Reviews of Recent Recordings
The East-West Collective – cellist Didier Petit, saxophonist Larry Ochs, koto player Miya Masaoka, guzheng player Xu Fengxia, and clarinetist Sylvain Kassap – makes you listen to the details of their music. On an individual level, they each focus on the way a note is made, the shape of each note, and the nuances of timbre. On the group level, the evolving orchestration is paramount, how many instruments are playing at the same time, how they sound together, whether lines move independently or react to one another, and the tempo at which each piece develops. For instance, on “Humeur de Terre,” Kassap’s viscous bass clarinet contrasts with abruptly pucked strings, while cello and sopranino sax chirp and chatter. Long threads of earth-toned guzheng play off against swallow’s flight swirls from the koto and brilliant scintillating staccato from the sopranino. “Wine” features the dry intertwining of koto and guzheng, a trio of tenor sax, cello, and voice warily circling one another, and full ensemble improvisations in a piece of contrasting densities and tone colors.
Although the band features instruments from Korea, Japan, and Europe, the group’s interests lie less in a fusion of Eastern and Western cultural traditions and more on the freedom that improvisation grants musicians to explore their instruments and the specifics of sound in an entirely new context. Traditions can never be erased, but their strictures can be eased.
Tempos are generally slow and the music is often subdued, but there are also moments of intense emotion, when great sorrow and compassion flow through the music or a limitless longing fills each note. And throughout there’s a consciousness of silence, how precious it is, and how respectful of it you must be to break it. A beautiful album.
Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble
Collecting pieces written over the past two decades, A Trumpet in the Morning is the first release from composer and multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich dedicated solely to his orchestral music. Previous albums issued by the New York Composers Orchestra – as well as The Long View, Ehrlich’s 2000 effort for Enja Records – included long-form compositions conceived for large ensembles, but none of those were designed to be interpreted by a unit quite as massive as the big bands featured here. Even more importantly, this session marks the first time Ehrlich acts as conductor rather than soloist, leading his ensemble from the podium, with only one brief foray on clarinet to his credit.
Ehrlich’s interest in composing for large ensembles can be traced back through his very first tour in 1978 with Anthony Braxton’s seminal Creative Orchestra to his teenage years in the early 1970s, when he studied and performed with key members of the St. Louis based collective Black Artists Group (BAG). Having maintained working relationships with many of his former mentors over the years, Ehrlich structures this date around a musical interpretation of the poem of the same name penned by BAG associate Arthur Brown, which is recited by multi-instrumentalist J.D. Parran, a friend of Brown’s and one of Ehrlich’s first teachers. The remainder of the program features a wide variety of styles, ranging from a rearranged version of the late 1980s ballad “M Variations (Melody for Madeleine)” to the anthemic prelude and postlude that bookend the record under the name “Agbekor Translations,” a polyrhythmic fanfare conceived only a year ago.
The common thread that unifies these expansive, multi-sectional works is their lyrical sensibility, a defining characteristic in Ehrlich’s oeuvre. His knack for penning tuneful melodies has long been enriched by his keen ear for color and texture, especially in unique instrumental configurations like his Dark Woods Ensemble. In this setting, with an even broader palette available to him, Ehrlich weaves multi-layered lines of kaleidoscopic counterpoint and polyphonic harmony into lavish themes that amplify the harmonic scope of his more familiar small ensemble writing.
Such attention to timbral detail is immediately noticeable in the episodic title track, which transitions gracefully between a wide variety of moods and instrumental combinations, from introspective piano soliloquies to ecstatic horn chorales. Parran takes the lead, verbally relaying the poem’s evocative text with a theatrical delivery tempered by a folksy dignity, accentuating lines like “you can bury me in the east / you can bury me in the west / I’m gonna rise up / be a trumpet in the morning” at key transitional points with sinuous soprano ruminations and bellowing bass saxophone ululations.
Named after Robert Johnson’s distinctive blues guitar style, “Rundowns and Turnbacks” is the second longest offering at twenty minutes, an epic tone poem offering a metaphorical exploration of archetypal American resiliency, inspired in part by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Brimming with myriad emotional cues throughout its duration, the arrangement segues from such sanguine motifs as the rhythmically infectious “Rundowns” to the dolorous musings of “Quaker Work Song,” with the roiling collective improvisation “Didn’t Know the Levees Would Break” offering a strident contrast to the somber interlude “This Graceful Waltz.”
Originally intended to be part of the aforementioned “Rundowns and Turnbacks,” the funky “Blues for Peace” gained traction on its own as a modified blues in 9/8 that eschews typical r&b modulations. Jerome Harris’ tasteful fretwork features prominently here, with blustery tailgating from Ray Anderson and muscular tenor salvos by Jason Robinson rounding out the accessible, but unconventionally structured number.
“M Variations (Melody for Madeleine)” undergoes a similarly dramatic transformation. First performed by Ehrlich’s piano-less Traveler’s Tales Quartet in 1989 and then adapted for the New York Composers Orchestra in 1992, its understated ballad form is further expanded into a mini-piano concerto for Uri Caine, who uses standard chord changes as the foundation for his cascading variations. Bassist Drew Gress, tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker and trumpeter Ron Horton also contribute sterling individual statements to this melodious swinger. In fact, the entire album abounds with imaginative solos from a multi-generational cross-section of some of New York’s finest improvisers, ranging from Downtown stalwarts like saxophonist Andy Laster and trumpeter James Zollar to overlooked pioneers like French horn virtuoso John Clark and multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson.
A unique and long anticipated item in his discography, A Trumpet in the Morning documents some of Ehrlich’s most captivating but complex writing. Despite his absence as a soloist, Ehrlich’s soulful lyricism is heard to great effect in the stellar performances of these multihued works, which are among the most compelling of his generation.
Agustí Fernández + Barry Guy + Rámon López
On the wall opposite my desk is a print by Scottish radical artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, a design for a sundial to be placed on French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat’s house. The inscription reads “Connaissez une fois le prix de la liberté, connaissez une fois le prix d’un instant.” Understanding this depends rather on knowing that “prix” means both “prize” and “price.”
Agustí Fernández declares himself committed to the freedom of the moment and to what he calls the “opening,” the moment when improvisational energy is channeled without intellect or prior determination. The relevance of Hamilton Finlay’s text to this kind of music is difficult to miss. Fernández’s trio takes its inspiration from the dawn side of the sundial. The group’s first recording was called Aurora, the sequel Morning Glory. It’s tempting to quote Wordsworth’s initial reaction to the Revolution in France – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – but that is simply to invite reference to the inevitable reaction. Blissful this music certainly is, improvisation conducted at a level of empathy that is at times almost uncanny, and Guy and López claim a full share in its extraordinary emergence, but what is the price of this kind of freedom?
The two earlier albums were still sufficiently revealing of process, or prior decision, or still sufficiently close to some model of jazz as a music of themes and variations to offer handholds to the listener. With A Moment’s Liberty, those seem to have gone. That is not to say that this music is not communicative and not appreciable. It is both, and in considerable measure. But the listener is almost inevitably going to feel outside of it, admiring the angles, surfaces and textures of an acoustic icon, rather than absorbed into its procedures.
To be clear, this is far from a bad thing. Indeed, it might stand as one kind of aesthetic ideal, classically opposed to the participatory democracy of “performers” and “audience.” Fernández is a pianist with a tremendous instinct for theatre, but almost no awareness of the crowd. He soliloquizes, or enters into intense performing relationships in which the only spectators are the musicians themselves.
If this is unsettling music, it’s alien in the way any kind of formal perfection tends to be. But lest any of this makes Fernández and his confreres sound forbidding, the only important thing is that it is all very beautiful and that the price of admission and the prize are hard to separate.
Klaus Filip + Dafne Vincente-Sandoval
From the initial breathy flutters and wafts of pure sine tones, it is clear that this duo of Dafne Vincente-Sandoval on bassoon and Klaus Filip utilizing computer-generated sine waves are on to something. Remoto pairs two pieces, “obscur,” recorded with the usual crystalline detail and presence by Christoph Amann at Amann Studios, and “clair,” recorded live at a church in Nickelsdorf. Both utilize the barest of sounds shaded with micro-detailed gradations for maximum effect. Vincente-Sandoval has a background in contemporary composed music, having performed solo works by Richard Barrett and Jakob Ullmann as well as participating in groups like Ensemble Modern. She is also an active improviser, working with musicians like Ferran Fagés and Bonnie Jones. Utilizing tactically placed, small microphones, the bassoonist is able to capture and manipulate the subtlest of nuances, from breath across double reed, to the sound of metal keys against the wood of the instrument to biting high-pitched skirl. This has become standard stuff for saxophone players, but Vincente-Sandoval brings a highly personal sense of timbre and color to bear, assiduously balancing her playing with her partner’s sonic fields. Filip responds in kind, working with overlapped layers of elemental, pure sine tones ardently tuned to the qualities of Vincente-Sandoval’s playing, moving with measured pace from gauzy transparencies to rumbling, low end frequencies.
On the studio piece, the sound fully inhabits the listening plane, building to palpable rumbles and receding to subtle skeins and detailed creaks. But even at the quietest moments, there is an ineffable presence to their playing. What also comes through is a clear sense of poise and form. The live piece, while still utilizing close-recording, introduces a room presence to the mix and the two seem to push things a bit more to fill the space. Filip chooses more cutting tones for the sine waves, and Vincente-Sandoval introduces shadings of feedback, harder edged textures, and clattered, gestural actions. Even so, the piece is framed by an unhurried pacing and vivid intentionality to the placement of sounds against each other. This is all about listening and the acoustics of the church become another element to be balanced and woven in. Potlach has been putting out some of the most consistently challenging and rewarding releases for a while now and this one is no exception.
Mary Halvorson + Michael Formanek + Tomas Fujiwara
It wouldn’t require a medieval torture implement or the authority of the Inquisition to get me to enthuse about this brilliant trio. Thumbscrew is modern jazz at its heretical best. The writing is intelligent and playful, the group chemistry fresh but assured. It’s heretical in the strict sense of being about choices. There isn’t a moment on the record that couldn’t go in half a dozen other directions, but they also seem to pick the most interesting and exciting one.
It’s remarkable on the face of it how quickly Mary Halvorson’s twangy, cello-turned-lengthwise guitar sound has become one of the familiar signatures of contemporary improvisation. It seemed almost old-fashioned when she first emerged as a member of Anthony Braxton’s group, a return to single-picked string lines that didn’t rely on distortion or anything much more than the natural resonance of a hollow-bodied instrument. It was a sound that seemed to come out of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Derek Bailey with sufficient confidence to embrace that whole (non-)tradition and still have enough energy to turn it all on its head. I don’t doubt the influence of Braxton was immeasurable, but I sense, too, that Halvorson came even to that group with a highly distinctive audition and sense of direction. In an odd way, she reasserts the newness of the guitar in the sense that it seemed new when it re-emerged as a vernacular instrument around the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, when industry heads were still apt to say it was a fad and not here to stay.
Halvorson’s puckish presence and ability to skate between clear, almost diatonic patterns and hardscrabble abstraction, is nicely balanced in the group by Michael Formanek’s seniority and sheer presence. He’s the Grand Inquisitor here, interrogating every situation with calm rigor. It’s the bassist who contributes the title piece, though it’s worth noting that the track title is actually “iThumbscrew,” as if this group’s music is a some high-powered new app that delivers fresh melodic lines and complex time-signatures at the touch of a button. If there’s an objection to the record it might be that repeated hearings tend to make their more difficult passages sound almost too effortless. I most recently heard it while the children watched downhill snowboard freestyle bobsleigh jumpers at Sochi and there was something about the sheer headlongness, sense of fun and style and pointless virtuosity that chimed with the music. But that’s a quibble.
One of Formanek’s other writing credits is “Still...Doesn’t Swing.” Of course, it does, but in such a delightfully off-kilter and oddly paced way that the comment is perfectly justified. I’m sure I’ve heard “Buzzard’s Breath” before, perhaps somewhere in his still neglected discography as leader. Like everything here, it seems to center round the bass, whose regular but unstable throb gives most of these tracks their sense of direction. Which leaves drummer Tomas Fujiwara. For a time, I thought of him as being some kind of Paul Motian acolyte; but his writing and playing here points out the limitations of making that connection. Tomas’s real skill is in generating a strong implicit pulse but playing on its fringes and making only occasional reference to it. He’s uncountable in some passages here, not over-busy or dominant or distracting, but certainly not an orthodox caller of cadence.
Nine tracks, three apiece. Not a clunker or merely routine line among them. If you ever thought that Cuneiform was only about Canterbury scene nostalgia and a fetish for British jazz of a bygone age (and it has been said about them), this release confirms the label’s dogged commitment to the best in contemporary music as well. It’s a triumph as much for the imprint as for the group.