To main page.
Having completed Remède de Fortune, which is probably both a digression in this space, as well as a little project that considerably occupied me for a number of months, it feels like time to rotate the previous set of entries off onto an archive page. (This is the largest set of entries collected on one archive page here thus far, in part because of the delay in preparing the Fortune article.)
I concluded that set of entries with an announcement of a performance fellowship, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to do so. For the future of that endeavor, I have created a separate page that will be kept up to date regarding status. At the moment, some money remains available.
I will keep my remarks for this, the fifth iteration of an opening statement in this space, brief. I refer you to my list of favorites, of course, as well as to previous introductory remarks by way of orientation.
Finally, I note that the promised article on Familiarity continues in its development, and that this will be a more properly "aesthetic" article, although I've declined to circumscribe its content thus far. But this article, not yet named as I write today, has been the container — of sorts — for the past couple of years of discussion in this space.
Hopefully there will also be some worthwhile comments on recent albums, and perhaps other endeavors, to appear here over the coming months.23 June 2014
I want to write very briefly of my recent decision to include the free trio Taylor / Dixon / Oxley (recorded in 2002 at Victoriaville) in my list of favorites. Obviously this is a rather earlier recording than the others, and I do not intend it to mark a shift toward featuring older material. Simply put, I found it too compelling to neglect, and with nothing since then that is really comparable. Perhaps something for which I have similar feelings will appear, but there is nothing currently on that horizon.
Cecil Taylor needs no introduction, and if I had been more aware of free jazz in the 1980s, it's safe to guess that Cecil Taylor would have been a performer I particularly admired. Now, seemingly with no new performances forthcoming, that admiration moves into more of a retrospective register. (Kris Davis, who appears regularly in this space, is sometimes compared to Taylor, and not without reason, but I do not actually take a similar feel from their music.) I have already mentioned the late Bill Dixon a number of times, including around his Tapestries double album, something of a summation of his late style. (Dixon's Envoi album, also from Victoriaville, functions as more of an appendix in the same style, to my mind.) This was perhaps his last improvised (uncomposed) album, although one never knows what else could be released subsequently. Having these two giants of African-American music share an improvising stage — nicely complemented by Tony Oxley, who has also released little since — becomes an opportunity that in turn yields a production that becomes emblematic of some views I have on the previous generation of performers. Although I rarely mention it here, I have taken numerous opportunities to listen to older recordings, particularly centered in the 1980s (when the "business" of jazz changed so much, as well as coincidentally the one decade during which I was personally captivated by popular music), but Taylor / Dixon / Oxley stands out for me in that context, as styles continued to develop into the early 2000s. (The context includes both the Taylor & Dixon reissue boxes from Black Saint / Soul Note, as well as various others in that series.) It continues to seem very relevant today, and not really duplicated, even as some of the other styles from that period have served as crucial influences for more recent creation. Of course, the latter doesn't make an album worse, and certainly not less influential, but it does mean that I often prefer the later music for having worked out more of the ideas & techniques. So this inclusion is not a matter of "influence," but rather of enjoyment today.24 June 2014
I have enjoyed Leaf House, the piano trio album released by Jeff Davis in 2012, and so was looking forward to his most recent album — adding two horns to the same piano trio personnel — Dragon Father. One criticism I have of Leaf House is that it can be a bit stiff at times, with some excellent rhythmic-harmonic schemes that don't always soar the way they might. Adding a couple of horns seems like a reasonable way to get a different result, but unfortunately, I'm disappointed with Dragon Father. It has some similar material — meaning that I like it — by Davis, but also some other tracks that could only be termed as sentimental, and the horns serve more to create a traditional jazz "showpiece" vibe than to forge changes in structure in the basic material. In other words, it's a louder & more demonstrative group, but with similar rhythmic-harmonic ideas that the horns are simply amplifying with classic-style solos. Perhaps this album will play better for a more typical jazz audience.
On the topic of drummers whose music I've enjoyed, Joe Hertenstein has been playing with The Core Trio, led by Houston-based bassist Thomas Helton. He is the newest member of that trio, replacing Richard Cholakian and joining sax player Seth Paynter. Their recent album Featuring Matthew Shipp (if that can be considered its title) is often rather minimalist, whether featuring ostinati or solos, and includes a lot of tonal chords. So many triads seem unusual for Shipp! In any case, within the one long track, there are also some animated sections where Hertenstein's drumming can be enjoyed, but mostly he remains in the background. The album can almost be viewed as American minimalism (e.g. Philip Glass) meets classic rock & roll.25 June 2014
A few other recent albums of note....
Ingrid Laubrock has appeared in this space a number of times already, and like some of the other recent albums from New York musicians she plays with often, her Zürick Concert album seems well-suited as an introduction to her style for more modestly adventurous audiences. The live octet performance features a wide variety of sonorities, textures & ideas, but does so across a long program (73 minutes), without too much happening at any one time. Many sections have more of a minimalist orientation, in fact, some centering on a particular dramatic gesture. (There is something of the soundtrack here at times.) The suite — if I should call it that — climaxes with some rather elaborate ensemble interaction in track #6, which is certainly a highlight. The various other musicians employed in the octet include some of my favorites, and it's a very nicely done production, although none of it is very provocative relative to Laubrock's previous work. Zürick Concert does not sound like "jazz," but listeners open to a more contemporary style will likely find it accessible & enjoyable. It's a real tour de force in that sense.
[ As an aside, English trumpeter Tom Arthurs (b.1980) from Zürick Concert, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, also has a new album, Chats with the Real McCoy, on Creative Sources. This is a trio album from Berlin that features some of the same characteristics, namely an emphasis on fairly minimal ideas that change with each track. The greater intimacy of the trio setting provides a different context for this sort of interaction, in this case especially between Arthurs & drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis. (The bassist is Miles Perkin from Canada, whose plucking also seems percussive often enough to blend into one rhythm duo.) The sometimes repetitive nature of the album seems to draw from the hypnotic, particularly Griot, styles of West Africa at times. (I'm calling this an aside, because Chats with the Real McCoy is unlikely to draw mainstream attention, particularly given the complete lack of description from Creative Sources.) ]
The Sauna Session by Piero Bittolo Bon's Lacus Amoenus featuring Peter Evans is also attracting similar positive attention, even if it seems to be a more obscure release from my perspective. This is an Italian quartet, adding the famous US trumpeter, with a colorful & nicely produced album on the Italian Long Song Records. There is much to enjoy about The Sauna Session — I especially liked the opening track, featuring the tuba (with no string bass in this group) — but I also find the many stylistic references to popular music to be rather literal. This extends from various kinds of rock & metal, as typical of many improvisatory albums these days, even to country music (which is rather literal on track #5), blues & folk. I would tend to favor more of a transfiguration of this material, but here I believe we're supposed to enjoy the sounds for their own sake, as part of a (somewhat prototypical) postmodern collage. This is another long album (74 minutes), with much lively interaction and a carefree spirit. I found it rather striking, despite some different preferences, and well worth hearing.
Another album I've enjoyed is Spectral, a wind trio of Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston & Larry Ochs, recorded on two dates here in the Bay Area, and released on Aerophonic Records (Dave Rempis's label, also nicely produced). It has not been a conscious decision, but I have not spent much time on all-wind ensembles in this space. Obviously there is a great deal of potential in using only instruments from the same family, and even if we're more accustomed to e.g. the string quartet, the idea of matched wind consorts goes back to the Renaissance. Here, the instruments aren't really matched, and the three players have no problem differentiating their sounds. A bit like Zürick Concert, although in a very different style, Spectral relies on detailed interactions within a rather constrained space. The various tracks come off spontaneously: Even if one musician adopts a relatively strict procedure, the others interact in different ways. That tension between strictness & freedom is what forms much of the interest. (I contrast this somewhat with what's become the cliché of composition vs. improvisation.) The result is that group structures form & fall apart, but with more intimacy than typical of the "soundscape" style, given the latter's typical distance. Spectral gets the listener thinking about the individual notes, so it's both very technical & self-conscious in that sense. The general sparseness is critical to that focus, a focus not uncommon in "experimental" concerts in the Bay Area.3 July 2014
The duo Period has added Chuck Bettis (who I correspond with occasionally at DMG) on voice & electronics for their second album, 2, as well as a couple of sax players on some tracks. This is basically doom metal reconfigured, decontextualized. I enjoy some of their sonorities, particularly Bettis on vocals & Mike Pride's drumming, but Charlie Looker sticking closely to "metal" chords on the booming guitar gets to be monotonous for me. (This is in distinction to The Gate, mentioned in this space back in September 2012, which mixes interval permutations into their doom style.) I have a hard time listening to the entire first track, which is only the core duo, as well as the longest track on the album, without getting bored by the lack of variety. The track certainly does have a consistent foreboding quality, though, in keeping with the "doom" genre. Track #2 is then a similar setup, but with vocals. Some of the other tracks have a bit more happening. All the vocals are wordless, basically decontextualized metal-style howling, often staying in the background. That aspect of the album is appealing, and Pride scrambles time throughout, so there's plenty of rhythmic interest. (The wind players don't really change the basic sound when they participate.) It's as if doom metal songs have been broken apart and put back together in some incoherent (in the good sense) order, but unfortunately keeping the harmonies mostly intact. Anyway, I don't listen to too many albums that are so focused on rock or post-rock styles, so I thought Period 2 was worth mentioning.5 July 2014
Skulking in the Big House is another worthwhile improvised quartet album on Creative Sources, recorded by German bassist Alexander Frangenheim in Berlin, and featuring the Israeli players Ariel Shibolet (soprano saxophone), Nori Jacoby (viola), and Ofer Bymel (drums). Although I hadn't noticed it at the time, Skulking in the Big House prompted me to also have a listen to Berlin — another improvised quartet album recorded the previous year in Berlin by Frangenheim, with Bymel, but also Creative Sources director Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, and Chris Heenan on reeds. The similarities are obvious between the two groups, and likely Berlin prompted Rodrigues to also release Skulking in the Big House. In any case, although Rodrigues's technique on viola is quite advanced, Berlin is generally a very quiet album, either with not a lot happening, or remaining on the edge of audibility. (The final track does have a bit of an "animal roar" to it, but that fades away also.) I have nothing against exploring such areas in principle, but the fact is, an exploration of audibility doesn't suit my life very well: There's so much environmental noise around me, and trying to listen to music I have trouble hearing only makes it seem more frustrating. So I'm not all that personally compatible with Rodrigues's own style, even if I like much of what he does, particularly as a label director. Another natural point of comparison for Skulking in the Big House in this space is Martin Blume's quartet album In Just, with which I've had a bit of a strange relationship: This is the only album, so far at least, that I've dropped out of my favorites only to add again (and now dropped again). I enjoy much of In Just, even if it's rather quiet for extended periods, but apparently that enjoyment stops short of true enthusiasm. The comparison is likewise fairly obvious, with its two string players, reedist & drummer. I think that ultimately I feel similarly about Skulking in the Big House, in that it's an enjoyable album that doesn't force me to seek it out — not quite enough ideas for a full album, I guess, although the best parts are very striking. Nonetheless, some other thoughts are appropriate. Skulking in the Big House is not so much a study in quiet, although it's never very loud, but more of a chamber atmosphere with quick pointillist sounds often in extended technique. (The percussive attacks are specifically reminiscent of In Just.) I consequently enjoy the way the musicians interact when playing together simultaneously. Although certainly "indoor music," there is a bit of wildness to it in the evocations of insect & small animal sounds, an observation that could be made of a number of albums featured in this space. (Whether this is intentional, I do not know.) The result is a kind of hybrid sensitivity that deserves more exploration, and indeed seems to be getting it. This is one of the more compelling albums to appear so far this year, particularly since (as on Eye of the Moose) it mostly features musicians with which I was not otherwise familiar.
Considering that the majority of musicians on Skulking in the Big House are Israeli, I feel compelled to state at this time that I do not support the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians. The actions of that government are very offensive to me. I also do not automatically believe that anyone from Israel must be in favor of them, just as I am not in favor of many of the things done by the United States government. (And I have no idea what these musicians' specific views are.) That said, Bymel also has a recent trio album recorded in Israel, Spatial Awareness on OutNow; this was worth hearing, although more noise / electronic rock influenced. An album that mostly features Israeli musicians that I continue to find striking is Growing carrots in a concrete floor, largely for its reconfiguration of interior space — including what likewise might be evocations from the animal world. (The final/title track on Skulking in the Big House is the most similar in this regard.)16 July 2014
I discussed the first Dark Tree release, Pourtant les cimes des arbres, more than two years ago in this space. The album received quite a bit of positive attention, particularly in France, and I enjoyed it. (I also continue to like the label packaging, which does not cut corners, has a nice design, ample size, and a sturdy plastic sleeve.) I did have some misgivings about recreating a classic haiku in music, not only about the shift in medium, but also the shift in culture, in this case to a France-based trio. After all, Japan has its own musicians, both traditional & otherwise, and we can hear them as easily as we can this French trio. These topics arise naturally [*] again with Sens radiants, the fourth release by Dark Tree, and the next of this particular trio. Here we find, again, a literary basis, this time in the twentieth century writing of Henri Michaux. The mediation is rather different, however, starting with the French author. Michaux is, to a high degree, a travel author, and his sense of encounter with the cultural other figures his work. This sense of encounter is already highly mediated by Michaux himself, however, rather than arising starkly from a more direct encounter by the musicians (although one can certainly take their previous album as highly mediated by the Western concept of haiku in general). These other layers of dialog — if I may call it that — yield a rhetorical richness throughout the single long improvisation. The imagery is not always especially abstract, however, so that one feels oneself on a train in the opening, later in the jungle, on a ship, etc. These more concrete sensations then interact with other layers of commentary. Another significant difference in Sens radiants, that I approach with some degree of trepidation, is that the world that inspired Michaux is not presented to the West in the way that Japan is: The music or ideas he encountered are not presented in our artistic spaces, or if they are, not self-consciously by the creators themselves. In other words, whereas Pourtant les cimes des arbres doesn't give me a new appreciation of Japan, Sens radiants does give me — at least somewhat — a different feel for e.g. the Amazon.[**] The musicians themselves utilize a variety of technique, and create a rich sonic tapestry, often (but not always) out of quite minimal materials. I would not characterize it as narration or description any more than is Michaux's late poetry: It is, I might say in keeping with the preceding, further mediation — rather, a further transplant — of some very different ways of looking at the world. It's also a chance to hear a very capable sax-bass-drum trio featuring the baritone saxophone in an extended improvisatory piece of many different moods, and that's probably plenty.
[*] This is a self-conscious use of the term "naturally," given the naturalist — and particularly cross-cultural view on nature — evocation (or provocation) of these albums.
[**] Coincidentally, when this album appeared, I was in the midst of reading Descola's Beyond Nature and Culture, which opens with an Amazonian anecdote from Michaux. Perhaps, absent this coincidence, I would have found Sens radiants much less engaging. How can I ever know?4 August 2014
It was serendipitous to have spent some time listening to Spectral a couple of months ago, because that opportunity to ponder the wind trio format made it easier to hear Sonic Rivers subsequently. I don't know why that format presents challenges for me, out of proportion to other sorts of instrumental trios, but in any case, I found Sonic Rivers rather harsh and difficult to approach.[*] However, with some time, the strength of the interaction between these three very distinguished players did shine forth. The frame for the program consists of two compositions by Wadada Leo Smith (b.1941), with the remainder being free improvisation. Having John Zorn (b.1953) invite Smith to record for his label, forming a trio mediated by George Lewis (b.1952), who contributes the electronics to the ensemble sound, is clearly an event (and sure to be widely heard).[**] Moreover, the opening track is a tribute to Cecil Taylor (who I had discussed in this space only a handful of weeks ago), engaging another giant of USA music. Following the opening Taylor homage, the second track, "The Art of Counterpoint" lets loose the exotic sound of electronics to demonstrate just how sophisticated this improvising trio can be. The next set of improvisations might be generically named — or perhaps really evocative of their directional terms — but the last improvisation, "Screaming Grass," has a very clear referent: Coincidentally, my partner watched a TV documentary on plant intelligence & communication the same week this album appeared, although the (colorful) descriptive term goes back to at least 2010. (So the serendipity here is manifold.) In any case, I've long wondered about the public's fascination with animal responses to the seeming complete exclusion of plant responses; evidently we torture plants too. That digression aside, the trio's music is certainly evocative, and exemplary of a richly dense interaction that does not eschew dissonance, nor melody, even if the latter can be hidden. Although it takes some effort to disentangle the various things happening throughout this album, Sonic Rivers is well worth it. That it demands engagement from the listener is perhaps its greatest strength, and I'm feeling that my attempt to translate some of that demand into words is falling even more short than usual.
[*] It is probably premature for me to discuss, but while writing this entry, a wind quintet album by Jorrit Dijkstra (together with distinguished performers Phillip Greenlief, Kyle Bruckmann, Frank Gratkowski, and Jon Raskin) appeared on Driff Records (which has a variety of current releases, including more mainstream jazz formats). Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland is not only similar in its all-wind lineup, but has a similar locus of electronic use to Sonic Rivers. Moreover, it can be compared to Spectral in its Bay Area orientation (in addition to its procedural focus); I've had the opportunity to listen to most of these performers live, and of course, Ochs & Raskin are members of ROVA, a local institution. In any case, Music for Reeds and Electronics is rather more "composed" (by Dijkstra) than these other albums, although it has various fascinating sequences. I've enjoyed it, even if it seems a bit stiff at times, relatively speaking.
[**] Although each of these performers is widely recorded, hearing them in a fully improvised setting, interacting with at least two other musicians at a time, is not as easy as I would like. My current eschewal of solos & duos might be idiosyncratic, but I'm sure that many listeners will likewise value this opportunity.5 August 2014
As it happens, there were three worthwhile piano trio albums that came to me at about the same time, and so this entry will continue to discuss the other two. It is interesting how, at times, it seems this form is played out, but then suddenly it seems reinvigorated. Perhaps that is as expected. In any case....
Love and Ghosts is the latest release (a double album) from the Farmers by Nature trio. In this case, there is no clear leader, and different performers take the lead at different times — William Parker's solos are probably the most striking here, as it happens, even though Gerald Cleaver is the "administrator" for the group. The two CDs are two live sets from France, and have both the strengths & weaknesses inherent to largely unedited concert tour recordings: They're very engaging & stimulating at times, yielding to other moments where not a lot is happening (or it's repetitive), and the engagement tends to fade a bit (at least for me) with repeated listening. I'm glad these performers decided to release such a live album, even if a few hearings satisfies me. There is an attention to process in that decision, and the cultivation of new artists, that Farmers by Nature, and especially Parker, have come to exemplify. The style itself can be reasonably inferred from other activities of these performers, encompassing both the groove-based style and more intricate interactions.
From England comes A field perpetually at the edge of disorder, a trio album fronted by John Tilbury, but with extensive provocation from Mark Sanders, and especially John Edwards. This is largely stark music, in the mode of e.g. Joëlle Léandre's Live - Trio, a piano trio also featuring Tilbury. It's also a lengthy album, with two extended improvisations, both apparently from the same date at Cafe Oto. This music has a sort of air of world commentary, yet a fragility to it, that could also be compared to the recently-discussed Sens radiants. Somehow A field doesn't seem terribly grounded, despite those evocations. I did find it interesting, though, and would probably feel more strongly about it if quiet music worked better in my life. There's both a worldliness and a feeling of distance to the music, encapsulated technically in the triadic response to dissonance. There is an other-worldly sense of enjoyment, in other words, with all the implications that departure might have — observation of the world without being of it. (Working that stance into a broader dynamic including immanence is what Léandre accomplished so well with her trio.) A field, however, clearly captures a particular milieu with some authority.6 August 2014
Given what I might characterize as the conservatism of the Clean Feed catalog [*], at least relative to some more adventurous labels, Fremdenzimmer has long struck me as a provocative album — although perhaps this was never a good assessment, given its clear references to Scelsi & Sciarrino, i.e. "classical" music that is decades old now. However, Fremdenzimmer, or at least parts of it, is also some of the most successfully innovative "Scelsian" music I've heard, incorporating a kind of heterogenous becoming that Scelsi himself never really cultivated, and so a sequel from the Baloni trio was very welcome. As it turns out, there isn't much of a Scelsian orientation to Belleke (except maybe the first half of track #4, which then leads into 1940s Messiaen harmonies that become destabilized), and in fact the opening (as well as some other portions) can only be described as overtly nostalgic in the Romantic sense. I found it initially disappointing, for that reason, but even part way through the first hearing, started to enjoy the charms of Belleke for themselves. There is still a tackling of 20th century avant garde style, but here configured more around emotional registers. (I do not know the reference of the title. A woman's name?) The website mentions something about Satie, whose influence can be felt at times (e.g. #9 — or, given the string attack, is that China's influence on Satie?), although Baloni is far more colorful: The focus on developing smaller scale relations is retained from Fremdenzimmer, if applied to different affective interfaces, and the result is not nearly as dark (to again quote the website, which actually retains the "dark" label for Belleke) or alien: I might call it elemental, to align with the Scelsi influence, but it operates more in the human domain, although not without reference to objects (e.g. #2). There is also the melodic feel of folk music at times, although it is difficult to place within a trans-Eurasian perspective (part Chinese in #5, for instance). There are a large number of separate pieces (again), and the result is an array of affective gestures, usually with some substantial development, some more improvised, some more composed. Belleke uses more tonal coloring than I would have thought I'd enjoy (although melodies are usually decentered), but the result is somehow a reterritorialization that penetrates elements of older styles & their configuration. It makes for a rather interesting juxtaposition with Fremdenzimmer, and indeed Baloni has managed to surprise me & convince me to think about some musical elements differently. (It's also interesting to note that it's been over two years since Belleke was recorded, not so long after Fremdenzimmer was released. Who knows what's next?) Maybe the Clean Feed writer thinks of the haunting quality as dark, but I would say it's a bright haunting, or at least translucent.
Clean Feed continues to release a wide range of material, and another album from the latest batch held my attention for a while, Balance by the Joe Morris Quartet. This is an older formation to which Morris "returned," with Mat Maneri, Chris Lightcap, and Gerald Cleaver. Although I have not featured Lightcap in this space, Maneri participates in a couple of favorite albums (with Joëlle Léandre & with Kris Davis), and Cleaver appears regularly in a variety of ensembles — in the previous entry with Farmers by Nature, with Samuel Blaser, John Hébert, etc. Morris takes pride in regularly making music that is completely different from his other music, and in that context, Balance represents something of a return, as already noted — a return he describes as creating difference via being a return. (I can personally relate to Morris's comments about feeling some resentment, maybe even fear?, at being told that this quartet defined his sound. That sort of thought usually makes me scramble too.) Various parts of Balance are highly enjoyable, particularly when the entire ensemble is involved, but there are also many smaller scale sections where not a lot happens for a period of time. It's an album that can alternate brilliance with feeling repetitive or unfocused in fairly short order — perhaps that's what makes it balanced. (According to Morris, it is actually inspired by 20th century sculpture, and is the third & last in a series of albums devoted to the visual arts, the second being Camera, discussed in this space some 37 months ago.) Nonetheless, it's well worth hearing.
[*] I don't actually attribute Clean Feed's so-called conservatism to any sort of reactionary element among the label staff at all, but rather to a goal of bringing their audience along in a manner acceptable to that audience. In other words, they're trying to address a conservative audience (by definition; not any more so than any but the most specialized audiences), and spur them toward some newer musical ideas — or at least that's how I view the situation. Moreover, I can't complain, since that approach worked well for me.13 August 2014
Belgian percussionist Teun Verbruggen (b.1975) has been generating some buzz with his recent album Spinning Jenny with his Bureau of Atomic Tourism sextet. This is a lengthy album featuring intricately composed pieces from ensemble members, although none by the leader himself. Together with the release of Spinning Jenny — and from the same recording sessions — is an improvised trio album, The Evil Art Contest. The latter features half of the sextet, probably not coincidentally including the two otherwise most famous performers, Marc Ducret & Nate Wooley. As an improvised album, The Evil Art Contest attracted me a little more readily, but it's also worth considering the albums together. Indeed, I cannot help but think of the classic improvised Baroque prelude as a metaphor for The Evil Art Contest, with the "suite" to come in Spinning Jenny. The eight tracks on The Evil Art Contest regularly create an anticipatory mood, and would otherwise leave one wondering about what comes next, or perhaps even feeling unsatisfied by their mood of incompletion. However, we do learn what comes next with the lengthy Spinning Jenny, where this anticipatory mood is eventually saturated with completion. Although it would surely be a mistake to link the pieces individually, the relationship between these two albums seems relatively clear as a whole. The result is some rather interesting music, in two facets, united by the inclusive & multi-faceted personal style of Verbruggen.1 September 2014
Jeff Shurdut started a new music label, Creative Music for Creative Listening, and has released The Music of Everything as two download-only albums. (These are available, for instance, via Classics Online, along with a couple of earlier albums, including Yad.) The earlier of these albums, recorded on two dates last year at Brooklyn Fire Proof, is on the shorter side, whereas the later one, recorded early this year at Downtown Music Gallery, is of a more typical length, and consists of three tracks. There are thus three live dates represented; the ensemble has substantial overlap, but is not identical between any two dates. Besides Shurdut himself (always on alto), three other musicians are at all three dates: Sana Nagano (violin), Kevin Shea (drummer for e.g. Mostly Other People Do The Killing), and Sean Sonderegger (tenor). Nagano also has a recent trio album, Inside the Rainbow — worth hearing for its mix of avant garde & delicate folk music. Other performers include Harvey Valdes on guitar (whose trio album Tesla Coils I'll be discussing in this space soon), and Landon Knoblock on electronics (whose Stellar Power album on Skirl received some good attention, although its rock idiom doesn't speak to me).
Shurdut's choice of label name appeals to me, as should probably be clear from reading various previous entries: I often consider how an album might fit into my life, or what it might "do" for me. Inspiring creativity in the listener, particularly in asking the listener to creatively interact with the music itself, is a very worthwhile goal, and at least for me, Shurdut regularly succeeds. Given that these are already produced albums, obviously the listener will have no effect on the sounds emitted, and so it's not interactive music in that sense, but the music can & does engage the listener in a process with no firm closure. This is one of the achievements here. Regular readers will know that I have probably not been as generous with download-only albums as perhaps I should. No doubt, I would like a physical release, perhaps for completely anachronistic reasons of my own, but there is also something distinctly provocative about a download-only release of a performance made in a record store. The juxtaposition raises the question of object relations, and my desire for a physical object. (I tell myself this is mainly a matter of habit, so that I can maintain a "to do" stack, browse shelves, etc. I can't resist the idea that it's also about some desire for control [*], even if I don't want it to be that.) We can ask, then, regarding a musical performance, what is the object? This is a fairly simple question to answer, but it does need asking from time to time. A recording already takes us away from the live performance (although some albums are not conceived as live performances, and undergo substantial editing, etc.). Then we have the physical package — which is probably artistic in some sense, perhaps in an innovative way in some cases, but also usually includes some banal aspects such as shrinkwrap — and of course the encoded (represented, engraved, etched) sound. In each of these aspects, there is an opportunity to create an affective tone with more than sound, and that includes in the electronic equipment used, over which the musicians may have little control on the listener end [**]: There is a resulting stance the listener takes toward the music (both physical & psychological), perhaps submerging into habit, perhaps not. I wanted to mention this aspect explicitly, even though it's obvious enough, in order to raise the notion of improvisation across a human-nonhuman media assemblage. This can be invoked concretely by musicians, including a consideration of different listeners at different positions in the assemblage.
So the foregoing is my thought on "Creative Music for Creative Listening" in the broadest sense, incorporating the listener across an assemblage, and at least some strands are taken up in The Music of Everything as a furthering of "cooperative total improvisation." Life as a collective improvisation then surely exceeds whoever is in a space wielding a musical instrument at a particular time. A reframing of such a critical issue raised by these albums, and Shurdut's music more generally, is as that of contemporary subject position. (It's interesting to me that press for Shurdut's music has described it as "visual" or some variant, presumably because of Shurdut's success in visual art. I find his music very aural, but one thing it does certainly have in common with his visual art is this exploration of subject position — an interest that is probably more obvious in the latter.) Using environmental tuning, and incorporating (although not quite literally) various sounds from the urban environment, Shurdut's music is richly contextual. (This is echoed likely in the different characters of these two albums recorded in different spaces, also, although I know nothing of one of the spaces.) There is no abandonment of the subject, however, as not only is his assignment of himself as the creator of this music almost hyperbolic, but more human elements also occur — and in fact some of these melodic elements can continue longer than other sound complexes. There is thus an off-centering of the subject, whether reflected in hearing (with or through) others, or in the backgrounding of human elements. The result is impersonal, however, in that we're never sure if this humanity is ours or Jeff's or someone else's — only that it's there. Likewise, the various individual activity in these relatively large improvising ensembles somehow seems depersonalized without being scripted: Lots of individual activity, but always collective, yielding a spiritual sense. Hence the exploration of subject position (or subjectification) per se, rather than personal connection: The environmental context produces an internal decontextualization in turn, much like we don't really know who the figures are in Shurdut's paintings. Although it includes concrete references, the music becomes an image of itself (and perhaps we can locate the "visual" element here in this reflection, even if it is entirely aural).
Decentering, but not eliminating subjectification processes becomes crucial to engaging the listener's own creativity across the media assemblage. The listener's own thinking can overwhelm the sonic sensations themselves, leading to a variety of tangents & events: This is a clear strength of the recorded medium, because flights of fancy do not prevent one from hearing the music: One can always start again. And indeed, Shurdut's music is very successful in this regard, inducing all manner of tangential thoughts and internal decenterings. Moreover, as I've discussed in the past, the transformation of city noise into a musical tapestry (by means other than sampling, and so doubling the human factor) serves admirably to insulate the listener against that very noise, even as it occurs simultaneously in one's own noisy environment. Shurdut activates the vitality in these otherwise irritating noises, and gives the listener a different perspective. Further regarding the individuality of the two albums, the BFP tracks move much more quickly, with waves of activity: A traffic jam dissipates, or the listener moves elsewhere, creating a general feeling of mobility. These are the denser, more aggressive or experimental tracks, largely on account of that mobility. The DMG tracks, basically a suite of three, have a more balanced & situated character. There are longer lines, and some procedures develop a bit of an ostinato mode. Here we have the classical sense of "the music of everything" — the ideal of the symphony. Instead of Mahler's Alpine peaks, we get traffic & hubbub. The transformation & subjectification are nonetheless of a similar character, even if the humanity is always already present in Shurdut. The DMG tracks, then, present something of a polished result to Shurdut's most recent investigations. The juxtaposition of hubbub with polish should be evocative enough. This is creative music, both inspiring & practical for at least this listener.
[*] With the control exerted over digital devices today, the possibility exists (and is more than virtual in the case of e.g. electronic book rentals) that download-only music will simply disappear from one's device on the whim of some media or government representative — or due to equipment failure. So this desire for control is not entirely about pathological insecurity.
[**] The Apple corporation has made a lot of money innovating in the area of affective physical qualities for electronic devices.9 September 2014
Although it was released in 2013, the album Wry only recently appeared where I could notice it (in DMG's weekly listing). It's an improvised trio recording of Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández (b.1954), Greek-Belgian soprano saxophonist Ilan Manouch (b.1980), and drummer Ivo Sans. Manouch says on his website: "The music is warped, misdirected and perverse and contains no straight lines or clear planes, nor any regulated flows. It oscillates between the opposing incentives of moral reductionism and extrovert cut-up shifts creating a champ d'écoute resembling a porous territory with jagged limits." I hear some straight lines & regulated flows — there are various regimes of stasis via repetition, and some heterophonic unity at other times — but I do agree with the porous territory with jagged limits description: In other words various sonic activities cohere often enough (and using such abstract language might suggest the music is more abstract than it is; it's mostly made of conventional musical notes), but other activities penetrate them and the coherence breaks up in different ways. (The sometimes heterophonic, i.e. everyone playing similar lines, character can be readily compared to Fernández's improvised trio with Joe Morris & Nate Wooley, From the Discrete to the Particular, discussed here in late 2012.) One notable aspect of the sound of this trio is the mechanical-industrial "rattling" largely carried out by the piano, and evocative of the Second Stage trio album Grey Matter: The albums have some similarities of ensemble as well, despite the difference in wind family, although Grey Matter is generally more melodic. Another aspect is the evocation, at other times, of the shakuhachi (or xiao) & gong sound, and its resulting sparseness. The sections I like best are those that are neither sparse nor heterophonic, although the variety is also welcome. Even more welcome would be Manouch further exploring the vision in his quote, because I like the idea.
I also want to mention the recent La Scala album on Ayler, largely because I have enjoyed the previous album featuring the Ceccaldi brothers, Can you smile? with Joëlle Léandre. We don't have Léandre here — instead it's pianist Roberto Negro, who wrote most of the music, and percussionist Adrien Chennebault — but there is again a dash of humor, in this case bathos-tinged, and much more pathos than I'm accustomed to in this space. Most of the music is composed (the improvised tracks come to between 7 & 8 minutes in total), and sounds that way, working through a huge list of references. For instance, there is a slow section in track #3 with a Bach theme in one piano hand and a Beethoven theme in the other; Bartok's lines erupt forcefully in the strings in track #5, to be transformed onto the piano, etc. There are far too many references to list, including many to light popular tunes, even at "inopportune" moments. I think you get the idea. It was fun to hear at least once.10 September 2014
I already mentioned Tesla Coils in the discussion of Jeff Shurdut's The Music of Everything, since both albums include Harvey Valdes on electric guitar. Tesla Coils includes saxophonist Blaise Siwula (b.1950) too, who I also first heard on recordings with Shurdut, and is rounded into a trio by Gian Luigi Diana on electronics. I was not familiar with Diana previously, but the (curiously named) Setola di Maiale label has featured him previously, whereas this is the first time for the other two musicians. (Diana also plays the sitar, among other things, according to his website.) The tracks (all improvised) refer to parts of Tesla coils (no specific reference to the trendy car, I don't believe), and consequently project some of the same mechanical-industrial reverberation as the previous entry (discussing the more rattly Wry), in front of a decentered subject (reminiscent of Shurdut) evoked mainly by Siwula on sax (at times rather jazzy) & sometimes Valdes (who tends to be a bit more impersonal here) on rock guitar. With Tesla Coils, however, electronics are prominent, although not to the point of the piercing resonant suspension of e.g. Anomonous. The technological manipulations yielding to an air of mystery are somewhat reminiscent of The Apophonics On Air, although with more stable roles for the trio members, and a more qualitatively mediated surface. These are the albums that come to mind, sonically in any case, even if Tesla Coils has a different approach to subjectification: The person in the midst of technology, the latter sometimes dominating the space, the former remaining relatively calm with no sign of flight, perhaps actively joining. There are more crossings than such a narrative thread suggests, even if it often seems in force, and even if the music is rarely overwhelmingly complex. The result is both original & personal in its balance, with the opening track (aptly named "Primary") both the longest & most eventful. (The album was apparently available a few months ago, but I only noticed it last month, in the DMG newsletter.)
Siwula also recently released the album Mérida Swings with a band he formed in Mexico, Mérida Encuentro. The group includes three musicians from Mérida, plus Siwula on reeds, although there are never more than three people playing on any one track, and sometimes only two. There are a variety of styles to be heard in this suite, including evocations of Mexican colonialism. Personally, I enjoy the tracks with percussion and more abstract ideas. Mérida Swings shows some experimental inspiration at times, and I can't help but think there are a lot more ideas in Latin America than the few I hear.16 September 2014
Continuing an apparent (although unplanned) recent trend in this space, most recently reflected by Sonic Rivers, is another wind trio, World of Objects. In this case, it is clarinetist & post-production specialist (working for John Zorn in the latter capacity, forming another link with Sonic Rivers) Jeremiah Cymerman who formed the trio with the legendary English saxophonist Evan Parker and the well-traveled Nate Wooley on trumpet. The music was improvised live, and then modified afterward to enhance certain tones & resonances, or to create a specific noise barrier, etc. There is thus a very real sense in which the performance was altered after the fact, but this kind of technique also raises the question of exactly the boundary between alteration & ordinary activities such as mixing & mastering. In either case, there is an act of focusing the ear, if I may summarize this way, and perhaps what makes a recording an "unaltered" performance has never been clear. (Or one might say that it has always been clear that such is impossible.) In any event, the electronic enhancements are striking at times, absent or not noticeable at others, and the success of the album ultimately rests on the earlier live interaction between these talented wind players, each playing different types of instruments (the reeds being cylindrical & conical). Whereas the previous album on Cymerman's 5049 Records, Pale Horse with Christopher Hoffman (also playing cello on Henry Threadgill's most recent album) and Brian Chase (drums), is rather more minimal with its gestures, World of Objects is abuzz with activity throughout. The notes (which mostly discuss the post-production) lead off with an enigmatic quote from T.S. Eliot regarding the title, and indeed Eliot's prescience in this matter should be noted, but "object" ontology & phenomenology are very trendy topics in USA academic philosophy at the moment, reflecting one approach to the post-subjective turn (most commonly called "posthuman" when it continues to orient on subject position). The music, or at least its inspiration, would therefore appear to be very much of our time. Indeed, there is an impersonal quality to the sonic interactions throughout (and in this sense, one might more properly call them "sonic" rather than musical). This emphasis fits with technical explorations by Parker & Wooley, not to mention that these three performers have all worked together at least pairwise on other projects, and so the choice of trio seems particularly apt (and it continues to perform this year). I should note specifically that the post-production is not the source of the object perspective, however, as — if anything — it is more subjective than the original sounds. Of course, these are sounds created by people with analog instruments, so that contradiction can be striking: Just as elsewhere it is people expressing object existence in human language. The sound combinations are sometimes sparser, and can yield a sense of epic grandeur, but at other times reference everyday sonic banalities; there is thus a very wide range of object interaction, and it can shift rapidly. The result continues to be compelling over multiple hearings.
A couple of loosely related recent albums....
Red Hill (on Rare Noise Records) is by a quartet of Jamie Saft (keyboards), Joe Morris (bass), Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), and Balazs Pandi (drums). This is a lengthy album, and somewhat related to the thread above by the addition of special guest Wadada Leo Smith. Smith starts the proceedings with a piercing blast, and is active throughout, but this is clearly Saft's album. Despite also employing a Fender Rhodes, his piano playing is fairly conventional, by which I mean it uses traditional notes (no "inside" playing) & pianistic figures. Saft has an excellent command of the piano repertory, and many of his interjections are quite interesting in their latent historical commentary. Despite some rock-based ideas, and often dense activity, there is a fairly strong adherence to tradition overall, particularly a traditional sense of harmony.
The Gate, featuring Dan Peck & Tom Blancarte & Brian Osborne (the latter set to participate in Jeff Shurdut's Kitchen Music concert in October) have released a new (LP) album, Stench, adding Nate Wooley & Tim Dahl (on electric bass). The quintet makes for even more "fun" in their exploration of avant garde doom metal and its various low pitches. I continue to find an appeal.29 September 2014
In a recent batch of releases from the prolific FMR Records, the one that caught my eye was Life in a Black Box by the Willi Kellers Quartet, featuring (together with Frank Paul Schubert) half of the Grid Mesh quartet, whose album Live in Madrid I have enjoyed. Together with Kellers & Schubert, Life in a Black Box includes Paul Dunmall (who has a huge discography, including on FMR) & Clayton Thomas (featured in this space with The Ames Room, plus various other German releases), two other prominent musicians. It's a very long album with a lot happening, free blowing (and other playing) reminiscent of the Ornette Coleman standard with two horns, bass & drums. There is a lot of soloing, although with some overlap, producing a fairly conventional album that differs more in detail (e.g. bagpipes) than in approach, at least for most of its length. It's a lot of activity, with some different interaction (more into tonal coloring) only with the bass solo opening Second Box invoking a slow battle with the frenetic style, leaving a residual pointillism that is eventually dominated by a layered atmosphere. With that track, the album does seem contemporary. The final track features quick motion again, but quieter & more fractured, almost "free jazz" as a background. I could simply skip the 30+ minute opening track, frankly: The last half hour is more interesting.19 October 2014
I want to note my enjoyment of the Gordon Beeferman Trio's new album Out in Here. The release on Outnow Recordings was actually this summer, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen the name before when I first saw the announcement. (I hear someone invented online searching to solve problems like that, but what can I say. I thought I did remember.) So I only listened to this rather long piano trio album recently. Where had I heard Beeferman before? With Jeff Arnal, and indeed a comparison with Pail Bug is apt here: Whereas Pail Bug is rather concentrated, Out in Here takes some similar musical influences & priorities and treats them more expansively. The resulting length becomes simultaneously the strength & weakness of the album. Ultimately, it's more "pleasant" (if I can use that term in a quasi-technical sense), and likely to be far more agreeable to a broader audience. I've enjoyed the album, and hope it gets that attention. The comparison does not begin & end there. In fact, Michael Evans (with whom I was not familiar prior to this album) is another student of Milford Graves, and that influence comes through clearly, even if Out in Here provides a slower moving (although not slow by any typical measure) canvas. I've mentioned bassist James Ilgenfritz here in the past (most recently last December, regarding the also-appealing Thank You album with Joe Hertenstein). He has some ear-catching solos, and indeed his playing fits quite nicely into this style. I've remarked in the past how difficult it seems to be to do something really creative with the classic piano trio format at this point in time (and Joëlle Léandre's Trio is the most striking recent release to my ears, although I very much enjoy Kris Davis's Waiting For You To Grow as well), but yet appealing piano trio albums do continue to appear. With Out in Here, we basically get some experimental ideas & genre combinations made to sound almost classical (mediated by a theatrical sense), even if little of what the rhythm team does is actually classical (or classic jazz) & and the entire trio is very much "the rhythm team" at times. One could almost characterize the trio as letting harmony, and in turn melody, emerge from rhythm.3 November 2014
Destination : Void is the new quintet album by trumpeter Peter Evans. This piece is rather more composed than most of what I've been featuring in this space, especially of late, but it's worth mentioning. It seems like a landmark in the development of Evans's personal style, so that is probably reason enough, as he continues to establish himself as one of the leading musicians of his generation within his niche — however we might describe that, and perhaps we might describe it as a matter of influences, which certainly include classic jazz. I also want to note Sam Pluta on live electronics, as he is also developing a personal style in partnership with Evans. The other musicians in the quintet also have some great credits, with Ron Stabinsky on piano probably being the least known, and the most featured on Destination : Void with its precisely angular piano figures. (Tom Blancarte, who has worked with Evans for years, has e.g a long & characteristic solo just before the final flurry; I can't say I ever really notice Jim Black, which might be praise.) It's that precision that creates so much of the interest on the album, but also a precision that marks it so clearly as composed. Consequently, there are some great & original textures here, sometimes repeating a bit too long perhaps, but also some excellent ideas that I welcome coming back in a more improvisatory setting. The piece as a whole has the character of a symphony, complete with slow sections, and was actually "premiered" live a couple of years prior to this studio recording.
In a similar mold, although less to my taste musically, is Tyshawn Sorey's new album, Alloy. I was very critical of Sorey's previous album, Oblique, so feel as though I owe some discussion here. My main criticism of Oblique — what is the point of it? — is not really an issue with Alloy. There is a lot of personal connection here, obvious in the hearing, but it's also an album, like Destination : Void, that is highly composed. Like Evans, Sorey makes no apologies for that, and it'll be interesting to see what he does from here. His technical ability, and now his ability to express more emotional ideas, was never really in doubt. As far as the music on Alloy, I enjoy the more ambiguous & less tonal tracks & sections more (such as the way the opening reconfigures the piano trio, for instance, but that reconfiguration isn't pursued further), but what stands out for me about the album is the unabashed tonality on some tracks, particularly the last (& longest): Straightforward tonal chords dominate with a simple beauty [*], much of the interest found in the way they are arrayed rhythmically in arpeggios (in a generalized sense). It's a union of rhythm & harmonic implication that almost has the character of chimes at times (although track #2 directly evokes Beethoven, so there's a classical edge as well). Clearly this is in the air: I was surprised e.g. by Matthew Shipp playing such minimal tonal figures on his recent album with The Core Trio (as noted here in June). We've also seen renewed interest in Satie in the discography. So I have to view Alloy as part of a general reclamation project for simple triads, albeit here with a seamless rhythmic inflection (as opposed to the hypnotic rhythms, or sliding processes, of e.g. Glass or Reich, even if track #3 has a bit of process orientation, or what some call groove) that reaches down into what I've called the "pyramid" (after Ariyakudi, I should note) of musical organization with rhythm at its base. I'm not sure I can ever embrace that kind of (seeming) naked tonality, but Sorey is well-placed to investigate it. That said, his drumming, particularly in some quieter moments, working so many strands simultaneously, is amazing: It's enough to keep me listening.
[*] It's no secret that I link the hierarchy of Western tonal organization to the hierarchy of Western society. So whereas I have little doubt that Sorey views these chords as beautiful in themselves, and that many listeners will follow suit, there's a certain juxtaposition against oppression that's always implied for me. I also doubt that Sorey would plead ignorance on this point, maybe intending to address it with this exact music, but I don't feel it's actually successful on this point — not yet anyway. In fact, I can link my objection, if you can call it that, precisely to the "in themselves" remark I (seamlessly, perhaps?) threw in there. That little slice of Platonism was a bit of a joke, if you know me.13 November 2014
It's rather different from most items listed or discussed here, so it took me a while to come to this discussion of Phase/transitions by Triple Point. The main difference is that this is an anthology, a 3CD anthology at that, recorded over a number of years. It's questionable whether even the individual CDs form an "album" suitable for hearing in order, although I have generally done exactly that when listening to this music. In that sense, it's almost like an anthology of compositions accumulated over five years, except that the music is totally improvised. So that is the main point of similarity with the music occupying this space, and ultimately there was no better place for me to discuss Phase/transitions. The instrumentation is unusual, although hardly unprecedented: Pauline Oliveros (b.1932) on accordion, Doug Van Nort on electronics, Jonas Braasch on soprano saxophone, and a couple of guests on a few tracks, one of the guests being a machine/AI improviser, and the other connected via the internet. Describing the guests points to some of the distinctive — again, not unprecedented — qualities of Phase/transitions, but perhaps the most pervasive differentiating quality is that much of this music came out of an architecture department.
This is where I need to step back and relate a little about my background. Triple Point was formed at Rensselaer in Troy NY, which is where I received my doctorate, and where I lived for several years. (I should also add that Destination : Void, discussed here last week, was recorded at one of the same facilities in Troy.) The investment in electronic music had only barely started at Rensselaer as I was leaving. I did not follow it, and frankly I would have never guessed that it would result in something that I would independently discover and be discussing as a "favorite." So this was another factor that delayed this writeup, that is, simply my own personal astonishment & reevaluation. (When I was in Troy, I don't think the university even awarded degrees in music, although I might be wrong. I didn't take any courses in the department, although I did meet with the department chair weekly for a couple of years simply to chat about music.) One thing I did notice when I was at Rensselaer, however, was the architecture department experimenting with music: Specifically, they would set up some "environmental" tapes in spaces on campus, usually spaces that did not seem very warm or friendly, and attempt to determine if the music (which was quiet) would affect how people interacted with the space. The reader can find traces of this experience in some of my earlier comments here, as I did also take note of the effects. Anyway, that is the personal backstory.
Pauline Oliveros has been a music pioneer since the 60s, and her Deep Listening approach has been rather influential. One finds other accordionists in the jazz-improvisatory tradition as well. It seems to me that accordion is suggestive of human-technology interaction, because in some sense it's such a crazy contraption, but it also requires a degree of physical intimacy to play, more bodily than a typical keyboard. In any case, Oliveros has also been an electronic music pioneer, and Phase/transitions reflects that impetus not only in musical technology, specifically the complicated devices Doug Van Nort plays, but in the artwork: It was made with a system that uses breath & eye movements to create a 2d visual work, for people without the use of their limbs. (The subject matter is rather stereotypical in that sense, although the wind is especially vivid.) It makes me wonder about similar assistive musical technology, sensitive to nuance, but not requiring a lot of control or stamina. Perhaps that's actually at play here. I was not familiar with Doug Van Nort previously, but of course there are other trios in this space with a member focusing only on electronics; likewise Jonas Braasch, who juxtaposes playing the most traditional instrument here (although one could argue) with being in the architecture department.
None of this would matter much if the music didn't speak to me somehow. Already, in using a speech metaphor, I'm distorting its qualities: The architectural background, the sense of the environment, is always quite tangible. It is not background music, that is, it has foreground qualities and does not call out for other sounds or activity to complete it. However, the interplay between foreground & background is explored & interrogated to a high degree. In short, this is music that questions & blurs any such duality. I believe that readers can immediately appreciate my interest at this point. It's a series of studies on this background-foreground issue, with a very sophisticated sense of background via space, some of the world's most advanced technology, and performers with a heightened sense of listening & nuance. (Although it's the least "spectacular" instrument here, Braasch's saxophone playing contributes immensely to these qualities via his sensitivity to acoustics & control of breath, which are both impressive.) The sense of space itself is transformed via acoustic manipulation, suggesting changing physical containers: Is architecture a background? Not for those who practice it. Here/hear the space is specifically acoustic(ized). The weakness of Phase/transitions is exactly what I noted at the beginning, that it's not really an album, and so not conducive to the sort of uses I typically have for music. However, as anything, that typicality can be challenged, even if in this case, the "challenge" seems to be more a practical limitation. Either way, the strong points of these thirty-nine short- & medium-length pieces make this anthology a must-hear for anyone interested in these issues. That it comes from a place I had thought was irrelevant to my current life only makes the whole experience more jarring, but presumably that is a perspective unique to me.17 November 2014
A quick note on Day in the life of a city, a trio album by Jacek Mazurkiewicz (bass), Rob Brown & Daniel Levin on the Polish Multikulti Project label: Here we have a different, personal recontextualization of city noises. I mention this because using sonic elements from a city environment as material for human musicians to copy & interpret has already been of interest here, such as in projects by Transit, Jeff Shurdut, etc. (It's also been a while since Daniel Levin has released an album.) As opposed to the NYC-centered material, though, Day in the life of a city takes a more immanent perspective on city noises: The noises are not viewed at a distance, shifting as a background, but rather one takes an intimate personal position along with these sounds and follows them into what is, at times, a rather straightforward interval development & fade via (again, human) improvisation. The result means not a lot going on at times, and clearly this isn't as big a city, but the difference in perspective (personal-impersonal might be contrasted here) seems worth noting: Here the city soundscape is not only familiar, but us.19 November 2014
I had been anticipating Flowing Stream appearing from Leo Records (since their releases take months to come to the US), and perhaps that sense of anticipation colors my disappointment with the album. It's not a bad album, but any time Joëlle Léandre releases a trio (or quartet) album, I take notice (since most of her releases are duos), and I've been following Nicole Mitchell somewhat as well: I see now that I had yet to mention any of her albums in this space, and it's true that most are rather more mainstream in their thematic material than I usually mention (underscored by her very mainstream praise in Downbeat), but I have been listening to some more abstract output, particularly her collaborations with Léandre. In any case, a trio with Thomas Buckner & his interesting vocal technique sounded quite promising. However, Buckner's technique ends up being more interesting here than compelling (and in fact, the track I like best is the flute & bass duo!). He seems rather stiff & distant... talks about concerns there wasn't time to rehearse (but dismisses them). The notes also talk about some shamanic content, but frankly, they're going to have to take another try (and try to keep it spontaneous) to make that happen. I'll give a listen, if so. I mean, it sounds like a great idea, but as is, there just isn't much tension (let alone shamanic authenticity specifically).2 December 2014
Rotations, by the double bass quartet Sequoia, is the latest release on Evil Rabbit Records. The latter was co-founded by Meinrad Kneer, one of the bassists in the quartet (that was apparently initiated by Klaus Kürvers), and a musician on the (admired by me) album Colophony, featuring violinist Jon Rose. The latter association caught my attention, and a quartet of bassists sounded like a fine idea. (The other two are Antonio Borghini & Miles Perkin.) Like Colophony, Rotations was recorded in Berlin in 2012, but a month earlier. The album contains a mix of ideas, some more compelling than others, but is well worth hearing as exploration of an acoustic bass quartet. The "acoustic" aspect figures to be significant here, as Kürvers is coming from an architecture background — apparently an emerging theme in this space. Anyway, there are some precise procedural works, designated as collective compositions, and also some more seemingly spontaneous tracks featuring environmental transfiguration, including the opening take on crows, surely the most immediately enjoyable track, and the final track including evocation of fading resonances of traffic sirens. Some of the more drone-focused tracks are a little slow for me, although the musical sound stage spread across the four instruments is part of the intrigue. At times, there is independent interaction, but at times, it's rather coordinated as a giant & unwieldy single instrument. It's somewhat audible in stereo, but the spatial aspect likely comes through much more clearly in person.3 December 2014
This may be overly indulgent, but in the event that readership does not overlap very much, I want to direct readers in this space, briefly, over to today's entry in the medieval remarks: There I discuss the medieval (Ars Antiqua) motet as a machinic assemblage & open system. I trust the relevance is clear.5 December 2014
I have consistently enjoyed Tipple's second album, Live Tipple, which I encountered when exploring Kevin Norton's discography, and so had to listen to their third album, No sugar on anything, released on Frode Gjerstad's own label, Circulasione Totale. It turns out that, although No sugar on anything is the third album to be released, it was actually recorded the day before Live Tipple, in this case in New Jersey. I'm not sure if it was a rehearsal for the Buttonwood concert, or if there was an audience — an audience is not noticeable, at least. The recorded sound itself is much closer & so more intimate on No sugar on anything, and so it becomes easier to distinguish the three performers, especially making David Watson's interventions easier to identify. That kind of intimacy gives the album a strong first impression, and indeed I've enjoyed it, but I don't find my attention held to the end the way it is with the more concentrated & nuanced Live Tipple album. As soon as I noticed that these two albums were recorded on consecutive days, together with the fact that those days' events were released on two different labels in two different years, I knew they would present me with something of an artificial choice: Being presented with similar albums calls out, subconsciously, for a choice between them. So I was prepared to resist such a choice, but ultimately, I'm satisfied with my assessment & choice. No sugar on anything is still worth a listen for another perspective on this ongoing improvising trio, even if it's the less compelling album.9 December 2014
I want to make a few remarks about the most recent batch of Clean Feed releases. It's amazing how prolific they continue to be, for one thing. (And speaking of prolific Portuguese record labels, I expect to hear several recent Creative Sources releases soon as well, but they are slow to come to the US.) Although my priorities have mostly diverged from Clean Feed over the past few years, the label does continue to have interesting releases, and the prolific output assures at least a few intriguing ideas.
Tony Malaby continues to be a Clean Feed mainstay, and I couldn't resist hearing his most recent album, Scorpion Eater. The draw for me is the "Tubacello" concept, a quartet featuring tuba (Dan Peck) & cello (Christopher Hoffman). Additionally, John Hollenbeck is the percussionist, and I don't see him participating in other musicians' projects very often. So it's an intriguing ensemble, and one that fits together rather well. (I've already noted Henry Threadgill adding cello, also Hoffman, to his Zooid ensemble — which already included a tuba — on Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, so it's certainly not unprecedented; Threadgill makes things a sextet with two guitarists.) There's a fairly mainstream sound to the album most of the time, whether classic jazz or more recent film-inspired or minimal textures. Of course, there's Malaby's big horn, whether leading or returning. It's an enjoyable, atmospheric album that more than demonstrates the viability of this kind of quartet.
I also couldn't resist hearing the combination of Portuguese guitarist Luís Lopes with the Berlin duo of Robert Landfermann & Christian Lillinger, since their album The Line pulls together a couple of previously separate wings of the Clean Feed catalog. With the Berlin style & guitar, the trio reminds me a bit of Grid Mesh, such as on their Iberian Live in Madrid, although without the polyphonic approach. There's a sort of punkish feel to The Line, alternating oblique material reminiscent of the Berlin minimalist school with more mainstream in-your-face guitar trio theatrics. (That style of alternating certainly seems to be in the air.) The "Lisbon Berlin Trio" brings out some fascinating relations at times, and I wish they'd pursue more of the avant garde angle. I've yet to hear these guys do more than tantalize in that area before moving into something static, although track #3 is an interesting synthesis of the two basic alternating types. I'm guessing they'll play together again.
On both of these albums, there's a tendency to solo or otherwise make sure the listener doesn't have too much to follow at once. Although I can relate to the obvious reasons for doing this, I don't personally find it a very natural way to be in the world. There's a lot going on out there, and that's something I like to hear explored in music. The approach to variety here is to include multiple, sometimes rather different, concepts in an album, but usually in separate tracks. Sometimes the different concepts interact, sometimes not. It becomes almost an "album as anthology" approach. That works for me sometimes, but it's also important to see just how far an idea can go.17 December 2014
What with the prominence of Portuguese labels these days, it seems a little odd to find a Portuguese improvising quartet release on the British FMR Records, but perhaps it's a chance at an expanded audience. It probably is, although the Portuguese releases seem just as well-marketed. Anyway, Clocks and Clouds is apparently something of a debut for both trumpeter Luis Vicente & drummer Marco Franco — here paired with Red Trio members Rodrigo Pinheiro & Hernani Faustino. Clocks and Clouds has indeed attracted broader attention, and both the more classic "free jazz" blowing & drumming, and use of more traditionally situated melodies than typical of Red Trio surely contributes to that. I don't want to overstate the latter, however, because there's still expert atonality & extended technique here, and it's the spaces where these poles mediate that produce the most intriguing interactions. It's a substantial album, with many compelling moments, but some non-compelling periods too where not much is happening — such as dwindling to a single motif being passed around slowly from musician to musician, even if the dwindling process itself had yielded some highlights. I do think this or a similar group has potential, and Clocks and Clouds is well worth hearing as is, even if I appreciate the livelier quartet portions more. Perhaps I should also make a remark on the Popper-Ligeti connection in the title: In Deleuzian terms [*], it would be striated & smooth, and to some degree, the mediation I noted previously can be framed within such a duality. That's not entirely the case, though, nor would one really want it to be, but added precision & imprecision around this contrast might be an interesting direction. Such a prototypical jazz quartet configuration can be defamiliarized this way.
I should probably also mention Extremes, an even longer album, with Evan Parker joining a preexisting duo of Paul Dunmall & Tony Bianco. (I mention it mainly because I've noted so many of the recent Red Toucan albums. I probably wouldn't otherwise, because both Parker & Dunmall are already very well-represented in other commentary.) This is a spirited tenor dialog, with Bianco holding things together on the drums: High-energy free blowing with extended solos, long lines & flights of fancy: Enjoyable, if repetitive after a while.
[*] It might be misleading to claim that Deleuze was more motivated by aesthetics, but Popper certainly was not, and the significant point is that aesthetics & artistic creation interact with other modes of thought. The Deleuzian contrast is thus not about some objective "nature" to be described, but rather ways of relating, and can be more directly productive in art. (This suggests yet another contrast that could be interrogated musically....)30 December 2014
I have a variety of thoughts regarding Spill Plus on Nuscope, so it's difficult to pick a place to start. Perhaps that's an appropriate reaction to something different, and so I think I'll begin with some thoughts regarding James Ilgenfritz, someone who doesn't play on the album, but did write some worthwhile liner notes. Spill Plus is by a piano trio, although the sound isn't much like one might expect from a piano trio. This brings me back to my comments in November regarding Out in Here by the Gordon Beeferman Trio, including Ilgenfritz. (And then there are my remarks on Tyshawn Sorey's Alloy in the next November entry....) For some reason, despite openly wondering if there is anything left to do with a piano trio, I find myself returning to the configuration, and I have to admit that part of my attraction to Spill Plus was its confrontation with this classic format. Joëlle Léandre's Trio is once again a touchstone, and indeed Spill Plus echoes strongly of Feldman as well. Back to Ilgenfritz (who has recently launched his own Infrequent Seams label, by the way): I don't want to outright disagree with what he says about abstraction in the notes, but I do want to consider a rather different perspective on it. Ilgenfritz tells us, basically, that the increased level of abstraction in the album, relative to a more typical free jazz album, lets the objects (that is, the instruments, which include "objects" as preparations) & sounds be themselves. I suggest that what we have here is not more abstraction, but rather less abstraction: The trio strips away many layers of abstraction that have "stuck" to Western music over the centuries, and frees the objects & sounds to be themselves. An abstraction is something that stands for something else (with partial apologies to Bill Dixon), and here we have sounds that don't stand for anything: They are largely freed from our tendency to contextualize them according to musical scales, rhythmic forms, harmonies, etc. The latter are the abstractions. (And we could relate those abstractions to the human vocal apparatus, in many cases, although via many layers of musical system. Banging blunt objects together simply isn't much like the physical process of singing, but our theory treats it that way.) So with apologies to the thoughtful Mr. Ilgenfritz, I want to posit instead that Spill Plus is part of a trend to strip away abstractions. (Why does it seem "intellectual" to eliminate abstractions, when it has seemed "intellectual" to create abstractions? This is because abstractions are insidious, difficult to understand, difficult to navigate, and in turn difficult to eliminate. They have a tendency to return, because we are steeped in them already. So they require vigilance.)
I listed Spill Plus under Damon Smith — and one can certainly question why I list albums under single musicians, since I question it myself — because not only was the album recorded in Oakland when he was living here, but because the preexisting "Spill" duo of Magda Mayas & Tony Buck sounds rather different on their duo albums (of which there are at least three). So this is a somewhat arbitrary choice on my part, but then Smith has already been featured in this space, including for North of Blanco, as part of a trilogy of entries exploring the idea of foreground & background in May 2014. Smith brings, putting it succinctly, more ways to stop the flow of abstraction. I had yet to mention Tony Buck (b.1962) in this space, and he is seemingly always described as being a member of the Australian piano trio The Necks (so I guess I will oblige). Their most recent album, Open, seems to be almost the opposite of Spill Plus, at least when it comes to stopping flows. Open is continuous... constantly changing invocations (opening with a rudra veena type sound, for instance, evoking zheng later, to mention only some "world music" connections) with slow transitions & controlled continuity: Call it new age groove music, being seamless and keeping that mental dance going. Buck can also sound like a mainstream free jazz drummer, such as on Tony-Joe Bucklash (and I am still waiting to hear Skein, put together by Frank Gratkowski on Leo Records, including Buck in its sextet). Mayas appeared in this space (also, probably coincidentally) back in May when I discussed the album Flock by Great Waitress. That album, also with an Australian connection for the Berliner Mayas, features a lot of static continuity. Although Mayas was credited with keeping things moving there, Flock is still nothing like the many stoppages of Spill Plus — other Spill albums, Stockholm Syndrome & Flouresce, have more in common with it, and with The Necks. But one can hear the fascination with time & with unusual sounds... unusual sounds that might become isolated sounds, freed from abstract context. (I am not sure what has prompted this specific Berlin-Australia connection, but I can also mention Australian bassist Clayton Thomas living in Berlin, Jon Rose's Colophony album with Meinrad Kneer, and to make this more incestuous, the duo album Mayas recorded with Chris Abrahams of The Necks, Gardener. For whatever reason, Australians are going to Berlin.)
One thing that kept me a bit ambivalent regarding Spill Plus, at least for my own personal use, is its general level of quiet. It's probably a personal weakness, but as I've mentioned, my environment tends to be rather noisy, and I get frustrated if I can't hear the music. Having gotten to know Spill Plus fairly well over the past month, I now find it appealing in some noisier settings (such as people talking). Its sense of object changes the scene, places different things in relief. Another aspect that gave me mixed feelings is that Spill Plus was recorded back in 2010: The other Smith albums in my favorites are from after he moved to Houston, Flock was also recorded in 2013, and indeed e.g. Stockholm Syndrome was recorded a month after Spill Plus. Had its time already passed? Well, I won't attempt to answer that in any definitive way, other than to note that maybe everything has passed, but yet here we are, and Spill Plus is receiving some attention now. As I discussed in my little Feldman writeup, one of the qualities he developed was to place sounds into different time streams, so that even sequential sounds could seem unrelated. This is what happens in Spill Plus, and indeed the lack of continuity across the various gestures yields the feeling of an immense expanse of time. (Note that it is abstraction from human speech that tells us that sounds in close temporal proximity "should" be related. They may, however, be from completely different objects doing completely different things, oblivious to each other.) Concentration on individual gesture, taking care not to create unintended continuity (and one could mention the "apophonic" concept from On Air here, even if the albums sound nothing alike), requires vigilance & precision, and Smith brings both to a duo who had already expressed many interesting ideas on the nature of musical continuity. The resulting sparseness and separation of layers of gesture create a different feeling for time, and leaves me listening to the world in a different way. (The latter is, I think, very high praise.) We can, perhaps, group Spill Plus with the previous entry's Clocks and Clouds as part of a group of efforts to defamiliarize classic instrument combinations: Spill Plus is much more radical in this regard — I would say truly a piano trio album for 2014, except that it originated in 2010: It is or was already in a different time stream.5 January 2015
It's a duo, and so I wasn't originally intending to make any remarks, but ultimately I'm feeling as though I need to comment on Milford Graves' album Space / Time · Redemption with Bill Laswell: Graves is more featured on track #4, and I enjoyed that, but I simply did not enjoy the first three tracks. Laswell dominates, and I dislike his mimicry of traditional African styles here. (I make no claims about his playing more generally.) This is exactly what gives "new age music" a bad name, and even track #5 gets inflected back into a "pop music" sensibility. My apologies for the negative comment, but I felt it was necessary: Listen to e.g. Alemu Aga instead. Hopefully something else will come out of the 2013 Vision Festival, which featured Graves.11 January 2015
I was excited to see Evan Parker's ElectroAcoustic Septet album, Seven, appear. There was a lot of good press, going back to Victoriaville last year, and including new reviews of the recording. I very much enjoyed it the first time through, so recommend it on that basis. For this space, though, I haven't found it as exciting on subsequent hearings, but as I've tried to relate in the past, whereas repeated hearings are a part of what I'm doing here, they are hardly the be-all & end-all of music. Anyway, it's an intriguing ensemble with the three (4 at times?) winds & three laptops & Okkyung Lee on cello. (The latter is most distinctive, in this setting, when plucking.) For such a large ensemble, and with all that electronic manipulation potential, having too much happening at once seems like a real possibility, but if anything, what keeps Seven from being as compelling after a few hearings is that often there isn't a whole lot happening, and somehow, when there is, it seems very "contained" and undangerous. There are a lot of shifting-repeating figures at times, perhaps including electronic echoes, reminiscent of Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House Music. (This includes ostinati in the lower registers, opened up by refraining from having a rhythm section, so that's almost an "early music" vibe — maybe I should enjoy that aspect more, but it seems distant.) It seems impossible to know who is doing what with the laptops, although maybe someone else can tell, but that part of the performance is immediately the most striking. I also particularly enjoyed Ned Rothenberg's performance over time. Another recent album that features winds & electronics, including Evan Parker, is World of Objects from Jeremiah Cymerman: It's more intimate & I find it more compelling.12 January 2015
I've already mentioned Skein once here — and these mentions will seem rather foolish if I don't end up finding the album worthwhile , won't they? — and indeed the sextet on Skein includes Tony Buck & Okkyung Lee, both already mentioned in other entries this month. However, the core of Skein appears to be the long-running Kaufmann (b.1962) / Gratkowski / de Joode trio, and that trio's fourth album is Geäder. Geäder ("veins") was released in 2012, but I only noticed it after I had made a note of Skein, when it appeared in DMG's newsletter this past December, for some reason. Anyway, that is the context, and part of why I am not going to try to discuss Geäder in more detail, although I did add it to my favorites. Besides being an album from 2012 (ancient! ), it consists of trio improvisations taken from three different recording sessions: This is not my ideal approach to an album (it was a concern I had about Phase/transitions, for instance), but I certainly cannot complain about the result. Although this trio has apparently played together many times , they don't plan their music in advance, so it manages to have both an intimacy & freshness. And different sessions seem to graft together seamlessly as well. This is basically improvised "chamber music" without a drummer , although both the piano (including inside) & bass contribute various percussive effects. It sounds very European in that regard (with a conversational feel not unlike Polylemma, one of my early favorites in this space), and totally acoustic. Geäder has been consistently appealing; there is a lot that happens over its hour-plus length. It's interesting that something like this has been out there these past few years, while I've listened to these musicians in other projects.
 I see the Leo Records releases online months prior to their arrival in USA. (In this case, I also saw some other favorable comments, so I'm optimistic.) I tried ordering directly from the Leo Records website, but the process comes to a complete halt when I enter my address, so I guess that is impossible. Oh well. Patience. But that is the background.
 Gligg Records is not otherwise available here, and this was the first I'd noticed the label.
 That's kind of a joke.
 Their first album, Kwast, was released in 2004. The others are Unearth (2005) & Palaë (2007). All are on different record labels. (See Achim Kaufmann's web page.)
 Homage to Jimmy Giuffre, or coincidence?20 January 2015
Although I had already mentioned Joe Morris in the context of playing in Daniel Levin's quartet, it was July 2011 when I first made some more specific comments or observations in this space: I said I found his discography dizzying, and didn't know what to make of his output. Three and a half years later, some of it starts to come into focus. Whereas it's clear that Morris likes to contribute to other musicians' projects, particularly on albums by developing players such as Levin, and that he also likes to participate in more impromptu settings with a variety of musicians, such as on Tony-Joe Bucklash, mentioned here earlier this month, it was challenging to sort out what kinds of projects Morris was pursuing for himself, particularly with his stated inclination to make all of his projects sound different. While I don't claim any grand insight on that point, part of his project does come into focus with the trio album Mess Hall, and the rather illuminating discussion that Morris includes in the notes: He calls Mess Hall the final installment of his "Big Loud Electric Guitar Trilogy," following on Sweatshop (1990) & Racket Club (1999). The trilogy is characterized as a recontextualization of the music of Jimi Hendrix, which Morris had (has?) long admired. Sweatshop is a trio with bass, and explores the pentatonic aspects. Racket Club becomes a sextet (without keyboard), and explores ostinato form. Mess Hall is once again a trio — and the constant in these albums, besides Morris, is Jerome Deupree on drums — but this time with keyboard rather than bass, and explores the "sound" of Hendrix, including of course the "electric" angle itself. Whereas pentatonic scales are widespread in world music, and ostinato was one of the common structural techniques of e.g. Franco-Flemish polyphony, it's safe to say that the Hendrix "sound" had fewer precedents. Hence, one might conclude, the extended time it took Morris to create this album, and indeed he does say specifically that it took a while to develop the formal elements to explore the sound-timbre, was necessary. That he did so with electric keyboard (Steve Lantner) — the classic, blues inflected organ trio format, one might note — makes plenty of sense to me. There's a rawness here that takes it away, although not entirely, from conservatory music.
Mess Hall is an enjoyable album, and one can certainly recognize the "sound" involved. (I should add that multiple people have complained about the piercing opening to the final track, Hymn, basically with "Ugh, turn that down!" when in my company. This reaction doesn't seem inauthentic, but I'll refrain from more general comments on the rock anthem genre.) It does run on at times, becoming a bit rambling, but then, that is authentic to style. Formally, the often-pounding drums and rhythms generally fit the historical genre on the micro-level, but don't yield to a blues or rock meter overall. If not for the rambling, it might be characterized as "only the highlights" of a rhythm & harmonic distortion nexus. The shifting distortion provides yet another look at the use of electronics in music, a topic that somehow still seems novel in some discussions. (I should also confess to having gone round & round with this issue myself, only having found considering the result independent of this question to be easier after some time. And by "some time," I might mean a lot of time, because I basically opted out of that discussion decades ago, only to return more recently.) It's safe to say that I was also affected by this "sound" in my youth, and so Morris's exploration touches something, even if there have been many other contextualizations in the interim. I'm not sure what I ever imagined it could be, but electronic manipulation clearly could be & has been more radical than what we hear in Mess Hall. This album is much more aggressive, though, than most of what I discuss here, such as e.g. White Sickness, another exploration of electronics within a different traditional band format. The aggressiveness brings to mind not only the urgent spirit of anti-racism from nearly fifty years ago, but also the kinds of sexism that swirled around it. I believe this last is significant to note (and of course, there have been various intersectional etc. analyses since): It echoes within the "sound," otherwise unexamined here.
Beyond Morris's decision to spend some time playing bass, which very well might have figured into his decision to adopt the bass-less (and also quite classic) organ trio format here, returning to complete this "Big Loud Electric Guitar Trilogy" seems to mark some kind of point of closure in his output. The exploration of texture & timbre, within the context of an exploration of historical electronic sound, seems to have yielded some conclusions. That the scope was somewhat limited only seems to have intensified the concentration, as formal limits can sometimes do. Although Mess Hall was only released in late 2014, it was actually recorded in 2011, a couple of years before last year's Joe Morris Quartet album, Balance. Mess Hall appears to put Balance, which also marked a return for Morris, into perspective, including the title itself. Freed from some of these demons, if indeed he is, what might Morris do next?26 January 2015
I only noticed Noah Kaplan's recent trio album Crows and Motives when it appeared at Squidco this month, although it supposedly dates to last summer. Since it references Josquin's L'homme armé masses, and since the musicians are working in the realm of microtonality (having been taught by Joe Maneri), I clearly needed to have a listen. The trio is two brass instruments & electric bass, so it's not necessarily what one would expect for Josquin (and these are four-voice masses, I should probably note), but also isn't a timbral combination that would have seemed totally alien at the time (think organ). As the liner notes state, the music dwells on the suspensions (a particular kind of dissonance, perhaps most closely related to syncopation in a jazz context), drawing them out into full pieces (although none are very long). Apparently this album was recorded during the free time the musicians had while recording the Josquin masses (and I don't know anything about that recording). Anyway, the music reminds me a great deal of Gagaku, both because it's based on older "revered" repertory, and because it not only dwells on the dissonances (one might say ornaments, although that is a stretch, at least for Josquin), but slows them down (so that e.g. dissonant beats become individual notes). In fact, the Gagaku evocation is rather uncanny — I have no idea if the musicians themselves considered it. (I could also note the thirteenth century motet, derived from the clausulæ of organum, but there the similarity is more logical than sonic.) In any case, Crows and Motives seems like more of a preliminary investigation, because the pieces never really let loose, so to speak: They remain rather controlled, staid (dissonance aside), and then end. Perhaps the musicians will pursue some more ideas in this direction.16 February 2015
My expectations & anticipation of Skein didn't manage to ruin the album for me at all: It is a very compelling, very dense improvisatory album, drawing particularly from the European tradition. However, my statements of anticipation do seem to have drained me of some of what I might have said more spontaneously by way of discussion in this space. So let's hope I can still bring a bit of passion to this writeup. Skein, like Geäder, is a lengthy album with a lot happening: It's more dense than Geäder, having augmented the trio with three other musicians: Tony Buck, Okkyung Lee, & Richard Barrett — the first two having appeared in this space recently (in connection with Spill Plus & Seven, respectively), and the latter fronting the trio on my long-time favorite Colophony. (I didn't realize it at the time, but Barrett is living in Berlin, thus underlining the Australia-to-Berlin connection of Colophony, a connection that continues to be extremely fertile, including to some extent for Skein.) (I also do not know why Kaufmann seems to get lead billing for the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio of Geäder, but Frank Gratkowski is given lead billing for this Leo Records release, particularly since Kaufmann has similar production credits on both. But no matter.) The additional musicians — although I should not suggest a cacophony of everyone trying to play at once — make for a denser sound, and less room to maneuver. Multiple interactions, meaning one musician listening to multiple others , occur at once. (That it augments the acoustic trio with Barrett's electronics contributes to this effect, because he can reflect back previous statements.) Regarding my worry of having mentioned this album, only to find it disappointing, I enjoyed it immediately, but I enjoyed it much more on the second & third hearings. I don't know to what extent these musicians might have played together prior to recording Skein, but at least Tony Buck has performed specifically with the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio. Such a quartet makes for a classic jazz ensemble (broken consort), but here we have more: The musicians are not placed in clearly defined roles, although they often fill sonic space, so much as they explore the characteristics of their instruments, what sorts of sounds they can make, including via extended technique... twists, slurs, glissandi (sounding like lions, a co-listener suggested)... an exploration of technique based in mastery of traditional methods. We hear: What is it, specifically, that these instruments & these musicians can do in this setting? The resulting combination of skill, spontaneity, and intellect takes on a distinctly European feel. Track titles are evocative of a broad range of concept or gesture (and I'll turn to "process" ideas a bit more in an upcoming entry) via a combination of European languages. There are various layers of meaning, both in the language and in the music: Combinations might coalesce into imposing blocks or drift off into silence; sounds might be "classical" or "primitive" (the latter being so much harder to evoke well, particularly in opposition to abstraction, per my Spill Plus discussion) or something else. The layering works against (what I've called at other times) an "epic" tone, and in turn against narrative. Skein, in its bent coils of yarn (or is it flocks of birds?), almost seems unsituated (despite knowing its time & place with some precision), transverse. Ultimately, this is music that doesn't lend itself well to verbal description, which can be all for the best: It's very musical: A triumph of closely interwoven chamber improvisation.
I have a long list of other items to discuss at this point. I'm "behind" for two basic reasons: I'm spending most of my time & energy on the oft-mentioned familiarity article (and per the opening above, probably putting too much pressure on it, although writing does continue steadily after a holiday break), and "commerce" returns to normal after the end-of-year holidays, meaning a large stack of recordings arrives. (This last has been typical for years, regardless of genre.) So toward that end....
Encounters is an even more recent release on Leo (maybe even 2015, depending on which release date you believe), another long album documenting a first meeting of Martin Blume & Luc Houtkamp (who previously released the trio album Burnt Sienna, recorded in Köln with keyboardist Cor Fuhler, in 2004) and Russian pianist Simon Nabatov. Blume & Houtkamp have obviously played together extensively, and I can hear the style of e.g. In Just (an on-again, off-again favorite here ) come through in their interaction (although it's actually Gratkowski on In Just). Where the album takes on an original character is with Nabatov's inclusion in the trio, particularly when he responds to Blume & Houtkamp's fairly typically sparse musical material with waves of counterpoint. (I had earlier mentioned Nabatov here in connection with his quintet album Roundup, part of a trio of albums recorded for his birthday in 2009, and something I investigated on the heels of my fascination with Tom Rainey's Pool School. Previously, I mentioned Nabatov's performance on Pascal Niggenkemper's leader debut, Upcoming Hurricane recorded in 2010, where as here, he responds more than provokes.) Nabatov's waves turn the ambiguous harmonic implications of the twists & slurs — many of the same basic techniques as Skein — into simultaneous (alternate?) realizations. It's an interesting process, although a bit one-directional: How does one respond to a massive block of counterpoint with a squeak, squawk, or rattle? (That's a serious question in e.g. an immanent-transcendent frame.) I cannot help but be impressed by Nabatov's massive technique, but going beyond "impression" is the real question. (I've never been a fan of Rachmaninoff, as it happens.) Track titles also suggest process, in this case, around the idea of "encounter" specifically.
I'll also note the album Free Trees from the same batch as Encounters: It records a string trio, the French cellist Hugues Vincent (who has performed with e.g. Joëlle Léandre & Frantz Loriot of Baloni) joining Russian bassist & violinist, Vladimir Kudryavtsev & Maria Logofet (who have recorded for Leo previously). There are many short tracks in a variety of styles (i.e. what I've called an "audition" album), some of them rather appealing. There is a wide range of reference, from Russian classical string composition to popular Western styles, all with impressive (mainstream) technique.
 I should also note that my earlier observation about not being able to buy directly from Leo Records in this country was either short-lived or incorrect. I did buy some new releases directly, although, as things would have it, only after I ordered Skein from elsewhere.
 As I'm sure I've noted previously, I grew up in a family where talking at once was acceptable behavior — I subsequently learned that some people really dislike it — and so I grew accustomed to listening to multiple strands of conversation & picking where I wanted to reply — for better or worse.
 I've intentionally avoided dwelling on the addition of electronics to what had been an acoustic ensemble. I think it's worth noting, though, that e.g. a piano or cello is rather advanced technology, or one might say, part of an advanced technological assemblage. Additionally, hearing (any) music through the mediation of recording involves technology approximately as complicated as Barrett is using. (I don't say this to defend the current trend toward rapid technologization — not at all — but to note that confronting the trend, at least in art, doesn't benefit from simplistic dualities.)
 And, consequently, an album interrogating my "favorites" concept.17 February 2015
My decision to listen to the Roscoe Mitchell Trio's new album, Angel City, was almost random: I had heard a number of albums with Roscoe Mitchell (b.1940), had some residual curiosity, and thought the other trio members seemed sufficiently different from my previous associations with his music. At least as often as not, such a "formality" leads nowhere (other than slackening my curiosity further), but I try to leave possibilities open for a different appreciation. It's not as though I was unimpressed with Mitchell: Already in June 2011, I expressed some amazement in this space over his technique. But I also associated him with older styles of solo-based free blowing: I last mentioned Mitchell in a 13 December 2013 entry — coincidentally, the date of the photos included with Angel City, although not the date of the recording itself — as someone who did guest appearances as an improvising soloist. (That entry was part of a rambling & pregnant December 2013 outburst, written while articulating the assertions of Remède de Fortune, probably still number one.) Angel City does have an appeal, and indeed I enjoyed its sparse, Balinese gamelan-inflected style. (In its two winds & percussion format, it's also a bit similar to Extremes, mentioned here in December.) It was also a chance to hear Mitchell performing one of his recent compositions with his own ensemble of choice. (Winant has a broad discography, including Vermilion Traces on Leo Records, an electroacoustic trio album fronted by Frank Gratkowski — that I evidently decided not to discuss here, although it's worth hearing, particularly as it also originated in the Bay Area while Gratkowski was here. Fei appears on e.g. Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) with Anthony Braxton. All three performers are here in the Bay Area.) Angel City prompted me to seek out more of what Mitchell is doing now: He has performed & recorded frequently over the past few years: Duets with Tyshawn Sorey in June 2012 (on Wide Hive), Angel City in November 2012 (on Rogueart), In Pursuit of Magic with Mike Reed in Chicago in April 2013 (on 482 Music), and Conversations with Craig Taborn & Kikanju Baku in September 2013 (again on Wide Hive). Beyond my greater interest in trios over duos, and despite the various interesting things happening over the course of Duets & In Pursuit of Magic, which also have their slow and/or soloistic sections (Mitchell plays gamelan-style solo tracks on Duets; I take it he's not actually playing gender, but a combination making similar sounds), my focus rather quickly shifted to Conversations. I already mentioned Taborn in this space in early 2011 — his talent was obvious — but I had kind of given up on him, since his projects hadn't been quite to my taste. (I am just not an ECM person, I guess, despite our overlapping categories.) I'm glad to have found a project where, even if he's the third wheel, I very much enjoy the result. Regarding Kikanju Baku, I don't know what to say: He wears a mask, in more ways than one. A UK-based outlaw musician? I don't feel a need to critique that. His drumming is very compelling on Conversations, a stunning debut, if it's a debut: Fast at times, but able to modulate senses of time with brevity & subtlety... I was impressed: This is someone with a personal, sophisticated rhythmic conception (already?). Unlike Duets, which has a kind of "coming of age" quality to it (and Sorey does many different things, including play piano on some of the more forceful tracks [*]), and In Pursuit of Magic, which has a lot of open space & ostinati with soloing (and an urge to "twirl toward freedom," if I may put it that way [**]), Conversations has more of the character of a finished, cooperative give-and-take improvisatory project. (And I guess it's not really finished, because I see that Mitchell has more dates to perform with Baku. What a surprising partnership!) Whereas some of Mitchell's recent output, conspicuously Angel City (where this discussion began), could be described as "American reductionism" (a term more often applied, among free improvisers, to Jack Wright), Conversations (which was released on two CDs, separately, although both were recorded at once) includes some far more forceful expression. However, particularly on Volume II, which includes four duo tracks versus the one of Volume I, there is also a sparseness & intimacy: The energy does not slacken in the slower moments, however, and perhaps it intensifies. Mitchell does often work with squeaks & squawks (as I put it, without negative intent, in the previous entry), but injects some occasional tunefulness as well. Taborn sometimes reinforces the latter, but Conversations also addresses a question I raised when discussing Encounters: How does one respond to blocks of counterpoint with sparse, extended technique? In this case, Taborn often keeps his keyboard figuration, even when evoking extended counterpoint, within the context established by Mitchell. There's a level of restraint required, and the way that an outpouring of notes is reinflected by a precise timbre-oriented sound is one of the compelling aspects of the album(s), mirroring what I already said about time: This shared precision undoubtedly underlies the Mitchell-Baku partnership. (I have not featured many horn-keyboard-drum trio albums here, and this balance issue, which I first articulated around Encounters, is likely a major reason why. However, in addition to that album, I can mention Grey Matter & Taylor / Dixon / Oxley as using somewhat similar ensembles, albeit with trumpet, and perhaps even Live Tipple & Pool School, which use guitar instead of piano — although the guitar already presents different potential for timbral manipulation & is less oriented toward big counterpoint.) I should note that Taborn does use synthesizer at times, giving him more timbral options, but much of Conversations involves a straight piano sound. I'm not sure what else to say about Baku's contribution, except that he & Mitchell seem to work exceptionally well together, and of course that I'm curious about him. (I feel as though I've learned next to nothing from his website, which I guess is intentional?) This appears to be an intercontinental trio, however, forging a commentary on the "American" sound: As I've written before, growing up in Indiana, I've had a hard time really hearing the native style — there are so many sonic associations for me — and so I feel a strange tension with Chicago jazz (as a heading). However, let me end by noting that string instruments were unknown in the Americas when the European conquest began: Musical instruments were winds & percussion. String instruments (and of course Pythagoras is famous for this) suggest particular musical relations, literally linear (although not in the harmonic sense), and oriented visually, that were absent from American music. Although, perhaps strangely, my own musical path has associated the nonlinear interior of "sound" (albeit still often string-oriented in his case) with Scelsi, Mitchell burst onto the music scene in 1966 with an album titled with exactly this term. Now Mitchell is crossing the Mississippi basin (or is it the Great Lakes?) with the Pacific Rim, a fusion that continues to be colored by European influences, but does not rely on them. Somehow, I find something of myself here.
[*] With the criticism I've directed at Sorey at times, I feel a need to take a step back: To have one's musical training & maturation play out in the public setting of recorded documentation is something that would intimidate a lot of people, at least partly including myself at times. Creating a public document — for sale, no less — does invite criticism, but I give Sorey a lot of credit for being so fearless. He comes off as very young on Duets, though.
[**] There's a double allusion there, but I think I'll simply note it like this.28 February 2015
I almost didn't register Sediment, the first album by the Carlo Costa Quartet, and also the first album on the drummer's Neither/Nor Records label, as something I wanted to hear: At least in release listings, it appears to be a standard "free" quartet, two horns, bass & drums. That impression was reinforced by what I knew of the horn players otherwise: I called New York trombonist Steve Swell (b.1954) "ubiquitous," for instance, when discussing the rather typically free Dragonfly Breath back in November 2013. (Swell does participate in a variety of projects, as surely I knew then, even with my remark.) And Jonathan Moritz (b. 1977, Teheran) had debuted as a leader on the rather mainstream Hot Cup label, with Secret Tempo in 2013: I only went back to listen to this album after hearing Sediment, in part because of Moritz's personal story (i.e. born in Iran, to Belgium to California to New York). It has a very mainstream sound, and frankly I don't believe that many readers would find it interesting (and that it's available for as little as 12 cents online seems to confirm the notion), but the tracks do take — at some level — an analytical approach to musical elements, and that approach (in the abstract sense, not the auditory sense) is reflected in Sediment. In any case, fortunately, I also noticed that Costa & bassist Ali are two thirds of the trio Natura morta (with Frantz Loriot, whom I happened to mention just last month in this space). I found the first Natura morta album (self-titled on Prom Night) to be enjoyable & thought-provoking, although I also thought their second album (Decay on FMR) was a little stiffer in its polish. Still, the basic impetus to create electroacoustic-style improvisation on traditional instrument was appealing both conceptually & sonically, and I look forward to more (since it appears the trio continues to perform together). Increasing the sonic pallet with the horns on Sediment really makes the overall sound for me, and the result is an incredible album. (I first encountered Carlo Costa with his Minerva piano trio, and their 2011 album, Saturnismo. This was in the context of exploring Pascal Niggenkemper's discography at the time. Obviously the inclusion of a fairly traditional pianist changes the dynamic considerably.) Sediment does more than simply "make" a sound: It's a very practical (useful) album for the way it reconfigures sonic space, both in memory & in the moment. When adding it to my favorites, capping 2014 (thus far), I wrote that it is "abstract process-music inducing stillness." More specifically, not only does it not feed an anxious desire for more stimulation, i.e. it calms the listener, but it's extremely effective at eliminating so-called "earworms," and indeed at incorporating the sounds of the environment into its musical flow. It's a fairly quiet album in general, and so does not cover or obscure environmental noise much at all, but rather makes it sound good, right. It basically creates its own sonic ecology, even without close attention from the listener: Although not unprecedented, this is a major achievement. (I'll pause to discuss Anomonous again, which like Natura morta, is on Prom Night. Although that trio album includes electronics prominently, it addresses some of the same process questions, in particular an issue I've mentioned in the past few entries: How to create a dialog between contrapuntal eruptions & "squeak & squawk & rattle," which Anomonous answers in part via electronic processing to place the piano sound "within" the clarinet sound. The processing, which is not subtle, makes Anomonous rather different from Sediment, and indeed Sediment is not tackling the issue of fixed pitch instruments — as percussion tones can be & are modified — but both albums do take a process orientation. Bassist Sean Ali, from the Carlo Costa Quartet & Natura morta, is one of the founders of Prom Night, I should also add: He's from Dayton, not so very far from where I grew up in Indiana.) Clifford Allen (in the New York City Jazz Record) notes the process language of the track titles on Sediment, and analogizes them to sculptor Richard Serra's "verb list." Process orientation is very much in the air, both musically (as mentioned explicitly in my discussion of Skein, but also in other entries over the previous several months) & in poststructural theory, but in Sediment the idea is rather more specific: The resulting broad "ecology" was already noted — what I might call a symphony of sound that incorporates environmental sounds (and the seeming anticipation of such unknown sounds is part of what makes the album so amazing, if one ponders that a bit) — but the verbs/titles also (all?) suggest water: Water has the ability to flow through & around discrete structures (or elements), and also relates to (ecological) life & death as a time-based process, a literal flow of life. (It might even pulverize?) Whether the result of the processes of the album is sediment (the album itself, substantively), or the washing away of sediment (the mind's unwelcome sonic associations), is a matter of perspective. In either case, it's quite a success: I've very much enjoyed it across more than a dozen hearings in a wide variety of (mental & physical) settings.2 March 2015
Although I described Sediment as "capping" 2014, and indeed it's the latest release I've added to my favorites for last year, there's still at least one more 2014 album to discuss in this space: Primary Envelopment by Wade Matthews & label curator Ernesto Rodrigues on Creative Sources, with Javier Pedreira & Nuno Torres. I didn't hear Primary Envelopment until recently, because I was waiting for the Creative Sources releases to come to USA, but that hasn't happened since the first half of last year — I don't know why. In any case, while having USA distribution is more convenient, between the vagaries of international shipping, and places like Squidco including things like recording dates & sound samples online, the recordings are & have been available straight from the label in Portugal, which is where I turned. I'm dwelling on this aspect a bit, because I'm concerned about people being able to hear the many interesting releases that Ernesto Rodrigues produces. Creative Sources has over 300 titles now (and I'll have to make another order for some of the latest), including many unique offerings. Indeed, I keep learning that a musician whom I "discover" only recently via other channels had a release on Creative Sources years ago. So that's impressive, and Rodrigues obviously has a great ear: The label has a reputation for a lot of similar releases, and Rodrigues's own blog does mention "refinement & restraint" and a focus on texture, but these qualities can make for vastly different results. The label also has quality design & packaging, even if their online information seems a little sparse (like the music?) at times.
So, that said, I want to highlight the variety of music on Creative Sources via brief descriptions of three other albums I ordered at the same time as Primary Envelopment. The Jersey Lily documents the wind duo of Frank Paul Schubert & Matthias Müller, the Berlin improvisers expanding to a quartet in England with John Edwards & Mark Sanders. The result is classic "free" jazz, invoking a kind of transcendence within skepticism (as Clayton Thomas puts it in a discussion of the similar Life in a Black Box, which I discussed here in October, and which made its way onto some "best of" lists). This sort of music is rather the opposite of reductionism, and one might think, restraint. Another album to compare is Live in Madrid, also featuring Schubert with a trombonist, but with more structural pivots. The Jersey Lily can seem kind of long, but it's a very active album, including soloing & motivic development that listeners who enjoy the classic free style will likely appreciate. Back in July, I mentioned Skulking in the Big House from a quartet led by Alexander Frangenheim, and Frangenheim continues to release albums on Creative Sources, including more recently Kochuu, featuring French vocalist Isabelle Duthoit (b.1970). Kochuu is an appealing album, but does raise some of the same issues I've discussed in the past with so many quiet passages. The quiet seems to solicit activity, however, and I can imagine the album as the background to a spooky, perhaps partially darkened, contemporary dance scene. (The title refers, in Japanese, to integration of nature into architecture, much like long-time favorite Organic Modernism, which nonetheless sounds very different.) I very much enjoyed Duthoit's vocal technique, particularly in the opening track, which has the most forward sound — sort of an overture leading into further exploration of space & the unknown. The latter perhaps probes the familiarity of interior space via sound, and judging by the track titles, involves going inside her body. (Although it doesn't have a similar feel, i.e. no semi-ominous straining to hear, an obvious comparison for the vocal technique is Catherine Jauniaux on Birds Abide.) The string & percussion work (the latter by Roger Turner) is worthwhile on Kochuu too, although similarly straining for audibility at times. Duthoit sometimes switches to clarinet, although with rather conventional technique. Finally, Die Trockene Familie is one of Creative Source's latest releases for 2014, and its core is the trio from the album Excerpts from anything (Tang, Zoubek, Muche — the former two from Joe Hertenstein's Crespect album), which I discussed here way back in April 2012. (I said one could hear the "animation of artifact" in an empty interior expanse.) The trio is supplemented by Sven Hahne (b.1978) on programming & Christian Thomé on percussion to form Nanoschlaf, an ensemble with a multimedia focus. The latter again makes Die Trockene Familie something of a soundtrack, and one must imagine projected video & movement. The music often has the character of gamelan, and indeed gamelan invokes the unity of human & natural activity (especially dance), not only in music. It's an interesting album, even if it begs for a stage show, highlighting just how different some of these Creative Sources releases can be.
The manipulation of very high pitches is a distinctive feature of Primary Envelopment, and as with past such albums, including Wade Matthews's Growing carrots in a concrete floor, some of my family does not appreciate this aspect: They say the tones are painful, etc. I don't agree, and not only don't I find the tones to be painful, but the level of control exerted over such high pitches seems therapeutic to me: As opposed to so many high pitches & resonances in my life, which happen as unintentional results (or worse, intentionally noxious results) of other activity, including the electronic speaker distortion I hear so very often at ordinary establishments (and abhor), these pitch regions are used consciously here, serving to ameliorate the numbing effect of the noisy & sonically inconsiderate world. I very much appreciate the insistence — and I'll call it an insistence — that high pitches can be musical, and not only noise. Indeed, Primary Envelopment takes such technique farther than previous albums featuring high-pitched resonance, such as (the recently discussed) Anomonous & Growing carrots itself, in that the pitch variation seems even more carefully controlled. (E.g. White Sickness also features carefully controlled high pitches, although they are less prominent. At another end of something of a spectrum is Joe Morris's exploration of Hendrix's "sound" in Mess Hall, as I discussed here in January.) The high pitches then serve not as extensions of other musical activity, but as a foreground of their own: I'm reminded somewhat of Scelsi's manipulation of overtones, for instance (and the first part of track #3 evokes Aitsi for me, although perhaps not for the performers). It is this aspect that reconfigures the "background" features of the music, differentiating it from some of Rodrigues's other, more restrained albums: High pitches directly manipulate how we hear space via overtone & resonance, so that the space itself is changing, even with a consistent background (which we might otherwise associate more with space). Primary Envelopment is also different from the typical Creative Sources release in that, like the previous recorded collaboration between Rodrigues & Matthews, Erosions (2010), it includes liner notes by Matthews: He talks rather expansively about how improvisation is more akin to the act of building than it is to architecture, that it involves physically diving in & starting to build with an energy that differs from planning. (He also talks a bit about how their complicated musical tools are only aggregates of elements, not so very different from stone age tools, a point I've noted in this space too.) Regarding the other performers, although I apparently decided not to discuss it in this space, I recognize Torres from Pinkdraft, an earlier "landscape" album on Creative Sources that also features Travassos, the designer for Clean Feed, as a musician. (Pinkdraft is not so unlike Pão, on Shhpuma, which I did discuss in January 2013.) Pedreira appeared in this space when I discussed Garnet Skein by Thanos Chrysakis on his Aural Terrains label, also with Wade Matthews, with whom Pedreira appears to work frequently. If Primary Envelopment arises from these four musicians taking a leap & starting to build something, as Matthews suggests, the resulting audible documentation can only be considered a success. But a success at what? I've already noted the exploration of high pitches, but this occurs within a context of broad musical activity: All pitch regions are used, including low drones with static — the album begins with a low rumble quickly joined by very high pitches, and met with a variety of attacks from the wind & strings. The result is a rich tapestry of sound that reconfigures both the foreground-background duality and the sense of movement across space. Although I've focused on attributes, the music becomes more about relation & connectedness than separate elements, even though motion is rarely sustained for more than a few minutes at a time. I find it engrossing, and even with its novelty, it does yield something of a primal sound, as was apparently the intent. (Is the "primary" of the title anything like what Gian Luigi Diana does with electronics on the "primary" track of Tesla Coils? Perhaps.) The sounds that make up the musical "stuff" of Primary Envelopment are indeed all around us (e.g. the rattling of pots on top of my refrigerator when it runs, or more "natural" sounds of wind & rain), even if they need the attention of musicians such as these to seem musical. Although the symphonic tapestry of quasi-everyday sounds evokes e.g. Jeff Shurdut in The Music of Everything, the result is very personal in its detail and transformative in the many ways sounds are related: Relation itself comes to the foreground.8 March 2015
Just as I thought I was getting caught up with some writing I wanted to do in this space, I managed to catch some bug, the flu I suppose, and spend a couple of weeks off & on feeling feverish & with a persistent cough. Whereas I've found that kind of bodily & mental alteration to be helpful with creative work at times — and indeed, I continued apace with my longer writing project — I found it completely impossible to listen to new music. It went in one ear & out the other. So whereas I already had four upcoming entries sketched when I got sick, I made no progress for a few weeks, and in fact, I haven't been able to maintain any continuity with my thinking (i.e. memory) to earlier in the month. (This is not necessarily a bad thing either, but again, a bit of an obstacle for this particular project.) Anyway, perhaps no one is interested in reading this little note (or is it excuse?), but personally, I find these modes of working & continuity to be fascinating at times, so thought I'd mention it. That said, I also think that most of the next few entries will be a little less rich than they would have been with more continuity, unfortunately.
As something of a brief followup to the discussion of Primary Envelopment, there are a couple of other recent albums featuring electronic improvisation that I want to mention. Both are 2014 releases (or at least that is the date on the physical item), although I did not see them until this year.
Asphodels Abide is the latest release from Thanos Chrysakis (this time naming flowers instead of gems): The basic sounds & conception are familiar from his other releases, leading to an enjoyable trio album, featuring a classical sense of balance similar to those of his other recent albums. Although I found Asphodels Abide easier to follow on first listening than most albums mentioned here, it engages the ear, and continues to elaborate a particular personal perspective on the "exoticism" of laptop oriented improvisation, forged into something coherent & indeed limited enough in its activity to be readily discernible in its form, in spite of pitch bending & other (harmonic) disorientation. The manipulation of & interaction with plucked (by James O'Sullivan on guitar) string resonance is one of the most appealing aspects, but (the previously unknown to me, although note that he's been on Creative Sources) Chris Cundy is also quite adept at pitch bending on the clarinet. Although I've repeated the notion of classical balance, there is also an elemental glory in sound that comes through on Asphodels Abide. I believe it's an album that could actually appeal to a broader audience, given the right introduction, which I'm probably not providing. (In fact, it makes me curious to experiment on small children. Enough of Mozart!)
More of a surprise to me was Five Lines, released on Mikroton (from Russia). Rather like Spill Plus, Five Lines was recorded in California in 2010, in this case by a group of five improvisers on computers/electronics/mixing board, etc., none of whom I recognized. The recording was made at California Institute of the Arts (in the LA area), and so presumably they were students or visiting faculty there. The style of electronics use reminds me a bit of Alvin Curran on Live at the Metz' Arsenal, although that album has more of an acoustic context overall. Five Lines consists of a single track: Although it sometimes features swells etc., there are few extremes to the sound. Middle ranges of pitch, dynamics, speed, etc., are explored via the five lines, although there is a bit of a climax toward the end. It's also worth hearing, and I'll keep an eye out for the performers in the future: Casey Anderson, Jason Kahn (b. 1960; who is credited with making the recording), Norbert Möslang, Günter Müller, & Mark Trayle. If I understand correctly, three of the musicians (depending on how you count) are Swiss, and Kahn & Müller & Möslang (at least) had already appeared on various albums together, in various combinations. Five Lines is yet another exploration of what I've been calling the foreground-background tension, in this case, via much (five lines!) activity straddling that duality. (It could thus be described as bringing relation itself to the foreground — exactly where I ended the previous entry devoted to Primary Envelopment — in this case, in multiplicity, not so much as envelopment, but as illustration.) (Further, a natural sonic reference for this album is Phase/transitions, an album that I did manage, for whatever reason, to enjoy while sick. The operative concept linking the two is improvised sound installation.)
Let me also mention a recording I did first hear while I was sick: Made in Chicago, headlined by Jack DeJohnette, and featuring legendary AACM improvisers, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill. (I recently discussed some of Mitchell's recent output in this space, and Threadgill is apparently releasing a new album on Pi very soon. He's clearly at the height of his powers.) In fact, it was in conjunction with discussing Mitchell's trio album Conversations that I remarked again about "not being an ECM person": Here we have an album on ECM with distant sound, characteristic of that label, and an easy to follow presentation. It's enjoyable, though, clearly a significant album for the AACM's 50th anniversary: Apparently this group will be touring this year (after recording Made in Chicago in the summer of 2013). The lengthy recording includes a fair amount of talking, and I have to think that in large part, it celebrates Muhal Richard Abrams specifically, who certainly deserves it, and is looking more frail. Anyway, I'm sure there will be much written about Made in Chicago, so maybe there was no reason for me to offer an opinion at all. I'll look forward to more from Threadgill & Mitchell. (I've thought of DeJohnette as more of a mainstream musician, an opinion this album does nothing to change, although I might simply be missing something different by him.)30 March 2015
Before I return to the other discussions I was anticipating last month, and so to some albums I want to discuss in a little more detail, let me mention a couple of recent duo releases on Damon Smith's Balance Point Acoustics label (both packaged in simple but colorful slipcases). At this point, I have three albums featuring Smith listed on my favorites, beginning with Ewen / Smith / Walter, then North of Blanco (also featuring Sandy Ewen), and most recently Spill Plus (although it is actually the earliest recording), so it would be fair to characterize him as one of my favorite bassists. Of those three albums, only North of Blanco is on Smith's own label, and it was really Spill Plus tackling such major forms of both instrumentation & abstraction that made me take a new level of interest. Perhaps that suggests some lateness on my part, but I do want to mention these two duo albums — despite my general non-interest in duos (and the sorts of interactions they tend to generate). Background Information is with Ewen (yet again), and indeed suggests some sort of personal background to their other albums together. (The recording date simply says Texas 2011, leaving open the possibility that it came before or after Ewen / Smith / Walter. Also, although I had never seen it previously, nor did Sandy Ewen mention it to me in previous conversations, Background Information was released in 2013, according to Squidco: This note comes as it only recently appeared new on their site, and with no release date on the album, so I don't know what to make of it.) Many of the sonic relations & articulations do anticipate parts of North of Blanco ("a strange record," according to Kurt Gottschalk), where they stretch across a larger ensemble: There's an elemental, eruptive quality to Background Information that is characteristic of some of Smith's best work. Likely of broader interest, and recorded in late 2013, with an explicit 2015 release, is Relations with Henry Kaiser. It is, according to Smith, the duo album he always wanted to make with Kaiser, and comes from a session that will supposedly yield two more releases. As opposed to Background Information, with its frequent use of electronics (including laptop by Smith), Relations is acoustic strings, featuring e.g. qin style attacks (concerning which I refer the reader to the two dimensions of classic qin vibrato) — plus much else — from the pair. They seem happy to try just about anything on their individual instruments while improvising together. Both albums illustrate more of Smith's musical concerns, perhaps in exemplary form for those who enjoy duos.6 April 2015
I continue to watch for Clean Feed releases, even if their albums tend to be more mainstream than most of those I've been featuring lately, and so their first batch of releases for 2015 (which is starting slowly for me in general, as I've only recently finished — perhaps — discussing 2014 releases) was welcome. The most interesting item in the list seemed to be For Sale, at least for me, by an ensemble called Deux Maisons, a quartet formed from two duos: Théo & Valentin Ceccaldi have been featured here, both for their album Can you smile? with Joëlle Léandre, and in some comments on the more classically inflected La Scala by Roberto Negro. Luis Vicente & Marco Franco also appeared here recently (in December) for their (apparent) debut album Clocks and Clouds: There they are paired with Pinheiro & Faustino of the Red Trio in another improvised album. The similarity between Clocks and Clouds & For Sale extends past the double duo form to the recording dates, which are only about a month apart in the spring of 2013 (in Lisbon). Whereas I wondered about the Portuguese quartet (or double duo, as underlined by this next release) appearing on a British label, here we have a Portuguese-French quartet on a Portuguese label, and in a seemingly adventurous (for Clean Feed) fully improvisatory format. However, whereas the format, and presumably the musicians, are adventurous, the music does often feel like a combination of two duos, each with rather different languages, with a resulting concern not to let too much happen at once. There is a fair amount of space, and particularly a mood of waiting to let everyone play what they need or want to play. For Sale is thus less about a "concept" than was Clocks and Clouds (which did appear on some "best of" lists for last year), and more a simple cross-cultural meeting. As with Clocks and Clouds, it is Vicente & Franco who are the more typical free players, with the Ceccaldi brothers at home in a canonically postmodern style, and it is Vicente on trumpet who most often offers summaries (meaning he appears to be leading the ensemble). Still, they do play some spontaneous full quartet music together at times (such as on the concluding kitchen track — a reference I can't help but personally connect with Jeff Shurdut's "house music"). Even if they never shocked or amazed me, I enjoyed hearing Deux Maisons, and wonder what they might do together now that they've made this first recording. It seems as though they could be a lot more adventurous.
I feel as though I have a strange relationship with the piano trio format, sometimes feeling totally finished with it, and sometimes finding some new example that makes me enthusiastic again. Within that context, I thought I'd also have a listen to Blue Dialect by Mario Pavone with Matt Mitchell & Tyshawn Sorey, in part because Pavone has been an influential musician and this is his first release in a while. Moreover, I have a similarly strange relationship with Sorey's music, and couldn't help but notice that Mitchell made his debut on Pi — where Sorey's recent piano trio album Alloy (with neither of these musicians) was released to wide acclaim (and discussed here in November). On Blue Dialect, the music is composed by Pavone (with the exception of one improvised track, which sounds a bit like film music), and the "blue" of its title reflects its classic orientation, the blues, solos & comping, etc. It's described as post-bop, but might rather be described as a reinflection of bop by blues, a sort of alternate history — neither for the first time. But then, alternate histories are never for the first time. (And not to be redundant, but I probably have a different relation to 20th century music than most of the intended audience.)8 April 2015
Nate Wooley (b.1974) is someone who attracted my attention relatively early in my project — summarized in this space over the years — to get a feel for what is happening in contemporary improvisation. This was true because of his own playing, of course, but also because of the various other musicians with whom he has appeared on record. (The most recent such album that I featured was World of Objects, led by Jeremiah Cymerman, who mixed the present album. Or, perhaps more technically, it was Stench.) At that point, Wooley's leader albums seemed to entail either music based more on late 20th century popular genres than I tend to enjoy, or more soloistic explorations. (Perhaps my summary is short-sighted, as I'm sure I didn't hear everything, and even so, there were intriguing collaborative trios, such as Crackleknob, that don't fit such a reduced description.) Of course, he has continued to play with a wide variety of musicians, including especially more recently, from Europe. That's my very brief introduction to some comments on his recent album Battle Pieces (on Relative Pitch), a release that's both clearly a leader album & formally innovative within the domain of ensemble improvisation. That said, not only is the title evocative of the sort of violence I don't necessarily seek out in musical interaction, but it also turns out to be something of a soloistic album as well: The main (title) pieces are conceived as a soloist (Wooley) "against" the remainder of the ensemble, the distinguished trio of Ingrid Laubrock, Matt Moran (with whom Wooley appeared on e.g. Organic Modernism, one of my long-time favorites), and Sylvie Courvoisier. I don't know if Wooley had this association in mind, since there would appear to be no direct sonic evocations, but for me, the term "battle pieces" brings up some of the early modern harpsichord pieces named after generic or specific battles, and their battery (so to speak) of evocative special effects. There is potentially a long history here (maybe even to include e.g. the medieval-Renaissance L'homme armé tradition, within which a recently recommendable recording devoted to Ockeghem is located), and perhaps more to the point, a history of ambivalence in musical "battle" pieces. Such an ambivalence, if we want to call it that, maintains in Battle Pieces as well, as the format itself — soloist vs. trio — enacts a battle, within which the music often seems anything but hostile. Instead, we might get e.g. an air of the Romantic piano literature: The striving (battle) of the individual against the world. Whereas the Romantics often figured such striving as an "against," here we also find the more contemporary impulse to try to retain one's creativity while fitting in, in a positive way, to the environment at hand. The latter might be the "romantic" battle of our times (particularly if I sidestep the question of whether & how one might affect the environment itself — whatever "environment" might mean in this context), and I can even retroactively impute some romanticism to Wooley's earlier leader albums. In Battle Pieces, battle becomes a figure for artistic development & relevance, something that might require isolation, but that certainly cannot occur only in isolation. Perhaps it's a stretch to suggest that Wooley has written "the great American novel" in music here, but in spite of, and perhaps because of, Wooley's association with musicians from around the world, Battle Pieces comes off as a very American album. That said, interspersed with the battle pieces composed by Wooley (which we could liken to Beethoven's piano concerti, perhaps), there are three "tape deconstruction" tracks that make up under a quarter of the album by length: It's unclear to me exactly how these tracks were generated, but they appear to be live improvisations from the same April 2014 concert as the others, based on the same repertory, and so perhaps the "tape" refers to the musicians listening to similar material recorded at a different session and rethinking it? Or somehow from the same session? In any case, these shorter tracks form welcome interludes, in terms of material, but also in terms of interaction: The battle is transfigured (if I dare say, or else transformed): The world adopts a perspective that is not oriented toward the (romantic) hero. In sum, we get a twenty-first century American (or at least USA) narrative & analysis of the hero-composer. That the hero plays trumpet figures (American?) jazz history itself. Is it triumphant? The album fades away....13 April 2015
James Falzone's album The Room Is, by a group he's named the Renga Ensemble, is unusual (particularly for a self-produced album) in that it comes with a good deal of discussion & documentation. I didn't actually read the literature until I'd heard the album several times, but perhaps it's a good place to start a discussion: For one thing, the promotional literature highlights the individuality of the six reed players (mostly playing clarinets), calling the ensemble "rooted in persona," and quoting Keefe Jackson as saying that playing in an all-reed ensemble makes him "work harder" to "make every note count," because all the "basic reed things have already been stated." The Renga Ensemble is immediately evocative, at least for me, of consort music: Indeed six-part consorts — and these would be so-called "whole consorts," as opposed to the broken consorts featuring instruments from more than one family — were significant for English Renaissance composers such as Byrd & Jenkins, although in their case, viols were the focus. (Some of this music has been performed by e.g. recorder consorts too, though.) Such an early modern orientation reminds me in turn, at least a bit, of Nate Wooley's Battle Pieces, as recently discussed in this space: The Room Is is nonetheless another very American album, as I described that release in the previous entry, and indeed Falzone has a way of connecting deeply with American twentieth century music while also exploring connections with various historical & world musics. This was already apparent in his creative refiguring of 1960s style on Brooklyn lines... Chicago spaces, discussed in this space back in September 2012. The Room Is features more abstract compositions without such clear historical references, but likewise highlights different USA jazz scenes via its selection of reed players, even if four of the six are from Chicago. The rather long album is framed by three short improvised "lude" tracks, featuring stacked chords & dynamic swells, with the compositions consisting of two basic threads: There are five elaborate pieces (including the title track) based on a haiku by Anita Virgil (together, 48 minutes of the 71 minute album), and six renga pieces, somewhat shorter & more linear. The latter, as is the ensemble, are named for a form of haiku composition in which different authors take turns, and each of the six (although they are ensemble pieces written by Falzone) features a different member of the ensemble. The renga tracks serve to move things along a bit, in what is otherwise a fairly overwhelming listening experience, given the volume of creative material, as the performers take more of a step-by-step approach. The former, haiku pieces don't really evoke a haiku form, which apparently served more as inspiration, or as Falzone puts it in the notes, "a moment of awareness." They conjure a bit of stasis — the moment, no doubt — in their often bustling activity. The Room Is becomes almost a double album, although with the threads intertwined. (I seem to be having trouble intertwining my own threads today, but I should also mention the wind trio albums I've discussed in this space recently: Spectral, Sonic Rivers, & World of Objects. The reed sextet certainly comes off as less intimidating with these trio contexts.) Falzone has released a variety of different albums, by different groups and with different musical concerns, but in The Room Is we get something very substantial and yet personal: Weighty, harmonically & rhythmically intricate music that yet somehow relies on the six players' individual sounds. Whereas the extent of the compositional orientation (and chordal focus) in the lengthy haiku-inspired tracks is more than I've usually been featuring here, and the somewhat monolithic sound of the album does require multiple hearings to open to details, such that it comes off almost as a "classical" chamber album, The Room Is is nonetheless a significant milestone that must be heard by anyone resonating to the threads I've mentioned. After all, who wouldn't want to hear a consort of six clarinets in a wide variety of textures? (Although I've characterized the sound as a bit intimidating in its six-part "wholeness," that's because there is so much else to hear within the basic texture.) It would also be interesting to hear this group — and it's quite an impressive group that Falzone was able to engage — play something more improvisatory.22 April 2015
I continue to explore the Creative Sources catalog more broadly, although by that I mean recent releases. Albums from a wide variety of musicians continue to appear rapidly there in 2015. Is Creative Sources the most prolific label for "this" (deliberately vague) music at the moment? Perhaps so. My discussion last month, oriented in particular around Wade Matthews' Primary Envelopment, was mainly confined to late 2014 releases, whereas this entry will mainly concern albums designated as 2015, although the catalog numbers do overlap.
Perhaps the album I found most initially intriguing among the releases since my last entry was Décliné, from a trio — named the Clinamen Trio — formed by French bassist Louis-Michael Marion. (Clinamen is the concept of the "swerve" of atoms, invented by the ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, to explain the sometimes unpredictable nature of supposedly mechanical events. It's part of the sometimes rather silly "free will" debate, but I think it's a fun concept, perhaps even more relevant today with our emphasis on digital technology.) However, it turns out that this is an album recorded in 2008, with a delayed release: Some items on Creative Sources are older in this sense. Whereas I did find Décliné to be interesting, its impact would have likely been stronger a few years ago. More groups have explored a similar style in the interim, and I have to wonder if the Clinamen Trio (with its nearly identical instrumentation) was an inspiration for Baloni — who apparently have a new, vinyl-only album, Riptide, that I guess I won't have an opportunity to hear. Not only do I get the sense, upon hearing Décliné, that others have already heard it (or perhaps a similar performance) & used it as inspiration in other music I've already heard, which is an eerie feeling, but the Scelsian character of the music itself has a similarly unsettling feeling. Like many Creative Sources albums, the music was conceived as the accompaniment to a dance production, and the trio was convened by Marion for that purpose. I can only imagine the dance concept, but the music has an emergent & "unstable" quality that is very evocative of Scelsi's music from the 1960s (as were similar parts of Baloni's first album Fremdenzimmer, recorded in 2010 & released in 2011). One can imagine various swerves & spins having a dramatic effect on the full-scale becoming of the music. (In more scientistic language, one could consider chaos theory, in the technical sense of very close initial conditions leading to very different results.) Anyway, it's a lengthy album with a series of clinamen-based tracks, the final track being the longest, and might well be considered more important as its place in the chronology of the period emerges over the next few years.
Perhaps a little more conventional, at least in terms of instrumentation, is Movements, recorded in Köln in 2014 by a trio of Georg Wissel (prepared reeds), Achim Tang (bass), and Simon Camatta (drums). Movements reminds me of Joe Hertenstein's album Crespect, also a trio with Achim Tang, and so I can't help but think that it's conceived as something of a debut for Simon Camatta (b.1976), although Camatta has previously worked with e.g. Jan Klare in The Dorf. In fact, the album includes a similar mix of classic "free" style and more contemporary & quiet sonic explorations, in this case moving more from the former to the latter, almost becoming unwound, as opposed to being interwoven on Crespect. It's an enjoyable mix of material, and I can't help but think that especially the earlier "free" tracks will appeal to a range of listeners. I was not familiar with Georg Wissel (b.1964) previously either, and his style of sax & clarinet playing, incorporating physical preparations, is worth noting too. There are some promising ideas on Movements.
Somewhat similar in its mix of contemporary concerns is the quartet album, Chlopingle (marked as a 2014 release), featuring Giovanni Di Domenico on piano, with Daniele Martini on saxes & a Portuguese rhythm section. Chlopingle might be the least adventurous album in this entry, and indeed the same quartet had already released And The Missing R on Clean Feed in 2008 (which I hadn't noticed). Here we have another release — and pianistic style — evocative of Satie, and so reminiscent of such recent albums as Alloy & Featuring Matthew Shipp (as well as even Belleke at times, albeit without piano there). The quartet (named Tetterapadequ) can become quite animated, though, taking minimalist geometric chord variations through a world of wailing saxophone & spinning piano figures.
I don't ordinarily seek out large ensemble albums, but I did listen to Jadis la pluie était bleue, by a nonet "conducted" by Ernesto Rodrigues. Jadis la pluie était bleue was actually recorded already in 2015, and its tracks Suspensão V-VIII are an obvious followup to Suspensão, a double album octet release on Creative Sources from 2011. This is something of an atmospheric soundscape or landscape album, as the title suggests, with a symphonic quality. It's mostly quiet & sombre, integrating the very different instruments into an often seamless tapestry of sound, again focusing on relation (of suspended, presumably, becoming).
The album I particularly want to feature here, however, is Nor by a quartet of two musicians from Portugal & two from Berlin. Although I confess that I skipped hearing it last time, my interest in Nor increased with my greater appreciation for Rodrigues's music overall — and indeed, as chance would have it, Nor was recorded (chronologically) between the two sessions on Primary Envelopment — as well as my continued interest in Alexander Frangenheim's work (most recently via Kochuu). The relation between Creative Sources & the Berlin music scene, and more specifically Frangenheim, seems to be very fertile at the moment (and indeed, I have had something of a Berlin theme in this space recently, which might say more about me than anything else, although I don't know exactly what). The quartet is completed by well-known trumpet player Axel Dörner & saxophonist Nuno Torres (who appears on many of Rodrigues's recent albums, including Jadis la pluie était bleue). Although the first track of Nor, which is almost half of the album by length, traverses some of the same audibility issues that I've expressed ambivalence about here, the next two become increasingly assertive. Indeed, Nor 3 comes off for me as a wild, multi-player Scelsian improvisation: The more distant becoming of the first track (the interest of which is somewhat episodic) emerges directly & forcefully into consciousness by the third. (And one can see how a similar notion is figured graphically, in straightforward fashion, by the album cover.) As suggested in the "becoming" comments concerning the Clinamen Trio & elsewhere above, I find this sort of "polyphony" (as also explored by e.g. Baloni, although often in a more light-hearted vein) to be quite intriguing. Whereas Scelsi's infrachromatic improvisations powerfully illustrate an emergent (non-chronological, i.e. related to Aion) sense of becoming, that becoming is in the singular: Scelsi's transcribed improvisations are ultimately his, and that singular, personal quality is found in most of his mature music, even if arranged for multiple instruments. With Nor, we have a quartet, not to amplify a singular becoming, but to express multiple becomings. (I've framed this concept elsewhere, and you'll eventually be able to read that, as multiple immanent temporalities. In other words, and I don't know how the musicians themselves approached the session, the temporality of the different becomings is not identical, i.e. not imposed: Temporality itself emerges in multiplicity, although obviously it is in turn "captured" by the eventual CD master.) Such a "becoming" style is also evocative of e.g. Spill Plus (although the approach to multiplicity is different), another album with Berlin connections, but also Australian connections: Although I know of no Australian references in Scelsi's oeuvre, his sense of emergence & becoming seems to fit Australian traditional art well. Whereas there are no Australians on Nor, that influence appears to be there (and maybe someday I will have some idea how to answer the question, "Why Berlin?"). I should also note that the instrumentation on Nor is entirely acoustic, at least as designated, thus separating it somewhat from e.g. "ea" or other quiet improvisatory styles like lowercase — although the latter should be qualified: Dörner is specifically identified with lowercase, and ultimately this album is electroacoustic via the recording medium itself: In that sense, it can be figured as breaking the fourth wall (to invoke theater): Originally acoustic sounds are going to be electronic at some point, if they are to appear on a CD album (to sound on electronic speakers), or pass through a microphone at all, calling into question the very assertion of "originally": The microphone becomes inherent to the conception. Anyway, whereas these specific electroacoustic or lowercase concerns are reflected more generally today, Nor takes its own approach, and it's an approach I find to be increasingly compelling. I take the title as a disavowal of imposed binary (or even discrete) choices, suggestive of transverse movement in response to such imposed discipline, a sort of "none of the above," as some have put it e.g. in the context of USA politics. That sort of motion is exactly what we need, an opening to different (multiple) becomings.
And now I feel caught up with recording comments for the moment, after my little illness. More will appear soon enough, though, I'm sure.26 April 2015
Megasonic Chapel is the latest album from Henry Kaiser, recorded this past February in Oakland. It's a long, mostly sparse, single track album, highlighting the haegum (a bowed string) playing of Soo-Yeon Lyuh, a traditional Korean musician & professor. Like most things related to Henry Kaiser, I learned of this album via Downtown Music Gallery and Bruce Gallanter: Bruce has surely conditioned my opinion of Kaiser, and of course he's quite enthusiastic. I've appreciated some of Kaiser's work, such as his liner notes for Ewen / Smith / Walter, and I recently discussed his (similar?) duo with Damon Smith, Relations. DMG was also kind enough to send me a free sampler of Kaiser's music (Playola, spanning 1977 to 2001) a while back, but I must admit that I didn't enjoy much of what was on there. (I had to grit my teeth through a few tracks, frankly.) So I've had a mixed reaction, but apparently I'm still open to experience something else. In any case, the Korean-tinged Megasonic Chapel is well worth hearing. Coincidentally, a Korean album was one of the most recent I had added to my world music listings [*] (in November 2012, mentioned in this space), and so I have at least a bit of familiarity with the style. Kaiser names both court & shamanic music (and the haegum is evocative specifically of the latter), as well as Feldman, AMM & SME as influences here. The ensemble includes William Winant, who was apparently a part of Kaiser's previous study expedition to Korea, and other local musicians Tania Chen (piano) & Danielle DeGruttola (cello), with whom I was not otherwise familiar. The evocation of Korean music comes through authentically for me, so I enjoy that part, but it's a long album with a lot of slow spots. There's a tendency for the ensemble to "contract" to a single sense of time (or pulse), unlike the sorts of multiple times that I enjoy in ensemble interactions (and e.g. in medieval polyphony). Kaiser uses six different guitars, named in sequence (with one repeat) in the liner notes, and it's changing guitar that often sets a new direction, particularly e.g. the electric wailing that occurs fairly suddenly at almost exactly the midpoint of the 79 minute album. These instrument changes tend to set some different things happening, but there's that tendency to contract, or come together, some might call it, that results in a lot of slowness & waiting. Feldman's music (famously) tends to maintain separate threads, unlike this, so perhaps it's characteristic of the AMM & SME, with whom I have only more tangential familiarity. Despite that it might not be as taut as something a little less spontaneous, as I said, it's well worth hearing. Perhaps other releases will build on these ideas?
[*] I haven't made many recent changes to my world music listings, although I have a small backlog of recent "world music" albums that I've enjoyed, and so should probably discuss. (I've probably already endorsed the term world music more than I ever should have.) I don't think I want to continue modifying the old "favorites" lists there, though, so I'm not sure how I want to approach new material. I might just leave everything in that part of the site as it is now, and write discussions of anything new in this space. Does that make sense? That's an issue for the summer, once I finish What is familiar?....10 May 2015
As I finish the final sections of What is familiar?, and I expect to complete them this month, it is perhaps fortuitous that some new albums by musicians whom I found engaging early in this project are appearing. These new albums thus let me touch on what I've called "aesthetic narrative," in the terms of that article, both my own personal narrative, and more broadly. In other words, I jumped fairly randomly into the middle of this music (jazz, contemporary improvisation, whatever) without much direction or plan beyond wanting to familiarize myself with what is happening in contemporary music. I've touched upon this arbitrariness more than once in this space, and so don't want to dwell on it, but do want to note explicitly that new albums by Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Samuel Blaser interact with such personal narrative in ways beyond what is reductively on the album. (And I have yet to even hear Threadgill's In for a Penny, In for a Pound as I write this.) Moreover, these albums are rather more "mainstream" than much of what I've been discussing lately. (Obviously, my interests here have become rather personal, if not idiosyncratic, rather quickly.) This means that they engage many more narratives than some other albums discussed here. Particularly in the case of Coleman & Threadgill, in USA, they receive major awards, get mainstream radio airplay, etc. In short, many more people have & will hear their music. Although I try not to let popularity affect my own preferences, it inevitably does to some degree, because these musicians are so influential that their styles are heard reflected in various other places. This means that many aspects of their music that might otherwise seem exciting & new don't necessarily seem so exciting or new (or copied faithfully, for that matter). The other aspect, of course, is that far more people know these albums, and so if I discuss them, it's an opportunity to place some of my other remarks in a context that people might more readily understand. On that point, I'll often refrain from discussing more mainstream albums here, simply because I know they'll be getting attention regardless of what I do, but sometimes, discussing something more mainstream is critical to orienting the project.
So I want to start (this mini-project, which will span completing What is familiar?) with a discussion of Steve Coleman's new album Synovial Joints: Coleman's Harvesting Semblances and Affinities was a new album when I started this project, and moreover, it was a striking album that received a good deal of attention. It made a real impact on me, although I was rather far from understanding its context — quite likely, I'm still rather far from understanding its context, but I have a lot more to say. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities consisted of recordings from a couple of sessions months apart, and which were already a few years old when the album was released. Together with The Mancy of Sound, it thus provided something of an anthology of Coleman's creativity over the span of a few years. It included a medieval-inspired composition by Nørgård, as well as the feel of cabaret jazz, particularly in Jen Shyu's sultry voice. Moreover, the various Caribbean- or Brazilian-inspired rhythms have an interlocking character, such that the music is articulated simultaneously in a variety of styles. This sort of rhythmic (or, one might say cyclic) simultaneity has been one of Coleman's hallmarks, as embedded in a sort of multifaceted & lush sound. (And note that a reissue anthology of M-base music from the 1980s is soon to appear, reflecting Coleman's growing influence today.) In this case, he references various world mythologies, nature, astrology, etc., generating human rhythmic compatibilities: Coleman can play one tune that is thus multiply inflected into different contexts.
With Functional Arrhythmias, inspired by Milton Graves, Coleman turned to the human body for inspiration: Although it was again recorded over multiple dates, Functional Arrhythmias has more the feel of a coherent album to me, and indeed its miniatures — still featuring interlocking rhythms that multiply inflect lines — seem to call out for future elaboration. (For both Synovial Joints & Functional Arrhythmias, Coleman began by improvising lines in a quasi-trance state, recording them, notating them, adding more improvised lines, notating again, etc. Note that this is something like Scelsi's procedure, except that Scelsi did not, to my knowledge, add more material to his recorded improvisations subsequently. Note also that some areas of the medieval repertory are known for a similar layered approach to composition over a period of time, perhaps a long time, as many of the lines were traditional chant, tropes, etc.) Clearly the body evokes a level of intimacy, and moreover, Coleman is articulating processes (or at least being inspired by processes) that are much smaller than ourselves, e.g. at the cellular or nervous system level. (I might call these gestures, in fact, and say that Coleman is tracing gestures.) He framed the body itself as a kind of composition. In other words, he is refiguring transcendence in music. I want to say more about this, but let me pause for a moment. "Transcendence" has long been a significant theme for jazz, particularly free jazz: The individual, typically the individual horn player (such as Coleman), articulates a creative cry that takes him (most often him) outside of his current context, and perhaps takes the audience along. This is thus personal transcendence, i.e. transcending one's surroundings as an individual. In theory, then, one goes from one "level" of consciousness to another. What Coleman has done with Functional Arrhythmias is frame transcendence as internal to ourselves (our bodies). In other words, we are made to feel aware of much "smaller" processes within us. Such an articulation figures transcendence & thus hierarchy differently, more broadly. What does it mean from our human perspective?
Let me take a further detour: Earlier this year, in discussing "best of" lists for 2014, Stef Gijssels asked publicly about comparing Steve Lehman's Mise en Abîme, a record of the year in some prominent sources, and his personal favorite, Hasparren by Daunik Lazro & Joëlle Léandre. The former is oriented on transcendental forms, whereas the latter is highly intimate, figuring immanence itself. So these two albums illustrate the immanent-transcendent duality, at least to some degree. Stef basically asked, although not in these words, why someone would prefer a transcendental format. (Let me be clear that the sort of formal transcendentalism of e.g. Lehman is rather different from the personal transcendence of e.g. Albert Ayler. They are different perspectives.) I believe that I can answer succinctly — and I also believe that readers can see that I do not, generally speaking, prefer transcendentalist music in this space — that grappling with such a transcendentalist piece of art provides us with a means for interrogating form per se, i.e. on the social & political level. In other words, here is an example of the way small can fit together to form large (musicians & form), while still retaining some individuality, and moreover, space to operate. Lehman's achievement is specifically in illustrating such space. (We might think of Hasparren as "zoomed in," focused on one particular space.) Whereas I think this does (albeit very briefly) describe the appeal of e.g. Mise en Abîme, it is not the entire story, however: I have figured it as formal interrogation, but that's a matter of perspective. Such transcendental forms are also — one might even say mainly — mechanisms of capture: That's how the analogous forms function in our society as a whole. So does Lehman's music reinforce hierarchical capture, or does it let us see how such structures operate? I'll leave that as an open question.
So that said, Coleman has figured transcendence in yet another way, via a different formal articulation. With Synovial Joints, such articulation or figuration takes on a more macroscopic character, not larger than the body (at least in those tracks that keep to this theme), but of a comparable size. He also has tracks that reference more mythology, etc. Again, Coleman approaches these issues via interlocking forms, such that smaller scale processes form larger articulations that can, in turn, be recognized — if I dare mention recognition per se. Processes at one level can emerge together (prototypically in nonlinear fashion, which Coleman figures as "arrhythmic") at another level, i.e. transcend. (I have often mentioned how e.g. resonances gesture toward externalities, or perhaps transcendence, in the context of other, more immanence-oriented albums discussed here. The focus of those situations, however, typically remains on a single level, albeit illustrating lines of flight.) He approaches the integration of formal levels via general processes of interlocking & resonance, as I would have, in a previous life, in thermodynamics & statistical mechanics (the former being macroscopic & the latter microscopic). In Functional Arrhythmias, he approaches the body as a composition, via level transcendence, whereas Synovial Joints starts to be about society as a composition. (It thus shares similar formal concerns with Lehman's music.) He takes this perspective farther by using a large ensemble (although Lehman's octet is larger than many), and so figuring processes not only at different levels (of reference size), but in terms of the musicians themselves (who are all of human size, i.e. not microscopic or earth-sized), and how they are heard, whether in the foreground, middle, background, etc. Coleman calls this "camouflage orchestration," and says he was inspired by the way he heard sounds blend in & out in the Amazon. (Note that e.g. Jeff Shurdut does this sort of thing with urban & domestic soundscapes, although the jungle is in keeping with Coleman's lush & tropical approach to sound this past decade.) Hence, society: Does Coleman's result reinforce hierarchical capture, or does it let us see how such structures operate?
Regarding Synovial Joints more specifically, it was recorded over a mere 3 days (compared to Coleman's previous Pi albums), in October (presumably) 2014. There are twenty-one musicians participating directly, so far more than on most of the albums I feature, with nine named as soloists on various tracks. This larger group is named the Council of Balance, presumably in keeping with the social themes of orchestration that I mentioned above, rather than his previous Five Elements. (It's also an indication of less focus on the elemental per se, to include larger structures.) Again, rhythms & cycles interlock, such that one tune is situated in multiple ways simultaneously, although perhaps at different levels: This is the transcendental form, again with elements of spontaneous composition, such that it figures individuality within an emergent social framework. Is the social framework here really emergent, or is it imposed externally? I think this is an important question, in turn, for the "interrogation" question posed above. The innovation here, as I hope I've already illustrated, beyond the various elements of melody & rhythm themselves, is in figuring elements smaller than the human, via the human, into an even larger form. (One might note that others have performed such figuration in more of a "physics," rather than human context, i.e. within the mechanics of sound itself, rather than Coleman's bodily social mythos.) Thus, as in my original discussion of Functional Arrhythmias, Coleman's work can be positioned as part of the affective turn more broadly, specifically figuring the human as relation rather than node: The human is "between" here, intersected by many processes & relations, both larger & smaller. I should note further that, in the liner notes, Coleman describes various details of the pieces, including the ways in which he uses instrument groups to represent specific things. I don't personally respond well to this kind of representation, or to representation per se (as representation is counter to immanence), although it's certainly a norm of classical composition. Coleman's basic material (i.e. melody, etc.) is also, if anything, more mainstream than in his previous albums: It becomes that much more about the formal elements, although many listeners will enjoy the overall sound directly. (I think I enjoyed the last track the most: It features a somewhat different concept of transcendence than the one I've most clearly articulated here, although with similar bodily intersections.) In any case, I hope this discussion has been helpful, and I will turn to some other issues around "mainstream" albums in upcoming (although probably not sequential) entries.18 May 2015
Since I very much enjoyed the Carlo Costa Quartet in their album Sediment from late last year, I was happy to see two more albums appear on Costa's Neither/Nor Records. The second release is a solo viola album by Frantz Loriot called Reflections on an Introspective Path, and whereas I'm still not featuring solo (or duo) albums here, I did want to note it, since I've enjoyed Loriot's music in such trios as Natura morta (with Costa, and I did revisit their recent album, Decay as a result) & Baloni: At times I feel as though I'm listening to something out of Scelsi's oeuvre, although Loriot mixes in some other ideas too, mostly around sparseness & randomness. The "emergent" sound can be very primitive, even aggressive sometimes, evoking (and perhaps using) Scelsi's scraping string mutes. That sort of emergent sound, in this latter case suggesting a kind of punctuated evolution (or geology in layers), is found on the third release, Rune, as well. Rune (recorded a month after Sediment) is a trio album featuring Costa on percussion with two brass players, Dan Peck (tuba) & Joe Moffett (trumpet): The trio's name is "Earth Tongues," which gives something of a suggestion for how the brass interacts with percussion. I've noted Peck here a few times before, whether with his trio (now called The Gate) or other ensembles. I also recently discussed another trio album with Moffett, Crows and Motives, but neglected to mention him by name: That album, inspired by Josquin Desprez, actually does seem rather relevant to Rune, as it's another trio with two winds, but also its gagaku-like quality (with the winds over the percussive guitar) has other similarities to Rune. The latter has more of a "primitive" or elemental quality, emphasized by the singular sense of line it sometimes projects. Beyond that, the rubbed surfaces & howling echoes are apparently supposed to evoke the earth itself, unknown ideas trickling through rocks to form some sort of ancient sign. (It thus has a tangible hermeneutic orientation.) Although the resulting singular focus isn't quite my thing, since I enjoy multiplicity, I do definitely enjoy the basic sound, particularly the articulation of the low tones (including via their resonances). Although it's far more personal, particularly with the tonguing, the sound reminds me a bit of how my apartment responded (i.e. via resonance) to the heavy machinery that was out front doing underground pipeline maintenance for a few months earlier this year. (Rune actually has its pitch centers somewhat higher.) Maybe a subsequent album will feature more simultaneity & consequent interaction of processes?
Another album I want to mention is Intricacies, a double CD recently released on No Business. Intricacies was recorded in Berlin on one day in 2014, and features two three-quarter-hour quintet improvisation sets, plus a fairly lengthy encore. The new name for me was trombonist Paul Hubweber, although he has recordings out with e.g. Paul Lovens & John Edwards. Together with Hubweber are well-known improvisers Frank Paul Schubert, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Clayton Thomas, and Willi Kellers. The result is thus rather "classic" free improvisation, and can easily be compared to recent albums (mentioned in this space) Red Dhal Sextet & Life in a Black Box, both of which include Paul Dunmall, but also have significant overlap with the lineup on Intricacies. In any case, in keeping with its classic free approach, the quintet is extremely active much of the time, frenetic even, to the point that the various figures can seem repetitive. It's high energy music, and I continue to be impressed by the sort of finger-twisting chordal playing that von Schlippenbach makes sound so effortless, even if I find the result more impressive than compelling. Although there are some slower passages, there's a lot happening here, with various ideas seeming to enter (perhaps inspired by the urban environment) & exit over the course of the sets. I imagine that many listeners will find this double album quite enjoyable, and I enjoyed hearing it too (once, anyway).25 May 2015
After having mentioned it here for a number of months & years, I've finally finished writing What is familiar?.
As opposed to the earlier articles in the series (Hierarchy as rupture, Is postmodernism racist? & Remède de Fortune), I did not write What is familiar? such that the first section would serve as an introduction in this space. So I'll write something specific here, something of a preface.
I've been working on this project for a while now, for most of the period since I started writing in this space (which opened in October 2010), so I feel good about completing it. It was a lot of work. In fact, I mostly feel relief, because it kept me very busy, and I'm not sure what I'll really be feeling about the project after a few months or years. We'll see. I've already started using concepts I was developing there in the course of discussions of particular recordings in this space, so now I can do that more unreservedly. (And this has always been a space of examples for that writing.) The question "What is familiar?" saturates this space generally, not to mention art criticism generally. Hence, although the series visits many territories, it is first a series on aesthetics — much like most or all of my writing on this site. For me, of course, aesthetics is political.
I have a few other personal remarks to make about the writing: My father, Joe McComb, died in June last year, literally on the day I published Remède de Fortune. At that point, it wasn't a surprise, because he was terminal with cancer, but the cancer was a surprise, as he had always been the healthiest person around, and the cancer proceeded quite rapidly once it was diagnosed. Much more suddenly, my close friend Steve Kanally, died the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving last year. Steve had been in perfect health, and it was a shock to everyone (and Steve was the center of a large social group). He died in his sleep after a fun, conversation-filled evening. I took some time off when my father died, and had come back to start What is familiar? in October. I was on the verge of beginning Chapter II when I got the news that Steve was dead. I had finished sketching it, and was set to start it on Monday morning. Anyway, I did indeed start it that Monday, and I followed the form I had determined. However, it was hard to write, and I'm sure that Chapter II would have been at least a little more richly developed under different circumstances. (Note that neither of these men would have waded through What is familiar? itself. They enjoyed working with their hands.) Less significantly, I also wrote gestures 9 & 10 of Chapter III with (I think) the flu. I've found over the years that the latter impedes me in some ways, but when simply executing something I've already outlined, it usually turns out pretty well. I'm not sure if the difficulty of those gestures should be attributed to the flu, or simply to the nature of the material. I also want to mention that I made a specific decision to write Chapter IV more quickly, both because I did not want the writing to drag into the summer, and because I thought that a faster pace would lend a different feel to the material. Hopefully that choice produced more benefit than harm, but some of what I wrote there, I would have spent more time self-critiquing under different circumstances.
Anyway, I guess that's all I want to say about What is familiar? right now. Hopefully it will be a worthwhile read for at least some of you. (I'm tentatively planning something of an appendix to the series, to be written in a similar format. Then, perhaps, finally, I'll do something entirely different.) Thanks for your support.1 June 2015
Samuel Blaser's new album Spring Rain (on Whirlwind Recordings) seems to represent something of a convergence: It combines — more or less — the quartet format he has favored, most recently in As The Sea, with his "early music" interest, as reflected in the Consort in Motion series. The ensemble itself is something of a synthesis of those groups, incorporating Gerald Cleaver (from his more recent quartet) with Russ Lossing & Drew Gress, the latter first appearing on A Mirror to Machaut. The main sonic difference between this ensemble & the previous quartet with Cleaver is the use of keyboard instead of guitar, although with Lossing using a variety of electric keyboards, many aspects of the sound remain intact. (It also speaks to Blaser's growing stature, I guess, that the other musicians are not mentioned on either the front or back cover, but only inside the packaging.) The other musician named on Spring Rain is Robert Sadin as producer, and probably not coincidentally, he also arranged Machaut's music for contemporary jazz instruments (in 2009, a year before I started the current project), and had earlier produced Consort in Motion.
Unlike Steve Coleman, who is a bit older than me, and whose recent Synovial Joints is where I started a little (still developing) thread in this space, I've listened to all of Blaser's (commercial, at least) albums, although I did hear the first couple only after he had four leader albums. (As a nice coincidence with the mini-series I've planned here, I actually first mentioned Blaser in this space back in 2011, in part as a tangent prompted by Henry Threadgill's use of trombone.) So I've followed his work since fairly early, and even wrote notes for A Mirror to Machaut. The result is that my own "personal narrative" with Samuel's music is a little more direct: For instance, I've never heard an album influenced by his style prior to hearing his own work. That's not something I can say of every musician listed here, perhaps not even most. Spring Rain also provides me an opportunity to ponder the question of narrative more broadly, since it is specifically evocative of Jimmy Giuffre's classic jazz trio with Paul Bley & Steve Swallow. (The latter endorses Blaser's approach in the liner notes.) Although many people have been influenced by Giuffre and/or done homages of various sorts (such as e.g. the Kaufmann/Gratkowski/de Joode trio, who use the same instrumentation), Blaser takes an "early music" approach in not only the compositions per se (to which he adds some of his own, in similar style), but in the improvisation: To paraphrase Swallow, Blaser has addressed many of the same musical concerns as that classic trio. In other words, the improvisational activity itself is stylistically of the period (as it is on e.g. many medieval albums). Actual early music, of course, is designated that way in part because it ceased being played for a period of time, and had to be totally reconstructed, and that was the situation with the music on A Mirror to Machaut & Consort in Motion (although various scholars & performers had tackled that repertory long before Blaser did). In the case of Giuffre & Spring Rain, not only are many of his colleagues still alive, but so are many of the people who heard the music originally, when it was new. This group does not include me, however. Per the comments earlier in this paragraph, Giuffre is someone whose music I (specifically, at least to my knowledge) heard only after I had heard various other music influenced by it: Thus it is entangled with my own personal narrative in nonlinear fashion.
So what of "early music" of the 1960s? As the foregoing suggests, it's something of an awkward concept for me. I literally spent decades studying in relation to Machaut, in a rather conscious way, but my knowledge of 1960s music is formed as a patchwork. (I was born in the 60s, but as I believe I've mentioned before, I associate jazz from that period more with advertising in my own life, since I didn't hear it in an artistic setting until much later.) It's much closer to me, obviously, but it permeates my perceptions — my sense of familiarity — in ways that predate my consciousness as a person: It's impossible, at this point, for me to accomplish a "linear" relation to the style, even if I can learn it, patch by patch, in far more detail than is impossible for e.g. the music of Machaut. Add to that the fact that musicians of the era are still active — for instance the AACM & AMM — and it's difficult to think of Spring Rain as a "favorite" in any personal sense: It's something from a time that isn't quite mine — dissonant in its closeness, one might say. However, allow me to give my relatively uninformed opinion on this project: I think it's quite impressive, and captures a kind of mood — I won't debate exactly what that mood is, but it's its own thing. This is a highly successful album in that sense, intersecting many narratives, and illustrating what we might call the classicism of the 60s (that being one of the impulses of the time). There is a searching quality reflected in the album that makes for an enjoyable, maybe even transformative, listen. (And note that Blaser makes no attempt to recreate the instrumentation of Giuffre's classic trio, so the relations are more conceptual than literal. For a "literal" approach to early music of the 1960s, almost, I might mention Blue, by Mostly Other People Do The Killing, although that album seems to have mostly angered listeners.) In this sense, "early music" is an approach to music performance — an approach discussed separately from repertory per se in e.g. my (perhaps classic, if I may be so bold?) essay What is Early Music? from the 1990s. So what's next for Blaser? More early music of the 20th century? Or something more thoroughly contemporary? One thing that Spring Rain certainly reminds me is that he has an abundance of both talent & ideas.2 June 2015
One aspect of this space, and it's an issue that applies more broadly, is that recordings do not appear at regular intervals. Rather, they seem to appear in spurts, with the result that something I might spend more time with, if it were to appear at some moment of quiet, can be pushed aside rather quickly in favor of something else new & (at least to my mind at the time) more exciting. Clearly this is unfair, but then there really isn't much "fairness" to personal aesthetic narrative. Shit happens, as the saying goes. (I guess that isn't much of an apology to the many worthwhile albums I've inevitably overlooked or judged poorly.)
I'm working on a little theme here, as already articulated, beginning with the recent discussion of Synovial Joints, but there continue to be other releases to discuss. Moreover, you might have noticed that I added Whitewashed with Lines to my favorites, and I'll get to that discussion. I am "finally" (however one might want to frame it) hearing certain aspects of the English improvisation style that I hadn't really taken the time to hear before. So that discussion has become a little more involved, but I want to give it proper attention soon.
That said, I also want to mention a couple of other recent albums, if only briefly. One is Telling Stories by Sonoluminescence Trio, Canadian musicians David Mott & Jesse Stewart joined by William Parker. This is an album, recorded in Canada, recommended by Bruce at DMG. I've enjoyed it. I made some (probably unfair) comments on the griot evocations of Space / Time · Redemption recently, and indeed I enjoy the (in some ways, similar) opening to Telling Stories much more. It sets a mood for me. This feels like a very North American, spiritual album, albeit with (or because of) various evocations from elsewhere. I was unfamiliar with the Canadian musicians previously, but it's well worth hearing, even if it's a bit more "inside" than most of what I discuss.
I also want to mention Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research release Hat and Shoes, by a quintet including Steve Swell, Pascal Niggenkemper, and Gerald Cleaver — musicians who have appeared recently, or frequently, or both, in this space. This is Ullmann's 7th Basement Research album over twenty years, albeit with different musicians, and there are a wide variety of influences in his compositions here, plus the various ideas the other musicians bring to their playing. It's, hence, a "very 2015" international jazz album, although it can seem a little long & busy: This is what eclecticism (some might say, postmodernism) is today.3 June 2015
Coincidentally, during preparation of my intended three-part installment of new album reviews to reflect on my personal narrative in this space, Joe Hertenstein's second HNH album has appeared. (I should perhaps note that this second, identically titled album with similar graphics, is white, whereas the first one, released in 2010, is black.) Like Samuel Blaser, Joe is a musician whose work I noticed relatively early in his recording career: I didn't hear the first HNH album immediately, but had by the middle of 2011, and had particularly enjoyed his expanded quartet on Polylemma, as well as trios by some of these same musicians that didn't include Joe, Clarino's Cookbook (also a second album), the first Baloni album, etc. This was the context for my interview with Joe in late 2011 & into 2012. Perhaps I can further reflect that there were a couple of significant, related life crises in my family between the time I asked Joe to do the interview & the time we actually did it. It was a very difficult time for me, and I thought about postponing the interview, but ultimately decided to go ahead. I didn't mention it then, but I also don't think I gave Joe my best effort, in terms of asking good questions & driving the interview a little more. I tried. I think the interview is still a worthwhile read, but I also think Joe expected more of me too.
Anyway, the latter is part of the personal narrative here, and I think it underscores how much "random" events can inflect our aesthetic perceptions & choices. (Indeed some other consequences of those late 2011 events continue to unfold in my family life today, although the specific situation has been much improved lately.) I've subsequently mentioned all of Joe's albums here, including a couple more recent releases where he isn't the leader: Thank You by The Curators & Featuring Matthew Shipp with the Core Trio. Indeed, this second HNH album is Joe's first leader album since Future Drone in 2012. Those previous releases provide another kind of opportunity to reflect on my work in this space: Namely, despite not being all that attracted to them, and being rather busy with other things, I felt obligated (by the very circumstances above) to offer some comments. The result was some rather foolish commentary on my part, and not for the first time. There is just no substitute for really getting to know an album, and I need to be clear with myself when I haven't done that, for whatever reason. I'll make a couple of other comments now, though: It seems to me that Thank You focuses on the solos, and I am just not that taken with the saxophone solos, or consequently the trio interaction. Featuring Matthew Shipp has something of a symphonic sweep that I want to acknowledge: I focused on the appearance of so many triads previously, but there is also an extended tonality to it: The specific sounds & figures are different, but it's almost a Mahlerian approach (or should I say Lisztian?). It's rather distinctive, and deserved more of a mention. The way the quartet plays together is also notable, with convergences & divergences articulating some of the tensions of the quasi-symphonic form. All that said, Joe did say in our interview that he wanted all of his projects to sound different, and they do. From that perspective, this has all been quite a success.
I found the original HNH album because it had the highest user ratings on the Clean Feed website. (Polylemma would go on to win the Happy New Ears award on the Free Jazz Blog.) So Joe & his colleagues have already received much acclaim, and a second HNH album seemed natural enough. Indeed, I had known for a while that it was planned & then recorded (in 2013). Both the recording date & release date are approximately five years after the first album. The trio constitution itself — and here Thomas Heberer is exclusively on cornet — is neither unprecedented nor common. However, it's also worth a brief note of comparison with Hertenstein's two sax-bass-drums albums, Thank You & Future Drone: The resulting layered concept seems to suit him. (And I'll note that Hertenstein has yet to appear on an album without a bassist.) At the time of the first HNH, I enjoyed the more chamber-oriented sound & conversational polish of Polylemma more, but much has happened since (both to me & at least musically to the members of this trio), and I found myself immediately engrossed in listening to the new HNH. (I received eleven new albums of potential interest that weekend, a rather unusual number.) Although the recorded sound comes off as a bit muted at times, the resulting mix allows the listener to hear all three performers at the same time, in parallel. Hence, there are relatively few solos, or there are many simultaneous solos, depending on how one characterizes it. The result produces a captivating polyphony, incorporating classic brassy blowing (reminding me a bit of Shoe at times — by another band with Köln connections), metallic clanging, hand drums, object-enhanced bass scrapings & harmonics, etc. There are more composed (although never sounding overly scripted) than fully improvised tracks, but they also produce different energy levels, whether more assertive or reflective, etc. Although there is extended technique, it's not the emphasis (as it is for so many other albums I discuss here). There is much subtlety & sophistication to the trio interaction, something to which a second album is conducive, particularly given the conversational style of these musicians. (I only now read Clifford Allen's liner notes, which begin by emphasizing history, and end with an explicit mention of modernism. I did not feel a personal resonance with Allen's remarks, although the quotes from the musicians themselves seem straightforward.) While I haven't found the album to be transformative, I've been enjoying it in a variety of contexts. It was excellent as the background to a conversation, for instance. (The album is hence conducive to multiple listener interactions, both with it, and outside of it.) I expect many listeners to enjoy the new HNH as well, with its conceptual elegance balanced against a gritty sonic relevance.8 June 2015
Henry Threadgill is someone else whose music has had a broad impact on my project to familiarize myself with jazz, or improvisation more generally, here in the twenty-first century. Like the other musicians in this little sub-series I'm doing on personal narrative — Steve Coleman, Joe Hertenstein, Samuel Blaser — I first mentioned Threadgill in this space in 2011. Unlike Hertenstein or Blaser, whose discographies were small & recent, and so easy to spend some time hearing, or Coleman, whose earlier recordings were mostly unavailable, Threadgill already had a large discography of music to which I could listen. And I did. The sequence warrants further comment: When I started this project, I made a conscious decision to focus on contemporary activity, recently released albums, and younger musicians. Some readers might question that decision, as my knowledge of jazz (or e.g. European free improvisation) history is not very good — as I'm sure is apparent to those with much more knowledge of previous decades (although I hope I haven't been claiming to know much jazz history). On the other hand, I had just spent around twenty years focusing on (much) older historical music, and immediately getting bogged down in history again didn't feel like the right thing for me. In any case, although I've continued to try to feature younger performers, I've also found it impossible to ignore some of the older performers who are still producing great, new music. Obviously, many are still very much a part of the scene, even if some other older musicians haven't appeared to change their styles much over the past few decades. Threadgill's music has been quite new & striking, and so listening to his albums, beginning with This brings us to, has seemed anything but a lesson in history or nostalgia. (One could argue that his music is still a lesson in history, but not in a slavish way.) And older musicians, more generally, are continuing to influence younger musicians quite directly, by appearing in performances with them, etc. There isn't a clear separation, and I don't know why I ever thought there might be. (I guess it's because of the way popular music has figured novelty as youthful.)
This brings us to was Threadgill's third album on Pi, after a gap of eight years to work on developing his new style. It was something of a coincidence that I undertook my own project right around that time, but it was also Threadgill's two previous albums that had inaugurated the Pi label, and indeed their releases were drawing wide acclaim: I cannot claim to have "discovered" Threadgill or Pi, in any sense, since they were recommended everywhere I looked. (I will also note that it appears that, perhaps because of its relatively mainstream success, Pi has changed distribution channels recently. I was not actually able to find the details on this, however.) So I also heard Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, etc., based on the same conduits. Moreover, Pi released other recordings by AACM stalwarts Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and of course Muhal Richard Abrams.... The label's commercial success thus facilitated not only my exploration of what AACM members are doing in the twenty-first century (and, of course, many of these musicians have recent non-Pi releases), but served to ground my meager "jazz history" knowledge in the AACM specifically. (Given that these musicians generally eschew nostalgic styles, among other reasons, they've fit my own attitude well.) I've listened to various "classics" from the 1960s & later at this point, although that hasn't been a focus in this space, and I continue to pay attention to musicians from the AACM. (I even discussed their very mainstream-oriented Made in Chicago album, on which Threadgill also appears, recently here.) It was Threadgill's "new" style that got me invested, and I've heard most of his older albums too.
In for a Penny, in for a Pound is not only a captivating new album, but provides this opportunity to consider Threadgill's new style more broadly (or again). For one thing, whereas I began with no real opinion or preference on the role of composition in jazz, I've gravitated toward more improvised & less composed (although one could argue about what that means [*]) music over time. Threadgill's music has been an exception: I'm quite taken with In for a Penny, in for a Pound, even though it is not only highly composed, but is the result of extensive public & private practices with a fixed ensemble. In other words, it's not at all a "first meeting" — as some compelling improvised albums are. This brings us to was already based on extensive development & rehearsal, and so this has become a norm for Threadgill. (Moreover, such an emphasis on the composer, as well as musicians who spend a great deal of time with the music, has been common for Pi albums more broadly, such as those of Coleman & Lehman discussed here.) Whereas spontaneity has been one of the touchstones of jazz improvisation, to the point that many of the classic groups deliberately avoided any kind of rehearsal, the opportunity to work with the same musicians in specific formats over time is indeed quite an opportunity (and surely more people would do it, if it weren't so expensive), yielding results that I do find compelling — if perhaps in a different way. To return to a topic that I've discussed, not coincidentally, regarding both Coleman's & Lehman's music, an emphasis on composition brings an explicit transcendentalist frame to the music: In other words, the musicians aren't just playing whatever they feel in the moment, but (also) according to some externally imposed script. That said, these composers are also performing themselves, and so in that sense aren't really external, but there is still a prior script of some sort. The fact that Threadgill's ensembles are able to engage in so many performances also allows the musicians to internalize the compositional idiom, such that it might indeed align with their feelings in the moment: I believe that this is a very significant point, but there is still an imposed structure.[**] Whereas internalizing idiom is significant to Threadgill's reworking of the immanent-transcendent duality, I would describe it more as a component, or prerequisite, for Threadgill's broader interrogation or refiguring of transcendence: His current style requires practice & such internalization, but that is not the real point.
In for a Penny, in for a Pound focuses on — or rather "for" — the other four members of its quintet in its four long "epic" tracks. In other words, it narrows to a different immanent focus in each of these tracks. In yet other words, any sense of transcendent "composition" is articulated via differing individual perspectives, like that of an ant in a maze. And the listener is mostly there with the ant, i.e. not given a bird's eye view: It's a lot like life, and not only according to this spatial metaphor, but because the individual musicians' own perspectives are formed via what other musicians are doing. The listener hears their perspective, and moreover comes to form or assimilate it via feedback (or reflection) from others. This is, basically, the nature of self (or subject) formation: We cannot really see ourselves, except via feedback from others. So I enjoy how Threadgill is articulating the immanent-transcendent duality structurally. Having said that, i.e. having summarized the "bird's eye view," let me consider the music in a little more detail. The quintet on In for a Penny, in for a Pound consists of five of the musicians from Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, subtracting bass guitar, whereas that album had added cello to the quintet on This brings us to. There is thus a remarkable continuity to the Zooid ensemble, making this sophisticated articulation of structure & individual interaction not only possible, but masterful. (It's also unclear whether this should be considered an acoustic ensemble, or an electro-acoustic ensemble, a distinction that seems to become increasingly meaningless in recorded media of the twenty-first century, although Threadgill's first two albums on Pi, barely into the twenty-first century, do explore it.) The musicians need that mastery in order to convincingly shift perspectives in the different epics. As far as constitution, it's a quintet that, as with Threadgill's classic "Air" trio, leaves a lot of space for individual maneuvering in the way that the instrumental idioms & timbres align or don't align. Although Tomorrow Sunny had already exhibited some of the sequential interaction that is explored further on In for a Penny, the introduction of cello did "fill" the middle of the texture at times, giving others rather less space than on This brings us to: Here that textural "problem" is solved not only by subtracting the bass, but via the different perspectives of the different epics: They have different senses of space for the individual musicians that, in turn, open to more extended temporalities. The two short "introductory" tracks are quite packed, however: I very much enjoy the opening track, as it summarizes various ideas from Threadgill's previous albums in just a few minutes. The "exordium" opening the second disc [***] has something of the same feel, but ends on a lyrical question from the cello (perhaps reflecting the concerns that I just expressed). As already alluded, the other four tracks are called "epics," and although they are numbered (in Spanish, why?), they do not appear in numerical order. (I suppose the order is spontaneous, but why number them? Anyway, I digress.) Threadgill does state not only that this music was first "perceived in a stream of phrases," but that it should be new for each performance: Of course, this is typical of improvisatory music, and despite its intriguing compositional structure, In for a Penny is still quite improvisational. Although the other four musicians have epics, Threadgill himself does not — he states that it is "woven into the larger epic." (This seems to be another way to figure transcendence. I wonder what it will mean for an entirely different ensemble wanting to play this composition someday.) Given the sometimes sequential, or narrative, format of the longer tracks, "epic" seems like a good description, and indeed they place considerable demands on the listener. I wonder what the more mainstream audience will think: Although there is never really "too much" happening, quite a lot does happen over the course of an epic. (I should probably also remark that solos do not correspond to who the epic is "for" — various musicians might solo, in various orders, just as various people might spend time talking to us in "our" lives.) In any case, as the title suggests, listeners have already come this far, so why not continue? After several hearings, I still feel as though I'm getting to know this multi-faceted piece myself: It projects a very individual style, figuring personal (musical) interaction, and arising from unique circumstances. Other than Threadgill's previous albums, I know of nothing comparable: In for a Penny would appear to be a summit.
[*] It seems to me that there is no less informative album description than: "It explores the interaction between composition & improvisation." For a while, I saw such descriptions constantly, although perhaps that's finally declining? Or perhaps I'm looking in different places.
[**] Similar to the previous footnote, one could argue that there is always some sort of imposed structure to a musical performance: The venue, the nature of the instruments available, the knowledge & experience the musicians already bring, the expectations of the audience, etc. This is a place where any distinction between composition & improvisation becomes murky. Indeed, there are always various things that have been internalized, such that any "freshness" is relative or incremental.
[***] In for a Penny was released as a double CD, whereas the material would appear to fit (barely) on a single CD. Although Threadgill does not mention the need for an intermission in his brief remarks, let me suggest that an intermission between the two CDs does seem appropriate, particularly given the second introduction. (This "difference" from how many labels might release the music is far more agreeable to me than the album information being recited as the last track on Tomorrow Sunny. I continue to find the latter to be quite irritating.) Note that In for a Penny also appears to be priced at more than a single CD, however, per the Pi website.10 June 2015
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