Larry Ochs and Aram Shelton

Larry Ochs & Aram Shelton QuartetContinental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)

Aram Shelton was a fixture on the Bay Area scene before moving overseas, first to Copenhagen and more recently to Budapest. He teams up with ROVA stalwart Larry Ochs on Continental Drift, a free-jazz session where we get to listen in on distant friends enjoying one another’s company. The album has a bright, flowing energy, aided by drummer Kjell Nordeson, another familiar face on the local scene, and two bassists — Mark Dresser or Scott Walton — who rounded out the quartet during the two separate recording sessions, five years apart, that make up the album.

Ochs and Shelton alternate composing duties track-by-track, emphasizing their contrasting styles — Ochs tending toward rougher textures and abstract territory, Shelton often starting closer to traditional jazz forms but bending them to his taste. Ochs’ “Slat” delves into more abstract territory and a freer improvisation — some terrific sparring here between the two horns — whereas Shelton’s “Switch” shows off his trademark blend of modern composing and aggressively swingy rhythm.

Shelton puts a sweet composure into “Anita.” But even that track goes off the melodic rails after a while; it’s far from sappy. Ochs shows off his snappy sense of rhythm on the outright catchy “Strand,” which starts innocuously but builds into a furious group jam that eventually stops on a dime, a nice dramatic moment.

Shelton and Ochs mix well and it’s often hard to tell who has played or even composed which pieces. (For me, anyway. My ear for different musical styles is still a work in progress.) They combine for a tremendous, hard-digging double solo during “The Others Dream,” Ochs’ 19-minute closer. That one feels epic, opening with somber drumming and Ochs’ ecstatic sopranino solo, then later getting into a hard-driven segment that also feels wide open, a broad landscape unrolling.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve met most of these players in person, but the whole set just feels friendly, with an optimistic outlook. Composition-led free jazz is alive and well, and it’s a soothing balm against stressful times. Shelton and Ochs execute well on Continental Drift, but more importantly, it feels like everyone is having fun. That kind of thing comes across on a record.

A Vast Collage Curated by Laura Jurd

Laura JurdStepping Back, Jumping In (Edition, 2019)

Trumpeter Laura Jurd might be best known for her quartet Dinosaur, which mixes creative jazz with a pop aesthetic. It’s decent stuff, quite hip. But Stepping Back, Jumping In is a different animal: a tumult of ideas from Jurd and four other composers, drawing from a rich pool of creativity.

Commissioned by King’s Place in London and featuring 15 musicians in various combinations, Stepping Back does have a cohesive sound, a brainy jazz approach with a sense of humor. Jurd opens the album with her composition “Jumping In,” a multi-paneled mural full of swirling colors, complete with banjo. The hyperactive opening really does jump in, and the piece doesn’t let go from there, seemingly piling on with ideas from every corner of Jurd’s brain.

Strings feature heavily. The Ligeti Quartet, who worked with Jurd on Landing Ground (Edition, 2012), contribute a variety of textures, including elements of circus-y classical, the folk-tinged whimsy common in European jazz. The Ligetis are not just an adornment, but the core fiber of some pieces.

“Ishtar” builds a spare but bustling landscape where crooked and/or whimsical denizens pass by — it’s almost like surreal people-watching. Elliott Galvin composed that one (he and the other Dinosaur members appear in various spots on the album) and contributes and a lush piano solo. “Companion Species,” composed by Anja Lauvdal and Heida K. Johannesdottir, starts with a hailstorm of prepared piano and a Bitches Brew-style flash mob jam, before jumping into a funky groove that gets fusion-proggy toward the end.

The album is not all frantic. “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth,” composed by Soosan Lolavar, is more about a feeling than any specific melody. Jurd’s trumpet joins the strings and a percussionist for what feels like a guided improvisation, with the sound blooming like the gradual, gentle ending of a long winter. Jurd displays a more conventional type of composing on “Jump Cut Shuffle,” a straight string quartet (by modern standards) based on a catchy recurring melody — but it’s neither staid nor straightforward.

For more about Jurd: All About Jazz ran an interview in May, discussing composition, the formation of Dinosaur, and influences from Stravinsky to Deerhoof.

Evaporation: Sketching With Silence

Eli Wallace and Ben CohenEvaporation (Eschatology, 2020)

“Noise” music doesn’t have to be loud. It can be contemplative, as Pauline Oliveros showed us with her work in deep listening. On Evaporation, pianist Eli Wallace and Ben Cohen follow that aesthetic, creating bundles of action while leaving the blank canvas mostly blank. It’s a wide-angle landscape contrasting rapid motion and stillness.

The 33-minute “Saturation” is the main event. Wallace tests out all manner of prepared piano — a passage of tightly percussive strings against a fluttering of sax from Cohen, or a ringing strum of the stringboard. Cohen produces long streams of non-tonal monologue but also works in the almost subliminal language of long buzzes and breaths.

Informally, “Saturation” could be divided in sections according to the loud/quiet transitions. The early stages feature bursts of noise that couldn’t be called quiet, but the overall effect is spare.

The quietude is not for the faint of heart. Midway through, “Saturation” becomes a hearing test, with distant clatter — a metallic resonance out of the piano, whispery air through the saxophone — nestled between thick silences. That sets us up for the stretch of light metallic hail that ends the piece, not a “grand” finale so much as a satisfying bit of punctuation to close things out.

The 10-minute title track similarly stretches out across its time. Midway through, the sound truly evaporates, leaving a near-silent percussive chatter that gradually dissolves into nothingness. As a listening experience, it requires the right mindset, and that’s true of the whole album. If you come in expecting “free jazz,” the stubborn quietude could feel abrasive. Taken on its own terms, as that expansive canvas, it can be satisfying and thought-provoking.

Journey to Manala

Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life’s Blood EnsembleManala (Edgetone, 2020)

Manala thinks big. It brings an 11-piece jazz mini-orchestra to celebrate Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage, and while the theme is related to folklore about the underworld, the mood is bright and welcoming. It feels like a joyous personal statement from someone who has made a journey and discovered wonderful things along the way.

The song cycle blends traditional jazz ensemble writing, scribbly free-improv solos, enjoyable moments of melodrama, and sounds of natural instruments that harken back to the times of legends and bold heroes.

Saxophonist Romus shares composing duties here with Heikki Koskinen, a frequent collaborator in recent years whose e-trumpet cuts bright soloing lines through tracks like the opener, “Maahinen (Gnome).” They draw a big sound out of the band’s four horns.

Sometimes, though, a rustic mood prevails, anchored by Cheryl E. Leonard, well known in the Bay Area for her musical instruments derived from natural objects (bones, sand, shells) and David Samas, whose instruments include song stones and waterphone. There’s also the reverent flute trio that opens “Loitsun lukema (Casting the Spell)” to introduce a cool theme mixing jazz and ceremonial music, a sound relying heavily on Gabby Fluke-Mogel on violin and Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

Romus has been passionate about researching Finnish mythology, and it’s wonderful that his documentation of that work comes in the form of music. The “Journey to Manala” suite later in the album is based on the legend of Vainamoinen, “the most powerful adventurer shaman of the Kalevala” (quoting the liner notes), “who builds a boat out of song, only to find he is missing the words to complete the task. The story follows him into Manala to find those words.” During the suite, David Samas gets to break into a splendidly dramatic monologue — I think it’s the character of Vainamoinen himself — against a grooving backdrop.

That idea of using song to influence the physical world — I think every musician must sometimes feel like they are on verge of completing that quest, like a journey to the infinite horizon. Manala feels like that kind of exploration.

Manala is the second album based on Romus’ research into blending jazz and his Finnish heritage, the first being The Otherworld Cycle, and it has a live followup, Return to Manala. Romus has tapped a rich creative thread that hopefully will continue.

An Italy-Canada Connection

ITACA 4tetVortex (Nusica, 2020)

Springy and optimistic, the ITACA 4tet is a smiling bundle of Eurojazz, even if half its members are Canadian. (The name comes from the Italy-Canada connection.)

The quartet thrives on the interplay of clarinetist François Houle and alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini. A track like “Sketch 26” uses a brief composed line to launch a fast flow of musical doodles, both horns tossing out ideas, propelled by Alessandro Fedrigo on bass guitar (a nice choice that creates a fluid low end throughout the album) and Nick Fraser leaning heavily on the snare drum.

The group explores in a welcoming way, tracing pleasantly zig-zagging paths. Faster numbers are always enjoyable, but it’s during the slower passages that the two-horn interplay can get especially rich, as on the playfully warbling “Saturno.” Houle has a knack for merging the serious and lighthearted sides of improvising, and the rest of ITACA has the same mindset. Even “The Third Murder,” which opens with discontented hive buzzing, slips into bubbly tunefulness.

“‘Nette,” composed by Carlos Ward, does indeed echo Ornette Coleman with its sunny, melody-driven theme. When the solos start, Fraser’s drumming pull back abruptly to signify the newly opened space, while Fedrigo keeps the mood and tempo uplifted.

“‘Nette”

Tineke Postma

Tineke Postma Freya (Edition, 2020)

Album cover by Chad Kouri

In the days before streaming services, Jim Black’s Alas No Axis released an album that was not going to be available in the U.S. for some months. I think it was Houseplant. All of the band’s albums were on the German label Winter & Winter, and based on my college radio work at KZSU, I knew that the label’s U.S. distributor was Allegro Music. The station didn’t have strong ties to them, but, caving to impatience, I figured I could check the Allegro website and see if they sold mail-order to random individuals like me — and indeed they did.

I figured it would be fun to add a second, arbitrary item to the order, just to sample Allegro’s pool of European jazz and classical. Somewhere on their jazz pages I found an album whose samples had that relaxed, mainstream-contemporary sound but with a sense of adventure. I gave it a shot. It paid off.

Tineke Postma is a Dutch saxophonist who indeed spins contemporary jazz. My find, The Traveller (Coda, 2009), was comfortable, with the usual dose of pretty melodies alongside the more abstract themes, but Postma’s soloing stood out. Her edge sharpened considerably on Sonic Halo (Challenge, 2014), which is credited to Postma and Greg Osby (a mentor of hers) as equals. And now an avant-jazz side takes a leadership role on her newest album, Freya.

I’m not talking about fire-and-brimstone avant-jazz or an Anthony Braxton kind of cryptography. This is still acceptably mainstream stuff, but with Postma’s aptitude for adventure heightened, and with new ideas asserted in the composing — and it’s executed with a casual air that doesn’t feel forced. The title track’s cool staggering theme sets the scene for Postma’s kind of even-handed fire-spitting, a solo full of tangles but still relevant to the song’s mood. Thematically, Freya draws from the idea of motherhood, with song titles based on figures from mythology and ancient history. (Postma had taken a few years off to start a family.) Musically, it’s based on compositions with abstract themes that tumble and slide in a relaxed confidence.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi fits the album’s mood well, delivering sharp solos and adding extra angles to Postma’s writing. The frequent moments where their solos overlap are delightful. You can tell they’re having fun on a tune like “Scáthatch’s Island of Style,” where they start playing with the theme’s cracked minimalism and spin briefly into free improvising. With the exception of a few tracks with Kris Davis on piano, most of the album lacks a chord instrument, which heightens the importance of drummer Dan Weiss and especially bassist Matt Brewer.

“Juno Lucina” has a skip-and-gallop theme that touches on a Tim Berne style of zig-zagging. “Parallax” isn’t my favorite composition on the album (it falls into a see-saw theme that’s a bit of a rut), but it opens the album with a fluttery Postma improvisation that signals some of what’s to come. “Aspasia and Pericles” and “Heart to Heart” are on the quieter side, the latter setting the softness of a jazz ballad to a mildly abstract theme.

Quarter Tone Voices: Cory Smythe’s New Language

Cory SmytheAccelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic, 2020)

Cory Smythe’s new album is inspired by Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice (Blue Note, 1970) which combined singers with a jazz quintet. This wasn’t jazz singing. It was a seven-person choir pulsing with ’60s energy, singing lines somewhere between classical song and soul music. On “Ghetto Lights,” the soprano shrieks threaten to go off the rails. It’s a fitting addition to Hill’s brilliant run of late-’60s albums.

Pianist Smythe advances the concept by making the vocalists his entire band. That includes percussion by Kari Francis, who also served as the album’s vocal director. The voices sing articulated wordless syllables — and it’s all in quarter-tone staves, so even the music itself is speaking an unfamiliar language. The polish of the professional vocalists is crucial, an atmosphere of clean precision, even during improvised solos. (I’m reminded of Bay Area vocalist Lorin Benedict, who performs silky scat singing with the deliberateness of a written language.) The voices form the body of the music, with Smyth adding bass flourishes and high-register sprinklings.

The voices often don’t glide as they do on, say, Einstein on the Beach. It’s a function of the syllables, which in some cases seem crafted to create bumps and textures. Like the quarter-tones, they fit together in non-obvious combinations awkward to the unacclimated ear, even as they sometimes dip into recognizably “jazz” motifs.

To play those quarter-tone notes-between-the-notes, Smythe usee a MIDI keyboard propped on his piano, and of course the singers had to learn to hit quarter tones as well. (I have no idea how easy or difficult this is.) The MIDI keyboard is a setup that Smythe devised while working on a project with Craig Taborn. It uses the piano’s frame as a resonating board, just as the piano’s strings do, which seems to help the tones combine and shimmer, enhancing that “spectral” effect.

Smythe, in a “listening party” webinar and interview held by Pyroclastic, was reluctant to “oversell” his quarter-tone inner ear, saying only that he’s been dabbling in the 24-note scale and is still building an intuition for it. That said, Accelerate Every Voice was not left to guesswork; the music is heavily scripted. Smythe told the vocalists precisely which vowel sounds to make and gave exacting instructions regarding tone durations and even soloing. Smythe and Francis worked out rhythmic patterns for vocal percussion, adjusting the lines to fit Francis’ style and strengths. This rigor is at the heart of the music, building a ghostly Alexander Calder effect on two “Kinetic Wind Sculpture” pieces, or grinding out the repetition of an organic clockwork near the end of “Knot Every Voice.” Songs tend to be short, two to five minutes — but they feel longer, as they’re dense with motion and alien information.

The closing track, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Relaxation,” is a departure. Its 19 minutes of dark ambience seem to come from the sounds of (and around) the piano: isolated, echoing notes, wooden clacks, the buzzing of a resonating low string. Eventually the piano disappears and we are left with a shimmering resonance, slowly surging and receding.

That track is inspired by Annea Lockwood’s “Southern Exposure,” a performance piece in which a piano is slowly dragged away by the ocean tide. Hill’s Lift Every Voice had a political bent, and so does Accelerate Every Voice; it’s Smythe’s meditation on climate change. In that light, “Piano and Ocean Waves” becomes less relaxing. It’s about gradual background changes that build until they become too obvious to ignore.

Gordon Grdina: The ‘Resist’ Suite

Gordon Grdina SeptetResist (Irabagast, 2020)

The centerpiece of Resist is the 23-minute title suite, where avant-jazz guitarist Gordon Grdina turns classical composer, armed with a quartet of strings and the saxophone of Jon Irabagon. When this album came out in April, I felt Grdina had succeeded in creating something meaningful — but now, amid the George Floyd protests, it feels even bigger.

The strings are the key. They open “Resist” with somber persistence — the sound of gradual, grinding progress. The powerful coda, though, is where Grdina earns his stripes — sweeping, cinematic music suggesting the weariness of battles hard won and new fights yet to come (that’s what I hear in Irabagon’s frenzied sax solo). To me, it’s the sound of steadfast pride and grim realism — or maybe it’s just a reflection of how I felt as the protests gained momentum.

The heavy mood in “Resist” comes partly from an emphasis on mid/low registers. Instead of a traditional string quartet, Grdina uses a violin-viola-cello-bass lineup (and incidentally, it’s Evyind Kang on viola and Peggy Lee, a creative music veteran from Grdina’s native Vancouver, on cello). The suite does have its playful moments, including a free-improv section in the middle, but it ends with a reflective moment of very low arco bass, a little bit comforting, a little bit ominous.

Resist is an ambitious departure, but it also draws on Grdina’s usual context of creative jazz. His recent work includes a couple of all-star pickup trios — one with Mark Helias and Matthew Shipp (bass and piano) and the Nomad Trio with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black (piano and drums). He’s also shown off his oud playing over the years, especially on a pair of albums by his band The Marrow.

The rest of the album Resist draws from those materials. “Resist the Middle” revels in the bustle of free improv, including Grdina on white-noise electric guitar, then coalesces around heavy strings and other-worldly voices by Irabagon on sopranino sax. “Ever Onward” is another piece featuring some weighty strings, but it also sets Grdina’s oud, a lonely frontier voice, in some spiraling duet work with Jesse Zubot on violin.

“Varscona” is the album’s touch of lightness. Irabagon leads a joyous trio jam with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen, then it all shifts into a free-improv attack with the rest of the band. The song ends with a surprisingly silly bit of vaudeville — which, again, feels prescient, because we could all use a little levity right now.

Portraits of the Artists: Kyle Bruckmann’s Triptych (tautological)

Kyle BruckmannTriptych (tautological) (self-released, 2020)

bruckmann-triptych-1Kyle Bruckmann’s latest album, releasing on June 1, mixes electronics with extended techniques on oboe and English horn. It’s a different kind of composing from his genre-jumping Dear Everyone or the long-form Pynchon-inspired suite, … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire and right in line with his solo improvising of the past and his electronics work of the recent present.

Improvisation is involved here, but Triptych (tautological) is comprised of pieces, compositions previously performed live and shaped for studious listening. They tie into a theme of three artists who have influenced Bruckmann’s work from different directions: literature, music, and the visual arts.

The electronics version of “A Spurious Autobiography for John Barth” is built from the chattering of small sounds — tightly wound vibration, some apparently sourced from extended techniques on the oboe. You can recognize air through the horn, or high-pitched overblowing filtered into a distant ghostly shriek. It’s quiet in volume but tight with tension.

That same piece reappears later on the album in an oboe and English horn version. The aesthetic of tight scribbles is still there, but coming from the horns themselves, in the form of squeaks and twiddles, sometimes overdubbed. Some seem to be electronically enhanced, too — or, more likely, it’s Bruckmann adding mic effects while wresting impossible sounds out of the instrument. At times, it’s an exotic zoo.

The 21-minute “An Extruded Introversion for Blixa Bargeld” is anchored in silence — a concrete-thick silence, with the oboe sketching the barest outlines of melody. A good portion of the piece is backed by the tiniest of electronic pulses, an irregular whisper behind the slowly unfolding piece. Late in the piece, things explode outward; an extended-technique blare and a circular-breathing segment turn the mood more aggressive before leaning back toward near-silence and a coda of long, resigned microtones.

The most conventionally “musical” piece is dedicated to James Turrell, an artist who works in light and is preparing an outdoor celestial-minded piece built in a crater. Appropriately, “A Fuzzy Monolith for James Turrell” works in minimalist arcs. Its sustained notes range from low buzzing to cleanly cut high whistles. Physically, it’s an exercise in control and restraint; aurally, it suggests the slow, grand clock of the stars. At some moments, the high oboe tones take on the air of Native American flutes, again conjuring images of the wide timeless sky.

These pieces represent distinct moods that reward concentrated listening. As the liner notes mention, it’s good contemplative fodder for the times of sheltering-in-place.

Triptych (tautological) will be available June 1 on Bandcamp.

 

CHAMA

chama logo

CHAMA — Hexagono (Falcon Gumba, 2020)

CHAMA applies a garage-band approach to creative jazz, creating music that’s rigorous but just feels fun. The violin-guitar-drums trio met years ago in Venezuela (where “chama” is colloquial for “girl”) and have since reconvened in New York. Having released a couple of EPs a few years ago, they’ve been issuing digital tracks this year on the Falcon Gumba label, run by violinist Leonor Falcón.

On “Hexagono,” CHAMA dips into smart math rock, built on a glitchy phrase that ends with an unmistakable flourish. “Carupano” runs at a cooler temperature on a sly but energetic jazzy groove. And “Kids,” written by drummer Arturo García, puts heavier emphasis on Juanma Trujillo’s guitar, a midtempo chugging followed by slow, bluesy reverb.

Outside CHAMA, Falcón’s creative music output has tracked closer to jazz. Her album IMAGA MONDO, esperanto for “imaginary world,” includes Trujillo alongside bass clarinet and drums, playing music ranging from modernized swing (“Gnomes”) to abstract melodic sketches (“Nymphs and Spaceman,” with multiple overdubbed violins) to an uplifting anthem (“Humanoides.”) A playful violin-viola duet called Peach & Tomato, pairing Falcón with Sana Nagano, operates on a sense of conversational forward motion, adding some electrified sounds for texture.

Trujillo has some output on Falcon Gumba too. El Vecino is a quartet with trumpet; Sferos is a trio with sax and drums that gets into some looser, untethered exploration.

Here are a few more snippets of CHAMA in action.