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Albert Ayler 1965
Spirits Rejoice & Bells Revisited
ezz-thetics 1109

Albert Ayler Quintet 1966
Berlin, Lörrach, Paris & Stockholm Revisited
ezz-thetics 2-1117



Here are the facts: Hat Hut’s ezz-thetics have reissued a volley of mid-career Albert Ayler material as part of their Revisited series. The latest comprise two releases, one CD containing Spirits Rejoice and Bells (both recorded in 1965), the other a double CD with four concert recordings from Berlin, Lörrach, Paris, and Stockholm (all from November 1966). New liner notes provide ample historical background. But the facts soon get complicated when you put the CDs on and listen, because, as Amiri Baraka put it, when it comes to Albert Ayler, “[t]he records are not records, but rumors.”

I’m listening to these rumors in my home on a main artery road running across lockdown East London. Outside, through the net curtains, it’s getting dark. I see the street light turn on and shine against the muffled grey. A shadow of a double decker bus passes like a wall. Inside Albert Ayler has lit up the room. For the umpteenth time the horns are doing roly-polies with fire, and after several hours, days, weeks of listening to the same music, I can still feel the heat. I feel it on my back like I felt the very first rays of spring sunshine there yesterday morning. Ayler didn’t name one of his themes “Light In Darkness” (track 2 of the 1966 Paris concert) for nothing. To me, though, it sounds more light darkness as light – a kind of precarious inversion of darkness itself, a darkness that shines, or a “flash of the spirit” as Robert Farris Thompson put it.

Spirits Rejoice is a high point, a turning point, a precipice. I love all Ayler from start to finish, but this is where you can hear the music tipping over – the fraught light that was always there getting brighter, solidifying. The title track is many things, but above all it is a reworking of La Marseillaise. While standard renditions of the French national anthem arrive resoundingly on the dominant on the first beat of the third bar, striking a note of plodding victory, Ayler’s version delays and subdues such simple satisfaction. When the horns pick up the melody, they rise up the four familiar crotchets before adding a passing note that pushes the dominant – a satisfyingly symmetrical octave about the melody’s first note – onto the offbeat. And even when they do hit it, they don’t stay there long. Instead of holding the note for the customary length of a beat and a half – enough time to savor the second syllable of “Patrie” (fatherland) – the horns merely hit the dominant in passing and slide back down on a little run of quavers. Of Ayler’s “Ghosts,” Don Cherry said “it should be our national anthem.” “Spirits Rejoice,” then, is an ante-national anthem.

There are many other highs on these releases: “Angels,” where Ayler broods over Call Cobbs’ gleaming baroque intricacies; a glimpse of Ayler’s yodelling vocals towards the end of the Paris concert; the joyous see-sawing of Michel Samson’s violin throughout the European dates. As Patti Smith put it in lower-case simplicity: “any ayler lp is worth it. he created his own space. you enter into this space – it’s a separate universe.” These records are rumors that need to be heard – listened to and relistened to – to be believed.
–Gabriel Bristow

 

Flatland Quartet
Songs From The Urban Forest
Gold Lion (no number)

Jon Raskin
Book “W” Of “Practitioners” By Steve Lacy
Temescal (no number)



Americana; most creative musicians have it backwards, proceeding from stylistic vectors and contemporary trends. Focused on just ahead of the curve, the age-old pathos gets by them; after all, we do not honor Blind Willie Johnson’s slide work in the abstract, but as the expression of unfathomable despair and unbreakable faith.

Given how such projects crowd the recorded music market, it is crucial for an album to quickly, if not immediately, distinguish itself from the herd of individual minds. Flatland Quartet – drummer Jon Bafus, guitarist Ross Hammond, trumpeter Darren Johnston, and saxophonist Jon Raskin – does exactly that on Songs from the Urban Forest.

Although they use Joe Hill’s death row poem/final will to frame the opening track, they initially dislocate the music from stock American Primitivism with Raskin’s credible throat singing, which mingles with Hammond’s percolating slide textures to create a blurred soundscape. When it snaps into focus with Johnston’s plaintive singing against a sparse background, it smacks of revelation instead of conceit.

As the album unfolds, Joe Hill’s farewell fades among the dirges of Johnston’s trumpet and Raskin’s alto as they circle around Bafus’ skittering drums and Hammond tapping a sweet spot between Sandy Bull and Blood Ulmer. An exchange of sputter and smears between Johnston and Raskin is a reminder of their moorings in the Bay Area experimental music community.

“Valley Clouds in Winter,” an expansive, free-flowing 13-minute performance, vigorously closes the album with rich, light-infused colors, suggesting that the vistas of 19th Century landscapes are potent touchstones in describing the vastness of Americana. Granted: We are closer to the conditions documented by Walker Evans than Thomas Cole, which is why Flatland Quartet will donate all proceeds from its Bandcamp sales to the Sacramento Food Bank.

“Etudes” is an arguably overused term; but it certainly applies to Steve Lacy’s “Practitioners,” three books of six pieces each, written between 1983 and ‘86. Lacy only recorded “Book H,” issued as Hocus Pocus on the Belgian Les Discs du Crépuscule label. Raskin’s recording of “Book W” on alto has a precedent in violinist Mikhail Bezverkhny’s rendering of “Book P,” issued shortly after Lacy’s death in 2004, proving these pieces can be satisfyingly interpreted by other instruments.

The alto, however, invokes Steve Potts’ proximity to Lacy’s music – a second hurdle Raskin clears. From the outset, Raskin’s command of the material is impressive, his robust sound and expressive range meeting the challenges Lacy posed in each piece. The real trick to playing music as specific as Lacy’s is asserting one’s own voice without diluting or running roughshod over its idiosyncratic contours. Raskin does this very well.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Gentle Fire
Explorations (1970 - 1973)
Paradigm Discs 3 CD set PD35

If listeners know about the group Gentle Fire at all, it is likely due to Hugh Davies’ participation in the ensemble. From their inception in 1968 through 1975, the group devoted themselves to grappling with the interconnections of the realization of text and graphical scores, group improvisation and the integration of live electronics with conventional instruments and invented instruments. And while they performed often, collaborating with composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom Davies had served as personal assistant), Christian Wolff, and Alvin Lucier and working in a variety of contexts, from galleries to concert halls to parks to the Glastonbury Rock Festival in 1971, until now, hearing their music was next-to-impossible. Their sole LP, documenting performances of pieces by Earle Brown, John Cage, and Christian Wolff is long out-of-print. Other than that, an excerpt of one of their group compositions appeared on the compilation Not Necessarily “English Music” which accompanied Volume 11 of the Leonardo Music Journal along with an article about the group by Davies. But Paradigm Disc has rectified that with a deluxe 3 CD set along with a booklet that reprints Davies’ article “Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music,” detailed notes about each of the pieces and an extensive collection of period photographs.

Gentle Fire operated in a wider context of a generation of musicians who developed collectives under the influence of and in response to the music of composers like John Cage, Stockhausen and Cornelius Cardew, experiments with the use of live electronics by musicians like David Tudor, university electronic music studios and organizations like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop along with the increasing availability of synthesizers, sound generating equipment and plans for simple electronic circuits. Groups like Sonic Arts Union, Composers Inside Electronics and activities around the San Francisco Tape Music Center focused on performing works by their own members while MEV, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and AMM were primarily engaged in charting their own approaches to collective improvisation. Gentle Fire incorporated aspects of all of these groups, performing music by contemporary composers with whom they developed ongoing working relationships, pieces developed by each of the members expressly for the ensemble and developing a collaborative approach they categorized as “Group Compositions.”

The group came together as an outgrowth of an electronic music studio and workshop sessions set up by Richard Orton at York University. Over the course of their existence, it featured Davies on invented instruments, live electronics, clarinet, and khène; Richard Bernas on piano, percussion, and voice; Patrick Harrex on violin and percussion; Graham Hearn on piano, recorder, VCS-3 synthesizer, and percussion; Stuart Jones on trumpet, cello, and electric guitar; Richard Orton on live electronics and voice and Michael Robinson on cello and piano. Utilizing acoustic instruments, found objects, oscillators, filters, modified circuits, feedback, and tapes, the group forged an approach toward the dynamic live transformation of sound. The three CDs in this set, divided into performances of work by other composers, works composed by the group, and an extended live recording of a “Group Composition,” provides a fantastic overview of the scope of their music.

The first disc is comprised of performances of text and graphic scores by Wolff, Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Cage and Toshi Ichiyanagi. In each of the pieces, one is struck by the process of sound making that each of the members fully embraced. Wolff’s “For Jill” and Cage’s “Cartridge Music” performed on amplified objects delves into the creation of sound from their inherent resonances and timbres. Their performance of Wolff’s piece has the delicate cross-play of a Gamelan while “Cartridge Music” roars and clatters with amplified textures shot through with shredded feedback. Brown’s “4 Systems” subverts sustained notes played by two violins, viola, and cello through the use of live band pass filtering and electronic modulation, transforming a string quartet into quavering shudders and oscillating drones. Ichiyanagi’s piece traces the navigation of Hammond organ, trumpet, and cello across fields of real-time refractions of ring modulators, routing, and sine tones. Also included are two pieces from Stockhausen’s text series Aus den Sieben Tagen, each abstracting the elemental sounds of instruments into clamoring countervailing sonic fields. “Treffpunkt,” in particular, stands out with its eddying layers of density and dynamics for tabla, amplified springboard, electric guitar, trumpet, synthesizer, and cello.

The second disc picks up with pieces by ensemble members Jones, Robinson, Hearn and Bernas along with one of the Group Composition pieces. “Ruth’s Piece (for 2 cellos, 2 pianos and 2 ring modulators)” is based on the grouping of two cello/piano duos that play independently from each other. Ring modulators, built by Davies, were designed such that the inputs and outputs produce all the pitches in an overtone series, creating ghostly harmonics that layer in and out of phase with each other with a deliberate patience. Robinson’s “2 Pianos Piece” starts with a minimalist feel, utilizing static fixed tempos and repeated sets of notes. But as the piece progresses, there is an organic flux as the two parts are transposed and stretched while tenaciously maintaining the same tempo and dynamic. Hearn’s “Centrepiece (for tape loops and Hammond organ)” takes a decidedly more low-tech approach. Hearn made tape loops of the feed-out tracks of LPs and distributed those amongst a number of players. For this version, the loops skip and pop against a low, simmering, lyrical Hammond organ improvisation mixed quietly into the overall piece. Snippets of the LPs circle around and then disappear as pops, crackles, and grit degraded a bit by tape playback envelop the ethereal organ part.

The disc closes with a performance of “Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) (for voices, modified telephones, and live electronics),” a remarkable melding of cast-off technology and DIY ingenuity. The liner notes describe how Davies came across a bunch of discarded General Post Office telephones which he hacked. Using the earpieces as microphones, the mechanical dials were modified so that they would interrupt and chop the signals which were sent to speakers dispersed around a space. In performance, the group would sit around the table, conducting mundane conversations which would be picked up, hacked and abraded by the modified dials. Over the course of the 23-minute performance, one has the sense of listening to the drifting vacillations of radio signals weaving their way in constantly morphing skeins of glitched and marred voices.

The third disc is devoted to a performance of “Group Composition IV (for gHong and mixed instruments)” from the 1972 International Carnival of Experimental Sound. Performed in a derelict Victorian building originally constructed to house a giant turntable to rotate steam locomotives, the cavernous acoustics were perfect for the performance. The group had constructed an instrument they dubbed the gHong over time, suspending specially fabricated large metal grills and springs from a wooden framework which were amplified with a combination of contact microphones and various cheap, modified mics deployed to capture specific frequency ranges. In performance, they mixed and blended the various amplified sources. Over the course of the 65-minute piece, the resonant clangs, groans, and creaks of the gHong create a sonic framework as tabla, cello, recorder, synthesizer, amplified springboard, trumpet, and cello are interwoven into the orchestral collective work. Clearly influenced by their endeavors with various scores, the piece unfolds with resolute pacing as layers amass and shift, sounding like the amplified drift of tectonic plates. This is music that sits, eschewing any sense of progression while still fostering an internal sense of form over the extended duration.

Within a few years of the 1972 performance, the group would disband as the various members went off to pursue other activities. Davies was the only one who would continue delving in to strategies for live electronic music, the others moving toward academics and, in Robinson’s case, a career in investigative journalism. Their lack of concern for documenting their work resulted in their becoming an obscure footnote in the development of experimental music at a particularly changeable time. This set rectifies that, and maybe, at long last, a reissue of their LP might even come about.
–Michael Rosenstein

 

Group Sounds Four & Five
Black & White Raga
Jazz in Britain JIB-14-M-CD

Group Sounds Five was initially a mid-1960s London-based quintet featuring tenor saxophonist Lyn Dobson, drummer Jon Hiseman, and trumpeter Henry Lowthar – when they reconfigured as a quartet in ‘66, they adjusted their name. Lowthar and Dobson’s precursor unit recorded a scant two acetates, one of which found its way onto the companion CD for Duncan Heining’s Trad Dads, Dirty Beboppers, and Free Fusioneers (Reel Recordings). None of the Group Sounds lineups released any recordings during their lifetime. Black & White Raga is a long-deferred introduction to both editions of the band; while this album of live performances does not provide history-altering revelations, it does shed light on a moment in UK jazz history when ideas about what was progressive were changing by the month.

The four quintet tracks with pianist Ken McCarthy and bassist Ron Rubin reflect the diversity of materials taken on by Group Sounds: “Red Planet” stacks up well against the ‘62 Coltrane version in terms of tempo, attack, and inventiveness; a “Night and Day” that is a bit more sweat-breaking than most; McCarthy’s “Celebrity Stomp,” which reflects his articulation of McCoy Tyner; and the title tune, an intriguing, jazz-leaning example of the Indo-jazz fusion then in vogue, penned by the idiosyncratic, gone-too-soon pianist/composer Mike Taylor. Throughout the set, Dobson is energetic but not strident, Lowthar’s obvious virtuosity lacks gratuitous bombast, and Hiseman blazes without scorching the bandstand – this complement of voices, in tandem with the proficient McCarthy and Rubin, made Group Sounds solid ambassadors of progressive jazz.

The surprise of the album is that the arrival of Jack Bruce in ‘66, and the absence of a smart, tethering pianist like McCarthy, did not radically alter this chemistry. Certainly, the Bruce-Hiseman tag team (which reached its apex two years later with the bassist’s Things We Like) facilitated an increased expansiveness, particularly on Dobson’s Ornette-tinged “Straight Away,” where they lean towards Higgins and LaFaro in terms of buoyant swing. However, it is Bruce’s “Snow” that suggests the most significant change, a pivot away from familiar forms towards somber contours that became commonplace in European jazz in the ‘70s. Whether or not this was the only Bruce composition of this ilk that made its way into Group Sounds’ set lists remains to be seen. If more recordings are out there, Jazz in Britain will dig them out.
–Bill Shoemaker

 

Intakt Records

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