Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

It's time, once again, to restart this page, moving the prior year or so of entries to another page & writing a new introduction here.... There's plenty to read in previous introductions, if desired, so I'm going to keep this version brief. And as usual, this page is in chronological order, so please scroll to the bottom for the latest entries.

In the prior intro, I'd also suggested that there'd probably be a lull in releases, but I don't know that that's really materialized — not yet anyway. Musicians are certainly impacted, some quite seriously I'm sure, but recorded albums have actually taken up part of the slack (from concerts), and between that dynamic and the proliferation of self-publishing online, I've really had no shortage of items to hear. Indeed, I wonder if some intriguing items would've (ever or yet) seen the light of day, absent the disruption. Still, though, the lesser public interaction will surely be felt in the music, at least as a ripple, because there's simply less (artistic) input.... I've felt this myself, in terms of focusing my own discussions, i.e. without much public conversation. But I've also managed to continue a bit of "joint listening," even as my musical contexts have surely shrunk in the past year & a half: Mostly I just sit at home by myself listening to (these) albums, though, and I'm starting to feel a little too wrapped up in my own thoughts. Still, I guess I've been finding some things to say here, and so hopefully that can continue....

And I do try to restrict myself to entries where I feel I have something to say.... Of course, that's subjective, but I've slowed the pace a bit, instead of always noting the various albums — that I do continue to hear — that musicians I've followed have released: In that, I'm trying not to get too caught up with my own historical baggage, so to speak. People reading this page probably already have a feel for relevance, but I also think it's worthwhile to continue asking: Does this project contribute anything to the world? That might be harder to answer, more specifically, at least from my vantage point, but the relevance of new music does seem clear to me: It's about new worlds, new kinds of thoughts, new (human) interactions.... It's in some ways about making sense of our constantly changing world. (And so I've written longer theory tracts here too, such as Practical listening & Postmodern Aesthetics. And since then I've turned to another developing "thoughts" series, starting in 2020, Decolonizing Tech....) Sometimes I try to make sense here too.

So questions around the future of music venues & public performance are somewhat outside the scope, but hopefully there's value in discussing new music performances on recording here. There's also an enormous variety, so the project almost becomes a giant "sorting" operation, i.e. selecting releases to discuss or to feature more extensively.... And of course, my choices end up being conditioned by my background, etc. I mean, I try to hear everything fresh, but it's just not possible — there's always a history. (And in this, "jazz" continues to suggest an awareness of social contours, e.g. of the ways the pandemic falls hardest on the usual suspects, those always bearing the heaviest social burdens... as if a reminder was needed.) Sometimes I even feel as though I'm "caught up" & have a sense of what people are doing — but soon realize, once again, that so many of my ideas are contingent on what I'd already heard, and the order in which I'd heard it, etc. (I mean, I might be featuring different musicians if I'd heard them before the musicians I did hear.... That's the kernel of contingency. Or even questions of albums featuring one musician heard out of order....) But my preference for trios, quartets... "medium" ensembles, where everyone can be heard, but with the necessity of interacting more broadly & being challenged... is not contingent (or at least not on music). And I think I'll start using the term "trajectory" around this basic notion (of historical inclination...).

In any case, for much less discussion, there's also my compact & straightforward list of favorites, arranged chronologically. (It could thus be said to sediment my trajectory in this space....) And thank you for your (continuing) interest!

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
13 September 2021

And I'm going to begin the reviews for this month with an older recording from July 2014, just released: Play as you go documents the trio of Joëlle Léandre (contrabass, voice), George Lewis (laptop electronics, trombone) & the late Pauline Oliveros (Roland Button v-accordion) at the "VS. Interpretation" Festival in Prague. Why it took so long to appear, I don't know, because it's an immediately striking performance, one that quickly appears to be making waves, but a handful of performances by Oliveros have been appearing over the past few years.... This isn't a reissue (at least not per the usual sources), though, and is certainly the most exciting such issue thus far for me. And Oliveros is centered (physically) in the performance, but it was Léandre who worked (per the included notes) to release the album. Indeed, the latter had performed with both Oliveros & Lewis since the 1980s, and so functions as something of a "hinge" for this performance. (There's no mention of Lewis & Oliveros performing together previously, but no assertion that they hadn't either.) Moreover, the bass is the "straight" instrument in the trio, sometimes featured (almost always in arco, although occasionally percussive...) more clearly within what can be a murky & mysterious sound world generated by Lewis on laptop & Oliveros on v-accordion: I'm not entirely sure of the capabilities of the latter (which surely include sound fonts, or whatever they call them in that world...), and of course the laptop could be sampling & manipulating anything — such that Lewis appears to be sampling & smoothing prerecorded low growls & vocalizations from the very start (while adding "new" trombone only later?), and I believe it's Oliveros employing piano-style attacks early (& perhaps e.g. "chimes" later...). (There's also a video on Vimeo, that I only "discovered" from the Free Jazz Blog review appearing after I'd gathered most of my notes here, but staring attentively at a computer screen isn't really my thing, and casual inspection for visual cues as to who is doing what was challenging.) In any case, especially if one doesn't start "worrying" about who is making what sound, the overall tapestry becomes magical rather quickly, perhaps with some fits & starts after establishing sky high expectations, but ultimately moving through various unique combos & expressions. One might then characterize the interactions as also around the bass in the sense that both Lewis & Oliveros emphasize bass range as well, such that one can even speak of a sort of confluence of growls at times, especially into the flowing three-way wave toward the end... There's thus a sort of foreboding texture, including at least one huge dissonant swell, but ongoing attention to detail reveals many lighter moments, a real effusion of joy beneath the novel sound.... (The sound quality is also excellent: It's some of the best recorded bass tone I've heard from Léandre, and there's a great feeling for space. In other words, there's no lack of sonic clarity here, other than that generated intentionally by the performers mingling their sound productions. They've also omitted what I assume to have been thunderous concluding applause, which I appreciate, as this performance leaves a considerable wake if left to end in silence....) One might then speak of "locale" effects, forged especially between the two "electronics" players, i.e. a sense of little worlds that are visited. But as opposed to the "travelogue" style, there's not as much of a sense of sequence or linearity, or more to the point, senses of time multiply, especially with memory: Particularly with the prominent accordion as well, one could thus speak of "gradients" & so Braxton's massive 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 set (which involves a much larger group, and presumably significantly more planning...), but the sound world around Léandre that is actually most consistently evoked for me is that of MMM Quartet, particularly the sampling & the mysterious underlying texture. (Oliveros was also at Mills College, so this relation makes plenty of sense.) Then, whereas Curran (& Frith?) is involving various e.g. vocal samples for MMM, Lewis comes to construct a kind of polyphony out of voices... involving sampling (including of Léandre?), Léandre live at times (but quieter than sometimes), Lewis's own voice (I think it must be?) & then blurring into trombone growls too. (And then, guess what, Oliveros has a vocal font as well!) There are hints of jazz or noir idioms. Yet there's also a strange coherence that's rarely (& only ever intentionally...) "too much" — so I won't attempt to step through the various interactions, which do continue to reveal themselves. (And I should probably also note that 2014 was the year that Oliveros released the massive Phase/transitions set. And that, in ignorance of this performance, I'd reviewed Léandre with accordionist Pascal Contet on the duo album Area Sismica — from a performance recorded in 2019 — last September, stating that accordion made a perfect foil for her bass...!) But at this point, though, I should probably conclude this discussion & simply let Play as you go — the inspired work of three musicians at the top of their field — speak (or sound) for itself.

14 September 2021

Moving to less established performers, I've been intrigued by the enigmatic Tripticks Tapes label, starting with a double review here in June, and so want to note their new quartet release Death in the Gilded Age, recorded in Upstate New York in February 2021. (Perhaps I should also state that I think that cassettes are silly. I won't be playing any. But with digital releases, there's no need....) Death in the Gilded Age is then a new sort of "string quartet" formed by Joanna Mattrey (viola) with Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Matteo Liberatore (acoustic guitar) & Ava Mendoza (electric guitar). And I'd heard both Mattrey & Mendoza in a handful of (different) productions originating in New York (Downtown scene), while I'd recently heard Fluke-Mogul (again) on the intriguing Non-Dweller, a "friction" trio album (also with koto) around Bay Area percussionist Jacob Felix Heule, as released on his Humbler Records.... (Liberatore was new to me, though.) But then the "obvious" reference here was SETT: First and Second & its similar ensemble — in that case, all acoustic, and with double bass instead of violin. And while the latter is generally quieter, more naturalistic & ultimately abstract, Death in the Gilded Age involves considerable contrapuntal invention as well, amid its active (punk-infused) textures. It's generally aggressive & highly present, suggesting more than a bit of doom, as the title already suggests, but the elements of rock idiom are also relatively suffused, taking a while to bubble to attention, within what can be a very broad & shifting texture. (There's an element of "cityscape" here as well.) Like SETT, their quartet interactions tend to be quite close too, exchanging quick figures & more fragmentary affects, including material moving at different speeds.... Some "procedural" passages come to seem relatively static, though, even suggesting a bit of the "song" form at times. (And actually, the active & shifting string textures can suggest a bit of e.g. Oliveros' accordion per the prior entry, including swells & variations in attack....) Maybe a hint of Sephardic music drifts through as well.... So, Death in the Gilded Age does involve a wealth of ideas (including some melodic implications), often densely articulated, along with a sort of grimness... but can also lack some affective clarity (or detail) overall. Will this novel (particularly for the US) quartet become an ongoing project? There's already much to appreciate about their frequently jagged & dark sound combinations....

15 September 2021

Then as digital releases continue to multiply, 577 Records — currently celebrating its 20 year anniversary — is one of the labels that's been greatly expanding its offerings, including a wide variety of music by very different performers. And they've clearly become one of the most prolific sources over the past year or more, especially including from Europe, branching out from their prior New York City orientation, while also continuing an emphasis on various items attuned more to US jazz traditions.... But I was still surprised to find a particularly potent mix in the soon to appear At Kühlspot, recorded in Berlin in August 2020 by the Takatsuki Trio Quartett & Silke Eberhard: I'd largely associated the latter with more mainstream productions, and indeed she was awarded Jazzpreis Berlin shortly before this set was recorded, but the Takatsuki Trio Quartett includes roots in more experimental music. So I also want(ed) to note their other recent release on 577 Records (Orbit series), Berliner Quartette, recorded (also in Berlin during the same residency) in June & September of 2020 (& releasing in October...), one track each with Tobias Delius & Axel Dörner. And that's the "trio quartet" concept, three musicians — Rieko Okuda (piano, voice), Antti Virtaranta (double bass), Joshua Weitzel (guitar, shamisen) — performing exclusively as a quartet with different guests (who, to this point, appear to be all horn players). It's not a new concept, of course: The Lisbon String Trio was featured here often (starting from July 2017, although they did release a trio album, Proletariat, too...), while there's also e.g. the Core Trio (their Featuring Matthew Shipp being first noted here in June 2014...). Anyway, the set with Eberhard (alto sax) released as At Kühlspot is then the middle of three appearing around the same time, and is actually only a handful of minutes longer than the track with Dörner (while the Delius set is under 15 minutes), but I can certainly appreciate the label's desire to release it more prominently: The quartet session with Eberhard (b.1972) displays an instant coherence, producing a relatively short but dazzling single track album that mixes considerably with the jazz tradition, while introducing a variety of more personal elements as well. Oh, the others are appealing too — & Takatsuki had already released Live in Hessen (recorded in 2019) on Creative Sources last year too, there with Matthias Schubert & experimental sax player Dirk Marwedel (with whom I'm not otherwise familiar) on two very different tracks — with the Delius set involving a sort of thicket of percussive extended technique around intricate string textures, while the Dörner set (the latest chronologically) invokes a sort of stillness, with stark calls & crystal piano, but also comes to suggest a variety of 20th century popular styles. In fact, pianist Okuda is incredibly fluid, with a real flair for jazz! A piano-horn "front line" then ends up being, as is traditional, a huge aspect of both the Dörner & Eberhard sets, bassist Virtaranta often playing relatively straight jazz (again with real poise, he & Okuda apparently having studied in Philadelphia...), while Weitzel functions more as a colorist, especially via percussive bent tones on shamisen. For a group that I'd associated more with "out there" procedures, and they do involve a Japanese string as "percussion...," the result is remarkably strong & assertive (i.e. often in the classic mode of "musical argument"). Indeed, this is exactly the sort of conversational, contrapuntal, multi-faceted & lively contemporary "jazz" that I'd sought from the beginning of this project, making me think that this generally bright-sounding album could make a wider splash as well.... Searching for comparisons, I have to note the quartet on last year's Flatbosc & Cautery, that being a longer album involving working together over a longer period, but with similar range & even fluency appearing at times on At Kühlspot, i.e. as what Georg Graewe calls in the liner notes for Flatbosc... "getting down to business." (And I'd actually noted Okuda & Virtaranta here together already with Lab H Tapes in a March 2020 entry: There, they're in a trio that doesn't add a fourth member, but changes its instruments & style between the two tracks, so a vaguely similar idea.... In fact, Okuda was also on viola for each of the earliest two albums noted here, but omits it for the 577 releases. Her vocal contribution to At Kühlspot then involves a passage with a kind of background chattering... one of the "extended textures" mixed into its single movement.) And so the "business" (of getting down) does appear to involve a dynamic alchemy of affectivity & abstraction, moving seamlessly & maintaining a sense of taut connectivity even through slower passages, i.e. preserving a traditional thread of jazz argument (& agreement) through some creative stretching....

17 September 2021

Beyond jazz, my musical trajectories in this space also involve contemporary "classical" music, as that was my orientation from around 1990: From there, I then became increasingly involved with "world traditional music" & Western (especially) medieval music over the next many years, as what had seemed like smaller projects turned into huge occupations with the explosion of the internet.... But I'd been wanting to take up threads in contemporary music again, and eventually an improvisational trajectory around US jazz started to make sense, and so I dove into that. What I found, of course, was that 21st century jazz was incorporating so many of those same (c.1990) influences anyway, and an improvisational trajectory continued to make more & more sense for me. Anyway, relative to many listeners & writers in this space, my formative background is still more in classical music than it is jazz, rock, etc. And so one thing I ended up doing over the (ongoing...) pandemic year was to revisit those c.1990 influences more explicitly. And early in 2020, I'd already returned to Cage for an open-ended listening project, but soon came to expand that project, first publishing various sections of my Number Pieces discussion last August. That project was ongoing, but by October, I reviewed Scelsi Revisited here — where I also mentioned the Cage page for the second time, and suggested I'd probably need to revisit Scelsi myself & "probably" Xenakis.... Well, in February 2021 I finished a new late Xenakis survey & then a detailed late Scelsi survey in March. (I even went on to write a more preliminary essay on Milton Babbitt in April too, although Babbitt was a more general figure of that time than a personal influence — or so I'd thought....) So I felt (in many ways...) as though I was really hearing someone like Babbitt for the first time (pace a relatively recent review of his string quartets, posted here in March 2018...), but both the Scelsi & Xenakis discussions were basically followups — although I did realize that for the latter, I'd never actually written a similar analysis in the past. And then Cage had partially drifted from my musical consciousness... not his ideas in general, but (as noted in the essay) his own music had long fallen out of my rotation. I then found rediscovery to be almost revelatory (even as I'd thought I already "knew" Cage's music...), particularly for the basic "usefulness" of his Number Pieces today, but also for how much Cage continues to be felt in contemporary improvisation. I mean, I guess it's ironic in that Cage eschewed improvisation, but his particular reasons have largely passed (into history...), and there seems to be a wonderful confluence (with ongoing composition by others...) emerging in that arena: A label that's increasingly pursued that space, then, including with various reviews here, is Another Timbre. Indeed, it seems they'd already been moving more into the post-Cage space, involving more composition per se, but the pandemic also (apparently) prompted owner-engineer-producer Simon Reynell onto his own Number Pieces project, the 4CD set by Apartment House apparently beginning production in August 2020, just like my page! In any case, recording details aren't given for that set, but after several months of production (of which I was unaware...), it recently appeared. I've also mentioned Reynell specifically because it's his project (more than it is the group's, Apartment House, which has — however — released several contemporary music albums...), and his extended discussion of the Pieces is featured: In particular, they've involved some overdubs (for practical reasons, not unlike the Ogre Ogress recordings...), but also "blunted" the microtones of Five3 & Ten. To me, microtonal precision adds another dimension to these Pieces (& wouldn't have been notated as such, if Cage didn't mean it...), but the 4CD set includes many very worthwhile readings, including all of the Pieces for forces from 5 to 14 (as well as Four5, performed on non-sax reeds), making for the most significant Number Pieces program yet.... Reynell & these performances also ask the question (although of necessity due to overdubs?) of whether Cage wanted musicians to interact in these Pieces, i.e. should when one decides to play or not play be influenced by what the other musicians do? I say generally yes, as Cage's lifelong emphasis was on live music, and while he maintained a strong sense of personal boundaries, that definitely did not extend to indifference. But there's also a sort of (resulting?) starkness at times to Number Pieces that can be affective... it's a colder performance in general, one might say. But the the recording quality is also excellent, particularly for percussion & quiet harmonics, etc. That's automatically a worthwhile aspect to bring to e.g. Seven2, but I've also particularly enjoyed the second recorded performance of Eight (increasingly a favorite piece of mine in general...), as well as their take on Thirteen (sometimes claimed as Cage's final finished Piece...). I also like the idea of including many versions of Five, but feel as though that's undermined by doing them with such similar instrumentations.... Overall, there's a sort of coarse directness to the result, departing perhaps from earlier recordings by Cage contemporaries, for which (to be overly reductive...) a more tender quality tends to emerge. That's in part due to Reynell's decision to have the Pieces sound more than less (i.e. to hold tones closer to the maximum in the score than to the minimum period...). And a general aspect of the performance from Apartment House that I definitely support is the feeling that, once a choice is made, they're decisive with it. (There's otherwise a temptation to continue a feeling of equivocation in Cage's music, despite that one already made the choices involved....) So I've appreciated these varied interpretations in different ways, and individual remarks have been folded into my Number Pieces discussion. And I suppose that the timing of this big set will always connect it (at least in my mind) more specifically with my own project, although I do intend to review significant future Cage releases here as well....

20 September 2021

And I didn't know it was coming, but a new album from Henry Threadgill Zooid already provides an opportunity to offer more thoughts on composition & my own trajectory in this space: Poof was recorded in Astoria in December 2019, and features the same quintet of musicians as on the album for Threadgill's Pulitzer Prize winning composition, In for a Penny, In for a Pound (recorded in 2014). So Poof also presents something of a return to that format, after the albums Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus & Dirt... And More Dirt (reviewed here together in June 2018), which I thought sounded "very composed," involving larger ensembles, e.g. multiple pianos, etc. And although that (2018) discussion does bog down around my own trajectory remarks, it did already provide an opportunity for some thoughts on composition in this space: Threadgill's This Brings Us To (recorded in 2008), also composed music (in the jazz sense...), was ready & waiting when I started this project, and soon became a couple of albums that I auditioned repeatedly, very much with a sense of discovery.... Those albums were thus sedimented into my trajectory, and Poof does return to something of a similar focus, i.e. smaller compositional ideas, still featuring offbeat & funky rhythms in serialized intervallic conversations. If anything it's more flexible in its "system," sometimes involving a more intimate sense of melody in its inner tracks. (Poof also substitutes cello for the bass guitar of This Brings Us To, as had In for a Penny, In for a Pound already, after passing through a sextet format employing both....) In contrast to such a "smaller" conception (sometimes projecting interiority...), while it also pulls back (or "stretches out") to lines featuring soloists, In for a Penny, In for a Pound features a larger overall conception (i.e. "concerti" v. "sonatas" despite the identical ensembles...), grand arcs suggesting structural spans (with their reduced force sections recalling e.g. the way that Josquin Desprez articulated larger forms...), such that the "thinner" sections retain a sort of overall structural tension. The "outer" tracks on Poof also (densely & enjoyably) recall much of the material & feel from these earlier albums, although more in the sense of memory & orientation than within a process of discovery per se.... And in that sense, this latest album does seem something like an appendix to the bigger releases, but it's definitely worthwhile to hear Threadgill in this more intimate setting (sometimes even tender, or e.g. in #4 also becoming abstract & extended...) & again with these same musicians. (The remarks from Pi also note that some bigger multimedia productions will be coming, along with a book.) Poof thus evokes more the overall feel of classic chamber jazz than Threadgill's other recent projects, his wonderful "nuts & bolts" style (developing around Zooid...) being both stripped down & made more flexible... pace some more specific affective content at times too, e.g. poignancy. (And trajectories aside, I probably still won't be featuring much jazz composition per se here, but rather "free" & "improv" albums more broadly....) Pace some refinements & differences then, Threadgill's style over the past 10+ years generally remains clearly audible (rather than pushing more boundaries).

28 September 2021

Well, I guess the opening about having had "no shortage of items to hear" is already starting to sound like a bit of a jinx, although I was reacting (at least in large part) to a contrary such presumption.... And of course this entry might still be premature itself, but it's starting to feel as though I might go an entire month without a review here: It's not that I've been busy, not really, more that those ripples are being felt... I think.... In particular, the sort of collaborative improvised music that I've mostly featured here seems the most impacted, i.e. music without (much) planning but also a larger number of people coming together. Indeed, my feeling is it's the "chance" meeting before the meeting before the meeting to make the album that's vanished.... (And hence the lag in impact.) In other words, getting together to play music has become more planned in general, and that's also meant more composed music being released by some of the same musicians. And of course more solos, or projects where another's participation is relatively straightforward. (And I haven't wanted to turn so much to solos here, eventually declining to review — most recently — Dots from Roscoe Mitchell & Dirge from Joanna Mattrey — although I'd've certainly mentioned the latter if it'd've been released by last month's review of Death in the Gilded Age.... E.g. the Relative Pitch label seems to be turning more to solos too.) Anyway, one thing that this situation has done is to confirm for me the "social" quality of improvised music, especially moving to three or more players (& with large groups, perhaps paradoxically, seeming less so...): Three's a crowd? Something like that. But again, new ways of living together are exactly what we need, and I don't hear those ideas coming from more closely planned (especially top-down...) interactions, but rather from more improvisatory solutions.... And again, that's a place for the chance encounter yielding the chance encounter yielding the... (i.e. the transversal). But people are simply coming together less, particularly without planning (which becomes more necessary), and this is a serious political situation: In fact, it's an intentional & ongoing disruption (via trash talking vaccines, etc.) of public space & public presence, i.e. an attempt to reconfigure public presence politically. (As the tech industry consolidates its already enormous power alongside....) And in that sense, the situation certainly bears more careful consideration — which might be figured as a sort of "composition" itself, but pace my (many) prior remarks about composition (often) seeming preliminary to improvisation.... And I do expect these various intriguing solo releases & compositional ideas to rebound (eventually) into more of the small group collaborations that draw my attention & thoughts here.... But I'm also forced to turn to more general questions about what we (or I) want to hear in these changing times: In some sense, there starts to be a (further) polarity between music to be heard alone (e.g. at home) & music to bring people together, except that these are not really separate fields. Or at least they're "separable" mainly when involving differing energy levels, which is sometimes the case. (Just as healing, in general, might require being alone or being together....) And that brings me back to a Cageian focus, in some sense, but when I tried to orient there very early in this project, I soon noted one obvious fact: My living space, my apartment, my block, my metro area... are simply not silent. In fact, they're quite loud. And so in another sense, listening alone is still always already listening together. Where I feel more of the crisis, then, ends up being in matters of consciousness per se... (suggesting, I guess, a sort of music that diagrams itself?).

21 October 2021

The trio album Loss And Gain — just released on Infrequent Seams, but without recording date(s) given — is something of a followup to Opalescence, that album by a trio of Robbie Lee, medievalist Norbert Rodenkirchen & James Ilgenfritz (& released on Lee's Telegraph Harp label), as reviewed here in July 2018. However, whereas the earlier album is more of a horn duo between Lee & Rodenkirchen, as supplemented by Ilgenfritz for some tracks, Ilgenfritz (contrabass) is often central to Loss And Gain, while the second horn is replaced by Brian Chase (drumset), joining the eclectic Lee (saxophones, recorders, flutes, electronics). While I'd already noted the "variety of tunings" on Opalescence, Loss And Gain centers more of these ideas — & indeed new member Chase (whom I'd noted here back in 2014 with Jeremiah Cymerman...) contributes the one composition to the program (of 11 tracks...), mostly played on bass with "accents" from the others: That piece (#5) reminds me vaguely of something from James Tenney, i.e. "perfect" intervals cycling through microtonal relations. It also slows the flow of the album when it appears, setting the stage for other "study" type tracks later, after what seemed like some rather spontaneous & compelling opening tracks. (This is also why I tend to suspect that the album dates to multiple sessions. Note further that Lee also just released a solo album on Relative Pitch, Prismatist, recorded back in 2018... right around when I reviewed Opalescence, in fact.) And while the tracks centering tuning & string effects on the bass can be intriguing (with e.g. #9, the title track, projecting a viscerally challenging quality...), at its best, the trio also evokes a sort of (collective) naturalistic primitivism (perhaps not so unlike e.g. Nauportus... although in both cases, strings are not actually "primitive" instruments), but also some particular world or jazzy styles at times too. (And maybe a Scelsian quality even emerges at other times....) After all, this is ultimately a horn trio (whose "electronics" are at most subtle...)! There can be a sort of immersive feeling as well — as "tuning" can conjure notions of a distinctive environment (although not "industrial" here, as on e.g. last year's Werckmeister Musik...) — but sometimes also a (preliminary) feeling of waiting for something to happen. And while it doesn't necessarily seem like a "finished" project as a result, this trio & its frequently twisting (pitch) relations is certainly suggestive of more potential: One might even suggest that (e.g. as "preparation" in general...) scordatura is a kind of composition. (And it's fascinating, in general, how "pure intervals" can immediately evoke outdoor environments. The "indoors" suggests temperament then?!)

9 November 2021

I haven't inspected the physical product myself, but Petrichor apparently includes a magnifying lens in its packaging, in order (the intro says...) to read the small print of the liner notes, and I suspect also to look at the pictures of rocks being "decomposed" (the pictures, that is...) by bacteria from those same rocks. (I suspect that's why the album was listed as an "upcoming release" for so long too....) Petrichor is also a Creative Sources release, and another such release — following Aggregate Glows in the Cold (reviewed here this past August) — that involves a "group" that I've already been following moving to the larger label (versus so many CS releases involving performers who are new to me...). But in neither case is the ensemble quite the same: Petrichor involves a trio called Virtual Balboa that I haven't really reviewed, namely Ben Bennett (percussion), Zach Darrup (guitar) & Evan Lipson (double bass). And that trio is thus a sort of "intersection" (minus Wright) of a couple of other trios featuring North American improv legend Jack Wright: The Never trio (including Bennett & Darrup) most recently released Not Nothing (recorded in Chicago in September 2019), while the Roughhousing trio (including Darrup & Lipson) had already appeared on You Haven't Heard This (as reviewed here in March 2017).... And then for Petrichor, recorded live in Seattle in May 2019 (i.e. prior to Not Nothing...), Virtual Balboa does add a horn player — although it's not the quartet with Wright on sax that seems like such a ready idea... — in Greg Kelley on trumpet. And I wasn't previously familiar with Kelley, but he adds a variety of fractured & percussive horn figures, as well as some quietly screeching continuity in other moments, his sort of tense but also subdued "graininess" (e.g. tonguing) blending into both quick electric guitar swells & arco bass figures.... (The trumpet, which isn't always noticeable as such at first, is thus rather different in sound from e.g. Benjamin Vergara's from Chile on the duo album Birds of Our Abyss with Bennett, released last year on Orbit 577, and involving more in the way of traditional "calls" within a sparser, ritualistic setting....) Petrichor is also relatively short, under half an hour, but ends up seeming rather substantial via its sequence of seemingly independent & often short sounds, a kind of broadly percussive tapestry filling space around Bennett insistently, but not aggressively.... The "decomposing" going on here — in an album self-described as saprophytic... — thus involves a sort of quietly seething simmer, as well as various "nuts & bolts" (e.g. timbral) correspondences between the players. In other words, the result can seem almost monolithic from a distance, but ends up being quite colorful on closer inspection. (The textual discussion also seems at least partially tongue-in-cheek, whatever the magnifier signifies....) Maybe there's a bit of stasis via a consistent pulse developing, a kind of quasi-hocket (that seems to appear in some of these productions, unconsciously, as taking turns...), but the quick-note texture is increasingly lively to the ear upon further exposure. (There's also a sort of visual quality to the resulting sound tapestry. And a ready European evocation for me, albeit obviously different in various ways, including via electronics, is actually Coluro, i.e. for its sort of close-figured timbral & temporal balancing.) Again, I'm not otherwise familiar with Kelley (& don't know e.g. if he was on the entire tour with Virtual Balboa, or only for this final West Coast concert...), but this is a morphing ensemble of associates that's cultivating its own (highly relevant, deconstructive, postmodern...) style. They also cultivate & (sometimes) project a (transverse) sense of expressive tension (& even urgency, fading by the end here...), perhaps more so than do ready (sonic) comparisons....

10 November 2021

British electric guitarist N.O. Moore has become rather prolific of late, i.e. a couple of years after bursting on the (recording) scene with the trio Darkened, yet shone: I reviewed that enigmatic album in September 2018, including its philosophical essay (thus linking Moore with e.g. Nicola Hein among contemporary philosophical guitarists...), and sometimes soloistic execution (by which it seemed that even the highly accomplished John Edwards & AMM legend Eddie Prévost could struggle to match Moore's sheer volume of material novelty...), but Moore has seemingly moved well past that intro, pace a series of recent & upcoming releases. In particular, he's also started his own Dx/dy Recordings label with a couple of releases back in January: I failed to notice this until recently prompted elsewhere, but want to review The Birds of Four Mirrors: Neither release is accompanied by recording date info, so I can't reconstruct a chronology here, but for The Birds of Four Mirrors, Moore is not credited with his usual "guitarism," rather "stereo field" & "dark energy." Whatever this means (specifically) to Moore, they're actually seemingly straightforward descriptions, in that "constituent" instrumental inputs appear to be heavily remixed (on the fly?) & indeed darkened, the album proceeding largely in shades of black & grey.... Given the electronics, there's also a general spaciness to the proceedings, highlighted specifically by the participation of Tom Mills (theremin, ring modulator), but going far beyond basic sci-fi evocations: It often feels as though we're on some distant planetary body, dark, occasionally shining in flashes, wind blurring into sandstorms & even flows of dark gravel. And Moore explores some similar imagery as well on his upcoming solo release for Orbit 577, Lunar Sync (recorded "during 2019-2020"), where he plays modular synth. In fact, that album credits Sun Ra, and the observation of being in the space age, but explores far beyond the latter's sound. The "jazz" evocations have been explicit on all of his 577 Records releases, though, especially (the also imminent) EMPoWered (recorded in January 2019), by a quartet adding Alan Wilkinson (sax) to the trio from Darkened, yet shone: In that case, Sonny Sharrock & Alvin Jones are mentioned, in what might be termed a free jazz rock affair... with more of an ensemble result than Moore's debut. Then, The Secret Handshake With Danger, vol. one was actually released back in March (also on 577, & recorded in March 2020), explicitly evoking Miles Davis' electro-jazz in its big overall sound landscape, also pairing Moore with Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, once again featuring Prévost, along with Olie Brice on bass & Binker Golding (another "new" performer looking to make a splash...) on sax. There's some traditional intensity to the navigation of "confusion" there, but also more novel textures developing.... And again, there's a consciousness of history & particular (jazz) styles. That doesn't seem nearly so explicit on The Birds of Four Mirrors, by a group named Improvisers inside electronics, though (here a quartet), as there's a more thorough reworking underway, joined as inputs by Antonio Acunzo (electric bass, objects) & Tony Hardie-Bick (acoustic guitar, modified tape echo) as well, such that it's immediately unclear what we're even hearing. (And I should note that the group "Improvisers inside electronics" appears to be open-ended around Moore, with e.g. a concert posting online including John Butcher & Phil Durrant....) Perhaps the most similar approach is then actually that from Ed Pettersen's massive double guitar trio double album Plumes of Ash in Moonlight (reviewed here in January 2020, recorded in February 2019), a sextet again involving Prévost (& e.g. Hardie-Bick, the only other participant on The Birds of Four Mirrors that was familiar at all) in a series of long-form, rock infused "tone poems." Moore is the second guitarist on that album, and Pettersen actually disfigures the other instruments rather less, involving more variety of swirling colors.... (I could also contrast with the more keyboardistic, linear reworkings of e.g. Thanos Chrysakis e.g. on Music for...: That album is also brighter, more blue... i.e. not in shades of doom rock. In double contrast, though, is Chrysakis' own recent Five Shards — as reviewed here this past August, and actually as recorded in the same London studio — with its own, more swirling sense of sound painting....) And then, farther afield, I could mention other albums that involve sampling, e.g. Kangaroo Kitchen (reviewed here in October 2019) & its more "found" (& highly polyphonic) approach to musical inputs, or even Compassion & Evidence (also explicitly philosophical...) & its brightening, hearkening sense of "locale...." Not that The Birds of Four Mirrors is exactly uninhabitable, but it's harsh... and apparently with rather consciously produced inputs as well, i.e. not sampled (per se) or "found" (as befits Moore's adoption of modular synth elsewhere, I suppose). Once more in contrast, though, is the other initial release from Dx/dy, Secant | Tangent with Moore back on guitarism, along with Sue Lynch (appearing here increasingly frequently, it seems...) & Crystabel Riley (drums): It's almost a traditional free sax trio, but with Moore's distinctive electric palette peeking through in warped tones, ultimately suggesting a sort of collective "60s freedom" vibe.... (And that seems to be the way that horns appear for Moore, absent as they are from much of his work so far, including e.g. his participation on Plumes..., a much longer & more "finished" album.) With The Birds of Four Mirrors, then, the sort of post-rock (or prog rock?) influence is relatively diffuse, but comes through affectively (& rather clearly when contrasted with superficially similar tapestries...), and such that that kind of angsty tension does seem to define Moore's work thus far. (And I continue to have the feeling that the prominence of bass continues to mark "materialism" for some musicians of this generation, an easy correspondence that makes me uneasy in its superficiality.... A fruitful tack Moore certainly continues here, though, is challenging what I call segmentation... i.e. the perceptual chunking of entities as entities.) In any case, that kind of sinking feeling starts here pretty much immediately. And definitely contrasts with the mostly white cover.

13 November 2021

In Search of Surprise is the first post-covid — in the sense (not unlike that of "postmodern") that "post-" only indicates a seemingly perpetual sort of stasis — recording that I've added to "favorites" here, so a few additional remarks on its origin: Udo Schindler (here on cornet, soprano saxophone & baritone saxophone) has been prolific, releasing albums with a variety of musicians, many otherwise unknown, and I've been auditioning many, but not all.... (In particular, most are duos, and per my predilections here, I'm generally more interested in trio albums — such as In Search of Surprise.) And in this case, Schindler's partner on (exotic) horns is Etienne Rolin (basset horn, glissotar), himself famous enough as a composer to have some works appear on anthologies on well-known classical labels. (That's not the norm for musicians in this space, including for those who enjoy the label composer....) And then, per the notes for the album by Rolin (b.1952), they met in late 2020 & had a series of 14 musical encounters together over three months, before inviting Luc Lainé (vibraphone) to form this trio, recording (in Munich) in February this year. I know even less of Lainé, who is also described as a composer by Rolin. The documented result is magical, though! The long, initial track — before pulling back to the one (quite intricate) wind duo track on the album — is immediately enthralling, with intricate lines negotiating a stark resonant field of percussive strikes. (Rolin describes their work as a "dense micropolyphony with enharmonic extensions.") In featuring In Search of Surprise, though, I also have to ask what the album — & in turn Schindler — are really "about." Indeed, the album title itself can suggest echoes of privilege, i.e. the trope of the bored suburbanite looking for stimulation.... And of course, Schindler's technique, including across wind families, is amazing: He's a master of the tiniest articulations, exotic timbres, microtonal precision... precision in general. (It's interesting that he also "plays rough" at times, including here. He's incredibly precise at that too!) There's thus very much an aura of classical technique & mastery to his work, into which Rolin's own masterful playing (albeit a little rougher on the glissotar, a sort of tarogato rigged with a metal strip for glissandi — & for which Rolin apologizes, saying he'd only just received the instrument!) fits very well, so I was also somewhat surprised to learn that Schindler once identified as a rock musician. Subsequently he became an architect, though, and his use of acoustic resonance can presumably be linked to that orientation: Shifting resonance becomes a part of "line" or even melody for Schindler, as he & Rolin thus explore extended concepts of intertwining melodies. Before even discussing the vibraphone, which is capable of quite quick & precise interpolations itself here, it's the extended concepts of melodic expression that come to define this world: From a distance, there can even be e.g. a sort of "cool jazz" vibe evoked (from soprano especially, of course...), and expressivity tends to come to the fore in general, emerging from the advanced technique: Explorations of line also tend to move beyond idiom, i.e. develop new concepts of melodic invention — usually focusing on "beautiful" tone — e.g. beyond primitivism or classic jazz, etc. There's also something of a measured quality, never particularly slow or minimal, but not frenetic either, i.e. retaining a sort of centering. And notions of "center" do suggest the vibraphone here, or maybe I should describe it as a pivot between the two horns (i.e. per a similar scenario as I'd described in e.g. a review of Give and Take from Frode Gjerstad & Argentinian collaborators back in July 2016, there with piano as pivot...), as Lainé can be more in the background, not always reacting or accompanying, but sometimes provoking or situating.... Indeed at times the result suggests to me something of Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Music, the basic resonant shimmer of the vibraphone often evoking the electronics, while the two horns engage a close dialog from either "side" of the intervention. However, there's something of a "busy-ness" or noisiness to the electronic interventions/setting on DCWM that instead comes off rather more starkly or precisely on In Search of Surprise.... And so what is this surprise anyway? Pace the suburbanite remark, it obviously refers at least in part to Schindler's general project, i.e. musical investigations, e.g. what leads to more than the sum of its parts? What leads to something new musically? (For me, the simple addition of a third musician may figure such a label as well....) And that's really the relevance here, i.e. the intricacy of expression, not restrained by previous concepts of tonality (but not really atonal!), the twisting & nonlinear complexity of life itself.... (Asking what is melody can ask even what is — at least human — life?) The sense of melodic invention within a microtonal context can then even be analogized e.g. to the Spectrum Pieces (or at least those for smaller forces...) by James Tenney: That work explores perceptions of melodic continuity across a broad microtonal frame, but is also stochastic in its motion, while Schindler et al. do engage a more thoroughly human expressivity & capriciousness.... But then, there's more than melodic innovation to In Search of Surprise, as the vibe resonance lends a sort of (yes, also quasi-Braxtonian...) "fun house" mirroring quality to the horns, often suggesting (without electronics!) the multiplication of entities (& so polyphony): Perhaps this is an "architectural" contribution, despite seemingly being imposed by Lainé.... (And the sorts of physical-geometric titles that occupy most of the program can also suggest for me something akin to the Cyclone Trio & e.g. The Clear Revolution — reviewed here in January 2021 — in a sort of "inversion" of the rhythmic basis for that trio, the opening "triangle" image here corresponding to the open "circle" label there....) And again, somehow In Search of Surprise also ends up sounding (surprisingly) jazzy. It's not delicate either, acoustic resonance per se apparently generating a sort of Scelsian strength of emergence that gets to be figured as pretty & intricate... i.e. via an attention to detail that can take the trio in any direction — as a sort of perpetual melodic (quasi-dual) exploration that really comes together into something more: Schindler is simply never at a loss for "alternatives," & that alone can be a valuable message (particularly as he forges practical implementations too!).

23 November 2021

And I've been "wanting" to write a review of something by Wadada Leo Smith (b.1941) for a while now, but although I've regularly auditioned his major releases, I guess I'd yet to find myself with much to say: That's, of course, a fact partly arising from Smith's AACM standing & interrogation of a history with which I've only partially engaged.... But there's also, perhaps, a more traditional-melodic quality to his music that sets it outside some of the more exploratory efforts featured here. And that's perhaps most obvious with a title like The Chicago Symphonies, i.e. the latest multi-disc set released on Tum Records for Smith's 80th birthday year. That these are "symphonies" is an intriguing label, especially given the relative starkness of the music: The notes do also note "extensive scores" being involved, but it's not clear of what they consist: I'm thinking that this is traditional notation, based on the chorus-unisons that articulate various structural points (especially beginnings), rather than Smith's graphic "Ankhrasmation" style.... And as something of a digression, that form of notation was indeed employed for Pacifica Koral Reef, a trio album imminent on 577 Records with Henry Kaiser & Alex Varty (another guitarist, there sometimes evoking Sephardim or Indian tanpura...): That album, recorded in January 2018, is actually (almost) the most recently recorded I'm going to mention in this entry, its "underwater" inspiration coming off as suggesting something of a brightly colored aquarium.... its starkness then figuring a sort of echoing joy. But The Chicago Symphonies — actually recorded in New York — date from March 2015, the first three that is, with the fourth from June 2018: The former group includes Smith in a "classic free jazz" quartet with Henry Threadgill (alto saxophone, flute, bass flute), John Lindberg (double bass) & Jack DeJohnette (drums), while the latter involves Jonathan Haffner (alto & soprano saxophones) replacing Threadgill. And no offense to Haffner (with whom I'm not otherwise familiar...), but that Fourth Symphony doesn't come off as compellingly: That's also a matter of its more discursive or rhetorical quality, i.e. inspired by a couple of US Presidents (& including both the Gettysburg Address & Obama's speech at Selma in the booklet...), rather than artists, yielding something of a dramatic or even relatively theatrical result: Its sense of rhetoric or theater perhaps recalls Smith's prior Ten Freedom Summers (another 4CD set, released in 2012), there involving a classical ensemble along with a "jazz" quartet (also including Lindberg, who's been a main collaborator for Smith...), an intriguing quasi-classical production that likewise seems to orient mostly on human relations.... And such an orientation does shine through the relative starkness of The Chicago Symphonies, but the latter suggest feelings of epic grandeur as well: A strong sense of space is projected, with various (structural) contexts projected via long spans, arcs of melody (sometimes beginning from unisons or subtle accompaniments...) generating extended perspectives & situations for reduced passages. Smith's work — & he participates more in younger musicians' projects than many of his AACM peers... — tends to involve just such a sense of space, or even silence, and in fact Cage is mentioned in the included discussion: That reference seems ambivalent (at best), but I do also hear Smith's interrogation of silence (which likewise dates to 1960s titles...) as suggesting a similar concept of love or care, i.e. the maintenance of personal space & independence. So Smith relies heavily on his fellow musicians, with the (earlier) quartet on The Chicago Symphonies actually dating to The Great Lakes Suites (a double album released in 2012) — but also recalling his more recent America's National Parks (recorded in May 2016, i.e. after the first three Chicago Symphonies).... And both of these are oriented on "outdoor" themes, which seems to echo a kind of Mahlerian quality in Smith's work, i.e. the inclusion of "everything" within a symphonic form, generally programmatic, but not otherwise unified in the musico-technical sense. However, even Smith's outdoor invocations involve a sort of humanization, i.e. refiguring the sublime (one might say, pace Mahler), perhaps making Shostakovich (another pan-stylist, weaving various associations...) the clearer referent. And then, this is hardly the only 80th birthday release from Smith: There's the triple album Trumpet of solos (recorded in 2016), presenting various compositions & suites, as well as the triple Sacred Ceremonies (recorded in May 2016 for the duos, but December 2015 for the trio), forging a trio with Milford Graves & Bill Laswell for the final disc ("after" duos with each). And I've not really enjoyed Laswell's "world pop" contributions with Graves much in the past (although I do love the monocord in principle...), but their trio with Smith likewise involves plenty of space, with almost independent activity from each, sometimes sitting out, but sometimes coming together in a sort of fun (profound? funky...), rhythmic groove: Smith thus often strikes out melodically against their (electric) rhythm duo. (There's a 7CD set of String Quartets composed by Smith announced for release as well....) Anyway, I'm not sure why (especially the first three) Chicago Symphonies seem to have been held back for release, but they also seem to summarize & develop many of these concerns. There's thus a clarity of expression here (unlike, I would say, the somewhat similar Made in Chicago around DeJohnette & Threadgill, recorded in 2013 & mentioned here in March 2015...). (And in this, The Chicago Symphonies does also come to seem more iconic within Smith's oeuvre than e.g. Threadgill's own recent Poof, reviewed here in September, more as an incremental stylistic development after major summaries....) In any case, Smith's distinctive & transformative sense of space & (quasi-architectronic, linear) in(ter)dependence is quite audible here, rendered (canonically?) via seemingly vast & arcing melodic lines, generating not only powerfully evocative moods (almost as windows into something beyond...), but carving out elbow room for collective feelings of leisure & repose... i.e. space for (individual, human) life per se.

30 November 2021

Chicago's Amalgam Music continues to produce documents of worthwhile improvised interactions, and in the post- (perpetual...) pandemic world that's now involved a "Chi Away" series, initiated by cellist Ishmael Ali & producing three recordings of newly formed Chicago groups: I want to feature Akjai, recorded this past May by a quartet of voices & strings, but the first Chi Away album was Anemoi (also recorded in May), by a horn trio (also featuring Ali, also with label co-founder Bill Harris...) expanded to a quartet with synth & electronics, while the third (supposedly final?) album remains a mystery at this point.... [ Edit 12/29/21: The final Chi Away album, released already this month — but recorded live back in January — is called Hearsay, featuring turntable-ist Allen Moore in extended post-industrial drones/grooves alongside label mainstays Ali & Harris, including some uncredited vocalizing & various more boisterous interactions.... ] And the lineup on Akjai (& per the project, these were all groups that hadn't played together before...) features, other than Ali, musicians with whom I wasn't previously familiar in Brianna Tong (vocals), Johanna Brock (vocals & violin) & Andrew Scott Young (double bass). Words are credited to Tong, R.A. Washington (someone I also didn't know...) & Octavia Butler. And sometimes the words — & it's apparently Tong who handles the lyrics — come fast (& maybe even furious...), but at others they're absent or more understated. Sometimes there's a sense of alternation with the string trio, but the strings do seem to take up the "material" from the vocals, amplifying & extending the narrative. That includes various vocalizations as well, to which it appears Brock restricts her vocal contributions — but she's often quite active on violin, with various advanced techniques. (There's a subtle vocalization duet later in the album as well, but mostly it seems that only one vocalist is active.) The texts can also be appealing, including for the long sentences, almost seeming like "gibberish" in some sense, taking on a "musical" feel... a sort of (layered?) contextualizing of rhetoric & rationalization. (Some other vocal outbursts, especially as emerging from the strings, seem even to recall Joëlle Léandre... perhaps this is Brock. Tong, at least, can certainly be forceful at times with her expression....) There's thus a basic turbulence to Akjai that's reflected by both voice(s) & strings (including e.g. some extended, grainy grinding from the bass...), projecting a surprisingly coherent result (including from diverse texts...). Chi Away states that "the goal of the project as a whole is catharsis" (i.e. "post"-lockdown), but it sounds as though the new quartet (e.g. pairing rap vocals with classical violin...) on Akjai has captured interactions & cross-fertilization worth developing further: The collective result already seems to go beyond preliminary exploration.

6 December 2021

I've had little exposure to Earle Brown's "organization of pitch content," most of that unconscious, and so I'm unsure how to approach one of the major (stated) influences on pianist Eli Wallace for his recent album on Infrequent Seams (the label itself having just appeared in this space, in November, with Loss And Gain...), Precepts. I'm also writing after a bit of an interim, after a holiday change of pace, and that's not how I've generally been reviewing these albums: I've usually tried to capture more of the sweep of early impressions, but decided I needed a break (in general) after determining that I wanted to review this album.... So let me try, at least, to remember some of that initial excitement, as Precepts — recorded in Brooklyn in March 2021, i.e. well into the pandemic — made a strong & immediate impression (before I took a short break from listening in general): The "pitch" ideas cite Brown, but the notion of individual players being bound to individual notes (with some potential to swap...) is clear enough, lending a definite tautness to the proceedings. Such a description might well conjure Scelsi as well, and indeed there's an immersive quality (to this work "for piano and strings") that seems to seek a similar sort of ecstasy, at least at times, and certainly the "insides" of notes. Yet, some of this impression comes straight from the deployment of string instruments — & the piano is generally treated as a string instrument here (plus some chimes...) — in extensive glissandi, etc. I.e. there's a sort of physical correspondence with Scelsi, and certainly a kind of resonance around the idea of maximalism-minimalism, but the more specific compositional concerns — the pitch content per se, perhaps — don't seem as Scelsian. They do appear to be about the pandemic & social interactions with other musicians, though, the tension of restraint & exchange being heightened in general.... And although I hadn't noted him yet in this space, Wallace has been quite active around New York City of late (after moving from Oakland in 2015, where he was under my radar...), as I first noticed some output from him with Sandy Ewen & some other productions around DMG. I'd thought I'd been hearing a good sampling of his activity, but when I first started getting excited about Precepts, I looked more closely, and there're more worthwhile items in different styles: So let me note Striking by Eli Wallace Toronto Quartet (with Nick Fraser, et al.) released in 2020, involving a generally percussive pointillism & close interactions around a variety of preparations. And also Dance Chaos Magic, also released in 2020 by XNN, a quartet around Daniel Carter (but not issued on 577!), a group supposedly "rehearsing since 2016" & involving a jazzier, tangled world vibe. Precepts certainly comes off much more austerely than the latter, though, and also features quite a strong presence & rich soundstage — mastered by Elliott Sharp. The players Wallace engaged — to record, this time, without a rehearsal — are also top flight, namely Erica Dicker (from e.g. Anthony Braxton's 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012), Lester St. Louis (appearing e.g. on Clean Feed with Dre Hocevar, first reviewed here in June 2015...) & Sean Ali (having been reviewed here regularly, especially alongside drummer Carlo Costa, since March 2015...). And Dicker's involvement seems especially apt, as the other font noted for Wallace's music here is Braxton's graphic notation. In that sense, I almost have to compare with Confluence, another pianist-composer album I particularly enjoyed in 2021, especially as I often express ambivalence toward piano here: Mayas' work is of course also graphical, and in the case of Confluence, of a single piece-image. Precepts, however, involves four different tracks featuring different sorts (shapes, perhaps...) of interactions within the same basic framework. (In fact, perhaps I'm starting to feel as though using a piano these days already implies some sort of compositional approach... maybe that's true of any instrument, if one decides in advance at least some aspects of how it'll be played. Maybe an association between piano & composition is simply "traditional" then....) There's also a sort of aqueous quality to Precepts, not so much recalling Confluence per se for me, but actually long-time favorite Nashaz, which despite its different instrumentation, can provide some uncanny listening continuity via its sometimes-nautical rattle. There seems to be something "fundamental" to both albums. But of course, perhaps the most similar ensemble among long-time favorites here is that of Chant, with a seemingly more naturalistic orientation, something of a thicket, but still flickering in shadows (in a sort of quasi-romantic mode...). Did I just say that Precepts seemed aqueous? Now I mean industrial, in contrast, more raw, and much more three dimensional.... Maybe "a sort of sloshing sea, intensity to tranquility & back, both chaotic & smooth... turbulent or laminar?" What is laminar music? I believe this album asks that question. (I'm also driven to ask whether impressionism is always, strictly speaking, an abstraction. I find some next implications to a "yes" here....) It's also "striving for urgent immediacy." Hence it's rather assertive — but I'm unsure it's ever aggressive. (Perhaps the sort of "play" Wallace develops can be analogized to e.g. interval restrictions by Threadgill, but Wallace's approach comes off as more elemental, while Threadgill's generates melodies.... Maybe the sort of taut intricacy of Grammar II is a better comparison, but that album also tends to be relentless... both building a sort of ecstasy via constraint, though.) Wallace seems like someone who's definitely ready to roll, musically that is, in the wake of this pandemic, then. (I believe I'm being more unsuccessful than usual transcribing any sense of this music's vibe into prose, too. Maybe that's due to other circumstances, maybe not....) Not only is this real 2021 music, but Wallace himself seems to have graduated to another level with this production. (Precepts can seem relatively straightforward, yet remains rather mysterious in its scope. Not so unlike the next entry, it comes to project a broad sense of life per se.)

3 January 2022

Also featuring strings & composition is Rag'sma, composed by Christopher Otto & recorded recently by three iterations of the JACK Quartet. This piece doesn't appear to involve improvisation, although it does involve the Quartet playing "live" over two recorded versions of itself, and so is more "contemporary classical music" per se. However, I particularly want to note it for its exploration of unusual interval ratios via the strings. (I'm also unsure how so many people seemed to know about this, the third album from Greyfade, because I felt as though I stumbled upon it quite randomly online — only to discover that there were already a variety of reviews. So they must be promoting somewhere, perhaps radio, and indeed the new label's output is of interest in general....) And in this case, that interval is specifically the "ragisma" — yielding a real tour de force of execution around differently tuned versions of the quartet to illuminate this shadowy ratio. The JACK Quartet (Otto is first violinist...) should also be familiar, but they haven't recorded Tenney (at least not that I know), and various aspects of Rag'sma come off not unlike Tenney's music — although more suggestive of the immersive "swell pieces" than Tenney's own late, more ethereal string quartet, Arbor Vitae. For instance, the two prerecorded versions of the quartet are not random at all, but rather carefully arranged to move through an interval sequence in opposite directions... opening up further "harmonic" space "between" them for the "third" quartet to exploit. (There's also a "plain" version included without the third quartet, as well as for the digital release, a version folding the two prerecorded versions together differently....) The result is basically mellow (based on thirds & fifths...), a slowly shifting set of (intervallic) drones that don't really repeat... rather intervals (& fundamentals) slowly drift. The resulting sound thus doesn't seem unlike that of an organ, although the pitches aren't actually fixed.... Might one describe the result as uncanny? There's a feeling of "life" (open life...) that emerges beyond any restrictive sense of algorithm or mathematical ratio. Maybe even a feeling of "reality" per se... classical Western tuning involving a sometimes uneasy fiction, after all.

4 January 2022

And I wasn't thinking I really had anything to add, as I'd "discovered" the album only via a Keith Prosk review (last month) at the Free Jazz Blog, but as time passes, I'm thinking that I should specifically note here Studio Session, a single forty-two minute track of extended collective restraint & continuity, recorded by the nonet "Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana" in November 2020: It's stated as their debut album, but coming after "seven years of ... evolution" (including street parades & artistic installations). That a large-ish group would produce a relatively quiet album (available on Bandcamp), shifting through a variety of timbral combinations & situations, seems unremarkable — after all, Ernesto Rodrigues releases many (superficially) similar albums, including with similar "classical" instrumentations — & so it's really the distinctiveness (& subtlety) of the worlds that the nonet traverses that set this release apart. Presumably this has much to do with the Ensemble's setting in Cuba, and so the sound worlds there (which obviously encompass more than "classical" music — although an orientation on European instruments, plus e.g. hand drums, is retained here...), even as any more specific evocations are (always, already) in the process of transformation. The "worlds" are not so much distinctive styles then, as they are fluid combinations, often nonlinear & generally unstable (but usually engrossing & frequently pretty...). Thus Studio Session ends up being a deceptively modest debut, indeed incorporating more into its musical garland than its single track (& measured aggressiveness) would seem to suggest.... And if the multi-instrumental nonet (including voice...) is able to continue to function as a unit, it might also signal a unique situation (evolving) within free music today....

16 January 2022

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