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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Tania Chen
John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano
Omnivore OMCD-262

How do you perform a 1964 composition and create a new work? First you have to find a composition as open as possible: John Cage’s Electronic Music for Piano, written on a single sheet of notepaper from a Stockholm hotel, will more than suffice. It provides instructions for the electronic treatment of the earlier piano composition, Music for Piano 4-84, a collection of pieces written on the imperfections in the manuscript paper. In his annotations, David Toop quotes from Cage’s scant instructions: “for feedback and changing sounds (microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers – separate system for each piano) ... without measurement of time” and “Consideration of imperfections in the silence in which the music is played” along with the words “oscilloscope” and “friction.”

It’s a work of chance, vagueness and ambiguity, and this performance, by pianist Tania Chen ‒ with Thurston Moore on guitar; Toop on resonance, secondary amplification, swallowed instruments and feedback; and Jon Leidecker on mobiles and mixer ‒ explores all of them. As the pieces comes into being here, it is as much the work of composer-percussionist Gino Robair acting as producer. The process: The work was first recorded with Chen in a series of duets with Moore, Toop and Ledecker, the piano recorded from multiple points around the instrument and in the studio, each mike recorded to its own track. Robair “then played the duos simultaneously and, using a chance-based system, selected which sounds were heard over time.” The cover art suggests the process would have made an entertaining film: The front photo has Moore’s guitar laying across the piano strings; the back has Chen almost climbing into a piano, its interior already crowded with indecipherable materials (For an alternative reading, Phillip Thomas performed a 12-hour version at Huddersfield in 2010 ‒ a 10-minute excerpt is available on Vimeo).

The result is a performance of a score that deconstructs its own performance, further and multiply deconstructed in its chance assembly. It’s absolutely process-focused, but the results have genuine character. While its sequence of events are chance-determined, the variety of sonic events provide consistent interest. An opening silence is suddenly broken by a turbine-like blast of sound with accompanying explosions of electronic reverb, the assault briefly giving way to a reverie of piano strings. This dance of noise and piano sounds is a richly varied palette, at times the various acoustic and electronic percussion sounds fusing in Toop’s processing. Wildly varying events with sometimes sudden transitions are separated by varying patches of “silence” (sometimes Cagean silence with the room noise of piano bench and physical movement [the “imperfections of the silence in the score] that range from a few seconds to three minutes), that serve to frame the rich complexity and ambiguity of the music. It’s a piece that will be different for every listener; further, it’s a piece that will change with each listen, depending on mood and even extraneous sound. It may be a kind of marvelous, 69-minute ear-training exercise, invitating a mapping of sonic events; a journey into chance itself; a kind of meditation on a sonic nothingness; a work composed by random processes, circuits and machines; an extended piece in which spontaneous choices and instantaneous interactions (yes, improvisation) are transformed into an extended realization that subtracts rather than adds intentionality.

However wide the range of potential responses (who could speculate), it’s profoundly involving, a work with infinite alternatives that’s liable to remain a continuously interesting listen.
‒Stuart Broomer


Tim Daisy’s Fulcrum Ensemble
Relay Recordings RR 2018

Christian Lillinger’s Grund
Plaist–Music 001

Alan “Gunga” Purves
Hide & Squeak
Brokken Records 009

On the pithy 36-minute Animation by Chicago drummer Tim Daisy’s Fulcrum Ensemble, there’s a lot going on, it all sounds good. The two brass/two reeds/two rhythm sextet plays music in the modern international style; its openness to all manner of possibilities reflects Chicagoans’ welcoming attitude toward various European colleagues with their collage structures, insistent repetitions, deliberate disruptions, and subtle tipping points between the orderly and disorderly. They didn’t only learn from personal contacts. Many of the city’s post-Vandermark improvisers – Daisy born in 1976 came up in the Vandermark 5 – are voracious listeners; a proper history of modern Chicago music would have to reckon with Fulcrum Ensemble cornetist Josh Berman’s years working at the Jazz Record Mart, and that store’s unofficial function as young musicians’ listening salon. They know their Ab Baars as well as their Von Freeman, and hear how they relate.

That said, the specific inspirations for Animation that Daisy mentions are closer to home: the (all inclusive) AACM in general and Braxton in particular (evident in irregular staccato background figures that crop up), and composer Earle Brown. (One might hear echoes of Brown’s mobiles when the band plays a scored passage over a gonging sample loop on “Glass and Lead,” layers unaffected by each other.) And for sure cello provocateur Fred Lonberg-Holm’s disruptor-gun tendencies are his own, not some Dutch affect. Chicago is a town that values its swingtime, Daisy ditto. He absorbed Ornette’s underappreciated lesson, that swing and catchy tunes are not impediments to collective improvisation; they’re expedients. Dave Rempis’s roaring baritone solo on the opener “Corner Counter” confirms it.

That composition piles up a few short themes, the first of which, songlike even as it ascends into the stratosphere, brings to mind John Carter, whose altissimo forays ring out in sweeter-toned clarinetist James Falzone’s lines, and whose roughhewn textures echo in some collective ensemble play. (The perfectly-at-home New York ringer is trombonist Steve Swell.) One episode whose provenance is unmistakable arrives midway through “Means to an End,” where happy riffing has just given way to a burst of free play. After a sudden dead stop, an asymmetrical snare, hi-hat and bass drum beat, grinding cello riffing and Rempis’ squawkily bluesy singing alto blatantly/lovingly evoke Julius Hemphill’s immortal “Dogon A.D.” without directly quoting it.

The three Daisy compositions unfold over nine to 17 minutes, two swingers flanking the undulating “Glass and Lead,” an extended coloristic interlude, where the leader plays some linear marimba. The ensemble work is immaculate when they all want it to be; they can turn on a dime and turn back. The horns play well behind each other and Daisy ably orchestrates entrances and exits.

Where Daisy consolidates, mixing established strains into a fresh hybrid, Berlin drummer Christian Lillinger looks to break new ground with his two reeds/five rhythm Grund, whose sound is built from the ground up. The sidefolk on the septet’s fourth C O R, on Christian’s new label, carries over from Second Reason (Clean Feed) and Grund (Pirouette): Paris transplant Pierre Borel on alto and Tobias Delius on tenor and clarinet, both mixed to the rear; Robert Landfermann and Jonas Westergaard on doubled basses, vibist Christopher Dell, and Achim Kaufmann on piano/electric, sometimes nervously riding the volume pedal.

As a drummer Lillinger is clean and propulsive; he can make you hear every snare stroke in a fast sequence most drummers would blur into a roll. As composer for an ensemble he pursues a shaggier, wider beat. On “Dralau,” the players’ superimposed rhythms and the shambling gait suggest independent-limbed Elvin Jones more than natty contemporary stacked ostinati which loop, intersect and diverge with arithmetical clarity. The beat stew occasionally conjures Bitches Brew, minus the funk. Sometimes it takes a couple of minutes for a melody to arrive, or the players to find their way into the groove, where, say, a Cuban band might be on top of the temporal complexities from the jump. The most beguiling and dancing tune, which Grund dive right into (possibly on an edit) is “Kubus,” with a fast rising falling melody full of echolalic repeated notes, with a little staggered tenor for an occasional hocket effect; then the band loosen the reins ever so slightly to improvise in the same vein, till another theme emerges to ratchet them to a halt. “COR” makes effective use of high long notes in the alto line as a unifying motif, inside or outside of the rapid tumbling melody that emerges two minutes in. “Hiatus” is in a rhythmic mode one might characterize as “velocity, no tempo”: overlapping bursts of irregular forward motion.

Some pieces are more purely textural: “Welt am Draht” with keening bowed metal and thin clouds of collective improvisation, or the rowdy collective “Plastik,” with its murky bottom. There a snare and bass drum motif from early on returns for the ending (over quietly growling arco basses), unexpectedly connecting this forward-looking drummer to Paul Barbarin and Emile Knox playing the Young Tuxedo Brass Band to the cemetery.

Such unintended echoes abound in creative music. Take, for instance, the title track on drummer/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Alan Purves’s elaborately bricolated solo recital Hide & Squeak. With its slit drum melodies, wrong-speed hijinks and choral chatter, it sounds like an outtake from 1979’s mock-ethnographic Eskimo by the Residents, whose unplaceable conceptual music turned up in the rock bins, and an unlikely direct influence. (But everything’s connected: that album had synthesizer work by Don Preston, who a few years later played in John Carter’s octet.)

During his decades in Amsterdam, Edinburgh-born Alan Purves aka Gunga has projected, if not actively cultivated, the air of a man-child haplessly adrift in the adult world, as if his inspired playing advanced mostly by happy accident. Hide & Squeak soundly rebuts that fiction, a studio manifesto painstakingly executed over a number of years. The 14 pieces aren’t too long (most under five minutes) and may differ widely, within the broad one-man-rhythm-orchestra concept.

Those pieces may have a loopy, light, occasionally daffy quality, not so different from his playing on umpteen children’s concerts he’s played with cellist Ernst Reijseger and trombonist Wolter Wierbos. But the music doesn’t feel frivolous. Gunga builds these pieces like fine homemade furniture, polishing the carefully squared corners; his big toolbox includes drums, cymbals, chimes, shakers, squeeze toys, tin whistle, voice, balafon, glass and metal kitchen percussion, melodica (for harmony), his brim bram, a sort of tuned–rubber band harp (for plucked low cello/bass notes). They are deployed in (usually) cyclically rhythmical soundscapes informed by maypole dances at one end and gamelan trances at the other. Every piece calls for a different combination, and takes its own tack. Much of the magic is in the mixing, balancing large and small instruments’ disparate volume levels, and one might assume engineer Davey Norket made a few useful suggestions and had good ideas of his own. The deep-focus mix and placement of sounds in a stereo soundfield speak to his commitment. Gunga, similarly, doesn’t just trot out cute noisemakers, he knows exactly what each device can and can’t do for him, like Sun Ra with a faddish electric keyboard. Listen to “In a Place in Space,” where Gunga gives flexible whirlytubes Ben Webster–like attention. He gets in deep. (His studio constructions continue, on a less elaborate scale, in duo with flutist Mark Alban Lotz on the attractive and often light-hearted new Food Foragers on Unit.)
Kevin Whitehead


Kris Davis + Craig Taborn
Pyroclastic 03

Piano duos often generate lots of talk. This seemingly innocuous idea somehow seems special, grand (excuse the pun) – and then it doesn’t always work. Even when it’s a success, two pianists face to face isn’t to everyone’s taste. The doubling of sonorities and colors can be overwhelming or redundant or just plain out of sync.

So you could gather a volume of commentary about Octopus, this marvelous series of duets from Kris Davis and Craig Taborn – or you could just listen to it. I’m recommending the latter. There’s very little a critic will provide that a private space and excellent headphones won’t beat. This is gorgeous, haunting, complex music. The one-hour set, cherry-picked from a 12-city American tour in the fall of 2016, is filled with great discord and roiling, roaring fire. It’s also stark and lonesome, resolutely quiet, with spells of wonderful, pining beauty.

In the notes Davis recalls her 2015 duet album, Duopoly (Pyroclastic) – eight collaborations, with, among others, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and Don Byron. There, she and Taborn clicked. It was the first time they’d played together and producer David Breskin suggested more. Sixteen months later, they embarked on a tour. Each arrived with new pieces, and an old favorite as well, Davis introduced Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” and Taborn added Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.”

Octopus captures one view of their six-piece book; tracks were taken from shows in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego, California. The approach changed radically from night to night. Great stretches of written music often morphed into new, impromptu forms. Taborn brought along a series of numbered pieces he called “Interruptions” – short, composed sections designed to drop down into the improvisations, to shift things and, quietly, bind things together.

The title, Octopus, was inspired by a refrain Davis and Taborn heard on the road. In performance, they were told, audiences didn’t really hear two musicians on stage, but rather one “shape-shifting organism.” Listening at home, then, you’ll set aside the struggle to figure out who’s who. On Davis’s “Chatterbox,” the thick, rapid-fire dissonance never seems to tip one voice over the other. Or “Love in Outer Space,” where the sound of the hall at the University of California adds a majesty to this glorious, rising, unforgettable retelling of Sun Ra’s masterwork, as two voices merge into one.
–Greg Buium


Julius Eastman
The Zürich Concert
New World Records 80797-2

A preview for a late February Julius Eastman festival in the Chicago Reader heralded that “The world catches up to iconoclastic composer Julius Eastman.” While a bit of an embellishment, Eastman seems to be finally having his posthumous day. The multi-faceted composer/performer/choreographer/visual artist/visionary/social and cultural agitator lived a striking life that arced from musical prodigy to celebrated classical vocalist to a stint teaching at the University of Buffalo to a move to New York in the mid-70s where he was celebrated as a rising star, only ending in homelessness and death in utter obscurity in 1990 (and that is the massively abbreviated version of his life story). With most of his recordings scattered amongst various archives and his compositions lost or destroyed, Eastman was more a figure critics and musicians referenced than one that most anyone had actually heard. New World Records certainly kicked off a long-overdue rectification of his obscurity with the 2005 release of the 3-CD set Unjust Malaise, focusing on the composer’s compositional experimentation. That started to create a bit of a buzz which has accelerated in the last year with festivals devoted to Eastman’s compositions in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

Now comes a new release that revives another facet of Eastman’s artistry – that of a formidable solo piano improviser. 1980 was a particularly fruitful year for Eastman. He performed a legendary concert at Northwestern University where he premiered his pieces “Crazy Nigger,” “Evil Nigger,” and “Gay Guerrilla” (all three documented on Unjust Malaise), held a series of well-received concerts around New York City, was featured at New Music America in Minneapolis, and toured Europe with sponsorship of The Kitchen. While in Europe, Dieter Hall, a Swiss friend, arranged for a gallery performance in Zürich which was captured on cassette tape. While there were reviews of Eastman’s solo improvisation performances, this tape is the first recording to surface, documenting a 75-minute solo piano concert.

Performance and improvisation were always a central part of Eastman’s practice. In his essay “The Composer as Weakling,” Eastman makes the cutting assertion that “Today’s composer, because of his problematical historical inheritance, has become totally isolated and self-absorbed. Those composers who have gained some measure of success through isolation and self-absorption will find that outside of the loft door the state of the composer in general and their state in particular is still as ineffectual as ever. The composer must become the total musician, not only a composer. To be only a composer is not enough.” Listening to this solo performance, one hears Eastman grappling with that challenge, calling upon his vast experience as pianist versed in the canon of composed music, accomplished instrumentalist, musical maverick, vocalist, and provocative performance artist.

Things start out with a measured intensity as the pianist metes out spiky phrases in fits and starts. Gradually, the music develops an angular momentum as dark chords and sustain begin to fill things out against driving ostinatos. The improvisation displays an arresting sense of patience and resolve as Eastman navigates his listeners through the eddying currents of the unfolding piece. Twenty-five minutes in, he introduces freely lyrical, booming baritone vocals in to the mix. At first the lyrics are indecipherable against the churning piano thunderheads, but gradually, the exclamations of love and loss come through and the drama and emotion of the improvisation is amped up. The trajectory of the piece continually unfolds as motifs are looped back through and new thematic or propulsive threads are introduced. One gets a sense of the befuddlement of the audience as they break in to applause 53 minutes in to the piece during a pause in the music, only to have Eastman launch off again. He seems to take this in to consideration as he brings the piece to a close, quietly repeating a note to hushed resolve for several minutes, as if to hold the audience at bay.

With the renewed attention being paid to Eastman’s music, one gets the sense that more of his work will be recorded, particularly with the recent announcement that the publisher G. Schirmer would restore, reconstruct, publish and promote his music. As it is, the assiduous detective work of composer Mary Jane Leach along with the diligence of the folks at New World Records are doing an impressive job of continuing to unearth treasures.
–Michael Rosenstein


Alexander Hawkins + Elaine Mitchener Quartet
Intakt 297

It’s always a treat to hear pianist Alexander Hawkins, and in the company of vocalist Mitchener he delivers an unexpected session of lyric songs and free improvisation mixed together for compelling effect. Bassist Neil Charles and percussionist Stephen Davis are marvelous contributors to this vibrant quartet music, which – while there are proper tunes throughout – upends notions of lead voice and accompaniment.

Things start off with a brooding take on Patty Waters’ “Why Is Love Such a Funny Thing?” From the outset it’s apparent that Mitchener is quite skilled. In some of the later pieces, she shows her improvising chops. But this is a smart choice for a first track, since it spotlights the lovely color to her voice, as well as her graceful and effective use of held tones. On this and subsequent tunes, like Hawkins’ “The Miracle – You,” the overall aesthetic is one of quiet intensity, of minimal gestures (little swells, a vocal quaver, an unexpected chord) having maximal impact. That kind of open, pregnant space fits the lyrics well, since they seem regularly to express a kind of bewilderment at the state of things, whether this is a relationship or the mad world itself.

This isn’t to say, though, that the album lacks variety. In fact, many of the pieces at its center are filled with intensity from the full band. The title track especially, with lyrics by the great Lyn Hejinian and some otherworldly vocals, is one the more brash and experimental pieces. The collective improvisation “If You Say So” is in the same musical space, with some lovely timbral effects from Hawkins. And it’s followed by a fascinatingly bonkers rendering of Archie Shepp’s “Blasé,” with a purposefully stilted delivery that contrasts so nicely with the languorous Jeanne Lee version. Mitchener can belt it out, or – on the coiled whisper that is “OM-SE” – she can dot the air with coos and squeaks and incantations. This piece is particularly rich, as it shifts rather unpredictably into an almost hymnal section, and then erupts into an ecstatic piano trio. With Hawkins in full flight, Davis is a blur of motion and his snapping sound pairs nicely with Charles’ earthy, muscular playing. The bassist has a sterling solo that leads into the back half of this performance, “Environment Music” (during which Mitchener is basically reciting the contents of a dump – it’s very mordant but great music). After Hawkins’ darkly ruminative “Joy,” the record’s closing medley is capped off with some moving Rumi lyrics. Bracing stuff.
–Jason Bivins

Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville

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