Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Anthony Braxton + Derek Bailey
First Duo Concert (London 1974)
Emanem 5038

Do you dig the 1928 Frank Trumbauer-Eddie Lang, Beiderbecke-Lang duets? Well, here’s their 1974 counterpart, and this too is lovely, masterful, sensitive music. A decade or less before this concert, as new sounds, arthythms, aharmonies, unrhythms, unharmonies, and new feelings opened up for free jazz, the London and Chicago creative communities were especially vital centers of discovery. To over-generalize, total freedom from the entire Western musical tradition in every sense seemed to be the Londoners’ aim; this pure improvisation was an ideal that they pursued with great, in some cases almost obsessive zeal. Along with free improvisation the Chicagoans incorporated even more outlandish sounds, multi-instrumentalism, and fresh kinds of compositions and forms in grand visions. Derek Bailey and Anthony Braxton exemplified their respective communities, making them perfect counterparts for the summit meeting documented on this disc.

What we get is two long duets with the enormously original Bailey picking, plucking, strumming sounds in small, broken phrases or thin chords. Mostly the guitarist’s specks of sound appear just an instant, all are separated by space – more than almost everybody else, Bailey feels silence as an alive musical essential. His music is beyond rhythm – even “rubato” isn’t quite the right word. The sounds he sprinkles sometimes aren’t necessarily “real” notes, so the very idea of atonality is irrelevant. He hates continuity and in general manages to avoid any sense of theme variation or other kinds of linear development. Yet the very fact of his discontinuity yields a kind of musical flow. Although his idiom succeeds in being galaxies distant from any traditions, his counterpoint often feels like accompaniment to Braxton’s less abstract foreground.

And Braxton is the vivid foreground figure just because of the multi-instrumentalist’s rugged melodicism. In fact, here is some of his very best improvising ever on record, in broken lines all the stronger for the very freedom of this setting. Jack Cooke, one of the most perceptive jazz critics, reviewed the original concert and wrote that Braxton’s “ability to intellectualize rather than to emotionalise his music” was “the guiding force of his music ...” Contrariwise, on this CD I hear Braxton’s distorted sounds, the urgency of his attack, his dynamics, his wide up-down leaps, the recurring blues curves in his phrasing, his burrowing in high and low sounds, altogether his intensity coming from big feelings: Braxton is passionate. And along with his endless questing, his sophistication of detail and form show that emotion in Braxton’s music definitely includes intellect.

Though the concert was two unbroken sets, the CD is divided into 12 tracks that mark each time Braxton switches instruments, high to middle to contrabass clarinets, alto sax to flute to sopranino sax. True, some tracks have conscious bases – their long tones in wide-open space (track 6) are especially effective, as the concert goes on, their sensitivity to each others’ moves grows – hear for example the ways the calm Bailey fulfills, imitates, decorates Braxton’s flute on track 7. The next-to-last and longest track is a climax of give and take with especially inspired improvising by both. Most of this review could have been written 40 years ago. What time has shown is that Braxton and Bailey, radically different artists, find empathy that’s historically important as well as musically compelling.
–John Litweiler


Cremaster & Sophie Agnel
confront collectors series ccs 59

Schall und Rausch
confront collectors series ccs 61

confront collectors series ccs 60

With all of the discussion these days about the struggles of labels due to lagging sales of physical media, it is incredible to be able to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of any endeavor, particularly a small, musician-run label dedicated to the documentation of musicians pushing at the edges of improvised music. Mark Wastell started Confront Recordings in 1996 as a way to document his music as well as the pool of musicians he was collaborating with. In an interview with Andrea Dellapiana on Pay no mind to us, Wastell talks about some of his guiding aesthetics for the label. “Environment and atmosphere are two key elements that I often find myself looking for. Be that in a live concert, studio or location recording. I’m keen on recordings that have been influenced by the surrounding in which the sounds were made. The activity, of the performers, that has been nurtured by the feeling within the space. I’m not interesting the ‘recording’ itself, the clean, digitized process. I’m seeking the end result only, the landscape captured by the process.” Over the course of the last two decades, Wastell has released about 80 recordings, spanning limited run cassettes, CDrs and mini-CDs, all of which stay true to his goals.

Those early releases were seminal in my listening, exposing me to the music being made in and around London with groups Wastell participated in like Ist (with Simon H Fell and Rhodri Davies), Assumed Possibilities (with Davies, Chris Burn, and Phil Durrant), The Sealed Knot (with Davies and Burkhard Beins), as well as solo releases by Davies, Martin Küchen, and Nikos Veliotis. The label went dormant for a bit after 2010, but has been revived with a passion, releasing new and archival recordings, reissuing key out-of-print items, and along the way, cultivating renewed activity by musicians like Ian Brighton and the group The Sealed Knot. In celebration, for 2016, Wastell plans to put out 20 new releases including these three.

The group Schall und Rausch (Tisha Mukarji, piano; Johan Arrias, alto saxophone & clarinet; Axel Dörner, trumpet, and Kai Fagaschinski, clarinet), came together as a result of a collaboration between Stockholm–based Arrias and Mukarji when he was visiting Berlin. The two searched out other musicians to work with and quickly centered in on Dörner and Fagaschinski. Mukarji explains that “Schall und Rausch is a variation on the German phrase “schall und rauch”, which means literally “sound and smoke”, and describes the intangibleness. “Schall und rausch” would literally mean “sound and intoxication (in the sense of being high)” and the live recording here, from a concert at Ausland, in Berlin, reveals their highly attuned, collective approach to collective diaphanous, timbral sonic exploration. For the first section of the 43-minute improvisation, one is immediately drawn in to the quality of sound and the way the voices coalesce. The four patiently parse out pure reed tones, Dörner’s fluttered breathy burr, and the hushed oscillations of activated piano strings to create an immersive listening space. At around five minutes in, the even, quiet chiming of piano chords emerges, centering a gradual shift in trajectory as the fricative hiss of breath and quavering tones gather around the mounting volume of the insistent, percussive foundation.

Throughout, the physicality of how sounds are produced are divorced from the sounds themselves. Textures often elicit the gritty pops and crackles of analog circuit oscillators, pure sine tones, and electronic washes. Yet the intrinsic acoustic nature of the sound sources always comes through. Pacing is key here as well. There is a masterful use of a section of spare, stillness about half way through, setting the stage for the welling of Fagaschinski’s clarinet, dark bass piano, and scrabbled textures from Arrias and Dörner. The four use this event as the springboard for a surge in density and dynamics without losing the poised collective velocity of the piece. Then, spontaneously, they steer back to calmer waters, for the first time utilizing tones from trumpet and both reeds against the ringing string resonance of the piano. The final section introduces bursting strident reed and trumpet exhortations, ending with skirling whorls which cut against a ground of sputter and whorls, then cleanly cuts into inky silence.

Cremaster is the Barcelona-based duo of Ferran Fages (feedback mixing board, electro-acoustic devices) and Alfredo Costa Monteiro (objects on electric guitar, electro-acoustic devices). The two have been working together since 2000, reconnoitering the junctures of brash, laminous cacophony and acutely attuned listening. Over the last few years, the duo have started to explore the interfaces of their electro-acoustic approach with acoustic instruments; first with violinist Angharad Davies (documented on the strong recording Pluie Fine on the Potlatch label) and then with pianist Sophie Agnel, captured on this Confront recording Isotopic. For both projects, Fages and Costa Monteiro and their collaborators recorded parts separately, trading them back and forth and assembling them in the studio after a period of collective assimilation. For their collaboration with Agnel, the three recorded their parts over the course of 2009-2011, finally assembling things in the studio in March of 2012 and, in listening, one can imagine the expansive process of recording, listening, layering, and remixing as the music unfolds.

The two made a canny choice with Agnel, her crystalline piano sound and spare sense of pacing seemingly at odds with the abraded textures and harsh timbral shadings of their squelched and feedback-laden electro-acoustics. Yet in bringing the two elements together, a dynamically shifting tensile balance is uncovered. The 25-minute long “face-transitive” emerges as pinpoint piano notes sound from amidst vacillating electronic tones and the dark bass thrum, gathering density as crackles, thwacks, shudders, and chimed piano notes are layered together. Yet even as the events mount and dynamic spikes crack through, there is always an underlying clarity of event and structure that materializes. Burst of actions, tracer arcs, and textural sheets ebb and flow in the mix while maintaining an overall immersive momentum. Extremes of pitch and qualities of sound sources are masterfully melded together into a sonic whole which shifts and steers its way through currents that converge, sometimes combining and other times operating in countervailing strata. The result revels in the massing of sound while still maintaining a transparency of the underlying components. The second track, “n-dimensional,” is more compact and restless, allowing for more peaks and valleys to emerge, particularly in a center section of skirling feedback rending the calm of slowly placed piano notes which build to scumbled strummed and struck piano strings. Listening to the way that these three integrate and morph the disparate inner-workings makes for an engrossing listen.

The final release under consideration in this batch is simply titled 10tet though one look at the lineup and it is evident that the number of musicians is in inverse proportion to the density of the single improvisation which is documented. In the fall of 2013, Radu Malfatti (trombone), Nikos Veliotis (cello), and Klaus Filip (ppooll), were on a tour of Japan where they performed in various combinations, including a number of collaborations with local musicians. For the last day of their tour, the three were invited to play at Ftarri, a music store and performance venue in Tokyo. They were joined by a stellar cast of musicians, most of whom they had long-standing relationships with (Taku Sugimoto, electric guitar; Tetuzi Akiyama, acoustic guitar; Taku Unami, electric bass; Moé Kamura, voice; Kazushige Kinoshita, violin; Masahiko Okura, tube; and Toshihiro Koike, trombone). The recording and mastering by Unami captures the proceedings in intimate detail, placing the muted shadings and open structure of the piece in natural contrast to the room sound.

It is odd that this many years on, the ultra-quiet, ultra-spare vocabulary and strategies that these musicians ply still sounds so radical. The open pools of silence plays as critical a role here as every slight nuanced breath, chair creak, string scrape, or restrained tone. What makes this piece work so well is the finely tuned awareness each musician utilizes in choosing when and where to place their sounds within the unfolding collective. Sounds are purposefully placed, operating in countervaling planes and angles to create pinpoints of activity in a shifting aural field. The timbral and tonal ranges are also integral, providing a subtly gradated palette, from low end sonorities of trombone and rumble of electric bass to the crisp ringing attack of electric guitar, from string overtones of cello, violin, and acoustic guitar to the pure electronic sine tones and textures from ppooll (a Max/MSP system utilized by Filip). There is patience to this playing; a willingness to let things sit against what unfolds while eschewing any tendencies toward propulsive arc. And that masterful intentionality and resolute consideration comes through in every facet of the piece.
–Michael Rosenstein


Anthony Davis + Paul Plimley + Al Neil + John Kameel Farah
past piano present: Live at Western Front, 1985–2015
Front 004

past piano present: Live at Western Front, 1985–2015 takes four pianists and presents snippets of their performances at this small Vancouver performance space, the oldest artist-run center in the city. It’s a solo-piano anthology that tells us as much about the musicians as it does about the venue itself.

The Front has been a fixture for Vancouver creative music since it opened in 1973. Housed in a onetime Knights of Pythias lodge, one of its founders, Eric Metcalfe, still lives in a small apartment on the top floor of the modest, four-story structure. His painting adorns the cover of this new release.

The Front is a genuine throwback in a city living through sweeping land redevelopment. Located in Mount Pleasant, a longtime working-to-middle class neighborhood just off the downtown core, the Front’s immediate surroundings have been transformed over the past decade: spiking real estate costs and shifts in the city’s land-use strategy have made the center an anomaly amid the glass-box condominiums and tiny, trendy “artist” studios. Earlier this year, the Front solidified its future with a funding formula from the city that allowed the organization to buy the building.

This record — and it is vinyl, of course, with a free digital download code inside – is the second from the Front’s recent archival series. The first, Vaincu.Va! (2013), captured an extraordinary Evan Parker solo soprano saxophone performance, the final concert at the end of his first (and now fabled) 1978 North American tour. (See Bill Shoemaker’s column in Point of Departure 48.)

past piano present can’t match the mythic level of Vaincu.Va!, but its first side does capture three remarkable improvisers at the height of their powers – American Anthony Davis and lifelong Vancouverites Paul Plimley and Al Neil. Side 2 features Toronto composer-pianist John Kameel Farah. His performance, from a 2015 compositional residency, is an instance of the Front’s vast (and hugely open-minded) mandate: his two pieces, “Fantasia” and “Fugue,” exist somewhere between a concert-piano recital and an electronic soundscape, weaving (among others) Bach and Vangelis in a gentle postmodern experiment.

The three pieces on Side 1, all taken from the 1980s, are drastically different: each a wonderful instance, in miniature, of how an improvising pianist might have been operating in that period. The performances have aged beautifully; they remain examples of how creative artists might operate, period.

Davis, here from 1985, in the midst of his seven-album run at Gramavision, and just a year before the New York City Opera premiere of X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X), performs “Behind the Rock,” an immense, rumbling, percussive work, where right-hand gestures and extended technique are often framed and overwhelmed by a jarring, magnificent drone. Davis has pointed out that this isn’t an abstraction: it’s a “reflection of the mystery and darkness at the time Jesus was placed behind the rock.”

Paul Plimley, a contemporary of Davis, is here in a 1989 solo excerpt from a performance with bassist Lisle Ellis, himself British Columbia born. Plimley was, in many ways, the impetus for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s signature curatorial strategy: mixing and matching locals (from clarinetist François Houle to cellist Peggy Lee) in first-time improvised encounters with out-of-town guests. Here, he performs “Ripple by Drops Magnified,” an impromptu six-minute piece inspired by Stockhausen’s Tierkreis. It is classic Plimley: the tiny, playful gestures, the affection for space and slow-building drama, the onrush of melodic clusters, a sense, if you’ve never heard him before, of Cecil Taylor on the one hand, and something thrillingly original on the other.

“The Piano Tuner,” the final piece on Side 1 comes from Al Neil, who still lives and works in the city at the age of 92. Recognized for his role in Vancouver’s early bebop history – in the late 1950s, he was part of the house rhythm section at the Cellar, the site of Ornette Coleman’s first performances outside the United States – he was, by the mid ‘60s, among Canada’s first exponents of the avant-garde.

“The Piano Tuner” feels like a kind of Dada experiment. It’s a silent-movie vignette, the curious – bumbling? – piano tuner – as he sits at the keyboard – in tune, and out, establishing a rhythmic pattern, then not. When an almost melody begins, we’re now immersed in this fantasy: plodding and purposeful, awkward then oddly beautiful.
–Greg Buium


Harris Eisenstadt
Old Growth Forest
Clean Feed CF359CD

Old Growth Forest features an augmented version of drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s old trio with Chicago-based bassist Jason Roebke and fellow Windy City trombonist Jeb Bishop. Ten years ago, when he moved from Los Angeles to New York, Eisenstadt decided to expand the ensemble into a quartet that included saxophonist Tony Malaby. Unfortunately, gigs for a tour were scarce, so the project was shelved until September 2015, when Eisenstadt reunited the original members to play during his month-long residency at The Stone. The band went into the studio immediately afterwards to record this rich, expansive album.

This long-gestating venture features a delicate balance between freedom and form, lending the proceedings a looser, more spontaneous feel than some of Eisenstadt’s other more compositionally-minded endeavors, such as his various Canada Day units. Nonetheless, the record’s eight compositions all convey enough basic structure to provide direction for his bandmates to impart a poetic sensibility to each of the songs.

Most of the album’s tunes are named after old growth trees; “Larch” opens the set with a delightfully circuitous theme, setting the stage for a series of brawny brass and reed extrapolations. In contrast, “Pine” reveals a tentatively abstract vibe, roiling with subterranean trombone ululations punctuated by turbulent tenor testimonials. Alternating moods continue through the set: the angular “Redwood” features blistering horn interchanges at a brisk tempo, while “Spruce” unfolds in relaxed fashion, underscored by pointillist embellishments and languid glissandos. “Fir” continues the proceedings’ elegant deportment, highlighting the leader’s nimble dexterity, whereas “Big Basin” and “Cedar” close out the date with boldly expressive statements; the former contains some of Malaby and Bishop’s most unabashedly lyrical exchanges on record. Malaby and Bishop also weave contrapuntal improvisations full of ecstatic brio throughout the date. Their muscular interplay rarely abandons formal constraints, but finds novel ways to reinterpret the material. Roebke’s melodic bass holds down the mid-range for the frontline, while Eisenstadt, a magnanimous leader and tasteful drummer, encourages his colleagues with supple rhythm shifts and colorful textural embellishments.

Compared to Eisenstadt’s sophisticated and heavily arranged Canada Day compositions, the blowing vehicles presented by the quartet showcase a different side of his abilities, both as a composer and performer, while hinting at his unbridled percussive prowess as a sideman – documented on recent releases like Larry Ochs’ phenomenal The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015) or the drummer’s numerous contributions to trumpeter Nate Wooley’s projects. Revealing ample sonic variety, Old Growth Forest keenly demonstrates the visceral appeal of Eisenstadt’s more freewheeling approach.
–Troy Collins


Fred Frith + Darren Johnston
Everybody’s Somebody’s Nobody
Clean Feed CF357CD

Listeners paying attention to the terrific Bay Area scene have perhaps been lucky enough to hear trumpeter Darren Johnston on a few releases over the last decade. A player of vast technique and imagination, it’s some kind of crime that he’s not better known. With Frith, he’s got a partner equally as resourceful and unpredictable. For all the density of information and ideas on these fabulous duets, they’re tight and focused enough to convince that they’re halfway to compositions.

You never know quite what kind of texture you’re going to get from these players, though it’s one hallmark of the disc that they return somewhat regularly to quite lyric, frequently melancholy materials. The opener “Barn Dance” sounds like a drone-bliss Celtic folk tune, with Johnston playing a single interval in a bright full tone against Frith’s multi-layered fuzz backdrop. It’s gripping, and they favor this kind of setup, as it allows them to play with snaking lines and abstraction alike. The performances are very brief for the most part. This is especially so on “Scratch” and “Scribble,” little excursions into metallic percussive effects and arrayed brass squeaks and wheezes. But their chemistry is equally compelling elsewhere. On the longest track, “Luminescence,” Frith taps out a rhythm that he alternates with small mercurial runs, as Johnston spools out long, exotica-tinged lines that suggest the pair are flirting with songforms only they can hear (indeed, when Frith assumes melodic duties well into this piece, the effect is rather glorious).

Perhaps one characteristic uniting the two is their transformation (rather than discarding) of idiomatic instrumental features. Most obviously, you hear this when Frith deftly combines loops and linear work. But it’s abundantly there in Johnston’s riotous, NOLA-robot mute playing on the title track or his bravura solo piece “Down Time” (Frith’s “Rising Time” is raunchy and equally good). Most effective are those pieces where they sound, improbably, as if they’re combining several different techniques simultaneously: the muffle-scrape and horn-chortle on “Bounce,” the churning textural bed on “Morning and the Shadow,” the simple interval and rattling guitar prep on “Ants,” or the spacy drift of the closing “Standard Candles.” A marvelous journey into an alien musical landscape, this disc is what happens when two ambitious, creative utility players hook up.
–Jason Bivins

New World Records

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