Monday, December 31, 2012

Music Briefly Reviewed: 2012 Fin

AYCH
As the Crow Flies

Aych is an extraordinary trio comprised of altoist Jim Hobbs, brass multi-instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, all of whom comprise half of Bynum’s excellent sextet (rounded out by trombonist Bill Lowe, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Tomas Fujiwara). As the Crow Flies consists of twelve pieces evenly distributed between group improvisations and Hobbs’ original compositions. Without a rhythm section as such, the three musicians are free to foreground and recede at will, creating an alternative approach to developing supporting relationships. Aych can be hot and searing, as on the introductory collective improvisation, or laconic and folksy. At times they’re a stripped-down and modern analogue for the AACM trio Creative Construction Company (Anthony Braxton/Wadada Leo Smith/Leroy Jenkins), with Halvorson’s guitar in for Jenkins’ violin. The title track is a gorgeous example of a more easygoing craft, developing from a hymn-like structure into striking balladic duets and a wonderful Halvorson solo occasionally limned by breathy tones, the trio pensive and simple-like but able to unfurl into complex interaction. There’s a curious groove that roots “Kekionga,” Halvorson loping along as Bynum chuffs, swirls and shouts solo and with Hobbs’ muscular, funky commentary (approximating such forebears as Mike Osborne and Dudu Pukwana). Hobbs and Bynum are both extremely cutting players from a tonal perspective, slicing through the air with brays and whines as Halvorson’s somewhat more cerebral constructions deflect some of the trio’s energy into obliquely compressed areas. Shimmying and puckering against the guitarist’s jangle on “The North Wind,” the threesome segues from tossed-off racket into an early-jazz warble on “Over Yonder,” Halvorson’s rarely heard country nod delineating the pace. Bynum’s statements recall Lester Bowie and Bill Dixon, arcing from gleaming delicacy to bluesy swagger in a short chorus, while Hobbs grants a bitter keen. As far as a group without a “rhythm section” (however that’s conceived in this music) goes, Aych are a toothy and diverse trio well worth seeking out.

BOB DOWNES OPEN MUSIC
You’re Funkin’ Good

British-born reedman and improvising composer Bob Downes has been something of a regular in these pages, albeit primarily for the archival releases he’s been putting out on his Openian label over the past few years. Most of Downes’ work from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s is freewheeling and of the vanguard, his incisive and lyrical tenor and flute peppered with unruly yelps, often supported by telepathic and voluminous rhythm-section counterpoint. But from Electric City (Vertigo, 1970) onward, it’s been pretty clear that at least part of his mettle includes a somewhat “bent” R&B/blues-rock aesthetic. And as one would hope, Downes’ soul and blues aren’t clean or crisp, rather knotty, wry and earnest. He’s joined on You’re Funkin’ Good, a fine disc of more recent material (recorded in 2001), by keyboardist Stefan Grau and electric bassist Bodo Ernst. Amid programmed rhythms, Downes unspools a deep and throaty cry from saxophones and flutes, just as frequently belting out arresting vocal exhortations like a slightly mellowed James Chance on an English pub gig. One has to be able to see past some of the abject goofiness (the lyrics can veer toward the absurd) and occasionally staid/canned rhythms to really feel Downes’ unpretentious, gleeful delivery and acerbic, powerful musicianship, but it’s all there in spades. You’re Funkin’ Good is one of the most unique records you’re likely to hear this year, and will hopefully elbow its way into the annals of unhinged classics from such peers as Byard Lancaster and Hans Dulfer. Highly recommended listening for those with a yen for the honest and abnormal.

MARCO ENEIDI/LUTHER GRAY/JOE MORRIS
Outpost Live

VINNY GOLIA/MARCO ENEIDI/LISA MEZZACAPPA/VIJAY ANDERSON
Hell-Bent in the Pacific
(NoBusiness)

After an absence of recorded documentation spanning the last several years, 2012 could mark the reemergence of alto saxophonist and composer Marco Eneidi. Of course he didn’t really disappear, though much of his activity has centered on work in Austria with the Neu New York/Vienna Institute of Improvised Music as artistic director. Eneidi studied and performed with Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon in the 1980s (recording with the latter on Thoughts, Soul Note, 1985), and his collaborators have included reedmen Glenn Spearman and Peter Brötzmann, drummer Donald Robinson, bassists William Parker, Lisle Ellis, Damon Smith and Wilber Morris, bassoonist Karen Borca, and trumpeter Raphe Malik. Recently, Eneidi has worked with brass multi-instrumentalist Stephen Haynes and guitarist/bassist Joe Morris on sporadic (though hopefully becoming more frequent) return visits to the States.

Outpost Live is the first release on Eneidi’s Botticelli label in quite some time, featuring a go-for-broke trio with drummer Luther Gray and Joe Morris on bass recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2010. Packaged in a handmade edition of 100 with varying images on the sleeve, the disc consists of five improvisations that are in keeping with Eneidi’s extension of the searing, motivic approach of Jimmy Lyons – in other words, the music is prime Eneidi power trio material, picking up right where a record like Cherry Box (Eremite, 1999) left off. Dry and open, Eneidi’s phrases pop and curlicue on the opening “Touch,” biting and whinnying exuberantly with the supporting crashes and shoved floes of Gray’s limbs and girded by Morris’ gutsy pizzicato. A lengthy bass solo separates the opener and its follower, “Slang’n,” which enters at a slower tempo, almost pensive at the outset before Eneidi and Gray dole out biting surges, toying with a bluesy walk before the trio is off at a shimmering, squirrelly run. Working his phrases into odd patterns that zigzag and create dialogic asides, one is almost reminded of Lyons’ 1962 Copenhagen recordings with Taylor, though Eneidi is not nearly as tentative. I am unsure whether it is unfair to belabor the affinities between the two musicians because while Eneidi was/is very much a student of Lyons’ music, over three decades he has honed his craft into a personal, recognizable approach. Perhaps it’s something akin to the specific things that Eric Dolphy gleaned from Charlie Parker to build his own language, though I’d argue that Eneidi’s parallels are clearer, despite some crucial differences in rhythm and pacing (his short unaccompanied solo on “Flüchtling Wanderlung” is a thing of unique beauty). As a trio, Eneidi, Morris and Gray are elegantly complementary, and as much as the fires are continually stoked, the music develops from close listening and subtle interplay. Outpost Live is a fine and very welcome restatement of form and intent in Eneidi’s ongoing development.

Hell-Bent in the Pacific presents Eneidi in a California-centric quartet with reedman Vinny Golia, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Vijay Anderson on nine group improvisations recorded in the altoist’s former Bay Area stomping grounds. The set opens with an awesome three-horn charge, Golia doubling soprano and sopranino against Eneidi’s alto, twirling and dancing around latter’s sweaty brays. Mezzacappa and Anderson build up a howling storm of rhythm, though they’re just as easily able to delve into a litany of smaller accents that demark the hornmen’s cascading wails. Golia and Eneidi are interesting foils, because whereas Eneidi is a motivic, cellular improviser, Golia’s phrasing is broad, gestural and texturally rooted. As far as I’m aware, this is their first recorded meeting. Hearing Eneidi’s verbose accents alongside Golia’s shrill outlines and guttural warble, one gets the feeling that their differences allow them to triangulate a sound that is neither specific nor general. Eneidi is almost “cool” in the opening salvos of “Everything Imaginable Can Be Dreamed,” inquisitive and ebullient as Anderson and Mezzacappa motor and knock alongside before the trio moves into high gear. Following a dirty slice of bass/bass clarinet interaction, the quartet is delicate and fibrous on “Pendulum” and jaunty on the abbreviated “Fumbling Fulminations.” Laconic and stately with coiled strength, Golia’s tenor is front and center on the excellent trio piece “Prisoner of a Gaudy and Unlivable Present,” a fascinating point of compare to Eneidi’s vehicle a few cuts prior, especially as the rhythm section piles on in a painterly blur. Hell-Bent in the Pacific is an hour’s worth of West Coast Hot that one would be a fool to sleep on.

NATHAN HANSON/BRIAN ROESSLER
Selenographia
(Community Pool)

Selenographia is the second album to feature the Minnesota-based duo of soprano saxophonist Nathan Hanson and contrabassist Brian Roessler, who have performed together for a decade and a half as part of the vibrant Twin Cities creative music scene. As with quite a number of the Cities’ musicians, Roessler and Hanson have developed a connection to Paris’ improvisers through the curatorial efforts of Nato Records founder Jean Rochard (Paris/St. Paul) and performances at the Sons d’ Hiver festival. The duo’s longstanding collaborative relationship has resulted in a completely natural language, to the point that across these thirteen pieces, one ceases to think of them as saxophonist and bassist, rather as inseparable siblings or two inflections of the same voice. To be sure, Roessler’s throaty arco and sinewy attack are in keeping with preceding travelers like Jean-Jacques Avenel and Béb Guerin, while Hanson departs from the obvious lineage of Steve Lacy for a rounder phraseology (a la later Lol Coxhill) and occasional Arabic inflections (cue the Theo Loevendie-esque solo “Sea of Crisis”). So there are external reference points for this music, but among equally peerless players. The program is diverse, running the gamut from stark and incisive improvisations to deceptively simple and dusky tunes, such as the gorgeous “Life on its Way” ramble of “The Moonbeam Song.” Hanson and Roessler may be localized in their work to the extent that the larger improvised music world hasn’t caught on, but that being said, they bring copious technique, individuality and a healthy dose of “heart” to the creative music table. Furthermore, housed in a hand-screened jacket with translucent orange wax, Selenographia is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

SAMARA LUBELSKI
Wavelength
(De Stijl)

One wouldn’t be wrong in opining that singer-songwriter, guitarist and violinist Samara Lubelski’s records generally have a similar tenor. Her voice is wrapped in wet, gauzy textures and delivered with clipped breathiness, augmented by flinty jangle across a quilt of closely valued hues. Lyrically her lines are oblique, curious word choices and turns of phrase popping out from a broad field. Showing the influence of Kiwi rock a la The Clean as much as psychedelic femme-folkies, Lubelski has also brought to bear her work in improvisational lo-fi outfit The Tower Recordings and their German analogue Metabolismus for a series of fascinatingly personal LPs on De Stijl, The Social Registry and Ecstatic Peace, of which Wavelength is the fifth. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley returns for his second Lubelski band appearance, and the ensemble is fleshed out by PG Six and Helen Rush (Tower Recordings) and Thilo Kuhn, Mo Finkbeiner and Werner Notzel (Metabolismus), among others, on twelve original tunes. I suppose it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Wavelength is entirely in keeping with the vibe one expects from one of her records, but at the same time Lubelski's music is continually being refined and she has cultivated a sound that is distinctly “hers.” After all, one can never truly step into the same river twice. Instrumentally abetted by gently-layered guitars, vibraphone, organ, keyboards and harmonium, Lubelski’s vision has a painterly haze that is both comforting and oddly arresting.But not all of the tunes are breezy psychedelic folk-rock – “Age of Decay” is comparatively aggressive, and hooks are prevalent. The closing title track has an oppressive, pulsing and fuzzed-out vibe, albeit in the form of a brief instrumental coda. Whether this is your first meeting with Lubelski’s music or she’s a familiar face, Wavelength is a fine new addition to the discography.

PRIVATKREDIT
DreiKönigsTreffen
(self-released)

German bassist Peter Stock isn’t particularly well known outside of Europe (and actually he’s fairly obscure on his home continent), but that shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating Privatkredit, which features his committed return to music after an absence of more than three decades. Stock’s recorded output is small – the eponymous Just Music (JM 001/ECM 1002) and the Alfred Harth/Nicole Van Den Plas Quintet 4.Januar.1970 LP (AH 002) being the most recognized – but his impact in those ensembles is definitely felt. He’s also heard on the three-CDR set of Just Music archival material that Harth released on his Laubhuette imprint and appeared at the 40 Jahren Just Music concert in Frankfurt in 2009. Privatkredit joins Stock on a series of thirteen improvisations with bass-trombonist Matthias Siegel and percussionist Kuno Wagner; Stock’s instrument of choice is a homemade amplified contrabass that sonically straddles the line between fretless electric bass, diddley-bow, and a standard upright. Amid the light, tasteful chatter of cymbals and snare and Siegel’s metallic, garrulous chortle and subtonal guffaws, Stock’s eliding pizzicato and indeterminate electricity provides odd contrapuntal tension. Siegel’s brass improvising is deft and has a penchant for the absurd; he’s certainly following in the footsteps of the brothers Bauer (Hannes and Conny) in getting down to business on the lower horn. Across the disc’s fifty minutes, some of the improvisations seem to revolve around similar bases, and that can result in a bit of similarity. Nevertheless, Privatkredit presents three lesser-known voices in German free music with clarity and strength, and it will be interesting to hear how their music evolves.

THE WEIRD WEEDS
The Weird Weeds

Together for nearly a decade and with five full length LPs and a couple of singles under their belt, Austin quartet the Weird Weeds have undergone a fascinating and utterly natural metamorphosis, from trippy and twee semi-improvisational folk-rock band to a taut and somewhat acerbic instrumental chamber outfit. Their music is incredibly deliberate and glaringly minimal. Scored for percussion, contrabass and two guitars (one accosted with a bevy of found objects), their latest eponymous LP consists of nine untitled tracks that recall more recent Earth, Lungfish with Daniel Higgs removed, or a toothier version of 3-era rex. But the minimalism of the Weird Weeds is not a put-on or something which nods to a particular trend in heavy music; rather, minimalism was arrived at because it makes the most sense in communicating the group’s ideas – repetition, slow and building toward a plateau or a simple “ceasing” of action before the next piece begins – and any window dressing would just get in the way.

There are simple things that showcase the Weird Weeds’ arranging skills and, while I’m not sure they’d be missed if absent, really make this record special. The group’s tonal fixations are uncommon and shocking – not only from Sandy Ewen’s chalk and cat brushes, but in Aaron Russell’s finger-picked electric axe and the play of sharp angles between these elements and Verrill’s wispy bowed moan (the album closer is a fantastic example of this). The triangle barrage and plucked bass harmonics on the opening overture-like piece, combined with Russell’s bunched and tinny guitar work, present an incredibly unique array of colors. There are, of course, aspects of this quartet shared by few other instrumental “rock” outfits – drummer Nick Hennies is a classically-schooled percussionist hip to the wiles of Orestes Morfin and Todd Trainer, surprisingly detailed and subtle in his application of muscular, brick-like rhythm action. Lindsey Verrill is a powerful bassist with a full, deep tone and beautiful bow attack, sort of like a country-tinged Jean-François Jenny Clarke. Guitarist Sandy Ewen is far from a traditional voice on her instrument, upending it into a lap-seated canvas. These are rare references in even the most left-field contemporary indie rock, but here they ring true.

Ewen’s horizontal string scrabble and Verrill’s roaring, throaty arco, along with tremendously particular drumming, elevate the second piece above a mere “stoner dirge,” while there’s curious parlor delicacy to the measured drift of the third tune. The latter segues into a brisk waltz-like piece with additional processed guitar from Deerhoof’s John Dieterich and finds the group’s elemental aspects at their most layered and lush. There’s an audible shift on the second side to something perhaps less severe – the seventh tune has a sunny, softshoe air even with its metronomic pulse, yawing guitar groans and sawed bass. However, altering the key a half step and switching to pizzicato and condensing the guitar attack provides a sea change in mood and scope. The final piece is both wistful and cutting, a lullaby shot through with inexact, somewhat warped filaments. There is one issue with The Weird Weeds that won’t bother the uninitiated – no Weird Weeds album has yet captured the intensity of their live shows, for which every bit of unsettled starkness is rendered with crackling, near-explosive energy. While that’s not a slight on the present disc, one can always hope for bottled genies.

VERYAN WESTON/INGRID LAUBROCK/HANNAH MARSHALL
Haste
(Emanem)


An improvising trio absent the traditional markers of a rhythm section (bass and/or drums), the musicians on Haste explore longer forms with a balance of gestural, painterly swoops and pointillist detail. Featuring pianist Veryan Weston, cellist Hannah Marshall (both UK-based) and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (German-born and for a time London-based, though now living in New York), the trio works through three collective pieces totaling just shy of an hour. Weston is an incredibly resourceful keyboardist, but his penchant for poise and deep listening ensure that his glisses and clusters remain on axis. It’s important to note that both Weston and Laubrock are accomplished composers and, while the music on Haste may be collectively improvised, it’s clearly from a perspective of naturally unfolding structure and organization (Marshall acquits herself excellently in this department as well). Therefore, as the trio moves through these tri-logues and conversations, it’s with an ear towards engagement, dynamics and resolution. “Sleeping Down Hill” comprises the disc’s first half, beginning with subtonal reed kisses and ponticello bowing against hushed, rhapsodic chords. Gradually the three layer and spread out, becoming unruly and dense in the process – Laubrock’s tenor alternately pillowy and harried in a controlled gush against the pricks and dives of Marshall’s cello. “Leaving Up” finds the saxophonist switching to soprano at the outset, twirling and fluttering as part of a delicate three-pronged counterpoint, the trio moving between skitters and telepathic elision with seemingly sharp left-turns often hinging on bow and strings. While not quite as theatrical as Tristan Honsinger, Marshall’s cello work is similarly mealy and dervish-like, extending modern classicism into an electrifying, madcap whorl. But at the same time, her sense of control within/of the classical tradition garners more than a few nods in the direction of János Starker. Haste is a gorgeously recorded and far-ranging slab of contemporary creative music, and a fascinating entry in each of these three musicians’ output.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Things We Like #3 - (Some of) The Best of 2012

It’s getting a little tougher each year to pick favorites, because of the sheer amount of excellent music that’s available, both new and reissued. Below you’ll find my non-hierarchical, alphabetized list of twenty four of the most compelling new releases and a dozen reissues/unearthed gems, including boxed sets. These lists should serve as a partial holiday buying guide for those of you looking for something to buy your tuned-in loved ones. Happy Holidays and educated listening from Ni Kantu!

NEW
Joshua Abrams – Represencing – (Eremite)
Jason Adasiewicz’ Sun Rooms – Spacer – (Delmark)
Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio + Jeb Bishop – Burning Live at Jazz ao Centro – (JACC)
Mick Barr/Kevin Shea/Tim Dahl – BarrSheaDahl – (ugExplode)
Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing – (Smalltown Supersound)
Lol Coxhill/Barre Phillips/J.T. Bates – The Rock on the Hill – (Nato)
Joel Futterman – Blues for My Brother – (Creation Music)
Charles Gayle – Streets – (Northern Spy)
Grex – Second Marriage – (SUA)
Steve Gunn/John Truscinski – Ocean Parkway – (Three Lobed)
Barry Guy/LJCO – Harmos: Live at Schaffhausen – (Intakt)
James Ilgenfritz – Compositions (Braxton) 2011 – (Infrequent Seams)
Kidd Jordan – On Fire – (Engine)
Man Forever – Pansophical Cataract – (Thrill Jockey)
William Parker Orchestra – Essence of Ellington: Live in Milano – (Centering)
Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul – Reunion: Live in New York (Pi)
Jason Stein – The Story This Time – (Delmark)
Talibam! – Puff Up the Volume – (Critical Heights)
The Thing with Barry Guy – Metal! – (No Business)
 “Blue” Gene Tyranny – Detours – (Unseen Worlds)
David S. Ware – Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 – (Aum Fidelity)
Weird Weeds – Weird Weeds – (Sedimental)
Nate Wooley – The Almond – (Pogus)
C S Yeh – Transitions – (De Stijl)

REISSUE/UNEARTHED GEM
Don Cherry – Organic Music Society – (Caprice)
Codeine – When I See the Sun (collected works) – (Numero)
Jack Ruby – Jack Ruby – (ugExplode)
Sven-Åke Johansson – Early Works 1969-1973 – (SÅJ)
Steve Lacy – The Sun – (Emanem)
Noh Mercy – Noh Mercy – (Superior Viaduct)
William Parker – Centering: Unreleased Early Works 1976-1987 – (No Business)
Hal Russell – NRG Ensemble – (Nessa)
Laurie Spiegel – The Expanding Universe – (Unseen Worlds)
Juma Sultan's Aboriginal Music Society – Whispers from the Archive – (Porter)
Henry P. Warner/Earl Freeman/Philip Spigner – The Freestyle Band – (No Business)
Zs – Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007 – (Northern Spy)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Huseyin Ertunç Trio performing Phill Musra's "The Cretor Spaces" (Musiki - Intex, 1974)

A new world of improvisational freedom opened up for me when I first heard drummer Huseyin Ertunç's 1974 LP Musiki (Intex), with reedmen/multi-instrumentalists/brothers Phill Musra and Michael Cosmic. Ertunç returned to his native Turkey about twenty years ago (and performs with the Konstrukt collective), but Musra - this tune's composer - now resides in Los Angeles and, as regular readers of this blog know, is still active in music. Although I initially assumed that Musiki and Musra's companion LP The Creator Spaces were recorded at the same session, in truth Musiki was recorded months earlier. The Creator Spaces is a bit more spacious than Ertunç's date, though both are quite intense documents of self-produced and spiritually-directed improvisation. Knotty and weird, there's a folksy unhinged-ness that really spoke to me in a way quite different from Albert Ayler, the AACM, and other music I was spending time with when I dropped the needle on the trio's debut album. Ertunç's percussion work really shocked me and it's still absolutely fascinating (as you'll hear below), and Cosmic's organ playing behind/around Musra's tenor is just... something else. A CD reissue was floating around a few years ago and can probably still be procured.

My hope is to get Musra out to the East Coast next year for performances in Boston and Brooklyn. More details on that as things come together, of course. Though Michael Cosmic passed in 2001, there's also hope that Musra and Ertunç might be able to get together and perform again. But for now, enjoy "The Creator Spaces" and keep your eyes and ears peeled for more.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Briefly Reviewed: Giving the Drummers Some

I am slowly getting back into reviewing post-relocation, so today I present some capsule statements on a number of drummer-led dates. Dig in and support independent creative music.

LAURENCE COOK & JIM HOBBS
Tragedies of Love

Percussionist Laurence Cook isn’t exactly a household name (who in this music is?), but as far as sensitive, swinging fire-stokers go, he should be better known. Having recorded and performed with trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon, pianist Paul Bley, vibraphonist Bobby Naughton and altoist Jemeel Moondoc (among others) over the past four decades, Tragedies of Love is the first disc to have his name first on the marquee. On five improvisations recorded live in 2009 at Outpost 186 in Cambridge, MA, Cook coaxes, caresses and spars with squirrelly alto firebrand Jim Hobbs. In phrasing and tone, both players are acerbic and unpredictable, but neither quality necessarily abandons lyricism – in this sense, Hobbs and Cook are very well matched. The recording isn’t exactly high fidelity but it doesn’t need to be – this is raw and energetic music rendered dryly and honestly, mirroring the pair’s sensitivity.

TOMAS FUJIWARA & THE HOOK UP
The Air is Different
Though Tomas Fujiwara is firmly associated with the avant-garde, working with Anthony Braxton, Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum and the Steve Lacy repertory ensemble Ideal Bread, the Alan Dawson-schooled drummer’s own unit fits more staunchly within the post-bop milieu. On the group’s second album, The Air is Different, Fujiwara is joined by Halvorson, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tenorman Brian Settles and bassist Trevor Dunn (replacing Danton Boller). As fluid and stately as the music is – muscular brass and reed lines that open up into wide areas for soli and collective improvisation – Fujiwara’s compositions never stray far from the beat. As the front line makes direct connections between sparsely placed dots, flinty grooves keep the music in continual, intelligent motion. The link between Dunn’s supple and precise pizzicato and Fujiwara’s deft, often airy application of tempo makes for a well-oiled machine. In the annals of drummer-led groups, such as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or Max Roach’s various ensembles, the drums are often front and center. The same isn’t exactly true for The Hook Up – while the “one” is abundantly clear, the pieces’ expression is entirely collective while also beautifully ornamented. That said, the attendant heel tapping is impossible to keep in check.

KJELL NORDESON & ARAM SHELTON
Incline
(Singlespeed Music)

Incline presents duets between Swedish percussionist Kjell Nordeson and Bay Area reedman Aram Shelton (heard here on alto saxophone). Both musicians are now West Coast players even though they are associated with scenes elsewhere. Shelton remains firmly tied to his Chicago past, while Nordeson (a veteran of Scandinavian-centric groups AALY, School Days, and Angles) is now studying at UC San Diego. Even as the participants are composers of challenging work, the upshot of this music is that it’s immediately infectious and one can feel its taut energy, even on sparser pieces. While not “exercises,” these duets are notable for being highly concentrated. Certainly limiting one’s performance palette can result in striking thematic developments, and Nordeson and Shelton hew to these sorts of tests with interesting results. Shelton’s burred extrapolations are hotly reminiscent of Roscoe Mitchell on the opening “Village” and elicit a soulful calm on “Test,” his phrases lined by detailed accents and micro-surges. The saxophonist’s breathy subtones and flutter-tonguing on “Grade” are delicately matched by Nordeson’s damped staccato, leading into the unaccompanied alto veers of “Rig.” Afro-Latin and kwela intersect on the wonderful “Soles,” highly reminiscent of Marion Brown’s 1967 recordings with Han Bennink (Porto Novo, Polydor), albeit sans bass. Incline is an exciting and thoughtful duet album that shouldn’t escape notice.

TOM RAINEY TRIO
Camino Cielo Echo

Drummer Tom Rainey is another percussionist who has, despite a long career in this music, only recently stepped out as a leader. Camino Cielo Echo is his second disc with a trio comprised of guitarist Mary Halvorson and tenor/soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (following 2010’s Pool School on Clean Feed), tackling a program of thirteen shortish compositions by each group member. All three musicians have worked together across a variety of ensembles for a number of years, so the trio is as much a cooperative venture/shared language development as it is Rainey’s vehicle (notably, all three are also in Laubrock’s Anti-House), and the tunes seem more like outgrowths of that collective voice rather than individual nodes. Sonically, noise-rock energy sussed out from Halvorson’s guitar and battery of pedals complements Rainey’s arch, classicist and dynamic push, while Laubrock threads a sonic focus that’s equal parts Wayne Shorter and Evan Parker. Whether embracing group stomps (“Two Words”) with an incisive fracas (“Mullet Toss”) or a winnowed and muted palette (“Metal Stencil”), the trio present a well-balanced if somewhat reserved approach to group composing. Even in the hairiest moments, the music feels as though it hasn’t completely let fly. My ears might want a little more willful destruction, but perhaps that is beside the point of this trio’s work.

MIKE REED’S PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS
Clean on the Corner

Chicago drummer Mike Reed works in a variety of settings, but my feeling is that People, Places & Things might be the most rewarding of his talents as a bandleader on disc. The group is basically a quartet consisting of bassist Jason Roebke, altoist Greg Ward and tenorman Tim Haldeman, and has employed a fascinating range of guest improvisers including Ira Sullivan, Jeb Bishop, David Boykin, and Art Hoyle. One of the most interesting aspects of People, Places & Things is the fact that the ensemble’s book includes rather striking renditions of lesser-known Chicagoland tunes including those of Sun Ra, Wilbur Campbell, Clifford Jordan, and John Jenkins. Album number four, Clean on the Corner, augments the basic quartet on two tunes each with pianist Craig Taborn (who is wonderful on a rollicking, explosive and Ra-esque arrangement of altoist Jenkins’ “Sharon”) and cornetist Josh Berman. There’s also a wonderfully loping version of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Old” (the esteemed saxophonist and composer took part in Reed’s Empathetic Parts disc, with the drummer’s Loose Assembly), on which Ward almost seems to reach back to Mitchell’s cusp with obsessive bluesy shouts. Co-penned with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, “House of Three Smiles” is languid and glassy, culminating in terse, bunched notes, and one can feel the open-stop swirls of the author’s hand even without the vibes being present. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Adasiewicz is, at a young age, becoming quite a distinctive composer. Reed’s “The Lady Has a Bomb” is a loose anthem in the vein of mid-Sixties Don Cherry, though the tempo sections support fiery Latinate gobs in Haldeman’s curious swagger. “Where the Story Ends” is a thick ballad that shifts into dusky conversation during the saxophonists’ solos, maintaining tension throughout. A bracing cooperative, People, Places & Things engage tradition in its most rugged aspects, putting the “Sound of Joy” into modern Chicago jazz.

DAVE REMPIS PERCUSSION QUARTET
Montreal Parade
(482 Music

If it seems like the reviews here are 482 Music-heavy, it’s partly because the well-regarded East Coast label has consistently documented several drummer-led or percussion-centric ensembles, including Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis’ twin-engine unit. Montreal Parade is the quartet’s fifth album and alongside stalwart drummers Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, the disc features bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten occupying a chair formerly held by Anton Hatwich. In a free improvising ensemble it’s especially true that, in order to shift the compositional structure one has to shift the personalities. That goes both for the change in bassists and Rempis’ varied saxophone resources. While Hatwich is an excellent anchor, Flaten’s robust and frenetic approach adds breadth to the proceedings. Flaten and Rosaly also have an interesting history together – both musicians have collaborated in the bassist’s Chicago Sextet (with Rempis) and The Young Mothers as well as the Scorch Trio with guitarist Raoul Björkenheim. Montreal Parade features two lengthy group improvisations totaling an hour; at times the percussionists are coloristically orchestrated and flit diffusely while in other instances, such as the beginning of “If You Were a Waffle and I Were a Bee,” they play a swinging Kenny Clarke/Kenny Clare role a la the CBBB (with Rempis as Pete King). Rempis is given to excitable and searing phrases, loquacious and steely – one can almost feel the sweat and spit flying as Flaten, Rosaly and Daisy tug and yaw to keep a massive freight of rhythm and color on the rails. In sparser moments, husky baritone sputter is the anchor to Flaten’s fingerboard glisses and a range of microscopic accents. Going on eight years of togetherness, they remain a group to keep a bead on.

WALLY SHOUP/PAUL KIKUCHI
Aurora Distillations

Auroura Distillations presents an LP’s worth of duets between percussionist/composer Paul Kikuchi and alto saxophonist Wally Shoup (there is one percussion solo, “Aperture,” which opens side two). It’s a bridge between Kikuchi’s sonic research leanings (with Stuart Dempster, among others) and contemporary improvisational acumen (the post-Carter/Bradford Empty Cage Quartet), and finds the pair exploring space and resonance in an abandoned and partially collapsed railroad tunnel in Stevens Pass, Washington. Shoup’s tack is often searing, but here he sounds positively introspective and subdued – but that doesn’t mean the music isn’t fraught with intensity, for the duo’s economy of phrase combined with reverberant spatial sound-mapping makes for powerful results. Across four improvisations the pair – or trio, as the space is certainly an active participant – document an interesting relationship between musical and spatial action. The environment is resonant and present, but at the same time the recording does not feel overpowered by where it took place. Both open and narrow, Aurora Distillations presents a simple and effective imprint of conversations between air, limbs and concrete.

WEASEL WALTER
Ominous Telepathic Mayhem
(ugExplode

This recent compilation features duets between erstwhile New York (ex-Chicago/Oakland) drummer and improvising composer Weasel Walter and a host of partners, some regular and others less so. Split across five improvisations, all three members of the Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans trio are represented, in a pair of frantically unhinged trumpet and drum duets with Evans and three explosive and colorful guitar-drum charges that build on 2007’s wonderful Opulence (ugExplode). Both players have evolved in the ensuing years and these raucous and compelling 2009 pieces shows that quite clearly. Walter and altoist Darius Jones have collaborated most notably in earlier editions of the Marc Edwards-Weasel Walter Group, and Jones’ bluesy entreaties have also graced the noisy no wave/improvisation quartet Little Women. Whereas Jones’ playing is often granted such qualifiers as “searching” and “spiritual,” these pieces are crueler and more aggressive. Even if the saxophonist does bring out a curious, almost swinging sense of motion in Walter’s phrasing, the result is fairly absurd. English clarinetist Alex Ward is always a treat to hear, and three roguish duets swiping titles from early Pere Ubu tunes (“Non-Alignment Pact”/ “Final Solution”/ “30 Seconds over Tokyo”) add Ward’s distorted and tinny guitar to the mix alongside Walter’s disembodied clarinet mouthpiece. Ominous Telepathic Mayhem is a fine sampling of Weasel Walter’s work in settings that are equal parts stripped-down and full, geared to both the ugEX neophyte and collector. This disc is also an excellent complement to the forthcoming Unplanned Obsolescence LP with altoist Chris Pitsiokos.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Für…

Steve Lacy & Enrico Rava in Rome, 1966.
Copyright Lilian Terry
I remember reading a few years ago some remarks about reedman-composer Ken Vandermark and the problem someone had with his titles – that they were a codified and hip “reference system” to show that he was “in the know” about music, art, and literature. Lucky Thompson, Robert Rauschenberg, Stephen Shore, The Ex – all were fair game, and whether the music itself reflected the values of the dedicatees was anybody’s guess. I always found that argument kind of unfair, because whatever one thinks of Vandermark’s music, he chooses to pay homage to his peers and forebears. These are little “gifts” as I see it – offerings to those whom he respects, and they don’t have to sound or look like their recipient in order to give a proper nod. Also, one doesn’t necessarily have to have, say, Bob Weston or Steve Lacy in mind when listening to the entire nine minutes of a tune to enjoy it and feel that it’s within a sort of “sphere of interest.” 

Vandermark is certainly not the first to do this and certainly he should not be the last. Soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy frequently referenced others in his titles, as has composer-reedman Anthony Braxton. These two figures are, not coincidentally, very important in the lineage of artists who have influenced Vandermark’s work. They made no bones about their forebears and those whom they held in high esteem, and to a degree this was important in drawing a connection between the New Thing and what came before. Considering how challenging their music could be, it was/is important for Lacy and Braxton to make links to the past (and probably too much has been made about the traditionalists’ and boppers’ disdain for the New Thing. It wasn’t always the case). That was especially true thirty or forty years ago, when their work had not become as highly regarded in the landscape of this music.

Monk, Sonny Clark, Sidney Bechet and Ellington (along with a host of visual artists and poets/writers) were part of Lacy’s bedrock. Braxton would add Warne Marsh, Paul Desmond, Lennie Tristano, Sun Ra, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to his playbook. One of my favorite Lacy pieces is the short “La Motte Picquet” on The Gap (America, 1972), which Lacy says was “dedicated to the memory of Sonny Clark, who would have liked this kind of tune.” It’s got a declamatory, odd-interval elision going on, singsong but a bit batty. I never really appreciated what Lacy meant about Sonny Clark until hearing the pianist’s “Minor Meeting,” which is extraordinarily crisp and stark in its A-section. It sounds like a Steve Lacy composition, in fact, and one can imagine it being played with unaccompanied clarion soprano twirls. “La Motte Picquet” is much freer but the connection isn’t as spurious as one might think, and for whatever reason it’s one of the least-talked-about in Lacy’s oeuvre.

Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum and honestly, to hear someone like Cooper-Moore recite “I want to give thanks” and invoke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Jaki Byard at a time while being crucially aligned with the post-loft environment of David S. Ware and William Parker is something special, indeed. This, from his 2001 Hopscotch CD Deep in the Neighborhood of History and Influence, which has been mentioned here before. Or, when I interviewed reedman Peter Brötzmann back in 2002, the heaviest thing he laid out was his deep, deep love for Hawkins. For that matter, Bill Dixon’s invocation of Miles, Chet Baker and Tony Fruscella places him, rightly, in a lineage of brass instrumentalists and composer/interpreters that are beyond category. Where some might see Vandermark’s titles as a political gambit, I see it as not forgetting where one comes from or what surrounds one’s work. After all, no person is truly an island, no matter how weird the output is.

In a time where there is so much information available, as well as a time when a whole generation (or two) of important artists are passing on, being aware of history and one’s own peers is crucial. Being able to tie one’s work together with a landscape larger than one’s immediate environment helps bolster things – of course, a dedication isn’t necessary to do that, because good art should be able to stand firmly on its own and its place within the continuum implicit. But gifting a nod is fairly uncommon, and it is important to network contributions between present and past. Far be it for me to be proscriptive; as Dixon would say, “tradition is all around you. Start from where you are – you’ll get to the rest in time.” Easy to forget, but not hard to acknowledge.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Into the Unknown: David S. Ware (1949-2012)

DSW by Peter Gannushkin
I’m trying to remember the exact context surrounding when I first heard the music of saxophonist/composer David S. Ware. I believe I picked up Cryptology (Homestead, 1994) at Kief’s, a stereo/CD store in Lawrence, Kansas, around 1997. It was around the same time that I was buying records by Ayler, Coltrane, Dolphy, Cecil and Ornette. If memory serves, Bells and Expression were the first two jazz records I bought, and appropriately enough, Cryptology would have come shortly after. It is a wonderful quartet date with bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp, and drummer Whit Dickey. As I got into the music, the historical foundations of free jazz and creative improvisation seemed more important, so more recent practice wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. Also, I was living in Kansas and there wasn’t exactly much live creative music to see – watching people work at their craft is a whole ‘nother sphere, and had I been in New York then I might have taken a different approach. The only time I ever saw Mr. Ware perform was in the early Aughts, in a duo with the late drummer Rashied Ali. Although today that sounds like a heavy pairing, what I witnessed then seemed unsuccessful. Ware was peeling the paint off the hall with low, resonant peals that were repeated over and over, while Ali was trying to get a swing thing going. Were I to hear it now, my ears would be different and I might be more into it than I was then, but it’s hard to say.

Over the past several years, I’ve come back to Ware’s music with greater interest and appreciation. His recordings with Shipp, Parker, and drummers Marc D. Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guillermo E. Brown are treasured documents of contemporary music. His recent solo recordings and Planetary Unknown discs (with Parker, drummer Muhammad Ali and pianist Cooper-Moore) are absolutely incredible. There’s some really nice stuff with Joe Morris and Warren Smith that’s well worth hearing, too. And though the vinyl has been in rotation here at the offices of Ni Kantu for many years, it surprises me that the lone commercially released recording of Apogee (1979’s Birth of a Being, with Cooper-Moore and Edwards) has never made it to CD. It’s a motherfucker.

What strikes me now (and what didn’t always strike younger ears) is how consistently lyrical Ware’s music is. At times it certainly takes on the notion of the Abstract Sublime, in terms of confronting a vast solitude and rejoicing, confronting and accepting aloneness before the universe and giving a spiritual notion to being “Alone Together.” At other times, Ware’s music and that of his colleagues plays out as a contrast between whorls and stoic monoliths – perhaps that’s where the curious penchant for repeated phrases comes in. But lyric and swing, as well as a tremendous blues feeling, are endemic to this music as far-out as it might get.

It’s ironic that I didn’t appreciate those elements when they were presented to me in earlier listening sessions, because that was precisely what I took to in listening to Ware’s forebears. I suppose that with some people’s music it just takes time. Of course, the fact that age/experience/mortality brings out a certain kind of patient nuance as artists grow older is also worth noting – we hear something different in later Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Ornette, Bill Dixon, and Cecil than we do in their earlier music. Ware’s recent recordings are full of this, or at least one interprets them as such, made with the composer’s life in the balance. They are both feisty and reflective, which are pretty natural feelings when encountering one’s mortality. Ware made his first recording in 1968, as a sideman with Boston altoist Abdul-Hannan, and was active throughout the 1970s in the Northeast, playing with Cecil, drummer Andrew Cyrille, William Parker, and in his own groups, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that a broader audience came to his work. This was around the time that “free jazz” was entering the consciousness of independent music fans as an alternative to mainstream jazz, or even punk rock, and imbued with the latter’s values of high energy, political consciousness, and self-expression. The appeal of Ware and his Quartet in this climate seems now like a no-brainer.

Following years of dialysis and a kidney transplant, David S. Ware passed last night, October 18, 2012. He was 62. At the time I was taking in the music of altoist Jemeel Moondoc, another loft-jazz figure who has enjoyed a somewhat recent renaissance, at The Stone. His new quartet with trumpeter Matt Lavelle (out of the Woody Shaw/Charles Tolliver bag), bassist Henry Grimes and an elegantly swinging Newman Taylor Baker really brought it. With more rehearsal and gigs under their belt, this quartet could be the reprisal of Muntu that some of us have been hoping for. Afterwards on my way home I met and had a wonderful conversation with tenorman Kalaparusha, who often plays at the 14th St./Union Square 4/5/6 stop. It was a night of giants, and the music in the air was sublime. Whether we knew it at the time or not, we were celebrating (as Muhal Richard Abrams titled it) Things to Come from Those Now Gone.

Planetary Unknown Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 (Aum Fidelity):

Precessional 3

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Trust in Contemporary Music


I’m giving a spin right now to the new Talibam! record, Puff Up The Volume, just released on the British label Critical Heights. It’s the fruit of several years of work and a trajectory that has run from noisy improvised music to electro-influenced absurdist rap. Go figure. Readers of Ni Kantu might be surprised that I’m giving something like this its tenth (or so) spin, considering that sounds of such a persuasion aren’t really the purview of jazz/creative improvisation-driven critical discourse. But because I’ve followed Talibam’s work for several years and had a number of interesting conversations with drummer/vocalist Kevin Shea and keyboardist/vocalist Matt Mottel, it’s gotten to the point where I trust their intentions, and I can always learn something from those whose aesthetics and ethics I appreciate. On a personal level they are good people, inquisitive, hardworking and creative. And they’ve taken those qualities and recorded a fun and memorable “party record.”

Being able to trust participants to have certain intent and conviction behind their work is one of the main things I look for in music. It sometimes dovetails with a level of acquaintance with the artists, too, and that can make criticism fuzzy (I think I’ve waxed on this before, so do forgive me. I think about it a lot). Because it’s impossible not to develop some sort of friendly relationship with those whose work one supports*, it’s easy to come off looking like one is merely shilling for friends or that one is playing social politics with the music. I hope I would be honest if I couldn’t write about a colleague’s work if I felt the music wasn’t up to par. But it’s tough because it’s hard to make a judgment call when one generally trusts the artist (given that any such call is subject to the flexibility of time and experience anyway).




What brings this to mind is that I was just reading some disparaging YouTube comments on the video for Talibam’s “It’s a Tough Day, Hard Day.” Of course, they don’t really need any defending – it’s either something one likes or one doesn’t – and while I did not, I felt like responding. Jumping into the fray on some YouTube thread is absurd and a waste of time, but part of me was like “hey – these guys work hard and are pretty remarkable musicians, so give them a break.” Nobody needs to play “den mother” to the creators of weird music. And maybe at the end of the day it’s just a goofy song. 

Related to this is how my interest in an artist’s work tends to increase as a result of interviews and conversations. The more I know about the process, the more intrigued I become about subsequent iterations, and the more connected I feel to the work. Again, that blurs the line between objective reporter and unabashed fan, but in the communities that surround creative and underground music, dedicated support is part of the scene. For example, I always really liked saxophonist Ted Brown’s playing, but it wasn’t until I interviewed him that I frequently found myself gushing about his music. When one gains insight into the person behind the work, it just becomes that much more interesting and fleshed out. Curiously, I’ve interviewed musicians whose work I didn’t know very well and, as a result, become intrigued enough to follow what they do pretty intently. This happened recently with a series of interviews in conjunction with the Thrill Jockey label’s Twentieth Anniversary performances in New York. The result is that I’m looking forward to following what some of these musicians produce in the coming years.

I don’t know that being objective is the right way to approach thinking about contemporary music, ultimately. Knowing or at least communicating with people helps me to think about how they put their music together, and what they mean by doing it – at least to some extent. It’s up to critics and thinkers to put an experiential spin on it, of course, and that’s a very important part of the process. And for the record, the music I find interesting is not made so purely on a social level – a large percentage of what I enjoy (&/or write about) is made by individuals and groups I have no literal connection to, other than liking the work. But being able to understand its humanity and have trust in the artists’ “realness” is one of the keys to ensuring the artform’s longevity. It’s probably one of the reasons why those rare examples of John Coltrane speaking are so treasured. After all, music is a basic form of interpersonal communication, so all of this seems curiously appropriate.

--

*There is, of course, the valid notion that writers just want to be “one of the cats,” something they’ll never be. There’s no way I can, as a writer, have the same level of conversation about the work with, say, drummer Tomas Fujiwara that any of his bandmates could. And why would I? Being a musician of a certain caliber is a special thing that not everyone can or should be able to do (or want to do). One has to let musicians be musicians, too.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Anthony Braxton - Freeing the Music (but not without responsibility)

At age 67 and with hundreds of recordings (as well as his Tri-Axiom compositional literature) documented, it’s pretty clear that composer-reedman Anthony Braxton is well beyond the point of being an established figure in creative music. And with certain “stature” (if I may use such a term) comes a great amount of responsibility to the music as a whole. Though I have not studied with him in the sense that many musicians who have worked with him at Wesleyan, Mills, and elsewhere have, it’s become obvious to me that one of the key principles in Braxton’s music and his person is a sense of generative-ness. Going beyond generosity (and he is generous), Braxton’s music gives to others so that they may do something with it.

As he said in an as-yet-unpublished interview (hopefully it will be available in early 2013), “the subject of students whom I work with is dynamic; it’s not so much the subject of my students (indeed, I’m lucky to know these people), but rather the subject is who are the people in the next time cycle that is coming up. If they’re talking about Braxton at 64, that means that Braxton isn’t the one – and I say that with love, a sense of humor, and a sense of urgency to complete my work.” In a sense it’s no longer about Braxton as a figure but contemporary travelers such as Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock, Katherine Young, Taylor Ho Bynum, Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes, and Josh Sinton. That’s not to say that Braxton isn’t a major shaper/contributor, but the focus is (or should be) on these young musicians and improvising composers who will be taking the music forward. Braxton may have opened the door, but he is not defining how the door looks or how musicians will proceed through it (or even what’s on the other side, to coin a favorite phrase of Steve Lacy’s).

Photo courtesy Chris Jonas

This fact was patently obvious on September 13 when the Tri-Centric Foundation and the Brooklyn performance space Roulette celebrated one year of working together with a night of Braxton’s music. Curiously, the opening set was dedicated to a format we haven’t heard Braxton utilizing in a while (at least to my recollection), a piano-less quartet. The group recalled Braxton’s 1970s/1980s groups with trombonist George Lewis in terms of its layout, though the music was quite different on a number of levels. Braxton was joined here by bassist Ken Filiano and a young Philadelphia pair, trombonist Daniel Blacksberg and drummer Mike Szekely, who are not yet well known in creative music circles (though that’s only a matter of time). Szekely is a light, swinging and fluid percussionist and Blacksberg is an effusively slick player, both garrulous and economical. As with any young-leaning group, there was a bit of hesitancy at times and one did get the feeling that there was a bit of natural deference to the ‘master,’ but this was primarily a music of giving – Braxton patiently encouraging the next generation(s) of players to take the music and see what happens with it.

The pieces (including some of Braxton’s lush Falling River Music) were rooted in contrasts and colors rather than outright propulsion, Blacksberg’s bass trombone holding down the lower end while Braxton’s sopranino saxophone eked out breathy and shrill statements. In some particularly rousing passages, higher-register trombone played off the comically gruff, low-register contrabass saxophone, leading into a delightfully comic vocal (what, you thought it was all serious?) exchange of low reeds and Blacksberg’s brass. There were also some beautiful, classic Braxtonian alto lines, slowly unfolding and Konitz-like, with echoes of chestnuts like “You Go To My Head” peeking out from the shadows. But aside from comically rousing exchanges on the contrabass saxophone, the reedman was not the center of attention over the course of the first hour – instead, it was a spare jovial collectivity where most of the work was in passing the baton to improvisers who would put their own stamp on the music in years to come. Even if it didn’t come off seamlessly (Filiano spent a lot of time goofing around with electronics and pedals rather than his generally more intriguing bass improvising), the music proudly stated its open-ended and generative themes.


Photo courtesy Chris Jonas

The second half of the concert was dedicated to the Diamond Curtain Wall music, employing the SuperCollider algorithmic composition program, along with a choir performing texts from the E section of Braxton’s Trillium operatic cycle. The composer’s role here was as conductor; the instrumentalists included reedman Josh Sinton, brass multi-instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum, harpist Maura Valenti and trumpeter Chris DiMeglio (also a chorus member). The choir consisted of Anne Rhodes, Kyoko Kitamura, Amy Crawford, and Michael Douglas Jones, who have been working with the choral and operatic music for some time. It’s a little bit harder to find words to discuss the text-based music because it’s so wrapped up in Braxton’s cosmology/philosophy. A lot of it has to do with concepts of space and how we interact with one another given different types of experiential loci – how we bond, how we make choices, and how events are understood in different iterations of space and time. Some of the things that I wrote down (ascertained from the choral parts) might give one an idea of the themes undertaken:
  • Paths
  • Speed limits
  • Stations
  • Directions
  • Strategies
  • Exits
  • Regulation
  • Navigation
  • Images
  • Policies
  • Local aspirations
  • Gates
  • Territories
  • Divides
  • Structures
  • Countries
  • Geography
  • Topography
  • Interference
  • Statements
  • Orders
  • Requests
  • Officials
  • Menus
If all this seems rarefied when divorced from the actual hearing/living of the work, well, that’s a natural response – it’s best experienced live. And in that sense the work came off beautifully – Braxton’s conducting of the ensemble cast the piece’s first bars into an auditory hall of mirrors, introductory long tones bent into a hyperbolic aural picture as he literally shaped the sound on stage. I can’t say I’ve ever heard or seen anything quite like it in the flesh (and I don’t have the speaker setup at home to truly hear things like Gruppen or some of Xenakis’ choral/orchestral works correctly). Instrumentally there were shades of Stockhausen and Berio, with Sinton’s flute bouncing off Valenti’s spiky and muted harp and the refractive electronic tones generated by SuperCollider. While the concepts borne out from the Trillium texts are themselves interesting and of importance, in practice they often blended together into a chattering polyphony that either reflected the complexities of the Tri-Axial system or subsumed the bearing of words and associated constructs to the overall sonic experience. To be sure, the composer’s hand was still quite evident in the work’s production, but there remained the feeling of warm-hearted unity that will see this music into the next time cycle.

It will be interesting to see how the Tri-Centric Foundation and Roulette continue to collaborate; even without the stamp of Braxton’s name, the space regularly presents diverse music by young improvisers and composers who are shaping our contemporary musical landscape. And while Braxton is certainly present in the scope of this broader enterprise, that is not to say there’s some sort of overarching “other figure” looming behind what someone like Halvorson or Bynum produces. Clearly it’s their own work, even as it might follow in the footsteps of those improvising composers and conceptualists who’ve come before. That’s what this music is built on, after all – but it’s fascinating to see the real time process of transference as it happens.

Tri-Centric Foundation (website) (facebook)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Changes afoot in Ni Kantu-land

To quote one of our great modern philosophers, Jim Anchower, "hola amigos - it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but shit's been real crazy around here." It's true, though, because summer posting has taken a back seat to a move across the country (or halfway across, anyway). As of July 28, my wonderful girlfriend and I will be packing up the Penske truck and moving to New York. It's been a long time coming and my hope is that, if nothing else, the city will encourage some of the inspiration that can be hard to dredge up in other contexts. Oh, for sure, it's there, but sometimes one gets set in one's ways and doesn't have the threat of creative retribution to encourage oneself otherwise. Austin has treated me well, though, all told and there are some great people and musicians here. Not enough people dip their toes in to Austin's vanguard sometimes, but if it's any consolation, people don't always engage with creative music in our biggest metropolises either. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Weird Weeds, Plutonium Farmers, Epistrophy Arts, the Austin New Music Coop, The Cutting Edge, and End of an Ear as endemic to my six-and-a-half year Austin and Texas experience.

Also, it was Steve Lacy's birthday on Monday (he would've been 78). I couldn't find embedded video of such classics as "Fork New York" and "La Motte-Picquet" (subway tune), so here is "The Zoo" from the 1966 ESP LP Forest and The Zoo with Lacy (ss), Enrico Rava (tp), Johnny Dyani (b) and Louis Moholo (d). Recorded in Buenos Aires, cover by the great painter Bob Thompson, with a title that probably refers to the American urbanism he'd recently departed. It's funny to think how, at least to me, Lacy during this period of open, completely collective music, was in some ways "straighter" (pun intended) than the very intense and scrappy, albeit more strictly composed music he worked on in the '70s. While free and out, Lacy never left behind the essential nature of the tune. Songs are always there, even in the most challenging of his music - the same goes for Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and looking to the "song" is also how I began to understand the work of his wife, the (oft-maligned) vocalist and string multi-instrumentalist Irene Aebi. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Appeal: Tom Carter

I don’t know Tom Carter well but I’ve talked to him a couple of times and he’s seemed incredibly kind and generous, both from my own experience and that of others. He’s an excellent guitarist and has been a catalyzing figure in modern psychedelic music, both in Texas and in the New York area. It’s always an unfortunate thing when a musician falls seriously ill with no forewarning, and with not much of a system in place to help that person out (medical bills, etc.). Granted, that’s not JUST the case for musicians and artists, but anybody whose life might fall outside the comfortable margins here in America. That said, when we heard that Carter was hospitalized on tour with pneumonia, it was startling, and even more troubling is the fact that his illness is serious enough to keep him in intensive care overseas. While German medical care is excellent, it’s still going to be a struggle for him and his family to deal with the fallout back home. The least we can do is look out for him; concerned supporters have set up a website where you can donate directly to his care. In the meantime, we can all wish Mr. Carter a speedy recovery and many Bright Moments in the future.

Here’s the link:
Tom Carter Fund

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ni Kantu's Wish List

Bunny Claus is nonplussed.
Okay, so we’re pretty lucky in this day and age to have a lot of music – a LOT – available, either on disc/wax or in the blogosphere. Whether new or reissued, it can be hard to keep track of it all. And yeah, sure, I’m a collector as well as being someone who’s very invested in new music. It’s sometimes hard to be both, and the pendulum swings in various ways (though I’d like to say that, no matter what, at least it’s “swinging”). Just when you think you’ve heard it all, something new and absolutely killing will come down the pike – say, The Cherry Thing (Neneh Cherry & The Thing) or a trio of Peter Brötzmann, Masahiko Sato and Takeo Moriyama forthcoming on Not Two Records (and you said you had enough Brotzm. records). And the reissues keep coming too – an exhaustive Coleman Hawkins set just came out on Mosaic, and we can look forward to music from William Parker's archives, a Joe Daley Trio boxed set, Bobby Bradford/John Carter and Horace Tapscott reissues in the next year or less. I was thinking about this in respect to the near-absolute lack of in print material from Bengt Nordström and in that spirit, here are a few things (if anyone’s listening) that I’d love to see available before too long:

Bill Dixon – Bennington and Beyond: a boxed set cherry-picking Dixon’s work with his own ensembles and student-participatory groups from the early 1970s through the 1990s. It’d also be great for the Dixon/Taylor duo recordings to see the light of day, because they’re incredible.

Bengt “Frippe” Nordström – The Complete Bird Notes Recordings: a boxed set reissuing all of the Swedish saxophonist’s small-run LPs and singles for his Bird Notes label, 1962-1970. Solos, duos with Don Cherry, and all manner of small groups as well as the practice recordings made as he blew over Miles Davis LPs and the like. Some of these were issued in fewer than five copies, and haven’t been heard by anybody other than this guy.

Manfred Schoof Quintet and the John Surman Trio – two of the most visible European jazz groups on the festival/recording circuit in the late ‘60s (Schoof) and early ‘70s (Surman) deserve comprehensive reissue programs.

Stephen Haynes – more from the Parrhesia group (with Joe Morris and Warren Smith), or any of the Real Art Ways ensembles he’s been putting together. I can live vicariously through Facebook posts, but hopefully someone will step in soon with studio time and a release budget to make these things happen. Along with Morris and Smith, he’s done some great-looking performances with Tyshawn Sorey, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Chris Critella.

Ingrid Laubrock & Anthony Braxton duets – I saw them perform together in 2011 as part of the Tri-Centric festival in New York, and they work really well as a pairing of horns. It seems like just a matter of time.

Mary Halvorson guitar soli LP (because I Never Meta Guitar just whet the appetite).

Names we just don’t hear enough of, for a start: Rozanne Levine, Kirk Knuffke, Nobu Stowe, Ted Daniel, John Blum.

We can always hear more from: Nate Wooley, Joe Morris, Weasel Walter, Alexander Hawkins, Darius Jones and many others.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Briefly Reviewed, May 2012: On Vinyl

Bassett & Lubelski at The Stone
MARCIA BASSETT & SAMARA LUBELSKI
Sunday Night - Sunday Afternoon
(Kye)

On Graham Lambkin's Kye imprint comes the duo of guitarist Marcia Bassett and violinist Samara Lubelski performing two sidelong improvisations. They are both doyennes of modern, open-form psychedelia; Bassett made her mark with Double Leopards and Hototogisu, while Lubelski is associated with the Tower Recordings, Metabolismus, and Hall of Fame. Though Lubelski has employed the violin as shading on a series of psych-folk records over the last few years, her main statement on the instrument remains In The Valley (Child of Microtones, 2003). Her guitar playing has its own welcoming, gauzy approach, but it's a delight to hear her stretch out with bow, strings, and pedals as she does here. Comparisons have been made to Takehisa Kosugi and to a degree that’s not too far off, though Lubelski’s wowing wails are a shade brighter and less severe. It would be a little too simple to call Sunday Night – Sunday Afternoon a drone record, though Bassett’s echoing, layered fuzz and Lubelski’s delayed and reverbed harmonic scrapes do create a canvas of tonal strata. These tones aren’t just undercurrents for a life already lived or music already played, however – they are active and incredibly nuanced, and the two instrumentalists’ uncoiled sparks play off of one another with interwoven overtones. Those overtones sometimes produce a human-like cry, but not in the sense of an Eternal Music sublime. Rather, Bassett and Lubelski revel in the natural thinness of their instruments, which encourages the music to ricochet as much as it seeks commonality. The pair creates a thorny sound environment and one that is, quite clearly, connected to the physicality of two improvisers. Ambient or drone-based music doesn’t normally evoke such strong real-time interplay, and such dynamism is central to Bassett and Lubelski’s work.

KARL BÖSMANN
Eskalation 
(Youdonthavetocallitmusic)

When this attractive LP arrived from Germany with a gorgeous-looking silver-embossed cover, stuck in with some out-of-print vinyl I’d bought, I had no idea who Karl Bösmann was. Eskalation appeared in 2007 on the Youdonthavetocallitmusic label (Ilya Monosov/Shining Path, Kommissar Hjuler), Bösmann’s sixth album as sole performer, alongside a series of compilation appearances and so forth. I’m still not entirely sure who he is – experimental/sound artists tend to be less big on bios than their jazz/improv counterparts – but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because he’s clearly producing some fascinatingly bleak work. Bösmann creates these sound environments electro-acoustically using guitar, violin, contrabass, singing bowls, percussion and voice, though they’re usually altered beyond recognition. “Voice 23” is harsh, metallic throat singing, perhaps augmented by a mouth harp, and parceled out in stomach-churning drones and militaristic loops. “RRRRR” involves deep, resonant cymbal scrapes amid low and indeterminate burbles, which build into a rugged mass of feedback and cyclical cricket-machine chatter. “Medan Market Place” seems synth-driven, with variable-pitch hammering that produces a nasty glue of overtones. The lengthy title piece appears to stretch out Bösmann’s condensed obsessions from the first side into something that, while it retains an unsettled industrial texture, takes on the characteristics of inching into a hot bath. Dense, sharp, and impenetrable, Bösmann’s work is nevertheless a respectable and compelling slice of modern non-music along the lines of John Duncan, NWW, and Ghédalia Tazartès.

PHILL MUSRA
At Huseyins
(Sagittarius A-Star)

At Huseyin’s captures reedman Phill Musra’s cooperative in its post-Intex/post-Boston days when he, multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosmic and percussionist Huseyin Ertunç were living in LA and doing what they could to work creatively in a far-flung and often challenging environment. While the tapes regularly rolled, none of the music they made was released at the time, though Musra sells CD-Rs when he performs (not always in the best of circumstances). Limited-edition imprint Sagittarius A-Star has issued some of Musra’s new music, but this is the label’s first disc from his archives, a single-sided blue vinyl 12” containing 1991 recordings of “I Love You God” and “Creation.” In terms of palette the music is different from the Intex LPs – Cosmic sticks to keyboards, whipping between vibes, organ, guitar and kalimba-like settings, while Musra is furious and entranced on soprano. On the opening piece, Cosmic’s whorls of Twentieth Century organ music are particularly impressive and the theme has sparks of The Creator Spaces. “Creation” is fragile but captivating – the interplay between Ertunç and Cosmic builds on an array of surfaces before the keyboardist spins out an almost comically rhapsodic solo of Ra-like juxtapositions. Though brief, At Huseyin’s puts forth a convincingly offbeat impression, and makes up in honest struggle what it may lack in technical proficiency.

NAKATANI/TINER/DRAKE
Ritual Inscription
(Epigraph)

Epigraph is a new label focusing on improvised music presented in Bakersfield, California and though such local/international boundaries are rapidly disappearing in some ways, it's still a good thing to spotlight certain hubs of activity. After all, this music is as much about the communities that stretch beyond the players as it is providing a context for self-reflection. Ritual Inscription is the label's first release and it consists of two sidelong pieces by the trio of percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani (Easton, PA via Japan), trumpeter Kris Tiner (Bakersfield), and guitarist Jeremy Drake (Los Angeles), totaling just over a half-hour of music. Nakatani’s relentless touring has made him a force on the American creative music scene; he frequently performs solo (with his Nakatani Gong Orchestra) and in unpredictable meetings with local improvisers. While his solo performances revel in deep, physically resonant tones brought forth from large gongs and the bows he’s invented, there’s also fleetness arising in even the sparest of settings. That’s true here, with singing bowls and metallic objects deftly and agitatedly orbiting Tiner’s bright, clarion lyricism. It’s interesting to hear Tiner in a setting as wide-open as this trio – the improvisations are busy and convulsive compared to Empty Cage’s stately rigor or the romanticism of Tin/Bag. That’s not to say the performances don’t have their subtlety, but the trumpeter’s sardonic, bluesy wail often highlights the music’s central unrest. One challenge is that in Nakatani’s work, there is a visual element that is almost untranslatable to recordings. His physical movements and the effects his body makes on a range of selected/unselected percussion is fascinating to watch. So while Ritual Inscription is a fine album, it’s well worth your time to seek out these performers in their natural habitat.

SCORCH TRIO + MARS WILLIAMS
Made in Norway
(Rune Grammofon)

There really isn’t much out there like the Scorch Trio. Founded in 2002 by Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim and the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, the unit has waxed six albums in the last decade. While free-fusion groups aren’t exactly a new concept – early jazz-rock was pretty far-out – Scorch Trio clothe their technicality in an utter lack of bullshit, and the focus is on spontaneous growth rather than a hyper-masculine wall of racket (though that’s certainly possible, too). One can’t really call them a Scandinavian ensemble any more – Björkenheim lives in New York, Flåten makes his home in Austin, TX, while Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly came in after Nilssen-Love left in 2010. On the double-vinyl set Made in Norway, the group’s already strong connection to Chicago is solidified by adding reedman Mars Williams to the mix on seven improvisations recorded live in Oslo and Bergen.

I’m not sure whether it’s longevity or the introduction of Rosaly and Williams (or the immediacy of a live setting), but Made in Norway strips away the full-bore nature of some of Scorch Trio’s previous work into hushed, tense telepathy, Björkenheim working through dense rockish scales with rounded detail on “Loos” as electric bass and percussion stir up an elegant mass. Even when the guitarist unravels upper-register peals, they are in concert with the ensemble rather than chopsy power-plays. For as throaty and exuberant an improviser as Williams is, what comes to the fore on Made in Norway is his presence as a deep listener – his soprano and tenor snake their way into the burbling Latinate groove of “Oslo” (a beautiful example) or hoarsely accent microscopic wails and terse, coiled shades as “Genber” begins threading its way into one’s consciousness. A heel-digging stomp has subtly emerged by the time spit and sweat fly on the latter piece, Björkenheim’s coagulants and Williams’ burred tone yoked to fuzz bass and Rosaly’s kaleidoscopic pulse. But even amid this electrified swirl, snatches of “Lonely Woman” render the current visibly pathos-laden. There’s a little bit of feeling one another out on the closing “Bergen,” but the warped anthem that Williams and Bjorkenheim allude to is gorgeous (if perhaps too briefly used). Made in Norway is a rewarding meeting between four world-class improvisers, and hopefully the die for further collaborations has been cast.

CHES SMITH'S CONGS FOR BRUMS
Psycho Predictions
(88 Records)

French percussionist/composer Jacques Thollot may have set the bar for the “drummer’s solo album” insanely high, creating an electronic and acoustic sound environment that explores compositional detail, chops and whimsy in 1971’s Quand Le Son Devient Aigu, Jeter le Girafe a la Mer (Futura). Ches Smith’s Congs For Brums is a decidedly less manic solo effort than the Thollot LP, but the Brooklyn-via-Bay Area percussionist and composer is mining a similarly curious seam. Psycho Predictions is Smith’s third album under this moniker, alongside work with guitarists Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot, saxophonists Tim Berne and Darius Jones, and bassists Trevor Dunn and Devon Hoff (Good for Cows). Psycho Predictions consists of a three-part suite for drum set, gongs, bells, vibraphone, electronics and mini keyboard, all performed in real time.

Often, it seems like Smith’s MO is ensemble subterfuge; sure, he swings hard and pushes group interaction to a high level, but that comes with a degree of picking apart time and units on his own terms. While there’s certainly a lot going on within Congs for Brums’ music, it’s an equally patient and ultimately captivating affair – the opening “Death Chart” and its flayed keyboard blocks and thrashing backbeats echo Talibam! at first, but oppressively slowed down. Smith varies the pace and superimposes tumbling fills and quirky, childlike melodies, somehow keeping the whole thing in a relatable orbit. “Birth Chart” begins minimally with a simple keyboard progression and repeating vibraphone cells; Smith moves to mallets and toms with a clear, sashaying elaboration, occasionally accenting with hi-hat splashes. By the composition’s close, the original focus has been obliterated by sharp flourishes and plugged-in clunks, but as he works toward ancillary sonic obsessions, these newly introduced fragments are handled with tunefulness and economy. The closing “Conclusion: That’s Life” ties together thin electronic bloops and dives with clattering, agitated rhythm in a sweaty improvisation, maintaining a tenuous link between noise and concentrated, particulate elaboration. Midway through the piece, Smith’s ornamental phrases atop a haranguing electronic beat are wonderfully striking, if soon supplanted by a brash swing. Psychotic Predictions is a very special record of orchestrated solo music from one of this music's most intriguing young improvisers.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Gems from the Archives: Rare British Jazz

Bob Downes, ca. 1970s
BOB DOWNES
New York Suite
(Openian)
ISKRA 1903
Goldsmiths
(Emanem)
BAILEY/BUTCHER/ROBAIR
Scrutables
(Weight of Wax)
G.F. FITZ-GERALD & LOL COXHILL
The Poppy-Seed Affair
(Reel Recordings)

The last decade-plus has seen an inordinate amount of reissues and unearthed material, which in some sense is a sign that despite the supposed death of the CD, certain niche markets are doing quite well. Of course, it’s considerably cheaper to produce a CD than vinyl and that’s encouraged small labels to step into the reissue game. British jazz and improvised music has especially seen an upswing in the availability of archival releases. Some of these are authorized, some are not, but the sheer amount of rare Brit-jazz on offer is pretty striking. British jazz is a special case, too, because the 1960s and early ‘70s saw major labels funding catalogs of avant-garde and free improvisation – RCA, CBS, EMI-Columbia, Philips/Fontana and Deram/London, for example. Though it dropped off in the mid-70s, the major label presence in the UK and Europe is a far cry from what American musicians experienced. The last year has seen some truly striking sets from the left field Brit-jazz tree.

Flutist/saxophonist Bob Downes has been reviewed in Ni Kantu before with his freewheeling and strong trio material, almost exclusively recorded with drummer Denis Smith. Downes made a couple of albums for Vertigo/Phillips in at the close of the ‘60s before striking out on his own, releasing a small handful of LPs on his own Openian imprint in the following decade. Throughout this halcyon period Downes kept the tapes rolling, and captured a number of strong working combos and other projects that have steadfastly stood the test of time. He’s revived Openian to release some of this archival material, most of which has been rendered in very good sound. New York Suite is a little different than some of the others insofar as it’s an expanded group, with Smith on drums and regular cohort Paul Bridge on bass, as well as trombonist Paul Rutherford and guitarist Brian Godding. There are twelve pieces here, with all but the four contrabass flute-voice solos recorded in 1979 (the latter were waxed in 2011). Reel Recordings put out several complementary pieces as Crossing Borders in 2009, but this is the first issue of New York Suite anywhere.

Downes has always struck me as one of the freest musicians around, not because his music abandoned countable time or Western tonality (though it often did), but because he was able to draw heavily from R&B, rock, jazz, Asian and African folk musics without having the resulting mélange sound contrived or disorganized. As a soloist, Downes’ vocal expressions and lyrics pop out mid-phrase; a heel-digging tenor player and extraordinarily detailed flutist, he’s often reminiscent of a lanky, English Frank Wright. Twittering and using breath techniques that veer from piercing to non-tonal, on flutes Downes counterpoints himself in oddball hipster-speak and anti-establishment blues, but it comes across as spontaneous, joyful and genuine. Rutherford is a great foil, chortling and whinnying in pinched, cool commentary as Godding’s tinny, skronky fusion runs pierce the ensemble passages. On “Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” Rutherford even uses a mike run through a synthesizer, giving his trombone an absurd electronic feel that meshes well with Godding’s fuzzed-out exhortations. Though there’s certainly a rockish bent to New York Suite, the overall vibe is open-form, brilliantly expressive and unlike anything else of its time or since.

Rutherford’s main ensemble from the early ‘70s onward was Iskra, a total improvisation environment that manifested itself in groups ranging from trios to orchestras. Iskra 1903 was the first, which brought the trombonist together with guitarist Derek Bailey (later replaced by violinist Philip Wachsmann) and bassist Barry Guy. In its lifetime, the first version of Isrka 1903 waxed a double LP on Incus (reissued by Emanem) as well as one volume of the Free Improvisation box on Deutsche Grammophon. A number of archival sets have appeared in the ensuing years (all on Emanem), of which Goldsmiths is the newest. There are six pieces here, of which four were recorded at London’s Goldsmiths College in 1972 (two short improvisations fill out the disc, and are of unknown provenance).

There’s a photo of a bow-wielding Barry Guy leaning into his bass that was reprinted in John Corbett’s Extended Play (Duke, 1994), and it perfectly captures the physicality and robustness inherent in Iskra 1903. This is music about “playing” in the active sense, far from the prevailing ‘cool-and-detached’ view of English improvisation. That doesn’t mean that the music necessarily has to be loud or dense to present action, movement, and expressiveness. Rutherford, Bailey and Guy are experts in orchestration, telescoping across intervals or fiddling bullishly against microscopic plinks. Their sound palettes are vast – Rutherford uses various mutes and percussive devices alongside his already incredible vocal-brass range, while Guy and Bailey abet their instruments with volume pedals and low-grade amplification. In a way, the Goldsmiths set’s middling fidelity (not bad, just not “crisp”) brings out curious sonic aspects of the trio – horizontal guitar scrapes and pedal-actuated glissandi are rough and hairy, rather than precise audio images. Plungers and bowed harmonics become distant, alien growls and refractions (check out “Cohesion 1B”). If brilliantly skewed chamber improvisation is your thing, and Iskra 1903 hasn’t come up in your listening, Goldsmiths is an excellent place to start. For those already well heeled on the Emanem stable, the disc is a beautiful reminder of just how bright and engaging UK free music can be.

A shade under six years before Bailey passed (on Christmas Day, 2005) he cut a trio recording with saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Gino Robair that is now seeing its first issue. Though Bailey and Butcher, each from a different generation of English free players, had worked together before, this was the guitarist’s only recorded meeting with Robair. Scrutables exemplifies an adage of sorts, that Bailey in his later years seemed most inspired and unruly when working with a new conscript or in an unusual format. To put it mildly, this trio session is among his most ‘gonzo’ later recordings, but it also brings jovialness and measurement into improvisations that might otherwise seem nervy. Most of my experiences with John Butcher’s playing are in pared-down settings, either solo or with musicians like John Stevens and Eddie Prévost. In a group environment his penchant for skull-reshaping vibration and resonance is offset by continual interaction, such as with Bailey’s pedal-actuated feedback and dry downstrokes on “Frangible,” where they’re almost boppish (think Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor, ca. 1956). Robair’s kit (“energized surfaces”) includes motors, bowed cymbals and gongs, mouthpieces and the like, allowing him to get a wide range of sounds and blurring the source of each sound’s imprint. The percussionist seems to be nodding towards Stevens and Milford Graves on “Plugh,” lacing together muted patter and sharp, coppery strokes as Bailey and Butcher’s phrases nudge and ricochet. Fiddled metal and Butcher’s split tones on “Teasing Needles” occupy similar enough resonances that the results are difficult to distinguish, before the three dive headlong into a bouncy three-way conversation. The eight improvisations on Scrutables are prime later Derek Bailey, imbued with great, rackety fun and studious delicacy. It's a hell of a trio date that we can be thankful is now available.

Canadian label Reel Recordings has been one of the most consistently impressive archival imprints of the past few years. Begun in 2007 by audio engineer and British outsider music fan Mike King, they’re already up to 20 painstakingly executed releases, including incredible sets from the Soft Machine, Elton Dean, Harry Miller, Mike Osborne and Kevin Ayers. One of the first batch of Reel CDs was a set of quirkily atmospheric improvisations from guitarist G.F. Fitz-Gerald and saxophonist Lol Coxhill, titled Echoes of Duneden and recorded in 1975. Fitz-Gerald is an obscure musician to say the least; he recorded one scarce art-rock LP as Mouseproof, and contributed a track each to Coxhill’s Fleas in Custard (Caroline, 1975) and Guitar Solos 2 (Caroline, 1976). The Poppy-Seed Affair is a bit more exhaustive of Fitz-Gerald and Coxhill’s exploits, consisting of one disc of duo improvisations, one disc of Fitz-Gerald’s solos, field recordings and tape collages, and a 30-minute DVD of performance artist Ian Hinchcliffe’s (1942-2010) truly bizarre film The Poppy-Seed Affair, with Coxhill’s equally curious soundtrack. Apparently, the duo frequently participated in Hinchcliffe’s performances, so this set is truly in homage to a special time and place when the boundaries between art/music and life could be “unimagined.”

The Fitz-Gerald solo disc consists of five tracks that thread the line between incidental and stand-alone sounds. On the opening piece, the guitarist walked around his flat with a Shure mike and recorded vacuuming, records on the turntable, children playing outside, television, absurd conversational fragments, bits of his own playing, and so forth. Varying between abrupt and cut-up or going on for far too long, 1969’s “Listen Collage” is a tough entry point but worth the experience (the closing “The Team” is a more grandiose/ridiculous example of this as well). Following that are two guitar improvisations, “Fractal One” and “Fractal Two,” which continue in a collagist vein, but using – from what I can tell – real-time guitar improvisation. Fitz-Gerald has a deep and resonant tone, approximating a gut-stringed Mexican baja sexto in parts, at other times needling and wiry. Fitz-Gerald’s strumming technique must be quite harsh, but he’s incredibly dexterous as well, snaking between oppressive block chords and detailed eddies that are shot through with looped drones and nagging, weird non-gestures. There are echoes of country music and minimalism in “Fractal Two,” which is a ‘holy shit’ moment prefiguring David Grubbs’ “Banana Cabbage” by at least two decades, and is truly revelatory. The mind wants to put Fitz-Gerald in some sort of bag that would squish together Derek Bailey and Mike Cooper, but he’s too singular a player to even allow that, stretching his inventions into distorted and smeared long tones. Perhaps an Appalachian-music weaned Raymond Boni is closer? At any rate, this particular piece deserves to be heard by anyone with more than a passing interest in the possibilities of solo guitar music.

The duo disc was recorded in concert in 1981 and consists of six improvisations which, compared to Echoes of Duneden, are significantly spikier in approach. There is one solo guitar number, as the third piece starts with a clustered and galloping Fitz-Gerald, buzzing and flitting into detuned introspection and wincing, jangly gobs. Coxhill follows unaccompanied, purring his way into thickly rendered harmonics and breathy, swinging muscularity, given a ghostly counterpoint by a slight print-through on the tapes (the sound is quite clear on these discs, by the way). I’ve said it before, but to those who find Coxhill’s music to be either or both of two things – austere/rarified and overly concerned with wit – his roots in jazz and R&B are impossible to ignore and it’s a rare woodwind player who can, unaccompanied, generate this much head-bobbing and foot tapping. Paired with Fitz-Gerald’s sound world, the result is a very odd combination that doesn’t always “unite,” but the presence of disparity, collision and parallelism is wonderfully engaging as much as it can be trying. Sure, sometimes they seem to be dancing at opposite sides of the room, albeit gesturing towards one another, but when they intertwine it’s with a rather stunning level of complicity. As Coxhill skirls and spires, Fitz-Gerald shakes out a funky series of odd-interval strums or coagulates his plinks, following a buzzing fly-path. Often, if Coxhill starts mimicking him, the guitarist drops off into a bit of jangle or thin, twanging knots. The closing duet finds the saxophonist piercing and narrow, with flutter and spittle supporting volume pedal-actuated dives and tinny scratches. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it takes the full hour for their language to become clear or if it is truly the ideal closer, but the last piece seems the most traditionally “together” of the six. Sometimes it’s an odd rapport, sure, but hearing these two conversing is a beautiful thing.