Reviews of Recent Recordings
Peter Brötzmann + Joe McPhee + Kent Kessler + Michael Zerang
Originally conceived as a ballad session, Tales Out Of Time was recorded at Chicago’s AirWave Studios in a single day during June of 2002, with tenor saxophone titan Peter Brötzmann joined by three members of his then touring Tentet: vanguard multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, a perfect foil for the German maverick; and the Windy City-based duo of bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Michael Zerang. Although widely renowned for blistering feats of endurance, here Brötzmann and McPhee explore a more nuanced rapport, highlighting rarely heard subtleties in phrasing, timbre and tone.
The two horn players split writing duties for the set, with the exception of Zerang’s sole contribution, the spectral tone poem “Cymbalism.” Two brief, very different versions of McPhee’s “Stone Poem” bookend the album, encapsulating the record’s dynamic range in the form of expressive tenor duets. Composed in honor of the late Irving Stone and his wife, Stephanie, the first variation introduces the album as a regal fanfare, while the cacophonous closer finds the pair spiraling to the heavens.
Working against type, Brötzmann offers a rapturous reinterpretation of the traditional hymn “Blessed Assurance,” with McPhee’s splintery trumpet voicings complementing Brötzmann’s rhapsodic tenor, uncannily evoking the spiritual fervor of the Ayler brothers. Similarly, McPhee’s loping “Pieces Of Red, Green And Blue” transposes a private moment experienced in a museum into cathartic, New Thing-styled group interplay. The quartet’s performances are intriguingly varied, ranging from the ravishing romanticism of Brötzmann’s elegiac “Master Of A Small House” to the hushed minimalism of “In Anticipation Of The Next,” McPhee’s heartfelt dedication to departed bassists Wilber Morris and Peter Kowald.
Expressing a timeless melancholy rooted in the blues, these ballads resound with a sophisticated deportment far more understated than the typical output of these uncompromising avant-gardists. More conventionally melodic and structured than other contemporaneous recordings by Brötzmann and McPhee, Tales Out Of Time is adventurous yet somewhat accessible, highlighting not only their keen improvisational mettle, but also their less frequently acknowledged skills as composers.
Jean-Luc Cappozzo + Douglas Ewart +Joëlle Léandre +Bernard Santacruz + Michael Zerang
From a Fall 2013 tour, this richly creative multi-national ensemble plays a music of crossings and mergings, as both mission statement and possibility. On the opening “Satellites,” one is immediately captivated by the interplay between Douglas Ewart’s winds and the tight muted trumpet from Jean-Luc Cappozzo (who also plays flugelhorn) as well as by the contrasting arco from Joëlle Léandre and Bernard Santacruz. Texture, space, and contrast are necessary to any good free improvisation, and these aces know exactly how to let them happen. Because of the instrumentation, it’s probably not surprising that the group shifts regularly into bass-driven grooves and skittering multi-percussion from Michael Zerang. But these episodes are never merely platforms for zig-zagging trumpet or ululating reeds; rather, they emerge organically from, and feed back into, lines that might come from any or all players at once.
Dark and tense bass opens “Filtre d’Amour,” with tiny bells and muffled brass. Ewart mimics one of the bass pedal points, taking the piece into somber lyricism. But it doesn’t linger overlong here, and heats up nicely with a tasty flute and trumpet exchange as Zerang stirs the pot. As above, the moments of contrast stand out within the overall arc of these performances: the prepared bass that’s paired nicely with Ewart’s earthy flute, the deft use of trumpet mute against doubled basses, or Zerang’s rubbed drums and Leandre’s vocals. Standout tracks include the bustling, forward-moving “A Cloud of Sparks,” with a groaning, shifting undercurrent that reaches a sparking upper layer that sounds like some lost Don Cherry/Yusef Lateef jam; the fulsome drone of “Sculpteur d’ondes,” with marvelous didgeridoo from Ewart; and “Planet Earth Folk Song,” which conjures up a series of organic noises that you can almost hear as the growth of the band’s own musical environment, alive and talking to itself.
Composer and pianist Anthony Coleman is a restless investigator and refuser of boundaries. On this hour-long program, one hears the richness and the range of his writing and playing for multiple settings. You opens with the positively gorgeous brass sextet piece “Acute Coryza” (with the TILT Brass Sextett: trumpeters Christopher McIntyre, Timothy Leopold, and Peter Evans, and trombonists Mike Gurfield, Jen Baker, and William Lang). It’s filled with layers of lyric phrases, but there’s a lovely attention to attack and duration that comes out of what seems to be a close study of both Scelsi and Ligeti. It’s one of many devices Coleman uses to set up quite effective contrasts, ranging between the rough and the elegant, the dissonant and the bright fanfares Coleman clearly adores (even he inevitably sets them up to resolve sourly, or even to be upended altogether). Boundary upon boundary emerges and gets obscured, as the piece moves into stuttering counterpoint and comes together again in a single, densely articulated note.
Something of that kind of methodology is at work in the remainder of the pieces, however differently articulated. Coleman’s recent solo piano work “Oogenera” is filled with Monkish figures, loads of space, and some serious darkness that makes sense given that it was written as a kind of elegy for Coleman’s friend and sometime collaborator, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. Partly improvised, this piece consists of a number of grouped figures and phrases – a tone row, a tentative upper-register line (at times like Feldman), a knotty chord – that can be explored at length, repeated, taken apart, and more. But there is a clarity to each gesture, resounding in its singularity even when it exists in tension with others, that makes the piece so stark and moving, so sturdy and fragile at once. The other lengthy solo piano piece is the four-part “Metonymies of Pastness,” which has a tenser, more ominous texture. From dark, glowering chords, the piece opens up regularly, in billowing arpeggios or jabs. It shifts from the lightest of airs to the heaviest of downfalls, patient and deliberate until it ends as an almost non-event.
By contrast, “Station RER (B) Drancy” is a complex, compacted piece for large ensemble (piano, strings, reeds, brass, accordion, and percussion, featuring many well-known NYC improvisers). Not exactly devoid of space and silence, the piece examines Coleman’s interest in resonance in decay from a somewhat different angle, as he amasses wondrous groups of colors and allows them to drift away in the breeze created by their very own movement. Coleman is fond of transposing certain compositional features from setting to setting, colors and repeating exclamations, and it works quite well. “Atropine” finds him joined by violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist John Popham, and percussionist David Shively. It’s even more Feldmanesque in its open-ended course and limpid notes, with Shively’s vibes and Coleman’s piano making droplets between the laterally moving strings. But it quickens in both pace and intensity as it develops, riding along the crash of metallophone into a space where Choi and Coleman ascend continually, completing each other’s phrases. The closing “You,” is another tart one, for mid-sized ensemble: Coleman on piano and organ, three winds (notably Doug Wieselman’s ace clarinets), cello, and Shively’s percussion. The most overtly pulse-based piece here on the surface, Coleman again finds his way to an inversion, using meter to set up pregnant pauses in which bloom fulsome harmony or fracture. This disparate series of musical events connected by the pulse and a repeated interval seems to capture the mischief, invention, and conviction of these fascinating pieces. A very strong record that deserves to be heard.
Marilyn Crispell + Gerry Hemingway
Anyone reading this likely knows how much history and affinity there is between pianist Crispell and percussionist Hemingway, not just their obvious connection in the Braxton quartet but through long experience as a duo, both in live performance and on record (like their previous date on Intakt, Affinities). Crispell, no stranger to percussion duos, and Hemingway did a number of dates across Europe during 2013’s festival season, and Table of Changes gives a good accounting of what they were up to on several of these dates, presenting the range of their individual and collaborative languages.
Things are tense and muted at the outset of “Spirings,” which unfolds with prepared piano, low thudding, and spider-walk lines that lead into rougher and more spiky territory. Even in these opening minutes, we’re reminded of the power of this pairing, as they locate tasty contrasts in both texture and tonal register even in the thick of intense energy. At times they linger in one of these areas, as in the absolutely gorgeous “Waterwisp,” where Hemingway creates a wet finger on glass drone with his vibes, met with brilliantine lyricism from Crispell, who also knows just when to play a single, oh-so-apt lower register note, like a stone into water.
Many of the pieces seem to me about subtle moments of transmutation, the breaking down or coalescence of things found in nature. The soft toms and cymbals of “Roofless” sound like a darkening atmosphere that erupts with Crispell’s jabs and flurries, which almost escape gravity. The lovely ice fragments and shimmering vibes on “Night Passing” seem to push into the kind of Bley-derived dark rhapsody that Crispell has often explored lately. “Windy City” is especially effective in this area, moving from lush abstract ballad – where Hemingway lays cross-cutting patterns against a chord progression that sounds both inevitable and wholly spontaneous – until Crispell boils down her playing to a single low note, while Hemingway deconstructs his kit until he can only vocalize into a drum head.
It’s a detailed, absorbing program of music. But to my ears, the very best stuff is on the last third of the disc. “Assembly” is a percussive vibes piece, with Crispell and Hemingway interweaving spiky and spacious lines with taut intervals. There’s a sheerly beautiful reading of “Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye,” which the duo approaches via long abstraction, even if it’s heart on sleeve throughout. And the rousing closer sounds as if two Crispells are playing at once, skulking left hand and probing right, with Hemingway shadowing a micro-second behind, creating tension expertly. It’s a glorious hour from two of my favorite musicians, filled with lovely and unexpected moments.
Rhodri Davies / John Butcher
Both Rhodri Davies and John Butcher have special musical visions. Davies has explored the harp – acoustic and electric, orthodox and vernacular – in free improvisation, bringing fresh sonic materials to the music. Butcher has explored the possibilities of his saxophones, through new techniques and electronics as well as testing their resonant possibilities in a host of unusual surroundings – from mines to monuments to an enormous gas cylinder. Those wide-ranging interests combine here, as outside music takes in the outdoors. In 2014 Davies developed two pieces commissioned by the AV Festival for performances on successive days in Northumberland, both of which have now appeared on CD. Cup and Ring (reviewed in PoD 51), performed by the quartet Common Objects appeared as the first CD in a two CD set, Whitewashed with Lines (Another Timbre at85X2). The second of these pieces is Routing Lynn.
Both works derive their inspiration from “cup and ring” markings, carved stone patterns from the Neolithic period, around 10,000 to 2,000 BC. These markings consist of a hollowed-out “cup” and a series of concentric circles, and they appear around the coasts of England and Western Europe, including France, Portugal, Spain and Sicily. Davies’ interest in the markings includes their continuing mystery, since no definitive explanation of their meaning has been established. That sense of mystery clearly extends to his use of the markings in his music and the music itself.
While Cup and Ring used a graphic score that included the symbols, Routing Lynn is built up from layers of recordings in different places at different times. It takes its name from an archaeological site in Northumberland, “Roughting Linn,” from “linn,” a pool, and “roughting,” a bellowing noise. It’s a waterfall and a rock with extensive cup and ring markings, the largest such rock in Northern England. A certain sense of marking and the problem of interpretation might be enacted in the form of Routing Lynn itself. Sound artist Chris Watson recorded the Davies/ Butcher duo in a museum and at Roughting Linn, then the Roughting Linn site itself, eventually combining these tapes as a quadrophonic component for a live concert at Sage, Gateshead, the performance that is heard here.
As with any work using such dense materials, it poses issues of space and interaction, with both Davies and Butcher concentrating their input, leaving space for the recorded materials – water, birds, insects, themselves – and interacting with them. There is multiple play with notions of distance and resonance, from the echoes of the original sites to the focus on timbre in the “live” recording as edited and mixed by Butcher.
In place of the “not knowing” of archaeology the performance suggests a certain set of animistic possibilities, the notion that sites possess memories and that the tissue of a living, vibrating universe picks up and transfers data, that somehow other sets of meanings and resonances are passed around, preserved and extended in the realization of the performance. It isn’t just the time and air of Chris Watson’s recordings that are meeting in this performance, but the continuum of the water, the rock and its Neolithic markings.
Routing Lynn suggests compound time and space, from the time of the “Roughting Linn” markings to those of the multiple recordings, as if these layers of time might connect the ultimate work more closely to Roughting Linn. In the hypothetical placelessness (utopia) of listening to a recording, we are also in its plural space. This is compelling music, work filled with fresh echoes, timbres, distances and proximities.