Reviews of Recent Recordings
Jimmy Bennington Trio
Jimmy Bennington has carved out a career for himself as a free jazz drummer through diligence and determination; he’s recorded duets with trombonist Julian Priester, obscure Herbie Nichols tunes with pianist David Haney, and recently partnered with a fellow jazz nomad, clarinetist Perry Robinson, whose debut album for Savoy, Funk Dumpling, was released eight years before Bennington was born. With the experienced and versatile bassist Ed Schuller, their trio is an uninhibited and unpredictable affair, capable of bittersweet lyricism and pungent friction, frequently in the same tune. At their freest – such as the opening squall of “High Maestro” or Sunny Murray’s “EMOI” – they can raise a ruckus, but aren’t afraid to display a sentimental side, as their fragile phrasing of the Bob Haggart standard “What’s New” and the affectionate versions of two songs written by Perry Robinson’s father, Earl, prove. Typically, however, they prefer to probe into the marrow of a theme, Bennington offering commentary on the line without insisting on the time and Schuller bowing or walking along the harmonic crevices, allowing the clarinetist’s eccentricities of tone and ambiguities of pitch plenty of room for elaboration, as on the title track and the curiously titled “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” said to be the dying words of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Any opportunity to hear the idiosyncratic Robinson is welcome, and in such an open and advantageous setting as this, all the more so.
So I can appreciate Ross Bolleter's pleasure as well as the inherent doom in his ruined pianos, abandoned in the countryside and deserts of Australia. The 14 pieces in Night Kitchen are improvisations on the distinctive qualities of his pianos, and in "Five" he apparently plays five different pianos. Several pieces are based on single bass notes struck then bending (sometimes several whole steps) and decaying into space; "Nocturnal" is especially doomed and gloomy. "Cohabitation" builds to harpsichord-like sounds, if you can imagine a struck rather than plucked harpsichord. The repeated tones in "Rear View" expands to a big pipe-organ sound and "Asmodea" and "Her Long Night's Festival" tinkle like wind chimes.
John Butcher + Claudia Ulla Binder
John Butcher + Rhodri Davies
The only previous recording of Butcher and harpist Rhodri Davies as a duo documents their first performance in that form, the second portion of Vortices and Angels recorded in 2000 (on Emanem), while Carliol documents them following years of collaboration and some sustained touring. The duet between Butcher and Davies emphasizes electronics and a degree of interactivity that often blur the source identity of individual sounds, whether it’s a perfectly even mechanical drum roll or a sustained tone with an electronic ring. The blurring arises from Butcher’s use of motors and feedback and Davies’ use of electric harps, reaching its summit on “ouse poppy,” on which Butcher is playing through a speaker embedded in Davies’ lever harp, pressing the borderline of identity to levels usually attained only by musicians playing computers or the same instruments. While the game of identifying sources will engage a listener for only so long, what takes over is the extraordinary depth of this musical experience and its fundamental interiority. The loss of sonic identity seems here akin to a sense of the loss of individual identity and a erasure of notions of interior and exterior experience. While this is an extraordinary experience in deep listening, borrowing in effect the hearing of Butcher and Davies, it’s also an interior journey into an unknown sonic landscape, though oddly named for Newcastle landmarks, from city wall (“gallow gate”) to park (“distant leazes”) to housing developments. It’s only in the concluding “distant leazes” that the distinct instrumental identities are pronounced, and there the two instruments were recorded two years apart, that act of overdubbing resulting as well in more linear work.
That sense of the interior journey is often as intense on Under the Roof, an acoustic duet between Butcher and Swiss pianist Claudia Ulla Binder, though the individual instruments are usually more distinct and references to the outside world more literal. Here it’s the piano’s interior that functions as the sign of inner life. On the opening “Lofty,” Binder counters Butcher’s pecking soprano line with sustained string tones created with an e-bow before adding keyboard notes to Butcher’s expanding multiphonics. On “Troves” Binder creates wind-blown, fluttering sounds on the piano’s strings while Butcher works from key sounds and muffled tones to airy tenor lyricism and an extended outburst of strange saxophone kissing sounds. The acoustic tenor saxophone of “Raincoat” suggests electronic glitches. This sense of the world transformed is emphasized in the number of bird invocations, everyday articles and construction terms in the titles, creatures, things and technologies taking on new dimension and significance. The sliding string-tones and interior drumming of the piano and chirping whistles of the soprano on “Black Martin, Female” are as fully unearthly as many of the electronic textures of Carliol, at once evocative and unspecific. There’s a sense here, too, of exchanging roles, so that if the CD begins in Butcher’s linear mode and Binder’s sustained tones, by “Black Martin, Male” the roles have reversed, with Butcher setting sustained multiphonics against Binder’s crisply articulated lines. On “Kestrel,” each piano cluster will trigger a sudden blooming saxophone flight. Often these pieces are very short, sudden glimpses of a novel world, like the high-pitched whistling sounds and muted piano tones of “housemice,” brief entry into a secret life of music.
Each of these CDs possesses wonders of exchange and moments of the rarest clarity and invention, consistently testing the potential of duo improvisation and frequently taking it to new ground.
Claudia Quintet + Gary Versace
As one confronts the rising tide of CD releases, it’s tempting to cry – like Thurber, rather than King Canute – “what do you want to be prolific for, Cynthia?” With John Hollenbeck, there’s no reason for the question, even rhetorically, for everything he puts his name to claims a worthwhile place, and clearly answers some specific creative need. His large ensemble record Eternal Interlude was my most-played release of 2009, a deeply consoling and satisfying set of compositions that didn’t lack for muscle and edge in addition.
Dither is a New York-based guitar quartet, unusual in that the four guitars are electric and much of the music performed here is through-composed, including verbal and graphic scores. It’s unusual, too, in maintaining much of the traditional split between composers and interpretive performers. There are five composers represented here and only one, Joshua Lopes, is actually a member of Dither, otherwise made up of Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and James Moore. It’s an oddly formal distinction, for the performances can reach levels of volume and insistence that are usually reached without a program. The CD opens and closes with aural shock treatment. After a quiet lacework of isolated harmonics and hum, Lainie Fefferman’s “Crown of Thorns” suddenly turns to a crushing repeated chord that suggests the Velvet Underground, or even loops of the Velvet Underground, humming feedback and overtones providing variety. The conclusion, Erik km Clark’s “exPat,” is even more provocative, a hearing deprivation piece in which the four guitarists play the same music while wearing headphones that blast white noise, making it impossible to hear one another. In between, though, there are more immediately engaging moments as the group collaborates with composers to explore the electric guitar’s range of tunings and textures, often contrasting rock-inspired skronk with a subtle control of quarter- tones. The CD’s most compelling moments come in Lisa R. Coons “Cross-sections,” a four-part, 24-minute work that begins with broken rhythms that can suggest Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band and the surf band staple “Bumble-Boogie,” only to extend to a long segment called “Prolix” that demonstrates Dither’s remarkable abilities to match high levels of control and complexity. It’s an intriguing debut by a group that summarizes much of the electric guitar’s history (from Dick Dale to Fred Frith) and mines further possibilities of their own.