Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Double Dose of Frith

Fred Frith and Barry GuyBackscatter Bright Blue (Intakt, 2015)
Lotte Anker and Fred FrithEdge of the Light (Intakt, 2015)

frith-pastiche

Listening to these sets of duo improvisation, I was struck by how often Fred Frith plays the role of background instigator, putting colors and scrim behind his partner. This makes sense — Frith, in both cases, is the one with the rhythm instrument and the electronic gizmos. He’s got more options for painting the scenery.

Of course, I’m generalizing; Frith often takes a front-line role too. And in general, duo sessions such as these are meant to be meetings of equals.

But alongside Lotte Anker (sax) on Edge of the Light, Frith often does feel like the one focusing on the shading and toning to craft the mood behind Anker’s aggressive, choppy style. It’s easy for a listener’s ear to gravitate toward Anker’s sax as the “lead” line, as on the short “Non-Precision Approach Procedure,” where she carves crooked trails accompanied by Frith in noisemaker mode, rattling and bashing.

 
She and Frith seem more balanced on “Run Don’t Hide,” where Anker and Frith combine to create a sustained buzzing tension. “Anchor Point” even has Frith doing some traditional strumming, albeit to an irregular rhythm, coaxing Anker’s solo forward into faster and buoyant territory.

The Ankur album ends with “Hallucinating Angels,” a high-stress shimmer where Frith is laying down ghostly waves against Anker’s slow, jagged tones on sax. It’s an unsettling faux peacefulness that builds into a slowly maddening chatter.

 
As you’d expect, Backscatter Bright Blue has a different sound, a strings-on-strings tussle where the “nearness” of the instruments — the fact that they’re close relatives — makes for a more equitable pairing. As with Edge of the Light, the sound aims for cragged improvisation, with Guy’s bass often voicing a percussive crunch or high-strung bowed tones. I still sometimes feel as if Guy is doing the “main” solo with Frith adding the depth and color, but their sounds intertwine substantially.

The combination of effects, guitar loops, and extended playing sometimes make it hard to tell who’s doing what. Here’s a patch of “Moments of Many Lives” where Frith takes a lead voice, but overall, you can hear the roles blending into one another.

 
“Moments” is one of two epic, roughly 20-minute constructions on Backscatter Bright Blue. Later on, it includes a passage where Fright and Guy combine in a manic, minimalist babble. The piece culminates in stacks of chattering guitar loops with Guy’s fierce bowing and Frith’s guitar hammering soaring overhead.

“Where the Cities Gleam in Darkness” is a fascinating study in, well, darkness: Guy goes into attack mode with thumping, clattering bass made more abrasive by Frith’s guitar treatments. Later, Guy uses the bow for a slower but equally dark passage backed by crunching, desolate guitar effects.

Finally, there’s a special place in my heart of “The Circus Is a Song of Praise,” which enters as a mutually destructive jackhammering but ends with this faux-music-box chiming and an eerie aftertaste.

 
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July 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Wisdom, Balance, Purity, Peace: A Choral Harmony in Biggi Vinkeloe’s Jade

Biggi Vinkeloe et.al.Jade: New Spiritual Music (Futura, 2015)

Biggi Vinkeloe -- Jade (Futura, 2015)Jade is an ambitious blend of jazz, abstract improvisation, and classical sacred music. Recorded at the Organ Studio at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, the album features sax and trombone echoing regally against a backdrop of honest-to-goodness choral hymns, performed by a church organ and the 10-woman Volcanic Choir, led by mezzo-soprano Maria Forsström.

In slow movements, as if to cherish the sounds and moods being created, the album blends its influences beautifully, conveying the “wisdom, balance, purity, and peace” that the jade gemstone stands for, as described in Biggi Vinkeloe‘s liner notes.

Vinkeloe (sax/flute) instigated the project, enlisting organist Karin Nelson and trombonist Francois Lemonier as the other two instrumentalists. You get a taste of the project’s “jazz” side right away as Vinkeloe and Lemonnier play a straight duet of Mingus’ “Ecclusiastics.”

The overall mood of Jade is better represented by the title track, though. It’s a slow, comforting tune — gentle clouds in a blue sky. Nelson sets the foundation with some gentle chords as backdrop to solos that include some particularly soaring passages by Vinkeloe.


That piece provides a modern foil to the choral songs such as “Adoro Te,” an anonymously penned composition from the 17th century, drawn from text by Thomas Aquinas. As on most of the tracks drawn from antiquity, the choir does its angelic work, then steps aside while Vinkeloe and Lemonnier improvise against the church organ chords. It’s the same song structure as a jazz tune. The effect is particularly nice on “Vidi Aquam,” another anonymous piece, where the soloing remains reverently slow but strikes up a strong sense of interplay and swing.

From “Vidi Aquam,” here’s an idea of how the choir and sax co-exist:


Until now, I’ve only heard Vinkeloe in improv settings. Bits of that world do appear — in the squirrely flute-trombone-organ improv of “Iuxta,” for instance. One of the major pieces is the 9-minute “Slowlyness,” where the choir joins the freely improvised set for some ghostly whooshing. It’s playful at first but, as scripted by Vinkeloe, builds to a dramatic and outright scary climax, dark and gothic.

I worry about bringing up the choir and the early-music references, because some free-jazz listeners might pre-judge the album to be dull. And you do have to absorb the music on its own reflective terms.

But there’s also a sense of play, in the jazz/blues shades that permeate the album and occasionally get to take over.

Lemonnier’s “Escargoiseau Blues” is indeed a blues, with the church organ playing the chords in long tones, as if elevating the blues themselves to sacred status. It’s a fine soloing platform for the two horns. Another Lemonnier song, “Heavenly Blues,” puts a jazzy spin on the choir, with an intro of bell-ringing vocals spinning little seventh-chord arpeggios. The singers then go all Andrews Sisters to back up some straight jazz soloing. It’s fun.

Then there are the bigger, heavier choral pieces, which end each of Jade‘s two CDs. “Hemlig stod jag en morgon,” a Swedish folk song by Pers Karin Andersdotter (1834-1912), becomes a solemn call-and-response between mezzo-soprano Forsström and The Volcanic Choir. It carries a regal air with that sound of medieval cathedrals. “Den Iyssnande Maria” is a heavy song by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, lent a touch of peaceful melodicism by Lemonnier’s trombone at the end.

Jade is a revelation. It’s given me a new perspective on the beauty of sacred music, showing me that those sounds aren’t necessarily so far away from the modern world.

June 14, 2015 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

John Lundbom: Big Five’s Big Fifth

Jon Lundbom & Big Five ChordJeremiah (Hot Cup, 2014)

jeremiahBouncing, off-kilter bop meets avant- garde smarm in the world of guitarist Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord. Led by guitarist Lundbom and featuring Jon Rabagon (soprano sax) and Moppa Elliott (bass) of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the band mixes up styles nicely on Jeremiah, their fifth studio album.

It comes to an extreme on “Lick Skillet,” where the opening solo by guest trombonist Sam Kulik consists of a helicopter impersonation — a growl that starts low and quiet, then buzzes over your head. It’ll send jazzheads off the rails, but it’s followed by a pleasant faux-somber theme and a flute solo (Justin Wood, another addition to the core five) against an odd bass rhythm and some hip guitar comping. It turns into real jazz, if you want to put it that way.

Overall, the album displays a coherent, modern take on traditional jazz ideas, from the faux-bebop swagger of “The Bottle” to the gentle swing and soulful sax solo of “First Harvest.” The dichotomy between toe-tapping jazz and out-there improvisation sometimes has an oil-and-water quality, but the surprises aren’t so out-of-bounds as to be absurd, and the blending of styles sometimes works magic. “Scratch Ankle” is a pleasant and pretty song with a fairly fast swing to it, but when it comes time for the solo, multiple horns start pecking and end up in a free-improv free-for-all — and it all fits together.

The album ends with one live track, “Screamer,” where Dan Monaghan’s drumming turns Lundbom’s guitar solo into a high-speed chase.

Here’s a split-personality passage from the initially calm “Frog Eye.” Irabagon goes nuts on sax, accompanied by some patient chording from Lundbom (whose own solo heats up later on, after this excerpt ends).


 

May 3, 2015 at 9:39 am Leave a comment

Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)

esp-front-cropWith the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.

During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.

You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.

The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.

zitro-cropJames ZitroZitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.

Sonny SimmonsMusic from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (ESP-Disk, 2006)New GhostLive Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.

Ellis MarsalisRuminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.

April 26, 2015 at 9:01 am 1 comment

Rob Mazurek

Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SPReturn the Tides: Ascension Suite and the Holy Ghost (Cuneiform, 2014)

mazurek-tidesThe psychedelic shimmer and haze of Rob Mazurek’s São Paolo Underground takes a deeper, spiritual meaning on Return the Tides, because the album is a tribute to Mazurek’s mother, who died two weeks before the recording session.

Outfitted with a band he calls Black Cube SP — an expanded São Paolo Underground, notably adding Thomas Rohrer, who plays a Brazilian fiddle called the rabeca — Mazurek embarks on an epic cathartic journey.

As a band, São Paolo Underground started out rather jazzy but embraced a fuzzier, noisier sound on its 2013 album, Beija Flors Velho E Sujo. On Return the Tides, that concept reaches a new level, a blast radius of distortion and chaos anchored in some spots by groove rhythms. Rohrer’s added muscle is certainly felt. He and keyboardist Guilherme Granado spout forth with guitar-style distortion while drummer Mauricio Takara bashes away, exorcising demons.

(The full Black Cube SP includes two more players — Rogerio Martins on percussion and voice, and vocalist Rodrigo Brandão — but I don’t get the feeling they’re contributing to the towering aspect of this album. The vocals, to which Mazurek also contributes, consist mostly of shouted proclamations, muffled against the supernova of sound on the title track.)

“Oh Mother (Angel’s Wings)” opens with a pleasant riff that has Mazurek soloing not so much over it as under it, sheltered by the structure created. Later, the track builds to a powerful/terrible brightness, an outpouring for the emotions that lie beyond the reach of words. It’s the album’s most powerful moment.

From there, the suite shifts to the fierce, almost celebratory groove of the title track, heavily rocking out. “Let the Rain Fall Upwards,” filled with reverse-playback noises, is a more abstract track, an abrasive, obstinate twist on ambient music.

For the concluding track, “Reverse the Lightning,” Rohrer picks up the soprano saxophone for a manic solo against a more solid, tempered groove. Mazurek’s cornet follows with a thick, echo-laden burst, a portal to another place. The finale is perforated by a long silence that eventually gives way to a ghostly drone accompanied by wordless singing.

Return the Tides was recorded in one continuous take with the goal of leaving nothing behind. Mazurek says he felt “complete release and stillness” when it was done.

Amid the tumult, Mazurek’s does shine through at times, his horn keenly piercing the dense thicket of sound, clearing the way for his mother’s passage to “the next,” as he refers to it. In that sense, Return the Tides has a honed, ritualistic purpose, and it succeeds.

April 25, 2015 at 8:13 am Leave a comment

Lords of Outland, Keeping It Dark

Lords of OutlandLords O Leaping (Edgetone, 2014)

lordsPowerhouse saxophonists make good foils for Lords of Outland, the free-jazz group that’s been a vehicle for saxophonist Rent Romus for more than 15 years, possibly 20. Vinny Golia made his contribution on the Lords’ Edge of Dark, and it’s Josh Allen’s big tenor sound that adds a jolt to Lords O Leaping.

Lords of Outland — now without Romus’ name on the cover — has explored the more ominous side of free jazz, often inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and the heavies of old-school sci-fi. Romus’ compositions often conjure images of gruff rebellion, but on many track’s it’s electric bassist Ray Schaeffer adding the dark shading, an ominous, liquid low end.

The title track gives each of the three horns — Allen, Romus on alto, and Collette McCaslin on trumpet — a chance to play over a quick-handed bass/drums backing. It’s a terrific exercise in free jazz. Allen’s composition “Plan 9″ seems to show a bit of the Albert Ayler influence that’s always driven Romus. It launches abruptly, with the three horns grappling in a way that adds up to an Ayleresque marching band filing into the room:

 
“Miasma” is a slower track with Allen in powerhouse mode, ending his solo with long screaming notes. Allen also gets to show off some raspy volume in “Rhetoric,” a track that starts with some silky group improvisation.

 
The Lords’ experiments with analog electronics figured heavily on previous albums, but the pedals and wires (probably performed by McCaslin, although Schaeffer gets a credit for them, too) are limited here to the track “Ara.” Amid the song’s gentle, even-handed setting, the retro bloops and buzzing play out as a solo against the bass and drums.

Throughout the album, Phillip Everett’s drums keeps the energy level up, filling space with quick wrist snaps on cymbals and toms. Romus spends long stretches comping alongside Allen, but of course he gets turns showing off his own darting, agile playing as well. McCaslin’s fleet trumpet adds a steely touch to the sound, although she’s often drowned out by the saxophones. It all adds up to another nice entry from a long-standing edition of the Lords.

April 17, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

Tim Daisy: The Drums of October

Tim DaisyOctober Music, Vol. 1 (Relay, 2014)

daisy-octoberIn addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.

Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.

“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.

Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.

Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.

You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:

April 9, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

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