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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Agustí Fernández
El laberint de la memòria
Mbari 04

Joe Morris + Agustí Fernández
Ambrosia
Riti CD11


Barcelona-based pianist Agustí Fernández’s El laberint de la memòria (the labyrinth of memory) is based on a suggestion by record producer João Santos that Fernández make a solo record “based on Spanish classical piano music of the 20th century.” When Fernández expressed surprise, saying his focus was on improvisation and free jazz, Santos explained that he wanted to record the pianist’s responses to the music not the pieces themselves. He sent along a selection of over forty compositions, to which Fernández began to listen very closely and gradually to play out of their inspiration, developing improvisational approaches out of isolated details and gestures. In his liner note Fernández writes: “Made up from faraway fragments, these are pieces of shared truths, a reflection, perhaps, of an ancient memory that long precedes my own. Listening to them only brings forth further questions: since when has this interval, this cadence, this ornament existed? Where do they come from? Where will they go to? What can they tell us about ourselves? Why these and not others?”

At times the drama and modality of traditional Spanish music comes to the fore, as in the grimly majestic “Tonada,” while at others it’s fully sublimated into Fernández’s own sense of line, subtly reshaped by a traditional gesture or tonal emphasis. This notion of piano music about piano music seems to bring Fernández’s sense of sound to the fore, emphasizing an often pure and gorgeous piano sonority that seems to pick up and bathe in light every micro gesture that might have its source in an ancient dance or ritual: in the percussive, hand-damped, microtonal shifts of “Pluja Sorda” one might catch the transitory and elusive pitches gained and lost in passages from oud to guitar to piano; the oscillating chords of “Catedral” might announce or conclude a pageant, one that might include the light and dark shades of “La Processő.” The ultimate result is music of great meditative power with an unusual cumulative effect, the more immediately coloristic episodes informing the more abstract, so that the chromatic outbursts of “Flamarades” assume a new relationship to an expressive tradition. It’s at once a triumph of a traditional cultural sensibility and of improvised music, undoubtedly one of the year’s most beautiful piano recordings.       

Fernández’s duos with guitarist Joe Morris are utterly different, created immediately in the moment with rapid response to incoming data as opposed to the nuances of memory. Each is an exceptional duo player (viz. Fernández’s recordings with Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Marilyn Crispell and Derek Bailey and Morris’s recent adventures with Anthony Braxton, Nate Wooley and Barre Phillips) and each plays comfortably (as those various partnerships would suggest) in that special improvisatory mode that consists of lines – sometimes continuous, sometimes broken – executed at the greatest possible velocity so that a certain polyphony arises between a listener’s sensory intake and comprehension, between when a sound was heard and when it was shaped into some meaningful pattern, music so fast that each listener might assemble a distinct and personal music out of the sonic after-images that  the lines leave. On the opening “Ambrosia 1” the two move in and out of synch at very high speed, so there is a kind of shifting image of a chase as if Morris is chasing Fernández, then vice versa, so that there is no ultimate sense of an originating image in the patterns of the two lines. Here the cognitive confusion is enhanced by each musician’s use of some preparation, as on “Ambrosia 2,” in which the piano’s strings come to sound like the guitar, the guitar like a prepared piano, as if they have switched instruments. By “Ambrosia 4” the quavering pitches of piano strings (rubbed and stroked with sliding objects) and scraped and bowed guitar have come so close to one another as to make distinction as difficult as it is irrelevant.  The musicians’ identities will re-establish themselves (there’s the rapid sweetness of “Ambrosia 5”) but part of the pleasure of this music is the suspension of identity (for listeners and musicians alike) in the attention demanded by the weave of the lines. Ambrosia? Yes, it’s aptly named.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Rich Halley Quartet
Requiem for a Pit Viper
Pine Eagle Records 003

For almost three decades, Portland, Oregon based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has been making soul-stirring music under the radar of the mainstream press. A trained Field Biologist with a fondness for the outdoors, Halley’s vanguard approach towards the tradition eschews obvious naturalist-themed clichés. Devoid of the bucolic sensibilities of many similarly inspired artists, Halley’s primal aesthetic offers only brief glimmers of respite to leaven the force of raw expressionism.

Featuring Halley’s longstanding Quartet with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and bassist Clyde Reed joined by Halley’s son Carson on drums, (replacing Dave Storrs), Requiem For A Pit Viper is Halley’s third release on his Pine Eagle Records imprint, following Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival, by Halley’s Freedom Tradition Quartet with legendary cornetist Bobby Bradford, and Children of the Blue Supermarket, which documents Halley’s collaboration with poet Dan Raphael.  

The album opens with the boisterous title track, which charges out of the gate invigorated by the muscular interplay of Halley and Vlatkovich, whose oblique exchanges are underscored by the rhythm section’s bristling undercurrent. The tune careens through a series of dynamic structural changes, foreshadowing the mercurial shifts between freedom and form that dominate the session. Alternating between extended works and brief miniatures, the record maintains stylistic coherence throughout, courtesy of the Quartet’s enthusiastic interpretations of Halley’s asymmetrical originals. From the glacially paced blues lamentation “Maj” to the rousing bebop assault of “Wake Up Line,” the group infuses each angular theme with blistering intensity.

Despite Halley’s rugged fervor, he occasionally reveals a more introspective side. His lengthy excursion on “Snippet Stop Warp” builds from fragmentary motifs to circuitous phrases that peak in exclamatory cries, drawing a conceptual through-line from the gruff lyricism of Hawkins to the acerbic exhortations of Ayler. The dramatic 6/8 anthem “Circumambulation” offers an especially poignant appraisal of Halley’s multifarious talents, as he reinterprets the post-Coltrane tenor language with swinging fervor. Playing with inspired exuberance throughout the date, Vlatkovich makes a perfect foil for Halley, matching the leader’s burly cadences with pointed ruminations and garrulous vocalizations. Carson Halley adds stylistic color to the proceedings while bolstering Reed’s sinewy contributions, enlivening the tango-infused second line rhythms of “Subterranean Strut” and the brisk Latin beat of “Afternoon in June” with his nimble touch.

Considering the unfortunate dearth of creative improvised musicians working outside established scenes in the states, Halley deserves wider recognition for his efforts. Expounding upon the vagaries of avant-garde post-bop and free jazz traditions with palpable conviction, Halley makes a strong case for the innovative possibilities of adventurous acoustic jazz made beyond the confines of New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
-Troy Collins

 

Gerry Hemingway Quintet
Riptide
Clean Feed CF227CD

From his seminal efforts in the late ‘70s, through his tenure with Anthony Braxton’s revered ‘80s Quartet, Gerry Hemingway has grown from a virtuosic percussionist into a well-rounded artist whose writing is as elaborate as his adroit improvisations. Interweaving multiple layers of pre-written material and unstructured interludes into episodic narratives, his compositions exude the sophisticated aura of chamber music buoyed by the primal immediacy of indigenous folk forms. No stranger to multi-culturalism, Hemingway has long drawn on musical traditions outside of Western hegemony; in addition to myriad ethnic rhythms, his abiding interest in the joyous grooves of South African kwela make their strongest appearance yet on Riptide, the studio debut of Hemingway’s new Quintet.

Maintaining consistency for the sake of his songbook, Hemingway has employed a two-horn front-line and a stringed instrument (usually cello) supported by bass and drums in his various quintets ever since 1985’s Outerbridge Crossing (Sound Aspects). However, it was his much admired ‘90s Quintet with multi-reedist Michael Moore, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, cellist Ernst Reijseger and bassist Mark Dresser that defined this aesthetic. Mirroring the tonal and textural range of that line-up, the newest incarnation features relative newcomers Oscar Noriega (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet) and Terrence McManus (guitars) alongside veterans Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone) and Kermit Driscoll (acoustic bass and electric bass guitar). Hemingway’s talent for framing each member’s voice within unique settings yields an array of kaleidoscopic detail, ranging from introspective impressionism to impetuous intensity.

While Hemingway’s writing is engaging in smaller configurations (like his various quartets), it is the inclusion of a fifth voice that best facilitates his flair for intricate counterpoint and contrary motion. Embracing this role, McManus fills Reijseger’s former position as the primary chord-based instrumentalist, adding an electrified patina to Hemingway’s primarily acoustic Quintet oeuvre with his heavily amplified fretwork. McManus’ capacity for wringing novel variations from overdriven pick-ups is revealed on the aptly titled “Gitar” and “Meddle Music,” where he conjures a compelling series of minimalist motifs from peals of feedback shaped by brusque, siren-like punctuations. He spearheads the inverted structural dynamic of the epic title track with scorching arpeggios, as the horns unleash staccato accents in opposition to the rhythm section’s languid countermelody, creating a labyrinthine setting for Noriega’s serpentine alto. McManus also contributes understated support on pieces like the impressionistic tone poem “Asamine” and the countrified Afro-pop hybrid “At Anytime,” which inspires a series of euphonious ruminations from Eskelin and Noriega. Eskelin’s longstanding familiarity with the intricacies of Hemingway’s concepts comes to the fore in the hypnotic funk of “Gitar,” which features one of the tenor saxophonist’s more lyrical performances. Another veteran sideman of Hemingway’s, Driscoll brings a diverse mix of austere acoustic support and jubilant electric bounce to the proceedings.

Other than a brief unaccompanied excursion on the title track, Hemingway largely eschews drum solos, preferring to imaginatively work embellishments and variations into the Quintet’s congenial interplay. His effortless modulations between time signatures and timbral dynamics prove endlessly fascinating, yet his surprisingly unorthodox arrangements and idiosyncratic reinterpretations of conventional forms are equally impressive. Time-honored genre tenets are transposed into adventurous yet accessible motifs; the rubato swing underlying the effervescent theme to “Holler Up” and the abstract blues extemporizations of “Meddle Music” subtly deconstruct hallowed traditions, while the stirring kwela rhythms of “Backabacka” evoke festive South African customs. Most of Hemingway’s quartet and quintet records since 1996’s Perfect World (Random Acoustics) end with a celebratory kwela tune. While the ebullient “Backabacka” sets the stage for such a finale, after a minute of silence between cuts the thorny syncopated funk of “Chicken Blood” materializes, with its multiple phrase lengths and polyphonic harmonies serving as the final coda; a reminder that though Hemingway’s opulent compositions cover a broad stylistic spectrum, their subtle differences are always sublimated into his singular language.
-Troy Collins

 

Charlotte Hug
Slipway to Galaxies (2010)
Emanem 5018

This is Swiss violist Hug’s third solo recording to document a progression of ideas initiated in 1999. This disc is marked by two distinctions: it’s the first to which Hug adds her voice as a frequent component; it’s also marked by a subtle influence of Celtic music. This is a disc that’s careful to note that no electronics or overdubbing were employed in its making, and it’s good to know, for otherwise one would likely assume that Hug was modifying and layering  her performance. It’s immediate, technically daunting work of a rare virtuosity, but as with the best improvised music that technique is in the service of the mystery of creation. Multiple lines emerge from the viola as Hug bows gradually shifting drones beneath evolving lines, demonstrating a remarkable mastery of muting sounds to create rhythmic distinctions, while elsewhere multiple timbres emerge simultaneously. What’s most significant here is that there’s no exhibitionism in the technique: it’s all concentrated focus, a meditation at once on resonances and the mechanics of hands, strings and bow, an expanding musical consciousness that gradually takes in voice to create a compelling sonic universe. Within that world there’s tremendous variety in her materials: “Exhilaration” develops its sonic materials in a suite-like way, moving from near-electronic whistling harmonics to brief, strongly melodic materials to loose-bowed, circular  passages that sound like they’re played backwards. On “Atman,” she creates percussive click languages that pass back and forth between viola and voice, the two becoming briefly indistinguishable. While Hug can at times overwhelm a listener with the sheer density of her musical conception, it’s just as compelling when she scales back her resources, as in the mysterious and spare beauty of the microtonal “Holy Ground.”  Throughout it’s fascinating and subtle music, clearly the expression of an individual even when it’s hard to imagine it being performed by one.  
–Stuart Broomer

 

Joëlle Léandre + Phillip Greenlief
That Overt Desire of Object
Relative Pitch Records RPR1002

Phillip Greenlief is a stalwart of the San Francisco-area improvising community, a reed-player whose work possesses a consistent thoughtfulness, a focus on timbre and the nuances of line. On the first nine pieces of the CD, he and bassist Joëlle Léandre concentrate on relatively brief pieces, generally conversational in spirit, and in which Greenlief gradually works through his instruments, descending in pitch from clarinet through saxophones. Each piece is described as a variation, perhaps on the title, a recasting of Luis Buñuel’s film title That Obscure Object of Desire.

The CD is marked by the numbers of different ways in which the two are able to develop dialogue. “Variation 2 for clarinet and contrabass,” a brief explosion of skittering lines from both instruments, is marked by an empathy of line as much as a resemblance. The third of the clarinet pieces is a thickening texture of long tones, with Léandre creating fields of sound in which Greenlief’s every entry is a transformative event. “Variation 2 for soprano saxophone and contrabass” has each musician bending notes as much as possible to resemble vocalization, a tendency here becoming explicit imitation. Two pieces with alto saxophone have a decided scrappiness to them, the two throwing off sudden scatters of notes or matching oblique rhythmic patterns. With Greenlief’s ultimate move to tenor, his lines become more conventionally melodic and more emotionally centered, as if even the instrument’s closer range to the bass contributes to an altered empathy. “Variation 2 for tenor saxophone and contrabass” is a lyrical high point, Greenlief’s almost classically pure tone weaving amidst Léandre’s richly resonant bowed tones.

The nine duets are followed by two long and mysterious solos that demonstrate the closeness of the two musicians even when they’re not playing together. “1st variation for soprano saxophone and voice” is all Greenlief, whether singing, playing soprano, or vocalizing through the soprano and it’s highly shamanistic in effect, from the choked vocalizing to the sometimes wailing saxophone, to querulous moments of search that seem to peck out notes like an oracle of chicken-scratches. Léandre’s “1st variation for contrabass and voice” has a comparable sense of depth experience, from dense whistling harmonics bowed with trance-like insistence and accompanied by vigorous rhythmic hand-slapping on the bass. The solo has tremendous variety, but it’s not as if Léandre is consciously seeking it out. Instead there’s a consistent sense of natural evolution as if it is the bow testing new relations with the strings, an evolution that eventually stretches to the brief inclusion of throat singing near the conclusion.
-Stuart Broomer

Intakt Records

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