Reviews of Recent Recordings
Tom Rainey Trio
Tom Rainey didn’t record as a leader until Pool School (Clean Feed, 2010). He was 53 years old; he’d been on the New York scene since 1979. Hotel Grief is now his fourth disc in five years, the third with this trio. Had he just been waiting all along for saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson? Perhaps. But this little masterwork, recorded live at the Cornelia Street Café in December 2013, is another reminder why this is among the finest under-the-radar ensembles working in creative-music today.
If nothing else, the Tom Rainey Trio is redrawing the possibilities for a drum-saxophone-guitar arrangement – offering a way ahead after Paul Motian’s once-and-for-all trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Not that you would mistake one for the other. Rainey and Motian have distinctly different approaches. And the groups’ basic organizing principles aren’t alike; Rainey’s trio isn’t starting off with tunes. Yet when it comes to color and movement, and a fundamental sense of intimacy, there’s a real kinship between them. Four years after Motian’s death, Rainey has made this turf his own.
Hotel Grief is a 61-minute set of free improvisation, but it is a cleverly structured, wonderfully coherent series of musical gestures. Deep down, these players love form; it is on-the-spot design of the very highest order. The pieces - and it feels germane to call them that – often go through shifts and shades: electric fuzz and snakes-and-ladders lines, unsubtle sonic jumps and minutely measured microtones, layering and listening and terrifically hummable grooves. It is a magnificent, and endlessly rewarding, date.
Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things
As founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, programming chair of the Chicago Jazz Festival, and the owner and director of the performing arts venue Constellation, drummer Mike Reed has spent years observing the interaction between audience and performer. These experiences have had a lasting influence on People, Places & Things, Reed’s longstanding band with alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke.
Reed originally founded the piano-less quartet to investigate an overlooked period of the city’s history – when the pre-AACM avant-garde frequented after-hours jam sessions – by exploring obscure late 1950s hard-bop tunes written by fellow Chicagoans such as Wilbur Campbell, John Jenkins, and Wilbur Ware. Over time his concept has grown exponentially, as Reed has made a point of inviting guest musicians to collaborate with the four-piece lineup, including such elder statesmen as Art Hoyle, Julian Priester, and Ira Sullivan, as well as contemporaries like Josh Berman, Jeb Bishop and Craig Taborn.
The group’s sixth album, A New Kind of Dance, continues this practice, by inviting pianist Matthew Shipp and trumpeter Marquis Hill to sit in on a few numbers. Shipp’s presence on four cuts tests the unit’s adroit interplay and rhythmic drive, instilling an advanced harmonic sensibility to the proceedings. Hill’s brassy cadences mesh well with the saxophonists’ expressionistic tendencies on the three pieces on which he appears, enabling Reed to write rich three-part harmonies for the frontline.
Expanding the ensemble’s repertoire beyond Reed’s originals, the set includes an eclectic handful of covers, including a lyrical drummer-less reading of the Ellington-Strayhorn chestnut “Star-Crossed Lovers,” a grooving take on Mos Def’s “Fear Not of Man,” and a buoyant reinterpretation of the traditional Bulgarian folk dance “Markovsko Horo.” The influence of South African music is also apparent in lively renditions of Sean Bergin’s hard-charging “Reib Letsma” and Michael Moore’s jubilant “Kwela for Taylor.”
Reed’s own originals swing madly, skillfully balancing inside and outside traditions that recall the freewheeling nature of Charles Mingus’ early Jazz Workshop experiments. Reed has stated that his writing for People, Places & Things was “never meant to be too smart or removed from the audience” and that “this band is enjoyed most on a visceral level,” hence the focus on danceable forms. Balancing accessible melodies and deep swing with bold textural explorations, A New Kind of Dance is an apt title for Reed’s particular variety of bluesy avant-gardism.
Adam Rudolph / Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra
Long considered a world music pioneer, percussionist Adam Rudolph formed the Moving Pictures ensemble in 1992 to express his unique compositional vision for a new global orchestra, eventually expanding the project’s instrumentation in 2001 under the mantle of Go: Organic Orchestra. Inspired by early electronic composers like Stockhausen and Subotnick, as well as such post-romantic composers as Messian and Takemitsu, Rudolph adapted these myriad influences into a personalized language with a rhythmic component called “Cyclic Verticalism” that draws equally from African polyrhythms and Indian rhythmic cycles.
Unlike the previous nine Go: Organic Orchestra recordings, which featured a wide variety of instrumentation, Turning Towards the Light is based around just one: the guitar. Rudolph explains in the liner notes that he felt “11 electric guitars could generate a sonic palate that had never been heard before. I was looking for a new kind of ‘Future Orchestra’ – and I think we found it.”
Using graphic scores and an improvised conduction method, Rudolph instills a true collaborative spirit into his orchestral efforts that inspires his musicians to interpret these skeletal themes with their own distinct approaches, leading to a truly organic working process which eschews bombastic, rock-oriented excess in favor of congenial interplay. Among numerous examples, “Flame and Moth” highlights the heated, psychedelic rapport between Jerome Harris and Joel Harrison; “Galactic Drift” alternates Kenny Wessel’s introspective pointillism with Nels Cline’s unhinged expressionism; and “Heliotropic” features bluesy pentatonic excursions from Liberty Ellman and Rez Abbasi.
Using contemporary instrumentation to incorporate aspects of longstanding ethnic folk traditions (blues, drum chants, raga, etc.) into a new hybrid, Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra is futuristic in the best sense of the term. With its unique instrumentation’s kaleidoscopic color palette and pan-global sensibility, Turning Towards the Light is as cutting edge in concept as it is timeless in execution.
The Set Ensemble
While all of the members of the group are constantly active, both individually, and as an ensemble, performing works by the members along with composers like Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben and Pisaro, there hasn’t been any documentation since then. That has been rectified with a CD on the Consumer Waste label, focusing on performances of pieces by members of the ensemble. This was done in conjunction with the publication of a set of scores by the ensemble by BORE Publishing, a project run by ensemble members Sarah Hughes and David Stent, dedicated to publishing scores that are primarily text- based by individual composers, performing ensembles or specifically-chosen groups of artists, writers and musicians.
Studying the scores published under the title “Partial,” one gets a feel for some of the strategies that the composers utilize to provide open frameworks for the realization of ensemble music. Some, like Lash’s “motion-capture” provide a set of operating instructions. The musicians are given specific criteria of how to make decisions, leaving that process up to the ensemble during realization. For example “The length of each note and the pauses between are free, as are the dynamics, but they should be different for every pitch.” His “co-existence” sets up a strategy for the ensemble, broken in to sub-groups, to move from common structures to divergent realizations, ending when all of the players converge back to the initial state.
Paul Whitty’s score “stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before” outlines activities for preparation and performance, creating a form from a set of tasks to be executed rather than charting a formal outline. Patrick Farmer’s contribution takes a set of randomized recordings of a room sound and instructs the musicians to project those sounds through the room by placing speakers on resonant bodies of instruments. Angharad Davies provides transparencies which are layered on top of each other to create mutable graphic scores. Also included is “Rydal Mount”, a score based on photographs taken at her grandmother’s house after she died. In this case, the realization is a set of texts prepared by three writers, subverting any traditional notion of the execution of a score.
The recording, “stopcock”, featuring Guastalla (cello), Stent (guitar), Lash (contrabass), Farmer (open CD players, loudspeakers, objects), Whitty (electronics), Hughes (zither), and Rodgers (piano), provides a compelling document of how the ensemble puts the readings of the text scores into action. The CD begins with Hughes’ “Fires and Conifers.” The instructions for the piece provide each musician with a pair of parameters from which they can choose. One defines the velocity of the part (short sounds evenly spaced, 2-4 notes played as a chord infrequently, bowed surfaces for a long time ...). The other defines an action which breaks the course of the first action, and of the ensemble (clap loudly, interject a continuous sound that creates an indent to the space, instruct the players to stop playing and then resume, be disruptive ...). What ensues is measured ebb and flow, as voices intersect, overlap, and interrupt. The harmonious resonant undercurrent of Rodgers’ piano part often provides a focal point for the short attacks of the string instruments and the tarnished textures of electronics. But it is the collective unhurried pacing, broken by sections of silence that carries the piece with a natural sense of trajectory.
The score for Bruno Guastalla’s “Memoire de Cezanne” is a model of concision: one long chord/then one long chord distinctly different/then a long chord similar to the first one, though slightly different. What might come off as a drone study is transformed by the ensemble into quavering waves of harmonically rich overtones shot through with low end electronic rumble and natural string resonances. The rich tonal colors that are chosen makes for an engulfing listen. Patrick Farmer’s “This has already had a history (2b)” is probably the oddest on the disc, comprised wholly of the closely miked sound of the musicians chewing on fruit, vegetables, and crackers. The 10-minute realization causes one to reassess notions of decision making and action as music making, accentuated by the uncomfortable amplification of sounds that have an inherent social taboo. On the sprint through Lash’s “360 Sounds” which follows, the ensemble sputters their way through countervailing lines of insistently repeated notes which start just off from each other and, over the course of a minute, move further and further out of phase, again, taking a simple concept and short duration and transforming it into a compelling listening experience.
Paul Whitty’s “you have not been paying attention (again)” instructs the players to prepare a series of short abraded and distorted sounds which should be “extremely quiet and represent only a slight fluctuation in the ambient sound level of the performance space.” Utilizing these sonic kernels, the performers are instructed to place and repeat the sounds in any order, choosing gaps of silence to be introduced between each. The result is a rich field of static, crackles, pops, and creaks, with the vigorous velocity of sound and muted dynamic range providing a vivid tension to the performance.
The recording finishes out with Lash’s “for six”, which again, provides a beguilingly simple set of instructions which lead to rich results. Players are divided into three groups; a low pair (cello and contrabass), a high pair (zither and guitar), and an electronic pair. Each player has three possible behaviors: silence, continuous sound, irregular sound. Finally, each player is provided with a score that outlines a behavior to use and a choice of responses to move toward, based on the actions of the partner they are paired with. Here the instructions in the score of pitch range and pairings provides the foundational elements which frame rather than prescribe the piece. The dynamic route chosen by the ensemble leverages the groaning rumble of contrabass and cello, the high-pitched resonance of e-bowed zither and guitar, and the non-pitched rasp of electronics, meshing the mercurial path chosen by each into changeable striations as each voice resourcefully rises and recedes in the overarching ensemble voice.
Thinking about working from scores, particularly text or graphical scores, two things seem paramount. Does the intent of the composer come through, and does the score make the ensemble play in a way they would not without the score? In her interview with Seth Cooke (http://www.bangthebore.org/archives/5489), Sarah Hughes explains it like this. “I enjoy thinking about the point at which a composition becomes an improvisation, and what happens in between, both in music and in my installation work; what is the minimum amount of information necessary to compose a situation? How does the act of placing things together change between different modes of working? How much information is necessary to retain the character of the composer?” Taken together, the scores published in “Partial,” and the recordings captured on “stopcock” show not only how composition can guide the results of an ensemble, but how an ensemble can work together to examine and realize the multitude of points at the intersection of composition and collective discovery.