issue 25 :: January 2015

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Jazz & Improvised Music Reviews

Urge Trio, Mike Khoury & Piotr Michalowski, Blip, Tetuzi Akiyama & Anla Courtis, Ben Bennett & Jack Wright, Jemeel Moondoc, Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey, Duck That, Sun Ra
Mike Khoury & Piotr MichalowskiREASON SOUND SOUND REASON (Abzu Recordings) CD

* Energetic duos from violinist Mike Khoury and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Piotr Michalowski, two of the mainstays of the Detroit, Michigan improvised music scene. The music mainly plays as two solos from long-time collaborators, each challenging the other to keep up, as when Khoury lets loose a jaunty jig on the piece “Cause” or the languid, floating melodic lines of “Swish.” Interesting and beautiful throughout, most of the playing is slow and deliberately paced, eschewing flash for melodic content.
BlipCalibrated (Splitrec) CD

* Saxophonist Jim Denley continues his documentation of the rich, creatively-improvised music scene in Australia via his Splitrec label. Here he teams up with bassist Mike Majkowski, whom we’ve heard previously in the Splinter Orchestra. Solid, introspective playing throughout, breathy sounds linger over deep grumbles, reed pops and string buzzes, long tones entering our ears. These three pieces, “Pod,” “Oat” and “Branes,” were the culmination of previous unsuccessful attempts to record a duo record together. With this kind of improvised music that uses many forms of acoustic extended techniques, one may think just about anything would be suitable or good enough. And for fans of sonic adventures, maybe that is true, but these recordings display a nice restraint, long spaces left for quiet sounds or nothing. Note: “Branes” may refer to the multi-dimensional spaces in String Theory that descibe subsections of our theoretical 10 (or 11) dimensional reality. Our normal 3D world could be a 3-brane in the larger picture and intersections of branes could explain certain puzzling issues in physics, such as why gravity is so weak compared to other forces. Gravity could leak over to other branes... this is all still very theoretical. And maybe branes means something different to the musicians.
Tetuzi Akiyama & Anla CourtisNaranja Songs (Public Eyesore) CD

* These two veteran guitarists, one from numerous collaborations and the other from his long-time association with Reynols, take up acoustic guitars for a set of four excursions into string noises, scrapy rhythms, bowed notes and at times pretty chords and arpeggios. Comparisons with the acoustic guitar parts of Gastr del Sol are not out of place; there is a strand of minimalism in terms of repetition that weaves through the playing, such as the two chords that repeat and seem to slow in “Los Frets Nomades.” Parts of this are exquisite from two musicians who are known for louder forays into sound.
Ben Bennett & Jack WrightTangle (Public Eyesore) CD

* In 1987, the cassette Everybody Loves Texas was released, documenting that year’s duo with saxophonists Jack Wright and Andreas Stehle at Austin’s famous country/blues club the Continental Club (I can only remember seeing Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy there!). What did 1987 Austin think of the then less known improvising musician? I. Don’t. Know. Since then Wright has continued to explore the world seeking collaborators in his free improvisation exploits, including Bob Marsh, Fred Lonberg-Holm, John Berndt, John M. Bennett and many others on dozens and dozens of releases (including one recorded at my old home WHPK in Chicago), an immense catalog of mainly American experimental free improvisers. On Tangle, Wright teams with percussionist Ben Bennett—son of Fluxus poet John M. Bennett I just found out—who uses various small objects, bowls, boxes and other objects, as opposed to a standard kit. The pitter patter of these objects being tapped and rubbed fit the title of one of the tracks, “Bogus Ferret.” Wright’s constant flutter of multiphonics, wails, honks displays an intense creativity on the alto and soprano saxophones. In his 70s, Wright continues to explore and advance his craft. Wright also writes about creative music and its cultural and commercial implications.
Jemeel MoondocThe Zookeeper’s House (Relative Pitch) CD

Jemeel Moondoc is one of my favorite jazz musicians. Can I even explain why? There is something comforting about his tone on the alto saxophone, something about the wise yet bold courses he’s charted since the 1970s, something elevating about his music. All five tracks on this record are propelled by Hilliard Greene on bass and Newman Taylor on drums. Matthew Shipp guests on piano for two originals, and Roy Campbell, Jr. and Steve Swell play trumpet and trombone on an original and also Alice Coltrane’s “Ptah, the El Daoud.” Who covers Alice Coltrane these days?! As can be expected from the title, this piece has a lush, Middle-Eastern feel to it. This must have been one Campbell’s last sessions before he passed away last year. The playing is excellent throughout, harkening back to the days of steady, quality hard bop releases, especially the huge sounding theme played by the reed and brass on “Little Blue Elvira.” A great 2014 interview with Moondoc appears on the online music blog Burning Ambulance.
Ingrid Laubrock & Tom RaineyAnd Other Desert Towns (Relative Pitch) CD

There are many interesting musicians in Austin, Texas and we are rarely without worthwhile music to see live, but we are also off the beaten path and sometimes we are ignored by musicians that would of course play in Chicago and Seattle, especially jazz musicians. PG Moreno of Epistrophy Arts and Dave Dove of Nameless Sound in Houston do an incredible of bringing great jazz to Texas. I was familiar with Tom Rainey’s name (from Tim Berne’s bands?) before a 2014 Austin appearance from this saxophone and drums duo, but had never heard Laubrock before listening to the samples of her work on her web page to prepare for their concert. There’s just so much music available and I can never keep up with everyone. Laubrock plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and excels at a rich, melodic sensibility perfect for a duo setting. Her playing style, especially during the piece “Lost Creek,” reminds me a bit of Anthony Braxton’s mid-1970s style, playing through tiny cells of melody with a pleasant tone. Rainey’s drumming is the perfect accompaniment, ranging from a swinging beat when needed, to more diffuse cymbal and extended techniques on quieter passages.
The Urge TrioLive in Toledo (Veto-Records) CD

* Michael Reid’s Loose Assembly from Chicago was another group brought to Austin in 2014 that I greatly enjoyed, not the least from their endearing Sun Ra medley. Saxophonist Keefe Jackson and cellist Tomeka Reid from that group join Swiss saxophonist Christoph Erb as the Urge Trio. Jackson and Erb also double on bass clarinets and are separated on different stereo channels. The long track “Upward, behind the onstreaming” (from the first line of Delaney’s Dhalgren, if I’m not mistaken) [I am mistaken: it is actually from Borges. -Ed.] barrages us with squeals, flutters, nervous twitterings, intense eruptions of sound, all fighting amongst themselves. This joyous display of technique constantly upseats and upstages the other players, constantly challenging themselves and us.
Duck ThatEggs (Yolk) CD

This strange trio consists of two saxophonists who both double on bass clarinet (just like the above release!) with Angela Sawyer from Weirdo Records store in Boston on “voice, synth, game calls, toys.” The saxophonists also play game calls, so a cacophony of squeals, squeaks, long tones, numerous noises recalling John Zorn’s Archery record is to be expected. And welcomed. It is a joyous noise, especially the track “() () (() ()(( ))() ()((( ))( ))() ()(()) (” [which, if they knew me, I’d take offense at, as I despise song titles containing parentheticals. -Ed.]
Sun RaCry of Jazz (Atavistic) DVD

This is not a Sun Ra release, but rather Sun Ra and band providing music and film footage for a 1959 film about race and jazz by Edward O. Bland. As LeRoi Jones would argue a few years later in his book Black Music, jazz is Black music (“Negro music” in the film, the accepted term at the time) that is constant co-opted by White musicians and critics. This confrontational stance is understandable given the apalling fact that at the time, Chet Baker was selling more albums than Miles Davis. God damn, that’s embarrassing, and something, among other sins, America will always have to answer to. The film explains jazz in terms of black life at the time, juxtopistioning filmed sectons of black people on the streets of Chicago and in their churches with close-up images of Sun Ra and band playing general examples of hard bop. Jazz is made of two things, the film explains: the never-ending changes, chord progressions forming the back bone of a jazz piece which corresponds to the never-ending daily struggle of the black person in America; and then the free-spirited improvisation of the soloist, which corresponds to the celebration of life in-the-moment which characterizes black speech, “walking” and church life. To prove his point, Bland constrasts the Sun Ra Arkestra playing (and in 1959, Sun Ra’s band was an amazing band) with a recording of an unnammed white jazz band who ooze with tepid blandness. Hardly a fair fight. Let’s pit 1959 Nat King Cole with 1959 Bill Evans and see what happens. The argument is simplistic, and seems to want to restrict black creativity to something “black” as some whites want to restict blacks in other ways: what about Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, a very interesting record that can be seen as the birth of Third Stream music, and it sounds kinda white. Pianist Anthony Davis (at a much later date) has expressed his passion for Italian opera and his desire to compose music like that: is he any less “black” for that? But the film operates on broad generalities to give credit to the important, vital, amazing contributions the black Americans have given us, often with little financial and critical awards, and that is an important, necessary lesson to be told. It’s a shame Sun Ra and band are only featured as nameless players and aren’t presented as people, as individual jazz musicians with their individual stories and approaches to jazz. I don’t think Sun Ra, an accomplished pianist who can comp with the best of them, would refer to changes as never-ending drudgery. I’d rather hear from the players what they thought jazz was, how they approached it, how free they felt in playing it, what decisions they had to make to play the music they played. Regardless, watch it yourself and see what you think. Supposedly, this is the only known film footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra from their early days in Chicago.
Reviews by Josh Ronsen.
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