Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Evan Parker
psi 09.09

In recent years, Evan Parker has unambiguously identified himself as a composer as well as an improviser. His music has since tested the latitudes with which composition is currently considered, inasmuch as it is widely heard as a seamless continuation of work initiated when freely improvised music was the center, if not the entirety of his focus. In an unassuming way, SET posits Parker’s compositional process, at least in part, as the integration of concepts gleaned from his prodigious knowledge of literature, philosophy and science to every aspect of a given piece, from the selection of collaborators, the preparation and realization of materials and the post-production finalization of the piece’s shape. Commissioned for the 2003 Donaueschinger Musiktage, this three-part work was inspired by biologist Lynn Margolis’ Serial Endosymbiosis Theory, which uses symbiotic relationships of bacteria and sundry prokaryotic organisms to explain biological evolution. The saxophonist applied aspects of Margolis’ theory to the consideration of the relationship between his long-standing trio with bassist Barry Guy and percussionist Paul Lytton and his approach to electroacoustic music. The latter is represented by five musicians who exclusively use electronics and signal processing; three stalwarts of Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble – Lawrence Casserley, Walter Prati and Marco Vecchi – and FURT, the duo of Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer. Parker tasked the fivesome with assembling an inventory of samples from the trio’s recordings, which would then be brought into play in concert, creating a situation where the manipulated samples would impact the trio’s playing, which would then be further processed. Long after the event, Parker made bookend-like segments from material recorded before the concert, resulting in a work with an overt composed countenance.

Yet, the real utility of Parker’s revisions is that they usher the easy entry into, and emergence from, the sonic kaleidoscope realized in the 40-minute concert performance. Both clock in at around five minutes, enough time to establish a tone and a finish. The introduction opens ominously with tympani and cymbals; which are quickly subsumed by the machine-generated sounds; with the exception of an occasional flash of bass and clattering percussion, there are few sounds in the intro’s ensuing swirl of sounds that even seem entirely acoustic. A seamless edit allows Parker’s tenor to emerge from attenuating textures to herald the main section. Guy and Lytton slip in, and within seconds the trio reiterates why it is one of the more lionized improvising units of the past two score: They have a unique ability to remain on the verge – of explosive intensity or driving free jazz pulse – in an unfailingly suspenseful manner. For five minutes, the trio builds a head of steam, decelerating when quiet gasp-like machine sounds are released. Whether they are real-time extrapolations or previously banked samples, the ensuing synthesized sounds either discernibly interact with the acoustic sounds, spool out in such a way to suggest programmed autonomy, or simply hover. Trio music morphs into ensemble music, its causal relationships so immediately complex that only obvious palette-changing events like Parker switching to soprano can be pointed to as index points.  It’s a thoroughly engaging performance that certainly could have stood on its own and convincingly made Parker’s case about the symbiotic relationship between the facets of his work. However, the concluding section secures Parker’s bold construction; initially high-pitched sounds ricochet about Parker’s multiphonics-flecked soprano (some are readily identifiable as real-time reactions by the processors), before giving partial way to allow Guy and Lytton to join Parker for what is now the final full-throated passage before the music fades into silence. The assemblage gives SET additional compositional moorings without sterilizing the improvisational germ of Parker’s music.
–Bill Shoemaker


Matthew Shipp
Thirsty Ear THI 57192.2

His own comments in Signal to Noise notwithstanding, characterizing Matthew Shipp’s newest solo recording as an assessment of his music to date, and linking it to the dissolution of the pianist’s trio with Joe Morris and Whit Dickey, seems overwrought. 4D has neither an extraordinary angst nor a conceptual breakthroughto support the idea of Shipp throwing himself inward in a fundamentally more profound way than he has in the past. Granted, substantial new interpretations of previously recorded standards and originals like “Equilibrium” are included; but it’s a bit like saying a mid-career album like Thelonious Himself (1957; Riverside) was a culminating statement. And, it distorts the overall shape of the album, which is just as, if not more attributable to new Shipp originals like “Stairs,” which is built upon the type of open-voiced chords Abdullah Ibrahim often uses to summon the spirits of Ellington and Africa. Sure; this is a solid addition to Shipp’s catalog of solo piano recordings. His contrarian cred remains high by atomizing “Frere Jacques,” shoveling the schmaltz on “Autumn Leaves,” and pummeling an initially stately reading of “Greensleeves.”  To further shake things up, and dispel any generalization that he dips into old songs simply to deconstruct them, Shipp gives “Prelude to a Kiss” the type of well-mannered caress pianists have given the Ellington composition for decades. Shipp’s provocative commentary is as sharp as ever on pieces like “Jazz Paradox,” which swerves through several stylistic zones. As is the case with the vast majority of Shipp’s albums, the take-away from 4D is that Shipp remains one of the more reliable lightning rods in jazz, an artist who clearly has already said much, but just as obviously has more to say in the future.  Give him another 20 years before expecting anything even resembling a summation.
–Bill Shoemaker


Invenio ergo
Matchless MRCD75

Eddie Prévost is best known for his 44-year membership in AMM, the British improvising ensemble that has pioneered substantial areas of layered, timbral and long-form free improvisation and in which Prévost has become the defining presence. Even within AMM he has covered an array of percussion approaches, but he has also had a significant if less conspicuous presence as a free-jazz drummer, working in bands that work with more traditional values of rhythm and dialogue. Also a frequent leader of improvisation workshops, Prévost is wearing many of his musical hats here, including record producer, on Sum’s debut. Guitarist Ross Lambert and saxophonist Seymour Wright are among the younger improvisers that Prévost has mentored and championed for more than a decade. Given the previous credits of Lambert and Wright, it will likely come as a surprise that Sum’s two-CD set, recorded on a February day in 2008 at London’s Cafe Oto, comes not from the more abstract and timeless side of Prévost’s improvising but from the very core of his free-jazz playing. It’s undoubtedly a “jazz” record and, given the better-documented predilections of the participants (Wright is capable of sitting with an alto saxophone in his lap, playing it by moving a microphone over the sound-holes, a position as radical as, and directly reminiscent of, Joseph Beuys cradling a rabbit’s corpse for the performance piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”), at times surprisingly gentle and tonal.

The group possesses tremendous fluidity, Prévost creating dense and mobile rhythmic fields against which Wright and Lambert move in and out of tonal episodes, ranging freely from honking (if somehow minimalist) intensity to truncated lyricism. Wright covers a surprising range of traditional alto sonorities, while Lambert develops his fundamental tone from the lightly amplified sound of ’50s jazz guitar. On the first disc, called “Invenio,” melodies first emerge as a surprise – “Stella by Starlight,” “Giant Steps” – but one gradually senses these are forms that are constantly available here, multiple patterns (topics) moving in and out of focus with the shifting dialogue. There is a long stretch at the beginning of the second disc, “Ergo,” that suggests what might happen if Lee Konitz’s Motion (his 1961 masterpiece with Elvin Jones and Sonny Dallas) were beamed out into space, picked up 25 light years away, its messages interpreted, commented upon and reconstituted, and the results returned at the same velocity with striking audio presence. This is jazz clarified to the purest event and exchange, possessed of an inevitability that includes both the pleasure of the momentary dialogue and a consciousness of the complex status of its rhetoric and its historical position.
–Stuart Broomer


James Tenney
Spectrum Pieces
New World 80692-2

James Tenney referred to his eight Spectrum compositions as a “family” that shared traits, the most prominent being the explication of a harmonic series. However, he did not consider them to be a cycle or a sequence; rather, each was a stand-alone work akin to the others. Begun in 1994, when he felt stung by criticisms that the tonalities of earlier harmonic series-based works were “too sweet,” Tenney sharpened his resolve to eliminate major key consonance from the Spectrum pieces, which was probably enthusiastically welcomed by commissioners of early pieces like Ensemble Modern (“Spectrum 3”) and Maarten Altena Ensemble (“Spectrum 4”). To this end, Tenney indicates tunings that matched the intervals of a piece’s harmonic series as closely as possible, resulting in a provocative astringency, a quality thoroughly exploited by the James Fulkerson and Frank Denyer co-directed Barton Workshop on this 2-CD collection. Even though the instrumentations range from a trio of flute, cello and piano (augmented by a tape delay system) to chamber orchestra, Tenney creates traces of continuity between the pieces, and not solely through structural devices like duration (each piece lasts sixteen minutes, except for the eighteen-minute Spectrum 3) or a “swell,” a dynamic shape Tenney assigned to each piece. Instead, it is an aura of uncontrived restraint that really bonds the pieces, particularly in the writing for flutes and clarinets; Tenney only pursues something approximating profuse expressiveness on “Spectrum 3,” employing a 20-piece ensemble including cor anglais, alto saxophone and bass flutes and clarinets.  For all of the pieces’ arch features – the use of long tones, the incremental introduction and development of phrase shapes and the often minute adjustments in dynamics – they nevertheless convey a clear picture of a composer striving to evoke something essentially, if not strangely human in the music.  He succeeded.
–Bill Shoemaker

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