Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
Henry Plotnick — Blue Fourteen (Blue Tapes, 2014)
Often compared to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, Henry Plotnick is a modern composer using synthesizer loops to build dense pieces, packed with layer upon layer of fascination. He came to KZSU’s attention with his album Fields and is now back with a cassette and download release, blue fourteen. (That’s how the Blue Tapes label names its albums.)
Plotnick’s music verges on new age, I have to admit. For all its mystery, it’s got that calming-yet-upbeat mood, full of clockwork bell sounds, mostly in major keys. Still, I’ve really enjoyed his two albums and his willingness to explore long-form works. At this time of year, all the chiming sounds even make Plotnick a pleasant alternative to Christmas music.
Blue fourteen doesn’t rely on sheets of orchestral strings as much as Fields did — which I guess is another way of saying Plotnick has been expanding his vocabulary of sounds. Some catch my ear better than others. The foundation of “Izles” includes a couple of 8-bit loops that can get on the nerves after a while.
But his new strategies work, and they show off Plotnick’s strength in building and retracting layers to create a 10- or 15-minute story arc. “Wapati” is a particularly exciting piece, where Plotnick glitches up some of his samples, kind of like noise soloing, and even improvises on piano for a spell. I’m also partial to the organized chaos of “Mechanolatry,” where the loops don’t build a fully melodic form and the rhythms criss-cross unevenly. It’s perpetual-motion factory, happily clicking and whirring away.
Then there’s the scattershot feel of “Sun,” which keeps up the happy, floaty mood but in a series of disconnected rhythms, like multiple tracks colliding. It coalesces into a warm, soothing wash to finish the album.
Blue fourteen is a limited-edition cassette and a download; you can sample it on Soundcloud. You can read more about Plotnick on Wondering Sound, upvote him on the Dazed 100 poll (where readers have pushed him up to No. 25 from No. 94), and hear him live on KZSU’s 2015 Day of Noise on Sat., Feb. 7.
Packaged amusingly to look like a corporate annual report, Future(s) Now(s) is an upbeat mix of chamber music (in a fun, bopping mode), stretched-out improv, jazz, and surprising touches of folk music. And you get a bit of corporate swag if you buy the hardcopy CD version.
It’s a strong second outing for Bristle, an album where you can sense how much they enjoyed playing this music. Reeds player Randy McKean, who lives outside the usual Bay Area orbit, in Grass Valley, Calif., has retained the band from the first album, titled Bulletproof, and will be showing off the new tunes at shows in Berkeley and Sacramento, Dec. 6 and 7.
Songs on Future(s) Now(s) were all written by either McKean or fellow reeds player Cory Wright. Combined with Murray Campbell on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass — no drummer — the quartet strides through mostly playful and upbeat compositions that show some intelligent twists and turns and often give way to short stretches of improvisation.
“Whistle Tune” features a relentlessly happy but complex melody led by piccolo. Most of the piece seems to be composed, with piccolo and clarinet popping up with tiny bursts in front of a lumbering, almost smart-alecky, arco bass by Mezzacappa. “Escherish” shows off more of the band’s jazz proclivities, with an early sax solo over a quietly bubbling rhythm line. That piece gives way to a more serious stretch of unaccompanied solos connected by somber composed phrases.
The band’s sense of fun comes out in some of the bouts of pure improvsation. “Butts Up” includes moments of almost slapstick clacking and whistling; “Conference Call” includes some high-pitched improv moments that sound like a flight of birds.
But the best improvised moments come early in “Hick,” where all four players criss-cross ideas, like friends skipping stones on a beach, all clinging to a folky idiom that eventually gives way to the country violin riffs that give the song its title.
The most serious of the pieces, “Sie Sev Lah,” combines low strings with what are apparently two half-clarinets; McKean and Wright took their instruments apart and attached the mouthpieces to the bottom halves. The result sounds close to regular clarinets, but maybe more tart, like a trumpet. Even this track, amid the dead-serious violin/bass chords, includes some joy in the form of buzzing and trilling clarinets.
Ernesto Diaz-Infante has played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and a swath of other stringed instruments (including piano) in a variety of settings from prickly to the sublime. This album features one guitar with lots of reverb, playing calm, repetitive figures. But unlike a computerized piece, or the high-precision mirrors-on-mirrors of classical minimalism, the variations come not only from calculated changes but from the human variations of hands on strings.
The effect is a hypnotic shimmer — simple, graceful image left to drift and slowly change. The ocean metaphor suggested by the album cover is apt.
The titles of the three 15-minute tracks on Wistful Entrance, Wistful Exit form the phrase “this long moment,” which is an apt way to describe ambient music: a place where the instant is stretched, where you can step aside and be a bystander to the passing flow of time. “This” and “Long” are similiar in character, with the sound of a plectrum gently dragged across the strings, describing a meditative, ringing chord followed by two more sympathetic notes. One section of “Long” reduces to just a chord, which further strips down to just two notes for a while, basking us in the simplest essence of harmony.
“Moment” uses straight strumming to form a pulse along with a one-note bass drone (probably just the low “E” string on the guitar). It’s a tougher, cavernous sound that keeps up a faster pace while sticking to that droning aesthetic. The track starts slow, continuing that meditative theme, but shifts into a slow gallop by the end.
Stretched across 15 minutes, the effect is subtle. If you’ve got this on as background noise, you might be surprised at how differently you’re engaging with the music by the end of “Moment.”
Russ Johnson — Meeting Point (Relay Recordings, 2014)
Meeting Point is a modern compositional showcase for trumpeter Russ Johnson, fleshed out by Chicago free-jazz stalwarts, but it’s also got some flavor of a good old bebop quartet. “Clothesline” could serve as a statement-of-purpose, a swingy and unhurried number that sets up some cracking solos from Johnson and bass clarinetist Jason Stein. “Chaos Theory” is a similarly tumbling bop, with a theme that takes a while to play out, making for a fun ride.
What struck me first, though, was the simple, chugging beat of the bass clarinet on “Lithosphere.” It lends a trace of old-timey jazz stomp to an otherwise contemporary sounding composition. Just a trace. You might not hear it, but it helped cement that feeling of past-meets-present in my mind.
This isn’t a retro album, though. Stein, Anton Hatwich (bass), and Tim Daisy (drums) are fixtures of the Chicago free-jazz scene, and Johnson astutely uses their talents in crafting longer-form pieces and in outright burning it up when it comes time for solos. “Chaos Theory” appropriately shifts into a group exploration before Stein gets to cut loose on bass clarinet (which he plays throughout the album), augmented by Johnson’s bleats and burbles, and egged on by Hatwich and Daisy in free-bop mode.
Each player also gets an improvised duo track with Johnson — abstract short pieces tending toward the subtle side. That’s especially true on the duo with Stein, which plays with long tones and Feldmanesque quiet.
Early on in the album, however, Johnson deviated from the more “obvious” jazz fun to present “Confluence,” a 15-minute suite that’s effectively the second track. I enjoy it, but it’s a character from a different novel: studious and involved. It opens with an introspective solo by Johnson, setting up a quiet energy. That gives way to the theme: a simple, jazzy figure that touches off a lengthy bass clarinet solo where Stein ultimately heads into buzzy multiphonic territory.
It’s nice stuff, and when the simple theme re-emerges at the end, emerging from a stormy group tumult, you feel like you’ve completed quite a nice little journey. For the listeners preferring the swingy side of the music, “Confluence” might be an impediment. I like to think of it more as Johnson astutely making the most out of his resources — in terms of his composing skills and his choices of bandmates.
Read more about Russ Johnson in The Reader, published by the Chicago Sun-Times.
A vanishing pleasure of travel is my ritual of visiting CD stores. “Vanishing” because CD stores are vanishing — but also because so much of my travel is related to tech conferences, and so many tech conferences have moved to the wasteland of the Las Vegas strip.
So when an opportunity arose to visit Indianapolis, I eagerly bit. It was a conference I would have attended anywhere in the Lower 48, but the chance to visit a city I’d never seen before was an extra perk.
On my final day, I took a car well north of downtown, into the Broad Ripple neighborhood, to visit Luna Music and Indy CD & Vinyl. Luna sounds familiar; I associate them with Guided by Voices, and I vaguely recall a GbV release or two that I pre-ordered through them. Indy was new to me. Neither disappointed. Both were full of CDs and vinyl (as opposed to the used DVD sections overrunning the Bay Area’s otherwise excellent stores) and had friendly, knowledgeable staff. What a great way to spend a morning.
Biggest surprise of the trip: Indy Records has a small jazz/classical section, but next to it was a packed row full of Tzadik CDs. Lots and lots of Zorn (in fact, the section placard had Zorn’s name), but other artists in the catalog were there, too. This was recent stuff, not a patch of circa-2005 leftovers ordered by “that one guy who quit like a year later.” I knew I had to buy something.
I might never be in Indianapolis again, but I’ll gladly linger in both shops again if I return. Here’s the total haul:
- Woo — It’s Cosy Inside (Drag City, 2012; orig. release 1989) ….. The new Woo record was playing inside Luna, and I got caught up in the ambient vibe. Not quite new age, not quite new techno. Like an instrumental version of The Postal Service, with a similarly innocent and friendly vibe, populated by some guitars, some electronics. The new issue is vinyl-only, so I grabbed a random CD as a souvenir.
- V/A — Spiritual Jazz 5 (Jazzman, 2014) ….. 1960s jazz from around the world! And wow, it’s amazing the things people were doing in Argentina, Japan, India, and Turkey, not to mention some expected hotbeds like South Africa. The music here is one step short of free jazz but takes modal and post-bop ideas to special heights. Highlight of the trip. It was available at both Luna and Indy, so I’m guessing it’s not so hard to find.
- Robert Pollard and His Soft Rock Renegades — Choreographed Man of War (Fading Captain, 2001) ….. Noting the story above, I had to buy a GbV-related issue at Luna. I recall some of these songs fondly from live shows but had never picked up the album.
- Medeski, Schofield, Martin, & Wood — Juice (Indirecto, 2014) ….. I can’t always get into MMW or Schofield, but this album caught my ear at a listening station. Must have hit the right mood. Plus, the 11-minute deconstruction of “Sunshine of Your Love” is anything but cheesy.
- Badbadnotgood — III (Innovative Leisure, 2014) ….. Kind of a cross between hipster dance instrumentals and redefined, intelligent jazz. Highly accessible and probably closer to electronica than to creative music — steady beats, and predictably repeating riffs/chords — but different enough that I wanted to bring it home for a longer listen. This one was highlighted in the Indy jazz section.
- The Budos Band — Burnt Offering (Daptone, 2014) ….. An instrumental rock band with tinges of biker blues, metal guitars that don’t overwhelm the sound, and a real horn section. Big, fun, dramatic. Found these guys because they were featured on Luna’s web site when I was doing my research.
- The Nels Cline Singers — Macroscope (Cryptogramophone, 2014) ….. Should have picked this up many months ago, but didn’t, for highly explainable reasons.
- Lily & Madeleine — Fumes (Asthmatic Kitty, 2014) ….. NPR-friendly folk rock with gorgeously tight harmony vocals. Lily & Madeleine were coming to Indianapolis, so this one was inescapable at both stores. I finally got worn down.
- Eyvind Kang — Grass (Tzadik, 2012) ….. Arbitrary selection from the aforementioned Tzadik section at Indy. Four quite pieces of varying instrumentation. Haven’t spun it yet.
Final note: Every staffer at both stores was significantly younger than me, which was good to see. Record shopping has a tactile experience and a community aspect that can’t be replicated online. I understand why downloads dominate the industry, but it’s nice to see that record-store vibe living on.
(Eric Vloeimans plays at Duende in Oakland, Monday Oct. 13.)
When I first started exploring creative music, an unexpected find was the European classical/ folk/jazz mix that I think is often called Eurojazz. That’s how I came to know it, anyway — that blending of jazz composition and improvisation with the towering structures and oddball harmonies of modern classical music, all played with a Parisian sidewalk-cafe vibe. Sometimes there would even be an accordion in the band, just for good measure.
Pago Libre comes to mind as an example. A couple of their CDs were on the doorstep at KZSU shortly after I arrived, as I recall. Pachora, a Balkan-jazz quartet including Jim Black and Chris Speed, was another early find and an obvious link in the Downtown NYC chain I’d traced after discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount.
Stacked in there somewhere is Eric Vloeimans, a Dutch trumpeter with a light touch and a wistful nostalgia in his playing. It’s likely I crossed his path because he was playing at Yoshi’s; I remember being charmed by his 2004 album Boom-Petit but lost the thread after that.
Vloeimans kept churning out music, though, and his latest band is a trio — with cello and, yes, accordion — playing cinematic sketches in Oliver’s Cinema. The name happens to be an anagram for Vloeimans’ name, but the “cinema” part fits the gently emotive music. Many of the tracks seem to come from still, thoughtful moments rather than high drama, and they’re very visual. “L’Amour des Moules” is a chatty stroll down a verdant park path; “Fellini’s Waltz” is a rich ballet of fantastical elegance.
It’s not far from what I remember of Vloeimans’ earlier work: lyrical, charming songs with a pretty touch, showcasing his crystal trumpet tone in a restrained setting. As with European cinema itself, there’s a lingering mix of happiness and sadness here. “Papillon” is a bittersweet slow song that’s so achingly French, and you can picture it representing fond memories or lost dreams, or both.
I’m not cinephile enough to recognize the classic soundtrack pieces on this album — “Papillon,” “Cinema Paradiso,” and “Rosemary’s Baby” among them. But the album still speaks to me with its depth of atmosphere; it’s subtle and hovering, rather than soaring and loud, and the understated nature sets the tone for what would be an equally understated — and therefore very nice — movie.
The sound of a conventional jazz guitar adds a touch of comfort to bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s trio outing recorded last year. But just a touch. As you’d expect from the musician who’s given us the wildness of the Bait & Switch quartet and the electronics-laced atmosphere of the Nightshade group, the Lisa Mezzacappa Trio isn’t much for convention.
“Ghost Dance,” for instance, is written by Mike Pride, the drummer who crafted the raucous Drummer’s Corpse album. The song is even-handed in its fast tempo, but it splashes with noise — Pride goes heavy on the cymbals, and Chris Welcome’s guitar spews forth madly before setting into a solo.
Still, this trio isn’t as splatterpunk as Bait & Switch gets. Welcome does stay with a traditional jazz-guitar sound, even when doing nontraditional things with it, as in the scribbly line on “1989,” spinning back and forth like a top quickly wound and unwound.
Overall, this is a solid modern take on the jazz guitar trio, edgy without tipping into extremes of loud or quiet. Welcome’s contributions bring out the richness of the guitar, as you’d expect; “Jazz Brunch,” in particular, is slow and breezy and downright nice. And Pride’s “Negakfok” is a swingy, easygoing number that’s closer to what you’d expect from a jazz guitar band.
Among the more “out-there” moments is “The Deep Disciplines,” by Mezzacappa, introduces wide-open improvisation that comes to a full boil. Pride’s “Pottie Mouth,” by contrast, is careful and quiet, an expansive use of space, but again heavily focused on improvisation.