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Polwechsel
Embrace
Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu nvnc-lp040/043

In the liner notes to Polwechsel’s eponymous 1995 debut, Werner Dafeldecker stated “The compositorial decision is one of trust toward the sound: does the sound make it: does it have enough strength to be fitted into different contexts for a longer period of time. The source of inspiration is the sound. Then you’ve got the level: how far can a sound be stressed, what can be done to it, into which context can it be fitted and by which means.” That primacy of sound and its inverse – silence – in a setting balancing compositional forms and collective improvisation wasn’t new of course. Those strategies had been explored by groups like Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and Musica Elettronica Viva and, while generally eschewing composition, AMM, Group Ongaku, and King Ubu Orchestru. But with that first release, the Viennese quartet, with Radu Malfatti on trombone, Burkhard Stangl on guitar, Michael Moser on cello, and Dafeldecker on double bass and guitar, carved out their own distinctive approach toward sound and silence. Navigating the compositions by Dafeldecker and Moser, Polwechsel dove into the slowly evolving interplay of striated sonic investigation, a marked move away from the loquacious settings the four had previously worked in.

Over the course of the next three decades, the group continued to evolve, first with the departure of Malfatti, and then with the arrival of John Butcher. Then with an expansion to a quintet with the departure of Stangl and the addition of percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr. And finally, to a quartet with the departure of Butcher. Their strategies evolved as well, with the introduction of tonal relationships, a broader timbral palette, and a more overt sense of trajectory, though still distanced from the garrulous strategies employed by free improvisation. Across nine releases, the group also brought in a range of collaborators including Christian Fennesz, John Tilbury, and Klaus Lang. To celebrate thirty years of working together, the Luxembourg-based label Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu assembled the deluxe 4-LP set Embrace, one with the core group and three with collaborators. Recorded over the course of 2020 – 2022, each recording presents a different facet of their music.

The first LP of the set is Embrace 1: Jupiter Storm/Partial Intersect, recorded in August 2022 with the core quartet of Beins, Brandlmayr, Dafeldecker, and Moser joined by John Butcher on soprano and tenor saxophone and Magda Mayas on piano. The bassist’s “Jupiter Storm” opens the recording, utilizing pre-recorded material from gongs, piano, and modular oscillators to create a time-structured score with improvised parts from bass and cello. The piece starts out with Butcher’s burred trills and pinched, breathy overtones placed against spare bells and chimes. Resonant piano strings are added to the open mix along with shimmers of cymbals ensuring ample space is left for each sound to accrue. The deep tones of bass and cello are layered in along with the sounding of gongs and the piece slowly builds density, though all are still mindful of leaving pools of silence. Timbral interplay is particularly strong here, placing short percussive pricks of sound and clipped reeds against the long decay of the stings and piano. Moser’s “Partial Intersect” slows things down even more, with bass and electronics providing a ground for shifting, overlapping layers. String harmonics, bowed percussion overtones, reed microtones and deep piano sustain weave in and out of foreground and background as the piece purposefully progresses and builds interlocking detail over its 20-minute length.

Brandlmayr provides the score for the 37-minute piece on the second disc, Embrace 2: Chains and Grain, recorded in July 2021. Using material that the quartet recorded over hours of improvising, he decomposed the improvisations into kernels of ideas which were then restructured. He explains the impetus for the piece, noting “The sound material itself is quite clearly defined throughout the piece. I wanted to shape, with regard to the different approaches of the individual players, the quality and degree of precision with which musical material is repeated and how it is notated ... While some of us play very defined, precisely repeated structures, others move around more freely in a very defined musical space, contributing elements of surprise and change. Ideally, both are influencing each other.” Brandlmayr extends his percussion with the use of transducers which introduce glitched textures to the transparent layers of low-end strings, struck and abraded percussion, and threads of melodic vibraphone motifs. Here, individual voices are more present, with rivulets of through-activity built from short phrases, looping patterns, and longer abstracted lines. The tension between scored framework and open-form extrapolations is fundamental to the success of the piece and one can hear the balance of individual voices and the symbiotic relationship of the players have forged over their years of playing together.

The third disc, Embrace 3: Magnetron/Quarz/Obsidian, is split between two sessions. The first is a collective improvisation with Berlin-based Andrea Neumann on inside-piano and the second, recordings of two pieces by Burkhard Beins for the core quartet. On the two improvisations with Neumann, Dafeldecker sticks solely to electronics, Beins augments his percussion with electronics and Brandlmayr provides sinewave-like tones from bowed vibraphone. Neumann’s unique timbres from amplified open piano frame and Moser’s dark cello arco fit perfectly in the richly modulating electro-acoustic mix. The first improvisation is a moody, atmospheric probe of eddying details deployed with a keen ear toward textures and densities. Low-end electronics color the proceedings while Dafeldecker notion of “trust toward the sound” guides the spontaneous collective playing. The second piece is a bit more open, with decisive scribbles of sound tracing mutable arcs as the improvisation unfolds.

Beins’ acousmatic piece, “Quarz,” was assembled from recordings made by each of the members of the quartet in response to a field recording he made of the opening and closing of elevator doors along with the various room ambiences that were captured as the elevator moved between floors. Beins explains, “Without indicating or defining how each musician should react to the ‘audio score,’ this method of working nevertheless enabled me to provoke coordinated events/changes and choices of musical material that refer to the same sonic situations, or elements within them.” While the field recording is not included, one can sense vestiges of it from the various parts. There are more overt shadings like percussive scrapings and hisses, metallic clanging, atmospheric resonances, dynamic cello arco, darting bass pizzicato, and wafts of electronics. But the piece operates like congruent, simultaneous activity from each of the players that gels into an overarching trajectory. For “Obsidian,” Beins used instrumental samples from each of the musicians to create a piece with audio software. He then took screen shots of the resultant wave forms and turned that into a graphic score. Like “Quarz,” the score acts as more of a framework for the ensuing realization. Here stops and starts, silent pauses, and variable overlaps of activities ebb and flow across the 10-minute realization. Vigorous sheets of sound open to oscillating arco overlaps and slowly modulating percussion motifs and scuffed textures. The recording effectively places the various voices across the stereo field, accentuating the way that the parts collectively gather and rupture into variegated strata.

The final disc, Embrace 4: Orakelstücke/Aquin, is comprised of two pieces composed specifically for the ensemble, “Orakelstücke” by Peter Ablinger and “Aquin” by Klaus Lang. The Ablinger piece, part of his “Instruments &” series translates as Oracle Pieces, written for four instruments, language, objects, and microphones. For the tightly scripted piece each of the performers utilizes instruments including a microtonal glockenspiel built by the composer, specified objects, microphone feedback, and improvised recited text where “comprehensibility should be partially given, but under no circumstances should be comprehensiv [sic] for longer stretches.” The piece proceeds slowly over its 19-minute length, imparting a sense of parallel traversal of detailed, episodic processes and overarching dramatic ritual. Lang’s “Aquin” features the ensemble joined by the composer on harmonium and flute. This is the most tonal piece of the four discs, with clustered, sustained pitches voiced with quavering intonation. The extended, dusky drones of cello and bass arco, breathy flute, and the pulsing, reedy harmonium chords are amassed with an undulating calmness which slowly evolves over the timbral ground of bass drum, wafting cymbal shimmers, and soft pinpricks of bells. Here, patience and collective focus provide an absorbing listening experience.

When assembling a thirty-year celebration of an ensemble, one tact would be to present a retrospective, a look back at how a group evolved. Instead, Embrace has taken a more rewarding approach, providing a view into where their collective experience has led them. Ranging from through-composed pieces by Ablinger and Lang, compositional frameworks for improvisation by each of the members, guests including former member Butcher along with new collaborators Mayas and Neumann, the set provides an inclusive view of Polwechsel. But based on the path they’ve navigated over three decades, the music captured here is a signifier of the possibilities they are committed to exploring rather than a neat synopsis. Point of Departure writer Stuart Broomer sums it up well in his astute liner notes included in the set. “True to the group’s spirit, this anniversary project is not a retrospective but a probe into an array of fresh possibilities.”
–Michael Rosenstein

 

Mike Reed
The Separatist Party
Astral Spirits AS231 / We Jazz WJCD56, WJLP56

Mike Reed is a key figure in the Chicago scene; in addition to his role as a bandleader and in-demand drummer, he also plays a major part in festival programming, running two venues himself (Constellation and the Hungry Brain). The Separatist Party is the name of Reed’s newest group and latest album – the first installment in a projected trilogy of collaborative albums exploring themes of isolation with a varied cast of musicians. Well before the pandemic, Reed was haunted by a 2015 story in the New York Times about George Bell, a hoarder who died alone at home, undiscovered for a week. The story resonated with Reed after lockdown; in early 2022, he enlisted some of the most creative figures in Chicago’s experimental music community to help sonically transpose his thoughts about forced seclusion into music.

The Separatist Party includes cornetist Ben LaMar Gay and poet Marvin Tate – both of whom worked on Reed’s Flesh & Bone (482 Music, 2017), along with members of Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas: Rob Frye on tenor saxophone, flute, and percussion; Cooper Crain on guitar and synths; and Dan Quinlivan on synths. The six musicians (representing different facets of the Chicago scene) blend a wide array of approaches into a groove-oriented expression of communality in the face of mandatory solitude. The album alternates between cuts dominated by Tate’s righteous spoken word, minimalist excursions featuring the members of Bitchin Bajas, and lively numbers that spotlight Gay sparring with Frye.

Album opener “Your Soul” begins with spare keyboard washes, skittering percussion, and Tate’s striking vocals, swelling in energy as additional instruments appear. “More time, more mind, more wine, more, more, more,” Tate cries, climaxing with “your soul is like a mosh pit!” – his hectoring rhetoric accentuating the complex, contradictory struggles of modern life. Tate is featured on half the cuts, ranging from the hypnotic “One of Us,” and the funky “We Just Came To Dance,” to the rambunctious “Hold Me, Hold Me.” His lyrics can be clever; on “One of Us” he recalls how a neighbor almost became a member of The Temptations, but “drank a lot.” On “Hold Me, Hold Me” Tate’s exhortations “The truth is layered, layered/bone, flesh, and politic/you never like the way I kissed/and I never cared for your race play/too predictable and historically inaccurate” poetically portray miscommunication that devolves into argument.

The instrumental tracks vary between the atmospheric “Eric’s Theme” and the up-tempo “A Low Frequency Nightmare.” The latter features Gay and Frye trading spirited cornet and tenor runs over woozy keyboards and propulsive drums that build from motorik drive to syncopated groove. The tonal difference between it and quiet, melodious tracks like “Our Own Love Language,” in which flute, guitar, and muted cornet trade pastoral filigrees, can be jarring, but the album works as a miscellany of moods that demonstrates emotionally complex artistic responses to universal experiences.

Throughout the session, Reed and company meld disparate influences into a sonically cohesive whole. Tate’s arresting vocals hit hard, but the essence of this communal project is the sextet’s empathetic rapport. Alternately bold and beautiful, the tunes convey both a timely relevance and a timeless appeal. Structured like a concept album, The Separatist Party finds Reed and his all-star crew in the service of music that is beyond category.

The second installment in the planned cycle, The Silent Hour, due out in September, is inspired by a 2017 New York Times article about an anonymous Queens man who died alone in his apartment. The third album will reference items once owned by the late AACM bassist Fred Hopkins, which recently ended up in Reed’s possession.
–Troy Collins

 

Florian Stoffner + John Butcher + Chris Corsano
Braids
ezz-thetics 1047

Guitarist Florian Stoffner, saxophonist John Butcher, and Chris Corsano have plenty up their sleeves. On their new effort Braids, they seem, however, to revel in keeping most of their tricks to themselves. Throughout the entire album they prefer to stay on the softer edges of the dynamic range, rarely going above a mezzo-forte. A creak here, a moan there, a windchime swinging in the ether. Their music is quietly just out of reach and at times barely legible. The trio excels at posing questions of the what, of the what might have been, of the speculative and the fleeting. I say this in praise: Butcher’s tenor and soprano only sparingly make conventional saxophone tones; Stoffner must have found just about every way to deconstruct a guitar; and Corsano’s hodge-podge of drums, little instruments, and other quietly whackable objects sound sourced from the trash under a highway overpass. “The Zoo is Next Door” starts with the high squeal of metal rubbing against metal followed by a setting of chimes, knocks, saxophone gut punches, ringing and twanging and binding. It’s the song of abandoned, derelict machinery, slowly come to life. A choir of neglected robots struggling to repair themselves. A trio of improvisers who seem to be playing in a room just around the corner. And when you think you’ve found them, they’ve moved on like ghosts to another space, their music emanating from an enticingly inaccessible realm.

“Little Secrets Taken to Our Graves” begins with low groans and moans: the sound of metal giving way under too much weight. There’s a tinnitus ring and a long saxophone tone. Corsano, on “half-clarinet” (presumably the top half), comes close to matching Butcher’s pitch, wavers, falls away, and comes back. As the pair synchs up, beats in the sound waves appear as they approach but never come into perfect intonation. Later, hollow drum tones, soprano filigrees, and guitar chimes hang in the air. The piece, and really the entire album, sounds haunted. “Gneis” is the closest the group gets to becoming a predictable free jazz trio. For a brief moment, Corsano’s drums cohere into an identifiable kit as Butcher’s soprano unfurls sheets of sound. In between the saxophone chirps and the guitar clangs and swells of “Charlatans Selling Miracles” I found myself asking “did I just hear that, or imagine it?” It’s easy to praise musicians for their use of space, but this trio takes it almost to an extreme. “Smaller Infinities” contains a number of set pieces broken up by periods of five or ten – or maybe more – seconds of silence. It’s hard to tell; time is warped in this sonic landscape. Throughout Braids the band’s restraint and unhurried pace leave much to the imagination. What is making that din? Who is climbing through that sea of scrap metal? Why won’t the band show itself?
–Chris Robinson

 

Anna Webber
Shimmer Wince
Intakt CD 407

Canadian saxophonist, flutist, and composer Anna Webber is a rising figure in the New York scene, having worked with such luminaries as Dave Douglas, John Hollenbeck, and Matt Mitchell. Considered one of the most innovative musicians of a younger generation, since 2010 Webber has recorded over a dozen sessions as a leader or co-leader, in groups ranging from trios to big bands. Her new album, Shimmer Wince, features some impressive new voices, including trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, cellist Mariel Roberts, drummer Lesley Mok, and pianist Elias Stemeseder, who plays synthesizer exclusively here.

Webber’s compositions vary per project but typically straddle the worlds of improvised jazz and composed classical music. For this album, Webber works with a novel concept, exploring Just Intonation, rather than the commonly accepted system, Equal Temperament. Just Intonation is an ancient tuning system based on the natural harmonics and resonances of notes. Putting aside the technical aspects of Just Intonation (the inner workings of pitch, rhythm, multiphonic frequencies, intervallic ratios, and the subdivision of octaves), Webber employs an integrative approach, using the tuning system’s simple ratios to unite interlocking patterns and pitches in her intricate frameworks.

There’s so much happening throughout the album a casual listener might not even notice the alternate tunings if not for the hallucinatory reverberations of Stemeseder’s synthesizer. Even fans might not hear this music as different from what Webber has done before, due to her frequent use of extended techniques. But the arrangements and orchestration create a sense of depth where every instrument is important, even as they blend into the ensemble.

The opening track, “Swell,” begins with held tones on synthesizer and cello, drifting into a mutant modal blues, disrupted by Mok’s cymbal washes. Trumpet and saxophone play a rocking two-note phrase that swings with unusual textures. As the track gains form, occasional cello pedals encourage Webber to play it straight, while O’Farrill articulates with breathy phrases. “Wince” also resonates with a rock-inspired backbeat; O’Farrill showcases an extroverted artistry, varying his open horn with various mutes, while Webber navigates her intervallic tenor variations with graceful deportment. This is where the Just Intonation tuning becomes most obvious; one can hear it in the contrast in pitch between Webber’s long tones and the anxious riffing of the ensemble.

On the other hand, Webber has a knack for making the unconventional sound accessible. “Fizz” sounds inspired by electronic music, twisted around a repeated synth riff and rhythmically stirred by a snare that drives the music forward, melodically embellished by horns and strings. Even the mechanical sounds of “Periodicity I” and “Periodicity II” coalesce into unorthodox harmony. Webber employs multiphonics for rhythmic punctuation on the former as Roberts mines her lower register with raspy, contrapuntal interjections – fragmentary details that are all part of the musical equation.

The range of sounds Webber can evoke from a quintet is remarkable and her titles can be amusing. The rhythm of “Squirmy” is hard to pin down; brilliantly orchestrated, it features zigzagging flute, becoming an abstract drone before returning to vibrant counterpoint. In stark contrast to the rest of the album, “Shimmer” closes the date quietly, with hushed, organ-like synthesizer and breathy horns.

Shimmer Wince is a testament to Webber’s burgeoning creativity. Despite the constraints of the Just Intonation parameters, Webber never loses sight of her compositional focus, and her bandmates perform these demanding charts with rigorous ingenuity. Shimmer Wince presents music whose complexities are never ends in themselves, but a means to convey an enthusiasm for rhythm and groove that requires no explanation to be appreciated.
–Troy Collins

 

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