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

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.

Tower Volumes 1 & 2

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.

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.


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.

Aut Disce Aut Discede

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.

Only Love

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.

All In, Ever Out

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.


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.

The Madness of Crowds

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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)