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.

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