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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Christopher Fox
Works for Piano
hat[now]ART 192

Christopher Fox
Pianist: Pieces
Sub Rosa SR389

A quote from Christian Wolff that concludes the booklet materials for the elegantly designed 3-CD Pianist: Pieces goes a long way to locate pianist Philip Thomas in the ongoing evolution of interpretative musicians: “A score is one element in a conversation, an inducement to exploration, sometimes flexible, reusable, consistently useful.” Thomas is playing an increasing role in the conversation about the relationship between composers and their committed interpreters, one into which composers enter with increasing refinement in terms of the flexibility afforded to musicians intent on faithfully representing the composer’s intents and purposes. Much of Thomas’ vitality in performing the works of Wolff and Christopher Fox is rooted in his respective relationships with the composers, which, in the case of Fox, extends to the commissioning of solo piano pieces, some of which are included in Works for Piano. Thomas’ conversations with Fox and Wolff apparently get to the crux of what their music is about, as both albums are brimming with engaging music.

The title of Fox’s collection of compositions, hearing not thinking – from which “at the edge of time” was gleaned by Thomas for this collection – is good advice to initially listening to conceit-driven pieces like “L’asceneur,” in which Fox meticulously kneads motivic materials through the piano’s registers, or “Thermogenesis,” where the thinning of clusters is due to the removal of, successively, mittens and gloves. The amount of engaging material in “Republican Bagatelles,” a mashing of Beethoven and Ives variations that culminates in the morphing of the British national anthem and “The Red Flag,” suggests that Fox doesn’t need to be clever. Granted; contemporary music could use a good dose of cleverness, periodically, and Fox provides that better than most composers. But, Fox also does austerity very well, as well, evidenced by “at the edge of time,” which deftly employs preparations to create an undertow of altered resonances pulling at otherwise stasis-prone materials. It’s this mix of temperaments that makes Fox a formidable composer, which Thomas conveys rigorously, and with barely veiled relish.

Not only do Thomas’ performances of Wolff’s piano works reinforce John Cage’s observation that Wolff was the most “musical” of experimental composers; but, also the notion that it is the performer that provides much of the music, given that Wolff leaves a lot of blanks in his scores to be filled in by the performer – little things like notation of duration, clef and even pitch. There’s a semi-tangible continuity to this vast spectrum of pieces, which span almost 60 years of continual artistic evolution, for which Thomas deserves an undeterminable amount of the credit. The latitude Wolff offers a pianist to stitch this continuity is exemplified by the CD-long “Long Piano (Peace March 11),” which, in addition to being Wolff’s longest work for solo piano, is also the work in which the 95 “patches” incorporate time-honored forms such as chorales and toccatas, and include passing nods to composers as diverse as Robert Schumann and Ives. In his notes, Thomas mentions the challenge of listening to “Long Piano” in a single sitting; but, implicitly, he underestimates his ability to keep the listener’s interest keen.
–Bill Shoemaker


Huck Hodge
Life is Endless like Our Field of Vision
New World 80758-2

Not yet 40, Huck Hodge is impressively credentialed; his long list of fellowships, commissions, and academic posts rivaling those of composers 20 years his senior. On paper, the drivers of his compositions are weighty; the contrasts between Parmenides and Heraclitus, “the poetry of discarded technology,” and Galileo’s telescope are the starting points for compositions included in Life is Endless like Our Field of Vision. And, Hodges’ compositions contain a head-spinning amount of formal intricacies and erudite references. Yet, there’s a youthful boldness about Hodges’ music that facilitates immediate engagement, and holds the robed wise men and the archaeological aura of Commodore 64s and Wang word processors at bay long enough for it to be heard on its ample merits.

In describing the quasi-programmatic “Out of a Dark Sea” – performed by an octet version of the 11-person Talea Ensemble, whose rendering of “Alêtheia” opens the album – Hodge mentions a variety of wave-like structures embedded into the piece. It is a helpful concept with which to navigate the fluctuating, even undulating textures that uncannily provide forward momentum without much specificity, making each emergence of motivic materials surprise-filled. Additionally, these waves require a diamond cutter’s precision in their orchestration; otherwise, what is about the closest thing to a melody that Hodge musters would not stealthily seep into the foreground of “Alêtheia” three-quarters into the almost 18-minute piece with such elegance.

The other aspect of Hodge’s writing that would, at first glance, seem at odds with his command of atmospherics is his propensity to write virtuosic parts for his musicians. He is a gifted pianist, evidenced by “Pools of shadow from an older sky,” a work for piano and computer-processed sounds spanning machine noise and Roman ambulance and police sirens, in which Hodge improvises an impressive, fantasia-like solo using minimal notated guideposts. Hodge demonstrates a variety of means of sustaining plasticity through precise methods in “re[(f)use]” for string quartet, melodica, and computer. JACK Quartet is a spot-on choice for this piece, one whose command of attenuated timbres creates regular confusion as to what source is producing which sounds. Hodge also deserves credit for his use of the melodica, an instrument undeserving of its abject neglect.
–Bill Shoemaker


ICP Orchestra
East of the Sun
ICP 51

Misha Mengelberg + Dirk Bell + Ryan Carniaux + Gerd Dudek +Joscha Detz + Nils Tegen
Nemu 014

The day when Amsterdam’s ICP Orchestra would carry on without its founder Misha Mengelberg had been coming for years, as his Alzheimer’s symptoms grew more acute. He had laid the groundwork for the transition himself. Misha always had ways to absent himself from the action; he never wrote himself piano parts: “I can add something to what the others do, or I can leave it out,” he said in 1995. “It's not essential for me to play at all, unless I want to fuck it up, or to make them do something else.” On occasion the band has performed or recorded without various regular members, co-founder Han Bennink included; owing to a scheduling conflict New York-based trumpeter/cornetist Thomas Heberer plays on only four tracks here (and is mostly buried in the mix).

After Mengelberg’s 1997 heart attack, his old student Cor Fuhler ably subbed on a few gigs. Before that, Misha almost always made up the set lists just before showtime, but afterwards that responsibility got passed around more. And as his composing tapered off in the ‘90s, a few players started bringing in their own tunes.

I’ve written before that the modern ICP is a perpetuum mobile. In the ‘80s Misha taught reedists Ab Baars and Michael Moore, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, bassist Ernst Glerum and company various formal ways to subvert or transform musical materials, until those procedures became second nature, and almost all the formal rules dissolved away as the players devised their own wrinkles on the fly. Violist Mary Oliver and tenorist/clarinetist Tobias Delius, coming later, had observed (or subbed) in the band enough to get up without supervision. The more they all knew, the less Misha had to intervene.

On East of the Sun (a studio recording from March 2014) as on sundry recent gigs, the occasional guest pianist is the post-Mengelberg generation’s premier improviser-composer Guus Janssen, who’s worked with at least half the band. In the notes by Erik van den Berg – will someone translate his Bennink biography into English, please? – Han rightly recalls the early encouragement Misha offered Guus, one of the bright bulbs of modern (Dutch) composition to be sure. But for the record, Misha sometimes expressed reservations about Guus’s relentlessly meticulous method, where even the chaotic bits are carefully orchestrated or arrived at; Misha likes his anarchy to be more spontaneous, and is readier to break his own rules.

That said, the Janssen oldie “Rondo” is perfect ICP fodder, one of his more raucous anecdotal panoramas, with passing hints of what sounds like turgid reggae, a Chinese-opera fanfare, and a hand-cranked turntable winding to a halt. (Janssen, Moore and Wierbos recorded it with Maarten Altena’s peak octet on 1988’s Rif. Oddly enough on East of the Sun ICP also play another Dutch classic from Altena’s book, Maurice Horsthuis’s two-beat, instantly catchy “Bleekgezicht.” But then Maarten is an ICP vet himself.)

Janssen plays cheesy console organ on ex-ICPer Sean Bergin’s anthem “Lavoro,” in heavy rotation in Amsterdam since the composer’s passing in 2012. Sean’s chum Tristan Honsinger sings it (in Italian) with his customary gusto, and then Bergin’s melody alternates perfectly/improbably with Kansas City standby “Moten Swing.” Guus is back on piano for one of two rare collective improvisations for the full unit – under Misha, free improvisations were delegated to subgroups. But the pianist keeps a low profile, mindful that he has his own bands, and this isn’t one of them, despite all the familiar faces. Still, Janssen’s too good to waste, and one misses that piano presence. Misha’s ideas are on full display, but nothing compensates for the loss of his disruptive Monkish comping on changes.

Even so the octet/nonet/tentet meets its own high standard, and is as ever variously a swingtime jazz band, lacy chamber ensemble (when three strings or multiple clarinets come to the fore) and rude improvising unit. And as ever the transitions between the written and spontaneous are fluid, and Han is ever-ready to gong an episode off stage before it wears out its welcome. If anything, pieces and solos are more terse than usual; you wish they’d stretch out a little more. Six of 14 performances are under three minutes, including “A Little Max” from the Ellington Mingus Roach Money Jungle, an akilter feature for Bennink’s drums and boxing-ring bell: Han nicely framed and contained.

The new arrangements are mostly by Moore, who knows all the players’ strengths and exploitable weaknesses, and who brought a chamber piece of his own for wafting clarinets and grounding strings. He adorns Brooks Bowman’s title tune with a bumptious spiky intro/outro in Mengelberg style. Ab Baars’s “Browse of Morning” likewise echoes the master, a dark processional that ends with a sustained eruption. But it’s cellist Honsinger who best preserves Misha’s anarchic spirit – an instigator, he’s the most animated pantomime conductor of instant compositions, and author of their weirder recent tunes, such as “Bolly Wolly” with ranty (mostly Italian) vocals by him and Mary Oliver.

As many records as the mature ICP has made in 20-some years since Bospaadje Konijnehol, they still haven’t documented all the tunes Misha wrote for it. They check off a few here: the hummed Gregorian-chant-for-moderns “Psalm,” the marchy repetitive earworm “Oorwurm,” and a kids’ song for clustery clarinets, “Pilaren/Twee Linjen” (pillars, two lines). “Der jofelen pels slip” comes from the soft-hearted Rokus de Veldmuis suite Mengelberg wrote for the hard-hitting Louis Andriessen/Peter van Bergen ensemble Hoketus in the ‘80s. (Most of the players hated it, and they performed it exactly once; Misha rearranged it for ICP.) It’s rendered here in the band’s vintage woodwind-and-string pastels: for all the anarchy Mengelberg is a natural habitual melodist.

Misha was still active in December 2011, when one of his longtime students of counterpoint, guitarist Dirk Bell (who also studied with Pat Martino – a rare combination) brought the pianist to Köln for an evening of improvising along with expat American trumpeter Ryan Carniaux, bassist Joscha Detz, drummer Nils Tegen and a Euro-impro vet of Misha’s own generation, tenorist Gerd Dudek. On the resultant CD Nunc! which divides the long sets into smaller chunks, there are a couple of brief written themes for horns, but it’s almost all free music in the modern manner, with room for plenty of variations in dynamics, density and intensity, Dudek at times adding more Coltraney touches than one usually hears when Misha’s involved, Mengelberg detesting any whiff of mystical subtext in his improvised music. Points to Bell for letting his Wes Montgomery roots show in this setting.

Besides being a habitual melodist Misha is a habitual harmonist, able to contextualize whatever he hears going on around him, and he largely restricts himself to jittery background chording, nibbling at the edges of the music like a Manny Farber termite rather than mounting a frontal assault as he often did with ICP. He also indulges his penchant for laying out for long periods of time – choosing to withdraw from the field even while on active duty.
Kevin Whitehead


Russ Johnson
Still Out To Lunch
Enja Yellowbird 7747

Potsa Lotsa Plus
Plays Love Suite By Eric Dolphy
Jazzwerkstatt 147

Aki Takase + Alexander von Schlippenbach
So Long, Eric!: Homage to Eric Dolphy
Intakt 239

In the five years after Eric Dolphy moved to New York he made three kinds of records: sideman dates, usually with progressive boppers; albums as a traveling soloist, playing standards and a few originals with a different rhythm section in each city; and, most revealing, dates heavily drawing on his compositions, including his Prestige studio sessions, his Five Spot quintet, and his three 1963-64 albums with Richard Davis and Bobby Hutcherson. What the later category reveals is an artist growing in every way, a composer and improviser in mid-air, leaping beyond changes and modes into freedom.

Dolphy sure inspires today’s free spirits. Last June, shortly before the 50th anniversary of his death, pianists-arrangers Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach gathered a hell of a band to perform and record So Long Eric! in Berlin. Two of this 12tet played with Dolphy in his last month: drummer Han Bennink and vibist Karl Berger, with whom Dolphy was playing at the end, two nights before his death.

There’s a great misterioso “Hat and Beard,” opening with dark, crashing, repeated two-piano chords; then the stalking theme; twin basses and drums densely underline Berger’s nervous solo; brass and woodwind duets and Takase’s solo extend the Grimm mood, like Hansel and Gretel in the ominous forest. Takase’s arrangement of this and “Serene” for the five horns are especially attractive. Takase and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall create a beautiful duet on “17 West,” then the rhythm section of Schlippenbach, bassist Antonio Borghini, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling really swing behind alto saxist Henrik Walsdorff on “Out There.” Walsdorff is a special delight, with a Charles Tyler-like tenacity of motivic recall and development yet an early-Ornettish freedom of movement.

The other horns are inspired, too: trumpeter Axel Dörner and trombonist Nils Wogram are lyrical; tuff tenor saxophonist Tobias Delius is rough and tough; and, especially, Mahall, a true Dolphy heir, flowing yet also jagged, eruptive. It’s good that there are plenty of piano solos by the two eclectics – both sound at least partly inspired by 1950s Cecil Taylor. “Out To Lunch” is the album’s wonderfully exuberant conclusion.

Also from Germany, Silke Eberhard, who had recorded all the known Dolphy songs with her quartet Potsa Lotsa (Nikolas Neuser, trumpet; Gerhard Gschlössl, trombone; Patrick Braun, clarinet, tenor sax), added clarinetist Jürgen Kupke, tubaist Marc Unternährer, and electronics manipulator (electronicsist?) Antonis Anissegos to record four Dolphy discoveries and five of her originals on Potsa Lotsa Plus. For all the Dolphy influence on her composing and improvising, Eberhard is a personal artist. Her invariably intriguing alto sax and bass clarinet solos include Dolphy-like leaps and edgy contours, but her flowing solo concept is almost the opposite of Dolphy’s free-association flair. While Dolphy composed songs to frame solos, Eberhard extends his brightness to clarinet trio-vs-brass themes, band interludes, backgrounds, mobile textures and momentums and dynamics, so that the pieces are full of ensemble event. No rhythm section, but the tuba often plays walking bass lines and “Sketch No. 1” even has tuba and electronics playing a samba.

Potsa Lotsa Plus even seems pastoral next to Dolphy’s jagged urbanity. A trio of bird-like clarinets flock in “Sketch No. 2,” electronic birds chirp in “Love Suite 2,” and “Sketch No. 3” is especially spacy, mostly faint electronic drainpipe-gurgles and quiet band tones. “Luan Guan Pian” is an especially spritely theme, with a lovely Eberhard alto solo over bouncing tuba, and a squirrelly two-clarinet chase. As for Dolphy’s unfinished three-part “Love Suite,” Eberhard’s scoring and expansions are simple while the improvisations are active indeed, especially her bass clarinet and Braun’s wide-ranging tenor sax. A much better Dolphy piece is his “Song for the Ram’s Horn,” played on tuba, with a rich, woody clarinet solo over growly brass.

The album with the Eric Dolphy band sound is Still Out To Lunch by the American Russ Johnson’s quintet. It’s not exactly a joyous Dolphy feeling. The original Out To Lunch was Dolphy discovering himself, whereas these new versions of the five 1964 songs find Dolphy-hip artists taking further steps into incisive interplay and freedom of movement. Roy Nathanson’s alto sax phrases suggest an unvirtuoso Dolphy – the big, true sound, wide intervals, dramatic high leaps – but with a complex sense of form. Pianist Myra Melford is even more subtle. She not only develops urgent solo lines into grand discourse, she interacts sharply with the horns. Brad Jones plays several bass solos with an almost Malachi Favors-like gravity and he too is sharply responsive.

Russ Johnson plays trumpet with a full sound, warm in the middle and low, yet light in high tones. He’s an ambitious improviser whose complex concepts sometimes don’t quite work when he starts solos with comparatively simple melodic ideas but then vanquishes his evolving story line with startling double-time. This said, his solos are mostly quite fine, especially on “Hat and Beard” and “Song for the Ram’s Horn,” and the great trumpet-soprano sax chase in “Gazzelloni” is the highlight of the album. Johnson’s drummer George Schuller arranged three more pieces for Still Out To Lunch: “Ram’s Horn,” “Intake (Part One from Love Suite),” and “Little Blue Devil,” based on Gunther Schuller’s Seven Paul Klee Studies. “Devil” is mostly composed. Isolated little cubes of theme emerge slowly over skittering drums and walking bass; there are brief duets of two horns and piano-bass; this composition sounds Dolphy-inspired. And the whole CD’s brightness is a joyous tribute to Eric Dolphy’s spirit.
–John Litweiler


Kalle Kalima & K18
Buñuel de Jour

Guitarist Kalle Kalima is an under-heralded presence on the improvised music scene, which seems a crime given his ability and imagination. Hopefully this exuberant disc will give him some more exposure. He’s got a wide range of influences and uses his experience with multiple techniques to create a guitar style – from skronky to spare, grooving to abstract – that is singular and varied at once. Along for the ride are Mikko Innanen (alto, xaphoon, whistles, and hornpipe, occasionally supplemented by contact mic madness), quartertone accordionist Veli Kujala, and Teppo Hauta-ato (bass and percussion). It’s a pretty compelling instrumental mix, and Kalima cuts across it with his high-strung, occasionally quite processed tone. But like Christy Doran and other similarly inclined guitarists, Kalima uses effects to match the range of extended techniques he’s interested in setting up with his compositions.

The brash, punchy opening of “The Phantom of Liberty” exemplifies all these qualities, with some righteous noise-making, some tone-mashing in the instrumental blending, and capped off by a joyous, folkish theme. The slinky, subtle “The Milky Way” boasts a nice combination of texture and chord changes, sometimes flashing a Balkan feeling in between its noisy blasts and groaning bass glissandos. There’s consistent variation in the program, which proceeds to the loping, swaggering feel on “El Padre.” Here Hauta-aho’s walking bass draws together tart alto, bleary accordion, and vibrato-laden guitar. Some sweet baritone guitar skronk opens the noirish miniature “Los Olvidados,” with overlapping themes that (instrumentation aside) recall some early Vandermark 5 pieces. Perhaps the most compositionally impressive pieces here are the intense “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “Belle de Jour,” each multi-directional, texturally soft, and knotted with counterlines that wind backwards and forwards. “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” features an implacable alto plotting a slow course, as the other instruments spin madly around. And an equally memorable instrumental feature is the Kalima feature opening “Tristana,” which is joined by instruments that spread like ooze and congeal again, a regular (and quite pleasing) device this group uses. The disc wavers just a bit towards the back end, but finishes strong with the graceful, balladic “An Andalusian Dog” and the concluding “Viridiana,” with gorgeously fractured alto work. Overall, an impressive statement from Kalima.
–Jason Bivins

Critical Studies in Improvisation

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