Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Barry Guy New Orchestra
Amphi – Radio Rondo
Intakt CD 235

It seems as if it’s been a while since we heard anything from the BGNO, but one of the premier large ensembles in the music is still going strong. With this live recording from March 2013, the bassist/composer/leader presents one new composition (a feature for Baroque violinist Maya Homburger, partly adapted from the Guy/Homburger duo “Tales of Enchantment”) and the much loved piano feature “Radio Rondo.”

Eldritch string tapestries unfold in the opening minutes of “Amphi,” courtesy of Guy and Homburger, backed by a resonant horn section of Evan Parker, Jurg Wickihalder, and Mats Gustafsson on saxophones, Hans Koch on bass clarinet, and brass to die for: trumpeter Herb Robertson, trombonist Johannes Bauer, and tuba ace Per Ake Holmlander. After a patient extrapolation of these textures, pianist Agusti Fernandez conjures brilliant lattices of notes as the tonal center moves upward via violin. It’s this combination of textural atmosphere and motion that’s at the heart of the piece, brought alive with such intensity of detail and realized in precisely articulated improvisational miniatures (like the violin and bass clarinet exchange that pumps along like Boulez, or the bang-up rumble for tuba, reeds, and the twinned percussion of Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid).

What gives the piece further character is the emotional heft these improvisers give to it. There are some gorgeously melancholy sections for strings, and as a whole the orchestra has impressive range as it moves through loads of moods and settings. There’s some seriously impressive lyricism from Parker, which summons a lovely quaver from the strings once more, along with plenty of nuance from Fernandez in particular. But the piece is really about its fascinating transitions and evolutions – from scored material to improv, from bustling improv to tutti blasts or drones – rather than resting in any particular place.

“Radio Rondo” is similarly configured. Originally written for Irene Schweizer (featured on the London Jazz Composers Orchestra’s recording of the piece) it’s since been performed by Fernandez. He’s dazzling here, feinting and merging with the small instrumental clusters Guy assembles (the pinwheeling changes of the flexible piece are intended to convey the musical rapid-fire of spinning the radio dial). There’s an absolutely killer Parker/Guy/Fernandez trio at the center of many moments, but I’d be remiss not to point out the gorgeously chromatic section for careening piano and brass, and the tasty feature for Robertson and the drummers. The piece spools ever downward out of these intensities, like a bright feather reaching the bottom of a canyon, riding on a low drone held softly before a final collective yawp. Fantastic album.
–Jason Bivins


Alexander Hawkins
Song Singular
Babel Label 13124

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble
Step Wide, Step Deep
Babel Label 13120

Dominic Lash Quartet
Babel Label 13122

When everything gels, a scene is irresistible. It gives you a place to start and stop, a ready-made playlist, a network of players; it might even be a source of wonder. In creative music, a scene can bring coherence to something that’s a little more unkempt. That’s certainly true on these excellent new recordings from Britain’s Babel Label.

In a different time and place – even as recently, say, as the early aughts – these sometime Oxford-based musicians would have been traveling further afield. Instead, it’s been mostly hearsay – of the very best kind, of course (eagle-eyed observers, generous peers) – that’s given their recordings cachet abroad. As opportunities have shrunk, it hasn’t been easy slotting younger players into the creative music conversation. Babel is doing this terrifically well.

At the center of things here is Alexander Hawkins. The 32-year-old pianist seems preternaturally disposed to look forward, and back; he’s a throwback, and he’s an early 21st century pioneer. Since his arrival on the scene, his work has straddled wild Hammond B3 experiments (in the organ trio, Decoy), duo improvs with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, transatlantic cooperatives (Convergence Quartet), projects with Evan Parker, elaborate through-composed commissions for the BBC, and every corner of the jazz tradition, from Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra. He’s a musician with frightening resources.

Start with his new, self-named ensemble. After the widely admired All There, Ever Out (2012), he’s rejigged things; only clarinetist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings remains. So he’s built Step Wide, Step Deep in layers – violin (Dylan Bates), reeds, guitar (Otto Fischer), bass (Neil Charles) and drums (Tom Skinner) – where open and predetermined forms live comfortably side by side. The pieces can feel like small sketches (a brief background, a short line tucked partway in) stitched into, say, a spacy, early electric Miles vibe or a grinding avant-groove. The finale, “Baobab Constellation,” is an instructive instance of the ensemble’s art. A quiet collective yearning: strings intimating a line, piano color, dark clarinet, where tension and power generate together at a low hum. It’s quite superb. You wonder at times if bits are notated, then you don’t. It’s a hymn, a tender and impromptu nod to a lullaby that might have been cast away.

A piece like “Advice” is filled with neatly crafted architecture. I’m not suggesting that it’s overly determined. Hardly. The melody is spare, and achingly beautiful – Bates somehow puts you in mind of both Mat Maneri and Bill Frisell. The lazy, half-time feel turns over and over again; everything marinates in this haunting line. Hawkins keeps the motif up front, the rhythm section pushes a rolling, laconic swing, and Bates just plays. It’s deceptively simple, and wonderfully adroit, jazz. A real highlight.

If Step Wide, Step Deep demands track by track attention, bassist Dominic Lash’s Opabinia, his first as a leader, is designed in a single, sweeping 45-minute arc. He, too, tackles open and predetermined forms. But the operating principles here are grander. Beginning with a taut, piano-bass improvisation (arco sheet metal effects; spare, single-note piano melancholy), a brief drone, then a mildly frenetic quartet improvisation, “Isthmus” is a smart introduction. Spanish saxophonist Ricardo Tejero, with his big, husky tenor, produces some great under-the-radar blowing; Hawkins cues a tiny free-jazz calypso, then takes off, too.

Lash, a colleague of Hawkins’ in the Convergence Quartet, puts a series of short vignettes at the heart of this date: just saxophone and bass (“Hallucigenia”), ear-splitting effects (“Wiwaxia”), or nursery-rhyme tenderness (“Anomalocaris). By the end, “Piano Part Two/Catachretic,” the group’s traveled a great distance. Now Hawkins is on his own, moody and spare, as everyone slowly joins. It’s quiet, pointillist stuff, that turns into a smart, driving jazz number (spearheaded by Lash and percussionist Javier Carmona), and everyone takes a turn.

Alone, Hawkins doesn’t seem frightened of the inevitable comparisons: to Cecil Taylor, on the one hand, and Sun Ra, on the other, and a handful of others in-between. Song Singular, his first solo piano album, creates such a complex tapestry that you’re bound to hear traces of the past, and then be pulled straight into Hawkins’ contemporary orbit. There are 10 pieces, all originals, apart from a quicksilver reading of “Take the A Train.” Each maps out its own terrain.

So the opener, with its Leonard Cohen-esque title, “The Way We Dance It Here,” quickly appears in debt to Taylor: the rapid-fire attack, the percussive power. The churn, however, isn’t overly daunting; it’s hardly a Taylor-esque roar. Sure, Hawkins is equipped, but there’s something softer here; cross-keyboard tears often end in a soft flourish. Things resolve, then rustle down. By the second number, “Early Then, M.A.,” he’s exploring a personal, probing sweetness. This feels like his own aesthetic. Something like “Stillness from 37,000 ft.” has this delightful, awkward spikiness – think Herbie Nichols, then don’t – but as it turns toward the finish, it becomes a broad, beautiful song, something not unfamiliar to Abdullah Ibrahim. Then he’ll pull out two-hand pyrotechnics, “Two Dormant, One Active,” work them over, and settle into a plush bit of romance.

It’s as if Alexander Hawkins wanted to get everything onto Song Singular – everything that’s ever moved him, anything that might have ever found its way into his art. Ordinarily, this sheer abundance of ideas would collapse under its own weight. But this seems to be among Hawkins’ many gifts. Song Singular really works.
–Greg Buium


Jon Irabagon
It Takes All Kinds
Irabbagast Records/Jazzwerkstatt JW 139

An extremely eclectic stylist, Jon Irabagon’s raw talent and diligent work ethic has made him one of the most celebrated and in-demand saxophonists of his generation. Over the past few years however, Irabagon has channeled his notoriously chameleonic versatility into a more readily identifiable sound, albeit one that continues to surprise.

Irabagon has parlayed his membership in the groundbreaking quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing, into opportunities with older, long established artists – the most notable being veteran drummer Barry Altschul. Their first collaboration, with bassist Peter Brendler, was Foxy (Hot Cup, 2010), a relentless album-length improvisation based on Sonny Rollins’ classic “Doxy.” The 3dom Factor (TUM Records, 2013), was their second studio effort; issued under Altschul’s name, the superlative session featured a career-spanning retrospective of the drummer’s tunes, with the pair joined by bassist Joe Fonda, Altschul’s partner in the FAB Trio with the late Billy Bang.

It Takes All Kinds appears under Irabagon’s name and features eight of his compositions, with Downtown stalwart Mark Helias filling the bass chair. Recorded live in 2013 at Germany’s Peitz Festival, the hour-plus set unveils the trio’s freewheeling, intuitive rapport, highlighting each member’s interpretive prowess in turn, with special attention paid to the leader’s protean virtuosity on tenor, his primary horn.

Irabagon’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz tradition informs each mercurial diversion, as revealed on the playful “Quintessential Kitten,” which features the saxophonist at his most capricious. Opening with an unaccompanied soliloquy, Irabagon fleetingly invokes past masters, recalling the breathy lyricism of Lester Young one moment, the acrid volatility of Archie Shepp the next. Ratcheting up the intensity level, Irabagon leads the rhythm section through a modulating series of changes in tempo and tone, culminating in a dazzling barrage of circular-breathed sixteenth notes.

Although now in his early 70s, Altschul plays his kit with the stamina of a musician half his age. Drawing upon a lifetime of innovation, his attention to shading, texture and timing is unparalleled, buoying rhythmic interpolations and temporal displacements with colorful percussive accents. He introduces the Middle Eastern-flavored “Unconditional” alone, with an evocative tom-tom work-out that recalls North African traditions, while Helias takes center stage on “Sunrise,” commencing the melancholy ballad with a series of introspective musings that span his instrument’s entire dynamic range. Helias makes a perfect partner for the legendary drummer, his full-bodied tone and in-the-pocket phrasing providing the trio with a solid foundation for every detour, no matter how abstract.

Veering from the muscular swing of “Vestiges” to the deconstructed blues groove of “Cutting Corners,” the album encompasses a bevy of stylistic variations, whose subtle differences in approach are unified by the trio’s aesthetic congruity. Although the live sound is merely average (with occasional audience noise), the performances on It Takes All Kinds are nothing less than superlative. For those interested in hearing three masters at work, this is an invaluable document of three generations of improvisers playing at the height of their powers.
–Troy Collins


Iskra 1903
South on the Northern
Emanem 5203 CD

Thanks to the diligence and commitment of Martin Davidson, the archives of music made by the trio Iskra 1903 continues to see the light of day, documenting one of the most potent working ensembles in London’s improvised music community from their inception in 1970 through to the mid-90s. Though only in existence for a few years, the initial trio of Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy, and Derek Bailey is the most well-known line-up of the group, helped in particular by the reissue of their seminal Incus recording along with a handful of archival tapes on Emanem. (Though it would be nice to have their contribution to the 3LP set “Free Improvisation” on Deutsche Grammophon get reissued.) After Bailey left, the group saw a short hiatus, revived with the addition of Phil Wachsmann in 1977. Wachsmann came to the free improvisation scene from a background in contemporary composition and experiments with indeterminacy, graphic scores, and the use of DIY electronics, quickly establishing himself in the nexus of London free improvisation through his participation in revolving ensembles and the launch of his record label Bead. The earliest recordings of this version of the trio are nicely documented on the 3CD set Chapter Two: 1981-3 but the recordings from the rest of the decade had been missing until now with this set documenting two London pub gigs from 1988 in Balham and 1989 in Clapham.

Though sourced from cassette recordings, the mastering is able to bring out the rich range of the three musicians. The blend of trombone, bass, and violin along with Wachsmann and Guy’s use of electronics for subtle timbral shadings, makes for shifting densities of sound, particularly when compared to the refracted angularity of the trio with Bailey. The improvisations build from the confluence of Guy’s bass resonances, Wachsmann’s subtle wafts and shimmering scrims of arco, and Rutherford’s warm, brassy trombone. But just as integral to the sound of the trio is the confluence of improvisational strategies, melding spontaneous give-and-take, the utilization of melodic kernels and thematic threads, and the invaluable tempering of collective listening. The range of dynamics is critical as well, moving from quiet subtlety to explosive massing. But even as density and dynamics build, there is a strong sense of thoughtful balance, with each of the musicians knowing when to drop back and when to dive in to push the vibrant, constantly evolving tensions of the improvisations. Each set balances longer pieces  at 20+ minutes with pieces in the 15-minute range and  what comes through in each set is the telepathic way the trio spins off the improvisations in expansive arcs, finding their way back to clearly articulated conclusions. This is a worthy addition to the Iskra 1903 discography and serves to fill in the picture of the evolution of this trio.
–Michael Rosenstein


Achim Kaufmann + Michael Moore
Nothing Something
Ramboy 31A

Achim Kaufmann + Michael Moore
Something Nothing
Ramboy 31B

Achim Kaufmann + Michael Moore
Ramboy 31C

Michael Moore and Achim Kaufmann have worked together now for more than 25 years. For much of that time, they were among Amsterdam’s estimable expatriate community. The American clarinetist and alto saxophonist settled there in 1982 and never left. The German pianist arrived in the Netherlands in the mid-‘90s and stayed until 2009. He’s lived in Berlin ever since.

That’s where these albums were recorded over four sessions in the spring of 2011 and the winter of 2012. They’ve all been released at once – a cue, I suppose, to digest them whole. Sure, each date has a different operating principle, but they’re all of a piece. There’s a series of improvisations on one (Nothing Something), a set of compositions on another (Something Nothing), and a session dedicated to the music of Herbie Nichols (Furthermore).

Taken together, it’s a test of just how far a duo can go. In any number of cases, there would be an endless string of traps. It wouldn’t take three hours (170 minutes, to be precise) for many piano-reed duos to devolve into something paralytic, rudderless, or frighteningly dull. But these sessions seem to be a signal moment for Kaufmann and Moore, one for examining every little aspect of how they interact. The music is a monument to sustained, unflinching (and deeply satisfying) introspection. Indeed, if you let yourself explore these discs – straight through, on permanent shuffle, or in stages (I tried a few variations) – you’re given a microscopic tour of duo art. These Ramboys are rarely fevered, yet they never stand still. They contain some extraordinary music-making.

So where might one begin? Try “Unswaddled Blues,” the second improvisation on the first disc, Nothing Something. There are 12 shorter pieces here – each is between two and five minutes – but this is the longest, at more than seven minutes. “Unswaddled Blues” unfurls in stages. It begins with a jarring helicopter effect – mad fluttering clarinet, piano pedal clusters, single notes, then short motifs, circling and circling about. Soon they’re into a chase, Kaufmann deep into the left hand, and Moore moving into long tones, one of his terrific yearning calls, beautiful and dark at the bottom end of the horn. As the time gives way, Moore moves into the middle range, and Kaufmann outlines a series of chords. Things become more pensive. Kaufmann crafts a foundation and Moore unearths a gorgeous, wisp of a line, as if it had all been designed before. When the improvisation’s first phase gives way to the second, a final turn produces something new (can we call it a coda?): tender and shrill and filled with soaring meditative spaces. Now you’re tempted to turn back and listen again. It is open music of the highest, most satisfying kind.

When you get to Something Nothing the 14 originals feel like a natural next step. Just three of the pieces are Kaufmann’s, yet the spirit here often put me in mind of the pianist’s excellent pair of turn-of-the-century groups, Trio Kamosc and the Gueuledeloup Quartet. It might just be the sound of these men together – Moore was the lone horn in each of those bands – but it’s also the overarching culture of these new duets. Kaufmann’s writing has always maintained an elegant, sharply cut melancholy. “Disappearing,” for instance, is a sweet and somber chamber-music line, something North Americans once called European jazz. Moore quietly pulls Kaufmann toward his own improvisation, as the piece bobbles in and out – appearing, receding – giving Kaufmann a chance to refashion every corner of his script. At times, there is such symmetry to the way these men work, that I kept falling into cliché. It may be perverse, but the clichés felt just right – that Moore and Kaufmann were “of the same mind,” “in sync,” that they were just so comfortable “in the moment.”

It’s all true. What Moore writes can often sound, deep down, like contemporary bop riddles. It’s his own freewheeling mode – New Dutch Swing via Eureka, California and the New England Conservatory. To me, “Gravitation” is a Ferris wheel of Michael Moore joy: snakes-and-ladder lines that suddenly stop, a spell of reflection – of genuine beauty – a majestic reminder of the tune (solo piano), a new emboldened turn (Moore), then back to the head.

Oddly enough, the poise and purpose of this project delivers its longest uninterrupted level of clarity on Furthermore, the Herbie Nichols date. But that makes sense. Nichols’ music has been a real point of reference for them over the years, whether it was on Kaufmann’s 2004 solo disc, knives (where he played “2300 Skiddoo”), or in Moore’s work with the Instant Composers Pool (Program One: The ICP Orchestra Performs Herbie Nichols, 1984); it’s about where they come from, and where they’re going. It’s jazz, and yet, the singularity of Nichols’ writing seems to bring a laser beam to Kaufmann’s approach: his untangling of “Double Exposure,” for one, where his solo of subtle shifts and simple declarations, gives the tune a new skin. Together, “The Third World” is a vigorous instance of collective interplay that Kaufmann breaks open with a driving bit of force, cracking Nichols’ line and reassembling it under and over top Moore. “The Happenings” begins as film noir, then the lovely line appears, some of the warmest classic Nichols, as they set the piece into a delicious, soulful lilt.
–Greg Buium

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