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Reviews of Recent Media

Jürg Frey
Continuité, fragilité, résonance
Elsewhere 026

There is a very real sense in which, never mind any rhetoric to the contrary, the Romantic era never ended. Nowhere is that more apparent than on this new offering from Elsewhere. Of course, the situation is slightly more complicated, but elongate the opening bars of Mahler’s fifth symphony’s Adagietto, the music just before the melody enters, to get an idea of Continuité, fragilité, résonance’s sonic weightlessness. Jürg Frey’s music often dwells in anti-gravitational areas, whether he’s working with instruments, field recordings, or some combination of electronic and acoustic sounds, but this 51-minute palimpsest for strings and saxophones, both in quartet, adds a layer of repetitively skewed Romanticism to the normal convergences, divergences, and their attendant silences, all realized with requisite grace and power by Quatuor Bozzini and the Konus Quartett.

It’s difficult to gauge which is more delectably serene, the music or the performance. A degree of interdependence is obvious. Certainly, both the participants’ familiarity with Frey’s work and his presence at the 2022 recording sessions elicit spellbinding results, but the composition’s malleability affords opportunity for expansion and restraint of many varieties. It could be that Mahler’s appearance in the wings results from the textural variance at play throughout. The pointillistic opening, with its pizzicati and interregistral fluctuations, offers no hint of the thirds in sustain at 1:19, soon to evaporate into single pitches even though the pizzicato gesture remains. The opening music is in fact repeated at 0:55, a temporal disjuncture indicative of the immersions to come. As for sustain, it recurs in various iterations as the amoebic music proceeds. Listen to the vast harmonic vista at 3:04, another third at 5:32 or to the especially long elastic thirds beginning at 14:43 to hear the stasis in astonishing flux. At 42:22, the formerly lush sonics are reduced to a single repeated pitch then changes to a bit of string monody before fanning back out into multivalent sonority. However, at least in the first sustains, the pizzicato remains as both a reminiscence and an implication. Sustain is complemented by extremes of sonority and silence, as with the swells occurring after the half-way point and the silences at 26:54 or a more extended pause at 40:16.

As is so often the case, the constituent parts comprise a much larger and certainly more redolent whole. The recording and production are superb, as is the case with every Elsewhere release, and they function in such a way that the performance brims with detail and with raw power in all the right places. Beyond that, each instrument blends with every other to create the lush interweaving of tone and timbre necessary for the various disassemblages and reconstructions to become an audible part of the narrative. It’s that narrative that makes this and Elsewhere’s other Frey releases so successful. Strings and saxophones often blur to the point of indistinguishability but also separate when the moment of emphasis is right. The beauty of this rendering demonstrates just how far we’ve come from the brutality and understandable but regrettably myopic micromanagement heard in so many “new music” recordings of the 1950s and 1960s. As the music has expanded in terms of temporal scope and historical reference, its performance is finessed in equal measure. It is difficult to imagine the composer’s versatility being better served, both in the present work’s sinewy structures and in general by the always estimable Elsewhere label. If this release entices, the Elsewhere and Erstwhile catalogs offer an excellent overview of a unique and ever-evolving compositional voice.
–Marc Medwin


Nicola Guazzaloca + Gianni Mimmo
Amrani Records AMRN#071

The album’s title says it all, or at least offers a glimpse into the processes determining the revivifying forces behind this music’s creation. It’s rare that a duo’s complete synchronization comes across so clearly, but like the title’s season and transitional mode, these miniatures speak to endless invention and absorption of myriad traditions channeled in the service of joyous and reflective spontaneity.

The titular piece alone can set the scene. Gianni Mimmo’s soprano saxophone doesn’t so much enter as swell from the attendant silence, traversing patterns in several modal spaces before Nicola Guazzaloca’s piano joins in kind. Mimmo’s tone is warm, like melting butter even in multiphonics mode, and Guazzaloca’s articulations travel equally emotive terrain, leading to the rapid magic of an ascending scale and to the saxophone sustain following at 1:42. Even more astonishing is the unity throughout as that opening pattern returns in many guises, registers, and at multiple dynamic levels, the whole a fantasy of infinite variety amidst the interweaving of fragile but strong connective threads. Mode and center pose no problem to musicians of this caliber, and they are navigated with absolute assurance at tempos too irregular even to be proportional. Like Ravel’s “Scarbo,” all vanishes as quickly as it appeared, leaving only assessment and evaluation.

None of this is to privilege the title track, only to present it as a blueprint for the duo’s explorations, some of which Mimmo and Guazzaloca organize into groups. The four that deal with rain are full of points and arpeggiations, fits and starts in flowing dialogue that finally digs way down into the gutbucket, bringing blues conflagration to “The Rain of the Last Few Days.” In the set called “Four Lieder,” we hear what sound like very subtle nods to the book of standards, the descending cadences on “I Didn’t See You At All” bringing to mind similar motion in “My One and Only Love.” Then, there is the heartbreak of “Second Longing,” almost painful to hear as it moves from ballad to rhapsody and back again, dark harmonies bolstering the pleas of single pitches and reiterated phrases in tortured repetition. As might be expected, there’s no satisfactory resolution. Nothing prepares for “First Longing”’s tempest, which actually ends the mini song cycle. Again, it rages only to fizzle, rendering that final saxophone sustain all the more poignant.

It’s difficult to tell whether or not these pieces are composed, improvised or explore areas in-between. The duo’s listening is so thoroughgoing, so intuitive, that all musical parameters are instantly assimilated to the point where discussion of motive and creation becomes moot. Extra-musical concerns, like the afore-mentioned extended saxophone techniques and some subtle piano preparation, are kept to a minimum and consequently made special, like the vibrato in historically informed performance practice recordings of Baroque works. Like Mujician or the middle 1970s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the level of communication is such that repeated listening proffers rewards far beyond similar efforts from collaborations of less ability. This is a wonderful disc from start to finish, replete with invention and emotion in equal measure.
–Marc Medwin


Jean-Luc Guionnet + Rhodri Davies
Dyslexic Harp (Deciphered In the Dark)
Amgen 008

Pinning down the music of Jean-Luc Guionnet is increasingly a study in futility. While many know of him from his alto saxophone playing, he’s released recordings for prepared organ, raw electronics, and as a composer. His composition Dyslexic Harp (Deciphered In the Dark) for solo pedal harp is dedicated to Rhodri Davies and this recording captures Davies navigating the text score which is included in the CD booklet. Rife with complexity and possibility, Guionnet prescribes a process for both execution and the handling of the inevitable resultant “mistakes.” The piece is to be played in the dark, with specific parameters as to how all the possible pitches on the harp should be played with each of two hands. The player is required to define specific signals for each hand when a pitch is played correctly and another set of “error-signals” if a mistake is made. Guionnet explains it as follows. “The piece is a kind of test, but the test is the very form or the music, which means that whenever a mistake is made, it is only a mistake with the test, while the resulting sound is entirely part of the music. On a musical level, no mistake was made.”

Guionnet’s score defines categorical process instructions, error handling including a taxonomy of the types of errors that can occur and specific signals for each type, specification of looping motifs to be played when each hand has completed ten pitches, and use of pedals and articulation. But within those strictures, he also allows for an open approach toward how the harpist traverses the instructions. But he is explicit that “the interest of the music increases with the progressive achievement of the actions and events one after the other ... the function of memory is very important in the piece (the audience as well as the harpist’s); one can listen to this piece as a slow dive into the thickness of memory.” That notion of the test being the very form of the music, the slow dive into the thickness of memory is fully embraced by Davies in this riveting recording.

From the initial sharp attack of a note followed by the thump of his hand against the body of the harp and the sound of his voice counting pitches, the listener is pulled into this spare examination of the elemental structure of the instrument. Room ambience, the sound of shuffling papers, the scratching of a pen, and wafts of sounds from outside the studio add a sense of locational presence to the recording. Davies invests all of this with an inherent sense of form and progress. Notes are placed in the field of silence with a keen deliberation, meting out attack and decay with an exacting sense of purpose. Without knowing about the details of the score and structure, one can sense the tensions and release of the performance.

Davies’ deep-seated expertise with his instrument and his probing sensibility imbue the recording. He transforms Guionnet’s procedural outlines into a richly focused study of pitch, timbre, dynamics, and resonance. While the composition is presented as a single, 41-minute piece, it was recorded over two days at Q-O2, an arts laboratory for experimental music and sound art in Brussels. Guionnet is credited with recording, editing, mixing, and mastering so he clearly had a hand in shaping and fine-tuning the final release. This one is highly recommended for those interested in both Guionnet’s and Davies’ extensive work.
–Michael Rosenstein


Alexander Hawkins Trio
Carnival Celestial
Intakt CD 398

Oxford-based pianist Alexander Hawkins’ trio, completed by bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis, has been integral to much of his recent activity. They appeared alongside him and vocalist Elaine Mitchener on UpRoot, and also formed the bedrock of last year’s sextet outing on Intakt, Break A Vase. Furthermore, their inside/outside facility made them the natural choice to round out Anthony Braxton’s ensemble, captured at length on Quartet (Standards) 2020. So, it’s no surprise that they work so hand in glove at times on Carnival Celestial. What’s more unexpected is the way Hawkins deliberately pitches himself against them at certain junctures, to generate an unsettling off-balance effect. Clearly, as you would expect from someone with Hawkins’ forward-looking streak, this isn’t a straightforward piano trio session.

Since Togetherness Music, where Matthew Wright manipulated the circuitry, Hawkins has also been delving into the potential of electronics to augment his conception, and here they play their most prominent role in his work to date, even though this remains predominantly acoustic music. Glitchy crackling is almost the first thing heard on the album at the start of “Rapture,” along with a percolating bass pizzicato and jangly percussion, before Hawkins layers prepared piano tinkling, darting synth beeps, an annunciatory line, and a rumbling bottom end against the increasingly busy drums. This is the first of several selections where spacey textures and fragmented beats punctuate or supplement the program.

In the liners, Bill Shoemaker, publisher of this parish, alludes to Hawkins’ obsessive practice of Bach and perhaps it is the time he spends on those devilish two-handed masterpieces which informs his breathtaking pianistics here. Certainly “Puzzle Canon,” where Hawkins draws inspiration from the classical form, constitutes one of the highlights, with notable contrapuntal interplay both in the theme and the dazzling improvisation that follows as Davis and Charles launch a lurching groove. Another peak comes on the title track with its interlocking piano and bass which breaks out into spacious conversation, and the following “Counterpoint Celestial,” where Hawkins does what it says on the tin with yet more sparkling independent limbed dexterity.

Charles’ nimble surefootedness and Davis’ stuttery hip hop inflected cadences create an absorbing mesh which the pianist can either insert himself into, as he does on say “Sarabande Celestial” or juxtapose against. That’s the case on the woozy “Canon Celestial,” where the pianist recalls Craig Taborn in his pomp, obliquely intersecting with a repeated (looped?) bass/drum/electronics pattern. He rarely utilizes conventional song structure, tilting closest on the spare “Unlimited Growth Increases The Divide.” Indeed, in some cases cuts end once the seemingly composed segments appear, job done, without further resolution.

In performance Hawkins often favors unbroken sets where one piece transitions into the next, and in that setting the textural cuts here make perfect sense as both change of pace and linking episodes when interspersed among the more propulsive numbers. Perhaps this is the studio as laboratory, but as with similarly adventurous stablemates Punkt. Vrt. Plastik, the threesome of pianist Kaja Draksler, bassist Petter Eldh, and drummer Christian Lillinger, a live album might be where it all comes together in high definition.
–John Sharpe


François Houle Genera Sextet
In Memoriam
Clean Feed CF624CD

François Houle + Joe Sorbara
ezz-thetics 1035

When TD International Vancouver International Jazz Festival cofounder Ken Pickering passed away in 2018, the outpouring of affection and remembrance was immediate and copious. Just as heartfelt are François Houle’s notes for this new Genera Sextet disc, and while not composed specifically as a suite for the beloved concert organizer, Houle describes an emergent thematic connection and an homage to the joy and celebration so integral to Pickering’s life and musical pursuits.

Houle’s usual compositional heterogeneity is in full effect, and he’s got the dream band to realize it. The rhythm section of pianist Benoît Delbecq, bassist Michael Bates, and drummer Harris Eisenstadt is rock-solid as required while always allowing time its natural elasticity. The combination of Houle’s mellifluous or percussive clarinet, the alternately bold and luscious trombone of Samuel Blaser and the matching dynamism of Marco von Orelli’s trumpet foreground harmonic implications in each tone and line. If a single moment of proof were needed, “Deep River”’s opening moments illustrate an overwhelming band synergy. Eisenstadt’s single snare evocation and facilely swinging ride and high-hat accompaniment launch Blaser’s expressive open-interval groove-and-curve melodic statement that then slopes into chamber music of enticing harmonic ambiguity. Everything shifts as Delbecq and Bates hit with unerring precision, vanguarding the music’s multileveled syncopation and setting the stage for von Orelli’s tenderly bluesy solo. On some other plane resides the diminutive but potent “Scarlet,” with its melody floating hazily over the odd-metered groove as though Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” wore a smile. The prepared piano and laughing trombone are masterstrokes, as is the merging of melody and solo. It’s as if a conjoined apparition of Andrew Hill’s evolving melodies and Cotton Club-era Ellington’s growling brass inhabits the composer’s consciousness with just a touch of gas-pipe clarinet antics thrown in for good measure.

Despite humor and celebration in many shades, the disc’s net effect is of moving tribute, most obviously on the delicate brushstrokes of “Requiem for KP” as it first mourns and then lopes its way toward an inevitable opposite, Blaser and Delbeq’s interaction particularly affecting. Perhaps most moving of all is the multiphonic and contrapuntal surprise “Chorale” affords as Houle’s virtuosity, alone and unmetered, ushers in the album’s closer. His subsequent solo is an extension of those devices while also soaked in blues and mildly trilled exhortation. It all prefigures the Coltranesque swing Bates brings into focus at 4:05, after a gorgeously plain-chant melody of somber beauty and space. The group slides in and out of meter with the astonishing ease of long-nourished comradery.

That final track sums up everything the disc has to offer without actually replicating it. Each piece is an homage to an obviously cherished friend and comrade in art. The music’s quality is a given, but the musicianship and commitment are second to none. The sextet has crafted another wonderful disc but also a statement of intent, transcendence and ultimately of celebration.

It goes without saying that improvised music’s historical multiplex is peppered with duo recordings, a field in which competition has become increasingly stiff. The fact remains that the duo of Houle and percussionist Joe Sorbara, familiars for sure, have capitalized on past experience to create a statement both unique and satisfying.

The disc opens and closes with two of the more sonically diverse offerings, both containing ambient crickets and what the liner notes affectionately call piano guts. They rumble, writhe, and pierce all layers of the register spectrum, especially on “A Veil Drawn Over.” It’s dark, majestic, and penetrating music incapable of being pigeonholed to a certain ensemble size or characteristic. The gothic opener, “Knocked Ambulations,” does not speak musically to its title’s humor, but another timbral luminary later on, the exquisitely salivary “Montgolfière,” most certainly does. One could be persuaded to believe that a flute player inhabited its final moments, but what is that accompanying hue and cry? If that’s a balloon, no more creative use of it has been documented, especially wild as it traverses the soundstage. The little piece is a wonderful miniature of suffering and laughter of the animalistically human variety whose implications change with each audition.

On paper, the duo would seem to imply at least a nod and a wink toward jazz pedigree, and if that’s where expectations lie, they don’t disappoint. Dig into the transitory pentatonics and morphing tonal centers of “Travelling by Foot” to hear clarinet and drums in swinging historical repartee, loosely flowing but tightly focused. If that’s not the proverbial cuppa tea, the iridescent “What Next?” might be the ticket, with its luminescent bells, dramatic pauses, asymmetric repetitions and quietly dignified sunny clamor. Contrast all of that with the grooving complexities of “Parallelepiped,” which, like so many of these tasty miniatures, ends with uncanny precision but not before the gongs and percussive tappings infect with light humor.

As always with a Hat-related production, the recording is absolutely splendid, which it needs to be for music of such detailed execution. The playing is wonderful throughout, but the notes are integral to the package. Annotators never get the credit they deserve, and Art Lange is among the best. Like the album, his notes end where they begin, no mean feat to pull off while avoiding gimmickry. Beyond that, he manages to incorporate musician biography and other pertinent information into a poetic framework! Hush ends up being an album as defiant of category and genre as it is delicious to imbibe if you bring your sense of whimsy to the table. In a world where duos are a dime a dozen, this one’s worth its weight in gold!
–Marc Medwin


Clifford Jordan
Drink Plenty Water
Harvest Song HS2022-1

Although vocals were a rare feature of his recordings, stretching back to These Are My Roots and through Remembering Me-Me, no previous Clifford Jordan album has foregrounded vocals – and poetry – like Drink Plenty Water. Recorded in 1974 to be released on Strata-East, the album instead got shelved for nearly a half-century before Jordan’s wife Sandy unearthed it. Remastering 16-track recordings from the mid-1970s is a daunting task, as suitable playback machines are getting harder to find, let alone engineers who can maximize the ‘70s vibe like Malcolm Addey. Instead of a steroidal digital sound, Drink Plenty Water has a warm period sound that matches the spirit of the music.

Leading with the rousing “The Highest Mountain,” Jordan immediately strikes a balance between the vocals and a stellar mid-sized band, comprised mostly of Strata-East stalwarts. Bill Hardman, Dick Griffin and Charlie Rouse (on bass clarinet) round out the front line, expertly propelled by Billy Higgins, Stanley Cowell, and either Sam Jones or Bill Lee, who wrote the full-bodied charts. While five of the seven tracks clock in under four minutes, there is plenty of Jordan’s powerful tenor, as well as a welcomed Griffin solo. The songs featuring Jordan’s then 15-year-old daughter Donna Jordan Harris and a trio of female singers are endearingly buoyant, while the two tracks featuring texts performed by David Smyrl radiate with wisdom gained through hard times, particularly the title composition, the telling-it-like-it-is by a lifer to a short-timer.

Drink Plenty Water is heartily recommended. It is a vibrant echo from a now distant time.
–Bill Shoemaker


Gerry Hemingway

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