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.

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