AMN Reviews: Base 4 – Axes of Symmetry

a2591528024_2Base 4, the trio of Bruce Friedman (trumpet), Derek Bomback (guitar) and Alan Cook (drums), offers something old made new: A set of creatively dismantled jazz standards connected by freely improvised interludes.

The selection of standards is an eclectic one, encompassing the well-known (Afro Blue, Straight, No Chaser, My Funny Valentine) and the less familiar  (Lawns, Las Vegas Tango, Peacocks, If You Never Come to Me). Although these songs are played freely they remain recognizable through what’s retained of them: Fragments of melody, harmonic passages, and ambience. The improvised interludes provide context by conserving and extending the exploratory work set out in the standards.

The playing is engaging throughout. Friedman’s trumpet brings an introspective feeling to the music, eschewing quick runs and pyrotechnics in favor of a ruminative voice in the middle register. Bomback imparts a warm, round tone and knows when harmonies are best left implied, while Cook’s crisp drumming adds color and gentle support, never overwhelming the overall balance of sound.

About these ads

AMN Reviews: Danny Norbury – Light in August (Flau)

R-150-1831444-1246368131Obtaining a copy of this Japanese re-release with its added material brings one pretty much up to date on the young composer´s commercial output. Manchester´s Danny Norbury explains that “the urge to write music happens very rarely, and the desire to record what has been written is rarer still”. This is not a bad thing in an era of so much sound and fury signifying nothing.

Norbury composes small longings and heartbreaks and though his forte is the cello, he also performs on piano, violin, perhaps viola too, even harmonica. Bent in monkish concentration like a manuscript illuminator, his piano is cautious, his strings keening. Norbury´s pastoral Light in August actually hearkens to several seasons, a light shower in spring, a chill winter being kept at bay on “I Turn Off the Last Light and Close the Door”. And though emotionally fraught throughout, he wreaks hope, not despair. Tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality; like so many of Norbury´s compositions, “This Night is For You and For Me” instead gathers itself from lachrymose to transcendent.

“Speak, Memory,” the opening track of  his Dusk EP, is bittersweet and incomplete – memory, that “spiral of unwinding things” as Vladimir Nabokov calls it in the memoir from which this track borrows its title, simply cannot recollect all the pieces of the past. Light in August slants out of sight with”Fragment 2,” his “sound response” to Angela Carter´s novella Bluebeard for Wistrec´s “Book Report Series”.

Stephen Fruitman


AMN Reviews: M’lumbo – Popular Science (2013)

a0889226532_2Strange recording, this. M’lumbo, as far as I can tell, is a New York based collective of about nine musicians playing far-reaching covers of popular songs and classic TV show themes. This double CD, released about a year ago, also features Jane Ira Bloom, Page Hamilton, and Gary Lucas in guest roles. While incorporating a big-band jazz feel, often in the psychedelic space-rock vein, M’lumbo also includes spoken word samples, sometimes synchronized with or related to the music, often not.

For instance, Popular Science starts off with an 11-minute version of the theme song to Hawaii Five-0. While it is unrecognizable as such at first, there are plenty of diversions. About 90 seconds in, the group changes over to a funky, almost-reggae riff on the theme.  This multi-horn attack goes on for another four minutes or so until they switch again to a guitar led jam featuring spoken word samples galore. Then the main theme returns.  In a similar, fashion, The James Bond Theme is deconstructed. With heavy guitars and horns leading the way, this morphs into a trumpet solo followed by a spacey improv, keyboard noodlings, and then a return to the theme.

Also receiving the M’lumbo treatment are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Rock Around the Clock, and TV themes from Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther, Andy Griffith and Sesame Street. Somehow this approach never gets old, probably because M’lumbo takes each cover in a twisted and unexpected direction.  While the first CD was recorded in the studio, the second was recorded live, and features performances of several of the same tracks, as well as a handful of different pieces.

I hear more than my share of weird and wonderful recordings these days, but M’lumbo stands alone. Unclassifiable, quirky, and pure fun, Popular Science is two hours of mind-altering goodness.  Highly recommended.

AMN Reviews: Adriano Orrù – Palimpsest [pyr106]

A palimpsest—a manuscript page scraped of existing writing in order to receive new writing—represents something of an adaptation of old materials to new purposes. As such, it’s an appropriate image for this new release from Sardinian double bassist Adriano Orrù. Once an electric bassist, Orrù here takes up his old instrument again and puts it to new uses in this set of ten improvised duets created through file-sharing.

The duets collected here embrace a diversity of instrumentation: Three are with Silvia Corda on prepared piano and toy piano; three feature Mauro Sambo on gongs and other percussion and electronics; and four match Orrù with Paolo Chagas on bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, and flute. Each pairing is characterized by its melding of distinctive voices into a cohesive whole. The duets with Sambo tend toward a kind of ineffably angular atmospherics, with the exception of Scrape Off, a cut up and multitracked sound collage Sambo constructed from samples of Orrù’s bass. Exploiting her instruments’ sometimes chiming, sometimes muted timbres, Corda sets out deliberately paced chords, displaced accents and percussive dissonances that provide an apt framework within which Orrù’s drones and upper register, atonal lead lines can flourish. Chagas, even when playing out, brings an inherent sense of lyric narrative to his parts. His interactions with Orrù are especially provocative, whether it’s a matter of his shakuhachi-like flute being recontextualized by Orrù’s subtly changing harmonic support, or his soprano sax offsetting the electric bass’s chromatic melodies and microtonal glissandi. Throughout the set Orrù stretches the electric bass’s voice while still maintaining its essential qualities. His sound is notable for its clear highs and resonant lows, which impart a crispness and depth to his quick runs, chords and arpeggios.

AMN Reviews: Uri Caine Ensemble – Rhapsody in Blue (Winter & Winter)

Uri Caine

Cover of Uri Caine

Uri Caine´s improbable streak of strokes of genius in posthumous collaboration with the great composers of modern Western music (Mahler, Bach, Schubert) finally comes home to New York, picking up George Gershwin and a few other immigrant lads while passing through Ellis Island. After Woody Allen´s “Manhattan”, it seemed impossible to ever hear Rhapsody in Blue without picturing its opening credits, but after that swooping clarinet intro, the ensemble´s rib-tickling rinky-tink freestyling proves it can be forgotten. Caine drags it down to the Bowery, through the garment district, uptown for drinks and dancing, takes it to a Broadway show and buys it a Nathan´s hot dog. Bobbing and weaving with Chris Speed´s clarinet, Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Joyce Hammann on violin to the tattoo of a seemingly eight-armed Jim Black, Caine´s streetview New York is elegant, sweaty, sentimental, Puerto Rican, kleztastic, and “interested in your soul”, to quote a period poem by Langston Hughes.

But he´s just getting wound up. He launches into a fanciful revisit of the Gershwin songbook, together with singers Theo Bleckmann and Barbara Walker, so we can also revel in the clever lyrics of brother Ira. Bleckmann and Walker´s “Let´s Call the Whole Thing Off” has that screwball comedy banter and “I´ve Got a Crush on You”, where bassist Mark Hellas, a star in these more intimate settings, particularly lifts. Someone slipped the jumpy juice into Bleckmann´s drink for “They Can´t Take That Away from Me”, a stammering abomination that many will just love. After the ensemble seesaws between smooth and cyclonic, Caine rounds off alone, with a blue, don´t-let-the-bastards-keep-you-down “How Long Has This Been Going On”.

Nice inner sleeve photo portrait by Carl van Vechten, patron of the Harlem Renaissance, to which Gershwin owes so much.

Stephen Fruitman

AMN Reviews: Chicago Underground Duo – Locus (2014; Northern Spy)

chicagoundergroundduo_locus_tcRob Mazurek and Chad Taylor are at it again as Chicago Underground Duo, with an offering that falls somewhere between free jazz, electronica and IDM. Yes, Locus is that broad. Both members of Chicago’s rich creative jazz scene, the pair have teamed up, for the seventh time, to produce a fresh release of genre-twisting intricacy.

Mazurek is no stranger to these pages, as he has been an integral part of a number of brilliant groups, including Sao Paulo Underground (AMN Review), the Rob Mazurek Octet, and Exploding Star Orchestra. Taylor was a frequent collaborator with the late Fred Anderson, and has also played with Jeff Parker, Assif Tashar, Marc Ribot, and many others on over 50 recordings.

Here, Mazurek is credited with cornet, synth, Game Boy, electronics, bamboo flute, and voice, while Taylor plays drums, mbira, guitar and balaphone. In a way, Locus is a logical progression from the latest Sao Paulo Underground release, as Mazurek combines his hard bop roots with electroacoustic improvisation. Taylor brings an Art Ensemble of Chicago influence to the tracks, harkening to that group’s use of non-western polyrhythms.

To the casual listener, they might not even realize that they are experiencing avant-garde music – the overall feel is slick, aggressive, and modern, but also abstract and cerebral. With one foot in jazz, another in layered synthscapes, Locus is a worthy and compelling addition with the Duo’s ongoing legacy.

AMN Reviews: Keir Neuringer – Ceremonies Out of the Air

coverEvery once in a while I start thinking that there’s nothing new to be heard in solo saxophone recordings, but I’m always wrong. Case in point, this release from the Philadelphia-based Keir Neuringer. Ceremonies Out of the Air demonstrates what one person with versatile skills can coax out of an instrument.

Neuringer has spent many years in Europe and the U.S., collaborating with Rafal Mazur, Ensemble Klang, Evan Parker, Reuben Radding, Matt Bauder, Andrew Drury, and many others. This, his first solo release, is an 80-minute, 5-track tour-de-force of the saxophone that was recorded in a single night in August 2013.

Each piece has a distinct emotional or philosophical meaning to Neuringer, evoked in the form of continuous, floating notes and chords. Often multiphonic, Neuringer’s approach is both heartfelt and cerebral. His style is somewhat reminiscent of John Butcher, but too idiosyncratic for a direct comparison.

Rolling and scraping, Neuringer uses both sounds, and makes liberal use of the space between sounds, to kindle quiet interludes between long, wavering drones. Sometimes repetitive and minimalistic, but never a dull moment throughout its length, Ceremonies Out of the Air sets a high water mark in the often-overlooked oeuvre of solo sax.

AMN Reviews: Colin Webster and Graham Dunning – Estigate [LOR050]

Recorded in a London, UK storage facility over the course of two days in winter and summer 2012, this stimulating set of eight live improvisations is a soundtrack of things confronted in their raw state.

Colin Webster draws a kind of elemental expressionism from tenor and baritone saxophones, making all the parts of the instruments audible as he figuratively disassembles and reassembles them as he plays. Through key clicks, overblown notes, air sounds and multiphonics Webster conveys a vivid picture of the player transmitting ideas directly through the instrument’s material. Complementing him is Graham Dunning’s turntable, feeding in Dunning’s field recordings via dubplate supplemented by a spectrum of pops, crackles and the mechanical groan of motors running down under pressure and then returning to speed.

Although fully improvised, the tracks all embody an inherent sense of composition that makes good use of variations in density and timbre through layering and sonic contrast.

AMN Reviews: Kris Davis – Massive Threads (2013; Thirsty Ear)

massivePianist Kris Davis has worked in many group settings, and her frequent collaborators include Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey, John Hebert, and many others. Massive Threads is her second solo recording, a follow up to 2011′s Aeriol Piano.  While almost all tracks are fully improvised (aside from a cover of Monk’s Evidence), she doesn’t shy away from her classical leanings.  In fact, it is as if Davis is performing an avant-classical piano recital, calling upon the ghosts of Cage, Feldman, and Ligeti with her instantaneous compositions.

The album begins with Ten Exorcists, a  repetitive, percussive piece for what sounds like a specially-tuned piano.  The track also includes brief interludes of ominously-swirling counterpoint.  The title track is similar in a way, with playful, yet dark, rolling blending into subsequent pounding, and then a quieter interval leading to similar dynamic chording.

Davis’s musical schizophrenia between the classical and jazz worlds is similar to the disconnect between her left and right hands on the piano keyboard. This is a woman who wants things both ways and is not willing to be pigeonholed or compromise. The result is an intriguing and intellectual effort that is too headstrong to be labelled as academic.

AMN Reviews: The Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope (2014; Mack Avenue Records)

mac1085_200-2__mediumOver the last 30 years, Nels Cline has made the transition from upstart guitarist to an established and well respected player.  In many ways, he is now at the peak of his career, a leader of several projects, and an in-demand  sideman.  This is the fifth album from the inappropriately-named Nels Cline Singers – the group is instrumental though some vocals are moaned and chanted. Featuring Cline on guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Scott Amendola on drums, the group is rounded out with contributions from Yuka Honda, Cyro Baptista, Josh Jones, and Zeena Parkins.

The first track, Companion Piece, begins as slow acoustic jazz, then builds up to explosive soloing from Cline, while the rhythm section lays down a varying base. The Wedding Band is another fun track, opening with guitar and effects over South American percussion, then settling with guitar picking and a wandering bass line. Climb Down offers a relatively steady beat overlaid with guitar fiddling and effects, while Seven Zed Heaven begins with an inside-out guitar line before moving on to processed slides and licks, and a long tension-filled crescendo.

What should be clear is that the Singers never rest on a particular style or feel. The album is varied and each track is unique, but all of them work together as a cohesive whole.  And some are downright catchy in their own weird ways.  Not exactly jazz, not exactly avant-garde, not exactly rock, Cline and company pull together aspects of those styles and more to produce an engaging release.