I've decided I don't want to write much of a general introduction this time around. Please see the previous version that in turn leads into previous introductions.
One thing I'll repeat from December is that I didn't really do what I set out to do in the previous introduction, which might be something of a failure, but mainly means I'm still working on it, and decided this was a good time to roll over this page anyway. So I'm intending to treat some more general topics as digressions here, more or less as stand-alone essays, mixed in with comments about particular recordings. I need to turn a bunch of notes into a few coherent (maybe) essays.
I still struggle with which recordings to discuss. I don't want to be too negative, and I'll reiterate that I'm only discussing recordings I find interesting to discuss, even if I don't like everything about them, so hopefully it's always complimentary in some sense. And there is such a range of material available, from a very broad set of performers around the world. It's become increasingly clear to me just how strongly my interest in a particular recording is conditioned by what else I've heard & enjoyed, and I have a rather arbitrary background when it comes to jazz, having simply jumped into the middle of it a few years ago and decided to focus on contemporary efforts. That said, I don't feel particularly uninformed when it comes to the scope of efforts out there, even if I don't have much knowledge of the history — despite that so much of my work focuses on historical music. I have, moreover, an idiosyncratic sense of history, since it's based on what I personally have heard, something we can all say.
I do believe, though, that if I had heard some of this material in other orders, my favorites list would look different than it does. But then, that's the nature of a favorite. It's almost a personal archaeology.Todd McComb <email@example.com>
I'm not sure if there will be any more 2012 releases to discuss beyond those in my "to do" pile now, but I do still have multiple items I'd like to mention.
The first two of those are European improvising quartet albums on No Business Records from Lithuania, both recorded in France.
Although I've not been featuring duo albums here, and Joëlle Léandre records a lot of duo albums, I have been following her quartet albums closely. (And would, in theory, any trios, although there have been none since 2009 — before I really started doing this.) I first encountered Léandre performing Scelsi's music, but she also worked with Feldman, at Mills College here in Oakland, etc. She's been involved with many projects of interest to me, and is of course a phenomenal improviser on the bass. Live at Banlieue Bleue is the first album I've listed here where Léandre performs with an entirely European ensemble, and also the first that includes a drummer. Like the other quartet albums of the past couple of years, all of these performers has played & recorded together before, and the music is entirely improvised. (They are part of an earlier double album featuring Léandre on Leo Records, for instance.) It goes without saying that these are engaging & thought-provoking improvisations, making for an easily recommendable album.
Inspired by Live at Banlieue Bleue, I sought another No Business album featuring Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro (b.1948), Live at Total Meeting. These performers were not known to me at all, but all have worked with Léandre (and of course Zingaro). In fact, the wind player Jérôme Bourdellon has an even more recent duo album with her. Live at Total Meeting might be an even more compelling album, also entirely improvised, and illustrating just how many amazing instrumental improvisers there at on the European continent. This is very sophisticated music of broad scope. It makes me feel a bit depressed that we don't hear things like this in USA, and in fact this album played a role in getting me to question my approach, as per the above remarks. What makes these albums so amazing is not only the individual musical imaginations & techniques, but the way the performers interact. They switch effortlessly from offering different parts of a conversation, coming together in some kind of agreement, being quieter or more boisterous... in short, a broad range of improvised counterpoint inspired by the other individuals in the moment. The interactions have a fluidity here that's perhaps most impressive, without the rigidity of material or form that seems common sometimes (such as in some English albums I've mentioned), or any particular need to get to any particular place, giving a sense both of taking life as it is, and expressing oneself as an individual.22 January 2013
I haven't really known what to make of the Creative Sources catalog for the most part. They have a high volume of releases, and I've heard some of them; they've generally been interesting. There are a lot of names I don't recognize, though, and most of their recordings come with no discussion. Although label director Ernesto Rodrigues, plus his family and certain other frequent contributors, appear often, some ensembles seem entirely new. That said, I decided to have a listen to Old School New School No School by Wind Trio in large part based on the fact they had liner notes by Carlos Zingaro, to continue the line of exploration from the previous entry. Three wind players don't fit the concept of jazz especially well, but there is a fairly wide variety of material on this album. It's unclear if there was any (or a lot of) pre-composition, but the various tracks (and there are eleven, rather more than typical for an improvised album) include a range of technique, instrument, and stylistic reference. Audible influences include classic free blowing jazz, Scelsi-esque pitch transformation, and Asian melody. However, these aspects are treated in trio, with separately audible parts, instead of attempting to blend into one; there's a contrapuntal emphasis throughout, in that sense, even if the musicians might not react strongly to each other. (The closest comparison among albums I've featured here previously would be some tracks on Fremdenzimmer.) The result definitely makes an impression, even if it's hard to sustain interest over a full hour. I could be wrong, but it appears the performers are all Portuguese.
Another improvised album of interest is Trio featuring a trio of faculty at Dartmouth: Kui Dong, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff. This has been a worthwhile, and at times very soft & minimal album, although it does have its more lively sections. Beyond the music, which is intriguing in its own right, a few specific aspects of the rather brief included notes inspire some thoughts. First, I really liked the phrase "half broken consort" as it seems so evocative of this ensemble with two pianos (including modifications) & guitar, and of course touches on Renaissance conceptions of ensemble and naming. (For quite some time in Western Europe, it was considered normal for groups of the same or same types of instruments to perform together, which was called a consort, and then a broken consort was a later idea that used more than one kind of instrument.) This brings to mind thoughts on the basic constitution of a jazz ensemble, where a classic quartet would represent four different families of instruments (although some might say that piano should be included in percussion, and it's traditionally grouped with guitar as a "chordal instrument" making Trio not quite broken). Old School New School No School above breaks that rule, as do many releases on Creative Sources and elsewhere, particularly in Europe. Of course, it's also normal to have more than one horn, and saxophone quartets have been around for a while, but USA jazz definitely has an orientation toward broken consorts. This leads in turn to a "functional" approach to ensemble, where different players have clearly different roles, even if they might overlap at times. We might analogize this with industrial society, and perhaps I'll have some more remarks on this issue in the future. The other notable aspects of the production for Trio don't thrill me: There is no documentation about when these recordings were made, or even if they come from the same session (I suspect not), which is something I consider inexcusable as someone with a historical orientation. The other aspect is playing up the novelty factor of "three composers" improvising. I don't know how to read this as anything but insulting to the various other improvising ensembles made up of musicians who (also) compose. I really wonder what the writer was thinking, since this is hardly a novelty. That said, although Trio can involve a bit too much muted tinkling at times, I guess waiting for something to emerge, and being all the more striking when it does, it's an appealing album that offers its own perspective on free improvisation today (very influenced by USA academia), and well worth hearing.
I am not currently expecting anything else from 2012, although that could change.24 January 2013
Samuel Blaser continues to record prolifically, with his latest release by a quintet co-led by bassist Michael Bates, One from None. This is, in many ways, a more traditional jazz album than usually featured here, but Blaser's style & interests have matched mine closely enough that I wanted to have a listen — the quintet also includes Jeff Davis & Russ Lossing, who have had their own interesting projects. Perhaps most closely, though, the album is evocative of Bates's 2011 album Acrobat, dedicated to Shostakovich. One from None includes a strongly contrapuntal conception, with an obvious command of twentieth century harmonic styles, but also space for jazz-style soloing. Even with the brass & percussion (and at times, Fender Rhodes), the album projects a classical sound. Unlike François Houle's Genera, on which its leaders also play, One from None never moves into avant garde areas; it remains oriented around arrangements of original popular- or film-style tunes.
Ingrid Laubrock's latest album Strong Place (the first here actually labeled 2013) seems like a more polished product than her first album with this quintet, Anti-House. Gone are the transitional tracks, and some of the instrument changes, with the piano fully integrated, and each track seeming capable of standing on its own merits. And of course the rest of the quintet consists of musicians regularly mentioned here, all with leader albums listed among my favorites, so it was basically a must-hear release, despite my ambivalent reaction to the first Anti-House album. This is highly structured music — not necessarily more structured than a large majority of items I discuss, but certainly more structured than some of the other things these musicians do. I enjoy Kris Davis & John Hébert, including here, but Strong Place comes off as much more rigid than e.g. Camino Cielo Echo by the remaining trio (and the previous appearance of those musicians on Intakt). I had thought, in fact, that Camino Cielo Echo was a bit less adventurous than Pool School in that regard. Otherwise, Strong Place is something of a natural successor to Camino Cielo Echo, and I have to wonder if this is the only thing this group will put out this year? Maybe I should appreciate the quintet more, on that account at least, but Rainey in particular seems noticeably less assertive than when he leads the core trio. The inescapable conclusion is that Laubrock is working through more of a personal vision here, and at least for now, others have to rein themselves in. (I also cannot escape the conclusion, based on the lack of a date, that these tracks were recorded during multiple studio sessions, perhaps adding to the feeling of separation.) The ensemble & material are certainly interesting, some of the timbre combinations are must-hears, but the weak point ends up being in exactly the kind of group interaction I've been prioritizing.13 February 2013
Although I had read some of his music-specific writings way back when, rediscovering Adorno in his more strictly philosophical mode was a significant part of rejuvenating my interest in these topics. Reading Minima Moralia felt like discovering a long lost uncle, someone chewing on many of the same topics, and thinking about them in similar ways. His work has certainly put some of my musings on aesthetics from the late 1990s and early 2000s into perspective, at least for me. Having come largely out of a Foucault-centric tradition, my reaction to Adorno was not unlike Foucault's himself: If only I had known his work, it would have saved me a lot of time. Unlike Foucault, I'm not sure what saved time would have really bought me, so that's OK. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory was first translated (or at least the first good translation) in 1997, when I was in my hermit phase. So reading it now was overdo by any measure, but I do want to offer a short meta-critique.
It's probably unfair to offer any sort of critique, given that the volume is unfinished, and apparently in the midst of a fairly substantive revision when Adorno died, including a stated intention to completely rewrite the introduction, although the editors were kind enough to include the original draft introduction as the last section of the book. Upon starting the introduction, I wondered why Adorno had intended to discard it, because the first part — which basically argues for the value of aesthetic theory — is excellent. But in getting into the second part, including the ubiquitous & seemingly endless rehashing of Kant & Hegel (which he'd have undoubtedly kept), the need to rewrite starts to become clear. The introduction attempts to establish a beginning point for the work itself, but blinks — doubly. Although Adorno does argue that beginning a study of aesthetics with contemporary art makes sense, his statement (albeit in quote) about contemporary art being a critique of past art is remarkably undialectic. For him, an analysis of this statement is a stunning omission. Perhaps more to the point, the introduction struggles to precisely locate that contemporary beginning, and with it to announce a form for what follows. This form, however (and the editors do briefly discuss it), begins to emerge from the reworked main sections themselves.
[ Read more.... ]26 February 2013
I had not really heard of Henry Kaiser until recently, which seems rather pitiful on my part, considering he's based in Oakland. Beyond that, his story is interesting in a wider arena than improvised music, because his grandfather of the same name was such a fascinating character in the history of 20th century USA business. That Henry senior apparently despised Henry junior certainly doesn't make me feel any more fondly toward the "industrialist," though. Anyway, Downtown Music Gallery did a little extended sales pitch for Kaiser around his latest album Kamüra, including listing various other recent albums, that caught my attention. Kamüra is by a free improvisation trio featuring Randy Raine-Reusch on a variety of East Asian instruments, both winds and strings. Each track is oriented around a different instrument, with Kaiser (who also plays piano here) and bassist Torsten Müller supporting more or less vigorously. Some of the tracks are fairly static, and they generally have some simpler parts, although they're all rather original sonic combinations. I've been trying to pay more attention to non-Western instruments in a "jazz" setting of late, even if little in that direction has made it into this space. I had envisioned improvisation with someone specializing in a particular instrument, but Raine-Reusch apparently plays almost anything. It's probably interesting to watch, but it seems more like a curiosity to me, versus a life specialist in one of these traditional instruments. That said, I did like the potential of the mouth organs played here, which I've been intrigued by already in their natural settings (so to speak), and the other instruments had distinctive things to offer also.
I listened to a couple of older albums too, Plane Crash featuring Kaiser in a standard guitar trio with Weasel Walter and Damon Smith, and Ewen / Smith / Walter featuring Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen also with Walter & Smith. Plane Crash, released in 2009, is cited as being Kaiser's most "aggressive" release in quite some time (and maybe that's the wrong word, because I confess that rock-based guitar music effusions don't have a lot of semantic content for me, and both DMG & Walter's record label use a bizarre vocabulary, which I'll summarize based on listening as "aggressive"). It starts out alternating louder rock-style riff tracks with quieter tracks, and slowly comes to more of a synthesis of the two. I'd have preferred they start there. Ewen / Smith / Walter, released in the first half of 2012, and so a release I didn't notice when it appeared last year, rather than a late year straggler, was more of a "find." For one thing, it's fascinating how much more sophisticated Walter & Smith sound in this later trio, recorded three years later. According to online notes, they've been playing together since 2006 in Oakland, but really seem to come together with a unique personal style in this trio.
The clear personal vision on Ewen / Smith / Walter (an untitled album that's listed by this title in at least some online sources) must come in large part from Sandy Ewen herself, of course, but the three musicians also seem to work perfectly together. This is highly nuanced material, with an almost atomic level of listening & interacting, and a strongly electronic edge — Smith's laptop subtly supplements the wide variety of electric guitar sounds. It most strongly reminds me of some sections of Live at the Metz' Arsenal, featuring Joëlle Léandre with Fred Frith on guitar & Alvin Curran doing the electronics. That quartet is based in Oakland, so there might be a tangible influence, although Smith now lives in Houston (and Walter in New York). Ewen / Smith / Walter is also a very long album, and the first few times I listened to it, I found myself enjoying it at the beginning, and then feeling worn out & not enjoying much by the end. That's simply a caution, not a complaint. I might suggest listening to the first 4 tracks in one sitting, and the last 4 in another; there's no conception as an album that will be compromised with that approach, and then one can hear that these later tracks are actually just as strong as earlier ones. (Last time, I had no trouble enjoying the album start to finish, but it starts to become familiar, a topic about which — at some point — I have much more to say in general.) Ultimately, the long length is a strength, because it's more amazing material. (There's a contrast between the classical music world, where people are accustomed to demand as much material for their money as possible, and the jazz world, where albums sometimes seem to be kept short to keep listeners interested.) This kind of finely nuanced personal interplay, with an engaging & creative range of timbral interactions, together with a clear conception of what they're trying to do (i.e. despite its strangeness, the music really doesn't seem "experimental" as such), doesn't come along too often at this level, I'm finding. Even in the slower sections, there's a palpable tension about what's going to happen next, and despite the superficial similarity between the tracks, each is independently interesting. This is one of the most compelling albums from last year, even if I ignored it at the time. In addition, Ewen is a talented visual artist, and several of her works are in the liner booklet (where the music is also introduced by Henry Kaiser, in very articulate & down-to-earth notes) and on her website. I was genuinely impressed by her artwork, not merely as a supplement to the music, but as another avenue of similar aesthetic approach.5 March 2013
When I saw the release announcement for Steve Coleman's latest album, Functional Arrhythmias, with its ideas derived from systems in the body, I immediately thought of Milford Graves. I was gratified to read subsequently on the Pi Recordings website that Coleman had taken inspiration from Graves for the project. I've developed an admiration for Graves, both from his own music, which is not very prolific on recording, and from the work of some drummers who claim him as a teacher (Jeff Arnal in particular, but also Brian Osborne). The basic idea of linking musical structures to the body's own rhythms is an obvious one in some ways, so the devil is in the details, as the saying goes: To what purpose and at what level of consciousness is that linkage made? How does it develop in a musical sense, or conversely, how does it develop the body? These are some basic questions around purpose, which an intentional act, such as creating a recording, cannot really escape. Luckily, with Steve Coleman, we have a musician with a keen sense of what he wants to do and why.
The Graves reference aside — and Graves' exploration of this subject has been anything but superficial — the recent album most directly akin to Functional Arrhythmias is probably Micro Temporal Infundibula by Kronomorfic, led by David Borgo & Paul Pellegrin. I chose not to discuss that album in this space last year, in part because I was coming to it a bit late, in the context of more recent releases by related artists. It has a similar basis: The asymmetrical layers of rhythm interacting in the human body, and specifically the ways these sometimes separate layers can interact (pace the word "infundibula"). That album has a consequent rhythmic feel somewhat akin to Denman Maroney's ensembles around the hyperpiano, but even more noticeably, it has a strongly Latin edge. In a simplistic way, I might call Functional Arrhythmias a funk version of the Latin Micro Temporal Infundibula. But ultimately, the latter is more interesting than compelling; I do hope those musicians continue to develop their ideas. The other natural album reference(s) for Functional Arrhythmias is guitarist Miles Okazaki's work. I had listened to his album Figurations on Sunnyside, the last in a trilogy, and one that ostensibly extends the idea of composition into improvisation. I wrote that last phrase with some care, and thought at the time that the album seemed rather "composed" — I would not have guessed that he's an associate of Steve Coleman, but then who knows where his work is headed. Functional Arrhythmias also features Jonathan Finlayson, who we're told will release his own leader album soon, perhaps moving out from his apprenticeship with Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, etc. (the Pi canon, I guess). Online discussion also tells us that electric bassist Tidd & drummer (including hand drums) Rickman are "veteran" associates to whom Coleman "returned." I found nothing else featuring them to be available.
In some sense, Functional Arrhythmias is almost more of a catalog of ideas for future elaboration than it is a traditional jazz album. The first two tracks are the most developed, and many of the twelve subsequent tracks are rather short. They're almost sketches, worked out to a degree in improvisation by Steve, and sometimes with the group. What we have, though, is a clear sense of place for this collection, namely within what many in theory circles have termed the affective turn. The turn toward the body seems natural for Coleman given his previous handful of albums over several years — and isn't something like Weaving Symbolics an absolutely great title? (I have an urge to steal it.) There are a number of ways one could describe this thread, or trace, in his works — depending on the theoretical perspective one wants to prioritize. For Coleman, there is no apparent indecision on this aspect, the angle of approach: The album grounds itself in mid-20th century African-American musical style: At times, there is a tangibly funky bass line or historical riff. For me, where to start? I've mentioned the trace, an idea of postcolonial theory, similar in Bhabha's work to the vision of the thin narrative, a story with a contour but no clear meaning, an idea we can extend into the semantic level: What Agamben calls a signature, inspired from Aby Warburg and a deep reading of European medieval history, a particular pattern repeated exactly in completely different contexts, contexts which change its linguistic or semiotic meaning, but not its symbolic function. In Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, we can hear Steve Coleman working explicitly with just such a catalog: Different traditions interrelated not in grand narratives, but in the tiniest of correspondences.
This happens everywhere. What Steve has done is be more explicit about it — but not too explicit. We're not told what the correspondences are, what these semblances might be, but we have an album labeled as such, and we're offered a chance to hear them however Steve and his group might perform them. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities received a great deal of attention, but also included recordings almost four years old by the time of its release. (And The Mancy of Sound was basically, to my mind, an appendix around the same ideas & mostly from the same sessions, although retrospectively I can view the title as moving toward affect.) Functional Arrhythmias was recorded in two sessions in 2012, so represents Coleman's much more current thinking, in addition to being later work. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities had as an aspect a very particular sense & conveyance of time & place, something that always felt a little strange to me hearing it years later. Of course, improvisatory documents in general are often rather particular to a time & place. So how to move beyond that, without sacrificing the reality of it? The turn to affect is, in various perhaps contradictory ways, a move to connect the trace or signature with the body: One might define culture as the map that tells a body how to translate affect into emotion. In a sense, affect is pre-cultural, if I turn that around. (But generating affect can be cultural, or modify culture, so it's not as tidy as all that.) Coleman is not trying to create some music-prior-to-culture here, however. As noted, he explicitly references 20th century African-American culture. What he's doing is, again, illustrating affinities with other cultures, at an almost "atomic" level, and as they might be related to the body, as they might emerge from the body. There is an internal epistemology, but not so much an ontology: I don't believe Coleman is suggesting a one-way flow from the body to multifaceted cultural expression, but rather relating a way these affinities can be felt/known. If affect is prior to subjectivity, these pieces become entities suggesting further elaboration into other realms of thought, and take a position outside (or perhaps alongside) a particular time & place, evoking the virtualization of time, as illustrated in such fashionable terms as "future anterior." The body is concrete, but its affects involve the virtual (pace Massumi, et al.).
Coleman is weaving these ideas into music that will appeal to a broad audience. I expect Functional Arrhythmias will draw substantial mainstream attention. Despite my (over-)involved discussion (motivated perhaps by the relational — or should I say functional? — nature of the bodily displacement), the music ends up being fairly straightforward (albeit creatively reconfigured) in its synthesis, which can perhaps be linked to the gestural quality of affect. The album involves a careful trimming of excess, back to the thin narrative, yet precisely articulated in its episodes (tracks, or within tracks): The individual pieces create spaces that are distinct, but not closed: The body as contiguous with worlds, not as sphinx. In accord with Graves' work, there is also definite physiological modulation in at least some of the tracks — the album can be spooky or ultimately quite reassuring in some vaguely felt sense, that is, in turn affective. (One could say the album is ease-y.) Much of the value is how unclumsy, natural it all seems — novelty with a simplicity grounded in affect, inherently asymmetric (arrhythmic) as gesture, in both the way the body generates & reacts to time. I'll be interested to see how Functional Arrhythmias is received, especially politically, given its openness (in contrast to the more hermetic quality of Coleman's previous Pi albums).14 March 2013
Another very long trio album released recently, and so perhaps inspiring some memories of the amazing Ewen / Smith / Walter, is Zebulon by Peter Evans and his trio (John Hébert, and the unknown-to-me drummer Kassa Overall) on his own More is More record label. There are things to like about this album, but it does end up seeming overly long. In fact, there are parts of Zebulon that I particularly enjoy, beginning with the opening. Evans gives a tour-de-force technical performance, and shows a lively improvisational mind, but he also spends a lot of time spinning variations, one after another, and in most of the tracks I reach an "alright, enough already!" point where I'm ready to move on to another idea. This is my main issue with the album, and although I started out enjoying it quite a bit, I became annoyed with the third track (of four) even the first time through. However, there is still a lot to hear. Hébert is engaging throughout, plays some excellent bass solos, and really frames things creatively in a contrapuntal sense. The other weakness, perhaps, of the trio is that although the trumpet goes silent at times to allow the bass to solo, it always dominates when active (and drums are always color); there's no sense of shifting ensemble roles, just a straight ahead trumpet trio in that sense. (I'll also note that the CD itself is not labeled, only black lacquer, presumably intentionally, given the glossy foldover.) Despite these issues with being fully satisfying, Zebulon is an interesting album, bringing out different textures within the mainstream trumpet trio that I hadn't encountered previously, and featuring some fine individual moments from Hébert & Evans. Maybe it will lead to something more (so to speak).8 April 2013
Kris Davis's new quintet album Capricorn Climber came with high expectations, which always makes things a little bit tricky (at least for this listener). Although she had done a solo album, a followup with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog, as well as arrangements of Tony Malaby's pieces, this was Davis's first ensemble leader album since Good Citizen in 2010. It felt a long time in coming, especially as Davis continued to (deservedly) receive a lot of press. Besides frequent recent band mates Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey, the addition of violist Mat Maneri made a great deal of sense to me, as both Maneri & Davis have a highly appealing command of twelve-tone technique. (I should also mention bassist Trevor Dunn, with whom I'm less familiar, but who also plays on Ches Smith's album from the same batch of Clean Feed releases, and elsewhere.) So expectations were high, and when the piano enters with a heavy thud off the pulse in the first measure (if I can call it that) of the first track, it further gets my attention. (The opening reminds me of some Boulez openings, but including that wonderful immediate shifting of the pulse.) With Paradoxical Frog, and to some degree in Laubrock's Anti-House albums on which Davis also performs, I've found a bit too much of the slow or "atmospheric" material. There are some atmospheric sections on Capricorn Climber too, to which Laubrock's saxophone often lends significant color, but they work better for me somehow; they succeed in creating a world, instead of being anticipatory, I guess. Davis is sometimes exploring what comes after a Feldman-esque minimalism, and has as many answers as anyone, but also composes high energy pieces. (And the individual tracks tend to have sections of rather different characters, instead of keeping a mood throughout.) Sections featuring the Davis-Maneri-Rainey trio can be particularly scintillating (and shouldn't they really do a trio album?), but the foreground is generally well-distributed throughout the quintet and can vary quickly. I imagine Capricorn Climber is going to receive fairly widespread attention and appear on various "best of" lists. The album is like a catalog of late 20th century style, but with an improvisational fluency only developing in the 21st, and packaged into a compelling whole. I especially enjoy the livelier dodecaphonic passages, as they seem so far removed from the stiffness sometimes associated with that style, but there are plenty of other interesting things to hear.24 April 2013
A recent item highly recommended at Downtown Music Gallery was Compost by Daniel Thompson (guitar), Alex Ward (clarinet), and Benedict Taylor (viola) on the new Cram Records. Although she's not listed as part of the group of musicians involved with Cram Records, there's some second hand relationship to Ingrid Laubrock, since both Veryan Weston (Haste) and Javier Carmona (Catatumbo) have recorded with her. In any case, as I'd remarked before about English improvisatory albums seeming stiff, I thought I'd mention Compost as another effort by a younger trio of performers, all-improvised in their first meeting, a meeting that apparently prompted more, including a record label. This is an all-acoustic improvisation session, recorded in a very resonant church space. That is perhaps its most distinctive quality, aside from the instrumentation, creating some feedback from the setting itself (and when someone coughs during the set, that echoes too). It's a good reminder that rooms & buildings have been creating echoes & feedback far longer than there have been looping electronics. It's generally an abstract set, very carefully controlled, with some interesting sequences of close interaction.29 April 2013
I've never thought of Calgary as a cultural center, or really a place that would ever attract my attention, but apparently I was wrong about that. Drummer Chris Dadge lives in Calgary and runs the Bug Incision label with his local colleague Scott Munro, and they've produced what is to my ears the most compelling free improvisation album so far this year in The Unrepeatable Quartet, recorded in Calgary no less. With hindsight, maybe I should have realized that there was more to Calgary than I'd noticed — which was mainly malls — what with the Calgary Stampede as a significant piece of North American culture. And of course, there are the amazingly beautiful Canadian Rockies not far away, where I've done a fair amount of hiking. A rodeo was never on my radar, however, but maybe there's more to that than I thought too.
In any case, Dadge has a compelling style himself, and for this concert, played along with Munro, as well as legendary free improviser Jack Wright (b.1942) and Montreal-based trumpeter Ellwood Epps (who has the same name as a famous Canadian gun shop, adding to my general bewilderment here). There's a bit of a slow patch in their collective improvisation, but mostly it's highly compelling, including in its pacing, and is the sort of recording that ends with a feeling of satisfaction that doesn't elicit a desire to hear something else right away. There's a great deal of subtlety to their interaction, which is usually clear — although musicians shift between roles, the sounds don't usually blend to the point of obscuring who is who. Dadge cultivates multiple simultaneous pulses in a fairly leisurely way, while Wright & Epps do a variety of different things with their horns, from loud to soft and all manner of in between, most often in fairly discrete sounds. Munro does various different things too, which I guess are even harder to summarize, but he'll carry a tone longer. Calgary 2012 comes off as quite a concert — a unique set that still probably won't get me to make significant changes to my attitude toward rodeos or guns — but wow, what a surprise.
This is a CD-R pressing in a little plastic slip, like e.g. Jeff Shurdut's release on Jazt Tapes, although numbered. Most of the other recent Bug Incision releases are duos, which I'm not into at the moment, and there is a release of an older trio from Oakland featuring Weasel Walter & Damon Smith, who have recently appeared in this space with Sandy Ewen. I will need to keep my eye on Calgary now. There is also a statement that a sister album to this Calgary 2012 release will appear on "Eh? Records," but I don't know what that is, or if I will find it.7 May 2013
I had the opportunity to interview Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen (b.1985) in an email exchange over the course of the month of April, and I think we had a good conversation: The results are here.8 May 2013
A couple of news items to report:
Introducing another addition to my favorites listing here, Victo Records has released a live recording of Anthony Braxton and his septet from Victoriaville in 2011, Echo Echo Mirror House. Although that album was just released in 2013, interest it generated caused me to notice the late 2012 release of Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC), with a much larger ensemble, actually recorded five months after Victoriaville in 2011. Although Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) is available only for download, I decided that I needed to break my general rule of listing only physical releases, because I found it to be a more compelling album of similar material. Although the Victo album is enjoyable, and in some ways I prefer the more open textures of the smaller ensemble (although one would hardly call them very open, and certainly not once the sampling gets involved), and found the rather catchy sampled chants appealing in context, it's actually the "catchiness" that wears thin with time, whereas the NYC recording gains with exposure. The NYC recording includes all of the performers in the septet recording, supplemented by some rather distinguished associates of Braxton who are in some cases scattered around the country. They apparently came to town for the festival at Roulette in 2011, which produced a handful of recordings for New Braxton House.
The two recordings do not consist of the same Braxton composition (on the Victo album, it is No. 347), but both fall under the general heading of his "Echo Echo Mirror House" music. I discussed his "Ghost Trance" music briefly in March of last year, and Echo Echo Mirror House is in some ways a progression from there, at the very least chronologically — although it's the sense of time & chronology that this music deconstructs. The "Ghost Trance" music already made reference to playing all of Braxton's music simultaneously, but in that case, it was the connecting sinews of such a synchronicity, restated by Braxton now as an exploration of space. With the "Echo Echo Mirror House" music, we get the actual simultaneity, with the musicians also wielding personal digital music players to play music from Braxton's past (and perhaps other things). Combined with the 15 musicians of the Roulette/NYC performance, this can make for a formidable wall of sound, but yet discernible. Braxton's stated goal is to break down concepts of time, and to collapse past/present/future into one moment, thereby or by which, to change the concept of musical development. (One could analogize this idea to some processes in the music of Boulez, but I haven't seen that correspondence made.) It seems to me this description speaks for itself, at least for now, and so I'll end by restating that the Victo album is the more approachable, for those who care. The other obvious thing to note is that the recording format puts the difference between live & recorded in the performance at one more remove; what is the nature of the list of performing musicians, for instance, under these circumstances?
Another recent album on which I want to make a few remarks is Time Stands Still by Satoko Fujii Ma-Do on the Not Two label. This is the third album by this all-Japanese quartet, and the last with the original ensemble, due to the death of a member, also recorded in New York in 2011. I've been making some effort to hear more East Asian "jazz" music, and this is one of the more interesting albums thus far, although to my mind its weakness is actually in its reference to American popular idioms. There's a pathos there that I don't enjoy nearly as much as the quartet's less American-sounding passages. This group, Ma-Do, seems to make less reference to "soft jazz" or rock than some other ensembles involving these same performers, however. Time Stands Still certainly has its creative elements, both in the compositions (all by Fujii), and in the individual solos, and perhaps it's my own bred aversion to American popular music of a few decades ago that affects my reaction more than anything the performers have really done. Probably so. (Fujii states, moreover, that the classic one-horn quartet lineup is a coincidence, which does strain credulity.)4 June 2013
Prom Night Records has a fast-growing catalog, twenty-one titles since their start in 2010. They also let you listen to most, or maybe all, of their music online, before deciding whether to buy. So I hope people are supporting them, because they have some interesting items. Their latest release is Anomonous, which caught my eye because it includes Denman Maroney, but was produced by low reeds player Josh Sinton (b.1971), here playing amplified contrabass clarinet. Anomonous is a fairly "out there" experimental improvised electro-acoustic album, but some of the Prom Night releases have more mainstream qualities, including by Sinton. The more experimental music seems to have the plainer packaging. (I had previously enjoyed Natura morta, although it didn't provoke comment at the time, and it has a similar grainy recycled look.)
I've not been focusing on solo or duo projects here, and it's Ben Miller joining Maroney & Sinton on electronics that makes Anomonous a trio. The difference between live processing & post-processing, of course, is that the other musicians are affected by the results live. It's not clear that Miller generates a lot of sounds independently, but it's also not clear who is making what sound much of the time, between the low rumbling from Sinton & Maroney rubbing piano strings. I do have a caution: There are some loud, high-pitched resonances on this album; they are far from ubiquitous, and I enjoy them, but my listening companions have not been so charmed. There are also low rumblings that make pots rattle in my kitchen, sometimes both together. There is a bit of straight piano playing, but Anomonous is "extended technique" almost throughout, in one long improvised movement. There are twenty track markers, but many of them seem quite arbitrary — there were no pauses in the actual live performance.
The result of the extended techniques & electronics is for me a sort "interiorized" sound. Although it's not electro-acoustic, Pail Bug suggests a similar sort of interior space. In the case of Anomonous, that feeling of confined space is escaped by the resonances, whether at the low or high ends. In that sense, the music leads outside itself, but does always focus attention back to its center. There are more or less active periods during the performance, but for the most part, it retains a fairly high (but not extremely high) density, with little variation in how much is happening at any particular moment. I find myself drawn to that element of consistency in the performance, which is probably what defines the sense of "space" as much as anything. Pitches & timbres can change significantly, but there's a consistency in the locus of activity — and one that keeps a sense of foreground, not content with a background atmosphere, as some electro-acoustic improvisation tends toward. The nature of the foreground does vary, however, and as alluded above, the electronics are integrated into the performance not so much as another "instrument," but as a manipulation of how the different sounds cohere. At times, this constellation takes on a more "industrial" mood, but at other times not so much, depending on how the sounds (obviously all mechanical) are contextualized; sometimes there is an "elemental" aspect that seems pre-industrial, but always in an interiorized "tempest in a teapot" space, perhaps with resonances suggesting lines of flight. This makes for a compelling dynamic, and Anomonous remains an engaging album after some familiarity is gained.10 June 2013
Having much enjoyed Michel Edelin's previous album Kuntu, his latest album, Resurgence, arrived with a great deal of anticipation — the anticipation was only heightened by the several months between the time it was announced and the time it appeared. As I've mentioned before in this space, expectations can be difficult to manage. Whereas, Kuntu has almost an M-base feel to the layered rhythms, perhaps inspired in part by the participation of New York saxophonist Steve Lehman, Resurgence is more evocative of film music. I don't want to set up the idea of film music as some kind of inherently negative pole, but here we have simpler music (more lyrical, as is sometimes said) that's suggestive of physical scenes, more so than abstraction. That said, there's also a French feel to the performance that seems to fit contemporary philosophy as well — almost a Pink Panther meets Deleuze (if such a thing is possible). This quartet of musicians has been together for at least eighteen years, and to quote the liner notes, "does not challenge the history of jazz" and is "unsubdued by current trends." That about sums up; it's pleasant listening. (Besides the obvious Kuntu reference, I should probably also mention Live at Total Meeting & Shoe as recent European quartet recordings which investigate some similar tensions, albeit in different modes of abstraction.)16 June 2013
Keeping to something of a trend after Anomonous, Growing carrots in a concrete floor is another electroacoustic improvised trio album featuring a performer entirely on synthesizer & sampler. Growing carrots in a concrete floor is my first acquaintance with all three performers, although Wade Matthews (b.1955) has a large discography, including several other items on the Aural Terrains label, as well as multiple albums on Creative Sources. The trio also includes Ayelet Lerman on viola (for whom I was not able to find a website), and Carmel Raz (b.1982) on violin — neither of these performers is found on other available recordings, at least within this general style, but both have interesting resumes cited by Aural Terrains: Lerman has a background in sound installations, while Raz performed with & composes for many well-known classical groups. Growing carrots in a concrete floor was improvised during a series Lerman curates in Jerusalem.
Also like Anomonous, Growing carrots in a concrete floor comes with a warning from me that some listening companions have found the piercing highs (mainly in track no. 1) to be uncomfortable. It's also track no. 1 that especially reminds me of Scelsi, and e.g. his canonical violin piece Xnoybis, albeit at higher pitch. Other tracks create completely different kinds of sound worlds, occasionally industrial, but usually not particularly — one companion describes large parts of this album as the cries of underwater animals, although the description seems a bit strained to me. There is typically an immersive impression, however, which raises questions of installation & space. Matthews plays two laptops, one for synthesizing and one for sampling, and it's rarely clear what sounds are being generated by what item. Foreground & background shift throughout the pieces, as do the ways sounds coalesce or separate, both crucially interesting facets of the performance. The album does not follow a narrative arc, often invoking non-human senses of time. (Matthews' 2010 trio album with Ernesto Rodrigues, Erosions, also worthwhile, adopts a specifically geological orientation, for instance.) There's a posthuman logic here.
Questions about sound installation are natural with this album, not only because of Lerman's activities in that area, but as an outgrowth of questions about foreground & background, as well as previous comments in this space about the "use" of music. Where is this music? Where should it be? A recording automatically signals a displacement, and a basic ability to lift sound from one location to another, or many others — and not only an ability, but a decision to do so. (And this was true before any general listener heard this album, since it was mixed & mastered in Madrid, where Matthews lives, and already used samples.) How is the recording to be used now? I've discussed various uses of recordings in this space, and Growing carrots in a concrete floor mingles with environmental noises (I live in a very noisy environment — most apartments in my area do not have insulation, since the weather is mild) in a confusing way, further mixing the concept of foreground & background. It's a frequent weakness of so-called "ea"-improvisation, at least from my perspective, to focus on creating a sonic landscape, because it fixes a sense of bifurcation (or faciality as logos) without addressing it. Growing carrots in a concrete floor does not call out for a face, but it does leave open the question of what else might be occurring there (where?). These musicians work with movement in other groups, with architecture, plays of light, etc. There are no such specific associations with the music on this album, I would hazard to guess, but it does naturally evoke questions of place, vision, maybe touch, etc. A breeze or the ocean? Could there be a smell? The whole subject also evokes the meta/micro-question: What is a good sound installation for the real spaces of our own lives? (I'm pretty convinced that the ubiquitous leafblowers & other unmuffled two-stroke engines around me aren't much of an ideal. The hum of electricity? Dare we ponder that one?) This is another question about foreground, perhaps, too easily collapsed to ourselves. Growing carrots in a concrete floor retains an interiorized focus in that sense, i.e. it does not indicate lines of flight à la Anomonous, rather the carrot might be growing in the floor, and in an atemporal way (maybe an analogy to Schroedinger's Cat is relevant). It's both "homier" and even less narrative (the box is never opened, and even from inside, we don't know what has or hasn't happened; it's simultaneously post-apocalyptic & utterly normal & not yet, etc.), "spacier" without the sonic evocations of outer space music. But then the received evocations of outer space are narrative fantasy, likewise in a place but not — Flash Gordon breathing in a vacuum, with a story. Maybe this is inner space, or simply nowhere. In any case, it raises questions about what else might be, and how it relates to layers of time, more in the sense of Aion (to channel Scelsi again) than Chronos. One might also contrast this atemporal, or becoming orientation with my description of e.g. Pool School as a "reorganization" of time, way back when. (The space I occupy in the writing here is explicitly chronological.) Perhaps a manta ray is just as (un)likely in concrete as a carrot, dissolving in whispers on vinyl.26 June 2013
It was the trio album Psychotic Redaction, featuring Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, that largely prompted me to hear Sack of Rice (on the Peira label), which also features Jim Baker on synthesizer & Michael Zerang on percussion. Sack of Rice uses a somewhat similar ensemble, two clarinetists (Michael Thieke, Guillermo Gregorio) instead of oboe, forming a quartet. There is some interesting interaction on this album, particularly in the dueling of the clarinets (which distances it from any joke about two clarinetists forming one oboe), with the synth & percussion often playing more of an accompaniment. At times there is some soloing by Baker & Zerang, not so much transformations of foreground & background. Most of the time, the percussion functions as coloration, rather than driving anything, and the free-flowing time is usually driven by the clarinets. In fact, there is a pretty consistent gestural rhythm to Sack of Rice, perhaps somewhat mythologizing (and so recalling Quadrologues, in some ways), but clearly felt in an alternating pace of intensification & relaxation. The "absence" of rhythm leaves it with a fairly repetitive rhythm, even if that's in breaths & phrases.8 July 2013
Keeping to what has been a recent trend in this space (quite an unplanned trend, I might add!), Colophony is another trio album with one member (Richard Barrett, b.1959, well-known in English free jazz circles) playing electronics. It can be hard to know what to expect with some of these Creative Sources releases, since they usually don't have a description, but they continue to release quite a bit of material. Of course, many of the albums are directly connected to Ernesto Rodrigues, or musicians in his circle, but some albums, such as this one, seemingly have no such connection. Along with Richard Barrett, and German bassist Meinrad Kneer (b.1970), Colophony features Australian violinist Jon Rose (b.1951). There was a recently issued 3+1 CD set documenting various projects for Rose's 60th birthday, but otherwise he does not appear to have much recent music available on record. So this is a welcome release by three well-established improvisers, with a wide & creative range of string technique. Rose kind of steals the show for me, but the other two musicians certainly aren't sitting back doing nothing. It's a very lively album, and the trio works together well, even if Rose tends to be featured. Consequently, it's not an album that keeps me riveted from beginning to end, but there is plenty of highly original & compelling material to make it a solid recommendation. The electronics on Colophony are not central to the music's coherence, which is of a more typical sort, but function more like an independent instrument in a more typical trio interaction. The album is less challenging in that sense, but the range of violin technique especially is quite interesting (and apparently Rose has innovated in a wide variety of ways over the years).
Another album from the same batch of releases on Creative Sources, OPJK_3 — Algebrica is also particularly enjoyable. It's likewise a trio including electronics, featuring a lot of percussion or percussion-like sounds, some subtle voice work, and fairly standard clarinet phrases. There's a bit of a deconstructed feel, often with shorter phrases, and performers taking turns. It can seem as though we're only hearing part of a richer sonic tapestry, the rest having been removed somehow, so it's "suggestive" in that sense. In any case, I was not familiar with these musicians, who would appear to be Italian, prior. So it's another worthwhile Creative Sources album featuring a completely different set of musicians from their usual stalwarts. They are clearly one of the most prolific labels right now for free improvisation.
Another recent album worth noting is Maximalism, the trio debut of alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos (b.1990). This album has some obvious similarities to last year's Ewen / Smith / Walter, starting with Weasel Walter's participation, and his fairly similar approach on the two albums. Maximalism has Ron Anderson (so that it also has a guitar) instead of Damon Smith, but also features short & quickly exchanged musical figures, with a lot of variety and activity. Pitsiokos has a very interesting & impressive sax technique, particularly in extended technique and the precision he's able to bring to the various squeaks & skronks, yielding almost a motivic development in that domain — although I'm unclear on the role of synthesizer in achieving that clarity. The album does devolve into a soloistic style at times, letting Pitsiokos display his technique, but it's still an intriguing effort by a young performer.12 August 2013
I am going to discuss Samuel Blaser's latest Consort in Motion album, A Mirror to Machaut a little differently from other items here. I wrote one set of liner notes for the album, and so not only have I made some remarks there, but my enjoyment of the result is perhaps implied. How did I end up writing these liner notes? I enjoyed Samuel's previous Consort in Motion album, and discussed it here. Likewise I enjoyed his less composed (although still based on his own material) Quartet albums on Hat Hut, and had brief interactions with him around that. So there was already an appreciation. I know nothing about the process by which Tony Reif at Songlines decided he'd like to produce a second Consort in Motion album, but Tony & I have been corresponding for at least a decade about various music topics, mostly medieval. So with the medieval orientation of this album, Tony asked if I wanted to write notes, and given my previous experience with Samuel & Tony, I readily agreed. They were great to work with, and I hope my small contribution to the album will be interesting to its audience. One thing I'll add is that Machaut's distinctive melancholy does sound through A Mirror to Machaut as a whole, even if the material is sometimes heavily modified with contemporary technique.19 August 2013
I've enjoyed a variety of albums by Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey in recent years, including many where at least two of them were involved, so I had to listen to Lark on Skirl Records. (I'm linking to their website even though the front page is an awful Shockwave thing.) Lark includes Ralph Alessi to form a quartet, apparently named with the musicians' initials (and I guess "lard" didn't seem as appealing). While minimalism has been an aspect of Davis's and Laubrock's leader projects, Lark combines both aspects of minimalism & traditional jazz forms, along with rock-like wailing, into a chamber music context (the norm for Davis). There is much less of the serial orientation or temporal reorganization found in some other projects by these musicians. Indeed, Lark seems to follow Alessi's orientation (such as with "This Against That"), and put some of these avant garde techniques into milder (although not always quieter) & more accessible formats. That's my main impression of the album: It's more accessible music using some of the ideas current in the New York jazz avant garde, more melodic, more repetitive rhythms, etc. Although some sections are very "busy," they do feature regular harmonic motifs & rhythms, so keep the listener oriented amid all the action. At other times there is less happening, and activity level can change suddenly, including within tracks. Some of the slower melodies are classic jazz style. There's no statement about composition or improvisation, although it certainly seems that some planning is involved, and perhaps some standards. (I'm a bit confused by this, because I would think the authorship would be noted if so, and none is.) It's pleasant enough, quite enjoyable at times (I particularly like the first five minutes), and could serve as a good introduction for more conservative listeners; I intend to give that a try with some friends.27 August 2013
The Italian quartet Scoolptures has a new double album on Leo Records, Please Drive-By Carefully, based on quips by the street artist Banksy. I would describe the quips themselves (and "quip" is already my word) as trite counter-culture wisdom (the title being a relatively short example). They don't seem to have a lot of depth, but then I guess a sentence rarely does. That said, I do respect the idea of street art, and it makes a good motivation for an album. (It was interesting to read tales of something painted in public, on a surface someone else owned, being given high dollar value worth, or being stolen, etc. The post-art spectacle of Banksy's fame and resulting reputation & collectable value for his work throws the economy of the 21st century into bizarre relief. This "performance" aspect of it, which happens via collectors & profiteers, is more compelling than the simple art, in my opinion. That said, I read about this elsewhere, not in the album.) The album itself has been quite enjoyable, one of the few recent albums with a goodly proportion of slow & mellow sections that I've enjoyed, so perhaps that's something of a special accomplishment already. The electronics tend to be subtle. The shakuhachi is also used to fine effect. Neither feels gimmicky. There are no specifics about how Banksy's material was used to create graphic scores, other than that statement, and no other description of approach. That differs from their previous two albums (including White Sickness), where psychological research & other methods are mentioned. Those two albums were recorded in the same session, but released separately, a year apart. In this case, we get two albums at once. I don't know if they're intended to be heard separately, but that's mostly what I've done. The second made the stronger first impression, but I've subsequently enjoyed the first also. This is often calm & usually sophisticated music that doesn't sound much like anything else overall, even as it sounds like a traditional jazz ensemble at times. It often has something of a conversational quality, certainly a chamber music quality, but with sounds mutating into other sounds, there isn't always a sense of stable individuals within a conversation. There are various counterpoints thrown off as (electronic) echoes, which might transform into something else; the pulse might be a heartbeat, and some other sounds might evoke different intra-individual orientations. It can be taken as an exploration of the self-other boundary in that sense, but is obviously difficult music to summarize. These albums also work well for getting annoying jingles or pop songs out of my head. (I go to public places, where it's common to be at the mercy of such things.) That's always welcome.6 September 2013
Mary Halvorson has a new septet album, Illusionary Sea, and I was very interested to hear it, since she's involved in so many projects I've enjoyed. Also, I've thought that her leader albums have shown distinct improvement, so that raised expectations. However, Illusionary Sea is an easier album, with broader popular music influence. The wide-ranging influences have an interest, in this case focusing more on American popular styles (from big band to rock & more) than on the more European/Middle Eastern-tinged Bending Bridges, although it opens with a similar coloring, and the popular styles lean toward the English invasion (which is perhaps the inspiration of the title). The arrangements for four horns over the rhythm trio have a great command, something that I hadn't thought was a strength with two horns on Saturn Sings, so that's an interesting development. The guitar holds things together well, so it's easy to tell whose album it is, but it's also very "classic jazz" in the way the ensemble fits together, not unsurprising moving to a septet, I suppose — the album almost fits better in the Criss Cross catalog, than on Firehouse 12 (although three of the last four albums on that label have been by Halvorson). The music was easy to follow from beginning to end on first hearing, and although pleasant (no walls of noise, for instance), I'm looking for something more challenging. I do hope Illusionary Sea does well with the public, though; there are economic realities involved for musicians.15 September 2013
In keeping with a recent trend of discussing trio albums with at least one member playing synth or electronics, a recent release on Empty Room Music is Apocalypso, featuring Walter Wright on synthesizers he developed himself, as well as younger improvisers Chris Welcome on guitar & Shayna Dulberger on bass. My favorite track is the short opening "Personoids," but there are a variety of compelling moments, with an interesting mix of sound. Overall, the structure is more traditional narrative and physically evocative — spooky, specifically — than some other albums I've featured. Wright, with whom I wasn't previously familiar, has had quite an interesting career: He was one of the first video animators in the 1970s, including an Emmy nomination (before the rest of the trio was born). Subsequently, among other things, he's developed his own music processing & producing equipment, and seems to have a strong engineering background. His work also has strong multimedia connections, particularly with visual art, and in fact, the group Apocalypso is conceived as a quartet with a dancer. (This partially explains the narrative form.) Welcome seems to have a preference for sparse Cage-ian forms, and even with the electronic manipulation, the music on Apocalypso is sparse at times. Dulberger appears to be more involved with jazz per se. (There are albums led by both Dulberger & Welcome in this set of Empty Room releases.) Although exploring some of the same ideas as e.g. Growing carrots in a concrete floor, Apocalypso doesn't try to take listeners so far out of their comfort zone, or move too far afield within individual tracks. Especially in its longer sections, it's more of an atmospheric soundscape.16 September 2013
This article might seem like more of a departure from the topic of "jazz" than even some of the previous digressions. That's probably true, but in an attempt to discuss the subject of familiarity, a topic I had set for myself here, and one clearly so crucial to any analysis of jazz or avant garde improvisation, a close examination of some more basic or fundamental relationships became necessary. So while this article might seem hopelessly broad, and indeed I expect to take up wide territories, the ideas will — both directly here and even more so via some later planned articles — lead back to specific discussion of music, hopefully in an interesting & penetrating way.
So what do I mean by the title words? I believe the word "rupture" is straightforward, with the basic dictionary definitions showing the idea adequately. I do not mean to limit it to any particular spatial dimension, whether that is conceptual or physical. However, the most basic geometric metaphor concerns a circle, cut in one place to form a line. A number of elementary things can happen at that point. We could orient this (finite) line vertically, label segments (or maybe they were already labeled), and create a simple image of hierarchy. (It could, among other things, branch into a tree, become arborescent as Deleuze & Guattari put it.) We could also argue about which end is on top, and which on the bottom, but neighboring segments would remain neighboring. We could (perhaps only conceptually) stretch one or both ends of the line to infinity, so that we can access (at least directly) at most one side of the original rupture. We can also begin to think of the line segment as having a thickness: We could create a fold somewhere else along the former circle, and lay one part of the line on top of the other. (Note that the two ends of the string need not align, need not be directly over each other, such that an observer on the string, looking across from one segment to the other, might be at a point of rupture, yet staring at a non-rupture, or vice versa.) We could create more folds, some vertical, some horizontal, pair them with vertical segments, etc. (We could, or do, sprout new lines from these rupture points or folds.) We can move to surfaces or volumes; such structures can become very complicated, as anyone who has done much origami knows. Note that, throughout these examples, rupture has not actually led to lack of "wholeness;" the result seems whole, contiguous, but requires a cut. Two cuts would be required to separate the circle into two pieces.
The word "hierarchy" is also a common English word, but here the original sense might be a little more obscure. The Latin origin of "rupture" simply means break, and the root can be found in other words, such as "interruption." "Hierarchy" is Greek, and forms from "archon" (ruler) are likewise found in many English words, both before & after other combining forms. In this case, the Greek hierarch is specifically the ruler over sacred or priestly matters. That the specifically sacred or religious form of power over others becomes the canonical representation for any ordered ranking (or perhaps tree) in English is broadly illustrative of the role Christianity had in shaping modern European thought, especially as a conduit for Greek philosophy. (The word comes into English via discussions of hierarchies of angels; see e.g. the OED.) Today a hierarchy need not be explicitly about embodied human power, although it can be, but can be conceptual: We order things in hierarchies: We order our concepts in hierarchies: Our set theory is hierarchical, sets within sets. We order biological creatures in hierarchies, and generally attempt to conceive of origins and splits. (We also make our computer file systems work this way.) We declare a sacred sense of order — and even a cursory knowledge of Christianity yields the origin point for any tree, and the top of every hierarchy: This is a form of thought firmly connected to monotheism.
I am not going to examine the topic closely at all, but do want to make a note about neurology: Whereas some parts of our nervous system could be said to have hierarchical or tree-like connections, the cortical centers of higher thinking involve multiple graph-like (or rhizome-like, per Deleuze & Guattari) connections horizontally, foldings, etc. This is my brief physiological sketch for why I do not believe that hierarchical concepts are inherent to human thinking, or at least not privileged in the mechanics of higher thought or creativity. One could also undertake more of a historical study of the development of the hierarchical concept through history, which I will likewise not do in any detail. The following will be a multi-pronged discussion of hierarchy & rupture, how they are the same (meaning, in what ways), and also how they articulate to each other in various different perspectives (or assemblages).
[ Read more.... ]26 September 2013
I somehow failed to notice Meteo among the Clean Feed releases in May. (I don't know how this happened, since it would have surely attracted my attention based on the multiple mentions of Scelsi in the description. Did it somehow not appear on their website at the time?) In any case, Meteo is a piano trio featuring Sophie Agnel with the English rhythm section of John Edwards & Steve Noble. It reminds me a bit of En corps, featuring Eve Risser on piano, both with an extended technique, but sticking with acoustic effects. Unfortunately, despite the Scelsi references, Meteo did not remind me much of his music (there seems to be no transformation of notes into other notes, for instance), and to the extent that it did, it was more the ostinato-heavy piano pieces, evoking the En corps comparison. There is extended technique on percussion & bass, but Meteo does not project a strong overall identity for me, despite some strong moments (and a sense of possibility). I rarely seem to be on the same wavelength with the English performers, despite their great popularity in free jazz circles. (I suppose I could speculate on socio-political reasons, but I do not have a real answer.)30 September 2013
I recently listened to Joëlle Léandre's tentet & trio double album, Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon, recorded in 2009 and released in early 2011. A natural question for myself is: Why didn't I listen to this album back in 2011? Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that question, leaving me only to speculate. One factor is that the first CD, the tentet, is composed music (a suite that takes up a broad range of styles sequentially), and that's not the focus here. The second CD, the (piano) trio, is improvised. Anyway, for some reason, I ignored this release, but I can now hear that it is one of the most significant in Léandre's discography. I will not dwell on the composition "Can you hear me?" here, except to say that it is clearly very significant for Léandre, and having been performed the night before the improvised trio, sets the stage for the strikingly original minimalist improvisation. In an attempt to answer for myself the question of why I ignored this release, I read more online reviews (after I heard it) than I have been doing recently, and found that while they all mention Feldman, which is an obvious reference here, and often Cage, mention of Scelsi was absent. That's interesting. (And why did I hear this album now? Restlessness or boredom, I guess.) What struck me most about the trio improvisation was the frequently Scelsi-an character of the bass playing. That is, first I was struck by the minimalism as expressed most obviously in the piano part, and that originally decreased my interest. However, out of this context, the bass part emerges as truly striking, and really the only recent music I can name that evokes for me the otherworldly & emergent sound of Scelsi's music. There's a quality to Scelsi's messages that has been difficult to capture, assuming anyone actually tries, but here Léandre manages a similar gravity. The trio is not merely derivative, however: Not only does Léandre's bass not truly mimic Scelsi, but rather takes up his message, the full trio provides a spatial & contrapuntal music that never truly appears in Scelsi's output, which tends to have a solo quality even when using a larger ensemble (unsurprising given that it mostly originates with Scelsi's solo improvisations). Here we have a polyphonic music with a Scelsi-an part voiced by the double bass, and the piano & percussion shifting the surrounding space. This seems to me, upon reflection, music that had to be created. Besides my basic wonder at not having sought this recording originally, I wonder where this style had been. It seems timeless, in the way that Scelsi's music usually seems timeless. My one criticism of the trio, compared to other priorities often discussed here, is that the roles of the players do not change — it's rather static in that regard, led by the bass and with the piano playing in its area, the percussion in another, and even a clear priority of players with the percussion coming last. Given the achievement of this creation, however, and the amazing flow of the music for its forty-seven minutes, this point isn't so much a criticism as an idea for the future. The music is already perfect as is.
This revelation naturally brings to mind other recent minimalist piano trios, such as the Meteo album I discussed in the previous entry. In that case, the Scelsi reference was explicit, but I did not get a sense of Scelsi from it. A more fruitful reference for comparison may be Feldman, however. The Feldman-esque content of Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon is immediately apparent (and pianist Tilbury is a Feldman interpreter), but the significant fact for me is that the music succeeds in placing various musical events and entries into multiple time streams. As I've discussed regarding Feldman, his late music can be seen as a sequence of miniatures, in variation, but with even sequential entries appearing in a different layer of time. (Feldman achieves this technically via time signatures.) So there is no consistent pulse from sequence to sequence, but rather a floating sense of suspended time — and within that suspension here, Léandre's bass can conjure the emergent & other-worldly quality of Scelsi's message. It's the combination that makes Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon what it is, and leaves it both tense & unhurried. These younger trios, projecting a pulse or forward energy (even if it ebbs & flows), generally appealing in its own way, don't have this timeless quality. So in that sense, I would say it's not only Léandre's voice (broadly speaking) that sets Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon apart, but also the improvisation's formal conception.
So now my foolishness in having ignored this very influential album has been corrected.14 October 2013
This is a rather blunt question, and so one task of this article will be to explore the nuance behind the question. Some readers might be critical of my decision to frame the title question in this manner, and some criticism might be warranted, but I decided to raise this question in this manner for a fairly simple reason: This was a question I specifically posed to myself, consciously around the beginning of 2012, but probably in a more vague sense, over a much longer period. My attempt to answer this question naturally raised more questions, particularly the closely related questions "What is postmodernism?" & "What is racism?" This article will attempt to answer those questions, although not in a comprehensive way. A comprehensive answer to either of those questions could fill a long volume by itself. The focus here will be on the nexus of the two, by which I mean that concepts of racism will be used to clarify postmodernism, and concepts of postmodernism will be used to clarify racism. Such an approach will necessarily be limited when it comes to seeing either of these phenomena by itself, so to speak, although it would also be impossible to discuss either subject in a vacuum, since neither can exist outside of a context. Formally then, this article will intertwine answers to those two subsidiary questions, step-wise reflecting on each other, and forming a shared context. Balancing such a form, moving between one question and the other, will be one challenge for the reader & writer. That balancing act will be complicated by the intense emotional associations of "racism" — rather out of balance with the generally abstract associations of "postmodernism." Perhaps some of the hidden emotional content of the postmodern can be illuminated by such a comparison, and perhaps the cultural-systemic suppression of race conversations can as well. The astute reader will no doubt recognize that, were I not to have at least some kind of "yes" answer for this question, I would not be writing this. The bluntness of the yes-no form will hopefully serve to focus the forthcoming discussion.
[ Read more.... ]16 October 2013
Having recently found Joëlle Léandre's not-so-recent Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon trio album so compelling, I decided to have a listen to some recent material featuring the other performers in the trio. Luckily for me, both have released albums this year.
Percussionist Kevin Norton (b.1956) did not make a huge impression in Léandre's trio, but simply his inclusion seemed like sufficient reason to seek out his work. I should clarify that statement, and perhaps clarify what I wrote a couple of weeks ago: It is probably more accurate to say that pianist John Tilbury comes "first" on the trio album, in that he sets the mood & space with Feldman-esque chords. Then Léandre's bass line forges the heart of the performance, the part that really keeps me engaged. Norton's contribution is more color after the fact, although he does have some notably interesting passages. That said, his trio album Live Tipple with Frode Gjerstad (b.1948) on reeds & David Watson (b.1960) on guitar (who tends to "come third" here) features Norton's playing much more substantially, even if Gjerstad is usually in the foreground also. Live Tipple is a very appealing, fully improvised trio album — in fact, it's a followup to this trio's earlier studio album, and Gjerstad's website suggests they'll release another album soon. So this is a group with some staying power. Norton's playing is compelling in a straightforward acoustic way throughout, as is Gjerstad's, both of them featuring interesting rhythmic twists & contrasts. The latter artist has a very substantial discography, and I cannot say as I have a real sense of it, but many of his releases of late seem to be of the "energy" type with Chicago musicians, although I see that he first came to prominence with English improvisers. This trio shows a lot of creativity without emphasizing climaxes or rock-like rhythms, so its different from what I've come to expect from some of the other performers with whom Gjerstad frequently plays. It's probably proof that all of these musicians are doing more than is immediately apparent. Live Tipple does make apparent that Norton is one of the most distinctive voices on percussion in the USA today, though.
In Tilbury's case, I listened to Exta a few times (although he has an even more recent duo album out, The Just Reproach), a trio album on Fataka with John Butcher (b.1954) & Thomas Lehn. Butcher, like Gjerstad, has an extensive discography, and is impressive on saxophone on Exta. I have heard Lehn (b.1958) on synthesizer on a few albums, previously only with other German performers. Perhaps ironically, here it is Tilbury (b.1936) who seems to "come third," with Butcher clearly in the forefront including frequent duos with Lehn, colored by sparse chords from Tilbury. It's an intriguing album, even if it didn't really speak to me — it's mostly slowly changing "atmospheric" material, interesting for its challenge to the nature of musical notes, a broad area with vast potential.30 October 2013
A recent recording to note, more or less in the "third stream" mode of composed-improvised chamber jazz, is Tusk by Sean Moran's Small Elephant Band. Moran plays exclusively acoustic guitar here, in a quintet including clarinet (Michael McGinnis), vibraphone (Chris Dingman), and with Reuben Radding & Harris Eisenstadt on rhythm. I hadn't previously heard of Moran, but was attracted to this lineup in part because, although he had been on several projects of interest to me previously, Radding seemed to have disappeared lately. (Or he's mainly concentrating on photography, I guess?) The guitar fits with the clarinet-vibraphone combo to yield similar sonorities to e.g. James Falzone's Klang, or an obvious classic like Out to Lunch. Many pieces also feature reversible lines & additive rhythms, giving an Eastern European tinged feel, not unlike guitarist Sebastian Noelle's Koan album (that I mentioned back in 2011). The reversible lines yield an in & out probing quality that pulls back or extends. There's also a bit of static night music, and a strong Spanish feel to one of the late guitar solos. It's an enjoyable & nicely produced album, even if it seems a bit cautious at times.11 November 2013
Before moving on to items for my "best of" list, there are a couple of other recent releases that I want to at least mention, both featuring Weasel Walter. Cryptocrystalline includes Peter Evans & Tom Blancarte, other musicians who have appeared in this space before, and is made into a quartet via Montreal-based pianist Charity Chan. Cryptocrystalline is a long & "busy" album, both typical for Walter. The last few times I listened to it, I started out enjoying it, and was glad it was over by the end — this seems like a strange dynamic to have repeated that way, although it's not an uncommon experience for me in single doses. I've come to the provisional conclusion that it's a matter of intimacy: The large & impersonal mechanism of the piano never seems to fade away, and if there are some internal manipulations happening, the frenetic pace of the performers prevents them from making an impression. It raises issues for me of technology, and even of disability, namely needing a complicated mechanical apparatus to express oneself, and the distance that results. These are interesting issues, and Walter's disc serves as something of an introduction to Chan, who I'll notice now. So it's certainly a success in those senses. I note that, in conjunction with this release, Walter also states online that the performers don't make a show of listening to each other, because of course they're listening. I think this is a worthwhile point (evoking multitasking), but again leads me back to the intimacy difference between the instruments they use.
While Cryptocrystalline is on Walter's own label, Dragonfly Breath is on the Polish Not Two label. Dragonfly Breath is also from an improvising quartet, including the ubiquitous Steve Swell & the somewhat underrecorded C. Spencer Yeh, and apparently featuring Paul Flaherty on saxophone. I had not heard of Flaherty prior to this, but he's not (apparently) a young (or new) performer, and he presents something of a tour-de-force of free jazz blowing. (I should also admit that, for unclear reasons, the liner notes touting the specialness of the New England free jazz scene rub me the wrong way. I didn't read them until after listening, but I do wonder if they prejudice me.) This is an interesting lineup, if a fairly conventional conception, and worth hearing.18 November 2013
I've recently added a few new releases to my favorites here, as the list of notable releases for 2013 starts to take more concrete shape, and so it's time to work my way through discussing them.
With my earlier enjoyment of Growing carrots in a concrete floor, I had the opportunity to survey some of the music originating with Wade Matthews, and on the Aural Terrains label. Although I didn't choose to highlight anything else here at that time, it was not long until the next Aural Terrains release, this one headlined on electronics by Thanos Chrysakis, the originator of the label, and a regular Matthews collaborator. Matthews is listed as the recording engineer for Zafiros en el barro (Spanish for "Sapphires in the mud"), but is not part of the quartet of musicians. The album consists of both wide-ranging material, especially in the wide variety of instruments used in the different tracks, as well as an exceptional focus. The latter is felt in the polished results coming from this quartet, most of whom have played together frequently (with the exception of Ken Slaven), and the sense that the differing instrumentation was not selected as a matter of exploration (which could be appealing also), but rather with very specific results in mind. There is a sophistication & precision here that belies both its origin as a group improvisation, and especially the very nonstandard character of the musical materials themselves. As an attempt to rethink Western music, the ways musical instances (notes) are constructed & combined, if indeed that's consciously what it is, Zafiros en el barro is extremely successful. The entire production comes off naturally, from the various individual tracks to the way they form an album. Classical style has never seemed so remote (even if its 20th century sounds return at some moments), while also maintaining a similar locus of activity. Regarding the title, it doesn't make much sense to me unless we guess that a far larger volume of recorded material was distilled into what appears on Zafiros en el barro — I have no idea if this is the case or not. As is, there's really no "mud" in evidence.
Moving to yet another electroacoustic improvisatory album, this one a trio, The Apophonics consists of the prolific English improvisers John Butcher & John Edwards together with Bay Area percussionist (or "energized surfaces" player) Gino Robair. Although I've commented on a lack of affinity for some of the English productions, including recently, Butcher's explorations of sound have had an appeal, including last month with Exta. His discography is quite large, so while I cannot pretend to have surveyed it in more than a very sketchy manner, I can still highlight the very interesting interactions between Butcher & Robair. They have released at least duo albums in the past, including the similarly named Apophenia, but here they've formed a trio with bassist Edwards for the album On Air (recorded originally for a BBC broadcast). In retrospect, an affinity with Butcher among the English reed players probably makes sense, given his background in physics (and my own), but it took some time to get more perspective on that scene. Together with Robair's exploration of resonant objects, Butcher's exploration of spatial resonance creates a probing album that also has a finished quality. (A note about Robair's choice to describe his instrument as energized surfaces, which is a term I enjoy in a variety of ways: In some ways, though, it's not so much surfaces which draw his focus, but rather edges and other interfaces or boundaries. I should probably also mention Robair's recent solo album on the Bug Incision label, since his discography is not very large, particularly as compared to the other two.) If we are to take the name of the trio literally, apophonic suggests that the choices made by the musicians are not related to each other, but that the listening mind projects some kind of subsequent relationship. There's a sense of simplicity to these interactions, with some fairly straightforward, although novel, independent processes going on simultaneously. The idea that any correspondence is imaginary is a bit hard to believe, but the result is a very original album that, like Zafiros en el barro, has enough focus not to overwhelm with its novelty. Despite the emphasis on physical exploration, sections where e.g. the saxophone sounds like a small animal are among the most engaging, giving On Air a distinct biological dimension as well.
These two albums come off as two of the most rigorous, yet open-ended, developments in free free improvisation — by which I mean that there's no preexisting limit to what constitutes an instrument or material. (I prefer such a more inclusive label to something like ea- or lowercase, which imply more particular orientations. Whether anyone else approves, I cannot say.)26 November 2013
Although I had had experience with most of the musicians from the previous entry before, the Live in Madrid album by the quartet Grid Mesh presented a different circumstance, and I spent some time tracking down related material to help put this amazing album into context. (Live in Madrid also forms something of a Madrid theme for the week, since Zafiros en el barro was also recorded there.) Although there is probably no good reason that I always list an individual musician in the headings for album pages here, it often makes some amount of sense, since one person prompted the recording. In this case, that procedure is particularly one-sided, since Grid Mesh formed around the duo of Frank Paul Schubert (b.1965) on saxophone & Andreas Willers (b.1957) on electric guitar (although Willers is listed as producer, together with Leo Feigin, which often informs my choices). Live in Madrid is their third album, but the first including Willi Kellers (b.1951) on drums & Johannes Bauer (b.1954) on trombone; the first two albums were trios with percussionist Rudi Fischerlehner. Indeed despite the impressive technique from Willers & Schubert already in evidence, the shorter, evocatively titled tracks on their 2010 album Coordinates provide little hint of the extended tapestry to come with Live in Madrid. (I was intrigued by the latter on the Leo Records site, for unclear reasons, since the description is so sparse, but I guess mainly because I was unfamiliar with all of the performers, and possibly because of the Madrid connection. I only sought out the former afterward.) I was unable to determine to what the "grid mesh" label refers, but I wonder if it is an organizational concept for the improvising. For instance, Henry Threadgill's recent work (although including more specific elements of composition) allocates particular interval combinations to particular instruments. This helps the individual musicians to carve out their own space within the ensemble, and something vaguely similar seems to be happening with Grid Mesh. In this case, however, if there is a structure, it is not as straightforward as allocating intervals, because the different performers are able to generate their own harmonic context as well, making for a polyphony not of individual lines but of more fleshed out musical ideas (including timbre, rhythm, etc.). While at times one might imagine the apophonic label from the previous entry applying, there are also points where they come together in something of a stretto. This combination of independence & coming together is impressive, and sounds studied — in any case, it creates a 21st century style of polyphony. The sense of 21st century style also permeates the material, in that it alludes to a wide variety of genres, including the occasional rock riff on guitar, for instance. The latter illustrates the difference in the grid mesh concept from some other recent albums incorporating rock & a wide range of styles, in that the riffs aren't structural, but rather seem like accents, harmonic implications and all. Also worth noting specifically is Schubert's technique on the soprano, which is both personal and conventional enough to impress anyone with his command of the instrument. No player dominates the interplay on Live in Madrid, and the word "tapestry" comes to mind again to describe the result, which made a strong impression on me. This is a live free improvising session that takes in an enormous amount of territory, yet retains an almost eerie coherence. If anything qualifies for the label "postmodern fugue" (if that's a good thing), then this is it.
Another item that bears mentioning in conjunction with Grid Mesh is Nulli Secundus, Willers' trio album on Creative Sources with Meinrad Kneer (part of the very impressive trio album featuring Jon Rose, Colophony, discussed here in August) & Christian Marien. Nulli Secundus was actually recorded a year after Live in Madrid, although it was released last year; the individual tracks focus on different sound ideas, particularly contrasts in string manipulation between the guitar & bass, and percussive attacks. It's an interesting exploration, and further illustration of Willers' range of technique on guitar.27 November 2013
To favorite recordings list.
More to come!© 2010-13 Todd M. McComb