Astral Spirits is a relatively young label (founded in late 2014) that focuses on free improvisation and experimental music across a wide range of styles. Known for its appealing and retro cover art style, the label has already produced over 100 releases in CD, LP, digital, and cassette formats.
We have reviewed a number of Astral Spirits releases, and hope to continue to do so. These reviews just scratch the surface but are reproduced below as a rough label overview. Enjoy.
Mazzarella / Håker Flaten / Ra – What You Seek is Seeking You (2021)
Chicagoans Nick Mazzarella and Avreeayl Ra are joined by Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (who is now residing in Norway but had settled in Chicago for years) on this sophomore release. Recorded live at Constellation Chicago in late August 2019, this diverse trio provides a rock-solid take on modern creative jazz.
The academically-trained Mazzarella plays his sax in a style that gives more than a few nods to Coltrane, Dolphy, Coleman, and other pioneers. But rather than follow strictly in their footsteps, he builds on their innovations. While controlled and focused on melodic statements, he can also be unpredictable without going far outside or employing much in the way of extended techniques.
Drummer Ra has the ability to switch between relaxed and frantic approaches, and even combine them in various ways. At almost twice Mazzarella’s age, Ra brings a lifetime of experience to the group as a member of the AACM as well as someone who has toured the world. As a result, his contributions are exploratory and dovetail nicely with those of the saxophonist.
Håker Flaten, who has performed free improv with virtually everyone of note in North America and Europe, is perhaps the most overtly experimental of the three. He provides what initially appears to be walls of sound on his acoustic, until closer listening reveals that these structures are full of notes. Additionally, he switches between bowing and plucking to mix up textural aspects.
As an example of what this trio is about, Latter Day Protest Song begins with a pointed and disjoint theme from Mazzarella over subtle rolling lines from Ra and Håker Flaten. An interlude approaches being lyrical, as straighter playing from Mazzarella is paired with busy improv from Ra. This evolves into a repeating motif that gives Ra and Håker Flaten the opportunity to stretch out and ramp up the tempo. The track ends with Ra generating driving yet atypically-structured beat patterns that support energetic and plaintive expression from his bandmates.
Powers / Rolin Duo – Strange Fortune (2021)
Strange Fortune is an album that manages to channel 70’s folk psychedelia without sounding retro. A same-named project of Jen Powers (hammered dulcimer and autoharp) and Matthew Rolin (12 string guitars and chimes), this offering is a misty and entrancing 38-minute set.
Powers and Rolin produce walls of textured sound constructed with layered string plucking. The tempo is fast and upbeat, with plenty of notes and a bit of speed-picking, even if the overall tone drifts toward the melancholy from time to time. There are no solos of prominence, but plenty of interlocked themes and echoing chords. Autoharp and chimes contribute background elements largely at the beginnings of pieces. The centerpiece of Strange Fortune is Amarnath, a 20-minute epic that blends dulcimer and acoustic to the point where one can easily lose track of what’s what – but none of that matters in this dreamy, euphoric ride.
Comparisons? Maybe Popol Vuh, Third Ear Band, and Embryo in spirit if not composition or overall sound. If you have a craving for dense, outside folk with a modern touch, look no further. Highly recommended.
Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore – Neutral Love (2021)
This is a curious album, the first duo between experimentalists Kidambi (vocals) and Liberatore (guitar). Together, they create a sparse yet intense set of aural landscapes that are minimal musically while still packing in quite an emotional range.
Kidambi eschews singing for drones, mouth and throat noises, and plaintive tones, unbending in her lack of orthodoxy. Liberatore provides his own drones as well as long-held notes and dissonant chords on an undistorted electric guitar. While only voice and guitar are credited, a certain amount of processing may be present as well.
Each of the four pieces is approximately 8 minutes in length and captures a slightly different set of textures and colors, all moving at a geological pace. As an example, Bells features Liberatore creating interference patterns between pairs of notes while Kidambi uses her deeper register to provide slowly shifting tones somewhere between hums and chants.
Neutral Love is a suitable album for the last year of hardship, loss, and isolation. It is ruminative, melancholy, and unabashedly experimental.
Chris Schlarb & Chad Taylor – Time No Changes (2021)
This is one of those albums that just works. Acoustic guitarist Chris Schlarb and drummer/ percussionist Chad Taylor recorded Time No Changes spontaneously in a December 2019 session. While not free, the duo explores and improvises through a set that covers jazz, folk, and a bit of blues and rock stylings. Schlarb plays both 6 and 12 strings generating catchy and melodies and themes. He doubles on Moog and Hammond but the keyboard work is relegated to a minor role. Taylor, of course, is a well-respected player who has recorded with Rob Mazurek, Nicole Mitchell, Ken Vandermark, and many others.
There is a dream-like and meditative quality to these pieces. Primarily structured and repeating, they lull the listener with their deceptive sophistication. But active listening may be warranted from time to time when Schlarb and Taylor stray off the beaten path into more open-ended territories. Nonetheless, the overall tenor of the album remains pleasant and avoids discordance. They make their improvisational statements within this loose framework and without pretension. The result is a very nice way to spend 40 minutes of your day. The closest comparison that I can think of is early Steve Tibbetts, but without the electric guitar heroics.
Rob Frye – Exoplanet (2021)
Rob Frye of the Bitchin’ Bajas offers up Exoplanet, his first album as a leader. On it, he plays woodwinds and synths, and is joined by Cooper Crain on organ, Daniel Quinlivan on electronics and Wurlitzer, Ben Lamar Gay on cornet, and Tommaso Moretti and Quin Kirchner on drums. Macie Stewart, Nick Ciontea, and Edbrass Brasil make contributions on violins, synths, and woodwinds and voice, respectively. Frye leads this Chicago-based outfit through eight spacey, creative jazz tracks.
Exoplanet is a heady mixture of new and old, composition and improv, and the catchy and the discordant. There is a retro vibe with the winds, synth, and Wurlitzer, but the album never feels dated. Instead, layers of keyboards and the pair of drummers provide thick, dense textures. Sequenced runs and funky drumming take fore on multiple tracks, while others (Innercomos and XC22182 are examples) are atmospheric and unstructured explorations. While none of these pieces are longer than seven minutes, they cover a lot of ground, and the album can be listened to as a cohesive whole. Highly recommended to fans of “outside” improv that is not quite free.
[Ahmed] – Nights on Saturn (Communication) (2021)
[Ahmed] is the UK-based quartet of Pat Thomas on piano, Joel Grip on bass, Antonin Gerbal on drums, and Seymour Wright on sax. The stated goal of the group is to honor and reimagine the music of bassist / oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Nights on Saturn (Communication) is their third release, and was recorded December 5th, 2019 at London’s Cafe OTO.
Consisting of one long track that encompasses Abdul-Malik’s pieces Nights on Saturn and Communication, the album is not only a showcase for the composer’s gifts, but also for the interpretive and improvisational talents of this group. If one were to briefly characterize this energetic set, it involves some very aggressive chord pounding from Thomas overlapping with wailing and droning sax from Wright. Grip’s bass playing walks through the changes and colors outside the lines a bit, while Gerbal’s is solid, inventive, and with a more traditional angle. From time to time, the group cycles through a repetitive pattern which serves to further reinforce the jagged nature of their exposition. They never quite go all out in free-jazz mode but flirt with the idea. Nonetheless, the real standouts here are Thomas and Wright, whose idiosyncratic playing is as jarring as it is enjoyable. And that is said without taking anything away from anyone – this is a true group effort.
Not familiar with Abdul-Malik’s works, I cannot say whether this album has accurately captured his sound or spirit. What I can say, however, is that I will now seek out the original works. Regardless, Nights on Saturn (Communication) stands on its own as a powerful and compelling release.
Jeremiah Cymerman / Charlie Looker – A Horizon Made Of Canvas (2021)
There is dark and then there is dark. This series of duets from Jeremiah Cymerman and Charlie Looker fall into the latter, more extreme definition. Cymerman, who has a number of releases out on Tzadik and his own 5049 Records label, plays clarinets and pedals. Looker, a former member of Zs who’s interests span metal, jazz, classical, and Renaissance music, switches between piano and guitars.
Each of the five tracks on A Horizon Made Of Canvas has slightly different instrumentation, which prevents the album from becoming too familiar over its 45 minutes. For instance, Cymerman plays both clarinet and bass pedals to Looker’s piano on The Ecstasy of Betrayal, while Cymerman sticks with clarinet and Looker with acoustic guitar on Speaking of Dust.
While largely improvised, these tracks share a common theme. They are deliberately-paced, thoughtful, and atmospheric. Often sparse in their approach, Cymerman and Looker carve out textures with quiet, brooding lines. Both toy with extended techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. There is a modest amount of overdubbing, mostly adding a layer or brief background drone. Perhaps the most overt piece is the shortest, I’ll Show You What You Are, which features Looker on slightly-distorted electric guitar and Cymerman taking on an angular and aggressive role. But the majority of the album explores bleak and melancholy emotions, and does so in a beautiful fashion.
A Horizon Made Of Canvas – think of it as doom metal played with alternative instrumentation. Well done.
Mars Williams – Presents An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYC (2020)
In what has become a twisted tradition, saxophonist Mars Williams puts together groups in various cities late each year to perform his unique variations on mashed up holiday music and free jazz ala Albert Ayler. This release is a double album encompassing Chicago and New York performances from December 2019.
In addition to Williams, the Chicagoans include Josh Berman on cornet, Jim Baker on piano, viola and ARP, Kent Kessler on bass, Brian Sandstrom on guitar and trumpet, and Steve Hunt on drums, along with a few guests. The New Yorkers were Williams, Steve Swell on trombone, Hillard Greene on bass, Chris Corsano on drums, Nels Cline on guitar, and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello.
One would think that a combination of Ayler and Xmas music would be a disaster of global proportions. But it is not. In fact, Ayler’s outside-oriented tunefulness can be directly applied to traditional melodies, such as The 12 Days of Christmas, Jingle Bells, Carol of the Bells, and so on. In addition to making this astute observation, Williams also arranges medleys of these pieces, reinterpreted with free jazz interludes and blowouts. Thus, on these recordings, the holiday spirit pokes its head out from time to time but gets immediately smashed by Williams’ hammer of musical blasphemy. You hear twinges of the Xmas music, a lot of Ayler, all put together in an irreverent – and yet joyous – fashion.
On this go-round, each group gets just less than an hour, and there is a fair amount of overlap between the pieces covered. But since each group was given plenty of room to improvise, this results in very different performances coming from the Chicago and New York outfits. Particularly, the Chicago crew is more hard-edged, while the New York ensemble tends toward the atmospheric (with some intense interplay between Cline and Lonberg-Holm in particular). But both provide a wailing, cacophonous take on holiday music.
Of course, this year will be different. It is unlikely that there will be a 2020 version of Ayler Xmas, as live performances are still questionably safe in most parts of the world. Still, as the decorations start going up and socially-distanced gatherings take place, don’t hesitate to have your own atypical holiday celebration with Williams and company. Like the previous three volumes, this edition of the Ayler Xmas recordings is a mind-bending romp and comes very highly recommended.
J Pavone String Ensemble – Lost and Found (2020)
Lost and Found is the second release from the J. Pavone String Ensemble, a string quartet comprising violist Jessica Pavone, who composed all of the music here, violist Abby Swidler, and violinists Ericka Dicker and Angela Morris. The four compositions neatly demonstrate Pavone’s continuing interest in the musical possibilities of long tones in slowly evolving relationships.
The bulk of the four pieces largely consists of harmonically mobile sound masses made up of sustained tones gradually drifting up and down. If there is a recurring motif here it would be the slow glissando, which provides the engine driving the internal dynamic of the group’s collective sound. The generally quiet dynamics don’t disguise the subtle tension underlying much of the music—a tension occasionally and dramatically broken by the sudden but temporary appearance of a major triad. The unconventional makeup of this string quartet—two violins and two violas—give its voice a bias toward the upper registers, resulting in an often shimmering, ethereal sound. The entire recording has an austere beauty to it not only on account of the writing, but because of the ensemble’s tightly-controlled performance.
Tim Stine Trio – Fresh Demons (2020)
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.
Crazy Doberman – Illusory Expansion (2020)
Crazy Doberman is a curious outfit, a rotating collective of musicians that come and go for recordings and live performances. The group is centered around Drew Davis, Tim Gick, and John Olsen of Wolf Eyes. Illusory Expansion is far from their first dance – it is more like their 20th release – and features a total of 16 musicians in a free-improvisational jam session.
There is a hint of a Bitches Brew vibe herein, but Crazy Doberman is more experimental and not overtly jazz. Other reference points might be the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and maybe AMM, Sun Ra, or Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. But this is not to say that Illusory Expansion is retro. Instead, it is notably modern but gives a nod to the past.
Instrumentation includes various horns, percussion, and what sounds like guitar, bass, flute, and synth among others. The horns and percussion, in particular, are used in unstructured blowouts, while the pieces focusing more on synth provide downtempo atmospheric interludes or discordant abstractions. The density of each offering varies as more or fewer contributors are involved.
In all, Illusory Expansion is a nice chunk of sonic experimentation, and likely to appeal to anyone who is interested in the small but important “big band collective improv” genre.
Brandon Seabrook Trio – Exultations (2020)
Frenetic guitarist/banjoist Brandon Seabrook is back with his second trio offering on Astral Spirits. This time around he teams with living legends Gerald Cleaver on drums and Cooper-Moore on diddley bow across eight energetic tracks (his first trio release was with Henry Fraser and Daniel Levin). The group had played together in other arrangements and finally found a chance to record late last year.
As might be expected, Seabrook offers up scads of undistorted or lightly-distorted rapid picking, as well as well-placed power chords. This couples in an interesting and unique fashion with the diddley bow. The latter is a single-string bass instrument often associated with early American blues. Its throbbing nature results in a sound that shares more than a few rhythmic similarities with that of mid-to-late 70’s material from the French avant-prog band Magma (check out the beginning of Cudgel Majik for an example). While this likeness is almost certainly unintentional, it does add a certain alien context to Exultations. Cleaver, on the other hand, elevates free jazz drumming once again on this release. He is in rare form whether adding atmospherics on cymbal-driven downtempo pieces or blasting through shifting patterns.
Seabrook is a mad scientist of modern stringed improv and clearly the center of attention. His non-stop approach is both cerebral and invigorating. Well done indeed.
Karl Evangelista with Alexander Hawkins, Louis Moholo-Moholo & Trevor Watts – Apura! (2020)
Apura!, which takes its name from the Tagalog phrase “very urgent,” is a cross-generational collaboration featuring octogenarian legends Louis Moholo-Moholo and Trevor Watts along with the younger but well-established Karl Evangelista and Alexander Hawkins. The album is a 2CD set. Recorded in late 2018, all tracks were either composed or co-composed by Evangelista. Several of these are performed in respectively trio formats without Moholo-Moholo or Watts. The result is another great release from Astral Spirits, a refreshingly young label with a distinctively retro album cover style.
Evangelista clearly takes the lead throughout with largely improvised guitar themes. Hawkins backs him up with dense clusters of notes, rapid runs, and aggressive chording. These pieces vary in terms of structure from more jam-session oriented to free-improv excursions to explorations that leave plenty of space between notes.
I Eat Death Threats for Breakfast is a representative example, with Evangelista playing variations on a twisted theme while Hawkins solos or pounds notes in a pseudo-martial style. Moholo-Moholo’s contributions involve circular patterns centering on snare and cymbals. Resist adds Watts to the mix for downtempo meanderings that morph into a texturally-tense mass with long-held tones from Evangelista and blowouts from Watts.
An overarching theme of freedom emerges from Apura! – freedom that is joyous but does not come easily. To that point, Warriors builds upon unconventionally overlapping rhythms from Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo, and features simultaneous leads from Evangelista and Watts that border on the plaintive.
The quartet plays with a lot of variables – old and new, tight and loose, tension and release – to form a compelling and enjoyable set. Strong recommendation.
Cameron / Carter / Håker Flaten – Tau Ceti (2020)
The young Astral Spirits label continues to punch above its weight with yet another outstanding release. Comprised of veteran bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, percussionist Lisa Cameron, and guitarist Tom Carter, this group questions any assumptions that one might have about the traditional power trio.
Tau Ceti is split roughly into two halves – the first is acoustic and the second electric. The former consists of the first three tracks, which feature Håker Flaten’s jagged and wandering bass lines, Carter extracting rolling themes from an undistorted electric guitar, and Cameron using extended techniques to provide patternless knocking and rattling with heavy emphasis on cymbal-work and non-kit objects. These improvisations are free, and manage to be simultaneously spacious and dense. There is a certain headiness and quiet confidence even in the group’s slower interludes, for example, the mid-section of SETI. The only repeating motifs are short melodies offered on bass or guitar.
The electric section begins in the last few minutes of We Are Not Alone, with Carter gradually introducing distortion and a more aggressive stance. For the first time, he employs a solo – a psychedelically-tinged one at that. Daath (The Abyss) goes full bore in this direction, with an overdriven guitar lead and Håker Flaten switching to electric bass. Cameron defaults to a more rock-oriented approach. The overall result is that of a creatively-performed jam session – still improvised, but exhibiting more coloring-within-the-lines than before. Traveling Spaceways continues the journey with retro fusion stylings updated with the post-rock overtones of Carter’s note twisting and Håker Flaten’s wall-like bass presence.
Komeshi Trio – The Master Speaks Thrice (2019)
Komeshi Trio is play on the members’ surnames – Peter Kolovos on guitar, Patrick Shiroishi on sax, and Noel Meek on electronics and tapes. On The Master Speaks Thrice, they come together with two long pieces of atmospheric and jagged free improvisation. Both tracks were recorded live in Los Angeles in a 10-month period spanning 2017 and 2018.
At first blush, it is striking how Meek’s contributions are out in front. Often the electronics take a background role in group improv settings, but here he serves up harsh walls, sound effects, and high-pitched drones. Kolovos provides distorted chording, spiky notes, and extended techniques, while Shiroishi flutters and squeaks in and about his bandmates. The intensity level and mood varies, but builds when all three play off of one another in crescendos that are concentrated sonic assaults. On the other hand, Kolovos and Shiroishi also duel their way through speed runs and structured wailing.
The overall result is a dense sound that comes off as being from a group bigger than that of a trio. The Master Speaks Thrice is a powerful statement that can add a healthy dash of dissonance to your morning coffee or evening drink. Well done, indeed.
Shiroishi / Golia / Fujioka / Cline – Borasisi (2019)
Named after a sun deity appearing in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, Borasisi is a team up between two saxophonists (Patrick Shiroishi and Vinny Golia) and two drummers (Dylan Fujioka and Alex Cline). While the cover art exhibits the signature retro feel of the Astral Spirits label, the music only nods toward the past and is, in essence, a forward-looking spontaneously creative effort. And the album is a grower. Once you get to the fifth or sixth listen, the soulful and outside power of these efforts begin to hit hard as new details emerge.
Recorded live in the studio late last year, the two long tracks (Right Eye Sun and Left Eye Moon) feature simultaneous leads from Shiroishi and Golia, with and without backing from their percussionist co-conspirators. The two saxes ease into a comfortable partnership, filling in the gaps for each other whether the tempo is frenetic or paced. They seamlessly come together and then fly apart into contrapuntal explorations. There are relatively little squealing or extended techniques in play, nor individual attention-seeking efforts.
When done properly, a recording with two drummers can be exquisite, and that is exactly what Fujioka and Cline provide. They effectively merge to the point where it is virtually impossible for the listener to tell where one starts and the other stops. Their long duet at the beginning of Left Eye Moon exemplifies this point, an ever-shifting rhythmic non-pattern that is wildly unpredictable.
Whether intentional or not, this 32-minute album represents a pairing of collaborators from two different generations of free improv – Golia and Cline being the elder statesmen while Shiroishi and Fujioka represent the growing millennial contribution to this loose genre. But there is no sense of passing the torch. Instead, Borasisi is a cooperative alliance of equals – four accomplished improvisers who know how to bring the best out of themselves and each other.
Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet – Contra/Fact (2018)
This album was actually released on cassette back in September 2017, and it was either a quiet release or we completely missed it (probably the latter). Nonetheless, it is already being re-released on vinyl with greater fanfare. In fact, this version of the recording is a new edit of the album with a different track ordering.
But on to the music – bassist Matthew Lux is a familiar name in Chicago jazz circles, playing with Rob Mazurek among many others. Contra/Fact is his first release as a leader. Accompanying Lux are drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, cornetist Ben Lamar Gay, and reedist Jayve Montgomery. All members of the group contribute percussion and either keyboards, synth, electronics or samples.
As might be assumed from the retro-stylings of the album cover, Lux and friends provide more than just a nod to the past. Indeed, Contra/Fact has a thick, analog, funky, and experimental feel that invokes the early 1970s. Take the aforementioned Mazurek, combine with Art Ensemble of Chicago and electric Miles, and you have the beginnings of a description of these efforts. But Lux’s quartet heads off into uncharted territories, which gives the album a freshness as well.
This not free jazz, as most of the tracks have a clear rhythm if not a groove. Nonetheless, experimentalism reigns with voices, disjoint themes, odd percussion elements, and electronics accompanying the horns across long jams and shorter statements. The result is a dense, heady mix that deftly connects two time periods, and comes highly recommended.