Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Oki

Itaru Oki, Nobuyoshi Ino, Coi Sun BaeKami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017)

oki-kamiFor the past year, I’ve felt like my visit to Japan should have included a deeper investigation into Japanese free jazz. I spent a lot of time in mainstream stores, and my time at Disk Union, the grand dame of Japanese underground records, was spent on the prog rock floor, not in the jazz/improv area.

I found an opening with Kami Fusen, newly out on the NoBusiness label. Recorded in 1996 at Café Amores in Yamaguchi, the album features two trumpets and a bassist, all three being veterans dating back to the ’70s. And while I was at it, I used Squidco to track down a 1975 album by one of the three.

Recorded in 1996 at Cafe Amores in Yamaguchi, Kami Fusen features compositions and a few standards that branch out into improvised abstractness. It’s not ecstatic jazz — more a cool flame than a bonfire, with harmonized themes and long stretches where one trumpet sits out.

The backstory is that when trumpeter Itaru Oki and bassist Nobuyoshi Ino were touring as a duo in 1996, promoter Takeo Suetomi invited Korean trumpeter Choi Sun Bae to sit in with them for this gig and recorded the results on DAT. The resulting CD is part of a collaborative series between NoBusiness and Japan’s Chap Chap Music.

Japanese music tends toward a sweetness, manifested even in their metal and rap (but not in noise, as Merzbow can attest). There are traces of that here, such as a pop-sounding progression ad the end of “Yawning Baku” or the slow, sentimental melody of the title track.

This certainly counts as a free-jazz session, though. That title track eventually splits into ragged screams of passion from one trumpet while the other trumpet (the smoother tone that I’m guessing is Bae) continues improvising melodically over the chords. “Ikiru” opens with a jagged free improvisation, with Oki on high-pitched bamboo flute against Bae’s supremely high-register trumpet squeaks.

The album closes with a standards melody, including a solo trumpet take on “I Remember Clifford” and a swingy take on “Old Folks” that builds into a playfully bouncing improvisation.

The DAT-recorded sound is pretty good. Ino’s bass — the crucial energy source that really does drive the session — is easy to hear albeit not very deep. On “Pon Pon Tea,” Ino is the one who propels the freely improvised segment. The two trumpeters follow, intertwining aggressively but leaving enough space to absorb what’s happening.

oki-phantomWhile I was at it, I wanted a taste of what these guys had done back in the ’70s, so I looked up Oki on Squidco and took a chance on Phantom Note (Offbeat, 1975). It’s a crisp free-jazz quartet date with Oki’s trumpet sounding sparkling and clear, ably matched by Yoshiaki Fujikawa on alto sax and a sharp rhythm section of Keiki Midorikawa (bass, cello) and Hozumi Tanaka (drums). Poet Gozou Yoshimasou delivers a dramatic, desperate screed amid the harsh cosmic storm of “Kodai-tenmondai (Ancient Observatory).” The album ends with the outright brutality of “Caesar and Capone.”

May 13, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

The Art of Process

Kris DavisDuopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016)

duopolyI wanted my first listen to Kris Davis‘ Duopoly to be an uninterrupted viewing of the 80-minute video of the performances (available online or as a DVD sold with the physical CD). It’s not as if the act of filming these studio duets altered the music. It’s more that I wanted to get into the spirit of the project.

Duopoly comprises 16 duets with eight musicians. Some Davis knows well, but none have previously recorded with her. Each musician took three hours in the studio to record one composition (most often one of Davis’) and one improvisation. Topping it off is the mirror symmetry of the track order, which I was so pleased to hear about last summer — the album features each of the eight musicians playing a composition, then the same eight, in reverse order, doing improvisations.

To me, that whole structure is part of the art here. It isn’t just that Davis recorded 16 duets (the partners being two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, two reedists). What I wanted to savor was the whole “shape” of the project — the constraints, the spontaneity, and the trajectory of the overall process. Certainly I enjoyed the music, too, but what I savored was the overall experiment.

The recordings are pure, with no rehearsals, overdubs, or mixing — although, sensibly, multiple takes were allowed. On the video side, the amount of camera movement is minimal. Davis is recorded by a fixed camera, while the guest musician is filmed by videographer Mimi Chakarova, using a handheld. Not every track works for me, but I think that fit the spirit of the rules.

One of the most fascinating visuals is “Eronel,” the Monk composition, played in duet with Billy Drummond. Davis starts off with an improvisation, and it’s up to Drummond to trust his ears, decide when to come in, and listen for the composition. The same is true of their improvisation, but with one constraint fewer. Being able to watch Drummond’s facial expressions, seeing him tease out his process, is a treat.

davis drummond cutAt times, though, he seems to have psyched himself out. I found myself aching for him to cut loose in a few spots. His improv duet takes time to get going but really cooks when it does, when he settles on an all-toms groove.

It’s possible that Drummond did cut loose, on alternate takes — or, maybe restraint was his strategy all along. Or, maybe it’s my burden to warm up to that strategy. The quiet tapping at the start of “Eronel” really clicked with me on a second listen, without the video (opening a whole other realm of discussion), and provides a healthy contrast to Marcus Gilmore’s hard asphalt swing on “Dig and Dump.”

The dual-piano tracks likewise complement one another. Davis’ composed duet with Craig Taborn, pensive and abstract, is followed by the direct jazz attack of Angelica Sanchez. I like that the Taborn track comes first in the album’s sequencing. It does get fiery but builds slowly and abstractly to that point; its introduction would have been an odd full stop had it followed Sanchez’s piece.

Sometimes, the only way to tell which parts are composed is to watch Davis’ eyes on the video. Even then, you can’t always tell, but based on that cue, “Trip Dance for Tim” has her playing an intricate theme filled with insane intervallic leaps. Tim Berne’s alto sax soloing is a delight during that phase, and eventually both are playing a layered composition that does resemble some of Berne’s two-horn work with bands like Snakeoil or Bloodcount.

berneThe Tim Berne improvisation comprises two phases: Berne madly screeching against stony chords, and Berne playing a tumult of notes against Davis’ rapid-fire blips, sounding like an acoustic sci-fi computer.

How about the guitars? Davis’ composition “Prairie Eyes” seems very much tailored for Bill Frisell, with Davis laying down scrabbling minimal riff against his sparse notes, or putting big-sky chords behind a very Frisellian melody. It’s an attractive piece with a haunting coda. “Surf Curl,” for Julian Lage, starts out percussive and skittery, building into a steady drizzle.

Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” played with Don Byron, is the halfway point, the last of the compositions. The piece ends sublimely, making for a satisfying transition into the improv half of the album/video. That Moebius twist of a transition, as Davis’ producer calls it, is equally sublime, opening quietly with Byron’s clarinet like a flowing brook and Davis playing gentle dewdrop notes.

Davis has posted the entire video online: http://krisdavis.net/duopoly-full-video … and you can catch it segment-by-segment on Vimeo.

April 29, 2017 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

It’s Not the Jitters. It’s the Music.

Eivind OpsvikOverseas V (Loyal Label, 2017)

opsvik vIf I had to pick an overarching mood for bassist Eivind Opsvik‘s Overseas V, I’d say nervous energy. The compositions practically quiver with it.

“Izo” feels faster than it really is, for example, because the moderately fast bassline is augmented by a rolling, relentless guitar riff and tumbling bits of piano and sax. Some music conveys emotion; this track conveys “Keep moving, for god’s sake!”

Many of the songs, such as “I’m Up This Step” and “Brraps!,” are based on off-kilter repetition. The former sets up an angular, crooked space, with boundaries drawn and sometimes broken by Kenny Wolleson’s drums and Brandon Seabrook’s choppy guitar. “Brraps!” feels like it’s constantly shifting. You start off-balance, and then the music gives you a shove.

Judging by Opsvik’s comic pantomiming in video for “Brraps!,” that’s just the effect he’s going for.

Even the more serene tracks are deceptive. “Shoppers and Pickpockets” morphs from peaceful ballad mode into spiky piano from Jacob Sacks, augmented with Tony Malaby’s murmurs of sax. The cool, fluid “Extraterrestrial Tantrum” builds into shifting stormy melodies, undercut by what sounds like electronic percussion and Opsvik’s own echoey arco bass.

I’ve been aware of Opsvik and his Overseas album series, but this is my first time listening closely to his blend of cerebral jazz and jittery rock. The slower, pretty tracks are well worth your time, but the majority of the album is out to get your fingers and toes moving, if not more.

Overseas V is available on Bandcamp and eMusic, among other places.

April 25, 2017 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

Grand Gestures for Piano & Drums

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture (Atma Nadi, 2017)

coverThe piano-drums duo of Dialectical Imagination is all about chasing a big sound, but not in a noisy way.

Eli Wallace (also of the Bay Area trio Sound Etiquette — who play tonight at Octopus Literary Salon, incidentally) provides jittery and hammering piano laced with jazz and classical elements. It’s like heavy, elegant drapery crashing down on your head. That’s paired with the thunderous but sure-handed drumming of Rob Pumpelly, formerly of prog band miRthkon.

“Angel and the brute” is a good way to describe both sides of the music — it gushes lushly in one moment, then screams with adrenaline-rush urgency.

The 12-minute “Sky in Eye Free of I” is a good example. It opens with some sophisticated, jazzy dabbling — Pumpelly on brushes, even — that soon begins to speed up and unravel. By minute 8, Wallace is stabbing mercilessly at the bass notes while Pumpelly, now using drumsticks, batters away deftly.

 
“Immutable Light” is a power play, with Wallace sternly hammering away for a dramatic opening and Pumpelly taking a strong solo full of toms rolls and cymbal crashes, in a style closer to serious classical percussion than metal-like thrash. “Rungs” is another good example of high-energy bobbing and weaving, possibly the most exhilarating track on here.

One dial down the notch in intensity is the jittery “Turnabout,” where both players show tasteful restraint during Wallace’s hyperactive splashing.

“Deepest View’s Horizon You” starts out describing vast, mysterious caverns, then dissolves into a lyrical and downright pretty ending for the album.

If you buy the album in physical form, there’s a fun twist: It comes on “faux cassette” — a USB drive in a cassette-shaped housing. You can also download and stream the album on Bandcamp.

April 15, 2017 at 12:39 pm Leave a comment

Back Pages #1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

earthworks3

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)

The first song I ever played on the air at KZSU was “Bridge of Inhibition” by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks.

It starts like a declaration of purpose. Hey, listeners, it’s JAZZ time.

 
But it’s also symbolic. Earthworks was a key discovery in my early explorations of jazz, bridging the gap between prog rock and what would come next.

I bought Earthworks’ self-titled album on vinyl from a short-lived Cupertino record store, where it caught my eye in a display. This was during a time when I’d been scouting for solo prog projects, picking up albums by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett and, the most treasured find of them all, Chris Squire. It intrigued me to think that Bill Bruford had formed a jazz band, so I gave it a chance.

Earthworks songs like “Thud” trace crooked melodies educated by Monk — unusual stuff that throws you off balance but becomes easy to process on a second or third listen. That’s part of what I liked about prog — the process of “decoding” a song to find out what was going on. Earthworks turned out to have just the right mix to tickle the prog and jazz portions of my brain.

My favorite tracks had bouncy melodies and odd time signatures. The 13/8 of “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is really not so complicated, but I sure loved tapping my fingers along to it, especially the bassline in the “chorus.”

earthworks-pic

Source: Discogs

Earthworks also gave me a dose of the untethered improvisation that would be in my future. “Emotional Shirt,” in particular, goes through a speedy jazz-improv stretch before plunging back into Django Bates’ heavy-handed composition. It’s not 100% free, as it’s anchored by Mick Hutton’s furious bass rhythm, but it’s still something that was just outside my grasp at the time.

Future Earthworks albums didn’t capture my attention the way the debut did. I appreciated Bruford’s synth-drum experiments, which were producing new rhythms not possible for regular keyboardists, but the ’80s were ending, and the synths were already sounding a bit dated. And the melodies on future albums generally didn’t click with me the way something like Iain Ballamy’s “Thud” did.

In that sense, Earthworks contributed to the musical restlessness — the dissatisfaction with “jazz” — that eventually led me to Tim Berne and creative music. But this wasn’t a dead end. I’m a fan of the band’s first three albums (the ones with Ballamy and Bates — Bruford had essentially co-opted their band to form Earthworks), and I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally at the start of Stanford’s academic quarters. If I’m ever on the air again, even for a one-off show, it’s almost certain to get a spin.

February 20, 2017 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

MOPDTK Gets All Literary

Mostly Other People Do the KillingLoafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup, 2017)

mostlyother-loafersHow old is Mostly Other People Do the Killing? Old enough that they once had a Myspace page (and possibly still do).

How old is this blog? Old enough that when I reviewed the band’s third album — the very album reviewed on the blog — I mentioned their Myspace page unironically.

Say what you will about the blog, but the band has aged well, evolving and experimenting while still adhering to its original formula: Mixing styles that pay homage to jazz through the ages, while naming every track after real towns in Pennsylvania. Expanded to a septet, the band goes even deeper with the energy and twisted creativity that have been its hallmarks.

After 13 years and now 10 albums, you’d think bassist Moppa Elliott, the band’s leader and songwriter, would be out of amusing names — but no! He’s not only kept up the trend but has also found towns that relate to five great authors. The result is a five-track span of Loafer’s Hollow that suddenly becomes a book club: “Bloomsburg” is dedicated to James Joyce, “Kilgore” to Kurt Vonnegut, “Mason and Dixon” to Thomas Pynchon.

Moreover, each of those five compositions is based on music that Elliott set to the authors’ words. (Loafer’s Hollow, by the way, is original name of a town now called Library.)

Musically, you can’t tell. The touchstone era for Loafer’s Hollow is the ballroom-stomping jazz of the ’40s. The music carries a “hot club” feel, and Brandon Seabrook’s banjo is a nicely bucolic touch.

The layer on top of that, of course, is madcap free jazz. So you get Jon Irabagon’s soprano-sax babble to start “Five,” or an impossibly long pause on “Kilgore” where he creates the smallest sound possible out of his horn, a subliminal creak that’s the unaccompanied introduction to a wild solo. Or Ron Stabinsky, on that same track, gradually going insane on the piano, staring out with a a rapid boogie-woogie vibe that gets even faster, then starts to wobble. The suspense is palpable.

 
Trumpeter Peter Evans has left the band, but replacement Steven Bernstein is a known quantity and obviously no slouch. He gets to declare his presence early on the album with an unaccompanied solo on “Hi-Nella,” starting with an impressively sustained high-pitch siren sound. On “Bloomsberg,” he and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (another crucial veteran added to the lineup) trade licks in a comedic bit of one-upsmanship.

 
The band has a smart-aleck reputation, but they’re earnest in paying homage to old jazz styles. You get to hear that side on “Meridian” (the Cormac McCarthy piece), an honestly good, straightforward song with a nostalgic mellow tint and a hardy beat. (Oh, and a Seabrook banjo solo that sticks to the way-up-there upper register, where the notes come out like tinny clicks.)

Loafer’s Hollow will be released on Feb. 24.

February 17, 2017 at 4:36 pm Leave a comment

Berne on Piano

Matt Mitchell [playing the music of Tim Berne] — førage (Screwgun, 2017)

mitchell-forageFørage is an album that demands attention. You have to listen actively, letting Matt Mitchell‘s unaccompanied piano guide you down his twisty trails.

The storyline is that Mitchell, who’s been the pianist in Tim Berne‘s band Snakeoil, is interpreting Berne’s compositions, combining multiple songs per track. Blending it all with his own improvisational instincts, Mitchell creates dense, fractal-like structures that carry an elegant air, whether the mood is crystalline and quiet or stern and hammering.

Satoko Fujii’s recent solo album, Invisible Hand, is more direct, sampling a variety of jazz and blues forms. Her music takes plenty of unexpected sharp turns, but you can quickly absorb the moment of whatever passage you’ve dropped the needle onto. førage is a more difficult read.

Both approaches produce admirable results. I loved Invisible Hand, and I’m also savoring the intricate puzzles of førage.

Touches of Berne-ness are recognizable — at the start of “RÄÅY,” or in the recurring riffs that appear in “TRĀÇĘŚ,” — but the overall effect is a melting pot. It’s better that way. If I saw a title like “Simple City,” off the first Snakeoil album, I’d be looking for snippets of the composition.

 
Lacking any such touchstone, the mind is left free to admire Mitchell’s labyrinths. “ŒRBS,” in particular, is darting and densely packed, and it’s exciting when Mitchell lifts the sustain pedal for an unembellished glimpse of his technique. “CLØÙDĒ” lives up to its name on two fronts, starting out gossamer and innocent but building into a relentless storm.

The track not to overlook is “ÀÄŠ,” the long, slow one. The mood is one of high art, with a glacial opening and echoey sustain pedal, and it builds to a passionate, whirling crescendo.

Interestingly, førage seems to be Mitchell’s first solo piano album. His collection of practice etudes, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013), was a duo album with drummer Ches Smith, and his solo outing vapor squint, antique chromatic (Scrapple, 2006) was an extended noise collage.

While førage can be purchased as a download on Bandcamp, Berne considers the physical CD package vital to the experience, with its art by Steve Byram and photos by Berne and engineer Daniel Goodwin. Like Berne, I grew up in the age of LPs and glorious album art, so I would echo his plea: “I hope we can sell these bastards cause I’d really like to do more Screwgun stuff.”

February 12, 2017 at 10:41 am 2 comments

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