Reviews of Recent Recordings
Forty-five years after the initial recordings were waxed, all of the early Art Ensemble material collected on the five-disc Nessa boxed set 1967/1968 (issued in 1993 for the music’s silver jubilee and long out of print) has been reissued. Nessa was formed in 1967 to issue the first Art Ensemble recordings as Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2 (n-1), followed by Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious (n-2, 1968) and the archival release Old/Quartet (n-5). Although initially billed as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (n-1 was issued under Bowie’s name for contractual reasons), the group evolved collectively, adding the “of Chicago” tag in 1969. Early Combinations comprises two pieces recorded by writer Terry Martin in September and November 1967, featuring Mitchell, Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, bassist Charles Clark (who would pass on unexpectedly barely a year after these sessions) and drummer Thurman Barker. The sound is excellent and together these performances make a neat forty-five minute album.
The Art Ensemble are noted for, among other things, a pastiche-like approach termed “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” but seemingly inclusive of far more than that moniker would indicate (Cage and New York School new music were at least part of Jarman’s listening). Little instruments and the attendant, expanded palette of bells, tin cans, flutes, gongs, kazoos, bicycle horns and thunder sheet flesh out an assortment of brass, reeds, drums and contrabass. In essence, Early Combinations might feature performances closest to the group’s Parisian ruggedness; the opening “A to Ericka” builds from whimsical fanfares and disparate event-oriented juxtapositions to a chugging dirge. The pairing of Clark and Favors adds a tremendous and pliant heft to the rhythm section as their arcos intertwine in bleak poetics, descending in steps opposite cutting and sardonic horn webs. Following an unsettled, spare section of overlapping horns and percussion, the ensemble explodes into an “Ohnedaruth”-level juggernaut, huge pizzicato rumble and Barker’s gorgeously latticed cymbal work a bedrock for Mitchell’s searing alto and Jarman’s more harried bassoon and clarinet. The Jarman composition “Ericka” is a simple, wistful and oblique theme that is worked into the sextet’s masses toward the close of the improvisation, giving the suite an interesting and loosely formal direction.
“Quintet” subtracts Clark but adds a colorful trumpet and percussion duo to start the proceedings, Bowie employing sputters, smears and subtonal snatches with a far more microscopic and subdued approach than expected. While ultimately quite different in terms of scope, the result is curiously not far afield from invocative brass/percussion duets as Bill Dixon/Henry Letcher or Wadada Leo Smith/Günter Sommer. After a short percussion section, which at first seems aligned with Georges Aperghis before quickly stating its firm AACM-ness, Jarman’s tentative entreaties enter in a squalling tempo. Apparently a rehearsal, this work is less well organized than “A to Ericka,” its collective actions bunching together only to be discarded with seeming arbitrariness or boredom. That said, there are some incredibly beautiful aspects, especially in the bookends – the piece closes with a powerful Mitchell-Favors duo that moves naturally into full band weight (the dusky “Ericka” is reprised as well). Not mere sketches and far from seamless, the Art Ensemble Early Combinations do more than just fill discographical holes.
Spun Tree is Michaël Attias’ first studio recording in six years and the first to revisit the elaborate ensemble writing featured on Credo (Clean Feed), which was made in 1999 but unreleased until 2006, a year after Renku, his Clean Feed debut. Intriguingly, it is also the only album in the multi-instrumentalist’s varied discography to feature a traditional quintet lineup fronted by saxophone and trumpet. Limiting himself to alto in this conventional format, Attias enjoys rare accord with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, whose aesthetic temperament and dynamic range matches the leader’s at every turn. Whether soloing in tandem or executing contrapuntal motifs, Attias and Alessi make a consummate pair. Ably supporting the congenial frontline in an array of evocative settings are up and coming pianist Matt Mitchell, semi-ubiquitous bassist Sean Conly and veteran drummer Tom Rainey.
Whether expounding on non-linear narratives or pithy motifs, the quintet invests each cut with a subtle, haunting ambience, providing the session with a cohesive emotional center. From the bracing angularity of “Question Eight” and the driving swing of the title track, to the minor key introspection of “No’s No” and the noir blues of “Subway Fish Knit,” each number exudes a moody, cinematic flair. Even the carnival-like ebullience of “Ghost Practice” is tempered by stark episodes of dark lyricism. A compelling release from an artist whose selective output rarely accentuates his compositional abilities, Spun Tree is an exceptional album, revealing additional layers with each spin.
These performances were recorded some four months apart, in Victoriaville and Lisbon respectively, during the summer of 2011. The first disc is a set of solo reed improvisations, including a new, alto version of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” which led off 14 Love Poems, but on baritone. The other disc is a trio performance from the following day with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and electric bassist Massimo Pupillo. The use of an electric bass in a Brötz group stretches back to Last Exit (if indeed they can be placed in his column), but is still somewhat surprising. The saxophonist has had close and creative associations with master bassists, Peter Kowald most obviously, but William Parker and Kent Kessler as well. Electric bass put in an appearance on the relatively obscure 1999 Noise of Wings from Kungälv in Sweden with drummer Peeter Uuskyla and Peter Friis Nielsen whose juicy, uncomplicated sound sets a mark for Pupillo’s role in the more recent trio. Critics love to feign surprise, even shock, at musician’s recruitment decisions. It reached something of a hysterical peak with Miles’s appropriation of Michael Henderson. I’d say Brötzmann’s use of electric bass is closer to Rollins’ loyalty to Bob Cranshaw, one of the few players of the older school who invests bass guitar with real character and personality. But I was also irresistibly reminded of some of Brötz’s work with his guitarist son Caspar Brötzmann, and in particular the remorseless Last Home on Pathological (!), on which there is little sign of interplay between the two duo voices, just parallel lines. Where once I might have thought this was a criticism, it may turn out to be descriptive and definitive. Pupillo throbs away, sometimes in a meter that seems to waver from bar to bar but that on a closer and more detailed count maintains its relentless progress. Again, not a criticism; just the way this music seems to function, with Brötzmann worrying away at ideas for many minutes, Nilssen-Love providing much of the movement and color. It’s an intoxicating blend.
The solo disc from Victoriaville begins with a version of “Never Too Late But Always Too Early,” a title which became associated after a previous Canadian performance in Kowald’s memory. It’s a brooding, reflective piece here, taken on alto with supple use of the lower register. The other pieces are for clarinet and tenor, with the surprise appearance of “I Surrender, Dear” tacked on to the end of “Frames of Motion.” The trio performances seem to share some energy, if not an actual body of musical material, with the solo date. Certain phrases, and their inversions, play a part in both. The solitariness proposed in the Ornette piece seems to give way to a group philosophy that does not depend on clichés of empathy, “telepathy” or even communication, but a constructivist logic that relies on simple co-presence and co-existence. It’s worth listening again with this in mind. Parallel elements have no necessary connection. They simply work, and work very powerfully as a musical unity.
That sense is complicated slightly with the addition of Kondo for Hairybone’s Lisbon performance. This is a format that has been around for many years. Its language is implicit in the inchoate Marz Combo sessions of 1992, when Brötzmann was still evolving a language for larger-scale ensembles. It was made explicit on Die Like A Dog and the two volumes of Little Birds Have Fast Hearts, on which William Parker and Hamid Drake form the two other legs of the quartet. Kondo’s electronics significantly fill in the sound, in a quite different way to, say, Evan Parker’s marshalling of electronics within his recent larger ensembles, but here in a curious balance between a bigger, “orchestral” palette and the “intimacy” (another curious cliché) of a small group. It doesn’t sound intimate. It sounds challenging, and in a very particular way because there is no obvious common cause among the players, no sense of a consistent front or message. The result is far from chaotic, but it is also far from normative or routinely cohesive. Again, Nilssen-Love creates the most obvious sense of movement. The reeds (which this time include tarogato) worry away at ideas and then drop abruptly silent, marking deep and dramatic transitions in what is otherwise a continuous 53 minute performance. The title is taken from and the piece dedicated to poet and short story writer Kenji Nakagami, who died prematurely in 1992. The group’s collective title should offer some warning against any assumption that this is Brötzmann’s project, but equally one shouldn’t assume that the dedication to Nakagami is Kondo’s sole responsibility. The aesthetic it implies is one Brötzmann thoroughly understands, a body of work that draws much of its energy from the divisions within Japanese society, of race, language and class primarily. More than ever, Brötzmann draws his energy from the Babel of contemporary styles and from the uneasy truce between once-irreconcilable approaches. Both the trio and Hairybones have some elements of rock and noise, and show some resistance to virtuosic soloing. It’s the nature of that resistance that makes this music so compelling.
Bell Trove Spools combines two solo saxophone performances, the first on tenor from Houston in April, 2010, and the second on soprano from Brooklyn some 18 months later. Each is a kind of miracle of resonance, with John Butcher exploring both the internal resonances of the saxophones and the resonances of the rooms in which he plays, the result a kind of complex dialogue in which multiple echoes interact, sound becoming palpable. There’s an uncanny combination of orderly deliberation and improvisatory freedom here, a kind of virtuoso calm that extends from machine-like blasts of sound to lines of Attic grace.
On the opening “A Place to Start,” Butcher presents a series of oscillating multiphonic long sounds, gradually becoming a moving line, the collection of tones growing more complex, changing and expanding timbre and overtone patterns until there’s a hive of metal tenor insects. “Padded Shadows” is all staccato plosives echoing though the performance space. When Butcher amplifies the tenor for “Willow Shiver,” the electronic modulation is perfectly in keeping with the sonic exploration that has come before. The long and varied “Perfumed Screech” is the highlight of the Houston concert, a perambulating piece that begins in a dialogue between a diatonic lyricism (one that links Butcher to the tenor tradition of Young, Getz and Coltrane) and dense multiphonic clusters. It goes on to include extended passages of throaty, bird-like warbling and a strangely dramatic passage in which Butcher sings through the tenor, the piece never returning, never repeating its melodic beginnings.
The soprano performance has many of the same kinds of reverberation, though the room seems as different as the horn. That reverberation also includes the historical sense, “Third Dart” suggesting the chirping melodic play that once characterized Steve Lacy’s solo performances. With the brilliant fluttering, multiplying trills of “Fourth Dart” propelled by seamless circular breathing, the soprano lines seem at once to soar through the room, occupying and echoing every cranny of sonic space. As exotic as Butcher’s techniques may be, there’s never any sense of division between technique and vision, the two notions melding in a multi-hued continuum.
John Butcher + Matthew Shipp
John Butcher + Guillaume Vitard + Eddie Prévost
Way Out Northwest
For his duo with pianist Matthew Shipp, At Oto, Butcher opens with an incredible tenor saxophone discourse on “Curling/Charred.” Initially, it sounds deceptively more linear and/or intervallic than on some of his other recent releases. But as he gets into it, he alternates aggressive, serrated phrases with near silent cooing and buzzing. The soprano solo that follows, “Mud/Hiss,” is gorgeously contained and finds Butcher purposefully deploying squeaks and scratches for maximum effect: single notes whorl around until they create doppelgangers, two and three deep, before Butcher brings them back into a single laser-focus, ending with a cascade of laser notes. Then Shipp is off with his solo, “Fundamental Field.” It’s a bright and punchy piece, with rolling phrases piling into each other rapidly, each one a fragment of some space-bop song you can’t quite name. But what I’ve always dug so much about Shipp is how he lets every idea breathe, never content simply to bash you with information. After a huge cluster of sound in the middle of the piece, Shipp gets positively effusive with a sequence of pinwheeling chordal motion. Finally, there is the thirty-minute duo “Generative Grammar,” whose dark chamber shapes and modest preparations might initially fool blindfold test candidates into calling it a Schlippenbach/Parker piece. It opens with scalar, modulating, percussive movements, and brief tangles in the lower register. But what’s more effective is the long, intense passage of ragged, pounding, insistent notes that scale back into a tense, suspended space. Harmonically fulsome and burring, Shipp refuses to lay off the gas for too long and this pushes Butcher into a simply howling phase (and it’s quite rare to hear him do this these days). At times it’s exhilarating, and it makes the more spacious passages that follow even more effective. Butcher’s liquid and animal sounds that emerge from near silence are extremely engaging, but best of all is the intensely complex weave of high velocity lines that close out the piece.
All But is the second volume of Matchless’ series Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists, this time spotlighting Butcher alongside percussionist Eddie Prévost and Guillaume Vitard. Of course Prevost and Butcher are long accustomed to working with each other, the former’s singular blend of momentum and texture a marvelous analogue to the saxophonist’s own playing. The first part of the three-part suite opens up with tuned toms, and moves quickly into popping, lip-smacking sax and burbling pizzicato, making for a good old free jazz romp for starters. Amidst the nicely heated metal and woody thwacks, you can hear Butcher digging into some of his most audibly saxophonic playing (to call it conventional, even though there are lines and intervals, would be overstating things). But there’s also such a sheerly avian quality, at times evolving into a menacing spitfire, that you forget those previous passages altogether as overtones proliferate. There are also some extraordinary moments in the second part, where Butcher seems to reduce the soprano to pure whizzing sound, with no breaks in the sound, only a massive metallic whistle that occasionally boils down into burrs and grumbles. I have to confess that there are moments when (partly owing to his place in the mix) Vitard sounds a bit inconsequential; and in the hot exchanges to begin “part 3” it’s clear that the sympathy between Butcher and Prévost is where the action is. But thankfully the bassist subsequently proves me wrong with a truly sizzling arco solo – bold and confessional at once – midway through the 28-minute closing section.