AMN Reviews: Fred Lonberg-Holm, Abdul Moimême, Carlos Santos – Transition Zone [Creative Sources CS712]; Mikel Vega – Powndak Improv [Bandcamp]

In May of 2018 Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics), Abdul Moimême(dual electric guitars) and Carlos Santos (electronics) met for the first time as a trio. The result is this five-track set recorded live at Namouche Studio in Lisbon.

Moimême is no stranger to these pages, having appeared in a duet with saxophonist patrick brennan on 2019’s Terraphonia and with brennan again along with others on 2020’s The Sudden Bird of Waiting, both of which were reviewed here. On Transition Zone he once again is featured playing two electric guitars simultaneously with a variety of outer-edge techniques. Lonberg-Holm also explores the technical borderlands of his own instrument; his pitched, unpitched and semi-pitched sounds, along with extended bowings, complement Moimême’s well-developed repertoire of scrapings, strikes and plucking. Santos adds a continuo of electronic tint to the completely improvised performances. Although the three hadn’t played together as unit before their sympathetic chemistry is immediately apparent on all of these finely sculpted pieces of textural playing. From the scuffed surfaces of Tumultuous, with its harsh weave of feedback, to the long cello tones and ringing open guitar strings of Hushed, Transition Zone shows how three like minds can paint sound from a broad palette of color.

Also worth mentioning is Powndak Improv by Bilbao guitarist Mikel Vega. Like Moimême, Vega is an exploratory guitarist, but of a more conventionally experimental kind. His improvised performances on this album are pitch-predominant albeit tonally decentered; his electric guitar sound is rich with reverb and distortion and at times is directly allusive to heavy metal. On one track he plays acoustic guitar, which he leads through a labyrinth of angular arpeggios and fragmentary chord sequences. On the texturally provocative track Methagaarborg Vega is joined by saxophonist Fernando Ulzión and electronics artist Miguel A. Garcia.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Guillaume Gargaud – 17 Compositions [New Focus Recordings]

Guillaume Gargaud’s seventeen compositions for steel-string, acoustic guitar are short—none is longer than a minute and three-quarters—linked pieces of an elegant simplicity. The simplicity is more in the concept than in the sound, which can be subtly complex; each piece involves self-imposed constraints that in effect attempt to convert some of Gargaud’s improvisational gestures into etudes centered on certain pitches and pitch relationships. And this is where the complexity comes in. For despite Gargaud’s focus on a paring down of material, the often-recurring pitch relationships that make up that material and that Gargaud introduces, elaborates, and plays variations on, are harmonically sophisticated and shot through with a dissonant tension that belies the rather quiet mood in which they’re presented. While each brief piece can stand alone as a kind of tone poem complete in itself, listening to the entire sequence is like seeing an object from many different perspectives which, taken together, give a picture of the essence of the thing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mario Mariotti – Blues for Boris [Amirani Records AMRN 066]; The Lenox Brothers – Township Nocturne [Amirani Records AMRN 067]

Although very different in sound and inspiration, these two new releases from the Amirani label have something in common: both are homages to creative figures.

Mario Mariotti’s Blues for Boris was inspired by Boris Vian, a writer associated with the Sartre circle in postwar Paris. Vian also was a trumpet player who was active in Paris’ hot jazz scene. Mariotti combines both sides of Vian’s creative life by basing the album’s music on oblique, often deliberately indecipherable reworkings of the melody to Mood Indigo as well as on pages of Vian’s 1946 novel L’Écume des jours (translated into English as Froth on the Daydream)–one of whose characters is a certain Jean-Sol Partre. Although Mariotti takes Duke Ellington as his starting point, he pushes the music beyond its roots in swing and into the territory of contemporary composition, playing techniques and orchestration, giving the sound a unique mix of melody and abstraction, of monophony and polyphony, of freedom and constraint. Also unique is the configuration of the ensemble put together for the recording which includes, besides Mariotti’s cornet, soprano saxophone, clarinet/bass clarinet, bass flute, tenor saxophone, and cello.

In contrast to the nearly lush orchestration of Blues for Boris, the sound of Township Nocturne is crafted from the rather more sparse trio of soprano saxophone, double bass and drums. The guiding spirit behind the recording is the late and much-missed pianist Gianni Lenoci, whose love of 1960s and ‘70s television detective series and noir fiction inspired the music. And there’s a certain moodiness to these pieces, whose conciseness and sometimes outright funkiness recalls the themes to those old programs, as refracted through a contemporary sensibility. It’s all well-played by the whimsically named Lenox Brothers—soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, who also appears on Blues for Boris; double bassist Pierpaolo Martino; and drummer Francesco Cusa. The recording gives all three instruments an egalitarian salience that puts the listener right in the middle of the session—as if seated in the living room, in front of an imaginary television set playing images of a 1977 Plymouth Fury chasing a fugitive through the polyester urban night.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bertoni / Salis / Sanna – Hidden Parallels [Plus Timbre PT123]

The hidden parallels of this collaboration between Antonio Bertoni (cello, prepared piano, tuning forks) and the duo of percussionists Paolo Sanna and Giacomo Salis would appear to be drawn between the three compositions the trio chose to interpret and the original, unconventional ways in which their own contributions shaped the actual sounds of each realization.

For the first piece, chosen by Sanna and based on harpist Rhodri Davies’ Penrhiw, Bertoni, Salis and Sanna seem to have taken texture as their point of departure. Bertoni’s strummed and pizzicato cello, together with the various shaken and scraped percussion sounds from Sanna and Salis, present a free reimagining of some of the effects Davies’ extended playing extracts from the harp. The second composition interpreted is Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry, selected by Salis and featuring Bertoni on prepared piano accompanied by tuned mallet percussion, gong, prepared snare drum and processed voice from Sanna and Salis. In contrast to Feldman’s predominantly understated dynamics, the audio space the three create here is filled with suspenseful, robust sounds. The third and final piece, Solo de Endingidi, Bertoni’s choice, was taken from a recording of Ugandan music. Bertoni’s rapidly bowed cello forms the backbone of the piece, which gets equally energetic support from snare and other percussion.

Listeners seeking literal interpretations of the source compositions won’t find them here, but to paraphrase the ancient dictum, sometimes a hidden harmony is best.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bobby Naughton, Jerome Harris, Cleve Pozar – About Time [OTIC Records]

About Time is the latest in a welcome series of archival releases from vibraphonist Bobby Naughton. Naughton was a significant actor in the improvised music world centered on New Haven specifically and the Northeast US more generally during the 1970s and 1980s; with this and other releases on his OTIC label he’s been making available some of the creative music from that time and place.

About Time was recorded live on 8 June 1978 in Worcester, MA at the New England Repertory Theater with a group that included, in addition to Naughton on vibes, Jerome Harris on electric bass guitar and Cleve Pozar on percussion and marimba. Of the five compositions on the collection three are Naughton originals, the other two being Carla Bley’s Doctor and the standard But Beautiful. The suite-like title track opens the album with an electric bass-powered accelerando; Duality follows it with an elegant mallet percussion duet for Naughton and Pozar, the latter on marimba. The energetic Doctor features a solo for Harris—an interesting instance of electric bass in a style not ordinarily heard at that time. (The same year this set was recorded, Harris began playing electric bass with Sonny Rollins, an association that lasted into the late 1980s.) The freest of the five pieces, F3 highlights the group’s quick-reaction interplay as well as the intricacy of Naughton’s composed line. The album ends on a quietly rhapsodic note with Naughton’s solo performance of But Beautiful.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jeff Surak – AllSilver [Zeromoon zero202]

A long time in the making, AllSilver is a collection of provocative sounds from DC area experimentalist Jeff Surak. Surak appreciates and purveys what many of us simply ignore in our sonic environment; the title of the first track on the album, Love and Production, captures something of Surak’s aesthetic: love of the harsher sounds unloved by most, and production of raw sounds from the rawer materials of Dictaphone recordings, old synthesizers, lo-fi radios, mechanical objects, and a defiantly detuned zither. AllSilver is an album that draws on digital and analogue electronic technologies alike to produce an overall sound that’s consistent with Surak’s particular brand of lofi artfulness. Sometimes this sound encompasses expansive audioscapes, as in Love and Production and the lush, undulating drone of Nicéphore Niépce; it can also take the form of the granulated textures of And the Sun Will Eat Itself, or the mysterious percussive sounds that punctuate Keep Dancing After the Music Stops. The Fence is an abrasive bit of post-industrial scrunge—the sounds of machinery in extremis; Zawawa channels the ghost of a broken short-wave radio tuned between stations. The album’s centerpiece is its closing track: the epic, twenty-minute-long Scattered Lie the Saints, a complex drone piece that mixes Berlin-school sounds with a crackle and hiss reminiscent of a tinny transistor radio—debouching into the nothingness of a long-fading echo.

AllSilver comes as a digital download or as a very limited edition CDR that includes two bonus tracks; in either format, the album is a good introduction to Surak’s work. It also is a companion album to Surak’s AllGold, originally released by Staaltapes in 2015 and reissued this year by bluescreen.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Guillaume Tarche, ed. – Steve Lacy (Unfinished) [Lenka Lente, 2021]

When soprano saxophonist/composer Steve Lacy died in 2004, the world of improvised music lost one of its most creative voices, and certainly a unique one. In anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of his death—and the ninetieth anniversary of his 1934 birth—Guillaume Tarche asked the simple question, “how do you listen to him?” to an international and broadly representative group of musicians and writers. The result is a trilingual (French, English, and Italian) collection of analytical essays from critics and musicologists, reminiscences and appreciations from people who knew him or heard him play, and anecdotes and accounts from those who played with him, not to mention discographies of Lacy’s releases as well as of releases featuring others’ interpretations of his compositions.

As the book’s many contributions demonstrate, Lacy’s art reflected his wide interests not only in jazz, Monk’s music most notably, but in modern composition, Beat poetry and haiku, some of which he set to music, and visual art. All of this manifested itself in his playing, whether in ensembles or solo: the sense of swing that traces back to his apprenticeship in traditional jazz, the particularly Modernist angularity of the shape of his phrases, the conciseness, and clarity of his themes. The title of Phillip Johnston’s analysis of Lacy’s 1978 composition Prospectus perhaps gives the best description of Lacy’s sui generis musical sensibility: “revolutionary conservatism.”

Choosing highlights from among the forty-five contributions in this thick book is difficult; everything here provides a worthwhile perspective on some aspect of Lacy’s work. Johnston’s highly detailed article is certainly noteworthy, as are the opening reflections by Irene Aebi, Lacy’s partner in life and in music; a long interview with Kent Carter, for many years Lacy’s double bassist; a recollection from harpist Suzanna Klintcharova, who played duets with Lacy; a loose-jointed dialogue between saxophonists Seymour Wright and Evan Parker; and an interview with Lacy by jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker. Saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, who was inspired to play only soprano after having heard Lacy in performance, provides sharp insight into Lacy’s use of harmonics and his conception of sound as something with an almost tactile solidity. In addition to Johnston’s piece, musical analyses include Frank Carlberg’s detailed breakdown of pitch organization in Lacy’s compositions, Jacques Ponzio’s consideration of Lacy in relation to Monk, and pieces on Lacy as a composer of art song by Vincent Lainé and Roberto Ottaviano.

But somehow the most perceptive observation of what it is that made Lacy’s music what it was comes from Alvin Curran with whose Musica Elettronica Viva project Lacy collaborated on and off for decades: “Steve Lacy never left the house without a book of poetry in his pocket.”
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Nick Storring – Newfoundout [mappa editions MAP027]

Nick Storring’s last solo album, My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell, demonstrated the Toronto composer/multi-instrumentalist’s masterful use of multitracked instruments for the optimization of color and texture. Like My Magic Dreams, Newfoundout, Storring’s new offering, is a solo work of painstakingly composed sounds in vibrant layers, but unlike the earlier album, it pushes rhythm and percussion to the forefront.

Each of the seven compositions on Newfoundout is named for a Canadian ghost town. Although the pieces apparently aren’t intended as program works “describing” these towns—which Storring notes he’s never visited—they do have a cinematic sweep suggesting open vistas.

With Dome, the first track, the album opens in a splash of cymbals giving way to a repeated short melodic motif, which develops over a bed of expansive electronics and a polyphony of drums with delay. Dome Extension follows, with Dome’s motifs translated into rhythms. Although Storring uses both acoustic and quasi-electronic percussion with a strong emphasis on their color effects, on Vroomanton and Frood, as on Dome Extension, he has them spell out explicitly defined rhythms; on Frood he augments them with plucked and struck strings. The focus in Khartum, by contrast, is on a reverberant Fender Rhodes piano in a setting tonally exotic yet discordant around the edges.

The album closes with the title track, whose melancholic electronic drone, punctuated by chimes and tolling bells, could well stand as an elegy to that abandoned town and the others along with it.

A simply beautiful album of vividly imaginative music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Yarn/Wire – Tonband [Wergo Records 73982]; Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point [Black Truffle Records BT080]

The superb contemporary music ensemble Yarn/Wire—percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, and pianist/keyboardists Ning Yu and Laura Berger—is known as much for its willingness to transgress the limits of musical convention as it is for its performance prowess. Both qualities are on display with a pair of simultaneously released albums of very different kinds of new music, one of fully notated compositions within an expansive notion of modern small ensemble chamber music, and the other an unnotated exploration of extended techniques and unconventional instrumentation.

The album of traditionally notated work is Tonband, a set containing one composition each by German composer Enno Poppe and Swiss composer Wolfgang Heiniger, and one composition by both together. The first composition on the album, Poppe’s knottily acoustic, two-movement Feld (2007/2017), has the most conventionally Modern sound of the three. This is particularly true of the second movement, an expanding field of sound developed out of dissonant piano stabs and accumulating fragmentary rhythmic cells underscored by snare drum. The centerpiece is the title work, Poppe and Heiniger’s collaboration from 2008/2012. Tonband is an absorbing thirty-minute-long, two-movement electroacoustic composition involving a complex system of live electronics in which signals from contact-mic’d percussion are fed to the pianists, here playing electronic keyboards, who manipulate pitches and timbres and fabricate melodies shaped by the percussionists’ sounds and gestures. As might be expected, the result is a soundworld that stretches the timbral imagination, but even during the more extreme passages of sonic distortion, the percussionists’ gestures are still discernible beneath the clangorous surface. Heiniger’s Neumond (2018) at an economical nine minutes long is the shortest composition on the album; it is also the most “electronic”-sounding of the three. Both pianists play MIDI keyboards while the percussionists, in addition to playing a battery of wood, membrane, and metal instruments, sing wordlessly along.

Into the Vanishing Point, a 2019 work by composer Annea Lockwood, is the Yarn/Wire track on the album Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point. A very different proposition from the work on Tonband. the piece is the result of a collaborative process in which Lockwood set out a general structure and then, through playing, listening and discussing, the ensemble together with the composer shaped the sonic details. And these details make for a sound that is very sparse indeed. Through a combination of unconventional instruments and conventional instruments unconventionally played, Yarn/Wire create a porous texture of largely unpitched sounds that, as the title has it, are poised just at the point of vanishing. The other composition on Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point is Becoming Air (2018), a technically demanding solo work for trumpeter Nate Wooley.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Van Stiefel – Spirits [Panoramic Recordings pan21]

Guitarist/composer Van Stiefel’s Spirits is an album of music for multitracked guitar inspired by early experiments with overdubbing by guitarists Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Glen Campbell. The techniques Stiefel used to construct his tracks may be similar to these other guitarists’ efforts, but the sounds are contemporary, varied, and entirely his own.

King of Cups opens the album with a languid slide melody over a shimmering foundation, and is quickly followed up by Solace, the first of several shorter tracks apparently assembled from fragments of solo guitar recordings. Memory Jug contains layers electric guitar over a gamelan-like foundation of detuned acoustic guitar and computer-generated sounds. On Harbor, processed piano in stuttering rhythms underlies a spare guitar melody. The introspective Ghost Flare puts electric over acoustic guitar for a moody, ECM-ish, sound.

A fine album of sensitively constructed music.

Daniel Barbiero