Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)
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 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.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing — Loafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup, 2017)
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.
Matt Mitchell [playing the music of Tim Berne] — førage (Screwgun, 2017)
Førage 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.”
Satoko Fujii — Invisible Hand (Cortez Sound, 2017)
Solo albums aren’t the norm for Satoko Fujii. She’s released four of them since 1996; compare that with her total of 79 albums plus the seven she plans to release this year. As you can tell from her work in small ensembles, Fujii is not to be trifled with, and you get to hear her in full force on the new double CD, Invisible Hand.
Being the only musician on the album, Fujii is, by definition, in command here — but the sure-handedness of these pieces lets you know she is in command. On most tracks, Fujii picks a theme — often one of the familiar compass directions related to jazz or classical — and explores it with conviction, adding deviations when the moment is right.
The stylistic palette is wide. “I Know You Don’t Know” is big, stern, and serious, like a classical piece, while “Gen Himmel” is a big-hearted gospel treat with waves of emotion. “Floating” blossoms into attractive, new-agey melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1980s ECM album; I’m making it sound corny, but I’m really enjoying that track.
One of my favorites is “Green Cab,” which surprises you by springing into a fun, rolling blues groove.
Fujii doesn’t abandon her association with free jazz; these pieces do come with avant-garde touches. “Green Cab” opens with zither-like sweeps of the piano strings and the tight clicking of prepared piano. “Floating” opens with prepared piano, too — a percussion solo of contemplative wind chimes.
At the far end of the spectrum is the title track, built around the sounds of Fujii directly manipulating the strings: subtle buzzing, sparse clicking. It’s a spacious, contemplative exercise, and when Fujii eventually shifts into conventional playing, it’s slow and serious.
Invisible Hand is notable not only for the span of Fujii’s styles but for its bold style and sure-handed statements. Its style sets up an intriguing contrast to another excellent solo piano album, Matt Mitchell’s førage, which I’ll be reviewing next.
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 …
After 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.
Jim Black — Malamute (Inkakt, 2017)
Malamute 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.
Jack o’ the Clock — Repetitions of the Old City – I (self-released, 2016)
Jack 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.