AMN Reviews: Sandro Sciarratta – Pietra [kmp productions cd02]

PietraSandro Sciarratta’s (mostly) solo CD Pietra reflects the diverse interests that have been part of the Sicilian double bassist’s work since the 1980s. Moving from jazz in the 1970s to improvisation and electronic exploration in the following decades, Sciarratta followed an increasingly experimental route, the essential elements of which are documented in this set of ten pieces for prepared double bass, electronics, tape and object, composed between 1997 and 2013.

The recording was inspired by the rough, igneous rock—the “pietra” of the title—so common to the Sicilian landscape. And there is a parallel between the textured, irregular surfaces of the rock and the almost tactile quality of the sound Sciarratta derives from his instrument—supplemented, as it often is, by an array of miscellaneous objects. His is a profoundly physical approach to the bass, a wrestling against the resistance of the real as this latter is embodied in wood and steel. Sciarratta’s playing is rooted in a robust, muscular pizzicato and an arco style that foregrounds the scrape latent in the meeting of bow and string. On Zubbia Sciarratta draws deep, bell-like tones from the bass; in many of the other pieces, including one dedicated to John Cage, the preparations add a layer of rattling and grinding miscellany to the underlying sound, which is then enhanced and often thickened by the electronics and backing recordings. Pietra 6 features Sciarratta’s brother Luca on live electronics while Pietra 5—itself a heavily electronically manipulated track–includes his frequent duet partner Filippo Portera on reeds.

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AMN Reviews: Ross Martin / Max Johnson / Jeff Davis – Big Eyed Rabbit (2014; Not Two Records)

coverNew York bassist Max Johnson is back with a new trio for his third release of this year.  Big Eyed Rabbit features Johnson, as well as Ross Martin on electric guitar and Jeff Davis on drums.  Despite Johnson and Davis being more known for left-of-center New York jazz, their teamup here with Martin is actually a bluegrass recording.  And listening to this release will help drive home the difference between “bluegrass” and “country” – the latter closer to pop and the former more soulful.

Martin’s guitar sets the mood for this release, as he picks through covers and originals. At times the melodies are catchy, though the atmosphere is that of haunted Appalachia. For instance, Cluck Old Hen and Poughkeepsie Ridge are both tuneful and foreboding in their own ways. Without Martin’s playing being what it is here, I don’t think the loose label of bluegrass would apply at all.

As for the other tracks, Brown County Breakdown is almost a dance tune, though with a rhythm too disjoint for that activity. One of My Happiness is mostly upbeat, though with a sadistically complex bass line. Fisherman’s Footlocker follows in suit, while My Last Days on Earth is slow, noisy, and free.

Genre-bending can be hit or miss. Big Eyed Rabbit is not exactly jazz…not exactly country…not hillbilly music. Instead, it is bluegrass informed by modern free improv and stellar musicianship. Martin, Johnson, and Davis hit this bent genre out of the park. A remarkable effort that goes places not expected.

AMN Reviews: Max Johnson – The Prisoner (2014; No Business Records)

Max Johnson - The Prisoner - coverMax Johnson is a bassist and composer living in New York City. He plays in the avant-garde jazz & bluegrass scenes, and has performed throughout North America and Europe. We interviewed him last January, so feel free to check that out for more information.

On this effort, Johnson teams with New York stalwarts Ingrid Laubrock, Mat Maneri, and Tomas Fujiwara. Despite the jazz leanings of the group, The Prisoner is perhaps best labeled as modern classical music. The interplay between Johnson and Maneri, especially, exhibits the kind of precision and delicacy one would expect from members of a string quartet. At times, the scratchiness and structural looseness of the tracks is reminiscent of Ligeti, Xenakis, or Nono.

For instance, No. 48 Living in Harmony starts with a bowed and plucked viola / bass segment, then Laubrock joins with an sax melody. All of this is backed up by Fujiwara’s busy and disjoint drumming. The sum, however, resembles a composition for three distinct sections: strings, brass and percussion. Thus, the analogy to classical.  One track with a jazz feel is X04, which starts with a bass and drum vamp, followed by viola and sax leads. But the majority of the album doesn’t overtly groove or swing.

This is a subtle and understated release. The Prisoner might not blow you away on the first, second, or fifth listen. But if you stick with it, you’ll soon discover its depth and character. A true grower, and one of the better releases of the year so far.


Portuguese pianist/composer Simao Costa’s new CD explores the multiplicity of sounds available to a piano that has been prepared, electronically altered or supplemented, and even played in its native state.

The unifying theme that emerges from the seven tracks collected here is the richness of the contrasts that bind and separate the muted, low-sustain sounds of the prepared piano on the one hand, and the ringing tones and harmonies of the instrument unmodified on the other. Putting the two in motion with and against each other is something Costa does effectively throughout the set. Often, the music will take on the character of a gamelan or detuned carillon nested within resonantly pedaled left hand figures. On top of it, Costa will frequently layer in the acute hum of feedback and droning electronics. These timbral experiments are largely cerebral in affect, but surprisingly beautiful impressionistic passages are liable to erupt unexpectedly, particularly on the fourth and sixth tracks. The last and longest track shifts attention away from contrasts in timbre and resonance and focuses instead on the possibilities of rhythmic variations within a pulse, its deliberately narrow range of pitches wrapped in the buzzing and rattling sounds of distressed metal.

AMN Reviews: Falsetto Teeth – Boiling High Idol (2014; Orenda Records)

Falsetto Teeth - Boiling High Idol - Cover ArtFalsetto Teeth puts the rock power trio format through the grinder on this, their first release.  Out on L.A.’s Orenda Records, Boiling High Idol exhibits the imprint’s attempt to cover the experimental scene beyond jazz. Consisting of Alexander Noice on guitar, James Barry on bass, and Cory Beers on drums, with all sharing vocal duties, the group diffuses punk rock with a touch of Zappa, classical, jazz, noise and other experimentation.

The songs follow a distinct pattern: heavy riffing with melodic vocals, interrupted periodically by something less conventional. Sure, 40 minutes of this across 10 tracks and you have a formula. But it is not a bad formula at all. The genre jump-cuts are fluid and precise, not unpredictable, but never dull. This is too weird to be pop, too proficient for punk, and too catchy to be outside music.

Comparisons? Perhaps a vague resemblance to other avant-pop groups such as Deerhoof or Battles. Throw in some early Ramones or Buzzcocks, and blend with a clever dash of creativity. A rather unconventional and refreshing effort.

AMN Reviews: David Rosenboom – Zones of Influence [pogus 21074-2]

William Winant 1

William Winant 1 (Photo credit: michaelz1)

David Rosenboom’s Zones of Influence, composed in 1984-1985, is a five-part work for solo percussion and computer generated compositional algorithms. The composition, which is significant for the innovative way in which it connected acoustic instruments with real-time processing, was written for percussionist William Winant, who performs it here.

Although the work was written as a solo for Winant, in a sense it serves as a feature for a second performer as well. This “performer” is the Touché computer assisted digital instrument, a keyboard designed by Rosenboom and Donald Buchla at a time when MIDI technology being developed but had not yet come into wide use. With Touché, Rosenboom was able to combine Winant’s varied array of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments with live processing in a way that was groundbreaking at the time and still is provocative today. Happily, Pogus has issued the complete work, the first time ever on a recording.

Touché’s role in shaping the overall texture of the work is immediately apparent in the way it supplements the instruments’ timbral qualities. Like many processing interfaces, Touché creates novel timbres, some of which conserve something of the acoustic instruments’ sound characteristics and some of which appear quite alien. Overall there is a tendency toward timbres of a sleek-surfaced, metallic cast—sometimes sounding as if they were produced by a hypertrophied toy piano–which contrast markedly with the sounds of Winant’s wood and membrane instruments. Particularly dramatic examples of this contrast can be found in Winding of a Spring Tripartite Structure for three snare drums, and Closed Attracting Trajectories Melody Set 2, for marimba and xylophone.

Beyond the surface stratum of sounds, the electronics’ interventions alter Winant’s performances at the compositional level. Rosenboom takes patterns of tones or sounds produced by the performer and processes them with real time compositional algorithms. A good example of this is in Zones’ final section, where a set of arpeggios and glissandi on violin—played by Rosenboom, as it happens—is subjected to accelerating changes. By using recombinatory operations the program alters the violin’s pitches, phrasing and tempos, sometimes quite dramatically. The traditional value of thematic development is abstracted and augmented by a multiplication of contrapuntal lines, leading to a densely complex surface sound. Extended to the work as a whole, Rosenboom’s compositional processing makes for an especially dynamic structure built up of proliferating and interpenetrating lines.

Also included in this two-disc set is Study for Zones, a kind of prototype work in which Rosenboom experimented with early versions of the algorithms that would go into the making of the final work.

AMN Reviews: Christina Kubisch & Eckehard Güther – Mosaïque Mosaic (Gruenrekorder)

The cornucopia that is Gruenrekorder continues to spill out the most imaginative field and sound art works. It does an absolutely phenomenal job of recording and playing with our world and everything in it. While its back catalogue has long been proof enough, just look at one of its latest batches, including the untreated, spellbinding Morne Diablotins by Rodolphe Alexis, a brightly-feathered, humid hike through Guadaloupe and Dominica, a small island in the Lesser Antilles; or The Hebrides Suite, quite the contrast insofar as its author, Cathy Lane, hopscotching across the isles, treated and arranged her field recordings into a kind of aural equivalent of the classic oral histories of Studs Terkel, I-Chinged into a Celtic circus under the same big top as John Cage´s Roaratorio.

Sound artist and professor of sculpture and audio/visual arts Christina Kubisch found in Cameroon a society connected by speaker wire. “In the cities people are surrounded by distorted sound systems” playing lo-fi, bootlegged pop, where “church services, instruments and voices are all amplified as well – the louder the better”. She also discovered a local population that had developed a sensitivity to the most subtle of sounds, too. During an artistic residence in Douala, its largest city, Kubisch and countrymen Eckehard Güther (who mixed and assembled the album with Kubisch) and Dieter Scheyhing attempted to capture this listening.

Together they´ve captured the march of a brilliant parade. From the bilingual fire and brimstone sermon (the English translator seeming far more firey than the French preacher), down the street past market stall touts, traffic jams and festival processions, they enter soft nights where the clamour carried by the air comes not from men but beasts and insects. By the sea, they witness the bell ringing, horn tooting festival in which the Sawa of the coast implore Jengu water spirits for prophecy. Epiloguing with rainfall spattering on a tin roof before subsiding as all the wildlife it refreshed raises its voice, Mosaïque Mosaic assembles the tesserae of a journey ranging widely east and west, and south from a metal shop in the capital to the Waza National Park and its elephant reserve in the far north, finely balancing the sacred and the profane, in vivid, living colour.

Stephen Fruitman

AMN Reviews: Albert Ayler – The Albert Ayler Story

aas4Fifty years ago on July 10, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Gary Peacock recorded the sessions that would be released as the Spiritual Unity LP, the fledgling ESP-Disk‘ label’s first musical offering, and one of many Ayler releases that would serve as the muscle and backbone of ESP’s (for short) eclectic yet focused catalog. I have a hard time not thinking of the digital download-only (the equivalent in length of four CDs) commemorative release, “The Albert Ayler Story,” as “The ESP Story.” Forty-nine of the compilation’s sixty-eight tracks are recorded interviews with Ayler and other relevant players on the topics of Ayler’s music and the label’s output, leaving little room for the music itself.

What there is of the music is mostly available on other in-print ESP Ayler albums, making this release somewhat of a label sampler. It is an incomplete “Albert Ayler story,” since, as ESP label-head Bernard Stollman would be among the first to mention, Ayler’s music changed radically (and Ayler changed music radically) when he left ESP in 1966 and signed to the much larger and more well-known (if not quite as exciting for the adventurous jazz-fan) Impulse! label.

Ayler didn’t record very many albums, and of his discography, virtually all the ESP discs are essential listening and readers of this review will most likely be familiar with them. The interviews are crucial to this collection’s uniqueness — it’s fascinating to hear Ayler talk with equal parts glibness and never-lost innocence about his childhood, and to hear characterizations of Ayler from some of his musical colleagues like Don Cherry and Sunny Murray. While some of it starts to get a little gossipy and puerile, most of the interview material is rooted in matters of culturally historic importance: the passing of Coltrane; the view of “free improvisation” as a solely “Black” movement; reminiscences of Ayler himself are all topics that have multiple voices chiming in. Perhaps the most detached, self-assured of these voices is Stollman’s, and he certainly racks up the most interviews in this compilation, providing a thread that takes the listener through every contact point between Ayler and the label. None of what Stollman says is really news, though it’s fun to listen to the occasional new anecdote; it’s all been put down in Jason Weiss’s exhaustive study of the ESP-Disk’ label, Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan, 2012).

While important, the interviews don’t reward repeated listenings for anyone except perhaps scholars in cultural studies or musicology, but Stollman – still at the ESP helm – has a few new things to offer. The compilation is fleshed out with commercially unreleased (to the best of my knowledge) live performances by various iterations of Ayler’s bands from 1964, 1967 (a date just prior to the infamous live recording released by Impulse!), and 1970. The second of two completely different songs titled “Vibrations,” both performed on the same date in Copenhagen in September, 1964, is why this collection needs to have shelf space on your hard drive: the simultaneous interplay of Don Cherry on cornet with Ayler on tenor sax, and Gary Peacock’s bass with Sunny Murray’s drumming, is ferocious in an exploratory rather than abrasive way, and the mixture of bravado and fragility is what will make your hair stand on end. It’s what I’ll be returning to. But make no mistake: it’s worth restating that this is only the Albert Ayler story insofar as it concerns ESP-Disk’. An important chapter, but not nearly the whole saga.

AMN Reviews: Anla Courtis & Tetuzi Akiyama – Naranja Songs [Public Eyesore pe127]

This set of four improvised acoustic guitar duets, recorded in 2008 in Buenos Aires, brings together Argentina’s Anla (Alan) Courtis and Japan’s Tetuzi Akiyama. Known for their versatility and diversity of approaches to improvisation—Akiyama is often associated with the constrained gesturalism of onkyo, although he also works in the noisier fields of blues-based rock and industrial sound, while Courtis has among many other things played heavy psychedelia with the band Reynols—both guitarists here work with the more-or-less conventional sounds available to the unadorned acoustic steel-string guitar.

Even given the relatively Spartan instrumentation, Courtis and Akiyama manage to explore a rich variety of sonic and harmonic material. The recording opens introspectively, its initial dissonances played out along well-spaced, lingering tones and chords slowly unraveling in a wash of minor seconds. As the set progresses the music shifts in tone and texture, with pulsing drones and scraped strings giving way to a kind of industrial pastorale embodied in arpeggios implying an alternation of minor and major thirds. Courtis and Akiyama bring things to an end with tentatively plucked chromatic patterns in broken phrases, and a tamboura-like buzz.

AMN Reviews: Jeff Cosgrove – Alternating Currents [Grizzley Music]

a3021864462_2Alternating Currents is drummer Jeff Cosgrove’s interpretation of one of jazz’s most basic and versatile units: the piano trio. Joined by bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, Cosgrove blends the give-and-take of the trio format with the conversational tradition of free improvisation.

As would be expected from these players, the interactions are solidly grounded in attentive listening and nimble response. Each of the three tracks—two improvisations and the Paul Motian composition Victoria—coheres by virtue of the thematic and rhythmic structures the musicians deftly create in real time. The first piece, a nearly 40-minute long exploration of theme and free variation, is built around an opening melody played on the tom toms, which mutates, develops, dissolves and reappears in different guises as it gets picked up and passed around. On the title track Shipp builds an elaborate structure out of Parker’s initial bowed chording; Cosgrove’s brushwork propels the music along a rapid course in open time. After the first two tracks, Victoria at under 6 minutes long feels like a brief coda, its rubato impressionism the product of Shipp’s exploratory interpretation of the melody matched to Parker’s restless basslines and Cosgrove’s sensitive drumming.