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No New Abnormal

Tag: ches smith

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Use Lockdown Time to Make One of the Year’s Best Albums

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog’s new album What I Did on My Long Vacation – streaming at Bandcamp – is the rare album recorded in isolation during the lockdown that actually sounds like the band are all playing together. But that wasn’t how it was made. Guitarist Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith each took turns laying down their tracks in Ismaily’s studio since for one reason or another they couldn’t pull the trio together at the same time. Testament to their long camaraderie, they got not only this funny, cynical, deliciously textured album out of it; they’ll be releasing a full vinyl record (yessssssss!) with material from these sessions in 2021. They’re playing the album release show at 8 PM on Oct 23 on the roof of St. Ann’s Warehouse, Beatles style, the band playing down to the crowd on the street below.

The first track is We Crashed In Norway, a sketchy, vamping, sardonic quasi-disco theme that harks back to Ribot’s similarly wry Young Philadelphians cover band project. Beer is just plain awesome – the suspiciously snide skronk/punk/funk second number, that is, forget about the (presumably) fizzy stuff that too many of us have been abusing since March 16.

With Ismaily’s loopy bassline and Ribot’s jaggedly spare multitracks, Who Was That Masked Man reminds of  classic Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. Dog Death Opus 27 is a lot shorter and just as loopy, with a sarcastic turnaround.

The most sarcastically savage track here is Hippies Are Not Nice Anymore, a pretty straight-up punk rock tune tracing the sordid trail of the boomers to the point where “corporate was the theme of the week” – imagine the Dead Kennedys with a careening Velvets jam at the end. To close the album, the trio channel the Dream Syndicate – Ribot playing both the Steve Wynn and Jason Victor roles – in the buzzy, psychedelic, atmospherically careening The Dead Have Come to Stay with Me.

Considering the horrific toll the lockdown has taken on bands all around the world, it’s heartwarming to these these downtown punk-jazz legends still at the top of their game, undeterred.

A Playful, Entertaining, Expertly Choreographed Change of Pace for the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York

This is not to suggest that there could possibly be any upside to the coronavirus scare for anyone other than a criminal – but at least it’s been a chance to catch up on what one of this era’s most distinctively prolific composers and pianists, Satoko Fujii, has been up to lately. She records pretty much everywhere she plays: the ratio of greatness to mere goodness in her work is superhuman. Her latest album – at least last time anybody here checked – is Entity, with her Orchestra New York, whose 2017 Fukushima Suite ranks with any other big band jazz album released this century.

In general, this one is either more sardonically funny or soberly shamanistic, without the outright rage and terror invoked by that landmark work. As usual, it’s packed with tightly choreographed moments for collective improvisation: it careens and sways, but it doesn’t swing in the usual sense of the word. These are long songs, going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip.

The album opens with the title track, a diptych, kickking off with hints of a shamanic beat, squiggly guitar effects, and finally a massed, microtonal march that drummer Ches Smith tumbles around until six-string guy Nels Cline hits a mighty boom and the music falls away. Cline’s roars and toxically bubbling trails bring the orchestra back in, rising up this time, as the drums go completely hardcore: this music has a very 80s downtown New York feel. The second part is much more ominously airy until Fujii signals a return to that twistedly, stairstepping march.

Flashback begins with a less pronounced martial beat: with its surreal volleys of microtonal triplets from the horns, it’s an action movie theme in disguise. A wry good cop/bad cop conversation between bassist Stomu Takeishi and trombonist Joe Fiedler falls away for a playfully glissandoing alto sax solo by Oscar Noriega, setting up a spaciously chattering rise by the whole band. Then it’s trumpeter Herb Robertson who gets to tickle the rhythm section, up to a series of tongue-in-cheek false endings.

Hypnotic sheets of sound from the reeds shift slowly through the sonic picture as Gounkaiku takes shape. A stately, syncopated, characteristically catchy processional follows, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother through a funhouse mirror. Trumpeter Dave Ballou’s jaunty, straightforward solo finally falls apart into squiggliness just as the orchestra decide to stop messing around and get serious. Fujii being a Libra, she knows a good dialectic when she hears one, underscored by how she brings the music full circle.

In Elementary Particle, Takeishi’s Briggs and Stratton engine burble mingles with alto saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s shivery lines, orchestral atmospherics punching in and out: we get a redemptively crazy coda. The final cut, Everlasting, has symphonic majesty, Cline’s stratospheric flute-like melody anchored by growly bass and a Japanese folk-tinged theme. Then buffoonery ensues: first trumpeter Natsuki Tamura irresistibly antagonizing trombonist Curtis Hassellbring, then alto player Briggan Krauss and baritonist Andy Laster playing tag like a couple of of four-year-olds.

This isn’t Fujii’s most accessible work, but it’s very entertaining, another triumph for a band which also includes reedman Tony Malaby. Like many other albums released during this spring’s crisis, it hasn’t hit the web yet.

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens  the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show

Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.

Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is. Credit Great Plains gothic songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister for bringing the two together: they first performed in Bannister’s Fort Greene living room.

And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.

Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.

Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.

Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.

Mary Halvorson’s Away With You – Her Biggest Hit

The Mary Halvorson Octet‘s new album Away with You – streaming at Bandcamp – is the latest and most epically entertaining chapter in the career of arguably the most important, and inarguably most individualistic guitarist in jazz since Bill Frisell. As dark and enigmatic as Ilusionary Sea, her previous release with this unit was, this one is 180 degrees the opposite. Halvorson has a devastating sense of humor, and this is the funniest album she’s ever made. She unleashes the most vaudevillian stuff right off the bat. Much of the rest of this suite is as cruelly cynical or subtle as anything she’s ever recorded. Even drummer Ches Smith gets some – in fact, a lot more than drummers get, and drummers are sometimes funny despite themselves.

The opening number could be described as Mostly Other People Do the Killing mashed up with an Anthony Braxton large ensemble, a tongue-in-cheek, snidely blithe theme rather cruelly dissected midway through before the bandleader slings off one of her signature, sardonic punchlines…and then the snarky fun begins all over again. The presence of the irrepressible Jon Irabagon on tenor sax might have something to do with all this levity. Likewise, the title track – which opens as an upbeat new wave rock anthem of sorts before morphing into an uneasily pointillistic march – is a clinic in how to twist a cheery theme inside out, winding up with a desolate Jonathan Finlayson trumpet solo and then Smith’s misterioso solo passage.

The Absolute Almost is the most desolate thing Halvorson has ever recorded – Susan Alcorn’s lapsteel is every bit as woundedly beautiful as anything Big Lazy has ever released. When the band comes in, the circusy. cinematic theme and variations are priceless – and venomous, at least until the end where the devious web of counterpoint unravels elegantly, a sense of calm and closure after the storm.

Sword Barrel kicks off as an enigmatically attractive, distantly twinkling, Hawaiian-tinged march, but a wistful, pastoral Irabagon solo goes haywire and pulls everyone toward chaos before Finlayson emerges as the voice of reason. Old King Misfit opens with Halvorson and bassist John Hebert kicking the ball around amiably before the band brings that offcenter march theme back, the bandleader playing steady, eerie, watery chords that eventually fly off into the recesses of her pedalboard while everybody else falls away, like one of those blooming onions you find at street fairs.

Halvorson’s moodily terse guitar and Hebert’s bass stroll behind Jacob Garchik’s similarly pensive trombone as Fog Bank gets underway; then Halvorson spirals and flits away, a forest of sprites emerging from the mist! When the march returns, by now it’s unmistakable that Halvorson has a clear view of the direction all this is going in, and it’s not going to be an easy ride. The album’s final number is Safety Orange – the siren motif in the early going makes an apt centerpiece in the post-9/11 era, eventually bringing back the march in an allusively shambling Tom Csatari vein. Be grateful that you’re around to witness this music as it’s coming out: future generations will be jealous.

Other than at the insanely overpriced Bleecker Street festival coming up, Halvorson doesn’t have any octet shows listed on her gig page, but she is playing tonight, Jan 3 at around 9 PM at I-Beam as one third of the Out Louds with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and multi-reedman Ben Goldberg, improvising music inspired by plant species at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Cover is $15.

Violinist Sarah Bernstein Brings Her Focused, Sometimes Haunting Improvisation to the West Village

Violinist Sarah Bernstein plays some of the most thoughtfully compelling music of any New York artist. Blending fearless jazz improvisation, indie classical acerbity and the occasional detour in the direction of performance art, her sound is distinctly her own. She’s the rare musician who can shift in a split-second between standard western harmony and microtonal scales and not sound out of tune, in the same vein as Mat Maneri if somewhat less feral. She’s also got a fantastic new album, Still/Free with her quartet – Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Ches Smith on drums – streaming at Bandcamp, and a show on July 31 at 6 (six) PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. The similarly tuneful Jacob Sacks and somewhat less potentially combustible Tomas Fujiwara step in on piano and drums, respectively, for that gig. Cover is $10 plus a $10 food/drink minimum.

The album’s tempos are on the slow side, the mood pensive and exploratory but tightly focused on mood and purpose. For a listener, it’s music to get lost in. Popejoy’s coy peek-a-boo bass riff opens the album and its title track, Bernstein adding an enigmatic edge at the bottom of her register before spiraling her way skyward as Smith builds a sepulchral mist with his cymbals. Davis’ spacious Satie-esque unease anchors’ the rest of the band from there as they venture out, then Bernstein and Davis trade roles. By the end, it’s 180 degrees from where it started.

Likewise, Davis’s lingering, reflecting-pool phrases ground Bernstein’s similarly judicious, deftly microtonal lines in Paper Eyes, which may have been a slow swing ballad in a past life. The band opens Cede with a sardonically marching theme that brings to mind Zach Brock, Bernstein stairstepping with hints of exasperation as the rhythm section hits a brisk stroll, Davis echoing her uncenteredness.

Similar contrasts play out in Nightmorning: Bernstein’s searchingly rising violin over bass and drums that hint at a steady clave; Popejoy’s minimalism versus Davis’ eerie ripples, Bernstein balancing both sides of a conversation at one point. As it unwinds, it brings to mind Jean-Luc Ponty in a particularly brooding moment.

The album’s fifth track, titled 4=, is its most epic, Bernstein’s playfully ghostly riffs over Davis’ glistening gravitas, the whole band working a push-pull dichotomy against the center, up to a pesky mosquitoey Bernstein solo, After taking a carnivalesque march, they hit a vamp which ironically is the album’s most trad, or at least distinctively 21st century jazz interlude.

The only slightly shorter Jazz Camp feels suspiciously like a parody as its circling central hook goes on, and on, and on, the bandleader adding droll spoken-word passages that do double duty as conduction and get funnier as the track keeps going The album winds up with Wind Chime and its echoey, minimalist atmospherics. As she does with this album, it’s a good bet that Bernstein will get both her smile and her rapture on for the show on the 31st.

Satoko Fujii Debuts Her Harrowingly Relevant Fukushima Suite in Brooklyn Last Night

Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.

The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.

The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”

The Brooklyn Blowhards Make Crazy Jazz Out of Sea Chanteys

The Brooklyn Blowhards Albert Alyer-ize sea chanteys. As bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Lederer told the crowd at their record release show at Joe’s Pub last night, they got their start when trumpeter Kirk Knuffke brought an album of sea chanteys by the Foc’sle Singers over to Lederer’s place. Ayler being Lederer’s “personal muse,” as he put it, the connection was made.

Connection? Isn’t this seven-piece band just a bunch of A-list New York jazzcats having absurdist punk-jazz fun with the last themes you’d ever expect these guys to be pilfering? Well, sort of. But there’s no denying the similarity between the singalong quality of sea chanteys and the disarmingly direct, simple, catchy ideas that Ayler liked to slice and dice. Being work songs, some chanteys have a sway and swing that also dovetails with jazz.

The rest of the band onstage playing these less-than-likely mashups included Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Brian Drye on trombone, Ches Smith on drums and Stephen LaRosa on marching bass drum and percussion. Art Bailey sat behind everyone, played accordion and was only audible during the show’s relatively few quiet moments. Guitarist Gary Lucas guested on resonator on a couple of numbers, alongside Lederer’s wife Mary LaRose, who supplied both low-key, soul-infused vocals and tongue-in-cheek recitations.

Beyond traditional numbers like Hull Away Joe, the band also write their own. Lederer dedicated Black Ball Line to its inspiration, the transatlantic freight company: They opened that one as a tenor sax duet between Lederer and Irabagon, turning on a dime into fullscale freakout and ending with a droll, deadpan marching vamp. Ayler’s Dancing Waters served as a showcase not only for sputtering and frenzy but a surprising, contrasting lyricism. They closed with another Ayler tune, Island Harvest, which with its jaunty calypso chorus and sardonic spoken-word passages juxtaposed with unhinged improvisation, capsulizes what this group is all about.

The night’s funniest moment, out of many, belonged to Iragabon, as you might expect. He opened a sopranino sax solo with a rapidfire practice pattern and wowed the crowd with his unwavering fluidity if not imagination. But then he went into the extended technique, maintaining the same breathtaking precision through all sorts of harmonics and overtones and finally capped it off with a series of defeated squawks. The crowd howled. And just when it seemed that all this would be about fun and games, they hit an unexpected plaintiveness with Santy Anno, kicking it off as a misty dockside tableau and then taking it into darkly resonant territory on the gentle, steady wings of Drye’s trombone. It was a reminder of just how serious the guys in this crazy band usually are.

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

Uncategorizable Noir Jazz Sounds from Ben Goldberg

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind is one of those deliciously dark albums that defies description. Is it punk jazz? Noir cinematics? Free improvisation? It’s all of the above, which makes it unique, and a lot of fun. Imagine guitarist Jack Martin’s Dimestore Dance Band with a three-horn frontline and you’re on the right track. Goldberg writes catchy, uneasy themes which the band – Ellery Eskelin on alto sax, Rob Sudduth on tenor sax, Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar and Ches Smith on drums – defiantly resist allowing to resolve or settle comfortably into a groove or for that matter any kind of safe place for very long except at the very end. Since there is no bass on the album, Smith drives the music with a more lumbering approach than usual, although Goldberg plays catchy basslines on the contra-alto clarinet – lower than a bass clarinet – on several of the tracks.

Throughout most of the album, Goldberg’s approach is to tease the listener with something gentle and attractive and then slash at it, give it fangs and turn it loose in the opposite direction. So when the opening track, Elliptical, opens as a pretty pastorale, that’s not to be trusted: within a couple of minutes, the band has taken it down the back alley into smirkingly noir early John Zorn/Sexmob/Lounge Lizards territory, Cline’s clenched-teeth, gritty wailing taking it out on a macabre note. Parallelogram hints that it’s going in a klezmer rock direction and then introduces a gorgeous oldschool soul turnaround that the band absolutely refuses to hit head on, an incessant interchange of horns backed by Cline’s red-neon, tremoloing guitar (that’s got to be an old tremolo tube amp with the effect turned up all the way). The guitarist is at the absolute top of his creepy game, echoing Otis Rush as well as Marc Ribot.

XCPF follows the same tangent, an oldschool soul groove that the band won’t play straight, Cline taking it out with a swirling, psychedelic forest of loops and finally a nasty growl. Goldberg then leads the horns through a pensive series of phrases before they launch into I Miss the SLA. Could that be a reference to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the inept group of wannabe terrorists who took socialite heiress Patty Hearst prisoner back in the 70s? And is Eskelin’s gentle phrasing in the midst of the grime and Balkan-tinged grit the heiress getting Stockholm Syndrome, as she eventually did, which got her some time in the joint for her role in the caper?

The trope reappears on Stemwinder, which begins as a warm, nostalgic wee-hours ballad before Cline comes spiraling down like a bird of prey with his talons out, then they vamp it out like a punk version of a 60s Quincy Jones soundtrack piece before jamming on the changes to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy. Only on the last track, a baroque-tinged pastorale, does Goldberg refrain from killing the lights and leading the crew into the shadows.

Goldberg also has another album out, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which has an all-star cast including Ron Miles on trumpet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Devin Hoff on bass and Smith again on drums, and is sort of the reverse image of this one, expanding on the pretty pastoral Americana vein in more vivid depth than this one hints at. And as a bonus, this cd also comes with a poster, a Molly Barker painting of wolves following horses. Who said you can’t have vinyl production values in the digital era?