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Reviews of Recent Media


The Sealed Knot
Confront Core Series core 17

Amazingly, Mark Wastell’s Confront label is heading in to its 25th year. An impressive run, particularly as the output has now climbed to over 170 releases in that time. It is apt that the label heads in to that milestone with a recording by the trio The Sealed Knot, featuring Wastell, Rhodri Davies and Burkard Beins, celebrating 20 years together. Their first recording was the sixth on Confront, a tiny run of 50 copies with a simple insert in a plastic sleeve. Twenty is the group’s eighth, with a proper pressing and sleeve design that reflects the striking graphics that Wastell has been utilizing. But equally as appropriate is how the recording captures the ongoing transformations in the investigation of strategies toward group music embraced by the trio and the musicians that Wastell has been assiduously documenting.

Davies and Wastell had been working together in groups like IST with Simon H. Fell and Assumed Possibilities with Phil Durrant and Chris Burn in London as Beins was an active member in the nascent Echtzeitmusik scene in Berlin. While their paths had crossed in various ad hoc meetings, they first came together in 2000. Over the course of the ensuing twenty years, their instrumentation has shifted, they’ve integrated live electronics into their individual arsenals, and their approach toward collective structuring of sound has continued to evolve. But their fundamental methods toward the creation of group music (which they discussed in an insightful PoD Roundtable moderated by Bill Shoemaker a decade ago) has, intrinsically, carried through. In the roundtable, Wastell describes it like this. “No plans, no blue print, no pre-conceptions ... Our timing, use of dynamics, density versus space, push and pull. Where and how these elements manifest in a performance is informed by prior engagement with one another musically, but also very much part of the ‘then and there’ aspect.”

Over the course of time, Wastell moved from cello to double bass and electronics to tam tam and electronics; Davies from concert harp to Celtic harp and electronics to table top electric harp and electronics; and Beins from a more traditional drum kit to close-mic’d percussion and electronics. While the group has always displayed a riveted attention to the collective formation of timbre, dynamic balance and the real-time structuring of interaction over time, equally central to their music has been their commitment toward pushing how they each work within the group context as well as how that plays out as a trio. Listen to the way that the detailed, skittering textures of their All Angels recording from 2000 opens up to the slowly unfolding, spare dark resonances of the pieces on Unwanted Object from 2004. Jump to 2007’s And We Disappear on Another Timbre, and the frictive textures and micro-gradations of crackles, abrasions and cutting interactions of overtones and harmonics belie the fact that, at this point, they were still an all-acoustic group. Move ahead to Trembling Shade, recorded in 2015, and the instrumentation of double bass, harp, and percussion fuses timbral elements and a more measured sense of time from And We Disappear while harkening back to the more active playing of their formative years. But these are all just snapshots and one is aware that any given performance brought forth differing formulations of their vocabulary.

The 56 minute performance captured on Twenty took place on March 2, 2020, just a few weeks before the world went in to pandemic lockdown. The extended length of the piece allow Wastell’s array of tam tams, gongs, chimes, singing bowls and electronics; Davies’ tabletop electric harp and EBows; and Beins’ meticulous amplification of objects on drum heads to accrue with a contemplative resolve. While each of the musicians have previously integrated electronics into their sonic palette, in the context of this performance, the utilization and control of amplification allows for an expansive extension of the elemental sonic properties of their respective instruments. This is all about resonances, attack and decay, detailed gestures transformed to sound. The looped patterns of a rubbed drum head, bowed metal, or activated harp strings settle against each other in mercurial layers. Open pulses build and release against shivering metallic overtones; dynamics well as harp tones sit on the edge of feedback against waves of shuddering partials of the tam tam, and the patter, sputters, and pops of abraded percussion. But often it’s impossible to pinpoint the source of subtle gradations of hiss, crackle, sizzles and rasped reverberations woven through the collective.

Ultimately though, the piece is all about pacing. Over the course of the improvisation, one becomes aware of the decisions being made as to where they let things sit and when to sagaciously transition through the use of dynamics, densities and textural detail. The placement of a cymbal crash; a chaffed, repeated pattern; the quiet shimmer of chimes; hushed, repeated tolling gongs; or the coursing shudder of feedback and bowed cymbals refocus the direction of the piece. Listen to how they bring the piece to a close, introducing circling gestures into clangorous density which subsides into a final section of gossamer, granular tremors, crinkles, jangles and scrapes that end with pinpoint deliberation. This is what twenty years of playing together allows. It is rare that a trio like this perseveres across two decades and rarer yet that they’re able to document their playing on a somewhat regular basis. I’m very much looking forward to following the next chapter of the group as well as what Confront will be releasing as they head in to the 25th year of the label.
–Michael Rosenstein


Aki Takase + Christian Weber + Michael Griener
Intakt CD 356

Pianist Aki Takase has been on a real roll with her recordings for Intakt in recent years. With a hand in several different zones of improvised music and a love of the canonical and the experimental alike (and really, where is the line?), she’s always had a distinctive and unpredictable approach to her music. Here, in the company of a criminally under-heralded rhythm section, Takase lays out a program of fourteen brief, focused tracks of real range.

After subsequent listens I really appreciated the restraint shown in these performances. It’s precisely there that the players’ sheer inventiveness is allowed to shine through. Given the vast textural range that Weber and Griener are known for, it’s fitting that so many of these pieces are abstract and spacious, from the open-ended chamber study of “Last Winter” – low rubbery notes from the bass as Takase patiently delineates the most curious and unexpected intervals – to the spidery, crawling lines on “Underfelt.” These days of reflection and pause certainly have made these pieces land with me pretty heavily. But that’s very much not all there is to this terrific record.

While Griener often uses brushes for hushed counterpoint, he’s a wizard of contrast in the more heated pieces too. On the thunderous and racing “Drops of Light,” for example, he prefers single shapes and accents, kind of like Paul Lovens, rather than waves of sound. He’s nifty with time, as on the swing bagatelle “Are Eyes Open” and “And if not why not,” using the full range of his kit in ways that are always generous and attentive.

Weber is equally rangy, making wondrous decisions that bring so many of the musical elements together. On the lyrical “No Tears,” for example, while Takase plays rapturously, Weber holds a single expressive note, capped off by the gentlest punctuation from a triangle. Takase’s often in a reflective mood on Auge, in fact, sounding really compelling on the spacious “Out of Sight” and “When in Rome.” And her harmonic and chordal range are most fully present on “Who’s Going to Bell the Cat,” complemented by surprising percussive effects from the other two.

Lest I give the impression that things are uniformly subdued, several tracks bring the exuberance (while managing to avoid clichés). On “The Pillow Book,” Takase works the low end while Weber races along, very nearly walking into a smooth unison that leads to the most mischievously halting groove, Griener seeming to fall in front of himself without ever losing direction. Similar energies move through “Face of the Bass” and “Motion in the Ocean” before the jabbing, slashing “The End Justifies the Means” brings this vibrant and varied album to a satisfying close.
–Jason Bivins


Cecil Taylor Quintet
Lifting the Bandstand
Fundacja Słuchaj FSR 01/2021

Beginning with his studies at the New England Conservatory, Cecil Taylor had a relationship that few jazz musicians would develop with 20th century European “art music,” soon drawing inspiration from Bartok and Messiaen, among others, as well as the African American traditions, synthesizing them all into a music of extraordinary energy and complexity. While his singular recording breakthrough may have come with the extensive live 1962 recordings at Copenhagen’s Café Montmartre with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, first mapping the dimension and power of his densely kinetic piano approach and group language at length and with total freedom, his own direct involvement with the developing world of European free improvisation, a school he undoubtedly influenced, did not begin in earnest until much later, in 1988, when he spent time in Berlin playing with both a large orchestra and numerous subgroups, engaging with key figures from across Europe.

In 1990 he developed a friendship with the Finnish soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström who hoped to put together a band with Taylor and European musicians on a regular basis. By 1997, the quintet heard here appeared, with Taylor, Sjöström, American expatriate/Netherlands resident cellist Tristan Honsinger, Finnish bassist Teppo Hauta-Aho and the German drummer Paul Lovens, who had initially impressed Taylor during his 1989 visit to Germany. The music on Lifting the Bandstand comes from an October 1998 concert at the Tampere Jazz Happening, recorded by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. The first recording by the quintet to appear, it’s a 75-minute performance divided into two parts, 28 and 47 minutes in length.

It begins quietly with one of Taylor’s spoken invocations with spare percussion‒poem, song, chant, spell – but other voices join in and the dynamic is suddenly a different compound in Taylor’s world. Lovens is a different presence than Taylor’s diverse American drumming partners: his drums sound essentially loose and thick with a bright metal tumult above, the combination mysteriously emphasizing a special relationship. Taylor and Lovens merge into a compound voice, a kind of unitary assemblage, while at the same time creating complex rhythms with a disruptive, fractured quality.

The combination of velocity and density of event is precisely what Taylor had first brought to improvised music in the early ‘60s, but it’s accelerated in the later European encounters precisely because of the approach of the musicians. As the long second track develops, these rates and sums of exchange will take on dizzying dimensions, Taylor’s dervish-to-whirligig piano dance multiplying throughout the band. Along the way, there are passages of special symmetry: there’s an episode of Honsinger bowing and Hauta-Aho playing pizzicato when the two seem to merge into a single bass-baritone string instrument. There are stunning passages with Sjöström peppering notes into Taylor’s cascading runs, punctuating them and pointing out how appropriate the soprano is to Taylor’s music and why Jimmy Lyons had always worked his alto’s upper register so effectively.

There are also times when the density thins to high-speed whispers, but while Taylor is active there remains that sense of the atom smasher, the point at which music becomes physics, all the tones multiplying and extending out towards infinity. A Honsinger interlude with light percussion accompaniment and his own strange spoken and sung verbal interjections is a wondrous extended late episode (at the end, others join in and there seems to be a discourse on “shame,” but the voice miking and recording leave something to be desired). It’s all capped off by Sjöström’s remarkably string-like soprano, as if Honsinger and Hauta-Aho have now been joined by a violin.

According to Ettore Garzia’s liner essay, Steve Lacy went backstage at the end of the concert and remarked. “You guys really lifted the bandstand.” It’s a phrase with a history, from one of Thelonious Monk’s pieces of advice for musicians, compiled in a list by Lacy, to the title of a documentary about Lacy, but the phrase could never be more aptly applied than to the divergent energies unleashed by this band.
–Stuart Broomer


Cecil Taylor + Tony Oxley
“......being astral and all registers - power of two......”
Discus 106CD

Accompanying the reissue of Oxley’s February Papers on Discus comes a more recent item from Oxley’s personal archives, a previously unissued duo performance with Cecil Taylor from 2002. It’s for his collaborations with Taylor that Oxley is perhaps still best known internationally, though the pairing was hardly the most obvious in advance. Their initial meeting found Oxley one of a number of Europe-based drummers in the mammoth FMP Festival of 1988 (the others were Günter “Baby” Sommer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Han Bennink, and Paul Lovens). Of these, it was Oxley who became Taylor’s go-to partner for European tours and in his long-running Feel Trio with William Parker. The contrast between Oxley’s intensely reactive style, at once clattery and melodic, and Taylor’s thickly flowering streams of notes mined a whole new stream. While other drummers may have stuck in broader terms to the drum kit as conventionally constituted – even if their approaches were hardly conventional – both Oxley and the late Milford Graves sought to radically transform the kit itself. If Graves tended to emphasize a low end, removing the buzzy brightness of snares and extra drumheads, keeping every surface active in thousand-armed motion, Oxley preferred a different approach, emblematized in the bongos, played with sticks, one of his kit’s most distinctive sonic features. His setup suggests a host of living ghosts: agricultural cowbells, temple blocks, the plastic and metal of industrial worlds, China, Africa, America via Sheffield. Broadly speaking, Taylor’s playing evinces continuity and flow, Oxley’s the micro-event approach of European Free Improvisation, creating a shifting, twittering, ticklish undercurrent that highlighted edges, hard, rattling, curlicues, elegant yet quietly tumultuous, loose yet precise. Yet geographical delineations erase what free musics always had in common, and theirs was a true meeting of minds. With Taylor, Oxley became increasingly responsive and melodic, often repeating the pianist’s melodic gestures a split second after they were played, anticipating and underscoring, contrasting and amplifying the fast-moving details of Taylor’s playing, his figuration and refiguration of melodic material across the octaves (“all registers”). Throughout, the two practiced what Adam Baruch in the liner notes to the present album calls an “exchange of roles, i.e. drumming on the piano and playing on the drums.”

Taylor’s and Oxley’s collaborations are well-documented, whether in bootlegs or official releases: from the giant Feel Trio boxset Two Ts for a Lovely T to the duo’s first meeting, Leaf Palm Hand, the limited edition Alianthus / Altissima, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 2008, and following Taylor’s death, Conversations with Tony Oxley, recorded at Philharmonie, Berlin in 2008 and Birdland, Neuberg, recorded in 2011. Recorded in May 2002 at the Ulrichsberg Festival in Austria nine days before Taylor’s and Oxley’s live record at FIMAV with Bill Dixon, Being Astral dates from a slightly earlier phase of the duo’s music. It’s impeccably recorded, background noise eliminated and every detail of Taylor’s whole-keyboard and Oxley’s whole-kit work rendered with exemplary clarity; and the music buzzes as expected. There are two sets here, the first of just over and the second just under half an hour. The album’s title borrows from a poem printed in the liner notes Taylor’s and Mary Lou Williams’ Embraced, “being astral and all registers / between,” a phrase delineating Taylor’s conception of the piano keyboard as divided into realms roughly correspondent with the symbolic-spiritual dimensions of Haitian voodoo, from the abyssal (the lower register) to the astral (its upper dimension). Things exist in multiple, simultaneous dimensions: doubleness, musical ex-stasis, the realisation of history in the present workings of body and instrument, the creation of a collective whole.

The disc begins with Taylor making use of the extreme low end of the piano. Nothing he played could ever be called “hesitant,” but there’s ruminative drafting here, single notes coalescing into familiar figures, miniature etudes, a first foray into the ‘astral’ register in splashy chords sounding like a clarion call, a ray of light, almost instantly echoed by Oxley’s cymbal scrape. This initial concentration on single note figures, lines, functions something like a pencil sketch before the full-scale canvas, Taylor exploding into the familiar registral transpositions, antiphonal calls and responses, clusters and lightning runs that Oxley shadows every step of the way. Pebbles on water, rainfall on steel, scattering of seed, gravel and earth. With Taylor in full flight, Oxley occasionally lets forth a high-pitched sound presumably deployed through scraping a cymbal, but, in the maelstrom, sounding like the distant whoop from an audience drawn along for the ride. Taylor immediately takes thing down a notch, one of his evergreen melodic figures that he juggled throughout his small-group improvisations like talismans, building up again, Oxley a wily tap dancer, Taylor’s hands lightning, his fingers filigreeing a forest of invention. By this point, we’re along for the ride, lifted up into the maelstrom and set back down in the ruminative chordal figures – Taylor’s chastened balladry – that come to the fore in the second piece: a fragile stability, Oxley’s metallic taps whirls and skitters of wind. Poet Fred Moten calls Oxley’s drum-work “the pulse track / from the ditch.” Rising from abyss to astral, at once basic – fundamental – and rivetingly dense with information, this music is luminous clarity and grace. Highly recommended.
–David Grundy


Maya Veerlaak
All English Music is Greensleeves
Another Timbre at164

When the Belgian composer Maya Veerlaak was about to decamp to Birmingham to study with Howard Skempton and Michael Wolters, Gilius Van Bergeijk – her teacher in The Hague – described the contemporary music scene in the UK with the quip that, slightly altered, became the title piece of this collection of ensemble works for seven to ten instruments, and solo pieces. Veerlaak’s music has none of the much-maligned lilt and uplift of the beloved English tune; at the same time, it is noteworthy that the intervention of computer-generated sounds, prompted by pitches played in real time by the players, has a lighter than expected touch.

This is particularly the case with the three ensemble pieces, which move at a near-glacial pace, and are dependent upon slow and steady shifts in pitch and timbre to hold the listener rapt long enough for Veerlaak’s fastidious, yet supple designs to be realized. Luckily, she partnered with Apartment House, whose pool of first-call musicians recombine recording after recording with quite brilliant results; here, they shuttle piece by piece, trumpet sitting in for clarinet, or flute for horn, with a melodica popping up on the title composition. Core players like violinist Mira Benjamin, cellist Anton Lukoszeveize, and pianist Philip Thomas are heard throughout, as well.

The two solo compositions are performed by their namesakes: AH-affiliated pianist Mark Knoop, and violinist Sarah Saviet, the latter making a strong contribution to Elaine Mitchener’s On Being Human as Praxis last fall as a member of MAM. These pieces from Veerlaak’s “Formation” series are unavoidably starker than her ensemble works, as there is a more plainly heard back and forth between soloist and computer. However, both Saviet and Knoop have a judo-like ability to use the momentum of each computer intervention to their own advantage. At no time do they seem hampered by the process.

Veerlaak has been vulnerable to criticism that her work is overly conceit-driven. That may be true with her other works, but is not the case here.
–Bill Shoemaker


The Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound
Clean Feed CF556CD

Soundpath represents the final chapter in an encounter between AACM founder, composer and bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams and the Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound, a cutting edge Philly big band led by alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel. In 2011 Zankel commissioned Abrams to write a work for the Warriors, which he subsequently rehearsed and conducted at the premiere in Montgomery County Community College in 2012. Following Abrams’ death in 2017, a further presentation of the piece took place at Ars Nova Workshop’s October Revolution music festival in Philadelphia in 2018. The next day the band went into the studio to capture the experience for posterity.

For this rendition Zankel convened a mixture of special guests, Warriors regulars, and alumni from Abrams’ New York bands. One of the last, reedman Mary Ehrlich conducts the 17 strong group, as well as playing himself. While the 90-minutes duration of the original concert incorporated generous solo space, the album clocks in a tad over 40-minutes, placing greater emphasis on Abrams’ chart. Everyone gets a chance to blow, but concision is the order of the day with not much more than a minute to make an impression.

Abrams’ confounded pigeonholers by roving freely across different traditions, but for the Warriors, he played to their strengths, choosing to focus on the modern jazz vernacular. Straight from the get-go, the leaping lines from the brass and reeds combine in a rich embrace which could come from any of Abrams’ large ensemble albums. He eschews grandstanding themes or melodies, instead creating development through his voicings for massed horns, including unaccompanied stretches for saxophones and brass which veer between the bandstand and the chamber. Any homage to big band pioneers such as Ellington, Basie or Henderson remains oblique.

Although tracked as a single continuous piece, the composition divides into nine sections, with soloists helpfully allocated to each on the sleeve. Abrams plots unexpected left turns between sections which then open up for one or more soloist and rhythm team. As a result, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Chad Taylor become MVPs as they cohesively navigate a variety of feels, often swinging, occasionally funky, while at the same time offering commentary and encouragement to the soloists.

Notable among the solos, which are of high order and help propel the piece forward, are Zankel’s own spot at the top of the program, which draws on the preceding structure via fast flurries with hoarse cries as explanation points, trombonist Steve Swell’s blusters and swerves, and cornetist Graham Haynes’ bright expressive figures. On tenor saxophone Hafez Modirzadeh pushes furthest out, as his circular breathed buzzsaw distortions squeal over Jose Davila’s bass trombone snuffles, during a sequence of overlapping features also shared with trumpeter Josh Evans.

Two further highlights arrive in the darting percussive duet between pianist Tom Lawton and Taylor’s drums, and the mercurial exchange between Ehrlich’s tender but unsentimental alto and Formanek’s nimble pizzicato, which ends with the saxophonist falling away through the registers like an extended sigh. Taylor enjoys a further turn in the spotlight to take the piece out, variously punctuated by orchestral blasts, churning reeds and brass polyphony, to cap a bravura ensemble performance.
–John Sharpe


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