Archive for September, 2017

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 1 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


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