Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Alvin Lucier
Orchestra Works
New World 80755-2

Alvin Lucier’s compositions demonstrate complex acoustical phenomena with an erudite sense of design, and wrings beguiling, even beautiful music from them. The three compositions comprising Orchestra Works are among his most sumptuous and monumental – a 14-piece ensemble led by cellist Charles Curtis performs “Slices” (2007); the estimable Petr Kotik conducts the Janáček Orchesta in “Exploration of the House” (2005), and is joined by Christian Arming and Zsolt Nagy to conduct the three-orchestra version of “Diamonds for 1, 2 or 3 Orchestras” (1999).  Even though they were composed through widely different methods, they all contain bracing moments when the act of listening is renewed – at least momentarily.

“Exploration of the House” retools the serial re-recording process upon which Lucier’s most famous composition, “I Am Sitting in a Room,” is built. Instead of using a single spoken text as its core material, Lucier instead divides Beethoven’s seldom heard “Consecration of the House” overture into seventeen fragments; the conductor choosing among them to assemble a unique performance. Repeatedly, these fragments are heard as performed, and then heard in successive generations where the playback is simultaneously re-recorded, allowing the resonant frequencies of the concert hall to thoroughly and iridescently deform the music. It is the repeated return to the unprocessed takes of the orchestra that increasingly supply an element of surprise. As soon as the listener settles into the hovering colors of the processed fragment, the orchestra returns to Beethoven’s early 19th Century heroics to create a slingshot-like effect, shooting the listener back and forth through centuries of music-making stratagems.

“Slices” entails a similarly painstakingly recording process. To fully exploit the concert hall’s resonance, each of Curtis’ thirteen cohorts (six strings, four winds and four brass, spanning flute and violin to tuba and bass) were recorded separately. Their material is comprised of instrument-appropriate pitches chosen from the 53 notes of the cello’s range. When combined, the long-tone clusters have astounding definition. Curtis then plays through a series of melodic sequences comprised of the pitches of the clusters; as he plays, the corresponding instrument playing the same pitch rests, resulting in a bellows-like effect. Subsequently, the listener experiences two things usually thought to be mutually exclusive: the full-on sonic impact of a carefully constructed cluster and the contribution of each pitch in that cluster.

Tracing a diamond provides the conceptual, if not exactly the procedural basis for “Diamonds;” the left corner being a unison, the lines to the high and low points of the diamond being gradual ascending and descending glissandi, each played by half of the orchestra, and the lines to the right point being the return to the unison. Lucier sets multiple diamonds into motion, not all of them symmetrical; subsequently, there are complex relationships between the various unisons and glissandi heard at any given moment in the piece, which are further compounded by the morphing acoustical details. However, as is also the case with the other two pieces, Lucier bathes the listener with sound; however, three orchestras’ worth distinguishes “Diamonds” from most everything Lucier has committed to disc.
–Bill Shoemaker


Myra Melford
Life Carries Me This Way
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-018

I once put on a weekend improvisation event in a small London art gallery. A woman, apparently not a regular improv dabbler, asked at the door, “Should we look at the pictures? Will that help?” The only honest answer was “Do what you like, as long as you don’t touch the bloody pictures,” that being the strict condition on which the venue had been borrowed. But it’s a fair point here, since this first – remarkably so – solo piano album by Myra Melford is directly inspired by a set of paintings by Sacramento post-realist Don Reich. The images are gathered together in a neat, faithfully reproduced booklet. For anyone who doesn’t know him, Reich’s style seems to follow a trajectory similar to Jackson Pollock’s non-drip work, with elements of figuration always discernible behind the abstraction, and a few remote hints of Thomas Hart Benton’s back-country style, which was Pollock’s starting point. Not too many Jungian archetypes in evidence, mercifully. Reich was friendly with Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe: they might offer a more amenable analogy.

No one will look for direct or overt equivalence between images and music. There are moments, as on the slowly rising “Curtain” or the pair of pieces toward the end inspired by Barcelona and Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia, when there appear to be sonic representations of a more literal sort; but that’s not the spirit of the set, and, ironically, because Melford doesn’t insist on any direct connection, it’s all the more fruitful to listen to these tracks with the booklet on hand.

It’s rather remarkable to be hearing her unaccompanied at last, and far enough into the career for influence to be too deeply embedded to identify. And yet, there are moments here, notably on “Red Land” (which is dedicated to Reich), when the presence of her old mentor Don Pullen seems very close – something about the toughly rhapsodic sway of the piece, or a deliberately raw and unpolished sentiment. “Park Mechanics,” the opening track, has something similar, a beautifully constructed idea that leaves its key elements disassembled, like those in the closing “Still Life.” I sense that Melford probably learned a great deal from the close proximity of a sheaf of Reich drawings and paintings which she kept propped in her Berkeley studio. She’s always been prolific, though more often in the service of other musician’s music. What she maybe took from Reich, who regarded painting as work and not just as a source of “works,” is the way an image captures a moment of perception, a sense of order, or disassembled order, caught entire rather than evoked in linear explication. The exciting thing about Melford’s pieces is her confidence in letting functional harmony slip, letting sounds be themselves, taking risks with juxtapositions of tone (most notably on “Red Beach,” with its parti-coloured chords and quiet clusters) and accepting the studio situation as a sequence of temporal and thematic “frames” in which the music emerges on its own terms. There are only a few moments, as on “Piano Music” when one becomes aware of “composition,” of a conscious putting-together. One sees the brush-marks, if you like; but that’s also an acceptable form of creative signature. If it isn’t Melford’s intention to conceal the sources of this work (and its inspiration is there to see), then it’s not surprising that she should also reveal something of her working.

I’ve now listened to this record maybe twenty, twenty-five times, sometimes with the images, more often now without them, and it settles steadily in the mind the way a successfully hung show does, a harmony of parts, a small utopic space through which one can pass in real time or dwell lingeringly. It’s unusual to have musician and visual artist listed in a recording personnel, but this one feels like a genuine collaboration, albeit a posthumous one (Reich died in 2010). It’s not the least sign of Melford’s great and generous gifts that even on her solo debut she works best with a human partner and fellow spirit.
–Brian Morton


Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch
NotTwo MW 906-2

Lisa Mezzacappa Trio
X Marks the Question
Queen Bee Records QB-001

Lisa Mezzacappa is quickly becoming a leading presence in the contemporary West Coast jazz scene. In addition to playing contrabass in numerous Bay Area collectives, Mezzacappa leads a handful of unique bands, including Bait & Switch, the Lisa Mezzacappa Trio and Nightshade. Among her most recent efforts, Comeuppance is the follow-up to What Is Known, the critically acclaimed 2010 Clean Feed Records debut of Bait & Switch, while X Marks the Question is the premier recording of her bi-coastal Trio with Brooklyn-based guitarist Chris Welcome and drummer Mike Pride.

Although Mezzacappa’s freewheeling Trio readily explores the furthest reaches of the jazz continuum, Bait & Switch – the bassist’s self-proclaimed garage jazz quartet – ventures even further into vanguard territory, negotiating the tenuous divide between expressionistic free jazz and primal rock and roll. Founded in 2008, the group’s previous effort featured imaginative covers by AACM drummer Steve McCall and iconic rock experimentalist Captain Beefheart; this set continues in the same vein, including an atmospheric rendition of Chico Freeman’s “Luna” and a spirited reading of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Old.”

Aesthetically similar to the aforementioned covers, Mezzacappa’s episodic originals offer a comparable set of challenges for her bandmates’ interpretive skills, including sudden shifts in tone and tempo. Guitarist John Finkbeiner shines in this mercurial setting, pushing the limits of conventional tonality at the conclusion of “X Marks the Question” with skronky fretwork that pitches wildly between piercing harmonics and coruscating shards of sound. Tenor saxophonist Aaron Bennett easily holds his own in Finkbeiner’s company; their feverish interplay fuels the majority of the date’s most enthralling passages, exemplified by the fusillade of bent strings and recoiling multiphonics that dominates “Cruciferous.” Providing more than mere timekeeping, drummer Vijay Anderson perfectly complements the leader’s oblique detours and hypnotic vamps, their dynamic rhythms underpinning everything from pointillist interludes to vociferous climaxes.

Comeuppance is a rollicking example of Mezzacappa’s most assured writing, featuring taut, well-crafted pieces that accentuate the singular talents of her sidemen. Comparatively, X Marks the Question is a more relaxed, collaborative effort, where Mezzacappa shares writing duties with her trio-mates. The members’ compositional and improvisational contributions are all stylistically compatible, imbuing a sense of thematic unity to the proceedings. Veering from the flinty angularity of “1989” and the infectious swing of “Negakfok” to the serene introspection of “Jazz Brunch” and the cinematic impressionism of “Judgement Night,” each piece flows gracefully from one mood to the next, accentuating the empathetic rapport shared by these musicians, whose diverse skill set ranges from pellucid balladry to heavy metal shredding.

Together these records illustrate the broad stylistic diversity and artistic consistency of Mezzacappa’s oeuvre, an aspect best demonstrated by differing approaches to the titular piece “X Marks the Question,” which is featured on each album – Bait & Switch’s rendition being far more volatile than the Trio’s. From the primal expressionism of Comeuppance to the sophisticated interplay of X Marks the Question, these two sessions document some of the most compelling creative improvised music being made from coast to coast.
–Troy Collins


Harry Miller
Different Times, Different Places
Ogun OGCD 041

A welcomed addition to bassist Harry Miller’s relatively scant discography as a leader, Different Times, Different Places is comprised of two sessions, each of which include Miller compositions either heretofore undocumented on disc or thought to be of a later vintage. The album reinforces the consensus that Miller had very few peers when it came to driving a band or throwing down an incendiary solo; but, it should also reopen the discussion of his gifts as a composer.

One such composition opens the album’s first sequence, a trio of tracks recorded in June 1973 by a quintet including trombonist Nick Evans, alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, pianist Chris McGregor and drummer Louis Moholo. “Bloomfield” is a bluesy dirge whose initially supple harmonic movement is jarred by tartly intoned, exclamatory phrases. With Evans and McGregor all but laying out, it’s all on Osborne, who is at his plaintive best. There’s not so much a semblance of understatement to Osborne’s solo as a quiet fire; never straying more than an arm’s length from the theme, Osborne leaves ample space for his trademark cry to decay exquisitely. “Quandry” and “Touch Hungry” are in what is generally considered to be Miller’s wheelhouse; a mix of incessantly propulsive riffs, emphatic themes and splashes of strong South African colors, yielding a signature balance between visceral power and buoyant lyricism. The later was a staple of Isipingo sets – it’s included on the ‘77 Ogun studio album Family Affair, the ‘75 Cuneiform NDR set Which Way Now, and the ‘76 French festival performance that rounds out this collection – so it is a welcomed opportunity to hear an inspired McGregor on what is the earliest version of “Touch Hungry” to be issued to date.

While McGregor was a singularly iconic figure, Keith Tippett was the perfect pianist for Miller’s Isipingo, which, on this occasion, included Moholo, Osborne, trumpeter Marc Charig, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths. Arguably, no other pianists could incite comparable explosive power from Miller and Moholo; as evidenced by the set-closing “Eli’s Song,” Tippett could also lead the sextet outbound into abstraction, stir up a vortex of colors and textures, and then, extending the advents of McCoy Tyner, reignite the blaze. Yet, Tippett is only one reason why this festival set stands in the front ranks of Miller’s recordings. There’s an exhilarating take on the brightly swinging “Marfolo,” previously issued only on Miller’s ‘83, pianoless Vara date, Down South. While Osborne and trombonist Malcolm Griffiths deliver consistently engaging and frequently fiery solos, they are ultimately overshadowed by legacy-making performances by trumpeter Marc Charig.

Very few albums recorded in 2013 match Different Times, Different Places in terms of spirit and joy – an album not to be missed.
–Bill Shoemaker


Matt Mitchell
Pi 150

Pianist Matt Mitchell has been on the East Coast improvising scene for quite some time, steadily developing his distinctive voice as an instrumentalist and composer. But it’s been in the last five years, especially owing to his fairly high-profile sideman work with Tim Berne and others, that he’s been receiving appropriate attention. Combining a rhythmic complexity that wouldn’t sound out of date on a Steve Coleman record with an eternal linearity that’s like postmodern Tristano, Mitchell synthesizes sounds and idioms with breathtaking ease. And this stunning album of duets with percussionist Ches Smith spotlights his powers of invention.

Each of the album’s fifteen pieces is a fairly terse workout. They begin from, instead of work towards, that place where improvisation and notation bleed together. Listening to each is like entering some strange architecture, fully wrought but unpredictable, reluctant to reveal too much of its twisting logic at once. If there’s a common element, it’s sheer intensity of energy and (seriously demanding) execution. Indeed, sometimes I felt so overwhelmed by the information that I could only listen to one track at a time. But, from the shots fired on the opening “Veins,” there is a directness and sense of momentum that engage and compel. Like many of the pieces here, this one’s skirling patterns seem never to repeat (even as the piece has a definable shape that emerges on repeated listens). While Mitchell’s wending lines snake across the entire disc, his music often becomes spare, almost as delicate as a lattice sometimes, only to pick up and move in an entirely different direction, piling up on itself to the point of near collapse.

Though each piece is immersive and occasionally shares syntax with the others, Mitchell and Smith cover a huge amount of ground here. The rattling, occasionally dissonant “Brain Color” moves, in three minutes, from free bash to gorgeously abstract balladry with an occasional hint of Monk. “Upright” is a study in hesitancy, and “Singe” in stumble-fumble (though there’s a steady funk undercurrent that rears its head via momentum rather than explicit bomb-dropping). Tiny bells give shape to Mitchell’s sideways motion and layered tempi on “Wanton Eon.” As it cedes to “Dadaist Flu,” Smith picks up sticks for spindle-clatter, summoning great contrastive focus from Mitchell, who deigns to introduce some block chords into the spare environment. From crashing and dark to Mengelberg/Bennink romps, from tense balladic essays to abstracted funk with Tristano linearity, it seems this duo can conjure up just about anything. Most impressive is the lengthiest piece, “Action Tether,” whose patient accretion of dissonance evolves into a steady, jabbing chordal assemblage. It’s absolutely top-flight music, with great synergy between Mitchell and Smith, and a seemingly boundless invention. More, please!
–Jason Bivins

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