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Reviews of Recent Media

Tom Prehn’s Kvartet
Centrifuga & Sohlverv
Corbett vs. Dempsey 079

Danish pianist Tom Prehn’s slim discography has seen the light of day thanks largely to the efforts of John Corbett, first for Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series and more recently for Corbett vs. Dempsey, which has now released the second volume of this extraordinarily advanced European free music. The only thing conventional about this music – then or now – is the quartet format, rounded out by tenor saxophonist Fritz Krogh, bassist Poul Ehlers, and drummer Finn Slumstrup. The 44-minute “Centrifuga” was recorded in August 1964, and no matter how much you think you know about the evolution of this music, Prehn’s group will throw you for a joyous loop.

Lovingly restored from private-released reels, these performances contain a pretty jaw-dropping range of group invention and exploration. And while there are some passages of fierce intensity popping up on this release, what’s really striking about it is the dynamism and the often otherworldly quality of the sounds. Prehn can play his ass off, but he’s just as interested in creating great billowing clouds, or working from some inventive preparations, or spider-crawling his way through an unpredictable line. A cautious harmonic line from the bass, cymbal sizzle, patient birdsong from Krogh, it all comes together into something primal and organic, the sort of thing that the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and others would be exploring later in the decade.

While the saxophonist is the most energetic player of the group, it’s very much listening music. The ideas move quickly even if the tempo doesn’t. There are extreme shifts of register, color splashes, inventive techniques, and loads of space for this suggestive collection of musical voices. It’s fascinating to speculate about what these fellers were listening to, and specifically whether they’d encountered Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor during their Copenhagen residencies. Krogh certainly brings the heat on several occasions, and there are several sections of mutant swing that do seem to recall early Taylor. Far more plentiful, though, are the utterly distinctive moments from each player. Slumstrup switches the snare on and off, creating a kind of pinwheeling effect that I associate with Lovens and Baby Sommer. And Ehlers is a revelation, able to crank out fleet lines in the upper register and possessed of a fierce arco technique that sounds like he’s clawing his way out from inside the bass. There are also lengthy unaccompanied passages for Ehlers and Slumstrup, and they’re consistently crackling with energy. Prehn again is a marvel, alternating between wondrous prepared sounds and densely knotted chords in wave after wave of energy.

Perhaps even more astounding are the four “Sohlverv” tracks from January 1965, which are collectively even more dynamic and exploratory. They are more than comfortable operating in a nearly silent context, the most open tableau on which to paint small slashes, inviting whispers, the gentlest plink or pizz. I can also hardly believe the astonishing “Sohlverv 2,” a righteous study for close-miked sax pads and prepared piano. I cannot think of a player who was working similar territory this long ago. Somehow, the piece makes its way to a whinnying herd of horses, and from there to a fascinating section where each player operates in a different tempo. The third and fourth tracks lean forward into some of Howard Riley’s early groups, as well as early work from Alex Von Schlippenbach. It’s total exploration at a time when many players were still worrying the outer edges of free-bop. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it does give you some sense of how bracing this marvelous music is.
–Jason Bivins


Sam Rivers Quartet
Undulation: Sam Rivers Archive Project, Vol.5
NoBusiness NBCD146

The fifth in NoBusiness’ series of Sam Rivers reissues, Undulation is yet another reminder of his prodigious skills as improviser across instruments, during a phase of his career in which long-form improvisation, taken to at times astounding levels of invention, was his primary modus operandi. Despite his omnipresence in the New York free jazz scene, from the mid-60s work on Blue Note into his central role in the Loft Jazz era, Rivers has never received as much attention as he might. This may be partly related to his increasing insistence, despite his distinctive voice as a composer, to pioneer long-form improvisation, which he referred to as “spontaneous creativity:” “Improvisation to make every performance different, to let your emotions and musical ideas direct the course of the music, to let the sound of the music set up its own impetus, to remember what’s has been stated so that repetition is intention, to be responsive to myriads of color, polyrhythms, rise and fall, ebb and flow, thematic variations.” As a true multi-instrumentalist – as well as the tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano which he deployed live, he also played trombone and viola – Rivers often signalled sectional transitions by switching between instruments, and within his playing on any of these was an immense flexibility. Steve Coleman designates Rivers’ approach part of “the snake school” – others of whom included Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, and Lockjaw Davis – characterized by “directional shifts in lines and intervals,” and a “slippery,” “long and rangy” approach to phrasing connected to Rivers’ physical movements while playing the music, which Coleman likened to a “snake dance.” Likewise, latter-day collaborator Anthony Cole asserts: “It moves!  It’s danceable if you want to dance. It’s listenable if you want to listen. If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.”

In 1975, as well as recording Sizzle with former Lifetime guitarist Ted Dunbar – for my money, his most underrated great record – Rivers had played with James Blood Ulmer in the lofts. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, following the ending of his group with Dave Holland and Thurman Barker, that he regularly included guitar in his groups. The band on Undulation – Rivers, guitarist Jerry Byrd, bassist Rael Wesley Grant, and drummer Steve Ellington – was previously documented on Crosscurrent (1982), and a later group with Lucky Thompson’s son, Darryl Thompson, replacing Byrd, and Steve McCraven replacing Ellington yielded Lazuli (1990). Guitar added something else to these groups, drawing more closely from dance musics. As Rivers remarked: “I’m trying to play exciting, advanced music with a nice, primitive beat – combine the intellect with the soul.” Sizzle came out the same year as Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head, the debut of his Prime Time band. Both are sextet records, Rivers’ with one guitarist and two drummers, Coleman’s with two guitarists, plus an electric bass to fatten out the ensemble sound. Coleman later claimed that the main reason for using electric instruments was to match the orchestral amplitude of Skies of America, and both Sizzle and Dancing can be seen as attempts to expand the volume and timbral possibilities of the conventional jazz small ensemble. While Coleman treats funk influences in terms of interlocking melodic fragments, Rivers emphasizes long, improvised streams, with rock and funk just two of many idioms from which the group might draw at any point: from double time to no time, backbeat to polyrhythm, in fluent and fluid disregard for genre.

Like Bern Nix in Prime Time, the hollow-bodied timbre of Dunbar’s guitar on Sizzle and Jerry Byrd’s guitar here comes from (free)bop rather than funk or rock, providing a suitably knotty interaction with Rivers’ fluid, changing lines. (Byrd had come up alongside George Benson in Pittsburgh during the early ‘60s). Drummer Steve Ellington, an early collaborator from Rivers’ Boston days, combines clattery responsiveness with occasional multi-dimensional backbeats (most notably on the third track); the round, elastic sound of Grant’s electric bass further nods to the funk dimension, though his actual lines are closer to turbo-charged jazz inflections, not so much walking bass as a constant sprint. As ever in Rivers’ music, each player gets an extensive solo feature: not only is this a fundamentally collaborative group music, but we get to hear every detail of its component parts. This is a music so packed that a blow-by-blow description would come across as little more than a pedantic reduction. Suffice to say that, as the disc opens, Rivers comes out in blazingly talkative mode, his rapid melodic extrapolations bejewelled with trills, honks, multiphonic wails, and juddering staccato blasts closely shadowed by Byrd’s crisp-toned guitar. For sheer exhilaration, there’s little to beat these kinds of driving “snake dances,” and the other musicians, intensively responsive, push the scampering, rough-and-tumble feel to new heights. Other highlights are the unaccompanied tenor feature – at once frantically searching yet assured and fixed in direction – the bluesy scramble of Byrd’s solo – and of the final piece, Rivers greeting Grant’s infectious bassline with an appreciate holler before launching into lithe flute lines and unexpected scat singing that crackles with serene energy, all while offering a closing rollcall of the members of the band. That records like Sizzle are still out of print suggests the pitfalls of major label releases – underpromoted and buried, then hard to re-release – in contrast to the fertile live archive mined by NoBusiness. We can, however, be glad that the Lithuanian label continues to do such sterling work: Undulation is ample evidence of Rivers’ power, present on virtually anything he touched, and an important documentation of a little-known chapter of his work.
–David Grundy


Mototeru Takagi + Susumu Kongo + Nao Takeuchi + Shota Koyama
Live At Little John, Yokohama 1999
NoBusiness NBCD144

The newest entry in the Lithuanian NoBusiness/Chap Chap Records series is another archival gem. This time out, they rescue a three reed and drummer quartet recorded live in 1999 at the tiny Little John jazz club in Yokohama, Japan. The best-known member of the group is tenor player Mototeru Takagi who was part of the 1970s Japanese free jazz scene, playing in groups led by Masahiko Togashi, Motoharu Yoshizawa, and Masayuki Takayanagi. Takagi also collaborated with Derek Bailey when the guitarist visited, their duo documented on the NoBusiness release Live At FarOut, Atsugi 1987. Reed players Nao Takeuchi and Susumu Kongo and drummer Shota Koyama are from a younger generation and are less well known outside of Japan. Over the course of the 75-minute set captured here, Takagi’s tenor is complemented by Takeuchi who switches between tenor, flute, and bass clarinet and Kongo who augments his alto with flute and bass clarinet. The three horn players play with an unfettered freedom, wrapping lines across each other over the spare undercurrent of Koyama’s drums.

The danger in horn-heavy settings like this is that they devolve into brawny cutting sessions. But these three are canny collaborators willing to push without playing over each other. The complement of registers is played to distinctive advantage as the two younger players seamlessly switch between horns. There’s a particularly strong section midway through the first 40-minute improvisation where Togashi leaps to the upper registers of his tenor, countered by low bass clarinet grumbles and breathy flute exclamations anchored by Koyama’s open rolling toms. As the piece winds its way from there, the reed players chatter across each other, building densities and then opening up for various solos and duos, pulling it all together for a quiet resolution.

The second improvisation, at 12 minutes long, starts with an incantatory tenor solo over a low bass clarinet drone. A third of the way through, tensions start to build as the tenor digs to burred, gravelly low end and bass clarinet and alto pick up phrases from the darkly lyrical theme, buoyed by the free stutter of snare and cymbals. The closing 20-minute piece starts with a strident flute solo joined in by a second flute as the two dart across each other in briskly acrobatic swoops and cries. Koyama enters in with percussive slashes, setting the stage for Takagi’s supple tenor entreaties to enter the mix. The improvisation proceeds with a measured sense of arc as the various members duck in and out, leaving plenty of collective room. About two thirds of the way in, there is a lull as Kongo and Takeuchi switch to saxophones and the piece charges off to a torrid conclusion. Kudos as usual to NoBusiness and Chap Chap for continuing to unearth this music, presenting the fertile Asian free jazz scene to a broader audience.
–Michael Rosenstein


Henry Threadgill Zooid
Pi Recordings Pi 92

After digressions with his Ensemble Double-Up and 14 or 15 Kestra, reedman and composer Henry Threadgill returns to Zooid, the most enduring vehicle of his latter-day career. Poof, recorded in 2019, continues in the same vein as his 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning In For A Penny, In For A Pound from the same ensemble. Threadgill finds yet more mileage in the concept which underpinned that set, whereby each of the pieces serves as a sonata or concerto to showcase group members, although it has to be said that such is the dizzying interplay in train that it’s far from straightforward to differentiate who might be the featured player in a given work. More on that later.

Listening to this music, one question that might spring to mind is what’s written and what extemporized? Without doubt, a guiding mind calls the shots, but discerning how is near impossible. For sure the emphatic unison phrases, hocketed rhythms shared across the band, and themes with similarly distributed elements incontrovertibly speak of the composer’s art, and an especially imaginative and skilled practitioner at that. But the interchange between the leader’s alto saxophone and flutes, Christopher Hoffman’s cello, Liberty Ellman’s guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee’s drums, and Jose Davila’s tuba, could be either the product of astute listening by musicians schooled in Threadgill’s systems, with the talent to change course in instantaneous response, or an intricate lattice of notation. Or conceivably both. After all, Threadgill has always been a master of blurring the lines. How many would have guessed that the twin drum parts in his celebrated 1980s Sextett were scripted, as he explained to Ethan Iverson in a 2011 interview?

Ultimately of course the mechanics as intriguing as they are, matter far less than the impact. Threadgill’s music by this juncture presents as full of conflicting impulses, often emotionally ambivalent, particularly in its broad thrust, which you could say aptly mirrors the complications of modern life. But in its parts, in the micro detail, things are less inscrutable. His alto saxophone for example retains the stirring sanctified sound he’s had throughout his career, reflecting early time spent accompanying preachers, his wide vibrato and vocal register exuding gospel fervor. Next to such heart-on-sleeve appeal, Hoffman’s bowed cello, with his strongly romantic approach is perhaps the most overtly engaging sensibility. Ellman’s guitar is more opaque, weaving a formal elegance through the web of interaction, and embroidering the rhythmic drive. Explicit pulsation, although rarely metrically exact, remains an essential ingredient of Threadgill’s oeuvre, and while Davila’s tuba and Kavee’s traps cover those bases, they simultaneously supply pithy commentary.

So those are the components. Back to those concerti. Of the five compositions, it’s clear that “Beneath The Bottom” platforms Davila, here on trombone. He carries the melody at the outset, mutters expressively in an unaccompanied spot, later duets with Kavee’s subtle percussion, and finally languidly declaims over a lilting throb, in ever changing counterpoint with the rest of the ensemble. Thereafter all bets are off. But as the PR material helpfully reveals, each of the remainder spotlights pairs of instruments: first Threadgill’s impassioned alto over a shuffling multi-pronged pulse, and later Hoffman’s singing arco variations on “Come And Go;” on the title cut more alto, setting out a wistful lullaby in consort with Ellman’s guitar, which then takes up the baton to recount a tale of exquisite grace; on the multipart chamber-inflected “Happenstance” it’s the turn of the leader’s bass flute multiphonics and Kavee’s drumset, chiming like a hail shower on John Cage’s roof; and then Davila’s nimble tuba sports with Ellman’s guitar on the frisky closing “Now And Then.”

Suffice to say that with Poof, Threadgill continues to pursue his own utterly individual path, abetted by a crew completely in sync, resulting in music which delivers moments of breathtaking beauty amid head scratching complexity, but which is nonetheless disarmingly approachable.
–John Sharpe


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