Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Media

Live at Café Oto
577 Records 5886

Bagman is a trio that proves perhaps the one firm rule of improvised music: if you get the right mix of idiosyncratic players together, the unexpected can happen. The musicians involved are keyboardist extraordinaire Pat Thomas, percussionist Raymond Strid, and saxophonist Sture Ericson, long beloved for his uproarious stint in The Electrics. From a pre-Covid live date in London, the four tracks on this release are curious, unpredictable, quirky, and fierce.

Key to their music is each musician’s ease at shifting between conventional instrumentalism and outside techniques. You hear it straight away in the cautious, exploratory introduction to “Bagcut,” made up of small gestures like saxophone pads and inside piano. But once the trio get going, the quirky mix of sonic approaches starts to emerge. Thomas sometimes shifts between keyboards but sticks mostly to acoustic piano here, and his feel for dramatic shifts and contrasts gives a nice sense of direction and structure to these performances. For example, when the music sounds like it’s going to efface itself in its reduction and subtlety, Thomas will lean into chiming chords. The music is extremely patient, with Ericson working small gestures at length while Thomas and Strid lock in. After an exchange of alternating rhythms, they work themselves into a full lather.

That’s the mood they’re in to open “Cutbag,” which positively hollers forth. Thomas plays up and down the keys, with Ericson once more paring things down to simple phrases or tight focused sounds, often in the altissimo register. And after many years of loving his playing, I’m still knocked out by how – even in a squall like this – you can still feel the precision and at times delicacy of what Strid is up to. His gentle snare work cues up “Catbug,” which shifts almost imperceptibly into some kind of heavily morphed swing, with Ericson playing gorgeously bleary lines until the trio reaches crescendo. And then, in a stunning example of musical telepathy, Thomas’ right-hand trills navigate into a duo and all the way to solo piano. In this sparsest of settings, it’s unclear who then begins to make wet noises and who the clattering bones.

Perhaps best of all is the concluding “Bugcat,” which opens with another focused burst of overlapping rhythms. There’s nothing formulaic in their conversation, no cheap mimesis, but simply a study in the vibrancy of contrasts. But what makes the track is its back half, after Strid takes a bit of a solo spot, sounding to my ears like Blackwell on “The Seagulls of Kristiansund.” From the softest depths, all three move steadily towards an overtly lyrical finish that captures the range of this fine trio and their commitment to total music.
–Jason Bivins


Konrad Bauer + Georg Graewe + John Lindberg
Random Acoustics RA CD 033

sottobosco is a summit without pomp or circumstance, a meeting of three master improvisers. Konrad Bauer somehow has been lost in the crowd of first-generation improvisers, perhaps in part because his groundbreaking 1981 eponymous solo album is so little-known – an album that a prominent second-generation improviser like Georg Graewe ranks with Anthony Braxton’s For Alto in terms of revolutionary impact. For John Lindberg, who enjoyed a fruitful association with Albert Manglesdorff, Bauer’s frictionless sound and fluid lines are a fine foil. Lindberg’s early stint in the pianist’s GrubenKlang Orchestra also comes to bear on this excellently recorded 2018 performance at Vienna’s Porgy & Bess, a cavernous underground space that somehow gives everyone in the house an intimate listening experience.

What each improviser brings to the proceedings is a refinement of highly individualized vocabulary and syntax – what they say and how they say it. Their common ground is the ability to project energy with an understatement that doesn’t register as such. In doing so, Bauer, Graewe, and Lindberg affirm the blue flame is the hottest and the most efficient. Even though there are discernibly discrete tracks and composer credits – Lindberg having two, the others three – the album flows like a continuous improvisation. There is a conspicuous absence of steep peaks and plunging valleys; instead, they roam a rolling scape of wide turns, where gliding is all but indistinguishable from accelerating. Subsequently, the music is invigorating, not taxing.

Few trios are as equilateral as Bauer, Graewe, and Lindberg are on sottobosco, which is all the more impressive because of their respective accomplishments as leaders. Whereas Graewe and Lindberg’s leadership is measurable discographically, Bauer’s has a different gravity because of his early years in East Germany. Talk of tradition necessarily factors in origins, Lindberg’s being in the downtown loft scene, and Graewe’s being in the wake of the Emancipation proclaimed by Joachim-Ernst Berendt in his era-defining essay. Bauer’s origins are altogether different, and they ring through his every note. For listeners unfamiliar with Bauer, sottobosco is as good an introduction as any.
–Bill Shoemaker


Michael Bisio Quartet
TAO Forms TAO 08

Bassist Michael Bisio’s collaborators on MBefore hadn’t played together before until they met in the studio in September 2020. While a commonplace enough occurrence in improvised music circles, as a strategy it’s still not without risks. But with results never less than intriguing, the gamble handsomely pays off here. Maybe that’s because each of the mature talents involved can call on an impressive store of experience, although few back stories are as seminal as that of Karl Berger who performs here on vibraphone (he’s also a pianist). One of the first Europeans to take up the New Thing, he hit paydirt from his 1960s work with Don Cherry on, but also wielded pedagogic influence through founding the Creative Music Studio with Ornette Coleman in 1972. Bisio himself may be best known for his association with two free music stalwarts, pianist Matthew Shipp and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, but he’s an accomplished leader, while both violist Mat Maneri and drummer Whit Dickey enjoy a strong bond with Shipp, as well as Craig Taborn, Lucian Ban, William Parker, and David S. Ware respectively. All the nous derived from their various groundbreaking escapades finds its expression in the nine cuts here: five from Bisio, two from Berger, one collective, and one standard.

Themes weigh lightly on the scales, often manifest as simple motifs which may materialize apparently unheralded from the intimate exchanges, serving to define the sphere of operations but not constrain its exploration. Although never overbearing, Bisio directs, commentates, orates, and propels. As he explains in a February 2022 interview: “In recent years, I would call my compositional style conceptual.” Certainly, there’s an organic feel to the way the strands interweave, in which the basic figures offer anchors, as well as building blocks, notably in “AC 2.0” where Berger introduces a two-note tag, which recurs in assorted guises thereafter, referenced also by Maneri, who uses the same intervals if not pitches. In “Intravenous Voice” too, Berger suggests concord amid the churn, reformulating the tune as sparse backing for Maneri’s extrapolations.

Among the standouts is a languorous version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” a favorite of Bisio’s which also appears on his unaccompanied Inimitable (Mung Records, 2022). Maneri is stupendous here, sliding between the notes of the song, adding a lachrymose and even despairing dimension to an already bittersweet jaunt. Dickey is pervasive without being obtrusive, ever supportive while at the same time furnishing a rich layer of detail. He comes to the fore on the two versions of “Sea V 4 WD” which function almost as concertos for Dickey, who whips up an ongoing tattoo which continues through bursts of open group interplay before an unexpectedly lilting conclusion. The second, confusingly titled “Part 1,” constitutes another peak, noteworthy for its simmering spikiness and robust interaction.

Berger’s single line phrases promote skeletal harmony, and contribute to a spacious overall sound, but his charts tend to be more direct, with “Crystal Fire” presenting a boppish vibe in contrast to the general abstraction, while the ballad “Still” features astringent yet mawkish viola, which Maneri makes sing wonderfully as the piece progresses. The final “Um,” a communal invention, finishes the program on another peak, sounding no less cohesive than what has preceded it, and with Maneri prominent both in duet with the bassist and as first among equals. You have to wonder what might they be capable of as a unit after an extended period working together.
–John Sharpe


Rhodri Davies
For Simon H. Fell
Amgen 004

Rhodri Davies
Amgen 005

Contrasting albums issued contemporaneously by the same artist are often likened as two sides of the same coin. In the case of Rhodri Davies’ For Simon H. Fell and DWA DNI, they are better considered as two facets of a geodesic dome, with at least several others in between. They are both solo albums; that’s about as far as it goes in terms of similarities. The harpist’s homage to his longtime partner in ensembles like IST and the all-strings edition of Company is a single hour-long piece performed on pedal harp; for the 15-track DWA DNI he employed the MOGIC lap harp. And “as different as night and day” only approximates their respective impacts.

There is no good time to lose a close colleague, but Fell’s passing when discussions had begun about the 25th anniversary of IST – their trio with Mark Wastell, who was also part of Company at the turn of the century – made it that more intense. Davies used appreciable durations of silence to shape an episodic piece, with each section benefiting from a profusion of colors from his use of his instrument’s pitch-altering pedal and the use of varied strikers and bows. There is no dramatic build-up or climax to the piece, nor is there entrenched stasis. Instead, materials waft through space, even those with low pitches and foreboding timbres. It is a minutely measured piece of unmeasurable loss.

DWA DNI is as ebullient as For Simon H. Fell is somber. For the most part, the pieces are built upon brisk, uplifting rhythmic patterns, drawing upon such disparate sources as minimalism and Gambian kora music. This is flawlessly executed, easy-to-love 21st Century roots music, elemental and celebratory; at the same time, it is very challenging music, requiring forgoing knotty notions of post-modernism. Davies’ stature substantially rests on his innovative extended techniques and daring performance propositions like setting a harp on fire. However, minimizing DWA DNI in the assessment of his work would be critical malpractice – it’s that good.
–Bill Shoemaker


Hat Hut Records

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