Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Where It All Comes From, Part 2

I was recently pointed to this archival video posted on YouTube by vibraphonist, pianist and composer Bobby Naughton of an open rehearsal for the Orchestra of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum from December 1982. The CMIF was a community arts organization based in New Haven, Connecticut in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and grew out of an environment fostered by multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer Wadada Leo Smith and, to an extent, saxophonist Marion Brown. Smith had been a part of Chicago's AACM and his relocation to Connecticut provided a new opportunity to grow the music locally, beyond the nearby New York scene. The CMIF presented concerts, taught classes, and published its own recordings. Contra the AACM, the CMIF was more racially inclusive, which reflected both the later time-context as well as (presumably) Smith's own particular vision about the music's cultural locus. That being said, Afro-Asian roots were still a fundamental part of the CMIF's teachings. The CMIF also counted women among its member-musicians/associates, a harbinger of the gender diversity which the music has seen significant strides in since the 1980s.

I have a special affection for the CMIF, having spent summers with family in Connecticut growing up, and more than that, my uncle (Phil Buettner - no longer involved with the music) was a member of the organization, playing reeds in the orchestra and also appearing on recordings led by CMIF stalwart bassist Mario Pavone (Shodo, Alacra, 1981) and reedman Tom Chapin (The Bell of the Heart, Alacra, 1981). None of this was something that I was aware of until much later, when I’d independently started investigating the music, but it was a happy discovery for me that I could hear stories about the CMIF and its gestation. For what it’s worth, my uncle is the gentleman in yellow playing the baritone. He led a quintet with Pavone, bassist Joe Fonda, trumpeter George Alford and drummer Ralph Williams that never properly recorded, but the tapes show a strong Arista-period Braxton influence and the music is excellent (of course, I’m biased). Beyond Smith’s Kabell recordings, which were reissued on CD by Tzadik, no CMIF-related albums are in print on CD. That’s too bad, because the music that Naughton, Pavone, Fonda, Gerry Hemingway and others recorded during this period ranges from strong to absolutely superb. The CMIF Orchestra’s lone LP, The Sky Cries the Blues, is also a very scarce but rewarding listen.

I’ve heard burbling about CMIF materials being among Smith’s archive and that they might make their way into the Yale University Archives, which would be great. The work that Connecticut’s current resident improvisers – people like Carl Testa, Ann Rhodes, Stephen Haynes and Joe Morris – are doing is certainly an outgrowth of the possibilities presented by the AACM/CMIF some thirty-odd years ago. The book hasn’t yet been written on this fascinating subject, but hopefully someone intimately involved with the New Haven scene will put something together before too long.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Briefly Reviewed: Winter 2011/12

Stockholm, Berlin 1966

Almost forty-two years after his death, saxophonist Albert Ayler has reached a sort of unimpeachable ubiquity. His music, once lambasted by critics and failing in latter-day crass commercial attempts, is now part of the “jazz” pantheon. That is almost certainly a good thing. His work, while occupying a shorter time span than fellow travelers like Coltrane, Sun Ra and Miles, has had a lasting worldwide influence on both how the saxophone is played and how improvised music can be organized. The task of a critic is no longer to argue for the necessity of Ayler’s music, but to report on the quality of newly uncovered documents of his music and, perhaps, find grains and nuggets of interest in an already eloquently discussed subject. Hat Hut, which released the Lörrach/Paris 1966 concerts back in the late 1970s as a double LP, now presents the Stockholm and Berlin dates from the same tour. The Berlin set was available on the Holy Ghost boxed set (Revenant), but has ostensibly been cleaned up for this release, while the Stockholm radio concert sees its first issue here. Ayler is joined by his regular working band of the period – brother Donald Ayler on trumpet, Michel Samson on violin, Bill Folwell on bass and Beaver Harris on drums – for two sets of military-style marching band/free jazz fanfare as well as a rare cover of Pharoah Sanders’ “Japan.”

While the Aylers’ music was more locked in at this point to a theme one-solos-theme two-solos-theme arrangement, that tightness served them very well and allowed concision to enter the proceedings. As strong of a soloist as Albert Ayler was, Donald was a less inventive (or at least narrower) improviser and Samson, while an interesting and impassioned foil for the tenor and trumpet, was also not a high-caliber improviser. Whether for better or for worse, possible raggedness was shored up and solos came in short to medium bursts, with the music moving along at clip that, while somewhat frantic, was also undeniably stately in its energy. That can present a contradictory scenario as one often wants to hear a bit of a loss of control and the edge that that presents, while “better” instant composition sometimes follows from a degree of “boxing in.” Of the two sets presented here, the thirty minutes that comprise the Stockholm session are in excellent fidelity and the band is incredibly tight, while the Berlin set is recorded slightly rawer (to its credit, perhaps) and the music a bit more pell-mell (also perhaps a benefit). Exuberant fracas and reverent control emerge as two sides of this music, and cutting through it all is the massive, joyous and sublime call of Albert Ayler’s tenor. As much as this is group music with collective melodies and improvisation, it hinges on one of the invariably great tenor saxophone sounds in modern jazz. For fans of the Aylers’ music, this disc is essential.

Fire Sign

When listening to the music of composer-clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman, one has to suspend not only the idea of the “expected” but also the status of improvisation as something sacred, where the notion of composing/playing “in the moment” must remain undisturbed. He’s brought high-caliber improvisers like Nate Wooley, Peter Evans, Christopher Hoffman, Tom Blancarte and Harris Eisenstadt into play for Fire Sign, his second release on Tzadik and sixth in a few short years. Through the use of devices like ProTools, Cymerman takes improvisations and turns them inside out, creating an approach to directed improvisation that, while chopped and altered, remains distinctly tied to the personality of the players.

It’s a challenge, though perhaps not an aesthetic departure, to take apart and “recompose” the trumpet duo of Wooley and Evans on “Collapsed Eustachian,” circular breath and grunting, whining scrabble commingling with electronic flutter and swaths of pure dueling noise. Their music is both piercingly clear and violently abstract; Cymerman has shifted it to encompass stretched planes, electro-acoustically merging palimpsests and strange undercurrents. Tom Blancarte’s bass solo, “I Woke Up Early the Day That I Died” is muscular and throaty, his arco hacked to bits or emerging from a processed fog of overdubs, voice samples and digital flutter. Knowing the physicality that Blancarte and his instrument produce together, it’s almost amusing to hear a poetic “journal violone” unceremoniously torn asunder. “Touched with Fire” is a duo for Hoffman’s cello and the percussion of Brian Chase, athletic volley trades hiccupping and skipping backwards in a tug of war with a third, equally aggressive arm. The piece moves into a stark landscape during its midsection, a woody sonata within a digital environment, nattered by chewy glitches and filmic samples. The closing sextet piece, “Burned Across the Sky,” where Cymerman’s clarinet is joined by Hoffman, Wooley, Blancarte, drummer Harris Eisenstadt and trombonist Sam Kulik, is fascinating. There are echoes of Basil Kirchin in the jungle bird-like warble and scrape of trumpet, clarinet and electronics across a massive orchestral bottom – a simply stunning piece, it’s a powerful and weighty close to a unique and visionary audio journey.

Have No Fear

The sixth album in the Nessa Records catalog, tenorman Von Freeman’s 1975 LP Have No Fear was also the first non-AACM/Art Ensemble-related record to be released on the label. Certainly Nessa has become known as a haven for important AACM groups and figures like Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith and Air, but Chuck Nessa’s tastes are broad enough that the catalog has also represented unheralded (or under-heralded) modern jazzmen such as Lucky Thompson, Warne Marsh, Ben Webster and Freeman. Ever a quixotic player and a hometown hero, Freeman was little-known outside Chicago despite a career that had spanned three decades by the time this session was waxed. Freeman is joined on three originals, a Basie staple (“Swingin’ the Blues”) and one Great American Songbook tune (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”) by regular confreres Wilbur Campbell (drums), John Young (piano), and David Shipp (bass).

Freeman, like many of the most intriguing improvisers, is a player rooted in contrasts and making the (perceptibly) impossible possible. His tone can be bitingly harsh as well as soft and light; it’s pillowy and bounces across the rhythm section’s rugged clip until he begins toying with wincingly sharp notes in athletic cavalcades. He can take that big, taffy-like swing era tenor sound and make it ricochet, a quality of Lester Young that’s imbued with the avant-garde (or at least highly, markedly individual) in Freeman’s hands, especially on “Swingin’ the Blues.” The ballad “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” spotlights both a gorgeous tone as well as the weird fractals that he finds in the melody, creating lemony tendrils that snake up and out of Young’s fizzily playful comping. Freeman’s work here is almost reminiscent of Sam Rivers’ standard takes on A New Conception (Blue Note, 1966) in sheer inventiveness and audacity, but more joyful than raw. John Young leaps and spirals with a subdued, rhapsodic funk and while the rhythm section may be slightly more daring on the companion volume, Serenade & Blues (Nessa n-11), their pocketed push throughout Have No Fear keeps the material grounded contra Freeman’s flights. The aforementioned “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” does include an interesting, free coda that shows just how stretched this quartet can be – perhaps a hallmark of the under-recognized Chicago class of geniuses. For this CD reissue, Have No Fear also includes the short bonus track “Boomerang,” in which a cracking Wilbur Campbell maintains a pace that, no matter how fast, is still in direct contrast with the leader’s utterly elastic, maddening sense of time and units. At nearly 90 years of age, Von Freeman doesn’t perform with nearly as much frequency as he used to, but he remains a treasure of modern jazz whose recorded legacy has provided some truly essential gems.

Note: Nessa Records does not have a website but releases can be found at better brick & mortar or online retailers.

Shifting Moods

Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has been collaborating with Swiss alto/soprano saxophonist Juerg Solothurnmann, bassist Daniel Studer and drummer Dieter Ulrich since at least 2007, when their debut disc, Moving Stills, was released on Unit Records. Stevens is a proponent of the open-mainstream and seems to favor the quartet format, such as with the Fonda/Stevens Group and Conference Call. As with most of these other groups, In Transit is an egalitarian, collaborative ensemble in which no one voice dominates. Stevens’ pianism tows the line between erudite, distant ambiguity and warm opennes, sometimes shifting within a few short phrases. The solo that opens “Color Deep” is a case in point – crystalline, sharp, and dappled, hewing to shapely repetition he’s wonderfully supported by high-register bass plucks and brushy tiptoes. Gradually, Solothurnmann enters on alto with simple, quavering harmonics that balance painterly motion with calmly placed shading. “Spices & Devices,” in two parts, is more cantankerous; in the first part, Stevens sets up a haranguing contrary motion (a la Dave Burrell) to round chortle and the persistent, youthful rattle of bass and drums. Ulrich is a fine percussionist in the vein of Tony Oxley and Barry Altschul, keeping distracted time that often stops just short of a countable groove. Keening burble and hairy fiddling open the second movement, with Solothurnmann bringing a sound that is both stately and sputtering to the proceedings, echoing Rob Brown, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana. While having nothing to do with the Wolfgang Dauner piece of the same name, “Dream Talk” is robust and at the start, the piano’s gutsy resonance rings out over the music’s landscape. The tune’s flow moves from unaccompanied solo to semi-duet (between bass and percussion) and closes with an ambling, idiosyncratic trilogue between alto, bass and drums. In Transit is an appropriate name for a quartet that snakes its way through and beyond melodic free-bop logic, and Shifting Moods is an excellent place to hear them at work and play.

(Multikulti Project)
(Multikulti Project)
Zomo Hall
(Not Two)

One of the great things – and there are many – about following creative improvised music is that one will never uncover all of the nooks and crannies where the music exists. Most regions of the world – west and east – have an improvised music/creative composition subculture, some of it better documented than others. Even if the idea of every place having “scenes” and “sub-scenes” has been rendered somewhat obsolete as our niches are drawn together through the internet, it stands to reason that regional art and culture is still a special thing that takes some time to uncover and experience. I remember that my general go-to in this music was of the American persuasion until about a dozen years ago, when I first started diving into jazz and improvised music from the UK, Germany and Holland. Scandinavia came later, and I’m dipping my toes into the Japanese improvisers at present. Eastern and East-Central Europe is a fascinating, deep area of rich modern creative music, but not an area I’ve exposed myself to very heavily (there’s still time). New discs that have crossed my desk recently spotlight musicians from Lithuania, Serbia, Ukraine and Poland – all countries whose contributions to the jazz/improvised vanguard are worth seeking out.

Violist Szilard Mezei originally hails from Serbia (he’s now based in France), and though his name might not crop up as quickly among the foremost European improvising composers active today, his CV is lengthy and includes groups ranging from duo to orchestra. Innen is the Mezei Wind Quartet’s second disc to date – the first, We Were Watching the Rain, appeared on Leo in 2008. Across seven of the violist’s compositions he’s joined by reedman Bogdan Rankovic, trombonist Branislav Aksin, and tubaist Kornel Papista. What’s striking about the group is that, without a chordal rhythm section, they nevertheless put forth significant motion – not an impossible feat for a chamber ensemble, sure, but in spite of a relatively preponderant shade, the foursome have a spry, dancing energy. All four musicians can occupy front line or subservient roles – strums and repeating blats at play with brassy high-pitched chortle and mouthy, choppy woodwinds.
“Hep 15 R” nods to Anthony Braxton in the placement of Rankovic’s dry, lyrical alto against massed swirls and dissonant, puckered unison lines that gradually move into seesawing collectivity. Mezei’s scrabbled harmonics and constantly shifting athletic hum is an incredible directing force, imbuing this small unit with both orchestral weight and devilish immediacy. Earlier in the disc, “Nagymacska” stomps in rings around a dominant tonal center, opening out into flitting conversational vistas with players duetting or soloing over a subtle, hushed rhythmic backing. It’s a gorgeous piece that really gives one an idea of how the quartet works to realize compositional vision with the maximum amount of freedom – the soft walk of alto and tuba holding court as Mezei peels off in gritty ponticello, or Aksin’s elegant slides atop a choppy, plucked tiptoe. Excellent stuff.

Varpai joins the Lithuanian singer André Pabarčiūté with German percussionist Klaus Kugel and Ukrainian bassist Mark Tokar for a series of ten improvisations that are full of detailed chamber arrangement while putting forth a strong degree of mass and energy. Vocally, Pabarciute reconciles the guttural, subtonal extremity and caterwaul of Diamanda Galas with bubbling lyricism, leaping from husky chatter and bent multiphonics to the range (if not the words) of a popular siren. Her voice is incredibly rich and, coupled with Kugel’s orchestral approach (large, contrasting sounds and hulking spaciousness), makes for a massive sounding small group. Tokar and Kugel vacillate between each player performing as an anchor and contrapuntally, with deep bowed chords and gong resonance building a foundation as arco flits and accenting cymbals and bells define and shape space. Pabarčiūté is certainly the main attraction on Varpai, even if the disc presents a cooperative trio – her vocal work is just that arresting, blending strands of Kate Bush and Jeanne Lee into an approach that’s decidedly her own.

Nuntium is a chamber quartet featuring Kugel, bassist Ksawery Wojcinski, accordionist Robert Kusiolek and violinist Anton Sjarov on the seven-part title suite. Though the music is cooperatively credited, Kusiolek is apparently the musician-composer behind Nuntium and is one of Poland’s preeminent young avant-garde acolytes. Some of the record’s most intriguing interplay comes from Kusiolek and Sjarov; the accordionist also doubles on electronics and Sjarov augments his violin with voice. The opening movement almost recalls some of Salish Bayal’s work with trumpeter Maffay Falay, even though the connection between Turkish and Polish melodies might be spurious. Fleshed out with electronics, pulsing accordion, gongs and droning bass, there’s a lilting duskiness that is extraordinarily affecting. Amplified knocks and echoing resonance set the stage for the third movement, which takes shape as a tart lament for violin, bowed bass and the accordion’s accompanying gloop before shifting into light, celebratory flourishes. The motion and associations with both folk music and folk-derived art music make Nuntium a particularly engaging session; the “rhythm section” mostly presents color and texture that draw out the front line's referential wit and breathtaking technique. Kusiolek and his comrades have come up with a powerful creative chamber-music concept that surely will bear more fruit.

Hera is a rugged Polish quartet that builds on the twined histories of free jazz and modern composition, rooted in four pieces from clarinetist and nominal leader Waclaw Zimpel as well as one group-credited work and the traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Their self-titled first disc (covered here somewhat belatedly) was recently followed up with Where My Complete Beloved Is, also on Multikulti. In addition to Zimpel, the group features bassist Ksawery Wójcinski, drummer Pawel Szpura and soprano/tenor saxophonist Pawel Postaremczak. The opening “Monreale” has a low-slung brilliance, bass clarinet and tenor in phased worry against deep arco and Szpura’s shimmering rustle. Zimpel digs in with his heels but also brings a scumbled romanticism to the fierce painterliness of bass and percussion. Postaremczak is a new name to me, and he's a powerful tenor player who has internalized Dudek, Ervin, Pharoah and Rivers into a florid but robust approach.
“Napoli->Palermo” continues the Italian theme in title, written as a series of measured atonal suspension that, with the saxophonist at the helm, moves into clattering, cussing fracas with Surman Trio-like energy. Zimpel’s subsequent statements bring a bit more reservation to the group, though his reed work soon becomes bracingly hot atop pizzicato grapple and pot-stirring action. The closing rendition of “Motherless Child” is an oblique launch pad for the quartet, collective improvisation giving way to Zimpel’s reverential, burred taragato as he outlines Aylerish spirituality with rustic lyricism, Wójcinski and Szpura heaving underneath before Postaremczak lets fly with exhaustive, cyclical planeing. Hera’s debut was – and is – an example of finely wrought group unity, no-nonsense European improvised music well worth seeking out.

The Foton Quartet, consisting of reedman Gerard Lebik, trumpeter Artur Majewski, bassist Jakub Cywinski and drummer Wojciech Romanowski, is probably the most traditional of these recordings, though that tradition is rooted in the openness of a pianoless quartet (structurally in the post-Ornette mold) and bonded by European free improvisation. Recorded in 2007-2008 and released in 2010, Zomo Hall is the Polish group’s first disc and features six untitled collective improvisations. The first piece finds Lebik on tenor, with his thick and velvety gobs in a fine sideways keen against Majewski’s crinkled measure and the spare, tense rattle of cymbals, toms and grappled strings. Lebik and Majewski are a well-balanced pair, indebted to front lines such as Dudek and Schoof or Rosengren and Cherry but decidedly seeking a contemporary path.
There’s a decidedly coiled sparseness to the ensemble’s music; one would expect this lineup to, perhaps, produce crackling freebop energy, but Romanowski’s fullness is mostly in service of texture, pushing waves of accent and tone alongside the bassist’s throaty ruminations. The fourth piece features some fine, wheezy alto clarinet playing amid a canvas of mallets, arco harmonics, bells and swaggering huffs in varied areas of density and comment. Switching to disembodied mouthpiece, the reedman’s high-pitched exhortations stand in relief to collaborators who delicately tread the line separating full-on clamor and muscular withholding patterns. Cywinski’s unaccompanied callus-splitting statements form a passage that demands a close ear; switching to arco, he’s brilliantly conversant with Majewski’s cool, thin lines in a wispy trilogue. While at times there might be a little too much continuity between the improvisations, the musicianship and interplay on offer from the Foton Quartet makes this disc a rewarding and remarkable listen.

(Aum Fidelity)
Heart Protector
Some other Zongs
(Not Two)

The improvisational subgenre of solo saxophone music has been around since Anthony Braxton’s seminal For Alto (1968, Delmark) though it traces its roots at least as far back as Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso” (1948, Mercury). Though one expects the instrument to be at its best when supported, at the very least, by a rhythm section or like foil, solo saxophone recordings are as varied and nuanced as are the ways to play the axe (or as its practitioners). This is quite clear from a selection of recent solo tenor, sopranino and baritone recordings from musicians based in New York, Paris and the United Kingdom.

It’s curious that, even in the 1990s, David S. Ware was thought of by some (myself included) as something of a young lion – after all, his first recording at age nineteen was in 1968 with altoist Abdul Hannan. Maybe it’s the translation of a youthful energy that he carried in his music well into his forties; that is still present, but as he ages his sound is as fragile as it is fervent, and connections to his forebears become ever clearer. Organica is the second volume of Ware solos to be released by Aum Fidelity (following the excellent Saturnian), and is culled from live performances in Brooklyn and Chicago during 2010. The opening “Minus Gravity I” features Ware on sopranino, unspooling and re-knotting pinched lines with echoes of both Coltrane and Coxhill. The small straight horn is, if not necessarily a new instrument in Ware’s arsenal, nevertheless an instrument that does a fascinating job of translating his chordal recombinations into a high-pitched, devilishly narrow area. There are two tenor pieces, both titled “Organica,” which elegantly spotlight the saxophonist’s primary horn and textural range, from throaty, velvety croon to terse peals and wincing pirouettes. Though it might be difficult to envision Ware’s music without collaborators like William Parker, Warren Smith, Guillermo Brown or Matthew Shipp, these unaccompanied statements are a show of creativity and force that is rarely rivaled in modern music.

Brooklyn-based tenorman Travis Laplante is best known for his work in the quartet Little Women with altoist Darius Jones, drummer Jason Nazary and guitarist Andrew Smiley, a punk-jazz quartet whose recordings are well worth investigating. Heart Protector is the first disc to be solely credited to Laplante and, in a fairly ballsy move, is entirely solo. Across five pieces and thirty minutes, he puts forth his playing unwrapped in collectivity, working the instrument and himself through their respective and unified paces. One is reminded a bit of Joe McPhee’s 1976 Hat Hut LP Tenor, in both concept and (in some cases) execution as Laplante explores tense harmonics, lung-busting ferocity and delicate, poetic balladry. The opening title track is a warm, breathy piece of split-toned quaver and gentle harmonic dissonance, microcosmic in its attention to pad-clicking detail. Laplante lets fly with a more aggressive minimalism on the following “Five Points,” a fiery multiphonic exposition of hulking, paint-peeling circular-breathed lashes in play with a few nods to lilting subtlety. Laplante chooses simple but effective working strategies and hews to them closely, such as the feedback-like long tones of “The Great Mother” or the melodic harangue of “The Tear Dam.” With Heart Protector, Laplante cements himself as a player to watch with curiosity.

Speaking of Joe McPhee, French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro begins his new solo disc, Some other Zongs, with McPhee’s “Vieux Carré.” Lazro and McPhee have an association going back to the 1980s, so it’s a fitting tribute that opens this record. It’s a soft, wistful and in Lazro’s hands, somewhat funny melody, the big horn equally caressing and ambling about the tune’s folksiness before the saxophonist grabs a handful of notes and twirls them with facility. Contrary to its original version on soprano, Lazro chomps, squeals and furrows into an epicenter that, at first blush, one might not be aware that “Vieux Carré” had. But that gentleness, power, and prowess are all sides of the master to whom Lazro pays homage. “Caverne de Platon” is as intense as its title, Lazro exhorting from shadowy depths toward naked, pure and shocking sound. The four “Zong at Saint-Merry” explorations begin with spare harmonic tendrils and ghostly reverberation, increasing in density and daring toward the seventeen-minute closing movement. The baritone saxophone is an instrument usually associated with the bottom end, though Lazro sculpts high-pitched squeaks and complex passages that, far from being merely blurred squall, present athleticism against laid-bare vistas. While saxophone solos are, by dint, “unaccompanied,” rarely does the existential “alone” come through in such a powerful way as on Lazro’s Zongs.

Schmetterling presents English saxophonist Simon Rose on a program of fourteen improvisations for baritone. In addition to working in the Badland trio with bassist Simon H. Fell and drummer Steve Noble, Rose has also recorded an album of solo alto improvisations, Procession (FMR, 2006). Waxed in the company of chirping birds and an open window, Rose flutters and pops on the opening “Off World” before a lung-busting shear emerges on “Ponopticon” and its seven minutes of bullheaded force. Even when Rose approaches improvisation with a sparser cast, one gets the feeling that he’s wrenching something out of the horn (and himself) at every moment, fighting the instrument or using it to do some sort of battle - a willful extrusion that’s palpably different from sound as separated from either player or axe. That’s not a slight against his approach to improvising as put forth here; a technical and sonic beast of a player, hearing Rose work through these shortish slices of tone-flexing is just an exhausting prospect (not the creative musician’s problem, mind you, but the listener’s). If one is up for the challenge of rarely interrupted skronky baritone workouts, then Schmetterling delivers the goods.

Night Gallery
(Thrill Jockey)

I’m not quite sure when Thrill Jockey made the transition from being known as a stable for Chicago’s progressive/art-/post-rock bands into a label that also puts a focus on the fringes of contemporary rock and psych but nevertheless, it’s been an interesting ride. The imprint’s current stable includes a pretty broad range of groups and individuals, including Imbogodom, Robert A.A. Lowe, D. Charles Speer, David Daniell, Skull Defekts, Wooden Shijps, and Arboretum. What might separate these artists from some of their brethren is a sense of tried-and-true, that these are mostly mature artists who, while they may still be “seeking,” have a clear and studied direction in mind. Whether or not that is how the label builds its catalog or just chance is up for discussion, but in any event, the consistency that breeds serves them well.

Asa Osborne is mostly known for his work as the guitarist and principal sonic architect of the storied, minimal and math-y Baltimore band Lungfish, whose vocalist Daniel Higgs has gone out on his own as a purveyor of shamanic, declamatory “songs” backed either by his own banjo and mouth-harp or by Scandinavia’s Skull Defekts. It’s often a heady, challenging listen that, at its fullest realization, can be quite overpowering and exhausting. Osborne has taken a different tack, creating instrumental landscapes under the aegis of Zomes. Some of these landscapes are reminiscent of voiceless Lungfish tracks, albeit ultra-stripped down. In the case of the three pieces on Improvisations, a thirty-odd minute tape and keyboard fantasia, the chilled-out burble that Osborne harps on is more akin to Cluster or Harmonia if they recorded on a cassette player in the bedroom. Sure, the music is noodly and a bit primitive-sounding, but there’s a naïf exploratory aspect that’s charming in the most simple iterations and becomes quite beautiful with time, familiarity and open ears. While the shorter pieces and somewhat texturally-disjointed quality of Zomes’ full lengths might ultimately be more engaging on the surface, the three works on Improvisations are worth their weight in wax.

Night Gallery is, on the other hand, a pure contemporary American take on Krautrock resulting from the meeting of Portland’s Eternal Tapestry and electronic artist Sun Araw during a 2010 SXSW gig in Austin. The sextet provokes a shattering mind-meld of raw skree and blissed-out tonal wash as organ, keyboards and guitar pulverizing crest waves of light, detailed drum and cymbal work and a pulsing undercurrent. The ghosts of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes are clear in the electric organ that closes out the first piece, while a dry-and-dirty rural southwestern vibe unfurls across motorik beats on the second piece’s opening moments. Stretching out into a blistering jam, there’s a lot of facility behind what Eternal Tapestry does, that much is clear. Nevertheless, what’s captivating is the fact that the improvisation rides on simple (albeit intense) communication. The final lengthy piece is a bit more plodding rhythmically, but over the course of its fourteen minutes the toothy shimmer that takes hold is really quite breathtaking. Like a lot of Thrill Jockey’s weirder titles, both of these are currently only in print digitally (they were limited-edition vinyl), but the high-quality recordings translate well to headphones and bit-transportation devices.