Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

Much as it marked the previous span of twelve months (with this latest being, once again, prolific in this space), August has brought some significant (musical) downtime after a relatively slow July — or rather, a July during which I'd discussed some important items after other extended entries in June — & so it's clearly time to flip this page again. By that I mean that I'm writing a new intro, and starting a "new" set of sequential entries, so do please (eventually) scroll to the bottom for the latest. Of course, this year, coronavirus provides a particular backdrop not only to social issues & politics more broadly, but to the new music community, particularly where live interactions are so important. And although musicians have been able to carry on some of their many activities, particularly solitary activities or innovating with distance-bridging technology, I'm also anticipating a continuing lull in releases, but that's after a relatively lively year so far....

Health is obviously rather broadly important, and that certainly includes life & death & whatever long-term (personal health) complications the novel coronavirus might bring, but art & expression are important (& healthy) too: That's especially true for new music, as established ways of being continue to change, not only on account of this latest (spectacular) human-animal intersection or collision, but according to new ways of living in general. That was already a need — especially in opposition to "there is no alternative" narratives — & new music has already been showing us many alternatives, at least in sound, or in the nitty-gritty of how people interact. So I definitely consider these activities to be more than distractions (& "health" to be more than some reductive absence of virality). I also retain some prior orientations: In particular, although it'd probably be more convenient in a virus dominated world, I still won't be featuring solos (or duos) much, but rather trios, quartets, etc. (These forces are enough to interrogate many of the small-scale social interactions that frequently occupy me. And they're more than enough to bring a nice variety of sound & approach to performance....) I'm also focused on improvisation for similar reasons, i.e. because life is ultimately improvisatory (regardless of planning, as the virus demonstrates once again), but I do sometimes note composed music here. (For me, composition can be a way of generating new ideas for improvisation... i.e. life.)

And I also like to write in an improvisatory manner, especially here in spontaneous response to recordings. So I'll often make remarks after only a couple of auditions, thus trying to give some early impressions. (And sometimes I'll return to comment on an album again & again, such that an interested reader might need to hunt around for additional comments....) I also write more "composed" theoretical pieces myself, e.g. Postmodern Aesthetics (2019), or most recently Practical listening, 10 (which will conclude that lengthy series, as well as launch a new page of serial entries, not unlike this one). In this, theory becomes both output & context of these more specific musical explorations.... And the overall context does continue to expand, as October will mark ten years of my writing in this space: Although this project came to branch into separate (& lengthy, theoretical) expositions, for the actual entries on this page, it came also to be relatively concentrated on recordings. (That wasn't necessarily my intent, as I've spent other periods attending many concerts, but for whatever reason, those circumstances have changed....) So it's turned into something of a specific stance here, and such a stance has only been further ramified by the relative lack of public performances these days: Technology comes to intersect such a project in more ways, and so as noted, I'll be taking up some of those topics more specifically in a related series.

Another aspect to consider is that the music presented here most often arrives without a textual framing: The names of the musicians themselves often serve as the best (or only) description of the result, with no statement of intent (beyond them). And so I often find myself speculating here... as to intent, context, technique, etc. Some of that speculation becomes more concrete over time, especially as what I'd conceived to be a very contemporary-oriented project not only begins to take on its own history (e.g. per the contours of Concepts of contemporary history), but more of the broad musical history of this sort of performance.... In other words, I start with the latest albums, but I do (often) come (eventually and/or already) to listen to musicians' earlier work & influences (much as in my more explicitly historical projects). Of course, one might also frame this "lack" of verbal presentation as providing space for the words of others such as myself, and sometimes I do make rather substantial efforts toward relating musical outputs to broad contemporary issues — or sometimes I (mainly) just note the existence of an album when I think it might otherwise go unnoticed.... (The downside to developing my own "history" is that it sometimes also leaves me feeling obligated to comment when I don't have much to say.... I try to avoid such situations, and always ask myself why I'm writing something here, i.e. what is the use? Sometimes I'm more excited about my own uses than others, though.) In some sense, then, my comments themselves often become contexts for further comments.

But what attracts me to music? Especially in this space, it's something new, something I haven't heard striking me... and that ultimately means as expressed in sound: Pace the forgoing, if the concept is inaudible, it's frequently invisible in this context, and moreover, it's sound that really attracts my attention anyway — particularly sound that suggests new ways of being & interacting. (In this, it's probably easier simply to consult my updated list of favorites, organized by year of release & kept to modest proportions, by way of examples.) Another word I'll mention specifically in this reboot is then "anthropology:" I'm seeing more anthropological concepts & methods entering theoretical (social) discussions in general, even as that's always been a context for ethnomusicology, and although some notions seem (merely) trendy right now, I do want to acknowledge both an anthropology "of" music, as well as an anthropological approach to making new music, i.e. of de-"naturalizing" one's musical tradition & cultural intuition via the broad backdrop of global human activity. (In this, "anthropology" does also tend to fold into ecology, or at least its various intersections with humanity....) And there's always been a lot more happening in the world of sound than most Western musicians (or apologists) have been willing to acknowledge, but now even Western musicians are expanding beyond both (their) traditional tonality & specific 20th century forms of (modernist, Western) "atonality...." Some of this expansion involves e.g. technological novelty, but some is simply a matter of taking what was considered to be "primitive" (& so by implication, not useful) more seriously. And "jazz" does continue to intersect & animate such a nexus (as discussed, in part, in prior openings...).

I'm also (still) considering more seriously the notion of unifying all of my ongoing (at least serial) discussions in one place, i.e. with the ability to display one or more topical threads, search, etc.... We'll see if I take that plunge during what I'm anticipating to be a rather slow (academic) year.... As always, thank you for your continuing interest. I expect that there will be more (hopefully useful and/or worthwhile) to say below.

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
12 August 2020

So a relatively obscure release that I want to note at the moment is the trio album Now!! from Michael Lytle's Elewhale Music: I'd discussed Lytle (here strictly on bass clarinet) in October 2017 around Itinerant, a trio album on Creative Sources with Denman Maroney & Stephen Flinn. (And Flinn has recently released a solo percussion album, also on Creative Sources, Red Bell: He's rather more assertive & expressive there than I heard him in the trio setting, with some amazing extended metal work....) And I believe that Lytle released this relatively short album in April in response to the virus, although he doesn't explicitly say so & it was recorded back in October 2018: But he's joined on Now!! by (& he's evidently especially enthusiastic about their anticipatory contemporaneity) Nick Didkovsky (guitar) & Matthew Ostrowski (electronics), two musicians I've mentioned here in the past but don't know well: Didkovsky is in Eris 136199 with Han-earl Park & Catherine Sikora, and I'd discussed that trio's appearance on the album Anomic Aphasia in October 2015. (I mention this reference in detail because Eris 136199, whose self-titled followup album I'd also auditioned in 2018, is supposedly releasing a new album soon too, Peculiar Velocities....) While Ostrowski (live sampling etc.) appeared on the duo album Elective Affinities with Andrea Parkins (as discussed here this past March, soon after its release, but as actually recorded in 2014).... What is perhaps most striking about Now!! then — & it tends to be a very active album, including via electronic layering, so it'll surely make an impression — is not only its rhythmic sophistication, but its composite of clarinet & guitar timbres: Sometimes that pairing is given some relatively straight duo space, but its figures tend to infuse even more of the sonic environment, together with vocal samples, glitches, etc. Much of the album's subtlety (dual exclamation points aside) then comes into play as sounds & figures move in & out of textures without clear entries or exits, yielding a quite dynamic feel (or maybe a new way of living...) across two dense & differentiated tracks that impressively forge & explore twisting, willowy, brightly colored worlds.... (The closest references here would be from e.g. Thanos Chrysakis or MMM Quartet, but these guys have their own sound — as recorded & mixed by Lytle.)

13 August 2020

I'd discussed Ivo Perelman's Strings series over the past couple of years, in particular Strings 1 in November 2018 & then via broader entry around Strings 3 in May 2019. Four albums were released on Leo Records, and there's a statement that there'd be seven volumes: So is the latest release on Sluchaj, Deep Resonance, an additional item or a change to how that same series is being released? I don't know, but it does continue with the new graphic style on FS Records that debuted with their Taylor/Oxley release (as I'd noted here in June in an entry around their rising profile), and sees another major set of artists come to the label. In any case, while Strings 1 came off as a lengthy series of studies, and the other Strings items (to this point) include other non-string players, Deep Resonance — also recorded in Brooklyn back in (April) 2018 — pairs Perelman with the preexisting Arcado String Trio. So this latest issue ends up having a very different feel from the more exploratory Strings 1, engaging not only a range of rhetorical ensemble sophistication (according to pathways already in place, some classical), but various popular allusions as well. (The way that Arcado also functions as a unit & so sometimes as a foil for Perelman also comes to suggest a bit of Braxton's interaction with his DCWM, e.g. that of 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 pairing violin.... And the basic "sound" of some of these Braxton productions does seem to be permeating other music, especially around New York.) But the "prior pathways" of Arcado also don't pose an entirely different situation for Perelman, of course, since he tends to return to previous musical partners often, and so builds up historical material (and in fact all of the Strings albums to this point had included Mat Maneri...), and indeed two members of the trio had already appeared in the series: Mark Feldman was on Strings 1, while William H Roberts (more often credited as Hank Roberts) was on Strings 2, and so the new musician to this party is only Mark Dresser — who does add a richly satisfying bass layer, as previously absent from this series. (The resulting sound world does yield quite a bit of rhetoric & drama, making for a rather classically jazzy interaction over bass in that sense too....) Another aspect to note is the remainder of the specific ensemble configuration: Strings 1 had intrigued me for its use of Perelman's tenor sax as "cello" of a classical string quartet (with two violins & viola), but it did mean that he encountered collisions in higher ranges (& he likes to ascend registers...). Besides adding bass below, Deep Resonance then involves the less usual (lately anyway) pairing of tenor with cello & violin two registers above: Actually this works well, basically leaving the whole alto range to Perelman, with clear duet ranges above & below. (A violin-cello-bass lineup is used by e.g. Trio KSZ as well....) It ends up being a much more lyrical, even sultry album (although I'm still almost more intrigued by the partly-novel Strings 1 configuration).

19 August 2020

I also want to note a recently released, composed cycle on Clean Feed: In Igma is by percussionist Pedro Melo Alves, and was recorded in July 2019 live in Coimbra. Although I wouldn't necessarily seek a composed cycle, and was totally unfamiliar with Alves previously, I was intrigued by the specific forces, namely three extended vocalists (Aubrey Johnson, Beatriz Nunes & Mariana Dionísio, none of whom was specifically familiar) along with Eve Risser, Mark Dresser (appearing coincidentally in the previous entry!) & Abdul Moimême — plus Alves himself. That's quite a distinctive ensemble. Actually, I wasn't too thrilled then with the opening (or much of the stated concept either), as notions of angelic voices separated from the hubbub of noisy instruments only seem to underscore Western dualism & indeed transcendental distractions positing human separation from the world.... Perhaps Alves intends his music as a critique of such transcendental dualism — & he well might — but the opening "sound" is one I've lamented in medieval interpretations for years.... In any case, although at times the voices do return to that mode — simple chanting in held notes — they also "descend into the muck" (so to speak) & sometimes interact with the quartet of percussion & extended strings in more lively fashion, starting especially from the striking second track, where extended interweaving of the trio of voices through various clattery, sheering & twisting timbres makes for a strong impact (the vocalists standing together physically to one side of the instrumentalists, per the included photo): At that point, there are few comparisons, but I might cite e.g. the VocColours quartet, whose weird Live in Japan I'd discussed here in October 2019. There's also a (trained) classical vibe to the extended vocal techniques employed, at one point specifically suggesting Xenakis' Kassandra (for voice & percussion, 1987) to me, or more generally, some of Scelsi's sound worlds (i.e. a cross between Khoom, Uaxuctum & Okanagon — all composed in the 1960s).... I thus found some of this material to be quite striking, and would be interested to hear more from a combination such as this — absent the ethereal pole (which is obviously already played out for me). Still, there's much to appreciate here, and from some new names.

21 August 2020

When discussing Grappling with the Orange Porpoise (a Creative Sources release) only last month, I didn't realize that another quartet album featuring Adrian Northover & Adam Bohman would soon be released by FMR: Adopting a similar sort of whimsy for its titling, The Perpendicular Giraffe Compartment was actually recorded back in October 2015 (versus August & November 2018 for the CS album), with Bohman (here simply on amplified objects, v. "prepared strings") & Northover (credited with mbira & melodica, along with sax) joined by Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg (voice) & Daniel Thompson (acoustic guitar) to form The Bellowing Earwigs. So this is actually the opposite of a followup to the previous Bohman-Northover pairing, and Thompson is less distinctive here than in much of his later work, but the addition of Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg still makes for a notable album. I was largely unfamiliar with Schouwburg (although he'd e.g. released a duo album with Bohman on Confront, Bagpipes And Blackberries, recorded in July 2014, as well as previous albums on FMR & CS...), but in many ways, his mix of styles & inspirations can be compared to those of Jaap Blonk. Indeed, the enigmatic North of Blanco (recorded back in 2013) makes for a good comparison with its extended textures of strange sounds, including guitar, there sometimes mirroring the voice & going to spookier extremes.... And whereas Grappling with the Orange Porpoise often ends up being more spare in its textures, after a boisterous opening, in what comes to seem like a series of timbre/role studies, The Perpendicular Giraffe Compartment generally continues with more of an open-ended feel, going off on various tangents & distractions, perhaps even resisting concentration per se... as sometimes remarked of Feldman's music. (For a more recent album, albeit without voice, the tapestries on Compassion & Evidence also suggest some similar ideas on extension & density... including feelings of stasis.) One even ends up with the sense of a psychological fugue state at times, more so than the kind of Zen shift proposed by the CS quartet, in an album that does compete with North of Blanco for pure weirdness — even as it seems to run out of steam a bit, at least relatively speaking.

And as it happens, FMR released another album featuring Northover with a vocalist in the same batch, Cájula — recorded around London in May & October 2019 — documenting a trio with Marilza Gouvea & Marcio Mattos (cello & electronics). Mattos has been a fixture with various London musicians (& liner notes are actually by Schouwburg), but vocalist Gouvea was new to me: The most immediate comparison is probably with Isabelle Duthoit & Light air still gets dark, but that album is ultimately more percussive & layered — while Cájula deals more with a trio of foreground performers often buoyed by legato lines, loops & drones. Moreover, there's a sort of 1960s "hippy" vibe as I'd noted in the February 2019 discussion of Fleur de chaos, a Canadian quartet album around vocalist Joane Hétu, so that comes off as a more similar effort overall.... (Perhaps Northover/FMR should be noted for Sezu as well, discussed here in October 2018, another open-ended album that does involve vocals with cello for its longest track....) The result has a generally dramatic feel, including some lyric bits such as "chicken nuggets," but also develops a sort of surreal or dreamy vibe, sometimes more intricately (in passages that I do find more intriguing), but sometimes seeming to be more of a spinning in place, i.e. about suspending time. Notions of presence & temporality are thus interrogated, as this quasi- (as the voice does come, seemingly inevitably to occupy the center) egalitarian trio leaves a resonating silence in its wake.

24 August 2020

Continuing what seems to be an ongoing theme around "self-made" instruments from the previous entry (& I should probably also note that I don't know anything meaningful about making instruments myself — I just listen to what people make), Marco Scarassatti is back with a new quartet album featuring Brazilian musicians, Disputa e Guerra no Terreiro de Roça de Casa de Avó recorded in Belo Horizonte in October 2019. The evocative title does seem to fit the music, as a variety of barnyard animal sounds are abstracted & exchanged by the performers: The result then conjures some similar human-animal intersections (to the point of being oriented on fowl) as those on SETT: First and Second (albeit an acoustic album), as just discussed (somewhat extensively here) in June. Indeed, Disputa e Guerra no Terreiro de Roça de Casa de Avó appears on the English digital label OEM Records alongside albums e.g. with Benedict Taylor — perhaps obliquely acknowledging this correspondence. So the Brazilian album has a much more specific scope, but in some ways, a similar sense of drama, although likewise in fewer scenes.... That it takes up a specific outdoor space, particularly given the richness of its tangential evocations, then suggests more of the title concept from Scarassatti's previous quartet album Psychogeography (discussed here in March 2019 — the feelings of stasis that album generates at times being something I could have subsequently analogized to those appearing with Compassion & Evidence...), and I think I'll end this sentence with a rhetorical reference to how the concept of "psychogeography" intersects the abstractions undertaken on the largely English albums by SETT et al. In any case, although the "indoor" solo Casa Acústica (first mentioned here in April 2017) reflects another domestic pole, Scarassatti had already interrogated a "mysterious outdoors" more broadly with Ernesto Rodrigues & company on Amoa hi (discussed October 2016).... The general sorts of low scuffling that occupy that album do tend to recur on Disputa e Guerra no Terreiro de Roça de Casa de Avó, as Scarassatti bows or plucks his pássaro-cocho (a sort of compound rustic viola, also appearing on Psychogeography, there along with other instruments) to sound very much like a chicken, sometimes becoming much more raucous — as accompanied or opposed by Marina Cyrino (amplified flutes), Matthias Koole (electric guitar) & Henrique Iwao (objects, mini-table & electronics). Iwao had been cited as a Scarassatti instrument-making collaborator in the past, while it took me a moment to place Cyrino... but she currently appears in a photo on the Free Jazz Blog with a balloon on the end of her flute (& so presumably, we can expect to hear more from her with European musicians...). Koole was new to me, and I'd never really heard any of them before, although they do have various mutual collaborations documented online. Sometimes the ensuing duels can seem kind of soloistic or move into repetitive quasi-fugal states, but the bewildering opening is amazing, and there are many incredible combinations of strangely interwoven lines & timbres. (Figuring out who is making what sound can be quite a project for the intrepid.... Listen to Cyrino elsewhere, though, so as to have a fighting chance.) And a sort of "animal commerce" does begin to insinuate itself into one's consciousness — the former also already an interrogation of human-animal intersection & domesticity per se. What is inside or outside then? Another dispute....

9 September 2020

I wouldn't have known about the new Area Sismica duo album from Joëlle Léandre & Pascal Contet (accordion), on the previously unknown We Insist! Records out of Italy, if it hadn't appeared in a combined entry at the Free Jazz Blog. (There's so much new music available online these days: It's great in so many ways, but frustrations shift toward feeling underinformed! Although I guess that's also what I'm trying to remedy for others here....) Anyway, recorded live in Forli in April 2019, Area Sismica is actually the duo's fourth album, and I hadn't really been struck by their previous album 3 (released in 2014 on Ayler Records).... Still, Léandre is always worth hearing, and I retain some fascination with accordion as fusing the Western keyboard tradition with a more flexible intonation and sense of breath. (The instrument last appeared here when mentioning Lluvia in an entry in May....) I hadn't mentioned Contet (b.1963) though, and not to diminish his contributions, but he ends up making a great accompanist for Léandre here: There's no question she's to the fore for much of the album, but the pitch gamut Contet can provide, whether in contrasting drones or faster chordal matching (or indeed dueling glissandi), provides a perfect foil — the difference on Area Sismica seeming to be a much closer matching of timbres & figures at times, more resonant interpenetration one might say, than on their prior album. The result is not only new combined sonorities, but some highly affective passages: Actually, the first four tracks of the album (occupying about a half hour of the full fifty minutes) seem more like "an album" with a an affective sweep, beginning somewhat tentatively through a windswept landscape, the bass emerging around ostinato (through a lengthy, fraught track), and into faster & more aggressive figural matching in the next track. After an anticipatory introduction, the third track then takes off around Léandre's vocals, in a ritualistic release that takes on a high degree of presence & even catharsis. (Sound is generally excellent.) That striking eruption is then followed by a sort of new age sunrise or afterglow, returning to a kind of simplicity but then stiffening again around ostinato.... I don't usually like to go track by track, but after that, the 5th track seems rather more experimental, trying out a variety of combinations between the instruments, often coarse or percussive, but eventually grains drawn out in duration as well. Next is an extended bass solo from Léandre, perhaps her most intimate of late, really drawing in the listener.... And then the last track becomes something of an extrovert medley around accordion ostinato. So the whole thing ends up seeming like kind of a mixed collection (despite being from one concert), but there are strong highlights, particularly from Léandre herself. And when one thinks about a single instrument for accompanying acoustic bass, although percussion is an obvious choice, the accordion does provide other options around drones & continuity, potentially leaving the "discontinuous" to the bassist... as generally for Léandre here.

19 September 2020

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