Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Joëlle Léandre + George Lewis
Transatlantic Visions
RogueArt ROG 0020

Joëlle Léandre + William Parker
Live at Dunois
Leo Records LR535

Les Diaboliques
Jubilee Concert
Intakt DVD 141

Joëlle Léandre + George Lewis - Transatlantic Visions Novelist E. L. Doctorow once said that writing “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He could just as well have been describing free improvisation. It’s a music made in the moment with little awareness of what’s ahead, and yet some amazing journeys are made that way. These recordings featuring bassist Joëlle Léandre and several long time collaborators show her to be a fearless driver under these conditions, capable of making far ranging journeys without seeing any further ahead than the sounds immediately before her. 

The duo format suits Léandre particularly well; there are an unusual number of rewarding duos in her catalog. Transatlantic Visions, a concert recording with trombonist George Lewis, is a minor masterpiece. Lewis has been an occasional collaborator of Léandre’s since 1986 when they appeared on The Storming of the Winter Palace (Intakt), but this performance, recorded at last year’s Vision Festival in New York, are their first recorded duets. From the opening moments, they are putting everything into the music, all their experiences, all their knowledge is concentrated on music that unfolds at a pace so fast that it’s beyond conscious control.

They are so immersed in it that they never have time to plan, just play and move ahead. Every moment bursts with promise and possibility, their instincts pick an option and the choices lead to another infinity of choices. Every note sounds unanticipated and surprising; their reactions are fresh and delighted. Without concerning themselves ahead of time about an overall plan or shape, they make music that nevertheless has an exquisite form. It’s dazzling. Léandre’s bemused affection for sound as sound (a proclivity sharpened by her interest in John Cage’s music) pairs nicely with Lewis’s own preoccupation with the trombone’s sonic possibilities. The formal beauty of her improvising, as unpredictable and elusive as it is, arises equally from her free improvisatory experiences and her understanding of composer Giancarlo Scelsi’s music.

And the sounds they find as they play! Lewis’s oversized gulls cries hover over Léandre’s motorboat drones on “Transatlantic Visions II.” Léandre bows elephant trumpets as her violently snapped strings crack like trampled branches. She creates high pure glass harmonica tones and gravelly purrs on her unaccompanied solo. On his solo feature, Lewis interrupts carefully shaped and colored long tones with the sounds of gargling bullfrogs and the mutterings of drunken ducks. Every sound from each of them is vibrant and alive. And the assurance of the duets is so strong that even the most surreal of transitions sounds perfectly natural. A magical set.

Most of Léandre’s duos, like the one with Lewis, are one-offs, but her pairing with bassist William Parker has been documented twice before. It’s like shop talk among experts, made lively by their engaging personalities and intimate, brilliant discourses on the nature of the instrument.

Live at Dunois is a good performance marred by editing seemingly done with hedge shears. Most of the tracks, all untitled, are excerpts from longer improvisations and are simply cut off without warning. Excerpting is fine, but a bit of sensitivity in the editing would have done the music greater justice. Abrupt, artificial endings somehow seem inappropriate for such seamlessly flowing music. That said, there is some wonderful music on the disc.

Parker and Léandre both know how to let sound dictate the development of their improvisations, sometimes blending their sounds, sometimes working in parallel. However it goes, it’s a harmonious relationship. The improvisations assume many shapes, textures, and colors. On the third, Parker weaves a necklace of pizzicato notes over and around a dense body of arco notes and vocal sounds from Léandre, creating contrast. During the first improvisation, the patterns of their plucked notes interact to form a joint melody. Between the two of them, they keep four distinct lines moving together at one point in the fourth improvisation, allowing the music to grow even more crowded when they both switch to bowing several notes at once. No sound or approach is off limits, each plays with songlike lyricism just as easily as cathartic wailing and moaning. Neither let ego stand in the way of the sound or the development of the music, it goes its own way until it meets those darn editorial scissors.

One of Léandre’s longest continuing associations is with vocalist Maggie Nicols and pianist Irene Schweizer as Les Diaboliques. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Intakt label, which has issued three previous recordings by them, and the probable 20th anniversary of the trio (no one in the band is quite sure when their first gig was), the trio recorded Julibee Concert on DVD.  An important part of what Les Diaboliques do is theatrical, so DVD is the perfect format for this collective trio. The facial expressions of Nicols as she argues and then breaks up with a tearful Léandre, or her parody of provocative body language are as important as sound and words to the performance’s very sharp feminist satire. Nicols tap dancing and body movements provide a visual counterpoint to the music, making visible the curves and lines in the sound. If the otherwise beautifully shot and directed video has any defect it’s a failure to show Schweizer’s hands as she plays. A pianist of such supple motion and nuanced touch deserves a close up. However, the pleasure they all take in one another certainly registers clearly enough on their faces.

Over the course of two decades, Les Diaboliques has developed an almost conspiratorial manner of communicating; sometimes it seems as if they are passing secrets and in jokes among themselves. They hold nothing back when they perform, either. This is powerful, funny, elegant, and passionate music. Extremes of mood and emotion give way to serenity, radically independent parts fly in different directions, and then all three converge, sounding remarkably united. Their vocabulary is broad-based, as well. Nicols incorporates folk sources from Tuva, Hungary, Scotland, and elsewhere; classical techniques; jazz; and sounds from the natural world into her vocalizing. Schweizer moves along an interface between jazz and classical music, a border between Earl Hines and Olivier Messiaen, or Cecil Taylor and Charles Ives. On “Dip Me in Chocolate and Throw Me to the Lesbians” (surely a contender for Best Title of the Year), she even throws in a touch of gospel. During the hilarious relationship-break up routine between Nicols and Léandre on “Interference,” she sneaks in a lachrymose waltz as the ironic soundtrack. Each of the detail-rich improvisations follows a different path; each time they begin the slate is wiped clean and all options are available. They choose different starting points for each piece. “Interference” begins with voice alone; “Jubilation 3” with bass and voice; “Jubilation 2” with piano and bass. And from each initial premise grows something unique, a compound of melody and texture organic to the instant of creation. The theatrics help expose the social and political struggles to make art as women that underlies the music. Just another long journey made in the dark with only the light of the headlights to guide them.
–Ed Hazell


Marteau Rouge & Evan Parker
In Situ IS 242

Marteau Rouge & Evan Parker - Live Recorded live at Sunset in Paris, this CD documents a meeting between Evan Parker – here on tenor only - and a (mostly) electronic French trio, including Jean-François Pauvros on guitar, Jean-Marc Foussat on vintage electronics and Makoto Sato on percussion. There's very little resemblance with the music of the English saxophonist’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Here the saxophone is sometimes called to ride on the top of tumultuous sound waves created by the trio, their excitement often augmented by the usage of vocalizations, and to match them blow by blow. In other episodes, Marteau Rouge offers a pellucid and sparse texture for the serpentine saxophone to insinuate in, resulting in a controlled and dramatic development of the material. The electronic sounds tend towards mechanical sounds – or is my imagination affected by the name and imagery of the group? – that suggests futurist music or expressionist films. The effect is accentuated by sampled sounds that evoke a construction site. Inside the texture of the music, the four instrumentalists engage in intricate dialogues – with the saxophone picking up a melody line from the guitar, the percussion generating a flowing rhythm from the punctuations in the saxophone phrases, and the synths buzzing a baseline drone – and sometimes reach a state of telepathic. In the sixth piece, the saxophone is electronically treated in real time, but resulting in a sound that is quite distinct from Parker’s Electro-Acoustic ensemble. The raw guitar sounds and the pounding rhythms of the flowing track should appeal also to listeners coming from the avant-rock area, and presents Parker with yet another challenge, which he meets with radiant, lustrous sounds. The final piece begins with swirling saxophone lines over swishing brushes; after an intense and slowly building improvisation of 13 minutes, the opening is mirrored by the pastoral sounds of sampled songbirds.

All in all, this is a profoundly satisfying listening experience that shows the endlessly diverse directions that free improvisation can take.
–Francesco Martinelli


Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings
Delmark DE 587

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings - Renegades Oddly, vintage albums by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef came to mind during the first spin of the debut album of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings, but not exclusively due to any resemblance between Mitchell’s flute playing and theirs. Rather, it is the constant pivoting of her writing over the course of the album’s 16 tracks that harkens back to the respective unified field theories Kirk and Lateef posited, particularly during their coinciding tenures at Atlantic. Mitchell’s scores span folkloric gravity, bright swing and romantic blush. As is the case with her other projects, Mitchell manages to make listening to jazz a teachable moment, but without the pedantry that has become part and parcel of such exercises since the rise of the Neo Cons. Part of this is attributable to the populist strands in Mitchell’s writing; few artists can play “pretty for the people” so winningly, and without diluting the voice that makes her knottier compositions so engaging. The continuity Mitchell creates between widely appealing pieces like “Wade,” a richly voiced reworking of “Wade in the Water,” and “If I Could Have You the Way I Want You,” a sigh-inducing ballad, and more challenging compositions like “Crossroads,” which overlays contrasting motifs over a blues shuffle to create a tart polyrhythmic mesh, and “Windance,” which lays edgy phrases over a Gnawa-inspired groove, sharpens the comparison to Kirk and Lateef.

Certainly, a lot of credit goes to Mitchell’s cohorts. Black Earth Ensemble cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Josh Abrams have become a polished tandem, capable of subtly shaping the pulse of the piece while providing a rich mid and low register mass; they also have the range to cogently improvise in whatever setting they are called upon. The album also serves as introduction to two very impressive musicians: violinist Renee Baker and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin. Both of them share the gift of understatement, and seem constitutionally incapable of gratuitous pyrotechnics. There is a surprising maturity to Baker’s solos, given that this is the first setting that has tapped the classical player’s improvisational skills. Tinnin’s use of tabla, dumbek and other hand percussion, combined with an appreciably light touch on traps, reflect a well-developed sense of ensemble playing. Mitchell’s deft utilization of their talents is a big reason why the album unfolds, track by track, with such inviting brilliance.
–Bill Shoemaker


Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
The Moment’s Energy
ECM 2066 177 4798

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble - The Moment’s Energy This is the fifth recording by Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and each new installment has marked an expansion, whether it’s the scale of the band, the scale of the composition, or the density of processes employed to transform and integrate the group’s original sounds.  The group first recorded as a sextet in 1996 for Towards the Margins, matching the long-standing acoustic trio of Parker, bassist Barry Guy and percussionist Paul Lytton with three sound processors: Walter Prati, Marco Vechhi, and Phil Wachsmann, the last processing his own violin and Guy’s bass. The ensemble is now up to 14 members for this performance at the 2007 Huddersfield Music Festival of the six-part, 62-minute, “The Moment’s Energy.”  Somehow it’s maintained its diagrammatic balance. There are six musicians playing acoustically, six employing electronics, and two (Wachsmann and Lytton) doing both. The troupe of sound processors now includes Lawrence Casserley , Joel Ryan, Paul Obermayer and Richard Barrett (the latter two are collectively the group FURT), while the acoustic group now includes pianist Agusti Fernandez and newcomers Ko Ishikawa on shō, Peter Evans on trumpet and Ned Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi. It’s becoming a large musical community (in a sense virtual as well as real, alive with its own phantom processes), but Parker rises to the challenge of designing appropriate structures for effective and multiple interactions.

The fascinating wealth of detail is such that to listen to its processes is inevitable; the choice involved for the listener is which processes, whether it’s the evolution of group textures that seem to magnify a single voice just as it’s about to disappear in the welling sound around it, or to try to follow the life of a timbre from acoustic to electronic. It ultimately requires a willing surrender: at the end of “Part II” the group reaches a sonic density that blurs an individual line with its electronic multiplication. It’s also the nature of some of the musicians here to press their acoustic materials so far toward the electronic vocabulary that it’s hard to make distinctions. Peter Evans’ extended trumpet techniques are so complex that it’s difficult to tell when electronic processing enters on “Part III.” The final movement has an unearthly beauty, a dense orchestration with muted trumpet and soprano saxophone prominent and yet awash in echoing high frequencies. Ishikawa’s shō, an ancient Japanese mouth-organ, is a serene and eerie call from a distant past reverberating through the electronic soundscape. 
–Stuart Broomer


People Band
Emanem 5102

People Band - 1969/70 By one logic at least, it might be more satisfying if these recordings didn’t exist, or hadn’t been found. People Band was committed to an aesthetic of absolute spontaneity, its relatively short life-span characterized by a libertarian esprit that wasn’t always in evidence on the late ‘60s British music scene. It was founded as the Continuous Music Ensemble, contemporary with AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (whose name might have suited better), but without their philosophical seriousness and ideological engagement. Few of the group’s members are now considered to be improv superstars, but they do include some fascinating characters, including George Khan, Lyn Dobson, Terry Day and someone now known from another field entirely, future movie director Mike Figgis. As such, People Band represents a largely missing part of the history of British improvisation and it’s good to have further examples of its playful radicalism to set alongside the earlier Emanem reissue of the group’s only formal release, originally on Transatlantic.
Making the point might raise suspicions that a crypto-Marxist had been smuggled into the PoD ranks, but the very idea of a People Band record somehow runs counter to the group’s resistance to any commoditization of music, and indeed any hard-and-fast distinction between performers and audience, and between formal performance spaces and purely vernacular settings. For all its commercial diffidence, or indifference, the groups clearly did document some activities. The recordings on 1969/70 (more than two hours of music) are a mixture of gig souvenirs and, more illuminating, group jams conducted in multi-instrumentalist Mel Davis’s house and in the open air. There is, however, an unreleased studio session, which suggests that there was no absolute injunction on releasable recordings, even if it never saw the light of day.
“Multi-instrumentalist” is a rather pointless designation in a group that consisted of nothing but. However, it is worth saying that People Band differs sharply from a good deal of improvised music in Britain and the US of the period in the sense that there was no official “policy” of anti-virtuosic playing or of non-idiomatic technique. One of the things that strikes newcomers to People Band, or those who have only heard of the group as anarchic minstrels of the cultural left, is how tuneful, organized and coherent much of the music turns out to be. The earlier Emanem issue was dated 1968, which inevitably conjures up images of barricades and other less gentle forms of civil disobedience. People Band’s contrariness was of a subtler and more affirmative sort. It’s possible to hear People Band as forerunners of present day free/freak-folk situations. To some degree, though, the personnel do seem to fall into recognizable horns-and-rhythm shapes, which suggest a jazz provenance, and there is no doubt that Eddie Edem (percussionist and sometime trumpeter) adds a definite African tinge.
Detailed description is almost as difficult as definitive assessment. While it’s always intriguing to rediscover once-influential groups who have been dropped from the critical canons, it’s important not to overstate the revisionism and elevate People Band to AMM and SME status, not least because their own creative ambitions were more modest and communitarian than that. I heard all three ensembles at an early stage in my listening life and have ever since instinctively positioned People Band on the light left of the aural spectrum, nowhere near as aurally interesting or philosophically challenging as the others, but delightful to the nth degree.
–Brian Morton

FMP/Free Music Production - An Edition of Improvised Music

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