The Roughtet: Biggi Vinkeloe’s Improv Crew

Biggi Vinkeloe RoughtetAu Quotidien (Edgetone, 2017)

vinkeloe-roughtetYou should hear this album for the friendly vibe of its quartet, their balanced approach to improvised jazz, and the solid interplay on the two live tracks included at the end.

But I’d also be happy if you read the liner notes, either with the physical CD or on Bandcamp. I happen to find them deeply insightful. And yeah, I also wrote them.

Which creates an interesting opportunity: I can review this album by plagiarizing myself. Man, is this going to be easy.

Vinkeloe, from Sweden, has been a frequent visitor to the Bay Area and a longtime participant in the music scene here. She’s also been involved in some interesting projects lately, including the Swedish jazz group Amazonas and her own Jade project blending the moods of jazz with choral sacred music

Au Quotiden is more like a meeting among friends, a mood that makes for a light and lively session.

Au Quotidian mixes the confidence of the familiar with the excitement of the unknown, the musicians keying off one another’s invisible cues to create a fluid, elegant machine,” I wrote.  (“Invisible” was a poor choice of word, as visual cues, even the kind that simply signal the end of a piece, probably played a large role during the recording session.)

“The band gets a ‘jazz’ infusion from [Joe] Lasqo’s piano chords, adding spots of color to a stormy track like ‘i would think so’ or the slapped groove of ‘je ne sais pas.'” (The song titles are entirely lower-case.)

Let’s see if I was right. Here’s an excerpt of ‘i would think so.’

And here’s part of “je ne sais pas,” which I later also cited for cellist Teddy Rankin-Parker’s “grooving bassline.”

I should mention that Donald Robinson on drums is a crucial part of this chemistry; he’s played with these musicians for years, including Vinkeloe. Check out Blue Reve  (Eld 2009), a trio album with Robinson, Vinkeloe, and bassist Lisle Ellis.

Au Quotidien is appended with two live tracks that feature some particularly lively interplay. Again, from the liners: “‘how wonderful'” features Vinkeloe’s joyous yet balanced overblowing and a full palette of sounds from Robinson.”

Here I’ve combined a couple of segments to give you a feel for all that:

To conclude: “throughout the album, Vinkeloe herself leads the crew through varying moods — the spiky excitement of “vous ne comprenez rien,” the dark, unhurried mystery of “cela commence mal.” She spins powerful tales herself on the horn, but this band carries those talents to another plane — four storytellers, weaving a narrative together.”


When does one expect to hear high-pitched saxophone overblowing?

Not during the ballad “I’ll Keep Loving You” as performed by Jackie McLean.

Yeah, that was a surprise.

Jackie McLeanDuring stops at the public library with the kids, I’ve been checking out arbitrary CDs. It’s kind of a way to keep in touch with more mainstream fare — “normal” classical music, the occasional ECM disk, or jazz masters who have been neglected in my collection. That’s how McLean’s Let Freedom Ring wound up in my headphones.

What I didn’t know was that in 1962, McLean was listening closely to the likes of Ornette Coleman. Turns out, the New Thing is the concept behind the title of the album I’d checked out, Let Freedom Ring.

This is by no means a free jazz album, but moments of overblowing pop up regularly among the four tracks. It’s less incongruous on a bouncy, upbeat track like “Omega,” but that’s what makes the moment on “I’ll Keep Loving You” all the more delightful.

Let Freedom Ring was a conscious foray into free jazz, not just for McLean but also for Blue Note Records. “Soon it would be recording Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Larry Young, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and other new stars,” Graham Wood wrote in Perfect Sound Forever. Cecil Taylor recorded two of his greatest albums for Blue Note and even Ornette Coleman was recruited. The success of Let Freedom Ring was all Alfred Lion needed to be persuaded.”

“Melody for Melonae” is rich in the sound I associate with ’60s Blue Note; it might be the best introduction to McLean’s mix of the old and new. The squeaky parts pop up shortly after the 4:30 mark.

Among McLean’s albums, Let Freedom Ring seems to be where the posthumous accolades have gathered — this small profile on NPR, for instance. Wood, in Perfect Sound Forever, seems more taken with its successors: Destination… Out! and especially One Step Beyond. I suppose that’s where I’ll be traveling next.

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.

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.

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.