Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

Tineke Postma

Tineke Postma Freya (Edition, 2020)

Album cover by Chad Kouri

In the days before streaming services, Jim Black’s Alas No Axis released an album that was not going to be available in the U.S. for some months. I think it was Houseplant. All of the band’s albums were on the German label Winter & Winter, and based on my college radio work at KZSU, I knew that the label’s U.S. distributor was Allegro Music. The station didn’t have strong ties to them, but, caving to impatience, I figured I could check the Allegro website and see if they sold mail-order to random individuals like me — and indeed they did.

I figured it would be fun to add a second, arbitrary item to the order, just to sample Allegro’s pool of European jazz and classical. Somewhere on their jazz pages I found an album whose samples had that relaxed, mainstream-contemporary sound but with a sense of adventure. I gave it a shot. It paid off.

Tineke Postma is a Dutch saxophonist who indeed spins contemporary jazz. My find, The Traveller (Coda, 2009), was comfortable, with the usual dose of pretty melodies alongside the more abstract themes, but Postma’s soloing stood out. Her edge sharpened considerably on Sonic Halo (Challenge, 2014), which is credited to Postma and Greg Osby (a mentor of hers) as equals. And now an avant-jazz side takes a leadership role on her newest album, Freya.

I’m not talking about fire-and-brimstone avant-jazz or an Anthony Braxton kind of cryptography. This is still acceptably mainstream stuff, but with Postma’s aptitude for adventure heightened, and with new ideas asserted in the composing — and it’s executed with a casual air that doesn’t feel forced. The title track’s cool staggering theme sets the scene for Postma’s kind of even-handed fire-spitting, a solo full of tangles but still relevant to the song’s mood. Thematically, Freya draws from the idea of motherhood, with song titles based on figures from mythology and ancient history. (Postma had taken a few years off to start a family.) Musically, it’s based on compositions with abstract themes that tumble and slide in a relaxed confidence.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi fits the album’s mood well, delivering sharp solos and adding extra angles to Postma’s writing. The frequent moments where their solos overlap are delightful. You can tell they’re having fun on a tune like “Scáthatch’s Island of Style,” where they start playing with the theme’s cracked minimalism and spin briefly into free improvising. With the exception of a few tracks with Kris Davis on piano, most of the album lacks a chord instrument, which heightens the importance of drummer Dan Weiss and especially bassist Matt Brewer.

“Juno Lucina” has a skip-and-gallop theme that touches on a Tim Berne style of zig-zagging. “Parallax” isn’t my favorite composition on the album (it falls into a see-saw theme that’s a bit of a rut), but it opens the album with a fluttery Postma improvisation that signals some of what’s to come. “Aspasia and Pericles” and “Heart to Heart” are on the quieter side, the latter setting the softness of a jazz ballad to a mildly abstract theme.

Quarter Tone Voices: Cory Smythe’s New Language

Cory SmytheAccelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic, 2020)

Cory Smythe’s new album is inspired by Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice (Blue Note, 1970) which combined singers with a jazz quintet. This wasn’t jazz singing. It was a seven-person choir pulsing with ’60s energy, singing lines somewhere between classical song and soul music. On “Ghetto Lights,” the soprano shrieks threaten to go off the rails. It’s a fitting addition to Hill’s brilliant run of late-’60s albums.

Pianist Smythe advances the concept by making the vocalists his entire band. That includes percussion by Kari Francis, who also served as the album’s vocal director. The voices sing articulated wordless syllables — and it’s all in quarter-tone staves, so even the music itself is speaking an unfamiliar language. The polish of the professional vocalists is crucial, an atmosphere of clean precision, even during improvised solos. (I’m reminded of Bay Area vocalist Lorin Benedict, who performs silky scat singing with the deliberateness of a written language.) The voices form the body of the music, with Smyth adding bass flourishes and high-register sprinklings.

The voices often don’t glide as they do on, say, Einstein on the Beach. It’s a function of the syllables, which in some cases seem crafted to create bumps and textures. Like the quarter-tones, they fit together in non-obvious combinations awkward to the unacclimated ear, even as they sometimes dip into recognizably “jazz” motifs.

To play those quarter-tone notes-between-the-notes, Smythe usee a MIDI keyboard propped on his piano, and of course the singers had to learn to hit quarter tones as well. (I have no idea how easy or difficult this is.) The MIDI keyboard is a setup that Smythe devised while working on a project with Craig Taborn. It uses the piano’s frame as a resonating board, just as the piano’s strings do, which seems to help the tones combine and shimmer, enhancing that “spectral” effect.

Smythe, in a “listening party” webinar and interview held by Pyroclastic, was reluctant to “oversell” his quarter-tone inner ear, saying only that he’s been dabbling in the 24-note scale and is still building an intuition for it. That said, Accelerate Every Voice was not left to guesswork; the music is heavily scripted. Smythe told the vocalists precisely which vowel sounds to make and gave exacting instructions regarding tone durations and even soloing. Smythe and Francis worked out rhythmic patterns for vocal percussion, adjusting the lines to fit Francis’ style and strengths. This rigor is at the heart of the music, building a ghostly Alexander Calder effect on two “Kinetic Wind Sculpture” pieces, or grinding out the repetition of an organic clockwork near the end of “Knot Every Voice.” Songs tend to be short, two to five minutes — but they feel longer, as they’re dense with motion and alien information.

The closing track, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Relaxation,” is a departure. Its 19 minutes of dark ambience seem to come from the sounds of (and around) the piano: isolated, echoing notes, wooden clacks, the buzzing of a resonating low string. Eventually the piano disappears and we are left with a shimmering resonance, slowly surging and receding.

That track is inspired by Annea Lockwood’s “Southern Exposure,” a performance piece in which a piano is slowly dragged away by the ocean tide. Hill’s Lift Every Voice had a political bent, and so does Accelerate Every Voice; it’s Smythe’s meditation on climate change. In that light, “Piano and Ocean Waves” becomes less relaxing. It’s about gradual background changes that build until they become too obvious to ignore.

Help the Starry Plough

Having written about Barbès last week, it occurred to me that there are venues here at home that could use help too…

It’s not as though I’ve built a thorough list, but the Starry Plough in Berkeley came to mind quickly. Over the years, they opened their doors to creative music, willing to occasionally put experimental jazz or rock acts in front their usual roots-music and pub-music audiences. (A few examples: Toychestra, Amy X. Neuburg, Surplus 1980, Jack o’ the Clock.) Economic reality being what it is, those shows became more infrequent over the past decade, but I still remember the Plough fondly and still checked their listings once in a while, just in case.

They serve food but have no outdoor seating, so they’ll have to subsist on take-out for a long while. Small bars and clubs will be among the last businesses to reopen, and the Plough has set its GoFundMe rather high in realization of this.

There are so many other venues in a similar plight, and even if you have the resources, it’s difficult to support all of them. I’m just mentioning this one for the same reason Brooklynites are banding together for Barbès: The Starry Plough is a source of community, and I’ve had some really good times there. Maybe there’s a similar venue in your life. Understandably, not everyone has the means, but if you do, at least consider dropping them the price of the beer and burger you would have gotten.

Photo via thestarryplough.com.

Gordon Grdina: The ‘Resist’ Suite

Gordon Grdina SeptetResist (Irabagast, 2020)

The centerpiece of Resist is the 23-minute title suite, where avant-jazz guitarist Gordon Grdina turns classical composer, armed with a quartet of strings and the saxophone of Jon Irabagon. When this album came out in April, I felt Grdina had succeeded in creating something meaningful — but now, amid the George Floyd protests, it feels even bigger.

The strings are the key. They open “Resist” with somber persistence — the sound of gradual, grinding progress. The powerful coda, though, is where Grdina earns his stripes — sweeping, cinematic music suggesting the weariness of battles hard won and new fights yet to come (that’s what I hear in Irabagon’s frenzied sax solo). To me, it’s the sound of steadfast pride and grim realism — or maybe it’s just a reflection of how I felt as the protests gained momentum.

The heavy mood in “Resist” comes partly from an emphasis on mid/low registers. Instead of a traditional string quartet, Grdina uses a violin-viola-cello-bass lineup (and incidentally, it’s Evyind Kang on viola and Peggy Lee, a creative music veteran from Grdina’s native Vancouver, on cello). The suite does have its playful moments, including a free-improv section in the middle, but it ends with a reflective moment of very low arco bass, a little bit comforting, a little bit ominous.

Resist is an ambitious departure, but it also draws on Grdina’s usual context of creative jazz. His recent work includes a couple of all-star pickup trios — one with Mark Helias and Matthew Shipp (bass and piano) and the Nomad Trio with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black (piano and drums). He’s also shown off his oud playing over the years, especially on a pair of albums by his band The Marrow.

The rest of the album Resist draws from those materials. “Resist the Middle” revels in the bustle of free improv, including Grdina on white-noise electric guitar, then coalesces around heavy strings and other-worldly voices by Irabagon on sopranino sax. “Ever Onward” is another piece featuring some weighty strings, but it also sets Grdina’s oud, a lonely frontier voice, in some spiraling duet work with Jesse Zubot on violin.

“Varscona” is the album’s touch of lightness. Irabagon leads a joyous trio jam with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen, then it all shifts into a free-improv attack with the rest of the band. The song ends with a surprisingly silly bit of vaudeville — which, again, feels prescient, because we could all use a little levity right now.

Songs for Barbès

Here’s something fun: New York City venue Barbès posted a month’s worth of video performances from musicians, little love notes to celebrate the bar’s 18th birthday (on May 1, 2020) and maybe draw a little attention to the Barbès fundraiser.

A jewel of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Barbès hosts a lot of music that would land in the “world” category. Eastern European or Latin American or African, traditional or modern, folky or jazzy or even classical — every permutation seems to come up. They also host frequent shows out of New York’s avant-jazz scene, which is how I got introduced. The bar is a tight squeeze on a crowded Saturday night, but it’s a cozy, welcoming spot, and for my friends who lived in that neighborhood for a few years, it was an anchor.

The homemade videos are all sheltered-in-place and often charming, sometimes including spoken well-wishes to Barbès. Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey (who I believe are married) stitched together two improvisations for their four-minute tribute.

Jenny Scheinman, who was part of the early-’00s Bay Area scene, plays a friendly “Little Calypso” on violin. It still amazes me how much sound a violin can produce with so little actual motion.

The New Mellow Edwards, a quartet led by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, recorded separately to produce their piece. Watch bassist Trevor Dunn — the look he gives to camera at the end is perfect.

Ben Monder contributes “Never Let Me Go.” The first comment on the YouTube page refers to Monder’s “impossible” playing, which to me is the perfect word. I’m impressed with the harmonic vocabulary of jazz guitarists in particular, but Monder is other-dimension-ly — I’m thinking especially of the gorgeous, baffling, dense chording on parts of his 1998 trio album Flux (with Drew Gress on bass on Jim Black on drums).

Finally, the ensemble called Anbessa Orchestra made a slickly edited video of their song “Lions.”

And so on. There are a few dozen videos stacked up on Barbès’ YouTube site, and they went along with a GoFundMe campaign that was successful but could still use a little more love.

Portraits of the Artists: Kyle Bruckmann’s Triptych (tautological)

Kyle BruckmannTriptych (tautological) (self-released, 2020)

bruckmann-triptych-1Kyle Bruckmann’s latest album, releasing on June 1, mixes electronics with extended techniques on oboe and English horn. It’s a different kind of composing from his genre-jumping Dear Everyone or the long-form Pynchon-inspired suite, … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire and right in line with his solo improvising of the past and his electronics work of the recent present.

Improvisation is involved here, but Triptych (tautological) is comprised of pieces, compositions previously performed live and shaped for studious listening. They tie into a theme of three artists who have influenced Bruckmann’s work from different directions: literature, music, and the visual arts.

The electronics version of “A Spurious Autobiography for John Barth” is built from the chattering of small sounds — tightly wound vibration, some apparently sourced from extended techniques on the oboe. You can recognize air through the horn, or high-pitched overblowing filtered into a distant ghostly shriek. It’s quiet in volume but tight with tension.

That same piece reappears later on the album in an oboe and English horn version. The aesthetic of tight scribbles is still there, but coming from the horns themselves, in the form of squeaks and twiddles, sometimes overdubbed. Some seem to be electronically enhanced, too — or, more likely, it’s Bruckmann adding mic effects while wresting impossible sounds out of the instrument. At times, it’s an exotic zoo.

The 21-minute “An Extruded Introversion for Blixa Bargeld” is anchored in silence — a concrete-thick silence, with the oboe sketching the barest outlines of melody. A good portion of the piece is backed by the tiniest of electronic pulses, an irregular whisper behind the slowly unfolding piece. Late in the piece, things explode outward; an extended-technique blare and a circular-breathing segment turn the mood more aggressive before leaning back toward near-silence and a coda of long, resigned microtones.

The most conventionally “musical” piece is dedicated to James Turrell, an artist who works in light and is preparing an outdoor celestial-minded piece built in a crater. Appropriately, “A Fuzzy Monolith for James Turrell” works in minimalist arcs. Its sustained notes range from low buzzing to cleanly cut high whistles. Physically, it’s an exercise in control and restraint; aurally, it suggests the slow, grand clock of the stars. At some moments, the high oboe tones take on the air of Native American flutes, again conjuring images of the wide timeless sky.

These pieces represent distinct moods that reward concentrated listening. As the liner notes mention, it’s good contemplative fodder for the times of sheltering-in-place.

Triptych (tautological) will be available June 1 on Bandcamp.

 

CHAMA

chama logo

CHAMA — Hexagono (Falcon Gumba, 2020)

CHAMA applies a garage-band approach to creative jazz, creating music that’s rigorous but just feels fun. The violin-guitar-drums trio met years ago in Venezuela (where “chama” is colloquial for “girl”) and have since reconvened in New York. Having released a couple of EPs a few years ago, they’ve been issuing digital tracks this year on the Falcon Gumba label, run by violinist Leonor Falcón.

On “Hexagono,” CHAMA dips into smart math rock, built on a glitchy phrase that ends with an unmistakable flourish. “Carupano” runs at a cooler temperature on a sly but energetic jazzy groove. And “Kids,” written by drummer Arturo García, puts heavier emphasis on Juanma Trujillo’s guitar, a midtempo chugging followed by slow, bluesy reverb.

Outside CHAMA, Falcón’s creative music output has tracked closer to jazz. Her album IMAGA MONDO, esperanto for “imaginary world,” includes Trujillo alongside bass clarinet and drums, playing music ranging from modernized swing (“Gnomes”) to abstract melodic sketches (“Nymphs and Spaceman,” with multiple overdubbed violins) to an uplifting anthem (“Humanoides.”) A playful violin-viola duet called Peach & Tomato, pairing Falcón with Sana Nagano, operates on a sense of conversational forward motion, adding some electrified sounds for texture.

Trujillo has some output on Falcon Gumba too. El Vecino is a quartet with trumpet; Sferos is a trio with sax and drums that gets into some looser, untethered exploration.

Here are a few more snippets of CHAMA in action.

Inward Creature

Inward CreatureInward Creature (self-released, 2020)

Inward-Creature_LP_Album-Art_Digital-SQ_v24Inward Creature spins giddy but smart pop songs where the musicianship is on point and the ideas are flinging madly from all sides, from the outright absurd to the earnest (I think) pop love song “Carly.” The attitude skews toward class cloud but ranges all the way to sincere singer-songwriter. The genre influences run from metal to lite rock, with an honestly catchy country melody thrown in (“Pull Over to Pray,” which is musically so straightforward it seems out of place).

If you start with “Liar” — where the chorus is “I’m such a f**king liar” repeated eight times — you’ll think you’ve stumbled onto a novelty band. But that’s not the right box for these guys. “Jilly Jolly” is heavy in guitars and mood (the opening has shades of “Dirty Boy” by Cardiacs) and “Everybody Nose” (yes it’s a pun) turns out to be a mini-suite with a serious middle amid the stomping cleverness.

Farther out on the goofiness axis, “My Time in the ’60s” sounds just like its title, musically conjuring up TV game shows and explosive yellow and orange fashions. “Little Things” takes a nursery-rhyme 6/8 melody and packs it to the gills with lyrics for a cute, likable package. “Reptile Tears” is part smart-alecky prog, part skate-punk, part cartoon, with a moody avant-jazz sax solo.

If you’re looking for a more direct link to avant-garde jazz, note that the drummer here is Jordan Glenn. He plays heavy improv in the Fred Frith Trio, artsy folk/prog with Jack o’ the Clock, and jazz in any number of ensembles — and he has an offbeat sense of humor himself. He named a band Wiener Kids and named one of their albums Why Don’t You Make Me?

You can hear the whole Inward Creature album on Bandcamp. But first, you gotta take 2 minutes and hear “My Time in the ’60s.” You just do. And as long as “Pull Over to Pray” is stuck in my head, I might as well try to stick you with it too.

A Cavalcade of Solos

kylejglenn-1503721827581-14e4c8676769

While music sales can’t make up for the loss of gigs, recordings are the main product musicians can offer right now. Assuming social distancing stays in place for months to come — which it should — what happens when the backlog of ensemble/band album releases dries up?

A pop band can record an album piecemeal in home studios. But jazz and improv, even chamber music, rely more on the artistry and strength of real-time interaction. Track-by-track recording doesn’t seem ideal. It’s certainly possible, as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra shows with “Quarantine Blues.” Likewise, group performances (and therefore group recordings) over the internet are certainly possible. Mark Dresser has been researching that angle for more than a decade with his Telematics project, and technology has largely caught up to the ideas he was first envisioning.

But the more likely route for most improv-heavy, free-form experimental music, especially given the budgets involved, is a burst of solo recordings.

It’s already started. Saxophonist Steve Lehman fired an early salvo with Xenakis and the Valedictorian, recorded literally in his car. (His wife, filmmaker Olivia Newman, caught some of the magic on video.) As Nate Chinen explains on his WBGO blog, Lehman’s EP one of several solo/duo projects that Pi Recordings plans to issue in the coming weeks, with all proceeds going directly to the artists.

On the local front, clarinetist Ben Goldberg is recording an ongoing Plague Diary, measuring 56 tracks and counting. Kyle Bruckmann likewise recorded a quarantine sketchbook called Draußen ist Feindlich. Both are available on Bandcamp.

 

Tim Berne even recorded his first-ever solo album, Sacred Vowels.


Of course, solo performance is an established genre of its own. Just about every free-improv performer puts out at least one solo record, it seems. And computers and looping can turn live solo performance into a multi-layered experience; Goldberg started doing that with even the earliest Plague Diary tracks.

Stray thought: On the rock/pop end of the spectrum, music is recorded piecemeal in the first place, so it’s easy to envision a band recording all their parts at home and engineering them into a normal-sounding album. What if you tried the same thing with free improvisation — passing a recording from one musician to the next, layering something together “exquisite corpse” style? There must be a recorded example of this out there somewhere, but whether there is or not, it would be fun to see someone try.

Photo: kylejglenn on Unsplash.