Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

It's time, once again, to roll over this page, and so to write a new introduction. Please continue to consult the previous set of entries, particularly as introducing a break in this way is arbitrary. (I simply don't want this page to become absurdly long.) There will be a great deal of continuity with previous entries, some of which are from earlier this month.

Please scroll to the bottom of this page to see the newest entries. Although the "break" with the previous series is basically arbitrary, I do want to present the text in written order. I know that some people prefer to see new entries at the beginning, and can appreciate the convenience, but also think that it suggests a sort of "atomization" of entries. (In other words, they might come to seem more independent than they are.) Likewise, I've considered writing some more "modern" code to facilitate reader choice here, whether concerning the order, a specific search feature, or displaying only some entries according to topical tags. At one point, I had such a system sketched & even sat down to write it, but reconsidered according to my atomization concerns. Anyway, that's my current thinking on this issue.

Similarly, although some entries are & will be straightforward, the topic generally concerns complex music, if only complex conceptually, and so I don't believe that I'm making undue demands on the reader by writing (often) in a complicated style. Although it's usually a specific recording (or two) that prompts an entry, I freely mix remarks on other albums. Such an orientation reflects the relational quality of music in general, and contemporary improvisation in particular. I've also articulated some rather idiosyncratic ideas about the music, and I don't apologize for that, since I'm taking a "searching" approach here, but I do apologize for factual errors. For better or worse, my focus here is on articulating thoughts in response to auditory experience, rather than on asking questions of people who might know. In other words, I often have nothing more to go on here than listening to a recording, same as anyone else, and sometimes I get confused. So be it, and I'll correct if needed. I want to take a quasi-improvisational approach, and better confused than tentative. Despite the occasional issue, this approach seems to be working.

There's also the basic issue of what (albums) to write about, how I end up hearing (about) something, and what I choose to say. In particular, learning of new items of interest is often complicated by learning someone else's impressions of them, usually in a review. I'd prefer not to be "contaminated" with other thinking, at least not prior to listening, but the basic reality is that reviews are an important source of information — especially about the existence of a release. (When musicians whose work I've enjoyed send me their new albums, that does solve this problem.) Mostly I will write about albums I enjoy. Sometimes that enjoyment will lead to considering something to be a favorite, and the reader can consult my favorites list, arranged by year. Sometimes my enjoyment fades quickly, or doesn't conform to priorities here, but the experience is still worth noting. This seems like a very normal outcome for improvised music, which is only new once, and probably describes the majority of entries. Nonetheless, I do prioritize albums that reward repeat listening. I do also make some negative remarks, but try to keep those to a minimum. (Sometimes it seems necessary by way of clarifying something else.) I hope that being mentioned here will generally be received in complimentary terms, and perhaps it goes without saying, but I don't write anything about most of what I happen to hear: I need to feel as though I have something to say. I'll leave it to context (and previous introductions) to clarify what sort(s) of music I enjoy, though, which might evolve anyway.

Finally, if this introduction isn't already too self-indulgent — just look at all the first person singular! — I've recently finished Basic mechanics of modernity, which is something of an introduction to & summary of some of my more extended theoretical work to this point. I hope that it will be intelligible without reading my previous, much longer articles, although perhaps some readers will want to read those too. (Other writing is linked from Basic Mechanics, or from older entries here.) Together, those articles provide more context than readers could possibly want for my approach in this space.

Thank you for your continuing interest. At a minimum, I expect to have some different things to say here — different from what appears elsewhere, that is. Hopefully some of these thoughts will even be worthwhile.

Todd McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
22 April 2017

It was only a couple of months ago that I discussed the Daniel Levin Quartet's Live at Firehouse 12 here, and that album was the first with Mat Maneri replacing Nate Wooley. It's unclear (at least to me) how long Maneri has been playing with Levin, although some liner notes do allude to it, but the two had already released a duo album, The Transcendent Function (also on Clean Feed). Now they've released a trio album, on which they're joined by Tony Malaby, New Artifacts. The latter was actually recorded prior to Live at Firehouse 12, but after The Transcendent Function. Unlike those previous releases, which include compositions by Levin, New Artifacts is entirely improvised, however. I actually listened to Malaby quite a bit in the early days of this project, especially when I first noticed Clean Feed (on which he so frequently appears) in Spring of 2011. I heard him with Tom Rainey & Kris Davis in particular, including Davis's nonet arrangements of his music on Novela. Since then, I guess his albums haven't quite spoken to me, although I did discuss his leader album Scorpion Eater (with tuba & cello) in December 2014, as well as his participation on Nick Fraser's Too Many Continents in August 2015. Whether those albums resonated with me or not, Malaby's insertion into the Maneri-Levin duo seems perfect, lending a new layer of texture & melody to the music. Indeed, his inclusion reminds me a bit of adding piano to Gjerstad & Conde on Give and Take, an instrument from a different family inserted between a pair of similar instruments, and providing something of a pivot. In that case, the two horns generally retain the foreground, but on New Artifacts, in something of an inversion, it's the existing string duo that sometimes feels more like accompaniment. Beyond that, there's a great sense of simultaneity with Malaby in the middle, and the strings often ramp up their own intensity in response to his interventions — even when he's taking a break. Sometimes they even seem to reflect a horn sound themselves, although Malaby does bring the full resources of his horns (apparently both tenor & soprano) to bear, and can dominate sonically when he wants. (And all three of these musicians typically take the front line in more traditionally configured ensembles, not so unlike those on World of Objects, and can do so here.) Given the ensemble of two members of the violin family & horn, not to mention the microtonal orientation, Baloni seems like a natural comparison (albeit there with bass instead of cello, and more often clarinet over saxophone). Their sounds are very different, though, as the trio on New Artifacts doesn't project the same eerie, disorienting mood. Their microtonality is friendlier somehow (not so much infra-chromatic as detailed tuning), although not lacking in aggressiveness, and does reward close attention. Marty Ehrlich suggests in the liner notes that the trio is rich in gesture, with a lyrical ethos based in vocal forms, i.e. that the human voice is basically being translated to instruments. Given the extended technique, the latter is literally untrue, but I do appreciate the lyricism of this trio & their frequently beautiful tone. The third track is the "slow movement," but the first two in particular can be quite energetic, including even piercing tones & percussive accents. Although the trio often project a sort of late romantic chromaticism, they embrace dodecaphony at other times, and take a sophisticated approach to microtonality (as implied, perhaps, by the final track's title, "Joe"). Consequently, this was an album that I enjoyed right away, and am continuing to enjoy.

After a bit of a pause, Levin has been releasing albums quickly again, including another improvised trio, Spinning Jenny on Trost (for which the recording date isn't given). There he's with Chris Corsano & Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who have prior relationships with the Austrian label. The album starts strong, with a jazzy bass & big percussion, and Levin basically taking the front line. It's very energetic, perhaps with a "rock" energy at times, but also features tracks of slow staticky sounds & creaking, with Corsano typically entering to modulate the mood. Sometimes the strings seem to form one instrument, but at other times, there are more traditional roles. It took me a little longer to warm up to this album, which sometimes doesn't have a lot of foreground, but it's worth hearing. Trios with two instruments from the violin family seem to be increasingly popular (or at least I like them), and so Spinning Jenny might also be compared to e.g. the Judson Trio's An Air of Unreality, as featuring Mat Maneri (per above) with Joëlle Léandre & Gerald Cleaver (and which, being only on LP, I have not heard). Likewise one can compare to Environ (discussed here earlier this month), although there the strings are viola & bass (as on An Air of Unreality), rather than cello & bass (or viola & cello). Environ often takes a similarly layered, role-based approach to ensemble interaction, but it involves even more in the way of extended technique. I hope to be able to continue hearing Levin in more & different improvisatory settings.

23 April 2017

When it comes to using electronics in improvisation (or as part of a compositional basis for improvising, à la Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Music), I've basically taken the attitude that if the result is engaging, I'll engage with it. I admit to something of a soft spot for acoustic albums, though, particularly as musicians develop some of the physical techniques for broadening their timbral pallets to include sonorities derived from electronic music. Of course, considering that I so often interact with music via recordings, there is usually some element of "electronics" already involved anyway in what I actually hear. That said, I'm still emphasizing the element of spontaneous group interaction, rather than some fully rendered composition or process. Within this "improvising with electronics" idiom, Thanos Chrysakis had already stood out to me for his sense of line & form, basically the way that he sculpts sounds & brings them to one's attention within a broad tapestry. This is true, once again, on Skiagraphía, a new improvising quartet release on Creative Sources, and a collaboration with Ernesto Rodrigues (with whom Chrysakis had collaborated most recently on Exaíphnes, a tightly conceived & brightly colored album, first discussed here in September 2015) & Kurt Liedwart of Moscow. Filling out the quartet is Nuno Torres (alto), who has appeared on many similar projects with Rodrigues, including the rather comparable Primary Envelopment, with Wade Matthews on electronics. The latter was recorded in the first half of 2014 (discussed here in March 2015), and features an especially wide pitch canvas, from growling to piercing tones, amid which the listener often finds themselves surrounded. Although it includes a range of pitches, including timbres from helicopters & foghorns (metaphorically speaking) to whistling teapots, Skiagraphía proceeds more from the middle (i.e. human ranges), and shows Chrysakis's talent for rendering "strange" sounds into a coherent foreground presence. In that quality, it's rather similar to Carved Water, recorded later in 2014 (and discussed here this past January): Although the latter album has a different emphasis, particularly around wind articulation, and a resulting liveliness, it features a remarkably similar ensemble of two electronics artists (including Chrysakis) with viola & saxophone. It's an earlier recording, though, with Skiagraphía originating in Moscow only this past June. I had heard Kurt Liedwart (b.1977) in a couple of albums previously, including with AMM legend Keith Rowe, but they hadn't really spoken to me: In particular, his work often seems to remain rather atmospheric, exploring the edge of audibility & articulation. That isn't the case with Chrysakis involved, and following on the "sound installation" concerns of Carved Water, Skiagraphía ("silhouette") can really capture one's attention, sometimes with urgency. Although it's a short album, I've found it to be consistently potent, with a strongly interactive dynamic across a range of timbral combinations, as explored by these experienced improvisers. There is a sonic richness that is never overwhelming, yet is also difficult to qualify amidst many shifting resonances: It makes for a satisfying haunting (or interrogation of haunting), somehow.

Rodrigues had actually recorded with Liedwart earlier last year in Lisbon, in a quartet with Ilia Belorukov (prepared alto sax, from St. Petersburg) & Abdul Moimême (a frequent Rodrigues collaborator, on guitar). Skiagraphía can thus be regarded as something of a followup to their album, Kletka ("cell"). I had likewise heard Belorukov with Liedwart (here on "ppooll" electronics system) & Rowe, and both his & Moimême's contributions do add a distinctive quality. As with many Creative Sources albums, Kletka is generally quiet however, making for a broad & often desolate landscape punctuated by big growls & roaming whistles, building only to a fully dynamic presence in the last few minutes. I do (especially) value that conclusion, but most of the album involves the sort of "straining to hear" dynamic that I don't necessarily enjoy. That said, perhaps the most stimulating earlier interactions for the quartet are when the (assisted) wind resonance seems to engulf or infuse the strings — not so unlike on Nashaz, although the latter has a very different (more human-oriented) feel most of the time. Both Liedwart & Belorukov display strong personal aesthetics on Kletka, though — beyond the general environmental landscape form in which Rodrigues works so often.

24 April 2017

Another recent Creative Sources release, this time without Rodrigues or his regular collaborators, is Conference of Analogies by the Eckard Vossas 4, recorded at The Loft (Köln) in April 2014. I was totally unfamiliar with Vossas, who plays a variety of synths & keyboard-like electronics, prior to this, but most of the quartet he has assembled is very well-known. I had heard trumpet player Brad Henkel only on a few Prom Night (out of Brooklyn) releases a few years ago, but both Scott Fields & Simon Nabatov have extensive discographies, including many as leaders. I've mostly heard Fields performing his own elaborate compositions, sometimes with large ensembles, and his sphinx-like approach does appear to be integral to the many bizarre sequences on Conference of Analogies. In the case of Nabatov, I've been awed by his ability to erupt with massive waves of improvised counterpoint, but also wondered how such technical prowess could be balanced against a varied ensemble. Here the answer is via electronics, and indeed the piano is able to move in & out of the texture within what is generally a rather strange combination — three chordal instruments & a trumpet. Conference of Analogies is a very long album, and it's only the second track (of four) that is said to be composed by Vossas; it features a kind of spacey synth & extensive (although frankly not very engaging) trumpet solos. The other tracks are more convoluted, with the opener alone lasting over thirty minutes, and incorporating a wide variety of references (which largely remain abstract) & interactions. The improvised tracks go in many directions, invoking many analogies one might say, and it would be difficult to characterize them as forming a coherent whole: A wealth of ideas is on display, though, from classical dodecaphony to fragmented rock guitar to various crackling & twittering & pitch bending. The idiosyncratic sense of movement & transition does continue to remind me of Fields elsewhere, though, and so I wonder if Vossas specifically studied with him. In any case, if this is a debut, & even if it isn't, Vossas seems to be full of ideas. I'm interested to hear more.

25 April 2017

En corps, by the (classic) piano trio configuration of Eve Risser & Benjamin Duboc & Edward Perraud attracted a good deal of enthusiastic attention elsewhere, as has their recent followup album, Generation (recorded in Austria in March 2016). I discussed, briefly & belatedly in January of 2013, how En corps (an almost 5-year-old release now — amazing how time flies in this space!) didn't really speak to me, and I have a similar reaction to Generation: I thought that it might be worth making a few further remarks, however, regarding why. I remarked, basically, on the insistent ostinato of En corps, and Generation continues in a similar vein: It starts slowly, with a confident air of mystery regarding what's about to unfold, and with a variety of timbral figures invoking the full range of twenty-first century piano trio technique, then builds, assembling these figures into a powerful wave of momentum (that eventually fades). The opening track is quite an extensive tapestry in this sense, and makes little use of standard genre clichés, so I can understand why people find it exciting: It's not a collage, world music-derived or otherwise. (The title presumably refers to the act of generating a large-scale piece from tiny figures — and perhaps to biological filiation as well, given the label & graphics.) I tend to find its ongoing insistence on a single main pulse, its gathering together so to speak, to be relentless & even exhausting or oppressive, though. (By way of comparison, e.g. Feldman's late work has a similar early sense of "musical figure" but remains resolutely multi-pulsed & non-climactic.) I guess the idea is to nullify temporal differences & come together as one... so an example of the "convergence" (which one begins to feel distinctly by the short pause/reset about ten minutes into the first track) or groove genre. The second track — now titled about souls, rather than bodies — comes to include some explicitly jazzy figures after a stormy beginning & so has more of a jazz sense of ostinato, but once again settles into an insistent primary pulse. Comparing recent explorations of musical continuity, I actually found both Boule-spiele (with its extended articulation of dissonance per se) & Lignes De Crêtes (with its strange sense of musical material for development) to be more engaging & thought provoking. There is an intensity to Generation, though, one I guess I identify as somewhat oppressive & single-minded, that makes an impression, and there's no questioning the talent involved in creating such a "non-idiomatic" (albeit eventually rather tonal) yet seemingly inexorable flow of increasingly insistent musical figures. Admittedly, there's a potency to the result.

30 April 2017

I should probably also mention that the Dominic Lash Quartet included Solage's "Fumeux fume" on their second album, Extremophile (recorded in Bristol in August 2016), also featuring Alex Ward. It's a fairly straightforward, rumbling arrangement, yet nonetheless comes off as weirdly tonal with its non-medieval tuning. The surreal mood of this & many Ars Subtilior pieces, building on the late work of Machaut (as in e.g. Samuel Blaser's A Mirror to Machaut) seems well-suited to a jazz interpretation, although this strangely matter-of-fact rendition doesn't dwell in the dreamy mood that's so often associated with this piece. (Here's a brief discussion of why most medievalists don't believe it's about smoking drugs, though.) The album also concludes with a Cecil Taylor cover, after compositions by Lash that often take a jazzy head-solo-head form but include some other combos as well, from slow-moving resonances to straightforward interwoven horn lines. There's a rugged simplicity at times, energetic rock guitar at others. I don't know how widely available Iluso Records is, but Extremophile could have fairly broad appeal (relatively speaking, that is).

1 May 2017

Chant might be the most prominent example here, in that case augmented by marimba, but improvising ensembles of instruments from the violin family seem to be something of a general trend. (Perhaps they were also a trend at another time? I haven't noticed that in historical listings, at least not in the same way as e.g. the saxophone quartet, but rarely is something like this really new.) That's especially true of productions from Portugal (think also of e.g. Meia catorze by Basso 3), and at least in part because Ernesto Rodrigues is a viola player himself, Creative Sources has been releasing multiple items in this basic genre (including duos, but also in the trio & quartet configurations that I tend to favor): Xenon (recorded in Lisbon this past February), subtitled "String Theory," is just such an album, with three tracks by Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues on viola & cello, Miguel Mira also on cello — with Miguel Almeida augmenting the string trio (not so unlike Pedro Carneiro does the string quartet on Chant) on classical guitar. It's probably worth situating this album a bit: Xenon apparently follows another recent Creative Sources release subtitled "String Theory," Gravity, by an ensemble of seventeen musicians (but all strings of various sorts). That seems rather different to me, but both are acoustic ensembles. Another recent example from Rodrigues is Iridium (discussed here last May), by another string quartet of Rodrigues & Rodrigues, this time with Mira on bass instead of cello & a violinist instead of a guitarist. Iridium is a rather smoothly flowing album, featuring a unified sense of gesture in each of its two tracks, whereas Xenon (also a chemical element) includes a wider range of timbres & dynamics, mixing bowing & plucking into various sorts of string resonances, from harmonics to deep rumblings. Such an ensemble obviously has at least partly a classical inspiration, as did Chant, but also eschews the highest & lowest ranges in order to focus on the middle voices of alto & tenor. Whereas using bass in a string ensemble is a more contemporary innovation, of course the violin & its bright tone (times two!) have been a fixture. (Extremes are a typically contemporary concern, generally, though.) Here the lines are closer, & although extremes can be reached via harmonics or percussive accents, intricate crossing voices seem to be a major feature: Indeed, this reminds me of e.g. Ars Subtilior songs (often for countertenor & two tenors) & some other medieval repertories conceived prior to clearly distinct pitch ranges becoming standardized in the early modern period. (Note that recent favorite New Artifacts also concerns itself with similar ranges, most of the time, albeit there with the timbral contrast of a horn available. And it's much more "lyrical" than the rather diffuse Xenon.) With the plucking, the guitar can be integrated into the ensemble in a variety of ways, although it generally has the brightest attack. There's a delicacy, though, and an emphasis on the edges of audibility, as is so often the case with Rodrigues, making for a rather subdued album, even as it does draw the ear (at least when it's not so quiet, which it is to end track #1) with its complex string timbres. There is a lot of detail that rewards close listening, even if it doesn't yet forge a distinct (or at least a non-quiet) musical statement, and so I am looking forward to hearing more releases of small improvising string ensembles from Rodrigues. There is a lot of latent potential in this genre.

I don't have to wait long to discuss another release, though, as the string trio Incidental Projections (recorded at CreativeFest #10 last November) appeared at the same time. It also features a viola & two cellos, this time with Rodrigues & Mira joined by Fred Lonberg-Holm (there presumably because of his duo album The Pineapple Circumstances with guitarist Luis Lopes, released last year). Incidental Projections consists of a single track (and not an especially long one at 25 minutes), and has something of a different orientation, despite similarly applicable comments about middle voices & mixing acoustic timbres of bowing & plucking: It has a lot more presence, making it a bit more of a mainstream essay (not so unlike favorite New Dynamics in its style of interaction, albeit there with more richness of articulation). Perhaps this is also why the cover design is a little different for Creative Sources (although still credited to Carlos Santos). In any case, similar ensemble concerns are evident, despite that it has perhaps a hint of "rock" energy, particularly in its strong ending, & amid its fully audible & quickly alternating style. (The timbral variety isn't quite as rich as the Brand-Rupp string duo on last year's Shadowscores, though, which I mention because they have a new trio album with Rodrigues, Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris, which I just missed in this batch, but will hear in the next month or so. These string albums are coming fast.) Since Incidental Projections was recorded prior to Xenon, it might have provided part of the inspiration for another viola-double cello ensemble, but Rodrigues makes so much music, it's hard to say. It does seem like a more spontaneous performance.

Not on Creative Sources, but again featuring Mira on cello, is House Full of Colors (recorded September 2015 in Coimbra) on JACC Records. The ensemble, called Staub Quartet, is another "augmented string trio," with Marcelo dos Reis (who may have initiated the project) on acoustic guitar. Besides Mira, who — in addition to the above — has appeared on such "classical"-style favorites as Earnear, as well as e.g. in the more jazzy Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio, Staub Quartet includes Carlos "Zingaro" on violin & Hernani Faustino on bass. Zingaro is of course something of a legend, participating on Chant, as well as on earlier favorites such as Live at Total Meeting (with two "horns" & percussion, yielding more differentiated colors than these string albums). Faustino is known for a more specifically jazzy style in such ensembles as Red Trio (also with Rodrigo Pinheiro of Earnear), and it shows here: There is often a fairly typical jazz bass, brighter tones from the strings in general, and a more mainstream-oriented sound around ostinato, tremolo, extended tonality, etc. (Such brightness is enhanced, as opposed to the orientation of the previous items in this entry, by eschewing viola & its "middle" emphasis.) House Full of Colors retains something of a "classical" orientation at times, though, via its exploration of harmonic regions & noisy chromaticism, and so has something more in common with Chant than previous items. (It can be heard on the JACC Records Bandcamp site.) Of course, Marcelo dos Reis is part of Open Field String Trio, along with João Camões, and something of a "Spanish" guitar sets the initial tone for House Full of Colors, giving it a bit of a subtle "world music" vibe (not so unlike a Mary Halvorson Quintet album), while also seeming to traverse regions of film noir, etc. I enjoy the ensemble combinations, which sometimes feature soloist & accompaniment, as in a typical jazz performance (or, for that matter, as it's done here, in a typical classical period string quartet), even if the material itself is a little less adventurous. Particularly with its overlapping set of musicians, House Full of Colors provides yet another glimpse into the dynamics of the improvising string "dynasty" developing in Portugal. I don't know how widely it will be distributed, but it could bring more of an audience to this format.

2 May 2017

A new trio album from Evan Parker, PEN with John Edwards & Steve Noble, has already been attracting attention. PEN, recorded in Antwerp in January 2015, is (apparently) the fourth release on the Belgian Dropa Disc label: It's a quality production, with very nicely defined sound, and heavy-smooth paper packaging that feels sturdy without plastic (although I don't know about the coating). Parker has enjoyed a distinguished career, and has many fans, so I can't claim any special expertise on his output: Many people have followed him a lot more closely, and for a lot longer, than I have, but I've heard him in a variety of projects at this point. Most recently, that was on another trio album, As the wind (discussed here in November), featuring an unusual & creative combination of metal & stone percussionists. (Among my favorites, he's on World of Objects, a differentiated horn trio, and so another unusual ensemble.) I've also heard Edwards in a variety of projects, and he already stands out for me among English bassists. I can't say the same, really, for Noble, although I've heard him with Edwards before: I enjoy e.g. the sort of "clip clop" (almost a horse in special effects) percussion he adds in one sequence on PEN, for instance, but I doubt I could differentiate him stylistically from a handful of other English drummers. In any case, PEN is a rather standard improvised sax trio across two medium-length tracks (39' in total), and highlights Parker through much of its length. It begins with a dynamic & active rhythm team, and they do (especially Edwards) have their own solos, but much of the album features Parker navigating over roiling accompaniment, usually maintaining continuity through slowly morphing figures. The first track climaxes in an extended circular romp, for instance, where Parker's command of line & tone are to the fore. So it's a fairly "normal" sax trio album, featuring top notch performers (& sound), and several fine moments to enjoy. It was good to hear Parker in an updated, straightforward improvisation like this.

As emphasizing "normality" above might have suggested, an album like PEN gives me an opportunity not only to hear one of the giants of free music in a straightforward featured setting, but to do a little self-auditing of how & why I enjoy certain albums. (I do a lot of self-auditing, as I imagine readers notice here, and hopefully it's worth reading. I know it's necessary for me, at least, and much of it is never written.) So I wanted, specifically, to revisit sax trios from my current "favorites." A brief, summary takeaway has been that I'm not particularly wedded to a bass joining the sax, and that I probably want something striking or original from the percussion. Indeed, there are only a couple of "true" sax trios on the list: The most obvious comparison to PEN is The Apophonics On Air, since it also features Edwards with an English saxophonist. Although some sequences employ a fairly typical free sax trio configuration, the album is striking for its exploration of resonance, not only via John Butcher's horn, but via Gino Robair's rubbed surfaces, etc. The trio can produce quite a growling, shimmering racket of confusing whistles & extended sounds. There are some solos, but the textural variety amid aligning resonances stands out. Perhaps more typical of the configuration is Beyond Quantum, featuring three distinguished performers with extensive histories in American jazz per se. Anthony Braxton exhibits a similar emphasis there, i.e. continuity in the top line (which is rather tuneful at times, despite its high energy) over roiling accompaniment, as does Parker on PEN, but it's Milford Graves' wonderfully inventive percussion that drives this (relatively dated) performance for me — with William Parker adding variety via extensive vocalizations (I think) on track #2, and a switch to a reed himself on track #5. Beyond Quantum is a classic. It appears I often favor electric guitar over bass, though: Pool School has been a long-time favorite, with drummer Tom Rainey as the leader providing a strong multi-pulsed presence & Mary Halvorson's varied guitar attacks often at the center of the action, with Ingrid Laubrock's sax coming in & out of the texture to yield a tautly creative & egalitarian atmosphere: The result insistently seeks new textural forms. Similarly, Live Tipple features a wide variety of spacious textural interplay, down to eerie whispers amid a quietly egalitarian vibe including, well, literally vibes from Kevin Norton. Frode Gjerstad (who sometimes switches to clarinet) creates a dynamic sense of emergence, of something from nothing, amid an often (although certainly not always) sparse & subtly electric atmosphere from David Watson on guitar. Moving farther afield, electric guitar & electronics more generally are to the fore on Tesla Coils, but a strong polyphonic foundation from Harvey Valdes, and house of mirrors-type manipulations by Gian Luigi Diana still serve to project the subtly varied (yet so often lyrical, discursive) articulations of Blaise Siwula's main sax line — making for a sort of "alternate" (electronic, distorted), yet recognizable, sax trio idiom. Another (double) album where there's no question of the lead role for the horn, despite a creative sense of ensemble & accompaniment otherwise, is Conversations by Roscoe Mitchell: This is a very long set, but Mitchell varies his articulation in so many ways that the result is a (somewhat exhausting) tour de force of sax interaction. Mitchell also employs the flute, so Conversations is not quite a sax trio, but features inspired drumming by (the otherwise unknown to me) Kikanju Baku, with Craig Taborn including some electronics (along with piano) as well. More recently, on You Haven't Heard This, Jack Wright combines the first two formats mentioned here, i.e. omits the drummer but includes both guitar & bass: The style is highly fractured, uncompromising, refusing idiom or anything that might draw undue attention from an audience, and thus forges an egalitarian tapestry in which no one consistently takes the foreground. Nonetheless, the instruments themselves are readily recognizable, if somewhat extended. Perhaps I should also mention the "classic" clarinet trio on 3 on a Thin Line: The clarinet features similar technical demands & resources as the saxophone, but also overblows odd harmonics, rather than even (due to its cylindrical bore), so creates a different mood. So many horn players play both these days, though, and the multi-continent interplay on 3 on a Thin Line is inspired (if a bit overlong at times) in its fantastically (in the specific notional sense) differentiated three-way dialog around Harold Rubin. Even farther afield, there is the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-De Joode trio, with "piano as percussion," and Gratkowski (also) often on clarinet.... They don't really have the feel of a sax trio, though. I'm also omitting (from this recap anyway) trios that include two bowed strings, other horns, etc. So, percussion — or what replaces it — is a consistent theme in my exploration of this ensemble space. It's also interesting to note that I hadn't really undertaken a survey such as this: The "sax trio" is so ubiquitous that it had apparently become invisible to me as a specific form, although obviously I also let its specificity waver. Another general takeaway is that I often favor ensembles that shift or problematize more traditional ensemble configurations, whether from jazz or classical music. "Changing the instruments" is indeed a broad & open-ended theme for contemporary improvisation.

3 May 2017

I want to make a few brief remarks about Four Ways by Roscoe Mitchell with Yuganaut, a 50th anniversary release on Nessa Records (with which Mitchell was involved at the beginning). Yuganaut is a sort of "piano trio" of Stephen Rush, Tom Abbs & Geoff Mann — but each plays so many instruments that that combination only rarely holds, and indeed Rush sticks to electronic keyboards (when he plays keyboard) on this album. I was unfamiliar with them, but they have a couple of older trio albums on other well-known jazz labels. Four Ways was actually recorded way back in 2009, on a visit by Mitchell to the University of Michigan, so presumably the anniversary inspired its belated release. (One might also compare to e.g. Nessuno, another belated release featuring Mitchell, but that was a live concert from 2011.) Four Ways is a meaty album at more than an hour, although the six composed pieces tend to come off as rather pensive: The musicians are obviously engaged in a lot of thinking, as necessitated by these complex works that often take their inspiration from Mitchell's music of previous decades & jazz history more generally. There are also three group improvisations (totaling 12+ minutes) that are clearly more spontaneous & produce a motley, layered sound in off-center rhythms amid various (often electric) accents. There is a sense of tunefulness throughout, although sometimes partly obscured by noisier hauntings. Including due to its having been recorded nearly eight years ago, Four Ways thus conjures something of a layered historical vibe between jazz & contemporary composition. It seems like something of a specialist release, particularly when it comes to exploration of compositional forms.

7 May 2017

It didn't happen immediately, but after a time, New Artifacts got me to thinking about Mat Maneri's recordings with Ivo Perelman (b.1961). That's not to say that I had heard the latter, because I hadn't, but I knew they existed. It surprised me somewhat to realize that I hadn't listened to anything from Perelman since early in this project — most recently The Hour of the Star, discussed here in July 2011. I remembered generally enjoying that album, and so wondered what I had had to say... did I feel more negatively at the time somehow? No, and in fact, and this is amazing to me to consider, hence this somewhat goofy intro, what I said was that that album — the notes for which emphasized the "first meeting" character of the recording — would have benefited from the musicians playing together more. Fast forward more than five years, and it's safe to say that Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris & Gerald Cleaver have played together more! Indeed, they've played together so much, and Perelman in particular has released so many albums with so many closely overlapping ensembles, that nothing had jumped out to me as new or distinctive enough to hear — or so I can conclude after five years have passed. So whereas I felt silly to read my old comment, I guess it was sort of appropriate somehow, but more to the point, Perelman's prolific output really doesn't provide an obvious place to start — or restart. It's an intimidating (simply by its volume) series of at least superficially similar releases. I mean, as I'm writing this, Leo has only recently released a series of 7(!) albums featuring Perelman with Shipp (& sometimes others). I haven't listened to any of those, but prior to that was a six-volume Art of the Improv Trio, and I do want to visit that series. Indeed, not only was I interested in Perelman with Maneri in particular, but I wanted to eschew piano, likewise inspired (somewhat anyway) by the interplay on New Artifacts: I was interested in the microtonal possibilities. Sure enough, Counterpoint (released in 2015) by Perelman & Maneri with Morris quotes Perelman saying that he's more accustomed to piano, and that its absence changes his playing... specifically that having a different chordal instrument (guitar) changes his playing. The trio on Counterpoint acknowledges being inspired by the regular trio with Maneri & Morris & Joe Maneri on horn, and whereas the playing ranges far afield, there is a nostalgic quality at times. The relative equality of the three instruments, and their abilities to sound like each other, charges the counterpoint on the album, which starts immediately with fantastic interwoven lines. A melodic sense is generally maintained, although there are some noisy squeals at times. There's an appealing sense of polyphonic interplay, but also a sense that the musicians are finding their way — that it's more a series of studies (10 tracks) than a finished product. Counterpoint was actually recorded in March 2015, and a more "conventional" quartet featuring these three performers, with Cleaver (& Morris on bass this time), Breaking Point was recorded in July 2015. The next album I want to highlight, The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2, with Maneri & Whit Dickey joining Perelman, was recorded in August 2015 — as was New Artifacts (although the latter is a live concert recording, the Perelman album does not give a precise date, so the exact sequence cannot be ascertained). (Most of the "improv trio" series seems to have been recorded in 2016, though.) This is a close sequence of performances, then, and The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2 (released in 2016) follows the piano-free theme into a more freely microtonal environment, as supported by drums rather than a chordal instrument. (All of these follow Perelman's duo album with Maneri, Two Men Walking, in turn following the soundtrack A Violent Dose Of Anything with Shipp, both recorded in 2013.) Given that my inspiration came from New Artifacts, it's probably also worth noting one of the few albums by Perelman that features a distinct set of performers (& a different label), Soulstorm with Daniel Levin on Clean Feed — another album that I discussed briefly in July 2011. In any case, The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2 features some fascinating interactions between Perelman & Maneri, usually supported coloristically by Dickey, who does get to initiate at times, but likewise has the sense of a series of studies (13 tracks!). There is a lot of close interaction & colliding lines... perhaps one might say, a sense of magnetic repulsion at times, such that collision can lead to stasis & a lingering emphasis on a particular note. Perelman's top register technique is fascinating here, but again, one gets the sense of exploring technique per se. There's very much a foreground in the sense of pitch collision, and usually pulse, so minus the background "weave" that Morris often brings to Counterpoint. There is mirroring, though, sometimes conjuring the illusion of more instruments — sometimes even a sense of chasing each other, which can be appealing. Given that Perelman just released another massive series of recordings featuring piano, where might he go with this more microtonal style? History suggests that other projects won't preclude him from releasing other albums in this vein, maybe dozens, so we shall see (er, hear).

9 May 2017

Another appealing recent album is the rather goofily presented Happy Jazz by a Berlin-based trio called (also in retro style) JR3: Olaf Rupp (electric & acoustic guitar), Rudi Mahall (clarinets) & Jan Roder (bass). The cover photo is a kitschy & awkward shot of the musicians pretending to play their instruments — quite reminiscent of a previous generation of jazz covers. The title, which is also the title of the opening track of this very long (over 76 minutes) album, surely relates to the contemporary sense of protest that has returned to animate exploratory music in the 21st century — and presumably some listeners' distaste for it. However, the title, along with many of the eight track titles, is obviously tongue in cheek, as the music fits its time very well: One wouldn't really call it happy or unhappy. In fact, the style is something of a slower-paced version of the sort of quick ensemble interactions I tend to enjoy, intervallic relations amid shifting textures & timbres. In that sense, in terms of the entry on sax trios around PEN last week, one might consider Happy Jazz to be a clarinet trio analog for You Haven't Heard This, i.e. likewise with guitar & bass. (I probably should have also mentioned Anomonous as something of a clarinet trio analog for the "electric" sax trio Tesla Coils at the time.) I wasn't familiar with Roder previously, but he & Mahall are in a group (Die Enttäuschung, with Axel Dörner) that has multiple albums on Intakt, and also participated with Alexander von Schlippenbach in his Monk cycle. So there is a bit of a more mainstream orientation there, presumably similar to the motivation for slowing the interplay on Happy Jazz. Mahall also appears on recent favorite Rotozaza Zero, by an ensemble that basically adds drums to that of JR3, and an album with much more happening at any particular moment. That's not to say that Happy Jazz is actually slow — it is more analogous to the sort of shifting textural context in which e.g. Ingrid Laubrock, to name a German musician who has appeared more than once on Relative Pitch, revels — but it does make interval relations & timbral shifts easier to follow without repeat attention, and also without collapsing them into a single pulse. In that sense, it's a longer album not because of more material, or a different sort of temporal ordering, but because of pace alone. (The musical figures themselves are sometimes quite fast. It's the pace of interaction per se, i.e. the number of different things happening simultaneously, that I'm noting.) The result is enjoyable, never over the top, and may well bring this style to life for more listeners. I hope it finds a broad audience.

10 May 2017

FMR Records seems to have really branched out from a focus on the English improvising scene, with distinctive material arising in a variety of countries appearing there of late. (In this, they join such labels as Leo, Clean Feed, Creative Sources, etc. in documenting a wide range of contemporary music making around the world.) The recent batch of releases, which isn't listed yet on their web site for some reason, continues to reflect & illustrate the increasing breadth of the label, and so there are multiple new albums that I intend to discuss, beginning with Still now (if you still), fronted by Hungarian-Serbian violist Szilárd Mezei (b.1974). I first noticed Mezei relatively early in this project playing on In Just, a half-German & half-Hungarian improvised quartet album from Canada that was one of the more enigmatic releases for me at the time: It was an on again, off again favorite, first discussed here in January 2012, and most recently mentioned (still) in February 2015. Mezei's playing stood out to me in particular, and consequently I started watching for his name — which did dutifully appear on a variety releases, mainly composed music, often folksong based, and for larger ensembles. So now, an "international" improvising group again, this time a trio... and quite a striking album too. Still now (if you still) is by another "alternate" piano trio, basically with viola instead of bass — much as e.g. It Rolls substitutes electric guitar for bass, and indeed both albums show a strong "classical" focus from the pianist, as incorporating preparations, etc. (Weber's work recording Kurtág further underlines the Eastern European connection, even if the trio on It Rolls is actually entirely Western.) Despite the fascinating & personal style of classical pianism from Marina Džukljev on Still now (if you still), though, once Mezei enters — after a dramatic & foreboding opening duo intertwining piano & percussion — he is often at the center, displaying incredible energy & technique. Whereas his style might be placed more in the domain of the post-Romantic, in the way that it invokes line or refers to tonal regions, the spiky rhythms & polyphonic layers give it a contemporary edge, particularly as buoyed by the incredible physical precision of the ensemble as a whole. (In this, it might readily be compared to that of recent favorite The Moment In and Of Itself, another "piano trio," albeit one even farther from the traditional instrumentation.) While Džukljev has already participated in various of Mezei's projects & ensembles, and so had a strong working relationship with him, it was also apparently Džukljev who forged a prior partnership with Vasco Trilla, reflected in the strong duo interaction between them right from the opening sequence of the album — as already noted. (One is often left to wonder what is piano & what is "percussion.") Trilla had already appeared on FMR, including with a solo album, so presumably his connections made publishing this album there possible, and indeed albums with Trilla have been appearing elsewhere lately too. (I will likely be discussing another from Creative Sources soon, for instance, after having discussed Tidal Heating on Not Two, more of a "free jazz" album, in February.) Whereas the title suggests stillness, there is not much stillness to Still now (if you still): It's often quite fast & usually high energy, with a taut sense of drama & quasi-Romantic urges — stormy! Percussion from Trilla is varied & creative, from shimmering metal to detuning drums, from provocation to commentary. Distinct articulation & a wide variety of attack characterize the ensemble as a whole, including percussive accents from the viola, with ostinato only coming to the fore (always under strain) in a couple of tracks. (The nuanced, yet precise, manner in which Džukljev handles repeated notes, for instance, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of her technique.) As a result (again, not unlike The Moment In and Of Itself), one would not call Still now (if you still) a noisy album: It's acoustic, and would appear to reflect practical (classical) concert technique & from within a strong rhythmic framework. Slower moments consequently retain a continuous sense of drama, and give way to more vigorous activity before ever seeming to wane. Considering that it's a relatively long album (at least by the numbers, at more than an hour), that it can retain this "edge of one's seat" character through multiple auditions is its most striking aspect: I enjoyed it right from the beginning, and am enjoying it just as much after several hearings. Perhaps it's the sophisticated polyphonic conception that most sustains my interest: All three performers bring distinctive styles to a compelling interaction (recorded over two days) that also becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

21 May 2017

Another recent release on FMR is Shift, fronted by saxophonist & educator Rob Burke from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I was not familiar with Burke previously, but was drawn to the album by the presence of AACM legend George Lewis, who adds electronic manipulation of captured sounds, along with his trombone. Also appearing in this improvising quartet — and Shift's eleven tracks include only 4 quartets, amid 2 trios & 5 duos — are pianist Paul Grabowsky, whom I didn't recognize immediately, but whose playing I've heard featured with Dave Douglas on the latter's medieval-infused Fabliaux album (explicitly partnering with Monash), and bassist Mark Helias, a well-known & respected longtime free jazz player (whom I had not previously been prompted to mention here). Burke's speciality apparently involves teaching & conducting orchestral improvisation, and using different forces on the different tracks is something of a weakness to the album for me. (I don't get much from the duos, and the trios, both of which are without Helias, are perhaps the "jazziest" tracks.) I do especially enjoy the opening quartet, though, with eerie trombone & electronics, accented by piano & subtly underpinned by the bass, then slowing into the second, more "scenic" quartet — before continuing into six straight duo & trio tracks. Burke's horn comes to dominate at times in the later tracks, as the album starts to take on the feel of a series of studies (perhaps based on particular procedural ideas, given the track titles), marked by more traditional jazz riffs. Still, there's a different sense of interaction here, one that suggests further possibilities.

22 May 2017

FMR's cross-pollination, particularly by Portuguese musicians, continues with Amethyst by Pedra Contida, recorded in Coimbra in November 2015. The quintet Pedra Contida was formed by guitarist Marcelo dos Reis (first discussed here in September 2015 around Chamber 4, another FMR album), and the core of their articulation appears to be the string interaction between dos Reis & Angélica Salvi (harp) — in the wake of their duo album, Concentric Rinds on Cipsela (which received very positive attention online). Amethyst is actually the second album by Pedra Contida, and the first (Xisto on JACC Records, 2014) featured field recordings: Here, electronics by Miguel Carvalhais are more abstract, and generally understated. The quintet is completed by Nuno Torres (who appears on so many interesting albums with Ernesto Rodrigues) on alto sax, and (the previously unknown to me, although appearing with dos Reis & Luis Vicente in Fail Better! — a group only on vinyl so far) João Pais Filipe on drums & percussion. The name of the band might refer to rock music, and there's some rock "drive" & characteristic ("filthy") distortion at times over five tracks that are sometimes quiet, and generally emphasize continuity. Articulations are usually subtle, almost ambient, though: There are extended ostinati, drones at various pitch levels, some of it slower, some of it noisier, often returning to the timbre of plucked strings. A rock vibe does come through at times, though, with snippets of jazzy or "world" horn, and seems almost suite-like, even as each track can be taken as a distinct (albeit related) exploration of musical continuity per se. (Exploration of musical continuity has become something of a general theme of late, as can be observed in many recent entries.)

Continuing the cross-current, also offering a strong exploration of musical continuity is City of Light (recorded live in Paris, April 2016) by the "Chamber 4" ensemble (dos Reis & Vicente with the Ceccaldi brothers), this time on Clean Feed, following their (well-received) debut album on FMR. Here the string players also contribute vocally, in a vaguely Léandre-an style, particularly in the second half of the second track. City of Light begins with a long, romantic violin line emerging against muted trumpet, and its tautly "modest" (i.e. chamber music) sense of material generally retains a lyrical sense, even as it become more eerie or becomes more active in waves. (Legato plays against repeated, sometimes percussive tones.) There's also something of a buzzing, ambient quality that underscores — and sometimes strains — the insistent emphasis on continuity more generally, until the album fades away. (And of course, bebop was based in bass ostinato, so forms of continuity are relevant to any tradition in its wake.) In any case, these & various intersecting ensembles continue to explore a variety of musical ideas — especially continuity on these two recent examples featuring dos Reis (who plays acoustic & prepared guitar on City of Light, but electric guitar on Amethyst). I expect this cohort, performing on a range of instruments, will continue to be quite prolific. What's next?

23 May 2017

While I'm preparing remarks on more of the string albums that Ernesto Rodrigues has been releasing so rapidly, I want to note a couple of recent non-Rodrigues releases on Creative Sources....

Among other things, Creative Sources has been releasing more vocal albums than anyone else, and Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens featuring Viv Corringham is the latest in that genre. Corringham (b.1951) is from the UK, and apparently lived in Minnesota recently, but the album was made in Brooklyn last November. Besides Corringham, whom I had at least seen mentioned elsewhere, and who notes work with the late Pauline Oliveros on her web site, the other performers were totally unknown to me: Stephen Finn is on percussion, and Miguel Frasconi is credited with "glass." I'm not sure if some of the "percussive" sounds (such as those opening the album, parts of which seem like glass to me) are actually made by glass, but the album does at least feature the hum of rubbed glass. As that might suggest, there are novel sonorities throughout, including Corringham's voice, which might be compared to Isabelle Duthoit (e.g. Light air still gets dark) or Andreas Backer (e.g. Eye of the Moose). The Duthoit album is the most comparable overall, though, not so much because the voices are so similar, although they do share some techniques, but because the ensemble conception is fairly rigid on both albums, not featuring as much interchange as I often like. Indeed, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens opens with a pregnant interaction between interesting sonorities, and has some compelling ensemble interactions at other points, but often doesn't seem to come to more than the sum of its parts: It ends up feeling like solo & accompaniment much of the time — and that the accompaniment is even two musicians isn't usually obvious. (It could be a duo.) Corringham tends to be much more overt with her sounds than Duthoit, though (and the latter does include clarinet, sometimes seamlessly, whereas Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is a straight vocal album), and is generally very clearly audible (adding to the solo versus accompaniment feeling). The last track opens with one of the more charged ensemble interactions, and then the vocals become highly sexual, for instance. So it's aggressive in that sense, and there is actually a lot to like here, even if I don't feel as though the trio builds its intriguing set of sonorities into a compelling whole.

History of The Lisbon Chaplaincy was actually recorded (live at a church in Lisbon) back in 2013, and features an "organ trio" of Rodrigo Pinheiro (playing a c.1900 Fincham), Per Gärdin on soprano & alto sax, and Pedro Lopes on turntable & percussion. (It was the combination of Pinheiro, from e.g. favorite Earnear & the organ, as on e.g. Tuning Out, that attracted my attention. I was not familiar with the other two musicians, although I believe I'd heard Gärdin before.) Again, I'm not sure what sounds are "turntable" — "scratching" only? in which case it often blends into the organ "choir," which starts out emphasizing the high register — but percussion is sometimes noticeable. The sax relies on long, continuous lines, blending into the organ stops/timbres, but also maintaining a sort of conventional linear dominance. Consequently, I didn't end up finding this interaction all that compelling either: History of The Lisbon Chaplaincy is the sort of album that seems to build a lot of anticipation throughout, but doesn't move on to a "satisfaction" phase. (It also doesn't undertake a historical sequence, but that's for the best.) And although the sax does fit into the organ's timbral wall of sound, while remaining audible itself, it isn't invoking e.g. the sort of microtonal exploration of Tuning Out. Still, I did enjoy listening to the musical ideas of this rather unconventional ensemble & its possibilities. What else might Pinheiro do with organ?

29 May 2017

It took me a little while to warm up to Five by the fancifully named Runcible Quintet, not that I didn't find it enjoyable, but because it's not really the sort of album that seizes one's attention with anything flashy or aggressive. Its various ensemble interactions & resulting polyphonic tapestry reward close attention to their sometimes subtle articulations, but Five has also been a very enjoyable album in a more "distant" sense: It's really helped me pull my mind together with a calm focus, on more than one occasion now. So in that sense, the music "works" — at least on me. Before getting to some details of the quintet & album, this outcome- or "use"-based approach both complements & challenges some of the basic notions I see about how free improvisation (or other styles tangentially related to free jazz) might be "too intellectual" & so lack an emotional component. (One sees this often enough in public discussion of contemporary "classical" music as well.) What such criticism tends to mean is that listeners want to hear a specifically identifiable emotion being expressed by the musicians themselves. What I'm talking about is more how I'm feeling after listening — perhaps because of a specific emotion being expressed, but perhaps because my emotional state has been plied via pre-emotional affective relation, etc. — whatever one wants to call it. So does an album have emotional depth because one identifies those emotions in the musicians, or because one feels oneself? Obviously, I'm arguing that the latter is the real gauge, and that it might or might not involve the former. Whereas this brief discussion might suggest that Five is about emotional manipulation, to pick one possible interpretation, I certainly don't want to suggest that the musicians were being inauthentic in their improvised expression: Rather they're pursuing their musical vision, and it's having a fine effect on me. Part of this effect, as noted, derives from the various ensemble interactions possible in a quintet, i.e. various duos & trios (& even quartets) forming spontaneously, then disintegrating as someone falls away or someone else joins. There's a broad polyphonic sense of continuity surrounding this activity, but not an emphasis on line, as e.g. on Amethyst (another recent quintet album, also featuring two strings, on FMR) or some other recently discussed releases (where I've focused on continuity per se). I've been listing (perhaps misguidedly) a particular musician with albums here, and that can be rather arbitrary, including here with its distinguished ensemble cast, but I tend to feel as though the Runcible Quintet pivots on Marcello Magliocchi on drums: His drumming is usually subtle, sometimes absent or not really noticeable, yet seems to animate the five tracks. There are almost two trios here, both including Magliocchi: The most prominent is basically a flute trio with Neil Metcalfe & John Edwards. They're the two most immediately noticeable performers, and at times, the album does have the character of a trio, perhaps supplemented. I've mentioned Edwards here in conjunction with many albums at this point, and he's a consistently interesting bassist. Whereas getting to know the English improvisers was a difficult task, particularly given their superficial similarities of style, Edwards is someone I always seem to notice — he's also billed first here, although it's (also) alphabetical. (And everyone reading this probably knows who he is too.) I can't think of another prominent English improvising flautist offhand, so Metcalfe is easier to distinguish. He's also excellent throughout, with great tone & technique, very precise: I had mentioned him in conjunction with another English (although Five is only mostly English) quintet album on FMR, I look at you (discussed March 2016): It also has something of a classical feel, but in that case, it's more specifically post-Romantic, suggesting the 20th century English chamber tradition. Five is not generally tonal, however (yet not abrasive, for those concerned), so more contemporary in that sense. Whereas those performers might be more noticeable, the others have fine moments as well, moments that become more apparent with increased exposure: Daniel Thompson is actually someone whose participation spurred my attention, since I've enjoyed his playing on Hunt at the Brook & elsewhere. Although maybe in Edwards' shadow a little bit here, and the two do engage in dialogs, Thompson has e.g. a wonderful duet with Metcalfe to open track #2, and various subtle contributions elsewhere. (Five is generally more subtle than minimal or slow.) As a trio, Hunt at the Brook often moves a little faster than Five, is a little more close & fractured, but does slow down at various moments too. Both are also acoustic albums, which makes for a ready technical comparison. Finally, there is Adrian Northover on soprano sax, with whom (like Magliocchi) I was not familiar: He has recorded extensively with Edwards in a band called The Remote Viewers, though. Northover intertwines Metcalfe subtly at various points, as well as having his own moments. Despite its relatively large number of players — and I note that improvising quintets are much less common in this space than quartets or especially trios — Five generally maintains an airy ("Air"-y?) sense of open space, even a sylvan feeling (not so unlike Hunt at the Brook), and of course there is something of a sense of whimsy, as suggested by the quintet's name. As already suggested, the ensemble seems to pivot on Magliocchi, allowing a rich sense of interplay to maintain even as some players are silent. The result is something of a study in pace. Chant is probably the most similar recent (quintet) example — to be featured in this space anyway — in terms of varying combinations & maintaining a sense of quiet balance, sometimes becoming animated, albeit there mostly within one instrument family. (The other non-composed quintet album in my current list of favorites is Ramble, and it isn't constructed to prioritize this sort of interaction, i.e. it could have been a very similar album, at least in many ways, with a different number of players.) One might say that these albums explore a geometry (here underscored by the title). The number-titled tracks on Five actually build in length from the first to the fourth, which slows down & becomes almost atmospheric after a while (perhaps heralded by sounds of distant traffic): At first I wanted more activity, but the resulting calm has come to seem very welcome, before the quintet returns to a more animated chirping interchange & into the brief final (almost an encore) track with its abrupt ending. (I might characterize some passages via the notion of "eye of the storm" except that there's never really a storm.) There are some tiny flashes of "jazz" along the way, little snippets of style, but this is mostly nonidiomatic music. It took me a while with this album, since it's hard to say what makes it come off "differently" from so many other English productions, but Five has taken on a distinctive & compelling feel with more exposure.

31 May 2017

Ernesto Rodrigues has been releasing an impressive series of small ensemble albums including himself & featuring various overlapping groups of string players (most often including Miguel Mira and/or his son, Guilherme). Although it's another "string trio," at least in the literal sense, Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris, recorded in Berlin last October, is a bit of a departure in that it involved Rodrigues joining the preexisting Brand-Rupp duo, which has apparently been performing together for a while, and already had e.g. an album on Creative Sources, Shadowscores — mentioned here last month while discussing Happy Jazz. (I also mentioned Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris itself in May, when discussing Xenon, another album of strings — highlighting "middle voices" — from Rodrigues.) It also includes guitar, so a string instrument from outside the violin family — together with the increasingly characteristic viola & cello. I first mentioned Olaf Rupp in this space back in December 2011, and at that time, his music-making seemed to be concerned more with rock influences or the "classic" German free style. Ulrike Brand, however, is a classically trained cellist, and Rupp (here on electric) seems to have moved more into the world of non-idiomatic improvisation. In this situation, the remaining aggressiveness in Rupp's style tends to balance the quieter or more atmospheric concerns of Rodrigues to produce a potent mix around Brand. There are moments of less activity, or quieter activity, but lines are constantly intertwining in dense counterpoint. (The album was also mixed by Rupp, which might be why it has more presence than a typical Rodrigues album.) The album notes include an acrostic-poem by Brand on the titles of the four tracks (which, together, are the title of the album), and it's not clear if the poem was the inspiration for the music, or vice versa. The "transit" genre, though, is apparently one I enjoy, and something I tend to associate with US musicians: Transit (featuring Jeff Arnal & Nate Wooley) is one obvious earlier example, but there have been various inspirations from transportation noise used in urban improvising (for obvious reasons), including prominently by Jeff Shurdut. As Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris moves into more of a landscape mode — and it's never all that urban — it's also reminiscent of e.g. Bill Dixon's rather orchestral Tapestries, particularly its opening motorcycle road trip. By the time we come to "Debris," the imagery has more in common with e.g. Talking Trash — although the latter features clarinets & pianos prominently, plus some actual tunes at times. As the "orchestral" comparison suggests — & Shurdut tends to bring something of an orchestral concept to his work as well — there is a miniaturization theme that can be perceived here, and perhaps in Rodrigues's work in general. It's a matter of conjuring the smallest details, perhaps from each of one's four strings individually (per Scelsi), and building a bigger interaction, a basic technique of individual polyphonic articulation at which all three musicians excel here. There is thus almost constant exchange & transformation back & forth, sounds becoming more & less, ebbing & flowing, amidst a wonderful sense of detail & counterpoint. It's the concentration involved in such an approach, the basic smallness of the strings as individualized sounding agents, that differentiates it from those of the larger ensembles, such that every correspondence or timbral shift becomes charged, even (especially) as it fades. In this, e.g. the occasional ringing guitar chord can yield a comforting sense of familiarity amidst ongoing dissonance & desolation. (The sort of "industrial rattle" of e.g. Anomonous is thus turned on its head, but I'm once again reminded of comparisons from New York.) The result is engrossing, to the point that one starts to hear the illusion of breath amidst scraping mutes, strange static, etc. Of course, I'm also someone who's come to value writing (& especially editing) while riding public transit, so maybe this is my scene, so to speak. In another sense, it's the basic similarity of instrumental resources here, the constant crossing of ranges, that conditions the quasi-Scelsian polyphonic interaction & resulting resonance that I end up finding so engrossing: There is much more than transportation being conjured.

12 June 2017

As long as I'm focusing on string-oriented trios & similar small ensembles, and before I continue discussing more of Ernesto Rodrigues's recent outpouring of albums in this general format, I want to mention The Selva, an album from the latest batch on Clean Feed. It features Portuguese cellist Ricardo Jacinto (b.1975), and while I've heard a few things by Jacinto, including some albums featuring electronics, I see that I'd yet to mention him in this space. The Selva also includes Gonçalo Almeida (double bass) & Nuno Morão (drums), with whom I was not otherwise familiar — such that the trio has the same constitution as the recently discussed (in April) Spinning Jenny. Although the latter features echoes of rock & jazz per se, it is also more fractured overall than The Selva, which generally maintains continuity on each of its nine tracks. Of these, two are longer, and travel through different scenes or styles, while also maintaining e.g. pulse, but most are shorter & quite gestural. The album also has a distinctive "world" vibe, with not only the expected "jungle" hubbub of mysterious creatures, but some explicitly East Asian evocations as well, especially qin music in the second part of the long track #3. (So it's not the typical, rhythm-oriented world vibe sort of production.) Compared to other recent albums interrogating continuity, The Selva uses track breaks to restart with different sounds, influences or ideas — so that's one approach. The result is a rather concentrated listening experience, but never of overwhelming density... mini-worlds are projected, one might even say studies of texture, rhythm & resonance, including melodic or legato moments, harmonics, etc. Sometimes the instruments sound as one, but more often, Jacinto is the clear front line player in what is basically a "cello trio" in the bebop sense (and the album does involve ostinato forms). Many of the "studies" seem to involve fusing a couple of basic, yet culturally divergent, musical ideas in novel ways. So we'll see what's next from this trio in the broad arena of (Portuguese) contemporary violin-family, world music-tinged improvisation.

13 June 2017

Continuing from the (perhaps, slight) departure of Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris, Ernesto Rodrigues has already recorded several string ensemble albums in 2017, with Blattwerk (recorded in Lisbon this February) initiating a series of quintets in particular. I don't know to what the "Blatt" of the title refers, if it's a reference to shuffling pages or something else suggesting composition, but the music unfolds in ways that mostly fit with Rodrigues's recent output in general — more contrapuntal & less gestural than e.g. Iridium String Quartet. The core of the quintet here is very familiar at this point: Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues are joined by Miguel Mira, just as they were on Xenon (discussed here last month), which was also recorded (a few weeks prior) in February, and adds guitarist Miguel Almeida to that trio. Here that "central" trio of viola & two cellos is joined by Harald Kimmig on violin & Vasco Trilla on percussion. I had mentioned Kimmig in January when discussing the album Raw, on which his string trio is joined by John Butcher: Similar concerns of audibility, nature-culture duals etc. are evident from that Swiss trio as from many of these Portuguese releases. Trilla, of course, has been appearing in many interesting places — including on new favorite Still now (if you still). Once again, it's his metallic chiming percussion that is perhaps the most striking, albeit not used very often, and supplemented by various sorts of rubbing & buzzing. Besides these references for the musicians who actually appear on Blattwerk, it also re-raises recently discussed — particularly around Five — issues regarding the improvising quintet genre in general, and can most readily be compared to Chant in its ensemble constitution. (The latter uses marimba, specifically, rather than a general percussionist, and uses two cellos instead of cello & bass. Both are basically string quartets plus percussion, though.) As with many albums from Rodrigues, it starts slowly & quietly, and tends to build in waves, often returning to a more quiescent state or flow. At times, it is very active, with a wonderful contrapuntal density, occasionally evoking the string quartet literature, usually in a more contemporary sense, but in at least one extended passage, projecting a nostalgic mood. There are traditional string gestures, as well as individual string modulations & scrapings, high whistling harmonics (and Kimmig executes these very well), as well as boisterous accents. Although the ensemble moves into & out of different sections of its two tracks with continuity, the sections do take on different individual characters, in a bit of a collage sense (which is atypical of Rodrigues). It's these transitions that lend the album much of its emotional coloring — pace my remarks last month about emotional response & affective interplay: There's a visceral character here. Altogether, it makes for less of an "open tapestry" approach, though, as the polyphonic richness tends to be confined to particular explosive passages, and contracts into a more unified gesture before irrupting again. (Whenever the sonic gesture opens, it looks, rather sounds, different inside?) Although not always audible — not so unlike Magliocchi on Five — Trilla does stand out for his ongoing sense of rhythmic modulation. (The strings sometimes lead or follow into percussive plucking, but are more often concerned with bowing.) The result involves powerful moments emerging from a more general feeling of stasis, making Blattwerk (perhaps — which I say, because it's hard to know where he's going, other than that it's getting increasingly interesting) a notable recent release in Rodrigues's string series. (It consists of an event of events, one might say.) I'd stop to ask what's next, but I already have related albums that I'm preparing to discuss soon.

14 June 2017

Blattwerk was followed closely by a couple of other quintets, both featuring Ernesto Rodrigues & Miguel Mira (the latter consistently on cello here), and both with not only electric guitar, but a horn as well. Nepenthes hibrida was actually recorded a couple of months prior to Blattwerk (in Lisbon this past December), and once again features Vasco Trilla, with Luis Lopes on guitar & Yedo Gibson on soprano sax & frula (a Serbian vertical shepherds' flute). I had not heard of Gibson previously, but he's from Brazil & has performed extensively in duo (& otherwise) with Trilla. I've referred to Lopes a couple of times here, most recently via his duo with Fred Lonberg-Holm: Whereas his playing sometimes involves extensive rock distortion, even a massive wall of sound, here it's much more subtle — with no "rock guitar" in evidence. The title of Nepenthes hibrida refers to carnivorous pitcher plants — not so unlike Natura venomous, perhaps, albeit with no performers in common — & further suggests human-nature interaction via hybridity. There are four tracks, and I find the first to be quite potent: The five musicians are all active, forging a dense & differentiated outpouring of polyphonic interaction right from the start. The result almost comes to seem like film music at times with its potent string "sawing" — & indeed the strings set much of the tone throughout — & bold presence via an unusual (for Rodrigues anyway) degree of rhythmic structure. (And Trilla is outstanding here.) Even the requisite fade leaves a sense of potency hanging in the air, a certain tautness, upon building from the quiet center of the track. (Gibson's particular contributions start to become more distinct, showing a tendency to come from background to foreground & back, almost mimicking the "sawing" of the strings, such that the horn can fade into the texture.) The second track opens in a rather subdued mood, however, as more than half of its length revels in calm, featuring some resonances & plucking, before emerging into more active counterpoint, to the point of almost starting to sputter (to fit awkwardly into its rhythmic jacket) at the end. The third opens in quiet again, before different (whistling, scraping — jungle?) sounds start to array themselves in space, gathering momentum into a fascinating collective texture. (I particularly find myself listening to the viola for much of this track.) After a warping percussive opening, the final track slowly becomes more string-oriented again, particularly via glissandi, and even features something of a (cello) melody amid resonant lines of flight. As the other performers become quiet or silent, it might be said to present something of the same (trio) ensemble as on Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris, albeit in a different context, and before speeding up for a driving conclusion with the return of drums & horn. So where's the sense of hybrid music among such chirping & growling — among other sounds, including traffic already in the latter part of the first track? Beyond juxtaposing jungle sounds & traffic, there's also a sense of process, i.e. of where a track starts & ends up. There's also a sense of hybridizing two duos who regularly play together, e.g. Rodrigues-Mira & Trilla-Gibson, with Lopes (and his cross-genre orientation) presumably part of the alchemy (or is that genetic modification?) between them. I very much enjoy the opening, and there are a wide variety of fascinating interactions throughout the album — it seems as though many of the combinations could be developed (or hybridized) further: It's an issue with a quintet, or a strength, that there are so many combinations to explore. The sense of the carnivorous, the sense of danger, does seem to fade as Nepenthes hibrida proceeds though. Perhaps that's the idea, for us to feel more at home in the world.

Another quintet, similar in some ways, is that on Klang, recorded in Lisbon in April: Here the guitarist is Nicola L. Hein, likewise much more subtle here than on e.g. recent favorite Rotozaza Zero, although sometimes displaying some of the same repeated striking. The horn player is Matthias Muche on trombone, invoking quite a sense of space for the proceedings, such that sometimes the musicians seem to be echoing around an empty warehouse — not at all unlike my original reference to Muche, Excerpts from anything, perhaps the first Creative Sources album I ever heard (discussed in a massive entry from April 2012). Finally, Carlos Santos — designer for most Creative Sources albums, and mixer/masterer for many — is on synthesizer (which is likewise subtle, and presumably also directly involved with the spatial exploration), rather than there being a percussionist. Klang is mostly a quiet album, featuring many Rodrigues-isms beyond the sense of space, with slow waves or crescendos fading back into more singular gestures. The second track is the more consistently contrapuntal of the two, but still generally quiet, sometimes focusing on e.g. string harmonics incorporated into a growling swirl that fades & echoes across space. It almost suggests a haunted house, and then perhaps some sort of mutant worker ants in a ghostly industrial setting. Much of the interaction occurs in the background, with e.g. various slow glissandi & (as noted) the guitar rarely distinctly audible as such: I might characterize the result as spirit volatilizing into sound.

15 June 2017

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