Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

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

Aram Shelton’s Resounder

Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank RosalyResounder (Singlespeed, 2015)

Shelton, Lonberg-Holm, Rosaly -- Resounder (Singlespeed, 2015)Resounder is a bustling trio improv session with electronic enhancements added by saxophonist Aram Shelton after-the-fact. But the effect can be subtle. In fact, the players are so adept at wringing sounds from their instruments that you have to wonder if some of the exotic sounds are coming from the original session.

I say that because I first listened to Resounder blind, not knowing about Shelton’s post-processing. Once I knew it was there, my ears started playing tricks on me, particularly on “Bring Focus.” That buzzing tinge in the sax — is it acoustic or electronic? Did the sax just echo a few notes artificially, or was that my imagination? Now there, that was definitely a sax looped back into the mix … you get the idea.

“Fading Memory,” with Fred Lonberg-Holm‘s cello altered to spit ribbons of metal — that’s a more obvious example. Drummer Frank Rosaly gets his turns too, I think. One segment (which I now can’t find) has his toms and bass drum melted together into a low-flying tonal hum. Or was that just my imagination again?

Some of the electronics are more overt, which is good fun. Longberg-Holm gets plenty of electronics treatment to create dull roars and guitar-hero antics. There’s a passage later on “Bring Focus” that’s a long ramp to a crescendo, a nice slow burn of rumbling with a buzzy edge to the cello. And when it’s done, the band drops out, leaving behind a tinny sine wave — it’s a good dramatic moment.

Shelton had planned this to be a regular trio recording, just three good friends getting together in Chicago, and they turned in a crackling set. It’s only afterward that Shelton started considering enhancing the sounds, and it adds depth to what was already a densely packed session. Sometimes there’s some playback that literally adds another voice to the group. More often, though, it just sounds like more than three people, as Shelton’s processing creates new surfaces for the ear to cling to.

Listen to an excerpt of “Hope of Symbioses” on YouTube:

… Or to “Fading Memory” on Soundcloud:

September 23, 2015 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment


Rempis Percussion QuartetCash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)

Rempis Percussion Quartet -- Cash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)Part of the trick in listening to the opening of “Water Foul Run Amok,” the 39-minute spotlight piece on Cash and Carry, is to not get too mesmerized by Dave Rempis‘ free-jazz acrobatics. He’s shredding it up on sax, with blazing, buzzing passages calling up spirits of all sorts. Sometimes he’s tracing long-lined ideas; sometimes, it’s a gruff, Brotzmann-like phrase that gets repeated a few times for emphasis. He’s spinning quite a tale, either way, one that’s easy to get lost in.

But this is the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and part of the aesthetic is that two drummers are backing this music. The insistent activity — all that busy-ness — is a key part of the sound

So it’s important to take a figurative step back and try to let all this music soak into your skin, not just Rempis but also the bustle and clatter from Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, split into separate speakers. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten rounds out the sound on bass, keeping up with fast pizzicato.

That blast of activity lasts a little more than eight minutes. The majority of the piece is an exercise in restraint, with the players carefully crafting sounds and moods. The first phase of this, after that initial blast, is more than a simple cooldown; it features some emotive, color-painting sax from Rempis and an ominous bowed base from Flaten.

Daisy and Rosaly each get to show their stuff in separate solos later in the piece. It’s a nice showcase for each of them. But the defining moments for the band, in my opinion, come when the four of them are playing full-tilt, creating a unified wall of free jazz.

I’d suggest a similar strategy for other bands that double up the rhythm section — the Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet, which I just reviewed — or the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core and the John Lurie National Orchestra, which I’d compared here.

“Better Than Butter,” the other track on Cash and Carry, is more of a slow simmer, gaining energy during its 15 minutes. This is another good taste of the four members working as a unit — first in disjoint, slower motions, carving out the shape of a piece, and then in more of a jam mode. It’s cooking, not at the full-tilt level of “Water Foul,” but at a midtempo step that’s  almost danceable during a late stretch where Flaten settles on an ebullient pulse. It makes for a nice ending to the journey, hearing the four members propping up one another to create such a warm, welcoming space.

Here’s a taste of that frenzied opening to “Water Four Run Amok:”

August 17, 2015 at 3:06 pm Leave a comment

Double Dose of Frith

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


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.

back frith x2 2

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

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

Biggi Vinkeloe 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

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