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Punkt. Vrt. Plastik
Intakt CD 353

The follow up to the acclaimed debut by Punkt. Vrt. Plastik boasts the same virtues of wayward complexity executed with energy and exactitude but achieves them by subtly different means. The prodigiously talented threesome of Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, German drummer Christian Lillinger and Swedish bassist Petter Eldh strips everything back to the bare bones in thirteen necessarily succinct cuts in a 45-minute program brimming with ideas. While everyone writes, anyone listening would be hard-pressed to make attribution without prior knowledge.

Each selection teems with interlocking parts, to such a degree that the emphasis falls primarily on ensemble delivery rather than solo opportunities. By this point the established tandem of Lillinger and Eldh, perhaps best known for helming the potent clamor of Amok Amor with Peter Evans and Wanja Slavin, is so together it sometimes seems the product of a single over-caffeinated brain. Eldh, a forceful and muscular presence, drives relentlessly but almost never directly, as he melds with Lillinger’s precise stutter and dislocated accents. Although they bring a hip-hop flavor to non-metric playing and improvising, with the glitchy, perpetually morphing beat, these are no foot-tappers. Even at their most repetitious, as on the bombastic “Natt Raum”, they constantly warp and stretch the meter.

Draksler gives herself almost wholly to the group ethos, albeit with a wry restraint. Indeed, with her spare repeated figures she’s the cool pivot around which the others gyrate, most obviously on the urgent yet static title cut or the whoozy reiterations of “Axon,” but often pitches the vaguely sour melodies into the gaps and crevices left between the bass and drums axis. On this date she opts for upright pianos, turning the slightly out of phase tuning of two of the instruments to her advantage, most notably to conjure a spectral eeriness during the lilting refrain of “Amnion.” Multiple instruments also surface on the jerky tumbling closer “Vrvica,” where Lillinger juxtaposes the extremes of one keyboard against Draksler’s ongoing flow on another.

The rush of concise tracks creates a suite like feel. Some appear entirely complete, like “Morgon Morfin,” which with its whiff of more conventional piano trios serves only to accentuate the distinctiveness of the rest. By contrast others seem truncated or barely sketched with minimal development before we are onto the next. Unsurprisingly the most fully realized pieces tend to be those of longer duration, like “Membran” shaped from the intersection of a series of jittery motifs across the band, and “Fraustadt” which seems to operate at three related, but rarely synchronizing, levels.

Punkt. Vrt. Plastik flaunts an intriguingly original sonic signature, but one in which although the components are crisply delineated, the gears and sprockets remain mysterious, even after countless spins.
–John Sharpe


Dave Rempis + Jeff Parker + Ingebrigt Håker Flaten + Jeremy Cunningham
Stringers and Struts
Aerophonic 029

The Rempis Percussion Quartet
Sud des Alpes
Aerophonic 030

Since 2013 Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis’s Aerophonic label has put out roughly four releases a year, documenting his music – not many, compared to some logorrheans whose very frequent releases seem intent on bludgeoning skeptics into submission. (His old boss Ken Vandermark is surely one inspiration: if you record a lot, keep the settings varied.) Aerophonics have a look – slim cardstock gatefold sleeves with handsome matching design and spines – that nudges collectors toward completism. Aerophonic music is indeed varied, even if it’s mostly improvised, mostly live (with good sound), and mostly played by small groups, ad hoc or reconvening, often trios (Ballister, Spectral, Rempis/Abrams/Ra ...) and quartets.

Aerophonics often trace the long tendrils of Chicago connections. Even after players move on, the ties bind. Take for example the August 2019 recording Stringers and Struts: Rempis and drummer Jeremy Cunningham plus two former denizens in town for the city’s jazz festival, one being Norwegian expat Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who’d moved on to Austin (and has since returned to Norway). In the years before moving to Southern California, guitarist Jeff Parker was the quintessential Chicago improviser, liable to turn up on stage with absolutely anybody (Tortoise, Fred Anderson, Guillermo Gregorio – maybe all in the same week), who didn’t fuss much with his spiky jazz-guitar tone on stage or heedlessly drown or squeeze out fellow players. He’s always listening, and lets his comrades know it; his picking is unfailingly clear, supportive, on point, and often sparse. (OK, he does skronk a little bit.)

As the meandery duo that kicks off Stringers confirms, the guitarist is a good match for Rempis, a responsive improviser by temperament who also keeps power in reserve. Where Parker (mostly) sticks with a consistent sound, Rempis plays alto, tenor and gravelly baritone for their different weights and colors, and gets a lot of variation on each – he’s all the saxophone voices on these two CDs. His sound is typically muscular but not muscle-bound – he’s no sonic bully. There is, at times, a whiff of quavering Ayler in his tenor, and corrosive Ornette in his alto, and he can get spiral when he circular breathes, but there’s never a sense he’s trying on someone else’s hat, or performing an homage – he’s just looking for the best solution in the moment, and to keep things changing.

“Harmany” starts with an alto/guitar/bass round-robin that only really gets going when drummer Cunningham enters a couple of minutes in, hinting at a Spanish tinge. That leads to slip-and-slide drum groove under testifying alto and tug-string bass; there’s a whirlwind episode where all four grapple with one intense rhythmic figure. They hit a lot of grooves, moods, and textures in 25 minutes. Cunningham’s loose-limbed/broken swingtime is the perfect fit (and he and Jeff Parker have their own history). This one-shot merits a reunion.

Aerophonic 001 was for the so-called Rempis Percussion Quartet, with Ingebrigt and dual drummers Tim Daisy (a Rempis ally since Vandermark Five days – they also have a duo) and Cali-reared Frank Rosaly (then a Chicagoan, now living in Amsterdam). They are all back for RPQ’s fourth for the label, Sud des Alpes, recorded in Geneva at the end of a nightmare travel day, earlier in 2019. The drummers don’t always bring the double thunder. Two pianists playing together, or two bassists: often iffy, the sound clotted. Drummers who respect each other more easily mesh – these two may play in the cracks of each other’s beats, for a super-syncopated doubling.

Where Daisy and Rosaly do wail, this setting gives Rempis and Flaten ample opportunity to skronk out – all sounding, late on “Evacuation,” like tasteful arena rockers. Ingebrigt is the band’s backbone, his groaning arco coming on like feedbacky guitar on “Late Arrival.” His doom ostinatos carry bass-guitar authority, and his ground tones merge with the broad drum sound. On “There’s a Jam on the Line” when the drummers do let space in, each paring back, everyone gets breathing room; but on a fast section they’re all pulling the time ahead. Before they segue into the “Evacuation” jam Rempis plays a rare pre-scripted melody, Roscoe Mitchell’s/the Art Ensemble’s descending recessional “Odwalla” (mis-ID’d on the sleeve as “Theme de Yoyo” – it’s been corrected online), though a casual listener might miss it.

Thirty-two records in, Rempis’ (and everyone’s) bedrock commitment to improvisation as mode of music production speaks for itself. Who needs to bring congenial material – riffs, basslines, harmonic trajectories, the kind of open-ended material modal jazz ushered in – when all that can be made up on the spot, by collective agreement or individual initiative? The open episodes give a sense of spreading out, expanding the space, not losing a thread. There’s no dividing line between free improvisation and free jazz (free anything) on these records. Just play the music, let some fool try to categorize it later.
–Kevin Whitehead


Sound Prints
Other Worlds
Greenleaf GRE-CD-1084

Other Worlds is the third album by Sound Prints, the multi-generational quintet co-led by saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas, featuring pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Joey Baron. Initially formed in celebration of Wayne Shorter’s 80th birthday and inspired by his forward-thinking aesthetic, Sound Prints’ name is a play on the visionary saxophonist’s iconic “Footprints.” But where the ensemble’s prior recordings were augmented by covers of Shorter tunes, Other Worlds is the group’s first release of all-original compositions. Venturing once again into sophisticated, swinging territory inspired by Shorter’s oeuvre, this session expands upon concepts first premiered on the group’s 2013 debut, Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival, and its 2018 sophomore follow-up, Scandal.

Recorded in January 2020 at Brooklyn’s Bunker Studios just days after a weeklong run at the Village Vanguard, the date is comprised of almost all first takes thanks to the collective chemistry the quintet achieved during multiple sets at the Vanguard. Douglas says, “We played a different set list every night ... We really figured out the dynamics of the whole thing, and by the time we got to the studio, we knew.” The band also benefits from a deep-seated rapport: Lovano’s history with Baron goes back to the ‘70s and his collaborations with Douglas date to the ‘80s; Baron has been working with Douglas since the ‘90s; and although Oh and Fields were both first discovered as students, each has made a name for themselves logging countless hours touring with various high-profile improvisers.

Douglas notes that “the whole concept of the band is dialogue and interaction ... everybody’s playing everything, all the time.” And although no Shorter tunes appear this time, the master’s collective vision and stylistic influence can still be heard. This cooperative spirit recalls the group’s formative mandate: to honor Shorter’s legacy by composing and performing new music with the same imaginative spirit. “Wayne inspires us to think about our place in the universe,” Douglas states. That thematic expansion of ideas can be heard on Lovano’s noncontiguous “Other Worlds Suite,” which launches the album’s space theme with “Space Exploration,” “Shooting Stars,” and “The Flight.” Embracing the concept, subtle stylistic variety embellishes the proceedings’ probing post-bop: “Antiquity to Outer Space” tackles ethereal abstraction; the celestial harmonies of “Manitou” offer lush impressionism; and “The Transcendentalists” is an empyrean ballad.

This recording offers numerous opportunities to hear how the co-leaders’ rapport has evolved; Lovano’s burnished tenor and Douglas’ refined tone make a harmonious pair, revealing a forward-thinking approach that embraces all aspects of the jazz continuum. The rhythm section’s interactions are equally inspired; Oh’s pliant bass and Baron’s lively trap set work underpin Fields’ dexterous pianism, resulting in rich interplay. Collectively, they experiment with pulse, take liberties with arrangements, and drift into abstraction, all while remaining true to the compositions’ structure. Despite such complexity, the music always exudes an underlying sense of swing. Captured just in time, Douglas admits “We’re incredibly lucky that we recorded Other Worlds when we did – we had talked about doing it later. But one thing led to another and there was no reason to wait. We went right on into it and I’m so glad we did.” We should all be grateful.
–Troy Collins


Never Is Enough
Cuneiform Rune 478

Never Is Enough is the sixth album issued in seven years by the collective ensemble Thumbscrew, one of today’s most exploratory jazz guitar trios. Contributing equally to a distinct band identity, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara are likeminded souls with decades of experience among them. Encapsulating a rare chemistry, their music offers a virtual masterclass of communal interplay.

In the summer of 2019 Halvorson, Formanek, and Fujiwara recorded a program of Anthony Braxton compositions gleaned from his Tri-Centric Foundation archives while in residence at City of Asylum, the Pittsburgh arts organization that has creatively nurtured Thumbscrew for years. The set was released last year by Cuneiform as The Anthony Braxton Project to celebrate the master’s 75th birthday. Simultaneously, the trio recorded a selection of original compositions, resulting in Never Is Enough.

There is precedent for dual projects from Thumbscrew. In 2018, Cuneiform concurrently released Ours and Theirs; the former being a collection of original compositions, the latter a selection of unique cover songs. Those albums were also recorded during a City of Asylum residency. While not intended as such, The Anthony Braxton Project and Never Is Enough do exhibit a similar correlation. Formanek says “Braxton’s presence was very strong in this period, spending time with his music ... I don’t know if there’s a direct influence, but definitely inspiration.”

Each member contributed three pieces, and the album opens with Fujiwara’s amiable “Camp Easy,” a gentle, loping piece that accentuates the spacious counterpoint between Formanek’s nimble bass and Halvorson’s serpentine fretwork. Much of the session is similar in mood, but that doesn’t mean the fire is gone. Halvorson’s rock-infused “Sequel to Sadness” maintains coiled energy, driven by brittle guitar chords, with strategic pauses, and a torrid drum solo.

On the flip side, Halvorson also contributes “Heartdrop,” an unabashed ballad. Its eloquent lyricism showcases her ability to combine supple technique and pitch-bending effects into a memorable theme; Fujiwara’s understated brushwork, and Halvorson and Formanek’s solos regale with elegance. Fujiwara’s “Unsung Procession” establishes a spacey atmosphere with scintillating percussion; Formanek and Halvorson shadow each other intuitively, while the guitarist’s reverberating tone and the drummer’s mallets give the number heft.

Inspired by a hotel view in Sarajevo, Fujiwara’s fractional “Through an Open Window” features a different kind of momentum, with episodic motifs that fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Opening with a lockstep theme, the hushed volatility of Formanek’s “Emojis Have Consequences” also boasts intricate interplay. “Fractured Sanity” similarly expands from a telegraphic guitar riff into an agitated three-way conversation.

Formanek’s title track introduces new colors to the trio’s palette. Just as the Braxton project was Fujiwara’s Thumbscrew debut on vibes, “Never Is Enough” is the first time most will hear Formanek play electric bass. After decades of avoiding the instrument, he created a squally, atmospheric piece that gives ample space for his non-idiomatic technique. The ambiguous title speaks to “the ever-present feeling of being held captive by the insanity of the last four years of ... whatever this has been.” The electric bass returns for the album’s closer, “Scam Likely,” another expansive piece by Formanek featuring ambient effects, Fujiwara’s textured trap work, and Halvorson’s chiming refrains.

Never Is Enough is another solid effort by Thumbscrew. For Halvorson, Thumbscrew has become an invaluable creative foundation. “It’s one of my favorite rhythm sections to be a part of, the power and energy and everything we create together,” she says. “At this point, all of us have used this rhythm section as leaders.” The focus each player brings and the years of experience they share is what makes this ensemble so remarkable. Never Is Enough is testament to that.
–Troy Collins


Anna Webber
Pi Recordings PI89

With Idiom, Canadian saxophonist and flautist Anna Webber signals her arrival in the first rank of composer/improvisers. Having derived inspiration for her last few albums from improbable sources – for Binary (Skirl, 2016) the internet, for Clockwise (Pi Recordings, 2019) an analysis of Twentieth Century percussion music by the likes of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis – she now turns her attention to her own instrumental practice. It represents Webber’s desire to fuse her voice as an improviser with her voice as a composer. She wrote a book of six pieces each based on flute and saxophone extended techniques, such as various species of multiphonics, alternate fingerings, air sounds, and overblown notes. One piece (“Idiom II”) actually appeared on Clockwise, but the remaining five form the bulk of this new double disc set.

The first features her working group of eight years, the Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionist John Hollenbeck. They continue in the vein established on their first two outings by creating a bewildering tapestry of staggered metrical layers which are not quite unisons but nor totally out of phase. Mitchell has become one of the go-to purveyors of complex piano charts, capable of spinning devilish divergences from each hand in a bifurcated stream, while Hollenbeck takes a similarly orchestral approach, demarcating distinct strands through discrete elements of his kit. Whether nailing repeating phrases to bolster the structural fabric or unloosing her moorings, Webber marries precision to feeling, as moments of passion undercut the cool abstract execution.

Webber exploits the full range of modern expression throughout, from gusty flute flutters on “Idiom I” which interchanges a series of off-kilter intersecting cells with passages of open interplay in jittery cycles, to overtone-laden tenor blurts on the tumbling unisons and jerky rhythms of “Idiom IV.” Consequently, precisely which saxophone technique is under the microscope is never obvious. And while Webber has translated her reed effects to the parts for piano and drums, Mitchell and Hollenbeck effortlessly transcend the mechanics to oxygenate the notes on the page. One of the few times there’s an overt nod to the source is on the halting march of “Idiom V” when the drummer matches Webber’s fluty sighs with analogous finger rubs on drumheads.

Even so, Webber sees the value of a contrast to set everything else in perspective. As the most straightforward cut of the session “Forgotten Best” constitutes the outlier. It begins with a mercurial duet between tenor and piano, from which emerges a breathy swelling melody and subsequent soaring tenor solo, anchored by Mitchell and Hollenbeck’s supportive grounding. Mitchell likewise sports lyric variations while drums and tenor circle in a holding pattern. It makes overt the emotional dimension to Webber’s work which might otherwise be overlooked amid the dazzle.

On the second disc, Webber enlists a 12-strong ensemble under the conduction of Eric Wubbels to tackle the last composition of the sequence. She brings together improvisers, new music specialists, and those who span both camps in an ensemble which can be broken down into four sections comprising three reeds, three brass, three strings, and then bass, drums, and synthesizer. It’s a very different beast from the Big Band she fronts jointly with Angela Morris, in that the overall character skews more towards new music as Webber’s scripts tightly set the parameters within which the ensemble moves and the improvisers operate.

Webber adapts symphonic format dividing the work into six movements, separated by four interludes. As with the trio, the hallmarks of Webber’s style are fully evident. Densely plotted, the movements shift audaciously between drifting tonalities, stabbing punctuations, and driving pulsation. However, the vastly expanded palette also allows Webber to explore a vibrant world of textures. The “Interludes” which jointly fulfill the role of the symphonic adagio, with their overlapping lines often recall the shimmering haze of Ligeti’s otherworldly polyphony. Webber authors some affecting combinations, like the valedictory episode for David Byrd-Morrow’s mournful French horn and string glissandos during “Interlude 2” or the braids of intertwined brass in “Movement II.”

Although primarily focused on the collective, as someone with at least one foot avowedly planted in the soil of jazz, Webber also celebrates the individual. The first sighting of the leader’s tenor comes as it writhes and shrieks over a sudden throbbing groove in “Movement I,” soon to be joined then supplanted by Liz Kosack’s prog-indebted synthesizer shredding. Then her chirruping flute cavorts and sallies forth over a stealthy beat at the start of “Movement II.” Other notable appearances include Yuma Uesaka’s yodeling contra alto clarinet, preceding Mariel Roberts’ splintered cello harmonics during “Movement III,” while a compelling altercation between Nathaniel Morgan’s throaty alto saxophone and Adam O’Farrill’s heraldic trumpet forms a high point of “Movement V.”

Webber’s circular breathed tenor spirals above the strings in the final “Movement VI,” presaging a seething sonic morass which gradually builds to a multi-tiered crescendo. As it fades it leaves Webber alone, plaintively blowing bass flute multiphonics to end her magnum opus on a vulnerable and restrained note. Taken together the two discs mark just the latest bold step towards realizing a singular vision.
–John Sharpe


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