Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Lucian Ban + John Surman + Mat Maneri
Transylvanian Folk Songs: The Béla Bartók Field Recordings
Sunnyside SSC 1580

As a duo, Romanian pianist Lucian Ban and American violist Mat Maneri cover an awful lot of territory. But from the sideways blues and heartfelt ballads of Transylvanian Concert (ECM, 2013) to the astringent free form of Sounding Tears (Clean Feed, 2018) in the company of British iconoclast saxophonist Evan Parker, the one thing that’s guaranteed is that they are on the same page. For Transylvanian Folk Songs, that page has more thumb marks than most, based as it is upon the early 20th century Field Recordings of Transylvanian folk music by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

Having grown up in the corner of Transylvania (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) where Bartók recorded, Ban has an obvious affinity for the music of the region. He and Maneri went back to the original field recordings from which they selected tunes which particularly appealed and subsequently arranged them for performance. To realize the project, they added a third voice to the ensemble, choosing another veteran British reedman, John Surman, in spite of only a brief prior encounter with Maneri. With his three horns providing a range of timbres, he’s an inspired choice. From his early solo records onwards, Surman has demonstrated an enduring kinship with folkish modes, and he perfectly fits the chamber conception.

The threesome glory in the beautiful melodies which have been repositories for centuries of human feelings – pain, tragedy, love, hope – and they act as kernels for the soaring interpretations which invoke jazz, improv and classical influence. That’s exemplified by the opening “The Dowry Song” with its klezmer inflections, subject to exuberantly skipping extrapolations by Surman on gracefully agile baritone saxophone, but anchored by Ban’s lilting ostinato, and set off by Maneri’s filigree abstractions. Also apparent here are the tasty embellishments which pepper the nine cuts, from Maneri’s bittersweet counterpoint to Ban’s vibrant drama which bubbles up even as he maintains the vamp.

Nine days together, encompassing rehearsals, workshops and two concerts, (this excellent recording documents the first, in the Transylvanian city of Timosoara), generate a striking unity of purpose. The combination of loose but artful arrangements and skilful improvisers results in a seemingly effortless flow, in which there’s always someone with tune, rhythm or texture in mind. Notice on “Up There” how Surman’s bass clarinet picks up Ban’s propulsive 6-note riff, as the pianist begins to stretch out and then, once it’s returned, how the reedman and violist intertwine, easing imperceptibly in and out of the melody, which like many comes freighted with minor key sadness.

Everyone has a chance to shine within the framework of the songs. Maneri’s unaccompanied abrasions at the start to “Bitter Love Song” showcases his grounding in microtonality, and accentuates the connections with the expressive bent notes of the folk tradition. This slow glide constitutes the last of a run of three contemplative tracks to nicely tee up the uplifting finale of “Transylvanian Dance.” After Morse coded piano, plucked viola and flickering bucolic soprano saxophone, it blossoms into a euphoric swirl, reminiscent of the opener, though still suffused with melancholy.

Accessible, without sacrificing depth and detail, it’s an album which will likely rank highly at year’s end.
–John Sharpe


Tony Bevan + Ashley Wales
Foghorn FOGLP003

Newton is one of the more surprising recordings of the year, not so much because of the music, but because of the musicians who created it. Tony Bevan is an improviser that retains a vigorous relationship with free jazz, one crystalized with his work with Sunny Murray and John Edwards. He is also largely responsible for an expanded role for the bass saxophone in improvised music, making it a virtuosic solo instrument in addition to a coloring agent. Ashley Wales’ work with Spring Heel Jack has an urban edge in its incisive joining of noise and rhythm, its brash textures often supplied by free improvisers.

Subsequently, this album, which foregrounds field recordings made in gardens, coastal foot paths, and ocean fronts, often sparingly augmented by alto flute and chromatic, octave and bass harmonicas – as well as saxophones – makes for an expectations-defying statement. It is, however, a world easily slipped into, one opening with a presumably soaking rainstorm, tinged by a low reedy sound, that fades into a hovering Bevan solo that begins on tenor and then seamlessly concludes on bass. From there, evocations of everything from behemoth sea vessels to idyllic pools sustain an enlivening pace, one that survives the pause required to turn the disc over.

Many recordings of this ilk have an inconclusive arc, sputtering impassively to their ends; or, they erupt into grating cacophony with no apparent motivation other than to rattle the rafters. Newton winds up somewhere altogether different, an overlooked, if not discounted space – song. A repeated sample of three simply voiced piano chords creates a Satie-like stillness; Bevan’s soprano enters unobtrusively, initially letting limpid single notes decay. Instead of whipping up intensity, Bevan and Wales let it linger, the soprano sprouting short phrases and slightly aching bent notes. It drifts off, the only thing missing being the sound of rain.
–Bill Shoemaker


Chris Brown
Some Center
New World 80822-2

Scott Fields
Seven Deserts
New World 80821-2

Now approaching 70, Chris Brown and Scott Fields have done well in getting their music out during middle age, a phase of life where composers often fade into academia or the wilderness. (Some would say they are one in the same; at least, the former has healthcare benefits.) Subsequently, new recordings like Some Center and Seven Deserts take on additional weight. Both recordings extend established trajectories and add new elements to their respective vocabularies. Brown and Fields also continue to surround themselves with responsive collaborators.

Ordinarily, the merits of these recordings would prompt an earnest invocation of the well-worn bromide that they reward committed listening. Given the current situation, such commitment is a heavier lift for those who reflexively and understandably seek relief or escape in music. The listener is faced with a choice analogous to defaulting to comfort food or maintaining a disciplined diet. Some Center and Seven Deserts are supportive of the latter.

Respectively, Brown and Fields make knotty propositions like microtonality and modular structure easily digestible. There is an essence of locale at play with both composers – the Bay Area, where Brown has worked for decades, and Chicago, where Fields came of musical age. Brown does not simply employ Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale; like the iconic Californian, Brown brings a rarely heard brightness and spaciousness to microtonality, albeit one without hermetic ritual context. There is a passing resemblance to Anthony Braxton’s orchestra music of the 1980s in Fields’ negotiations between spontaneity and notated modules, but how the guitarist’s music breathes suggests more intensive rehearsal time than Braxton enjoyed back in the day.

Brown and Fields benefit from well-qualified collaborators. Brown is wise to stick with a trio for the Chromelodia Project, given how microtones are frequently snuffed by larger groups. Kyle Bruckmann’s piquant oboe timbres offset Theresa Wong’s burnished cello and the ring and jangle of Brown’s retuned MIDI keyboard. Wong is frequently captivating, playing detailed cello parts while fluidly singing the Emily Dickinson poems employed for the five-part title piece and the Jackson Mac Low texts used for the 11-section First Light. Brown’s software allows for two contiguous 43-tone scales to be heard simultaneously, giving the music iridescent colors and orchestral mass. The trio generates sufficient space-filling material without obscuring that these pieces are songs, a difficult tightrope walk.

Fields benefits from the familiarity of frequent collaborators like violinist Axel Lindner and saxophonist Matthias Schubert, the intuition of improvisers like saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist David Stackenäs, and the adaptability of contemporary music luminaries like flutist Helen Bledsoe. The composer also has a great asset in Stephen Dembski, who conducted Fields’ album-length 48 Motives and 96 Gestures. Field and his Ensemble maintain a robust, polished performance throughout this live recording, no small feat given the complexities of the hour-plus Seven Deserts.
–Bill Shoemaker


Marion Brown
Why Not? Porto Novo! Revisited
ezz-thetics 1106

The albums paired here were recorded either side of Marion Brown’s departure for Europe in July 1967. Why Not? was recorded in New York in late 1966, though its release was delayed for a year; Porto Novo marked Brown’s first encounter with the new breed of European free improvisers and was recorded in the Netherlands the following December. Brown had first attempted the Why Not? pieces with a larger group including Grachan Moncur, Dave Burrell, Reggie Johnson and Andrew Cyrille in August 1966, but the session was evidently unsatisfactory, and he returned to the studio with a new quartet in October. Wary, perhaps, of being ripped off, boxed-in and leaned on by record labels and producers, Brown selected the studio and the musicians and produced the album himself, but had little luck finding a home for the music, and it was a year before the tape was picked up by Bernard Stollman and released on ESP.

“La Sorrella” sets the tone for the album. Brown’s expansive melodic statements float and soar over Stanley Cowell’s lushly swelling chords, but he’s equally capable of turning acidic, turning his characteristic switch to an altissimo upper register with an alacrity that is shocking and wholly of a piece with the formal contours of his improvisations. Brown would return to “Fortunato” throughout his career, and it’s easy to see why: perhaps one of the most haunting free ballads of the era. Named for a character from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” who is walled up alive in a catacomb while wearing a jester’s costume, “Fortunato” is not so much about grotesque horror as an extraordinarily piquant melancholy. The whole piece feels like an extended sigh: a song of love and regret. The title piece has a jittery, complex melody, rendered in stark unison by Brown and Cowell. Rashied Ali lights a veritable fire here, leading into and out of his own roiling solo. In his unpublished mid-1970s thesis for a MA from Wesleyan University, Brown notes that the concluding piece, “Homecoming,” formed, with “Juba Lee,” part of “an improvisational suite based on pieces that were characteristic of early Afro-American music. It begins with a saxophone obligato played over a slow snare drum roll, as in a New Orleans funeral march.” A mixture of churchified reverence, sardonic dance melodies, and snatches of folk song, the piece feels, despite its title, more like an open question than affirmative resolution.

Of his time in Europe, Brown noted: “I expanded musically from being solo oriented to one who organizes musical compositions, and structured improvisations. I learned to appreciate various forms of music that I did not understand before.” Brown’s own references nonetheless remained firmly rooted in African diasporic culture: “Porto Novo” is named for the former Portuguese possession from which African slaves were sent to North America and the Caribbean, and in the original liner notes, he writes: “My reference is the blues, and that’s where my music comes from ... B.B. King is my Ravi Shankar.” Recorded in a stripped-down trio format with bassist Maarten Van Regteren Altena and drummer Han Bennink, the pieces here are all “structured improvisations.” “Similar Limits” should actually be titled “Similar Units:” the title was mis-transcribed by the session producers, and refers to “the use of melody in groups of notes without bar lines.” To Bennink’s thundering drums, Brown’s opening statements on the piece are liltingly alert, at once wispy and excoriatingly thrilling. Throughout, the cavernous recording quality (the album was laid down in a church) and the absence of piano brings out the edge to Brown’s tone, whilst also leaving plenty of ruminative space. “Improvisation” – based on a melodic figure Brown used in warm-up exercises – showcases his astonishing ability to sustain and hold an unaccompanied solo, which he does with an aplomb near-equal to the master of that form, Steve Lacy. (Brown’s hard-to-find solo dates are worth searching out). On “Sound Structure,” “Porto Novo” and “QBIC,” meanwhile, you can hear the musicians working out their various triangulations second by second: it’s thrilling, but it’s precise. Brian Morton’s liner notes draw an analogy to European visual avant-gardism: but in fact, “QBIC” is named, as Brown observes, “after a game that is played the way tick-tack-toe is played, with the exception that Cubic is played on four levels simultaneously using a construction upon which chips are placed, rather than with lines drawn on a piece of paper.” The negotiations and arrangements – improvisations within structures – that give pleasure and intrigue in the formal structure of game-playing are an apt metaphor for the music. Quicksilver and playful, Brown’s transposition of a repeated phrase into the altissimo register in the title track – suggesting at once the unruly joy of the wilfully abrasive and the dedicated focus of a skilled improviser – is worth the price of admission.
–David Grundy


Adam Caine Quartet
NoBusiness NBCD 126

Adam Caine is best known as a free-improvising guitarist, which makes his new quartet recording, Transmissions, somewhat of an outlier in his discography. Caine’s recent endeavors include The Damn Think (Chant Records, 2019), a conversational duet with innovative flautist Robert Dick; and Good and Evil (577 Records, 2013), a spontaneous meeting with drummer Federico Ughi, under the guise of The Moon. Previously, the Adam Caine Trio released Thousandfold (NoBusiness, 2009) and Pipe (TrueFalse, 2006), Caine’s recording debut.

This session boasts a unique multi-generational line-up: veteran drummer Billy Mintz; bassist Adam Lane; and guitarist Bob Lanzetti. Mintz, a living legend who has played with everyone from Lee Konitz to Vinny Golia, needs no introduction; his tasteful trap set work is understated but compelling. Lane is a stylistic peer to Caine, having also studied with Connie Crothers and Paul Smoker; his rock-solid timing, full-bodied tone and non-idiomatic improvising makes him the perfect bassist for Caine. Lanzetti, on the other hand, is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning jazz/funk collective Snarky Puppy, whose aesthetic seems diametrically opposed to Caine’s often abstract approach. But Lanzetti also studied with Crothers, and isn’t afraid to venture into uncharted territory, making his meeting with Caine less unusual than it first seems.

The pensive “Night Driver” opens the set. A lyrical duet for the guitarists, it was originally written for a dance performance, as were several the pieces on this highly rhythmic album. With its focus on groove, the date often highlights the lissome work of Mintz, whose feature, “Cloud Over,” was written by Caine as a drum concerto of sorts, although Mintz doesn’t actually solo in a conventional sense, instead spurring on the guitarists’ tortuous exchanges. “Secular Expectorate,” features Mintz throughout, accompanied by guest saxophonist Nick Lyons, whose plangent alto blends with the drummer’s free-flowing extrapolations. Additionally, Mintz is the only soloist on the through-composed tone poem “Alien Flower,” which originated as a solo guitar piece.

Despite their differences, “Cloud Over” and “The Core” best demonstrate the versatile guitarists’ simpatico interplay. The ethereal swing and melodic variations of the former number contrast starkly with the thunderous riffing and scorching pyrotechnics of the latter. Upon further listening, Caine and Lanzetti share numerous proclivities, including a penchant for noise – a detail confirmed on the program’s longest, most radical inclusion, “Hell Awaits.” Punctuated by shards of warped distortion and oscillating electronics, the sludgy metallic dirge recalls the most extreme work of Caine’s trio. Conversely, the fuzzed-out funk of “The Spiral,” offers a lyrical finale, with crunchy fretwork by Caine that encapsulates the album’s appeal.

Caine, whose work is uncompromising and staunchly individualistic, has long toiled under the “talent deserving wider recognition” category. Transmissions covers a broad aesthetic range yet makes no obvious concessions to popular taste. The deep listening and heartfelt interpretations of his tuneful compositions by his bandmates yields a far more accessible sound than prior efforts, elevating Caine’s status beyond that of musicians’ musician.
–Troy Collins


Intakt Records

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