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Reviews of Recent Recordings
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AACM Great Black Music Ensemble
Live @ The Currency Exchange Café Volume 1
AACM Chicago Productions (no number)

Now that the AACM has passed the half-century mark, it’s important to remember that the organization has always had multiple goals. Education, community organizing, and spiritual uplift sit at the center of all the varied musical practices the AACM has cultivated. And while many fans rightly associate the AACM with some of its more famed members, this album is a vivid reminder that not only does the talent run crazy deep on the South Side, the music is inseparable from those larger goals that are as important as ever.

Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins leads a group of seasoned AACM musicians for this live date. Along for the invention are percussionist Art Turk Burton, drummer Jeremiah Collier, bassist Micah Collier, trumpeter Jerome Croswell, cornetist Ben Lamar Gay, tenor saxophonist Ed House, soprano saxophonist/flautist Adam Zanolini, Saalik Ziyad (on keyboards, electronics, and vocals) and flautist/vocalist Taalib-Din Ziyad. Over the course of the set, which is basically one long guided improvisation, there’s a lot of musical reference and emotional range. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lengthy opener, “Ancient to the Future, Power Stronger Than Itself.” The music is patient and spacious, with bells and soft vocal intonations eventually leading to a slinky groove. In the interplay between horns, rhythm, and vocals, the piece calls out for consciousness and historical knowledge. Nothing is overly didactic, though, just joyous, tasty, and exploratory.

The segues and changes are so elegant, and the playing so coherent, that it’s genuinely surprising that none of this is composed. Very impressive, indeed. “Great Black Music” is deep futuristic funk, midway between the JB’s and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and it’s filled with tasty chanting and some lush brass. “Vision of Possibilities” is terrific, a mid-tempo deep swing with saxophones soaring over congas. With an expressive reprise of “Great Black Music,” the ensemble heats up considerably. Dense horn voicings and a tempo shift lead to “The Call” – the horns are so happening throughout this piece, and Dawkins smartly has the rest of the ensemble drop out at one point so as to spotlight them.

A trio of briefer pieces follows: “Peace,” an elegant drone for soprano sax, the righteous flute/percussion exchanges on “in the,” and the grooving “East,” a feature for Ziyad’s tuneful vocalese. The set reaches its natural culmination with the rowdy “Way Out East,” where the Colliers do some heavy lifting. The horns echo like the music of the spheres, caterwauling and refraining up high against Ziyad’s just-so electronic firmament. And after the lovely, sparse percussion coda in “Bells,” you’re left eager for Volume 2.
–Jason Bivins

 

Joshua Abrams + Natural Information Society
Mandatory Reality
Eremite Records MTE-71/72x2CD

Bassist/ composer Joshua Abrams has been developing his Natural Information Society (NIS) for over a decade, both as band and concept. He plays a guimbri in the group, the bass lute associated with the Gnawa people of Morocco, most notably the late Maâlem Mahmoud Ghania (whose Trance of the Seven Colors with Pharoah Sanders is a marvel). The guimbri is associated with hypnotic ostinatos and that’s an essential component of NIS’s music, which also has ties to the minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

In that decade, Abrams has released several LPs, each a step forward in terms of methodology, expanding the scale of the band and the breadth of the music: Natural Information (a concept before it was a band), Represencing, Magnetoception, and Simultonality. Along the way, drummer Frank Rosaly, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and guitarists Jeff Parker and Emmett Kelly have been among the participants.

On Mandatory Reality, available as a two-LP or two-CD set, there’s a core group from the most recent LPs: Lisa Alvarado on gongs and harmonium, Mikel Patrick Avery on gongs and tam-tam, Ben Boye on electric autoharp and piano, and Hamid Drake on tabla and tar. This time there’s also a complement of horns: Ben Lamar Gay on cornet, Nick Mazzarella on alto saxophone, and Jason Stein on bass clarinet. Unlike earlier recordings that employed overdubbing, editing and sometimes personnel shifts from track to track, Mandatory Reality is much closer to NIS’s live performances: long pieces recorded as complete performances.

Development in a NIS piece is incremental, sometimes microscopic; band and listener alike are drawn ever further into repeated rhythmic figures. The ostinato of the opening “In Memory’s Prism” floats on delicate, ringing metal percussion redolent of the Far East. It sounds ceremonial, but it is carried to lengths, around 24 minutes, that make it instead a kind of ceremony of consciousness. At 40 minutes, “Finite” is longer still. Following a brief guimbri opening, more invocation than solo, the piece begins to float on Hamid Drake’s tabla pattern, growing ever richer on the three winds’ simple interlocking patterns and rich sonorities. When solos emerge, and they do emerge here, they rise through the network of patterns, barely varying it.

The second CD is devoted to two shorter, contrasting pieces. “Shadow Conductor” is a 12-minute pulse piece, at once constant and ever changing, with occasional narrow variations, individual shifts in phrasing, pitch and rhythm. The concluding “Agree” has the entire octet switching to various vernacular flutes to create a hive of reedy, airy sonic light.

Abrams is exploring a musical zone with tremendous potential, one focussed directly on the impact of insistent sound, repetition and rhythm on consciousness. Like traditional trance musics (Africa, India and Persia), it’s illuminating work, seemingly eroding barriers between self and other, creating a kind of bliss. In listening to these piece, subjective experience expands, while the objectively describable manifestation of the music contracts to the vaguest description. With Mandatory Reality, Abrams’ available documentation of the project has increased significantly.
–Stuart Broomer

 

Sophie Agnel + John Edwards + Steve Noble
Aqisseq
ONJ JF010

With the briefest list of their instruments, pianist Sophie Agnel, bassist John Edwards, and drummer Steve Noble might look like a traditional piano trio, but they’re far from the usual relations and sense of hierarchy. Rather, they’re a trio of equal, strong, and defining voices, often tending toward a single, compound voice. Forget traditional roles of harmony, bass, and rhythm, and the sheer physical presence of the three instruments asserts itself. Unlike most instruments, each takes up a lot of space. There’s something about sheer spatial volume that presses each into the orbits of the others: this convergence finds its concordance in their sounds and ranges and densities. Freed from traditional function, each instrument invites timbral exploration, while at once touching on a tradition in which each functioned to some degree percussively.

The three musicians are often working within one another’s sounds and through short repeating figures, whether individual or compounded of their different voices. We might momentarily isolate and identify the instruments’ individual sounds, but the process separates us from the insistent unity of the music, leaving us no longer hearing the whole. Distinctions between parts are sometimes barely defined, and Agnel’s use of the piano’s interior, Edwards’ thundering bow and Noble’s subtle use of drums extend their resemblances. Sounds elude identity. Does a scraped cymbal pass for bowed bass? Do hyper-resonant, longitudinally scratched strings belong to piano, bass, or both?

The escape from, and transformation of, a strong instrumental tradition fuses the three instruments, the three achieving both orchestral breadth and very high levels of improvised synchrony. It’s a special combination of density and clarity that resists pulling apart, a fresh conception so tightly formed that an attempt at linear description could only lead away from it.
–Stuart Broomer

 

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
Pi Recordings 80

But on the edge of what? First of all, let’s give thanks that the AEC is not only still breathing, but positively thriving, despite the loss of so many original members. Reedist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famodou Don Moye are still holding it down, and are still as conceptually ambitious and sonically dexterous as ever. And for this two-disc whopper, they preside over the largest AEC yet on record.

The ensemble is documented both in studio and in an Ann Arbor concert. For each session they play a load of new Mitchell compositions interspersed with some AEC classics. It is, in brief, one of the most powerful statements from the AEC I’ve heard in quite some time. I mean this in terms of how accomplished and wide-ranging the music is. But I also mean it in its larger cultural and political sense, always a part of the AEC and here very explicit, nowhere more so than on the stunning tracks featuring the vocal artist and poet Moor Mother.

She and fellow vocalist Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron are only on the studio tracks, but they’re both essential to the music’s power. Like a lot of these Mitchell pieces, “Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace” is fulsome and textural, with elegant strings (violinist Jean Cook, violist Edward Yoon Kwon, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassists Silvia Bolognesi, Jaribu Shahid, and Junius Paul) and tart trumpets (Hugh Ragin and Fred Berry) standing out from the swirling sound. Cordova-Lebron’s classically trained voice is clarion, evoking the piece’s subject matter in its blending with the lush strings. A lot of this music is similarly understated, gorgeous but no less powerful because of its restraint. The resonant bell tone that opens Moye’s “Bell Song” captures this, too, and one can’t help but be impressed (here and throughout) by the excellent Christina Wheeler (vocals and electronics). After this lovely tone poem, though, the AEC dials up some stirring section work and bright trumpet to start off the title track. The piece gathers momentum with an intense pizzicato groove and then Moor Mother just electrifies things. Her arresting delivery and fierce observations are jaw-droppingly good: “A map of ritual brought us here to the edge of ourselves, to the edge of what’s new,” for example, or “Dripping in blood from the rat race / Blue-black stain in the flag of liberty.” The AEC just pulses with energy as she moves through the various edges: of victory, of existing, of an open fire, a new Hell.

“I Greet You with Open Arms” seems to herald in that new era, as Moor Mother enters the music of skittering strings and spaced-out texture to greet us with open arms and 1,000 bombs. She and Mitchell trade phrases intensely, as the vocalist intones “out of the void, out of the myth,” and as the strings slash away to close this piece, she spits out “bring back the magic!”

The back half of the studio session finds the AEC in more familiar, but no less satisfying territory. Flautist Nicole Mitchell is terrific throughout, but she’s especially glorious on Moye’s “Chi-Congo 50,” whose rising thicket of bubbling sound leads to a groove that’s almost Fela-like (kudos to Moye and fellow percussionists Dudu Kouate, Enoch Williamson, and Titos Sampa). Lester Bowie’s “Villa Tiamo” is a brief bagatelle for strings and the leader, clearing the palate before Moye’s infectious “Saturday Morning” and the boisterous “Mama Koko.” These tunes in particular – featuring aqueous passages, ethereal electronics and vocals, and stone grooves – show how powerfully the AEC can range over the whole continuum of Great Black Music. Both Mitchell’s “Fanfare and Bell” and Moye’s “Oasis at Dusk” are outer-space tone poems that also sound completely naturalistic.

The live shot from Ann Arbor opens with solo trumpet on the quarter-hour “We Are on the Edge/Cards.” It’s a pretty tight spotlight on the strings and twinned trumpets, making for a lovely distillation of Mitchell’s compositional strengths. Many of the details – particularly overlapping timbres and durations – benefit from the church acoustic, much to the listener’s delight. Much of the concert consists of tunes familiar from the first disc. This version of “Oasis” is even more spacey, with huge contributions from Wheeler and flautist Mitchell in particular. “Saturday Morning” jams similarly, and the live “Chi-Congo” is laser focused, all hand percussion, reminding us of the consistent heart of the AEC across these many decades. But “Mama Koko” without Moor Mother is fascinating, far more abstract, with a spotlight on the tight horns in the frontline and the strings mesmerizing throughout.

And what a treat to hear this large group deal out a slinky, 20-minute version of Malachi Favors Maghostut’s “Tutankhamun” and an assured “Odwalla.” Soulful, inventive, surprising, and brimming with conviction. It’s an absolute triumph. Onward!
–Jason Bivins

 

Peter Brötzmann + Heather Leigh
Sparrow Nights
Trost Records TR 180

Sparrow Nights – the follow up to reed titan Peter Brötzmann and pedal steel virtuoso Heather Leigh’s 2017 album Sex Tape – opens up with a somewhat subdued Brötzmann on tenor, who, with a softer subtone and a touch of vibrato at the ends of his nearly balladic phrases, almost evokes Ben Webster gone slightly sideways. Could it be the sign of a kinder, gentler Brötzmann to come? It feels odd to write this, but considering the personnel, Sparrow Nights is almost an austere, serene album. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of fire, edge, harshness, and volume, but there’s a strangely quiet, meditative quality as well.

Whereas Sex Tape is a single 47-minute festival recording, Sparrow Nights is a lengthy studio album spread over ten tracks. Despite the number of individual pieces, Leigh uses a relatively small vocabulary that she thoroughly explores, which provides the album with a kind of unifying idée fixe. On the second track – “This Word Love” – she plays a two note figure, letting the second note ring out. Then the same two note rhythm, this time down a fourth, repeats and rings; and then back up a fourth to begin again. The next cut, “It’s Almost Dark” features a variation of Leigh’s repeating figure (this time it’s thicker, louder, and more electric) and it’s four minutes before Brötzmann enters on tenor. At other times, Leigh arpeggiates the same chord in rapid succession, inverting it, adding or subtracting notes. She also adds interest by changing the tone and timbre of her guitar, as on “This Time Around,” on which she adds a heavy dose of distortion. As the album progresses the repeated two note rhythm and arpeggiated chords return in new guises, continually adding new details to discover. Throughout, her atmospheric pedal steel hangs ominously over the listener with a sense of stillness in the ways a dark blue line of thunder cells lay in wait over the prairie.

All of Leigh’s work sets the framework for Brötzmann, who brings out alto, tenor, and bass saxophones, as well as b-flat, bass, and contra-alto clarinets. While he plays his trademark furious lines and fractures the sound of his instruments until they are almost unrecognizable (is that alto or clarinet; bass saxophone or bass clarinet?), he also makes use of long, held, repeated notes in ways that compliment Leigh. There are also times where he keeps things so simple that if a middle school clarinetist was handed a transcription of some of his solos that reside in the throaty chalumeau range, she would be able to play them. Brötzmann is at his most powerful on the album’s final two tracks: “My Empty Heart” and “The Longer We’re Apart.” On the former, one hears desperate emotiveness – is he lashing out in anger, crying for help, or exclaiming joy? – while on the latter he uncontrollably sobs on what might be bass clarinet.

Between Leigh’s inventive and thematically related soundscapes and Brötzmann’s more tempered yet no less intense playing, the listener isn’t bombarded with too much information, and can turn off the outside world, sit with the music, soak it in, and just be. And that is a mighty gift.
–Chris Robinson


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