Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

Although it's for the second time this calendar year — and this is the first I've done that in this space — I've decided to roll the previous set of thoughts over to another archive page: The previous nine months simply ended up producing, already, more verbiage (by word count) than any previous sets of entries. Why have I felt so verbose this year? Well, it's been something of a trend here generally, but moreover, it had much to do with the tone of confidence in the previous intro, and starting to feel less like I was exploring what was out there, and more like I had a sense of the field. Of course, such a sense remains particular to me & my priorities, what I enjoy, what I find theoretically stimulating, what I find useful in day to day life.... I guess we'll see where all that goes next.

Any time I start to feel like I know what I'm doing, especially within such an open & dynamic field as contemporary improvised music, it's a good time to remind myself that there is surely far more happening than I will ever know. And I do sometimes lament the static quality of some of my musical inputs, meaning that there are sources I tend to appreciate, and so I always worry about getting into a mental rut.... (And I'm also writing a new intro now in part because there was a considerable lull in having new items of interest to discuss. That happens sometimes, and I'm growing more accustomed to the rhythms in this space: A feeling of being overwhelmed with variety can be followed quickly by wondering why there's nothing new catching my ear.... That dynamic undoubtedly involves my shifting internal judgments too.) So I need to make a point, at least for myself, to continue to seek out something different. In the meantime, readers can always consult my prior (& updated) favorites, summarized by year for quick reference. (I hope that it's useful for people who want a relatively brief list of especially worthwhile — to me anyway — recent albums, without feeling a need to read a bunch of commentary. Words aren't necessary to appreciate music, after all, and might even interfere.)

I mentioned "contemporary improvised music" above, so why does this space say jazz? For one, I started there, and tend to keep web pages at their same addresses, instead of moving things around. But that's obviously a ridiculous answer: When I started this project, I had intended to prioritize USA (or perhaps American more broadly) production — and also youth. I've speculated in the past on why the former priority became untenable, in part because of the dismal support for the arts & education in this country, or perhaps the differing priorities of people who might become involved with musical resistance, but I've found over time that only a minority of what interests me originates in this hemisphere.... (And I simply do not believe that this project "works" if I ignore items I find more appealing — for whatever reason — in favor of items I find less appealing.) In the latter case, I've found that various older performers still have much to say (& that I might have much to say in response), but I do continue to be open to youth & new ideas (I hope!). That said, as I wrote in the prior intro, I take jazz as resistance, as a medium fighting oppression and for social justice & new forms of life. And African Americans played & play a huge role, which ought to be respected any time one uses the term. However, I also don't believe that restricting the sound of "jazz" to the classic sound of jazz suits its liberatory purpose: Time marches on. Moreover, of course, there have been many more improvisatory musical traditions around the world, even as (at least in this country) improvisation was so strongly linked to "jazz" per se in its glory days (the 1960s — the climax of the modern era), such that there are many "roots" today — & many struggles for freedom. And I continue to prioritize improvisation because I believe that it reflects the conditions of life itself, particularly in such volatile historical times. (That's not to say that I won't listen to or discuss composed music, but I consider composition to be something of a crutch — sometimes helpful in getting something done, such that perhaps it can lead to more....)

Notions of composition as somehow "more preliminary" than improvisation might already seem eccentric, but I also try to take an improvisatory approach myself in this space: I try not to wait "too long" before discussing an album, so that I can capture some of the spontaneity of my thoughts & their tangents. Excitement can easily be lost in the sobriety that so often accompanies time, but new insight can form as well, and so whereas I want to be spontaneous here, I also revisit old favorites with some regularity, such that reactions to something new might be played against or through (new?) reactions to something older (although usually still from within the time frame of this project, which began in 2010). So thoughts develop over time, and I've consequently kept entries in written order — thus requiring these restarts — and resisted impulses to provide typical web widgets for searches, etc. So please scroll to the end for the latest entries, and please also be aware that albums might be discussed across multiple entries, sometimes from different perspectives. As noted in the prior intro, I frequently take a "translation" perspective, of one thing into or from something else, not to imply that they then become interchangeable....

Whereas some entries are straightforward, others are more textually involved: This is generally complex music, and I like to let my writing reflect the lines & interactions of the music — albeit perhaps unrecognizably, or perhaps more accurately, idiosyncratically. I'm trying to offer a spontaneous artistic response, and I'm willing to take risks with that, so sometimes I end up saying something silly. (I feel that's better than the alternative.) Despite all this theory — including e.g. in (open) writing projects like Practical listening or Basic mechanics of modernity — or perhaps because of it — I also try to ask what the "use" of an album is, i.e. how can it help me or others in our daily lives? Relevance is very important to me, despite what some might think of this music: New ways of thinking & interacting are exactly what we need in the current historical moment. Or sometimes we just need new ways to survive, and music can facilitate that too.... (In all of this, I generally prioritize small ensembles, but not as small as solos or duos, which present fewer combinatorial possibilities, so expect to find a lot of trio & quartet albums being discussed....)

I think I'll leave these latest opening remarks at that. There's plenty of context for these & other remarks to be found from reading earlier intros or the previous several years of individual entries.... For now, my own concerns return to where they often are, i.e. what new items do I want to discuss? That's largely prompted by whether I feel I have something to contribute, and there is never an ideal place to start.... (And any beginning is a rupture.)

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
6 October 2018

From what I've seen elsewhere, I seem to have more interest in vocal music than most people writing about otherwise similar music, and along with various other stimulating material, the prolific Creative Sources label continues to release more vocal music than anyone else: So opening this set of entries, after a long (& mysterious) mail delay, Factorial was recorded in Italy by a quartet featuring singer Patrizia Oliva, who also uses electronics & plays the Chinese bawu (transverse reed). Oliva, whose vocal technique spans a variety of styles, is joined in the quartet "4!" by Carlo Mascolo on prepared trombone, Domenico Saccente on accordion & prepared piano, and Felice Furioso on drums, bass & other percussion (including "cupa cupa" Neapolitan friction drum). Mascolo had already appeared on Creative Sources with the Lisbon String Trio on Intonarumori (discussed here in August 2017), and indeed the album design for Factorial appears to be similarly inspired, but the others were new to me. (In this case, the collage is by Oliva herself, and there is a different graphic designer, so I don't know if it's coincidence or homage....) Although Oliva was new to me as well, she has already appeared on 18 albums for the Italian CDR imprint Setola di Maiale (hard to obtain, unfortunately), including a couple by Gamra Quartet, a more conventional "free jazz" quartet including reed & guitar & drums in aggressive & somewhat repetitive settings around vocal loops, ostinati, etc. Factorial is generally less aggressive or focused on that sort of canonical "free" style, and even comes off as something of an anthology: No recording dates are given, for one thing, which is not my idea of how to document improvised meetings (although I suppose people can have their reasons), and so along with the variety of vocal styles being employed (not to mention the evocation of collage form), it's unknown how many sessions were involved. Although the vocal technique varies from track to track, or even within tracks — evoking e.g. Joëlle Léandre (on track three, by far the most assertive of the nine) or the throat creaking of Isabelle Duthoit (per e.g. Light air still gets dark), and including e.g. snippets of distant or dreamy pop, cabaret (with maybe a quick hint of Messiaen) overtures, lilting or "naïve" sing-song, Sprechstimme, inarticulate chatter, absent-minded silliness, etc. — there is nonetheless a sort of coherence to the album around the quartet, despite that the group (except Mascolo) varies their instrumentation. Prepared trombone can vary from rather high to rather low pitch though too, glissandi often prominently included, and even the characteristic interaction with accordion (accented by drum set) changes on tracks employing piano instead. The title & ensemble name suggest the various combinations & permutations of sonority & dynamic available across a quartet — as just intimated in my new opening — yet the combos & timbres (which often seem almost subconscious, or perhaps displaying an urge to hide) project a kind of spaciousness that deemphasizes momentum or continuity, such that moods almost seem to hang in the air, gathering like smoke. The result can seem occasionally aggressive, but usually comes with a haunting subtlety, such that depending on context, Factorial can be slow to make a firm aural statement — or alternately, one can become caught in rapt attention to its overall atmosphere & details. (Differing responses to attention from the listener, the basic "ambient" quality here, are a feature of many recent Creative Sources releases....) So despite some issues with the documentary or anthology aspects of Factorial, Oliva's voice comes off rather distinctively (in its variety), amid carefully cultivated & original sonic moods. And despite its attention to rich improvisatory detail, as well as novel technique, the album also has more of a "pop" feel (at least at times) than most mentioned here.

9 October 2018

Five by the (mostly English) Runcible Quintet on FMR (discussed here in May 2017) is an album that I had particularly enjoyed not only for its masterful (chamber improvisation) technique, but its cultivated sense of five-way interaction. In some ways, it seemed to be "one of many" albums out of the strong London improvisation scene, employing a global palette of sounds & evocations, and indeed in retrospect, perhaps it developed more tentatively than some. That said, a followup has now appeared — recorded 18 & 23 months later — in Four, and what were perhaps more exploratory interactions have become that much more powerful: However, as the title might already suggest, Four actually opens with a quartet session (minus bassist John Edwards) from late last year, followed by another quintet session (with the same full ensemble) from this past March: Both are about a half hour in length, meaning that Four basically consists of two (relatively) short albums. Returning to a discussion of Five, of course I was familiar with Edwards, and I had already admired guitarist Daniel Thompson (in e.g. Hunt at the Brook & related projects), as well as some complementary material from flautist Neil Metcalfe, but was not yet familiar with drummer Marcello Magliocchi or saxophonist Adrian Northover. As also mentioned at the time, I first enjoyed Five as a sort of "flute trio" album (& I often enjoy flute in improvised music, including for its pan-native evocations...), and then came to appreciate the sorts of interventions & commentary that Northover & Thompson were making as well, as integrated in large part by Magliocchi — whose drumming style I've continued to enjoy, including for its sometimes almost minimalist accents & repetitions. (Subsequently, I was also quite taken with Ag, the trio album from Northover & Thompson with Steve Noble, and their contributions have come to seem that much more distinctive since....) However, the quartet session that opens Four — with a long track, and then a much shorter followup track — precludes focusing on a "flute trio," due to the absence of bass: Guitar fills a similar role at times (as it had, often shadowing Edwards, on Five), but the quartet tends to break more into two duos than interlocking trios (both around drums). Nonetheless, after a relatively austere opening around flute, there is a wide range of energetic interaction & exploration, making for a very compelling track (evoking & incorporating globalized styles into a sometimes mysterious mélange), with a new brightness to the sound in the absence of bass. (The flute & drums duo also seems to profit from a more "direct" interaction.) The short followup opens with a brief guitar solo, into a curiously intricate machinic assemblage.... Of course, Edwards is the player who most attracted my attention in the first place, and his absence makes for an interesting revision to the ensemble, but one needn't dwell on such absence for long, as the next two tracks (of relatively equal length) employ the full quintet again — while often retaining the group's new brightness. The bass makes its presence known instantly, however, and often appears (once again) at the center of activity — including some "flute trio" moments, particularly on the last track, which also features an unusual (for this group anyway) solo from Northover. (Indeed there are more solos here than on Five, and more reed, but there is basically more of everything, due to the increased length, pace, comfort....) Another aspect that I just promised to address is "use," and so what is the use of this album? (What's the use of a runcible spoon? To eat mince & quince, evidently....) First, I enjoy the wonderful collective interaction, which seems like a typical response, but I also hear it as stimulating other creativity in turn, and have generally found listening to Runcible Quintet to be a helpful (& often calming) experience when considering written forms, next steps, etc.: It evokes a timeless quality, but not through a lack of activity or drive... and the spaciousness of the result seems to leave plenty of room for my own ideas as well. (It's also a great, generally non-soloistic tour-de-force for flute, something that can't be said every day. Indeed, Four might already be my favorite "flute album.") And despite some potential awkwardness involved in combining two different sessions, including the quartet, and despite this followup being so recent, Four is simply a great album. Circumstances made me wary, but the result is very satisfying... "ideality" can obviously be an enemy to recordings of improvised music, but this one captures something special, including that Runcible is one of the most compelling improvising collectives working today.

10 October 2018

Since Five & now Four, I've been paying more attention to Adrian Northover — who, among saxophonists, is capable of quite subtle ensemble contributions, and the latter might be said of Marcello Magliocchi on drums as well. (Indeed, continuing the remarks begun around Patrizia Oliva & Factorial, Magliocchi has appeared on twenty albums for Setola di Maiale, so he's actually been quite prolific....) On Sezu, another recent release on FMR (recorded in Bristol in March 2017), they're joined by Phil Gibbs on guitar (& banjo for one track), and Maresuke Okamoto on cello & voice (for one track). Gibbs appears on many FMR releases, especially with Paul Dunmall (such that I'm not sure that I've heard him before without Dunmall), but Okamoto (b.1960, Tokyo) was new to me: The most unusual track of the album is clearly the third, on which the vocals appear, mysterious Japanese in the foreground with various shimmering accompaniment. That track does bring an emotional impact after the intricate openings, but the format (straight solo & accompaniment) is simply not one I tend to enjoy. Fortunately, the other tracks are more intricate & contrapuntal: Gibbs brings a dazzling quality on guitar, and has a tendency to dominate the (front line) sound (as opposed to the more "earthy" Thompson, above, who weaves in & out...), but Northover can be more assertive & to the fore on alto sax here as well. Okamoto's cello is the more novel contribution, however, provoking some unusual & creative textures early in the program, and forging more characteristic timbral combinations by the end, especially around noisy bowing, and amid the relatively straightforward yet creative percussion sounds (tapping, rubbing, etc.) from Magliocchi. FMR produces a lot of "chamber jazz," much of it rather similar in style & orientation, but Sezu provides some ear catching innovations around its carefully modulated collective quartet texture, and so makes a powerful first impression. In that sense, the vocal track might not be a favorite, but it's provocative, especially on first hearing, changing the way the quartet interaction is perceived — even as the vocals never return. (The resulting stance is a mix of striving & poise....) I've yet to be especially interested by the more soloistic Japanese productions, or by those oriented on (often delicate) pianism, so Sezu ("Without" in Japanese) is a welcome opportunity to hear a Japanese instrumentalist in a more polyphonic (yet still intense) improvisatory setting. More is clearly possible from such a setting....

11 October 2018

Dissection Room, also from Creative Sources (& recorded in Lisbon this past December), is another album delayed by the USPS that I want to note: Although it isn't particularly polyphonic, meaning that it tends to focus on a "central" sound or action more than I usually prefer, Dissection Room is quite evocative of its (medical) setting, with sonorities suggesting a palpable sense of horror: There is sawing, grinding, slashing, pounding, hard echoing surfaces, the metallic shimmer of colliding knives, etc. The album pairs Albert Cirera on prepared tenor & soprano saxes with Alvaro Rosso on double bass — & the two had already appeared together on the more mainstream "free" quintet album Ao vivo!, as mentioned around Rosso's participation in the Lisbon String Trio in July — to be mediated or deconstructed by electric guitarist Abdul Moimême. (The latter actually first appeared in this space back in April 2012....) The often short sonic bursts that make up Dissection Room don't generally engage a lot of long-term continuity, or elaborate much simultaneity, but they do create an austere, clinical mood. (In the notes, Stuart Broomer frames the trio as dissecting music per se, which is probably applicable, but the — admittedly stylized — sounds of a medical dissection room are rather evident to me, so the title seems to be more concrete than merely that.) The main line of inquiry is consequently quite dissonant at times, combining timbres, including some low grade static etc., although it does resolve into a kind of quasi-"anthem" by the end. In the meantime, there are some amazing sequences, particularly about two thirds of the way through the single fifty-four minute track, when some startling polyphonic activity occurs. Otherwise, the eerie & often slow moving (almost minimalist, yet again) collective trio quality embeds a calmness vaguely reminiscent of e.g. Drought, although the latter seems far more naturally-oriented than Dissection Room.... (Yet one wouldn't claim that a cadaver is somehow "unnatural.") A distinct musical character does manage to emerge, though, out of the mastery involved in this rather novel, macabre & clinical operation. (One might otherwise think that such a theme would be more likely to emerge from death metal influenced bands of e.g. New York City, but if it did, it would have proceeded rather differently....) The result entails a perverse delicacy, highly trained surgeons cutting calmly & precisely into tender flesh....

While I'm here, I also want to mention a couple of other recent trio albums that sometimes lean in more minimalistic directions, but also feature some novel combinations & interrogations.... Luminária, recently on FMR from the Frame Trio, was recorded in Coimbra in November 2017, and features the duo of Luís Vicente (trumpet) & Marcelo dos Reis (guitar) — who have worked together in numerous recent projects, such as In Layers (discussed in February 2017) & City of Light (discussed in May 2017) — as basically "mediated" by bassist Nils Vermeulen (with whom I was not previously familiar): Straightforward yet novel timbral combinations, usually arising from trumpet & guitar, as supported (harmonically) by bass, are elaborated (formally) into relatively straightforward extended pieces (of which there are six) according to ostinato, hocket, etc. Although I hear it as a more exploratory album — not that it's very "difficult," or hard on the ear — there's also a satisfying quality to the resulting quasi-melodic austerity (which can be heard in full on Bandcamp). Enclins, recorded live at Radio France in June 2017, and the second album from the Clinamen Trio of Louis-Michel Marion (contrabass), Jacques Di Donato (clarinet) & Philippe Berger (viola), after Décliné (discussed April 2015), is even more minimalistic: The "swerve" of "atoms" here is even tinier, yielding slow simmering that sometimes seems to suggest very long & slow melodies amid an overall sparse, buzzing surface.... (One might think of e.g. the intricate clarinet & strings combination of K'Ampokol Che K'Aay, or the variety of activity, including spectral, from e.g. Baloni — which employs basically the same ensemble — but things tend to be far more distended on Enclins, with little tangible activity at most moments.) One can perhaps admire the trio's commitment to their vision (of largely imperceptible action that can nonetheless add up to something meaningful), but if anything, the second album is more smooth & uneventful than the first... it doesn't make for foreground listening for me, although some curious things do sometimes occur. Perhaps the most intriguing development is the increasingly "granular" sense of ostinato, i.e. of timbre "kontakting" a large structural element.... All three of these albums then involve novel timbral combinations, elaborated formally into (tangible & sometimes energetic) results that the listener can then grasp — in other words, they involve some degree or version of timbre yielding large-scale form....

12 October 2018

Astral Spirits has been a rather prolific label of late, but I guess I've yet to mention them: That's due in part to their decision to release albums on cassette tape, of course, but with their Bandcamp site I can avoid issues with physical media — & in fact, they've now released a few CDs & have moved into vinyl too. (I can understand people wanting to get creative or retro or what-have-you with physical media, as they come to be redundant for a lot of people, but using a cassette tape is not something I care to contemplate. Personally, as noted probably too often by now, I find CDs convenient: They can be popped quickly into a player without having to worry about software updates or other computer-based harassment. A cassette does not seem convenient, not to mention needing another kind of quality playback device. Anyway....) Their music also seems to come with more of a "rock" orientation than I usually adopt, but they've also been aggressive in supporting explorations of novel sonorities, etc. even if a lot of it is built around speed. In particular, although it's composed music, I wanted to note Convulsionaries (recorded last October, and released on CD) by the Brandon Seabrook Trio, including Daniel Levin (cello) & Henry Fraser on bass: I had discussed Stomiidae back in February, and that was a free trio (recorded 18 months prior) also featuring Seabrook & Levin, there with Chris Pitsiokos. The orientation on Seabrook's compositions on Convulsionaries leaves the bass in more of a supporting role, but there's still much to enjoy, particularly around Seabrook's fast guitar & sometimes cathartic (partially scripted) interactions. It's an enjoyable, maybe even "fun" album (with e.g. almost a James Bond-esque noir quality at one point). More raw is Hiljaisuus ("Silence" in Finnish?!), an LP recorded in Chicago in September 2017, on which the Tashi Dorji (guitar) & Tyler Damon (percussion) duo is joined by Dave Rempis on saxes, forming a trio called Kuzu. Dorji & Damon have been making a big impression around the web, but mostly as a duo, so I was interested to hear them as joined by Rempis: He's quite prolific, often with more of an "inside" orientation than I have, but is seemingly involved in ever more projects, such as Spectral (with recent favorite Empty Castles)... which is very different. On Hiljaisuus — & I have no idea where Finnish comes into it, but describing this very noisy music as "calm" or "spacious & light" seems to be part of its fundamental twist — Rempis gets to be as heavy & aggressive as he wants, in a real free blowing session, but framed by the unique duo style that Dorji & Damon have developed together. (Rempis's participation almost evokes Damon Smith on Ewen / Smith / Walter for me: Although Ewen & Walter hadn't played together before, the sheer speed & "insanity" of their interaction is of a similar vein — even as Smith acts more as mediator, whereas Rempis immediately instigates.) Rempis does begin quite aggressively, such that lightness doesn't seem to be an option for the duo, at least not without first injecting much energy of their own, which they proceed to do: Dorji is actually from Bhutan, and then moved to Asheville as an adult, whereas Damon (b.1987) is from Cincinnati, and now lives in Bloomington Indiana. I hadn't realized that this duo was so "middle American" so to speak, and of course Rempis (having gotten his start with Ken Vandermark) exemplifies a particular strand of contemporary Chicago jazz... such that Kuzu belongs somewhere on the tree (or rhizome) of Americana. The way that Rempis pushes the energy with these guys is amazing, as is their response, and as noted, the influences (& "sharding" etc.) recall Ewen / Smith / Walter (another piece of Americana, however amusing such an observation might seem). Moreover, some "calm" is certainly involved, in an "eye of the storm" sense... so such a suggestion is not as absurd as it might initially seem — even as the surface of the sound is often so frenetic. (One might even suggest a sort of lively inversion of the clinical calm of Dissection Room....) There is, moreover, a strong ritual mood emerging from the core duo in particular: One might further suggest a resemblance, in the domain of results anyway, to Tipple Live at Elastic Arts, a similar ensemble — albeit of players with vastly different styles, in each case — recorded in the same venue two years earlier. (Such a resemblance is, in many ways, quite superficial, and doesn't survive attention to details, particularly since energy moves through the trio differently, yet both invoke a similar ecstatic intensity for the listener. And it doesn't make sense to call Tipple an "American" trio either, although Kevin Norton is from New York....) So the Dorji-Damon duo is forging a distinctive personal style, and Rempis makes for a particularly aggressive (Midwest) collaborator bringing another kind of intensity on Hiljaisuus....

13 October 2018

I'll probably continue to write in "bursts" here for the next few months, as I focus on articulating an extended (theoretical) discussion.... In the meantime, I want to note Interfaces (on Ravello Records, which does not seem to appear at the usual retailers) by the trio of Jeff Morris (live sampling), Karl Berger (b.1935; vibraphone & piano) & Joe Hertenstein (drum set & stone-table-percussion). Interfaces was recorded in Woodstock NY, home of Berger's Creative Music Studio, over three days in September 2017, and consists of ten tracks lasting over fifty minutes. It's also the (stated) first album by Morris — no relation to the various other musical Morrises in this arena, as far as I know — & adopts a very particular stance on electronics: Morris has constructed a setup that doesn't produce its own sound, but samples & manipulates the music produced by others. That does include specific software designed in advance for this particular project, and despite the novelty emphasized in the distribution notes, of course various other performers have used similar live sampling & playback: Wade Matthews, Alvin Curran, Carlos Santos, etc. The difference is those performers have also (usually) generated their own sounds, and so Morris is taking a more restrictive approach in that sense: Perhaps the best comparison is actually to Boulez Materialism (discussed here in July), both for its sampling (& mixing) emphasis from the electronics, and for its frequently jazzy or bluesy sound (there especially around bass). The subtitle "Jazz Meets Electronics" thus serves both to describe the result, and to overstate the basic novelty of the electronic interventions.... That said, Morris does produce a unique (if not unprecedented) personal result, and in this case, the electronics often have a percussive quality themselves — coming from sampling drums, piano, vibes... — although they occasionally render (sometimes eerie) legato. Hertenstein has been featured here since early in this project (as his move to New York more or less corresponded with my start), but I had yet to mention Berger: I knew that Hertenstein had been working with him, and of course Berger has quite a history, if less of a recent discography: He's most often on piano on Interfaces, and generally produces the most "conventional" musical input, across a variety of piano styles (almost a tour, from blues to Bach & beyond) at various points. His is a pleasing & easily flowing style, incorporating a range of (often traditional) ideas, and the piano does sometimes ring through clearly (& tonally) for extended passages, while at other times it's more masked (or disarticulated) by electronics. The vibes-based tracks tend to be more abstract, however (& so that much more akin to Boulez Materialism), although the "conventional input" does limit how "out there" Morris can be — albeit while attaching Interfaces much more firmly to tradition. Hertenstein largely moves between the two poles, coming closer to the sometimes raucous or dissonant electronics, or closer to the traditionally thematic piano at various points: The resulting palette can be fascinating (although I'm not quite sure what stone-table-percussion, credited with those hyphens, exactly is), particularly as it's remixed (sometimes aggressively) by the electronics into a general percussive sea. Despite some rather conventional material (always on the verge of being deconstructed) at times, Interfaces is thus an exciting & distinctive debut: So where does Morris go from here?

21 October 2018

Tyshawn Sorey is another drummer whom I noticed early in this project, in particular for his many appearances on albums by other people: I see that I first mentioned him explicitly around Steve Lehman's On Meaning in May 2011, but had already noted him on e.g. Steve Coleman's albums, and then again with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog the following month. Although I was soon impressed by Sorey's drumming, his leader albums hadn't excited me: I discussed the piano trio album Alloy briefly in November 2014, but didn't end up mentioning the subsequent The Inner Spectrum of Variables (released in 2016) or Verisimilitude (another piano trio, released last year) at all (although I did listen to both). I guess I was starting to think that what Sorey wanted to produce simply wasn't what I wanted to hear, despite my initial impressions to the contrary. It happens: Of course, in this general space, Sorey is also one of the most acclaimed USA musicians of his generation, one of the handful of people that regularly receives prestigious grants & quasi-mainstream attention, etc. (The way that these things work in the US seems very wrong to me, but that's not Sorey's fault, and so I don't want to get too worked up here... but basically, among other issues, technical proficiency is a requirement far beyond having something to say, with the latter seeming to be quite optional. I mean, let's face it, many of the people in charge will be happier if someone has nothing to say: It's safer that way.) So I was doubly pleased that Sorey put the (often romantic) piano trio genre aside, at least for the moment, and created the massive & unusual octet album Pillars: Readers might have noticed that I sometimes chafe at narrative form, generally speaking, and so when Sorey talks of being non-directional & avoiding "linear narrative," he has my attention. The Feldman-esque proportions of the work — at nearly four hours, at least in its triple CD version — are obvious enough, but rather than place sound figures into varying layers via pervasive time signature changes, as Feldman does, Sorey assembles his "moments" into a larger work only later, after they're recorded: The "moment" concept & the nonsequential presentation also explicitly refer to Stockhausen, such that the resulting piece involves surreal shifts that somehow aren't jarring: Pillars instead unfolds according to its own logic, as assembled by Sorey — as editor, basically — subsequent to recording. (I would also recommend the double LP version, which I heard via digital download, in that it's "only" 95 minutes, is generally "brighter" in tone, and moves along a bit more. So it's edited rather differently from the CD version, which has some quite extended & even ponderous moments.) The result has something of an "ambient" effect — also mentioned explicitly by Sorey (who compares it to Zen) — in that it (intentionally) sustains different levels of listener attention (as discussed here around Sîn in February: There are also loud, "scary" moments in Pillars, but it's less about a "close up" quality as associated with lowercase, or a term I prefer around some of those Creative Sources releases, improvisational post-concrète.... It's plenty concrete, though, an edited "tape" assembled only at a remove from live performance.) It should thus reward both closer & more disinterested listening: Yet, because of the way it's constructed, i.e. "subsequently," there's little sense in which details intensify.... In fact, whereas I found Pillars to provide an excellent background for editing (something I do often), I didn't find it to be much of a spur for creative thought more generally. Oh well, it's still an interesting idea, and develops some distinctive textures: One might even suggest that it takes something of an "inverse" approach to that of Anthony Braxton, e.g. on Quartet Live at Sesc Pompeia, where previously prepared electronics prompt (in part) the improvising players. (For Sorey, the transformative "electronics" are largely involved later, i.e. in the editing process.) And indeed Braxton comes off as rather "narrative" in comparison. As does Bill Dixon on Tapestries, which might be said specifically to construct a sort of landscape-narrative form: The frequent austerity (including that of the cover, from the same label), and sometimes similar ensemble sound & even musical contours (especially around brass "calls" & variations in player participation) also mark Tapestries as a clear (& presumably self-conscious) influence on Pillars (which was itself recorded at Firehouse 12 over two days in July 2017)... although a cursory search did not turn up a document of Sorey & Dixon playing together. (Basic textural concerns on the two albums might also be said to be inversely aligned.) Connections to those African American legends extend to Sorey's ensemble on Pillars as well, a unique set of musicians who are (mostly anyway) chosen for their own distinctiveness, rather than according to traditional notions of score & instrumentation: Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, small percussion) plays the only high horn, whereas he had been one of many on Tapestries (with its "inverse" texture); Ben Gerstein (trombone, melodica) & Todd Neufeld (electric & acoustic guitar) return from various early Sorey projects; the inimitable Joe Morris plays both electric guitar & double bass, whereas Carl Testa (mostly known from Anthony Braxton ensembles) adds electronics along with double bass, and is moreover joined by Mark Helias & Zach Rowden also on basses — with Sorey not only conducting & on drums, but on trombone & Tibetan dungchen as well. (Rowden is the one new name, but apparently he has experience playing both Feldman & Scelsi....) So an octet with four people playing double bass is already unusual, and that appears to be less for purposes of volume or reinforcement here than it is to have different styles available for different solos.... (The electronics are very noticeable at times, almost cliché around massive glissandi, but are not at all ubiquitous. The melodica, in turn, is the least obvious instrument credited, apparently fitting smoothly into the electronic sections and/or with the grainy basses.) And then the horns are oriented around trombone, with Haynes also playing brass so as to engage (a variety of) higher registers, and the dungchen appearing at times as a noisily rumbling bass version. (There's thus a specific, underlying profile to the group of horns, forging an "extended" trombone of sorts.) The guitars then add a brightness, sometimes a ringing sense of mellow calm that pairs well with meditation bells, even a lightness that sometimes fades into string harmonics more generally.... For me, the resulting sound happens to be highly evocative of Pieces of Old Sky by the Samuel Blaser Quartet (released in 2009, and still available on Blaser's Bandcamp), with Sorey & Neufeld (& also frequent Sorey collaborator Thomas Morgan on bass). And beyond the basic sound world of that earlier quartet, and beyond or in relation to its own sense of non-narrative form, Pillars also evokes Tibetan ritual music, particularly in its noisy, rattling, clanging, tinkling, perception-filling quality. (In this it reminds me a bit of recent, hybrid favorite AAMM....) Some of the moments tend to be quite static, droning, and work more by way of contrast with others, rather than offering much of independent musical interest: Nonetheless, a ritual quality does emerge, particularly as noise intersects the disorienting, "out of time" quality deriving from the piece's final construction, and as senses are consequently filled again.... (The four minute drum roll that opens the CD mix first suggests highly detailed manipulation of white noise, and I originally thought "Wow, this is certainly austere..." but before it ends, one comes to realize that it's a drum roll, and no other moment is again quite so austere....) There are also some very extended solos, perhaps minimally accompanied, as Pillars erects such a large space (so as to fill nearly four hours, or even more): It supports & surrounds a peculiar spaciousness, though, sometimes (suddenly, ritually) "filled" as noted, even as the timing between individual "moments" might be offset or striking: It comes to yield space for individual expression... somewhere in the past... where a clatter might both be & not be amid a peaceful din. And where vistas emerge... behind oneself... such that "composition" becomes a (previous) mood. Pillars thus does become a drummer's exploration of different spans of time, of the span of time, of spanning time per se. (Is it possible to perform live at all? Maybe not....) It's also ambitious & creative, both formally & for its ensemble sonorities, even if its impact on me has started to fade with exposure.

28 October 2018

As I continue to be busy (with a more extended project to appear in this space), so does Ernesto Rodrigues, with several more new releases, both including himself & not. While I might have something to say later about some of the latter items, with the convenience of Bandcamp, I can make a few remarks about some of the former albums now: In particular, I want to continue a focus on albums oriented on violin family ensembles, perhaps with some added spice. Rodrigues continues to be one of the leading producers of improvised music for bowed string ensembles, and if anything, seems to be intensifying his explorations in this specific arena: Penedo (the name of a region in Portugal) was recorded last New Year's Eve, and is another very long album from Rodrigues, with three twenty+ minute tracks coming to well over an hour. The ensemble presents something of a continuation to the concerns of the trio We Still Have Bodies (discussed here in August), but Penedo employs a string trio with a second cello (frequent collaborator Miguel Mira, yielding a fuller sound) joining Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, and Carlos Santos subbing for Richard Scott on electronics. Santos generally brings a "smoother" (or more austere) style than Scott, with less contrapuntal "melody" per se, and more looping or sustain of frequencies at the extremes. (One might thus compare Penedo to Jardin Carré, the latter being a generally grittier & more inward looking affair, using a different string trio, and yielding a sense of circular reflection....) The second cello, of course, reflects a common (string trio) configuration for Rodrigues, e.g. already on Incidental Projections & Xenon (both discussed here in May 2017), and yields a tenor emphasis: On Penedo (perhaps given its place name title), the "central" texture thus supports a broad landscape sweep, invoking & acknowledging flora & fauna amid a general windswept (including via electronics) expanse. When technology intervenes, or more simply humanity, a sense of hybrid mystery arises, such that one ultimately finds oneself transformed by the journey, yielding a calm awareness & new attentiveness to one's surroundings. (The farewell has something of the ongoing, exploratory feel of Nashaz....) A clear followup to Penedo is then Eris, a quintet album recorded less than a week later in January, also in Penedo, with Anna Piosik (trumpet) joining the three strings & electronics. (Piosik had not been mentioned here explicitly, but has appeared with Rodrigues e.g. in Octopus, as mentioned in September.) I really enjoy the opening to Eris, with a distinct "jungle" vibe immediately troubled by very high electronic pitches, and into wind & whistling tones against percussive whacks.... (The resulting sort of perceptual framing, particularly around enclosures & lines of flight, might be compared to e.g. Primary Envelopment, as first discussed here in March 2015.) From there, if anything, Eris becomes more "hybrid" via an extended "industrial" vibe that emerges to leave the jungle far behind for some kind of interior(ized) space, a factory perhaps... or maybe this is the chaos internal to the mind, to which one retreats... it's spacious though! (The trumpet is occasionally recognizable as such, but is usually deconstructed into a variety of extended pulses & raspberries.) Eris goes on to sculpt & articulate energy in a variety of ways from there, including via a broad range of string techniques & formal procedures, but doesn't seem to recapture its initial excitement. In particular, it seems to focus on various means of achieving continuity, such that string figures sometimes become repetitive (via ostinati, etc.). (Life itself seeks continuity amid so many discords & challenges? Or it's repetition that's a source of discord?) Nonetheless, continued exploration of these textures & timbres is welcome, and Eris likewise yields a sense of calm awareness, generally a welcome "use" for any album. (And these albums are both more distinctive & more satisfying than this quick report might suggest....)

Beyond (perhaps subtly) novel combinations of instruments featuring bowed strings, Rodrigues also continues to explore more specifically traditional (& acoustic) formats, with another "string quartet" album already appearing: Dis/con/sent is also over an hour in length, this time in a suite of seven tracks (alternating long & short) recorded in Berlin in May by Dietrich Petzold (violin, viola, bowed metal), again with Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, now joined by Matthias Bauer (who was new to me, although he's previously appeared on Creative Sources) on bass. In Rodrigues's recent output, Dis/con/sent might thus be compared directly to Crane Cries (discussed here in April) by a "true" string quartet (i.e. with two violins, although Petzold once again changes instruments), or to Theia (discussed here in July) by what I've dubbed a "jazz string quartet" (i.e. bass instead of a second violin). Dis/con/sent is rather different in tone from either, an impressive & imposing release that's often quite aggressive, although slower or more mysterious around extended techniques at times too: Indeed, the "bowed metal" makes a jarring entry within moments, but is used judiciously from there. Dis/con/sent also employs a wide array of 20th century string quartet technique, including in its ensemble interactions, making it an improvised successor to some of the most dissonant — yet conventionally motivic — music in that format. (It might thus also be compared to the recent Ignis Fatuus, another string quartet discussed here in August, in that case doubling cello, and with more of a romantic or wry sensibility around Honsinger....) Indeed, listeners who enjoy e.g. Bartok or Shostakovich might well enjoy Dis/con/sent, although it's that much more adventurous: It's highly contrapuntal, even as the counterpoint can be repetitive at times, extending continuity (per Eris), and even (perhaps) yielding to nostalgia by the end. (However, the fern cover art doesn't appear to be supported by the kinds of naturalistic evocations sometimes found on these string albums from Rodrigues....) Parts of Dis/con/sent end up being calming, but (perhaps as implied by the title) that's more internal to the suite of movements, rather than an overall result, which suggests something of an intentional symphonic form (presumably as spurred by Petzold) & shifting attitudinal dynamic. It makes for a weighty & sometimes almost intimidating album, difficult to hear as fully improvised.... Also recorded by Petzold in Berlin this past May was Buratino, an album featuring Ernesto Rodrigues without either Guilherme or the former (at least not actively playing), but including previous collaborators Elo Masing (violin, from Crane Cries) & Hui-Chun Lin (cello, most recently mentioned here around Poiesis in May) to form a string trio that is further bolstered by Caroline Cecilia Tallone (hurdy-gurdy) & Ame Zek (12-string guitar). Neither of the latter had appeared in this space before (nor had the hurdy-gurdy at all, apparently), although Zek does have a solo album recently out on Creative Sources (First Bow, "dedicated to fight and fighters against corrupt capitalism"), and of course both also involve strings: Buratino thus employs an unusual string quintet, with the hurdy-gurdy providing "bowed" sustaining potential (acoustically, rather than electronically), and includes some new collaborators for Rodrigues. (And perhaps I should add a remark on recent digital-only release Efterår, pairing the two Rodrigueses & Masing in a quintet, this time with Tomo Jacobson on bass & Mia Dyberg on alto sax, neither of whom had appeared in this space previously: It's yet another appealing album, sometimes aggressive after starting on harmonics, and also apparently focusing on mental or emotional transition for the listener via a variety of evocations amid wave-like explorations of continuity — although it's rather short. I also feel compelled to note that it already appeared on Bandcamp the day after it was recorded, in Berlin, this month!) So Buratino consists of five tracks — totaling very close to an hour, and arranged as 3+2, as if two sides of an LP — and ranges from searing aggression to haunting (bizarre, sometimes naturalistic) mystery. Adding the hurdy-gurdy & (unusual) guitar yields more timbral variety, and the wealth of sonic interactions here include some of the most striking & unusual among those assembled on the set of four string albums featured in this entry. Not as traditionally contrapuntal as Dis/con/sent, the quintet instead emphasizes a "main line" that is variously accented: High pitches swirl against a drone in the opening, whereas pizzicati or glissandi might be thrown off repeatedly from a low rumble, particularly yielding to hocket & a driving (grinding) continuity on the second "side" (which seems to want to undo or unwind the calm eventually emerging from the first). The striking sounds end up being rather composite (i.e. involving multiple instruments simultaneously), in repeating stable figures, as opposed to e.g. the sense of "timbral spanning" (or disarticulation) of Coluro. That said, the prolificity & frequent conceptual overlap of these albums does inhibit one in selecting a single item to feature as "special," which of course is not a requirement in this space, but does leave me making these mixed entries: The truth is that if a single one of these albums appeared in a vacuum, I'd probably spend more time on it, but instead I've simply come to expect (yet) more. Such practical circumstances & resulting expectations sometimes make me feel uncomfortable (with my own response), but "comfort" really isn't the point: I actually enjoy & appreciate that Rodrigues releases so many albums with so many different musicians, and don't want to feel as though I'm "penalizing" anyone for doing so!

30 October 2018

John Butcher & Eddie Prévost are already very well known, of course, and I haven't been emphasizing solos or duos anyway, but I do want to note their recent collaborative album Visionary Fantasies — recorded in London this past April, and out on Matchless (with discussion, etc.). The album as a whole lasts over an hour, opening with two solos by Butcher, followed by a 19' solo from Prévost, and then a suite of three duo tracks totaling a little over 35'. It's the solo from Prévost that really got my attention, though, with the various rubbed surfaces & shimmering metals suggesting horns & bass, such that at the height of its din, one almost feels as if one's listening to a quartet. The mood of "Obsessional Enquiries" hits me well also, such that I feel compelled to note its symphonic evocations ranging across industrial technology & into the natural (& perhaps even supernatural) world: It ends up being one of the most engaging & transformative tracks I've heard in a while, solo or no. (The noisiness also takes on some of the "peaceful din" quality of some of e.g. Sorey's recent Pillars or even Hiljaisuus by Kuzu, as discussed here last month. Both have Himalayan, Buddhist roots....) When Butcher returns to the interaction — and his preludes had already set a mood — the charged atmosphere remains, with (actual) horn lines (& effects) now intersecting (with precision) the broadly percussive canvas, itself starting anew from a slow clattering, then rubbed metallic calls set against an emergent gurgling... finally into a haunting, yet more identifiable (& ultimately sustained) duo format around the squeaking horn.

4 November 2018

I'd noticed pianist Cory Smythe previously — including e.g. for his participation on Mode's Xenakis Edition, Vol. 13 — but hadn't mentioned him here: I guess I'd heard him most with Tyshawn Sorey, as the pianist on piano trio albums Alloy & Verisimilitude, as well as on The Inner Spectrum of Variables with its "jazz" string quartet, but as noted in my discussion of Sorey's Pillars last month, those albums didn't make strong impressions on me. In particular, I tend to see the piano as an absurd, antiquated contraption, and so to enjoy albums where it's deconstructed along those lines, more so than I do traditional pianism — although obviously the piano did have quite a historical run as the central instrument of European music. (I'm more than willing to see that era pass, both for its imperial associations & soloistic orientations, as well as for its relative colorlessness. The piano's practical significance, i.e. for rendering multiple musical lines, has just about ended anyway, what with new technology....) So one might think that Smythe's new trio album Circulate Susanna wouldn't have much appeal for me, and even seeing it praised on the Free Jazz Blog, I might not have listened, except that it was readily available on the Pyroclastic Records Bandcamp site, so why not? (And I didn't actually read Stuart Broomer's comments until after listening to the album, but merely noted his enthusiasm: That's my preferred way to hear a new album. I was then quite surprised by what I heard, since I hadn't even noted originally who was joining Smythe....) It turns out to be a very stimulating album, on a couple of basic levels, namely the unusual ensemble, with Sofia Jernberg (extended vocals) & Daniel Lippel (detuned guitar) joining Smythe on piano (& autoharp & electronics), as well as the interrogation of Americana: The latter in particular fits into recent thoughts here, especially since I'd just revisited some earlier remarks in & around the new opening: Circulate Susanna is also composed music (albeit incorporating improvisation, but offering another reason that I might have been less enthusiastic, even though I do continue to feature some composed albums here) in all but two tracks (i.e. one short improvisational section without the pianist, and one lyrical cover to conclude the album), and interrogates the American Songbook in general via deconstruction of the traditional song Oh! Susanna: Although the piano is sometimes given "extended" treatment, including via its own preparations (& detuning), it mostly comes off as rather straight, framing the album harmonically. Indeed, the leader's own (often repetitive & chordal) playing is of limited interest (although it's clearly his conception), as vocalist Jernberg tends to steal the show through an amazing range of extended technique, particularly exploring infra-chromatic spaces within & around the piano's capacities. (I had recently noted the impressive Jernberg here in June, specifically on With Sofia Jernberg by Lana Trio.) Jernberg ranges from flutey high harmonics (which are unusually powerful) to low growling throat singing, and almost every sort of vocalization in between, from fast (sinus) abstraction to sultry (chest) cabaret. Actual lyrics are found on only two tracks, though (or so I think, as the voice is often partially obscured). I had never heard of Lippel before, and he's much less active, with Circulate Susanna often featuring duos, especially voice & piano (although the others briefly as well), but the full trio interactions are high points overall: Sometimes it's unclear if the detuned strings are guitar, autoharp, or piano preparations, but they add welcome (& understated) spice to the interaction, again troubling the piano's basic chromatic scales, along with & against the voice: It would have been great to have more passages involving the full trio sound... or perhaps will be, another time.... Besides playing on Mode's Xenakis Edition, Smythe's work with Sorey incorporated Xenakis influences as well, but here — other than in relatively brief passages — the piano is generally rather tame & conventional, its repeating chordal assertions seeming almost starkly ubiquitous against other (more novel) sonorities. (So hovering American imperialism begins to sound explicitly unfamiliar...?) Indeed, for me the music is more suggestive of some of John Cage's work, in particular his own work in & around Americana, whether traditional songs in strange tunings or hymns with elements systematically removed.... (I have memories of hearing these, e.g. at Cage's 80th birthday concert, but don't know the names of specific compositions to which I might be referring. Sorry.) Beyond that sort of general interrogation of American history via traditional Americana in song, I might also note similarities to a couple of other unusual vocal albums made in this country in the past decade, North of Blanco for its similar (albeit non-pianistic) palette of Texas weirdness, and Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone for another musician well rewarded by dwindling US "art music" circuits moving into vocally (& perhaps globally) oriented critique.... Frankly, the American Songbook is a lot more palatable to me when presented in such an ambivalent way: I simply cannot accept it as "pure entertainment," as there's a visceral negative response that goes back to childhood (& of course, such problematic responses have been embedded into jazz performance for decades, sometimes subtly). Ultimately, then, despite some musical aspects that don't necessarily accord with my preferences, the result is so distinctive & unexpected that it deserves a strong note here. I'm genuinely impressed by the conception (& the singing): That Circulate Susanna ends up being so thought provoking despite an orientation on generally "boring" piano (indeed treated that way, i.e. as one might say, ironically) makes for a stunning debut in its own way. It's well worth hearing, and hopefully joins Sorey & Lehman on NPR, et al....

11 November 2018

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