Reviews of Recent Recordings
One of the inspired focusses of Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label has been on the confluence of collective improvisation and the performance of scored compositions. Where some labels exclusively narrow in on one or the other or create separate imprints to separate the two, Reynell continues to document a group of musicians who embrace and blur the lines between these modes. The members of Common Objects (Rhodri Davies, John Butcher, Angharad Davies, and Lee Patterson) have each actively placed themselves at the nexus of the intersections, whether through direct collaboration with composers, the development of site-specific sound installations, or through constantly evolving solo and group-improvised settings. The double-CD Whitewashed with Lines, provides an intriguing opportunity to experience the group interaction in both settings, capturing two performances; the first, a reading of a graphic score prepared by Rhodri Davies based on Neolithic “cup and ring” stone carvings found in Northern England and Scotland and the second, a collective improvisation.
Davies first encountered cup and ring marked stones during a residency with Angharad Davies in Kilmartin Glen, an area which has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. When he was commissioned to write a piece for the 2014 AV Festival at The Mining Institute in Newcastle, he thought that the open interpretations of the meaning and function of the stone markings would be a fitting basis for a graphic score. The 57-minute reading of “Cup and Ring,” recorded live at the festival features the quartet assiduously accruing amplified and acoustic sounds within the resonant space of the room (captured here in superb detail.) Butcher’s reed overtones and precisely tuned feedback meshes with the acoustic and amplified harmonics of Angharad Davies’ violin, the micro-detail of Rhodri Davies’ electric harp, and the abrasions and fractures of Patterson’s amplified devices. Patterson is credited with “amplified devices and processes,” and one has the sense that processes of sound-making by each of the members is at the core of the piece. The kinetic momentum of cyclic patterns and gestures, looped threads of arco, whorls of reed overtones, and a low thrum of amplified cushion are plaited together into a constantly morphing stream of peaks and valleys of movement. The structure develops, allowing details to emerge, gathering together in layers of clangs, creaks, hiss, and shudder which transform into countervailing components of scoured reeds, plucked and bowed strings, and granular amplified textures.
“Repose and Vertigo,” a collective improvisation recorded a year earlier at Tunstall Chapel, University College, Durham, features the same musicians with a slightly different configuration. Butcher and Angharad Davies work without amplification and Rhodri Davies adds pedal harp, but one detects a shift in processes as well. While the primacy of transparency and detail is still paramount, the arc of the 44-minute piece is pushed a bit harder. Where the four let sections are set in “Cup and Ring,” transitions are more fluid in “Repose and Vertigo.” Lines bristle and dynamics burst in peaks. It is a testament to the group that, though the playing is a bit more active, no single voice ever rises to the foreground. Instead, there is a constantly shifting balance as they play off of each other. Arco violin patterns and plosive reed pops meld in to e-bow harp oscillations and Patterson’s crinkles and crackles. Pools of muted eddies well in to rumbled string resonance and spirals of reed overtones, particularly around 30 minutes in, where the sonic floor drops to near-silence, then slowly builds with scuffed shudders to a striking conclusion. While the structure has more extremes, a tensile energy prevails. In a blindfold test, it’s hard to tell if I could pinpoint which was the live set and which was the reading of the graphic score. But ultimately, it is how the two modes inform each other and how the group has advanced their operational strategies that makes this set such an absorbing listen.
Ernest Dawkins Live the Spirit Residency Big Band
Ernest Khabeer Dawkins may be primarily known for his robust saxophone playing in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, among other groups; but for this date featuring his Live the Spirit Residency Big Band, Dawkins composes, conducts, and arranges but does not play. However, this tribute to Nelson Mandela does not suffer from a lack of his personality. The lines, the rhythmic shapes, the idiomatic blend, all partake of Dawkins’ vision, realized here by a wide range of sympathetic musicians (pianist Neil Gonzalves; poet Khari B; vocalist Dee Alexander; saxophonists Raliv Halim, Grent Griffin, Irvin Pierce, and Aaron Getsug; trumpeters Corey Wilkes, Marquis Hill, and Philliph Perkins; trombonists Steve Berry and Norman Palm; bassist Junius Paul; and drummer Isaiah Spencer).
It’s also a bit of a love song commemorating the many connections between musical idioms across and through the many phases of the twentieth-century African diaspora. You can hear echoes in this music of the sweet lyricism of Abdullah Ibrahim (not least in the opening Gonzalves feature “The Sacrament”), the pulse righteousness of the Blue Notes, and more. But of course, this capaciousness is part and parcel of Chicago’s musical ethos, reflecting as it does the AACM’s well-known dictum “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.” Dawkins makes of these wide-ranging influences an organic whole rather than a smattering, and he does so with a consistent focus on melodic and rhythmic clarity. This makes sense given the heartfelt, sincere focus on Mandela and the South African freedom movement, from the jubilance of “Mandela, Madiba, We Honor You!” to the poetic tributes from the vocalists. Throughout, as Spencer and Paul roll things along with super energy, the catchy melodies and bright arrangements leave loads of room for invention.
Of these, worth noting are the glorious trombone solo (over the chant “Mandela!”) on “Homage to the Man,” filled with choppy complex rhythms and nice tight harmonies; the saxophone raveup on the charging “Sap’s” and the intense, blistering Wilkes spotlight in “Mandela’s Blues”; and the lively trumpet and piano work on the positively Mingusian “Subterfuge,” a marvel of shifting tempi. The stuff’s got the right balance of detail and punch, and Dawkins keeps things lively not just with solos but with varied moods, including the darkly spacious “Savior of the Nation” and the righteous funk of “Song Bird,” which reminds me in part of 1970s Arthur Blythe. But ultimately what comes through is Dawkins’ own distinctive musical vocabulary. And while it’s a shame he didn’t see fit to afford himself a couple solos, that’s not a patch on this truly fine recording.
Bertrand Denzler + Antonin Gerbal
Bertrand Denzler + ONCEIM
Heretofore is a duet with drummer Antonin Gerbal, a reduction of their trio Zoor with guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage; it’s hard to imagine it much more reduced. If the combination of saxophone and drums suggests a plenum of sound – Coltrane’s great expositions with Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali, Jimmy Lyons’ lyric effusions with Andrew Cyrille – Denzler and Gerbal have a very different historical parallel: Face to Face, by the duo version of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with Trevor Watts and John Stevens in which the two tried to mirror one another’s minimal musical gestures. Denzler and Gerbal’s music is similarly reduced to the gestural language of a late Beckett play or a Twombly painting, a fife and drum duo assembling to play the song of existence. Gerbal’s kit is reduced to a snare, a floor tom and a cymbal and his sounds include isolated metallic clicks. Denzler often uses long, stable tones, sometimes playing sharp blasts that rattle Gerbal’s snare for accompaniment.
Denzler’s piece Horns 1.2 is performed by the group Horns, a quartet consisting of Denzler, alto saxophonist Pierre-Antoine Badaroux, trombonist Fidel Fourneyron and trumpeter Louis Laurain. It’s a “pseudo drone” (which I take to mean a piece that is not actually a continuous tone, but one in which its slow evolution of continuous sounds creates the illusion of a singular continuous state), a reduction of the swarming continuous sound Denzler has achieved with the quintet Hubbub. It’s a remarkably disciplined work in which the four winds work within a narrow pitch range. The instruments lose much of their distinctive character – one is only occasionally struck by the perception “That’s the alto,” or “That’s the trumpet.” This loss of identity arises from the narrow pitch range and the frequent oscillations or beat patterns that develop, so that it seems, in a sense, that the walls and air of the studio are themselves participants in the act. It’s this ambient co-ordination of architecture, instruments and musicians that brings a profound depth to much of Denzler’s music.
All of those relationships are multiplied and expanded on Morph, the Denzler composition performed by ONCEIM, or l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales. Directed by pianist Frédéric Blondy (another member of Hubbub), ONCEIM has some thirty members, among them Xavier Charles, Benjamin Duboc, Gerbal and Mariage (another Hubbub-ite). It’s another of Denzler’s “pseudo-drone” pieces, a virtual Hubbub philharmonic, performing in Paris’s Église Saint-Merry. According to a description at ONCEIM.fr, “the sound of the orchestra is structured by decisions that musicians must take to keep that sound alive in a given musical space and by acoustic phenomena resulting from these decisions.” (translation mine) It is, then, music that’s improvised with both a goal in mind and an immediately interactive, idiosyncratic space. If the locale weren’t already a church, Morph suggests one coming into being, a cathedral of sound in which individual instruments’ sonic identities again drop away, now in the construction of walls of teeming sound, much as they do in Terry Riley’s In C (or in the parallel contemporary work of the Swiss Insub Meta Orchestra’s, Archive #2 [insub.org/orchestra]), but they’re walls teeming with detail, vibrating with their own life and consciousness coming into being. Denzler’s “pseudo-drone” pieces are among the most engaging mutations of current improvised music.
This quizzically named outfit is comprised solely of Billy Gomberg and Anne Guthrie. Each specializes in a particular instrument (Gomberg the bass guitar and Guthrie the French horn) while also doing considerable work with electronics and recordings, not so much in manipulating the sound of said instrument as in atmospheric conjuration, environmental collage. Many readers will be familiar with Guthrie’s achievements in this area, on an impressive string of recordings under her name. Gomberg has recorded somewhat less frequently, though his collaborations with Richard Kamerman and others are well worth investigation.
Fraufraulein themselves have been quietly prolific over the last half-decade or so. Based on the quality and suggestiveness of their music here, three tracks culled from a four-date (mostly Midwestern) tour last year, it’d be a shame if they didn’t get more attention than currently seems to be the case. On each of these pieces, the mechanical and the environmental blend together provocatively, giving a clear (but ever changing) sense of dimension and palpability to this music. One key to this is the persistent use of a full, resonant lower register, something that immediately stands out on “convention of moss.” There is a slow accretion of whines, then a blossoming to reveal lapping waves, voices across the gymnasium (which eventually seem to morph into some national anthem), subtle bells and arpeggios.
These kinds of transformations, with regular curve balls that cue up subsequent parallel or perpendicular courses of development, mark these performances. They might linger, almost languidly, in a particular atmosphere before a sonic shift – a stone turntable slowing down, for example – suddenly emerges as jarring. In some places, as with “whalebone in a treeless landscape,” the music is quite spare, the sound of string resonators and aerophones possessing an organic essence that makes it sound as if they were invented for some hidden culture’s ritual. What’s especially remarkable about this piece, though, is how it shifts from these beginnings to impart the sense of being deep in the hold of some marine vessel. For the closing “my left hand, your right hand,” one hears what sounds like someone chanting plainsong while a rattle is held on an ebowed string, the whole giving off serious overtones of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic. Here we really hear amp reverb and atmospherics, and Guthrie’s descent into the Bill Dixon horn echosphere, as paper and woodblocks are dropped to the floor of a haunted factory filled with the sound of chimes.
As the above observations make clear, Fraufraulein’s music is much more unapologetically imagistic (if that makes sense) than much of the other stuff in this general area, even if it seems to problematize its referential range by being so furtive and so unpredictable in its juxtapositions. But whatever your take on that particular interrogation of voice, instrument, and reference, the sounds here are compelling in their immediacy, and don’t require any conceptual investment.
Right from the start, stills and stories, pianist Georg Graewe’s first solo disc in more than a decade, proves one thing: this man’s brain works quicker than yours. So do his fingers. His feet, hands, and inner life just might as well. Not that speed counts, mind you. But when you dive into this dense, elusive, and, ultimately, riveting 2010 recording from Bochum, Germany, you sense that Graewe, back in his hometown, is pushing things to the limit: his own resources, his listener’s ability to absorb art, and, at 79 minutes, the limitations of the compact disc itself.
stills and stories is like a walking book – a seemingly discursive, digressive, travelogue. In this case, the grounds are Graewe’s keyboard – a Bösendorfer set up by Thomas Henke – the lens, his technical know-how, coupled with a sometimes stark, sometimes oblique relationship to emotive music-making.
Graewe leads you in at light speed – hence, the title of the opener, “breathing spells.” It is intense, and it can be (in the best sense) punishing: the internal allusions, the outward suggestions, the infinitely alert, microscopic explorations of line and rhythm. On a gut level, Graewe’s control inspires awe. Your expectations are constantly being rearranged; it’s hard to take everything in. It isn’t especially dissonant music. It just flies away from you very quickly.
Yet, despite this early physical display, stills and stories is often deeply intimate, and incredibly focused; this isn’t some wayward recital. After the opening, a three-piece segment titled “Afternoon in Coloured Frames,” there comes a second sweep of pieces (“Thumbnails”). Graewe is now pensive, patient, and, in the first of three parts, “under glass,” delicately exploring motif – Motive A is declared, then immediately put “under glass.”
The recording is divided into seven of these larger bundles, with shorter sections inside. There are 23 pieces in all; nothing exceeds five minutes. Each overarching section has its own direction – “Moods, Modes and Manners,” for example, or “Rhyme and Discourse.” The cumulative effect is reflected in the disc’s title: these are “stills” and “stories.”
In the end, everything we’ve come to know about Graewe’s approach is here: the infinite variations in feel and tone and color; the clipped quality to his delivery; rumbling, racing two-hand drama; a near obsession with minutiae (slight shades in sound, tiny shifts in patterns); the blurry line between predetermined and improvised forms; and, among other things, an abiding fascination with every little sound his keyboard might make.