Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Mary Halvorson
Code Girl
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-027

Code Girl, the debut recording of Mary Halvorson’s new band of the same name, is the acclaimed guitarist’s first project based primarily on lyric-driven songs. Although Halvorson has written lyrics for song-oriented projects before (including her long-running duo with violist Jessica Pavone, and People, with drummer Kevin Shea and bassist Kyle Forester), this is the first time she’s composed full-band arrangements with a dedicated singer at the helm. The group features rising vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, trumpet phenomenon Ambrose Akinmusire, veteran bassist Michael Formanek, and frequent Halvorson collaborator, drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The double album contains fourteen tracks that push song forms into uncharted territory, expanding Halvorson’s compositional reach with intricate motifs arranged around poetic lyrics. Unified by the primacy of lyrics and the emotional resonance of the human voice, Halvorson cites the soul music of Sam Cooke, the folk-based writing of Elliott Smith, and Deerhoof’s eclectic indie-rock as key touchstones for this project. The music retains all the hallmarks of Halvorson’s usual work: angular melodies; contrapuntal harmonies; and odd-metered rhythms. Despite a focus on sung lyrics, the instrumentalists are given ample room for spontaneous interplay.

A freewheeling solo guitar improvisation introduces the opener, “My Mind I Find In Time,” establishing the proceedings’ experimental tone. Early on, a special rapport emerges between Akinmusire and Halvorson – their idiosyncratic styles complement each other, creating unique textures, as on “Pretty Mountain,” where Halvorson’s spidery fretwork mirrors Akinmusire’s quicksilver staccato. Not only does this new collaboration help define the sound of the ensemble, it also enriches exchanges between Halvorson, Formanek, and Fujiwara, (who collaborate as the collective trio Thumbscrew, and as a rhythm section in other projects.)

Halvorson, Formanek, and Fujiwara are a tight unit, which allows greater rhythmic experimentation, enabling more flexibility for Halvorson’s urbane lyrics. Kidambi and Akinmusire rarely work in unison or harmony but still function as the primary focal point. For her part, Kidambi interprets Halvorson’s oblique lines with pitch-bending aplomb, adding pathos to such numbers as “My Mind I Find In Time”: “I have here in my rotation / it is not predictable, my mind / potential to deal a dangerous lie / it is not predictable, my mind / and if I disappear, it is for this / it is not predictable, my mind.”

New ideas are unveiled on cuts like the Iberian-tinged theme of “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon” or the scorching drama of “In the Second Before.” The spare duo excursion, “Accurate Hit,” is a highlight; Kidambi’s direct delivery of Halvorson’s enigmatic words cuts to the core of the tune’s forthright melodicism, as the leader’s cyclical chords pirouette across the stratosphere. The subtly nuanced “Off the Record” and ebullient “Thunderhead” – the only full-band tracks sans vocalist – are equally compelling. Code Girl is an ambitious undertaking that offers a bold new direction for Halvorson, further solidifying her role as one of the new generation’s most creative artists.
–Troy Collins


The International Nothing
In Doubt We Trust
Ftarri 216

Over the course of 18 years and five recordings, Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke have honed their approach as a self-described “psycho-acoustic” clarinet duo. Coming out of an immersive group of improvised musicians in Berlin, the two gradually moved their duo music toward a process of collective composition, utilizing their deep immersion into the sonic interactions of two clarinets. (Which is not to say that the two abandoned improvisation as both have continued to play in improvised settings outside of their duo.) From their first release, their music has incorporated lyricism within the complexities of partial tones, and used songlike durations for pieces without touching on song structures, depending upon a technical acumen without hinting at sheer technicality. There is an assured focus distilled from careful listening in their pieces that comes out immediately. What sets In Doubt We Trust off from their previous releases is their decision to develop a single extended 37-minute composition rather than building the CD from shorter pieces.

The cover credits the piece as having been developed over the course of 2015-2017 and one can hear a considered, gradually evolving sensibility at play. Tones are carefully chosen and played off of each other, harmonies develop and are then subverted into quavering atonality, textural crinkles and pops contrast with sections of abstracted lyricism. What holds it all together is an unhurried patience to lay out kernels of ideas and sit on them, letting them organically morph and modulate. What is striking throughout is how the two lay bare the workings of the piece. Breath, the clicks of keys, the sibilant sounds of wind resonating through the body of the clarinet are as elemental to this music as fully articulated notes and ephemeral, looped melodic snippets.

The two are masters at playing their instruments off of each other, mining the beatings and quavering, tightly voiced microtonalities. It is also intriguing to hear how the two have absorbed and co-opted the sounds and timbres of analog circuits and glitched electronics into their vocabulary. Burred, breathy reed tones transform into the even oscillations of a sine tone and then back again. There is a section 30 minutes in where clicks, key-pop clatter, clipped notes and interrupted phrasing bring to mind the sound of a failing hard drive. As strong as their previous releases have been, “In Doubt We Trust” is a masterful development in the contemplative, collective creativity of the duo.
—Michael Rosenstein


Jon Irabagon Quartet with Tim Hagans
Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics
Irabbagast 010

Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics is Jon Irabagon’s tenth album as a bandleader. Recorded in Buenos Aires during a 2016 South American tour, this vibrant studio session features six interconnected mini-suites – in contrast to Behind the Sky, Irabagon’s previous quartet effort, which consisted of a dozen concise memorials. This celebratory date’s labyrinthine numbers highlight the vivacious improvisational interplay of his bandmates, who once again include pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Rudy Royston, with trumpeter Tim Hagans in place of Tom Harrell as the invited guest.

From Colin Baty’s lurid album cover art to the tongue-in-cheek liner notes (written in the style of a turn of the century carnival barker), this effort regales with impetuous energy. Compared to the prior album, this set’s extended takes enable each bandmember plenty of room for probing solos – a freedom Irabagon takes great advantage of on the rousing opener, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Week.” A nearly peerless virtuoso, Irabagon sticks to tenor, augmenting his muscular lyricism and quicksilver phrasing with extreme extended techniques, using remarkable embouchure control to extrapolate tuneful melodies into an array of dizzying tonal variations.

Hagans, who provides mellifluous balance to Irabagon’s brawny tone, performs on all but the first cut, revealing harmonic daring in “Emotional Physics/The Things,” quoting “All the Things You Are” in his solo. Perdomo continues to make an apt foil for the leader, matching the saxophonist’s herculean cadences with adroit flair. The pianist’s progressive approach can be heard in “The Demon Barber of Fleet Week” and the romantic opening to the episodic “Pretty Like North Dakota,” while the continuously shifting, reggaeton-influenced rhythms of “You Own Your Own” demonstrate his ability to groove. Nakamura and Royston’s interactions throughout the funky closer “Taipei Personality” and their double time swing on “The Bo’ness Monster” reveal a close camaraderie.

Alternating visceral up-tempo excursions with more introspective passages, Irabagon reveals a knack for composing elaborate pieces that draw heavily from traditional jazz vernacular. The date encompasses a variety of moods, ranging from serene balladry to frenetic swing – something the album’s longest cut, “Pretty Like North Dakota,” does seamlessly in over a quarter of an hour. Reaching well beyond the mainstream territory he explored on The Observer (Concord Records, 2009), this adventurous post-bop session reveals Irabagon to be far more than just a maverick neo-traditionalist, highlighting his budding prowess as a magnanimous bandleader, notable composer, and most importantly – a first-rate creative improviser.
–Troy Collins


Peter Kuhn Trio
FMR Records FMRCD467-1117

Peter Kuhn
Dependent Origination
FMR Records FMRCD478-1117

Since returning to music after a thirty-one-year hiatus, saxophonist and clarinetist Peter Kuhn has released four excellent albums of newly recorded music in addition to a two-disc collection of his work in the late 1970s. His two new albums, Intention and Dependent Origination, mark his debut for the British label FMR and the expansion of a discography that reflects a significant career renaissance.

Intention is the follow up to Kuhn’s trio’s last album, The Other Shore, which I reviewed in the September 2016 issue of Point of Departure. His trio, filled out by bassist Kyle Motl and drummer Nathan Hubbard, is one of the most cohesive units that is working today – and not just in improvised music, but in the larger, more straight ahead jazz worlds as well. What is particularly impressive about this group is how each player does just enough that’s different from his bandmates so as to create a dialectical relationship between them that springs them all in the same direction. While call and response and echoing may be one way for improvisers to hook up and get on the same page, there’s only so far that approach can take a group. Here, Kuhn, Motl, and Hubbard have trust in themselves and each other, allowing them to play both as individuals and a collective. Motl’s undulating, continuously shifting groundwork doesn’t always match up with or reference Kuhn’s varied phrase lengths or unpredictable cries. Likewise, Hubbard’s fills, rolls, and hits don’t necessarily come where one would expect, and when he or Motl flirts with time or meter, it’s not likely to regulate the music into any pulse. Their separate-yet-together approach creates a wonderful tension and drive, and it makes the occasional moments when they choose to fall in together (such as Kuhn and Motl’s imitations of each other on “Arise”) more satisfying and enjoyable than if that was their default mode.

The trio is also aware of not just what is happening in any particular series of contemporaneous moments, but the bigger picture as well. Both “The Stream” and “Gift in the Wound” open with Kuhn’s hushed and plaintive bass clarinet. Each track evolves and grows in its own direction and then finishes with a return to material similar to that with which they began. The ability, awareness, and desire to create a larger, referential narrative on the fly reveals both the trio’s musicianship and their willingness to reach out to their listeners to make the music more approachable and less abstract. Like the album title would suggest, Kuhn and his trio always play with full intention, their focus never wavers, and one never hears any hesitation or sense of indecision on the part of the musicians. There might not be a more important ingredient to successful improvisation than the intention Kuhn’s trio demonstrates.

Dependent Origination is a live album recorded in 2016 and features Kuhn alongside cornetist Dan Clucas, saxophonist Dave Sewelson, bassist Scott Walton, and drummer Alex Cline. While the second and third cuts of the three-track album are excellent, it’s all about “Aspiration,” the thirty-eight-minute magnum opus that opens the album. After a long five-minute prelude that quietly and ominously builds, the piece evolves into a lively and dynamic discussion that’s waged at differing levels of intensity about a number of topics. It’s a conversation among old sparring partners who never grow old of rehashing the same old debates or trying to convince the others of their position. The music is full of back-and-forths, interruptions, jokes, brief asides, and well-placed parries and ripostes. Sometimes things get heated: Kuhn blows frantic bass clarinet lines as Sewelson’s bari barks with teeth showing, all while the more logical Clucas tries to remain above the fray. At other points things are more considered and respectful. And sometimes, Walton and Cline have to send each party back to their corners and let things breathe for a moment. And in a somewhat miraculous conclusion, the trio comes to a final understanding, ending the piece in unison.

Through their myriad tempos, patterns, and textures, Cline and Walton provide the evolving setting for the proceedings, as the pair nudge the frontline from their downtown loft headquarters to brief stops in a hip midtown bebop club and a seedy burlesque joint before heading back home again. And the horns often take the hint. On “The Way Out (Is In)” Cline lays down a heavy swing and Kuhn responds with some sultry clarinet lines. Midway through “Aspiration” Cline and Walton challenge their mates with a blistering tempo, to which Kuhn, Clucas, and Sewelson are only too happy to oblige. In fact, it’s that willingness of each member of this group, and Kuhn’s trio as well, to oblige to their colleagues’ suggestions, and to ground every action in doing what is best for the music, is what makes Kuhn’s albums appealing and compelling.
—Chris Robinson


Andrew Lisle + Alex Ward
Copepod POD11

Amongst the plethora of projects that Alex Ward is involved in, he always seems to carve out time for duos. There are his duos with elder masters like Derek Bailey and Lol Coxhill, collaborations with drummers Steve Noble and Roger Turner, and a variety of other projects he’s had going along the way. Add this duo with drummer Andrew Lisle to that list. On Doors, released on Ward’s Copepod label, he alternates between guitar and clarinet, pairing off rewardingly with Lisle’s crisp, crackling drumming. Ward generally segments off his guitar playing and clarinet playing so it is particularly rewarding to hear him switch off between the two in a single session.

Things kick off with “Front,” as Ward methodically constructs frayed probing phrases on clarinet against Lisle’s open, spattering cascades. Over the course of the 16 1/2-minute improvisation, the two prod and parry in vigorous waves while leaving plenty of space for each other. Ward’s playing here is a reminder of what a singular clarinet player he is, ably mining the full range of the instrument, from warm woodiness to stridency extended with keen control of coruscating burred overtones and harmonics. Lisle proves a worthy partner, parsing out his playing with a well-honed sense of dynamics, attack and release, displaying a well-tuned command of the tone and timbre of his kit. “Back” is next up with Ward on electric guitar. Things start off with sustained chords hung over rubbed drum heads and from there, the two slowly develop the angularity of the trajectory, with Ward’s spidery lines traversing Lisle’s bristling drumming. A third of the way through the 17-minute piece, the velocity builds as the two dig in with craggy vigor, ending with a full-on fusillade of energy.

On “Open,” Ward returns to clarinet and the two start with some long tones and quickly jump in to more active interplay. The two synch in together throughout, pushing the music toward galvanizing peaks and then open up to more subdued pools of calm. Throughout, they collectively drive the active improvisation with an elastic sense of timing and arc. The final “Closed” returns to guitar/drums format and Ward’s guitar playing is particularly redolent of jazz voicings filtered through a prickly, galvanized, raucous sensibility. 13 minutes in to the 18-minute piece, the two mount boisterous crescendos with Ward peeling off fleet searing runs against Lisle’s caterwauling thunder. It’s great to hear Ward on both clarinet and guitar in this setting and Lisle, a name I wasn’t familiar with before this, is now on my radar.
–Michael Rosenstein

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