Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

Having completed Remède de Fortune, which is probably both a digression in this space, as well as a little project that considerably occupied me for a number of months, it feels like time to rotate the previous set of entries off onto an archive page. (This is the largest set of entries collected on one archive page here thus far, in part because of the delay in preparing the Fortune article.)

I concluded that set of entries with an announcement of a performance fellowship, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to do so. For the future of that endeavor, I have created a separate page that will be kept up to date regarding status. At the moment, some money remains available.

I will keep my remarks for this, the fifth iteration of an opening statement in this space, brief. I refer you to my list of favorites, of course, as well as to previous introductory remarks by way of orientation.

Finally, I note that the promised article on Familiarity continues in its development, and that this will be a more properly "aesthetic" article, although I've declined to circumscribe its content thus far. But this article, not yet named as I write today, has been the container — of sorts — for the past couple of years of discussion in this space.

Hopefully there will also be some worthwhile comments on recent albums, and perhaps other endeavors, to appear here over the coming months.

Todd McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
23 June 2014

I want to write very briefly of my recent decision to include the free trio Taylor / Dixon / Oxley (recorded in 2002 at Victoriaville) in my list of favorites. Obviously this is a rather earlier recording than the others, and I do not intend it to mark a shift toward featuring older material. Simply put, I found it too compelling to neglect, and with nothing since then that is really comparable. Perhaps something for which I have similar feelings will appear, but there is nothing currently on that horizon.

Cecil Taylor needs no introduction, and if I had been more aware of free jazz in the 1980s, it's safe to guess that Cecil Taylor would have been a performer I particularly admired. Now, seemingly with no new performances forthcoming, that admiration moves into more of a retrospective register. (Kris Davis, who appears regularly in this space, is sometimes compared to Taylor, and not without reason, but I do not actually take a similar feel from their music.) I have already mentioned the late Bill Dixon a number of times, including around his Tapestries double album, something of a summation of his late style. (Dixon's Envoi album, also from Victoriaville, functions as more of an appendix in the same style, to my mind.) This was perhaps his last improvised (uncomposed) album, although one never knows what else could be released subsequently. Having these two giants of African-American music share an improvising stage — nicely complemented by Tony Oxley, who has also released little since — becomes an opportunity that in turn yields a production that becomes emblematic of some views I have on the previous generation of performers. Although I rarely mention it here, I have taken numerous opportunities to listen to older recordings, particularly centered in the 1980s (when the "business" of jazz changed so much, as well as coincidentally the one decade during which I was personally captivated by popular music), but Taylor / Dixon / Oxley stands out for me in that context, as styles continued to develop into the early 2000s. (The context includes both the Taylor & Dixon reissue boxes from Black Saint / Soul Note, as well as various others in that series.) It continues to seem very relevant today, and not really duplicated, even as some of the other styles from that period have served as crucial influences for more recent creation. Of course, the latter doesn't make an album worse, and certainly not less influential, but it does mean that I often prefer the later music for having worked out more of the ideas & techniques. So this inclusion is not a matter of "influence," but rather of enjoyment today.

24 June 2014

I have enjoyed Leaf House, the piano trio album released by Jeff Davis in 2012, and so was looking forward to his most recent album — adding two horns to the same piano trio personnel — Dragon Father. One criticism I have of Leaf House is that it can be a bit stiff at times, with some excellent rhythmic-harmonic schemes that don't always soar the way they might. Adding a couple of horns seems like a reasonable way to get a different result, but unfortunately, I'm disappointed with Dragon Father. It has some similar material — meaning that I like it — by Davis, but also some other tracks that could only be termed as sentimental, and the horns serve more to create a traditional jazz "showpiece" vibe than to forge changes in structure in the basic material. In other words, it's a louder & more demonstrative group, but with similar rhythmic-harmonic ideas that the horns are simply amplifying with classic-style solos. Perhaps this album will play better for a more typical jazz audience.

On the topic of drummers whose music I've enjoyed, Joe Hertenstein has been playing with The Core Trio, led by Houston-based bassist Thomas Helton. He is the newest member of that trio, replacing Richard Cholakian and joining sax player Seth Paynter. Their recent album Featuring Matthew Shipp (if that can be considered its title) is often rather minimalist, whether featuring ostinati or solos, and includes a lot of tonal chords. So many triads seem unusual for Shipp! In any case, within the one long track, there are also some animated sections where Hertenstein's drumming can be enjoyed, but mostly he remains in the background. The album can almost be viewed as American minimalism (e.g. Philip Glass) meets classic rock & roll.

25 June 2014

A few other recent albums of note....

Ingrid Laubrock has appeared in this space a number of times already, and like some of the other recent albums from New York musicians she plays with often, her Zürick Concert album seems well-suited as an introduction to her style for more modestly adventurous audiences. The live octet performance features a wide variety of sonorities, textures & ideas, but does so across a long program (73 minutes), without too much happening at any one time. Many sections have more of a minimalist orientation, in fact, some centering on a particular dramatic gesture. (There is something of the soundtrack here at times.) The suite — if I should call it that — climaxes with some rather elaborate ensemble interaction in track #6, which is certainly a highlight. The various other musicians employed in the octet include some of my favorites, and it's a very nicely done production, although none of it is very provocative relative to Laubrock's previous work. Zürick Concert does not sound like "jazz," but listeners open to a more contemporary style will likely find it accessible & enjoyable. It's a real tour de force in that sense.

[ As an aside, English trumpeter Tom Arthurs (b.1980) from Zürick Concert, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, also has a new album, Chats with the Real McCoy, on Creative Sources. This is a trio album from Berlin that features some of the same characteristics, namely an emphasis on fairly minimal ideas that change with each track. The greater intimacy of the trio setting provides a different context for this sort of interaction, in this case especially between Arthurs & drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis. (The bassist is Miles Perkin from Canada, whose plucking also seems percussive often enough to blend into one rhythm duo.) The sometimes repetitive nature of the album seems to draw from the hypnotic, particularly Griot, styles of West Africa at times. (I'm calling this an aside, because Chats with the Real McCoy is unlikely to draw mainstream attention, particularly given the complete lack of description from Creative Sources.) ]

The Sauna Session by Piero Bittolo Bon's Lacus Amoenus featuring Peter Evans is also attracting similar positive attention, even if it seems to be a more obscure release from my perspective. This is an Italian quartet, adding the famous US trumpeter, with a colorful & nicely produced album on the Italian Long Song Records. There is much to enjoy about The Sauna Session — I especially liked the opening track, featuring the tuba (with no string bass in this group) — but I also find the many stylistic references to popular music to be rather literal. This extends from various kinds of rock & metal, as typical of many improvisatory albums these days, even to country music (which is rather literal on track #5), blues & folk. I would tend to favor more of a transfiguration of this material, but here I believe we're supposed to enjoy the sounds for their own sake, as part of a (somewhat prototypical) postmodern collage. This is another long album (74 minutes), with much lively interaction and a carefree spirit. I found it rather striking, despite some different preferences, and well worth hearing.

Another album I've enjoyed is Spectral, a wind trio of Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston & Larry Ochs, recorded on two dates here in the Bay Area, and released on Aerophonic Records (Dave Rempis's label, also nicely produced). It has not been a conscious decision, but I have not spent much time on all-wind ensembles in this space. Obviously there is a great deal of potential in using only instruments from the same family, and even if we're more accustomed to e.g. the string quartet, the idea of matched wind consorts goes back to the Renaissance. Here, the instruments aren't really matched, and the three players have no problem differentiating their sounds. A bit like Zürick Concert, although in a very different style, Spectral relies on detailed interactions within a rather constrained space. The various tracks come off spontaneously: Even if one musician adopts a relatively strict procedure, the others interact in different ways. That tension between strictness & freedom is what forms much of the interest. (I contrast this somewhat with what's become the cliché of composition vs. improvisation.) The result is that group structures form & fall apart, but with more intimacy than typical of the "soundscape" style, given the latter's typical distance. Spectral gets the listener thinking about the individual notes, so it's both very technical & self-conscious in that sense. The general sparseness is critical to that focus, a focus not uncommon in "experimental" concerts in the Bay Area.

3 July 2014

The duo Period has added Chuck Bettis (who I correspond with occasionally at DMG) on voice & electronics for their second album, 2, as well as a couple of sax players on some tracks. This is basically doom metal reconfigured, decontextualized. I enjoy some of their sonorities, particularly Bettis on vocals & Mike Pride's drumming, but Charlie Looker sticking closely to "metal" chords on the booming guitar gets to be monotonous for me. (This is in distinction to The Gate, mentioned in this space back in September 2012, which mixes interval permutations into their doom style.) I have a hard time listening to the entire first track, which is only the core duo, as well as the longest track on the album, without getting bored by the lack of variety. The track certainly does have a consistent foreboding quality, though, in keeping with the "doom" genre. Track #2 is then a similar setup, but with vocals. Some of the other tracks have a bit more happening. All the vocals are wordless, basically decontextualized metal-style howling, often staying in the background. That aspect of the album is appealing, and Pride scrambles time throughout, so there's plenty of rhythmic interest. (The wind players don't really change the basic sound when they participate.) It's as if doom metal songs have been broken apart and put back together in some incoherent (in the good sense) order, but unfortunately keeping the harmonies mostly intact. Anyway, I don't listen to too many albums that are so focused on rock or post-rock styles, so I thought Period 2 was worth mentioning.

5 July 2014

Skulking in the Big House is another worthwhile improvised quartet album on Creative Sources, recorded by German bassist Alexander Frangenheim in Berlin, and featuring the Israeli players Ariel Shibolet (soprano saxophone), Nori Jacoby (viola), and Ofer Bymel (drums). Although I hadn't noticed it at the time, Skulking in the Big House prompted me to also have a listen to Berlin — another improvised quartet album recorded the previous year in Berlin by Frangenheim, with Bymel, but also Creative Sources director Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, and Chris Heenan on reeds. The similarities are obvious between the two groups, and likely Berlin prompted Rodrigues to also release Skulking in the Big House. In any case, although Rodrigues's technique on viola is quite advanced, Berlin is generally a very quiet album, either with not a lot happening, or remaining on the edge of audibility. (The final track does have a bit of an "animal roar" to it, but that fades away also.) I have nothing against exploring such areas in principle, but the fact is, an exploration of audibility doesn't suit my life very well: There's so much environmental noise around me, and trying to listen to music I have trouble hearing only makes it seem more frustrating. So I'm not all that personally compatible with Rodrigues's own style, even if I like much of what he does, particularly as a label director. Another natural point of comparison for Skulking in the Big House in this space is Martin Blume's quartet album In Just, with which I've had a bit of a strange relationship: This is the only album, so far at least, that I've dropped out of my favorites only to add again (and now dropped again). I enjoy much of In Just, even if it's rather quiet for extended periods, but apparently that enjoyment stops short of true enthusiasm. The comparison is likewise fairly obvious, with its two string players, reedist & drummer. I think that ultimately I feel similarly about Skulking in the Big House, in that it's an enjoyable album that doesn't force me to seek it out — not quite enough ideas for a full album, I guess, although the best parts are very striking. Nonetheless, some other thoughts are appropriate. Skulking in the Big House is not so much a study in quiet, although it's never very loud, but more of a chamber atmosphere with quick pointillist sounds often in extended technique. (The percussive attacks are specifically reminiscent of In Just.) I consequently enjoy the way the musicians interact when playing together simultaneously. Although certainly "indoor music," there is a bit of wildness to it in the evocations of insect & small animal sounds, an observation that could be made of a number of albums featured in this space. (Whether this is intentional, I do not know.) The result is a kind of hybrid sensitivity that deserves more exploration, and indeed seems to be getting it. This is one of the more compelling albums to appear so far this year, particularly since (as on Eye of the Moose) it mostly features musicians with which I was not otherwise familiar.

Considering that the majority of musicians on Skulking in the Big House are Israeli, I feel compelled to state at this time that I do not support the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians. The actions of that government are very offensive to me. I also do not automatically believe that anyone from Israel must be in favor of them, just as I am not in favor of many of the things done by the United States government. (And I have no idea what these musicians' specific views are.) That said, Bymel also has a recent trio album recorded in Israel, Spatial Awareness on OutNow; this was worth hearing, although more noise / electronic rock influenced. An album that mostly features Israeli musicians that I continue to find striking is Growing carrots in a concrete floor, largely for its reconfiguration of interior space — including what likewise might be evocations from the animal world. (The final/title track on Skulking in the Big House is the most similar in this regard.)

16 July 2014

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