Reviews of Recent Recordings
Composer Robert Carl’s interest in Japanese music preceded his 2007 sojourn to interview composers of the post-Takemitsu generation, but the project clarified aesthetic principals foundational to his understanding of both traditional and contemporary Japanese music: the perfection of individual sounds; the framing of sounds by silence; and the generative nature of heterophony. These values are well represented by the four compositions collected on From Japan. There’s a bit of a chronological twist to the program, in that “A Clean Sweep,” the only composition to feature traditional instruments, was composed prior to Carl’s journey. The “Japanese” materials of the other pieces are samples of bullet trains and other environmental sounds. Subsequently, the “from” of Carl’s music is two-fold: concepts, methods and instruments accrued from the study of Japanese music, and actual sounds recorded in Japan.
Two versions of “A Clean Sweep” bookend the album. The version that opens the album is scored for one shakuhachi, played by Elizabeth Brown and what Carl calls “fixed media,” a set of recorded sounds that remains constant from performance to performance; Carl is the second shakuhachi players on the version that closes the album. Both versions explore the contrasts between the pellucid wisps of shakuhachi and the metallic ringing of an electronic drone. Brown is sufficiently captivating on her own; the articulation of each note is spot on as the piece shifts emotional bearings. Brown and Carl glide in each other’s wake on the two-flute version; they also manage to maintain the spaciousness of the solo version.
Following the solo with “Bullet Cycle” proved to be seamless. The processed samples of bullet trains slowly become audible and tone-setting before they enter into slow back-and-forth dissolves with filtered modal chords. A trio of instrumentalists give the material a tangible improvised feel: vibraphonist Bill Solomon, who largely maintains the piece’s undulating pulses; cellist Katie Kennedy, who slips in and out of the mix with elegantly bowed phrases; and “percussive timekeeper” Sayun Chang, who minimally marks time with little instruments. However, they don’t convey a Japanese influence anywhere near as overtly and fluently as bassoonist Ryan Hare on “Brown Velvet,” a duet with laptop player Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn; Hare’s enveloping phrases, bent notes and multiphonics approximate the shakuhachi – its colors bleeding into the slowing descending drone – but not at the expense of diluting the bassoonist’s rich tone. The program is rounded out by “Collapsible Mandala;” conceived to be a sound installation, it is nearly a half-hour mix of vividly contrasting field recordings; a powerful listening experience despite being reduced to a stereo field.
John Coxon + Evan Parker + Eddie Prévost
Cinema is a single 54-minute improvisation recorded in 2008. Evan Parker plays tenor throughout; Eddie Prévost concentrates on percussion rather than drums (it sounds like assorted small instruments and cymbals being bowed and scraped); John Coxon, perhaps best known for his work in Spring Heel Jack, plays electric guitar and prepared piano. Cinema is generally a work of concentrated meditative focus, akin in many ways to AMM. There’s a certain irony that it was recorded in Bristol in a room called The Cube, for everything here is circular. While the musicians are often playing continuously they only enter the foreground at distinct and isolated moments, as if circling through patterns in which they sometimes move into temporal zones indicating high volume. That sense of a score (or scroll or star map) is strong here. Parker employs circular breathing, initially for brief passages, later at greater length, reiterating short scalar phrases. The phrases are varied, first incrementally and then expansively, multiplying through overtones. There’s a sense that certain sounds – the tenor phrases, a particularly abrasive cymbal scrape – are being looped, entering at irregular intervals, sometimes triggered by one another, creating a sense of ongoing structure that’s further magnified by Coxon’s drones, occasional squiggly guitar figures and subtle references to blues. It’s subtle, continuous work.
Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins has been a fixture in the Chicago jazz scene since the late 1970s; the former AACM president’s purview has ranged from the eclectic excursions of his longstanding New Horizons Ensemble to co-leading the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with founder and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. In light of Dawkins’ avant-garde leanings, the relatively mainstream program presented on Afro Straight marks a departure of sorts while still upholding the AACM’s credo, “Ancient to the Future.”
Dawkins assembled a new group specifically for this project. It features trumpeter Corey Wilkes, pianist Willerm Delisfort, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer regaling in robust versions of well-known standards like “Central Park West” and “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” The quintet is frequently augmented by guest percussionists Ruben Alvarez, Greg Carmouche and/or Greg Penn, who bolster the proceedings with a variety of Afro-Latin rhythms. Additionally, Ben Peterson sits in on Hammond B-3 organ for a sublime rendition of “God Bless The Child.”
Dawkins’ searing tone and quicksilver phrasing imbues the session with bold lyricism, whether the material is ballads, blues or bop classics. He establishes the set’s intrepid tone straight away with a soaring performance of John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC,” where his probing tenor salvos follow Wilkes’ equally virtuosic fanfares. It’s an interpretation that sets the stage for a series of spirited performances, including a bracing run through the bebop staple “Woody ‘N You” and an atmospheric reading of Wayne Shorter’s haunting “Footprints.” The nimble rhythm section invests each of these familiar tunes with an elastic sense of swing, highlighted by Delisfort’s gamboling filigrees, which are often buoyed by a battery of polyrhythmic percussion.
Closing with a rhapsodic tear through Shorter’s enigmatic “Juju,” Dawkins’ multiphonic cadences careen over a churning, syncopated undercurrent, confirming the leader’s goal to reinvent beloved chestnuts in his own personalized style. While it’s not as conceptually daring as his albums with the New Horizons Ensemble or Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the aptly-titled Afro Straight is nonetheless one of Dawkins’ most enjoyable recordings.
Morton Feldman’s trio piece “Crippled Symmetry” is one of his most iconic late compositions. Feldman wrote this, and a series of other pieces for flute, keyboards, and mallet instruments while teaching at the University of Buffalo in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. At that time, Feldman had assembled a group of musicians, “Morton Feldman and Soloists” to play his music, and the music of other 20th Century composers. Amongst the key members were flutist Eberhard Blum, pianist Nils Vigeland, and percussionist Jan Williams; this piece, along with “Why Patterns?,” “For Philip Guston,” and “For Christian Wolff” grew out of the composer’s work with them. Feldman was also inspired by a growing interest in the phasing of rhythms and phrase lengths, fueled in part by his interest in the patterns of Near and Middle Eastern rugs. He wrote at the time, “Rugs have prompted me in my recent music to think about disproportionate symmetry, in which a symmetrically staggered rhythmic series is used: 4:3, 6:5, 8:7, etc. as the point of departure ... Music and the designs or a repeated pattern of a rug have much in common. Even if it be asymmetrical in its placement, the proportions of one component to another is hardly ever substantially out of scale in the context of the whole.”
There are three key elements to “Crippled Symmetry”, each of which shape the listener’s perception of movement and time in subtly different ways. There are, of course, the core thematic kernels which are repeated with slightly graded changes of inflection and pacing. Then, there are the written parts themselves. There is no master score for the piece, but instead, three separate parts which the musicians must collectively superimpose. As such, no two performances are exactly the same with each part moving in and out of phase with an organic sense of intersection and flow. Finally, there is the instrumentation, with the use of flute, alto flute, and bass flute; concert piano and celesta; and glockenspiel and vibraphone allowing for shifting gradations of timbre which minutely shape the harmonic interactions of the trio.
Blum, Vigeland, and Williams performed the premier of the piece and were also featured on the first recording, released on a currently out-of-print release on the HatNow label. So it was fitting that the three came together in June, 2000 to perform the piece in Buffalo at the 25th anniversary of the first festival that Feldman initiated for “Morton Feldman and Soloists.” This live recording is a worthy complement to their earlier studio recording, and one can hear three musicians, having fully internalized Feldman’s musical strategies, delve deeply into the expansive, 90-minute structure. In the liner notes, Blum mentions that the “magic moment” of occasion and ambience inspired them and that comes through in the hypnotic performance. The live recording loses a bit of the warm immediacy of the studio recording, but gains a sense of spatial presence which adds to the listening experience.
Michael Formanek is a formidable fellow. He combines old-fashioned sideman virtues with ambitious ideas of his own. His sound and his songs have a groundedness, tilth and texture, but also a vertical sophistication that is unique on the current scene. Fortunately, I’d already gone on record as considering him one of my very favourite contemporary jazz composers when his ECM debut The Rub and Small Change came out to startled acclaim in 2010. ECM debuts have a “West End” quality, a sense of arrival, maybe, so some of the admiring responses failed to acknowledge that Formanek has been making extraordinary records under his own name since the terrific Wide Open Spaces for Enja in 1990. That was a set characterised by great writing above all, fifteen taut little numbers that show you don’t need fifteen minute durations to lay down an unforgettable groove. “Yahoo Justice,” “Slothdancing” and the title track still stand out after more than twenty years. Formanek’s next bit of good fortune was to hook up with Tim Berne, and they’ve been stalwarts of each other’s bands ever since, working with a near-telepathic understanding on fast unison theme statements or in teetering counterpoint on some of the saxophonist’s most full-on Bloodcount releases. In return, Formanek was able to make some records for Tim’s Screwgun label and they’re among the best things in that scratchily erratic catalogue.
Manfred Eicher has an eye and ear for great bass players and it seemed rather likely that Formanek would eventually join the bassist leaders – Andersen, Bryars, Holland, Vitous, Weber, others – who’ve graced ECM. But it was the band that Michael put together for that first release that really clinched the deal. With Berne and the bassist were pianist Craig Taborn at his polystylistic best and drummer Gerald Cleaver, who promises to be the most-recorded and most creatively recorded percussionist of his generation. The dream band still sounded (to me) a little tentative on that first recording, perhaps not quite played-in. No such concerns with the mighty Small Places (which is another Formanek title, like Low Profile, which prompts a small, ironic smile). Rhythmically, it’s as tight as a submarine hatch. “Pong” is just a great line, an elastic ostinato with a lead pipe up the middle, and if that’s a mixed metaphor, this whole album is a deliciously mixed metaphor. The rhythmic discipline, enforced by Cleaver, means that the group can afford to play as openly as they do on “Wobble and Spill,” one of the bassist’s most inspired ideas. He and Berne retain the old empathy. I sense that the other’s playing has become second nature to them now. It sounds like that on the title track, which opens the set, and on “Rising Tensions and Awesome Light,” which is the closest thing to a Warren Zevon song in jazz you’ll ever (need to) hear, cracked but gracious. If you can find a better contemporary jazz composition and performance than “Seeds and the Birdman,” you’re obviously listening to more records than I am, and you probably don’t have much of a family life. It’s a stunning piece, as is the wonky ballad form of “Slightly Off Axis.” Taborn’s contribution is enormous. It’s as if the classic Ornette Coleman group suddenly found a pianist (and I don’t mean Paul Bley) who understood what the leader was all about.
Since this is now established as a road band, it’s going to be fascinating (I’m writing in mid/late September) to follow the tour and hear tunes like the turbulent “Parting Ways” evolve on the stand. But for the moment, and if you miss the live dates, this has to be one of the most exciting records of 2012. I’m only saying “one of” because it is only late September, and there’s always the hope of something better still, but on this showing everyone else really should be back at school.