Posts tagged ‘free jazz’

Achievement Unlocked: Vortex Jazz Club

The Markov Chain at the Vortex Jazz Club, London, on 2 December 2015Early this month, I made my first-ever trip to the UK, visiting London on business. There wasn’t much time to get around, especially considering we were near the London ExCel conference facility, well to the east of anything in London that I’d heard of.

But I did sneak out on my final night to visit the Vortex Jazz Club, a cozy second-story music space and bar that’s been a cornerstone of creative jazz worldwide. Saxophone legend Evan Parker performs there once a month on a kind of permanent residency.

Cafe Oto, nearby, also features plenty of experimental music, but I had only one evening available. The Markov Chain, a piano-bass-drums combo of improvised jazz, won out.

Both venues are in the neighborhood of Dalston, one of those formerly low-rent areas where ethnic foods and skateboarders collide with redevelopment money and hipsters. The area has that city grime to it, and the surface similarities to Manhattan’s Lower East Side were actually a little comforting.

vortexThe Vortex itself is off the main drag, in a small plaza that’s now named Aim Bailey Place after Derek Bailey. The shot at left, from the Hackney Hive site, gives you a pretty good impression.

It’s a friendly place where they didn’t mind that I wasn’t drinking alcohol that night. (I honestly felt bad about that and contributed to the till via multiple mineral waters and couple bags of crisps.) The place filled up by showtime — many attendees being friends of the band, certainly, but not all. I wasn’t the only one who’d staked out a table early, and music fans’ reservations filled out the front row.

The Markov Chain is a free improvisation group that infuses plenty of jazz idiom into their playing — although extended technique did show up a bit during the show, particularly with bassist Tim Fairhall.

Pianist and bandleader Adam Fairhall (Tim’s brother) has had a couple of other projects out, including The Imaginary Delta, a septet suite released by Slam Productions. Possibly the best known member of the trio is drummer Paul Hession, who’s recorded frequently for Slam and Bruce’s Fingers — the latter having also put out The Markov Chain’s eponymous CD.

markovchain-stThe show at the Vortex started with Adam Fairhall doing a solo piano piece lasting maybe 20 minutes. It was a stunning mashup of old and new jazz styles, bursting with references to boogie-woogie and ragtime. Lots of blues colors, and some near-classical, concert-hall-style jazz, and sprinklings of free improv.

One particularly memorable stretch built off of a rolling 6/8 boogie-woogie theme in the bassline, with right-hand playing that was tonal and massive, built from fistfuls of chords.

After a break, the Markov Chain played two pieces — a long improvisation tracking maybe 40 minutes, and a 10-minute “encore” piece.

The longer piece was an exercise in sustained energy — not one solid wall of music, but a fast-paced series of episodes. I don’t recall any long quiet stretches, although there were plenty of passages where one player dropped out, leaving the other two in an extended duet.

Hessian is an excellent drummer, a whirlwind with a feather touch. And Tim Fairhall was captivating on bass — lots of pizzicato with big intervallic leaps, and later, a string-mashing bowing style.

The 10-minute followup stared in a mode crystalline and careful, one of the few settings they hadn’t explored in the longer piece.

I liked these guys. I’ve been enjoying their CD, where every track is an anagram of The Markov Chain. (“Monk Crave Hi Hat” is a particularly catchy title.) I was exhausted from the work week, but I was glad to see the Vortex and to experience this music. I’m rarely unhappy after I’ve taken the extra effort to go find out what’s out there.

December 19, 2015 at 3:57 pm Leave a comment

Aram Shelton’s Resounder

Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank RosalyResounder (Singlespeed, 2015)

Shelton, Lonberg-Holm, Rosaly -- Resounder (Singlespeed, 2015)Resounder is a bustling trio improv session with electronic enhancements added by saxophonist Aram Shelton after-the-fact. But the effect can be subtle. In fact, the players are so adept at wringing sounds from their instruments that you have to wonder if some of the exotic sounds are coming from the original session.

I say that because I first listened to Resounder blind, not knowing about Shelton’s post-processing. Once I knew it was there, my ears started playing tricks on me, particularly on “Bring Focus.” That buzzing tinge in the sax — is it acoustic or electronic? Did the sax just echo a few notes artificially, or was that my imagination? Now there, that was definitely a sax looped back into the mix … you get the idea.

“Fading Memory,” with Fred Lonberg-Holm‘s cello altered to spit ribbons of metal — that’s a more obvious example. Drummer Frank Rosaly gets his turns too, I think. One segment (which I now can’t find) has his toms and bass drum melted together into a low-flying tonal hum. Or was that just my imagination again?

Some of the electronics are more overt, which is good fun. Longberg-Holm gets plenty of electronics treatment to create dull roars and guitar-hero antics. There’s a passage later on “Bring Focus” that’s a long ramp to a crescendo, a nice slow burn of rumbling with a buzzy edge to the cello. And when it’s done, the band drops out, leaving behind a tinny sine wave — it’s a good dramatic moment.

Shelton had planned this to be a regular trio recording, just three good friends getting together in Chicago, and they turned in a crackling set. It’s only afterward that Shelton started considering enhancing the sounds, and it adds depth to what was already a densely packed session. Sometimes there’s some playback that literally adds another voice to the group. More often, though, it just sounds like more than three people, as Shelton’s processing creates new surfaces for the ear to cling to.

Listen to an excerpt of “Hope of Symbioses” on YouTube:


… Or to “Fading Memory” on Soundcloud:

September 23, 2015 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

Rempis

Rempis Percussion QuartetCash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)

Rempis Percussion Quartet -- Cash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)Part of the trick in listening to the opening of “Water Foul Run Amok,” the 39-minute spotlight piece on Cash and Carry, is to not get too mesmerized by Dave Rempis‘ free-jazz acrobatics. He’s shredding it up on sax, with blazing, buzzing passages calling up spirits of all sorts. Sometimes he’s tracing long-lined ideas; sometimes, it’s a gruff, Brotzmann-like phrase that gets repeated a few times for emphasis. He’s spinning quite a tale, either way, one that’s easy to get lost in.

But this is the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and part of the aesthetic is that two drummers are backing this music. The insistent activity — all that busy-ness — is a key part of the sound

So it’s important to take a figurative step back and try to let all this music soak into your skin, not just Rempis but also the bustle and clatter from Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, split into separate speakers. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten rounds out the sound on bass, keeping up with fast pizzicato.

That blast of activity lasts a little more than eight minutes. The majority of the piece is an exercise in restraint, with the players carefully crafting sounds and moods. The first phase of this, after that initial blast, is more than a simple cooldown; it features some emotive, color-painting sax from Rempis and an ominous bowed base from Flaten.

Daisy and Rosaly each get to show their stuff in separate solos later in the piece. It’s a nice showcase for each of them. But the defining moments for the band, in my opinion, come when the four of them are playing full-tilt, creating a unified wall of free jazz.

I’d suggest a similar strategy for other bands that double up the rhythm section — the Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet, which I just reviewed — or the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core and the John Lurie National Orchestra, which I’d compared here.

“Better Than Butter,” the other track on Cash and Carry, is more of a slow simmer, gaining energy during its 15 minutes. This is another good taste of the four members working as a unit — first in disjoint, slower motions, carving out the shape of a piece, and then in more of a jam mode. It’s cooking, not at the full-tilt level of “Water Foul,” but at a midtempo step that’s  almost danceable during a late stretch where Flaten settles on an ebullient pulse. It makes for a nice ending to the journey, hearing the four members propping up one another to create such a warm, welcoming space.

Here’s a taste of that frenzied opening to “Water Four Run Amok:”

August 17, 2015 at 3:06 pm Leave a comment

Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)

esp-front-cropWith the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.

During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.

You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.

The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.

zitro-cropJames ZitroZitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.

Sonny SimmonsMusic from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (ESP-Disk, 2006)New GhostLive Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.

Ellis MarsalisRuminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.

April 26, 2015 at 9:01 am 1 comment

Tim Daisy: The Drums of October

Tim DaisyOctober Music, Vol. 1 (Relay, 2014)

daisy-octoberIn addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.

Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.

“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.

Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.

Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.

You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:

April 9, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

Adam Lane Trio

Adam Lane TrioAbsolute Horizon (NoBusiness, 2013)

Adam Lane Trio; click to go to NoBusiness Records“Spontaneous compositions,” Adam Lane calls them, rather than group improvisations, and the way these pieces build, the term seems to fit. Some of these improv-jazz pieces feel like they’ve got the blueprint of a composition behind them.

Take the very gradual buildup at the start of “Absolute Horizon.” When Darius Jones enters with his trademark sax wailing (the microtone-packed faltering that comes close to a human voice), he parses out the melody obeying bars-of-four patterns from bassist Lane and drummer Vijay Anderson. The group stops for a Lane bass solo that eventually becomes the intro to a slower, more tense group segment — a nicely planned trajectory that wasn’t formally planned.

Here’s a bit of that weepy Jones sax:

“Run to Infinity” could been a monumental ’60s free-jazz classic, if you hadn’t told me who was playing. The early improvising builds up to a fast bass/drums rhythm, over which Jones chooses to play a slow, serious melody — shades of free speech and radical ideas coming up through the ages — sounding meaningful even as he starts digging and swinging hard. This is free jazz getting down to business, picking a spot to groove and letting the music ride from there.

I’ve always used the word “fluidity” to describe Lane’s bass playing, and you get plenty of that effect here. On the cautiously quiet start to “Apparent Horizon,” you can really savor Lane’s bass against Jones’ sax. He plays in faster modes — both improvising and really fast bebop-bass walking — during the breezy, fast first half of “Light.” He also gets to play rock star in spots; “Stars” pulls out some electric effects that turn the bass into a staticky maelstrom battling the other two players.

Jones himself — who’s previously included Lane in his band — is at home on this album with his storytelling style of sax improvising, freely flowing and emoting in solos that seem more like conversations. Anderson is his usual hyperkinetic self, hammering out blindingly fast, precise rhythms, even when playing with abandon.

“Apparent Horizon,” after its quiet intro, dives into a serious groove around a Lane bass riff. Here you get Jones soloing in a more traditional free-jazz role, with Anderson clattering away on sturdy toms and tapped cymbals.

On “Light,” Anderson and Lane mess with playful beats, letting a couple of upbeat, rhythms (one that’s almost silly) develop into toe-tapping segments. It’s nice material for Jones to work with, and it makes for a bright closer to the album.

January 2, 2014 at 8:01 am Leave a comment

Oakland Free Jazz Roosts at Duende

Duende's dining area: The view from the music loft.

Duende’s dining area: The view from the music loft.

Every other Monday at Duende, the musicians’ collective of the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society takes over over the restaurant’s music loft — a continuation of a series formerly held at The Layover. They present some outstanding local music along with some jazz vinyl DJ’ing before the show and between sets.

The vinyl part shouldn’t be underestimated. I didn’t look through the crate they brought, but it seemed like a pretty deep cut of history. Between sets on the night I attended, the musicians were marveling at the early, early Rahsaan Roland Kirk LP that was spinning.

Overall, the evening has the vibe of a cozy jazz hangout, complete with really good food and wine downstairs. I’m glad I finally made it out there a couple of Mondays ago.

Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.

Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.

Both bands that night played improvised music in jazz settings. The first set was by the BAG Trio — Vijay Anderson (drums), Sheldon Brown (sax), and Ben Goldberg (clarinet), who have been playing in this configuration for a while.

Anderson set down an aggressive groove while Goldberg and Brown wandered jointly, often pushing each other’s energy level up to a breaking point, then receding. One of these surges ended in both of them playing long, shrill tones — kind of a guitar-hero climax that was followed by babbling quick notes to bring the mood back to earth. I found myself paying the most attention to Anderson, though, his quick hands doing some impossibly fast clacketing to lay down those aggressive rhythms.

Johnston's quintet.

Johnston’s quintet.

The second set, by the Darren Johnston Quintet, was just what a late-night set ought to be — maybe less white-hot, but still intense, with David Boyce’s sax and Johnston’s trumpet jamming over vibraphone harmonies. The music settled into more traditional patterns of soloing, including one nice stretch where just Boyce and Jordan Glenn (drums) took over, really digging their heels in.

Johnston pushed the sound outward with a lot of extended tricks — squeaks, air-through-the-horn, plunger-mute antics. It was great stuff, and I found myself thinking these guys would have been a great listen on a more inside, composition-based gig as well.

You can follow the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society on Facebook or just keep checking the Duende calendar for upcoming shows. Darren Johnston reappears on Dec. 9, this time with a trio; Michael Coleman’s Sleepover (led by pianist Coleman) will perform as well. And Vijay Anderson’s trio (is it really his trio, or more a collective thing?) performs on Dec. 23 along with the Aram Shelton Group.

DSCN4269

December 3, 2013 at 11:49 pm Leave a comment

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