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Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet
Hear The Light Singing
RogueArt ROG-0130

Hear the Light Singing is the sequel to pianist and composer Myra Melford’s 2022 RogueArt release, For The Love Of Fire And Water, which originally started out as sketches for a one-off gig at The Stone in 2019. Comprised of five new compositions intended as “insertions” to be integrated into the prior session’s album-length suite when performed live, these pieces were also conceived to stand on their own. Similarly inspired by the same set of Cy Twombly drawings as the prior album, this record is named in honor of how the sunlight plays on the Mediterranean Sea in Gaeta, Italy, where Twombly made the drawings.

Featuring a nearly identical lineup, Melford is once again joined by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and cellist Tomeka Reid, with original drummer Susie Ibarra replaced by Lesley Mok, who also toured with the band. During their first tour, Melford modified the original suite, adding parts, removing others, and creating new insertions to augment set lists. This new collection of music was specifically written to emphasize the strengths of each performer, and is therefore more personalized, with each musician given an extended, unaccompanied solo feature.

Somewhat more composed than the previous suite, these insertions brim with catchy melodies, rich chord changes, and infectious grooves, but also make ample room for rambunctious, open-ended free playing. Melford’s flinty pianism opens the album, introducing a section that alternates between angular counterpoint and rock inspired rhythm changes, which highlight Laubrock’s sinuous soprano musings. The second piece begins with Reid’s melancholy cello solo; Melford claims this insertion was inspired by the sea on a calm day, which Reid’s romantic arco variations reinforce. The date’s epic centerpiece follows, featuring a lengthy series of sprawling improvisations; Laubrock’s torrid tenor and Halvorson’s distorted guitar reach an intense, fevered pitch before Mok takes centerstage as the featured soloist in the second half with a series of nuanced variations.

Halvorson opens the fourth insertion alone, with sampled, interlocking layers of baroque inspired arpeggios awash in reverb and delay, before Melford establishes a steady bassline for the rest of the quintet to follow. The tune’s looped structure also recalls the cyclical patterns of the sea, lending it a tranquil, meditative quality, making it the most lyrical piece on the album. The finale, on the other hand, begins with a breathy, introspective soliloquy from Laubrock, but ends with an elated, danceable rhythmic excursion for the whole band. Initially intended as an encore, this lighthearted coda subtly suggests the playfulness that underscores Twombly’s work, despite its abstract nature.

Dynamic by design, Hear the Light Singing does not need to be heard in combination with For The Love Of Fire And Water to be appreciated; the album was devised to exist on its own merits and does so unequivocally. Building off the creative energy and ideas of the first suite, this set serves as an improvisational showcase for the five all-star performers’ interpretive prowess.
–Troy Collins


Aruán Ortiz
Pastor’s Paradox
Clean Feed CF648CD

Pianist Aruán Ortiz is one of the most searching and unpredictable musicians out there right now. He’s long been a custodian of musical history and identity, so it’s no huge surprise that on this release he’s focused on the legacy of African-American freedom movements. Specifically focused on some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, and far from the most famous of them, this intense small group brings to life the worldly and otherworldly dimensions of art and politics.

The quartet heard here is sizzling, as Ortiz is joined by clarinetist Don Byron, cellist Lester St. Louis (Yves Dhar replaces him on a pair of tracks), and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. Spoken word is also a key feature of several tracks, courtesy of Mtume Gant. The mood is urgent from the jarring opening to “Autumn of Freedom.” Pounding piano, whooping arco, and spoken word deliver a message as relevant now as when it was first spoken: “This sweltering summer will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” The feel on the record isn’t all sweltering summer, though. For example, the title track is made up of a searching, ethereal quality, with especially compelling, vocal-like work from Byron’s bass clarinet and St. Louis, almost if they’re wondering aloud about their own path forward.

As if in response, “Turning the Other Cheek No More” is resolute, defiant, purposeful. This is the call to direct action, and if it’s not as agonistic as the opener, you get treated to some earthy funk from AkLaff, and loads of tasty counter lines while Ortiz thunders and declaims until the tune ends with an exultant single note. “The Dream That Wasn’t Meant to Be Ours” opens with sparse percussion, and the space in this piece somehow conveys a kind of clarity. The spoken word suggests even more: “We all have the drum major instinct. This is the dominant impulse, the quest for recognition.” Gant is marvelous in his cadence, his feel for pacing and effect. And in between the gorgeous strings, the bittersweet chords, and Byron’s haunting lines, you could almost be listening to a long-lost John Carter record.

Equally strong is “From Montgomery to Memphis (to April 4),” filled with skirling ostinati, dissonant breakdowns, and clarinet commentary. As urgent and anxious as the feel is, however, nobody is ever overplaying in this genuine ensemble music. After the brief balm of “An Interval of Hope” (“Five score years ago ... the chains of discrimination still languished in the flames of withering injustice.”), the title track, “No Justice, No Peace, Legacy!” becomes a chant for the whole group in a contrapuntal groove. The rhythm continues, although in muted dialogue, throughout the piece. Once more, the basic group language is knit together by Ortiz’s probing, thoughtful playing, always focused on the moral arc of the universe, as it were. A brilliant record, and Ortiz continues to go from strength to strength.
–Jason Bivins


Evan Parker
NYC 1978
Relative Pitch RPR 1176

Straight from the off, Evan Parker unleashes what sounds like at least two separate intertwined lines from his soprano saxophone, an instrument that can supposedly only play one at a time. Not only that, they ricochet around the room, overtones zinging, creating total aural overload. This show from the New York City loft space Environ comes from the first week of the British saxophonist’s first solo tour of the United States and Canada in 1978. In this totally exposed format with nowhere to hide, he played a gruelling 29 dates in 30 days. If this archival tape taken from a 35-year-old cassette recording sounds impressive, imagine the jaw dropping impact it must have had in person.

Compounding that impression, Parker’s stunning command of circular breathing, multiphonics, split tonguing, and false fingering enables him to embed his multiple voices within an unbroken torrent of subtle shifts and modulations which take on a hypnotic minimalist quality. The intensity speaks to Parker’s keen focus. Looking back at this undertaking in a 2013 interview in the Quietus, Parker states “My concerns are to a large extent concerned with control, firstly of the instrument then of my imagination. If there is any processing power left over I can concern myself with what might be called the narrative.” But regardless of the concentration required, whether consciously or instinctively, he still imbues his explorations with sufficient musicality to make listening a pleasure not a study assignment.

On “Environ 2” and “Environ 4” Parker breaks up the program with two pieces on tenor saxophone, the earliest occasion on which his solo language on the larger horn has been captured. He conjures multiple voices here too, although in shorter bursts and at less breakneck pace, but still evidencing mastery of juddering multiphonics and timbral contrast, allied to a sure sense of design. Back on soprano, he further develops some of the ideas in a welter of squawks, chirrups, and chittering articulated at phenomenal speed. But he also introduces repeated motifs which verge on melodic when his angular inventions particularly recall that pioneer of the straight horn, Steve Lacy.

Parker reprises his astonishing polyphonic approach at greater length on “Environ 5.” He makes use of a principle known as auditory streaming, where alternation between widely divergent registers produces the illusion of more than one line. As a notion it has been around a long time. J.S. Bach employs the same procedure in many of his compositions, with his “Partita in D minor” for solo violin an especially fine example. However, few have achieved such striking effect in improvised music as Parker, certainly not before and rarely since.

Coming only two years after Saxophone Solos (Incus, 1976) and just months after his second unaccompanied album Monoceros (Incus, 1978), the 1978 concerts proved an ongoing voyage of discovery for Parker. The tour was also documented on two further recordings: At The Finger Palace (Beak Doctor, 1980) and Vaincu Va! (Western Front New Music, 2013). The opportunity to hear such innovations in the flesh was a revelation, one which inspired all manner of subsequent sonic investigators. Mention should also be made of the contemporaneous cover photo by Thomas Struth which shows the World Trade towers looming over the West Broadway locale of the Environ loft in another powerful evocation of a particular time, one when all this was still newly minted.
–John Sharpe


Jessica Pavone
Out Of Your Head OOYH023

The four-movement suite that comprises Jessica Pavone’s Clamor sonically recontextualizes the idea of “women’s work” as a feminist creative space for both individual voices and group collaboration. Written for a string sextet and soloist, two central movements highlight Katherine Young’s maverick bassoon stylings, while the bookending movements focus on democratic group dynamics. In addition to Young, the core ensemble is composed of violinists Aimée Niemann and Charlote Munn-Wood, violists Abby Swidler and Pavone, cellist Mariel Roberts, and double bassist Shayna Dulberger.

Each movement is named after an innovation made by women to circumvent patriarchal obstructions to their personal freedoms. “Neolttwigi” utilizes rhythms that represent the 17th-century Korean standing seesaw invented by women who were not free to travel, in order to see beyond their property walls. “Nu Shu,” which roughly translates as “female writing,” honors the secret language created by Chinese women who were forbidden to go to school. And “Bloom” is named after bloomers, which Amelia Bloom designed during the Victorian dress reform of the 1850s.

The suite utilizes indeterminacy and a time-based score. Within set time periods, the musicians can express their own individuality, ensuring a more collaborative process than the typical composer-performer hierarchy, which reflects a conceptual circumventing of obstructions, where no one musician leads or follows. Movements drift seamlessly between solo voices and ensemble unisons, establishing a collaborative relationship between individuals and the group.

Focusing on group dynamics, the shifting rhythms and crisscrossing layers of “Neolttwigi” emulate the swaying of a seesaw. Somewhat ominous at first, hushed discord slowly resolves into a radiant fanfare, culminating in a scintillating wall of noise. “Nu Shu (part 1)” conjures subterranean vibrations, as Young navigates the low end of her instrument using chattering multiphonics and sustained split tones. “Nu Shu (part 2)” continues the journey with compelling tension, culminating in an ugly beauty when stark, buzzing strings merge with Young’s atonal caterwauling. Returning to the collectivism of the first movement, “Bloom” embraces a more conventional approach, with a folksy melody that vacillates between Bachian consonance, Bartokian dissonance, and Feldman-esque resonance.

Clamor aurally conveys a socialist vision of how women’s work can be a source of both individual agency and collectivity. Pavone’s suite is fully realized by the combined strength of individual and communal voices in a compositional setting that relies heavily on group improvisation. It harnesses each of the players’ intuition, talent, and experience to achieve a cooperative unity, yielding a cohesive, democratic, and ultimately, inspiring work.
–Troy Collins


Michael Pisaro-Liu
A Room Outdoors
Elsewhere ELSE028

Yuko Zama’s Elsewhere label continues its superb trajectory by documenting A Room Outdoors, Michael Pisaro-Liu’s 2006 merging of field recordings and acoustic instruments. It was the first time the ever-fascinating composer had done so, and elsewhere presents two vastly different realizations, recorded in 2020 and 2023.

Pisaro-Liu’s works often spring from, and require, a narrative of their own by way of explication, though not for enjoyment! If not really telling the tale, facts will at least set the stage. The piece is scored for sustaining instrument, harmonium, and field recordings. As might be expected, Pisaro’s imagination was sparked in multiple and simultaneous ways. His monumental Transparent City series was then in formulation, a series of cityscapes infused with sine tones to create what Pisaro calls a prismatic effect on them. A Room Outdoors also has its genesis in his reading of Ron Loewinsohn’s Magnetic Field(s), leading to the idea of bringing the external environment into the concert space. Pisaro’s wish is that the recording be made as close to the concert venue as possible, facilitating a unified shift in internal perspective as the listener moves between spaces and metaphorical boundaries blur. The 2020 realization was made in Brussels, featuring Guy Vandromme’s keyboard and Adriaan Severins’ synthesizer; Severins also supplies the field recording. The 2023 realization, portraying Cremona, involves “tonal” contributions from Viola da Gambist Luciana Elizondo prismatizing field recordings courtesy of Fabio Gionfrida. Vandromme returns to provide Indian harmonium.

So many of Pisaro’s works function on simultaneously metaphorical levels, and these two radically different realizations begin with what seems to be an opportunity to listen to the space, as close to its silent purity as possible. An openness pervades, a gorgeously subtle drawing in, after which a door is opened onto the evolving sound picture we’d expect from so many subsequent Pisaro-Liu compositions. That near-silence returns to conclude each sonic encounter, but beyond this, the two voyages are breathtaking in their difference and diversity. Brussels might be called the overtly electroacoustic version, as sound, sometimes in reverse, is at its core. Music seems to play what I hesitate to call a supporting role, though direct comparison to Cremona does evoke a foreground/background musical relationship. Perhaps its better to suggest that, like Transparent City, Brussels’ mellower or backlit keyboard timbres promote more attention to other sounds. There is the melodic industriality at 12:31, the harmonies swelling to envelope but also being enveloped by it. The rumble of traffic echoes and is echoed by the rumbling subterranean ground swell of electronic tone in sympathetic vibration with itself. By contrast, Cremona features the voice, human and natural. It complements the reedier and glassier tones of gamba and harmonium. The first harmonium tonal complex draws attention to the middle-register thrum of voices so obvious but easily dismissed until that musically fraught moment. The gamba’s 3:17 entrance broadens the sonic spectrum while mirroring higher frequencies already in the environment. Alone and in tandem, the instruments inhabit the vocal and animal timbres throughout, but the relationship is also reciprocal. Listen at 9:39 as gamba decays into the harmonium’s drone, and the resultant higher frequencies form a counterpoint with the repetitive natural sounds surrounding them.

It was with the Fields have Ears series that I assumed so many overt levels of sonic intrigue entered Pisaro-Liu’s work. This release has proven the assumption incorrect. At each point in the non-linear narrative, microcosmic and macrocosmic event converge to create a space beyond space, a temporal and geographical unity in sharp focus. The piece is obviously a pivotal moment in the composer’s conceptions of sound, environment, and their points of intersection. Elsewhere has presented a documented well worth studying by anyone interested in a crucial instant of reflection in performance.
–Marc Medwin


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