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Reviews of Recent Recordings


The Barry Altschul’s 3dom Factor
Tales of the Unforeseen
TUM CD 044

The 3dom Factor, released by TUM Records in 2013, was Barry Altschul’s first album as a bandleader in over a quarter of a century. Featuring a choice selection of some of his most beloved tunes, the acclaimed collection documented the premiere recording of the legendary drummer’s working group with veteran bassist Joe Fonda and virtuoso saxophonist Jon Irabagon. One of his most reliable associates, Fonda performed alongside Altschul and the late Billy Bang for years as the FAB Trio. Although much younger, Irabagon is one of the more industrious musicians of his generation, with a resume that includes a charter membership in Mostly Other People Do the Killing and high-profile sideman work with Dave Douglas and Mary Halvorson, among many others. Unsurprisingly, it was Irabagon who recruited Altschul for the marathon studio improvisation Foxy (Hot Cup, 2010), initiating their current working relationship.

Recorded after a weeklong tour, Tales of the Unforeseen unveils a far different working method than the trio’s eponymous debut. Two days in the studio yielded more than enough material for a single record, most of it fully improvised and completely unplanned, although loose interpretations of two favorites from their touring repertoire do appear. An introspective rubato rendition of Monk’s “Ask Me Know” called “A Tale of Monk: Ask Me Now,” and a subtly fervent reading of Annette Peacock’s “Tale of Miracles,” billed as “Annette’s Tale of Miracles,” provide recognizable reference points among the remainder of the date’s spontaneous inventions.

The album opens, appropriately enough, with “As the Tale Begins,” an epic prologue that demonstrates the threesome’s virtually telepathic interplay over the better part of a half hour. Altschul enthusiastically guides the group through a series of brisk stylistic changes that veer from pointillist impressionism to unfettered expressionism, simultaneously sparring with Irabagon and modulating tempos and time signatures with Fonda, who subsequently introduces “The Tale Continues” alone with a feverish pizzicato soliloquy that sets the stage for Irabagon’s woolly soprano musings.

Despite his reputation for stylistic capriciousness, Irabagon plays with utter conviction and purpose in this venerated company. Developing over the past few years from mercurial chameleon to mature stylist, it is notable that his prodigious talents have often been heard to their best effect working with Altschul. A wildly dynamic performer in this adventurous context, Irabagon’s intervallic cadences are rife with extended techniques; he integrates piercing altissimo glissandi, bristling multiphonic peals and vocalized tongue trills into motivic refrains that exemplify their own lyrical logic. The seasoned leader’s mettle is concisely demonstrated on the unaccompanied “A Drummer’s Tale,” a percussive tour de force of pointed textural accents and rhythmic interpolations.

The suite concludes with “And the Tale Ends,” an episodic sequence of thematic variations, shifting rhythms and colorful details – including Irabagon’s diaphanous flute ruminations – that culminate in an exotic modal meditation, showcasing the unit’s conversational rapport at its most congenial. In the hands of less-experienced musicians, such unstructured improvisations have the potential for directionless meandering, but under the auspices of experienced masters like Altschul, Fonda and Irabagon, they can yield a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Altschul has long been an advocate of the all-inclusive “From Ragtime To No Time” concept; nowhere else in Altschul’s oeuvre has this idea been as fully realized as by the 3dom Factor.
–Troy Collins


Rodrigo Amado
This Is Our Language
Not Two MW922-2

Despite being a part of the international creative music environment for nearly two decades, tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado (b. 1964, Lisbon) is a bit more obscure than some of his peers – at least stateside. Drawing from Sam Rivers, Peter Brötzmann and Archie Shepp, one could easily set him alongside players like Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson, though Amado seems to prefer working in a few ensembles with narrower scope. These groups, often collectives that involve or invite at least one American player, have included the Motion Trio (with drummer Gabriel Ferrandini and cellist Miguel Mira), the Humanization Quartet (with Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes and Texan brothers bassist Aaron González and percussionist Stefan González), the rotating cast of the Lisbon Improvisation Players, and a spry power trio with Chicago bassist Kent Kessler and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Amado’s latest, This Is Our Language, brings Kessler back into the fold and adds drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee for a program of five group improvisations.

McPhee and Amado make an interesting complementary pair; McPhee’s mercurial blues can break your heart and reassemble it in a matter of moments, or quixotically maintain a calculated, constructivist distance. Amado, unlike other players who’ve shared front-line duties with McPhee, doesn’t go for absolute broke once the gate is opened, rather gently and methodically teasing out warm grit and, with the clicking of fingers and pads, places a nudging frame on the disc’s opening conversation (Amado is also a noted photographer). The tenorist is a bit more acerbic against the crinkled, bleak poesy from McPhee’s pocket trumpet on the motoring title piece, stretching furrowed peaks and valleys into hot earth while McPhee gulps and buzzes into a cupped, wailing canto. The horn duet that acts as the tune’s coda is absolutely gorgeous and moments like this, arrived at through improvised play that began well before either musician set foot in the studio, are something to savor. In “Theory of Mind (For Joe)” the group is pared down to a trio with McPhee sitting out and the proceedings get hairier as Corsano grants a dry stroke to Amado’s clean, husky pirouettes and jounced burrs, soon anchored by Kessler’s choice harmonic anchor. The bassist is given an unaccompanied spot midway through the disc’s closing improvisation, “Human Behavior,” the horns’ metallic darts telepathically finding a shutoff valve before McPhee returns with tarnished declamations in the form of a few broad lines and colorfully-pursed swaths. This Is Our Language is a rugged and considered quartet date that begs the question: if Rodrigo Amado brings out some of his American mates’ finest playing, why isn’t he working on these shores more often?
–Clifford Allen


Josh Berman Trio
A Dance and A Hop
Delmark DE 5021

Along with individualists like Taylor Ho Bynum, Kirk Knuffke and Ron Miles, Josh Berman, a key member of the fertile Chicago jazz scene, is one of a small group of forward-thinking musicians embracing the cornet as their primary instrument. In addition to working as a sideman in Jason Adasiewicz’s Rolldown and Ken Vandermark’s Audio One, as well as maintaining a rotating leadership role in the collective ensemble Fast Citizens, Berman regularly leads his own groups, as documented on the septet effort There Now (Delmark, 2012) and his quintet debut, Old Idea (Delmark, 2009).

For A Dance and A Hop, Berman is joined by upright bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly – longstanding Windy City associates who support the leader’s discursive narratives with a rarefied sensitivity. As principal soloist, Berman acquits himself admirably at the forefront of this intimate trio, articulating abstruse variations with expressive lyricism and a wide range of dynamics. His ability to seamlessly integrate extended techniques into straightforward melodic themes draws salient historical connections between aesthetic innovations past and present, from the foundations laid by King Oliver to the post-war advances of Bobby Bradford.

Providing understated accompaniment, the nimble responsiveness of Roebke and Rosaly’s swinging interplay inspires the expressionism of Berman’s vocalized abstractions and oblique refrains in myriad settings, from bluesy rubato balladry to angular free bop. Despite their brisk, freewheeling spontaneity, none of these brief numbers are collectively improvised; all were written by Berman specifically for this session. Easily holding his own in this spare setting, Berman’s adventurous approach sustains interest throughout eleven concise tunes, demonstrating the harmonic and melodic sophistication of his protean technique.
–Troy Collins


Anders Dahl
16 Rows
Bombaxbombax 009

Bombaxbombax 008

The Bombax Bombax label was launched back in 2008 to document a community of Swedish musicians working at the intersections of improvisation and composition, using a blend of acoustic and electronic instruments. The first batch of small-run CD-Rs included the first recording of the group Skogen, led by Magnus Granberg, a group that has gone on to record a number of well received discs on the Another Timbre label, along with a solo release by composer and sound artist Anders Dahl. The next batch hit in 2009 and the label has gone silent since then. It’s great to report that, after a hiatus, the label has been revived with another batch of releases, each featuring Dahl’s music, both composed and improvised.

A few years ago, Another Timbre released Anders Dahl & Skogen’s recording of Dahl’s composition, “Rows.” In an essay on the label’s site, the composer described the piece like this: “I was thinking about how Schoenberg's nice and simple solution to avoiding keys in music, the twelve-note technique, became used in a more and more advanced way as time went on ... I started wondering about how it would have sounded if they had simplified it instead. So I set out to create the simplest twelve tone music I could think of.” Using randomly generated twelve-tone rows, Dahl applied set durations and titles which provide suggested approaches. The score urges musicians to utilize extended techniques and preparations, pushing things to unpredictable results. The use of non-pitched instruments is also allowed for, as long as the musician assigns specific events to each note in the score.

The original concept of the piece was to have each musician record their part individually and then layer the parts over each other. For the live version released on Another Timbre, Dahl asked that the 8 musicians plan out their parts in advance, asking them to stick to their plan as much as possible. Dahl stated that he “couldn't expect the musicians to succeed in this completely, but it still brought an interesting dynamic where they were trying to avoid their habit of improvising together.” Now Bombax Bombax has released the original overdubbed recording, allowing listeners a chance to compare the two readings. For this version, Dahl brought together 10 musicians, again combining acoustic reed, string, and percussion instruments with sine waves, electronics, and the exotic timbres of bouzouki, pump organ, and kantele (a Finish zither.) The 16 Rows presented here (out of the 46 laid out in the score) range from just one minute in length to ten minutes long, with most clocking in at 3-to-4 minutes. Each Row is approached as a new piece and the compact lengths provide a particular exactitude to the music. One can hear the musicians grappling with how to traverse the score, their decisions shaped more by the time allocated to each Row as well as the suggested approachs (e.g. “Treble,” “Bass,”  “Other Sound – Make another sound from a position on your instrument that usually generates the notated pitch”).

In this context, with the trajectory defined, it is the decisions that are made and how they are committed to that are paramount. One can hear how the approaches that were chosen guide the playing. Pitches overlap between the various parts but never quite align, imbuing the piece with an overall tonality without allowing for any sort of melodic motif or development. The musicians are clearly aware that the choices they make will influence the overall results, they are just not sure exactly how. The mix of timbres and sensibilities brings an even balance to the results, while the recording technique creates an edginess to transitions and juxtapositions, breaking the natural flow and habits of improvisation. Dahl noted that “The music ... felt free from clichés as the musicians couldn't account for what the others were playing, and therefore sometimes one musician would merrily steamroll someone else without knowing it.” Approaches to even the freest spontaneous improvisation have started to become formalized as the result of historical context. So it is thought-provoking to hear the strategies that composers and ensembles are developing to provide open-form contexts while seeking to break established patterns and habits, particularly for ensemble settings. Dahl’s “Rows” in both this over-dubbed version and the live recording, does just that.

The quartet Slötakvartetten, (Dahl: Analog electronics; Magnus Granberg: Clarinet; Henrik Olsson: Objects, electronics; Petter Wästberg: Contact microphone, objects, feedback) is an altogether different affair, showing that Dahl and Granberg have not completely turned their back on sputtering, active, electro-acoustic improvisation.  Over the course of four pieces, the quartet locks in on a unified sound, interweaving flayed, raw electronic crunches and rumbles, slabs of coruscated feedback, and clarinet overtones and split harmonics that sound at times like sweeping shortwave signals or sine tones. The analog devices, contact miked surfaces, and amplified objects provide a warm electronic palette with a wide dynamic range, from buffeting low-end to percussive clanks and shuddering shards. But they always keep a keen focus on the evolving forms.

While the vocabulary and densities allude to crusted noise and power electronics, the pacing is what sets this apart. Granberg, Olsson, and Wästberg have worked together extensively as part of Skogen, and all have collaborated with Dahl on various projects. Even in this setting, bereft of melodic kernels, they know how to sit on things and let them slowly develop. Even though they are working with an active sonic ground, they employ a latency between the shifting textures and the overall arc of the improvisations. The quartet develops each of the four pieces with its own shared sense of time and progression, letting their contributions accrue as a sonic whole, eschewing any inference of lead or even congruent lines. On the last piece, “Ensilage,” Granberg’s burred clarinet comes close to introducing pitched material against the slowly tolling thrum of electronics, but even here there is a clear sonic parity. There are times when the densities tend to well up, but their avoidance of peaks and valleys create an enveloping inner tension that holds the pieces together. This one has really caught my ear, showing a distinctive approach to collective playing.
–Michael Rosenstein


Do Tell
Hotend: Do Tell plays the music of Julius Hemphill
Amirani 043

Ulrich Gumpert Quartet
A New One
Intakt 257

Do Tell is a bright-sounding trio that sure enough gets the St. Louis spirit of the young Julius Hemphill’s art: the rich blues and swing that long ago came up the river of myth; the St. Louis sonic and rhythmic freedom of nearly 50 years ago. Dan Clucas plays fluent, busy cornet melodies with a St. Louisish expressive variety (think Clark Terry, Miles, Lester Bowie) while drummer Dave Wayne whacks away at a trap-drum kit full of merry-making metal sounds. In contrast to their exuberance, the third player, Mark Weaver, plays simple, sober tuba contrapuntal lines or else marks rhythms. It’s a strange, attractive group sound, almost a Spike Jonesish sound, except that these guys are dealing in what Bowie would call serious fun.

Actually, Clucas’s sonic ancestor may have been Rex Stewart. What a lot of sounds Clucas gets from his vari-muted horn. In the only inside piece, “Floppy,” the ever-changing cornet sound is as necessary as his melodic imagination as he shapes each blues chorus; the bouncing tuba lends “Floppy” a bit of a trad-band feeling. He forms a dramatic solo with constant chatters and wah-wahs in “The Hard Blues” – he’s really alive to flow, contrast, and the weight of his phrases. Without a mute, as in “Dogon A.D.,” he’s also active and with a fine sense of solo form.

Do Tell is from the Southwest, the album was recorded in Albuquerque, and Wayne is the freest player of the three. Faint scrapes, peeps, taps, unidentifiable sounds like night creatures rustling in the desert are central improvisations in “Hotend” and “G Song” – then electronic sounds, distant flying saucers, radio messages from stars, quietly enter. It’s the interplay of sound, space, and dynamics, all p to ppp and pastoral. There are a few brass-instrument sounds, but mainly it’s Wayne who does it beautifully, then vividly accompanies the others. He and Clucas are hyperactive players – in a trio like this, they have to be hyper. Much as Hemphill’s sax-playing suggested Charlie Parker, his songwriting suggests the swing era, even if “Dogon A.D.” is in 11/8 meter. As I say, Do Tell gets that Hemphill feeling.

Imagine Andrew Hill and Steve Lacy playing together. That’s what pianist Ulrich Gumpert and his saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder frequently evoke in A New One when Gumpert pieces together piano solos out of shards of melody and Wickihalder tootles along on his soprano, as in the title piece. Actually, Gumpert is a highly eclectic pianist who from phrase to phrase sounds like a bunch of boppers, one after the other. Solos start inside with broken phrasing in dotted eighth-sixteenths, then move harmonically outside with, typically, less interesting, rhythmically even-note-value lines. He’s mainly a concise, melodic soloist and I like his inventions in “Number Nine” and “The Bop and the Hard Be” best.  He wrote seven of the eleven songs here. “The Opener” is a bright tune but several of his others are just simple riffs.

Wickihalder is an eclectic inside-outside melodist also. His emotive tenor solo in the lost-love ballad “Iffie” is the opposite of Lacy-like, while his tenor solo in “The Opener” is especially distinctive, from long, strange tones to bop to stuttered, bitten-off ideas to a crazy high-note climax. Mostly he plays soprano, in more flowing lines than Gumpert. Jan Roder plays swinging bass and in rare solo moments suggests he’s probably the freest player here. Michael Griener is the drummer, ever active with interplay plus he contributes a sweet, unjazzy song “Süssholz,” something a young girl in a dirndl might sing on a Swiss mountainside. Roder and Griener give the group crucial energy – without them, A New One might sound dry, introverted.
–John Litweiler

Cuneiform Records

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