Todd McComb: Jazz archive, 07/2011-03/2012

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I've become rather eager to cycle this "blog" page over to more recent entries, hiding some of my more exploratory & preliminary comments especially early in the first nine months of undertaking this project. However, I did want to present some topics & comments about some of the most contemporary music before I did, and I think the later entries from the previous series turned out fairly well. Nothing is ever really finished, however, and so my haste to "finish" what I was doing there certainly leaves a wide range of loose ends on which to pull. Not to mention discussing the new things people are doing now and subsequently.

Like most areas of human endeavor, a little knowledge of this subject can be a dangerous thing. What am I even talking about here? I've retained the word "Jazz" in the title, although many people prefer "Creative Improvisation" or the like. The latter seems extremely cross-cultural to me, as literally speaking, creative improvisation plays a role in a wide variety of music. It's something more particular that I'm discussing here, and whether that something is really jazz or some sort of form arising from the intersections of improvisation, European-American harmony & technology, and cross-cultural infusions especially in the area of rhythm might depend largely on how many words one prefers to spew. Or maybe how conservative one is with regard to the idea of jazz. Or how protective of one's culture. Any of those arguments can be made, but I do know there is something in this intersection, and that something is usually classified in the big picture world of business and media as jazz.

Of course, having said that last part explicitly makes me shudder a bit. Who really wants to obey the big picture of business and media? In any event, we have here what we have here, and perhaps there's really nothing more to define it than the index of recordings I'm recommending. Or perhaps it should simply be defined as United States music, of the improvisatory and more demanding (or intellectual) sort, although that sort of label still lacks the counter-culture edge that intersects these styles in various ways. But then that discounts the times when something from the jazz world has burst totally into the mainstream. But then I could say that mainstream appropriation of counter-culture art isn't usually a way to lift oppression at all, but something more insidious. Jazz, and ideas of jazz, somehow manage to straddle all these things.

So for me, interesting music in this style — whatever it is — involves some sort of beginning structure, call it a composition in a general sense, and some sort of creative spontaneous interplay between musicians. At the moment, I find myself pulling almost entirely away from solo performances. Collective improvisation might imply something about simultaneous soloing, or free form, but for me is more about everyone in the ensemble having something interesting to contribute, even if they take turns. That said, having more than one thing happening at a time is often more interesting. And as to structure? I'd describe totally unstructured music as having each musician playing at random, without reference to any musical style or culture, and without hearing the others. So structure would be some negation of that, whether a tune set in a harmonic context, abstract interval or rhythmic relationships, or emergent structure from listening & reacting within a context. For the latter, the context isn't necessarily explicit, but rather "who you are" — which can take plenty of pondering. I've been finding a lot of value in pondering interpersonal relationships generally through this lens, which is a big part of what is making the idea of "collective improvisation" so appealing. That describes life, really, doesn't it?

When it comes to recordings, I'll paraphrase what I said at the beginning of this project: It takes more than inspired spontaneity to sustain interest over many hearings. Some recordings can be very exciting & interesting & novel, but once heard even once or twice, don't have much left to offer. What I do not want to do is be dismissive of their initial value, however, because it can be considerable. Maintaining a list of favorites, though, does tend to miss this dynamic, which will hopefully be captured in entries themselves. What makes a great recording? I'd say, generally, it's a clear conception & careful planning about what you're trying to do, some fluency in the language(s) involved, and then the right energy on the spot to really pull it off. Or maybe you just get lucky sometimes.

6 July 2011

I realize now that I actually saw Book of Three mentioned on Taylor Ho Bynum's website, but that was before I took more of an interest in John Hébert's music, and it was a recording not readily available in the US. A discussion of this recording oriented around Bynum makes sense at the moment.

Like Steve Coleman, Bynum (b.1975) has some free downloads on his website, including a live set by his sextet in 2008, which he describes as perhaps their best live performance. I wasn't overly taken with this recording featuring two electric guitars & viola, but it includes some creative colors (with mediocre sound quality). More recently, Taylor has headlined on two more intimate trio recordings, Book of Three and now Next with Joe Morris (b.1955) on guitar & Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon. Next was recorded in November 2009, whereas Book of Three was partly recorded a week earlier in that same month, but mostly in March 2010, so the releases are somewhat reversed chronologically, with Next being released only this June.

Trios with less standard combinations of instruments seem to be the avant garde trend right now, and I've embraced that trend with Pool School (and my convoluted discussion around it, posted on June 21, as well as with e.g. Double Demon). I have yet to really get interested in the sorts of interactions involved in a jazz duo, so the trio is the most intimate setting I've been discussing. One might say these sorts of trios stand out less by their instrumentation than by their lack of a leader... both more egalitarian in what they play, and in the ways instruments shift roles within a piece. The latter style of group interaction particularly appeals to me. Of these two albums, the trumpet-bass-drums combination is obviously the more conventional, and Book of Three includes many worthwhile ideas. I find Cleaver and especially Hébert consistently appealing, so the pieces really rise or fall with Bynum's trumpet. At times, his ideas bring the group together very well, and at times they kind of fall flat. In the case of Next, the music is even more textural (in a Braxton-like way) between the two winds, with some interesting guitar work surrounding them. This is a more experimental effort, exploring sonorities. Although I've enjoyed some cross-section of Bynum's music, I'm still left wondering what his personal style really is.

Since Joe Morris plays on Next, I should mention that he appears on many interesting recordings, whether on guitar or bass. Looking at his discography, even restricting to recordings from the past few years, is dizzying. I am not sure what to make of his output. I have listened to Camera (recorded in 2010) several times, and generally enjoyed it, although the "point" of the recording never really jumps out and presents itself. It ultimately seems like yet another recording, without any clear reason for existing, although I do certainly enjoy Katt Hernandez on violin as well as Morris himself on guitar. His individually plucked note style has almost a percussive ringing quality (akin to vibraphone?) that frames various other textures. (He actually does some strumming on Next, which I understand to be unusual for him.) Morris is another performer with some quality ideas, but it's hard to grasp what he's really trying to do overall.

19 July 2011

I had declined to order Brazilian tenor sax player Ivo Perelman's Soulstorm album on Clean Feed, even though I noticed it on Daniel Levin's discography, because the description of the album talked about "primal screams" and generally suggested an arbitrary or shock-value approach to improvisation. However, I was subsequently tempted by The Hour of the Star (released last month, recorded in 2010), featuring as it does Gerald Cleaver and Joe Morris (and Matthew Shipp on 4 of the 6 tracks). That seemed like an interesting combination of people. In any event, I found that Perelman was not haphazard or "primal" at all, but rather has a very sophisticated sense of tonal space. Much like with Kris Davis's music, and really any good atonal music of the Western sort, the atonality arises from a thorough command of tonality. I subsequently ordered Soulstorm (recorded 2009), which also includes bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg, and consists of both a studio recording and a live recording made the same day.

Although I found Perelman's command of musical line rather compelling, his apparent emphasis on spontaneity is less so. The liner notes for Soulstorm discuss how the three musicians, who had never met and are from different continents, spent just a few days together before recording the studio & live sets. It was also the first meeting for the band in The Hour of the Star, who apparently did tour together after releasing the recording. Consequently, these recordings are great examples of recordings that are exhilarating to hear the first time or two, but do not hold as much interest over time. Of the two, Soulstorm wears itself out faster, whereas The Hour of the Star features more experienced players and denser overall textures. That said, the idea to do studio & live albums together for Soulstorm is an intriguing one, if given the specific constraint (or energy?) of just having met. It would be interesting to hear Perelman play with a group that was more familiar with him, though, because he has a very striking and individual style. Tangentially, both albums have track titles taken entirely from books by Clarice Lispector. I'm not sure if the titles have any real bearing on what is played; it seems more like a series of free improvisations. Perelman is clearly the leader & soloist on these albums, although other musicians do make their marks.

25 July 2011

To turn to a much more mainstream release than I've been discussing recently, I have recently added Ari Hoenig's Lines of Oppression (recorded a month prior to the earlier release, Punkbop) to the site. This is on the Naïve label, which is part of a major corporation in France, although apparently not well-distributed here. At any rate, Hoenig apparently has a big following in France, and this recording shows him with a quartet of Gilad Hekselman, Tigran Hamasyan and a couple of different bass players (Orlando Le Fleming, and Chris Tordini, the latter a younger player who I've enjoyed on some avant garde releases). Lines of Oppression starts with a couple of "heavy" Hoenig compositions, where the melodic lines can be repetitive at times, but the rhythmic action is intense. There is something of a new age feel to the harmonic development, perhaps akin to the way a sitar gat will repeat a simple melody while the drummer solos, but the drum part is so busy that it seems like a great deal happens over a relatively short span of time. There is then a more touchy-feely Wedding Song (which has quiet vocals), a beatbox intro by Hamasyan, and then a couple of well-known standards, back to a couple of pieces by Hoenig, and another standard leading into Hamasyan's trance piece for the last track. The progression of pieces in the program is well done, in terms of the way it uses standards and original material.

Likewise with a beatbox track is Dafnis Prieto's Si O Si Quartet Live recording. This is an older recording from 2009, but makes something of a comparison with Lines of Oppression as a drummer's album. I've been following Prieto since noticing his association with Henry Threadgill, but haven't found that any of his albums really click for me. The older Absolute Quintet, with Jason Lindner and others, is interesting, but despite Ben Ratliff's quote on the cover, it doesn't seem that the other performers are really handling Prieto's rhythms with any sustained fluency. With Si O Si Quartet Live, there is definitely more familiarity between the ensemble, but as with Lines of Oppression, the resulting melodies are often fairly simple. Nonetheless, the distinct Cuban feel is enjoyable.

It's difficult for me not to associate the beat box idea with Indian classical bols. Online histories say that it was derived independently in hip hop music, which is plausible, although the overlap at times seems far too strong to be coincidence (and we also have instances from e.g. John McLaughlin going back a while). Anyway, I guess I'm not terribly enthusiastic, but it can work as an introduction, as used on Hoenig's album. That album does have a distinct "now" feel to it, especially with musicians from such different backgrounds who nonetheless have played together quite a bit. Although it's not groundbreaking, it is an enjoyable slice of 2011, complete with reflections on other places and other times.

26 July 2011

One thing about declaring myself "up to date" when flipping this blog is that it opens up a natural ongoing question for discussion: What's the biggest omission I made?

Right now, my own answer to that question would be Kuntu by the Michel Edelin Trio, released in 2009. Steve Lehman appears as a guest on three tracks, and I subsequently remembered seeing it listed in his discography. I even took a look at the description of the album, and found the rhetoric around a "flautist's album" somewhat off-putting. Later, I didn't really notice Kuntu when I was perusing the RogueArt catalog in the course of figuring out where to find Book of Three, discussed last month. So what prompted me to seek out Kuntu? I've been developing an interest in the flute as a jazz instrument, in part confirmed by Henry Threadgill's playing on the instrument, but as much as anything in the course of thinking about some sonorities and combinations that I'd like to pursue.

As it turns out, Kuntu is a fantastic album. Steve Lehman is interesting as always, but I don't even find his contribution necessary for my appreciation. This is Edelin's music, so he apparently deserves much of the attention, but Jean-Jacques Avenel is also fantastic on bass. This leads me back to The Sixth Jump, by Benoît Delbecq, again. I strongly revisited this trio album after being captivated by John Hébert's Spiritual Lover, and think that Delbecq tends to dominate the proceedings on The Sixth Jump, with his rhythm section often in repetitive (although with interesting rhythms) roles. I think this even more now, having heard Avenel's superb playing on Kuntu. He has a very large part, and it's well worth it. The interplay of flute & bass creates a wonderful polyrhythmic texture, with John Betsch adding accents on drums. The Sixth Jump uses explicitly African rhythms, and Kuntu likewise has an explicit connection in its Bantu title. There are other influences, however, including Bulgarian, and of course the French sense of line.

All told, Kuntu has become a definite favorite. The different tracks have different characters, the music is consistently engaging & provocative, and the album makes a satisfying whole.

29 August 2011

I was greatly anticipating Steve Coleman's followup to Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, released last year. That followup did appear recently, The Mancy of Sound. Besides the creativity and accomplishment of that recording, one reason I was eagerly anticipating a followup to Harvesting Semblances and Affinities is that much of that album was recorded 5 years ago. What is Steve Coleman (b.1956) doing now? Well, it turns out The Mancy of Sound doesn't move us much farther ahead in time. Most of the album is from the same February 2007 recording session that produced Flos Ut Rosa Floruit on the prior album, and the other two tracks were recorded in July 2007. Superficially, the main stylistic developments are more emphasis on vocals, and more percussion. Neither is particularly welcome to me, although The Mancy of Sound is still a striking album. Vocally, there are more actual lyrics, including in English, plus two uncredited male vocalists on a 4-piece suite that forms the middle of the program. At times, the texture is vocal & drums. That said, some more comments on what makes Steve Coleman's style so striking: It's basically two elements, the short angular phrases, and the rhythmic independence between the melody players. The latter exist in distinct rhythmic layers or areas that, with the help of the short phrases, fit together into a larger whole. The phrases on The Mancy of Sound are shorter and denser than even Harvesting Semblances and Affinities. It's a very geometric effect, prismatic even. Steve Coleman will be in California for the Monterey Jazz Festival in a few weeks, and although he happens to be playing the same day my oldest child leaves for college for the first time, I'm hoping I'll have the chance to hear him elsewhere while he's in the area.

Tyshawn Sorey performs on both of Steve Coleman's Pi recordings, as well as on e.g. Pete Robbins' Silent Z album, and with various other interesting musicians. Sorey also has extensive composing credits, including on Door and Paradoxical Frog (two albums I've discussed in the past), as well as a couple of previous albums as a leader. That said, releasing Oblique I on Pi Recordings seems like something of a milestone, considering that label's highly acclaimed recent releases. My reaction to Oblique I is fairly simple: There are a lot of interesting musical ideas, illustrating a broad range of ordering principles associated with jazz in 2011, but there's no particular message or stylistic niche addressed. What is the point of this music, other than that Sorey wanted to write music? This does not come through to me, although it's certainly technically competent. Sorey does write some commentary, emphasizing that music is of a particular time & place, and should not be separated from everyday life. I agree. Yet, what is this album? It is a group of pieces explicitly written 3-5 years ago, titled merely by ordinal number, and played by a somewhat different group than originally worked through most or all of them. From what I've read, Sorey worked on a lot of this music in a group with Pete Robbins, and although Loren Stillman plays well on Oblique I, I do find myself thinking it should be Robbins. As for the numbered compositions, this is a mainstay of no less a figure than Anthony Braxton, so perhaps I should refrain from criticizing. I can understand the, presumed, idea that music is about music (which is more about number) and not about words. Many compositions and/or group improvisations on recordings I've discussed here are clearly arbitrarily named. Yet what of this time & place business? Even arbitrariness is a connection. I've seen it said that Steve Coleman does some strange musical things, but he always has a reason for it. I believe it. What's Tyshawn Sorey's reason for this music? OK, so that was pretty harsh. There are definitely some interesting musical ideas on this album, and I remain interested in Sorey as a drummer and as a leader.

While not avant garde or with much of a link to the New York music scene, another recent new release from an artist mentioned here previously is Woody Witt's Pots and Kettles. Although I've enjoyed Witt's A Conversation and First Impression albums, Pots and Kettles didn't make a strong impression. I do appreciate that Witt continues to record with a variety of musicians.

30 August 2011

Although I've been working in some listening whenever I can, especially as there is just so much going on out there in this broad field, obviously the alignment of time & mood needed to write up these thoughts comes in spurts. I'm breaking up these entries fairly arbitrarily, but let me keep going.

One thing about jazz or creative improvisation recordings is that they get released out of sequence. This isn't the norm in other musical styles where I've been involved, such as medieval, but in this arena, musicians are often appearing on various projects that appear on various labels, and even if something was recorded a year earlier, the later item might appear first, etc. I try to keep an eye on chronologies, especially when considering stylistic development. Even there, some projects are obviously more adventurous than others, and that needn't follow a chronology.

That said, it's time already to revisit some of the intertwined threads from my discussion of Pool School in June. A new recording by Ingrid Laubrock's trio Sleepthief, also featuring Tom Rainey (with Liam Noble), The Madness of Crowds has just appeared. This recording was made a mere 5 days after Pool School, as a followup to a recording by the same three musicians recorded in 2007 while Laubrock was still based in London. That puts the chronology of a very eventful 2010 for Laubrock as Anti-House, Pool School, The Madness of Crowds, with Paradoxical Frog (featuring Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey) recorded in August 2009.

With Kris Davis on both Paradoxical Frog & Anti-House, I'm going to step back and give a chronology for her trio albums: Three (6/08), Good Citizen (5/09), and Paradoxical Frog (8/09). I continue to find Good Citizen extremely appealing, especially considering it tackles the straight piano trio format, so am very interested in whatever she decides to record next. Notes on Three, a recording by the SKM trio, including Stephen Gauci and Michael Bisio: This recording starts out quite strongly, with impressive playing from Davis, but there are many times in the album where she is either silent or basically comping, and I don't find it terribly appealing overall. Bisio does have an interesting bass technique, to be sure, although while the technique he has for e.g. tapping on harmonics is impressive, it's also generally repetitive. (This reminds me of much of Elliott Sharp's playing on Octal, with similar rhythmic tapping that must take great control, but I get tired of listening to it.) I discussed my thoughts on Paradoxical Frog back with the Pool School discussion. Both of those ensembles supposedly have new albums coming out.

In The Madness of Crowds, Laubrock's vision as a leader really comes together. This is a highly successful album, featuring a variety of moods, and fantastic interplay between the performers. Whereas the first Sleepthief album has some tentative qualities in its conception, The Madness of Crowds is practically explosive. That is probably a strange thing to say about an album that includes so many quiet sections. However, it's a quiet full of passion, or maybe a passion full of calm. Although it does not offer the same sort of radical transformation of time & space as Pool School, The Madness of Crowds is more narrative, yet with such offbeat rhythms and "changes" that it seems to be more than one story at a time. For the most part, Liam Noble on piano serves to add some sanity to the proceedings. The titles are mostly taken from Charles Mackay's classic text, and generally seem as relevant now as they were in 1841. It's not as though crowds have become any less mad. Although it's slow-moving at times, The Madness of Crowds executes a clear musical vision with creativity and energy.

30 August 2011

On the theme of quiet albums, there is a recent release by Harris Eisenstadt (b.1975) with Ellery Eskelin & Angelica Sanchez called September Trio. All 7 tracks are called September and generally have a quiet, languid air presumably evocative of that month. Since so many of my activities are tied to the academic year, September is a month where things really get hopping for me, so it's a little hard to relate, perhaps. At times I find it easier to think more in terms of May-September romance, because this album has something of that mood. The release also includes a nice essay by Nate Wooley extolling the personal virtues of Harris Eisenstadt.

Although I have heard Eisenstadt in a variety of music, and generally enjoyed his work as a leader, such as on Canada Day, I had not felt any particular resonance with his earlier albums. Here, in contrast, is an almost extreme concentration of theme — although the different Septembers are different compositions — instead of the this-and-that of Canada Day. As can be inferred pretty easily from a variety of things I've written here, I've not generally been too excited about slow songs in jazz (although e.g. Spiritual Lover has some very appealing slow sections), so I would not have expected an album of slow & quiet to have much appeal. Perhaps that is the reason I feel like Harris Eisenstadt's style has really come together with this release. It's quite distinctive in those two senses, but it's also (and consequently) full of subtleties. September Trio ends up being quite engaging, especially with more hearings. I'll also add that the understated sophistication of the compositions does yield some "rough around the edges" moments during the improvisation that come out with more hearings too. I discussed Angelica Sanchez's Life Between back in June, and here she provides excellent support with some very "straight" piano playing, doing especially well with chord articulation. This is the first I've listened to Ellery Eskelin (b.1959) much, and while at first I found his tone too reedy, it grew on me quickly. His tenor is usually in sharp relief on these songs, particularly with Eisenstadt playing very quiet percussion, and the way he shades his notes is critical to the success of this album. Altogether, this is a superb album awash in an array of subtleties of a particular niche mood, and a fine & unexpected progression of Eisenstadt as a leader. There's a very palpable sense of silence when it ends that yields a definite feeling of satisfaction.

I'll also add that the combination of quality & variety on Clean Feed continues to be rather amazing.

30 August 2011

While waiting on the arrival of some other items to compare, before I write up some new things here, I've been thinking more about my reaction to Tyshawn Sorey's Oblique I album. Part of my negative reaction is undoubtedly about high expectations.

If I just block out the sax, and listen to the other musicians, who are more or less performing as a rhythm section, I find it works rather well. I can even get a sense of what the music is "about" that way, which was a criticism. Yet the sax dominates the sound by volume, and even has a solo track. So I don't know what the idea was there. It's not as though Loren Stillman is an untalented player. His playing with Sorey was interesting enough that I made a point to hear him on a couple of other albums. His most recent as a leader, I believe, is Winter Fruits on Pirouet (recorded in 2008). Although that album of originals mostly by Stillman (with two by drummer Ted Poor) has some weak tracks on it in terms of material, the ensemble conception (with Gary Versace on organ, and Nate Radley on guitar) is excellent and the sax playing is engaging. There are some strong tracks too, and it's well worth hearing. Stillman is also notably good as a sideman on German guitarist Sebastian Noelle's album Koan on Fresh Sound New Talent (recorded in 2010). Pianist George Colligan plays on a few tracks on that album too, and his contribution is definitely a highlight. Noelle wrote all the music, and it's a pretty good album, with a very understated (or polished) Balkan influence.

18 September 2011

A recent recording that caught my attention is Siren by Uri Caine. Although it isn't clear where to place this album in terms of musical style amongst the various jazz-type recordings I've enjoyed, the instrumental ensemble is quite clear: This is a traditional acoustic piano trio, featuring John Hébert on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums. Hébert has been involved in a lot of interesting projects, apparently taking over some of these slots from Drew Gress, and makes a fine contribution here. Perhaps it's ironic, or just a sign of my own shortsightedness, but ever since I wondered aloud whether the piano (with its rigid notes and articulation) had much of a place left in 21st century jazz, I've found a number of piano recordings appealing. In this case, Siren is not an avant garde release in terms of musical structure, nor is it mainstream jazz, but it does include a nice range of moods and forms. Given Caine's work with Mahler (doing jazz versions of Mahler works), that's a natural orientation here, with the harmonies engaging in a similar stretching of the tonal system without ever quite leaving it behind. In that sense, this album forms something of a middle ground to a couple of other "straight" piano trios that I continue to enjoy, Come Together by George Colligan and Good Citizen by Kris Davis. Come Together, beginning with a Beatles song, stays more within the traditional harmonic idioms of jazz (and related popular styles, with some dissonant passages at times, as is also typical), whereas Good Citizen simply blows tonality away at times. Good Citizen is a fantastic album, but some people find it unlistenable accordingly. With Siren, one gets more of the early 20th century pre-serial classical extended tonal style that listeners are often more willing to embrace. Siren combines that particular sense of harmony with a broad range of accessible rhythmic ideas, from traditional jazz rhythms to ideas a bit farther afield in world music. One could compare it to Bartok in that sense, but Caine has a distinctly different style. Playing in a traditional trio format with an accomplished jazz bassist in Hébert, as well as Caine's very jazzy phrasing on the piano, assures a traditional jazz feel to the album. Both from the perspective of classical tonality and jazz pianism, Siren has roots in the 1920s, even if the innovative aspects of those idioms never interacted at the time. One can almost imagine an old-time American dance hall, but with tricky harmonies, or a Viennese "school" founded by emigrant jazz performers. This is kind of a singular item, not a pastiche in any sense, and very worthwhile. It would be interesting to read what Caine has to say about this album, but I have not found such a discussion, and have taken some extra time to articulate my own impression.

Speaking of Kris Davis, Clean Feed released two new recordings featuring her this month. I would not normally seek out either of these formats, but was wanting to hear more from Kris Davis. Aeriol is a solo piano disc, recorded just a few days after Paradoxical Frog in 2009, but in Portugal. Since the interaction between musicians is an element of jazz that I find crucially interesting, the solo format isn't of much appeal. However, it's an opportunity to hear Davis play a standard on the opening track (All The Things You Are), and the extended & original prepared piano piece of the second track (Saturn Return) is well worth hearing. The song Good Citizen also makes an appearance, amongst the more typical solo piano originals. The other release (this one recorded in 2011) is Novela, for which Davis has arranged a program of Tony Malaby compositions for a Nonet of seven winds (one of whom is Joachim Badenhorst, apropos my next entry), piano and percussion (John Hollenbeck). Malaby is a talented player with some interesting music, so hearing this material set in an orchestrated harmonic context is worthwhile. I can't say as I prefer it to more intimate & spontaneous settings, but it's well-executed and provides another view.

27 September 2011

As the Kuntu example illustrates, in the process of declaring myself "up to date" for the year 2011, probably my biggest omission was European musicians. I was aware of this blind spot, but getting a handle on where or what my interest in European jazz-type music would be was fairly challenging, and so I've let it develop more slowly.

Recently I've had more of a chance to listen to different European performers, particularly orienting more around labels such as Clean Feed or Leo or Intakt, instead of more mainstream outlets such as ECM. Although on none of those labels, the first all-European release that has really struck me is Polylemma on the Red Toucan label out of Quebec (which I had not noticed previously). I actually came to this album in a roundabout way, noting first the recent release Klippe by Thomas Heberer on Clean Feed (which I subsequently learned was originally released on vinyl on No Business), then the HNH release earlier on Clean Feed, which seems to have attracted quite a bit of attention. Each of those albums contains a different three of the four performers on Polylemma, so seeking Polylemma as something of a superset made sense at the time. Anyway, HNH (released 2010) consists of three musicians from Germany, drummer Joe Hertenstein (who organized the group), quarter-tone trumpeter Thomas Heberer (b.1965; who is the other major composer for the group), and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Polylemma adds Belgian bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst, and Klippe includes the two wind players & bassist without Hertenstein. That is the order in which they were recorded.

I had no idea what to expect with Polylemma (released 2011). It is generally a quiet album, with each of the four players given quite a bit of space, and everything clearly audible. However, it is not really minimalist, as musical ideas develop and are exchanged fairly rapidly. Within that context, material spans the European & American traditions, with more tonal structures, serial lines, microtones, and other postmodern constructions. The players on Polylemma moved to New York a few years ago, and one thing Polylemma & HNH do quite well is engage a distinct "New York jazz" feel. That's partly rhythmic, but also the way some lines are developed harmonically. There's a correspondence between abstract pitch ideas and more visceral structures, and it might be argued that "jazz" requires a visceral element. It's the resulting sense of balance that is particularly sophisticated on Polylemma (recorded live to 2-track in one room), and I was immediately taken by the album. This is a case where I enjoyed it the first time through, not really knowing what to expect, and then enjoyed it even more the second and third times (which is where many initially appealing albums start to seem routine, particularly "concept" albums). I subsequently got HNH and Klippe from Clean Feed.

As something of a diversion, somewhere in this sequence, I noticed that HNH is — by far — the most popular album on the Clean Feed site according to user voting. Now, I have no idea if this user rating really means anything... perhaps one fan voted 100 times. In any event, HNH has (as I write this) 153 votes with a 5-star average. I decided to take a look at this, just in case user voting would be interesting. As it turns out, most of my favorite Clean Feed albums have received relatively little interest or even so-so marks, so clearly our tastes do not align very closely. However, I did note the next most popular album there is Roll Call by the Portuguese bassist Hugo Antunes, followed by First Reason by German drummer Christian Lillinger (b.1984), and then Grünen by a trio featuring Lillinger. All are interesting albums, and all are European, which seems to be the theme for high user voting. First Reason, Lillinger's first album, was recorded in Ibiza with the help of pianist Joachim Kühn. It alternates high energy "jazzy" tracks, some with piano, with others that meld the instruments into one sound. Grünen is a trio with a more refined sound world... this is a live album, all improvised, and made a very strong first impression. Repeated hearings make it seem kind of repetitive in some of the novel techniques the musicians are using and with the rotating roles; it's a clear example of a live album that is well worth hearing, but isn't a hear again-and-again album. It will be interesting to hear what Lillinger and others do in the future. Roll Call is an energetic blend of styles, with two reed players and two drummers usually orbiting a punchy bass line and projecting a post-hardbop feel. Antunes creates his own (European) sound within a mostly traditional jazz concept.

Returning to the subject of the two recordings closely related to Polylemma, these musicians have developed a personal style very rapidly. If I understand correctly, recording HNH was the first time all three played together (December 2008). There is a raw energy about that recording, and one can hear the way they want to unite their backgrounds in Germany with the New York scene. It's not as refined as Polylemma, but has that "this is the start of something new" feeling about it. Already with Polylemma in February 2010, there is a very distinct style, with Hertenstein & Heberer alternating composer credits. Klippe (recorded June 2010) is Heberer's music, based on a new style of notation (some of which appears on Polylemma). Heberer has been generous enough to explain his Cookbook notation on his website, and provide many examples. It's a fine concept in the ongoing process of creating personal syntheses of composition and improvisation, providing whatever elements of form or melody or rhythm that are inherent to a piece, while leaving the rest to the improvisers. Some of Heberer's pieces are more constrained this way than others (and anyone interested should have a look.) Klippe is a very intimate album without the drums, and the musical concept provides a lot of space for introspection. Some of this character is found in Heberer's pieces on Polylemma, but Klippe is an extended album in that mood. Although I find the concept to be very sound, and the album to be interesting & enjoyable, it also seems that the performers could use more time developing their ideas around this style. The improvisers are asked to inject their own musical ideas into the structure of the pieces at various points (obviously!), and those spontaneous ideas aren't always that engaging. The result is basically a fascinating skeleton with some tantalizing "meat" but more is needed to really flesh it out. As quickly as these musicians developed this style from 2008 to 2010, there is little doubt that more will follow. Perhaps a good point of reference would be the Daniel Levin Quartet, which developed a very intimate group improvisation style over the course of several years. Heberer has chosen a very ambitious path with Klippe.

It's amazing how well-rounded an album Polylemma already is, though, "Record of the Year" material, as the saying goes, given its combination of originality and polish. I don't know anything of Hertenstein outside of Polylemma (and he does write liner notes in which he describes it very succinctly as "European quartet improvisation developed in New York City" among other details) and HNH, but have heard Badenhorst with several groups, and am expecting a new piano trio album led by Niggenkemper to arrive soon.

27 September 2011

I've wanted to comment on a few more recent recordings in the general "world fusion" category. I've had some very mixed feelings about these sorts of efforts already expressed here, and have been working on clarifying my own thoughts and what my interests might actually be. One could easily argue that jazz began as a fusion of musical cultures, and so the topic might be more central than it seems. The question, then, when it comes to creating a context for a new fusion effort, is at what level is the fusion undertaken... what are the technical elements, the cultural perspective, and how are they combined? Why are they combined? I think I've commented elsewhere that simply taking a non-European theme and transposing it into a Western European harmonic & formal idiom might be one pole. This could, of course, be done in reverse. And has, for instance, in the Carnatic "Western note" compositions, although not as commonly, or perhaps I should say as prominently — I've also heard African drummers play a wide range of world styles (European and elsewhere) on a single drum, although it was never explained as such (to the outsider audience, anyway). Another pole might be taking elements of more than one tradition and uniting them in a new structural context. Improvisation can make that easier in some sense, but there are also formal structures to various improvising styles around the world, and so simply improvising is far from a guarantee that one will create a new structural context. It's far too easy & natural to take new ideas and then fall back on the forms one knows when expressing them. And that previous sentence uses more general terms, because it's more generally true, beyond music.

It's not as though all of us have the same personal context, even if we're from the same nominal culture. We all have different experiences, hopefully authentic experiences, and creativity might run in different directions. Large cultural constructs, such as jazz, grow and shift over time. They're also supported by the efforts & contributions & elaborations of many amazing people over many years. So if a few people decide to take a couple of musical idioms that have had little conscious interaction in the past, maybe forging a new cross-cultural context will take more than a couple of sessions. Fair enough. We can ask, though, where they're coming from and what that context looks to be (becoming). Is it superficial? Is it layered in social and/or technical meaning, that is, does it foster new ways of looking at human interaction or musical materials? We might ask these questions and not know the answers. One thing seems clear, though, namely that these efforts need to come deeply from the personal backgrounds of the people involved, that they shouldn't try to speak for an entire culture or be received as such. That simple message might be, paradoxically, one of the defining aspects of jazz.

With that said, some thoughts on three recent releases in this general category....

From this perspective, not terribly far afield is Route de Frères by Andrew Cyrille & Haitian Fascination (on the Tum label). Cyrille (b.1939, New York) has a Haitian background, and visited there as a child. Now in his 70s, this project connects with those roots, incorporating musicians from Haiti and taking on some of the native styles. As a drummer with Cecil Taylor and others, Cyrille has worked in the avant garde, and so this program spans the spectrum of straightforward Caribbean tunes & rhythms to advanced rhythmic & harmonic treatments. It's a wonder how well those styles come together here, perhaps illustrating exploration of newer jazz idioms in Haiti itself, and even individual tracks might move between more & less accessible music. That said, these traditions obviously share closer histories than some. Contributions to US jazz from the Caribbean are long-standing, and the French Colonial connection here is notable. As some performers are currently looking to reinvigorate themselves with the roots of US jazz in New Orleans, the Haitian perspective provides an interesting foil. Scholarship relating Haiti and New Orleans is far from fully formed, and judging by this music, there is more to learn than might otherwise be guessed. Although it has its limits as a fairly singular effort, Route de Frères shines an interesting & provocative light on the US jazz tradition and its shared history.

Another interesting album released earlier this year is Chalaba by the Joachim Kühn Trio. Besides the German pianist (b.1944), the Trio includes Moroccan vocalist & string player Majid Bekkas, and Spanish percussionist Ramon Lopez. This is the third album these performers have done together for ACT Music, so their interaction is relatively polished. The idea of Moroccan-Jazz fusion is also not as exotic as might first be imagined. The relevant touchstone here is the cross-cultural Muslim rule in medieval Andalucía — rather, I don't know if the performers themselves conceive their interactions this way, but I do. There was a concerted effort to eradicate the Andalucían culture from unified Spain, and so those considered to be the closest practitioners of that tradition today are in Morocco. Andalucían music has also had numerous attempts at historical reconstruction from musicologists in recent years, with numerous recordings. In some ways, the more open & triadic melodic style resembles later European music more closely than the French & Italian styles from those generations. Whereas I do perceive some interesting phrase-harmonic kinship, the structure of song & improvisation are rather different. That said, it would be hard to say that there is a particular European style of improvisation, e.g. an analog to bebop in American jazz. Like Historicity and Tirtha by Vijay Iyer, this ACT Music album is rather easygoing and open to the listener. It seems kind of simple over time, which is an accomplishment of its own, and lends some direct emotional resonance.

Farther afield, and continuing the trend of including prominent vocals, is Zâr by the Ensemble Shanbehzadeh & the Matthieu Donarier Trio on the Buda Musique label (which usually sticks to more traditional material). This is an Iranian trio (winds & vocals, two percussionists) combined with a French jazz trio (sax, electric guitar, drums). Here the Iranian structure dominates, with the jazz players providing their own interesting perspective on it. However, this is not an Iranian style with which I was very familiar. The style is from the South of Iran, specifically around the city of Bushehr, and the lead instrument of this ensemble (besides voice) is generally the bagpipe (neyanban). It has something of the sound & melodic structure that I associate with some Kurdish music, although there may be no actual connection. The term Zâr signifies trance music, and that sort of repetitive droning quality is found here, together with more sudden shifts & outbursts. I have encountered this style of trance music explicitly before, including in Iranian music (but also farther afield), usually associated with the string tanbur. The idea of having a jazz trio play along is an interesting one, and this is definitely emotional or even transcendent music.

Where did I learn of these albums? Route de Frères was featured at Jazz Loft. Although I did see the release notice for Chalaba from Allegro, I subsequently sought it out in combination with the current context and upon encountering Joachim Kühn's playing on the Ibiza-based release of the previous entry. Zâr was also in the Allegro new release flyer, which I've regularly consulted for many years, only under world music.

Perhaps I should also go back now and reflect on the word "fusion" in this context. To many jazz fans, fusion means incorporating musical ideas or technologies from rock music or other US popular music. It's a very narrow concept of fusion, especially as jazz started out with fusion between classical music and native US styles, and rock is basically a different slant on that notion. It's interesting that combining styles with such close historical roots could have been controversial, especially as juxtaposed with broader world fusion which, as far as I can tell, doesn't generate any particular controversy in jazz. One might also call it "fusion" to combine jazz with European atonality, which as noted previously, was being developed contemporaneously with the mainstream jazz idioms. Maybe mixing cultures seems less threatening when they're farther apart?

20 October 2011

Another album of very high merit that I had previously overlooked, this time released in 2009, is Quadrologues by the quartet Transit, which was apparently formed by drummer Jeff Arnal. Nate Wooley is another part of this group, and of course I've made note of various recordings involving him. I was otherwise unfamiliar with the saxophone player, Seth Misterka, as well as Arnal. Also involved is bassist Reuben Radding, who has a more extensive discography, but doesn't seem to have been involved in anything released more recently. In fact, Radding's website hasn't even been updated to include the Quadrologues release, and it appears he moved to Seattle (from New York) by the time it appeared. Arnal has some 7" vinyl releases on his website but has apparently not done a full-length album since Quadrologues, and apparently neither has Misterka.

So it's little wonder I didn't notice this album, since most of the participants have not been very active since. There's no question that staying active with recordings is one way to get people to notice earlier work. On the other hand, waiting until you have something new that's exciting and you really want to release can make quite an impression when it's noticed. Quadrologues is such an album. In fact, even listening to it a couple of times, I didn't feel much sense as to what was going on... I still don't know what the starting points for the individual pieces might have been, whether there's any scripted element at all, or entirely group improvisation. It's quite a sphinx in that sense, and indeed the classical-mythological context fits the feel of the album. Comments on Arnal's playing tend to focus on his work with modern dance, and that kind of drama does come through in this album, lending it almost an air of reimagining ancient Greek theater. The starkness (at times) and dissonance (at times) fit that image, and then the manipulation of time evokes ancient stories, together with an almost elemental quality. This comes partly from the structure of interaction, and partly from the sonorities of the winds, with Misterka's Middle Eastern shadings and Wooley's "force of nature" style on the trumpet. I don't imagine dancers per se, but I do imagine human drama, with a strong sense of ensemble. The result is a stunning collective statement with a timeless energy, and keen sense of individuality.

Quadrologues was recorded in December 2006 & January 2007, but the first album by this ensemble, Transit, was recorded "way back" in March 2001, and only released in 2005. Transit is much easier to grasp than Quadrologues, and kind of pales in comparison (especially with me hearing the later album first), but it's interesting to hear this ensemble from 5+ years earlier, and even to hear some of the earlier roots of ideas that find their way into e.g. Nate Wooley's improvisations with Pete Robbins or Daniel Levin. Another 5+ years between albums would suggest that this group should produce one again soon. Let's hope so.

Another singular & highly interesting Clean Feed release from 2009 is Udentity by the Denman Maroney Quintet. (There aren't any other older albums on Clean Feed that I'm currently pondering writing about, if anyone wonders.) Denman Maroney (b.1949) plays what he calls the hyperpiano, which is a piano with various sorts of preparations, perhaps taken a little beyond what some of the other performers mentioned here have done with preparations. That isn't particularly the main feature of Udentity, however, even if it is indicative of Maroney's influences. Maroney is confronting much of the US experimental tradition, with not only prepared piano ideas from Cage, but ideas on undertones & overtones from Cowell & Partch, ideas on cycle from Harrison, etc. Uniting these ideas with jazz seems very American, yet hasn't been attempted that much, or at least not quite in this way. Udentity is very successful. It seamlessly incorporates connections between polyrhythmic proportions and harmonic proportions in a very different way from e.g. Steve Lehman or Rob Mazurek, who take more of a top-down approach, taking the idea of undertone construction (and perhaps even some ideas on sonority) from Partch. Udentity was recorded in 2008, and unlike the very long gap with Arnal above, Maroney did a quartet recording (Gaga) in 2006, which lacks the trumpet. Gaga is also an interesting album, more understated, and without such an explicit "jazz" feel as Udentity, which consists of a composed cycle of pieces that nonetheless rely primarily on group improvisation. Apparently the style was developed over the course of only a couple of years.

This is probably a good time to discuss some other connections. Reuben Radding (b.1966) is also the bassist on Udentity, making for a couple of very impressive (and very different) albums for him in 2009, with apparently none since. On Udentity, the bass serves as much as anything to unite the texture with the winds (including some solos), based around Maroney's harmonic invocations and rhythmic cycles (accented by Michael Sarin, unknown to me otherwise, on drums), whereas on Quadrologues Radding is providing much of the harmonic context for the very dramatic interplay of the winds. Another interesting connection is that Dave Ballou (b.1963), who plays trumpet on Udentity, and contributes markedly to the more aggressive sound world on that album, was the trumpeter at the very beginning of the Daniel Levin Quartet, before being replaced by Nate Wooley. His website likewise lists no recording later than this one. Reed player Ned Rothenberg (b.1956) has apparently turned largely to the shakuhachi since this project, whereas Denman Maroney himself has done an album around poetry. These subsequent events make Udentity seem that much more like an artistic summation.

Looking back at them, both of these albums from the Clean Feed catalog, although very different in style, seem like monuments today. Udentity is a polished synthesis of many of the long-standing experimental elements of the US musical tradition into the jazz idiom, while Quadrologues is one of the most original & striking sound worlds yet created in the realm of collective improvisation. One thing they have in common is that each of the individual performers really has a chance to shine. These albums give 2009 a rather different character now than the year had for me a few months ago.

26 October 2011

I've mentioned some aspects of contemporary classical music in this space from the start, so I'll go ahead and mention a new recording that captured my attention. I have not been exploring much under the classical heading recently, although I do notice some releases, particularly of music by Scelsi. My inclination to actually listen to new performances has been a little lacking the past several years, though. Perhaps that's prompted by a bit of vanity on my own part, believing that I already know the music (or just wanting to be frugal). Besides some recent Scelsi recordings on Mode Records, one recent series I did follow was the orchestral music by Xenakis on Timpani, which seems to have concluded at five volumes. These are particularly well-executed renditions of some of Xenakis' largest-scale music, including some previously unrecorded items.

This month, the Complete Cello Works on Aeon caught my eye. (Aeon has also released some significant medieval recordings, so that's an interesting mix.) In short, the musicianship by cellist Arne Deforce (and others) on this recording is amazing. He's managing dual resonance tones on the cello, among other things, and making these rather daunting pieces sound very musical. At times they fit right into current jazz styles, although still with a bit of a classical edge. I've heard e.g. Nomos Alpha in at least a few different performances, and this is the first time I've actually found it engaging. The concerto-format piece Epicycles (which I've also heard before) is amazingly lucid as well, with a larger ensemble. There are also a few pieces here that I hadn't heard before. In short, this recording comes off as a real landmark. I guess it never occurred to me that performance practice around Xenakis' music could take such major steps, although in hindsight it seems obvious. I had apparently internalized the notion that Xenakis' music is "impossible to play" and so was accepting of the idea that performances wouldn't improve. There should be a lot of interest here to current jazz performers.

Having been so awed by this recording raises the obvious question: Are there other Xenakis releases that I had ignored that make similar performance strides? I subsequently listened to the Complete String Quartets by the JACK Quartet, and was impressed (and Ergma is a first recording). Now I realize I need to, once again, redo my Xenakis listing here, and probably deemphasize the Arditti Quartet recording that had been, to my mind, the most significant release prior to the orchestral series (and part of the reason I'm here writing more about jazz is that I'm more interested in smaller ensembles). This year marks 20 years since the Arditti Quartet recorded that set with Claude Helffer, so that's an awfully long run at being the first recording I'd recommend. In any case, I'm going to explore some other recent Mode releases, which I had largely ignored, and restructure that listing soon. I'll note it here when it's done, and hopefully if there's anything important that I've missed, someone will let me know. I do definitely feel more engaged with this music as of this month.

One thing I'm also realizing is that I've taken an easier road with Scelsi, because I have not set to highlight a handful of "essential" recordings for someone interested in his music. Rather, I just have the complete discography and some historical writeups I did about specific works. It is probably time to name my favorite Scelsi recordings also, so I'll likewise be preparing that and note it here. (Most recent addition would be the viola disc on Mode.) Then, sigh, I'll have to update it whenever needed.

This leads me back to another obvious activity that I'd been pondering anyway: I should probably write a structured listing of my favorite jazz recordings. Besides this rambling collection of thoughts (and the good thing is that it highlights recent impressions and interests, without having to revise a document per se), I have only the flat listing of recordings, in alphabetical order by label, which isn't terribly informative. What isn't so clear is how I'd want to structure a listing of favorites, so that is going to take some more thought.

31 October 2011

As something of an aside, I received a couple of new Criss Cross releases. In part because of his playing with Tyshawn Sorey, I wanted to listen to pianist John Escreet's (b.1984) album Exception to the Rule. The liner notes even mention that it's something of a departure for Criss Cross, and it features a fair amount of electronic soundscaping from David Binney, as well as some interesting metrical structures from Escreet. There are some strong parts, such as the opening title track, along with some more repetitive or stereotypical sections.

I was particularly excited to hear Introducing Opus 5, thinking perhaps it was a move by some prominent Criss Cross artists toward more of a collective improvisation mindset away from more staid jazz formats. Instead, it's basically just the opposite, practically an "easy listening" album (until the last track, at least) from some performers I've enjoyed elsewhere, and doesn't even include music composed by Blake or Sipiagin. I guess I should try to hear the preview tracks online more often.

1 November 2011

In the spirit of 10/20's discussion on fusion music, I've now had a chance to hear Inana by Amir ElSaffar. As noted, it's hard to fashion a truly rich combination of musical styles, and I often enjoy the idea of fusion more than the result. Still, I want to be as fair and constructive as I can be about these efforts, because I do think they're worthwhile.

I did not find Inana to be very engaging. The structure of the program, musical forms, and actual playing most of the time are straight out of the Middle Eastern tradition. (I won't say Iraqi specifically, and I don't know ElSaffar's specific background other than that it's Iraqi, which could mean a variety of cultures. The narrative of the Suite is taken from Sumerian legend. The overall structure, as well as the reliance on Rast and Segah, is more evocative of across the border in Iran, but that might be irrelevant.) It comes off, primarily, as an album to acquaint jazz listeners with Middle Eastern music. I cannot really speak to how well it does that. However, a couple of other things must be noted. First of all, ElSaffar is very adept at playing the trumpet with microtonal shadings. He's so good at it, it's understated and easy to ignore. His technique on trumpet definitely deserves a listen. Also, there are some times in the program, particularly in the counterpoint of Infinite Variety that he grapples more with the Western musical tradition. When he does this, the ideas are interesting and coherent. I would like to see an entire album devoted to this style. The other thing to note, I guess, is that the Western instruments in the ensemble fit rather readily into the Middle Eastern styles and forms. This is also a credit to the musicians involved, even if it doesn't make for particularly thought-provoking music.

3 November 2011

It turns out the cello disc by Arne Deforce did not represent a huge "tip of the iceberg" performance practice situation that required radical rethinking of my Xenakis selections (his recording is simply superb of its own). However, I did revise my Xenakis page, as promised. I reordered the listings, made some different comments, added a supplementary page, and did indeed add a couple of items from Mode's Xenakis Edition. Neither is revelatory, but both are worth listing in such a selective listing (currently six items).

In this space, I wanted to further discuss an item I did not add to the page, the Percussion Works on 3 CDs. I had heard most of these works before, some in multiple renditions, but the idea of collecting them together had a definite appeal, and in the wake of enjoying so much jazz percussion, I was expecting to have a new appreciation for Xenakis' percussion works. Although the liner notes (of course) argue for its stature, and one can certainly appraise it entirely due to the quantity of his output, I do not find that Xenakis' mathematical approach discovered much in the realm of percussion. There starts to be an element of sophistication in e.g. the late solo work Rebonds, but for the most part, Xenakis' music is stuck in a linear-scientific concept of time.

Whereas such a concept serves his explorations well in e.g. music for strings, with its carefully notated glissandi, it does not really handle multiple layers of temporal flow, and especially not the kind of restructuring of time that I find so compelling in some jazz performances. Xenakis' sense of time remains fundamentally linear, with polyrhythms resolving themselves into the overall concept, and pieces ending with points of stasis — uniting in one flow of time. This is in sharp distinction not only to the idea of restructuring time (completely outside the Western scientific concept as well), but to temporal independence, or one might say the broader independence of human acts & interactions. For as much as Xenakis sought to go beyond earlier human ideas on sound & musical expression, to start from scratch and develop sound from its elements, we see his concept of rhythm (as exemplified so purely in percussion) hidebound to a singular articulation of time. Interesting, no?

14 November 2011

Some readers might remember I mentioned exploring flute players in jazz, and that discussion will likely continue. At a similar time, I wanted to hear trombone players also. That led me to Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser (b.1981), although I've taken some time to write this entry, largely because of the pace at which he has been releasing recordings. Before discussing Blaser's music, I did also want to note that these two interests spring in part from Henry Threadgill's 2009 release, where both flute & trombone (and electric guitar & tuba) are featured on some tracks. Threadgill's sense of ensemble (constitution) is very impressive, but I digress.

In looking at contemporary trombone leader recordings, and clearly the trombone has a much deeper history back to the early days of jazz than the flute, one of the first I encountered was Pieces of Old Sky (recorded in 2008) from the Clean Feed catalog, by the Samuel Blaser Quartet. This album, including Tyshawn Sorey & Thomas Morgan & Todd Neufeld on guitar, is appealing. It's dominated by the opening title piece, something of a suite, which starts slowly, and then has some contrasting tracks later. Without Blaser's more recent material, I might have ended up listing this album here, but it comes off relatively stiff, particularly in the way the ensemble interacts, in comparison. The material is also a little slow-moving at times.

In looking at Blaser's discography, as prompted by the Clean Feed release, I saw Consort in Motion before I heard Pieces of Old Sky. Consort in Motion consists of jazz interpretations, or in some cases recompositions, of early Italian baroque music. I did not want to dive into that style of fusion, given the other orientations here, before hearing Blaser elsewhere, so opted to hear Pieces of Old Sky first. However, Consort in Motion turns out to be a superb album. It features music of Monteverdi mostly, but also a track by Frescobaldi and a couple by Marini (whom I've perhaps featured disproportionately in my favorites elsewhere). Brass was an ascendant instrument group at the time, and Blaser's arrangements are very insightful and satisfying, oriented strongly around his trombone playing. Consort in Motion is a more thoroughly satisfying album than I expected, and I'm kind of amused by Blaser's remark that it was more effort than he anticipated, or even that he didn't think of combining his interest in early music with jazz before being prompted. (I'll just note, tangentially, that I've been agitating for some Ars Subtilior improvisatory fusion for years.) Consort in Motion is not a very challenging album, concentrating on tunes, but it's not totally straightforward either. Dodecaphonic piano riffs spun off 400 year-old tunes is a welcome juxtaposition for me, for instance. It comes off as very polished.

After Consort in Motion, both from 2011, comes Boundless. Boundless is not early music fusion, nor does it have the more regimented structure of Pieces of Old Sky. Rather this is an inspired group improvisation album, recorded on a European tour. Gerald Cleaver (b.1963) has appeared on many interesting albums, but this is the second I've included here (after Spiritual Lover), and his percussion always adds interesting insight & accent. Here the guitarist is Marc Ducret, also mentioned previously, and the bass player is Bänz Oester. Oester was previously unknown to me, but adds tangibly to the album with some innovative bass lines, and also completes a 3-part Swiss slant to the production, with Blaser and the Hat Hut label itself. If I understand the discussion correctly, the material on Boundless began as different compositions, but eventually fused into a general suite with unclear boundaries. The track markers don't seem to mean much, although if I have a criticism, it's that the music is too episodic, with different players or combinations dominating for long periods. Regardless, Boundless is very engaging and supports repeat hearings, with a great balance between material and improvisation, and a superbly tuned-in group interaction. This is a significant development over Blaser's debut album, 7th Heaven (recorded in 2006), which shows impressive trombone technique and not much else. It's good I didn't hear that album first, because I did not get much out of it. It's amazing how far his conception has come in only a few years.

Another thing to note, I suppose, is that so far I've only found one trombone leader putting out material that truly appeals. Although there are other good players out there, such as Ray Anderson on the recent The Other Parade (an album with good points, but too much about soloing in turn), and of course the long history of trombone out of New Orleans, I haven't found too much of deep personal resonance. In some ways, whereas the trombone's ability to slide notes is a great strength, it requires a legato emphasis that doesn't necessarily mix readily with contemporary jazz styles (and apparently suggests electronic manipulations to many players). This issue is solved by Blaser (and Threadgill) by the way contrasting instruments are deployed, retaining an analog emphasis. In any event, the only thing that prevents me from being even more enthusiastic about Boundless, other than the linear-episodic temporal format, is the sense that more will soon follow, and indeed another release on Hat Hut is announced explicitly for the next few months. I was already waiting to hear Boundless before writing this entry, so it's time to stop waiting and get this written, even if Blaser's music is evolving fast.

15 November 2011

I've now written the promised list of "essential" Scelsi recordings.

I'm not feeling anything else I really want to share here right now, other than to note that it's done.

21 November 2011

Some more comments while I ponder how I want to do a "Best of 2011" writeup here....

The latest from Jason Adasiewicz's trio (called "Sun Rooms" after their first album) is Spacer, recorded in May this year. I discussed Sun Rooms in June. The basic summary is, although I find Adasiewicz's style on the vibraphone to be creative & interesting, there wasn't a huge amount of material on the album. Spacer is a bit longer, and features all original material, so that aspect has been answered to an extent. Still, while I find the vibraphone playing interesting — and it continues to be creative, with some new ornament styles, some evocative of East Asian music, presumably done with hand damping — the overall resources of the trio don't provide enough action for me. The music is pleasant, but not compelling. Maybe that's my own failure, but whereas the basic idea of a vibraphone trio with bass & drums is appealing in its way, the vibes just don't have the capacity of a piano or guitar (prove me wrong), and the combination feels lacking. Although their album is also fairly straightforward — and I'll say more on this later — the Starlicker Trio with Rob Mazurek on cornet comes together better for me.

Continuing to explore some combinations in this sound world led me in part to trumpeter Darren Johnston's new album, The Big Lift. Johnston is a Bay Area musician, so local to me, and this album finds him playing with musicians in Chicago, including Adasiewicz & Nate McBride from Sun Rooms. The Chicago style in the rhythm section is quite evident, and it combines nicely with Johnston's style on trumpet, as well as trombone and drums. This album definitely has appealing moments, and projects a continued sense of searching from these musicians in developing a new style. Frankly, I'm a little confused how San Francisco has practically become a suburb of Chicago in jazz terms, but unfortunately there isn't enough support for creative jazz musicians here. I first noticed Johnston in the Clean Feed catalog.

6 December 2011

A recent release to catch my attention was Sketches & Ballads, a single 36 minute composition & improvisatory framework written by Swiss drummer Michael Wertmüller (b.1969) and appearing on the Austrian label Trost. The musicians are centered around the Full Blast trio which features legendary German reed player Peter Brötzmann together with Wertmüller and Marino Pliakas on electric bass. Joining them for this live recording at the Donaueschingen Musiktage in 2010 are renowned Chicago reed improviser Ken Vandermark, German quarter-tone trumpet player Thomas Heberer (featured in this space in September), and timpani player Dirk Rothbrust. This is a particularly formidable lineup of wind improvisers, which attracted me to the recording (which I saw first listed at Jazz Loft). Wertmüller's composition is at times very frenetic, but also leaves large spaces for open soloing by the winds. It's a high energy performance as per the reputation of Brötzmann and Full Blast, but also features extended lighter passages. Indeed, one can hear the rhythmic scheme create this extended space in a technical way.

Wertmüller's recent recordings revolve around Full Blast, but also with German guitarist Olaf Rupp. The two recent releases by those two performers, the second including Pliakas, are The Specter of Genius & Too Much is not Enough, both from 2009. Wertmüller's style is perhaps more immediately apparent in these recordings, with their many shorter tracks and usual density. Rupp describes his style as a form of sonic pointillism, with dense individual notes creating an image of something behind the literal music. Likewise, Wertmüller's composition technique involves computer notation of very detailed rhythms which are basically the impression of an underlying music object. Sketches & Ballads is notated at times to 256th notes, and was tentatively subtitled as being in "equal-tempered time," an apt turn of phrase for approximating by powers of two. In keeping with this sense of time, and the actual sound representing something behind it, Wertmüller also performs e.g. the mathematical percussion music of Xenakis. Although with a definite German slant, Sketches & Ballads comes off firmly as a jazz record through the sounds of its wind improvisers. If anything, one wishes for a middle ground between the wide open spaces they're given at times, and the intense & detailed sonic activity with Rupp. In any case, there is no doubt that Wertmüller is creating a distinctive musical vision.

12 December 2011

In keeping with a recent theme of German-speaking performers, and following up on my admiration for Polylemma expressed in September, I've had a chance to hear the piano trio Tørn's album Crespect, also featuring drummer Joe Hertenstein. I did not know this recording existed until Joe pointed it out to me in response to my earlier discussion of Polylemma. It's been available for download for a while, and I'm told there will be a stock of physical copies in the US soon at Downtown Music Gallery. In any case, Crespect was recorded sometime in 2009, a year or so prior to Polylemma, but after HNH, and includes Austrians Achim Tang (b.1958) on bass and Philip Zoubek (b.1978) on piano. Although Polylemma creates a more strikingly original sound world, Crespect (which is also one of the compositions on Polylemma) tackles the classic piano trio format in a both creative & immediately appealing way.

With its use of atonal techniques, and the way it balances creative contributions from drums & bass, Crespect reminds me a lot of Kris Davis's Good Citizen, one of my favorites (also recorded in 2009). In fact, Tørn's concluding treatment of Carla Bley's 1964 classic And Now, the Queen is so evocative of Kris Davis's trio in Skinner Box, that I've reflexively expected to hear the chirpy opening tune to Davis's B Side at the end of Crespect. Another comparison might be with Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House, because of the shorter, more gestural items interspersed with more substantive tracks (although many albums do nominally that). On Crespect, this is also where we hear more of the extended techniques, such as balancing muted piano preparations (with bowing?) against brushes on the drums. Like Polylemma, there's a definite sense of blending & shifting of role that I find appealing. This fits with the semantic, conversational quality of the music which readily engages me in the performers' musical ideas. That sort of conversational engagement is clearly one thread running through the albums that have attracted my continued attention. Altogether, this is a stimulating release, not quite like anything else despite some notable similarities, and music I've found readily enjoyable.

Bassist Pascal Niggenkemper from Polylemma also released a piano trio this year, on the Lithuanian No Business label, Upcoming Hurricane featuring Simon Nabatov & Gerald Cleaver. This is a more freely improvisatory album, with an often ferocious performance by Nabatov spurred by Niggenkemper and accented by Cleaver. I've actually enjoyed more of Nabatov's playing here than in his own albums from this year. Although Niggenkemper has his share of solos, the roles on this album seem fairly static. The title does fit well.

This is also an opportunity to mention that I've created a favorites list to index the recordings I particularly enjoy, by year of release, instead of sticking with the old alphabetical listing. I've also decided what I'm going to do about looking back at the year 2011: Instead of writing something else to discuss my favorite releases of 2011, I'm going to write additional discussions of only a few. These are not necessarily my very favorites, but rather releases from earlier in the year where I believe I have something new & concrete to discuss now. Hopefully that will be more worthwhile.

14 December 2011

I've already mentioned a desire to say more about Rob Mazurek's Double Demon album, and so I'll start from there in a series of remarks about some releases from earlier in 2011.

Although I have no direct knowledge of Mazurek's inspiration(s) surrounding the album, I do know he was excited by the new sound and proceeded to perform urgently with this trio before recording. The obvious touchstone for me is Steve Lehman's octet album Travail, Transformation, and Flow. Not only is the vibraphone sound prominent in both, but the way overtones are matched between instruments is similar. In Lehman's case, this is explicitly about spectral music, and timbral relationships, although practically speaking it involves matching overtone series and decay between instruments, and letting that drive much of the music. Mazurek likewise takes the "top down" approach to structure in Double Demon. Both of these albums basically turn jazz on its head, in terms of not only not following a bass line, but dictating it from the upper ranges.

Travail, Transformation, and Flow often has a pensive quality, in part because of the size of the ensemble. I don't know what Steve Lehman and/or Pi Recordings mean by "fully realized" as a qualification on spectral music, but Lehman's music does have a broad series of overtone interactions between the instruments, including intricate combinations in the middle ranges. The music could be represented as a "tree" structure with more branches coming from more combinations down through the pitch scale (as opposed to upward from the bass). Double Demon is a trio so doesn't have as many branches, but keeps the same top down approach. (A trio contains 3 pairs; an octet contains 28 possible pairs, combinatorially.) In this case, Mazurek's music calls for a more aggressive drummer with more rock influences. In Lehman's music, the "rhythm section" (so to speak) is fairly diffuse with all the branching, and the drummer (Tyshawn Sorey) is consequently dealing with a lot of threads.

That said, and Lehman's album still stands as something of a monument in terms of (lack of) followup efforts, Double Demon is much more direct in illustrating some similar musical ideas. It has a strong sweep, and also builds on a sense of time & especially ensemble based upon overtone/timbral combinations and decay. Mazurek has really trimmed things down to the key elements in that sense, while also keeping a very personal style, including some Brazilian influences in the melodies. It's a very "clean" album in terms of conception. (And I should note that Lehman's last track has a simplicity to it as well, but of a different sort.)

One possible flipside of these explorations is Denman Maroney's work with "undertone" series, summarized in Udentity. There we hear overtone series combinations based on additive math below the bass, in what is additionally a system of rhythmic layering. Whereas Mazurek is effectively letting the top line dictate much of the music under it in Double Demon, Udentity uses an implied sub-bass to structure the music above it. In that sense, it can be heard as an intensification of jazz driven by a bass line, to the point that rhythm is driven as well. Although Lehman & Sorey do present credible ideas on a drum line being driven by timbral interactions above it, Mazurek often lets his drummer (John Herndon) simply double his cornet phrasing, leaving the question of actually driving a rhythmic sequence from high-note timbral interactions for another day.

20 December 2011

The featured release for Clean Feed in their end-of-year batch is Frog Leg Logic by Marty Ehrlich's Rites Quartet. There is some good material, and I definitely like the high-energy opening title track. Some of the material doesn't really do a lot for me, though, and this is a release with all of Ehrlich's own music, as opposed to his previous Things Have Got To Change album which featured Julius Hemphill compositions. These are fine musicians, though, with interesting personal styles. I was particularly taken by Hank Roberts (b.1954) on cello, and the variety of sounds & styles he plays on the album; it's not just novelty, but techniques based on a variety of world string styles. Michael Sarin, who I otherwise know from some great work with Denman Maroney, is also good on drums. Ehrlich (b.1955) and the trumpeter, James Zollar, are also excellent horn players with their own styles. I am probably being overly critical in comparison with the very original albums coming out in the same batch of releases, particularly comparing to some of the older albums I still have listed on my favorites, perhaps because of inertia, because I do enjoy the sound of this quartet. I'm just not feeling like most of the songs are speaking to me. For an album dealing mainly with traditional jazz forms, that seems important.

Holiday traveling and family activities have me backed up a little on writing here, so some other material will be appearing very soon, including more detailed discussions of Fremdenzimmer & Bird Dies from the same batch of Clean Feed releases.

27 December 2011

Although it's very original, even radical, Bird Dies is actually a fairly easy album to discuss. As a first impression at least, it's hard on the ears, but ultimately straightforward to analyze. That said, this is my own impression, and I don't have any actual statements from the performers or anyone else to indicate that I'm hearing it the way they're conceiving it. The challenge in discussing Bird Dies at the moment is more that I haven't completed a discussion of Morton Feldman's music yet. After being asked to write such a discussion 20 years ago, that will finally happen (after I have time to audition more of the available recordings). I had remarked in this space earlier that I wasn't finding the slow & quiet of Feldman very compatible with my life today, but I'm going to have to retract that. In any case, "slow & quiet" is certainly not an issue for Bird Dies, and I'll be alluding to a not-quite-written discussion of Feldman by way of comparison on other significant points.

The trio on Bird Dies, consisting of French alto sax player Jean Luc Guionnet (b.1966) and Australians Will Guthrie & Clayton Thomas on drums & bass, calls itself The Ames Room. I knew nothing of any of these performers prior to hearing this release, although apparently they released an LP in 2009 (and what is the point of these LP-only releases?). I also did not know the term Ames Room before this, although I'd seen them, as well as related effects. You can easily find the description yourself, but the main point is that it involves tricking the visual sense via three-dimensional structural distortions. The three-dimensional aspect is significant here, and I think very significant to Feldman as well. Although his carpet analogies have something of a 2d suggestion to them, the third dimension is very important to this conception, with aspects of sound moving to the foreground or background as part of the way the basic sonic figure changes. Feldman's achievement in this area goes beyond varying harmonic or rhythmic patterns over a long span. He manages to make each statement of the basic sonic figure in his mature music seem temporally independent — the so-called "floating" idea one sometimes finds in descriptions of Feldman's music. This is accomplished technically with frequent changes in time signature. The basic effect then is of a sonic figure slowly varying with time, with each statement seeming independent. The figure changes in the way its intervals are arranged, the way its rhythms are arranged, or in attack & articulation between instruments. The latter has a strong effect on the feeling of a 3d figure, in the way that articulation by different instruments might be simultaneous or one right before the other or vice versa, etc. This feature also creates timbral variation in the composite sound.

So with that orientation, the music in Bird Dies — which is one long track without pauses — fits exactly this description. I said nothing about slow or quiet in the previous paragraph, as would also fit Feldman's sonic figures. In the case of The Ames Room, they are fast and loud: Pounding drums, screeching saxophone, bass... varying a figure in exactly this way, rapidly. This sort of thing requires great precision, and so doing it at speed is obviously a challenge, one which the trio passes admirably. The idea of varying a sonic figure would also seem to fit into the realm of jazz very well, from the moment Feldman put together his mature style. After all, he was not really doing it systematically, but with a bit of a capricious character and a refusal to stick with perfect symmetries. Improvisation fits this idea exactly — one can think of Feldman's late works as written-out improvisations, in sort of the opposite way that Scelsi's are. Altogether, Bird Dies creates something of a canonical impression, with the sonorities of a jazz saxophone trio. As opposed to some other recent releases featured here, Bird Dies expresses a non-semantic music, also in the sense originating with Feldman (meaning, in part, that it doesn't go anywhere in particular, e.g. no harmonic or rhythmic resolution). Where does one go from something canonical like this? Obviously Feldman continued with his style, using different sonic figures, largely determined by his choice of instruments. That's not something a group of performers can do so readily, so we'll see. (I see upon editing this piece and adding links that they term the style minimalist-maximalist, which makes sense, and doesn't explicitly wed them to non-semantic music.)

Bird Dies makes a relentless impression, in some ways analogous to Michael Wertmüller's work as discussed a couple of weeks ago, but in a fundamentally different way, since it's not trying to indicate anything beyond the sonic surface itself. Another obvious point of comparison is classic avant garde jazz performers who put out similarly energetic single-track albums, such as Cecil Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams. One thing about Taylor and Abrams is they keep a constant pulse; indeed it's an impressive technical aspect of their musicianship. However, it gives their music a two-dimensional character, in the sense I described earlier, whereas Feldman and The Ames Room are very consciously setting their evolving sonic forms in different time streams. Thinking of a modern/postmodern dynamic, one natural question is whether this style can develop a semantic component over time, or if that's even necessary or desirable. The title is surely a denial of the bebop language, invoking this anti-semantic stance. For the moment, it's a rather distinctive & original direction.

29 December 2011

I've had it on my mind to revisit the Daniel Levin Quartet's Organic Modernism album for a while now. It's the earliest release on my 2011 favorites listing, so this discussion is a perfect way to recap the year. My delay isn't about a lack of things to say about Organic Modernism, but rather a lot more to say about the title itself and its implications in aesthetics & philosophy. These implications are clearly tied up in Levin's choice of title, and also in significant aspects of his ensemble approach, but they're also part of broader trends, both as representative of 2011 and as a genre-crossing thread in & out of the past several decades. I don't know what to make of Art Lange's choice to consult a dictionary over aesthetics & history in his liner notes, but I do know there's quite a bit more to say about this topic.

The term "organic modernism" itself first appears in architecture, at least by the 1950s, and already partly in a retroactive sense. It continues to exist most prominently today in the realm of furniture, and one finds both of these associations clearly on the Daniel Levin Quartet's album — obliquely with the cover, and explicitly in the track Furniture as Sculpture. Note that the cover already substitutes a more 21st century architectural conception for the 1950s style, with its use of greenery, roots, corncob, etc. This is our current concept of organic out of the Green movement and environmentalism, something that's obviously going to have major implications on architectural trends. Coopting this older term for a newer style seems justified simply by how well it fits, although it invites confusion. Where it does reflect a similar process is in the continuing tension between modernism & postmodernism.

Let me back up on this point, and try to bring the music explicitly into this discussion. A major impetus of postmodernism is in deconstruction, not only in a refusal to follow tradition for the sake of tradition, but in a deep questioning of the power structures of existing social relations. One must essentially sweep history aside in order to remove inherited inequity, yet any naïve dismissal of history easily affirms some of its more insidious aspects. So deconstruction requires very careful & close examination of all the threads involved in a particular expression. Now I need to fast forward a bit on this point. The Daniel Levin Quartet is not rethinking and deconstructing everything about music. In particular, they are not addressing (to my knowledge) its social context at all. Theirs is music of a traditional concert format... I don't mean traditional music, but a traditional concert... the standard conception of musician & audience... stage, timing, etc. This brings with it tremendous historical baggage, but on to the fast forward.... Daniel Levin has deconstructed the traditional jazz ensemble, started with a new & original group of instruments, and let them evolve their own sound organically... organic modernism.

Modernism is tied to ideas from science, ideas about solving problems. It's a basic statement in art about creating something that fits specific criteria. So in Organic Modernism, one finds a group of performers who have deconstructed the jazz ensemble in order to reform it organically and fit into a modernist problem of the concert stage. E.g. Xenakis was engaged in a similar program, as far as that goes. He threw out (some) traditional structures of music, and investigated melody & harmony & rhythm mathematically, in an attempt to create sound structures outside of the realm of human tradition. (This sort of attempt to remove human whim from the field of music composition was representative of its time, with various composers — most canonically, Cage — adopting techniques or randomness, etc.) Of course, this sort of removal of self is easier said than done, and I've already discussed Xenakis' scientific-linear concept of time, which is very human. We can go on to describe Xenakis' late "intuitive" music as a reconstruction of musical style around these new experimentally derived structures — of course, with an explicit human element in his choices as the composer. This is, in part, why Xenakis is ultimately & emphatically a modernist. The Daniel Levin Quartet is performing this kind of act quite explicitly with the injection of themselves into the act of performance & improvisation. In fact, that they project a strongly human element is one of their principle strengths as performers.

Organic Modernism is their sixth album, developed over eight or so years, and so presents something of the "results" of experimentation with sound & ensemble interaction. This impression, at least as a preconception, is intensified as Organic Modernism is a studio album following two previous live albums. With Live at Roulette (recorded in 2008), the quartet documents a fully improvised concert, taking another step from the material Levin had written, although Bacalhau (2009, and featuring a really fine live & spontaneous synthesis with the audience) is again mostly based on written material. Organic Modernism (2010) is about half & half. I heard Organic Modernism first, so this is a very retroactive impression, but I come away feeling as though there could have been a greater development of style over these two previous live albums. I still enjoy it, obviously enough to have sought out much of Levin's other work, as well as to write this long discussion almost a year later, but it seems a bit stylistically stagnant. Levin has also been recording with various other performers since Organic Modernism appeared, and perhaps that's related. There's a sense that even in their most improvised moments, the quartet is still very much tied to the gestures of New York City jazz — for better or worse — that postmodern deconstruction was never really completed before a re-synthesis started. Actually, I should temper that comment quite a bit, because there is clearly some development of style to Organic Modernism. I'm probably just impatient, and would like to hear take-offs on their more adventurous moments. Also, rereading these paragraphs, I find I can't shake the notion of holding these performers personally responsible for such an ambitious title! Clearly that is unfair.

To return to the implications of the title, both in this album and beyond, in a sense, organic music is fusion music. It's reacting to everything around oneself, not following a particular style a priori. Organic Modernism contains another directly relevant track title Kaleidoscope, which is an analogy I used in the late 1990s to discuss multi-style synthesis. The implication is a structural integration of differing styles, each retaining its individual brilliance, as opposed to a mixture (no unalloyed individual style) or collage (no structure — and the standard postmodern visual analogy). That's a particular vision of post-postmodernism, which in turn is modernist — system building & form. In any case, a basic question around the postmodern aspect (step?) in this is whether history or form have truly been discarded, or to what extent. Discarding the past leaves us open to new kinds of consciousness & creation, ideally hearing anew. Various musicians have attempted various ways to discard history & form, followed by various kinds of re-coalescence, which essentially invoke a postmodernist-modernist dynamic. Discarding is a mild term, and so one might reasonably express blasting history away, an idea particularly relevant in the social arena. Aligned with the Green movement "organic modernism" suggests system-building to use the world's resources in an intelligent way, not "because that's how we've been doing it." Improvised music, likewise, deals with that same basic problem — even when adopting postmodern ideas. Those ideas, and I think perhaps it is inadvisable to use the term "postmodern techniques," are available building blocks for a modernist system. Once established, they are available that way, regardless of anyone's preferences, and can be used. This leads to the same sort of "where do we go from here?" questions that I asked just now in the discussion of Bird Dies. That's the modernist-postmodernist tension of Organic Modernism, in this case with a modern surface & title; in that case, postmodern.

29 December 2011

The other recent Clean Feed release I want to discuss is Fremdenzimmer by the trio Baloni. Baloni includes bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst (here also on clarinet & tenor sax) from Polylemma, obviously a very influential album for me, as well as new-to-me Frantz Loriot on viola. Fremdenzimmer is a compelling & distinctive album. It makes a striking first impression, and ends up creating its own sound world that continues to be evocative — and even transcendental — upon more acquaintance. Ultimately this album is very surprising to me. Although Niggenkemper & Badenhorst have already appeared on a release of great interest, as well as various other quality projects, the latter have been more traditionally jazzy (or rock, or...), whereas Fremdenzimmer is something remarkably new. Perhaps that is because of Loriot, and I do not know the impetus for forming this trio, if any of these performers was more personally behind it, etc.

My original impression of Fremdenzimmer was that it has a definite Scelsi-esque quality, one that really jumps out in fact from the opening track. This impression was readily confirmed upon reading the liner notes, which include a poetic line by Scelsi in a broadly poetic discussion by Jean Jacques Triby. That this is not really Scelsi's sound world emerges particularly with repeated hearings, to where some sections do sound alien to his conception — and I'll translate Fremdenzimmer as Alien Room. This style of music — no drumkit, a trio with everyone emphasizing melody, or what passes for melody — strains association with jazz. That's not a statement about its merit, certainly, but it does leave me questioning what — if any — boundaries I have for this particular space. That said, clearly Fremdenzimmer remains inside them, because here it is.

As opposed to The Ames Room, the Alien Room is not about the structural distortion of three-dimensional space. It's more about something in the atmosphere, perhaps a strange fog that creates a new sense of touch and induces refraction. It brings up fear & disquiet says Triby. That's not my impression, but it does project a sense of emergent time, and so one can ask, emergent from where? A scary place? Is it something for which the listener is prepared? For Scelsi, such a thing was a liminal message from another realm... with that same free-flowing, emergent sense of time. Besides the sense of time, the most immediately Scelsian aspect of the music is the way the instruments unite seemingly into one sound or one voice, and of course the way they slur pitch. However, whereas Scelsi's music has a sort of relentless unity in that sense, so that even when it goes beyond a single pitch, even an orchestra often sounds like one large alien voice, Baloni come into and out of a unity of sound. It's when they are in conversation that they're at their least Scelsian. I should also add that unity of sound isn't always about a continuous sound, although that's specifically evocative of Scelsi. It can work with discrete or rhythmic sounds too, when the instruments are doing (in some sense) the same thing, and I believe an emergent sense of time can be taken from e.g. Het Kruipt In Je Oren, although there the comparison with Sciarrino in the liner notes seems most appropriate, with the more discrete sonorities. Although the comparison with Sciarrino is apt in sonority, his music has a much stricter sense of time, something inside which the music operates and not just floating out there waiting to be revealed.

Whereas Bird Dies has something of a singular quality, Fremdenzimmer is a(nother) world of possibilities. How does it create this "emergent" sense of time? Slowly changing pitches and coming into & out of a unity of sound are two big factors, but there is also the fundamental unmeasured quality of the music and the performers listening closely to each other, as they spontaneously create a sense of time from the pitch materials of a piece. As with Scelsi's music, that sort of spontaneity can be very powerful, where a rhythmic structure seems to emerge suddenly out of undifferentiated fog. That's how this music develops its transcendent quality as well... listening from one perspective and suddenly finding oneself somewhere else. The different tracks on the album build nicely in this sense, not so much that they take a linear journey, but rather in the different sound worlds they create and the different mental shifts they invoke. Disorientation is a reason some listeners are made uncomfortable, even physically so, by Scelsi's music, and there the disorientation arises mainly from one main pitch transforming into another. Fremdenzimmer has a sense of drama in that sense, both in its organization of time and in its varying of pitch relationships between tracks, so that the disorientation comes at the listener from different directions. I hear a lot of potential in this style, both in sonic terms and in the way it serves to undermine mental rigidity. With more familiarity, there is some comfort there, which I don't take to be a comfort in madness (cf. The Madness of Crowds), but rather a legitimization of different modes of thought.

3 January 2012

Ending the previous entry with a mention of Ingrid Laubrock's The Madness of Crowds makes a natural touchstone for the next pair of recordings I want to discuss. In retrospect, it would have been obvious to listen to In Just, by the DuH quartet formed by German drummer Martin Blume, as it was released on Red Toucan records at the same time as Polylemma, but I did not do that originally, since I didn't really know the performers. Subsequently, in hearing Crespect, I checked out the other performers in the trio Tørn elsewhere, and it turns out pianist Philip Zoubek plays with Blume & Frank Gratkowski in the quintet Shift, including on Songs from Aipotu, released this year by Leo Records. I subsequently sought out In Just, which also includes Hungarian string players Albert Márkos (cello) and Szilárd Mezei (viola, b.1974).

With that framing out of the way, Songs from Aipotu evokes a soundworld fairly reminiscent of The Madness of Crowds, although Songs from Aipotu opens with a nearly 40-minute track called Introduction, and is much less distinct in its sections, even meandering (with lots of electronics at times). It's enjoyable enough music, if a bit slow- or monolithically developing in spots (even when loud), and prompted an interest in In Just. Although released in 2011, Songs from Aipotu was recorded in 2008 & 2009. In Just was recorded in one session in May 2010, and is more focused. It's also an improvised first concert of a group that has subsequently toured, so a later recording would be of interest. The entire ensemble takes on a percussive character at times, between Blume using alternate percussion, plucking from the strings, and even a percussive aspect to the short reed sounds. Indeed the chirps & squeaks & pops of the electronic keyboard in Songs from Aipotu seem to be reflected to a degree on In Just, but with acoustic instruments.

One could easily ask why I'm more struck by similar sounds coming from acoustic instruments, or perhaps even more to the point, why I'm more struck by a more focused set of sounds than a broader canvas with more activity. On the latter, sometimes more activity simply doesn't add anything to the musical flow or logic... it's just more activity. I'm attracted to more succinct expression, one might say, not just in terms of duration, but in terms of resources. If more resources are going to be involved, I want to hear a compelling reason. And let's face it, the recording medium has audio limits in this regard, in terms of shifting the focus of one's ear between different instruments and in terms of spatial layout, etc. So there is partly a matter of personal preference at play here, and partly a matter of technology. I also tend to prefer a variety of tracks: Particularly for improvisatory music, more starting places mean more directions and a greater span of illumination for the concepts of the album. There are exceptions, of course, where a particular long track is the perfect exposition of a style. As far as an acoustic preference, if one is using an electronic keyboard that will make literally any sound there is, that's a rather large increase in resources, and similar logic can apply. And likewise, sometimes electronics simply work perfectly.

So that's a fairly broad explanation of why I find In Just more appealing than Songs from Aipotu. In Just is a fully improvised album showing very close listening between the performers, as in Fremdenzimmer. The result is an almost ephemeral interplay of ideas, often built around pizzicato with a lot of space and quiet. The music is coloristic, atomistic; it's not built around an extended interplay of sentences, but more of a pointillist canvas. Very short musical ideas pass very quickly between the players. The resulting sounds & textures are quite interesting, and the music does yield to some sense of direction. It's a bit like a classic reed-bass-drum trio, but with an expanded string part on viola & cello instead of bass, and all players often in the same register. Gratkowski is a well-known reed player, with many albums often in a more straightforward free improvisation mode. I knew absolutely nothing of Mezei prior to this, but it turns out he also has a large number of albums, most in a more "classical" setting performing his compositions, which often revolve around folk song. It's difficult to imagine anything more opposite here, but Mezei is (I think! as all the performers are using rather similar sounds at times) the player most often grabbing my attention. Blume is noted for his coloristic drumming, but there's also a definite organizational sense at play in this album. Finally, one aspect of Polylemma deserves reiteration at this point, in contrast to In Just. As opposed to some of these other European ensembles I've been discussing lately, Polylemma includes a distinct (although not persistent) New York jazz feel. That element of crossover is definitely one of its charms, whereas In Just is more novel and doesn't necessarily suggest a broader area of development.

6 January 2012

I'm excited to have had the opportunity to interview drummer Joe Hertenstein, and the transcript is now available to read here. The interview includes specific details about his albums and background, as well as more general thoughts about music & art.

17 January 2012

Waiting until I have some more substantive thoughts ready to articulate here, I do have some brief thoughts on a couple of recent releases on the Motéma label. (This was the same label on which I had enjoyed Ryan Cohen's Another Look when I first started this page.)

Anyway, The 11th Gate features a trombone-organ-drums trio led by English trombonist Dennis Rollins (b.1964). That's not a combination I might have ordinarily sought, but Rollins mixes an R&B & groove orientation with a more sophisticated conception, particularly citing trombone trios formed by Ray Anderson and Nils Wogram in the notes. The result is a studio recording, with young English musicians, that mixes accessibility with a nicely layered polyrhythmic character. It doesn't fit terribly well with the sort of music I've been discussing lately, but it's enjoyable & fresh, and worth a listen if any of this sounds appealing.

Also recently appearing is Threedom, with Jean-Michel Pilc, François Moutin, and Ari Hoenig. I've enjoyed Hoenig's music, and his drumming is appealing on this mostly improvised album recorded in March 2011. There are also a handful of standards in the 18 tracks here. It's an interesting album in the sense of a long-time trio getting back together and pushing each other in a mostly impromptu session. I find Pilc simply too lyrical at times (I guess that would be the positive way to put it) to sustain a lot of interest for the whole program. Of course, doing something really new & interesting in the piano trio format is no easy matter, and this is more of an "update" than a new conception.

30 January 2012

In my interview with Joe Hertenstein, Joe brought Polylemma winning Stef Gijssel's Happy New Ears Award to my attention. I'm not sure what the difference between this and a Record of the Year is, which Stef seems to treat differently, but in any case, there's an intriguing list of recordings there. (And Stef has other worthwhile comments in his reviews at his site. Not too many people do, alas!)

The runner-up album for 2011 is White Sickness by the Italian quartet Scoolptures, and this is quite a thought-provoking album. The basic musical material was developed over three years, based on research by bassist Nicola Negrini (b.1967), and worked out in an improvisational context by the quartet. This album was actually recorded in the same two-day April 2009 session as Scoolptures' first album, Materiale Umano. Although the albums share the same sound world and important elements of musical vocabulary, White Sickness has the greater structural sophistication. It's difficult to imagine a sequel coming out of the same recording sessions that could be more compelling than the original release, but that's exactly the case here. Upon initially hearing White Sickness, prompted by the New Ears list, I found it rather fascinating, and so immediately ordered Materiale Umano. I subsequently held off listening again until I could hear Materiale Umano a number of times, and the two in sequence. With its notable, electronics-based creativity in harmony & timbre, Materiale Umano retains a basically routine structure — call it sentence & paragraph — with repeated lines. The different tracks are named after body parts, with the word "slice" appended (although I do not know what body parts are referred to in all cases, and these are not necessarily literal physical parts), and tend to produce a rather direct & unified mood. My favorite track is the opening Brainslice (probably suggesting that I can be overly cerebral).

With White Sickness, that directness of structure is gone, and the sentences & paragraphs take on a variety of forms, with much less strict repetition. Is this directly motivated by the writings of José Saramago, credited in the liner notes and from whom the title is taken, known for his extremely long sentences & paragraphs? Probably not directly, but the greater variety of musical flow derived from the material makes White Sickness a more appealing album. Regarding the musical material itself, the album begins with a solo by Negrini on bass & metallophones, integrated electronically into something sequentially resembling a single instrument. It's a striking sound. The main point of the research into this music would seem to be its use of electronics, namely in determining an interesting, yet human, way to use them. As I've remarked, electronics give one the option of making literally any sound, so they raise more questions than answers. Here the Italian quartet attempts some answers, coming out of a study of music, psychology, philosophy, etc. What's an interesting & distinctive use of electronics in a group improvisation context that still comes off as human & musical? I don't know that this question was the focus of their inquiry, but it's what sounds through to me in the music, and if so, they have good answers. Personally, where I've been finding electronics most directly compelling musically is in the opportunity for very clear & very high tones [*]. Other instruments have difficulty with clarity in those registers, and clarity gives one the option of keeping musical relationships and their overtone relationships clear, and then modifying them. Scoolptures does not use electronics entirely in this way, also using them to blend sounds as mentioned, and to manipulate other aspects of their interaction in real time (echoes, etc.). The sound can be a bit shocking at first, just in its novelty, presumably hence the relative structural simplicity of Materiale Umano, but it does open up for the listener after more hearings. The activity is not especially dense (medium dense, I suppose), with Antonio Della Marina playing "sine waves" alongside Achille Succi on clarinet & saxophone. The latter often dominates the aural surface of the music, with the electronics coming to the fore more subtly, yet with a lot of power at times. Philippe Garcia on drums pairs with Negrini to form a creative rhythm section that more than holds its own in what is in some ways an almost "traditional" free jazz quartet. (And note that Materiale Umano includes manipulated vocal material by Philippe Garcia, as well as Achille Succi playing shakuhachi — rather distinct from his usually screechy reed emphasis otherwise.) This is an ambitious album (or set of two albums), successfully & enjoyably so. The dedication to Saramago makes for a nice bow on the package.

Speaking of almost-traditional free jazz quartets on the New Ears list, Zomo Hall by the Foton Quartet out of Poland also appears there. This is an appealing album, with a fairly quiet sound & understated fully improvised structure in a traditional sax-trumpet-bass-drums format. There is a bit more trading of material between horns and rhythm section than in early free jazz, but there is something of the same feel, perhaps with a more studied sophistication than the stereotypical ecstatic blowing. The album (dated 2010, but not circulated much if at all before 2011) consists of material from sessions in 2007 & 2008, so it's both the debut for this group, and not terribly new. I definitely found it enjoyable and worth hearing, even if the originality is less emphatic.

[*] I guess I'm starting footnotes here: This situation reminds me of traditional preferences in Carnatic singing, particularly as expressed by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967). The guru of the modern Carnatic concert format, he also verbalized the view that intonation should form something of a metaphorical pyramid, broad at the base and pointed at the top. That is, one could use a broad rumbling vibrato (mixing with percussion, almost) in the lower registers, but needed precise intonation in the high register to align overtones.

7 February 2012

For readers following these pages, the albums Pool School (released in 2010) and Polylemma (released in 2011) have obviously had large effects on my personal explorations and writing here. Also on that short list, at least in the former category, is Pete Robbins' Live in Brooklyn. It's an album stamped with 2010, but that didn't seem to appear until 2011, so has fallen through the cracks a bit. I was originally intending to elaborate in my partial recap of 2011, but eventually opted to wait for Robbins' next release, Transatlantic Quartet Live in Basel. (And a sequel to Pool School is also imminent as I write this opening paragraph.)

With Live in Basel, Robbins returns to a much more open & lyrical style than with Live in Brooklyn, perhaps even more so than his previous release on his own label, Silent Z Live. Although I had at least subconsciously hoped for something that built on the more challenging style of Live in Brooklyn, I've yet to completely swear off lyrical or tonal music in this space, and Live in Basel has its charms. I enjoy Robbins' music, even some of the more sentimental stuff, as well as his approach to ensemble. There is also a bit of faster music in e.g. Hoi Polloi with its setting in sevens, and there is ample opportunity for all the players to provide interesting counterpoint throughout. It's that interesting & individual sense of melodic counterpoint that keeps things engaging, with different players taking the lead at different times.

Live in Brooklyn features a more atomic style, so in that way more similar to some of the other mostly European material I've recently featured here, but very much in its own New York way. Although tracks on that album are all untitled, it would appear with familiarity that the interval material is actually taken from Robbins' compositions that have appeared elsewhere. There's that haunting bit of familiarity to it — and I will discuss "familiarity" in more detail soon — that adds a dimension to the avant garde surface. It's quite a quartet too, with Robbins supported by Nate Wooley & Daniel Levin, as well as Jeff Davis on drums (and it looks like Davis is involved in some other interesting projects set to appear this year). So I guess Live in Brooklyn was a more singular recording, with its very sophisticated fusion of classical & rock influences into an overt jazz sound that develops very quickly within the course of each piece. Live in Brooklyn is almost a condensation or distillation of Robbins' material to that point, with "expert commentary" provided by the other improvisers. In that sense, it's also interesting as a broader concept, perhaps applicable to other more tonal styles.

Turning back to Live in Basel, certainly an easier release to follow, there are also elements of familiarity, explicitly so, with some of the compositions revisited from earlier albums. I believe guitarist Mikkel Ploug is the only performer in the quartet that I had heard previously, but they all do a fine job with this mostly understated music. This was a case where, despite its relatively easygoing simplicity, I found myself enjoying it more the second time around and subsequently. Perhaps that was partly a matter of setting expectations, but it was also because of the obvious time the musicians have had to familiarize themselves with the material.

13 February 2012

Turning to some general thoughts about recordings, thinking both of Joe Hertenstein's remarks about familiarity and the way human memory interacts with Morton Feldman's music, and I've also finally finished my writeup & recommendations for Feldman....

The topic of familiarity also presented itself naturally in my immediately preceding discussion of Pete Robbins' Transatlantic Quartet Live in Basel, but I chose to write that before taking up this thread.

Turning first to Feldman, it's been said that his late works distort memory. They reprise a sound figure over and over, slowly distorting it. Memory is at work in our recognition of the music, but do we truly realize that it's not quite the same sounds? I wrote also that Feldman's music can fit into my everyday life, with its interruptions, by providing an element of familiarity with which to return my attention to the music. But this is familiarity as distinct from sameness.

Joe said that one reason some people don't like newer or more experimental music is that they enjoy familiarity. It's a good observation. Certainly there is an element of comfort (or more) that comes with recognition, and Joe even suggests that familiarity gives people a way to agree — they can agree that something is familiar. One can write an entire music article about the ways a new album or piece of music is familiar, is comparable to earlier albums or pieces of music. (Or write an entire TV show that's nothing but cultural references.) And prospective listeners like to read this kind of thing. It's an indication of what to expect, and in turn an indication of whether they'll enjoy the experience of listening to the new album. Even the most radical experimental effort is similar in its way to the other most radical experimental efforts, by sharing that same attribute, but that's conceptual familiarity and not aural familiarity.

Where I find myself specifically questioning familiarity lately is with recordings of avant garde or experimental music (or whatever we want to call new music that doesn't sound familiar). I listen to these items, and I consider writing something about them, or adding them to a list of recommendations, or what-have-you. I do this kind of compulsively, I guess, because over the years I sort... I sort into things I want to hear more, and things I don't (or more often, I don't care). Sometimes they bore me. Or more to the point here, it can be something that was once sounding new, but now sounds familiar — so familiarity can breed contempt, as the saying goes. If I'm listening to a new recording, and again this is very much a recording-based phenomenon, because I can listen to the recording over & over, and at first I'm not really sure what's happening, or how I'm going to contextualize it or otherwise make sense of what the musicians are doing (or in some cases, even picking out who is doing what), and then I feel like I'm starting to understand it... it's starting to seem familiar. And then I can say something coherent about it. What would I have said before, that I'm not really following what's happening? But then the question remains, by the time it is familiar, do I actually like it? Can I even make that determination before? Can I capture the process of familiarization?

So that's a big set of questions regarding how to approach the current endeavor here. The set of questions also revolves around recordings I listen to several times in order to digest, and then don't really like. What is going on there? It is definitely the case that, barring some bout of insanity on my part (and I can hardly rule this out!), if I listen to something several times, I am getting something out of it — it is affecting the way I hear music. I'm seeking to understand it, right? And once I do, I decide I don't really have more use for it (a discarded fling?), but I'm still changed by the experience (right?), assuming engagement. That's something I want to do a better job of capturing here, and not only describe familiar recordings I've come to understand & appreciate.

(Things that immediately sound both familiar and uninteresting we can probably safely skip.)

So do I try logging everything I hear? That sounds tedious, and keeping up-to-date notes has never been my strength (and I forget what I do otherwise; I think I enjoy forgetting, creative forgetting, a term I just managed to remember). The other challenge is monitoring engagement, which is ultimately what makes a flat-linear log so unappealing to me. I might be interrupted physically or mentally, I might fall asleep, and it certainly misses those "aha!" moments — and I wonder how many of them are conscious. Arguably, we're already deeply culturally conditioned to music in the womb, and like marketing messages, the subconscious familiarization might be the more powerful. Perhaps the immediately familiar should frighten us, if we don't know why it's familiar, instead of reassuring us. Perhaps one should ask not only: "Why do I enjoy this music?" But: "Why does it seem familiar?" In what context might that be good or bad?

(After the opening seeds, this was written in two iterations along to Pail Bug, for which an actual discussion is forthcoming.)

13 February 2012

It slipped my attention until recently, but I've added Beyond Quantum to my favorites list for 2008. (Mostly those older years are going to shrink, as items fall off my radar, or I make the effort to prune.) Part of the reason I didn't notice this item, I'm sure, is that I didn't really know who Milford Graves (b.1941) is. He doesn't record frequently, and in fact this is apparently his latest release. Graves teaming up with Anthony Braxton (b.1945), as well as William Parker (b.1952) on bass, makes for quite a group. This is also an interesting item in Braxton's recent discography, since it doesn't feature his own compositions or standards, but rather free improvisation by a trio (whereas his other recent improvised albums have been duos). Parker's recent discography is extensive & varied, so this item is less notable for him in that sense, and he acts more as the "glue" for the other two improvisers, at least until the closing track. The album doesn't include any discussion, and in fact I got the recording date from Jason Guthartz's site. The graphics are kind of lackluster too, for such a significant release.

Graves is a cult figure in the world of jazz drumming, having studied many world traditions extensively, invented his own martial art, researched healing through music, and using his head as an implement in performance. The other two performers are much better known, and I should probably write more about Anthony Braxton at some point. (I'd really like to see one of his operas staged, but I digress.) These are definitely some interesting people, and very accomplished musicians. Beyond Quantum itself is divided into five distinct improvisations, each establishing a rather different mood, although it's pretty much always quick & dense. Ideas move fast, and there are clear but inconspicuous evocations of African styles as well as elements of jazz history. Overall, it reminds me of growing up near a swamp in Indiana somehow... it's very "wet" music. I think I'll leave this entry with that weird description. At any rate, it's safe to say this recording became an instant classic. It just took me a little while to notice.

22 February 2012

A new recording making a strong impression is the Stone Quartet Live at Vision Festival. The quartet was formed by bassist Joëlle Léandre, and does have an earlier recording on the DMG label, recorded in 2006 (released in 2007). Apparently their concerts together are infrequent, but there is also a definite sense of history when these musicians get together. The result is a highly charged live album that spends a lot of time building expectations, but ultimately has answers. This is an album that is dominated by a long (32 minute) opening track, followed by a shorter (9 minute) second track that takes a different mood. That's the sort of program I haven't always admired in this space, but here it really works. The opening track has various episodes, largely defined by when different musicians are playing. It maintains continuity, but also changes moods enough that it could almost be separate tracks. I don't find myself enjoying the second track quite as much, which is dominated by brighter & more percussive sounds around a louder trumpet, but it also makes kind of a nice "return to reality" (or motion) after the transfixing first part of the program. This is a quartet with two string players, which seems to be something of a trend in this space, including a recent discussion of In Just, the upcoming discussion of Pail Bug, and of course my ongoing interest in the Daniel Levin Quartet. The latter would be the most similar ensemble in many ways, because it likewise functions without a drummer. Another recent release of vaguely similar inspiration is Hotel du Nord, by the Sylvie Courvoisier-Mark Feldman Quartet, which includes bassist Thomas Morgan & drummer Gerry Hemingway. I mention Hotel du Nord in particular because it sets a pair of string players in a quartet with a prominent piano part. As suggested by the title, In Just does not need to deal with the piano's tuning limitations, and in the case of Pail Bug, the piano is modified so extensively that the situation around scale & pitch is transformed. Sylvie Courvoisier plays a basically "straight" piano part, though, analogous to Marilyn Crispell on Live at Vision Festival. Whereas, despite the frequently referenced opportunity for the husband-wife team to practice together, Hotel du Nord comes off rather stiffly to my ear, Live at Vision Festival is quite a success at uniting chromatic — even dodecaphonic — expression within a freer pitch context. There is a percussive sense to the piano, of course, taken up also on the bass, but there is a basic chromatic framework where the strings (and winds) can also operate more freely. Mat Maneri is known for his tone-row music on the viola, and although he has denied in print that he is "a microtonal musician" (as was his father), there is clearly a crossover in these styles that works for him. Joëlle Léandre likewise seems to handle microtonal slurs within a twelve-tone context with ease, and perhaps it's also a fundamental facet of her musicianship. Neither of these aspects dominates the other, but there is intersecting space for both, and an opportunity for an engaging interaction that plays out over a series of episodes.

I've had some familiarity with Joëlle Léandre (b.1951) for a while now. She has been a significant Scelsi interpreter, was there at his death, and has a solo piece dedicated to her (Mantram). I learned subsequently that she even spent time in Buffalo (of all places!) while Feldman was a professor there. Her discography is extensive, and this most recent item, described as "measured free improvisation" in its notes (and the word "measured" is significant in the way the different musical languages are balanced), captures a particularly strong group in a live festival format. This is a great chance to hear Léandre play in a context directly connected to New York jazz, albeit with a distinct European edge, as well as with a larger ensemble than in the solo or duo releases that seem to dominate her discography.

Live at Vision Festival appears on Ayler Records with a copyright date of 2011, although I do not believe it quite made it out to the public during 2011. Ayler Records is releasing other interesting items, apparently unencumbered by notions of tradition, including (earlier in 2011) Tower, vol. 2 by French guitarist Marc Ducret in an ensemble with violinist Dominique Pifarély (with whom I am not otherwise familiar) and New York mainstays Tim Berne & Tom Rainey. (Volume 1 features an all-European quintet, and is constructed around the same theme. I find Rainey & Berne consistently engaging, so focused on listening more intently to Volume 2.) This is clearly an interesting ensemble, with violin "instead of" bass. The violin also engages the electric guitar & saxophone in "noise" outbursts. Apropos my discussion of semantic & non-semantic music structures in this space, Tower is actually a different slant on that general dialectic, with Ducret seeking to set a chapter of the novel Ada by Vladimir Nabokov directly to (wordless & very abstract) music, using the language & grammar & syntax as a model for musical structure. I find it interesting at times, and surely the personnel on Volume 2 is going to produce some interesting music, but the twists and turns of the musical interaction don't seem to have much of an internal logic — pushed as they are by this literary source. The result is basically some captivating (sometimes extended) passages that move on to elsewhere. The project does seem like a good way to find new & compelling ensemble textures, and maybe they can be put to use in a future situation driven more by musical logic. Perhaps if I had a real appreciation of Nabokov's work, I'd feel like the result was more compelling than novel-ty. Still, it's worth hearing. As I understand, four volumes are planned.

22 February 2012

With the sequel to Pool School, Camino Cielo Echo, recorded not even a full year after the first recording of the Tom Rainey Trio, it is in some ways tempting to offer a shorter discussion here, and move on to different items. Camino Cielo Echo is both a more polished & less intense outing than Pool School, one that both solidifies the originality of the trio's sound, and makes more of an overture toward engaging the listener. While Pool School can be impenetrable in its novelty, Camino Cielo Echo is more quickly accessible — textures are extended & exposed to view, and allusions to other music & ideas are more explicit & also extended. Laubrock's playing on saxophone is decidedly easier to take in on that account, although it also takes on more distinctive characters in slow passages (e.g. as bowed bass on Mental Stencil). There are more Asian-like sonorities, perhaps not intentionally, both in the slower pitch-pending of the guitar strings and the more spacious rhythmic context.

One can take the extension in time of Camino Cielo Echo as a neutral event, seeing as it is a relatively long album, with a variety of distinctive tracks. It has plenty of material, and the trio is not simply recapitulating their earlier ideas. Indeed, there are new & intriguing sound worlds here, such as the multiple-entendre Arroyo Burrow. There is moreover, a more explicit investigation of trio structure, and consciousness around e.g. an implied bass role, or not. This is in contrast to the more intuitive conception on Pool School. Pool School was a radical album — for those of you who follow my medieval rating system, it's a four-star album, and Camino Cielo Echo is two (and for those of you who don't, keep in mind that I think of a star as a good thing, and two is very good, a clearly recommendable album). That said, Pool School is also more oblique, and with a more open musical overture (so to speak) toward the listener in Camino Cielo Echo, we get a hint of more commentary behind the wordplay titles. If two thirds of this trio is on the similarly evocative (and quite compelling, with a similar density to the ear) The Madness of Crowds, we have nearly the same dose of social commentary here, but so much more personal. After all, Mackay's insightful book is historical, whereas we could align Camino Cielo Echo with more contemporary writing (e.g. Mike Davis). If Halvorson's specialty on guitar is deconstruction — Little Miss Strange, presumably — even if musically attenuated a bit here, it's worked into a broader conception of slightly veiled deconstruction of Southern California mythology, down to the explicit noir reference and disguised allusion to the Arroyo school. This is not merely an evocation of natural beauty, but rather a commentary on what has happened to that landscape (and its people), both physically & politically-emotionally. The album has a kind of ferocious geniality that seems to fit Rainey himself, not to mention Southern California, marking it as a very personal statement coming through with remarkable clarity.

29 February 2012

Steve Lehman had a notable creative & critical success with Travail, Transformation, and Flow, released in 2009, and I also think quite highly of his album On Meaning, released already in 2007. Since then, he released a Dual Identity album with Rudresh Mahanthappa, and an improvised duo album with Stephan Crump. Both are probing albums. So I had been wondering what Lehman would do next, and we "finally" get his next leader album with Dialect Flourescent here in early 2012. This is a straightforward sax trio album, half standards, and with a fairly typical jazz ensemble interaction. I got the impression that he simply felt the need (or maybe the push) to release a new album, and wasn't ready to execute whatever new ideas he is working on now. Reading the notes on the Pi Recordings site, which I was only able to do about a month after hearing this album and writing most of this entry, it also seems that Lehman wanted to be very explicit about tying his music to that of previous generations. There's something to be said for that, although it's rather difficult to rationalize this album under Pi Recording's "dedicated to the innovative" tagline.

It's enjoyable enough, and one thing I'll say about the album is that, after the solo introduction (featuring electronic echoes) on the first track, the entry of the bass & drums makes me jump. So there are some striking moments, and it does come off with remarkable unity between the standards and new compositions. In the previously mentioned albums, though, it's really the approach to ensemble, the way the quintet or octet interrelate that is so creative & impressive. Dialect Flourescent is much more conventional in this regard, even if e.g. the 21st century bass line below a standard jazz melody produces some intriguing combinations. The album does retain a keen sense of intonation, one that makes listening to a fixed pitch album (i.e. an ordinary piano trio) almost grating afterward. That's one way it ties the earlier material to Lehman's contemporary concerns, and indeed this kind of transformation — while fairly understated — is probably significant nonetheless in the broader view, very much of its time & place.

5 March 2012

I've been promising a discussion of Pail Bug for a while now, so I'm going to try to oblige before I turn this page over again. This is one of those albums that, although outwardly rather strange, I immediately enjoyed and continue to find stimulating. It's quickly become a favorite. However, the challenge becomes to describe why. The strangeness of Pail Bug is almost generic in the sense that it would be all too easy to describe it in terms that could easily apply to dozens of other albums, yet fail to pinpoint why I've found it especially meaningful. So I'm making excuses for myself right from the start, but also insisting that I come up with something worthwhile to say. First some background.

Pail Bug is released on drummer Jeff Arnal's own label. Recent releases had been vinyl singles, which I have no way of hearing, so this is a departure as a full length album, and in fact it's an album packed with subtly detailed ideas in five distinct tracks. Already, I had been intrigued by the Quadrologues album by Arnal's quartet, Transit. Quadrologues is still a very interesting album, with a wide range of ideas, but Pail Bug is entirely different, with an entirely different ensemble. It apparently resulted from various intervening experiments, including duo outings with pianist Dietrich Eichmann (b.1966) ongoing from 2002. I was taken by what I called the "epic" sense of time in Quadrologues — and by that I don't mean a generic sense of awe, but rather a timeless story of raw human expression, one that seems to meld past & present & future. Elsewhere, I've been listening to some of Bill Dixon's albums, and I will write some more about that soon. In the interim, I was struck by some similarities in the way time is manipulated... a sort of timeless blend of ancient & modern... quickly went and did some research for a connection there, and found they were both at Bennington College. OK. And then I paid more attention to what I had already read about Arnal, namely that he had studied with Milford Graves, who is also a professor at Bennington. That's the history of adding Beyond Quantum to this site, an album I'm continuing to find increasingly influential in how I'm hearing American music, and an outing I explored together with Pail Bug.

(And it's too bad I didn't put my interests in this area together back when I lived only a few miles from Bennington. Another strange twist of life.)

So Pail Bug features extended acoustic technique, various piano preparations & playing inside the instrument, as well as modifications & extensions on the basses. It's "almost" a piano trio, with the two basses functioning as one wide-palleted instrument. And "almost" in the sense that sonorities blend between instruments to make it unclear who is doing what. Overtone relationships are carefully reflected or modified across instruments, such that instrumental tuning limitations are subsumed in a very detailed world of sound relationships. What is that world? There is no discussion about the title to be found, so I'm going to give some thoughts about that. It could be evocative of the sound world of a bug found in a metal pail, which is to say, a large room with a metallic resonance. The different tracks approach this with different stimuli, but there is also a consciousness of metallic qualities in the instruments as related to other materials. Both piano & bass are interesting amalgams of metal & wood (with some other substances), and percussion likewise moves between these worlds & others. That sort of thought leads me to a tangent on historical instruments. The modern string bass with its metal strings, and the modern piano with its metal sound board, do not reflect the early history of those instruments. The first pianos had wooden sound boards, which would make a dramatic difference in the sound world of Pail Bug. Likewise for gut strings. Somehow the music & title draw out that hypothetical contrast between the current world and a sound based more on wood. There is, moreover, always an internal dialog in music, about how it chooses its sounds based on the various possibilities available. That implicit dialog often deals with where a melody will go, or a chord progression, etc. Here the dialog seems to include choice of resonant material, a definite and longstanding aspect of percussion music. That might be the clearest description of what arguably makes this a percussion album.

That said, there is a fairly oblique description of the material on Pail Bug at Arnal's Generate Records website. The first key phrase there is "extreme magnification of small sounds and gestures," which might reflect the pail concept outlined above, but certainly reflects the way the musicians listen closely to each other and elaborate these sounds & gestures into an organically derived larger architecture — "reimagined instrumental potential and architectural possibility" concludes the web notes. Although it seems sincere enough, and for that matter, perceptive enough, what this technical description lacks is any indication of how the listener is affected by the musical process. Close listening and letting small structures spontaneously generate larger forms has been a theme in this space, so although it's a form of collective improvisation that I clearly value, it doesn't serve to differentiate the album. (And I should also observe that Arnal's "Generate Records" name surely relates to this idea in general.) In fact with its lack of wind instruments, and no clear high pitches from the keyboard, Pail Bug has almost a monochromatic character via its layered blending of string & striking across the instruments — or rather, this broad-spectrum sound would be the opposite of monochromatic, I suppose, but a mix of earthy colors (browns & rust & such, like late autumn leaves) that consistently looks similar from a distance. The close layering, and resulting issues of simultaneity, make for an interesting model of performer interaction. There is a bit of a Feldman-esque sense of evolving background and foreground there, as well as a play on familiarity. The tracks on Pail Bug are not especially long, but the basic material is so tiny that it evolves & develops as if over a giant canvas. This is related to the "epic" sense, as well as to playing tricks on our notions of familiarity (and to the idea of being a bug, presumably). Where did this piece start? Wait, that was drums? Indeed, track #1 can present as lacking percussion, which only enters more definitively with track #2.

Whereas Pail Bug can be intellectually stimulating to discuss, it is intellectually stimulating to hear. I mean this distinctly, in that it is conducive to exploring one's own ideas internally. There is also a distinct sense of bodily satisfaction for having heard it. I find both of these factors to be consistently true, and this is where my explanation flags. How or why does this happen? I can only turn to Milford Graves' study of the effect of music on human health & metabolism, and work in modeling musical forms off of human rhythms. This idea seems to be consciously at play here. Some of the striking certainly modulates one's breathing, for instance, adding physical relaxation to a sense of intellectual probing. (The mental effort of monitoring my body & following the effects on that level together with the intellectual stimulation is daunting, however, although maybe less so for others.) How can dissonant & sometimes screechy music be both relaxing and stimulating to creative thought? Via layering & simultaneity (and note these are ostensibly rhythmic terms)? However it works, it works, at least for me. One lesson, obvious in retrospect, would seem to be the relationship between "epic" or storytelling and the audience's physical state, something that the performers manipulate brilliantly. Presumably one's emotional state is also mediated by one's level of comfort with the proceedings generally, although the idea of "submission" as suggested for Feldman does raise itself. Surely Arnal's work with dance plays a significant role too, suggesting a dramatic evolution of "tap your foot" music far beyond groove. Note also that, despite the strange postmodern surface to the sound, if I'm correct, the specific inclination to solve a musical problem makes Pail Bug a definite modernist success.

I'll conclude by noting that although the the Generate Records website says that Pail Bug was released in December, I have doubts that it was actually available anywhere before January. In any event, I noticed it then on Squidco, so this discussion reflects several weeks with the recording. Pail Bug was recorded in Berlin back in December of 2009, so a full two years passed before the recording appeared. I can only wonder what these performers have been doing lately.

6 March 2012

And speaking of Pail Bug, I only just noticed that Dietrich Eichmann wrote one set of liner notes for Jeff Arnal's Transit album (recorded in 2001, released in 2005). I hadn't wanted to include anything so early in my listings, but I'm kind of retroactively blown away by how original Transit continues to be. Amazing.

That said, this page is going to move to an archive very soon, and a new introduction will stand in this spot, complete with thoughts on some of the pillars of American jazz.

12 March 2012

To main page.

© 2011-12 Todd M. McComb