I Remember DR. MiNT

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Source: Orenda

DR. MiNT — Voices in the Void (Orenda, 2017)

When you volunteer at a radio station, a lot of music passes through your ears. You forget a lot of it of course — but you retain a lot more than you’d think.

I remember, for instance, learning about all kinds of great Southern California musicians through the labels pfMentum and Cryptogramophone. In the Vinny Golia and Nels Cline camp, for instance, there’s bassist Steuart Liebig, who produced lots of creative stuff, from the chamber-jazz suits of Pomegranate to three CDs from his out-jazz bar band, The Mentones. (“Bar band” is my description; they rock out and even have a harmonica player.)

Liebig’s prolific nature helped him stick in memory, but others managed to stay there despite crossing my orbit only once, often because the music was good and the CD was at my fingertips in rotation for nine weeks, like a reliable friend.

That’s how the name DR. MiNT stuck in my head. It’s a catchy name, but I also really liked their CD, Visions and Nightmares (pfMentum, 2008; available on eMusic and Bandcamp). Here’s how I described it at the time:

Mix of free jazz and psych guitar in a multifaceted jam. Many tracks start off with a low-level burble of electronics, synth, and drums, a bit like experimental dance electronica. Then, the sax and trumpet come in for some free-jazz sounds often backed by a solid and ferocious drum beat. Some nutty guitar also adds a psych/fusiony kind of craziness. Great stuff with a fresh sound.

But after its time in rotation was up, DR. MiNT dropped off my radar.

Fast-forward nearly 10 years …

drmint-a2879219858_16After being contacted by the trio Sound Etiquette, I checked out their label, Orenda — which turned out to be carrying the torch for some of the Southern California creative-jazz scene. One of the bands on their roster turned out to be Dr. MiNT — and memories of Visions and Nightmares came flooding back.

It got even better: Dr. MiNT was still active. They just dropped new album, Voices in the Void (officially released on Jan. 27), and they’re performing Sunday night, Jan. 29, as part of the Orenda third-anniversary bash, being held at Los Angeles’ Blue Whale jazz club.

Jazz horns, funk bass, psychedelic guitar, a touch of metal, occasional flashes of electronics — it’s all here on Voices, as is a new strategy that’s paying off handsomely: Unlike their older albums, this one is not fully improvised. Instead, on-the-spot improvisations were smoothed over to create compositions.

That’s basically the description of a normal free-jazz band, I know (although other artists might groom the compositions more, whereas DR. MiNT tries to preserve the suddenness of it all). But I like that they’re trying a different approach — and I like the result, which comes across sharply focused.

Much as I enjoyed Visions and Nightmares, I have to admit it drags sometimes. Long-form improvisations do benefit from quiet stretches, but it’s tricky to keep the momentum and “storyline” going while recharging. DR. MiNT didn’t fully achieve that on Visions.

Voices in the Void is tighter. “Down to One” is a healthy blast, opening with a very brief horn fanfare before letting Gavin Templeton’s free-funk sax and Alex Noice’s rock-out guitar take over.


Caleb Dolister’s snappy drum work has a lot to do with DR. MiNT’s sound. He’s the battery driving “Down to One” and the power punch behind the blasting midtempo of “Nymbists.” As that track turns jazzy, with criss-crossing horns, Dolister downshifts nicely to reset the mood while keeping the sound crisp.

“spacerobot[dance]” shows off a funky beat dolled up with a touch of EDM (garbly electronic sounds possibly generated by guitar). Templeton and trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom deliver inspired solos over Sam Minaie’s rolling, synth-like bassline.

“n-drift” is terrifically clean and bright — an ace trumpet solo gets augmented with fusion-esque guitar and sprinkles of electronics, and it’s a really nice moment when the band flows into a rolling composed segment. Below, see a live performance of this one from the Blue Whale last year.

So that’s been my re-introduction to DR. MiNT and my introduction to Orenda records. The band members are featured on plenty of other Orenda releases, so there’s a lot to explore in there.

As for pfMentum and Cryptogramophone, they’re still fighting the good fight. pfMentum founder Jeff Kaiser has left California but still releases albums at a prolific rate; the label’s latest features Bay Area electronics wizard Tim Perkis. Violinist Jeff Gauthier has slowed down with Cryptogramophone, but the label is gearing up for the March 10 release of Alex Cline’s latest, Ocean of Vows.

Hat tip: Avant Music News.

The 2017 Day of Noise Schedule Is Up

2017-rightKZSU’s Day of Noise is imminent, coming on Feb. 4, as I wrote here.

The full schedule has now been posted to KZSU’s site. Give it a click to see the 40+ artists who’ll be performing live on-air starting at midnight that Saturday.

You’ll also find descriptions of the artists — important for the groups that consist of a few well known local improvisers, such as Revenant Quartet, Oa, Tiny Buttons, and Ear Spray.

You’ll find KZSU (Stanford University’s radio station) at 90.1 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area. The signal, originating near Palo Alto, tends to reach from the city’s SoMa district down to at least San Jose, and possibly eastward to Fremont (I haven’t check that direction in a long while).

And if you’re not local to us, the web feed is at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/live/.

The fun starts at midnight (I prefer to say 12:01 a.m., to avoid ambiguity) on Saturday, Feb. 4. Please join us!

Jim Black’s Next Act: Malamute

Jim BlackMalamute (Inkakt, 2017)

black-malamuteMalamute feels like an update of Jim Black’s Alas No Axis band, but with revamped personnel including keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, from the drummer’s piano trio.

In fact, I started out by writing that the quartet on Malamute is an amalgam of those two bands, but that’s not right. Malamute clearly comes from Alas No Axis’ sphere, carrying that same laid-back demeanor fronted by the deadpan saxophone of Óskar Guðjónsson, whose tenor sax could be a stand-in for Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet.

Black’s M.O. involves languid, luscious compositions backed by energetic drumming that I tend to call “rock-oriented,” but there’s more to it than that. The Jim Black sound elaborates on a straight rhythm by adding smart fills and a looming sense that he’s about to unleash with abandon (which, often, he does).

A nice example is “Sought After,” with its steady, perky beat, snappy bass, and pleasant sax melody — instrumental indie rock, really. By the end, the track has become a noisier affair, with the rhythm crumbling like a satellite burning up in re-entry.

 
As that ending suggests, Malamute is replete with new sounds. On “Just Turned Two,” Chris Tordini uses chugging, guitar-like bass (another occasional feature of Alas No Axis) to support the song’s low-key sax and squelchy keyboard electronics. “Chase Rabbit” is a seasick sax-and-synth mixture that paints a blurry landscape for Black’s restless patter.

Stemeseder, so elegant on piano in the Jim Black Trio, seems to have loads of fun playing the role of noise man, whether he’s adding frilly extras on “Toys Everywhere” or creating a staticky landscape on “Stray.” Tordini gets into the act in the second half of that track, building a whitewash of feedback and distortion.

As mentioned, Óskar Guðjónsson — an Icelandic musician who’s played with Skúli Sverrisson, one of Black’s Alas No Axis compatriots — sounds a little like Chris Speed with his sleepy sax sometimes wandering through microtonal territory. “Almost Awake” is a nice showcase for him, starting off in a dreamy mood and building into something faster and noisier, with Guðjónsson still retaining that languid tone while also reflecting the dire tension building around him.

Charles ‘Bobo’ Shaw

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the heels of the news about Hamiett Bluiett’s health issues comes the passing of his St. Louis compatriot, Charles “Bobo” Shaw.

Both were involved in St. Louis’ Black Artists Group. Shaw’s was more directly connected with one of Bluiett’s World Saxophone Quartet compatriots, Oliver Lake, whose quartet, including Shaw, worked in Europe. If you’re looking for a Bluiett connection, though, he and Shaw were together as late as 2015, when Bluiett’s Telepathic Orchestra played New York’s Vision Festival.

Shaw is one of the many blank spots in my jazz knowledge, maybe because he’s more connected with funky jazz (such as the band DeFunkt) than with the “free” stuff. I’ve been checking out the Human Arts Ensemble, a group that he ended up leading in the late ’70s, which has been a blast.

I love the rough edges on Junk Trap (Black Saint, 1978), the raspy horn tones and the jumbly, not-quite-synched unison lines. The album features a crack band — Shaw (drums), Joseph Bowie (trombone), John Lindberg (bass), Luther Thomas (sax), James Emery (guitar) — so the rawness isn’t a lack of ability; it has more to do with the pure joy being poured into the music. On “Night Dreamer,” Emery even starts channeling Sonny Sharrock; I’m not sure it completely fits that particular tune, but it sure is fun.

But it’s the 1973 album Funky Donkey that shows the Human Arts Ensemble really pushing the needle. The title track is a funk fireball, and “Una New York,” composed by Shaw, has a more mellow vibe but is no less earnest.

I’m sorry I didn’t catch up with Shaw during his lifetime, but I’m grateful for the history lesson.

(Plate o’ Shrimp moment: Another of Shaw’s bands, Solidarity Unit Inc., gets a shout-out by Bryon Coley and Thurston Moore in this 2009 Arthur magazine article. Just above that is a mention of pianist François Tusques — someone else I only recently discovered — performing on Sonny Murray’s Big Chief album.)

Jack o’ the Clock: The Old City

Jack o’ the ClockRepetitions of the Old City – I (self-released, 2016)

Jack o’ the Clock performs Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th Street, San Francisco). Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows open; it’s a combination I’ve written about previously.

a2120824628_16Jack o’ the Clock‘s sixth album is another engaging collection of songs with prog smarts, jazz chops, and a folk/acoustic sheen.

The band’s chamber-pop aesthetic will get an update as of tomorrow, when they perform their first show without bassoonist and vocalist Kate McLoughlin, who has left the Bay Area. It takes two people to replace her: Thea Kelley will handling vocals — often backing frontman Damon Waitkus, sometimes taking the lead herself — and Ivor Holloway will be playing woodwinds. Bassoon isn’t among them, alas. But his sax and clarinet will have a similar effect playing in tandem with Emily Packard’s violin.

As I’ve been noting since 2011, the band has been a laboratory for an adventurous style of pop songwriting, one that uses prog as its base but adds so many other layers. Repetitions of the Old City continues the expansion of that formula and provides plenty to like: a folky twang to the guitar and violin on “When the Door Opens, It Opens on Everything,” or the long, twisting melodies that open “.22, or, Denny Takes One for the Team.”

 
Waitkus specializes in brainy, poetic lyrics filled with yearning. From “When the Door Opens,” one passage I particularly like: “The sun is like a dying coal, a feeble slap / across the face of February. Now there’s a / vacant house in disarray, the clocks all stopped, / the mirrors face the ceiling.”

The acoustic sounds on Repetitions are lucious, as always, but Jack o’ the Clock is by no means a straight folk band. Modern electronic touches abound. “Videos of the Dead,” for example, is a rather charming tune (despite the title) overlaid with ghostly guitar effects courtesy of guest artist Fred Frith.

It’s wonderful that the band has stuck together for so long. They’re always working on the next set of material, so expect some fresh sounds at the Bottom of the Hill show.

As for the album, it’s been out for about six months and got a good amount of attention. You can see some details on the band’s home page, including a link to an interview with Waitkus on the prog podcast Deep Cuts, complete with thoughts about the meaning of the “Old City” of the album’s title.

You can hear the entire album on Bandcamp.

Wadada Leo Smith: America’s National Parks

Wadada Leo SmithAmerica’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)

wadada-parksOn KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.

In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.

Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.

The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.

Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on  America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.

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Source: Amit Patel on Flickr. CC2.0 license.

America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.

The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.

The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.

“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet

The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.

Anna Webber: Strange Shapes and Sounds

Anna Webber’s Simple TrioBinary (Skirl, 2016)

webber-binaryI’m partial to the art of surrealist Yves Tanguy, a contemporary of Salvador Dali’s. Whereas Dali used familiar objects contorted into dreamlike shapes, Tanguy’s worlds were entirely alien. His sense of shape and color pointed to other planes of existence: blobby figures that suggested living beings in sparse landscapes under grimly discolored skies.

You could think of Binary‘s cover art as a hypermodern take on Tanguy. But what really brought the painter to my mind was the track “Tug o’ War,” with the piping register of Anna Webber’s flute and the tick-tock percussion from John Hollenbeck. I think it’s supposed to conjure images of a malevolent toy shop, but what sprang to my mind were the puzzling, misshapen objects of Tanguy’s landscapes.


Strange, unexpected logic blossoms all around Binary, with Webber’s flute and saxophone tracing fluid curves and squiggles. Matt Mitchell’s piano sometimes matches the flow, as on the brief, dancing “Meme,” but in other cases, he goes for a blocky, stormy attack.

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Yves Tanguy, Day of Intertia (detail).
Source: Melt.

The latter strategy turns Mitchell into an accomplice to John Hollenbeck’s pounding drums, creating some highlight-reel moments during the 14-minute “Impulse Purchase.” Hollenbeck also uses his teletype Claudia Quintet style to lend a crisp, modern air to tracks like “Underhelmed.”

The title track is a particularly nice piece of work, patiently building into waves of soulful saxophone against stormy piano chording. It’s an emotional and severe piece, but also downright pretty.

Then there are the “Rectangle” series of miniatures, each packed into a couple of minutes “Rectangles 3b” is all rigid geometry and stiff lines. “Rectangles 3c” is a strident hurry-up beat, minimalism on caffeine with a skip in its step. “Rectangles 1a,” by contrast, starts slowly and builds into an abrasive climax, a complete short story in its own right. Little windows peeking into different worlds, much like paintings in a gallery.

KZSU Day of Noise 2017: Saturday, Feb. 4

dayofnoise2017It’s coming. Mark your calendars.

All day on Saturday, Feb. 4, from midnight to midnight (or 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., if you want a little less ambiguity), radio station KZSU-FM at Stanford University will present Day of Noise, 24 hours of live, on-air performances of improvisation, electronics, way-out jazz, and just plain noise.

It’s a ritual that’s been kept alive by Abra (who goes by Dr. Information when on-air) for the past several years. She’ll be hosting all 24 hours, as she has for other recent Days of Noise.

We at KZSU take Day of Noise seriously. There’s a green room in another part of the building, isolated from the bustle, where musicians can chill before and after their sets. We provide food. We run two separate performance spaces, so that one can set up while the other is in use — this makes for seamless transitions between acts. And musicians and volunteers get cool T-shirts.

The level of interest from musicians has been off the charts. In past years, we struggled to fill 24 hours; now we struggle to pack everyone in. Most artists will perform in 30-minute shifts, with the exception of a few 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. types who’ll get a full hour. (So will Karl Evangelista, at 8:00 p.m., according to the schedule I’ve seen.)

If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve blogged Day of Noise since 2012, including some photos. Check it all out here.

And if you want a sample of the noise to come, KZSU has posted all 24 hours of audio from last year’s Day of Noise. Enjoy.

François Tusques ‎and the Spectrum of the ’60s

It was a passing mention on Avant Jazz News that got me to seek out François Tusques’ 1965 album, Free Jazz:

I had not previously heard of Tusques, a pianist, but he was clearly part of the “new thing” going on in the sixties, and he’d carved out something particularly engaging here.

“Description Automatique D’un Paysage Désolé” has sturdy jazzy chords, calming flute, and mysterious bass clarinet. But it’s played in a loose, wandering structure — nothing so abrupt as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, but certainly something being built in the name of the new freedom. I was hooked.

tusques-freejazzSince that discovery, catching up on Tusques’ history has been quite an adventure. He is still active, it turns out, although he veered away from the wildly improvised stuff not long after Free Jazz, as noted in an All About Jazz profile.

He did release another album of the “new thing,” in 1967. Titled Le Nouveau Jazz, its improvising is more fierce than that of Free Jazz, and the compositions play a stronger role — but it lacks its predecessor’s magic. I think the more cautious approach on Free Jazz yielded more rewarding results; it had a shape, a coherent non-structure, that didn’t fully translate into a second album.

That said, Le Nouveau Jazz is still a keeper. It’s been rereleased on vinyl by a UK label called Cacophonic. Check Finders Keepers Records in the UK for information (and downloads).

 
A 1971 album called Intercommunal Music, released on the Shandar label, is less successful. As Clifford Allen writes in that All About Jazz article, the album was planned as a quartet session including Sunny Murray on drums. But Murray showed up late, and with a crew of friends. With rental time running out on the studio, they blasted out whatever unrehearsed sound they could. The results are fun, as you can hear on YouTube, but not particularly coherent. You can hear Tusques falling into patterns occasionally, as if trying to carve a direction for the music, but he goes unheeded.

Even as Tusques veered away from free jazz, he stuck to the revolutionary spirit. Check out this 1971 track, “Nous Allons Vous Conter,” which is soulful and rhythmic but still rings with a spirit of ’60s protests, down to the spoken rhetoric being barked out. (You’ll find it on a compilation called Mobilisation Generale.)

There’s also “Le Musichien,” probably a play on words involving chien, or “dog.” It’s a lovely, straightforward tune with piano chording drenched in that ’70s peace-and-love spirit. For me, having grown up in that era, it’s wonderfully nostalgic — although the vocals get a little questionable, and much as I love the simple chord cycle, it can be wearing over nearly 20 minutes. (This one’s available on another compilation, Freedom Jazz France.)

 
So, Tusques’ catalogue spans the spectrum of music inspired by the revolutionary ’60s, from outright chaos to soothing, optimistic tunefulness.

Tusques performed at Vision Festival 18 in 2013, and, as Avant Music News was noting, he’s got a new album, Le Chant du Jubjub (Improvising Beings, 2015), an experimental-leaning project with accordion, trumpet, spoken word, and song. He’s still around, and he’s still seeking.


 

Andrew Cyrille: Time Stretched Apart

Andrew Cyrille QuartetThe Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM, 2016)

cyrille-declarationThe quieter tracks here are about as “ECM” as it gets. The Declaration of Musical Independence is full of meditative space and loose, floating structure.

This orbit reaches apogee in “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” an homage to silences. Most of the track features small scribbles of improvising bordered by bubbles of emptiness. Even the crashing segments, where the entire quartet gears up to make some noise, carries a meditative quality.

It’s the kind of track where the musicians will insist there’s no “lead” player, but I think of Cyrille having the floor. He shapes the piece with slow gong strikes or the sparse clacking of wood blocks, declaring authority inside the field of silence. His patient approach reminds me of his playing on Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997), the jazz trio album by koto player Miya Masaoka.

The album does include tunes that are more directly jazzy, written by the other players: Bill Frisell (guitar), Richard Teitelbaum (piano/synths), and Ben Street (bass). Teitelbaum’s “Herky Jerky,” for instance, is a busy track featuring knotty, active improvisation — you’d hear it and point directly to “free jazz.”

Much of the album, though, carries that sense of time stretched apart. “Say…” written by Street, has the four players following their own slow, unspoken rhythms. The tangible melody of Frisell’s guitar sort of sets a tempo, but it’s not certain that the others are in step; the magic is in letting the music drift past, absorbing the “whole” that the four are individually creating.

“Coltrane Time” is the track that’s drawn the most attention. Written but never recorded by Coltrane, and down through Rashied Ali to Cyrille and Milford Graves, the composition appears to be a long snare-drum line. Cyrille, according to the liner notes, repeats it while playing with the tempo and adding accents on the rest of the drum kit.

What I said about stretched time goes for “Coltrane Time” too, but it might be harder to notice, because it’s the noisiest track on the album. I think it’s Teitelbaum on synthesizer who’s doing the screechy, guitar-hero-sounding solo, with Frisell calmly arpeggiating and sprinkling crystal harmonic notes. But despite the central role of the snare, there’s no clear “center” to the rhythm.

Frisell’s presence on the album took some getting used to. That makes me a bad jazz fan, I know, but while his toneful Americana guitar adds a beautiful shimmer, it’s sometimes a distraction.

He’s still got a touch for the abstract, as you can hear in his squiggles and blips on “Manfred” and the deliciously disconnected improv, “Sanctuary.” (He did come from the ’80s downtown NYC scene, after all.) But I found myself longing for a less chummy sound. I also don’t agree with the inclusion of his composition “Kaddish,” a straight-up sad tune with solid melody; it’s played with a mood befitting the album but is still quite the anomaly, like a beginner’s guide to the rest of the album.

Cyrille remains active, which is good to see. Proximity (Sunnyside, 2016), a duo album with Bill McHenry came out concurrently with Declaration and is getting a lot of press. His Route de Frères (Tum, 2011), recorded with a quintet called Haitian Fascination, is a quintet date with some Caribbean influence. (Side note: It features saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who’s now facing retirement due to health problems.) And of course, Trio 3, with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman, is still going.

I’ve recently delved into Cyrille’s past with Metamusicians Stomp (Black Saint, 1978) by the band Maono, which included Ted Daniel on trumpet and a young David S. Ware. And I’m not done; I think my next Cyrille exploration might be the piano trio led by Søren Kjærgaard, who’s employed Cyrille and Street for a series of albums on Danish label Ilk Music.