Sunday, May 30, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed, May 2010

It's apparently famine or feast around here... belatedly, here are a few things that have crossed my path this spring and are definitely worth checking out.


Labyrintha is the third release of the brutal prog/thrash duo of New York-based drummer/vocalist/composer Nondor Nevai and D.C. guitarist Mick Barr (Orthrelm), and their first for Weasel Walter’s ugExplode label. The Barr-Nevai duo is quite different from the more archly-composed and blistering antics of Orthrelm (also a guitar/drums duo), engendered in a more sprawling approach to improvisation. Nevai’s playing is a dry, rattling and seemingly imprecise antecedent to the double roto-tom markers of death metal, the tropes of which otherwise seem distantly related to some of what Nevai does. In a way, Nondor Nevai might be the Roy Haynes of metal drumming, disappearing and reappearing with a loose, implied movement buoying Barr’s multi-tracked, buzzing minimalism. The recording quality is raw and analog, not as blindingly detailed as what we’ve come to expect from metal, and with that artificial layer stripped away, one can focus more on the immediate interaction between the two. The results are atonal and randomized guitar flights paired with brutal yells and sextuple-time thrash (a la Walter/Hiroshi Yamazaki) that, surprisingly, have enough kinetics to get one’s foot tapping rather than pummel the body into a couch. There are four pieces here, ranging from the 30-second closing salvo to a twenty-one-minute corker. If unintelligibly weird screaming/cursing, scalar pyrotechnics, thrash and a comet-like unwavering motion are your thing, the Barr/Nevai duo are definitely worth a spin. Totally wasted, but excellent.

Many Worlds

Having not heard the work of pianist-composer Greg Burk before this date arrived in my mailbox (a long time ago – sorry Matt!), the presence of caressing flute-laden melodies, somewhat knotty vamps and non-Western percussion was a bit of a surprise. Not that this music doesn’t have a precedent – indeed, Burk studied with reedman-composer Yusef Lateef and this work also recalls a little bit of the New York-chapter AACM music that was appearing on labels like Black Saint in the early 1980s. But it’s been a while since I’ve heard a new release that convincingly appropriated textures as diverse as Afro-Caribbean and contemporary music, free and modal jazz. Burk is joined here by flutist/saxophonist Henry Cook, bassist Ron Seguin and drummer Michel Lambert on eleven originals, including the six-part “Many Worlds Suite,” which appears to be primarily a free improvisation. Burk himself has a spiky approach to the piano, at times jarring and protruding from the lush landscapes the ensemble creates. Certainly the ringing waver of Paul Bley is evident (another of Burk’s teachers), rhapsodic elements that tumble out of the music, sometimes violently – witness the volcanic fisticuffs that begin “The Strong Force.” However, ultimately the quartet operates equilaterally, each player a facet of a colorful collective vision. Cook’s alto is breathy and squirrely, at times reminiscent of Rob Brown, while Lambert’s trap work is terse and suspended between time and no-time, supported by a constant, meaty pizzicato thrum. Many Worlds is an excellent set and a worthy introduction to Greg Burk’s music.


The pianist and composer Burton Greene had an answer for the out-of-tune pianos common in New York clubs during the 1960s, proffered by Sun Ra: “If it’s not a piano, Burton Greene, then what is it?” The answer was a wooden box with strings that doubled as a percussion instrument. Though the use of prepared piano, knocks on the instrument’s wood and plucking of its strings is generally attributed to contemporary composition and (especially) the New York School of the 1940s and 50s, the impetus is much broader than art or vernacular. The piano has a lot of sonic resources, so why not use them? A wealth of textures and sounds not attributed to the standard piano trio can be found in Dawn of Midi, a New York/Paris based group consisting of bassist Aakash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani and percussionist Qasim Naqvi (hailing from India, Morocco and Pakistan, respectively). On the opener Belyamani’s piano is an athletic orchestra working the high end and roiling in muted depths, as Israni and Naqvi give gestural shoves and yanks around him. “Laura Lee” becomes a tense portrait, coppery and other metallic textures dancing about throaty preparations and woody depth. The stark wander of the Paul Bley/Mark Levinson/Barry Altschul trio rears its head at the outset of “Civilization of Mud and Ember,” but a pelting of thick, minimal droplets soon imbues Belyamani’s canvas. There’s an exquisite passage of filmic minimalism in “The Floor,” though it’s hyperactively countered by bass and percussion. Dawn of Midi present utterly captivating and intense trio improvisation, the only caveat being that they don’t frequently waver from a panoply of churning rhythms and dusky minimal texture. It’s a rarified world, sure, but an important one.

Out ’n’ In

Empirical are an English group made up of alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, vibraphonist Lewis Wright, bassist Tom Falmer and drummer Shaney Forbes, along with reedman Julian Siegel. Out ‘n’ In is their second album, an homage to the later work of reedman-composer Eric Dolphy (including two tunes from Dolphy’s 1964 Blue Note album Out To Lunch). Their first record was produced with the assistance of English-Jamaican reedman Courtney Pine, a sort of elder figure to Facey, as both grew up in London’s Jamaican community. The rendition of “Hat and Beard” is a spot-on recasting of Dolphy’s portrait of Monk, the shifting sands of Wright, Falmer and Forbes marking to a “T” the Hutcherson-Davis-Williams arrhythmic section of Out to Lunch. Siegel and Facey aren’t particularly beholden to the dedicatee, however, as the altoist’s phrases, even when they quote Dolphy, are cooler and smoother (or more round), while Siegel’s bass clarinet work has a rough, guttural quality and tends to follow a narrower intervallic path. The most interesting pieces here are those composed by members of the quartet – not that Dolphy’s music isn’t extraordinary and valuable in its own right, but Facey and Farmer’s tunes have their own spry free-bop motors and bring out the players’ fiery loquaciousness. The centerpieces are three by Facey, including the bouncy “So He Left,” the crystalline ballad “A Bitter End for a Tender Giant” and the flywheel push-pull cycles of “Dolphyus Morphyus” (which places Newk and Dolphy in relief). I’m not sure if the soft, closing piece “Bowden Out” is a nod to AACM reedman Mwata Bowden, but whatever its reference, the tune’s skating, circular movement and wistful, crying alto are a fitting close to this homage.

Cookin’ at Smalls

If you’ve lived anywhere where modern jazz is an available and known quantity, the prevalence of the piano trio is immediately recognizable as a mainstay of the music. If you live in New York (or have been there for longer than 24 hours), it becomes impossible to count how many piano trios are working in the clubs, at restaurants, and so forth. So it’s quite refreshing to hear a trio that steps out with originality and energy – keeping in mind that one doesn’t have to completely deconstruct the form to provide piano trio music that’s interesting. Kyoko Oyobe relocated to Manhattan in 2005 from her native Japan, and Cookin’ at Smalls is her debut as a leader. The compositions are all originals, and she’s joined by storied drummer Clifford Barbaro and bassist Michael O’Brien across these seven tunes. There’s a pointillistic quality to “The Third Eye,” which shifts between a rumbling groove and flitting classicism made extraordinarily open by Barbaro’s loose, implied swing. “Asian Airs” flirts with dissonance, unresolved chords snaking their way out of a romantic glass enclosure, a bite that is immediate and insistent. Oyobe’s playing is certainly within the tradition of classically-informed jazz pianism, but there’s an undertow of dark, wincing notes that align her a little more with the vanguard. The support of bass and drums falls to equal team players, in O’Brien’s rattling pluck and Barbaro’s airy chatter, and the whole set comes off strong as a result. Were one to have the arresting music of the Kyoko Oyobe Trio as dinner accompaniment, the drinks might get spilled and the food would become cold.

Abbey Road Quartet

The Abbey Road Quartet is a recent project joining LA-based trumpeter/composer Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith with the English trio of pianist/electronic artist Pat Thomas, percussionist Mark Sanders and Spring Heel Jack guitarist John Coxon. Coxon and Smith recorded as a duo in 2007, also for the Treader imprint (SHJ’s label), though the Abbey Road Quartet is an entirely different beast. The improvisations are dedicated to departed greats Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza, Elton Dean, Grant Green and (still living) Spring Heel Jack composer Ashley Wales. One could loosely align the presence of electronics, piano, guitar and percussion with Smith’s Golden Quartet, though the improvisations here are sparser in nature. Sanders’ percussion work is thin and metallic patter, regular but more accentuating than propulsive. Much of the density comes from the Coxon-Thomas juggernaut, which relies pretty heavily on fuzzed-out distortion. Though as stomach-churning as their racket can be, it’s tastefully applied and allows large areas for Smith’s crackling and crumpled blues to work.

The contrast between electronic garble and terse brass whispers is evident at the outset of “For Ashley Wales,” Smith’s long, drawn out assemblages having a gentle swing in comparison to the garish cruelty of Thomas’ synthesizer. But Smith’s music has always been contrast-heavy and sounds that seemingly stand in opposition tend to yield passages of stark beauty and earthiness. Wiry, distorted guitar and a lush carpet of piano, joined by Sanders’ curt thrash, back Smith’s incisive fluffs on the aforementioned piece, a stable group orchestration for the trumpeter’s language of precarious and defining statements. “For Mongezi Feza” approximates the clattering, often jovial bursts of Feza’s pocket trumpet, guitar and celesta ringing out in tiny explosions as Smith spurts condensed, winking phrases. “For Grant Green” begins with a low plod, damped piano strings and guitar subdividing Green’s muddy funk into an alien sway. Buzzing trumpet, knob-twiddling highs and brushy rapidity advance a direct forward motion, but coupled with Coxon’s inward-turning blues and an electronic low end, the improvisation doesn’t become overloaded. Coupled with new releases on Cuneiform and reissues on Nessa Records, the body of Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s available work remains ever strong.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Two inches too short: Three New Singles on De Stijl

Swiss Cheese Back b/w Watching TV
(De Stijl)

Love Rules b/w You Only like Me when I Tell You I’m Wrong
(De Stijl)

Han Dynasty I
(De Stijl)

Much lauded for their lovingly produced catalog of underground finds both past and present, Minneapolis’ De Stijl has recently gotten more into the 7-inch and cassette scene, formats that had seemed to go by the wayside in terms of new releases, but which certainly are economically easier to produce and, therefore, take a risk on. The latest slew includes new wax by Missouri fuzz-pop duo Jerusalem and the Starbaskets (not reviewed here), UK lo-fi queens Pens, the impossible-to-figure Hype Williams, and a reissue of the lone disc of The Fuckin’ Flyin’ A-Heads.

The A-Heads were a completely bizarre collision between Hawaiian punk ranter Eric Ishii and the sludgy, stoner-metal trio of guitarist Howard Nishioka, bassist Bob Wilson and drummer Dan Garrett. Taken from an original vinyl source (the single was released on the private imprint Otaro Records), the first side sounds like either Flipper head-butting Blue Cheer, or vice versa. The rhythm section lopes along lightly as Nishioka’s feedback-drenched throaty guitar squall sails atop, gloopy fusion fragments and glass-fingered nose dives creating the bulk of the guitar work. Ishii was recruited precisely because of his unpredictable antics, and though the band didn’t perform a whole lot in its brief HI/San Francisco existence, one can get a pretty good idea of the sludgy disconnected insanity that was part and parcel of the group’s act. On “Watching TV,” Nishioka contributes vocals; it’s a less-unhinged piece of quick-tempo, white noise and vaguely proggy rock. Nishioka’s vocals are pretty unintelligible declarations, and his spacey guitar sounds very out-of-step with the drummer’s galloping, top-heavy groove. Also, the A-side is at 33 rpm and the flip is at 45. This is weird shit.

Pens haven’t quite cracked the US or gotten the attention they probably deserve over here, which is too bad considering their relentless and infectious LP Hey Friend What You Doing? could easily stand on par with the 90s revival juggernaut that is the current Ecstatic Peace catalog. I’m not sure if this single was recorded during the LP recording process or afterwards; it seem later, because the trio appears tighter and more competent, both instrumentally and aesthetically. Sure, they’re still shambling through layers of reverb and distortion and the rhythms seem rudimentary, but the songwriting is clear – from the mainlined wistful pop nugget of “You only like me when I tell You I’m Wrong” to the lovesick ballad of the flip. As I think I’ve said elsewhere, it’ll be a fun ride to see this band progress – and hopefully a well-blanketed American tour isn’t too far off.

The Han Dynasty I single from Hype Williams also traces its lineage to England, apparently, and has nothing to do with the director of its namesake. Supposedly the record was created by a pair named Father Ronnie Krayola and Denna Frances Glass. There’s no indication as to whether it should be played as a 45 or a 33 (and both seem to work). The music appears mostly created through guitar, organ bass, hand percussion and sampling devices. The first side incorporates a pretty infectious bass slink with wispy, throaty vocal overlays, chekere, and metallic organ riffs, creating a dark and trippy (but groovy) environment. It’s sort of like if Spacemen 3 had spent all of their days listening to Lord Kitchener records (and I played the first piece at 33). Things slow down midway through with ‘luded chants over a slice of electronic whir, bass and rudimentary trap set. You could probably get away with playing this section at 45 (unless you have to get up and switch the band), as what emerges sounds less screwed down and more like a young woman’s voice, though the music’s plod is done a disservice at a faster rpm / tempo. At 45, the b-side lilts nicely, bubbling instrumental psych not unlike Brokeback’s cover of the Brazil theme or a hashish-aided traipse through the Scottish countryside. I’m not sure I entirely get it, but Hype Williams are up to something interesting.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May Weigh-In

It's been a while since anything has been posted around here, but rest assured that the continuation of Ni Kantu is a priority, if an occasional one. I'll do my best. Keep in mind that if you are hungry for some musings by yours truly, you can also head over to All About Jazz, Paris Transatlantic, Signal To Noise, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

A few things of varying import have been happening lately.

1) I'm now sharing a radio show with my friend Rick Kendrick at Austin's community radio station, KOOP. You can stream it live here or tune in from 7-8:30 PM in the Austin area at 91.7 FM. The show is called The Cutting Edge (also "like-able" on Facebook) and we aim to present all the heavies in both contemporary and historical creative music.

2) It was reedman Giuseppi Logan's birthday yesterday, May 22. I was in bed with a cold much of the day, otherwise would have weighed in. Anyway, his new quintet recording is available from Tompkins Square Recordings and I reviewed it here. Happy 75th to Giuseppi!

3) Apropos of reedman Phill Musra, whose work has graced these pages multiple times, the storied but rarely seen Michael Cosmic LP is up on eBay. Probably the rarest Afro-American jazz document in existence, it'll be interesting to see what price this piece of artwork commands (no, even I don't have one!). The cover art on each copy is different, and this is certainly one of the finest examples I've seen. The seller also referenced this article, which adds another piece to the scant Musra/Cosmic discographical puzzle. Hopefully someday this fine document of creative music will see the light of day as a reissue.

4) Finally, please be on the lookout at All About Jazz for an interview with the great drummer Muhammad Ali, brother of Rashied Ali (1935-2009) and a regular participant in the 1970s recordings of Frank Wright, Alan Silva, Bobby Few and others.

Some reviews will be coming down the pike shortly, so please keep watching these pages!