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Reviews of Recent Media
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Michael Formanek
Imperfect Measures
Intakt CD 359

For over a thousand years the Persian-Turkish-etc. weavers of rugs and kilims have deliberately included imperfections into their beautiful, elaborate designs, on the principle that only God is perfect. In the notes to Imperfect Measures, Michael Formanek says he doesn’t want to invent perfect bass solos. No worries, Michael. This is an album of solo improvisations by a free developer of the Mingus bass-soloing tradition, with its expressiveness, its rhythmic mobility and linear color, and of course its imperfections.

In fact, the album opens with a display of Mingus-like virtuosity, “Quick Draw.” Formanek is a real master who likes to begin solos with direct statements that he thoughtfully varies.   But contradictions enter his discourses, not as interventions but as new views that evolve naturally. Arguments ensue; little phrases are repeatedly asserted. The opening tracks are in fast tempos, including double stops like a fast Amtrak train in “Full Frontal.” Midway through the CD is the gloomy “Airborne,” in a very slow rubato, mostly bowed, with very low growling sounds. The two other bowed solos bring their own gloom, with a bit of Chopin’s funeral march in “A Maze.” Different, brief passages in shuffle rhythms pop up in “Notice Moments” as a unifying element in an especially juicy solo that goes from very, very slow rubato to quite conflicted.

I think the dramatic current in Formanek’s solos make this CD rewarding. But readers should remember that jazz critics ain’t perfect either.
–John Litweiler

 

Tomas Fujiwara
7 Poets Trio
Rogue Art ROG-0095

7 Poets Trio is an enthralling new collaboration between drummer Tomas Fujiwara, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, and cellist Tomeka Reid. All the compositions, except for one, were written by Fujiwara exclusively for Brennan and Reid, and it shows – the connection they share borders on the clairvoyant.

The album consists of six compositions divided into four tracks. “Blend / KP” starts the program off with a mesmerizing combination of bowed vibraphone and cello that Fujiwara underscores with sensitive brush work. Brennan’s bowing produces a dreamy bell-like tone that contrasts with the sinewy tonality of Reid’s cello. The vibraphonist switches to mallets when Fujiwara’s drumming becomes more forceful. Swapping brushes for sticks as the piece segues into “KP,” his playing increases in intensity during a captivating duet with Brennan before she introduces a new motif. Reid takes over, driving the band with heavily strummed chords while Fujiwara acts as rhythmic anchor, leaving space for Brennan. Reid follows with a plucky solo that alludes to the next medley, “A Realm Distorted / Questions.”

Fujiwara provides a vibrant stop/start rhythm to the angular swing of “A Realm Distorted / Questions” as Reid and Brennan shadow one another; the kaleidoscopic sound generated by Brennan’s scintillating runs and Reid’s abrasive arco is spellbinding. Later, Reid switches to pizzicato and the two engage in an abstract duet before descending into near silence, the atmosphere changing dramatically at the beginning of “Questions.” Fujiwara returns to brushes, elegantly supporting Brennan, who establishes a charming melody. Brennan and Reid deliver lyrical solos, before the cellist closes the piece with a soaring unaccompanied cadenza.

The trio continues to dazzle on the last two songs, “Cruisin’ With Spencer” and “Gentle Soul.” Fujiwara begins the former with a keen solo statement before settling into a steady groove – his deceptively simple beat joined by Reid’s harmonious walking patterns and Brennan’s shimmering tones. “Gentle Soul” ends the set in surprisingly frenetic fashion considering its title, beginning as a more pointillist affair. After a plaintive cello refrain modulates from abstraction to melodicism, the track settles into a funky vamp that underpins Brennan’s standout performance, culminating in distorted, pitch-shifting variations powered by effects pedals before a brief acoustic coda closes the session.

Fujiwara has crafted a uniquely orchestrated sound for this intimate project. His restrained drumming and generous writing showcase a diverse array of contributions from Brennan and Reid; ample space is allotted to each member for compelling excursions that reveal a depth of feeling and communal understanding, making 7 Poets Trio one of Fujiwara’s finest efforts to date.
–Troy Collins

 

Ben Goldberg
Everything Happens To Be
BAG Productions (Bandcamp)

It’s tempting to cut right to the last track of Ben Goldberg’s cracking new album and wonder about its relationship with a certain other, ahem, well known jazz performer. But the brief run through “Abide With Me” is simply the cap on a sequence of tunes that brim with feeling but resist being emotionally obvious. And emotional is definitely what I get from this set. Steeped in musical genres ranging from skronk to classical, from klezmer to jazz, Goldberg’s lyricism has long anchored his playing. Teamed here with tenor saxophone marvel Ellery Eskelin and all members of Thumbscrew (guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara), this is a powerfully accomplished group that knows its way around music of this complexity.

From the opening “What About” – with its keening opening, all the way to its arch, somewhat wry finish – this is group music that’s about line, form, and melody rather than showiness. And Goldberg’s writing and arranging give them all manner of opportunity to explore ambiguity, nuance, and all kinds of shading. If there’s a constant here, it’s that nothing sticks around for long. For example, “21” opens with a kind of angular horn line set against a lovely squall, but each horn break seems to catalyze an entirely different musical section or challenge, from tasty swing to dense pileups.

Whatever change might be around the corner, though, it’s never far from lovely, unexpected harmony and sweet, subtle themes. The gentle “Fred Hampton” has hints of resolve, melancholy, and a kind of wistfulness that all together make for mystery. Constant details are dealt out, with Halvorson brimming with ideas as usual, her long runs so arresting as they span the cosmic eddies she sets up elsewhere. It’s almost like the melodies are sad not to be played longer than they are, and then express that sadness. The title track, for example, has both the melancholy and brightness of an autumn sunset. And “Cold Weather” is gorgeously enigmatic, the shapes of the writing paralleling those of Goldberg’s improvising, moving in the space of a phrase from yearning to skip-down-the-street buoyancy. The sheer delight of listening to Goldberg and Eskelin play together is hard to ignore but I’d be remiss not to mention Formanek’s powerful playing on “Chorale Type,” or the lively showcase “Tomas Plays the Drums,” where Fujiwara is spring-loaded by a low, menacing riff anchored by a contrabass clarinet (after which Halvorson and Eskelin ride into the furthest reaches). And when you finally arrive at the lively dance “To-Ron-To,” which ends in a passage of pure joy, you oughtta be convinced along with me that this is a band we need to hear more from.
–Jason Bivins

 

Georg Graewe + Sonic Fiction Orchestra
Fortschritt und Vergnügen
Random Acoustics 034

Frisque Concordance
Distinct Machinery
Random Acoustics 031/32



It’s always a treat to have new music from the marvelous pianist and composer Georg Graewe, and this spring he’s released a pair from two of his long-standing ensembles.

This iteration of the Sonic Fiction Orchestra, which handles some of Graewe’s most complex and ambitious writing, finds the composer on harpsichord, organ, and maracas in addition to piano. He’s joined by clarinetist Frank Gratkowski, bassoonist Maria Gstättner, guitarist Martin Siewert, harpist Sara Kowal, bassist Peter Herbert, percussionists Els Vandeweyer and Wolfgang Reisinger, and the string trio of violinist Joanna Lewis, violist Laura Strobl, and cellist Asja Valcic. Graewe’s taken full advantage of this wide range of sound on this lengthy program.

“Semaphore Nr. 8” opens with furious, frenetic showers of prepared piano notes and you strap in for the ride. But if there’s a theme to these pieces, it’s that you really don’t know what’s coming. For Graewe follows this tantalizing intro immediately with a jarring blast of static, then a brief slice of operatic voice, before resuming the cycle. Pay attention, though, to Herbert and Reisinger, who deal out a tasty bit of exotica swaying or some robust swinging. It’s almost as if this was a musique concrete piece made from other Sonic Fiction recordings! He’s got such a great ear for arranging details (pairing Gratkowski’s clarinet with the bassoon is a no-brainer in the swinging sections), and I can’t ever remember hearing Siewert play so wonderfully noisy, particularly effective when set against the elegant strings.

In case you’re wondering, though, they absolutely hang together as compositions; there’s not merely a sequence of ideas jammed together. For example, from the hushed scalar beginnings of “LichtTanz” emerges a perfectly placed piano trio section, with Graewe’s lyricism complemented by Reisinger’s alternation between cymbals and low tom. Of all things, an unexpected laugh interrupts the piece, which swerves from there to billowing dark clouds, a long section of varying density and attack, and then an absolutely filthy groove for organ and guitar distortion on the back end. After the somewhat arcane “Divertissment,” “Semaphore Nr. 17” is yet more chance to hear Siewert uncork some guitar madness. The piece occasionally flirts with the kind of abstracted groove one hears in some of the guitarist’s other combos, but the ensemble as a whole makes it a lengthy study in polyphony and contrast. The balance of the disc is taken up by the epic, 35-minute “Redshift E (sections 1-17).” Opening with a ruminative, probing Graewe solo, it’s another one whose score I’d love to inspect, as it cycles through multiple sections arranged by instrumental sub-grouping and, apparently, dynamic. Whether grouped together minimally (a lovely bassoon, bass, and acoustic guitar trio) or tutti (held horn tones amidst clouds of texture), the music is compelling, with loads of textures fading in and out of notated material. It all makes for a full immersion into contrast and provocation, much like this record overall.

Since the early 1990s, Graewe has been exploring various permutations of quartet music, one key vehicle for which is the long-running Frisque Concordance. Tenor saxophonist John Butcher has been on board since the beginning, and they’re joined here by a pair of long-time collaborators, bassist Wilbert de Joode and percussionist Mark Sanders. Distinct Machinery contributes healthy to this combo’s discography, with two discs chock full of top notch music. The first is a 10-track studio effort from 2017. These are musicians of great sensitivity, and that’s definitely audible at the outset of “Inklings,” with its delicate tracings, overtones, and soft notes that work steady to coax an intense heat-bloom. Likewise, the spacious “Torsion” clicks and hisses along, subtle gestures building in impact. And yet the robust “Hot and Cold” is very much the former for much of its duration, with Sanders and de Joode so crisp and forceful at the same time. One particular treat is hearing Butcher play in a robustly linear fashion on tunes like this. That feel continues through “Metes and Bounds” and into the expansive “Drunken Thread,” whose opening tense minutes hint at the energetic cross-cutting intervals and volleys to come. The music moves through dense, dark tone poems that are filled with small details (“Fissures” and “Flank Angles”), flinty deconstructions like “Flow Field,” and full flow exuberance on pieces like “Entanglements.” That latter tune is a for-sure highlight, with a glorious piano solo at its heart, the ensemble spitting out coil after coil of sound.

The second disc is from a 2018 live date at Nickelsdorf. “Desmodromics I” has something of the drive and urgency of “Hot and Cold” or “Entanglements” in places but never lingers overlong. There’s simply too much going on, and too much information that the musicians want to get out. And with the simpatico these guys have, things happen with at times astonishing subtlety and intuitiveness. There are multiple lengthy sections where they breathe as one, taking moisture from the air and turning it into notes. Sanders is a player of such subtlety, and his ears are simply huge. When playing on his own (at the opening of “II,” for example) he achieves such impact with small splashes and taps. This section of “Desmodromics” is truly powerful once the group enters. De Joode’s solo practically has its own gravitational field, and there’s some truly interstellar soprano and piano as well. The third section practically explodes in great whorls of color and sound, with loads of chromaticism leading up to an absolutely riveting piano/drums duo. The piece ends with a head-spinning gliss-fest before the soft susurrus of the concluding section. Bracing stuff from this group, and both of these releases are warmly recommended.
–Jason Bivins

 

Grünen
disenjambment
Trokaan Press 005

Achim Kaufmann + Ignaz Schick
Altered Alchemy
Zarek 18/19

Trokaan Project
13 Asperities
Trokaan Press 006





Achim Kaufmann has spent the past two decades staking a claim on the post-Bley pianoscape. Like his contemporaries, Kaufmann employs a finely calibrated touch, precise pedaling, and avoidance of the superfluous, qualities that not only serve him well on his several solo recordings, but also on compositionally driven albums with Michael Moore, Frank Gratkowski, and others. Now residing in Berlin, Kaufmann has expanded the scope of his projects, collaborating with exponents of Echtzeitmusik, and convening strikingly configured, mid-sized ensembles. This trio of recordings – two of which are issued on his recently launched imprint – present Kaufmann as both an avid participant in ongoing concerns and an instigator of new situations.

disenjambment is the third album in a dozen years by Grünen (which translates as “the greening”), a trio with bassist Robert Landfermann, and drummer Christian Lillinger. Elements of Bley’s trio music are in evidence: hovering chords; short prodding motives; glints of bluesiness; and the sudden emergence of robust thematic materials. However, they are offset by distinctive gambits like Lillinger revving into a clattering overdrive while the others remain languid, creating engaging tensions. Landfermann’s ability to bob and weave between Kaufmann and Lillinger creates rich, if sometimes quickly dissolving, exchanges that redirects the flow of the music. Grünen’s refinement in deploying these tactics are essential to how they bypass the generic.

Trokaan Project brings together longtime collaborators – Gratkowski, Wilbert de Joode, and Gerry Hemingway – improvisers connected to the Berlin experimental music scene – trumpeter Liz Albee, electronicist Richard Barrett (now based in Belgrade), and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi – and poet Gabriele DR Guenther. It doesn’t take long into the first disc to realize that foregrounding each of these resourceful improvisers, individually and in various subsets of the ensemble, required two discs. They make excellent use of the space, especially to integrate Guenther’s intriguing readings. Unfortunately, the text of only one of her ten poems was printed on the cover, which does have the benefit of prompting closer listening – and there is much to hear.

Kaufmann’s duets with Ignaz Schick – who uses turntables, samples, and live electronics to jarring, even concussive ends – are full frontal Echtzeitmusik. Schick frequently exalts in sonic density on Altered Alchemy, but he also adheres to traditional improvised duet virtues by creating spaces for Kaufmann, dovetailing and countering what the pianist generates, and constantly tweaking his output to sustain engagement with Kaufmann, and with the listener. Still, two discs makes for a tough long haul, one not recommended for the faint of ears.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

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