Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Music Briefly Reviewed - October 2011


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.

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.

(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.

El Laberint de la Memòria

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.


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.

(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.

Different Tessellations
5 More Dialogues

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.

1 comment: