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The Bridge Sessions 11

The excitement and limitations of jam sessions are heightened by the rhythmic-harmonic-sonic-close listening demands of free improvisation. From The Bridge, the frequent transatlantic tours of ensembles mixing French and Chicagoan musicians, comes this 2018 quintet Minuscules. The foreground figures are Chicago saxophonists Dave Rempis and Keefe Jackson, masterful artists with especially refined senses of fluid space, dynamics, and inventive interplay. They’re joined by pianist Christine Wodraska and percussionists Didier Lasserre and Peter Orins, from France.

Each of the four pieces has promising beginnings. “Strozzii” and “Gu Gu Gu” start with faint sounds in deep space. Woodwind sounds emerge, become wide-vibrato over a bass clarinet drone and piano-string scrapes. In “Christatus” sopranino (Jackson) and tenor play like pups in the park. Piano and drums accompany quietly then gradually forcefully; in a few minutes each piece becomes an intense duet then, as drums’ interplay swells, a full-band freak-out. Wodraska likes to repeat motives, a dissonant bass chord or a wobble-wobble lick, and develop them into brief solos. She’s especially effective in “Ukh Ukh.” Incidentally, two of these titles could have originally been of operas that baby prodigy Mozart composed in his cradle.

Recurringly we hear mutual feelings and shared visions yielding fine playing, yet the repeated form of these pieces is a limitation of free-improv jams. The exception comes after eight minutes in “Gu,” when space and quiet descend into sustained silence and occasional faint sounds. It’s a passage that’s almost worthy of the early Art Ensemble – it’s the album’s high point.
–John Litweiler


Ben Monder + Tony Malaby + Tom Rainey
Live at the 55 Bar
Sunnyside SSC 1600

Early last year, Ben Monder had hoped to get into the studio with his longtime collaborators Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey. But with COVID-19 and the nation’s shutdown looming, he changed plans and recorded the group’s live performance at New York’s 55 Bar on March 3. Drawn from their two sets that night, the trio presents the compelling Suite 3320 (signifying the date of the performance) in three sprawling improvisations.

The episodic album is marked by a cornucopian collection of riotous exchanges, hushed conversations, free jazz outbursts, buoyant melodies, and rock guitar swagger. The band often cycles through scenes of calm and agitation. Upon renewing a previous scene the trio alters it just enough – maybe Malaby’s playful melodies return, but Monder’s dialed up the distortion and Rainey has swapped brushes for sticks – so as to remake the familiar anew. One of the album’s grounding points is Monder’s repeated use of sustained, reverbed laden chords that are just on the edge of feeding back. Some benignly hang in the air, providing a wisp of color and a backdrop for Malaby, while others take on the force of a dark wall cloud as it clears space for a tornado.

The music’s drama largely plays out in the dynamics of Monder and Malaby’s fluid and complex relationship. While they aren’t antagonistic or competitive in a cutting contest sense, there’s a tension that suggests they define themselves against the other. This gives the music a push and pull and drives the narrative. They often take on contrasting characters – Malaby’s growls and multiphonic wails against Monder’s clean, repeated arpeggios. At other times, they act as bad influences on each other. In an early episode in the half-hour long “Part II,” one of Monder’s nastier chords sickens Malaby’s cheery and playful soprano, forcing it to dry heave. Later on, the roles reverse, with Malaby’s slow devolution encouraging Monder’s shredding impulses. Rainey works as a steady and somewhat reserved presence throughout (although that could be a result of the mix), coming to the fore when either of his bandmates are laying out or holding a longer note. He is texture and color and polyrhythm in all the right spots. On rare occasions – such as the maelstrom that appears early in “Part II” – Malaby and Monder join common cause in madcap, frenzied sprints. In those instances, Rainey sheds any restraint.

On the whole, Malaby tends to spend the most time in the foreground. One gets the feeling that Monder could set fire to the whole thing if he wanted to, and except on one occasion, in which he briefly ascends, shrugging off his bandmates, he never quite unleashes the full force of what he is capable of. To do so might have risked upsetting the perfect and productive balance the trio had so carefully built. That being said, by the end of the night, it is Monder who tucks Malaby into bed under a weighted blanket of distorted guitar wash.
–Chris Robinson


Philip Nanton
Riff: The Shake Keane Story
Papillote Press

When it comes to artists in exile, the reason the same themes crop up again and again in their narratives is because they continue to both trouble and distill some of the basic coordinates of modern existence. In essence, artists in exile are very often concerned with nations, empires, and their overcoming. Shake Keane, renowned trumpet player and poet born in 1927 in St Vincent, is no exception to this rule, though his life story does offer a fresh vantage point from which to view these common concerns. Happily, Philip Nanton’s new book, Riff: The Shake Keane Story, is here to provide just such an account. This short work joins a host of other books focusing on UK postwar jazz that have come out in the last twenty years, from biographies and autobiographies such as Alan Robertson’s Joe Harriott: Fire In His Soul and Cole-ridge Goode and Roger Cotterrell’s Bass Lines: A Life in Jazz, to wide ranging inquiries such as George McKay’s Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain and Hilary Moore’s Inside British Jazz: Crossing Borders of Race, Nation and Class. It succeeds in striking the delicate balance that biographical writing requires: moving between proximate affection and critical distance, Nanton sketches the social and artistic contours of Keane’s life from birth through to his death in 1997. It is, as the author intended, an “intimate history.”

When it comes to trumpet playing, one of the things the book lays emphasis on is the range of Keane’s musical activities. This was someone who could move comfortably across idioms. But perhaps just as importantly, this was a working musician – someone who needed to make a living. As a result, Keane was not only an integral part of London’s foremost avant-garde jazz outfit of the late 1950s and early 1960s – the Joe Harriott quintet – he was also playing high-life throughout this period, as well as recording a slew of ornately arranged popular ballads, bossa nova, and soulful grooves. Most sublime among these is perhaps a recording of Kurt Weill’s Broadway standard “Lost in the Stars,” where the calibrated gushing of John Keating’s arrangement and the flawless smoothness of Keane’s tone is beautifully ruffled by the occasional gurgle of spittle stuck in his flugelhorn. (In the last interview he gave, in 1995, he complained that younger jazz musicians sounded “too damn clean.”) Further evidence of his playful humor can be heard on a version of King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” when the clunking banality of the lengthy intro is undercut by Keane’s squawking, off-kilter, Lester Bowie-like interpretation of the melody. The recording he made in 1954 with his own group, the Highlifers, testifies to the diasporic connections he made whilst in London. These connections were extended on recordings with soca and calypso artists in New York in the 1980s, as well as on an album made with the Denis Bovell Dub Band on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s label in 1991, Real Keen: Reggae Into Jazz. As for his bop playing – that which he is best known for – he could flit from the rapid fire runs of a Freddie Hubbard to the understatements of a Miles Davis, often with a satisfyingly unsettling use of rhythmic displacement (see his solo break on “How Say You?”). All in all, Riff provides a useful overview of this varied musical activity whilst leaving the door open for future fine grained musical description.

A poet himself, Nanton’s writing feels most assured when he turns to focus on Keane’s verse in two chapters that act as something of an introductory survey of the trumpeter’s poetic output. Lifelong subjects are introduced: religious feeling refracted through the cultural and geo-graphical landscapes of the Caribbean, exile and diaspora, a sense of “commitment to the local.” Style and sensibilities are parsed: the West Indian oral traditions of his childhood, the jazz inflections of his musical career, the erudite “teacherliness” of his many years working in classrooms, and a persistently dark sense of humor shot through with indefatigable optimism. Influences are enumerated: classical works such as Homer’s Illiad, arch-modernists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and West Indian contemporaries that appeared alongside him on the Caribbean Voices poetry program that beamed out on BBC radio through the 1940s and 1950s. All this invites the reader to get to the poetry itself – out of print and all but unattainable aside from the reproductions found in the five appendices to this new biography. In lieu of reading his verse, snatches of Keane’s poetry can be seen and heard on the 1992 documentary “Shake, Beat & Dub”: the croaking contrabass of his voice, cut with the wryness of his bearded gap-tooth smile and an occasional twinkle in his eye, makes for fine watching.

Above all, this biography is highly attuned to the antinomies of Keane’s itinerant life. Returning to St Vincent in 1973 to take up the role of Director of the newly established Department of Culture, his plans were soon scuppered by an incoming government that stated bluntly, “You can’t eat culture.” The bitterness of this experience marked the rest of Keane’s life, lived large-ly in relative obscurity in New York. And yet, despite the difficulties he faced in this latter peri-od, he continued to appreciate “the pleasures of exile” – the title of a collection of essays by his friend George Lamming, whom he would call up in the 1980s to express his enthusiasm about the book (albeit by then two decades old). Perhaps nothing captures the tensions of these pleasures better than the irreverence of these four lines found in Keane’s late poem “Credential:”

All –we culture all – we potential
Is definightly non-residential
All dis trumpit is a famous load o’piss
                                                           hold on to dis

–Gabriel Bristow


Tony Oxley
February Papers
Discuss 99CD

This reissue of Tony Oxley’s long out-of-print February Papers forms part of a mini Tony Oxley treasure trove released last year: also on Discus, an archival duo with Cecil Taylor, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, and on Confront, Oxley’s latest solo record, Beaming, reviewed in Issue 71. Having worked as house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s, Oxley landed a record contract with Columbia in the late ‘60s, releasing two eerie and beautiful records unlike much else before or since. The Baptised Traveller (1969) and 4 Compositions for Sextet (1970) are rich and patient albums, experimenting with serialism and canon-form, and bridging the worlds of progressive jazz and the free improvisation with which Oxley had been involved as early as 1963. In 1970, he co-founded incus Records, and it was Incus that released February Papers in 1977, Oxley’s fifth album as a leader after the Columbia discs, Ichnos (1971), on RCA, and Tony Oxley, a summary of four years of work released by Incus in 1975. Recorded in the studio of Oxley’s friend Vangelis – to save costs, he told David Peacock – February Papers is an intensely focused album. Oxley told Peacock that “on this album I had definite ideas of some of the things I wanted, the string quartet and trios and solo percussion were things that were intended before I went into the studio.” Yet such ideas are not expounded in further detail, and while the liner notes for earlier albums contained detailed description of compositional structure, February Papers dispenses with anything but the bare minimum of information, suggesting that compositional parameters are not central to the listening experience. Broadly speaking, “composition” here suggests arrangements of ensemble texture in quartet, trio and solo configurations, or, in the case of Oxley’s solo percussion, focusing on particular surfaces or striking implements. The music is collective, non-egotistical: a rustling world of detail and blur, highly active yet somehow evasive, sounds insinuating themselves on the edge of consciousness. (A good speaker set-up is recommended to catch the nuances.)

The record features three line-ups on seven tracks: two apiece for a quartet of Oxley, violinists David Bourne and Phil Wachsmann, and bassist Barry Guy, and a trio of Wachsmann, Oxley, and guitarist Ian Brighton; and three Oxley solos for percussion and electronics. A detailed description of Oxley’s setup in Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation (p.101 of the 1992 edition), noted, among other implements, five cowbells, “wood surfaces,” including “skulls,” “saucepans,” “various kitchen equipment,” “motor generator,” “springs,” ring modulator, and home-made contact mikes. Echoing the contemporaneous work of Jamie Muir and Paul Lytton, Oxley’s deployment of electronics and an expanded kit emerged as a particular element in British free improvisation which would become less pronounced due, in large part, to the unwieldy nature of such setups in the pre-digital age. And he’s heard here as much on electronics as on percussion, providing a close-up, highly textural succession of miniscule small events, materialist and busy, eerily post-industrial. On the opening quartet, we at times hear three violins, Oxley doubling alongside Bourne and the under-sung Phil Wachsmann, blurring in turn with Barry Guy’s acoustic and electric bass. Strings trill, judder, and shudder, woodily buzz and groan. Mid-way through the track, Oxley’s electronics set up a kind of suspended haze, sounds shifting to upper registers and more sustained tones, whistling on the edge of feedback squall. Electronics are more prominent on the trio work of “Sounds of the Soil” – Ian Brighton’s playing reminding us that the electric guitar is, of course, a piece of electronics itself – jagged and scraping textures, ship’s masts, coilings and uncoilings, windings and unwindings, a held tension of string and spring.

A blurring and borrowing of instrumental timbre characterize both electronic and acoustic elements. In such pieces, it can be hard to tell who’s playing what; or, indeed, what instrument exactly is being played. Violin, guitar or bass are played with a hard edge as if a percussion instrument, creating rhythmic values as much as tones, while Oxley, the “drummer,” introduces material as much concerned with timbre and tone as with rhythm. At other times, the whole ensemble becomes percussive: in the absence of wind or brass, the combination of strings and surfaces emphasizes strike, slide, bounce. The first solo track, “Brushes,” negates the feathery associations of jazz brushwork almost entirely: Oxley uses the brushes’ metal tips to traverse his expanded kit in a ceaseless stream of movement, textures thudding yet watery. “Chant Quartet” finds the quartet line-up engaging in what early reviewer Keith Potter called “an incessant and regular scrubbing”: ghostly meditations for sparse arco harmonics, twittering plucks. “Trio,” features sighing slide guitar, whistle-register violin filigree, electronic lunge and fade. The record ends with two solo tracks: “Combination” pairs electronics and kit, electronics squeezing out like laboured exhalations, a slowly unfolding tension under more active percussion, punctuated by quickly-struck gongs and cymbals. Electronics fall to background, rise to foreground: a dialogue of ghosts, shadows. Meanwhile, the final, brief “On The Edge” sees Oxley bowing the edge of a blade with electronic treatments splitting the sound, paying homage to the solo work of Evan Parker by keeping two parallel lines in simultaneous, interweaving motion. In some ways resistant to generalised summary, forty-four years on from its initial release, February Papers nonetheless still has something to tell us about group music, the use of texture, the arrangement of electronics and acoustic instruments: an exemplary case of technique at the service of the total whole rather than individual display, of Oxley’s percussive conception, and of the possibilities of improvised music. This reissue is welcome indeed.
–David Grundy


Anthony Pirog
Pocket Poem
Cuneiform Rune 468

Not confined to a particular style or sound, guitarist Anthony Pirog, a Berklee College of Music graduate, has a promising career ahead of him. Pirog made news in 2018 when he joined the rhythm section of the legendary post-punk band Fugazi to form the instrumental power trio The Messthetics, but by then he was already well-established in the Washington, D.C. jazz and experimental music scene as a bandleader and co-leader of the duo Janel and Anthony, with his wife, cellist Janel Leppin.

Pocket Poem is the second effort by Pirog’s trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith, following the group’s 2014 Cuneiform debut, Palo Colorado Dream. This time, the group is augmented with modern technology and vintage guitar synthesizers, exploring a myriad of styles across fourteen musical vignettes. The stylistic cohesiveness of the trio’s debut has expanded into free-ranging explorations that veer from the anthemic opener “Dog Daze” to the introspective fingerpicking of “Sitting Under Stars.”

The album is mostly comprised of short sketches that alternate between the lyrical and impressionistic. The latter is exemplified by the lush title track, while a cut like “Honeymoon Room” offers a tasteful display of Pirog’s talents on both acoustic and electric guitars. “Honeymoon Room” is also one of only three pieces to exceed the five-minute mark. This brevity results in a constant shift in styles, tempos, and moods, which makes the eclectic program sonically engaging, considering much of it focuses primarily on Pirog’s fretwork. Though their contributions are frequently subtle, his bandmates do materialize at key moments: Formanek’s plummy pizzicato adds acoustic color to the electrified “Adonna the Painter,” complementing the leader’s neo-classical flourishes; Smith, an often-restrained presence, uses electronic embellishments to add cinematic detail to the atmospheric proceedings.

Despite its predominantly relaxed deportment, the album does take some left turns around the halfway point with the motorik-inspired minimalism of “Mori Point,” a pithy showcase for Smith’s unfettered drumming. Similarly bold, the concluding trilogy of tunes finds “Spinal Fusion” awash in brash electronica beats, which precedes the atonal electro-acoustic excursion “Untitled Atlas,” before the ambient “Deetjen” closes the set on a contemplative note. Evincing Whitney Balliett’s sound of surprise, Pocket Poem beats the sophomore slump, weaving a shifting narrative of harmonic sketches into a wholly unpredictable listening experience.
–Troy Collins


Matana Roberts + Pat Thomas
The Truth

Matana Roberts is best-known for her ongoing Coin Coin series – an ambitious set of twelve projected volumes engaging with America’s collective history through the fractured lens of memory, family history and their shaping through the brutal processes of racial capitalism, focusing in particular on communities of gens de couleurs libres in Louisiana. The historical elements that make Coin Coin so striking are absent on these December 2018 performances, recorded live at London’s Café Oto, as Roberts and pianist Pat Thomas lay down a set of improvised pieces for alto saxophone and piano. But, of course, the “purely musical” is a fiction – history saturates these pieces. Roberts, adept within more jazz-inflected contexts – notably, her superlative duets with her mentor Fred Anderson on The Chicago Project (2008) – frequently defies the catchments of genre in her Coin Coin work and in solo projects. Thomas, has been working on the British free improvised scene since the 1980s on both piano and electronics. He too is equally adept within the “non-idiomatic” modes associated with Derek Bailey, with whom he played, and for years his principal musical setting – whether with the long-lasting Oxford Improvisers collective or in a variety one-off and touring groups around Europe – and within more jazz-inflected modes, as in his recent group Black Top (with vibraphone player Orphy Robinson), or in his recordings of pieces by Duke Ellington, in a download release from OTOROKU last year. On these recordings, his touch is resonant and thick, richly chordal and with fine use of the pedal, a gravitas and graven beauty that suits Roberts’ alto, with its tendency to upwards-rising melodic figures and to emphatic repetition of significant material. Roberts and Thomas both will let a melodic statement ring out, consider it, repeat it, then develop in tandem. There’s something suite-like about the music, despite its improvised nature, as they move in blocks of resonant mood and emotion. Once one of the musicians find a figure, they exploit it to its full – fast, fortissimo figures at the top range of the piano accompanied with Roberts’ altissimo, or Roberts declaiming in gospelised fashion over Thomas’ chords. It’s a sound to behold.

Indeed, in spite of the less conceptual, “purely” instrumental nature of the recording, there is something almost visual about this music. It has to do with a stark coherence born of contrast: Roberts and Thomas are not following each other, and their sounds remain strikingly distinct (even in the moments of mimicry). They are neither desperately trying to find each other nor willfully moving in the opposite direction – two of the typical poles of improvised music. This creates two visible musical planes moving resolutely together, but at different altitudes. It’s not a question of pitch (both exploit the full range of their instruments) but rather one of texture and style. Though the music moves in many directions, there is a minimalism and horizontality to Thomas’ use of repetition that is exquisitely offset by Roberts’ heated, curling lyricism. One can almost see her lines spiraling up off the piano like smoke. The third track is perhaps the best example of this, containing extraordinary timbral and melodic range and yet achieving an overall coherence: a suite within a suite. It opens with grave piano plonks (stones dropped in a deep well) that Roberts turns around, sliding up to notes and splitting them into harmonic growls. Over the course of ten minutes the two pass through a series of distinct sections, each one breaking down into the next, ending with Thomas at his most sparing – patting and scratching out a triplet feel on the piano strings – and Roberts at her most harmonious, weaving up and down with an arpeggiated, pentatonic breathiness. The short second track opens with Thomas playing what sounds like a naïve calypso that’s come up from hell. Roberts’ saxophone twists over the top and the two end together on a fire-alarm phrase and a chuckle (the latter presumably provoked by the fierceness of the former). The fourth and last track – the longest, at 16 minutes – also has a striking ending. After a series of searing squarks, Roberts plays what sounds like a distorted fragment of “The Last Post” – echoing a similarly military figure she plays right in the middle of the third track – before Thomas pulls out a disarmingly neat swung pattern that the saxophone immediately slides into and over, riding it out to the record’s end. All told, this is moving music, and an album you will listen to more than once.
–David Grundy & Gabriel Bristow


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