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.

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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.

Qanaaq, a Quintet’s Journey

McPhee, Rempis, Reid, Lopez, Nilssen-LoveOf Things Beyond Thule, Vol. 1 (Aerophonic, 2020)

Of Things Beyond Thule Front Cover smallThis album is being released only on vinyl, in an edition of 350, with no other format or digital download planned. It might be because “Qanaaq,” the 37-minute quintet improvisation comprising both sides, has the feel of something special, one of those nights where the musicians hit the right resonant frequency and build something powerful.

“Thule” and “Qanaaq” are alternative names for the same city in Greenland, and maybe that small suggestion is what makes the music feel vast. The more intense segments aren’t full-bore blowouts, but a sustained, patient energy conjuring the awe of immense spaces.

In the mold of good long-form storytelling, “Qanaaq” flies through passages of both quiet and noise. The sound can be cozy, as in the intimate monologue that opens the piece. Dave Rempis on baritone sax (possibly also a touch of Joe McPhee on tenor sax) is backed there by restrained, persistent group undercurrent (Tomeka Reid on cello, Paal Nilsson-Love on drums, and Brandon Lopez on bass). It can also be energetic, as in the open groove later built by Nilsson-Love and Reid, putting an exclamation point on Side One.

What really sparkles, though, are the climactic final minutes. They start peacefully, with McPhee’s smoky monologue on tenor, but it’s when Nilsson Love jumps in — a moment of full conviction — that the grand expanse of an ending suddenly springs into shape.

Of Things Beyond Thule is part of a live set from 2018 — the first performance by this particular combination of skilled improvisers — and makes a fitting souvenir from an inspirational night.

Tyshawn Sorey and the Long Game

Tyshawn SoreyPillars (Firehouse 12, 2019)
Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn CrispellThe Adornment of Time (Pi Recordings, 2019)

sorey-pillarsIt took a while for me to dig into Pillars (Firehouse 12, 2018), the nearly four-hour, three-part composition that earned Tyshawn Sorey the No. 1 spot in the Free Jazz Collective’s top albums of 2019. The scope is daunting, and so is that ominous black cover. It felt like a commitment.

With Einstein on the Beach, I listened sequentially in fragments. Pillars doesn’t seem as well suited for that. It does break into three distinct parts — a concession to the physical limitations of CDs, sure, but Sorey takes advantage by ending each disc with a trademark blare, a single note from dual trombones (Ben Gerstein and Sorey), patterned in slow, synchronized arcs, followed by a telling silence.

Pillars develops slowly, but it is neither all-slow nor all-quiet. It’s built of jarring contrasts, with near-silent passages next to bursts of loudness. We rarely hear the entire eight-person band at once, if ever. They appear in fragments of different character. Strident horns and electric guitars seem to embolden the surrounding stillness. Later, a passage of nurturing acoustic guitars serves as a balm. The quiet parts dominate in memory, though, and sometimes the busy passages seem to exist in service to the looming quiet. Even the quick and nervous parts hover patiently.

But make no mistake, there is noise, from cacophonous group explorations to a pure noise solo of crunchy, industrial electronics. Some of the composed parts resemble a sternly edged minimalism — such as the opening moments, where Sorey, alone, plays an impossibly long snare roll in the vacuum of space.sorey-adornment

The Adornment of Time uses some of the same tools as Pillars. It features just two musicians: Sorey on drums and percussion, and Marilyn Crispell on piano, playing what appears to be an improvised 74-minute piece. But it has a like-minded attention to the long game, flowing on a geologic, “macro” scale.

Even more so than PillarsThe Adornment of Time conjures vastness, enhanced by the same strategy of unsettling contrasts. Out of near silence, Sorey will strike one intensely loud drum beat and let the sound quickly decay, smothered by the weight of the surrounding air.

The music acoustic but other-worldly, with long rumbles and cavernous groans carrying the action in some stretches, building up a ruckus before tamping back down. Late in the piece, a playful streak emerges as Crispell starts wandering inside the piano — tapping wood, scraping strings. The endgame begins with slow, plaintive piano chords — a return to crepuscular daylight — followed by a final frenzy.

One key to The Adornment of Time is that multiple payoff moments light the way. Pillars is similarly rewarding but the scale makes it harder to grasp the whole narrative. I’m still working on it while admiring the expanse that Sorey has created.

144 Strings

Christy Doran144 Strings for a Broken Chord (Between the Lines, 2018)

doran-144During the course of Christy Doran’s suite for 24 guitars (four of them basses), you’re rarely listening to all 24 guitars — or if you are, they’re playing with restraint. This isn’t an barrage of shredding, and even when dense riffage-upon-riffage moments come up, they’re well coordinated and cleanly executed. The sound often resembles jazzy prog. It proudly showing its blues and rock roots, and it’s executed with the precision of a chamber orchestra.

The band includes drums, and they’re crucial, adding a tiny bit of sonic variation that provides a focal point. The four electric basses often get buried in the mix, but they have plenty of good moments, including solos. The passages of many guitars playing small parts together, often as the backing to a solo, create a lushness, a crunch that can only come from lots of strings being plucked at once. “Broken Chords” is brimming with that sound. The bluesy “Bad News Babe” is another good example, with the little chiming harmonics played as a group backing.

“Andromeda” is an exercise in grooving counterpoint — think of the overlapping lines of Steve Reich or later King Crimson with a jazzy beat set down by the drum kit. It has a sparkling sound that tickles my prog center.

“Gunslingers” has some appropriate showing off, in the form of tickling, speedy riffs adorning the corners of the sound while a chiming guitar figure occupies the center. It’s a fun exercise in precision, including what sounds like a “solo” played by multiple guitars in unison:

Doran was fortunate enough to present 144 Strings live in a theater, with the guitarists seated in a gentle arc spanning the stage. It just plain looks fun, and based on the excerpts he’s posted, the concert was a blast as well.

Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.

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Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 

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Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

 
Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

 
I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

Real Life Rock and Roll Band

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Real Life Rock and Roll BandHollerin’ the Spirit (Geomancy, 2019)

Nothing fancy here, and that’s a good thing. Oakland-based Real Life Rock & Roll Band play guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock that feels like sunlight over wild grasslands, filling space with upbeat, fuzzed-out guitars, strong-snap drumming and ghostly vocals. Their album is out on the Geomancy label, which has done strong work documenting some of the Bay Area’s experimental-leaning music (Grex, Surplus 1980, Jordan Glenn).

The music unfolds into extended jams, sometimes with parts made of overlapping polyrhythms, but it can be enjoyed at a simpler level — it’s electric folk descended from psychedelia. Chris Forsythe might be a point of comparison.

“Singing the Freedom of Utopic Space” eventually develops a guitar chime in 5/4 and a keyboard loop in what I think is 15/8. It breaks for a pleasantly quiet, clicking groove in the middle, then ends with anthemic group shouting that reminds me of some of the alt-folk rock from earlier in the 2000s (The Circulatory System? Akron/Family?)


Even though the music is composed, it has a spontaneous feel, like being in the center of an idea that is just starting to unfold. The spinning hypnotic cycles of jangly guitar set you down in a comfortable place and encourage you to enjoy the view. One miscue, for me, is the use of autotune; for a band that describes themselves as “favoring the spirit of the music over the evasive monolith of perfection,” it feels too inorganic.

Take a listen to the ending moments of “Earthbound Phantoms Not Numerous.” The rest of the eight-minute song has played out at this point, shifting into an abstractly flickering cooldown — the band showing off its abstract side — the drops into “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” The latter is the album’s de facto single, in my mind — a 1975 Terry Allen song transformed from gritty highway blues to a low-key haze and a thousand-yard stare. Below, I’m including an excerpt of the transition between the songs, because I think it sounds cool, followed by all of “There Oughta Be a Law.” You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp.

Lords of Outland at 25

Lords of Outland play a house concert Saturday, Dec. 21, at a venue called Sunnyvale — venue details here.

Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland25 Years Under the Mountain (Edgetone, 2019)

romus-25The band has undergone many personnel changes, but the name continuity of the Lords of Outland survives as a bread-crumb trail through time. 25 Years Under the Mountain includes some compositions from the Lords’ back catalog, but it is not a retrospective CD — it’s the latest permutation of the Lords, a quartet with Alex Cohen joining on guitar.

Lords of Outland is a free-jazz collective that also takes cues from the darkness of H.P. Lovecraft; the alternating hopefulness and despair of science fiction; and the joyful open-mindedness of free improvisation. You have to admire saxophonist/leader Rent Romus’ drive, keeping his music and this band going. (He also runs the annual Outsound New Music Summit, which I ended up missing this year. He organizes and runs this thing every year, and I sat out a year from my exhausting duty of sitting and listening.)

Where previous Lords albums dabbled in electronics, 25 Years features Cohen’s prickly, springy guitar (he also plays viola da gamba for the gently free-form sprint “Homeward Bound.”) The rhythm section remains the same as in recent years: Ray Schaeffer on fluid, hardy six-stringed electric bass and Philip Everett adding constructive clatter on drums. You get a taste of their combined freedom and bombast in the intro to “Grown out of Stone:”

 
Lords of Outland has always spread out its influences both toward and away from the jazz tradition. “Systemic Fault is a breathless free-jazz sprint, while “Like tears in ice” has Romus playing in a smoky and even romantic mode. That track jumps straight into the bumpy rhythm of “Ape of God,” colored by standalone thwacks by Everett on drums. (The album includes a second take with fluid drumming that serves as a more conventional free-jazz launching pad.)

 
You can hear more of the album on Bandcamp.