Todd McComb: Jazz archive, 03/2012-01/2013

To main page.

One thing about this format is that I need to cycle older entries onto an archive page every so often, or else this page gets to be too long. Even as is, it gets to be rather long. The previous nine months was thirty-nine entries and over twenty thousand words. Each time I move entries to an archive, I need to write a new first entry, to serve as some sort of introduction for those that follow. Perhaps turning to that previous first entry is a good idea at this point. It's more thoughtful. Or turn straight to my favorite recordings.

When I "recycled" this page the previous time, I was eager to do so on account of my growing knowledge & appreciation of the style of music vaguely called jazz. I wanted to put some of my earlier ramblings behind me, and indeed the immediately preceding nine months of writing is something with which I'm generally rather pleased. There are some ideas that aren't worked out terribly well, or are expressed clumsily, but there are — if I do say so myself — some good ideas. Hopefully there will be more in this iteration.

When I declared myself "ready" last time, I had concentrated largely on USA music. As I went on to write in September, I knew there was good European jazz(-like) music — I had even written about some non-USA performers — but I hadn't explored it much. Since then, it's dominated this space. What is there to say about that? I guess, frankly, it upsets me. I've never been one to prioritize USA output in other music — I don't think anyone who looks at my medieval writing could see it as a factor at all. Yet somehow, I believed that jazz, as invented in the USA, would be a different situation. There are leading USA musicians, many of whom go to play in Europe, and there are institutions that prioritize USA music, which is why European improvisation can seem a bit hidden from a listener here, but the volume of innovative talent in Europe is clearly ascending.

Why? This is not a difficult question to answer, sadly enough. It's about commitment. It's about commitment to nurturing musical talent in young people, and it's also about commitment to new artistic exploration. To the extent that USA supports musical development, it does so mostly in narrowly defined categories with strict limits on creativity. Young musicians, even those who are lucky enough to receive an extended education, are generally required to remain within conservative structures in order to remain funded. It's a travesty. The USA continues to have its share of eccentrics and iconoclasts, the sort of people whose creativity cannot be reined in by the structures around them, and those people have had a huge impact on worldwide musical innovation over the past decades. However, many of these people are also getting older or dying. Can young musicians in the USA survive — let alone thrive — while following their own path? It's a real question.

If jazz is "meant" to come out of a counter-culture, then what's that counter-culture in this country? Let's face it: Intellectualism is openly derided in the USA. How can a person innovate artistically if the sort of thought process necessary for innovation is derided? Our issues here go farther than mere funding for the arts, and they're chronic. Creativity here is being slowly starved, to where it's scary to think where this discussion might be in another twenty years. For now, any sort of widely adopted innovation has to be highly accessible. I don't want to dismiss accessibility, but that's a serious constraint, particularly if one cannot tug at its borders. The flip side is isolated styles that can become stiff in their lack of engagement with the public, which is another problem arising from intellectual segregation. Vital art is both public & creative.

Leaving aside that negativity, I've decided to drop the word "blog" from this space. I tried it on for size, and don't like it. This is not a set of reviews, however. I'll call it a tapestry of recording comments (and more). I like to discuss recordings in terms of other recordings, not so much as stand-alone entries. So comments about a particular recording might not be contained in only one space. I'm also prioritizing ensemble interactions, and basically the metaphor of real life as an improvised group activity. I've made recent comments in this space about modernism & postmodernism, and also about familiarity. I've implicitly treated modernism/postmodernism as a dialectic, and will be making that more explicit, as well as doing the same with familiarity/unfamiliarity. I'm presently fascinated by the latter idea.

20 March 2012

When I started this project, I had the notion that I'd focus on younger performers, with the thought in turn of focusing on contemporary music-making and new ideas. The latter is still my focus, but I soon realized that there are older musicians who are still forging new styles today. So age isn't the real factor, but "what have you done lately?" is. Although appreciating people for their past accomplishments is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, that's not really the purpose of this space. Similarly, older musicians who are still in fine form, performing in a style they pioneered in decades past, are largely dealing with old music. (And these are the people most lauded by the USA media.) Here it's about new music, but age is unimportant.

Age, or even life... as I've added Tapestries by Bill Dixon (1925-2010) to my list of favorites. This addition has been a while in coming, and there are a few factors surrounding that. The above is actually the least of them, as I threw off the age notion quickly enough. Tapestries is a double album (and with a DVD that clearly shows how vital Dixon was at 83), and uses the largest group of musicians of an album I've included in this space. Dixon is someone who was innovating and seeking to refine his particular musical style well into his 80s, and it shows in Tapestries, which is something of a musical testament as his final studio album. The live album Envoi from 2010 uses exactly the same group of nine musicians, although Dixon's contribution on trumpet was recorded earlier, and he sounds frail addressing the crowd. There's less variety of material than on Tapestries, but still a push for new ideas.

I've found this music rather striking from the start, but did I like it? Five trumpets? I've found it an interesting album to live with, somewhat akin to my remarks about Morton Feldman's music and how it might or might not fit into my current life. The signature moment with Tapestries for me was when my partner and I were staying in a hotel room in San Francisco, out at the end of the N-line, near the ocean. We were there for the Barleywine Festival in February, and naturally didn't want to involve a trip back to the North Bay. It wasn't a particularly well-insulated room, and the various noises of the city were evident, prominently including the N train turnaround outside our window. It wasn't oppressive noise, but it was frequent, both human and mechanical. Somehow Tapestries fit perfectly into this environment. It reflected those sounds and merged with them. But did I like it? I still didn't know! I mean, the sounds of train cars and random people yelling in the distance aren't generally my idea of something to seek.

I had actually first paid close attention to this album while I was traveling with my family to Sedona. I had a fantastic view of the red rocks from the dining room table in the condo I was renting, and the same portable computer speakers as in San Francisco. Although the music was technically fascinating, it didn't do anything personal for me in that environment. I'm not sure why I returned to it, in fact. I've kept coming back to that subsequent San Francisco experience, however, and of course the idea of environmental music. The result of that trigger is that I've found Tapestries captivating, and I find myself linking it to other albums & ideas. I think that means I must like it? That same evening in San Francisco, we also listened to Stone Quartet - Live at Vision Festival, and found that it fit neatly into the urban landscape too, yet in a different sense. The albums have very different sorts of abstractions, Léandre & company into a form derived much more overtly from written music history, Dixon & company retaining those raw sounds woven together. This was also the origin of my "swamp" comment regarding Beyond Quantum. It projects a decidedly non-urban environment.

This idea on environment has played into some of my other recent comments, including about Pail Bug and Fremdenzimmer. (And I should add that I subsequently learned from Stef Gijssel's discussion that "Fremdenzimmer" is an explicit term for a spare bedroom lent out to traveling strangers. I had taken it to be coined.) If improvisation is inherently of a particular time & place, Dixon's music is immersed in very real places. Something like Pail Bug would seem to be more exotic, yet specific in its way. Despite the size of the ensemble, Dixon's ensemble on Tapestries has definite sonic kinship with the Daniel Levin Quartet: The trumpets are rarely playing at once, there is cello & bass together (and contrabass clarinet), and the drummer doubles on vibraphone, marimba, etc. The comparison ends with this idea on environment, however, as Levin's music projects the environment of the concert stage, not somewhere else. Not even the concert stage as surrounded by urban New York as might be said for the Stone Quartet. (And particularly considering my explicit mention of municipal transit above, the album Transit is also a natural point of comparison here, although Transit is more gestural and less of a landscape, integrated or otherwise.)

Returning to Feldman, his music suggests a rather pristine environment, whether the concert hall or perhaps simply disembodied out of one's audio speakers. There is no real sense of place to Feldman's tapestries. The idea of the concert hall as an environment itself is certainly not new to USA music, most prominently explored by Cage with his ideas to get the audience to listen to itself and to question the "frame" of the concert setting. Dixon confronts these ideas, blended even with environmental or ambient concerns, to create a distinctive sense of place. The trumpet techniques on the album are also fascinating, derived from Dixon's long work with the instrument, as is the ensemble interaction in such a unique group. What does Dixon do with ideas of familiarity on Tapestries? We hear familiar sounds, recontextualized as music — not so much even commented upon, but integrated as is, and explicitly humanized by the performers.

21 March 2012

I've wanted to write more about Anthony Braxton in this space, and want to do it near the top of this new page, but I'm also not sure what to say. As already mentioned, Beyond Quantum is an amazing improvised recording, including a couple of other iconic USA musicians. Much of Braxton's significant work is older, of course.

When starting this project, I listened to a couple of his recent releases, chosen fairly randomly... part of his "Ghost Trance Music" as I've come to understand (which he views as "glue" music between his other simultaneous compositions). It's generally fairly slow & growly stuff, and didn't make a strong impression. What's made more of an impression is just how many musicians whose work I admire have connections to Braxton. That's been ear-opening, to be sure. What crystallized things a little better for me was eventually listening to his Quartet albums from the 1980s. I'm not dealing with music of that vintage in this space, but it's also obvious to hear the technical command, and simply the amazing improvisatory vitality imbued into dodecaphonic music. Very striking, and obviously very influential. I wish I'd heard it at the time, but then I didn't understand the relationships between jazz and contemporary classical music.

Much of Braxton's later compositional work seems to be rather grand, in the sense of constructing compositions where all can be played simultaneously, etc. I don't know what to make of this simultaneity idea, without experiencing it in practice. I can certainly conceive an Ives-ian sense of simultaneity, including in my own life with the musicians around me doing their own things. The music theater ideas are also intriguing... not the sort of thing I would pursue regularly, but as noted back in February, I would be very interested to see one staged. Braxton is also big on music as a reflection of general human interaction, which is one of my core interests. It almost seems as though he's reached such a stature that releasing an "ordinary" improvisatory album isn't enough. He's clearly one of the towering figures in USA music from the 1980s into now, and I can appreciate that some people follow everything he does closely. Reacting to my remarks upon rolling this page over a couple of days ago, there is simply no European version of Anthony Braxton. A followup question, I guess, is will we have anyone like him in the USA a few decades from now?

For now, though, we can marvel at Braxton's accomplishments and wonder what comes next. He's clearly one of the world's great musical figures, perhaps unparalleled.

22 March 2012

There are certain clichés about "European free improvisation" as differentiated from "jazz," and although blending & borrowing are the norm these days, one could probably construct a few axes along which USA improv would occupy one end and European another. One obvious axis is the instruments themselves. There are standard jazz instruments such as drums, bass, saxophone & trumpet. In Europe, any instrument associated with classical music might lend itself to improvisation, naturally enough, and of course one sees that trend in USA now too. Another historical axis is that jazz has been known as fast & loud, and in comparison European improv has been slow & quiet. There is an element of truth to the latter, as exploring slow quiet textures does seem to be a contemporary concern, even if there are various European improvisers known for playing fast & loud.

Earlier this year, I noticed the Creative Sources label for the first time, via the new release listings at Squidco. This label has a distribution association with Clean Feed, was started at the same time, and is almost as prolific. However, Creative Sources is directed by Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues (b.1959), and a large portion of the catalog includes his playing. Rodrigues' work exemplifies some of the discussion above, in that it's a free-form and often slowly moving exploration of texture between sometimes unusual instrument combinations. There is a sense of sonic tapestry perhaps, but definitely a close sense of timbral relationships between sounds and very detailed listening experiences both between the musicians and for the audience. Rodrigues is involved in so many recordings, it's difficult to know where to start, but I've been listening to a couple from 2011, particularly Le Beau Déviant featuring Heddy Boubaker on saxophone and Abdul Moimême on prepared electric guitar. Although this sounds little like traditional Western music, one obvious thing to note is the technical prowess of these performers. They seem to be carefully under control in even the most extreme sonic production from their instruments. The web suggests that something happened with Boubaker, and he is no longer able to play saxophone, but here his breath control is phenomenal. Moimême with the prepared electric guitar acts as percussion or even gongs at times, not an electric screech (leave that to the other two), and exemplifies the attention to detail in this style. All tracks are less evocative of human music (so to speak) than they are scenes from nature, perhaps finding the apotheosis of a French trend beginning in the late 1800s, and originally derived from Orientalist tendencies. This somehow becomes music about the natural environment, seeming distinct from humanity, as opposed to some of the other items I've discussed recently which incorporate the mechanical sounds of civilization into a soundscape. In any case, although I have found Le Beau Déviant rather interesting, and do enjoy the first track with its piercing saxophone, I've ultimately found the recording more interesting than compelling. Mainly, I guess, it doesn't fit my emphasis on human interaction in music, although obviously such is occurring. This is at least as true for the most recent recording including Rodrigues (as well as Moimême), Brume (still dated 2011), featuring a laptop-objects-drum duo called Diatribes. Although the tracks are not titled, this improvisatory sextet is said to evoke the mysterious sounds of a dark forest at night. While generally quiet and subtly mixed, it's a wide open canvas of pretty much any sound that can be made, including static and feedback.

Creative Sources does include other projects in its catalog, beyond Portugal & France, such as from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe. One item to note is Excerpts from anything, featuring bassist Achim Tang and prepared pianist Philip Zoubek who play with Joe Hertenstein in his more traditionally-aligned piano trio Tørn (and on their album Crespect). Here Tang & Zoubek are with trombonist Matthias Muche, in a dark & slow-moving trio album largely true to the concepts above. It's interesting to hear these musicians in this context, in part because it puts the brief "extended technique" sections on Crespect more in relief, and gives an added dimension to that already enjoyable album. Excerpts from anything was recorded in October 2010, a year or so after Crespect. Although Excerpts from anything does have a sort of ageless quality as evoked by its title, I find myself wishing for some changes in color over the course of the album, such as the high pitches punctuating some of these other items. The cover art features a big empty (abandoned?) room, mostly darkened, and that sense of largely empty expansiveness permeates the music. One can hear in it a "natural" animation of artifact.

In taking a look at the Creative Sources catalog, and seeing what I could learn about the musicians involved, I came across Pourtant les cimes des arbres, the first album on the new Dark Tree label by the French bassist Benjamin Duboc (b.1969). This album fits with most of the previous orientation. One big difference from Brume, though, is that it's quite minimalist in its use of instrumental resources. The drummer (Didier Lasserre) isn't even listed as a drummer, but rather specifically playing snare drum & cymbals. Daunik Lazro on baritone saxophone rounds out the trio (and I'm not sure why baritone saxophone seems so rare in USA jazz in the 2010s). I find this minimalist approach to instrumental resources to be intellectually stimulating, but also believe I'm really missing something by having a recording alone. If you cannot see what the performers are doing, does it matter? At some level, I'm listening to what I hear, and how it is produced is secondary. Pourtant les cimes des arbres is quite naturalist in orientation, with the track titles taken from a classic Haiku, emphasizing the East Asian lineage of French impressionism. Again the technique is impressive — particularly from the bass and on the minimal drum equipment — with very precise control of the way sounds develop. This is also the "noisiest" of the albums mentioned here, with very close microphones, and sustained dissonant shrieks based on feedback in ostensibly acoustic instruments. I'd be very interested in hearing these musicians interact in a different format, although the last track does inject human semantics into the music in the guise of a recognizable melody (presumably reflecting human observation of the scene, and so far from arbitrary in the Haiku sense). Pourtant les cimes des arbres has received quite a bit of critical praise, and might be the most accomplished album in this general style, also from 2011.

Probably the album that I've already featured here that is most similar to those in this entry is In Just, by drummer Martin Blume and his German-Hungarian quartet. It features some of the same sorts of sounds and techniques, likewise with very fine details of interaction between the performers. What makes In Just speak to me in ways these other albums, albeit intriguing & technically impressive, do not? I've been pondering this question. For one, it's a drummer's album, featuring an overall percussive sense, and a resulting manipulation of the passage of time that I find appealing. I would characterize the naturalist albums above as more "observational" in that sense, more a depiction (however creative) than a manipulation. This is really the hint to my reaction, namely in the way the human element is expressed in the recordings. In Just has a sense of human dialog, or even an incorporation of the mechanical aspects of civilization, as per my discussion of Bill Dixon and others previously. Why should this be more appealing? Obviously it's a personal thing. Abstracting the human element out of a depiction — and of course humans are centrally involved in these performances — has a clear intellectual appeal, especially as civilization continues its assault on wilderness. I greatly enjoy hiking & wilderness, so why not as musical impressions? Perhaps one day these items will be more compelling, but for now, I find myself focused on the human elements, whether as musical dialog & social interaction between the musicians, or as transformation of civilization, or even humanization of its more mechanical aspects. Perhaps I feel no need for a human depiction of something outside civilization, something I could observe myself. It's a question I'll continue to ponder.

Continuing something of this theme, as well as building on my earlier remarks on Stone Quartet - Live at Vision Festival, I had occasion to have another hotel experience involving that album. My partner & I stay in inexpensive places, and in this case, there was a door to an adjoining room that was particularly bad at blocking sound... so at one point, we suddenly had a loud rhythm from next door, usually in 3s, so BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. The volume of this sound coming through the door was on par with the music in our own room. I was listening to some Javanese gamelan at the time, and the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM ruined the experience. Gamelan music with all of its nested repeating cycles has a sort of expansive quality that also becomes delicate against an aggressive competing rhythm, and that aggression definitely conflicts with its charms. I do not escalate, so was not going to become loud, but I also wanted to enjoy some music (and I find listening to music in various contexts to be valuable). I tried something likewise with an aggressive driving rhythm, and found some parity with the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM; that music could be enjoyed, with a bit of distraction. Then I turned to the Stone Quartet, which does not have a drummer or sustained rhythms. Their music made the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM seem utterly irrelevant, as if a 1-2-3 had entirely lost its coherence and become background static. If one stopped to ask if the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM was still there, yes it was, but it was not noticeable as anything related to music. What to make of this? Is this a humanization, a dehumanization, an obliteration of the external environment? Perhaps it's an indication of how people, and musicians, can create their own environments — in some ways the opposite of these impressionist nature sound scenes. (Maybe this also speaks to the creation of "jazz" as an art form concerned with human dialog.)

Finally, note that those naturalist scenes are extremely fragile, and generally spoiled by any sort of sonic pollution. Their sound worlds are not inclusive. This likewise reflects a depiction of wilderness, so is hardly a criticism. Indeed, any of these comments regarding humanity can easily be turned around and viewed differently. There is a sense in which these natural depictions seem extremely mechanized, for instance, not least of which because the instruments are mechanical contraptions. It's a style embedding a contradiction, reflected in my ambivalence.

3 April 2012

There's been a bit of a lag here, not through any disinterest on my part, but there's been a lag in releases, and indeed up to this point, most of the new things I was hearing were still dated 2011. I've had a discussion of Kyle Bruckmann's recent recordings planned for almost a month now, and have listed Psychotic Redaction (likewise released in 2011) in preparation, but I've been waiting to hear some related material, and erred in the way I sought to procure it. Hence the delay. Over on the medieval side of things, I can say with some confidence that 2011 was a particularly good year for albums of high interest to me, and the numbers are saying the same here under "jazz" — but that could be attributable to the development of my familiarity during 2011, and not about the years per se. So hopefully 2012 has much more to bring in this space.

In the meantime, one recording dated 2012 — and in this case, it was even recorded in 2012 — to discuss is The Gowanus Session by Thollem McDonas, William Parker & Nels Cline. I noticed this recording because it included William Parker, and I was not otherwise familiar with pianist Thollem. The album includes a stimulating density & variety of sound, in some ways superficially reminiscent of Pail Bug in the ostinato emphasis & some extensions. For some reason, I wanted to conceive of this album as a response to Pail Bug, but that comparison ends up being quite strained. On the other side would be an album such as Good Citizen which includes notable classical influences in the piano part. Ultimately, The Gowanus Session seems more like a juxtaposition of styles than those two "reference" albums. There is a lot of repeated tonal material in the piano part, often ostinato driven, as well as explicit harmonic motion that isn't necessarily integrated with Parker's creative but usually understated bass playing, or Cline's rock-style "shredding" on the guitar (which turns out to be more prevalent than the tapping style). No doubt this is intentional, contrasting the often placid & slow-moving piano part against frenetic background material; or elsewhere, a tonal drive in the piano against more static rhythm-oriented material. Personally, that sort of "worlds apart" aspect doesn't work terribly well for me, because I'm focused more on musicians hearing each other, reacting, and synthesizing. Still, it's an interesting ensemble (and the electric guitar does not dominate), with some worthwhile ideas. The poem that makes up the (otherwise arbitrary, presumably) track titles for the all-improvised session is also cute. It's a play on individuality, obviously a theme for this album, and from the standpoint of respect for others, but the music itself projects a sense of disengagement that isn't fitting my life right now. For people in a different place, I can see how it could be more meaningful.

22 April 2012

Although it was never my intention to write in this order, mention of The Gowanus Session actually provides a perfect lead-in to a discussion of recent recordings by Kyle Bruckmann (b.1971). It was after seeing The Gowanus Session listed as an upcoming release with William Parker that I visited the Porter Records website and saw that Bruckmann's quintet Wrack had an album Cracked Refraction, also from 2012, but already in circulation. I was intrigued by an oboe-led ensemble with bass clarinet & viola, so took the plunge.

Although Cracked Refraction hasn't become a favorite, it was interesting enough to inspire listening to some related material, and I'll discuss a group of six recordings in this entry. As previously mentioned, my favorite is Psychotic Redaction, a 2011 release of a 2006 trio recording, featuring Bruckmann on reeds & electronics with Michael Zerang on hand drums and Jim Baker on (keyboard) electronics. This is the "most electronic" album yet to be featured in this space, although the juxtaposition with the traditional Middle Eastern hand drums is one of its appeals. Whereas the album does not state who formed the trio, and the tracks are apparently group improvisations, the title Psychotic Redaction forms an obvious parallel with Cracked Refraction, and aspects of Bruckmann's conception are clearly reflected strongly, as they can be assessed from other albums with different performers. Indeed, his duo Cube of Force has an album Book of Vile Darkness (available as a free download), that shows similar emphasis & concept with electronics. That album is more explicitly punk-influenced, and generally takes a more straightforward and trance-repetitive form from track to track. In the case of Psychotic Redaction, the redaction creates a very unstable harmonic situation, with extreme movement across a hypnotic rhythmic background. I have very little firsthand familiarity with the punk style, but hearing music here & elsewhere that is explicitly influenced by it, I begin to pick up a bit of the technical traits. Here they're transfigured in some ways into a "jungle" setting, with disorienting electronics. At a few points, the electronics are a bit cliché, but that's only a few points. Mostly, this is a very original improvisatory trio album, with some Middle Eastern shadings in the reed playing as well, and one wonders why it took so long to appear on record. It's certainly not quiet music, but makes a strong impression when something more aggressive seems warranted. It captured my attention from the first moment I heard it.

Although Psychotic Redaction was the earliest of the recordings featuring Bruckmann to appear last year, perhaps its delayed release was provoked by other upcoming items. Even more recently released than Cracked Refraction is On Procedural Grounds, a "classical" album of composed music. There's some overlap with Bruckmann's style elsewhere, particularly with Wrack, but On Procedural Grounds also comes off very clearly as contemporary composed music, often very elaborately choreographed, and not especially fluid or spontaneous. That could be a matter of practice time, more than the musical writing per se, and the different pieces use different ensembles. Having enough time to get performers familiar with tricky material is obviously one of the basic tensions of avant garde music, including in jazz.

Although I had some familiarity with Michael Zerang as a drummer, I knew nothing of Jim Baker other than Psychotic Redaction, and so sought to understand what he was bringing to the trio. He leads a working quartet called Extraordinary Popular Delusions (apparently a popular theme, given Ingrid Laubrock's recent album) which released their second album in 2011: Aprocryphal fire in the warehouse, and other explanations. Baker plays different keyboards there, including piano, and electronics. This is an experimental ensemble, improvising on a weekly basis in a club in Chicago, and the album catches some of their recent live highlights along with some studio tracks. Apparently they don't do much advance planning at all. There is some interesting material here, and one can hear Baker's own style reflected both here and on Psychotic Redaction, but unfortunately Aprocryphal fire suffers from muddy sound quality at times. (Psychotic Redaction has a very "up close" sound where you feel like you're hearing everything going on, although I have no idea who is doing what much of the time, other than the drums.) That's the biggest weakness in what is otherwise a rather creative & spontaneous album, one making a strong first impression, even if the interest level tails off a bit at times. Mars Williams "shredding" on saxophone against an electronic background can be particularly striking.

Returning to Cracked Refraction, this album has a distinct classical feel to it, in pretty much equal mixture with jazz-improvisation. That's not a criticism per se, but an acknowledgement as per this space (and I should probably create less segmented spaces, which I'm seeking to do), and also a reasonable reflection of Porter Records, which claims not to consider genre. As is obvious from this entry, Cracked Refraction created enough interest to get me to hear several other items, but it also seems overly orchestrated at times. Obviously the quintet itself is unusual with oboe, viola & bass clarinet to go with a traditional rhythm section, but the way the instruments are deployed and engage in solos etc. is very much styled after jazz. Yet somehow it doesn't project a jazz feel. This is a matter of melody & harmony presumably, but also the way the pieces unfold with distinctly scripted roles in a contrapuntal context. It's common for slow-moving parts to have another instrument juxtaposed with more activity. There is a lot of pressure on the drummer (Tim Daisy) to create interest against some slow-moving harmonies, for instance. The different tracks have the character of "scenes" at times, with a particular static mood. The other side of this is there are intricate themes, both harmonically & rhythmically, which are played with a great deal of grace & fluidity — these are obviously talented performers who know what they're doing. (Perhaps somewhat akin to the Claudia Quintet in some of these qualities.) There's a sort of synchronicity and resolution with that that's more evocative of classical music in some ways. There's also an "industrial" feel at times with perhaps found objects in percussion, and hints of a punk mood. This is particularly true of the penultimate piece, but then the album ends with a simple lullaby. It's certainly an interesting effort, but not quite speaking to me personally, as these comments suggest.

Bass clarinetist Jason Stein is a member of Wrack, and his Delmark album The Story This Time was also released in 2011, receiving some good press. I didn't know what to make of the album at the time, since it seemed the most concrete statement about the style was that it was from Chicago. Huh? I'll discuss this Chicago idea a bit more below. In any case, The Story This Time, a quartet album featuring Keefe Jackson on reeds and Joshua Abrams & Frank Rosaly on bass & drums, often evokes a classic jazz feel. It's a mix of Stein's own music with tunes by earlier jazz masters. Stein's trill technique is rather impressive (as are other aspects), and the album often evokes a positive, uplifting feeling. It's generally very pleasant, with a bit of contemporary extensions thrown into a fairly classic concept, albeit featuring bass clarinet. This is a good album for more conservative listeners who nonetheless want something new, and like Cracked Refraction, gets high marks for "accessibility" — although I'm not always sure what that is. It's a term applied to Wrack, though, and I think it's safe to say that Cracked Refraction has an element of self-conscious accessibility... of making sure a particular rhythmic-harmonic theme is audible and understood... that contributes to a stiff impression of some otherwise rather interesting material. The Story This Time has more flow in that regard, and a sense of swing.

Bruckmann has recently relocated from Chicago to Oakland (and I'm intending to go hear him live when things work out for that), but other than his classical album On Procedural Grounds, these items all have a firm Chicago orientation. As noted, descriptions often mention items such as this as if saying they're from Chicago describes the musical style. Perhaps I'm deaf to it. After all, I grew up in Indiana, not terribly far from Chicago, and whatever native element was there, presumably I was immersed in it. Maybe it sounds distinctive to someone from Europe. I've yet to see, for instance, any substantial discussion of Native American style contributing to jazz music. It's an established fact that, as oppressed people, African Americans & Native Americans intermingled considerably in the early United States (this is established more via genetic testing than any particular oral history, as far as I know). So is there some connection between that and the fact that the region around Chicago (and Indiana, of course) had huge native populations? I don't know, but I'll add that when I've had the chance to listen to native tribal music ostensibly from the area, it sounds awfully familiar. Undoubtedly Chicago was central to the development of the US jazz tradition for decades. Is that in the past? For the most part, Chicago jazz ensembles appearing on record now seem fairly conservative, perhaps while including rock fusion. Other musicians have moved to New York and elsewhere. (And I guess it's telling that the idea of a "New York sound" immediately brings musical images to mind for me.) What does all this say about the idea of a "Chicago style" as an audible sound? I'm not sure, but it does seem that I'm too close to hear it as a distinct entity. Another common aspect would seem to be an explicit emphasis on accessibility. Psychotic Redaction is probably the most "out there" thing I've heard from Chicago (although Aprocryphal fire might qualify), and Bruckmann is originally from Connecticut, whereas Zerang is of Assyrian heritage. Anyway, these are some tentative thoughts that I may be revisiting.

3 May 2012

Another 2012 release worth noting (recorded in August 2011) is Overseas IV by Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik (b.1973). I first heard Opsvik in his work with Kris Davis's quartet, and was also interested in the cast on this release, which includes Tony Malaby (also in Davis's quartet with Opsvik) and Kenny Wollesen, a frequent John Zorn collaborator. Additionally, there's Brandon Seabrook on guitar, and most intriguingly Jacob Sacks on keyboards — mainly harpsichord. That's an interesting lineup, to be sure, and who can resist the idea of harpsichord in jazz? With piano preparations (and bass preparations, for that matter) gaining increasing prominence, it seems like an interesting fit. It turns out that Overseas IV does not include a lot of jazz per se, that is, in the most restrictive sense of being representative of the rhythms & harmonies of classic jazz. There are a couple of "jazz" themes. Mostly it draws from Baroque music and Rock, combined broadly in a variety of ways. There's even a Renaissance/virginals theme (& viol-style playing on the bass), plus different metal or punk styles on the other end. Each of these elements is treated fairly distinctly, but differently in each track, i.e. there are identifiable elements in each track that develop together within the logic of that piece. These include some interesting combinations, and of course classic Rock, particularly early metal, has a history of drawing on Bach and others, so this conception isn't completely novel, albeit played out differently here in a more improvisational context. The resulting impression is often kind of a gothic or "horror movie" representation of Baroque themes, particularly against a hard Rock style screech or rhythm, although there are periods of lightness also (such as an island rhythm intro on vibraphone). Occasionally there's some extended tonality, a la mid-20th century movie scores, but for the most part, the performance sticks to the tonal space of its genres, albeit with some Rock noise. The jazz influence is found in the rhythmic space carved out by individual performers as much as anywhere. The last track changes up the sound world a bit, prominently using what is apparently credited as a "marching machine" alongside organ instead of harpsichord. Other tracks have a bit of the character of a Baroque "battle" piece to them. The result is some striking sound combinations and textures, such as on track 5, where a "gothic" intro gives way to offbeat jagged banging on the harpsichord into an extended tonality. I'd've been interested in exploring something like that a little more, rather than so many Rock references. The other aspect of the album is that, although the combinations are striking, once established on a track, they tend to remain static for long periods, sometimes even bridging ideas from one track into the next. The album consequently becomes less interesting to hear once you're following what's going on, although perhaps the idea is to be trance-like sometimes. More typically, it's to underscore the successful combination of elements for the listener. Finally, I should note that I did not hear the first three Overseas albums, so cannot compare.

8 May 2012

Another 2012 release to discuss (recorded in September 2011) is Book of Mæ'bul by saxophonist Darius Jones (b.1978). Jones has been attracting quite a bit of attention, and so I finally felt compelled to hear this, his third leader album, and third of a trilogy (each with a different lineup). Going only on what was written, the approach Jones takes to creating music did not seem very similar to how I conceive things, and so I had not investigated his earlier albums, despite their acclaim. I want to discuss the approach a bit, both in order to give some thoughts on this album, and as fodder for more general discussion of approach to material in the future. There is plenty written elsewhere, so I'm not going to get into much detail with the music itself.

Jones's trilogy is conceived around narrative, and not only narrative, but characters with painted representations. He and the artist, Randall Wilcox, are even intending a graphic novel dealing with the same characters and stories. I don't mean to make any judgments about people who like graphic novels, but it's just never been me. So this seemed quite foreign. These are also explicitly stories and characters dealing with Jones's past. Although, what with my medieval concerns & interests in historical world music, this might not seem like a big deal, my emphasis on improvisatory music in the context here has been strongly centered on being in the present. So again, a bit of dissonance... Jones telling stories about his past. Jones also comes from a strongly Christian background which, again, does not resonate with me. In one interview, he says he wants to be a "country preacher" in music. Somehow, I handle Christianity without much concern when it's music from the 1400s, so I'm aware of the contradiction.

So those were three fairly concrete reasons that descriptions of Jones and his music did not engage me to seek it out. On the other side are the musicians he's been involved with... Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, and in this quartet release, Ches Smith (of Mary Halvorson's quintet, for which a new release is imminent), et al. It turns out that this is a more reliable guide than how Jones's music is described, and Book of Mæ'bul is an appealing album. Jones has a clear sense of what he's trying to do, and that shines through in his music. Readers might recall some other discussions where I lamented that there seemed to be no purpose to a release. That isn't the case here. There's a sophisticated abstract conception that also deals with very human themes, all in a traditional jazz context (including taking turns soloing). Well done. (The paintings are interesting too.)

Although I'll put aside any issues I might have with narratives or graphic novels when it comes to Jones, I still wonder about the issue of past & present. I am not finding these sources right now — and there is a lot of writing about Jones & quotes from Jones online — but I read that Book of Mæ'bul ends his trilogy from the past and that further albums will be set in the present. I also read that this is the ending of the first set of three albums of what will be three sets of three. Bluntly, it seems to me that it's not possible to both be in the present and already know how many albums it is going to take to tell a story. So we'll see what happens. I'll be interested in Jones's future work, particularly if he lets his instincts take over a little more in a less thematically structured & more open-ended way. That's probably easier to do than for someone with nothing to say to think of something worthwhile to communicate. That all said, it's also exciting to hear some commonality from someone seemingly starting from such a different place.

9 May 2012

I am going to discuss use in two interwoven parts.

First in the explicit declaration by Jan Klare (b.1961) accompanying his 1000 quartet's latest release, Shoe, that it is the result of an attempt to create something explicitly useful (tangible, even) for the listener, we have something — at least at first thought — laudatory. The issue of usefulness is in the shoe, both a simple & complicated object (which the track titles naming its parts illustrate). But we know the use of a shoe, and there is more than one, of course. What is the use for Shoe? That is unstated. I am not offering skepticism about whether it's useful — I have very much enjoyed Shoe — but rather the implications of "usefulness" for music.

So, that said, the exploration of such thoughts will require other inputs, and now it is time to discuss Shoe the album, and relate it to other ideas that will form a point of reference, for now mostly immune to a probing of use.

Jan Klare's quartet "1000" was named for the 1000 years of music (he actually says jazz) the festival for which it formed was celebrating. There's no exact date 1000 years ago that can be marked as such, but we have roughly a 1000 years of surviving music in Europe, basically from the late 900s on, with polyphony well-understood from the 1100s. There is also scattered surviving written music from Ancient Greece, and even Sumer, but this is indeed scattered, and so it's coherent to talk about approximately 1000 years of European music. (It should be noted that qin music survives in writing and coherently from a couple of thousand years ago in China, and Indian ragas are at least named with that much continuity.) So 1000 years of jazz? I'm speaking for myself here, but both early troping & organum apparently began as improvisatory embellishments to plainchant, and e.g. Ars Subtilior music seems to have had an improvisatory grounding. It makes some sense (if oriented toward writing & source survival), at least from a European perspective, and jazz was strongly influenced by European musical tradition from the beginning.

1000 is a multi-national quartet, coming from Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and the US. Shoe is their third album, and each shows a marked development of collective style over the previous. Unplayable appeared on Skycap Records in 2007, including an organum track and other explicit references to historical music, and with a title that presumably suggests the musicological rhetoric around Ars Subtilior music and otherwise (and it's quite a vanity to suggest that historical sources are unplayable, and apparently some kind of joke, because their method of form is so different from one's own). The taunting titled Played appeared on Leo Records in 2009, again with explicit historical references, but more integrated. With Shoe, we have not only a departure from that title sequence, but an album where any historical allusion is integrated. Red Toucan has had a string of appealing releases, so their producer and I must share some taste, and I noticed this recording from looking at their website, not having been familiar with any of the musicians previously. (I should also note that it was Red Toucan that issued the first Wrack album.)

Besides, as noted, being "useful" for the listener, what is Shoe about? It's frequently rather brassy music, often evoking feelings of dance, with polyphonic simultaneity between the parts, yet enough space to hear each musician clearly. Themes are distributed piecewise across parts, and break down to trios or duos often enough, but not really solos. The latter parts of the description would apply directly to the body of 4-part Franco-Flemish polyphony as well. (And I just posted a better discussion of "the sound and the fury"s latest release in this area.) So of what use is Shoe? Evidently, it promotes multi-threaded thought, since I'm already talking simultaneously about the next entry here, and referencing another project. And the next entry isn't next, at least not according to the beginning of this one, but rather in a sense, introduces this one. So it's a suggestion of nonlinear time, of cycle even, or maybe eternity, even if 1000 years is a brief eternity. With the tracks named after parts of a shoe, it's hard to take anything from that. And with all this conceptual talk, I should also reassert that Shoe projects a strong sense of dance, in e.g. tracks #8 (lining) or #10 (backstay), but really throughout. It's lively, living in history.

So this idea of use... of subject as object... the shoe here is actually given in parentheses, although Klare says he wanted to create something "as palpable as an object made from a material such as leather or wood." This object, these sounds, are obviously made from materials... the materials of the instruments. The result is both a document, tangible, and the vibrations it can reproduce. Sonic vibrations are palpable of course, but what makes a set of them an object? Here I would suggest it's an element of self-containment, of referring to all of European music history, most dramatically bebop (the least European reference), but not entirely referring to any of it, of being an object of its own. Yet, in a very strong sense, use is inimical to art. It's therefore in contradiction — and contradiction is a part of conversation or of counterpoint — that Shoe finds its use-value. Contradiction creates its own boundary from what is not-it, and so establishes an object. In short, this is a compelling album, immediately interesting and holding up to more concentrated thought. It might be useful, but surely not in a straightforward way, which in turn engages the quality of "usefulness" in art.

24 May 2012

Art recoils from use. A painting is not a spade. So I would say that "use" in art is a contradictory statement, but that there's no particular reason an artist has to eschew contradiction. One could presumably create an ostensibly useful object that incorporates some art (a spoon with a nice handle, say), but a recording is not that, unless we posit a need to fill the airtime — a motivation & result predictable enough in the world of Muzak® and its close relation, the entertainment industry. If art was once about denying usefulness, in a world of useful things, maybe it becomes about use in a world of "entertainment" and useless (harmful) things. That's the contradiction as much as anything... the lack of stasis around confrontation.

If Shoe is the record of the year thus far, raising use explicitly, it's certainly not the end, or indeed the beginning, of a discussion of use. (It needn't invoke a discussion of the footwear industry either, but it could.) In awaiting the release of Mary Halvorson's second quintet album, Bending Bridges, I had occasion to reflect on thoughts of use around the Firehouse 12 catalog. I'd heard most of their releases, most notably Bill Dixon's Tapestries album, but not Sided Silver Solid by Carl Maguire's Floriculture, and I was not otherwise familiar with Maguire, so decided to have a listen. As it happens, the use for this album, for me, isn't so much the musical content, but the statement of intent: To create a "distinctly sensual space" that's not about virtuosity, story, or sentiment. The mention of story obviously engages my previous remarks about Darius Jones. Maguire, much like Klare, was also looking to create an "object" as reflected in the title. There is no mention of use, however, and the music has an abstract quality that doesn't particularly relate to anything — except sensation, I suppose. It's not a terrible description of music qua music, but what is there other than that? This is similar to my reaction to some other Firehouse 12 releases, and other items by the same artists. It seems strange to me to listen to Bill Dixon very succinctly discuss his ideas on abstraction on Going to the Center (the short documentary film accompanying Tapestries) — namely that an abstraction doesn't exist by itself; it's an abstraction from something — in contrast to these albums. How are they actually confronting the world? I guess that's my question. If the world is sensation, then creating sensation is easily exhausted as sensation. One might ask, what is the difference between an object and a sculpture? A sculpture confronts the subject in the experience of object. Well, if I can follow the complicated formal technique in the music, now what? It seems to me it's nothing but virtuosity — something I haven't really discussed much — at that point, any claims aside.

In the recent past, I've implicitly made use-based recommendations for the albums Live at Vision Festival & Pail Bug, probably among others. A natural question around these sorts of remarks is whether the use is more inherent to the albums or something I bring personally that is reflected in my experience with them. Perhaps this becomes a discussion of intent, which I'm going to put off indefinitely. I don't view intent as a necessary component of art, and certainly not of use. Use in this sense is not about limitation; if one could say "this is all something is good for" that would be limitation. Finding a use in art is more personal, at least in a subject without severe limitations. If I don't find it, someone else might, becoming a sort of de-abstraction. Maybe that would be a particular sensation. Finding any use then, at least in the sense of meaning, is a mutual success, but not the only end-success. Does a distinctly different view, also finding usefulness, but about the same album, fracture people or bring them together? That's a question around the subject-object tension. And it depends. Mirror mirror (cf.).

There's no truth in mere abstraction, at least no human truth. Is that a fair rephrasing of Dixon's comment? Perhaps not. The implication of Dixon's statement related to the above could be that "mere" abstraction is impossible. (And I don't mean to offer a guess; I mean to discuss.) This is all human music, after all. Is music the least concrete of arts? Perhaps that's poetry. But in any case, this idea of "use" ... of subject as object ... stands against the intangible & fleeting nature of sound: Except that now sound is recorded, stolen from itself, as the stereotypical soul of the photographed native. Contradiction driving contradiction. In a world of contradiction, should not art contradict itself? This seems more real to me than any sort of quest for purity, or even expression.

30 May 2012

Bending Bridges (recorded 7/11) is Mary Halvorson's third leader album, featuring the same quintet as Saturn Sings (recorded 12/09). Although I've very much enjoyed Halvorson's contributions to e.g. Pool School, I didn't particularly enjoy her two previous leader albums. They're generally more "accessible" than some of her collaborative experimental work (such as Crackleknob, which is a fully improvised album, with very close listening between Halvorson & Nate Wooley & Reuben Radding), and didn't come together in a compelling way for me, as noted in this space in a packed entry last June. However, I'm finding Bending Bridges to be a more polished album and more enjoyable. Halvorson remarked that Saturn Sings was recorded shortly after the group formed, whereas with Bending Bridges they've had a chance to play together quite a bit. It shows.

Bending Bridges is still a rather accessible album, and sure to be featured in many mainstream sources. It includes a variety of musical allusions that aren't fully integrated, yet does begin to create a personal ensemble style beyond Halvorson's innovative guitar technique. What with the title, one might expect more pitch bending, as Halvorson does with Tom Rainey and elsewhere, but Bending Bridges usually has an audible melody and keeps to a harmonic context. At times there are some rock-style "noise wall" passages which serve as climaxes. (I'd like to hear something like this as a progression, and see what comes next, but it seems to be a reason to end whatever has been happening.) Perhaps the most striking influence in the album comes from Mediterranean sonorities (oriented around Spain as the origin of the modern guitar, presumably), and the album opens with a Sephardic-style (almost Armenian) theme, in an extended track that includes rock-style noises crashing in and then ends in a more pixellated postmodern style that isn't found much otherwise on the album. There is also a fair amount of explicit jazz reference, with a tender take-off on Monk in track #6, and heavy use of chorus-style entries on the quintet tracks, starting with #2, which also includes the longest horn solos. Four of the nine tracks are for trio, without the horns, and indeed the album does suffer a bit from a separation between the guitar-bass-drums core and the two horns, which was a lament I had about Saturn Sings. In some ways, this music would work better as a quartet, given how little the horns are used, although that would preclude the "chorus" style allusion, even if it made the musicians seem more equal. Track #7 starts with an appealing Arab-Andalucían chord progression and uses the horns to take what might have been vocal parts in that style, then weaving them into a counterpoint, a rarity for the album. Track #4 suggests a bit of bossa nova in a deconstructed tapestry. The variety of references is interesting but doesn't always come together as a personal style, i.e. it remains as juxtaposition in many cases. It's generally in the trio tracks that the more integrated & intricate music is heard. The interplay of guitar & bass & drums is consistently interesting in this setting, with coherent roles, stimulating individual material, and interesting takeoffs of each other. In short, Bending Bridges is a worthwhile album with plenty of different things to hear, including Halvorson's continuing development of guitar technique.

As it happened, I didn't make a point to hear Crackleknob (recorded in 2006, released in 2009) until now, and heard it for the first time immediately prior to listening to Bending Bridges for the first time. It's quite a contrast. Crackleknob takes concentration to follow what's going on, whereas I had no trouble following Bending Bridges from beginning to end with less attention. By that I mean the basic musical development; some of the allusions don't jump out. Although Crackleknob makes a strong first impression, it wasn't as compelling after I heard it and knew what would happen. Still, I see that group listed on Halvorson's active projects on her website, and I wonder if there will ever be a followup.

31 May 2012

Henry Threadgill's latest record will undoubtedly bring much discussion. Already the Pi Recordings website is filling with various reviews. Jason Moran says that the Zooid ensemble is "the vanguard of counterpoint." This seems to me as good a summation as any. With Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp, Zooid is a sextet (and furthers the biological reference with the "Spp" abbreviation), adding a cello. I read somewhere, but lost the reference, that this was what Threadgill "always intended." The statement strikes me as absurd, but no matter. First impressions of the new record were very positive for me; I liked the addition of cello and the fuller sound. Also, This Brings Us To, upon familiarity, includes some stumbling by the musicians at times. (I do not really fault this; one cannot wait forever to put something before the public, and I release imperfect material myself, as a better solution than the alternative.) There is more facility on Tomorrow Sunny, but also less space with the cello — a loss of Air, one might say. So I don't think the record is quite the landmark of the previous, but it's very good and demands to be heard. Others will say more, of course.

OK, so that said, it would probably be crazy to describe Threadgill's style here as non-fusion: It would be crazy because, like anyone on the planet, he has had various influences, and what else are we to call melding those influences into something coherent & personal, other than fusion? I gave an answer already, but it's never entirely clear what "fusion" is or isn't. I might call the previous album I discussed here pastiche instead, but that seems unkind. With Threadgill's last few albums we have something different, something where the influences do not call out, something molded into its own form that does not explicitly look outside itself. That's a lonely place to be. Non-fusion as a refusal to confront the world? No. It can be a different confrontation, and that much more intensely existing as an object. It evokes the opposite of environmental music and its (purported) non-human purity by being only human. I made a quip about "mirror mirror" around subject-object tension last month, and Threadgill has already assured us this is a verb. So this is about jazz about being who you are, reflecting the world in art, and in turn reflecting yourself.

To return to an earlier question, if "use" isn't a criterion for music, why am I listening? What is it I want out of any of these items, whether album or concert or...? Maybe more to the point, how am I choosing what to hear? I'm an active chooser; I don't listen to the radio, for instance. Threadgill specifically states in this album that he will say nothing about the music — and a woman dispassionately reads this statement, as well as everything else printed on the album, as the last track — and that the listener should "let" the music. That's actually my preference; I don't read liner notes or whatever until after I listen to something. But that's a coy statement; I've already selected it to hear, somehow. In this case, it was "new album by Henry Threadgill" and that was enough. Mostly though, something comes to my attention via text (and the foregoing is a text, only a rather succinct one), and I make a choice, and then I try to create a little distance between myself and whatever that text was, and listen, and then revisit text (being what I do). It's a very imperfect process, from the choosing, down to the listening without expectations (and one might say, the writing). Lack of expectation is essentially impossible, other than by stumbling across music somewhere. In my life, I might stumble across music, but it's rarely anything I want to hear — those circumstances, which are the best circumstances, might somewhat redeem some stupid pop song, but how much can such a thing be redeemed? It's a terrible world for happening upon music right now, other than perhaps the sounds of crowds, which is usually the best one can do. I'm not sure what the use is for that, but it seems to do something for me. It's often spontaneous & genuine, at least, even if at a distance (and what does the distance hide?). Then we have the environmental sounds... the technological ones do need some redemption, or further mediation, being so mediated already... but there are the natural ones (and what does that mean?) that could probably do with less mediation.

On Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp, there is explicitly created human interaction, counterpoint. In that sense, it develops its own environment in dialog, and while it's improvised, it's also carefully planned. Threadgill has developed a distinct system for distributing intervallic material to the performers, and together with the rhythmic relations, this creates the sense of independence and interdependence, counterpoint. The music finds its coherence and self-expression in this interrelation, again mirroring of mirroring, both within and without. Generating the contradiction of the self-contained as expansive, Threadgill goes beyond the merely personal: We can hear the striving of humanity for both relation & independence. Or perhaps I've (merely?) found my own metaphor reflected in the music.

6 June 2012

I'm trying to note recordings that encourage me to listen a few times, even if they don't become favorites. Being so oriented toward the "long view" on this site for so long, it's important to acknowledge that sometimes a performance or recording that makes a strong first impression but doesn't sustain repeated hearings is as influential on one's view of music as something one lives with over a long time. I'm repeating myself with this statement, of course, reminding myself.

In fact, none of the following items is so much a "first impression" recording, but they're recent releases that deserve to be mentioned.

Canadian clarinetist François Houle's latest leader recording on Songlines, Genera, adds Samuel Blaser & Taylor Ho Bynum to label mainstays Benoît Delbecq & Harris Eisenstadt, forming an ensemble with impressive range & variety of backgrounds. At times, this album shows more of an avant garde style, but it's basically aimed at a more general audience, including lyrical tracks, New Age-style smooth chord progressions, extended horn technique, and pretty much a calculated assortment of current sounds. It's a pleasant variety & an enjoyable album. I tend to prefer albums that concentrate on exploring more specific areas, but as far as a "let's touch base with a wide variety of currents" album, Genera is appealing, with Houle's lyrical & legato clarinet tone the unifying thread. Although I hadn't really been taken with anything by Houle to this point, I couldn't resist wanting to hear this sextet (or 5+1, says the cover), given the personnel.

Andromeda is a recent leader album by French saxophonist Alexandra Grimal on Ayler Records. That label seems to be increasing its range and significance of late. I don't know if this counts as Grimal's second leader album, since her web discography is a little unclear on that, but in any case, it's early in her career. One can almost view Andromeda (recorded in December 2011) as a sequel to Pieces of Old Sky by Samuel Blaser, seeing as both albums not only share a skyward theme, but consist of a quartet led by a European horn player together with Tyshawn Sorey & Thomas Morgan & Todd Neufeld. Sorey is simply outstanding on Andromeda, a big part of what kept me listening. Although Pieces of Old Sky mainly hinged on the lengthy title piece, Andromeda is an album-length symphony — described as such in a few places — and so even more reliant on one composition. There's appealing material here to be sure, with a very understated and usually quiet style, Grimal herself often remaining silent while the rhythm trio (or a duo) plays. Her entries are quite judicious, and there's a careful ebb & flow to the album as a whole. The music was written while contemplating the night sky in a quiet & remote setting, something that does not match my listening environment at all. This sort of mismatch is interesting to consider, and leads to some broader thoughts, most of which I've articulated before. For one, it took me a while to hear what was happening, because the structural elements are often so quiet. I had to ask myself: Am I listening to this again because I didn't hear it, or because I heard something I wanted to repeat? A little of both, I guess. There's something to be said for projecting a sense of quiet & fragility into the noise & bustle of everyday life, but is that best done directly? Put another way, if I'm alone under the stars in a quiet setting, do I want to listen to this album? My experience in that situation tells me no; in fact, I'm not seeking anything technological or constructed at a time like that. Andromeda isn't entirely about taking quiet solitude into an urban living room, though. Track #4 suddenly bursts out with the noises of traffic & urban living; eventually they are quieted. Call it a reverse reflection. So it's a thought-provoking album, and enough for me to wonder where Grimal will go from here, particularly if she's going to emphasize minimalism in her own horn playing; also about a more spontaneous creation, where the place of conception & execution (and reception?) coincide. Andromeda also affirms just how talented Sorey is at executing quietly complex rhythmic layers, with Morgan & Neufeld certainly holding up their end of things admirably as well. It's seeing that trio listed with the previously unknown Grimal that prompted me to hear the album.

Another album to note is an improvised set by Axel Dörner, Urs Leimgruber, Robert Landfermann, and Christian Lillinger. The album, released this year on Creative Sources, isn't titled, but I'm going to refer to it as Ammm, since all the tracks start with 'a' and have some number of 'm's following. I should first admit that I'm probably prejudiced against this album, seeing as it was recorded in October 2008, and only mixed by Dörner in October 2011, as part of a batch of Creative Sources releases featuring him. I suppose another way to look at it is that, had the set been put out promptly, I'd've probably never noticed it, but it does seem like a recording from the past at this point. I did notice it, in large part because of Lillinger, having heard his other well-regarded albums on Clean Feed. Near as I can tell, this is a very spontaneous live session, with much of the ethos of classic free jazz. That's true of the ensemble constitution of course, and the players mainly stick to traditional roles. However, there's a variety of extended technique from the horns that shows more of a 21st century currency, and indeed their playing and interaction is quite captivating at times. That extends to the dynamics, and the way the drums are sometimes quiet, mixing in with the other players, or loud & energetic. Ammm seems like a very worthwhile document for these players, and an enjoyable album to get to know, without a lot of similarity to some of the more environmental albums that dominate the Creative Sources catalog. This is, in principle, an album that could have been released on a variety of labels. It doesn't appear to have any particular theme or emphasis, except (I think?) a series of performances at the Loft featuring Landfermann, but it gets past a seeming lack of purpose with a stimulating combination of sonority & technique within a classic format.

26 June 2012

French alto saxophone player & composer Jean-Luc Guionnet doesn't consider himself a jazz musician, I've read, but he now has two recordings on the Clean Feed jazz label, both for sax-bass-drums trio, a configuration with a distinct jazz history. As it happens, the most recently released album, Moon Fish, was recorded a month prior to Bird Dies, released late last year. Although The Fish is an entirely French trio with Benjamin Duboc & Edward Perraud, and Ames Room includes Australians Will Guthrie & Clayton Thomas, there are definite similarities between the albums, illuminating the common strand of Guionnet's participation. The Fish is the longer standing ensemble, having been playing together for several years, but both trios had already released albums before appearing on Clean Feed. Likewise both are live improvisations (and both include lengthy applause that I could ultimately do without). Both are also high energy albums, pretty much keeping the output at a frenetic pace. (The French musicians in particular are known for very quiet or atmospheric music in some of their other projects, but not here. There's no sense whatsoever of environmental music to these albums.) What distinguishes Guionnet's playing in both of these albums is a strong sense of forward propulsion. The music simply never lags. Although there's no real variation in mood, as I'd often prefer, the high-energy forward propulsion is consistently impressive, including on the technical-conceptual level. This is not arbitrarily conceived music, as might be a cliché of free jazz, but something quite carefully crafted in all its frenetic glory. Undoubtedly, this is the sense in which Guionnet is not a jazz musician, because he doesn't use the basic material or musical phrases of jazz, or even its inspiration, although these groups adopt the ensemble constitution and improvisatory format.

Whereas in late December I compared Bird Dies to Feldman's late works, and embraced the minimalist-maximalist label I found online, Moon Fish doesn't really fit that aspect of the description. Bird Dies might be termed "cellular" in this context, namely a musical figure fitting inside a particular cell, evocative of a geometric figure, as in the trio's name, and then its orientation varied in time. It's this cellular nature that's grounded in minimalism, even if the music itself is very active. Moon Fish does not proceed in this manner. Rather, it probably needs to be described as process-music more generally, a label that likewise fits the variation process of Bird Dies, but includes overlapping lines & different interactions for the trio as a whole. There isn't a geometric or cellular sense to Moon Fish, but rather its forms are more evocative of language or semantics, even if they're of a newly generated language. There is, on both albums, something of a systematic feel — I would guess involving stochastic processes. Whereas Bird Dies is one long tour-de-force, Moon Fish consists of three medium-length tracks, each with a somewhat different process. I have not seen this working method discussed anywhere, but my impression is that there are particular mathematical relationships governing the random-stochastic progress of the music. I can imagine some sort of computer output being referenced live, although I have no idea if that's true, and don't believe it's necessary. In any case, it would be this mathematical sense of process that provides the seemingly unstoppable forward momentum of these pieces (and if encapsulated fairly simply in equations, the minimalist kernel generating a larger form). That observation is not to understate the human element of these albums, which is considerable in execution, and quite probably built into the process conception itself. This is very sophisticated music in that sense, not something that fits into a wide variety of life contexts, what with its unrelenting intensity, but a conception that demands to be heard. The exposition of musical "space" is different between the two albums, and different to some degree on the tracks of Moon Fish, but it's a very strict & logical exposition behind the seemingly arbitrary surface (noise). These are explorations worthy of Xenakis, with whom I've learned that Guionnet studied, applied to live music. That such (stochastic, mathematical) ideas could be applied to produce a more linguistic, rather than architectural, product is a welcome development of Moon Fish.

3 July 2012

The Red Toucan label continues its run of impressive releases with the second album by Thomas Heberer's Clarino trio, Cookbook. I discussed the first album, Klippe, back in September. At that time, Cookbook had already been recorded, and had already addressed the criticisms I had! Perhaps I should feel silly, but in retrospect I suppose my comments were obvious. Namely, although Heberer's concept in Klippe seemed excellent, it demanded more familiarity from the musicians, and more resulting "meat on the bones" of these conceptual pieces, as I put it then. With Cookbook, not only is there more familiarity & command from the musicians, but there's some added material in traditional notation to flesh out some of the pieces further. It's a fine second album. Beyond those aspects, Cookbook also projects a strong sense of repose. Phrases are often related in an unmeasured context, there is plenty of space & silence, and the musicians generally take their time with their expositions. While that description was nominally true of the earlier album, it did not have the same sense of calm.

As a listener, that sense of calm & repose is quite welcome, and gives the album an instant "use" — to cite the previous Red Toucan album, Shoe. Another natural album to compare is Fremdenzimmer, since Baloni is a drummerless trio also featuring Pascal Niggenkemper & Joachim Badenhorst, but whereas Fremdenzimmer has a sort of spooky wildness or otherness to it, Cookbook comes off as being much more resident in the conscious human domain, even when using extended technique. It's lively, unforced conversation or exposition. The unmeasured pauses reflect this, as does the occasional dodecaphony. (I would argue for a particular open-ended, psychological stance from classic dodecaphony, reflecting its specific Viennese origins. It has that feeling of exploration, but of exploring humanity & the psyche, and Clarino reflects that mood.) The content of the music ranges from extended technique & microtones to conventional music phrases, some longer, some shorter. The constituent parts of the music are often fairly simple, but juxtaposed in different ways, sometimes starkly — discourse distilled to a gesture, or sometimes affect, retained in memory (consciousness). Even in this sequence of a dozen short pieces, it seems each musician has plenty of time to express himself. It's the large-scale structure & flexibility of Heberer's cookbook notation that facilitates this, and in turn a timeless sense of calm for the listener — calm in the face of, at some moments, very active or dissonant sounds. It will be interesting to listen to this album in some unusual contexts, which I have not done to this point.

4 July 2012

With Cookbook coming into my hands literally within two days of Joe Hertenstein's new trio album, Future Drone, a reminder of Hertenstein & Heberer's collaboration on HNH & Polylemma is a natural introduction to a more detailed discussion of Future Drone. Polylemma was one of the most influential albums of 2011, at least for me (and reflected in broader acclaim), and in some ways catapulted my interest in exploring European improvising ensembles further. Beyond a variety of stimulating material & technique, Polylemma includes a fine conversational conception of ensemble interaction. Polylemma managed to combine a jazz feel with a modern chamber music orientation, and did so in a way that seemed integrated & natural. Cookbook has some of the same openness, while being more leisurely & less jazzy. Although Cookbook is clearly a sequel — and in fact Klippe was recorded a few months after PolylemmaFuture Drone is a very different album with a rather different ensemble. I had the opportunity to interview Joe Hertenstein several months ago, and learn something of his thought process around recording Future Drone, in anticipation of the album's release. In that interview, Joe promises that all of his projects will sound different, and he's certainly accomplished that with this new album.

It's also natural to compare Future Drone to Crespect, Hertenstein's album with his piano trio Tørn, seeing as both trios include bassist Achim Tang. Although there's some similarity at times, and Crespect continues to be an album I enjoy over many hearings, Future Drone is much more thought-provoking. As per the interview, there is an explicit inside-outside conception to this trio, with Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone. Irabagon won the Thelonious Monk competition in 2008, and has released some very straight-ahead jazz, as well as a variety of more exploratory material. Somewhere in between those poles would be his work with the Mary Halvorson Quintet and their recent release Bending Bridges. Irabagon has also mixed inside-outside extremes with Mostly Other People Do The Killing, who view straight bebop lines through the lens of postmodern deconstruction, although in many ways they have a distinctly USA sound. Achim Tang comes from a different improvisatory background, and according to Joe in our interview, was reluctant to perform "jazz" with Tørn. None of these performers has an updated website (both Irabagon & Tang have sites that haven't been updated in a few years, and there is a site for the trio that has only a photo as of this writing), and so there isn't a lot of detail available about the music on this album, other than the timing and the impulse to get these players together. That's not atypical, of course. After all, music is its own communication. Tang's online bio does mention "world music" without elaboration, and that seems particularly significant.

Future Drone takes in a lot of territory, so it's human to seek a statement regarding what, even if it's something of a crutch for the listener. Although an album like Bending Bridges includes a variety of influences, they are more explicit and less integrated in the playing moment to moment — less improvisatory one might say, and less varied from player to player. That's not to say that Future Drone has the players seeming entirely independent or lacks an ensemble sound, but rather that the tracks come together with different references coming from different players, often seamlessly. Perhaps the most naked of these is Tang's evocation of the erhu (and in turn the Chinese naturalist sound) to open the final track. In contrast, the opening track with its screeching dissonance announces to the less adventurous listener that Future Drone might be a bit much. (My experience is that the unwary sometimes flinch.) But most of the album is much more subtle (as is the opening, actually), and that's what makes it so compelling: The originality of the conception together with the wide variety of influences end up sounding like a unified improvisation session. To be a bit flippant, Future Drone answers the question "What happens when a German-Filipino ensemble gets together to play Turkish-Vietnamese fusion in the spirit of jazz?" I doubt anyone was explicitly asking that question, but it gives the flavor of the situation.

Future Drone made me rethink how I hear world music, particularly the music of Asia, broadly speaking. It's a significant event in that sense: Listening to some earlier favorite Turkish or Vietnamese recordings and having them sound different. That's probably as good a description of a non-superficial fusion effort as I can give... actually making one rehear the originals differently. This is the point where I was hoping for some website comments. I've not seen any comment from Irabagon (who is from Chicago) about how his Filipino heritage might be reflected in his music, for instance. (And make no mistake, there are moments where he is playing straight jazz phrases.) Does Tang have a strong background with Turkish music? That's what I hear, but then Turkish music already includes a broad spectrum, taking into account the more recent history (and absorption) in modern Turkey & the Middle East, as well as the traditions in Uzbekistan & Sinkiang & beyond into contact with China — this is already a pan-Asian music, to a high degree. The "confrontation" of this album got me thinking about the Ottomans & Habsburgs, Vienna as a frontier in the days of Mozart & Beethoven.... It's been a strongly evocative album, not really much like anything else. (And I should note that my experience of non-Spanish traditional Filipino music is minimal, which could be why I associate some of these textures more with Vietnam.) Much of world traditional music is improvisatory, of course, particularly in the instrumental realm.

Although helping me hear a wide variety of music differently is the most revelatory part of Future Drone on the personal level, there's more to say about it as a jazz album — and, after all, it's out on a label with "jazz" explicitly in the name. As noted, there are classic jazz references from the saxophone, and of course (as with Moon Fish, one of the immediately preceding albums added here, and also quite creative in a much more singular way) the sax-bass-drums combo is an absolute standard of free jazz. I should also note that Irabagon plays tenor here (as opposed to Guionnet playing alto, and the two do have distinct jazz histories), which has not generally been true of his leader work; his discography is mostly on alto. This contributes to a darker sound for Future Drone, although the musicians aren't averse to playing in higher registers. There's a darkness to overlaying some of these traditions; more than one style of music at once doesn't generally open to the ear as readily. I'm not going to jump to equating that with dissonance, however, or rather conflict. Going back to the human metaphor, which I find so valuable in Hertenstein's music generally, this music is an illustration of human difference in conversation, and not an argument. One must pay more attention to hear it, simply because there isn't an overarching framework for hearing it already in place; no clear framework, but no conception of difference as "ugly" either. It can be interesting to consider the history of music & harmony through such a social lens, including Austrian-Turkish relations (as well as Turks in Germany today). How did music get saddled with this notion of difference as ugly? One doesn't hear the same lament of visual arts, namely that paintings should use only clear & bright colors. People will look at darkness, plays of light and texture, and consider them. Music became, somehow, the domain of people who want clear answers, easy & definitive resolution, routine personal validation. Future Drone challenges this conception (as do many of the albums in this section).

While the bass is prominent throughout, and reflects many of the world influences, Future Drone is also a drummer's album, and this is where much of the mediation occurs. It's interesting that drums became relatively marginalized in the European tradition (because of an emphasis on text, perhaps, and insufficient rhythmic notation?), almost requiring reintroduction from Africa & elsewhere. Through much of Asia, percussion is a central part of traditional music, and it's through placing different ideas in different rhythmic contexts (in the same or a different time scale) that ideas are often combined & contrasted, whether in India or Indonesia or in the pan-Turkish traditions, etc. (This is a need that I try to meet partly with things like dashes and parentheses in writing.) It's quite instructive to only listen to Hertenstein on this album, whose playing I won't otherwise attempt to describe (other than to say it's the most individually compelling drumming I've heard since Jeff Arnal on Pail Bug). Joe did say in our interview that although he enjoyed the European classical tradition as a child, he wished for more to do as a drummer. There is no such issue here, as he shapes & reflects much of this very human conversation. His composition on track #2 is also a highlight (and #8 perhaps refers to Paul Motian, to whom the album is dedicated). There's a sense in which Joe does sound the same: He listens carefully, reflects, and responds respectfully while moving the conversation forward, all with a degree of simultaneity only available to percussion.

17 July 2012

Continuing with another drummer album, and the seemingly persistent trio[*] theme, Jeff Davis's piano trio featuring Russ Lossing & Eivind Opsvik recently released its debut album, Leaf House. Davis's first leader album, We Sleep Outside recorded in 2007, was with a sextet, so his second leader album in Leaf House is a considerable change over four years, taking up one of the classic jazz formats. I've not seen the "outdoorsy" theme reflected in both album titles addressed, so don't know if it's about a love for camping, or tackling the issues of homelessness, or etc. It might be tempting to see it as a more general reference to an earlier era of humanity, although the music itself shows no inclination toward primitivism. Leaf House would also seem to take Jeff Davis clearly outside the shadow of ex-wife Kris Davis, particularly having enlisted veteran pianist Lossing. (Perhaps I should also mention Davis's quality contribution to Pete Robbins' fantastic Live in Brooklyn album.)

Although the music is entirely by Davis, Lossing has a tremendous impact on Leaf House. His is the playing that stands out to the ear, especially on first hearing, and in that sense, the album has the ethos of a classic piano trio. It didn't make a strong impression on me originally, but I've come to find it rather compelling over time. Although he uses preparations on some albums, such as 2006's Metal Rat with Mat Maneri & Mark Dresser, Lossing is playing a straight piano here (even if some "prepared" sounds emerge from the ensemble occasionally), and that fits with the humanistic character of the music. Something similar might be said of Lossing's playing on Consort in Motion (in repertory associated with the dawn of the modern era), and certainly his new solo album Drum Music, featuring the music of Paul Motian (also the dedicatee of the recent revelatory album Future Drone. Although I'm generally eschewing solo albums, I did want to hear Drum Music, to get more of a sense of Motian's music — the Beethoven reference on track #3 is quite poignant, and there are other good moments, but I didn't find the material to be terribly compelling overall.) Although Lossing has several leader albums, among many other contributions, he seems to be at his best here with Jeff Davis. Opsvik has worked with Davis in numerous ensembles, and provides a valuable individual contribution to the trio as well, including some haunting solos, both bowed & plucked.

With its various piano allusions to Western styles, Leaf House might be most easily compared to Uri Caine's Siren album. However, whereas Caine seems centered in an early 20th century sense of extended harmony, Leaf House has a more modern orientation, incorporating serial ideas and post-Messiaen figures. Indeed the driving Messiaen-style sections show a definite parallel with Good Citizen at times, even if Good Citizen has more of an atonal orientation. Leaf House manages to straddle that divide and incorporate much of the harmonic language of the later 20th century, which is part of what lends it such a humanistic tone. The broad harmonic range juxtaposed with a stimulating (not novel) rhythm section lends the album its understated creativity. There's a certain gentility that comes especially from the drums, which is how one can hear Davis shaping the music. Although there's some more aggressive playing at times, it's mostly a subtle drum performance, and one that reveals new facets with more hearing. Davis and his associates tackle the piano trio straight-on here, with a dignified no-gimmick performance that takes in a lot of territory while retaining a strongly human feel. It's an impressive album on that basis, one that might seem impossible today. Davis's open & honest nature is praised repeatedly in the brief liner notes, and it does seem audible.

I also wanted to mention a couple of recent Aum Fidelity releases featuring William Parker: Joe Morris's Altitude was riveting the first time through, although the second track is excerpts and the long first track has some slow sections. Likewise showing jazz as a fundamentally live medium is David S. Ware's Planetary Unknown Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011, which is as high-energy as the participant list might suggest.

[*] I'm not intentionally emphasizing trios here, even if the last four albums added to my favorites have been trios. As the smallest ensemble size I've been exploring, of course there's a natural practicality to the trio that makes it easier to form and create an album. Additionally, I tend to be critical of albums where it seems as though there are more musicians than are really needed — that's my sense of economy or minimalism, I guess — and gravitate toward starker ideas. As far as eschewing solos or duos, I have no plans to revisit that decision any time soon. It takes at least three people to make what I consider an "interesting" human interaction; although I grant there's no real shortage of interesting behavior between e.g. married couples, a pair has a different dynamic.

1 August 2012

After a bit of a lag in new releases, there are suddenly many to discuss all at once, and in preparation, I've already added four to the favorites listing here.

Although this happened over the past couple of weeks, I didn't feel settled to write until I'd come to terms with the most recent release featuring Joëlle Léandre, Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet. I had highly anticipated this album, based on the personnel, and this anticipation was heightened by the months it took between appearing on the Leo Records website and coming to USA. As it happened, it arrived with a whole pile of items, including in the medieval realm, many that I found quite interesting. There's also the matter of expectation & anticipation, which undoubtedly made it harder to form an opinion than it might have in a vacuum — and some of these other items, to be discussed soon, arrived more in a "vacuum" so to speak — although the density of the Quartet's improvisatory interaction itself certainly plays a role.

Live at the Metz' Arsenal is a sweeping album that takes in a lot of musical territory, both in terms of the individual performers' various influences, and in confronting contemporary music as a whole. Much of this background and listening orientation is described rather well by Stuart Broomer in the liner notes, but I do want to take a digression to discuss Broomer's idea of the "The Platonic Score." I should perhaps leave this criticism aside, because many releases in this area do not come with any interesting written material at all, and Broomer does a fine job with the personal background in his essay. However, I'm going to take issue with this Platonic idea. First of all, I am firmly convinced that Plato himself did not believe in "Forms" — rather, that he was writing basically allegory or satire (although his writing does not take either of these specific structures, as they were not conceived at the time), or what I would term a reductio argument. In other words, Plato describes the limits of reason & logic by using them to arrive at an absurd conclusion. That subsequent generations accepted the conclusion, rather than taking it as an absurdity is, well, highly lamentable. Frankly, though, such a turn of events could have been anticipated, given the manipulative nature of "rationality" and sophistry per se. (And why was Plato writing in this manner? Because Socrates had already been killed for trying to make these points more directly!) Note that the definition of sophistry in English as identical with the process of reason is now considered obsolete, meaning not that the word sophistry has changed to include an element of artifice, but rather that "reason" has, to deny it. This is the so-called Enlightenment thinking. Anyway, I think I've stated this clearly. Secondly, regarding these notes specifically, the appeal to something outside of the immediacy of the improvisational setting and the body of sound itself is — in my opinion — a step in the wrong direction, even if it does tie into earlier centuries of Western thought. I would suggest that music of this performance is the music of this performance, and one should listen to it as-is. That's the value of improvisation as being of a very specific time & place; a recording projects this time & place into the future, yes, for better or worse, and in a sense functions as this "form," as an object outside the music, but this is an artifact, not a deeper reality. OK then.

Another hopefully worthwhile digression regards chronology. Live at the Metz' Arsenal was recorded in 2009, several months prior to the previous quartet release featuring Joëlle Léandre, Live at Vision Festival, albeit otherwise including completely different performers. Obviously I find both of these quartet improvisation albums highly appealing, and this has a lot to do with the depth of the interaction between quartet members, not just by pairs, but in larger groupings. This essentially reiterates my current orientation away from solos or duos, and Joëlle Léandre does a lot of solos & duos. I would generally characterize these latter items as more individual and less of a conceptual confrontation with the body of music today. The same can basically be said of Léandre's two trio sessions recorded in 2009, Last Seen Headed & Before After, both including a melody instrument and a drummer. These are enjoyable & interesting albums, but Live at the Metz' Arsenal is a major work — no doubt why it occasioned an appeal to forms.

It's Alvin Curran's contribution to the quartet that I personally found most troubling. I had some familiarity with Curran via his collaboration with Scelsi, and indeed he appears on the first Canti del Capricorno record, but I've been slow to find my way in electronic music. In this space, I've largely been interested in electronic instruments — that is, a part conceived like a horn or what-have-you, but with a different sonic profile — although this has included some real-time manipulations (White Sickness, also on Leo, is an example), etc. Curran uses a broader pallet, including external sampling and techniques from sonic installations. This is precisely the sort of thing I have resisted. I should also note Urs Leimgruber, as I particularly admire the precision of his playing, and agree with Broomer that he has a special talent for playing saxophone in the background. That's essential for a session like this that constantly varies foreground & background. The contribution of Frith's guitar was the slowest to materialize for me, although it has a considerable effect on shaping the direction of the music. Of course, I began listening first to Léandre, until Curran jolted me out of being able to do that.

Live at the Metz' Arsenal is, then, a very broad album, addressing all of contemporary life. How am I to summarize such a thing in words? I'll suggest that it recontextualizes a range of experiences from daily life. This is a basic part of the attempt to take back human life from late capitalism. Talking to people about the subject requires taking them outside the normal avenues of communication, because those have usually been corrupted, and this is an ongoing battle. MMM Quartet make me feel better about the possibility of human triumph.

11 September 2012

From the same set of Leo Records releases as Live at the Metz' Arsenal is Impulse by a Russian sax-piano-drums trio. This album could be described as both of broader and more limited interest. That is to say, it doesn't push the bounds of format, but does involve the interesting personal styles of the three participants. Alexey Kruglov on saxophone seems to be gaining a strong reputation, and this is his fifth Leo release; pianist Alexey Lapin (b.1966) is likewise an original creative performer, and the older Oleg Yudanov has a distinctive style on percussion. My acquaintance with Russian jazz is limited, so the individuality of these styles within that idiom isn't something I can assess, but they form a fine trio. There's a variety of material on Impulse, from high energy to more contemplative, making for a fairly lengthy album in a fairly traditional free jazz format. There's also blowing more than one sax at a time, a creative take on piano preparation, and a fairly Asian-influenced dynamic to the percussion. The overall vision, what Kruglov calls "the Russian view of the world," is well worth hearing. Impulse seems like a potential landmark in this area, as both Kruglov & Lapin continue to develop their searching personal styles.

12 September 2012

In at least superficial opposition to the "feel better" prospect of Live at the Metz' Arsenal is the "doom"-inspired music of tubist Dan Peck and his trio The Gate on Vomit Dreams. Beginning with the iconography, Vomit Dreams adopts a deliberately gothic style, including on the various associated websites, from the band itself to the record label. There is also the title, and the declaration stated that this is a fusion of jazz and doom music. I cannot claim any real expertise on doom music; however, the internet tells me its origin is generally traced to the early albums of Black Sabbath, which (I'll admit) I know well. The Gate is a trio with tuba & bass & drums, with a resulting orientation toward low sonorities, so that sort of evocation is the most obvious connection to anything about doom. Frankly, it took me a while to hear the doom in this album, because it mostly sounds like close listening New York avant garde jazz. However, there is thematic material that emerges that does have a resemblance to early Black Sabbath, and there are times when the trio aligns itself with the roles in a heavy metal band, with the tuba as vocals. My previous impression was that the iconography was an attempt to sell advanced improvisatory music to vampire-obsessed young people, a prospect to which I'm not opposed, but there are some real similarities that emerge, often with engaging subtlety.

That said, Vomit Dreams is an album I found rather compelling since first hearing it. I sought it out in response to the comments in the weekly newsletter at Downtown Music Gallery, as well as having heard Dan Peck with Tony Malaby & Harris Eisenstadt. And I am interested in the tuba as a lead instrument (my older daughter has played it at times, to some acclaim, although it's impractical to transport). Here Peck finds an ideal partner with Tom Blancarte (who I've heard with "deconstructionist" trumpeter Peter Evans) on bass, sometimes performing intertwining lines, and sometimes breaking into distinct roles. I know of nothing else featuring Brian Osborne, but he holds up his end of things on drums. These performers listen closely to each other and interact in small musical spaces, using a variety of musical permutations typical of current trends in the New York avant garde, with the thematic material often treated in fragments by way of tetrachord mutations (conditioned by a tritone attraction from doom). The instrumental technique is interesting too, basically capturing (among other things) electric sounds with acoustic instruments, although the close miking starts to make the distinction questionable. The album has a striking sound and also rewards close listening. The tight melodic space enforced by the natural pitch choices deepens the intensity of performer interaction, which is much of what makes the album stimulating to the musical priorities here. This kind of human interaction, even if highly technical, is basically the antithesis of doom (to use the word literally). Perhaps "doom" is more of a Warning or counter than it is a negative aspiration, a naturally polarized equation of opposites. In any case, Vomit Dreams is quite interesting even without this reference.

The Gate also has a very worthwhile live track with guest Nate Wooley on their website. Wooley's participation is reflective of the musical quality & priorities of the trio.

13 September 2012

Rounding out the set of recent releases added to my favorites list in the past month is Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces by clarinetist James Falzone's quartet, Klang. Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces fits in more with Impulse in terms of emphasizing more typical sonorities, as opposed to Vomit Dreams or Live at the Metz' Arsenal which are more striking to hear. Indeed, Falzone keeps a very pure tone on the clarinet throughout, which orients the program. However, although they show a similar density of ideas, most pieces on Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces do not have a traditional jazz structure, whether in harmonic construction or head-solo style. With its ideas on form inspired by classical music, it fits about as neatly as any contemporary effort could into the largely outmoded "third stream" label.

Although the forms of the pieces themselves vary widely, I find the sonorities on Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces very evocative of the glory days of jazz. The handful of years around 1960 were the last era when jazz was truly popular, and jazz records topped the sales charts. It's hard to imagine now, and a few years into the 60s, jazz musicians (on major labels no less!) were releasing experimental efforts, and rock & roll was taking over the top sales positions. By then, USA marketing was established in its world ascendance, and the jazz heading into 1960 (although not the actual experimental efforts) became its musical symbol of modernity. Consequently, these styles & sonorities were used for marketing purposes, including such banalities as TV theme songs, for decades. The result is that, as a child, this was my immediate association with jazz. I've remarked before that it seems easy to regard the music of the previous generation as particularly dated, even paradoxically as opposed to much older music, but there was another factor here for my generation (born in the 1960s): This music was intentionally corrupted for us, and of course we got to experience the full inanity of the made-for-market pop charts. Although subtly, Falzone is confronting this dynamic, basically recontextualizing what had — in some unfortunate sense — become clichés. That he's doing it on clarinet rather than sax taps into the longer history of jazz, one that the great marketing push had attempted to submerge.

Beside Falzone on clarinet, Klang features Chicago mainstays Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Jason Roebke (bass) & Tim Daisy (drums). The title obviously reflects Falzone traveling between two musical worlds, regarding location, and he's also uniting a variety of influences in the individual pieces. Beyond some fine instrumental playing, and compelling ensemble improvisations from musicians who know each other well — this is their fourth album together — Falzone's compositions provide an alternative look at some of the musical developments of crucial decades of the twentieth century. One might make similar comments about many chamber jazz albums, such as Polylemma, and although the inspirations for these two groups don't overlap tremendously, there are tracks with similar moods, similar densities (i.e. how much is new, how much is happening at once, etc.), and similar proportions of "jazz," even if Falzone employs different technical forms, e.g. conspicuous ostinato. (The latter could be said to generalize a major feature of bebop.) That said, it's the American ensemble that taps more into personal memories, for better or worse, and raises the issue of just how far in the past the 60s really were: It had been, on average, twenty years since the war, with Korea ongoing (to this day) and another conscription war in Vietnam getting started. Since then, it's been 48 years since the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. That society hasn't come to terms with the spectrum of music from the 1960s — and it's kind of stunning what is still discussed in "contemporary" fora on classical music — parallels, I'm quite convinced, the absolute dominance of commercial marketing from the period, to the point that it retroactively created the image of "the 50s" and virtually everything about modern history.

To what extent is James Falzone explicitly confronting these developments? Perhaps not very much; I couldn't say. However, he certainly evokes them. And who wouldn't enjoy his wonderful clarinet playing, and the great clarinet & vibes front line? This is a perfect vehicle for Adasiewicz's playing, which I've admired. Daisy & Roebke are creative and versatile here too. Finally, I should note that I saw Bruce Lee Gallanter's rave review for this disc (on top of my own admiration for clarinet, my son's instrument, to keep up a theme), and almost immediately a burst of Falzone material listed on Squidco. Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces might end up drawing broader attention.

19 September 2012

Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut's octet recording Y A D was taped at the Downtown Music Gallery store in July, and (naturally) featured in their weekly newsletter on 9/21, including a recommendation from both partners there. Although I'd never heard anyone in this octet before — and Shurdut records albums with a range of performers, so this isn't a consistent group — the description and enthusiasm were enough to prompt a listen. I've found the music rather captivating. Before discussing some more specific impressions, I should note that Shurdut (b.1969) is actually a hugely prolific recording artist, even if his recordings appear in obscure places. For instance, Ayler Records is in the process of releasing a 40-CD (download only) set; Yad is his sixth release on the JaZt Tapes label; he released recordings under his own label for a while, and had a trio release earlier this year, Bound and Gagged (featuring drummer Marc Edwards, from the Cecil Taylor Unit and elsewhere, along with bassist Janas from the octet) on the Improvising Beings label. I did listen carefully to Bound and Gagged, and a smattering of other online material, but can't say I've thoroughly surveyed Shurdut's discography. Although his style clearly interests me, the volume is daunting. I do come back to Yad, however, perhaps in part because I heard it first, but also because — bluntly — there's less screaming, and the chamber conception in the way the different instruments take part at different times fits well with my preoccupations on group interaction.

The music is strongly conditioned by the environment, urban living in general, but also the specific setting. It seems entirely fitting that Shurdut would record somewhere "strange" like a record store, and indeed performing & recording in a wide variety of locations has been an important part of his discography. This idea on environment penetrates the technical nature of the music in that Shurdut tunes to his surroundings; he has, as one story goes, put his electric guitar (although on Yad he plays saxophone, and not guitar) on the floor of a subway car to tune itself to those resonances. The music is not only based on the resonances of space around it, the musicians manage to draw tunes, relationships & structures out of that resonance. This is what takes the conception beyond pure environmental sounds, and into the direct realm of human mediation & even semantic content. In addition to these very local technical features, the musicians draw upon the urban soundscape more generally, with various passing sounds of traffic or machinery — human originated noises, including shouts, but recontextualized. Shurdut is constantly shaping this process, and it would seem the act of recording is a part of the performance. (In other settings, he has, for instance, painted while improvising jazz.)

Bill Dixon has various students active in the world of improvised music today, doing some interesting things, and I've been intrigued by some similar efforts, such as Jeff Arnal's (who studied with Milford Graves [*], who was also at Bennington College) with his group Transit. Shurdut would appear to be taking a significant & decisive next step in what had been Dixon's impetus to recontextualize landscape sounds (and it's not entirely urban for Dixon, but often is). This music deserves to be considered in the same breath, although I know of no meeting between the two. There's a similar approach to abstraction, and a resulting profundity from the mundane. As I've mentioned in the past, this sort of music often "functions" well for me in dealing with noisy urban environments, and Yad has potential in that area, one I'll be testing a bit more in the future, but it's also strongly localized via its technique. In that sense, it's rather different from a more general urban soundscape conception, and I'm guessing may seem more awkward some places than others. That said, I've enjoyed it every time. Shurdut and company's improvisations have such an unplanned sweep to them that it's kind of stunning that they end up projecting such a strong sense of equilibrium in turn. It's hopefully not drifting too far into poetics to equate this with the equilibrium of contemporary urban life, even if that life can be more unsettling in reality than it is on Yad. The other fact to note, I guess, is that the word "yad" refers to the surrogate hand used to turn pages of the Torah. No doubt this is an acknowledgement of reflective distance.

[*] I also recently read that Brian Osborne, the drummer on the tuba-led Vomit Dreams trio album I have enjoyed — and the person in the trio whose work I had not heard before — also studied with Graves. This seems worth noting before I forget to mention it.

9 October 2012

I continue to enjoy Denman Maroney's Udentity album, although it dates to 2008/2009. Much of the attraction comes from Maroney's investigation & elaboration of Partch's ideas on overtone & especially undertone relationships, and consequently forging a tighter relationship between rhythm & chord structure. Whereas I've generally found Partch's music more "interesting" than compelling, these ideas would seem to find a natural outlet in improvisation. Maroney tackles this rather explicitly, and has a very distinctive sound, particularly in the way his playing generates a rhythmic-harmonic context (one which, it should be noted, is generally discrete, like a network of nodal connections).

That said, I've been interested in releases subsequent to Udentity, although until very recently, Maroney had been concentrating on solo & duo albums. Last month, however, saw the release of Mind Games, a quartet with Andrew Drury, James Ilgenfritz, and Angelika Niescier. (I noticed this on Maroney's own website.) One thing I've struggled with in this space is discussing items that seem worthy of discussion, but which I don't thoroughly enjoy. Mind Games is just such an album, and so I hope it's clear that there is a context of valuing this work, and having spent some time listening.

Mind Games consists of group improvisations alternating with compositions by different members of the quartet. As might be inferred from the opening paragraph, I'm very interested in Maroney's approach to harmony & the piano, and his pairing here with Drury on drums is outstanding. The album is copyrighted by bassist James Ilgenfritz, whose task it is, according to the liner notes, to bridge the rhythmic duo of Maroney & Drury with the melodic line of the saxophonist Niescier. I had heard Niescier's trio album Quite Simply with Tyshawn Sorey & Thomas Morgan, and she exhibits there (reflected in the title) a fairly minimal style. This would be analogous, in some ways, to my discussion of Alexandra Grimal's album Andromeda in June. Niescier's style can also be compared to fellow German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in her more minimalist work with Paradoxical Frog (who have a new album), and particularly her recent release with British pianist Veryan Weston, Haste, where she basically plays "straight" but spices up Weston's romantically meandering harmonies. With Maroney, we don't have much "meandering," but that's where the harmonic complexity resides, for the most part, on Mind Games. Although I can appreciate the intellectual side of cutting through (so to speak) complexity with simplicity, and the basic technical issues of playing a melody over a rhythm section of this nature, I often find myself waiting for something more interesting to happen in the melodic realm. That said, this is not an uninteresting album, and does illustrate the exact technical issues I'm discussing, issues that we see play out in a somewhat different way in e.g. Steve Lehman's spectral music. In both cases, there's a sort of "pyramid" of activity, with less in the upper registers, although that's less formal on Mind Games.

What comes next for something like this? I guess we'll see. It obviously interests Sorey, among others named here. I could rephrase the underlying question in socio-political terms, as how an individual might break free from a strongly conditioned structure. Udentity does already provide more balance in this sense, although Mind Games (rather a long album, recorded all in one day, with a lengthy final composition by Niescier) does have its moments. (Haste does too, for that matter.)

10 October 2012

The latest recording by the Weasel Walter, Peter Evans, Mary Halvorson trio has recently appeared on Thirsty Ear, Mechanical Malfunction (recorded in April 2012). It continues the mixed technological imagery of their first album, recorded in 2009, Electric Fruit (which I discussed in this space briefly in June 2011). Although Electric Fruit was fully improvised, Mechanical Malfunction adopts compositional ideas, and one can usually perceive the procedures around which the various tracks are oriented. It's a much easier album to follow, although with the various interesting elements of musicianship possessed by these distinguished performers. Electric Fruit is rather more ear-catching for its chaos, although it progresses into order at times (so to speak). Perhaps a simpler presentation was prompted by the reception of Electric Fruit, and indeed I had mixed feelings. I almost find it more intriguing in light of its followup, but it's an album where I still wonder about the message. A takeoff on the popularity of steampunk or cyberpunk, but to what end? In any case, it's a unique meeting, if more exploratory than meaningful (perhaps most akin to Psychotic Redaction among the albums recommended here).

I will also note here that I rewrote most of my Boulez page, and hopefully it includes some useful comments now. (I would say it did not in the past.)

26 October 2012

The latest album from Pi Recordings is Continuum by David Virelles, and I found it interesting enough to mention. The album's inspiration is Cuban, reaching into the past via Afro-Cuban folklore, and into the future with modernist harmonies at times. The most striking aspect, for better or worse, is the recited poetry by Román Díaz, who also plays hand drums and other percussion alongside Andrew Cyrille on a somewhat more typical kit. Often the music seems to function as coloring or anticipation, or even interlude, for the poetry. There are horns on one track, and Virelles varies his keyboard instruments to give the album sonic variety. It has a hypnotic quality that gives way, with further listening, to hearing some of the more repetitive underpinnings, but retains a unique conception.

12 November 2012

Another recent recording worth mentioning is Bennink # Co on the Ilk Music label, featuring a trio of distinguished Dutch drummer Han Bennink (b.1942), Belgian reed player Joachim Badenhorst (who has been mentioned in this space regularly enough), and Danish pianist Simon Toldam. For this album, Bennink plays only a snare drum, and it tends to have a sort of minimalist conception throughout. Most of the pieces have clearly audible structures, extending to two American standards, and other evocations of an older ethos. There are some modifications to the piano sound at times, and an inclination to extend into chaos at certain points, one from which the performers pull back and return to something more tuneful. Although a fairly straightforward album in some ways, the individual ideas are both original and carefully chiseled, which is what gives it its charm.

20 November 2012

I thought I would highlight a new recording in the "world music" arena in this space: A very beautifully produced recording of Korean sanjo music on Ocora. This recording appeared together with a similarly lavishly packaged recording devoted to traditional music from Okinawa, and represents a welcome issue of new material by Ocora. Their impressive collection of world traditional music, much recorded by Jacques Brunet, together with the Unesco collection recorded by Alain Danielou, had a decisive impact on my musical imagination. With these collections fading into the past, the recent release not only provides another look at a Korean style that has interested me, but an opportunity to reflect on such endeavors.

Is ethnomusicology a discipline of the past? The question might be premature, but it's certainly on the horizon, and raises the issue of Western hegemony in the arts, as well as the nature of cultural borrowing. Much of the excitement of these early recording projects involved the idea that these styles had not been "contaminated" by Western music. That's an explosive term, of course, but one around which to orient some thoughts. It was precisely the unusual quality of some world styles, their newness so to speak, that made an impression. The more unusual the better? As they become better known, that impact is blunted — replaced by a different impact, perhaps. Although one could quite reasonably ask whether it was possible that anywhere on the globe was fully isolated from the rest, and if so, for what period of time, there is no longer any question about the connections. If nothing else, the act of recording established them. This sort of train of thought, however, involves objectification.

Reflection of this nature also generates a sense of nostalgia, one that not only questions the inherent merit or superiority of the Western style (and I'm certainly comfortable questioning that, given its crushing ubiquity), but the capacity of cultures to develop their own music subsequently. It's entirely possible and probable that some cultures have been eradicated in the past century, but of course many live on, usually with extensive interaction with the West. In some cases, there is the desire and capacity to undertake the historical preservation of their own styles of their own accord. In some cases, perhaps that's impractical, and even where it is not, there's an element of impossibility, in that one's conceptions of history itself are irrevocably changed. Such an impossibility is ameliorated in a culture with its own mass of historiography already existing to confront the West. In other cases, we have a more free-flowing situation — an improvisatory situation, one might say. In any case, discussing a retreat is unwarranted at the level of the individual, as individuals are always more than exemplars, and perhaps premature for cultures more broadly. Hegemony is, after all, not a linear function.

A contemporary creative (i.e. not oriented toward the museum) musician somewhere in the world might respond to this situation in one of two basic ways [*], or something in between: Continue with traditional styles, but incorporate whatever other influences come to bear (and surely this is what traditional music has always been), or choose explicitly to participate in Western music. The East Asian example starting this entry is significant in this regard, in that many East Asian musicians have chosen to start playing Beethoven, et al. They are engaging with Western music via its history, and not necessarily jumping into modern creativity. Here, with this space's orientation on jazz & improvisation, there are also musicians from other cultures engaging. We have there and elsewhere a kind of fusion. What I want to end with are questions about the nexus of that fusion: First, what of the format? Behind that question, what of the physical location? More idealistically, if one were to bring together musicians of very different cultures, how might one arrive at a "neutral" sort of fusion? What might that mean?

[*] One could also reject all of this, and attempt to create a new music independent of these influences; this approach is known in the West, at least.

23 November 2012

Upon turning over this page last time, and writing a new introduction, I promised to discuss a few general points. Given that the length of this page is getting to where I need to consider flipping it again, perhaps this is a lesson not to promise anything before I've actually written it. Then again, serving as a reminder for myself, perhaps these topics can still be fruitfully discussed, although I am wanting to recontextualize them already. Given the cyclical nature of some trends, reflected in my having felt compelled to rewrite my little Beethoven discussion again recently, I'm going to broach the topic of fashion. Moreover, I'm going to add a heading for the first time in this space, and in the future orient some other general discussions around heading questions, interspersed with the more recording-based entries.

Crusading fashion?

I have long been interested in the historical question of fashion, particularly its role in the motivation of European imperialism, beginning with world trade in fashionable goods and on to mercantile capitalism. Scholars such as Braudel & Flandrin remark on this role almost casually, and then quickly move on to other discussions. There is a basic refutation around the topic of food, for instance, regarding "common sense" theories of why Europeans went in search of spices. As has been well documented, it was not the norm to eat spoiled meat in those days, and in fact European diets in the era driving exploration were generally healthier & more varied than in the immediately following centuries. The quest for spices was a matter of fashion. Braudel remarks on the idea of fashion, and fashion trends, forming in late medieval Europe, but offers no account of why. This is a singular event, however, not reflected elsewhere. Other cultures thought it was peculiar that European traders would change their clothing from one trip to the next; fashion became something of a calling card for the culture. If we follow this chain of thought, regarding both the singularity of the European "discovery" of fashion, and its role in driving exploration & trade routes, we can naturally conclude that it had a critical part to play in the formation of the modern world — that it is not merely a consequence of modernity, as it's commonly framed, but part of the core constellation of modernity.

So what is fashion? I will follow Lars Svendsen on that. I don't mean to offer a full critique of his Fashion: A Philosophy, but do want to mention it. Svendsen offers a reasonably up-to-date survey of philosophical ideas around the subject of fashion, one clearly geared toward the general reader, and without taking a very strong stance. This is especially true regarding the earliest formation, which in my opinion, is largely glossed over, much as it had been by Braudel or Flandrin. Svendsen does, however, note how little consideration fashion has received in the realm of social theory (and most fashion histories merely document the "what" of fashion), and takes up the topic particularly in the realm of contemporary reality. In keeping with the medieval orientation of this website, I want to give some thoughts on the history, which as far as I know are my own. Moreover, the topic can easily be related to the present space, as fashion of its nature is an aspect of contemporary artistic production. Although one can define fashion as the "inessential" aspect of any design, and look to art (including music) to probe deeper meanings, these two poles cannot be completely separated. I'm sure anyone reading this realizes that there are fashions in contemporary music, and just about anything else, fashions that the practitioners might be a little too close to perceive. To the extent that we live in a totally aestheticized world, we live in a totally fashion-ized world too, and that goes double anywhere we touch on consumerism (and the music business definitely touches on consumerism). So fashion is, by its nature, totally changeable, and in fact a drive for change for change sake. That has been its history, although Svendsen disputes the continuity of that nature into the postmodern era, a discussion to which I will return. Clothing has been the quintessential domain of fashion (to the point that, for some, that's what the word means).

[ Read more.... ]

5 December 2012

There are a few other recent albums that I'd like to mention briefly. It's also fair to openly ask if I'm getting more particular with new albums as I become more familiar with this music, and resituate myself within contemporary theory. Unfortunately, it's not a question I'm able to answer of myself, since changes I'm making to myself in this process aren't necessarily recoverable internally. Observationally, it's been a while now since I was really struck by a new album, which of course might be a matter of the ebb & flow of music production itself — or might be a commentary on my own methods for choosing what to hear in the first place. If it's the case that my selectivity itself has changed significantly, and I don't know that it has, then it calls into question the conceptual basis of the favorites listing I've been using to orient these selections. Such an abstraction is always a bit dubious, particularly if it impinges back on itself, and reconditions the way I hear; I don't want that. (This circularity probably plays out a little differently here than it does in the the medieval listings, since there there is at least in some sense a static body of material that is merely reinterpreted, whereas here there is no theoretical limit to the "newness" of an album. A danger in that space has always been a stiff conceptual framework that only allows putting new work into preallocated slots; although less obvious here, that could also be a danger.) At the very least, a dated narrative in this space remains a narrative. If, then, I am employing a fundamentally different selectivity from a few months ago, it has implications not only on the economic logic of selecting "enough" favorite recordings to have a reasonable flow of recommendations, but in the relationship of the preexisting favorites (which admittedly I have already weeded more than once) to how I select, indeed in the formation of a "jazz unconscious" so to speak that may have reified: Because I am still enjoying these older favorites, which naturally engages the discussion of "familiarity" that I promised at the start of this new page. More detailed thoughts on that will have to wait for some other preliminaries. So for now....

Joe Morris & Nate Wooley appear in a wide variety of settings, to the point that it's difficult to know what to expect. With From the Discrete to the Particular, they've formed a trio with Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández to create a 7-track all-improvised album making large use of extended techniques. Consequently, From the Discrete to the Particular includes a wide variety of interesting & novel sound combinations. Some reviewers have emphasized the trio's technical ability to play "together" in such fast-paced and widely ranging music. This is a notable fact of the album, with the various tracks each seeming to tell a single story (a term I'm using quite broadly for this very abstract music). There is a unified sweep here, with different players taking the lead or dropping out at different times, but sort of a unified melody (if one can call it that) through the track, with some variation in timing. It might be likened to traditional heterophonic accompaniment in that sense. Although the stories are lively and have interesting technical elements, they don't really tell me anything... the album seems more experimental than a statement of any kind. Both the sonorities & the pace of the elemental material recall Pail Bug (although Pail Bug always feels like a bodily journey); piano & guitar engage in both percussive & bowed sonorities, and the muted trumpet often has a bit of the sonority of modified strings (or the strings the sonority of trumpet?). Joe Morris's combination of percussive & bowed sonorities on the guitar is quite interesting in this regard, and "ordinary" piano or trumpet sounds seem like the unusual side of these instruments after a while. The latter reorientation might be the most interesting aspect of the album. Morris says the trio has not toured, but intends to do so, and then create another album. That might provide an answer to the question of "purpose" which this effort seems to raise more than it answers. What are these three fine musicians really trying to say here?

Another recent album of note is History Lesson by Alan Bjorklund's Amygdala. This is a sextet with trumpet, saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I saw this album mentioned at Downtown Music Gallery, together with a couple of others in the same series curated by David Schnug, and decided to give it a listen in part because the group includes Pascal Niggenkemper on bass. The others players were unknown to me; the leader plays trumpet. History Lesson takes a wide range of material, largely oriented on USA culture, and unites it into a contemporary rhythmic-harmonic vocabulary and sense of ensemble. The way the ensemble is utilized is particularly skilled, and Bjorklund is adept at contemporary arrangement in general. This album might well be compared to Bending Bridges, although Bending Bridges has more of a world music conception, whereas History Lesson is drawn more strictly from USA themes of the last handful of decades, albeit ranging across genre. I don't know if this album will be widely heard, but it does seem to capture a particular slice of 2012 rather well (emphasizing that a history is told at a particular time), even if some of the material wears a little thin (and that transformation is part of the point at times). The ensemble's name raises the issue of emotional response conditioning memory, one the album does tackle culturally. For myself, not having engaged much with contemporary popular music in my life, there's probably more of a distance than for the intended audience.

Another item I first saw at DMG is Pictures of a Quartet, an all-improvised album out of England. Although the quartet includes English mainstays Paul Dunmall & Mark Sanders, the conception for the album seems to have come from Sardinian pianist Sebastiano Meloni, who also enlisted Sardinian bassist Sebastiano Dessanay, who is currently studying in England. Meloni's piano technique on Pictures of a Quartet is quite striking, perhaps referencing some of the linear-"spiky" style of Scelsi's 1950s piano writing, as well as other aspects of 20th century classical rhythm & harmony (less chordal than e.g. Russ Lossing on Leaf House). Although it's emphasized that the music is completely improvised, it seems to me that Meloni is a bit coy about how much preconception went into this album. He does mention elsewhere that he pre-plans where he'd like to go with particular pieces, and in fact this album clearly has an overall scripted structure, in terms of one track to the next. Although I very much enjoy some of the tracks, such as the opening and the Trio, this route to constructing an album leaves me feeling unsatisfied overall, however I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps because there's no organic sense of journey from beginning to end. The album is like a broader classical composition in this sense (or perhaps a Renaissance mass, or even a themed rock album), even if the constituent tracks are improvised. The quartet itself is of a very basic sort for this music, so it explores ideas with considerable history in a straight-ahead manner, and includes some compelling passages.

11 December 2012

The Ames Room trio has followed up their energetic & enjoyable Bird Dies album on Clean Feed with their third album, a cassette released on the Factum Tapes label, Full Illinois Jacket. The two sides of the tape were recorded in Paris & Lyon respectively in 2012. I should probably mention that a cassette release seems a bit crazy to me, but I suppose it's a natural response to the ubiquity of downloaded music (in the sense of simply being "different," that is); I've yet to see an 8-track release, for whatever it's worth. In any case, Will Guthrie was kind enough to send me an electronic copy. [*] Full Illinois Jacket is quite clearly an album by the same group as Bird Dies, and the previous discussion still basically holds, although I see they've now added "terror" to their self-described style of minimalist maximalist. The music has an aggressive quality, so that makes sense, although I find its dissonance enjoyable... almost serene in some ways, despite the hard-edged surface sound. Although having a distinct sound is a worthy goal for an improvising group, and one they definitely achieve, the albums have such a similar effect, it's hard to think of why I really need to hear more than one, although I do enjoy Full Illinois Jacket, in part because the low notes are recorded more clearly. (There is also a short "track" at the end of side one, after an extended silence — an encore, I assume — that has a different locus of activity.) This is a case where the same approach would probably sound more interesting with a change of instruments (as I had speculated in December 2011), so I'm not sure what is next for this trio. They do have an interesting concept, one that is very demanding technically, a demand they meet. They are still very impressive in that sense.

This is probably also a reasonable place to mention En corps, the second trio album on Dark Tree. I see this album receiving a lot of "record of the year" attention, so decided to revisit my earlier decision not to say anything about it. I was looking forward to hearing this, due to both the interesting first release on the label and enjoying two of the performers in e.g. Moon Fish, but found it rather disappointing. It's strongly oriented toward ostinato, and so there's a vague resemblance to the minimalism-maximalism of The Ames Room, and there is some subtlety in the way other parts are articulated. The repetitive ostinato style evoked Philip Glass for me (or possibly Reich), and I just did not find it held my attention. The general concept of the role of ostinato in jazz, going back of course to the "changes" of bebop, is well worth pondering, but frankly En corps is an album where I welcome its coming to a conclusion. Also from 2012, I'll mention James Falzone's Brooklyn Lines as including some interesting exploration of ostinato form, as well as (to go back 500 years or so) e.g. La Rue's work in large-scale ostinato based forms. This idea has rather a bit of history. Its the intensity & the stochastic quality which keeps The Ames Room sounding interesting to me, pushing physical limits, even if their style does take on a sameness.

[*] Generally speaking, I'm still a holdout regarding download-only music. It's undoubtedly a matter of my own habits and conservatism, but I've generally held out for physical copies of anything I'm really interested in, barring extraordinary circumstances, which I suppose a cassette is. I ask myself regularly about this rather strong preference I have for physical media, and clearly there are contradictions at work. For one, I dislike personal property, and find any possession to be a burden, unless it's something I regularly use (such as the computer I'm typing this on); when it comes to recordings, I donate the vast majority of them, keeping only a few favorites, because I cannot stand to "collect" things. And I fret about where & when to donate. So doing away with physical media makes rather a bit of sense for me, but there's also a sense in which I find non-physical media unreal, don't particularly trust that the computer copy won't be lost in some kind of failure (although I try to do backups), and simply don't relate to electronic copies in the same way. With more mainstream material, there is also a growing concern about how publishers will handle revoking someone's rights; one can't really "revoke" a physical copy. I probably should have written this entry a while ago, too, except that I kept forgetting that I had this recording to discuss. Why? Because it's not sitting physically in my "to do" pile. Presumably, I could solve these problems, and of course I have to openly wonder for how long physical releases will be common at all, but for now, I prefer the physical releases and thank those who indulge me in this. The other aspect to this, and hence my comment above on the cassette form specifically, is there's an opportunity to be creative with the physical format itself or its packaging. This does not need to be restricted to 2d artwork at all, but could reflect 3d packaging. Saying that, I'd probably be among the first people annoyed by a strange package, even if I might simultaneously appreciate the creativity. So I'm back to my own contradictions. I write this, presumably bizarre, digression simply because I know some musicians are confused by my preferences, and I guess this is an admission that I am too.

3 January 2013

If last year is any indication, I expect there will be a few more albums labeled "2012" that will prompt some consideration here, and possibly go onto my favorites list, (as As The Sea only just did). However, with various end-of-year lists appearing, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back over my list for 2012, with reference to how these albums fared elsewhere. After all, any later 2012 releases aren't making it onto those lists either.

So taking the list backward, i.e. chronologically from when these recordings appeared, we begin with Camino Cielo Echo. It did appear on some lists. However, I did not see Jan Klare's Shoe named anywhere; perhaps it is neither novel nor American enough. Both Bending Bridges & Tomorrow Sunny got attention as expected, although praise for the latter was more muted (including by me at the time) than it probably should be; I listened to it immediately before sitting down to write this recap (and I am writing this more rapidly than most articles here), and it's a very strong album. I saw no one mention Moon Fish or Future Drone; I don't understand the lack of attention for Future Drone, because I think it is quite an outstanding album, different from what Joe Hertenstein has released before, and very relevant to jazz-style music today. I did see a couple mentions of Cookbook, but none for Leaf House; maybe the latter isn't novel enough, although I give Jeff Davis a lot of credit for confronting the piano trio format. I saw nothing for Impulse, and little interest in Russian music in general, and only modest interest for Live at Metz Arsenal. Nothing at all for either Vomit Dreams or Brooklyn Lines, although I continue to find both American albums to be enjoyable and distinctive. Finally, there was no mention of Yad anywhere I saw, although I thought it was flat-out the most groundbreaking thing I heard in 2012. I guess it's too strange, and it probably doesn't help marketing that Shurdut has so many albums for sale online.

6 January 2013

After a long series of ambivalent comments, I'm pleased to have the chance to discuss a new album that meets high expectations: As The Sea, the new live album by the Samuel Blaser Quartet. This recording was a long time in appearing, being listed on Blaser's website for several months before a mention on the Hat Hut site (and there is another new recording on his website, on Fresh Sound New Talent, that I've not seen released yet). This also marks Blaser's first album using the same ensemble, a welcome development after the success of Boundless. Whereas Boundless, although an enjoyable live album, consists of excerpts from multiple sets, and often gives the listener the sense of being dropped into the middle of something, as well as has some slow solos at times, As The Sea is taken from one live performance and features tighter ensemble interaction, seemingly a natural result of more experience together. Throughout both, of course, Blaser's wonderful multiphonic trombone technique frames the material (his own), if one can be said to frame something from the center. One interesting sonic element to this quartet is that it does not rely on high notes much — they are often left more to Gerald Cleaver on percussion than anyone else — with Marc Ducret's electric guitar usually joining the bass & trombone in the lower registers. There's a resulting rich interaction around the tenor range that centers the music, sometimes evocative of the crossing middle parts of the late medieval era (and I'm told that Blaser will be recording an album based on Machaut & Dufay for Songlines). As The Sea actually opens with a slow emergence from the bass register, and uses the alto range more extensively in the second track (both on guitar & trombone), leading into more characteristic sections. The material is an imaginative cross-genre mix (is the title an evocation of postcolonial difference?), and Blaser continues to be a musician to watch.

8 January 2013

This time of year once again brings many new items to discuss. Not only does there seem to be a push to get albums released before year end, but the various "end of year" lists highlight items I might not have noticed before. Neither of these seem to be as much a factor in the medieval area, although perhaps that's due to my longer experience with tracking. In any case, both of the following were found on Stef Gijssel's "New Ears" list, prompting me to listen, although in both cases, I was already pondering hearing the album, so it was a final shove, so to speak.

Bassoonist Katherine Young has appeared regularly with Anthony Braxton, among other prestigious places, and so her Pretty Monsters quartet album (only just released in December, as far as I know) was something I wanted to hear. The ensemble of bassoon (with electronics), violin, electric guitar, and drums (the well-known Mike Pride) is certainly interesting. At times, I find the ideas & sonic combinations rather captivating, including the bassoon-violin front line interaction, and the large booming drums Pride uses sometimes. I wish I could enjoy this album more, because there are a lot of fine passages with a very creative sense of ensemble combinations. However, after the first track, there tend to be long repetitive sections that seem highly composed, not giving a lot of freedom to the performers. I also found the rock-inspired noise passages a bit tiresome. According to her bio, Young is working on her doctorate, so I hope she continues to develop these ideas. Despite the criticism, Pretty Monsters is a striking album.

The album Pão, self-titled by a Portuguese trio, comes as part of a spinoff from Clean Feed, Shhpuma. It's also an opportunity to hear Travassos, the artist who drew most of the recent Clean Feed covers, as a musician, on various electronics & objects. Somewhat like Pretty Monsters, Pão was very engaging to me at first. The timeless — or mythical — backdrop created by Travassos and Tiago Sousa on keyboards & percussion is extremely evocative, and described poetically in the liner notes (as I read later). This accompaniment, so to speak, is very creative & worthwhile: It's not aggressive in tone, nor especially minimal, but has success in creating a space outside of time. Above this backdrop is the tenor saxophone of Pedro Sousa, which has points of interest, for instance in its evocation of East Asian style. However, after a time, and unfortunately this happened even the first time through the album, I get tired of listening to the saxophone line. It would be quite welcome to hear aspects of this concept & execution without the clear division between soloist and setting.

14 January 2013

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