Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


The Apophonics
On Air
Weight of Wax WOW05

So I had to look up apophonics and found this on Wikipedia. “In linguistics, apophony... is the alternation of sounds within a word that indicates grammatical information (often inflectional).” But then I jumped to the term apophenia (the title of a recent duo recording by saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Gino Robair) and found this definition: “The experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” So it is a bit hard to say what Butcher, Robair, and bassist John Edwards had in mind when they came up with this title. Butcher met Robair in 1997 when Butcher was touring on the West Coast and the two have played on and off since then in duo and in collaboration with various musicians including a memorable meeting with Derek Bailey. Butcher knew Edwards from the London improv scene but the two didn’t play together until the same year he met Robair. While both Robair and Edwards were part of the John Butcher Group which was convened for a performance at the 2008 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the three didn’t play as a trio until 2011 for a tour of France and Belgium.

From the start, these three quickly move outside of any expected roles of sax, bass and drums trios. Robair is credited with “energised surfaces” and the way he uses his drums and cymbals are as much for their resonant properties when rubbed, scraped, and activated by motors as for percussive timbres. He also makes effective use of synthesizers to extend his palette. Edwards, while anchoring the bottom end of the sound spectrum, is fully active in charting out the densities and arc of the improvisations, moving seamlessly between dark, chafed arco, buoyant pizzicato, and reverberant overtones and harmonics. Butcher adroitly fits in his burred tenor, clipped fillips, and sputtering plosives to create a constantly shifting focus amongst the three. The set opens with the 36-minute “Fires Were Set,” allowing the three an expansive setting which they utilize to move from textural interaction to more active, restive densities. The final third of the piece works particularly well as soprano harmonics, bowed percussion, and bass overtones quaver against each other opening up to a particularly effective section featuring the dark rumble of Edwards’ bass. This sets up an active pointillistic trio which finally moves to a sonorous resolve. The 8-minute “Met By Moonlight” is more atmospheric, with heavy utilization of electronics, reverb, cracked and spattered breathy reed playing, and long-duration drones. The closing 5-minute “London Melodies” caps things off effectively with a slow build to a wildly percolating collective sprint. This is a worthy debut showing from this trio.
–Michael Rosenstein


Derek Bailey + Simon H. Fell
The Complete 15th August 2001
Confront CCS22

Confront CCS18

The Sealed Knot
Live at Café Oto
Confront CCS 17

When cellist Mark Wastell founded the Confront label in 1996, music from a new generation of London-based improvisers was just starting to get some visibility. From the first handful of short-run cassette and CD-R releases, Wastell zeroed in on the documentation of live performances of an evolving pool of musicians, capturing groups like IST (the trio of Wastell, bassist Simon H. Fell and harpist Rhodri Davies), Assumed Possibilities (Wastell, Davies, and multi-instrumentalists Phil Durrant, and Chris Burn) and The Sealed Knot (Wastell, Davies, and percussionist Burkhard Beins). Even when he moved to digipack releases like Rhodri Davies’ phenomenal solos Trem and Over Shadows and Foldings, Wastell’s collaboration with Japanese musicians Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Taku Sugimoto, the label was still committed to micro-released CD-Rs, some packaged in small aluminum round boxes and others in distinctively colored plastic snap packs. The label, along with Wastell’s London shop, Sound 323, which served as distributor as well as a venue for intimate performances, were seminal in spreading the word on the burgeoning scene. Things were going full-bore through 2010 and then went silent for a bit. All that is over now and Wastell’s Confront label is back with a startling flow of reissues and new recordings.

IST was a formative group for Wastell, providing him with some of his first gigs and, more importantly, his initial introduction to Rhodri Davies. The group was relatively active from 1995 through 2002, though during that time, they only released a handful of recordings. In an interview with Tomas Korber for the online ParisTransatlantic Magazine, Wastell comments that “We were concerned with a way of listening that required more attention to the microscopic level, so to speak. We were taken to task so many times by the audience: ‘I couldn't hear what you were doing!’ – ‘Well you've got to adapt your listening you know, because I can hear perfectly!’ ... So yes, there was much attention to detail in the sound, but we were still far away from what today you'd call ‘lowercase sound’.” It was how they rode that edge that put them in settings like participation in series of Company performances with Derek Bailey and Will Gaines as well as a performance at the 2001 Total Music Meeting in Berlin, the complete recording of which has now found the light of day in this new batch of releases.

An excerpt of the concert appeared on a sampler from the festival and their approach jumps out against most of the other groups whose roots were still drawn from the European Free Improvisation tradition. The setting seems to bring out a sterling focus as the three plumb a collective timbral investigation. The first section draws on a give and take between percussive groaning bass, wispy arco cello, and the damped attack and abrasions of harp, stretching the intrinsic elements of their instruments with a sense of tensile concentration. But as the improvisation unfolds, it morphs from contrapuntal angularity to confluent planes of gesture and textural detail. Skittering micro-lines, ratcheted semaphores, and scrubbed activity play off each other, building active densities without falling into the all-to-often requisite rise in dynamics. It is this reciprocated balance that carries through the performance, which culminates in a keenly detailed web of spontaneous invention.

Eight months after the IST session, Fell joined Derek Bailey at Sound 323 for a duo performance, a segment of which Wastell released as a mini-CD. Here, Wastell presents the entire 60 minute set and it is splendid to hear the two dig into the set of four improvisations. Bailey is in his usual voluble form here, slashing out shards of steely guitar imbued with his incomparable sense of skewed phrasing and time. It is particularly intriguing to hear Fell in this setting. Fell has always moved seamlessly around a panoply of settings, working in micro-detail and then jumping readily into caustic intensity with groups like his pummeling trio with Alan Wilkinson and Paul Hession or the full-on blast of the group Descension. In company with Bailey, he entertains a parallel linearity that complements his partner’s attack. But he is also willing to pull back a bit and provide some space to the proceedings. The intimate recording effectively captures the acoustic sound of Bailey’s fingers and plectrum scrabbling away against the resonant strings in concert with Fell’s low-end rumbles, string scrapes, craggy percussive pops, and muscular arco. After a break for tea, the two dig in to the 21-minute “Post Tea 1” which bucks and bristles with particularly spirited attack, restlessly moving across sections of agitated activity, and then diving back into the fray, and opening up, particularly during the final third of the improvisation. The final piece is one of the strongest, finding the two settled in and opening up the densities a bit more. Here, in particular, there is a sense of considered pacing by both partners that holds things together. Previously unissued recordings by Bailey have been slow to surface and this one, with such an able and fitting partner is particularly welcome.

The newest recording of this recent batch is a previously unissued performance by The Sealed Knot, Wastell’s trio with Burkhard Beins and Rhodri Davies, captured at the Another Timbre festival at Café Oto in London from January 2009. This trio formed around 2000, overlapping a bit with IST. But with this group, Wastell and Davies extended the micro-focus of IST into areas which became known as “New London Silence” (a term coined from the title of a UK tour The Sealed Knot did in 2001.) Like most other labels, the term lost any real meaning by the time it became popular in the mid-2000’s and a listen to this concert recording shows how much the group had evolved its approach since their initial recordings. (For those who missed them the first time through, Wastell has also reissued their initial recording from 2000 along with “Surface/Plane”, their recording from 2001 on the Meniscus label.)

First off, all three musicians introduced electronics into their arsenal, and additionally, Wastell utilizes a tam tam as a sound source rather than cello. But instrumentation is really secondary to the form and sonic density of their collective playing. Their placement of timbre and gesture against an open sonic ground has morphed. Rumbles of low-fi electronics become the ground for Beins’ amplified mechanical flutters, Davies’ subtle manipulation of amplified string resonances, and the resonant shimmers of Wastell’s tam tam. And the sounds themselves are stretched out, letting the interactions of electronic and acoustic sounds meld into mutable layers that oscillate against each other into subtly shifting fields. The three also allow the sounds to accrue into denser sections which they masterfully resolve into pools of hushed pulses, crackles and static before building back up again. Of course this recording is now four years old so one looks forward to recordings of their recent work like a performance last May in Berlin.
–Michael Rosenstein


Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Shadow Man
ECM 2339

When the debut volume of Snakeoil was released in 2012, there was a significant amount of verbiage directed more toward the label than the music itself. In retrospect, ECM was a logical repository for Berne’s forceful chamber quartet (with Oscar Noriega, clarinet and bass clarinet; Matt Mitchell, piano; Ches Smith, percussion), although there was a feeling in certain quarters that the music might suffer from too much studio fuss. Berne is certainly known as an uncompromising figure, and a fair number of his works have been self-released and self-financed. Now that Shadow Man has appeared as the quartet’s second ECM release, one would hope that any concerns about content and presentation would be quickly erased.

The six compositions that make up Shadow Man (four by Berne, one by Berne and Marc Ducret, and Paul Motian’s “Psalm”) are rendered with the utmost clarity, giving instruments singularity while hints of reverb cast an environmental sheen over the proceedings. The music benefits hugely from a detailed recording, and that’s clear from the opening “Son of Not So Sure,” with Ches Smith’s cascading vibraphone assault like that of an agitated child opposite Mitchell’s steady, crisp progressions. Their tug of war (or distanced sparring) serves as a foil for the evenly paced ring of clarinet and alto, and the tension served between errant clatter and parlor delicacy is one of several engines that thrusts Snakeoil forward.

“Static” moves from taut, clanging and shifty rhythms supporting a nimble two-horn line to grimy, low-end roil by the close of its eight minutes, playing off mechanized movement and belly-fired slink. Noriega’s bass clarinet volleys may not leap as severely as Dolphy (for that, Berne is masterful), but his controlled warble is deep and fascinating in its own right. Mitchell’s stomping left hand moors the tune as Berne is ebullient and hollering, Smith moving from arching trap work to glassine malleted spray.

Following “Psalm,” which is read as a breathily romantic duet for piano and alto, the disc’s lengthiest piece takes shape. The twenty-three minute “OC/DC” finds Berne flat-out searing, gritty testimony emerging from white-capped, reedy narrows; bookended by Noriega’s classical whirligigs and Mitchell’s quilted clusters (a la Georges Pludermacher), his vibrato-laden closing salvo is lustily concentrated and overtaken by dirty pathos. “Cornered (Duck)” is rooted in a gorgeous, latticed lilt, wincing clusters and bowed lamella coalescing into a knotted, cracking rhythmic support that is just shy of coming unglued against the soloists’ flights. While perhaps there have been more unbridled groups in Berne’s lineage, the pitch and yaw between group/solo improvisation and cyclic, rigorous composition within Snakeoil is a present joy brought to bear time and again on Shadow Man.
–Clifford Allen


Anthony Braxton
Echo Echo Mirror House (Composition No. 347 +)
Victo 125

Anthony Braxton
Ensemble Montaigne (Bau 4) 2013
Leo 684

With Echo Echo Mirror House, the most recent conceptual shift in his evolutionary compositional paradigm, Anthony Braxton has added a simple yet effective element which amplifies its multi-dimensional symbolism. For Braxton, composition is not just a system of musical strategies, but a philosophical and spiritual state of being, meant to initiate a transformational experience for performer and listener alike. Previously, in various stages, he has incorporated compositional grafting, pulse track substitution, collage logic, structured improvisational schemes, mutable forms, varieties of notation, interactive electronics, visual elements, body movement, environmental conditions, literary and/or dramatized subplots – all of which have symbolic, as well as musical, consequences. (No one said it was going to be easy.)

Composition No. 347, the first of the Echo Echo Mirror House works to be recorded (a second, Composition No. 376, for a 15-piece ensemble, has been issued on New Braxton House), makes use of notational maps and graphs which allow the performers to plot their own course through the possibilities of the available material; however, each instrumentalist is additionally supplied with an iPod loaded with earlier Braxton recordings, to be played back as score or response dictates. Sampling of prerecorded sources is nothing new, of course, and yet in this specific context serves not only as an inclusive nod to electronica, hip-hop, and other “popular” genres, but more importantly as an expanded symbolic representation of time – not in the sense of musical time passing, but as an indication of individual perception. If, for example, Braxton’s initial forays into compositional quotation and restructuring “altered” the manipulation and perception of musical time through the spontaneous choices made by the performers at hand, and, eventually, the Ghost Trance Music was a means of informing repetitive and extended material as a visionary experience of “timeless” time (the trance), the audible portions of (often) familiar Braxton recordings emerging from and coexisting with the “live” details of Composition No. 347 offers the “illusion” of multi-dimensional time as an ironic structural agent. (Stuart Broomer spins off on this subject and develops it in interesting ways in his book Time and Anthony Braxton, Mercury Press.)

From the two recordings we have so far, it appears that the Echo Echo Mirror House system intends to create a polyphonic network of details – each instrument a distinct voice, selecting or inventing material in response to the score, causing a fluctuating, kinetic tangle of textures that clash rather than blend. The effect is of continuous change, energized movement, a complexity of relationships (reminding me of Marianne Moore’s un-ironic belief that “It is a privilege to see so / much confusion” from her poem “The Steeple-Jack”). As exhilarating, albeit sonically promiscuous, as Composition No. 376 is, the smaller septet of No. 347, from a 2011 concert during the Musique Actuelle Festival in Victoriaville, Quebec, has several advantages, not the least of which are the leaner, cleaner textures, allowing individual instruments to define their own identity, alternating currents of ensemble energy to affect the flow, and the sampled recordings more space in which to resonate, be recognized, and work their magic.

At the same time, it’s heartening to find examples of Braxton’s music working its way into the repertoire of established ensembles outside of the composer’s direct involvement – especially when one is as conscientious and creative as this new release by the Swiss-based Ensemble Montaigne. Under the direction of trombonist/conductor Roland Dahinden – a former assistant to Braxton who knows his music inside and out – they have designed a program that begins with Composition No. 174 (originally performed by the ten percussionists of the Arizona State University Percussion Ensemble, also on the Leo label), and follows Braxton’s precept of positioning material from other compositions into the flow – in this case, the frequently visited duo Composition No. 136, the mixed quartet Composition No. 98 and related trio Composition No. 94, and parts from the often plundered orchestral Composition No. 96. Comprised of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and five strings, Ensemble Montaigne bring a refreshing, redefining perspective of color and phrasing to scores that blossom, in their hands, into a sustained, occasionally edgy fantasy of staggered voicings, varieties of timbre, contrapuntal wit, and coalescent relationships. They have uncovered, in their own fashion, the “lyric valuables” (the phrase is from poet George Oppen) which artists like Anthony Braxton share with us, to remind us what is possible and what we are capable of.
–Art Lange


Elton Dean + Paul Dunmall + Paul Rogers + Tony Bianco
NoBusiness NBCD 59-60

British saxophonist and composer Elton Dean (1945-2006) was a musician for whom equal possibilities lay in improvised music and rock. In England there was a degree of traversal between the worlds of psychedelia, jazz and creative improvisation, and surprising intersections were more practically borne out than they might have been Stateside. Dean was probably most well-known as part of the progressive group Soft Machine and its offshoots, though he was only in the band for about three years. He’d worked with pianist Keith Tippett before the Softs, and afterwards split his time between prog rock and his own jazz and free music units, as well as numerous powerful sideman appearances (Brotherhood of Breath, Keith Tippett, Roswell Rudd et al.) from the 1970s until his untimely passing.

Remembrance is a latter-day session from Dean’s archive and joins his alto saxophone and saxello with the tenor of Paul Dunmall, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Bianco for a program of lengthy duo, trio and quartet pieces waxed in 2002. Dean and Dunmall worked together frequently from the late Eighties onward, including quartets with drummer Tony Levin in for Bianco. Perhaps among the most rewarding tunes here – and they are all stellar – is the closing trio of Dean and the rhythm section, in which the saxophonist’s considered acidity and tough, laconic flow is beautifully mated with Rogers’ chunky pizzicato and Bianco’s jittery, pointed propulsion. The altoist and drummer have something of a history, as Dean took Bianco under his wing when the latter relocated to London from New York in 1995 (he’s since worked with figures as illustrious as Alexander von Schlippenbach and Evan Parker).

The trio’s rhythmic looseness is incredibly supple and athletic without being overpowering, and it’s interesting to contrast the rhythm section’s additive push with the aggressive circularity that Dean encountered with Moholo-Moholo and bassist Harry Miller. Dry, liquid brays and passages of Parkeriana emerge with dancing force, becoming exponentially more sinewy as Dean switches to saxello, darting and wheeling aside subtonal growls and a canvas of martial fabric. Turning to the first disc, the sole quartet piece (hovering at nearly forty minutes) presents another level of interplay, Dunmall playing a spirited role as a Coltrane-schooled foil to Dean’s more leathery lines.

The rhythm section plays a major role in this recording (indeed, they get their own lengthy exposition on disc two), Rogers switching from glassine incisions to floor-rattling low tones as Bianco propels with bright, thin stitching around Dunmall’s reflective heel-digging inventions on “Quartet.” Those wishing for an evenly paced, spirited saxophone duet nearly get that in this piece as well, Dean and Dunmall ping-ponging with behind-the-beat jabs and tweaks atop spare cymbal and arco bass work. The altoist’s second, short solo is both blistering and patient, threading a needle between yawing, prodding bass and drums with elegance and rage, teased with Dunmall’s throaty interjections. This quartet created some extraordinary music together, and despite this being a Remembrance, the work is so undeniably present as to be outside of time or memory.
–Clifford Allen

Aum Fidelity

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