Sunday, November 30, 2014

Music Briefly Reviewed: On Vinyl, 2014

Alan Silva and François Tusques, whose music is reviewed here.
Paris - 1969 - photo by Jacques Bisceglia
Live in Nickelsdorf

Live in Nickelsdorf presents a rare US-produced document of improvised music from Beirut, albeit recorded at the Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen in its namesake Austrian city. "A" Trio consists of trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj (now residing in Berlin), guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and bassist Raed Yassin on one improvisation across two LP sides. This disc is their third full-length and first for an American label. Kerbaj is probably the best known of the three, not just for his work as an instrumentalist, but as a painter and draftsman whose work chronicles the daily life/plight of people in Beirut (sort of like a contemporary Philip Guston in multiple panels). The palette goes well beyond brass, strings and wood, employing metal objects, vibrating devices, close miking, alligator clips, hammers, alternate tunings, bells, disassembled and muted instruments. Their music is rhythmic and captivating, mostly underpinned by Yassin’s bass, which provides an obsessive bulwark of scrapes and guttural drone. Fiddled guitar, buzzing strings and torqued yelps emerge toward the record’s end, as minimalism brushes against expressionism. It’s quite difficult to determine what process is generating certain sounds – the tenor saxophone-like wallow that opens the second side seems to come from Kerbaj, but it’s hard to figure on what instrument. No matter, his sputtering brays are a brutalist commentary to spidery strings, and as his air moves, the breadth of his metallic vocabulary is both intriguing and effective. There’s quite an avant-garde scene in Beirut, apparently, and "A" Trio is just the heavy tip of the iceberg.

Lines and Dots
(Signal and Sound)

Lines and Dots is the debut recording from Stockholm-based guitarist Anders Ahlén, whose name hasn’t yet crossed the Atlantic to the extent of some fire-breathing countrymen, though with material as surefooted as that which is presented here, it’s no doubt he’ll become more recognized. The six tunes here are Ahlén originals, fleshed out by a coterie of young Swedes: saxophonist Niklas Persson, trumpeter Niklas Barnö (Snus), bassist Emil Skogh and drummer Andreas Axelsson. It’s important to note that while Ahlén has a lithe, dusky approach to his instrument, the focus of the recording isn’t so much his playing but the frameworks he has sketched out for the ensemble, both in group interplay and voicing soloists. From Hugh Steinmetz-like parallel tempi on the fine opening “Penguin Dive” through the stop-time flecks of “Dots” as burnished trumpet and lippy reed strands meet high above a chopped pulse. Ahlén stretches out a little more on the second side, his nasal blues imbuing “Curved Line” and the opener, “Floating,” hesitant, fuzzy bramble narrowly encroaching on a loose, martial pulse. Barnö is withering and his bent statements echo Don Cherry at his most sardonic, shades of Sunny Murray pummeling behind until the gentle theme returns. With reference to American forebears of the ‘60s and ‘70s in the writing and arrangements, Ahlén and company still present a bitingly original group sound that will hopefully continue to be refined. For now, Lines and Dots exemplifies five voices to watch on the European stage.

Ascent of the Nether Creatures

In the course of rooting through the loft era and early post-loft archives, NoBusiness Records have come up with a real obscurity: bassist Rashid Al Akbar’s quartet, recorded live in Amsterdam in 1980. Al Akbar didn’t appear often; originally from Philadelphia, he was resident in the Bay Area through at least the mid-70s, working with saxophonist Idris Ackamoor’s Cultural Odyssey before gallivanting around Europe at the outset of the 1980s. He made one appearance on the equally obscure multi-instrumentalist Louis Armfield’s Spiritual Jazz Quintet LP (Victoria-Judith, 1980) before returning to New York to play with trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr., tenorist Frank Lowe and others. After the mid-80s, he seems to have vanished. Before this LP, I’d never encountered his own music.

Here, Al Akbar is joined by Ackamoor, fellow Philadelphian Muhammad Ali on drums, and itinerant trumpeter Earl Cross on four original compositions. Apparently this format was a model for the bassist’s later groups, as he led piano-less quartets with denizens of the New York underground. The recordings are rather rough, probably made with a fairly cheap cassette recorder and appear to be a compressed MP3 transfer – not exactly doing the hazy history of this band any favors. That said, the music often rises above the murk, as on the swaggering Cross-penned opener, “Earl’s Tune,” where Ali and Al Akbar lock into a punchy, yawing groove. Following a sparse plane of bells, gongs and soft accents, Ackamoor’s title contribution brings out the horns’ flinty staccato in prolonged bursts, Ali building a concentrated, swinging whirlwind underneath. The piece is split across two sides, with the bassist and drummer each grabbing an unaccompanied spot as side two begins. Al Akbar acquits himself as a compelling, meaty soloist on pizzicato, while Ali presents a dry, melodic push. The dirge-like improvisation “Evenings” features spry and harrowing alto from Ackamoor, girded by obsessive, robust arco and Ali’s chattering waves. The ensemble’s direction seems clearest when the music is thick and in forward motion – not surprising, considering the Philly-bred rhythm section – but perhaps the tension held in quieter moments doesn’t translate due to the low-quality recording. Nevertheless, Ascent of the Nether Creatures features exciting performances from one complete unknown and three lesser-known voices that deserve to be heard.

Perilous Architecture

German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff (1928-2005) really set the bar for trombone-and-rhythm trios with The Wide Point, recorded with Elvin Jones and bassist Palle Danielsson in 1975 for MPS. Mangelsdorff’s wry and complex lines, knotty multiphonics and muscular swing are perfectly matched by the force of an all-star rhythmic partnership. Almost forty years later, Philadelphia-based trombonist Daniel Blacksberg (Haitian Rail, Psychotic Quartet, Anthony Braxton) continues to up the ante with his second trio date, featuring bassist Matt Engle and drummer Mike Szekely on six original tunes. There might be times when one is fooled into thinking one is listening to “Albert” (like Miles, he’s one of the rare musicians known by his first name only), so crisp and ingenious are Blackberg’s phrases – and that’s not to say he’s beholden to the specific language of his forebears; rather, it’s more of a reflection on expanding the tradition. Blacksberg can be deft in his classical brass poise, tying and unfurling knots as though he’s playing games with himself, and the darting rhythm section is more than up to such challenges, subtly interleaving brushwork and masterful bowed and plucked gestures into the trombonist’s puzzles. Even the gentle lope of the second side opener, “Scapegrace,” has a quizzical nature, Engle and Szekely effortlessly ping-ponging between sinewy motion and free time as Blacksberg’s clarion slide and garrulous burrs echo post-bop detail amid for-itself sonic expansiveness. The following “Blind Tracery” foregrounds Engle’s painterly bowed grit as Blacksberg cuts through with singsong peaks and valleys or exuberant snatches of mouthy blues, Szekely’s patter shimmering throughout. While Perilous Architecture may be the trombonist’s record and feature his compositions, it is fundamentally clear that this is an egalitarian unit, fantastically playful and deep, and this music couldn’t be realized without their specific personalities.

Divine Songs
(Tummy Tapes)

It might be somewhat surprising – though perhaps not too far afield – that pianist, harpist and composer Alice Coltrane would have recorded private issue new age (PINA) cassettes. But devotional music was her stock in trade, following on from the death of her husband and musical/spiritual partner John Coltrane in 1967. As the ‘70s progressed her own recordings took on a more languid feel, though still connected to advanced jazz. In the 1980s and ‘90s, she released tapes and CDs through her own Vedantic Center Sai Anantam Ashram, recorded purely as meditative exercises for the ashram’s students. Coltrane had taken on the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda by the time Divine Songs was recorded in 1987, and while these pieces certainly meditative, they hold their own as a secular listening experience. The opening suite has a warm, modal groove that feels like Popol Vuh, bluesy chants sallying over a small orchestra of synthesizer, strings, electric bass and tanpura. Sanskrit though they may be, the chants are rendered in a soulful, occasionally gospel-like manner ("Om Shanti") across lilting, somewhat drone-like orchestral environments (familiar, if a bit less dramatic than the string arrangements on Coltrane’s Impulse LPs). This Tummy Tapes reissue is the first appearance of this music on vinyl, and hopefully presages more legitimate availability of Coltrane’s curious and eminently listenable PINA recordings.


Live at Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival
Vibrations of the Day
(Holidays Records)

The last few years have seen a surge in the available discography of Turkish free improvisation unit konstruKt, at least outside their native country, with releases on Not Two, Sagittarius A-Star, 8mm and Roaratorio supplanting their self-produced Re:konstruKt CD series. A quartet comprised of guitarist/keyboardist Umut Çaglar, reedist Kohran Futaci, bassist Ozün Usta and drummer Kohran Argüden, konstruKt has recorded and performed with a range of European and American improvisers including reedists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, Daniel Spicer and Marshall Allen, bassist William Parker, and veteran Turkish multi-instrumentalists Hüseyin Ertunç and Okay Temiz. Most of their work has included guests so it’s actually rare to hear a konstruKt disc without an all-star cast. That said, the possibility of far flung improvisers meeting in Turkey for a concert or recording is quite an occurrence and should not be taken lightly.

Babylon is the group’s first meeting with McPhee, heard here on pocket trumpet and tenor saxophone across four group improvisations recorded live in Istanbul. Beginning with the dual charge of Micro-Moog and Moog Theremin, McPhee teasing out brass flutters into incisive darts, the ensemble enters a diffuse, electrified lurch. Futaci switches to a detached mouthpiece, thin spiral cries dovetailing with the trumpeter’s more elegiac wander over a canvas of drums, organ and arco bass. With Usta on a syrupy amplified axe, Futaci’s grassy reed shrieks are in stark relief to a plasticized, nearly psychedelic environment, and with his tenor fully assembled, the harrowing brays that emerge are a lean parallel to Ayler’s otherworldly tradition. Both saxophonists are in full view on “Involution,” dryly interweaving or stepping out for a heel-digging spotlight, with Futaci’s alto particularly shout-worthy. The closing “Tek’e” is rooted in traditional Turkish melodies and opens with a guitar-saz duet (Usta is on the cura, a miniature saz), backlit by occasional percussion before the saxophonists enter in hoarse ululations, blindingly fast group improvisation encircling the naturally incisive lines of the saz for a heavy crowning performance.

Ninety-year-old reedist and leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra Marshall Allen has collaborated with konstruKt on a number of occasions, the most recent being a stand in Sardinia at the 2013 Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival. Allen only appears for the second half of the concert, with the opening side given to konstruKt as a quartet, mouthpieces and zurna in pinched, teasing refraction before a staggering trio for wooden flute, arco bass and percussion emerges. Futaci has a full sound, beholden to bitter trills that often seem to guide the quartet into denser areas, though the spry and open moments are equally arresting – echoing Masahiko Togashi and Mototeru Takagi’s “Cornpipe Dance” as flute, djembe and drums take center stage again on “Bulut,” augmented by Caglar’s furious, chunky organ work. Allen’s alto, alternately laconic and spark-shooting, is a tough foil for Futaci’s tenor on “Anakara,” as the saxophonists spur one another on in warm, loquacious squeals with a charged backdrop of rhythmic fracas. Caglar’s Moog and Allen’s Casio combine for a Ra-like electronic twist, while Argüden appears to be channeling the limbs of two drummers, providing unfussy but complex architectural support. Futaci’s steely tenor is a feature of the closer, first in duet with Allen’s electric organ and subsequently alongside the trippy electrified swing of the full ensemble.

Vibrations of the Day first came out as a CD on Re:konstruKt and is now available as a lavish-looking double LP from Italy’s Holidays Records. Featuring the core group augmented by Allen, Ertunç (primarily on drums and percussion), and guitarist Barlas Tan Ozumek, the improvisations here are brightly rendered and positively unruly, providing a unique context for Allen’s raspy alto. In this early meeting between the Kentucky reedman and Turkish improvisers, amid dusky single-note guitar statements, scumbled amplification and the arid, stone-skipping rhythms of Ertunç and Argüden, Allen is right at home. Ertunç first appeared on record in 1974, co-leading an ensemble with reedists/multi-instrumentalists Phill Musra and Michael Cosmic, which resulted in three LPs for the Intex/Cosmic imprint. He returned to Turkey in the early 1990s after stints in Boston and Los Angeles, and it’s no wonder that he began working with konstruKt – just as the Musra/Cosmic collaborations produced unclassifiable, expansive and colorful post-AACM music, so konstruKt presents a specific but open-ended language rooted in free improvisation, psychedelic rock and local custom. It’s easy enough to see how Allen fits into this as well, not just because of the broad realms that the Arkestra encompasses (Fletcher Henderson to free jazz), but because his tireless need to explore brushes against the unfamiliar. It’s rare to find a group that doesn’t sound like anything else – especially when nearly every free music approach has seemingly been explored – but that’s just the sort of thing that konstruKt are after.

La Reine des Vampires 1967
La Maison Fille du Soleil 

While an architect of French improvised music, pianist François Tusques is more commonly discussed as one of a number of illustrious sidemen on recordings by visiting and expatriated Americans, rather than a leader in his own right. As a pianist, Tusques’ rhapsodic insularity draws from early influences like René Urtreger, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, rather than free music contemporaries like Cecil Taylor. Not only has his career lasted over fifty years – he assembled one of the first avant-garde jazz groups in France, resulting in the aptly titled 1965 LP Free Jazz (released on poet Marcel Mouloudji’s eponymously-named label). In the ‘70s and ‘80s he co-led the Intercommunal Free Dance Music Orchestra, which drew from jazz, free improvisation, Basque and Breton folk songs, and West African music. Much of his current work is documented by Improvising Beings, while historical recordings are trickling out on the Finders Keepers sub-label Cacophonic.

In addition to material ripe for reissue, Tusques has maintained an archive of tapes that continually yields fruit, like this previously unissued soundtrack session for Jean Rollin’s film Les Femmes Vampires. The pianist is joined on a variety of short, improvised themes by tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, bassists Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Béb Guerin, and drummer Eddie Gaumont (here featured on violin). This group, with Aldo Romano also manning the drum chair, worked under both Tusques’ and Wilen’s name, recording Auto Jazz (MPS, 1968) and Le Nouveau Jazz (Mouloudji, 1967). La Reine des Vampires begins with a tangle of arco and pizzicato bass, quavering fiddle, and Wilen’s robust, pillowy tenor. The improvisations, atmospheric but with driving ingenuity, are based on Tusques’ piano music, though he’s only featured on one cut. Bathed in reverb, Wilen and Gaumont are airily distant, with the tenorist’s husky atonality a fascinating match for the violinist’s maddening skitter and scrambled whacks. With a tape-delayed sheen atop jousting, in-the-red strings and fleet, metallic saxophone clamber, the second side is particularly arresting, with some beautiful unaccompanied Wilen. In no way is this “finished” music as it certainly belongs to a larger visual structure, but La Rene des Vampires does present a sonic landscape that is both aggressively taut and unsettling.

La Maison Fille du Soleil was recorded in December 1964 at an exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work in Nantes, and features Tusques, Guerin, Jenny-Clark and trumpeter Don Cherry in two short extracts from what is clearly a larger piece or suite. Originally released by Studio Serpitone in conjunction with the exhibition in just a few copies (in a handsome trifold sleeve), this Cacophonic reissue is its first true commercial appearance. Monkish curls emerge from Tusques’ piano as he plays a little straighter than his compatriots, Cherry acknowledging smoky thematic material while scraping against something a bit more unruly. Jenny Clark’s pizzicato is reminiscent of Charlie Haden, strumming robust, defiant architecture on “Occident et Texte sur l’Inde” and interweaving with Guerin’s arco on the tough bounce of “Indes.” Cherry and Tusques would collaborate once more on Mu (BYG, 1969, with the pianist an uncredited sonic assistant), but La Maison Fille du Soleil presents a robust chamber ensemble that clearly should have had more time in the spotlight.

Chroma Colossus: 13 Visions of the City

It’s been some time since the jazz-buying public has had the opportunity to examine new music from altoist/clarinetist Charles Waters, who relocated to New York from Atlanta in 1998 and who, in addition to his work with the Gold Sparkle Band and Acid Birds, worked closely with bassist William Parker and other denizens of the lower Manhattan improvised music scene. Though a little less visible than at the beginning of the Aughts, hopefully that will change with the release of this archival set from 2004, joining Waters with trombonist Chris McIntyre, bassist George Rush, and frequent collaborator, drummer Andrew Barker on a program of thirteen originals. The LP also includes a bonus cut from 2008, recorded with a sextet and dedicated to Paul Auster. Chroma Colossus: 13 Visions of the City is a suite of short, unadorned vignettes that present equal parts slink, toughness and ebullient motion. A couple of tracks also feature the words of Colson Whitehead whose text The Colossus of New York (in thirteen chapters) partly inspired this recording. McIntyre has a thick, clarion tone that is an excellent counterpart to Waters’ dry, acrid alto and liquid bounce, as both are supported by an economically swinging rhythm section. Barker’s fluid crackle might get more notice, but Rush’s supple, meaty lines are an equal part of the equation, tugging and steadfast as Waters’ shimmying harriers erupt from Whitehead’s recitation on “Brooklyn Bridge.” Chroma Colossus is a stately, melodic celebration of and possible requiem for location and experience.

"Kidnapping Denials" b/w "Put On a Good Face"
(7272 Music)

A former student of trumpeter/composer/polymath Bill Dixon and percussionist/inventor Milford Graves, percussionist and electronic musician Matt Weston releases his work with no pretense or bullshit. Weston tours regularly as a solo performer and has released a number of discs on his 7272 Music imprint, but this seven-incher is just a smidgen of what he’s up to. In nearly six minutes of low-fi improvisation, Weston’s scoured metal, amplification hum, knob belches, prepared piano inversions and hushed clatter are relatively indeterminate in origin but compelling as stark, concentrated activity, often giving the feeling of a larger ensemble. That’s partly due to the magic of multi-tracking, but more likely a testament to his understanding of orchestration and sculpted drama. Both pieces recall AMM, MEV and David Behrman more than they do the arc of Black Music, with the second side’s biting chords and balloon rubs offering a volley towards absurdity. A good single should leave one wanting a hell of a lot more and that’s just what Weston has done here. There are also vestiges of the visualness of his performance, which is something that rarely comes through on record (and I’ve never seen him play, though I can feel what it must look like) – fascinating.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Music Briefly Reviewed: From the Reviews Archive, 2013-2014

Flutist Bob Downes, whose music is reviewed below.
Nasty & Sweet

German tenor and soprano saxophonist Thomas Borgmann favors trios with bass and percussion, following in the footsteps of such deep predecessors as Albert Ayler, John Surman, Charles Gayle and Peter Brötzmann (the latter two he’s worked with). Borgmann may favor the burnished, steely tone of his post-Ayler brethren, but he’s perhaps a bit less paint-peeling and more outwardly methodical in his improvisational approach. In the 1990s and early 2000s he co-led an extraordinary trio with itinerant American musicians Wilber Morris (bass) and Denis Charles (drums). After Charles’ passing in 1998, AACM-schooled drummer Reggie Nicholson became the triangle’s third axis. Recording for such labels as Konnex, Silkheart, CIMP and The Lotus Sound, the BMC and BMN trios were favorites of the European festival circuit and, had not Morris died in 2002, BMN would probably still be an active group. Borgmann continues to work in a fine trio called Boom Box with drummer Willi Kellers and bassist Akira Ando (their disc Jazz on Jazzwerkstatt should be sought out), but it’s always a pleasure to hear new music from the saxophonist's archives. 

Nasty & Sweet collects two previously-unreleased BMN performances from Tampere, Finland and St. Ingbert, Germany in 1999 and 1998, respectively, with one take of the title piece taking up both sides of the first volume in this two-LP set. Morris’ bass sounds fantastic, a detailed and rumbling presence, deft pizzicato shot through with a surly motor and often a focal point of the music (could it be otherwise?). Nicholson is equally forceful in his approach, blending Max Roach with an almost rockish obsessiveness on the soprano-fronted final movement (in which the group is reminiscent of the Suman/Phillips/Martin trio). The following piece, “We Went Thataway,” is a rousing boppish tune subjugated to Nicholson’s exhaustingly accurate ride cymbal work, and points to an adage that “being free” in this music allows everything, including being free to work within the tradition. “Wilbur’s Mood” is positively dervish-like, Borgmann’s sopranino skating over a rhythmic whorl towards a lilting, spiritual close (the title track may actually be the piece that lingers most on Morris' sound). While Borgmann has mentioned that the trios’ work was cut too short by the untimely deaths of Wilber Morris and Denis Charles – and that is true – the unity and empathy developed in this music lives on in the saxophonist's subsequent performances and recordings. Nasty & Sweet is one hell of a place to get acquainted with these musicians and if one is already a devotee, its essentialness should be patently obvious.

The Bill Has Been Paid
(Dark Tree)

Poet Steve Dalachinsky may appear like the gadfly of the New York underground music scene, a wry and salty but kind-eyed figure who has read as part of countless free improvisation concerts since the 1970s, not to mention emceeing the Vision Festival and similar avant-garde jazz events. He’s published numerous chapbooks and his work was featured alongside the photographs of Jacques Bisceglia (1940-2013) in the large volume Reaching Into the Unknown (RogueArt, 2009). But perhaps one’s personal association with Dalachinsky and his significant participation in the community might allow the intensity of his art to pass by.

This set of readings alongside bassist Joëlle Léandre, recorded in a house concert at the RogueArt headquarters in Paris is, in a single word, brutal. There’s precedence for bass and voice poetic combinations – the late Jayne Cortez reading with Richard Davis on Celebrations and Solitudes (Strata East, 1974) was marked by stark and streetwise intensity – but Léandre’s voluminous, muscular arco split tones and dusty fiddling, matching up with Dalachinsky hoarsely beseeching “do lovers really love / the way they say they love?” is positively spine-tingling. The opening twenty-minute piece, “Vocalise (for Jeanne Lee)” is an early, violent high water mark, frightening in its immediacy. Such visceralness shouldn’t only be attributed to the bassist – who sounds phenomenal here – as Dalachinsky’s delivery is both harrowing and oddly banal, for he’s able to turn expressionism on its head with a quick turn of phrase. Léandre is given three solo bass improvisations of descending length, the first including passages of fascinating guttural vocals amid her dry, meaty pluck, but the focus is on the three recitations. If there’s any “fault” to be found with the presentation – and it’s not really a fault per se – it’s that there’s a bleakly monochromatic nature to the readings and improvising, with very little let-up in the duo’s somber toughness. Dalachinsky and Léandre are relentless, but so is the experience that they draw from.

Mixed Bag

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Bob Downes (b. 1937, Plymouth, UK) is nothing if not a torchbearer for exuberance and creative life. For his 75th birthday, he assembled a disc’s worth of archival material, dating from 1971 through 2007. Downes’ varied discography includes orchestral progressive R&B improvisations, free music, percussion-heavy compositions for dance, and music for meditation. Aside from a pair of LPs released on Vertigo/Phillips at the start of his career, Downes has issued all of his music on his own Openian label. He also seems to have taped an incredible amount of performances, thus allowing us to fill in the gaps with a range of archival documents.

Mixed Bag may wryly imply unevenness and a few “clinkers,” but rest assured that’s not the case with this set. While often discussed in the realm of the British jazz avant-garde, Downes’ music has a brusque populist sense and his ear is turned towards folk and traditional music from Africa, the Caribbean and South and East Asia as well as having a virile take on the broad categories of R&B, funk and rock. “In Rio de Janeiro” is a gruff minimal anthem for three flutists on concert, bass and contrabass flute, anchored by Downes’ buzzing repetition and variations, the leader occasionally enunciating the tune’s title in a tough chant. “Jamaican Jump Up” is a gorgeous orchestral calypso for a sixty-five-piece concert ensemble, with Downes’ heel-digging tenor floating over the top, while “Lola” is airy funk bolstered by a curious trio of bassist Barry Guy, drummer John Stevens and guitarist Brian Godding, bubbling and bell-clear flute improvisations and declaratory wordless vocals skating in and around the rhythm section. The tinny, wild-haired scumble of guitarist Ray Russell is present on two tracks, one with an added horn section and Downes on amplified flute pads and feedback, supported by a knotty, Mike Westbrook-like horn riff. A hall full of handclaps is appropriate on “Shriek Out,” but Downes’ solo tenor can carry its island rhythm with ease. My copy of Mixed Bag also included an additional CD-R of solo music recorded in 2012 as a dedication to then-recently departed reedist Faruq Z. Bey. Totaling twelve minutes and primarily rendered on tenor, these pieces exhibit a velvety, aching reflection, while the final bass-flute “Cool Groove” is a concentrated requiem of split tones and lamented overblowing. Throughout these two discs, Downes revels in the life of making music, with its necessary bouts of loss given equal weight to the strength of communal plenty.

For Our Children

If 2012’s Live at the Outpost (with Joe Morris on bass and Luther Gray on drums) marked the reemergence of alto saxophonist Marco Eneidi on the recording landscape, his axe, fingers and breath not losing a step, the archival release of For Our Children may serve as a reminder why Eneidi’s work was planted firmly on the map in the first place. Recorded in 1995 with Bay Area cohorts tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman (1947-1998), bassist Lisle Ellis and drummer Donald Robinson, For Our Children features a composition from each member of the quartet as well as a collective piece, and is issued in an edition of 100 with cover art hand-painted by Eneidi’s granddaughter.

Two and a half years before Spearman’s untimely passing, the tenorman’s brusque lyricism in full force throughout and a bright, florid conversational cap on “Angelica’s Bounce,” laconic bop-derived lines gradually morphing into grotesque exhortations over the supple dances of pizzicato and percussion. Eneidi’s alto emerges at several minutes in, joining Spearman in a brief, heaving unison before spiraling outward into flywheel gobs of Bird-like motifs and warmly metallic brays. The bassist’s “Cyrus Paints the Town” begins with a detailed, albeit folksy series of arco declamations and songlike fragments, grinding into a bit of low-end distortion that offsets passages of microscopic concentration. At six minutes in, high-pitched tenor peals give way to floor-shaking pulses, Robinson’s mallets and Eneidi’s breath giving an extra bit of shade to the proceedings. The leader’s “Fantasy for Niccolo,” like three of the tunes here opening unaccompanied, with Eneidi’s horn embracing a cozy, delicate liquidity punctuated by muscular charges. While Eneidi has rightly been labeled a firebrand for his work with Spearman, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and like travelers, he’s a player whose bluesy curls and piquant energy are serve sparse contexts well, and the trio section of this ballad is gorgeous. Spearman knows well the worked-over soles of experience and feeling, and his husky conversation-scraps that follow are pure icing on the cake. While it may be something more of an art edition than a commercial disc (and a bit tough to find), For Our Children is a gorgeous example of things to come from those both here and now gone.

Piano Rapture
(Flying Note)
In the February 1989 issue of EAR Magazine, on the subject of multi-instrumentalist Kali Fasteau, writer Charles S. Russell stated “why this woman hasn’t been hastily signed up by Hat Hut or Nonesuch… is completely beyond me... my money says she’s not long for the land of cheap indies.” Over a quarter-century later, Fasteau is still releasing music herself on the Flying Note imprint, which she’s run since 1986. At this point, even larger independents are struggling so it’s quite possible that Fasteau is better off releasing her own music and controlling the means of production. Piano Rapture is her latest disc and finds the vocalist, reedist, keyboardist and percussionist sticking strictly to piano, primarily in duets with fellow reedists Kidd Jordan and Mixashawn (née Lee Rozie), as well as solos and one trio piece with reedist J.D. Parran and percussionist Ron McBee.

Rhapsodic, gospelized chords supplant Mixashawn’s keening soprano, egging him on with dense glissandi and chunky, interdependent lines on “Body Wisdom,” featuring Fasteau on electric piano, although she encourages reverential qualities in a plugged-in instrument. Mixashawn is a fine player who isn’t spoken of enough; his heel-digging tenor fits right in with the post-Aylerian bag, to which he comes honestly with captivating ecstasy. Meanwhile, Jordan purrs and dives through jarring interstices on “Faun Listening,” emblematic of a partnership that draws out some of his most subtle playing. It’s telling that three of the compositions here reference departed masters; “Roy’s Wake,” utilizing processed voice, organ, electric piano and flute, is for trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., while the solo piano works “Hai Tchicai” and “Another Southpaw” are for reedist John Tchicai and pianist Borah Bergman, respectively. “Roy’s Wake” is colorful and strange, blending massive pipe organ sounds with globular vibraphone effects, flute, and ethereal vocal tones – a ghostly tone poem of celebration and revelation that is at turns exasperated and doleful. The closing “Taliswoman” for trio captures Parran and McBee in a low, warble, either meditative or sharp and coloring the stark, roiling lines of Fasteau’s piano, which recalls the Far Eastern church of Alice Coltrane’s late 1960s work. An excellent set of recent recordings, Piano Rapture is fiery, exuberant and captures Fasteau’s music in excellent relief.


New Haven guitarist and composer Michael Gregory Jackson has been a vital, if not often discussed, part of creative music for the better part of forty years. From his early work with reedist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to proto-Black Rock group Signal, to his recent work with Danish improvisers in both a “power trio” and larger ensemble formats, Jackson has a diverse and captivating discography that skirts free music, soul, and art-rock. The guitarist’s first new disc in a dozen years, Liberty features Jackson’s guitar, voice and compositions alongside Art Ensemble Syd, a group from Sønderborg, Denmark that features saxophonist-flutist Simon Spang-Hanssen, flutist Thorstein Quebec Hemmet, violinist Heine Steensen, bassist Niels Praestholm and drummer Matias Wolf Andreasen. AES are apparently the “Official Jazz Ensemble” of Sønderborg, leaving one to rhetorically wonder why there aren’t groups of talented young improvisers supported by most American cities.

The opening title piece is rendered in two parts, the first in a soaring, chunky theme that unfurls rather quickly into darting alto, violin and flute commentary as Jackson’s wiry, nasally forceful improvising takes hold, while throaty bass and percussion maintain a clomping forward motion. Long, meditative lines are spurred by taut flecks, seamlessly moving into the second part, which focuses on Jackson’s abrupt and unadorned six-string clamber. “Gimbals” begins with muted, wowing tones before splaying out into jagged trio improvising; Praestholm has been part of Jackson’s Clarity -<3 TRiO in recent years (with drummer Kresten Osgood), and this piece exhibits a similar shade before being augmented by staccato ensemble knots. The focus on tough economy is certainly not at the expense of lyricism, which certainly imbues Jackson’s music, but Liberty is structured around the tension between stately ensemble voicings and a no-frills particularity that keeps the music’s gestures from escaping their material roots. For fans of Jackson’s voice (I’ve long felt it’s what made his work doubly unique), it’s clear and youthful on the folksy ballad “Down,” a dryly-sweet reprieve following the pointillist improvisation of “Citi.” The ensemble revisits an early piece, “Clarity,” here titled “Clarity 4” and updating the original’s lilted movement through rhythm units with stereoscopic sparring and Andreasen’s jittery, pulsing waves, coming to rest on a sinewy string trio. Liberty is a strong and welcome update on Jackson’s activities, which have been discographically absent for too long.


While far from the first drummer-less chamber ensemble in the history of jazz, reedist Jimmy Giuffre’s trios of the late 1950s and early 1960s certainly qualify as among the most revolutionary in the field. The Giuffre trio of 1961-1963 produced only three proper albums as well as a host of European tour recordings, and put more firmly on the map bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley. Blending a swaggering, Texas sense of the blues with pan-tonal improvisations that seemingly borrowed from the aleatory interests of postwar composers like Earle Brown and Bruno Maderna, Giuffre’s trio was perhaps a bit esoteric for American audiences at the time, who were still making sense of another Texan, altoist Ornette Coleman. It’s probably fair to say that like a lot of the jazz avant-garde during this period, Giuffre’s innovations were more impactful on European players (though his music has certainly been championed by younger players in recent decades).

Over four decades after the second Giuffre trio broke up, German pianist Achim Kaufmann and reedist Frank Gratkowski, alongside Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode, embrace similar instrumentation with an equally rugged, openly improvised vocabulary on Geäder. Active for over a decade with discs on Konnex, Nuscope and Leo, this is their fourth album together. Kaufmann’s involvement with the piano utilizes frequent preparations as well as employing the whole of the piano’s “guts,” beyond plucked strings to ghostly washes on an Aeolian harp, against the wisps and clatter of de Joode’s bass (aggressively rubbing the wooden body or using ultra-high-pitched harmonic wails) and Gratkowski’s dry, warbling mouthfuls. On bass clarinet, the reedist’s excitable rhythmic bounce logically extends Dolphy with a healthy dose of Michel Portal’s whimsy. That said, his use of subtones, mouthpiece whistles and muted, noise-like effects (especially on alto) places him alongside contemporary non-jazz explorers like Jack Wright or Paul Flaherty. But comparisons aside – and they are few – the trio’s locus is collective improvisation, and whether presenting indeterminate textures or feisty subterfuge, they remain in constant, unified motion.

Melodic Art-Tet

As Lithuanian Label NoBusiness Records has gone through the loft jazz archives, it seems like they’ve been able to tick off quite a few appetite-whetting sessions mentioned in the texts of Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life or David G. Such’s Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing Out There. Unissued Centering dates from bassist-composer William Parker; rare dates from violinists Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang and bassist Earl Freeman; and the post-loft supergroup The Group (curiously not commercially recorded though they were rather well regarded in the mid-80s). The Group featured Bang, altoist Marion Brown, drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. One of Abdullah’s other semi-contemporaneous appearances is equally storied and similarly never made any record dates: the Melodic Art-Tet. Featuring Abdullah, tenor/soprano saxophonist Charles Brackeen, bassist Ronnie Boykins, drummer Roger Blank and conguero Tony Waters, they lasted from 1970 to 1974. Luckily one of their final dates was recorded at Columbia University radio station WKCR in October 1974 (with William Parker on bass) and preserved for posterity.

Brackeen wrote most of the ensemble’s book – short, incisive themes as flywheels for bright, darting horn improvisations and a thrumming rhythmic surge, sometimes offset by gentle Latinate lines. The Oklahoma-born Brackeen was an associate of Don Cherry’s in the late ‘60s and it’s therefore no surprise that the quintet intersperses terse themes and rangy improvisations in a somewhat Cherry-like fashion. Though the saxophonist occasionally off-mike, turning to and spurring on his mates, the recording is mostly crisp and hot, doing a service to the concise and gruff energy that the Melodic Art-Tet had. Abdullah and Brackeen are excellently matched, the trumpeter’s commanding brittleness a perfect foil for Brackeen’s woollier incision. They would go on to share front line duties on the excellent album Liquid Magic (Silkheart, 1987, with bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Alvin Fielder), though Brackeen has since disappeared from the music scene. While this music went mostly unheard for decades, we can be thankful that it has been so lovingly presented at a time when masters of an earlier generation are receiving few dues and the creative music environment seems at risk of losing its bleeding edge.

Present Presence
Anatomy of a Moment
(New Atlantis)

Like improvisers as diverse as bassist Peter Kowald and pianist Thollem (McDonas/Electric), percussionist and bow-maker Tatsuya Nakatani is a serious practitioner of touring, to the degree that it is a crucial compontent of his art. Living in a van and cooking for himself on frequent solo jaunts across North America, Nakatani lives the life of an ascetic, though his tours involve a healthy dose of community, improvising with dancers, musicians and non-musicians (for the latter, the Nakatani Gong Orchestra invites artists and the curious to participate in drone exercises).

Present Presence is a solo disc, on which Nakatani employs his array of large and small gongs, broken cymbals, bows, drum set and voice on thirteen short improvisations. They range from deftly rickety athletic pulses to shimmering bowed gong resonance, the latter eking out feedback-like drones, quavering subtones and glassy upper partials in a complex metallic display. “Coastal Arc” is a lightly phased piece for overdubbed hand drums, varying in density and inflection in a condensed nod toward Central African drum choirs and exhibiting a percussion format I haven’t seen in Nakatani’s live performances. And it’s fair to mention again Nakatani as a performer – his music is built on the theatricality of a “show” with dramatic openings, closings and an internal arc, as well as techniques that are incredible to witness in the flesh. But Present Presence does stand in very well for Nakatani’s live work – it’s beautifully recorded and even without the visualness of his actions, has a tactility all its own, not to mention including layered compositions that couldn’t be easily realized in a typical gallery gig.

As a traveling percussionist (though he has a home base in Pennsylvania), Nakatani engages a wide array of sparring partners. These have included trumpeter Forbes Graham, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Assif Tsahar, guitarist Omar Tamez and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. Anatomy of a Moment features nine duets with guitarist Shane Perlowin (who now goes by the moniker Shane Parish), whose work has ranged from scruffy prog (Aleuchatistas) to nylon-string Haitian classical music and free improvisation. Perlowin’s vocabulary here employs a folksy minimalism drawing from island music and is exuberantly rhythmic; bolstered by Nakatani’s reverberant bowed tones, the two create a hauntingly affecting urgency on the opening “Long Walk into Light.” Nakatani creates an environment of detailed agitation and gutsy, broad swells to counter Perlowin’s Euro-Caribbean raga forms; switching to an electric instrument on “Last Night Now,” the feel is of languid desert rock, albeit with aggressive suspended-time fireworks. At the highest points, this disc quells the wonder at what Robbie Basho and Masahiko Togashi might sound like together, and throughout the pair create a deep, hard-bitten language of free-folk improvisation, the likes of which is rarely heard.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Solidarity on Loisaida: Oliver Lake-Baikida Carroll Quartet, October 23, 2014

For me, coming up as a young adult in the second half of the 1990s and getting into jazz and improvised music when I did (around 1997 as a late teenager), it would’ve been easy to make the conclusion that, for the most part, a lot of the music I’d be spending time with would be historical. There’s a lot of truth to that – while I am engaged in the critical discourse around contemporary improvised music (now), that interest is built on listening to numerous recordings from the past, reading deeply on the subject, and talking with people who were “there.” So while I often have the opportunity to see and support music made by my peers, I also can speak with individuals who actually witnessed Coltrane at his height. Yet I also assume that, going from recorded documents made in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s unlikely that I would hear some of history’s great combos take the stage again (there are, of course, exceptions). One can imagine the raised eyebrows that came with the news that saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Baikida Carroll would be reuniting for a performance at the Stone in October as part of the saxophonist’s residency – though I’m not sure when they last played together, they hadn’t made a record in about twenty-five years.

Lake and Carroll’s history together goes back to 1968, St. Louis, and the environment that fostered the Black Artists' Group, which also gave rise to musicians like trombonist Joseph Bowie, altoist Julius Hemphill, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw (and whose rich history is detailed in Benjamin Looker’s 2004 book Point from which creation begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis). A number of the BAG musicians expatriated to Paris in 1971, including Carroll and Lake, though both returned to New York by 1975 and became crucial figures in New York’s loft jazz scene. Carroll has worked less frequently in the last decade, while Lake has remained incredibly active with a number of ensembles, including the lauded Trio 3 (with drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman).

Back to the Stone: Lake and Carroll were joined for their single set by drummer Nasheet Waits and violinist Jason Kao Hwang. Hwang came up in the post-loft scene in New York leads or co-leads a diverse array of weighty ensembles, while Nasheet Waits follows in his father Freddie’s footsteps as a drummer who balances equally the emotional and structural requirements of post-bop and the avant-garde. The quartet played one long improvisation based around a short, few-note cell, balanced precariously between spare, deep-listening communication (like the AACM, the BAG promoted the use of “little instruments,” though such coloring devices weren’t present here), dense fiery swells, and areas that hearkened back to traditional prewar jazz (cue the drum-and-bugle corps at the sound of a whistle). Carroll’s sound is fat, warm and economical, almost cornet-like, while perhaps a little more fragile than history would attest. There’s a wise depth to his phrases and a gentle, authoritative comment that he brings out in response to other players – quite simply, he has one of the most beautiful tones I’ve heard on a trumpet in a live setting. Often when he wasn’t playing, Carroll would stand with his ear cocked upwards and his eyes closed, holding his trumpet and listening – both to the ensemble and to whatever external force would encourage the next sound, as though focused on his vessel-like role.

Lake, while retaining the bitter joy of his alto and curved soprano, is similarly a musician who exudes presence and depth, a participant as much as a conductor. While his tone and the physics of his phrasing can cut through the densest group texture, he uses his horn to spur and center as much as lead the fray. To hear Lake and Carroll together is to hear two musicians who seemingly haven’t missed a beat since the 1980s or 1970s – it’s as though, older and with perhaps more direct control over their ideas, and with more experience, they’ve picked up where they left off. While perhaps not as celebrated a front line as Dolphy and Hubbard, Coleman and Cherry, or Carter and Bradford, they’re certainly as distinctive and unified.

Hwang’s amplified violin provided sinewy, burnished counterpoint to the horns, sometimes in guttural staccato, at other instances in braying, reddish sweeps. Proximally close to Lake, the vocal blend of alto and violin offered a dense carpet to Carroll’s pursed stabs and Waits’ rubberized motion. This is a drummer who is equally at home with pianists Jason Moran and Andrew Hill as he is with reedist Peter Brötzmann, and without the traditional rhythm-section mate of a bassist, he carried the quartet forward with a deep understanding of tradition and a healthy relationship with abstraction. One can hear the “Max” in Waits, as well as the “Elvin,” and I also caught “Rashied” and Steve McCall. With Lake and Carroll, the ear might want to compare Waits with “Bobo” Shaw, although they’re apples and oranges – to that notion, Waits has a tidal effect, yet it’s exhibited with extreme economy, and as variegated as his approach is, it’s never overbearing. He was the perfect drummer for the job.

Following nearly an hour of improvisation, moving through solos, duets, trios and quartets, they closed with a hushed quirk of an encore (“a short piece” equaled about a minute). My feeling throughout was that the group captured the sonic and communicative essence of what BAG music (and some of the post-BAG units) felt like during those heady years, but in an utterly contemporary way. A lot of music and life has passed since Orange Fish Tears (Palm, 1973), and the co-leaders are arguably more seasoned, reflective and selective in their work. It will be interesting to see if a recording or more concerts result from this reunion, but in any event, it's rare to hear new and historical streams brought together in quite this way. Certainly this was one evening to remember.

L-R: Waits, Hwang, Lake, Carroll. Photo courtesy Don Mount

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Long-Distance Bassist: an Interview with Shayna Dulberger

Brooklyn bassist Shayna Dulberger has been on the creative music scene for the better part of a decade, leading her own groups including her latest, a quartet with guitarist Chris Welcome, tenorist Yoni Kretzmer and drummer Mike Pride. Releasing most of her music herself, she’s also led groups featuring altoist Darius Jones (The KillMeTrio), drummer Carlo Costa, and collaborates with Welcome in a noise duo called HOT DATE. Her role as an electric bassist has charged the no wave revivalist quartet Cellular Chaos (with Weasel Walter, guitar; Admiral Grey, voice; Marc Edwards, drums), and she has also worked frequently with saxophonists Jonathan Moritz and Ras Moshe, bassist William Parker, and double-reed expert Bill Cole. In this interview she real-talks the daily struggles of an improviser, being a woman on the creative music scene in New York, and having a diverse approach to outsider music.

How did the current quartet come together?

Yoni Kretzmer had recently come to town – this was back in 2011. We were playing on the same bill at Local 269 as part of The Evolving Music Series. He messaged me sometime after the show to compliment me and asked to play, and we got together and had a great time. So I hired him to play my music. I get along really well with him, I think.

Mike Pride has been part of your environment for a long time, right?

He has; actually when I first moved to Brooklyn from Rutgers – Chris [Welcome] moved to Brooklyn before I did because he’s two years older than me, so he moved here and I was still going to school, but I was coming over all the time. He was going to ABC No Rio every Sunday for the jam session, which was really fun. Everybody would be mismatched in twos and threes. Chris and I were at the session and Mike and Jonathan Moritz were playing, and we got mixed and matched in improvisations, which was really fun. Mike hired Chris and I to start a trio, Ixtlon, which was very short-lived. Jonathan played on three of Chris’s quartet records and Jonathan eventually hired me to play in his trio, which will be performing in April at Spectrum.

When I first saw you, you were playing in a really nice trio with [tenorist] Ras Moshe and [guitarist] Amanda Monaco, and that must’ve been around the same time.

We’ve done a few of those gigs – maybe once every year or so? I play with Ras all the time. Amanda is great.

You’ve been playing with Ras for a while, right?

Yeah, when I first moved to Brooklyn I started a series in Park Slope and between going to the ABC No Rio sessions every week and having my own series, I met a million people. I had Talibam! play, and that series is how I met Ras. He asked me for a slot and asked if I would play bass on the gig. It was with [drummer] Charles Downs and [guitarist] Dave Ross, and I’m pretty sure that was my first time playing with him. That quartet went on to make the Transcendence record – I’m proud of it. That was my first real in-studio recording session.

As for your compositional process over the years and how it’s evolved, could you talk about that?

Yes. It’s really just going through any artistic chapter – like a blue period or red period, it’s kind of like that, and right now I’m in a folk-melody period, whereas before I was more interested in rhythm, harmony and counterpoint. Now I am more interested in melody and spontaneity.

How did this period emerge?

Well, I was feeling frustrated with making grooves sound interesting – they were stiff and felt uncreative. The melodies in the new book of songs are improvised over and under – it’s a bit more like my first record with TheKillMeTrio, but the written parts are longer.

As a listener it’s hard for me to bridge what you’re saying, because I’m on the receiving end and I like Ache & Flutter, the rhythm record, very much. You seem like you’re very self-critical of your work, which is good.

Thanks. It’s terrible – I get really dark sometimes, but I think that is why it’s important for me to surround myself with other creative people who are supportive of me, and I feel lucky to have so many people in my life who are supportive, like Chris, Ras, and Weasel [Walter]. I can’t believe how nice and nurturing and patient Weasel is, and yet he’s so intense and has a million things he wants to work with people on. Chris is constantly working on elaborate chamber pieces or he’s practicing really hard music. This is the kind of energy I need to be around.

Was the development of these folkier ideas and grooves that people can hang onto something that came out of working with Cellular Chaos, or was it present before?

It was present before; there are some rhythms that on Ache & Flutter that were like that, and I’ve always listened to rock and metal – that comes out in The KillMeTrio. I had listened to Lydia Lunch before Weasel joined her band, and in 2005 I was really into the Swans and wanted to do thirty minutes of half-notes and have the drummer just play toms. I’ve always been interested in this heavy, minimal thing as well, so I'd had these influences before joining Cellular Chaos.

Which is interesting because I had not heard HOT DATE before today, and was pretty surprised at what it is. I certainly have a predilection to minimal music and noise, but I didn’t expect that HOT DATE would be in that realm.

That’s from last winter; we just did a gig last weekend at XFest in Holyoke, Massachusetts – Walter Wright owns an art gallery up in Lowell and he started a festival where he invites all these amazing improvisers and performance artists, dancers and visual artists, and he curates the space visually and makes up groups. You get fifteen minutes to play music with someone you’ve never played with – it’s a huge, crazy party and this was the sixth year. On the last day he has bands play. HOT DATE played and, I’m not sure if you know about how we perform, but we wear all black and have these orange masks on, and we had these two red lights in the middle. Four people stand in front of us and they’re all wearing these monster masks I sewed with mosquito nets (so they would be breathable). It’s more theatrical than my other projects – eventually, I want to get a string of lights to go in the middle and around us, maybe get some tap lights, sort of like a light sculpture. I like the visual effects and people's responses to this project. Also, having people standing that close, which is rare, is pretty awesome.

I didn’t know about that aspect of the group and had only listened to the recording. How do you view the performance of that work versus releasing a document, which is missing the theatre?

Performing is the most important thing to me right now. It’s very different than what can be mass produced on CD, tape or vinyl. The set design was just another step from designing a flyer or an album cover. I usually do the design for most albums I release, so designing the set was a smaller step. It’s something I wanted to do, and I’ve had a lot of trouble getting visual artists to collaborate with me for some reason, or choreographers – they half-ass it or are too self-absorbed to really put something into the project. One day it’ll happen, but I get exhausted trying to psych people up for things, so I do it myself.

I can imagine that people are busy and don’t want to branch out of their own things. How do you find people to do the standing role?

That's a great question. We’ve had people say they would do it and when it comes to show time they wimp out. Some people move around too much. It's best to get dancers or movement artists even though it's really simple. The people who are standing in front of us are really just standing there – they aren’t choreographed in any major way, but they are part of the atmosphere. XFest is easy because there are so many weirdos around, and at this point we’ve been doing it for two years so people know what the vibe is. I try to get people who have already done it before, like Alex Pelchat, who’s very young but one of the best improvisers I’ve heard. He’s a great noise artist out of Montreal.

I’ve only spent much time with your jazz-oriented work.

I do a lot of things; it makes sense that you say that, because I’m most known for free jazz, and I really love it. That’s me at my most natural.

How did you get into playing creative music?

I always played creatively. I used to tell stories and play piano at my babysitter's house when I was a kid – she was basically my first teacher. I played piano in elementary school and then played guitar, and I was kind of – well, I was kind of a tough and never did my work, hated participating in activities and going to class, so the school therapist said I should join the school band. There were already enough guitarists, and I grew up an hour north of the city and we always listened to WQXR and NPR, so classical music was around along with doo-wop and folk music, and I decided I wanted to play upright bass and nothing would stop me. My parents took me to a lot of shows growing up, so I saw Richie Havens a bunch of times and went to the NY Philharmonic. The orchestra teacher asked me to play violin or cello, and I got one lesson on the bass and learned all the major scales in a day. I’d already been playing piano and guitar, so it wasn’t a big deal. The chick who taught me was two years younger and twice my size, but it was cool – I got third chair right away and it was really fun. That’s all I wanted to do – I was set from age fourteen.

As far as jazz and free music, how did you become aware of it?

I was spotted playing pizzicato by a jazz teacher during an orchestra rehearsal, and he invited me to play in the jazz band. I went to his office and he played me Blue Train and I was sold from then on. I went to Rutgers for jazz and wasn’t too interested in free music. I wasn’t aware that people performed it and made careers out of it until I met Chris and went through his record collection, and he started taking me to shows in the city. We went to Tonic every weekend, and I discovered Weasel through him – Chris is from Chicago and was going to Flying Luttenbachers shows as a teenager. I would go through his records and that was the first time I heard Destroy All Music and thought “oh…” I told him that we were going to start a free jazz band and we recruited these two guys who had absolutely no interest in playing the music. Modus was the name of the band.

Rutgers as a program, was it pretty conservative?

Yeah, it was, but it was also a lot more relaxed than it is now. It’s really intense – I have some super-senior friends who are still there. You have to learn the standards and listen to a lot of Coltrane, but of course I loved that and I wanted it. I like to swing and I love Coltrane – it was making me a better free bass player to know the foundations.

How did you meet William Parker? I know he’s been important in your musical direction.

I’d been going to his shows since I was eighteen, and it was just bound to happen. [Drummer] Andrew Barker had a series called Phantom Ear at Union Pool, and in 2007 the quartet with Charles Downs and Ras opened up for William’s band. I talked to William and told him how much I enjoyed his music, and he saw me play and I took a great solo that night, so it was a victory night. A month later he emailed me and asked if I could play the Vision Festival in his big band.

That’s pretty amazing.

Yeah, I remember getting that email! It was in the early afternoon and I was living on 22nd St. and 4th Ave in Brooklyn. I was sitting on a pink chair my grandma gave me and looking out the window thinking “Oh my god! This is it!.”

Was there any formal teaching from him?

No, he treated me like a band member. I know people who have taken lessons from him and and I think he focuses on playing together, rather than lecturing – though I have seen him speak and he's very inspiring. Have you ever seen his Tone World book? I borrowed it from [trumpeter] Pasquale Cangiano and it’s pretty fascinating. I have also been developing a relationship with Patricia [Parker]. She’s great and super important for the scene here in New York; I also got to know William through playing in Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble. When he was with the group he played a lot of shenai so at one point it was me and two shenai players. Just the fact that William feels comfortable not playing bass and having me on it instead, that’s –

It’s like Mingus having Doug Watkins play bass.

Exactly. I was 23 when he invited me to play Double Sunrise Over Neptune at the Vision Festival. It was amazing, but I’m still working my ass off and I still have no record label interested in releasing my music. I’m not touring unless I save up for it and make it happen. I have to send a million emails out just to get a gig. It could fall apart at any minute if I don’t do the work.

I’ve noticed a few of your call-outs on Facebook about being very frustrated. I know it’s frustrating for everybody here – not to diminish your struggles, which are very real.

Yeah, well, this year I’ve been touring a lot with Cellular Chaos and Hot Date, and I’m still getting good reviews. Whenever I go out and play a show people come up and say that I’m very successful and ask how I do it, looking for advice. I go home and look at my spreadsheets with the money I make from PayPal and how much I didn’t make the other night paying my band fifty bucks each, and am I creating an illusion by showing all this positivity? I’m just trying to get people interested and I want my music to reinforce positive things, but at the same time I feel like I’m creating an illusion that it’s all positive – I want to be more open and personal about these issues to let people know that it’s really fucking hard. Jealousy and envy really stress me out. I think it’s fake. You think I’ve had some breaks, but I still have to put $3,000 aside to make my next record. Where’s that going to come from? My day job – I teach piano and guitar to little kids. But that’s time spent not working on my own shit. It hurts a little bit that people might think that I’m making my living from my music. I’ve been a sandwich maker, caterer, dog walker, dog and cat sitter, office assistant, and now I just teach private music lessons to little kids.

I remember reading that on the cover of Archie Shepp’s Live in San Francisco LP, which has a proudly-emblazoned golden Selmer saxophone on it, Shepp was having to pawn his horn to feed his family because Impulse wouldn’t give him an advance and Selmer wouldn’t give him a horn, even though he was endorsing their product. In this music, people who appear successful often are scuffling and working for nothing.

But there’s a lot of people who like to be bitter and feel like others are “chosen,” whereas I’m hanging on by a thread. I could get fired from Cellular Chaos tomorrow or lose a gig because of something I can't control, like the weather.

You’re saying this with a big smile, it’s funny.

Pretty much! I can’t survive without a sense of humor. This lifestyle is way too crazy.

How did you get in with Cellular Chaos?

I wish I remembered all the details – I went to see [drummer] Dylan Ryan and his trio play at ShapeShifter and I met Stephen Buono who was also playing that night in his band Split Red. Dylan grew up with Chris, so we've been friends a long time. Stephen messaged me and asked if I wanted to play with Cellular Chaos, and I thought he meant a show so I began plugging Hot Date. He was like “no, will you play bass in the band?” I don’t really play electric – I used to play in a doom band that was really fun and I’ve been teaching beginning electric bass, but it's not my first instrument.

At the time Carlo [Costa] left the quartet and Yoni was going out of the country, and we’d finished playing my last book of tunes and I didn’t have that much new stuff, and I was in a dark and uninspired place, so I had a month off. Cellular Chaos was taking off a bit and all of the songs were written, so I just needed to learn them. They had a two week tour booked in the South, and I'd never been to the South and really wanted to play down there. I got into Chris’ computer to get Weasel’s email address (he wouldn't care if he knew!), and sent him a message to the effect that I knew he was looking for a bass player and to let me know. I thought I wasn’t going to get the gig, and asked Weasel to audition me. It wasn’t like that at all – we did a three hour rehearsal and I was in. It was at first a sub gig for [bassist] Kelly Moran, but after the tour, Kelly was out, and I could tour whereas she couldn’t, so that was that. I don’t mind being dirty, sleeping on floors and drinking whiskey to get through it. I love playing and performing for an audience, and I can’t turn that down.

Obviously the audience is different for Cellular Chaos and your jazz groups.

It’s completely different – it’s younger, there are more women, it’s more diverse in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, there are more transgender people at Cellular Chaos shows. I’m mostly psyched to play for younger women; I don’t get that with downtown free jazz shows at all. Last night I played at ShapeShifter with [reedman] Michael Moss and [guitarist] Billy Stein, and they’ve been playing in New York since the ‘70s. That show was all older white guys. It’s not really that big of a deal, it’s just when they talk to me after they make me feel like a unicorn. And I think it’s because they look at me and they see my age and my gender. If my audience is more similar to me, I feel like there is more focus on my craft – playing bass.

I always skirt around the gender question in terms of success or struggles, being in or out of the scene, and some people are critically popular for different reasons – hard work, talking to the right promoters, it’s all an aspect of putting oneself out there. I was trying to figure out how gender affects either the acceptance of your music or the difficulty you have in finding labels, gigs, and so forth.

I would lie if I said no, but I really hate thinking or talking about it. I do think people turn their heads when they hear me or see me because I’m not tall and I’m not male. This is who I am and I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years. I have shaped my life to evolve around playing bass. I feel pretty comfortable with myself being a bass player and it’s hard being around people who make me feel like a circus act. It took me a long time to be okay with talking about this – I think I’m more comfortable now, but I don’t like to think my success has anything to do with being female. It’s because of my playing and devotion to it.

I was thinking the opposite – the scene, as it is, could be creating roadblocks.

I think it’s hurt me with some people and helped with others. Some guys want it to be a sausage club. Some women want it to be a females-only thing. I think it’s unnatural and limiting to work in that way – people should be hired because of their ability and chemistry with each other.

It’s interesting that the touring environment with Cellular Chaos is maybe more open than the jazz environment.

I think I got the gig because I’m a female. I talked about it with Admiral [Grey] and Weasel, and he said that he wants to give other people a chance and not have it be a white-guy band. That’s boring – why aren’t there more women playing music? Why aren’t there more black people playing rock music? It’s true, and Weasel wants to give other people the chance.

I get just as many compliments on my bass playing in Cellular Chaos as in a free jazz band. I’m learning music, I’m feeling it stronger because I play these tunes every night. It’s good for my memory, it adds fuel to the fire when I want to play upright, because I really love upright a lot more – it’s who I am. It’s true – I wish there were more women in the scene and it wasn’t an issue, but it is. How do you get more women in? You hire them and you show them off so that other women can see them and think it’s cool. I know the upright bass isn’t an inspiring instrument to women – a lot of women want to look petite and fashionable, and a bass isn’t going to help them do that.

No, they are going to look strong and awesome.

Yeah, that’s what I’m going for! I don’t know, it’s a sensitive topic and it’s weird because for a long time I felt uncomfortable playing with other women, and I don’t like it when people come up to me and say ‘oh, you’re a female musician. Do you know this other female musician?’ Like we all know each other because we’re females – that happens all the time. Especially being a bass player, people want to ask me all the time about Esperanza Spalding. I’m a couple of years older and right before she made it, I was playing a lot of the same venues. I do the opposite thing!

You go hear someone like Amanda or Mary Halvorson or Kris Davis, and it’s predicated by the fact that they are women, not that they are great musicians. Ideally I don’t want to care what someone looks like.

I really appreciate you not pointing out the female part in reviews – like “she is an upright bass player,” I really noticed that in your writing. I’ve noticed it for years when reviewers say “she’s a young female musician” and it’s annoying. I wanted to sound like Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus since I was fifteen, so when somebody talks about me being female, that works against my interests .I don’t play because I am female and my music is not about being female.

You do have a very full, warm sound on the instrument that you’ve cultivated, ant that should be what’s interesting to people. The only realize I bring up this question is because I feel like in avoiding it, even though you don’t want to box people in, it’s important to discuss.

I know, I agree and I appreciate you bringing it up sensitively. I look at it like I have goals, and whatever I need to do to reach those goals, I do those things. One time this chick called me up for a gig with an all-female band to do demos for a pharmaceutical commercial about depression, and there were so many no-no’s. I don’t want to be in an all-female band for marketing reasons, and I don’t like the pharmaceutical industry. And I don’t want to be a female musician with depression in a commercial – so I turned that down, even though there was money involved.

So you’ve got integrity!

Exactly. I do think I’ve been hired sometimes because I’m female, but I have to take the gig and get exposure for my work, and I’m going to do what I do. Hopefully I can get to a point where I only do the gigs I want to do and not play with people who waste my time.

Not all the gigs you take are your own band. Are you talking studio work?

No, just one-off gigs. It’s good for me to play other people’s music, because it helps me identify with my own music more. It’s kind of a jazz school teaching – take every opportunity that comes along. It feels good when someone wants to play with me, and I want to do that. I’ve been hired for gigs where someone probably wasn’t thinking about my artistic abilities, and they wanted someone generic, and those were really boring.

People probably don’t do their research.

Yeah, and they just take these quotes from my Facebook page – someone asked me to sit in on the volunteer opera production of The Magic Flute, and I was like ‘I don’t know if I can pull this off.” I could’ve done it six years ago but right now I’ve just been making a lot of noise, and I don’t have the time to rehearse for something like that.

You still could call up the classical chops.

Yeah, The Magic Flute would be a stretch – I’d like to see the music for it, maybe I’m wrong and it could be easy and just doubling the cello part. I feel more comfortable doing pit band stuff – I did Camelot a couple of years ago and it was fun.

I was going to ask another hopefully not-too-weird question, but it is somewhat personal. Collaborating with your partner or spouse, how does that work? I watched Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock play a duo the other day and I was thinking that they know one another so well, yet they’re also continually challenging one another and watching their faces, neither was throwing an easy pitch. Knowing someone as a musician and on a personal level so deeply, as you do with Chris, I’m curious about how that has developed.

We had been playing together before we were “together,” and I feel like he’s my mentor. I look up to him and I’ve learned a lot from him, and whenever I have a problem musically I can ask him, like “this line sounds corny – what can I do to make it sound cool?” Harmony and rhythm – “did I transcribe this right?” His ears and knowledge have always been so much more than anyone else I know. I really look up to him and am really psyched about his playing my music, because I can really manicure it with him. Whereas a lot of other musicians I feel like if I called them in, I’d have to hope that they can do the right interpretation. We can talk about it in depth, we play music in the house all the time – standards, noise, whatever – we always listen to records and go music shopping.

I admit it can be a little stifling and my next project may not have him involved. When I first moved to the city I had TheKillMeTrio and it was clear that I didn’t want Chris in the band, but it coincided with his quartet that I was playing in, so we were still playing together a lot. At that point he wanted to play music that had more dynamics and subtleties and I wanted an in your face loud, angry free jazz band. We have a had a lot of arguments about music but we agree that the goal as a musician should be versatility and being exposed to as many different things as possible. If you put him in the right context and tell him the right things, he will go nuts. That’s how a great musician works.

Yeah, I was going to say, on Ache & Flutter, he’s definitely not subtle.

I suggested certain things – I said "I want you to listen to Sonny Sharrock" and I told him I wanted the music to have that vibe. I was really into Black Woman and wanted to have him sound like that.

Any parting thoughts?

I was really psyched to be invited to play Roulette again [on Monday, March 3] I haven’t played the new space with my own project before. I played the old space with William Parker's Essential Orchestra doing Inscription For Cecil Taylor. Cecil was in the audience! It's great playing with these guys – I’ve been friends with and playing with Mike, Yoni and Chris for a long time. I’m also very excited to test out the new book of music – one in particular I remember my mother humming when I was a child, so it all comes from experiences like that. There is peace, love and torment with this music. I like to describe my new music as melodies that calm demons and improvisations that give them some "exercise."


Interview conducted in Williamsburg on March 1, 2014 and over email.
Solo photos by Wesley Mann
Cellular Chaos photo courtesy ThrAsheville Zine