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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Chris Pitsiokos Trio
Gordian Twine
New Atlantis NA-CD-023

There’s something to be said for efficiency – Coltrane famously, on the subject of cutting down his long solos in performance, said to interviewer Ralph J. Gleason “if it takes me an hour to say something I can say in ten minutes, maybe I’d better say it in ten minutes.” This was in 1961, and Coltrane still had six years to work on his craft, sometimes stretching out into uncharted territory and in other instances narrowing the field of on-stand research. In contemporary improvised music, there are still quite a few practitioners who have no qualms about long-in-the-tooth storytelling, and some are quite good at this approach. There are others – often young, some rooted as much in punk rock and “noise” aesthetics – whose performances and recordings are much more in the vein of showing up, taking care of business, and tying up loose ends with brevity. Live and in the studio, alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos is of the latter variety, and his latest disc, Gordian Twine, with bassist Max Johnson and drummer Kevin Shea in tow on seven of the leader’s tunes, arrives and departs in a hair over thirty minutes, about the length of the average ESP-Disk’ or BYG Actuel session (about which listeners once complained).

Pitsiokos emerged on the New York creative music scene in 2012, often playing in configurations (duos, trios) with drummer Weasel Walter. Drummers are his most frequent foil, and he’s worked with Greg Fox and Tyshawn Sorey in addition to Walter, Shea and percussive electronic musician Philip White. A dry, squirrely sputter and penchant for flywheel-like multiphonics characterize his alto phrasing, which draws from the parallel vocabularies of John Zorn, Kazutoki Umezu and Peter Brötzmann, with shades of youthful Braxtonian shimmy. Combined with Shea’s garishly distracted patter and taut, gleeful subversions, and the slick harmonic bulwark of Johnson’s arco, the trio cuts a striking balance of gesture and motion that teeters on the edge of collapse. Pitsiokos isn’t always at the forefront either, giving a wide berth to the interplay between bassist and drummer as they set a stuttering, incisive groove on the opening “Prologue” aside the smears and volleyed chug of Pitsiokos’ alto. It’s no wonder that the saxophonist has an open line of communication with electronic artists (and he has composed electronic music himself), considering the bright, redoubled jitters that sound more akin to metallic glitch than reed, brass and valve, popping against Johnson’s clean, introspective pizzicato on “Clotho” before erupting into wailing pulses. There is a brief, hushed moment mid-disc and certainly areas of receding tides, Pitsiokos off-mike as the rhythm section tinkers, but the locus of Gordian Twine is on wily interplay wowing between sync and slop without overstaying its welcome.
–Clifford Allen


John Russell + Phil Durrant + John Butcher
Conceits 1987/1992
Emanem 5037

John Russell
With ...
Emanem 5036

Guitarist John Russell has been celebrating a lot of milestones of late. In 2014, he celebrated his 60th birthday, in March of 2015 he went through quadruple bypass surgery, and this August, organized and performed at Fete Quaqua, a festival of free improvisation which he has been running since the early ‘80s.

Starting out in the early ‘70s, Russell has been a central figure of the London improvisation scene. Early on, he played with musicians like John Stevens, Trevor Watts, and Steve Beresford, Evan Parker, and others who frequented the Little Theatre Club and the London Musicians Collective. In the ‘80s, Russell began working with Phil Durrant, forming a trio with John Butcher who had recently come on the scene. Martin Davidson has been a long-time supporter of Russell’s music and these two releases celebrate his playing with a reissue of the initial recording by the trio as well as a recording of his 60th birthday celebration concert.

Conceits, originally released 1988, was the first recording to come out on the Acta label and was the second recording to feature John Butcher. The 11 short improvisations, most less than 3 minutes long, fly by with rapid-fire interplay of Russel’s dry “acoustic plectrum guitar,” Butcher’s burred multiphonics and scuttling phrasing on tenor and soprano, and Durrant’s muted trombone playing and scrubbed, scrabbling violin. While one can certainly hear the legacy of London spontaneous improvisation, the choice of short sprints and the structural decisions the three make, balancing textures, attack, and the acoustic resonance of their respective instruments, is what carries the recording. While this is truly collective music, Russell’s steadfast guitar playing with his sure-handed ability to shift from flinty runs to percussive tremors and abrasions seems to provide a rudder for the music. Butcher’s playing is a bit more boisterous than the approach he has gone on to develop, but even at this formative time, one can hear his attentive ear towards voicings, intervals, and the placement of sound into ensemble interaction. Durrant’s background in classical music and electronics comes through in his playing, tending to fill in the spaces around the other two players with pizzicato counterpoint or chafed, muted arco. The reissue is filled out by a 16-minute live recording from a concert they played in Stockholm in 1992. Five years on, the three have settled in to a bit more of a cohesive collective sound and with the extended length, they get a chance to traverse a more expansive structure, flowing from sections of restless activity to more open composure. The three were to record only two other releases as a trio along with the seminal News from the Shed with Paul Lovens and Radu Malfatti, and it is great to have this first one back in circulation.

The CD With ... documents the 60th Birthday concert held for Russell at Café Oto in London. For the event, Russell put together four different groupings capturing his wide-ranging approach toward collaboration over the last four decades of playing. The first trio with Satoko Fakuda on violin and Henry Lowther on trumpet is a great example of Russell’s open ears and knack for pulling together musicians from various backgrounds. Fakuda began her playing with traditional studies of classical violin while Lowther’s roots were in the London trad jazz scene balancing straight-ahead gigs with active participation in ensembles like Mike Westbrook’s and Kenny Wheeler’s big bands, Keith Tippett’s Ark, and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. They jointly build their improvisation from warm melodicism and a measured sense of pacing. The tranquil counterpoint of Lowther’s muted trumpet musings, Fakuda’s reverberant arco phrases, and Russell’s cleanly articulated guitar coalesce with relaxed aplomb. Russell and Phil Minton have played together since the mid ‘80s and their spitfire, conversational duo plays out like two old friends parrying with each other with a playful glee.

The second half of the concert began with the standout set of the evening; a trio of Russell, Evan Parker, and John Edwards. The guitarist first met Parker at the Little Theatre Club in the ‘70s and the two have played on and off together since. Edwards has played frequently with both though this is their first recording as a trio. Sticking to tenor here, Parker’s labyrinthine lines and Edward’s propulsive bass elicit a more aggressive edge to the guitarist’s playing and the music builds in spirited torrents of elastic give-and-take between the three players guided throughout by an unflagging collective focus. The set finishes out with a duo with guitarist Thurston Moore. Here, Russell switches to electric guitar and throws in some distortion pedals as well, referencing his teen years listening to John Mayall records and playing rock and blues. One can appreciate the joy the two bring to the playing and the music bucks and flails with shredded vigor. But where extended technique was subsumed into the form and flow of the previous sets, too often technique seems front-and-center here, overwhelming the overall sense of structure. That said, it is great to have this document of Russell reveling in a milestone of a life dedicated to improvisation and the fostering of the community of spontaneous free improvisation in London; a dedication that shows no signs of slowing down.
–Michael Rosenstein


Henry Threadgill Zooid
In for a Penny, In for a Pound
Pi 58

From afar, Henry Threadgill’s Zooid might seem like a system dressed as a band. The critics can’t seem to take their eyes off the math. Since the turn of the century, Threadgill has developed his own musical ecosystem – based, as it is, around these three-note packets, the intervals of a chord that are unraveled and distributed in ways that shape every musical decision. Mathematics and Edgard Varèse’s work are among its inspirations. After nearly 15 years and five recordings for the Pi label, Zooid has become the cornerstone of Threadgill’s late-career resurgence. In a career that reaches back to the mid 1960s, he’s never led a group for this long.

On their own, Zooid’s operating principles are impressive. But they’d be pure theory – and fall flat – without the incredible intuition and intellect of this quintet. Liberty Ellman (guitar) and Jose Davila (trombone, tuba) have been there from the start, the 2001 disc Up Popped the Two Lips. Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums, percussion) joined early on. Christopher Hoffman (cello) was added in 2011. For long spells on their new two-disc set, in for a Penny, In a for a Pound, Threadgill disappears.

This time, Threadgill’s focus is a suite – a 120-minute, self-described epic. He’s written four quintets (and two introductions), each geared to a different instrument. The melodies are often brief, angular figures or short, cryptic gusts of sound. To get “a complete picture” of each of the voices, he explains in the notes, you’ve got to listen to it all.

Instruments, however, aren’t featured in any conventional sense. “Unoepic (for guitar),” for instance, begins with Ellman, but very soon Hoffman and Davila join, in loose contrapuntal shards, and then the trio is out: Threadgill (on alto) blows for a moment, greeting a solitary solo from Kavee. Ultimately, the subtitles are mildly misleading; collective improvisation rules. There’s a lot to think about, but these musicians have internalized Threadgill’s method.

Principles here are one thing; motion is another. Things move along this incredible click-track: a light, skittering drive, where line and timbre and rhythm are stretched into a wonderful schematic. Trios break off. Duos reenter. Solos bind sections together. The pointillistic nature of the action creates a wide-eyed, curious quality to the movement: a constant bobbing, tugging and tearing. Led by Kavee’s energy, it feels like the musical equivalent of tiki-taka – the signature style of, of all things, a Spanish soccer team, the great Barcelona clubs of the past decade.

[“They call it tiki-taka,” Richard Williams wrote a number years ago in the Guardian, “an almost onomatopoeic term for the short passes that mount up like beats on a snare drum, laid out in constantly changing rhythms and at angles determined by the willingness of every player to support the man in possession ... a game of patient accumulation in which the ball is coaxed towards the opposition’s goal while barely touching the feet of players who are constantly in fluid motion. At all times aware of each other’s changing positions, they take opponents out of the game through deftness and movement rather than muscularity.”]

Now, in this bass-less configuration once again (Zooid’s last three discs included Stomu Takeishi), there’s a sharper line drawn between voices; more space has opened up. In for a Penny is an abstraction with a wonderful inner logic.
Greg Buium

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