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

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