Sara Schoenbeck and Wayne Horvitz

Sara Schoenbeck and Wayne HorvitzCell Walk (Songlines, 2020)

Maybe I just don’t look in the right places, but I’m occasionally dismayed that I don’t see more recordings featuring bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. She played with Jimmy Lyons! Free-jazz bassoon! She’s hung out with the SoCal improv crowd and recorded on pfMentum! What’s not to love?

OK, I exaggerate. Schoenbeck has had quite a lot of output in the 2010s. Like I said, I just haven’t looked in the right places. Last year, the Vancouver label Songlines turned out to be the right place.

Schoenbeck teamed up with legendary keyboardist Wayne Horvitz for an album of chamber music with spaces for improvisation and freedom. This isn’t out of the blue; the duo play chamber music as half of Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet, and this album essentially pares down that sound. Cell Walk carries an even-handed mood and is full of polite silences, even during those bursts of improv.

(Gravitas Quartet — ah yes, another piece of Schoenbeck output, right where I wasn’t looking.)

The album feels like a classical recital, little bassoon-and-piano pieces with that concert-hall reverb. “Undecided” opens the album on with that serious air of a continual dance, winding its way through paths of unrepeating notes. The album is not all classical politeness, though. “We Will Be Silk” has the disjointed feel of an improvised piece, a stone carved into oblique angles, while “Tin Palace” briskly sets up a soloing space for Schoenbeck.

“The Fifth Day” is a melodic highlight with a hummable ending theme — a slow, pretty track that might be your “in” if you want to introduce the album to chamber-music-loving friends. It’s quite lovely.

Apple II Part II: George Lewis in 1984

George LewisRainbow Family (Carrier, 2020; recorded 1984)

Three years ago, I wrote about a 1984 experiment in computer-driven improvisation. George Lewis, then researching at France’s IRCAM, presented a concert of top-notch improvisers — Douglas Ewart, Joelle Leandre, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — performing with three networked Apple II computers that controlled Yamaha synths.

The concert is now available as an album on France’s Carrier label. It’s a valuable document of this early moment in the history of computer music. You have to excuse the limitations of computer sound at the time (try not to think of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who) but the computer element does work. Or, maybe it’s that the high-caliber musicians — Joëlle Léandre, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — are able to make it work.

The three Apple IIs don’t just bleep randomly. Lewis programmed them to take the (analog) musicians’ choices as input and make digital decisions to create output, including an option to add some randomness (i.e., to play freely). The source code Lewis used is lost, unfortunately, but his recollections of the strategies provide some useful insight in the CD liner notes. The programs did have a way to create a chunk of music from scratch, without inputs, and Lewis infers that this is how some of the pieces start.

Whether real or perceived, the computers manage to create some sublime moments of communication. Léandre’s duet includes a nice stretch where she’s calmly following the computers’ cues, but when she takes control, the machines respond with an anthemic burst.

Lewis had conceived of the three computers developing distinct personalities. What he found, though, was that the human musicians kept thinking of their bandmates as “The” computer. Same here, I have to admit. (See how I just called Léandre’s piece a “duet.”) It’s an interesting test of human perception.

Of course, the humans’ personalities and choices lead to specific characteristics for some of the pieces. Ewart produces a piece that is both forceful and calm, drifting like a Calder mobile and creating some of the most neatly matched improvising of the album. Bailey’s low-key piece features a stretch of harmonics that tease out some pleasant tone-tinkering from the computers.

The album culminates with a group session — all four humans, all three computers. It starts at a cautious pace, with the humans avoiding the “spew” factor that a group of this size can create. As the activity builds up, the computers seem to know to sometimes stay out of the way. Here’s a particularly noisy section with the humans taking the lead; the Apple IIs slip into the mix with small chimes and shimmers that get more assertive as the humans back down. It feels organic. Whether that’s excellent foresight on the part of Lewis the coder or just a lucky happenstance, we’ll never know — but Lewis’ knowledge and experience certainly increased the probability of these kind of moments.

You can sample and purchase the album on Bandcamp. I’m especially partial to Douglas Ewart’s piece.

Circles Within Circles Within Denman Maroney’s Head

Denman MaroneyMartingale (self-released, 2020)

I’m familiar with Denman Maroney through his work with hyperpiano — prepared piano that adds a dynamic element, such as applying a metal bowl as a “slide” on the strings. Martingale employs a different kind of tinkering. It uses jazz composition as its starting point, in an upbeat quartet format, but things are awry. It’s dis-aligned jazz.

The underlying complexity comes from polyrhythms — or what Maroney calls temporal harmony, with instruments tracking different rhythmic cycles, such as three-over-two or five-over-four. The foundation is often single-note rhythms rather than chords, and while I found myself craving the jazzy sound of chords, their absence builds a lightness (as in, the opposite of density) that helps my ears track the multiple cycles spooling out. Even on a casual listen, you can feel a geometry in the music, and Maroney provides enough room to take a peek at the schematic, revealing the cycles within cycles.

The thickest stack of time layers — six of them, apparently — is in the title track, which opens the album. “Martingale” takes a patient approach, building energy while maintaining enough space to discern the rhythms.

The album doesn’t come across as mathematical. “New One Two” builds from what sounds like a simple keyboard riff, except its repetitions are constantly shifting — an innocent rhythm, bouncing like a tumbleweed. Then there’s “Sea Set Wheat” (a play on words: six, sept, huit would be 6:7:8 in French), which coaxes a swinging rhythm out of polyrhythmic cycles. Players then break off into a free improvisation, and it’s tempting to think that they might be staying in their respective polyrhythmic times while doing so. (I don’t actually believe this, but it’s fun to imagine.)

I feel like I also have to mention “Off Centerpiece,” which takes the skeleton of the jazz standard “Centerpiece” and disjoints it.

For another taste of polyrhythms, the band Kronomorfic has a sound even more deeply steeped in conventional free jazz (now there’s an oxymoron). Their 2010 release features a sextet including vibraphone and sax. And in 2015, the not-so-conventional piano trio Dawn of Midi released Dysnomia, a through-composed album based on hypnotically chill cycles. I got to see them perform it live. The piano’s minimal, chordless touch — essentially becoming a percussion instrument — combined with acoustic bass and drums made for a spellbinding set.

Larry Ochs and Aram Shelton

Larry Ochs & Aram Shelton QuartetContinental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)

Aram Shelton was a fixture on the Bay Area scene before moving overseas, first to Copenhagen and more recently to Budapest. He teams up with ROVA stalwart Larry Ochs on Continental Drift, a free-jazz session where we get to listen in on distant friends enjoying one another’s company. The album has a bright, flowing energy, aided by drummer Kjell Nordeson, another familiar face on the local scene, and two bassists — Mark Dresser or Scott Walton — who rounded out the quartet during the two separate recording sessions, five years apart, that make up the album.

Ochs and Shelton alternate composing duties track-by-track, emphasizing their contrasting styles — Ochs tending toward rougher textures and abstract territory, Shelton often starting closer to traditional jazz forms but bending them to his taste. Ochs’ “Slat” delves into more abstract territory and a freer improvisation — some terrific sparring here between the two horns — whereas Shelton’s “Switch” shows off his trademark blend of modern composing and aggressively swingy rhythm.

Shelton puts a sweet composure into “Anita.” But even that track goes off the melodic rails after a while; it’s far from sappy. Ochs shows off his snappy sense of rhythm on the outright catchy “Strand,” which starts innocuously but builds into a furious group jam that eventually stops on a dime, a nice dramatic moment.

Shelton and Ochs mix well and it’s often hard to tell who has played or even composed which pieces. (For me, anyway. My ear for different musical styles is still a work in progress.) They combine for a tremendous, hard-digging double solo during “The Others Dream,” Ochs’ 19-minute closer. That one feels epic, opening with somber drumming and Ochs’ ecstatic sopranino solo, then later getting into a hard-driven segment that also feels wide open, a broad landscape unrolling.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve met most of these players in person, but the whole set just feels friendly, with an optimistic outlook. Composition-led free jazz is alive and well, and it’s a soothing balm against stressful times. Shelton and Ochs execute well on Continental Drift, but more importantly, it feels like everyone is having fun. That kind of thing comes across on a record.

A Vast Collage Curated by Laura Jurd

Laura JurdStepping Back, Jumping In (Edition, 2019)

Trumpeter Laura Jurd might be best known for her quartet Dinosaur, which mixes creative jazz with a pop aesthetic. It’s decent stuff, quite hip. But Stepping Back, Jumping In is a different animal: a tumult of ideas from Jurd and four other composers, drawing from a rich pool of creativity.

Commissioned by King’s Place in London and featuring 15 musicians in various combinations, Stepping Back does have a cohesive sound, a brainy jazz approach with a sense of humor. Jurd opens the album with her composition “Jumping In,” a multi-paneled mural full of swirling colors, complete with banjo. The hyperactive opening really does jump in, and the piece doesn’t let go from there, seemingly piling on with ideas from every corner of Jurd’s brain.

Strings feature heavily. The Ligeti Quartet, who worked with Jurd on Landing Ground (Edition, 2012), contribute a variety of textures, including elements of circus-y classical, the folk-tinged whimsy common in European jazz. The Ligetis are not just an adornment, but the core fiber of some pieces.

“Ishtar” builds a spare but bustling landscape where crooked and/or whimsical denizens pass by — it’s almost like surreal people-watching. Elliott Galvin composed that one (he and the other Dinosaur members appear in various spots on the album) and contributes and a lush piano solo. “Companion Species,” composed by Anja Lauvdal and Heida K. Johannesdottir, starts with a hailstorm of prepared piano and a Bitches Brew-style flash mob jam, before jumping into a funky groove that gets fusion-proggy toward the end.

The album is not all frantic. “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth,” composed by Soosan Lolavar, is more about a feeling than any specific melody. Jurd’s trumpet joins the strings and a percussionist for what feels like a guided improvisation, with the sound blooming like the gradual, gentle ending of a long winter. Jurd displays a more conventional type of composing on “Jump Cut Shuffle,” a straight string quartet (by modern standards) based on a catchy recurring melody — but it’s neither staid nor straightforward.

For more about Jurd: All About Jazz ran an interview in May, discussing composition, the formation of Dinosaur, and influences from Stravinsky to Deerhoof.

Evaporation: Sketching With Silence

Eli Wallace and Ben CohenEvaporation (Eschatology, 2020)

“Noise” music doesn’t have to be loud. It can be contemplative, as Pauline Oliveros showed us with her work in deep listening. On Evaporation, pianist Eli Wallace and Ben Cohen follow that aesthetic, creating bundles of action while leaving the blank canvas mostly blank. It’s a wide-angle landscape contrasting rapid motion and stillness.

The 33-minute “Saturation” is the main event. Wallace tests out all manner of prepared piano — a passage of tightly percussive strings against a fluttering of sax from Cohen, or a ringing strum of the stringboard. Cohen produces long streams of non-tonal monologue but also works in the almost subliminal language of long buzzes and breaths.

Informally, “Saturation” could be divided in sections according to the loud/quiet transitions. The early stages feature bursts of noise that couldn’t be called quiet, but the overall effect is spare.

The quietude is not for the faint of heart. Midway through, “Saturation” becomes a hearing test, with distant clatter — a metallic resonance out of the piano, whispery air through the saxophone — nestled between thick silences. That sets us up for the stretch of light metallic hail that ends the piece, not a “grand” finale so much as a satisfying bit of punctuation to close things out.

The 10-minute title track similarly stretches out across its time. Midway through, the sound truly evaporates, leaving a near-silent percussive chatter that gradually dissolves into nothingness. As a listening experience, it requires the right mindset, and that’s true of the whole album. If you come in expecting “free jazz,” the stubborn quietude could feel abrasive. Taken on its own terms, as that expansive canvas, it can be satisfying and thought-provoking.

Journey to Manala

Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life’s Blood EnsembleManala (Edgetone, 2020)

Manala thinks big. It brings an 11-piece jazz mini-orchestra to celebrate Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage, and while the theme is related to folklore about the underworld, the mood is bright and welcoming. It feels like a joyous personal statement from someone who has made a journey and discovered wonderful things along the way.

The song cycle blends traditional jazz ensemble writing, scribbly free-improv solos, enjoyable moments of melodrama, and sounds of natural instruments that harken back to the times of legends and bold heroes.

Saxophonist Romus shares composing duties here with Heikki Koskinen, a frequent collaborator in recent years whose e-trumpet cuts bright soloing lines through tracks like the opener, “Maahinen (Gnome).” They draw a big sound out of the band’s four horns.

Sometimes, though, a rustic mood prevails, anchored by Cheryl E. Leonard, well known in the Bay Area for her musical instruments derived from natural objects (bones, sand, shells) and David Samas, whose instruments include song stones and waterphone. There’s also the reverent flute trio that opens “Loitsun lukema (Casting the Spell)” to introduce a cool theme mixing jazz and ceremonial music, a sound relying heavily on Gabby Fluke-Mogel on violin and Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

Romus has been passionate about researching Finnish mythology, and it’s wonderful that his documentation of that work comes in the form of music. The “Journey to Manala” suite later in the album is based on the legend of Vainamoinen, “the most powerful adventurer shaman of the Kalevala” (quoting the liner notes), “who builds a boat out of song, only to find he is missing the words to complete the task. The story follows him into Manala to find those words.” During the suite, David Samas gets to break into a splendidly dramatic monologue — I think it’s the character of Vainamoinen himself — against a grooving backdrop.

That idea of using song to influence the physical world — I think every musician must sometimes feel like they are on verge of completing that quest, like a journey to the infinite horizon. Manala feels like that kind of exploration.

Manala is the second album based on Romus’ research into blending jazz and his Finnish heritage, the first being The Otherworld Cycle, and it has a live followup, Return to Manala. Romus has tapped a rich creative thread that hopefully will continue.

An Italy-Canada Connection

ITACA 4tetVortex (Nusica, 2020)

Springy and optimistic, the ITACA 4tet is a smiling bundle of Eurojazz, even if half its members are Canadian. (The name comes from the Italy-Canada connection.)

The quartet thrives on the interplay of clarinetist François Houle and alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini. A track like “Sketch 26” uses a brief composed line to launch a fast flow of musical doodles, both horns tossing out ideas, propelled by Alessandro Fedrigo on bass guitar (a nice choice that creates a fluid low end throughout the album) and Nick Fraser leaning heavily on the snare drum.

The group explores in a welcoming way, tracing pleasantly zig-zagging paths. Faster numbers are always enjoyable, but it’s during the slower passages that the two-horn interplay can get especially rich, as on the playfully warbling “Saturno.” Houle has a knack for merging the serious and lighthearted sides of improvising, and the rest of ITACA has the same mindset. Even “The Third Murder,” which opens with discontented hive buzzing, slips into bubbly tunefulness.

“‘Nette,” composed by Carlos Ward, does indeed echo Ornette Coleman with its sunny, melody-driven theme. When the solos start, Fraser’s drumming pull back abruptly to signify the newly opened space, while Fedrigo keeps the mood and tempo uplifted.

“‘Nette”

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.