The Cuong Vu Connection

Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny (Nonesuch, 2016)

vu-methenyHere’s how the story was told to me, by members of a Brooklyn free-jazz trio called Birth, circa 2000. Cuong Vu came home one day to a voicemail message saying: “Hi. My name’s Pat Metheny? I’m, uh, a musician…?”

And that’s how jazz star Metheny recruited Vu, a New York trumpeter hanging with the downtown scene, into this band. Metheny had heard Vu’s music and immediately heard a fit that he wanted to explore, so he dug up Vu’s phone number and tried his luck.

Metheny gets mentioned on these pages a lot more often than you’d think. But that’s because, despite his reputation for playing nice yuppie coffee-table jazz, he has an interest in free playing and noise.

Vu’s story is similar but flipped. He was part of the downtown NYC crowd but had a penchant for more lyrical, atmospheric playing — accessible stuff, in other words. At KZSU, one DJ who could never understand the whole free-jazz/free-improv thing made a point of telling me how much he loved that new Cuong Vu CD we’d added to rotation.

So in a lot of ways, the two make a good mix. Looking at it from Metheny’s point of view, Vu had the combination of atmosphere and edge that figures prominently in Metheney’s music.

Cuong Vu Trio is Vu’s band, so they play by Vu’s rules. Their new CD with Metheny has plenty of niceness, but what lands the CD on this blog are the wide-open stretches on tracks like “Acid Kiss” (below) and “Tiny Little Pieces.” Vu is happy to take his trio off the rails and seek what directions they can find, and when Metheny joins in with his trademark synth guitar sound — the one that, come to think of it, sounds like a horn — you get a gloriously noisy, tangled mix.

 
As for the side of Cuong Vu that that other DJ liked so much — it’s here, too. “Let’s Get Back” is sweet and spacious, with some light guitar menace added for weight.

 
It’s good to see this collaboration continue. Metheny plus Vu makes a lot of sense to me.

October 15, 2017 at 4:57 pm Leave a comment

George Lewis and the Apple II in 1984

takingthestageHere’s a nice slice of history. In the 1980s, IRCAM, the French institute for music, sound, and science, hosted a series of concerts called “Écoutez Votre Siècle,” and one of the installments was an early presentation of George Lewis‘ work with computer-generated sound.

A bit of that concert survives on the web, part of a 26-minute TV documentary that IRCAM produced. While we don’t get to hear the whole concert, the real treasure might be the interviews and rehearsal footage, which offer a look at the state of computer music in 1984.

Lewis’ piece, “Rainbow Family,” was created for a combination of human and computer players interacting. He assembled quite a team for it: Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Joëlle Léandre (bass), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), and Derek Bailey (guitar).

Lewis manned the computers and coordinated the rehearsals, during which the human players got acquainted with the tendencies of Lewis’ programs, much like feeling out another musician they’ve met for the first time.

lewis computers 80It’s fun watching Lewis work with fellow musical giants. I’ve known about Ewart but haven’t heard much of his playing; getting to know the man a little bit, while also hearing bits of his music, was enjoyable. He has some keen insights — noting, for example, that one strategy would be to consider the computer “an improviser who might not have the seasoning that we do.”

I’ve never heard Steve Lacy speak, something that didn’t occur to me until watching his video. His voice has an east-coast hip-cat lilt — which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, considering he comes from exactly that era.

Lewis himself is interviewed at length, mostly in French; he seems nearly fluent in the language. (Again, maybe I shouldn’t be so blown away. “Never mind that he’s a trombone great, an AACM biographer, and a computer-music pioneer — the dude speaks French!”)

hands and apple ii 80

Early in the show, Lewis switches to English to explain that his work is the barest glimmer of what artificial intelligence should eventually be capable of. He knew that his then-exciting technology was still a limiting factor; 1984 was a long way off from Tim Perkis’ real-time laptop musicianship. Still, the sounds Lewis wrests from the Apple II aren’t as dated as I was expecting. In the end, it does sound like the players found a rapport with the machines.

Interestingly, the documentary ends with the sound of trains — found sound, another type of sonic experimentation.

You can find the half-hour mini-documentary, along with others in the “Écoutez Votre Siècle” series, here.

Hat tip: Andrew Raffo Dewar on Twitter.

October 8, 2017 at 11:15 pm Leave a comment

Japan, by Way of Germany

Eric Shaefer — Kyoto Mon Amour (ACT, 2017)

schaefer-kyotoDropping the virtual needle on Kyoto Mon Amour by German drummer Eric Schaefer, I was expecting a meditative session with vast silences. But “Shoshu-san,” the opening track, breaks from a relaxing intro to get into busy clarinet soloing against koto and tastefully splashed cymbals.

It’s jazz, in other words, but blended with a Japanese sense of contemplation and abstractness. Schaefer’s quartet is fronted by koto and clarinet, both played by Japanese musicians who live in Europe, and his band is rounded out by John Eckhardt’s strong bass work. The results aren’t as edgy as I’d hoped, but it’s a rich blend enjoyable for reasons that go beyond the jazz sound.

On koto, Naoko Kikuchi shows wide range of styles. “Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant” — a 1910 Maurice Ravel composition for kids — conveys a jazz vibe within the first notes of Eckhardt’s bass, followed by traditional Japanese airs in the koto parts. “Tohoku” sounds downright Appalachian, and “Ticket to Osaka” briskly combines a deep bass pulse with lively koto riffing, including a rocking little 6/8 phrase.

 
Kazutoki Umezu’s clarinet and bass clarinet tap that European cross-current that cuts across jazz and classical styles. A good taste of this comes during the lively, bluesy clarinet solo on “Kansai Two-Face,” an otherwise contemplative track.

 
As for that zen feeling that I was anticipating, there’s plenty of it on “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” an composition that’s lyrically sad but also includes one of the album’s most “outside” segments. During a freely improvised break, Kikuchi gets downright ragged on the koto, with Umezu eventually adding ghostly moans on clarinet.

October 3, 2017 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Feldman & Me

I’ve been listening to Morton Feldman’s second string quartet one movement at a time.

It’s similar to the strategy I undertook with Einstein on the Beach. The String Quartet (II) is nearly five hours long, and even with that kind of time on my hands, my media-saturated brain probably couldn’t take that much stillness in one dose.

feldman-2One difference, though. I listened to Einstein in order. I’m sampling the String Quartet in shuffle mode, absorbing one of the 13 movements per sitting. It’s helping me discern the “personality” of each movement. Any one of them could be described as a light, subtle pulse, but of course there are differences — the ocean-waves patience of “XII”; the slow, neon dissonance of “IX”; the irregular rhythms of “X” and its oddball ending.

Here’s a characteristic passage: the pastoral and relatively bright strokes that begin “III”.

 
You know how a line on a computer screen can be so thin that you can’t quite tell what color it is? I’m getting that effect with the string pulses. At times, they don’t sound like strings at all, but like tiny puffs of horns or woodwinds. That’s especially true during passages when the notes vanish quickly, dissolving into white space. My brain is left wondering what that sound was.

The piece certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional string quartet, but with that horn illusion at work, it doesn’t even sound like a quartet of strings

I was pleased to find that each movement does not consist of 20 minutes of the same idea. Each one is a mini-journey unto itself, going through at least two distinct phases — the surprise pizzicato section near the end of “X,” with trilly, swirly violin punctuation, is probably my favorite moment. I also didn’t expect the occasional swirls of darkness interrupting the pervasive cloudy-light mood.

What I don’t have is a feel for the large-scale narrative. Is there a trajectory here, a series of moods you’re meant to be led through? I’m suspecting not. Maybe I don’t know Feldman well enough. Or … maybe I’m doing this exactly the way I should be.

September 30, 2017 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

Sonata for Laptop and Piano

Tim Perkis & Scott WaltonApplied Cryptography (pfMentum, 2016)

PFMCD106These tracks, many of them miniatures, pair Tim Perkis’ mastery of laptop electronics music with Scott Walton’s piano. It’s chamber music, as serious and deep as anything you’d find in classical section.

At times, Perkis’ command of the laptop rivals that of an acoustic instrument — such as a brief moment of sustain on “Oblique Compact,” so similar to a violin or saxophone holding a high note for dramatic effect. Composer Lisa Mezzacappa once noted that she not only includes Perkis in her bands but also hands him sheet music, and touches like this demonstrate why.


Much of the “classical” feel can be attributed to Walton. Even though he uses prepared piano at times, much of his playing has the feel of modern chamber music. “Naked Egg” is delicate and patient, as fragile as its title. At the other end of the scale, “Partial Ordering” uses lower-register hammering for a sense of drama, and Perkis responds with curt and relatively stiff sounds.

“Normal Form” takes that darker mood a step further, descending into heavy string-scraping on the piano and a buzzy undertone from the electronics. Here’s a segment that gets into some heavy keyboard work.


“Blind Signature” (all of these titles look like they do come from cryptography) offers a bit of crashing abandon and shrieking sounds, but it still leaves enough blank space to feel like a serious venture. It even has a mini-cadenza for some bleating, buzzy electronics. The album ends with “Zero-Knowledge Proof,” a miniature that’s peppered with the small, tightly clean sounds that Perkis does so well.

September 23, 2017 at 10:20 am Leave a comment

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

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