Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: January 2011

The first (second?) installment of 2011 reviews probably should have been run late last month, but preemptive holidays and general malaise shoved them into this month. Hopefully you find something here that's both enjoyable and a good way to spend that leftover holiday dough. Support independent music and media!

Vol à Voile
Along with pianist Irène Schweizer, percussionist-composer Pierre Favre is one of the central figures in Swiss jazz (not to mention European improvisation as a whole). His early recordings supported the Italian guitarist Franco Cerri; later in the 1960s he worked with Schweizer, bassist Peter Kowald, saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpeter Manfred Schoof and others involved with the nascent “new music.” Forty-two years after his first date as a leader (Santana, PIP, 1968), Favre continues to be an important name among the masters of European improvised music. Two recent Intakt discs capture the percussionist in duets with young but important Swiss improvisers – Vol à Voile (“Gliding”) joins him with trombonist Samuel Blaser, while Albatros finds Favre and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger working together. Both musicians are also members of Favre’s larger groups.

Blaser splits his time primarily between New York and Berlin; across these seven improvisations and two of the trombonist’s compositions, he shows himself to be, along with Joe Fiedler, one of the keepers of the multiphonic flame since the death of Albert Mangelsdorff in 2005. Far from such trombone-percussion precedents as Gunter Christmann and Detlef Schönenberg, the Favre-Blaser duo puts forth an elegant, meaty sense of motion, deftly humming blats and graduated peals ensconced by Favre’s punctuated clang and brushy swing. “Franchement” is a fine example of the pair’s interplay, crisp ride taps and rumbling polyrhythms a gradated field for Blaser’s bugle flicks and subtle tempo shifts. Favre’s language is so well-developed, especially through solo-exploration/composition, that in some instances it seems as though Blaser is chiefly responding to the percussionist’s structured rhythm. Blaser’s conservatory tone and controlled charge certainly carry enough kinetics themselves, however, to spur Favre into detailed thrum and plodding gong-and-bass landscapes. While the recording’s dynamics tend to be lateral, textural spins rather than vertical pyrotechnics, Vol à Voile remains an excellent slice of duo improvisation.

Schaufelberger has worked with Favre and fellow Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli since the 1990s, appearing in both improvised and contemporary classical contexts. His approach to the instrument offers curious rhythmic counterpoint to Favre, low- to middle-register repetition and spiky, cyclical forms drawing, presumably, from West African influences not dissimilar to the drummer’s areas of study. Courtly jabs imbue “Pino Caro” (like many of the tracks here, rather brief at a hair over three minutes), Favre decisive yet sparse in a bobbing meter as Schaufelberger’s lines tread similarly ambiguous territory. “Seeing” is marked by long, bowed gong tones and hanging plucks, Favre’s metallic artistry somewhat akin to disembodied feedback. Even when ostensibly atmospheric (and it isn’t always), the music on Albatros is still fraught with tension, sounds and events popping out in relief with subtle textural shift. At times airy and in other instances coiled, Schaufelberger and Favre make a well-matched pair, as though a Sublime Frequencies contemporary Afro-rock disc was being translated into the language of contemporary European improvisation. I’m curious to hear a melding of these three sensibilities – Favre, Blaser and Schaufelberger – into a trio, which could be quite engaging.


HNH presents a trio format unique though not unheard-of in jazz and creative improvised music, that of trumpet, bass and drums. There are precedents, for sure – German trumpeter Manfred Schoof had his New Jazz Trio with bassist Peter Trunk and drummer Cees See, and Bill Dixon worked regularly in the format, especially in the 1980s. Current Dixonian torchbearer Taylor Ho Bynum just recorded a set with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist John Hebert (Book of Three, Rogue Art). So for sure, this group has kin though we can effectively count them on one hand. Germans Hertenstein, Niggenkemper and Heberer (drums, bass and quarter-tone trumpet, respectively) all now call New York home at least some of the time, and Heberer is probably the most well-known of the three, having worked frequently with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra (Holland) and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. With the exception of Heberer’s closing “The Tolliver Toll” (for hardbop trumpeter-composer Charles Tolliver), all of the pieces work together as an uninterrupted suite, with the trumpeter and the drummer sharing most compositional credits.

Heberer has always been an interesting force in the ICP Orchestra – younger than most of the band, his steely classicism and erudite concentration sticks out from the painterly theatrics of figures like Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink and Tristan Honsinger. That’s probably part of the point, as much as the group was a collision of personalities as well as musical-historical impulses. He’s in good company here, as Hertenstein and Niggenkemper retain loose, tumbling precision in cool rhythmic telepathy. In the closing moments of “Screw the Pendulum” and the short “Glulan,” Heberer’s movement is towards biting multiphonics and metallic circular chuffs, a maximum made from micro-sounds a la Axel Dorner and Nate Wooley. He takes a crisp, Baroque tone and teases it with barbed blats, then lilts poignantly over spare tom flecks and pizzicato mapping in the boppish “Paul’s Age.” Sharp, gutty maneuvers from Niggenkemper’s bow alongside Heberer’s valve highlights, shrikes and pirouettes outline an improvisation on “Doin’ the Do,” which cycles into a taut, vamp-heavy tune halfway through. Enough can’t be said about the toe-tapping swing of Hertenstein and Niggenkemper – the drummer has the subtle complexity of an Ed Blackwell, able to patch infectious rhythms into the most abstract of group improvisations. HNH is definitely the kind of hip little record that might easily pass one by (especially in the vast Clean Feed catalog), but it’s well worth a second look.


Austin, Texas, though considered by some to be the Live Music Capital of the World, it isn’t exactly a hotbed for jazz and improvised music. So a May 2009 performance by this international quartet featuring members from Lisbon, Portugal and Dallas, Texas at the city’s Salvage Vanguard Theatre came as quite a pleasant surprise. Representing the Iberian Peninsula are guitarist Luís Lopes and tenorman Rodrigo Amado, while the sibling rhythm section of bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan González (the progeny of Dallas-based trumpeter-composer Dennis González and 2/3 of Yells at Eels) make up the unit’s other half.  When performing, Lopes stands or crouches, delicately smudging phrases and creating small, haranguing cells in a mixture of spattered flecks and feedback/distortion. His tone is rather thin, and he draws from a vocabulary aware of Ray Russell, Stefan Jaworzyn and Rudolph Grey, except quite absent much of their pyrotechnics and rather skewed toward choppy condensation.

Much of what made the group’s music attractive on their Clean Feed debut is present on Electricity, the follow-up on French label Ayler Records. Whereas the previous disc was made up solely of Lopes’ compositions (and therefore it seemed like Humanization 4tet was predominantly his project), Electricity also sports excellent tunes by Amado and Aaron González on a pretty equal numeric footing with the guitarist’s. Amado is a consummate tenor saxophonist, albeit one who still isn’t well-known on the international stage. One could easily make the comparison of Archie Shepp drawn through Ken Vandermark, but Amado’s tone is softer and his phrasing far less blustery, his peals wrapped in care and delicacy. The González brothers are an extraordinarily tight, telepathic rhythm section and maintain pliant, chattering grooves around wiry, staccato tenor/guitar improvisations and funereal lines. The bassist penned the opening “Dehumanization Blues,” fierce downstrokes leading into a flinty update on crime-jazz and husky, spiky motifs from tenor and guitar. Collective improvisation ensues after the jaunty, darting head of “Jungle Gymnastics,” but in this four-minute piece, the group’s empathy and constantly-directed comment (not to mention rhythmic acuity) maintain vital interest. “Procurei-te Na Noite” has a boppish bounce, distantly-hanging notes from Lopes’ guitar sliding the tune deliciously, obstinately out of tempo. The Humanization 4tet present unruly but accessible inside-outside jazz, very much worth further investigation.


German tenor and soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has, especially through her association with drummer Tom Rainey, become a regular in the New York improvising milieu. As such, her latest group also includes Rainey, guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianist Kris Davis and bassist John Hébert, all of whom are among the leading lights of contemporary music in the city. Of the disc’s fourteen cuts, nine are Laubrock’s own, which on paper might not be all that surprising but upon hearing them, their openness seems to operate in an area quite removed from “fly shit on paper.” Overall, the saxophonist’s playing has a fuzzy slink and exhibits a penchant for bunched rhythmic gobs, sly shifts that ensure the compatibility of someone like Halvorson, and Laubrock’s group concept also necessitates that she often guides without playing. That said, her dynamic range is pretty staggering, moving from low blat to high-pitched screech, vocalizing though the horn and plying cool, boppish runs, all with a low heat that seems to encapsulate both ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ improvisational languages.

The first piece engenders a creeping quality, quickly morphing into pounding, streetwise bite as Halvorson brings out sharp distortion over hacking rhythms in a tug-of-war between density and hushed delicacy, Laubrock directing the group with pinched straight-horn shouts. Interplay between fuzz guitar and piano characterizes the improvisation “Flowery Prison Cell,” absent any saxophone and a link to the harmonic razor of the short tenor-guitar-bass trio “Messy Minimum” and the bent, choked string warble that opens “Quick Draw.” Guttural huffs, piano and percussion scrape open “Funhouse Glockwork,” which tows an interesting line between simple, repetitive events and seemingly isolated actions. The title track is a wonderfully clattering array of parallel tempi that gradually falls into its free-bop place, and offers a fine cutaway view of Laubrock’s soprano playing as well as a Davis piano solo that tugs at post-bop seams, the whole unit maintaining a compelling rotation of interplay while never flagging rhythmically. Yet as the group explores sparser regions of color and shape, the heft remains, such as in the Miró-like field of “Big Crunch,” grey areas shot through with garish, winking blobs. At just over seventy minutes, my only difficulty with Anti-House is that its length can be trying, even as the music itself is full of ideas and intent. Perhaps that’s a more general indictment of our post-LP era or the shortened attention span of this reviewer, but by the time the seasick divergence of “Betterboon” (track 11) rolls around, it feels complete. Still, Ingrid Laubrock has wrangled four New Yorkers into quite a strong team effort.

Radar Favourites

Prior to this first issue of their music on a typically well-done Reel Recordings archival CD, I hadn’t heard of England’s Radar Favourites – nor had probably most people. A footnote in the history of British progressive music, despite an apparently prime bit of real estate in the form of a feature in Melody Maker, the group was a quintet formed by individuals with a broad and interesting pedigree. The music presented on this self-titled disc comes from archival tapes cut in 1974, as the group never cut a “proper” LP (whether or not that means anything). Saxophonist Geoff Leigh and guitarist G.F. Fitz-Gerald were in Mouseproof (Leigh was also in Henry Cow and Hatfield & the North), while drummer Charles Hayward made appearances in Massacre, This Heat and Crass, among other bands. The group is filled out by bassist Jack Monck (Delivery) and vocalist/keyboardist Cathy Williams on three original compositions and two improvisations.

Williams’ “Umbrella Walk” is probably the most fully explored piece here, melding Robert Wyatt’s haunting vocal playfulness with gong and cymbal detail in free time, rubato minimalism and angular small-group symphonics taking over the rest of this composition’s space. Fitz-Gerald’s guitar uncoils towards the last two minutes, stretching out in wooly, fragmentary blues atop a thrashing Hayward before fading out. Leigh’s opener “Peggy Delaney’s Hothouse Tinkers” is a decidedly lilting progressive-psych theme along the lines of the first Hatfields LP. As the piece stretches out, Fitz-Gerald’s minimalist raunch collides with syrupy organ fuzz and amplified alto saxophone towards an abrupt fade. There’s an odd, punky thrift to the jam “Blues for Henry,” opening up into snatches of interplay between Leigh’s soprano and Fitz-Gerald’s guitar (echoing some of guitarist’s collaborations with Lol Coxhill) before transitioning into the “Peggy Delaney” theme and a wonderfully relaxed, lengthy six-string exploration. “Blastest” seems to exemplify the group’s penchant for high-volume electricity apparently inspired by the visuals and density of the Sun Ra Arkestra. In this improvisation, fuzz organ, synthesizer gloop and guitar skronk are brought into play with piercing soprano in a free pulse, closing with an approximation of a Terry Riley organ/flute raga. Reel Recordings deserves kudos for unearthing this intriguing (if not unequivocally successful) entry in the history of avant-progressive music.

Finally Out of My Hands

These Arches is New York-based drummer Ches Smith’s quartet, somewhat of an all-star game featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, accordionist/electronic artist Andrea Parkins and saxophonist Tony Malaby across eight original compositions. Noted for his work with Xiu Xiu, Carla Bozulich, Trevor Dunn, Marc Ribot and Halvorson, Finally Out of My Hands is (somewhat surprisingly) Smith’s first recording leading his own group. Considering some of the musicians that Smith has worked with over the years, as well as the instrumentation, an obvious precedent exists in tenorman Ellery Eskelin’s trio with Parkins and drummer Jim Black, which tore up the Downtown scene over a decade ago. Nevertheless, this quartet does present a strong identity, starting off with the anthemic punch and cabaret-themed oddness of “Anxiety Disorder.” Malaby is a fairly straight-arrow tenor player, but coupled to the church-organ diabolicalness of Parkins’ accordion and Halvorson’s spry clusters the four-and-a-half minute tune is a veritable creative improvisational “hit.”

The title piece is rather like a quirky folk-pop tune, albeit arranged for the odd trio of tenor, guitar and accordion. It becomes somewhat hamfisted as Smith and Parkins lay down plats of frantic goop underneath steely reed and scrambled guitar forms, but would have fit interestingly into a Bay Area setting (a la The TFFTHF). Similar vibes are conjured in the tweely-titled “It rained and the tent fell down.” Apart from the songs, as clear or as sketchy as their lines might be, the group’s modus operandi seems to be filling the area between thematic statements with dense racket, though it’s also hard to say how the pieces would play out as vehicles for soloists. There are occasions where it seems like the collective improvisational direction isn’t clear, like Malaby (in particular) is waiting for a cue, which is too bad because most of what bookends these moments is fairly interesting. The idea of blending off-the-wall rock tendencies with free music isn’t a particularly new one, but Smith and These Arches do capture a contemporary zeitgeist within this idiom in a way that’s engaging and quirkily fun.


  1. A comment on Humanization 4tet's CD "Electricity"...the hidden track at the end of the CD is Stefan's composition!

  2. Humanization sounds interesting. I do know that Austin has some jazz talent, even though it may not be a huge hotbed for jazz. Pierre Favre is a great name. I have looked at some Swiss jazz artists.

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