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Reviews of Recent Media

Barry Guy Blue Shroud Band
All This This Here
Fundacja Słuchaj FSR 09

“Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.” So implores Stephen Dedalus, addressing the ghost of his mother in one of Ulysses’ most moving episodes. Joyce’s preoccupation with that elusive word, transferred as via metempsychosis through Samuel Beckett and then to Barry Guy, now takes the form of an hour-long composition for his Blue Shroud band, the 14-piece assemblage first convened for the eponymous 2016 album. The music is as moving and elusive as the word itself, combining the multivalence of Guy’s compositional voice with the visceral and reflective freedoms these consummate musicians bring to a score that allows for such mysteries to unfold.

As his poetic swansong, Beckett composed “What Is The Word.” It is reprinted in the superb essay Jonathan Creasy contributes to this package, and the chance to savor it in the music’s context offers glimpses into Guy’s circuitous take on repetition. It can also be read online. As with earlier Beckett poems, the “This This” trope conjures the layers of questioning intrigue fundamental to Beckett, the desire to penetrate, as directly as possible, to an ever-ambiguous, amorphous, and possibly even negligible center. Dealing with similar themes of duality, shadowy transition and fragmentation, poet and cultural historian Barra Ó Séaghdha’s “Waiting” is integral to the composition, as are two 18th century Edo-period haiku. Guy’s work has always inhabited similarly intersecting planes, especially in its evolving relationship to Beckett. Creasy points toward Fizzles as Guy’s first compositional engagement with Beckett’s work and to the string quartet he composed for the Kronos Quartet’s 50th anniversary as the seed for All This This Here. His essay is essential reading for any interested in the transmutations of formal and structural scale in Guy’s conceptions and how they relate to more metaphysical and philosophical concerns. As background to the recording sessions for this large work, Creasy details what he calls “nocturnal forays into small group improvisation.” Some of these excursions, courtesy of Blue Shroud but also notably the New Orchestra, have been released in box sets on Not Two, and familiarization with those evening research and development sessions affords a taste of the more intimate interactions pervading Guy’s most recent Blue Shroud composition.

Of course, matters of size take on a constantly morphing and often visceral relativity. It goes a long way toward defining a point of unity in Guy’s compositions and is similar to any historical or poetic elements in play. Individual movements and sections within each movement comingle and joust, refer and refer back in nesting cycles of barely fettered Night-town fantasmagoria. The drily but aptly named “Time Thing” pieces groove and swing along what might be fairly traditional trajectories taken piecemeal, but each builds, roils and dissolves, as with the phoenix-like saxophone duo momentarily inhabiting “Time Thing” beginning at 4:10. “New Thing” angst and lush modal resonance rise again, like some Mahler miniature, only to hit a wall of unison melody and disintegrate a minute later. Like Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” the impression of changing channels is palpable but secondary to kaleidoscopic centers in and out of totally immersive focus even as the ensemble augments and diminishes. Like a Dagar Brothers alap, each center is presented as a kind of offering, a point of reference supported by what sounds remarkably like a tabla in the second “time thing.”

Each musician is an encyclopedic entity in flux. As with every other Blue Shroud project, Guy has chosen collaborators who can accomplish the enormous task of enhancing and personalizing an ensemble. Witness the reworked and reorchestrated “Lysandra,” a violin solo Guy had composed for Maya Homburger and here given a nearly central location. Guy likens the procedure to Luciano Berio’s orchestration of his solo Sequenzas, and the miniature moves from meter-lessness to metric and dynamic variation, Homburger’s gorgeous tone and flexible vibrato ringed with percussive transparencies and hard-hitting ensemble aggregates. In these intricate relationships, placement is everything, as percussionists Lucas Niggli and Ramon Lopez both anchor and ornament. Augusti Fernandez also exhibits Thelonious Monk’s perfect timing with a cluster, a gesture, or the melding of run and chord. The saxophone quartet of Torben Snekkestad, Michael Niesemann, Per Texas Johansson and Julius Gabriel are given solo spots of tremendous import but also blend beautifully in the recurrent and reflective passages drawn from Pelham Humfrey’s “O Lord my God,” which Guy likens to intervals between thoughts. Through it all, Guy’s playing and direction form an integrated whole, a guiding force of microcosmic dynamism and macrocosmic control. As the final movement effervesces mystically into its form of peaks and valleys, reaching a band climax just before Savina Yannatou begins to intone Beckett’s final poem, at which she’d hinted earlier, we reach the ineluctably rising modality of the audible. As guitarist Ben Dwyer, Guy and trumpeter Percy Pursglove leave just enough room for the tuba wizardry of Marc Unternährer and Homburger’s atomistic interactions with violist Fanny Paccoud, the first of many sonic mountains rise to be obliterated. Multilingual recitations return, and the entire edifice is completed with a high-register rush toward a final whispered iteration of the title.

Closest to the heart of the work, and even to that elusive Joycean word, is Yannatou’s voice, wending its flexible but certain course through Beckett, haiku and various related improvisations with depth, poise, and deft spontaneity. Her rendering of Barra Ó Seaghdha’s poem “Waiting” rends and splits word and syllable in direct anticipation of a Fernandez solo, both bathed in the dualities of fragmented light and shadow. Yannatou embodies the music’s multifarious nature as completely as it in turn embraces temporality and genre, an emotionally disparate anchor around which all else evolves. Her rich timbres reside at the center of what is certainly a new point of definition in Guy’s superb oeuvre.
–Marc Medwin


Illegal Crowns
Out Of Your Head OOYH020

The collaborative quartet Illegal Crowns connects the longstanding trio of American cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara with the French pianist Benoît Delbecq. Bynum, Halvorson, and Fujiwara, all former students of Anthony Braxton, continue to play together in various ensemble combinations, dating back to The Thirteenth Assembly in the late 2000’s, while Delbecq has worked with numerous musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Unclosing is the group’s third studio recording, following Illegal Crowns (RogueArt, 2016) and The No-Nosed Puppet (RogueArt, 2019).

All four musicians are experienced composers, improvisers, and bandleaders with their own methodologies, but Illegal Crowns operates as a true collective. Halvorson, Fujiwara, and Delbecq each contributed three original compositions for this session, all specifically written for the quartet (Bynum wrote for Illegal Crowns’ previous albums), and the nine new pieces offer ample room for personalized expression.

The seasoned quartet’s deep listening can be heard throughout the date’s unexpected shifts in dynamics, with aspects of modern jazz, new music, and free improvisation informing the group’s unique collective language and ensemble approach. Considering the members’ avant-garde pedigrees, some of these songs sound surprisingly accessible – complex, yet incorporating propulsive rhythms and/or beautiful, often melancholy melodies.

Fujiwara’s “Crooked Frame” opens the proceedings with a simple theme played in unison by cornet and piano, its odd meter augmented by contrapuntal guitar lines. A shift in texture introduces Halvorson’s scintillating, otherworldly solo, followed by equally enthralling statements from Bynum and Delbecq. Conversely, Halvorson’s introspective title track uses intriguing harmonic voicings from prepared piano, arpeggiated guitar, and tinkling percussion to build tension while avoiding a conventional climax, offering one of the set’s most lyrical moments. In contrast, Delbecq establishes a severe, staggered tempo for “Triple Fever,” freeing Fujiwara from strict timekeeping that inspires some of Bynum’s most untethered playing.

Drawing on minimalism, Fujiwara’s “Fading Wave” features Delbecq’s hypnotic prepared piano prologue, Halvorson’s effects-laden statement, and Bynum’s ethereal cadences as waystations on a circular return to the tune’s evanescent melody. Similarly, based on an insistent piano ostinato, “Osmosis Crown” is another catchy Halvorson tune with a relentless rhythm and shifting chords that inspire contrasting solos by Bynum and Halvorson – the former crystalline, the latter convoluted.

As sonically imaginative as its title suggests, Delbecq’s enigmatic “Freud and Jung Go Cycling” finds Fujiwara conveying delicate textures and exotic colors, while Halvorson and Bynum spar; Halvorson’s brisk phrasing contrasts with Bynum’s drawn-out peals. Equally languid, Fujiwara sketches asymmetrical patterns in slow triple meter on “G Ocean” with pointed fills and a march-like snare, while Halvorson and Delbecq superimpose different tempos. The abstract “Les Motset les Choses” blurs the line between composition and improvisation, transitioning from a spectral conversation between Bynum and Fujiwara to Delbecq and Halvorson’s tandem performances. The record ends with the “Soul of the Grey,” an enchanting piece by Halvorson that dispenses with solos altogether, relying on a timeless melody underscored by fragile textures and collective interplay.

The quartet confounds expectations by challenging conventional approaches towards cooperative music-making – melodies are fleeting, and the group’s energy is volatile, yet there is a tenuous calm at the center of the chaos, lending the proceedings an almost cinematic sensibility. With Unclosing, Illegal Crowns have delivered another forward-looking album that yields far more than the sum of its parts, where creative individual virtuosity supports collaborative ideals.
–Troy Collins


Izumi Kimura + Gerry Hemingway
Fundacja Słuchaj FSR 07

The first recorded encounter between pianist Izumi Kimura and percussionist Gerry Hemingway occurred in the company of Barry Guy, giving rise to the superb Illuminated Silence. Several years passed, and now, we have this equally beautiful set of widely varied miniatures. As this new duo record attests, even to pigeonhole the two musicians regarding their respective instruments diminishes the combined approach.

Both Hemingway and Kimura traverse regularly the permeable boundaries supposedly separating composer from performer, and the results of such multi-dimensional activity is readily apparent as piano and percussion in scintillatingly spacious dialogue send the intriguingly titled “Dendrochronology” wafting and shimmering into existence. Hemingway has ruminated on aspects of a European improvisational aesthetic, and these moments of caught flotation in fragments conjure -era Spontaneous Music Ensemble but elongated, each sound a tiny universe until the middle section’s small eruption. “Kairos” travels similar but slightly more populated spaceways, piano and marimba in rapid-fire exchange in which semicircular repetition fosters its own forward motion aided by a slow dynamic increase. There’s a wonderfully witty half-referential moment near the end as Kimura’s bassline supports a bit of Hemingway’s Rice Krispies banter. By way of total contrast comes the whimsical plodgings of “Water Thief,” which soon fractures into a kind of metrically diverse dance, Kimura’s muted piano strings perfectly matched with Hemingway’s raucously pitched traps exhortations. There’s no linear way to describe the track’s frenetic build, industrial combustion, and final disillusion save to suggest that it’s all great fun!

It should be obvious that the disc certainly has its share of surprises, none more so than Hemingway humming, whispering, and shrieking his way through “Over the Tide.” Anyone familiar with last year’s Afterlife will have some idea of what to expect, and some emergent and occasionally simultaneous harmonica brings an extra layer of grizzle to his voice. The harmonies drift in and out of focus like the troubled waters depicted in the lyrics and in Hemingway’s ever-shifting delivery, a sometimes harrowing but ultimately moving take on the traditional tune. Kimura’s harmonically inflected ending is particularly effective. Best though, and a masterful programming choice, is the concluding “Circadian Twilight.” In a way, it returns to the disc’s opening aesthetic and distills it, but it also shares modal space with the preceding spiritual. It’s basically a descent, a quick burst of tone and timbre sloping gradually downward. As its diminuendo makes its shimmering way toward silence, there’s a sense of completion, a winning circularity that unifies a really fine and excellently recorded disc.
–Marc Medwin


James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet
For Mahalia, With Love
TAO Forms TAO 13

Over the past few years, tenor saxophonist/composer James Brandon Lewis has become an absolute must-listen for me. I’m sure this is true for many readers as well, and this latest record is vivid, affirming confirmation of why. Whether he’s whipping up block-rocking grooves, melting you with his tone on a ballad, or reaching for the heart of the cosmos, Lewis just plain has soul. So it’s little surprise that the second outing for his Red Lily Quintet – where he’s joined by cornetist Kirk Knuffke, cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor – is a dedication to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.

In this project, Lewis steps into a long jazz tradition of engaging gospel and spirituals. This lineage goes all the way back to George Lewis and Duke Ellington, and moves through to Grant Green, Hank Jones, Archie Shepp, Davids Murray and Ware, into the present with folks like Darius Jones. If you know anything about Lewis, though, you’re probably aware of not just his prodigious invention and soul but his gift for nifty arranging. These qualities are all over this record, straight out of the gate with the opening “Sparrow” (as in “His Eye is On the”), a deeply felt, droning statement of conviction.

And deep inside that sound is the lush tone of the two horns, separately and in their gorgeously blended sound throughout. It matters more here than on a typical blowing date, because at the heart of gospel music is intensity of meaning, the realest of purpose, and that delicate dance between surrender and power. That all speaks to the sublime synergy in Red Lily, with the percolating strings, Taylor’s color and swing, all of it so arresting on the lilting “Swing Low” or the righteously deep “Go Down Moses.” The horns soar, so assured in the upper register, but rumble deep too. The group savors the themes but can spin quickly into abstraction just as convincingly.

Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, and I always love hearing Parker in this kind of exultant context. Hoffman, whom most readers know for his work in Henry Threadgill’s bands, sounds equally delightful, especially on “Wade in the Water.” Things are perhaps even more rollicking on “Deep River,” with Parker holding down some truly tasty syncopation that makes the whole thing bubble: phrases dart everywhere, Lewis churning low to high, and Knuffke’s exceptional vibrato hovering above it all.

When the music stretches out, there are plenty of chances to hear various duo and trio configurations. Aside from the pleasures of hearing Lewis and Knuffke stretch out, there are some cracking bass/drum duos, in particular, and some beautiful multiphonics from Hoffman elsewhere. But the two that hit hardest are “Elijah Rock” and the extraordinary “Calvary,” both of them ecstatic and somber by turns. They’ve got something of the testifying quality of an Ayler date as well as the fire of one of Lewis’ influences, Charles Gayle.

There’s a kind of resolve and spiritual questing that quite frankly pours out of the speakers. It’s music that understands the stakes of its own themes, the power of the voice as embodied by Jackson carried through here in the improvisers’ setting. Filled with life, emotion, and joyful noise, this is what real praise music sounds like.
–Jason Bivins


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