Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings
(continued)

 

Charles Amirkhanian
Loudspeakers
New World NW 80817CD

It remains a surprise when encountering an enthusiast of new American music that the name Charles Amirkhanian only faintly rings a bell. Perhaps it is reflective of a subtle bias that keeps West Coast composers in the background of the group photo that has the New York School and Minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich front and center. Now approaching 75, the Californian has not only produced a long litany of essential works in the areas of sound-text and electronic works utilizing natural sounds, but has fostered an audience for a host of composers through his long tenure as music director for KPFA, the original Pacifica radio station in Berkeley, administering festivals and residency programs, and recording Conlon Nancarrow’s works for player piano for the 1750 Arch label.

The timing, then, for this two-disc set could not be better, as it makes a compelling case for Amrikhanian’s breadth of vision, attention to details, and penchant for beauty, of which new music could always use more. Smart sequencing strengthens its case, particularly leading with the accessible Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997-2000), a reference-rich ten-section work. Amirkhanian has a half-century practice of referencing influential composers; using piano rolls and synclavier-processed recordings for source materials, he creates a frequently dizzying mash of composers as diverse as Stravinsky and Percy Grainger (the latter in a piece that draws on Handel), the often beyond-human speed of materials rivalling Nancarrow’s pieces. Im Frühling (1989-90) slowly transforms field recordings into synthetic sounds that provide intriguing counterpoint, the sound sources being sufficiently blurred by the end of this thoroughly engaging piece to wonder whether it concludes with the sounds of thunder, or synthesized tympani.

The pieces on the second disc are somewhat more challenging. Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1997) begins with the sounds of birds, elephant seals and surf before blending in the laughter and conversation of people from Tonga and a loop from a Chinese language soap opera, all of which is interspersed with snippets of toy piano and organ, and a longer clip of hand percussion. In the last third of the piece, drones and simple melodies emerge, a nod to the city’s fostering of tape music, eastward-looking composers like Lou Harrison, and radicals like Terry Riley and La Monte Young.  There’s an element of you-had-to-be-there with Loudspeakers (for Morton Feldman) (1988-90), which is built upon a taped interview with the iconic composer, who was also a legendary raconteur. Feldman’s Queens accent is essential to Amirkhanian’s layering and repeating of phonemes, while his comments on everyone from Berlioz to Frank O’Hara have an innate propulsive shape to them. Amirkhanian also employs some of Feldman’s techniques, like voice-leading, the way melody connects chords with, often, a subliminal impact on the listener.

There is nothing subliminal about the impact of this important collection.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Reid Anderson + Dave King + Craig Taborn
Golden Valley is Now
Intakt CD 325

In 1982 Dave King met Craig Taborn at a basement party in their hometown of Golden Valley, a suburb of Minneapolis. Along with their mutual friend Reid Anderson, the pair forged a lifelong friendship and musical partnership, the fruits of which are on full display on the trio’s superb instrumental synth-pop album Golden Valley is Now.

The trio’s brilliance is that its music is so enjoyable and irresistible that the depth of the craft goes down so effortlessly. On a close examination it becomes even more impressive. It’s rigorous, but easy at the same time. This is probably due to Anderson, King, and Taborn letting melody and groove do the bulk of the work. Rather than using a composition as the springboard for improvisation, it’s as if they collectively agreed that “that was nice, let’s play that a couple more times.” Solos, which are rare, develop out of the tune and never stray too far. The compositions’ building blocks are multiple melodic themes that the trio sequences, shuffle, and return to, almost as if they were taking inspiration from the rondo form. Textures are often thin, as melodies are often rendered in single note lines, and dissonance is rare.

Often when a theme returns the texture may change: Taborn may use a slightly different tone or add a new counter-melody, or King might decide to pull out some dirty clack-clap from his electric drums. The opening track, “City Diamond,” makes this immediately apparent, as it features multiple themes that appear in slightly different guises throughout. The second iteration of the “a” theme is brighter and voiced higher than when it first appeared, and Taborn takes the chord figures of the “c” theme and uses them in the left hand as the accompaniment for his solo.

Anderson’s “Song One” – one of the album’s standout cuts – opens with Taborn’s capacious, ringing synth over Anderson’s pedal bass figure and King’s understated but propulsive drums. About two minutes in the trio abruptly stops, and when they come back a few seconds later the song becomes an absolute banger. Where Taborn’s melody in the first part was the focus, he places it a bit into the background and lets King and Anderson go into full rock hero mode. Even though Anderson’s ostinato and King’s cymbal-laden groove rarely vary, it never becomes repetitive or monotonous; in fact, it somehow gets more captivating as they go on.

There are almost too many highlights to point out, from how King’s “High Waist Drifter” and Anderson’s “The End of the World” take me back to a couple of my favorite late-90s/early 00s indie rock bands, to how the logical sequencing gives the album a narrative flow.

Golden Valley is Now – like few albums in any genre I’ve heard over the past few years – illuminates the power of a tight ensemble, a great hook, and an infectious groove. An absolute gem.
–Chris Robinson

 

Angles 9
Beyond Us
Clean Feed CF528CD

The new album from the nonet Angles 9 (Magnus Broo, trumpet; Gioran Kajfeš, cornet; Martin Küchen, alto and tenor saxophones; Eirik Hegdal, baritone saxophone; Mats Äleklint, trombone; Mattias Ståhl, vibes; Alexander Zethson, piano; Johan Berthling, bass; Andreas Werliin, drums) is a stimulating live recording made at the 2018 Zomer Jazz Fiets in the Netherlands. It strikes a perfect balance between the ensemble and the individual, and expertly walks the razor-sharp edge that separates a slightly restrictive tightness from the exciting risk that the wheels could come off.

The ensemble writing – which is somewhat reminiscent of that of Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus – largely has the horn players staying in the bottom end of their range, and is generally dark and foreboding. Horn parts are rendered in large slabs of sound that carve through the ensemble with the unstoppable momentum of a glacier. Neither the solos nor compositions go anywhere in a hurry; the tunes unfold in minutes, not measures. And as the ensemble parts go on, individual players begin to embellish their written melodies, briefly peeling away from the front line and adding new colors, textures, and ideas in the process. In this way, the approach and effect is not much different from how a New Orleans brass band would signify on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Moreover, the members of Angles 9 convey the same deep sense of joy and spirit in their playing as a brass band. It’s almost as if European free jazz meets New Orleans.

The title track opens proceedings with a relentless, forward driving quarter note ostinato in the bass, piano, and cymbal. Ståhl enters on vibes, and over the course of his solo he meets horns playing the head, is briefly interrupted by a solitary tenor cry from Küchen, and negotiates some ragged horn lines before giving way to Kajfeš on cornet. All the while, a nastiness lurks in the shadows. In this piece and throughout the album, the ensemble tricks the listener into expecting an extended horn soli or a new solo, only to pull the rug away and go in a different direction. The twelve and a half minute “U(n)happiez Marriages” showcases the group’s dedication to the slow build and shifting the focus throughout the band. The tune doesn’t appear until almost three minutes in. Midway through the piece, Äleklint takes an excellent, lengthy bone solo before the band drops away for Berthling on bass. The ensemble returns with trills and cries that set up Broo on trumpet, who solos over the horns as the piece fades out. The album concludes with the uptempo “Mali,” which Werliin introduces with pure rock drums. It features a marauding saxophone line, a scalding solo from Äleklint, and an unexpected horn section riff that could be borrowed from a headlining pop act. It’s a fun and high energy close to the set.

A raucous good time, Beyond Us is easily one of my favorite albums of 2019.
–Chris Robinson

 

Albert Ayler Quartets 1964
Spirits to Ghosts Revisited
ezz-thetics 1101

Marion Brown
Capricorn Moon to Juba Lee Revisited
ezz-thetics 1102



ezz-thetics is the new label from hat hut and hatOLOGY founder Werner X. Uehlinger. In addition to releasing new material, Uehlinger is issuing archival compilations, initiating his new catalogue with collections of early dates by Albert Ayler and Marion Brown. These two exuberant, super CDs are from the 1960s, when these eager young second-generation free-jazz artists burst onto the scene. Spirits is the Debut LP of Ayler with trumpeter Norman Howard, while Ghosts is the Debut LP of Ayler with Don Cherry recorded in Copenhagen – the session data cites New York. These have been reissued on CDs, but long, long ago. Even though the copyright laws in Switzerland place works of art into the public domain after 50 years, as opposed to the 70 years of copyright in European Union countries, Uehlinger gained permission from Ayler’s estate.

The Marion Brown CD has two of the three quartet pieces with flugelhornist Alan Shorter from Capricorn Moon, a 1965 ESP date. Brown also recorded a quartet piece with tenorist Bennie Maupin instead of Shorter at the same date, which is not included. All four tracks were reissued on an ESP-Disk CD that was available new for about a minute in 2005. So what Revisited presents is 2/3 of the original date. The other two tracks are half of his 1966 Fontana septet LP Juba-Lee, which Fontana reissued on CD in 1990. Both of these sessions have also been reissued on CD at various other times around the world, sometimes by suspicious-looking sources.

Are you as confused as I am yet?

The Brown collection includes two compositions by Alan Shorter. The quartet version of “Mephistopheles” is a beauty, creepy, dissonant, much better played and at a faster tempo than on Wayne Shorter’s The All-Seeing Eye the year before. Alan’s solo here is more together than his trumpet solo on his brother’s version. He’s crafty, he builds solos in classic ways, and he likes to play trills in anticlimaxes; he begins his “Iditus” (his song for the septet) solo in trills – these trills are unique to him. Again and again, his solos escape from the rhythmic tyranny of tempo and meter and one-chord (not harmonically free) settings. He likes longer note values and middle octaves, and, when he plays flugelhorn, it sounds like it was invented specifically for him.

The mounting tensions of Shorter’s solos contrast with Brown, who bursts with high spirits. His melodies undergo constant reinvention. Even more than Shorter, the altoist takes rhythmic freedoms that are an advance on Ornette-Cherry. Did Brown make the one-chord setting of “Capricorn Moon” specifically to show how he can fly away from the constraints of that annoying two-bass vamp of Reggie Johnson and Ronnie Boykins? A year later, darkness and motivic shaping touch Brown’s briefer solos with the septet. “Juba-Lee” is aptly titled, while he includes atonal phrases and hints of energy-music ecstasy in the slow “Iditus.” Completing the septet: Dave Burrell, piano; Grachan Moncur, trombone; Johnson, bass; a much freer drummer, Beaver Harris; and Bennie Maupin on tantalizing tenor.

Over the seven months between sessions, Ayler increasingly abandons notes, however incredible, for pure sound. Always, he’s astounding. That gigantic tenor sound! That vast vibrato! The speed of his lines, with ever so tiny note values, in extremely fast pieces, then the extreme slowness of his tear-wrenching slow solos – extremes are his heart. And those songs he wrote, especially mournful ones like this “Prophecy,” “Holy Holy,” and “Mothers” – who is so hardhearted that he or she doesn’t weep over Ayler’s long, trembling notes? BTW, contrary to the credits, I don’t hear any alto sax here. His Cleveland group has a good trumpeter, Norman Howard, playing as much as possible in Ayler’s style – he sounds a lot like Donald Ayler came to sound like later. Bassists Henry Grimes and Earle Henderson play a good duet in February then take turns on the other three pieces. The freedom of tonality and rhythm, or more accurately arhythm – Sunny Murray being the drummer – is of course a flight beyond Brown’s groups.

Ayler’s September quartet is a flight above that, thanks to the extended moaning of Gary Peacock’s bass, Murray on a minimal drum kit playing his most liberated music ever, Don Cherry playing trumpet? cornet? – the marvelous cover photo by Ton van Wageningen shows him with a cornet – and Ayler himself. He starts solos with brief, speeded theme variations and quickly veers into sound beyond notes and tonality, interjecting honks for relief, and climaxing in high overtones. Cherry’s solos sound very Aylerish himself (it’s catching) plus he likes to yelp at others’ solos and draw Ayler into collective improvisations.  In the long version of “Ghosts,” Peacock bows a clever solo complete with insults and the theme in double stops. This is the best band Ayler ever had.

These are historically important CDs, especially the Ayler, and the music is super.
–John Litweiler

 

Karl Berger & Jason Kao Hwang
Conjure
True Sound Recordings TS 02

Like Wordsworth’s poetry, the music on Conjure “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” On each track, violinist Hwang and pianist-vibraphonist Berger create a sheltered, private space where they can contemplate the anxieties and activities of everyday life from a serene perspective. Each improvisation has an inner tranquility, suggestive of the sounds and rhythms of nature, yet each one echoes with the turbulence of life experience. Berger and Hwang strike a fragile balance on “Silhouettes,” as Berger, on vibes, weaves a translucent web over which Hwang casts an aurora of high-pitched, delicately colored wisps of melody. “Beyond Reach” is an intricate and leisurely flow of melodies and timbres that intertwine like smoke from separate fires. Rhythmic interaction is the focus of “Vanishing Roots,” on which Hwang’s plucked violin and Berger’s piano play bright little phrases that make grasshopper leaps around each other. The darker, weightier viola provides a shadowed background for the lighter, dancing lines of Berger’s piano on “Faith.” It’s a beguiling album from beginning to end; the music is strong and unsentimental, but at the same time gentle and deeply empathetic. It’s quite magical.
–Ed Hazell

 

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