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Gordon Grdina’s Square Peg
Attaboygirl ABG-2

Over the past decade, Vancouver-based composer, guitarist, and oud stylist Gordon Grdina has emerged as one of Canada’s most prolific musicians. Integrating Arabic forms with Western creative improvised music, Grdina has issued a series of uncategorizable releases on numerous independent labels. Working with an international contingent of forward-thinking musicians, Grdina is well-known for his unique output, which includes releases by his eponymous Quartet with Oscar Noriega, Russ Lossing, and Satoshi Takeishi; the trio Nomad with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black; his string-dominated Septet; and the Arabic music ensemble Haram.

All that activity has inspired Grdina to form his own label, Attaboygirl Records, as an outlet for ongoing projects and new collaborations. With plans to eventually release the work of fellow artists, Attaboygirl’s inaugural releases include the solo effort Pendulum, and Klotski, the studio debut of the quartet Square Peg, featuring Grdina on electric guitar and oud, Mat Maneri on viola, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Moog, and Christian Lillinger on drums. Pendulum is Grdina’s third solo album, featuring introspective pieces for classical guitar and oud that explore the harmonic commonalities between Western and Arabic traditions; there’s a palpable tranquility to most of the cuts – Klotski is the inverse. Blurring the line between the written and the composed, Klotski is a continuous suite in eight parts, which employs modular pieces linked by collective improvisations that can be introduced by any member of the group.

Klotski opens gradually with the impressionistic “Impending Discomfort” until a hypnotic bass figure interlocks with a steady hi-hat/snare pattern, spurring on Grdina’s jagged fretwork and Maneri’s richly hued dissonances. Dark tonalities also appear on “Bacchic Barge,” which unfolds in equally ethereal fashion before bowed bass shades the balladic proceedings and a reverie rises among intertwined strings and scintillating percussion. The moody atmospherics of Ismaily’s synth and Lillinger’s shuffling backbeat similarly underpin the noir vibe of “Sulfur City” aided by Grdina’s scorching refrain and Maneri’s bowed countermelody, before oscillating Moog and spiky guitar materialize. “Kaleidoscope” boasts a guitar ostinato in seven supporting Maneri’s sinewy pleas and Lillinger’s spasmodic polyrhythms, while the insistent guitar line of “Sore Spot” offers a comparable vibe, its brooding eeriness diverges from the lightness of “Joy Ride,” an uplifting finale that fuses prog rock and Eastern sounds.

The music of Square Peg has an ageless appeal, courtesy of the contrast between the plugged-in amplification of electric guitar and Moog synthesizer and the centuries-old acoustics of oud and viola. Whether basing his work on the electric guitar’s futuristic tonality or the oud’s ancient timbre, Grdina’s eclectic approach has matured into a singular style. Bolstered by his esteemed associates, Klotski offers a persuasively modernist fusion of Eastern and Western idioms, exploring the panoramic scope of a vast musical terrain with clarity and lyricism.
–Troy Collins


Rich Halley
Pine Eagle 014

Portland-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has long had an abiding interest in snakes; he received an M.S. in biology from the University of New Mexico, where he studied rattlesnakes as a field biologist. The title of his new album, Boomslang, comes from a Dutch term for a venomous snake indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa. Halley has known about the Boomslang since childhood, when he learned that noted herpetologist Karl Schmidt was killed by one. The Boomslang, Halley states, “is a snake in the imagination that continues to manifest in new and unforeseen forms.”

Boomslang presents a new iteration of Halley’s working quartet. Recorded in Portland in December 2019 and issued on Halley’s own Pine Eagle Records, it features longstanding collaborator Clyde Reed on bass and son Carson Halley on drums, with Los Angeles-based cornetist Dan Clucas serving as Halley’s frontline partner for this session, instead of regular trombonist Michael Vlatkovich. Leading with vim and vigor, Halley’s husky tenor telegraphs myriad antecedents, bopping along with Coleman Hawkins’ breathy lyricism one moment, only to explode into gruff tirades that recall Archie Shepp the next. Clucas makes an apt foil, complementing and contrasting Halley’s flinty cadences with pointed ruminations, while Reed and the young (Carson) Halley’s elastic rhythms blur the lines between notated charts and unscripted innovation.

The album’s cooperatively composed pieces fracture in myriad directions, although in Halley’s oeuvre everything – even spontaneous improvisations – swings. The boisterous “Corroboration” opens the set with the muscular interplay of Halley and Clucas. Foreshadowing the shifts between freedom and form that dominate the session, the tune careens through dynamic changes, culminating in a solemn coda. Clucas and Carson set the conversational tone for “Situational,” while Halley and Clucas weave intricate lines throughout the episodic “Dispholidus.” Halley and Reed establish a pensive mood on “Intermittent” before “The Converse” presents Halley and Clucas at their most animated. Among Halley’s compositions, Carson’s tribal toms define “Northern Plains,” while Halley’s curt phrasing evokes Joe Henderson. Halley works up additional lather during “The Drop Off” and “The Lean” builds from Reed’s groovy bass figure, although the quartet ventures into even more groove-oriented territory on “Quintuplify.”

Alternating between original tunes and collective improvisations, the date nonetheless maintains stylistic coherence; the group excels at non-idiomatic experiments, but swing is the unit’s forte, even at its most unstructured. Although this is Clucas’ first recording with Halley, the congenial rapport the cornetist shares with his working trio gives the impression they have been performing together for years. Boomslang is another winning example of Halley’s small ensemble aesthetic, fitting seamlessly into his extensive discography despite the change in personnel.
–Troy Collins


Martin Iddon
Another Timbre at179

Sapindales is Leeds-based composer Martin Iddon’s second release for Another Timbre, following 2014’s pneuma. Like that earlier release, this new one expands upon Iddon’s fascination with extending Renaissance forms through a modernist sense of polyphony and the mutability of timbres and tonality. When talking about his earlier release, the composer noted that “I do, mind you, like musical puzzles, both in a sort of ‘early music’ sense and in the ways in which David Tudor set out to ‘solve’ Cage’s scores, and both of those things occur in some of my music, whether it’s a puzzle I’ve already worked through in the process of composing or one where elements remain unsolved, to be handed on to the performer.” This time out, Iddon hands these “puzzles” to clarinetist Heather Roche for a program that features her on a full range of the clarinet family in solo, duo, and trio settings. Due to COVID restrictions, parts for the duo and trio pieces were recorded separately and then combined, accentuating the independently layered nature of the scores. In each of the four pieces, Roche’s virtuosic command of the extended vocabulary of her instrument and focus on the nature of dialogue within performer-composer relationships make for riveting performances.

The set starts with “Muses” for clarinet and voice, loosely based on the vocal motets of 16th century composer Nicolas Gombert. For the vocal part, Iddon explains that he used the same statistical distribution of vowels and consonants as the source material, but randomly reordered them, resulting in an abstracted text that is imbued with a sense of language bereft of denotation. Both Juliet Fraser’s vocal parts and Roche’s clarinets are multi-tracked, creating circuitous layering of intersecting long tones and sliding glisses. Fraser’s vocals leap from a hushed, discursive range soaring to upper soprano heights. Roche’s clarinet meshes seamlessly, from warm chalumeau to pure-pitched upper register, tinged at times with burred overtones. “tu as navré” for bass and contrabass clarinets, Anton Lukoszevieze on cello, and James Opstad on double bass is derived from the pitch material of a piece by 15th century composer Johannes Ockeghem. Here, the low-register countering of double bass with the darkest reaches of contrabass clarinet and warm tonalities of cello and bass clarinet meld into an entrancing performance of dusky musings. The timbral qualities of strings and wind instruments are complemented by the sound of breath, patter of keys, string harmonics, and collective microtonal shadings as the three musicians weave the sonorous lines into a rich aural tapestry.

The solo pieces “Ptelea” and “Sapindales” were written expressly for Roche and the clarinetist revels in the “unsolved puzzles” of Iddon’s pieces. “Ptelea,” for solo bass clarinet, seems the most straightforward of the pieces on the disc. But Iddon has structured the score as four separate lines layered on top of each other which are played at the same time. One would never guess that structure from Roche’s reading, redolent with glissandi, pops, and resonant bass tones. “Sapindales,” which closes out the disc, is the longest piece on the recording at just over 21-minutes and takes a different tact than the preceding pieces. Opening with a recording of the twitter of bird calls, Roche’s multi-tracked clarinet parts, making use of a broad range of the clarinet family, weave their way through a lush, naturalistic field recording that Iddon captured at a nature reserve near his house. The clarinet lines layer, converge, and open up to let the field recording move in and out of focus. That slowly shifting intermingling of clarinet lines, the sounds of birdsong, and an undercurrent of city sounds wend through the piece. Again, the clarinet parts heavily utilize glissandi, quavering overtones, and shadings of breath sounds, providing an ethereal ambiance to the composition. What makes all of this so fully absorbing is how Roche has completely internalized extended techniques for clarinet into her playing, with nothing sounding forced or contrived. Kudos to Simon Reynell and Another Timbre for the stalwart dedication to finding lesser-known composers and pairing them with musicians who seize the opportunities to explore their works.
–Michael Rosenstein


Mike Kuhl + Dave Ballou + John Dierker + Luke Stewart
OOYH Untamed OOYH U007

As little as it’s acknowledged, free improvising long since became standard jazz practice, barely more exotic than playing modal. It came in from the “avant-garde” fringe. The Jarrett Peacock DeJohnette trio gets much of the credit. In 2000 Kenny Barron and Regina Carter improvised the title track to their duo album Freefall; it fit right in with all the pieces. That same month, a Dave Ballou quintet (with Billy Drewes, Tony Malaby, Mike Formanek, and Tom Rainey) instant-composed the album On This Day (SteepleChase), where their free music unfolded like a well-organized jazz date, with melody, harmony, solos, trades, change-ups, and tidy endings. The two-horns/two-rhythm quartet KRAFT is scrappier but has a similar feel for giving improvisations shape and an arc.

Like much contemporary free jazz, this hourlong February 2021 live set is gloriously coherent. Improvisers mostly learn on the job, regularly reinventing wheels. But they also have a century of proven techniques for (spontaneously) organizing material available for listening, ideas that seep in all over, indirectly and unconsciously. Around 18-and-a-half minutes into the digital album KRAFT’s 23-minute marathon “Ageless One” – after a couple of slow ascents to intense blowouts, and some ratty horn interplay over fast swing rhythm or open time, after the quartet has settled into something like a syncopated ballad – John Dierker’s tenor saxophone slides in behind trumpet, with a shapely background line, repeated and paraphrased. It’s a perfect gesture, not least for its (presumably unintended) echo of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s (scripted) sauntering rideout on “Dreaming of the Master.”

Horn players Ballou and Dierker and drummer and organizer Mike Kuhl had honed their interplay long-term, playing tunes on Kuhl’s (now concluded) weekly residency at a Baltimore Fells Point bar. The drummer has a springy beat, a swing feel he isn’t shy about displaying in a free context, and a quick responsiveness that eggs the others on in an approving way. Kuhl had been particularly keen to rope DC-bred/ultra-busy Luke Stewart into their circle, and he’d played that bar gig at least once, on electric bass. He fits in very well here, plucking or bowing acoustic, albeit in a deliberately unobtrusive way. Stewart mixed the album (from a very good recording by Andrew Bowman at Baltimore’s An Die Musik, which streamed this February 2021 set) and places himself low in the mix, the better to meld bass with the drums’ dark timbres.

After a year of enforced woodshedding, Ballou’s chops are iron. He’ll use staccato articulation to keep an ensemble beat firmed up, throw in broad upward leaps, long glisses like failing metal-on-metal bus brakes, and jagged climbing arpeggios, and do it all with an unfailingly playful spirit: he helps set the often jubilant tone. Baltimore’s John Dierker is the kind of classic stay-at-home who out-of-town visitors rave about (or, shaken, try to block out of mind): a game, flexible tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist with rocking momentum, and a winning combination of assertive howling tone and reticence to hog attention. He knows when to lay out in intense passages, if just to take things higher when he leaps back in. He and Ballou don’t play over each other – even when they overlap, they’re in dialogue, making room. Dierker’s sound is so variable, so plastic, sometimes when he sneaks in you can’t immediately identify his sound as a reed.

Kuhl starts “Stick and Move” solo with a full-kit press, busy and clear. His cymbal rhythms are kinetic and varied at a fast tempo; there’s no time for (or inclination toward) ching-a-ching cliches. Halfway through that piece there’s a tongue-and-groove rhythm duo section, Kuhl blamming the toms, Stewart in a subterranean rumble, propulsive all the way. And then Dierker layers on exhortatory tenor dabbed with thick multiphonics. After an opening drum solo on “A Real Mensch,” the hint of a bugle call from Ballou sets things in motion: a short clear statement by two horns and melodic bass, ending in a long-tone caesura. Then short paraphrases of what they’d just played: a five-minute gem. A joyful racket often breaks out in these proceedings, but it may not last: better to keep the textures, rhythms and the density changing, to hear what’s around the next bend.
–Kevin Whitehead


Joëlle Léandre
At Souillac en Jazz Live in Calès’ Church
Ayler AYLCD-169

This live solo performance comes from the July 2021 Souillac en Jazz festival. It was recorded in L’Église Saint-Jacques in Calès, a town of less than 200 in Southwestern France, by Christian Pouget as part of a film he’s making about Léandre’s solo music. One is tempted to associate the old church named for Saint Jacques (in French), Saint James (in English) and Santiago (in Spanish) with its proximity to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, but it probably isn’t necessary to link the fierce spirituality of the region with the fierce and quite non-denominational, though no doubt in part regional, occasional, specific spiritual force imbued in this recording.

There is a kind of distortion of scale here, as if Léandre’s bass were a transcendent instrument, a grail bass, granted a special emotional fluency and intensity, as if one had somehow come upon the bass equivalent of the guitar portrayed in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist from his blue period, the subject of Wallace Stevens’ similarly canonical The Blue Guitar,

                   ... “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

but the bass made still larger by the continuum of the bow, the absence of frets.

The performance begins with a special insistence, motifs emerging in the instrument’s middle and upper register, with sudden bow slashes to the lower strings that impact – resonate – like a muezzin’s call to prayer, before various phrases appear, among them double and triple stops in the upper register, the short phrases repeating and altering, constructing a complex presence. Much of the music will evade description, but its emotional or spiritual focus is a constant. “Cales II” suggests sighs, while the gritty, slightly wheezing harmonics of “Calès III” initially mimic the circular song of a harmonium or hurdy-gurdy with gradual introduction of percussive knocking and a voice that seems drenched in Romany song and blues, even with a strange touch of rockabilly.

When Léandre’s voice later joins the bass in a plea, a call, a chant, a spell, a seeming conversational addendum, it comes not as a mere musical device or expansion, but as something summoned up by the space, the music, the bass, the room, a perfectly natural extension, emerging most powerfully on “Calès VI.” Christian Pouget’s liner description of Léandre’s performance (“evocative of a North American medicine woman, an Inuit shaman, voodoo priestess or even blues woman ... she awakens a thousand-year-old buried ‘collective unconscious’ with her voice of trance ...”) will do nothing to diminish this view. This is music meant for full ear immersion, not critical detachment.

Though its emotional range is broader and its themes and stages more developed, for sheer emotional power one might have to go to Charles Mingus’ 1957 recording of Haitian Fight Song to hear a bass with comparable emotional power. Perhaps not coincidentally, as I suddenly recall (this is listening in depth), I first encountered the Mingus track 60 years ago in an edited form on an Atlantic blues sampler, The Blues in Modern Jazz that reproduced Picasso’s The Old Guitarist on the cover.
–Stuart Broomer


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