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.

Inward Creature

Inward CreatureInward Creature (self-released, 2020)

Inward-Creature_LP_Album-Art_Digital-SQ_v24Inward Creature spins giddy but smart pop songs where the musicianship is on point and the ideas are flinging madly from all sides, from the outright absurd to the earnest (I think) pop love song “Carly.” The attitude skews toward class cloud but ranges all the way to sincere singer-songwriter. The genre influences run from metal to lite rock, with an honestly catchy country melody thrown in (“Pull Over to Pray,” which is musically so straightforward it seems out of place).

If you start with “Liar” — where the chorus is “I’m such a f**king liar” repeated eight times — you’ll think you’ve stumbled onto a novelty band. But that’s not the right box for these guys. “Jilly Jolly” is heavy in guitars and mood (the opening has shades of “Dirty Boy” by Cardiacs) and “Everybody Nose” (yes it’s a pun) turns out to be a mini-suite with a serious middle amid the stomping cleverness.

Farther out on the goofiness axis, “My Time in the ’60s” sounds just like its title, musically conjuring up TV game shows and explosive yellow and orange fashions. “Little Things” takes a nursery-rhyme 6/8 melody and packs it to the gills with lyrics for a cute, likable package. “Reptile Tears” is part smart-alecky prog, part skate-punk, part cartoon, with a moody avant-jazz sax solo.

If you’re looking for a more direct link to avant-garde jazz, note that the drummer here is Jordan Glenn. He plays heavy improv in the Fred Frith Trio, artsy folk/prog with Jack o’ the Clock, and jazz in any number of ensembles — and he has an offbeat sense of humor himself. He named a band Wiener Kids and named one of their albums Why Don’t You Make Me?

You can hear the whole Inward Creature album on Bandcamp. But first, you gotta take 2 minutes and hear “My Time in the ’60s.” You just do. And as long as “Pull Over to Pray” is stuck in my head, I might as well try to stick you with it too.

Gray Wisps of Sound

Divided StateSpurious Emissions (Edgetone, 2019)

dividedstate-spuriousThis is synthesizer-driven noise in a gentler vein, a hovering fog. It’s built from understated, patient sounds, an aesthetic close to ambient but with more motion. The backgrounds are built from field recordings and distorted samples — ghost images resembling distorted birdsong, crunchy footfalls, a ghostly railroad crossing, or sparse record-vinyl static.

“Synthesizer” is a loaded word that suggests all manner of dated sounds, but Spurious Emissions doesn’t come across as campy. The occasional sci-fi noises don’t appear as laser blasts. They’re more like pensive, sustained notes, mixing with the gray wisps of the sampled sounds.

“Arboreal Metaphor” turns up the echoing, resonant effects for a broad-landscape view before coalescing into a language of content, scribbled sounds. Most tracks, though, are more in the vein of “Shaman of Static Motion,” which hovers ghostlike, a toneless ambience colored by the occasional electronic buzz.

Divided State is the duo of Andre Custodio, who performs solo noise music under the name Nihil Communication, and Leroy Clark. Both contribute to the synths and the sampled sounds. 

Aruán Ortiz: Inside Rhythmic Falls

Aruán OrtizInside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt, 2020)

booklet_339.inddTo my suburban ears, the term “Cuban,” applied to music, means flamboyant costumes and screamy horns. But Cuban-born Aruán Ortiz’s Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017) was a solo piano album characterized by careful motion and stern, lingering chords. His aesthetic allows for surges of free jazz — I’ve seen them live — but Ortiz’s music is a lot about patience.

Same for Andrew Cyrille. His recent work on ECM has explored quiet spaces and the hovering flow of slow time. They make a fitting pair on Inside Rhythmic Falls, which is mostly a duo album with Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera joining occasionally.

Fitting, to the point where this sometimes sounds like a drums album that happens to have piano on it. Pensive tracks such as “Argelier’s Discipline” use Cyrille’s quiet taps as a narrative, with Ortiz adding color on piano.

Even the brisk, spattering “Conversation with the Oaks” has a cerebral side, providing plenty of space to savor Cyrille’s restrained backdrop, his watercolor dabs of snare.

Among the less abstract tracks, “Golden Voice” romps rhythmically, and the spacious “De Cantos y Ñáñigos” has the feel of a deconstructed ballad. “Inside Rhythmic Falls, Part I (Sacred Codes)” is a busy moment featuring Herrera, a forest of clacking behind Cyrille soloing on toms. It feels serious rather than celebratory; this is not made-for-TV Cubanism. It’s more like a a canvas for Cyrille’s soloing, and it’s about communication and culture, not excess.

The album starts with Ortiz’s poem “Lucero Mundo,” spoken by loose overlapping voices over quiet drums. The contrasting closer, “Para ti nengón,” backs Ortiz with rhythmic voices chanting a popular Cuban song. It’s a fittingly quiet coda, with Ortiz casually tossing around some jazzy licks and runs.

Jared Redmond, Center for New Music, 2/26/20

jaredredmond-park-seongsu00059340
Photo: Seongsu Park. Source.

The last live show I saw before going into social isolation was pianist Jared Redmond giving a recital at the Center for New Music (San Francisco). The program was very modern, leaning toward brand new compositions, the kind built of hammering densities and streaks of silence. Lots of reliance on the uppermost and lowermost registers, often together.

Redmond kept the program accessible and fun by introducing each piece in detail, discussing some of the themes and ideas at play. Composer Jung-eun Park was on hand for Redmond’s performance of her Moto Perpetuum (2019-20), explaining that the title comes from the sense of perpetual motion in traditional classical music (Bach, for example), those seemingly endless rivers of notes.

Kurt Rohde was there as well, telling the history of his composition Trotsky’s Icepick, which Redmond had played previously in an earlier form (2018) that Rohde later revised (2019). The piece was inspired by the death of Leon Trostky as depicted in a play, where Trotsky fends off and defeats his attackers but is mortally wounded. On the piano, the initial strike was represented by piercing stabs at the very highest keys. The ensuing battle made use of very high and low registers, sometimes in mirror-image progressions that approached the middle of the keyboard from both ends.

As the piece would down, there was a particular sound Redmond made, a chord muffled and then resonating. I don’t know how he did that. Prepared piano would have been my guess, but he didn’t “prepare” anything, and I didn’t see his feet moving on the pedals. Maybe he had two pedals depressed at once? At any rate — a new sound, organically produced. That was intriguing.

Redmond’s own Doth (2019) was packed with brutal and complex snarls of low notes, reflecting his interest in metal music. The Ji-ye Noh composition Gloria (2019-20) stuck to lots of high-register twisting paths. And Redmond closed with Giacinto Scelsi’s Un Adieu (1988), the last piece the composer wrote — gentle and sad, and full of ringing overtones.

Conditions permitting, Redmond is due to return in early 2021 for a pair of piano and electronics recitals, according to his concert calendar. He lives and works in South Korea — hence, his access to new Korean compositions — but seems to have ties to the Bay Area. I think he was even wearing a Berkeley T-shirt under his concert jacket.

I could post a video of Redmond playing Ligeti, but I think I’d rather show off some of his composing. Here’s “Hemistichs” (2008) for string sextet.

Zorn Piano Trio

John Zorn — The Hierophant (Tzadik, 2019)

I have to admit, I expected all of The Hierophant to sound like this:

Turns out, a lot of it sounds like this:

Can you blame me? Upon reading the obi, with phrases like “modern chamber music” and “not like any piano trio you have ever heard,” my imagination went to dark, scary places — as it often does with Zorn.

zorn-hierophant

But of course, Zorn has done lots of accessible music. Not everything is Torture Garden. And it turns out, these nine compositions based on tarot cards often let the trio sound like, well, a contemporary piano trio. It has that sparkle.

Those excerpts are from “The Devil” and “The Lovers,” respectively, and it’s not surprising that they are so different, given the theme of Tarot cards and their potentially divergent meanings. The point is, The Hierophant is truly a jazz piano trio album, ableit one that throws a few experimental twists at you.

Zorn’s name is on the CD as a composer only; it’s Brian Marsella on the piano, executing these compositions with brisk flair. It’s fun to hear Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass in an out-jazz capacity; that’s how I first got introduced to him. Fellow Bay Area transplant Kenny Wolleson holds down the drum chair with a light touch and tight energy.

This is not to say The Hierophant is harmless. “Death” features snail’s-pace bowing and a prepared piano that sounds like a sinister rattling of bones. The main theme of “The Tower” opens with insistent Morse code tapping, not exactly cocktail hour fare. And the title track is a dizzying speed run, as if many hands were clawing at you from every direction. Marsella’s playing can be simultaneously fleet and expansive, and some of the best passages of The Hierophant have him conjuring beauty while still speed-tap-dancing forward.