Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

Having finally finished What is familiar?, it seems as though I should start a fresh page here, even if in some ways, I'm right in the middle of a discussion.

I hope readers do continue to have a look at the previous set of entries, because I think there are some good discussions there, if I do say so myself — although not all of them are terribly worthwhile. Starting toward the end of that page might be a good idea. (I wrapped up that set of entries with a discussion of Henry Threadgill's latest album.) So one goal I have here is to keep the quality of discussion high, which mostly means talking about items I really want to discuss, and not falling into what I "should" do. (Of course, the opening line above already contradicts that notion, doesn't it?)

The previous page also ran for a full year of comments, so it was getting rather long. I should, perhaps, add here at the outset that I am putting new comments at the end, so if you want to see the most recent material, scroll to the end. (Maybe this isn't the best choice, but I'm choosing to keep everything in written order, over making it easier to see new comments.)

Another thing I'm considering, particularly in light of the comment about quality of discussion, is how to use my writing time more wisely, and that might mean more comments in this space, and less time spent redoing some of the older articles on the site — my intention to keep them always up to date seems to belong to another decade. In some tangible sense, they're becoming historical documents discussing historical music. Maybe I need fewer updates, and more fresh starts.

I do keep the favorites list up to date in this space, however, and indeed I have items remaining to discuss that already appear there. So hopefully that will help with continuity as I roll this page over yet again. Oh, and the performance fellowship also remains active, for those interested.

I feel as though I have a lot to say at this point, and some language developed for saying it, so we'll see how that goes....

Todd McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
16 June 2015

I have long expressed an ambivalence — maybe something more akin to hostility than ambivalence — to English improvisation here. Reductively, that ambivalence had much to do with the large amount of material available: English "free" improvisation dates, at least, to the copious output of the 1960s, and continues apace today with much music-making & album-producing activity. Indeed, I've had occasion, including of late, to trace some aspects of American jazz back to the 1960s (and sometimes beyond), and that required a willingness to do so on my part. Although such an endeavor disrupts my intended emphasis on contemporary music, it does allow the construction or reconstruction of more extended narratives — to further a theme. Moreover, in the case of American jazz from the 1960s, I not only know people who heard it new, including myself in its function as music for television themes & advertising, which as we've discussed, was not always for the best (to understate), but there is general chatter around me: Ornette Coleman's recent death resonated along multiple lines intersecting me, for instance. In the case of English improvisation, most of those factors were not in play: Indeed, I probably received the majority of my recommendations for English music of the past few years from Bruce Gallanter at DMG. I'm thankful to Bruce for the work he does to raise attention for contemporary music, but it's also the case that our tastes do not intersect terribly much — which is still rather more than not at all. Bruce loves English progressive rock, if that's what you call it, and if I may be so bold as to make that assessment. I do not. I did enjoy some of the original "English invasion" from a fairly young age — again, music from the 1960s — but have always thought of it as thoroughly commercial. In some sense, then, much of the English music is thus both more & less "accessible." Add my political distaste (if that's a strong enough term) for empire, and I think it's fair to say that I had "cold" feelings toward English improvisation. (I've taken to improvised music from other European countries more readily, in contrast, as the listings here easily demonstrate.)

Of course, I live in the current standard bearing nation for oppressive world empire, and consequently, I'm well aware that not everyone in the vicinity agrees with world aggression & domination. Moreover, such "home protests" can be very long-lived. Beyond that, there is my longtime admiration for Joëlle Léandre, and her own stated admiration for Derek Bailey (Sheffield, 1930-2005). I have long been aware of this, but it's gone nowhere for me: Unless a word search is failing me now, this is my first mention of Derek Bailey in this space, and I knew that anything I would have said previously would be ignorant — perhaps I should say "too ignorant," whatever that means, because I retain plenty of ignorance. That said, the handful of things I had heard from Bailey clarified his reputation little: His playing sounded like pointless noodling to me. (When I say that, I hope you'll think of some of the "unusual" things I have listed on my favorites list here, by way of context.) I've acknowledged this, implicitly, before: When you're hearing something decades later, after so many other people have already been influenced, it can be quite impossible to hear it as new. Hence, personal narrative, yet again. Indeed, the things I might have once found appealing (to construct an impossible hypothetical, explicitly) may have already been (over?) plumbed by other musicians in music I've enjoyed. I don't know. Part of this changed when 28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982 was released last year by Jean-Marc Foussat. I can't say as I found this quartet of Bailey, Léandre, George Lewis & Evan Parker incredibly compelling per se, but I did spend several hours listening to it for historical perspective. Between Léandre & Lewis, it gave me some context, and of course I've heard Parker in various things too (including Jeremiah Cymerman's World of Objects album from last year). As for the English politics, and how it might be reflected or inflected in this & other music, I don't really know that answer either. However, as I've spent many words discussing lately, I'm at least willing to try thinking politics in the smallest spaces of music. What does following one note by another mean, if there are even notes per se...? Is free improvisation, by definition, social activism, even if it can seem haughty? Regardless of these questions, there is no question that a lot of time & effort has gone into developing improvisatory styles in the UK over the past fifty+ years.

My actual & immediate context for these remarks is Whitewashed with Lines, a 2015 release by the quartet Common Objects, led by harpist Rhodri Davies (b.1971, Wales), with Angharad Davies, John Butcher, and Lee Patterson. These are, with the exception of Butcher, I believe, people who are younger than me. Moreover, Butcher was the one member of Common Objects to appear already in this space, mentioned first with the trio album Exta, and then as the only English improviser headlining a "favorite," The Apophonics On Air. Note how I listened to Exta after hearing John Tilbury in Léandre's Trio on Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon — so Léandre once again. Indeed, Whitewashed with Lines is rather similar to that album in format, with its two CDs consisting of first a composition (as was Léandre's tentet, Can you hear me?), and then an improvisation. I was immediately taken with the improvisation, itself titled Repose and Vertigo (recorded in 2013), to distinguish it from Rhodri Davies's composition, Cup and Ring (recorded in 2014). It's probably quite pointless, if not detrimental, to obsess over family relations among these musicians, but I was not able to find if Angharad Davies (violin) is related to Rhodri. I also do not know if either is related to the late Hugh Davies, with whom Patterson studied, and who had been e.g. an instrument builder for Stockhausen, a co-founder of Bailey's Music Improvisation Company, etc. (Patterson has also e.g. recorded music by Cage as a percussionist, is involved on many Another Timbre releases, and seems to have spent some time at the University of Texas.) Repose and Vertigo was the second recorded, improvised set by Common Objects, the first being Live in Morden Tower, recorded a few months earlier in Newcastle, and released already in 2013 on Mikroton from Russia. (I probably saw it & ignored it at the time.) It is a trio album without Angharad Davies, three shorter solo tracks followed by a more extended trio performance. Before turning to Whitewashed with Lines more specifically, let me note a few other precedents: The album cover looks a great deal like Spill Plus on Nuscope, and indeed, I can't help but think (in retrospect) that Nuscope was mimicking the typical look of Another Timbre. Although released recently, Spill Plus is an even older recording, and reflects a similar sort of non-abstract "primitive" non-tonality (as I put it when discussing that album in January). There is also Plume on Unsounds, featuring Butcher & Tony Buck, with Mayas on one of the tracks, a track also recorded after Spill Plus. So that is something of the nexus for Repose and Vertigo for me, although Butcher is still the only musician on the album whom I had heard before. I decided to listen on something of a whim, which I do fairly often (in an explicit effort to remain open to possibilities).

As the first CD of the set, I did listen to Cup and Ring first, and it came off as "obviously" composed to me. (The score is graphic, apparently, motivated by the titular & quasi-worldwide style of neolithic petroglyphs.) Indeed, Rhodri Davies seems to be fairly involved in the academic music world in the UK. Anyway, the composition has grown on me a bit, but it was the improvisation that caught my attention: Exta might be a bit of a comparison in the way the sounds combine & evolve, without necessarily being articulated. (However, Exta also involved taking extracts of a much longer free session, so has kind of a peculiar character in that sense — oriented around when Tilbury interjects, i.e. necessarily discretely & outside of that unarticulated evolution.) With Common Objects, the percussive qualities blend with the changing tones, again not unlike Scelsi's use of scraping/percussive mutes during string glissandi. Butcher's background in physics is evident in the way his sounds interface, and I hear a similar sonic approach from the other performers as well: Particular sounds might come into or out of focus, integrate or become separate, not only in a "process" approach — as exemplified by Patterson explicitly playing "processes" in the credits — but in sometimes irreversible ways that might dissipate in percussive tinklings or distant-sounding gongs. There is hence a sort of elemental forcing, conjuring a world of becoming that often seems to elude some superficially similar explorations. (This is an issue that I have previously discussed as a matter of foreground versus background.) I might describe it differently as time itself being created via the musical interaction, rather than the musical interaction marking time. Is anyone really in control of what is happening? No, and in a good way: The quartet has more sonic possibilities, more independent counterpoint, and ultimately more transformative qualities than the trio on Live in Morden Tower. (Ironically, the violin does not add legato, so much as staccato, to warp some terms that might seem out of place here. It also disperses any tendency to "layer" the performance to align with a more traditional wind-strings-percussion trio.) This is one of those albums where the world seems changed after listening: The buzzing resonances, shifting sound masses, chirps, rattling materiality... these are real, physical sounds, even if electrically mediated, and they echo a different world of material possibility. (It would be crazy to call the result neolithic, but I do want to insist that Western tonality is not "natural," and is indeed itself an abstraction. Thinking tonality is not thinking sound.) Are these actually common objects? Maybe not, but their sounds do project a kind of genericity. I find the result captivating, and so perhaps I've finally found a point of connection with the English free improvisation tradition. There is no question that Whitewashed with Lines, for all of its echoes of primitivism, involves mastery of the instruments, common or not. The performers are very much in control of the sounds they are making, in that sense, or at least invoking processes intentionally. (Of course, why are people today so willing to believe that so-called primitive people didn't know what they were doing? But we do? Look around.) Whereas I can all too readily relate to the Repose and Vertigo title, I do wonder why this album needs three titles (plus a band name) for two tracks... a decidedly post-neolithic mystery for a provocative & engaging double album.

21 June 2015

Partly on account of feeling some connection with the music on Whitewashed with Lines, and partly as a response to finishing What is familiar?, I went back to listen to about a dozen improvisation CDs from the past couple of years, albums I hadn't intended to revisit at the time, five of them from England. (I listened to the couple of albums with Joe Hertenstein as a sideman, coincidentally right before the new HNH was released, as part of that little "detour" too.) I felt that my intervening experiences had given me some different perspective, and indeed, I think some of the things that I had said (or sometimes only thought) about some of these albums were kind of foolish. (I have also noted from the beginning of this project that I don't want to be afraid of appearing foolish, because that's too restrictive a mode of exploration.) While revisiting these items was generally productive, the particular album that made the biggest impression on me was Compost by the trio (in credited order) of Daniel Thompson (guitar), Alex Ward (clarinet), & Benedict Taylor (viola). As per my introduction to discussing Whitewashed with Lines, I learned of Compost (which is packaged in folded brown paper, with no plastic) from Bruce Gallanter, and discussed it briefly here in April 2013. If you go back and read what I said at the time, I didn't know what to make of the album — the only thing distinctive I could pick out was the live church resonance, and how that gave an almost electroacoustic feel to an acoustic trio — and that's largely because I had no context for it within the domain of English improvisation. In many ways, I continue to have relatively little context, but I did very much enjoy it these two+ years later. So it becomes an "older" album added retroactively to my favorites.

Alex Ward (b.1974) is the most famous member of the trio on Compost, as the youngest member of Bailey's Company, and presumably the musician who drew Bruce's attention. (Ward has also become a guitarist, and can can be heard in a more "rock" vein on e.g. Red Kite on Raw Tonk Records.) Ward is indeed amazing on Compost, with much spontaneous precision & energy. It is violist Benedict Taylor (b.1982) who formed the Cram Records label, inaugurated by this album, and it appears to be mainly he who has forged these ensembles. Daniel Thompson (b.1981) appears to stick to acoustic guitar, although that's not always easy to judge aurally these days. I do think that my original emphasis on the church setting (with its characteristic resonance) had some merit, but I was hesitant (given my context here) to make any pat references to medieval music. Although it would be very easy to note dissimilarities with medieval music, as there are many, including the thematic material per se, this trio adopts a style of close polyphony — a style that makes it ear-catching as contemporary improvisation, and marks a certain similarity to English medieval music: It's multi-threaded, i.e. not single pulsed, nor is there a tendency to contract to a single pulse (as sometimes noted here), even if the individual pacing remains similar throughout, and with all three performers effectively occupying foreground roles simultaneously. (So as opposed to some of my foreground-background discussions focusing on not having enough foreground, here the entire interaction is foregrounded.) Although I have not always been thrilled with contemporary English approaches to medieval music, particularly with the sort of Restoration vocal articulation they have often imposed, there has certainly been a great deal of English activity in medieval music over the years. Undoubtedly these musicians are rather familiar with it, and it shows in some fairly subtle and/or indirect ways. The result has an amazing freshness to it, further underscored by the fact that it was the first time that these three musicians performed together. There is a sort of calm amidst the activity, as well as a consistent pacing in keeping with typical medieval performance. It's quite striking & electric — if I may invoke a word that's supposed to be out of place in acoustic music.

This sort of "chamber" interaction is somewhat evocative of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, as recently reflected upon here via Spring Rain, and indeed, one could view the clarinet-viola-guitar trio as both a medievalization & contemporization of the clarinet-bass-piano trio. Whereas these are all modern instruments, the greater flexibility of the guitar over the percussive fixed pitches of the piano is amenable to both styles, as is the placement of the instruments in strongly overlapping ranges (i.e. close polyphony with crossing lines). Stark differences between the instruments in the Giuffre Trio become blunted, yield to more similarity, in other words. It's an opposite direction from the characteristic early modern (Baroque) innovations of monody & continuo. To complete one narrative connection I've had to the English scene, such an acoustic trio album can also be compared to those from England by Ingrid Laubrock, Catatumbo (recorded, 2010?) & Haste (recorded, 2011). Those are rattling around my head somewhere.

Coincidentally yet again, I decided to re-feature Compost here only a week or so before a similar trio album appeared on FMR Records, Hunt at the Brook. There are obvious similarities, but also some differences: Hunt at the Brook is a longer, studio album. It also features Tom Jackson on clarinet, rather than Alex Ward. It was strange to me to have this second album appear just as I was trying to decide how to discuss Compost (again), and is part of the reason for the delay: For one thing, as I've also discussed before, and in What is familiar?, I find an implied forcing here: You must pick one. (This is psychological forcing without any actual necessity.) Well, I would pick Compost, but I decided that I do enjoy Hunt at the Brook on its own merit as well. The newer album is more minimalist at times — resulting in a kind of polished, less raw quality analogous to Natura morta's second album, Decay, also on FMR, to pick an example I've raised at least twice before. Hunt at the Brook starts off feeling somewhat nostalgic to me, and that's not really a compliment, but it ends up being more than that. The album evokes something of a Baroque sensibility, by which I don't mean the classic Baroque of Bach, but the English seventeenth century of Jenkins & country house music making. (Again, dissimilar aspects dominate in many senses.) The track titles are also more environmental than that, suggesting a contemporary environmental consciousness, and even evoking e.g. traffic sounds in the music, but it's a sort of consciousness that's infused with awareness of musical styles farther in the past than are often evoked in jazz. I don't ordinarily think of "nostalgia" as a valid approach to history, but these performers succeed in forging a style in that space: Again there is a sense of overlapping, close polyphony in the acoustic domain, here less irruptive. Quick motivic interchanges & small sound inflections can evoke a static sense, etc. The result is a creative tapestry of new & old. (In fact, the effort of writing this entry has caused me to rethink which album I might pick, again if "forced." I'm not sure what has caused this description to seem so awkward still... I thought I had it mostly together when starting to write, but somehow the experience rewrites itself?)

Anyway, such an overtly polyphonic approach to trio interaction differs from superficially similar groups such as Baloni, with their emphasis on note & tone merging into composite sounds (although Baloni does play on separation as well). Per the mention of Giuffre above, the interaction here might be said to be more flexible than on e.g. Geäder, but it's a particular kind of small-scale polyphonic flexibility. These musicians seem to have developed a new style, and likely related albums will continue to appear. (Some similar albums have already appeared on e.g. Cram.) So what is or was it about Derek Bailey? A process of forgetting? Webern style atomisation? Perhaps both of these ideas can be perceived at times in these albums, if only in reflection, although neither seems to be especially crucial for these particular English improvisers, some more than fifty years Bailey's junior. Of course, there's another obvious question as I close this England-centered discussion for now: What other musical scenes am I still (most?) ignoring or disdaining?

23 June 2015

I "jumped ahead" to discuss the new HNH, in part because I had been anticipating the album, and thought that I could readily relate to it, but even more so because it fit nicely in the sequence of discussions I was undertaking here at the time. So as I continue to work through what still seems like a very notable simultaneous outpouring of albums in this vague domain of jazz or improvised music, I'm finally getting to discuss some other Clean Feed releases from the same batch. I had recently been remarking on Clean Feed's "conservatism," largely attributing my change in perspective to changes in my own experience as a listener, but perhaps it was partly Clean Feed themselves, as this latest batch of recordings seems far more varied & provocative than other recent batches. I'm pleased by this in a couple of registers: I feel less crazy, and there's more new music to hear! I have not actually listened to the new album by Kris Davis, Save Your Breath yet, as I've been waiting to finish some other writeups here. As I get closer to that, let me share a few thoughts on a couple of other notable (at least to me) releases. As opposed to many Clean Feed albums, such as Davis's, these two come with fairly extensive liner notes. I don't know if that's a trend.

Grand Valis is by a quartet led by Hugo Carvalhais (b.1978). I had heard only parts of Carvalhais's previous albums, but could not resist this distinctive combination of his bass with violin (Dominique Pifarély, from e.g. Marc Ducret's Tower Bridge) & organ (Gabriel Pinto), along with Jeremiah Cymerman on electronic manipulation (and no drums). The sounds & textures are indeed individual & creative, stark and/or repetitive at times, but evoking a new sound world, sometimes a lyrical one. Perhaps Carvalhais's degree in painting is to be credited with part of this "canvas" approach to musical combination, but the result is also framed as a "meditation suite," specifically evoking Philip K. Dick. So there are broad influences coming together to forge something newly coherent. It's almost a dream of a world forming — a time before birth, or at least subject formation — yet attention-seeking beyond any elemental character. (Perhaps this latter impression arises from the use of tonality.) This kind of "dream of before" is further enacted in its own creative temporal staging, involving as it does electronic post-production. It's a very unified & polished album in this sense, despite its novelty.

Coding of Evidentiality by the Dre Hocevar (b.1987; Slovenia, living in New York) Trio features other new names for the Clean Feed catalog, including cellist Lester St. Louis. (Although Clean Feed states that this is his first album, St. Louis already appeared on Jeff Shurdut's The Music of Everything.) Besides Belgian pianist Bram De Looze, with whom I am not otherwise familiar, also appearing is Sam Pluta (of e.g. some Peter Evans groups) on electronics on one track. Here we have yet another rethinking of the piano trio, this time with cello (which seems to be a popular choice lately), and a less traditionally "jazzy" result than Hocevar's first album, Motion in Time (a typical piano trio with bass). Coding of Evidentiality remains rather based in the jazz tradition specifically, though, and indeed Hocevar states that he has been in school (lastly at the "New School"), surrounded by the best teachers, since he was six years old. So he is another highly trained conservatory musician from Europe, like some others I've recently featured here, and has already appeared with many famous older colleagues (although not otherwise on an album, as far as I know). While it seems to me that Hocevar is still working to develop a personal style, he is obviously very talented, and there is much to enjoy about this album: I love the titles, for one. Although the piano can be a bit repetitive or "romantic," there is an interesting open sense of rhythm developed to (at least partly) redefine some classical styles from the inside. As with many recent essays in the piano trio format, there is also a mixture of roles, evoking even more transversality when the electronics get involved on "Critical Discourse Analysis." I look forward to more from Hocevar.

24 June 2015

I had no familiarity with Swiss pianist Katharina Weber (b.1958) prior to her new trio album, It Rolls, but was attracted in part by the participation of Fred Frith. Frith has appeared in this space, thus far, only in conjunction with his role on Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet, an album I continue to find quite compelling. Frith's more recent albums have been duos, or a little farther back, more explicitly rock-oriented. In any case, his comment that Weber is "a new piano icon" drew my attention, on top of his actual participation in the trio. (I haven't found some of the previous all-European Intakt releases to be terribly provocative, so I needed some prodding to hear this. And given my remarks on England, what to make of the relation between music & Swiss politics?) Frith's comment wasn't actually applied to this album, but rather to one of Weber's earlier albums: She has primarily been a classical pianist, and has become increasingly interested in improvisation. She already recorded another trio album (with Barry Guy) devoted to improvising on compositions by György Kurtág, and then a solo album. It Rolls, however, is an all-improvised trio album, so at least in format, perfect for this space. Indeed, more than simply format, I've found it to be quite appealing, a unique & sophisticated combination of ideas, influences, and energy. It's been a very pleasant surprise.

Like the Dre Hocevar album discussed in the previous entry, It Rolls is something of a variation on the piano trio, with Frith's guitar substituted for bass. I keep finding myself thinking of it as a piano trio, in fact, and have to correct. That's not to say that the guitar isn't evident as a guitar (including electrical distortion at times, etc.), but the approach to the genre of piano trio is clearly there. As is the trend, the approach includes playing inside the piano, etc. The possibilities Frith brings on guitar — and the timbre of his playing varies markedly in different parts of the album — bring new ways to match or differentiate these interior & other sounds. (The liner notes describe a "wonderfully ambiguous spectrum of colors.") Swiss drummer Fredy Studer (b.1948) did appear briefly in this space in the context of discussing Hans Koch & hence Koch-Schütz-Studer. He is described as "hard core" in the notes, which I don't really understand, but he contributes a wealth of rhythmic ideas & textures throughout, weaving them into the general foreground-background tapestry. Although the liner notes state that this trio only played together once (live) prior to the studio recording, the result seems very natural & sympathetic. In keeping with playing both inside & outside the piano, It Rolls has something of an inside-outside character too, at least if we consider the various classical (including twentieth century) allusions to be "inside." The tracks vary considerably in length, but the various explorations & allusions don't really respect track boundaries. Rather they appear or play out in different ways at different points, so that e.g. the different techniques Frith employs are not segmented by track. There's also something of a leisurely quality to the album, even with much activity at times, and despite its evocation of "industrial" sounds via various rattles & resonances (from clear ringing to screeching). There are also sophisticated, if usually short-lived, harmonic implications as well as evocations of e.g. Chinese string technique. So the allusions range widely. I've noted in the past that it seems to be difficult to do something really interesting with the piano trio these days, and whereas I still think that's true, many people do seem to be managing, including Weber & her trio on It Rolls.

25 June 2015

As noted "way back" on Wednesday, I had yet to listen to Kris Davis's new album, Save Your Breath with the octet Infrasound. Unfortunately, the expectations I had for this album did not help my appreciation, and I should have just listened to it right away. I enjoyed it at first, but kind of got tired of it by the time I'd finished the first hearing. Like her 2011 album Tony Malaby's Novela, Save Your Breath features Davis's arranging for what is essentially a "big band" in the contemporary context. The group of four clarinetists obviously recalls something like James Falzone's The Room Is, supplemented by Davis with organ, her own piano, guitar & drums. The result is six long pieces that often feature smaller sets of players, and generally with what seems to be very clear compositional direction. (The drama of the individual tracks clearly derives from the composed sequence.) There are some interesting textural combinations, and some clever progressions, but it mostly comes off as easy listening music to me. I can literally imagine some of these tracks playing in a supermarket, even if (especially as) parts of it sound like rock music. This album isn't for me, but maybe some people will enjoy it. I'll end by noting the reappearance of "Whirly Swirly" from her trio album, Waiting For You To Grow.

28 June 2015

I'm not sure what I expected from Sonic Communion, but it's a quintet album with Joëlle Léandre involved, so I was going to hear it. Also in the quintet, on the French side, is Jean-Luc Cappozzo (who has appeared in this space with the albums Live at Total Meeting & Grey Matter) and Bernard Santacruz. I was not previously familiar with the latter, but he also plays double bass. Sonic Communion is the first document of an ongoing musical exchange between USA (so far, Chicago) & France, and the musicians from Chicago who came to tour France in 2013 (and so, are represented on this document) are Douglas R. Ewart (b.1946, Jamaica) & Michael Zerang. So it's an interesting group, and Ewart really "steals" the show here — perhaps by design, in order to highlight Chicago music for French musicians & audience. I don't hear too much of Léandre, specifically (particularly with the two basses) until the uncredited vocals on the last track, but Ewart is unmistakable right from the start. (Such a collaboration reminds me a bit of 28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982, as I mentioned in the June 21st entry, albeit there with half English musicians, and of course not oriented toward including the public.) The Bridge (note that the URL is wrong on the album) is supposed to be an ongoing project, alternating visits between the two countries, with Chicago musicians already lined up to visit France again this year. (The web site names Edward Perraud, who has appeared in this space on the album Moon Fish with Jean-Luc Guionnet & Benjamin Duboc, as administrator, but he does not appear on Sonic Communion.) Anyway, although the visiting musicians had two weeks of activities, this is a recording of a single concert in Avignon. There are many fine moments, involving a spiritual sort of atmosphere throughout (framed as sublimated eroticism by the poem in the notes), so it includes sharing at that level. It's often fairly tonal too, again with the idea (presumably) to build bridges. I very much enjoy, e.g. Ewart's emerging flute on track #2, and his combination, I guess playing a didgeridoo, with trumpet & bass on track #4. Although Sonic Communion doesn't come off as a finished product, perhaps for the best in this case, it is quite worthwhile to hear. It will be interesting to hear what else might come of this ongoing project.

Somewhat in this vein, I also want to mention the recent album Pomegranate by a quintet led by Stephen Haynes (b.1955), and dedicated to Bill Dixon. It's an interesting group of musicians, building on Haynes's first (trio) album Parrhesia, which featured a poem by Warren Smith. Pomegranate doesn't include the spoken word, but Smith & Joe Morris return, and are joined by William Parker & Ben Stapp on tuba. It also involves a spiritual atmosphere, perhaps somewhat akin to Parker's playing on Telling Stories (discussed here on June 3rd), and indeed Parker plays such instruments as sintir & shakuhachi, adding variety to the ensemble sound. I particularly enjoy the trumpet & tuba interaction, and think more groups should use the two together. There's also some Asian-style string technique, etc., so a rich variety of sound. Overall, though, there is a lot of repetitive playing to support solos, so I didn't find the interaction among the musicians to be terribly compelling most of the time. Still, whereas Haynes evidently doesn't have Dixon's feel for ensemble structure, he does evoke him well on trumpet.

29 June 2015

Just as I was writing, a month ago, that Joe Hertenstein had yet to appear on an album without a bassist, such an album appeared, Past the Future with Blaise Siwula & Carsten Radtke. I was not previously familiar with guitarist Radtke, but I have enjoyed Siwula's horn playing with e.g. Jeff Shurdut and on Tesla Coils. Indeed, Tesla Coils is somewhat similar to Past the Future, in that it's likewise a trio with (electric) guitar, but with electronics instead of drums. The latter is on Siwula's own No Frills Music label, with bright & resonant sound, and is an extension of his already existing Projection:Zero duo with Radtke. Consequently, there is a sense in which Joe is commenting on the activity of the duo, and indeed in which Radtke is often commenting on melodic material introduced by Siwula. The latter, according to the liner notes, constitutes a "kaleidoscope of genres" transcended into a "compositional poem." This is mostly material inspired (so it would seem) by popular or folk music, although it often becomes fragmented in the course of commentary during each freely improvised track. Joe's activity on drums encompasses a variety of sonority, but does tend to remain in the realm of commentary, in what is generally a rather blowing-oriented album. Moreover, I might add, regarding the bass observation, that the guitar does sometimes function exactly as a traditional bass would, although other times it operates more in the melodic (or noise) domain. Past the Future is an enjoyable album with a good sense of energy, even if the trio interaction itself seems rather straightforward in its layering.

Keeping to this theme, Joe didn't mention it to me, but he also appears on Eat the Air by Sean Sonderegger's Magically Inclined. Probably coincidentally, this album relates to Past the Future in that it includes Harvey Valdes, who also appeared on Tesla Coils — and has appeared with Shurdut, as well, on the same album as Sonderegger himself. So there is a bit of circularity to these connections. Eat the Air is on Skirl Records, and features one of their colorful covers, as well as their generally accessible harmonic idioms. Some tracks feature wordless vocals, but most set poems by Joanna Penn Cooper in a sort of Steve Coleman-esque style, with singer Areni Agbabian in the Jen Shyu role. Agbabian is an appealing singer as well, and the various interlocking "Caribbean" rhythms leave much to the drummer, just as they do on Coleman's albums in this style. Joe has a drum solo e.g. to start track #4, and has much activity throughout to support the horns & voice, turning in quite a tour-de-force, even if it's in the context of Sonderegger's composed music. There's a bit of subject displacement from Sonderegger here, which I hear in terms of Shurdut, but beyond the interlocking rhythms, it's mostly straightforward melodic & "sophisticated" twentieth-century classical harmonic material compatible with or in the service of (sometimes likewise dislocated) poetry.

Also appearing recently on Skirl is Pictorial Atlas of Mammals by Simon Jermyn's Trot a Mouse. Besides engaging Ingrid Laubrock, Mat Maneri & Tom Rainey, musicians whose work I often enjoy, Jermyn's own compositions are supplemented by two from John Dowland, giving it a bit of an "early music" slant. Indeed, other textures on the album sometimes project a fairly unified "consort" feel, with straightforward (Romantic) tight harmonies only occasionally breaking into more independence (most conspicuously on track #9). Jermyn's guitar also changes roles from front line to bass, as Radtke does on Past the Future, and the conception supports some rather slow material at times (partly in keeping with the melancholy Dowland influence), in contrast to the nominal implication of an electric rock sonority that can reappear at any moment. Both of these Skirl discs, along with Devin Gray's Relative Resonance, which I heard at the same time, often come off as highly composed.

6 July 2015

I actually have an easy answer to my (somewhat rhetorical) question from last month, about what music scenes I am still ignoring: There are many world music styles that feature improvisation, completely (or not so completely these days) independent of music arising from the European or USA tradition. I was already threatening, in May, to include discussions of such material here, and indeed this is what I intend to do. I've posted an update in the world section on this site, and created a new page there for more recent additions. As I say there, I intend to include some further thoughts on releases in that area in this space.

As I had already broached in May, the category "world music," taken as a whole, is already a dubious one. Such a notion might suggest some kind of "borrow something from everyone" style, where e.g. a Chinese string technique sits next to an African rhythm. Indeed, to some degree, this is exactly what we get from contemporary "jazz" albums: Individuals learn various techniques over the years, from a wide variety of sources, and incorporate both techniques & sonic ideas from music they've heard into their improvisations. To do otherwise, that is to learn only from specific sources or to exclude some set of auditory influences, actually requires effort. Of course, it's also true that no one has the same familiarity with or affinity for all music, so different people have different influences. That's fine, and in a sense, it's all world music. However, on this site, I've mostly used the label to indicate traditional styles from different parts of the world, and in that sense, there is no "world music," but rather there is Carnatic music, Persian music, guqin, etc. — and even these can be divided into schools, periods, etc. So whereas, as indicated in the discussions I've written over in the world music section of the site, I don't want to focus on such categories as much here in 2015, I'm also not looking to consider "music" as an undifferentiated mass. (For instance, I saw a call on another site for a "roots music expert" to confirm or discuss some details about some rather different traditions, as if it seems natural on the web for one person to be an expert in various traditions. Perhaps some people are, but that level of experience is not acquired easily.) I want to consider its relations or vectors, so to speak. Such a comment also relates to some of the rather harsh comments I've made regarding "fusion" efforts already in this space: I've met some smaller-scale influences, such as adapting a tune or a string technique into a broader improvisatory canvas, with appreciation, and remark on them often (although not always). However, I've also bristled at some of the more consciously framed "jazz" fusion efforts. I'm not going to attempt to justify my choices in this area as somehow objective, but there are times when I do feel an affinity for the "other" music, and do not feel that it is met by the contemporary effort in turn. This is partly a matter of goals & desires, of course, and in any case, perhaps discussing some albums that fall more clearly within a non-Western tradition will help to set a broader context for such remarks. It will also provide me with some mental space, so to speak, to consider albums that somehow aren't any of the things I just mentioned. What else can be done? I won't promise to be a gentle critic, but I do intend to (continue to) focus discussion on items I actually enjoy, rather than the reverse. So let's make fusion and/or borrowing between traditions a more explicit topic of discussion, particularly within the political & economic context of globalization — but more on that later.

The above comments, as well as those on the new pages in the world music section proper, are coordinated with the appearance of a couple of new albums, so let me discuss those....

Wasla — named simply after a kind of suite once popular in Egypt — is a duo album by Tarek Abdallah (b.1975) & Adel Shams El-Din. Using only 'ud & riqq, it's fairly sparse in texture, in comparison to the large Egyptian ensemble productions of the early twentieth century. (I should also note that, unlike in the jazz space, I have no prejudice against duos in the world music domain. To some degree, I'll take what I can get there, but I've mostly preferred smaller ensembles, due to the clearer individual sounds.) Indeed, this album is something of a revival of that earlier style, which fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century, and became confined to academia during the 1970s-90s, from which it made a return to the public ear. Abdallah, working in France, has set out to reinvigorate the style, not simply reconstruct it. So he presents a small-scale instrumental wasla, incorporating asymmetric rhythms from the muwashshah form. The rhythmic facility by the musicians is amazing here, and these odd rhythms would have been much more difficult to execute in the large ensemble settings of a century ago. Let me make a little digression on improvisation, because I'm unsure of the readership for this entry: As is typical of various Arabic suites of this general type, these wasla include specific song arrangements that incorporate some improvisation, as well as more open improvised tracks. In that sense, it is similar (although not in "head" form) to a fairly "inside" jazz album in the way it uses composition & arrangement. Moreover, Abdallah has chosen what he considers to be quintessentially Egyptian modes (maqamat) for the program (and the relationships to the Persian modes can be considered — they are all closely related to Persian modes, of which there are fewer than the Arab). His innovations, then, serve in some sense to forge a new conversation with history, not to recapitulate it. Wasla is an impressive album for technique, but also for this conversation, which is, of course, in part a political conversation. In that sense, it is a living contemporary album, to the same degree that a jazz album using historical Western tonality is contemporary.

Having already mentioned Persian music, the other album to discuss now is Tambour inopiné, by the Ensemble Moshtaq, led by Reza Ghassemi (b.1950, Isfahan), who is also listed as composer. Similar to the comments on improvisation above, there are song arrangements on Tambour inopiné that include improvised accompaniment, as well as tracks more freely improvised within their modes (dastgah-e). As opposed to the high abstraction of Wasla, the album begins by establishing a folksy mood, and branches out from there. Indeed, Ghassemi claims to be seeking the "lost joy" of Persian music — an obviously political reference. Indeed, this politics extends technically into the musical field in Iran, not only in events of the past four decades, but back a century with the establishment of the Radif: The Radif, the semi-official system-repertory of modern Persian classical music, collected a variety of material, while excluding some. (The resulting set of tunes implies improvised elaboration.) Albums from Iran have appeared featuring music from outside the Radif for some time, so that part is not unusual, but Ghassemi makes the different material fit together naturally. (One "folk" addition here is the laleveh flute.) Tambour inopiné features the amazing voice of Sepideh Raissadat — and regular readers (of the world music section) will know that I greatly enjoy some of the Persian (and related) singers — as well as virtuoso technique throughout the ensemble. I have not generally featured ensemble recordings of this sort, largely because the additional performers have tended to play in unison & "muddy" the textures, but here different instruments get to take their own solos, and come off with an independent character (even if they do spend time reflecting back the vocal lines, as e.g. the violin would in a Carnatic vocal performance). The singing engages in a fairly explicit alternation of registers, something I was taught reflected, at least in the Persian ney, different origins: The higher pinched register is called Egyptian, whereas the lower breathy register is called Turkish. (It might be more accurate to call the latter Chinese, but that is not what they say in Iran.) After "retiring" to work in the field of literature for a couple of decades, this is actually Ghassemi's third new album, the second with Raissadat, after 14 Cheerful Pieces. Here we have, again, an album that incorporates multiple traditional or historical contexts into a buoyant contemporary conception. Finally, let me note explicitly that Persian medieval poetry, i.e. that by Rumi et al., continues to have a reputation in the West, in spite of politics, and so here is some music that further connects these eras.

Hopefully, these & future discussions will bring some other influences & connections into the improvised music arena more broadly. That's a big reason I want to start discussing this material here, although I do not know how frequent such discussions will be. Also, as already indicated above, I want to explore the political implications: The albums just discussed sit in highly politicized contexts, particularly from the USA perspective. That's a topic I will explore slowly, perhaps in conjunction with some more extended articles.

A few final comments regarding both of these albums, and more generally: Why are the recording dates so vague? (Especially in the "traditional" arena, I would think that documentation is important.) Is it true that fewer "world traditional" albums are being released these days, or simply that I don't see them? How might I become better informed regarding such album releases?

7 July 2015

When reconfiguring my "world music" discussion into this space, I mentioned the possibility of revisiting archival recordings. Indeed, correspondent Rami Bärman in Finland had already motivated me to spend some time listening to some albums by North Indian santur master Shiv Kumar Sharma (b.1938), and these are not new albums. (First, I should step back and say that I'm being very broad in using a term like "archival" here: To be more specific, I mostly listened to recordings from the 90s & 00s. So, call it the archive of the final glory days of CD production. Obviously, there is much older recorded material extant from India, and elsewhere.) I listened to recordings by the esteemed santur player, in particular the Nimbus series, back when I was first studying Hindustani music, circa 1990. However, I was listening very much in the context of Hindustani music per se, and Indian classical music is oriented on vocals. Sharma's achievement has been to adapt the santur, an instrument played by striking strings, to the slurs & ornaments of vocal music. It is not well-suited to this, naturally speaking, so this is the context of his achievement. It also meant that, in studying Hindustani music specifically, his work seemed more like something of a curiosity to me rather than a core articulation of the tradition. That may be true, but today I'd like to offer a few thoughts regarding Sharma's music as fusion, and thereby open other avenues of appreciation.

Sharma's father, Uma Dutt Sharma was from Kashmir, but learned vocals from the Benares Gharana. However, he decided that Shiv Kumar should take up the native "folk" instrument, the santur, after he had learned vocal music & tabla. Of course, the santur is — more or less, pace both some regional adjustments, as well as the Indian music-specific adjustments made by Sharma himself — an Iranian instrument, one of the most prestigious in that tradition. Similar instruments appear in Europe as the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, and extend as far as China, with the yang qin (foreign zither, signifying its Persian origins). It apparently originated earlier within the boundaries of what would become the Persian Empire (in Babylonia, according to Wikipedia). The instrument itself thus represents something of a diaspora (of music, if not people), centered on the Near East, even if Sharma himself has thoroughly adapted it to Hindustani style. Despite the latter, its (non-exclusive) Persian roots are rather evident at times in his playing, based simply on the character of the instrument itself: Playing some figures in folk songs, or in faster climactic passages, the percussive quality of the instrument emerges clearly from attempts at rendering vocal style, even if the resonances are somewhat different from the Iranian configuration. The santur is, after all, a percussion instrument in a real sense (and ancestor-cousin of the piano). Perhaps I should also note that e.g. the prominent Hindustani sitar has, in name at least, a Persian influence too. In both cases, it is largely native Indian ragas that are played with foreign-influenced technology. (The same is true of the Carnatic violin.) The extended raga presentations of the North may also be influenced by the grand Shash Maqam tradition, but such a history becomes more controversial. We can, however, learn at least some aspects of the music the medieval Sultanates and/or Mughals would have known prior to arriving in North India. (For Western readers, note that e.g. Avicenna was born under Persian rule in the territory of present day Uzbekistan. His father was a governor within what would become present day Afghanistan.)

Regarding Shiv Kumar Sharma, and recorded albums specifically, his discography is vast. I am not sure what to suggest in detail, but I did enjoy listening to his music within a Persian context — a context I did not yet have the first time I heard it. (If I recall correctly, I wrote my first discussion of Persian music in 1992, so these events were not so distant in time, but they had been compartmentalized in my mind.) I might suggest, for instance, listening to Sharma's Divinity at Dawn (Raga Bairagi, recorded in 1993) on Navras Records — and I do have a fondness for Hindustani music of the morning — in succession with Parviz Meshkatian's Dawn (a recording, amazingly from 1982, released in USA in 1996 — how time flies). The album that Rami first mentioned to me was Sympatico, a 2002 recording on Sense World Music: The exposition of Raga Charukeshi (a Carnatic raga, rather than Hindustani, just like his Kirvani on The Inner Path, on the same label, furthering the fusion aspect) is indeed outstanding, and this may be the final recorded performance (I am told) by Kishan Maharaj of Benares Gharana, one of the most widely esteemed tabla players of his generation. Sharma's own contribution is thus fairly secondary to the two gats that make up the bulk of the album. Sharma has also been a generous & tireless teacher, so his influence is likely to appear more before the public eye in years to come.

15 July 2015

Rounding out a series of entries involving musical styles beyond what is typically included in "jazz," and marking that the "world music" changes here have already been noticed, I had the chance (this past week) to listen to Utzaka by Rema Hasumi from Japan, on Ruweh Records. Hasumi engaged some well-known New York improvisers for the album: Todd Neufeld, Thomas Morgan, Billy Mintz, & Ben Gerstein — as well as Sergio Krakowski (with whom I was not previously familiar) on various world (i.e. not Japanese) percussion. The idea behind the album was to meet the Japanese Gagaku repertory without taking a Western perspective, and specifically outside of the Western idea of the chromatic scale. Gagaku has generally been regarded as quite dissonant in the West, and hence something of a surprise as ritual music. One current theory regarding its origins is that the repertory formed from the ornaments or passing tones, slowed down, of Chinese ceremonial music of the Tang Dynasty. If true, such a process might be analogized to the formulation of the medieval motet as extracted from the extended & complex cadences (clausulae) of multi-voice organum. In any case, the process might be described as one of distillation, in the case of Gagaku, a distillation of dissonance. What the repertory starts making us wonder, and what Utzaka in particular started making me wonder, was about the nature of dissonance per se. I was surprised by how "tonal" it sounded, and wondered how this could possibly result from taking a non-Western look at Gagaku. (The "New York sound" of many of the players is sometimes palpable, and this lends something of a sense of familiarity in itself.) The featured piano only underscored my confusion, but upon listening to it interspersed with some actual Gagaku music, I realized that it was my very concept of dissonance which was the Western aspect to be disclaimed. There simply isn't a Western concept of dissonance in the various, usually sparse, piano chords & the way the players interact. Or rather, one might say, there is no dissonance, but a group of sounds that are already inherently unified as sounds, as aspects of the world. The distillation of dissonance becomes the freeing of dissonance to be non-dissonant, i.e. removed from the context in which it is dissonant. The music takes on a dramatic quality, almost as if adrift at sea — plus the more specific imagery named in some of the tracks, which at a few points also take on (what is to me) a Chinese feel. Sometimes not a lot happens. Beyond the piano chords setting the scene, Hasumi's voice evokes an overtly dramatic quality: In many ways, her vocal performance is the highlight of the album, with its piercing sense of reality, ending finally with a lullaby. I had originally taken Utzaka to be something of an exploratory effort, and it is indeed searching, but upon further listening, I hear a remarkably mature musical statement.

Of course, Japan is probably the Asian country whose musicians have participated most in the New York (and by extension, US) jazz scene over the years, and various Japanese musicians are found on various albums, "free" & otherwise. These contributions have run the gamut, even with all-Japanese ensembles, from rather sparse piano-based as here, to styles inflecting American popular music, to "noise" per se. So I've been reflecting on Japanese contributions in this space for a while, such as by Tatsuya Nakatani on 3 on a Thin Line, although often without discussing them as Japanese per se.

This also seems like a good place to mention The Road of Hasekura Tsunenaga by Spanish shakuhachi player, Rodrigo Rodríguez (b.1978, Argentina). The album was actually released in 2013, and brought to my attention in late 2014, partly for its "early music" connection. Hasekura Tsunenaga (c.1571-1622) was a Japanese diplomat who made a mission to the Vatican, via Mexico & Spain, from 1613 to 1620. The album depicts some significant events in Spain & Rome, as well as before & after in Japan. The emphasis is very much on the shakuhachi flute, sometimes in duo, only bolstered by harp in a couple of the more "Spanish" pieces. It is thus a depiction of this historical interaction from the Japanese perspective, including classical Honkyoku repertory, and indeed, Rodríguez is formally trained in shakuhachi of the Mu-Ryû school. Although the shakuhachi can be very austere, this is a fascinating album depicting a fascinating historical experience.

19 July 2015

After enjoying It Rolls, and seeing Fred Frith's introduction, I decided to have a listen to Radical Empathy, an album improvised in New York (but mixed & mastered in Oakland) by Thollem McDonas, Nels Cline, & Michael Wimberly. This is another piano-guitar-drums album, something I positioned in the earlier discussion as a variant on the piano trio, but here instead of the classical preparations & background of Katharina Weber, we have the West Coast rock & "new age" of Cline & Thollem. (Michael Wimberly has worked with more mainstream jazz musicians, such as Charles Gayle.) I first discussed (in 2012) Thollem (as well as Cline) in this space with The Gowanus Session, a somewhat similar trio with William Parker. The other obvious historical ensemble reference in the present case is the organ trio: Although the word "organ" does not appear for Thollem's instruments, the sorts of "preparations" he is engaging often yield an organ-like sound. Such an evocation also fits Cline's rock background, as the (gospel) organ trio format infused early blues-based rock. Frith notes the internal logic & emergent structures on Radical Empathy, and indeed there are various interesting developments: The performers range from "metal" to ballads, or maybe metal ballads, different instrumental resonances correspond in different ways, and by the last track, we get more of what sounds like bells. The resulting exploration of textures is not unlike Joe Morris's Mess Hall (and their relationship to ostinato is similar). What is the purpose or focus of this exploration? I wrote regarding The Gowanus Session that "for people in a different place, it could be more meaningful," contrasting it to my own response. I have some more specific thoughts on this notion regarding Radical Empathy, an album that evokes "outer space" both with its cover and in its references. I've not gotten into this "space" music much, and I think I can both explain why & note something of its positive basis. Space evocations are clearly gestures toward transcendence, desire pointing away from the reality of life on Earth. I've long considered such gestures to be dangerous distractions, letting people ignore the real conditions of our world. Maybe you see the two views now? For many of the people I've known, space & sci-fi allow them to escape the consequences of their own actions, and live in a fantasyland — a fantasyland that does nothing to improve the world, in my experience, and likely rationalizes profit-seeking behavior. (I can make a similar note about the Kennedy space program specifically: It was intended to draw the nation together on a goal that wasn't war, but whereas drawing people together sounds nice enough, it also reinforced social hierarchy, both implicitly & explicitly. In that sense, it was a distraction.) However, for those who have far too much "reality" already, the closing of possibility is one of the biggest conceptual dangers, and space provides a platform of possibility: Specifically, it yields a way to think a radically different future. (We are regularly & repeatedly told that no other society is possible. Demands for change are met with an absolute denial of possibility, in such corrupt disciplines as economics.) This is Afro-Futurism, epitomized of course by Sun Ra. (On this point, Jeff Shurdut is soon to release his massive 2005 double album, Stargazers featuring Marshall Allen, on his Creative Music for Creative Listening label. That album traverses a similar duality of perspective to the one I'm describing here, underscored by the subtitle "This is the Music of Life," in a direct way.) So I certainly support thought of open possibility, and radical empathy is as good a future as any. The music itself has a therapeutic quality in this sense.

Let me also mention the Chris Pitsiokos Trio's Gordian Twine here, released recently on New Atlantis Records, in particular for the way it also aligns instrumental resonances differently at different times. I discussed Pitsiokos's trio album Maximalism with Weasel Walter back in August of 2013, and noted his rather distinctive technique on alto sax. Gordian Twine (Pitsiokos's 4th album, the others being duos), including Max Johnson & Kevin Shea, two other prominent New York musicians, is more of a composed suite, however. Although the rock influence lurks, the suite evokes ancient Greece in its titles, and shows a creative sense of ensemble interaction. Some of this seems to be generated out of an extended hocket technique, where periods of silence (or rest) for one or two musicians continue to hold structural relevance. This concept drives much of the formal movement, lending it a kind of alternating sonic feel in which solos emerge from & blend back into the trio form. So, whereas there are quick & fractured sax notes, even evoking loud traffic at times, jangling bass strings wedded to bowed harmonics, and a sometimes raucous atmosphere, these techniques are wedded formally to periods of quiet where almost nothing happens. These developments are linked timbrally in the way that the instrumental resonances align or not, and move into different sorts of alignments. It's an interesting concept & exploration, although it does come off here as very composed.

Finally, I also want to mention Lake Monsters, a duo by Sandy Ewen & Henry Kaiser, and the third in the series of duos featuring those musicians & Damon Smith to appear on Balance Point Acoustics, as recorded in November 2013. (I should also note that the Confront label from the UK has just released a duo album, Valle de México, recorded by Smith & Ewen in Mexico in 2012.) Readers will know that I'm not really into duos — the possible interaction styles are simply fewer — and have never managed to really enjoy Henry Kaiser's music — although he seems to enjoy some of the same music I do, so I guess that's our proper relationship. Lake Monsters is another long album, and quite a journey from moment to moment. Are they switching guitars for the different tracks? Anyway, there's a lot happening, and quite a range of sounds & references (surf guitar & Korean sanjo, for instance, plus plenty of Japan-rock). They seem to go ahead & do everything they have a mind to do.

20 July 2015

Entropy / Enthalpy (recorded in France in February 2014) is the next album in The Bridge series, as discussed last month around the album Sonic Communion. This next album is on Rogueart (rather than the new label of Sonic Communion), and indeed Alexandre Pierrepont appears to be closely involved with the project: The stylistic priorities & musical combinations fit his label rather well, in any case. Having two bassists for the previous album seemed like something of a curiosity, particularly as Ewart was so prominent, but Entropy / Enthalpy uses at least two basses throughout, and indeed the whole first CD of the double album consists of Benjamin Duboc & Harrison Bankhead with Hamid Drake & Ramon Lopez on drums & percussion — a quartet apparently named The Turbine! For the second CD, Jean-Luc Cappozzo returns (as the only performer on both of these albums) for one track, another is played with Lionel Garcin (with whom I was not otherwise familiar, making his the most engaging track for me — a contribution imitating the harmonics of a bowed bass for much of the first several minutes, before erupting into more classic free blowing & groove) on alto saxophone, and William Parker makes it a trio of bassists for the other two. There is again an emphasis on accessibility, communicative interplay, tonality, groove, etc. The result is an enjoyable double album, but I do confess to being confused by the emphasis on bassists in this ongoing musical exchange between France & the US (mostly Chicago so far). This is jazz as defined by its bass line, as in bebop, then? The approaches to the bass certainly vary, while mostly retaining the accessible quality of the series. The goal here, I guess, is to have the bassists play seamlessly together, channeling some power beyond.

26 July 2015

Confront Recordings certainly has an interesting approach to packaging, with their metal trays & plastic-wrapped postcard inserts. (The cases have the air of durability, but I've already had one smashed in transit, and the interior plastic is rather flimsy.) I've listened to a few items since they started appearing, mostly archival, but in keeping with my recent interest in English improvisation, as generated by Whitewashed with lines, I decided to hear a couple of recent releases involving John Butcher. These items might be described as ea or lowercase or the like, i.e. they're improvisational without an orientation toward traditional concepts of melody & harmony. Membrane was recorded last spring, and features a couple of tracks of shifting resonance, investigations of breath & struck or rubbed materials. In some sense, the percussion dominates in that Mark Wastell (who operates Confront) drives the proceedings on amplified tam-tam, and Burkhard Beins combines the resonances of a bass drum with feedback & electronics. (I had heard Beins before in e.g. the recent Traces of Wood, a rather composition-oriented album by Polwechsel, with whom Butcher has also recorded. This was my first encounter with Wastell, at least that I remember.) However, the breath does factor strongly into this interaction, and indeed one might view such an exploration as akin to the Japanese shakuhachi repertory (mentioned here a week ago). In any case, the electronics seem mainly to function to align the volumes/intensities between the different material resonators, without a lot of feedback, in order to explore close interactions of the different resonances themselves. There's a metallic quality that underscores much of this interaction, starting with the tam-tam, serving to structure the contributions of wood & breath. The music might proceed from a quiescent state to a throbbing surge, with some resonances emerging as distinct (countable) beats. In this, it's somewhat slower & less intense than e.g. Five Lines, which is based more on feedback per se via "broken electronics" & mixing boards, as discussed here back in March. Membrane also doesn't have the overt human communication aspect of Butcher's work on e.g. The Apophonics On Air. It's probably more engaging of that part (the part that also apprehends speech, I imagine) of one's listening mind than e.g. Keith Rowe's recent Contour album from Saint Petersburg, though. Membrane thus does have a background quality to it, but draws one's attention explicitly to such background vibrations. It's an exercise for one's attention in that sense, an exercise that may be figured broadly, and never particularly overwhelming in any dimension.

Also recently released on Confront is The Contest of (More) Pleasures, featuring a wind trio that has at least two previous albums: Butcher with Axel Dörner & Xavier Charles. Here the orientation is more exclusively toward winds & breath, obviously, but in terms of exploring the space around the musicians. Previous "Contest of Pleasures" albums intentionally moved between different architectural acoustics, some with weather effects, for different explorations. The trio has thus been rather technical in that sense, but incorporating a variety of individual wind articulations into that exploration. The Contest of (More) Pleasures is the most recent, but not a particularly new recording, made in 2009. In this case, the wind trio is joined in the credits by Laurent Sassi (who also recorded their "architecture" album, Alibi Days) on "phonographies," mixing & diffusion plus Jean-Léon Pallandre on "phonographies" & microphones. The layers of musical production involved are thus more explicit, or at least collapsed into one list of credits. (Yet, Sassi & someone else are also credited separately with making the recording, so I'm still unsure what this means.) This is another album that is more subdued in its tone, i.e. less conversational in its impression than is Whitewashed with lines, often rather quiet or singular, but does explore an interesting path of interaction & resonance for differently articulated breaths. The "scientific" component of both albums ends up making them interesting, but also limits their personal impact. (I am still pondering how to relate to such "impersonal" music. Once one learns it, i.e. hears what is being demonstrated, what is left? This sort of demonstration is also very different live, I should probably add.) The result is raising consciousness in this direct, yet impersonal, sense. The music can thus be considered a significant aspect of the posthuman turn.

27 July 2015

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