Included in the artwork for guitarist, composer, and producer David Torn’s new release Sun of Goldfinger is the anonymous maxim, “long road wants me to abandon short-sight; but what kind of place is this, where I’d once believed we might rest?” Though I am in the dark with respect to inside information, SoG unfolds not unlike an inexorable and epic aural hero’s journey, reflecting perhaps an interpretation of the accompanying quote.
The core of the group consists of Torn, saxophonist Tim Berne, and drummer Ches Smith. On the centerpiece of the record, pianist Craig Taborn, guitarists Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira, and the Scorchio String Quartet augment the trio. First, these are among the most inspiring musicians on the planet performing at the highest level, none more than Berne, whose showing here illuminates his intrepidly versatile musicianship. Second, Torn creates resplendent sorcery by assembling from extended performances, Teo Macero-style, sounds that are quite unlike anything else out there, really: alien textures give way to virulent grooves that give way to chromatic seas of bliss, which are then all reshuffled and varied with a freshness that epitomizes the mind of David Torn.
I haven’t marveled at anything else more than SoG this year. Get this in your life as soon as possible!
Norwegian composer and tuba player Daniel Herskedal has become one of the more fascinating musicians on the scene in the past handful of years, releasing two terrific records in 2015’s Slow Eastbound Train and 2017’s The Roc. A triptych of sorts is completed with Voyage, a stunning suite of pieces for ensemble members from his previous two recordings.
Despite the non-traditional instrumentation, Voyage presents a signature sound that is both strikingly tuneful and rousing, so much so in fact that even the nautical theme of the song titles doesn’t bother me. Herskedal handles the tuba and bass trumpet duties alongside pianist Eyolf Dale, percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken, violist Bergmund Waal Skaslien, and oudist Maher Mahmoud, who despite limited playtime, is my mvp for the collection. In addition to his virtuosity on the seemingly untamable tuba, Herskedal showcases great skill in employing ostinato, syncopation, and theme/variation in ways that insert his unique aesthetic into each piece, and the effect is dramatic and infectious.
It’s immensely gratifying to witness a young musician as gifted as Herskedal furthering his concept year after year in inventive ways right before our very ears. Big props to Dave Stapleton and company at Edition Records for providing a nurturing home in which this type of notable progress might continue.
Greg Chudzik – Solo Works, Vol. 2 (Panoramic Recordings)
Readers might recognize bassist Greg Chudzik from his playing on Steve Reich’s Pulse / Quartet on Nonesuch Records, Steve Colman’s Morphogenesis from a few years back, or from The National’s High Violet. But if you were a listener to my former radio show you would have heard nearly the entirety of his Solo Works, Vol. 1 from 2015. Chudzik has followed up that superb set of pieces for solo electric bass with Solo Works, Vol. 2, a collection of four extended pieces for a quartet of layered acoustic double basses.
The bassist’s wide-ranging workload as a player is reflected in Chudzik’s impressively diverse compositional approaches on SWV2: “Wind Hymnal” is a sullen and folksy, almost Asian-tinged number while “The What” is a catchy, dare I say poppy, hit in 7; “Y’Chi” is a slowly-evolving spectral monolith while “Automated Ocean” is a midi-enhanced/effected and rhythmically dense piece of contemporary composition. In the wrong hands, this type of multiplicity could come across as overly ambitious or even jumbled, but Chudzik’s exceptional compositional voice is more than strong enough to unify this set in considerably rewarding ways. It is certainly worth noting that Chudzik’s traditional and extended bowing technique is masterful and adds another layer of excellence to what is already compelling material.
The album ends on a fittingly rhapsodic and triumphant note, leaving the listener with chills of optimism, not an easy task in 2019. The first two doses of Chudzik solo works have me hooked and in a state of already very much jonesing for Vol 3!
Taking influence from percussion pieces by Xenakis, Feldman, Varése, Stockhausen, Babbitt, and Cage – the Big-6 of 20th century composition, maybe – composer and saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber descends like a friggin’ superhero onto new home Pi Recordings with Clockwise.
This music is heavy, like King Crimson or Don Caballero-heavy. No surprise here, considering the propulsive capacity of three-headed beast Matt Mitchell, Chris Tordini, and Ches Smith. In choosing master improvising soloists/extended technicians Jeremy Viner, Jacob Garchik, and Christopher Hoffman for the project, Webber has deftly adorned and accentuated the proceedings’ weight. According to Webber, “The goal was not to re-contextualize the composers’ original intents or ideas, rather it was to find hidden sympathetic points of resonance within the primary compositions that I could abstractly develop into new works.” Riffin’ on the germs of the ideas of the oldies, perhaps? On Clockwise, pitch and harmony take a back seat to texture/timbre and rhythm/meter, just like in the best, heaviest rock music. This does much to make Clockwise some of the most accessible highly complex music imaginable.
Webber has created an environment so wonderfully conducive to solo and group improvisation with these inspired pieces, which is particularly exciting with such a creative and skilled group of players. Clockwise is a total grand slam!
Cyrille Aimée – Move On: A Sondheim Adventure (Mack Avenue Records)
Acclaimed vocalist Cyrille Aimée seems to have found in the work of singular Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim more than sufficient material with which to tell her own story. With Move On: A Sondheim Adventure tell it she does, and with great aplomb. Her first studio recording since moving from New York to New Orleans, Move On features a cast of nearly twenty musicians masterfully supporting Aimée’s personal statement of journey and transition. In addition to a literal “moving on”, Aimée has gone through the significant personal changes of ending relationships with both band mates and a significant other.
The core group on this session is comprised of the French trio of pianist Thomas Enhco, bassist Jérémy Bruyère, and drummer Yoann Serra. Additional top shelf work came from the hands of Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo, as well as from keyboardist and Aimée’s old friend Assaf Gleizner, who also co-produced and beautifully co-arranged the album. There is an infectiousness on MO that seemingly only comes from an artist’s full immersion in the creative act: the pained reverie of “I Remember”, augmented in no small part by Warren Walker’s electronically processed saxophone, is profound, and the gospel-tinged delivery of “No One Is Alone” is supremely affecting.
The album ends with an up-tempo samba version of “With So Little To Be Sure Of”, the cherry on the top of this weighty testament to the therapeutic and redemptive power of music.
As one of the most accomplished and in-demand improvisers for the past nearly three decades and twenty-some-odd leader records later, Chris Potter needs no introduction, but there you go with one anyway.
For his first outing for England’s Edition Records imprint, Potter, as is his wont, dons many hats: composer, tenor and soprano saxophonist, clarinetist, flutist, sampler guru, guitarist, keyboardist, and percussionist. He also recruited some players of the highest order: keyboardist James Francies, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Linley Marthe. The playing by all on Circuits is, no surprise, clairvoyant and spectacular, but it is the locked interplay within the rhythm section that really shines here. Harland tests the limits of a groove’s relationship to meter in signature fashion while Francies and Marthe reside splendidly in the pocket. Though Circuits is a decidedly rhythm-forward affair, it is also one in which the players are given the high sign to go off. And go off they do, none more than Potter himself, who nearing 50, is doing some of the sharpest playing of his life.
Truth be told, I’m not easily wowed in the presence of technically proficient playing, but Circuits is really quite impressive, and quite unique in that these guys are on another plane of skill and are also saying something quite compelling. It’s heartening that Potter is off to such a swell start at his new home of Edition Records.
I have plenty of time for a record that kicks off with the musical centerpiece of cinematic juggernaut Eraserhead, David Lynch’s “In Heaven”. Love Hurts is one such collection, and fortunately, there is much more to guitarist Julian Lage’s new one than a cool bookend.
At 31, Lage has already carved out an illustrious career, working with some of the greatest musicians on the planet including Gary Burton, John Zorn, Nels Cline, Dave Douglas, Charles Lloyd, and Fred Hersch. On top of his side-work, he has released several records under his own name, included two trio records with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen. For LH, Lage recruited bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King, effectively opening wide the door to an elevated scrappiness that was perhaps missing on his two previous trio recordings. The song selection on LH is impeccable, including a sating triptych of “pairs”…1) original numbers: “In Circles” and “Lullaby”, the almost Ayler-esque highlight of the record; 2) Keith Jarret tunes: “The Windup” and “Encore (A)” 3) Roy Orbison-associated classics: “Love Hurts” and “Crying”. According to Lage, “the covers on this record are like when you move into a new apartment, the last thing you do is hang your pictures on the wall…. those pictures define your aesthetic in a way. So the tunes we chose kind of define the aesthetic I natively love but hadn’t put on a record yet.”
Julian Lage’s trajectory is one that is impossibly ever onward and upward, given the ashes of excellence and innovation that are still smoldering in its trail. One can only imagine what wonders he still has in his bag, and how much fun it will be to find out.
If you’re like me (ill-informed, lazy, etc.), the name Marilyn Mazur might not ring a bell at first. Upon further digging, it turns out she is the same Danish percussionist who played on Miles Davis’ Aura record, a pair of Gil Evans releases, a handful of Jan Garbarek’s albums, and in fact, has numerous recordings under a variety of monikers on ECM, Storyville, and Stunt Records. In sum, she is a seasoned professional who has been kicking ass since well before many listeners were born.
Mazur began making adventurous music back in the mid-1970s with her multi-discipline music/theatre group Primi Band. More than forty years later, she has resurrected that concept with Shamania, a collective of ten of Scandinavia’s most creative female musicians who, according to their new label, draw “from a deep well of primal energy and experimental audacity”. What Mazur and co have created on their eponymous RareNoise Records release is somewhat indescribable given their holistic approach to music making. The reed/percussion/string/vocal music grooves, floats, bobs, weaves, and it quenches. Suffice it to say, and this is no secret, the best music throws genre to the wind, and that is what Mazur has done with Shamania.
I’m not saying we should leave it to women to do it right, but far more often than not, given the opportunity, they will. More appropriately, we should let women show the world what it could be and then the world can and will likely fall in line. Big ups to RareNoise for again presenting terrific sounds to a world filled with noise.
For over a decade, Austrian musicians Lorenz Raab and Christof Dienz have been making music as a trumpet / zither duo, but have only just recently released their first full-length recording as RaaDie. This combo seems a bit wacky, no?
In some ways, there is nothing quite like the sound of these two instruments playing off one another, but on the other, it’s not all that different from other compelling music: propulsive rhythms in a cloud of interesting chordal/harmonic texture with affecting melodies floating above. As with much music being made in the 21st century, a healthy dose of electronics is in effect, which can, of course, go one of two opposing ways. The good news is that the result never falls in the category of trivial or weird for the sake of weirdness. In fact, the great news is that with Vast Potential, Raab and Dienz have made a rather accessible thing of lushness and beauty. Armed with a clear compositional vision and a mastery of both their instruments and their processing gear, the duo has succeeded in illuminating not just the vastness of their potential, but also the acuteness of their execution.
Hats off to folks trying something different with the tools at their disposal, odd as they may be…and that includes German label Traumton who continue their tradition of releasing top-shelf and left-of-center sounds.
Every town deserves a musical group featuring the tuba, especially one that can take requests. Porto has TGB (Tuba Guitarra Bateria, presumably), a trio comprised of Sérgio Carolino, Mário Delgado, and Alexandre Frazao on the aforementioned instruments. They self-identify as occupying the “space of interception between contemporary creativity and critical thought” and in doing so, show incredible range.
There is an infectious and dexterous playfulness on III that hooks you early on and hangs on tight. But one quickly realizes that it’s not all fun and games – these three not only flat out rip, but they also display great restraint and prudence in equal measure. Carolino’s versatility on his axe alone deserves mention here, as he defiantly re-situates the tuba as much more than an accompanying instrument or novelty. Anyway, I was quite enjoying III when about 2/3 of the way through they break into a terrific cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, a tune on which I’ve been fixated since being reminded of it again last year when it was featured in the first act of Panos Cosmatos’ truly inspired film, Mandy…a cosmic sign, perhaps, that TGB are something special deserving sustained attention.
Definitely grateful for the fortuitous encounter with the sole cover on III, as well as the blast that I’ve had listening to the whole album all week. My vision for TGB is “Songs We’d Love To Hear At A Wedding Reception If People Had Any Taste”…next album, guys?
Trumpeter and composer Ralph Alessi assembled the elite crew of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber to work on some new tunes. After touring on nine new Alessi numbers, the quintet entered La Buissonne in France, the same studio where Alessi had previously woven magic on Florian Weber’s incredible, Lucent Waters – incidentally, this is the proper order in which to make a record.
Explaining his approach to working with ECM boss and album producer Manfred Eicher, Alessi said, “We slow down a bit and make the most of the space within the music, resisting the natural urge to fill up every space with notes. It isn’t easy to do – it requires a certain discipline.” In fact, there is an almost an Eno-esque patience on the titular track and throughout this set. But it’s not all mellow-going…more upbeat numbers like “Melee”, “Improper Authorities”, and “Fun Room” are peppered throughout to create a thoroughly balanced record.
The assuredness on IF is palpable, so much so that one struggles to imagine anything approaching an accident having occurred here…and this kind of confidence in execution is no doubt rare. Undeniably sublime stuff here folks.
For the past several years I have excitedly anticipated new music from Denmark, due in no small part to the work of the PG Sounds and Jaeger Community Music imprints. The excitement has continued with Cirkel, the new album by Danish trumpeter and composer Jakob Sørensen’s Bagland (Danish for “constituency”) project.
For Cirkel, Sørensen has reconvened the core group of guitarist Alex Jønsson, pianist Mathias Jæger, bassist Frederik Sakham, and drummer Frej Lesner. Armed with inspiration from yesteryear’s landscape of Denmark’s northernmost town Skagen, Bagland has sculpted Scandinavian balm to the soul. Outdoing the loveliness of their previous two releases, Sørensen and company tap deeper into a stream that apparently only flows through Nordic countries, resulting in what can only be described as – recklessly risking new age stigma here – healing music. When a collection of music invokes Santo & Johnny, ECM production aesthetics, and electric Miles, I’m going to be all-in pretty much every time, and Cirkel has done so in graceful fashion.
It’s heartening that such young musicians are making such profoundly lovely music and it’s safe to say that I can’t get enough of this sort of thing. Fantastisk herrer!
Composer, arranger, and reeds man Drew Williams’ Wing Walker Orchestra has been knocking around in New York and its surrounding environs for about six years, but Hazel marks their first recorded output. And what a recording it is, dripping with as much vitality and flexibility as anything else released this year.
In addition to Williams, the ensemble consists of some of the most accomplished young players in the northeast United States: saxophonists Brad Mulholland and Eric Trudel, trumpet players John Blevins and Danny Gouker, trombonists Karl Lyden and Nick Grinder, guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, pianist Marta Sánchez, bassist and Out of Your Head Records honcho Adam Hopkins, and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell. Half of the record is comprised of a suit of pieces inspired by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s sci-fi graphic novel Staples, taking musical cues from a terrifically diverse spectrum of approaches both accessible and challenging, but the result is always satisfying. The remaining handful of tracks on Hazel is made up of a pair of Williams originals and inspired cover versions of Michaël Attias and tUnE-yArDs numbers. The biggest takeaway from the multiple listens I’ve already given Hazel is that the notion of genre is immaterial to these gifted musicians, and this is a great sign of hope for the future of large ensemble music being made in America.
Hazel is undoubtedly the strongest debut of 2019 so far, and it is not at all surprising that it has been lovingly presented on Matthew Golombisky’s ears&eyes imprint. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Allison Miller – Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)
Accomplished drummer/composer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom project returns with the follow up to 2016’s first-rate Otis Was A Polar Bear with an even more cohesive set in Glitter Wolf. The group, audibly strengthened by a heavy touring schedule, has revealed the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that can only come from technically advanced performances within the realm of serving the music.
Miller, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Todd Sickafoose and pianist Myra Melford has assembled a quilt of so many of the elements that make music worthwhile: hooks galore, frisky Frisell-ian melodies, optimal expressivity, swinging grooves, and astounding execution. Taking inspiration from the #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter, Boom Tic Boom are operating on a much-appreciated spiritually conscious level that belies so much of the divisive trash heap that is 2019 existence in the US. On top of all that, the recording, produced by Julie Wolf (“glitter wolf”?) at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA is masterfully present and virtually tangible.
Check Miller’s site regularly as she is nearly always bringing her thing to the people in a town near you. GW is a total blast, and I can only imagine it would be even more rewarding to experience live!
Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux – Path of Totality (Whirlwind Recordings)
The title of the sophomore release from Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux, Path of Totality, takes its name from the moon’s total eclipse of the sun back in 2017, an event that brought the world together in observation of a fleeting totality of darkness. Likewise, the moniker of the group, “Flux”, meaning “continuous change”, hints at an optimism that, no matter how dire our socio-political conditions might become, nothing is permanent. The bass-less core of the group is saxophonist David Binney and pianist/keyboardist Matt Mitchell, with drumming duties split between Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. They are joined on various tracks by a handful of guest musicians including trombonist Ryan Keberle and trumpeter Matt Holman.
PoT is profoundly heavy music with a staggering amount of commitment behind it, evident from the complex compositions, arrangements, and playing. Flux stretches out within these extended and multi-layered jams – a mere 6 tracks run over 2 hours – leaving the listener with an epic Beowulfian journey’s sense of completion at its end. All of the elements I love about the longform works of Charles Mingus, George Russell, or John Coltrane are present on PoT: thematic development, improvisational prowess, melodic richness, masterful arranging, pan-genre, and harmonic depth.
This is an important set of pieces expertly composed and performed for our time. One could, and should, spend considerable time with PoT and discover new stratums of excellence with each visit. Bravo, Flux.
Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord – Harder on the Outside (Hot Cup Records)
Halfway through its second decade as a band, Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord have taken a new approach to composition. Guitarist Jon Lundbom and saxophonist Bryan Murray worked with samples from previous Big Five Chord tunes and other Hot Cup Records-released source material, crafting them into beats around which new tunes were created. Then saxophonist Justin Wood, bassist/producer Moppa Elliott, and drummer Dan Monaghan were brought in to flesh out the material, resulting in Harder on the Outside.
According to the press release, “the title can be taken at least four different ways: (1) as metaphor for one’s personality “hardening” with age; (2) as a political statement, about alienation due to rising fascism and xenophobia; (3) as a statement about purity in free/”outside” music/improvisation; and (4) as fact, that it’s really hard to make an album when you live in Austin and the rest of your band is in New York.” Regardless, Harder on the Outside is the sound of old friends having a blast making music, which ultimately is what it’s all about.
The unique creative process used to produce HotO seems to have rejuvenated Big Five Chord seeing as all involved delivered terrific performances. It would come as no surprise to see this approach used more and more in the future, given the success here.
Christoph Irniger Pilgrim – Crosswinds (Intakt Records)
On their third album together as a quintet, Christoph Irniger’s Pilgrim sounds as if they are judiciously exploring the two (or more) sides of the same coin: each piece is both bright and dark, spacious and crowded, heavy and light, subtle and evident, electric and acoustic, etc, etc.
In the disc’s liner notes, Irniger explains, “Most of the music I write at the moment is about the duality or plurality in things… the compositions are mostly based on sparse materials, even if there are several parts. The idea is to have one story or context, and to show different emotions or pathways. Some is composed, some freely improvised, but always painted as a song.” Irniger and comrades guitarist Dave Gisler, pianist Stefan Aeby, drummer Michi Stulz, and bassist Raffaele Bossard have crafted a poised artistic statement with Crosswinds…a statement that is made both loudly and quietly.
Like Newton’s third law of motion or a delicious plate of food, Crosswinds is undeniably balanced, with compositions and playing that are both restrained and free, and the result is 100% appealing. This is some of the most engaging music to be released this year.
Miho Hazama – Dancer in Nowhere (Sunnyside Records)
Miho Hazama is a skate park architect whose immaculate designs are with some of the most agile and daring athletes in the world in mind. Hers is the beautiful and inspiring space where art and science meet, a space once occupied by the likes of Duke Ellington or Gil Evans.
Quickly following up last year’s impressive The Monk : Live At Bimhuis, Dancer in Nowhere is Hazama’s third outing with her “m_unit”, the celebrated and versatile 13-piece chamber ensemble. This set also features a top-shelf roster of guest talent including guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Steve Wilson, drummer Nate Wood and vocalist Kavita Shah. No surprise, the performances throughout DiN are at the highest level of technical excellence and Hazama’s tunes and arrangements are magnetic. The title track and album closer is especially ebullient, featuring dizzying pyrotechnics from drummer Nate Wood. Describing the musical expressiveness on display in the track, Hazama said, “There are times when you feel something, but you can’t really describe it in words… I started wondering if I could somehow describe this through music. Not necessarily a struggle or something negative: it could be happiness, fear, passion, energy. The challenge of capturing these things became a theme for me.”
It continues to be encouraging to see a gifted artist putting out work that improves upon his/her previous work. It seems as though, nearly a decade into an already remarkable career, Hazama is just getting started.
Having already shown proficiency in collaboration with high profile acts likes Lee Ranaldo, Christian Fennesz, and Mike Watt, French ensemble Hifiklub turn their sights on the exceptionally resourceful and varied Portuguese music scene. Thus was born E Lisboa, an album the tone of which approaches Crime and the City Solution or early Bad Seeds territory, which also happens to be precisely my headspace of late.
Guitarists Jean-Loup Faurat and Nico Morcillo, bassist Régis Laugier, and drummer Anthony Belguise have brought aboard a wide array of talent from the western Iberian Peninsula including Rafael Toral, Bernardo Devlin, Carlos Zingaro, and experimental duo Von Calhau to concoct an inspired document of pan-genre exploration. To paraphrase the inimitable Os Mutantes, it’s time now for me to learn Portuguese…so I can understand the lyrics on this record. Regardless, there is an emotional depth to the work here that is undeniable, culminating in the idyllic wash of the album closer “Continuar Sem Fim”, of which I could use at least an additional hour.
Shhpuma have become one of the most reliable hosts of excellent new sounds from around the globe and the release of E Lisboa is no exception. Incidentally, there are some very cool session videos on Hifiklub’s website that are worth checking out to experience some of their recording process.
Alister Spence and Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra Kobe – Imagine Meeting You Here (Alister Spence Music)
Just a handful of months after the release of the terrific collaboration Intelsat, Alister Spence and Satoko Fujii return with Imagine Meeting You Here, this time backed by Orchestra Kobe and captured at the Big Apple jazz club in Kobe Japan.
Penned by Spence as part of his doctoral work, IMYH is a five-part composition for improvising orchestra and it is a stunning amalgam of so many of the things that intrigue about music making in the 21st century – it has teeth, it leaves ample room for thoughtful improvisation, it is the result of teamwork on a large scale, and it throws the notion of genre to the wind. As Spence has said, “I was trying to create what I considered to be a balanced work in terms of energies and weight, tempo, rhythm, my ideas versus the ensembles ideas”. He has achieved just that, utilizing to great effect the considerable talent and dedication of Fujii and the Orchestra Kobe.
It is safe to say that the Spence / Fujii partnership is a winning combination, and bringing in Orchestra Kobe is a homerun that seems to come around only once in a lifetime. If you are a fan of the large-scale works of George Russell, Gil Evans, or Charles Mingus IMYH will most likely be your bag.
Lansing McLoskey / The Crossing – Zealot Canticles (Innova Recordings)
If I had to name one category of music that thoroughly compels me, it might be religious. From Sufi music of Damascus to Washington Phillips, and from the Alabama Sacred Harp Convention to a muezzin’s call to prayer in Chefchaouen, Morocco, there is an unrivaled passion and certainty in delivery that only faith can bring.
Lansing McLoskey conveys this sense of conviction on Zealot Canticles, a collection of 20 hymns of sorts, with libretto from the work of Nigerian human rights advocate and Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka. Composed by McLoskey during the 2016 US presidential campaign and election, ZC is effectively a prayer of tolerance, denouncing religious and political fanaticism: a meditation on the fine line between piety and extremism. The music is at times energized, contemplative, enchanting, and jarring. It is also always stunning. Devotedly performed by commissioning chamber choir The Crossing, and conducted by Donald Nally, ZC is no doubt a profoundly spiritual work, and one that gains in depth with each successive listen.
McLoskey has created imperative art for 2019, as we see hate crimes on the rise and a general sense of entitlement for extremists to say or do whatever they please, and with impunity. If great artists are supposed to be the voice for the greater good of a harmonious society, McLoskey is certainly doing the work of a great artist.
Yonathan Avishai – Joys and Solitudes (ECM Records)
Now more than ever, I am drawn to music that is efficient in content and delivery: less has become more in a profound way, particularly when presented succinctly. So, when pianist, composer, and longtime friend and collaborator with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, Yonathan Avishai says, “I saw at some point that I become more expressive with less notes”, my interest is piqued.
Turns out, he is speaking truth, as evidenced by his new trio release, Joys and Solitudes. His “Modern Times Trio”, featuring bassist Yoni Zelnik and drummer Donald Kontomanou, is the perfect vehicle to bring this minimalist vision to life. All the tunes are Avishai originals save for Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, of which the trio takes ownership through the magical process of reduction. Perhaps, as he has suggested, this aesthetic was inspired by his early exposure to kabuki theater while growing up in Japan. In any case, although minimal, Avishai’s approach on JaS is also decidedly cosmopolitan, which in the wrong hands can spell disaster. Fortunately, the trio’s are the right hands, lovingly presenting, as the title suggests, the range of emotion.
ECM is the perfect home for Avishai and JaS, adept as Manfred and co have always been at investigating artistic minutiae with a microscope. More of this, please.
Gerald Cleaver, Nels Cline, and Larry Ochs – What Is To Be Done (Clean Feed Records)
It’s interesting when three master musicians convene in the recording studio for the first time, particularly when it’s a 100% improvised date. What will the mood be? Who will take the lead? Will they listen to each other? Will it be any good?
The three masters in question are Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver, perhaps known best for his playing with Henry Threadgill or Craig Taborn, Larry Ochs of the ROVA saxophone quartet, and ubiquitous guitarist Nels Cline. Three pieces were recorded in Richmond, Virginia at Gallery5 Arts in late 2016, two of them longer than 20 minutes each. This is not Sunday morning music, which is good because most of the time it is not Sunday morning. What Is To Be Done is primarily a ripping collection of cathartic improvisation, no surprise when titles such as “Outcries Rousing” adorn the back cover. Abundant shredding aside, there is a cohesion to this trio that can only come from reactive listening, plus Cleaver is unafraid to lock into a groove from time to time, which is a plus in my book of improvisation dos and don’ts. (It is worth noting that I have neither sold a single copy of this book, nor bothered to write it.)
Although I dig WITBD as the high-energy and downright exciting result of spontaneous expression, I would be curious to hear these three in a more composed setting. Hint, hint fellas.
When you perform with a group of musicians for three decades certain modes of non-verbal communication tend to develop so that picking things up where you left off is quite simple. Such is the case with saxophonists Andrew D’Angelo and Chris Speed, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and drummer Jim Black, who as Human Feel released their previous album twelve years ago and sound more vital than ever.
No bass, no problem…this quartet has talent to burn, and burn it does! The amount of ground covered by HF is staggering, from serene, minimal meditations to hyper, maximal catharsis, seemingly exhausting all sensible musical permutations. While Gold is certainly a group effort, with original tunes penned by all members, I can’t help but hear Black as the fire of the recording, perhaps because in nearly all cases, he is perpetually MVP, impressing with both refined simplicity and awe-inspiring complexity. This is no easy task given his esteemed company in HF.
Black has stated, “We believe more than ever that the four of us making music together is a necessity, and we intend to keep doing it wherever and whenever we can”… This is golden news for us all.
Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance Records)
Eric Dolphy is among three soloists – joining Thelonious Monk and Tony Williams in this grand distinction – who galvanized what I continue to love about the greatest improvisatory playing. His level of performance and communication on a musical instrument has yet to be surpassed and his preventable death at the way-too young age of 35 is among the worst tragedies in music history.
When I worked at record stores in my 20s I bought every single disc I could order involving Dolphy and listened to them all… a lot. Although I have yet to grow tired of his musical output, both as a composer/leader and as the single greatest sideman in the business, it was with a childlike sense of jubilation that I audibly shrieked when I heard at the end of last year that unreleased Dolphy was coming to us soon via Resonance Records. Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions is exciting not only because it collects his 1963 studio albums The Conversations and Iron Man, two of the great achievements in music making in the 20th century, but also adds, as I mentioned, UNHEARD DOLPHY MATERIAL…ALMOST 85 MINUTES OF IT!
Look, the world doesn’t need me to say even one more word about his previously issued releases mentioned above – many have written extensively about how singular those records are and why. What I will say is, if you don’t already own The Conversations and Iron Man, just buy this now and your life will almost certainly move in a more positive direction. If you already own those two records, buy this now because the radical 15-minute 12-tone/ Schoenberg-influenced opus “A Personal Statement” (somewhat of a remake of “Jim Crow” from Dolphy’s 1962 LP Other Aspects) alone is worth the price of admission.
Also, the set comes with an almost 100 page book full of interviews, commentary, photographs, recording notes, etc, etc that will make any Dolphy fan drool like a fiend. Just do it.
Layale Chaker & Sarafand – Inner Rhyme (In A Circle Records)
The work of Lebanese violinist and composer Layale Chaker just recently arrived on my radar with the release of her debut recording, Inner Rhyme, and I couldn’t be happier that it did. Merely seeing on paper the lineup of violin, cello (Jake Charkey), bass (Nick Dunston), piano (Phillip Golub), and percussion (Adam Maalouf) and I knew that I was in.
Taking inspiration from a number of diverse musical traditions including Arabic Maqam, Chaker has hit upon a gorgeous blend of sounds both familiar and less familiar to the typical western ear. With a passion for poetry, she translated twelve classical Arabic poetic meters into rhythmical meters in which to write the material included on this record. Discussing her inspiration for IR from an existentialist perspective, Chaker stated, “From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could possibly transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”
Finding common ground in the face of deeply polarized and deadly conflict is a sensible and natural response and one of which our leaders continue to prove they are incapable. Even so, hopeful young artists such as Chaker will continue to bring art into the world not only for art’s sake, but also to shine a light on our commonalities. Mission accomplished with grace and agility, and on a debut, too!
Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow & Bobby Previte – You Don’t Know The Life (Rarenoise Records)
From the same label and trio that brought us 2014’s The New Standard and 2017’s Loneliness Road with Iggy Pop, comes You Don’t Know the Life, the new collection of originals and improvisations, as well as standards by Bacharach, Bill Evans, and Roswell Rudd performed by veterans Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, and Bobby Previte. On first glance at the space-age art-deco cover, the listener realizes something wicked this way comes…in the form of Hammond B3 deliciousness and magical Baldwin electric harpsichord vibes.
Surprisingly, Saft, himself a gifted recordist/producer, did not commit this material to tape. Engineered by Christian Castagno at Sear Sound in NYC, YDKTL is not a tentatively documented batch of music: an attractively compressed, bass heavy mix in which even the subtle resonances of the drums envelope you plays perfect foil to this invigorating material. At times the music hints at the cinematic approaches of Francis Lai, pop group Air, ambient 70s Miles, or dreamy Badalamenti / Lynch concoctions, but it’s something other than all of those, though no less curiously moody or undeniable. This record would belong in the “swinging, psyched out jet set jams” section of your favorite record store, if your favorite record store were sufficiently hip.
The Rarenoise / Jamie Saft partnership continues to pay dividends to listeners with yet another terrific set of tunes, and if last year is any indication, might yield one or two more releases this year.
Greg Ward – Stomping Off From Greenwood (Greenleaf Music)
Everyone already knows that Greg Ward is one of the premier musicians working in 2019 and his 2016 record Touch My Beloved’s Thought is a stone cold masterpiece. Well, he and his group of Chicago’s finest, Rogue Parade, are back at it and in a big way.
For Stomping Off From Greenwood, Ward joins the dual guitar frontline of Matt Gold and Dave Miller, supported by the fantastic young rhythm section of Matt Ulery and Quin Kirchner on bass and drums, respectively. It’s interesting and impressive to hear his writing for guitars rather than the horns of his previous outing, showcasing not only his already-known impeccable skills as an arranger, but also his versatility and creative drive. This impulse groups him with the some of the most compelling composers / performers of our time who also have no use for genre. SOFG contains super-catchy tunes, conveys a wide breadth of moods, and it is just a total blast to listen to. Did I mention that Rogue Parade can flat out play? They can and do throughout the record.
I don’t see any way for a guy as talented as Ward to keep making music and not be looked back at as one of the great musical minds of the early 21st century. He already is by many, including yours truly.
Although Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Nordström has gathered a “double quartet” in the Coleman sense of instrumentation (two times sax, trumpet/trombone, bass, and drums, each panned in the stereo field, joining their respective quartet), it would be unwise to expect Ornette-style harmolodics and free improvisation from this group on Needs. In fact, the band presents more as a densely charted and tightly syncopated, well-oiled octet / big band machine than a “double quartet”…but this ain’t your old man’s big band either. Nordström has called Needs “progressive jazz with unquestionable influence of contemporary classical and rock music”, and while that might suffice for a press kit, the music contains too many dimensions to be adequately summarized in a couple handfuls of words.
The fact that this album was recorded in one day reveals the high degree of musicianship with which we are dealing. As far as Needs personnel goes, Nordström and Fredrik Ljungkvist handle the reeds, Mats Äleklint and Niklas Barnö play trombone and trumpet respectively, Filip Augustson and Torbjörn Zetterberg man double basses, and Christopher Cantillo and Fredrik Rundqvist do the drumming. The two rhythm sections in particular are notable for their anchor-like steadiness, freeing the horns to do what they do best within the parameters set by Nordström’s terrific charts and conduction cues.
Needs is an especially gratifying near-48 minute listening experience, one that could only really be improved upon by witnessing it live. So, what say you Fredrik…any stateside dates soon?
Caspar Brötzmann Massaker – The Tribe & Black Axis (Southern Lord)
It was 1993, and there I was, 22 years young and bright-eyed, sprinting across Houston Street after wrapping up my gig at the Knitting Factory with my band Rodan, b-lining towards CBGBs on Bowery, my first time in said establishment and only my second time in the city that never sleeps. All fingers were crossed that I hadn’t missed any of the set of a band I had just been hipped to very recently, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker. I showed my CMJ pass to the door guy and recklessly power-walked through the crowd towards a most menacing sound coming from deep within the room. Then, bam, I ran headfirst into Swans force of nature Michael Gira, who did not flinch or yield, but exited the room. The brief encounter was sobering, no doubt, but significantly less so than what I was about to witness on stage. Massaker were touring on Koskofen, an album I was obsessed with at the time, and one that can only be described as insistent, pummeling brilliance. Suffice it to say that I was completely unprepared for how excellent and world-altering guitarist Brötzmann and his trio with mainstay bassist Eduardo Delgado-Lopez and drummer Danny Arnold Lommen were that night. I tracked down everything I could find by the group, including their first two German import-only records The Tribe and Black Axis.
Forward to 2019 and venerable imprint Southern Lord have re-mastered and reissued Brötzmann’s first two releases so that the uninitiated might experience the origins of one of the most vital groups of the past 30 years. This is absolutely indispensable listening for anyone who pursues music that moves beyond the safety of genre and/or casual listening. Unfair as it might be, to get you in the ballpark, imagine if Hendrix had been angrier and hadn’t been raised on the blues and you’re there. Some of the band’s strongest material is included on these two albums: “The Tribe”, “Tempelhof”, “Massaker”, “Hunter Song”, and “Böhmen”… Coincidentally, this is the track list of 1994’s Home, a greatest hits of sorts, re-recorded with supernatural and ex-Gore skin-mauler Lommen who supplanted Massaker’s two previous drummers Jon and Frank Neumeier.
The release of The Tribe and Black Axis marks phase one of Southern Lord’s Massaker re-issue project, to be concluded at a later date in 2019 with the release of all five Massaker’s albums individually, as well as in a collectable box set with extensive liner notes, etc. Additionally, according to the label, “Caspar is also rumored to be working on brand new material”, so there’s that too. This right here is the good stuff!
Mick Rossi’s Anti-Matter – Live at Barbes (Chant Records)
Perhaps best known for his work with Philip Glass or for backing mega-star Paul Simon, Mick Rossi is a remarkably well-rounded keyboardist / musician by any metric. With his own group Anti-Matter, Rossi cuts loose and takes a hard left turn, producing some of the most exceedingly grooving and expertly executed roof-raising music north of New Orleans.
Alongside Billy Drewes (reeds) Ron Horton (trumpet) Alan Ferber (trombone) Michael Sarin (drums), Michael Bates (bass), Rossi has hit upon the perfect combination of accessible and challenging, nearly all the while remaining infinitely danceable. Not unlike Steven Bernstein’s unstoppable Millennial Territory Orchestra, Anti-Matter get the party started, sustain the crowd’s attention with a ever-evolving combinations of pyrotechnics and impeccable feel, and don’t let up until the job is complete, not an easy feat when one realized that they never succumb to banal jam-band tactics. Although there is no shortage of startling solos on Live at Barbes, the lasting impression is that these guys play so dang well together as a unit.
I am certain that if I were to host a block party in celebration of a certain individual being removed from a certain high office in our nation’s capital, I could do no better than to hire Anti-Matter as the musical act.
It is no secret that Rudy Royston is one of the most technically accomplished and creative drummers on the scene in 2019, particularly when his resume boasts high-profile spots in the groups of and on recordings by Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and JD Allen. What we are now realizing, however, is that Royston has fully come into his own as a masterful and original composer with the release of his third album, Flatbed Buggy.
Inspired by Royston’s youth in Texas, FB ranges from capricious scrappers like “Bobblehead” to heartfelt ballads like “girl….WOMAN” and everything in between: Texas-sized ground is covered from start to finish, more than enough in deed to please even the most fussy music lover. Surrounding himself with an all-star crew of reedman John Ellis, accordionist Gary Versace, cellist Hank Roberts, and Joe Martin on bass, Royston makes daring and downright fun compositional choices throughout, not the least of which is the material’s inspired instrumentation.
If you’re like me and find yourself missing the childlike sense of wonder afforded by late 80s/early 90s downtown music scene of Bill Frisell’s Have a Little Faith or Lounge Lizard’s Voice of Chunk, FB might be for you.
Christopher Trapani – Waterlines (New Focus Recordings)
Waterlines is Christopher Trapani’s premier portrait release, consisting of five pieces composed between 2005 and 2013. Master performers abound, JACK Quartet, vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, pianist Marilyn Nonken, and Longleash are featured, among others.
Trapani draws from a respectable array of influences from folk forms and Bob Dylan to spectral composition and microtonal approaches. He composes for combinations of traditional acoustic and electronic instruments, voice, and folk instruments and idiosyncratic string instruments. To be honest, this all reads as “sounds that could be particularly offensive to me”, and as such, I approached Waterlines with great caution. Even so, I came to enjoy Trapani’s aesthetic more and more with each successive listen.
I am particularly taken with the disc’s two lengthiest pieces, “Waterlines” and “Cognitive Consonance”. “Waterlines”, written in response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Trapini’s hometown of New Orleans, features settings of five songs about flooding from the delta blues cannon. One senses reverence for the source material rather than a sort of musical gentrification on these recordings, a pleasant surprise to say the least, due in no small part to the artistry of Dhegrae and Talea Ensemble / James Baker. “Cognitive Consonance”, the jewel in the crown of Waterlines, also references source material, this time traditional Ottoman classical music, as studied by Trapani while in Istanbul. Featured on the piece are seemingly disparate elements Turkish qanûn performed by Didem Başar, icy and spectral electronics, and compelling and tripped-out micro-tonalities courtesy one hexaphonic electric guitar that Trapani himself plays on this recording.
Despite reservations, I’m so glad I gave Waterlines a fair shake, uncovering a massive and unique talent in Trapani, and one I will continue to follow. I anticipate that many of you who choose to dive in will feel similarly.
When one considers a trio of pipe organ, electric guitar, and saxophone, the initial expectation is not likely, “a minimal, dark-ambient masterpiece!” Alas, here we are with Lantskap Logic. Lovingly recorded in the chapel at Mills College in Oakland, California, Evelyn Davis, Fred Frith, and Phillip Greenlief deliver one of the most mesmerizing documents of improvised music in recent memory.
As the all-purpose group name “Drone Trio” might suggest, this was an ad hoc meeting, presumably executed with little or no preparation. This is all the more impressive considering the almost alien subtlety and responsiveness of the performances of Davis, Frith, and Greenlief: at times it’s impossible to discern three distinct instruments within the drone they are so in sync. Also, there is something about hearing music in a sacred space, performed by true masters, that is deeply affecting, and even through the medium of hi-res digital files, this is the present case. It is only at the tail end of LL, as sirens sound in the streets, that the spell is broken.
LL has transcendence in spades and I know I am not alone when I say, at the risk of sounding greedy, I could use another two hours of this asap.
Du Yun / International Contemporary Ensemble – Dinosaur Scar (Tundra Records)
Caveat: I am not an expert on 21st century orchestral music, or any other for that matter, but I do come across music written from a variety of perspectives and sometimes decide to write about it, so here goes…
Du Yun is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and a founding collaborator with the International Contemporary Ensemble and Dinosaur Scar is a retrospective of sorts released on ICE’s own Tundra imprint documenting her time working closely with ICE the past decade or so. Characteristics that have become hallmarks of ICE are all present on DS: masterful execution, stagnation-averse, extended techniques, fearless expressivity, improvisatory, and aesthetically exceptional.
While there is so much to digest with DS, a few highlights, coincidentally, of the release’s lengthiest pieces, follow: “Air Glow”, here adapted for four trumpets, flugelhorn, and electric guitar/bass is irrefutably majestic, like some demented ritual music; “by, of … Lethean” is also stunning, presenting a confounding-ly woven tapestry, perhaps of forgetfulness – Lethean was the river in Greek mythology that caused those who drank from it oblivion – and features Du Yun performing on zheng; “Run in a Graveyard” features flautist and founder / former artistic / executive director of ICE, Claire Chase, at first skipping, then, um, running, through a slowly detonating landmine of electronics, and is a tense dynamo!
The most accurate description these unqualified ears can conjure of Du Yun’s music is “subtlety edgy”: it is no hurry to make its point, but it will bite you if necessary. Much more exploring of her work is undoubtedly forthcoming.
Let’s just start with this: Urban Season is home to the most compelling use of field recordings this side of Steven Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound. Listening to US, I found myself physically leaning in in an attempt to uncover what in the world was happening sonically within its mysterious backdrop. Though the secret was never quite revealed, the attempt made for great sport.
The foreground of the 21st century string band Timespine is made up of zither player Adriana Sá, bassist John Klima, and guitarist Tó Trips, also of Portuguese band Dead Combo. There is a fascinating chemistry between the three musicians, who interpret Sá’s graphic scores with grand sensitivity and innovation. Though electronic manipulation is utilized in sculpting an inexplicable vibe, it never interferes with the fact that three musicians are interacting in a profoundly creative act.
Because such a substantial leap forward has been made from the Portuguese group’s eponymous debut release, also on Shhpuma, I can only imagine the volume of brains that will melt upon release #3. Excelente trabalho!
Flavio Zanuttini Opacipapa – Born Baby Born (Clean Feed Records)
The most essential question for a musician is how do I fill up this space with sound? Formulas have been devised for and dutifully used by groups of musicians about the “best” ways of doing this over the years involving who plays what and how. The issue is complicated when the group is “limited” by its membership, resulting in nearly as many outcomes as there are groups.
In the case of the bass instrument-less trio, Motian/Lovano/Frisell and Baron/Swell/Eskelin come to mind as having made some astoundingly effective decisions that have resulted in terrific if very different music. In this lineage, trumpeter Flavio Zanuttini has convened with eight of his tunes and saxophonist Piero Bittolo Bon and drummer Marco D’Orlando, collectively known as Opacipapa, to bravely accept and smash this personnel challenge. Born Baby Born is not only a total success with respect to making a go without the traditional notion of bass, but it is a jubilant frolic of a good time, not unlike a crafty and thrifty second line.
Each player is so dialed-in to the tunes and each other’s nuanced performances that the resultant whole is truly another galaxy apart from the few parts: no holes here, at all. Cranking BBB is a fantastic way to start anew in 2019!
There is a something old/ something new vibe to Natural Impulse: at times, particularly early in the disc’s just over 60 minute run time, familiarity of harmony and form acts as reliable comfort food of sorts. As NI continues though, drummer Claudio Scolari, multi-instrumentalist Daniele Cavalca, and trumpeter (Claudio’s son) Simone Scolari explore more and more interesting territory for the more adventurous palette….and to delicious effect!
NI is the third album released by the trio and finds them locating a happy place between acoustic and electronic sounds. The elder Scolari describes the group’s approach as “composing in real time with no rules”. The secret weapon here appears to be Cavalca who handles synths, rhodes, piano, vibraphone, bass, and occasionally, second drum kit!
Though I’m not sure how this project jibes as a live unit, this recording is an overdubbed or unnatural response to a natural impulse…and this is not a dig, because as always, technology in the right hands is very much an ally to creativity.