Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year from Ni Kantu - Reflections on Creation and Space

Originally I was going to try to squeeze in a few more reviews for the last Ni Kantu post of 2011, but it looks like those will be running next week as the first post of 2012. At any rate, I won’t spend too much time reflecting on the past because the year’s end is, in my mind, an opportunity to leap forward. Nevertheless, and despite the political and cultural hardships we endure – not to mention financial challenges, wars, environmental insanity and sickness – this is an exciting time to be alive. Musically there is so much going on that it is impossible to keep up with it all, and that’s really quite a good thing.

When I first began to explore the world of jazz and creative music as a college student, I mostly looked at it from a historical perspective and made myself aware of the artist-soldiers who had come before my time. Some are still with us creating, many are not. As I turned to the music of my own time – that made by my peers and those somewhat older than me – it made me happy to realize that a lot of this work was new work, not retreading previously exhausted principles. While I haven’t heard or studied all the great jazz musicians from history, I still feel that what I hear now is possible only in the present, and is uniquely reflective of all the great things we, as human beings, now have available to us. I’m saying this not only in terms of technical and aesthetic resources, but spiritual (read: ineffable) ones too. Sure, we have lost many veteran masters in 2011 and it’s a trend that will no doubt be on the increase, but as we think back on the great works of those musician-composers, we must think of the fact that without these players in our physical midst, a) their work and spirit will remain with us and b) we can honor them by making the most of ourselves.

I’m really lucky to be in the position of being able to write and think about music, even as the time I have available for this work has shrunk a fair amount. Those who make music, or those who are scholars and who can pass on appreciation of the work, are also very lucky people and we’re lucky ouselves to have them in our midst. I balk at the idea that there aren’t enough musicians and artists who “bring it” left on the planet – for in my opinion, the weight of an excellent, original artist is worth ten thousand bullshitters and I’m glad there are so many fine musicians on the scene, many of whom we can see potential even if they haven’t yet come into their own. It’s a great time to look forward and to believe in oneself, perhaps keeping in mind the words of trumpeter and improvising composer Bill Dixon: “everything I did was all I could do.”

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2012!
Clifford Allen / Ni Kantu



The Thirteenth Assembly Minus One: Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet; Mary Halvorson, guitar; Tomas Fujiwara, drums. Filmed 2010, Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed - End-of-Year Roundup 2011

BOBBY BRADFORD/JOHN CARTER QUINTET
Comin’ On
(Hat Hut)

The Carter-Bradford Quartet was one of the great long-lasting ensembles of the second wave of avant-garde jazz, but due to their location in Los Angeles (not exactly the center of the jazz world) and fiscal challenges that beset any feasible touring schedule, their work was sadly unrecognized outside the cognoscenti. Trumpeter Bradford and reedman Carter waxed a number of excellent LPs for the Revelation and Flying Dutchman labels (the former are collected in a Mosaic Select boxed set) and appeared in various later aggregations for mostly European audiences. The 1988 performance captured on Comin’ On is a reunion of sorts, featuring drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Richard Davis and keyboardist Don Preston for a program of five original compositions.

Many writers have tried to connect Bradford and Carter with Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman – Bradford played with Ornette and Carter grew up in Fort Worth, but the combination of the trumpeter’s fat, incisive post-Brownie tone and Carter’s almost (avant-) “classical” sense of tonal organization does separate the two camps. This is true both soloistically and compositionally (though clearly such concepts overlap). Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much whether they’re comparable ensembles or not because once one becomes aware of the music, individuality tends to be what’s memorable rather than how things (or people) are similar. Carter had switched exclusively to the clarinet well before these recordings were waxed at LA’s Catalina Bar & Grill, an apparent hotspot during the decade for creative music – pianist-composer Horace Tapscott’s contemporaneous stand was captured on The Dark Tree (Hat Hut, also featuring Carter and Cyrille). The set opens with Bradford’s title composition, a jovial but piercing fanfare for the horns, ducking and diving cadenzas before the rhythm section falls in line as the drummer’s light, skimming bash straddles bop and freer flow. Bradford’s phrasing has a sunny logic, roundly following thematic elements with a swagger that’s both hefty and slender, with simple and direct recapitulations of the tune’s essential swing. Carter’s statement is quite counter, high-register flights anchored by warbling chalumeau and slick, false-fingered movement that gives Preston’s harmonic chunks a heady challenge.

It is here that mention should be made of Preston’s synthesizers, which allow lush orchestration to present itself in a small-group setting. “Ode to the Flower Maiden” is a fine example of this, with echoes of strings, piano, metallic percussion and double reeds adding ghost registers to Carter’s absolutely fascinating exploration of breath and structure. It’s interesting to hear Bradford’s trumpet in this context – there’s a clear delineation between “jazz” and what Carter does - an extremely broad-minded instant encapsulation of the harmonic possibilities laid out in the theme’s initial voicing. A crisp, ascending figure steels the Davis-Cyrille vamp on “Encounter” as Preston approximates a modal hall of mirrors with crashing chords, oblique washes and unearthly sound-clusters surrounding the composer’s lengthy series of trilling clambers. Even when crumpled and abstracted, it seems as though Bradford is set on finding the bebop in this composition, and that’s not a slight – creativity includes finding one’s own ground within the form of others’ art.

“Sunday Afternoon Jazz Society Blues” is a complex theme that one could easily imagine as an orchestra piece with quintet interludes, massive synth chords augmenting chortled and splayed knots, Ornetteish laughter and rhythmic gulps. Bradford and Preston support Carter’s volatile cornucopia with alternately saccharine and sharp long tones, leading into cascading woody digs buoyed by loose and impeccable time. Where the clarinetist pushes against rhythm with his asymmetrical inventions, Bradford rides and crests those detailed waves, occasionally goaded into difference by Preston’s prickly accompaniment. Both approaches are entirely valid and grant the music a diversified power on the whole. Comin’ On is an exceedingly strong example of the leaders’ rapport, not to mention their abilities as composers, bandleaders, visionaries and traditionalists of the highest order. Thankfully it is in print once again.

MARC DUCRET
Tower Volumes 1 & 2
(Ayler)

Mostly known for his work with saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, French guitarist Marc Ducret and, while that collaboration has been extraordinarily fruitful – resulting in about a dozen albums under Berne’s leadership and a number of others variously helmed – Ducret’s own dates might be a bit overshadowed. Along with countrymen François Courneloup (saxophones), Dominique Pifarély (violin), Bruno Chevillon (bass), and Benoît Delbecq (keyboards), he’s created some fascinating music under a hybridized rubric of free jazz, modern composition and progressive rock. The two volumes of Tower, released on Ayler Records, eloquently display Ducret’s mastery of powerful free jazz-rock with two multinational ensembles.

The first volume is a French-Danish meeting and joins Ducret with trombonist Matthias Mahler, saxophonist Fred Gastard, trumpeter Kasper Tranberg and drummer Peter Bruun on three rather intense compositions. “Real Thing #1” starts the set off extra crunchy, with midrange guitar flutter and hum approximating shorts and small explosions as Ducret’s volatility jibes with whining trumpet and Bruun’s cymbal scrape. But things really kick into high gear with a series of mouthy ensemble knots, Gastard and Mahler providing a serious bottom end to cutting trumpet, adroit martial clatter and Ducret’s scumbled, cottony electricity. The composed lines are charged with a tensile weave, motoring huffs befitting a Six-era Softs until Ducret and the horns put forth dense power chords, rocked-out poles that segregate and shore up fragmentary duo and trio improvisation. Though not evincing as much multiphonic shredding as someone like Mats Gustafsson, Gastard’s bass saxophone work is in that tradition and fits well with the twining spires of Ducret’s choppy and compelling jazz-rock vision. Bruun is the drummer to realize this, building tension with top-heavy, caterwauling rhythms that are nevertheless precise and delicate. The absence of a bass-centered rhythm section also helps to push the ensemble’s rockist tendencies into a weirdly light overdrive. Real Thing #2” follows, Ducret spinning out funky flint against muted cymbals and agitated roll, augmented by a chunky front line. An area of knife-like interplay between guitar and brass emerges, very free, before Gastard and Bruun build a fat motion for sinewy mid- and upper-range colors to ride, with Tranberg’s keening young-lion blast getting some fine stretching room.

Tower Volume 2 presents the French-American contingent, with Ducret and Pifarély joined by Berne and drummer Tom Rainey. The opening “Sur l’Electricité” melds a soundtrack of the Paris Metro and cityscape with guitar and electric violin at the outset, amplified ponticello skirls, triple-stops, and scrambled staccato elegantly contrasting Ducret and Rainey’s slim, blues-rock backing. That’s not to say that the violinist doesn’t pick up on these advances, wailing flatted fifths and then some before he, Berne and Ducret assemble a bright, atonal progression. A choppy guitar-drums duet emerges, wiry, backbeat-heavy and painted over with an awesomely aggressive swirl. As much differentiation as exists in the quintet of Tower Volume 1, the quartet here is extremely well matched and dare I say familiar – Pifarély and Berne complement one another perfectly, alto curling in soft salts as the violinist works through a deep, sinewy harmonic range. “Real Thing #3” opens with guitar, alto and violin approximating some of the spacious, toothy tones of Morton Feldman (especially apparent in Pifarély’s long, dissonant quaver). Even as Ducret begins assembling crotchety, fuzzy clusters, there’s a sense of poise against those rough blues that’s really remarkable. As with the other “Real Thing” compositions, the group alternates between patches of scrappily open detail and rugged, seafaring movement. Perhaps this quartet is a bit more delicate, with Berne’s lip-curls and Pifarély’s rangy poems in the front line. Either way, Ducret has assembled two fantastic groups to work through six collective compositions striding across free and rigorous form. Both volumes of Tower are essential new-millennial listening.

KALI Z. FASTEAU
An Alternate Universe
(Flying Note)

Multi-instrumentalist and improviser Kali Z. Fasteau is somewhat of a veteran in creative music who, alongside Don Cherry, could easily be said to have helped bring non-Western music and “jazz” together under the banner of world improvisation. Not as well-known as Cherry, she first began working alongside her late husband, Chicago bassist, clarinetist and instrument maker Donald Rafael Garrett in the Sea Ensemble, an important yet unsung outfit from the halcyon 1970s. The Sea Ensemble incorporated a vast array of non-Western instruments, homemade sounds and educational-participative practices into the landscape of free improvisation. Since the late 1980s, most of her releases as a leader-collaborator have been on her own Flying Note label, including partnerships with Kidd Jordan, Noah Howard, William Parker, Rashied Ali and Bobby Few. An Alternate Universe joins her on a collection of 1992 archival recordings with Parker and drummer Cindy Blackman (a rare avant-garde encounter) now seeing their first release.

Fasteau’s choice of instrumentation here is perhaps a little closer to the Western ear – she plays cello, soprano saxophone and electric piano – but in these trios and duets, the intent remains expansive and by the same token the narrower palette concentrates the improvisations. Recorded in a deliciously lo-fi manner, the twenty-five minute “Ardor” is the disc’s centerpiece and pairs Fasteau’s cello and Parker’s arco bass harmonics in a devilish saw-and-sway that is occasionally in the red, furious and free in its naked expressionism. Perhaps we’ve gotten somewhat used to Parker’s hypnotic vamps, and this piece serves as a nudge in the direction of a different kind of trance – that of the consciousness-raising immediacy of concentrated, varied impasto. Though classically schooled, Fasteau’s cello work is a more homebrewed, generative and reactive virtuosity (i.e., playing the shit out of the instrument). “Liquid Geometry” finds Blackman roiling in scattered brush attack behind a jagged, almost unsettling quilt of electric piano/harpsichord lines and Parker’s bowed bass, while the bright, dervish-like soprano twirls of “Fervor” and its mildly overdriven groove spotlight the trio’s lofty energy. Blackman’s approach to the kit, while sometimes overtly concerned with technical implications, here recalls the eye-popping interleaved rhythms of Ed Blackwell and Charles Moffett. “If You Knew” is a grungy threesome for cello, bass and drums and, while the contrast between sharp, rolling accents and sawing bows is almost sore-thumb apparent, that collision makes for an engagingly strange listen. Fasteau, Parker and Blackman present an unflinchingly raw collective vision that is certainly a must-experience for fans of free music, and An Alternate Universe is also a great place to dip your toes into the Fasteau discography.

THE FOUR BAGS
Forth
(NCM)

Though it’s become patently unhip to call an artform quintessentially “New York” – as much as contemporary music can be regionalized in the age of the internet and so forth – but the work of chamber quartet The Four Bags doesn’t seem like it belongs to any other locale. Formed in 1999 by trombonist Brian Drye, clarinetist Michael McGinnis, guitarist Sean Moran and accordionist Jacob Garchik, Forth is their fourth disc to date of original compositions and obscure covers that draw from modern composition, klezmer, Brazilian pop, jazz and “indie rock.” The set begins with the accordionist’s “Wayne Shorter’s Tune With All Different Notes” (which I couldn’t quite identify), but no matter as this is a fine introduction to the Four Bags’ modus operandi. That is to say it's flinty and funky as guitar commingles with Drye’s stately, Mangelsdorff-like chortle and the knotty tango of clarinet and accordion, shifting from oddball stomp to flecked detail and long, heaving squeeze-box tones within a very short time span.

The Four Bags’ weirdness is not a put on – they come by it honestly, as their deft individual phrasing is immediately clear and, instead of appropriating a bunch of different strains to make something “different” from grafted-on parts, this is a unified whole of bright, off-kilter construction. A cover of the Air tune “Run” (Air as in the French electro-pop group, not the AACM trio) follows, tautly insistent patter and warble offsetting Drye’s chortling bugle-flicks and snatches of minimal, phased wowing. The guitarist’s “Terpsichore” crosses the Greek/East European axis with curious tonal juxtapositions and a nagging tendency to undermine its own furious tempo and intricacy with blats and thick, grungy swaths of sound, while “Comfort Toon” pits filmic calm and folksy progressions against spots of unsettled wheeze and winsome clarinet. These patches of dissonance briefly take over around the halfway point, fuzzed guitar and accordion sticking in the sand as the horns cut a tall profile. Though areas of improvisation occur, The Four Bags are not really an improvising ensemble (they are certainly creative, however). The focus is on structured compositions that draw from collectivity, personality and a broad understanding of how divergent musics can fit together without leaving too many holes and patches. Tart minimalism, recast Persian melodies (Parviz Meshkatian's "The Burning") and signs of Downtown jazz are just part of The Four Bags’ fascinating, eminently listenable whole.

THE GREEN PASTURE HAPPINESS
Aut Disce Aut Discede
(Peira)

The Green Pasture Happiness is a trio of Chicago-based electronic (mostly) improvisers consisting of Brian Labycz, Aaron Zarzitski, and Daniel Fandiño, and Aut Disce Aut Discede is their first release, appropriately enough on Labycz’ Peira CD-R label. The group’s main objective appears to be confrontationally straddling the perceived boundaries between noise music/non-music and improvisation. Of course, those twain have met before in the context of people like Michel Waisvisz and groups such as Musica Elettronica Viva and Gentle Fire, though the crucial difference among the latter two is that those were collectives drawn from academic composers “reinventing” music through electronic and non-musical means, rather than artists starting from a less well-heeled pedigree. Interactive events and their results are nakedly present, especially on the centerpiece “Should I Take Your Silence as a ‘Not Interested’?” and its Hugh Davies-inspired contact microphone huffs, disembodied growling and the whittled scrape of small, metallic objects. Essentially, noises are sounds without music and their occurrence is defined as random and disembodied. Once organized, attached to something/someone and developed through impulse and refinement, they are no longer “noises.” Through collective engagement, this trio’s actions and reactions pile on, augmented and set against the movement of the whole. At times the pieces’ structure appears loose, with constant textural shifts and amplified behaviors calling to mind workmanlike imagery, even if the exact sources aren’t obvious. Other sounds are drawn out, shaped and even hierarchical. The closing “A Spiritual Brown” offers multiple sections of haranguing blocks of sound, hard shifts demarking the changes. Obviously, this is music resulting from a trio of someones, as much as the landscape that they create may at first blush seem inhuman.

MILES GRIFFITH/MICHAEL JEFRY STEVENS QUARTET
Only Love
(ARC)

Vocals weren’t really present in my initial forays into this music, whether growing up or in later investigations live and on record. I didn’t really think that “jazz vocals” represented the music’s serious side. It wasn’t until hearing people like Eddie Jefferson, Joe Lee Wilson, Patty Waters and Jeanne Lee that my understanding of, at the very least, the power of the human voice in both improvisation and song craft became clearer. After all, getting interested in jazz was partly a “freedom from” popular music as much as it was a “freedom for” grasping music (including pop) with a bit more relativity (that’s still an ongoing process). So it is in this personal tradition that Only Love, the third recording from vocalist Miles Griffith and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, entered my orbit. Joined by drummer Dieter Ulrich and bassist Dominique Girod on ten original compositions recorded for Swiss radio, the quartet is full of power, muscle, beauty and humor in its cooperative search.

Miles Griffith walks an elegant tightrope between clarity of form and purity of expression – that’s why, I suppose, his work here feels more akin to a “traditional” instrumentalist. Sure, voice is the “original instrument” (to quote Joan La Barbara), but it’s become so connected with words and meaning that sometimes one’s appreciation of tone and phrasing gets lost. The irony is, in the case of Griffith’s approach, that his original lyrics are striking, simple poetry clearly enunciated and that clarity is used as part of his phrasing, integral to what makes his “sound” so elegant. Crisp, bubbly, mildly acrid intonation on the gorgeous spiritual modes of “Sometimes” mirrors the head-on wail of alto saxophonists like Carlos Ward and Gary Bartz, in conference with rolling, mildly dissonant arpeggios and a steamrolling rhythm section. The tune’s closing improvisation includes volcanic, leaping scat – something Griffith is technically adept at while also an instance of expression superseding traditional language (the rollicking Afro-Cuban “Oh Mama” almost recalls some of Milford Graves’ antics). That said, his sculpting of the literal word is what I find most intriguing as he purrs, kinks and renders sharp or flowing stanzas that, on the surface, would read rather basic. In that sense, he’s an excellent foil for Stevens, whose pianism has always entranced with poise and wryness in its language of open post-bop. Only Love and the Griffith/Stevens Quartet mark an extremely worthwhile modern jazz collaboration that is well worth seeking out.

ALEXANDER HAWKINS ENSEMBLE
All In, Ever Out
(Babel)

English keyboardist and improvising composer Alexander Hawkins is fast proving to be one of the most unique voices in contemporary music, a young master for whom terms like “free improvisation” and “avant-garde” don’t exactly cut the mustard. His work in the bi-continental Convergence Quartet and the rugged organ trio Decoy would have put him on the modern creative music map by themselves, but it’s in the elegantly cooperative Alexander Hawkins Ensemble that his work really stands out. The instrumentation is curious – piano, marimba, guitar, cello, bass and drums – but utterly gimmick-free. One gets the feeling that the Ensemble’s collective voice and the structure that arises straddle two poles - that the player’s personality stands ahead of instrumental specifics and the particular sound of these instruments (together and in opposition) is extremely important to the overall work. All In, Ever Out is the group’s second disc (following the 2009 standout No, Now Is So on FMR) and joins Hawkins with guitarist Otto Fischer, drummer Javier Carmona, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassist Dominic Lash and Orphy Robinson on marimba for nine compositions, all of which are originals. This is somewhat of a departure from other discs, which have featured highly personal interpretations of Sun Ra, Wadada Leo Smith, and South African township jazz alongside Hawkins’ own pieces.

“Ologbo (double trio)” may take its title from a Nigerian township, but following the initial bass-cello duet, its theme (primarily voiced by guitar and piano) has more in common with the erudite, Monkish swing of the Attila Zoller-Don Friedman group. The ensuing improvisation adds Robinson’s resonant wooden cascades to the strings’ pizzicato surge, as flourishes of cymbals, electric guitar and piano gradually pile on. Fleet, dry fire from Carmona’s kit prods the twined inversions of Fischer and Hawkins in another brief and exceptionally busy trio before the ensemble, ragged and right, takes the tune home. “Tatum Totem III” follows, independent jaunt and overlapping parallel blocks drawing together as choppy improvisational currents that, while they relate to and inform one another, reflect the individuality of their contours as much as they do an overarching scheme. It’s not something that, on the surface, would seem all that unique in improvised music but the way it’s scored among these six musicians is a resounding collar grab. The penchant for parallel commentary seems almost lackadaisical in “Owl (Friendly)/A Star Explodes 10,000 Years Ago, Seen By Chinese Astronomers” as a delicate, short phrase and its refrain are teased out and elaborated upon in gently wheeling mingle and Marshall’s deep, lithe cello is front and center with tousled romance.

“Ahab” is boisterously resolute in its seaworthiness, a slightly out-of-tempo orchestral jounce in the head that gives way to the staggering, Schlippenbach-Lovens interplay of the pianist and drummer as Lash motors along underneath. Fleshed out by the rest of the ensemble, bass, cello and piano kick and chomp towards a regal conclusion. “Elmoic” could take its title from a Paul Rutherford piece; its first two and a half minutes are given over to the leader’s kaleidoscopic unaccompanied piano before the ensemble enters in a circular dance, anthemic downstrokes countering a series of short, florid solos. Hawkins tends to subsume his own highly virtuosic playing to the greater good of collectivity, so it is fascinating to hear him step out front on this piece. The closing “So Very, Know” is as striking in its somberness as other compositions are exhortations of joy, sparsely-drawn harmonics a padding for the guitarist’s flourishes and Hawkins’ gospelized but oddly unresolved piano. All In, Ever Out is unlike anything else in modern creative music and, while it may be produced under nominal leadership, it’s a testament to mutual selflessness and a trust in convergent personalities. That is, after all, what our music is rooted in.

JOE HERTENSTEIN/THOMAS HEBERER/JOACHIM BADENHORST/PASCAL NIGGENKEMPER
Polylemma

There’s a small group of New York-based European musicians who seem to be developing a real collective voice. As of yet they aren’t getting a ton of press Stateside but that will probably change. Four of them are represented on Polylemma – drummer Joe Hertenstein, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper are from Germany, and bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst hails from Belgium. Heberer (the eldest) is the most well known because he has played the “straight man” in the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra for many years, though his own work as a soloist and bandleader is fairly obscure. With only trumpet in the front line, a pared-down version of this group recorded the excellent HNH for Clean Feed in 2010, and without drums another trio variation waxed Klippe under Heberer’s leadership for Clean Feed earlier this year.

Back to Polylemma, though: the eight compositions are split between Hertenstein and Heberer, and range from subdued tonal agitation to more rhythmically excited bounce. The latter’s “One Ocean at a Time” starts with a pedal point reminiscent of Coltrane’s “India,” which quickly begins playing off of a series of knotty rows, first from bass clarinet and bass, then adding Heberer’s clarion tone. Skimming across all of it is Hertenstein in rolling, punchy detail, building phrases from damped toms and broad, coppery crash. Niggenkemper’s arco solo is deft and guttural, and driving in a way that no beat is lost when he surges alongside the drummer’s tense chatter. “Crespect,” composed by Hertenstein (and also the title of his disc with bassist Achim Tang and pianist Philip Zoubek), is vibrant and singsong with a Bley-like wander, Heberer embellishing with cackling, wry turns, maudlin lines and boppish fragments while Badenhorst needles the theme into an intense harangue. When they intertwine it’s brilliant, but there’s a lot of enjoyment in this piece from the quartet’s well-schooled ricochet.

The four musicians are quite a study in contrast – Hertenstein is busy but empathetic, contradicting his colors with undermining action as Heberer ties a kaleidoscopic understanding of history and technique into knots. Niggenkemper and Badenhorst are bound among woody tones that they serve in clean, expressionist dollops. Even a stab at modernist post-bop like “Nupeez” is imbued with a weird sense of polyphony that nearly subverts its very flow. But if Polylemma’s options were all smirk, it would lose the compelling holler of sweaty groove and powerful synchronicity, which this quartet has in spades.

INGRID LAUBROCK & SLEEPTHEIF
The Madness of Crowds
(Intakt)

It sounds strange to say this – especially when a non-musician is considering the work of an artist who’s been active for a number of years – but German-born saxophonist and improvising composer Ingrid Laubrock really is coming into her own. October saw Laubrock performing the Falling River Music with Anthony Braxton, whose breathy, cutting fragility makes an excellent foil for her tenor, which transliterates Archie Shepp’s coiled velvet into tonal-spatial research. Aside from stretching the tenor’s boundaries with mutes and inserted objects, on soprano she has a golden plaintiveness that brings to mind Steve Lacy and Marion Brown. Though she’s worked with a number of bands around New York and in her previous home base of London, Sleepthief (which also includes pianist Liam Noble and drummer Tom Rainey) might be among the most compelling. The Madness of Crowds is the trio’s second disc and finds them working through nine stunning, continually-shifting and rigorous explorations.

Continuing the reference of the disc’s title to economist Charles Mackay, the opening “Extraordinary Popular Delusions” (not to be confused with the Chicago free music quartet of the same name) begins with a mixture of piano strings, zither (Laubrock) and cymbals. Whittling scrapes, strums and muted insistence are supported by Rainey’s delicate architecture and precise tom rhythms, keyboard flourishes an arching dusk for Laubrock’s phrases, which turn Charlie Rouse into parsed caterwaul. Following an ending swatch of percussive vulcanism, “You Never Know What’s In the Next Room” flutters tersely as Laubrock’s tendrils carve balladic space against a dangerous harmonic seam. Beautiful, ringing near-romantic progressions fall back into the murk, parlor phrases snake out of bubbles and chatter, beats and lilting melody in a haze of undisclosed gurgle. Laubrock's soprano is given the spotlight on “The Slow Poisoners” – growling yet pure, warm trills caught in an updraft from piano and brushes.

A kaleidoscope of harried angles isn’t out of her vocabulary, evidenced by “There She Goes with Her Eye Out,” which starts in a haranguing volley-trade with Rainey’s drums as Noble's occasional creeping blocks of commentary outline shivs of gauze. “Haunted Houses” finds Laubrock’s snapped shouts rattling drum heads and piano guts with terse vibrations, before shifting into the purrs and crackle of “Does Your Mother Know You’re Out?” The latter explores a range of chirps, wheezes, gulps and whistles that nevertheless contain an incredible amount of energy, tiny explosions that produce enough tension to open throttle with, Rainey galloping along with Noble’s swirled turnarounds and Laubrock’s conch-like muted call. The trio references boppish phrasing in brief snatches before a lush, overlapping finale. Sleepthief is clearly a special trio that has grown by the experience not only of playing together, but the contrasting advances that each player has made independently. The group reveals an expanded language awash in pure sound as much as it values Monk, minimalism, and orchestrated explosiveness. While Laubrock is busy finding new improvisational paths, it will help her (as it would any improviser) to have a home base that is regularly refined.

DAUNIK LAZRO/BENJAMIN DUBOC/DIDIER LASSERRE
Pourtant les Cimes des Arbres
(Dark Tree)

Though perhaps an ongoing concern for French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro, it is safe to say that with Pourtant les Cimes des Arbres (Still Treetops) he's made a record that turns the notion of a saxophone-bass-drums “power trio” on its head. Certainly a number of such configurations have explored range, space, and physicality in nuanced ways before – and they will continue to – but the four improvisations Lazro, bassist Benjamin Duboc and percussionist Didier Lasserre (snare and cymbal only) create are both volcanic and confrontationally essentialist. Each piece’s title is taken from a French translation of a Bashō haiku, meaning shifting line by isolated line. The literary-musical effect is of a stripped-down, workmanlike sublime. The three musicians play with a sense of naturalness that is quite striking as their collective sound increases or decreases in density with the ease of measured breathing; there’s certainly no theme-solos-theme organization, and even traditional go-for-broke power play has been thrown out the window.

The closing “Retiennent la Plue” (Holding the Rain) is a prime example of what this trio is capable of. Starting with throaty pizzicato and bare, ringing cymbal taps in a slightly uneven pulse, Lazro’s purr winds its way around the territorial statements of bass and drums. It’s a trio of parallel advances, each musician loosely tied together and snaking through a veritable rockpile, where confrontation is marked by resonant snaps and scrapes from a minimal kit, generating a charge for the saxophonist’s huskily polished horn. From floor-shaking rumble he builds a stately impasto cry, offset by furious bowed harmonics and brushy accents until the group decides on torqued long tones and declamatory froth.

Lasserre’s kit deserves special mention – playing only a ride cymbal and snare drum, his approach recalls the portable necessity of Sunny Murray and John Stevens without a bop-inflected level of quickness. Lasserre marks time and creates decisive actions that shape the ensemble’s flow in an unpretentious, simple and direct fashion. That said he still gets a range of sounds and kinetics out of minimal instrumentation – witness the unearthliness of rolled sticks on the opening “Une Lune Vive” (The Quick Moon) as they set the stage for microtonal crackle and bellows. Narrowly-defined, tense clusters are worried into a frenzy and released ever so slightly as waves, flutter-tongue and arco approximate the earth along a fault line. Col legno patter, metronomic whine and subtonal sputter become the trio’s language in the piece’s next section with similarly narrow and equally effectual spacing. The power of Pourtant les Cimes des Arbres is in relatively simple iterations of mass and distance, but these are drawn out of three very distinct personalities.

JOE MORRIS' WILDLIFE
Traits
(Riti)

With a discography as sizable and diverse as that of guitarist-contrabassist Joe Morris, either finding a strand to tie it all together or compartmentalizing it into different “concept groups” is the usual critic’s task. But that would be a disservice to how unadorned most of his records are – whether occupying the role of leader/principal composer or sideman, there’s often a basic, unfussy presentation to the work that simply expresses the joy of playing in different configurations. That’s not to say that these groups don’t have varied aesthetic purposes, but at the end of the day Morris lives to play and is very serious about documenting both his own path and that of his comrades. Wildlife is, on the surface, a vehicle for collective exploration – nothing more, nothing less. Morris holds down the bass chair here, supported by regular rhythm confrere Luther Gray on drums and the twined saxophones of altoist Jim Hobbs and tenorman Petr Cancura. To put it simply, their music is collectively improvised, dyed-in-the-wool free jazz – each of the six pieces on Traits (the group’s second disc and first on Morris’ own Riti imprint) grows naturally out of individual statements and rhythmic motifs into robust parallel conversations.

The opening “Howlin’” is out for blood with classically-rendered bray, wide-open burred vibrato carried by the bassist’s wound note clusters and Gray’s loose, circular bash. Both saxophonists reach back towards Ayler-ish fire and brimstone in their playing, elongated revelries that gradually twist and change shape while the rhythm section remains active and pliant. Morris’ solo features gobs of detail and a dusty tone, and while the upright bass might look and sound a fair shake different from a hollow-body six string, there’s something about his attack that translates across both instruments. “Tracking” starts with inventive unaccompanied additions from Gray’s kit, with the remaining three musicians entering in layered tempi, chopping and swooping in a manner not unlike the fractured, swinging independence of the New York Art Quartet. Cancura takes the next spot, sinewy tenor in strands that weave through particulate, stuttering rhythms. It’s a beautiful solo of studied, warm oddness (a cross between Jimmy Giuffre and John Tchicai comes to mind) that stands in direct contrast to Hobbs’ agitated, declamatory buzz. “Game” is husky and round in its groove, a snappy and excited jounce that doubles, triples and halves underneath steely, pirouetting quotes and sputtering joy. Cancura’s hard flutters gradually find their phase. Hobbs’ alto logs bent, non-Western tonalities with a snake-charming effect, recalling Sonny Simmons’ Afro-Asiatic flights. Wildlife’s collective unity is never a sure thing, and that tension is one of the group’s charms. If such a fact can be read as concept, so be it, but it’s more interesting to open oneself up to concept-less discovery.

PHILL MUSRA
Love, Life & Games
(Sagittarius A-Star)

Love, Life & Games is the second LP of saxophonist Phill Musra’s music to be issued on the Sagittarius A-Star label, an offshoot of revered left-field imprint Qbico Records. Musra’s name – and that of his brother and near-constant collaborator Michael Cosmic – should be quite familiar to Ni Kantu readers, as his historical and recent music has been to this blog what Joe McPhee was to the early days of Hat Hut. Here, Musra is heard with two different quartets on two compositions that were performed twenty-five years apart. Interestingly, both pieces were written during his time in the AACM at the close of the 1960s. They’re both very fragile lines that could quite easily be imagined in a loose, free, Creator Spaces-like setting, but the ensembles are a far cry from mid-Seventies Boston improvisation – rather light, boppish grooves that stand apart from Musra’s quavering, moment-to-moment cries, murmurs and eviscerations. The first piece is a 1986 recording with Cosmic on electric piano, Mike Mowen on electric bass and Kay Ballard on drums for “Promise of the Sun,” Musra’s steely tenor eking out a simple, brightly embellished solo atop Cosmic’s wandering chords and gooey peck and the rhythm section’s dry, even time. The rendition has a homemade, very personal quality hat seems set apart from time and the broader jazz consciousness of the mid-1980s (or even now).

The title piece is a half-hour romp with Don Hooker on drums, Steven McGill on conga and vibes, and pianist Walter Barrilleaux, recorded earlier this year. Slight variations from the central motif become gruff litmus for struggle as Musra digs in on tenor. Switching to soprano, the wistful aspects of his personality really come out – a barren lament that quavers in contrast with the clean and often lush backing of piano, vibes and Hooker’s tasteful swing. Barrilleaux gets some stretching room and McGill’s accents and rivulets give varied flesh to the proceedings (the percussionist’s Kujichagulia disc is also worth investigating). Again, the journey of Musra and his mates is a very personal one that, while it may not reflect the broader creative music consciousness, presents a semi-private window on spirit and communication. This is the same unique, “outsider” charm that imbued his 1974 recordings with Cosmic and Ertunç, albeit within a less frantic ritual. It’s a special opportunity to hear this music and, while the limited-edition vinyl of Love Life & Games is technically now out of print, the intrepid internet researcher should be able to scare up a copy.

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Quartet Solo Series, Volume 2
(Striking Mechanism)

Multi-instrumentalist, sound artist and composer Jonathan Chen instituted the Quartet Solo Series on his Striking Mechanism imprint to present the work of young players whose art traverses those very same worlds that he does – sound, improvisation, instrumentalism and composition. It’s a simple prospect, really, but so few recordings in this music present the artform with such simplicity and directness as this series does. Both of the volumes present four musician-composers on four pieces each, all solo and doing what they do in an unadulterated manner. The first volume featured Chen (with his excellent electro-acoustic piece “Drummer”), saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar, German electronic artist Philip Schulze and cellist Marina Peterson. Volume 2 brings together the works of violinist Jessica Pavone, bassist Carl Testa, bassoonist Katherine Young and electronic artist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Zorn. As with the previous disc, all of the musicians are directly connected either to Wesleyan University or to composer Anthony Braxton.

Jessica Pavone starts the disc with “This is my Violin” (winner of the most-unpretentious title award), a twenty-minute exposition for violin and echo. Ringing col legno gives way to a stomping folk melody – Mediterranean or Irish, it’s hard to say, but as it’s a simple variation swathed in echo, it could be comparable to an American Folk Music take on Steve Reich’s Violin Phase. Pavone’s spiky attack, parsed to an extreme from the theme’s rhythm, is reverberated through electrified gauze, but never loses that hard-bitten energy and the recurring folksiness brings out a heeled stomp. She revels in the sound of the violin, tough and hanging in space, as much as she does its ability to generate song. The presence of naked abstraction alongside (and developed from) an old-world tunefulness calls to mind one of Braxton’s favorite collaborators, Leroy Jenkins, and his solo recitals that included pieces like “Keep on Trucking, Brother.” Carl Testa is a New Haven bassist who has worked in a variety of Anthony Braxton ensembles as well as the New Haven Improvisers Collective and his own solo, duo and trio projects. The five short pieces represented here are all for solo bass and a range of expertly produced auxiliary shades. Testa’s general approach is to build up masses of harmonics, exploring the strings on either side of the bridge in walloping low drone and in high-pitched, sonorous cries. While definitely utilizing a palette that’s rough around the edges, the pieces are relatively simple studies of mass, tone, and motion that, while resoundingly physical, aren’t overpowering. That said, he does know how to dance on the strings as the flitting, circular harmonic gestures on “Part Two” attest.

There aren’t too many improvising bassoonists on the modern creative music scene, but judging from the work of two of the music’s young masters – Sara Schoenbeck and Katherine Young – it’s an instrument that could gain some prominence. Young has performed the Diamond Curtain Wall musics of Braxton, as well as in duo with violist Amy Cimini and her own solo bassoon and electronics pieces (well represented by the indispensible Porter Records CD Further Secret Origins). “Storm” is a twelve-minute piece that sometimes makes it difficult to discern how much is produced through the wizardry of circular breathing and how much is overdubbed (that’s always been a challenge with her music). Delicate, pecking alto-range wander peeks out from vicious, massive impasto and jagged superimposition, her phrases only broken for a cuckoo clock’s chime. It’s quite an interesting polarity between obnoxious, harried mass and soft pure-toned stabs, exemplifying the garish, somewhat gallows humor that is at the heart of the most “serious” of music.

“Dia No Vive Aqui” is Zorn’s entirely electronic contribution; he’s also known as a contrabassist and his works for both acoustic and electric music have appeared on a range of CDs on his Set Projects label. Defiantly analog and recalling some of the more abstract computer music that appeared on a variety of CRI and collegiate music labels throughout the ‘70s, Zorn’s work is both crotchety and expansive, a panoply of fuzzy patches, organ-like swirl and microcosmic echolocation (David Behrman’s “Runthrough” comes to mind). Haranguing chords enter and recede, jutting out of an ebbing field of gooey long tones, wows and beeps, and for the diversity of textures and actions it’s somewhat hard to imagine all of this sound coming from one person, well-organized as it is. With an array of computers at Zorn’s disposal, it’s fascinating to hear how internally reactive the music’s structure is – in other words, there is a collectivity and an improvisational feel to it, arrived at through both gradual change and immediate chance. This is a powerful piece and really pushes the boundaries – like the entirety of the disc – of what it means to create and perform solo music.

KRIS WANDERS OUTFIT
In Remembrance of the Human Race
(Not Two)

The name Kris Wanders might be obscure, but the Dutch saxophonist is synonymous with the embrace and appropriation of Afro-American fire during the halcyon years of European free music. Alongside Peter Brötzmann and Gerd Dudek, he was part of the 1966 and ’67 iterations of German pianist-composer Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity. In 1970, he worked in a heavy quartet alongside Dutch pianist/multi-instrumentalist Kees Hazevoet, bassist Arjen Gorter and drummer Louis Moholo, which resulted in the excellent LP Pleasure One (Peace/Atavistic UMS). Dutch jazz has been given over to a single, humorous and pastiche-filled worldview qua New Dutch Swing and the later recordings of the Instant Composers’ Pool. Of course there were other interesting ways to make improvised music in Holland around the turn of the ‘70s, from post-bop to Afro-Caribbean liberated soul-jazz. And then there were musicians who embraced searing post-Ayler freedoms, for whom Kris Wanders is a fine representative. He’s been living in Australia for quite a few years and following a scarce self-released quintet date (On the Edges of Silence, 2004), two discs on the Polish Not Two label are the hard-edged calling cards of his return to the scene.

In Remembrance of the Human Race joins Wanders with trombonist Johannes Bauer, bassist Peter Jacquemyn and drummer Mark Sanders on three lengthy group improvisations recorded live in Antwerp. The title piece opens with a stripped-down, Ascension-like tenor call to arms, Wanders' cascading movements recalling the thin, regal chords of a bagpipe. Jacquemyn and Sanders provide furious tumbling accompaniment as the tenorist digs in with split-toned rally and a wide, guttural plow. The rhythm section builds a dry, martial vamp underneath a freight train of rending squeals and false-fingered exhortations, Bauer countering with singsong chortle. Low drones gird the bottom end as Bauer flutters and mocks and Sanders’ percussion provides the death rattle – somber and stately thrash that evokes the piece’s bleak title. “Uwaga” is somewhat more charged, opening with a Gato Barbieri-like trill as Wanders’ lines chip, worry and coalesce into long, hoarse wails offset by Bauer’s loquacious expressionism. Following the bassist's furious solo, the ensemble soon drops into sparser interplay and Bauer’s multiphonic whinnies and blats nearly goad Jacquemyn into a loose swing, but it doesn’t take long before Wanders’ flayed tone spurs over cracked earth. Sure, In Remembrance of the Human Race is ultimately a blowing date and perhaps some of the improvising is a bit monochromatic, but it’s the kind of free music that inspires a bitter beer in hand and the volume cranked. They don’t make many records like that anymore in any genre and, alongside Taken By Surprise (Not Two, 2011), the European stage looks cleared for Kris Wanders once again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Things We Like #2 - The Best of 2011

While it can be a challenge to keep up with all the new music being released, most of it is of really, exceedingly high caliber. But seeing as how it's the end of the year, that means that it is list-making time and I have to take stock and whittle down all that I've heard into a short run of top-notch material. Importantly, picking ten standouts doesn’t negate the hundreds of excellent albums that are also out there and well worth hearing. If I put in a “runners up” list, it would be excessively long and one day I might prefer listening to any of those recordings over one that’s been “picked” (cue some of the absolutely ruling discs that will appear in the year-end review roundup shortly). There have also been some particularly fine reissues this year – not only a healthy group of boxed sets, but also some first-time-on-CD classics from trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon and saxophonist Julius Hemphill. And while there have some tremendously sad losses in the world of creative music, the fact that our young masters continue to create such vital work gives me hope for the continued flourishing of this music.

All of these are listed in alphabetical order, by the way, because internal list hierarchies are troubling.

New Releases:
Muhal Richard Abrams – Sound Dance (Pi Recordings)
Anthony Braxton – Trillium E (Braxton House)
Bill Dixon – Envoi (Victo)
Agusti Fernandez – El Laberint de la Memoria (Mbari Musica)
Rick Reed – The Way Things Go (Elevator Bath)
Akira Sakata with Jim O’Rourke and Chikamorachi - …and that’s the Story of Jazz (Family Vineyard)
Matthew Shipp – Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear)
The Thirteenth Assembly – Station Direct (Important)
David S. Ware – Planetary Unknown (Aum Fidelity)
Nate Wooley - (Put Your) Hands Together (Clean Feed)

Reissues and Unearthed Gems:
Bitch Magnet – Ben Hur/Umber/Star Booty (Temporary Residence)
Miles Davis – The Bootleg Series vol. 1 (Columbia Legacy)
Bill Dixon – Intents & Purposes (International Phonograph)
Julius Hemphill – Dogon A.D. (International Phonograph)
The Rev. Charlie Jackson – You Got to Move: Live Recordings vol. 1 (50 Miles of Elbow Room)
Roscoe Mitchell – Before There Was Sound (Nessa)
Warren Smith – Dragon Dave Meets the Black Knight from the Darkside of the Moon (Porter)
Social Climbers – Social Climbers (Drag City)
Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society – Father of Origin (Eremite)
John Surman – Flashpoint: NDR Jazz Workshop ’69 (Cuneiform)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Phill Musra - The Creator Spaces (Intex, 1974)


Rarely do I offer downloaded music at Ni Kantu, but in the spirit of a previous offering of the music of Michael Cosmic’s Peace in the World (Intex/Cosmic), here is another volume of the Phill Musra/Michael Cosmic trilogy. Though picking favorites isn’t really my thing, I would have to say that The Creator Spaces has gotten the most spins in my household over the years, probably because the program sort of “eases you in” to the far out stuff, starting with a beautiful flute melody set to the shifting sands of hand percussion and Huseyin Ertunc’s steady, pulsing cymbal waves on “Egypt.” Certainly the music gets quite free, but there’s a homemade fragility to it that puts it in a different class from that of, say, the AACM (which Musra and Cosmic were a part of early on). Like Ertunc’s Musiki (probably recorded at the same session), the band is a stripped-down trio with Musra on reeds and percussion; Cosmic on reeds, organ and percussion; and Ertunc on drums. There is also some track overlap with Musiki, as that album features an alternate of “The Creator Spaces.” Musra has said he hopes to reissue this album someday but in the meantime has asked me to make it available as a download.

Tracks:
  1. Egypt
  2. Arabia
  3. The Creator is So Far Out
  4. The Creator Spaces

Phill Musra – flute, tenor, soprano saxophone, zurna (oboe), percussion
Michael Cosmic – flute, alto, sopranino saxophone, clarinet, zurna, organ, percussion
Huseyin Ertunc – drums and cymbals

Recorded 1974 in Cambridge, MA and engineered by Larrymar Richards, released as Intex 84.

Get the FLAC files here (from about as clean a copy as you could get).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reviewed: Bill Dixon's "Envoi"

The artist at work in Victoriaville
  


Note: this review has been repurposed from a project that was ultimately shelved for the time being. Here it is in its entirety. Thanks to Stephen Haynes and Jeff Golick for their thoughts.

BILL DIXON
Envoi
(Victo CD 120)

There is certainly a lot of significance that can be attached to an artist’s final recording before passing on – one thinks of the delicate, free beauty of Coltrane’s late work as exemplified on Stellar Regions (Impulse, 1967/1997) or the promise of new directions on Lee Morgan’s eponymous final Blue Note date, recorded in 1971. These were, however, artists cut down unexpectedly in their youth. It’s a little different when death is an expected eventuality in the autumn of an artist’s career, and we’re able to listen to their music with the understanding that age has brought them both experience and physical changes that require an instrument to be played differently. Composer, improviser and trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925-2010) seemed to experience a great deal of interest in his work in the last years of his life – opportunities to lead orchestras at festivals in Chicago and New York, highly-regarded recordings on labels like Thrill Jockey, Aum Fidelity, and Firehouse 12 – yet there wasn’t any more work being done than over the previous fifty-odd years. A significantly influential figure on the way the trumpet is played and thought of among creative musicians, recent years saw him able to convene a core group that reflected broader structural concerns as well as the individual instrumental languages that his work has helped shape.

The Small Orchestra has proved to be one of the most interesting of Dixon’s ensembles on the whole; convened first to record in 2008 for Firehouse 12 the excellent two-disc and one DVD set Tapestries for Small Orchestra, the group harks back to the brass-heavy units he led in the late 1970s, also mirrored by unrecorded units in late ‘60s New York. The group joined Dixon with brass multi-instrumentalists Stephen Haynes, Graham Haynes (no relation), Rob Mazurek and Taylor Ho Bynum, low reeds player Michel Côté, cellist Glynis Lomon, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Warren Smith. This is the ensemble that recorded Envoi in May 2010 at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, weeks before Dixon’s passing. The combination of low reeds, brass, strings and percussion might be seen as hallmarks within Dixon’s music from 1967’s “Voices” to the present, not because he has a “style,” but because these instrumental combinations have allowed him to get an absolutely huge range of colors from a relatively small ensemble. Dixon found ways to expand what eight people can sound like, through physical placement and textural instructions that encourage depicted sounds to overstep their literal dimensions (cf. the optical qualities of painters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella). In other words, the music often sounds positively huge, but in a way that spreads out instead of singularly overpowering.

The word “Envoi” is defined literally as a look back over what has come before – in poetry, the reflective and often short final stanza that comments on the whole. It would be easy to think of Dixon’s Envoi as a similar summing up of a fifty-odd year recording and performing career, because we know it’s the last thing he did (and that it took a hell of a lot of work in his final months to assemble the piece). We want to say “this is it,” but as significant as any one of his recordings might be, attaching anything extra is the onus of the listener rather than the composer. Dixon has famously quipped that he just “likes the ring” of certain words, and that he likes his pieces to have a nice-sounding name attached. In that sense, “Envoi” is just a word used to title this work, which just happens to be the final piece he recorded. The only thing different about Envoi from other pieces, insofar as one might use the “jazz” perspective, is that he does not perform in the traditional sense. His music increasingly surpassed the notion that he had to “play” to make the work live – composition, conducting, instructing and assembling the group clarified the artist’s signature. One could easily say that his instrument became the ensemble as well as the trumpet, singularly masterful at both. Bisecting the two movements is a pre-recorded trumpet solo, 1972’s “Shrike,” which is a brief and extremely hot slice of sound turning the instrument and the experiencer’s body “inside out” (to quote Stephen Haynes), in this setting both hinting at musique concréte and a shocking declaration of physicality.

In this music, composition and conducting are two very fraught terms. We know that a musician uses resources accumulated over time to assemble something meaningful on the spot, but under the direction of a singular vision, being unfettered comes with a responsibility to do what’s right. Dixon has said that his music – especially the later work – is less didactic in its scoring, because trusting the musicians to do what they do is necessary to give the compositions life. That said the responsibility bred through suggestion results in an ensemble subsuming itself to the broad whole, and while extremely intense, it is some of the most patient music one is liable to hear. One is brought into a state of concentrated calm, sounds emerging in lengthy passages where nothing appears to be hurried and there is no ego. Rather, players emerge when it’s necessary, when another musician has cycled through the process of whatever line or area needed to be completed. 

The music of Envoi is, in effect, democratic and responsible. It’s a state as natural as breathing, the ears of performers and listeners able to latch onto accents but never forced into a position. Sure, there are anchoring themes, brass coagulants that call to mind the testy chords of Takemitsu and Ligeti, but with the pacing of Feldman – none of these figures are “improvisers,” but Dixon’s music at this stage has transcended such boundaries. When Dixon was alive and could give the music an extra nudge, the kaleidoscope of emotions was shored up with implicit (and perhaps explicit) pronouncements of “don’t hurry” or “just wait.” That gradual rightness makes the realization of this work extraordinary. When we think of the tone or phrasing of musicians like Ben Webster or Dexter Gordon late in their lives, we think of similar softness and burnished delicacy, arrived at through lived experience. Though Envoi is an ensemble composition, it can be said that Dixon’s late music has a similar quality to the fragile but lived-in sound of those musicians, even as it can be just as strikingly aggressive.

Envoi was revisited after his death (though his trumpet was on a stool in the conductor’s place) at the 2010 memorial at St. Mark’s Church in New York. The ensemble worked through the piece with the addition of Joe Morris on second contrabass, and that was my first hearing of it. While an excellent performance in its own right, it was more hurried, more agitated in its execution compared to what transpired at Victoriaville. It begged the question whether Dixon’s music is possible to perform without his presence, and if so, how to manage it. The idea of a repertory group, as much as Dixon’s works – both heard and unheard – are loved, is hard to conceive. Yet his legacy can and should live on, beyond what’s been recorded. In the face of that, there is no finality to the music of Envoi – it’s too open-ended, too declarative in its necessity to bother with such a concept. The set closes with Dixon’s voice, reflecting and instructing on the fact that, whether an audience (including critics, listeners, and other musicians) grasps the magnitude or not, giving it one’s all is the only valid response. With that in mind, the implicit understanding from this moment forward is that the body of Dixon’s work is only a hint at what’s possible. 

Photo copyright 2010 by Stephen Haynes

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Continuum Passes - Graham Collier, Michael Garrick, Gordon Beck

Every year followers of jazz and creative music must say to themselves that, despite the wide array of fascinating new music becoming available, history slips further into the past with the deaths of musicians both prominent and obscure. It’s always a challenge when our heroes pass on, leaving us with their art and lasting influence but no corporeal presence remaining. There is no denying that as the architects of modern jazz of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s age, death becomes a more frequent part of that reality, and sometimes we're just catching up now to what they were doing years ago. 2011 was hard for fans of British jazz as three of the Brit-jazz scene's leading lights passed away – two within just days of one another. The pianist-composer Michael Garrick died November 11 at age 78, while pianist Gordon Beck died November 6 at 75. Composer, thinker and bandleader Graham Collier passed away September 10 age 74.

All three of these musicians had seen a renaissance of interest in their work in recent years – Garrick mostly in the form of reissues of his catalog of rarities via Dutton-Vocalion and Trunk Records, while Collier continued to write and was working on important new works this year [a footnote to that is that my interview with Mr. Collier from January 2011, which was condensed for the New York City Jazz Record, will run in full at the Paris Transatlantic website next month]. Gordon Beck’s more recent work, recorded for the Art Of Life label, didn’t garner quite as much notice as the reissues of his scarce back catalog either, but in terms of the jazz mainstream he might have been the most visible, recording with saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and guitarist Allan Holdsworth.

Of these artists, Collier is the one who I was most familiar with; his small groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s are fascinating studies in the interchangeability of improvisation and notated structure, carried to an equally intriguing fruition in later orchestral works. Much of Collier’s music, as well as his writings, has been made available through the Jazz Continuum website. Garrick is a figure that has always been on the periphery of my research and interests, though his work with saxophonists Joe Harriott and Don Rendell and vocalist Norma Winstone has always struck me as far outside the expected modern-jazz lexicon, introducing poetry and non-Western sound forms in some very unique ways. Beck was (and is) an extraordinary pianist in the post-Bill Evans school, applying athleticism to a melodic-harmonic openness that allowed him to work equally well alongside a bebopper like Woods or the free improvising drummer John Stevens.

Here's a film of Graham Collier being interviewed about his work with young musicians in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Derby Jazz Festival in 2007. The piece is quite fine and features some incredible playing by guest trumpeter Harry Beckett (1923-2010), a veteran of Collier's groups of the early years. I don't think I've ever heard a youth orchestra rip like this. Like all new and up-and-coming musicians, knowing the work of the masters will help them project into the next sphere.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where it all comes from...

My dad is a writer and a psychologist, and though his writing isn't about music, I guess one could say that we do have a hereditarily-linked fascination with people and how things that are otherwise ineffable seem to work. My dad is also - or has been at some times in the past - a jazz pianist (avocationally) and he's a pretty big jazz fan. It's funny, when I first heard in college bassist Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds LP with Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, I thought the tune "Four Winds" sounded incredibly familiar. I then found out that my dad owned that LP when I was an infant, and played the tune a lot (though he'd gotten rid of the record by the time I was old enough to know what an album was). Not merely settling for playing jazz standards and so forth, my dad would often compose tunes - pastorals, blues and jaunty postbop things - for his friends and family as gifts and statements of feeling. I don't think I really got how cool that was when I was a kid, but now it seems pretty amazing.

Now, my dad has gotten a dedication of his own from the NYC guitarist-composer Amanda Monaco (a dear friend of mine) and her Deathblow quartet. When she was in Austin a couple of years ago I introduced her to my parents and my dad had, I think, just written a blog post for the Menninger blog on "excrementalizing," riffing on one of his primary areas of research, mentalizing. If mentalizing is the practice of thinking about one's mind and its actions, reactions, and the mental state that one inhabits, it stands to reason that "excrementalizing" is doing a shitty job of that (also a brilliant testament to my dad's sense of humor). Whether or not that side of the mentalizing process becomes part of the psychological lexicon, at least it's been immortalized in Monaco's newly-minted tune, "Excrementalizing." Here it is played at the Stone in NYC with Deathblow, featuring Michael Attias (alto saxophone), Sean Conly (bass), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums). Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed - October 2011

BOOM BOX
Jazz
(Jazzwerkstatt)

Boom Box is the curiously and perhaps banally named trio of German saxophonist Thomas Borgmann and drummer Willi Kellers with Japanese bassist Akira Ando, all of whom reside in Berlin. Compared to countrymen like Peter Brötzmann (whom he has performed and recorded with), Borgmann is probably not as well known to American audiences, though one would hope that could change. After all, his 1990s-early 2000s trio with bassist Wilber Morris and drummer Denis Charles (succeeded by Reggie Nicholson) was quite a formidable part of the international free-jazz scene, recording for Konnex, CIMP, Silkheart and Lotus. Despite a heavy pedigree – Kellers has also worked extensively with Brötzmann, and Ando spent time in New York with Billy Bang and William Parker – the trio’s cooperative music is decidedly swinging, lyrical and detailed rather than limited to full-bore, aggressive intensity.

“Albert & Frank,” which channels Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” at the outset, is a rollicking nugget, Borgmann’s breathy curlicues and pillowy chunks a far cry from the impassioned screams we’ve come to expect from this music. On tenor, Borgmann is positively quacky in his cadences and extends Lacy-isms as he switches to soprano for a warm, golden exposition on the tune’s folksiness and Ando and Kellers eke out dryly chattering interplay. The closing five minutes are the “Frank” part of the equation as Borgmann comes charging back on tenor a la the Reverend Frank Wright, flinty shouts mirrored by shimmering cymbal pulse, but even as blowsy as he might get it’s nearly impossible to hide the gentle tease inherent in this search. Two of the compositions reference “Little Bird,” Ayler’s nickname when he was coming up in Cleveland, though perhaps beating such comparisons into the ground isn’t a worthwhile exercise – sure, one could toy with Ando and Kellers as ancillary to Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray and the latter’s time-playing on Spirits (Debut, 1964), an insistent loose grapple with the concepts of forward and allover motion. The rhythm section of Boom Box is incredibly throaty and taut behind Borgman’s flights, which adds an interesting balance to the ensemble on the opening “Little Birds May Fly,” where the soprano is the saxophonist’s sole axe. Being European doesn’t preclude the presence of a bluesy drawl from Borgmann’s tenor on “How Far Can You Fly?” as he purrs, dips and wails in a meaty landscape of strings, skin and copper. But as rhythmically and harmonically liberated as the proceedings are, they're still quite tied not just to tradition, but a sense of groove and lyricism that’s immediately accessible. Importantly, it doesn’t necessarily require Borgmann to be accompanied by American musicians, either.

ELLERY ESKELIN
Trio New York
(Prime Source)

Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin is a complex figure in modern American jazz, specifically because his relationship with the vernacular and the avant-garde is so fluid. The child of organist Bobbie Lee and cultish composer-arranger Rodd Keith, Eskelin formed a trio in the 1990s with drummer Jim Black and accordionist/electronic artist Andrea Parkins that held tenuous relationships with both “free jazz” and wry songcraft. Following in the heels of that band somewhat, Trio New York joins Eskelin with organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a set of five lengthy takes on the standard songbook. The tenor-organ trio and the program would seem to be mainstream fare through and through, but these three musicians don’t make cut-and-dried music.

Apparently the tunes were not called or presented to the musicians before the recording session; Eskelin builds from oblique references that swirl around thematic nexuses, with Versace and Cleaver drawing on knowledge and instinct to maintain the line between familiarity and surprise. Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” opens the disc, Eskelin's pillowed volleys and circularity supported by impulsive-but-lapping percussion and the clanging, spiky roll of Versace’s organ. Even as the tune becomes clearer upon phrases “straightening out” amid the rhythm section’s light, foot-patting swing, the relationship between song and freedom remains two sides of a twirling coin, ready to subtly pull apart at any moment (though “pulling apart” in this case shouldn’t be confused with disregarding melody, rhythm and tunefulness). Versace’s work is incredibly individual – one can hear Larry Young, Freddie Roach, Sun Ra and plugged-in Herbie Hancock rolled together in striking statements of sentimentality, bitterness and depth beyond feeling. Following suit, “Off Minor” is extremely disjointed from the get-go and it’s fascinating to hear the trio tie together loose strands into a rollicking, gummy stream of group telepathy. Cy Coleman’s “Witchcraft” is stupendous, Eskelin’s tenor approaching Ike Quebec with a healthy dose of peppery left-hand turns that grow out of staccato ebb and shuffle, and as the chestnut emerges from an inter-communal stew there’s the “aha” of recognizability resting atop an understanding of how daring this ensemble is. Versace’s high-register weirdness echoes Fuel-era Young in a clambering hunt-and-peck before turning to a chitlin circuit groove. The closing “How Deep is the Ocean” begins in a space with Terry Riley-like organ minimalism as part of the undertow, gradually shaping and caressing reference points along with Cleaver’s brushy allover time.

The conceit of arriving at these tunes through spare group interplay and then heightening that collectivity might, in lesser hands, make such a recording sound “samey” but the musicianship here makes each nugget a challenge wherein the players are leaping to and from places that seem more certain than they really are. It’s a risky proposition, but Trio New York maintains a healthy connection to the challenge inherent in an improvising life. This is a beautiful record by a band that hopefully continues to record.

AVRAM FEFER
Eliyahu
(Not Two)

The second disc to date from New Yorker Avram Fefer’s trio with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor, Eliyahu might be the saxophonist’s strongest album so far, which is saying quite a bit. He’s probably best known for a longstanding duo with pianist Bobby Few in which the pair run pell-mell through the standard repertoire as well as a healthy dose of spontaneous improvisation; Fefer has also been a fixture in the ensembles of bassists Adam Lane and Mike Bisio. On tenor he’s got a wonderfully burnished tone and bright, slinky rhythmic cadences that, while sonically attractive in-themselves, are decidedly in service of themes. His phrasing and attack allude to Frank Lowe, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Odean Pope – fellow individualists whose quixotic ruggedness is also very lyrical.

For example, the jaunty and simple boat-rock of “Wishful Thinking,” in which Fefer’s riding of the beat encircles, bends, lies behind and amplifies as Taylor’s studies of Blackwell and Max Roach subdivide the rhythmic environment. Building on stutter and elision, “Appropriated Lands” has a curt lope, the saxophonist adding flesh to his lines as Revis and Taylor maintain an elemental earthiness. The trio is perfectly synced and while some amount of raggedness is almost always preferable, it’s hard not to appreciate the exactitude with which some of their communication seems to play out, such as on the opening moments of the title composition where tart alto, tumbling mallets and supple pizzicato arrive in a plenum and yet never crowd one another. Here, Fefer calls to mind the great Arthur Jones in his sad-eyed keen atop Taylor’s resonant kettle-like accompaniment. Sure, the saxophonist has a lot of fire and seems to revel in picking apart the melody’s varied strands, but there’s also the simple weight of experience. “Essaouira” calls to mind its namesake North African setting with a lilting but ropey melody supported by circular drum patterns and a hypnotic vamp. Here, Taylor is like an extra-crackling Hamid Drake, building athletic cymbal workouts and a steadily expanding and contracting fabric underneath. With Eliyahu, this threesome cuts a formidable but absolutely infectious figure in the landscape of contemporary improvisation.

AGUSTÍ FERNÁNDEZ
El Laberint de la Memòria
AGUSTÍ FERNÁNDEZ & JOE MORRIS
Ambrosia

Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández is mostly known for his work in free-improvisation settings with bassist Barry Guy, usually in trio or duet, where he explores the full resources and broad palette of the piano to include the instrument’s strings and wood for a rugged, tense and sometimes airy freedom. He’s also worked with players from across the European free improvisation spectrum like Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and the rough-hewn English rhythm section of bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders. El Laberint de Memoria is a different bird altogether, presenting Fernandez in solo performance across fourteen shortish pieces inspired by 20th century Spanish classical music and released on the Portuguese label Mbari (inspired, no doubt, by saxophonist Julius Hemphill’s 1970s imprint).

I don’t know whether it’s something that is quintessentially Iberian, but Fernandez’ quote in the liners that “in a sense I am perfectly aware that the pieces in this record are echoes of another music that, in turn, is probably an echo of other echoes.” The idea of labyrinths – mazes – of memory and the multivalence of mystery recall the writer Borges (Argentine and of Spanish descent) and the familiarity of tradition within decidedly, strikingly new contexts. There’s a filmic vibe to the opening “Joan I Joana” which, through the course of nine minutes, evokes passing romanticism in lush trills and upturned minor balletic melodies. “Flimic” is a stand-in term for music that evokes an image of something though, as music isn’t supposed to represent anything other than itself, there’s a bit of discomfort in saying what, precisely, a piano piece such as this “shows.” Hence, that nondescript grayish scene is, simply, “filmic music,” an evocativeness of many points that Fernández renders nearly – but not entirely – concrete with his pianism. The title composition is pointillist and rocking, key strikes and short runs hanging in the acoustic air with wonderful precision as phrases simultaneously hurtle and interlace. Previously I didn’t really think of Fernández as a left-hand player in the sense of, say, Horace Parlan or Mal Waldron (and maybe I still don’t), but his left is quite massive, punchy and sublimely well-rendered. Based on a Chilean folk song, “Tonada” is both stark and romantic, pillars of finely-wrought largesse that, as dense as they are, still stand nuanced and wistfully fractured, simple ringing chords droning behind unresolved right-hand filigree. “Pluja Sorda” finds Fernández working the piano with muted, roiling harmonic buildup from the instrument’s preparations, which neatly segues into “Porta de Mar” and its bright, lyric vignette. “Catedral” plays on swirling resonance and full-stop chordal mass that recalls postwar organ music, but as with most of the pieces here, its brevity doesn’t detract from how this music actually seems to stop time. If you have heard Agustí Fernández before, you most certainly haven’t heard him like this, dissolving the boundaries between not only composition and improvisation, but classical/art and folk, music and vision, and points in between.

Ambrosia might be a little closer to “old-fashioned” Fernández, though it’s the result of a first time meeting between the pianist and New Haven guitarist-improviser Joe Morris across six spontaneous improvisations. It’s natural that they would pair well together, Morris’ horizontal string scrapes and subtonal metallic plinks mating with Fernández’ preparations and piano-guts workouts. Sheets of metallic whine and rumble from damped wire provide a daunting partner to needling riti scrapes on the fourth movement, with the guitarist approximating a West African or South Asian string instrument flitting about a rather darkly sculpted canvas. While a sense of precision characterizes much of the playing here, neither musician is entirely beholden to such a narrow linguistic range that their interplay doesn’t encompass diverse possibilities. There is a beautiful clambering improvisation that starts off the disc, right from the first notes of the first track, as individual sounds form rivulets that entertain and extend brief paths, Fernández and Morris channeling a jaunty, embellished cook. Finding an unaccompanied area, the guitarist structures something that’s almost country-blues if decidedly bent. It’s brief, but an acknowledgement of the history in this avowedly “free” music. Fernández soon steps into where he left off in a previous phrase, an example of reaction and memory that is quickly redoubled upon (lest one think that spontaneity is without thought and awareness). Stepping into unaccompanied waters himself, the pianist seems less spiky as his improvising is a continuous embellishment of language from skeleton to flesh, taking atomistic phrases and turning them into the bedrock of something much larger – a polar dance of lushness and monoliths. Both massive and microcosmic, Ambrosia is a welcome document of an auspicious and colorful meeting between two of contemporary improvisation’s most individual voices.

JOEL FUTTERMAN
Perception

In creative music, the piano might be the instrument most imbued with a sense of tradition. From Earl Hines to Bud Powell to Cecil Taylor (and points in between or beside), the artist-soldiers that have gone before seem to inhabit every chord and note progression an improvising pianist plays. I suppose it could be a situation ripe for immobility – how do you make that first mark on the canvas? – but creative musicians have wrapped that tradition into their own voice and vocabulary time and again. Pianist Joel Futterman, whose appearances with saxophonists Kidd Jordan and Ike Levin, drummer Alvin Fielder, and bassist William Parker (among others) is peerless, works in a method of continual spontaneity that is free within the tradition. His solo recordings, most of which are self-released on fairly unassuming-looking documentary CDs and CD-Rs, are a case in point. It would be hard to accurately compare Futterman to his forebears though one can certainly hear – if one tries – Bud, Jaki, Cecil, Monk, Tatum, Evans, Tyner and others. That tradition is wrapped into his playing and emerges in volumes of lyrical ideas, which despite an avowed blank-mind, are carried through to their logical conclusions and next-steps. Perception is the latest disc of his solo music (which also includes a bit of soprano saxophone and wooden flute), and is one of the finest and most fully realized examples to date of his varied and firmly tied together language. Perception is divided into three parts, with the first clocking in at fifty-two minutes and the remainder in thirteen and four minute sections. Resonant arpeggios, rolling boogie-woogie, glassine classicism, blocks and flits overlap cyclically to build the first movement’s beginning sections. Volcanic density almost imperceptibly gives way to a steady, anthemic pulse articulated through sways, eddies and clusters. Coagulating ideas separate into songlike streams, with lyrical lines piling onto one another as sparks fly. There is the adage that solo music is often a language workout rather than “free improvisation” – one can’t effectively play solo without preconception or a net. However, if history is all around you, welling up from the instrument, the hope is that one can recombine past and present over the clean slate of immediacy. Futterman’s music certainly does that, words and phrases spilling out and merging into gorgeous lines that draw from nearly every tradition in improvised piano music with palpable weight and joviality. If you are looking for a place to start in Futterman’s catalog, Perception is the full monty.

RED TRIO & JOHN BUTCHER
Empire
(No Business)

While it doesn’t always do contemporary music good to compare individual works, which have emerged from and created their own present context, sometimes a nod to forebears does illuminate the broader environment. Though Empire, a meeting between British saxophonist John Butcher and the Portuguese trio of pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino and percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini (RED), certainly has enough of an improvisational pedigree to need no introduction, there is a strong connection with another intra-continental free jazz meeting some forty-two years earlier. When saxophonist Evan Parker met up with the Pierre Favre Trio (featuring pianist Irene Schweizer and bassist Peter Kowald) in 1968 for a Wergo Jazz recording, the results were monumental. RED Trio draws from numerous sources of its own devising, but upending the piano trio to include a palette drawn from decidedly non-traditional pianism, as well as a range of diffuse tonal colors, has quite a strong tradition in European free improvisation. Furthermore, Butcher has perfected his art of multiphonics, resonance, percussive sound and close-miking to a degree that the skirling plate-shifts of Parker seem a distant animal, but from the standpoint of atomistic variation, there is still a relevant historical path to be drawn between the two musicians.

Historical reference points serve here only to strengthen Empire’s place among its company – in other words, it’s a hell of a record. The first of the LP’s three improvisations, “Sustained,” finds Butcher on tenor in clicking harmonics and goading purrs, short but full arrays of verbosity mirrored by rattled, linear phrases from piano, bass and drums. Faustino and Ferrandini maintain a surprising degree of kinetic energy and, while their playing isn’t “time” it does maintain a very direct pulse that’s athletic without being top-heavy. Muting the piano strings, Pinheiro’s flights are concise and warm while, like Butcher, being internally reflective. In other words, he organizes small sounds that mirror themselves, seeming microscopic while being tonally ambiguous enough to propose a range of improvisational possibilities. Switching to soprano for “Pachyderm,” Butcher swings between concentrated burrs and progressive lines as the ensemble builds from collective subtonal growls to quilt of angled and relative flights. The latter portion is spare, woodwind gurgles and low, loose string noises supplanted by the sawing whine of gongs and piano strings. The lengthy title piece, which takes up all of the LP’s second side, is an exercise in tension that barely goes released, Pinheiro muting his instrument in a taut, unwavering bedrock as arco bass and cymbals present a controlled surrounding thrash, Butcher’s flutter building into sinewy metallic flakes. To those who’ve only experienced the saxophonist in what could be termed “sonic research” mode rather than flat-out blowing, Empire is a great opportunity to hear him buoyed and engaging a fine trio of comrades while bearing down with impassioned split-toned shouts. “Playing” and “investigating” are, of course, two sides of the same equation that are often closer than they might seem at first blush.

VERYAN WESTON
Different Tessellations
TREVOR WATTS & VERYAN WESTON
5 More Dialogues
(Emanem)

Pianist-composer Veryan Weston has a history in British creative music going back over four decades, cutting across some of the music’s most significant periods and in cooperation with the country’s improvisational architects. Weston has played extensively with saxophonist Trevor Watts; he’s also worked with soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, percussionist Eddie Prévost, vocalist Phil Minton, and the London Improvisers Orchestra. It’s too simple to call Weston an improvising pianist, though that is part of what he does as an artist. Over the last thirty years – and especially during the most recent decade – he has been researching and constructing a musical system around the idea of geometric tessellation, or “visual interlocking symmetries… transferred to the audible world of pitches, rhythm and counterpoint” derived from pentatonic scales.

Different Tessellations, recorded in 2010 and recently released on Emanem, is the latest iteration of the plot, consisting of the first half of Tessellations 1 (working through 27 of 52 pentatonic scales) for solo piano and the entirety of Tessellations 2 for a nine-piece choir. The piano Tessellations are performed by Leo Svirsky, which is an interesting and important separation from having Weston perform the works himself as he has done in the past. Though Tessellations does give room for improvisation and is designed around giving the “spirit and feel of jazz,” it’s sometimes quite difficult to separate the improvising composer from the concept of improvising. In other words, one might try to maintain the thought of Weston as quite strictly a player when performing his own written work instead of an interpreter of something more grand. One could compare the pianism to Canadian composer-pianist Lubomyr Melnyk’s continuous music in parts, as well as the ceaseless flow of Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, though Weston has built into it sections of boogie-woogie, dense overlapping interval leaps and cluster-like patterns, cascading pointillism rolling into driving swells and ricochets. As a piano solo across four movements, the work is both open and self-contained, expounding on reflective multipart cells but recalling enough of the history and presence of piano music from improvised and notated sources to revel in expansiveness – that one could insert into its patterns Brahms, Taylor, and Ammons.

The choral work is of a related character but altogether the results are quite different – for example, the ear doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards the “Africanized tone row” aspect of the pianistic Tessellations, instead compartmentalizing the music into a Western sensibility. As Tessellations 2 is performed by the Vociferous Choir (including the composer himself) one hears the multilayered rhythms of African pygmy music set against throat-sung drones and lilting chords that slide between major and minor. Watts’ fascination with African musics might be the jumping-off point for the choral work, a modernist, exuberant improvisational pluralism that delves into uptempo beatboxing and a capella Afro-pop minimalism on the lengthy third movement. As with a lot of modern vocal music, the tendency is to extrapolate the human voice onto certain instrumentation and the Vociferous Choir is no exception – low, swirling bass, chattering cornet, trombone multiphonics, sawing violin and dry, choppy alto are brought into orchestral play against cracking rhythms and brassy swagger. Both readings of Tessellations are structurally a lot to digest, but that process is made easier by the fact that this is extraordinarily bright and rather accessible (heavens!) music, swinging and joyous. Adjectives such as these are rarely intoned to describe contemporary British improvisation, but that just goes to show how little of these artists’ work gets an ear properly turned in its direction.

5 More Dialogues is a sort of follow-up to the Weston-Watts duo that recorded 6 Dialogues in 2001 (Emanem 4069) and presents an hour’s worth of improvisations waxed just shy of ten years later. If Weston is a composer of works like Tessellations, then his compositions must come from something and that is experience. It seems too simple to say that his work as an improviser gives rise to his work as a composer, though it probably does – rather, the experience and process of playing gives rise to overarching works (though even a surface listen to his compositions will make clear the fact that they are as much about play as they are about the written phrase). Playing in its nakedest form derives from interaction of two or more individuals through shared dialogue, and one can hear in the immediacy of the rapport between Weston and Watts the gestation of compositional ideas as well as unfettered spontaneity. Associated early on with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, from its initial head-solos-head compositions to more non-idiomatic music, and his own free-jazz-rock and West African-influenced Amalgam (and later, Moire Music), Watts is a partner whose language draws from an incredibly diverse range of sources and is, even at its most open, beholden to form.

Starting the proceedings on alto, “cuTWOrm” finds Watts digging deeply into his Johnny Hodges bag, skirling soulfully outward from roiling chordal interstices (I suppose that if Jeep and Dave Burrell had recorded a duo, it might have sounded something like this). Weston is neither singly a carpet-weaver nor sparring partner, countering and supporting with glassine airiness and dense arpeggiated landscapes as well as high-stepping left hand progressions. They are a divergent pair and that’s partly what makes the Weston-Watts duo so compelling, for they have different concepts of angularity and smoothness that, beyond the limits of instrumentation, create dissonant complements. In one area, the saxophonist’s acrid flights may be vocal and fizzy while Weston’s responses are chunky, scattered and insistent. The soprano-piano duets, represented well by “Exchanged Frequencies,” don’t call to mind Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron (the obvious precedent), clanging tone rows and painterly eddies (circular and linear motifs) giving charge to Watts’ agitated, particulate trills. There are upper-register corners from Weston’s right hand engaging pinched repetition, but the players have a tendency to never stay in one place too long, moving just as easily into a ballad of smoke and dust. Mutability doesn’t negate form or an interest in maintaining structure, but the reality of process also doesn’t necessarily dictate that these two musicians should end up right back where they began. Elegant, delicate and full of a coarse energy, on 5 More Dialogues Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston present a kind of immediacy that’s shapely and constant. It's a sound world all their own.