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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Guus Janssen + Wim Janssen
Home made music
geestgronden GG27

Natalio Sued + Matt Adomeit + Tristan Renfrow
Native Speaker
TryTone TT559-078

When they were teenagers in North Holland, and their parents were at church, the four Janssen brothers would improvise in secret on Sundays, and as two of them would tell it later, they developed a family style. As adults, pianist Guus and drummer Wim have always heard ear-to-ear on timing, conspicuously in the undersung 1990s trio Janssen Glerum Janssen, as heard on Dutch classic Lighter and worthy sequel Zwik. Five of 12 tunes the brothers play on Home made music, well recorded at an (evidently well-attended) Arnhem house concert in 2019, appear on those discs. But two decades farther along, without a bass player, things are wilder, the playfulness more spontaneous: it’s the brothers’ Live at the Plugged Nickel.

The melody on “Tune for F” was originally voiced in angelic high harmonics bowed by Ernst Glerum on bass; here Guus clacks it out on toy piano under on-the-beat piano feathering; later he bonks out a few hand-stopped piano-bass harmonics, oblique callback to the original. The overall effect is very different – more moonlit surrealism than chaste hymn. “PF,” an exercise in trilly little intervals in musing slow rhythm, dates back to the 1980s, when trio Janssen Baars Janssen played it and Guus recorded it solo on Harpsichord. It sounds made for that instrument, though Steve Lacy knew how to handle such obsessive material.

Janssen chestnut “HiHat” centers on Guus tapping out a syncopated rhythm on the piano’s highest, quickest-decaying note, imitating a sock-cymbal beat – a gesture that speaks to his precise, percussive attack in general. That collapsing 3:2:1 tish-tit-ti figure momentarily trips over and re-rights itself every few cycles, as if the cymbalist were not quite in control. (Modern Dutch composers love anecdotal written-in ‘mistakes.’). On the new duo rethink that hi-hatty beat is looser, more varied in dynamics, phrasing and tempo. Wim riffs right along with his variations, while ever watchful for programmed changeups. Later Guus attacks a mute-pedaled low note in similar diminishing rhythm: piano this time as bass drum. This duo’s “HiHat” mashes up with/morphs into and out of another item from the trio book, Lee Konitz’s “Kary’s Trance,” wherein Guus layers long regular right-hand lines over walking bass, nodding to his early hero Tristano, albeit in more broken time. The Tristanics resurface on “Slow Step.” But “April” is Guus’s own Latin-bumping (very) light paraphrase of “I’ll Remember April,” not Lennie’s bop contrafact of the same name. “Paloma”’s back half has a similar Afro-Cuban lilt, powered by Wim’s caffeinated brushes.

There are a couple of other covers. The brothers’ late pal Paul Termos’ “Very good weather today” is an earwormy four-bar melody put through its paces; as far as I can tell this is its first recording. As a nod to the concert’s homey setting, and in light of Guus’s ongoing tenure with the ICP Orchestra, the sibs kick off with Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting,” the drum breaks warming Wim up. Home made music shows off this self-effacing drummer to particular advantage; he sounds especially limber and swingy – like he’s having a ball.

Not all Amsterdam music is hermetic; the city draws myriad improvisers from around the world, who come to interact with the locals but also to find each other. Tenor saxophonist Natalio Sued arrived from Argentina in the oughts, and by decade’s end was playing with Guus and Wim Janssen in a version of the Tristano-laced Sound-Lee quartet, where Natalio sometimes channeled early idol Warne Marsh. More recently he’s been part of the freewheeling All Ellington band. In 2015 Sued teamed up in the trio Native Speaker with drummer Tristan Renfrow and Oberlin-trained American bassist Matt Adomeit; those two have worked together elsewhere. On Native Speaker’s recent CD (there was an earlier digital EP), they’re joined a third of the time by Argentine electric guitarist Guillermo Celano of the trio C.B.G.

Sued doesn’t embrace Marsh’s wraithlike tone; his tenor is more throaty and full-bodied, not too hard-edged in the main, though he can rasp too. The Warne influence comes out more in his well-thought well-wrought improvised lines. The brief love song “Lila” shows off that streamlined tone with light vibrato. Most of the tunes are Sued’s. “In Two Words” is an amiable saunter with a catchy hook, and a whiff of Frisell country from Celano before Natalio turns up the pressure, and Renfrow shows how much interest he can generate while he keeps a brushes backbeat going. Sued writes good hooks, and they turn up all over: a staccato twister on “Coyoacán,” a knotty phrase on “Steve y Wonder” that uncoils on the release, over Renfrow’s hi-hat chomping. “Ornette” has a catchy little head – there’s a brief, more Aylery out-of-tempo reading – though Ornettishness is conveyed more by bass and drums’ chipper timekeeping. (Adomeit’s a good walker with solid attack and time, reliable intonation and a natural wood tone, checking all the boxes.) Almost every tune has something of interest; “Frases Sueltas” is a multifarious 12-minute suite, but “Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, Garlic Bread, Blink 182” crams a lot of contrast into a little over two minutes, without seeming rushed. The opening of “Mates y Termos” could be a Michael Moore ballad, pretty and droll, till a Latin bass ostinato kicks it into tempo – Sued riding the beat not floating over it. We could go on. There’s depth beneath the handsome surfaces.
–Kevin Whitehead


Karuna Trio
Imaginary Archipelago
Meta Recordings 024

Percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake have a long, rich history of music-making together. Joined by Ralph Jones (credited with aerophones and voice), Karuna Trio is interested in conceptual exploration of imagination and relation. Musically, this cashes out in a series of sound essays that could as easily be cinema or landscape, so fully realized are they.

Reverberation and layering are consistent concerns, right from the opening of “Okomibo,” the first of the eleven parts that make up “The Islands.” Drone, whorls of sound, flutes, and electronics all emerge at various points (and Rudolph in particular brings a large assortment of sound-makers to the table). Like many of the pieces here, it comes across as pleasantly spooky, like awaking to find yourself in a strange atmosphere.

It’s a really distinctive record in this way, but there’s more than simply vibe to its credit. Jones’ bass clarinet work on “Alima” is intense, nicely balancing contrast and integration with the forest sounds abounding. “Madazuba” is a gorgeous thrum, filled with bass flute, metallophone, and tasty electronics. Some of the real standouts are those where Rudolph leans into the electronics: the lower register echoplex on “Apekweh,” the richly textured “Dimahala,” and the trippy, incantatory “Vajna.” Elsewhere, I found the sprightly tempo of “Suwakaba” and the meditative “Chandirasa” (filled with long, resonating tones from gong, plucked dulcimer, and airy flute) deeply satisfying.

But what’s probably most impressive about Karuna is its ability to dig into meaty improvisation as part of the overall warp-and-woof of their attention to texture. Two tracks in particular show how fruitless it is to try separating these elements. “Ibak” spotlights how many different timbres there are here, understated and kind of mbira-like in places, and with loads of excellent hand percussion, too. And “Pitek” digs in even deeper here, building from hand percussion and soft vocalizing, to a thick, purposeful trio that seems to vibrate with independent life. Consistently multi-dimensional, empathetic, and imaginative, this music is a treat.
–Jason Bivins


James Brandon Lewis + Chad Taylor
Live In Willisau
Intakt CD 342

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis makes no bones about his respect for the tradition, and it oozes from every pit and pore of Live In Willisau, delivered in duet with drummer Chad Taylor. The same twosome was responsible for Radiant Imprints (Off Record, 2018), and they reprise the four pieces inspired by John Coltrane from that disc, alongside an unusual spread of covers and other originals. As a result, while previous albums like 2019’s celebrated An Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch) have name checked Lewis’ mentor Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman, and No Filter (BNS Records, 2017) co-opted hip hop attitude and punk drive, it’s Trane’s shadow that looms largest here.

There’s a tendency with present day saxophone drum tandems to need to disavow the influence of Coltrane’s 1967 duets with Rashied Ali, Interstellar Space (Impulse), but that ur-text sits unashamedly front and center here. That’s not to suggest a derivative approach. Lewis and Taylor shape the materials to their own design. With his huge sound, motif-driven lines and vocalized edge, the descriptor that springs to mind for Lewis is impassioned, a sentiment affirmed when he embellishes with guttural honks and keening, yearning overblowing.

Taylor, who cut his teeth with the various Chicago Underground groups and now plies his trade with the likes of trumpeter Jaimie Branch and guitarist Marc Ribot, is simply one of the best in the business at this game. His tonal organization which recalls Ed Blackwell, comes parceled with inventive groove stylings of which Hamid Drake would be proud. But it’s all leavened by his own sensibility, most obviously manifest in the lilting patterns he sets up on the mbira or the care with which he modulates pitch when alone during his own “Matape”. The decision to enlist the thumb piano helps create distance from the original in the case of the mournful beauty of “With Sorrow Lonnie” (with its paraphrase of “Lonnie’s Lament”), or freshen up the standards as in a reverential reading of Ellington’s “Come Sunday”.

The pair launch into “Twenty Four”, which draws from “Giant Steps”, with complete conviction, as Lewis works over the riff matched by Taylor’s churn and roil. As the intensity increases, they maintain energy and focus, blowing wilder, varying the constant polyrhythmic barrage, without ever losing control. A similar incantatory fervor pervades “Radiance”, which references Coltrane’s “Seraphic Light”, as Lewis’ two-note figure punctuates his excitable rhetoric, and they ease in and out of the higher gears, while they combine to devastating effect on Dewey Redman’s “Willisee” (not uncoincidentally committed to disc live in Willisau), as Taylor’s earthy backbeat pushes Lewis to feverish heights.

Through uniting the emotional directness so winning in concert with the subtlety and depth of feeling which enlivens repeated spins, Live In Willisau further establishes Lewis as a force to be reckoned with.
–John Sharpe


Paul Lytton + Nate Wooley
Known / Unknown
Fundacja SĹ‚uchaj FSR02/2020

Nate Wooley and Paul Lytton have been working together for over a decade now. Known / Unknown is their third release as a duo starting with an LP on the Broken Research label followed by 2010’s Creak Above 33 on psi. They’ve also recorded along the way in a trio context along with David Grubbs, Christian Weber, Ken Vandermark, and Ikue Mori. This time out, the duo headed into the studio, Wooley with trumpet and amplifier which he utilizes to color his playing and Lytton with his battery of percussion and live electronics. In the notes to Creak Above 33, Wooley observed that “I have never before been in a musical situation where what I perceive as the correct path or accepted answer to a music question is almost always the least effective, aesthetically speaking.” And listening to this set, recorded a decade later, that still seems to define their collective approach.

It is immediately evident how fully integrated amplification and electronics are to their respective sonic strategies. Lytton has been doing this since his early ‘70s duos with Evan Parker. And use of an amplifier has often been a central element in Wooley’s playing, notably on his solo release Trumpet/Amplifier with one side of completely acoustic playing and the other of amplified playing, both of which complement the other. Over the course of two half-hour improvisations and another at eleven minutes in length, the duo dive into explorations that range from microscopic detail and textural abstraction to explosive interplay. The richness of their spontaneous alliance is in full evidence from low-end rumble to sheets of quaking electronics to nuanced, abraded creaks and crinkles to more linear exchanges.

It’s the way the two weave these together into a mercurial whole that defines these recordings. Each of the longer pieces charts their own pace and trajectory, riding sections of open discourse or mounting layers of dark densities. The second piece, “Unknown,” in particular, showcases their collective strategy, with brooding, shadowy reverberations that unfold into solos, collaborative shimmering layers, and meticulous gestural activity. Their playing is so tightly intertwined, that picking apart which sounds are coming from which player becomes both impossible and totally irrelevant. That said, the bristling ping-pong back-and-forth that ensues during the last quarter of the track, opening up to breathy trumpet and sputtering percussion, then building to a caterwauling solo for Lytton, provides a particularly captivating conclusion to the improvisation. The eleven-minute “Untitled” which closes things, is more focused in range than the longer pieces, sticking more to acoustic sound sources providing an effective way to tie things out.
–Michael Rosenstein


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