Reviews of Recent Recordings
Grutronic + Evan Parker
In Solo (Kadima Collective), a book of conversations with Frank Médioni, double bassist Joëlle Léandre describes “that unique vocabulary that [Evan Parker] built himself, for himself, and which became a quasi-style … that’s him.” It’s a singularly definitive saxophone voice that is neither demure nor docile. It is also a voice that has always worked well with electronics, be it the handmade instruments of Hugh Davies in Music Improvisation Company, or the ever-evolving computer rigs of the ever-growing number of Parker’s ElectroAcoustic Ensemble colleagues and, more recently, Matthew Wright. That’s why it is so refreshing to hear Parker’s unfettered soprano saxophone voice with the electro-acoustic quartet Grutronic, with Stephen and Nicholas Grew, Richard Scott and David Ross.
Grutronic represents something of a synthesis between the two lineages in improvised electro-acoustic music – instrument invention and computer programming – though it leans noticeably towards the former. The musicians created most of the instruments heard on the album, Scott playing those with the more intriguing names. The wigi (Wireless Gestural Instrument) is a theremin-like device controlled by an array of wands that makes the theremin seem quite elementary in comparison. Originally a monophonic linear sampling device and percussion controller, buchla lightning is now used to incorporate percussive playing, generate original lines, harmonic patterns, and orchestral layering. The blippoo box is an analogue synthesizer with sampling and random sound generation capabilities. It’s the source for many of the bubbling and burbling sounds heard on the recording. They make descriptions of Stephen Grew’s keyboards and processors as well as the tabletop setups of Nicholas Grew and Ross seem pedestrian by comparison.
Recorded at 2009’s 10th Next Festival of Advanced music in Bratislava, together in zero space consists of two extended improvisations. While the music often has a cut-and-paste quality, it does ultimately bear out Scott’s observation that “(f)orm emerges not from predetermination but from desire and from collective interaction.” Listening to together in zero space is akin to listening to Wolof, the indigenous language of the Senegalese people – like Grutronic, it may be alien to the ear, but you can nonetheless hear its power and beauty.
Bronx-born Kip Hanrahan has excelled at recruiting all-star ensembles to perform and record lush, Latin-framed albums that are intended to be fallen in love with as whole entities. I first came onboard with the two recordings he did in the mid-1980s around the words and voice of Ishmael Reed. Like those two releases, At Home in Anger Which Could Also Be Called Imperfect, Happily, Hanrahan’s first studio recording as a leader since 2007, features a line-up of heavyweight contributors from the domains of Latin and North American jazz performing around a literary axis that serves as anchor point for a symmetry of the surreal. With a pronounced emphasis on establishing and suspending a mood whose tensions are defined by understatement and continuity rather than sonic hyperbole or abrupt segues, almost all of the eighteen tracks are songs delivered either in English or Spanish. The exotic rewards of Hanrahan’s orchestrations, however, do not hinge upon either geography or language as much as his uncanny ability to create new textures with skillful juxtapositions of familiar components.
On the cover of At Home in Anger, two women stare into the camera, while a presumably sleeping man rests supine under the arm of one and beneath the breasts of the other. The nature of any relationship between the three cannot be discerned and, of course, the man could be awake, but his eyes are closed. The set of tracks on the recording affirm a feminine perspective, even though most of the tracks are sung by a male voice and the liner notes point to a strong biographical basis for the project’s dense lyrical barrage.
Hanrahan damn near wallows in the burnished antique production approach for which engineer John Kilgore is famous – the aural equivalent of soft focus and sepia tint. A creamy analog haze drapes across the project, and vocal contributions, even those provided by such strong singers as Xiomara Laugart (the voice of Cuba), are pushed down into the mix and allowed to meld with the other instruments. The result is something of a misty daydream with each selection presenting itself as a fragment of memory, a tattered page from a diary long-since closed.
Of course, what makes At Home in Anger such an emotionally evocative document is the strength of its assembled players and their ability to find common semantic ground across style and culture. While the entire ensemble deserves credit, there are a few musicians meriting special mention. The uptown Puerto Rican culture of his youth has allowed Hanrahan to realize seamless fusions of jazz with Afro Cuban rhythms and other Iberian elements, which is why master congero Milton Cardona is always central to Hanrahan’s projects. It is also noteworthy that Hanrahan chose a buoyant composition by Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, a recent MacArthur Fellowship recipient, to open the album; like guitarist Brandon Ross, Prieto’s singing reinforces the dream state of Hanrahan’s music. Craig Handy’s lyrical saxophone brings a blues backbone that reinforces the melancholy reflections that comprise the poetic heart of this suite. Don Byron augments this song cycle with a clarinet solo that still manages to convincingly advance Hanrahan’s haunting biopsychographical narrative.
Hardly enraged, At Home in Anger is mellow but loaded with thorns. Kip Hanrahan’s latest foray into the chaotic hologram of human emotions where love and its opposition dance in a statistical dead heat, ad infinitum, pulls the listener in to either make a crown or just get stung. Quite an imperfect universe, wouldn’t you say?
Joel Harrison + Lorenzo Feliciati
Referencing Allen Ginsburg’s Howl for its title, the quintet featured on Holy Abyss was organized by American guitarist Joel Harrison and Italian bassist Lorenzo Feliciati, who recruited Vietnamese-born trumpeter Cuong Vu, British keyboardist Roy Powell (on piano and Hammond B-3) and New York-based drummer Dan Weiss for the project. Although this session documents their first time playing together, longstanding associations underscore the international ensemble’s collective accord; Weiss performs regularly with Harrison, while Powell and Vu have recorded and toured with Feliciati.
Vu’s use of electronics and extended techniques to expand the range of his horn mirrors Harrison’s fondness for pushing the limits of his axe with a battery of analog EFX pedals. The trumpeter’s experience playing with Pat Metheny provides subtle insights into the success of his rapport with Harrison, yet Vu and Harrison’s bristling dialogues often venture well beyond the scope of Metheny’s usual excursions. Powell’s dynamic range confers a wellspring of nuanced support and timbral detail in this electro-acoustic environment, veering from psychedelic Hammond B-3 washes to barrelhouse piano runs. Feliciati’s sinuous acoustic bass lines complement Weiss’ shifting time signatures and modulating tempos, resulting in a complex, but focused rhythmic foundation.
Even though the writing duties are split – Harrison and Feliciati each contribute three compositions to the date, with Vu supplying two – the set nonetheless exudes a melodic cohesiveness. Harrison’s harmonious writing balances plangent lyricism with assertive expressionism; the opening “Requiem for an Unknown Soldier” and “Saturday Night in Pendleton” set the tone, demonstrating the group’s graceful ability to pivot between chiaroscuro moods. The former’s dulcet romanticism is bolstered by a capricious experimental streak, epitomized by Harrison’s peals of Hendrixian feedback and Vu’s raspy obbligatos. The latter number vacillates between cinematic restraint and the blistering force of a stadium rock anthem, complete with pyrotechnic fretwork and thunderous power chords. Both tunes exude strains of heartfelt Americana, a stylistic trait shared by the guitarist’s gorgeous “North Wind (Mistral),” which follows a parallel arc, alternating wistful balladry with a spirited waltz.
Feliciati’s pieces are equally engaging. The appropriately titled “Solos” is exemplary, featuring thrillingly succinct statements from each member of the group, including a masterful unaccompanied pizzicato excursion from the composer. Powell’s rousing piano infuses Feliciati’s “Small Table Rules” with righteous blues fervor, as the rhythm section gradually deconstructs a soul jazz-tinged groove underpinning Harrison and Vu’s increasingly fragmented discourse. Vu’s lilting “Old and New” traffics in comparable territory, blurring the boundaries between advanced post-bop and contemporary pop song structures. The trumpet player’s “Faith” pushes even further into abstraction, unveiling a sinister Milesian tone poem haunted by dissonant pointillist ruminations, while the bassist’s hushed ballad “That Evening” concludes the record on a similar note.
Holy Abyss defies conventional wisdom regarding the limitations of ad hoc line-ups; the quintet conveys sophisticated arrangements with palpable conviction, their liberal interpretation of modern jazz transcends stylistic constraints with an aesthetic both populist and urbane.
The scene changes, even in commodious Vancouver. A decade ago, Vancouver’s creative music scene was largely NOW-centric, with most of the envelope-pushing music being made by members of NOW Orchestra. That’s less the case now, with new ensembles regularly bubbling to the surface. NOW figures in the evolution of Ion Zoo, an improvising quartet that has gigged at outposts like The Sugar Factory and Rime since 2001 – their first CD, 2007’s Set Free at the Cellar, was issued on NOW’s label – but aside from bassist Clyde Reed, a regional presence through his work with NOW Orchestra and saxophonist Rich Halley’s bands, these musicians have had few if any opportunities to make an impact outside of Canada. Venus Looks Good could well begin to right that, as singer Carol Sawyer, pianist Lisa Miller and reedist/percussionist Steve Bagnell are also improvisers who instantly recognize the genesis of momentum and who quickly coalesce to create brief (the album has 18 tracks, most of which clock in under four minutes), iridescently colored improvisations.
The musicians’ respective skill sets prove to be complementary as the album unfolds. Sawyer’s classically trained voice can vault over a considerable mass of sound; but she can also slip through softer moments. Miller can support a stentorian, lieder-like tone one moment, and use her jazz background as a flint the next. Though Bagnell has a burnished sound on both tenor and bass clarinet, it is his full-bodied sound on soprano that is most appealing; he also supplies timely, well-measured highlights with auxiliary percussion – cymbals, bells and the like. Without the timekeeping and changes-outlining duties required in other settings, Reed’s ability to generate forward rhythmic movement with the slightest provocation, create engaging melodic phrases, and fill spaces with a rich tone is heard anew with this ensemble of equals.
Any album that pokes and prods your assumptions about improvised music is worth hearing. Ion Zoo does this 18 times on Venus Looks Good, which makes it something of an outlier. –Bill Shoemaker