Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank 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:
Fred Frith and Barry Guy — Backscatter Bright Blue (Intakt, 2015) Lotte Anker and Fred Frith — Edge of the Light (Intakt, 2015)
Listening to these sets of duo improvisation, I was struck by how often Fred Frith plays the role of background instigator, putting colors and scrim behind his partner. This makes sense — Frith, in both cases, is the one with the rhythm instrument and the electronic gizmos. He’s got more options for painting the scenery.
Of course, I’m generalizing; Frith often takes a front-line role too. And in general, duo sessions such as these are meant to be meetings of equals.
But alongside Lotte Anker (sax) on Edge of the Light, Frith often does feel like the one focusing on the shading and toning to craft the mood behind Anker’s aggressive, choppy style. It’s easy for a listener’s ear to gravitate toward Anker’s sax as the “lead” line, as on the short “Non-Precision Approach Procedure,” where she carves crooked trails accompanied by Frith in noisemaker mode, rattling and bashing.
She and Frith seem more balanced on “Run Don’t Hide,” where Anker and Frith combine to create a sustained buzzing tension. “Anchor Point” even has Frith doing some traditional strumming, albeit to an irregular rhythm, coaxing Anker’s solo forward into faster and buoyant territory.
The Ankur album ends with “Hallucinating Angels,” a high-stress shimmer where Frith is laying down ghostly waves against Anker’s slow, jagged tones on sax. It’s an unsettling faux peacefulness that builds into a slowly maddening chatter.
As you’d expect, Backscatter Bright Blue has a different sound, a strings-on-strings tussle where the “nearness” of the instruments — the fact that they’re close relatives — makes for a more equitable pairing. As with Edge of the Light, the sound aims for cragged improvisation, with Guy’s bass often voicing a percussive crunch or high-strung bowed tones. I still sometimes feel as if Guy is doing the “main” solo with Frith adding the depth and color, but their sounds intertwine substantially.
The combination of effects, guitar loops, and extended playing sometimes make it hard to tell who’s doing what. Here’s a patch of “Moments of Many Lives” where Frith takes a lead voice, but overall, you can hear the roles blending into one another.
“Moments” is one of two epic, roughly 20-minute constructions on Backscatter Bright Blue. Later on, it includes a passage where Fright and Guy combine in a manic, minimalist babble. The piece culminates in stacks of chattering guitar loops with Guy’s fierce bowing and Frith’s guitar hammering soaring overhead.
“Where the Cities Gleam in Darkness” is a fascinating study in, well, darkness: Guy goes into attack mode with thumping, clattering bass made more abrasive by Frith’s guitar treatments. Later, Guy uses the bow for a slower but equally dark passage backed by crunching, desolate guitar effects.
Finally, there’s a special place in my heart of “The Circus Is a Song of Praise,” which enters as a mutually destructive jackhammering but ends with this faux-music-box chiming and an eerie aftertaste.
Fred Frith‘s new trio will be touring around Europe late in February. As a prelude, they’ve played a couple of shows here in the Bay Area, including one at Slim’s that I got to see recently.
It’s a long-form improvising trio — you could certainly call it a power trio — with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Electronics and loops help the bass and guitar build a screen of lingering sound, often dark and heavy. Listening to Hoopes in the band Eat the Sun was good preparation, actually.
In front of that curtain of sound, each player adds virtuosity to color the piece. The first of three long pieces they played started with a blast zone created by Frith and especially Hoopes, who was sawing away at one high note on the bass. That put Glenn in the spotlight quickly, with fluid drum rolls and high-precision hammering.
Hoopes stayed in a supporting role for a long while before finally taking a lead voice with a thick, bubbling stew of bass soloing. Hoopes is terrific on electric bass, and it’s always a treat to hear him really cut loose. This trio offers him a lot of space to do that, although you get the sense that he directs more energy toward shaping the overall sound.
Of course, Frith contributed too, with many of his usual tools, such as bows and other implements against the guitar strings. Recently, I was reading a critic raving about Frith’s detuning of the guitar during solos — about how he was able to make that “wrong” sound fit just right. I hadn’t thought about that too much, but as Frith untuned his low E string during one span, it struck me that it really was just right and in “tune” with the logic of what he was doing. Frith added a lot of conventional playing as well — crisp and chirpy sounds harkening back to his prog days.
It was a terrific set, although I have to admit I lost the thread at times. The drone or roar of the guitar and bass sometimes overwhelmed the sound for me; there was always something going on underneath it, but sometimes my mind had trouble penetrating that roar. That’s not always a bad thing (“drone” is a legitimate musical form, and this was certainly not a sleepy drone) but I could have used some more dividers in the music. It’s possible I was just too worn out on a Thursday night.
Frith’s choice of bandmates is significant. Like Art Blakey, he’s teaming up with younger musicians to infuse fresh ideas into his music. Glenn and Hoopes are part of a wave of accomplished artists he’s inspired while teaching at Mills College, where he was a mentor not only for improvisers but for songwriters pursuing thoughtful, complex pop/prog ideas — Jack o’ the Clock, the local band I’vebeenravingabout, being a prime example. (They opened the Slim’s show, but I didn’t make it to the city in time for their set, alas.)
The Frith Trio is going to spend a lot of time in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary) with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a good chance to see Frith, of course, but also to check out some of the strong talent the Bay Area has been nurturing. Here’s the tour schedule, as found on Hoopes‘ and Frith‘s web sites:
The Facebook page for improv group Grosse Abfahrt is a hoot. It’s full of fun and frivolous stuff, lots of dirigible/zeppelin-related news (because…. yeah, I have no idea), and updates related to Tuesday’s upcoming concert: June 25, with guests Alfred 23 Harth and Torsten Muller (sax and bass, respectively) at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.
Taking advantage of YouTube, they’ve inserted some videos showing what those two guys can do. Rather than re-embed those here, I’ll just add some audio at the bottom of the post.
I haven’t written about Grosse Abfahrt in a couple of years. The name translates to “great departure,” and one reader told me it can be interpreted as “great difficulty” (as in a double-black-diamond ski slope). It’s a core group of five musicians that adds guests, often two from outside North America in most cases, to produce one big improvising collective. (Harth lives in South Korea and Muller in Vancouver, and they’re both German-born.)
The aesthetic is one of “lower-case” sound spaces: lots of curled, crinkly sounds and a careful respect for silences. Usually. Being an improv group, they can go in any direction they want.
Side note: If you’re in L.A., Harth and Muller will be down there July 1, performing at the Blue Whale in a trio with drummer Ted Byrnes.
Now, regarding things-these-guys-can-do…
… Here’s Muller in duet with Ronit Kirchman (violin) in Los Angeles. They also have a duo album out: An Idea to Farewell (Wild River, 2013). Click this link or the image to the right.
… Here’s Harth in an improv-jazz setting, a trio with Wilbur Morris (bass) and Kevin Norton (drums/vibes), taken from the album Waxwingweb@ebroadway (Clean Feed, 2001). First, from the piece “Interstice,” a quieter burble that’s more in the Grosse Abfahrt style:
… And, just for fun, Harth in that same piece, going for big sound and an Ayler-like crescendo:
… Finally, here’s a sample of a then-unreleased 2009 Grosse Abfahrt session provided to KZSU by Tom Djll. I posted another snippet from that session previously, but this one’s better; it streteches for a few minutes to demonstrate the ebb and flow of the music. Guests include Frank Gratkowski on clarinet. Oh, and don’t turn the volume up too much; it does get louder.
Didier Petit & Alexandre Pierrepont — Passages: A Road Record (Rogue Art, 2012)
Here’s an interesting exercise in turning process into a nearly tangible contributor to the art. Cellist Didier Petit teamed up with prominent North American musicians (Marilyn Crispell, Joe Morris, Hamid Drake, Larry Ochs….) in duos and trios, improvising to the sounds of a poem that we don’t get to hear (with the exception of one short passage).
So, Alexandre Pierrepont’s poem, Le Jardin des Cranes, is reduced to context, like the walls or the weather. It’s the backbone of the entire album, but it’s invisible.
Everything about Passages is a discovery, starting with the packaging: It looks like a typical Rogue Art softpack until you tear the plastic off and realize you’re holding a 48-page booklet. The CD itself blends segues many of the music tracks together, often with an interstitial sound from Petit and Pierrepont’s travels (airplanes, street crowds, etc.) — creating a subtly shifting tableaux, like a long drive where you suddenly realize the scenery has changed. The music, excerpted from thirteen studio sessions, is a mix of lyrical moods and aggressive sparring.
Here’s how it worked. For each session, a selection of the poem was chosen and translated to English. The guest musician(s) and Petit got acquainted, warmed up a little, then improvised — with the poem segment read into their ears multiple times, including one reading by a special guest (William Parker was one) who would read the French passage phonetically. The CD takes a few minutes from each session, with any part of the musical exercise being fair game.
I love the intangible sense that the process is a major component of the art. What’s being presented is not just the music, but it’s surroundings, too.
It’s the same feeling I get from the “Drawing Restraint” series of works by artist Matthew Barney. Not the movie with Björk in it, but the actual drawings that were the earliest stages of the project. He’d set up some ridiculous physical constraint, such as swinging from the ceiling of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and draw. The MOMA example produced pencil drawings on a piece of paper attached to a wall; Barney had to swing over, draw, then swing back. The drawings themselves are a wreck, as you might imagine, and quite uninformative. It’s the whole process that gives the project the sheen of art.
(This reminds me that I’ve never written up Jean Derome’s album, Le Magasin Du Tissu, a fun application of random processes.)
The music is not a wreck. It’s very good. There’s even a trajectory: It starts in stern tones with Andrea Parkins and Gerald Cleaver, followed by Chicago sessions that are quite sublime, such as the gentle, jazzy groove of Nicole Mitchell’s flute backed by Petit’s cello and singing. His piece with drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang is like an ominous little tribal dance, full of tension and rhythm, topped off by some gruff vocal howling by Petit.
François Houle, on clarinet, gets to represent Canada during the L.A. sessions. He’s got an extended dialogue with Petit that floats from lyrical tones to a choppy call-and-response. Bay Area hero Larry Ochs closes out the album with a session that includes the one time we get to hear the poem.
The booklet is more than liner notes; it’s a template and a road journal. It includes a poetic textual “map” of the 13 studio sessions, the entirety of Pierrepont’s poem, and an explanation of the whole project, written by Yves Citton. And photos, of course, taken during Petit and Pierrepont’s sojourn from Woodstock to New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Passages is a wonderful pack of surprises and a good argument as to why the CD can still have a place in the digital world.
Ron Anderson, Robert L. Pepper, David Tamura, Philippe Petit — Closed Encounters of the 4 Minds (Public Eyesore, 2012)
Here’s a frenetic mix of noise and rock and improv, a constant tumbling of sounds, with lots of grating (in a good way) electronics providing a basslike backdrop.
It’s musical dodgeball, a bombardment that starts early in the first track: incoming sci-fi volleys and the fast tremor of Ron Anderson’s guitar. David Tamura’s sax blazes and squeaks with high lung power.
It’s the sax and the guitars spike the energy levels (you might be familiar with Anderson’s frenetic tendencies from The Molecules or PAK) and provide a semblance of rhythm. But don’t picture metal or ferocious speed-punk. In fact, there’s a cross between wildness and musicality in here. Crazy sax or guitar scribblings in one moment, a near-pleasant melodicism (backed by the same crazed, pulsing attitude) in the next.
Even a relatively calmer track like number 5 (they’re all untitled), with its zoned-out buzzing like a synthetic sitar, has the disquiet of David Tamura’s cranky sax and some ominous guitar electronics.
The album is often like a conversation where everybody wants to be heard at once, and in many contexts, that wouldn’t be a good thing. But you have to consider the intent. This music aims to be dynamic and aggressive — they fill the page with scribbles — and I love the bustling chaos it creates. It works.
That said, some points are a bit much. I’m torn as to whether I enjoy Track 4. It’s got an alarm-blare sound that just goes and goes and goes. Some days, I can take it as part of the scenery. Other days, I’m ready to reach through the speakers and rip out somebody’s laptop battery to end the pain. The loops of saxophones and of a keyboard-like sound (as on The Who’s “Eminence Front” — it might be the electric psalterion (harp) played by Petit) can feel either nicely juxtaposed or relentlessly annoying, depending on my mood.
But on most tracks, I enjoy the musical assault, and I like the structures they’ve built with the music. The 10-minute finale (track 8) progresses through phases that could each be described as a descent into madness. One segment has the feeling of shooting down a tunnel, with a pulsing fuzz in the bass spectrum representing the walls speeding past, until it disintegrates into a crunchy, staticky sound bed for the other instruments. It finally gives way to a rhythmic guitar chop that sets up the noisy ending.
The first moments of the album:
Track 5. Zoned-out buzzing that’s still not peaceable:
JACK is a new arts space in Brooklyn, an emptied-out storefront innocently tucked away in the hipster enclave of Willambsurg. Here, I got to experience an evening of aggressive noise.
The intention was a CD release show for an improvising trio called Iron Dog, but the theme was aggressive noise, with three like-minded groups playing one long improvisation each.
Mostly geared toward theater, JACK is an eclectic spot. It hosts Tuesday-night readings of French plays translated into English, for instance. And it hosts experimental music, including occasional concerts titled Aural Dystopia — big, noisy improvisation. My friend Dan clued me in about the November installment, and I made plans to go get a taste.
This was the same day as my Central Park tour, so after relocating my things to Brooklyn, where I would spend the night, I took a quick nap before heading into the subway. It wasn’t going to be a complicated trip, but it was still comforting to catch a glimpse of Jim Black — part of the night’s opening act — farther down the subway platform. At least I’d picked the right train.
I arrived early with the intention of finding an espresso, which turned out to be a little tricky. Old Brooklyn still dominates the neighborhood; Starbucks hasn’t yet overrun the two or three blocks that I explored. I did find a hipster grocery boutique called Brooklyn Victory Garden that gladly sold me a coffee and a dinosaur cookie. You can’t turn down a dinosaur cookie.
The show started with heavy saxophone blasts from Briggan Krauss, a choppy, ragged attack like a helicopter or a half-speed machine gun. That set the tone for the trio Han Blasts Panel, consisting of Krauss (sax, guitar), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Jim Black (drums), with all three adding electronics of various shapes.
We got to hear plenty of Black’s offbeat grooves, which start out tight and then unravel, as if slowing down (as I’d recently heard in his Nels Cline duo). Hasselbring sent the trombone through a variety of effects, and when he shut them off, the pure trombone sound suddenly felt bright and fresh.
Black added electronics played off of a pad, including low, floor-rattling bass tones that worked especially well when Krauss was playing electric guitar. Towards the end, Krauss was riding a one-note groove, settling himself as the rhythm section while Hasselbring soloed and Black contributed those bass notes and some electronics crackles. When Krauss broke out of the groove, Black switched immediately back to drums, and the piece exploded into a new life. Great sequence.
Next up was The Home of Easy Credit, the duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen (sax, vocals) and Tom Blancarte (standup electric bass), who performed a set of sustained fury. They opened with Jensen playing smooth, mellifluous runs on sax, but Blancarte put a stop to that with a hard bass attack, using sticks and fingers to pull out loud, sticky notes, as if he were extracting teeth from the instrument.
(Jensen and Blancarte’s Web domains seem to have been replaced by spam sites, so use caution searching for them. Probably better to look them up on Facebook.)
Jensen’s demonic growls were spooky enough, but it’s a moment of overdubbed syllables, a falsetto harpies’ chorus that she built up from loops and echoes, that’s going to turn up in my nightmares.
Their set included some gorgeous cooldown segments (definitely in the minority) and some moments of mood-shifting that showed an attentive listening that’s the key to good improvisation.
Then it was Iron Dog‘s turn, performing their piece in the dark accompanied by abstract video. Sarah Bernstein played violin and recited poetry for certain passages. Stuart Popejoy played electric bass, usually so heavily distorted and pedaled-up as to become a roar of electronics. Andrew Drury at the drum kit was a treat to watch; I loved his jazz-influenced drumming, but he spent a larger amount of time in a soundmaking space, bowing his cymbals and creating other scraped noises.
Bernstein’s poems are written down, but she selects them on the fly, inserting them into the flow as one would a violent cadenza or a steady backing sound. She did this deftly, and the improvisation overall had a strong, episodic feeling, to the point that I thought it might have had a pre-arranged structure. But it was all improvised, with the group collectively steering the shifts in mood and intensity.
It wasn’t always that way, Popejoy told us after the show. It just goes to show what can happen when a band plays together for a long time, developing an instinct for one another’s moves.
The poems became a focal point, but Bernstein’s violin playing was terrific, too. (Turns out she plays in settings like Braxton ensembles.) At one point near the end, she sawed ferociously, fingers ratting up and down the neck, with the other two gradually building up until white-noise intensity. Another moment that stands out in memory is when Popejoy played with a fingerpicked guitar-like serenity, but with the bass producing a sound like shrieking steam.
As for the poems themselves, there was one about conversation being an accident, something you always wish could be undone. Another was a word collage — “didactic,” “auto,” several others — echoed back. Bernstein would repeat the words at a different tempo so that the echoed loop brought up thewords at unpredictable, incongruous moments. Simple idea, but I liked the sound of it.
The new Iron Dog album is called Interactive Album Rock, and it’s good. So, they’re on my map now, as is JACK.