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Reviews of Recent Media

Kaja Draskler + Susana Santos Silva
Intakt INT391

Fred Frith + Susana Santos Silva
Laying Demons to Rest
RogueArt ROG-0125

Seven and a half minutes into the single epic track comprising Laying Demons to Rest, Susana Santos Silva’s trumpet comes to rest on a G. Mundane in and of itself, the note is then repeated, but of course, repetition addresses hardly at all the breadth and poignancy of each iteration. Each tone becomes a kaleidoscope as breath, instrument and intention conform to the improviser’s multivalent vision, rendering the respite both poignant and illusory. Both of these collaborative albums showcase Silva’s protean approach and in the company of two equally diverse musicians.

That G journeys microtonally in and out of focus, mirroring the cliffs and ravines she constructs while Fred Frith’s customary granite walls and flowing tributaries complete the massive structure and define that element of the form. The exchanges mirror the myriad states of listening that exemplify the improviser’s prerogative. The judiciously crystalline exchange opening the album comes to a natural cadence a few seconds later only to resume, building until Frith catches hold of a windy sonority, ensnaring it in loop and reverb and offering a space for Santos’ first extended flight of melodic fancy. We are treated to more traditional harmonic modes of interplay (3:50), whimsically modal excursions (5:39) and some of those delightfully pointillistic exchanges redolent of certain prototypical 1960s improv (30:47.) The peaks are as thorny as the meditative troughs are serene and wistful. Through it all, environment shifts with the staggering focus of protean effect, and it’s a testament to Silva’s timbral acumen that she and Frith continually transcend, in gorgeous tandem, annotator Tim Hodgkinson’s vision of a delicately impactful kind of metaphorical descent.

The title of Santas’ new duo disc with pianist Kaja Draksler implies the opposite kind of motion, though the music is equally multifarious, obscuring the sentiment. Draksler’s very personal approach to the prepared piano, inaugurating “Moonrise” with luminous micro-intervals, is complemented by Santos’ similarly microtonal warbling, inter-octave leaps and emphatic trills. “Close”’s opening gives new meaning to the word vibrato, encompassing it in various shades and by dizzying degrees as Draksler’s percussive trills resonate in sympathy, supported by the purely resonating strains of what sounds like an Ebow. The music’s parabolic trajectory hypnotizes as it energizes. “Liquid Rock” embodies all of its title’s dichotomy, craggy piano innards thumping ascent while Santos steams the whole works with pitched air, a gesture later adapted by Draksler’s fluid arpeggiations. To hear her nascent tones finally made manifest, as at 3:23, provides instants of resolution amidst those ever-evolving piano vibrations, but the eventual fragmentation ensures that no respite outstays its welcome. At another pivotal moment, against a similarly vibrant backdrop of harmony in flux, Santos emits a heroic fifth, and then, another series of iterated G’s but with an entirely unique character, a shout, an exhortation in flux worthy of the album’s appellation.

That these two concert performances were caught in such complete fidelity should be no surprise, as both RogueArt and Intakt productions are uniformly superb. They allow total focus on the richness of detail in context, and no more can be asked of the recording/performance symbiosis.
–Marc Medwin


Avram Fefer Quartet
Juba Lee
Clean Feed CF601CD

Juba Lee is the second release by saxophonist Avram Fefer’s quartet, following Testament (Clean Feed, 2019), the group’s debut. Fefer originally formed this ensemble as a trio with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor, as heard on the recordings Ritual (Clean Feed, 2009) and Eliyahu (Not Two, 2011), before expanding the longstanding unit with the addition of guitarist Marc Ribot. An active bandleader in the New York jazz scene for the last quarter century, Fefer has worked with legends like Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy, and Denis Charles, recorded with The Last Poets and Archie Shepp, and collaborated with numerous African music ensembles. Fefer was also a long-running member of Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. When that group’s leader, Greg Tate, died suddenly in 2021, it inspired a new set of music, documented on this recording.

Juba Lee draws on a wide range of influences, from post-bop to Arabic and African folk music. Fefer’s full-bodied tenor introduces the muscular opener, “Showtime,” an angular swinger that finds the leader and Ribot in unison. Fefer punctuates boppish cadences with audacious low register tones before Ribot’s jagged solo is buoyed by the driving rhythm. “Bedouin Dream” and “Sky Lake” follow, downshifting into introspective, African-inspired territory. The former offers a keen example of how Fefer and Ribot echo each other’s lines, while Revis’ ostinato locks into a hypnotic groove with Taylor. The later tune continues the contemplative mood as Revis establishes a modal bass line and Fefer takes flight, inspiring a heated solo from Ribot.

The knotty title track, which shares the same name as the tune (and album) by saxophonist Marion Brown, reflects the influence of Ornette Coleman, serving as a parallel to “Testament,” the title track from the quartet’s previous album. Fefer switches to alto, while Ribot’s dissonant harmonics and haunting drones underscore a deconstructed rhythm that alternates a swinging theme with free solo sections. Similarly, “Gemini Time” recalls Ornette’s electric Prime Time, but with Taylor on brushes at the outset. Fefer’s raucous statement follows Ribot’s before Revis stretches out in an appropriately funky mode.

On “Brother Ibrahim,” dedicated to the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Fefer’s tenor reaches rarified heights as a shuffling Afro-Latin groove builds in intensity. The ballad “Love Is In the Air” spotlights the rhythm section, while Taylor’s clamorous freeform drumming guides “Say You’re Sorry” into avant-garde territory, with Ribot’s blues tonalities conjuring another subterranean tenor excursion from the leader. The album closes with “Sweet Fifteen (for G.T.),” a spare acoustic guitar and bass clarinet duet dedicated to Tate. The tune’s lyrical restraint contrasts with the title track’s unfettered ebullience, exemplifying the wide stylistic variety heard throughout this varied program.

Fefer’s abilities as a composer and bandleader are impressive; he writes eclectic, memorable tunes that are unpredictably varied yet stylistically cohesive, giving ample room to his bandmates to interpret the music as they see fit. Fefer and Ribot share a rootsy, poly-stylistic musical outlook, while the subtle rhythmic variations that Taylor generates are buoyed by Revis’ stalwart foundation. Propelled by the expressive contributions of his stellar sidemen, Juba Lee is a high point in an already impressive discography.
–Troy Collins


Satoko Fujii
Hyaku One Hundred Dreams
Libra 209-071

It’s not so much that Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii is remarkable for leading or co-leading one hundred albums. Rather it’s the astonishingly high level of consistency she maintains across an enormous range of formats, geographies, and collaborators. Such longevity is an inspirational outcome given the uncertain and doubt-filled start to her career which she outlines in the liners. For this auspicious occasion recorded live in New York in 2022, she assembled a stellar nine-piece ensemble, some of whom she had not performed with previously. In some ways it’s the perfect size, giving Fujii enough options to realize her writing, yet allowing each of the participants numerous opportunities to showcase their individual prowess.

It is perhaps fitting that the album opens with Fujii herself alone, initially luminous, then as she’s joined by Ikue Mori’s murmuring electronics and percussive attack of bassist Brandon Lopez and the twin kits of Tom Rainey and Chris Corsano, full of animation and energy until her glissandos reach a crescendo, ushering in a series of features for the various band members while at the same time laying the overall foundations for what is a continuous work, albeit tracked into five parts. In her solo bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck evokes the awakening of an exotic creature, before blossoming into a hopeful lyricism presaging Fujii’s later plotting.

Ensemble flourishes separate further turns in the spotlight for the drum duo, Lopez, the trumpet of Wadada Leo Smith, who wonderfully caresses both the sound and the space, and the simultaneously elegant and adventurous tenor saxophone of Ingrid Laubrock. But just when it seems that the template of introductory solos is set, Fujii introduces a typically disorientating twist, with a series of quick changing combinations which serve to both accentuate the improvisational smarts of her crew and reveal more of the specially written thematic material. Even here there are sleights of hand, as a punchy darting unison from Laubrock and Schoenbeck falls away to leave Mori’s twinkling burbles, bleeps and insectoid stridulations holding center stage.

The ensuing contrasts of texture and mood, which contain a characteristically timbrally promiscuous outing from trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, set up further bursts of melody and counter, one of the finest sections pitching Laubrock and Smith atop roiling drums, and then a final tutti in which Fujii returns to the fray, spraying notes liberally, in a stirring conclusion to a terrific and appropriately triumphant 100th release. With any luck it will be only a milestone on the way to many more.
–John Sharpe


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach

On Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) offers a tribute to a much-loved member of long standing, bassist George Lyle who died aged 76 in 2016. Belatedly released six years after it was recorded, some six months after Lyle’s death, the splendidly packaged album contains five cuts, each of which in some way celebrates facets of his life and music.

A cast of thousands, or at least 30 as listed on the sleeve, means that it’s often neither possible or perhaps desirable to identify individual contributions, something which might in any case sit uneasily with the communal ethos of the GIO. However, the program transcribes an arc of density, from smaller combinations on the first three cuts through to the whole orchestra on the last two (although at no point does the entire complement appear simultaneously).

As an example of just how conceptually open the GIO can be and how far it can subvert expectations, the opening “Belmont Street” features just two live musicians, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and erstwhile engineer Jim McEwan on Rhodes and guitar, along with looped samples of Lyle on bass, George Burt on guitar and Allan Pendreigh on drums, in an ambient groove, given a contemplative air through layered saxophone, insouciant whistling and a brief recitation. It’s not the only tuneful episode on the album.

Although largely the construct of two bassists (likely Una MacGlone and Armin Sturm), “For GL” could not be more different, as the twin principals interpret a minimalist graphic score through a welter of angular pizzicato, droney bowing, slack-stringed thwacks, and swishy abrasion, with occasional punctuations and commentary from other parts of the Orchestra, who show a notable restraint. It’s one of the highlights of the set.

A nine strong contingent appears on “Another Room,” in a series of initially well-mannered outbursts, with the clanking melodicism of Corey Mwamba’s vibes a distinctive presence, and then increasingly fractious garrulous encounters, with Sue McKenzie’s guttural saxophone prominent. Further disregarding the conventions of the format, a piano and wordless vocal rendition of Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” gradually submerges the still spiky improvisation in the last third of the piece. It’s a surprising juxtaposition, though given the gravitational pull of the familiar tune on the ear, not entirely successful.

The two full orchestra selections offer a contrast. Episodic by design, “Shuffle” alternates between jazzy movement and loose narrative sections in which particular instruments come to the fore – Derek Bailey-influenced guitar, marauding baritone saxophone, introspective muted trumpet – before a low key finish of rippling thumb piano leads directly into the final “A Sonic Meditation For George Lyle.” The first part comprises vocal murmurs and instrumental flutters built around a recording of a vocal improvisation by the dedicatee and the author percussionist Fritz Welch, replaced in the second part by a slowly coagulating instrumental mass.

Through coming together to celebrate one man, the GIO paradoxically unveils a multiplicity of approaches. Not everything works. Some of the quieter sections, and fuller group passages were likely more meaningful to witness than the recorded evidence suggests, but the GIO nonetheless reaffirms its place among the most adventurous large ensembles, and not just adventurous as a synonym for uncompromising.
–John Sharpe


Hat Hut Records

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