Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Briefly Reviewed, Installment #3

(Casco Records)

Minimalism and jazz don’t usually go together – after all, variation and immediacy seem to fly in the face of repetition and gradual material processes. But there are exceptions to the rule, such as pianists Mal Waldron and Bernardo Sassetti. Dutch trio As If 3 is another contender for an approximation of minimalism in jazz, but naturally that’s only part of the equation. Comprised of pianist Frank van Bommel, bassist Raoul van der Weide and drummer Wim Janssen, Klinkklaar is their debut. “M.F.” is a dedication to Morton Feldman, van Bommel’s progression of grand, twisted intervallic microcosms capturing essential aspects of late Feldman piano pieces, set in counterpoint to high arco bass harmonics and Janssen’s stuttering, choppy rhythm blocks. “Afternotes” approximates a boppish feel, albeit with wooden-shoe timing and a cracked, wheezy underpinning (kind of like Bob James’ early push-pull work with drummer Cleve Pozar). There’s romanticism in the title track that recalls some of Sassetti’s filmic writing, slow and gauzy spirals surrounded by uneasy clatter and scrape (Janssen plays with time and accent more than eke out tasteful bash). Klinkklaar is an excellent, odd piano trio date that will hopefully get some love on both sides of the Atlantic.

Open Port
(Circulasione Totale)

Norwegian altoist and clarinetist Frode Gjerstad has convened the Circulasione Totale Orchestra since the middle 1980s, initially as an effort to bring what he had learned in the inter-continental group Detail to young and hungry Norwegian musicians. The orchestra has a tendency to include stylistically diverse players in its fully-improvised programs – one strange and notable performance in 1989 included DJs and rappers. Open Port is a precursor to the recently-issued Bandwidth, a monster three-disc set on Rune Grammofon, and it features the first iteration of “Yellow Bass and Silver Cornet.” The lineup includes well-known improvisers like reedman Sabir Mateen, drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Paal Nilssen-Love and cornetist Bobby Bradford. Electronic artist Lasse Marhaug, drummer Morten Olsen and guitarist Anders Hana, all from a noisier end of Scandinavian music, fill out the thirteen-piece group. Orchestral free improvisation usually involves at least some amount of conduction – Alan Silva taking cues from action painting, for example. But upon seeing the CTO at work in a rare Houston appearance, grand visual cues were not present – rather, an organic growth and recession of sounds based on collective familiarity and risk. With its significant number of participants, not to mention three drummers, electric guitar and electronics, the music is surprisingly spacious, its contrasts voiced in a delicate, insistent play of colors and shapes in relief rather than head-butting blowouts. Levity from a trio of birdsongs (flute, clarinet, vibes) elevating urbane/carnal din, while Bradford’s Texas-bred brass lends a strange swagger when combined with Børre Mølstad’s tuba. Programmed as four segued parts, Open Port is a wonderful introduction to the CTO’s approach.

(ATMA Classique)

In Canadian new music, clarinetist Francois Houle, cellist Peggy Lee and trombonist Jeremy Berkman are mostly known for their work as improvisers. However, two of these three musicians also count themselves as part of large chamber group the Turning Point Ensemble, based in Vancouver. Houle (one of the foremost clarinetists working today) is the guest soloist here and composer of a concerto also featured on the disc. The ensemble works through three recent compositions including works by Canadian composers John Korsrud and Yannick Plamondon, as well as a 1959 work by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. Korsrud’s “Liquid,” which starts off the disc, is typical of modern catch-all compositions, beginning with a neo-romantic minimal dance-like motif placed against clanging percussive droplets. Houle’s tone and circular breathing technique are in full view, moving between pinched twitter and rounded chamuleau as the music takes a turn into Penderecki-like dissonance. A sparse movement for plaintive whispers and slippery ponticello strings similarly displays Houle’s control in dangerous waters. While “Liquid” isn’t the most interesting piece of new music to come down the pike, rather a stylistic mishmash very well stitched-together, as a view into Houle’s magnificent playing it’s the perfect vehicle. Plamondon’s “Schrift,” for string nonet, clarinet, piano and percussion, is more interesting and unified – darting, showy pointillism against gooey string motion in a constant play. And that might just be the ticket with “Schrift.” Its best moments (and these are fairly frequent) is an unselfconscious playfulness that’s not without subdued unruliness.

Houle’s own “Concerto” is an attempt to translate the immediacy of his work in improvised music to notated structure and a chamber ensemble; there are snatches of exuberant growling and plaintive walks with piano, but most of the piece hews closer to traditional modern tonal music with occasional sidesteps into an extended vocabulary. Its closing five minutes are the most compelling, offering an unaccompanied clarinet section that merges into a manic dance with strings, brass and percussion and seems to encapsulate better what the sprawling whole might have been after. The Scelsi piece, “Kya” (in three movements) is fantastically seasick and bent, Houle’s clarinet set against a backdrop of metallic brass and reeds, microtonal string slices and near-electronic sonorities. The Turning Point Ensemble certainly does right Scelsi’s vision for placing large and oppositional sounds into a very small area. While difficult and unfair to judge the technical mastery and unity of Houle and the Turning Point Ensemble, Liquid could have been a better program than it is.

Dissonance Makes the Heart grow Fonder

Guitarist-composer Dom Minasi isn’t exactly a household name in the arena of creative new music – my familiarity with him goes only so far as sideman appearances with Joe McPhee and Joe Giardullo as well as a pair of misguided commercial LPs cut for Blue Note in the early 1970s. That should change with his convening of a string quartet for Dissonance Makes the Heart grow Fonder, the twelfth album under his own name. He’s joined by regular co-conspirators in bassist Ken Filiano and cellist Thomas Ulrich, as well as violinist Jason Kao Hwang through seven compositions. The idea behind the group was to condense the large ensemble present on The Vampire’s Revenge (CDM, 2006) into a working unit. “The Pasadena Two-Step” calls to mind John Fahey in title, though musically it sets the stage with extraordinarily spiky interplay, tidal waves of bowed mass and silvery plink-and-stomp. Minasi’s flitting elisions on the opening of “The Dark Side” give away some of what makes him such an interesting improviser, and certainly toy with the micro/macro polarities of the McPhee/Giardullo axis of which he’s loosely a part. However, the gestures of violin, cello and bass are sweeping just as often as they are squirrely. Considering that the writing does center as much on collision as it does convergence, comparable units like TECK (Ulrich, Filiano, Elliott Sharp, Carlos Zíngaro) are a bit more rattled. As a composer, Minasi’s dissonance is exquisitely manifest by an extraordinary quartet – recommended without question.

Thinking of Khlebnikov
(No Business)

Russian-born percussionist Vladimir Tarasov is sort of the “old man” of jazz in Lithuania – he’s called Vilnius home since 1968, and achieved international renown as an improviser with the Ganelin Trio (1971-1986). In addition to work as a sound installation artist and solo percussionist, he has also worked with American composers like Anthony Braxton and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Thinking of Khlebnikov, a dedication to Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, is Tarasov’s first disc to be released on Lithuania’s No Business label and a follow-up to the eleven-volume Atto solos (released as a boxed set in 2005). There is something comparable to Cyrille. Tarasov’s movement from rumbling toms to large gongs, bells, and smaller tuned gongs recalls the Afro-Asian mini orchestra of Cyrille and Milford Graves’ Dialogue of the Drums (IPS, 1974). The rapid twists of manipulated skins on “Having Saddled a Herd of Sounds” approach electro-acoustic textures, a fierce upset to the tense delicacy of its “Introduction.” Modern classicism, in the vein of ensemble percussion music, shows up on “Bi-chiming Dreams,” a spacious and metallic exploration of metal, air, and resonance. Concentrated action and small sounds take up “Pin, Pin, Pin! Rumbled Zinzeever,” a piece for muted bells and shakers far less rackety than its Futurist title would suggest. With tambourine and brushed patter, “Poles and Poles and Poles” is elegantly swinging. Though creating a sound environment is certainly part of Tarasov’s modus operandi, Thinking of Khlebnikov is just as much an intricate and joyous solo percussion disc.

A Brush with Dignity
(Clean Feed)

Weightless is the combo of Italian pianist Alberto Braida and drummer Fabrizio Spera and the English saxophone-bass team of John Butcher and John Edwards. Both pairs of musicians are restless international collaborators, though Spera and Braida might be new names to some (their groups have included saxophonist Jack Wright, bassist Lisle Ellis, and reedman Hans Koch). In a way, it’s refreshing that A Brush with Dignity sounds like one would hope, minus the air of iciness that can be attached to Butcher. The addition of a harmonic instrument lends a particular cast, not necessarily “bringing the boys home,” but responding with bluesy Paul Bley-like turnarounds and fleshy rhythmic clang as Edwards and Spera flail and thrum around Butcher’s sputtering stiletto. The centerpiece is the nearly thirty-minute “Centri” (not eight, as the sleeve says), beginning with long breathy tones and metallic jitter commingling with throaty voices from Edwards’ hull. It would be easy for such sparseness to become rarified, but that doesn’t happen – chordal outlines and Spera’s terse, high-pitched bowing are mated to the Brits’ gritty agitation. Unaccompanied, Braida has a way of making massive sonic areas halting and squirrely, though without much speed (again perhaps the influence of Bley’s later work). Furious pizzicato strum and Spera’s angled, brushed ricochets fill out a suspended and turbulent trio. Cottony circular breathing, flutter tonguing, bowed cymbals and muted piano clunks echo the moments of kindling in the Schlippenbach quartet, soon dropping away into thwacking tenor and bass. Without going into a play-by-play, it is here that the group clearly subverts its name without looking back.

Giuseppe Logan's Next Dance

History is a funny thing. I found myself wondering what I was doing with respect to the history of this music while spinning records the other night as part of my biweekly slot at KOOP in Austin, mostly late 60s and early 70s American expatriates in Paris. It was a heavy time for sure, but only a small slice of what's come before and since. The program is called "The Cutting Edge," which by its very nomenclature should be current. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

The other day I got something in the mail that I thought I would never see (surely a lot of people feel the same way): a new record by 74-year-old reedman Giuseppe Logan. Usually credited as "Giuseppi Logan," his birth certificate apparently reads "Giuseppe." Logan vanished in the late 60s, although he'd pop up from time to time playing in the subways and on the streets of New York. Apparently he was institutionalized numerous times because of mental health issues. Logan was thought to be dead until he appeared in the audience at the Vision Festival a couple of years ago. He now has, with assistance, an apartment in the East Village and has been rehearsing and playing from time to time. That has resulted in a quintet disc for Tompkins Square, his first record in over 40 years. Back in the halcyon days of free jazz, he made two leader-dates for ESP and sideman appearances with Patty Waters and Roswell Rudd.

Logan is joined here by two young free players - bass clarinetist/trumpeter Matt Lavelle and bassist Francois Grillot - as well as peers Dave Burrell (piano) and Warren Smith (drums). It's a nice, if uneven date; at times Logan seems to be struggling with phrasing and intonation, though he's clearly happy to be making music in a professional setting again. I'll be reviewing it shortly for All About Jazz.

I really haven't figured out my own feelings on the resurrection of musicians who had gone through a disappearing act. Bassist Henry Grimes, back on the scene from the beginning of the decade, seems to have found his footing as a player once again. His story - dropping off in 1966 and presumed dead until he was found working as a janitor in LA in 2002 - is really something else. Percussionist Cleve Pozar, who was "on the edge" for a time, is now sharing his homemade electronic bata works on You Tube and has renewed his association with multi-instrumentalist collaborator Cooper-Moore. But the rejoinder that young, talented musicians have a hard enough time getting gigs and face time without continual diversions of attention to history isn't lost either. Jazz certainly has suffered because of too much attention paid to history, but it is a double-edged sword because as an art form, improvised music is not often taken seriously enough and therefore history/validation is something held onto passionately.

Personally, the fact that Giuseppe Logan has a chance to make a record and play with a cast of excellent musicians in his sunset years seems like a beautiful thing. I think the same can ultimately be said for any musician still trying to work their craft despite many years of hardship. It's good that it's able to happen with a little less pain and suffering on the part of the creators. But that's not to say that any number of concerts and recordings by younger free players shouldn't be given equal or greater time. Those guys need it too.

Photo of Giuseppe Logan courtesy of Mark Sheldon.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Briefly Reviewed, Installment #2

A few more interesting things that have crossed my desk recently... all are recommended!

The Abstract Truth
(European Echoes)

The son of a painter and an accomplished photographer himself, it’s not all that surprising that Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado is such a consistently invigorating improviser. Whether or not they’re explicit in his own leanly spiraling abstractions, having a broad base of creative stimulation outside the immediate must have an effect on Amado’s palette. The Abstract Truth joins him with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (The Thing) and Chicago bassist Kent Kessler on eight collective improvisations, a follow up to 2005’s Teatro. The tunes here are punchy and more concise than those on the album’s predecessor, Amado’s rolling economy a good match for Kessler’s anchor and Nilssen-Love’s dry, detailed athleticism. One might expect a modern and mostly European tenor-based power trio to be either mechanically full bore or sparse and erudite. While moments of each occur throughout, there’s a seeker’s warmth and a loving, cottony delicacy to Amado’s playing, both of which contribute to the brightness of the trio’s music. With a recent US tour by the Humanization 4tet, one of a number of groups that count him among its members, one can only hope that Amado’s international visibility remains on the rise.

Songs of Early Autumn
(No Business)

I’ve probably stated this a few times elsewhere, but the dictum is true – that the music of the 1960s could not be played by today’s musicians simply because they are too technically proficient and know too much. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes refreshing to hear a player so hungry to make music that perhaps the record button is pressed before much wood-shedding has been done. Timo Shanko, normally thought of as a bassist, apparently hadn’t been biting the reed long when Songs of Early Autumn was recorded in 2005, under the leadership of trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez. That’s not to say he isn’t a “good” saxophonist – quite the contrary, he’s got a burnished tone and his phrase construction is based on meaty, barking lines. He and Gonzalez make an excellent front-line pair, the trumpeter’s steely punch shoring up Shanko’s screaming rough edges. Luther Gray and Joe Morris (on bass) make up the rhythm section, a loosely-knit surge of constant bedrock melody and ambiguous time. The session was recorded around the same time as Gonzalez’ No Photograph Available (Clean Feed) and, while not quite the hairy revivalism of that date, Songs of Early Autumn is an impressively natty disc.

Addictive Tendencies
(Rare Music)

It’s too bad that I got a hold of Addictive Tendencies well after the regular review-release cutoff (one year and some change) came around. Supposedly, there is more music with Tubby Hayes and drummer Tony Levin in the can waiting to be issued, and this two-disc set on Levin’s Rare Music label serves as an excellent primer. British saxophonist/flutist and vibraphonist (how’s that for a combo?) Hayes died in 1973 at the age of 38; one of the most respected jazzmen in England, his name should be mentioned alongside Rollins and Coltrane as one of the purest tenor saxophone improvisers in modern jazz. If he were American, that would be the case. His phrasing is wry, from buried quotes and dug deep into chords a la Trane, not to mention orchestrally thick and colorful. There’s really nobody else like him. Addictive Tendencies captures Hayes live in 1966 with his quartet of pianist Mike Pyne, bassist Ron Mathewson and Levin in the year leading up to the watershed Mexican Green LP. Hayes’ own tunes are interesting, but on well-worn standards he really lets fly – the scorching take on “Walkin’” that starts off the set is worth the price of admission alone, a real “Chasing the Tubbs” performance. The rhythm section is strong, Levin and Mathewson ratcheting the tempo and Pyne assembling a jovial, percussive amble on a decidedly out-of-tune instrument. On “Alone Together,” Hayes’ turns are tough and imply a wrought, poetic companionship at a cage-rattling clip. Addictive Tendencies is an absolutely incredible set, a must for any fan of modern jazz and the tenor saxophone in particular. Better late than never.

Sensible Shoes

Sensible Shoes is the fourth disc by English jazz-rock quintet Led Bib and their first for a US label. Elsewhere the group has been called the “future of jazz” which probably relates to the fact that they draw from sources like noise-rock and prog as much as they do the jazz/free improvisation continuum. All but one of the compositions are by drummer Mark Holub, who has a top-heavy attack without sounding bludgeoning – on the opening “Yes, Again,” my first point of comparison was with Exploding Customer percussionist Kjell Nordeson. Careening keyboard gloop and fuzz bass recall the Soft Machine though the approach here is down, dirty and far less minimal. In fact, the simplicity of the pummeling arrangements fits in with groups like The Thing, though the soft, bubbly tones of altoists Chris Williams and Pete Grogan give the music an airy quality even within segments of heavy thrash. “Early Morning” begins with a salty two-alto statement of the ballad theme, soon joined by light rhythm plod and clusters of electric organ. Percussive piling and an insistent bass vamp buoy keening alto as keyboardist Toby McLaren wraps romantic snatches around and underneath the ensemble. “2.4:1 (still equals none)” is another spare piece, placing high-pitched burbling electronics alongside a spare alto and bass walk. These are areas of tension in an often explosive, jaunty set. For those who like their jazz tinged with gritty prog and vice versa, Sensible Shoes is recommended.

A Bun Dance
(Dungeon Taxis)

This disc arrived on my doorstep in the waning days of Bagatellen, a bedroom-concréte duo of pioneers in rural New Zealand crafting compositions from electronic sources, found sounds, and guitar. The tapes apparently lay dormant for nearly thirty years until their excavation at the beginning of the 2000s. Initially these collages might sound a little dated; there’s bit of the Apollo moon landing speech gummed up and overrun with buzzing, rising tones, and it’s hard not to separate a sample like that from its (at one time) cultural ubiquity. But objectively, Pilcher and McKelvey – through tapes, feedback, looping and guitar plink – do (or did) create some certifiably unruly homemade electronic music. “Collection Plate” begins with wrangled six-strings buried in tape garble, only to return in snatches of distant lo-fi fuzz and shaky acoustic pluck, equal parts Dead C and MEV. Percussive rattle, accordion/melodica-like fragmented wheeze, and wiry dissolving progressions mark “Song for O,” like most of the pieces here a brief extract of something probably larger. The inclusion of bits of melody and drumset tap within a larger electronic stew, no matter how futzed with, give the recordings humanity. That's likewise indicated by tape hiss and ragged edges. The longer-form pieces don’t always hold attention - wandering collages of defiled audio snippets, occasionally invaded by damaged acoustic music. The seven-minute “Ohmn” is probably the most intriguing, a la Robert Ashley’s “Wolfman” with a psychedelic tinge. In all, this is a fascinating collection of work that stands in powerful relief to academic electronic music of the same era.

Apocalyptik Paranoia

Improvising percussionist Weasel Walter is an extraordinarily busy leader, and also not a patient person. He would rather put the time and effort into releasing music on his own ugExplode label than wait around for one of the myriad other indie jazz outfits to pick it up. Apocalyptik Paranoia is a split release with the French Gaffer label (Shiek Anorak), featuring guitarist Henry Kaiser, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and trumpeters Peter Evans, Forbes Graham and Greg Kelley in various combinations. “Scintillations” was probably taken from the Plane Crash session, and is a fine (if brief) example of the gestural clarity Walter strives for in both dense and spare improvisation. A duo with Kaiser in constant pattering phrase elaboration – wry, free-bluesy guitar plinks offset by an orbit of sharp stabs, taut and ritualistic patterns with a basis in Tony Oxley, Milford Graves and Hiroshi Yamazaki. “Threnody,” for two trumpets, guitar, cello, electronics and percussion, mixes folksy pluck, Walter’s ricochets, a skewed electric drone and Evans’ cyclical swagger. At higher levels of density, mass and specifics become entangled at a level that makes them hard to parse. Pieces like “Mass Erection” and “Raging War” are respectable in their extremity but at the expense of confounding interaction – the brief but incredible Kelley/Evans duet on “Creaking Bones Break,” for example. If that is the sound of the apocalypse, count me in for a ticket.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Norwegians in Texas, among other things...

Well, I'm still unpacking boxes in the new house and, coupled with a busy couple of weeks, it'll be a real coup if I'm able to post any disc reviews, jazz tidbits or anything of real consequence this week.

Texans and the Texas-based did get a treat this weekend, though, with one of two Stateside performances by the Circulasione Totale Orchestra, a multinational improvising 12-tet, in Houston on Sunday night. Okay, so it wasn't as seamlessly amazing as the recently-released Bandwidth 3CD set, but the set was very powerful at its best and otherwise, solid playing all around. Kevin Norton (vibes), Morton Johann Olsen (drums), and Nick Stephens (bass) were all in revelatory form.

On Tuesday night, Austinites were treated to a trio/quartet performance by CTO leader Frode Gjerstad, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (who keeps getting better & better), Stephens and recent Tx. transplant Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. To give you an idea of what you may have missed, here is a 2008 performance captured on video.