AMN Reviews: Lucas Brode – Vague Sense of Virtue [Cacophonous Revival CRR–003]

Lucas Brode’s Vague Sense of Virtue, out just a handful of days after autumn begins, is the perfect soundtrack for the season of long shadows. The album is a collection of seven tracks of duets for Brode’s electric guitar and Kevin Shea’s drums and percussion, enhanced by an atmospheric background wash of electronics and pre-recorded material. Although the music has a low-key warmth and timbral sensuality to it, at the same time it’s pervaded by an abstract melancholy. The title track, with its wistfully languid guitar melody and restless drumming, is typical of the album’s way of conveying a mood of expansive interiority. With the exception of some scattered and brief rapid runs of notes and an aggressively played and sonically distorted passage in the fifth track, Brode plays with an economy of means—three or four note motifs slowly expounded, bent, and varied with a reverb-laden, clear tone. Shea’s contribution is supportive and never overwhelming, and provides a subtle buoyancy where needed. Together they’ve made Vague Sense of Virtue a well-crafted sonic portrait of rumination and drifting emotions.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Horace Tapscott & the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra – Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions 1976 [Dark Tree Records DT(RS)13]

In January of 1976 pianist/composer Horace Tapscott brought the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra into the Audiotronics Recording Studios in Covina, California. Tapscott had been leading the Los Angeles-based orchestra since the early 1960s; as with the Sun Ra ensemble, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra had a communal house where Tapscott and many of its members lived. Before 1976 the Arkestra had tried, largely without success, to make a studio recording. While the Covina sessions weren’t without their problems, the recordings that emerged, four of which are collected on this album, document an ensemble playing solid compositions with vigor.

The group that recorded in 1976 comprised over twenty musicians, many of whom were young players who joined after some of the founding members left to go on to pursue careers in New York and elsewhere. The exuberance of much of the music in this set may have been a consequence of the ensemble’s youthfulness as well as of the openings each composition left for expansive soloing.

Two of the compositions are Tapscott’s. The title track was originally one part of a four-part piano concerto he was commissioned to write in 1975 for the Watts Community Symphony Orchestra. It opens with a dramatic reading by the poet Kamau Daaood and develops into an asymmetrical yet swinging rhythm supporting solos by Tapscott and trumpeter Steven Smith and soprano saxophonist Jesse Sharps. The minor-key Sketches of Drunken Mary, another Tapscott composition, has an off-kilter swagger and brooding, descending melody arranged with an emphasis on the low brass. Alto saxophonist Michael Session and flautist Aubrey Hart provide energetic solos. Jo Annette, composed by alto saxophonist Guido Sinclair, a founding member of the group who’d since moved on, is an altered blues that features solos by tenor saxophonist Charles Chandler and Wendell C. Williams on french horn. The closing piece is the twenty-seven-minute-long Eternal Egypt Suite, an epic four-part composition by tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq that features a lovely, atmospheric flute introduction by Adele Sebastian.

Dark Tree have done a fine job of presenting the music, which comes packaged with a well-illustrated booklet featuring the recollections of several of the musicians who participated in the sessions.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Brendon Randall-Myers & Dither – Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies [New Focus Recordings fcr264]

Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies, Brendon Randall-Myers’ five-movement, album-length work for four electric guitars, sounds something like a scaled-down variation on some of Glenn Branca’s long-form symphonies for massed guitar orchestra. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given that Randall-Myers, himself a guitarist as well as a composer, participated in the Glenn Branca Ensemble and conducted it after Branca’s death. Randall-Myers’ background in punk and metal is also evident, particularly in the work’s distorted timbres and dissonances. Randall-Myers builds much of the collective sound as an accumulation of interlocking, short motifs and/or rhythms; rather than going for an effect of sheer sonic mass, he leaves open spaces over which the ringing ends of these brief riffs can hang. The guitars, played here by the Dither quartet of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley, put out a shimmeringly rich, reverb-drenched sound augmented by sustaining pedals and loops.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living [New Focus Recordings FCR270]

Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.

Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.

The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.

The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.

One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.

In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Armaroli-Schiaffini-Sjöström – Duos & Trios [Leo Records CD LR892]

Duos and Trios by vibraphonist Sergio Armaroli, trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini and soprano and sopranino saxophonist Harri Sjöström is a free-ranging set of improvised music for small groups made in Biella in Italy at the invitation of Armaroli. A frequent musical partner of Schiaffini’s, Armaroli called Sjöström in from Berlin to join him and Schiaffini; these three trios and nine duos were the result. The duos are framed by the trios, which make up the opening track as well as the final two tracks. It’s the duos that provide the album’s backbone and aesthetic as well as literal center. Armaroli and Sjöström may have been new to each other, but their chemistry is unmistakably good and consequently their interplay is assured and coherent. Armaroli is quick to respond to Sjöström’s fleet, fragmentary lines with single-note runs in parallel rhythms, or to set out a foundation of restlessly moving chords. When Schiaffini joins them, the addition of his voice rounds out the collective sound with a robust presence in the lower register and a layer of contrapuntal complexity. Like Sjöström, Schiaffini makes liberal use of extended techniques; his brassy timbres complement Sjöström’s own sharp-edged tone in an unexpected family resemblance.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Polyorchard – Ink [Out & Gone]

Ink is a generous, two-CD set of improvisations from trombonist Jeb Bishop and double bassist David Menestres, playing under the name of Polyorchard, Menestres’ ongoing group project with fluid membership. The music is all live, having been recorded during a 2019 tour that saw Bishop and Menestres in Indiana, Tennessee and Ohio.

Over the course of the album’s seven tracks and more than 90 minutes Bishop and Menestres tease out an ever-changing but cohesive set of sounds crafted from sophisticated musical vocabularies. Menestres draws equally on both conventional improvisational bass practices—setting out supporting ostinatoes and walking lines, playing rapid counterpoint, bowing fluid melodies—and on extended techniques and the use of preparations for creating music of timbral variety and salience. As he’s demonstrated on previous recordings, he’s fluent in both languages of performance and moves freely between them, to all appearances guided only by the musical relevance of any given technique at any given time. Bishop is a good match for Menestres; his sound is rooted in a sensibility aware of the full history of the trombone from its beginnings in blues and early jazz to its use in more reductive, contemporary contexts. He plays melodies informed by swing or march rhythms, alludes to the classic big band brass sections with his use of wah wah effects—and then pivots to the cutting edge contemporary sounds of air notes, microtones, drones, multiphonics and more.

A fine set of music from two exciting and thoughtful instrumentalists.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Kyle Motl & Rhonda Taylor – Sepulchers [Bandcamp]

The four improvisations on Sepulchers are the product of a duo made up of two musicians each of whom brings a well-developed set of techniques and attitudes to their collaboration. Both double bassist Kyle Motl and baritone saxophonist Rhonda Taylor are strong individual players who often perform solo. And yet at the same time they fit together well in the collective intimacy of the duet. Like many contemporary instrumentalists, Motl and Taylor draw on what has become something of a common practice of extended performance techniques as a way of reframing familiar—and sometimes not so familiar—musical practices, the better to reveal some ordinarily overlooked or previously unimagined quality. For example, the first track on the album takes the most basic of musical keys—C major—and defamiliarizes it by pairing Taylor’s long, tonally centered notes with Motl’s rattling and grinding of the bow on muted strings. The other pieces are less allusive to conventional musical framings, focusing instead on more elemental, almost viscerally pre-musical sounds. For example, on Sin Eater the baritone sax serves as a conduit for the sounds of constricted breath and stifled cries; similarly, the title track largely keeps both instruments within a low volume, high-intensity range of pitchy noise. Gnashville ends the album on a bed of buzzing drones from both Motl and Taylor.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Vincent Chancey Trio – The Spell [No Business Records NBLP 136]; Conny Bauer / Matthias Bauer / Dag Magnus Narvesen – The Gift [No Business Records NBLP 135]; Keys & Screws – Some More Jazz [No Business Records NBLP 133]

The trio format of wind instrument, double bass and percussion has been a fruitful one for jazz and jazz-derived improvised music. The absence of the harmonic definition conventionally provided by piano or its equivalent allows for a great degree of musical freedom in many forms. Three new releases from the No Business label provide a window into the different flavors of freedom of the winds-bass-drums trio.

To start with the least conventional of the trios, there is The Spell by a trio led by French hornist Vincent Chancey and including the late double bassist Wilber Morris and the percussionist Warren Smith. All three musicians are or were highly accomplished practitioners of the art; Chancey, whose name may be less familiar to many, spent the mid 1970s in Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the 1980s in Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and the David Murray Big Band. The Spell is an archival recording made in the Kraine Art Gallery in New York City in October of 1987; the sound quality is somewhat raw and the audio field shallow–as one might reasonably expect from the on-the-spot technology of the time–but the performances come through clearly and eloquently. Chancey takes an unlikely candidate for lead instrument in a jazz setting and plays it nimbly; Morris and Smith respond with both power and subtlety. The group’s sui generis makeup lends the collective sound a warm, wine-dark quality which is only emphasized when the keys turn minor, as they do in the first piece, a composition by Morris. What keeps the music from being confined to a narrow range of timbres is Morris’ moving back and forth between arco and pizzicato and Smith’s use of mallet percussion. The subtle framing effect this has on Chancey’s horn comes out particularly well on the fourth track, another Morris composition, where first double bass and then mallet percussion play in unison with the horn. The Spell is a rewarding album and another example of No Business’ making available historic performances that otherwise would undeservedly be forgotten.

In contrast to the vintage performance captured on The Spell, The Gift is a recording of the contemporary trio of brothers trombonist Conny Bauer and double bassist Matthias Bauer, and drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen performing live in Berlin in July of 2018. The dynamic within this trio is very much driven by both Bauers acting as coequal lead voices. Matthias is heard mostly on bow, which allows his instrument to project its sound all the more effectively alongside of Conny’s bright, brassy horn. Indeed, Conny plays with an assertive, forward tone, but the soliloquy with which he opens the second piece develops out of an inward-turning, meditative mood. Matthias’ own solo work is meticulously honed and especially exciting when pushing back against Narvesen’s support. The latter is a key element within the mix; he is a remarkably sensitive and inventive colorist whose muscular playing raises and lowers tensions as the music’s emotional trajectory demands. An excellent unit and an engaging recording.

Lastly there is Some More Jazz by Keys and Screws. Keys and Screws is a wind trio with the more conventional makeup of saxophone, double bass, and drums. The group—tenor and soprano saxophonist Thomas Borgmann, double bassist Jan Roder and percussionist Willi Kellers—recorded Some More Jazz in Berlin in May of 2017. Although made in a studio, the recording seems to have been done live, to judge from the communication and chemistry it displays. The music is loose but together, organized with short motifs articulated on saxophone and varied on the bass, and all tied together with shambling but cohesive grooves.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marco Colonna – Roma Live Solo Performances [Bandcamp]; Kris Tiner – In the Ground and Overhead [Epigraph Records]

As a fundamentally monophonic instrument, a horn would seem to offer a limited platform for solo performance. That on the contrary a solo horn can make music of substance and interest is shown by two new releases, one for solo clarinets and one for solo trumpet.

Roma Live Solo Performances, an album of improvisations for solo clarinet, alto clarinet and bass clarinet, is a recent release from the prolific Roman multi-reedist Marco Colonna. Colonna has performed solo frequently since the late 1990s and has consequently released a steadily growing series of solo recordings featuring his work on baritone and sopranino saxophones as well as clarinets. Roma Live, recorded in January of 2019, finds him on what may be his core instruments. As is usual with Colonna’s solo work it’s an exciting set of music; it includes his interpretations of compositions by others as well as his own work. Among the former is the opening track, The Call by the late clarinetist Perry Robinson. Colonna’s realization is bluesy and evocative of the clarinet’s historic role as foundational voice in early jazz. From a much later jazz tradition is Albert Ayler’s Children. Colonna’s warm and wide vibrato, unhurried phrasing and exquisite control of dynamics suffuse his reading with a sublime sense of nostalgia. Of his own compositions Traveller, for bass clarinet, breaks the line across registers in order to imply chord changes and a mobile, contrapuntal bassline. Later on in the piece, Colonna plays bass clarinet and clarinet simultaneously—a signature technique of his—in a hymn-like harmony. Roma Live is a fine collection and includes some of Colonna’s most beautiful playing.

Kris Tiner’s In the Ground and Overhead: 14 Miniatures for Muted Trumpet was composed and recorded in residence at California’s Montalvo Arts Center by the Santa Cruz Mountains, the physical setting of which inspired these short pieces for muted trumpet. The opening and closing improvisations as well as the twelve compositions in between are in effect symphonic poems for a solo instrument; each is made up of brief phrases or motifs that Tiner develops or departs from with a brisk economy of means. Most are of constrained compass or dynamic range—the mute certainly has a role to play there—but some break out into broader expressive territory. Tiner intended the pieces to reflect the beauty of his natural surroundings and the feeling of being alone within them. That he has done quite effectively.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: The Sam Rivers Trio – Ricochet [No Business Records NBCD 128]

From the beginning, multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers’ trios of the 1970s featured bassists and percussionists of exceptional quality. On his freely improvised excursions of the time, Rivers was joined by musicians like Richard Davis, Cecil McBee, Arvil Anderson, Norman Connors, and Warren Smith. But it was Rivers’ double bassist and percussionist of the mid-to-late 1970s trios that many consider to make up the classic free trio rhythm section: Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. On Ricochet, the third entry in No Business Records’ superb Sam Rivers Archive Project, they are featured on a performance recorded at San Francisco’s legendary Keystone Korner on 12 January 1978.

Ricochet’s single track captures the seamless flow of the group’s nearly hour-long, continuous performance. The piece is structured as a typical Sam Rivers Trio set, with Rivers moving from one instrument to the next while maintaining a running dialogue with bass and drums. In addition, both Holland and Altschul get ample solo space of their own. The performance launches with Rivers’ acerbically bright soprano saxophone, followed by an interlude for solo bass, a piano section, a cello interlude, a tenor saxophone section, a percussion solo, and finally a section for flute. The energy level is especially high, as is brought out in the recording’s mix which puts Rivers and Holland both to the front. Holland in particular is shown to be a motive force in structuring the flow of the music as he centers Rivers’ solos with rapid walking lines and rhythmically dense repeated figures. The Keystone set was done at a time when he was playing cello; his long cello solo between the piano and tenor saxophone sections is exciting for its forward motion and for its introduction of a new voice into the set. The subsequent extended interplay between the cello and Rivers’ kinetic tenor lines is intriguing for the way the two instruments converge in range and diverge in timbre. As is typical of his work with the Rivers trios, Altschul brings a restless, abstract swing to the table; his playing is volcanic throughout.

That January night at the Keystone the Sam Rivers Trio played cathartic music of an especially high order; surely this has to be among the Rivers-Holland-Altschul trios best performances.

Daniel Barbiero