The punningly titled No Base Trio is a trio without a bass, but not without a foundation. That foundation lies in attentively crafted improvised music informed by an eclectic set of influences. The No Base Trio consists of the Puerto Rican musicians Jonathan Suazo (alto saxophone and synthesizer); Gabriel Vicéns (electric guitar and pedals); and Leonardo Osuna (drums). Although this is their debut album, the trio have played together for ten years, and the rapport they’ve developed during that time shows. The music is completely improvised but focused and propelled forward with clearly defined rhythmic purpose. Osuna’s playing is mostly rock-influenced but on the fifth track he swings with a post-bop groove. Suazo is mostly heard on synthesizer, but contributes compelling lines on saxophone as on his extended solo on the seventh track. Vicéns’ distorted, reverb-rich guitar provides the textural cement holding the group’s collective sound together.
Back in spring 2018, New York City alto saxophonist/composer patrick brennan revisited Lisbon. While living there in the 1990s he’d become involved with the Portuguese improvised music community; his return to Lisbon put him once again in the company of the city’s improvisers and resulted in two exhilarating recordings: 2019’s Terraphonia, a duet with electric guitarist and sound artist Abdul Moimême, and now the newly released The Sudden Bird of Waiting.
Like Terraphonia, The Sudden Bird of Waiting was recorded in April, 2018 in Lisbon’s Namouche Studios. Here, brennan is heard mostly on alto saxophone but also occasionally on cornet and jaguar, the latter being an ancient Mesoamerican wind instrument producing a gusty, unpitched sound. In contrast to the earlier set, which explores timbral polarities within the restricted intimacy of the duet, The Sudden Bird of Waiting, which finds brennan alongside of a string quartet of violin (Maria do Mar), viola (Ernesto Rodrigues), cello (Miguel Mira) and double bass (Hernâni Faustino) along with Moimême on two electric guitars played simultaneously and objects, is an essay in the complex sonorities of the contemporary chamber ensemble.
Although the music on the album is fully improvised, the cohesion of the strings and guitars on the one side, and the forceful solo voice of the alto saxophone on the other, give the group’s sound a structural coherence that transcends the momentary alliances that typically form and disperse in the flow of spontaneous music. In fact it is this play of difference separating brennan’s saxophone from the strings and guitars that gives the performance the feel of a multi-movement concerto for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra. Here as on his other recordings, brennan is a compelling soloist. His saxophone emerges as a well-defined, hard-edged line standing out against and weaving through the surrounding masses of sound; these latter consist in an elaborately textured structure built up from the full range of extended and conventional performance techniques present to hand for contemporary players—something of a signature sound for Rodrigues and the string players associated with him. The track Nextness introduces a new element into the mix—the spoken word, in the form of brennan’s dramatic reading of poet Randee Silv’s verbal composition by that name. Silv’s anti-narrative of juxtaposed images and creatively dismantled semantics—a kind of extended technique for language—is perfectly at home in these surroundings.
If Debussy’s was one of the quieter revolutions in Western art music, it was also one of the farthest-reaching. His innovative use of scales and their attendant harmonies had an enduring effect not only on subsequent classical music but on jazz as well, while his foregrounding of timbre and sonority suggested possibilities that are still undergoing exploration and development. With his pointedly titled monograph Hommage, Italian composer Martino Traversa (1960) places himself directly within this rich European, and largely but not exclusively French, tradition.
The album’s two works featuring Ensemble Prometeo, a chamber orchestra conducted by Marco Angius, show most directly Traversa’s deep engagement with the sensuous forces of instrumental color and their historical forms. Red 2, a piece for concertante violin and twelve-piece ensemble, is a direct homage to Boulez that begins with a quote from the latter’s Anthèmes. Boulez’s material serves as the basis for thematic elaborations that permeate the piece. In developing his themes Traversa plays clusters of voices against each other in a dense weave of fused timbres; he maintains a sense of suspense throughout with the simple but effective device of placing trills on top of these sound masses. Di altri cieli, a piece for soprano and chamber sextet inspired by Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, sets a text by poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It is a succinct, crepuscular work of fragments shored up against an abyss, with soprano Livia Rado’s voice providing a haunting, flute-like presence.
Rado, accompanied by piano, clarinet and cello, is also featured on Traversa’s settings of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, which make up a moody, beautifully orchestrated and sung triptych. Here Traversa constructs a vocal line that floats languidly, rushes energetically and leaps wide intervals as it lags behind, outruns and doubles the instruments. The match of Rado’s voice with the clarinet and upper register cello is at times uncanny and a sensitive use of the human voice as a purely musical instrument.
Hommage also includes Oiseaux Tristes, a piece for solo piano inspired by Ravel’s Miroirs, and Quasi una sonata…for violin and piano.
Altogether a beautiful recording.
Owl is the duo of Oslo multi-instrumentalists Karl Bjorä and Signe Emmeluth; Mille Feuille, their first album, is based on a series of live recordings made over three days in a school building converted to an artists’ space.
The album title is a reference to Owl’s interest in creating music of multi-layered textures, which the two weave from the separate threads of saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, recorders and electronics. These individual elements often appear as ornaments or embellishments of an unheard melody—an improvised periphery around an imaginary center. At other times the center asserts itself in no uncertain terms as an expressionistic saxophone cadenza or resonant, carillon-like guitar chords chosen for sonority rather than for harmonic function.
A promising debut indeed.
Over the course of his career, Pavian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo has recorded a good number of duets with a wide variety of musicians. On Rumpus Room he plays with someone who surely must be one of his most unusual duet partners: Luca Collivasone. What makes Collivasone unusual is in part his eclectic background, which includes classical guitar, electronic sound design, and rockabilly, but also his choice of instruments for this recording: the Cacophonator. The Cacophonator is an instrument Collivasone built himself from an old Singer sewing machine he bought from a junk shop; it is a unique hybrid of strings, springs, buttons and miscellaneous electronics and mechanisms that can sound like steel drums, pizzicato cello, a primitive synthesizer, or a drum machine. Producing for the most part sonorities rather than melodic material, it largely provides the field against which Mimmo’s saxophone is the figure. And Mimmo certainly responds to its unconventional stimulus in creative ways: ordinarily playing with a highly refined, rounded tone, here he plays instead with an unusually keen edge and a focus on pure sound and extended technique as well as melody. The combination of Collivasone’s and Mimmo’s two voices on this recording is astonishingly successful; open ears will be well-rewarded.
Composer/pianist Nomi Epstein’s music, as demonstrated on the portrait recording sounds, is made up of fine-grained distinctions between sounds and between sound and non-sound. This is evident particularly in the three compositions for solo piano: Till (2003), Solo for Piano (2007-19), and Layers for Piano (2015/18), all of them performed by Reinier van Houdt. Till, which opens the album, surrounds deliberately picked out, largely quiet individual notes and chords with silences to create differential effects of dynamics and register. The first part of the two-part Solo for Piano, appropriately titled Waves, features oscillating, closely-spaced tones that particularly in the lower registers merge into something like a massed, grey noise. The second part opposes Waves’ sonic blur with unhurried, precisely defined pitch groups. Layers for Piano, a three-part work, places delicate sonic fragments consisting of single notes and muffled dissonances within a range of quiet, subtly distinguishable dynamics. The other two compositions in the collection are for trios: of voice, bass flute and electronics, and for flute, bass clarinet, and piano. The first of these, for Collect/Project (2016-19), is a low-key drama of contrasts between the hollow tones of the bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez) and the abrasively dense interventions of the electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros). When Frauke Aulbert’s voice breaks through into a sonic clearing, the effect is bracing and revelatory. The 2016 sounds for Jeff and Eliza, for flutist Eliza Bangert and bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, who perform it here along with the composer on piano, builds harmonies from the wind instruments’ multiphonics superimposed on isolated notes and chords from the piano. The piece’s very slow harmonic rhythm lends it a sense of timelessness.
Guitarist Tim Stine has been a creative presence on the Chicago music scene for well over a decade now. Originally from North Dakota, he’s released recordings with his quartet and trio, and has played as a sideman with many of the city’s most interesting musicians. Fresh Demons is the second album from his trio with double bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly; recorded in January 2018, it follows their self-titled debut of 2016.
Stine composed the album’s eight tracks and plays acoustic guitar on all of them. That makes for a slightly unusual sound for a guitar-double bass-drums trio, but it is a very effective one and perfectly suited to the asymmetrical, chromatic substance typical of Stine’s thematically structured compositions. Stine is a fine guitarist; during written and improvised passages he plays fluent, long lines that push against the naturally staccato sound of the acoustic guitar. Hatwich’s pizzicato double bass, another predominantly staccato voice, both doubles and counterpoints Stine’s melodies and provides active support to his improvisations. No less important to the well-integrated group sound is Rosaly’s drumming—it’s fluid and propulsive, and makes Stine’s rhythmically complex compositions swing.
Three new and recent releases from the Pan y Rosas and Plus Timbre netlabels offer improvised music in trio, overdub and solo formats. Each provides a unique perspective on improvisational practice, and all are worth hearing.
The Argentine trio Mentolados Durruti is made up of Luis Conde on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone; Luis Lanes on acoustic guitar; and Carlos Vega on double bass. Their album De aća a cien años [Pan y Rosas pyr287] is a well-rounded collection of music that ranges from the pure timbre of the opening track, with its string- and fingerboard-tapping and key clicks, to the pure counterpoint of a track like Los solidarios. Lane’s pristine fingerpicking and Vegas’ refined arco sound are particular delights, and the perfect offsets for Conde’s creative uses of extended techniques. This is a group with a deft touch for polyphonic music that balances the demands of defined line against atmospheric sonority.
Home, by Brazilian bassist Orlando Freitas, is another Pan y Rosas release [pyr289]. The title of the album is certainly appropriate: recordings of the bassist’s everyday life provide the backdrop against which he layers overdubbed pizzicato improvisations throughout the course of the single 35 minute-long track. Home is built around multitracked counterpoint and variations on density, as Orlando sets out rapid flurries of notes solo and as a virtual duo and trio. His sound on upright bass has the sleek and crackling edge of an electric fretless bass.
Finally there is Fabrizio “Bozzi” Fenu’s Sant’Andrìa, on Plus Timbre [pt099]. Fenu, a guitarist originally from Sardinia now resident in Marseille, France, invents a many-colored sound world for electric guitar augmented by loops, miscellaneous electronic processing, and preparations. In spite of the sometimes abstract nature of the timbres he coaxes from his instrument, he isn’t averse to grounding his improvisations in the occasional steady rhythmic pulse. There’s much of interest here—repeated fragments of melody circling an imaginary center; insistently ringing tones coalescing into chords; microtonal detunings; the reversed decay of notes turned backwards. And beneath it all, the sharply honed edge of the electric guitar’s plain voice.
Strängar, by Attilio Novellino is a four-movement work for grand piano, piano soundboard, prepared piano, various synthesizers, and electronics. Novellino, a sound artist, and composer from Catanzaro in the southern Italian region of Calabria, recorded Strängar at EMS Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm as well as in Catanzaro. Novellino’s musical concept, with its structural use of compact themes and simple elements repeated and recombined, is its own kind of minimalism, but his ear for timbre and his ability to develop richly textured soundscapes gives his music an almost cinematic expansiveness.
The core of Strängar consists of resonant piano chords or notes struck once and left to linger, and in short, repeated motifs. From that foundation Novellino layers on a variety of sounds, most notably those created by playing directly on the piano’s strings—scraping, plucking, and striking in such a way as to convey something of the instrument’s sheer materiality. With these sonic foundations thus set down, Novellino then goes on to elaborate each piece with increasingly complex textures and sweeping electronic washes of sustained chords. The end result is a finely-tuned balance of the abstract and the atmospheric.
The two substantial works on British composer Patrick Ozzard-Low’s In Opposition were the delayed effect of an epiphany the composer had in 1978 at age twenty. Having heard Jean Barraqué’s Sonata for Piano on the radio for the first time, Ozzard-Low was drawn to the French composer’s dense yet vestigially tonal sound world. Ozzard-Low consequently found and began studies with Bill Hopkins, Barraqué’s composition student. These studies lasted until Hopkins’ early death in 1981. Beginning in the late 1980s, Ozzard-Low entered into a twenty-year-long period during which his own work gestated. Over the course of that time, Ozzard-Low adapted for his own use Barraqué’s unique form of tone-row construction and permutation which Ozzard-Low describes as based on “pitch-fields”—that is, sets of pitches of fixed register rather than variable octaves, which have the potential to be organized tonally or quasi-tonally as well as atonally. From his understanding of Barraqué’s musical architecture, with its openness to harmonic as well as serial construction, Ozzard-Low developed his own musical language. The Piano Sonata No. 2 and In Opposition are two of the works to emerge from that process of development.
Piano Sonata No. 2, a single-movement, half-hour-long work divided into five submovements, embodies a taut energy built up from the sometimes abrupt jostling against each other of harmonies and dissonances. The piece is essentially modern in its vocabulary, but it develops with the emotional power of a reconfigured Romanticism and retains a harmonic openness tinted with shades of Impressionism. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky’s performance is appropriately robust and compelling.
In Opposition, a sonata for solo viola, is like the piano sonata a half-hour-long single movement work of several submovements. Also like the piano sonata the piece stakes out a ground between tonality and atonality; in construction, it draws on modern and pre-modern ways of phrasing. The opening sections are largely laid out as discontinuous sequences of events of dynamic and registral extremes; as the piece unfolds, though, it gathers itself in toward longer, more continuous passages that suggest the Bach sonatas for solo violin brought into the 21st century. In this regard In Opposition, like the Piano Sonata No. 2 but to a more marked extent, demonstrates Ozzard-Low’s aptitude for putting into dialogue forms taken from past and present musical practices. Violist Elisabeth Smalt’s realization of this demanding composition represents a deft handling of Ozzard-Low’s multimorphic idiom.