Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed, June 2010

(Porter Records)

It’s extremely valuable to have the opportunity to hear a young compositional voice like that of Toronto-based and Wesleyan University-educated saxophonist Kyle Brenders. Because Canadian musicians rarely get the exposure in the States that they should, his Porter Records release (and third overall) should hopefully do something to change that invisibility. Brenders’ other recordings have been solo and in duet with the maestro, Anthony Braxton. He’s also a member of the Steve Lacy repertory ensemble, The Rent. Here, Brenders is joined by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, cellist Tilman Lewis, bassist Aaron Lumley, percussionist Brandon Valdivia and analog synthesizer artist Jonathan Adjemian on five sections of the Ways suite.

Like Braxton and Bill Dixon, Brenders’ music operates in a grey area between notated music and open improvisation, subtle coloristic variations on written events that move in gradual cycles. Brenders’ approach to the soprano is somewhere in between the fluttering and sometimes anguished highs of Braxton and the playful rhythmic clunk-and-whirr of Lacy. Coupled with the stately waver and microtonal chuffs of Rampersaud and tension generated by droning strings and sputtering analog electronics, the sextet’s music often recalls the most minimal examples of Feldman and Ferrari as well as pan-tempo improvised dirges. That’s not to say the music is structurally narrow; puckered kisses, clanging gongs, chattering strings and analog swoops make for a pockmarked landscape on the opening (second) movement. Indeed, Valdivia’s malleted knocks give an unsettling twist to cutting wind and string unisons, which move from staying a protracted course to crumbling and contorting in a few short measures. Improvised or written, Brenders is clearly a contemporary composer to watch.

(AUM Fidelity)

To look at the fervent year-end accolades heaped on alto saxophonist and improvising composer Darius Jones, one would think that the 31-year-old Brooklyn-based (and Richmond, VA native) is a rising star of mainstream jazz or hip modern-creative music. One would be sorely mistaken with that guess – the unbridled, balls-to-the-wall brand of free music that Jones plays wouldn’t have even scratched the bottom of the Down Beat reader’s poll forty years ago. Certainly free music is far more accepted now than it was in decades past, but to hear Jones’s work in the cooperative quartet Little Women (with tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary), no amount of preparation for sonic assault will do.

From the opening salvo of the seven-part title suite, it’s clear that staccato blasts are just a starting point. Throat takes as a reference point the free music/punk ethos of such ensembles as Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans, or Last Exit with the bottom removed. The music is as top-heavy and wiry as the Contortions, and if no wave bands were more often driven by a fleet and jazz-informed drummer, that might be a little closer to what Little Women offer. After the opening section, Jones and Laplante lock horns in a sharp and barely distinguishable melee, minimalist riffage supported by gritty, buzzing guitar chunks and tumbling drums. Ecstatic overtone preaching, gentle ricochets and harmonic blocks make up the second part, a tenor-alto duo that jumps zealously over the bow. A lilting, flinty post-punk march appears in the fourth movement, kaleidoscopic cycles soon breaking down into detuned pummeling that, if the saxophones were replaced by lyrics, could fit on a Dream Syndicate LP. Clearly Little Women have done their homework, but luckily it’s easy to forget as the foursome blister into uncharted territory.

Live at the Yippie
(No Business)

Saxophone-bass duets aren’t exactly common in the world of free improvisation, though recently a few stunning examples have been waxed, namely the fine program of Monk tunes by bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin (Monk Dreams, No Business, 2009). Michael Bisio and Duval are birds of a feather, so to speak – muscular players whose conception supports and accents the whole while also being forceful enough to be visible on the front line. Bisio called Seattle home for years, but has recently begun teaching at Bennington College in Vermont (also home to Milford Graves and, formerly, Bill Dixon). On this No Business vinyl-only release, he joins (now Brooklyn-based) Italian saxophonist Lorenzo Sanguedolce for the improvisation “Stract,” a piece that stretches across two sides recorded live at the Yippie Cafe in the East Village.

The bassist and saxophonist make a good pair, Sanguedolce’s tone and phrasing a gruff and husky amalgam of lofty, jumping honks and wandering, flinty tendrils. Bisio’s relentless pizzicato is a motorik foil and inspires some rather fleet runs from Sanguedolce, a loose and sanded-down boppishness that while not entirely “clean” is certainly inspired. Bisio’s solo at the end of side one piles on the bebop phraseology toward doubled-up mass, a la Peter Kowald in a mind-melting vertical-time improvisation. The second half begins with a soaring exploration of long tones, arco moving from low drone to high harmonics alongside Sanguedolce’s quavering upward flights. A nod to John Tchicai appears in heavy-footed repetition and cyclical phrases, as bass and tenor join and part in a dance of affinities both fleeting and solid. It will be interesting to hear where Lorenzo Sanguedolce goes next, but Live at the Yippie is an exciting representative slice of his music.

Live at the Mat Bevel Institute

Available as a download-only release from the Istanbul-based re:konstruKt label, this set of saxophone and guitar duets was recorded at Tuscon’s Mat Bevel Institute and features four compositions by Siwula and three by Minasi. Siwula is no stranger to such a pared-down context and along with a previous collaboration with Minasi (Duet, self-released) he has worked in similar fashion with guitarists Bern Nix, John Gilbert and Carsten Radtke. The breath-and-strings format stretches from Lee Konitz and Billy Bauer in the 1950s to the famed Anthony Braxton-Derek Bailey recordings on Emanem and Victo of the 1970s and 80s, and Live at the Mat Bevel Institute straddles both areas equally and fluidly.

Personally, my hearing of Minasi’s work has mostly been in larger ensembles, ranging from saxophonist-composer Joe Giardullo’s large ensemble Red Morocco (Rogue Art, 2007) to unruly string quartet music (Konnex, 2009). In such a naked setting, the particular qualities of his playing begin to stand out – purring, soft dissonances and a melding of individual, almost microscopic actions into a canvas of pure sound. That said, as a composer and player, his gentle swing is, while at times necessarily fractured, also wryly compelling. In “Strange,” as Siwula’s squeaky alto harmonics find a notch to hold onto, Minasi teases out a regular resonant thrum, a deep thwack that acts almost like the painterly clusters of a bassist, even with twangy detours into a backwoods wire farm. While not as beholden to leaps, bounds, and maddening choices as Braxton, Siwula’s effervescent phrasing becomes a full stream of forward motion that recalls the (slightly) elder reedman’s reverent plow-through of the standard repertoire. “What Monk” begins with clomping gestures that intertwine, spiraling upward in clunky and gooey pirouettes. “The Day after Next” finds Minasi applying a bit of dustbowl distortion behind the more spacious, wide-vibrato playing that Siwula brings to the fore. Excellent stuff and very much recommended.

When We Get to Meeting
(Dead CEO)

Woody Sullender has taken the American folk music milieu into a unique area that dovetails with skittering free improvisation and sound environments. Sullender spent time teaching in the sound department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and currently resides in Brooklyn – yet he’s been somewhat removed from any “scene” in either city. On When We Get to Meeting, the first vinyl offering on Sullender’s Dead CEO imprint, the banjoist is joined by harmonica blower Seamus Cater on a series of duo improvisations. Harmonica and banjo naturally call to mind the tropes of front-porch odes and dusty rambles, so the format is perfect for extended sonic exploration. Cater approaches the harmonica in a non-melodic fashion, for the most part, exhaling long and low tones or hitting high pitches reminiscent of bowed cymbals or electronics. The swarming plucks and needling attack from Sullender’s earlier recordings isn’t really the focus here; the pair approach funereal ballads and rumbling uptempo blues with homegrown minimalism and a treacherous, woozy push-pull. The “mouth organ” aspect of the harmonica is explored in Cater’s weighty, dramatic phrasing on “While Sails Billow,” thin electronic wisps and occasional banjo progressions commenting, fleshing out and massing together. Sure, Sullender is still a hell of a string player and the hyperactive whine of yore returns from time to time, but whether ornamental or stripped-down, it’s clear his concept has matured. When We Get to Meeting is an incomparable set, and however one chooses to classify the music of Sullender and Cater, it’s absolutely gorgeous and unique.

Treader Duos

The image embossed on the cover of Treader Duos (as with all Treader releases, a cuddly critter in gold foil) is rather fitting: a hedgehog, as spiny as the music contained therein. Because reeds and percussion duos are some of the most naked and vital in this music, and because most of them tend to run out of steam before the record button has been stopped, Treader has seen fit to release a disc of three separate duets, all hovering just beyond the twenty minute mark. Most of the participants have appeared on the label’s previous releases, and these combinations are rather striking – John Butcher and Mark Sanders, clarinetist Alex Ward and Roger Turner, and John Tchicai and Tony Marsh.

Recorded in a London church, the sound here is wide-open and dynamic, natural space occasionally overcoming subtlety but leaving honesty and exuberance untouched. Clarinetist Alex Ward has recorded in the Barkingside group with pianist Alexander Hawkins, as well as with guitarist Duck Baker and solo on Treader. His playing neither smacks of Giuffre nor Perry Robinson, echoing instead the pops and whirligigs of Steve Lacy, warbling and goading the angsty clang and thrash of Turner, who mostly operates in high gear save for a section of gestural scrapes accompanied by clarinet mouthpiece. Butcher brings both tenor and soprano to the opening “Tooth Pivot,” a dance of poised stabs and short melodic fragments threaded together, the saxophonist’s harmonics fluttering and trilling in large areas framed by Sanders’ accented patchwork.

Despite having worked with drummer greats like Milford Graves, Louis Moholo, Don Moye and Makaya Ntshoko, “We Dare to Sing” is the first recording I can think of where Tchicai spars in such a wide-open context. The reedman opens the piece with a vocal invocation underpinned by agitated brushwork, before entering into jittery and quixotic tenor purrs, his cadence as jaunty as ever. There’s a burnished quality to his wails, voice slightly gravelly but as stripped-down and open as the sinewy curls of his phrases. Marsh is an excellent support, weaving deceptively simple polyrhythmic phrases underneath the elder statesman. Treader Duos is a varied and beautiful set not to be missed.

Further Secret Origins
(Porter Records)

I’m not sure if it’s right to say that Katherine Young is the Anthony Braxton of the bassoon – probably better to say that she’s a “restructuralist master” of the instrument and/or the Katherine Young of the bassoon. Indeed, she’s worked extensively with Braxton as well as in ensembles directed by composers Andrew Raffo Dewar and Matthew Welch (both also Wesleyan & Braxton alums). Further Secret Origins is Young’s first disc under her own name, presenting seven compositions for bassoon and (occasional) electronics that are both sprawling and economic. The bassoon is really taken to a direct and contemporary point on this recording, and there is no effort made to turn the instrument into something that it isn’t, whether plodding through a maddening pulse track with wonderful cyclical blats and a whimsical multiphonic line on “Patricia Highsmith” or engaging gargled harmonics in concert with rhythmic taps and indeterminate whir on “Elevation.” Certainly Young can produce masses of unruly sound that sometimes recall Braxton’s work on the contrabass clarinet, from hot low outpourings to twittering upper-register whine. A mildly irregular beat and low, uneven tones create much of the landscape on the quarter-hour “For Autonauts, for Travelers,” stark wisps and garish asides stitched into a knotty and unsettling mood. Koan-like quips rest atop looped (and bassoon-generated) rhythms on “Relief,” eventually drawn out into a series of overdubbed tones that waver, buzz, and pucker the ear. Raw and peerless, Katherine Young’s bassoon landscapes deserve serious recognition and study.

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