Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
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Achim Kaufmann
Mnemon
Nuscope 1033 CD

Over the course of the last three decades, pianist Achim Kaufmann has made around 70 recordings in various configurations. So it is astonishing to note that this is only his third solo release. Instead, Kaufmann has dedicated his time to his trio with Frank Gratkowski and Wilbert de Joode, various projects in collaboration with reed player Michael Moore, and a number of revolving duos, trios, and ensembles. In each of the settings, Kaufmann finds propitious inroads for his meticulous technique, fleet angular attack, and keen harmonic ear. He has a knack for building his lines out motivic kernels which he fragments and dynamically rearranges with a fluid constructivist sensibility. On his previous solo release, Later, from 2014, he interspersed original themes with pieces by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Hans Eisler, Michael Moore, Bob Dylan, and Syd Barrett. This time out, he builds the program from 14 originals, with tight readings between three and six minutes long.

Performing on a Steinway D piano, a massive concert grand, Kaufmann makes the most of the expansive range and booming resonance of the instrument. The incisive liner notes by Georg Graewe, one of Kaufmann’s mentors, talks about the tradition of “free fantasies,” piano improvisations performed by 19th century composers. Graewe places Kaufmann’s explorations on this release in that tradition of performances based on “musical ideas and structural adventure rather than celebrating the piano.” From the first flurried glissandos across the keyboard, Kaufmann attacks the instrument with relish, charting out compact phrases which are fragmented, refracted, amended, and woven back in with sure harmonic and structural command. Meters are teased apart with trigger reflexes and reassembled into pieces that course with propulsive vigor. The masterful recording captures the nuanced range of the instrument from pieces of flurried density like “Bigger Tree,” to more open ruminations like “Delphine, At Twenty-Two” to the serpentine torrents of “Off Tessellation.” Kaufmann constructs the overall development and flow of the recording with a keen ear, shaping an engaging program from the components of the individual pieces.
–Michael Rosenstein

 

Ingrid Laubrock
Contemporary Chaos Practices – Two Works for Orchestra with Soloists
Intakt 314

If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to creative improvised music in the past many years, you’ll have noticed how much stellar music saxophonist/composer Ingrid Laubrock has been releasing. Long known for her measured, incisive improvising, Laubrock’s last few Intakt releases confirm what a seriously formidable composer she is. Contemporary Chaos Practices is her most ambitious venture yet. It’s also her most successful.

For this one, Laubrock has a full orchestra (conducted by Eric Wubbels and Taylor Ho Bynum). There are (deep breath): two contrabasses, three cellists, three violists, nine violinists (although Mark Feldman plays only on “Vogelfrei” and Sarah Goldfeather only on the title suite), two bassoonists, three clarinetists, two flautists (who double on piccolo), two double reedists, two French horn players, two trombonists, one tubaist and trumpeter, two percussionists, and eight vocalists. The soloists are guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and Laubrock. On “Vogelfrei,” the excellent Josh Sinton also wields an amplified contrabass clarinet.

The 24-minute title suite makes full use of this instrumental range over its four parts. Laubrock favors extreme contrast in register and especially in dynamics. After the huge opening blast of noise, the piece shifts into a mutant concerto for Halvorson in lonely space (with worried, warbling sounds from Wooley and others) and from there into a little grove of wet and crinkling noise. The topography of ideas is as dense as the instrumentation, then. But nothing ever feels claustrophobic, nor is it ever too disorienting, despite Laubrock’s preference for atmosphere over narrative.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’re looking for something to hang onto, you can focus on the gorgeous composed section work Laubrock layers into her compositions. The balance of the piece, though, takes its cue from composers like Ligeti and Xenakis in creating a series of seemingly disconnected effects that, taken together, assume an unexpected coherence. Descending lines scoot off; rising string glissandi coil between whooping brass or skulking clarinets; strange chords move from background to foreground. Sounds merge, blend, and emerge transformed. But just when you become absorbed in the totality, one of the soloists pops up, as when Kris Davis deals out some tasty, chime-like intervallic playing.

It may not be chaos, other than in the scientific sense, but there are plenty of unexpected passages like this: big hip-hop bomb drops of noise floating through the sound spectrum; near-silent metallic scrapings; passages of Messiaen-like harmonic grandeur; or odd sections that sound like mutated Ives songs. This piece is a major statement.

Equally strong and assured is the 18-minute “Vogelfrei.” A single silver sheen is held over opening minutes. Double reeds speak out. Davis follows spiky lines downwards, riding a lovely gliss from the strings. Unlike the title suite, in this one Laubrock spends many minutes wringing manifold possibilities from the warp of a drone. But then it opens up into a resplendent, Ligeti-influenced piece for strings and vocals. Sinton comes through strongly during this section, and the effect is marvelous. Here you get an even clearer sense of how Laubrock uses compositional catalysts for spontaneity. As ever, Halvorson and Wooley sound fabulous in the thick of the heady swirl of sound. And as the piece saws softly to a close, it’s hard to believe how much music Laubrock has packed into just over 40 minutes.

This is an exceptional record from one of the music’s most distinctive rising compositional voice. Wherever her ambition takes her next, Laubrock clearly has the skills to realize it.
–Jason Bivins

 

George Lewis + Roscoe Mitchell
Voyage and Homecoming
Rogueart ROG-0086

Recorded at the CTM festival in Berlin four months after the passing of Muhal Richard Abrams, Voyage and Homecoming can be heard as an elegy to the visionary artist by The Trio’s surviving members, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. The input of a Yamaha Disklavier driven by Lewis’ interactive Voyager software in the mid-section of this performance could support this notion, if its opening rhapsodic solo – and much of what follows in the ensuring duo and trio passages – bore a more obvious resemblance to Abrams’ playing. Where the legacy of The Trio is most immediately felt is in the fastidiousness in the development of materials within each of the performance’s three sections, and the resulting emotional arc. In this regard, the album lives up to its name.

“Quanta” commences with an ominous laptop-generated scape, its menace reinforced by soft, strangled sopranino notes and multiphonic textures. Lewis introduces a loping rhythm by foregrounding the muffled thud of a sampled sintir, which coaxes a fuller sound from Mitchell. Increasingly complex samples further nudge Mitchell towards an apex that is truncated by a female voice repeating, “unable to continue” – a brilliant gesture to end the piece.

Lewis’ entrance on trombone following the Disklavier solo on “Voyager” is arguably the highlight of the album, one of the finer examples of how he takes a fluid sense of line and a sound that rings of Lawrence Brown, J.J. Johnson, and Albert Mangelsdorff, to create an august presence. Mitchell’s iconic alto sound – plangent, doleful, and a tad sour – complements Lewis’ in the concluding trio section of “Voyager.” Intriguingly, the responsiveness of the Disklavier becomes obvious when triangulating the two horns.

A mingling of soprano and trombone, “Homecoming” is an appropriate finishing touch to the concert, solemn and respectful, a summation ending with an ellipsis.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Wadada Leo Smith
Rosa Parks: Pure Love
TUM CD 057

Wadada Leo Smith’s intricate and ravishing oratorio, a meditation on civil rights activist Rosa Parks, must rank as one of his greatest achievements as a composer-performer. The music fuses the philosophical, spiritual, personal, and historical so persuasively that they cohere into a grand vision of love and responsibility, of mutual obligation and self-empowerment. All of Smith’s music is a manifestation of his philosophy, of course, but perhaps because the lyrics to the songs at the heart of the work directly address the many facets of his beliefs, the unity of Smith’s vision shines with a special radiant clarity in this work.

The ensemble is comprised of the RedKoral string quartet; the Blue Trumpet Quartet, which includes Smith, Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin, and Graham Haynes; the Diamond Voices, a trio of singers Min Xiao-Fen (who also plays pipa), Carmina Escobar, and Karen Parks; the Janus Duo, comprised of drummer Pheeroan akLaff and electronics by Hardedge; and excerpts of recorded solos by Smith, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Steve McCall, all members of what came to be known as the Creative Construction Company. It’s a large company, but it never feels unwieldy since Smith deploys them in different combinations and treats each ensemble as its own entity as well as part of the larger whole.

The music blends standard notation and Smith’s own Ahkrasmation notation and while it makes room for improvisation in several ways, the distinction between ways of composing music, written or spontaneous, is magically erased. In the end, we hear a present-tense creative music of overwhelming power.

Rosa Parks: Pure Love opens with a bold instrumental “Prelude” and continues through the turbulent “Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity” and “Mercy, Music for Double Quartet.” The mounting tensions are soothed by the first of seven songs, “Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Smith, who wrote the lyrics to all but one of the songs, writes about the “bending arc of history” echoing Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And like King’s sentence, the song bends toward its final word, “Justice.”

The fourth song, the center of the sequence, is appropriately enough, “The Truth,” and it is the most celestial of the songs. “My life is action with love/And with peace my will is strong,” sings Carmina Escobar. “There is only truth.” The serenity of the music and the purity of Escobar’s voice turns the song into a credo, a formulation for righteous action, whether it’s the creation of art, a political movement, or personal relationship. These sentiments are echoed by the next song, “No Fear,” a setting of a quote from Parks herself, that says in part, “Knowing what must be done, does away with fear.” The piece ends with two instrumentals, a reminder that the struggle continues in “The Known World: Apartheid” and an affirmative “Postlude: Victory!”

There are instrumental interludes between songs and the earlier recordings of the members of the Creative Construction Company are used as segues. I think we are meant to see the struggle for artistic liberation that Braxton, Jenkins, McCall, and Smith undertook as a different branch of the same tree from which the Civil Rights movement grew. Thus, Smith unites spiritual awakening, political struggle, and personal striving for artistic integrity into a universal message of healing music and moral suasion.

Make no mistake, this is a major, ambitious statement from a musician who has specialized in major, ambitious works in the past few years. It’s a paen to both a remarkable individual and to the ideals of freedom and spiritual love.
–Ed Hazell

 

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