New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jazz improvisation

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

Magical, Otherworldly Korean Improvisation From Baum Sae

Some of the world’s most fascinating and strange music has been coming out of Korea lately. Upstart record label Mung Music are fixated on bringing some of these amazing sounds to a broader audience, not only digitally but also on limited edition cassette and 10” vinyl with original artwork. Perhaps the most individualistic and fascinating of the initial crop of releases is the new ep, Embrace, by Baum Sae (Korean for “Night Birds”), streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine Morphine at their most stark and surreal, with a woman out front singing in Korean: and that’s only a small part of the picture.

The offbeat cicada-like exchanges between pansori singer Borim Kim and geomungo bass lute player Gina Hwang in the first song, 여름 (Summer) reflect the lyric’s pastoral melancholy. The melody strongly evokes Moroccan gnawa music, at least until Kim goes up the scale toward melismatic drama.

The second number, 화 (Anger) is a duet between Kim and drummer Soojin Suh. It’s shorter but much more dramatic and closer to traditional pansori, recounting the execution of a brave individual who dared secondguess a bellicose Chinese emperor. The final cut, 가느다란 선 (Thin Line) slowly and spaciously rises from Suh’s temple bells and Hwang’s suspenseful geomungo, through rather brooding variations on a traditional work song from the Jeju Islands. For all its shadowy ambience, those basslines are catchy!

You will be hearing more here about several other artists on the label in the near future.

Improvisational Sorcery From XNN

“Can we remain curious and open to new perspectives while standing firm in the principles that make us who we are? To what extent can we sincerely consider an idea that challenges everything we think we believe?

What better training to play improvised music than to deal with these questions!”

That’s drummer Dan Kurfirst, on the new recording by free jazz collective XNN, whose new album Dance Chaos Magic is streaming at Bandcamp. The bandname is a variant on CNN, referring to how the group would reinterpret the news, real or fake, after convening in the rehearsal room. Ben Cohen plays sax, as does Daniel Carter, who quadruples (is “quadruples” a word? It is with this guy) on flute, clarinet and trumpet. Eli Wallace gets seemingly every texture and timbre that can be struck from a piano: it is a percussion instrument, after all.

The album is a single, roughly 39-minute improvisation that hits a genuinely spellbinding point at about the 25-minute mark. Ghosts flit playfully amid Cohen’s overtone-laced sustain as Carter begins the jam on flute. Wallace has muted, strangely zither-like fun under the piano lid (or else he’s prepared it). Kurfirst moves from his hardware and climbs steadily from a muted thud.

Carter’s shift to distant, regally muted trumpet is matched by a seemingly qawwali-influenced, subtly circling groove from Kurfirst. A move to sax by Carter – the elder statesman here – signals a bubbling interweave that brings the group together with what comes across as a deviously implied, floating swing.

Wallace playing popcorn on the muted upper strings, inside the lid, is a hoot, and eventually lures Cohen down the rabbit hole as Carter’s trumpet hovers pensively. Kurfirst lowers the anchor and then raises it, drawing spare, somber modalities from Wallace and similarly uneasy, microtonal tectonic shifts from Cohen. The transformation to balmy lyricism and then a triumphantly clustering bustle seems easier than it probably was to play, testament to the depth of the group’s repartee. May this be an omen for what the world has to face the rest of this year and beyond.     

A Volcanic Harlem Jam Rescued From the Archives

Considering what happened to live music in this city this year, it’s heartbreaking to think back on the free improvisation scene here in 1999. CB’s Gallery was still open. So was Tonic, along with a Harlem loft space called the Hint House, where the quartet TEST joined with trumpeter Roy Campbell for a pyrotechnic jam on April 16 of that year. The Hint House is long gone – as seemingly every music venue in town may also be at this point – but the band had the good sense to record the show that night. And in keeping with the vast deluge of rare archival material being released this year, this uninterrupted, roughly 47-minute improvisation is streaming at Bandcamp.

The energy is through the roof, rising and falling, with individual horn solos drawing the rest of the lineup back in. Much of the time the rhythm section keeps a rapidfire swing going, more or less, in a Sam Rivers vein; other times the drums drop out for more spare, looming bass, even while the horns keep the cauldron blazing.

Campbell generously shares the spotlight with Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, trumpet and flute, Sabir Mateen on those same reeds and also clarinet, Matthew Heyner on bass and Tom Bruno on drums. A fanfare quickly coalesces – Bruno’s thump signals the rest of the horns to chill while Campbell plays a wildfire, trilling, thrilling solo. “God!” exclaims an audience member (or bandmate).

The rhythm section takes a momentary lull but in a flash they’re back out of it. It seems Carter takes the next solo as the bass bubbles upward and the drums cluster, then Campbell squalls and shrieks his way in and the crazed triangulation begins again. Is that Mateen taking that valve-torturing, squealing break?

Subtle shadowing, counterrythms and as much calm as could possibly exist under the circumstances follow in turn, well past the halfway mark. The murk clears a bit for resonance and lyricism, particularly from Carter and Campbell: Heyner’s spaciousness and use of spare chords make a good foil to Bruno’s smackdown riffs. There’s a sudden fade downward to haze and wisps instigated by the bass, Bruno deciding to get the show back on the road while the reeds play baroque-tinged spirals. The chugging, rumbling inferno that follows is the high point of the set: obviously, none of this was planned.

A Radical Japanese Firestorm Back in Print After Forty-Five Years

On September 5, 1975 guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit played a marathon concert at Yasuda Seimei Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Any kind of jazz beyond traditional swing was considered radical and frowned on by the authorities at the time – and by pretty much any standard, this is utterly fearless, often completely unhinged  music.  The performance was eventually immortalized on two albums, but never in the exact order of the setlist, such that there was a setlist. Finally, this landmark performance of transgressive improvisation has been reissued just as it was played, titled Axis/Another Revolvable Thing, streaming at Bandcamp courtesy of the folks at Blank Forms.

The first album comprises just three tracks: two group improvisations and a drum solo, none of which offer any idea of the carnage to come later. The conversational rapport between the players is obvious as the thicket of staccato in the opening segment coalesces in a flash: Takayanagi joined by Kenji Mori on flutes and bass clarinet, Nobuyoshi Ino alternating between bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on drums. This is a jungle, a brisk worker ants’ round-robin of short exchanges. extended flurries and jaunty echo effects punctuated by Mori’s leaping flute. Takayanagi plays without a hint of effects, mostly cello-like pizzicato. never really approximating any kind of traditional melody. It’s as playful as it is purposeful. Gabor Szabo in especially terse mode comes to mind. No wonder the band saw fit to release it.

Devious poltergeist accents and coy humor pervade the second improvisation amid lots of space. The colorful drum solo is basically a synopsis of what’s happened up to this point, and as quickly becomes clear, Yamazaki has tuned his kit to continue a couple of simple, catchy two-note themes from the previous piece. Drama and suspense prevail, no small achievement.

The second disc is where the inferno starts, both Takayanagi and Nobuyoshi conjuring evil sheets of feedback, often receding back to a Shinto temple of the mind for minutes on end. It’s basically the shadow side of the first record, with toxic white noise from Takayanagi’s wah pedal, Yamazaki walking a tightrope expertly between mystery and mayhem. Ironically, Mori, the adventurous sprite of the first album, holds the center blithely as all hell breaks loose around him. Finally, he breaks free with one shriek after another.The feral 23-minute coda is to die for, if you like this kind of noise.

A sonic portent for this fall’s lockdowner blitzkrieg when it’s clear that COVID-19 is gone and is not coming back, and the lockdowners have to find a new excuse to keep us imprisoned? We have a choice in this, folks: it’s time to take off the mask and take our society back. or else.

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

New York’s Hottest New Music Venue: The Cube at Astor Place

As concertgoers are going to find out more and more this year, one of the very few good things to come out of the lockdown is that it provided a very fertile – if completely unwanted – opportunity for artists to create new material.This blog is long overdue to get back to spreading the word about upcoming concerts: one of the first to officially hit the calendar this month is an outdoor show at the cube at Astor Place this Weds, July 8 at 7 PM where CenterPoint Arts have been scheduling a series of improvisational lineups. This one includes but is probably not limited to drummer Dan Kurfirst, multi-reedman/trumpeter Daniel Carter and trumpeter Matt Lavelle. Once again, it bears mentioning that New York’s most forward-thinking improvisers are doing more than improvise with just their instruments. Obviously, we need to reopen all our music venues at full capacity, yesterday, but at least this is a start.

Of all the guys on this particular bill, Carter has appeared on more albums than everybody else combined. And he keeps popping up on new ones. The latest is Welcome Adventure, Volume 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

In keeping with these guys’ most expansive, improvisational esthetic, it’s just three tracks ranging from about four and a half to a full twenty minutes. The first is Majestic Travel Agency, which clocks in at thirteen. If you didn’t know all this was completely made up on the spot, you might easily assume it’s just a tight postbop quartet going out on a limb with some inspired interplay and solos. Cleaver’s beat is closer to trip-hop than straight up funk or swing as it unfolds from Parker’s catchy variations playing off a central tone. Shipp jabs at the edges; Carter’s balmy initial tenor sax solo alludes to the Middle East.

From there they swing it in more of a trad postbop mode, loosen and hit a more murky haze even as Cleaver refuses to quit. Shipp’s bad cop versus Carter’s good one is another amusing touch; after the piano cedes centerstage to the bass, they take it out surprisingly calmly.

Carter opens Scintillate with restrained muted trumpet: from a loose-limbed swing, they take it into brooding, vintage Miles Davis-ish jazz waltz territory. The closing epic,  Ear-regularities – probably not a reference to Matt Munisteri’s legendary Ear Inn residency – is where everybody gets to diverge. Parker and Cleaver prowl, Shipp’s incisions and Carter’s airy flute holding the center more or less. Restless, gleaming piano chromatics and saturnine muted trumpet draw the bass and drums into contrasting, funky swing. The unselfconsciously resonant, allusively haunting ambience afterward is completely unexpected and genuinely breathtaking.

Carter, Parker and Shipp go back to the jazz loft days of the 80s, and Cleaver fits right in, so it’s both a trip forward and backward in time.

How Free Jazz Is Saving New York

We are at a very interesting moment in New York music history. Some of the artists who have existed at the furthest fringes of our culture are stepping up to save it.

Is that a great irony, or has that always been the case? Aren’t the greatest innovators in any field, from politics to science, always viewed as heretics?

Sure, there’s been plenty of live music across the five boroughs since the lockdown was first instituted. But most of those shows were intimate house concerts, by invite only, promoted by word of mouth rather than on social media in order to stay under the radar. It’s been heartwarming to witness how many of the prime movers in New York’s improvised music community have recently managed to find a way around the lockdowners’ paranoid regulations to bring back live music for the general public in this city.

Maybe that should come as no surprise. Before the lockdown, very few profit-driven venues in this city would have been willing to book a single creative jazz act, let alone a whole night of free jazz, so creative musicians have always had to improvise (sorry – couldn’t resist that one).

The latest series of shows staged by the innovators behind CenterPoint Arts’ series are continuing over the next few days at the cube at Astor Place, at 7 PM. Tonight, July 5, drummer Dan Kurfirst jams with with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba.

Carter has played on a gazillion records over the years: one of the most entrancing and unusual recent ones is the Harbinger album with Jarvis Earnshaw on sitar, vocals and loops and Zach Swanson on bass. It’s a thoughtful, conversational forty-eight minute suite, more or less, recorded and mixed at Martin Bisi’s legendary, sonically rich Gowanus basement space, BC Studio and streaming at Bandcamp.

Foghorn trumpet from Carter anchored by Swanson’s long, low, bowed tones and Earnshaw’s terse, incisive lines echo kaleidescopically through the mix as the three get underway. Earnshaw introduces a lyrical, descending raga riff shadowed by Swanson, Carter switching to balmy tenor sax. Then he moves to flute, Swanson picks up his bow and the theme continues.

They loosen, expand and grow more desolate, Earnshaw’s steely phrases holding the center. Close harmonies between the spacious sitar and echoing trumpet add a bracing edge; Earnshaw also plays chords and unearthly plucked harmonics. Carter looms over a sitar drone, then a broodingly triangulated conversation emerges. A break in the clouds doesn’t last; Earnshaw vocalizes while shifting toward a more rock-oriented, chordal attack.

A lull for solo sitar introduces a warmly hazy nocturnal raga of sorts: it’s here where Carter – back on sax – cuts loose to the extent that he can here. They bring it full circle at the end. There’s as much listening going on as actual playing, resulting in a project that’s as envelopingly enjoyable to hear as it obviously must have been to record.

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme. 

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba. 

A Slightly More Subtle But Hardly Subdued Album From the Explosive Captain Black Big Band

Of all the projects that pianist Orrin Evans has his fingers in, his Captain Black Big Band are arguably the most exciting. They’re definitely the loudest. It’s amazing how Evans manages to find the time for them, considering that he leads smaller groups, everybody wants to play with him, and until the lockdown he had the closest thing in the jazz world to a serious money gig, taking over the piano chair in a certain popular trio and then elevating them above…where they were before.

Auspiciously, the Captain Black Big Band have a new album, The Intangible Between streaming at Spotify. The difference this time is that they aren’t quite as much of a careening beast as they’ve been in the past. Part of that’s due to the bandleader writing most of the charts, selecting very specific groups from a vast talent base to play the songs, and in general, varying the size of the orchestation more.

The album’s first track, Proclaim Liberty, opens with brassy optimism, then after a rippling bit of suspense, the band hit an anthemic drive. The tumbling pairings of piano and drums are as avant-garde as anything Evans has ever done, the solos from trumpet and sax as adrenalizing as ever.

His wide-angle swing arrangement of This Little Light of Mine rises with the horns out of a carefree piano-trio intro that offers a nod to Coltrane and telegraphs that there’s going to be plenty of room for spontaneity, notably a fiery sax-drums duel and some savagery from the bandleader himself.

The tenderness of Sean Jones’ flugelhorn throughout an understatedly majestic Todd Bashore arrangement of A Time For Love contrasts with an underlying tension, which evaporates when the rest of the horns float in. Evans dividing his hands between piano and Rhodes is an unexpected textural touch.

With its New Orleans ebullience and bright hooks, That Too comes across as a slightly stripped-down take on the completely unleashed sound the band made a name for themselves with, trombone and then soprano sax bringing in the storm.

Their loose-limbed, Sun Ra-ish take of Thelonious Monk’s Off Minor features a rhythm section bustling with four (!!!!) bassists and two drummers behind shreddy trumpet, spacy Rhodes and a rise to plenty of the group’s signature, barely controlled mass chaos.

Evans’ beefy yet spacious chart for Roy Hargrove’s Into Dawn gets lit up by spiraling alto sax, trumpet that delivers both sage blues and wild doublestops, and some serious crush from the piano. The album’s biggest epic is Evans’ arrangement of Andrew Hill’s Tough Love. In practically sixteen minutes, the group shift through fluttery stereo pairings of basses and piano, gritty dueling saxes, uneasily shifting sheets of sound, the whole ensemble helping Evans deliver an astute, politically insightful lyric by his brother, author and hip-hop artist Son of Black.

They wind up the record with I’m So Glad I Got To Know You, Evans’ elegy for his drummer friend Lawrence Leathers building from spare, stricken solo piano, to hints of calypso and a fond gospel sendoff. This is a mighty entertaining and rewardingly eclectic effort from a group also including but hardly limited to drummers Anwar Marshall and Mark Whitfield Jr., saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins, Troy Roberts and Caleb Wheeler Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, trombonist David Gibson and bassist Eric Revis.