Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

Aruán Ortiz: Inside Rhythmic Falls

Aruán OrtizInside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt, 2020)

booklet_339.inddTo my suburban ears, the term “Cuban,” applied to music, means flamboyant costumes and screamy horns. But Cuban-born Aruán Ortiz’s Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017) was a solo piano album characterized by careful motion and stern, lingering chords. His aesthetic allows for surges of free jazz — I’ve seen them live — but Ortiz’s music is a lot about patience.

Same for Andrew Cyrille. His recent work on ECM has explored quiet spaces and the hovering flow of slow time. They make a fitting pair on Inside Rhythmic Falls, which is mostly a duo album with Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera joining occasionally.

Fitting, to the point where this sometimes sounds like a drums album that happens to have piano on it. Pensive tracks such as “Argelier’s Discipline” use Cyrille’s quiet taps as a narrative, with Ortiz adding color on piano.

Even the brisk, spattering “Conversation with the Oaks” has a cerebral side, providing plenty of space to savor Cyrille’s restrained backdrop, his watercolor dabs of snare.

Among the less abstract tracks, “Golden Voice” romps rhythmically, and the spacious “De Cantos y Ñáñigos” has the feel of a deconstructed ballad. “Inside Rhythmic Falls, Part I (Sacred Codes)” is a busy moment featuring Herrera, a forest of clacking behind Cyrille soloing on toms. It feels serious rather than celebratory; this is not made-for-TV Cubanism. It’s more like a a canvas for Cyrille’s soloing, and it’s about communication and culture, not excess.

The album starts with Ortiz’s poem “Lucero Mundo,” spoken by loose overlapping voices over quiet drums. The contrasting closer, “Para ti nengón,” backs Ortiz with rhythmic voices chanting a popular Cuban song. It’s a fittingly quiet coda, with Ortiz casually tossing around some jazzy licks and runs.

Jared Redmond, Center for New Music, 2/26/20

jaredredmond-park-seongsu00059340
Photo: Seongsu Park. Source.

The last live show I saw before going into social isolation was pianist Jared Redmond giving a recital at the Center for New Music (San Francisco). The program was very modern, leaning toward brand new compositions, the kind built of hammering densities and streaks of silence. Lots of reliance on the uppermost and lowermost registers, often together.

Redmond kept the program accessible and fun by introducing each piece in detail, discussing some of the themes and ideas at play. Composer Jung-eun Park was on hand for Redmond’s performance of her Moto Perpetuum (2019-20), explaining that the title comes from the sense of perpetual motion in traditional classical music (Bach, for example), those seemingly endless rivers of notes.

Kurt Rohde was there as well, telling the history of his composition Trotsky’s Icepick, which Redmond had played previously in an earlier form (2018) that Rohde later revised (2019). The piece was inspired by the death of Leon Trostky as depicted in a play, where Trotsky fends off and defeats his attackers but is mortally wounded. On the piano, the initial strike was represented by piercing stabs at the very highest keys. The ensuing battle made use of very high and low registers, sometimes in mirror-image progressions that approached the middle of the keyboard from both ends.

As the piece would down, there was a particular sound Redmond made, a chord muffled and then resonating. I don’t know how he did that. Prepared piano would have been my guess, but he didn’t “prepare” anything, and I didn’t see his feet moving on the pedals. Maybe he had two pedals depressed at once? At any rate — a new sound, organically produced. That was intriguing.

Redmond’s own Doth (2019) was packed with brutal and complex snarls of low notes, reflecting his interest in metal music. The Ji-ye Noh composition Gloria (2019-20) stuck to lots of high-register twisting paths. And Redmond closed with Giacinto Scelsi’s Un Adieu (1988), the last piece the composer wrote — gentle and sad, and full of ringing overtones.

Conditions permitting, Redmond is due to return in early 2021 for a pair of piano and electronics recitals, according to his concert calendar. He lives and works in South Korea — hence, his access to new Korean compositions — but seems to have ties to the Bay Area. I think he was even wearing a Berkeley T-shirt under his concert jacket.

I could post a video of Redmond playing Ligeti, but I think I’d rather show off some of his composing. Here’s “Hemistichs” (2008) for string sextet.

Casual Bombast on Piano and Drums

Paul F. Murphy and Larry WillisExposé (Murphy Records, 2008)

murphy-exposeI know Paul Murphy’s drumming through his work with saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Glenn Spearman. I remember the aptly named Trio Hurricane, with Spearman, Murphy, and bassist William Parker bringing heavy thunder.

Exposé is now more than a decade old, but when it showed up on eMusic’s “recent additions” list, Murphy’s name caught my eye. I didn’t know what to expect from him in a duo setting, especially paired with a piano, although he’s apparently recorded with Larry Willis multiple times. Exposé presents powerhouse drumming from a subtler angle — lots of tapping cymbals and feathery tom rolls on the solo track “Labyrinth,” for example. Willis brings the crystalline sounds of jazzy piano, but in an edgier vein than cocktail music, with the right improvisational spirit to keep the session outward-facing.

The title track starts slowly with what might be a nod to Cecil Taylor — not in terms of torrential playing but in the kinds of harmonies Taylor composed with. From there, Willis goes more lush and bright, weaving through jazz idioms while Murphy keeps up a continuous rustle, busy but not overwhelming.

The phrase “Liquid Dance” makes for an excellent track title. Murphy keeps up a busy, almost relentless patter but at a low volume, while Willis applies the right restrained, contemplative splashing to fit the name.

Some contemporary mainstream jazz leans in this direction. I’m thinking of labels like Origin Records — pleasing to the ear, but striving to create something new out of familiar cloth. This session wouldn’t be out of place there. Murphy fills space in a way that might be off-putting to some listeners, but I came here for the drums, so I’m happy to focus on the robust energy more than the relaxing moments.

Tania Chen and Feldman and Cage

Tania Chen, Wobbly, and Thomas Dimuzio will perform Triadic Memories at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco) on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Tania Chen and Jon LeideckerMorton Feldman: Triadic Memories (Knitted, 2018)

Tania Chen (with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leidecker)John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore, 2018)

feldman score

Tania Chen champions the piano music from the quadrant of Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and John Cage. It was one of her John Cage albums that inspired me to start writing something here. But then I found out Chen is going to be performing Morton Feldman’s 90-minute “Triadic Memories” with real-time electronics responses provided by Wobbly (Jon Leidecker) and Thomas Dimuzio. So I took a detour to hear her 2018 recording of the solo piano piece.

The composition is what you’d expect from late Feldman: lingering, drifting phrases, more relaxing than ominous, organized in delicate, spacious rhythmic doodles, and while you can run the piece as comforting background noise, you can also use the stillness to focus yourself into the moment, clinging to the notes and phrases against the deep silence. It’s also an interesting exercise in perception. The piece consists of arpeggios that spell out dissonant, prickly chords, but the melting-ice pace turns them into sparkling gems.

The added electronics are based on what’s coming out of the piano — Leidecker presumably attached microphones to the instrument, as he and Dimuzio will do in the Jan. 16 performance. On the CD, electronics appear sparingly, trying to accent the sound without being distracting. A passage starting around 17:20 includes a deep-water aftereffect. Another at around the 26-minute mark is more overt and mischievous but still doesn’t upset the overhanging atmosphere.

But that’s not really what I sat down to write about. I wanted to write about John Cage.

Chen-Electronic-Music-For-Piano-OV-262As you’d expect from a Cage piece, there’s a game aspect and a touch of whimsy behind Electronic Music for Piano, and I think it’s more enjoyable if you listen knowing the rules. Producer Gino Robair recorded Chen performing the piece three times — in separate duets with Toop and Moore in London, and with Leidecker in Berkeley. The CD knits the performances together with help from a “chance-based system” deciding which sound sources would play at which times.

“Sound sources” seems to include not just the six players (counting Chen three times) but also multiple angles, as microphones were all over the place — under the piano soundboard or at different points in the room, all to capture the mix of sounds persisting in air. Pure silence counted as a source and was weighted into the system, as were special options for “piano tracks only” and “non-piano tracks only.”

The overall mood is a fuzzy darkness: Lots of buzzing and roaring (not just Thurston Moore, but also the amplified piano soundboard), alternating with plinks and plucks from the piano, alternating with thick silence.

chen cage silences

About the silence — you don’t put on a John Cage record if you can’t tolerate silence, and this one delivers, with slabs of blankness lasting one to three minutes. “Silence” also factored into the original performances. One silence at around the 8-minute mark is broken by the tiniest flicker of piano strings, almost accidental. That, and the organic way in which the piano sound returns, suggest this was “organic” silence — a very quiet moment that really did happen in the studio.

That said, Thurston Moore’s roar tends to dictate the tone at any given moment — especially in the early minutes, where he’s either ON or off. Much as I enjoyed the chance aspect of the recording, I have to admit it creates jarring results, especially when the guitar kicks in or out. Take the excerpt below, for instance. In the spirit of the recording, I’m starting it at exactly the 15-minute mark, and it includes two silences of roughly one minute apiece.

Fujii Alone

Satoko FujiiInvisible Hand (Cortez Sound, 2017)

invisible-hand-solo-cd-coverSolo albums aren’t the norm for Satoko Fujii. She’s released four of them since 1996; compare that with her total of 79 albums plus the seven she plans to release this year. As you can tell from her work in small ensembles, Fujii is not to be trifled with, and you get to hear her in full force on the new double CD, Invisible Hand.

Being the only musician on the album, Fujii is, by definition, in command here — but the sure-handedness of these pieces lets you know she is in command. On most tracks, Fujii picks a theme — often one of the familiar compass directions related to jazz or classical — and explores it with conviction, adding deviations when the moment is right.

The stylistic palette is wide. “I Know You Don’t Know” is big, stern, and serious, like a classical piece, while “Gen Himmel” is a big-hearted gospel treat with waves of emotion. “Floating” blossoms into attractive, new-agey melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1980s ECM album; I’m making it sound corny, but I’m really enjoying that track.

One of my favorites is “Green Cab,” which surprises you by springing into a fun, rolling blues groove.

 
Fujii doesn’t abandon her association with free jazz; these pieces do come with avant-garde touches. “Green Cab” opens with zither-like sweeps of the piano strings and the tight clicking of prepared piano. “Floating” opens with prepared piano, too — a percussion solo of contemplative wind chimes.

At the far end of the spectrum is the title track, built around the sounds of Fujii directly manipulating the strings: subtle buzzing, sparse clicking. It’s a spacious, contemplative exercise, and when Fujii eventually shifts into conventional playing, it’s slow and serious.

Invisible Hand is notable not only for the span of Fujii’s styles but for its bold style and sure-handed statements. Its style sets up an intriguing contrast to another excellent solo piano album, Matt Mitchell’s førage, which I’ll be reviewing next.

Ron Stabinsky Stands Alone

Ron StabinskyFree for One (Hot Cup, 2016)

stabinsky-freefor-cropThe newest Mostly Other People Do the Killing record was notable for the new voice of Ron Stabinsky on piano. (He was also on Blue, their Kind of Blue reproduction.)

Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.

As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:

 
Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.

“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.

One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.

You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.

Discovering Charles Wuorinen

A bit of advice on Twitter last night from the ever-wise Ethan Iverson:

I think I’ve heard of Wuornin. Sure, what the heck.

A YouTube search directs me to a New York chamber outfit called Decoda.

Hey, that’s pretty cool. I like the pulsing feel. I have to admit, there are parts where the conga drums don’t feel like they “fit,” as if they’re just in there for the randomness of writing a piece for conga drums.

“Blue Bamboula” turns out to be a driven, bouncy piano piece with some rapid-fire quietude toward the end. There’s a partial version on YouTube with an image of adorable kittens, but I’d rather post a full version. This performance is by Molly Morkoski.

It’s always nice, and sadly kind of novel, to indulge in the music of a living composer. Iverson quickly corrected his tweet by noting Wuorinen is 78, not 79, but that doesn’t matter — it was still a good tip.

Jim Black and the Piano

Jim Black TrioSomatic (Winter & Winter, 2011)

It’s very hard not to draw comparisons to Paul Motian during “Tahre,” the opening track on drummer Jim Black‘s first piano trio album. While the piano and bass set up a rhythm, Black is busy on airy brushwork and small, precise cymbal taps. It’s busier than a Motian landscape, but it’s got the same gossamer feeling, that same disconnected sense of rhythm.

At first, I figured Motian’s relatively recent passing was just on my mind. (See Motian Studies.) But no — while “Tahre” eventually gets into a more defined beat, driven by some signature Black cymbal crashes, I do think he’s channeling a bit of Motian on most of the track.

It’s a departure for Black, whose drumming in most contexts is rollicking, explosive, and several leagues removed from traditional jazz drumming. His Alas No Axis band is arguably closer to indie rock than jazz. (See Houseplant Arriveth.) Those elements are still present on Somatic. It’s just that the piano trio format opens new directions for Black to try, and that’s a good thing.

The album consists of 10 Black compositions, and that indie-rock element is definitely present. “Hestbak” has the kind of hummable melody you’d find on an Alas No Axis album, played in comforting piano notes, and “Chibi Jones” is a slow and very pretty tune. “Terrotow” comes closer to Vince Guaraldi-style piano jazz, with a gentle, pattering theme backed by Black’s beat, quietly splashed out with lots of cymbals.

Austrian pianist Elias Stemseder is quite a find, and apparently quite young (20 or 21 at this writing). He’s got a patient, flowing way with the piano, working lovely solos out of Black’s quilted harmonies, yet leaving plenty of space for the bass and drums to share. Thomas Morgan is apparently one of the most in-demand bassists in New York these days. In fact, he’s got another piano-trio gig, with Craig Taborn, and he’s recorded in the piano trios of Masabumi Kikuchi and Dan Tepfer. He does other things too, like being in Steve Coleman’s band, but he’s certainly got the piano trio thing down.

Somatic sticks to a mostly comforting mood. Black doesn’t rock out much, and it’s interesting to hear him in this new context. Of the other tracks that stood out for me, “Somatic” is quite pretty and has the calm flow of a traditional piano trio. But “Protection” is more experimental, with spiky piano and poking bass. On that one, Black gives himself more leeway to rattle and wander on the drums; it’s a very Jim Black sound.