Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Jimmy Bennington Trio
Symbols Strings And Magic
CIMP 379

Jimmy Bennington has carved out a career for himself as a free jazz drummer through diligence and determination; he’s recorded duets with trombonist Julian Priester, obscure Herbie Nichols tunes with pianist David Haney, and recently partnered with a fellow jazz nomad, clarinetist Perry Robinson, whose debut album for Savoy, Funk Dumpling, was released eight years before Bennington was born. With the experienced and versatile bassist Ed Schuller, their trio is an uninhibited and unpredictable affair, capable of bittersweet lyricism and pungent friction, frequently in the same tune. At their freest – such as the opening squall of “High Maestro” or Sunny Murray’s “EMOI” – they can raise a ruckus, but aren’t afraid to display a sentimental side, as their fragile phrasing of the Bob Haggart standard “What’s New” and the affectionate versions of two songs written by Perry Robinson’s father, Earl, prove. Typically, however, they prefer to probe into the marrow of a theme, Bennington offering commentary on the line without insisting on the time and Schuller bowing or walking along the harmonic crevices, allowing the clarinetist’s eccentricities of tone and ambiguities of pitch plenty of room for elaboration, as on the title track and the curiously titled “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” said to be the dying words of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Any opportunity to hear the idiosyncratic Robinson is welcome, and in such an open and advantageous setting as this, all the more so.
–Art Lange


Ross Bolleter
Night Kitchen: An Hour of Ruined Piano
Emanem 5008

Aki Takase
A Week Went By
Psi 10.03

Here are two pianists with nothing in common, not even their instruments. Aki Takase’s A Week Went By is all original music from a pair of 2008 concerts in England – no bop themes or oldies this time. I'm especially fond of the sparkle and wit of her Ornette Coleman Anthology with saxophonist Silke Eberhard (Intakt), but the moods of the nine pieces here are generally quite serious. The pianist was taking her Cecil Taylor vitamins on those days – hear the central five-note motive of "57577" and her phrase-ending flourishes in "Steinblock," for just two examples. Nevertheless, these works are personal, without Taylor-like obsessions or passions. Her spatters of notes that open "57577" and "Men Are Shadows" may sound like Taylor at first, but listen again: they're actually distinctive, very jagged, melodic themes. She conceives in spurts, so the most complete pieces, i.e. the nearest to full-length compositions, are the two shortest. In most of the other pieces she spins lines awhile but then slows or speeds to sections of different dynamics and momentum.

Takase plays three solo pieces: "57577"; "Ima Wa Mukashi," low, rumbling, threatening, rising to a crescendo of tin-pan-on-strings crashes; the sweet "Yumetamago," with her right hand on a real piano and left hand on an electric piano. The uneasy five trio pieces start well with the unfolding, well-sustained "Surface Tension," then the next two include her duet passages with bassist John Edwards and drummer Tony Levin. The two thundering Brits run away with the last two, very busy trios; Takase sounds like she's accompanying them. I don't feel Edwards and Levin are very inspirational, whereas in the longest track, "Just Drop In," John Tchicai on alto sax makes an especially fine partner for her. He  breathlessly repeats, varies, re-examines two- and four-note motives at great length while she extends an equally busy and more expansive piano line; in his quotes he even shares her old, subtle sense of humor.

Ah, nostalgia. When I was a kid I got to bang away on old, all-weathered pianos like the one the father-and-son piano tuners encountered in Samuel Beckett's Watt. There, nine dampers and nine hammers remained (one damper and hammer corresponding) and the strings were in flitters:

The piano is doomed, in my opinion, said the younger.
The piano-tuner also, said the elder.
The pianist also, said the younger.

So I can appreciate Ross Bolleter's pleasure as well as the inherent doom in his ruined pianos, abandoned in the countryside and deserts of Australia. The 14 pieces in Night Kitchen are improvisations on the distinctive qualities of his pianos, and in "Five" he apparently plays five different pianos. Several pieces are based on single bass notes struck then bending (sometimes several whole steps) and decaying into space; "Nocturnal" is especially doomed and gloomy. "Cohabitation" builds to harpsichord-like sounds, if you can imagine a struck rather than plucked harpsichord. The repeated tones in "Rear View" expands to a big pipe-organ sound and "Asmodea" and "Her Long Night's Festival" tinkle like wind chimes.

The szz and quaver of unstrung strings, the dull thuk of hammers on wood, the clank of rusted pedals, the bash! and shimmer of chords that don't quite harmonize, and the unpredictability of each instrument are all fundamental to Bolleter's music. His medium is atonal, rubato, sometimes with tones and silence in vital tension. His pieces are short, two to six and a half minutes, and since some ideas get repeated from one track to another, they may be best heard a few at a time. This CD is Bolleter's favorite improvisations from over seven years, a sequel to Secret Sandhills and Satellite. It's good to enter his warped, twisted, and of course doomed alternate world.
–John Litweiler


John Butcher + Claudia Ulla Binder
Under the Roof
Nuscope CD1023

John Butcher + Rhodri Davies
Ftarri 220

These two recent CDs by saxophonist John Butcher present him in almost contemporaneous duets of improvised music, both recorded in 2008. I found myself listening to them in a week with deep forays into the visual record of Surrealism and the processes of automatism and the unconscious in painting, including a trip through the collection at Madrid’s Reina Sofia and a historical survey of Québec’s Automatiste painters of the 1940s and 1950s at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox. Perhaps that immersion made me particularly open to these CDs, but I can’t recall musics more engaged with the process of collective improvisation as interior voyage, each recording achieving a depth that’s genuinely original.

The only previous recording of Butcher and harpist Rhodri Davies as a duo documents their first performance in that form, the second portion of Vortices and Angels recorded in 2000 (on Emanem), while Carliol documents them following years of collaboration and some sustained touring.  The duet between Butcher and Davies emphasizes electronics and a degree of interactivity that often blur the source identity of individual sounds, whether it’s a perfectly even mechanical drum roll or a sustained tone with an electronic ring. The blurring arises from Butcher’s use of motors and feedback and Davies’ use of electric harps, reaching its summit on “ouse poppy,” on which Butcher is playing through a speaker embedded in Davies’ lever harp, pressing the borderline of identity to levels usually attained only by musicians playing computers or the same instruments. While the game of identifying sources will engage a listener for only so long, what takes over is the extraordinary depth of this musical experience and its fundamental interiority. The loss of sonic identity seems here akin to a sense of the loss of individual identity and a erasure of notions of interior and exterior experience.  While this is an extraordinary experience in deep listening, borrowing in effect the hearing of Butcher and Davies, it’s also an interior journey into an unknown sonic landscape, though oddly named for Newcastle landmarks, from city wall (“gallow gate”) to park (“distant leazes”) to housing developments. It’s only in the concluding “distant leazes” that the distinct instrumental identities are pronounced, and there the two instruments were recorded two years apart, that act of overdubbing resulting as well in more linear work.

That sense of the interior journey is often as intense on Under the Roof, an acoustic duet between Butcher and Swiss pianist Claudia Ulla Binder, though the individual instruments are usually more distinct and references to the outside world more literal. Here it’s the piano’s interior that functions as the sign of inner life. On the opening “Lofty,” Binder counters Butcher’s pecking soprano line with sustained string tones created with an e-bow before adding keyboard notes to Butcher’s expanding multiphonics. On “Troves” Binder creates wind-blown, fluttering sounds on the piano’s strings while Butcher works from key sounds and muffled tones to airy tenor lyricism and an extended outburst of strange saxophone kissing sounds. The acoustic tenor saxophone of “Raincoat” suggests electronic glitches. This sense of the world transformed is emphasized in the number of bird invocations, everyday articles and construction terms in the titles, creatures, things and technologies taking on new dimension and significance. The sliding string-tones and interior drumming of the piano and chirping whistles of the soprano on “Black Martin, Female” are as fully unearthly as many of the electronic textures of Carliol, at once evocative and unspecific. There’s a sense here, too, of exchanging roles, so that if the CD begins in Butcher’s linear mode and Binder’s sustained tones, by “Black Martin, Male” the roles have reversed, with Butcher setting sustained multiphonics against Binder’s crisply articulated lines. On “Kestrel,” each piano cluster will trigger a sudden blooming saxophone flight. Often these pieces are very short, sudden glimpses of a novel world, like the high-pitched whistling sounds and muted piano tones of “housemice,” brief entry into a secret life of music.    

Each of these CDs possesses wonders of exchange and moments of the rarest clarity and invention, consistently testing the potential of duo improvisation and frequently taking it to new ground.
–Stuart Broomer


Claudia Quintet + Gary Versace
Royal Toast
Cuneiform 307

As one confronts the rising tide of CD releases, it’s tempting to cry – like Thurber, rather than King Canute – “what do you want to be prolific for, Cynthia?” With John Hollenbeck, there’s no reason for the question, even rhetorically, for everything he puts his name to claims a worthwhile place, and clearly answers some specific creative need. His large ensemble record Eternal Interlude was my most-played release of 2009, a deeply consoling and satisfying set of compositions that didn’t lack for muscle and edge in addition.

The small group work – and it’s Claudia, rather than Cynthia – is equally compelling. I make this the fourth record by the named group, starting with a fine eponymous release in 2002 but really making the jazz world sit up and take notice with Semi-Formal. The new one is already coming up fast in the favorites’ lane, with enough of the misterioso brooding of Eternal Interlude to establish a continuity but more of the insistent percussive drive Hollenbeck brings to combo situations. The prevailing mood, though, is sombre, and almost elegiac. The closing “For Frederick Frank” completes a sequence that in “Ideal Standard” and “American Standard” seems to articulate something important, but not yet finally worked out, about Hollenbeck’s attitude to jazz language and rhythm.

It’s actually the guest musician, Gary Versace, who introduces this important section, on piano this time rather than organ, completing the round of short cadenzas by the individual players, most of them dialogues-with-self. Saxophonist Chris Speed is overdubbed on his introit to the title track, while “Ted Versus Ted”, “Drew With Drew” and “Matt on Matt” similarly spotlight accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and vibist Matt Moran. These aren’t simply filler material. They make an important point about the internal dynamic of the group, in which the players seem invited or granted permission to confront their own stylistic boundaries, playing in and out of character at once. It’s an effective way of establishing a group identity, as well as making the record a sophisticated studio artefact rather than merely a blowing document.

Hollenbeck makes the point most clearly – as inevitably he would, given the nature of his instrument – in the introduction to “Keramag”, a funky idea that evolves out of a sprung rhythm so extended it almost feels free. Gress similarly provides an enigmatic prelude to “Sphinx”, which emerges in march time, oddly similar to some of the things Anthony Braxton was writing in the 70s. (Even the Egyptological reference points vaguely in that direction.)

The slight difficulty of the record is that while parts of it hint at a continuous suite of ideas, there are also stand-alone tracks which don’t fit that model but contain enough musical information to spin off an average jazz date each. Even the opening “Crane Merit” suggests multiple possibilities, while “Armitage Shank” (a plumbing reference that could be taken several different ways!) doesn’t quite spring logically from Reichman’s intro but rather subverts it. The title piece is pure, distilled Hollenbeck, witty, lateral, insistently driven but with a one-hand-on-the-wheel insouciance. Along with Matt Wilson, he’s the most interesting jazz percussionist around at the moment and though, unlike Matt, he tends to keep the humour reined in, it’s unmistakably there and all the subtler for being restrained. What’s especially interesting about this recording is how easily Versace is assimilated. Even though he is a featured artist, and one could in places subtract him from the equation and identify a familiar “Claudia” practice going on, he doesn’t sound in any way supernumerary or antithetical to the group’s established idiom.

It’s a record that is perhaps best absorbed slowly and by stages, but it is essential listening and consolidates the Quintet’s high standing on the current scene. A cis-atlantic tour draws nigh. Can’t wait.
–Brian Morton


Henceforth Records 108

Dither is a New York-based guitar quartet, unusual in that the four guitars are electric and much of the music performed here is through-composed, including verbal and graphic scores. It’s unusual, too, in maintaining much of the traditional split between composers and interpretive performers. There are five composers represented here and only one, Joshua Lopes, is actually a member of Dither, otherwise made up of Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and James Moore. It’s an oddly formal distinction, for the performances can reach levels of volume and insistence that are usually reached without a program. The CD opens and closes with aural shock treatment. After a quiet lacework of isolated harmonics and hum, Lainie Fefferman’s “Crown of Thorns” suddenly turns to a crushing repeated chord that suggests the Velvet Underground, or even loops of the Velvet Underground, humming feedback and overtones providing variety. The conclusion, Erik km Clark’s “exPat,” is even more provocative, a hearing deprivation piece in which the four guitarists play the same music while wearing headphones that blast white noise, making it impossible to hear one another.  In between, though, there are more immediately engaging moments as the group collaborates with composers to explore the electric guitar’s range of tunings and textures, often contrasting rock-inspired skronk with a subtle control of quarter- tones. The CD’s most compelling moments come in Lisa R. Coons “Cross-sections,” a four-part, 24-minute work that begins with broken rhythms that can suggest Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band and the surf band staple “Bumble-Boogie,” only to extend to a long segment called “Prolix” that demonstrates Dither’s remarkable abilities to match high levels of control and complexity. It’s an intriguing debut by a group that summarizes much of the electric guitar’s history (from Dick Dale to Fred Frith) and mines further possibilities of their own.
–Stuart Broomer

Intakt Records

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