Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Hyper+ Plus ElSaffar

Hyper+ Amir ElSaffarSaadif (nusica, 2016)

09The Italian trio Hyper+ has a bright sound and a loose demeanor that match trumpeter Amir ElSaffar well. The four players combine forces for an intriguing session on Saadif, one of the latest albums from the nonprofit group

ElSaffar has made his name with a couple of well-received albums on the Pi Recordings label, mixing Middle Eastern elements, including chant-like vocals and microtonal scales, into a very New York brand of modern jazz.

Hyper+, meanwhile, favors perky, smart tunes that swing pleasantly. The jazz tradition is never far away — the tune “Futuritmi” includes some trading fours — but they’re thoroughly modern in their approach.

It’s a nice match. The horns of ElSaffar and saxophonist Nicola Fazzini (also of XY Quartet, another band on the nusica label) blend frequently and feed positively off one another. Pieces such as “Hyper Steps” or “13th of November” feature moments of the horns’ improvising intertwining; even when it’s just a fill to augment the other horn’s solo, it’s a warm touch.

The cohesiveness of the music is surprising because the moods of Hyper+’s and ElSaffar’s compositions contrast so starkly. Hyper+’s approach feels direct, even when the composition is a bit complex, as in the irregular hopping of the tune “Hyper Steps.” ElSaffar’s songs, on the other hand, bring solemn traditional elements, including singing, to the introductions of “Kosh Reng” and “13th of November.”

All is good in the end, though, as the ElSaffar songs eventually open up into a jazzy space that the whole group can occupy. The mood might be a little downcast, but the improvising still shines. I’m thinking particularly of “13th of November,” which gets into a sensational, gray-skied group improvisation with the two horns dancing against Alessandro Fedrigo’s acoustic bass guitar. Eventually, drummer Luca Colussi launches into a snappy groove as the song finally turns a little bit sunny for a final theme.

hyper_13gennaio-02ElSaffar’s “Human Tragedy” ends the album on a more upbeat note than you might think. Set at a midtempo gallop, it sets up some fluid soling by Fazzini and a nice but brief bass solo by Fedrigo.

You can hear the entire album at — and remember, they’re a nonprofit, so purchasing one of their CDs would be a nice gesture.

December 7, 2016 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

Another Day With the Fred Frith Trio

Fred Frith Trio performs Dec. 3 at St. Cyprian’s Church (2097 Turk Street, San Francisco) on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m.

Fred Frith TrioAnother Day in Fucking Paradise (Intakt, 2016)

frith-anotherWith a title like that, you’re not expecting a bucket of sunshine. And indeed, the Fred Frith Trio’s debut album delivers a long-form improvisation that’s often dark and ghostly, with Frith playing plenty of sinister, echoey tones against the deep, nimble bass of Jason Hoopes and the often aggressive drumming of Jordan Glenn.

There’s a happy subtext to all of this. Hoopes and Glenn were students of Frith’s at Mills College. They’re part of a collective of prog/pop/folk-minded musicians Frith had mentored, work that resulted in bands like Jack o’ the Clock, which includes Hoopes and Glenn, and Frith’s own Cosa Brava.

The Fred Frith Trio debuted last year with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a tour in Europe. I’m calling Another Day in Fucking Paradise a long-form improvisation, which would match the strategy the band used at the Slim’s show, it appears to really be a set of studio improvisations stitched into one long piece with 13 track divisions. There might be some overdubs involved as well; Frith is keen on the idea of touching up an improvisation for the sake of a recording.

The album generally follows a fast-slow-fast trajectory — meaning, the tracks in the middle cover slower, subtler territory. That’s where some of the trio’s darkest and most intersting music gets made. The 11-minute “Yard With Lunatics” starts with Hoopes and Glenn spewing shards of nighttime glass but quickly levels into a spacious plateau, full of ghostly guitar and bass statements left to linger in the air, backed with swampy electronic squiggles and blips.

Of course, the faster segments are fun, too. Early in the album, “Dance of Delusion” and “La Tempesta” feature lots of Hoopes’ throttling electric bass sound and some rapid-fire clatter by Glenn. Frith is all over the place, as you’d expect — but even when Frith is in a “lead” role, it often feels like he’s tending to the overall tapestry rather than taking center stage.

The last third of the album has Hoopes turning to acoustic bass, strolling melodically through the clutter and cobwebby guitar effects of “Straw Man,” and eventually bowing on “Schelechtes Gewissen,” an incongruously organic sound against Frith’s tight staticky guitar fuzz and Glenn’s aggressive drums.

“Phantoms of Progress” has a jam feel, with droplets of psychedelic guitar echoing against Hoopes’ hopping, jazzy bass melody — it’s a very nice choice for the penultimate track. “The Ride Home” closes it out with a shuffling rhythm and some peaceful electric-bass melody. Frith hovers in the background, spinning near-rhythms and near-melodies to keep things just a little unsettling.

December 2, 2016 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

A Crimson Break, 2016

In my bachelor days shortly after college, my day-after-Thanksgiving ritual was to hole up in the apartment, stack up some albums and CDs to listen to, and fire up the Civilization computer game for a day-long session of empire-building, fueled by Stouffer’s and soda.

That was 25 years ago. Today, I have wife and kids — and, this year, a sick pet — to fill the day. The PC that used to run Civilization is long gone, and I can’t afford the time to dive into the likes of Civilization VI (and besides, the game sounds like it’s become too much like an actual job).

DGM5013_booklet_pairs_DGM5001 bookletStill, in a nod to rituals past, I did take some time shortly after midnight (technically the second day after Thanksgiving) to fire up the computer and spin some prog. The game this time was much less epic — I’ve gotten addicted to in the past week and am hoping to burn out on it before I have to go back to work. And the prog was modern-day, but still appropriate for some nostalgia: I’d finally taken the time to get my hands on King Crimson’s Live in Toronto, recorded in 2015 with the new three-drummer lineup.

I went out of my way to avoid seeing the track listing. And I did my best to try to focus on the drummers from time to time, more so than normal. It was fun.

Live in Toronto is an official bootleg, meaning the sound quality isn’t pristine. The drums, in particular, aren’t miked loudly, which is actually good — the CD delivers the DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS sound at appropriate moments, but the drumming doesn’t overshadow the rest of the music. Tony Levin comes through the mix clearly; you don’t have to struggle much to hear him.

The band has a retro touch, between Jakko Jakszyk’s very “prog” vocals (on the order of Greg Lake but crisper) and the presence of Mel Collins, the sax man who was a fixture of ’70s British prog, including early Crimson. The bluesy accents of “Pictures of a City” and “Vrooom” really come out, between the guitar choices and the sax assisting the melody.

The most obvious drummer spotlights are the all-drums track “Hell Hounds of Krim” and the triple solo during “Meltdown,” but one moment that stood out to me was during “Vrooom,” as the drummers playfully handed off high-hat rhythms. The drummer to the left (Pat Mastelotto, judging from the cover photo) plays a quick rhythm, with the center and right-hand drummer following (it’s Bill Rieflin, then Gavin Harrison, I think).

For me, the drums are particularly enjoyable during the quiet segments, with each drummer providing improvised nibbles of texture. But you can’t beat the excitement when all three furiously pound away.

Even so, live recordings don’t give you the full-body experience of being there. Much of the band’s presence is lost in my cheapo audio setup. “Red,” in particular, didn’t feel like the usual ocean wave of force — although when the three drummers kick into full gear at once, it’s massive.

The big, booming older material was welcome, but it also warmed my heart to hear the “Discipline”-like guitar weaving on “Meltdown,” only because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to that kind of Fripp/Crimson. I could actually do without “Epitaph” in general, but it makes for a powerful ending to the first disc, and being in a mood for some nostalgia, I enjoyed it. Nice place to visit.

And now the horrible confession: Between the late hour and my age, I didn’t have the stamina for Disc 2. Luckily there’s a good long weekend ahead. Long live the Crims!

(Random bonus link: Tony Levin’s tour diary, stuffed with photos, as usual.)

November 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm Leave a comment

ROVA’s Celebration of Butch Morris

ROVA: OrchestrovaNo Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)

rova-noThe beauty of conduction, Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ method for conducted improvisation, is in the silences.

Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.

No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.

In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.

ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.

The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.

“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in

Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”

“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.


Source: ROVA

The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.

Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.

And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.

November 22, 2016 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

Gustafsson, Minimalist

Mats Gustafsson & Christof KurzmannFalling and Five Other Failings (Trost, 2016)

gustafsson-fallingThese experiments in sound situate Mats Gustafsson, that firebrand of the sax, in minimalist mode — small blips, often repeated in simple percussive fashion, against the often sparse laptop electronics of Christof Kurzmann. It’s a march through a distant alien world of crackles, sine waves, and floating musical notes. The overall effect is sparse — and rewarding, if you’re in the right mood.

“Failing II,” for instance, pits Gustafsson’s restrained high-register scribbles, like the motions of an insect, against swirling, static electronic tones. Kurzmann also reflects some of the saxophone sound back into the mix for a brief spate of multi-tongued babble.

The quiet aesthetic peaks on “Failing IV,” where the clacking of saxophone keys and small, crisp curls of digital sound create a noise-music sotto voce. Similarly, “Failing V” starts off quiet as a hearing test, with Gustafsson trading tiny whispers of melody against small puffs of computerized sound.

Kurzmann does produce a sense of tension and drama, though. “Failing V” eventually introduces a quiet pulse that frees the mood and lets both players get more aggressive (but still quiet). On the less subtle scale is “Failing III,” a saxophone dirge where Kurzman is at first barely audible but gradually ups the volume and the activity (including samples of lonely sax tones) to momentarily overtake the sound.

Five of the tracks are improvisations. The sixth — the one called “Falling” as opposed to “Failing” — has Kurzmann on vocals, singing and speaking in soft, close-miked tones over a strain of electronic tones. It’s slow and atmospheric, but it’s the most aggressive track, in its own drawn-out way.


November 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm Leave a comment

Halvorson Octet

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)

halvorson-awayThis time, it’s an octet.

Mary Halvorson‘s band, once a trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), was supposed to stop growing at the septet phase, but then she encountered pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The result is another fine album of compositions where Halvorson creates uplifting tunes with rich arrangements for the four horns and generous spaces for thrilling solos.

Often, the compositions germinate from Halvorson’s penchant for spidery single-note lines. The horns team up to overlay those patterns, or to cut across them, creating a textures. Halvorson told The New York Times that her solo guitar album, Meltframe, pushed her to think about the music in more orchestral terms, and she’s applied those learnings effectively with this band.

Given the players involved, all of whom have established themselves as bandleaders, you can see why Halvorson was enthused to bring the septet back. Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock bring some ferocious sax solos, and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jacob Garchik (trombone) add a glinting bite to the music.

The upbeat title track kind of parallels the band’s evolution. It starts with the guitar-bass-drums trio playing what’s almost a doo-wop tune, with Halvorson’s guitar chattering over a catchy chord progression that eventually twists away from the norm. As the theme repeats, the horns enter in two layers — one countermelody, one backing harmony, for a nice dramatic effect. Then Alcorn gets a spotlight, adding a touch of mystery.

I have to admit, the opening theme of “Away With You” doesn’t quite click with me. It’s elegantly and smartly arranged, especially the two layers of horns, but the main theme itself leaves me flat, which makes the whole structure less compelling. The spaces that follow, though, use the band efficiently — open spaces for solos to shine and for comping players like Alcorn to add some special frills.

Overall, though, I really like the way Halvorson puts the band to use. A track that really succeeds for me is “Spirit Splitter,” which includes into stone-skipping horn countermelodies and thickly built harmonies. In a thrilling sequence, the song pits eerie, rubbery guitar chords behind a furious sax solo (Irabagon, I think) with other horns joining one by one for a sense of acceleration.

Getting back to Alcorn: Her presence on the album is often subtle. She uses her guitar in off-kilter ways for a theremin-like touch, providing a nicely contrasting companion to Halvorson’s guitar. I like the way they dance in unison on “Sword Barrel,” slowly in the intro, and then in a jumpy way later on.

A free-jazz setting suits Alcorn nicely, as shown in her tangled solo on the spacious “Fog Bank,” or her plaintive trio with Halvorson and Hébert to start “The Absolute Almost.” A complete piece in itself, that trio intro comes to a peaceful, satisfied conclusion, then gives way to the horns, in sun-through-clouds flourishes backed by pulsing guitar chords.

November 13, 2016 at 5:42 pm Leave a comment

An Amazon River Spirit in Sweden

Amazonas [featuring Biggi Vinkeloe] — Deep Talk (SODA, 2016)

deeptalk-amazonasSwedish trio Amazonas mixes jazz with the earthly sensibility of the rain forest. It’s not new age — in fact, it often sounds like a bustling take on late-night club jazz — but it carries that same sense of calm. The green fronds on the cover are an apt image.

In the past, Amazonas has included a vocalist as a fourth member. For their fifth album, Deep Talk, the group has brought in fellow Swede Biggi Vinkeloe, who’s also a frequent Bay Area visitor and resident.

I’ve mostly heard Vinkeloe in the context of free improv, but her recent album Jade, an ambitious project featuring a church organ and a choir, gave me a sense of her playing in a context closer to conventional music. She exercises some of those same muscles on Deep Talk, showing off her jazzy side on flute and sax

These tracks are improvised but focus on building melodic structures. On “My Shaking Hands,” Anders Kjellberg‘s drums set up a steady beat of sandy percussion; it’s just a drum kit, but the sound just feels at peace with itself. Annika Törnqvist‘s bass sets up a steady pulse, and the combination feels like a stroll through the gentle rain forest suggested by the band’s name and the album cover.

Above all that, Vinkeloe’s flute flutters and darts like a bird, aided by snatches of vocalizing. Thomas Gustafsson‘s soprano sax, charged up with reverb, essentially plays the part of a second flute, creating intertwining melodies over the rhythm section’s footfalls.

There’s an edge to tracks like “Mad Chat” and “Breaking News,” which spring out of the gate with galloping drums and bass, while the two horns share “soloing” duties in a collaborative way. It’s no so much a dual solo as it is a collectively painted portrait.

While much of the album evokes images of nature and peace, “The Snake” is a bit different. It’s got an oddly grooving rhythm and some of the most frenzied sax playing on the album, which makes the video’s placid images seem a bit incongruous. The video serves well, though, in presenting the band’s aggressive and peaceful sides.

November 5, 2016 at 9:57 am 1 comment

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