Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet
Time Like This
Intakt CD 313

Jacob Sacks
Clean Feed CF497CD

The music that bassist Michel Formanek composed for Time Like This moves with a fluid, unanchored motion; it’s hard to pin down, elusive. To make it work, he put together a group featuring saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Ches Smith, that listens closely to one another and performs without any single voice hogging the spotlight. This ensemble balance, coupled with their ability to create original music within the confines of the compositions, results in seamless blends of written and improvised music making. For instance, it’s impossible at times to discern the written from the spontaneous on “This May Get Ugly” (Formanek has a wonderful sense of humor) and the improvisation is so alert to the contours of “Culture of None” that the irregular phrases of the written theme at the end seem to grow out of the improvisation that proceeds it. On “A Fine Mess,” each member moves independently at times, then snaps into place for collective spontaneous composing, like separate plot lines that converge in a novel. Although the instrumentation is that of a standard jazz quartet, they avoid the traditional horn-with-rhythm-section hierarchy in favor of a more democratic interchange of roles, which only heightens the ambiguities and blurred boundaries in the music. Their trust in one another creates a sense of warmth and security in uncertain circumstances.

Formanek and Malaby are aboard in the similarly group-oriented quintet of pianist Jacob Sacks on Fishes. This is especially true on five short tracks that sound like collective improvisations. The titles, such as “Carnegie Kvetches If” and “Carnegie Chutes Fork,” are among the most cryptic this side of Henry Threadgill. Whoever Carnegie is, they are soft spoken and subtly witty. Each Carnegie track is less than three minutes long and the band paints beguiling abstractions of sounds, textures, and colors on a canvas of silence. The longer tracks are more varied. “Ill Blues” displays a more conventional head-solos-head structure, but most of the pieces are ensemble oriented. On “This Is a Song?” Malaby and fellow saxophonist Ellery Eskelin fit their phrases together to draw a kind of cubist picture with lines coming from different angles while the rest of the quintet expands and contracts the tempo beneath them. The effect is a layered whole rather soloist and accompanist. The group plays with deep concentration on “Five Little Melodies” in which each band member’s contribution coordinates closely with the other as they gradually unfold the music. Sacks himself is the glue that holds the band together. He’s an interactive player whose tart harmonies, elastic push-pull rhythms, and dark and inviting left hand chords are constantly in dialog with the others. Sack’s strong concept and the fully engaged playing of the band make this a superb album.
–Ed Hazell


Christopher Fox
Topophony for orchestra, with or without improvising soloists
hat[now]ART 211

A quick search through reference sites for the meaning of the word topophony came up blank though one might piece together an etymology by piecing together topography (the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area) as an extension of polyphony. Topology (the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures) might just figure in as well. There’s also topophone, “a double ear trumpet for estimating the direction from which sounds proceed, formerly used by navigators,” according to Wiktionary.

British composer Christopher Fox began working on his “Topophony” series in 2014, initially as an orchestral piece, commissioned by Ilan Volkov, conductor and founder of the Tectonics Festival. During the process of composing, Fox received a text from Volkov suggesting that the piece include an improviser along with the orchestra. Fox’s initial response was a bit guarded. But as he thought about it a bit, he hit upon an approach where the orchestral music would “become a landscape within which the improvisers could play, rather like when we walk in the mountains. We can choose this path or that path ... and each time it will be different for us but the mountains don’t change.” The piece debuted at the 2015 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow with a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Rhodri Davies as improvising soloist and has had several performances since then in both a chamber version and with a number of different improvisers.

This recording captures three performances of the piece by the WDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Volkov; one featuring Axel Dörner and Paul Lovens, one featuring John Butcher and Thomas Lehn, and one with just the orchestra. Each clocks in at between 21 and 24 minutes. The contrasting readings provide the listener with an opportunity to absorb the way that the notated orchestral composition functions alongside varying improvisational approaches. Fox’s score utilizes a series of thirty-nine interconnected harmonies which shift across the orchestra in sonorous layers. The composer deploys muted string pizzicato against welling, darkly brooding brass and string voicings which accrue with a slowly modulating consonance. The score eschews the use of line or solo voice in the orchestra, leaving ample room for improvisational interactions. Fox is totally open in his instructions to the improvisers other than specifying that they should start playing after the orchestra has begun and to finish before it ends. The score stipulates that the improvisers should not listen to more than one orchestra rehearsal and should not rehearse with the orchestra. Other than that, the only other guidelines are that the improvisers are to be situated within the orchestra but separated from each other.

The recording is sequenced with the Dörner and Lovens performance first and the two immediately establish their paths within the context of the piece. Dörner enters with a breathy, fricative stream which hisses within the orchestral timbres, then begins to introduce grumbled and smeared lines that poke up amidst the strings. Lovens weighs in with brief, pointillist pops and clicks and abraded shudders. Each is keenly attuned to the densities and dynamics of their playing and their balance within the overall orchestral sound. As the performance progresses, one can hear the two settle in, charting their respective, congruent paths through Fox’s sonic landscape. What is striking is how the two establish distinctive voices that come through while navigating and overall balance between the role of improviser and orchestra.

Programming the performance for orchestra alone as the second track proves to be a shrewd move. Fox is very clear from the title of the piece (... for orchestra, with or without improvising soloists), that “Topophony” is not intended to be a concerto for orchestra and soloist. That said, without the voice of an improviser, the reading has a different overall presence. There is a measured stateliness that comes to the fore without the distinct focus that the improvisational parts provide. Here, the foundational lush, shifting tonalities seem to float more, untethered from the textural contrasts that the improvisers bring to the overall sound.

The final reading adds John Butcher’s saxophone and Thomas Lehn’s synthesizer into the mix. In this performance, the presence of the improvisers is more prominent. The timbres and dynamic trajectory of Butcher’s tempestuous overtones and reed sputters continually pop out from the orchestration. Likewise, Lehn’s amplified synthesizer injects bristly textured bursts and crackled layers into the acoustics of the orchestra. But for all their differences to the overall orchestration, Butcher and Lehn are astute listeners and even at their most active, never overwhelm the holistic reading of the piece.

At this point, the lines between composition and improvisation have blurred and commingled enough that Fox’s piece doesn’t chart radically new ground. But his choices in orchestration, strategies toward the interaction between concert orchestra and improvisers, and particularly his selection of musicians to collaborate with make this worth a listen.
–Michael Rosenstein


Gabriela Friedli Trio
Leo 828

Harvey Sorgen + Joe Fonda + Marilyn Crispell
Not Two MW977–2

Even for musicians with a scattershot sense of the past, the piano trio remains something foundational. I remember an estimable German pianist telling me of how he’d wrestled with this decision for years: when should I form a trio? Only when he hit his thirties, with a handful of FMP and Hat Art records behind him, did he think he was ready.

Taken together, these two new discs from Switzerland and the United States, capture the evergreen series of piano trio possibilities. These are working groups that document units at very different stages, and with very different aesthetic impulses.

Areas, the second album from Swiss pianist Gabriela Friedli, bassist Daniel Studer, and drummer Dieter Ulrich, explores terrain somewhere between predetermined form and complete abstraction. Coming five years after Started, their Intakt debut, the Friedli trio is devoted to its materials in a true, contemporary fashion. Nine original pieces form the date’s basic architecture. But the roots in shape and line only run so deep: often, they melt away and the elements naturally cohere, splinter, and subdivide. Rhythmically, there’s a reluctance to open up, turn, and drive forward: skittering, off-kilter, asymmetrical line and motion prevail. On two of Studer’s pieces, “Mildew Lisa” and “Masse,” there are moments we might call jazz, but they never stick. A Monkish opening – sharp jabs, calls – serves a massing of sound, a collective squall, arco color, or loose percussive queries. There is great instrumental know-how. Each piece finds its own areas of interplay; the record’s title is apt. Friedli’s “Miedra” has wonderful snap and bounce and seems to carry a three-way conversation from the start – cropped piano angles, elegant instances of bass virtuosity, and a drummer’s keen sense of proportion.

Dreamstruck, recorded in Saugerties, New York earlier this year, occupies a very different aesthetic space. Here, three improvisers deep into middle age show how control and consonance and a deep, internal sense of form can make impromptu logic terrifically beautiful. Together, pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Harvey Sorgen have been an under-the-radar operation; this shouldn’t be. As a co-operative, they use open forms and less traveled compositions to refashion our basic assumptions about creative music. Dreamstruck is a warm, often extremely accessible record. There is a searing, single-minded intensity at its core (“Read This,” for one, is tough, a simmering then soaring improvisation). But at the heights of instant composition – “Both Sides of the Ocean,” “Landscape” – they seem to find space: the need to fracture and jar is supplanted by an elegance, a grace. Harmonically, Crispell and Fonda are in sync, and that counts. Two of the four pieces, Fonda’s “My Song” and Bob Windbiel’s “Dreamstruck,” are especially tender: broad, keening, haunting, glorious songs. Then at the end, when they turn to Paul Motian’s “Kalypso” – played as a singing, seventies-era bounce – Sorgen is given the chance to stretch. It’s a wonderfully buoyant finale.
–Greg Buium


Devin Gray
Dirigo Rataplan II
Dirigo Rataplan RR001

“Dirigo Rataplan” is a portmanteau of French and Latin that loosely translates as “to lead from the beat,” which young New York-based drummer Devin Gray continues to do on Dirigo Rataplan II, the follow-up to Dirigo Rataplan (Skirl), Gray’s impressive 2012 debut as a bandleader. Joined once again by tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou and bassist Michael Formanek, the album is the inaugural release on Gray’s own Dirigo Rataplan imprint. The strong musical personalities of these established veterans elevate the date, interpreting Gray’s multifaceted originals with a proficiency that expertly balances freedom and form. The unit’s shared aesthetic is further enhanced by regional connections that transcend generational differences. A former student of Formanek’s while studying at the Peabody Conservatory, Gray met Ballou at a jazz camp in his native Maine, and Ballou’s teaching position in Towson, Maryland facilitated the formation of a quartet with the addition of Eskelin, a Baltimore native and a Hank Levy-era Towson alum.

As a leader, Gray’s acute awareness of texture, timbre, and tone enables him to avoid the pyrotechnic excess that can sometimes hinder drummer-led ensembles. Gray’s writing is typically built around intricate rhythms that facilitate unfettered interplay among the frontline. Formanek’s stalwart bass is often at the center, supporting Gray’s skittering variations, while Ballou and Eskelin soar overhead. The opener, “Congruently,” sets a high bar, with the horns dovetailing over shifting Latinized patterns, then coming smartly together at the coda. “Rollin’ Thru Town” inverts the dynamic with a percolating undercurrent of forward motion, while “Trends of Trending” finds Ballou and Eskelin navigating harmonious abstraction, before the quartet rallies in unity.

On the flipside, “Texicate” unveils a pointillist tone poem of nervy gestures, with Gray and Eskelin’s exploratory introduction bolstered by Formanek and Ballou. “The Feeling of Healing” ventures even further out, its regal theme gradually dissipating into a shimmering mosaic of spectral asides, highlighted by Formanek’s sinewy arco and the horns’ hushed cries. Gray is no stranger to incorporating traditional forms, as pieces like “The Wire” and “Quantum Cryptology” suggest. The latter is far more languorous than the former, with a somber melody extrapolated by Eskelin’s mournful peals and Ballou’s staccato flourishes. Gray even interpolates brisk waltz-time on “What We Learn From Cities.” But it’s the subtly shifting rhythms and lyrical exchanges between Ballou and Eskelin on tunes like “Intrepid Travelers” that best exemplify the date.

Balancing spontaneous invention and tightly composed melodies, the quartet’s collective rapport evinces palpable control during even the most freewheeling passages. Gray’s charts are deceptively complex, with modulating tempos and contrapuntal exchanges, but the ensemble’s rough and tumble execution is faithful to the immediacy of his memorable themes and stirring rhythms. A brilliant sophomore effort, Dirigo Rataplan II is a formidable example of post-Ornette dynamics from a multi-generational band playing at the top of their game.
–Troy Collins


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