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Reviews of Recent Media

Angelica Sanchez Nonet
Nighttime Creatures
Pyroclastic PR 30

After living for almost three decades in New York City, pianist and composer Angelica Sanchez moved upstate to teach, living in a secluded cabin. What Sanchez discovered is that after the sun sets, the woods reveal another sound world. That experience inspired Nighttime Creatures, her most ambitious project to date. Over the course of nine new compositions and two novel arrangements, Sanchez transposes the sounds of her nocturnal environment into multihued excursions for an all-star nonet that features: Sanchez on piano; saxophonists Michaël Attias and Chris Speed; Ben Goldberg on contra alto clarinet; Thomas Heberer on quarter-tone trumpet; cornetist Kenny Warren; guitarist Omar Tamez; bassist John Hébert; and drummer Sam Ospovat.

An admirer of big band music, Sanchez’s nonet displays a wide range of structural dynamics and colorful timbral possibilities, yet its scaled down size facilitates the spontaneous dexterity of a small group – all without losing track of the individual voices that make up the ensemble, which range from subterranean contra alto clarinet rumblings to pellucid clarinet musings. Six years’ worth of writing, editing, rehearsing, and performing went into the creation of this album, and it shows. Featuring some of her most intricate writing, the nonet is given a clear vision to interpret, and the ensuing music is rich with symphonic detail. The horns play Sanchez’s lush arrangements with spacious restraint; when a soloist comes to the fore, the band often hangs back, giving the pianist and guitarist an opportunity to accompany with skeletal lines and elegant harmonies. Most of the set is fairly laid back, although there are times where the nonet goes further out, yet never so chaotic as to be anything less than graceful.

The skittering movement of the title track conveys the heard but unseen movement of shadowy creatures, while the majestic “Cloud House” lives up to its title, drifting by in ethereal vespers. “Land Here” and “Ringleader” attain form from impressionistic improvisations, while “Run” conveys the fear of encroaching darkness, counterbalancing the rhythmic fervor of pneumatic horns with the orchestral detail of kaleidoscopic accents in a spiraling finale that recalls Muhal Richard Abrams’ most animated charts. “Astral Light of Alarid” is perhaps the most personal, named as it is for the composer’s late father, Fulgencio Alarid Sanchez, to whom she dedicated the album.

Sanchez pays homage to Carla Bley with “C.B. the Time Traveler” and “Wrong Door for Rocket Fuel,” revealing a penchant for spacious arrangements and dramatic instrumental pairings. Sanchez also includes two reinterpretations of pieces by other composers. The nonet basks in the exotic harmonies of Duke Ellington’s mysterious “Lady of the Lavender Mist,” complete with Attias’ breathy, Johnny Hodges-like alto, and expands upon Chilean composer Armando Carvajal’s delicate “Tristeza,” which Sanchez found in a book of piano study pieces for children, transforming it into a stark, introspective excursion.

Sanchez’s talent as a composer and improviser is well documented, but her skills as an arranger and conductor of large ensembles have been largely unheard, until now. This effort provides Sanchez the opportunity to demonstrate her ability to transpose contrapuntal themes into symphonic tone poems, revealing a previously undocumented skill in the process. Sanchez’s urbane charts trace a crooked line back through the innovations of her heroes, ranging from Abrams to Bley. Nighttime Creatures is her most impressive release yet, featuring a horn-heavy nonet that combines the unfettered zeal of a mini-big band with the tonal sensitivity of a chamber ensemble.
–Troy Collins


Clifford Thornton + Arthur Jones Trio
Ketchaoua + Scorpio Revisited
ezz-thetics 1154

One of the latest releases from ezz-thetics’s Revisited series is a two-for-one set of albums recorded for BYG Actuel in Paris in August of 1969. Compared to other African American avant-garde musicians who decamped to Europe at the time, cornetist Clifford Thornton and alto saxophonist Arthur Jones are relatively obscure and little-recorded artists who both died largely forgotten. Recorded a few days apart, Thornton’s Ketchoua and Jones’s Scorpio demonstrate two different approaches to free jazz. Where the former showcases a larger ensemble’s exploration of finding new timbres, textures, and sound worlds, the latter is a top-notch example of a small group hurtling itself toward a common goal with peak efficiency.

Ketchoua’s first half showcases an octet with some serious firepower: Thornton, cornet; Jones, alto; Archie Shepp, soprano; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Dave Burrell, piano; Beb Guérin, bass; Earl Freeman, percussion; and Sunny Murray, drums. The album opens with the title track and an arresting asymmetric concatenation of bells, light whacks, and ticks from across a battery of small percussion, and plucked clinks ringing out from the piano. The octet’s myriad shifting timbres and textures is reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Overlapping long tones from the horns sit over the rhythm section’s nebulous pulse, and singular soloists come and go, in and out of the sound cloud. The overall effect is like watching a time lapse video of a plant emerging from the ground, reaching for the sun, and blooming. The same octet appears on “Pan African Festival,” but this time Freeman joins Guérin on bass. Like the title track, it doesn’t sound like a traditional free improv session, and it’s difficult to tell what might be written. Aside from the opening and closing vocal chant, there’s no real tune or head; the composed elements might be a set of cells or motives and a rough outline. As in the title track, it has a pointillistic, polyrhythmic, and almost chaotic character, but moves faster and is more compact. When three or all four horns are playing at the same time they manage to stay out of each other’s way, while the rhythm section plays in a way that suggests the piece could go on indefinitely. “Brotherhood” is a quintet that features Thornton and Jones along with Delcloo and Guérin and Freeman on bass. Compared to the first two cuts, there’s little nuance here. This is a smash and grab job, with the frontline locking horns and Delcloo bashing away. Ketchaoua nearly unravels on the final track “Speak With Your Echo (And Call This Dialogue).” The unusual cornet, two-bass trio format of Thornton, Guérin, and Freeman stumbles aimlessly for nine minutes. Thornton combines an airy and breathy sound with a little buzz. Later his tone has bite to it and a laser beam focus, as if Wadada Leo Smith played cornet. Unfortunately, nearly the entire piece is a collective moment in which the trio seems to be asking itself “what are we doing and where are we going?” The group lacks a shared vocabulary and sense of identity. It’s tough. Even with this stumble, Ketchaoua shows a range of intriguing compositional and improvisational ideas from Thornton and the courage to attempt the unconventional.

In contrast to the provocative, yet uneven Ketchaoua, Scorpio gets a ten out of ten for the Jones Trio’s (with Guérin and Delcloo) execution of its vision and aesthetic. The trio surge right out of the gate with the tumbling, cascading head of “C.R.M.” They play with the energy of subatomic particles being shot out of the Hadron Collider. But it’s not just wild abandon – Jones logically repeats and revises patterns, mixing in trills and rolling figures. Jones abruptly cuts out and Guérin takes over in a similarly frantic searching fashion. He goes up and down the bass’s neck, tones bend and twang, and he attacks his instrument from multiple vectors, giving listeners more variety in one bass solo than they might hear during an entire set. Even with the intensity, one feels like the band had more to give but held the temptation to pile it on. On “B.T.” Jones is again in a searching mode, but here he is more lyrical, less hurried. There is time and space enough for one to appreciate his big, warm, full-bodied alto sound as he plays over an almost peg-leg 6/8 meter. The thirteen-minute lament “Sad Eyes,” which sounds like it could be a Paul Motian tune, is almost worth getting the disc for alone. Here Jones shows that he can be both a free improv firebreather and a dedicated melodicist, as his rubato alto slides and soars over a rhythm section that manages to be both busy and restrained. Like Jones, Guérin makes careful and deliberate choices during his solo, mixing part of the tune in with his own ideas. On the closer, “Brother B.” Jones goes for an even sweeter, slightly Hodges-inflected sound. Here he is seductive and sensuous. The album then comes full circle, as later in the tune Jones returns to the fire breathing mode he opened with before a slow solo bass ostinato wraps the album up. Scorpio might not be as canonical, radical, or revelatory as its close cousin Spiritual Unity, but the record hits every mark it sets for itself. It’s close to perfection.
–Chris Robinson


Taku Unami
bot box boxes
Erstwhile ErstSolo 007-3

Japanese musician Taku Unami is the ultimate collaborator, whether as a musician or with his astute work recording, mixing, and mastering countless releases. In all cases, Unami’s meticulous focus on the finely wrought nuances and materiality of sound are integral to the projects he is involved in. With bot box boxes Unami delivers an extensive solo project that delves deeply into that devotion, capturing three pieces recorded over a sixteen-hour period utilizing little more than the elemental sound source of cardboard boxes. In a simple artist statement, he explains “I know some of you are thinking ‘Anyone can do this...’, but in the DIY spirit of doing what anyone can do with what anyone can get, and without any special skills or funds, I tackled improvisation head on, using mostly newspapers and cardboard boxes, which turned out to be this triple CD set.”

Unami has utilized cardboard boxes as a sound source for a while now, going back to Motubachii, his 2009 duo with Anette Krebs and his contribution to multiple sets at the AMPLIFY 2011: stones festival at The Stone in NYC. Here, in a relatively rare solo recording, he dives into the fundamental textures and timbres of the material at hand in what he noted as “totally free improvisation (somehow classic way).” Unami had grappled with how to approach this solo project for a few years but abandoned a number of false starts. So, while the three pieces were recorded in a short period of time, the process of working through his strategies is paramount to the end results. Once you immerse yourself in these sound worlds, the novelty of the choice of sound-making device immediately drops away. While his choice of materials may be simple, his mastery of free improvisation guided by patient pacing and resolute attention to dynamics, density, and multifaceted physicality is akin to strategies used by improvisers like Burkhard Beins or Lê Quan Ninh.

The track titles point to the approaches he chose across the three improvisations. “bot” was recorded using small robots to activate the boxes, manipulated through the use of controlled voltage from analog synthesizers. “box” strips things down to a single container, and “boxes” utilized multiple. In each case, the piece was recorded using a single, fixed microphone. But the choice of an ambisonic microphone, designed for capturing immersive aspects of a sonic picture, becomes another key component of the resultant recordings. While each piece was captured in one unedited take, Unami spent time mastering multiple versions before hitting on the ones he was happy with. That depth of recording and mastering experience is in evidence, capturing the nuanced sound of the materials and the actions which activate them to deliver an expansive listening experience.

The first disc of the set, “bots,” is carried by the dynamic interplay of the mechanical devices with newspaper and cardboard, threaded through with the sounds of traffic, the ding of a computer, and a more open sound of the room. Over the course of the fifty minutes, the arc of activity and shifting textures make for a vivid listening experience. The second disc, “box,” zeros in for close mic’ing and the hour-long piece is paced with pauses of silence and shorter bursts of manipulation. Here, the lower frequencies and deft placement of spatialized activity provide an enveloping sound plane while repeated, gestural, abstracted motifs develop a through-trajectory to the improvisation.

The final disc, “boxes,” is recorded with a wider sound field and the resultant spatial depth is particularly evident when listening on a decent set of speakers (which is strongly recommended.) Like on “box,” spaces of silence and repeated motifs are central to the development of the improvisation, but here, the level of activity is a bit more multifaceted. Footsteps and movement, metallic clattering, and room ambiances become additional elements layered into the percussive scrapes, whacks, clicks, and shudders of the cardboard surfaces. Unami is meticulously keyed into the resonances of the materials, capturing the timbral gradations in clear detail. He builds densities of sound that drop into taught silence and generates patterns that loop back on themselves with single-minded attention then veer off with inspired ingenuity.

Unami has had nine previous releases on Erstwhile, documenting meetings with musicians including Keith Rowe, Radu Malfatti, and two volumes of stellar duos with Toshiya Tsunoda with a third volume in the works. This three-CD opus is a worthy addition to that run, providing an immersive opportunity to explore his singular vision.
–Michael Rosenstein


Ivan Vukosavljević
Slow Roads
Elsewhere ELSE027

What a lovely album title! Alliterative, descriptive, and endlessly evocative of the deepest travel and pastoral spaces, it conjures and masks the music within, organ works by the Netherlands-based Serbian composer Ivan Vukosavljević offers historical introspections in a language rife with informed modernity, each a temporal bridge and a healing balm.

Vukosavljević is attracted to meantone temperament. The specific variety he adopts conjures sonoric shades of the late Medieval and Renaissance music so vital to the Netherlands’ thriving community of organists. In an interview on Elsewhere’s site, he states: “The Netherlands has one of the liveliest organ cultures in the world, which unfortunately doesn’t communicate too much with the culture of contemporary music, and vice versa. There exist certain categories with borders that are not crossed too often. However, with this organ album I was excited to fully immerse myself in everything that surrounds the organ culture in the Netherlands, in the hope that I would come up with something new and of value.” The composer is fortunate to have four excellent musicians performing pieces thriving on varying degrees of intimacy, including organists Tineke Steenbrink, Jan Hage, Francesca Ajossa, and composer/sound artist Lise Morrison.

It is impossible to describe the pulsing vividness, the physicality, with each note and chord of the music transitions to the next. We have no terminology to do it justice. It may be that the most inclusive way to encapsulate these relationships, historically and otherwise, involves the inadequate symbiosis of tension and resolution. In “Triptych,” scalar passages foreground the often biting intervals that then resolve to moments of purity so sweet and inviting as to ache. Hage’s articulations and control of vast dynamic vistas bring each of these supposedly polar opposites to life, evoking distant and unfamiliar eras of dissonant consonance in the subtle motivic context of either Bach’s first “well-tempered” prelude or the harmonic freedoms of Romantic chromaticism’s aftermath. Those shades of harmony in development also pervade “Ramum Olivae”s wistful and powerful episodes as chordal implications unravel and interweave. Timing is everything, and Francesca Ajossa’s rhythmic delivery is impeccable, a mixture of speech-like liberation and hair-pin precision informing each gesture. Most poignant of all is “The Ladder.” It is a gentle descent, a series of sounds in harmonies negotiating paths of restlessness and the peace that only this temperament can evoke. Morrison’s playing exudes intensity while remaining poised as the sonic aggregates make their fraught way downward. The more complex “The Ladder II” contains both ascent and descent as graceful turns sway in richly ornamented dance. Steenbrink’s element turns adorn the constantly shifting harmonic backdrop, all unfolding with the power to complement the prequel’s gorgeously hidden secrets.

The organs rasp and rattle, technical flaws sometimes on display, but this only adds to the album’s power. Each rattle and shriek allows for an emic perspective, the church as much a part of the music as any note or pulsing tone complex. Each work is a stop along one of the slow roads toward the freedoms period instruments promised so long ago. It always seemed that Mozart and Beethoven might prove to be only a step along those paths of promise, and it is wonderful to hear music willing to engage with multivalent sonic histories even as it forges its own path.
–Marc Medwin


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