Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
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.
Kris Davis — Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013)
Massive Threads is a difficult combination of minimalism and brashness that almost dares the listener to try to enjoy it. Some of these solo piano excursions include passages where Kris Davis might well be saying, “Let’s spill a bunch of paint and see if the critics can convince themselves it’s art” — but I don’t think that’s the case. I do think I’m finding artistry and beauty in this music — and I admit, I do enjoy the academic side. This is material that takes multiple listens to embrace, and it’s worth the effort.
Davis’ work got increasingly abstract and challenging during the past decade. You can hear some of that minimalist touch it at the end of “Whirly Swirly,” the mostly friendly opening track of Waiting for You To Grow. But that album, like much of Davis’ work, kept its feet anchored in jazz. Massive Threads boils away jazz pretense, reducing musical forms into primordeal ideas and an obsession with the piano’s highest or lowest registers.
That doesn’t mean it’s simple or slow. “Ten Exorcists” is an impress display of lightning precision. It starts as an almost toneless, Philip-Glass-on-speed exercise, later developing something of a melody in the form of left-hand chords. For maximum contrast, that exercise in concentration is followed by the gaping empty spaces of the second track, appropriately titled, “Desolation and Despair.”
The title track gives you a little bit of everything. The intro is attractively splashy, full of free-jazz abandon, but it soon crosses into a desert of twisted, gloppy chords stamped out in slow, robotic, quarter-note succession, describing a stern 6/4 cycle. It’s not always easy listening, but I like the idea of it. Nicer but hardly normal is “Dancing Marlines,” a whispered monologue of upper-register keys like drippings from an icicle. It builds into staggered, stair-step pickings that have a light mood and even a sense of swing.
Monk’s “Evidence” gets pulled apart into a halting, stuttering non-rhythm. A ray of jazz manages to poke through, in the harmonies and the phrasing — especially at the end, when Davis gets into a high-register ostinato and some convoluted cross-rhythms, like an alien music box.
“Slow Growing” ends the album on a morose note. It’s a careful, creeping piece full of heavy harmonies; it reminds me of the glum CD of piano sonatas by Russian (soon-to-be-Soviet) composer Alexandr Mosolov on ECM. What Davis’ album shares with that one is the sense of complex emotion that’s too thickly stacked to express in simple terms. There’s a sense of therapeutic outpouring that’s worth the time to absorb.
Swimming in Bengal — Vol. 1 (Lather, 2014)
It’s the drums — the hollow, ringing sound of a hand drum and the percussion of what sound like a half-dozen found implements. Not just that, it’s the sitar-like sounds, produced by Jed Brewer’s custom-made guitar that has a gourd for its body and a raised wooden bridge for that twangy sustain.
Or maybe it’s just the name. Swimming in Bengal feels like a mashup of Indian music, “world” music percussion, and King Crimson-style improvisation. The kind of improvisation where long, held guitar tones create a backdrop at once droning and alive. The mix of styles builds grooves and improvisations to get gloriously lost in.
Vol. 1 gives us three doses of the band, each track speaking that raga-like language for nearly 20 minutes, but with different accents. “Slow Burn,” contrary to its name, turns into a forceful, strumming guitar jam. And “Scattered” uses aggressive sax to suggest a jazzy sound, where Alex Jenkins‘ drumming has almost a swingy feel — only to settle back into the psych-jam exploration of a Brewer guitar solo.
The band is a trio of players active in Sacramento’s jazz/improv scene: Brewer; Jenkins on tabla, drums, and who knows what else; and Tony Passarell on saxophone, flute and percussion.
Passarell is the band’s wild card. On “Walking Alone,” Passarell waits several minutes before he starts drawing lines in the sandbox, beautiful and fast-fluttery. In a way, the sax is an alien voice brought into this world-jam world — and yet, it’s perfect, adding just the right tint. The effect is a bit like the John Lurie National Orchestra: one saxophone carving out lines of melody that seem untethered and free but are actually working within the geometric knitting of the percussion and, in this case, the sitar-like drone. Passarell’s voice and personality on the sax differ from Lurie’s of course; I’m just referring here to the skeleton of the music.
Passarell gets more of a lead voice on “Scattered” — and then, on “Slow Burn,” his soprano sax is the cathartic climax, stepping in a the height of a rock-jam phase, leading to a final few minutes of sunburst jamming.
Swimming in Bengal is one of several projects Brewer is involved in. Find out more on the Lather Records blog; read about this particular band in the alternative weekly Submerge (pages 12-13); and check out the album on Bandcamp.