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!
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.
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.
The best thing about listening to new music is hearing something that outright confounds. Mesophase is a scientific term used to describe a state of matter that is neither liquid nor solid, but shares properties of both. Mesophase is also the title of the new album by New York composer and pianist Zack Clarke, and is a suitable title given the mercurial nature of the approaches and sounds contained.
To orient you as to sort of what is going on here,it’s like a technologically advanced and better documented version of what Dolphy was up to on his more abstract pieces from the final period of his life…or perhaps a less aggressive, more lyrical variant on AMM’s mid to late-60swork. But, neither of these comparisons do justice to the captivating art and supreme weirdness captured on Mesophase. Clark did well in choosing a compatible roster of up and coming New York improvisers for the record (Chris Irvine on cello, Charlotte Greve on saxophone, clarinet, flute, Nick Dunston on double bass, Leonid Galaganov on percussion, waterphone, shakuhachi).
At times I find myself questioning what instruments are being played, which sounds are affected and/or overdubbed and which are not, how much is written vs. improvised, and from what kind of room(s) were these sounds originally emanating. The only thing I know for sure after listening to Mesophaseis that I’ll likely be doing so again and again.
Eraldo Bernocchi – Like A Fire That Consumes All Before It (RareNoise Records)
Imagined and produced by Michele Bongiorno and written and directed by Andrea Bettinetti, Cy Dear is the recent documentary about the polarizing and inimitable American abstract expressionist painter-sculptor-photographer Cy Twombly. The film was initially shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the spring of 2018 and had a short festival run in the fall, never reaching my neck of the woods.
Although I have yet to see the film, I have been enjoying its soundtrack for some time now. Italian multi-instrumentalist and co-boss at RareNoise records Eraldo Bernocchi scored the film using primarily guitar and effects, and it is as soothing as much of Twombly’s work is quite the opposite of that. Imagine the work of Harold Budd (with whom Bernocchi has collaborated) and Brian Eno and you’re in the ballpark. Despite the vastness of the ambiences on Like A Fire That Consumes All Before It, there is a wise economy to Bernocchi’s pieces and playing. As he has said, “I hate overproduced music. Super-layered tracks make me nervous. I trust one note, one single note, a riff. That riff can say more than a whole orchestra.”
As I patiently wait for the film to stream into my home at some point in the future, I anticipate that I will continue to submerge deeply into the cool lake that is LAFTCABI.
It is a stretch for me to imagine an Andrew Cyrille, Wadada Leo Smith, and Bill Frisell trio record being anything other than fully satisfying, particularly one where the material is all originals, as on Lebroba (contraction of Leland, Brooklyn and Baltimore, birthplaces of the three). It’s no surprise that these three masters didn’t let me/us down in this case.
Of all the remarkable aspects of Cyrille, Smith, and Frisell, the one that stands out most is that nearly every note by each is a signature that is instantly recognizable. This is no easy task when one considers that none of them is “going off” per se, but rather, the focus is on how he can contribute to the whole in the most efficient way possible. Also, the absence of a grounding bass instrument is never even the slightest consideration. There is no way to appropriately stress the difficulty of this approach to playing in a group setting, especially since one feels throughout as though these three are so dialed-in. All of this is to say that Lebroba breathes so deeply and intently, and quite unlike most anything out there today, lulls us into a sort of euphoric trance state.
We probably don’t deserve this document of the maiden recorded union of three of the greatest in superb form, but maybe if we all bring some good into the world, we’ll get another helping down the road.
Friends & Neighbors – What’s Next (Clean Feed Records)
I have grown accustomed to expecting new creative music from Norway to have a certain chilled aesthetic: patient, melodious, and expansive. This is not the case on What’s Next?. the new third release from Friends & Neighbors. Not that those qualities are entirely absent here, rather, they are less a priority than executing with an elevated sense of urgency.
Saxophonist and primary writer André Roligheten, trumpeter Thomas Johansson, pianist Oscar Gronberg, bassist Jon Rune Strom, and drummer Tollef Ostvang aren’t afraid to wear their classic American influences from Ornette, Monk, and Shepp, to maybe a little George Russell (?)…on their collective sleeves. But F&N aren’t just rehashing the past or hoisting their influences as a gimmick. More likely, they are taking what excites them about music and using it as a roadmap or language or world in which to explore. It’s worth commending Dag Erik Johansen and Kai Andersen at Athletic Sound, Halden, Norway who have done an exceptional job of capturing five guys in an ambient space without getting in the way.
F&N have hit upon the sweet and elusive spot between composed and improvised that few successfully do. It’s safe to say that the present album is indeed What’s Next!
You might know Ant Law from his playing on a few of saxophonist Tim Garland’s records, but Life I Know is the guitarist/composer ‘s 3rd leader outing. It is also an impressive showcase of both British talent and the almost dizzying spectrum of stylistic influences on Law’s music. From rocking fusion jams to South Indian konnakol to the perennially welcome soaring melodies of “Pure Imagination”, virtually no stone is left unturned.
For LIK, Law has enlisted some of the best and brightest of England in pianist Ivo Neame, saxophonist Mike Chillingworth, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer James Maddren, and away they went. Although I wouldn’t call it “showy” they guys certainly like to play, and Law left plenty of room for that. The end result is a fun annotated ride through what one might imagine a supremely gifted guitarist’s record collection might look like.
Ant Law continues to grow and evolve as a player and as a composer, and with Life I Know, we are starting to get a good look at his core as a musician, and if he stays near this path, his future looks quite bright.
Poline Renou, Mattieu Donarier, and Sylvain Lemêtre – Adieu Mes Très Belles (Yolk Records)
Following an impeccably recorded and drop-dead gorgeous solo vocal intro by Polline Renou, just as Sylvain Lemêtre’s hand drumming commences with a gripping rhythm, the stage is set for something very distinct. For the duration of Adieu Mes Très Belles, the captivating new recording by the aforementioned two musicians with clarinetist Mattieu Donarier, the thrall never lets up.
The unlikely pairing of Medieval plainchant and European Renaissance chanson and balladry with advanced 21st century improvisational techniques, as well as a deeply ruminating overall atmosphere not often on display from an acoustic trio makes AMTB, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating recordings of 2018. So very economical, so very efficient, so very expressive, and so very effecting, this trio traverses territory over which major metropolitan orchestras routinely stumble.
I can’t help but think that many people who read this type of blog would be way into this kind of singular project, but who knows, maybe it’s too perplexing for some listeners of creative music to enter uncharted waters. Naturally, I hope not…Regardless, a note to self: go back and check out Poline Renou and Matthieu Donarier’s Kindergarten project, because, as David Letterman used to say, I’ll take all of this you’re selling!
Ingrid Jensen and Steve Treseler – Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler (Whirlwind Recordings)
The music of Kenny Wheeler is a beautiful confluence of the harmonic language developed by the masters of the past like Ellington, Mingus, and Miles AND the singularly innovative restlessness of Monk and Braxton. It’s no wonder that musicians of such considerable agency as trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and reedsman Steve Treseler felt compelled to pay tribute to the fairly recently deceased iconoclast.
Jensen’s crack band of pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Martin Wind, and drummer Jon Wikan were brought on board for Invisible Sounds, and to stellar effect. All of the melancholy, spunk, and even madness of Wheller’s compositions were conveyed in the animated playing of all involved, including guest saxophonist, and Ingrid’s sister, Christine Jensen, as well as vocalist Katie Jacobson.
If artists don’t seize the opportunity of allowing the vision of another artist to actually breathe in tribute, that tribute is a blunder. Jensen, Tresler and company have not fallen into this all too-common trap and have instead stayed true to Wheeler’s aesthetic approach by making his music their own on Invisible Sounds. Well done, indeed!
Matthew Golombisky’s Cuentos – Volume 3 (ears & eyes records)
Composer, bassist, and prime mover Matthew Golombisky returns with another wonderful set of Cuentos (Spanish for “short stories”) with Volume 3, this time set in Chicago, Il. The idea with his Cuentos is that Golombisky writes a terse motivic framework with minimal guidelines around which a group of improvisers would briefly converse on their instruments – most pieces run around three or four minutes. This time around he has convened in Chicago, Il with some of the best of the best: longtime collaborator, drummer Quin Kirchner, trombonist Naomi Moon Siegel, trumpeter James Davis, and saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi.
Keeping with the tradition begun with last year’s Volume 1 & 2, there are no names given to the pieces, only numbers, freeing the listener of preconceptions or artistic intent. That said, one couldn’t help but sense pathos within much of the material on Volume 3, as if the resultant musical discussions quickly turned to the current political climate in the U.S. The good news is that it’s not a bummer, at all. To the contrary, I take solace in these terse meditations, like a maritime prayer or a healing lamentation.
At any rate, there is no shortage of beauty to be made through the Cuentos approach, particularly in the hands of Matthew Golombisky and his astutely chosen compatriots. Let’s hope he continues this process of documenting his travels with fresh batches of these cuentos for years to come.
Wolfgang Muthspiel – Where The River Goes (ECM Records)
What happens when you assemble five of the most accomplished musicians on earth to record for one of the most prestigious record labels of the past 40 + years? Loaded question, for sure, but one that can only be answered when the leader of said project is revealed. In this case, it is guitarist and composer Wolfgang Muthspiel, author of some of a few of the finest records of the past decade or so. In a word, the answer is sublime.
The accomplished ones are Ambrose Akinmusire, Brad Mehldau Larry Grenadier, and Eric Harland, and the label is ECM…I mean, come on. All parties do precisely what they are capable of, and the result is a jaw-dropping collection of originals by group members, mostly penned by Muthspiel. Therein lies the X-factor: great ingredients can be unpalatable in the hands of a poor chef. Simply put, I love Muthspiel’s tunes and his approach to and priority placed on space. His musical sweet spot is a magical elixir.
It’s almost odd for me to have to say this, but you need to buy this record and spend significant time with it. Just trust me on this one.
I have enjoyed French guitarist Paul Jarret and his band PJ5 since I heard their 2016 release, Trees. I can’t quite put my finger on what kind of music this band makes: it is at times very accessible, danceable even; their methodology reflects a wide array of influences without succumbing to any one of them for too very long – the music bears it’s sharp teeth one moment and the next it displays a resplendently patient Scandinavian-like sensitivity. Somehow, it all works without sounding contrived or novel, and with I Told the Little Bird, the group has taken another step forward with a suite of pieces tied together with the grandparent of all themes: the circle of life.
The five core members of Jarret, saxophonist Maxence Ravelomanantsoa, trombonist Léo Pellet, bassist Alexandre Perrot, and drummer Ariel Tessier, have all returned and are in fine form, augmented by guests Jozef Dumoulin on the Fender Rhodes and vocalist Isabel Sörling. It is commendable that PJ5’s top priority remains the compositions rather than virtuosic playing.
It’s refreshing to hear emotionally charged pieces (titles include “The Nest”, “Peaceful Struggle”, and “Cycles: The Soil”) performed without a trace of smugness or irony. Although they never answered the question posed in track nine, “Where Do Butterflies Sleep”, it becomes apparent that as in most good art, it is not the answer but the question that is of the primary importance.
Michael Formanek & Elusion Quartet – Time Like This (Intakt Records)
There is an ominous cloud permeating Time Like This, the new and first release by bassist and composer Michael Formanek with his group Elusion Quartet. Titles such as “The New Normal”, “This May Get Ugly”, and “The Soul Goodbye” speak loudly about our current political predicament. That said, it’s hard to imagine music being made since November 2016 to be anything but glum.
The seven Formanek originals on the album also exude a density and complexity, all while leaving ample room for this top-shelf ensemble of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and percussionist Ches Smith to freely emote and explore, in a way not dissimilar to Coltrane Quartet’s “Alabama” … as they do on the album opener “Down 8 Up 5”.
Serious times call for serious measures and bearing witness and commiserating are crucial first steps in exacting socio-political change. Formanek and company have done so with their art at the absolute highest level on Time Like This and for that, this listener is most appreciative.
Devin Drobka’s Bell Dance Songs – Amaranth (Shifting Paradigm Records)
Not only is Amaranth Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka’s debut album as a leader, it is also an impressive showcase for his adept writing and versatile playing. Released on the Minneapolis label, Shifting Paradigm Records, this is a collection of effective compositions deconstructed with inspired improvisation, making for a sound that isn’t quite like anything out there today.
Drobka’s group Bell Dance Songs weaves a tapestry of sonic goodness that resides primarily outside of the constraints of time keeping. The triple sax threat of Chris Weller, Patrick Breiner, and Daniel Blake absolutely tear it up and then sew it back together again with the acumen of a somewhat incensed but highly skilled fiber artist. Boston bassist Aaron Darrell completes the rhythm section with Drobka and is the anchor by which the ship escapes the tempest of raging waters.
On Amaranth, close friends gathered to make art that is meaningful to them. I hear a love for the music and between the musicians that is both pleasing and refreshing. More of this, please.
The music of Danish guitarist Jakob Bro is an exquisite dance and it is never bettered than when the consummate master Joey Baron is behind the drums, especially with a pair of brushes (or anything really…or nothing) in his hands. As on 2016’s stellar Streams, this is the case on Bay of Rainbows, the new live album by Bro’s trio, rounded out by Bro’s “musical soul mate”, rock solid bassist Thomas Morgan.
To take the surface simplicity of this music as anything short of entrancing would be a mistake: what is not played by these three most astonishing listeners is of far greater importance than what is actually played. The tune selection is wonderful and is from Bro’s ever-growing arsenal of originals, going as far back as his independent releases from the late aughts, Balladeering and Pearl River.
The album is named after the deed to a plot of land on the moon given to Bro’s infant daughter, in Latin called Sinus Iridum…a fitting title for a collection of celestial and transcendent sounds at which to marvel from afar.
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Master Oogway – THE CONCERT KOĀN (Clean Feed Records)
Master Oogway is the elderly and wise tortoise and now resident of the spirit realm who created the ancient martial-art of king fu and is responsible for the maxim “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why it is called the present”…he is also the inspiration for the name of a collective of four Norwegian musicians responsible for one of the more satisfying releases of 2018, The Concert Koān.
Saxophonist Lauritz Lyster Skeidsvoll and electric guitarist Håvard Nordberg Funderud take turns artfully disrupting stasis alongside the telepathic and sometimes psychopathic rhythmic propulsions of Karl Erik E. Horndalsveen and Martin Mellem, double bassist and drummer respectively. It’s not all shrapnel and smoke though: on the substantial “Mørk Materie”, one is lulled into thinking that the time has come to settle in for some typically Scandinavian blissed-out action, but pleasant as it is, the letup is only fleeting as the pummeling vibe returns with a welcome vengeance.
This is a terrific record to ready oneself for the hopeful catharsis of election day 2018, America, due in no small part to Funderud’s ferocious guitar tone and playing, at times reminiscent of McLaughlin’s work with Lifetime or Ribot’s Shrek project. I am very much looking forward to hearing what the future has in store for him and for Master Oogway.
Satoko Fujii and Alister Spence – Intelsat (Alister Spence Music)
On the staggering ninth of twelve 2018 releases celebrating Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii’s 60th birthday, she has rung in another year of fruitful musical explorations in top form! The effect of Intelsat, a duo with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence, is situated along the lines of Musique concrète and film noir: intricate mystery leads to great wonderment.
The material is culled from a September 2017 performance at Intelsat Jazz Club in Kiracho, Nishio, Japan, and evidences a workout for the improvisational instincts that these two adventurous performers have in abundance. Both Fujii’s piano and Spence’s Fender Rhodes are dutifully prepared for maximum expressivity that makes for, at times, a totally alien soundscape.
When two musicians from somewhat disparate scenes convene, one never knows quite what one will get. While this is not Fujii and Spence’s first duo performance together, it is their first duo release. The reason that this improvisation works is the same reason that it always works: the musicians are actually listening. Here’s to more actual listening and more duets between these two!
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.
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.
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.
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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 d‘être 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.
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