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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Sandy Ewen + Damon Smith + Weasel Walter
Sandy Ewen Damon Smith Weasel Walter
ugEXPLODE ug53

No matter what angle one is approaching creative music from – and I’ll include oddball rock music and modern composition as well – and no matter how deep one digs, there will always be an underground. This sense of obscuring refers not only to DIY labels and concerts, but also the mere fact that if an artist doesn’t move within certain circles, their work might not get recognized. Take this trio disc from Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen, Houston-via-Oakland bassist Damon Smith, and Brooklyn-via Oakland/Chicago percussionist Weasel Walter. To put it mildly, the eight improvisations here are overarchingly dense and incredibly abstract, often garish and resoundingly physical blasts of heat, noise, and vocabulary extensions. All three of the musicians on this disc (recorded at New York’s WKCR in one, uninterrupted swoop in November 2011) are – even with the visibility afforded by the internet and Walter’s sizable ugEXPLODE catalog of releases – rather far outside the free music mainline.

Though this recording is Ewen’s first to potentially catch the ear of free improvisation aficionados, she’s been quite visible in Texas music for the better part of a decade. Her guitar and voice comprise one fourth of The Weird Weeds, an open-ended and minimalist avant-rock quartet founded in 2004; she’s also worked in Spiderwebs with Texas/NYC psych guitarist Tom Carter and in a wide array of unrecorded and unclassifiable outfits. It’s interesting to think of her as a “fresh face” on the broader stage of improvised music, though I suppose her work just hasn’t had the chance to cross over until now. Walter and Smith were almost inseparable as a rhythm section during the former’s time in the Bay Area (2003-2009), and the drummer has – despite playing high-octane, energy-based free music both in the first half of the 1990s (with the Flying Luttenbachers) and extensively over the past decade – remained a “rock” musician in the eyes of the critical establishment.

This CD follows in the footsteps of Walter’s improvised collaborations with guitarists like Jim O’Rourke, Kevin Drumm, and Henry Kaiser, and while Ewen’s approach is very much her own (chalk slide, violin bow, cat brush, and pedals enter into her palette), the results are in keeping with a brutal hum of activity. Adding to the trio’s spidery wall is Smith’s curious setup, which includes laptop and field recordings in addition to a seven-string electric upright bass, played horizontally. Ewen doesn’t approach the level of phrasal logic that Kaiser or Mary Halvorson (another frequent Walter collaborator) put forth, which lends the music a somewhat more anarchic vibe. But that’s not to say that her strokes and wiry aggregates aren’t clear or that her actions don’t “flow,” because intent and listening are in the forefront of Ewen’s contributions to this recording. Walter has a way of playing “quietly” with terse acuity, so that passages of improvisation with a lower volume and instrumental sparseness retain momentum and palpable density. Were it not for the directness of attack that cuts through the trio’s playing, the eighty minutes of unruly electrified clatter on offer here might flag, but continually refined accents and concentrated unpredictability make the tooth and noise part of a spry and engaging set. One final note: though this is far from “free rock,” as with Masayuki Takayanagi’s “Mass Projections” and music of that ilk, this disc benefits from being played very loud.
–Clifford Allen


Foxes Fox
Live at the Vortex
Psi 12.01

Evan Parker + John Edwards + Eddie Prévost
Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists Volume 1
Matchless MRCD81

Evan Parker + Zlatko Kaučič
Round About One O’Clock
Not Two MW 863-2

Evan Parker shows no signs of slowing down as he nears 70, continuing steadfastly on the path he began charting out in the mid ‘60s, working with long-time collaborators and more recent improvisational partners while constantly on the lookout for intriguing ad hoc meetings as these three recent releases aptly document.

The collective Foxes Fox got together by chance in 1998. Parker, John Edwards, and Louis Moholo-Moholo were booked to play a gig at the Vortex in London. When Edwards had to bow out of the second set due to illness, Parker drafted Steve Beresford to sit in on piano. Things clicked and they went on to form an occasionally-working quartet, recording a well-received studio release in 1999. This new recording finds the four back at the Vortex in February 2007 for three sets of inspired group interplay. What is striking about this group is how the settings bring out the free jazz roots of all of the players while giving them ample opportunity to extend the vocabulary in dynamic ways. Parker has always been forthright about his debt to the free jazz tradition, and here, sticking to tenor, he channels his full, throaty tone and circuitous phrasing within the context of the constantly shifting ebbs and flows of the coursing ensemble. Beresford’s percussive clusters provide an effective foil, his crashing cascades and hammered, spiky melodic kernels obliquely prodding at the flow of Parker’s torrents. Edwards continues to prove himself as one of the stronger bass players on the global scene, working in a dizzying array of contexts. Here, he moves from dark, surging pulse to churning sections of free arco to caterwauling counterpoint with ease, whether in full-force ensemble or in various sub-groupings. Parker has worked with Moholo-Moholo since the late ‘60s and the drummer’s vital free polyrhythms and shuddering percussive colorations provide the perfect complement to the group. If this release only captured the first 40-minute set the group played, it would have plenty to recommend it. But wait, as they say, there’s more. Kenny Wheeler joins the quartet for the 30-minute second set and a 10-minute coda, transforming the music in inspired ways. While the trumpet player often tends more toward more free lyricism he can still summon fire and this setting accentuates that side of his playing while providing him the opportunity to push the music toward more ruminative areas. Parker and Wheeler clearly revel in playing off of each other having come up together, first crossing paths in the ‘60s playing in Spontaneous Music Ensemble. While the two have played together countless times since then, this setting allows their lines to cross and parry in an intimate setting, propelled along by the trajectory of the quintet. With a fifth player in, the group takes an even more mercurial approach, splitting off into various sub-groupings and then gathering back to full force. Luckily, this evening of music was captured, providing a stellar document of a momentous meeting.

It’s fortuitous that Eddie Prévost has released his first volume of his Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists at around the same time. Prévost organized the series at The Network Theatre, Waterloo, London, to get a chance to play with saxophonists he’s encountered over the years in a sax/bass/drums format. The drummer chose a trio with Evan Parker and John Edwards to inaugurate the series and the 80 minutes of music captured here has synergies with Foxes Fox while offering some notable contrasts. Again, Parker sticks to tenor and, for these meetings, Prévost chose to use drum kit, eschewing his use of tam tam and bowed percussion. He explains his impetus as follows: “In experimental music, sounds or textures derived from percussion sources are preferred to percussive rhythms. I wanted to test this proposition and see how far I could embrace the history of jazz without being a slave to its blandishments: to get beyond being ‘a jazz drummer’ without (at the same time) undervaluing, or undermining, its most cherished attributes.” Like Foxes Fox, these three operate with a clear acknowledgement of the free jazz tradition, while bringing in their collective experience in free improvisation operating outside of the strictures of tonic centers, pulse, and linear, conversational development. And also like that quartet, the musical relationship between Parker and Prévost goes back decades. The extended improvisation broken in to two parts, clocks in at 70 minutes yet manages to maintain a dynamic tautness throughout. In this setting, Parker’s lines become more tendril-like, particularly in the second half where he stretches into labyrinthine, circularly breathed swells against the roiling free momentum of his partners. The more open sound of the trio allows Edwards to stretch out and his lithe muscularity provides a potent voice as well as a vigorous fulcrum for his partners to play off of. One often forgets Prévost’s kit playing and this is a reminder of what a phenomenal drummer he is. He has fully absorbed the vocabulary of jazz drumming traditions, preserving an infectious drive while imbuing it with freely deconstructed notions of time and swing. Other outings due out include a trio with John Butcher and Guillaume Vltard and one with Bertrand Denzler and John Edwards which promise to be equally as choice as this release.

The final disk under consideration pairs Parker and Slovenian percussionist Zlatko Kaučič. The duo captured during the 2009 50th Jubilee Jazz Festival in Ljubljana was the first-time meeting between the two, but there is nothing even remotely cautious in their playing. When the two got together the day before their performance, Kaučič talked about playing with Mike Osborne when he lived in Spain in 1978, and the two dedicated their performance and the resulting record to the memory of the great, troubled reed player. Kaučič is credited with playing “ground drums” and the photo inside the CD shows him sitting amidst an array of cymbals, gongs, frame drums, bells, and small percussion. Parker switches between tenor and soprano and his phrasing and trajectories are keenly fitted to the textural detail of his partner, often parsing his lines into shorter fragments, stringing ideas together across the tuned timbres and spattered detail of his partner. There are sections, though where he lets his snaking lines loose, wending his way through his partner’s animated field of sound. The percussionist structures his playing around shards of activity and gesture, full of rustling clangs, booming rumbles, resonant chimes, and sizzling metallic splashes, occasionally interjecting vocal inflections into the mix. The playing is quieter and a bit more reserved yet there is nothing restrained about their interactions. This is the sound of two improvisers tuning in to each other to carve out common ground. While not as essential a recording as the two releases covered above, there is still plenty to recommend here and provides plenty of impetus to search out more of Kaučič’s recordings.
–Michael Rosenstein


Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook-Up
The Air is Different
482 Music 482-10719

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara knows that it’s all about the phrasing. Having played in so many of the best bands of the last several years, Fujiwara knows it’s about more than simply combining styles or idioms. If you want a tune to pop, to groove, to really set up that hot energy between written and improvised (or blast the distinction altogether), you have to attend to the fall of the note and the space between.

On this terse set (six tracks over 45 minutes), the percussionist/composer does just that in the company of a sterling group of improvisers: guitarist Mary Halvorson, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and bassist Trevor Dunn. Their music is multi-directional, polyrhythmic, and urgent, and it knocked me out from the opening throb of “Lineage,” whose delicate pointillism and filigree (a rattling press roll, a bronzy splash) is as winning as its swagger. Indeed, Fujiwara is adept at setting up similar contrasts in most of his tunes, but he does so subtly and this is much appreciated. After all, when you can hear the borders too clearly the effect is not so impressive. But when the music is about subtlety and gradation – very much the case here – it’s an impressive achievement. And so on this first tune, the ensemble pinwheels and strolls through several phases – there are fine solos, sure, but also fractures, pauses, and stutters that almost ask “now where were we going?” Ah yes, the gorgeous concluding chorale seems to say, this is where we’re going.

And with that, the band is off on a rich, satisfying course of tunes. There’s a tasty, stuttering 9/8 groove on “Double Lake, Defined,” with Halvorson angularly funky as the horns surf atop the flow. Amidst some Mingusian shouting, a fuzzed out Halvorson drops some squiggly bombs that are marvelously effective in a jittery, polyrhythmic setting like this (at times it almost sounds like she’s out to undermine her own guitarisms). There’s some dazzling interplay between noise and poise on “For Ours” and especially “Cosmopolitan (Rediscovery).” On “For Ours,” the band emerges from a thicket into a brief section for 7/8 (over which Finlayson layers a typically intense, well-structured solo) before sauntering into a free-sounding mid-tempo section where Halvorson’s solo is punctuated by almost self-consciously “jazzy” chording. “Cosmopolitan” is far more gnarly, noisy, and rambunctious. But it, too, is filled with luminous moments of contrast, as when Fujiwara writes in deft horn voicings to suspend over the squall. “Smoke-Breathing Lights” is a wide open, at times ominously spacious series of exchanges, with Settles in especially probing form (he’s an unostentatious but compelling player throughout). But of course, I’d be remiss not to tip the hat to the intensity and focus of Dunn and Fujiwara throughout. They are tight and loose in the right measure, adeptly sustaining the exuberant sectional rhythms of tunes like “Postcards,” all whirling together like Steve Coleman’s recent band turned into a Calder mobile or something.

So yeah, it’s a great record. But I should revise my opening statement a bit. It’s not all about the phrasing. It’s also, quite clearly, all about chemistry too. And both simply flow out of this marvelous band, moment by moment.
–Jason Bivins


Joel Futterman
Blues for my Brother
Creation Music 20

Pianist Joel Futterman’s search is a disarmingly personal one. Its process captured on recordings often appears to be a wholly group-oriented activity, which Futterman’s long list of shared conversations with Kidd Jordan and Ike Levin (saxophones), Alvin Fielder and Robert Adkins (drums), and William Parker (bass) can attest to. These are often blistering sets of bright, energetic dialogue that’s rooted in the tradition. But especially in “free music,” the unaccompanied performance is often treated as language development rather than blank-mind exploration, chiefly because the assumption has been made (and it’s not always invalid) that without a foil, one’s chances of harping on clichés or isolating oneself increases. But Futterman is an extraordinarily “free” pianist, spontaneously developing clusters, masses, and brushy runs on an equal footing with stride, boogie-woogie, and lushly modern romanticism. In the last four years, he has released fifteen albums of solo piano ranging from responsive outpourings (The Fall, inspired by a physical accident) to music reflecting on the work of Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler.

Blues for My Brother is the latest installment, a dedication to Ronald Futterman that begins with rolling and earthy improvisations that make connections where they are patently unexpected. Futterman’s approach to the blues and ragtime is interesting, because it’s shot through with a penchant for coiled, spiky and pointillist right hand motion. For a player who can superimpose broad keyboard strokes and create a hell of a lot of mass, he’s extraordinarily deft and light on his feet, which I suppose one has to be in order to retain a semblance of physicality. “Blues for Ronnie” is the first of four improvisations, with Futterman’s easy left hand roll supporting glassy, upper-register snatches and pulpit-pounding declarations. It doesn’t take long for parallel voices to emerge from his left and right hands; although inextricably tied together, Futterman’s inventions seem to move in different directions, almost in auto-dialogue. While there’s a constant rhythmic refrain, Futterman begins to pull phrases together into deep, resonant swipes and volcanic asides, alternately harping on the piano’s roiling depths and producing bare-knuckled trills. At the heart of this internal commentary is whimsy, offsetting an admittedly fascinating tension.

“Swingin’ on Bryn Mawr” is partially an ode to the pianist’s hometown of Chicago, an oddly hushed and skipping funk set against glassine flourishes, resonant clambering and blocks of color. Futterman is detailed and romantic on “Reflections,” mixing piano string rustles into a lush but moody sketch, as suspended chords create a complex substrate, and single notes provide terse and open-ended accents. The set closes with the explosive “Movin’ On,” a twenty-minute odyssey that retains a toe-tapping groove, despite powerful glissandi and an impossibly particulate rumble. Overall there is a distinct and unabashed beauty in Blues for My Brother, as well as subtle humor and phrases that continually question their surroundings. If this captures the relationship of Joel and Ronald Futterman, and his brother’s influence, no greater gift could be imagined. But these four pieces also are imbued with the same spark that one finds in all of the pianist’s solo and group music, so the result is that this disc is one part of a larger opus that’s only starting to become clear.
–Clifford Allen

New World Records

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