Tyshawn Sorey, WildSonicBlooms, John Blevins’ Matterhorn, Jonathan Finlayson, and Cuong Vu 4-Tet

Tyshawn Sorey – Pillars (Firehouse 12)

For the past decade or so, Dr. Tyshawn Sorey has busied himself making some of the most absorbing music of the 21st century, creating entire universes out of personal musical meditations. Only one thing is certain about his music: if you want in on the secret, active listening is required.

Nearly four hours of music spread out over three discs comprise Pillars, so listening to all of it in an initial sitting might very well be at your own peril. As a suggested entry point, begin perhaps with disc two, the most initially arresting of the three, then work your way into the music in the order it has been officially presented to us for consumption.

Although it is performed by an octet of trumpet, trombone, electric and acoustic guitars, basses, and percussion, Pillars has a quality that is not unlike Roscoe Mitchell’s Trios wherein numerous and varying groupings of players make for optimal interplay. In execution, however, this is quite a different beast.

Extended, upended, and distended instrumental techniques, cascading electronic delay effects, ancient horns, and the deliciously judicious combination of restraint and blow make for a singular listening experience that defies category and description. A stellar ensemble of Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, small percussion), Ben Gerstein (trombone, melodica), Todd Neufeld (electric and acoustic guitars), Joe Morris (electric guitar, double-bass), Carl Testa (double-bass, electronics), Mark Helias (double-bass) and Zach Rowden (double-bass) proves to be the perfect foil for Sorey’s variegated compositional approach. The good Dr. Sorey handles the drum set, percussion, trombone, Tibetan ritual horn dungchen, and conducting with the grace and certainty of a Zen master. BRAVO, MAESTRO!

learn more at Tyshawn Sorey’s website and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

WildSonicBlooms – Where We Overlap (Rattle Records)

From the opening moments of Where We Overlap, I am transported to the late 80s and early 90s when post-everything champions Talk Talk and dark ambient stalwarts Brian Williams, Bryn Jones, Robin Storey, Vidna Obmana, and Mick Harris roamed the earth. For those artists, high priority was placed on readying the studio environment to perpetually engender and capture the spontaneous creative act…. so it seems with WildSonicBlooms, the moniker of the maiden meeting between some of New Zealand’s finest musicians.

Traditional and unconventional instruments enhanced by electronic stardust at the adept hands of Jeremy Mayall, Kent Macpherson, Horomona Horo, Haco, Reuben Bradley and Megan Rogerson-Berry blend to form a dream-space into which one can temporarily escape. Drones chill, voices suggest, percussion pulse, synths interpose, and effects obscure to define this space’s curious parameters.

Though “cinematic” is a cheap way to describe this place, I can’t help but consider Deckard’s ensconced apartment as the rains incessantly fall outside in the alarmingly near dystopian future of 2019’s Los Angeles in Blade Runner as I listen. This is one to which I will return as our social and political situation stateside grows bleaker.

learn more at Rattle Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

John Blevins’ Matterhorn – Uzumati (ears&eyes)

Any time uncannily consistent Chicago imprint Ears & Eyes Records releases new material, I take note. The newest on the label, Uzumati, starts off pleasantly enough with a sufficiently grooving vamp with fine solo exchanges between guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, reedman Drew Williams, and trumpeter and leader John Blevins, but then quickly kicks into another, unexpected gear altogether.

The rhythm section of Jesse Bielenberg (bass), Nathan Ellman-Bell (drums), and John Doing (percussion) rounds out the group in no small way: unyielding pulse is crucial to the bulk of this material. Hints of King Crimson and even The Police present themselves more apparently than, say, Miles Davis, though Matterhorn never settles on mimicking any of that.

Uzumati is a sound-gumbo that works…weirdo pop and adventurous world-music forms, long ambient murmurations, and 12-tone Zappa-esque melodies are on the menu and I’m ordering seconds. Fittingly recorded in Queens, NY, the multicultural capital of the world, and inspired by the majesty of the Sierra Nevadas, this is some mountainous stuff.

learn more at ears&eyes and buy at your local record store or at bandcamp

 

 

Jonathan Finlayson – 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings)

Like two of his musical mentors – Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman – Jonathan Finlayson is a musician and composer bent on the pursuit of innovation. On his third album for Brooklyn’s venerable Pi Recordings, Finlayson has taken the step of including two additional horns, both saxophones, to the mix. The resulting harmonic discourse is phenomenal.

The band on 3 Times Round reads like a Downbeat critics poll list: saxophonists Steve Lehman and Brian Settles, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hebert, and drummer Craig Weinrib, the last three from Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense outfit. As with nearly all music in which he is involved, Mitchell takes MVP, covering the court here with chordal blankets like Scottie Pippen. He makes wicked soloists like Finlayson, Lehman, and Settles (the Jordans in this by now bad and exhausting analogy) look really, really good…and solos his ass off as well!

There are two major-centerpieces of the album: “A Stone, a Pond, a Thought” and “The Moon is New”. On the first, the band stretches out effectively on a somewhat looser form, making for a terrific counterpart to the relentless rhythmic complexity of much of the rest of the record. On the second, there are poignantly dramatic interludes that give respite from the otherwise vigorous sections of the staggering14+ minute opus.

On his third time round as a leader, Finlayson has hit on some genuine inspiration that will hold us fans over ’til the fourth!

learn more at Pi Recordings and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

Cuong Vu 4-Tet – Change In The Air (RareNoise Records)

London’s RareNoise Records is on quite a roll in 2018, releasing stone cold gems from Jamie Saft (two actually!), Bobby Previte, Sonar w/ David Torn, and The Joshua Trinidad Trio. The run continues with Change In The Air, the second RNR release by Vietnamese-born, Seattle-based trumpeter Cuong Vu in as many years. Here, Vu is again joined by singular guitarist Bill Frisell, as well as drummer Ted Poor and bassist Luke Bergman, as solid a rhythm section as could be asked for.

The tunes are provided by all members of the group and are quite lovely, but what is crucial when soloists of the caliber of Frisell and Vu are on the session is that the tunes provide room for the conversation to go where it may. Mission accomplished, perhaps not more effectively on this record than by Poor on his gorgeous and melancholic “Lately”: the dialog between Frisell and Vu here is some of the richest of 2018, bearing similarities to a Frisell/Hank Roberts heart-to-heart from Frisell’s flawless 1991 record, Where in the World.

There is so much to enjoy about Change in the Air, more of which continues to come to light upon each repeated listen. Maybe if we all listen between now and November 6, the title will materialize and we can begin to peel away the layers of awful that have fallen over our country.

learn more at RareNoise Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Cory Smythe, Phronesis, Fred Frith, and The Lie Detectors

Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window (Mack Avenue)

Let’s start with this: Cécile McLorin Salvant is one of the three or so most compelling and excellent vocalists making music in 2018. On her new duo album The Window, her magnificently refined aesthetic and masterful interplay with pianist Sullivan Fortner sets Salvant apart in a way that is profound and likely discouraging to others in the singing game. More obscure gems from the torch and pop cannons and beyond sit comfortably aside enchanting takes on standards by Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Dori Cayimi, and other all-time greats of songwriting.

Dense spells are cast at will as Fortner receives the go-ahead to brandish his French-Impressionistic meets German-Romantic (filtered through Monk-ish stride) dexterity as he does on Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and on the Winstone/Rowles classic “Peacocks” when they are joined by Melissa Aldana on tenor sax. When in this trance-state, one almost forgets that these are primarily songs about the total desolation that love can bring – beguiling, not unlike love’s spell itself. Despite the somewhat depressing subject matter, this remains one of the most splendid records of 2018 and one can only hope that Salvant returns to this seamless duo format with Fortner again and again in the future.

learn more at Mack Avenue and buy at your local record store or Amazon

 

 

Cory Smythe – Circulate Susanna (Pyroclastic)

As part of Tyshawn Sorey’s exceptional trio, pianist Cory Smythe’s extraordinarily reactive playing was one of the absolute standouts at the most recent Big Ears Festival. Smythe furthers his trend of astounding on Circulate Susanna, a kind of otherworldly song-cycle inspired in part by a version of his musical upbringing in rural Illinois, particularly as it was informed by America’s dark past as reflected in the paradoxically light tone of its popular music. He is joined by the gifted and imaginative duo of guitarist Daniel Lipell and vocalist Sofia Jernberg.

Lipell’s deft acoustic guitar playing is purposefully detuned and at times liberally doused in electronic processing that only enhances the Partch-like alien-ness of the proceedings. Jernberg vocalizes in a wholly unique and gripping way: part throat harmonizing, alien binary code, part western art music master, and part possessed and/or rabid animal. There are numerous moments on this recording when I have no concept of who is playing what and how, not unlike a Kagel piece, and that is a decided plus in my book. A seemingly Burroughsian lyrical cut-up of the classic “Strange Fruit” adorns the final powerhouse track “To Gather the Wond” that I have now listened to over 20 times in a row…the mood is chilling, but I cannot get enough of it. Big props to pianist Kris Davis for releasing this one on her new imprint Pyroclastic.

learn more at Smythe’s website and buy at your local record store, bandcamp or Amazon

 

 

Phronesis – We Are All (Edition Records)

For their 8th studio release, Phronesis – the vehicle for bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame, and drummer Anton Eger to throw down – shows no sign of taking it easy.  In fact, We Are All is a rallying cry for unity in a time of profound divisiveness.  Kinetic, syncopated, deliberate, direct, and jagged are words that initially come to mind when describing the sounds on WAA, but that is selling it short.  These guys are undoubtedly playing their asses off here, but it’s not simply a wank-fest by any barometer – there is a sum > parts certainty about this recording.

Collectable artwork and collectable sounds abound from the venerable Edition Records, this is a release that encapsulates 2018’s cloud of anxiety as well as its resilient pushback. At six tracks in just fewer than 41 minutes this is and will always be my kind of record.

learn more at Edition and Phronese’s website and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

Fred Frith Trio – Closer to the Ground (Intakt Records)

Legendary guitarist and musical maverick Fred Frith has covered a lot of territory over 50+ years, but, as he mentions in the liner notes to his new album Closer to the Ground, he has always been in a band for what only that kind of arrangement can bring.  Not only is his trio with bassist Jason Hoopes and drummer Jordan Glenn another of those many bands, but it’s one of Frith’s most superlative since his much-beloved Henry Cow.

As an improvising soloist of the highest order, I can’t imagine Frith wanting for a single thing more from his latest rhythm section – they lay down metronomic and/or shifting grooves, they create sunset-like colors on which Frith eviscerates and/or gently highlights with an array of engaging tremolo and reverberant effects, and they are acutely aware of their supporting-yet-not-passive role and play and/or don’t play accordingly.  Bravo to Swiss imprint Intakt Records for being home to such a vital statement from a singular artist and his inventive crew.

learn more at Intakt Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

The Lie Detectors – Part III: Secret Unit (Chant Records)

The duo of guitarist Eyal Maoz and drummer Asaf Sirkis aka The Lie Detectors is at ease stretching out, perhaps a result of their longstanding rapport, stretching back to when they were 10 years old growing up in Rehovot, Israel.  In the intervening years, Maoz and Sirkis have amassed resumes that read like a who’s who of creative music in NYC and Europe, and for good reason: these guys rip!

TLD is a finely-tuned vehicle replete with rack and pinion steering, precision gearbox, four-piston aluminum monobloc fixed caliper brakes, and on P3:SU they prove more than capable of leaping into and traversing whatever terrain presents itself.  The music freaks out like early Mothers of Invention, pummels like Tony Williams Lifetime, zigzags like another wicked duo, Ruins, and locks into cruise control like a kind of majestic Endless Summer.  Hop in the back and hold on to your hat…it’s heck of a gratifying ride.

learn more at Chant Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp or Amazon

Stefan Aeby Trio, Günter Baby Sommer, Marc Ribot, Sungjae Son, and Tord Gustavsen

Stefan Aeby Trio – The London Concert (Intakt Records)

Swiss pianist/composer Stefan Aeby’s new trio release The London Concert commences with “Shi”, an impressionistic Prelude to the Afternoon of Stefan of sorts: an amuse bouche for what later proves to have been a brilliantly-balanced meal.  From there, the telepathic interplay that is a hallmark reserved for top-shelf piano trios becomes quite apparent.

Combinations of playful, deft, scrappy, and patient exchanges between drummer Michi Stulz and bassist André Pousaz drive forward and then reign in the proceedings while Aeby dazzlingly and gracefully juggles all manner of theme and variation, at times subtly and artfully augmenting his playing with Ableton’s electronic processing.  This is a record that initially checks all the boxes for a fully satisfying listening experience and then immediately begs for another even deeper dive.

learn more at Intakt Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

Günter Baby Sommer – Baby’s Party (Intakt Records)

Have you noticed that septuagenarians are getting it done in 2018?  The jubilant spirit of freedom that fuels 77 year old master improviser, educator, composer, and percussionist Milford Graves is very much alive and well evidenced not only in his own infectious performances at last year’s Big Ears Festival, but also throughout the world of free and improvised music, and nowhere more profoundly than on Baby’s Party, the new release of 75 year old German improvisational drummer / vocalizer Günter Baby Sommer.

The aesthetic chemistry between Sommer and album cohort trumpeter Till Brönner is an absolute delight, not unlike a warm blanket in late autumn.  The sometimes frisky, sometimes delicate musical tit for tat throughout this set traverses the history of improvisational alchemy, replete with entry points for any fan of music – no small task for two artists throwing down sounds on the fly.

learn more at Intakt Records and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

Marc Ribot – Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Anti Records)

2018 being what it has become to anyone with a soul and a brain, it is far too easy to forget that there is still beauty and compassion in the world.  Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 is a not-so-gentle reminder that, not only do some still care, but also that some will make noise about it until change follows.  For this set of protest songs whose history spans the larger part of the 20th century and beyond, Ribot surrounds himself with disparate musical foils such as former boss Tom Waits, badass vocalist/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, rock vocalist Syd Straw, Mexican actress and performance artist Astrid Hadad, and many others…and to stirring effect.

To be sure, these are primarily accessible songs of all varieties of Americana, but in the singular hands of Ribot, they become something greater. Despite the substantial weight of much of the lyrical content, S.O.R. is effectively an unexpected letter from an old friend at just the right time, just to check in.

learn more at Anti and buy at your local record store, bandcamp, or Amazon

 

 

Sungjae Son – Near East Quartet (ECM Records)

The bass-less ensemble is a fascinating beast, and can go one of two ways:  sink or swim.  Seoul’s Near East Quartet led by composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Sungjae Son undoubtedly goes in later direction…in Olympic fashion too, though theirs is less a brutish marathon and more a freestyle event.  Like much other music on the ECM imprint, what the group of Son, guitarist Suwuk Chung, vocalist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh decide not to play/sing is of paramount importance: restraint, my personal favorite artistic quality, is the raison dêtre here.

Incorporating traditional Korean gugak musical elements, dirge-y rock grooves, majestic chromatic harmonies, as well as swing, the NEQ scratches a number of the same itches that another excellent bass-less group from the eastern hemisphere, Dirty Three, did.  Clocking in at just less than 37 minutes, this gem leaves the listener wanting more, which is certainly one of greatest endorsements that can be given to a recording in 2018.

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Tord Gustavsen Trio – The Other Side (ECM Records)

For Norwegian pianist/composer Tord Gustavsen, bassist Sigurd Hole, and drummer Jarle Vespestad, intentional breathing seems to be a key improvisational/compositional device: as the breath goes, so goes the music.  Consequently, The Other Side is not so much about bold edicts delivered from on high, as it is about complex, if somewhat muted and/or obscured suggestions.

There is a deceptive folk-like simplicity and placidity that is persistent here, manifesting itself in a similar Scandinavian, less-is-more approach found among the ranks of the Rune Grammofon, NORCD, and Hubro rosters.  In addition to inventive settings of traditional tunes and originals, there are three Gustavsen arrangements of J.S. Bach that are stunning revelations, leaving me waiting in anticipation for the next trio release from Mr. Gustavsen, hopefully in less than the decade+ that it took to get this one.

learn more at ECM and buy at your local record store or Amazon