Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Sam Bardfeld
The Great Enthusiasms
BJUR 064

Violinist Sam Bardfeld has had an under-sung, yet storied career. He’s been a member of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium Orchestra, Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce, and The Jazz Passengers, as well as collaborating with Bruce Springsteen. The native New Yorker has also worked with jazz musicians like Steven Bernstein and Vince Giordano, in addition to popular artists such as Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry. Beyond his tenure as a sideman, Bardfeld’s discography as a bandleader consists of two titles: Periodic Trespasses (The Saul Cycle) (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005); and Taxidermy (CIMP, 1999). The Great Enthusiasms finds him leading an unconventional trio, with rising pianist Kris Davis and veteran drummer Michael Sarin. Together, they negotiate the tenuous divide between inside and outside forms, embracing classical, jazz, and folk idioms.

Reveling in stylistic freedom, Bardfeld’s protean violin technique incorporates straight-ahead swing and free expressionism in equal measure. Davis makes an apt foil for the leader; her singular pianism finds harmonious concordance in Bardfeld’s unique aesthetic, while Sarin imbues the bass-less trio’s freewheeling excursions with graceful sensitivity. Though grounded in vernacular, Bardfeld’s eccentric writing takes cues from the American maverick tradition, ala Ives, Monk, etc. Drawing parallels to our own troubled times, the album’s song titles are principally derived from Richard Nixon’s resignation speech – in which he quotes Teddy Roosevelt.

Bardfeld’s compositions encapsulate a wide variety of styles, ranging from the bluesy chamber music of “Fails While Daring Greatly” to the futuristic second-line groove of “Resignation Rag.” The former boasts Bardfeld and Davis’ capricious excursions underscored by Sarin’s mercurial interjections, while the latter showcases the trio’s near clairvoyant interplay and Davis’ angular, Monk-like soliloquy. “Winner Image” opens with the leader’s neo-classical introduction; the title track juxtaposes folk song melody with post-bop tonality and free improvisation; and the closer, “The 37th Time I Have Spoken,” vacillates from dreamy impressionism to roiling dissonance and back again.

In addition to five eclectic originals, the record includes two striking covers. First is an abstract rendition of Springsteen and Patti Smith’s “Because The Night,” which uses skewed piano intervals to transform the tune into a free collective chant. Second is a playful reinterpretation of The Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” Sarin leads with a steady backbeat, while Bardfeld soars over choruses with unfettered zeal and Davis elegantly evokes the song’s lyrics about the hardships of a depression-era sharecropper during the coda.

The Great Enthusiasms offers a timely reflection on eccentric American music traditions, serving as an affirmation to artists everywhere to create in the face of adversity. According to Bardfeld, “Nixon’s resignation speech was my first memory of being part of a collective political body ... Though Dick was a paranoid, hateful crook, there’s intelligence and complexity in him that one cannot imagine existing inside our current president. During this current dark stain in our country’s history, let’s continue to make weird, joyous art.”
–Troy Collins

 

Olivia Block
Olivia Block
Another Timbre AT116

The CD cover for Olivia Block’s new solo release on Another Timbre is spare, even for the standards set by that label. The CD has no title, the three pieces are simply titled I, II, and III, the only annotations is that Block is credited with “piano and organ” and it is noted that the recording was made during a single session in Chicago. The structure of the CD has a certain palindromic simplicity as well, with the first and third pieces running a bit over 13 1/2 minutes and the central piece running exactly 8 1/2 minutes. Take a listen and the music strikingly aligns with the graphic austerity of the cover. Each piece delves deeply in to a particular timbral range, and each explores the nuances of the piano as both sound source and resonator. At the core of each is a sense of sonic investigation, setting up the piano with preparations and treatments that push the instrument and the way it interacts with the acoustics of the recording studio.

In an interview on the Another Timbre site, Block explains her approach like this. “This suite was created over a span of several years. I developed techniques inside piano through rehearsals and performances, sketched the basic ideas out – the motives, physical materials, etc., leaving a lot of room for improvisation between the composed bits. I think of the suite as somewhat modular. I can switch sections around while key features, like patterns on the keys in each section, are composed. There are certain aspects that are unpredictable by nature. For instance, the resonant notes inside the piano, amplified through the contact mics and mini speaker, lead the note choices I play in the keyed patterns. So, in terms of live performance, each piano and the materials I place inside the piano become key factors. The score sets these processes in motion, but leaves room for my spontaneous reactions to the natural acoustic phenomena within certain boundaries.”

The first piece starts with crystalline, percussively struck pairs of notes at the top of the keyboard, with space left to allow the decay of the tones to hang.  Gradually, Block moves the motifs down to the middle register of the piano, introducing rich chords and the jangling sound of prepared strings while calling up ghost tones and shadowy textures to fill in at the edges. Pacing here is paramount, as she parses out each figure and chord progression, accentuating sharp attack and maximizing the resulting overtones and resonances. Toward the final section of the piece, layers begin to build with a gauzy transparency, bringing to mind the way that light radiates through stained glass, filling a room with the resultant chromatic tints.

The second piece makes far more use of preparations with quietly ticking motors, percussive flurries, and struck strings accruing into a shimmer of detail. The pace is much more rapid as well, and the gestures of Block’s playing are more apparent, choreographed against the low rumble of bass chords. The patter and hum of incidental sounds also emerge, including the low hum of organ and the pings and twangs of the strings projected back in to the instrument. In the final section of the piece, volume and density peak, opening up to squeaks and creaks against the low buzz of the organ. Here traces of mechanical sounds accentuate the duality of the piano as string instrument and percussive mechanism.

The final piece expands the sonic spectrum further, accentuating the lower registers and utilizing abrasions and filtering of the natural string resonances. The dark colorations of organ are also more pronounced. The dusky registers have a decisive impact on the internal feedback loops of mic’d and amplified aural vestiges of the elemental sounds of the piano, providing granular shadings that fill out the sound palette. Like the first piece, the pace is stately and methodical, with each chord placed with mindful purpose within the overarching flow. In the last third, the sharp, glassy notes of the opening piece are gradually incorporated, bring the suite full circle. Block often works with multi-channel installations and one can hear how that sensibility comes through in the intimate format of this recording, using the placement of treatments and amplification of the piano with an analogous approach. Adam Sonderberg’s meticulous production is another element worth noting as he captures the playing with brilliant spatial clarity.
—Michael Rosenstein

 

Anthony Braxton
Solo (Victoriaville) 2017
Victo 130

The thinning out of the Victo catalog in recent years has been a source of sadness, and concern. The Quebec label is now down to a single, annual release. It’s chastening – watching another creative-music company struggle. With just one Victo disc a year, there’s a cruel irony at work, too: now every album is a must-have, a genuine festival highlight.

At the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville these moments often happen at a hockey rink. It’s true. Among the greatest legacies of founder Michel Levasseur’s event is its transformative power; every spring this rural town’s workaday venues are turned into perfect art spaces. Hence, the Colisée, home to the Tigres de Victoriaville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has become host, at some point over the past three decades, to nearly every major name in creative music, from John Zorn to Cecil Taylor.

Last year, on the occasion of Les Disques Victo’s 30th anniversary, Levasseur managed to secure a special gift for the Colisée finale: an Anthony Braxton solo concert. Braxton’s connection to the FIMAV goes back to its early days. Solo is his 10th Victo recording, more than any other artist. This was Braxton’s first performance alone in two years (the last had been in Tuscaloosa during a residency at the University of Alabama) and his third since 2012 (in Antwerp, Belgium). The last time he recorded on his own goes further back: a dozen years, to Solo Live at Gasthof Heidelberg Loppem 2005 (LocusLoppem).

Solo (Victoriaville) 2017 is, indeed, a gift: Braxton on alto saxophone, playing eight original alphanumeric compositions and improvisations, and “Body and Soul.” In these much-diminished days for the poor compact disc, Victo has produced a fine physical product: an exceptional sounding CD in a coarse-cardboard case, a gatefold in the style of an old record album, with Stuart Broomer’s sage (and substantial) liner notes.

“In a world (albeit a small and highly specialized one) awash with solo improvisations,” Broomer writes, “Braxton might make a special claim on our attention for reasons of history alone.” After For Alto (Delmark, 1969), Braxton would forever be among the pioneers of improvised-music recitals.

Nearly half a century on, he is still exploring the “languages” (intervallic, timbral, diagrammatic) of that masterpiece. To my ears, there’s been a softening. Not regarding substance, but rather in tone, in delivery. On Solo (Victoriaville) 2017, even when there is the burr and agitation, uptempo, as he queries musical grammar (“No. 392b”), Braxton’s sound is warmer than you might expect. At times, it feels even fragile. But even in its deepest discord, the music never pushes you away. The long tones to start (“No. 392a”) spur a measured, yearning meditation. You hear the wind coming through the horn, the placement of a note, fingers to keys, a palpable, tactile sense of sound.

Midway into the 62-minute set, the trills and overtones of “No. 394b” preface an allusion to something familiar (Broomer suggests “Everything Happens to Me”) and then Braxton’s gorgeous hymn, “No. 394c.” There’s so much space now between gestures that you’re gradually immersed in the emotional effect. When “Body and Soul” arrives it feels like an extension of Braxton’s soundscape: despite the fragments and fractures, we now hear the melody as part of something larger, a conversation – about sound and structure tradition – that Braxton has shaped for most of his adult life.
—Greg Buium

 

Dave Douglas
Little Giant Still Life
Greenleaf 1058

For a guy with such a distinctive musical personality, Dave Douglas sure is peripatetic in terms of his restless exploration of new ideas and settings. Given his high rate of success, you can hardly fault the guy. For Little Giant Still Life, the bulk of which was written during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Douglas was inspired by the painter Stuart Davis to make a statement about egalitarian art, cooperative music-making, and bold shapes and colors. He’s joined by the terrific drummer Anwar Marshall and the brass quartet The Westerlies.

From the first bright notes of the opening “Champion,” you’re immediately struck by Douglas’ ability to write tight, focused pieces that are super complex without losing their vitality. Marshall is fabulous from the jump, with a nimble touch that recalls Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe as much as DeJohnette or Brian Blade – he’s particularly great on “Percolator,” up and over and behind the groove everywhere at once. It’s a treat to hear Marshall and Douglas interact throughout, and the drummer is the glue bringing this music together in a lot of ways. But The Westerlies are righteous rhythm-generators in their own right, and their expressive range is vast as well. They’re not mere continuo for Douglas; they improvise individually and as a group to keep this music protean and unpredictable, not least on the aptly named “Swing Landscape.”

To that end, no detail or section overstays its welcome. There’s some stuttering funk on “Arcade,” but the music is just as likely to dip into lower register texture, or turn in on itself with tight harmony. The title track swaggers with low-end brass, while “Men and Machine” is ominous with all its held tones and pauses. There’s whooping, hollering portamento on “Bunting” and sheer agonism on “The Front Page.” And every so often, they wink at you with some tart references, as if the music isn’t already buoyant and playful enough: they wish us all a happy birthday at the end of “Your Special Day” and there’s just a hint of Monk on “Colonial Cubism.” It’s all heart on sleeve, though, for the Americana-inflected closer “Worlds Beyond the Sky.” I kept getting the sense, as I listened, that this album could have been the soundtrack for a lovely dance suite. It possesses something of that logic and sheer movement. Regardless, I reckon this band would blow the doors down live.
–Jason Bivins

 

Tomas Fujiwara
Triple Double
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-026

Triple Double is the self-titled debut of Tomas Fujiwara’s newest ensemble. As implied by its name, this hybrid sextet is composed of matching instrumental pairs, with Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitars, and Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi playing cornet and trumpet, respectively. The parallel instrumental lineup features members of two of Fujiwara’s longstanding trios: one representing his long running partnership with Halvorson and Bynum; the other his group with Seabrook and Alessi.

Employing a variety of approaches, including intricate counterpoint, mirrored ensemble interplay, and areas for free improvisation, Fujiwara’s unorthodox compositions feature an assortment of structural permutations, enabling each member an opportunity to demonstrate their interpretive prowess in myriad settings. Multi-hued textures generated by varied instrumental groupings lend an orchestral scope to the ensemble’s kaleidoscopic palette, with spotlight features for individual soloists imbuing the proceedings with extra color.

This album features some of Fujiwara’s most intense writing: Halvorson and Seabrook often play interweaving lines overdriven at full volume, with a bevy of efx at their disposal; Bynum and Alessi cut through waves of distortion and feedback with clarion calls; while Cleaver and Fujiwara’s staggered polyrhythms march forward inexorably. This is not to suggest Fujiwara and company avoid subtler dynamics however. A handful of meditative miniatures convey fascinating sonic details, including Seabrook and Cleaver’s atmospheric exploration of “Hurry Home B/G,” or Halvorson and Fujiwara’s scintillating rapport on the cinematic tone poem “Hurry Home M/T.”

Long-form pieces prove even more rewarding. The epic drum duet “For Alan” builds to a rousing finale, bookended by poignant pre-taped dialogue from the legendary Alan Dawson, who offered the young Fujiwara sage advice as his drum instructor. Angular free-bop dominates “Pocket Pass” and mutant swing drives “Toasting the Mart,” but the bulk of the session’s originality is conveyed by episodic numbers like “Diving for Quarters,” which juxtaposes aleatoric soundscapes with swaggering blues motifs. “Blueberry Eyes” and “Decisive Shadow” similarly shift between moods – the latter segues incrementally from pointillist interchanges to an anthemic coda of amplified majesty. Such surprising detours reward repeated listens throughout Triple Double, confirming Fujiwara’s gifts as an improviser, composer, arranger, and bandleader of note.
–Troy Collins

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