Todd McComb: Jazz archive, 06/2015-05/2016

To main page.

Having finally finished What is familiar?, it seems as though I should start a fresh page here, even if in some ways, I'm right in the middle of a discussion.

I hope readers do continue to have a look at the previous set of entries, because I think there are some good discussions there, if I do say so myself — although not all of them are terribly worthwhile. Starting toward the end of that page might be a good idea. (I wrapped up that set of entries with a discussion of Henry Threadgill's latest album.) So one goal I have here is to keep the quality of discussion high, which mostly means talking about items I really want to discuss, and not falling into what I "should" do. (Of course, the opening line above already contradicts that notion, doesn't it?)

The previous page also ran for a full year of comments, so it was getting rather long. I should, perhaps, add here at the outset that I am putting new comments at the end, so if you want to see the most recent material, scroll to the end. (Maybe this isn't the best choice, but I'm choosing to keep everything in written order, over making it easier to see new comments.)

Another thing I'm considering, particularly in light of the comment about quality of discussion, is how to use my writing time more wisely, and that might mean more comments in this space, and less time spent redoing some of the older articles on the site — my intention to keep them always up to date seems to belong to another decade. In some tangible sense, they're becoming historical documents discussing historical music. Maybe I need fewer updates, and more fresh starts.

I do keep the favorites list up to date in this space, however, and indeed I have items remaining to discuss that already appear there. So hopefully that will help with continuity as I roll this page over yet again. Oh, and the performance fellowship also remains active, for those interested.

I feel as though I have a lot to say at this point, and some language developed for saying it, so we'll see how that goes....

16 June 2015

I have long expressed an ambivalence — maybe something more akin to hostility than ambivalence — to English improvisation here. Reductively, that ambivalence had much to do with the large amount of material available: English "free" improvisation dates, at least, to the copious output of the 1960s, and continues apace today with much music-making & album-producing activity. Indeed, I've had occasion, including of late, to trace some aspects of American jazz back to the 1960s (and sometimes beyond), and that required a willingness to do so on my part. Although such an endeavor disrupts my intended emphasis on contemporary music, it does allow the construction or reconstruction of more extended narratives — to further a theme. Moreover, in the case of American jazz from the 1960s, I not only know people who heard it new, including myself in its function as music for television themes & advertising, which as we've discussed, was not always for the best (to understate), but there is general chatter around me: Ornette Coleman's recent death resonated along multiple lines intersecting me, for instance. In the case of English improvisation, most of those factors were not in play: Indeed, I probably received the majority of my recommendations for English music of the past few years from Bruce Gallanter at DMG. I'm thankful to Bruce for the work he does to raise attention for contemporary music, but it's also the case that our tastes do not intersect terribly much — which is still rather more than not at all. Bruce loves English progressive rock, if that's what you call it, and if I may be so bold as to make that assessment. I do not. I did enjoy some of the original "English invasion" from a fairly young age — again, music from the 1960s — but have always thought of it as thoroughly commercial. In some sense, then, much of the English music is thus both more & less "accessible." Add my political distaste (if that's a strong enough term) for empire, and I think it's fair to say that I had "cold" feelings toward English improvisation. (I've taken to improvised music from other European countries more readily, in contrast, as the listings here easily demonstrate.)

Of course, I live in the current standard bearing nation for oppressive world empire, and consequently, I'm well aware that not everyone in the vicinity agrees with world aggression & domination. Moreover, such "home protests" can be very long-lived. Beyond that, there is my longtime admiration for Joëlle Léandre, and her own stated admiration for Derek Bailey (Sheffield, 1930-2005). I have long been aware of this, but it's gone nowhere for me: Unless a word search is failing me now, this is my first mention of Derek Bailey in this space, and I knew that anything I would have said previously would be ignorant — perhaps I should say "too ignorant," whatever that means, because I retain plenty of ignorance. That said, the handful of things I had heard from Bailey clarified his reputation little: His playing sounded like pointless noodling to me. (When I say that, I hope you'll think of some of the "unusual" things I have listed on my favorites list here, by way of context.) I've acknowledged this, implicitly, before: When you're hearing something decades later, after so many other people have already been influenced, it can be quite impossible to hear it as new. Hence, personal narrative, yet again. Indeed, the things I might have once found appealing (to construct an impossible hypothetical, explicitly) may have already been (over?) plumbed by other musicians in music I've enjoyed. I don't know. Part of this changed when 28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982 was released last year by Jean-Marc Foussat. I can't say as I found this quartet of Bailey, Léandre, George Lewis & Evan Parker incredibly compelling per se, but I did spend several hours listening to it for historical perspective. Between Léandre & Lewis, it gave me some context, and of course I've heard Parker in various things too (including Jeremiah Cymerman's World of Objects album from last year). As for the English politics, and how it might be reflected or inflected in this & other music, I don't really know that answer either. However, as I've spent many words discussing lately, I'm at least willing to try thinking politics in the smallest spaces of music. What does following one note by another mean, if there are even notes per se...? Is free improvisation, by definition, social activism, even if it can seem haughty? Regardless of these questions, there is no question that a lot of time & effort has gone into developing improvisatory styles in the UK over the past fifty+ years.

My actual & immediate context for these remarks is Whitewashed with Lines, a 2015 release by the quartet Common Objects, led by harpist Rhodri Davies (b.1971, Wales), with Angharad Davies, John Butcher, and Lee Patterson. These are, with the exception of Butcher, I believe, people who are younger than me. Moreover, Butcher was the one member of Common Objects to appear already in this space, mentioned first with the trio album Exta, and then as the only English improviser headlining a "favorite," The Apophonics On Air. Note how I listened to Exta after hearing John Tilbury in Léandre's Trio on Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon — so Léandre once again. Indeed, Whitewashed with Lines is rather similar to that album in format, with its two CDs consisting of first a composition (as was Léandre's tentet, Can you hear me?), and then an improvisation. I was immediately taken with the improvisation, itself titled Repose and Vertigo (recorded in 2013), to distinguish it from Rhodri Davies's composition, Cup and Ring (recorded in 2014). It's probably quite pointless, if not detrimental, to obsess over family relations among these musicians, but I was not able to find if Angharad Davies (violin) is related to Rhodri. I also do not know if either is related to the late Hugh Davies, with whom Patterson studied, and who had been e.g. an instrument builder for Stockhausen, a co-founder of Bailey's Music Improvisation Company, etc. (Patterson has also e.g. recorded music by Cage as a percussionist, is involved on many Another Timbre releases, and seems to have spent some time at the University of Texas.) Repose and Vertigo was the second recorded, improvised set by Common Objects, the first being Live in Morden Tower, recorded a few months earlier in Newcastle, and released already in 2013 on Mikroton from Russia. (I probably saw it & ignored it at the time.) It is a trio album without Angharad Davies, three shorter solo tracks followed by a more extended trio performance. Before turning to Whitewashed with Lines more specifically, let me note a few other precedents: The album cover looks a great deal like Spill Plus on Nuscope, and indeed, I can't help but think (in retrospect) that Nuscope was mimicking the typical look of Another Timbre. Although released recently, Spill Plus is an even older recording, and reflects a similar sort of non-abstract "primitive" non-tonality (as I put it when discussing that album in January). There is also Plume on Unsounds, featuring Butcher & Tony Buck, with Mayas on one of the tracks, a track also recorded after Spill Plus. So that is something of the nexus for Repose and Vertigo for me, although Butcher is still the only musician on the album whom I had heard before. I decided to listen on something of a whim, which I do fairly often (in an explicit effort to remain open to possibilities).

As the first CD of the set, I did listen to Cup and Ring first, and it came off as "obviously" composed to me. (The score is graphic, apparently, motivated by the titular & quasi-worldwide style of neolithic petroglyphs.) Indeed, Rhodri Davies seems to be fairly involved in the academic music world in the UK. Anyway, the composition has grown on me a bit, but it was the improvisation that caught my attention: Exta might be a bit of a comparison in the way the sounds combine & evolve, without necessarily being articulated. (However, Exta also involved taking extracts of a much longer free session, so has kind of a peculiar character in that sense — oriented around when Tilbury interjects, i.e. necessarily discretely & outside of that unarticulated evolution.) With Common Objects, the percussive qualities blend with the changing tones, again not unlike Scelsi's use of scraping/percussive mutes during string glissandi. Butcher's background in physics is evident in the way his sounds interface, and I hear a similar sonic approach from the other performers as well: Particular sounds might come into or out of focus, integrate or become separate, not only in a "process" approach — as exemplified by Patterson explicitly playing "processes" in the credits — but in sometimes irreversible ways that might dissipate in percussive tinklings or distant-sounding gongs. There is hence a sort of elemental forcing, conjuring a world of becoming that often seems to elude some superficially similar explorations. (This is an issue that I have previously discussed as a matter of foreground versus background.) I might describe it differently as time itself being created via the musical interaction, rather than the musical interaction marking time. Is anyone really in control of what is happening? No, and in a good way: The quartet has more sonic possibilities, more independent counterpoint, and ultimately more transformative qualities than the trio on Live in Morden Tower. (Ironically, the violin does not add legato, so much as staccato, to warp some terms that might seem out of place here. It also disperses any tendency to "layer" the performance to align with a more traditional wind-strings-percussion trio.) This is one of those albums where the world seems changed after listening: The buzzing resonances, shifting sound masses, chirps, rattling materiality... these are real, physical sounds, even if electrically mediated, and they echo a different world of material possibility. (It would be crazy to call the result neolithic, but I do want to insist that Western tonality is not "natural," and is indeed itself an abstraction. Thinking tonality is not thinking sound.) Are these actually common objects? Maybe not, but their sounds do project a kind of genericity. I find the result captivating, and so perhaps I've finally found a point of connection with the English free improvisation tradition. There is no question that Whitewashed with Lines, for all of its echoes of primitivism, involves mastery of the instruments, common or not. The performers are very much in control of the sounds they are making, in that sense, or at least invoking processes intentionally. (Of course, why are people today so willing to believe that so-called primitive people didn't know what they were doing? But we do? Look around.) Whereas I can all too readily relate to the Repose and Vertigo title, I do wonder why this album needs three titles (plus a band name) for two tracks... a decidedly post-neolithic mystery for a provocative & engaging double album.

21 June 2015

Partly on account of feeling some connection with the music on Whitewashed with Lines, and partly as a response to finishing What is familiar?, I went back to listen to about a dozen improvisation CDs from the past couple of years, albums I hadn't intended to revisit at the time, five of them from England. (I listened to the couple of albums with Joe Hertenstein as a sideman, coincidentally right before the new HNH was released, as part of that little "detour" too.) I felt that my intervening experiences had given me some different perspective, and indeed, I think some of the things that I had said (or sometimes only thought) about some of these albums were kind of foolish. (I have also noted from the beginning of this project that I don't want to be afraid of appearing foolish, because that's too restrictive a mode of exploration.) While revisiting these items was generally productive, the particular album that made the biggest impression on me was Compost by the trio (in credited order) of Daniel Thompson (guitar), Alex Ward (clarinet), & Benedict Taylor (viola). As per my introduction to discussing Whitewashed with Lines, I learned of Compost (which is packaged in folded brown paper, with no plastic) from Bruce Gallanter, and discussed it briefly here in April 2013. If you go back and read what I said at the time, I didn't know what to make of the album — the only thing distinctive I could pick out was the live church resonance, and how that gave an almost electroacoustic feel to an acoustic trio — and that's largely because I had no context for it within the domain of English improvisation. In many ways, I continue to have relatively little context, but I did very much enjoy it these two+ years later. So it becomes an "older" album added retroactively to my favorites.

Alex Ward (b.1974) is the most famous member of the trio on Compost, as the youngest member of Bailey's Company, and presumably the musician who drew Bruce's attention. (Ward has also become a guitarist, and can can be heard in a more "rock" vein on e.g. Red Kite on Raw Tonk Records.) Ward is indeed amazing on Compost, with much spontaneous precision & energy. It is violist Benedict Taylor (b.1982) who formed the Cram Records label, inaugurated by this album, and it appears to be mainly he who has forged these ensembles. Daniel Thompson (b.1981) appears to stick to acoustic guitar, although that's not always easy to judge aurally these days. I do think that my original emphasis on the church setting (with its characteristic resonance) had some merit, but I was hesitant (given my context here) to make any pat references to medieval music. Although it would be very easy to note dissimilarities with medieval music, as there are many, including the thematic material per se, this trio adopts a style of close polyphony — a style that makes it ear-catching as contemporary improvisation, and marks a certain similarity to English medieval music: It's multi-threaded, i.e. not single pulsed, nor is there a tendency to contract to a single pulse (as sometimes noted here), even if the individual pacing remains similar throughout, and with all three performers effectively occupying foreground roles simultaneously. (So as opposed to some of my foreground-background discussions focusing on not having enough foreground, here the entire interaction is foregrounded.) Although I have not always been thrilled with contemporary English approaches to medieval music, particularly with the sort of Restoration vocal articulation they have often imposed, there has certainly been a great deal of English activity in medieval music over the years. Undoubtedly these musicians are rather familiar with it, and it shows in some fairly subtle and/or indirect ways. The result has an amazing freshness to it, further underscored by the fact that it was the first time that these three musicians performed together. There is a sort of calm amidst the activity, as well as a consistent pacing in keeping with typical medieval performance. It's quite striking & electric — if I may invoke a word that's supposed to be out of place in acoustic music.

This sort of "chamber" interaction is somewhat evocative of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, as recently reflected upon here via Spring Rain, and indeed, one could view the clarinet-viola-guitar trio as both a medievalization & contemporization of the clarinet-bass-piano trio. Whereas these are all modern instruments, the greater flexibility of the guitar over the percussive fixed pitches of the piano is amenable to both styles, as is the placement of the instruments in strongly overlapping ranges (i.e. close polyphony with crossing lines). Stark differences between the instruments in the Giuffre Trio become blunted, yield to more similarity, in other words. It's an opposite direction from the characteristic early modern (Baroque) innovations of monody & continuo. To complete one narrative connection I've had to the English scene, such an acoustic trio album can also be compared to those from England by Ingrid Laubrock, Catatumbo (recorded, 2010?) & Haste (recorded, 2011). Those are rattling around my head somewhere.

Coincidentally yet again, I decided to re-feature Compost here only a week or so before a similar trio album appeared on FMR Records, Hunt at the Brook. There are obvious similarities, but also some differences: Hunt at the Brook is a longer, studio album. It also features Tom Jackson on clarinet, rather than Alex Ward. It was strange to me to have this second album appear just as I was trying to decide how to discuss Compost (again), and is part of the reason for the delay: For one thing, as I've also discussed before, and in What is familiar?, I find an implied forcing here: You must pick one. (This is psychological forcing without any actual necessity.) Well, I would pick Compost, but I decided that I do enjoy Hunt at the Brook on its own merit as well. The newer album is more minimalist at times — resulting in a kind of polished, less raw quality analogous to Natura morta's second album, Decay, also on FMR, to pick an example I've raised at least twice before. Hunt at the Brook starts off feeling somewhat nostalgic to me, and that's not really a compliment, but it ends up being more than that. The album evokes something of a Baroque sensibility, by which I don't mean the classic Baroque of Bach, but the English seventeenth century of Jenkins & country house music making. (Again, dissimilar aspects dominate in many senses.) The track titles are also more environmental than that, suggesting a contemporary environmental consciousness, and even evoking e.g. traffic sounds in the music, but it's a sort of consciousness that's infused with awareness of musical styles farther in the past than are often evoked in jazz. I don't ordinarily think of "nostalgia" as a valid approach to history, but these performers succeed in forging a style in that space: Again there is a sense of overlapping, close polyphony in the acoustic domain, here less irruptive. Quick motivic interchanges & small sound inflections can evoke a static sense, etc. The result is a creative tapestry of new & old. (In fact, the effort of writing this entry has caused me to rethink which album I might pick, again if "forced." I'm not sure what has caused this description to seem so awkward still... I thought I had it mostly together when starting to write, but somehow the experience rewrites itself?)

Anyway, such an overtly polyphonic approach to trio interaction differs from superficially similar groups such as Baloni, with their emphasis on note & tone merging into composite sounds (although Baloni does play on separation as well). Per the mention of Giuffre above, the interaction here might be said to be more flexible than on e.g. Geäder, but it's a particular kind of small-scale polyphonic flexibility. These musicians seem to have developed a new style, and likely related albums will continue to appear. (Some similar albums have already appeared on e.g. Cram.) So what is or was it about Derek Bailey? A process of forgetting? Webern style atomisation? Perhaps both of these ideas can be perceived at times in these albums, if only in reflection, although neither seems to be especially crucial for these particular English improvisers, some more than fifty years Bailey's junior. Of course, there's another obvious question as I close this England-centered discussion for now: What other musical scenes am I still (most?) ignoring or disdaining?

23 June 2015

I "jumped ahead" to discuss the new HNH, in part because I had been anticipating the album, and thought that I could readily relate to it, but even more so because it fit nicely in the sequence of discussions I was undertaking here at the time. So as I continue to work through what still seems like a very notable simultaneous outpouring of albums in this vague domain of jazz or improvised music, I'm finally getting to discuss some other Clean Feed releases from the same batch. I had recently been remarking on Clean Feed's "conservatism," largely attributing my change in perspective to changes in my own experience as a listener, but perhaps it was partly Clean Feed themselves, as this latest batch of recordings seems far more varied & provocative than other recent batches. I'm pleased by this in a couple of registers: I feel less crazy, and there's more new music to hear! I have not actually listened to the new album by Kris Davis, Save Your Breath yet, as I've been waiting to finish some other writeups here. As I get closer to that, let me share a few thoughts on a couple of other notable (at least to me) releases. As opposed to many Clean Feed albums, such as Davis's, these two come with fairly extensive liner notes. I don't know if that's a trend.

Grand Valis is by a quartet led by Hugo Carvalhais (b.1978). I had heard only parts of Carvalhais's previous albums, but could not resist this distinctive combination of his bass with violin (Dominique Pifarély, from e.g. Marc Ducret's Tower Bridge) & organ (Gabriel Pinto), along with Jeremiah Cymerman on electronic manipulation (and no drums). The sounds & textures are indeed individual & creative, stark and/or repetitive at times, but evoking a new sound world, sometimes a lyrical one. Perhaps Carvalhais's degree in painting is to be credited with part of this "canvas" approach to musical combination, but the result is also framed as a "meditation suite," specifically evoking Philip K. Dick. So there are broad influences coming together to forge something newly coherent. It's almost a dream of a world forming — a time before birth, or at least subject formation — yet attention-seeking beyond any elemental character. (Perhaps this latter impression arises from the use of tonality.) This kind of "dream of before" is further enacted in its own creative temporal staging, involving as it does electronic post-production. It's a very unified & polished album in this sense, despite its novelty.

Coding of Evidentiality by the Dre Hocevar (b.1987; Slovenia, living in New York) Trio features other new names for the Clean Feed catalog, including cellist Lester St. Louis. (Although Clean Feed states that this is his first album, St. Louis already appeared on Jeff Shurdut's The Music of Everything.) Besides Belgian pianist Bram De Looze, with whom I am not otherwise familiar, also appearing is Sam Pluta (of e.g. some Peter Evans groups) on electronics on one track. Here we have yet another rethinking of the piano trio, this time with cello (which seems to be a popular choice lately), and a less traditionally "jazzy" result than Hocevar's first album, Motion in Time (a typical piano trio with bass). Coding of Evidentiality remains rather based in the jazz tradition specifically, though, and indeed Hocevar states that he has been in school (lastly at the "New School"), surrounded by the best teachers, since he was six years old. So he is another highly trained conservatory musician from Europe, like some others I've recently featured here, and has already appeared with many famous older colleagues (although not otherwise on an album, as far as I know). While it seems to me that Hocevar is still working to develop a personal style, he is obviously very talented, and there is much to enjoy about this album: I love the titles, for one. Although the piano can be a bit repetitive or "romantic," there is an interesting open sense of rhythm developed to (at least partly) redefine some classical styles from the inside. As with many recent essays in the piano trio format, there is also a mixture of roles, evoking even more transversality when the electronics get involved on "Critical Discourse Analysis." I look forward to more from Hocevar.

24 June 2015

I had no familiarity with Swiss pianist Katharina Weber (b.1958) prior to her new trio album, It Rolls, but was attracted in part by the participation of Fred Frith. Frith has appeared in this space, thus far, only in conjunction with his role on Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet, an album I continue to find quite compelling. Frith's more recent albums have been duos, or a little farther back, more explicitly rock-oriented. In any case, his comment that Weber is "a new piano icon" drew my attention, on top of his actual participation in the trio. (I haven't found some of the previous all-European Intakt releases to be terribly provocative, so I needed some prodding to hear this. And given my remarks on England, what to make of the relation between music & Swiss politics?) Frith's comment wasn't actually applied to this album, but rather to one of Weber's earlier albums: She has primarily been a classical pianist, and has become increasingly interested in improvisation. She already recorded another trio album (with Barry Guy) devoted to improvising on compositions by György Kurtág, and then a solo album. It Rolls, however, is an all-improvised trio album, so at least in format, perfect for this space. Indeed, more than simply format, I've found it to be quite appealing, a unique & sophisticated combination of ideas, influences, and energy. It's been a very pleasant surprise.

Like the Dre Hocevar album discussed in the previous entry, It Rolls is something of a variation on the piano trio, with Frith's guitar substituted for bass. I keep finding myself thinking of it as a piano trio, in fact, and have to correct. That's not to say that the guitar isn't evident as a guitar (including electrical distortion at times, etc.), but the approach to the genre of piano trio is clearly there. As is the trend, the approach includes playing inside the piano, etc. The possibilities Frith brings on guitar — and the timbre of his playing varies markedly in different parts of the album — bring new ways to match or differentiate these interior & other sounds. (The liner notes describe a "wonderfully ambiguous spectrum of colors.") Swiss drummer Fredy Studer (b.1948) did appear briefly in this space in the context of discussing Hans Koch & hence Koch-Schütz-Studer. He is described as "hard core" in the notes, which I don't really understand, but he contributes a wealth of rhythmic ideas & textures throughout, weaving them into the general foreground-background tapestry. Although the liner notes state that this trio only played together once (live) prior to the studio recording, the result seems very natural & sympathetic. In keeping with playing both inside & outside the piano, It Rolls has something of an inside-outside character too, at least if we consider the various classical (including twentieth century) allusions to be "inside." The tracks vary considerably in length, but the various explorations & allusions don't really respect track boundaries. Rather they appear or play out in different ways at different points, so that e.g. the different techniques Frith employs are not segmented by track. There's also something of a leisurely quality to the album, even with much activity at times, and despite its evocation of "industrial" sounds via various rattles & resonances (from clear ringing to screeching). There are also sophisticated, if usually short-lived, harmonic implications as well as evocations of e.g. Chinese string technique. So the allusions range widely. I've noted in the past that it seems to be difficult to do something really interesting with the piano trio these days, and whereas I still think that's true, many people do seem to be managing, including Weber & her trio on It Rolls.

25 June 2015

As noted "way back" on Wednesday, I had yet to listen to Kris Davis's new album, Save Your Breath with the octet Infrasound. Unfortunately, the expectations I had for this album did not help my appreciation, and I should have just listened to it right away. I enjoyed it at first, but kind of got tired of it by the time I'd finished the first hearing. Like her 2011 album Tony Malaby's Novela, Save Your Breath features Davis's arranging for what is essentially a "big band" in the contemporary context. The group of four clarinetists obviously recalls something like James Falzone's The Room Is, supplemented by Davis with organ, her own piano, guitar & drums. The result is six long pieces that often feature smaller sets of players, and generally with what seems to be very clear compositional direction. (The drama of the individual tracks clearly derives from the composed sequence.) There are some interesting textural combinations, and some clever progressions, but it mostly comes off as easy listening music to me. I can literally imagine some of these tracks playing in a supermarket, even if (especially as) parts of it sound like rock music. This album isn't for me, but maybe some people will enjoy it. I'll end by noting the reappearance of "Whirly Swirly" from her trio album, Waiting For You To Grow.

28 June 2015

I'm not sure what I expected from Sonic Communion, but it's a quintet album with Joëlle Léandre involved, so I was going to hear it. Also in the quintet, on the French side, is Jean-Luc Cappozzo (who has appeared in this space with the albums Live at Total Meeting & Grey Matter) and Bernard Santacruz. I was not previously familiar with the latter, but he also plays double bass. Sonic Communion is the first document of an ongoing musical exchange between USA (so far, Chicago) & France, and the musicians from Chicago who came to tour France in 2013 (and so, are represented on this document) are Douglas R. Ewart (b.1946, Jamaica) & Michael Zerang. So it's an interesting group, and Ewart really "steals" the show here — perhaps by design, in order to highlight Chicago music for French musicians & audience. I don't hear too much of Léandre, specifically (particularly with the two basses) until the uncredited vocals on the last track, but Ewart is unmistakable right from the start. (Such a collaboration reminds me a bit of 28 Rue Dunois Juillet 1982, as I mentioned in the June 21st entry, albeit there with half English musicians, and of course not oriented toward including the public.) The Bridge (note that the URL is wrong on the album) is supposed to be an ongoing project, alternating visits between the two countries, with Chicago musicians already lined up to visit France again this year. (The web site names Edward Perraud, who has appeared in this space on the album Moon Fish with Jean-Luc Guionnet & Benjamin Duboc, as administrator, but he does not appear on Sonic Communion.) Anyway, although the visiting musicians had two weeks of activities, this is a recording of a single concert in Avignon. There are many fine moments, involving a spiritual sort of atmosphere throughout (framed as sublimated eroticism by the poem in the notes), so it includes sharing at that level. It's often fairly tonal too, again with the idea (presumably) to build bridges. I very much enjoy, e.g. Ewart's emerging flute on track #2, and his combination, I guess playing a didgeridoo, with trumpet & bass on track #4. Although Sonic Communion doesn't come off as a finished product, perhaps for the best in this case, it is quite worthwhile to hear. It will be interesting to hear what else might come of this ongoing project.

Somewhat in this vein, I also want to mention the recent album Pomegranate by a quintet led by Stephen Haynes (b.1955), and dedicated to Bill Dixon. It's an interesting group of musicians, building on Haynes's first (trio) album Parrhesia, which featured a poem by Warren Smith. Pomegranate doesn't include the spoken word, but Smith & Joe Morris return, and are joined by William Parker & Ben Stapp on tuba. It also involves a spiritual atmosphere, perhaps somewhat akin to Parker's playing on Telling Stories (discussed here on June 3rd), and indeed Parker plays such instruments as sintir & shakuhachi, adding variety to the ensemble sound. I particularly enjoy the trumpet & tuba interaction, and think more groups should use the two together. There's also some Asian-style string technique, etc., so a rich variety of sound. Overall, though, there is a lot of repetitive playing to support solos, so I didn't find the interaction among the musicians to be terribly compelling most of the time. Still, whereas Haynes evidently doesn't have Dixon's feel for ensemble structure, he does evoke him well on trumpet.

29 June 2015

Just as I was writing, a month ago, that Joe Hertenstein had yet to appear on an album without a bassist, such an album appeared, Past the Future with Blaise Siwula & Carsten Radtke. I was not previously familiar with guitarist Radtke, but I have enjoyed Siwula's horn playing with e.g. Jeff Shurdut and on Tesla Coils. Indeed, Tesla Coils is somewhat similar to Past the Future, in that it's likewise a trio with (electric) guitar, but with electronics instead of drums. The latter is on Siwula's own No Frills Music label, with bright & resonant sound, and is an extension of his already existing Projection:Zero duo with Radtke. Consequently, there is a sense in which Joe is commenting on the activity of the duo, and indeed in which Radtke is often commenting on melodic material introduced by Siwula. The latter, according to the liner notes, constitutes a "kaleidoscope of genres" transcended into a "compositional poem." This is mostly material inspired (so it would seem) by popular or folk music, although it often becomes fragmented in the course of commentary during each freely improvised track. Joe's activity on drums encompasses a variety of sonority, but does tend to remain in the realm of commentary, in what is generally a rather blowing-oriented album. Moreover, I might add, regarding the bass observation, that the guitar does sometimes function exactly as a traditional bass would, although other times it operates more in the melodic (or noise) domain. Past the Future is an enjoyable album with a good sense of energy, even if the trio interaction itself seems rather straightforward in its layering.

Keeping to this theme, Joe didn't mention it to me, but he also appears on Eat the Air by Sean Sonderegger's Magically Inclined. Probably coincidentally, this album relates to Past the Future in that it includes Harvey Valdes, who also appeared on Tesla Coils — and has appeared with Shurdut, as well, on the same album as Sonderegger himself. So there is a bit of circularity to these connections. Eat the Air is on Skirl Records, and features one of their colorful covers, as well as their generally accessible harmonic idioms. Some tracks feature wordless vocals, but most set poems by Joanna Penn Cooper in a sort of Steve Coleman-esque style, with singer Areni Agbabian in the Jen Shyu role. Agbabian is an appealing singer as well, and the various interlocking "Caribbean" rhythms leave much to the drummer, just as they do on Coleman's albums in this style. Joe has a drum solo e.g. to start track #4, and has much activity throughout to support the horns & voice, turning in quite a tour-de-force, even if it's in the context of Sonderegger's composed music. There's a bit of subject displacement from Sonderegger here, which I hear in terms of Shurdut, but beyond the interlocking rhythms, it's mostly straightforward melodic & "sophisticated" twentieth-century classical harmonic material compatible with or in the service of (sometimes likewise dislocated) poetry.

Also appearing recently on Skirl is Pictorial Atlas of Mammals by Simon Jermyn's Trot a Mouse. Besides engaging Ingrid Laubrock, Mat Maneri & Tom Rainey, musicians whose work I often enjoy, Jermyn's own compositions are supplemented by two from John Dowland, giving it a bit of an "early music" slant. Indeed, other textures on the album sometimes project a fairly unified "consort" feel, with straightforward (Romantic) tight harmonies only occasionally breaking into more independence (most conspicuously on track #9). Jermyn's guitar also changes roles from front line to bass, as Radtke does on Past the Future, and the conception supports some rather slow material at times (partly in keeping with the melancholy Dowland influence), in contrast to the nominal implication of an electric rock sonority that can reappear at any moment. Both of these Skirl discs, along with Devin Gray's Relative Resonance, which I heard at the same time, often come off as highly composed.

6 July 2015

I actually have an easy answer to my (somewhat rhetorical) question from last month, about what music scenes I am still ignoring: There are many world music styles that feature improvisation, completely (or not so completely these days) independent of music arising from the European or USA tradition. I was already threatening, in May, to include discussions of such material here, and indeed this is what I intend to do. I've posted an update in the world section on this site, and created a new page there for more recent additions. As I say there, I intend to include some further thoughts on releases in that area in this space.

As I had already broached in May, the category "world music," taken as a whole, is already a dubious one. Such a notion might suggest some kind of "borrow something from everyone" style, where e.g. a Chinese string technique sits next to an African rhythm. Indeed, to some degree, this is exactly what we get from contemporary "jazz" albums: Individuals learn various techniques over the years, from a wide variety of sources, and incorporate both techniques & sonic ideas from music they've heard into their improvisations. To do otherwise, that is to learn only from specific sources or to exclude some set of auditory influences, actually requires effort. Of course, it's also true that no one has the same familiarity with or affinity for all music, so different people have different influences. That's fine, and in a sense, it's all world music. However, on this site, I've mostly used the label to indicate traditional styles from different parts of the world, and in that sense, there is no "world music," but rather there is Carnatic music, Persian music, guqin, etc. — and even these can be divided into schools, periods, etc. So whereas, as indicated in the discussions I've written over in the world music section of the site, I don't want to focus on such categories as much here in 2015, I'm also not looking to consider "music" as an undifferentiated mass. (For instance, I saw a call on another site for a "roots music expert" to confirm or discuss some details about some rather different traditions, as if it seems natural on the web for one person to be an expert in various traditions. Perhaps some people are, but that level of experience is not acquired easily.) I want to consider its relations or vectors, so to speak. Such a comment also relates to some of the rather harsh comments I've made regarding "fusion" efforts already in this space: I've met some smaller-scale influences, such as adapting a tune or a string technique into a broader improvisatory canvas, with appreciation, and remark on them often (although not always). However, I've also bristled at some of the more consciously framed "jazz" fusion efforts. I'm not going to attempt to justify my choices in this area as somehow objective, but there are times when I do feel an affinity for the "other" music, and do not feel that it is met by the contemporary effort in turn. This is partly a matter of goals & desires, of course, and in any case, perhaps discussing some albums that fall more clearly within a non-Western tradition will help to set a broader context for such remarks. It will also provide me with some mental space, so to speak, to consider albums that somehow aren't any of the things I just mentioned. What else can be done? I won't promise to be a gentle critic, but I do intend to (continue to) focus discussion on items I actually enjoy, rather than the reverse. So let's make fusion and/or borrowing between traditions a more explicit topic of discussion, particularly within the political & economic context of globalization — but more on that later.

The above comments, as well as those on the new pages in the world music section proper, are coordinated with the appearance of a couple of new albums, so let me discuss those....

Wasla — named simply after a kind of suite once popular in Egypt — is a duo album by Tarek Abdallah (b.1975) & Adel Shams El-Din. Using only 'ud & riqq, it's fairly sparse in texture, in comparison to the large Egyptian ensemble productions of the early twentieth century. (I should also note that, unlike in the jazz space, I have no prejudice against duos in the world music domain. To some degree, I'll take what I can get there, but I've mostly preferred smaller ensembles, due to the clearer individual sounds.) Indeed, this album is something of a revival of that earlier style, which fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century, and became confined to academia during the 1970s-90s, from which it made a return to the public ear. Abdallah, working in France, has set out to reinvigorate the style, not simply reconstruct it. So he presents a small-scale instrumental wasla, incorporating asymmetric rhythms from the muwashshah form. The rhythmic facility by the musicians is amazing here, and these odd rhythms would have been much more difficult to execute in the large ensemble settings of a century ago. Let me make a little digression on improvisation, because I'm unsure of the readership for this entry: As is typical of various Arabic suites of this general type, these wasla include specific song arrangements that incorporate some improvisation, as well as more open improvised tracks. In that sense, it is similar (although not in "head" form) to a fairly "inside" jazz album in the way it uses composition & arrangement. Moreover, Abdallah has chosen what he considers to be quintessentially Egyptian modes (maqamat) for the program (and the relationships to the Persian modes can be considered — they are all closely related to Persian modes, of which there are fewer than the Arab). His innovations, then, serve in some sense to forge a new conversation with history, not to recapitulate it. Wasla is an impressive album for technique, but also for this conversation, which is, of course, in part a political conversation. In that sense, it is a living contemporary album, to the same degree that a jazz album using historical Western tonality is contemporary.

Having already mentioned Persian music, the other album to discuss now is Tambour inopiné, by the Ensemble Moshtaq, led by Reza Ghassemi (b.1950, Isfahan), who is also listed as composer. Similar to the comments on improvisation above, there are song arrangements on Tambour inopiné that include improvised accompaniment, as well as tracks more freely improvised within their modes (dastgah-e). As opposed to the high abstraction of Wasla, the album begins by establishing a folksy mood, and branches out from there. Indeed, Ghassemi claims to be seeking the "lost joy" of Persian music — an obviously political reference. Indeed, this politics extends technically into the musical field in Iran, not only in events of the past four decades, but back a century with the establishment of the Radif: The Radif, the semi-official system-repertory of modern Persian classical music, collected a variety of material, while excluding some. (The resulting set of tunes implies improvised elaboration.) Albums from Iran have appeared featuring music from outside the Radif for some time, so that part is not unusual, but Ghassemi makes the different material fit together naturally. (One "folk" addition here is the laleveh flute.) Tambour inopiné features the amazing voice of Sepideh Raissadat — and regular readers (of the world music section) will know that I greatly enjoy some of the Persian (and related) singers — as well as virtuoso technique throughout the ensemble. I have not generally featured ensemble recordings of this sort, largely because the additional performers have tended to play in unison & "muddy" the textures, but here different instruments get to take their own solos, and come off with an independent character (even if they do spend time reflecting back the vocal lines, as e.g. the violin would in a Carnatic vocal performance). The singing engages in a fairly explicit alternation of registers, something I was taught reflected, at least in the Persian ney, different origins: The higher pinched register is called Egyptian, whereas the lower breathy register is called Turkish. (It might be more accurate to call the latter Chinese, but that is not what they say in Iran.) After "retiring" to work in the field of literature for a couple of decades, this is actually Ghassemi's third new album, the second with Raissadat, after 14 Cheerful Pieces. Here we have, again, an album that incorporates multiple traditional or historical contexts into a buoyant contemporary conception. Finally, let me note explicitly that Persian medieval poetry, i.e. that by Rumi et al., continues to have a reputation in the West, in spite of politics, and so here is some music that further connects these eras.

Hopefully, these & future discussions will bring some other influences & connections into the improvised music arena more broadly. That's a big reason I want to start discussing this material here, although I do not know how frequent such discussions will be. Also, as already indicated above, I want to explore the political implications: The albums just discussed sit in highly politicized contexts, particularly from the USA perspective. That's a topic I will explore slowly, perhaps in conjunction with some more extended articles.

A few final comments regarding both of these albums, and more generally: Why are the recording dates so vague? (Especially in the "traditional" arena, I would think that documentation is important.) Is it true that fewer "world traditional" albums are being released these days, or simply that I don't see them? How might I become better informed regarding such album releases?

7 July 2015

When reconfiguring my "world music" discussion into this space, I mentioned the possibility of revisiting archival recordings. Indeed, correspondent Rami Bärman in Finland had already motivated me to spend some time listening to some albums by North Indian santur master Shiv Kumar Sharma (b.1938), and these are not new albums. (First, I should step back and say that I'm being very broad in using a term like "archival" here: To be more specific, I mostly listened to recordings from the 90s & 00s. So, call it the archive of the final glory days of CD production. Obviously, there is much older recorded material extant from India, and elsewhere.) I listened to recordings by the esteemed santur player, in particular the Nimbus series, back when I was first studying Hindustani music, circa 1990. However, I was listening very much in the context of Hindustani music per se, and Indian classical music is oriented on vocals. Sharma's achievement has been to adapt the santur, an instrument played by striking strings, to the slurs & ornaments of vocal music. It is not well-suited to this, naturally speaking, so this is the context of his achievement. It also meant that, in studying Hindustani music specifically, his work seemed more like something of a curiosity to me rather than a core articulation of the tradition. That may be true, but today I'd like to offer a few thoughts regarding Sharma's music as fusion, and thereby open other avenues of appreciation.

Sharma's father, Uma Dutt Sharma was from Kashmir, but learned vocals from the Benares Gharana. However, he decided that Shiv Kumar should take up the native "folk" instrument, the santur, after he had learned vocal music & tabla. Of course, the santur is — more or less, pace both some regional adjustments, as well as the Indian music-specific adjustments made by Sharma himself — an Iranian instrument, one of the most prestigious in that tradition. Similar instruments appear in Europe as the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, and extend as far as China, with the yang qin (foreign zither, signifying its Persian origins). It apparently originated earlier within the boundaries of what would become the Persian Empire (in Babylonia, according to Wikipedia). The instrument itself thus represents something of a diaspora (of music, if not people), centered on the Near East, even if Sharma himself has thoroughly adapted it to Hindustani style. Despite the latter, its (non-exclusive) Persian roots are rather evident at times in his playing, based simply on the character of the instrument itself: Playing some figures in folk songs, or in faster climactic passages, the percussive quality of the instrument emerges clearly from attempts at rendering vocal style, even if the resonances are somewhat different from the Iranian configuration. The santur is, after all, a percussion instrument in a real sense (and ancestor-cousin of the piano). Perhaps I should also note that e.g. the prominent Hindustani sitar has, in name at least, a Persian influence too. In both cases, it is largely native Indian ragas that are played with foreign-influenced technology. (The same is true of the Carnatic violin.) The extended raga presentations of the North may also be influenced by the grand Shash Maqam tradition, but such a history becomes more controversial. We can, however, learn at least some aspects of the music the medieval Sultanates and/or Mughals would have known prior to arriving in North India. (For Western readers, note that e.g. Avicenna was born under Persian rule in the territory of present day Uzbekistan. His father was a governor within what would become present day Afghanistan.)

Regarding Shiv Kumar Sharma, and recorded albums specifically, his discography is vast. I am not sure what to suggest in detail, but I did enjoy listening to his music within a Persian context — a context I did not yet have the first time I heard it. (If I recall correctly, I wrote my first discussion of Persian music in 1992, so these events were not so distant in time, but they had been compartmentalized in my mind.) I might suggest, for instance, listening to Sharma's Divinity at Dawn (Raga Bairagi, recorded in 1993) on Navras Records — and I do have a fondness for Hindustani music of the morning — in succession with Parviz Meshkatian's Dawn (a recording, amazingly from 1982, released in USA in 1996 — how time flies). The album that Rami first mentioned to me was Sympatico, a 2002 recording on Sense World Music: The exposition of Raga Charukeshi (a Carnatic raga, rather than Hindustani, just like his Kirvani on The Inner Path, on the same label, furthering the fusion aspect) is indeed outstanding, and this may be the final recorded performance (I am told) by Kishan Maharaj of Benares Gharana, one of the most widely esteemed tabla players of his generation. Sharma's own contribution is thus fairly secondary to the two gats that make up the bulk of the album. Sharma has also been a generous & tireless teacher, so his influence is likely to appear more before the public eye in years to come.

15 July 2015

Rounding out a series of entries involving musical styles beyond what is typically included in "jazz," and marking that the "world music" changes here have already been noticed, I had the chance (this past week) to listen to Utzaka by Rema Hasumi from Japan, on Ruweh Records. Hasumi engaged some well-known New York improvisers for the album: Todd Neufeld, Thomas Morgan, Billy Mintz, & Ben Gerstein — as well as Sergio Krakowski (with whom I was not previously familiar) on various world (i.e. not Japanese) percussion. The idea behind the album was to meet the Japanese Gagaku repertory without taking a Western perspective, and specifically outside of the Western idea of the chromatic scale. Gagaku has generally been regarded as quite dissonant in the West, and hence something of a surprise as ritual music. One current theory regarding its origins is that the repertory formed from the ornaments or passing tones, slowed down, of Chinese ceremonial music of the Tang Dynasty. If true, such a process might be analogized to the formulation of the medieval motet as extracted from the extended & complex cadences (clausulae) of multi-voice organum. In any case, the process might be described as one of distillation, in the case of Gagaku, a distillation of dissonance. What the repertory starts making us wonder, and what Utzaka in particular started making me wonder, was about the nature of dissonance per se. I was surprised by how "tonal" it sounded, and wondered how this could possibly result from taking a non-Western look at Gagaku. (The "New York sound" of many of the players is sometimes palpable, and this lends something of a sense of familiarity in itself.) The featured piano only underscored my confusion, but upon listening to it interspersed with some actual Gagaku music, I realized that it was my very concept of dissonance which was the Western aspect to be disclaimed. There simply isn't a Western concept of dissonance in the various, usually sparse, piano chords & the way the players interact. Or rather, one might say, there is no dissonance, but a group of sounds that are already inherently unified as sounds, as aspects of the world. The distillation of dissonance becomes the freeing of dissonance to be non-dissonant, i.e. removed from the context in which it is dissonant. The music takes on a dramatic quality, almost as if adrift at sea — plus the more specific imagery named in some of the tracks, which at a few points also take on (what is to me) a Chinese feel. Sometimes not a lot happens. Beyond the piano chords setting the scene, Hasumi's voice evokes an overtly dramatic quality: In many ways, her vocal performance is the highlight of the album, with its piercing sense of reality, ending finally with a lullaby. I had originally taken Utzaka to be something of an exploratory effort, and it is indeed searching, but upon further listening, I hear a remarkably mature musical statement.

Of course, Japan is probably the Asian country whose musicians have participated most in the New York (and by extension, US) jazz scene over the years, and various Japanese musicians are found on various albums, "free" & otherwise. These contributions have run the gamut, even with all-Japanese ensembles, from rather sparse piano-based as here, to styles inflecting American popular music, to "noise" per se. So I've been reflecting on Japanese contributions in this space for a while, such as by Tatsuya Nakatani on 3 on a Thin Line, although often without discussing them as Japanese per se.

This also seems like a good place to mention The Road of Hasekura Tsunenaga by Spanish shakuhachi player, Rodrigo Rodríguez (b.1978, Argentina). The album was actually released in 2013, and brought to my attention in late 2014, partly for its "early music" connection. Hasekura Tsunenaga (c.1571-1622) was a Japanese diplomat who made a mission to the Vatican, via Mexico & Spain, from 1613 to 1620. The album depicts some significant events in Spain & Rome, as well as before & after in Japan. The emphasis is very much on the shakuhachi flute, sometimes in duo, only bolstered by harp in a couple of the more "Spanish" pieces. It is thus a depiction of this historical interaction from the Japanese perspective, including classical Honkyoku repertory, and indeed, Rodríguez is formally trained in shakuhachi of the Mu-Ryû school. Although the shakuhachi can be very austere, this is a fascinating album depicting a fascinating historical experience.

19 July 2015

After enjoying It Rolls, and seeing Fred Frith's introduction, I decided to have a listen to Radical Empathy, an album improvised in New York (but mixed & mastered in Oakland) by Thollem McDonas, Nels Cline, & Michael Wimberly. This is another piano-guitar-drums album, something I positioned in the earlier discussion as a variant on the piano trio, but here instead of the classical preparations & background of Katharina Weber, we have the West Coast rock & "new age" of Cline & Thollem. (Michael Wimberly has worked with more mainstream jazz musicians, such as Charles Gayle.) I first discussed (in 2012) Thollem (as well as Cline) in this space with The Gowanus Session, a somewhat similar trio with William Parker. The other obvious historical ensemble reference in the present case is the organ trio: Although the word "organ" does not appear for Thollem's instruments, the sorts of "preparations" he is engaging often yield an organ-like sound. Such an evocation also fits Cline's rock background, as the (gospel) organ trio format infused early blues-based rock. Frith notes the internal logic & emergent structures on Radical Empathy, and indeed there are various interesting developments: The performers range from "metal" to ballads, or maybe metal ballads, different instrumental resonances correspond in different ways, and by the last track, we get more of what sounds like bells. The resulting exploration of textures is not unlike Joe Morris's Mess Hall (and their relationship to ostinato is similar). What is the purpose or focus of this exploration? I wrote regarding The Gowanus Session that "for people in a different place, it could be more meaningful," contrasting it to my own response. I have some more specific thoughts on this notion regarding Radical Empathy, an album that evokes "outer space" both with its cover and in its references. I've not gotten into this "space" music much, and I think I can both explain why & note something of its positive basis. Space evocations are clearly gestures toward transcendence, desire pointing away from the reality of life on Earth. I've long considered such gestures to be dangerous distractions, letting people ignore the real conditions of our world. Maybe you see the two views now? For many of the people I've known, space & sci-fi allow them to escape the consequences of their own actions, and live in a fantasyland — a fantasyland that does nothing to improve the world, in my experience, and likely rationalizes profit-seeking behavior. (I can make a similar note about the Kennedy space program specifically: It was intended to draw the nation together on a goal that wasn't war, but whereas drawing people together sounds nice enough, it also reinforced social hierarchy, both implicitly & explicitly. In that sense, it was a distraction.) However, for those who have far too much "reality" already, the closing of possibility is one of the biggest conceptual dangers, and space provides a platform of possibility: Specifically, it yields a way to think a radically different future. (We are regularly & repeatedly told that no other society is possible. Demands for change are met with an absolute denial of possibility, in such corrupt disciplines as economics.) This is Afro-Futurism, epitomized of course by Sun Ra. (On this point, Jeff Shurdut is soon to release his massive 2005 double album, Stargazers featuring Marshall Allen, on his Creative Music for Creative Listening label. That album traverses a similar duality of perspective to the one I'm describing here, underscored by the subtitle "This is the Music of Life," in a direct way.) So I certainly support thought of open possibility, and radical empathy is as good a future as any. The music itself has a therapeutic quality in this sense.

Let me also mention the Chris Pitsiokos Trio's Gordian Twine here, released recently on New Atlantis Records, in particular for the way it also aligns instrumental resonances differently at different times. I discussed Pitsiokos's trio album Maximalism with Weasel Walter back in August of 2013, and noted his rather distinctive technique on alto sax. Gordian Twine (Pitsiokos's 4th album, the others being duos), including Max Johnson & Kevin Shea, two other prominent New York musicians, is more of a composed suite, however. Although the rock influence lurks, the suite evokes ancient Greece in its titles, and shows a creative sense of ensemble interaction. Some of this seems to be generated out of an extended hocket technique, where periods of silence (or rest) for one or two musicians continue to hold structural relevance. This concept drives much of the formal movement, lending it a kind of alternating sonic feel in which solos emerge from & blend back into the trio form. So, whereas there are quick & fractured sax notes, even evoking loud traffic at times, jangling bass strings wedded to bowed harmonics, and a sometimes raucous atmosphere, these techniques are wedded formally to periods of quiet where almost nothing happens. These developments are linked timbrally in the way that the instrumental resonances align or not, and move into different sorts of alignments. It's an interesting concept & exploration, although it does come off here as very composed.

Finally, I also want to mention Lake Monsters, a duo by Sandy Ewen & Henry Kaiser, and the third in the series of duos featuring those musicians & Damon Smith to appear on Balance Point Acoustics, as recorded in November 2013. (I should also note that the Confront label from the UK has just released a duo album, Valle de México, recorded by Smith & Ewen in Mexico in 2012.) Readers will know that I'm not really into duos — the possible interaction styles are simply fewer — and have never managed to really enjoy Henry Kaiser's music — although he seems to enjoy some of the same music I do, so I guess that's our proper relationship. Lake Monsters is another long album, and quite a journey from moment to moment. Are they switching guitars for the different tracks? Anyway, there's a lot happening, and quite a range of sounds & references (surf guitar & Korean sanjo, for instance, plus plenty of Japan-rock). They seem to go ahead & do everything they have a mind to do.

20 July 2015

Entropy / Enthalpy (recorded in France in February 2014) is the next album in The Bridge series, as discussed last month around the album Sonic Communion. This next album is on Rogueart (rather than the new label of Sonic Communion), and indeed Alexandre Pierrepont appears to be closely involved with the project: The stylistic priorities & musical combinations fit his label rather well, in any case. Having two bassists for the previous album seemed like something of a curiosity, particularly as Ewart was so prominent, but Entropy / Enthalpy uses at least two basses throughout, and indeed the whole first CD of the double album consists of Benjamin Duboc & Harrison Bankhead with Hamid Drake & Ramon Lopez on drums & percussion — a quartet apparently named The Turbine! For the second CD, Jean-Luc Cappozzo returns (as the only performer on both of these albums) for one track, another is played with Lionel Garcin (with whom I was not otherwise familiar, making his the most engaging track for me — a contribution imitating the harmonics of a bowed bass for much of the first several minutes, before erupting into more classic free blowing & groove) on alto saxophone, and William Parker makes it a trio of bassists for the other two. There is again an emphasis on accessibility, communicative interplay, tonality, groove, etc. The result is an enjoyable double album, but I do confess to being confused by the emphasis on bassists in this ongoing musical exchange between France & the US (mostly Chicago so far). This is jazz as defined by its bass line, as in bebop, then? The approaches to the bass certainly vary, while mostly retaining the accessible quality of the series. The goal here, I guess, is to have the bassists play seamlessly together, channeling some power beyond.

26 July 2015

Confront Recordings certainly has an interesting approach to packaging, with their metal trays & plastic-wrapped postcard inserts. (The cases have the air of durability, but I've already had one smashed in transit, and the interior plastic is rather flimsy.) I've listened to a few items since they started appearing, mostly archival, but in keeping with my recent interest in English improvisation, as generated by Whitewashed with lines, I decided to hear a couple of recent releases involving John Butcher. These items might be described as ea or lowercase or the like, i.e. they're improvisational without an orientation toward traditional concepts of melody & harmony. Membrane was recorded last spring, and features a couple of tracks of shifting resonance, investigations of breath & struck or rubbed materials. In some sense, the percussion dominates in that Mark Wastell (who operates Confront) drives the proceedings on amplified tam-tam, and Burkhard Beins combines the resonances of a bass drum with feedback & electronics. (I had heard Beins before in e.g. the recent Traces of Wood, a rather composition-oriented album by Polwechsel, with whom Butcher has also recorded. This was my first encounter with Wastell, at least that I remember.) However, the breath does factor strongly into this interaction, and indeed one might view such an exploration as akin to the Japanese shakuhachi repertory (mentioned here a week ago). In any case, the electronics seem mainly to function to align the volumes/intensities between the different material resonators, without a lot of feedback, in order to explore close interactions of the different resonances themselves. There's a metallic quality that underscores much of this interaction, starting with the tam-tam, serving to structure the contributions of wood & breath. The music might proceed from a quiescent state to a throbbing surge, with some resonances emerging as distinct (countable) beats. In this, it's somewhat slower & less intense than e.g. Five Lines, which is based more on feedback per se via "broken electronics" & mixing boards, as discussed here back in March. Membrane also doesn't have the overt human communication aspect of Butcher's work on e.g. The Apophonics On Air. It's probably more engaging of that part (the part that also apprehends speech, I imagine) of one's listening mind than e.g. Keith Rowe's recent Contour album from Saint Petersburg, though. Membrane thus does have a background quality to it, but draws one's attention explicitly to such background vibrations. It's an exercise for one's attention in that sense, an exercise that may be figured broadly, and never particularly overwhelming in any dimension.

Also recently released on Confront is The Contest of (More) Pleasures, featuring a wind trio that has at least two previous albums: Butcher with Axel Dörner & Xavier Charles. Here the orientation is more exclusively toward winds & breath, obviously, but in terms of exploring the space around the musicians. Previous "Contest of Pleasures" albums intentionally moved between different architectural acoustics, some with weather effects, for different explorations. The trio has thus been rather technical in that sense, but incorporating a variety of individual wind articulations into that exploration. The Contest of (More) Pleasures is the most recent, but not a particularly new recording, made in 2009. In this case, the wind trio is joined in the credits by Laurent Sassi (who also recorded their "architecture" album, Alibi Days) on "phonographies," mixing & diffusion plus Jean-Léon Pallandre on "phonographies" & microphones. The layers of musical production involved are thus more explicit, or at least collapsed into one list of credits. (Yet, Sassi & someone else are also credited separately with making the recording, so I'm still unsure what this means.) This is another album that is more subdued in its tone, i.e. less conversational in its impression than is Whitewashed with lines, often rather quiet or singular, but does explore an interesting path of interaction & resonance for differently articulated breaths. The "scientific" component of both albums ends up making them interesting, but also limits their personal impact. (I am still pondering how to relate to such "impersonal" music. Once one learns it, i.e. hears what is being demonstrated, what is left? This sort of demonstration is also very different live, I should probably add.) The result is raising consciousness in this direct, yet impersonal, sense. The music can thus be considered a significant aspect of the posthuman turn.

27 July 2015

I guess I had the impression that Organic Modernism would be the final album of the Daniel Levin Quartet: It was already their sixth album, there hadn't been a new one in at least a few years, and Levin himself seemed to be concentrating on other sorts of musical projects, particularly improvising duos. However, a seventh album, Friction, appeared in the most recent batch of Clean Feed releases — another large batch, right on the heels of the large batch discussed here in June. (Friction was only just recorded in April of this year, so it came before the public rather quickly, at least compared to many releases.) My first impression was that it almost seems like an "introduction" to Organic Modernism, or perhaps even a set of preludes, a more fundamentally gestural approach to some of the busier earlier material. Upon consideration, there's both more gestural & busier material on both albums, so that doesn't make for a great summary, but Friction does often present a more "chiseled" approach, i.e. gestures distilled from (presumptive) layers of activity. Organic Modernism was an album I discussed here back in May of 2011, so not even a year after I started this project. It was a new album at the time, and I was also able to go back & hear Levin's previous work, so that it formed one of the earlier layers of influence for me in the vague contemporary "jazz" (specifically "chamber" jazz) realm. I was undoubtedly attracted not only to the musicians' technique & feel for quartet interaction, but by the sense of classicism in the ensemble formation itself: That attraction elicited a discussion of the "organic modernism" concept as transplanted into the 21st century, rather than from its early 20th century origin specifically in architecture. The transplant notion might have been poorly articulated (by me) at the time, but I think the idea does reflect the reality of new modernist impulses arising from the ecological movement, i.e. a different sort of contemporary organic modernism that seems to fit the music fairly well. This sort of modernist impulse, perhaps (re)invoking the 1960s artistically, is also conveyed in the cover for Friction, and indeed the "clean" sounds of the quartet continue to provide a contrast ("mod," one might say) to the "dirty" rock sounds around which many creative ensembles orient today. (Another Clean Feed album that made a big impression on me at the time, Pool School, might be named as an example of this other side of such a duality.) So, recorded almost exactly five years after Organic Modernism, Friction uses the same basic ensemble, now with Torbjorn Zetterberg (who had improvised with Levin & Ivo Perelman on Soulstorm) on bass: Once again, there are no cymbals or other instruments occupying the high overtones, allowing for a different alignment of pitch areas, focused on the middle registers. The chiseled gestures, while not usually atonal, convey a kind of stripping away to the essence of what the group is about, in some ways similar to e.g. Clarino on Cookbook (with its calm sense of stillness) or Baloni. The stylistic result is unique, however, and one can rather quickly appreciate why Levin (& Wooley & Moran) wanted to return to this project — even, or especially, if they didn't want to return quickly: They have taken a step toward purifying their earlier stylistic impulses. Although (quasi-)tonality often softens the music on Friction a bit, as opposed to the otherwise natural comparison with Webern, there is still a sense of musical economy that involves stripping away superfluous & repetitive elements, and indeed something of the "situatedness" of the music itself, in turn: In other words, if dance is rhythm is repetition is ostinato, then ostinato evokes a sense of place as territory via the repetitive (physical) gesture of dance. In this sense, Friction is very far from "groove" music, and takes on a kind of generic quality that would seem to let it fit anywhere & nowhere at once. As on Organic Modernism, the opening track is very active, setting the stage for what is to come, but then, more minimal music often intervenes, although not exclusively, sometimes pulling down to e.g. improvised duos (in the manner of e.g. Josquin five hundred years ago, where intricate duos might articulate the climactic passages of larger four-part works), serving to articulate something of an album-length form. There's still a fair amount of composed material involved, but Friction does manage to create its own unique utopian (in the literal, theoretical sense) world. Is it (still) also modern, in the sense of contemporary, or in the sense of the twentieth century? I guess that remains to be seen. What's next for our world, particularly for the generic (to which I'll oppose the universal, per Laruelle)?

The mod-rock tension of the 1960s — a tension that played out within jazz as well — does seem to reappear in contemporary music at times, perhaps marking points of nostalgia — or perhaps for other reasons, including dialectic interrogation (i.e. "alternate history" in a Hegelian sense). Samuel Blaser's Spring Rain, discussed here in June, specifically explored some "classicist" jazz of the 60s, as did e.g. James Falzone's Brooklyn lines, Chicago spaces (from 2012), and more recently, there is Falzone's collaboration with Tim Daisy (who was on the former, & also recorded a duo album with Daniel Levin) & Fred Lonberg-Holm, Vox Arcana Caro's Song on Relay Recordings. There Daisy plays the marimba at times, and so I have to wonder, to what extent are these impressions derived from sonorities per se, i.e. the "clean" striking of a mallet versus the "dirty" feedback of electric guitar? The latter might still be chiseled or essentialized, as on Camino Cielo Echo, or it could be more groove or ostinato based, the latter as explored by e.g. Joe Morris. Is an ostinato more aggressive somehow? It does suggest a territory, and not only a timbre. These are only a few, somewhat arbitrary, examples, of course.

So, not only speaking of Morris & ostinato, but also Nate Wooley, we get to hear the latter as a sideman with the former on another Clean Feed album from this recent batch, Ninth Square, on which they form a trio with Evan Parker. As an illustration of a general trend toward musical "polyamory," let me also mention Moran joining Wooley on Battle Pieces (discussed here in April), and note that Joe Morris was actually the first bassist for the Daniel Levin Quartet (presumably in more of a mentor role, at that time). Morris & Wooley had recorded as a duo on Tooth and Nail (2010), in a trio on From the Discrete to the Particular (an album that probably reminds me most of Ninth Square), and yet again in Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten's New York Quartet. Parker appears with Wooley on World of Objects, a recording discussed here in September, and which does have some of the same "swirling" quality as Ninth Square, but takes on a non-repetition-based intensity, in part via post-processing. As far as I could tell, this was the first time (9/14) that Morris & Parker recorded together. Although no priority is given in the credits, and information is generally minimal, I definitely hear Ninth Square as Morris's album: He starts the album playing alone, and the emphasis on swirling ostinato (i.e. repeated figures) reminds me of his style elsewhere. Here, Morris also employs more of a "prepared guitar" extended technique, at times with a kind of blunted-tilted resonance that evokes some of Cage's piano sounds (or maybe even the Indonesian gender), and at others with a sort of "truncated" (to the last part) picking that doesn't quite ring out in Morris's more usual way. The other performers add various extended & non-extended (since melody is not entirely absent) material, sometimes taking their own solos, and at times e.g. it seems as though Parker (I think) is making sounds characteristic of a bowed string. The emphasis on lines (as opposed to harmonies) seems very much like a concern of Morris's, and the various extended effects & alterations of sonority don't really modify the charged underlying impulse or ostinato basis of the music. Since the classic bebop bass is a particular sort of ostinato, such an emphasis can be taken as a link to the jazz tradition in general, and indeed all three performers are known for retaining connections to classic jazz in their playing (rather than adopting the polished modernism of e.g. the Daniel Levin Quartet, or the idioms of other sorts of free styles), and the degree of activity that the ostinato generates — including a few ecstatic passages — underscores such a connection. What I've been calling the "swirling" on Ninth Square maintains something of a unity, so one might compare it with e.g. the close interaction on Hunt at the Brook, which invokes more of a polyphonic (multi-pulse) temporality. Maybe I've said just about enough regarding ostinato for now: Is it about finding a connection to the jazz ethos today? While repetition projects a kind of spatial territory, what then are the politics of ostinato more broadly? Is it about political connection, or something else? I think it's worth asking these questions explicitly.

The other new Clean Feed album that I want to mention is Too Many Continents, by Toronto drummer Nick Fraser, in a trio with Kris Davis & Tony Malaby. This is a production that, strangely, omits all information as to when it was recorded, but Fraser was obviously able to enlist some top players for his leader album debut, playing half improvisations & half his own compositions. The result is an album that covers a broad stylistic range, and although not all of its material is terribly compelling to me personally, I did find Fraser's drumming to be interesting throughout. What might he do in a more specific, or more free, context? He does seem to have developed a personal style in what is (it must be remembered) one of North America's biggest metropolises.

(I was tempted to add some footnotes to this entry, but believe that I'll save some expanded thoughts on some of the topics introduced here for another time. I ask the reader's indulgence in continuing some explorations over multiple weeks or months.)

3 August 2015

I was not familiar with Steve Olson previously, but apparently he has already had a fine career as a drummer in Baltimore, and has now released a trio album with Denman Maroney & Oscar Noriega, The Ruthless Shapes of Paradise, recorded in Brooklyn only two months ago (June 2015). As so much good music is released with suspect (or just weird [*]) packaging these days, I want to note that here it's done very well: Sturdy, legible, the CD itself is secure yet easy to take out.... Anyway, the trio opens immediately with an interesting & distinctive sound. There are other enjoyable moments, but it's also a long (seventy minutes) album, and the uniqueness of the textures is exhausted pretty quickly, often falling back onto fairly simple melodies from the horn. Olson says in the liner notes that in the months leading up to the recording, he listened to the music of several prominent twentieth century "classical" composers, but that it was Feldman who really struck him. It seems strange to me that a long-time musician would be discovering Feldman & others in 2015, particularly as Olson says he had been influenced by Rothko "for decades." This confuses me, but maybe this album is a new beginning for Olson, and there are indeed some original textural ideas here. He says that what he enjoys about Feldman's music is the sense of space, and that it reminded him of his youth in Iowa & Kansas. Particularly with Maroney's use of the "hyperpiano," which sets the mood early, the textures & spaces remind me a bit of Maroney with Josh Sinton on Anomonous. Although the latter album sounds more "industrial," and certainly has a sharper edge, it evokes a similar sense of (breath & rattle) spatial exploration.

Speaking of Sinton, as it happened, the same batch of releases at DMG included the album Signal Gain (on OutNow), featuring Sinton in a duo with Dominic Lash, and variously including other musicians on the different improvised tracks: Ingrid Laubrock, Nate Wooley, Kyoko Kitamura, & Alex Ward. Laubrock & Wooley appear often in this space, and I've more recently started appreciating Ward (who mixed the album), in such releases as Compost (which does not have convenient packaging). I was unfamiliar with Kitamura, who vocalizes on one track, and I haven't written much about Lash, who nonetheless has a substantial discography. Anyway, whereas Sinton & Lash form something of a bass duo — that is, Sinton most often plays "amplified contrabass clarinet" — throughout the album, including exclusively on two of the eight tracks, other musicians come & go in various combinations. I found it appealing, although can't really say that it develops a coherent style. In fact, Signal Gain was actually recorded in 2011 (also in Brooklyn), prior to Anomonous, and I can't help but hear Sinton's approach here as a prequel (so to speak) to Anomonous. Although the latter album kind of came out of nowhere for me a couple of years ago, apparently I not only still enjoy it, but hear its echoes elsewhere. On Signal Gain, those echoes come out in shorter tracks of various different characters, rather than the full-length symphonic-industrial sweep of Anomonous.

[*] What with music downloads, and the way the retail industry is changing, I do think that getting creative with packaging can be a good idea. After all, it's an (art or design) object per se. However, I also appreciate the low stress experience of simply popping a CD into the stereo, and low stress packaging helps with that. (And using twenty-first century computer software, such as the various music "managers" & players, is not at all low stress: That stuff gets to be more obnoxious by the day.) Creative packaging can start to seem like a burden, that is, if I want to keep hearing the album! Of course, creativity certainly does not rule out practicality....

12 August 2015

Jeff Shurdut continues to make a lot of different music with a lot of different people, and much of that activity finds its way onto record. Jeff is re-launching his Creative Music for Creative Listening label with items from its preliminary launch last year, new items he's only recently recorded, as well as selected albums from his dozens of Ayler & Jazz Tapes releases. (He's even talking about reissuing some items from his old Nolabel label. So yes, Jeff is already relaunching CMCL, and that isn't even the first time he's decided to create his own label.) Not only does Jeff have a lot of ideas, but he gets "out there," and does things, and so creates a lot in response. It's a lot to hear, and beyond that, a lot to take in more generally, but in this entry I am going to focus on his recent House Music Live Off-Broadway album. (I can't even call it his latest album, because he's already sent me Orch-OR, which was recorded this June — but more on that below.) This particular focus is how I'll draw lots, then, so to speak.

The Live Off-Broadway album started life, at least in my experience of it, in the Kitchen Music project: This was the first project to come out of my relatively new performance fellowship offering, and so I've been involved with it in that small way. I liked the Kitchen Music idea, obviously, but it was Jeff's (and the other musicians') doing: I was a person to say yes (as were the other performers, of course), to put up that little promo page, and now to write this. In this space, my intention isn't to defend (or even really to discuss) my fellowship decisions, but rather to talk about music, and in particular, music I especially like or simply find intriguing. Having even a small involvement with the project compromises that intention somewhat, because I start having thoughts & feelings that aren't derived from the result (album) itself. That's one disclaimer that I feel I need to make here, and it's really not so different from a disclaimer on expectations more generally: It's difficult to listen to something without expectations, and it was particularly difficult in this case. Let me just sum up, then: Live Off-Broadway is a weird album, but I like it. And I spent some time trying to separate the latter thought from my expectations — perhaps it was wasted time, I don't know.

Jeff had mentioned the "house music" idea to me before I even had the fellowship operating, so it was an idea he had had for a while. Basically, many of his albums had used the sounds of the outdoor urban environment, but there had been some indoor sounds as well (e.g. wind under the door), and he wanted to explore more of them. I believe that Jeff is still interested in doing other house music — and Jeff loves those double meanings, which is why he enjoys calling the grant from me, "MM&A" (and he would have happily left off the ampersand) — but the kitchen is obviously a room with many sounds, sounds of local production & social activity (as opposed to sounds coming from elsewhere, e.g. over television or from outside). As you can read in his conversation with Jan Ström on the Kitchen Music page, Jeff views his dishwasher as sort of his guru for kitchen sounds. (My own dishwasher is so loud that I don't use it, but it does have some distinctive & varying sounds.) Personally, I have mostly social associations with the kitchen, around cooking & eating, and earlier in my life, around building houses. Jeff reminded me early on that cooking & eating also mean violence & death, so there are layers. That said, Live Off-Broadway doesn't appear to feature either violence or a dishwasher (or if it does, it's subtle). Nor does it feature much overt depiction of sociality: It's a quiet album, where whatever cooking or eating might (metaphorically) occur is rather blunted, transformed, decentered of its animality. Indeed, I'm fairly sure that the album is quieter than an actual commercial kitchen — which this was — in operation, and with much less human language occurring. (The occasional vocals barely emerge from the overall texture.) A fragile ensemble sociality emerges from the solitude of individual improvisatory decisions, then, rather than from any simple depiction or analogy. To return to the issue of expectations, I need to ask (aloud), why am I even listening for the kitchen per se? Is it something an unoriented listener would even pick out? Perhaps not.

One possible way of sorting Jeff's large discography is according to the instrument he plays. The first album that caught my attention was Yad (2012), and there he plays alto saxophone. (I also noticed this album in part because it was recorded at DMG.) The sax plunges Jeff right into the middle of the musical activity, immersed with the other musicians, and that has an impact on the way the ensemble interaction unfolds: I've been emphasizing the immanent-transcendent duality in this space, and in some other writing, and so this kind of immersive perspective appeals to me. A similar perspective is found on his first CMCL albums, what I had called here The Music of Everything — but these two releases are now named The Creative Music For Creative Listening Ensemble (July & August, 2013), and Things (2014). Whereas The Creative Music For Creative Listening Ensemble might be more aggressive than Yad, and more evocative of e.g. alternative rock (as part of its "everything"), Things takes on a smoother & more classical air. All three of these albums employ a prominent violin, one that starts things going aggressively on Yad, evoking a symphonic conception via their instrumentation as well. Indeed, it's hard not to hear Things as a symphony — and the new edit works well in this regard — of both twentieth century classical technique & urban sounds. I described it that way back in September, and I still find it to be one of the most classically balanced of Jeff's albums, with an elegant sweep. (Jeff's sense of symphonic tapestry here might be compared to e.g. The Core Trio on Featuring Matthew Shipp.) A symphony is, in its linguistic origin, a sounding together, a combination, and this is often Jeff's mentality, even if the result doesn't evoke the traditional symphony. His most recently released album on alto sax, although recorded shortly before The Creative Music For Creative Listening Ensemble, is UMBI (April 2013), and there we find Jeff in the mode of "protest music" that shaped a component of his box set on Ayler. It's a loud, energetic quartet album, evoking an Ornette Coleman configuration to some degree, although with Vinnie Paternostro joining Jeff on tenor sax & Moog, rather than trumpet: The opening, aggressively "spacey" Moog scene isn't quite my thing, but the album very much carries the listener along in that transcendent-free way. It's more traditionally jazzy, as is Stargazers (2005), a double album I mentioned last month, in that case with Jeff on keyboards (as, I suppose, Sun Ra). Jeff playing keyboard, or more specifically piano, has been another major thread in his recent music-making. He has also reissued Everybody's Music Orchestra (2007), previously on Ayler, in which he drives a relatively large ensemble from the piano: The piano seems to put Jeff more explicitly in the position of conductor than does the alto. In its relentless drive to incorporate almost everything into itself, Everybody's Music Orchestra has something of the character of Anthony Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House, with its almost overwhelming overlapping of activity — it's an exhausting album. The Mini-Grand Marching Band (2008), another new issue on CMCL, makes this drive more explicit in the march concept, yet (perhaps paradoxically) softens the result a bit: There are even some identifiable tunes, and Jeff's approach to forward momentum on the piano reminds me a bit of Scelsi in his own piano mode. (I might mention Mahler's marches as well.) Both could be described as symphonic improvisation (and even The Creative Music For Creative Listening Ensemble could be described as a tone poem). So, yes, Jeff can convene an impromptu ensemble and improvise a symphony.

On Live Off-Broadway, however, Jeff returns to playing guitar. This is the instrument on which he discovered his "etuning" concept — basically letting the guitar tune itself to the resonances of the environment, rather than forcing it into some standard tuning — and indeed he's reissued his Etuning album from his Ayler set on CMCL. As per the conversation with Jan Ström, the guitar becomes the point of inflection or circularity for the performance: The guitar is tuned to the environment, which is itself being played musically. There are seven musicians present (plus some tape material by Mr. Dorgon, controlled by Brian Osborne), and all are listed as playing pots & pans. Three are percussionists by profession, Lukas Ligeti & Kevin Shea joining Osborne in that. There are two reed players in Guillermo Gregorio & Marcus Cummins, plus Motoko Shimizu on voice, and of course Jeff on guitar. So it's an unusual ensemble, in part reflecting the percussive capacity of a real commercial kitchen. Indeed, the extended moment on the third track when they coalesce into semi-synchronized metallic chiming might be the most magical sequence on the album: It's unique. Although the resonances might have some superficial resemblance to gamelan, it ends up sounding completely different. These sorts of percussive moments, which come & go throughout the album, also have a bit of similarity to e.g. Pail Bug or Common Objects in the quality of their sounds, but again, I'm grasping for similarities, because Live Off-Broadway sounds like nothing else, including (at least what I've heard) within Jeff's vast output. Allow me to list a few comments from my listening notes, without further context: Work is happening? Ringing overtones, ghostly invocation, resonance of boiling? Dinner conversation with a siren? Rattling breath. Here comes the world & humanity, swelling, subsiding. Skittering chimes, somehow beyond the environment. (I just deleted the rest of those notes as part of writing this entry. I need my own space of creative forgetting.) I listened to it one day alongside a reciprocating saw being operated outside my window — a situation I certainly didn't solicit, but with which I did have to cope. There's no finality to the album, modest clapping aside, but it does leave one listening to the environment, feeling good, and wondering what's next.

Live Off-Broadway doesn't project the overt symphonic tapestry of some of Jeff's other recent albums, but it does involve what I'll call an immanent sense of symphonic time. (We might even declare the symphony, generally, as an act of creating a new or composite temporality.) It's almost mild in its demeanor, yet so different in sound: Just as the album itself challenges subject position in its circularity (i.e., by redoubling the etuning concept), I had difficulty finding a position from which to listen to it. Nothing seemed quite right, but perhaps that's a reflection of my own minor involvement in the project. So as a listener, I'm there, but not there: It somehow demands a "medium" amount of attention. It's quite a sonic experiment in that sense, if I do say so myself, and so ultimately a musical experiment. It surely transcends the kitchen, which is both omnipresent, and in some reciprocal sense, inaudible, because the album presents itself as human music, if rather decentered. (And a kitchen is typically a rather hot room, but here it is cool.) What, then, is the human language involved? Perhaps we should envision Charles Ives' sense of walking down a hallway with different music emerging from each room, but now incorporating the house itself into house music, saturating & dispersing sociality. The human sits alongside the house, in some other unphysical space. Much "architectural" music seems to be about exploring spaces that are mostly empty. Here we have an intimate space that is rather full. The sense of community is thus rather different from what one gets from a cityscape, and so we get some of Jeff's quietest music, evoking an open territory from its close quarters. That opening becomes the space for humanity & its (musical) language within the general realm of sound, a space the listener can occupy only with care.

One aspect of this project that immediately enthused me was Jeff's plan to bring in some different musicians, notably Guillermo Gregorio (b.1941, Argentina) & Lukas Ligeti (b.1965, Austria). Of course, I've also heard various engaging music from Kevin Shea & Brian Osborne, and was happy for their participation as well. I know of Marcus Cummins & Motoko Shimizu only via Jeff, the latter only here (although it appears that she participated in a never-released? album with Jeff & Luther Thomas). All of the musicians do make notable contributions, and so the rather unusual ensemble ends up working well. I had actually mentioned a Chicago quartet album with Gregorio, Sack of Rice, in this space back in 2013, and he has another 2013 release, Window and Doorway, with Steve Swell & Pandelis Karayorgis. The latter is a rather composed, minimalist album featuring drones & a chiseled atonality: It has a poise that I do hear reflected in Live Off-Broadway. Gregorio doesn't appear to have any more recent releases in this general genre, but his training was in architecture, which he has taught, and in fact, his (musical) scores have been presented as visual art in museums. So, appropriately, he brings an architect's sensibility to the house music. Ligeti, son of the famous composer, doesn't have very many recordings in this general genre either, but he did just release a guitar trio album on Tzadik earlier this year, Hypercolor with Eyal Maoz & James Ilgenfritz (the latter having been mentioned multiple times in this space). That album is a mix of skronky rock guitar, incorporating some popular clichés, & ballads, but I do find the drumming to be interesting throughout. Ligeti also released a duo album with Thollem on Leo, Imaginary Images (2014).

As already mentioned, Orch-OR is also appearing soon on CMCL, and it features the Everybody's Music Orchestra, with Jeff on piano again, and with Gregorio & Shea & Cummins returning from Live Off-Broadway. The septet is filled out with horn players Welf Dorr & Nick Gianni & Pete Dragotta. Orch-OR thus features a horn-dominated lineup, with Jeff pushing things from the piano & Shea interjecting. Whereas the type of ensemble is rather different, Orch-OR is likewise rather less urgent structurally, and involves vaguely discursive lines & even harmonies from the winds. In fact, there's a sort of "tonal wheezing" that spews jazzy lines, with perhaps a bit of the echo of banging in a kitchen. Although it doesn't have the overwhelming urgency of some of Jeff's previous improvisations from the piano (or the metaphorical scream, one might say, of some of his sax music), it does involve periodic insistence from the horns, and the reflective sequences continue to generate more activity, until the last one doesn't. (Reflection doesn't usually generate activity per se on Live Off-Broadway. It's more dispersed than that.) It's another interesting album — and perhaps I'll return to it later, but want to finish the present entry now — reminding me just a bit of Boulez's Dérive series, both in the way the lines spin off, and in the subtly maintained background continuity. Jeff's Creative Music for Creative Listening label name (as well as his music itself, of course) reminds me of Roland Barthes' concept of the readerly & writerly text — the latter (which Barthes calls "a perpetual present") beckoning readers themselves to engage in the simultaneous act of creation. Perhaps here we also get an evocation of Jeff as a twenty-first century situationist? (I'm going to ask him this question only after I post it.)

Anyway, I think that's enough to say for now. (Jeff is also in the process of releasing a new series of duo albums, called 10cm, and has already re-released his Ayler album, This is The Music of Life with Luther Thomas, from 2007.) All of these albums will soon be available widely, both via the Naxos Music Library & various online retailers. I'll update the "purchasing information" when I have something more concrete.

22 August 2015

FMR Records continues to release albums regularly, and a couple caught my eye (or ear) from the latest batch. Chamber 4 is another quartet with Luís Vicente & the Ceccaldi brothers, after For Sale by Deux Maisons. Actually, Chamber 4 was recorded four days prior to For Sale, also in Lisbon in May 2013, even if it took a few months longer to appear. In this case, instead of including drummer Marco Franco, Chamber 4 appears to have been formed by Portuguese guitarist Marcelo dos Reis (b.1984) — or at least he's the one who does the mixing & mastering. Whereas For Sale presented something of a double duo, Chamber 4 displays a much more integrated sound, with more of a classical orientation. Indeed, it evokes various classical textures, including orchestral textures (facilitated by the multiple instrument families). I particularly enjoy the eerie contrapuntal opening, and the first track is my favorite. From there, we get a more static piece based on a "harp" ostinato, some rather aggressive Bartokian sonorities, transforming into his "night music" mode, and even evoking Scelsi, before moving more firmly into a melancholy register. The final track, with its slow melody on the strings, gong sounds, and trumpet recitative giving way to sighing voices has a distinctly "new age" feel. In short, it's something of a tour through Western music history, vaguely analogous to the work of e.g. the Jan Klare 1000 on Shoe & elsewhere (although dealing more with colors). The retrospective stance can also be compared to Hunt at the Brook, as can the ensemble constitution itself (almost), but Chamber 4 doesn't emphasize quick, contrapuntal interaction throughout — it's more often atmospheric & haunting. The music is credited to all four performers, which often means that it is improvised, but the transitions between the various scenes are so sophisticated here, it's hard to believe that there wasn't a preconceived plan. Besides the evocation of symphonic textures, and again a bit like Hunt at the Brook, there are themes of trees & wood, and indeed the different material quality of the strings between the violin & cello (steel) & guitar (nylon) seems to play a musical role. There's an overall materiality that's underscored by the guitar preparations (which aren't always present), as well as the percussive quality derived from ostensibly non-percussion instruments. I particularly enjoyed it the first time I heard it.

Another album I want to note from the same batch of releases is Blood Samples by Frode Gjerstad (on clarinet, as well as alto), Roger Turner, and Borre Molstad (tuba). I was attracted to this album, one thirty minute track recorded in Oslo, also in 2013, in part because of the tuba. Whereas Gjerstad & Turner sound very much like themselves, and are in fine form in this high energy, yet fractured, performance, I was unfamiliar with Molstad otherwise, and so can't make a similar claim. There is some interesting material from the tuba, and an effort to make it an equal partner in the trio, but for the most part, it doesn't have the quickness to keep up, at least in the context of this free/rock-inspired wind duo format as supported by drums. Still, as noted, some interesting ideas do emerge in the interaction.

Although it's more composition-oriented than most of what I mention here, as indicated by its subtitle, "contemporary percussion music," I couldn't resist having a listen to Glück, recorded in March & April 2014 by a quintet of percussionists. For one thing, Mikroton Recordings of Moscow has been releasing some interesting material, and I'm starting to pay more attention. For another, Burkhard Beins fronts the ensemble, and I recently discussed his album Membrane with Mark Wastell & John Butcher. The other member of Glück that I recognized is Christian Wolfarth — I had heard him, for instance, with his longstanding "piano trio," WWW on Willisau (on Hat Hut). The other percussionists on Glück are Enrico Malatesta, Michael Vorfeld & Ingar Zach. The style is not unlike Polwechsel, the originally Swiss quartet, since joined by Beins (and, for a time, Butcher): Again, an emphasis on materiality, the sounds of different materials, etc. In this case, the ensemble is all "percussion," so this involves all manner of rubbing, resonances, striking gongs, etc. The title track is by Wolfarth, and I find it quite enjoyable in its episodic form. The second & fourth tracks are by Beins, two parts of a more forceful & forward-directed composition, while the third is by Zach, and is generally quite slow & quiet. The latter fades into the background easily. There are some appealing ideas here, and the all-percussionist format does not seem the least bit limiting.

Also outside my usual emphasis here is Look with thine ears, a solo album by Pascal Niggenkemper on Clean Feed, recorded on unspecified dates during 2014. I relate to the trans-sensory idea, in this case inspired by King Lear, and the album is recorded very closely, so that when the various extended techniques suddenly shift the resonance of the instrument to a different location, it comes through audibly. Moreover, this shifting of where the bass resonates suggests to me more than merely looking with our ears, but also with our sense of touch: It becomes a tactile album in that way, and I'm sure the bass itself feels very distinctive as its resonances shift. There are various "process" ideas along those lines, and a bit like Frantz Loriot's Reflections on an Introspective Path, a range of technique incorporating Scelsi's string ideas. Now that I've heard Niggenkemper play this material so starkly here, I hear it anticipated on e.g. the second HNH. Baloni continues to cultivate somewhat similar material, but it would be interesting to hear Niggenkemper's ideas from Look with thine ears in a different intimate ensemble format, somehow incorporating the close miking & tactile sense. The techniques will likely develop with more interactive dialog.

11 September 2015

Ernesto Rodrigues & Creative Sources continue to release albums at a fast pace, and there are four more I want to discuss since the last, long Creative Sources-themed entry in April. (Other recent releases have included solos, duos, orchestras, etc.)

Cloud Voices, recorded in Lisbon in March of this year, was perhaps the most distinctive of the past six months of releases for me. The title references (perhaps) the theme — or half of it — from Clocks and Clouds, an album out of Portugal that made a bit of a splash last year. Cloud Voices, a rather long quartet album at more than an hour, eschews the mechanical (or discrete) while focusing on the cloudy. It might even be said to open with thunder, although the viola-bass-trombone combination, combined with Abdul Moimême on prepared guitar, sticks to mostly acoustic material. (The boundary for a "pickup" isn't clear to me, since a recording inherently involves a microphone.) Whereas Rodrigues's Nor album, recorded in Berlin & featuring half Berlin-based improvisers, might be said to feature some similar sonorities, those sometimes halting & episodic tracks convey more of a human response, if only in protest (of bogus choices). Cloud Voices constructs a different sense of time, which is part of its charm, even if it can seem overly long at times. Indeed, this album leads me to posit time-scale as a basic difference between the generalized "clock" & "cloud" phenomena, with the clock occupying a temporality that makes ready sense at the human perceptual scale. In its exploration of nonlinear process, Cloud Voices also reminds me of Triple Point's Phase/transitions, although there the sound — the immersion, one might say — is more consistent. Although not superficially similar, listening to the two albums together seems to reveal some similar motivations. In the case of Cloud Voices, such exploration leads to more fragile activity, however, as processes struggle to gain momentum. (Perhaps the cloud becomes a social metaphor at that point.)

Surfaces is a quintet album featuring regular Rodrigues collaborators Guilherme Rodrigues on cello, Nuno Torres on alto (also paired with Rodrigues in the Lisbon half of the quartet on Nor), Eduardo Chagas on trombone (also on Cloud Voices, which includes the previously unknown to me João Madeira on bass), and Carlos Santos on computer & synth (who does Creative Sources's recent graphic design): So it's a quintet of players rather close to the elder Rodrigues, and was recorded a mere six days after Cloud Voices, also in Lisbon in March. Surfaces — whose title I don't really understand, given the sound production from volumes & (one-d) strings — projects something of a similar sound world, but here it really pushes forward, rather than evoking the fragility of a cloud. The momentum can be slow & subtle, perhaps largely from the electronics, but inexorable, and becomes both the strength & weakness of the album (at least within its context). The liner notes explicitly invoke the "writerly" text, and there's a kind of Scelsian continuity, perhaps suggesting political emergence: The focus here is on emergence, then, rather than the disavowal of Nor. For all of its sporadic echoing, it comes off as ultimately irresistible.

Creative Sources continues to publish Alexander Frangenheim's music extensively, most recently with Berlin Kinesis, an album by the WTTF Quartet: Philipp Wachsmann (violin), Roger Turner (percussion, also on the recently discussed in this space Blood Samples), Pat Thomas (piano), & Frangenheim. The album, recorded in August 2014, somewhat unusually for Creative Sources, features tracks with titles, and also continues (also true of Cloud Voices) the move to packaging without plastic. (Although I respect the latter, I'm not thrilled with the naked cardboard sleeves when it comes to either convenience or preservation.) The WTTF Quartet is the result of Frangenheim's time in London in the 1990s, and indeed their first & previous album, Gateway '97 (recorded in 1997) was released (for the first time) on Creative Sources in 2013. So this is something of a reunion item, and the English trio of the quartet spent time years ago with Derek Bailey, et al. Compared to the albums Rodrigues creates & typically publishes, Berlin Kinesis features a prominent & fairly traditional piano part, and its discrete character does color the interaction: The album has a distinctly "classical" sound with its typical dodecaphonic licks & string creaking set against insistent chords. It comes off as somewhat industrial (not so unlike Anomonous, although Berlin Kinesis has no horn, and sounds more classical) in its clanks & creaks. The shifting rhythms even become clock-like at times, marking a real dual to Cloud Voices in the music of this very different quartet. I expect this album will please a broader audience, particularly people who enjoy the older English scene.

Exaíphnes (apparently meaning "suddenly") was recorded in Lisbon this past January, and features Aural Terrains label leader Thanos Chrysakis on piano & harp, together with Ernesto Rodrigues, his son Guilherme, Moimême again, and Miguel Mira on bass. It's a short album, clocking in at 27 minutes, and features Chrysakis's classical sense of form, in a three movement work: There are ringing tones, trying to mark time, fading into a mythical past: A booming foghorn yields to jingling, a distant caravan comes closer: Squeaks shudder, buzzes whistle, and the event moves into the past before we ever seem to catch up with it. Exaíphnes thus has a rather distinctive sound for a Rodrigues album, but Chrysakis's sonorities are also given something of the "cloud" treatment. It's an enjoyable, sometimes sudden(?) ride.

29 September 2015

I just posted an interview with Jeff Shurdut. We cover a number of topics, so hopefully it'll be interesting reading for others.

1 October 2015

I had never heard of Sandra Weiss (Swiss, born in South Africa, studied at Berklee), but decided that I wanted to hear Ramble by the Sandra Weiss Quintet, largely because the quintet includes three fourths of the Carlo Costa Quartet, whose album Sediment from last year I had very much enjoyed. Ramble could have been something entirely different, as far as I knew — and the only prior mention of Sandra Weiss that I could find at the usual improvised sites was in the orchestra on Frantz Loriot's Urban Furrow album — but indeed it has many resemblances to Sediment. In fact, the brief (online) notes for Ramble suggest that it developed from performances of the quintet during Weiss's earlier visits to New York, so even though Ramble was recorded 14 months later, it's unclear in which direction the influence might go — likely both. One thing I've particularly enjoyed about Sediment is how well it zaps earworms, and Ramble is similarly effective, even if the final (and jazziest) track continues to evoke Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" for me (and my time & place is such that I still hear Led Zeppelin constantly in public spaces — it's inescapable): The other quintet member who was new to me, trumpeter Kenny Warren, has the one traditional solo on that track, and it is subsequently obliterated. Like Sediment, Ramble specifically conjures "processes" with most of its track titles — and of course process music is very much in vogue right now — in this case, not so much water-driven: In the "Transition Suite," diffusion, scattering & dispersion name more general physical mechanisms, for instance (and one can perhaps perceive the intended effect on earworms). These are specific sorts of deconstruction, one might say. However, the most engaging track is perhaps the opening "Water in Tubes," and besides naming water, it suggests Weiss's bassoon, which is in many ways a big tube. (The cover photo of the "organ bicycle" manages to be rather evocative as well, even if we never hear this contraption.) What I find so engaging about Ramble, however, is the polyphony: These processes aren't pared down to some sort of essence, but rather invoke a hectic & highly interactive music: Besides some distinctive bassoon (and Weiss is also often on alto sax), some of the clanking from Costa reminds me a bit of kitchen music, and a suddenly held note by one player might yield a wide variety of other interaction. Although it includes some of the now-standard extended sonorities of e.g. Ernesto Rodrigues's recent Surfaces, thunder & squeaking say, there is a bustling familiarity to the interaction on Ramble that I've found consistently engaging. Even within a heavily populated contemporary genre, it's an impressive & ultimately very musical improvised debut.

4 October 2015

Clean Feed seems to have found their album release groove again, and among the recent batch, the most interesting for me was Left Exit by the Scandinavian duo Mr. K (Karl Nyberg & Andreas Winther), joined by Michael Duch (b.1978) & Klaus Holm (b. 1979) to form a quartet at times. It's probably fair to say that I've yet to get a real picture of the Scandinavian scene, although I've certainly mentioned it in this space: There are the well-known & aggressively rhythmic protest styles of Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love, even Gjerstad — the latter featured here in a somewhat more reflective mode on Live Tipple — and the more new age-ish & atmospheric releases on e.g. ECM. I've also featured the Scandinavian quartet album Eye of the Moose, and besides Backer's intriguing vocal technique, that album has the sort of fractured textural density & ensemble interplay that I enjoy. I still think it's a great debut album. Left Exit is also a debut album, and includes some creative ideas of the general "process" sort (as just discussed around Ramble); bassist Duch (who appears to be using his middle name, followed in solidarity by everyone on Left Exit, in order to distinguish himself from the central figure in the Silk Road case) might be the best known player here, having recorded composed music with Rhodri Davies & John Tilbury, and a duo album with Joëlle Léandre. However, the duo of Nyberg & Winther is very much central to the album, having composed much of the music, and framing the basic textural interaction: The other players do seem like invited guests, even in the improvised quartet tracks. As opposed to the Sandra Weiss Quintet, here the musicians pare the "process" style down to its basics much of the time. This approach does yield a Scelsian sense of emergence (another common theme these days), but without the poetic evocations of e.g. Baloni. There's also a sense of limited light coming through in these pieces somehow (perhaps evoking short northern days?). They do a take on gamelan music, for instance, that focuses on timbre & allocates the sounds in different (instrumental) layers than in a traditional ensemble: The result is a strangely minimal shimmering blur, but it's a creative idea. I'm somewhat surprised that Clean Feed took on this rather contemporary album, but there are also some jazz ostinato ideas given similar treatment, although they're generally quiet & not terribly obvious. Mr. K has an interesting & original approach, with a wide variety of influences, and I'd personally like to hear them develop these ideas into more of a fully interactive ensemble context. The minimal approach does make it more accessible, however, I'm sure.

5 October 2015

Having just discussed both Ramble & Left Exit, let me discuss Benoit Delbecq's recent 14 rue Paul Fort, Paris & Ink, released respectively in the same label batches as those albums. 14 rue Paul Fort, Paris, on Leo Records, is the earlier recording of the two, and obviously invokes the Jimmy Giuffre Trio in its instrumentation — a French Giuffre trio, as opposed to e.g. the German trio of Geäder. Indeed, this is a "monster" lineup with Joëlle Léandre & François Houle: Houle & Delbecq had appeared together in multiple albums on Songlines, and Houle & Léandre had appeared together on Red Toucan & Ayler, but as far as I could find, this was the first album with Léandre & Delbecq together. (Actually, I see now at the EFI site that those two recorded together, also in 2013, a trio with someone called Carnage The Executioner.) Although I've oriented this entry around Delbecq, I'm interested in most anything Léandre does, so hearing this album was an easy decision. The result is rather easy-going & equality-oriented in its interactions, often rather more melodic & tonal than much of what I feature here. Indeed, there is a distinct post-Romantic vibe, at times suggesting something of a nostalgic mood — a Proustian lost time, perhaps. (In this, it is perhaps comparable to Hunt at the Brook, although the latter is more overtly dynamic.) We get, then, a transformation of Giuffre-an neoclassicism into a strange post-romantic idiom, i.e. an alternate temporality, if not a lost one. (Geäder is more akin to Giuffre in its jazzy neoclassicism, and much more aggressive.) Although a trio such as Baloni engages a similar sense of harmony & interaction at times, e.g. Belleke also has tracks that are more rugged & raw, maybe inhuman. 14 rue Paul Fort, Paris, however, continues to converse within its beautiful twentieth century garden, even as the sun sets on an era.

Ink, recorded last July, and released on Clean Feed, reprises the trio from Delbecq's highly regarded The Sixth Jump from 2010 on Songlines, with Miles Perkin (mentioned here last December in the context of the bass quartet album Rotations) substituting in for the late Jean-Jacques Avenal (1948-2014). The Sixth Jump is one of those albums that had a distinct effect on me rather early in my exploration of this music. In this case, the effect had much to do with how the description of my reaction was received. Whereas I don't think I explained myself all that badly, obviously my knowledge of how people discuss this music, among other things, was lacking: I talked about the other performers seeming incidental to Delbecq, who got to negotiate all the "juicy" commentary in reaction to the rhythm team. Indeed, I can't help but perceive that Delbecq had much more freedom — in his own music, after all — than the others, who were mostly asked to set the scene. That characterization is somewhat less true of Ink, but it's still obviously Delbecq's album. The other major thing I didn't understand about The Sixth Jump is that having Congolese drummer Emile Biayenda involved was a rarity, and indeed I've heard few African drummers in this music in the meantime. So his participation was clearly a feature, and served to make my other (earlier) comments make less sense. Biayenda appears to have more leeway on Ink, and Perkin also has something of an affinity for the African rhythms (as did Avenal). Anyway, Delbecq's continued freedom to comment & negotiate relative to the rest of the trio mirrors, to some extent, the way he negotiates physical obstacles in his piano preparation (although the album also features some dreamy slow movements that don't seem to have much in the way of obstacles). So those aspects fit together. There's also a sort of mathematical-emotional nexus to the negotiations that I find engaging, with doubling & tripling rhythmic insertions handled in a fairly technical yet original way. Delbecq still seems to be in a world of his own sometimes, relative to the rest of the trio, but there's no denying the ready appeal & personality of his piano trio style. (I don't think that reenacting French hegemony, so to speak, sends the political message I want to send in world fusion music, though.)

6 October 2015

I've been reluctant to discuss some of the more mainstream releases here, in large part because I just end up feeling grumpy. After all, these albums aren't really made for me anyway, right? I've felt particularly ambivalent on that point regarding Pi, however, since the label began with Henry Threadgill, and has featured various AACM performers that I admire. So maybe their albums are for me? That they record younger musicians seems like a good thing in principle, including that their albums automatically get mainstream press by being on Pi, but I've had an uneasy relationship there too: Some of these albums just don't seem like finished products, and even those that do in some sense, I wonder what the point is. I guess one can retort that the point is music for the sake of music. Where's the social consciousness, though, other than some abstract support of the arts? (I suppose there's a bit of "diversity & inclusion" going on too, which is an approach that explicitly keeps fundamental social structures intact.) Are we trying to prove that "our economic system" can support musicians making creative music? That does need proving — it certainly does beyond a small handful of people (since that's how things work here), but that's not really something Pi itself can address (although the various granting institutions involved with their albums could do more in that direction). Anyway, with or despite all of that, I want to say a few things more specifically about Vista Accumulation, the new double album by pianist Matt Mitchell.

I skipped Mitchell's first leader album, a duet with Ches Smith based on etudes Mitchell had created for himself, but had heard him on both Alloy & Blue Dialect (along with Tyshawn Sorey), as discussed here. Going well beyond some personal etudes, Vista Accumulation is a massive album (about a hundred minutes long), and utilizes a prototypical jazz quartet — horn, piano, string bass, drums — or what we'd call in a different context, a broken consort. It's also fair to say that, as opposed to some of my criticism noted above, it's "a finished product": It's basically a series of symphonic poems for those reduced forces, integrating a wide variety of musical allusions into a unified tapestry of post-romantic harmonies. Given the quantity of allusions, which include both classical & popular music, and the rather seamless integration, I found Vista Accumulation exhausting to hear: That reaction fits the title, and would undoubtedly mellow with subsequent hearings. The harmonic style — which stays rigorously within the traditional European 12-tone scale, i.e. no "funny business" with what's a note, etc. — reminds me a bit of Malcolm Arnold with The Moody Blues, and indeed the later twentieth century English symphonists in general, in its extended harmony with modal coloring. As opposed to The Moody Blues use of orchestra, however, the different influences are much more integrated on Vista Accumulation, and the ensemble itself remains the jazz quartet, rather than an alternating style (including jazz "alternation" via solos). So I want to emphasize that the music can readily be heard as "tone poems" for jazz quartet, and that within that heading, the pieces feature an impressive economy of forces projecting some rather dense, modally-inflected music. (There is a lot of chordal thinking, in the post-romantic mode.) So I think I've already indicated what makes the music appealing, and why: It integrates many musical (cultural) references, and does so with an impressive technique, and without rough edges. It takes postmodern pastiche to another level of mastery, but what does integrating cultural references get you? You know what else integrates a lot of cultural references? The inane TV sitcom, Family Guy. These kinds of efforts are basically affirmative of the status quo — although, again, one might cite "diversity & inclusion." Still, it's a lot of modernist nostalgia with no critique: In fact, the last track, called "The Damaged Center" (wow!), even starts explicitly with classic jazz, i.e. critique, only to integrate it into a similar symphonic tapestry, i.e. inclusion. Hurray, no more racism! In other words, the album comes off as pro-establishment (imperializing) music, and aggressively so.

23 October 2015

I wanted to make a note of Four Girls, a more popularly inflected album than I often mention here, recently released on Umlaut Records by the European quartet Peeping Tom, fronted by Berlin trumpeter Axel Dörner. The quartet is configured like the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet, and applies a variety of postmodern musical procedures to tunes or material from popular culture. The latter description could be applied to classic jazz itself, if one substitutes "modern" for postmodern, and indeed Four Girls has a similar level of density — meaning a similar amount of activity — and does not eschew ostinato (a technique critical to the development of bebop) as a valid musical procedure, even as it also includes extended techniques in the squeak & squawk mold. In its use of popular material, and variety & density of procedure, Four Girls might be compared to Left Exit by Mr. K, as discussed here earlier this month, or indeed some of Mostly Other People Do The Killing's albums. Somewhat like Peter Evans, formerly of the latter band, Dörner is known for a "deconstructive" approach, in his case, immanence-based. On Four Girls, again somewhat like Left Exit, one can hear the deconstructed timbres of "alternative" rock, for instance, but combined with other procedures to form a sound that seems unique to Peeping Tom: There is excellent, but not intimidating focus, and variations in tension derived from popular genres. The result is an interesting approach to polyphony, or one might say, musical simultaneity, balanced between the extended techniques associated with deconstruction & musical procedures (such as ostinato) that invoke continuity. Most, or perhaps all, of the tracks are compositions, so the album has a level of spontaneity typical of traditional jazz "head" technique, and gets to be a bit repetitive at times, but I enjoyed hearing Dörner & his fellow musicians in this very different setting.

24 October 2015

Anomic Aphasia, an hour-plus album recorded in New York in 2013, and released on Slam Productions, features guitarist Han-earl Park in two overlapping trios. The first, named Eris 136199, includes guitarist Nick Didkovsky & saxophone player Catherine Sikora, while the second (with no name) includes Sikora with Josh Sinton on bass clarinet and baritone sax. I noticed the album in part due to Sinton, and indeed it has some of the "industrial" quality — together with a similar name — to his Anomonous. Perhaps in keeping with his strange "eris" ensemble name, Park has also developed a machine improviser that participates on two tracks: It makes suggestions to expand upon improvisational strategies, according to "tactical macros," but a musician must accept the suggestion or not. The result is a "noise" (or "organ?") part, I think (if I am hearing what is what), that is something of a timbral extension of the electric guitar, and expands the pallet. Compared to Phase/transitions, another album involving both a machine improviser and some similar sonorities, Anomic Aphasia is not as immersive: The sounds remain more fractured, despite their relatively high density, and usually involve variations on short figures, in an approach somewhat evocative of Feldman, but without projecting a layered rhythmic tapestry. The quick & fractured interplay reminds me a bit of Ewen / Smith / Walter. The last track returns to the two-guitar trio, and takes on an air of rock nostalgia. It's a somewhat exhausting album, particularly due to its fast exchanges, but features quite a few worthwhile ideas. None of it really calls out to me on the personal level — I find the dialog to be kind of repetitive with its narrow temporal interplay — but these are some interesting directions, and I took some time listening to Anomic Aphasia. I also enjoyed the mock music survey that makes up the interior of the liner notes (is that based on something in particular?): The handwritten additions to the latter also imply expanding (improvisational) strategies.

28 October 2015

I first heard Portuguese acoustic guitarist Marcelo dos Reis on Chamber 4, an album that seems to be getting more attention already, and which was discussed here in September as itself something of a followup to For Sale, discussed in April. Dos Reis also started his own label, Cipsela Records, earlier in the year, and another quartet album, Flower Stalk was one of its first releases. The latter actually has no musicians in common with For Sale, and was recorded in Lisbon a year before the other two albums. So, in some sense, it's more of an introduction. Dos Reis leads the Open Field string trio with José Miguel Pereira (double bass) & João Camões (viola), which is joined on Flower Stalk by Chicago pianist Burton Greene (b.1937) in a cross-generation collaboration. It's an immediately appealing album, and I was particularly struck by violist Camões (who also plays the double reed "mey" on the last track), whom I hadn't heard previously & whose playing reminds me a bit of Portuguese free music icon Carlos Zingaro. Flower Stalk comes off as a group conversation, with many of its most appealing moments being in lengthy solos — Greene plays solo for an entire track, for instance — while the other musicians wait or provide subtle accompaniment. They do exchange some shorter phrases at times, and play march-like unisons in the final (more folksy) track, but it's not the sort of ensemble interaction I've come to prioritize here. Still, there are many enjoyable ideas, and it will be exciting to hear more from this growing (to my perspective, anyway) generation of Portuguese improvisers.

9 November 2015

Since early in my exploration of contemporary improvisation, I've been focusing on interesting ensemble interaction, for at least some (possibly arbitrary) values of interesting. Such a focus has led me to eschew solos & duos, for instance, and increasingly to prioritize improvised interactions: I continue to discuss various composed music here, but that's also been figured against an immanent-transcendent duality, and basically a consideration of how or where (and for what purpose) musical structures arise. I haven't claimed — or thought — that compelling interactions can arise only from improvisation, largely because improvisation requires a context, and by the time I hear it, has been "staged" (which one might call composed, in some sense) to a great degree, and correspondingly because composition can create different contexts or stages for improvised interaction. Moreover, since my interest in improvised musical interaction mirrors my interest in improvised life interaction, such a tension between improvisation & composition (which is often recapitulated in naked terms, i.e. simply juxtaposed as such) reflects the vagaries of self-formation, the subconscious, etc. In other words, even when we believe that we're acting entirely of our own accord, there are various influences of which we might be more or less aware. So what sorts of spontaneous personal interactions are "interesting?" That's been a topic to explore in a variety of registers, including musically here.

A recent trio album that furthers such an exploration of improvised musical interaction is Interstices, fronted by Thomas Heberer on Nuscope, with Achim Kaufmann & Ken Filiano. Given the personnel, Interstices presents some obvious points of comparison with other albums discussed here: Geäder featuring Kaufmann has been a favorite since it came to my attention late last year, and indeed that style of chamber interaction — with both Interstices & Geäder using a no-drums ensemble, the latter that of the classic Jimmy Giuffre trio — is a ready reference point, particularly in Kaufmann's piano playing: I continue to question the pitch limitations of the piano, and just how engaging it can be given its lack of flexibility, yet musicians continue to find ways to explore. Particularly with Interstices, an album recorded at Firehouse 12 earlier this year, the limitations of the piano itself serve to create a physical perspective from which to interact musically. Very much in contrast is the technical capacity of Heberer's trumpets & cornet, which often soar over the texture, interrogating their own sense of staccato & legato microtonality. Of course, I just mentioned Heberer on account of his participation in the second HNH, and as he makes his second appearance in this space this year, his personal style continues to be distinctive. Interstices, which also includes a composition each by Kaufmann & Filiano, along with five collective improvisations, illustrates two of Heberer's "cookbook" compositions as well, a form of composing that has proven quite open to spontaneous & relaxed interaction, as heard on e.g. the Clarino Cookbook album. (I find that album to be rather freeing, mentally, although I'm not always calm enough to listen.) Heberer & Kaufmann also released a duo album recently, Knoten (recorded in 2011) on Red Toucan, which likewise features a variety of different tracks illustrating different concerns & characters, and have even known each other since college. They've both known Filiano since the 1980s in Köln too, and even if there have been few albums illustrating their interaction, that history likely contributes to the charged yet relaxed mood. This is actually the first I've mentioned Ken Filiano (b.1952) in this space, although he was the bassist on Bill Dixon's Tapestries album (surely a classic), and also spent some time playing in Joe Hertenstein's Future Drone NYC trio — so there are multiple connections. Whereas the horn often stands out above the texture (of the recorded sound, anyway), the quieter bass can be the last instrument heard. However, it is the technical differences among the instruments that produce the character of the ensemble interaction on Interstices: The very different tendencies of the physical instruments are given free individual expression, both in their characteristic motions & sonorities, and into some extended technique. (Piano & bass are both "prepared" at times, for instance, but rarely very percussive.) The three musicians thus occupy rather different "spaces" within the trio, such that they can all be expressing themselves simultaneously & independently, while also listening & reflecting on material. When material is borrowed from one performer by another, it sounds very different according to the inherent characteristics (or limitations) of the instrument. So whereas — not so unlike Cookbook — it took me a while to really open up & listen to this interaction, I find it quite freeing. It generates its own, multiple sense of space: Such a generation of space from different angles, space that specifically accommodates & respects its inhabitant, is exactly the kind of personal interaction I find appealing out in the world: Extreme physical differences come together to forge not only something more, or not even something more in the additive sense, but rather respectful mutual freedom of expression without imposed roles. (One could describe the roles as emerging immanently from the nature of the instruments. While not a novel idea, such emergence is especially believable here.) Whereas Interstices can be a bit sparse at times, in keeping with its "interstitial" sense of space, the world it opens becomes increasingly lively & compelling.

Ken Filiano also appears on The Fictive Five (recorded in New York last December), a new album on Tzadik by Larry Ochs. The music is all rather composed (by Ochs), and reminds me a bit of Ken Vandermark's work with "Made to Break," i.e. forges a style in which individual pieces might be quite long, and go through an unpredictable sequence of moods & influences. (The overall style then, as what one might call a structural form of postmodern collage, is about transforming musical elements on the fly, such that a figure that played one role in one idiom is seamlessly performing another role in another idiom. Some musicians have called such ideas modular.) It's a boisterous & enjoyable album, and I would imagine that navigating the changes is fun for the musicians. In any case, Ochs uses a quintet with two basses, such that Filiano plays alongside Pascal Niggenkemper, further underlining connections among the musicians above.

As long as I'm writing about bassists, let me also mention two new releases by Damon Smith on his Balance Point Acoustics label: A Place Meant for Birds (recorded in 2013 in Albuquerque) is a followup album to Desert Sweets (2002) by Smith with Swedish horn player Biggi Vinkeloe & New Mexican Mark Weaver on tuba & didgeridoo. (I had heard Vinkeloe on something from DMG, although I've forgotten what, but Weaver was previously unknown to me.) I've had a bit of a soft spot for tuba, and was also intrigued by the nativist connotations of the album (the cover depicts a cowboy with wings, among other things), but didn't find it speaking to me all that much. I enjoyed Vinkeloe more playing flute, but somehow the jazzy sax riffs just didn't satisfy me, and the poem track is more of a recitation — not much ensemble interaction there, but rather accompaniment. Anyway, it's something different. Pulled from deeper in Smith's archive is Burns Longer (recorded in 2008 in Belgium), a live trio album fronted by Fred Van Hove with Peter Jacquemyn as another bassist. It's a long album that reminds me somewhat of Pail Bug, but there's also a lot of post-romantic rambling on the piano, which largely retains the lead role. I can't get into it in a sustained way, although I thought the brief section with accordion was interesting. Still, it was enjoyable enough on first hearing. (And many listeners are probably more open to the piano limitations than I am.) I'm very much interested in what Smith will do going forward, as e.g. his North of Blanco album (with Jaap Blonk) is very distinctive, and of course Spill Plus was the release on the Texas-based Nuscope immediately prior to Interstices.

15 November 2015

When it comes to "interesting" ensemble interaction, and in particular, independent & simultaneous expression & interaction, the Tom Rainey Trio made quite an early impression on me with Pool School. In keeping with my discussions earlier this year regarding my own history of listening, Pool School places me in a strange position relative to my own preferences: When I first heard it, it sounded very unusual to me, but my own background was so limited that I had no real way to contextualize its appeal. Now that the trio has released its third album, Hotel Grief (recorded live in New York in December 2013, by Amandine Pras as part of doctoral research on free improvisation), the history complicates my ongoing appraisal: But whereas personal aesthetic narrative is a complication, I certainly do not mean to characterize it as negative: Obviously Pool School had a big impact on me, but the question now is how to compare its relative novelty with the perceived non-novelty of Hotel Grief, when much of that initial novelty arose from lack of experience more broadly. I continue to hear Pool School as illustrating a highly engaging & creative sense of trio interaction, in which the musicians operate somewhat independently & in their own distinctive instrumental-technical domains, yet with respect & communication. Pool School also went to press very quickly, appearing only a couple of months after it was recorded in 2010. With their second album, Camino Cielo Echo (recorded not so long afterward, in May 2011, also in studio — and as quite a lengthy album), what had seemed to be a rather spontaneous style became more formalized: I called it "more stiff" at the time, and Camino Cielo Echo is also the trio's only album to feature attributed compositions. (In retrospect, whether anything changed between that album & Pool School in regard to the creative process is unclear, but the way it was documented was different.) So whereas Pool School very much had that "diving into the deep end" character for me, in part for personal reasons as discussed, Camino Cielo Echo seemed more formalized: Yet, it also remains compelling in its further exploration of styles of interaction between the musicians, particularly more relaxed interactions, even as the separate domains for the different instruments seemed to become more rigidly defined. Hotel Grief comes a few years later, after regular concerts & tours by the trio, a third album that is also their first live album. (Given the remarks on doctoral research, it's unclear what actually motivated the release.) In any case, the instrumental roles seem far more typical, and the spontaneity much less: I get the impression of listening to a variant on a fairly conventional sax trio at times. (Indeed the extent to which Laubrock comes off as the leader on this album is surprising.) The sonorities used were mostly developed on the earlier albums (although there are a couple of short drum-guitar interactions that seem a little different, plus some taps at the end), and there are more conventional solos & taking turns, rather than fluid roles. (Obviously, taking turns as a model of social behavior has its place, but I personally find simultaneous expression to be more exciting, both in music & in life.) The result is a yet more accessible album, so that's likely a positive for many potential listeners, but the previous exploratory character of the trio seems to have been transplanted (as track #4's botany title might suggest) into an established style. I don't think I'm fooling myself in this assessment, and it's a style I do still enjoy, even if the polyphony is rather less taut, and even if it mostly seems to evoke the (not very distant) past. The whole approach seems more consciously individualized & patient, perhaps more in keeping with a traditional jazz context. Such normalization might even be taken as an achievement in itself.

I recently had a chance to listen to Princess Izumrud, a 2014 release on Fancy Music (recorded in Moscow in 2013) by the trio Metro 3, based on some recommendations by Bruce at DMG. I've decided to mention it here, because the trumpet, guitar & drums trio of Metro 3 — whose website describes them as an "improv, noise, minimalism trio" — reminds me of the Tom Rainey trio sonically. Their sound evokes post-rock at times, together with something of an ambient slant, and seems to take a similar approach to simultaneous ensemble interaction. In this case, much of the energy on the two long (interspersed with three short) tracks come from repetitive (ostinato) arpeggios, which conjure a bit of an Eastern aura at times, juxtaposed with a mostly rather Western orientation. Princess Izumrud is well worth a listen, and leaves me wondering about other music in Russia & Eastern Europe more generally.

Finally, as long as I'm discussing third albums by trios — and I'll note that Geäder is actually a fourth album by a trio, albeit one that manages to seem even more intense somehow — I should mention Ripples, the (also live, recorded in Berlin in 2013) vinyl release by Baloni. Because of its vinyl "barrier," I didn't have the opportunity to hear it until recently, but want to mention that it continues many of Baloni's experiments in simultaneous interaction, often seemingly from a "process" perspective. In this case, perhaps in keeping with the LP format, and as opposed to the CD albums, there are only four (longish) tracks: I particularly enjoyed the opening, which is the longest, for its gritty, almost Scelsian drama. Other pieces come off more as tone poems, with more variation in style & mood within one movement than on their earlier albums. The trio continues to evolve timbrally as well, incorporating more percussive whacks & twangs, even if there are fewer distinct ideas articulated on Ripples overall. (I still don't appreciate the vinyl trend, but I do accept the reasons it exists.) So what to make of these "third album" trends? I'll decline to posit anything universal.

16 November 2015

After a slow start to the year, Clean Feed is in high production, with another eight releases. Half of them are solos or duos, but there are a couple of albums that jumped out at me to discuss, in part because they seem like departures for the label, which appears to be consciously pushing its own boundaries.

Bury My Heart, by the Richmond Virginia-based Scott Clark 4tet, is already attracting attention. Whereas it's a very accessible album — i.e. it's easy to follow, despite its novel combination of influences — it still warrants some thoughts here. I've wondered about Native American influences on "jazz" since early in this project. A problem with that wondering is that it doesn't really go anywhere: Native American genocide & cultural suppression has meant that there's little real information on the topic. Whereas the recent fad for genetic testing has provided something of a picture of the remaining biological connections to pre-Columbian Americans, and that includes connections to many African-Americans according to anecdotes & news stories, I certainly don't want to jump on the corresponding bandwagon for biological reductionism. Whether so-and-so has native blood — and Scott Clark, who "looks white," does identify that way — is secondary to cultural transmission: What is preserved of native music? What sort of impact did it have on early jazz? (I continue to believe that there must have been an impact, although perhaps we'll never know details.) In some cases, that might simply mean that someone heard something, and I think it's fair to ask what cultural appropriation means when the culture being appropriated was already largely destroyed.[1] I don't mean to imply an easy answer, and in any case, Clark & his group are attempting to revive that culture in a jazz context. Bury My Heart is overtly nativist with its titles, as well as its stories of American history (which can be found on Clark's website). I find the resulting music fairly theatrical: Indeed, some of it sounds as though it could be from the soundtrack to a classic Western.[2] It has the character, moreover, of "protest music," which has been an aspect of both jazz & rock, and so is very American.[3] In that vein, Clark's quartet, as do so many others these days, has the same configuration as the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet — and so I guess I'll use that opening (which I hope isn't disrespectful) to wonder about native influence there. Whereas there's e.g. more pentatonic material than is typical on a jazz album, and that appears to be motivated by native practice, the string bass is definitely not a native instrument. Yet, the bass solos have some of the most interesting instrumental technique on the album.[4] The trumpet is probably the most evocative of those old Westerns, but so are the drums at times: There's a "native" slant there, which in practice (at least here) often means rather simple rhythms with a big sound. Harmonic progressions also tend toward the straightforward, but do combine horn sonorities in interesting ways at times (often in unison, almost like an organ). Are these really "the rawest sounds," as the notes suggest? I don't know about that, but I welcome more explicit exploration of Native American style. Where is the USA record label to do it? What would a sonic update for 2015 be like?

In a completely different direction is Di Lontan, by a group called Powertrio, which is Eduardo Raon (harp), Joana Sá (piano), and Luís José Martins (guitar) — with the performers also credited with electronics & idiophones. (Powertrio's first recording, from 2008, is on Creative Sources, but I haven't heard it: What We See While We Walk And What We Walk While Thinking.) Like Bury My Heart, Di Lontan contains no recording date, although it does say it was recorded in Lisbon: Is this music produced in layers over time? I don't know. In any case, it's rather minimalist, with isorhythms, ostinati, arpeggios, etc. It reminds me a bit of some of the minimalist post-rock one can hear on e.g. Cuneiform, and is a joint release for Clean Feed with Shhpuma, marking something of an entry for them into this other genre — whatever it is. The interest to Di Lontan isn't so much in drones or in continuity between styles — it doesn't consciously move through a series of styles like e.g. The Necks — but in the different percussive attacks & decays of the string instruments. Although it slows down at times, the various tinkling & squeaks can be lively, and there are often many individual notes being manipulated at once. I enjoy the more "grating" articulations, reminding me somewhat of Repose and vertigo (which has other dimensions), but the more crystalline plucking also appeals. I wouldn't call the sound "emergent," and it can be a bit repetitive at times (with perhaps an "emergent pattern"), but I found listening to Di Lontan to be mentally refreshing. So that's always welcome.

[1] I should also note that Native American culture was never monolithic, and I don't mean to suggest that it was. Moreover, not only have some tribes maintained identity & continuity to pre-Columbian times, but various tribes have released music albums. I saw & heard a fair number of those releases circa twenty years ago, but the flow seems to have slowed considerably. (I guess there was limited interest?) Some seemed to be based more firmly on tradition, and some seemed more speculative, even if produced by people who identify with that tribe today. I feel as though I'm rambling on this point a bit, but I've yet to see any real analysis of native impact on jazz or other modern forms, and I very much expected that I would by now. So, basically, I'm writing from ignorance, and continuing to wonder who knows what. I feel as though it's important to ask, and I keep thinking that someone will show up & set me straight.

[2] How authentic was the music in the old Westerns? Not at all? Very? I don't know the answer to that, but they also represent some sort of "documentation," for better or worse, from the first half of the twentieth century. (For context, I should note that although I'm not a movie buff at all, I've seen e.g. classic movie scenes that were supposed to include African drumming, but one actually hears Indian drumming. Asian Indian, I mean. So I don't know about popular filmmakers and musical documentary.) Even if the film music has some basis in native traditions, it's still in a very specific context, usually a traumatic context, and also had to fit with what viewers would expect or accept.

[3] In contrast, I wonder about "native" Western sounds on e.g. Hotel Grief, with its surf guitar & desert landscapes, to pick an album I only recently discussed. (I hope it's obvious that the two albums sound very different.)

[4] I don't want to imply that a "native" jazz album needs to stick to native instruments — which would have been winds & percussion. After all, it's been centuries. If Italian food can be associated with tomatoes, or Asian styles with hot peppers, Americans can play string bass. And they do.

17 November 2015

I recently posted another lengthy "theory" article, Morality as aporia. I won't belabor the situation of the piece here, since its context is discussed fairly extensively in its opening paragraphs.

I intend to write another such article in the coming months, and then to turn my attention away from lengthy theoretical writing. (I don't actually know what I'll spend that time doing instead, but I intend to continue writing discussions around individual recordings in this space as before.) This will make more than three years of reprising a theoretical writing role, and that seems like plenty for now.

1 December 2015

Ayler Records has been releasing an eclectic array of material of late, blending the styles & inspirations of its iconic "free jazz" origins with various other musical contexts. For instance, in this space last September, I discussed La Scala, a mostly-composed album spanning various classical & popular musical allusions. More recently, was Spring Roll / Printemps, a "hybrid between theater, music, sound poetry and political manifesto" — a double album devoted to a trans-media interrogation of the so-called Arab Spring. Two of their three most recent albums can be described as having a rock orientation, with last year's Killing Spree being an energetic, improvisational reimagining of "death metal," and the most recent, Métatonal (mastered by Matthieu Metzger of Killing Spree), documenting French guitarist Marc Ducret's classic guitar trio as augmented by a trio of horns. The latter includes Samuel Blaser, and so Métatonal is somewhat evocative of the Samuel Blaser Quartet albums (on Hat Hut) for me, although Ducret remains very much at the center of this album, which incorporates such diverse material as Bob Dylan songs, noise & funk. Somewhat like La Scala (and e.g The Fictive Five, as discussed here last month), the performance becomes at least partly about transitioning through different affective-stylistic domains.

My more specific prompt for writing, however, is Quatour Machaut, a recording made in May of this year in l'Abbaye de Noirlac, and documenting a creative saxophone quartet-based reimagining of Machaut's mass. As opposed to Bob Dylan, one might take Machaut to be canonically French, and here we have a French quartet — fronted by Quentin Biardeau, who composed much of the music — rethinking Machaut on a twenty-first century French label. It's unclear to me how much of the resulting performance is improvised, but Machaut's original material does show through clearly at various times: The quartet worked on the medieval material since 2011, so I don't know how much spontaneity remains in this particular performance, but that interval did allow them to study with medieval musicians, principally Antoine Guerber. The resulting performance takes the mass out of order, with perhaps the most notable change being the Credo near the end. (Maybe belief doesn't come quite so readily for us today, but it seems that it does come, at least here.) Architectural resonances are also engaged explicitly — and evoked in the accompanying photographs of the abbey — perhaps in keeping with some speculative theories on the origin of Machaut's harmonies themselves. The result is "medieval" music, performed with the relatively homogenous sound of a saxophone "consort," yet that sometimes seems to erupt out of itself, and sometimes to coalesce back into itself from far-flung sources. At times the echoes & resonances are jarring, and even seem to exceed the recording medium itself, further problematizing the presence of this music from so many centuries ago. (Such "presence" might even be said to take on a rock character, with an "in your face" quality at times.) Does it sit there passively? Is it insistent? Must it be heard, and in what way? As these questions suggest, the result is a sonic invocation around & through Machaut's material, and makes a very different impression from the more traditionally jazzy A Mirror to Machaut — in part through its focus on a single piece. Quatour Machaut thus questions & provokes our relation to an iconic medieval work, and perhaps to the (precolonial, I should say) French musical tradition more generally. The performance gives a forceful sound to broader questions of time & place.

Coincidentally, Machaut Transcriptions, an album on ECM by the Hilliard Ensemble, and devoted to Heinz Holliger's compositions derived from Machaut, appeared around the same time. Machaut Transcriptions can't really be described as "jazzy" at all, and indeed produces more of a late 20th century (despite the twenty-first century origin of the music) "contemporary classical" mood. In its use of the vocal quartet, and also in its extended harmonics on viola in other tracks, it projects more of the pseudo-medieval stereotype of "ethereal" presence — in sharp distinction to the sometimes aggressive stance of Quatour Machaut. The two albums thus take rather different approaches to mediation & distance.

1 December 2015

I was quite struck by the "sound" of Mad Among the Mad, a recent compilation album by the Australian-French quintet Thymolphthalein. Whereas the fairly extensive liner notes include interesting & sometimes amusing musings & descriptions of the band's experiences, and there are recording locations associated with the different pieces, there are no dates given: We are told that Thymolphthalein was active from 2009 to 2013, and that Mad Among the Mad is a "documentary" followup to their LP Ni maître, Ni marteau (recorded in 2009). While the latter consisted of thirteen short tracks, Mad Among the Mad opens & closes with a short group improvisation, but features four extended compositions, two by keyboardist Anthony Pateras (b.1979, Australia), on whose Immediata label the album was released, and one each by drummer Will Guthrie & bassist Clayton Thomas. (I recognized Guthrie & Thomas from the Australian-French trio The Ames Room, and indeed it was that recognition that caused me to hear Mad Among the Mad.) The remainder of the quintet consists of Natasha Anderson on contrabass recorder & computer, and Jérôme Noetinger on tape machine & electronics. Whereas the sound of the band — and I'm calling them a band, as they do, because of their development of a group sound over years of touring — captured my attention, that the bulk of the album is composed puts it somewhat outside my usual interests, suggesting a comparison with e.g. Glück (as discussed here in September): Mad Among the Mad might similarly be considered contemporary composition, but it does often retain something of a traditional improvisatory feel. The percussive energy & quivering electronic sounds evoke, no doubt because of some vague association with Australia, a sort of totemist articulation or ontology for me, and indeed the timbres themselves continue to have a haunting quality. (In this combination, they remind me a bit of Bruckmann's trio Psychotic Redaction from 2011.) Perhaps one even begins to hear an emerging reconfiguration of the real itself, an overflowing of the musicians' own sources. In more concrete terms, in e.g. Pateras's compositions, an obvious formal reference is Delbecq's piano trio albums (as discussed here as recently as October) in their use of repetitive (in the sense of typical jazz ostinati) structural relations that exploit unusual timbres, and that are in turn "commented upon" by the freer movement of the keyboard. I would be interested in hearing the unique sound world of Mad Among the Mad developed further in a more improvisatory context. I find it quite evocative, even if the compositions seem somewhat limiting: There is surely more here.

2 December 2015

I was immediately interested in hearing Tuning Out, a lengthy double album on Emanem by a trio of Veryan Weston (b.1950), Jon Rose, and Hannah Marshall, when I read the description: The trio toured a series of churches with vintage mechanical (tracker action) organs, on which Weston manipulated the mechanical stops themselves to produce "natural" microtones (when played as a keyboard), which were then inflected, transformed & elaborated by string players Rose & Marshall. Tuning Out, which was recorded on five separate dates at five separate locations in May 2014, reminds me somewhat of Rose's trio album Colophony, which has long been a favorite: The trio combination is once again of a larger string instrument & a keyboard, Barrett on electronics in the case of Colophony, and Weston on historical organs in the case of Tuning Out. (So, in another sense, they could not be more different.) Weston's style had never really resonated with me previously, although I'd heard a few items, including Haste with Ingrid Laubrock, and also Hannah Marshall (as discussed here back in 2012, a time when I still had so little context within which to even hear such an album). However, the present fascination with history & tuning made for a quick connection, refiguring what I had taken to be a rather romantic quality to his piano playing: Although I still hear romance, there is also a gothic quality, maybe even tantric — at times, I feel as though I hear a glimmer of Sorabji, or maybe some nonexistent quasi-tonal occultist of the twentieth century. (I should also note that Weston's interest & participation in such projects is not new. Only my noticing it is: He had already released duo albums Temperament in 2000/2 & Tunings & Tunes in 2005 with Rose, and another duo album with Tony Marsh, Stops in 2010.) The result is a rich & engaging interplay that I've enjoyed repeatedly across its two & a half hour length. The variety of string tone, and its own microtonal variation, together with variations in attack & articulation, complements the microtonal organs well. I've long been taken with Rose's style, and indeed this seems to be a perfect vehicle for him, such that despite its acoustical strength, the organ does not dominate the overall sound. Moreover, not so unlike Quatour Machaut (as discussed here earlier in the week), the resonances of the spaces themselves are interrogated together with tunings, although not in an overly conscious manner. (One might also compare Tuning Out to Phase/transitions, which has at times a similar spatially immersive quality & attention to tuning, despite not being an acoustic recording itself.) I guess I'm late to the party, but Tuning Out has been distinctive & compelling to me since the first hearing: It combines a strange, yet Western ahistorical (even essentializing) sense of historicism with an invocation of an unknown elsewhere or elsewise, perhaps more of that totemic "reality" mentioned in yesterday's discussion of Mad Among the Mad: It doesn't make sense in an analytic way, yet it speaks authentically to difference, somehow.

3 December 2015

On the heels of the brief discussion of what makes for an "interesting (musical) ensemble interaction" opening my November 15th entry, Carlo Costa released an album devoted to an acoustic composition for thirteen musicians, Strata. As sort of the reverse of deliberately eschewing solos & duos, in order to focus on ensemble interaction, I've also largely eschewed "big bands," although not with specific intent. (I believe the largest ensemble previously on an album currently listed in my "favorites" is that on Bill Dixon's Tapestries.) For one thing, there is an economic issue associated with large ensembles: How do musicians make a living in that setting, given that revenues are unlikely to be much higher than for a trio production? Hence, there are a lot of trios appearing here. These large ensemble compositions also tend to come off as very "composed," even as vanity items, and moreover, more musicians participating usually implies a density of sound that makes individual interactions difficult to hear. Add to that my wariness toward musical transcendentalizing, something a composition for so many musicians tends to do, and my interest in such productions is often limited. Indeed, I tentatively listened to Strata with all of these prejudices very much in mind, yet came away extremely impressed by the result: It manages (implicitly) to interrogate my foregoing "brief discussion," and not long after I wrote it.

Whereas I can only speculate on the economics of the situation, what Costa has done with Strata is basically to refigure the other concerns expressed above. Musicians interact in small groups, with only a few playing at a time, such that the interactions themselves are easy to hear. And in terms of form, the sequential metaphor of geologic layers obliterates any notion of dialectic or transcendence: In other words, we move through time in the composition in such a way that different musicians (instruments) are active in different layers, the layers themselves figured as slices of time — and physical layers figured as slices of time is exactly the nature of the geologic inspiration. There is thus no sense of "progress," or of requiring particular resolutions. Some presence continues through layers, and some does not. Such an approach to moving forward in time, combined with the typical sparseness of the musical interactions is somewhat evocative of Feldman for me. However, whereas Feldman's "carpet" metaphor accommodates threads of continuity throughout his pieces, in Strata certain kinds of activity do become extinct, as some continue or begin. The resulting sound is rather different then, in part because of the larger number of instruments in Strata (and hence more sonorities), than in most of Feldman's late music. When Feldman does write for a larger ensemble, in For Samuel Beckett, continuity tends to be even more sustained, yielding something of a wheezing organ-esque sonority to the piece. This is not at all the case for Strata, which one might say retains a crispness across its length: Such "crispness" is in spite of, or perhaps because of, use of extended techniques that occasionally yield something of a "static noise" sound or slow glissandi. (Costa prioritizes acoustic instruments in his work, so here such technique is accomplished via traditional instruments. Whereas I also feature electronic music of various sorts in this space, I do appreciate the elegance, one might say, of working only with acoustic instruments.) Sonically, I might compare the different layers of the piece to e.g. Clarino's Cookbook (which also includes Pascal Niggenkemper), although there the interactions do not yield a longer sequence or broader articulation. The result creates a unique mood that I have found compelling in a variety of situations: Much like Costa's recent quartet album Sediment, which evokes similar imagery, and which included performers from the same pool (other than Steve Swell), Strata creates its own sound world, one that frees the mind from e.g. overbearing earworms, and yields a feeling of attuned lightness. That it is able to accomplish this sort of mental focus for the listener without a lot of sonic activity at any particular time is what presumably yields such a sense of lightness & freedom, and so marks one of the impressive accomplishments of Costa & his cast of supporting musicians.

Another significant accomplishment is the refiguring of transcendence, as alluded above. Whereas I seem to be the only person discussing it in these terms, the immanent-transcendent duality has figured prominently in recent criticism of music under this general heading (jazz, contemporary improvisation, avant garde, etc.). Steve Lehman's Mise en Abîme is a good example of a composed album that is explicitly transcendentalizing, in his case via the overtone spectrum. Another recent, large-scale composed (with improvised elements, as these all have) album that I've enjoyed is Henry Threadgill's In for a Penny, In for a Pound, and whereas Threadgill is not turning toward the transcendental as explicitly as is Lehman, his music exhibits dialectical elements, even as musicians (differentiated in their basic material) are kept in one plane (a plane of immanence, one might say, in the Deleuzian sense). Such a dialectic sequence in Threadgill's composition, which I do certainly enjoy, derives not only from his own "progress"-based sense of his own compositional activity (which one can read in the titles), but in the way the different perspectives of the musicians are articulated through the heart of the piece. True, it doesn't have a consummation, but in Costa's work, such a dialectic (Hegelian) sense of history is utterly denied. Of course, one might figure geologic time as so much greater than historical time that it renders the latter meaningless. So in Strata we hear not so much a plane of immanence being articulated from different perspectives, but a multi-temporal sparseness that moves transverse to such a (worldly, in the linguistic sense) plane. Yet, such a transversal doesn't yield a transcendentalizing stance (what I recently figured as a moralizing stance in Morality as aporia), rather simply another, perhaps impersonal (posthuman) perspective on temporal sequence. Whereas "impersonal music" might seem to be at odds with my priorities in this space, both Strata & Sediment are so successful (at least in my estimation) precisely because they facilitate a different sort of focus — a freeing of the mind — for me as a listener (and perhaps for the musicians too). I hope that at least some of the people who were so enthusiastic about the other albums I've named in this paragraph will hear & appreciate what Costa has conjured into sound with Strata.

13 December 2015

As I mentioned recently on the performance fellowship page, James Falzone has released a mini-album (3 tracks, 16 minutes) inspired by "early music" repertory, Lachrymae (tears), recorded this past September in Chicago. I had no idea that James intended such a "literal" treatment of early music in his project, but the creative sensitivity to style that he & his group bring to the two songs is impressive. There have been a number of contemporary takes on Dowland appearing in the past several years, and I can't say as I'm familiar with nearly all of them, but in presenting Flow my tears sung "straight" in early music style with the contemporary, improvised accompaniment of two clarinets, cello & drums, Falzone's ensemble has intensified my own hearing & experience of this classic melancholy song. The result is captivating, and idiomatic in a way that's difficult to describe. (In some ways, the swirling accompaniment reminds me of Hunt at the Brook, which I had already described in similar terms, although in that case without original songs at its center.) The same can be said for the medieval cantiga Pois que vos Deus, performed likewise with straight vocals & improvised accompaniment, in this case more percussive. The excellent sound of the studio recording supports what are sometimes lush textures that, again, somehow increase the emotional resonance of these old songs. Both are sung by Angela James, a musician with whom I was not previously familiar, but who apparently has a background in country music. Such a background seems perfect for this material, and her early music-style singing is itself a feature. The middle (shortest) track is something of an exception, as it's not based on a preexisting tune or lyric, unless one counts the Lydian mode as a tune: In this case, we hear an overtly contemporary improvisation, featuring overlapping lines & electronic timbres that at times suggest rock feedback. It's a brief but appealing take on the idea of church music & contemplation, and a searching approach to polyphonic superposition more broadly. Perhaps there will be more to come from Falzone & his group in both of these idioms?

Lachrymae serves to continue an interrogation of "presence" for older music, a discussion that I began, coincidentally on the day it was released (which I did not know), in a discussion of Quatour Machaut in this space. What is "authenticity" in such a setting? How does it support or contrast with making the music present, i.e. real, for its listener — who is, by definition, contemporary? Here, Falzone & his Early Music Festival group adopt — or follow — an ethos of sadness in the two vocal tracks, additionally figuring a sense of loss evoked specifically by the lyrics (and presumably tunes) themselves according to their corresponding temporal distance. Is god friend or foe, the cantiga asks, and ends with no answer. Is such distance our friend or foe? (What does such a question say about immanence & transcendence?) The ensemble manages to balance the ensuing tension somehow, without resolving it, yielding a result that seems to leap out from its own sonic container & confront our sense of presence more broadly. So it's a short album (an "EP," James calls it) that is directly enjoyable & captivating, but also thought provoking as regards musical mediation more generally: When we listen to music such as this, mixing present & past, why are we listening? To what are we listening, and what is the point? Likely there is no real answer, but there remain possibilities, both for direct appreciation & the interrogation of presence itself.

14 December 2015

I've been putting off writing some thoughts on Henry Kaiser's massive double album of improvised world fusion music, You Can't Get There From Here, for a couple of months now, in part because I had plenty to do & wanted to give myself time to form impressions, but also in order to consider how I wanted to express those impressions. I was perhaps a little too hasty with my discussion of Kaiser's Korean-tinged Megasonic Chapel back in May, and so I want to revisit some thoughts on that album as well. In fact, whereas Megasonic Chapel was recorded earlier this year, You Can't Get There From Here — which is sixteen different tracks and over 156 minutes of music — was actually recorded back in 2010, but only just released in October. (The recording date is given as "June" in Berkeley, with no indication of how many sessions were involved, whereas Megasonic Chapel is one long track recorded "live" on one day.) So in that sense, Megasonic Chapel is actually the sequel. However, whereas the latter album involved a traditional Korean performer joining four Northern California improvisers, You Can't Get There From Here audaciously combines both Chinese guqin and Carnatic vocal & mridangam with three Northern California improvisers (plus a local Buddhist monk, who besides chanting on one track, is credited with photography). As with Kaiser's other Fractal Music releases, the package (without plastic) is glossy & colorful, and despite the label not having a website (at least that I could find), the album is available through mainstream retailers, as well as through DMG.

The musician billed first in the credits is Wu Na (b.1979), part of the new generation of state-trained musicians in China, and someone who has been touring the world demonstrating qin music. Indeed, Wu opens the first track with some very characteristic qin playing, and whereas surely none of her other performances have been quite like this, her resume includes a variety of adventurous projects. Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, born in Texas, presumably as per his middle name, has an extensive discussion on his website (or did, last I looked) of his circuitous route to becoming a Carnatic vocalist. Although his profession lay elsewhere, his father has also been honored in Carnatic music. Mridangam player Anantha R. Krishnan (who also plays kanjira) is the grandson of legendary mridangam player Palghat Raghu (whom I've heard live in concert several times). Ganeshan can almost be considered a fusion singer on his own, given his other musical activities prior to settling into his family's music, and indeed his smooth voice evokes both khyal & dhrupad at times (even as he can also produce an explicitly Carnatic sound). Joining these three is Kaiser on guitar (whose production this is, if that needs emphasizing), Michael Manring — a prominent student of Jaco Pastorius — on bass, and Danielle DeGruttola on cello, who also performed with Kaiser on Megasonic Chapel. (The Buddhist monk goes by the name Heng Sure.)

So it's quite an ensemble, and Kaiser doesn't say how it came to gather together, whereas Megasonic Chapel was prompted by a specific visit from Korea. You Can't Get There From Here seems to be more planned, in that tracks generally start with some pre-existing material from China or India, which other performers then engage in subtle accompaniment or later in dialog. (An exception is the Carnatic drummer accompanying the Carnatic singer more forcefully.) The environment of the recording, which may have taken place over weeks, thus seems more comfortable, versus the more charged character of the single track on Megasonic Chapel [1], and as such, the latter can be heard as an intensification of a related world fusion impulse. Presumably such a comfort level was significant for attempting the multiple dimensions of fusion in You Can't Get There From Here, and a further significant point for me is that this music is improvised. Yes, it appears to have used existing starting points, but the response from the other performers is not scripted or pre-composed.[3] I have been advocating for such an exploration of possibility, and here we have extended documentation of just that: This is why I want to do the album justice, specifically because exploration is its own value, and by documenting it, many of us can now share in what the musicians discovered or created. What can music be like in these intersections? This is collective exploration, not something imposed externally or by one participant, and so reflects the sort of social relations I value. (I hope I am sufficiently clear on this point.) So whereas there's a sort of calm to the result — what one might even be inclined to denigrate as "new age" [4] — the calm seems to have been constituent of the experience of exploration itself. Moreover, these constituent musics, and I will speak particularly of Carnatic music here, have their own particular expectations, meaning that tension itself is derived formally. (Such an observation relates to my renewed comments on pulse in [1], as well as the relatively low energy level throughout You Can't Get There From Here.) There can be no real play of anticipation in such an exploration, because there cannot be anything more than vague anticipation. This is a structural issue, but certainly not a reason to abandon exploration. As such, whereas one can easily enjoy the result, and it can be described as calm (as I've done), one would not describe it as passionate, overflowing, etc. It's more tentative than that, albeit featuring high level musicianship, and that's OK.

The track titles often reflect Indian or Chinese inspiration, amid a mixture of quasi-sarcastic or flippant turns of phrase that presumably come from Kaiser.[5] (The album title itself presumably refers to the difficulties of such exploration, and moreover to the need to simply begin somehow.) The resonance of the mridangam is captured quite well in the recorded sound, which also facilitates intimacy from the voices, as well as harmonics & overtones from the strings. Kaiser appears to play his guitar in harmonics at various points, in part to parallel the qin, such that it isn't always clear which instrument is coming to the fore — although I believe I distinguish the qin itself rather easily from harmonics on guitar or cello or bass. (And note that there is no piano here. The only quasi-fixed pitch instrument is in fact the drum.) Manring also appears to have spent time learning veena technique, because he credibly evokes the (rudra) veena in some moments. DeGruttola also plays a passage that could pass for North Asian bowing technique. One of Wu, Ganeshan or Kaiser is usually in the foreground, and I mention the sound specifically, because balancing these instruments doesn't seem particularly easy. There is not much "noise" or electronic feedback, although it stands out when it does appear (such as a few minutes into the opening track), as the mood & pace tend to remain relaxed. CD2#5 does show a bit of "counterpoint" emerging between strings, but as noted, musicians tend to either accompany (i.e. remain in an obvious secondary role) or wait to take the lead. Readers will know that I tend to enjoy music with more going on at once (if not polyphony per se), and it's fair to ask if that preference is cultural. It certainly is, but I'm also going to excuse myself for raising it in this context, specifically because of the social imagery that I've used so many times: The world involves many people doing many different things at once, and those sorts of relations are what I appreciate interrogating in ensemble music. So whereas simultaneous activity might not fit all of these traditions, it does fit the context of this exploration itself — or so I say. In this sense, the exploration is not genealogical or historical, i.e. does not appear to seek origins in how these musics might fit together.[6] Rather, it strikes off for something new, and I think that's a necessary approach, not in every circumstance, but in some. So what is the result of all this inspiration? We can hear it in the double album, of course. As far as my response? Not every moment is all that exciting (and keep in mind that I know the qin & Carnatic repertories pretty well), but there are some new collective ideas emerging, and I'd like to hear subsequent attempts to build on what was developed, and find out where (else) it might go. This is the sort of sincere attempt to play together that we need. Maybe at some point it will indeed overflow itself.

[1] When I discussed Megasonic Chapel back in May — and even included a note about plans to reconfigure my world music listings [2] — it was the element of "pulse" that was handled most hastily. Albeit improvised with a variety of non-standard elements (to say the least), in its sectional character, that album reflected something of the "sanjo" suite format, which focuses on a single line, and so in some sense, on a single pulse. However, the Korean sense of pulse in sanjo is much more highly charged than what I heard on Megasonic Chapel, leading to some other comparisons. Those comparisons were off base, though, and so any simplification in pulse should be attributed to the performers themselves & the novelty of their exploration. Or, in other words, they had plenty to think about already, and articulated quite a bit. Perhaps in part because of the constraints of the piano, but more likely because it came five years later, Megasonic Chapel demonstrates a more richly nuanced interaction than did You Can't Get There From Here. If anything, the temporal relations are more sophisticated.

[2] And I did reconfigure my world music listings, although I'm still not learning of as many new recordings as I might like — assuming that they exist. Regarding You Can't Get There From Here, my study (and in turn, extended discussions) of both Carnatic music & music for qin (or guqin, the prefix indicating its ancientness) go back to the 1990s. I don't want to tire readers with those references (or my own vanity), but coincidentally, the album does involve a set of influences that overlap considerably with my own.

[3] I want to make a brief mention of Jen Shyu's album Sounds and Cries of the World, recently released on Pi. Whereas Shyu is a talented singer, and I particularly enjoyed the track where she sings in traditional Javanese style, the result is a composed album that specifically lacks interesting qualities from the other performers. I kept wondering why they were there, as they're generally kept so clearly in an accompanying, background role. This is the sort of thing that comes out of generous arts grants, apparently. Personally, I think that Shyu is getting bad advice (at least artistically) in producing an album like this.

[4] Tangential to the "new age" issue, which I take to be at least partly one of appropriation, it does seem fair to ask about the politics of Californians mediating fusion between India & China. Perhaps this reflects or critiques my own personal setting, however.

[5] Although his music sometimes seems sarcastic to me, i.e. that's how his anti-authoritarian streak seems to manifest, it's also worth noting that Kaiser includes women in these projects. The quintet on Megasonic Chapel was majority female, in fact. (Perhaps this also underscores a threat to any project of this type, though, which is simply to embrace "diversity" per se, without expecting real engagement. The remarks of [3] can be read in these terms as well.)

[6] For music that invokes at least a tentative search for origins, let me mention (French medieval singer) Dominique Vellard's exploratory fusion album with (Carnatic singer) Aruna Sairam, and in turn their "triple fusion" album with Moroccan music, Trialogue: In that case, Andalucían music has a tangible historical connection with European medieval music, and the origins of Western plainchant are usually figured in the East, at least as far as Syria. (That Western chant styles are ultimately related to those of India continues to be a theory in circulation, I believe, although little conclusive evidence seems to exist.)

16 December 2015

Probably the best thing about writing about music on the internet is that musicians not only find my remarks, but reply. With all the big commercial interests inundating the online world over the past two decades (or more, in some arenas), it's reassuring to know that real people can still find each other & communicate, and without having to be mediated (or maybe not so much) by those greed-oriented institutions. Frankly, sometimes I need that kind of unexpected interaction, because so much of my daily experience online involves the soulless profit-seekers restructuring interactions more & more to their own liking, specifically in the image of broadcast media, where people without billion dollar resources are figured as passive consumers (other than inane, carefully circumscribed bite-sized "comments" that only serve to reinforce the overall hierarchy) — a model that many of us sought to flee in coming to the internet in the first place. It can be depressing. Anyway, perhaps that's too much end-of-year melancholy, because as I said, one of the best things is hearing from someone engaged in creative work: In this case, Portuguese violist João Camões (b.1983) read my remarks on Flower Stalk from last month, and sent his other two recent albums. They're very different, both from each other, and from Flower Stalk, and also rather captivating.

The oldest of the two, both in terms of release date & recording date, is Earnear on the French Canadian Tour de Bras label. Before I get to discussing the album itself, please indulge me in another tangent. (I feel somewhat guilty that I'm forcing this music to do the work of supporting some of my own personal tangents, but then, bringing forth a variety of personal reactions is also what characterizes some of the best art.) After deciding to add Earnear to my favorites, I went to look for where to buy a physical copy: It turned out that it had appeared as a new release at Squidco this past February, and although I had totally forgotten, in retrospect, I'm sure I saw the listing, and had passed on ordering a copy. (My preference for something I can simply pop into a relatively low-tech CD player has probably already been over-discussed at this point, but I loathe the current generation of commercial technology. It feels as though it's designed to fight against me at every step.) Since I came to enjoy this album so much, the natural question, at least for myself, is why I passed over it at first. In this case, I do remember the answer: I wondered why a Portuguese trio recorded in Portugal was appearing on a Canadian label, what with such fine Portuguese labels available, but that wouldn't have decided things by itself. Rather, the recordings themselves are from late 2010 & early 2011, two sessions & a while ago. And I have a prejudice, if you want to call it that, for recent music. Of course, I hope that prejudice is active more in my pre-hearing decision-making than it is in my actual listening. Some sort of filter on the former is unavoidable, after all. Also, upon specifically admiring Camões's playing on Flower Stalk, I did not notice that he had appeared on this earlier album. (I thought I had looked.) Anyway, those are my perhaps overlong thoughts on coming to hear Earnear (which I should put in lower case, in keeping with the packaging) & supporting it commercially. I also listed it under 2014 here, because that's what the package says, although João called it a 2015 album.

Earnear features João Camões on viola, Rodrigo Pinheiro (b.1973) on piano, and Miguel Mira on cello. It can thus be compared to a classical piano trio, but with a twist: There's a viola instead of violin, a choice that seems to reflect a fairly broad preference in contemporary European improvisation, and Mira's cello is tuned in fourths, like a bass. Pinheiro has a rather extensive discography, particularly with the Red Trio (a piano trio in the classic jazz sense), plus e.g. Clocks and Clouds. I had mentioned Mira, apparently the senior musician of the trio, in September in conjunction with the quintet album (featuring Ernesto Rodrigues & Thanos Chrysakis) Exaíphnes — so that bright & tightly-constructed album featured more of an all-star cast than I'd realized. It's also, like the other albums mentioned here, a more recent recording than Earnear. Unlike Flower Stalk, which I noted had rather a soloistic emphasis, with the musicians taking turns in the lead, or e.g. Chamber 4 (which also features Marcelo dos Reis, as well as musicians with various connections to these groups, although not Camões), which takes something of a "tour through music history" approach, Earnear is rather tightly integrated & contemporary: It's virtuosic (as are those others), florid even (with the viola sequence setting the tone from the beginning), and features the three musicians interacting closely & often simultaneously. (In fact, the highly detailed sound overwhelmed the capacity of my computer playback at times, although I'm sure that commercial device was also prioritizing activity I did not choose, as it so typically does.) In that sense, it couldn't be more different from Flower Stalk, and it's exactly these sorts of close, improvised musical exchanges that I so often find compelling. The music is not always abuzz with activity, but does also tend to feature a pointillistic quality, almost evoking Bartok at times, albeit in a newly distinctive idiom. The combination of overstruck high notes on the piano with pizzicato is one particularly appealing sound woven into the overall fabric of interaction, alternating as it does with booming low chords to provide a wide variety of moods supported by extended technique. I couldn't find anything else quite like it, although perhaps I could mention Scelsi's "heartbeat of the Earth" in Okanagon, although Earnear has more simultaneous activity and a bit of a Romantic sweep at times. (It might likewise be taken as refiguring Ligeti in the Clocks and Clouds sense, at least sometimes. Yet this is not in the mode of a tour, but rather a more unified rethinking.) Indeed, I don't know of an improvised album with a similar ensemble either, but I can mention a few with two instruments from the violin family: Pail Bug (another "piano trio" variant), Colophony, Growing carrots..., the recently discussed Tuning Out, Birds Abide (admittedly very different with voice instead of piano), or farther afield even e.g. Live at Vision Festival, Friction, Live at Banlieue Bleue, Nor, etc. Well, this list quickly becomes idiosyncratic. Perhaps a better comparison would be Geäder, despite its different sonorities, with its intense & intimate classical interplay, likewise compiled from multiple sessions. None of these albums is much like Earnear though, a remarkably coherent yet fluid artistic statement from these three musicians, and especially from João Camões, who was not even thirty at the time. That I've struggled to find anything comparable is testimony to the creativity & talent involved in what seemed superficially to be a fairly ordinary trio idea.

The other album from João was recorded much more recently (January & February of this year) — indeed more recently than any of the others mentioned here — Bien Mental on Jean-Marc Foussat's Fou Records. (I have yet to see this album for sale in the US, although I saw it mentioned in a comment elsewhere.) Besides frequent Léandre collaborator Foussat (b.1955) on electronics, Bien Mental features Claude Parle (b.1947) on accordion, a musician with whom I was not previously familiar. Parle, whose explicit interests include dance music, is very much central to this trio, although Camões makes for a vigorous & transformative counterpart, yielding a unique trio sound. Although it's also difficult to point to an ensemble that's actually the same, I find comparables (a term I guess I'm going to borrow from a field to which I'm otherwise quite averse, real estate) for the sound of this trio much easier to find: The already mentioned trio of Colophony, Growing carrots..., & Tuning Out, as well as, and in particular, Phase/transitions, likewise featuring an accordionist (Oliveros) with the other two musicians on electronics & a more conventional classical instrument, in that case saxophone. All of these albums feature what I've described in the past as an "immersive" sound, sometimes slower-moving & atmospheric in this case, with those with strings in particular punctuated by elements of discontinuity. Perhaps in keeping with its mental health evocation, Bien Mental also has a bit of a stormy quality, rumbling & swelling, and uses more ostinato technique than the other albums mentioned. The electronics often add a mesmerizing quality to the accordion-viola dialog, but at a few points, Foussat resorts to what I can only describe as "synthesizer clichés" (perhaps intended in a nostalgic vein, or maybe simply to deconstruct the sound of car alarms). The result seems more explicitly human in that sense, at least as compared to some of these other albums that evoke weather, animals, etc. (It's also interesting that as different as Bien Mental & Earnear sound, my comparisons do overlap.) The result is another novel & creative improvised sound combination, also well worth hearing. There are parts of it that I thoroughly enjoy. Indeed, I'm interested in hearing more from any of these performers, and as I hope this discussion makes clear, Camões is clearly a significant new (at least to me, this year) artist on the improvised music scene. The three albums I've heard from him could hardly be more different, yet his contribution to all three groups is striking.

One final thought brought to mind by these two rather different albums is that I've yet to hear an album by the Open Field String Trio by itself, the group supplemented by Burton Greene on Flower Stalk. With the attention Marcelo dos Reis is receiving this year, both here & e.g. on the Free Jazz Blog's end of year awards, such a hypothetical release in the wake of these successes seems like it will be an event. (I'll look forward to hearing more from bassist José Miguel Pereira as well.)

29 December 2015

This is the first year in decades that I'm not producing any sort of "end of year" item myself, and I have to say, I think it's been the right decision — at least for me. In this space, my favorites are already arranged by year, so people can easily consult them in that fashion whenever they wish: That approach also serves not to prioritize one particular moment in time, such as this one, in which whatever I prefer rises to the top as a quasi-permanent decision. A year is a long time in terms of reactions, thoughts & preferences. (It also means that albums dated 2015 that appear later can still be added happily to my 2015 list, with no issue, and some may well be.) And now that I'm not doing the yearly medieval review, I'm not feeling pressured to write anything around the new year, so that's nice. (I managed to celebrate my new freedom with a nasty head cold, so that wasn't as nice.) What this means, though, is that I can sit back and read other "record of the year" lists in a more relaxed manner. That's been enjoyable.

Before some comments about other people's favorites, and after having gone through a whole series of recent followups to albums that found their way into my thoughts fairly early in this project, I had a question for myself that I thought might be vaguely interesting to others. (Whether it's really interesting to anyone else, I'm not so sure, but I'll note it anyway.) I started writing here in October 2010, and as noted at the time, my views of the music were far from polished. Yet, at least for my own practice, jumping in & attempting to express myself was going to yield better & faster results than continuing to wait. I think that's proven to be true. Anyway, there were a lot of clumsy comments — still are, I imagine, and there probably will be below: I still don't want to limit myself to thoughts I'd stake my life on, so to speak. That said, it appears that some of my current preferences were taking shape by May & June of 2011. Among albums that are still favorites here, This Brings Us To was the first one mentioned. That was followed closely by Pool School & then Organic Modernism almost simultaneously, with all three mentioned in May, and discussed in more detail in June. (I find the fact that these earliest mentions happened so close together to be striking.) Of those, the latter was a new release, whereas the other two had appeared in 2010 (or even 2009). Among musicians who are still featured here, I had already discussed albums by Steve Lehman & Steve Coleman in May 2011, and first discussed a Kris Davis album that June. I only just discussed a couple of new items by Benoît Delbecq in October, and he was first mentioned here in January 2011. The next current favorite mentioned was Polylemma in September 2011. OK, enough of vanity, but I guess I wanted to note that some of those discussions go, relatively speaking, almost to the beginning of this project, even if some of my thoughts at the time were, frankly, silly.

One thing my enjoyment of Polylemma accomplished, so to speak, was to connect me to some music writing outside of the mainstream US media (i.e. New York Times, NPR, etc.). Polylemma subsequently won "Best New Ears" at (what was then) the Free Jazz Blog, and I continue to watch that poll & other end-of-year lists there with interest. Whereas the interests of some of the writers there don't line up much with mine, as usual, I found some things I enjoyed from reading their lists. Perhaps the most striking, I suppose in an understated sort of way, was Caro's Song by Vox Arcana: The latter is a trio performing Tim Daisy's compositions, featuring James Falzone & Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Caro's Song is their 4th or 5th album (with one apparently being in doubt). It's both more composition-based, and features more traditionally jazzy sonorities than much of what I've prioritized here lately, but Caro's Song also (and consequently) seems like an album that more people would enjoy. Indeed, speaking of Delbecq from the previous paragraph, it's often lyrical, and its sometimes sentimental or reflective moods seem comparable to those of 14 rue Paul Fort, Paris, another trio album that received some end-of-year attention on the same site. Daisy plays the marimba on some tracks, giving a bit of a keyboard trio vibe, and Falzone's clarinet is masterful throughout — not much extended technique, but "straight" clarinet navigating a variety of moods & textures. Lonberg-Holm plays something of a traditional bass part at times, although his long bowing sequence in the opening track is a highlight, and he cranks up some electronic noise by way of rock references by the end. Textures are often sparse (or open) & soloistic, although there is some fine three-way dialog at times, including in the more openly folksy or nostalgic (drawing on world music) passages. Particularly in its more classic moments, the sound reminds me a bit of Falzone's group Klang, of which Daisy is also a member. I don't know much about Caro as a sculptor, so can't assess the album as an homage, but Caro's Song seems like an appropriately relaxed & masterful album for this time of year — even if it was released in May. So thanks to the trio, and to the Free Jazz Collective, for noticing something I hadn't.

Although Caro's Song is often evocative of the timbres of classic modern jazz, it does have its "rock" moments, and indeed rock- or even heavy metal-tinged albums continue to be featured in many people's end-of-year lists. It's certainly not heavy metal, but let me mention Gordon Beeferman's recent Four Parts Five, a rather composed & fairly short (30 minutes) album on Innova: In the "rock band" mode, it features very close coordination, even synchronization, between the musicians in the quintet (which also features bassist James Ilgenfritz from Beeferman's Out in Here trio), such that they seem like composite instruments (usually) in dialog. Although closely repetitive, and so in a sense minimalist, Four Parts Five nonetheless generates a lot of rapid activity & interplay: Its timbre-chord combinations change in particular elements over time, although there is more of a striving tension (dialectic, even?) than in Feldman's style, which might otherwise be described in similar terms. The different perspectives in the different "parts," also one fewer than the number of musicians, evokes something of Threadgill too, although in either case, the composition might best be approached via post-rock in its technical idiom. The result can almost be described as dance music (which the liner notes do mention), perhaps for some kind of mechanical toy — a figure with distinctive movements captured in a rapid series of stills (like a movie), punctuated by "impossible" moments for effect. (It might also be described as some sort of strange street dance.) The close rhythmic alignment facilitates this. So whereas it's "new age"-like in some of its sonorities, Four Parts Five ends up being very physically evocative, including in psychedelic & hypnotic guises. The overall effect is mentally refreshing, and although mostly tonally based, it smashes earworms in its own mechanical way.

An album that plays on continuity & variation is evocative of various other recent efforts, such as the recent The Fictive Five (which doesn't generally hold pulse across other changes, so no mechanical toys there), even if the sounds are very different. It's a basic musical idea (particularly well-developed in late medieval music, for instance), but also a contemporary trend. One might describe Pulverize the Sound, a "heavy metal" trio album (from Peter Evans, Tim Dahl, Mike Pride) that was much-liked at the Free Jazz site, in some similar terms: To me, enjoyment of that album is really about the raw (noisy) sonorities themselves, though, because the formal variation is not as engaging. If anything, among similar albums in the lists there, I enjoyed The Conjuring more: Although it's program music (which people now call "film music," it seems), which isn't normally my scene, the three wind players (Evans, Matt Nelson, Dan Peck) are quite evocative within the "doom metal" idiom — not so unlike Peck's band The Gate, which has a new cassette (Chuck), and has also featured Dahl of late. (Wind trios can revel in small-scale nuance.) Within that idiom, no one who is really into it — and I should probably be reluctant to guess what people who have different priorities from mine might actually like — seemed to give much attention to Matthieu Metzger's Killing Spree on Ayler, which to my ear is at least as rich a tapestry.

Anyway, in the coming weeks, I'll get back to my more usual material, so to speak: There are already some new & appealing albums sitting on my desk (not "desktop"), and I don't have to worry about whether I wedge them into a 2015 discussion or not....

5 January 2016

When discussing Left Exit, an album by the Norwegian duo Mr. K and a couple of guests, back in October, I already had occasion to mention Frode Gjerstad, and so that's a natural place to begin a discussion of Monkey Plot & Frode Gjerstad, a new album on FMR Records. The former was recorded in June 2014, and the latter in October 2014. Whereas the former featured Andreas Winther (b.1991) on percussion, the latter features older brother Christian Winther (b. 1989) on acoustic guitar, who together with Magnus Nergaard (b. 1989, bass) & Jan Gismervik (b. 1988, drums) form the trio Monkey Plot: Their web site states that it would be "wrong" to categorize Monkey Plot's music as "improvisational." I'm not sure what that means, whether it's a reference to particular stylistic expectations around improvisation, or a suggestion that the music is clearly planned or composed. I note that the latter notion is not given an affirmative statement, but it's quite possible — as it was on Left Exit — that the core group is playing set pieces, while the guest(s) improvise(s). Regardless of the precise way in which their music is created, Monkey Plot presents some similar results: The music seems almost disinterested, quietly swirling with a variety of motions that nonetheless seem to lead nowhere, in a basic denial of "progress" or dialectic tension. Things just sort of happen. In that, perhaps the music comes off a bit like that of monkeys at typewriters, creating random plots. It also evokes similar sorts of coloring as does Mr. K, partial lighting suggesting something of a spooky atmosphere inhabited by trolls & other fantastic creatures that are somehow embedded in or revealed by quasi-everyday sounds. (This is a twenty-first century version of the sonic world of Grieg then?) If it's pre-composed, it nonetheless retains a spontaneous or arbitrary quality, upon which presumably Gjerstad's part is improvised. He doesn't engage in "heavy metal" or protest technique on the horn, but rather adopts a similar atmosphere of partial lighting & ideas about to fade back into fractured squeaking. The resulting acoustical timbres & interactions continue to forge a distinctive Nordic mood, and in spite of its use of fairly regular pulse, the music articulates an arbitrary & non-Hegelian quality that seems broadly relevant to the contemporary world of globalization in the absence of grand narrative: It's a non-statement that resonates across temporal streams.

11 January 2016

In my first January entry this year, I remarked (parenthetically) on the small-scale nuance available for exploration by wind trios, and whereas one obvious reference for that statement is the relatively differentiated setting of World of Objects, "reveling" in nuance can be accentuated by using the same instruments, or indeed by adding a fourth performer: Cold Duck, recorded in Zürich last January, and released on Poland's Monotype Records, provides just such a setting, four leading improvisers exclusively playing soprano saxophone: John Butcher, Christian Kobi, Hans Koch, Urs Leimgruber. Of course, Butcher is well-known, and is also a relatively well-documented musician who continues to attract my attention. I first mentioned Koch here in conjunction with the Creative Sources album Species-Appropriate Animal Husbandry — and indeed his Koch-Schütz-Studer trio might provide something of a parallel to Monkey Plot from the previous entry, in its work featuring other performers. Leimgruber was mentioned in this space even earlier, especially with the MMM Quartet (whose new album I should have a chance to hear very soon). Kobi (b. Bern) was the one performer who was new to me, and I wonder if Cold Duck was his idea. Regardless of the latter, there are some wonderful interactions among this quartet (called "S4" on the cover), spanning a large swath of the hypothetical space of intersecting soprano sax possibility. The nine tracks are presumably all improvised, and it appears that the musicians had plenty of chance to try out their individual & collective ideas in this context: I continue to find the album quite exciting, right from the beginning, whereas the ideas seem to flag a bit by the end & become more predictable. (Might this process be described instead as forging a distinct style?) Even if it doesn't fulfill all the promise the listener might anticipate from the first few tracks, the result is highly engaging, proving the worth of its four-soprano concept. It's basically impossible not to be drawn into the interaction, even or particularly as it crystallizes into more static forms over the course of the album — only to emerge as a subtly reanimated (one might say) landscape in the final track. Is Cold Duck a one-off, or will S4 continue to explore as an ensemble?

12 January 2016

Creative Sources continues to release many interesting albums: There are some themes, in terms of musical style, among their releases, and also some performers who continue to appear, but there also continue to be albums by new (to me) musicians doing new things. So I pay attention, and even though distribution to the US has been spotty, one can always order directly from Portugal. However, some items did appear at Squidco recently, and given the size of the catalog, it can be interesting to see what (subset) actually gets imported. There were six albums in this batch: Three I had already discussed in this space: Exaíphnes featuring Thanos Chrysakis (also with label director Ernesto Rodrigues), Berlin Kinesis featuring Alexander Frangenheim with London improvisers, and favorite Nor. Two others are vocal duo albums, and given their appearance in this import selection, I decided to set aside my personal eschewal of duos, temporarily, and have a listen: Voice & Percussion features Andreas Backer, who had already released the solo album Voice Improvisations as a followup to favorite Eye of the Moose, with Raymond Strid on percussion. With its Tarzan yells & alarm clocks, I didn't think Voice & Percussion (recorded in Sweden in September 2014) was exactly subtle in its interactions, but more from Backer is welcome; perhaps people with more appreciation for duos will enjoy it more. Radio Tweet (recorded in Hamburg back in 2012) features Ute Wassermann on voice, and Birgit Ulher on radio electronics, trumpet, etc. Although she has several albums with an older layer of (especially) British improvisers, this was my first real exposure to Wassermann & her unique vocal style, featuring as it does an interrogation of human presence via the voice — from bird whistles to growling. Although the interaction is limited to the possibilities of a duo, I found Radio Tweet to be rather captivating, given its explicit interrogation of human presence, particularly in combination with electronic static. There's a resulting distance that both emphasizes & attenuates our contemporary media landscape. Where is the posthuman here, or is it here? Including Isabelle Duthoit on Kochuu (discussed here back in March), Creative Sources has suddenly become the leading label for contemporary vocal improvisation. Anything comparable is scattered, perhaps, across other catalogs.

The sixth album in the batch from Squidco was Sieben entrückte Lieder by a trio of Frank Gratkowski on horns, Richard Scott on electronics, and Michael Vorfeld on percussion. Sieben entrückte Lieder was already on my list to order from Portugal, so prompted the domestic order. Vorfeld (b. 1956) is part of the percussion quintet Glück, as discussed here in September, and his musical interests (perhaps relevant here) include deriving sound from the spatialization of light. I was not previously familiar with Scott, but in working with improvisers in Berlin (and Sieben entrückte Lieder was recorded there this past February), his output seems reminiscent of that of Richard Barrett, another electronics musician who has appeared on Creative Sources (and e.g. with Gratkowski on Skein). It's an appealing trio, even if the result includes a number of the usual blips, blurps, burbles etc. that one comes to expect from such a combination. Despite the tendency toward pointillism, sounds can become more tangible & sustained, perhaps even evoking a bit of "kitchen music" at times. The trio often come back to a swirl of resonances in which the individuals are not particularly legible, but there's also a tendency toward transcendentalism. The "ethereal" description from the title is one I've found a bit triggering at times in medieval contexts, since it seems to be a popular way of signaling the eschewal of a close relationship with the music during performance, of drifting off into some kind of meaningless haze.... Medieval music isn't going to come to mind for most people in this context, although some of the techniques could be compared to e.g. Quatour Machaut, but that desire to push outside itself, or to be elsewhere (to put it differently), sometimes moves the resulting music into a domain where I have to question its practical impact. Or maybe it should simply be heard as a further evocation of possibility. In any case, there are many compelling passages to Sieben entrückte Lieder, even if the overall result doesn't keep a strong hold on my attention. That sort of transcendental motion isn't ubiquitous, but the album doesn't have the immersive qualities of e.g. Anomonous or Primary Envelopment, albums which utilize some similar sounds & techniques, but forge a sense of place rather than yearning for something else. I'd consider a "nomadic" interpretation of Sieben entrückte Lieder, accordingly, but can't quite reconcile that with the "ethereal" ("enraptured" in more literal translation, which begs for an interpretation around capture) notion. Still, it's an enjoyable album and a striking textural vehicle for Gratkowski, whose participation will surely attract more attention.

There are already newer releases from Creative Sources, and so I turned to Portugal to hear the next trio album featuring Scott, Natura venomous by Parak.eets, a group combining Wassermann's voice with Emilio Gordoa on vibraphone & percussion. Natura venomous was actually recorded (also in Berlin) a month before Sieben entrückte Lieder, so in that sense, it's the latter which is a followup, and indeed Scott's contributions show similar concerns. However, rather than Gratkowski's horns, we instead get to listen to Scott interact with & modulate Wassermann's fascinating vocal technique, encompassing as it does various other objects to "disguise" the voice. (We might also want to ask at this juncture whether it's appropriate to describe ordinary classical or jazz horns as disguising voices. Somehow I never see this description, although the technological assemblage is essentially similar to what Wassermann is doing. If anything, we might say that the horn is more of a disguise.) And instead of German percussionist Vorfeld, we get to hear Gordoa (who I have not heard otherwise) from Mexico, and primarily on prepared vibraphone. Between the low rumbling bass (produced by whom, I'm not sure, but likely Scott) and whistles, coos & trills, the chirping analog electronics combine with various blips from the vibes to suggest some sort of alien, quasi-organic technology. Indeed, the album sometimes seems to be made of the sorts of sounds that supposedly "intelligent" computers were making in bad 1960s & 70s sci-fi. Yet, despite what I can only describe as "silly" associations with such sonic products, Natura venomous ends up being remarkably coherent & compelling. (It even maintains a mood through heavy outside noise, in my unfortunate case, two-stroke leaf blowers.) The "organic" component of the sound suggests a horizon of technological mediation, drawing partly on the explorations by Wassermann noted above, but yielding a new naturalism, a totally different jungle (with venomous creatures?), one might say, where the characteristic modernist resonance of the vibes meets an alternative primitivism from the voice, and (mutually) assembles them into different biological-technological relation. The listener might even be submerged, but never to the point of drowning: We might yet live in this other world, calling to us seductively in spite of its potential dangers.

24 January 2016

After my comments on Earnear & the Open Field String Trio, I received a note from a member of the Pássaro Vago collective about Meia catorze by Basso 3. MEIA is a Portuguese festival for experimental & improvised music, and Basso 3 was a group they chose to document on record from their 2014 event. As the name suggests, it's three bassists, with Alvaro Rosso & Miguel Falcão joining José Miguel Pereira of the Open Field String Trio to form an all-Portuguese trio. The three bassists appear to bring rather different musical concerns & interests, however, and the striking part of the resulting Meia catorze album isn't so much those differences, but how well they come together to form new & coherent structures. Whereas a description such as "Scelsi meets progressive rock" — which might reasonably describe at least a couple of the tracks — could suggest a rather superficial mixture, the result is remarkably polished. In that sense, Meia catorze can be said to generate a distinctive & generalizable new style (as opposed to e.g. Rotations by the double bass quartet Sequoia, discussed here in December 2014, which is a more singular result, not a style per se). Scraping metallic mutes coexist with clearly articulated melodies that seem to come from different directions, as legato forms might give way to pointillism, or build a composite across the triple instrument. It almost comes off as the articulation of larger (supratemporal) forms via slices. The way the trio interacts also reminds me a bit of Baloni, with its mix of overall harmonic structure & independent motion, but while Baloni conjures some Messiaen with their Scelsi, and Basso 3 does bring a taste of Berio, here there are more overtly "popular" references audible as well, from Yes to Zappa. (The practiced coordination typical of rock can be contrasted with the independence typical of jazz soloists.) If jazz has always been about fusing elements of the classical & the popular, then Basso 3 can be said to be forging a new jazz idiom, based on different conceptions of classical & popular than those prevalent in USA in an earlier era. Indeed, as strange as it might seem to combine Scelsi & Yes, their most characteristic bass writing actually occurred at the same historical juncture — a distributed moment in history that these performers can be said to be exploring & reconfiguring. Meia catorze is thus something of an alternative nexus, both coherently fused, and intriguingly articulated across basses (which are, after all, at least arguably the fundamental instruments of bebop). Portugal might be in the midst of some sort of "golden age" of musical creativity, or so it sometimes seems. (This album also raises the question of what sort of music was popular there in the early 1970s, but I have no idea.) And what happens next?

25 January 2016

On the heels of my appreciation for Geäder, an album I actually noticed only while waiting for the announced appearance of Skein, the Kaufmann - Gratkowski - de Joode trio has released Oblengths, which serves to initiate my favorites list for 2016. Whereas the first four albums by the trio had been on four different labels, Oblengths returns to Leo — after both Palaë (2007) & Skein (which expands the trio to a sextet) itself. And whereas Geäder is a compilation drawn from three live performances (in 2010 & 2011), Oblengths is a studio album from a single recording session in 2014. It's also quite a substantial album, but generally projects a different mood from the "live experience" of Geäder. (Indeed, in some ways, its concerns are more similar to those of Skein, not only in the way contemplative ideas are intertwined, but most obviously in the way the final track is the most raucous. On Oblengths, the final track even embeds a long rest that apparently confused whoever gave the album timing on the case, since the latter counts only up to the pause.) The musicians are relatively closely miked, and the sound is especially good, illustrating the "plasticity of timbre" for which the ensemble is known, particularly in integrating three different instrument families. Although it's an acoustic ensemble, sounds that might ordinarily be heard as "electric" figure that plasticity: There is "static" generated by the bass, buzzy rumbling, spooky echoes, etc. plus characteristically clanky preparations, scraping, and generally a wide variety of techniques for mixing overtones & resonance — including ample "straight" tone. (Oblengths was recorded more than a year before Gratkowski recorded Sieben entrückte Lieder, as discussed here last month. Although the latter features electronics prominently, it reflects some similar concerns. One can also contrast with the even more recently recorded Interstices, on which Kaufmann engages in a similarly differentiated acoustic trio of instruments, but where the domains of articulation are kept more distinctly separate.) That said, perhaps in keeping with its position as a fifth album from the trio, the result also projects something of a relaxed quality, particularly in its eschewal of balance between the individual tracks, some of which are much longer than others. (The track titles are credited separately to Gabriele D.R. Guenther, who has done various cover art for Leo. Having a third party name the tracks kind of appeals to me somehow.) Such contemporary mellowness, if we want to call it that, fades imperceptibly into more jazzy idioms at times — more aggressively so on the last track. One might figure the interactions in terms of affective assemblages, and indeed the way that motifs are "assembled" & developed across the trio of instruments, often in nonlinear fashion, is its most captivating quality. The result provides plenty of space & scope for the listener, and makes for a welcome & highly accomplished start to 2016. There are surely few ensembles that combine this level of individual talent & broad technical creativity with so many years of developing a collective style: The musical language they've developed is quite versatile, and they certainly seem to be at no loss for ideas. Might they just keep getting better?

Like Creative Sources, as discussed last month, Leo Records continues to release albums at a healthy pace, including many that are both highly appealing & might never be heard otherwise. In another parallel, it seems that only a "selection" of Leo releases is currently being imported to USA, but one can order directly from the label, and that process has gone very smoothly from my perspective. That said, since e.g. Ramble On only appeared in commercial listings here recently, one can only guess at what other recent releases might or might not eventually appear. Given their prominent participants, both Oblengths & another album from this first batch of 2016 releases seem destined to be distributed more widely: Equal Poise presents Simon Nabatov (b.1959), a stalwart of the Leo catalog, in a traditional piano trio with Mark Dresser (b.1952, the same year as fellow bassists William Parker & Ken Filiano) & Dominik Mahnig (b.1989, Switzerland). (Dresser & Nabatov had recently released the duo album Projections on Clean Feed.) As I've mentioned previously, it often seems that Nabatov's technique is so massive that it overwhelms other instruments, and here the other performers sometimes seem to respond to that by playing in different rhythms, off beat or "between" the piano counterpoint. There is also some extended technique, although it's not the focus, while the counterpoint ranges widely (but traditionally) from dodecaphony to more classically popular piano styles. It's a worthwhile trio, perhaps very vaguely comparable to It Rolls (which isn't a "proper" piano trio) in its subtle preparations, "bass" innovations & Swiss connection. I still feel like it doesn't quite forge a collective ensemble, however.

6 February 2016

Continuing something of the piano trend from the previous entry is Rope on Red Toucan. (I've paid relatively close attention to that label since the days of Polylemma, so a release from a new quartet of European improvisers, recorded a year ago in Wiesbaden, immediately caught my eye.) The leader of the quartet is apparently pianist Uwe Oberg (b.1962), with whom I was not otherwise familiar, but who did recently release two solo albums. Oberg's musical interests seem to overlap with some of the other pianists recently mentioned in this space, i.e. one might say that he shows a similar plasticity, but also encompass his Steve Lacy tribute group, along with classic covers (which he melds into each other) on his solo albums. The remainder of the quartet was more familiar: Frank Paul Schubert (on soprano only here), Wilbert de Joode (from the previous entry, etc.), and Mark Sanders (whom I mentioned most recently in this space regarding The Jersey Lily, another quartet album with Schubert). Rope starts pensively, immediately demonstrating a sophisticated handling of dodecaphony & motif — indeed, perhaps I'm blinded by the pianist's similar name, but I instantly think of Berg. At times, however, it seems we're waiting for something to happen during the long opening track, as the improvising ensemble sometimes devolves into repetitive burbling. Some jazzy qualities do emerge on piano as the quartet projects its energy into swirling forms. It was rather captivating on the first hearing, i.e. without much knowledge of what to expect, but takes a significant portion of its impact from surprise.

Although I don't have much previous experience with the (French) BeCoq label, I want to mention another album that only recently appeared in USA: Walabix invite Maris (the title of which almost seems to be La poesia es un arma cargada de Futuro from the internal packaging) was actually released near the end of 2014, after being recorded that May, even though I never noticed. I know Bart Maris (trumpet) from the Jan Klare 1000, and indeed some of the sound of e.g. Shoe shows through in his playing with Walabix, a quartet consisting of younger (I think) French musicians Quentin Biardeau (leader on Quatour Machaut), Valentin Ceccaldi (cello, also on Can you smile?, etc.), Gabriel Lemaire (also on Quatour Machaut), and Adrien Chennebault (drummer on the Ayler release La Scala, discussed here in 2014). The resulting quintet thus encompasses a variety of influences & interests, presumably including spectral music, etc. It's mostly an appealing & sometimes intriguing exploration of timbral & textural interaction, with a fine sense of polyphonic melody combining with tightly pulsed, sometimes noisy, boisterous exchanges. One might describe the album as beginning with a "procession" through Western music history, and ending in a graduation celebration. I didn't see any albums by the Walabix quartet by itself, but I'll be watching (or listening for) these performers. They seem to have various ideas that merit further exploration, particularly considering (at least from my perspective) the obscurity of this release.

[ Note: Somehow, I badly misspelled the name of the French quartet when I originally posted this. I'm not sure how that happened; my apologies. No wonder I didn't find their earlier album! I do sometimes correct typos in these entries, but this one seemed worth a note. ]

7 February 2016

I was intrigued by Dre Hocevar's first album on Clean Feed (Coding of Eventuality, discussed here in June), and so hearing his second, Collective Effervescence, was an easy choice: Recorded in November 2014 in Brooklyn, it's a substantial album at more than an hour, and augments the basic (although modified by having Lester St. Louis on cello, instead of bass) piano trio with electronics (which appear on one track of Coding of Eventuality, but here are handled by Philip White) and/or saxophone (played by Chris Pitsiokos, who has a trio album, Protean Reality, in the same batch of Clean Feed releases, the first of 2016) on some tracks. Although the ensemble dynamic is somewhat different, at least when including saxophone, Hocevar's concerns on Collective Effervescence (on which all the tracks are credited as his compositions) seem similar to those of Coding of Eventuality: I continue to be taken by the track titles, apparently reflecting as they do concerns of contemporary critical theory, and particularly psychoanalytic theory of consciousness. We thus get a theory of the construction of the subject & consciousness (the latter being explicitly named in one track) worked out in music. (We get something of a "history of the subject," perhaps contrasting with the "tours through music history" that I've noted here from some young, particularly French ensembles lately. It likewise ends by assembling the contemporary scene, and so likewise suggests a prelude to future activity.) The result is a musical exploration reflecting some of my concerns in this space more broadly: I particularly appreciate the evocations of affective circulation, if I can interject my own term, as well as a portrayal of the ahistorical murkiness of the primal scene of consciousness. (One can probably safely assume that Hocevar is familiar with the writing of e.g. Zizek, who is a Lacanian, so consider "petit a.") That said, whereas I think these are excellent basic ideas for twenty-first century improvisation, they continue to be fairly preliminary & autobiographical, although the album does go on to broach intersubjectivity: Indeed, I take the bubbling of the album title to indicate expression itself, as arising via social circulation & (partly unconscious) constitution by others: From a general social perspective, who knows where something might bubble to the surface as expression?! (The "Große Fuge" even makes an appearance at one point.) As one might imagine, such a program involves some waiting for something to occur. I'd also like to hear Hocevar in an ensemble that doesn't rely so much on piano (the limitations of which I've already mentioned more than enough). That said, and despite some technical language that I've likewise taken from critical theory, the album isn't so sonically different from some others (i.e. a mix of extended & straight technique, including some high pitches on electronics, and ubiquitous background rumbling), and indeed has almost a jazz feel by the sixth track. So perhaps it will attract more of an audience. Although his style doesn't seem to have developed much since Coding of Eventuality, with Collective Effervescence simply seeming to reflect some more specific themes via similar musical technique, and with a somewhat changed ensemble, the albums were both recorded in 2014, so similarities are to be expected. I remain intrigued, and look forward to hearing further explorations (and even modulations?) of consciousness & subject formation in Hocevar's music.

10 February 2016

Jeremiah Cymerman, whom I last mentioned in this space in June in conjunction with his participation on an album by Hugo Carvalhais, continues to be very active in a wide variety of projects, including for his 5049 Records label. World of Objects continues to be a favorite, and indeed its shifting resonances & psychological interplay hold up against the MMM Quartet's much anticipated second album, Oakland / Lisboa (about which more soon): It's a potent yet murkily raucous album, and keeps me thinking (& more), at least in its long first track. Cymerman's most recent album, Sheen by the trio Bloodmist (which also includes Toby Driver & Mario Diaz de Leon) is a rather different production, taking its lead more from "extreme metal" & rock music in general. Perhaps the latter is part of the inspiration for the lack of details on who plays what or when it was recorded (although sometime last February), and certainly must have been for the embossed silver lettering on the cover. However, despite that veil & ample post-production (as characteristic of Cymerman), the trio's actual mode of operation was apparently improvisation: They can be very aggressive & energetic at times, and use some interesting combinations of sonorities across the ensemble (which broadly includes bass & guitar, apparently, plus who knows what), but are also much more stable in terms of foreground & background within tracks. One can even speak of quasi-recitative (rather than "swirling"), with not much interchange of parts (even if they consist of composite timbres in the first place) — leading to the final track, where the recitative style (a lyric poem with simple accompaniment) becomes explicit. As such, Sheen isn't really for me, but I was still fascinated by the blended sonorities, if not the development.

15 February 2016

I've discussed Henry Kaiser's Korean-influenced, improvised fusion album Megasonic Chapel a couple of times in this space now, and although that album was recorded only last February in Oakland, Kaiser already has a new album building on some similar ideas, Nearly Extinct — recorded in Austin in May, and released on Damon Smith's Balance Point Acoustics label. Along with Kaiser & Smith, Nearly Extinct includes Steve Parker (of Austin) on trombone, and Chris Cogburn on drums. The latter appeared with Smith on North of Blanco, a rather strangely appealing quartet album also featuring Jaap Blonk & Sandy Ewen. Whereas Nearly Extinct has some quieter moments, it rarely suggests the same atmosphere of chirps & growls fading into acoustic silence that North of Blanco sometimes cultivates, and indeed various passages evoke an explicit sense of familiarity: Nearly Extinct names more than twenty different sorts of improvisation on its cover, and the remarks accompanying the release announcement claim that the quartet members are experts in all of the named styles, and that they'll be employing them. Such a plan would thus appear to yield a prototypical postmodern collage or pastiche, as the different sorts of improvisation make an appearance. Some inevitably seem more polished or successful, at least as heard by themselves (and some represent much larger traditions than others), but the main interest on Nearly Extinct (which is quite a substantial album) actually comes from transitions between improvisation methods, where e.g. one might take up the sounds already generated by another. More specifically, the remarks from the ensemble (and I don't know if there is a longer version of this discussion somewhere, but I haven't found it) suggest an annoyance with calling improvisation "a style" or maybe even multiple styles, and emphasize the notion of methods or methodologies behind the various improvisation types named. (It certainly does seem silly to think of improvisation as a style, what with the broad range of world music styles that significantly include improvisation, but one does see that notion implied sometimes.) The brief remarks don't define a style from the ensemble's perspective, so it's hard to know exactly what they're resisting, and I might personally opt to use a term more like "technique" rather than method. However, one potential aspect that the performance itself does seem to problematize is the association of particular improvisation techniques with particular sorts of material, something treated much more contingently here, as techniques are deployed against what is "nonstandard" material for them at times, particularly (as already noted) in transitions. One might then think of a "style" as a (loose? bundle or) collection of related materials & techniques, with particular materials tending to be associated with particular techniques for partly contingent reasons, but also on account of the way they fit together technically. (One might think of Bach's melodies relative to his contrapuntal style, for instance, although Nearly Extinct does not evoke Bach.) Note, however, that such a notion can easily go on to reify, and rely on reification of, a form-content or form-expression dual (or hypothetically even worse, content-expression), and I want to strike a note of caution on such a point: At some level, distinctions of this sort are always arbitrary. Nonetheless, despite the almost stereotypical sense of pastiche (and perhaps, typology), the moments when different sorts of improvisation sound via others (if I can put it that way) can be quite compelling. The range of methods itself includes not only several North American & especially European improvisation techniques, but also Sinawi (which is Korean, and the one "traditional" style named), and prominent Japanese entries: However, the Japanese styles (and I'm going to call them that, despite the performers' caution) are not traditional per se (as claimed even by the originators), but rather arise from the introduction of electric guitar, with its characteristic noise distortion. Indeed, the way the different improvisation techniques come together on the album often seems to draw on a Japanese sense of flow, climax & transition. (One might characterize such a sense as solos in collision.) Moreover, Kaiser's guitar is often loud & in the lead, with Parker's trombone next most so, then some prominent bass solos, etc. At times, the ensemble thus uses a rather classic "free jazz" sort of collective, albeit with a lot of electric guitar, but occasionally the instrumental roles do blur & shift. (The track titles are themselves the names of "endangered" languages, and do not relate to the musical techniques involved.) Given the fact of listing these various techniques & claiming expertise in all of them, it seems as though the ensemble might have wanted to annotate the recording with specific, running time indications for the various techniques, but I guess that is not going to happen. Were the various techniques listed after the fact, or were they all consciously involved from the start? In addition, and partly in keeping with the strong Japanese influence, there is also relatively a lot of metal & especially psychedelic guitar. (One is suddenly in the middle of an extended Black Sabbath riff on track #4, for instance.) The way the latter intertwines with other styles reminds me rather a bit of Grid Mesh Live in Madrid, and when the quartet shifts into a totally different mode of interaction, sometimes it reminds of Sudo Quartet Live at Banlieue Bleue. There is then less of a sense of trying to survey twentieth century USA popular styles (and by that I very much mean "musical material," i.e. melody, harmony, etc.) than with some other groups (i.e. Ken Vandermark's) that emphasize transiting through various styles in one piece. In that sense, the several sections of Nearly Extinct (which consists of both some short tracks, as well as longer multi-method tracks) are rather more unified, despite using a sequence of different techniques. So perhaps the next step for something like this is to be less conscious about the different techniques as individual pieces for articulation? Or maybe to focus on a particular intersection? (What is the nature of musical citation, and in turn collage, here in 2016? It can't be that more citations in one piece automatically add up to a more interesting result.) Is there an obligation toward "nearly extinct" techniques? What does such an attempt at articulation accomplish for the listener? (In my case, perhaps coincidentally, I thought that Nearly Extinct clarified some relations with Japanese guitar music rather well, and in particular a Western rock-Japan-Western improv nexus, or one might say, vertex of exchange.)

28 February 2016

When I saw that the MMM Quartet was releasing a second album, given my fondness for Live at the Metz' Arsenal, my thoughts immediately started to revolve around such issues as high expectations, rather than basic questions like whether I wanted to hear it. Much to my delight, after a bit of a delay in receiving it, Oakland / Lisboa was able to meet those expectations, and quickly become a favorite. (I still intend to discuss at least a couple more albums dated 2015 in this space, although that might be the end of it.) Oakland / Lisboa also finds something of a natural home on RogueArt, particularly with their recent support of The Bridge series, and indeed the many albums in their catalog illustrating US-French intersections (which MMM partly is). Although the album was recorded in Lisbon, none of the performers is based in Portugal, even as the track titles alternately name Lisbon & Oakland neighborhoods. As opposed to Live at the Metz' Arsenal, with its long main & shorter supplementary track, Oakland / Lisboa (which was also mixed & mastered by Foussat) has five medium-length tracks, each with somewhat different concerns, thereby giving the performance more perspectives or facets. As the thoughtful liner notes by Eyal Hareuveni suggest, the strength of the MMM Quartet's approach comes in plumbing one's "deepest emotions and desires," such that "no sound is innocent" (pace Prévost). I hope that this is indeed dangerous music, as suggested — and that i.e. such an experience of creativity can & does prompt listeners to demand change. Such a "psychological" approach can be compared with e.g. my recent remarks on Dre Hocevar's Collective Effervescence, and at least in part, one might say that the MMM Quartet achieves what Hocevar's attempts — an assessment I offer only by way of context, what with musical experience differing considerably between the two ensembles. Indeed, the quartet seems even more confident & sophisticated in their approach than they were on Live at the Metz' Arsenal, evoking a wide range of thoughts & relations, sometimes with great subtlety. (When such a close sense of relation is articulated within a more acoustic idiom, it might well be compared with e.g. Cold Duck, also featuring Leimgruber, as discussed here last month. Oakland / Lisboa assembles considerably more territory, however.) Another prominent aspect is the use of both live electronics & sophisticated mixing: Such an approach yields a means both of submerging musical relations into the background, as new interactions come to the fore, and of integrating e.g. heavy piano counterpoint with very different sorts of sonic production. (Recall that I continue to write about the latter issue regarding e.g. Nabatov.) Whereas in some sense, maintaining & manipulating sound balance between instruments via electronics seems like taking the easy way relative to careful, mutual articulation, the sophistication of the resulting tapestry — into which Curran's various external samples are likewise incorporated — argues against any such disparaging conclusion. Rather, the resulting electronically mediated tapestry continues to forge its own sound world, yielding more layers with more exposure. (At times, it might be almost comparable to e.g. Cymerman's World of Objects, albeit with a rather different underlying ensemble, as Cymerman seems to engage some similar psycho-acoustic concerns, in his case via post-processing.) Beyond balancing the piano dynamically, its tuning limitations also thrust it into something of a background (or punctuation) role, particularly given the extreme tonal precision of the quartet otherwise: Harmonics & resonances might blend into each other, whether with electronic help or otherwise. (I should also note e.g. Léandre's vocal irruption into what seems to be the technique world of Messiaen's Harawi during the last track, this being rather more forceful than some of the other vocal passages on the album, which sometimes involve sampling as well.) There is often a sense that the music is moving transversally, i.e. in tangents away from presumptive linear development, an impression that Frith's guitar particularly supports with its penetrating, electric excursions. Finally, perhaps I should compare with another recent, favorite sequel, Oblengths: The latter is acoustic, of course, but also features instrumental timbres & resonances blending & shifting into others. (I should also a note a correction that Oblengths is actually a live recording, and not a studio recording as I had, for some reason, believed. My apologies for the mistake.) That it's specifically acoustic seems also to underscore its concern with musical idiom per se, much more so than e.g. depth psychology or provoking the listener subconsciously. In that sense, one might even characterize Oakland / Lisboa as more of a "multimedia" album, if only somewhat theoretically so, since one likewise experiences it only with the ear. Perhaps this leaves me still having said too little about Oakland / Lisboa itself — although I'll note that the applause at the end, which does nicely emphasize that for all its electronic mediation, this is a live performance, seems overlong for repeated listening — but I also trust that this is an album that is better heard without too much discussion. Rest assured that the quartet has continued to develop its often understated, yet always provocative, collective idiom.

29 February 2016

I had been waiting to write something about the improvised chamber quintet album I look at you, since apparently there was a delay in distributing the Circuit Electro Acoustic Ensemble trio album from the same batch of FMR Records releases, and I wanted to compare them. Well now I've had a chance to listen to the latter, featuring label editor Trevor Taylor (b.1947) on percussion & electronics, Paul Dunmall on wind synth, sax & flute, and Philip Gibbs on electric guitar. Taylor's "Circuit" ensemble changes membership regularly, and so this is apparently the first trio album by these particular musicians. As one might expect, Electro Acoustic Ensemble relies quite a bit on electroacoustic instruments, and some resulting novel sonorities. In that sense, I find it rather engaging at the beginning, but there isn't a lot of interesting formal development beyond the exploration of sonority, although the five tracks do have different characters. (The resulting sonorities remind me a bit of Boulez's music, in fact, although the way the notes are related is not similar, not nearly so formal.) Dunmall plays the Yamaha WX11 wind synth on three of the tracks, and the instrument has an interesting range, encompassing low notes (below tuba) to high notes in the sopranino range. The combination of flute & electronics on another track is also appealing, with the "straight" saxophone track almost sounding strange in comparison. I enjoy the passages where Taylor plays xylophone too, and the resulting trio sonority with guitar. At times, the result seems almost machinic, like a hypothetical alternate soundtrack for Star Wars. Perhaps the closest comparison (at least in terms of ensemble) with albums otherwise featured here is Blaise Siwula's Tesla Coils: However, whereas that album projects an "edgy," industrial vibe, the English trio often seems to be simply happy with their sonic exploration.

Although I didn't find Electro Acoustic Ensemble (recorded last September) to be quite as compelling as I'd hoped — as it would be difficult to attribute any particular artistic message to it, for instance, beyond experimenting with some novel instruments — I look at you provides a nice contrast in its rather classical inspiration. The latter was recorded last July, also featuring Dunmall & Gibbs, but this time on acoustic instruments, and together with a trio of prototypical classical instruments: Alison Blunt (with whom I was not previously familiar) on violin, Neil Metcalfe on flute, and Hannah Marshall on cello. The result is quite mellow, and almost seems as though it could be a written classical piece in four movements (concluding with a quasi-rondo), with similar textures to English music of the 1970s by Rubbra, Arnold, etc.... polyphonic interplay, perhaps inspired by Renaissance counterpoint & consort music, with very clear individual sonorities from the instruments (and a tendency to pare down to trios, & often duos, in a way also reminiscent of Renaissance style). That the album was recorded at the Birmingham Conservatory only seems to underscore such an impression. The title of the album, and of the pieces, reminds me a bit of flippant (English) Banksy quips, such as on Please Drive-By Carefully — an album that does use electronics to manipulate the sounds of its acoustic instruments, so might be more comparable to Circuit (although the latter doesn't emphasize modifying sounds after they're played). I kind of like the notion of looking at each other & hoping for reality: That seems to describe improvisation generally, and not only in music. The nostalgic quality of the album also reminds me of Hunt at the Brook, although I look at you is generally slower developing (more classical per se) throughout. There's a bit of jazzy quality toward the end, but I look at you sticks to a rather melodic classical mode most of the time, with a lot of slow passages, and a conversational focus. The latter remains appealing, and it's an album that's well worth hearing. (I might compare the result to longtime favorite Polylemma, although that album features dodecaphony & percussion in what is often a faster, and more distinctly contemporary interplay.) Is this today's "classical music," and in this case, is it thoroughly English, conservative even? Perhaps so, even with (or because of) the performers' "spiritual" orientations: What might some tension add to the result?

(Is this the end for new 2015 releases here? Quite possibly, but we'll see.)

6 March 2016

I had not previously heard German vocalist Almut Kühne (b. 1983), and so want to make a note of her new trio album Marbrakeys on Leo Records, recorded in Berlin in July 2013. Kühne apparently performs regularly with Gebhard Ullmann (here on tenor sax & bass clarinet), and the two had already released a duo album, Silver White Archives. On Marbrakeys — the title being a tonal concept invented by Kühne, per comments at Leo's site that don't elaborate on the details — they are joined by Achim Kaufmann on piano. (Ullmann & Kaufmann had never played together before, per more comments, but have also released a duo album in the same batch from Leo, Geode.) In any case, although appealing, Kühne's vocal style is rather more conventionally "jazzy" (or cabaret, Sprechstimme, etc.) than I've been featuring here, and indeed Ullmann plays a lot of fairly traditionally jazzy music too. Their dialog on Marbrakeys retains that character, for the most part, with Kaufmann more of a wildcard: As the "third wheel," he changes roles on the various tracks (of which there are ten, all of modest length), from percussive banging to traditionally chordal to more quietly "mysterious" contemporary evocations, etc. So that stirs the dialog a bit, and I'd be interested to hear Kühne in a more consistently adventurous setting.

15 March 2016

I encountered guitarist Harvey Valdes on Jeff Shurdut's The Music of Everything, and then Blaise Siwula's Tesla Coils (and also first heard Siwula with Shurdut). Since then, he's begun releasing his own albums, starting with a solo album of standards, Roundabout, last year. Whereas his contribution on what might be described as the more experimental albums above is more difficult to describe, although certainly relevant, Valdes's solo style is highly contrapuntal, exploring harmonic relation (in what has been described elsewhere as a "pianistic" manner). So his is an amazing technique that is very well-founded in traditional styles (including Balkan), even elegantly so, in addition to exploring more experimental areas. One might perceive a balance between these "extremes" (if we are to call them that) in Valdes's first leader album, PointCounterPoint with Sana Nagano (violin, and also on those Shurdut albums with Valdes) & Joe Hertenstein. I actually heard about this album from Joe prior to Harvey, and Joe notes it as the biggest drum kit he's played in a long time: That factor is most noticeable, at least to me, on track #6 featuring what sound like struck, flexible metal strips. I particularly enjoy the combination of sonorities there, but much of the album is more about Valdes's style in combining rock or metal ideas with free jazz & improvisation. Once again, the basic structure of the music is highly polyphonic, incorporating dodecaphony etc. into compositions that often turn to variants on "metal" sound. Hertenstein is playing the drums, of course, and aside from the larger pallet, that role is similar to what it would be in a rock band. Nagano might be said to take the voice part on violin, whereas Valdes plays the "bass part" on guitar & so largely articulates the harmonic structures (of what are his compositions, after all) throughout, as well as adds his own guitar solos. In keeping with the pianistic remark above, one might even say that he plays the "keyboard part" as well. So whereas PointCounterPoint substitutes violin for bass in the standard guitar trio, the violin & guitar roles are allocated differently, and in my opinion to excellent & creative effect. The result is (unsurprisingly) very fast at times, with solos from the drums & violin (during which other performers might repeat some routine phrase, as in jazz comping) as well, but takes on a "rock anthem" mood at times too. The mix & master are for a "big" sound, a la a rock band, so the album benefits from big speakers. Much like Roundabout, which seemed too different from my typical material here to discuss at the time, PointCounterPoint is a fun & surprisingly polished album, in this case with a dramatic style that brought a spontaneous smile to my face. That's always a welcome outcome.

26 March 2016

I guess 2015 continues to linger a bit, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since finding other intriguing albums is always worthwhile, so I have another 2015 release to discuss in Live at Literaturhaus by a Danish trio called The Living Room, as joined by Barry Guy for a performance in Copenhagen in December 2012. (The album appeared at DMG recently, with some others on the ILK label. I wasn't aware of it previously, but it was supposedly released this past September.) The Living Room is Torben Snekkestad (saxophones, reed trumpet), Søren Kjærgaard (grand piano, keyboard) & Thomas Strønen (drums): Not only was I not familiar with these musicians previously, but not with the reed trumpet (which amounts to putting a reed mouthpiece on a trumpet) either. The trio follows both what seems to be a Scandinavian predilection for quiet textures (featuring harmonics extensively, including perhaps bowing piano strings, etc.) — although not always in either case — and the trend toward integrating a variety of styles. Of course, the latter idea, at least in its outlines, was already established by the 1990s as postmodern pastiche or collage: As such styles become more common in improvised music, some of the more stimulating results involve (as noted recently in e.g. my discussion of Nearly Extinct by Henry Kaiser et al.) tracing relations between styles, not necessarily historical relations, but technical relations. Such correspondences might be used to shift a style into another, and one hears some of that on Live at Literaturhaus, although it would probably be more accurately described as contextualizing one style via another, and largely in pairs. Indeed, the three tracks (each roughly the same length) have rather different characters, with the second & third involving explicit & extended jazz references, particularly from the horn. One might think of recontextualizing smooth jazz, although it's still not my thing. Both tracks have something of a "landscape" character, and begin starkly, perhaps evoking dark & desolate Northern scenes. Of these, the second track is more often tonal, and neither tends to have a lot of simultaneous activity, although there is sometimes more aggressive expressions from the horn, while the third track troubles its tonal emergence with various noises (recalling trolls, perhaps?), "burbly" & squeaky sounds eventually building into something of a (vaguely new age-y) collective wave of sound before dying away. Perhaps the first track is the most indebted to Guy, exploring as it does what might be considered more abstract improvisatory concerns. (As I've already noted, e.g. when discussing Spill Plus, modern language concerning musical abstraction also needs reworking, but I'll not jump further into that topic right now.) Indeed, this is only the second time I've mentioned Guy in this space (the first being in connection with the trio album It Rolls by Katharina Weber, since she already had an album exploring Kurtág compositions with Guy), but I was actually at least a little familiar with his work via "classical" sources prior to this project. So he's one of the prominent names I already knew, even if his recent releases (many of which are re-releases) don't seem to have pressed my personal preference buttons. Anyway, with the different styles explored & sequenced on Live at Literaturhaus, some are bound to resonate at least a little more, and track one is certainly the highlight for me. It begins with strumming, plucking & generally fractured rhythms, yielding to harmonics with the horn slowly emerging, then into bowing & a wider percussive pallet. Not unlike track three, the musicians slowly coalesce into a sort of halting group rhythm, the harmonic implications of which are eventually consolidated in a spiky & extended piano outburst. (Is this "free" track conceived as an introductory exploration between the trio & Guy as well as to introduce the different material that follows?) As these stylistic differences suggest, the Danish trio has developed a variety of techniques, such that e.g. horn & keyboard are deployed in very different ways at different times, coming into or out of the texture, depending on context. The percussion also makes a strong creative impression at times, particularly in more ringing or jingling moments. So the musicians have forged some distinctive group sounds, despite my attempts to compare with other music. I'll be interested to hear where they go from here, but I don't know if I'll ever thoroughly enjoy a collage (or "progression") album, which Live at Literaturhaus is to a lesser degree than some.

27 March 2016

Anthony Braxton's output has long been a challenge for this project, not only because his recorded legacy is so vast, and seemingly supplemented by an array of both new projects & older performances regularly, but because his musical world tends to be so self-referential. (Perhaps this is exemplified by Braxton's suggestion that all of his music can be played simultaneously.) So, whereas Braxton's music interrogates ensemble interaction in many dimensions, and is consequently ideal, at least in some sense, for my project, there is also something of an all-or-nothing quality: Fairly considerable investment is required in order to situate individual performances within his overall output, and whereas such situation seems important to having anything intelligent to say about his productions, it's likewise significant for direct enjoyment of the musical interactions — writing about it aside — since they relate, sometimes rather specifically, to other interactions. (One might suggest that there are implied, inaudible interactions then.) In other words, there's a lot to know about Braxton's output in order to hear it well, let alone to discuss it in any detail, and I have not put in the time & study that some others have, although my investment does continue to increase. That's basically an excuse for having undoubtedly missed some significant aspects in what follows, because I do want to express some thoughts on the music. Previously, I had Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House (in this case, the large ensemble on his own New Braxton House label) listed as a favorite here, in part because I had read other remarks about this music having synthesized much of his output, and what we might as well come right out and call "symphonic form" had an appeal amidst such a vast body of work. (One might say that I extended my credulity a bit more than usual.) However, as I've mentioned with various other items over the years, I found that my enjoyment of listening to Echo Echo Mirror House diminished with time. After all, in Braxton's words, it is to invoke a "dynamic, interactive experience." After a while, in recording at least, it doesn't seem like either — but don't let that undermine enthusiasm for hearing it for the first time. Indeed, there's a new 3CD set of this music, 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 on Firehouse 12 — also recorded in 2011, and using a septet as did the Victoriaville recording. I don't intend to discuss it further, but I enjoyed that too: Not only is there much interesting & unexpected (a response that doesn't translate well to repeated hearings, of course) music, but the use of earlier recordings of Braxton's other music by all the musicians interrogates presence itself in a sort of self-referential cacophony. One might even figure such an interrogation of presence as reworking the almost-cliché improvisation-composition dual. Indeed, one probably should. There are also more Braxton opera sets appearing on record, and whereas I would very much like to see one staged, I've declined to get involved with them in this space thus far. Perhaps I need something to save for a live experience.

All that said, and with so many seemingly divergent paths in Braxton's output, it remains difficult to pick out any specific production for "special" consideration, particularly if it's not one of those mentioned above. (And I remain largely oriented on specific albums in this space.) However, and although I feel as if I'm almost being deliberately eccentric, or perhaps simply reacting to feelings of overload (and if so, I don't think that this is the best way to react) by picking something outside of his own series of releases, I've particularly enjoyed a recent Anthony Braxton Quartet live double album recorded & produced in Brazil. I learned of this item from Downtown Music Gallery, where I also saw the suggestion that these two sets are of Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Music. (From what I was able to find subsequently, this appears to be correct.) The quartet supplements a trio with Taylor Ho Bynum & Mary Halvorson, with whom Braxton has been giving Diamond Curtain Wall Music concerts, with Ingrid Laubrock. So this is an all-star lineup, and the CDs themselves are in quality packaging, although I don't know how readily available they (still) are. I was not able to find much discussion of what Diamond Curtain Wall Music is, or perhaps more to the point how it fits more generally into Braxton's output. However, full color scores are included with the CDs (although this doesn't really clarify). Beyond what is apparently a "chamber" orientation with the three horns & guitar, the music involves electronics: From what I could find, these are interactive electronics — and so, in principle, comparable to e.g. those on Phase/transitions — but I don't know "how" interactive they are, and indeed some kind of instructions for how to interact must form an explicit or implicit layer of "composition." So this music might be said to constitute a further interrogation of presence, particularly as the electronics are often quieter than the live performers. Nonetheless, the intervention of the electronics seem decisive overall, and so I wonder to what extent they are "manners of breaking the time continuum." (Although Braxton applied the latter remark to his operas, in asserting that there are many such "manners," this Anthony Braxton Quartet album seems to invoke its own sense of drama. Sometimes it seems like a slice from an opera, a slice that would otherwise involve other things happening simultaneously.) As opposed to e.g. Primary Envelopment, which uses electronics in part to challenge the listener's hearing & sense of "noise," Braxton's group basically stays with "musical sounds" throughout: Although technique might be extended, a pleasant tone is maintained, and the electronics, although sometimes fairly high in pitch (not so unlike Braxton's sopranino), likewise emit pleasant tones. When I first heard this music, I was thinking of it analogously to Feldman's, i.e. as a "tapestry" woven from detailed, small-scale interactions: The image was derived from those detailed interactions, which might involve solos or duos, and the observation that they somehow became hour+ performances. Since the sets start out very "strongly," i.e. with a lot of busy activity, the tapestry analogy suggests a sense of unraveling, as interactions acquire more space. Indeed, I found myself liking the initial flurry, particularly on the first set (which is rather electric throughout, whereas the second set is sometimes more relaxed, maybe even a little slow in a couple of spots), and feeling annoyed that less was happening later. Then I got to thinking about that notion of "acquiring space," and how it was done. (Now I have my social metaphor.) One ready reference for me is how medieval musicians "broke the time continuum," and a spectacular example is Ockeghem's prolation mass, where space is created between the different parts by using different rhythms & rests at different speeds (i.e. using the mensural notation of the time in an elegantly technical manner). Such retemporalization does not lead only to "space" in Braxton's pieces, but to new possibilities of interaction (as it did in Ockeghem's): In other words, the busy tension of the first parts of these pieces gives way to soloing (& duos, etc.) but also to new alignments (i.e. harmonies): These aren't so much new, in the sense of novel, as recontextualized into what seems like a more positive interaction (as noted, at times invoking drama, but perhaps as memory). The latter result is perhaps more ambitious than e.g. Interstices, which develops ways for the trio of very different instruments to express themselves simultaneously without impinging on each other, but doesn't forge a new time of collective interaction. Are the electronics crucial to Braxton's interrogation of temporality in this way, i.e. do they maintain multiple temporal streams that the human performers might otherwise struggle to maintain on their own? I don't know the answer to that, but despite the many small-scale details of this performance, there is a seemingly coherent overall sweep (hence the Feldman reference). The latter suggests a rather "composed" situation, whereas the former constructs & reflects a profound openness to these temporal reworkings, and so again, an interrogation of presence (& relatedly, of memory, which becomes strange — or unfamiliar — to itself). In other words, Braxton is not "merely" finding ways to coexist in this world, but is actively constructing another world. I often tire of narrative, especially since we're so saturated in narratives, and these recordings can indeed be exhausting, but (& so) I welcome temporal reworkings such as this. The music was difficult to discuss, but perhaps my writing on the matter (& on this project) can be characterized as both constrained & open too.

26 April 2016

As opposed to Braxton, whose output seems so multidimensional that one has little sense of his musical concerns of the moment, his AACM colleague Henry Threadgill seems to produce albums in a more manageable sequence, with specific concerns & ensembles maintaining themselves over several years, throughout his career. Hence Threadgill was more approachable in the early days of this project, and indeed his This brings us to was one of the most influential albums on me early in this space. Besides listening to many of his earlier albums, I've subsequently been able to follow his releases fairly easily. Most recently, that means Old Locks and Irregular Verbs with a new Ensemble Double Up: The album seems to be quite a departure, because not only does Threadgill conduct the ensemble rather than participate with an instrument, but the two pianos seem to mark a decisive change from e.g. Air, which was (so I've often read) about freeing the middle of the ensemble texture both sonically & from chordal constraints. To underscore, the four-movement piece begins with an extensive piano (or two pianos) part. (The whole thing is an homage to Butch Morris, and ends with a rather extended & climactic chorale-elegy movement, hence symphonic, albeit with a lengthy drum solo dominating the short movement two.) In forging a bigger sound, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs also comes off as much more approachable than In for a Penny, In for a Pound — i.e. not nearly as dense or concentrated. This is analogous to Steve Coleman's latest Pi album, Synovial Joints for a large ensemble: It gives his ideas a bigger, more approachable canvas, and was indeed rewarded for that in the mainstream media. I certainly don't want to claim that there is anything wrong with such a move in principle — indeed, actual change obviously needs to involve the general public — but it isn't my focus here. Threadgill continues to develop his own multi-layered sense of time, here in what can only be described as an overture to classical composition. Regarding the mainstream, it's strange to me at this point that there's still argument over what "a real composer" is, but I guess it shouldn't be. (The arguments about Scelsi in this regard from a couple of decades ago come to mind.) Anyway, assuming it's what they wanted, I would have to think that Threadgill & Braxton have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be real composers.

27 April 2016

I've expressed interest in Latin American music, particularly Mexican, in this space in the past, and so was happy to have a chance to hear Rhapsody of the Oppressed (recorded in April 2015 in León, Mexico) from a recent Downtown Music Gallery new release listing. I don't want to criticize Marco Eneidi (b.1956, Portland OR), who has not only had an international musical life intersecting the Bay Area, Vienna, and New York already, but is presumably the reason I'm able to hear this music at all. That said, this is about the Mexican musicians, Itzam Cano (bass fiddle) & Gabriel Lauber (drums), and this is the second album from their trio with Eneidi, after Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka (recorded two years earlier, and now the name of the trio). Both appear on Dimensional Recordings. Since the recently discussed Anthony Braxton Quartet album was recorded in Brazil, I might as well make it a theme and note that, although Rhapsody of the Oppressed was recorded in Mexico, it explicitly references Paulo Freire. (It also opens with an "exordium," as does the second part of Threadgill's In for a Penny, In for a Pound.) In many ways, this is a classic "free jazz" trio, but I was captivated by the bass player Cano, and enjoyed focusing on him and the drummer Lauber accompanying — hearing Eneidi more as separate commentary & intervention. Although I can't describe anything specific about the bass line, except that it's largely plucked, it projects a polished individual style. (And although I'm sure that Bruce at DMG meant nothing but praise in suggesting that the trio could be heard as if it was William Parker & Hamid Drake, I think that such a suggestion effectively dismisses the — perhaps subtle — distinctiveness of the Mexican rhythm section itself.) Given what an artistic hotbed the Valley of Mexico is & has been, I can't help but think that there is much more to hear there.

28 April 2016

I also want to make a few remarks about a new trio album on Relative Pitch, The Out Louds (recorded December 2014 in Brooklyn), featuring Ben Goldberg (b.1959), Mary Halvorson & Tomas Fujiwara. In its stylistic concerns, The Out Louds overlaps significantly with various other US outputs, particularly those from New York. In keeping with the history of this space, one obvious comparison is with Pool School & the Tom Rainey Trio, also featuring Halvorson. Goldberg's clarinet might be described as both more mellow & more moody than Laubrock's sax, but the textural concerns, along with the senses of forward movement & detail have clear similarities. (One could also compare the textural concerns & sense of detail to that employed by Halvorson & Laubrock in the smaller scale interactions of the recently discussed Anthony Braxton Quartet, an album that was recorded only a few months earlier.) Whereas Rainey & Laubrock evoke a variety of temporalizing processes & influences, The Out Louds generally develops a direct sense of presence, not only in the "rock" sound that emerges at times, but in the kind of interiorized insistence that might be figured as characteristic of domestic popular music movements following the mid-1980s. (One might also perceive an aspect of messianic anticipation in its sense of repetition, i.e. territory. Such anticipation seems to be increasingly characteristic of the postmodern.) In that sense, The Out Louds don't so much interrogate presence as enact a particular stance or tone, with Goldberg's clean & direct tone (in the more specific sense) setting the mood, most compellingly in close interactions with Halvorson. Such an upfront (albeit not quite "in your face") temporal stance can be contrasted with that of e.g. another recent trio album, Dobbeltgænger by the Julie Kjær 3 (with English mainstays John Edwards & Steve Noble): There, interactions with an epic (or mythologizing) sense of time are invoked across multiple streams via imposed compositional structures (which might be similar to what is happening in Braxton's album, as recently discussed). In that sense, (immediate) presence is subjugated (& in turn structured) via other layers of existence. Both albums feature a good feel for melodic lines, and so parallel or exemplify a couple of the stances toward temporality & presence that Braxton has been mutually articulating (musically) e.g. in his Diamond Curtain Wall Music.

1 May 2016

Back in July 2014, I discussed Spectral by the horn trio of Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston & Larry Ochs. Indeed, it inaugurated a series of related discussions at the time. Now the trio has a second album, Neutral Nation (recorded on tour in Buffalo in May 2015), also on Rempis's Aerophonic Records, but this time as a "digital"-only release. (In the same batch of releases, I also enjoyed the trio with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik & Michael Zerang on percussion, Wistfully: I thought the piano-percussion interaction was more striking than the trio as a whole, though.) In any case, Neutral Nation consists of two longish tracks, with the three horns projecting (from) what is often a rather stark texture. The accompanying discussion suggests that the musicians adopt "strategies," and "anticipate structures" so as to find "appropriate moments to strike." Such a sense of anticipation might be said to yield to a sense of waiting at various points (again, one might argue that it invokes the quasi-messianism that seems to have become a characteristic of our paralyzed age). The first track is rather quiet, particularly early on, with a great deal of space for the performers, quite unlike the sort of "turn on a dime"-style ensemble cohesion that one hears on e.g. Ochs' recent album, The Fictive Five. Indeed, one might hear the music as a series of calls, calls to which there isn't so much a response as an elaboration, or simply another call. (And who are they calling?) Such an approach seems either relentlessly positive (given no countervailing tendency) or plaintive, depending, and the calls sometimes take on a more assertive quality. Moreover, they suggest an empty landscape (as opposed to e.g. Bill Dixon's trumpet calls over a carefully constructed landscape), and the closely maintained emptiness (i.e. neutrality?) of that landscape might well be reflected in the album title. (Johnston's recent album with Fred Frith, Everybody's Somebody's Nobody on Clean Feed, also comes off as calls across a landscape at times, in that case a frequently quiet, yet non-empty landscape constructed by Frith.) In that sense, the album might be characterized as being entirely foreground (i.e. no background, and certainly no carefully constructed temporal background as per e.g. Braxton, as discussed last month), with the "strategies" the musicians employ serving to preserve the stark neutrality against which the horns call. Do they generate a territory? Is it a shared territory? Is it contested? (The starkness & poise of Neutral Nation might be compared to Cookbook, which does also include plucked bass that can seem jarring in the all-horn context. Of course, I had already compared Spectral to World of Objects, which involves swirling, collision, etc. rather than space & neutrality. In other words, these other albums show more willingness to create shared contexts out of their musical material.) Whereas the first track, which I find to be unique, and so wanted to give a more extended discussion, seems to generate a feeling of nakedness (which is sometimes uncomfortable for the listener) in its refusal to create a context separate (or arising) from its many calls, the second track immediately takes up a more contrapuntal orientation (first via hocket), and now seems willing to imply a harmonic context at various points. Is this a progression toward building something after the space-dominated opening, or just a different "structure" for the musicians to anticipate? I don't know, but what intrigued me about the album was the sections where the musicians steadfastly avoid creating a harmonic (or similar) context, leaving their horn calls open-ended & unanswered.

10 May 2016

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