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.