Thursday, December 2, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed: November/December 2010

It's time again for a monthly roundup; time being what it is, it seems like I get these done so close to the end of the month that they come out at the beginning of the next. But hey, at least it's something. You might also notice that "briefly reviewed" means very little, especially considering the length of the writeup on Mary Halvorson's new disc, which I think deserves all the accolades and gushing it's getting. Some great holiday stocking stuffers or Hanukkah trinkets here.

Natura Naturans

Though one wouldn’t know it from the minimal credits on this disc, Architeuthis Walks on Land is the chamber-improvisation duo of bassoonist Katherine Young and violist Amy Cimini, and is musically far less unruly than the concept of an actual giant squid displaced from its undersea home. Young has become known for her work in the various ensembles of Anthony Braxton as well as her own disc of solo bassoon and electronics released on Porter Records earlier this year, Further Secret Origins (in itself a doozy of a record). The duo is also half of the New York-based young chamber ensemble Till by Turning, and Natura Naturans is the pair's second disc. The fact that both musicians are as adept in the modern performance world as they are in creative improvisation and experimental music comes through in works that have the feel of preordained structure, splintering off into impulsive subforms and returning to droning markers on “Below the Thermocline,” devilish string fracture skittering around Young’s twisted foghorn. Crackling gurgle on “Inside/Outside I” sounds akin to electronic glitch, huffs and whinnies underpinning false-fingered sawing on a manic breath interlude. “Glitterbird” is, by turn, almost folksy in its clarion call, spikes of vocal arco eliding into bassoon harmonics before shifting into a manic dance for flying horsehairs. Whether secondary tracks are present within “The Fields” or not is hard to tell, as the track’s beginning is an extraordinarily dense passage of string and reedwork, though the meat of the music is in its filmic, almost immobilized waltz for strummed viola and a particularly moving, pinched bassoon line. Though the language of the duet is often conversational and frequently sparse, orchestral mass and thick, noisy impasto are a major component of the Architeuthis Walks on Land  aesthetic, which certainly hinges on Young’s bassoon work, though Cimini’s maddening fiddle  pyrotechnics more than hold their own.

Under the Roof

English saxophonist John Butcher and Swiss pianist Claudia Ulla Binder capture something quite rare in the small pantheon of expanded-palette duos – a sense of environmental space. Butcher’s language at first might have seemed derived from countrymen Evan Parker and Larry Stabbins, but the physics of his sound are far more macrocosmic than micro. That’s usually more evident in his solo work, which has found the saxophonist outdoors, in cisterns and caves as well as in raw studio space. Binder has studied with figures as diverse as multi-instrumentalist Karl Berger and pianist Walter Norris, performing in both new music and free improvisational contexts (though her work isn’t too well known on either side of the pond).  As the resources of breath, reed, and keys are stretched and disassembled to make up the saxophonist’s material, strings, wood and an assortment of objects give Binder her paint. The improvisations on this disc are mostly rather short, which only one over six minutes, and though spiraling intervals of reedy phraseology and chunky gymnopédies could easily be a template for rousing vignettes – witness the athleticism of “Raincoat,” for example. However, the pair explores harmonic relationships at a different end of the spectrum and with astounding range – low resonant hum from Butcher’s soprano sounds almost like feedback or electronics underneath Binder’s spiky gestures, quickly building into angled kisses at the close of “Troves.” Sharp tenor flutter and keening bends are a steely contrast to light, keyed motion on “Umbrella,” quickly shifting into a landscape of guttural harmonics to match the pianist’s wiry plucks and seasick wows. Among the most interesting pieces are the paired “Black Martin, Female” and “Black Martin, Male” that find Butcher’s concentrated sputter quite avian, agitated calls to Binder’s gravitational poise. Other pieces explore architectural imagery – “Truss Joint,” “Cantilever,” “Skylight” evoking the aural effects of action on relationships between resistant objects with acute strength and literate beauty.

Dialogues and Connections

Virginia-based pianist/soprano saxophonist Joel Futterman and Bay Area reedman Ike Levin have forged a fruitful musical relationship over a number of years and eight co-led discs, and Dialogues and Connections is their third recording as a duo. While naturally the expanse of flyover landmass between the two players makes frequent meetings difficult, a shared language of loquacious communication binds their work together. From a literary perspective, there’s also common ground – Futterman has written a novel, while Levin is a poet. Their interaction, forged over time and geography, is entirely immediate as well as historical, and as with much of their shared and independent music, the eleven duets represented here are totally improvised. Levin is a flinty-toned fire breather and, like Futterman, has a way with words though he’s a bit more declarative in style than the pianist, whose stories and improvisations unfurl in a gradual, drawling dialect with burbling pronouncements and warm reflections gaining equal footing. As much as the duo revels in excitable kinetics, the contrast between instruments and methods draws out interesting turns – Futterman eking out passages of roiling romanticism a la Jaki Byard, while Levin juts a burnished, long sigh or the two commingle in refracting volleys.

As the first conversation closes, the pianist explores spindly architecture, cascading into dense arpeggiated forms as the left hand marks intervals with winking jounce. It’s an unaccompanied, raw kaleidoscope that introduces some of the nakedest saxophone playing of the set, Levin working through smoky harbingers of late nights and frosty mornings. Barrelhouse rock and roll introduces the seventh dialogue, Futterman’s repetition somewhere between boogie and Sonny Clark while simultaneously coaxing ecstatic wails from his soprano as the two weave an entwined flight. Though volume is something that both players call to their sides, it’s not paramount. Futterman can paint a sparser parallel as Levin’s squawk reaches foot-stomping intensity, or the reedman gives a rhythmic chug to the right hand’s upward telescope. Though obviously sprung from a different bond, Dialogues and Connections makes an interesting comparison to Futterman’s recent juggernaut duo with tenorman and frequent partner Kidd Jordan, Interaction (self-released, 2010). Whether joined by compatriots or unaccompanied, Futterman’s art is both expansive and homespun.

Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival
(Pine Ear)

At this point in time, any recording featuring cornetist Bobby Bradford should be considered an event. An early sideman with Ornette Coleman (albeit not recorded with the saxophonist until 1971), the Texas-born Bradford was a crucial part of the West Coast avant-garde jazz community in the 1960s and ‘70s, mostly as a co-leader in groups with reedman and composer John Carter. He also worked in Europe with drummer John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Stevens-Frode Gjerstad group Detail. Bradford is an unassuming character despite his deep connection to the history of postwar jazz, and though his playing was certainly felt, for example, in recordings and appearances with Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra earlier this year, extra ovations for Bradford should have been de rigueur. This year has been good for Bradford-philes, as in addition to new recordings, his work with Carter for the Revelation label has been collected on a Mosaic Select 3-disc set. Bradford has collaborated with Portland-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley for a number of years, and Halley is even less well-known (though he’s been part of the West Coast scene since the 1980s and has worked with Vinny Golia). This recording from the Penofin Jazz Festival in Potter Valley, California is the second release to capture their music together.

The group is rounded out by Halley’s son, drummer Carson Halley, and bassist Clyde Reed on four originals. Sandblasted tenor and fat, cutting brass make a good pairing, and the frontmen have a clear affinity for one another. There’s a dirge-like quality to “The Blue Rims,” which opens the set, its ominous call somewhere out of post-Albert Ayler New York, though it quickly shifts into a countryish bounce. Bradford is the first soloist, fleet fragments rushing together but remaining particular and referential as bass and drums keep to an open gallop. Following a brief bass solo, the tenorman lets out with a powerful evocation of Ayler’s pathos and humor, rare among contemporary American players, as percussion shimmers around him. Bar-walking isn’t out of the picture either, as tenor and rhythm stir up an easygoing walk, Bradford providing celebratory commentary. “Streets Below” finds the quartet inspired by a funkier muse, though the rhythm section is a bit didactic in their exploration of the form, especially considering the flinty unslickness embodied by cornet and tenor. Clunky beat or not, Bradford works through a striking and empathetic solo, linking brass-band cajones with airy pronouncements before Halley digs his heels for a series of earthy North Texas blasts. The set ends as it began, funereal and sneaky with a knotty turn in “The River’s Edge is Ice;” hopefully we can hear more from this brass and reed pairing, and certainly more epaulettes for Bradford are always welcome.

MHQ by Peter Gannushkin,
Saturn Sings

The world of creative improvisation ever so often gets a glimmer of crossover potential. It’s not too common, but it does happen – whether in the post-loft late 1970s with reedmen-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill signing to Arista and its subsidiaries, or in the 1990s and early 2000s when the music of tenorman David S. Ware, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp seemed poised to take over the world. With music as fragmented as it has become, it’s no surprise that “niche success” is what most can hope for, but the critical anti-establishment still gets rightly excited when an artist of excellent technical caliber, vision, historical understanding and “vibe” gets accolades from seemingly all sides. Not that guitarist and improvising composer Mary Halvorson is the “savior” of avant-garde jazz, but her music does have broad appeal. That’s certainly not a bad thing, even among the niche-happy – people generally want those who are “good” to do “well.” Halvorson’s guitar work is really quite unique; though it would be easy to name-check precedents in Derek Bailey (volume pedals and odd intervals) and Sonny Sharrock (bunched intensity) alongside the circularity of Joe Morris and Grant Green, she’s given equal ear time to Deerhoof’s Jon Dieterich or Don Caballero’s Ian Williams. In other words, there’s indie rock in her blood, and it shows both as an improviser and composer. Her quintet augments a working trio including bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith (ex-Xiu Xiu) with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and altoist Jon Irabagon, and Saturn Sings is the group’s first recording.

There’s an easy-seeming albeit oddly-moving lope that introduces the opener, “Leak Over Six Five (No. 14)” – like all of the tunes here it’s penned by the guitarist, and reads like a Threadgill word game. Irabagon’s querulous bebop phrasing is well-supported by hacking rhythmic piles, trumpet and guitar spreading out signs behind him before Halvorson counters with an interjection of crumpled chatter. Stretching out in crisp, hollow tones, her phrasing is immediately captivating and one anticipates what she’ll do as the horns work through a long chorus. Though the writing is clearly organized with horn arrangements in mind, the trio is often the real focus, Halvorson’s bent, pedal-doubled coagulations ricocheting off Smith’s floating rattle as Hébert provides a ghostly pizzicato anchor. The following “Sequential Tears In It (No. 20)” is for trio, and feels like Tal Farlow transplanted into a dusty, martial landscape (Hank Garland for a punky new age?), isolated and meaty single-note flecks augmented with barfing strums and microscopic agitation as the rhythm section surges and falls away. “Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17)” flirts with saccharine and poise, alto and trumpet reinforcing a lilt as guitar and percussion explode around them in a volcanic center, Halvorson stretching in puckered turns as Irabagon hews close to a brightly rakish postbop sensibility. Finlayson peels off fat, short rounds before Halvorson wanders with a dulcimer-like tone into an area demarked by unruly fuzz and the quintet closes in the sketchy theme.

“Sea Seizure (No. 19)” alternates between Seam-like exuberant discord and art-rock slink, stuttering around absent declamations before settling into wry swing. The band minus Halvorson’s guitar is a rare thing, but she lays out for the first part of Irabagon’s peppery solo on “Crack In Sky (No. 11),” returning with cottony comp that slowly distorts. It’s hard to say what inspires the freakish sense of anticipation as Halvorson builds her solo – sly, detailed and extremely pretty while retaining base simplicity, it’s the kind of playing that builds atmosphere and allows Hebert and Smith to redefine their improvising space. Saturn Sings is just about the most unequivocally perfect record from a young improviser-bandleader to come down the pike in a while. For once, it seems unfair to ask “what’s next” (though the psychedelia of her work on “Crescent White Singe (No. 13)” is enticing), and rather revel in what we presently have.


Matta Gawa describe themselves as “free rock,” which is partially fitting because among guitar-drum duos, the work of Edward Ricart and Sam Lohman is quite far from, say, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink or Joe Morris and Luther Gray. bA is the group’s first recording, though both members of the duo are active on the Northeast Corridor axis. Ricart augments his wiry flights with what is assumed to be fuzzed-out bass loops on the opening “Your bA Will Not Abandon Your Corpse,” giving the music a bottom that it might not otherwise have, while Lohman maintains a tom-heavy agitated pulse a la Chris Corsano at his finest. The first point of comparison – and there aren’t many to this DC-based unit – is to the Daily Dance of drummer Bob Thompson and guitarist Doug Snyder (New Frontiers, 1973), though Matta Gawa are probably more technically proficient and their energy is more punky. Though the Engine Studios production style can obscure some of the finer points of creative improvisation, which often depends on crucial tone and detail, the slight murk in the product of Matta Gawa’s work is welcome, giving it a hazy distance. Searing high-pitched wail erupts out of fuzzy loops and allover drum floes on “bAs of Re” on which upturned runs and echoed skitter might wink towards lofty prog-rock tropes, though the network of loops and pervasive grit levels the proceedings to an unruly but athletic stew. “Dialogue of a Man with his bA” is primordial in its foreboding energy, keyboard sludge, feedback-drenched and distorted wrangling, and simmering kitwork laying ground as Ricart’s six-string takes on an odd, twangy quality, erupting into maddening tremolo amid Lohman’s thrash. Matta Gawa are also at their jazziest here, fractured and scumbled guitar flecks becoming a muted language somewhere near the merger of Bern Nix and Wes Montgomery as Lohman parses time into self-reflective angularity. It’s almost straight, in fact, as Ricart introduces “Your bA is Within You,” even as the pair moves into harmolodic and dubbed-out territory. This is a deep, unruly recording devoid of New Weird-hipness, capturing the dangerous fragmentation of noise and psychedelic vibrations with a young, hungry energy and both musicians are individuals to keep an eye on.

In the Interval

In the Interval presents studio solo bass recordings by eminent Chicago avant-garde contrabassist Jason Roebke, captured literally in the downtime between touring engagements. Roebke is an incredibly versatile player, working in groups as diverse as trumpeter Nate Wooley’s vicious, noisy experimental trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Mike Reed’s squirrely, historical repertory ensemble People, Places and Things. Certainly most bassists worth their salt seem to explore the solo medium – Peter Kowald, Barre Phillips, Joelle Leandre, Carlos Barretto – yet solo bass records aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Taken together, the two pieces on In the Interval clock in barely under a half hour (one is twenty-two minutes, the other a mere six), and seem more like snatches of a greater process. 

At first, the music might seem culled from practice tapes because of its brevity and worked-through quality. Roebke has a wonderful, woody tone and deep muscularity, building tensile taps and exploratory thwacks into a fleet, painterly evocation of movement and literary logic. Midway through the first piece, gestures built into song soon become scrabble, the bassist doubling on Waisvisz crackle-box as he plucks and whispers across guts and surface area. Rather than breaking up the program into a run-through of what he and the instrument can do both compositionally and technically, Roebke moves through a spare language of clear, related forms and audible space in a way that seems neither heady nor overly flashy. On the first piece, his phrasing and ideas appear quite simple and dryly questing, while the second conjures terse arco clatter and scrappy, prepared-string natter. Economical and somewhat narrow, the nakedness of these performances might not capture the recesses of the ear at first, for the connections between materials appear gradually and with concentrated dedication. Whatever one’s experience with solo playing or this Chicago mainstay’s work, In the Interval is worth time spent.

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