Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Earl Howard
Granular Modality
New World 80728-2

Every few years, Earl Howard releases a recording that reasserts his frontiersman bona fides. However, each successive album is so distinctive that it hinders a thumbnail profile. Is he a composer with excellent instincts as an improviser? Is he an improviser whose sound installations, film scores for the likes of Nam June Paik, and numerous commissions and fellowships place him beyond category? “All of the above” is the obvious correct answer, but the “all” seems to expand with each recording. The musically exceptional Granular Modality is no exception. Three of the four pieces are solos by Howard. “2455,” not only reasserts his tangential relationship as an alto saxophonist to solo recital pioneers like Braxton and Mitchell, but also his dexterity in moving between microtonality, multiphonics and more jazz-informed techniques (his glissandi have a Hodges-like bearing). “Bird 3” and “Strasser 60” are performed on a Kurzweil synthesizer. The former is more old school, an aggregate of sounds associated with the Columbia-Princeton era of room-sized banks of oscillators, filters and tape machines, and more recently minted granular sounds. The latter has a more overtly orchestral feel, particularly towards the end where a pedal point drone dissolves into sheer colors. Howard is joined by koto innovator Miya Masaoka on “Crupper.” She opens the piece with a space-privileging solo based on blues-inflected scales. Howard gradually processes the koto, which prompts more rhythmic materials from Masaoka. Even as she bows the strings and uses the koto’s wooden body as a percussion instrument, she retains a semblance of the tonality introduced at the outset of the piece. Initially, the erosion of this tonality seems to be at the heart of Howard’s processing; through some sleight of hand, however, the synthesizer anchors the tonal center by the end of the piece. Even though his solo works are thoroughly engaging, this duet is the album’s stand-out.  
– Bill Shoemaker


The Sibyl’s Whisper
Metalanguage ML2012

Singing is the “face on Mars.” We’re hardwired to pick out the human presence, even in alien places. A painter like Claude Lorrain puts a few mythological characters in a landscape and it’s not just “staffage,” a device for showing scale; the landscape organizes itself round the human forms. Same with music. It’s hard to hear a voice as part of an ensemble, particularly if there are comprehensible lyrics. Some improvisers have managed it. One thinks of Norma Winstone’s work with Michael Garrick and with Mike Westbrook, which in part reflects her still underrated ability to sing for rather than merely with the band, but it also reflects their ability to hear her instrumentally rather than as a libretto vocalist. Ran Blake has a genius for integrating singer and piano in such a way there is no longer a distinction between “vocals” and “accompaniment.” Other examples suggest themselves, but Larry Ochs is onto something special with Kihnoua, in which singer Dohee Lee plays a key part.

My instinct is that drummer Scott Amendola is the group’s engine, an impression reinforced by Ochs’ previous work with his Sax & Drum Core, a nicely punning title that is more obviously functional than Kihnoua, which appears to be derived from the Greek for “difference.” I’d suggest this has less to do with a jazzer’s “somethin’ else” shrug at categories and more to do with, say, Charles Babbage’s “difference engine” or with that ‘80s favorite of the graduate schools, Jacques Derrida’s dee-fay-ronce, which contains an implication of deferral as well as separation. Ochs and Lee create music which seems at moments to work according to certain procedural algorithms, but which also defers any easy take on its psychological or expressive landscapes. The places this music takes you to are peopled, but in disturbingly unfamiliar ways. The cover shows a trio of mannequins with a couple of spare limbs; it’s a good metaphor for what happens inside.

“Flutter” is a quiet opening wager, with Lee at her most becalmed, attended by Ochs. The saxophonist has taken time to understand the workings of Korean music, which tends to alternate ethereal, beatless textures with episodes that can sound violent to a Western ear. On “…in progress…,” that lineage seems quite obvious, and the jazz element least so, and yet this is a piece that seems to me to take most from what might be called post-Miles jazz, quite minimal in conception but with an edgy quality, too. It starts with sopranino and bass and suggests an unusual (for this music) degree of tonal gravitation. “GripBone” is dourer and the vocal element more overt and detached. There is a whiff of Pacific Overtures here, a sense of “ethnic” differences being satirically aired and then negated. “Erase the Sky” is again very much driven along by Amendola but gives a lot of foreground to bassist Wilbert de Joode who completes the group on record as Trevor Dunn has on tour. Reports vary on their respective contributions and merits, but there is some consensus that de Joode whiskers it for musical interest and that’s borne out on this track which features an extended roll-out of his arco playing, pitched inside and across the grain of a vigorous meter.

The group’s earlier recording Unauthorized Caprices (Not Two) had guest spots from Fred Frith, Joan Jeanrenaud and Liz Allbee, all of them fascinating. The Sibyl’s Whisper seems to me to bespeak a more confident group identity and an impressively sustained balance of structure and improvised elements. Ochs has sent out notes on the music to potential reviewers. He suggests that these are in some measure narrative works, each of them observing some kind of arc, and that Dohee Lee’s theatrical background is important to the music. The point is taken, but they’re all ensemble pieces in the fullest sense, collectivized, simultaneous in a way that some Asian drama avoids linearity and alternation of speech. Above all, it’s very effecting and involving music, one of the most interesting and fruitful releases of the year so far. One sees the human figures in the landscape and wonders vaguely what they are about, but there are so many possible stories one tends to enjoy the possibility of narrative rather than insisting on one particular interpretation. Like the “face on Mars,” everything depends on the angle, and like the “anomalies” at Cydonia, the inhuman landscape is every bit as interesting.
–Brian Morton


Lexer Prévost Wright
Impossibility in its Purest Form
Matchless MRCD82

In 1999, percussionist Eddie Prévost began convening an improvisation workshop in London. From its earliest days the pianist Sebastian Lexer and saxophonist Seymour Wright were among its most committed and creative members, and the relationship eventually developed into significant musical partnerships. Impossibility in its Purest Form documents their distinctive approach to improvisation. Wright’s cover art and Prévost’s liner note are both based on the Penrose Triangle, an impossible geometrical formation – a kind of open or mobius triangle found, among other places, in the illusionist art of M.C. Escher. The triangle becomes a metaphor for the group’s practice of improvisation and its “impossibility” as a construct.

There are four pieces here. The first three are duets, representing the three possible duos. Each piece in the series is entitled “Trilinear,” suggesting the absent third musician is somehow part of the work. The fourth and longest work is the full trio playing “Impossibility in its Purest Form.” The improvisatory language is less one of continuous sound than one of continuous attention. Heir to the processes of AMM, the group has a singular attention to detail, creating less a music of texture than one of sustained and elongated events, some of which are sonic abrasions; some of which are near silence.

Each performance begin in nothingness, eventually finds a kind of convergence, then elongates that moment, stretching it in time and space until there is room in one’s awareness for little else. In a sense dauntingly abstract, the work is also visceral, with both Wright (he can sound like a duck without being specifically mimetic) and Prévost exploring harsh reed and bowed metal sounds, in contrast to the refined and unpredictable little sounds that Lexer seems to prefer. That harshness may articulate either the struggle of a music that is made out of nothingness and which will return to it, or the impossibility of the moment and the insistence on its potential for habitation.  
–Stuart Broomer


Jimmy Lyons & Sunny Murray Trio
Jump Up
hatOLOGY 669

While not predicated on the fact of long-term partnerships, jazz and improvised music have had an innumerable amount of extremely effective collaborations. Sometimes these united fronts are so strong as to render artists’ independent work less recognized. Booker Ervin and Jaki Byard; George Adams and Don Pullen; perhaps even the Ayler brothers were among those lineups that seem greater than the sum of their parts. It’s been said quite often that Cecil Taylor’s music was at its apex when alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons (1931-1986) was part of the unit (as he was from 1960 until 1985). In addition, the criticism is that Lyons both couldn’t work with another pianist and did his best work with Taylor as a foil. In 2003, Ayler Records attempted to rectify part of that conundrum with a strong five-disc boxed set of Lyons’ previously unreleased solo, trio, and quartet recordings. Of course, Lyons did wax excellent music with the pianists Joel Futterman and Mary Anne Driscoll, but those sessions were as a sideman. Though he only led or co-led eight albums in his lifetime, the saxophonist built a body of work that increases our understanding of how Taylor’s music works as well as how he developed as an improvising composer.

Lyons cut three LPs for then-fledgling Hat Hut between 1978 and 1980, including the glorious triple-vinyl Push Pull and Riffs (both with his working bands), as well as a one-off 1980 Willisau recording of Lyons, drummer Sunny Murray and bassist John Lindberg (apparently subbing for Alan Silva). Titled Jump Up/What To Do About, the latter is certainly an excellent example of his playing outside of Cecil’s context, though its status as a sort of all-star reunion could be seen as overshadowing the saxophonist’s contemporaneous hand-picked ensembles. The CD reissue of Jump Up focuses strictly on Lyons’ pieces, leaving off the seventeen-minute Murray tune “What To Do About” and adding a version of the saxophonist’s “Tortuga.” Apart from Taylor’s It Is in the Brewing Luminous (Hat Hut, 1980), Lyons and Murray hadn’t recorded together since 1962.

Throughout the 1960s, Lyons could be seen as a Charlie Parker-schooled analog to Taylor’s Bud Powell, which isn’t to say that either musician was merely an further-out version of a previous vanguard (indeed, far from it), but that their playing, composing, and togetherness was deeply rooted in tradition. The altoist was so ebullient and lyrical, evincing and continually reshaping a form of brightness and invention that seemed to break off from Taylor’s chordal/melodic architecture. Lyons is a constant reminder of the “jazz framework” in the pianist’s knotty, systematized (but profoundly earthy) spires. A question for the critic is whether that same unfettered and grounded exuberance could be achieved without being set against a monumental partner and the answer is that in one sense, it’s irrelevant. Lyons somehow creates both his own powerfully individual phrasing and feeds himself “unit structures” of repetition and elaboration, framing improvisations in deceptively simple overarching environments. His phrases look like a series of overlapping planes whose fulcrums and hinges become ever more complexly aligned, but there is a centrality to them.

Some of the most impressive playing in this set is within the most concise pieces – the raging “Riffs #5” or the groovy Latinate “Tortuga” are both under nine minutes, and while the former has a Cecil-esque flavor, it’s hard to imagine any pianist working into the latter arrangement. Murray had found his way back to bop by the time of these recordings, creating loose rag time/no time swing on “Tortuga” and generating massive hives of displacement elsewhere. “Sea Trees” is bluesy and ripe with filigree, Lyons answering his own questions as Murray and Lindberg create a thick but seemingly independent landscape around his burred cool. The feel is almost like a jarringly free cousin to Lee Konitz’ Motion (Verve, 1961). The bassist is deserving of special mention – whether or not he was a last-minute linchpin, Lindberg’s full tone, impeccable time and devilish arco are a powerful asset in bonding Lyons’ flights and Murray’s explosiveness and off-kilter chug. Jump Up might be a sleeper of sorts in the leaders’ broad discography, but it shouldn’t be.
–Clifford Allen


Joe McPhee + Ingebrigt Håker Flaten
Brooklyn DNA
Clean Feed CF244CD

While Joe McPhee is a masterful ensemble player, I’ve always found his solo and duo recordings especially rewarding, particularly his strikingly strong body of work with bassists. This recording, from 2011, is his second duo release with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and from the first alto blasts it is evident that this one is a winner. Over the course of eight relatively compact improvisations, McPhee and Håker Flaten hone in on a collective sound, navigating their way through pieces which build simple themes into conversational freedom. The CD pays homage to Brooklyn, NY and its jazz history, with titles that give nods to Sonny Rollins, Dewey Redman and Don Cherry, as well as Brooklyn clubs like Putnam Central and The Blue Coronet, settings for historic sessions. These references underpin the work, providing conceptual foundation but never stylistic confinement.

For this session, McPhee leaves aside his tenor sax, switching between alto, soprano, and pocket trumpet – getting a chance to hear so much of his alto playing is a real treat. While not quite as indelibly striking as his deeper horn, his full-throated, crying tone and muscular attack set his sound apart from most alto players. Soprano and pocket trumpet provide effective timbral contrasts as the pieces interleave the three instruments. Håker Flaten is a lyrical bassist and his lithe, darting lines provide a potent countering voice. Throughout, there is a fluid feeling of give and take informed by keen listening. The two know how to prod and propel each other, and just when to drop back to let the other stretch out. The sharp-edged melodic themes carry these pieces, underscoring the two musicians’ distinctive approach to thematic freedom.
–Michael Rosenstein

Rogue Art

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