Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Steve Lacy
hatOLOGY 680

I often wonder if it’s possible to be a casual fan of Steve Lacy’s music. Like only a very few musicians, the late, lamented soprano saxophonist defined so singular a world (an aesthetic that was more than simply musical) that to understand it at all might mean to want to understand all of it at once. Regardless of whether or not that’s the case, Lacy’s most ardent fanatics aspired to completism, and for a time that meant chasing down limited edition vinyl releases. For many years, one of the more beloved of Lacy’s 1970s rare gems was the idiosyncratic LP Shots, duets with traditional Japanese percussionist Masa Kwate. What a thrill that this marvelous music is now seeing new life on one of the labels that has long championed Lacy music.

On a series of mostly familiar pieces, in a terse 42 minutes, the musicians improvise in ways that sound in ways quite askance from each other but that hang together with marvelous quizzicality. The spare melodies of “Moms,” for example, and Lacy’s finger-snapping seem miles apart from the gongs and resonant, woody tom patterns that pointedly resist echolalia or mimesis. But that’s what makes the performance so evocative. Kwate’s percussion is even more spacious on the gruff reading of “Pops,” his just-so emphases perfectly suited to the tart descending line. And similarly, his subtle tonal variations on “Tots” emphasize the seeming uncertainty of Lacy’s playing, as it climbs scales. Things tend to work out on Shots, in other words.

The music seems to invert just a bit on “The Ladder,” with Lacy playing with exacting sparseness while Kwate heats up just a tad (that is, before he dials it back almost completely to create only some supple breathy sounds from his drum heads). “Fruits” and “Coots” are comparable rarities in the Lacy canon, but they have the same strange focus as the rest of the date, and Kwate’s playing makes it seem as if the entire record (even with change-ups like the animated soprano squiggle on the tart “Fruits”) could be one continuous theme and variation. Lacy lays out note after worried note, querulous and vaguely unsettled, almost as if not sure how they will land in the wash of Kwate’s patterns (which, as ever, seem to hook up to Lacy’s lines without design). The date is rounded about by a wonderful reading of “The Wire” – chock full of those ace tonal and technical variations Lacy was obsessed with in the 1970s, all intense timbres amid the ticking clock – and “The Kiss,” where they are joined by Irene Aebi on voice and violin. All told, Shots is one of the stronger things Lacy released in the 1970s. Needless to say, that makes it essential.
–Jason Bivins


Last Exit
Iron Path

The infamous reputation of the all-star quartet Last Exit (with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson) was established by a series of incendiary concert recordings that pushed the aesthetic possibilities of amplified free jazz to its limits in the late ‘80s. Originally issued by Virgin Records in 1988, Iron Path is the group’s only studio session; given additional time to work out ideas in advance of recording, it is also the band’s strongest and most cohesive effort.

Spacious and atmospheric in a way that their live sets often were not, the pieces on Iron Path sound fully developed, like actual tunes rather than spontaneously conceived improvisations. The high fidelity setting of a studio environment also allowed them the freedom to explore nuances in texture and dynamics with greater sonic clarity, highlighting their myriad instrumental abilities. The lyrical “Sandpaper” for example, features carefully overdubbed layers of guitar, accentuating Sharrock’s harmonious gifts with cascading lines of dancing counterpoint.

The unfettered energy that characterized Last Exit’s notoriously assaultive performances is still apparent, but subtly subsumed, underscoring the proceedings with a seething intensity. After a minute of brooding ambience, Sharrock galvanizes the majestic “Prayer” with a scintillating, anthem-like riff that perfectly underpins Brötzmann’s machine gun-like salvos, Laswell’s throbbing basslines and Jackson’s roiling trap set work. In a pulse-quickening four and a half minutes, the introductory cut’s unrelenting frenzy embodies all that the unit was revered for.

Transitioning seamlessly into one another, each of the remaining compositions convey a semblance of genre-specific structure previously unheard on a Last Exit release: the exotic modality of the Morricone-esque title track; the surf-metal hybrid “Cut and Run”; and the rural slide guitar inflection of the metallic “Devil’s Rain” all suggest stylistic precedents beyond the avant-garde – the bluesy dirge “Fire Drum” even conjures proto-industrial soundscapes via Laswell’s dub-inflected basslines. Additionally, in contrast with the ensemble’s usual output, Brötzmann dominates less than usual, playing a more magnanimous role, although ample proof of his vitality can be heard on numbers like “Eye for an Eye,” where his histrionic bass saxophone blasts forth into dark cinematic territory.

Last Exit’s uncompromising musical vision was a seminal influence on acts like The Flying Luttenbachers, The Thing, Zu and countless others exploring the no-man’s-land between free jazz and experimental rock. Criminally out of print for years, this is an essential reissue and a milestone in the history of free music. Despite the fact that the remainder of the band’s discography consists of live albums, Iron Path is Last Exit’s singular masterpiece.
–Troy Collins


Paul Lytton
“?” “!”
Pleasure of Text Records POTTR1303

It is hard to believe that “?” “!” is only percussionist Paul Lytton’s second solo recording, the first being 1979’s The Inclined Stick on PoTorch. To credit Lytton with redefining the role of a percussionist is selling him short. In duo with Evan Parker, in the early ‘70s, he created a language that seamlessly intertwined drums, percussion instruments, homemade electronics, and a revolving collection of metal and detritus gathered along the way. Leaving behind any notion of pulse or rhythm, he and like-minded musicians including Paul Lovens and Tony Oxley completely re-thought the way that drums and percussion worked within spontaneous improvisation. To hear just how radical that approach was, try to dig up the handful of duo recordings Lytton and Lovens released on the Po Torch label. (Let’s hope theses phenomenal documents find the light of day at some point.) Which brings us to this new release on Nate Wooley’s Pleasure of Text label.

Lytton is credited with Trobiander laptop, miscellaneous percussion instruments, objects and implements, electro-mechanical devices, frame plus CnC Elektronics. Who knows what most of those are, but a look at the photo on the sleeve of the CD shows a sprawling array of gongs, metal sheets, sticks, drum heads, whisks, and an odd array of motor-driven frames of springs and wires. Flip on the CD though and any focus on how exactly any sound is made is left behind. Instead one gets swept up in the cycling scrapes, resonant electronic quakes, and lithe, caterwauling, fields of pinpoint percussive detail. The eight pieces fly by, each a study in concentrated structure built up from texture, velocity, and choreographed sonics. Haunting cries, flayed scrapes, muscular strikes, motivic clicks and clatter, the ringing decay of gongs, wafts of field recordings, and the sharp attack of struck objects and their natural decay move in shifting layers. On a piece like “Ars Est Celare Artem!” the various components of the piece hang and slowly accrue. On “Iditarod,” they spill forth with a frothing, muscular density. On “!”, the physicality of the creation of each sound comes to the foreground. The masterful recording reveals every shade, layer, and nuance of the lush, immersive soundscape. By any terms, this is a truly special release. When you take in to account that it was over 35 years in the making, it is something not to be missed.
–Michael Rosenstein


Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra
Galactic Parables: Volume 1
Cuneiform Records Rune 409/410

Electro-acoustic composer, improviser and sound designer Rob Mazurek has been leading the Exploding Star Orchestra through various configurations since its founding in 2005. Mazurek has stated that Exploding Star Orchestra is the “conceptual, compositional and philosophical center of all my work.” As such, Mazurek has used the Orchestra’s rotating personnel as the foundation for countless other bands. After living in São Paulo for a number of years, Mazurek began incorporating aspects of Brazilian Tropicalia and electronica into his oeuvre, merging facets of those forms with elements inspired by Miles Davis’ fusion experiments, the freeform explorations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Sun Ra’s Afro-futurist cosmology.

Galactic Parables: Volume 1 is the first release intended to document Mazurek’s nascent space opera, which is inspired in part by the science fiction writings of Samuel R. Delany and Stanislaw Lem. Continuing the concepts he began investigating on Matter Anti-Matter: Sixty Three Moons of Jupiter (which was released in 2013 by Rougeart, but recorded in 2009) this multi-disc collection (2 CDs or 3 vinyl LPs) is, according to Mazurek “the first record where we’re getting close to hitting on the libretto for this future opera.” It documents live concerts taped in 2013 at Sardinia’s Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival and a later appearance at the Chicago Cultural Center. Each half presents the same five compositions performed with different personnel, highlighting the subtleties each player brings to Mazurek’s work.

All of these musicians have worked with Mazurek for years; naturally, their deep-seated rapport shows. As such, the Sardinian ensemble boasts a number of outstanding moments, including Matt Bauder’s sprightly pre-war clarinet introduction to “Collections of Time”; Angelica Sanchez’s freewheeling piano fantasia through “Make Way to the City/The Arc of Slavery #72”; and the roiling polyrhythms provided by keyboardist Guilherme Granado, percussionist Mauricio Takara and drummer Chad Taylor, who are only heard on the Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival pieces.

The Chicago concert features a smaller configuration that excludes Granado, Takara and Taylor. Focusing on the contributions of flutist Nicole Mitchell and guitarist Jeff Parker, these interpretations negotiate the middle ground between the avant-garde, rock and electronica. Mitchell’s diaphanous timbre and vocalized phrasing adds primal immediacy, especially on “Make Way to the City,” where her keening cadences suggest shamanistic cries. Parker’s versatility is on full display, ranging from the silver-toned ruminations of “Free Agents of Sound” to the gnarled, distorted fragments he unleashes on “The Arc of Slavery #72.” Damon Lock’s spoken word exhortations lend consistency to each set, his soulful delivery of the text imbues futuristic allegories about slavery and spirituality with stately verve.

As a soloist, Mazurek delivers some of his most compelling cornet playing on record; favoring an open horn technique, he unleashes piercing tones and clarion calls that largely eschew electronic augmentation, using mutes sparingly. Bolstered by gorgeous melodies, lush harmonies, coruscating textures and propulsive rhythms, the multilayered density of Galactic Parables: Volume 1 is one of Mazurek’s most ambitious statements to date. Space is the place, indeed.
–Troy Collins


Evan Parker + John Edwards + Eddie Prévost + Alexander von Schlippenbach + Christof Thewes
3 Nights at Café Oto
Matchless MRCD 93

This three CD and one DVD set documents performances from May 27-29, 2013. The first night’s performance is by the trio of Evan Parker on tenor saxophone, John Edwards on bass and Eddie Prévost on drums. Subsequent nights add guests: the second night has pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach; the third, trombonist Christof Thewes. Each night consists of two sets, each a continuous improvisation, ranging in length from 31:35 to 40:22. The DVD includes material from all three nights.

That represents three hours and 33 minutes of spontaneous music by musicians whose playing relationships date back to the 1960s in a couple of cases (Parker and Prévost; Parker and Schlippenbach), material far too dense for any blow-by-blow description, but music nonetheless that lives up to what might be described as the best qualities of free jazz and free improvisation. While textures and densities change from individual voices to duos, trio and quartets, the musicians are continuously engaged: even their silence is attentive (the way in which the other musicians enter at the conclusions of Parker’s and Schlippenbach’s solos); there is an established language here that is broadly open to new material; musicians have the ability to both maintain continuous patterns and dynamics while constantly shifting those materials to engage and stimulate the changing patterns and new material around them (Prévost’s ability to both drive the music forward and reflect its new materials is a constant here); while the listener’s shifting attention will dictate some of this, there is a sense in which foreground and background are constantly shifting (the duo passage of Parker and Edwards on the first night); the creative functions of memory include supporting an unwillingness to simply repeat the past while allowing its contents to recombine in new patterns (Schlippenbach’s unaccompanied invocation of Monk in the second set of the second night; the sustained dialogue of Parker and Thewles that speaks of early New Orleans collective improvisation while at once constructing its own immediate presence); ultimately, the music manages to be witty and passionate while its makers are evidently engaged in the detailed construction and variation of lines, all the while constructing a work and a community (the makers, the audience) that are continuous with one another and all the more real for remaining unspoken (except here).

3 Nights at Café Oto is both a celebration of one of the great recent groupings of free jazz – the trio of Parker, Edwards and Prévost – and two very different and similar expansions of it, each sufficiently distinctive to be considered a different band, the quartet with Schlippenbach taking in the pianist’s approach to harmony which is at times as much pan-modal as chromatic; the quartet with Thewes necessarily focussed on notions of melodic contour and breath, both its insistent sound and duration. It’s all couched in an existential dialogue, no tunes as interludes to take the place of thought (save for the passing Monk), no agreed-upon changes to function as architecture, and yet with form and concordance in abundance.
–Stuart Broomer

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