Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

It's time, once again, to roll over this page, and so to write a new introduction. Please continue to consult the previous set of entries, particularly as introducing a break in this way is arbitrary. (I simply don't want this page to become absurdly long.) There will be a great deal of continuity with previous entries, some of which are from earlier this month.

Please scroll to the bottom of this page to see the newest entries. Although the "break" with the previous series is basically arbitrary, I do want to present the text in written order. I know that some people prefer to see new entries at the beginning, and can appreciate the convenience, but also think that it suggests a sort of "atomization" of entries. (In other words, they might come to seem more independent than they are.) Likewise, I've considered writing some more "modern" code to facilitate reader choice here, whether concerning the order, a specific search feature, or displaying only some entries according to topical tags. At one point, I had such a system sketched & even sat down to write it, but reconsidered according to my atomization concerns. Anyway, that's my current thinking on this issue.

Similarly, although some entries are & will be straightforward, the topic generally concerns complex music, if only complex conceptually, and so I don't believe that I'm making undue demands on the reader by writing (often) in a complicated style. Although it's usually a specific recording (or two) that prompts an entry, I freely mix remarks on other albums. Such an orientation reflects the relational quality of music in general, and contemporary improvisation in particular. I've also articulated some rather idiosyncratic ideas about the music, and I don't apologize for that, since I'm taking a "searching" approach here, but I do apologize for factual errors. For better or worse, my focus here is on articulating thoughts in response to auditory experience, rather than on asking questions of people who might know. In other words, I often have nothing more to go on here than listening to a recording, same as anyone else, and sometimes I get confused. So be it, and I'll correct if needed. I want to take a quasi-improvisational approach, and better confused than tentative. Despite the occasional issue, this approach seems to be working.

There's also the basic issue of what (albums) to write about, how I end up hearing (about) something, and what I choose to say. In particular, learning of new items of interest is often complicated by learning someone else's impressions of them, usually in a review. I'd prefer not to be "contaminated" with other thinking, at least not prior to listening, but the basic reality is that reviews are an important source of information — especially about the existence of a release. (When musicians whose work I've enjoyed send me their new albums, that does solve this problem.) Mostly I will write about albums I enjoy. Sometimes that enjoyment will lead to considering something to be a favorite, and the reader can consult my favorites list, arranged by year. Sometimes my enjoyment fades quickly, or doesn't conform to priorities here, but the experience is still worth noting. This seems like a very normal outcome for improvised music, which is only new once, and probably describes the majority of entries. Nonetheless, I do prioritize albums that reward repeat listening. I do also make some negative remarks, but try to keep those to a minimum. (Sometimes it seems necessary by way of clarifying something else.) I hope that being mentioned here will generally be received in complimentary terms, and perhaps it goes without saying, but I don't write anything about most of what I happen to hear: I need to feel as though I have something to say. I'll leave it to context (and previous introductions) to clarify what sort(s) of music I enjoy, though, which might evolve anyway.

Finally, if this introduction isn't already too self-indulgent — just look at all the first person singular! — I've recently finished Basic mechanics of modernity, which is something of an introduction to & summary of some of my more extended theoretical work to this point. I hope that it will be intelligible without reading my previous, much longer articles, although perhaps some readers will want to read those too. (Other writing is linked from Basic Mechanics, or from older entries here.) Together, those articles provide more context than readers could possibly want for my approach in this space.

Thank you for your continuing interest. At a minimum, I expect to have some different things to say here — different from what appears elsewhere, that is. Hopefully some of these thoughts will even be worthwhile.

Todd McComb <>
22 April 2017

It was only a couple of months ago that I discussed the Daniel Levin Quartet's Live at Firehouse 12 here, and that album was the first with Mat Maneri replacing Nate Wooley. It's unclear (at least to me) how long Maneri has been playing with Levin, although some liner notes do allude to it, but the two had already released a duo album, The Transcendent Function (also on Clean Feed). Now they've released a trio album, on which they're joined by Tony Malaby, New Artifacts. The latter was actually recorded prior to Live at Firehouse 12, but after The Transcendent Function. Unlike those previous releases, which include compositions by Levin, New Artifacts is entirely improvised, however. I actually listened to Malaby quite a bit in the early days of this project, especially when I first noticed Clean Feed (on which he so frequently appears) in Spring of 2011. I heard him with Tom Rainey & Kris Davis in particular, including Davis's nonet arrangements of his music on Novela. Since then, I guess his albums haven't quite spoken to me, although I did discuss his leader album Scorpion Eater (with tuba & cello) in December 2014, as well as his participation on Nick Fraser's Too Many Continents in August 2015. Whether those albums resonated with me or not, Malaby's insertion into the Maneri-Levin duo seems perfect, lending a new layer of texture & melody to the music. Indeed, his inclusion reminds me a bit of adding piano to Gjerstad & Conde on Give and Take, an instrument from a different family inserted between a pair of similar instruments, and providing something of a pivot. In that case, the two horns generally retain the foreground, but on New Artifacts, in something of an inversion, it's the existing string duo that sometimes feels more like accompaniment. Beyond that, there's a great sense of simultaneity with Malaby in the middle, and the strings often ramp up their own intensity in response to his interventions — even when he's taking a break. Sometimes they even seem to reflect a horn sound themselves, although Malaby does bring the full resources of his horns (apparently both tenor & soprano) to bear, and can dominate sonically when he wants. (And all three of these musicians typically take the front line in more traditionally configured ensembles, not so unlike those on World of Objects, and can do so here.) Given the ensemble of two members of the violin family & horn, not to mention the microtonal orientation, Baloni seems like a natural comparison (albeit there with bass instead of cello, and more often clarinet over saxophone). Their sounds are very different, though, as the trio on New Artifacts doesn't project the same eerie, disorienting mood. Their microtonality is friendlier somehow (not so much infra-chromatic as detailed tuning), although not lacking in aggressiveness, and does reward close attention. Marty Ehrlich suggests in the liner notes that the trio is rich in gesture, with a lyrical ethos based in vocal forms, i.e. that the human voice is basically being translated to instruments. Given the extended technique, the latter is literally untrue, but I do appreciate the lyricism of this trio & their frequently beautiful tone. The third track is the "slow movement," but the first two in particular can be quite energetic, including even piercing tones & percussive accents. Although the trio often project a sort of late romantic chromaticism, they embrace dodecaphony at other times, and take a sophisticated approach to microtonality (as implied, perhaps, by the final track's title, "Joe"). Consequently, this was an album that I enjoyed right away, and am continuing to enjoy.

After a bit of a pause, Levin has been releasing albums quickly again, including another improvised trio, Spinning Jenny on Trost (for which the recording date isn't given). There he's with Chris Corsano & Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who have prior relationships with the Austrian label. The album starts strong, with a jazzy bass & big percussion, and Levin basically taking the front line. It's very energetic, perhaps with a "rock" energy at times, but also features tracks of slow staticky sounds & creaking, with Corsano typically entering to modulate the mood. Sometimes the strings seem to form one instrument, but at other times, there are more traditional roles. It took me a little longer to warm up to this album, which sometimes doesn't have a lot of foreground, but it's worth hearing. Trios with two instruments from the violin family seem to be increasingly popular (or at least I like them), and so Spinning Jenny might also be compared to e.g. the Judson Trio's An Air of Unreality, as featuring Mat Maneri (per above) with Joëlle Léandre & Gerald Cleaver (and which, being only on LP, I have not heard). Likewise one can compare to Environ (discussed here earlier this month), although there the strings are viola & bass (as on An Air of Unreality), rather than cello & bass (or viola & cello). Environ often takes a similarly layered, role-based approach to ensemble interaction, but it involves even more in the way of extended technique. I hope to be able to continue hearing Levin in more & different improvisatory settings.

23 April 2017

When it comes to using electronics in improvisation (or as part of a compositional basis for improvising, à la Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Music), I've basically taken the attitude that if the result is engaging, I'll engage with it. I admit to something of a soft spot for acoustic albums, though, particularly as musicians develop some of the physical techniques for broadening their timbral pallets to include sonorities derived from electronic music. Of course, considering that I so often interact with music via recordings, there is usually some element of "electronics" already involved anyway in what I actually hear. That said, I'm still emphasizing the element of spontaneous group interaction, rather than some fully rendered composition or process. Within this "improvising with electronics" idiom, Thanos Chrysakis had already stood out to me for his sense of line & form, basically the way that he sculpts sounds & brings them to one's attention within a broad tapestry. This is true, once again, on Skiagraphía, a new improvising quartet release on Creative Sources, and a collaboration with Ernesto Rodrigues (with whom Chrysakis had collaborated most recently on Exaíphnes, a tightly conceived & brightly colored album, first discussed here in September 2015) & Kurt Liedwart of Moscow. Filling out the quartet is Nuno Torres (alto), who has appeared on many similar projects with Rodrigues, including the rather comparable Primary Envelopment, with Wade Matthews on electronics. The latter was recorded in the first half of 2014 (discussed here in March 2015), and features an especially wide pitch canvas, from growling to piercing tones, amid which the listener often finds themselves surrounded. Although it includes a range of pitches, including timbres from helicopters & foghorns (metaphorically speaking) to whistling teapots, Skiagraphía proceeds more from the middle (i.e. human ranges), and shows Chrysakis's talent for rendering "strange" sounds into a coherent foreground presence. In that quality, it's rather similar to Carved Water, recorded later in 2014 (and discussed here this past January): Although the latter album has a different emphasis, particularly around wind articulation, and a resulting liveliness, it features a remarkably similar ensemble of two electronics artists (including Chrysakis) with viola & saxophone. It's an earlier recording, though, with Skiagraphía originating in Moscow only this past June. I had heard Kurt Liedwart (b.1977) in a couple of albums previously, including with AMM legend Keith Rowe, but they hadn't really spoken to me: In particular, his work often seems to remain rather atmospheric, exploring the edge of audibility & articulation. That isn't the case with Chrysakis involved, and following on the "sound installation" concerns of Carved Water, Skiagraphía ("silhouette") can really capture one's attention, sometimes with urgency. Although it's a short album, I've found it to be consistently potent, with a strongly interactive dynamic across a range of timbral combinations, as explored by these experienced improvisers. There is a sonic richness that is never overwhelming, yet is also difficult to qualify amidst many shifting resonances: It makes for a satisfying haunting (or interrogation of haunting), somehow.

Rodrigues had actually recorded with Liedwart earlier last year in Lisbon, in a quartet with Ilia Belorukov (prepared alto sax, from St. Petersburg) & Abdul Moimême (a frequent Rodrigues collaborator, on guitar). Skiagraphía can thus be regarded as something of a followup to their album, Kletka ("cell"). I had likewise heard Belorukov with Liedwart (here on "ppooll" electronics system) & Rowe, and both his & Moimême's contributions do add a distinctive quality. As with many Creative Sources albums, Kletka is generally quiet however, making for a broad & often desolate landscape punctuated by big growls & roaming whistles, building only to a fully dynamic presence in the last few minutes. I do (especially) value that conclusion, but most of the album involves the sort of "straining to hear" dynamic that I don't necessarily enjoy. That said, perhaps the most stimulating earlier interactions for the quartet are when the (assisted) wind resonance seems to engulf or infuse the strings — not so unlike on Nashaz, although the latter has a very different (more human-oriented) feel most of the time. Both Liedwart & Belorukov display strong personal aesthetics on Kletka, though — beyond the general environmental landscape form in which Rodrigues works so often.

24 April 2017

Another recent Creative Sources release, this time without Rodrigues or his regular collaborators, is Conference of Analogies by the Eckard Vossas 4, recorded at The Loft (Köln) in April 2014. I was totally unfamiliar with Vossas, who plays a variety of synths & keyboard-like electronics, prior to this, but most of the quartet he has assembled is very well-known. I had heard trumpet player Brad Henkel only on a few Prom Night (out of Brooklyn) releases a few years ago, but both Scott Fields & Simon Nabatov have extensive discographies, including many as leaders. I've mostly heard Fields performing his own elaborate compositions, sometimes with large ensembles, and his sphinx-like approach does appear to be integral to the many bizarre sequences on Conference of Analogies. In the case of Nabatov, I've been awed by his ability to erupt with massive waves of improvised counterpoint, but also wondered how such technical prowess could be balanced against a varied ensemble. Here the answer is via electronics, and indeed the piano is able to move in & out of the texture within what is generally a rather strange combination — three chordal instruments & a trumpet. Conference of Analogies is a very long album, and it's only the second track (of four) that is said to be composed by Vossas; it features a kind of spacey synth & extensive (although frankly not very engaging) trumpet solos. The other tracks are more convoluted, with the opener alone lasting over thirty minutes, and incorporating a wide variety of references (which largely remain abstract) & interactions. The improvised tracks go in many directions, invoking many analogies one might say, and it would be difficult to characterize them as forming a coherent whole: A wealth of ideas is on display, though, from classical dodecaphony to fragmented rock guitar to various crackling & twittering & pitch bending. The idiosyncratic sense of movement & transition does continue to remind me of Fields elsewhere, though, and so I wonder if Vossas specifically studied with him. In any case, if this is a debut, & even if it isn't, Vossas seems to be full of ideas. I'm interested to hear more.

25 April 2017

En corps, by the (classic) piano trio configuration of Eve Risser & Benjamin Duboc & Edward Perraud attracted a good deal of enthusiastic attention elsewhere, as has their recent followup album, Generation (recorded in Austria in March 2016). I discussed, briefly & belatedly in January of 2013, how En corps (an almost 5-year-old release now — amazing how time flies in this space!) didn't really speak to me, and I have a similar reaction to Generation: I thought that it might be worth making a few further remarks, however, regarding why. I remarked, basically, on the insistent ostinato of En corps, and Generation continues in a similar vein: It starts slowly, with a confident air of mystery regarding what's about to unfold, and with a variety of timbral figures invoking the full range of twenty-first century piano trio technique, then builds, assembling these figures into a powerful wave of momentum (that eventually fades). The opening track is quite an extensive tapestry in this sense, and makes little use of standard genre clichés, so I can understand why people find it exciting: It's not a collage, world music-derived or otherwise. (The title presumably refers to the act of generating a large-scale piece from tiny figures — and perhaps to biological filiation as well, given the label & graphics.) I tend to find its ongoing insistence on a single main pulse, its gathering together so to speak, to be relentless & even exhausting or oppressive, though. (By way of comparison, e.g. Feldman's late work has a similar early sense of "musical figure" but remains resolutely multi-pulsed & non-climactic.) I guess the idea is to nullify temporal differences & come together as one... so an example of the "convergence" (which one begins to feel distinctly by the short pause/reset about ten minutes into the first track) or groove genre. The second track — now titled about souls, rather than bodies — comes to include some explicitly jazzy figures after a stormy beginning & so has more of a jazz sense of ostinato, but once again settles into an insistent primary pulse. Comparing recent explorations of musical continuity, I actually found both Boule-spiele (with its extended articulation of dissonance per se) & Lignes De Crêtes (with its strange sense of musical material for development) to be more engaging & thought provoking. There is an intensity to Generation, though, one I guess I identify as somewhat oppressive & single-minded, that makes an impression, and there's no questioning the talent involved in creating such a "non-idiomatic" (albeit eventually rather tonal) yet seemingly inexorable flow of increasingly insistent musical figures. Admittedly, there's a potency to the result.

30 April 2017

I should probably also mention that the Dominic Lash Quartet included Solage's "Fumeux fume" on their second album, Extremophile (recorded in Bristol in August 2016), also featuring Alex Ward. It's a fairly straightforward, rumbling arrangement, yet nonetheless comes off as weirdly tonal with its non-medieval tuning. The surreal mood of this & many Ars Subtilior pieces, building on the late work of Machaut (as in e.g. Samuel Blaser's A Mirror to Machaut) seems well-suited to a jazz interpretation, although this strangely matter-of-fact rendition doesn't dwell in the dreamy mood that's so often associated with this piece. (Here's a brief discussion of why most medievalists don't believe it's about smoking drugs, though.) The album also concludes with a Cecil Taylor cover, after compositions by Lash that often take a jazzy head-solo-head form but include some other combos as well, from slow-moving resonances to straightforward interwoven horn lines. There's a rugged simplicity at times, energetic rock guitar at others. I don't know how widely available Iluso Records is, but Extremophile could have fairly broad appeal (relatively speaking, that is).

1 May 2017

Chant might be the most prominent example here, in that case augmented by marimba, but improvising ensembles of instruments from the violin family seem to be something of a general trend. (Perhaps they were also a trend at another time? I haven't noticed that in historical listings, at least not in the same way as e.g. the saxophone quartet, but rarely is something like this really new.) That's especially true of productions from Portugal (think also of e.g. Meia catorze by Basso 3), and at least in part because Ernesto Rodrigues is a viola player himself, Creative Sources has been releasing multiple items in this basic genre (including duos, but also in the trio & quartet configurations that I tend to favor): Xenon (recorded in Lisbon this past February), subtitled "String Theory," is just such an album, with three tracks by Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues on viola & cello, Miguel Mira also on cello — with Miguel Almeida augmenting the string trio (not so unlike Pedro Carneiro does the string quartet on Chant) on classical guitar. It's probably worth situating this album a bit: Xenon apparently follows another recent Creative Sources release subtitled "String Theory," Gravity, by an ensemble of seventeen musicians (but all strings of various sorts). That seems rather different to me, but both are acoustic ensembles. Another recent example from Rodrigues is Iridium (discussed here last May), by another string quartet of Rodrigues & Rodrigues, this time with Mira on bass instead of cello & a violinist instead of a guitarist. Iridium is a rather smoothly flowing album, featuring a unified sense of gesture in each of its two tracks, whereas Xenon (also a chemical element) includes a wider range of timbres & dynamics, mixing bowing & plucking into various sorts of string resonances, from harmonics to deep rumblings. Such an ensemble obviously has at least partly a classical inspiration, as did Chant, but also eschews the highest & lowest ranges in order to focus on the middle voices of alto & tenor. Whereas using bass in a string ensemble is a more contemporary innovation, of course the violin & its bright tone (times two!) have been a fixture. (Extremes are a typically contemporary concern, generally, though.) Here the lines are closer, & although extremes can be reached via harmonics or percussive accents, intricate crossing voices seem to be a major feature: Indeed, this reminds me of e.g. Ars Subtilior songs (often for countertenor & two tenors) & some other medieval repertories conceived prior to clearly distinct pitch ranges becoming standardized in the early modern period. (Note that recent favorite New Artifacts also concerns itself with similar ranges, most of the time, albeit there with the timbral contrast of a horn available. And it's much more "lyrical" than the rather diffuse Xenon.) With the plucking, the guitar can be integrated into the ensemble in a variety of ways, although it generally has the brightest attack. There's a delicacy, though, and an emphasis on the edges of audibility, as is so often the case with Rodrigues, making for a rather subdued album, even as it does draw the ear (at least when it's not so quiet, which it is to end track #1) with its complex string timbres. There is a lot of detail that rewards close listening, even if it doesn't yet forge a distinct (or at least a non-quiet) musical statement, and so I am looking forward to hearing more releases of small improvising string ensembles from Rodrigues. There is a lot of latent potential in this genre.

I don't have to wait long to discuss another release, though, as the string trio Incidental Projections (recorded at CreativeFest #10 last November) appeared at the same time. It also features a viola & two cellos, this time with Rodrigues & Mira joined by Fred Lonberg-Holm (there presumably because of his duo album The Pineapple Circumstances with guitarist Luis Lopes, released last year). Incidental Projections consists of a single track (and not an especially long one at 25 minutes), and has something of a different orientation, despite similarly applicable comments about middle voices & mixing acoustic timbres of bowing & plucking: It has a lot more presence, making it a bit more of a mainstream essay (not so unlike favorite New Dynamics in its style of interaction, albeit there with more richness of articulation). Perhaps this is also why the cover design is a little different for Creative Sources (although still credited to Carlos Santos). In any case, similar ensemble concerns are evident, despite that it has perhaps a hint of "rock" energy, particularly in its strong ending, & amid its fully audible & quickly alternating style. (The timbral variety isn't quite as rich as the Brand-Rupp string duo on last year's Shadowscores, though, which I mention because they have a new trio album with Rodrigues, Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris, which I just missed in this batch, but will hear in the next month or so. These string albums are coming fast.) Since Incidental Projections was recorded prior to Xenon, it might have provided part of the inspiration for another viola-double cello ensemble, but Rodrigues makes so much music, it's hard to say. It does seem like a more spontaneous performance.

Not on Creative Sources, but again featuring Mira on cello, is House Full of Colors (recorded September 2015 in Coimbra) on JACC Records. The ensemble, called Staub Quartet, is another "augmented string trio," with Marcelo dos Reis (who may have initiated the project) on acoustic guitar. Besides Mira, who — in addition to the above — has appeared on such "classical"-style favorites as Earnear, as well as e.g. in the more jazzy Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio, Staub Quartet includes Carlos "Zingaro" on violin & Hernani Faustino on bass. Zingaro is of course something of a legend, participating on Chant, as well as on earlier favorites such as Live at Total Meeting (with two "horns" & percussion, yielding more differentiated colors than these string albums). Faustino is known for a more specifically jazzy style in such ensembles as Red Trio (also with Rodrigo Pinheiro of Earnear), and it shows here: There is often a fairly typical jazz bass, brighter tones from the strings in general, and a more mainstream-oriented sound around ostinato, tremolo, extended tonality, etc. (Such brightness is enhanced, as opposed to the orientation of the previous items in this entry, by eschewing viola & its "middle" emphasis.) House Full of Colors retains something of a "classical" orientation at times, though, via its exploration of harmonic regions & noisy chromaticism, and so has something more in common with Chant than previous items. (It can be heard on the JACC Records Bandcamp site.) Of course, Marcelo dos Reis is part of Open Field String Trio, along with João Camões, and something of a "Spanish" guitar sets the initial tone for House Full of Colors, giving it a bit of a subtle "world music" vibe (not so unlike a Mary Halvorson Quintet album), while also seeming to traverse regions of film noir, etc. I enjoy the ensemble combinations, which sometimes feature soloist & accompaniment, as in a typical jazz performance (or, for that matter, as it's done here, in a typical classical period string quartet), even if the material itself is a little less adventurous. Particularly with its overlapping set of musicians, House Full of Colors provides yet another glimpse into the dynamics of the improvising string "dynasty" developing in Portugal. I don't know how widely it will be distributed, but it could bring more of an audience to this format.

2 May 2017

A new trio album from Evan Parker, PEN with John Edwards & Steve Noble, has already been attracting attention. PEN, recorded in Antwerp in January 2015, is (apparently) the fourth release on the Belgian Dropa Disc label: It's a quality production, with very nicely defined sound, and heavy-smooth paper packaging that feels sturdy without plastic (although I don't know about the coating). Parker has enjoyed a distinguished career, and has many fans, so I can't claim any special expertise on his output: Many people have followed him a lot more closely, and for a lot longer, than I have, but I've heard him in a variety of projects at this point. Most recently, that was on another trio album, As the wind (discussed here in November), featuring an unusual & creative combination of metal & stone percussionists. (Among my favorites, he's on World of Objects, a differentiated horn trio, and so another unusual ensemble.) I've also heard Edwards in a variety of projects, and he already stands out for me among English bassists. I can't say the same, really, for Noble, although I've heard him with Edwards before: I enjoy e.g. the sort of "clip clop" (almost a horse in special effects) percussion he adds in one sequence on PEN, for instance, but I doubt I could differentiate him stylistically from a handful of other English drummers. In any case, PEN is a rather standard improvised sax trio across two medium-length tracks (39' in total), and highlights Parker through much of its length. It begins with a dynamic & active rhythm team, and they do (especially Edwards) have their own solos, but much of the album features Parker navigating over roiling accompaniment, usually maintaining continuity through slowly morphing figures. The first track climaxes in an extended circular romp, for instance, where Parker's command of line & tone are to the fore. So it's a fairly "normal" sax trio album, featuring top notch performers (& sound), and several fine moments to enjoy. It was good to hear Parker in an updated, straightforward improvisation like this.

As emphasizing "normality" above might have suggested, an album like PEN gives me an opportunity not only to hear one of the giants of free music in a straightforward featured setting, but to do a little self-auditing of how & why I enjoy certain albums. (I do a lot of self-auditing, as I imagine readers notice here, and hopefully it's worth reading. I know it's necessary for me, at least, and much of it is never written.) So I wanted, specifically, to revisit sax trios from my current "favorites." A brief, summary takeaway has been that I'm not particularly wedded to a bass joining the sax, and that I probably want something striking or original from the percussion. Indeed, there are only a couple of "true" sax trios on the list: The most obvious comparison to PEN is The Apophonics On Air, since it also features Edwards with an English saxophonist. Although some sequences employ a fairly typical free sax trio configuration, the album is striking for its exploration of resonance, not only via John Butcher's horn, but via Gino Robair's rubbed surfaces, etc. The trio can produce quite a growling, shimmering racket of confusing whistles & extended sounds. There are some solos, but the textural variety amid aligning resonances stands out. Perhaps more typical of the configuration is Beyond Quantum, featuring three distinguished performers with extensive histories in American jazz per se. Anthony Braxton exhibits a similar emphasis there, i.e. continuity in the top line (which is rather tuneful at times, despite its high energy) over roiling accompaniment, as does Parker on PEN, but it's Milford Graves' wonderfully inventive percussion that drives this (relatively dated) performance for me — with William Parker adding variety via extensive vocalizations (I think) on track #2, and a switch to a reed himself on track #5. Beyond Quantum is a classic. It appears I often favor electric guitar over bass, though: Pool School has been a long-time favorite, with drummer Tom Rainey as the leader providing a strong multi-pulsed presence & Mary Halvorson's varied guitar attacks often at the center of the action, with Ingrid Laubrock's sax coming in & out of the texture to yield a tautly creative & egalitarian atmosphere: The result insistently seeks new textural forms. Similarly, Live Tipple features a wide variety of spacious textural interplay, down to eerie whispers amid a quietly egalitarian vibe including, well, literally vibes from Kevin Norton. Frode Gjerstad (who sometimes switches to clarinet) creates a dynamic sense of emergence, of something from nothing, amid an often (although certainly not always) sparse & subtly electric atmosphere from David Watson on guitar. Moving farther afield, electric guitar & electronics more generally are to the fore on Tesla Coils, but a strong polyphonic foundation from Harvey Valdes, and house of mirrors-type manipulations by Gian Luigi Diana still serve to project the subtly varied (yet so often lyrical, discursive) articulations of Blaise Siwula's main sax line — making for a sort of "alternate" (electronic, distorted), yet recognizable, sax trio idiom. Another (double) album where there's no question of the lead role for the horn, despite a creative sense of ensemble & accompaniment otherwise, is Conversations by Roscoe Mitchell: This is a very long set, but Mitchell varies his articulation in so many ways that the result is a (somewhat exhausting) tour de force of sax interaction. Mitchell also employs the flute, so Conversations is not quite a sax trio, but features inspired drumming by (the otherwise unknown to me) Kikanju Baku, with Craig Taborn including some electronics (along with piano) as well. More recently, on You Haven't Heard This, Jack Wright combines the first two formats mentioned here, i.e. omits the drummer but includes both guitar & bass: The style is highly fractured, uncompromising, refusing idiom or anything that might draw undue attention from an audience, and thus forges an egalitarian tapestry in which no one consistently takes the foreground. Nonetheless, the instruments themselves are readily recognizable, if somewhat extended. Perhaps I should also mention the "classic" clarinet trio on 3 on a Thin Line: The clarinet features similar technical demands & resources as the saxophone, but also overblows odd harmonics, rather than even (due to its cylindrical bore), so creates a different mood. So many horn players play both these days, though, and the multi-continent interplay on 3 on a Thin Line is inspired (if a bit overlong at times) in its fantastically (in the specific notional sense) differentiated three-way dialog around Harold Rubin. Even farther afield, there is the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-De Joode trio, with "piano as percussion," and Gratkowski (also) often on clarinet.... They don't really have the feel of a sax trio, though. I'm also omitting (from this recap anyway) trios that include two bowed strings, other horns, etc. So, percussion — or what replaces it — is a consistent theme in my exploration of this ensemble space. It's also interesting to note that I hadn't really undertaken a survey such as this: The "sax trio" is so ubiquitous that it had apparently become invisible to me as a specific form, although obviously I also let its specificity waver. Another general takeaway is that I often favor ensembles that shift or problematize more traditional ensemble configurations, whether from jazz or classical music. "Changing the instruments" is indeed a broad & open-ended theme for contemporary improvisation.

3 May 2017

I want to make a few brief remarks about Four Ways by Roscoe Mitchell with Yuganaut, a 50th anniversary release on Nessa Records (with which Mitchell was involved at the beginning). Yuganaut is a sort of "piano trio" of Stephen Rush, Tom Abbs & Geoff Mann — but each plays so many instruments that that combination only rarely holds, and indeed Rush sticks to electronic keyboards (when he plays keyboard) on this album. I was unfamiliar with them, but they have a couple of older trio albums on other well-known jazz labels. Four Ways was actually recorded way back in 2009, on a visit by Mitchell to the University of Michigan, so presumably the anniversary inspired its belated release. (One might also compare to e.g. Nessuno, another belated release featuring Mitchell, but that was a live concert from 2011.) Four Ways is a meaty album at more than an hour, although the six composed pieces tend to come off as rather pensive: The musicians are obviously engaged in a lot of thinking, as necessitated by these complex works that often take their inspiration from Mitchell's music of previous decades & jazz history more generally. There are also three group improvisations (totaling 12+ minutes) that are clearly more spontaneous & produce a motley, layered sound in off-center rhythms amid various (often electric) accents. There is a sense of tunefulness throughout, although sometimes partly obscured by noisier hauntings. Including due to its having been recorded nearly eight years ago, Four Ways thus conjures something of a layered historical vibe between jazz & contemporary composition. It seems like something of a specialist release, particularly when it comes to exploration of compositional forms.

7 May 2017

It didn't happen immediately, but after a time, New Artifacts got me to thinking about Mat Maneri's recordings with Ivo Perelman (b.1961). That's not to say that I had heard the latter, because I hadn't, but I knew they existed. It surprised me somewhat to realize that I hadn't listened to anything from Perelman since early in this project — most recently The Hour of the Star, discussed here in July 2011. I remembered generally enjoying that album, and so wondered what I had had to say... did I feel more negatively at the time somehow? No, and in fact, and this is amazing to me to consider, hence this somewhat goofy intro, what I said was that that album — the notes for which emphasized the "first meeting" character of the recording — would have benefited from the musicians playing together more. Fast forward more than five years, and it's safe to say that Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris & Gerald Cleaver have played together more! Indeed, they've played together so much, and Perelman in particular has released so many albums with so many closely overlapping ensembles, that nothing had jumped out to me as new or distinctive enough to hear — or so I can conclude after five years have passed. So whereas I felt silly to read my old comment, I guess it was sort of appropriate somehow, but more to the point, Perelman's prolific output really doesn't provide an obvious place to start — or restart. It's an intimidating (simply by its volume) series of at least superficially similar releases. I mean, as I'm writing this, Leo has only recently released a series of 7(!) albums featuring Perelman with Shipp (& sometimes others). I haven't listened to any of those, but prior to that was a six-volume Art of the Improv Trio, and I do want to visit that series. Indeed, not only was I interested in Perelman with Maneri in particular, but I wanted to eschew piano, likewise inspired (somewhat anyway) by the interplay on New Artifacts: I was interested in the microtonal possibilities. Sure enough, Counterpoint (released in 2015) by Perelman & Maneri with Morris quotes Perelman saying that he's more accustomed to piano, and that its absence changes his playing... specifically that having a different chordal instrument (guitar) changes his playing. The trio on Counterpoint acknowledges being inspired by the regular trio with Maneri & Morris & Joe Maneri on horn, and whereas the playing ranges far afield, there is a nostalgic quality at times. The relative equality of the three instruments, and their abilities to sound like each other, charges the counterpoint on the album, which starts immediately with fantastic interwoven lines. A melodic sense is generally maintained, although there are some noisy squeals at times. There's an appealing sense of polyphonic interplay, but also a sense that the musicians are finding their way — that it's more a series of studies (10 tracks) than a finished product. Counterpoint was actually recorded in March 2015, and a more "conventional" quartet featuring these three performers, with Cleaver (& Morris on bass this time), Breaking Point was recorded in July 2015. The next album I want to highlight, The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2, with Maneri & Whit Dickey joining Perelman, was recorded in August 2015 — as was New Artifacts (although the latter is a live concert recording, the Perelman album does not give a precise date, so the exact sequence cannot be ascertained). (Most of the "improv trio" series seems to have been recorded in 2016, though.) This is a close sequence of performances, then, and The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2 (released in 2016) follows the piano-free theme into a more freely microtonal environment, as supported by drums rather than a chordal instrument. (All of these follow Perelman's duo album with Maneri, Two Men Walking, in turn following the soundtrack A Violent Dose Of Anything with Shipp, both recorded in 2013.) Given that my inspiration came from New Artifacts, it's probably also worth noting one of the few albums by Perelman that features a distinct set of performers (& a different label), Soulstorm with Daniel Levin on Clean Feed — another album that I discussed briefly in July 2011. In any case, The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2 features some fascinating interactions between Perelman & Maneri, usually supported coloristically by Dickey, who does get to initiate at times, but likewise has the sense of a series of studies (13 tracks!). There is a lot of close interaction & colliding lines... perhaps one might say, a sense of magnetic repulsion at times, such that collision can lead to stasis & a lingering emphasis on a particular note. Perelman's top register technique is fascinating here, but again, one gets the sense of exploring technique per se. There's very much a foreground in the sense of pitch collision, and usually pulse, so minus the background "weave" that Morris often brings to Counterpoint. There is mirroring, though, sometimes conjuring the illusion of more instruments — sometimes even a sense of chasing each other, which can be appealing. Given that Perelman just released another massive series of recordings featuring piano, where might he go with this more microtonal style? History suggests that other projects won't preclude him from releasing other albums in this vein, maybe dozens, so we shall see (er, hear).

9 May 2017

Another appealing recent album is the rather goofily presented Happy Jazz by a Berlin-based trio called (also in retro style) JR3: Olaf Rupp (electric & acoustic guitar), Rudi Mahall (clarinets) & Jan Roder (bass). The cover photo is a kitschy & awkward shot of the musicians pretending to play their instruments — quite reminiscent of a previous generation of jazz covers. The title, which is also the title of the opening track of this very long (over 76 minutes) album, surely relates to the contemporary sense of protest that has returned to animate exploratory music in the 21st century — and presumably some listeners' distaste for it. However, the title, along with many of the eight track titles, is obviously tongue in cheek, as the music fits its time very well: One wouldn't really call it happy or unhappy. In fact, the style is something of a slower-paced version of the sort of quick ensemble interactions I tend to enjoy, intervallic relations amid shifting textures & timbres. In that sense, in terms of the entry on sax trios around PEN last week, one might consider Happy Jazz to be a clarinet trio analog for You Haven't Heard This, i.e. likewise with guitar & bass. (I probably should have also mentioned Anomonous as something of a clarinet trio analog for the "electric" sax trio Tesla Coils at the time.) I wasn't familiar with Roder previously, but he & Mahall are in a group (Die Enttäuschung, with Axel Dörner) that has multiple albums on Intakt, and also participated with Alexander von Schlippenbach in his Monk cycle. So there is a bit of a more mainstream orientation there, presumably similar to the motivation for slowing the interplay on Happy Jazz. Mahall also appears on recent favorite Rotozaza Zero, by an ensemble that basically adds drums to that of JR3, and an album with much more happening at any particular moment. That's not to say that Happy Jazz is actually slow — it is more analogous to the sort of shifting textural context in which e.g. Ingrid Laubrock, to name a German musician who has appeared more than once on Relative Pitch, revels — but it does make interval relations & timbral shifts easier to follow without repeat attention, and also without collapsing them into a single pulse. In that sense, it's a longer album not because of more material, or a different sort of temporal ordering, but because of pace alone. (The musical figures themselves are sometimes quite fast. It's the pace of interaction per se, i.e. the number of different things happening simultaneously, that I'm noting.) The result is enjoyable, never over the top, and may well bring this style to life for more listeners. I hope it finds a broad audience.

10 May 2017

FMR Records seems to have really branched out from a focus on the English improvising scene, with distinctive material arising in a variety of countries appearing there of late. (In this, they join such labels as Leo, Clean Feed, Creative Sources, etc. in documenting a wide range of contemporary music making around the world.) The recent batch of releases, which isn't listed yet on their web site for some reason, continues to reflect & illustrate the increasing breadth of the label, and so there are multiple new albums that I intend to discuss, beginning with Still now (if you still), fronted by Hungarian-Serbian violist Szilárd Mezei (b.1974). I first noticed Mezei relatively early in this project playing on In Just, a half-German & half-Hungarian improvised quartet album from Canada that was one of the more enigmatic releases for me at the time: It was an on again, off again favorite, first discussed here in January 2012, and most recently mentioned (still) in February 2015. Mezei's playing stood out to me in particular, and consequently I started watching for his name — which did dutifully appear on a variety releases, mainly composed music, often folksong based, and for larger ensembles. So now, an "international" improvising group again, this time a trio... and quite a striking album too. Still now (if you still) is by another "alternate" piano trio, basically with viola instead of bass — much as e.g. It Rolls substitutes electric guitar for bass, and indeed both albums show a strong "classical" focus from the pianist, as incorporating preparations, etc. (Weber's work recording Kurtág further underlines the Eastern European connection, even if the trio on It Rolls is actually entirely Western.) Despite the fascinating & personal style of classical pianism from Marina Džukljev on Still now (if you still), though, once Mezei enters — after a dramatic & foreboding opening duo intertwining piano & percussion — he is often at the center, displaying incredible energy & technique. Whereas his style might be placed more in the domain of the post-Romantic, in the way that it invokes line or refers to tonal regions, the spiky rhythms & polyphonic layers give it a contemporary edge, particularly as buoyed by the incredible physical precision of the ensemble as a whole. (In this, it might readily be compared to that of recent favorite The Moment In and Of Itself, another "piano trio," albeit one even farther from the traditional instrumentation.) While Džukljev has already participated in various of Mezei's projects & ensembles, and so had a strong working relationship with him, it was also apparently Džukljev who forged a prior partnership with Vasco Trilla, reflected in the strong duo interaction between them right from the opening sequence of the album — as already noted. (One is often left to wonder what is piano & what is "percussion.") Trilla had already appeared on FMR, including with a solo album, so presumably his connections made publishing this album there possible, and indeed albums with Trilla have been appearing elsewhere lately too. (I will likely be discussing another from Creative Sources soon, for instance, after having discussed Tidal Heating on Not Two, more of a "free jazz" album, in February.) Whereas the title suggests stillness, there is not much stillness to Still now (if you still): It's often quite fast & usually high energy, with a taut sense of drama & quasi-Romantic urges — stormy! Percussion from Trilla is varied & creative, from shimmering metal to detuning drums, from provocation to commentary. Distinct articulation & a wide variety of attack characterize the ensemble as a whole, including percussive accents from the viola, with ostinato only coming to the fore (always under strain) in a couple of tracks. (The nuanced, yet precise, manner in which Džukljev handles repeated notes, for instance, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of her technique.) As a result (again, not unlike The Moment In and Of Itself), one would not call Still now (if you still) a noisy album: It's acoustic, and would appear to reflect practical (classical) concert technique & from within a strong rhythmic framework. Slower moments consequently retain a continuous sense of drama, and give way to more vigorous activity before ever seeming to wane. Considering that it's a relatively long album (at least by the numbers, at more than an hour), that it can retain this "edge of one's seat" character through multiple auditions is its most striking aspect: I enjoyed it right from the beginning, and am enjoying it just as much after several hearings. Perhaps it's the sophisticated polyphonic conception that most sustains my interest: All three performers bring distinctive styles to a compelling interaction (recorded over two days) that also becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

21 May 2017

Another recent release on FMR is Shift, fronted by saxophonist & educator Rob Burke from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I was not familiar with Burke previously, but was drawn to the album by the presence of AACM legend George Lewis, who adds electronic manipulation of captured sounds, along with his trombone. Also appearing in this improvising quartet — and Shift's eleven tracks include only 4 quartets, amid 2 trios & 5 duos — are pianist Paul Grabowsky, whom I didn't recognize immediately, but whose playing I've heard featured with Dave Douglas on the latter's medieval-infused Fabliaux album (explicitly partnering with Monash), and bassist Mark Helias, a well-known & respected longtime free jazz player (whom I had not previously been prompted to mention here). Burke's speciality apparently involves teaching & conducting orchestral improvisation, and using different forces on the different tracks is something of a weakness to the album for me. (I don't get much from the duos, and the trios, both of which are without Helias, are perhaps the "jazziest" tracks.) I do especially enjoy the opening quartet, though, with eerie trombone & electronics, accented by piano & subtly underpinned by the bass, then slowing into the second, more "scenic" quartet — before continuing into six straight duo & trio tracks. Burke's horn comes to dominate at times in the later tracks, as the album starts to take on the feel of a series of studies (perhaps based on particular procedural ideas, given the track titles), marked by more traditional jazz riffs. Still, there's a different sense of interaction here, one that suggests further possibilities.

22 May 2017

FMR's cross-pollination, particularly by Portuguese musicians, continues with Amethyst by Pedra Contida, recorded in Coimbra in November 2015. The quintet Pedra Contida was formed by guitarist Marcelo dos Reis (first discussed here in September 2015 around Chamber 4, another FMR album), and the core of their articulation appears to be the string interaction between dos Reis & Angélica Salvi (harp) — in the wake of their duo album, Concentric Rinds on Cipsela (which received very positive attention online). Amethyst is actually the second album by Pedra Contida, and the first (Xisto on JACC Records, 2014) featured field recordings: Here, electronics by Miguel Carvalhais are more abstract, and generally understated. The quintet is completed by Nuno Torres (who appears on so many interesting albums with Ernesto Rodrigues) on alto sax, and (the previously unknown to me, although appearing with dos Reis & Luis Vicente in Fail Better! — a group only on vinyl so far) João Pais Filipe on drums & percussion. The name of the band might refer to rock music, and there's some rock "drive" & characteristic ("filthy") distortion at times over five tracks that are sometimes quiet, and generally emphasize continuity. Articulations are usually subtle, almost ambient, though: There are extended ostinati, drones at various pitch levels, some of it slower, some of it noisier, often returning to the timbre of plucked strings. A rock vibe does come through at times, though, with snippets of jazzy or "world" horn, and seems almost suite-like, even as each track can be taken as a distinct (albeit related) exploration of musical continuity per se. (Exploration of musical continuity has become something of a general theme of late, as can be observed in many recent entries.)

Continuing the cross-current, also offering a strong exploration of musical continuity is City of Light (recorded live in Paris, April 2016) by the "Chamber 4" ensemble (dos Reis & Vicente with the Ceccaldi brothers), this time on Clean Feed, following their (well-received) debut album on FMR. Here the string players also contribute vocally, in a vaguely Léandre-an style, particularly in the second half of the second track. City of Light begins with a long, romantic violin line emerging against muted trumpet, and its tautly "modest" (i.e. chamber music) sense of material generally retains a lyrical sense, even as it become more eerie or becomes more active in waves. (Legato plays against repeated, sometimes percussive tones.) There's also something of a buzzing, ambient quality that underscores — and sometimes strains — the insistent emphasis on continuity more generally, until the album fades away. (And of course, bebop was based in bass ostinato, so forms of continuity are relevant to any tradition in its wake.) In any case, these & various intersecting ensembles continue to explore a variety of musical ideas — especially continuity on these two recent examples featuring dos Reis (who plays acoustic & prepared guitar on City of Light, but electric guitar on Amethyst). I expect this cohort, performing on a range of instruments, will continue to be quite prolific. What's next?

23 May 2017


To favorite recordings list.

To early music thoughts.

© 2010-17 Todd M. McComb