Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Lisa Mezzacappa Six
Queen Bee QB-004

Since the early 2000s, composer and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa has worked in the San Francisco Bay Area with a variety of maverick composers and improvisers, including Fred Frith, Myra Melford, and Rhys Chatham. Mezzacappa’s collaborative efforts encompass multiple disciplines: Touch Bass is a project with choreographer Risa Jaroslow for three basses and three dancers; she founded the live cinema series Mission Eye and Ear at Artists Television Access; and Avant Noir reflects her love of film noir, taking inspiration from novels by Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster.

Her latest effort, Cosmicomics, is a suite of music for jazz sextet inspired by Italo Calvino’s eponymous 1965 collection of whimsical short stories. To realize the project, Mezzacappa recruited tenor saxophonist Aaron Bennett, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, guitarist John Finkbeiner, drummer Jordan Glenn, and Tim Perkis on live analog electronics – most of whom have been working together for the past two decades. The music is modeled on the author’s use of science as a metaphor for the way characters interact, or a narrative event described in the stories. Each story takes a scientific theory and humanizes that phenomenon with a charming, often humorous, first-person narrative. Mezzacappa reorganizes basic musical elements to transpose these tales: odd metered grooves and modulating time signatures force melodies to navigate shifting tempos; angular motifs inspire frenetic improvisations; and atmospheric detours provide serene respite. In one tune, the sextet re-enacts the moment when the universe expanded outward infinitely. In another, they use a system of cues inspired by the futility of communication across light-years and galaxies. The end result is capricious, like Calvino’s Italian comedia.

Mezzacappa’s sextet is not fixed; it transforms into duos, trios, and quartets, allowing space for each player to make significant contributions – as in “The Form of Space,” where Glenn stokes thorny discourse between Finkbeiner and Clifford. Instrumentation stands in for casting in pieces like “The Soft Moon,” the story of a love-triangle affected by the constantly changing distance between the earth and the moon. Bennett’s brawny tenor conveys the robust spirit of our planet, while Clifford’s vibraphone portrays the moon with cool detachment. Perkis’ spacey electronics oscillate and warble; Finkbeiner’s guitar alternates between diaphanous melodies and punchy riffs; and Mezzacappa and Glenn are the gravitational force that moves the love triangle. “Blood, Sea” describes the moment when humans evolved from aquatic creatures that swam in a salty sea, into beings that walk on land with the salty sea in their blood. Impressionistic fragments float to the surface of an electronic storm surge before Finkbeiner and Glenn lock down a briny, bluesy stomp that encourages Bennett’s impassioned multiphonics, only to submerge back into the depths. “Solar Storms” is a love story, where a solar flare travels to earth to be with her beloved. But her powerful electromagnetic radiation disrupts the TV reception in the small town where they live, and an angry mob chases her away. The tune’s plaintive theme is interrupted by a quicksilver chase sequence highlighting Finkbeiner’s spidery fretwork.

Composers have long modeled projects on well-known literary works for their fame in hope of attracting an existing audience. Mezzacappa’s esoteric, well-researched works feel more like a labor of love. Beyond the sophisticated translation of literature into music, there is notable dedication from the ensemble that infuses Cosmicomics with a passionate immediacy.
–Troy Collins


Gianni Mimmo + Alison Blunt
Busy Butterflies
Amirani #062

Sestetto Internazionale
Live in Munich 2019
FSR 1 2020

Alexander von Schlippenbach’s remark that Evan Parker is John Coltrane’s best pupil is a bit ill-fitting, in that it discounts temperament and agenda, aspects that surpass considerations of materials as defining features of an improviser’s voice. Something of the same can be said of soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo in regards to Steve Lacy. Mimmo’s sound, his penchant for the well-pared motive, and his slant on the “‘magic’ order” cadence, is sometimes hauntingly reminiscent of Lacy. However, Mimmo’s sensibility is his own. It does not have the hardened modernist edge of Lacy’s, initially sharpened in mid-century New York. Mimmo has maturated in the fluid internationalism of post-Cold War European improvised music. Even when his tone ripened in his later years, there was a constant intellectual urgency at or near the surface of Lacy’s voice; arguably, the theme of his work. Mimmo’s improvisations frequently project a relatively unfettered conviviality.

Mimmo’s duo with violinist Alison Blunt is, arguably, the best forum to hear what distinguishes his playing, their first album, Lasting Ephemerals (2014; Amirani), setting a high bar they clear on Busy Butterflies. Duos are intrinsically conversational, but Mimmo and Blunt exude the easy fluidity of old friends who complete each other’s sentences, and know what the other will say next. Like Mimmo, Blunt has an unassuming command of her instrument; whereas other improvising violinists heavily foreground textures almost to the exclusion of all else, Blunt can spool out motives into long, flowing lines with a sense of melody unassociated with any idiom. When she deploys a smudged or scraped texture, it speaks to the moment with an off-handed crispness. Throughout the album, Mimmo and Blunt’s interplay is smart and supple, but to suggest a merging is a step too far, each having distinctive voices.

Mimmo and Blunt comprises one third of Sestetto Internazionale, an occasional ensemble previously documented on Aural Vertigo (2015; Amirani), a disc of concert performances recorded in Finland, home base for another third of the group – soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström and quarter-tone accordionist Veli Kujala. Rounded out by two exponents of Berlin’s vibrant improvised music community – pianist Achim Kaufmann and turntablist/sampler Ignaz Schick – the sextet has vast sonic resources, which they bring to bear on Live in Munich. It is useful to listen first to the three duets that make up the album’s mid-section, the swirl of Mimmo and Blunt’s contrasting with the push-pull of Sjöström and Kujala’s and Kaufmann and Schick’s. When these pairings mingle on three sextet pieces, the variants multiply, a necessary utility if an improvisation is to last more than a half-hour, which is the case with the opener, “Quasar #1.”

Both recordings are timely reminders of the vividness improvised music can bring to an otherwise gray day.
–Bill Shoemaker


Roscoe Mitchell + Ostravska Banda
Distant Radio Transmission
Wide Hive 0347

Again, the sensitive Petr Kotik conducts a Czech orchestra in a Roscoe Mitchell work. Again, as in Ride the Wind (Nessa, 2017), Mitchell has composed elaborations based on an improvisation from the Mitchell-Craig Taborn-Kikanju Baku Conversations I album (Wide Hive, 2013).

The original “Distant Radio Transmission” is an especially close, fascinating 15-minute work that sounds as if the three works were all aspects of one person. Happily, this new 20-minute composition is true to the original. Faint electronic sounds, faint low drum sounds and here and there orchestra tones recall, I must say, my long-ago youth of trying to catch programs from Rochester, New Orleans, Nashville on a rural Indiana radio: There’s that very alive sense of late-night solitude and anticipation. This piece is tense even after halfway through when an orchestra melody fades in and out; so do Mitchell’s soprano sax and Thomas Buckner’s vocal sounds. The so-fragile mood is immediate and completely sustained, with variations of dynamics in a remarkably small area. It’s certainly an attractive performance.

Of the three other works on this album, two are further variants on works Mitchell introduced long, long ago. Three vivid French horn tones begin “Cutouts for Woodwind Quintet,” which moves through many instrument combinations in counterpoint, with some rich French horn sounds and very low tuba-like bassoon tones for spice; then there’s a climactic arc of klangfarbenmelodie. Only in a chord at the very end do we hear a conventional woodwind quintet sound of the five horns together.

No tune or tunes have initiated Mitchell’s many versions of “Nonaah” over the past fifty years – rather, “Nonaah” is a unique and subtle world of sound and motion. This CD’s new “Nonaah Trio” is surely the most beautiful iteration because of the sounds of John C. Savage (flute), Catherine Lee (oboe), and Dana Reason (piano) together. The stark harshness of “Nonaah” dissolves in rich long tones in the opening movement and though its angularity remains, it does not confront listeners. A second section also begins in longer tones; the third section brings pointillist horns and piano; the fourth section is busier, with rather faster momentum.

Those two chamber ensemble works flow deliberately, in intriguing counterpoint. This album’s conclusion, “8/8/88,” is by contrast a lively piano solo in three parts. Lyric passages alternate with a fast treble-bass feud; a brief and very fast high treble-deep bass chase; a slow treble waltz that rises higher and higher over stalking left-hand chords. It’s dramatic music realized on an electronic player piano, so the activity of that middle part can’t help suggesting Conlon Nancarrow. Are these Roscoe Mitchell works jazz or classical? Call them what you want.
–John Litweiler


Tony Oxley
Confront Core Series 13

Over the course of the last six decades, Tony Oxley has been developing an individual approach to time and expansive percussion orchestration, expanding his with kit with a plethora of cymbals, cowbells, woodblocks, and castoff pots and pans. But his explorations into the integration of electronics and percussion are often overlooked. From early on, Oxley was drawn to extending his drum set with electronics, utilizing a frame of knives, springs, egg slicers, motors, and metal detritus amplified and processed with compressors, ring modulators and octave dividers. He did all of this with a constantly shifting pool of collaborators, playing as the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, leading his own projects, or working with musicians ranging from Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars, Stan Tracey, Howard Riley, Alan Skidmore, The Quartet (with Gerd Dudek, Rob van den Broeck and Ali Haurand), Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, or Bill Dixon amongst many others. It’s been over a decade since Tony Oxley last recorded so this release on Mark Wastell’s Confront label is met with particular excitement, particularly since much of his output is currently out-of-print.

Which brings us to Beaming. This time out, Oxley, credited with “electronics and concept,” is joined by percussionist Stefan Hölker for a series of six improvised vignettes titled “Frame I – VI.” From the initial chimes, shuddering rattles, gongs, clinks, and clatter, it is impossible to separate Hölker’s contributions from Oxley’s. Each improvisation leaps into a collectively enveloping sound world full of rich resonance and a multiplicity of timbral colors. Listening to each of the pieces is akin to being submersed in a sonic stream as the music surges with propulsive energy. Metallophones meld with ratchets, tuned drums, wood blocks, and the skittering chatter of shakers along with dynamically morphing, electronically processed textures, tones and oscillations. Melodic threads of what sounds like a piano can be discerned amidst the mix.

Oxley’s electronics transform the decay of the instrumental palette, with sharp attacks pricking through the densely evolving fields of sound. Pieces continuously unfold rather than heeding to specific arcs or lines of development. Pacing changes from piece to piece as does the density of the sound. “Framing I” bursts with bristling vitality which bounces around the teeming sound field. “Framing II” opens up, leaving more space for resonances to gather, accentuating the use of mallet instruments against the whirring electronic colorations. “Framing IV” proceeds with a particularly restless energy, jolting and shifting with brisk abandon. “Framing VI” is the most rambunctious of the set, as threads and textures careen against each other with animated, frenetic abandon over a more extended duration than some of the other pieces, allowing the overall activity level to accrue into an engulfing aural whole. Some of the pieces fade off while others end with a hard cut, giving an impression that these are glimpses into active works-in-progress. At 81, It’s great to hear that Oxley is showing no signs of slowing down in his sonic pursuits. This release is truly unique in his expansive career and well worth searching out.
–Michael Rosenstein


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