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Jürg Frey
String Trio
Another Timbre AT217

Jürg Frey
Les Signes Passagers
Elsewhere ELSE029

It is thrilling, quietly exhilarating, to observe that Jürg Frey’s music continues to demonstrate the utter failings of my Western European Art Music training. What could be more canonical than a set of pieces for fortepiano or a string trio? “Everything and nothing,” is the answer, a phrase recurring at regular intervals in my listening notes, as if the subconscious was drawing signposts between which anything approaching conventional modes of travel is both welcomed and forbidden.

Those fundamentals learned by every child are of no help. We learn the color spectrum at such a young age but learn precious little about how one sound exists or transitions to the next. Keiko Shichijo performs the evocatively titled Les Signes Passagers on a wonderfully maintained fortepiano, but observing this speaks nothing to the vast soundworlds she coaxes from the instrument that communicates more in a single pitch or between-tone gesture than verbiage ever will. As she plays “Au Lointain,” the fifth piece in the cycle, the instrument’s action adds to each phrase and dyad a universe of poignancy of which the modern piano is simply incapable. True to the title, and it could be that Shichijo uses a pedal to achieve this, the sounds are distant but present, as if a moment from Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is modified into its own planet. It is only on reflection that the pieces emerge with anything nearing clarity, so unified is their dynamic aesthetic but so completely diverse within that sound-space of sonority in space. In hindsight, the opening piece comes off as something akin to a Romantic ideal, each sudden switch of pitch a direct modulation while that outmoded phenomenon never actually occurs. The vast registral differences inherent in the instrument ensure that each chord is an orchestra, as on “Avec sonorité, mais très doux” and each upper-register pitch is a small ensemble replete with very slightly shifting tone and inflection as it decays.

At 18 minutes but comprised of atomistic gestures in languid juxtaposition, the penultimate piece quietly blasts any conventional notion formal boundaries and size might share. The same is true with his string trio, presented here in a 2022 revision but composed in 2017. Beyond, or beneath, the calm of its fluidly episodic nature lies a universe of chromatic introspection and even unrest only completely evident after the achingly static chordal passages nearly half an hour into the 48-minute work. Rather than attempt a cursory analysis here, I’ll posit that what unifies the trio with Les Signes Passagers comes with the performance. To suggest that Apartment House employs its revelatory and basically vibratoless sound doesn’t even begin to address the staggering attention paid to chord voicing, subtle melodic emphasis, and resultant lines. The work opens with organisms bridging the gap between motive and melody, and the ensemble navigates their convergence and divergence in a way that unites rather than dispels or obscures. Those mid-work chords also prove to be sonically pivotal, timbre and tone tipping the perceptive scales like breath in and out, but the slow descent that ushers in the trio’s final minutes ratchet up the drama. They are so beautifully performed as to be disturbing, a slow-motion descent into icy calm. Shichijo brings a similarly complex world of dynamics, form and structure into sharp focus, and the whimsical temptation to equate her fortepianism with what might be heard as the coolly precise “HIPP”ness of Apartment house’s trademark sonority is too strong to ignore. Together, the albums present a compelling take on timelessness, moment to moment and timbrally historical, but beyond that, they’re gorgeous in every way. Label the music what you like; as the old Peter Gabriel line has it, we’re left with “only a magic that a name would stain.”
–Marc Medwin


Tomas Fujiwara
Out Of Your Head OOYH022

Pith, the sophomore album by drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio featuring vibraphonist Patricia Brennan and cellist Tomeka Reid, follows the band’s self-titled 2019 debut for RogueArt. The session’s compositions were all written by Fujiwara between April 2020 and January 2022, during a time when performing opportunities were limited – a life-altering experience for the in-demand international touring drummer. With no impending deadlines, Fujiwara composed new pieces that strip away extraneous details, to get to the essence of each composition. The result is a program of highly focused, mostly acoustic chamber jazz that largely eschews the overt electronic effects Brennan occasionally employed on the group’s first album.

The instrumentation of 7 Poets Trio is unique in the jazz world, although similar combinations can be found in new music or contemporary classical programs. Lending further credence to this similarity, both Brennan and Reid are classically trained – an aspect Fujiwara uses to treat the trio as a miniature chamber orchestra, with each musician performing multiple duties. Brennan covers the vibraphone’s expected role of melodic lead and supportive chordal instrument, blurring the lines between classical and jazz technique, while also excelling as a percussive keeper of rhythm. Reid similarly alternates between melody and harmony but is also often required to play pizzicato basslines; her plumy tone and feel for swing is so strong however, that one never notices the absence of a traditional bass player. Although Fujiwara limits himself to a conventional trap set, his role goes beyond mere timekeeping. He articulates tuneful themes beautifully and takes subtle solos that favor color and texture over groove.

A magnanimous bandleader, Fujiwara highlights the unique talents of his gifted bandmates in this ensemble, relegating most of his presence to the background. The dreamy, Latin-inflected opener, “Solace,” focuses on Brennan’s cascading filigrees and Reid’s melodious walking bass, as does the lilting, abstract swinger “Josho.” Reid’s four-to-the-bar bassline on the uptempo “Swelter,” combined with Brennan’s jittery, descending melody, and Fujiwara’s krautrock influenced beat lends the tune a hypnotic, minimalist sensibility. On the majestic ballad “Resolve,” Brennan plays dissonant, reverb-laden voicings while Reid and Fujiwara use plucked harmonics and bowed cymbals to conjure a haunting, electronic sounding drone-scape. The only fully improvised piece on the album, “Other” is an exercise in chaotic, albeit attentive interplay, while “Breath” is a languid, chamberesque meditation.

Fujiwara’s urbane compositions extend beyond traditional jazz, into classical, ambient, and post-rock territory. These deceptively simple new pieces have been specifically composed for his bandmates, whose congenial rapport yields near clairvoyant, three-way harmonic conversations. Considering that each member of Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio is also an outstanding improviser, it places the ensemble in the lofty company of other contemporary composers who are skillfully integrating modern classical composition with spontaneous improvisation.
–Troy Collins


Jason Kao Hwang Critical Response
Book of Stories
True Sound TS04

In spite of some initial promise, fusion’s seminal, Afrofuturist experiments soon devolved into more mundane, commercial directions, although it did cross paths very briefly with New York’s avant-garde loft jazz scene. A nascent member of that scene, violinist and composer Jason Kao Hwang has since distinguished himself among his peers by forging a career integrating creative improvisational strategies with compositional tenets culled from both Eastern and Western traditions. Hwang revisits those halcyon days on Book of Stories with Critical Response, his trio featuring guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson, where he recasts the role of the electric violin in jazz-rock fusion.

Hwang first played electric violin in his Far East Side Band in the 1990s, revisiting it for Uncharted Faith (Tone Science), his 2021 duet with J. A. Deane. Amplification does not affect Hwang’s innate ability to phrase beautifully contoured melodic statements, although electronic effects do offer him the same expansive color palette as Nilsson, with whom he blends extremely well. Throughout the program, Hwang transforms his instrument into a kaleidoscope of timbral possibilities, often sounding like something else entirely – whale song, analog synthesizer, distorted electric guitar, breathy wooden flute, sinewy contrabass – all of which further expand the scope of his all-encompassing concept.

The epic opener, “Power of Many in the Soul of One,” sets the mood, and is dedicated to Joshua Wong, the leader of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Ebbing with sonic tension, the soulful opus veers between relaxed, riff-based jams and aggressive rhythmic interjections, the strong interplay between the members of the trio contrasting lyricism with dissonance. The rhapsodic ballad “Upside Circle Down” pays homage to Hwang’s formative years as part of New York’s Lower East Side scene, transitioning from a phantasmagoric fanfare of trilling electric timbres, through a funky boogaloo, into a bucolic blues that culminates in a lyrical coda. The haunting tone poem “a silent ghost follows” follows, employing short unisons as points of departure for a series of solemn improvisations intended to depict psychoanalytic dreamwork.

Inspired by the Chinese bone carvings in Hwang’s childhood home, “Dragon Carved into Bone” dynamically juxtaposes downtown punk with hypnotic electronica to yield muscular riffs, groovy vamps, and psychedelic excursions. With a brash, bluesy energy, the trio explores the directions fusion might have evolved had it maintained its sense of experimentation within more traditional forms. Closing the conceptual loop, the similarly blues-drenched “Friends Forever” concludes the set with a moving tribute to woodwind player Will Connell Jr. and drummer Takeshi Zen Matsuura – late members of Commitment, Hwang’s first loft era group.

Though drawing inspiration from the past, Critical Response plays in the moment with subtlety and restraint on Book of Stories, an adventurously tasteful fusion-based session that finds common ground between a multiplicity of styles, erasing genre boundaries in the process.
–Troy Collins


Russ Johnson Quartet
Calligram 0004

Despite having appeared on numerous releases as a sideman, trumpeter Russ Johnson remains under-recorded as a leader. The newly launched Calligram Records may help redress this issue with Reveal, Johnson’s latest offering. Calligram was started by Geof Bradfield and Chad McCullough to showcase under-recognized talent in Chicago’s ever-evolving jazz scene. Featuring a sterling quartet with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Ethan Philion, and drummer Tim Daisy, this album encompasses a wide range of expression, offering a compelling representation of Johnson and his colleagues’ protean abilities.

After 23 years living in New York, Johnson relocated to Chicago, a move that helped him reconnect with Feldman, who followed the same path, returning to the city where he was born after decades as a mainstay in the Downtown NYC scene. Johnson rarely played with Feldman in New York, although Johnson has played with Philion and Daisy, but Philion and Daisy – who fluidly interpret traditional rhythm section roles here – never played together before. Johnson and Feldman similarly complement each other, making a simpatico front line in a quartet that sounds like it has been working together for years. Astute listeners may even hear uncanny similarities to Feldman’s Knitting Factory-era band New and Used (with trumpeter Dave Douglas) in the way he and Johnson intuitively complement each other’s lines.

On the intervallic opener, “Skips,” Feldman mirrors Johnson’s imaginative cadences over an infectious groove, their uncanny rapport enabling them to anticipate and echo each other, even when funky, odd-meter rhythms suddenly emerge. Their conversation continues in a different vein on “The Slow Reveal.” Feldman and Philion explore extended bowing techniques early on, but the piece becomes more structured when Johnson enters with carefully measured statements, introducing lush harmonies with a restless intensity fueled by Daisy. This progressive chamber music leads to “Long Branch,” the group’s touching elegy for the late trumpeter jaimie branch. It begins with a plunger-muted trumpet soliloquy and ends with somber violin and trumpet unisons; Johnson and Feldman delve into the hushed lyricism branch would occasionally explore with a fervor that intensifies as the track unfolds.

Elsewhere, Daisy’s funky, understated patterns on “Agnomen” are the basis for Johnson and Feldman’s playful improvisations, which also resonate in “Veiled Invitation,” another moment where the quartet eventually trades restraint for vitality. “Dog Gone It,” on the other hand, allows the quartet to let loose with a powerful, propulsive groove. A nod to Julius Hemphill’s groundbreaking “Dogon A.D.,” Philion’s grinding arco bass establishes a hypnotic ostinato complemented by Daisy’s relentless backbeat, urging Feldman and Johnson into frenzied interplay with dancing lines that weave together as one. The album concludes with the mournful “Coda,” a lyrical, chamber jazz reverie. Feldman’s soars, while Johnson announces the end, the sorrowful finale a contrast between their intertwining sounds.

Johnson describes his career as being built on playing music in the cracks between modern jazz and free music but Reveal also highlights his capabilities as a composer. Alternating between intensity and introspection, the quartet navigates an impressive range of material, all written by Johnson (except for two freely improvised miniatures). Lending credence to its title, Reveal offers a rich palette of musical experiences, ranging from lyrical, beautiful melodies to discordant, exploratory excursions.
–Troy Collins


Hans Koch + Christine Abdelnour
ezz-thetics 1048

Reed players Hans Koch and Christine Abdelnour are an ideal match for a duo recording. While from different generations, each has spent their careers developing richly nuanced approaches to their instruments. Koch has participated in reed groupings before, including Duets, Dithyrambisch along with Wolfgang Fuchs, Evan Parker, and Louis Sclavis as well as Comite Imaginaire with Fuchs and Peter van Bergen. While Abdelnour has worked in a variety of duo settings, this is her first recording with another reed player. Here, Koch sticks to soprano saxophone countering Abdelnour on alto. Across four pieces, between 7 and 17 minutes long, the two spin improvisations mining the full timbral range of their instruments optimizing the overlaps and extremities of register of each horn in what, one assumes, to be a collective dialogue.

The liner notes begin with the following directive: “Highly recommended: Before you read these liner notes, please listen to this album in full length first. Do it with open ears and get involved in this four-part, 44-minute adventure ...” Surely an odd way to start things. And it was only after a few listens that I actually read through the notes. Listening to the way that the two voices interconnect, it is easy to imagine the time they spent playing together and tuning their individual methodologies. But the reality of this session reveals an entirely different story. The project was initiated by the Swiss association JazzChur based in the city of Chur Switzerland. Titled “JazzChur_Exile,” Swiss musicians were invited to team up with a partner for a duet where each of the musicians recorded their parts independently. The recordings were then superimposed without subsequent editing. While recorded on the same day in January 2023, Koch recorded his parts in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland while Abdelnour recorded hers in Pau, France.

Going back to the recording after this knowledge, it is astonishing how tightly synched the playing is. Credit is due to the sensibilities of the two. While they hadn’t played together much, they have known each other for a long time and were deeply aware of their respective musical languages. This reciprocal awareness of their approaches to playing resulted in startling results. There is never a sense that these are two parallel solos, but rather congruent lines that weave together over time. A large part of that is due to each developing their corresponding parts while cognizant of leaving space for subsequent interaction. The way that timbres and registers evolve, sometimes shadowing each other and then transmuting into sympathetic contrasts makes for a bracing listen. A focus on breath and the way in which it activates reed vibrations through the conical bore of the saxophone is central to each of their approaches. Rumbling groans, low-end flutters and growls, quavering and burred harmonics, hissing pops, oscillating tones and flitting, skirling high-pitched overtones, are placed with acute consideration, shaped with a keen sense of pacing. Each leave long pauses, thoughtfully reflecting on the eventual whole of the project. The overlap of these, particularly knowing that no post-editing took place, is enthralling. While there are ample examples of recordings by reed duos, this one stands out as a notable meeting. One hopes that this project will lead to further collaborations between Koch and Abdelnour, particularly a real-time meeting.
–Michael Rosenstein


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