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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms
From The Region
Delmark DE 5017

Jason Adasiewicz has become a ubiquitous presence in the fertile Chicago jazz scene since the 2008 release of Rolldown, the 482 Music recording debut of his post-bop oriented quintet of the same name. Adasiewicz once worked the alt-country music circuit as a drummer for indie rock acts like Pinetop Seven and singer Edith Frost, but the innovative vibraphonist has since become well-known as an in-demand sideman to such local luminaries as Rob Mazurek, Mike Reed and Ken Vandermark, among many others, including Josh Berman, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Nicole Mitchell.

In addition to Rolldown, Adasiewicz co-leads Living By Lanterns with Reed; however his most intimate ensemble is Sun Rooms. Accompanied by just bass and drums, the spare trio setting finds Adasiewicz out front, playing the role of key soloist rather than supportive bandleader. Reed continues to hold down the drum chair, while Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten takes the place of former bassist Nate McBride.

From The Region is Sun Room’s third record for Delmark and first with Håker-Flaten, following 2011’s Spacer and the group’s self-titled 2009 debut. Despite being associated with the Windy City’s contemporary avant-garde, Adasiewicz’s writing is actually fairly conventional. Adasiewicz himself has stated that “Every song I’ve written is swinging in four. There are no odd meters ... I’m always hearing swing and just trying to figure out how to manipulate it and keep it driving.”

The album’s stirring opener, “Leeza,” confirms Adasiewicz’s assertion, bursting forth at a brisk tempo, adorned with quicksilver cadences that showcase the leader’s adroit virtuosity and expressionistic color palette. The dynamic physicality of Adasiewicz’s mallet technique facilitates myriad textures and tonalities, ranging from muted flourishes to bold, clangorous strikes. A modernist at heart, Adasiewicz’s harmonically sophisticated approach builds upon the legacy of stylists like Walt Dickerson and Bobby Hutcherson.

The trio’s conversational rapport imbues these appealingly concise compositions with a sense of spontaneity and forward momentum, whether accentuating the shifting time signatures of “The Song I Wrote For Tonight” and “Old Sparky,” or illuminating the scintillating lyricism of tender ballads like “Mae Flowers” and “I Forget The Words.” Although Adasiewicz solos most frequently, ample time is allotted for his bandmates’ inspired contributions, which include Reed’s thrilling valedictory drum coda on “Leeza” and Håker-Flaten’s muscular introduction to the locomotive “Two Comes One.” Ultimately, it’s the deft interplay between these three musicians that defines the carefree verve of From The Region. A quote from Adasiewicz in a recent Newcity magazine interview sums up the date’s adventurous but accessible nature: “I love improvised music, I love the complexity of it, but I kinda would just like to make people dance, too.”
–Troy Collins


Derek Bailey + Joëlle Léandre + George Lewis + Evan Parker
28 rue Dunois, Juillet 1982
Fou FR-CD 06

I can’t imagine anyone reading this review needs to be sold on the virtues of any of the musicians appearing on this delicious unearthed document. With deep history together, this assemblage marks a period in time when Bailey and Lewis had been working with John Zorn, when Parker and Bailey still operated Incus together, and when the European free improvisational scene was consistently intense and creative (owing much to collaborations like these). It’s also one of my favorite periods for these musicians, and especially of Bailey, who works here with loads of volume pedal swells and sustains at the center of his sound. The promise is more than met on this superb, consistently engaging live shot.

Obviously, the key to satisfaction with music like this is the seamlessness of the interaction combined with innovative effects. That sounds reductive when written but listening to music of this quality reminds you of how difficult this art of the ungraspable is to realize in real time. The concert opens with scraped bass, hushed low brass, and skittering Parker sax. From the start, the four players court the intensity but keep the dynamics open and reserved, materials cycling naturally through sub-groupings with considerable restraint and generosity throughout. Note the lovely bass/trombone duo, with Lewis at his most guttural and churning, beautiful glissandi and portamento creating a space in which Bailey blinks in and out. Unlike a lot of sets of improvised music, there are precious few moments where the focus wavers. It’s consistently engaging, filled with subtle, spare, flinty gestures knit together by the musicians’ attention to quaver and oscillation as the grounding of the shared language. In its way, this music seems to anticipate much of the super-silent exploration that came to the fore in the late 1990s.

Those who prefer the intense whirl of sound often conjured by players on this scene will also be pleased. Midway through the first set, for example, there’s a lovely tussle between Parker and Léandre, filled with groaning and fast-moving sound. And as a chorus of chirpy metallic birdsong closes the first set, Léandre’s vocalizing is perfectly apposite to the music’s movement, even as it also provides contrast with Lewis’ robust playing. By contrast, the bassist evokes whorls and overtones and near pointillism on the long passages opening the second set. Against her rubbery and elastic lines, the trombone’s low end and held sax burrs thicken the music. They achieve a level of genuine intensity, even for those who’ve heard hundreds of records in this general area of music, and into this a very restrained Bailey finally enters to create some beautifully unsettled sound. The quartet eventually finds its way to a collective drone, whose eldritch quality is dissipated by the heat of the set’s closing passages, filled with searing circular breathing on the straight horn, braying brass, and strings maelstrom. More than just a historical curiosity, this is exemplary improvised music.
–Jason Bivins


Bradford/Gjerstad Quartet
Silver Cornet
Nessa NCD36

Legendary, LA-based cornet player Bobby Bradford and Norwegian reed player Frode Gjerstad first met almost 30 years ago when the two were members of the group Detail with drummer John Stevens and bassist Johnny Dyani. Though the group played together for only a short time, they carved out a striking melding of their deep backgrounds in free jazz and collective improvisation. Since that time, the two have kept their collaboration going as time and logistics permit, working in small ensembles and as part of Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra. In 2010, the two put together a quartet with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and recorded a few releases as part of a tour of Norway.

In the spring of 2014, they reconvened for a tour of the US, calling on young Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly when Nilssen-Love was unavailable. Luckily, this final gig in Baltimore was recorded. From the very start of the set, the four center in on a relaxed interplay that is a natural outgrowth of their seasoned sense of free-flowing time and lithe group interaction. Bradford’s warm, conversational sense of phrasing finds the perfect foil in Gjerstad’s urgent, acidic attack on alto and burred clarinet tone. Håker Flaten’s muscular, thrumming undercurrents likewise, blend nicely with Rosaly’s restless, multi-hued drumming. As would be expected, the four never function as horn front line with rhythm section, instead, constantly shifting focus as they move between various formations of solos, duos, trios, and full quartet. Each of the players brings their unique vocabulary to play as well.

Bradford never shies away from calling on free-bop motifs, weaving melodic threads into the mix. Gjerstad draws on imploring vocalizations and shaded overtones on alto. And his clarinet playing is a particular standout on the second piece, “a story about you,” drawing on a sliding sense of tonality and shifting timing. Håker Flaten has honed his playing in groups like AALY Trio, Atomic, and The Thing as well as a constantly shifting array of ad hoc meetings, and his honed sense of listening, knowing when to dive in to propel things, when to pull back, and when to drop out, are integral to the arc of the playing. Rosaly brings both a restless energy and an open sense of time clearly colored by his studies with Billy Higgins. He attacks the drums with sticks, brushes, and even a knife and fork, calling forth a rich percussive palette. Two expansive tracks are nicely capped by a succinct, 6-minute piece, with the four members cycling around each other with celebratory delight, bringing the set to a satisfying close.
–Michael Rosenstein


Rhodri Davies
alt.vinyl av058x

Memory can play odd tricks. Thinking back to the music Rhodri Davies was making in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it is easy to fall back on the term “New London Silence,” a term coined by Clive Bell in a 2005 article he wrote in The Wire. The article gave invaluable visibility to musicians like Davies, his sister Angharad, Mark Wastell, Phil Durrant, and others who regularly played at Wastell’s Sound 323 shop, at a series at All Angels Church and in assorted other small venues around London in the early 2000s. In groups like IST, The Sealed Knot, Assumed Possibilities, and Chris Burn’s Ensemble, as well as various duos and sub-groupings, the harpist was part of seminal ensembles exploring vibrant syntheses of improvisation, composition, and experimentation of the timbral extensions of their instruments. But it also became an easy shorthand that tended to blur the actual music that was being made at the time. Pedwar, Welsh for the number four, a new 4 LP boxed set on the alt.vinyl label, provides a welcome opportunity to revisit Davies’ music through remastered versions of his two early solo releases trem (2002) and over shadows (2004), the more recent wound response (2012), and air swept clean of all distance, a new recording prepared especially for the set.

In the early 2000s, a number of solo recordings came out which re-thought approaches to a given instrument, such as John Butcher’s Invisible Ear, not his first solo release but the first where he fully realized his approach to close-amplified/feedback saxophone. Releases by Axel Dörner and Greg Kelley provided a new vocabulary for trumpet and Four Focuses on the Ameobic label, with Martin Tétrault, Sachiko M, Yasuhiro Otani, and Otomo Yoshihide, showcased no input samplers and turntables used as electromechanical devices. Sure, this sort of re-thinking was hardly without precedent, but a new generation of musicians were bringing a fresh energy to process and technique, but more importantly, to the timbral ground and structural arc of improvisation.

Going back to Davies’ trem, recorded live at concerts at All Angels Church during 2001, is a welcome reminder of what a mark his solo deconstruction of concert harp made at the time of its release and how loose the rubric of “New London Silence” was. The first flayed overtones of “Cresis,” the opening track, which cut across shadowy string resonance, quickly dispel any notion of spare reductionism with shimmering abrasions that sound almost reed-like, hanging in the live acoustics of the church. And the beguiling white-noise hiss and low cycling clatter of the title track sounds more like scuffed analog synth than harp. “Plosif” and “Berant” layer groaning bass drones with cycling abrasive textures, mechanistic shards, and bowed colorations, both full of striated, dense detail. It is only the closing “Atam” with its close-focus pops and crackles, that comes anywhere close to a notion of a reductive sensibility. Listening to it again, trem is as much about Davies’ placement of sound within the physical space of the church as it is about the extension of his instrument as sound source.

Over Shadows, recorded three years later, is markedly different in form, process, and intent. In the accompanying booklet to the set, Davies’ explains, “At the time of recording Over Shadows I was captivated by the sound of EBowed harp ... I was looking to find rhythmic interplay by tuning two or more strings slightly apart to achieve beating. I used several techniques to alter the tuning of the EBowed string: bending the string above the bridge pin; gently placing a metal bottleneck onto the soundboard; pulling on an adjacent string; and pressing hard on the soundboard … Although the music on Over Shadows is made up of notes and chords of long duration, I didn’t set out to make drone music. Because harp strings decay when plucked, I was trying to find ways of lengthening the duration of the note, and this in turn led to the music sounding as it does. The practical considerations came first and the resulting sound emerged during the process.” Over the course of the 36-minute piece, one becomes engulfed in the slowly modulating overtones, sub-harmonics, and oscillating textures. Low-end rumbles well up under quavering scrims that constantly shift as component layers are added in while others decay. Again, Davies’ ability to tune his playing to the acoustics of the room is integral to the music. There is a visceral beauty to the sound of the carefully controlled sustain and resonance, but it is Davies’ masterful command of structure that carries the piece. One can readily hear in the trajectory and form of this piece what lead him to his recent work with Eliane Radigue.

Wound Response, recorded in 2012, eight years after Over Shadows is, on the surface, a radical abandonment of the considered stasis of Davies’ playing from the previous decade. Here, lap harp, transducers, contact mics, overdrive and volume pedals, and two amplifiers produce a shredded intensity as motifs loop and recoil with beguiling intricacy and palpable dynamism. The melodic kernels that Davies works with call up an entire legacy of harp and lyre music refracted through the overdriven shadings of amplification and feedback. Davies’ explains the approach like this. “The music on Wound Response forms an attempt to find fluid pitch and rhyth­mic relationships: to work with multiple voicing that don’t settle into a groove but stay around long enough to tumble into another set of com­pound parts. The two main techniques used here are to over-articulate the strings (which harpists are taught not to do) and to attack the strings with a plectrum, forcing the tuning into new relationships until the strings eventually break.”

In David Toop’s notes to the box, he recollects, “I had listened to Rhodri’s vinyl release of 2012, Wound Response, a few days before [a] Cafe Oto concert and heard echoes of Konono No 1 or the Kasai Allstars from Kinshasa, the donso ngoni hunter’s harp from Mali and Guinea, the Ethiopian begena recorded by Ragnar Johnson, the harps and lyres recorded by Hugh Tracey in southern and eastern Africa, the nyatiti harp re­corded by David Fanshawe in Kenya, the inanga trough zither recorded in Burundi by Michel Vuyl­steke.” Listening to this in the context of some of the pieces on trem, one can easily draw threads that carry through. As with his earlier recordings, his assiduous attention to attack and decay of sound and the rigor he brings to the placement of timbres within the trajectory of overarching form come through.

The set wraps up with An air swept clean of all distance, a solo recording from 2014. The title comes from a poem by the writer Nathaniel Mackey in tribute to John Coltrane’s late spiritual music titled ‘Ohnedaruth‘s Day Begun‘, the final lines of which are:

The backs
of our necks caressed by African pillows,
the far side of her voice by
the flutter of birds blown out to sea…
While ‘each is both‘ we bask in
an air swept clean of all distance,
attended by bells…
Attended by
birds, in their beaks the hem of dawn‘s

Davies returns to the lap harp of Wound Response, but unlike any of the previous three releases, no amplification or electronics are used. Davies describes this as being limited by “what two thumbs and six fingers can do.” Sure, the grit and abraded amplification is removed, but this set displays striking similarities to the set from 2012. The 14 pieces, most 2 to 3 minutes long, are like distilled studies, each focusing on a simple motif and then looping through it, plaiting and inverting the rhythmic threads with the detail of a fine Persian rug. The close-miked, clean recording captures every nuance of Davies’ playing; every pluck and strike of string, the natural overtones and resonances of the instrument. Check out the cycling lyricism of “fingers pluck played” which builds layered phrases against dramatic pauses which serve as pedal points for the momentum. There’s also a piece like “The end of now” with an obsessively repeated riff on the upper strings that is countered by the undercurrent of a weaving, damped line on the lower strings or “WET THRU MINES STONES” which caroms along with deftly deployed feints and coils. The lack of pedals and preparations never seems a limitation. Instead, Davies hones in on the elemental properties of the instrument through subtle control of the velocity of attack and choice of how the strings are struck and damped, along with the a keen ear toward the interaction of the sharp character of the high register with the buzzing resonance of the lower register strings.

Visual artists get mid-career retrospectives but it is rare for musicians, particularly improvisers working on the commercial fringes to get a similar opportunity. This limited edition set offers deluxe treatment, pressed on 180gm vinyl and packaged in hand screen-printed sleeves accompanied by a booklet with essays by Davies’ and David Toop as well as reproductions and originals of gig and festival flyers and posters from Davies’ career. The exclusive, collectible nature of sets like these provide aficionados with an opportunity to dig deep in to music which otherwise has limited availability. And Davies certainly deserves that. But with the three reissued releases now out of print and the newest one available in a limited run, one hopes that this music will eventually get a broader release as they deserve to be heard by many who missed it the first time through. Until then, snatch this up if you can. It is well worth an immersive listen.
–Michael Rosenstein


Luc Ex
Red Note RN19

All those lovely, convenient labels that we use to discuss music just don’t stick to Dutch bass guitarist Luc Ex’s new album; they slide right off and are unceremoniously trampled underfoot as his quartet charges ahead with their music, whatever it might be. The music eludes category first of all because of the incongruous collection of musicians in the band: Luc Ex, Hamid Drake, Ab Baars, and Ingrid Laubrock, all of whom come out of very different areas of improvised music. But they work together remarkably well. Luc Ex’s rock inflected throb doesn’t so much drive the music as coexist within it, even when everything is teetering on the brink of chaos or when the groove and melody lie shattered around him, he is a resolute presence in the collective sound. Drake plays quick-change artist among rhythms and the saxophonists both embrace and reject jazz tropes as they see fit. It’s all very fluid and elusive, but a music with a distinctive shape emerges, however amorphous.

If the band is a strange amalgam of personalities, the bassist’s compositions evade all attempts at categorization as well, with no two tunes following the same rules or adhering to conventional song form or genre. “Assemblage” is taken up by a long opening melody, not really a song, with some saxophone improvisation at the end. “The Unexpected Death of a Fortune-Teller,” flips the order, opening with a brief improvisation then spending most of its time unspooling a lengthy herky-jerky unison line. “When the Demiurge Looks in the Mirror” has slightly more conventional head-solo-head form, but the proportions are all wrong, with a snippet of improvisation sandwiched between another marathon composition upfront and a short reprise of part of the melody at the end. “Expanding for Aye” and “Zajj Siht Si” stick closer to jazz tradition as features for the saxophonists.

With all its intellectual playfulness and refusal to conform to expectations, Assemblée is full of surprises, joyfully expressive, and enormous fun – even if you say exactly what it is.
–Ed Hazell

Hat Hut Records

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