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Reviews of Recent Media

Jennifer Allum + John Butcher + Ute Kanngiesser + Eddie Prévost
Sounds of Assembly
Meenna 964

John Butcher + Dominic Lash + John Russell + Mark Sanders
spoonhunt SHCD003

Barre Phillips + John Butcher + Ståle Liavik Solberg
We met – and then
Relative Pitch RPR1122

John Butcher’s collaborators on these three recordings span several “generations” of free improvisers. Quotation marks are indicated here because the term is distortive, more commonly applied to successive groups of musicians, who often come onto the scene in a matter of a few years of the previous wave, rather than the decades necessary for them truly to be of different generations. Longtime trio mates with violinist Phil Durrant, Butcher, and John Russell are a good example, the guitarist being IDed as part of the second generation of English improvisers while the saxophonist is somewhere among the third or fourth, depending on the metric – which makes drummer Mark Sanders part of the fifth, sixth? It gets even hazier when considering violinist Jennifer Allum, cellist Ute Kannigiesser, bassist Dominic Lash, and drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg. One thing is certain: bassist Barre Phillips and percussionist Eddie Prévost were among the earliest exponents that elevated improvisation from a component of the music they played to being the music in toto. Their deference to and support of their colleagues is a testament to the egalitarianism that is a hallmark of improvised music.

The session that resulted in Sounds of Assembly was convened for inclusion in Stewart Morgan’s 2013 film, Eddie Prévost’s Blood. The play of the title stems from where the music was made – the assembly hall of Prévost’s senior school. (He is shown searching his class picture for himself to no avail – he apparently played hooky that day.) The film clips center around his bowing and dampening a gong; but, on the CD, he spends more time focused on his other instruments – concert bass and snare drums, and small cymbals. Similarly, the short, textured utterances of the others in the film are countervailed by more vigorous passages late in the five-track program. Except in free jazz forays where he can be quite robust and forward, Prévost’s music is almost always predicated on willful restraint, holding back at least momentarily to see what one’s counterparts will do, and to let it stand sometimes without further comment. With three improvisers well-steeped in his aesthetics, Prévost instigates a dialogue where sounds and silences are equally provocative.

discernment is one of a growing number of recordings made in the UK during the weeks before lockdown, which will provide an illuminating “before” picture when they all make their way to market. Instead of the color fields of Sounds of Assembly, Butcher, Russell, Lash, and Sanders, incline towards more figurative exchanges. The successful mediation of unamplified guitar and drum kit is central to the fluid interplay within the quartet (and it’s a quartet, not four improvisers). Credit Sanders’ ability to sustain a low simmer, prodding and dovetailing in roughly equal measures. This also gives Lash ample space for his deep colors to seep into. Butcher is always in sync with Sanders; he rekindles something of what he had with Russell back in the day; and he occasionally nudges the direction of the music. There is a lot of sorting out on this disc. discernment proves to be an apt name for the recording.

Of the drummers on these discs, it is Ståle Liavik Solberg that comes closest to the appealing contrasts inherent in playing a reduced kit of small drums and the occasional embrace of rudiments that largely distinguished John Stevens’ work when Butcher was a member of Spontaneous Music Ensemble. He provides enough forward momentum for the saxophonist to engage with Barre Phillips primarily through textures, of which they both have abundant inventories. Throughout the seamlessly joined excerpts from two concerts, there is the anticipation that the building intensities will loose with free jazz abandon for extended periods, which never quite happens. These pinnacles prove to be another area for Butcher, Phillips, and Solberg to deliberate their next moves, which they tend to make in short order. Pacing is an essential ingredient for a satisfying disc of freely improvised music, a quality very much in evidence on We Met – And Then.
–Bill Shoemaker


Martin Archer + Charlotte Keeffe + Martin Pine
hi res heart
Discus 108CD

hi res heart was constructed during the UK lockdown between August 2020 and March 2021. Multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer, trumpeter/flugelhorn player Charlotte Keeffe, and percussionist Martin Pyne, each provided recordings of four initial ideas, the others then arranging parts, the batting order changing from track to track.

The twelve resulting pieces have a fluid interplay, an in-stroke back and forth, and a palpable energy that constructed efforts infrequently convey. There is also a surprising and welcomed amount of propulsive, playful jazzcentric music splashed throughout – a puckish Cherry-flavored turnaround; saxophone figures exuding Hemphill-like swagger; and a palimpsest of Charles Tyler’s Near East excursions, are among the bright moments.

In between, Archer, Keeffe, and Pyne explore more deeply hued, textured soundscapes; however, they arrive at more peaceable abstractions than expected in these times. They are equally fine vehicles for Pyne to layer vibraphone, kit drums, and miscellaneous percussion, Archer to ply contrasting horns, and Keeffe to tap her broad expressive palette. They provide vivid contrasts without undermining the overall cohesion of the album.

Eventually, the music made at home during the pandemic will be anthologized. A track from hi res heart should be included. The live feel of the music repeatedly belies the time-consuming, painstaking processes required of Archer, Keeffe, and Pyne to make the album – credit their respective abilities as improvisers. It is a benchmark for a way of making music that will probably continue well after the plague flag is lowered.
–Bill Shoemaker


Broken Shadows
Broken Shadows
Intakt CD 362

Named after an Ornette Coleman tune, this project brings together Tim Berne, Chris Speed, Reid Anderson, and Dave King – four musicians from America’s urban north who reinterpret beloved compositions written by artists from the rural south and Midwest: Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman, and Charlie Haden. These legendary innovators created a timeless avant-garde from the folk influences of their early surroundings, encompassing everything from the hard blues to deep laments.

The members of Broken Shadows share long personal histories. Speed played in Berne’s Bloodcount in the 1990s and each has worked with King in different groups, while Anderson and King – the bassist and drummer of the famous trio The Bad Plus – have been playing together for over 35 years. Broken Shadows formed a few years ago to play club dates before going into the studio in 2018. Although most of those recordings appeared the following year as part of a limited edition Newvelle vinyl box set, the complete session is now available from Intakt on CD.

Broken Shadows’ self-titled debut is largely a tribute to Coleman, with eight songs primarily covering his late ‘60s to early ‘70s work, and a pair of compositions from Hemphill, one from Haden, and one from Redman – all musicians with connections to Coleman. Haden, the bassist for Coleman’s groundbreaking quartet, was present for the original recordings of most of the Coleman tunes, as was Redman, who wrote “Walls-Bridges” and was a member of Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra when Haden’s signature anthem “Song for Ché” was made. Hemphill’s maverick career wasn’t directly linked to Coleman’s although they were related by marriage and attended the same high school in Ft. Worth, Texas at different times.

Broken Shadows is a less hyperkinetic conceptual cousin to John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Elektra, 1989), which Berne played on, in that Coleman’s melodies are the focus over improvisation, or as Branford Marsalis states in the liner notes, “the vehicle is the song.” From the exuberant opening of “Street Woman,” it’s obvious the quartet’s collective approach channels Coleman’s melodicism, ensuring these succinct readings are all about the song. The quartet gives “Toy Dance” a brisk reading and make “Civilization Day” more upbeat than the original. Likewise, on numbers like “Ecars,” “C.O.D.,” and “Una Muy Bonita,” the quartet economically emphasizes Coleman’s tuneful themes with a relaxed deportment that is less angular than the original recordings.

Berne and Speed have a long history together; although their tones and phrasing are different, their harmonic connection recalls Coleman and Redman. Berne is a keen interpreter of Coleman’s work, his alto somewhat less ardent here than on his own recordings. Speed also used to play with more fervor in the early days, now his tenor tone is warmer, his notes drawn out. Those who relish such subtleties will appreciate the serpentine lines Speed traces around Berne in “Broken Shadows.” Rather than playing the motif in unison, they play different variations, transforming the dirge into a tender ballad.

Anderson and King’s infectious glee brings muscularity to irresistible grooves, giving Hemphill’s “Body” extra kick to amplify the original’s funky strut. Though rarely covered, the odd rock-like structure and loping backbeat of Hemphill’s memorable “Dogon A.D.” is a perfect fit for the rhythm section that established its reputation transforming rock songs into jazz improvisations. Even dedicated Bad Plus fans may be surprised by the gutbucket grooves Anderson and King lay down in “Body” and “Dogon A.D.” Conversely, since the original 1970 Impulse! recording of Haden’s sorrowful ode, “Song for Ché,” features a poignant bass solo – Anderson complies.

The quartet brings these infectious melodies to life with an appropriately bluesy earthiness. An often-ignored aspect of the music of Coleman, Hemphill, Redman, and Haden is its collective nature. And this group, despite the acclaim of each of its members, is more of a brotherhood than an all-star ensemble. Their devotion to listening to one another results in a shared sensibility that makes this tribute album successful. Coleman’s Harmolodic Theory is founded on melody, and Broken Shadows succeeds in conveying that better than most.
–Troy Collins


Sylvie Courvoisier + Ned Rothenberg + Julian Sartorius
Clean Feed CF560

For some, even the pandemic didn’t create insuperable obstacles to new collaborative possibilities. Swiss-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and American woodwind specialist Ned Rothenberg chose to be in each other’s “pod” to work on a new program of music, building on the rapport evident on In Cahoots (Clean Feed, 2016) which they recorded with violinist Mark Feldman. They had the opportunity to road test the results in performances in Europe in Fall 2020, when they invited Courvoisier’s countryman drummer Julian Sartorius to join them. Having been impressed when she first encountered him as a student Musikhochschule Luzern in 2004, she subsequently employed him when she needed a sub for Kenny Wollesen in her trio. During this time the threesome entered the studio to record Lockdown, which presents four improvisations bracketed by charts from both the pianist and reedman.

By blending contemporary classical rigor with improv unpredictability and free jazz sass, Courvoisier has become one of the leading lights in the piano firmament. Long-established downtown stalwart Rothenberg shares a similarly eclectic sensibility, and a predilection for extended techniques, such as various species of multiphonics, alternate fingerings, airy exhalations, and overblown notes, which he has broadened yet further through the assimilations of non-Western traditions. Although perhaps slightly in thrall to the foundational pairing, Sartorius tends towards the supportive rather than assertive, but his unconventional percussive flair forms an integral part of the group sound. Together they constitute an empathetic unit which blurs the distinction between notation and invention, doubling down with a common vocabulary which avoids prolonged rhythm, melody, or easy resolution in favor of a spontaneous, often restrained, exchange of textures.

Even Courvoisier’s bright opener “La Cigale” starts uncomfortably and mysteriously, as a repeated rattle and a dark piano rumble punctuate a wavering reed drone, before it hits the sweet spot. The perky skew-whiff head quickly stretches into more expansive terrain as first the pianist and then reedman revel in the potential inherent in the written material. Rothenberg gives a masterclass in extemporizing from a theme, integrating unexpected elements such as ragged blasts and skirling cries into his paraphrases and variations, all the while loosely accompanied by Sartorius’ clatter. Thereafter the compositions express a subdued melancholic feel. Rothenberg’s “Outlander” intersperses tight unison figures among more open interactions rich in event. One instance, where Sartorius blends a cymbal scrape to neatly coincide with Courvoisier’s insistent striking of a dampened key, illustrates the sort of incidental detail which regularly illuminates the dialogue. On Courvoisier’s “Requiem D’Un Songe,” Rothenberg’s introductory bass clarinet murmurs eventually morph into the anchoring motif lifted from “Early Autumn” by dedicatee Claude Thornhill while the piano prettily digresses, presaging another delicious juxtaposition of the predetermined and the impromptu.

A series of off-the-cuff collectives follows, tracing a trajectory from “Deep Rabbit Hole,” where Rothenberg’s gusty shakuhachi evokes a minimalist watercolor sketch, then becoming gradually more staccato and explosive until matters reach a climax on the angular “After Lunch,” energized by the pianist’s propulsive patterns, then subsiding to culminate in an achingly beautiful rendition of Courvoisier’s “D’Agala,” a piece dedicated to the late Geri Allen, which closes the album in a way that suggests lockdown as a time for reappraisal and reflection as much as reinvention.
–John Sharpe


Hat Hut Records

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