Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Music Briefly Reviewed: Summer 2013

Vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, whose
music is reviewed in this summer's Ni Kantu
Towers Open Fire
(Majuma Music)

The melding of Arabic traditions with modern improvisation has a fairly long history, although it’s also rather sparse. Arab textures have appeared in the work of bassist/oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, clarinetists Perry Robinson and Jimmy Giuffre, and Dutch reedman Theo Loevendie to name a few. The clarinetists' work might serve in some ways as a model for City of Salt, a trio consisting of Swiss clarinetist Paed Conca, Montrealer guitarist Sam Shalabi and oudist Omar Dewachi (Beirut/Montreal). The disc was recorded in Beirut, which itself is a hotbed for creative music in the Middle East.

The dearth of settings that would make Arabic and free music bedfellows might relate to each form presenting its own values of sacredness and secularism – improvised music and Arabic epic or folk music have their own separate narratives, and the spirituality in Arab song and in free jazz are often expressed differently. These are suppositions, anyway, from a critical (rather than ethnomusicological) standpoint. The music of City of Salt is chamber improvisation but it’s tough; Dewachi’s oud might be the closest to a “traditional” role in the ensemble but the phrasing is both chunky and fragmentary, a rich bulwark that shores up Conca’s harmonic minefield and the scumbled passages of Shalabi’s guitar. Intimate conversations are routinely abandoned for a complex parallelism, pedal-effected shapes and piercing micro-wails offsetting the alap-like unfolding of oud lines.

On “Dora Highway,” Dewachi is muted and flinty, striking his instrument in grouped flakes as seasick feedback and dusky swirls build up the canvas. The following “Slide Show” often undermines folksy depth with murky tangents, Dewachi’s throaty and isolated clusters offset by the clarinetist’s piercing, swooping cries. Like Shalabi, Conca works in an incredibly diverse range of settings on a variety of instruments, and is obscure in the west. Also a string instrumentalist, his clarinet playing is revelatory and fits along the lines of François Houle and Joachim Badenhorst. Shalabi’s trippy, stuttered long tones form the basis of the fascinating “Lami,” as Conca’s mirrored half-steps and an occasional unsettled thrum give the piece a Fluxus-like droning quality before the three gradually start to play within the space they’ve constructed.

At times the setting that City of Salt creates can be a little narrow – a palette of clarinet, oud and guitar is predominately woody, even with additional electric juice – but within this chamber-improvisation field, previously-hidden undulations often appear. Long-form declamations and stimulus-response immediacy form the basis of a variety of world musics, and the trio of Conca, Shalabi and Dewachi present a case for expanded notions of creative communication.

These Are Eyes, See?
(El Cangrejito)

There are some musicians whose work notably extends into the sphere of writing, concert promotion and other ancillary projects, all of which contribute to the greater whole of “this music.” Houston’s David Dove is one of those people – running the nonprofit organization Nameless Sound, which grew out of the Deep Listening Institute, Dove imbues creativity and self-direction to young people through improvisation. Producing concerts of world-class touring improvisers is just part of the Nameless Sound endeavor, though many of these artists also teach master classes to at-risk youth under the organization’s aegis. But it is easy to forget that Dove is also a musician – his trombone work is slushy and garrulous while also being fatly economical, and though he’s from the West Coast, it’s clear he’s deeply indebted to the dusty, sweaty drawl of Houston music.

These Are Eyes, See? presents duets between Dove and Jawwaad Taylor, a trumpeter, electronic artist, poet and emcee who recently returned to Houston from a lengthy New York sojourn. Taylor is also known for his work as part of Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s group the Young Mothers, a Texas-Chicago-Norway free fusion ensemble. Rather than being simply brass duets (which would be engaging in its own right), These Are Eyes, See? is highly textural and involves skittering, Mongezi Feza-like bursts and sultry verbal declarations unfolding across plodding trombone and a crotchety, digital sheen. When Dove adds commentary, it’s in the form of simple, plangent blues cries that echo Taylor’s coiled raps. In some contexts – especially larger improvised groups – the voice component doesn’t always shore up well against the music, or it takes a while to find common ground. That’s unsurprising because spoken word is itself such a specific artform. It’s therefore refreshing to experience Taylor in a truly sympathetic dialogue amid a heavy dose of dedifferentiated sonic fields. Of course, the pair has a lengthy history together as Taylor once participated in the Nameless Sound Youth Ensemble – Dove is a listener and gives ample space for a younger, un-pigeonholed player to explore diverse tactics.

Empty Cage Quartet

The Empty Cage Quartet is a long-running West Coast ensemble consisting of trumpeter Kris Tiner, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Jason Mears, bassist Ivan Johnson and drummer Paul Kikuchi. Initially the group went by its initials – MTKJ – which I found rather charming. Under that guise they recorded two fine discs for the Nine Winds label out of LA; since rechristening themselves Empty Cage in 2005 they’ve waxed a series of albums for Clean Feed, pfMentum, Rude Awakening, and a concert DVD for the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York. This eponymous LP was waxed in 2011 and released on Kikuchi’s Prefecture label, which has presented the percussionist’s work in diverse contexts including improvisation and sound art.

Empty Cage have always strayed a bit from the historically prevalent Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry model though they structurally are a piano-less quartet. The compositions are split between the two hornmen. On reviewing their second disc, I remarked that their approach had more akin to the John Carter-Bobby Bradford Quartet – in part because Mears doubles on clarinet, but also because there is a sense of classical poise to their music. It’s open, but it’s not the dusty wide-open blues of Ornette and Cherry (the C-B Quartet had that too). At the same time I’d say their group identity is probably clearer now than it was several years ago, but perhaps their teeth gnash a little less prominently than on Day of the Race (Nine Winds, 2005). That said, the opening “Oblige the Oblivious” does contain some wonderfully cutting trumpet work against more pensive alto commentary. Tiner and Mears create stately, clarion lines on “Presence that Time Diminishes,” gradually swirling and becoming oblique in tandem with delicately-placed rhythm shimmers. It’s a patient music, and to create a stamp one doesn’t have to be aggressive (Tiner’s work with guitarist-composers Mike Baggetta and Chris Schlarb may serve as an example), though the group’s incision does become more prominent on the album’s second side. Empty Cage Quartet may occupy something of “sleeper space” within their discography but that’s not to say it isn’t worth seeking out, as the group are in fine and consistent form here.

(Latham Records)

There is something classically elemental and appealing about brass-piano duos, rare as they are in improvised music. Of course, like many group formations, the personalities of the players should make up the text of the performance as well as the output itself – in other words, the player is more important than what instruments are used. Therefore, it’s easier to imagine the as-yet-unreleased duets of Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor in terms of a compositional and personal interaction rather than a recital of material specificity. So while the landscape appears tangibly related between the above players or less well-known figures like Brian Groder and Tonino Miano, the results are markedly different.

FluiDensity is the debut recording of Groder and Miano in duet. Groder is a clarion trumpet player whose turns of phrase are incredibly varied and on point; dance-like and incisive, his playing has seen collaborations with veterans of this music including pianists Burton Greene and Joanne Brackeen, reedman Sam Rivers and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. The Italian-born pianist Tonino Miano has been in New York since 1993 and recorded sporadically; interestingly, this is not his first trumpet-piano duo recording (seek out 2008’s The Curvature of Pace with Mirio Cosottini), though it is his first with Groder. Across nine improvisations and co-compositions (including a piece based on composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski’s Noctamble #3), Groder and Miano flutter, spike, skitter and arch with some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from these particular paired instruments.

One can hear the rangy motifs and jutting postwar classical feel of someone like Alexander von Schlippenbach in Miano’s movements, for which Groder’s narrow, rippling control of valves, breath and embouchure is a perfect foil. As players in a duet context, improvisers should be ready and able to stand alone, and while the rigor and grace of Miano are assured reflections of his embrace of piano repertoire, a trumpeter able to hold similar shape and weight is uncommon. Groder is certainly able to do this in spades, and the pair reflects on apartness and devilish unity on “Depth of Field.” “Inclination” builds from swinging flecks to roiling and gestural direction, puckered incisions and fluffs working their way through dense right-handed fisticuffs. There’s a sardonic atonal delicacy that begins “Pinion,” the aforementioned Rzewski homage, with Groder pensive and romantic, floating against overlapping swirls and cut-off palimpsests.

“Wiser Counter Clock” employs repetitive flicks that nod in the direction of both Herbie Hancock on Grachan Moncur III’s “The Twins” and von Schlippebach on Manfred Schoof’s “Glockenbär,” while the closing "Pas de Deux" is metallic and sensual. Mimicry and internalized reflection are part of the nature of duets but the language shared between pianist and trumpeter here is so ingrained, natural and tautly expressed that little thought is possible beyond present grace. FluiDensity is quite simply one of the most extraordinary duo performances of contemporary music that I’ve heard in recent memory.

(Prom Night)

Musically reared in Chicago and New York and currently based in the Bay Area, trumpeter and artist Jacob Wick is a fascinating musician who probably isn’t as well-known as he should be. Some of his most intriguing work has been solo, which seemed to be an effort at making sense out of the trumpet, disassembling the instrument and trying to see what it isn’t before tackling what it is. There aren’t a ton of Wick-related albums in circulation, but to be fair music and sound are only part of his artistic efforts – Wick is also a conceptual artist, activist and writer. Sonically he’s a thin and wispy player who uses noise effects in an entirely musical way, yet even when slight on the surface, he stamps his phrases out with calm, measured authoritativeness. Hungry Cowboy is a recent group effort featuring New Yorkers Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone), Mike Pride (drums) and Jonathan Goldberger (guitar) on a set of six of the trumpeter’s compositions, which range from punkish rough-and-tumble to obstinate sparseness and reflect the visual trappings of Chicago noise-rock (single-word titles and black sleeve with a tough grey triangle prominently displayed).

“Ride” revels in lunkheaded rock rhythms, Goldberger tuned down an octave and sliding around a la Jesus Lizard bassist David William Sims; one half-expects David Yow’s howl to erupt from the proceedings rather than a bitter, lilting alto-trumpet line. “Scalp” begins with Earth-like doldrums around which trumpet and alto wheel and buck, Krauss’ ebullient cries and hot, staccato phrasing a garish contrast to the deliberate plodding and sinister boredom of Goldberger and Pride. The opening “Gleam” sets up a foil between Wick and Krauss, the trumpeter’s fluffed, crumpled paper-like whine and nuanced, obliquely-darting classicism weaving through the rhythm section’s chunky, masculine floes while Krauss is buttery and direct. Krauss’ name is one I mostly associate with the 1990s floruit of Steven Bernstein’s slick free-funk heroes Sex Mob, so it’s interesting to hear him alongside a crop of younger players for whom Downtown improvisation was likely a formative influence.

There’s something of a lurid pallor to these six pieces, which at an hour in length can be a bit exhausting and no matter how comely the horns’ improvising might be, the electric pummel of Goldberger and Pride has a tendency to occupy the foreground. One has to wait until the closing “Clear” to get a nearly unobstructed view of Wick and Krauss in a brightly-tinged albeit funereal line; Wick’s solo is full and bright, presenting rare fragments of positivity amid subsuming fuzz. On a limited-edition set that likely won't make too many popular jazz polls, Hungry Cowboy present bleak and frustrating but ultimately necessary music.

(AUM Fidelity)

Lung is the third disc by Brooklyn’s Little Women and the second for AUM Fidelity; the group features tenorman Travis Laplante, altoist Darius Jones, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, and like the previous Throat, the disc features a single composition running about forty minutes. At its outset, the piece is extraordinarily fragile, first stated with barely-audible breaths and moving to a gentle, buoyant line for saxophones and guitar with Nazary’s delicate cymbal-work framing the quartet. Droning vocal cries emerge only to be cut short by a throaty tenor wail and guitar-percussion grappling. This rejoinder serves to separate each of the more delicate melodic/textural sections that follow and appears in brief dust-ups or ever-longer and more frenetic variants, finally predominating at the halfway point and leading into a lengthy patch of muscular saxophone brays. Jones and Laplante are quite opposite in their approaches, the former a saccharine and bluesy humanist while the latter is pugilistic and flinty, though gushing in unison reed-splitting harmonics they are both pretty hackle-raising.

Lung follows a basic conceit, but it brings out the group’s tendency toward ritual – there aren’t themes and solos in the traditional sense, rather collective physical actions such as filling the lungs and exhaling, and these are demarked by aggressive rhythmic signposts. Lung doesn’t present itself as either a rigorous composition or a freely improvised blowing session, as the piece’s sectional nature seems to follow natural tendencies within the group rather than preordained markers. There’s nothing “standard” about their practice, even as the piece eventually seems to settle on a flinty core of grungy down-strokes and reedy shouts. That said, Little Women don’t seem to entertain the possibility of breaking free from the piece’s basic idea, leaving Lung feeling at times unfinished – having heard each of the musicians in various contexts, it’s become clear that they are each comfortable going for broke or playing tight and rigorous music. While Lung is musically heavy and quite well-recorded, the execution on disc is somehow left a bit wanting. That said, Little Women are still an interesting, uncategorizable quartet and their abrasive, odd music is worth experiencing in the flesh.

Green Street

Vibraphonist, pianist and composer Bobby Naughton is one of the unsung (or at least under-sung) heroes of creative music in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a long time based near New Haven, Connecticut, he was a prominent figure in the formation of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum and a regular fixture in trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s groups. He also led several of his own ensembles, all of which recorded for his own Otic label. Though Naughton hasn’t appeared as frequently on disc from the 1980s onward, there is the hope that that could change.

Green Street (or Greene Street) is a previously unreleased Otic title that is now available as a download-only album, and features a trio with the late percussionist Randy Kaye and bassist Noah Young (ex-Richard Youngstein). Recorded in November 1973 at Blue Rock Studios on Greene Street in SoHo, it is a brief set that was intended as a follow-up to the equally diverse pieces on Understanding (Otic 1003, 1971). Naughton’s approach to the vibraphone is percussive and glassine, with echoes of Karl Berger but in a more measured, less impulsive fashion. Combined with Kaye’s disappearing shimmers and the harmonic mass of Young’s arco, the three create an extraordinary contrasting palette of bracing waves and solemn detail. “The Plot” is playful and delicate with somber undertones from Naughton’s left hand and Young’s chordal outlines, moving into crotchety Paul Bley-like rhythmic territory on “Mrs. Wilson” with particularly aggressive bowed bass counterpoint, closer to someone like Peter Kowald than Gary Peacock or Mark Levinson.

Contrasting the shorter, punchier improvisations where economy is a clear motive, “Breakfast” clocks in at eleven minutes and spirals from dreamlike caresses to chunky, offset sparring. Naughton’s pianistic phrase shapes are interesting because they retain the “struck” nature of the instrument, putting him more in line with left-of-mainstream vibesmen. It’s not so much that he harps on chordal playing, but that the way he draws lines has a keyboardist’s approach. Interestingly, the set closes with a terse solo piano piece, titled “Home,” which echoes Ran Blake in its spiky distance before settling into a warm reprieve. Green Street is certainly not hurt by the fact that the recording is very present and meaty, perhaps moreso than some of his vinyl-only albums, though were some benefactor to swoop in with the means to produce and distribute a crisp physical (LP/CD) version of this music I don’t think anyone would mind.

(482 Music)

Stirrup is a trio of Chicago-based musicians, featuring cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (also on tenor guitar), bassist Nick Macri (ex-C Clamp, Bobby Conn, Jeremy Enigk), and drummer Charles Rumback (Leaf Bird, Colorlist); Stirrup is also the “rhythm section” of Eleventh Dream Day offshoot The Horse’s Ha. Lonberg-Holm’s lacquered black cello, often electronically-aided, has been a significant part of a range of pretty far out recordings from the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and others, but it would be unfair to assume his net doesn’t include the melodic and pastoral, as his dedications to Fred Katz make clear. The supple pulses and slinky “post-rock”-oriented grooves that Macri and Rumback (Hutchinson, Kansas’ favorite son!) weave under and around Lonberg-Holm’s wiry distortion place Stirrup in the panoply of flow-heavy power trios, an area usually reserved for saxophonists and guitar shredders.

When Lonberg-Holm switches to tenor guitar, as on “Floating Melody,” the feel hedges closer to Emmett Kelly’s work in string multi-instrumentalist Josh Abrams’ Natural Information Society and inhabits dusty psychedelic toothiness. In fact, one might say that the tenor guitar gives Stirrup’s music an Arabic feel – at least until the pitch-dividers pile on. Co-written by Macri and Enigk (though not appearing in either Sunny Day Real Estate or Enigk discographies) “The Profit of Field Stripping” merges the powerful sawing effect of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” with a dryly urgent shuffle, Lonberg-Holm quickly expanding his territory into fuzzed-out pyrotechnics more in the vein of Ray Russell than Abdul Wadud, while still quite clearly connected to the world of song. “Convulsive” is a loose ballad, in which Lonberg-Holm plays it a little straighter while digging in ponticello and teasing out long, sinewy lines across Rumback’s brushy pattering and Macri’s thickly-shaded pluck – in fact, this might be the closest enough to a “jazz” tune on a beguiling, subtly odd set of instrumental rockist improvisation.

(Lockstep Records)

If Bobby Naughton (above) represents the historical basis of New Haven creative improvisation, bassist Carl Testa represents the young vanguard. Testa runs the Uncertainty Music Series, has worked extensively with Anthony Braxton as well as vocalist Anne Rodes (also his partner) and the New Haven Improvisers Collective. On IRIS, Testa’s fourth outing as a leader and soloist, he maps a space between acoustic resonance and broad, electronically-generated orchestral reach. The use of overdubs could appear like an update to the work of New Hampshire native Kent Carter, whose masses of overdubbed string sound are a lo-fi swell of Penderecki-influenced improvisation. Testa is notably lighter in his approach – not that the deep, woody precision elicited from the bass and bow aren’t headily materialist, but Testa’s mourns are buoyed by fleshy and diffuse chords or fuzzed-out pointillism.

On “Diffracted,” his instrument is a contact miked hull of particulate density, tapped and bounced from horsehair swatches into a low, muscular symphony, electronic events acting as an unsettled Survival Unit. The closing “and Engulfed” is a methodical and slightly glitchy quadraphonic movement, its varied and lush spatial nodes only hinted at by two stereo speakers before seeking an allover map. Opening “At Early Bright” quickly sets into motion the fact that Iris is both a gorgeous paean to the bass as Testa encounters it – his tone is beautifully honest and his phrases marked by declaration and delicacy – and that this work is also a curiously winsome frame for digital texture. On the latter point, Testa eschews harsh electronic noise for elegant Baroque counterpoint and enveloping minimalism, much like the electro-acoustic music of George Lewis. While the four pieces here make for a brief listen at a bit over thirty minutes, this music never feels incomplete and presents luminous possibility.

(Blackest Rainbow)

Undercarriage is the percussion duo of Lisa Cameron and Nathan Bowles (Austin and rural Virginia, respectively), tackling three improvisations that, whether by seeking or acting, reshape what improvised percussion music can be. Utilizing cymbals, gongs, snare, feedback, contact mikes (and flute for good measure), the pair begin with glorious metallic latticework on “Tamas,” concentrated gong strikes and bowl pings that are at first ritualistic but soon splay out into pulsing drones. The third piece, “Sattva,” has a harried insistence that, while improvised, is reminiscent of the percussion music of Georges Aperghis or David Behrman. A jittery flute and feedback conversation coalesce into floor-rattling tones, breathless rhythms and volumetric, scraped accents across its twelve-minute duration. It’ a short disc at only a half hour in length, but what comes across is a complete lack of wasted notes and concepts (which is rare in sound/drone/experimental music), not to mention remarkable cohesion. The latter separates Undercarriage from these players’ other work – Cameron’s installations as Venison Whirled and in the drum chair of psych band ST37; Bowles as a member of communal improvisation ensemble Pelt and the mountain-folk Black Twig Pickers. Cameron’s approach to percussion and electronics is very much environmental, even when it is rather detailed – she’s unfussy no matter how nuanced the context, and that contributes to a broad, sublime sense of site-specificity. Undercarriage presents music that is rigorous and communicative; the shambolic trappings of experimental psychedelia are thrown out in favor of a fine exploration of new percussion music thriving well outside the academy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Phill Musra: Solo Performance as Spiritual Healing

There is a term among record collectors that I’ve never really felt an alliance with, though I enjoy the music: “spiritual jazz.” I suppose it defines the music made in the wake of John Coltrane’s death, often modal in nature with frequent use of Afro-Asian instrumental textures and “little instruments” (a la the AACM). A lot of these records were released on small labels or privately-pressed. Often, as with Coltrane, there is an overt religiosity to the proceedings, but that’s not required. My main problem is that one’s spirit can’t really be codified in such narrow terms and given such specificity, so an ad hoc “spiritual” genre seems lacking (I’m not counting Negro spirituals in this brief discussion – that is a musical form with a very detailed history and attached musicological analysis). Part of why it “lacks” as a term is why a lot of things “lack” as a term – what they’re describing is too diverse, and why things like “free jazz” or “minimalism” don’t fit with their respective genres.

All that said, reedman Phil (or Phill) Musra is one of those figures who could make a case for “spiritual jazz.” His work has graced these pages – and I don’t use the word “graced” lightly – on a number of occasions, both for historical recordings with multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosmic (1950-2001) and drummer Hüseyin Ertunç and newer music with pianist Walter Barrilleaux and drummer Don Hooker. Musra is an intensely spiritual person, and his performances and recordings are offerings to a higher power; while commercial interests have never been part of the music’s creation, it has been a struggle for him to find a label or label to keep his work in print and easily available (the few dates he did for Sagittarius A-Star are out of print, not to mention his rare cooperative LPs for the Intex label in the 1970s). This is where things like YouTube come in – Musra has several performances available for viewing on the video site, and those give an indication of his musical activities in recent years.

One film that was just uploaded is rather short, but provides a clip of Musra on soprano saxophone performing on the street in Glendale, California. Musra has been performing on the street for some time now, where he passes out photocopied documents of his performing history and work, as well as selling handmade CD-Rs of both recent and vintage music. In addition, Musra offers healing and prayer, blessing the sick and in need with music and words which, whatever one’s feeling about preaching or ministry, is still a powerful gesture. Musra views each aspect as interconnected – the musical offerings to God and humanity, the possibility that these offerings might help someone, whether healing or just lifting the spirit and brought to bear with the collectivity of experience. Here’s the clip:

Please keep an eye out for more Musra-related material here and elsewhere. Hopefully I'll soon get around to re-uploading tracks from Michael Cosmic's Peace in the World, with better quality files.