Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed, August 2010


The duo of composer and sound artist Olivia Block and reedman/multi-instrumentalist and composer Kyle Bruckmann has been in the offing for a decade, though Teem is the first iteration on disc. Because of Bruckmann’s 2003 relocation to the Bay Area (Block resides in Chicago), the possibilities of real-time duets were extended to a cross-continental collaboration, one which took place over five years. Composition and the notion of instantaneousness – whether real or perceived – are funny things. Certainly, in this instance, there is both a real-time and a broad spatial concept of collaborating, and though fragments of “actual” duo improvisation are woven into Teem’s final fabric, much of the material was formed from a process of co-editing and mixing separately formed sounds/actions into the whole. That being said, the overall feel of this record and its four subdivided movements is very cohesive – collisions of close-miked scrabble with occasional piano clusters and Bruckmann’s high, split-toned oboe and cor anglais wail seem to occupy a common environmental impulse. Areas of contrast seem natural, such as the yawing horn, oboe and clanging (set to an almost baroque poise) fronting a scrim of piercing overtones and glitchy rustle in the first movement. It wouldn’t be an either/OAR release without the presence of field recordings; the label’s mode (or part of it, anyway) is the presentation of environmentally-derived sound sources, and both Block and Bruckmann include naked and processed nods to human, animal, and industrial in gauzes and terse asides to their electro-acoustic webs. Rarely does Teem approach “noise,” though there’s a dense introduction to its second movement. The sounds collected, presented and organized here are environmental in the truest, most non-ambient sense of the word, derived from relationships and experience, and that’s a wonderful thing.


Oomcycota is the second release on Steve Silverstein’s Wodger label to feature his own outfit, Christmas Decorations, which despite geographic challenges has been making music for the better part of a decade. Initially taking cues from post-punk, they have slowly morphed into an unclassifiable atmospheric/organic improvisation ensemble. In addition to Silverstein, the group features Nick Forte (ex-Rorschach), Peter Kerlin and Kurt Knuth. All three members work with a diverse range of electronic and acoustic instruments, though picking apart who does what isn’t really the point. While the improvisations are shorter and more condensed than on the preceding Far Flung Hum, Christmas Decorations’ approach remains curiously folksy, a front-porch or communal aspect that doesn’t always imbue contemporary electro-acoustic music. Zither, guitar, harmonica, contrabass, no-input mixing board, loops and percussion commingle in long, droning forms with occasional surges of activity, sometimes building into a rickety ramble as on the reverb-heavy toe-tap/clunk of “Notochord.” Christmas Decorations occupy a curious place in the pantheon of underground improvisation – they’re not naively throwing shit at the wall as, say, Tower Recordings or Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, but their vaguely rock-informed verve sets them apart from the post-Bead Records aesthetic pool (which their improvisations sometimes recall). Still, there’s a decidedly on-the-sleeve glee of rattling collegno, patchwork electronics and mouth buzz, a discovery of both the oddness of sounds and ways to organize them into something cohesive, that is clear from tracks like “Hispid” or the shuffling goo of “Shale Hermit.” Music like this is what the small-run LP (as Wodger does it), CD-R, or cassette was made for – documentation of what lies around and underneath the left field. Hopefully, some people will pay enough attention that these documents remain heard.

To Fly to Steal

Pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier is one of those rare musicians who can bridge any perceivable gaps between open improvisation and contemporary classical music. Though the audiences for both seem to overlap, the academy hasn’t taken much notice (still), and to a point that’s perfectly fine. Courvoisier’s music (and that of regular musical partner, violinist-improviser Mark Feldman, also her husband) dovetails with post-serial composition while retaining a sense of structural organization that hits upon both freedom and arch rigor. To Fly to Steal adds the rhythm section of drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Thomas Morgan to the Courvoisier-Feldman duo, and among its seven pieces are three group improvisations as well as two each by the co-leaders. There’s a telling sign in Courvoisier’s opening “Messiaenesque,” its orchestral crash buoyed by a frantically eliding piano-violin line, group improvisation hinging on pizzicato snaps and collective clang. Feldman’s “The Good Life” merges an Eastern European rondo form with a swinging tempo section and a pointillist pulse, combining Bartok with Braxton. As precise as Feldman’s choices of “classicism” might be, leading to a staggering level of technicality, there’s an underlying slink and warmth to certain lines that recalls Leroy Jenkins. Courvoisier follows with a merging of insistent upward trills, clunky post-bop interpretations and a few classic Cecil-like rhythm-clusters. Rather than being an aesthetic entwining, Courvoisier and Feldman complement one another along a path of poised, dynamic execution and the genuine motion of immediacy. Romance and glacial events intersect in “Five Senses of Keen,” delicate strum and micro-prettiness supported by cymbal tap and woody pluck in a pensive disappearing act, peppered with odd-interval spikes. Ultimately, this is an excellent set of music and, for those who appreciate clear lines of organization in their abstraction, a most accessible entry into the worlds of these Downtown improvising composers.

Transition One: Solo Piano

Pianist and improviser Joel Futterman engages an extremely broad sense of the piano’s history and possibilities on Transition One, the seventh disc of solo piano music that he has released himself, following the six-disc set Creation (2008). Futterman is based in Virginia and is probably best known for his small-group collaborations with saxophonists Kidd Jordan and Ike Levin, and drummer Alvin Fielder, throughout the last two decades. Naturally, this is not that – solo piano music (or solo music of any stripe; and Futterman has also recorded solo music for soprano saxophone and Indian flutes) requires a dedication to exploring one’s own lexicon independently of immediate conversation. Futterman explores sound and the instrument in much the same way as he talks or deals with words – drawling romanticism, punchy barrelhouse, and passages of explosive density that nevertheless espouse a sense of utter clarity. Each of the three pieces here is completely improvised, without – as Futterman would tell it – any preconception.

Composing in the moment is, for some improvisers, a reworking of one’s art with a set structure to work within. For someone like Futterman, it is a blank-minded exploration of a lifetime of experience, craft, and performance. Assemblages of interdependent single-note thoughts eddy and dance, forming sharp rivulets and painterly crags, moving from sentences to paragraphs to words and isolated statements in a resoundingly physical conversation with the piano. Futterman is keyed into the tradition, and snatches of post-bop phrasing and lush, gospelized inflection imbue this piano-chase. Though logic is a part of Futterman’s freedom, surprise is an equal bedfellow – the closing four minutes of the opening movement being a case in point, as the pianist explores a viscous ballad, swirling maelstroms, and rolling fragments of Jaki Byard-like stride. Transition One is a tour de force of solo playing from one of the staunchest individualists in contemporary pianism.

Aerial Age
(Allos Documents)

Vox Arcana is a two-year-old trio and, though billed cooperatively between percussionist Tim Daisy (Vandermark 5), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and clarinetist James Falzone, this Chicago-based group is essentially Daisy’s first foray as leader and sole composer. On the standard kit, his approach has gotten more sensitive, as well as expansive, over the years, with an appreciation for sound dynamics and repetition that show a kinship with Swedish percussionist-composer Sven-Åke Johansson. While drawing from the New York School of composers and artists of years past, Aerial Age is most certainly a set of contemporary improvisation and exploits the considerable range of its participants as both soloists and group players.

“The Number 7” toys with minimalism, its initial salvo a short ascending phrase initiated by clarinet, and followed by cello and marimba. It becomes an inverted and slightly jumbled proposition broken up by terse, hushed micro-statements, followed by overlapping harangues of repeating forms and tone rows. Falzone is an excellent clarinetist, building upon Daisy’s written material in a way that both accentuates its rigor and follows a personal phraseology. One hears the high trills of modern classical foundations as well as the bent trills and dives of a player like Perry Robinson. The solo drum section that closes “Blue Space” is an indication of where Daisy’s improvisations are heading, drum-choir density mated to a compositional sense of restraint that recalls such diverse influences as Johansson, Pierre Favre and Thurman Barker. The tightly-wound mechanisms of “The Silver Fence” erupt into darting triple-play, at first clearly structural and at second glance (when cello and clarinet stretch over Daisy’s fluttering brushes), a conceit derived from openness and individuality. The oddest juxtaposition, however, is a loose third-stream swing that connects to a Mingusian push-pull midway through. While a contemporaneous trio like Vandermark’s Free Fall might loosely take as its model Giuffre, Bley, and Swallow, Vox Arcana curiously merges different threads of the composing-for-improvisers axis, bringing together modernist mobiles with a crisp and informed, freewheeling élan.

Can Walk on Sand

Where’s Africa (Intakt, 2006) was the first documented collaboration between Swiss saxophonist Omri Ziegele and the pianist Irene Schweizer in a program of music that reflected the diverse worldwide sources of creative music from Dollar Brand and Don Cherry to Ellington and Monk and beyond. Now, Ziegele and Schweizer have added South African drummer Makaya Ntshoko (a veteran of Brand’s early groups) to the equation on this latest set of originals and reimaginings. Brand and Gershwin enter the program, as do Mal Waldron, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Ornette, and Oliver Nelson. Though she’s known more for her place on a post-Cecil axis and as one of the founding figures of continental European free jazz, Schweizer’s volcanism is tempered for clean, delicious swatches of post-bop and high life in Brand’s “Tyntiana,” taken at a fast and sunny clip with Ntshoko’s loose crack and the curling, breathy alto of Ziegele (who reminds one of Carlos Ward, albeit more sputtering in his loquaciousness).

“Soul Eyes” is a duo of parallels, opening with an extended, oblique alto cadenza, Ziegele’s piling trills obscuring thematic referents until Schweizer enters and they explore a push-pull of tripled cadence and wistful measurement. The pianist’s unaccompanied feature voices modern stride a la Solo Monk, but with a crystalline touch and sneaky arpeggios. The title track, as well as the two Dyani covers, feature fellow Swiss saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder, who adds a sugary pensiveness derived from a rather individual interpretation of Steve Lacy, to Ziegele’s peppery approach. It would be interesting had the set been a little more interwoven, because shorter themes like “Butch and Butch,” Ornette’s “Giggin’,” and McGregor’s wonderful “Andromeda” theme (rarely heard in such a stripped-down context) could do well in a Cherry-esque ragtag suite, not to mention Ziegele’s nutty alto-and-vocal take on “Summertime.” Can Walk on Sand is a finely uplifting slab of modern creative music, drawing from a mulitiplicity of traditions but remaining solidly its own.

PS - the photo at the top was appropriated from artist Kate Eggleston Wirtz' website. Do check out her collages and sculptures - she's good.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tapestry for (from) Bill Dixon

August 3, 2010

When I mentioned to friends that I would be attending the memorial service for Bill Dixon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery the last weekend in July, as with any situation where one mentions “death” and “funerals,” the response was unequivocally apologetic. Those same people were probably surprised when I said it was something I was looking forward to attending / experiencing and that, after all was said and done, how powerful and enjoyable it was. As speaker Ben Young said, it was a chance to allow us, the more “normal” people, to do what “we do,” which is celebrate someone after they are gone. Dixon wasn’t particularly interested in being memorialized, and that makes sense when one considered his body of work – it is all about the present, as much as it is timeless.

In addition to Ben Young’s speech (I hesitate to use the word “eulogy”) and a poem by Steve Dalachinsky, the service was concert-like and featured the orchestral suite “Tapestries/Shrike” along with Dixon’s “For Franz,” composed and recorded for trumpeter Franz Koglmann in 1974. Andrew Raffo Dewar compiled a series of images, including Dixon’s paintings and drawings as well as photographs of him taken over the last few decades, which were projected on the wall behind / above the musicians.

An affirmative question that this memorial both asked and dealt with was the idea of repertory. Bill Dixon did not leave a body of work for others to play – not exactly. His compositions were written only and expressly to be performed, and they did not exist until the performance was complete. In other words, nothing was written not to be played. Once it was played (performed/recorded/etc.), it was done and he moved on to the next thing. In essence, and if we are to be true to some sort of overarching vision, this music should not have been played because Bill wasn’t there (though he was “in the room” and his trumpet was perched on a stool in front of the Tapestries orchestra). As much of a collagist/recycler as Bill had been – sleuthing can reveal lines and fragments of earlier or contemporaneous pieces re-contextualized (though it isn’t always the point) – his music isn’t meant to be done “again.”

In this light, the presence of “For Franz” on the program was a bit of a shock, played as it was by the quartet of trumpeter Stephen Haynes, bassist Joe Morris, percussionist Warren Smith and tenorman Stephen Horenstein (who was on the original recording). “For Franz” isn’t “Doxy” or even “Ghosts” because it isn’t a tune – rather, a line or a series of lines and a situation that brings those lines together. It was given to the Austrian trumpeter Franz Koglmann and recorded on his second LP, Opium/For Franz (Pipe, 1976). Curiously, as Dixon notes in the liner notes to the LP, "I hope that Franz will continue to play the piece when opportunities for that kind of instrumentation make themselves available." Could that be read elsewhere in Dixon's music? Part of the piece was used in the composition "For Cecil Taylor" from the Bill Dixon in Italy, Volume Two LP (Soul Note, 1980, with Haynes playing the primary line). In this situation, Horenstein brought it; he's a flinty preacher who has rarely been heard outside the context of Dixon’s music, and furthermore, his playing is delightfully and so clearly its own. And as much time as I have spent with the original recording, this wasn’t that – the quartet made “For Franz” their own. Was it still Bill Dixon’s music? Of course it was.

The suite of “Tapestries/Shrike” was a reconvening of the Small Orchestra that had performed at Victoriaville in May 2010, as well as recording the Tapestries for Small Orchestra set for Firehouse 12 in 2008. Joe Morris was added as a second bassist and Dixon’s conducting presence was instilled into Stephen Haynes and Taylor Ho Bynum, who signaled the pieces into motion. In Victoriaville, Dixon conducted but did not play; for the CD set, sometimes he conducted the band while at other times he played the pieces. Any concerns of how it would work without the composer’s literal, physical presence were recast – of course, it would be foolish to say that it was the same because his specific guidance was not part of the music. Certain things were done because he wasn’t there to draw out other things.

However, it was a shattering performance in its own right, and a form / possibility of music that could not exist without what Dixon (the composer / the instrumentalist) had lain out. The scores were there, the awareness of what Bill wanted the music to do was there, and the trust that Bill had in these nine musicians was also uniformly there. (Morris is someone whom Bill appreciated and while these were his first forays into playing the music of Bill Dixon, his place is assured.) Central to the piece was a recording of Dixon’s solo trumpet piece, “Shrike,” recorded in 1973 and released as part of the Odyssey set, nearly a minute’s worth of materialist “blowing the bell off the horn.” The use of "Shrike" as a pre-recorded section was also part of the Victoriaville performance (to be released on VICTO next year) and part of Bill's concept for the work.

Just as I wanted more time with Bill, I wanted more time with the music and the experience that was brought into St. Mark’s Church on Saturday. It would have been great to have a few more hours of the orchestra’s performance, just as several more conversations with Bill would have illuminated so much more. It’s not possible; immediately I thought of the sentiments levied by Eric Dolphy and captured on the 1964 Last Date album, “once you hear music it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Ultimately, that's bullshit – at least if your music, art, and person are as all-pervasive as Bill Dixon’s. The fact of the matter is that those two hours were a slice of something much more pervasive that, through organization and orchestration, bubbled into the air for 200 people to experience. The sounds might have receded but they didn’t stop. By the same token, Dixon is a composer, and not only an improvising composer – his music begs being brought into focus through the right context and individuals, even if he’s not sitting on that stool with his trumpet one hand, gesticulating and intoning “all right, okay… Play, play… No. Yes. Now THAT’S the thing, see?”

What we’re left with is a body of recordings, reams of reference to unreleased music, and many thoughts and ideas committed to both words and visualness. But this music still needs an “all right, okay” and most certainly a few “no’s.” The question is whether and how Bill Dixon’s music can continue to be dealt with even if he’s not around to offer physical guidance. Those close to him can find ways to ask him, but he instilled a huge amount of trust / weight in musicians, improvisers / composers and writers to do what needed to be done for this music whether he’s here or not. His generosity was, in part, toward setting a very high bar for others to try and work toward.

At the same time, his work wasn’t finished – hearing the Tapestries suite performed and listening back to Tapestries for Small Orchestra over again, it is clear that Dixon’s work is far from done. If a repertory ensemble is nearly galling to the legacy and import of this work, the fact still remains that he busted creative music wide open for something more. For the rest of us he’s not here to do the work, but there are a number of people who are. I don’t know whether his music can be done without his doing it – of course, it can’t, but at the same time artists convene to do something heavy and that’s taking a step that needs to be taken. I’m waiting with bated breath to hear what is next, and I know that only a fool tries to capture what is already surrounding him or her. Because now this is what we do.

Reference recordings:

Franz Koglmann & Bill Dixon, Opium/For Franz, Pipe, 1976
Bill Dixon, Odyssey, Archive Edition, 2001
Bill Dixon, Tapestries for Small Orchestra, Firehouse 12, 2009

Photos courtesy of Isabelle Moisan.