Damon Smith: Calamity and Catastrophe

Danny Kamins, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder, Joe HertensteinAfter Effects (FMR, 2017)

John Butcher, Damon Smith, Weasel WalterThe Catastrophe of Minimalism (Balance Point Acoustics, 2017)

after-effectsDamon Smith favors a prickly brand of free improvisation, packed with extended technique and sound experiments, a style designed to agitate.

It’s a good foundation for a storm-themed album, and the two-drummer attack (Alvin Fielder and Joe Hertenstein) on After Effects produces the right level of calamity. The mood is augmented by Danny Kammins’ sax, which sometimes matches Smith’s screechy, noise-driven sound but also leads some downright jazzy passages.

The song titles are all storm-related, with “Storm Pt. 1” being a particularly direct example. It’s an aggressive attack, as you’d expect, with Kamins screeching aggressively and the drummers battering relentlessly.

The album isn’t all chaos, though. “Gentle Breeze” is a short improvisation introduced by deep,weeping bowed bass. “The Wind,” a 13-minute centerpiece of the album, includes a punchy stretch of improvised jazz, more swingy than menacing.

 
“The Hurricane and the Calm” isn’t the most tumultuous of the tracks, but it’s still rather aggressive — and, surprisingly, gives way to the “calm” of a swingy jazz stride, complete with walking bass and sunny-sidewalk demeanor.

I’m not sure the song sequence is meant to parallel a storm’s life cycle exactly, but the final tracks do seem to be about the aftermath. “After Effects” has a grumpy demeanor that, for me, represents a survey of the storm’s ugly aftermath. And “Clean Up” isn’t the serene rainbow ending you might expect; it’s actually rather disturbing, a sprint of an improvisation that seems more like a forlorn glance at heartless destruction and scattered debris.

smith-catastropheThe latest release from Smith’s own Balance Point Acoustics label, meanwhile, is stormy in brighter, more joyous way. It’s a live session with Weasel Walter on drums and John Butcher on sax, taped in 2008 at the late, lamented 21 Grand.

The three know each other well (or, at least, Smith knows both Butcher and Walter well), and the familiarity creates a celebratory squall.

“A Blank Magic” is propelled by the birdcall warbling and squawking that I most associate John Butcher with, his vocabulary of bizarre and mellifluous saxophone sounds. His encyclopedia of extended techniques — gargling, bumpy sounds, or ecstatic screeches — pairs well with Smith’s, the two of them tapping from similar raw materials to construct probing improvisations.

Weasel Walter packs “An Illusionistic Panic Part 2” with his brand of balletic aggression — hard, fast playing on relatively soft or quiet surfaces; this lets him propel the action and fill space without overwhelming the other sounds.

“Modern Technological Fetishes” really pushes the needle on intensity and volume early on, with Walter going absolutely nuts as Butcher and Smith crank the heat. As often happens (and I keep meaning to write about this), the piece’s second half takes the opposite approach, beginning in quietude and ending with speedy but laid-back playing, with Butcher’s sax hitting some calm stretches of nearly conventional melody.

Here’s an excerpt from the earlier, noisier part of that track.


 

September 17, 2017 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

Ghost Lights

Gordon Grdina, François Houle, Kenton Loewen, Benoît DelbecqGhost Lights (Songlines, 2017)

grdina-ghostA sense of mystery lingers over Ghost Lights, the product of four veteran Vancouver improvisers. They aren’t in a hurry, which gives these lengthy compositions and improvisations a feeling of carefully plotted novellas.

“Ley Land” might be the extreme example of this. The 16-minute piece emerges in small sketches, often improvised by only two or three of the players. For a time, drummer Kenton Loewen on brushes and pianist Benoît Delbecq shape the piece. Later, François Houle on clarinet and Gordon Grdina on guitar help build toward a tense, unsettling climax — one that resolves in a slow blooming rather than a burst of activity.

Delbecq loves prepared piano, and it gets put to good use. “Gold Spheres” is a deliciously slow and sparse improvisation for five minutes before Delbecq’s light tapping comes in, suggesting delicate, fantastical clockworks. Prepared piano and a bit of muted guitar add a gently clicking, percussive string sound at the end of “Waraba,” a folky piece backed by a comforting drone that Houle helps lay down, playing a role that Chris Speed so often favors.

 
Long, silvery clarinet tones help set the mood for the title track: an appropriately ghostly and floating backdrop set against a subtle, pleasant melody tapping away on Grdina’s guitar. Houle eventually breaks away for some more aggressive off-harmony wails.

 
Amid all this moodiness, there’s one downright springy track: “Soft Shadows” A touch of jazzy shuffle, a touch of blues — it’s snappy yet doesn’t clash with the album’s unhurried atmosphere. These guys went into the studio knowing what they wanted to accomplish, and they’ve produced an album with a cohesive atmosphere.

September 10, 2017 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

Oliver Lake + Guitars

HatOLOGY is one of those labels where I occasionally like to reach in and grab something almost at random, and that’s how I came across Oliver Lake‘s Zaki (hatOLOGY, 2007).

Coincidentally, one of my pickups at New York’s Downtown Music Gallery recently was an obscure-looking Oliver Lake Quartet CD titled Virtual Reality (Total Escapism) (Gazell Productions, 1992).

Both selections came from my interest in catching up with Lake’s career, but they turn out to have something more in common. Both employ guitarists who were up-and-comers at the time, although they operate on different frequencies.

lake-zakiZaki is a 1979 live recording featuring guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson, who recorded a handful of free-jazz albums in the ’70s. The trio, completed by Pheeroan Ak Laff on drums, has a bright energy, with corners and angles spilling forth from Jackson’s guitar, frequently aggressive in a Sonny Sharrock mode.

One highlight is “5/1,” which consists mostly of a gutteral, wide-awake trio improvisation.

 
Virtual Reality is a more “inside” session, albeit with progressive leanings, featuring well known compositions by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, and one by Rahsaan Roland Kirk that’s new to me (“Handful of Fives”).

lake-virtualThe guitarist Anthony Peterson, is described by Sam Charters in the liner notes as “one of that creative group of younger musicians who have turned Brooklyn into a new jazz center.” I like that, given that the “new jazz” vibe has kind of stuck even through 2017. Ak Laff is on drums again, with Santi Debriano on bass.

It’s a different listen, feeling pleasantly laid-back during even the most fiery and fluid of solos, and I’m enjoying it. Peterson is more in a straight-jazz pocket than Jackson was, but he’s worthy of attention. Here’s his solo on the title track, where I especially enjoy the way he starts casually spewing thickets of chords:

 
Neither Peterson nor Jackson seems to have clicked in the free-jazz world. Jackson recorded an interesting quartet album with Lake, (Wadada) Leo Smith, and David Murray called Clarity (Bija, 1977) — but in the long run, he chose to follow his pop/R&B muse. He’s still making music, posting singles to Bandcamp. Peterson recorded three albums with Lake but vanished after that.

It’s just another reminder of how many talented, compelling musicians are out there; there’s always one more deserving name that you’ve missed. And while it’s no secret that Lake is versatile, it’s still gratifying to be reminded that his career took him in so many different directions. Maybe I’ll give another listen to his big-band stuff next.

September 4, 2017 at 10:34 am Leave a comment

Not Exactly Music to Sleep By

ZsXe (Northern Spy, 2015)

zs-xeDuring the 18-minute “XE,” the quasi-title track of Zs‘ most recent album, I found myself thinking about how meditative it was.

Meditative in a tense, loud way, that is, if there is such a thing. You can trance out to the repetitious clackety-clack that dominates the early part of the track. Maybe less so when the menacing guitar riff takes over, accompanied by Sam Hillmer’s screaming sax.

A similar effect takes over “Corps,” which has more of a crisp EDM feel. The repetitious loop and street-corner drumming make a good backdrop, first for wild sax spasms and later for calmer, springy sounds that again make me think “meditative.”

Do you like that assessment? Well, it’s all blown to hell if you listen to the album in proper sequence. “The Future of Royalty” is a blast of an opener, coming at you in rhythmic pulses of sound with a mildly abrasive edge — and then, abruptly, it’s over.

That’s followed by the unrestful haze of “Wolf Government,” which doesn’t have to be played loud to convey a sense of continual noise and mad scribbling.

The real point is that I’ve seen Zs mentioned peripherally for years, but I’ve only now started sampling the trio’s blend of noise, rhythm, and electronics. I’m liking it.

August 21, 2017 at 5:41 pm Leave a comment

Steve Coleman, Dancing and Jabbing

Steve Coleman’s Natal EclipseMorphogenesis (Pi Recordings, 2017)

coleman-morpho.jpg

Morphogenesis has a smoothness to it, a rolling and easygoing feel compared with the deliciously choppy geometry of other Steve Coleman albums. Maybe it’s as simple as the lack of a drum kit. Maybe it’s something in the harmonies, where I find myself drawing parallels to big band swing.

I like to think the album’s mood comes from Coleman’s new compositional approach, “where the initial compositional forms are derived from musical figures created sponaneously while visualizing the themes, motions, or concepts that I would like to communicate.” From there, Coleman adds layers and layers to build a piece.

He’s been working on this for five years, so it’s possible some of those results appear on Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings, 2015). What might make Morphogenesis different, aside from the makeup of the band, is that five of its nine tracks were based on boxing moves, with an eye toward the sweet science’s balletic side. A song with the name “Dancing and Jabbing” turns out to be a pleasant and mildly slow study; “Pull Counter” has an upbeat and mildly tense theme punctuated by sudden, brief “punches.”

Coleman’s mathematical mindset is still all over the music, of course. “Morphing,” the album’s 14-minute centerpiece, is based on an impossibly long composed theme that was sparked by “one impulsive moment,” Coleman writes. It’s a trail that keeps twisting and twisting.

 
The band consists of three other horns and Kristin Lee on violin, who is a key part of the punch in “Pull Counter.” There’s no drummer, but Neeraj Mehta adds percussion to five of the tracks, adding tension to tracks like the hard-digging “Horda” or the contemplative improvisation “NOH.”

Getting back to the idea of big-band swing — the track that reminds me most of grand ballroom jazz is “Roll Under and Angles,” even though it doesn’t strictly sound traditional. Maybe it’s the overall velvety touch, or the way Rane Moore deploys the clarinet, or the breezy fills provided by Lee and vocalist Jen Shyu. I find myself especially savoring the gentle bass — simple, cushioned taps by Greg Chudzik.

 
(The solar eclipse happens to be tomorrow, but the timing of this post is just coincidental. I started writing it weeks ago, and I’m just slow.)

August 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm Leave a comment

Gordon Beeferman: Tunnel Visions, for Viola & Piano

Stumbled upon: A world premiere performance of a Gordon Beeferman composition for viola and piano:

“Raucous, rhythmic, spicy and microtonal” is how violist Stephanie Griffin, in her YouTube “liner notes,” describes Beeferman’s jazz-related music, and you get a taste of all that in the opening moments of Tunnel Visions, the pressure-packed first movement. It slows immensely for the middle movement then surges back with sweeping drama. Really good stuff.

The jazz band she’s referring to is Other Life Forms, a quartet with Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and Andrew Drury on drums. They’re pretty interesting.

August 9, 2017 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

hayangkim-cello-cut

Ha-Yang Kim, at the Irvine Music Festival, 2015.

In February 2018, The Stone will end its run at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. Programs will apparently continue elsewhere, but the cozy little black box (a friend of mind considers it stifling, actually) will be given up. I assume it’s the usual gentrification story, with the landlord having found a more profitable use for the lot.

I don’t get to pick and choose my visits to The Stone. Usually, it’s a matter of dropping in during the one evening I have free, and seeing what’s going on. This time, during my July visit, it was an improv session with three strings players.

They included Miya Masaoka, which was a treat. I’d seen her perform many times when she lived in the Bay Area, and I’ve appreciated the daring approach she takes to creating new music and to advancing the range of the koto, the Japanese floor harp. Her jazz album, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997) is a lost masterpiece, and I’ve been meaning to write something about her latest classical release, Triangle of Resistance (Innova, 2016). She’ll be back in the Bay Area for an Aug. 20 reunion of the trio Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs.

The session was led by cellist Ha-Yang Kim, who was finishing a week-long residency at The Stone, and was fleshed out by Stefan Poetzch on violin.

masaoka-koto-cut

Miya Masaoka, from a 2016 Vimeo video of a piece called “Stemming,” using a setup similar to what she had at The Stone.

They played two improvisations. The first, longer one — probably about 40 minutes — was less focused and took longer to really coalesce. I did enjoy the melding of sounds, as the use of amplification sometimes made it hard to tell which instrument was creating which part, especially when it came to the koto and violin and the use of electronics. Masaoka also brought an array of percussive toys, sometimes nicely augmenting the group structure, sometimes creating a distraction.

But it was all in earnest. One thing about live improvisation is that you can gauge the performers’ reactions and feel almost like a participant (really more an eavesdropper) in the creative process. It makes for a more sympathetic listening experience.

The second piece, maybe 15 minutes long, was actually more successful and easier for me, as a listener, to lock into. This might have been because the performers no longer felt the pressure to get particular instruments, techniques, or sounds into the mix. Sometimes, a long improvisation feels like it carries that pressure — you sense the players trying to find a spot for every horn or every percussive device, much like a baseball manager trying to get every player into the game.

Any feelings like that were used up in the first piece — and maybe, just maybe, the players were a little bit spent as well. Either way, they chose to stick with ideas for longer stretches. While I enjoyed the opening piece, I got more entwined with the second.

I had Tuesday evening free, and while another trip to The Stone wouldn’t have been bad (it was the start of Kevin Norton’s residency, I think), Mary Halvorson was bringing her octet to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is always a pricey trek but with good reason, when the music is this good.

While I can’t name them off the top of my head, several recognizable numbers from Halvorson’s albums appeared, especially from Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016, reviewed here.) The band was positioned in pretty much the arrangement you see in the video below, with Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn both sitting and virtually invisible to a lot of the audience.

I was OK with that. The four horn players, each bandleaders in their own right, stood tall front-and-center.

I remember enjoying the contrast between the saxophonists — Jon Irabagon (alto) with his fluid style informed by the jazz tradition but peppered with skronks and squeals, and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) spinning tight patterns built from sharp turns and rapid-fire pronouncements.

I’d never seen bassist Chris Lightcap live, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to him, not just during bass solos but also during ensemble passages. I liked his choices for enhancing the melodies and solos.

The set, filled with mid-length pieces (modest song lengths have been a hallmark of Halvorson’s groups) got a warm reception from a full house, as you’d expect. This being a midweek show, we got the opportunity to stay for the second set, free of cover charge. It was a blast, and I was even able to move forward to a seat with an occasional view of Halvorson and her guitar.

A really nice New York trip, all told.

August 5, 2017 at 11:24 pm Leave a comment

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