Todd McComb: Jazz archive, 01/2013-06/2014

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I've decided I don't want to write much of a general introduction this time around. Please see the previous version that in turn leads into previous introductions.

One thing I'll repeat from December is that I didn't really do what I set out to do in the previous introduction, which might be something of a failure, but mainly means I'm still working on it, and decided this was a good time to roll over this page anyway. So I'm intending to treat some more general topics as digressions here, more or less as stand-alone essays, mixed in with comments about particular recordings. I need to turn a bunch of notes into a few coherent (maybe) essays.

I still struggle with which recordings to discuss. I don't want to be too negative, and I'll reiterate that I'm only discussing recordings I find interesting to discuss, even if I don't like everything about them, so hopefully it's always complimentary in some sense. And there is such a range of material available, from a very broad set of performers around the world. It's become increasingly clear to me just how strongly my interest in a particular recording is conditioned by what else I've heard & enjoyed, and I have a rather arbitrary background when it comes to jazz, having simply jumped into the middle of it a few years ago and decided to focus on contemporary efforts. That said, I don't feel particularly uninformed when it comes to the scope of efforts out there, even if I don't have much knowledge of the history — despite that so much of my work focuses on historical music. I have, moreover, an idiosyncratic sense of history, since it's based on what I personally have heard, something we can all say.

I do believe, though, that if I had heard some of this material in other orders, my favorites list would look different than it does. But then, that's the nature of a favorite. It's almost a personal archaeology.

21 January 2013

I'm not sure if there will be any more 2012 releases to discuss beyond those in my "to do" pile now, but I do still have multiple items I'd like to mention.

The first two of those are European improvising quartet albums on No Business Records from Lithuania, both recorded in France.

Although I've not been featuring duo albums here, and Joëlle Léandre records a lot of duo albums, I have been following her quartet albums closely. (And would, in theory, any trios, although there have been none since 2009 — before I really started doing this.) I first encountered Léandre performing Scelsi's music, but she also worked with Feldman, at Mills College here in Oakland, etc. She's been involved with many projects of interest to me, and is of course a phenomenal improviser on the bass. Live at Banlieue Bleue is the first album I've listed here where Léandre performs with an entirely European ensemble, and also the first that includes a drummer. Like the other quartet albums of the past couple of years, all of these performers has played & recorded together before, and the music is entirely improvised. (They are part of an earlier double album featuring Léandre on Leo Records, for instance.) It goes without saying that these are engaging & thought-provoking improvisations, making for an easily recommendable album.

Inspired by Live at Banlieue Bleue, I sought another No Business album featuring Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro (b.1948), Live at Total Meeting. These performers were not known to me at all, but all have worked with Léandre (and of course Zingaro). In fact, the wind player Jérôme Bourdellon has an even more recent duo album with her. Live at Total Meeting might be an even more compelling album, also entirely improvised, and illustrating just how many amazing instrumental improvisers there at on the European continent. This is very sophisticated music of broad scope. It makes me feel a bit depressed that we don't hear things like this in USA, and in fact this album played a role in getting me to question my approach, as per the above remarks. What makes these albums so amazing is not only the individual musical imaginations & techniques, but the way the performers interact. They switch effortlessly from offering different parts of a conversation, coming together in some kind of agreement, being quieter or more boisterous... in short, a broad range of improvised counterpoint inspired by the other individuals in the moment. The interactions have a fluidity here that's perhaps most impressive, without the rigidity of material or form that seems common sometimes (such as in some English albums I've mentioned), or any particular need to get to any particular place, giving a sense both of taking life as it is, and expressing oneself as an individual.

22 January 2013

I haven't really known what to make of the Creative Sources catalog for the most part. They have a high volume of releases, and I've heard some of them; they've generally been interesting. There are a lot of names I don't recognize, though, and most of their recordings come with no discussion. Although label director Ernesto Rodrigues, plus his family and certain other frequent contributors, appear often, some ensembles seem entirely new. That said, I decided to have a listen to Old School New School No School by Wind Trio in large part based on the fact they had liner notes by Carlos Zingaro, to continue the line of exploration from the previous entry. Three wind players don't fit the concept of jazz especially well, but there is a fairly wide variety of material on this album. It's unclear if there was any (or a lot of) pre-composition, but the various tracks (and there are eleven, rather more than typical for an improvised album) include a range of technique, instrument, and stylistic reference. Audible influences include classic free blowing jazz, Scelsi-esque pitch transformation, and Asian melody. However, these aspects are treated in trio, with separately audible parts, instead of attempting to blend into one; there's a contrapuntal emphasis throughout, in that sense, even if the musicians might not react strongly to each other. (The closest comparison among albums I've featured here previously would be some tracks on Fremdenzimmer.) The result definitely makes an impression, even if it's hard to sustain interest over a full hour. I could be wrong, but it appears the performers are all Portuguese.

Another improvised album of interest is Trio featuring a trio of faculty at Dartmouth: Kui Dong, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff. This has been a worthwhile, and at times very soft & minimal album, although it does have its more lively sections. Beyond the music, which is intriguing in its own right, a few specific aspects of the rather brief included notes inspire some thoughts. First, I really liked the phrase "half broken consort" as it seems so evocative of this ensemble with two pianos (including modifications) & guitar, and of course touches on Renaissance conceptions of ensemble and naming. (For quite some time in Western Europe, it was considered normal for groups of the same or same types of instruments to perform together, which was called a consort, and then a broken consort was a later idea that used more than one kind of instrument.) This brings to mind thoughts on the basic constitution of a jazz ensemble, where a classic quartet would represent four different families of instruments (although some might say that piano should be included in percussion, and it's traditionally grouped with guitar as a "chordal instrument" making Trio not quite broken). Old School New School No School above breaks that rule, as do many releases on Creative Sources and elsewhere, particularly in Europe. Of course, it's also normal to have more than one horn, and saxophone quartets have been around for a while, but USA jazz definitely has an orientation toward broken consorts. This leads in turn to a "functional" approach to ensemble, where different players have clearly different roles, even if they might overlap at times. We might analogize this with industrial society, and perhaps I'll have some more remarks on this issue in the future. The other notable aspects of the production for Trio don't thrill me: There is no documentation about when these recordings were made, or even if they come from the same session (I suspect not), which is something I consider inexcusable as someone with a historical orientation. The other aspect is playing up the novelty factor of "three composers" improvising. I don't know how to read this as anything but insulting to the various other improvising ensembles made up of musicians who (also) compose. I really wonder what the writer was thinking, since this is hardly a novelty. That said, although Trio can involve a bit too much muted tinkling at times, I guess waiting for something to emerge, and being all the more striking when it does, it's an appealing album that offers its own perspective on free improvisation today (very influenced by USA academia), and well worth hearing.

I am not currently expecting anything else from 2012, although that could change.

24 January 2013

Samuel Blaser continues to record prolifically, with his latest release by a quintet co-led by bassist Michael Bates, One from None. This is, in many ways, a more traditional jazz album than usually featured here, but Blaser's style & interests have matched mine closely enough that I wanted to have a listen — the quintet also includes Jeff Davis & Russ Lossing, who have had their own interesting projects. Perhaps most closely, though, the album is evocative of Bates's 2011 album Acrobat, dedicated to Shostakovich. One from None includes a strongly contrapuntal conception, with an obvious command of twentieth century harmonic styles, but also space for jazz-style soloing. Even with the brass & percussion (and at times, Fender Rhodes), the album projects a classical sound. Unlike François Houle's Genera, on which its leaders also play, One from None never moves into avant garde areas; it remains oriented around arrangements of original popular- or film-style tunes.

Ingrid Laubrock's latest album Strong Place (the first here actually labeled 2013) seems like a more polished product than her first album with this quintet, Anti-House. Gone are the transitional tracks, and some of the instrument changes, with the piano fully integrated, and each track seeming capable of standing on its own merits. And of course the rest of the quintet consists of musicians regularly mentioned here, all with leader albums listed among my favorites, so it was basically a must-hear release, despite my ambivalent reaction to the first Anti-House album. This is highly structured music — not necessarily more structured than a large majority of items I discuss, but certainly more structured than some of the other things these musicians do. I enjoy Kris Davis & John Hébert, including here, but Strong Place comes off as much more rigid than e.g. Camino Cielo Echo by the remaining trio (and the previous appearance of those musicians on Intakt). I had thought, in fact, that Camino Cielo Echo was a bit less adventurous than Pool School in that regard. Otherwise, Strong Place is something of a natural successor to Camino Cielo Echo, and I have to wonder if this is the only thing this group will put out this year? Maybe I should appreciate the quintet more, on that account at least, but Rainey in particular seems noticeably less assertive than when he leads the core trio. The inescapable conclusion is that Laubrock is working through more of a personal vision here, and at least for now, others have to rein themselves in. (I also cannot escape the conclusion, based on the lack of a date, that these tracks were recorded during multiple studio sessions, perhaps adding to the feeling of separation.) The ensemble & material are certainly interesting, some of the timbre combinations are must-hears, but the weak point ends up being in exactly the kind of group interaction I've been prioritizing.

13 February 2013

The form of aesthetics?

Although I had read some of his music-specific writings way back when, rediscovering Adorno in his more strictly philosophical mode was a significant part of rejuvenating my interest in these topics. Reading Minima Moralia felt like discovering a long lost uncle, someone chewing on many of the same topics, and thinking about them in similar ways. His work has certainly put some of my musings on aesthetics from the late 1990s and early 2000s into perspective, at least for me. Having come largely out of a Foucault-centric tradition, my reaction to Adorno was not unlike Foucault's himself: If only I had known his work, it would have saved me a lot of time. Unlike Foucault, I'm not sure what saved time would have really bought me, so that's OK. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory was first translated (or at least the first good translation) in 1997, when I was in my hermit phase. So reading it now was overdo by any measure, but I do want to offer a short meta-critique.

It's probably unfair to offer any sort of critique, given that the volume is unfinished, and apparently in the midst of a fairly substantive revision when Adorno died, including a stated intention to completely rewrite the introduction, although the editors were kind enough to include the original draft introduction as the last section of the book. Upon starting the introduction, I wondered why Adorno had intended to discard it, because the first part — which basically argues for the value of aesthetic theory — is excellent. But in getting into the second part, including the ubiquitous & seemingly endless rehashing of Kant & Hegel (which he'd have undoubtedly kept), the need to rewrite starts to become clear. The introduction attempts to establish a beginning point for the work itself, but blinks — doubly. Although Adorno does argue that beginning a study of aesthetics with contemporary art makes sense, his statement (albeit in quote) about contemporary art being a critique of past art is remarkably undialectic. For him, an analysis of this statement is a stunning omission. Perhaps more to the point, the introduction struggles to precisely locate that contemporary beginning, and with it to announce a form for what follows. This form, however (and the editors do briefly discuss it), begins to emerge from the reworked main sections themselves.

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26 February 2013

I had not really heard of Henry Kaiser until recently, which seems rather pitiful on my part, considering he's based in Oakland. Beyond that, his story is interesting in a wider arena than improvised music, because his grandfather of the same name was such a fascinating character in the history of 20th century USA business. That Henry senior apparently despised Henry junior certainly doesn't make me feel any more fondly toward the "industrialist," though. Anyway, Downtown Music Gallery did a little extended sales pitch for Kaiser around his latest album Kamüra, including listing various other recent albums, that caught my attention. Kamüra is by a free improvisation trio featuring Randy Raine-Reusch on a variety of East Asian instruments, both winds and strings. Each track is oriented around a different instrument, with Kaiser (who also plays piano here) and bassist Torsten Müller supporting more or less vigorously. Some of the tracks are fairly static, and they generally have some simpler parts, although they're all rather original sonic combinations. I've been trying to pay more attention to non-Western instruments in a "jazz" setting of late, even if little in that direction has made it into this space. I had envisioned improvisation with someone specializing in a particular instrument, but Raine-Reusch apparently plays almost anything. It's probably interesting to watch, but it seems more like a curiosity to me, versus a life specialist in one of these traditional instruments. That said, I did like the potential of the mouth organs played here, which I've been intrigued by already in their natural settings (so to speak), and the other instruments had distinctive things to offer also.

I listened to a couple of older albums too, Plane Crash featuring Kaiser in a standard guitar trio with Weasel Walter and Damon Smith, and Ewen / Smith / Walter featuring Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen also with Walter & Smith. Plane Crash, released in 2009, is cited as being Kaiser's most "aggressive" release in quite some time (and maybe that's the wrong word, because I confess that rock-based guitar music effusions don't have a lot of semantic content for me, and both DMG & Walter's record label use a bizarre vocabulary, which I'll summarize based on listening as "aggressive"). It starts out alternating louder rock-style riff tracks with quieter tracks, and slowly comes to more of a synthesis of the two. I'd have preferred they start there. Ewen / Smith / Walter, released in the first half of 2012, and so a release I didn't notice when it appeared last year, rather than a late year straggler, was more of a "find." For one thing, it's fascinating how much more sophisticated Walter & Smith sound in this later trio, recorded three years later. According to online notes, they've been playing together since 2006 in Oakland, but really seem to come together with a unique personal style in this trio.

The clear personal vision on Ewen / Smith / Walter (an untitled album that's listed by this title in at least some online sources) must come in large part from Sandy Ewen herself, of course, but the three musicians also seem to work perfectly together. This is highly nuanced material, with an almost atomic level of listening & interacting, and a strongly electronic edge — Smith's laptop subtly supplements the wide variety of electric guitar sounds. It most strongly reminds me of some sections of Live at the Metz' Arsenal, featuring Joëlle Léandre with Fred Frith on guitar & Alvin Curran doing the electronics. That quartet is based in Oakland, so there might be a tangible influence, although Smith now lives in Houston (and Walter in New York). Ewen / Smith / Walter is also a very long album, and the first few times I listened to it, I found myself enjoying it at the beginning, and then feeling worn out & not enjoying much by the end. That's simply a caution, not a complaint. I might suggest listening to the first 4 tracks in one sitting, and the last 4 in another; there's no conception as an album that will be compromised with that approach, and then one can hear that these later tracks are actually just as strong as earlier ones. (Last time, I had no trouble enjoying the album start to finish, but it starts to become familiar, a topic about which — at some point — I have much more to say in general.) Ultimately, the long length is a strength, because it's more amazing material. (There's a contrast between the classical music world, where people are accustomed to demand as much material for their money as possible, and the jazz world, where albums sometimes seem to be kept short to keep listeners interested.) This kind of finely nuanced personal interplay, with an engaging & creative range of timbral interactions, together with a clear conception of what they're trying to do (i.e. despite its strangeness, the music really doesn't seem "experimental" as such), doesn't come along too often at this level, I'm finding. Even in the slower sections, there's a palpable tension about what's going to happen next, and despite the superficial similarity between the tracks, each is independently interesting. This is one of the most compelling albums from last year, even if I ignored it at the time. In addition, Ewen is a talented visual artist, and several of her works are in the liner booklet (where the music is also introduced by Henry Kaiser, in very articulate & down-to-earth notes) and on her website. I was genuinely impressed by her artwork, not merely as a supplement to the music, but as another avenue of similar aesthetic approach.

5 March 2013

When I saw the release announcement for Steve Coleman's latest album, Functional Arrhythmias, with its ideas derived from systems in the body, I immediately thought of Milford Graves. I was gratified to read subsequently on the Pi Recordings website that Coleman had taken inspiration from Graves for the project. I've developed an admiration for Graves, both from his own music, which is not very prolific on recording, and from the work of some drummers who claim him as a teacher (Jeff Arnal in particular, but also Brian Osborne). The basic idea of linking musical structures to the body's own rhythms is an obvious one in some ways, so the devil is in the details, as the saying goes: To what purpose and at what level of consciousness is that linkage made? How does it develop in a musical sense, or conversely, how does it develop the body? These are some basic questions around purpose, which an intentional act, such as creating a recording, cannot really escape. Luckily, with Steve Coleman, we have a musician with a keen sense of what he wants to do and why.

The Graves reference aside — and Graves' exploration of this subject has been anything but superficial — the recent album most directly akin to Functional Arrhythmias is probably Micro Temporal Infundibula by Kronomorfic, led by David Borgo & Paul Pellegrin. I chose not to discuss that album in this space last year, in part because I was coming to it a bit late, in the context of more recent releases by related artists. It has a similar basis: The asymmetrical layers of rhythm interacting in the human body, and specifically the ways these sometimes separate layers can interact (pace the word "infundibula"). That album has a consequent rhythmic feel somewhat akin to Denman Maroney's ensembles around the hyperpiano, but even more noticeably, it has a strongly Latin edge. In a simplistic way, I might call Functional Arrhythmias a funk version of the Latin Micro Temporal Infundibula. But ultimately, the latter is more interesting than compelling; I do hope those musicians continue to develop their ideas. The other natural album reference(s) for Functional Arrhythmias is guitarist Miles Okazaki's work. I had listened to his album Figurations on Sunnyside, the last in a trilogy, and one that ostensibly extends the idea of composition into improvisation. I wrote that last phrase with some care, and thought at the time that the album seemed rather "composed" — I would not have guessed that he's an associate of Steve Coleman, but then who knows where his work is headed. Functional Arrhythmias also features Jonathan Finlayson, who we're told will release his own leader album soon, perhaps moving out from his apprenticeship with Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, etc. (the Pi canon, I guess). Online discussion also tells us that electric bassist Tidd & drummer (including hand drums) Rickman are "veteran" associates to whom Coleman "returned." I found nothing else featuring them to be available.

In some sense, Functional Arrhythmias is almost more of a catalog of ideas for future elaboration than it is a traditional jazz album. The first two tracks are the most developed, and many of the twelve subsequent tracks are rather short. They're almost sketches, worked out to a degree in improvisation by Steve, and sometimes with the group. What we have, though, is a clear sense of place for this collection, namely within what many in theory circles have termed the affective turn. The turn toward the body seems natural for Coleman given his previous handful of albums over several years — and isn't something like Weaving Symbolics an absolutely great title? (I have an urge to steal it.) There are a number of ways one could describe this thread, or trace, in his works — depending on the theoretical perspective one wants to prioritize. For Coleman, there is no apparent indecision on this aspect, the angle of approach: The album grounds itself in mid-20th century African-American musical style: At times, there is a tangibly funky bass line or historical riff. For me, where to start? I've mentioned the trace, an idea of postcolonial theory, similar in Bhabha's work to the vision of the thin narrative, a story with a contour but no clear meaning, an idea we can extend into the semantic level: What Agamben calls a signature, inspired from Aby Warburg and a deep reading of European medieval history, a particular pattern repeated exactly in completely different contexts, contexts which change its linguistic or semiotic meaning, but not its symbolic function. In Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, we can hear Steve Coleman working explicitly with just such a catalog: Different traditions interrelated not in grand narratives, but in the tiniest of correspondences.

This happens everywhere. What Steve has done is be more explicit about it — but not too explicit. We're not told what the correspondences are, what these semblances might be, but we have an album labeled as such, and we're offered a chance to hear them however Steve and his group might perform them. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities received a great deal of attention, but also included recordings almost four years old by the time of its release. (And The Mancy of Sound was basically, to my mind, an appendix around the same ideas & mostly from the same sessions, although retrospectively I can view the title as moving toward affect.) Functional Arrhythmias was recorded in two sessions in 2012, so represents Coleman's much more current thinking, in addition to being later work. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities had as an aspect a very particular sense & conveyance of time & place, something that always felt a little strange to me hearing it years later. Of course, improvisatory documents in general are often rather particular to a time & place. So how to move beyond that, without sacrificing the reality of it? The turn to affect is, in various perhaps contradictory ways, a move to connect the trace or signature with the body: One might define culture as the map that tells a body how to translate affect into emotion. In a sense, affect is pre-cultural, if I turn that around. (But generating affect can be cultural, or modify culture, so it's not as tidy as all that.) Coleman is not trying to create some music-prior-to-culture here, however. As noted, he explicitly references 20th century African-American culture. What he's doing is, again, illustrating affinities with other cultures, at an almost "atomic" level, and as they might be related to the body, as they might emerge from the body. There is an internal epistemology, but not so much an ontology: I don't believe Coleman is suggesting a one-way flow from the body to multifaceted cultural expression, but rather relating a way these affinities can be felt/known. If affect is prior to subjectivity, these pieces become entities suggesting further elaboration into other realms of thought, and take a position outside (or perhaps alongside) a particular time & place, evoking the virtualization of time, as illustrated in such fashionable terms as "future anterior." The body is concrete, but its affects involve the virtual (pace Massumi, et al.).

Coleman is weaving these ideas into music that will appeal to a broad audience. I expect Functional Arrhythmias will draw substantial mainstream attention. Despite my (over-)involved discussion (motivated perhaps by the relational — or should I say functional? — nature of the bodily displacement), the music ends up being fairly straightforward (albeit creatively reconfigured) in its synthesis, which can perhaps be linked to the gestural quality of affect. The album involves a careful trimming of excess, back to the thin narrative, yet precisely articulated in its episodes (tracks, or within tracks): The individual pieces create spaces that are distinct, but not closed: The body as contiguous with worlds, not as sphinx. In accord with Graves' work, there is also definite physiological modulation in at least some of the tracks — the album can be spooky or ultimately quite reassuring in some vaguely felt sense, that is, in turn affective. (One could say the album is ease-y.) Much of the value is how unclumsy, natural it all seems — novelty with a simplicity grounded in affect, inherently asymmetric (arrhythmic) as gesture, in both the way the body generates & reacts to time. I'll be interested to see how Functional Arrhythmias is received, especially politically, given its openness (in contrast to the more hermetic quality of Coleman's previous Pi albums).

14 March 2013

Another very long trio album released recently, and so perhaps inspiring some memories of the amazing Ewen / Smith / Walter, is Zebulon by Peter Evans and his trio (John Hébert, and the unknown-to-me drummer Kassa Overall) on his own More is More record label. There are things to like about this album, but it does end up seeming overly long. In fact, there are parts of Zebulon that I particularly enjoy, beginning with the opening. Evans gives a tour-de-force technical performance, and shows a lively improvisational mind, but he also spends a lot of time spinning variations, one after another, and in most of the tracks I reach an "alright, enough already!" point where I'm ready to move on to another idea. This is my main issue with the album, and although I started out enjoying it quite a bit, I became annoyed with the third track (of four) even the first time through. However, there is still a lot to hear. Hébert is engaging throughout, plays some excellent bass solos, and really frames things creatively in a contrapuntal sense. The other weakness, perhaps, of the trio is that although the trumpet goes silent at times to allow the bass to solo, it always dominates when active (and drums are always color); there's no sense of shifting ensemble roles, just a straight ahead trumpet trio in that sense. (I'll also note that the CD itself is not labeled, only black lacquer, presumably intentionally, given the glossy foldover.) Despite these issues with being fully satisfying, Zebulon is an interesting album, bringing out different textures within the mainstream trumpet trio that I hadn't encountered previously, and featuring some fine individual moments from Hébert & Evans. Maybe it will lead to something more (so to speak).

8 April 2013

Kris Davis's new quintet album Capricorn Climber came with high expectations, which always makes things a little bit tricky (at least for this listener). Although she had done a solo album, a followup with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog, as well as arrangements of Tony Malaby's pieces, this was Davis's first ensemble leader album since Good Citizen in 2010. It felt a long time in coming, especially as Davis continued to (deservedly) receive a lot of press. Besides frequent recent band mates Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey, the addition of violist Mat Maneri made a great deal of sense to me, as both Maneri & Davis have a highly appealing command of twelve-tone technique. (I should also mention bassist Trevor Dunn, with whom I'm less familiar, but who also plays on Ches Smith's album from the same batch of Clean Feed releases, and elsewhere.) So expectations were high, and when the piano enters with a heavy thud off the pulse in the first measure (if I can call it that) of the first track, it further gets my attention. (The opening reminds me of some Boulez openings, but including that wonderful immediate shifting of the pulse.) With Paradoxical Frog, and to some degree in Laubrock's Anti-House albums on which Davis also performs, I've found a bit too much of the slow or "atmospheric" material. There are some atmospheric sections on Capricorn Climber too, to which Laubrock's saxophone often lends significant color, but they work better for me somehow; they succeed in creating a world, instead of being anticipatory, I guess. Davis is sometimes exploring what comes after a Feldman-esque minimalism, and has as many answers as anyone, but also composes high energy pieces. (And the individual tracks tend to have sections of rather different characters, instead of keeping a mood throughout.) Sections featuring the Davis-Maneri-Rainey trio can be particularly scintillating (and shouldn't they really do a trio album?), but the foreground is generally well-distributed throughout the quintet and can vary quickly. I imagine Capricorn Climber is going to receive fairly widespread attention and appear on various "best of" lists. The album is like a catalog of late 20th century style, but with an improvisational fluency only developing in the 21st, and packaged into a compelling whole. I especially enjoy the livelier dodecaphonic passages, as they seem so far removed from the stiffness sometimes associated with that style, but there are plenty of other interesting things to hear.

24 April 2013

A recent item highly recommended at Downtown Music Gallery was Compost by Daniel Thompson (guitar), Alex Ward (clarinet), and Benedict Taylor (viola) on the new Cram Records. Although she's not listed as part of the group of musicians involved with Cram Records, there's some second hand relationship to Ingrid Laubrock, since both Veryan Weston (Haste) and Javier Carmona (Catatumbo) have recorded with her. In any case, as I'd remarked before about English improvisatory albums seeming stiff, I thought I'd mention Compost as another effort by a younger trio of performers, all-improvised in their first meeting, a meeting that apparently prompted more, including a record label. This is an all-acoustic improvisation session, recorded in a very resonant church space. That is perhaps its most distinctive quality, aside from the instrumentation, creating some feedback from the setting itself (and when someone coughs during the set, that echoes too). It's a good reminder that rooms & buildings have been creating echoes & feedback far longer than there have been looping electronics. It's generally an abstract set, very carefully controlled, with some interesting sequences of close interaction.

29 April 2013

I've never thought of Calgary as a cultural center, or really a place that would ever attract my attention, but apparently I was wrong about that. Drummer Chris Dadge lives in Calgary and runs the Bug Incision label with his local colleague Scott Munro, and they've produced what is to my ears the most compelling free improvisation album so far this year in The Unrepeatable Quartet, recorded in Calgary no less. With hindsight, maybe I should have realized that there was more to Calgary than I'd noticed — which was mainly malls — what with the Calgary Stampede as a significant piece of North American culture. And of course, there are the amazingly beautiful Canadian Rockies not far away, where I've done a fair amount of hiking. A rodeo was never on my radar, however, but maybe there's more to that than I thought too.

In any case, Dadge has a compelling style himself, and for this concert, played along with Munro, as well as legendary free improviser Jack Wright (b.1942) and Montreal-based trumpeter Ellwood Epps (who has the same name as a famous Canadian gun shop, adding to my general bewilderment here). There's a bit of a slow patch in their collective improvisation, but mostly it's highly compelling, including in its pacing, and is the sort of recording that ends with a feeling of satisfaction that doesn't elicit a desire to hear something else right away. There's a great deal of subtlety to their interaction, which is usually clear — although musicians shift between roles, the sounds don't usually blend to the point of obscuring who is who. Dadge cultivates multiple simultaneous pulses in a fairly leisurely way, while Wright & Epps do a variety of different things with their horns, from loud to soft and all manner of in between, most often in fairly discrete sounds. Munro does various different things too, which I guess are even harder to summarize, but he'll carry a tone longer. Calgary 2012 comes off as quite a concert — a unique set that still probably won't get me to make significant changes to my attitude toward rodeos or guns — but wow, what a surprise.

This is a CD-R pressing in a little plastic slip, like e.g. Jeff Shurdut's release on Jazt Tapes, although numbered. Most of the other recent Bug Incision releases are duos, which I'm not into at the moment, and there is a release of an older trio from Oakland featuring Weasel Walter & Damon Smith, who have recently appeared in this space with Sandy Ewen. I will need to keep my eye on Calgary now. There is also a statement that a sister album to this Calgary 2012 release will appear on "Eh? Records," but I don't know what that is, or if I will find it.

7 May 2013

I had the opportunity to interview Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen (b.1985) in an email exchange over the course of the month of April, and I think we had a good conversation: The results are here.

8 May 2013

A couple of news items to report:

12 May 2013

Introducing another addition to my favorites listing here, Victo Records has released a live recording of Anthony Braxton and his septet from Victoriaville in 2011, Echo Echo Mirror House. Although that album was just released in 2013, interest it generated caused me to notice the late 2012 release of Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC), with a much larger ensemble, actually recorded five months after Victoriaville in 2011. Although Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) is available only for download, I decided that I needed to break my general rule of listing only physical releases, because I found it to be a more compelling album of similar material. Although the Victo album is enjoyable, and in some ways I prefer the more open textures of the smaller ensemble (although one would hardly call them very open, and certainly not once the sampling gets involved), and found the rather catchy sampled chants appealing in context, it's actually the "catchiness" that wears thin with time, whereas the NYC recording gains with exposure. The NYC recording includes all of the performers in the septet recording, supplemented by some rather distinguished associates of Braxton who are in some cases scattered around the country. They apparently came to town for the festival at Roulette in 2011, which produced a handful of recordings for New Braxton House.

The two recordings do not consist of the same Braxton composition (on the Victo album, it is No. 347), but both fall under the general heading of his "Echo Echo Mirror House" music. I discussed his "Ghost Trance" music briefly in March of last year, and Echo Echo Mirror House is in some ways a progression from there, at the very least chronologically — although it's the sense of time & chronology that this music deconstructs. The "Ghost Trance" music already made reference to playing all of Braxton's music simultaneously, but in that case, it was the connecting sinews of such a synchronicity, restated by Braxton now as an exploration of space. With the "Echo Echo Mirror House" music, we get the actual simultaneity, with the musicians also wielding personal digital music players to play music from Braxton's past (and perhaps other things). Combined with the 15 musicians of the Roulette/NYC performance, this can make for a formidable wall of sound, but yet discernible. Braxton's stated goal is to break down concepts of time, and to collapse past/present/future into one moment, thereby or by which, to change the concept of musical development. (One could analogize this idea to some processes in the music of Boulez, but I haven't seen that correspondence made.) It seems to me this description speaks for itself, at least for now, and so I'll end by restating that the Victo album is the more approachable, for those who care. The other obvious thing to note is that the recording format puts the difference between live & recorded in the performance at one more remove; what is the nature of the list of performing musicians, for instance, under these circumstances?

Another recent album on which I want to make a few remarks is Time Stands Still by Satoko Fujii Ma-Do on the Not Two label. This is the third album by this all-Japanese quartet, and the last with the original ensemble, due to the death of a member, also recorded in New York in 2011. I've been making some effort to hear more East Asian "jazz" music, and this is one of the more interesting albums thus far, although to my mind its weakness is actually in its reference to American popular idioms. There's a pathos there that I don't enjoy nearly as much as the quartet's less American-sounding passages. This group, Ma-Do, seems to make less reference to "soft jazz" or rock than some other ensembles involving these same performers, however. Time Stands Still certainly has its creative elements, both in the compositions (all by Fujii), and in the individual solos, and perhaps it's my own bred aversion to American popular music of a few decades ago that affects my reaction more than anything the performers have really done. Probably so. (Fujii states, moreover, that the classic one-horn quartet lineup is a coincidence, which does strain credulity.)

4 June 2013

Prom Night Records has a fast-growing catalog, twenty-one titles since their start in 2010. They also let you listen to most, or maybe all, of their music online, before deciding whether to buy. So I hope people are supporting them, because they have some interesting items. Their latest release is Anomonous, which caught my eye because it includes Denman Maroney, but was produced by low reeds player Josh Sinton (b.1971), here playing amplified contrabass clarinet. Anomonous is a fairly "out there" experimental improvised electro-acoustic album, but some of the Prom Night releases have more mainstream qualities, including by Sinton. The more experimental music seems to have the plainer packaging. (I had previously enjoyed Natura morta, although it didn't provoke comment at the time, and it has a similar grainy recycled look.)

I've not been focusing on solo or duo projects here, and it's Ben Miller joining Maroney & Sinton on electronics that makes Anomonous a trio. The difference between live processing & post-processing, of course, is that the other musicians are affected by the results live. It's not clear that Miller generates a lot of sounds independently, but it's also not clear who is making what sound much of the time, between the low rumbling from Sinton & Maroney rubbing piano strings. I do have a caution: There are some loud, high-pitched resonances on this album; they are far from ubiquitous, and I enjoy them, but my listening companions have not been so charmed. There are also low rumblings that make pots rattle in my kitchen, sometimes both together. There is a bit of straight piano playing, but Anomonous is "extended technique" almost throughout, in one long improvised movement. There are twenty track markers, but many of them seem quite arbitrary — there were no pauses in the actual live performance.

The result of the extended techniques & electronics is for me a sort "interiorized" sound. Although it's not electro-acoustic, Pail Bug suggests a similar sort of interior space. In the case of Anomonous, that feeling of confined space is escaped by the resonances, whether at the low or high ends. In that sense, the music leads outside itself, but does always focus attention back to its center. There are more or less active periods during the performance, but for the most part, it retains a fairly high (but not extremely high) density, with little variation in how much is happening at any particular moment. I find myself drawn to that element of consistency in the performance, which is probably what defines the sense of "space" as much as anything. Pitches & timbres can change significantly, but there's a consistency in the locus of activity — and one that keeps a sense of foreground, not content with a background atmosphere, as some electro-acoustic improvisation tends toward. The nature of the foreground does vary, however, and as alluded above, the electronics are integrated into the performance not so much as another "instrument," but as a manipulation of how the different sounds cohere. At times, this constellation takes on a more "industrial" mood, but at other times not so much, depending on how the sounds (obviously all mechanical) are contextualized; sometimes there is an "elemental" aspect that seems pre-industrial, but always in an interiorized "tempest in a teapot" space, perhaps with resonances suggesting lines of flight. This makes for a compelling dynamic, and Anomonous remains an engaging album after some familiarity is gained.

10 June 2013

Having much enjoyed Michel Edelin's previous album Kuntu, his latest album, Resurgence, arrived with a great deal of anticipation — the anticipation was only heightened by the several months between the time it was announced and the time it appeared. As I've mentioned before in this space, expectations can be difficult to manage. Whereas, Kuntu has almost an M-base feel to the layered rhythms, perhaps inspired in part by the participation of New York saxophonist Steve Lehman, Resurgence is more evocative of film music. I don't want to set up the idea of film music as some kind of inherently negative pole, but here we have simpler music (more lyrical, as is sometimes said) that's suggestive of physical scenes, more so than abstraction. That said, there's also a French feel to the performance that seems to fit contemporary philosophy as well — almost a Pink Panther meets Deleuze (if such a thing is possible). This quartet of musicians has been together for at least eighteen years, and to quote the liner notes, "does not challenge the history of jazz" and is "unsubdued by current trends." That about sums up; it's pleasant listening. (Besides the obvious Kuntu reference, I should probably also mention Live at Total Meeting & Shoe as recent European quartet recordings which investigate some similar tensions, albeit in different modes of abstraction.)

16 June 2013

Keeping to something of a trend after Anomonous, Growing carrots in a concrete floor is another electroacoustic improvised trio album featuring a performer entirely on synthesizer & sampler. Growing carrots in a concrete floor is my first acquaintance with all three performers, although Wade Matthews (b.1955) has a large discography, including several other items on the Aural Terrains label, as well as multiple albums on Creative Sources. The trio also includes Ayelet Lerman on viola (for whom I was not able to find a website), and Carmel Raz (b.1982) on violin — neither of these performers is found on other available recordings, at least within this general style, but both have interesting resumes cited by Aural Terrains: Lerman has a background in sound installations, while Raz performed with & composes for many well-known classical groups. Growing carrots in a concrete floor was improvised during a series Lerman curates in Jerusalem.

Also like Anomonous, Growing carrots in a concrete floor comes with a warning from me that some listening companions have found the piercing highs (mainly in track no. 1) to be uncomfortable. It's also track no. 1 that especially reminds me of Scelsi, and e.g. his canonical violin piece Xnoybis, albeit at higher pitch. Other tracks create completely different kinds of sound worlds, occasionally industrial, but usually not particularly — one companion describes large parts of this album as the cries of underwater animals, although the description seems a bit strained to me. There is typically an immersive impression, however, which raises questions of installation & space. Matthews plays two laptops, one for synthesizing and one for sampling, and it's rarely clear what sounds are being generated by what item. Foreground & background shift throughout the pieces, as do the ways sounds coalesce or separate, both crucially interesting facets of the performance. The album does not follow a narrative arc, often invoking non-human senses of time. (Matthews' 2010 trio album with Ernesto Rodrigues, Erosions, also worthwhile, adopts a specifically geological orientation, for instance.) There's a posthuman logic here.

Questions about sound installation are natural with this album, not only because of Lerman's activities in that area, but as an outgrowth of questions about foreground & background, as well as previous comments in this space about the "use" of music. Where is this music? Where should it be? A recording automatically signals a displacement, and a basic ability to lift sound from one location to another, or many others — and not only an ability, but a decision to do so. (And this was true before any general listener heard this album, since it was mixed & mastered in Madrid, where Matthews lives, and already used samples.) How is the recording to be used now? I've discussed various uses of recordings in this space, and Growing carrots in a concrete floor mingles with environmental noises (I live in a very noisy environment — most apartments in my area do not have insulation, since the weather is mild) in a confusing way, further mixing the concept of foreground & background. It's a frequent weakness of so-called "ea"-improvisation, at least from my perspective, to focus on creating a sonic landscape, because it fixes a sense of bifurcation (or faciality as logos) without addressing it. Growing carrots in a concrete floor does not call out for a face, but it does leave open the question of what else might be occurring there (where?). These musicians work with movement in other groups, with architecture, plays of light, etc. There are no such specific associations with the music on this album, I would hazard to guess, but it does naturally evoke questions of place, vision, maybe touch, etc. A breeze or the ocean? Could there be a smell? The whole subject also evokes the meta/micro-question: What is a good sound installation for the real spaces of our own lives? (I'm pretty convinced that the ubiquitous leafblowers & other unmuffled two-stroke engines around me aren't much of an ideal. The hum of electricity? Dare we ponder that one?) This is another question about foreground, perhaps, too easily collapsed to ourselves. Growing carrots in a concrete floor retains an interiorized focus in that sense, i.e. it does not indicate lines of flight à la Anomonous, rather the carrot might be growing in the floor, and in an atemporal way (maybe an analogy to Schroedinger's Cat is relevant). It's both "homier" and even less narrative (the box is never opened, and even from inside, we don't know what has or hasn't happened; it's simultaneously post-apocalyptic & utterly normal & not yet, etc.), "spacier" without the sonic evocations of outer space music. But then the received evocations of outer space are narrative fantasy, likewise in a place but not — Flash Gordon breathing in a vacuum, with a story. Maybe this is inner space, or simply nowhere. In any case, it raises questions about what else might be, and how it relates to layers of time, more in the sense of Aion (to channel Scelsi again) than Chronos. One might also contrast this atemporal, or becoming orientation with my description of e.g. Pool School as a "reorganization" of time, way back when. (The space I occupy in the writing here is explicitly chronological.) Perhaps a manta ray is just as (un)likely in concrete as a carrot, dissolving in whispers on vinyl.

26 June 2013

It was the trio album Psychotic Redaction, featuring Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, that largely prompted me to hear Sack of Rice (on the Peira label), which also features Jim Baker on synthesizer & Michael Zerang on percussion. Sack of Rice uses a somewhat similar ensemble, two clarinetists (Michael Thieke, Guillermo Gregorio) instead of oboe, forming a quartet. There is some interesting interaction on this album, particularly in the dueling of the clarinets (which distances it from any joke about two clarinetists forming one oboe), with the synth & percussion often playing more of an accompaniment. At times there is some soloing by Baker & Zerang, not so much transformations of foreground & background. Most of the time, the percussion functions as coloration, rather than driving anything, and the free-flowing time is usually driven by the clarinets. In fact, there is a pretty consistent gestural rhythm to Sack of Rice, perhaps somewhat mythologizing (and so recalling Quadrologues, in some ways), but clearly felt in an alternating pace of intensification & relaxation. The "absence" of rhythm leaves it with a fairly repetitive rhythm, even if that's in breaths & phrases.

8 July 2013

Keeping to what has been a recent trend in this space (quite an unplanned trend, I might add!), Colophony is another trio album with one member (Richard Barrett, b.1959, well-known in English free jazz circles) playing electronics. It can be hard to know what to expect with some of these Creative Sources releases, since they usually don't have a description, but they continue to release quite a bit of material. Of course, many of the albums are directly connected to Ernesto Rodrigues, or musicians in his circle, but some albums, such as this one, seemingly have no such connection. Along with Richard Barrett, and German bassist Meinrad Kneer (b.1970), Colophony features Australian violinist Jon Rose (b.1951). There was a recently issued 3+1 CD set documenting various projects for Rose's 60th birthday, but otherwise he does not appear to have much recent music available on record. So this is a welcome release by three well-established improvisers, with a wide & creative range of string technique. Rose kind of steals the show for me, but the other two musicians certainly aren't sitting back doing nothing. It's a very lively album, and the trio works together well, even if Rose tends to be featured. Consequently, it's not an album that keeps me riveted from beginning to end, but there is plenty of highly original & compelling material to make it a solid recommendation. The electronics on Colophony are not central to the music's coherence, which is of a more typical sort, but function more like an independent instrument in a more typical trio interaction. The album is less challenging in that sense, but the range of violin technique especially is quite interesting (and apparently Rose has innovated in a wide variety of ways over the years).

Another album from the same batch of releases on Creative Sources, OPJK_3 — Algebrica is also particularly enjoyable. It's likewise a trio including electronics, featuring a lot of percussion or percussion-like sounds, some subtle voice work, and fairly standard clarinet phrases. There's a bit of a deconstructed feel, often with shorter phrases, and performers taking turns. It can seem as though we're only hearing part of a richer sonic tapestry, the rest having been removed somehow, so it's "suggestive" in that sense. In any case, I was not familiar with these musicians, who would appear to be Italian, prior. So it's another worthwhile Creative Sources album featuring a completely different set of musicians from their usual stalwarts. They are clearly one of the most prolific labels right now for free improvisation.

Another recent album worth noting is Maximalism, the trio debut of alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos (b.1990). This album has some obvious similarities to last year's Ewen / Smith / Walter, starting with Weasel Walter's participation, and his fairly similar approach on the two albums. Maximalism has Ron Anderson (so that it also has a guitar) instead of Damon Smith, but also features short & quickly exchanged musical figures, with a lot of variety and activity. Pitsiokos has a very interesting & impressive sax technique, particularly in extended technique and the precision he's able to bring to the various squeaks & skronks, yielding almost a motivic development in that domain — although I'm unclear on the role of synthesizer in achieving that clarity. The album does devolve into a soloistic style at times, letting Pitsiokos display his technique, but it's still an intriguing effort by a young performer.

12 August 2013

I am going to discuss Samuel Blaser's latest Consort in Motion album, A Mirror to Machaut a little differently from other items here. I wrote one set of liner notes for the album, and so not only have I made some remarks there, but my enjoyment of the result is perhaps implied. How did I end up writing these liner notes? I enjoyed Samuel's previous Consort in Motion album, and discussed it here. Likewise I enjoyed his less composed (although still based on his own material) Quartet albums on Hat Hut, and had brief interactions with him around that. So there was already an appreciation. I know nothing about the process by which Tony Reif at Songlines decided he'd like to produce a second Consort in Motion album, but Tony & I have been corresponding for at least a decade about various music topics, mostly medieval. So with the medieval orientation of this album, Tony asked if I wanted to write notes, and given my previous experience with Samuel & Tony, I readily agreed. They were great to work with, and I hope my small contribution to the album will be interesting to its audience. One thing I'll add is that Machaut's distinctive melancholy does sound through A Mirror to Machaut as a whole, even if the material is sometimes heavily modified with contemporary technique.

19 August 2013

I've enjoyed a variety of albums by Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey in recent years, including many where at least two of them were involved, so I had to listen to Lark on Skirl Records. (I'm linking to their website even though the front page is an awful Shockwave thing.) Lark includes Ralph Alessi to form a quartet, apparently named with the musicians' initials (and I guess "lard" didn't seem as appealing). While minimalism has been an aspect of Davis's and Laubrock's leader projects, Lark combines both aspects of minimalism & traditional jazz forms, along with rock-like wailing, into a chamber music context (the norm for Davis). There is much less of the serial orientation or temporal reorganization found in some other projects by these musicians. Indeed, Lark seems to follow Alessi's orientation (such as with "This Against That"), and put some of these avant garde techniques into milder (although not always quieter) & more accessible formats. That's my main impression of the album: It's more accessible music using some of the ideas current in the New York jazz avant garde, more melodic, more repetitive rhythms, etc. Although some sections are very "busy," they do feature regular harmonic motifs & rhythms, so keep the listener oriented amid all the action. At other times there is less happening, and activity level can change suddenly, including within tracks. Some of the slower melodies are classic jazz style. There's no statement about composition or improvisation, although it certainly seems that some planning is involved, and perhaps some standards. (I'm a bit confused by this, because I would think the authorship would be noted if so, and none is.) It's pleasant enough, quite enjoyable at times (I particularly like the first five minutes), and could serve as a good introduction for more conservative listeners; I intend to give that a try with some friends.

27 August 2013

The Italian quartet Scoolptures has a new double album on Leo Records, Please Drive-By Carefully, based on quips by the street artist Banksy. I would describe the quips themselves (and "quip" is already my word) as trite counter-culture wisdom (the title being a relatively short example). They don't seem to have a lot of depth, but then I guess a sentence rarely does. That said, I do respect the idea of street art, and it makes a good motivation for an album. (It was interesting to read tales of something painted in public, on a surface someone else owned, being given high dollar value worth, or being stolen, etc. The post-art spectacle of Banksy's fame and resulting reputation & collectable value for his work throws the economy of the 21st century into bizarre relief. This "performance" aspect of it, which happens via collectors & profiteers, is more compelling than the simple art, in my opinion. That said, I read about this elsewhere, not in the album.) The album itself has been quite enjoyable, one of the few recent albums with a goodly proportion of slow & mellow sections that I've enjoyed, so perhaps that's something of a special accomplishment already. The electronics tend to be subtle. The shakuhachi is also used to fine effect. Neither feels gimmicky. There are no specifics about how Banksy's material was used to create graphic scores, other than that statement, and no other description of approach. That differs from their previous two albums (including White Sickness), where psychological research & other methods are mentioned. Those two albums were recorded in the same session, but released separately, a year apart. In this case, we get two albums at once. I don't know if they're intended to be heard separately, but that's mostly what I've done. The second made the stronger first impression, but I've subsequently enjoyed the first also. This is often calm & usually sophisticated music that doesn't sound much like anything else overall, even as it sounds like a traditional jazz ensemble at times. It often has something of a conversational quality, certainly a chamber music quality, but with sounds mutating into other sounds, there isn't always a sense of stable individuals within a conversation. There are various counterpoints thrown off as (electronic) echoes, which might transform into something else; the pulse might be a heartbeat, and some other sounds might evoke different intra-individual orientations. It can be taken as an exploration of the self-other boundary in that sense, but is obviously difficult music to summarize. These albums also work well for getting annoying jingles or pop songs out of my head. (I go to public places, where it's common to be at the mercy of such things.) That's always welcome.

6 September 2013

Mary Halvorson has a new septet album, Illusionary Sea, and I was very interested to hear it, since she's involved in so many projects I've enjoyed. Also, I've thought that her leader albums have shown distinct improvement, so that raised expectations. However, Illusionary Sea is an easier album, with broader popular music influence. The wide-ranging influences have an interest, in this case focusing more on American popular styles (from big band to rock & more) than on the more European/Middle Eastern-tinged Bending Bridges, although it opens with a similar coloring, and the popular styles lean toward the English invasion (which is perhaps the inspiration of the title). The arrangements for four horns over the rhythm trio have a great command, something that I hadn't thought was a strength with two horns on Saturn Sings, so that's an interesting development. The guitar holds things together well, so it's easy to tell whose album it is, but it's also very "classic jazz" in the way the ensemble fits together, not unsurprising moving to a septet, I suppose — the album almost fits better in the Criss Cross catalog, than on Firehouse 12 (although three of the last four albums on that label have been by Halvorson). The music was easy to follow from beginning to end on first hearing, and although pleasant (no walls of noise, for instance), I'm looking for something more challenging. I do hope Illusionary Sea does well with the public, though; there are economic realities involved for musicians.

15 September 2013

In keeping with a recent trend of discussing trio albums with at least one member playing synth or electronics, a recent release on Empty Room Music is Apocalypso, featuring Walter Wright on synthesizers he developed himself, as well as younger improvisers Chris Welcome on guitar & Shayna Dulberger on bass. My favorite track is the short opening "Personoids," but there are a variety of compelling moments, with an interesting mix of sound. Overall, the structure is more traditional narrative and physically evocative — spooky, specifically — than some other albums I've featured. Wright, with whom I wasn't previously familiar, has had quite an interesting career: He was one of the first video animators in the 1970s, including an Emmy nomination (before the rest of the trio was born). Subsequently, among other things, he's developed his own music processing & producing equipment, and seems to have a strong engineering background. His work also has strong multimedia connections, particularly with visual art, and in fact, the group Apocalypso is conceived as a quartet with a dancer. (This partially explains the narrative form.) Welcome seems to have a preference for sparse Cage-ian forms, and even with the electronic manipulation, the music on Apocalypso is sparse at times. Dulberger appears to be more involved with jazz per se. (There are albums led by both Dulberger & Welcome in this set of Empty Room releases.) Although exploring some of the same ideas as e.g. Growing carrots in a concrete floor, Apocalypso doesn't try to take listeners so far out of their comfort zone, or move too far afield within individual tracks. Especially in its longer sections, it's more of an atmospheric soundscape.

16 September 2013

Hierarchy as rupture?

This article might seem like more of a departure from the topic of "jazz" than even some of the previous digressions. That's probably true, but in an attempt to discuss the subject of familiarity, a topic I had set for myself here, and one clearly so crucial to any analysis of jazz or avant garde improvisation, a close examination of some more basic or fundamental relationships became necessary. So while this article might seem hopelessly broad, and indeed I expect to take up wide territories, the ideas will — both directly here and even more so via some later planned articles — lead back to specific discussion of music, hopefully in an interesting & penetrating way.

So what do I mean by the title words? I believe the word "rupture" is straightforward, with the basic dictionary definitions showing the idea adequately. I do not mean to limit it to any particular spatial dimension, whether that is conceptual or physical. However, the most basic geometric metaphor concerns a circle, cut in one place to form a line. A number of elementary things can happen at that point. We could orient this (finite) line vertically, label segments (or maybe they were already labeled), and create a simple image of hierarchy. (It could, among other things, branch into a tree, become arborescent as Deleuze & Guattari put it.) We could also argue about which end is on top, and which on the bottom, but neighboring segments would remain neighboring. We could (perhaps only conceptually) stretch one or both ends of the line to infinity, so that we can access (at least directly) at most one side of the original rupture. We can also begin to think of the line segment as having a thickness: We could create a fold somewhere else along the former circle, and lay one part of the line on top of the other. (Note that the two ends of the string need not align, need not be directly over each other, such that an observer on the string, looking across from one segment to the other, might be at a point of rupture, yet staring at a non-rupture, or vice versa.) We could create more folds, some vertical, some horizontal, pair them with vertical segments, etc. (We could, or do, sprout new lines from these rupture points or folds.) We can move to surfaces or volumes; such structures can become very complicated, as anyone who has done much origami knows. Note that, throughout these examples, rupture has not actually led to lack of "wholeness;" the result seems whole, contiguous, but requires a cut. Two cuts would be required to separate the circle into two pieces.

The word "hierarchy" is also a common English word, but here the original sense might be a little more obscure. The Latin origin of "rupture" simply means break, and the root can be found in other words, such as "interruption." "Hierarchy" is Greek, and forms from "archon" (ruler) are likewise found in many English words, both before & after other combining forms. In this case, the Greek hierarch is specifically the ruler over sacred or priestly matters. That the specifically sacred or religious form of power over others becomes the canonical representation for any ordered ranking (or perhaps tree) in English is broadly illustrative of the role Christianity had in shaping modern European thought, especially as a conduit for Greek philosophy. (The word comes into English via discussions of hierarchies of angels; see e.g. the OED.) Today a hierarchy need not be explicitly about embodied human power, although it can be, but can be conceptual: We order things in hierarchies: We order our concepts in hierarchies: Our set theory is hierarchical, sets within sets. We order biological creatures in hierarchies, and generally attempt to conceive of origins and splits. (We also make our computer file systems work this way.) We declare a sacred sense of order — and even a cursory knowledge of Christianity yields the origin point for any tree, and the top of every hierarchy: This is a form of thought firmly connected to monotheism.

I am not going to examine the topic closely at all, but do want to make a note about neurology: Whereas some parts of our nervous system could be said to have hierarchical or tree-like connections, the cortical centers of higher thinking involve multiple graph-like (or rhizome-like, per Deleuze & Guattari) connections horizontally, foldings, etc. This is my brief physiological sketch for why I do not believe that hierarchical concepts are inherent to human thinking, or at least not privileged in the mechanics of higher thought or creativity. One could also undertake more of a historical study of the development of the hierarchical concept through history, which I will likewise not do in any detail. The following will be a multi-pronged discussion of hierarchy & rupture, how they are the same (meaning, in what ways), and also how they articulate to each other in various different perspectives (or assemblages).

[ Read more.... ]

26 September 2013

I somehow failed to notice Meteo among the Clean Feed releases in May. (I don't know how this happened, since it would have surely attracted my attention based on the multiple mentions of Scelsi in the description. Did it somehow not appear on their website at the time?) In any case, Meteo is a piano trio featuring Sophie Agnel with the English rhythm section of John Edwards & Steve Noble. It reminds me a bit of En corps, featuring Eve Risser on piano, both with an extended technique, but sticking with acoustic effects. Unfortunately, despite the Scelsi references, Meteo did not remind me much of his music (there seems to be no transformation of notes into other notes, for instance), and to the extent that it did, it was more the ostinato-heavy piano pieces, evoking the En corps comparison. There is extended technique on percussion & bass, but Meteo does not project a strong overall identity for me, despite some strong moments (and a sense of possibility). I rarely seem to be on the same wavelength with the English performers, despite their great popularity in free jazz circles. (I suppose I could speculate on socio-political reasons, but I do not have a real answer.)

30 September 2013

I recently listened to Joëlle Léandre's tentet & trio double album, Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon, recorded in 2009 and released in early 2011. A natural question for myself is: Why didn't I listen to this album back in 2011? Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that question, leaving me only to speculate. One factor is that the first CD, the tentet, is composed music (a suite that takes up a broad range of styles sequentially), and that's not the focus here. The second CD, the (piano) trio, is improvised. Anyway, for some reason, I ignored this release, but I can now hear that it is one of the most significant in Léandre's discography. I will not dwell on the composition "Can you hear me?" here, except to say that it is clearly very significant for Léandre, and having been performed the night before the improvised trio, sets the stage for the strikingly original minimalist improvisation. In an attempt to answer for myself the question of why I ignored this release, I read more online reviews (after I heard it) than I have been doing recently, and found that while they all mention Feldman, which is an obvious reference here, and often Cage, mention of Scelsi was absent. That's interesting. (And why did I hear this album now? Restlessness or boredom, I guess.) What struck me most about the trio improvisation was the frequently Scelsi-an character of the bass playing. That is, first I was struck by the minimalism as expressed most obviously in the piano part, and that originally decreased my interest. However, out of this context, the bass part emerges as truly striking, and really the only recent music I can name that evokes for me the otherworldly & emergent sound of Scelsi's music. There's a quality to Scelsi's messages that has been difficult to capture, assuming anyone actually tries, but here Léandre manages a similar gravity. The trio is not merely derivative, however: Not only does Léandre's bass not truly mimic Scelsi, but rather takes up his message, the full trio provides a spatial & contrapuntal music that never truly appears in Scelsi's output, which tends to have a solo quality even when using a larger ensemble (unsurprising given that it mostly originates with Scelsi's solo improvisations). Here we have a polyphonic music with a Scelsi-an part voiced by the double bass, and the piano & percussion shifting the surrounding space. This seems to me, upon reflection, music that had to be created. Besides my basic wonder at not having sought this recording originally, I wonder where this style had been. It seems timeless, in the way that Scelsi's music usually seems timeless. My one criticism of the trio, compared to other priorities often discussed here, is that the roles of the players do not change — it's rather static in that regard, led by the bass and with the piano playing in its area, the percussion in another, and even a clear priority of players with the percussion coming last. Given the achievement of this creation, however, and the amazing flow of the music for its forty-seven minutes, this point isn't so much a criticism as an idea for the future. The music is already perfect as is.

This revelation naturally brings to mind other recent minimalist piano trios, such as the Meteo album I discussed in the previous entry. In that case, the Scelsi reference was explicit, but I did not get a sense of Scelsi from it. A more fruitful reference for comparison may be Feldman, however. The Feldman-esque content of Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon is immediately apparent (and pianist Tilbury is a Feldman interpreter), but the significant fact for me is that the music succeeds in placing various musical events and entries into multiple time streams. As I've discussed regarding Feldman, his late music can be seen as a sequence of miniatures, in variation, but with even sequential entries appearing in a different layer of time. (Feldman achieves this technically via time signatures.) So there is no consistent pulse from sequence to sequence, but rather a floating sense of suspended time — and within that suspension here, Léandre's bass can conjure the emergent & other-worldly quality of Scelsi's message. It's the combination that makes Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon what it is, and leaves it both tense & unhurried. These younger trios, projecting a pulse or forward energy (even if it ebbs & flows), generally appealing in its own way, don't have this timeless quality. So in that sense, I would say it's not only Léandre's voice (broadly speaking) that sets Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon apart, but also the improvisation's formal conception.

So now my foolishness in having ignored this very influential album has been corrected.

14 October 2013

Is postmodernism racist?

This is a rather blunt question, and so one task of this article will be to explore the nuance behind the question. Some readers might be critical of my decision to frame the title question in this manner, and some criticism might be warranted, but I decided to raise this question in this manner for a fairly simple reason: This was a question I specifically posed to myself, consciously around the beginning of 2012, but probably in a more vague sense, over a much longer period. My attempt to answer this question naturally raised more questions, particularly the closely related questions "What is postmodernism?" & "What is racism?" This article will attempt to answer those questions, although not in a comprehensive way. A comprehensive answer to either of those questions could fill a long volume by itself. The focus here will be on the nexus of the two, by which I mean that concepts of racism will be used to clarify postmodernism, and concepts of postmodernism will be used to clarify racism. Such an approach will necessarily be limited when it comes to seeing either of these phenomena by itself, so to speak, although it would also be impossible to discuss either subject in a vacuum, since neither can exist outside of a context. Formally then, this article will intertwine answers to those two subsidiary questions, step-wise reflecting on each other, and forming a shared context. Balancing such a form, moving between one question and the other, will be one challenge for the reader & writer. That balancing act will be complicated by the intense emotional associations of "racism" — rather out of balance with the generally abstract associations of "postmodernism." Perhaps some of the hidden emotional content of the postmodern can be illuminated by such a comparison, and perhaps the cultural-systemic suppression of race conversations can as well. The astute reader will no doubt recognize that, were I not to have at least some kind of "yes" answer for this question, I would not be writing this. The bluntness of the yes-no form will hopefully serve to focus the forthcoming discussion.

[ Read more.... ]

16 October 2013

Having recently found Joëlle Léandre's not-so-recent Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon trio album so compelling, I decided to have a listen to some recent material featuring the other performers in the trio. Luckily for me, both have released albums this year.

Percussionist Kevin Norton (b.1956) did not make a huge impression in Léandre's trio, but simply his inclusion seemed like sufficient reason to seek out his work. I should clarify that statement, and perhaps clarify what I wrote a couple of weeks ago: It is probably more accurate to say that pianist John Tilbury comes "first" on the trio album, in that he sets the mood & space with Feldman-esque chords. Then Léandre's bass line forges the heart of the performance, the part that really keeps me engaged. Norton's contribution is more color after the fact, although he does have some notably interesting passages. That said, his trio album Live Tipple with Frode Gjerstad (b.1948) on reeds & David Watson (b.1960) on guitar (who tends to "come third" here) features Norton's playing much more substantially, even if Gjerstad is usually in the foreground also. Live Tipple is a very appealing, fully improvised trio album — in fact, it's a followup to this trio's earlier studio album, and Gjerstad's website suggests they'll release another album soon. So this is a group with some staying power. Norton's playing is compelling in a straightforward acoustic way throughout, as is Gjerstad's, both of them featuring interesting rhythmic twists & contrasts. The latter artist has a very substantial discography, and I cannot say as I have a real sense of it, but many of his releases of late seem to be of the "energy" type with Chicago musicians, although I see that he first came to prominence with English improvisers. This trio shows a lot of creativity without emphasizing climaxes or rock-like rhythms, so its different from what I've come to expect from some of the other performers with whom Gjerstad frequently plays. It's probably proof that all of these musicians are doing more than is immediately apparent. Live Tipple does make apparent that Norton is one of the most distinctive voices on percussion in the USA today, though.

In Tilbury's case, I listened to Exta a few times (although he has an even more recent duo album out, The Just Reproach), a trio album on Fataka with John Butcher (b.1954) & Thomas Lehn. Butcher, like Gjerstad, has an extensive discography, and is impressive on saxophone on Exta. I have heard Lehn (b.1958) on synthesizer on a few albums, previously only with other German performers. Perhaps ironically, here it is Tilbury (b.1936) who seems to "come third," with Butcher clearly in the forefront including frequent duos with Lehn, colored by sparse chords from Tilbury. It's an intriguing album, even if it didn't really speak to me — it's mostly slowly changing "atmospheric" material, interesting for its challenge to the nature of musical notes, a broad area with vast potential.

30 October 2013

A recent recording to note, more or less in the "third stream" mode of composed-improvised chamber jazz, is Tusk by Sean Moran's Small Elephant Band. Moran plays exclusively acoustic guitar here, in a quintet including clarinet (Michael McGinnis), vibraphone (Chris Dingman), and with Reuben Radding & Harris Eisenstadt on rhythm. I hadn't previously heard of Moran, but was attracted to this lineup in part because, although he had been on several projects of interest to me previously, Radding seemed to have disappeared lately. (Or he's mainly concentrating on photography, I guess?) The guitar fits with the clarinet-vibraphone combo to yield similar sonorities to e.g. James Falzone's Klang, or an obvious classic like Out to Lunch. Many pieces also feature reversible lines & additive rhythms, giving an Eastern European tinged feel, not unlike guitarist Sebastian Noelle's Koan album (that I mentioned back in 2011). The reversible lines yield an in & out probing quality that pulls back or extends. There's also a bit of static night music, and a strong Spanish feel to one of the late guitar solos. It's an enjoyable & nicely produced album, even if it seems a bit cautious at times.

11 November 2013

Before moving on to items for my "best of" list, there are a couple of other recent releases that I want to at least mention, both featuring Weasel Walter. Cryptocrystalline includes Peter Evans & Tom Blancarte, other musicians who have appeared in this space before, and is made into a quartet via Montreal-based pianist Charity Chan. Cryptocrystalline is a long & "busy" album, both typical for Walter. The last few times I listened to it, I started out enjoying it, and was glad it was over by the end — this seems like a strange dynamic to have repeated that way, although it's not an uncommon experience for me in single doses. I've come to the provisional conclusion that it's a matter of intimacy: The large & impersonal mechanism of the piano never seems to fade away, and if there are some internal manipulations happening, the frenetic pace of the performers prevents them from making an impression. It raises issues for me of technology, and even of disability, namely needing a complicated mechanical apparatus to express oneself, and the distance that results. These are interesting issues, and Walter's disc serves as something of an introduction to Chan, who I'll notice now. So it's certainly a success in those senses. I note that, in conjunction with this release, Walter also states online that the performers don't make a show of listening to each other, because of course they're listening. I think this is a worthwhile point (evoking multitasking), but again leads me back to the intimacy difference between the instruments they use.

While Cryptocrystalline is on Walter's own label, Dragonfly Breath is on the Polish Not Two label. Dragonfly Breath is also from an improvising quartet, including the ubiquitous Steve Swell & the somewhat underrecorded C. Spencer Yeh, and apparently featuring Paul Flaherty on saxophone. I had not heard of Flaherty prior to this, but he's not (apparently) a young (or new) performer, and he presents something of a tour-de-force of free jazz blowing. (I should also admit that, for unclear reasons, the liner notes touting the specialness of the New England free jazz scene rub me the wrong way. I didn't read them until after listening, but I do wonder if they prejudice me.) This is an interesting lineup, if a fairly conventional conception, and worth hearing.

18 November 2013

I've recently added a few new releases to my favorites here, as the list of notable releases for 2013 starts to take more concrete shape, and so it's time to work my way through discussing them.

With my earlier enjoyment of Growing carrots in a concrete floor, I had the opportunity to survey some of the music originating with Wade Matthews, and on the Aural Terrains label. Although I didn't choose to highlight anything else here at that time, it was not long until the next Aural Terrains release, this one headlined on electronics by Thanos Chrysakis, the originator of the label, and a regular Matthews collaborator. Matthews is listed as the recording engineer for Zafiros en el barro (Spanish for "Sapphires in the mud"), but is not part of the quartet of musicians. The album consists of both wide-ranging material, especially in the wide variety of instruments used in the different tracks, as well as an exceptional focus. The latter is felt in the polished results coming from this quartet, most of whom have played together frequently (with the exception of Ken Slaven), and the sense that the differing instrumentation was not selected as a matter of exploration (which could be appealing also), but rather with very specific results in mind. There is a sophistication & precision here that belies both its origin as a group improvisation, and especially the very nonstandard character of the musical materials themselves. As an attempt to rethink Western music, the ways musical instances (notes) are constructed & combined, if indeed that's consciously what it is, Zafiros en el barro is extremely successful. The entire production comes off naturally, from the various individual tracks to the way they form an album. Classical style has never seemed so remote (even if its 20th century sounds return at some moments), while also maintaining a similar locus of activity. Regarding the title, it doesn't make much sense to me unless we guess that a far larger volume of recorded material was distilled into what appears on Zafiros en el barro — I have no idea if this is the case or not. As is, there's really no "mud" in evidence.

Moving to yet another electroacoustic improvisatory album, this one a trio, The Apophonics consists of the prolific English improvisers John Butcher & John Edwards together with Bay Area percussionist (or "energized surfaces" player) Gino Robair. Although I've commented on a lack of affinity for some of the English productions, including recently, Butcher's explorations of sound have had an appeal, including last month with Exta. His discography is quite large, so while I cannot pretend to have surveyed it in more than a very sketchy manner, I can still highlight the very interesting interactions between Butcher & Robair. They have released at least duo albums in the past, including the similarly named Apophenia, but here they've formed a trio with bassist Edwards for the album On Air (recorded originally for a BBC broadcast). In retrospect, an affinity with Butcher among the English reed players probably makes sense, given his background in physics (and my own), but it took some time to get more perspective on that scene. Together with Robair's exploration of resonant objects, Butcher's exploration of spatial resonance creates a probing album that also has a finished quality. (A note about Robair's choice to describe his instrument as energized surfaces, which is a term I enjoy in a variety of ways: In some ways, though, it's not so much surfaces which draw his focus, but rather edges and other interfaces or boundaries. I should probably also mention Robair's recent solo album on the Bug Incision label, since his discography is not very large, particularly as compared to the other two.) If we are to take the name of the trio literally, apophonic suggests that the choices made by the musicians are not related to each other, but that the listening mind projects some kind of subsequent relationship. There's a sense of simplicity to these interactions, with some fairly straightforward, although novel, independent processes going on simultaneously. The idea that any correspondence is imaginary is a bit hard to believe, but the result is a very original album that, like Zafiros en el barro, has enough focus not to overwhelm with its novelty. Despite the emphasis on physical exploration, sections where e.g. the saxophone sounds like a small animal are among the most engaging, giving On Air a distinct biological dimension as well.

These two albums come off as two of the most rigorous, yet open-ended, developments in free free improvisation — by which I mean that there's no preexisting limit to what constitutes an instrument or material. (I prefer such a more inclusive label to something like ea- or lowercase, which imply more particular orientations. Whether anyone else approves, I cannot say.)

26 November 2013

Although I had had experience with most of the musicians from the previous entry before, the Live in Madrid album by the quartet Grid Mesh presented a different circumstance, and I spent some time tracking down related material to help put this amazing album into context. (Live in Madrid also forms something of a Madrid theme for the week, since Zafiros en el barro was also recorded there.) Although there is probably no good reason that I always list an individual musician in the headings for album pages here, it often makes some amount of sense, since one person prompted the recording. In this case, that procedure is particularly one-sided, since Grid Mesh formed around the duo of Frank Paul Schubert (b.1965) on saxophone & Andreas Willers (b.1957) on electric guitar (although Willers is listed as producer, together with Leo Feigin, which often informs my choices). Live in Madrid is their third album, but the first including Willi Kellers (b.1951) on drums & Johannes Bauer (b.1954) on trombone; the first two albums were trios with percussionist Rudi Fischerlehner. Indeed despite the impressive technique from Willers & Schubert already in evidence, the shorter, evocatively titled tracks on their 2010 album Coordinates provide little hint of the extended tapestry to come with Live in Madrid. (I was intrigued by the latter on the Leo Records site, for unclear reasons, since the description is so sparse, but I guess mainly because I was unfamiliar with all of the performers, and possibly because of the Madrid connection. I only sought out the former afterward.) I was unable to determine to what the "grid mesh" label refers, but I wonder if it is an organizational concept for the improvising. For instance, Henry Threadgill's recent work (although including more specific elements of composition) allocates particular interval combinations to particular instruments. This helps the individual musicians to carve out their own space within the ensemble, and something vaguely similar seems to be happening with Grid Mesh. In this case, however, if there is a structure, it is not as straightforward as allocating intervals, because the different performers are able to generate their own harmonic context as well, making for a polyphony not of individual lines but of more fleshed out musical ideas (including timbre, rhythm, etc.). While at times one might imagine the apophonic label from the previous entry applying, there are also points where they come together in something of a stretto. This combination of independence & coming together is impressive, and sounds studied — in any case, it creates a 21st century style of polyphony. The sense of 21st century style also permeates the material, in that it alludes to a wide variety of genres, including the occasional rock riff on guitar, for instance. The latter illustrates the difference in the grid mesh concept from some other recent albums incorporating rock & a wide range of styles, in that the riffs aren't structural, but rather seem like accents, harmonic implications and all. Also worth noting specifically is Schubert's technique on the soprano, which is both personal and conventional enough to impress anyone with his command of the instrument. No player dominates the interplay on Live in Madrid, and the word "tapestry" comes to mind again to describe the result, which made a strong impression on me. This is a live free improvising session that takes in an enormous amount of territory, yet retains an almost eerie coherence. If anything qualifies for the label "postmodern fugue" (if that's a good thing), then this is it.

Another item that bears mentioning in conjunction with Grid Mesh is Nulli Secundus, Willers' trio album on Creative Sources with Meinrad Kneer (part of the very impressive trio album featuring Jon Rose, Colophony, discussed here in August) & Christian Marien. Nulli Secundus was actually recorded a year after Live in Madrid, although it was released last year; the individual tracks focus on different sound ideas, particularly contrasts in string manipulation between the guitar & bass, and percussive attacks. It's an interesting exploration, and further illustration of Willers' range of technique on guitar.

27 November 2013

The release of Drew Gress's latest album The Sky Inside provides an opportunity to reflect back on my own explorations in the field of "jazz" or contemporary improvisation, as well as the evolution of this space. Gress's previous albums were some of my early favorites, and in fact, it's kind of amusing to reflect back on finding The Irrational Numbers rather challenging. In taking up jazz, I tried hard to listen to more mainstream music and find appealing items that fit well within that tradition, rather than immediately heading for more exotic or avant garde ideas. I also had no real idea of what was out there, before starting, for obvious reasons. In any case, it doesn't appear that I was able to maintain my initial orientation toward the mainstream very long, and recent items featured here probably suggest I'm getting farther away from it than ever. The Sky Inside is more of an "inside" album than anything I've featured lately, but it was that same set of performers (especially Tom Rainey with Pool School) that led me to various other places. So I appreciate Gress's work, and indeed this train of thought is a major reason I embarked on this project when I did: If I had waited until my interests became even more personal, where they began would have become opaque. Hopefully this space illuminates some kind of "path," at least for one individual who decided to dive into jazz somewhere in the middle. I do wonder what would have happened if I had carefully listened to jazz in historical order, from its beginnings until the 21st century, rather than diving more into the contemporary idiom — but that option was at least partially unavailable anyway, because of random exposure to various kinds of music already influenced by classic jazz. These musings illuminate the basic impossibility of an objective beginning to musical exploration.

(The other issue I feel I need to raise here is the relationship between the genre of jazz and African-Americans. The several recent albums I intend to mention in this entry are all led by white people, which I find troubling — not enough to revise my interests, if that's really possible, but enough to raise the question. I'll return to this topic soon enough, when I discuss Taylor Ho Bynum's Navigation in more detail, and of course there's my recent discussion on postmodernism & racism. The current long entry certainly does nothing to dim the concern.)

The Sky Inside is a very polished album, with beautiful playing, and a distinctive New York sound. That this group has now done at least three albums together (I saw it stated that this was the fourth, but only know of three), this one recorded in 2011 and the previous one in 2006, shows powerfully in the ensemble interaction. It's also a very experienced & distinguished group with nothing to prove, and that comes through in the ease & sophistication of the interaction. I'm sure this will be a well-received album, and deservedly so. I'm enjoying it, both because of the personal thoughts engendered as per above, and because it's simply appealing music. This discussion could possibly feed into a discussion of nostalgia, and I'm certainly not immune, but I think I'll leave that explicit topic for another time & place.[*] The classic New York sound, albeit woven with various new & personal ideas, will have that association for many listeners, if perhaps subtly. The Sky Inside spans many of the moods associated with jazz for the past several decades.

Another recent album that seems natural to mention is Fourth Landscape by Samuel Blaser, Benoît Delbecq & Gerry Hemingway. Each contributes about a third of the material, and it comes off as more reliant on composition than most of what I've been featuring here. It also seemed as though Blaser & Delbecq "had" to record music together after Delbecq's (non-performing) role on A Mirror to Machaut (which includes Hemingway, and Gress too), and this album on Nuscope is a start. There are some interesting combinations that warrant more extended exploration.

Harris Eisenstadt also first appeared in this space in 2011, and Eisenstadt is someone who continues to produce a lot of albums, leading a variety of groups. It's hard to say where Golden State fits into that variety, other than its California location, but I couldn't resist hearing a quartet fronted by flute & bassoon. Despite all this musical activity, Eisenstadt's music retains a searching quality, and it's hard to say where he'll go, if indeed he settles into a particular approach. Or maybe I should say location, because his albums often seem to revolve around locations & the musicians he meets there. Still, there's something to be said for really knowing what you have to say, and Eisenstadt remains unsettled on that point, despite amazing prolificness as a leader. (Or maybe I should be criticized for being too much of a "big picture" person.) Golden State does nothing to dim my curiosity about his career, however, even if it continues to seem pre-thesis. And I do enjoy the flute & bassoon front line.

Another album that made a big impression on me back in 2011, particularly as I was trying to listen to some European performers (and I was trying to focus on younger performers, which I still am to a degree, although obviously not with a lot of focus at this point), was Polylemma. I subsequently interviewed Joe Hertenstein for this space, and now one of the performers from that quartet, Pascal Niggenkemper, has put out perhaps his most personal-original album so far with Vision7 Lucky Prime. The septet on Lucky Prime mostly includes other performers mentioned here in the past, but when the entire septet plays, also features Emilie Lesbros on vocals — a combination of speaking & singing, with improvised (apparently?) lyrics within the compositional structure. There is much to enjoy about Lucky Prime, especially the full ensemble passages with the original approach to vocals (and the combination with speaking appeals to me specifically), although the overall composition, emphasized to be an integral suite, spends a lot of time with what seem like artificial restrictions on who is doing what, forming scaled down interlude sections, etc. The extended technique seems to be kept carefully separate, for instance. (I do enjoy e.g. the string duos, reminiscent of Fremdenzimmer, featuring two of the same performers.) Perhaps the combinations & sequences will be more flexible & open in the future of this ensemble. The overall style is like nothing else, mostly featuring young performers, with the notable exception of Frank Gratkowski (b.1963) — who I don't mean to imply is old! It's almost a postmodern European cabaret, and there is some real potential.

With Lucky Prime on Clean Feed, that gives me a cue to mention Elliott Sharp's most recent recording, Aggregat Quintet, from the same batch of releases. Interestingly, Sharp only plays saxophone here, forming a three-wind front line to supplement his Aggregat trio album lineup. Because this album takes in a wide range of popular influences, including classic jazz, I decided to float it out to some more conservative friends. It got mixed reviews, with the more dissonant sections being hard on them. Although it references a wide range of styles, Aggregat Quintet shows striking unity in the way it transitions from one to another. Many connections are explored here, usually in sequence. Someone who has/had more interest in some of those popular styles than I ever did would probably get more out of it, but I still found it worthwhile. Although it's a departure for Sharp, like The Sky Inside, Aggregat Quintet is a polished musical statement.

And speaking of Polylemma, a couple of other albums featuring Joe Hertenstein recently appeared. Gravities on Creative Sources is a quartet, recorded it seems before Joe came to New York, with other musicians with whom I was not otherwise familiar. Thank You on Engine is a trio coordinated by James Ilgenfritz on bass, with Mikko Innanen on saxophone. Thank You is reminiscent of Mind Games, discussed here last October, and also apparently mostly conceived by Ilgenfritz: In both cases, fairly stark melodic lines are met with much rhythmic activity, bridged by the bass. Hertenstein's drumming on Thank You is highly appealing, and Ilgenfritz has interesting structural ideas, which I've discussed to an extent before, but I often find myself wishing something more interesting was happening in the top line. In some ways, that's a welcome change from the wide array of music that packs its interest in the lead/top line, and uses conventional rhythm elsewhere, but it's still a rather regimented interaction as far as role. A strange thing about Thank You is that the promotional literature seemed to make it out as punkish, mentioning loud banging and such, but it's a rather reflective album, as the forgoing suggests. I don't know what inspired the promotional writing.

Finally, Kris Davis has released another solo piano album, Massive Threads on Thirsty Ear. (I'm not sure why I haven't seen this featured on Squidco or DMG.) Her style continues to refine itself and be more distinctive; although I'm not featuring solo albums in this space, I wanted to hear this. It doesn't represent a real departure, but the command deepens. Davis is supposed to be releasing a sequel album to her Good Citizen trio soon, on Clean Feed, I think. I'm excited to hear that. (I first wrote some extended comments on Davis in this space back in mid-2011 also, and Good Citizen made a big impression at that time.)

[*] In particular, the general article on familiarity that I've been promising for a while now.

9 December 2013

I initially sought out 3 on a Thin Line because of Tatsuya Nakatani (b.1970). It appeared in a set of releases featuring him, but the others were duos (and I'm shunning duos). So that's straightforward in its own ignorant way, and gave me the chance to listen to Harold Rubin (b.1932) & Barre Phillips (b.1934) in detail. Trying to feature younger performers hasn't gone entirely according to plan here, I guess. In any case, Rubin & Phillips both make a strong impression on this live program (which, as far as I can tell, was only just released, although it dates to 2009) — and Nakatani manages to fit with them very well, typically with rather subtle percussion. As befits (I think?) two performers who were in their seventies at the time, there is often a fair amount of open space, which works nicely with the usually subtle percussion. Other times, there is more of a drive, however, and some strongly rhythmic passages. The clarinet & bass play off each other almost perfectly, conjuring a unique sound world that does at times seem African (in keeping with Rubin's African roots). Although these performers do literally span the globe in their origins, and so this can be viewed as something of a "world jazz" album, there is no noticeable self-consciousness to these connections, presumably precisely because the influences have arisen naturally from the performers' lives. This album seems very "free" — beyond where most free jazz goes, not in terms of adventurousness or other aggressive qualities, but in being so calmly original. One thing, I think, that has helped these performers reach this point, beyond their vast life experience, is that they have not been asked to carry the banner for some particular style or group. Clearly the latter can be a burden sometimes, but here, the individuality is free to shine without self-consciousness. I do wonder about the editing for 3 on a Thin Line a bit, but it comes off OK, and ending in sudden silence is rather evocative. It's also nice to feature an entirely acoustic album here, which has become something of an exception. This is a highly appealing release, perhaps even for some less adventurous listeners, featuring senior performers with unique styles.

Since 3 on a Thin Line was only released more than four years after the performance, there have been more recent recitals by both Rubin & Phillips that have already appeared. Rubin has recently been a guest improviser on albums conceived by other performers (as Roscoe Mitchell sometimes also does lately). A notable recent release featuring Phillips is Birds Abide, a live concert from Victoriaville 2010, also featuring Catherine Jauniaux on vocals. Phillips' own style is notably similar between these two albums, both in its openness and the way he carves space for the performance. Jauniaux's technique is reminiscent of Michiko Hirayama & Scelsi's Canti del Capricorno; it comes off as fairly aggressive sometimes, although the album is certainly not busy.

A separate note: I've added Martin Blume's In Just back to my favorites list, after I had removed it in August of last year. This is the first such "correction" in this space, but such a sequence has occurred pretty much everywhere else on the site. I guess it's a rite of passage of some sort, as my center of gravity moves more firmly to this area.

13 December 2013

Since Sandy Ewen suggested in our interview that I hear David Dove, also from Houston, I was excited to see an improvised quartet album featuring Dove on trombone with AACM drummer Alvin Fielder (b.1935) appear on Damon Smith's Balance Point Acoustics label: From-to-From. (Besides Smith, the quartet also includes Jason Jackson, who I had not heard before, on saxophones.) From-to-From could hardly be more different from Ewen / Smith / Walter, in that it's nowhere near as frenetic or dense. There seems to be a fairly calm attitude, although there is a variety of technique, often understated, but usually more than one thing happening. (William Parker says in the liner notes that this music reminds him of itself.) The album did not make a huge impression the first time through, in part I suppose because I had no idea what to expect, but I came to appreciate it. With Dove & Smith located in Houston, where the music was recorded (in 2013), and Dove something of an institution there, and Fielder in Mississippi, and with connections to New Orleans, From-to-From has at times something of a classic New Orleans vibe to it, mixed in with a variety of more personal ideas. It gives a sense of that part of the United States, and so might be especially appealing to European readers. More proof that there's a lot happening in the world of improvised music.

28 December 2013

Taylor Ho Bynum (b.1975) has had some of the most distinguished jazz teachers in the country, and seems to do well with grants. I've also discussed in the past in this space how his music hasn't really connected with me, or as I put it, doesn't seem to have a purpose. (I should probably add that, obviously, one needn't have a purpose beyond a desire to perform music in order to perform music, but when it comes to an audience, I think an audience wants to connect in some way.) I also recently described this basic thought as "pre-thesis" music... as a musician continuing to explore, and even record, but maybe not have a real sense of statement or purpose. (And I don't want to criticize this way of being in general. I've certainly been there myself, and I think we're all there sometimes, no matter how old or developed our ideas are — it's that or become frozen.) With his massive release of Navigation on the Firehouse 12 label (that Ho Bynum also curates), however, these previous comments no longer apply. Called his masterwork (by BLG@DMG, at least, though I imagine that's generally the scuttlebutt in the Northeast), Navigation appears to function as a thesis in Ho Bynum's output. Besides the double CD of Possibility Abstracts XII & XIII (studio recordings), there is a double LP of Possibility Abstracts X & XI (live recordings), as well as the possibility of downloading the latter for free with the purchase of the CD. (I have not wanted to buy an LP player, so cannot otherwise hear the LPs. This is also an issue for some other LP-only releases that I have not been able to hear, or therefore, discuss. Sorry, but I don't miss LPs; I think they're cumbersome and generally a pain to handle.) (The studio realizations add Chad Taylor as a second drummer, so that six musicians are in common between the four performances.) The music itself is in six composed movements; the performers choose how to play them and in what order or combination, yielding the improvisatory nature of each performance, and the various possible outcomes, four of which were recorded for this four-part CD/LP album. Ho Bynum sees the multipart release as a way to celebrate the concrete documentation of an ephemeral moment. I like the idea of releasing multiple versions at once.

Ho Bynum specifically credits Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and the late Bill Dixon (in that order) for inspiring him. I was well aware of his work with Anthony Braxton, with whom he has often performed, and Bill Dixon, whose amazing Tapestries album Ho Bynum had a hand in producing, but was not aware of any specific connections he had with Smith or Threadgill. This is obviously a very distinguished list of African-American jazz masters, supplemented by one of Ho Bynum's early teachers, Bill Lowe (b.1946), playing trombone & tuba on Navigation. I was not really familiar with Lowe previously (although the other members of the septet — why the album writes "7-tette" I have no idea — are well-known for their work with Ho Bynum and/or elsewhere), but am very aware of the work of the four giants Ho Bynum cites. (Smith is the one member of this quartet whose work I have not really featured here. I have enjoyed it, but I guess not as deeply as the others, particularly Threadgill, whose This brings us to albums had a very strong effect on my early thoughts in this space. I considered discussing Smith's Ten Freedom Summers magnum opus in this space, but ultimately it seemed too "composed" for me, although certainly worthwhile.) In any case, the styles of Smith (in the formal evolution) & Threadgill (in the ensemble combinations) are actually quite audible on Navigation, probably more so than Braxton, whose inspiration is more in the approach to notation, or Dixon. Whether the approach to notation and/or composition can even be considered novel at this point is hard to say, particularly as I haven't seen it, but does mark the "avant garde" nature of the music. One also gets a concrete sense of contemporary (or postmodern) style in the shifting from one style of music to another, as the different movements evolve or intertwine. Finally, there is very much a "jazz sound" to some of the most prominent passages, a conscious quoting of African-American melodic-harmonic-rhythmic forms from previous decades. The full release of Navigation is around three hours of material, so a lot to digest. I enjoyed it, although didn't always find the rhythms terribly interesting, and didn't find the straight "jazz sound" sections to hold up all that well to repeated hearing — although they can be rather exhilarating as a surprise. (This first response versus repeated hearings contrast is an ongoing issue in this space, as I've discussed in the past.)

The other issue I wanted to discuss, as mentioned in the entry three weeks ago, is African-American music and who is creating it now. This question really strikes me with Navigation, given Ho Bynum's cited influences. There's no question to my ear that he takes these influences seriously, and creates something worthwhile & creative. However, I have to wonder about not being able to name anything similar by an African-American leader. Am I poorly informed? If not, why is this? (For that matter, if so, why is that?) Who are the heirs to Braxton, Smith, Threadgill, Dixon? I think that anyone & everyone performing their music is a good thing, but where are the African-American students? I don't understand it. As Braxton states in conjunction with the Echo Echo Mirror House releases, it's been fifty years since the AACM was founded: Shouldn't something else have happened by now? The explicit use of "jazz sounds" on Navigation is actually what I find the most curious in this regard. Ideas on freedom, creativity & improvisation seem important to everyone, but what of these particular sounds? There's a specificity to the expression that seems a little out of place to me. Anyway, so now Taylor Ho Bynum has a purpose? African-American music...? OK, I guess we'll see what he does from here.

30 December 2013

The Théo Ceccaldi Trio's debut album Carrousel on Ayler Records did not make a big impression on me: I would characterize it as a combination of heavy metal & Euro-French folk song. (Relationships between heavy metal & folk song have been there from the beginning, of course. It's when it's stretched into different folk songs that it begins to sound strange, which is certainly not a bad thing.) However, the Trio's second album Can you smile? adds Joëlle Léandre, and takes on more dimensions. (The Ayler description also states that Théo Ceccaldi (b.1986) and company had been expanding their scope as a trio already.) The ensemble on Can you smile? is literally a string quartet, although not the standard kind: It's violin (sometimes viola), cello, guitar, bass; on some tracks, the guitar is acoustic, creating all-acoustic music, whereas on others, it remains the electric guitar of Carrousel. Perhaps more interesting is the way Léandre's voice is featured in tracks 4 & 10 (one composed, the other fully improvised): Although vocalizations appear in many or most of her performances, this is the first I had heard Léandre's voice truly featured this way, including actual lyrics, if only on two tracks. This makes for a compelling ensemble, although the 21st century string quartet with Léandre on bass is rather compelling too. The result keeps the youthful edge of Carrousel, but takes on the wider questioning of the contemporary avant garde, with which Léandre has worked so extensively. There is an intensity to the interaction that creates a distinctive album, mostly improvised, beginning with the impressive opening sequence that announces so much of the intent.

I've also decided to add Birds Abide to my favorites listing here, after mentioning it a few weeks ago in conjunction with Barre Phillips on 3 on a Thin Line. I wasn't looking to add an album from 2010 at this point, but after listening a few more times, I decided that Birds Abide could not be ignored. It fits nicely with a discussion of Can you smile? as well, since it features Catherine Jauniaux (b.1955) on voice. In this case, the voice is featured on all tracks, although not active at all times. Jauniaux's various articulations continue to be quite captivating with time. Also part of the trio is violinist Malcolm Goldstein (b.1936), a musician with whom I was not otherwise familiar, but who displays a distinctive technique here. With Goldstein from New York, but now living in Vermont-Montréal, Jauniaux from Belgium, and Phillips from San Francisco and living in France, the trio has an international (albeit Europe-North America) flavor. Birds Abide might be the most compelling of these three albums — enough to motivate me to add to one of the oldest years represented in this space. One thing that makes it so interesting is the range of sounds generated from acoustic instruments, including the relationship between the human voice (with its cords/strings & resonating cavities) and the violin or double bass. Despite the widely ranging personal technique, the performance achieves a direct coherence that goes on to make it so expressive.

5 January 2014

The Lithuanian No Business label continues to release interesting free improvisation albums recorded live in Europe (together with many USA-based productions) with the trio Grey Matter featuring Jean Luc Cappozzo (b.1954) on trumpet, Christine Wodrascka (b.1957) on piano, and Gerry Hemingway (b.1955) on drums. I had noticed Cappozzo on Live at Total Meeting, and he opens Grey Matter with a solo. The trio tends to stick to fairly consistent roles, with the trumpet in the foreground, the piano in the middle, and the percussion to the back — although all performers have solos. Still, when the trio comes together, the layering of parts is distinct & mostly consistent. I had tended to associate Gerry Hemingway more with composed (in the jazz sense) music, such as on A Mirror to Machaut, and so his contribution here was somewhat surprising. In fact, looking over his discography, and considering my impression, I see that Hemingway has been involved with many improvised duo albums, and those had been mostly invisible to me (since I've been eschewing solos & duos). Although I'm still largely eschewing duos, this observation caused me to listen to the quadruple album Old Dogs with Anthony Braxton (recorded in 2007, released in 2010), and that's quite an incredible duo journey. So clearly I've misjudged Hemingway from his more composed output. Lastly, I had no familiarity with Wodrascka (from France, like Cappozzo), and hers is some of the most striking playing on Grey Matter, including piano played both inside & outside: soft to loud, choppy rhythms, a variety of sonority... Wodrascka plays a central role in uniting the rather disparate sound worlds of Cappozzo & Hemingway. The consistent layering in this performance would not remain so engaging, were it not for Wodrascka's convoluted middle ground. This turns out to be a very distinctive trio with a lively interplay — all musicians of about the same age — performing music that is unique, but not terribly experimental (even a couple of tunes): There's a bit of a naturescape effect at times, but always with a human quality. (The topic might be taken to be mediation itself, which fits with the title well enough.) The only caution I can share is that the interest in the trumpet part, especially, relies on some quiet subtlety, so it's not a great album for a noisy environment. Otherwise, Grey Matter should appeal to many readers.

10 February 2014

Kris Davis has another piano trio album, Waiting For You To Grow, featuring Tom Rainey & John Hébert as did Good Citizen. Waiting For You To Grow shows no lag in inspiration, and is probably the most appealing album Davis has made yet, all the more amazing because the material was written last April and then recorded in May (while she was pregnant with her first child, the origin of the title), meaning she's keeping up a fast pace of composing & performing new material. I don't typically like to go through tracks, but the album opens with "Whirly Swirly" which can almost be described as more Taylor than Cecil Taylor. Here we get not only the piano as a percussion instrument, but the piano as a string instrument as well, giving the trio a tight coherence. (I admit not being thrilled with the opening drum solo originally, but I've learned to like it as an opening.) The "Berio" track is a nice homage, and an interesting progression from her Feldman-inspired (or named) work. And as a medievalist, I almost can't help but enjoy "Hiccups." Even the more sentimental "Waiting For You To Grow" makes an engaging conclusion, an ending full of anticipation. I don't feel like I have anything insightful to say here: This was a much anticipated album, and doesn't disappoint.

Speaking of Hébert, also from this batch of Clean Feed releases is Floodstage, the sequel to Spiritual Lover, featuring the bassist leading the same (piano) trio with Benoît Delbecq & Gerald Cleaver. Like the previous album, Floodstage includes some non-Hébert material: a track by Delbecq, and a gospel song. There's a tendency toward melodic tenderness in its exploration of Cajun influences, which isn't necessarily my thing, but it's an enjoyable album, as was Spiritual Lover, if a bit less striking (at least for me).

Finally, although it doesn't exhaust the batch from Clean Feed, another album I want to mention is Resonating Abstractions from the Michael Dessen (b.1967) Trio. Dessen has a rather individual style, both in his trombone playing, and in his approach to composition. I never mentioned Forget the Pixel (from 2011) here, but it was a distinctive album, and Resonating Abstractions continues that — an integral cycle based on some specific non-figurative paintings. I really enjoyed this album the first couple of times through, with its spare but very noticeable use of electronics & spiky rhythms. For something more compelling long term, I'd like to hear a less trombone-forward approach to ensemble. Nonetheless, I thought it was very worthwhile.

11 February 2014

Here are a few comments on some recent recordings of interest....

Decay on FMR Records (their releases have very nice production values with nice packaging, but very little or no discussion, and wow what an ugly website! [*]) is a followup album to the self-titled Natura Morta on Prom Night Records. Natura Morta's mission would appear to be executing ea-improv style with acoustic instruments only. At some level, this mission very much appeals to me: I began this project with a real skepticism toward electronic instruments, but also with a commitment to keep an open mind while I reoriented myself in contemporary music. The result has been, probably, a confusing reaction to electronics. For one, I'm never quite sure if I should be more or less impressed by their presence or absence, or simply evaluate what I hear regardless of its means of production. While the latter forms a reasonable ideal, at its limits, there is often some kind of evaluation based on how or why the music was produced. In other words, complete a-contextuality is ultimately both impossible & unwanted. However, to an extent, it makes sense. So that's my statement of, somewhat equivocal, support for Natura Morta & their mission. So how interesting is Decay, use of electronics aside? It's a worthwhile album — their work with the low and mid-range, various scrapings and vibrations, is impressive — indeed evoking ea. There is a fair amount of drone & repetition at times, authentic for ea, but not my favorite part of that style. With acoustic instruments, something like a drone can present more of a physical challenge, but I'm not willing to take "challenge" alone as a measure of success. In short, I enjoyed Decay, no more, no less. Returning to the topic of electronics, I specifically omitted mentioning high pitches: This is where, to my mind, electronics provide an option for precise control that is extremely difficult from anything acoustic. Natura Morta doesn't really try to enter that domain, and some other groups use high pitches for escaping resonances only, rather than control. In any case, that's where I see the strength of electronic manipulation at the moment. It's great for Natura Morta to have an album on a better-known label, and I expect I'll listen to their third album, whenever it appears.

Part and Parcel is a new improvised trio album on Bug Incision, the Calgary-based (CD-R) label that seems to be quite active lately. Part and Parcel features the famous Joe Morris on guitar, with recent New England Conservatory graduates Fausto Sierakowski (alto sax) & Nigel Taylor (trumpet). This album really starts with a bang, so to speak, and I have very much enjoyed the close motivic interaction & sustained energy from the performers. I do have some criticism, which I hope will be helpful: What I find unfortunate here, in terms of enjoying it over a longer period, is the single pulse impetus to the tracks, i.e. the consistent temporality maintained throughout. Ultimately, the interactions take on a repetitive broad rhythm, basically a breathing rhythm (and not a relaxed one.) If this is undertaken specifically as an approach to groove, it doesn't work for me — and it doesn't seem chosen specifically, either. To me, this style with its atomized figures screams out for multiple articulated temporalities, presumably multi-pulsed. As is, despite all the activity, and some impressive close motivic translations, the album takes on a quality of sameness — captive to its temporality, in my opinion.

Also starting the year from FMR — a label with some impressive talent, and many releases — is Red Dhal Sextet, an all-star group recorded in Berlin (in 2011). I particularly noticed this release because of Frank Paul Schubert, whose Grid Mesh Live in Berlin album I have very much enjoyed.[**] However, it also includes European luminaries Alexander von Schlippenbach (b.1938) & Paul Dunmall (b.1953) — the latter a mainstay of FMR. Unknown to me were trombonist Hilary Jeffery (whose name is given first in the credits), bassist Mike Majkowski (b.1983), and drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis. (It turns out these musicians have some other albums together: For instance, Majkowski had at least two trio releases last year, with Jon Rose & Clayton Thomas, and with Frank Paul Schubert & Yorgos Dimitriadis. Both are vinyl, however, and so inaccessible to me, or I'd have listened to them.) The "dhal" title — and all the tracks are named for some color of dhal — is obviously evocative of India, and an interest in Indian exoticism may be what these performers share. Certainly it's true of Dunmall, and Jeffery also has a section for yoga (and mentions studying dhrupad) on his website. The performers' websites are silent regarding this album, though, and so I remain ignorant of what prompted this meeting. Presumably it was Jeffery's project? In any case, Red Dhal is a consistently engaging album of quietly shifting harmonies & the occasional spiky rhythmic outburst, although it never wows me. This seems like an album speaking to a larger audience, although I'm entirely unsure who that is.[***] Perhaps it's a wordless Moody Blues for the 2010s, with corresponding older audience.

[*] Some people might not think much of my own, very plain website, so perhaps my comment on this point is doubly unwelcome. It's painful to look at, though. I think "plain" is just fine.

[**] I also sought out Andreas Willers' recent release on Creative Sources, AAA Live with Axel Dörner & Achim Kaufmann, but the trio track ends up being the least interesting part of the album. The solos are more engaging.

[***] I mean this sincerely, in the sense that art can invoke its own audience, and I hear that here. I just don't know this audience, so it's an expression of my own ignorance.

17 February 2014

Jeff Shurdut's 2012 (both recorded & released) album Yad made a big impression on me, and continues to be a favorite. Recently, a followup (in a sense) appeared on JaZt Tapes, The 257 Roof Concert. This latter album, although it was only released in 2014, was actually recorded in 2007, and features a larger ensemble, twelve players instead of the eight on Yad. (Consequently, although it would not be the oldest recording on my favorites list — both Harvesting Semblances and Affinities & Quadrologues are older — The 257 Roof Concert would very nearly be so, despite its 2014 release.) In part because of the larger number of players, but also because of the way the music proceeds formally, The 257 Roof Concert is strongly evocative of a symphony — with material drawn from the repertory of urban sounds so characteristic of Shurdut. Indeed, it's difficult for me not to hear The 257 Roof Concert as a three-movement symphony, something that naturally leads to thoughts of symphonic form in the four-movement Yad, something I had not considered previously. The movements in Yad come off more flexibly, and indeed I had previously heard them as four separate improvisations, as is so typical of free jazz albums. There, Shurdut plays the alto saxophone, and so is embedded in the polyphony, which partly explains the more intimate result, but different functions for the individual movements do begin to emerge, again bathed in the various urban sounds & inspirations. On The 257 Roof Concert, Shurdut plays keyboard throughout, and his direction of the ensemble is much more evident. I have no idea to what extent any of this is planned in advance, or for instance, whether the distinctly individual character of the movements is formed as much through editing afterward as from the original performance. In any case, the result seems to indicate a high degree of intentional design, and an impetus to tackle symphonic form within such a uniquely improvisatory sound world — quite successfully, I might add, even if I continue to feel that Yad is the more sophisticated piece: It folds more of the intimacy of Shurdut's more traditionally "free" albums (usually with much smaller groups) into the classical context. These latter could be described as more "popular" in style (meaning the formal sweep is drawn from 60s jazz or rock), if such a term makes sense within avant garde music. Some other similarities between The 257 Roof Concert & Yad can be noted: For one, the former ends with a repeating piano sequence to which the other performers align to close the performance, whereas the latter features a tender (sort of medieval-Sephardic) sax tune in the middle of the fourth movement that becomes submerged in the other activity as the piece closes. These elements stand out from the earlier dissonance (and the former is somewhat evocative in its trance-like style to the album I'll mention in the next paragraph). Both pieces also feature the human voice, although not in the screaming, anguished manner of Shurdut's more "popular"-style pieces, but rather in sophisticated, often fairly quiet or even "off stage" rumblings or murmurings. Finally, both albums conclude with brief, quiet, uninvolved, solitary clapping — likely a little joke about the audience for this music. However, as this discussion illustrates (I hope), Shurdut is creating some highly personal & original music that should be heard much more widely. (As I had noted previously of Yad, Shurdut's work seems more like an answer to the Bill Dixon of e.g. Tapestries than anything I've heard from Dixon's own students, with Shurdut working in even more extended form.) This latest album, The 257 Roof Concert, should be somewhat less challenging for the listener than the more dissonant & varied Yad, and so provides an interesting entry into Shurdut's symphonic-improvisatory conception. (Ordering instructions are on Jan Ström's website.)

Another album to note from JaZt Tapes in 2014 is Interdimensional Ensemble (self-titled). The recording was made in 2011 & 2012 (some releases on this label are much older), and is of a piano trio led by Eric Zinman. The playing is evocative of Scelsi's piano style from his 1950s sets, and the album features tracks dedicated to Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor, along with more explicitly impressionistic pieces. The notes from Zinman mention shamanism, trance, etc. Interdimensional Ensemble is an album with a spiritual focus, which can also be observed in Shurdut's work.

Another album that's convenient to mention at this time is Rub by the Chicago-based trio Auris, joined by Gino Robair. (Rub is from Public Eyesore Records, which released the acclaimed Pretty Monsters album by bassoonist Katherine Young in 2012.) The tracks consist of three improvisations by the whole quartet, and three with Robair paired with each member of the trio separately. Robair's approach combining percussion & electronics is highly original, and has been discussed in this space previously around the On Air album with John Butcher. The most immediately striking member of Auris is Eric Leonardson, playing something called the springboard. I thought I was simply ignorant of what this instrument might be, and indeed I was, but it is actually Leonardson's own creation, illustrated on his website. There are some obvious similarities here with Robair's explorations, although differences in sonority too. Julia Miller on guitar & electronics inhabits a similar sound world as well, so perhaps paradoxically, it's Christopher Preissing's flute playing that stands out on Rub, partly for its infrequency. It's an interesting experimental album; I'd like more flute because its three-dimensional resonance sounds so different in this context.

10 March 2014

Tom Rainey has a new album of standards, Obbligato on Intakt. I feel kind of required to mention it, simply because Rainey's first album, Pool School, had such a strong impact on me when I was trying to find my way in this music. I still feel that way about Pool School, and so was willing to give even an all-standards album a listen. The group takes a somewhat different, non-solo oriented approach, but although they don't always play the tunes directly, they do end up resonating in your head — exactly what Rainey says he wanted. The problem is that I don't enjoy most of these tunes (with the exception of the Monk). It's really as simple as that, but good luck to these musicians.

11 March 2014

Thanos Chrysakis (b.1971) and the Aural Terrains label are releasing albums at a fast pace, with Garnet Skein following closely on Zafiros en el barro (both dated 2013). (One strange thing about the label is that the last three releases have all had different packaging: Cardboard sleeve for Growing carrots in a concrete floor, jewel case for Zafiros en el barro, and digipack for Garnet Skein.) Chrysakis must enjoy the imagery of gem stones, given two releases in a row with gem titles, although perhaps it's a specific series of projects. The gems do seem to reflect the nature of the music as structurally concentrated miniature (akin to a Bach invention, perhaps). Whereas the quartet on Zafiros en el barro featured acoustic instruments, the trio on Garnet Skein is almost entirely electronic — if one counts Javier Pedreira's guitar as such. (The preparation of the guitar often produces an electronic or percussive sound, evocative of Abdul Moimême — with whom Pedreira has worked — and others.) Instead of Slaven & Wigens on strings & winds is Wade Matthews on his double laptop setup, joining Chrysakis on laptop & radio (as well as some prominent gongs at times, the most acoustic sounds on an album that begins with emergency sirens). Although the sound world is somewhat different, Garnet Skein shows the same sort of drive to simplicity & rigor as Zafiros en el barro, placing unusual sonic materials into some fairly classical structural relations: The almost inhuman quality of some of the sound materials is contextualized in a classic human sense of form. (And the specifically human radio sounds take on an otherworldly character, reconfiguring familiarity there too.) Perhaps most impressively, one can also hear the sonic explorations from Zafiros en el barro reflected in the activity of Garnet Skein. Although there are some obvious similarities in the way the musical materials are made to cohere, Chrysakis' style appears to be developing rather quickly at the moment.

Another album (also dated 2013, but only appearing recently) to mention is 6 improvisations by Jean Derome & Malcolm Goldstein & Rainer Wiens on the Ambiances Magnetiques label. (Wiens uses a guitar preparation analogous to that discussed above, for one similarity.) I was attracted to this album as a trio of longtime Montréal-based improvisers, and only noticed subsequently (by ear at first) that violinist Goldstein overlapped with the trio on Birds Abide (so I guess I should pay more attention). Derome is credited with the recording, and plays mainly alto saxophone, with some flute & objects. Perhaps the most striking part of the album is when Wiens takes up the kalimba. In any case, this is a substantial & worthwhile album from a trio of musicians who have played together in one combination or another for a number of years, even if it doesn't take on a distinct personality.

Finally, Jeff Shurdut has a recording online (Youtube) from a concert with his "Crisis of a Dream" ensemble at DMG last month: part 1 & part 2. It's unclear to me from the labeling whether this is a septet or octet, but I believe septet. It features some compelling chaotic interaction, particularly in the first set, with the second resolving into swirling ostinato.

24 March 2014

I have been delayed in writing entries here, not so much because of a lack of albums to discuss, but because of both work on another project — a project that will soon appear in this very space for you to see, in all the layers of absurdity that will imply — and taking a step back to consider my reaction to some relatively minimal musical releases: Specifically, what makes me react to something as "merely" a sonic landscape, and what makes me feel engaged with it as music?

I have mentioned the soundscape idea, or that of atmospheric music, before. At an extreme, we may view this sort of musical activity as intended to form a background to other activity. In that sense, I have perhaps been dismissive of it as not active enough: I want to have my attention mainly on the music, if I am going to listen to music. Such a judgment raises another question, though, namely to what extent is my attention really focused on music? Rather, to what extent do I actually want it there? Do I not want the music to interact with or induce thoughts in me? From that perspective, a soundscape can provide exactly such a background to stimulate thought. This makes sense, but does not explain my reactions: Perhaps it's folly to attempt to explain (in general terms) why I find some albums engaging in this way, and some not, but here I am, feeling compelled to at least discuss the topic.

Having articulated two poles — a background that might attract my own thoughts or interact with some other activity, and a foreground that actively engages focus — I'm left to ponder the activity level in the music itself. In other words, how much is happening? Am I waiting for something to happen, or is it already happening? (In traditional musical form, the return of a theme can imply a "waiting.") In music without distinct notes, the number of notes cannot serve to define an activity level, and so what does? Are the (undoubtedly) psychological factors around activity level fairly consistent across people, across cultures? Is a similar subject (foreground) / object (background) duality engaged? Clearly some of the most interesting activity comes from transversing that duality. (Again, this was the case in traditional classical music, where an accompaniment can morph into a theme.) Is a more active foreground somehow more conducive to wanting to hear an album again (that being an "artificial" construct of the current context), or is an especially conducive background to thought more compelling in this way? If these two begin as poles, do they remain poles after multiple hearings? (Here I can probably answer already: No, they do not, because the foreground becomes background with familiarity. But what does the background become with familiarity?) So these are some questions to serve as fodder for the present discussion of a few specific albums. Beyond that, a further exploration will need to wait for the upcoming article on familiarity — one that I continue to promise, but that still falls behind the project the completion of which I more imminently promised at the beginning of this entry. I can probably make a concrete statement regarding the soundtrack, as opposed to (or, as a type of) soundscape, however: If the music is a background to some activity which is not mine, but rather that of some other set of (real or hypothetical) performers, I probably won't find much sustained interest in it. Perhaps there are exceptions.

A further theme to this trio of entries, although it might be coincidence, will be the human voice. Simply put, I intend to discuss three improvised albums that feature the voice (a single voice, in these cases). The voice serves as an obvious inflection of the questions above: It suggests a more direct human intimacy than sound via the mediation of technology. (Of course, the recordings come via the mediation of technology anyway.) And this distinction, if it's real in the first place, can be blurred: The vocalists on these albums might well be using electronics to manipulate their voices, and the musicians may be using them more broadly to interact & manipulate sonically. Although the voice evokes the idea of language, with these albums, there is generally only nonsense articulation, conforming in this regard to a wind instrument. However, the voice still attracts the ear in a particular way, and suggests a foreground. These performances regularly play against that idea, putting the voice into the background or blending it with other sounds. So the voices serve to orient this duality, but interact with it in ways we might not expect (or that are not familiar): The presence or absence of a voice does not necessarily put the music closer to or farther from the soundscape pole, but it does affect how that dynamic is perceived.

The first album I want to discuss is Crunch, specifically the first track by Andrea Pensado (voice, electronics), Walter Wright (electronics), and Jack Wright (saxophones). Both of the Wrights, who are not related, have appeared in this space before. (The discussion of Walter's trio album Apocalypso included some criticism similar to the above, with the bulk of it presenting as soundscape to me. Jack's live album Calgary 2012 continues to be a favorite, and despite its evident reductionism, does not present itself to my ears as soundscape.) There is also a second track on this (rather long) release, a quartet that includes Stephanie Lak (voice, electronics) as well — this latter track again presents as more of a soundscape to me (much as parts of Apocalypso did). However, the first track, with Andrea Pensado (of Argentina) prominent is more compelling — I rather enjoy this opening track, but it is the shorter of the two. It takes on a political tenor via the forcefulness of the voice, and sometimes the electronics: This is quite engaging music that makes me both listen closely & think. The differences in voice, electronics & saxophone also tend to be clearly audible and not blurred, even if the voice is modified (a statement that is not intended to address the questions of the current entry, but to provide information). The interaction feels spontaneous, and indeed it is apparently a recorded rehearsal or pre-performance. Also appearing recently on Jack Wright's Spring Garden Music label is I'd rather be a sparrow by Scintilla (a longstanding duo of Jack Wright & Bob Falesch); there is additionally an allied release by Lak: Wright, Wright & Lak at Spring Street, an album very similar to the second performance on Crunch. (I enjoyed the duo, with its extended conversational quality, but am not featuring duos.) Stephanie Lak has a variety of similar material on her website: This music takes on more of a background quality, for whatever reason, according to the tension I've sketched above, but it also has an architectural quality that does not suggest the soundtrack. By this I mean, perhaps, that it's amenable to a range of foreground activities and not evocative of a specific one.

I will go ahead and post this entry now, and intend to feature two more albums (both already on my favorites), according to the framework above, in the next few days.

7 May 2014

This entry is the second in a series of three. Please refer to the May 7 entry for additional context.

I particularly enjoy finding interesting new albums from musicians I previously knew nothing about, and that is the case with Eye of the Moose by a Scandinavian quartet named Hot Four. (It's also interesting to hear something completely different on the Creative Sources label, which releases many similar albums from a related group of performers, but also some unique offerings.) Hot Four is led by vocalist Andreas Backer (b.1981), and includes guitar, double bass, and drums. Although guitarist David Stackenäs is using some electric pickups (and producing a characteristic gong-like strum), this is the most acoustic album I'm featuring in this series. The voice doesn't seem to be manipulated electronically, although the string bass glissandi do produce some electronics-like effects. Eye of the Moose (which was mixed & mastered by Norwegian free jazz icon Frode Gjerstad) retains, for the most part, distinctly audible roles for each individual musician throughout, and despite frequent dissonance from the strings, evokes a chamber conception. (It reminds me a bit of Polylemma in this, although Eye of the Moose is not as conversational.) The other three musicians — including Joe Williamson (bass) & Ståle Liavik Solberg (drums), who are both consistently inventive — sometimes project a more ominous tone against which the humanity of the voice contrasts. Backer's voice is active throughout, not at every moment, but never gone for long. With that prominence, and the usually distinct instrumental sonorities, the musicians tend to remain in their own acoustic spaces — that is, without blurring — although they are also clearly reacting to each other. The level of activity & interaction yields a compelling mix of individual & group conception, making Eye of the Moose consistently appealing. Although the other three musicians fill out the quartet admirably, the star is clearly Backer & his vocal technique: His voice does not dominate the sonority, and might move in & out of textures, but it is active & draws the ear. There is nothing in the way of traditional lyrics (words), or (rock, etc.) screaming: The voice fits the idea of a chamber instrument in this quartet (think clarinet, perhaps, not saxophone), with its stream of soft & strange sounds. Although there's some precedent with e.g. Jaap Blonk (whose recent album North of Blanco I'll be discussing in the next entry), Backer's vocalization technique is definitely his own. Combine that imaginative technique with rich improvised quartet interaction, and you've got a highly compelling first album from these young musicians.

Although Eye of the Moose does not seem at all like a soundscape — or so I think, although perhaps opinions could differ — that description does apply to many of the Creative Sources releases, and I want to discuss a couple of others in this context. (The following are somewhat less typical for the label in that regard, however.)

The Australian-German trio Great Waitress's second album Flock appeared late last year, although it did not find its way to me until this more recent burst of releases. Great Waitress originated with an Australian clarinet (Laura Altman) & accordion (Monica Brooks) duo, expanding to a trio with Magda Mayas on prepared piano. (The latter has appeared on albums with some prominent European improvisers, but the first two were new to me, although they apparently had an album out previously.) As their website discusses, the piano injected an element of motion into their drone-based stasis (and one cannot generally tell clarinet from accordion), and over time, they've achieved a kind of equilibrium between patience & change. In this, it seems they directly address the sort of "soundscape" questions I raised in the previous entry, and arrive at a personal solution that has — one might say — a characteristic locus of activity different from either a background drone or a more traditional musical interaction. Flock (mixed & mastered by Tony Buck) is interesting for its exploration of this balance. Although the Great Waitress site does not address their name, let me take a guess: Some say the mark of a great waitress (or server) is not to be noticed, while making sure everything is perfect for the diner. I find this metaphor interesting for the "background" music concept. If the temporal experience is ultimately rewarding, does it matter if one notices the music? Excellent rhetorical question!

Species-Appropriate Animal Husbandry is by an improvising Swiss trio of clarinet, electronics & percussion, led by Hans Koch. Koch is known for the trio Koch-Schütz-Studer, which presents itself as an improvising accompaniment in a quartet filled by a guest member who typically takes the lead. (Their most recent album, Walking And Stumbling Through Your Sleep, features vocalist Shelly Hirsch — who has a much more conventional vocal presence than those mentioned otherwise in this series of entries.) They thus address the foreground-background pole in another interesting way, by actually inviting a foreground performer onto the stage. Returning to the trio album, Species-Appropriate Animal Husbandry is a suite, and each movement yields a rather different impression: Some are more active, some are more like drones. I find myself enjoying the more active sections, but the album is generally appealing, even if I'm not thrilled with the suite concept. (I think I'd enjoy hearing the different sorts of activity morph into each other, for instance.) Whether it's evocative of some other activity remains a possibility — the possibility being more interesting than a hypothetical certainty.

9 May 2014

This entry is the third in a series of three. Please refer to the May 7 entry for additional context.

Damon Smith has revived his Balance Point Acoustics label after a few years off, first with From-to-From, featuring Alvin Fielder (discussed here in December), and now with North of Blanco, featuring Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk. While some sections of North of Blanco might fit the soundscape label (parts of tracks #3 & #5, for instance), much of it rather clearly does not. Parts are evocative of "bug music" (as substantial parts of Species-Appropriate Animal Husbandry from the last entry were). With a wide variety of technique, it also fits (again, I believe the timing to be coincidence, but perhaps I had an internal dynamic prompting this orientation of which I was not aware) into this recent series of entries by featuring the human voice.

First, as an aside on the soundscape pole, that aspect of the album is reminiscent of the trio album Arena Ladridos (2010), also featuring Chris Cogburn on percussion, and likewise evoking some possible Mexican-Texan heritage (albeit very abstractly, without any of the typical colonial styles). Arena Ladridos also features noted Jack Wright collaborator Bhob Rainey, and Korean-American Bonnie Jones on electronics. (Jones seems to share some similar concerns to Stephanie Lak from the first entry in this series, tying these groups together a bit more.) It is mostly a very sparse album, with occasional bursts of activity. What makes it interesting is that the activity is process-generated, set up within the seeming stasis of the slower sections: It can be heard to enact tipping points, or some similar evolutionary nonlinearities. It's an interesting album, intellectually, on that basis, even if the "interesting" passages occur only infrequently.

Returning to North of Blanco, Blonk's vocal performance is the most wide ranging in this series of entries (and perhaps in this space so far). He is less consistently active than Backer, but also uses some electronic manipulation, through which the level of activity can be more thoroughly blended into other sounds from the ensemble. At times he evokes real language, although I cannot say for sure whether he actually uses words, including occasional speaking diction encompassing all manner of affect. (The widely ranging affect, sometimes in a rather short span, suggests an "actor" — rather than someone expressing his own feelings. This runs somewhat counter to the usual cliché of free improvisation, and provides a bit of a distance to North of Blanco, as the other musicians interact & create these far-ranging scenes. In part because the voice is there, there is no sense of soundtrack in this activity, however, but it does contrast sharply with the more direct expression of e.g. Pensado.) At other times, his variety of vocalization is more similar to Backer's, with its trills & guttural stops, volume moderation & pitch bending. At still others, there are strange growls, imitations of wind & short shrieks. It seems that Blonk can make virtually any sound that is humanly possible, and that range of possibilities provides excellent stimulation for this rather well-integrated quartet, with its shifting foregrounds. Besides Smith on bass, the fourth member is Sandy Ewen on guitar — I interviewed Sandy in this space last year — and she actually opens North of Blanco with some characteristic object-on-guitar-strings sounds. Perhaps in keeping with Cogburn's process orientation, as per above, exotic sounds are often treated motivically by other musicians, regardless of who makes them, although Cogburn himself remains more in the background. Musical interaction between Blonk & Smith apparently dates back several years, and the result is a surprisingly complex, yet coherent, interaction for the quartet as a whole. It speaks very well for avant garde music in Texas. The typical density of the interaction also yields an album that seems even lengthier than it is — and I certainly mean this in a positive sense, i.e. not dwelling on ideas for too long, but rather taking up so many different ideas & interaction dynamics. The quartet generally eschews high volumes however, and keeps to a fairly relaxed interaction, with many shifts in who is doing what, as one element might fade away to be replaced by something else. This is also an album that, when it ends, leaves me listening to the (mostly) quiet room around me in a different way — it has that sort of afterglow, making me take even more notice once it's finished. This is a fascinating combination of musicians, and North of Blanco remains a very intriguing album. That it took me about a month to articulate my impression speaks to the many layers of ideas present.

With its mixture of soundscape & non-soundscape modes, and other activity of indeterminate character, North of Blanco provides something of a summation to this short series of entries. One question I continue to ask myself is how much patience I want to have while hearing an album: Perhaps more to the point, after I've heard it, how much do I want to return to the sensation of needing to be patient for the music to develop? In a related vein, what is the utility of hearing evolutionary nonlinearity as a musical process? As a musically oriented person, I can relate to it as a means of communicating such ideas. Perhaps that's where music can be, or is, highly illustrative for some segments of the population. But again, once some process ideas are articulated via music, what's the draw to hear them again? Personally, I feel as though there isn't one, that there's a point where communication occurs, and then it's over. However, something tells me this dominant impression is too narrow, since process ideas essentially underpin many musical forms. This brings me back once again to the foreground & background poles, and how these can be intertwined — or perhaps more to the point regarding the foregoing, how they can continue to generate engagement with the listener. A final issue to raise on this point is the sort of mental processes the individual listener might bring to such music, and surely that varies considerably: Each individual listener becomes, implicitly, the N+1 performer. I'll conclude with that partially unexplored thought.

11 May 2014

While I've mainly moved to discussing more obscure or niche-based performers in this space, I am not explicitly dismissing albums that might attract more mainstream attention. Hopefully I can follow my own interests in whatever direction they lead, regardless of who else might or might not be interested too. I do expect Steve Lehman's second octet release Mise en Abîme to attract a good deal of mainstream interest; after all, Travail, Transformation, and Flow was the Record of the Year in the New York Times. A followup to a widely acclaimed album from 2009, in addition to its own particular merits, gives me an opportunity to reflect back on the path this space has taken for me: I was much more dependent on other recommendations to find music to explore and to attempt to figure out what "jazz" is in the twenty-first century. While the answer to the specific latter question has probably turned out to be "musicians don't really care about this question," the exploration of what has been happening in the past couple of decades has been interesting, but also clearly contingent. That is, the things I "randomly" heard early in this process have likely had a persistent effect on what catches my ear now — I try not to be influenced in this way, but it is likely unavoidable. (And of course my previous decades of musical experience have a strong effect too, but while that's certainly contingent, I can't even think about undoing it.) So for whatever reasons, and a look back at old entries in this space will actually give reasons, Steve Lehman was a musician who had a strong effect near the beginning of this project, and that effect was triggered by the positive press from Travail, Transformation, and Flow. I checked out most of the Pi catalog at that time too, and continue to notice their releases (even if I haven't found most of their recent releases by younger performers to have been all that compelling, frankly). At this point, Pi doesn't seem all that innovative, compared to other labels featured here since, tag line aside. Nonetheless, the influence remains.

Of course, to what extent is Mise en Abîme — Implementation Abyss — actually mainstream? At least in broad terms, I can answer this question relatively easily: Both octet albums are mainstream because of their publication channel, as already mentioned, and because of their thematic material. They are not mainstream in their methods of arrangement, harmony & tuning. (I'll call the instrumentation "neutral," as it's neither very typical of nor very different from the jazz norm.) Each album uses a single tune from the body of popular music, with the rest being Lehman originals, but the thematic material itself is not terribly original: It would be believable in much more "ordinary" jazz contexts, which I take to be Lehman's intention. He is basically using traditionally jazzy themes, inflected by other elements from USA popular music. (And this interest in USA popular music is probably where Lehman, and for that matter many other jazz musicians, and I most clearly diverge. I have little fondness for this material, and little youthful association. The "stuff" of our musical lives is thus rather different, often leading me to wonder why musicians continue to have such fondness for the American Songbook. Of course, I know the answer to a good degree, but I personally tend to associate the material with some of its most clichéd interpretations.) Lehman's spectral harmony & arrangements are distinctive, however, and Mise en Abîme takes this a step further with its custom-tuned vibraphone. I continue to enjoy the shimmering harmonies & rhythmic energy in this music, the latter of which puts incredible stress on the drummer, something Tyshawn Sorey handles with amazing ease. (I discussed the "pyramid" form of activity in this music around the album Mind Games, back in late 2012 — I was surprised to see it had been more than a year and a half.) In these terms, Dialect Flourescent, Lehman's previous album (discussed in this space at the time), is more mainstream: The trio format is common, and much of it is standards, but it does take a distinctive — likewise spectral — approach to tuning. The harmonic approach not only points its tunings along the overtone spectrum — and thus upward in a hierarchical way that I could certainly critique socially along the hierarchy-as-rupture model — but provides different spaces for elaboration-improvisation within this overall form. Mise en Abîme is even more sophisticated in this regard, with simultaneous elaborations possible, and clearly audible, in different segmented tiers: Tiers in the sense of different pitch areas along the harmonic spectrum. The result is a tight & original package with a lot of activity, a package that despite its transcendentalist leanings I find rather appealing. (I do not think there is anything wrong with enjoying transcendentalist music, as long as the implications are understood, which I think we can readily guess will not be the case in the mainstream press.) My final comment concerns only the brief final track, some kind of creaking street recording that I find completely uninteresting. The rest of Mise en Abîme, however, is crisp & powerful, incredibly masterful within Lehman's chosen style. I have no idea how he can top it in the same idiom.

25 May 2014

Remède de Fortune?

Readers familiar with medieval music (or literature) will recognize the title of this article as taken from Guillaume de Machaut, and Machaut's music-literary work Le Remède de Fortune did indeed inspire the title as an homage, but the topic goes far beyond Machaut. I will begin with a broadly ranging discussion of ideas associated with the notion of fortune — afterward, we can broach some thoughts on a "cure" for some of the contemporary versions of these ideas. First, I want to explore some connections at length, though.

Perhaps this topic proceeds even farther afield from the subject of jazz than any here so far, but it's something I feel a need to discuss in conjunction with some of these other more musically-oriented theses. For one, the modern topic of economics dominates our lives — the narratives of our lives — more than ever before. In making that introductory statement, however, I've already posited "economics" as a thing, without exploring its construction. Much of the purpose here is to explore that construction, and I will do so around the concept of fortune, a concept that greatly predates the idea of the economic, or at least its modern usage. In that exploration, this article will link theories on religion, modernity, and economics. The latter should be understood as coming last, not only historically, but as fabricated by the other two. These connections and developments will hopefully become clear over the course of six intertwined essays oriented around simple assertions (or equations) regarding fortune. These assertions, made in the upcoming section headings, will form the background for a possible reformulation of theory around the triangle religion-modernity-economics. Although I argue that religion is fundamental to this triangle, religion will be more of a starting point, and the domain least interrogated.

In more concrete terms, the need to discuss this topic arises organically: Musicians need to make a living. Although we're sometimes told to separate our artistic appreciation from material concerns, that separation is clearly artificial. The way resources are allocated is crucial to the arts generally, and under increasing scrutiny from a variety of angles. Moreover, it is disembedded economic narratives that deny agonistic politics: People are told they cannot advocate for themselves, because some abstract economic "law" forbids it. Such nonsense clearly needs to stop, not only for artists, but for everyone. To facilitate this, I intend to confront modern economics with its own lack of foundation, and I intend to do so without engaging the terms of the modern economic discipline. Any use of terms also used by economists should be considered casual or ironic, unless otherwise indicated.

Returning to fortune, dictionaries generally reflect four main definitions of the word: Something unexpected, one's lot in life, the result of an undertaking for good or ill, and great wealth. The word itself comes from the Roman goddess Fortuna, the personification of chance or fate. The latter association with great wealth is more modern and derivative, but also extremely telling, as we shall see. The other notions of fortune are similar (to each other), encompass both good & bad outcomes, and substantially predate Christianity: The Romans changed these ideas little from the Greeks. This three-part composite definition is what I will use as a sort of default while exploring the topic in the first half of this article. We can also take the example of Machaut as representing something of a midway point between Roman ideas of fortune and those of today, conveniently placed not long before Europe began its adventure in modern imperialism, an undertaking I will position as exactly what Machaut suggested, a cure for fortune.

[ Read more.... ]

9 June 2014

The Medieval Music & Arts Foundation is pleased to announce the availability of a very limited number of $3000 (USD) fellowships. If you are reading this space, you probably have a good idea of the sort of project likely to appeal. The intent of a fellowship is to defray costs of a performance tour and/or recording project. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so the tax rules for the stipend will follow that standard. Please let me (Todd) know if you have a proposal. (At this moment, I am especially interested in hearing from Latin America, but that's certainly not an exclusive interest.)

10 June 2014

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