Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Cline 4

Nels Cline 4Currents, Constellations (Blue Note, 2018)

NelsCline4_CurrentsConstellations_cover-1520399761-640x640Guitarist Nels Cline has an earlier Blue Note release, Lovers, but Currents, Constellations feels like his first “official” Blue Note record. Maybe it’s because Lovers was such a specific project — mostly covers, many from the outer radii of jazz (Annette Peacock, Jimmy Giuffre) and at least one from another orbit entirely (Sonic Youth). Maybe it’s just the album artwork, which reminds me of Bobby Hutcherson’s final album, Enjoy the View.

Or maybe it’s because this is a working band, a quartet performing Cline originals. It’s also got a jazz feel — which has always been part of Cline’s playbook but usually gets alternated with other musical influences, as on the Nels Cline Singers albums.

That’s not to say Cline has gone traditional. His jazz comes with a spiky touch — glittering gems with pointy edges. Take “Imperfect 10,” the preview single that was available a few weeks ago. It’s relatable despite the time signature, and you can tell they had fun playing it — a good track to make a video out of.

The quartet pairs Cline with guitarist Julian Lage and a sharp rhythm section of Scott Colley (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). The music includes nice flurries of adept guitar fretwork, but it isn’t a “guitar hero” album. Everything is done in service to the overall mood, which is often swingy and driven.

“Furtive” opens the album with a sprint, a rapid-fire Colley background as Rainey sets a snappy mood and both guitarists dive quickly into improvising mode. “Amenette” opens with a burst of ’60s-style progressive jazz that leads into some cool-handed soloing with a wide-open feel but still one foot in the jazz realm.

“Swing Ghost ’59” touches on western-style swing, a nod even further back than you’d expect but an understandable move given Cline’s broad palette. It breaks down into a darting group improv — so, the song starts with one of the album’s most “inside” moods and hits on its most “outside” moments.

“As Close As That” is a slow one, not quite a ballad. Its creeping 6/8 melody sprinkles moments of darkness but leads to a charming ascending-chord sequence. “River Mouth” starts out placid and pleasing, then leads into a springy and airy mood. For the jazz fan that has trouble with Cline’s pointy edges, this track would be a good place to start.

April 15, 2018 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Glass (Not Philip)

Alva Noto + Ryuchi SakamotoGlass (Noton, 2017)

nova-glassRecorded for 37 minutes in a glass house, Glass unfolds into the long, ambient, ghostly drone you’d hope for, split by gentle computer electronics and the occasional quick clack of what might be a wood block.

When I say “glass house,” I mean The Glass House, built by architect Philip Johnson in 1949. No one lives in The Glass House; it’s a piece of art unto itself, situated on a 49-acre complex in the woods. Glass, performed inside the house by Aldo Nova and Ryuchi Sakamoto, coincided with a 110th birthday celebration for Johnson, which included installations by Japanese “dot” artist Yayoi Kusama. (And if you wonder what I mean by “dot artist,” click here.)


Glass isn’t an all-glass soundfest like Annea Lockwood’s 1970 classic Glass World (now released on vinylclear vinyl, of course). Its foundation seems to be the looped sound of mallets rubbing against glass, built into a moebius-loop drone. But other sounds encroach, like bits of metal drizzling onto the sonic glass surface: echoey percussion, a waterfall of metallic sand, or slow, isolated glass chimes.

In the final minutes, the underlying tone changes pitch, and a soloing instrument appears — a slow woodwind sound, full of distortion and distance.

A performance like this seems special enough to warrant a souvenir artifact, and sure enough, there’s a clear vinyl LP. It’s probably available from multiple sources, but I heard about it from Boomkat in the UK.

April 1, 2018 at 10:23 am Leave a comment

Bynum & Dresser

bynumIn 2014, Taylor Ho Bynum biked his way down the U.S. Pacific coast, a trip that culminated in crossing the border into Mexico.

The final concert of that journey is now available on Bandcamp, as part of Bynum’s “bootleg” series. It’s a duo with bassist Mark Dresser, consisting mostly of compositions, including a spirited Bobby Bradford cover, “Comin’ On.”

The lack of sustain makes the trumpet and bass an interesting pairing. On compositions like “Coyote” and “Comin’ On,” the melody flickers, like the tip of a flame blinking in and out of position.

More pensive moments are found on compositions such as “ZADE” and “To Wait.” The show is bookended by improvisations: one mostly bright, the other more spacious but still squirrely.

It’s all good music, but it’s enjoyable to also think about the context, as this was the final public concert of the bicycle tour (Bynum played once more, solo, near the U.S.-Mexico border). It’s the culmination of an ambitious project that took a lot of hard work.

The official bicycle tour page is here, and it includes this mini-documentary, where he draws a parallel between the bicycle journey, acoustic music, no-destination improvisation:

March 30, 2018 at 9:30 am Leave a comment

Improv from Buenos Aires

Agustí Fernandez and Pablo LedesmaEn vivo en el Festival de Jazz de Buenos Aires (Discos ICM, 2018)

fernandez-ledesmaPiano-sax improvisations recorded live, giving us a real-time peek into the mutual circling that goes on in a duo improv format.

In two of the five improvisations here — four mid-length pieces and a three-minute encore — Pablo Ledesma (sax) and Agustí Fernandez (piano) work from traditional playing techniques. Each one has a tentative start, with both players testing the waters, and builds into flurries of activity.”Improvisación #1″ opens with bright, painterly arcs, gently capturing your attention. It’s a good start to the album and, presumably, the concert.

Here’s a video of that piece:

I particularly like the narrative traced by “Improvisación #4.” It starts as a low-key conversation, painting in muted colors even as both players pick up speed. After a sustained dark tunnel of quavering sax and piano, they settle into a long stretch of quiet sound exploration.

Fernandez uses prepared piano and manual string-scraping to sometimes build a palette of abstract sounds, particularly on “Improvisación #2” and #3. Both feature stretches of more noise-based improvising, with Ledesma speaking in small shards of sound. “Improvisación #2” gets into a buzzing industsrial mode, a nice tension that’s sustained as ringing open notes start appearing from the piano.

This album comes from an Argentinian label called Discos ICM, which focuses on more mainstream jazz styles but welcomes an experimental excursion here and there. On the mainstream side, I’m liking the track “Ida y vuelta” from drummer René Gatica and his quintet; I’m also exploring the Naturaleza Práctica EPs from the (I’m guessing) drummer-led guitar trio Conjunto de Lassaletta.

March 18, 2018 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

Air and Light: The Chamber Music of Portrait Maker

UPDATE 3/28: The whole album is now available on Bandcamp, and there’s a new video for “Franny and Zooey in the Snow.”

Portrait Maker — Portrait Maker (Self-released, 2018)

rogerkim-portraitGuitarist Roger Kim has created an uplifting style of experimental chamber music with the group Portrait Maker. An eponymous 30-minute EP, officially coming out on March 24, features a group anchored by Kim’s acoustic guitar (and a bit of banjo) and adorned with flute, glassy strings, and light, wordless female vocals — but Portrait Maker has been around for a few years in permutations that have included a varying cast of instruments and sometimes dancers, an appropriate touch given the visual possibilities in the music.

A track like “Franny and Zooey in the Snow” feels pastoral and quiet, with a gentle intensity added by Kim’s guitar solo. But that doesn’t mean the melodies on Portrait Maker follow predictable, pretty paths. “I Knew This Would End Badly” is built around a guitar in tumbling meters — you can hear it at the start of Kim’s promotional video, at bottom. (It includes some “studio footage” that he had fun editing.)

Songs like “Believe Me” and “A Coleman in Every Home,” add touches of abstraction and improvisation to the mix. The latter still feels feathery, but with a heavier melody tracked by one vocalist and violin in unison, followed by a quavering flute backed by what might be the clacking of violin bows.

Here’s the buildup to that flute segment:

One superficial comparison that comes to mind is Eberhard Weber’s Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), specifically the side-long suite, “Quiet Departures.” Both have “nice” music and a dual female vocal — I’m thinking of this segment in particular. But Weber’s piece is a drifting suite, meant to evoke an atmosphere. It’s like an outline, whereas Kim’s music tells a story, each piece evoking purpose and direction.

The 10-minute “Life According to Andrea Wang” is the trickiest composition here. There’s an airy chamber passage for a clarinet solo, backed by a spare bass clarinet line that’s repetitious but doesn’t seem to stick to a strict timing. The song flicks back into a more regular rhythm (though not a strictly 4/4 one) for Kim’s crisp, articulate guitar solo, backed by a series of short phrases, not always in even rhythm, that keep the walls shifting like a maze.

Portrait Maker will have two CD release shows this month — one in Los Angeles on March 24, and another on March 29 back in San Francisco, at the Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St. at 23rd St.).

March 14, 2018 at 7:39 am Leave a comment

‘World’ Jazz in Bloom

Yazz AhmedLa Saboteuse (Naim, 2017)

yazzahmedIt might sound like cheesy marketing, but the Bandcamp Daily can be a good tipsheet for the music available on the site. Recent posts have included a master class on Buckethead and a tour through the Sun Ra treasure trove that’s now available on multiple online services.

Better still, the monthly jazz column, written by Dave Sumner, turns out to be quite thorough. He doesn’t shy away from the avant-garde, happily reviewing the likes of Matt Mitchell, Steve Coleman, and Brooklyn Raga Massive.

It’s through Sumner’s column that I discovered British trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and La Saboteuse, only the second album she’s released as a leader. I’ve had it on rotation in the car for a few months now, and I was glad to see that Wire magazine columnist Phil Freeman put it at the top of his Best of 2017 list for jazz and improv.

The composing and overall atmosphere here will please mainstream ears, but the album is chock full of creative touches: odd time signatures, tasteful electronic frills, and a middle-eastern tinge drawn from Ahmed’s Bahraini heritage. It’s a wistful journey, with Ahmed giving ample spotlight time to ace bandmates including Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet, who turns in a fantastic solo on “Jamil Jamal,” and vibraphonist Lewis Wright, who is integral to “Organ Eternal” and to the gentle moodiness of “The Space Between the Fish and the Moon.”

The track I’ve been enjoying the most is “Bloom,” which turns out to be a Radiohead cover that’s surprisingly close to the original — surprising to me, that is, because I’d never heard the original and did not expect to discover that Ahmed actually plays on it. I think she’s also in this live version.

Here’s the Saboteuse take on “Bloom:”

I go through periods of seeking out more “normal” jazz, but I still prefer to hear something that’s forward-looking: thoughtful compositions, creative intricacy, exploratory sounds. The Australian jazz trio Trichotomy is the latest band to scratch that itch, but it’s La Saboteuse that’s still top-of-mind in this category, even a year after its release. Ahmed’s creation has staying power.

Here’s a live version of “Organ Eternal,” prefaced by a BBC interview.

March 6, 2018 at 9:34 pm Leave a comment

Echoes of a Lost Civilization, and Kazoos

Brett CarsonMysterious Descent (self-released, 2017)

carson-descentMysterious Descent does indeed feel like a descent, as it starts in a dream space, slowly drawing you in to its disorienting flow. The first scene has the four musicians acting a scripted dialogue that slowly unravels out of normal conversation and into trancelike dialogue, and out of English into a language imagined by composer Brett Carson.

So begins a song cycle drawn from the only surviving texts of the lost (fictitious) Koktimô civilization. With piano, violin, and percussion, Carson mixes modern classical music, traditional song form, and old-timey melodrama. It’s all presented with a sense of high drama but there are also touches of silliness and absurdity, such as a final processional of kazoos, or repeated mentions of elephants. (Carson has a previous project called Quattuor Elephantis — you can sense a theme here.)

Over the course of the album, small shimmers of a plotline emerge like an anthropological puzzle, guided by long stretches of English lyrics suggesting ancient mysticism and lost sciences. “Song of Anori” presents elements of courtly ritual in formalized, theatrical form. “Song of Vurvmôprinka” starts with long, twining lines of melody before shifting into surreal lyrics.

The tale of “The Fisherman” seems to be a dramatic turning point. Less obscure than the other tracks, it’s a spoken fable about a proud fisherman who goes to woo the queen of the lake. The song cycle hits a dramatic high point with the grand, sweeping piano chords of “Song of Dzochanibralk.”

Below is the performance of Mysterious Descent at last year’s Outsound Music Festival, with the same ensemble as on the album: Carson on piano, Nava Dunkelman on percussion, and Mia Bella D’Augelli on violin, with David Katz doing the narration and singing. I’m especially fond of this key passage from “The Fisherman.” You can also view a November performance at the Center for New Music.

You can hear the studio version of Mysterious Descent on Bandcamp. Among Carson’s next project is an opera scheduled to premiere in Oakland in August.

February 25, 2018 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

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