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Reviews of Recent Media

Benoît Delbecq
The Weight of Light
Pyroclastic 13

Benoît Delbecq 4
Gentle Ghosts
Jazzdor 0001/9

For many years, Benoît Delbecq has been carefully crafting a singular voice on the piano, comprised of distinctive phrasing and elegant preparations for his instrument. These two superb recent discs reveal just how integral his composing is, for solo piano and small group.

While some specialists in prepared piano can descend into a language that is almost clinical, Delbecq has always been an expressive, lyrical player. The marvelous The Weight of Light is compelling testimony to that. Delbecq works from graphic scores, conceptualizing them as objects and then navigating them differently with each performance. But you don’t have to know squat about that in order to enjoy the quizzical, but still warmly expressive sounds here. The range of his preparations is wide and varied, and Delbecq’s command of all the possibilities make tracks like the opening “The Loop of Chicago” positively spell-binding. Moving up and down the keys, shifting between single notes and chords, the sound accumulates and it sounds as if some machine from an enchanted workshop has come to life.

Each piece morphs into multiple shapes and the sequence as a whole is unpredictable. “Dripping Stones” gives you the clearest sense of Delbecq’s patient lyricism, while “Pair et Empair” and “Family Trees” have what sounds like a Harry Partch/marimba concept. It’s hard to know whether to focus on the unexpected melodies, the contrasting percussion sounds, or the understated spaciousness that somehow characterizes music this alive and active. Just listen to tunes like “Au Fil de la Parole,” and it’s hard not to compare the syntax Delbecq has developed with the weird mutations Hans Reichel ultimately arrived at via daxophone. Given how many different sounds surface in “Anamorphoses” or “Chemin Sur Le Crest,” they come across as small ensemble pieces, whether rhythmically propulsive or spacious. It’s impressive as hell, a simply marvelous disc.

It’s fascinating to hear Delbecq do his thing in a quartet, where he’s joined by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Their musical associations, in trio and quartet formats, go back nearly two decades. And as Turner and Delbecq open the record with a turn on “Anamorphoses,” that simpatico is loud and clear as they pull the head back and forth, gaps and inversions and all manner of variations emerging. In this format, Delbecq carries forward many of the features of his playing heard on the solo disc – his deft shifts in register, for example – but here, in response to his mates, he engages in what to my ears are some Paul Bley-like tendencies. He moves from close harmony to an unexpected aside or pause or even something close to blues. What’s more, Delbecq uses a midi pedal for some (very subtle) real-time recording that invokes and perhaps explains the record’s title.

This record’s take on “Chemin sur le Crest” really emphasizes the quartet interplay, its groovy polyrhythms winding up the summit, a seductive slow theme against nimble double-time. There’s some dense, knotty comping while Turner dials up line after elegant line. Indeed, the saxophonist’s patience and vision as a soloist never fails to impress. His technique is vast, but he always plays with economy and in the service of the song. If you want more rhythmic feasts, proceed to “Strange Loop,” with its nimble 5/4 groove, which is more implied than explicit because of how much subtlety and color Cleaver deals out. Delbecq is probing, pushing against the structure, while Turner creates unexpected shapes on top of it and behind it, and sometimes right smack dab in the middle.

Just as compelling, though, is the group’s balladry. Delbecq gives the title track a moody solo opening, and the dark inflections set the tone for this emotionally and lyrically expressive tune. It’s tempting to read much into the title and the reflective sound here, with Cleaver on brushes and Turner sounding silky, even through his occasional harmonic tilt. But however you interpret it, this is gorgeous stuff. The vibe is similar on “Stereo Fields,” and I could listen to Hébert and Cleaver for hours on end. Somehow it all comes together on the last two tracks, “Le meme jour” and “Havn,” which bounce along with so much information but still come across as filled with space. So many different elements of jazz tradition are present here but all so thoroughly absorbed and organic, with multiple meters, constantly changing harmony, and yes, the ghostly effect that Delbecq applies so tastefully throughout.
–Jason Bivins


Jimmy Giuffre
Free Fall Clarinet 1962 Revisited
ezz-thetics 1119

By the time Free Fall was issued in 1963, the trio of reedist Giuffre, pianist Paul Bley, and bassist Steve Swallow had made huge musical advances. Documented not only on previous studio albums Fusion and Thesis but on live dates from the period that have snuck out over the years. So much of the advanced music of the time was pushing at the boundaries, whether in the emotional surge of Coltrane or Mingus, the technical advances of Cecil Taylor, or the structural innovations of Ornette Coleman. This trio had a different agenda, drawing liberally from new music and the musicians’ experience with music as wide-ranging as “third stream,” vernacular tunes, and free jazz. The results remain astonishing, almost 60 years later.

It had actually been some time since I’d revisited Free Fall, whose 1998 Columbia reissue has long been out of print. This remastered edition, part of ezz-thetics loving restoration and reissue program, has a slightly different track order from the earlier release (and none of its unreleased pieces). It is an extremely dynamic remaster, and to my ears Bley’s piano is more present and Swallow’s bass comes through more organically. It suits the music marvelously. And oh, what music.

In some ways it all sounds quite far from the pastoralism of “The Train and the River,” for example, but there’s lyricism for days nonetheless. The quizzical shapes and absolute technical assurance of Giuffre’s clarinet on the opening “Motion Suspended” is as arresting as any clarinet music you’ll hear, with that powerful command of the lower register and his glorious ascents and cries. It is music that lives in the space the trio allow to bloom and the close listening that still distinguishes these performances. Tracks like “Threewe” are so hushed and probing, yet with so much advanced harmony. Bley and Giuffre in particular are basically completing each other’s phrases. They romp through the bouncy, polytonal “Spasmodic.” The rich duo “Dichotomy” has Giuffre holding long tones exquisitely over Swallow’s lithe lines. And on the folksy “Divided Man,” it’s great to hear how the trio processes thematic material in a context of such radical improvisational freedom.

The Giuffre solo tracks, however, are extremely powerful. Each contains a remarkable amount of information and innovation in just 2-3 minutes. For fans of clarinet mastery, it’s clear that Giuffre is the wellspring for a generation of technically advanced improvisations, taking in the overtones, burrs, subtle shifts in tone, register, and dynamics. Tracks like “Percussion” must have sounded outrageously alien at the time. “Ornothoids” and “Man Alone” are understated, sounding like a sleepy bird talking to itself. On “Primordial Call,” Giuffre wrenches as much color and distortion from the notes as he can, pulling them all the way inside the instrument and out. And “Yggdrasill” is a tour de force of dynamism and technique, its long pauses and crying tones the heart of the album to me.

Fittingly, though, the closing trio piece is the longest and most exploratory. “The Five Ways” opens with some near-swing before Bley thunders in the low end. Expect the unexpected, as Swallow thrums away with a juicy little riff in his beloved upper register. They cycle through so many ideas, loosely built atop rhythm, and then a sudden thwack against the piano sets up the gloriously circuitous theme that ends the piece. That thwack always reminds me that this trio was recording this masterpiece right around the time that John Cage was staging his notorious Cage Shock concerts in Japan, which revolved quite showily around such thwacking. This trio just got there via its own quiet revolution and not much later broke up after a gig where they each earned thirty-five cents. Quite simply one of the greatest jazz records ever made.
–Jason Bivins


Frode Gjerstad + Isach Skeidsvoll
Twenty Fingers
Relative Pitch RPR1114

Twenty fingers representing 98 years of combined experience, 73 of them belonging to pioneering Norwegian reedman Frode Gjerstad. The remaining quarter of a century can be attributed to his countryman, pianist Isach Skeidsvoll. While Gjerstad almost single handedly put free jazz on the map in Norway, Skeidsvoll has been able to reap the benefits of that legacy. Currently studying jazz at the Grieg Acadamy in Bergen, his two main projects are the bands Bear Brother and General Post Office, both of which furnish evidence of his love of not only the 1960s New Thing but also the blues, and most pertinent to his appearance here, his desire to conflate them.

Having been impressed by the pianist’s power when he saw him perform, Gjerstad invited Skeidsvoll to his hometown of Stavanger to record. They present the fruits of that December 2020 encounter on a program of seven spontaneous duets notable for their juxtaposition of abstraction and directness. Gjerstad’s uncompromising approach resolutely avoids rhythm and melody in favor of writhing squall and garrulous mutter delivered via the medium of sinewy alto or Bb clarinet (the horn on which he most often nears, but never reaches, ballad sonorities but can at the flip of a switch produce the most sibilant altissimo). Skeidsvoll on the other hand shows no allegiance to any particular style, roving liberally through cycles of reiterated motifs which can touch on freeform energy, boogie woogie, minimalism, or almost anything else, like a series of deranged piano etudes. It’s a testament to his control and imagination that he manages to sew such disparate elements into a cohesive line.

Neither man makes other than the merest attempts to echo the other in terms of phrasing, but they betray a hair trigger responsiveness to changes in dynamics and pace. The overall vibe sees Skeidsvoll as provocateur pitching curveballs at Gjerstad, who adopts a sideways attitude to meeting the challenges, calling variously on sinuous spiraling, exclamatory squawks, or delicate split tones. It’s the resultant contrasts between them which stimulates the goosebumps. Especially astonishing is how well the kaleidoscopic “Fourth Hand, Second Finger,” drawn from their very first time playing in tandem, hangs together. Although the tension generated rarely suggests imminent resolution, by the final “Third Hand, Fourth Finger” it’s almost possible to intuit a correspondence between Gjerstad’s shrieks, cries, and wails and Skeidsvoll’s keyboard spanning activity. In the liners, Gjerstad expresses his hope that this is a partnership which can be sustained into the future, a wish that most listeners would second.
–John Sharpe


Japanese Flower
Umlaut Records UMLP06

Ism is a trio consisting of British pianist Pat Thomas, Swedish bassist Joel Grip and French drummer Antonin Gerbal, and they’ve already appeared on one of 2021’s most significant releases, Nights On Saturn (communication), the third release by [Ahmed], a quartet in which they’re joined by alto saxophonist Seymour Wright to take parts of Ahmed-Abdul Malik’s works and develop extended collective improvisations. Similarly, Ism is profoundly rooted in an intense and exploratory wing of the jazz tradition. It’s also a group with its own longer history, releasing their first CD, Nature in its inscrutability strikes back, in 2015, and their second, Metaphor, in 2019. Japanese Flower, from the same 2018 Tokyo studio session that produced Metaphor, is released on LP, each side a 20-minute collective improvisation.

The music’s absolute liberty is declared in the opening seconds of “Delilah,” Thomas delivering a slow series of descending dissonant chords followed by a rapid concentration of overlapping ascending notes. As Grip and Gerbal make their presence felt, the music emerges as rhythmic, polyrhythmic, also polymetric, rubato and vigorously swinging. The piano language can suggest Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and Duke Ellington, along with other source materials from inside and well outside jazz tradition (near-Monkish delivery of aleatoric materials for instance), and it’s delivered with a virtuosic creativity, range, and joyous élan that might be most closely matched in current circles by Craig Taborn.

There’s substantial creative input from Grip and Gerbal, who possess talents similar to those of Thomas. Grip and Gerbal are a rhythms section. There are periods when the three play in time, Grip maintaining a rapid, almost unaccented “walk” (perhaps more of a “gallop”) while Gerbal matches it with his ride cymbal and offers further commentary on snare and bass drum, but this music has skills to be rarely heard in combination: force and fluidity. The music is in constant movement and collective shifts in direction are managed with a telepathic absence of fuss. Suddenly, the music (along with the listener) is in a new place.

Grip can maintain the solidest hard-edged time, then suddenly transition smoothy to a pizzicato tremolo resembling rain drops. Similarly, Gerbal’s complex simultaneity of furious polyrhythms and subtle accents can resemble the specific brilliance of Andrew Cyrille, suggesting there’s even a parallel between Gerbal’s presence in the Umlaut Big Band’s invocations of 1930s swing bands and Cyrille’s early presence on a Coleman Hawkins LP.

Roles are also subject to genuine reversal. On a long stretch of the LP’s second side, “Tomato,” Thomas plays widely spaced, dissonant chords, comping sculpturally while Grip and Gerbal solo simultaneously. At a later stage, Thomas does a pretty good imitation of a piano duet, creating independent yet complementary solos with each hand before ultimately merging them.

Japanese Flower is one of the creative peaks among current accounts of a deeply traditioned ensemble format.
–Stuart Broomer


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