Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo
Kikoeru: Tribute to Masaya Kimura
Libra 215-055

Alister Spence + Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe
Imagine Meeting You Here
Alister Spence Music 008

Alister Spence + Satoko Fujii
Alister Spence Music 007

Intelsat is pianist Satoko Fujii and electric keyboardist Alister Spence in seven improvisations on the uneasy tension of sounds, space, and dynamics. The longest piece is “Narvi,” beginning with organ tones echoing into silence, then many episodes of different sound colors, each morphing into the next: rumbles, whistles, tapping and scratching sounds, high strums, various organ stops, gravitating in density of texture and activity to a near-Sun Ra extravaganza. Best is the much briefer “Telesto”: Piano chords struck, foot stomps and strummed strings in quiet reply, fine vivid tension before electricity enters and space fills a bit. Fujii mostly sticks to the lowest and highest piano tones or to repeated notes and licks. Intelsat is not for casual listening. True, some shorter pieces don’t reward the necessary close attention, but of course a certain amount of close-no-prize is the danger of interplay this daring.

Alister Spence also is somewhat restrained by the sound-space medium of the duets. He’s a veteran pianist-synthesizer ace-composer from Australia who among other things has played in the dynamic 1990s quintet Clarion Fracture Zone. He and Fujii have worked together several times this century, and Imagine Meeting You Here is his long suite for her 15-piece band. The lovely, lonely shakuhachi flute opens; the rest is all Western instruments. Solos are brief apart from Hiroshi Funato’s virtuoso bass solo that begins “Part 4 (Here).” “Part 2 (Meeting)” is especially clever, a fugue that begins as variations on a six-beat march with displaced accents and finally becomes a band improvisation. Lots of long chords, repeated chords, and slowly moving lines here. It’s almost all weighty, Wagnerian, and it could be oppressive except for the orchestra colors (love those brass-section trills), which are always full and rich.

Satoko Fujii is seldom heard in her Orchestra Kobe disc and doesn’t play at all in Kikoeru. It’s the last of her 2018, 60th birthday, album-a-month project. The CD is a tribute to the late tenor saxophonist Masaya Kimura and the long, slow “Farewell” is a funeral piece with a sorrowing big-vibrato alto sax melody, a grandly mounted tenor sax sermon, and a fine melodic bass solo (Toshiki Nagata). The so very quiet “Kikoeru” may be a sequel, including an extreme, believe-it-or-not shakuhachi-sounding trombone passage. “Amadare” is a one-note unison band vamp for ten minutes and a terrific, growly trumpet solo – Natsuki Tamura? Too bad the soloists on these CDs aren’t identified. Finally, in the fourth piece “Neppa” the band cooks, a tenorist erupts into rough tones and sheets of sound and a zooming trombonist suggests a freaky Jimmy Cleveland. These four are Fujii’s pieces. Tamura composed the last two, which are settings for improvisers: The enjoyably rowdy “Stop and Go” with many duets, “Ah Dadada” with singers and a scat-hollerer chase and duet. They definitely bring the album a happy ending.

Nowadays the logistics of big band music – composing it, recruiting musicians to rehearse it, getting it performed – are more formidable than ever. God bless Fujii and Tamura for their persistence and for her large body of work, especially her Orchestras. By now they’re almost alone. Who else in 2019 has been at it so long and has created so much valuable big-band music along the way?
–John Litweiler


Georg Graewe + Damon Smith + Michael Vatcher
Nuscope 1032

Iro Haarla + Ulf Krokfors + Barry Altschul
Around Again – The Music of Carla Bley
TUM 054

Three years after his death, Paul Bley is still at the center of the conversation – about the state of improvised music and piano trios and, perhaps most cryptically, in how we’re reckoning with Carla Bley’s and Annette Peacock’s early music. His signature pieces weren’t usually his: they were either compositions by his first partner (Carla Bley) or his second (Annette Peacock). His sound and style – as it evolved in the sixties, in trios, and the early seventies, alone – is a complex (and mysterious) thing and yet, at its core, irreducible.

These two discs, by a Finnish pianist (Iro Haarla) and a German (Georg Graewe), approach these materials, and the trio configuration itself, in very different ways. For Haarla, composition lies at the heart of things; for Graewe, pure improvisation is key. In their own way, however, each of these musicians might have borne in mind something Bley once said about his own work. “My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” he told Italian pianist Arrigo Cappelletti in 2002. “The question is ‘why?’, and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ ” Bley wasn’t speaking of trios, but I suspect this riddle – or maxim, if you wish – tells us a great deal about Haarla’s and Graewe’s habits of mind.

Haarla’s Around Again is a disc entirely dedicated to Carla Bley’s compositions. Nearly everything here comes from the years when Paul and Carla were together. It’s still hard to separate Carla’s early sixties miniatures from Paul’s renditions of them – no matter how many versions have been recorded since. In the notes, Haarla makes it clear that Paul Bley has long been her favorite pianist. She’s picked tunes from his classic trio dates, Footloose! (1962-63) and Closer (1965), but also from his work in Jimmy Giuffre’s peerless group (“Jesus Maria”). In its way, Around Again is a near relation to Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock, Marilyn Crispell’s 1997 ECM album, which wrestled with Bley’s second 1960s canon.

Haarla, too, taps a longtime Bley colleague: drummer Barry Altschul, who joins Finnish bassist Ulf Krokfors here. Altschul, at 72, is magnificent. (The date was recorded in 2015.) It’s still a revelation to me hearing him return to Carla Bley’s slower works after he’d played Annette Peacock’s, among Altschul’s pioneering musical contributions – figuring out the drummer’s role on what came to be called the “free ballad.” Long ago, he mastered color and space and line and “Closer” is a perfect beginning: stopping time, revealing his kit in stages, deepening everything Haarla and Krokfors do. Altschul knows this music and on the faster pieces his control seems effortless. On “Batterie” he steps just behind, alongside, and across the line; listen to Altschul here and you’ll hear the tune and the improvisations echo throughout. On “Around Again” there’s that great energy, the propulsion, that’s always marked his playing. A small delight: hearing Altschul navigate Carla’s post-Paul Bley songs (“Intermission Music,” “Útviklingssang”), as if he’d known them forever.

Haarla’s own performance is by turns expansive, mannered, carefully considered, and open. Haarla is able to produce an especially beautiful sound on the instrument – and she does this quite unlike either of the Bleys. You don’t hear the blues or the Great American Songbook, prime movers in Paul’s musical imagination. But she’s clearly preoccupied with space, the contemplative nature of the ballads, and the quirky queries of the uptempo pieces. Paul Bley once wrote that Carla “worked endlessly on a piece to get it just right, and that’s one of the reasons her pieces sound so inevitable.” I think Haarla understands this deep down, and it seems to inspire her: sitting with, and tackling, the inevitability of these tiny lines. She’s chosen a particular kind of composer, and she’s going to get it just right. The sonic pleasures here are substantial: Around Again merits finding a quiet room and a fine pair of headphones.

Unhesitating also rewards an old-fashioned, sustained stereophonic experience. On Around Again, the broad, impressionistic passages sing; Unhesitating is all about microscopic movement, interaction on a granular level. Graewe’s tipping of the cap is far more elusive. He’s picked two pieces from the sixties (Carla Bley’s “Ictus” and Annette Peacock’s “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”) but they’re redrawn with this terrific, off-center fidelity. Unhesitating is about pure improvisation – the materials simply fuel the freedom – and this trio, with bassist Damon Smith and drummer Michael Vatcher, is a fearless unit. Graewe’s relationship to written forms is longstanding; how that has shaped his activities as an instant composer is one of the wonderful mysteries of this disc.

On Unhesitating, rarely is anyone alone. Take “Barely Curve the Water” (such an excellent title for a free improvisation). Simple piano gesture to start. Picked up straight away: stop-start drum, contrapuntal bass. Mood and motion set at pinpoint. “Rough Fields” turns from medium clatter and discord to a roar. The facility here is extraordinary. Graewe might just carry a rhythm section on his back. As the three take off, you’re reminded of how long Graewe and Vatcher have worked together – this irreplaceable drive and energy and understanding (think Paul Bley and Barry Altschul). In their colloquy, the minute matters more every time you listen again.
–Greg Buium


Milford Graves
Corbett vs. Dempsey 52

Praise be to Corbett vs. Dempsey, who keep gifting us essential documents of early improvised music. It’s hard to imagine a less accessible gem than percussion genius Graves’ 1977 Bäbi, featuring the trio of Graves and reedists Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover. While getting ready for the reissue, Graves happened upon a forgotten rehearsal tape of the same trio from 1969, and added it to the collection. Lovingly remastered and packaged, this is an essential release.

The original album was recorded at WBAI in 1976. It’s a half-hour slice of punk rock free jazz. Graves is at his rawest and most multi-directional, with his modified, ritual-ready kit. Glover and Doyle take the basic language of Ayler in the upper partials – the squeaks, the cries, the shredding tone – and make that the whole thing. The reedists wail and holler, but it’s Graves’ own kit that’s rendered here in stunning sonic accuracy, cymbals, rimshots, tuned low end, the entire coloristic range moving so fast it’s almost hard to believe. On the opening “Bä,” the music just launches for about four minutes. Then, after the first of many sudden drop-offs, Graves takes over on vocals. In shouts and ululations, Graves becomes a priest, a vessel mounted by the spirit, an intercessory who readies the room for the next imminent episode of ferocity.

As fierce and overwhelming as it is, though, this is music with variety and a sense of pacing, often marked by grunts, clarion calls, and sudden lurches in momentum or dynamics. The brief “Bi” itself is a change of pace, all churning, metered fury. So too is the opening segment of the side-long title track. There’s some odd muttering and shuffling, then Graves counts to five, uses his rattles, counts to nine, and then things just explode. Listen closely to Graves. It’s amazing how much sound he gets from his kit, massive boulders falling but also the most precise cymbal-strike, the most coordinated multi-limbed, multi-directional stuff. The horns here are simply raging to be heard, sheer life-force uncontained. Even if one of the horns is badly off-mike, the effect is oddly compelling, sounding almost like audience call and response. This is like the distilled essence of some primal element that needs special handling because it’s too hot.

The second disc, from the December 1969 session, gives us almost twice as much material (all previously unreleased) from the same trio. The first untitled track is nearly a half hour, built from a lengthy lower-register Graves exploration that cues up the acetylene torches. Graves simply pounds his toms, and the reeds sound like disturbed birds, especially the bass clarinet. Even though the sonics are cloudier and the aesthetic a bit rougher, there are still abundant moments of dynamism and surprise on these tracks. Graves will bring things down, focused on the smallest scrape or softest finger-patter before a gong or jarring crash summons more heat. Or there is a lovely, long metallophone section of the second track, filled with vocalese. It’s filled with urgency and discovery. And while it’s not quite as focused and well realized as the original release, it complements the later music. Bäbi is as essential as it gets.
–Jason Bivins


Alexander Hawkins
Iron into Wind (Pears from an Elm)
Intakt CD 330

It is difficult not to name check when discussing Alexander Hawkins. The pianist is a happily driven omnivore, who not only seeks out inspiration in obscure corners, but also out in the open, where it is hidden in plain sight. Hawkins hears feelingly; subsequently, his myriad influences present quite differently from those of his contemporaries – they are a subtext of what he is saying, not the context. Regardless of the material – which can be dense, thorny, and foreboding – there is a bright enthusiasm and an earnest sense of generational responsibility to the 38 year-old’s playing. This is the crux of Hawkins’ voice, exemplified by Iron into Wind (Pears from an Elm), his second solo album.

Hawkins name checks with the best of them, crediting five musicians in his comments for Richard Williams’ booklet notes; over the course of the album, it becomes clear that this unlikely lot contribute to the many cardinal points of Hawkins’ aesthetics. Evan Parker is cited for recognizing the catalytic potential of mishap and surprise in improvisation. Leoš Janácek and Mal Waldron are paired because of the composer’s repetitive use of folkloric materials and the pianist’s economy; the latter largely based on repeated blues phrases. Maurizio Pollini and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli epitomize laser focus in mining materials. Throughout the album, Hawkins’ agility as a pianist and his literacy as a composer distill these inspirations beyond recognition.

Let’s add another name to the mix: Abdullah Ibrahim; not the Ibrahim of recent years, but of the 1970s, when his solo albums gave equal weight to church music, the Waller-Ellington-Monk trajectory of the jazz piano tradition, and roiling, percussive storms. Hawkins touches upon all three in this impeccably sequenced program; however, it is the manner in which Hawkins blends them into his program that is distinctive. Too often, these materials come off as pastiche, a flash of bona fides. Here – as is also the case with the Decoy organ trio and his collaboration with Elaine Mitchener – Hawkins demonstrates his approach to the tradition; that it is to be permutated, not regurgitated.

More important than the sources that spurred Hawkins in the construction of Iron into Wind (Pears from an Elm) is the compelling listening experience he crafted from them. This is an album that merits setting aside an undisturbed hour.
–Bill Shoemaker


Jason Kao Hwang Burning Bridge
True Sound TS 01

Violinist Jason Kao Hwang has been a venerable presence in New York’s Downtown avant-garde scene since the 1970s, having worked with a cross-section of creative artists, from new music pioneers like Butch Morris and Pauline Oliveros to innovative improvisers like William Parker and Reggie Workman. In addition to ensembles such as Edge, Sing House, and Spontaneous River, Hwang currently leads Burning Bridge, an inimitable cross-cultural octet. Founded in 2009 with help from a grant by Chamber Music America/New Jazz Works, the band includes Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, trombonist Steve Swell, tuba player Joseph Daley, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury, in addition to Chinese musicians Sun Li on pipa (four-string lute), and Wang Guowei on erhu (two-string spike fiddle). Together they transcend cultural assumptions about the traditional roles played by their respective instruments in classical, jazz, and folk music settings, forging a singular voice that seamlessly combines Eastern and Western aesthetics.

Blood is the follow-up to the group’s 2012 self-titled debut for Innova Records. A continuous work subdivided into five movements, the piece premiered at Edgefest in 2016, was performed at the 2017 Vision Festival, and eventually recorded in a studio the following year. Blood translates the violence of war into a catharsis of sound, transposing suffering into liberation. As Hwang explains it, he pondered the emotional traumas of war and how they reverberate across generations, exemplified by the harrowing experiences of fellow musicians and his mother’s plight in China during WWII: “She was in a pharmacy that was bombed by the Japanese. Knocked unconscious, she awoke as the lone survivor surrounded by the dead. I also thought about the musicians I’ve worked with who fought in Viet Nam, like Billy Bang and Butch Morris.” Hwang’s goal is to transpose memories of bloodshed into the sound of protest, in defiance of humanity’s endless state of war. Conceptually, this is a disturbing, but ultimately inspiring program. While the overall structure of the piece lacks clear resolution, the impassioned interactions among unorthodox instrumental combinations demonstrate how a collective ideology can transcend apparent differences.

The opener, “Breath Within the Bomb,” emulates the shockwave from an explosion with rumbling percussion, strident bowed bass, and reverberating low brass. Drury’s cacophonous frenzy intensifies the collective claustrophobia, but tranquility returns at the coda with an Eastern-infused dialogue between violin and pipa. Divided in two, “Surge” begins with a somber ceremonial procession that transforms into a bluesy strut, concluding with a ritualized ensemble passage. The first part features exceptional solo statements from Hwang, Bynum, Guowei, and Li; the second is more austere, spotlighting a stately pipa and percussion duet, and flinty triadic interplay between trombone, erhu and bass. Like a vibrant technicolor interlude, “Evolution” arrives mid-way through the suite, offering relief. The buoyant blues-based call-and-response structure highlights Bynum and Swell’s exploratory lyricism, Li and Guowei’s exotic asides, and the leader’s own indigo-hued contributions. “Declarations” re-sounds the alarm, reprising the tension heard at the beginning with Filiano’s arco rumination, Daley’s mournful tuba, and Hwang’s tender lament pulled into focus before the ensemble concludes the suite with an anguished, unresolved theme.

With Blood, Hwang and Burning Bridge integrate the evocative tonalities of traditional Chinese instruments with the more conventional timbres of Western ones for compelling dialogues designed to challenge and respond to the violence of war. By varying arrangements, Hwang implies an array of cinematic scenarios that equate with different states of mind. While many artists would compose a finale of harmonic resolution, Hwang remains steadfast, driving the point home by sonically suggesting that the lingering effects of violence never abate, nor serve any greater purpose. If there is any hope to be found here, it is in the perseverance of the human spirit.
–Troy Collins

New World Records

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