Oriental-style high notes which continue to sing out as Brad Turner guides the slowly unfolding melody along its way, over a quietly insistent background riff. ‘Shifting Tide’ again builds slowly, Bentley’s initial melodic probes falling into a suggestion of John Coltrane’s ‘Welcome’ but quickly shying away and treading a subdued rhapsodic path, full of soft tongued flurries, over another texture which gradually builds in rhythmic insistence and volume. And then the reverent serenity of the previously discussed Kurt Weill piece, to close what is a very satisfying album. (DG)
DAVE MERSON HESS – MUSIC FROM THE FILM ‘PRESENCE’
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Onomatopoeia; Didn’t Used to Be This Way; I Like Dogs; What is Its Vessell?; Blur and Bleed; Haunted Kid; Like Dominoes; Friends…Home; Subway Sleep; Fishmerna; Love Theme Intro; Love Theme; Static/Headtrop/Tinkly Piano; Drive; Caught in a Fingerprint; Presence Theme; Drive Outtake
Personnel: Dave Merson-Hess: Mellotron, Moog and other analog synthesizers, VST emulations, organ drones, vibraphone, heavily delayed drums, and electric guitar
The experience of listening to a film soundtrack tends to be one that falls slightly outside the usual remits, as what one hears follows the logic of what unfolds on screen rather than considerations relating to the organisation and development of a record. Thus, we hear the same theme, or themes, recurring throughout, in different arrangements, from different angles; the actual amount of original melodic material is quite slight, with much of the music’s complexity occurring through the intricacy and variety of the variations spun upon it. In the case of Dave Merson-Hess’ score for the independent sci-fi/horror movie ‘Presence’, even strong and definable melody as such is not the main criterion; rather, I’m reminded of Brian Eno’s comment that texture and atmosphere now takes predominance over melody in contemporary pop music. The cues here are driven along by various beats which provide a sense of forward-momentum, while also underlining a sense of essential stasis, of going round in circles, that resembles the trapped situation of the film’s lone protagonist. Time as an important theme is introduced in the opening number, ‘Onomatopeia’, where what sounds like an electronic version of a speeded-up heartbeat combines with sounds that evoke sirens and the low, throbbing hum of engines in an eerie blurring of the human and the machine. The track sounds purposeful –given that we associate a pulse with the ongoing ‘presence’ of life, and think of machines as fulfilling some sort of continuing purpose – but is actually going nowhere, the siren sounds continuing onto the next piece as if it were all part of the same continuum. A sense of dread hovers over most of the tracks – most palpably on the grinding electric guitars of ‘Drive’, but even on the ‘Love Theme’, in which electronic organ sounds and throbbing electronics seem stuck in a minimalist loop that soon fades into a whirr of ghost-voiced static. This is then, in many ways, a bleak listen, the open-ended nature of its sounds reflecting the empty spaces and slow-paced, dream-like quality of the film it accompanies: spaced-out and often rather melancholy (the final two tracks in particular), its purpose is to underline a certain set of moods rather than to set a definite direction. Even if one hasn’t seen the film, the images triggered in one’s head will make a movie of their own, full of the images and only half-registered thoughts that drift around one’s head in those uncertain, semi-conscious moments before sleep. (DG)
MIMESYS – MIMESYS
Label: Deadalus Records
Release Date: December 2006
Tracklist: mimesys 1-8
Personnel: Ugo Boscain: alto and contrabass clarinet; Michele Spanghero: double bass
Here we have a disc of mesmerizing duo improvisations by double-bassist Michele Spanghero and contra-bass clarinetist Ugo Boscain. Rather than the woody, sonorous darkness of the Eric Dolphy/Richard Davis duets, what we often hear is the sound of two instruments being pushed above their ‘normal’ range, howling clarinet and wrenching bass harmonics swirling and echoing round each other in continuous eddies or almost static, hovering suspensions. The effect is particularly eerie on the seventh track, Boscain’s high multiphonics and deep quacks combining with Spanghero’s slow bowing motions to mess with one’s perception of sound-space in a way that normally only electronic music can. There’s also a lovely moment five minutes into the second track where Spanghero starts to tentatively pluck out a jazzy melody reminiscent of ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it ain’t got that Swing’ before things imperceptibly sweep up to hoarse clarinet barks and rasping repeated arco bass figures. It’s not exactly a moment of light relief or even of particular contrast (it’s a very brief moment of idiomatic playing), but, by standing out as it does, it illustrates just how focused these two musicians are on a particular area of sonic enquiry – not that their music is by any means monochromatic, but that it lulls and troubles into a state of meditation where the heart beats slower, the breathing becomes more measured, the mind at once more active in its perceptions of minute details and more restful in its focus on a specific activity and ambience. (DG)
JOE MORRIS – COLORFIELD
Release Date: 2009
Tracklisting: Transparent; Silver Sun; Purple Distant; Blue Orange Curves
Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar; Steve Lantner: piano; Luther Gray: drums
Joe Morris’ latest is an improvised trio recording, and the line-up (guitar, piano, drums), combined with Morris’ known proclivities towards a clean guitar tone and a linear (melodic) approach, suggest that we might expect some ‘chamber jazz.’ In some ways this would be right; the music, though by no means harmonically straight-forward or changes based, is not bitingly atonal, and the textures are characterized by an absence of the harsh sonorities often associated with ‘free’ guitar playing. Yet ‘chamber jazz’ also suggests a certain ‘politeness’ – or, at least, an unruffled professionalism which might be used to describe Morris’ approach with some accuracy (perhaps by those less disposed to admire his work). However, this does it a disservice; the music by no means lacks inquisitiveness and a sense of exploration, and, indeed, the trio’s approach leads them to wider areas and greater discoveries than a more simplistic feed-back drenched approach would. ‘Colorfield’ is all about the notes that are played, about having something to say when you play, about avoiding meandering and smearing, about building up an overall texture from the interaction of small details.
Lantner and Morris really exploit the overlap between guitar and piano, the melodic reflexes of both players so finely tuned that at certain points their lines intersect and overlap in a way which makes them quite hard to tell apart; a relationship in which both pursue independent courses, but in which both are heading in the same general direction. Perhaps that metaphor’s too goal-oriented; rather, they take different lines for walks along the same course, no matter where they end up.
Morris’ liner notes say it’s melodic playing that’s emphasized, and that’s true; but this doesn’t conflict with the ‘colorfield’ metaphor, as the closeness of melodic interaction creates a collective feel. If, at a certain point, Morris plays around with figures that come across like skew-wiff jazz comping, or if Lantner retreats into the background somewhat at certain points, generally the feel is not of accompaniment but of togetherness. (This may be partly due to the fact that the trio is what would be described as a ‘rhythm section,’ in orthodox jazz terminology – there’s no saxophonist or trumpeter to automatically impose themselves into a lead role.)
Luther Gray’s drums in that sense are the closest to being the odd one out, as they can’t exploit the same harmonic resources and colouristic palette of guitar and piano; so he tends to keep things tight, restricted, avoiding the free drummer’s usual reliance on cymbals for more tapping, a more tautly rhythmic approach. This can be heard most explicitly on the brief drum solos he takes on the final two tracks, where he explores small areas of rhythmic and timbral detail to an effect that’s not exactly hypnotic but is deeply absorbing.
Tempos are generally fast, but not super-fast, high energy, free jazz style; the penultimate track is the slowest, opening with Lantner’s vaguely Messiaen-flavoured piano chords, and gradually extrapolating from their in-built intensity, while the concluding piece is the fastest, Lantner playing clusters and runs at the beginning in a way which makes one realize how subtly melodic his playing has been elsewhere, how his clusters are unobtrusive and played with a mind towards harmonic openness and detail, rather than a generalized splash. As ever with Morris, then, this is serious music, concentrated and worthy of repeated listenings. (DG)
PROFOUND SOUND TRIO – OPUS DE LIFE
Label: Porter Records
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: This Way, Please; Call Paul; Whirligging; Beyonder; Futurity
Personnel: Andrew Cyrille: drums; Paul Dunmall: tenor sax, bagpipes; Henry Grimes: bass, violin
Additional Information: Recorded in concert at the Vision Festival, June 14th 2008.
‘Opus de Life’ might be translated as ‘Life’s Work’, and as such implies that this music is some sort of summation of the lives’ work of each of these three vastly experienced musicians. This might seem to be rather a cliché; in fact, though, it is more than this, for it actually it tells us something about the music itself, and the attitude that goes into its creation. There is a balance between the notion of ‘work’ (opus) and the notion of ‘playing’: the joy of spontaneous discovery and the ability to move wherever one pleases is coupled to the sense of responsibility imparted by making a music that is “as serious as your life,” that is work in a real sense, that is doing something for a purpose, as a contribution to a human situation (while at the same time escaping the checklist-ticking attitude that ensnares human creativity and the ability to grow and develop in the world). The musicians play their lives as well as just playing music; and they also play the lives of all those who have contributed to the growth of jazz as an art form, as a mode of creative expression.
Because of this, we can say with Charles Mingus that, “if you want to escape reality, you better leave” before the musicians start playing.1 Every time that Cyrille, Dunmall and Grimes play, they play the material that shapes their lives both at that moment and in all the moments that led up to it, that shaped them and that shaped their music. Perhaps too, as well as encapsulating past and present in a succession of unfolding flows of sounds and ideas, their music hints at future potential, future development – not only in the sense that the Profound Sound Trio will go on to play another gig, and that each individual musician will play again in any number of different contexts, and not only in the sense that the recording of the performance will be listened to in many places and situations around the world, that in this vast network many lives will be touched; not only all these things, but also that the interactions occurring here demonstrate a kind of human relation which, god knows, we need more of in this world. Co-operation, sensitivity, judging what one does in relation to how it impacts on others, participating in a collective texture which incorporates individual lines of argument, sometimes perfectly complementary, sometimes apparently divergent, creating out of the interaction of three musical personalities a fourth entity, a music with a life of its own.
What exactly is the content of a music with such attributes? Dunmall is clearly coming out of the post-Coltrane tradition; he blows hard and fast, but with sensitivity, going with the flow of the music, dropping in and out, leaving space and letting new sections develop from the old. At one point his tone is so raspingly harsh that the audience is driven on to spontaneous cheers – though, despite the frequent assertion that free jazz is an ‘angry music’, what comes out above all from this recording is the sense of joy, exhilaration, of life force and life work that goes into and comes out of playing. Cyrille never feels like he is giving a drum masterclass or display, never feels like he is showing off; by reducing volume and concentrating on just a few items of his kit at certain points, he gives a breathing space in the texture for different timbres, different sounds to be heard. Grimes, meanwhile, combines his unflagging energy on the bass with a wonderfully free, folk-influenced style on violin that is an entirely new sound in the jazz world. Particularly when combined with Dunmall’s bagpipes, we are lifted into an entirely new and surprising space, where elements of the dance emerge in what the track title accurately describes as ‘Whirligging’ – a kind of perpetual motion, a spinning intertwining of voices and rhythms, spiralling arcs of melody climbing over and under each other. The captivating nature of such joyous and often frenetic forms spurs on the audience to become a participant in the music, not just a passive recipient of it; when they clap after a solo or a particularly impressive passage, this is not just the automatic response triggered by the concert situation (as it might be on a classical recording), but an actual outpouring of thanks and appreciation for the way the music has moved them. (DG)
1 Thanks to Joel Futterman for providing me with this quotation.
GIL SCOTT-HERON – I’M NEW HERE
Label: XL Recordings
Release Date: February 2010
Tracklist: On Coming From a Broken Home (Part 1); Me And The Devil; I’m New Here; Your Soul And Mine; Parents (Interlude); I’ll Take Care Of You; Being Blessed (Interlude); Where Did The Night Go; I Was Guided (Interlude); New York Is Killing Me; Certain Things (Interlude); Running; The Crutch; I’ve Been Me (Interlude); On Coming From a Broken Home (Part 2)
Personnel: Gil Scott-Heron: vocals; Damon Albarn: keyboards (track 2); Pat Sullivan: acoustic guitar (track 3); Christiana Liberis, Mary Jo Stilp, Mike Block, Una Tone: strings (tracks 4, 6, 13); Kim Jordan: piano (track 6), additional vocals (track 10); Michelle Hutcherson, Tiona Hall, Tyria Stokes: background vocals (track 10); Chris Cunningham: guitar, synthesizer (track 10); Richard Russell: production
Gil Scott-Heron: vocals; Pat Sullivan: acoustic guitar; Richard Russell: production
Let’s not talk about the release of this new album as an ‘event’, if we can help it. Yes, Gil Scott-Heron, ‘godfather of rap’, a hugely important voice in bringing socially-conscious messages to both black and white youth, has not recorded an album since 1994’s ‘Spirits’. Yes, he has been in and out of prison, has had plans for recordings and for books planned and then postponed, has made intermittent public appearances but been generally been shrouded in rumours of ill-health and personal breakdown. Yes, all this has happened – and the record’s title suggests a very specific engagement with the notion that Heron is a quote-unquote major artist who must add to his legacy, must teach us all once again, must justify his absence with another classic. Might it suggest that Heron is a new man, reborn, coming out of hard times with his head held high once more? And would that mean a return to the Heron of the old days, or would it mean a re-invented, re-invigorated artist, starting over just as strong but in a different place?
These are all questions that Heron does not need to answer: he has done enough, whatever the critics may say about missed opportunities, not to have to make another statement if he does not wish to; his position is assured. But, as listeners, as critics, we cannot help but make them – we cannot pretend to listen in a vacuum. And so the comparisons begin almost as soon as we press play.
First off, after we get past the spoken-word of the opening track, we’ll notice that Heron sounds less comfortable singing now (perhaps explaining the choice of Smog’s neo-folk acoustic number ‘I’m New Here’ to cover; in the original, Bill Callahan’s sung voice was always on the brink of shading over into laconic, spoken reflection, and here, Heron speaks most of the words, singing only the short, recurring chorus). His voice is now partially possessed of the ‘lived-in’ croak that characterises latter-day Dylan and Tom Waits. Though that has always been part of Waits’ cigarettes-and-alcohol mystique, and seems to have become an accentuation of Dylan’s famously less than smooth vocal stylings (albeit one so extreme that its burden must be borne by his status as a ‘living legend’ fondly canonised by both a generation of fading hippies and Professor Christopher Ricks), in Heron’s case, as his voice was quite mellifluous before, this may have necessitated a stylistic change, as it can’t quite carry the righteous soul style. (It will be interesting to hear what material Heron tackles in his upcoming live shows – one would have thought that a record like this wouldn’t really be feasible as a stage show, and a return to the jazz/soul instrumental styling would seem likely.)
But, given all this, one must remember that spoken word is how Heron started off in the first place – his debut record announced him as ‘A New Black Poet’, and it is as poet as much as singer that he appears here. Despite the apparently low-key title of that record (‘Small-Talk at 125th and Lenox’), the wide-ranging subject matter and the urgent desire to speak political realities meant that he was soon aligned with the poet-teachers of the 1970s African-American urban experience: June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Father Amde Hamilton, Otis O’Solomon, Richard Dedeaux, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan. Of course, such a reduction – to a list of names – would mitigate the approach that all these artists shared, one that was about ‘the revolution of everyday life’, rather than about soapbox sermonising or political platitudinising divorced from the thoughts and feelings, the insults and injuries, the imposed or unwitting failures, and, yes too, the joys that occupied every minute of every day for vast numbers of ordinary people. Thus, while all the reviews will focus on the fact that ‘I’m New Here’ is a ‘personal’ record, a chastened Heron’s reaction to years of silence through addiction and imprisonment, it’s worth noting that the material which made his name was precisely defined by its absence of sloganeering (this is the narrative of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ – moving revolution, as a movement, away from the simplicity of oft-repeated clichés, catchphrases, and images), and by its focus on the inseparability of the personal and the political (think of the way the narrative of black poverty and institutional callousness in ‘Pieces of a Man’ is filtered through a sentiment of personal and private grief). Nonetheless, while Heron, particularly as time went on, did take on the position of spokesman (shouting out against the Reagan era, then advising the hip-hop artists who followed in his wake to take more account of their social responsibility, as potential teachers of, and voices for their generation), his absence from the scene perhaps mitigates against his effectiveness as the wise elder – having passed on the mantle, he can self-reflect, in a manner of course still tied to the forces that shaped him, but with the specifics of political concern not voiced explicitly.
Instead, what seems a more imaginatively exaggerated world emerges. This may result as much as anything from the ominous sound of the music: its samples and murmurs, its hisses and whirrs are a world away from the soul-drenched piano chords and jazz bass of the more familiar work, though the references to Charon and to Satan, and the flickering, high speed urban ghosts of the video to ‘Me and the Devil’ certainly have their say in the matter too. Given further reflection, however, one realises that the words frequently turn on themes familiar enough to count as archetypal. The personal demons of alcohol-fuelled sleeplessness and the drudge of routine (‘Where Did the Night Go’) form a quieter, more intimate variation on ‘The Bottle’, while, elsewhere, it is the classic themes of the blues that are returned to: the old theme of urban decay as contrasted against the simplicity of a poor, but perhaps more ‘honest’, rural past (‘New York is Killing Me’), the attractive yet unsettling force of the supernatural (‘Me and the Devil’) – where the supernatural becomes a potent force, not so much structured into simple moral schemes but figured as part of the complexity of human behaviour, and – crucially – part of the complexity of the traditions formed over centuries by African-Americans reacting to their transplantation and subsequent isolation in ‘the land of the free’.
Transformation is a major part of this experience – the practice of ‘signifying’ – jazz’s transformation of white instruments through black music – Sun Ra’s transformation of a multitude of subjects, from spirituals to space travel – Ray Charles’ transformation of gospel styles from the sacred to the profane – Heron’s non-televised transformation of the slogans of consumer culture into their negation. And ‘I’m New Here’, too, is about transformation – two of the stand-out tracks are covers, back to the roots with Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’, and, more surprisingly, turning to acoustic guitar and the (musically) lilting, (lyrically) self-interrogating ‘I’m New Here’ by Bill Calahan (a.k.a. Smog). Connecting the subdued, whimsical delicacy of white folk-tradition in the latter, with the blues’ more extrovert, dramatically strident position doesn’t so much seal their differences as emphasise the common thread of vulnerability and personal honesty underlining both – as well as the fact that such apparent straightforwardness is always an assuming of a role, a self-dramatisation that stands, often ambiguously, for a truth, rather than presenting that truth direct in itself. This is a balance between frailty and strutting confidence that the record treats as central. It doesn’t shy away from the increased weakness of Heron’s voice; rather, the production takes account of it, even foregrounds it – rather than compensating with a thicker background texture, it keeps things sparse and stripped-down, to emphasize rather than to hide.
This turns out to mean that we have here a striking generic difference to previous Scott-Heron albums. The aforementioned production is decidedly lo-fi (with tape hiss and sparing use of murky samples), and its semi-industrial sound owes much to the spaciousness, to the minimal, almost empty ghost-traces of dub-step, where samples drift in and out almost un-noticed, where tracks float along on skeletal beats that pound with mechanical precision but that never feel fast or driving. There are no saxophone, flute or piano solos to add more complex improvised variations over the song’s basic structures; instead, there are the pauses between phrases, the tension hanging on each word, the wait for each weighted-syllable.
And, given that the fifteen-track record lasts for only 28-minutes (including a number of ‘interludes’ – 10-second, reverb’d snippets of Heron in conversation), each syllable is most definitely weighted. Such brevity makes it important to experience the whole thing as one, continuous, flowing entity: the recurring Kanye West sample which opens and closes the record, giving it an element of circularity; the transference of mood from tales of spirits and the threat of damnation (‘Me and the Devil’, ‘Your Soul and Mine’) to personal ruminations hung-over with depression and unease (‘Where Did the Night Go’, ‘Running’), to warmer reminiscences and reflections on a life – the way it was lived, the influences that shaped it (the spoken-word snippets). Though the songs themselves generally have a clear and simple structure, the predominance of spoken word and the sparseness of the background mean that tracks don’t split as easily into single entities as they do on, say, ‘Pieces of a Man’. Because of this, some might slant this as a record of half-started (or half-finished) demos and sketches, spliced together and put out there before it’s reached the stage of a rounded, completed artistic statement. Indeed, the quick-fix critic in me suggested that very angle when I first heard these tracks, but, in trying to actually listen to and experience the album with an open attitude, I realised that trying to impose such a structure would not be to take this record on its own terms – which is the only way it is going to make sense. Forget pre-conditioned ideas about how an album ‘should’ be constituted – as much as you can – and, allowing that the distance of time may allow a more finely-balanced judgement once a few years have passed, I think one can say that this is a good piece of work: sincere, not bombastic, not expected; unsentimental but frank, not directed towards melody as on the classic albums but with enough melodic aftertaste to satisfy. And in that sense, assessment as to whether it is a ‘major album’ or an ‘important comeback’, and attempts to place it into a particular model of ‘late recordings by former legends’ (all the Johnny Cash comparisons we’ve been hearing), come to seem rather unnecessary, rather out of place. You can hear it for what it is, and you should. (DG)
SKARABEE – TLÖN
Label: fbox records
Release Date: 2009
Tracklisting: conversing spirits; lunar landscapes; rewinding metals; insect swarming;
talking in code; scratched surface; machine ghosts
Personnel: Stuart Chalmers: karimba, electronics, contact mic, bows and household objects
‘Tlön’ is packaged with an aesthetic that, while pleasingly minimalist, stays on the right side of mere decoration, of the mere re-hashing of a marketable aesthetic; it has a certain edge to it, not succumbing to any overweening conceptual programme, but with enough ‘content’ to it to give the impression of more than a mere exercise in form or atmosphere. It’s rather like a puzzle that doesn’t quite work: the way the cardboard folds out leads to expectations of a map or a poster appearing if one arranges things the right way, only for the operation to become impossible just a few stages before the promised unravelling. Dig the porthole on the cover, the inscrutable marks purporting to mean something but in the end simply just there, elegant straight lines curving upwards leg-like, small x’s giving the appearance of a diagram, fragments of photographs and black and white shapes suggesting some realm of greater activity that lurks behind the smooth cream cardboard.
The music is similarly inscrutable – measured, slow-paced and quiet, but without reducing itself to a pretty background. At times, it gives the impression of being quite soft (the unhurried melodies picked out on delay-treated thumb piano on the first track), yet fairly harsh sonorities are often employed, and, even when this is not the case, the music is equipped with plenty of scratchy edges, radio static crackling to one side of the main area of sonic focus. Like the ‘machine ghosts’ of the final track, it feels as if things never quite come the surface – indeed, that Skarabee never makes one bold and definite statement during the whole record, instead drifting to the side of fore-grounded ‘event’, creating a music that at times is so understated one only fully realises that it was there after it’s gone.
For me, that’s quite a wonderful thing. Though it has a quite different impact to the stripped-down and raw noise aesthetic of Chalmers’ very different project, tusK (where, in an opposite move, clear, strongly rhythmic statement is at the forefront of things), both albums share an approach to the making and manipulation of sound that is above all unfussy. It takes precision to set in motion and then to control the various loops and layers which appear here, but the precision that comes across in the music is of a very different kind, for it mingles with an impression of vagueness, haze, the half-heard – that which one cannot quite put one’s figure on – and the music, while remaining focused, is as much about inattention as attention. (DG)
WADADA LEO SMITH – SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS
Label: Cuneiform Records
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Disc One: Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise; Pacifica; Umar at the Dome of the Rock, parts 1 & 2; Crossing Sirat; South Central L.A. Kulture; Disc Two: South Central L.A. Kulture; Angela Davis; Organic; Joy : Spiritual Fire : Joy (In memory of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed)
Personnel: Disc One (Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quintet): Wadada Leo Smith: acoustic and electric trumpet; Vijay Iyer: piano, synthesizer; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan AkLaff: drums; Don Moye: drums; Disc Two (Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic): Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross: electric guitar; Nels Cline: 6- & 12-string electric guitar; Lamar Smith: electric guitar (on ‘South Central L.A. Kulture’ and ‘Joy : Spiritual Fire : Joy’); Okkyung Lee: cello; Skuli Sverrisson: electric bass; John Lindberg: acoustic bass; Pheeroan AkLaff: drums
Additional Information: Disc One recorded live at Vision XIII, June 13th 2008, NYC. Disc Two recorded live at Firehouse 12, April 17th 2009, New Haven, CT.
The sound of Leo Smith’s trumpet, acoustic or played through a wah-wah pedal, is always bright and direct, whether engaging in piercing mournful cries, darting melodic interplay, or punchy, jabbing blasts and flourishes. Smith is an exceptionally strong player – by which I don’t mean that he’s aggressively macho. Rather, his strength comes from his ability to impart authority, leadership, organisation, even when he seems to be staying in the background; it comes from his ability to choose the right note, the right phrase at the right time. As he puts it, “in music it’s an aesthetic where the notion of sincerity takes place. For example, it would be inappropriate to play a note or a phrase or a rhythm that you didn’t feel.”1 Consequently, his presence is felt when he chooses not to play almost as much as when he does: interjecting with a brief phrase that somehow seems to clarify and bring together what the rest of the band has been playing in his absence, opening up a direction which may then be switched as he comes in again, a few minutes later, with a totally new idea. There’s a lot riding on the use of space, on the use of pauses, re-starts, back-tracks, proclamations, declamations, declarations, statements, articulations: for though this is music, and not the language of spoken conversation, speech is always at the back of whatever Smith plays, as it is with Ornette Coleman or with any blues player worth their salt. The emotional openness, the tempering of strength with vulnerability, might seem removed from the language of public speech – at least, to a generation grown cynical at the blandishments of corrupt politicians and establishment figures. Despite this, one would do well to remember that the music is performed in public (by which I don’t just mean the audience; for both they and the other musicians in the band are at once participants and witnesses to what any one musician is doing). What we hear on ‘Spiritual Dimensions’ melds interior and exterior, form and feeling, collective ritual and individual consideration into a whole that might very well be described as ‘organic’.
Smith’s trumpet is very much the lead voice on these nine lengthy pieces, spread over two discs, but the bands are quite different. The Golden Quartet, here expanded to a Quintet through the addition of an extra drummer, has been one of Smith’s major projects of recent years, and though the personnel changes from one release to the next (Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors, Jack deJohnette and Ronald Shannon Jackson are all previous members of the group), a definite continuity is maintained. In general, one might say that the emphasis is on free improvisation (I’m aware that Smith would claim that all his music is ‘free’, that such labels as ‘free jazz’ or ‘free improvisation’ are a constricting imposition on open creativity, and he’s probably right – nonetheless, I hope that using such a journalistic short-cut allows for a clear description of what can be heard in the music). ‘Al-Shadhilli’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise’ opens with a barely-audible synthesizer wash before John Lindberg’s twanging bass figures (at once providing a sense of certain ground and sure placing, and leaving room for a world of potentialities) and Vijay Iyer’s sonorous piano lay the ground for Smith, taking his time, building up statements with an under-stated force and clarity to them. It’s tempting to draw parallels between the music and its dedicatee, the founder of the Tariqa Shadhili, a North African/Egyptian Sufi order: mysticism might approximate the mysterious logic of improvised musical interaction, and something of its boundless openness, its capacity for multiple combinations, directions, and fields of activity, is also suggested by the following description of Shadhili: “He gave me forty sciences. He was an ocean without a shore.”
‘Pacifica’: chiming, bell-like, solemn; a pause and a rapid turnaround, a quick twist and a swish of the tail, a leap into steely moto perpetuo stylings; sense of the static bursting with potentialities of movement. For some reason, the track fades out as it changes direction, tempo quickening from the reverie into which things had settled. ‘Umar at the Dome of the Rock’ is where one really hears what each individual musician in the band can do, through a series of ample solos. Particularly impressive is John Lindberg on acoustic bass, seemingly heading in a Jimmy Garrison direction with his strumming, almost flamenco-flavoured figures, before transforming these into much more percussive, throbbing, thwacking things, building a totally absorbing rhythmic intensity. ‘Sirat’: composed phrases melding with spiralling improvisations, Vijay Iyer’s dark-hued sprinklings of notes, always following the logic of each phrase, led on by the cumulative energy and flow of what he plays, Smith, by contrast, placing his quick flurries around held tones.
‘South Central L.A. Kulture’ is performed in two versions, at the close of the first disc and the start of the second. In both, it emerges from Smith’s piercing, mournful solo – slow phrases interspersed with repeating trilled clarions, like a more brittle, less vulnerable Miles Davis. That said, Davis, whose 70s music Smith paid tribute to in the band Yo Miles!, is an influence not so much in the trumpet phrasing or even tone (despite the use of wah-wah pedal), as in the contextual backdrop – most obviously on the performances by Organic, a guitar-heavy electric group whose music tends to sound like jazz fusion. On the Golden Quintet disc, the rhythmic backdrop is less locked-in, less relentlessly groove-focussed. This may in fact be due to the presence of two drummers, upping the rhythmic complexity, though often, they mesh so well that they almost become one, sticking to particular areas of their own kit in order to complement each other, rather than getting in each-others’ way, or drowning out the other musicians with the force of combined bombast. That said, ‘L.A. Kulture’ soon moves into a very groovy bass-line, sometimes reminiscent of funk, sometimes with a Latin vibe which possesses the same sort of capacity to inspire passionate, lengthy solos as Mingus’ ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance’ from ‘Tijuana Moods’. The ‘Organic’ version emphasises the groove element even more, in a manner very reminiscent of Yo Miles!, with added bass guitar, AkLaff, the single drummer, laying down a more straightforwardly metronomic rock-beat, and guitars swirling and twanging around the groove. For all these reasons, and despite the larger size of the band, it’s fairly one-directional, and thus holds less interest for me than the more open interplay of the Quintet (for instance, Lindberg’s electronically-manipulated acoustic bass is more texturally interesting and unusual than the fat fusion bass on disc 2). The roving harmonic approach of Vijay Iyer’s piano is also missed – ducking in and out and round about, it forces itself into the crannies around Smith’s trumpet, rather than imposing its own commands. With Organic, by contrast, the focus is less on detail, more on a general forward-driving pulse and a particular set of sounds. This may sound unduly negative, and it’s not meant to be: once you accept that the groove is the way things are going, and that your attention may occasionally wander, it becomes easy to like this music, particularly when, as on ‘Angela Davis’, Okkyung Lee’s cello is threading its way in and out of the foreground, or when, as at the start of ‘Organic’, things turn all spacey, with reams of sci-fi echo. Smith is one of the most important musicians around today, and ‘Spiritual Dimensions’ is ample evidence of his commitment, his drive, his charge. (DG)
1 Kevin Le Gendre, “Spirits Rejoice”, Jazzwise, December 2008 / January 2009, Issue 126
ESPERANZA SPALDING – ESPERANZA
Label: Heads Up International
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Ponta de Areia; I Know You Know; Fall In; I Adore You; Cuerpo y Alma(Body & Soul); She Got to You; Precious; Mela; Love in Time; Espera; Samba em Preludio.
Personnel: Esperanza Spalding: bass, vocals; Gretchen Parlato: vocals; Jamey Haddad: percussion; Otis Brown: drums; Nino Josele: acoustic guitar; Donald Harrison: tenor saxophone; Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez: drums; Leo Genovese: piano; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet.
If anyone is willing to take a bet on the next most likely big name in jazz, surely bassist/ singer Esperanza Spalding is worth a punt. Still only in her mid-twenties, she has already attracted much attention in the State and currently plays bass in Joe Lovano’s band. Although not her first offering, this eponymous CD is her most profile and features her tight band of Leo Genovese’ piano, Jamey Haddad’s percussion and the drums of Otis Brown. On some of the tracks, this group is augmented by Donald Harrison’s alto and the pithy trumpet of Ambrose Akinmusire with some tunes incorporating either backing vocals or multi-tracking. If this suggests an over-produced piece of pop-jazz, the edginess of much of this music quickly dispels this notion. The leader switches between acoustic and electric bass with equal facility.
The opening track is Milton Nascimento’s beautiful “Ponta De Areia” which received a nice treatment and is a pretty strong opener. Elsewhere, the disc is essentially made up of Spalding originals which, by and large, tend to hit the spot, with “Fall in”, a effort for voice and piano, demonstrating her craftsmanship as a songwriter. Much of the material has a Brazilian feel to it but with the kind of bite that marked Tania Maria’s best work of the early 1980’s such as “Come with me.” This is typified by the likes of “I adore you” whose title belies its ebullience. Elsewhere, the only standard, “Body & Soul”, is re-shaped with a boisterous vamp from the leader’s bass and some Portuguese lyrics and emerges as probably one of the most original arrangements since John Coltrane’s. This is one of the highlights of a very strong album and allows the band to stretch out in a fashion that will appeal to most, hardened jazz fans.
The lyrics are decidedly streetwise and the sentiments expressed are very much in line with much contemporary pop. A track like “She got to you” demonstrates that it is possible for a singer to remain thoroughly up-to-date without losing any of the toughness of jazz whereas “Precious” is a more obvious attempt to appeal to a wider audience with the fender Rhodes piano , vocal over-dubbing and some feisty feminist lyrics- a terrific tune though. In contrast, the largely instrumental “Mela” pits Spalding’s wordless vocal in unison with a trumpet in the album’s most strident and ultimately uncompromising track. This swinging post-bop track packs one of the biggest punches on the whole CD and demonstrates that just how tight the band is, the leader’s bass entangling with the drums and the Argentine Leo Genovese contributing some tasty piano. “If that’s true” illustrates just how hip-hop grooves have started to manifest themselves in jazz before mutating into a quintet outing for trumpet, alto, bass and drums with the stripped down nakedness of the group exposes Spalding’s willingness to mix up the rhythm since the pianist only plays during his solo.
In summary, this is a hugely impressive record, where Esperanza Spalding proves herself very much to be a force on the various basses, as well as a singer / songwriter likely to attract listeners from outside jazz without any concessions to the integrity of the music. With there already a plethora of singers of the jazz scene, for once here is a musician who sounds like she belongs in 2009. Clearly, Esperanza Spalding is already a major talent and whilst her appearance at Vienne this year was one of the festival highlights, there seems little doubt that this is one of the most exciting records by a young artist I have heard this year. Watch this space. (Ian Thumwood)
DAVID SYLVIAN – MANAFON
Release Date: September 2009
Tracklist: Small Metal Gods; The Rabbit Skinner; Random Acts of Senseless Violence; The Greatest Living Englishman; 125 Spheres; Snow White in Appalachia; Emily Dickinson; The Department of Dead Letters; Manafon
Personnel: David Sylvian: vocals, guitar, electronics/ with collective personnel: Evan Parker: soprano and tenor sax; John Tilbury: piano; Marcio Mattos: cello; Joel Ryan: signal processing; Keith Rowe: guitar; Tetuzi Aakiyama: electric and acoustic guitar; Otomo Yoshihide: acoustic guitar, turntables; Toshimaru Nakamura: no-input mixer; Sachiko M: sine-wave sampler; Christian Fennesz: guitar, laptop; Burkard Stangl: guitar; Michael Moser: cello; Werner Dafeldecker; bass
A problem I suspect many listeners will have with this record is that it does not fulfill the expectations aroused by its fantastic international line-up of leading free improvisers, and Sylvian’s claim to have left their recordings untampered with. It is not a free improvisation album, but is a collection of songs – albeit with none of the rhythmic rigidity or emotional superficiality some might associate with the ‘pop song.’ What one has to accept is that the improvisations are there strictly as background – in much the same way that Derek Bailey’s guitar enhanced the stark, spare, almost deadpan bleakness of Sylvian’s delivery on ‘Blemish’, often by not really seeming to do that much. In these backgrounds, atmospheres are created (appropriate to the darkness and shadows of the cover photograph, with its similarity to Von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’); essentially, the free improvisers are functioning as session musicians, creating a mood and texture which fits the lyrics and delivery of the singer, the main focus. Of course, that’s complicated by the fact that the improvisations were recorded first, Sylvian overdubbing his voice and guitar at a later stage, and this might lead one to suspect that it was he who had to adapt to the instrumental ‘backgrounds’ – but, listening to the record, it’s clear that he does what he does in a manner not substantially changed from elsewhere. Nonetheless, he’s not out of sync with the improvisers, and is often in rather beautiful concordance with them: take the ending of ‘Snow White in Appalachia’, where the lyric “the radio falls silent but for short bursts of static” seems to comment on the music and the way it moves to an end –buzzing and crackling over faint fading, droning loops – just as much as on the story told by the song.
Attention is primarily, then, on Sylvian’s voice and lyrics; repeating small melodic fragments, which are designed to fit the contour of the words in a manner approaching speak-singing (the ‘tunes’ aren’t exactly hummable), with occasional harmonized overdubs and faint reverbed echoes only serving to emphasize the unusual thinness of texture. The music never moves as such (perhaps that’s why it doesn’t really feel ‘improvised’): melodies repeat, but not to indoctrinate us with their charms. Rather, as with Jandek, it’s always the words that one concentrates on, or thinks that one is concentrating on, the music oozing into consciousness less clearly, sneaking in by the back door.
These words tread a line between poetry (on the most basic level – some of them rhyme) and prose; often flatly descriptive, they accumulate details in an unhurried, and often quite devastating manner. This is most often successful because it moves away from the ‘confessional’ approach of the singer-songwriter (the first-person is used only on the opening ‘Small Metal Gods’); and, if talking about others is still a way of talking about yourself (or the parts of yourself that you wouldn’t want to address directly), maybe that engenders a more honest, or at least a more interesting approach. At their best, Sylvian’s lyrics somehow manage to create (mostly) sympathetic characterization through distance and apparent detachment: stories stripped back to essentials, to observed details (the way the suicidal writer of ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ refuses to meet one’s eyes, the chemical processes (drugs in the bloodstream) behind the actions of the woman in ‘Snow White in Appalachia’). These stories are specific – they are about people in particularly circumstances and situations – yet, by refusing to name their characters (who are described simply as ‘he’ or ‘she’), they avoid being forced into a limiting contextualization (‘this song records this emotion at this time sparked by this event’). Perhaps this also allows the occasional, rather biting ironic edge to seem less cruel; the way Sylvian alludes to the melody of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ throughout ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ is mockery in part, but mockery that arises from, or at least alongside, a keen and sorrowful sense of human weakness.
In terms of the music, the free improvisers’ contributions only really stand out towards the end of the record; after Sylvian has finished ‘Emily Dickinson’, his story of loneliness and isolation, Evan Parker’s soprano melodies, their flowing repetitions and gliding melancholia flecked with broken, tongued notes, reach an overtly emotional climax never allowed in Sylvian’s near-deadened invocations of despair, distress and doubt. This slides into the only purely instrumental piece on the album, ‘The Department of Dead Letters’: again featuring Parker (though this time on tenor) and John Tilbury, along with Marcio Mattos on cello, it’s moody and subdued, and one does suspect that it was cut with Sylvian’s intentions in mind (it’s not clear exactly what instructions the improvisers were given beforehand, but their playing sounds somewhat more restrained than it might be in the completely free contexts in which they normally work). Still, for the free improv listener, this will probably be the most satisfying part of the album; and ‘Manafon’, the closing piece, is probably the disc’s highlight, moving slowly from the scrapes and hisses of a long instrumental opening into Sylvian’s portrait of the Welsh writer R.S. Thomas, who tries to alleviate his growing bitterness and frustration by “moving back in time,” a “physical essential” (‘essential’ in the sense that, the more he moves forward in time, the closer he reaches death; though, of course, ‘impossible’ as well, for moving back in time is a physical impossibility), and by dreaming of “moving west,” of raging in more than frustrated old age (“battles raged against the Furies that might see him at his best”). There’s a layer of irony, of the sardonic, through even Sylvian’s most apparently tender portraits: the lines immediately following the description of Thomas’ dreams for more meaningful struggle are those that end the song, and the album: “there’s a man down in the valley, don’t know his right foot from his left.” From the very strategies Thomas has employed to fight his demons, his mind disintegrates; failure to combat failure, failure on failure. It’s a bleak way to end what is a bleak record, one which creates an aura round itself, not of generalized melancholy, but of a sadness born out of empathy and out of a sometimes ironized frustration at wasted lives and inescapable cul-de-sacs. (DG)
GHEDALIA TAZARTÈS – REPAS FROID
Label: t a n z p r o c e s z
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Twenty Untitled Tracks
Personnel: Ghédalia Tazartès: sounds
While Ghédalia Tazartès’ media profile has increased slightly since I first came across his music a few years ago (for one thing, he has started to give public performances), there’s still more than a hint of the enigma about both man and music. Fittingly, then, the only information that comes with this CD is that it contains recordings selected from Tazartès’ ‘archives’; even the people who released ‘Repas Froid’ seem unsure as to its exact origin.
The shortness of these twenty untitled tracks (even the longest, which lasts nine minutes, is actually a series of shorter pieces spliced together) intensifies the ramshackle, fragmentary feel of the disc; it’s as if we’re tuned into Tazartès’ brain, broadcasting on some strange frequency that’s been accidentally discovered by a battered-up, antique old radio. The effect is frequently funny and sometimes exhilarating, but it can also be disturbing, as demonstrated by the use of a recurring slamming door sample on the first few tracks, mixed variously with accordions, Tazartès’ own arresting vocals, and fragments from what sound like a radio play. It’s not just the door sample that re-appears on different tracks; certain samples come back again and again, tics repeated so that they turn into full-blown gurning grimaces. What sound like programmed beats also occasionally make their appearance, but as minor elements in the overall texture rather than as a driving force which the track can rest on – for beats would give a sense of solidity and of forward momentum that Tazartès continuously avoids. Though this is a very busy disc – there’s a huge variety of different sounds and moods – it’s not busy in the service of a narrative (like a concept album), or even in an anecdotal sense. Rather, one becomes caught up in the rush, one’s ears adjusting, though never becoming completely accustomed to, the way the tracks work. (The reason that there’s no problem with lack of ‘cohesion’ is that the notion of ‘cohesion’ just doesn’t come into things.)
I’m pretty sure that some of these sounds have appeared on other Tazartès records – I can imagine a roomful of reel-to-reel tapes from which he picks and chooses at will, dusting a few stacks off when someone suggests he makes a record. After all, it’s that home-made feel which makes his sonic creations so attractive – that, and the constant audacity of his choices (on one piece, juxtaposing a young child’s voice with a chorus of birds, on another, building up layers of vocals with amplified recordings of cicadas to create a cross between a choral piece, noise music, and a warped field recording – before switching direction once again). There’s not much point in me giving a further, more detailed breakdown of what happens on each track, because that’s not how listening to the disc works; it’s really something you have to discover for yourself. And so this review finishes with the recommendation that you seek out ‘Repas Froid’ and take a listen as soon as you can! (DG)
THE THING – BAG IT!
Label: Smalltown Superjazz
Release Date: June 2009
Tracklisting: Hidegen Fujinaka Szelek; Drop the Gun; Bag It!; Snusvisan; Hot Doug; Mystery Song; Angels; BONUS DISCK: Beef Brisket (For Ruby’s)
Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: saxophones, electronics; Ingebrit Haker Flaten: bass, electronics; Paale Nilssen-Love: drums
Could there be such a thing as populist free jazz? (Well, if we ignore the fact that free jazz is or should be or could be the true ‘music of the people’, anyway…) The Thing provide a fine example of what it might be if it did exist– not blending skronk to mindless beats in order to add some superficial colour to the music, but being swept up on the energies of multiple genres to create a uniquely joyous, adrenaline-fuelled rush. ‘Bag It!’ opens with a cover of ‘Hidegen Fujinaka Szelek’ by The Ex, given the sort of full-tilt, brutally rhythmic approach that characterized the group’s collaboration with Cato Salsa Experience and Joe McPhee, though with a determination and taut compactness that to me surpasses that of the earlier recording. This is very much groove-based free jazz: you could (initially) dance to ‘Drop the Gun’ (another cover, of a song by Japan’s 54 Nude Honeys), Gustafsson ’s baritone in tandem with Haker Flaten giving a bass-heavy treatment to the melody, and some skronkingly noisy electronics pummeling waves of distorted feedback in a ‘solo’ of sorts (more like a noisy smear) over unstoppable beats, before everything dissolves into the sound of bleeding electronics, shuddering and rumbling, blowing ear-splitting raspberries and letting out all kinds of machine grunts, Nilssen-Love still pummeling away like mad but only just making himself heard as a kind of metallic blinding sheen glinting from the crowded surface. For the last few minutes of this track, then, it’s hard to say whether we’re listening to ‘free jazz’ (where’s the instrumentation that’s become so enmeshed with that genre?) or to ‘noise’ or to ‘free noise’, and it doesn’t matter because it’s a wonderful sound, propelling itself along in a manner that allows for the sort of loss of control that might seem lacking when, for instance, Gustafsson solos over a repetitive bass riff on the title track. In any case, and in any context, it’s hard not to admire, or at least be swept along by the man’s playing –lifting his horn out of his mouth for vocal exhortations like those of Pharoah Sanders, crying out, quacking, screaming with a determined possession, rolling out rumbling riffs in the rasping low register of the baritone.
Of course, these qualities and tactics are always there in Gustafsson’s playing, but the electronics are a new and noteworthy element, and are integrated particularly well on ‘Hot Doug’, where a growling drone imbues the saxophone melody with a sense of terrible fragility, acoustic statement under the overwhelming threat of machine noise. But away from this, and away from the grooves and the free blowing, there are some more overtly jazz-flavoured moments as well. Duke Ellington’s ‘Mystery Song,’ while not typically Ellingtonian in the slightest, finds Gustafsson blowing strong and assertively tender (his lines as ever drip with emotion, with unconcealed passion), Haker Flaten moving from fast and free walking bass to the buzzing repeated notes which, in tandem with Nilssen-Love, slowly take the track to its diminuendo conclusion. Ayler’s ‘Angels’ is a more obvious choice, but given an equally surprising twist: a solo Gustafsson breathily intones the melody before Haker Flaten’s creeping electronics add an eerie sine wave, alongside assorted buzzes and squelches, with Nilssen-Love’s fragmented rustling and crashing getting louder and louder as the electronics come to dominate the texture. Perhaps the most intriguing track on the record, this could easily have gone two ways: an Ayleresque blow-out, or an electronic noise piece like the second half of ‘Drop the Gun.’ Both directions would have still ensured some fine music, but they would perhaps be too obvious, given the rest of the record and given The Thing’s reputation: thus, what we are presented with is something closer in spirit to the original Ayler piece, where Cal Cobb’s curiously neo-classical harpsichord added a kind of formalist ghostliness to Ayler’s intoning. The electronics never quite reach out to their full harshness, into the red of volume overdrive, but become dominant enough to become oddly unsettling, when contrasted with Gustafsson’s restrained yet utterly soulful playing. It’s proof that The Thing can maintain a delicate balance when they want; more proof is offered on the bonus track, a thirty-minute improv in which the usual pounding exhortations share space with a surprisingly subdued electronic ‘interlude’ and even quasi-Tibetan temple chimes and drones. One senses that the parameters are widening for a band who have, in any case, worked in many different contexts during their short history thus far; and, on the evidence of this album, that can only be a good thing. (DG)
THE THING – NOW AND FOREVER
Label: Smalltown Superjazz
Release Date: 2007
DISC ONE (The Thing (2000)): Awake Nu; Nopti; Cherryco; Ode to Don; The Art of Steve Roney – Smilin’; Trans-Love Airways
DISC TWO (SheKnows…(2001)): To Bring You My Love; The Thing; Baby Talk; Going Home; For Real; Old Eyes
DISC THREE (Live at Oya (2005)): Art Star; The Witch; Aluminum/Have Love Will Travel; No Crowd Surfing
DISC FOUR (Gluttony (2007)): Gluttony
Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: saxophones; Ingebrit Haker Flaten: bass; Paale Nilssen-Love: drums; with Joe McPhee (Disc 2) and Thurston Moore (Disc 3)
Additional Information: 4-CD boxset. Disc 3 is a DVD.
A partial career retrospective so far for this fine trio, containing their first two albums, a DVD of a live performance featuring Thurston Moore, and an improv session from 2007 entitled ‘Gluttony’ which receives its only release as part of this set. The group have of course made several other albums, notably as a kind of punk jazz supergroup with Cato Salso Experience and Joe McPhee, but this is nonetheless a pretty good selection.
First up, the debut recording: it’s hard to go wrong with a set of Don Cherry’s wonderful melodies, and the trio prove fully capable of turning them into some brawny free jazz workouts, Gustafsson powering away with a vocalised intensity which, while it might be the norm for many free jazz players, is taken up just that extra notch, so one feels that he is doing more than just ‘doing the trick’, his style bursting from what have become an idiomatic hall-mark into a set of personalised and forcefully impressive aesthetics. Furthermore, rather than just going up there and doing his thing every time, Gustafsson has a real control and ability to think through improvisational situations, and he knows when to let Cherry’s melodies simply sing out their simple pleasures without overblowing and bite. And this never feels like a forced jazz trio situation either, as it might have: tune and improvisation are umbilically linked, so that it’s not simply a case of playing the head and then blowing one’s head off. The album still feels fresh and worth repeated listenings nearly a decade on.
The addition of Joe McPhee to the line-up broadens the texture and unleashes a humorous, anarchic streak within the disciplined grooves and tight structures surrounding the group’s free blowing. At the same time, an influence from outside of jazz begins to be felt that is more pronounced than on the debut disc, with covers of a song by PJ Harvey and the traditional ‘Going Home’ paying tributes to pasts and futures, to tributaries leading both in and out of the history and traditions of jazz. Pieces by Don Cherry, James Blood Ulmer, Frank Lowe and McPhee himself round out what is an impressive selection of compositional material – and, interestingly, given that all but McPhee are Europeans, it’s one that emerges from a specifically American lineage, with its roots in gut-bucket honking, blues wailing, and a rhythmic emphasis associated with dance, rather than the more abstract and spacious worlds of ‘European Free Improvisation’. Of course, such a distinction works on simplifying polarities: nonetheless, The Thing set out their stall very much as a free jazz group, embracing the wild and passionate spirit that McPhee’s been demonstrating since the 70s.
The third disc is a DVD documenting a live performance by the group, on a festival stage at Oya. From the brief crowd shots, it’s hard to tell whether the festival-goers are nonplussed or intrigued, though several can be seen smiling and jigging in admiration, and there’s warm applause at the end of the tunes. The most striking thing about the music is its strongly rhythmic approach, down as much to Haker-Flaten and Gustafsson as to Nilssen-Love. Watching Flaten strike the strings, bending them double with the force of his fingers, or attacking them with some manic bowing, it’s clear that this is a man on a mission, and the firm riffs he throws out underneath Gustafsson’s screeching rhythmic patterns serve to anchor the music in a way that might have made it more immediately accessible to the rock crowd (that, and the fact that the band cover tunes by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes, though they transform them into little Ayler-like song-fragments to the form the basis for improvisation rather than letting their music be warped too far from its origins). Ironically enough, it’s when a genu-ine rock musician joins the band that things become more abstract and noisy, as Thurston Moore springs onstage for the final piece, a ten-minute noise jam dominated by the feed-back howls and rumbles of his electric guitar. In the face of such noise, even Gustafsson’s beefy saxophone finds it hard to compete; for much of the time, he’s restricted to blowing long, held multiphonics, and sometimes dropping out altogether. Flaten’s bass playing though, is absolutely ferocious, sawing away with the bow for the first few minutes and even introducing a few riff-like figures towards the end. ‘Live at Oya’ is not a particularly long set, by free jazz standards (the disc plays for just over 30 minutes), but it’s nice to see the physical dimension existing behind the sounds – something obvious from just listening to the albums, even more obvious with visual evidence.
The most recent recording, ‘Gluttony’, departs from the rock-tune based approach in favour of a continuous forty-five minute free improvisation, though Gustafsson’s tendency to go flat out for the most ‘direct’ (or obvious) manifestation of emotion means that the music often shares a similar heated temperature. Such emotionalism is, of course, part of a great free jazz tradition – from Ayler’s vibrato to Sander’s wide-open shriek – but, in fact, when Gustafsson tones down the bombast, the results are just as, if not more, compelling. The whole thing starts off as baritone bleats are emitted with a plosive, tongued edge. Building through repetition, Gustafsson storms into his patented throaty baritone yell, hammering away at a single alternating figure and subsiding with it before Haker-Flaten takes a fractured bass solo. Back in on alto, Gustafsson’s hardness here has an almost swooning quality to it as he bends his notes round in circling, swooping figures. Nilssen-Love giving his drumset a succession of vicious thwacks, intensity ratchets: busy bass and drum scuttle, a hoarse alto desperation, with held multiphonics and even something of the delirious quality of Captain Beefheart’s shenai playing, trilling and fluttering without the slightest hint of delicacy. Exhilarating propulsion, on the edge of total panicked overload. As more and more melodic phrases creep in, a dip and a drum solo, pitter-patter cymbal-work keeping up a tinkling dance over the thuds and thwacks. Gustafsson honking away on baritone: pop and slap of tongue and breath, spittle-fuelled. Minimal drums skirting round a pulse. Bass and baritone playing notes that are growled and spattered, skewed, spat out and barfed, but with much held in check, in tension. Slow, held multiphonic and cautious gentle bass pluck, in the most hushed passage so far, pushing things to see how quiet they can go –less in your-face but perhaps even more intense than the full-blown free jazz sections because unexpected, because forcing concentration. Breath and scratch, creak and groan. Texture of bow on string, reverberant drag. Sudden cymbals, but no swing back to bombast – crashing punctuations of slide sax’s yearning yawn. The slide sax, sounding somewhere between a clarinet, flute and sax; a whimpering dog’s whine, then a throttled bird, voice rising high, strangled, out of its throat; a human or an animal plea, the tremor of uncertainty. As might be expected, the temperature rises again, and the concluding section of the disc is pedal-to-the-metal stuff; but it’s such moments as those described above that really make it for me, that really take things into a different space.
Anyway, in sum, there’s plenty to sustain the interest over these four discs. It’s hard to believe that this group have been going for ten years now, and such freshness is testament to the consistent high quality of music they produce. For more evidence, look no further than their latest, ‘Bag It’, also reviewed in this issue. (DG)
tusK – 10 GREATEST HITS!
Label: Stomoxine Records
Release Date: September 2009
Tracklist: eject; rupture; malfunction; magma; splice; tectonic; repeat; static; explode; loop; drone
Personnel: tusK (Stuart Chalmers): oscillator machine, circuit bent pedals, other electronics
Additional Information: Download Release, available from http://stomoxinerecords.free.fr
So where is Noise at today? An initially radical gesture, focussing exclusively on the ‘non-musical’ elements of music in the creation of extended sound experiences, it has now become, as the trend always goes, a marketable genre: previous extremes having reached dead ends, new directions branch off from the latest limits, before they, too, face assimilation. By ‘assimilation’ I don’t necessarily mean incorporation into the mainstream, but rather, the maintenance of the radical gesture as a kind of controlled ‘resistance’ to that mainstream. This creates a tension which, though very real, is also in some sense illusory, as it allows a modicum of conflict (which is, however, never going to mount a serious challenge) to spice things up a little and keep things ticking over nicely just as they are. When the ‘fuck you’ gestures of the experimental side of rock music seemed to have reached the limits of assimilation, noise took things further out (further, even, than the screaming choir of horns on Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ or the dense textures of Alan Silva’s ‘Luna Surface’, masses of sound forcing their way out of the speakers like the impasto oil paint hanging off a Frank Auerbach canvas, so layered and crusty that it could be called a kind of relief sculpture). Furthermore, it could trace a heritage going back to Luigi Russolo and the Futurists’ paradoxical embrace of modernity, right through those moments in popular, classical and jazz musics in which instrumental textures had created densities of sound in which individual lines or groups could no longer be distinguished.
The packaging of ‘10 Greatest Hits’ suggests a parody of the pop music forms which noise music inherently resists (the slab of feedback which formed an ‘interlude’ on the original studio recording of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘You Made Me Realize’ became, in the band’s live performances, something which completely overwhelmed the cursory ‘song’ bookend, turning the feedback and noise of large-scale concert rock into a howling and total body experience). Yet one must ask: is this resistance now inherent? Bands such as Boris and Sunn O))) have tapped into another market (the avant-metal scene – and, through the work of Stephen O’ Malley, the art world), and harsh and glitchy sounds which might previously have been heard as ‘errors’ are now part and parcel of much contemporary electronic dance music. While noise itself attracts a very definite and specific crowd (it remains very much caché music), the set of gestures, both musical and extra-musical, which have developed around and within it, might have been said to have solidified so that it has lost its dangerous edge. Of course, the same criticism could be levelled at any number of genres – free jazz and (acoustic) free improvisation – with debatable levels of accuracy.
The primary ‘gesture’ I am thinking of is the role of rhythm. Given that noise is devoid of so much of the material that makes up ‘normal’ music – melody, harmony, and even the particular kinds of texture and textural interaction which free improvisation can utilise – there tends to be a strong, compensating focus on rhythm, often blatant and loudly industrial in nature. Compared to the polyrhythms and free time of a Rashied Ali or Sunny Murray, in fact, noise’s rhythmic assault is relentlessly crude, a reduction to its mechanised essence of the kind of popular music beat-making which Theodor Adorno famously compared to the sound of (fascist) marching.1 In this sense, the rhythms of noise music function more as reflection than as resistance. They do not cover up the dark heart of modern society with veneers of manufactured joy and the illusory impression that individuals have the freedom to emotionally interpret and ‘make their own’ the pre-fabricated products of the culture industry’s pawns, but neither do they posit an independent alternative. Instead, they constitute a kind of truth-telling about how things are, about how existence and experience exist at this time – though they do not do this through explicit political content (Merzbow’s embrace of vegetarianism and ‘save the whales’ is not really a part of his music, even if the stickers which he plasters on his laptop are in such physical proximity to his sound-making device). Still, even if there is no explicit ‘message’, such an interpretation does come close to assigning Noise a zeitgeisty, mimetic function; and, admittedly, this kind of mimesis also does come through in comments of Adorno’s such as “modern art is as abstract as the relations between people have in truth become,”1 though elsewhere he argues for a concentration on form, from which an art-work’s historical ‘truth-content’ can then emerge, semi-independently of the artist themselves (“the content of a work of art begins precisely where the author’s intention stops; the intention is extinguished in the content”2).
Whether consciously or not, then, any Noise artist’s use of rhythm comes already bound up with a complex and paradoxical series of questions about the role of music and sound within the structures of contemporary society – not as add-ons which impart the music with a pseudo-intellectual weight, but as questions fundamentally entangled with Noise, at the most level of the most basic practices and gestures which any Noise artist makes as soon as they begin to make Noise. And tusK (Stuart Chalmers) seems to be concerned with this rhythmic aspect of Noise more than most, whether as part of a conscious intellectual engagement with the issues outlined above, or as part of an engagement with the mechanics of Noise-making, as part of his improvisational discovery of means and methods, the very different process of creating rather than merely listening. As he puts it on his website (http://www.myspace.com/tuskk): “material is allowed to move in which ever way the sounds or instrumentation determines.”
That instrumentation consists of a couple of oscillators with various pedals and effects, and the format seems to be broadly within that of the three-minute pop song (this could have been a conscious initial decision, made at the conceptual stage for the album, or it could simply have been what happened when performing). In any case it’s a good example of the way instrumentation completely changes identity – in contrast to Chalmer’s other solo project, Skarabee, where the various pedals and effects are applied to gentler sounding instruments such as the kalimba, here, the harshness and crudity of the oscillators’ machine squelches, zaps and trilling, seemingly uncontrolled extreme pitch oscillations means that textures must be much simpler. That said, the penultimate track, ‘Drone’, indicates that it is possible to create music more similar in mood to the ambient-oriented free improvisations of Skarabee: a repeating loop is underlain by wavering low drones and sprinkled with various quiet beeps, so that, most of the time, the texture consists of at least three layers. This puts in sharp contrast the starkness of the other tracks: often only one idea is followed at a time, perhaps a basic rhythm, to be joined by one other sound element before that section is discarded and a new one starts: a non-linear, non-developmental, blocky approach in which sound creation comes in discrete units. The format of short tracks is undoubtedly an important part of this, although it’s by no means certain whether track length dictates track construction, or construction dictates track length; in any case, one might usefully contrast this approach to the long-form explorations of, say, Merzbow (or of the noise sections of My Bloody Valentine’s live performances). What we have here is not so much a morass of sound in which one can become lost, disoriented, physically affected (though the persistent harshness of tones and the repetitive rhythmic grind of the stripped-back approach constitute their own kind of challenge). In that sense the potential for exhilaration and for a sense of liberation offered by the extreme experience of going to a Noise gig or of just listening to a Noise album is diminished; which may be a way of negotiating the problems of Noise’s diminishing radicalism. One-word titles, three-minute tracks, brutally basic rhythms, deliberately restricted palettes of sound and texture: this is music that is simply there, not bludgeoning one into an experience of tortured ecstasy, making no real bones about itself, just existing as sound from the speakers. And that brutal lack of pretension (mixed with a subversive streak – those paying attention will note that there are 11 tracks on the album, despite the title) makes quite an impact. (DG)
1 “As the standardized meter of dance music and of marching suggests the coordinated battalions of a mechanical collectivity, obedience to this rhythm by overcoming the responding individuals leads them to conceive of themselves as agglutinized with the untold millions of the meek who must be similarly overcome. Thus do the obedient inherit the earth.” (Adorno, On Popular Music (available online at http://libcom.org/library/on-pop-music-theodor-adorno-george-simpson))
1Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
2Adorno, Notes to Literature
THE WHOLE VOYALD – IN REPOSE (EP)
Label: Total Vermin
Release Date: June 2009
Tracklist: In Repose
Personnel: Stuart Arnot: trumpet; Jon Collin, Tom Settle: guitars; Jon Marshall: harmonium; Paschal Nichols: drums. Recorded live in Sheffield, December 2008.
‘Voyald’ is a hybrid word coined by writer William Sarayon, combining the notions of ‘voyage’, ‘void’ and ‘world’, and one could apply this notion this band’s music, as they move into the known unknowns of a group improvisation where overall sound is more important than individual lines or melodic development. Slowly mutating improvised textures emerge imperceptibly from initial harmonium-based drones with an obvious legacy in 1960s/70s minimalism, and, indeed, jazz – the use of the harmonium’s hovering-cloud sound brings to mind Pharoah Sanders’ deployment of the instrument on Live at the East – but with a slightly harsh edge caused by the tendency of the two electric guitars to shade over into ringing distortion; this becomes more pronounced as volumes increase. The trajectory is not simply quiet to loud, or repose to disturbance and back; things rise and fall more freely than that. Thus, there’s more than one climax, the most prominent of which comes around ten minutes in, as Arnot’s trumpet takes on what sounds like an electronically-distorted tone, over joyfully ululating, high-pitched double-guitar wail, and Nichol’s fervently-beating drums. The final six minutes of the piece consequently feel like a necessary, but in some ways rather overly-protracted coda. Still, at only eighteen minutes, this is one you might feel like playing again as soon as it’s finished, and then again after that. Lovely stuff. (DG)
TONY WILSON SEXTET – THE PEOPLE LOOK LIKE FLOWERS AT LAST
Label: Drip Audio
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Lachrymae (Prelude; Movement #1; Movement # 2; Movement # 4; Movement # 4 Variation; Movement # 7; Movement # 7 Variation; Movement # 10; Movement # 11); Arpeggio; The People Look Like Flowers at Last; Let the Monkeys Dance; Variation on a Theme
Personnel: Kevin Elaschuk: flugelhorn, trumpet; Dave Say: tenor and soprano saxes and flute; Peggy Lee: cello; Paul Blaney: double bass; Dylan van der Schyff: drums; Tony Wilson: guitar and harmonica
The disc opens with a 9-part suite feely adapted from Benjamin Britten’s melancholic piece for viola and strings, ‘Lachrymae’ – variations on variations, as the original piece is based on John Dowland’s ‘If My Complaints Could Passions Move.’ Something of the mood and melodic material of the Britten is sustained as a constant undercurrent to the music, which might otherwise seem to depart quite significantly from it, given its modern-jazz flavoured language. The theme is stated most clearly in the first movement, played by Wilson on harmonica, which at first seems an odd decision – Britten filtered through ‘Midnight Cowboy?’ – but turns out to add a slightly grating, ragged edge to the grave melody. Peggy Lee’s cello gives further appropriate somber undertones, and suddenly performs some unexpected yowling, high-pitched scrapes half-way through for emotional emphasis, to add something extra to the mood of sober melodic contemplation, while not totally departing from it. The other variations generally hold the attention, though some of them rely too much on the kind of repetitive, semi-groovy drum patterns which a lot of players in this kind of slightly left-of-centre jazz seem to prefer, and which distract from the rhythmic complexity hinted at in the other instrumentalists’ contributions. That said, the drums perform a fine crashing restlessness on the final piece, disturbing the hymn-like contours of Britten’s melody so that the final blissful cadences (with some lovely tenor sax swoops) feel almost perfunctory, incomplete, refusing total closure.
The other compositions on the disc are all by Wilson (apart from the final variation on Bill Monroe’s ‘Working on a Building’), and their harmonic palette is generally richer than the ‘Lachrymae’ suite. ‘Arpeggio’ is edgy, Wilson’s clean guitar picking out the melody under a horn counter-melody and some fine solos. The title track has an attractive jazz ballad melody, complex but not overly tricksy; this material is first introduced by Wilson’s solo guitar, ruminating privately, before the rest of the band come in and add even more colour. There’s a nice, surprisingly Wayne Shorter style soprano solo (that’s Shorter in his softer, more pointilistic Weather Report days, rather than in the strident, declamatory mode in which he tends to play soprano with his current quartet), and the arrangement is intricate but flowing, melody restatements intersecting and entwining with solo lines in delicate, wispy dances. The final track, variations on an old bluegrass staple, elicits a more straightforward tenor solo, with smears and yelps to build crescendoing intensity in Michael Brecker fashion; and while this may heighten the suspicion that the solos on the record tend to do no more than required – in other words, less than they could have – the disc as a whole is more about the skill of Wilson’s arrangements and compositions, and the pleasure elicited from the layers and combinations of the small group. It’s very pleasurable to listen to, without being superficially attractive: there’s always something to listen out for, a textural richness that goes beyond surface impressions. Well worth seeking out. (DG)
WOZZECK: ACT I
Label: Clinical Archives
Release Date: December 2007
Tracklist: Act I
Personnel: Ilia Belorukov alto saxophone, electronics; Mikhail Ershov bass-guitar; Pavel Mikheev drums
Additional Information: Released as a free MP3 download at http://www.archive.org/details/ca087_w.
This was apparently Wozzeck’s first studio session, and as such it ranks as a supremely assured debut. The group can with full confidence be described as a ‘power trio,’ electrified to the max, both in terms of instrumentation and the energy which courses through their performance. In addition, the forty-minute piece entitled ‘Act I’ demonstrates that they have a great sense of musical flow, their improvisation unfolding in a spontaneous succession of rising and falling waves of sound. Things open full-blast, Belorukov wailing over snarling electric bass and propulsive drums. With the introduction of electronic effects around ten minutes in, the textures become more dense, still throbbing with barely-contained, thrashing energy but less linear and developmental, more about a kind of vertical momentum. The effects build and build, as Belorukov first loops and multi-tracks himself on saxophone, then joins with Ershov’s bass to create a crescendo of feedback. From this super-intense climax of ear-testing noise, things gradually, inexorably slow down: a long, long descent until almost nothing remains of the energy unleashed at the start, Belorukov blowing lonely reverbed lines over the minimal taps and clicks of Mikheev’s drumkit and the almost imperceptible feedback drone of Ershov’s bass, in an achingly melancholic passage which comes across like the aftermath of the death of a star, the explosion of brightness followed by the dwindling to nothing.
Comparisons will inevitably arise with John Zorn’s Pain Killer or perhaps a guitar-less Last Exit, and it may be true that Wozzeck are exploring similar areas: their music could be loosely described as free jazz with rhythmic sensibilities influenced by rock and punk. However, they have a sense of control and development which is very different to both those groups. Belorukov is capable of the same strident and rough-hewn outbursts as Zorn and Brotzmann, but his use of electronics adds a totally different dimension; at times he disappears into the group texture, rather than – as often happens with forceful saxophone players in such contexts – being fore-grounded as the ‘leading man’. In addition, we might consider the desolation of the piece’s conclusion, which is as unexpected as it is naturally flowing from the preceding storms of noise. One might almost describe it as having an ambient edge, though its emotional terrain is far more complex and, one might argue, arresting than much ambient work. Ershov and Mikheev, meanwhile, are prepared to go for things full-tilt, but also to vary their approaches so that they fit with the afore-mentioned group sound (as in that final section, where punkish bass and drum momentum would be entirely inappropriate). This recording succeeds above all because Wozzeck manage the risks attendant on making this type of music, sacrificing neither emotional intensity (to listen to this disc is, above all, to be taken on an emotional journey) nor a sense of structure and texture. ‘Act I’ is well worth seeking out. (DG)
ERI YAMAMOTO – DUOLOGUE
Label: AUM Fidelity
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Thank You; Conversation; Subway Song; Circular Movement; Violet Sky; Midtown Blues; Muse; You Are Welcome
Personnel: Eri Yamamoto: piano/composer, in duo(logue) with Federico Ughi: drums (tracks 1 & 8); Daniel Carter: alto sax (track 2), tenor sax(track 5); William Parker: bass (tracks 3 & 7); Hamid Drake: frame drum (tracks 4 & 6)
Eri Yamamoto’s appearance on CD is always welcome and, for my money, the Japanese pianist has emerged as one of the most interesting and rewarding exponents of her instrument over the last few years.
The courteously named titles of this set ares redolent of the amiable nature of this collection of duos with bassist William Parker, saxophonist Daniel Carter, drummer Federico Ughi and Hamid Drake working wonders with his frame drum. With so many of today’s piano players coming out of the Bill Evans/Keith Jarrett school, Yamamoto is becoming a distinct voice herself and there is a sense of authenticity in her playing which marks her out as someone capable of immediately grasping the mettle.
Each guest is allotted two duos and the record is bookended by collaborations with Frederico Ughi. The opening track is called “Thank you” and sounds like it has strayed from William Parker’s “Luc’s Lantern,” the trio album where Yamamoto first came to the attention of most jazz fans. Previously unknown to me, Ughi doesn’t disappoint and there is clearly a significant degree of understanding between the pair on this march-like composition. Typical of the whole of this disc, nothing is over-played and this very much comes across as a series of respectful discussions between close friends. On their second duet called “You are welcome”, Yamamoto almost tips her hat towards Les McCann with an immediately catchy theme underscored with the skipping brushwork. Whilst the pianist ploughs a pretty much free-ish approach to her improvisation, the music remains extremely accessible and this track will definitely get the toes tapping.
The more typical improvised fair is provided in the duos with Daniel Carter who uses both alto and tenor saxophones. Of the two, “Violet Sky” recalls the ballads of John Coltrane – albeit Carter has a much lighter approach to his tone and rhythm. Fans of improvised music will also no doubt approve of the track where he switches to alto (“Conversation”) which is easily the most abstract of all the recordings on this disc where the performances seem tailored to the optimum duration.
As good as these two collaborations are, it is the work with her erstwhile employer William Carter and Hamid Drake where the level of creativity goes up several notches. “Subway Song” sounds like one of the Ellington riffs he used to so readily toss off and this track illustrates just how hard a swinging bassist Parker is. The bass lines take some odd twists and turns ensuring that this track is steered away from complacency and, if anything, contrive to push the pianist in some interesting territory. This is a great duo and their next collaboration on the ballad “Muse” once more recalls their more hymnal work together on the “Luc’s Lantern” disc. There is no more beautiful track that this absolute gem on this record.
The final set of duos sees Hamid Drake set aside his full drum kit and get out his frame drum which he was so frequently demonstrated to be able to bring out a huge range of colour. Whilst “Circular Movement” brings out the exotic in the two musicians and demonstrates the almost incredulous possibilities that Drake coaxes out of this percussion instrument, the infectious “Midtown Blues” is the highlight of the disc. The theme is immediately memorable and once more Yamamoto recalls Duke Ellington, this time with a rocking rhythm not too dissimilar to one of his train inspired pieces. For four minutes and twenty-five seconds, this track fizzes along and you can imagine the pure enjoyment they must have had playing this. This is one of those tracks that you feel the need to press the re-play button once it has finished.
I must admit that I love this unassuming record that manages to balance the adventurous with some great tunes. Throughout the history of jazz piano, there have been performers with an unerring ability to get to the nitty-gritty from the off. Rather like a contemporary Mal Waldron in her style and approach, Eri Yamamoto deserves to be better known and “Duologue” offers an ideal recording to get acquainted with her work. Recommended. (Ian Thumwood)
YXIMALLOO – UNPOP
Label: ESP Disk
Release Date: November 2008
|Tracklist: Peter Is Back; Linie Voezo; Lav, Success & Helth; Watabokkuri # 2; The Poete; Hamberged Angel; A Slice of Darkness; Any Sense; Slick Hands; Sex & Sushi # 1; There Is A Mountain (Donovan); Puja; Samui Shibuja; Plowed Land; Trail; Qabala # 1; Big Man; Person to Person; Full It Up; Art of War; Juju Lul; Men On Corner; Necro Man; Watabokkuri # 2
Personnel: Yximalloo: Dell Latitude c 600; Chris Manz: Piano (track # 16)
According to Unpop’s liner notes Yximalloo has, since the early 1980s, been the project of an unassuming Japanese man with a taste for The Beatles, Cliff Richard and 1920s Greek music. Whether this motley assortment can be considered ‘influences’ on the sound of Yximalloo is anyone’s guess – the music itself bears little discernible relation to any of them (unless, of course, Cliff Richard released an album of glitchy beats and electronic bleeps which somehow went unnoticed). The title of his 1982 album ‘Kitsch Shaman’ may give a slightly better idea of what’s on offer – tribal-esque quasi-dance rhythms made using all manner of trashy cheap-synth beats and sound effects. Still, one wouldn’t know that Yximalloo sounded like this from hearing the opening track, ‘Peter Is Back’, which is of a rather different character to the majority of ‘Unpop’ – it’s something of a deconstructed blues song, with a fragment of a typical twelve-bar riff being alternated with synth-derived xylophone-like sounds, whilst childlike voices inform us, naturally, that ‘Peter’s Back’.
After this seemingly false introduction we encounter Yximalloo proper, on a piece called ‘Linie Voezo’ – it opens with bizarre unaccompanied vocals straining out stilted phrases, before the entry of a rhythmic pattern made up of seemingly random, synthetic sounds – buzzes, scratches, whirrs and so on. Eventually the vocal line returns and it becomes apparent that the piece is a ‘song’, of sorts: it feels like a dance or pop track stripped of melody, harmony and the use of instruments in a conventional sense, so that we are left with only a skeletal beat and the incomprehensible intonations of the ‘kitsch shaman’. In that sense, ‘Peter Is Back’ was no false start – it simply demonstrated what may be the core principle of Yximalloo’s music: chopping up and stripping down the familiar (whether twelve-bar blues or pop songs or dance rhythms), thereby reducing the music to a core of roboticized, alien beats.
At its most effective, Yximalloo’s approach shares something with other essentially amelodic, rhythm-dominated electronic music – Autechre, perhaps, or ‘electric’ Miles Davis – the rapid, shifting rhythms on ‘Necro Man’, for instance, recall the hyper-speed drum-machine bursts which occasionally enter on ‘Dark Magus’ (an album which, perhaps not coincidentally, was originally released only in Japan). Yximalloo’s glitch-dominated approach also has elements in common with the noise of fellow countrymen like Merzbow, except that Yximalloo isn’t concerned with noise for noise’s sake – rather, non-musical elements are employed to create identifiable (occasionally even danceable) rhythms that are characterised by repetition.
Again, Yximalloo retains an audible connection to dance and pop music – something obvious in a track like ‘Any Sense’ which relies on a simple pumping bass-snare pattern used in countless other electronic dance tracks. This can make for some fairly mindless and banal, even irritating, music – at several points over the course of ‘Unpop’’s 24 tracks (which total nearly 70 minutes) I felt as though I were being subjected to a series of indistinguishable variations on the same basic piece; the most memorable moments were those that broke totally from the Yximalloo sound – notably the sudden, unexpected appearance of Sun-Ra-esque jazz piano on ‘Trial’. There are, however, are a few standout tracks where the predominant rhythmic approach is put to more effective use, such as the aforementioned ‘Necro Man’, or the afro-futurist polyrhythms of ‘Big Man’, which reminded me of the start of ‘Rain Dance’ from Herbie Hancock’s ‘Sextant’.
‘Unpop’, an album that, in general, suffers from being overlong, unvaried, and inconsistent, is thus not without its moments of interest. It would be intriguing to hear Yximalloo’s work from the early 1980s – if it sounds anything like this more recent offering it would surely have to be considered ‘ahead of its time’, for whatever that’s worth. As it is, in 2010 this approach is hardly new – though as far as pop (or rather ‘unpop’) goes I’d take this over yet more 19 – – s (insert decade here) revivalism any day. (Daniel Larwood)