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Jonathan Kane + Dave Soldier
February Meets Soldier String Quartet
EEG Records 0044

Renowned NYC composers, multi-instrumentalists, and collaborators Jonathan Kane and Dave Soldier have joined two of their most enduring projects – the ecstatic trance-blues minimalism of Kane’s February, and the experimental innovations of Soldier String Quartet. February Meets Soldier String Quartet fuses overtone-rich drones with aspects of the blues, jazz, classical, and even the great American songbook.

Kane came to prominence in New York’s early 1980s Downtown scene as a founding member of the no-wave/noise ensemble Swans, the drummer behind the massed-guitar armies of Rhys Chatham, and the protracted blues excursions of minimalist godfather La Monte Young. He also leads the minimalist blues band Jonathan Kane’s February. Soldier’s projects include the Soldier String Quartet, the Delta punk band the Kropotkins, and the Thai Elephant Orchestra. He has performed as a violinist, guitarist, and composer/arranger with Bo Diddley, John Cale, and David Byrne, among many others.

February Meets Soldier String Quartet is the second collaboration between Kane and Soldier, following a self-titled 2017 duo project. The session consists of four lengthy instrumentals, beginning with a nine-minute ritualistic riff on Little Walter’s blues classic “Hate to See You Go.” A basic blues connotation underpins a rising, escalating drone where strings, bass, and guitar sustain an inexorable course, while the drums maintain metronomic momentum. The track builds in tension, as Soldier’s bluesy guitar acrobatics mesmerize before orchestral strings and a violin solo eventually enter the fray.

In contrast, an atmospheric rendition of Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, offers a lush respite, tinged with nostalgia. Initially, the relaxed tempo and effects-laden guitars – awash in reverb, delay, and distortion – provide hypnotic reflection. The string-heavy arrangement then rises and surges with percussive fervor, but before drifting into discord, Kane and Soldier reprise the main theme, bringing the number full circle.

The album’s second half features two originals. Kane’s 16-minute “Requiem for Hulis Pulis” is an elongated exploration of subtle electric blues variations that includes the Soldier String Quartet as a supportive foundation and extra guitar from Jon Crider, a member of Kane’s February. The piece recalls the guitar-based minimalist excursions of Earth or Rhys Chatham; dark and melancholy, but with a repeating motif that conveys an uplifting, bluesy swagger. Conversely, guitars, bass, and drums are sublimated to emphasize strings in Soldier’s orchestral “Vienna Over the Hills,” where European classical traditions meet modernist expressionism with a melodic structure that leans toward dissonance and harmonic opposition.

February Meets Soldier String Quartet will likely appeal to open-minded fans of adventurous instrumental rock, jazz, and classical music; Kane and Soldier bring a wealth of talent and experience to this intriguingly unclassifiable effort.
–Troy Collins


Douglas Kearney + Val Jeanty
Fonograf Editions F0NO9

Nathaniel Mackey + The Creaking Breeze Ensemble
Fugitive Equation
Fonograf Editions FON13

Fonograf Editions debuted with Harmony Holiday’s Mingus-inspired The Black Saint and the Sinnerman in 2018: primarily a poetry label, their releases often feature writers whose work is centrally concerned with Black music, often in collaboration with musicians and sound artists. The double album Fugitive Equation presents live recordings from June 2019 by poet Nathaniel Mackey with the Creaking Breeze Ensemble. The group formed by Paul Abbott (drums and electronics), Ute Kanngiesser (cello), Billy Steiger (violin and piano), Evie Ward (words) and Seymour Wright (alto saxophone) for a project based around Mackey’s multi-volume text From A Broken Bottle Traces Of Perfume Still Emanate. Mackey’s text is an appropriate venue for collaboration: an ongoing epistolary novel-cum-statement of poetics-cum-musical treatise centring on the work of a fictional, Los Angeles-based free jazz band, addressed by protagonist “N” to the “Angel of Dust.” With Mackey, the Ensemble produce two long pieces, one to each disc, each divided into four parts, and each based on individual letters from the From a Broken Bottle sequence: the first, “4.X.83-26.X.83” from the fifth volume, Late Arcade, the second “9.XII.81” from the second volume, Djbot Baghostus’s Run.

There’s a risk in such collaborations. Too often, they are structured around a series of shorter texts, breaking up flow and giving the music an unavoidably stop-start momentum. The poet’s delivery of propositional meaning, whether intentionally or not, takes precedence over music’s abstraction, and thus risks rendering music into accompaniment, scene-painting, literalising it and diluting its power. That’s not the case here. Though the letters read on the page as lengthy, discursive prose sentences, Mackey reads them out as truncated phrases, as if they were the broken lines of poems, de-emphasizing the letters’ narrative momentum. In this way, Mackey moves the text from foreground to an equal element in the sonic texture, functioning more like a fellow musician than a separate entity. Mackey has done important critical work on the “split,” doubled, or haunted voice – questions wrapped up in the tropes of spirit possession from vodou and its legacy in African-American spiritual and musical practice. On this record, this is literalized with the addition of a second voice (Ward’s), sometimes picking up on a phrase Mackey speaks, sometimes working from a text responding to it, a weave of improvisation and composition. And, following through his role as DJ on long-running radio show Tangayanika Strut, Mackey plays a selection of records mentioned in the texts he recites: fragments of Anthony Williams, Miles Davis’ second great quintet, Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, Salif Keita, Coltrane and Quinichette, Air, Charles Lloyd, a Paganini Caprice, and Ayler’s “Ghosts” forming at times distinct and at times amorphous parts of the ensemble texture.

Fugitive Equation open with Mackey’s epistolary phrase, “Dear Angel of Dust” – an apocalyptic annunciation between crisis and possibility, spoken slowly into a bed of silence and a succeeding, cautious string drone. The ensuing 1983 letter juxtaposes “prehistoric apocalypse” and contemporary environmental despoilation, shot through with the violence of racial capitalism: witnesses gather on a beach on the occasion of an oil spill which alludes to the Nowruz Field oil spill in the Persian Gulf and the Castillo de Bellver’s spill off the coast of Cape Town. Making reference to Ron Carter’s solo on Williams’ “Barb’s Song to the Wizard,” Mackey imagines the bow’s pressure on the strings along with the cavernous interior of a ship that also becomes the musician’s body, in a visceral lament “amassing senses of emergence or at least emergency, rummaging for voice, viability, ground.” Such descriptive passages at once literalize music and evade any single, literal reading. When Mackey literally plays Carter’s solo, it offers hints or echoes rather than leading lines: one more texture within the whole. As Mackey writes: “Words, regardless of how much they point or specify, can’t altogether escape indefiniteness or inference, that, indeed, specification has a way of being shadowed by implication”. Rather than literalize Mackey’s descriptions of imaginary music, the Ensemble proceed by what Mackey might term “implication,” “indefiniteness,” and “inference,” suspending ekphrastic description of music, with occasional flickers of declarative clarity – as when Mackey’s work with Ayler’s “Ghosts” is met by Wright’s echoing alto – the exception rather than the rule. Over these two discs, we hear string drones; drum taps and skitters; saxophone blarts and held notes; wood-gut, drum-skin, the bow’s glide across tightening and slackening string. “Hollowed-out lament,” Mackey begins the third part of the second album, and the general tenor is hushed, occasionally rising, as when Steiger’s piano in sustain pedaled swells, repeating figures offer a more overtly “dramatic” ensemble rise, though the group generally avoid illustration or drama that – especially in the letter from Late Aracde – could easily lead to a kind of quasi-Romantic program music, tone-poem, tone-painting. On the second disc,  Mackey pursues a train of associative quotations, linking the “pagan” in a Paganini caprice to Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” – a register Mackey sees as at once melancholy and joyous, anthemic and oblique – at a “water’s edge both that of Ayler’s death and of baptismal or voodoo rites” – before turning to a train of flutes – Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on “To Be,” Eric Dolphy, Henry Threadgill, Charles Lloyd, the register again at once visceral and elegiac, Mackey invoking “the luminous doomed lament scored for hollowed-out pelvis played on dislocated flute.” On “Skeletal Water, X-Ray Water (Part 2),” live string harmonics briefly pick up the implications of Charles Lloyd’s flute tone as played by Mackey on record. On “Part 4,” Kanngiesser’s cello plucks briefly invokes Abdul Wadud as Mackey reads “a summons of sorts” – such coincidences one of the record’s pleasures.

Somewhere in his epistolary sequence Mackey delivers a passage that goes into great detail on the semi-fantastical disassembling and reassembling of an imagined instrument, at once invoking the myth of Isis and Osiris – reassembly of scattered limbs as resurrection – and Jules Verne-style speculative fiction. It’s a passage about materiality, about the irreducibility of music to matter yet the constitutive role of materiality as the conditions of possibility for music to happen: a matter that can’t be reduced to matter. Mackey’s Late Arcade letter ends with the band and audience humming along a wordless song. On the record we hear instead silence. Reference, the literal, the overtly musical itself has vanished – let’s say, evaporated – the sound world a series of creaks, breaths, shuffles that may be as much the sound of the audience in chairs and the generally ambient hum of the venue as the ensemble’s musicking: evaporation, melting away. “We began to wonder not long afterward and we still wonder.”

On Fonograf’s other recent release, Fodder, poet Douglas Kearney and sound artist/percussionist Val Jeanty deliver a relatively brief performance, at just over 30 minutes in length, offering pith, punch, and performance in a self-interrogative exploration laced with coruscating humor. In contrast to Mackey, Kearney’s points of reference are more generally to the song tradition – spirituals, R&B, and hip-hop – than to long-form instrumental work. Intensely visual, his poems often splinter and recombine fragments of song lyrics in a panoply of quotation that evokes hip-hop sampling and plunderphonics. Cartoon bubbles, text boxes, varying letter sizes, cut-ups, lines and arrows provide a mass of unruly detail over which the eye must dart back and forth to produce an overall meaning. Kearney calls this technique “eye weather,” something to be sonically activated in the reader’s mind, and, in general, prefers the work to be read than sounded, for, as he’s previously said:

The reader’s optical speakerbox is actually better equipped to mentally “sound” out such a poem than the poet can manage in live performance because of the pervasive simultaneity. The mind can process the Eye Weather as a kind of noise pattern, a static hissing through the poem, ... The solo voice and body of the performer makes such audience agency more difficult.

In live readings, Kearney tackles this dilemma head on by emphasizing bodily presence, incorporating gestural movement, passages of song, declamations, visceral shouts a world away from the quiet poise of a conventional poetry reading. Jeanty, meanwhile, has performed as turntablist and sound sampler with Steve Coleman and Yosvanny Terry, and as recording engineer on records by Braxton, Smith, Threadgill, and Geri Allen. Born in Haiti, she frequently situates her work in the lineage of voodoo ritual musics, though her work here is closer to electronica, playing elements of a conventional drumkit (sans cymbals), percussion pads, and electronics to set up loose grooves and occasional samples behind Kearney’s already musically-inflected performances.

Recorded at the Disjecta Contemporary Art Centre in Portland, Oregon on August 9, 2019, this was essentially a live recording session, and seems deliberately caught between these more atmospheric elements and Kearney’s assertive performances. Kearney juxtaposes readings of poems from Buck Studies (2016) and his new collection Sho with introductions that function something like uneasy stand-up comedy, emphasizing the fundamental awkwardness of the poetry reading, of the linking of literacy, the literal, music and nonsense, as when he relates the history of scat singing in deliberately garbled fashion, complete with Louis Armstrong impression. These apparent ad-libs are not so much spontaneous throwaways as throwdowns challenging the bounds of occasion – the future emphasis of the live recording session – the question of who is listening and from where. Introducing “Manesology (After Charlottesville, but before it too, shit),” he relates an anecdote in which a white acquaintance requested an interview immediately after the white supremacist march held in Charlotesville, as if insight into the depredations of white supremacy could be best gained from an interrogation of Blackness rather than Whiteness itself. (“Look in the fucking mirror,” Kearney replies). As Kearney notes in his introduction to the first piece, “Deep Blue Boogie,” the emergence of new dances and musical forms, marketed as “novelty items,” has historically served both as tool of empowerment and reflection of the history of commodification that marks Black life in America – the first “novelty items” being the very bodies of slaves. With race itself is a constant performance, Black musical performance can both serve to challenge stereotype and to reinforce it, to be reincorporated by it, in a legacy of commodification that undergirds identity as such. Such performance might thus need to conceal as much as it exposes. “You’ve got to see” sings Kearney at one point, but on the record you can neither see nor hear Kearney’s staggering, silent dance – his own version of the commodified “novelty item” whose lineage his introduction has traced. Unfolding in gruesome silence over Jeanty’s eerily placid tuned percussion melody, its unsettling dynamic is only apparent in the video appended to the record’s Bandcamp release page. Other pieces likewise play on the disjunction between visual and oral, filling in details visible only on the page: when “Sho” détournes William Carlos Williams’ famous affirmation of poetic perception – “so much dep / ends / upon / dead _ _ _ _ _ _ _,” in a grim parody of the word game “Hangman,” Kearney underscores the grim irony by completing the lines from the poem with a half-whispered N-word. The punch-line in Kearney’s humor is, more often than not, deadly, offering little recompense, as the conditions of slavery’s afterlives threaten an all-consuming commodification. At one point, Kearney sings half a line of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” with compressed, satiric fury and pain: in no way redemptive or salvific, it refuses easy pathos, worrying at tradition, disrupting expectation. In such moments, like Mackey and the Creaking Breeze Ensemble, Kearney’s and Jeanty’s exploitation of the gaps between sound and page, introduction and poem, ad-lib and prepared statement, offer new ways of thinking about age-old wounds, words, sounds: razor-sharp, acidic, incontestable.
–David Grundy


Masabumi Kikuchi
Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording
Red Hook 1001

Here’s a trip to a fantasy land, not quite a dream world, but a misty place where piano melodies linger in slight disguise or else slip into digressions that wander into distant, curious realms. Kikuchi (1939-2015) was an eclectic pianist who in his younger days favored pretty post-bop, Vanguard-Bill Evansish music. Beginning in the 1970s he recorded fusion music on synthesizers too, but in his last decades he turned to solo piano. This farewell CD shows he’d arrived at a personal idiom, with its own free integrity somewhere between Paul Bley and inside jazz.

Kikuchi’s light touch and sensitivity to space and dynamics are unique. This album is six rubato pieces that open with isolated tones played by feathers, not fingers. Two different versions of “My Favorite Things” offer the two sides of Kikuchi. Take 2 is a very, very slow rubato piece out of which a condensed theme emerges; his improvised line then is a byway but also an intimate rumination as feelings move and alter. Take 1 is an opposite, a busy piece with just a scrap of theme embedded; rumbling bass vies with right-hand chords and melodic snatches, two contrary lines in motion. Kikuchi likes this two-hand rumbling-chiming opposition so much that he continues it in his “Improvisation.”

He’s not much of a melodic improviser, his real interest is in decorating, sometimes varying themes. In the other three pieces he slowly, slowly lingers on themes as he invents enhancements: very free, dissonant, cloudy chords; sudden, strange key changes; not much filigree. The theme of ”Ramona” doesn’t emerge until a third of the way through his musings. ”Summertime” includes clever distortions of the theme.  And the third ballad, the old Kikuchi original “Little Abi,” is the quietist, slowest rubato of all. Altogether, listening to this CD makes me feel like I’m peeping through a window, spying on his secret life.
–John Litweiler


George Lewis
The Recombinant Trilogy
New Focus Recordings FCR284

George E. Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy adds to the vocabulary of works for solo instrument and electronics – from Boulez and Nono to Lewis himself – in a series of works for solo flute, cello, and bassoon with electronics whose title suggests contemporary, cutting-edge genetic science: from the rDNA molecules on the cover art – combinations of genetic material from multiple sources, creating sequences not otherwise found in the genome – to genetic reshuffling – in which “novel sets of genetic information that can be passed from parents onto offspring” – to cosmological recombination, “the epoch at which charged electrons and protons first became bound to form electrically neutral hydrogen atoms ... about 370,000 years after the Big Bang.” For Lewis, we might suppose, these concerns are by no means separable from the political or the utopian, a kind of thinking exemplified in “Great Black Music, Ancient to Future.” Since the 1970s, Lewis has been concerned with the possibilities of technology, teaching himself computer programming in the late 1970s, premiering his first computer music piece in 1979, working at Paris’ IRCAM and Amsterdam’s STEIM, and developing “Voyager” – software that Paul Steinbeck suggests is both a “piece” and a musician. As he told Jeff Parker in 2005: “The main point for me was always using computers to create these alternate beings, a kind of animistic conception.” And, while all three works in The Recombinant Trilogy are through-composed, they evince what his liner notes call a “conversational aesthetic” and a concern for “non-linearity” and “uncertainty” that echoes improvisational virtues. Using software developed with Damon Holzborn, Lewis’ “recombinant” forms combine live, acoustic sounds with a virtual electronic ensemble whose hybrid sounds call to mind the work of improvisers and composers such as Lawrence Cassserley or Richard Barrett.

Opener “Emergent” is the shortest of the trilogy. Commissioned by flautist Claire Chase for her Density 2036 project, follows through on the doubleness of Varèse’s (acoustic) “Density 21.5” – which juxtaposes tonal and atonal melodic cells and registral contrasts in a kind of solo polyphony – turning solo instrument into virtual orchestra. Focusing in the main on high sounds – a chorus of twittering birds, with breath sounds in the mix reminding us that the flute is a tube filled with air – the most effective and surprising moments are those where the flute sounds least flute-like, instead like a winter’s wind or a chorus of barking, howling dogs. “Not Alone,”, saw previous release on the 2016 debut recording by cellist Seth Parker Woods. A dedication to Abdul Wadud, the title seems at once to invoke the eerie presence of extra-terrestrial life and spiritual comfort. Lewis envisages the electronics as mimicking Wadud’s ability to make the cello sound like any number of other acoustic instruments – from guitar to percussion – adopting New Music versions of Blues-based “worrying the line” practices, with the electronics worrying the acoustic cello line. Plucked figures around the 8:27 mark evoke Wadud’s characteristic bucolic pizzicato sound; other highlights include a passage of hovering harmonics around 16 minutes in, followed by a simple descending “sawing” figure put through various permutations in spiralling echo, a kind of endless descent. Commissioned by bassoonist Dan Jessen, Lewis places “Seismologic” in the tradition of American programme music – in which he includes Ives, Ellington, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, and the World Saxophone Quartet. The most straightforwardly dramatic of the trilogy, the piece opens with a repeating figure that Lewis transforms into an “ensemble” sound like something from German orchestral Romanticism, emphasizing the gloomy majesty of the instrument’s lower end before the bassoon soars into clean, high notes, and gnarly multiphonics. At the 7:30 mark, the electronics, combined with Jessen’s extended techniques, coax out sounds that have probably never been heard from a bassoon: insect swarms, synthesizers, or, as Lewis puts it, “alien geese”. Melodies at once galumphing, stomping, and melancholic alternate with grinding evocations of seismic forms, wheedling choirs of reversed and burbled sounds, and a beautiful conclusion whose slowly-dying echoes recall the hushed closing requiem of Homage to Charles Parker (1979).

When Lewis’ electronic experiments began, he was participating both in new, collective waves of Black improvised music and in the heady early days of personal computers and experiments with Artificial Intelligence. By the 1990s, he warned that the early possibilities of personal computers had been shoehorned by corporate interests in a discourse of false interactivity. Lewis’ argument is made all the more perspicacious than ever in Spring 2021, given the near-totalisation of such discourse, by the rise of social media, digital consumption, digital labour, and the digital replacement of social life during the moment of COVID-19 – not to mention the mass accumulation of private profit, data-hoarding, the digitally-driven gig economy, globalised exploitation in and beyond Foxconn factories, and all the rest. Work with advanced technology such as Lewis’ needs institutional support, but also risks being swallowed up by private or State interests, a dilemma that, of course, characterises the wider position of experimental position in general. Thus, if The Recombinant Trilogy’s references to genetic science and the Big Bang suggest expansive – even cosmic – possibilities, they are tempered by Lewis’ acute awareness of the politics behind such technology. In 1995, Lewis wrote: “artists are going to have to recreate any new technology for themselves, in an image that promulgates a freer, more open vision of human possibility ... I want to create my own fantasy, not be handed someone else’s to accept or reject. That’s what computers mean to me – the dream machine, the spirit catcher.” This new trilogy suggests something of what he might mean.
–David Grundy


James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet
Jesup Wagon
TAO Forms 05

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’ Jesup Wagon comes on the heels of his two excellent 2020 Intakt releases: the duo album Live in Willisau with drummer Chad Taylor and the quartet date Molecular. Featuring his Red Lily Quintet (Taylor, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, cellist Christopher Hoffman, and bassist William Parker), the record is Lewis’ appreciation and homage to the life and work of scientist, artist, musician, and educator George Washington Carver (1864-1943), who inspired Lewis as a child. On Jesup Wagon, context is key. The album title refers to the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, which Carver developed in 1906 as a sort of “moving school” designed to help poor farmers in Alabama learn new farming techniques. Each of the seven track titles directly reference Carver’s life and career. For example, “Experiment Station,” refers to research centers in late nineteenth-century college agriculture departments like the ones Carver worked at; “Lowlands of Sorrow” is how Carver described the area where Macon County, Alabama’s most destitute and marginalized citizens resided; while “Arachis” is taken from the Latin name for the peanut, with which Carver is often associated. Although the album’s inspiration and references are quite specific, the music isn’t programmatic. One doesn’t hear the Jesup Agricultural Wagon roll into town. It’s nothing so obvious or simple. Rather, one hears a stirring contemporary synthesis and performance of Black music in the broadest sense: of work songs and spirituals; of the call and response between preacher and congregation; of the cry of the blues and of Albert Ayler; of what Amiri Baraka called the “changing sameness” – the continuous manifestation and expression of the blues over time.

Lewis’ compositions have a folky buoyancy. The album opens with the title track, built on a lively statement reminiscent of Ornette’s brightest tunes. His tunes glow with a sense of unconstrained freedom. Lewis’ tenor playing is right out of the late-Coltrane, Ayler, and Ware tradition. His full-throated, capacious sound, which he modulates with a touch of vibrato, seems to carry with it the heft of the whole of the tradition. On “Jesup Wagon” he mixes in voice-like phrases with sheets of sound, intervallic leaps, and solitary bottom-end honks. He plays with an especially impassioned urgency on the solemn lament “Arachis.” The contrast between the frontline is most apparent here. Knuffke – who can seemingly play with anybody in any context – has a more compact sound and direct approach. The dynamic between the two is akin to the classic pairings of Ornette and Don Cherry and Albert and Donald Ayler. Knuffke is particularly inspired on “Experiment Station,” on which his surging lines ride above Hoffman, Parker, and Taylor’s churning sea. Throughout, the rhythm section provides a polyrhythmic and polyphonic base for the front line, with Parker and Taylor often moving between arco and pizzicato to vary timbre and texture.

The album concludes with “Chemurgy,” which refers to the 1930s movement to use organic materials for industrial uses of which Carver was a part. The tune features the most spirited exchanges between Lewis and Knuffke, while Parker’s switch to the gimbri – a three-stringed lute of the Gnawa people of Morocco – adds color and texture. The piece ends with Lewis’ recitation of one of his poems: “Embedded seeds crack through tormented shells of one color, giving birth to many hues/A storm is an ‘ism’ that tries to destroy that which was never bound by it/A seed never ran a race of its choosing/Before and after its displacement across miles of blues/It still blossoms.” If it wasn’t clear before, Lewis’ poem reminds the listener that this Jesup Wagon is a significant and weighty album to sit with and carefully consider, to patiently work through, to savor.
–Chris Robinson


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