Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

With a little lull in music releases, and taking some time away from more active listening, this also seems like an opportune moment to start a new page here: The previous ten months were once again my most prolific yet in this space (in length, not number of entries), but perhaps I'll be adopting a little more focus going forward. We'll see. There's always a question of whether I really feel as though I have something to say, and particularly whether being another person noting an album is of any use. My experience in this space also continues to increase, such that the "excitement of discovery" (& so of discussion) can fade at times. Indeed, I do try to write about music here while I still feel a sense of excitement, and not to wait for further settling of ideas. So sometimes I return to items again, whether in the context of another release, or simply with new thoughts. I know it does make things harder on the casual reader at times, since comments on a specific album might be scattered between entries. To maintain forward continuity in my thoughts on the page, I also put new entries at the end — so please scroll to the end for the latest.

In some of these prior intros (which are still available via the archive at the bottom of this page), I've said a little more about why I've been reluctant to adopt newer presentation technology here, and that's mostly about the need to atomize entries so as to access them separately. (Particularly with my interrogations of segmentation & typology in theoretical pieces such as Postmodern Aesthetics & Practical listening, I'm not eager to make that concession. I think that if I ever do, though, I'll use something like a "word cloud" to auto-generate titles for the entries....) It's also worth noting that we're living in a society where everything is supposed to be convenient: Well, maybe not everything, but some people do seem to think that discussions of relatively complex — whether aurally or conceptually — music such as this should be easy to read. I'd say there's a place for ease, but not everywhere... sort of like with music. Regarding the sense of excitement referenced above, then, I often like to translate or implicitly reference aspects of music in textual form.... Needless to say (I hope), these "translations" (or respones) are not reversible. But maybe they do yield a different feel sometimes....

I've also presented some thoughts in previous intros regarding what interests me musically and/or the title of this space.... On the former, it's probably easiest simply to refer to my list of favorites from over the years (since circa 2010), which is heavy on small ensembles such as trios & quartets. I sometimes feature productions using larger or smaller sets of musicians, but not as often. Small group interaction continues to be a focus, and so does improvisation: At least in this country, that tends to mean jazz (at least as a commercial category), and where I think the term does very much still apply is in aspirations of music for social change — now in a more diversified global context. That said, whereas I didn't originally believe that interactions including machines (& substantial electronics more broadly) would be appealing to me in these terms, I've increasingly found the opposite to be true. (I still enjoy acoustic productions, though.... I've also considered integrating my early music thoughts here, since that's a similar project, with less volume at this point, but I guess those readers expect a separate space....) Next year, then, I also anticipate writing a theoretical piece on technology — that I'll link here when available.

I guess that's enough for now. I hope to have much more (of musical interest) to articulate below. Thank you for your continuing attention.

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
3 August 2019

Not only do my musical interests tend toward smaller ensembles, but I enjoy broadly contrapuntal articulations in which a variety of musical activity occurs simultaneously, including (potentially structural) explorations of timbral relations as well. The latter involves an even greater web of musical connections & correspondences than traditional counterpoint, which accommodated only discrete notes, i.e. not complex sounds blending into each other. In addition to an "erector set" image of distinct lines spanning spaces then, one might imagine bends, blends & folds through which combinations of sounds can relate thickly in various ways.... And Ernesto Rodrigues is one of the most prolific musicians working in & through such an environment, forging a post-serial, post-concrète, sometimes ambient idiom that often involves ("lowercase") restraint & quiet. The latter is not always the case, however, and much of Rodrigues' recent music has had an aggressive presence, including (often) on the recent & massive double album Mycelial Studies with Guilherme Rodrigues & Udo Schindler. The two discs, each over an hour, were recorded on consecutive dates in Munich in June 2018, and involve Schindler on a relatively limited (for him anyway) set of horns, i.e. bass & contrabass clarinet, soprano saxophone & cornet. I'd actually mentioned this double album, or at least its first disc (to which Schindler apparently refers in his remarks), when discussing Schindler's trio album (likewise with two string players) Rhizome in May (where I also noted e.g. Schindler's recent Hillside Talks with Jaap Blonk): Whereas the mycelial & rhizomatic images — the latter especially due to Deleuze & Guattari, and the former also continuing an orientation on biological imagery for Rodrigues — suggest similar structural concerns, Rhizome is actually the "smoother" album, with calmly wandering drones & an almost minimalist orientation behind its sometimes lively activity. (One might perceive long spans, say.) In contrast, Mycelial Studies tends to focus on close exchange of musical figures, and moves rapidly through various threads of sonic combination & connection: Timbral correspondences tend to mirror & imitate the finest grains of articulation, such that not only are instrument identities often blurred, but the smallest slur can lead into a fully motivic exchange.... In fact, the two albums making up Mycelial Studies are actually rather different, with the first ("arToxin") seeming more "classical" (or perhaps classic jazz) in inspiration, recalling e.g. K'Ampokol Che K'Aay & its broadly ranging & detailed counterpoint around clarinet: Still, instruments do blend via extended technique, and the interaction can be quite assertive. As the "studies" title suggests (& I had applied the term myself to some of Schindler's work in the past), it can seem as though all manner of transformations are employed, with strings above and/or below the various horns, often yielding an immersive feel (that might seem alien to this description). It's also a very long album beginning, perhaps paradoxically, by establishing its sense of space (& do recall Schindler's background in architecture here), and going on to involve e.g. horn calls over (string) "landscapes" whose shifting moods can seem almost orchestral in spite of the small forces. The second album ("Salon") seems even less traditional, or at least less identifiable or stable in its inspirations, evoking not only more of the later "free jazz" vibe, but almost an in-your-face (punk?) quality at times: Presumably building on interactions developed the previous evening, Salon is thus more personal & even radical or elemental: Timbral overlapping & articulations are that much more confounding, but the overall sound can also be more raucous & aggressive. And the long first track already displays a wide variety of interactions & transformations across a broad space itself, beginning from some quiet (instrumental) whistling, and moving into assertive & sometimes almost melodic counterpoint, industrial & environmental noises, etc. (The "elemental" quality might recall the similarly constituted Baloni trio at times, and e.g. Fremdenzimmer, albeit there including compositions on some tracks....) It's thus a very dynamic album — intimidating even, with much to digest, and rarely calm — spanning shearing difference tones, percussive scratchings, growling raspberries, various glissandi, etc. It does continue to suggest "studies," however, and so although a sort of sanctifying quality emerges, these sets continue to seem (as has been typical of Schindler) more about radicalizing image & form than about broader or sustaining concepts of musical use per se.... (Perhaps the most similar album — to Salon — is actually Skullmarks, there with a very different musical economy including more players & explicit electronics.... That album actually involves more concrete spiritual prompts, but also projects a similar resulting density & even employs similar resulting sounds.) Mycelial Studies also names the trio as "S2R" on the label, and so perhaps there will be more to come after these already quite substantial series of studies: Despite Schindler's own very prolific production, and frequent appearances on Creative Sources, this does also appear to be his first direct musical collaboration with (either) Rodrigues.

Further to the notion of an S2R trio, I mentioned in a relatively lengthy discussion of RRR & We Still Have Bodies last August how Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues can seem to be playing one big instrument at times, making their trios seem (almost) more like duos. Within such a context, they thus forge a sort of extended, (virtual) four-hand string articulation, and that "closeness" pairs to fine effect with Schindler's very detailed & transformative technique on horns, continuing to conflate notions of continuous & discrete (as suggested around timbre above). If this trio does continue to produce albums, then, it might catch up with the ongoing trio the Rodrigueses have with Olaf Rupp, which has itself just released a third album (after RRR, as noted, & the digital Chaotic Complex Systems as mentioned here in December): Man is wolf to man was recorded in Berlin in October 2018 (one year after RRR), and continues a relatively mellow orientation for this trio. Akin to moving from arToxin to Salon, however, it features fewer direct musical evocations, and so an increasingly personal style: Slow plucking becomes melodic at times, perhaps bustling or buzzing with dissonance at others, but usually retains a mellow vibe as rustling figures tend to come & go in ambient waves.... I should also mention another very substantial double album (this one "digital" again) in Weißensee, also recorded in Berlin in 2018 (presumably over multiple dates), there with the Rodrigueses reprising their string trio with Alexander Frangenheim (per Underwater Music, as discussed here in October 2017, and as might be termed the Berlin String Trio, in parallel with Ernesto's Lisbon String Trio...) & as joined by Joachim Zoepf (b.1955) on soprano sax & bass clarinet: Weißensee combines an extensive set of studies — incorporating e.g. drones, radio, etc. in what are generally shorter, focused & distinctive tracks — with something of the concertante feel of the LST series.

12 August 2019

Besides Mycelial Studies on Creative Sources, the prolific Udo Schindler also just released a pair of albums on FMR, GAU & superGAU, recorded live in Munich in June & October 2017 respectively. They're also lengthy explorations of possibilities within a particular trio configuration. Unlike Mycelial Studies, though, these are both electroacoustic albums, both featuring a trio called München Neus (partially an English pun): Schindler (b.1952) plays unspecified reeds & brass, as well as analog synthesizer, and is joined by Gunnar Geisse (b.1964) on "laptopguitar" & virtual instruments, and Anton Kaun (b.1974) on electronics (explicitly including "distortion") & objects. I was not previously familiar with Kaun, but Geisse (& his distinctive homebrew combination of laptop & guitar) had appeared with Schindler e.g. on the second album of The Fascination of What's Complex on Creative Sources.... And I'd actually first featured Schindler here with electronics on albums also from FMR, Hell dunkel (discussed in November 2017) & Sound Energy Transformation (discussed in February 2018), where he often retains a classical sense of restraint & balance. Such a "sweetness" is largely discarded on the two GAU (the musicians' initials) albums, however, yielding an aggressively punkish quality that one is directed to play loud, so as to "inform your neighbours!" Geisse & Kaun add a wealth of rhythm & timbre to Schindler's detailed & changing horns, but both albums also retain the sense of a horn trio (with Kaun as percussionist): These are both noisy albums, then, combining the free jazz horn trio (in its guitar rather than contrabass configuration) with the latest do-it-yourself technological innovation, so as to yield even more (industrial) energy & sonic variety. In this, GAU is a little more preliminary & broken into four tracks, while superGAU consists of one ongoing tapestry of intensity.... (It reminds, at least superficially, of various releases from the Viennese Trost label....) There's much to enjoy, taking "horn calls over a landscape" to another level, but these are also ultimately albums with rather rigid roles around Schindler on horn, rather than being more richly transformative. Still, I was surprised to hear this sort of aggression from Schindler (although a soloistic orientation had been common), not to mention such a long track, and the noisy & shifting combos can be quite ear-catching. So what's next?

13 August 2019

Returning already to Creative Sources, the Lisbon String Trio series continues with Rhetorica — as noted last month in the discussion of Merz (which was actually recorded a few months later) — a studio recording from Lisbon in July 2018, with pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro joining the Rodrigues/Mira/Rosso lineup (that's been consistent on all eleven albums so far). Regarding my comments on timbre & transformation from the recent Mycelial Studies discussion, the limitations of a piano sometimes leave me ambivalent, including regarding its historical associations, but nonetheless there do continue to be many fine improvising pianists: LST had already embraced piano (in the person of Karoline Leblanc) with Liames (as discussed here in August 2017), and I'd specifically featured Pinheiro himself here around Earnear, beginning with a discussion from December 2015.... Indeed the latter comparison is doubly significant in that Miguel Mira appears on both albums, such that Rhetorica includes two thirds of the trio from Earnear: Both often invoke a classical feel, albeit with a contemporary edge, and of course employ a variety of techniques, with the latter tending to be more focused on specific techniques in different tracks (& so perhaps a bit more like studies), while the latter moves into more broadly impressionist & dreamy territory. (Perhaps it can also be compared to parts of "arToxin" from Mycelial Studies in aspects of its orientation & technical scope.) Both are also rather assertive much of the time, with Rhetorica adding bass to good effect. There's also a sort of intimacy that arises (including, presumably, from the studio setting) that can contrast with some of the more public or concertante LST productions: Rhetorica is then far-ranging & ambitious, and not really about "studies" (per recent discussions) at all. It's also rather more directly engaged with Western tradition than the more "pure sound" approach found e.g. on much of Liames — more linguistic (in an abstract poetic sense, perhaps), per the title. (And with relatively little "inside the piano" playing as well.) It enacts its rhetorical orientation via frequent polyrhythm, but also by cultivating a sense of delicacy at times, further suggesting something of a classical piano quartet (with strings shifted downward a register) in its sometimes moody affective qualities (almost, say, as a contemporary stylistic synthesis à la Fauré). These concerns are then wrapped up in the quick exchange of figures that's both a strength of Pinheiro & so very characteristic of LST & related groups, here emphasizing more conventionally classical string technique than on some other albums. Rhetorica thus seems like both a forceful & graceful album, and one that could be enjoyed by a wider audience. (I actually tried suggesting it on a classical group, but I don't know if anything will come of that....) It's definitely one of the more appealing (rather traditionally) piano-centric, improvising ensemble albums I've heard of late.

To conclude the linked set of three entries opening this renewed page, then, and to continue a June entry surveying recent work from Rodrigues (e.g. Krypton), there are still more albums I want (at least) to note: Not only is there more from larger ensembles such as Variable Geometry Orchestra (now with Mare Tranquillitatis, consisting of one track of around a half hour, on which Rodrigues himself does not play an instrument, but "only" engages in conduction, forging various "episodes" around instrumental subgroups) & the more modestly sized Octopus (now with Cyanea, a sparse & watery album under a half hour in length, following Mimus & Dofleini as described here in January, but with some ensemble changes) — both from CreativeFest #12 last November — but there's another "variant" string quartet in Double x Double: The latter was recorded in Berlin in October 2018, and involves two pairs of viola & cello, with Marie Takahashi & Hui-Chun Lin joining Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues respectively. It's thus another example from Rodrigues of bunching up the middle registers and involving a lot of crossing counterpoint, rather than extremes of pitch (as in some other projects). (And note that crossing contrapuntal registers was a feature of e.g. historical Ars Subtilior style, so only later proscribed by Western theory.) As opposed to e.g. the "epic" energy music of Theia (which incorporated LST as a working trio), Double x Double has a more colorfully broad natural orientation, even involving various briefly classical & romantic figures alongside a sometimes sparser approach, so as to create a rich musical tapestry evocative of late 20th century classical string literature in general (as with so many other Rodrigues string albums for small forces, e.g. as surveyed here in an entry from December 2018). In such ensembles, of course, mimicking & exploring (contrapuntal) timbral relations across instruments becomes that much easier.

14 August 2019

Particularly in light of some other recent electronics-oriented albums appearing here, I also want to note the latest from Evan Parker, Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf recorded in July 2017 by an electronics-heavy ensemble called Trance Map+: The ensemble name marks Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf as a followup to the duo album Trance Map (released in 2011) by Parker & Matthew Wright (credited here with turntable & live sampling), and adds the Spring Heel Jack duo of John Coxon (turntable, electronics) & Ashley Wales (electronics), as well as Adam Linson (double bass, electronics). Linson, who seems to be becoming more musically active again, had appeared in this space with Trio (with John Heward & Arthur Bull, discussed in January 2019), while the other three remain relatively unexplored for me.... As the ensemble might suggest, and the bass is sometimes prominent too, much of the album revolves around Parker on soprano sax, particularly as it articulates continuous lines around which dreamy electronics spin. In this case, the "dreamy" aspect (which I had just noted of Rhetorica) is quite explicit in the notes, with Parker suggesting that one put the album on while falling sleep.... The single horn with a bit of strings & a lot of electronics also recalls much of the recent Skullmarks, which nonetheless builds a "meatier" texture (with strong bass at times): Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf is more toward the gossamer, and seems rather focused on a main line, with many shifting accents, even tending to become repetitive around horn figures.... (I might also contrast both with the recent Music for Baritone Saxophone, Bass Clarinets & Electronics, on which the triple horn lineup, with its various timbral grains, forges a finely textured counterpoint that's buoyed & further articulated by the electronics, in what ends up being an engrossing sense of interactive detail....) For whatever reason, Parker's ElectroAcoustic Seven (discussed here in January 2015) didn't really speak to me either, and this seems to be something of a less momentous followup, albeit from a formally different ensemble. I do find the "dream" notion behind Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf — aligned to ambient, I suppose? — intriguing, but the result often seems to be an eerie held whistle or ongoing ostinato. It comes off as rather single-minded, emphasizing continuity, albeit shifting over time... but maybe that's how dreams operate. (Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf also seems like something of a departure for the relatively staid Intakt label, so perhaps they're becoming more experimental.)

15 August 2019

Among musicians who continue to attract my regular attention, Joëlle Léandre is one of the few with whose work I'd had some familiarity prior to starting this project. That Léandre continues to receive positive attention from a variety of quarters serves to underscore such a genealogy for me today, but she's also been releasing mostly duo recitals — apparently her preferred format, but not mine. Since Léandre continues to be one of the most powerful voices in improvised music, that's undoubtedly my own problem, and I do continue to listen.... But then these remarks are really just a rationalization for why I haven't actually reviewed a Léandre album since the Tiger Trio's Unleashed (recorded in March 2016 & discussed here in February 2017). I very much wanted to enjoy that album, with Myra Melford on piano (who apparently initiated the trio) & Nicole Mitchell on flutes, and I did enjoy it: It took me a while to warm up to so much traditional pianism from Melford, but the flute-bass-piano lineup provides some great sonorous combos, while the album projects a strongly affective quality. (And I'd only just revisited some remarks regarding my ambivalence toward traditional pianism in the discussion of Rhetorica last week, so enough of that for now....) As time went on, though, I continued to find Unleashed to be rather pianistic, and indeed that the melodies & formal processes ended up seeming relatively straightforward. In some ways, the latter served to highlight the timbral potential & instrumental interplay itself, and of course, to what extent should improvised music really be judged by the hundredth audition? Unleashed made a strong early impression, and now the Tiger Trio's new album Map of Liberation (recorded in November 2018 on two consecutive dates in France) made an even stronger first impression: In particular, there's more formal equality, more often structured by bass & less by piano (although Melford almost seems to be traversing Beethoven in a solo at one point — leading into an extended vocalizing episode from Léandre), and the affective qualities & sophistication have grown that much stronger. It's quite colorful in general, with tighter coordination from the opening track & a generally richer interaction with more shifts & timbral contrasts — i.e. what one might hope from a second album. (And it came as a surprise to me that I hadn't really featured anything from Léandre since the first Tiger Trio album. Hence the opening convolution here....) Albeit highly virtuosic, it's also still relatively straightforward in its ensemble roles & often traditional in its melodic forms. In fact, Map of Liberation seems to me like an album for a wide audience: I enjoyed it, and believe that many other people would as well, given the opportunity.... (Since this will be the first of three consecutive entries to feature the flute, at this point it's also worth noting the extent to which flute playing is associated with women, at least in the US.... And Mitchell does more than hold her own in a variety of registers — literal & figural — here.)

20 August 2019

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