Reviews of Recent Recordings
Fred Ho + The Saxophone Liberation Front
Mainstream criticism invariably depoliticises art, or packs the politics off to carefully fenced-off safari parks with big signs round the perimeter. Fred Ho stands for a dynamic political art in which “imaginative critical realism” loosens up ideology and sensuous immediacy takes the place of sloganeering. Predictably, there has emerged a certain consensus that Ho is a fine baritone saxophonist, a worthy heir to Carney, whose work is marred by agit-prop stridency. The closing “Dear Reader” here, with Ho playing solo against a recitation after James Tate by Haleh Abghari, is exactly the kind of thing that is objected to, the directness of its address violating a certain polite distance between “artist” and “audience.”
The whole point of Ho’s music, though, is to jump across that divide and he has never needed texts to do it. His saxophone playing is insistent, vocalized and often declamatory. When Ho punches out a bottom-line, whether to one of his own compositions or to one of the folk-song arrangements that represent the substance of his “Yellow Power, Yellow Soul Suite,” it’s like a forefinger steadily tapping at the centre of your forehead. It swings, but the way you might swing a flail or a club.
Sceptics adduce his 2000 book Legacy to Liberation as further evidence that he’s an ideologue rather than a creative musician, completely missing that Ho’s writing is itself improvisatory, sensuous and delightfully unhinged rather than severely dialectical. By the same token when he appeared nude on an album cover, in “Green Monster” mode, he wasn’t just acting out some white nightmare about the yellow man, wasn’t just evoking one of the darker Chinese nature spirits, but was also celebrating a body that would shortly turn against him, in the first of two bouts of colon cancer. (Alarmingly, he refers to his own demise in the liner notes, but it’s a reference to his starting out afresh in 2006 on a 1969 Selmer Mark VI low-A instrument.)
Originally a reference to Green Berets, “snake eater” is the name of a computer database developed for the US Army to help the counter-insurgency in Iraq. It’s a social networking website for bad guys, from a world in which a “drone” isn’t something you improvise over. Much of Ho’s rhetoric and styling has a faintly dated quality, from the stencil-and-wash “Third World” artwork to titles like “Ghost Dance on the Grave of Capitalism” to the Ezra Pound-channelling “Civilization or Syphillisation?;” both are parts of Ho’s “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism” suite. There is something of the feel of a Fela Kuti record, circa Beasts of No Nation, with its predictable demonology and defanged fury. The irony is that Ho’s musical radicalism is consistently ahead of his historiography. No one subverts a popular song or jazz standard as effectively as when he turns to Erroll Garner here on “Misty-ification (aka Mystification)” – and how little it needs that over-explicit gloss – it’s absolutely clear what he is doing to the received language of “jazz,” which for Ho, I suspect, is just one more limiting dialect. He does the same to Thelonious Monk on “Reflections (Redux-Prefigurative).” These are taut, thoughtful performances. Modirzadeh, Zankel and Washington get the point right off and do as much as the leader to reposition the logic of changes-playing and attack the current impoverishment of improvisation.
If he’s new to you, take a moment to go back and check out earlier stuff like the Soul Notes We Refuse To Be Used and Abused or Underground Railway To My Heart (the definitive Ho album and title, in my view), or the mythic Monkey. Recent things have been coming out under the Big Red flag, as welcome for evidence that Fred is still fit and fighting as for the music itself. There’s a class of artist – D H Lawrence, Norman Mailer – who are almost as important and valuable for who they are as for what they do. Fred Ho almost fits into that category, but don’t miss the sophistication and adamantine determination of the music. Snake-Eaters is part of an ongoing insurgency.
François Houle 5 + 1
Canadian clarinetist and composer François Houle has documented a pretty broad spectrum of work, from 20th century interpretations to chamber/modern jazz and ethnographically inspired improvisation. Genera joins him with a multinational ensemble, including New Haven cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, French pianist Benoît Delbecq, drummer Harris Eisenstadt and bassist Michael Bates on ten of the clarinetist’s compositions. Delbecq and Houle have a longstanding duo partnership, recently updated on Because She Hoped (Songlines, 2011). It appears that the remainder of the ensemble is somewhat new to Houle’s landscape, though Eisenstadt and Bates are fellow countrymen. While the ensemble at first seems as though it would be closer to unfurling expansive open-form music with hints of post-bop, especially judging from the pedigrees of Bynum, Eisenstadt and Blaser, Houle’s compositions both play to the chosen musicians’ strengths as well as getting his own structural interests across.
The set actually has something like an overture in the short beginning piece, “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi I” (referring to ice hockey goaltender Georges Vézina) voiced for low trombone, measured piano and flugelhorn, and the leader’s woody breath. Echoes of Jewish folk music and an almost filmic quality poke through in its curiously full two minutes. “Essay #7” is reminiscent of George Russell’s “Ezz-Thetics” as the horns strike out in angular lines across a thick vamp. Orrin Keepnews stated in a 2008 video interview with Bret Primack that Russell was a bandleader “who really was able to use his band as a unit expressing his music in a way that rarely happens.” That’s not very far off from what Houle does on this record, marshalling several individualists to expand on a whole and put their stamps on it.
The aforementioned “Essay” soon stretches into pointillist dots and gooey commentary as the rhythm section slows its vamp; rather than a vehicle for the clarinetist’s detailed finger-work, collective smears and overlapping phrases are the order of the day. It’s exciting music that is clearly organized, but that’s not to say solos aren’t part of the equation. “Guanara” is about twelve minutes long, and finds Blaser stretching out in Mangelsdorff-like multiphonics and multi-directional filigree in a gorgeous statement at the outset. Delbecq follows with slightly behind-the-beat whirlpools, while the leader escapes any perceived reserve into bluesy skirls. While bookended by thick written passages, what’s in between is evocative and immediate.
The second installation of “Le Concombre de Chicoutimi” is a trio for clarinet, piano (with preparations) and bass; dusky and reflective, its evensong melody is like a slow circle on the ice. Delbecq’s piano-string scrapes bring to mind the surface scoring of blades, and there’s a narrative vividness to the proceedings. “Piano Loop for BD” moves through extended, cellular cycles first with piano, then supplanted and embellished by horns, all with a curious hook underneath that gives the piece a minimal, art-rock lilt. By the time “Sulfur Dude” rolls around the fires of warmth and accessibility have been pretty well stoked, with its dance-like and yo-yoing, Klezmer-tinged theme a marker between Bynum’s crumpled brass and shorter statements from Houle and Delbecq. Genera is a very fine record that displays excellently Houle’s writing and the ability of his chosen ensemble to both strut their stuff and express composed vision, and is well worth investigating – especially for those unfamiliar with his work.
Urs Leimgruber + Jacques Demierre + Barre Phillips
Montreuil is the third CD in a decade by the trio of Leimgruber, Demierre and bassist Barre Phillips, with previous performance recordings having appeared on Victo and psi. It may be inevitable that one compare them to the highly adventurous trios that Jimmy GIuffre led in the early 1960s, given the instrumentation of reed, piano and bass; the emphasis on concentrated in-band listening; and the further fact that the veteran Phillips actually played in one of the editions of the Giuffre trio. The three have been improvising long enough to know that it’s usually only kept interesting with the insertion of new material, and Montreuil has a special almost argumentative character, from the reiterated, upper register piano figure that Demierre stabs, jabs or pokes in the opening seconds of “Further Nearness.” “What can you do with this?” it wants to know, one of the numerous iterations of a question that’s answered in myriad ways over four pieces that run for the next 66 minutes. The question posed by “Northrope” might be “Can you hear this?” as the trio explores the frontiers of audibility. The concluding “Mantrappe” seems combative, but brilliantly so, each musical figure seeming to respond to a previous prod and end with a new provocation, until the result is a skein with a million knots.
6ix, as the name would doubly assert, is a sextet, with Demierre and Leimgruber joined by Okkyung Lee on cello, Thomas Lehn on analogue synthesizer, Dorothea Schűrch on voice and singing saw, and Roger Turner on percussion. While the group does not have the history or the absolute fixity of the trio (with Barre Phillips), it certainly has some history. The group began as Six with Isabelle Duthoit on clarinet and voice and Charlotte Hug on viola and voice in the places now occupied by Lee and Turner; Six toured Canada in 2010 with Hug and clarinettist François Houle in place of Duthoit. The current form de-emphasizes the voice, though Schűrch is prominent, and takes the dramatic step of adding Roger Turner, a drummer who can, at will, literally double the perceived rate of events in an ensemble.
The titles of the four pieces are drawn from a book of Haiku and they are apt, poetic and mysterious: the extensive “Almost Even Further;” its brief sequel “As Now;” the almost invisible “Fairly White;” and the concluding “Gorse Blossom.” It’s hard to describe textures as complex as those produced here, an infinitude of acoustic and electric bits marked by voices as unexpected as the eerie musical saw and unidentified percussive details that seem to swarm from every instrument. The result is a brilliant, complex, shifting surface that resists definition or imposed narrative in the same space in which it invites listening.
Annea Lockwood has made Nature her collaborator; her sound maps of great rivers and tape works employing everything from volcanoes to tree frogs leave the strong impression that the New Zealand-bred composer molds her sense of structure and development to the demands of the sounds rather than trying to cram them into formulaic conceits. Her emphasis on natural sounds, however, has resulted in a body of work in which the human condition is only occasionally, if not rarely a primary theme. She goes strongly against type in two of the three compositions included on In Our Name; and in the case of the title piece, she delivers one of the more damning indictments against human rights abuses at Guantánamo Bay.
Commissioned by baritone Thomas Buckner, “In Our Name” (2009-10) blends voice, cello and taped sounds with the unobtrusive elegance that usually results in a Lockwood piece that feels more like a derive than a guided tour. However, the potential for the type of bucolic soundscapes Lockwood most notably achieves with water sounds – well represented by the album’s earliest work, “Jitterbug” (2007) – is atomized by the texts, gut-wrenching poems written by three detainees apparently snared by the post-9.11 dragnet without cause. Lockwood gives Buckner latitude in terms of pitch and dynamics, and he wraps his resonant voice around the texts with seemingly protective care; he also sings with a small speaker in his mouth, which emits short bursts of short-wave static that dramatically distort key words like “conscience.” Girded by the low tones of cellist Theodore Mook and taped material that prominently features a didjeridu drone played by Stuart Dempster, Buckner inhabits these poems, creating a gripping listening experience.
“Thirst” (2008) is a bittersweet piece, largely based on the juxtaposition of sounds recorded in Grand Central Station with Lebanese sculptor Simone Fattal’s memories of her family home’s courtyard. A linkage of sorts to “In Our Name” is made through the inclusion of PA announcements about untended baggage. Lockwood fleshes out the soundscape with the sounds of large medieval manuscript pages being turned in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and processed samples of gongs, piano and sound sculptures. Soprano Kristin Norderval initially makes fleeting appearances in the mix, adding a graceful, slightly spectral layer; she steps to the foreground towards the end of the twenty-minute piece, singing a heartrending Balkan melody. “There was magic there,” Fattal says of the courtyard in her concluding comments; much the same can be said of “Thirst.”
Ordinarily, “Jitterbug” would likely dominate the discussion of a Lockwood album. Compared to its album-mates, it is a lush work, teeming with underwater sounds, insect sounds, and a host of colors provided by David Behrman, John King and William Winant. Lockwood’s taped materials blend easily with their small arsenal of instruments including timpani, electric guitar and rainstick, creating a peaceable audio ecology. Even though it is arguably more representative of Lockwood’s oeuvre, generally, “Jitterbug” nevertheless functions more like a divertimento on this thoroughly engaging album.
Amidst the excitement of the Brotherhood of Breath albums, Chris McGregor’s piano playing is just a background element – the band’s endless energy, the ecstatic horn soloists are overwhelming. For most of us, this 1977 concert is our best chance to hear his conception of solo piano (he did two other, now-vanished solo piano LPs, also in ‘77). The complex rhythms and hymn harmonies of South African kwela music dance through much of this disc. The program is a familiar song each from fellow Blue Notes Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana; two traditional South African songs; and nine McGregor originals, of which four also have a very traditional South African sound. Abdullah Ibrahim played traditional-sounding pieces too and his approach to interpretation was somewhat similar in principle. But on this CD McGregor is quite the bolder, more harmonically provocative pianist.
Of course the sound and swing and aesthetics of these pieces are a far distance from American jazz traditions. The themes are simple tunes. McGregor is a decorator, an arranger, an inventor of variations, and only secondarily an improviser. As you might expect, there’s delight in pieces like the traditional “Umhome,” which sounds like an exultant gospel song, and great dance music pieces like “Mngqusho” and the traditional “Shekele.” And did he really grow a third hand to play the elaborate rhythms of “Kwa Tebugo”? The rhythms of Feza’s “Sonia” are especially irresistible. As for the non-dance pieces, “Raincloud” is, yes, an atonal impression of a thunderstorm while “Yikiti” moves in and out of tempo and “Call” and “Green Hymn” offer flowery decorations of chord changes – they’re virtually without melody. This CD is certainly a personal statement by an important artist, and there’s pleasure in this music.