Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed: April 2011

The secret to fine
Scandinavian free-bop

It’s been a few years since the self-titled debut of Norwegian reeds-bass duo Ballrogg (Klaus Ellerhusen Holm, saxophones and clarinets; Roger Arntzen, bass) made some ripples in the international jazz underground. On the previous disc, compositions by Holm mixed with curious choices from the songbooks of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Giuffre, although the latter might have appeared to be the most direct, linear influence on their jauntily spacious duo concept. Insomnia is their follow up, and some things have changed in that span; with the exception of Morton Feldman’s “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” all of the pieces on this disc are originals. The instrumental palette has been expanded with the introduction of feedback and electronics, as well as guitar and violins from guest musicians Lars Myrvoll, Ole-Henrik Mole and Kari Rønnekleiv.

The 1981 Feldman piece, originally for piano and cello, harks back to the composer’s earlier, more aggressive dissonance with seasick, airy strings encircling spry keyboard thunk. Ballrogg approaches the piece at a shorter duration, with Holm’s amplified alto playing the cello part and Arntzen’s throaty pizzicato emulating stuttered pianistic events. Where Feldman’s music is distant and opaque, there’s humor in Ballrogg’s rendition of the piece, garish and filled with imprecise, floor-rattling humanity. More delicate moments with harmonics and feedback are neither precious nor quaint, but have a playfulness that is clearly the duo’s own. Ironically, the title track (which employs violins and laptop) has a hot and nearly oppressive air with scrabbling ponticello strings, saw-like warble and electronic-harmonic waves. Feldman and Ligeti are precedents and kin for these unsettling but intriguing atmospheres. The opening “N.R.E.M.” explores the spare, alien wander of Free Fall-era Giuffre, pinched chamuleau and high-end flutter against the bassist’s warm, calloused pluck both filmic and immediate. “Woody Creek”  employs a Feldman-like pulse at the outset, then moves into more direct overlapping minimalism with a fluttering tag, Holm’s breathy alto soon finding a cliffhanging unaccompanied space before being massively undergirded by bass and violins. The pieces on Insomnia are all fairly short, but each makes clear the thrust of simultaneous specificity and ambiguity.

Six Duos (Wesleyan) 2006

From solo to multiple orchestra works, composer and reedman Anthony Braxton has long been a force in the international creative music community who, at times and for some, has also been a challenge to reckon with (ironic considering his humble and humorous demeanor). The sheer breadth of his discography is staggering and frequently encompasses numerous releases per year, each one significant enough in itself to call for immersion – not least of which because quite a few of his recordings are also spread out over several discs. I myself am guilty of trepidation around such commitment – there is something about starting a listening period with Braxton’s work that seems so precise and ritualized, even though in actuality much of his work is not that difficult to access or get involved with at basic and intermediate levels. This accessibility is especially true in the Ghost Trance Musics (though not limited to that music), as the trancelike rhythmic structures (transportation systems) do just what they’re designed to do. The music becomes part of you, working its way into various strata of consciousness while being energetic and is itself multivalent. But with all of the diverse contexts for Braxton’s music, the duets often seem the easiest to bridge and there’s a reason for that – naked dialogue, communication between two individuals, is a particularly relatable event.

6 Duos (Wesleyan) 2006 is one of a number of significant Braxton recordings made that year – alongside the 9 Compositions (Iridium) boxed set on Firehouse 12, there was a great set of duos with guitarist Joe Morris recorded for Clean Feed, four discs each consisting of an hour-long improvisation between two masterful and very different musicians. On 6 Duos (Wesleyan), Braxton is joined by trumpeter John McDonough for six pieces on a single disc – one duo improvisation, two interlocking Braxton compositions, John Philip Sousa’s “Hail to the Spirit of Liberty,” and three of the trumpeter’s short works. It’s the first disc under Braxton’s name to be released on Nessa Records, though he has made sideman appearances as part of two monumental Roscoe Mitchell sets, Nonaah (recorded 1976/77) and L-R-G/The Maze/S-II Examples (recorded 1978). That fact is somewhat surprising, considering that Nessa was among the first labels to document the nascent South Chicago jazz vanguard in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). 6 Duos is sort of a sequel to a 2002 date that Braxton and brass multi-instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum (then a student of the composer) recorded at the same institution, later to be released on Innova. Though nothing like it has surfaced, one might also imagine that in the heyday of AACM music Braxton and trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Wadada Leo Smith recorded in duo.

McDonough’s “Finnish Line” opens the set, a buoyantly pecking pair of overlapping upward strokes that find Braxton on soprano measuring breaths against McDonough’s steely clarion call. The two complement one another beautifully in terms of tone and attack, McDonough with a high, fat and cutting trumpet tone and incredible control that puts him in league with Smith, Booker Little, and Kenny Wheeler. A lengthy improvisation follows, Braxton switching to alto and employing phrases and range attributable to Konitz and Desmond; even as he builds cascades they’re smoothed off and delicate in counter to McDonough’s more biting swatches. Braxton is careful, almost painstaking in his choice of sonic areas, narrow but extraordinarily open runs on soprano and sopranino setting up a latticework for the trumpeter to thread with swaggering and direct (albeit often microcosmic) phrases.

The held tones of “Massive Breath Attack” are alternately laconic and saccharine or pensive microfilaments, Braxton and McDonough each taking turns to build off of these areas into sputters, sinewy walks and dramatically warped fragments. This piece nearly segues into Braxton’s Composition 168 + (103), the latter originally a work for seven trumpets that featured McDonough, Bynum, Nate Wooley and Forbes Graham in its 2007 Festival of the New Trumpet incarnation. As with many of Braxton’s pieces, the improviser can choose to insert fragments of other compositions within the composition’s greater structure – they have that kind of flexibility, with the possibility of referencing and invoking the greater oeuvre. Initially built on longer lines that dovetail laconically, creating a pulse in free time that nevertheless remains insistent, McDonough’s straight arrow guides bunched soprano ornaments before both musicians unspool their improvisations in peaks, valleys and abrupt turns. The saxophonist might be more relaxed and whimsical in his choice of notes and phrases – not without improvisational conviction, but there’s casualness or ease to his breaths and the way he comments on the trumpeter’s inflections, which are somewhat tautly controlled and edgier. McDonough has an incredible sound, ranging from deep Maggie-isms to microtonal smooches, and the contrast between the two is what builds a fascinating conversation between an “older dog” and the bugle calls of a younger individualist. The final five minutes (presumably Composition 103) explore pitched, ambling rows in a loose, chunky rhythm that gradually intersect in ascendant trilling motions. Filled with daring and congeniality, 6 Duos (Wesleyan) 2006 is a fine entry for both musicians into the Nessa catalog, and a great step out into the recorded open for McDonough.

Nessa Records does not currently have a website, but its releases are available from The Jazz Loft, CD Universe and Amazon in the US, as well as better brick-and-mortar record stores.


IPA is a strong free-bop quartet, a cooperative consisting of trumpeter Magnus Broo, tenorman Atle Nymo, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen across six originals recorded live in Oslo in 2008 (all but Sweden’s Broo are Norwegian). Scandinavian jazz – if we can consider the music of several individual countries as one lumped region – does owe a lot to the music of itinerant Afro-American jazz musicians like Don Cherry and Albert Ayler; recordings made at Stockholm’s Golden Circle and Copenhagen’s Jazzhus Montmartre by such luminaries as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and the New York Contemporary Five are as much a part of Scandinavian jazz as they are American “fire music.” Of course, these musicians took much from the local flavor, too, as regional folk music entered Ayler and Cherry's work especially.

Broo’s lengthy opener “Ting” has echoes of the Cherry-Gato Barbieri unit in tone, high and incisive brass slicing through the Latinate buzzsaw of Nymo’s tenor (indeed, Nymo and the rhythm section also recorded a trio interpretation of Cherry’s Complete Commnunion). Initially an Ornette-like singsong melody, the composition develops into a painterly four-part conversation as Broo and Nymo’s energy employs cutting swagger. Johansen and Flaten provide an amped-up level of rhythmic detail, dry and foregrounded, with the drummer paying respect to Blackwell, Higgins, Denis Charles and Roy Haynes at a rather hyped-up clip. As the horns embellish his three minute solo, Johansen exhibits a range of dynamics and phrase logic (albeit overly busy at times), drawing from Pierre Favre as he fleshes out encircling patterns with bright accents. Further snatches of Cherry and Eric Dolphy work their way into the following theme, “Mossbacken,” the trumpeter’s spotlight granted to piercing quips and disembodied, whittled-down runs of fluffed bebop.

Flaten’s “City” is spare and cool, brushes and fully-plucked thrum bordered by deft, reduced cells growing into a curious display of harmonic stasis that retains swing as Nymo squeezes out throaty stabs. Broo and Flaten duet in taut plink and hushed, Dixonian smears that splay out into bright, crinkled areas as bass and drums launch into a skimming vamp. A brief unaccompanied trumpet section leads into a thicker restatement of aspects of the original theme. The bassist’s ode to his wife (and the title track) is supple folk singsong, burnished reed and brass elaborating plastically on the simple tune. IPA present a strong set of contemporary Scandinavian avant-garde jazz with feet in both tradition and accessibility.

Cosmic Lieder

Cosmic Lieder is a suite of thirteen stratospherically-themed improvisations between pianist Matthew Shipp and altoist Darius Jones, who represent two different generations of musicians to have come through the AUM Fidelity stable and the New York creative music climate. Shipp is celebrating his fiftieth year and his twenty-fifth on the leading edge of contemporary improvisation, while Jones has emerged more recently to co-lead ensembles of free-rock skronk and soulful individuality. His tone has a deep, crying quality, both hard-bitten and extremely soft at the same time, nearly saccharine but not overwhelmingly so – he’s certainly out of the Johnny Hodges/Trevor Watts axis, but to attach a specific other voice to Jones’s playing would be incomplete.

Caterwauling reedy buzz is something he reaches for in the densest passages, but mostly he chooses to put flesh into his phrases rather than eviscerate them. He and Shipp make an interesting pair because both are resolutely spiritual in approach though the pianist’s transcendence seems more directly related to a profound there-ness, a physical confrontation with material and truly-rung resonance. That’s not to say that either a) Shipp’s pianism isn’t humanist or that b) Jones’s very vocal cry isn’t material in some way. To put it in painterly terms, Shipp is akin to a Barnett Newman or Clyfford Still, while Jones is closer to a Bob Thompson, a curdled fauvism working through flowingly angular structures. There is a necessary distance (tension) between the two approaches, but it’s more of a parallel commentary that frequently intersects – churchy chords arcing over and submerging keening bluster on “Nix Uton”, then telescoping outward into thinner, refracted structures before a mild hunt closes the piece. On “Jonesy,” Shipp brings up romantic, Evans-like eddies and immediately counters them with dense, repeating blocks, sketching around the altoist with the varied pressure of a right-hand dance. Though there is a sense of severity to the proceedings which, unsurprisingly, takes a few listens to crack through, the warmth of intent is quite clear on this excellent first-time meeting.

Living Rooms

On this two-disc set, part of a trio of recently-released recordings by Swedish guitarist, improviser and philosopher Christian Munthe, the presentation is of work within small spaces (hence the title). Each of the seventeen free improvisations here – for solo guitar, duos and small groups – is either a home or a small club recording collected over the past few years, preserving the intimacy of the music and its surrounding environment. Among Munthe’s cohorts here are guitarist and electronic artist Anders Dahl, saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, flutist Kelly Jones, and bassist Nina de Heney. The music, most of which is comprised of first-time meetings (in the Company tradition), ranges from delicate to frightfully absurd, such as the soul-inflected glossolalia of vocalist Mariam Wallentin who, across two improvisations on the second disc, ranges from sputters and high-pitched squeaks to stammering gulps in songlike form as Munthe accents and spins out broken blues like a cross between early Loren Connors and Derek Bailey.

In trio with Jones and percussionist Pascal Nichols, gleaming kisses cut through muted clanks and cantankerous, odd-interval slide in advancing and receding jangle, eventually joined by Munthe’s young daughter on percussion and a harmonica-like tuning pipe. These improvisations are alternately poised and playful, the latter especially so as young Saga bows a second guitar for sheer sonic participation as percussion and dad’s playing reach a feverish burble. John Butcher’s exploration of resonance seems like a leaping off point for Sehnaoui, whose language is a thin mixture of chuffs, globular chunks and piercing minor explosions. One would think that the spiky rhythms of Munthe’s guitar and their clearer instrumental origin wouldn’t fit with her playing, but these oppositional sound-shapes create a goaded dialogue. Throaty lyricism is immediately present in de Heney’s pizzicato bass as Munthe’s bunched actions generate sparks and miniature hum on disc one’s “Flat Out.” Clarinetist Alberto Poppolla engages an Ayler-esque form of glossolalia in the three homemade duets, sometimes warbling in staccato pops as Munthe fills space with directly-applied clatter. Living Rooms provides an excellent introduction to some of the finer European improvisers you’ve probably never heard - most importantly, at “play.”


Tørn (“stint” in Danish) is the trio of drummer Joe Hertenstein, bassist Achim Tang and pianist Philip Zoubek, all of whom have a connection to Cologne, though Hertenstein now calls New York home. Crespect finds the three musicians navigating twelve improvisations and compositions by members of the group and Carla Bley (“Batterie” and “And Now the Queen” bookend the disc). Bley’s trio music was a profound influence on the landscape of modern jazz piano trios – from the work of Irène Schweizer to Nobu Stowe, not to mention Keith Jarrett’s early trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Floating ambiguity coupled with jagged, twittering rhythms and a dusting of bebop were a different but equally valid direction in free music alongside that of Cecil Taylor. One can certainly hear Jarrett in Zoubek’s playing (at the most basic level, he’s sort of like a cross between the former and Augustí Fernández), upwardly trilling phrases pierced by pauses that allow the pianist to collect himself before jumping into the next “now.”

After the rondo-like head of “Batterie,” the pianist is off at a start, florid and direct lines supported by continual hack and crash from drums and bass. There’s a distance to the collectively-composed “Weeep” that follows, a series of loosely-connected parallels in open-form melodicism and subtle turnarounds that mark the trio as an organism of one breath. Tang’s plucked lines climb similar ladders to Zoubek’s, perhaps skipping a step while Hertenstein’s shimmering field encompasses. Also in the pianist’ss bag is the inside of his instrument, both prepared and unaltered, which he uses to coax terrific discomfort from the instrument’s string-and-wood bowels on some of the shorter pieces. An icily noirish sheen inflects Tang’s composition “Prag,” which pits a concrete groove against wispy movements for a dance-like vignette. The pianist’s “Subminus” continues the atmospherics as well as a bit of unruly, almost rockish motion in a way reminiscent of the Portuguese pianist-composer Bernardo Sassetti’s trio music. The title track, composed by Hertenstein, moves through a few iterations, building with romanticism and a knotty lope on a simple tone row, rhythm tying phrases up and shunting them around as Zoubek adds and subtracts improvisational flesh in detailed whirlpools. For those who enjoy adventurous but unfailingly melodic piano trios, Tørn is definitely worth investigating.

In the Blink of an Eye / Condo Stress

Here We Are Together Again / Yellow Dollars
(De Stijl)

Believe it or not, it does take something special for an artist’s work to be released on a label like Minneapolis’ De Stijl, despite the seeming catch-all at present in the catalog. Take, for instance, this new single by C. Spencer Yeh, known primarily as a violinist and electronic artist in some of the weightiest regions of contemporary noise. His releases on CD-R, cassette, and vinyl have appeared on a host of underground micro-labels, so what would set a De Stijl release apart from any other boutique Yeh collector’s item? It’s pretty simple, actually: songs. Yes, you read that right – Yeh sent De Stijl some mid-fi pop songs that would fit alongside the work of Bill Baird or other quirky, mildly shambolic orchestrators. “In the Blink of an Eye” is hand-clapped dance pop with a calypso tinge, a little sloppy but incredibly groovy, and Yeh’s lightly flat delivery is a little reminiscent of Beck (the music sounds nothing like Mr. Hansen’s, thankfully). The flip is a slower number for keyboards, guitar and vocals, something of a surreal torch song of bitingly hangdog wit. Squealing grit notwithstanding, hopefully there’s more like this down the pipeline from Yeh.

The issue of Ed Askew’s aborted ESP session Little Eyes seven years ago was an early triumph for De Stijl, and helped to put the Connecticut folkie back on the map. This single apparently contains the last releasable archival recordings of Askew’s work on the Martin tipple and finds him performing live on WYBC (Yale Radio) in late 1969. His strained nasal delivery (certainly, in part, due to the difficulty of playing the tightly-wound tipple) and stark arrangements are quite visible and while the tunes don’t quite reach epic proportions, a lot of Askew’s “epicness” is arrived at through the length of an album. Picking out a song for a single isn’t an easy task, but one can get at the intensity and wry bitter-sweetness that imbue part of Askew’s world – bookishly unrequited love, countercultural protest and death – especially in “Yellow Dollars.” Fine stuff as usual from the De Stijl camp.

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