Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Frode Gjerstad + Kevin Norton + David Watson
Live Tipple

Frode Gjerstad turned 65 this past year. He’s been playing jazz and improvised music since 1968, which makes for another kind of personal epoch. Is it me, or is he still more than a little underrated? There is, when you trouble to look, a substantial body of work on record and the saxophonist has proved to be a tireless road warrior. Perhaps he doesn’t quite fit some critical template of “Norwegian jazz saxophone,” a category headed and dominated by a very different kind of player indeed.

The Tipple group has been around for some time. Gjerstad seems to like trio performance, working regularly with his Øyvind Storesund and Paal Nilssen-Love unit (a crack live group) and with the flexible, vocal-led group that can be heard on another current FMR release Insult which is credited to VCDC. He’s maybe best remembered by outsiders for Detail, the trio he co-led with John Stevens and Johnny Dyani (and after Mbizo’s death, Kent Carter), and for leading the Circulasione Totale Orchestra, whose apotheosis at Molde in 1989 is still a key moment in European jazz/free music.

I sense that the key to Gjerstad is that he’s more interested in music than he is in the business of making it. That’s not to say he’s simply allowed his work to stumble out into the world. It’s more that he’s not a self-conscious instrumentalist. There’s some significance in the knowledge that he began his improvising career as a trumpeter, and only later began to experiment with the saxophone family, alto at first and then more insistently on tenor. He also plays clarinet, which remains a specialist avocation. As he shows again on these live selections from Middletown, Connecticut, his playing is not so much individualistic as driven by the needs of the group. Working with players as flexible as David Watson (who plays electric guitar and bagpipes) and Kevin Norton (percussive vibes, tuneful drums) allows him to develop a group sound that’s as flexible as a large orchestra but also highly mobile. Norton also works with Gjerstad and bassist Nick Stephens in a group called Instinctual Eye, which I’ve only heard passingly, but it confirms that Norton is drawn to this kind of small ensemble.

It isn’t clear how much preparation went into the music for this concert, but it’s clear that Gjerstad has again found the kind of sympathetic context in which his hard-blowing but never blustery style functions to maximum effect. Norton can be pushy and dominant in a small group context, especially when any of the others show an inclination to coast. He’s not a man who lets the grass grow under his feet. But here he seems confident in his surroundings and willing to go with the flow. Watson’s a delightful maverick, armed with a musical sensibility that takes quarter-tones for granted and that doesn’t get itchy for a new idea every thirty seconds; this may be a result of studying Scottish piobaireachd.

There’s talk of further work with Tipple and a new release in the offing. That’s welcome because this feels like a group that’s evolving fast and still perhaps working out its language. At 65 Gjerstad is blowing better and stronger than ever. Like other players who don’t trade on an instantly recognisable tonal signature, he’s most accurately sampled in bulk. A single track or even album might be misleading. The more one hears of him, the more sense it makes and the more effective is an approach that pulls in elements from all over the jazz canon. I hear a lot of Rollins in his playing these days, a kind of relaxed discursiveness that suits the tough conversational style of this particular group. There are few more challenging role-models than that.
–Brian Morton


Vijay Iyer + Mike Ladd
Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project
Pi 149

Recent MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Iyer and vocalist Ladd (whose development from conceptual hip-hop MC to multimedia cosmopolitan collaborator – and here, keyboardist – has been fascinating) share a radicalism that is more than just musical. Over the course of their collaborations, they’ve explored the overlap of expressive genres even as they’ve declaimed on the status of musical and culture outsiders in contemporary America. Iyer, who has famously cautioned against “jazz as history lesson,” is sensitive to how easy it is for such projects to get bogged down in didacticism. Holding It Down never does so, as its haunting, challenging, and ultimately redeeming music does something integral to the best of all jazz: it restores the centrality of the voice.

They’ve taken the words of actual veterans – Ladd undertook dozens of interviews, all with vets of color, in recent years – and compiled a series of fascinating records of dashed dreams, flouted expectations, and near-psychedelic recollections of combat. Along with his own writings and those of Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill (two vets who composed poems specifically for this recording), Ladd ushers these documentary reflections through Iyer’s incandescent, often dreamy settings. (Some of the most effective pieces are actually just the recorded interviews, as with “Capacity” from Lynn in the Bronx.) Hazy here, bluntly realist there, there’s an evanescent, flickering perceptual quality to this music, which makes sense given how many of these reflections emerge from dreams. Grim reality is deflected and mirrored back to us via the subconscious, brought into being by ace instrumentalists: note drummer Kassa Overall’s punchy funk undercurrent and Okkyung Lee’s fabulous cello on “Derelict Poetry” (they’re joined by vocalists/electronicians Pamela Z and Guillermo Brown, and guitarist Liberty Ellman).

The music as a whole has a resonant, at times anthemic quality that’s distinct from much of Iyer’s other writing. It all flows together like a suite too, leading to the impression that you’re suspending your usual aesthetic sensibility and entering a fully wrought other space. Ladd’s vaguely impressionistic/apocalyptic reflections are always impressive (“Colin Powell is controlling my mind!” “Head down, kid; Colin’s not that smart”), and one of the record’s most jarring pieces features Ladd’s remembrance of how hollow was his mother’s promise that there’d be no war in the future. “My Fire” blooms with a kind of lyricism, even wonderment, while things tack in the opposite direction on the abjected “There is a Man Slouching in the Stairway” (with fabulous playing from Ellman). But careful attention to the lyrics is truly the thing here. Listen to the studied, sober documentary prose on “On Patrol” (with its litany of gunfire sounds: “rattle, crackle, rat-a-tat-ta, ka-boom!”), to the stuttering “Dream of an Ex-Ranger,” sorting through fragments of memory, to Lynn’s intense reflections on gender (“Name”), the nervous and panicked “Shush” (“I’ve been talking in my sleep again”), or the haunting “Dreams in Color” (“When I dream, I dream of normalcy ... I dream the color of peace”).

The music isn’t ever in the background, and the pleasures of instrumental voices here are abundant (Iyer’s obsessive figures, Okkyung and Ellman’s expressive strings). In this most meaningful collaboration, instrumentalists and vocalists share the conviction of purpose in realizing a vision of veterans’ experience that is unnerving, difficult, and unflinching. This is its real achievement, and it’s a considerable one.
–Jason Bivins


Kirk Knuffke
Steeplechase 31769

Here’s some musical cubism for you. Remember how Chet Baker played trumpet with as little breath as possible? On Chorale, Kirk Knuffke plays cornet with a lovely sound and a range from p to ppp. He’ll develop a distinctly etched line that suddenly, before you know it, veers off in a different direction, or he’ll just as suddenly start a train of thought in a faster momentum. His phrases are short, his themes and his improvisations rarely resolve. Tempos are from slow to medium, he stays in middle octaves, he’s wholly straightforward and lyrical – no bravura distracts at times when imagination fails. Only two tracks of the nine sustain moods. His slow ballad solo in the mistitled “Madly” is the essence of melancholy, with drooping phrases, Lester Bowie-like whimpers, and crying trills. In the title song he breathes so very soft, quiet tones but this time it’s Miles Davis’s Spanish melancholy, at times specifically.

His quartet magnifies his cubism. Often as not they play in separate momentums and harmonically distant from each other. Moreover, each man’s tempos slow and speed independently – the music seldom swings. Yet somehow they sound together, even invent variations on each other’s ideas. Michael Formanek is an emotive bassist: in solo and otherwise, he improvises whole, tragic arias – a Pagliacci. Russ Lossing is opposite, an ethereal pianist who plays busy, fast, single-note phrases separated by deep breaths. His solos flow; hear how he makes a unity out of distances in “Made.” Drummer Billy Hart is alternately an imp, freely rattling his sticks on his drums’ rims, and a schoolmaster trying to rein in the others with his rhythms. He only plays his full drum kit behind piano solos. His fast rattling and thumping in ballads tends to sound random. Above these three’s antics is cornetist Knuffke, ever serene.

The quartet’s rhythmic polyphony, with all the contrary momentums, is a development of Miles Davis’s quintets with Tony Williams, a way that Davis himself abandoned with In a Silent Way. To me it’s still a sort of magic, even if it’s not all that rare any more.
–John Litweiler


Sebastian Lexer + Evan Parker + Eddie Prévost
Tri-Borough Triptych
Matchless CD MRCD89

Tri-Borough Triptych is a bit of a connect-the-dots release comprised of three live duo performances recorded around London in 2012 and 2013. The first captures a performance by long-time cohorts Eddie Prévost and Evan Parker; the second, a duo between Prévost and Sebastian Lexer, a regular member of Prévost’s recent pool of collaborators; and the final, a first-time meeting between Parker and Lexer. In the liner notes to the CD, John Tilbury talks about a common thread of deep, committed listening that connects these three duo settings. And while that is true, the contrasts are illuminating.

Parker and Prévost have been at this for decades now and while they didn’t get to recording together until the ‘80s, their paths certainly crossed long before. From the very first sounds of their duo (recorded live at the 2012 Freedom of the City Festival) the two musicians are unmistakable as Parker’s bobbing and weaving tenor slowly gathers in whorls against Prévost’s shimmering bowed percussion. Each of these musicians have carved out their respective definitive vocabularies and what one hears across this 28-minute improvisation is the collective give-and-take the two explore. Parker’s more discursive approach ups the level of activity in the mix while Prévost countervails by drawing out the flow, introducing pools of stasis as the music unfolds. With musicians of lesser ability, that could lead to a disjointed dichotomy, but with these two, the result is a natural sense of ebb and flow.

Prévost’s duo with Sebastian Lexer operates in an entirely different manner. Lexer’s piano and signal processing combines the resonant strings and surfaces of a piano, close micing of the instrument and the room, and software which is used to process and refract the various inputs in real-time. For the first third of their duo, Lexer and Prevost focus in on the attack and decay of bowed percussion, shuddering piano strings, honing in on the physical properties of the sounds. Gradually, they introduce the attack of struck piano keys and the rattle of bells and gongs into the mix, but the balance never veers toward conversational interplay. Instead they allow the improvisations to sit in sections of density or scrim-like transparencies, building organically and then opening up while never rushing the transitions.

Parker’s meeting with Lexer is not nearly as seamless. Here, Parker’s labyrinthine soprano and Lexer’s treated piano and electronics seem to move beside each other, trying to find inroads but never quite doing so. Parker has extensive experience working with electronic processing and, at its most successful, saxophone and electronic extensions are subsumed into a single voice. With this session, there is a cautiousness that prevails as the two push at the edges, dialing up activity levels and then backing off, only to press on again. While there is a certain sense of exploratory risk-taking, the two never quite connect.
–Michael Rosenstein


Luís Lopes
Lisbon Noise Solo

Luís Lopes Humanization 4tet
Live in Madison
Ayler AYLCD-134

Luís Lopes is a Portuguese guitarist whose work is grounded in rock, funk and free jazz, but it’s often his electronic conception of the instrument that comes to the fore, a knack for unlikely accompaniments that can include quiet noise and singing quarter-tones and solos that are marked by thoughtful construction and a reflective depth that can suggest the plaintive wail of a shakuhachi. His empathetic play has distinguished some international dialogues on the Clean Feed label, like Afterfall (which includes American saxophonist Joe Giardullo and French bassist Benjamin Dubo) and What Is When (with bassist Adam Lane and Israeli drummer Igal Foni).

Live in Madison is the third CD by the Humanization 4tet, a band that includes Lopes’ fellow Lisboan Rodrigo Amado on tenor saxophone along with Texans Aaron González on bass and Stefan González on drums (the two sound like they were raised to be a rhythm section, whether it’s here or in Yells at Eels with their father, trumpeter Dennis González). Recorded at Madison’s Audio for the Arts on the final night of a ten-city U.S. tour in 2011, the band plays with the intensity and energy that you might expect from their funk and free jazz roots, but they also play with an extraordinary level of control. While the band moves seamlessly from assertive grooves to free, someone is always grounding the performance, sometimes Lopes himself, whose choppy comping effectively anchors and prods Amado’s brilliant squall on “Jungle Gymnastics,” or Stefan González, whose tight rhythmic figures keep Amado’s “Two Girls” together as the rest of the group slides back and forth between groove and chaos. It’s that level of continuous focus that distinguishes the band from some likely parallels such as Last Exit and The Thing. Lopes is an original whose direct roots rarely show, but the extended solo on his “Long March for Frida Kahlo” has a mix of determined economy and angular insistence that suggests some close listening to the best editions of the Magic Band.

Noise Solo at ZDB Lisbon recalls for this listener a 2012 walk-through of an exhibition of radical musical instruments at Lisbon’s Cultural Centre of Belém. It included examples of the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori, an ondes Martinot – the eerie electronic keyboard that distinguished itself in Messiaen’s Tarangalila Symphony – and, of most immediate relevance, the guitars and amplifiers used for Lou Reed’s noise epic Metal Machine Music. It’s a century-long tradition of sonic experimentation that Lopes invokes, distinguishing himself from the majority of feedback guitarists by the constructivist patience of his work, his fondness for the infinitesimal microtonal shift in a wailing sustained tone, for the development of rhythmic patterns as one sound is played against another, and for the sense of sustained design. It’s fundamentally meditative noise that Lopes practices, exploring perhaps feed-forward as well as feedback in the ecstatic creation of a timeless trance.
–Stuart Broomer

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