New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jazz improvisation

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddenly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

Muhal Richard Abrams Leaves Us With a Knowing Wink

Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.

The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.

The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.

While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.

There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader and alto saxophonists Bobby Zankel, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.

Dark, Pensive Two-Bass Soundscapes From Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci

Bassists Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci have just released their starkly evocative, immersive new duo album Now/Here on the reliably adventurous Acustronica label, where it’s streaming. The former also plays the Korean geomumgo bass lute on the album’s second track; the latter plays six-string electric bass and handles the electronic component. Like the best ambient music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, although the playing is more animated and considerably less reliant on drones than usual in this genre.

The first track is Nowhere, Barbiero beginning it by bowing a somber, Pink Floyd-like riff over the icy swirl behind him. Bocci eventually echoes him over down-the-drainpipe sonics. The second track, Paths (A Winter Day in a Seaside Town) features Barbiero bowing starkly, adding wispy high harmonics, Asian pentatonics and squirrelly accents over samples of waves and shorebirds.

Ten Lines for Nowhere is much the same but focused in the low registers with a more hypnotic, loopy backdrop. The two bassists switch roles for the first part of the diptych Elegy For Time and Space, Bocci’s spare plucks over dark, overtone-rich washes from Barbiero, then the textures grow denser and a simple, anthemic theme sneaks into the picture. Similarly, Bocci rumbles and adds bell-like accents as Barbiero supplies atmosphere as the second half begins; then there’s another role reversal. It’s both the catchiest and most hypnotic interlude on the album.

Green Over Grey is the most subtly shifting, drone-oriented, haunting piece here. The two wind up the album with the title cut, which follows the same pattern, but more minimalistically.

The Lockdown Can’t Stop Satoko Fujii, Ikue Mori and Natsuki Tamura From Making Gorgeous, Haunted Music

Very little of the music made over the web since the lockdown is worth hearing. Rhythms are jittery, the playing is over-careful, maybe in keeping with conventional wisdom – never a good thing to fall back on. And mixes are haphazard, considering the vast variations in sonics between locations. In that context, pianist Satoko Fujii’s new album Prickly Pear Cactus with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and laptop pioneer Ikue Mori is even more of a triumph.

it started with two old buds from the Stone scene swapping files over the web. To Mori’s immense credit as engineer and sonic architect, she lets Fujii be Fujii and keeps the electronics in sync with the music’s characteristically vast, often unselfconsciously poignant emotional content

Fujii, as usual, is transcendent. Thoughtful and focused to the nth degree, this is persistently troubled but also resolutely energetic music. “We encouraged each other to help us deal with a crazy and dangerous global situation,” Fujii explains. And how.

The electronic waterfall that opens the album’s title track is a red herring: this isn’t one of Mori’s cyclotron remixes. Fujii moves somberly and spaciously further into the picture, soon cutting loose torrents in the low registers in contrast to Mori’s twinkles, Tamura hanging sepulchrally on the fringes. Unresolved as it remains, Fujii’s stygian descent at the end is a welcome payoff.

Fujii’s spare, guarded neoromantic lines mingle with Mori’s bloops and bleeps in Sweet Fish. Mori delicately shadows Fujii’s scrambles, clusters and incisions in Guerrilla Rain. This particular Mountain Stream moves more like a glacier, Tamura’s wispy extended technique barely present. One of the great extrovert wits in jazz, he looks absolutely disconsolate on the album cover. Who can blame him.

Five tracks in, we finally get the surreal, desolate epic Overnight Mushroom, beginning as a soundscape with Fujii first inside the piano, then circling in the lows with frequently creepy Satie-esque chromatics. The considerably shorter Empty Factory makes a good segue: it’s basically a second movement.

In the Water begins with Fujii’s eerie, mutedly bell-like prepared piano, which gives way to what could be an approximation of whale song from her bandmates. Her ominous return is one of the album’s most riveting interludes

She goes back to clusters and Satie, building suspense in the lows before rising toward Russian Romantic majesty in Turning. Tamura whistles and flurries over Fujii’s kinetic rumbles in Muddy Stream. The album’s concluding epic is Sign, Fujii tracing a spacious, stark trajectory through the desolation. What a gorgeous and haunting record.

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

Trumpeter Steph Richards Puts Out Her Most Adventurous, Challenging Album

When trumpeter Steph Richards led an animated quartet through a dynamic set full of daunting extended technique at Public Records in Brooklyn back in July of last year, rumors were already circulating that the weekly jazz night there might be over soon. And it was. But whoever thought that beyond busking – or a restaurant gig, ouch – Richards might not even have an established venue to play in New York in 2020? If the lockdowners get their way, folks, we will never get to see live jazz outside of a park, or a streetcorner, or a probably super-quiet house party.

Fortunately, in the meantime, we have Richards’ new album Supersense, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her most adventurous release yet. Her inspired band here includes pianist Jason Moran, bassist Stomu Takeishi and Kenny Wollesen on drums plus his Wollesonics assortment of large and small gadgets to be spun and struck. The tracks here are on the short side, seemingly almost completely improvised and full of high-energy repartee rather than the calmer, more atmospheric material Richards has released lately.

Mutedly dancing prepared piano, fuzzy bass growl and percussive flickers give way to Richards’ washes and flutters in the increasingly amusing opening number, Underbelly. Swaying funk and a little frenetic swing underpin the sharply bursting riffage of the album’s title track, Moran’s majestic chords and motives anchoring Richards’ charging lines, Takeishi’s burbles ushering in a reflecting pool and then a murky stomp.

Canopy, with Moran’s glittery but understated cascades and Takeishi’s signature growl, is a launching pad for the bandleader’s high-voltage flurries. Richards and Takeishi exchange wavery echo phrases over Moran’s sober, spacious chordal series and Wollesen’s similarly judicious accents in the next number, Glass.

Everybody rumbles and scampers in the hasty improvisation Metal Mouth, followed by Bunker, where Wollesen goes through his collection of objects as Richards snorts and strains away from the center over Takeishi’s insistence. Rumbles, ripples and suddenly cut-off trumpet phrases mingle in Matter in Water, while Sleeping in the Sky is a chilly, flutelike tableau with the occasional thunderstorm motif.

Richards winds up the album with The Gentlest Insect, her fluttering accents and warmly lyrical lines awash in surreal ambience and water-instrument ripples. Fun fact: this is the only known jazz album whose credits include someone in charge of “scent design.” That person is Sean Raspet. We can only hope for the best in that regard. The electronic press kit containing the tracks didn’t smell like anything.

A Resonant, Dynamic, Sometimes Haunting New Album by Pedal Steel Icon Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn is this era’s great master of jazz pedal steel. Her music can be stark and haunting, vast and atmospheric, but also riotously funny. If Buddy Emmons was the Charlie Parker of the pedal steel, Alcorn is its Messiaen. Her new quintet album Pedernal is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the title track, the bandleader’s spare, desolate minor-key blues theme joined by bassist Michael Formanek’s looming accents and then an altered march from drummer Ryan Sawyer as guitarist Mary Halvorson shadows the melody. They pulse in and out of space bubbles, get loopy and coyly chaotic, with a fleeting break for violinist Mark Feldman before returning to an Appalachian ballad without words.

Circular Ruins, inspired by a Utah landscape, has Alcorn at the center of an acidic pool, the band around her fililng out the space with uneasy atmospherics or jagged accents. A subtly playful violin/bass conversation over Sawyer’s muted flutter finally draws Alcorn back into the picture, where she adds echoing, otherworldly, gonglike accents, Feldman fueling an austere haze. The ending will give you goosebumps: this place is haunted!

R.U.R. is Alcorn in amusing mode, with a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-cartoon theme, warpy bubbles from the guitar and steel over a floating swing that drops out as the carbonation bubbles over. The austere washes afterward only last so long before Alcorn brings the revelry back.

The album’s big epic is Night in Gdansk, keeningly atmospheric at first and then slowly coalescing: the way the whole band throw off sparks alluding to a calm folk ballad is artful to the extreme. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann filter through persistently uneasy ambience; austere resonance alternates with playful, clustering squiggles and blips.

They close the album with Northeast Rising Sun, a rousing, anthemic portrait of Alcorn’s native Baltimore that evokes early Pat Metheny without the ubiquitous chorus pedal. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the year. 

A Historic Meeting of Some of the World’s Greatest Improvisational Minds

The new release Flow States, a highly entertaining, frequently thrilling improvisatory session recorded in 2015, speaks to the imperiled state of music in 2020. After the lockdowners banned musicians from playing onstage and earning what had essentially become their sole source of income, artists around the world have been flooding the web with all kinds of incredible archival recordings. Desperate times, desperate measures – and the quality of this material reminds us of what we stand to lose if we continue to allow ourselves to be locked down.

This session has special historical value for being the very first time that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell had played with either the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s iconic Marshall Allen, or with Milford Graves, the polymath drummer, cardiac medicine specialist, sound healing pioneer and musicologist. Multi-reedman Scott Robinson pulled the session together. While the session was in an open studio with no separation, the individual voices of this hall of fame lineup are distinct and everybody gets plenty of chances to give the listener goosebumps.

Allen is in the left channel, mainly on alto sax. Mitchell is in the center, beginning on soprano, sometimes shifting in one piece from sopranino to bass or alto. Robinson is on the right, moving from tenor to bass to contrabass and then alto, mixing it up as usual. And you should see Graves’ kit, with all those toms, delivering a majestically boomy, mysterious groove. Who needs a bass when you have that guy in the band?

Mitchell’s rapidfire melismas are so otherworldly and bagpipe-like throughout the first number, Vortex State, that it’s almost as if he’s playing the EWI that Allen has used for so long in the Sun Ra band. Meanwhile, Graves goes to his mallets for a deep, spacious river as Allen and Robinson carry on a lively, sharp conversation from the edges.

Track two, the aptly titled Dream State, floats over Graves’ magically shamanic, muted, steady pulse, sprites slowly popping up amidst the mist. Allen first goes to the EWI in the trio piece Transition State for a woozily amusing contrast with the droll strutting and foghorn sonics from Robinson’s bass sax as Graves builds a hypnotic sway with his cymbals.

Steady State, a duo piece for Graves and Mitchell’s Balkan-tinged sopranino, is arguably the album’s most relentlessly adrenalizing interlude. Allen picks up the EWI again for the wryly spacy warpscape Plasma State, another duo with Graves. Altered State also has ridiculously funny moments, whether it’s Robinson’s heavy-lidded lows on contrabass sax, or Graves sounding the alarm.

Variable State, a conversation between Mitchell and Allen (back on alto), has plenty of jokes too good to give away, but just as much daunting extended technique. The full quartet close with the title track, which with its relentless traffic jam ambience could be called Garden State, where the album was recorded. More auspiciously, a vinyl release is planned, including extra material that wouldn’t fit on this one.

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

Magical, Pensively Conversational Improvisations From Josh Sinton’s Latest Project

The trio What Happens in a Year is a serendipitous meeting of minds, three guys who are great listeners and conversationalists. Formidable and incredibly mutable low-register multi-reedman Josh Sinton first brought guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Giacomo Merega into a rehearsal room to whip up some ideas he could flesh out for an album. Their rapport turned out to be so strong that Sinton decided simply to go with the trio’s spontaneous interactions as his first-ever full-length, completely improvised album, Cérémonie/Musique, streaming at Bandcamp.

As you would expect from Merega and Neufeld, the music here tends to be on the quiet side. As you would expect from Sinton, especially, it’s entertaining, not merely a pattern book to inspire other free jazz dudes. In the album’s opening number, La Politique des Auteurs, Sinton plays spare, rather wistful baritone sax phrases, Merega responding with one of his signature devices, spacious chords. Neufeld enters the picture with skeletal motives and lingering, distant menace. A bustle develops beneath Sinton’s airy lines; Merega’s bubbles evince jarring slashes from the guitar.

Sepulchral ambience punctuated by the occasional cry is the central premise of Algernon, a magically austere soundscape. Change of Scene is much the same: lingering bass clarinet from Sinton, spare volume-knob swells and brooding figures from Neufeld and shadowy low end from Merega…all of which hardly telegraph the sotto-voce revelry to come.

The dissociative low-register prowl from Sinton – back on baritone sax – and Merega in Sleepwalk Digest is spot-on, Neufeld adding unexpectedly wary, skronky accents and menacingly steady, slow chordal cascades. The guitarist’s morosely tolling lines take centerstage over his bandmates’ floating, flitting, ghostly presence in Untethered.

The group follow the same pattern, but even more spaciously and skeletally, in Netherland, at first the most haunting yet ultimately the funniest piece here. They close the album with Music From a Locked Room, an extended, triangulated pitch-and-follow scenario. What a beautifully enveloping headphone album: you’ll undoubtedly see this on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.