Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

A Perceptive Trio from Finland

Olavi TrioOh, La Vie! (TUM, 2015)

olavi-tumThis trio set from Finland presents an unhurried mix of trombone, bass, and drums by three players who share the middle name of Olavi. It’s an improv session with a casual feel.

Even the track called “Hurry Up,” with its busy percussive clacking and nervous bass bowing, doesn’t overpower. It’s certainly fast and gets the blood flowing, but it preserves a sense of space.

See if you agree. This segment of “Hurry Up” is about as densely packed as the album gets:

Most of the time, Olavi weaves a loose fabric, which makes for an engaging session with a sense of fun. One reason for that, I think, is that the trombone has more “friction” than a saxophone or a trumpet. To my ears, anyway, it seems harder for the trombone to produce fluid streams of notes. (There might be dozens of Paul Rutherford albums that disprove this theory.)

But that’s not all that I mean by “space.” Even when drummer Niilo Olavi Louhivuori is filling space with all manner of percussion, bandmates Teppo Olavi Hauta-aho (bass) and Jari Olavi Hongisto (trombone) keep a calm demeanor.

“Kalle Killi,” for instance, is playful in a calm, loping way, with a rubbery bass rhythm fronted by improvising at a pace that doesn’t break the spell, even as Hongisto’s melody intensifies and Louhivuori’s percussion gets more active.

The band doesn’t shy away from occasional tonality, and that gives distinct personalities to a few tracks. “Chaplin” hides shades of vaudeville sadness in the trombone melody. “Forest Walk” is an apt title for a casual stroll of a piece — another slice of egalitarian improvising, sustaining a balance that keeps the group moving forward — and even winds down with a traditional ending and resolution.

Another track I liked was “Evening Song,” a showcase for Hauta-aho’s bass. It’s built around an improvised trombone melody by Hongisto, but the fill-ins from Hauta-aho add up to a robust bass solo, full of rubbery plucked notes.

TUM is a Finnish label that’s been releasing works by American artists such as Billy Bang, Barry Altschul, and Wadada Leo Smith — so it’s about time I listened to some players from TUM’s native land. It’s yet another example of a European label taking up the task of documenting the American art form (Clean Feed, NoBusiness, Not Two, and countless others are in this group as well).

November 28, 2015 at 9:51 am Leave a comment

Viv Corringham, Greek Songs, and Electronics

Vocalist Viv Corringham is in the Bay Area this week, joining up with a local band to perform a combination of improvisation, electronics, and Greek rembetika singing.



Rembetika, also spelled rebetika and technically the plural of rebetiko, is an early 20th-century Greek music with genes from the Baltic region and Eastern Europe. But it’s not music born of joy; like the blues, it’s the music of a downtrodden people (outcasts from Asia Minor) and the struggles they faced.

Drugs seem to be a prevailing theme in rembetika, which explains the name of Corringham’s mini-tour: “Life Is Clearer Seen Through Smoke.”

The line comes from a 2011 album, Rembetronika, that pairs Corringham’s singing with the side guitar of Mike Cooper, backed by electronics and joined in spots by legendary British improv players.

Rembetronika — available for free at — gives you a taste of what to expect from Corringham’s tour. Despite the electronica-sounding title, the album is rich with acoustic sounds of strings and voice, the electronics serving as shading to heighten the drama. (We’re talking laptop-style electronics, not electronic dance music, although a downtrodden dance beat does appear on at least one track.)

Corringham’s Bay Area consort will be an experience beyond that album. The band is all woodwinds — shakuhachi, recorder, and didgeridoo — plus electronics and piano. It’s also going to be a multimedia event, with on-the-spot “film and light abstractions” by Anna Geyer.

You’ve got two more chances to see them:

Tuesday, November 24, 8:00 p.m., Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco)

Wednesday, November 25, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery (708 Montgomery St., San Francisco)

Joe Lasqo (playing laptop and keyboards in the band) has blogged a more detailed explanation of the band, the music, and Ms. Corringham.


As for that “clearer through smoke” line — it comes from one of the few Rembetronika tracks sung in English, “White Powder.” And it’s a tough story: a plea for drugs so that the singer can find some escape from this hellish world. “Like is clearer seen through smoke,” Corringham sings, summarizing what seems to be the prevailing attitude in rembetika.

It’s not much different from blues songs about alcohol. It seems there’s something universal about misery and the human condition.

Against those lines, a gentle ramble of off-rhythm guitar drifts like a cloak of madness settling on the singer. Those kinds of unsettling moments are a highlight of Rembetronika. As another example, “Bournovalia” drenches Corringham’s voice in old-timey reverb, backed with a ghostly procession of electronic smudges and untuned chimes for an unsettling effect.

The acoustic sounds of guitar and voice remain at the forefront, though. Pairing a high-toned lilt (think the golden age of radio) with Cooper’s cowboy-style slide guitar — which isn’t the same as the traditional bouzouki but flavors the sound richly.

Those natural sounds take the foreground on the mournful “San Ton Exoristo,” backed by the crackle of faux vinyl and comet-tail slashes of background sound. “Smyrneiko Minore” adds Chris Abrahams’ tumbling, bluesy piano, some slashing guitar, and Corringham’s bright, clear voice singing a wavering, haunting melody. It’s very much the blues.

November 24, 2015 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

A Stormy Piano Trio out of Detroit

Michael Malis TrioLifted from the No of All Nothing (Polyfold, 2015)

Michael Malis is on tour in the midwest through Nov. 15: Champaign, Bloomington, Chicago, South Bend, and Kalamazoo. Check his web site for dates and venues, or look below.

malis-noFrom Detroit comes Michael Malis, bending the idea of the traditional piano trio. His music starts on the crystalline end of classically influenced jazz piano, but he’s willing to veer into adventurous territory. He’ll hammer on the lower registers for a stormy mood, or parse the music into minimalist-influenced diffraction patterns.

Lifted from the No of All Nothing is the trio’s debut album. They’ve been working together in various combinations and have served as the rhythm section for Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliot, and the album is a chance for pianist Malis to show his chops as a bandleader, handling the role with creativity and confidence.

The most ear-grabbing piece is “Parentheses.” It digs and grooves, distilling its mathematics into an irresistible swing. The bass and drums take early solos that you’re almost not aware are happening — Ben Roston plays feather-light bowings on bass against the clockwork of the groove, and later, drummer Stephen Boegenhold snaps and pops against the irregularly matched patterns played out by Roston and Malis. The whole thing ends with a spritely piano solo over Malis’ jamming left hand.

“Power Numbers,” after an ornate classical opening, plows into a wonderful run-on of a theme, a ribbon of melody that Malis just keeps unreeling and unreeling. And it’s got that jazz crispness as well — Boegehold’s light-tap cymbals and busy snare holding the form (but not the strict beats) of the rhythm, and Roston working in pulses to deepen the sound.

Smaller pieces exhibit more of the band’s experimental side. “Converge” is a heavy stomping of piano bass notes, while “Old and New” gives us 99 seconds of strident freaking-out. “The Moment” is a sprinkling of prepared piano that blossoms into a stormy mood, encouraged by grand arco bass and, eventually, sweeping drums.

The nine-minute “Sympathet” ends the album with an avant-garde excursion that eventually returns to a crisp piano-trio sound led by a composition of impressive skipping-stone counterpoint.

Michael Malis Trio is spending this week on a tour in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Here’s the itinerary, copied from Malis’ web site:

11/11: Institute 4 Creativity (Champaign, IL)

11/12: The Venue for Fine Arts and Gifts (Bloomington, IN)

11/13: Transistor (Chicago, IL)

11/14: Merriman’s Playhouse (South Bend, IN)

11/15: Kalamazoo Piano Company (Kalamazoo, MI)

… And you can listen to all of Lifted from the No of All Nothing on Bandcamp.

November 10, 2015 at 11:48 pm 1 comment

Larry Ochs’ Fictive Five

Larry OchsThe Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)

Larry Ochs -- The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)The track “Similitude” opens with a blast from the two horns in Larry Ochs‘ latest group, the Fictive Five, and the steady blare continues for a good nine minutes. Nate Wooley blares out a trumpet solo made of crisp color and passionate growls, propelled by the rhythm section of drummer Harris Eisenstadt and two basses: Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper.

That track is the opener to another well-crafted improv album by Ochs, playing with a cast of veterans. But there’s another facet to The Fictive Five: The three major pieces that make up the album are dedicated to filmmakers — Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, and installation artist William Kentridge.

As Ochs explains in his own liner notes (posted on his website and not available with the CD), the dedications reflect his feeling that there’s a visual aspect to the music, a movie of the mind. “I’m inspired to create musical landscapes that the listener when closing her eyes can then imagine her own visual images into, inspired by my music,” he writes. Like a choreographer working without music, Ochs is playing the role of soundtrack composer without a film.

While it’s common for an improvised piece to develop a particular character, what follows in The Fictive Five are well sculpted pieces that do indeed feel like narratives. Ochs is good at this; he’s frequently convened improv groups that work from compositions or skeletal structures that guide the impulses of the moment toward a common goal.

“Similitude” is forceful and bold, evoking a bright energy even as the piece moves to a slower phase in its second half — a bigger-picture view, like a camera panning back, but with plenty of action still playing out.

“By Any Other Name” opens with the groans of arco basses and dark, solemn horn statements. The mood brightens as the group works short passages of small subsets — and eventually, a kind of round-robin forms, with players hopping in and out to form duets and trios of intriguing small sounds. Trumpet and drums take a turn, then there’s a basses-and-drums moment with one bass bowed, the other plucked. It’s a musical game whose pieces fit into a macroscopic novel of music. A fiery group passage lands the piece back in the dark underworld where it began, a satisfying bit of symmetry.

“Translucent,” the Reichardt dedication, has a personality that stands out the most. It starts out choppy and high-strung, with tension surrounded by white space. Ochs abbreviates his sax phrases, a start-stop patter that plays well against Eisenstadt’s forceful snippets of drums. The sound softens as the basses and trumpet come in, building a brisk flow that’s not overwhelming. The final third of the 15-minute piece is a lingering denoument that patiently comes in for a landing.

Be sure to check out Ochs’ website for those detailed notes (again, not available elsewhere) about why he chose the song dedications.

Here’s part of the opening to “Similitude,” dedicated to Wim Wenders, incorporating some two-horn phrasing that seems to be composed:

November 5, 2015 at 9:05 pm Leave a comment

Tirtha and the ‘Asian Thing’

Vijay Iyer, Prasanna, Nitin MittaTirtha (ACT, 2011)

Iyer/Prasanna/Mitta -- Tirtha (ACT, 2011)Tirtha is a trio jazz album with Indian influences and a tabla in place of a drum kit. But the composing isn’t overtly “Indian,” and in fact, most of the album follows modern-jazz trajectories. Vijay Iyer’s “steel and glass” sound on piano is intact, and Prasanna’s guitar is a springy, jazzy machine that only occasionally touches on Indian scales.

This is a good thing. I don’t mind hearing albums that mesh jazz and Indian music, but Iyer, Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta shouldn’t feel obligated to create that kind of hybrid just because their names are Indian.

The band originated with a 2007 concert to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Iyer writes in the liner notes:

Heritage matters to me, but I’ve steered clear of fusion experiments that attempt to mix styles — to “create something,” as John Coltrane famously admonished, ‘more with labels, you see, than true evolution.’ For this event, I hoped to avoid those pitfalls, and perhaps instead offer something a little more personal.”

What speaks to me is that Iyer didn’t feel trapped by any sense of obligation. I’m Japanese-American, but I’m fourth-generation, with a heritage that’s more L.A. than Kyoto. I don’t even enjoy Japanese food that much. I do take interest in Japanese culture, but if I were to write, say, a novel, I don’t know that the characters would come out very Asian at all.

(On an almost related note: I’m reading a novel about Japan, An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Who translated it? No one — Ishiguro is British. He also wrote Remains of the Day, the very non-Japanese, non-WWII novel whose main character was played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie.)

While Tirtha does not attempt to be “Indian jazz,” it still willingly taps Indian influences. Prasanna’s composition “Tribal Wisdom” has him adding Indian inflections to his guitar work, and it also features a lengthy and stunning tabla solo by Mitta.

“Gauntlet,” though, is a catchy bit of cerebral rock; it has a simple rhythm, but a prog band could have loads of fun with it. “Duality” generously sprinkles Iyer’s piano sound, cascading like hailstones on a sidewalk against the polyrhythms set up by Mitta’s tabla and Prasanna’s small guitar figures.

I bought this album on a whim at a terrific Ashland, Oregon store called The Music Co-Op. It’s a store with jazz and world music sections — real sections, not the kind curated by “meh, whatever” staff members. Economics dictate that they can’t go too deep, but they had Tirtha. I was happy to reward their good taste.

October 18, 2015 at 11:15 am Leave a comment

The Tim Berne & Steve Byram Book

Tim Berne and Steve BryamSpare (Screwgun*, 2015)

Tim Berne & Steve Byram -- Spare (2015)

Photo lifted from Screwgun Records.

My first real foray into avant-garde jazz was Low Life by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and part of the adventure was the late-night atmosphere of the CD booklet’s artwork — not just the cover, but Steve Byram’s odd scribblings and abstract collages, and Robert Lewis’ obscure black-and-white portraits of the band.

Berne and Byram have collaborated for nearly 30 years now. They met during Berne’s brief tenure as a major-label recording artist, with Columbia, and have been inseparable since.

Now they’ve released a small coffee-table book together, an objet d’art, as NY Times critic Nate Chinen aptly calls it. True to its name, Spare comes in a brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of Berne’s first DIY CDs with his Screwgun Records label.

The illustrations inside the 100-page book live up to the name as well. Byram’s scribbles, hand-drawn or computer-generated, are etched onto blank backgrounds, or occasionally onto stark pages of color or texture. (I’m showing black-and-white pages here, but the book does have plenty of color.)

Berne’s photos — a surreal travelogue — favor dark shadows, and a common theme is rain or fog seen through windows of cars, trains, and planes. Many of them seem to be long-exposure pictures taken on a phone or a point-and-shoot camera, with the inevitable hand wiggles adding a touch of surreal narrative. If you’ve seen the covers to his albums Snakeoil and Shadow Man, you know what you’re getting into. He’s also taken several photos of bandmates, and one of a peeling-paint building that reminds me of the neighborhood near Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.

Steve Byram drawing, from the book

A plate from Spare.

The quietude of the photos is set against the sometimes jarring design of Byram’s drawings, which often feature humanoid figures built from crazy shapes, using impulsive scribbling to fill the spaces. Randomly, several of the drawings seem to be of wedding couples.

Here, I should make a horrible confession: I’ve never been that much into Byram’s art. I appreciate it — and as I said, it set the right mood for that first listen to Low Life. But I have to admit, a lot of his drawings have that look of five seconds and a cocktail napkin. I enjoy abstract art, but I’m not immune to that lingering doubt: Could my kids have done this?

And yet, I love having a book full of the stuff. Byram creates an unsettling little universe. Touches of humor and sarcasm are in there, and a sense of playfulness. It all seems to tap a common theme, something busy and baffling, with touchstones of familiarity underneath layers of a language I haven’t deciphered.

Actually, maybe that’s the point. I guess I like Byram’s work more than I knew.

The accompanying CD is a live recording of the Snakeoil quartet, mixed mastered by David Torn. [Thanks to Berne himself for the correction.] “Spare Parts” and the suite “OC-DC,” from previous Snakeoil albums, get extended treatments here. The new piece “Lamé” gets explosive after a soothing, twisty composition led by sax and vibes. And the CD opens with “Deadbeat Beyoncé,” a new long-form piece that features a sweeping classical-piano display by Matt Mitchell. Elsewhere on that piece, Oscar Noriega takes a quieter, spare solo that sounds like a different kind of classical — a modern piece, with clean lines and unhurried demeanor.

The disc, which I think is titled Arguis Oleum, has that “live” fidelity but is a welcome addition, almost in the vein of the three-CD Unwound set from Bloodcount (which will always be a pinnacle of Berne’s catalogue). It’s a nice collector’s item.

(* This is the spot where I normally put the “record label” or book publisher. There kind of isn’t one here, this being a one-time project, but you can order the book through Screwgun.)

October 10, 2015 at 1:14 pm Leave a comment

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Piano Version

Mostly Other People Do the KillingMauch Chunk (Hot Cup, 2015)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Mauch ChunkNow that Mostly Other People Do the Killing has a pianist, I’m glad to see that he’s not just there to play the role of the straight man. But I’m also glad he’s not there to plunge into 100% free jazz.

For 12 years, MOPDTK has mixed swing and bebop with smart-alecky, off-the-rails playing. Bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott has found a formula that injects humor and way-outside soloing into straight-laced compositions.

For Mauch Chunk, the band’s eighth album, trumpeter Peter Evans is gone, with pianist Ron Stabinsky filling the void. The addition of a chord instrument, and one with so much potential to be cheesy and loungy, means a noticeable change of sound, so I was very curious to hear this album. We technically heard Stabinksy on the band’s previous studio album, Blue — the Kind of Blue replica — but how much of that was him, really? (That’s part of the debate.)

Left with one horn soloist, MOPDTK could settle into a formula: Jon Irabagon gets all nutty on sax while the piano maintains the swing and the chords. And that’s how the opening track, “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe,” starts out, with Stabinsky laying down a straight jazz-club sound behind the theme, played in attitude-laden curls by Irabagon. And Stabinsky continues with straight comping while Irabagon’s solo increasingly warbles further and further off the rails.

But eventually, Stabinsky joins in, too. It’s around the time Irabagon pulls out a “happy as a kitten up a tree” quote that you notice Stabinsky has gone into a frenzied pounding. The pianist is in on the joke, too.

Something similar happens on “Obelisk.” Listen as Stabinsky and Elliott hold the center while Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea surf the astral plane. It’s followed by a new phase where the piano goes into staccato jackhammering mode.

But often, the piano is a jazz anchor for the band’s wanderings, and that’s a good thing. MOPDTK isn’t just about free jazz and crazy solos; its foundation is a deep knowledge of the past and the application of old ideas in new settings. So when Stabinsky goes through a long stretch of straight chording, that’s all right. It fits, and the band is richer for it.

Irabagon is great, as ever, his bebop-gone-mad solos packed with hard-fought surprises. He doesn’t just play the tune; he plays the whole attitude of the band. Elliott on bass and Shea on drums stoke the fire, pushing the mostly hard tempos of Elliott’s smart, snappy compositions.

The band in a nutshell can be experienced on “Townville.” It goes zero-to-sixty right away, the band members pushing one another hard. But the bright-burning solos are followed by an avant-garde intrusion: Irabagon reduces down to whispers and subliminal moans on sax, behind some perky free playing from the rest of the band. Then they pull back into hard-swing mode. It’s a workout.

As usual, the songs are named after obscure Pennsylvania towns — with the caveat that Mauch Chunk is now named Jim Thorpe, as the song title says. There’s a poignant story behind that, which I leave you to discover in Elliott’s CD notes.

Here’s “Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe.”

September 30, 2015 at 10:51 pm Leave a comment

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