Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
Back in March, Tim Berne got invited to Dublin to play with the electronica band OKO. Asked by the Irish Times about his musical plans for the gigs, he said he had no idea. OKO hadn’t revealed a strategy, and it sounded like Berne had been given only surface details about what the band even sounded like.
But the Irish Times article dropped a few hints. Oko plays with electronic and acoustic instruments. They’re experimental and cross-genre — well, yeah, the press loves to put those labels on bands that turn out to be bland and monochromatic.
Ah, what the heck. In the spirit of the Berne concert, I downloaded I Love You Computer Mountain and gave it a shot.
Turns out the Irish Times wasn’t far off.
“Shoehorns & Axelgrease” opens the album with a nine-minute tour of the quartet’s collective digs. It starts mysteriously, with cavernous gloopy noises accompanying light ambient chords and faint electronic blips. The music eventually surges into a sprawling, cymbal-splashing slow groove, then takes a sharp turn into a kind of prog-jazz jam of electric piano, snappy rhythmic bass, and colorful drumming.
“Under Over” brings a madcap beat lead by rubbery bass, over which Darragh O’Kelly jabs out some funky electric piano before switching into a scrambling, odd-time-signature riff. We’ve gone from oh-so-hip electronics to a good old prog/fusion festival.
You could describe the overall album as “chill,” but it gets a lot of mileage out of some hard-driven bass and drums. The former comes from Shane Latimer on eight-string guitar — a compelling, lively sound, even when he’s playing in linear eighth-note pulses. Shane O’Donovan lays down solid beats and colorful fills on the drum kit.
O’Kelly’s keyboards, principally electric piano, provide the lead voice and are responsible for defining mood. It’s all augmented by samples and whatnot from DJackulate for a touch of hip atmosphere.
Tracks transition neatly into one another for a kind of cerebral dancehall experience. You travel from room to room like one of those amusement park rides — through the reggae-infused cooldown of “Axelgrease;” the impossibly slow fog of “Oblong,” with Latimer laying down some other-wordly guitar against blurry gray backgrounds; and the snappy yet low-key yet spastic “Magnet Paste.” It winds down sublimely with a pretty tune called “Unbelievable Sushi.”
Tim Berne would be an obvious match for the more abstract tracks, but I’d bet it was amazing to hear him on the more locked-in and composed pieces as well. He’s no stranger to more conventional music, after all — check out his work with bassist Hugo Carvalhais’ band a few years ago. If you happened to catch any of the shows, I’d love to hear what you thought.
Noertker’s Moxie & The Melancoholics — Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck (Edgetone, 2016)
Noertker’s Moxie — Simultaneous Windows (Edgetone, 2015)
Noertker’s Moxie is an atypical jazz band. Bassist Bill Noertker wields plenty of jazz ideas in his writing, but his chamber-like compositions are often built less like jams and grooves, and more like dioramas.
They feel like scenes, and that’s probably because he draws direct inspiration from visual artists, such as Picasso and Miró — and including architect Antoni Gaudi. His earliest albums, a series titled Sketches of…, were inspired by great artists and cities of Europe.
Noertker’s approach seems well suited toward soundtracks, where he could write musical sketches of the visuals and moods. He’s done it at least once before. When David Beck, a former bandmate in a jazz outfit called The Melancoholics, made an 8mm film of his own sculptures, Noertker provided the musical backing.
Now there’s a movie about Beck and his sculpting, by filmmaker Olympia Stone, and she’s tapped Noertker to do the soundtrack. It’s a combination of Noertker compositions and resurrected Melancoholics pieces.
A few tracks are brief, in the usual soundtrack manner, but most are fully formed songs, with lengths ranging up to nine minutes. Old-timey Jazz forms pop up throughout. “Dona Del Cantir” has a romantic, sepia-toned feeling with jangly piano and a nostalgic flute/sax melody. It has the feeling of a circus slowly closing down.
“Little Jester in a Trance” follows a perky, offbeat swing rhythm like the 1920s with a modern fracture in the theme. “Meet Me at the Edge of Noon” and “Way Gone, Cool Cat” feature smoky barroom tenor sax.
The overall mood is sweet and wistful. Even a track like “Moth En Stereo,” with its crackling drum work behind calm sax lines, feels like a subtle smile toward its subject.
Noertker’s chamber-like writing manifests itself on tracks like the “Curious Worlds” series of snippets that revisit the same theme — a pleasant little bounce that makes for a nice scene-setter — in different clothing. The “L’opera” version, in particular, is an upbeat snippet dashed with oh-so-European charm.
“In Blue” is a cool four minutes of straight contemporary jazz with late-night piano chording and and some mild twists in the solo.
Curious Worlds is a fine introduction to Noertker’s world, but for a more typical taste of his work, there’s Simultaneous Windows, put out by Noertker’s Moxie late last year. “Insula Dulcamara” is what I think of as a Noertker specialty — chamber jazz with a Euro-cafe touch — and “Red Waistcoat” is an upbeat number straight from a ’50s jazz club (with more modern soloing, especially by Jim Vaughn on alto sax).
The title track is a sinewy chamber-music journey, made more mysterious by the inclusion of oboe as a lead. “St. George,” with its improvised horn blaring, has the feel of two or three marching bands each trying to start different songs. And criss-crossing flute and sax mark the opening of “Caliban,” a track that develops into a sparse free improvisation.
The album also includes “Little Jester in a Trance,” which was picked up for Curious Worlds.
Ches Smith — The Bell (ECM, 2016)
So many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.
Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)
Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.
The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game, developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”
Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.
The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.
The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.
Ron Stabinsky — Free for One (Hot Cup, 2016)
Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.
As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:
Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.
“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.
One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.
You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.
Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka (feat. Marco Eneidi) — Rhapsody of the Oppressed (Dimensional, 2016)
Now based in Mexico after a decade in Vienna, saxophonist Marco Eneidi has found two solid bandmates to help forward his cause of light-footed improvised jazz.
Itzam Cano is a terrifically energetic bassist, full of agile, cross-currented ideas. And Swiss drummer Gabriel Lauber brings the energy level and inventiveness that provides the right setting for Eneidi’s higher-energy improvisations. Formerly compatriots in the trio Zero Point, they’ve teamed up with Eneidi to form Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka, a trio (sometimes quartet) that’s simmered for a few years and has now put out their first album.
The bulk of Rhapsody of the Oppressed consists of some mid-length improvisations and a handful of miniatures, short declarations about a minute long. Many of the titles hint at the themes of social injustice and inequity that have pervaded Eneidi’s work and thinking over the years — a fire that still burns bright.
The album’s major statement is the 27-minute “Liberation.” It builds at a measured clip, first with springy bass and mournful quips from Eneidi as a warmup. After about 7 minutes, the band hits full stride, with drums at maximum energy and Eneidi pacing himself with a mid-to-high-energy discourse. It’s a well considered mini-epic with a slow middle segment that gives Cano a good chance to show off his improvisatory skills.
Often, Eneidi sets the overall energy level while the bass and drums run at high throttle. As an example, “Language Is Never Neutral” (a quote from Paolo Friere, whose work was based on the premise that education can’t be neutral either) plunges directly into an angry (or perhaps joyous) blast. But “A Child Walks in a Dream” feels more sublime but is really no less intense.
Certainly Eneidi takes center stage during much of the longer stretches. But when he goes through segments of short phrasing, it’s fun to listen to the music in a “negative space” way — hearing the bass and drums as the forefront, with the sax becoming background color. It probably works with all manner of trio music. But I like the effect in this particular case.
The miniatures on Rhapsody aren’t just trifles; they’re full statements that just happen to be short. “In Us Free” is another great bass showcase for Cano, springing and bouncing along with a colorful drum-kit accompaniment. “Exoridum” opens the album like an electrical burst, introducing the slashing, unfettered playing that dominates the album.
The group has also performed with guitarist Juan Castañón, as you can see here. But here’s a look at the trio, by themselves, in 2012.
Nashville Electric — Orson’s Folly (Edgetone, 2015)
This long-form performance of electronics and electric instruments was created in 2015 as a live, improvisational soundtrack to a long-lost Orson Welles silent film. (The film wasn’t silent by choice — more on that in a bit).
It’s a continuous journey of sound and activity, with a foundation of howling-wind synthesizers setting up the background for brighter guitar and violin sounds — small curls or wide washes, heavily treated to add to the electronic mesh.
Everything is done for texture and effect; it’s a noise piece, in essence, with a prevailing mood built from lots of small details. It’s foreboding but not entirely dark. I imagine the music putting an eerie cast over the silent black-and-white footage.
The piece — two major sections recorded in the studio, plus a “closing credits” segment recorded in concert — starts out with an anthemic buzz of synths and electric guitar, with the occasional electric-violin tone drifting past for a dash of color.
Part 2 tends to be more sparse, with the string instruments playing more individualized roles. One attractive segment focuses on a traceable guitar riff, as if played at the end of a distant corridor. A choppy violin takes the foreground later, again in a distant, filtered vein, behind a deep electronic pulsing.
As with any soundtrack, the music is inspired by film — and, as a result, our listening of the music can be colored by the nature of that film, even if we can’t see it. I listened to the album first, then researched the Orson Welles film in question, “Jangadeiros” (“Four Men on a Raft”). Knowing what happened really does cast the music in a different light.
“Jangadeiros” was part of a larger project called It’s All True — a movie that Welles eventually decided was cursed, based partly on an anecdote involving a voodoo needle driven through a script.
A fictionalized quasi-documentary that evolved in a convoluted process after Pearl Harbor, It’s All True was meant to be a trilogy of stories filmed in Brazil. But, as explained on the Edgetone Records site, the film wasn’t the feelgood exercise that RKO Studio and the U.S. Government (a backer of the film) were expecting. Welles’ budget was slashed to a single black-and-white, silent camera, and the project deteriorated, never to be completed.
“Jangadeiros” survived in footage that was discovered in 1981. It’s actually meant to be a happy and triumphant story about four fishermen who rafted for 61 days — 1,650 miles without a compass — to protest to the goverment, in person, about the feudal nature of their industry. They were being forced to deliver half their catch to raft owners, leaving the fishermen themselves in poverty. The protest worked; Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas didn’t come through on all his promises, but the fishermen were at least granted the privileges of unionized workers.
The tragedy came later. Using the original four fishermen, Welles was filming a re-enactment of their arrival in Rio de Janeiro harbor. (Rio was the capital at the time.) But the raft overturned, and the fishermen’s leader, Manoel Olimpio Meira, was lost.
So … back to Orson’s Folly. The mood doesn’t strike me as full-on ominous. But it’s not exactly happy, either. There’s the eerieness that comes with the dredging-up of old, dead history; the heavy tragedy of Meira’s death; and the doomed nature of the project itself.
“Jangadeiros” happens to be available on YouTube, so you could play the album alongside it for the full effect. The footage is shadowy, but it’s professionally edited and does tell a fictitious story related to the four fishermen. I gave it only a minimal try. I think I prefer to let the visuals and the mood build in my imagination.
Alexander von Schlippenbach — Jazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)
Alexander von Schlippenbach is one of the holes in my jazz education. I’ve heard his music, including the Globe Unity Orchestra, his colossal improvising unit of the ’70s. But I’ve never explored his music very deeply.
I’m also aware that he recorded Monk’s entire catalogue. Like many of the great European improvisers, he traces his musical roots back to the swing and bebop of old.
Still, when I grabbed this quartet concert album on a whim, it was surprising to hear how “straight” most of the playing is, from the romantic strains of Herbie Nichols’ “12 Bars” to the thrilling pace of “Miss Ann,” with nice solos from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall floors it and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.
It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise — more the kind that makes you smile slowly at first, then more and more broadly until you’re grinning.
You do get generous doses of the outside jazz that I was expecting, mostly in the form of Von Schippenbach’s own compositions. “Tropi” features a kind of broken swing, with a theme that’s traceable but not a simple 4/4; it then dives straight into group improvising, in a fast post-bop vein.
Von Schlippenbach’s “The Bells of St. K” and the opening of Monk’s “Epistrophy” both feature free improvisation, with angular, spiky bass clarinet. (Side note: The band is a traditional quartet with the bass clarinet as the only horn. It’s novel and a little Dolphy-esque.) Von Schlippenbach’s solo on “Epistrophy” is a tasty hybrid of free and straight playing.
The Herbie Nichols tunes are a treat — and it’s kind of sad that I’m still taken by surprise when his name comes up on a song credit. (Nichols was a contemporary of Monk’s whose music isn’t as well cemented in the public consciousness.) “The Gig” comes across as a complex swing — it’s got an easy rhythm but a tangled melody where Mahall gets to show off some dexterity.
One detail I left out: The concert is recent, recorded in March 2015. That’s what inspired me to listen in the first place. There’s a wealth of material from these great improvisers — Destination: Out sells quite a bit, from the old FMP catalogue — but it’s good to also check out what musicians like von Schlippenbach are doing in the here-and-now. The deep knowledge of the Monk-era songbook, mixed with that Euro-improv pioneering spirit, all wrapped up in the comfortable hands of age and experience — it adds up to some wonderful results.