Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


John Escreet
The Unknown
Sunnyside SSC1473

Recorded over two consecutive nights in the Netherlands, The Unknown finds pianist John Escreet in the company of his long standing trio with John Hébert and Tyshawn Storey joined by special guest Evan Parker. The four previously came together to record the 2014 album Sound, Space, and Structures. Whereas that previous album contained shorter improvisations, The Unknown consists of two lengthy improvised tracks: the forty-five minute “Part One,” recorded at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam; and the half hour “Part Two,” recorded at the Lantaren Venster in Rotterdam. As a whole, the two performances demonstrate the group’s great rapport and stunning musicianship, as well as its ability to take the music in unexpected, surprising, and diverse ways.

Throughout the whole of the album the group changes its configurations, moving from duos to trios, to a different duo, to a long solo section, varying both timbre and texture: Sorey’s clanging cymbals apposite Hébert’s furiously bowed bass; Escreet strumming the inside of his piano behind an Hébert solo; Parker alone, unfurling and spinning out long, complex lines. If the group was a boxer, it would be an expert counterpuncher, as its feints are masterfully executed and unpredictable. “Part One” begins with a low, ominous introduction with Escreet far to the left end of his piano while arco bass, cymbal rolls, and an increasingly active Parker all rise in intensity. The fire and brimstone the listener expects arrives, only it comes eighteen minutes later. Bait and switch. In the interregnum, the group travels through a series of episodes in which each player has an opportunity to take the lead. Overall the dynamics are soft, the textures are thin, and the players are generous, often yielding their time to their bandmates. The set winds down with a Parker and Sorey duo, which slowly segues into a spacey trio of vibes, bass, and piano before fading out.

“Part Two” is where the group’s versatility and range become even more evident and exciting. As opposed to the previous evening, the quartet wastes little time in getting lathered up. And then the unexpected: Hébert and Sorey lock into a swaggering groove, transforming the band into a potent straight ahead piano trio. Upon running its course the groove subsides, and the trio gives way to Parker’s free jazz solo saxophone clinic. Immediately following, again, the unexpected: Hébert conjures a slow, smoldering, sultry ballad ostinato; this is now a completely different band. The quartet finish their performance with one final assault. It’s as if they are asking “here we are, who’s gonna take us?” On that February night in Rotterdam, I doubt few bands could.
—Chris Robinson


John Gibson
Relative Calm
New World CD 80783-2

Though the term “minimalism” has stuck fast for over half a century to a disparate range of visual, auditory and time-based art forms, most of the practitioners don’t have much use for the word. These works are often systemic and define their infiniteness through repetition and variation, often with an empiricist ethos of “truth to materials.” Prevalent also is the use of what might otherwise be thought of as “casual” objects – found or readymade elements, industrial non-art materials, and in dance and music, forms from outside the prevailing aesthetic attitudes of the day. The argument for whether these works succeeded in their disciplines (or were mocking or stymieing their disciplines) began to ebb by the mid- to late 1970s and “minimal” had become an accepted identifier, and what had been viewed as an aesthetic trend took hold and continued to bear fruit well into the following decade. 

Jon Gibson is principally known as a saxophonist with the ensemble of Philip Glass, whose name is synonymous with “minimal music,” and the reedist has been a member since 1968. Originally hailing from California, Gibson was a member of the New Music Ensemble at UC-Davis (which recorded and privately released two LPs) and upon relocating east began working with Glass, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. Involving musical superstructures predicated on variation, evolution, and improvisation, the work of these composers might be better thought of as “process music” rather than minimal, and Gibson’s stairsteps and contained patterns certainly follow in this direction.

By the time he composed Relative Calm in 1981, Gibson had been with the Glass Ensemble for thirteen years and had also recorded his own music twice for the small Chatham Square label. On this suite of four pieces (a fifth, the prologue, is absent from this CD) he’s joined by keyboardist Joseph Kubera and percussionist David Van Tieghem, while Gibson himself plays soprano saxophone, keyboards, amplified autoharp and utilizes tape loops. The music was composed for choreographer Lucinda Childs, a Judson-schooled artist who had been a dancer, chorus member and librettist for Einstein on the Beach, Glass and director Robert Wilson’s revolutionary opera (Andy de Groat choreographed the 1976 edition, while Childs choreographed later revivals), and in 1979 worked with Glass, Gibson and Sol Lewitt on a piece titled Dance. Lit and staged by Wilson, Relative Calm saw performances in Strasbourg and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both utilizing prerecorded music, though Gibson performed live in parts.

As a piece for dance, it may seem difficult to imagine outside its initial purpose. Far from being accompaniment, the music, light and movement are intended to operate as one interdependent system – one views a piece like this in a relaxed haze as bodies, marley and austere color-field lighting merge into a distinct plane of coexistent action and stasis. The sonic component is part cue, but is significant enough to course through and guide the distinct visual material. The opening alap phase presents organ drones, a round and ringing, languid vibraphone progression, gestural arpeggios from the amplified harp and a morse code-like electric tapping – from a 1982 review by Marcia B. Siegel in the SoHo Weekly News, this section presented eight dancers in slow, deliberate walking motions across stage diagonals, characterized by Siegel as both “ritual” and “fiendishly rational.” (Siegel’s article was reprinted in The Tail of the Dragon: New Dance, 1976-1982 p. 172-3. This compendium is an enormously helpful resource.) The second movement is more vigorous and utilizes piano and vibrating, resonant synthetic chords in apposite motion – not too far off from a Glass piece like “Two Pages,” albeit more romantic in feel and slowed down. It is here that the eight dancers paired off working with both grand gestures and smaller, microbial phrases, all set against a surrealist backdrop of projected images, some abstract and some not, owing to Wilson’s penchant for strange juxtapositions. On its own, this music doesn’t really change much over eighteen minutes, and its pretty stasis amid repetition and in-place ostinato bounce is certainly programmatic – but through duration, it is imparted with a singular beauty.

“Reach” is a piece for overdubbed soprano saxophones and is improvisational, presenting another curious juxtaposition with Childs’ economical yet risky gestures – for this section, she performed solo in what were likely jarring extensions of her lanky frame against lit geometric shapes and the hall-filling, pinched clamber of Gibson’s horn. Here, the saxophonist edges closer to Steve Lacy than his straight horn-wielding counterpart in the Glass Ensemble Dickie Landry, and the pairing of immediacy in free and regimented forms must have been something to experience. The closing movement is an explosive, almost rockist piece, loose cymbal and keyboard bassline glancing off upper-register trills and massed midrange chords in a sort of Ornettish environment of parallel tempi, which the dancers capitalized on in racing and wheeling movements, backed by images of decontextualized signs and symbols from Wilson’s projections. While it’s rare to be able to experience these multi-faceted “maximal” works of art in real time, the release of this music (perhaps coincidentally timed with a retrospective of Childs’ work at the Joyce Theater in New York, sadly not including Relative Calm) can be triangulated with textual and a few visual resources to give us an idea of what this fascinating piece must have been like. And even on its own, the musical aspect of Relative Calm is quite an invigorating listen.
–Clifford Allen


Guy + Crispell + Lytton
Deep Memory
Intakt 273

Deep Memory, a 2015 Swiss studio recording from Barry Guy, Marilyn Crispell, and Paul Lytton, is a marvelous, end-of-the-year gift – another step forward in what is becoming an extraordinary body of work. Stretching back to Odyssey (1999), these Intakt discs now form a kind of tetralogy, a four-part journey into some of the most important trio music of the new century.

All seven pieces here (written by Guy) take their titles from British artist Hughie O’Donoghue’s 2007 Berlin exhibition Last Poems. The CD booklet includes small reproductions of the seven paintings.

Guy is often inspired by issues posed by visual art. Last year he paid homage to Picasso’s Guernica and criticized the covering of the version housed at the United Nations during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in The Blue Shroud (the name applies to both the album-length composition and his new 14-piece ensemble). The trio’s last record, Phases of the Night (2007), took the work of Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Wilfredo Lam, and Yves Tanguy as reference points; Ithaca (2003), their second album, took its title from a George Vaughan painting, and found its inspiration in the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.

To me, it’s often a fool’s game: staring into the images and wondering how they’ve been transformed into sound. Articulating this form of alchemy is next to impossible. Still, I’m not suggesting you set aside the paintings. Listen to the music; revisit the art. Sit with them both.

In the notes, Guy makes it clear how he’s made certain connections. O’Donoghue’s exhibition had a retrospective quality to it, especially his thematic choices. “The idea of ‘revisiting,’” the bassist explained, “became a prompt to examine our past three albums’ Zeitgeist, and explore further relevant atmospheres that stood us in such good stead previously.”

Guy brought seven substantial compositions to the session – striking a nearly hour-long balance between the kinds of motive and mood they’ve explored before. In barely two minutes “Fallen Angel” makes this clear: a terrifying collective squall, a lush legato declaration. Here, the push and pull are wound in and out over more than 10 minutes, the disc’s longest piece – beautiful and torn, clusters of discord, long stretches of bobbing, hypnotic improvisation, and spells of unadorned consonance. As with so much of Guy’s work, in large groups and small, open and predetermined forms are calibrated with great care.

Individually, the performances are especially strong. Crispell has, for a long time now, found a perfect balance in her playing – between a spare, patient beauty and pure tumult. It seems like a lifetime ago that her contemplative turn – beginning, perhaps, with her work on ECM – caused such a hubbub. Lytton’s contribution is like a laser beam on all his gifts. Every time I hear “Silenced Music,” I’m pulled back to his cymbals – wickedly mirroring, distorting, and fueling the interplay. Or the searing snare on “Sleeper.” The record begins, on “Scent,” with one of Guy’s wonderful pizzicato washes, and a gorgeous, aching line. Like Crispell, he, too, pivots between this nearly romantic sense of melody and a towering, sometimes daunting, turn towards discord.
–Greg Buium


Rich Halley 5
The Outlier
Pine Eagle 009

Portland, Oregon-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has been performing uncompromising modern jazz for nearly three decades, yet has received relatively little attention from the mainstream press. Previously recording for the Avocet, Louie and Nine Winds labels (among others), Halley inaugurated his Pine Eagle Recordings imprint in 2011 with Requiem For a Pit Viper, the first album to document his current working quartet featuring his son Carson on drums, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and bassist Clyde Reed. The Outlier, his nineteenth album as a bandleader and seventh on his own label, breaks from recent convention by featuring a fifth member – virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet.

Halley’s decision to recruit fellow West Coast resident Golia is fitting: Golia engineered the tenor saxophonist’s 1990s recordings for his own Nine Winds label; and the two previously performed together in the Lizard Brothers, a small big band that operated during the 1980s and ‘90s. Adapting a similar large ensemble sensibility to his new compositions, Halley writes contrapuntal charts for Golia, Vlatkovich and himself that makes the five-piece unit sound much larger than it is.

Reed and the young Halley support the vivacious horn section with recognizable, in-the-pocket grooves. They incorporate more than just straight-ahead bop rhythms to drive the band however: swaggering R&B backbeats; militarized martial cadences; the hot jazz stylings of pre-war “jungle drums”; even abstract dub reggae beats buttress the boisterous frontline’s heated polyphony. Navigating the rhythm section’s stylistic shifts, Halley’s brawny tenor variations invoke numerous antecedents, from Ben Webster’s breathy lyricism to Archie Shepp’s gruff rhapsodies. Vlatkovich and Golia make perfect foils, complementing and contrasting Halley’s pneumatic cadences with vocalized ruminations and burly exhortations.

As he has on prior releases, Halley includes a handful of brief collective improvisations in the program, although the band’s innate chemistry and rough and tumble approach towards written material blurs the lines between loose readings of notated charts and spontaneous collective invention. But such is their unique rapport, which lends credence to the album’s title, The Outlier.
–Troy Collins


Mary Halvorson Octet
Away With You
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-024

Away With You is the debut recording of guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Octet. Halvorson has been steadily increasing the scope of her working group over the past few years, incrementally augmenting her core trio of bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith with horn players. On 2010’s Saturn Sings, the trio became a quintet with the addition of alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and eventually, a septet on 2013’s Illusionary Sea, courtesy of tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchick.

Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn is the latest addition to Halvorson’s ever expanding roster; the atmospheric blend of silvery string textures evinces a more beguiling shift in tone than any of the bandleader’s previous personnel changes. Even more striking is Halvorson’s increasingly melodic compositional sense. Praise for her singular fretwork has been well-deserved, although recent releases have documented the budding maturity of her ensemble writing. Moving beyond the academic challenge of purely asymmetrical forms, she embraces a lush, more linear style that finds greater concordance with the classic jazz canon than those of her more single-mindedly avant-garde oriented peers.

There is precedent for this gradual change in approach; a gorgeous cover of Philip Catherine’s “Nairam” closed Illusionary Sea, marking the first time the cutting edge guitarist recorded another artist’s work – an aspect she fully explored on last year’s Meltframe, one of the finest solo guitar recordings of the new century. Eschewing originals in favor of an eclectic collection of covers, ranging from classics by Ellington and Monk to contemporary fare from the likes of Noël Atchotké and Chris Lightcap, Halvorson crafted a truly memorable album that was both adventurous and accessible.

This newfound focus informs her writing for the Octet. Though less dense and thorny than her early work, these spacious compositions still convey an idiosyncratic tendency towards the oblique; multihued layers reveal a singularly sophisticated sound world filled with quixotic melodies, unorthodox harmonies and off-kilter rhythms. Taking a modicum of brief but pointed solos, Halvorson magnanimously assumes the role of bandleader in this setting, enabling her sidemen the freedom to take these episodic pieces to the outer limits. Demonstrating notable progress as a composer and arranger, Away With You is another compelling document in the growing discography of one of today’s most innovative artists.
–Troy Collins

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