Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

Having completed Remède de Fortune, which is probably both a digression in this space, as well as a little project that considerably occupied me for a number of months, it feels like time to rotate the previous set of entries off onto an archive page. (This is the largest set of entries collected on one archive page here thus far, in part because of the delay in preparing the Fortune article.)

I concluded that set of entries with an announcement of a performance fellowship, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to do so. For the future of that endeavor, I have created a separate page that will be kept up to date regarding status. At the moment, some money remains available.

I will keep my remarks for this, the fifth iteration of an opening statement in this space, brief. I refer you to my list of favorites, of course, as well as to previous introductory remarks by way of orientation.

Finally, I note that the promised article on Familiarity continues in its development, and that this will be a more properly "aesthetic" article, although I've declined to circumscribe its content thus far. But this article, not yet named as I write today, has been the container — of sorts — for the past couple of years of discussion in this space.

Hopefully there will also be some worthwhile comments on recent albums, and perhaps other endeavors, to appear here over the coming months.

Todd McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
23 June 2014

I want to write very briefly of my recent decision to include the free trio Taylor / Dixon / Oxley (recorded in 2002 at Victoriaville) in my list of favorites. Obviously this is a rather earlier recording than the others, and I do not intend it to mark a shift toward featuring older material. Simply put, I found it too compelling to neglect, and with nothing since then that is really comparable. Perhaps something for which I have similar feelings will appear, but there is nothing currently on that horizon.

Cecil Taylor needs no introduction, and if I had been more aware of free jazz in the 1980s, it's safe to guess that Cecil Taylor would have been a performer I particularly admired. Now, seemingly with no new performances forthcoming, that admiration moves into more of a retrospective register. (Kris Davis, who appears regularly in this space, is sometimes compared to Taylor, and not without reason, but I do not actually take a similar feel from their music.) I have already mentioned the late Bill Dixon a number of times, including around his Tapestries double album, something of a summation of his late style. (Dixon's Envoi album, also from Victoriaville, functions as more of an appendix in the same style, to my mind.) This was perhaps his last improvised (uncomposed) album, although one never knows what else could be released subsequently. Having these two giants of African-American music share an improvising stage — nicely complemented by Tony Oxley, who has also released little since — becomes an opportunity that in turn yields a production that becomes emblematic of some views I have on the previous generation of performers. Although I rarely mention it here, I have taken numerous opportunities to listen to older recordings, particularly centered in the 1980s (when the "business" of jazz changed so much, as well as coincidentally the one decade during which I was personally captivated by popular music), but Taylor / Dixon / Oxley stands out for me in that context, as styles continued to develop into the early 2000s. (The context includes both the Taylor & Dixon reissue boxes from Black Saint / Soul Note, as well as various others in that series.) It continues to seem very relevant today, and not really duplicated, even as some of the other styles from that period have served as crucial influences for more recent creation. Of course, the latter doesn't make an album worse, and certainly not less influential, but it does mean that I often prefer the later music for having worked out more of the ideas & techniques. So this inclusion is not a matter of "influence," but rather of enjoyment today.

24 June 2014

I have enjoyed Leaf House, the piano trio album released by Jeff Davis in 2012, and so was looking forward to his most recent album — adding two horns to the same piano trio personnel — Dragon Father. One criticism I have of Leaf House is that it can be a bit stiff at times, with some excellent rhythmic-harmonic schemes that don't always soar the way they might. Adding a couple of horns seems like a reasonable way to get a different result, but unfortunately, I'm disappointed with Dragon Father. It has some similar material — meaning that I like it — by Davis, but also some other tracks that could only be termed as sentimental, and the horns serve more to create a traditional jazz "showpiece" vibe than to forge changes in structure in the basic material. In other words, it's a louder & more demonstrative group, but with similar rhythmic-harmonic ideas that the horns are simply amplifying with classic-style solos. Perhaps this album will play better for a more typical jazz audience.

On the topic of drummers whose music I've enjoyed, Joe Hertenstein has been playing with The Core Trio, led by Houston-based bassist Thomas Helton. He is the newest member of that trio, replacing Richard Cholakian and joining sax player Seth Paynter. Their recent album Featuring Matthew Shipp (if that can be considered its title) is often rather minimalist, whether featuring ostinati or solos, and includes a lot of tonal chords. So many triads seem unusual for Shipp! In any case, within the one long track, there are also some animated sections where Hertenstein's drumming can be enjoyed, but mostly he remains in the background. The album can almost be viewed as American minimalism (e.g. Philip Glass) meets classic rock & roll.

25 June 2014

A few other recent albums of note....

Ingrid Laubrock has appeared in this space a number of times already, and like some of the other recent albums from New York musicians she plays with often, her Zürick Concert album seems well-suited as an introduction to her style for more modestly adventurous audiences. The live octet performance features a wide variety of sonorities, textures & ideas, but does so across a long program (73 minutes), without too much happening at any one time. Many sections have more of a minimalist orientation, in fact, some centering on a particular dramatic gesture. (There is something of the soundtrack here at times.) The suite — if I should call it that — climaxes with some rather elaborate ensemble interaction in track #6, which is certainly a highlight. The various other musicians employed in the octet include some of my favorites, and it's a very nicely done production, although none of it is very provocative relative to Laubrock's previous work. Zürick Concert does not sound like "jazz," but listeners open to a more contemporary style will likely find it accessible & enjoyable. It's a real tour de force in that sense.

[ As an aside, English trumpeter Tom Arthurs (b.1980) from Zürick Concert, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, also has a new album, Chats with the Real McCoy, on Creative Sources. This is a trio album from Berlin that features some of the same characteristics, namely an emphasis on fairly minimal ideas that change with each track. The greater intimacy of the trio setting provides a different context for this sort of interaction, in this case especially between Arthurs & drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis. (The bassist is Miles Perkin from Canada, whose plucking also seems percussive often enough to blend into one rhythm duo.) The sometimes repetitive nature of the album seems to draw from the hypnotic, particularly Griot, styles of West Africa at times. (I'm calling this an aside, because Chats with the Real McCoy is unlikely to draw mainstream attention, particularly given the complete lack of description from Creative Sources.) ]

The Sauna Session by Piero Bittolo Bon's Lacus Amoenus featuring Peter Evans is also attracting similar positive attention, even if it seems to be a more obscure release from my perspective. This is an Italian quartet, adding the famous US trumpeter, with a colorful & nicely produced album on the Italian Long Song Records. There is much to enjoy about The Sauna Session — I especially liked the opening track, featuring the tuba (with no string bass in this group) — but I also find the many stylistic references to popular music to be rather literal. This extends from various kinds of rock & metal, as typical of many improvisatory albums these days, even to country music (which is rather literal on track #5), blues & folk. I would tend to favor more of a transfiguration of this material, but here I believe we're supposed to enjoy the sounds for their own sake, as part of a (somewhat prototypical) postmodern collage. This is another long album (74 minutes), with much lively interaction and a carefree spirit. I found it rather striking, despite some different preferences, and well worth hearing.

Another album I've enjoyed is Spectral, a wind trio of Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston & Larry Ochs, recorded on two dates here in the Bay Area, and released on Aerophonic Records (Dave Rempis's label, also nicely produced). It has not been a conscious decision, but I have not spent much time on all-wind ensembles in this space. Obviously there is a great deal of potential in using only instruments from the same family, and even if we're more accustomed to e.g. the string quartet, the idea of matched wind consorts goes back to the Renaissance. Here, the instruments aren't really matched, and the three players have no problem differentiating their sounds. A bit like Zürick Concert, although in a very different style, Spectral relies on detailed interactions within a rather constrained space. The various tracks come off spontaneously: Even if one musician adopts a relatively strict procedure, the others interact in different ways. That tension between strictness & freedom is what forms much of the interest. (I contrast this somewhat with what's become the cliché of composition vs. improvisation.) The result is that group structures form & fall apart, but with more intimacy than typical of the "soundscape" style, given the latter's typical distance. Spectral gets the listener thinking about the individual notes, so it's both very technical & self-conscious in that sense. The general sparseness is critical to that focus, a focus not uncommon in "experimental" concerts in the Bay Area.

3 July 2014

The duo Period has added Chuck Bettis (who I correspond with occasionally at DMG) on voice & electronics for their second album, 2, as well as a couple of sax players on some tracks. This is basically doom metal reconfigured, decontextualized. I enjoy some of their sonorities, particularly Bettis on vocals & Mike Pride's drumming, but Charlie Looker sticking closely to "metal" chords on the booming guitar gets to be monotonous for me. (This is in distinction to The Gate, mentioned in this space back in September 2012, which mixes interval permutations into their doom style.) I have a hard time listening to the entire first track, which is only the core duo, as well as the longest track on the album, without getting bored by the lack of variety. The track certainly does have a consistent foreboding quality, though, in keeping with the "doom" genre. Track #2 is then a similar setup, but with vocals. Some of the other tracks have a bit more happening. All the vocals are wordless, basically decontextualized metal-style howling, often staying in the background. That aspect of the album is appealing, and Pride scrambles time throughout, so there's plenty of rhythmic interest. (The wind players don't really change the basic sound when they participate.) It's as if doom metal songs have been broken apart and put back together in some incoherent (in the good sense) order, but unfortunately keeping the harmonies mostly intact. Anyway, I don't listen to too many albums that are so focused on rock or post-rock styles, so I thought Period 2 was worth mentioning.

5 July 2014

Skulking in the Big House is another worthwhile improvised quartet album on Creative Sources, recorded by German bassist Alexander Frangenheim in Berlin, and featuring the Israeli players Ariel Shibolet (soprano saxophone), Nori Jacoby (viola), and Ofer Bymel (drums). Although I hadn't noticed it at the time, Skulking in the Big House prompted me to also have a listen to Berlin — another improvised quartet album recorded the previous year in Berlin by Frangenheim, with Bymel, but also Creative Sources director Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, and Chris Heenan on reeds. The similarities are obvious between the two groups, and likely Berlin prompted Rodrigues to also release Skulking in the Big House. In any case, although Rodrigues's technique on viola is quite advanced, Berlin is generally a very quiet album, either with not a lot happening, or remaining on the edge of audibility. (The final track does have a bit of an "animal roar" to it, but that fades away also.) I have nothing against exploring such areas in principle, but the fact is, an exploration of audibility doesn't suit my life very well: There's so much environmental noise around me, and trying to listen to music I have trouble hearing only makes it seem more frustrating. So I'm not all that personally compatible with Rodrigues's own style, even if I like much of what he does, particularly as a label director. Another natural point of comparison for Skulking in the Big House in this space is Martin Blume's quartet album In Just, with which I've had a bit of a strange relationship: This is the only album, so far at least, that I've dropped out of my favorites only to add again (and now dropped again). I enjoy much of In Just, even if it's rather quiet for extended periods, but apparently that enjoyment stops short of true enthusiasm. The comparison is likewise fairly obvious, with its two string players, reedist & drummer. I think that ultimately I feel similarly about Skulking in the Big House, in that it's an enjoyable album that doesn't force me to seek it out — not quite enough ideas for a full album, I guess, although the best parts are very striking. Nonetheless, some other thoughts are appropriate. Skulking in the Big House is not so much a study in quiet, although it's never very loud, but more of a chamber atmosphere with quick pointillist sounds often in extended technique. (The percussive attacks are specifically reminiscent of In Just.) I consequently enjoy the way the musicians interact when playing together simultaneously. Although certainly "indoor music," there is a bit of wildness to it in the evocations of insect & small animal sounds, an observation that could be made of a number of albums featured in this space. (Whether this is intentional, I do not know.) The result is a kind of hybrid sensitivity that deserves more exploration, and indeed seems to be getting it. This is one of the more compelling albums to appear so far this year, particularly since (as on Eye of the Moose) it mostly features musicians with which I was not otherwise familiar.

Considering that the majority of musicians on Skulking in the Big House are Israeli, I feel compelled to state at this time that I do not support the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians. The actions of that government are very offensive to me. I also do not automatically believe that anyone from Israel must be in favor of them, just as I am not in favor of many of the things done by the United States government. (And I have no idea what these musicians' specific views are.) That said, Bymel also has a recent trio album recorded in Israel, Spatial Awareness on OutNow; this was worth hearing, although more noise / electronic rock influenced. An album that mostly features Israeli musicians that I continue to find striking is Growing carrots in a concrete floor, largely for its reconfiguration of interior space — including what likewise might be evocations from the animal world. (The final/title track on Skulking in the Big House is the most similar in this regard.)

16 July 2014

I discussed the first Dark Tree release, Pourtant les cimes des arbres, more than two years ago in this space. The album received quite a bit of positive attention, particularly in France, and I enjoyed it. (I also continue to like the label packaging, which does not cut corners, has a nice design, ample size, and a sturdy plastic sleeve.) I did have some misgivings about recreating a classic haiku in music, not only about the shift in medium, but also the shift in culture, in this case to a France-based trio. After all, Japan has its own musicians, both traditional & otherwise, and we can hear them as easily as we can this French trio. These topics arise naturally [*] again with Sens radiants, the fourth release by Dark Tree, and the next of this particular trio. Here we find, again, a literary basis, this time in the twentieth century writing of Henri Michaux. The mediation is rather different, however, starting with the French author. Michaux is, to a high degree, a travel author, and his sense of encounter with the cultural other figures his work. This sense of encounter is already highly mediated by Michaux himself, however, rather than arising starkly from a more direct encounter by the musicians (although one can certainly take their previous album as highly mediated by the Western concept of haiku in general). These other layers of dialog — if I may call it that — yield a rhetorical richness throughout the single long improvisation. The imagery is not always especially abstract, however, so that one feels oneself on a train in the opening, later in the jungle, on a ship, etc. These more concrete sensations then interact with other layers of commentary. Another significant difference in Sens radiants, that I approach with some degree of trepidation, is that the world that inspired Michaux is not presented to the West in the way that Japan is: The music or ideas he encountered are not presented in our artistic spaces, or if they are, not self-consciously by the creators themselves. In other words, whereas Pourtant les cimes des arbres doesn't give me a new appreciation of Japan, Sens radiants does give me — at least somewhat — a different feel for e.g. the Amazon.[**] The musicians themselves utilize a variety of technique, and create a rich sonic tapestry, often (but not always) out of quite minimal materials. I would not characterize it as narration or description any more than is Michaux's late poetry: It is, I might say in keeping with the preceding, further mediation — rather, a further transplant — of some very different ways of looking at the world. It's also a chance to hear a very capable sax-bass-drum trio featuring the baritone saxophone in an extended improvisatory piece of many different moods, and that's probably plenty.

[*] This is a self-conscious use of the term "naturally," given the naturalist — and particularly cross-cultural view on nature — evocation (or provocation) of these albums.

[**] Coincidentally, when this album appeared, I was in the midst of reading Descola's Beyond Nature and Culture, which opens with an Amazonian anecdote from Michaux. Perhaps, absent this coincidence, I would have found Sens radiants much less engaging. How can I ever know?

4 August 2014

It was serendipitous to have spent some time listening to Spectral a couple of months ago, because that opportunity to ponder the wind trio format made it easier to hear Sonic Rivers subsequently. I don't know why that format presents challenges for me, out of proportion to other sorts of instrumental trios, but in any case, I found Sonic Rivers rather harsh and difficult to approach.[*] However, with some time, the strength of the interaction between these three very distinguished players did shine forth. The frame for the program consists of two compositions by Wadada Leo Smith (b.1941), with the remainder being free improvisation. Having John Zorn (b.1953) invite Smith to record for his label, forming a trio mediated by George Lewis (b.1952), who contributes the electronics to the ensemble sound, is clearly an event (and sure to be widely heard).[**] Moreover, the opening track is a tribute to Cecil Taylor (who I had discussed in this space only a handful of weeks ago), engaging another giant of USA music. Following the opening Taylor homage, the second track, "The Art of Counterpoint" lets loose the exotic sound of electronics to demonstrate just how sophisticated this improvising trio can be. The next set of improvisations might be generically named — or perhaps really evocative of their directional terms — but the last improvisation, "Screaming Grass," has a very clear referent: Coincidentally, my partner watched a TV documentary on plant intelligence & communication the same week this album appeared, although the (colorful) descriptive term goes back to at least 2010. (So the serendipity here is manifold.) In any case, I've long wondered about the public's fascination with animal responses to the seeming complete exclusion of plant responses; evidently we torture plants too. That digression aside, the trio's music is certainly evocative, and exemplary of a richly dense interaction that does not eschew dissonance, nor melody, even if the latter can be hidden. Although it takes some effort to disentangle the various things happening throughout this album, Sonic Rivers is well worth it. That it demands engagement from the listener is perhaps its greatest strength, and I'm feeling that my attempt to translate some of that demand into words is falling even more short than usual.

[*] It is probably premature for me to discuss, but while writing this entry, a wind quintet album by Jorrit Dijkstra (together with distinguished performers Phillip Greenlief, Kyle Bruckmann, Frank Gratkowski, and Jon Raskin) appeared on Driff Records (which has a variety of current releases, including more mainstream jazz formats). Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland is not only similar in its all-wind lineup, but has a similar locus of electronic use to Sonic Rivers. Moreover, it can be compared to Spectral in its Bay Area orientation (in addition to its procedural focus); I've had the opportunity to listen to most of these performers live, and of course, Ochs & Raskin are members of ROVA, a local institution. In any case, Music for Reeds and Electronics is rather more "composed" (by Dijkstra) than these other albums, although it has various fascinating sequences. I've enjoyed it, even if it seems a bit stiff at times, relatively speaking.

[**] Although each of these performers is widely recorded, hearing them in a fully improvised setting, interacting with at least two other musicians at a time, is not as easy as I would like. My current eschewal of solos & duos might be idiosyncratic, but I'm sure that many listeners will likewise value this opportunity.

5 August 2014

Sonic Rivers actually initiated a new series for John Zorn on Tzadik, one presumably oriented around smaller scale improvisational meetings. Number two of that series arrived near the same time, a piano trio fronted by Sylvie Courvoisier (with Drew Gress & Kenny Wollesen), Double Windsor. This is a trio that is clearly led by the pianist in a traditional sense (including the composing), and indeed features a great deal of tradition in musical style: There is often a classical feel, alongside various quasi-popular styles of the 20th century. In this, it's not so different from e.g. Uri Caine's Siren, which I discussed in this space back in 2011, an erudite synthesis of various piano traditions spanning decades. There is a different personality, however, that of Courvoisier, and something of a light & pretty quality (as in e.g. Mozart). This is, I'm told, Courvoisier's first piano trio album (as surprising as that seems), and the musicians spent a goodly amount of time playing together before recording. It can be said to enact a very specific vision in that sense.

As it happens, there were three worthwhile piano trio albums that came to me at about the same time, and so this entry will continue to discuss the other two. It is interesting how, at times, it seems this form is played out, but then suddenly it seems reinvigorated. Perhaps that is as expected. In any case....

Love and Ghosts is the latest release (a double album) from the Farmers by Nature trio. In this case, there is no clear leader, and different performers take the lead at different times — William Parker's solos are probably the most striking here, as it happens, even though Gerald Cleaver is the "administrator" for the group. The two CDs are two live sets from France, and have both the strengths & weaknesses inherent to largely unedited concert tour recordings: They're very engaging & stimulating at times, yielding to other moments where not a lot is happening (or it's repetitive), and the engagement tends to fade a bit (at least for me) with repeated listening. I'm glad these performers decided to release such a live album, even if a few hearings satisfies me. There is an attention to process in that decision, and the cultivation of new artists, that Farmers by Nature, and especially Parker, have come to exemplify. The style itself can be reasonably inferred from other activities of these performers, encompassing both the groove-based style and more intricate interactions.

From England comes A field perpetually at the edge of disorder, a trio album fronted by John Tilbury, but with extensive provocation from Mark Sanders, and especially John Edwards. This is largely stark music, in the mode of e.g. Joëlle Léandre's Live - Trio, a piano trio also featuring Tilbury. It's also a lengthy album, with two extended improvisations, both apparently from the same date at Cafe Oto. This music has a sort of air of world commentary, yet a fragility to it, that could also be compared to the recently-discussed Sens radiants. Somehow A field doesn't seem terribly grounded, despite those evocations. I did find it interesting, though, and would probably feel more strongly about it if quiet music worked better in my life. There's both a worldliness and a feeling of distance to the music, encapsulated technically in the triadic response to dissonance. There is an other-worldly sense of enjoyment, in other words, with all the implications that departure might have — observation of the world without being of it. (Working that stance into a broader dynamic including immanence is what Léandre accomplished so well with her trio.) A field, however, clearly captures a particular milieu with some authority.

6 August 2014

Given what I might characterize as the conservatism of the Clean Feed catalog [*], at least relative to some more adventurous labels, Fremdenzimmer has long struck me as a provocative album — although perhaps this was never a good assessment, given its clear references to Scelsi & Sciarrino, i.e. "classical" music that is decades old now. However, Fremdenzimmer, or at least parts of it, is also some of the most successfully innovative "Scelsian" music I've heard, incorporating a kind of heterogenous becoming that Scelsi himself never really cultivated, and so a sequel from the Baloni trio was very welcome. As it turns out, there isn't much of a Scelsian orientation to Belleke (except maybe the first half of track #4, which then leads into 1940s Messiaen harmonies that become destabilized), and in fact the opening (as well as some other portions) can only be described as overtly nostalgic in the Romantic sense. I found it initially disappointing, for that reason, but even part way through the first hearing, started to enjoy the charms of Belleke for themselves. There is still a tackling of 20th century avant garde style, but here configured more around emotional registers. (I do not know the reference of the title. A woman's name?) The website mentions something about Satie, whose influence can be felt at times (e.g. #9 — or, given the string attack, is that China's influence on Satie?), although Baloni is far more colorful: The focus on developing smaller scale relations is retained from Fremdenzimmer, if applied to different affective interfaces, and the result is not nearly as dark (to again quote the website, which actually retains the "dark" label for Belleke) or alien: I might call it elemental, to align with the Scelsi influence, but it operates more in the human domain, although not without reference to objects (e.g. #2). There is also the melodic feel of folk music at times, although it is difficult to place within a trans-Eurasian perspective (part Chinese in #5, for instance). There are a large number of separate pieces (again), and the result is an array of affective gestures, usually with some substantial development, some more improvised, some more composed. Belleke uses more tonal coloring than I would have thought I'd enjoy (although melodies are usually decentered), but the result is somehow a reterritorialization that penetrates elements of older styles & their configuration. It makes for a rather interesting juxtaposition with Fremdenzimmer, and indeed Baloni has managed to surprise me & convince me to think about some musical elements differently. (It's also interesting to note that it's been over two years since Belleke was recorded, not so long after Fremdenzimmer was released. Who knows what's next?) Maybe the Clean Feed writer thinks of the haunting quality as dark, but I would say it's a bright haunting, or at least translucent.

Clean Feed continues to release a wide range of material, and another album from the latest batch held my attention for a while, Balance by the Joe Morris Quartet. This is an older formation to which Morris "returned," with Mat Maneri, Chris Lightcap, and Gerald Cleaver. Although I have not featured Lightcap in this space, Maneri participates in a couple of favorite albums (with Joëlle Léandre & with Kris Davis), and Cleaver appears regularly in a variety of ensembles — in the previous entry with Farmers by Nature, with Samuel Blaser, John Hébert, etc. Morris takes pride in regularly making music that is completely different from his other music, and in that context, Balance represents something of a return, as already noted — a return he describes as creating difference via being a return. (I can personally relate to Morris's comments about feeling some resentment, maybe even fear?, at being told that this quartet defined his sound. That sort of thought usually makes me scramble too.) Various parts of Balance are highly enjoyable, particularly when the entire ensemble is involved, but there are also many smaller scale sections where not a lot happens for a period of time. It's an album that can alternate brilliance with feeling repetitive or unfocused in fairly short order — perhaps that's what makes it balanced. (According to Morris, it is actually inspired by 20th century sculpture, and is the third & last in a series of albums devoted to the visual arts, the second being Camera, discussed in this space some 37 months ago.) Nonetheless, it's well worth hearing.

[*] I don't actually attribute Clean Feed's so-called conservatism to any sort of reactionary element among the label staff at all, but rather to a goal of bringing their audience along in a manner acceptable to that audience. In other words, they're trying to address a conservative audience (by definition; not any more so than any but the most specialized audiences), and spur them toward some newer musical ideas — or at least that's how I view the situation. Moreover, I can't complain, since that approach worked well for me.

13 August 2014

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