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

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