Can You Handle This Much Accordion?

One instrument I never even considered getting “into” was the accordion. Not only is it associated with old, corny music, but it also creates chords with a squelchy sound that I don’t find so attractive.

Pauline Oliveros plays accordion, of course, but that’s different. Then again, it also tells you that the accordion can do more than polka.

The turning point for me was classical accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, whose solo album Winter Sketches (Orchid, 2011) got me interested in the instrument’s musical possibilities and emotional range. It’s been a few years, and while I haven’t become an accordion fanatic, I’ve found myself wondering what else Mogensen has done.

So I checked out The Song I’ll Never Sing (Decapo, 2012), a program combining solo pieces with string duets and an accordion duo. The common thread is the pen of Danish composer Kasper Rofelt.

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I don’t know what really counts as virtuoso playing on an according. But the fast, accurate flurries on the “Vivace Corrente” movement of Concert Studies for Classical Accordion, First Book (2008-2009) sound great to me, as do the rapid-fire moments in the “Twilight Toccata” movement of Shadow Pieces. In the latter case, it’s the quiet, spattery passages that impress and thrill the most, not the big-flourish chords.

 
But I wonder if there’s a touch to the slow, gentle playing, as there is with a saxophone or piano. On the list of moments that should impress me, what about the thin, shimmering notes that open the track “Midnight?” What about “Nightsong 2,” played with violinist Christina Åstrand, where Mogensen lays down atmospheric chords, softly painting the background?

What’s kept me interested in Mogensen is his experimental side, which Rofelt indulges on pieces such as “Quasi Statico,” using drones and quavers to move into Oliveros territory, sounding almost like an analog-synth impersonation. In a different vein, “Light Falling,” pairs Mogensen with cellist Toke Møldrup for a tense and often subtle 10-minute piece that sometimes feels like a nighttime chase scene, sometimes like an over-the-top stage drama.

 
Then there’s the sparse, moody “Charybdis, played by MYTHOS, the accordion duo of Morgensen and childhood friend Rasmus Kjøller. It’s tense and aggressive, sometimes feeling like the instruments are chasing each other.

And it made me wonder whether Kjøller had any other output I could find. His career couldn’t just consist of being the “other” accordionist in MYTHOS, right?

alstedI found him on Agnete’s Laughter (Dacapo, 2013), an album of electronics and experimental-vocal pieces by composer Birgitte Alsted.Her liner notes describe him as a newcomer whose “official debut” was in 2013, in which case it makes sense that his resume doesn’t seem as long as Mogensen’s.

Amid the album’s array of ghostly, abstract electro-acoustic work, Alsted added a solo accordion composition: The 12-minute “Melancolia.” It’s full of icy drama and grand, slow emoting — and, in its latter half, soaring crescendos like this one:

 
Kjøller’s playing seems to hit higher and lower notes than I’ve heard on Mogensen’s albums. I don’t know if that’s a function of the type of accordion he’s playing or my own tin ears.

I do find I need a break from the accordion after a long listen. This isn’t going to become an all-consuming obsession. But I’ve enjoyed this little detour — and I haven’t even gotten to the real jazz/improv accordion heroes, Guy Klucevcek and Rüdiger Carl.

June 23, 2018 at 11:46 am 1 comment

Two Sides of Rent Romus

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleRogue Star (Edgetone, 2018)

Rent Romus’ Lords of OutlandIn the Darkness We Speak a Sound Brightness and Life (Edgetone, 2018)

Saxophonist Rent Romus has been more prolific than ever in the last couple of years, or at least it seems that way to me. He has a spate of new material out on his Edgetone Records label, including these two CDs from a couple of longstanding bands.

 
Rogue Star, by Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble, presents his more formalized side — compositions rooted in concert-hall jazz styles, with dynamic multi-horn themes, the cool touch of Mark Clifford on vibraphone, and, of course, plenty of space for group improvisation.

The Life’s Blood Ensemble started in 1999 as a trio including drummer Timothy Orr, and the group was introduced to the world on Blood Motions (Edgetone, 2001), built around compositions from Romus’ time in Copenhagen. The band has since grown in size and ambition, becoming a three-horn septet playing backed by the dual basses of Max Johnson and Safa Shokrai, who get an unaccompanied duet to start “Cassini” and in the middle of “Think!” Tracks like “Emotism” are intelligently plotted, with polished unison lines and crisply energetic solos.

“Think!” operates in bursts of ’60s-feeling energy, interspersed with composed lines shaping cohesive group improvisation. “Space Is Expanding” features big-band-style solos and drumming, possibly a nod to Sun Ra. And I love the way the title track blossoms into a loose multi-horn improvisation with a relaxed, sunny feel.

 
romus-darknessI think of Lords of Outland as Romus’ more gutteral outlet, rooted in jazz but with a contrary streak. This is one of Romus’ earliest bands, created more than 20 years ago and reviewed on this blog multiple times.

In recent years, with the steady rhythm section of Ray Schaeffer (six-string electric bass) and Philip Everett (drums), the Lords have moved into the territory of prog and cosmic rock and, increasingly, electronics played by multiple band members.

The electronics get an even bigger role on In the Darkness, mainly from the hands of Collette McCaslin. She plays trumpet and sax as well, but many of her contributions are in the form of analog blasts and bleeps, an extra touch of aggression and flamboyance. I presume it’s her delivering the solo electronics showcase on the track “Interstellar Deletion.”

The “darkness” of the title often feels like a joyous darkness, as on the nine-minute “Open Your Hand and Walk Away,” with Romus’ tenor sax calmly testifying among the din. That track also includes a good spacey showcase for Schaeffer’s bass and effects.

Many of the tracks are outright bright, really.  “From a Trunk Buried in My Closet” develops into a chaotic, celebratory flow underlaid by squelchy bass and subtle garnishes of electronics. “A Pile of Dust We Emerge” has McCaslin adding soprano sax tones for additional color.

 
“See the Path Before You” adds a touch of mysticism — a spirited sax-and-electronics duo, followed by ceremonial somberness between trumpet (also McCaslin) and sax. “As Water We Emerge Toward Us” is a more disjoint kind of free-jazz, fast-paced but with plenty of white space for a more contemplative mood.

These albums have a lot in common, starting with Romus’ fleet sax work, but they represent different angles on the process of making music. They just happen to have come out at around the same time, and they do make for a nice set.

June 17, 2018 at 10:55 am Leave a comment

This Guy Who Keeps Hanging Out With Matthew Shipp

Toxic [Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, and William Parker] — This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People (ESP-Disk, 2017)

walerian-toxicPolish woodwind player Mat Walerian has hit the radar in the last three years, thanks to his association with Matthew Shipp. Walerian and Shipp have appeared together on a clutch of ESP-Disk albums: a duo (calling themselves The Uppercut), a trio with drummer Hamid Drake (called Jungle), and Shipp’s recent quartet album, Sonic Fiction.

My introduction to Walerian was the trio Toxic, with Shipp bassist William Parker. You’d expect the album to excel anyway, but I find myself savoring the sections where Walerian sits out, leaving the Shipp-Parker duo that’s been working together since the ’90s. On “The Breakfast Club, Day 1,” they’re in a particularly casual, unhurried mode, stepping briskly but not urgently. It’s as if the weight of the years is gone, and they can be themselves without having to prove themselves.

But this is supposed to be about Walerian, and ESP-Disk’s seeming determination to make him famous. He’s worth the effort. Playing mostly saxes and clarinets, Walerian adeptly combines the jazz tradition with the new thing, playing with an easy, unforced confidence. He shifts gears smoothly and — with this trio at least — fits comfortably into the flow.

“The Breakfast Club, Day 1” is a good example, where his sax is in an avant-romantic mode: sweet lines of melody that swerve into brief overblown squeals or tiny bits of free rambling. It’s an easy and confident mood that sets up the Shipp-Parker passage that I enjoyed so much.

The title track has more in that vein, on clarinet, with Walerian mixing old-timey motifs and a pensively swingy feel.

I’m making the album sound happy-go-lucky, but of course there’s Shipp, adding ice-block chords and low-register piano rumbles. He also adds a light touch on “Peace and Respect” supporting Walerian’s bass clarinet with jazzy chord blips — and, later, with comping on the organ, apparently Shipp’s first recording on that instrument. Actually, that track gets happy as well, with the organ doing its sustained-chord thing and Parker’s bass providing a cool swing.

For a complete departure, “Lesson” opens with a double-flute duet (Parker on shakuhachi alongside Walerian’s western flute). The meditative space unfolds slowly, colored by Shipp’s careful splashes. Parker’s bass eventually arrives, patiently plucking notes in an unaccompanied zen atmosphere.

And if you’re looking for a full dose of Shipp, “The Breakfast Club, Day 2” has that stern hammering, sustain pedal fully down, as Walerian, dancing a lot more to the outside, still finds ways to carve melody from the wall of sound. But even that one comes to a swingy conclusion.

May 27, 2018 at 9:47 am 2 comments

Milford Graves Victory Lap

It’s good that we celebrate the great figures of jazz as they depart this earth one by one — but it’s important to celebrate the living legends, too. Muhal Richard Abrams got a little more time in the spotlight before making his passage last fall, which was good to see.

Milford Graves has received a few such waves of deserved attention, including one that seems to be going on now. He was the cover story in Wire magazine’s March 2018 issue, he’s recently been interviewed by Bomb, and he was the subject of a recent New York Times profile with the news hook being the Milford Graves Full Mantis documentary that recently screened at SxSW.

It helps that Graves simply makes for good copy. He’s accessible and eccentric, and his studies in biology fit somewhere between credible science and in-credible ideas of new-age psychology and mysticism. He’s a fascinating character and seems downright friendly, to boot.

But at the core of it all is the music. Through the Bomb writeup, I got curious about a couple of recordings from 1966 — two halves of a duet concert with Don Pullen, titled In Concert at Yale University and Nommo. The two albums sport just five pieces between them, each titled “P.G. I” through “P.G. V.” I’d been aware of Graves’ role in the early days of free jazz, but I’d never listened to any of that work before. Now seemed like a good time.

It’s good stuff. Pullen is splashing about on the piano with purpose and verve, while Graves is a fountain of sound — minus the snare drum, I think, as noted in this NYT passage:

He had radically remodeled his drum kit, ditching the snare drum and taking the bottom skins off his toms, getting a soupier resonance. He said the snare’s stiff-toned sound fit its European military origins better than it did his music. “The potential of how you can manipulate a vibrating drum membrane is much greater,” Mr. Graves said. He suggested that jazz drummers who use the snare might simply be “following orders without questioning those orders” — his idea of a grave sin.

I’m loving these recordings for the density of attack. I guess you could criticize it as singleminded, but it does feel pure, in a way. This is who Don Pullen and Milford Graves were at the time, and this is what they wanted to say.  They do tone it down just slightly on “P.G. II,” the longest of the five pieces. They pace themselves, each player taking occasional breaks to let the other one fill the space.

Context has a lot to do with my enjoyment of these pieces, I think. It was 1966, and while Graves denigrates attempts to attach political meaning to the music (see video at bottom), it’s hard not to ignore that there was a lot being said at the time. Right or wrong, most of us are going to feel like this music is tinted by the surrounding energy of the era.

R-1451172-1226737105.jpegWhile I was at it, I figured it was a good time to dip a little further back, to the classic 1965 ESP disc Percussion Ensemble.

A glance at the album cover will tell anyone that the ensemble is actually a duo — with Sonny Murray, so it isn’t just any duo. I find it interesting that I didn’t pick up on that. Listening blindly to a digital copy, I was picturing a four-person ensemble, with one or more players sitting out for certain phases. No idea why. The album is built on short storms of sound, executed with precision. You could call it an extended drum solo, but it’s more fun to consider it as a study in the musicality of percussion. And today, it’s a slice of history.

But part of the point here is to not dwell on the past. I want to spend some time with Graves’ more recent output. He has two solo albums on TzadikGrand Unification (1998) and Stories (2000) — and a trio with Anthony Braxton and William Parker titled Beyond Quantum (2008) that I remember being well received. But I think the place I’ll go first is the duo with John Zorn, recorded as Volume Two of Zorn’s 50th Birthday Celebration series (2004). Every concert I’ve heard from the series has been joyous, and considering Graves and Zorn apparently play together annually, this one promises to be a lot of fun.

What’s nice is that the attention around Graves isn’t a one-time thing. The 2013 Vision Festival included an opening night celebration of his career, featuring him playing with three separate groups. Don Mount posted the concert on YouTube; here’s a starting point, with Roswell Rudd.

Finally, here’s Graves in his own words, from a Q&A session after the world premiere of Full Mantis.

May 6, 2018 at 10:26 am 1 comment

More Buenos Aires Improv

I discovered saxophonist Pablo Ledesma through his recent duo album with pianist Agustí Fernandez, which I wrote up in March, and I decided to seek out more of his work.

So, here’s Ledesma in a quartet setting (“Cuarteto Orillas”), tacking long-form improv. It’s a 2015 performance at the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival. I’m particularly keen on the bassist, Mano Hurtado — he’s well amplified so you can pick up his agile sound.

The group explores briskly for a sustained period in the beginning, leading into a slow section, around the 10-minute mark, that’s still colorful and far from passive. Hurtado gets an early short solo that shows a lot of color, and I really dig his work on the straight jazz segment that starts around 19:00.

That segment leads into an explosive duet between Ledesma and drummer Javier Puyol. On the more serious side, there’s a regal movement around 40:00 that leads to a florid, elegant piano solo. The 57-minute performance culminates in a frenzied passage with the camera trained on Puyol, Ledesma, and Hurtado, the last two blowing especially hard.

It’s staggering to think there are so many musicians in the world pursuing creative music, many of them in corners I’ll never reach. That’s true of every kind of music, certainly, but this kind of improvised jazz — let alone the noisier kind, and noise-oriented improv — appeals to a smaller audience. That these lines of communication reach so far is a wonderful thing.

May 2, 2018 at 1:39 am Leave a comment

Waitaminute….

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (click for a larger size):

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It’s funny because it’s kind of true.

But beyond that: I studied engineering in school and I’ve had a long obsession with random and pseudorandom number generation.

So, this comic is basically making fun of me, personally, in the same way that my wife does. Needless to say, I love it.

April 26, 2018 at 9:29 pm Leave a comment

Tyshawn Sorey’s New-Music Piano Trio

Tyshawn SoreyVerisimilitude (Pi Recordings, 2017)

sorey-versCompared with The Inner Spectrum of Variables, Sorey’s epic ensemble work from 2016, Verisimilitude is more contained, played only by a trio: Chris Tordini (bass), Cory Smythe (piano) and Sorey himself (drums).

It isn’t a jazz piano trio. The five-minute opening, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is conventional enough in its contemplative manner — or you could convince yourself such, at least. But the more ambitious tracks depart starkly from the piano trio format, as you’d hope.

The 18-minute “Obsidian” starts with sounds that don’t seem like piano, bass, or drums. Instead, there’s a ghostly ringing created by a bow — either bass harmonics, cymbals, or both. “Obsidian” is a spacious, patient piece, with the drum kit often limited to small taps. Sorey introduces wood blocks and metal chimes as well — including a nice passage around the 7-minute mark, accompanied only by piano. Later on, though, “Obsidian” gets stormy, recalling the steel sounds of Fieldwork, the trio of Sorey (drums), Vijay Iyer (piano), and Steve Lehman (sax). “Obsidian” is loud but purposeful, with a stern finale that’s more regal than frenzied.

 
And then there’s the 30-minute “Algid November.” The sound is again sparse at first, unfolding in tiny motions surrounded by savory emptiness, and eventually building into a probing improvised segment that could be considered “normal” for a modern jazz trio. It’s quite nice.

When “Algid November” gets torrid, building off a sour-toned, low-register piano riff, it becomes a percussion showcase, built on a sour-toned, low-register piano riff and long drum rolls and cymbal waves, wood blocks, and one very long, cathartic gong crash that completes the segment, plunging us back into silence momentarily. It’s never a frenzied piece, but Tordani keeps the energy level elevated with a wiry bass ramble, pulsing around a small range of notes. There’s plenty more to come after that: slow bells and quieter bass, like calm sunshine after a rainstorm, but with a mood that’s still unsettled.

The whole album draws from Sorey’s work in new classical music, of course, but there’s an especially strong dose of “classical” in the brooding “Flowers for Prashant,” which combines images of desolation and moments of spare beauty.

It’s still fun to watch Sorey go nuts in a jazz context, of course. But his path into composing has been gratifying to follow as well, from NYC downtown jazz into these more contemplative projects. He’s building a fascinating career.

April 25, 2018 at 8:37 pm 1 comment

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