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Category: ambient music

Rafiq Bhatia Brings His Surreal Soundscapes to a Summer Series in Midtown

It’s hard to think of a guitarist who personifies the state of the art in ambient jazz more individualistically or interestingly than Rafiq Bhatia. He’s just as much at home reinventing Mary Lou Williams tunes with his longtime collaborator Chris Pattishall as he is creating an immersive electronic swirl. Bhatia’s next gig is outdoors at Bryant Park at 7 PM on August 19.

Bhatia had the good fortune to release his most recent album, Standards Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – in January of 2020. It’s a characteristically outside-the-box series of interpretations of iconic jazz tunes. He opens it by transforming In A Sentimental Mood into a disquieting series of sheets of sound, running Riley Mulherkar’s trumpet and Stephen Riley’s tenor sax through several patches including an icy choir effect.

Cécile McLorin Salvant sings The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with alternatingly coy charm and outright menace, enhanced electronically by Bhatia’s minimalist textural washes. The only track that Bhatia plays guitar on here is Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, which he reinvents as an utterly desolate, surrealistically looped, raga-tinged nightscape, Craig Weinrib a fugitive on the run with his palms on the drum heads. The two horns take it out with a dusky wee-hours conversation.

The album’s final number is The Single Petal of a Rose, Pattishall’s spare, raindrop piano licks subtly processed (and maybe cut and pasted) to flit into and out of the sonic picture. It’s a prime example of how Bhatia builds a space to get lost in.

Trumpeter Nate Wooley Tackles the Deceptively Simple Challenges of a Michael Pisaro-Liu Solo Piece

It’s rare that an album of music for a solo wind instrument is of much interest to anyone beyond those who play it. There are notable exceptions. Wadada Leo Smith has put out several breathtakingly beautiful solo trumpet albums. Peter Evans’ solo trumpet work is more spectacularly breathtaking (and electronically enhanced). And Natsuki Tamura’s solo trumpet albums are a lot of fun for those who appreciate his renegade extended technique and irrepressible sense of humor.

Nate Wooley is probably not the first trumpeter you’d think of doing a solo record, especially considering his dense and bracing recent output with his Columbia Icefield project. But he has a solo album (for trumpet and sinewave), a recording of Michael Pisaro-Liu’s longform, minimalist composition Stem-Flower-Root. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although there’s a live version from 2017 up at Soundcloud. The calm and unhurried development of the work might be reflected in Wooley’s upcoming gig on July 5 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery, where he’s playing with Cuban saxophonist Hery Paz and drummer Tom Rainey. Jazz bassist Henry Fraser and Americana violinist Cleek Schrey make an intriguing duo afterward at 7:30; it’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

Pisaro-Liu’s work requires Wooley to sustain a series of simple tones using subtly different timbral approaches, and a changing series of mutes. If a reveille or fanfare could exist on Pluto, this triptych would be both. But it’s not all warmly immersive reflection: there are a few moments where the harmonies edge into unexpectedly acerbic territory, and there’s a joke about two thirds of the way in which, intentional or not, is too good to spoil.

The album also comes with a chapbook designed by Jessica Slaven, where in similarly uncluttered prose, Pisaro-Liu raises many provocative philosophical questions. Some are eternal, some more specific to the piece. To what extent does the architecture of musical composition mirror the symmetry of nature? Can a composition, or for that matter, a whole genre, have a genuine personality? What improbable practical lessons can be gleaned from music as rigorously structured and focused, yet as comfortably atmospheric as this?

The composer and performer also share an interesting dialogue concerning both the nuts and bolts of playing it, along with some of the philosophical ramifications.

A Gorgeously Drifting, Lynchian Album With a Tragic Backstory

New York instrumentalists SussNight Suite album, released earlier this year, was a gorgeously evocative, drifting travelogue akin to the recent Freedom Convoy, tracing a highway trip from New Mexico to the California desert. The equally picturesque sequel, Heat Haze – streaming at Bandcamp – continues the journey in a similarly southwestern yet less gothic vein. Tragically, one of the band members only appears on this road trip in a metaphorical sense. Keyboardist Gary Lieb died suddenly in March of last year shortly after wrapping up recording, just as so many musicians have in the wake of the lethal Covid injections. It’s not known what role, if any, that may have played in his untimely death.

In a cruel stroke of irony, Lieb’s floating synth plays a major role throughout the record, mingling with the guitars of Pat Irwin and Bob Holmes and the pedal steel of Jonathan Gregg. It’s often impossible to figure out who’s playing what, beginning with the slowly shifting, tectonic ambience of the title track, at least until Gregg’s steel and a few low, ominous reverb-guitar notes come into focus over the horizon.

Lieb’s keyboards pulse hypnotically behind spare, loopy acoustic and electric riffs in the second track, aptly titled Shimmer. Gregg’s steel takes centerstage over gentle acoustic strums and the occasional low clang in Grace: the group seem to be emerging into more populated territory by now.

Lieb layers calmly circling layers beneath reverb riffs that pan the speakers on track four, Train: this is the real midnight in the switching yard, with a sonic joke or two which are too good to spoil. The most immersively ambient track here is the final one, Pine. If this is all that’s left of the band’s recorded output, it’s a memorable departure.

A Relentlessly Suspenseful, Immersive Soundtrack From Ronit Kirchman

Ronit Kirchman’s soundtrack to seasons two through four of the detective series The Sinner – streaming at Spotify – is tantalizingly allusive. Her chilly digital analogues to sweeping orchestration are assembled in and around a series of suites, a welcome change from the minutely fragmented playlist sequences that plague so many other recent soundtrack albums. Much of this could be considered ambient music.

Rhythms, such as they exist, tend to be on the unforgiving, mechanical side. Moments of reflective melancholy filter into Kirchman’s slowly and methodically spiraling kaleidoscope of sound. The opening diptych, Two Deaths Suite rises to a shivery, wildfire thicket of strings. Horizontal tone poems have never been so interesting. The second part is more techy, a study in contrasts and echo phrases.

Gently twinkling keys morph into a mechanical loop and give way to wafting down-the-drainpipe sonics and then a distantly wistful quasi-orchestral theme. Drifts, oscillations and motorik rhythms recede for unexpectedly droll, bubbly fishtank-scapes. There’s an airy simulation of what could be Asian temple ambience and instances of simple plucked violin accents warped into play-dough shapes. Throughout the score, chances that’s Kirchman overdubbing herself into a one-woman string section.

Just when it seems that the Lonely Traveler Suite is going to coalesce into a sweeping symphonic crescendo, the subway to dystopia approaches from far down the tunnel. Whirlybird is not a helicopter portrait but a subtly shifting, circular string piece in a Caroline Shaw vein. When an actual helicopter seems to enter the picture, it comes as a complete surprise.

Here, Midnight in Greenpoint seems far closer to desolate post-2020 nightmare than its previous bar-crawl bustle. As the album reaches the end, the immersiveness and tension rise considerably: it’s hard to think of a better advertisement for the show.

A Friendly Pitchblende Night Drive With Suss

New York instrumentalists Suss have carved out a unique niche playing big-sky nocturnes more evocative of the wide open spaces of the west than, say, Long Island City. That’s where the band are pictured on the cover of their very accurately titled latest album, Night Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. This time, they’ve switched out the locales of the mind conjured up in their previous work, and switched in an overnight trip on Highway 66 from Gallup, New Mexico to the desert town of Needles, California, just across the Colorado River.

As the convoy drift out of Gallup, casual flickers from reverb guitar, pedal steel and starry guitar pedalboard textures begin to creep through the shadowy calm. Flagstaff, Arizona turns out to be a patchwork of stillness punctuated by the occasional passing big rig, fluorescent-lit all-night diner or distant train whistle, or so it would seem.

Further into Arizona, there’s Ash Fork, the most expansive tableau here with its organlike high-lonesome washes of sound. If Pink Floyd were a Tucson band, they would have sounded like this. Guessing that’s Pat Irwin’s guitar flaring gently over Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel and Gary Lieb’s gently keening synth.

Hints of southwestern gothic – that’s either Bob Holmes or Irwin on guitar – reverberate on the low end. static misting the mix when the convoy reaches Kingman. The distant ghost of a Lynchian ballad wafts in as the group pull gently into their final destination

Immersively Rippling Magic From Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito’s Futari

As marimba player Taiko Saito tells it, pianist Satoko Fujii is the Shohei Ohtani of jazz: a fearsome hitter who is just as formidable on the pitching mound. As the duo Futari, the two musicians put out a magically spacious album, Beyond, last year. Because neither has been able to visit the other due to totalitarian restrictions, they decided to pitch files to each other over the web and then bat them back. They had so much fun doing it that they decided to release these pieces as a follow-up album, Underground, streaming at Bandcamp.

Fujii has always had an otherworldly, mystical side, and she’s gone into that more deeply than ever in the past few years, notably on her rapturous Piano Music album from last year. The title track here continues in that vein, with glissandos, puffy nebulous phrases and ominous drifts beneath a keening drone, Is that bowed marimba, or Fujii under the piano lid? It’s hard to tell. Another layer of mystery, when it comes to who’s playing what, is Fujii’s cut-and-paste vocalese (she also mixed the record).

The album’s second track, Break in the Clouds has puckish accents – Fujii’s prepared piano? – sprinkled throughout Saito’s slow, tremoloing washes of bowed vibraphone. Piano and vibes are distinct in Meerenspiegel, Saito creating a rapt pebbles-in-a-lake atmosphere over Fujii’s stern, emphatic chords and stately cadences. That carefree/serious dichotomy persists throughout most of the record.

Some people will hear the intro to Air and expect to hear Keith Richards’ modal bass riff introducing the Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home. Instead, what sounds like backward masking gives way to spare, playful pings and bits of melody interspersed with more disquieting textures, then a slow, brightly unfolding melody.

In Frost Stirring, Fujii is grumpy Old Man Winter to Saito’s spring sprite – or Messiaen to Saito’s Joe Locke on the Twin Peaks movie soundtrack. The duo follow the most atmospheric track here, Memory or Illusion with Finite or Infinite, eight minutes of pinging, rhythmically shifting Terry Riley-ish loopmusic.

In Ayasake, after an amusing nightly news theme of sorts, Fujii builds an ominous undercurrent beneath Saito’s resolute blitheness. Saito responds to Fujii’s somber bell-like accents and surreal inside-the-piano swipes with a sepulchral sustain throughout the closing number, Street Ramp, the most striking piece on the album. There’s also a redemptively amusing bonus track, One Note Techno Punks

Invitingly Nocturnal Minimalist Sounds From Enona

Atmospheric Brooklyn instrumental duo Enona‘s debut album from last year was the result of a productive collaboration that began with trading files over the web. Auspiciously, they were able to defy the odds and made their second one, Broken – streaming at Bandcamp – in the friendlier confines of a real studio. And as you would hope, there’s more of an immediacy to the music. While it can be downright Lynchian in places, it’s also more warmly optimistic. Kind of like February 2022, huh?

The opening cut, Rekindle sounds like a more organic Julee Cruise backing track, Ron Tucker’s spare, starrily nostalgic piano eventually joined by Arun Antonyraj’s atmospheric washes of guitar and guest Marwan Kanafani’s even more minimalistic Rhodes

Tucker builds a dissociatively psychedelic web of stalactite piano motives over a gentle hailstorm of tremolo-picked guitar in the album’s second track,  Recollections. Track three, Unspoken has a sparse lead piano line over brassy sustain from the guitar that falls away to an unexpected starkness.

Lament, a solo piano piece, is less plaintive than simply a study in dichotomies. The duo revisit a wistful nocturnal ambience in the conclusion, Broke. It’s a good rainy-day late-night listen.

Eclectic Digital Sounds Trace the Development of an Analog World

Multi-instrumentalist Uèle Lamore‘s new instrumental album Loom – streaming at Spotify – traces the evolution of life on earth. The music is more airy and playful than you would probably expect from such an ambitious theme. Lamore blends elements of psychedelia, downtempo, chillwave, ambient and film music in a series of succinct, relatively brief tracks with occasional vocals.

A loon, or the electronic equivalent, calls out in the darkness, then a swaying, echoing, slickly 80s-style trip-hop theme develops to open the record. Lamore takes a flippant little piano phrase, flips it upside down and then runs the riff and variations through a series of patches for the second track, The Dark.

The Creation begins with gamelan-like chimes, then a flute patch moves to the forefront over puffy, rhythmic synth.

The First Tree is a sweeping, vaguely mysterious hip-hop tune.The next track, Breathe is not a Pink Floyd cover but a motorik-flavored theme that reminds of a big hit by Prince.

Currents has a wry vocoder track over the swirl, while Gene Pool is a return to fun things that can be done with a simple piano riff and textural variations.

Lamore follows Pollen, an atmospheric neosoul tune, with Predation, a muted whoomp-whoomp dancefloor jam. By the time we reach Dominance, are we in the dinosaur era yet? This loopy, cinematic segment is much more futuristic. Lamore winds up the album with Warm Blood, her vocals adrift in an echoey sheen.

The Muom Overtone Singing Choir Explore Vast, Rapturous Sonic Expanses

Few choral groups explore such a vast expanse of sound as the Muom Overtone Singing Choir. Their extended technique is breathtaking in the purest sense of the word. Neither the sepulchrally wispy highs nor the stygian lows they often reach at the same time exist in most music for the human voice, simply because most people can’t hit those notes. The ensemble’s magical new suite Terra – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned series of four. The late Maurice White would be delighted to know that the next two are explorations of wind and fire, water being the fourth element.

The suite, performed as a contiguous whole, begins with Eter, a single D note sung in unison until some of the choir reach a couple of octaves lower for a guttural anchor. By this point, harmonics are oscillating in the background. From there the group segue into Astral, slowly coalescing into an aptly drifting theme with gentle massed glissandos and long, sustained notes moving through the sonic picture, a graceful deep-space exchange of voices. Rhythm falls away to a cocooning, enveloping, uneasy morass, then the counterpoint rises again.

The group completely flip the script with Ardhi (Swahili for “earth”), with a joyously cantering, percussive west African groove, mens’ lows and spiraling overtones against the triumphant women overhead. They whisper their way out.

There’s a return to rapt, otherworldly stillness in Akasha (Sanskrit for “ether”). The men in the choir open Sa Mantra (sa being Tibetan for “earth”) with a low, growling chant, riffing on a phrase common to carnatic music and vocal warmup exercises. From there, they build a starkly bluesy minor-key theme.

A plaintively expressive solo by one of the men, like a muezzin’s call, takes front and center over allusively chromatic phrasing in the next segment, Ancestral, before the ensemble kick into a rousing, insistently rhythmic drive. Khörzün (“earth” in the Tuvan language) is where Central Asian choral traditions resonate the most here, via echoing layers of harmonics and a galloping trans-Siberian beat.

The choir close with Gea (the Greek earth deity), a starkly circling violin solo by group member Farran Sylvan James introducing a hypnotic downward drift. There hasn’t been any album like this released in the recent past, maybe ever, reason to look forward to whatever other magic the group can conjure in the next installment.

Pensive, Disquieting Minimalism For Piano and a Rare Early Electronic Instrument

As Snowdrops, Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry have been releasing a series of albums which blend new classical music, electronic soundscapes and film score atmospherics. On their latest release, Inner Fires – streaming at Bandcamp – Ott shifts between piano and the surreal ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard which predates the theremin and can create a wild variety of sounds. Gabry plays piano on the first two tracks plus electronic keys and tubular bells on the final two. It’s distantly, sometimes persistently troubled, immersive music.

The first track, Elevation begins with Gabry’s spare rainy-day piano over subtly gritty and airier textures, which Ott expands on with loopy upper-register work as the piano grows more insistent. The template is the same for the fourteen-minute Egopolis, icy piano incisions over low, looming fog from the ondes Martenot. From there, Ott slowly constructs a less ornate, funereal. Radiohead-like tableau.

Ott and Gabry switch places, essentially, for the diptych Shadow Society/A Piece of Freedom, a chuffing, loopy industrial rhythm receding for echoey, plaintively glistening piano. Ott remains on (and inside) the piano for the final cut, Ruptur 47, with Gabry on tubular bells plus Richard Knox on guitar, shifting from dark, hypnotic polyrhythms to a slowly spinning bell choir. By that point, the listener has gone through the funhouse mirror and it’s not clear who’s playing what, validating this duo’s singular, uneasy vision.