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Reviews of Recent Media


Nights On Saturn (communication)
Astral Spirits AS150

Once again multinational co-operative quartet [Ahmed] proves that a tight focus on unlikely material is no obstacle to artistic triumph. Nights On Saturn is the band’s third release after New Jazz Imagination (Umlaut, 2017) and Super Majnoon (East Meets West) (Otoroku, 2019). Like its predecessors the inspiration is the music of American bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik during the late 1950s and early 1960s. While best known for his stints with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey, Abdul-Malik was also a notable pioneer, integrating African and Arabic influences into the modal jazz of the period. By coincidence both the British pair of pianist Pat Thomas and alto saxophonist Seymour Wright carried a torch for Abdul-Malik’s work, and so it seemed a natural starting point when they embarked on a joint project, enlisting the pre-existing rhythm team of Swedish bassist Joel Grip and French drummer Antonin Gerbal to form [Ahmed].

But given the members’ histories this was never going to be a straightforward tribute band. Thomas has combined his Caribbean heritage with the extremes of improvisation on electronics as much as piano, invited as part of Derek Bailey’s Company in the early ‘90s, and more recently instigating the experimental Black Top with vibraphonist Orphy Robinson. The article which appears in PoD 69 serves as the foremost primer for his work. Wright has garnered a reputation as a sonic explorer meticulously deconstructing the saxophone, having emerged from the orbit of AMM drummer Eddie Prevost, but he’s also an astute student of jazz history. Grip and Gerbal move independently in the European improvised and free scene, but they have played together since 2007 in Peeping Tom, a pianoless unit which prospects the oeuvre of bebop, as well as under diverse other guises since, including not least an acoustic trio with Thomas called ISM.

The outfit’s modus operandi remains unchanged from the earlier outings. They take elements from Abdul-Malik’s compositions – a bassline, a melodic fragment, a rhythmic feel – and put them under the microscope, examining them from every angle, teasing out unanticipated wrinkles in extended renditions. Indeed, if you imagined a Venn diagram of their music, while the sector dedicated to Abdul-Malik’s writing would be a shoo-in, the other portions reflecting variously minimalism, free jazz, heavy metal and noise, might be less expected. The single 41-minute piece, spread over two sides of vinyl, begins with Gerbal laying down the groove, and Grip the bass riff of “Nights On Saturn” from the 1963 LP The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Thomas picks up the vamp while Wright channels the wailing Korean reed instrument played on the original by Bilal Abdurrahman in a wavering circular-breathed muezzin call. Thereafter things get pretty hairy. This is music to exorcise your inner headbanger.

Thomas accentuates the percussive aspects of the piano, hammering sequences of repeated motifs, often in lockstep with Wright who maintains a ferocious focus on the minimally changing phrases, often delivered as abrasive blurts using multiphonics, overtone manipulations and plosives. Gerbal and Grip rarely stray far from the pulse, but nonetheless imbue it with both buoyancy and variation. The cumulative effect is mesmerizing. While the focus rests largely on the group ethos, this time out Thomas’ elaborations and embellishments go the extra mile, though there is nothing that you could characterize as a solo.

In fact, the only obvious feature is an unaccompanied interlude for Grip, which with its tuneful impulses treads the border between individual expression and keeping the overall mood. Both bass and drums are sometimes lost in the mix of the live date recorded at London’s Cafe Oto in December 2019, (at the launch celebration for the previous album), but Gerbal comes to the fore on a couple of occasions, whipping up a storm as matters turn markedly visceral midway, and then roiling again towards the end as Wright’s simple figures coalesce into molten skronk punctuated by single notes, while Thomas assaults the keys with forearms, elbows, and possibly more beside, ratcheting up the already intense atmosphere to almost unbearable levels. The final release unleashes enthusiastic audience hollers at what must have been a dynamite evening, which we are now lucky enough to be able to share.
–John Sharpe


Richard Barrett
Binary Systems – 5 duo compositions 2020-21 in memory of John Russell
Strange Strings (Bandcamp)

Richard Barrett has moved seamlessly between compositional and improvisational settings since the 1980s, working with groups like the Elision Ensemble and performing real-time electronic improvisation with his duo Furt, the larger ensemble fORCH, and Evan Parker’s Electroacoustic Ensemble. (For an in-depth review of Barrett’s work, spend some time with Bill Shoemaker’s columns in PoD 70 and 71.) Dealing with the constraints of making music during COVID, Barrett landed on an idea for remote collaboration, drawing on strategies he’s worked on across various projects. In November 2020, he asked six musicians, with whom he had worked over the years, if they would make solo recordings which would be transformed electronically and then combined into a virtual collaboration. The only constraint was that the solos should be between 10 and 20 minutes and be relatively close-mic’d to provide maximum flexibility for adaptation. All agreed, though sadly, John Russell was not able to deliver his recording before his untimely death.

Barrett cast a wide net, recruiting Daryl Buckley (electric lap steel guitar and electronics), Lori Freedman (bass clarinet), Ivana Grahovac (cello), Anne Le Berge (flute), and Lê Quan Ninh (percussion). Each has worked as both improviser and in compositional settings, often incorporating electronics, and were able to effectively bridge the gap imposed by remote collaboration. Barrett’s only stipulation for himself was that he would only work with the recorded material provided by each musician and that he wouldn’t mix their contributions together. He writes that “differences in compositional approach were suggested in the first instance by the recorded materials themselves, as a response to and an intensification of features that I perceived in them, in a comparable way to the kinds of responses one might make in a live improvisation. What the resulting pieces have in common, indeed, in terms of how they came into being, is an attempt to organize the composition process so as to incorporate as much spontaneity as possible.”

The recording opens with “Dysnomia,” with Barrett building off of the scrabble of Buckley’s guitar playing with pinging pointillism and reverberant swaths of electronics. Reed-like electronic quavers dart in and out of the mix along with vacillating tones beating against each other. Midway through, the trajectory of the piece becomes more active, picking up on the physicality of Buckley’s playing. “Izar,” with cellist Ivana Grahovac, digs in with groaning overtones that glide from low-register growls to swooping high-register smears. Here, the intrinsic sonorities of the acoustic instrument are more readily apparent, but Barrett does a fantastic job of complementing those timbres with his electronic treatments.

His collaboration with Lori Freedman, “Lakhesis,” is structured more as an active duet as the electronics carve out a sound palette quite distinct from Freedman’s warm tones. Here, angular lines scrape against each other in parallel, juddering along with animated vitality. For “Albireo,” with flutist Anne La Berge, Barrett flips that strategy, instead mirroring the breathiness and overtones of the flute and folding that back into La Berge’s contribution. Oddly, though, as the piece moves along, the kaleidoscopic layering develops into acousmatic abstraction only opening up in the final few minutes to the tonal interchange of the opening. The set closes with his piece with percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, “Nephilim.” In this case, Ninh’s abraded surfaces and cracked textures are countered by Barrett’s gestural, hyperactive electronics and electronic piano sounds which divebomb against the sustained vibrations of his partner. At times, the activity level of the piece threatens to derail, but then Barrett pulls back to keep things on track. One wonders what live collaborations with these players would bring. But until that is possible, this project provided a provocative challenge for the composer, delivering pieces well worth spending some time with.
–Michael Rosenstein


Black Top Presents: Hamid Drake + Elaine Mitchener + William Parker + Orphy Robinson + Pat Thomas
Some Good News

Pat Thomas has steadily moved to the foreground of improvised music this century with ever-impressive virtuosity, pan-stylistic fluency, and infectious spirit. Black Top, his decade-long collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson, is a primary reason for this ascent. In various ensembles, Thomas rewires aspects of the jazz piano tradition, and uses iPad-generated sounds to twist a groove or spray otherworldly colors, to lift the bandstand; but it always seems to levitate a bit higher and more vibrantly when he and the comparably versatile and distinctive Robinson convene with one or more guests.

On this two-disc album documenting a July 2019 Café Oto gig, Black Top is joined by the beyond-category vocalist Elaine Mitchener and the pantheon-bound tandem of Hamid Drake and William Parker. The percussionist and bassist were on board for Black Top’s prior CD, 2018’s #Free 3 (Babel), their mastery of groove-shifting giving Thomas and Robinson’s richly colored and unpredictably morphing soundscapes a palpably celebratory vibe. Drake and Parker bring the same tool kits to two disc-long performances brimming with rhythmic vitality; but given Thomas’ and Robinson’s ever-expanding banks of sounds – and Mitchener’s singular ability to meld the primordial and the fantastic – a new chemistry is at play.

Both “Put on the Brakes” and “Some Good News” have discernible episodic structures, which promote transits between abstraction and plainly-spoken idioms. Thomas is often cited as a tone-setter, and that is the case at several points in the proceedings, particularly at the outset of “Put on the Brakes,” where he digs into a modern jazz-tinged motive; but it would be inaccurate to suggest he has an outsized role in this regard. Each improviser – and sub-unit, which Black Top and Drake-Parker function as periodically – influence the unfolding and ultimate shape of the performances. When employing the iPad and xylosynth, Thomas and Robinson propel the music towards space and the future; when Drake and Parker play frame drum, nageswaram, and sintir, the ancient past is revealed to be ever-present. It would also be a mistake to undervalue Mitchener’s catalytic power, as there are countless times when she needles the qi of the music, making it jolt forward.

These are two tour de force performances, made more exceptional by the fact they were created on the same night. Very few recordings issued so far this year come close to being as exhilarating as Some Good News. It might just make you want to holler.
–Bill Shoemaker


Scott DuBois
Summer Water
Watertone Music SSC 4116

Over the past two decades, guitarist Scott DuBois has drawn inspiration for his multi-faceted compositions from the natural world – and most recently – the change of seasons. His writing has matured over time to incorporate the broad palette of orchestral music; he recently composed a symphony and a violin concerto, among other works. These experiences have expanded his compositional style, imbuing a symphonic influence into his new music.

DuBois’ 2015 album, Winter Light (ACT), premiered an ongoing series of recordings based on the four seasons, to be performed by a variety of ensembles. Winter Light featured DuBois’ quartet of the past 15 years (including Gebhard Ullmann, Thomas Morgan, and Kresten Osgood), while his 2017 album, Autumn Wind (ACT), found the same longstanding group augmented by a string quartet and a four-piece wind ensemble. Summer Water is the third release in the series to transpose a season into sound. It is also DuBois’ first solo guitar album, and the first recording released on his new label, Watertone Music.

As suggested by his imprint’s name, the endless variety found in bodies of water has always fascinated DuBois. Most recently, the view of Lake Michigan from his window was a daily reminder of the range of water’s expressive power. During the cold Chicago winter of 2019, he wrote and recorded pieces for solo guitar using his burgeoning symphonic approach, but without resorting to overdubs, loops or layering. DuBois captures the dynamic textures and tonal colors of an orchestra, maintaining a bold, forceful sound, not just in terms of volume but intensity.

Featuring 11 original compositions arranged symmetrically, the first and last five pieces mirror each other, like a musical palindrome: numbers one and eleven; two and ten; three and nine; etc. – are essentially sets of musical variations. The first five are based on a journey through a river, the last five a journey out to sea, with both halves meeting in the central “Storm Where the River Meets the Sea.”

DuBois takes listeners on a sonic travelogue down that proverbial river and out to sea, ebbing and flowing from one piece to the next. His delicate fingerpicking on the opener, “Into River Fog,” pauses between interrelated motifs; the notes ring out, lending it a contemplative aura that permeates the entire session. The midpoint of “Summer Light On Rushing River” finds DuBois navigating rapid, single note runs and briskly strummed chords as he emerges from hushed atmospherics. Indicative of its title, “Storm Where The River Meets The Sea” serves as the album’s conceptual climax, with the guitarist’s increasingly frenetic fretwork navigating the crashing swells of a rising storm, before subsiding into tranquility in the aftermath. Despite the stripped-down approach, Summer Water conveys the same spiritual depth and compositional detail as DuBois’ prior efforts inspired by the change of seasons.
–Troy Collins


Tucker Dulin + Ben Owen
Cat Guarding Geese
Erstwhile ersteau 008

This duo project by Tucker Dulin and Ben Owen has been in the works for close to a decade now. Over that time the two performed together occasionally in galleries and outdoor spaces. In each case, the sounds of the locations they chose to play became as intrinsic to the music they created as the actions and sounds the two introduced into their environment. The two put out a short-run CD-R of a 2013 performance and began working on this collaboration in 2015. Cat Guarding Geese is assembled from three days of on-site recordings on Roosevelt Island, NY captured over the course of a year as well as a studio recording in Brooklyn. On the Tumblr site they set up to document the recording sessions, they describe the process as being composed of field recordings and “structured outdoor performances.” And that subtle but ineffable sense of structure is what defines this recording.

The description of objects that the two utilized, with Dulin’s choice of bells, bowl, can, cymbal, lentils, mallet, and whistle and Owen’s choice of paper mic, speaker boxes, op amps, and cassette does next to nothing to provide a sense of what the two brought to the project. But take a look at the photos on their site, and one can see them hunched in the cold on a rooftop, in a park against a low fence, and by the water, meticulously choosing from their assembled collection of sound-making gear. Billy Gomberg is credited as doing the recordings and, in the case of this piece, the decisions as to where and how to mic the musicians and environment prove to be a critical component.

The single 68-minute piece begins with the hiss of urban ambience interjected with the low rumble of wind, which stretches patiently, allowing the listener to focus on the subtle shifts in the sonic field of urban noises. It’s not until 10 minutes in that the quiet shuffle of Dulin and Owen and the muted insistent beating of a cymbal enter, nicely countered by the honking of geese passing by. One starts to hear tonal oscillations as well, possibly from Owen or possibly from the environment, and that ambiguous uncertainty of sound source effectively follows through the entire piece. That underlying strategy of melding urban sounds, the gestural physicality of rubbed and beaten objects, and the low-level hum and undulations of simple electronics creates subtly morphing aural convergences.

While there is a natural flow to the piece, it is intriguing to reflect that this is in fact artifice as the piece was carefully woven together from multiple site and studio recordings, further refined by Taku Unami’s superb mastering. As sound events and textures reemerge in the mix, there’s clearly a keen hand in shaping the trajectory and arc of the piece. 43 minutes in, the urban background sounds drop out, placing Owen’s static, electronic hums and buzzes, and sine tones and Dulin’s abraded surfaces, bells, beaten cymbals, and shakers in stark foreground against breaks of an engulfing silence. When Owen layers multiple tones, the harmonic richness becomes particularly immersive. Their choices of pacing, texture, timbre and tone are laid bare, driving home their structural approach and the potent role of the seeming ambience of the urban site recordings in what had proceeded. At 58 minutes in, a solitary drone fades to silence and after a pause, the urban site recording that opened reappears and plays out over the final 10 minutes, effectively framing the piece. Cat Guarding Geese was awhile in the making. But the wait was well worth it.
–Michael Rosenstein


Paul Dunmall + Percy Pursglove + Olie Brice + Jeff Williams
West Hill WHR002

Paul Dunmall + Mark Sanders
577 Records 5852

Paul Dunmall + Matthew Shipp + Joe Morris + Gerald Cleaver
The Bright Awakening
Rogueart ROG-0103

The immediate take-away from the glorious John Coltrane 50th Memorial Concert at Café Oto (Confront) was the meeting of saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Paul Dunmall, and Howard Cottle, measurable in kilowatts. Yet, the lasting revelation entails how, historically, Dunmall has used the type of sculpted motives Coltrane used for Sun Ship, the album at the center of the celebration. On both The Bright Awakening, which documents a 2012 Vision Festival performance, and Palindromes, recorded almost eight years later at Café Oto, Dunmall repeatedly generates motives that have the somewhat paradoxical quality of Coltrane’s on his last quartet recordings, in that they are incisive and specific, yet open-ended at the same time. They are instantly cohering and kickstarting; and both recordings are shaped by them.

This is a more challenging proposition at a first meeting in a concert hall like Roulette – where the musicians are spread out and require stage monitors – than a second gig in three days, caught at a familiar, far more intimate space. Still, both sets of Dunmall’s colleagues respond with impressive speed and sensitivity. In his liner notes for The Bright Awakening, Joe Morris (who plays bass) admits to initially struggling to hear Matthew Shipp and Gerald Cleaver, and, presumably, Dunmall, who was a good twenty feet from Shipp, with the powerful Cleaver in between. Assuming that was the case with the others, it would explain the striving tone at the outset of the nearly hour-long improvisation. In relatively short order, however, they galvanize spirit and clarity, take it upstairs, and keep elevating for the duration. Having been in the house, it seemed doubtful that the recording could deliver this thrilling concert in its fullness. It does, even though, occasionally, the cavernous room and stage monitors have an impact on the sound.

There has yet to be an album recorded at Café Oto that is less than well-engineered. Give a good amount of the credit to a wide and deep room, and the proximity of the audience to the stage. Palindromes keeps the streak alive with a finely etched stereo image. The propulsive dialogue between bassist Olie Brice and the transplanted drummer Jeff Williams is crisply rendered, and Dunmall and trumpeter Percy Pursglove are sufficiently separated so that the spaces in their volleys are clearly heard. The latter is particularly noteworthy because this project brings out a different aspect of Pursglove’s playing than heard with Barry Guy. These two half-hour blows reveal a vocabulary spanning Woody Shaw’s baroque explication of intervallic relationships and Don Cherry’s perfectly oblong phrases. Subsequently, Pursglove gives Dunmall a lot to respond to; and well before the disc is over, their interplay prompts comparisons to tandems like Dorham and Henderson, and Schoof and Dudek.

Dunmall’s renown as a tenor player overshadows his ability to give higher pitched saxophones impressive impact. Unity, an album of five studio-recorded duets with Mark Sanders recorded between surges last fall, opens with Dunmall on alto and closes with two tracks featuring his C melody; with two performances on tenor in between, the well-shaped album demonstrates how Dunmall maximizes the intrinsic properties of each horn. At times, he grinds a sound from the alto that rivals the abrasive timbres of Roscoe Mitchell’s solos from the ‘70s, while there is an occasional feathery tone on C melody that nears Lee Konitz’s. All the while, however, Dunmall imbues these performances with the same reverential energy he brings to the tenor, and the inevitable gravitational pull of Coltrane. While Dunmall has extensively worked with several drummers that bring out his best, Sanders is the equal of the late, lamented Tony Levin in terms of calibrating Dunmall’s each move, and frequently coaxing the next.

Dunmall continues to inspire with staggering frequency. By year’s end, several more discs will confirm it.
–Bill Shoemaker


Hat Hut Records

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