Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Music Breifly Reviewed: March 2011

Cut it out. No, seriously.
Success with your Dog

Though soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill and percussionist Roger Turner have a long history together as visionaries and stalwarts of English free improvisation, working together in combinations such as the Johnny Rondo Trio and electro-acoustic ensemble The Recedents, Success with your Dog is their first official recording together. It captures the pair in two concert recordings from 2003 and 2010, interesting also because Coxhill isn’t one to normally work in saxophone-percussion duos. Seventy-one at the time of the first set, recorded in Brest, France in 2003, Coxhill is absolutely on fire, the economy of his uncompromising vision offered up with utmost clarity on this well-recorded document. Despite the odd title, Success with your Dog is rather pure soprano-and-drums improvisation, constant dialogue in both micro and macro textures, clanging, damped rustle, scrapes and jabs from Turner’s kit paralleling breathy elaborations into a language that’s both shared and separate.

Coxhill may not always get the props that Evan Parker and Steve Lacy do among followers of improvised music in Europe (sure, Lacy is a New Yorker, but his most fruitful years were spent abroad), and that’s chiefly because many in this music find whimsy a troubling thing. Like Steve Beresford, Terry Day and others in the field, Coxhill has often been wry, titling pieces with plays on words and presentin absurd instrumental combinations. His work also brought him into progressive rock contexts – albeit some of the most open, such as Delivery with Steve and Phil Miller, and Kevin Ayers’ the Whole World with David Bedford. Serious credentials, but perhaps not always something for the “bearded jazz fan” (to quote Aric Effron). Coxhill is more indebted to R&B than Parker; his squeaky multiphonics on “Tails that Wag” inhabit ranges both soprano and tenor, and are almost Ayler-derived. He does, in a moment’s notice, bring about a thoughtful wander a la Lacy, but that quest is something older and uninfluenced, soon developing into husky repetition.

“Groomed for the Job” was recorded in August 2010 in St. Leonard’s Church in London, and honors an environment with both space and claustrophobics. Turner spreads out a bit more as a soloist here, but even that’s in the loosest of terms for Coxhill’s presence is felt even when he’s not distinctly playing (the best duets work this way). There’s a wistful, wide-open quality to the opening salvo, bent and stratospherically traveling, while also nodding to deeper timbres and starting the process with a shaking-off of excess. His lines have an unfolding quality as they’re gradual and go to unexpected places, often moving off trail only to return to a previous phrase a few bars later with utmost logic and gorgeous honesty. A section for unaccompanied percussion begins a third of the way in, Turner balancing gruff aggression with warped and resonant clang, parceling out sounds with a lump-in-the-throat arc. The saxophonist returns with medium-pitched warbling at a very low volume, the pair worrying narrow colors and actions before Coxhill strings together a hushed, singsong line, cymbals and toms giving the passage an incredible amount of motion. A brief bomb-drop at thirteen minutes in is mimicked by soprano, a leap into the void spurring Turner into refining his small-phrase world. Success with your Dog is an absolutely essential document of contemporary English improvisation and a wind-drum duet for the ages. Coxhill's place on an axis with Steve Lacy and Evan Parker as part of the soprano triumvirate of the 1970s and 80s is unimpeachable, but his playing now should not be forgotten. We can be very thankful that this music has surfaced in short order.


Chronos is altoist Mike DiRubbo’s sixth date as a leader and the first to feature him within the bristling context of organ and drums. A student of Jackie McLean (among others) at the Hartt School of Music, DiRubbo has gone on to work with a number of luminaries of modern straight-ahead jazz, such as trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Joe Farnsworth. He’s joined here by drummer Rudy Royston and organist Brian Charette; the leader and the organist contribute all of the disc’s nine compositions. The opening “Minor Progress” certainly sounds like an ode to McLean’s mid-60s recordings in its stop-time trills and chugging bursts; DiRubbo is a little cooler than his mentor, picking apart thematic nuggets and worrying them in passages that also nod ever so slightly to Marion Brown. “Cool” isn’t to say unemotional – it’s clear that he’s a player with a lot of heart and energy – but more that one can hear him thinking for the first part of his solo, until he puts the gas pedal down and soars over a mighty rhythm clip. Charette has, like Larry Young or John Patton, a pianistic approach to the organ that fits nicely with the tune’s incisive character, though his solo is a bit brief.

The title track that follows has overdubbed altos at the outset, giving the introduction a bit of a Living Space vibe, Royston and Charette spinning an Elvin-Young whorl behind DiRubbo’s searchingly sharp eviscerations, which alternate with passages of soft, lyrical introspection. Charette has a bit more space here, carving out a jaunty groove with subtle surges and eddies as bass pedal and drums keep loping time before the leader takes it out. “Rituals” is a decidedly funkier piece, supported by agitated backbeat and a simple, driving chord progression as DiRubbo builds tart phrases and burbling cries in curious opposition to the tune’s initial feel and expected outcome. A somewhat psychedelic, gooey organ statement shifts the tune’s direction yet again, building upon simplicity into dense, anthemic closure. The set is well-balanced between these more uptempo tunes and caressing, urban-twilight ballads that, when in good hands like these, offer another side of the trio’s capabilities. DiRubbo’s approach on “Nouveau” is delicate and slightly bitter, his improvisation full of quiet flurries and athletic runs that are still within the character of the piece, while steering clear of an easily embodied saccharine approach. I’m still wishing for a hotter recording quality on these Posi-Tone discs and I think that Chronos would benefit from that, but all in all it’s an excellent neo-bop date that should be heard, especially if one is pondering a dearth of truly engaging modern jazz recordings.

Dialogues and Connections
(Charles Lester Music)

Bay Area reedman Ike Levin (also the proprietor of Charles Lester Music) and Virginia-based pianist and soprano saxophonist Joel Futterman have been collaborating for more than a decade, either as a duo or in trio with Jackson, Mississippi drummer and historian Alvin Fielder or cellist Kash Killion. Dialogues and Connections is their third duo disc to date, filling eighty-minutes with two multipart, marathon conversations. Though Levin has quite a different approach to the tenor from Kidd Jordan, another regular collaborator with Futterman, Dialogues and Connections makes an interesting counterpoint to the recently released Jordan-Futterman disc Interaction (JDF, 2010). Futterman’s pianism is partly rolling barrelhouse, part dusky introspection and completely immediate, drawing upon history in flashes and flurries, clustered and parsed to meld with Levin’s sharply-burnished exhortations.

Without a drummer to carry gestures forward in a traditionally rhythmic sense, Futterman and Levin must rely on an extraordinary amount of force and velocity to maintain toe-tapping dynamism, but their telepathic language of sweeps and harrowing drive keeps the pair in constant flight. The third part of the first conversation employs glassy near-stasis, rustling piano strings a silvery background to Levin’s breathy, warbling bass clarinet (on which his phraseology is palpably different from the high-octane post-Rollins tenor), slowly moving into a quietly keening Dolphy-Byard paean. Of course, the pair moves into distinctly different areas from there, Levin popping linear asides to Futterman’s pointillist carpet. The second suite of conversations begins with the pianist doubling on curved soprano in concert with Levin’s tenor, left hand keeping particulate tempo while the right takes over in dervish-like wails that encircle an urbanely throaty, Johnny Griffin-like cadence. Lush outlines signal the second conversation’s second part, in which a Trane-like modal ballad form creeps out, though Futterman takes it in a new, scribbled direction as pillowy blats and knotted squeaks pile on in contrast to roiling chordal blocks. This set of duos is more than "mere" musical conversation, instead deliberately forging new and immediate pathways with serenity and intensity.

Barrel Fire
(Drip Audio)

I remember an op-ed written years ago in the Wire about European free jazz and masculinity, particularly the post-Ayler/Brötzmann legacy of Swedish reedman Mats Gustafsson and The Thing and their punk-jazz skronk aesthetic. While the tongue-wagging yelps of Gustafsson’s stage presence (maybe, just maybe we can separate his music from his persona for a moment) are valid confrontation, a sort of hyper-sexed theatre to some, it’s also easy to lose sight of the music within. In certain contexts – those that don’t rely too much on flutter-tonguing, abstracted pops and micro-breath sounds – he brings a flinty and haranguing approach to phrase that remains impressive. There’s sort of an old-school Gustafsson vibe throughout Barrel Fire, which joins him with the powerful Canadian trio of guitarist/oudist Gord Grdina, bassist Tommy Babasin and drummer Kenton Loewen on a set of five pieces (one Iraqi traditional and three by the guitarist) recorded at the 2009 Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Grdina’s work isn’t rooted in the guitar pyrotechnics that free improvisation fans have come to expect, for this trio draws most heavily on Middle Eastern modes and aesthetics, strummed electric drones over a frame drum-inspired gallop on “Burning Bright” on which Gustafsson’s split-toned tenor cries only add seasoning. To be sure, it’s rockishly whooping and hollering, but offers more than just punk-jazz (witness the intense oud-and-vocals romp in “En Shakoota,” where the saxophonist almost channels Barney Wilen for a moment). As the rhythm section digs in to a malleable locomotive swing on “229,” Gustafsson’s baritone bluster gets an ample shove before giving way to Grdina’s tersely-spun unaccompanied poetics. Once Babasin and Loewen reenter with a stone-skipping thrum, Grdina unfurls into condensed midrange pyrotechnics, a gradual but exacting burn that clearly exemplifies this trio’s honed language. It’s a telepathy that’s tough for Gustafsson to crack sometimes as he frequently seems off to the side of the proceedings, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Thing bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten sat in with Grdina and Loewen in a Texas performance in 2010, and he seemed to be fighting for space within their highly codified group structure. That’s not a slight on the art of Grdina and company, but a testament to the fact that they’ve worked out a mode of improvisation and composition that’s highly specialized, if a bit insular.

Steampunk Serenade

The Honey Ear Trio consists of saxophonist Erik Lawrence, drummer Allison Miller and bassist Rene Hart with a disc chock full of spry compositions and improvisations that mine the fields of jazz/free music, rock, funk, and electronica. All but two (including a Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow”) of the thirteen pieces here were composed by members of the group. Though the trio is a recent concern, the three musicians share a degree of empathy befitting a veteran unit and all have worked together previously in some form or another. Lawrence is a new name for me, but he’s a tremendous force on tenor, baritone, alto and soprano – velvety purrs and slipperiness through the opening ballad “Matter of Time” as Hart and Miller accent and disassemble an easy swing into a wide range of color, beat, and comment. It’s an interesting way to start a record, giving one a clearer idea of the measured nature of the trio’s interaction before kicking things up a notch with the electro-rock aided “Olney 60/30,” searing alto squeal carried by loops and fleshed-out bass Miller’s airy clatter.

The title track is reminiscent of post-rock textures at first, electronic whir and rimshots knit together to form a spry backing for Lawrence’s elastic, Latinate reeds. He’s a little reminiscent of Gato Barbieri at times (check “Whistle Stop”), as well as the new Newk approach of Iberian tenorman Jesús Santandreu, steely but with romantic flourishes that work well against bright swirls of percussion and bass. “Six Nettes” is a corker, fitting neatly into a harmonically open but bop-derived bag, scumbled fluffs and phrase construction like a young Archie Shepp as the rhythm section makes subtle gradations of time, while “Over the Rainbow” is a series of subtle, chamber allusions on baritone as the familiar melody is stated through pinched electronics. “Eyjafjallajokull” is an Icelandic hymn – or an approximation of it – reminiscent of some of the Scottish themes employed by Ken Hyder’s folk-cum-Ayler band Talisker. Lawrence signals a wistful call over a delicate march, punctuated by synthesized chords in one of the set’s shorter but more effective pieces. Steampunk Serenade is an excellent disc and while a couple of tunes could have been excised for the sake of compactness, overall my impression is that the Honey Ear Trio is a band to keep an eye on.

Parasites of the Western World

It’s not so easy these days to be set apart among the masses of labels documenting otherwise-underheard and unclassifiable music of both the present and recent past. It might seem on the surface like Minneapolis’ De Stijl is a bit of a cultural grab-bag, unearthing gems from early ‘70s psychedelic folkies like Ed Askew and Michael Lee Yonkers alongside Smegma’s racket and the free-jazz slop of Barry Greika’s Orange. Their latest “sensation” is the downtempo art-smirk of Hype Williams, sure to be a winking flash in the pan. But the reissues are carefully curated projects, mostly serving to fill in gaps in our understanding of what the “underground” really is, and how parallel some of the activities of basement obscurities are with the broader musical-cultural consciousness.

The Parasites of the Western World apparently hailed from Portland, Oregon and self-released their first, self-titled LP on Criminal Records in 1978. Brought into existence by Patrick Burke and Terry Censky with the assistance of guitarist Mark Weatherford, one would be hard pressed from the stark white-on-black jacket that this private press rarity was anything other than basement sludge. The home-recorded part might be right, but the Parasites have far more in common with new wave, though of a slightly unhinged DIY variety. The opening “MO” is a stomping, swirling electro-punk anthem that sounds like it should have emerged from Cleveland, Ohio a year or two earlier – one would assume that the Parasites were well aware of Pere Ubu and Devo, and this was a way to put their stamp on a similar impulse. But the group’s inclinations are more instrumental in nature, covering the Beatles’ “Flying” with grit and grin, or the epic “Funeral for a Mouse,” a fuzz guitar and synth processional that cuts through with dorm-room recastings of Yes and Vangelis, or slightly recalling the Social Climbers’ instrumentals. “Accessories” opens up the second side with a collision between orchestral synth-laden prog and a totally bewildering keyboard-heavy, homemade twist on Black Sabbath. Once the processed vocals work their way in, pretty much all hope for normalcy is lost and the Parasites clearly have wormed their way into the small canon of outsider-rock Americana. As often happens with archival reissues on De Stijl, it’s a (re)discovery well worth investigating.

More on the Parasites here.


In 2010, one of the sleeper LPs in the early discography of Incus Records marked its thirty-fifth birthday, and is now enjoying its first non-vinyl issue. Teatime is a document of what was termed the “second generation” of British free improvisers, though its participants were/are not that much younger than founding figures like saxophonist Evan Parker or percussionists Tony Oxley and John Stevens. Incus was founded in 1970 to release music by Parker, Oxley, guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005) and their cohorts, including Dutch drummer Han Bennink and the large scale works of bassist-composer Barry Guy and trumpeter-composer Kenny Wheeler. Fifteen releases into the catalog came Teatime, a pair of mostly sidelong quartets featuring multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford, guitarist John Russell and percussionist Dave Solomon, and either violinist/noisemaker Nigel Coombes or tenorman Gary Todd. The music was recorded by Emanem’s Martin Davidson at the Unity Theatre in 1974-1975, and is somewhat analogous to the more extreme works found in the early Bead Records catalog.

Like a number of the Incus dates not featuring Bailey, Parker, or their immediate partners, Teatime (and its semi-predecessor Balance, with Frank Perry, Phill Wachsmann, Colin Wood and Radu Malfatti) seemed to fall through the cracks. Though Beresford was the musician to probably make the most significant name for himself in the ensuing few decades (a writer and improviser, he’s worked in ensembles as diverse as Alterations and The Slits), all of the partcipants are still active, with Russell’s work as a guitarist also a large part of the contemporary free music landscape.

Beresford and Solomon were especially inspired by the work of the Instant Composers’ Pool that emerged a few years prior, all manners of subterfuge inspiring creativity through sometimes uncomfortable situations and controlled anarchy – and indeed, that further inspired Incus founder Bailey to begin the Company concerts in the late 1970s. In terms of sheer sound, Beresford and Solomon resemble ICP ringleaders Misha Mengelberg (piano) and Han Bennink in their toothy opposition – Beresford tinkling obstinately on an out-of-tune instrument as Solomon thunders, crashes and abruptly shifts direction with brazen surefootedness belying his occasionally distracted rumble. On “European improvised music sho’nuff turns me on” they’re abetted by the isolated plinks and scraping of electric guitar and Coombes’ absurd fiddle manipulations (sometimes the violin is poised between his knees), feedback, and contact-miked springs and objects. Rather than formlessness, however, the foursome generates clear responses, either subtle combativeness or extended commentary – a snatch of violin song met with duck calls and cymbal clatter, phrases beaten down but not submissive. It’s all done at a fairly low volume, which in some ways is an even more direct confrontation with the senses than full on “free jazz.” An inane back-and-forth between electronic glitches and drumkit is laughable but also displays cunning musicianship, while hushed activity behind a layer of feedback gives a situational theatricality to the proceedings.

The second side begins with “I didn’t get up this morning,” which replaces Coombes with Gary Todd’s tenor. He adds a completely different structure to the group, a post-Ayler squall reminiscent in this context of a young and blustery Willem Breuker. Coupled with the abrupt editing practices (apparently Beresford and co. just cut out pieces of tape that they found boring, or at their whimsy), jarring mid-squawk endings or jumping in amid the skronk at the beginning of an East European piano folk melody, the noted allusion to the ICP record Fragments (1971) is fairly obvious. There’s a marked intensity to the proceedings cutting through even as Beresford noodles a bit of “Chopsticks” and parlor tunes inside of meaty free playing, delicate opposition creating a fascinating degree of tension. The reissue closes with a previously unissued guitar-drums duet entitled “Low-fi” from 1973, and while it certainly is poorly recorded, offers another side of this cooperative’s aesthetic in Ray Russell-inspired tweakiness and Solomon’s constant bash. The improvisation is bisected by a brief (and nutty) call-and-response between feedback and voice, after which the pair’s play becomes more jagged and compact. Teatime is not for the feint of heart, but if you’re into maddeningly out European free music, it is an essential document.

Waking in the Reservoir

White Suns are a Brooklyn-based trio specializing in what Weasel Walter (drummer, improvising composer, and the engineer and label honcho who helped bring this release into existence) probably somewhat tongue-in-cheek calls “noisecore.” The instrumentation consists of guitar, vocals, drums and power electronics, and the music essentially recalls a collision between No Fun-style glitch-heavy noise and the Gravity Records catalog of early ‘90s oddball hardcore. Waking in the Reservoir is their first proper CD/LP release, following micro-run cassettes and CD-Rs over their five year lifespan, and while it’s often the case for both noise and hardcore records that it’s easy to wear out one’s welcome with this music (hence the appeal of EPs, singles and the like), White Suns keep the proceedings at a manageable half hour of blistering, screaming, pummeling intensity. It would be easy to over-intellectualize the avant-garde credibility of this music – and it does have some of that, for sure – but at its most basic level this is primal, stripped-down expression, minimal and repetitive slagwerk from drummer-electronics purveyor Dana Matthiesson in monolithic motion over, behind and around searing feedback, Rick Visser’s guitar crunch and Keith Barry’s young art-politik ranting. For a three piece, at times they sound positively huge and can veer towards the incredibly detailed (I’m sure part of their appeal for Walter), which is perhaps most evident on the excellent, kinetic “Skin Deep” and its merger of precise, theatrical poise and caterwauling skree. Waking in the Reservoir is a compelling document of what’s possible – musically, emotionally and aesthetically – in approaches to music one usually finds utterly condensed.

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