Monday, May 6, 2013

Vinyl Spring: Recent Releases and Reissues

The Jungle He Told Me

While Belgian reedman Joachim Badenhorst might not be mentioned often in avant-garde circles, that should soon change. He’s already impressed as part of German trumpeter Thomas Heberer’s chamber trio Clarino and is a regular member of Dutch drummer Han Bennink’s small groups. A recent visit to New York saw him working with guitarist Joe Morris, percussionist Ben Hall and vocalist Kyoko Kitamura in performances captured at the venerable Stone. The Jungle He Told Me, Badenhorst’s first disc as a leader finds him nakedly out front and unaccompanied on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor, a daring move but one that is equally rewarding. The first side contains one piece for each instrument titled simply after its namesake horn; on clarinet, Badenhorst begins with taffy-like, false-fingered entreaties in a faint walk, a whimsical and bent hall of mirrors that Jimmy Giuffre surely dreamed of – but Badenhorst is harder and more nakedly obsessive in his whimsy. The lengthy “Basklarinet” is a whirring, subharmonic minefield that buzzes and lurches with a nearly electro-acoustic oddness. Joe McPhee is the dedicatee of “X” on the second side, but the saxophone is laid bare with McPhee-like harangues somewhat earlier on “Tenor,” “Knox”-like heel-digging given to a chatty, gurgling minimalism. Once the raw materials have been presented, the second side moves into a series of (mostly) short etudes, more songlike in appearance. “Djilatendo” is like a keyboard study, its repeating cells ostensibly “masked” in a clarinet piece. “Rafael Romp” brings forth odd, Aylerian cries with softshoe clamber, while “Ek stamel ek sterwe” is an abstract furrow from which curious snatches of lyricism emerge. As a solo performer, Badenhorst assembles odd structures out of a tough, materialist fabric for an impressive debut.

(No Business)

Though perhaps best known as one of the West Coast’s most modern of trumpet players – his long association with reedman John Carter produced a catalog of truly essential recordings, from the late ‘60s through the ‘80s – trumpeter Bobby Bradford is an equal partner in the development of European improvisation. On visits to the England in the early ‘70s, he began an association with drummer John Stevens that lasted up to the latter’s untimely death and culminated in the group Detail with Norwegian alto saxophonist/clarinetist Frode Gjerstad and bassists Johnny Dyani (South Africa/Denmark) and Nick Stephens (UK). Gjerstad and Bradford have retained a transatlantic association that has resulted in a variety of outfits including the Circulasione Totale Orchestra and a strong, free quartet with the rhythm section of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (both also in The Thing with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson). Kampen presents the quartet live at Kampenjazz Oslo in 2010 on four improvisations that nudge the mettle of post-Ayler Scandinavian free jazz into a swaggering, dusty form of post-bop gleaned from Bradford’s youthful turn across the Southwest, from Fort Worth and Austin to Los Angeles. In terms of geographical influence on one’s sound, pairing the trumpeter with three Norwegian heavyweights presents extremely interesting contrasts in approach –Bradford’s fat, crumpled and burnished rigor alongside the piercingly ebullient Gjerstad. Flaten and Nilssen-Love are insistent and pliable, charging but never spearheading the fray (they’re actually more unbridled on 2009’s Reknes). There are portions of front-line dialogue that seem to harp on a phrasal spur a bit obsessively (the second side opener walks the line between emphasis and rut), but Gjerstad and the rhythm section nudge things into harried variance and exemplify the pitfalls and grace that are part of live performance. If not “perfect,” Kampen is a solid treat of multinational improvised music across three generations, from the architects to the repurposing, tradition-expanding inhabitants.

Spontaneous Combustion

Scraps & Shadows

Some musicians make their way through the world as soloists and bandleaders, while others are inveterate collaborators. That is in no way a slight; indeed, in recent decades it’s gotten harder and harder (if it ever was easy) to keep a band together, especially in creative and otherwise-underground music. Reedman and brass multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee’s work has been extraordinarily significant within a broad realm of improvised music since his first appearance on vinyl in 1967. But it has been a while since he held a “working group” in the traditional sense – the closest thing being Trio X, a deep-listening ensemble with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. That said, his collaborations are rarely completely one-off and tend to build in strength as they do in familiarity over time.

McPhee first worked with the English free organ trio Decoy in 2009, resulting in the Oto disc on Bo’Weavil (waxed at the noted London club Café Oto). Decoy consists of Alexander Hawkins on Hammond B3 (leaping off from Ra, Gerd Zacher and later Larry Young), bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble. In addition to working with McPhee they’ve also cut two discs for Bo’Weavil on their own, both also in 2009. Spontaneous Combustion is a return visit of sorts, recorded at Oto in Fall of 2011, and features one lengthy improvisation across two vinyl sides. The first half of the performance finds McPhee on pocket trumpet, his chuffs and flywheel-cries a spurred lament that cuts through darting percussion fireworks (Noble often taking McPhee’s phrases and elaborating abstractly), deep pizzicato accents and the uneasy, needling bedrock of Hawkins’ organ. With breaths evermore distant from traditional phraseology, Decoy’s landscape becomes a tenuous field, sonically related to postwar classical/aleatory music.

Midway through the first half, Hawkins’ burbles and shouts are off at a run, gilded by Noble’s shimmering time and gong-accents and the throaty rub of massed gut strings. They develop a head-spinning whorl, yet not without losing a sense of countable time. McPhee switches to alto, latching onto a bluesy and somewhat bent line, supplanted by choral rejoinders. This gives way to Edwards’ monstrous, manhandled arco bass solo, subtonal to the point that one feels the bass might itself fragment from the energy and physical strain put through it, while Noble goads with shakers and cutting patter. McPhee’s reentry is positively excoriating as he screams and wails through the horn (a more anguished Dewey Redman) and unspools angular, bright refraction against Decoy’s darkly unified and triplet-filled wave. The piece closes with a rave-up building from a wily tam-tam improvisation, its final passage an earthy nod to a late-night sermon held in collective memory. What’s fascinating about this music is that as dense and free as it is, Decoy and McPhee are undeniably playing the “people’s music,” and there’s a groove that is maintained throughout. McPhee and Decoy are conjoined organisms and while their methods somewhat divergent – the one / the three – the music which results is spectacular.Spontaneous Combustion captures a riotously powerful live unit at the height of its powers and is not to be missed.

Scraps and Shadows is another beast entirely; the second outing on Roaratorio to feature McPhee in duet with percussionist Chris Corsano, it is a fairly rare opportunity to hear the reedman in conversation with a drummer. Of the eight pieces here, only two are above the five-minute mark, thus making this an economical outing; even longer improvisations like “For Jim Pepper” are tough and to the point, as McPhee preaches in peals against Corsano’s thunderous metallic clamor and turn-on-a-dime phrases. An aspect of this recording worth mentioning is its status as a series of dedications – in addition to the late saxophonist Jim Pepper, there are offerings to Fred Anderson, Muhammad Ali (hard to say if it’s the drummer or the boxer), Kidd Jordan, Paul Flaherty and Han Bennink. Ali is graced with McPhee’s steady, steely tenor call while Corsano flits and bounces in a gorgeous display of dancing rhythm, a diverse bulwark to the tenorman’s shimmying shouts. Flaherty, meanwhile, is conjured with the calming caresses and near-swagger of McPhee’s pocket trumpet, first augmented solely by cymbal scrapes, then with jumpy, damped clatter and terse rumble before the pair make taut, post-bop exchanges. “For Kidd Jordan” is a patient, dusky poem wherein McPhee envisages a down-home, reflective keen with snatches of Coltrane’s “Alabama” against Corsano’s robust accents. The only real set of Tenor Rising Drums Expanding volleys comes at the LP’s close, in the jaunty fracas “For Han Bennink.” Scraps & Shadows is a lyrical and tough expansion on the art of McPhee and Corsano.

Music for Sick Queers

Painless Nights

Bay Area reissue label Superior Viaduct has been knocking it out of the park since late 2012. With a few exceptions, most of their reissues have presented archival material from the West Coast cold wave/industrial/synth-punk underground (Factrix, Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy). The latest salvo consists of two admittedly polar-opposite recordings from 1980s San Francisco – outsider electronic duo German Shepherds and the psychedelic post-punk quartet The Sleepers. These have been reissued with heavy-stock jackets, new liner notes, and in the case of German Shepherds, a 7” and download card of extra material and both come from the original master tapes.

Formed in 1981 by Mark Hutchinson (Sandy Stark) and Stephen Scheatzle, German Shepherds released one LP, one cassette and a pair of singles over the course of eleven years, cut short by Scheatzle’s death. As promotional “material” for their first LP, Music for Sick Queers (self-released at the time), it was rumored that Scheatzle was arrested on child molestation charges – it was later enhanced upon his unfortunate passing (of natural causes) that he suicided while awaiting trial, a perhaps appropriate accidental outgrowth of their very macabre sense of humor. The duo’s lyric material runs the gamut from drug use and mocking fundamentalist religion to a bizarre ode to convicted child molester Kenneth Parnell; bleak themes to be sure, but engaged with a black sense of humor that is pretty much off the charts. “Booty Jones” is the infamous latter piece, glitchy synth clatter and stammering rhythms emphasizing and ricocheting off declarations of “let’s go for a little ride” and toothy, lurching paeans of desire. “Hitler’s Child” asks “do you want to kill me / or nail me to a cross?” in a wandering, treated voice, but the synth clamber that outlines the tune is quite beautiful and worthy of comparison with any New American synthesizer music of the period. After all, Schaetzle studied electronic music at City College of San Francisco and the duties of composition and arrangement are split between him and Stark, with occasional guitar interjections from Frank Bohan. “I Adore You” is a weightily sexualized and pretty insane ode to Jesus that recalls some of John Duncan’s early work. German Shepherds present a fascinating dichotomy of warped and unsettling – if sometimes hilarious – thematic material with engaging musical structure that could certainly stand on its own, were that an interest. But the tension between the two factors is what makes for a powerful and rewarding experience of DIY synth-punk.

The Sleepers were formed in 1978 partly as a vehicle for ex-Crime drummer Ricky Williams to unleash his vocal aesthetic across a less anarchic musical landscape. Like Factrix and Noh Mercy, The Sleepers have a Tuxedomoon connection, with guitarist Mike Belfer having been part of both outfits; they released a handful of singles and one LP, Painless Nights, before disbanding due to Williams’ personal issues (he died of a drug overdose in 1992). That said, his skirling entreaties and colorful grace are extraordinary and as an improviser in the truest sense, he uses words as a launching pad for a range of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities. The Sleepers operate within an interesting area between orchestral darkwave pop moves (the gorgeous “Forever”), proto-Paisley Underground psych (think early True West) and off-kilter punk jangle, rooted in the empathetic but chugging rhythm section of bassist Ron MacLeod and drummer Brian MacLeod, alongside icily voluminous twin guitar engines. I say empathetic because while there is a codified approach to their instrumental vibe, they follow and underscore Williams wherever he goes, daring and massive yet with a subtle, jazz-like time sensibility. There are a couple of instrumental tracks here, the lengthiest and most powerful being the second side opener, “Zenith,” which flows into the cottony knife of “Theory,” Williams’ voice an aerialist over terse and flinty ensemble slink. “B-Side” is rhythmically tumbling, tugging at freedom and shot through with dirt-laden reverb and guitar slide into a heaving, melodic morass. Gone before they had an opportunity to ascend, The Sleepers were clearly a strong and highly individual darkwave unit; thankfully Superior Viaduct has brought their music and that of their peers into circulation once again.

Message Bag
(De Stijl)

Messages’ After Before was something of a sleeper in the estimable De Stijl catalog upon its release in 2010. Presenting thick, pulsing drones and percussion from Fluxus-associated musician Taketo Shimada, Psychic Ills multi-instrumentalist Tres Warren and Rhyton/ex-Mattallama drummer Spencer Herbst, the music was dusky, terse, and gradually emergent. Live, Messages’ music is ritualistic yet tough, and that comes through with varying success on record. One of two Messages releases so far this year, Message Bag is the double-LP follow up to After Before, mostly consisting of fragments and duets between Shimada and Warren, though two pieces feature Herbst on percussion. The records are housed in a paisley-printed cloth bag with a photo-collage poster on newsprint and recall De Stijl’s more aggressively arty packaging (tissue-paper designs hand-tacked onto blank sleeves, for example), sadly absent on recent releases.

An outgrowth of the milieu that produced and encouraged the work of artists like Henry Flynt, John Cale and La Monte Young, Messages is far less “maximal” in presence than those figures, and while equally rooted in the drone, Shimada and Warren are by comparison curt and declarative, their output bleak and often claustrophobic despite the openness of their tools and palette. Warren’s bowed ukelin is tinny and erratic in conference with the wowed lope of Shimada’s pedal-assisted electric bass on “Smoke Photo,” for example, and imbued with post-punk energy. “Storm System” is an unsettled tribal-rock power trio of sorts, adding Herbst’s gong, hand drums and maracas to flinty guitar and burbling bass, and producing music that is too knotty and unfriendly to be trance-like. The following “Return to the Unresolved System” is a duet for harmonium and the round clamber of a Hawaiian-inspired electric guitar, presenting shapes that are both gooey and acerbic. The second LP of the set is more involved and communal, including the nasal presence of portable synthesizer and shenai along with guitar, mouth-harp and percussion in a gradually unfurling psychedelic, minimal incantation on the nearly sidelong “Within Whirlpool.” The closing piece presents a curdling double-reeded call over shruti box and taped seaside sounds with an unwieldy and tendril-like presence. In the pantheon of sound art and minimal music, Messages imbue their landscapes with a gritty and urban distance, and the resulting, almost rude economy is very much welcome. 

(No Business)


To me, one of the most interesting things about tenorist Albert Ayler’s trio of 1964, with drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock, was that while Murray created a spare and allover carpet of sound with his snare and cymbals, Peacock was able to do something similar with melody, turning it into a field of action and wherever one stepped in, one was both surrounded and pushed forward. Building aggressively on a trajectory developed by Scott La Faro and Charles Mingus, Peacock was one of a number of bassists who reshaped the music from the bass chair in the ‘60s. Though a shade younger than some of his peers, English bassist Barry Guy is one of the chief players to have picked up the free music bass torch in Europe and run with it. A composer and arranger who doubled as a symphonic bassist, Guy’s canvas favors wide interval leaps, muted harmonics grabbed from taut strings below the bridge and at the head, and often utilizing preparations. In terms of developing harmonically, as a string player he often appears analogous to the guitar work of Derek Bailey rather than bassists like Alan Silva or Peter Kowald (to whom he might be compared). Ultimately an incomparable player, his work as a small group improviser and orchestral composer/conductor demands continued close attention, as his current music attests.

One of Guy’s longstanding formats was in duo with his countryman, saxophonist Evan Parker – heard to great advantage on a quartet of albums including Incision (SAJ, 1981) and a fine two-disc set on Intakt, 2003’s Birds and Blades. Guy and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson picked up the research and shunted it in a somewhat different direction with 1997’s Frogging (Maya) and half of a No Business LP titled Sinners, Rather than Saints (2009). Lithuanian powerhouse saxophonist Liudas Mockunas steps to the plate for seven improvisations on Lava, crisp and metallic pops melding and parsing as the pair work through their affinities and differences. Guy is balletic in his motion, coaxing meaty subtonal growls out of his instrument and fielding sharp, reverberant cries with a fantastically deep, graceful poesis. This provides an interesting contrast with Mockunas’ tenor, bass and soprano saxophone work, which teeters between bullish excoriation and weary fragility – the closing “Dark Matter” providing some of the saxophonist’s most rangy playing of the session. And this isn’t to say that Guy doesn’t peel the paint off in broad sections, bowing with ribbed wood and vigorously building up a latticework of percussive grit on the side two opener, “Event Horizon,” and spurring Mockunas on to harrowing split-toned peals. Lava is a very strong example of Guy’s duets with saxophonists and some of the most open, inspired playing I’ve yet heard from Mockunas.

Scandinavian power trio The Thing – featuring saxophonist Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love – are an extraordinarily tight unit, but their collaborative nature is both far-flung and invigorating to the core participants. Recent discs have featured vocalist Neneh Cherry, guitarists Otomo Yoshihide and Jim O’Rourke, and their partnership with Joe McPhee is also longstanding. Metal is a beautifully recorded double LP set with Barry Guy as an equal front-line partner on ten improvisations and a cover of Lightning Bolt’s “Ride the Sky” (a staple of their live sets). Like a number of No Business sessions, this one was recorded at St. Catherine’s Church in Vilnius. One of Metal’s four sides is devoted to duets, with Flaten and Guy volleying and coaxing complementary details on “Praseodymium” while Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson engage chunky, resonant salvos on “Neodymium.” On the opening “Lanthanum,” Flaten primarily puts forth a weeping drone against Guy’s five-string slaps and bunched clatter, Gustafsson’s tenor a braying array of sputters and shouts, all supplanted by the bombs and rinked scrapes of Nilssen-Love’s kit. Midway through, Guy and Gustafsson pair up to a tough yet hackle-raising duet, short and screaming. The telepathy shown by the ensemble is striking as they are able to step aside and let small ideas flower into passages of deep complexity and sublime beauty – witness the early-Ayler/Sonny Rollins-inspired purr that develops from another tenor/bass duo (this time with Flaten) later in the first side. The penultimate portion of these slabs is the fourth side, heated sparring and patches of sound both crisp and garbled, offset by spare dirge-like masses and clanking progressions towards the natural reverb-laden punk clamor of “Ride the Sky.” Though perhaps absent the same clipped, rockish energy that sometimes pervades the overall Thing vibe, Metal is a gorgeous presentation of the group’s no-nonsense approach to application, interaction and fearless improvising.

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