Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Morton Feldman
Triadic Memories
ezz-thetics 1025

Does the world need another recording of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories? By a quick count, there’s over a dozen recordings out there which may surprise some, given that the composition is 90-minutes long. But the allure of digging into this masterpiece is evident to anyone who has spent time listening to the work. And each pianist, and equally important for a work like this, each piano, setting, recording setup, and approach to mastering brings their own temporal and harmonic nuances to Feldman’s score. Written during the final decade of Feldman’s life, the solo piano piece is an immersive study in the way that time, harmonic structure, and memory operate. The composer talked about the effect of duration on composition, noting that “Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.” Triadic Memories attests to the composer’s attraction to notions of scale.

That investigation of scale and how memory operates is central to Triadic Memories. Feldman talked about it this way. “What Western forms have become is a paraphrase of memory. But memory could operate otherwise as well. In Triadic Memories, there is a section of different types of chords where each chord is slowly repeated. One chord might be repeated three times, another, seven or eight – depending on how long I felt it should go on. Quite soon into a new chord I would forget the reiterated chord before it. I then reconstructed the entire section: rearranging its earlier progression and changing the number of times a particular chord was repeated. This way of working was a conscious attempt at formalizing a disorientation of memory. Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion: a bit like walking the streets of Berlin – where all the buildings look alike, even if they're not.”

Equally important to memory is the way that attack and decay operate in the performance of the work. The dynamics of the score are specified as ranging from ppp to ppppp. The score also specifies that the sustain pedal should be held down halfway through the entire piece. In his liner notes to this recording, Christopher Fox notes that the resonance of the piano becomes another layer in the notion of memory, describing it as a musical gesso, providing a tonal ground for the piece. From the first resonant triads, pianist Judith Wegmann displays a rich grasp of Feldman’s strategies, calling upon her deep-seated command of piano repertoire spanning Baroque through to 20th Century composers. Her sense of pace and keen understanding of the character of the instrument, a Bösendorfer concert grand, shapes the way that the performance unfolds. Her sense of touch is paramount as well, letting the notes sound and decay without ever letting the innate percussive nature of the mechanics of the instrument intrude.

Listening to a recording is always removed from an actual performance, particularly regarding the volume and how the sound fills the space. Here, it is particularly important to think about the dynamics specified in the score. Listening at a low volume allows the reverberation of the strings on the soundboard to develop the same weight as the notes themselves. Wegmann navigates the piece with an assured sense of trajectory, from the spare diatonic triads of the opening few minutes through the gradual inversions and transpositions, as phrases are repeated varying numbers of times with overlapping currents to create a gauzy sense of pattern and evolution. Shadowlike recollections of what preceded materialize and then dissipate in the shimmering scrim of chords painstakingly doled out against their omnipresent underlying spectral decay.

The pianist also masterfully negotiates the pace of Feldman’s score, deftly attuned to the minutely changeable meter and subtle shifts in the placements of solitary notes against chords and chords against each other. This becomes particularly riveting during the final third of the piece, as the momentum gains velocity, breaks into pauses imbued with shimmering string overtones, slows to measured tempos, and then determinedly takes off again. In the final minutes, the piece gravitates toward the patient resolve of hanging dark notes that open up to the final rising phrases that ring out of the sonic ground like sparkling stars in a night sky. Wegmann’s insight into how this all fits with and reflects what has proceeded guides the performance with captivating command. Mention also needs to be made of commendable recording by Simon Fankhauser and the always-stellar mastering by Peter Pfister, which captures the sound of the piano and the way the sound hangs in the room with even, natural detail.
–Michael Rosenstein


Milford Graves + Don Pullen
The Complete Yale Concert 1966
Corbett vs Dempsey CvsD CD075

The meeting of two 24-year-old adherents of the New Thing, pianist Don Pullen and drummer Milford Graves, in concert at Yale University sounds as uncompromising now as it must have done at the time, even after 54 years of familiarity with these models. The Complete Yale Concert 1966 aggregates five selections totaling 73-minutes which were issued as two separate LPs: At Yale University in 1966 and Nommo a year later.

Particularly after Cecil Taylor’s unprecedented performances with a panoply of top European improvising drummers, collected in the monumental In Berlin ‘88 box set, piano/drums tandems have become almost a rite of passage for free-leaning pianists, with examples of the genre dropped by Alexander von Schlippenbach, Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Satoko Fujii, Dave Burrell, John Blum, Sylvie Courvoisier, Alexander Hawkins and countless others. But this was, if not the first, then one of the pioneering events.

What made the release possible at all was the decision of the two young artists to issue the music themselves overcoming the dearth of interest from record companies and producers, thereby sidestepping commercial imperatives regarding what might be acceptable. Lacking the contacts or profile of previous musician led imprints by established artists like Charles Mingus or Max Roach, they had to follow in the footsteps of Sun Ra and do everything themselves, including the cover design and printing and distribution. An onerous task (they never released further LPs), but one which fitted with the self determination ethos of black communities at the time, and ultimately demonstrated an appetite for the new music, albeit more from outside the US than within it.

By then Graves and Pullen had already played together on two ESP discs under the leadership of reedman Giuseppi Logan, having performed alongside him at the legendary October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. These were Pullen’s first recordings, though Graves had already made groundbreaking appearances with the New York Art Quartet, Paul Bley, and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra among others. When Graves was offered the concert date, he chose to invite Pullen to present the duo they had already been rehearsing in private.

The five pieces represent a true dialogue, with Graves’ drums on an equal frontline footing with Pullen’s piano. Graves totally abandons any hint of time keeping in favor of playing in horn-like bursts. In a departure from the prevailing practice up until this juncture, he noticeably pays attention to the sound and tone of his kit. He dampens or attenuates cymbal resonance, or uses stick or hand to manipulate the tension, and thereby pitch, of his drumheads as he strikes. While his deep earthy sonorities recall African hand drums, given his background in Latin bands, he sporadically calls on the sort of patterns he might have played on timbales, as well as drawing from his study of tablas and other Asian musics.

For his part Pullen shows a predilection for the extremes of the keyboard, making extensive use of the treble register especially, sometimes delicate, at other times darting, usually at pace. He often posts his sparkling extrapolations against a richly voiced bottom end, where right hand showers become downpours. While Pullen vehemently denied any influence from Cecil Taylor, who he claimed not to have heard, the two are undeniably in the same ball park of percussive energy when they chafe at the limits, and any distinction is likely to be lost on the superficial listener. But they arrived there from very different starting points. Pullen’s foundation was in the church and chitlin circuits, while Taylor’s grounding was in the conservatory, although they both paid dues in R&B bands subsequently. Even if his conception wasn’t quite fully formed, Pullen had nonetheless forged a definite style. Indeed his playing is not that dissimilar to that heard a decade later on numbers like “Song Played Backwards” from his Solo Piano Album, or much of Capricorn Rising, his encounter with Sam Rivers.

Although intensity levels vary, the exchanges remain resolutely non-melodic and non-metric throughout. Each piece contains solo as well as duo episodes, none seemingly prearranged, with the unaccompanied interludes seemingly organic developments, rather than rote turns. Even to modern day ears they often seem to proceed as two simultaneous tracks, although with correspondence in form and phrase length. But at other times they are almost conversational in their interaction, albeit a conversation executed at the speed of two competing horse race commentators. On occasion Graves adopts a supportive stance, purposely deploying rhythmic accents to punctuate Pullen’s flow. The nearest they come to convention is in concluding some of the pieces, as when Pullen frames drum breaks and then finishes “P.G. I” with a final arpeggiated flourish.

Although rarely reflective, neither is the discourse conducted with the needle hovering constantly in the red zone. By avoiding a barrage, and concentrating on the lower-pitched drums, Graves creates a transparent sound which is critical to the success of the date as it allows Pullen’s treble excursions to be fully heard. Repeated motifs are few, but at the start of “P.G. V” (the densest installment on the disc, with the pianist at his most percussive) Pullen caps a sequence of phrases with the same 4-note figure, indicative perhaps of the thought processes in train, even when they are not explicit.

Although they continued to work together for the next year or so, they didn’t record together again. Graves stayed in demand, joining Albert Ayler’s group for Love Cry and making Black Woman with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, as well as touring with fellow drummers Rashied Ali and Andrew Cyrille. Pullen meanwhile went through a fallow patch in which he didn’t record under his own name until after a profile-raising stint with Charles Mingus, which ended in 1975. In the interim he worked supporting and arranging more popular music, with blues singers such as Arthur Prysock, although he did still play free with when the opportunity arose.

With the master tapes long gone, Corbett vs Dempsey carefully sourced the lovingly created reissue from pristine vinyl. The first two cuts which constitute the first album are in mono only, while the other three are in stereo, with clear separation between Graves in the left channel and Pullen in the right. Even after all this time the music still challenges preconceptions. It remains a classic of the genre and deserves to be widely heard.
–John Sharpe


Rich Halley + Matthew Shipp + Michael Bisio + Newman Taylor Baker
The Shape of Things
Pine Eagle 013

Portland, Oregon tenor saxman Rich Halley again meets pianist Matthew Shipp’s New York trio in the mainstream of free jazz. The long-time veteran Halley seems to have the whole history of the modern tenor at his fingertips, from bop-shaped phrases, Ornettish and Threadgillish ideas, and sheets of sound and multiphonics. His sound is usually big, hard, flexible. He’s devoted to improvising that’s passionate and swinging and his favorite medium is an advance on free-bop. In fact, Halley’s art in its sophistication and pure musicality seems to sum up the advances of both the bop and free jazz revolutions.

Halley likes to start pieces with little motives that become themes of his solos. The first track, “Tetrahedron,” grabs you right away with a two-note lick that Shipp immediately seizes and makes into an equally hot line of contrapuntal variations. There’s so much bop in the piano solo, then, as the bright and busy bassist Bisio and drummer Baker are drawn into interplay. Two-thirds through, the tempo stops and a sweet rubato tenor solo, with piano accompaniment, ensues. Halley especially is a melodic artist, he plays solos that ever renew themselves, and inspiration seems endless.

Matthew Shipp never ceases to amaze. After he was the perfect pianist for Roscoe Mitchell’s complexities and for Ivo Perlman’s ecstasies, his style makes a big and perfect adjustment to Halley, too. Again and again, Shipp creates startlingly apt interplay with Halley that is the highlight of the album; at other times he plays rumbling chords on every beat, as background while the tenorman soars. Naturally evolving bop phrasing pervades all his piano solos, which then move into chords or sparkling dissonance. Really, Shipp and Halley bring out the best in each other.

If you don’t know Rich Halley, here is a fine place to start.
–John Litweiler


Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl
Artlessly Falling
Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-034

Since her emergence in the mid-2000s, Mary Halvorson’s singular approach to the electric guitar has become instantly recognizable, yet her unorthodox compositional style has proven just as instrumentally distinctive as her spidery fingering and phantasmagoric pitch bends. With Code Girl, Halvorson applies the same idiosyncratic approach to traditional songwriting.

Although Halvorson penned lyrics for song-oriented projects before, Code Girl’s self-titled 2018 debut featured her first full-band arrangements for lyric-based songs. The quintet included rising vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, trumpet phenomenon Ambrose Akinmusire, veteran bassist Michael Formanek, and frequent collaborator, Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Establishing herself as one of NYC’s least-predictable songwriters, Halvorson’s Code Girl was widely considered one of the most striking albums of the year.

Halvorson’s writing for Artlessly Falling is even more ambitious. Utilizing eight pre-existing poetic forms – from haibun to villanelle – she uses specific meter and rhyme schemes as the basis for opulent new compositions. The group’s sophomore effort pushes further into uncharted territory, interweaving Halvorson’s angular melodies, contrapuntal harmonies, and odd-metered rhythms into sophisticated motifs arranged around poetic lyrics.

Halvorson’s bands tend to expand, and Code Girl is no exception. Kidambi returns, imbuing Halvorson’s enigmatic lyrics with emotional resonance, along with Fujiwara and Formanek, who collaborate with Halvorson as the collective trio Thumbscrew, among other projects. Newest member María Grand adds complexity to the arrangements, interweaving tenor saxophone lines with touring trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (replacing Akinmusire) as well as singing counterpoint and harmony with Kidambi. Most notable is the inclusion of Robert Wyatt’s fragile vocals on a handful of songs – the legendary British musician has long been an inspiration to Halvorson but has rarely performed since retiring in 2014.

Kaleidoscopic vocal textures from Wyatt, Kidambi, and Grand bolster Halvorson’s unfettered fretwork, which veers from coruscating fervor on “Walls and Roses” to intimate introspection on “Lemon Trees.” The dreamy isolation of the latter features Wyatt’s poignant delivery of lyrics Halvorson wrote in tanka form, while spotlighting probing solos from O’Farrill and Fujiwara. Wyatt’s raspy voice also fronts the elliptical “Bigger Flames,” accentuated by O’Farrill and Grand’s sumptuous call-and-response.

Many of these poetic forms are inherently musical, and each song follows a different set of rules: the impressionistic title track, a sestina, can be traced back to 12th century troubadours, ultimately serving as a context for collective group improvisation in support of Kidambi’s soaring refrains; “Muzzling Unwashed” uses the repeating lines of a villanelle to explore how coverings can entice and repel; the cyclical nature of the pantoum “Walls and Roses,” vacillates between contemplative and combative; and the found poem “Last-Minute Smears” adds a mournful tone to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious 2018 testimony in front of the US Senate

Other interpretations are more enigmatic. Halvorson sums it up best, “Some of them have multiple meanings ... I like using language with the aim of having that flexibility ... Poetry and music are similar in that there’s a lot to be gained from more than one reading or listening.”
–Troy Collins


Peter Kowald
Peter Kowald Quintet
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD070

In January 1972, a 28-year-old Peter Kowald convened a trans-European quintet featuring trombonists Paul Rutherford and Günter Christmann, Dutch alto saxophonist Peter van de Locht and percussionist Paul Lovens for a performance at The Akademie der Kunste, Berlin. Their set was recorded and became the seventh release on the FMP label. Unlike many of the early FMP releases, this one sat in the vaults without a reissue until now. Luckily, the folks at Corbett vs. Dempsey were able to dig up the master tapes for this fantastic reissue. While Kowald toured constantly and appeared on well over 100 releases, with many solos, duos, and collaborative efforts, this is oddly the only release where he is credited as leader. With Kowald augmenting bass with tuba and alphorn, the low-end, brass-heavy lineup hits from the first salvos and continues to tear things up throughout the four pieces.

It is remarkable to note how young the musicians were when this was recorded, given the maturity of their playing. Lovens was only 23, Van de Locht (who gave up music in the late 1970s to concentrate on sculpture) was 26, Christmann was 30, and Rutherford, the senior member of the group, was 32. “Platte Talloere” opens things up, with crisscrossed riotous trombones and fierce alto thundering along over driving bass and freely clattering percussion. The five players build to a crescendo and then come to a full stop two and a half minutes in, opening up for a free, crackling, metallic solo by Lovens. Kowald joins in with creaking string abrasions and the two spin off in a duo full of congruent textural detail. Halfway through, Kowald’s slow plucked lines set the stage for the horns to reenter and the improvisation bucks along with free, open abandon. “Wenn Wir Kehlkopfoperierte Uns Unterhalten” follows with a collective start that opens up to solo sections, featuring a particularly molten showing by van de Locht.

“Pavement Bolgnaise” starts out with collective torrents from the whole group with short solo statements that emerge out of the roiling mix. Three minutes in, Kowald breaks away for an extended solo, moving from loping pizzicato to percussive string attack to ferocious arco as Lovens shadows and shades his playing with a lithe, light touch. During the final third of the piece, Rutherford charges off with sputtering acrobatic aplomb, diving across the full range of his horn, winding down with vocalized, layered, buzzing overtones. The compact “Guete Luuni” closes things out, a clarion study for brass, with trombones and alphorn winding freely lyrical lines across each other. One wishes that the pieces didn’t end with sharp cuts, but that’s a minor quibble for this historically important, and musically vibrant meeting. It’s great to have it available again at long last.
–Michael Rosenstein


New World Records

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