Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Media

Sylvie Courvoisier + Mary Halvorson
Searching For The Disappeared Hour
Pyroclastic PR17

Two of the most distinctive and adventurous voices on the New York scene combine for their second program of duets on Searching For The Disappeared Hour. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier increasingly allies her command of free improvisation and new music inflected classicism with an idiosyncratic take on the jazz vernacular. In that she’s matched by Mary Halvorson, a guitarist who defies classification, as happy touching on spidery improv or art rock as standards from the tradition in a canny individual brew. While the duo’s 2017 debut Crop Circles was recorded early on in their association, with only a single concert under their belts, its successor features works composed expressly for the format, five from Halvorson, four from Courvoisier alongside three joint explorations. But regardless of who wields the pen, the outcomes are bursting at the seams with intricate not-quite harmonies, unexpected volte-faces and sudden unmoorings where everything you know is upended. Although the instrumentation suggests an intimate chamber quality, and to be sure it’s there some of the time, the reality is two distinct personalities in intense discourse, transcending the mechanics of how they get there.

And the writing encourages that sense of mischievous subversion as both promote opportunities for excursions into the weeds, in just under an hour of near constant dialogue. Having set up a construct, they take a palpable pleasure in disrupting it. On the pianist’s “Lulu’s Second Theorem,” repurposed from a piece for her acclaimed trio with Drew Gress and Kenny Wollesen, the rolling vamp and tolling key strokes support Halvorson as she extemporizes, but then both cut loose in a fragmentary exchange of sparse ripples, quivering tones, and pointillist stippling. The aching melody of Halvorson’s “Faceless Smears” (written while listening to the testimony of prospective Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh) unravels into rivulets and trills, before returning triumphantly though unresolved.

“We both have an affinity toward darkening things” says Halvorson in relation to the album. So while it may not have the immediacy of its predecessor, once you dig in an all engrossing soundworld awaits, one possessing the distorted logic of a dream. Though sometimes one tending towards nightmarish, as on the guitarist’s enigmatic, intermittently lyrical “Torrential” and the doomy chords and eerie guitar howls of Courvoisier’s ominous “Mind Out Of Time.” Halvorson pulls a rabbit out of the hat here with a passage which alternates scrubbed phrases with her signature FX, before mixing them all together in a magnificent mélange. The collective inventions further the uneasy mood, with “Four-Point Play” notable for its juxtaposition of spiky guitar and Courvoisier’s under-the-hood clanking, but also a guitar strum which evokes the ticking of a clock. The album title and artwork alludes to the paradoxical perception of time during the pandemic, a simultaneous slowing down and speeding up. This near hour’s worth of music taps into that disorientating duality too, but delivers an enlivening and enriching experience. Time spent, but far from wasted.
–John Sharpe


Whit Dickey + William Parker + Matthew Shipp
Village Mothership
Tao Forms TAO06

The backstory of Village Mothership spans three decades. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Whit Dickey were upstarts in the creative cultural renaissance happening in New York City’s Lower East Side. Bassist William Parker had been part of that fertile scene since the mid-70s; Shipp moved to the East Village in 1983 to play with Parker, while Dickey met Shipp at the New England Conservatory of Music in the mid-1980s, before moving to New York. By the early ‘90s all three were playing together in the David S. Ware Quartet.

Shipp made Circular Temple, his first piano trio recording with Parker and Dickey in 1990; issued on the Quinton imprint in 1992, it was put into wide release two years later by Infinite Zero, the reissue label founded by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin, distributed via Warner Bros. In its original review of Circular Temple, the Penguin Guide to Jazz characterized the trio of Shipp, Parker, and Dickey as “taking some clues from the avant-garde past while going their own way in dramatic fashion moment to moment.” That assessment also applies to the suite-like progression heard on their latest effort, Village Mothership.

Dickey, Parker, and Shipp have worked together in myriad configurations since Circular Temple was conceived, yet Village Mothership is their first studio recording as a trio since then, its title evoking the environment that fostered their artistic development. Dickey says, “I titled the album Village Mothership thinking about how the hot-house atmosphere of those days in New York City nurtured us.” Going back into the studio was proposed by Shipp, to document their rapport 30 years on. Unlike Circular Temple, which was made under Shipp’s leadership, this album was freely improvised by the trio.

Collectively, each member plays an equal role. Shipp’s chromatic cadences ebb and flow with his inimitable phrasing, whether transposing minimalist motifs into hypnotic ostinatos on “A Thing & Nothing,” or negotiating labyrinthine detours with deft precision on “Whirling In The Void.” Similarly, the recording presents a virtual catalog of Parker’s techniques, from plummy pizzicato and buzzing pedal tones to coruscating arco harmonics, the latter is spotlighted on the intense “Down Void Way.” Dickey cycles through rhythms with subtle restraint, providing understated support and melodious accents, especially on the stately opening of “A Thing & Nothing.” Dickey attributes his melodicism to Ware, who “wanted me to play the melody on the drum set,” he said. “I began to understand that that’s what jazz is all about.”

Although the music is fully improvised, recognizable themes and patterns emerge; thorny melodies, dusky harmonies, and primal grooves all cohere with surprising clarity. Veering from the impressionistic musings of “Nothing & A Thing” to the fervent swing of the title track, the group covers a vast dynamic range, demonstrating its improvisational prowess. Blurring the lines between accompanist and soloist, the sublime conversational interplay heard throughout the session confirms the trio’s uncanny chemistry.

Dickey said, “Just as Matt and I have developed a symbiotic musical relationship over so many years, so have Matt and William.” Reflecting on the camaraderie they forged decades ago, and how much they have each grown artistically, Dickey concludes, “I hope people can listen to Circular Temple and to Village Mothership and hear the creative evolution they represent.”
–Troy Collins


Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound Orchestra
The Other Shore
Out Note Records OTN 640

The Other Shore is the second album from trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, which is at the forefront of bringing the musical traditions of the West and the East together in a sophisticated and captivating fashion. Calling on a mix of friends, family members, long-time collaborators, and first-call veterans, ElSaffar bases the orchestra’s music on maqam, a system of microtonal heptatonic modes prevalent in the Middle East, northern Africa, south and east Europe, and central Asia. Rather than plugging in a simple or rote formula of having Eastern instruments play Western music, or vice versa, ElSaffar takes advantage of the juxtapositions that arise from the act of bringing diverse instruments and traditions together. Bowed strings – whether cello, violin, or joza – intermingle with guitar, buzuq, and multiple ouds. Hand drums and percussion spanning traditions and continents, all push forward. Cello paired with nay – an end-blown flute – creates a sound that would be unachievable had ElSaffar chosen a Boehm flute.

The Other Shore opens with “Dhuma,” which is introduced by ElSaffar’s vocalese over softly boiling percussion, jangling strings, and trilling clarinet. This introduction slowly grows, yielding to a grand homophonic statement shared across the ensemble. Lines sweep in, rise and fade, recede into memory. ElSaffar’s trumpet shines briefly, answered by a string counter statement. A whiff of tenor saxophone grows into a frenzied and sparkling solo. Here, and throughout the album, the music pulses and undulates, breathes with life. It moves with the spirit and energy of a large and harmonious family; differing points of view, yes, but also a joy in coming together. Each track is a journey. On “Transformations,” the destination seems to arrive as Naseem Alatrash’s cello, Zafer Tawil’s nay, percussion, and ElSaffar gracefully dance together. The scene changes, with a driving groove propelling JD Parran’s clarinet and a later return by ElSaffar. The sweeping and expansive “Reaching Upward” opens with counterpoint in winds and strings, and it is here where the sonic possibilities for the combinations of instruments and modes come to fruition. The timbres are radiant and glowing. It is as if a new part of the spectrum has become newly visible, just as hearing vibes alongside oud, woodwinds, and maqam vocalese will likely be a new experience for many listeners. While the focus throughout most of the album is the ensemble and the ways different voices and colors come to the fore at any moment, several cuts showcase soloists. “Concentric” features a big, bold snaking statement that bookends ElSaffar’s nimble and tingling solo on santur – an Iraqi hammered dulcimer. “Lightning Flash” is built around a driving and jagged line and features a slowly building solo from Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (a particularly resonant lute), and later simultaneous blowing from ElSaffar on trumpet and Ole Mathisen on tenor sax. The album closes with “Medmi,” a feature for Mohamed Saleh’s plaintive and lyrical English horn, which is set against the dry plucked notes of the oud and rich bowed strings. It’s these juxtapositions that make for striking and at times unexpected music. The Other Shore is a grand alchemy that works so well it seems perfectly natural, as if it was one of any number of groups playing music like this. That no other group that I’m aware of does just this speaks to the fact that ElSaffar and his bandmates have come up with something wholly sui generis.
–Chris Robinson


Morton Feldman
For John Cage
ezz-thetics 2-1036

Morton Feldman composed his homage to his friend John Cage in 1982 as a 70th birthday present. Written just four years before Feldman’s death, it was created for violinist Paul Zukofsky and pianist Aki Takahashi, both of whom had previously premiered his pieces. Like the composer’s later works, his use of motivic patterns seems to hover in timeless stasis, traversing subtle shadings over the course of expansive durations. Feldman wrote about these pieces, noting that “(t)he degree of stasis found in a Rothko or Guston, were perhaps the most significant elements I brought to my music from painting. For me stasis, scale, and pattern have put the whole question of symmetry and asymmetry in abeyance.” Like Patterns in a Chromatic Field or Crippled Symmetry, the homage works within gradual variations. In a letter Zukofsky wrote to Feldman, he stated “I can tell you that when playing your recent music, I feel very close to those rug-makers working away – first the border, the same stitch so many times, now a different strand, fewer times, now we start a pattern, it’s finished, a background ... the rug making explanation helps account for the tiny variations you play with in timing and intonation – the equivalent of the irregularities in a hand-sewn rug.”

Pianist Judith Wegmann and violinist Andreas Kunz expand the usual 70-minute readings to a full 90 minutes, relishing in the measured interaction of piano and violin. Notes pass back and forth between the instruments with the sharp attack and long decay of piano notes shimmering against the restrained partials of the violin arco. In his liner notes, Christopher Fox points out that “this music is made up of just a few handfuls of notes and intervals, a succession of sounds, consistently very quiet, that gradually threads its way through time.” For the most part, both parts are restricted to one stave and played between piano or pianissimo. In their reading, the two dive deeply into the focused harmonic and dynamic range of the piece. Over the course of 90 minutes, one becomes absorbed into patient beauty of Feldman’s tonal and rhythmic abstractions as motifs are introduced and methodically inverted across the parts for both instruments.

By this point, the composer had honed his exploration of the unsettled micro-variations in intervals and rhythms over gradually unfolding duration. Details continually emerge and are then subsumed over the course of the piece, playing on glimmers of memory. Piano and violin are circumspect partners throughout and Wegmann and Kunz immerse themselves in that alliance. There is a meditative dialectic to their performance, delving deeply into ways in which the two parts develop in relation to each other. While the piece may float in slowly evolving sections, particularly in the later third, there are sections of more angular activity and strident tonal intersections which the two embrace with aplomb, reveling in the enveloping structure. Their keen consideration and diligence has resulted in a reading of For John Cage that finds new inroads which reveal discerning subtleties in Feldman’s score.
–Michael Rosenstein


Joe Harriott Quintet
Free Form & Abstract Revisited
ezz-thetics 2-1117

Free Form and Abstract, seminal albums by Joe Harriott, are also key communiqués of the bebop international – distinct sounds of a revolutionary insurgency launched in wartime Harlem and spread by contagion across the world’s urban centers over the following decades. In the postwar period, as the empires of the old world were overthrown, bebop travelled along routes dictated by commerce and colonialism in the form of shellac 78s and musicians. But the music itself was neither dulled nor determined by these forces: its anti-assimilationist non-conformism – derived from the black modernist stance of the musicians that invented it – gave bebop a charge that rubbed off on musicians in the unlikeliest of places (as Eric Hobsbawm put it, ‘[t]he fact that British working-class boys in Newcastle play ... [jazz] is at least as interesting as and rather more surprising than the fact that it progressed through the frontier saloons of the Mississippi valley’). One incandescent vector for the rapid morphology of bebop was alto saxophonist and composer Joe Harriott. Following in the footsteps of fellow Jamaican beboppers Dizzy Reece and Sam Walker (who sailed to the UK on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948), Harriott travelled from Kingston to Europe with Ossie Da Costa’s band in 1951, alighting in London and deciding to forego the rest of tour and set up in the capital. A decade of playing in a wide variety of settings culminated in perhaps his two most celebrated releases, the aforementioned Free Form (recorded in a single session in 1960) and Abstract (recorded over two sessions sixth months apart in November 1961 and May 1962).

Reissued as part of HatHut’s ongoing Revisited series, this double-CD comes with liner notes by Brian Morton, who parses the relative revolutionary credentials of the music in formal terms. The comparison with Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet is weighed and found somewhat wanting. “‘Calypso’ on the first album and Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on the second are the real pointers to who Harriott was,” states Morton. While there may be a degree of truth to this, asking us to “[l]ook past the more forbidding” modernistic titles on the two albums in order get at what Morton seems to imply might be the Caribbean core of the music risks privileging essence over total effect (not to mention the musicians’ intentions).

Listening to the music, and turning once again to the comparison with early Ornette Coleman, there is something fascinating about this differently mutated bebop unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike the uncanny melodic counter-intuitions of Coleman’s jagged, motivic lines, Harriott’s harmonically untethered solos seem to move along more modal routes. The overall feeling is one of urgent drift. The composed heads on these albums are often intricate, each instrument playing a carefully constructed through-line balanced and contrasted against the rest (“Coda” is a good example). Dynamics also play a striking role, the horns extending from the meekest whisper to the brashest blast at the flick of a switch. Even the improvised interactions have a composed feeling to them, such as, for example, the raindrop effect created by sax, trumpet, and piano that sprinkles over Coleridge Goode’s bass solo on “Impression.” Even where the improvised interaction is more extended and freewheeling, such as on “Calypso,” the voices – particularly those of Harriott and Shake Keane – achieve a high degree of unity that blurs the edges of the “solo” as such. On the second album “Oleo” is indeed a highlight, Harriott’s brooding deconstruction sweetened by Keane’s slick squawking, the whole building towards the deferred melodic statement at the end (not a recapitulation but instead a fulfilling sort of capitulation). These records are both strong standalone works and important pieces of the international puzzle that bebop became.
–Gabriel Bristow


> More Moment's Notice

> back to contents