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Okkyung Lee + Jérôme Noetinger + Nadia Ratsimandresy
Two Duos
Otoroku ROKU027

Cellist Okkyung Lee has been a regular at Café Oto in London over the last decade, performing as soloist, and in various collaborations with musicians including Rhodri Davies, Mark Fell, Bill Orcutt, Christian Marclay, and Jennifer Walshe. Two Duos is culled from a three-day March 2019 residency where she performed a solo and in duos with Matana Roberts, Rashad Becker, Pat Thomas, Jérôme Noetinger, and Nadia Ratsimandresy. While one might expect that a release from that residency would zero in on a cello/sax duo with Roberts or a cello/keyboard duo with Thomas, Otoroku seized the opportunity to instead present her collaborations with Jérôme Noetinger, credited with a Revox B77 old-school reel-to-reel tape recorder and Nadia Ratsimandresy on the rarely heard Ondes Martenot, an early 20th century electronic music instrument, similar to a theremin, which was developed in an attempt to replicate the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators. While the instrumentation may be less conventional, it wholly aligns with Lee’s wide-ranging musical interests. What is particularly intriguing about both duos is how each of the participant’s contributions merge into respective seamless wholes.

Side A of the LP captures Lee’s set with Noetinger. If one didn’t know that Noetinger was solely utilizing a reel-to-reel tape deck, it would be impossible to peg. In his hands, the device is transformed into a commanding electronic processor. Noetinger draws on his extensive background in electro-acoustic improvisation and sound art, mixing tape hiss, echoes and loops of Lee’s cello, interjections of prerecorded sources, distortion, crackles, and electronic glitch. Lee’s shredded arco, wild bent tones, and lithe glissandos charge along, simultaneously staking out an indelible voice in the improvisation while responding to her partner’s kaleidoscopic refractions of her input. The twenty-minute improvisation caterwauls along with unflagging energy as input and output build in changeable, multifaceted layers. The two feint and bob, blending together one moment only to arc off in countervailing bursts; bristling with density and then opening up to pools of calm only to charge off again. One moment, Noetinger seizes on the contrasts of electronic textures with the acoustic resonance of the cello, the next he picks up on Lee’s tone, echoing it back into the mix. In the final few minutes, he introduces a thread of a stately solo piano piece which Lee plays off of in warped smears, inciting her partner to warp and distort the sample back into the mix leading to a rasped and overdriven conclusion.

On Side B, Lee and Ratsimandresy plumb the sonic intersections of cello and Ondes Martenot. It’s intriguing to note that the instrument was invented by French cellist Maurice Martenot who hoped to bring the musical expressivity of the cello to his invention. Here the swoops and smears of both instruments weave their way across the twenty-two-minute improvisation. This is a far more conversational, active interchange than the duo with Noetinger. While the timbral qualities of the two instruments differ enough to make the contributions of each musician readily apparent, they utilize a similar sense of pacing and phrasing, making for an effective pairing. The blend of the acoustic resonance of Lee’s cello and the analog oscillations of Ratsimandresy’s instrument create an extended sonic palette, from deep abraded arco to swirling electronic quavers. The inherent gestural approaches to sound making for each instrument come through in the lissome, rippling interactions. Each of these collaborations bring out different aspects of Lee’s playing and methods of connecting with improvisational partners, proving that cello/Revox B77 and cello/Ondes Martenot duos are the logical pairing after all.
–Michael Rosenstein


Tony Malaby’s Sabino
The Cave of Winds
Pyroclastic PR 18

When COVID-19 cancelled live performances in the summer of 2020, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby began hosting weekly jam sessions underneath a turnpike overpass near his home in New Jersey with bassist John Hébert and drummer Billy Mintz, along with invited guests. These gatherings proved to be not only a respite, but a source of inspiration for The Cave of Winds, although the resultant album documents a studio recording with different collaborators. To best capture the audio vérité of the turnpike sessions, Malaby reconvened Sabino, the group he made his debut album of the same name with in 2000 for Arabesque, featuring bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tom Rainey, and guitarist Ben Monder (replacing Marc Ducret).

The date’s compositions offer an impressionistic array of melodic motifs and unfixed tempos, subtly influenced by traditional jazz forms. Malaby explains, “Billy Mintz and John Hébert got me into playing standards and jazz repertoire again.” As a result, the two tracks that bookend the album both use standard changes as a point of departure. The boppish melody of opener “Corinthian Leather” is a loose reinterpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n You.” Malaby and Monder spiral around the swinging rhythm section, stretching the theme beyond recognition in a bout of unfettered invention. The album’s closing track, “Just Me, Just Me,” is based on the chord changes of the standard “Just You, Just Me.” While the title is a wry take on the original it also captures the ardent individuality of these four, with Malaby (on soprano) and Monder dovetailing together as they soar over Formanek and Rainey’s frenetic shimmer.

In between those two pieces, the range expands – Monder even introduces “Scratch the Horse” with a thunderous distortion that rivals most rock bands, while “Recrudescence,” a mesmerizing group improvisation, features sparse, atmospheric extrapolations that incrementally build in intensity. The centerpiece of the album is the lengthy title track, which offers plangent playing from Malaby and angular countermelodies from Monder, while Formanek and Rainey expand the rhythm. The latter half of the cut modulates from turmoil to tranquility; Monder provides droning, heavily distorted chords over which Malaby shifts from extended techniques to a delicate theme, demonstrating his ability to alternate seamlessly between coarse and lyrical variations.

An expressive and dynamic soloist, Malaby’s expansive harmonic palette tempers his vociferous angularity. Monder’s gauzy timbre and understated attack mesh seamlessly with the saxophonist’s breathy exhortations and tortuous cadences, while his overdriven guitar tone, heavy on the midrange and low in the mix, blends well with Formanek and Rainey, who demonstrate their rapport with rhythmic invention and colorful accents. Together, these four sync up perfectly, whether playing pre-written or spontaneously created pieces.

The Cave of Winds marks the end of the turnpike sessions and the woodshedding it represented. The album also brings Malaby’s career full circle; two decades after the release of Sabino, he revisits the same instrumentation with three veteran collaborators for a vibrant exploration of the basic foundations of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Featuring four artists at the top of their game, The Cave of Winds is another superlative addition to the impressively diverse discography of one of today’s preeminent saxophonists.
–Troy Collins


The OGJB Quartet
Ode to O
TUM Records TUM CD 058

Ode to O is The OGJB Quartet’s (Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda, Barry Altschul) follow up to their impressive 2019 debut album Bamako. Like their debut, this album features a mix of originals written by each member of the group as well as two collective improvisations. Unlike that earlier effort, however, Ode to O is less focused and never quite finds its surety of purpose and sense of self. Although the group shares the compositional duties, each tune has a similar floating, rubato treatment of the melodic lines that if played faster, would be quite angular and oblique. This uniformity gives the quartet its own sonic identity within the post-Ornette two-horn quartet universe. Altschul’s “Ode to O” (O, of course, refers to Ornette) opens the album. The contrast between the slightly leaden head and Fonda and Altschul’s light elastic groove creates a tension that propels the group forward. Haynes’ cornet is round, mellow, and relaxed, while Lake’s alto is biting and acerbic, with more than a touch of snarl. It’s an ideal pairing. From here on out the solos and the division of labor between the front line can be unsatisfying. Lake’s “Justice” features the altoist unapologetically breathing fire with commentary from Haynes. When Haynes steps to the fore his turn is over before it begins. The track isn’t quite a feature for Lake, but it’s also not the work of a quartet on equal footing.

Altschul opens his composition “Da Bang” with a tasteful solo, exploring his kit with care as if he is talking with an old friend rather than using it as a tool. While Haynes’ funky hard bop solo has direction and drive, Lake’s never quite gestates, and it is over so soon it leaves the listener wondering what happened to the rest of it. On Haynes’ “The Other Side” the demarcations between head, solo, and who the focus rests on blur. During Haynes’ solo, Lake is there, but only just. Is he meant to be a foil for Haynes, or should he be filling in spaces in between phrases in the background? The music yearns for a stronger identity and an overall tightening up. It occupies a liminal space – not quite all the way in, not quite all the way out. A decision to fully commit either way might have shored up this and other tracks, such as the languid and meandering “Caring.”

Haynes deploys electronics on three cuts with mixed results. On “The Other Side” he dirties up his cornet, sending it through noise, delays, and filters, and modulates it in myriad ways. On the improvised “OGJB #3” he adds a healthy dose of reverb and other effects as he slowly converts his cornet into an all-electric vehicle. Haynes and his enhanced cornet largely dominate the second improvisation, “OGJB #4,” with a compelling array of guitar wails, synth croaks, fuzzy brass, and penetrating laser beams. The variety of the sonic palette is stunning, but the variety itself suggests that he is not fully sure what he wants to do with his electronics rig. And therein lies the problem with the album as a whole: it’s not clear what the group wanted to do all the way through. Some of the decisions about the form, direction, and balance in the arrangements seem to have not been fully realized. It hurts to write this, but compared to Bamako, Ode to O feels like a step back.
–Chris Robinson


Elastic Bricks
Umlaut Records – Topsi Series tslp2

Between the release of previously unissued recordings by Hasaan Ibn Ali and Lenny Tristano and remastered recordings by the likes of Paul Bley and John Dennis, the last few years have been a good time to reevaluate some lost threads in the legacy of the exploratory jazz piano tradition. But there are also contemporary practitioners probing at that legacy and finding new inroads, particularly investigating the piano/bass/drums trio. Pandelis Karayorgis and his Cliff Trio, Ism (Pat Thomas, Joel Grip and Antonin Gerbal), and Aki Takase’s trio with Christian Weber and Michael Griener spring to mind. But Takase sums up a thread that runs through the approach that these contemporary trios take. "I really love the piano trio,” says Aki Takase. “But not the old idea, where the pianist is king, and the bassist and the drummer are just sidemen. We are equal.” Add the Berlin-based trio Oùat to that list. Here bassist Joel Grip, drummer Michael Griener, and pianist Simon Sieger chart their own course through that tradition with their release Elastic Bricks.

Grip and Griener have garnered attention with their respective flurries of activity, but Simon Sieger has less visibility. The pianist (who also plays trombone, tuba, and accordion) studied with Famoudou Don Moye and cites influences ranging from James P. Johnson and Pete Johnson up through Monk, Tristano, and Cecil Taylor. The trio has honed their collective approach at Au Topsi Pohl, a series in Berlin organized by Grip, where they have performed their own compositions alongside music by Ellington, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Elmo Hope, Per Henrik Wallin, and Sun Ra. Immersing themselves in the piano trio traditions, they’ve managed to absorb those precedents while applying a skewed sensibility, transforming their music with a supple sense of collective improvisation which are revealed from the first strains of the opening “Shall we.”

The nine originals, most written by the bassist, are compact pieces, each between two and a half minutes and just over six minutes long. But the three maximize the potential of that economy, succinctly staking out the angular themes and then plaiting them into striking melodic, conversational abstractions. That notion of conversation and free poetics seems inherent to their music, reflected by the snaking free verse liner notes by writer Erin Honeycutt. The music moves through sections of open shuffle, stop-start cadences, loping lyricism, and hard-edged spikiness. A piece like “Mother and Son” slowly wends its way, launching off from a musing theme that refracts Monk’s jagged harmonic sense. Sieger seizes the thematic kernel and methodically teases it apart, reconstructing it as Grip toys with the melody and pace and Griener’s drumming simmers with loose, understated swing. On “Sommer,” a piece co-written by Grip and Sieger, the head gets tossed back and forth between piano and bass with the drummer in lock-step as the trio tumbles along with playful zeal. The bassist is in particularly fine form here, with fluid, plucked lines jumping to the fore, buoyed along by his partners.

“Height of Nothingness,” also co-written by Grip and Sieger, is a great example of how the three can lock in on a bounding groove and then slowly invert it with stabbing lyricism and a circuitous momentum which the three use to stretch things toward explosive freedom without ever losing the thread of their collectively-synched underpinnings. Grip’s “Tibia of the Mole” is a particular highlight, as the three traverse their way through a pensive opening moving through a woozy three-way stagger, building to forcefully propelled dense clusters with some electrifying torrential piano playing. The trio masterfully mounts intensity and then stops on a dime. Sieger’s “Topsi Dance” starts with abraded bass arco and then takes off in torrents of countervailing waves of rollicking energy interspersed with obliquely-phrased motifs. The stately “Borghini Ballade” brings the session to a close, as the three slow things down with considered interplay of bent-note bass lines, cymbal shimmers, and contemplative piano shadings. The trio has already recorded a release featuring the music of Swedish pianist Per Henrik Wallin and have formed the group Nova Swing along with Rudi Mahall. Based on this debut release, one looks forward to what comes next.
–Michael Rosenstein


Sara Schoenbeck
Sara Schoenbeck
Pyroclastic PR 16

With its double reeds and complex fingerings, the bassoon is one of the most difficult wind instruments to master, yet it offers a tonal color unlike any other. Although most of its practitioners typically work in the classical world, Sara Schoenbeck is one of a select group of bassoonists dedicated to improvisation. There have only been a handful of acclaimed double reed virtuosos in creative improvised music throughout the past half century: Yusef Lateef; Paul McCandless; Lindsay Cooper; and Paul Hanson are a few that come to mind.

A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the California Institute of the Arts, Shoenbeck is unconfined by stylistic conventions; she has explored the limits of the bassoon across multiple genres, including jazz, hip hop, rock, electronica, North Indian classical music, Ghanaian music and dance, Haitian dance, and Javanese dance. She is a member of a wide range of ensembles, including Anthony Braxton’s 12+1(tet), Petr Kotek’s SEM Ensemble, and the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra.

Her self-titled debut comprises nine intimate duets, each made with a different musician. The sessions were recorded during a global pandemic in different recording studios, yet there is a continuity to the overall sound that showcases the versatility of Schoenbeck’s instrument. Divided into thirds, with three of her own compositions, three compositions by others, and three free improvisations, the album offers a definitive survey of Schoenbeck as a composer and improviser in collaboration with artists who influenced her musical development.

The opening piece, “O’Saris,” a congenial duo with her partner, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, celebrates the poignancy of a simple melody, as Eisenstadt’s sublime mallet-work lays the groundwork for Schoenbeck’s lyrical multiphonics. “Sand Dune Trilogy” features a harmonious microtonal duo with flutist Nicole Mitchell that offers masterful demonstrations of quicksilver virtuosity and extended techniques. The only cover is “Lullaby” by the slowcore band Low. Partnered with guitarist Nels Cline, who slows the pulse down to a dream-like meander, the somber cry of Schoenbeck’s lone bassoon conjures a remarkably humanistic voice.

The album also includes experimental pieces, like “Chordata” and “Auger Strokes.” The former is an improvisation with Roscoe Mitchell on soprano that builds from the granularity of single notes to a whirling cascade of sound. Matt Mitchell composed the suspenseful “Auger Strokes” with quirky harmonies and taut interplay; while true to his intricately rhythmic compositional style, silence and space are also key elements in this angular chamber work.

Schoenbeck wrote “Absence” in honor of the late bassoonist Marcuselle Whitfield. Mark Dresser’s distinctive bowed bass adds a solemn feel, but their dual improvisations also convey a celebratory air. Keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and Schoenbeck have been collaborating for over two decades; “Anaphoria” is their quietly improvised abstraction based on unobtrusive electronics and microtones. “Suspend A Bridge,” with cellist Peggy Lee, offers textural variety – refined in some places, brash in others. The final tune is Robin Holcomb’s “Sugar,” a wistful ballad. Featuring Holcomb’s quavering voice and delicate piano, the droll sound of the bassoon lends itself well to the author’s understated vocals – a heartfelt ending for an auspicious debut.

Sara Schoenbeck reconsiders the role of the bassoon in creative improvised music. Despite its delicate timbre, Schoenbeck’s creative virtuosity goes a long way towards making the instrument sound at home in any setting. Highly recommended to those seeking music that is nuanced and intimate, but tonally adventurous.
–Troy Collins


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