Relative Pitch Overview

Relative Pitch Records has been in business since 2011, putting out recordings focusing on free improv and experimental music. We have reviewed a number of their releases over the years, summarized below. All reviews are by Mike Borella unless stated otherwise.

Lisa Ullén, Elsa Bergman, and Anna Lund – Space (2022)

This Swedish piano trio, all of whom are part of the Anna Hogberg Attack, explores the edges of open-ended creative jazz. Spaces is their debut and exhibits the type of free improvisation that is unpredictable and yet flows logically between themes and motifs.

While Lund is drummer and sole percussionist, all three take a percussive approach to their playing. Pianist Ullén, in particular, aggressively pounds out chords and angular melodies. Indeed, her more rhythmic moments allow Lund and Bergman to contribute their own twisted and rattling foreground elements. Bergman is sadly a bit low in the mix but can be heard exploring the extent of her bass, gently employing extended technique to generate rough-hewn textures from time to time. Lund is a remarkably creative and driving force, standing out even amongst the demiurgic input of her bandmates. In short, those who appreciate jazz-inflected free music are going to find much to like here.

At only 39 minutes, Spaces is a short album by today’s standards. However, its compact timing is well-suited to this trio’s approach. Ullén, Bergman, and Lund say what they need to say within this time frame, packing in the ideas. The result is an information-rich and ultimately satisfying offering.

Jessica Pavone – When No One Around You is There but Nowhere to be Found (2022)

It is no secret that each new release from violist Jessica Pavone is an event of note in these parts. Whether with a string octet, string quartet, or in solo form, she surprises the listener more often than not with music that crosses the classical / improvisation divide while exploring the sonic vocabulary of her instrument.

When No One Around You is There but Nowhere to be Found is a 30-minute solo recording consisting of four tracks. Pavone takes an approach that is both intellectual and playful, whether scraping harsh drones out of her strings or plucking to support spoken-word poetry. She also employs various levels of processing, particularly some form of looping, echo, or sustain that holds and manipulates notes slowly over time. As a result, some aspects of these tracks are largely sculpted sounds, where the source instrument is barely discernable and Pavone experiments with repetition.

Like many solo releases over the last two years, there is more than a hint of desperation and loss reflected in this album, perhaps as an accepting melancholy more than outright pain. That expressiveness, coupled with Pavone’s technical abilities, results in yet another solid and compelling achievement from the oeuvre of an accomplished and still-growing artist.

Ava Mendoza – New Spells (2021)

Guitarist Ava Mendoza has had a busy 2021, recording with William Parker, Matt Mitchell and Kate Gentile, and releasing a stellar quartet album with gabby fluke-mogul, Matteo Liberatore, and Joanna Mattrey. She also performed live as the situation allowed. While active for over a decade, 2021 was a breakout year for her, in terms of both musical accomplishment and recognition.

Add to that New Spells, a powerful solo guitar recording. Mendoza hooks her electric up to an amp and effects in order to rip through five pieces. Three were composed by Trevor Dunn, Devin Hoff, and John Dikeman, respectively, and the other two by Mendoza herself.

While loosely associated with New York free jazz, her playing is more grounded in rock and blues. She twists notes and strums heavily-distorted chords, while employing sliding and trills. Speed picking is a component of her stylings, but she also employs feedback to fill the gaps. Her readings of the collaborative pieces are both precise and loose, often jagged and angular. The track by Hoff, in particular, has a distinctive blues feel as well as a prickly melody. The Dikeman offering is the most abstract and makes generous use of extended techniques.

But where Mendoza shines the most is on her own tracks, as she plays heavy, gritty lines with a muscular self-confidence that few guitarists manage to achieve. She manages to be loud and assertive without being overpowering. With an exquisite feel for her instrument, Mendoza fluidly moves from melody to melody and theme to theme in a fashion that comes across as more improvisational than structured, but still connected.

This deep and compelling release is a joint effort between the Relative pitch and Astral Spirits labels.

Cecilia Lopez – RED (DB) (2021)

Even in a position where you get to hear quite a large amount of unusual music on a regular basis, that does not prepare you for Cecilia Lopez’s release, RED (DB). On one 50-minute track, Lopez combines her electronics with the skills of drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Brandon Lopez to create humming textures and drones as well glissando-like sounds. Julia Cavagna provided scored actions.

The reason for this uniqueness is that the recording comes from a performable sound installation. At New York’s Roulette, drums and double bass were hung from suspended woven wire nets. These nets resonated as the instruments were played, creating feedback that accompanied Cecilia’s electronics. Cleaver’s percussion is indirectly heard, as he mostly generates abstractions and pulses of rattling. Aside from a few powerfully-played passages, his efforts do not sound like kit-based drumming. Brandon makes use of bowed bass, and plays entirely in an outside fashion. He lets his angular motifs echo in a loop-like fashion.

Structurally, the piece includes a roughly-hewn background drone, electronics that resembles a siren (that latter evolve into discordant warbling), and two voices of throbbing foreground improvisation. Often, these lines combine into sound walls. Again, the focus here is not on melody or rhythm, but texture and color. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the release Three Drones by Wóma, also based on “playing” a form of resonator, but this piece is more dynamic. Regardless, RED (DB) stands on its own as a singular and oddly beautiful offering.

Two Much: Reut Regev and Igal Foni – Never Enough (2021)

Trombonist Regev and percussionist Foni recorded these 20 vignettes right as the pandemic was breaking out last year. Their efforts represent an absorbing mixture of improvisation and pre-defined structures. Thus, while some pieces are free-form, others feature distinct rhythms and melodies often bordering on the playful. On some tracks, Regev blends staccato playing with explorations of short themes and motifs, suggesting a certain amount of forethought serves as the based for her spontaneity. Foni does a commendable job of sticking to these patterns without falling into a routine. Other tracks, however, feature more opened-ended playing from both using extended techniques to probe the outer reaches of their instruments’ sounds.

Zeena Parkins, Mette Rasmussen, and Ryan Sawyer – Glass Triangle (2021)

Zeena Parkins playing her electric harp is not just an audio delight but a visual one as well. Do not turn down the chance to see her live. But with performances still on hold, the next best thing is a recording like this one. Teaming up with saxophonist Rasmussen and drummer Sawyer, this unusual trio blazes new sonic pathways. Freely improvised, Glass Triangle consists of six moderate-length tracks that explore textures and color as much as – if not more than – melody and rhythm. Rasmussen wails in a punctuated fashion in contrast to Parkins’ spacey echoing and distorted notes. Sawyer plays the busy percussionist role, mostly on kit drums but also incorporating a few other objects as well. This is an aggressive and forward offering that is conducive to repeat listens.

Signe Emmeluth – Hi Hello I’m Signe (2021)

Hi Hello I’m Signe is the first solo sax effort from Emmeluth, who is active in the European free jazz scene. It consists of a single 35-minute track, Action Painting en Vogue. Emmeluth employs atypical blowing and fingering techniques to generate squeaks, bent notes, and subtle melodies. But her playing is not predictable in general, as she moves between passages of the recording. This involves a certain degree of dynamics, as she can be soft to the point of becoming barely audible as well as more assertive and attention-demanding. The contrast can be both jarring and exhilarating. At some points it almost seems as if she is in a dialog with herself, playing call-and-response patterns in two different registers. Importantly, Emmeluth is finding her voice in the crowded solo-sax space, and a compelling voice it is. Well done.

gabby fluke-mogul – threshold (2021)

New York violinist gabby fluke-mogul is unabashedly experimental on this solo album recorded last summer. Employing extended techniques (rubbing, scraping, sawing, tapping), they extract a full spectrum of unconventional sounds from this conventional instrument. Coupled with occasional vocals, threshold is an exhilarating ride.

fluke-mogul plucks and bows through six improvisations from 4 to 11 minutes in length. Their ability to load a track with notes – both straight and twisted – is exhibited in the opener, teeth, which features what could best be described as manually-played “violin effects” interspersed with rapid runs, short motifs, and chants. They do not eschew subtlety but instead use quieter, breathier portions of each track to serve as a counterbalance to the outside sections.

And the playing is indeed aggressive, though not in a physical sense. Instead, the forcefulness is in how fluke-mogul challenges the listener to expand their conception of what sounds and structures their instrument can generate. An example of this is kairos, in which slow bowing creates both jagged, gritty discordance as well as hushed passages and even a few less radical moments. In contrast, bruises is over the top and intense.

Suffice it to say that threshold is an extreme album, but read that in a good way. It is thoroughly enjoyable in its unorthodoxy and receives a strong recommendation as a result.

Susan Alcorn Quintet – Pedernal (2020)

When most people think about the pedal steel guitar they expect to hear Country or Hawaiian music.  For the last twenty-five years Susan Alcorn has been forging her own way of playing the pedal steel guitar. Alcorn’s unique sound, while steeped in the pedal steel tradition, is largely shaped by the deep influences of Olivier Messiaen and Ornette Coleman. Her playing spans the gamut from the very melodic and soulful to rich harmonic sounds to sparse swells and otherworldly textures.

Alcorn has recorded several solo albums and has played on many recordings including Nate Wooley’s “Columbia Icefield” and Mary Halvorson’s Octet. An unexpected grant provided Alcorn with the resources to write and record “Pedernal”, her first album as a band leader.  She is joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Ryan Sawyer.  Alcorn wrote the albums five compositions with these specific players in mind. 

The album opens with the title track “Pedernal”. Its stark and somber steel guitar and bass intro slowly builds into a bluesy minor theme. The piece really develops over several iterations as it shifts mood and texture, eventually working itself into a frenzy that unwinds into a more reflective segment that eventually returns to the primary theme. The title track just opens the door to what you will hear on the rest of the album. Alcorn makes great use of contrast and counter lines in developing her compositional material. This often gives her work a cinematic feel as it can suddenly shift from something very melodic and or rhythmic into oblique or sparse textures. Susan Alcorn’s compositions for this quintet range from the harmelodic hoedown of “Northeast Rising Sun” to the textural expanses of the chamber sounds found in both “Night in Gdansk and “Circular Ruins” to the angular and bop like melodies of “R.U.R”.

“Pedernal” is a wonderful album. Listeners of creative music and the outer fringes of jazz will find quite a lot to like on this album. The quintet is spectacular and I hope this won’t be the last ensemble record that Susan Alcorn leads. I think that “Pedernal” will show up on a lot of the best of 2020 lists and it absolutely deserves to be included. Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

Kitamura / Bynum / Morris / Reid – Geometry Of Distance (2019)

There is a certain style of sparse free improvisation that involves a group playing in an abrupt, disjointed style – one in which there is little melody or rhythm. Instead, the emphasis is structural and exploratory. Geometry of Distance is a prime example of such a recording.

The group is called Geometry, and this is their second release after last year’s Geometry of Caves.  Vocalist Kyoko Kitamura teams with Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and trumpets, Joe Morris on guitar, and Tomeka Reid on cello. Each member contributes micro-thematic elements; namely, short motifs and lines that may overlap with those of the others. Kitamura provides wordless vocals, scat singing, screams, and harsh utterances. The focus is not on what she might be saying, but what she conveys with tone and technique. Morris’s contributions are characteristically spiky. Scratching and rubbing alternates with cleanly-picked sections. Bynum and Reid are perhaps the most “outside” of the four. The former squeaks, warbles, and blows through discordant passages, while the latter offers an understated but ambitious set of wanderings through the lower registers.

Without any solid structure and including generous use of extended techniques, the album is subtle in approach. Listen in a quiet room, as this is not something that you will fully appreciate when subjected to background noise – while commuting, for example. The many rich details would be lost.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of Geometry of Distance is how Kitamura, Bynum, Morris, and Reid manage to make the 50-plus minutes thereof such an engaging listen. In lesser hands, their approach might have fallen apart under its own weight into aimless meandering. But with this quartet, the album is an adventure – one that keeps the listener on edge with evolving meta-patterns and systems.  It is a piece of abstract performance art dutifully transcribed to the digital medium. Highly recommended.

Jessica Pavone – In the Action (2019)

Jessica Pavone has built up quite the resume over the last 20 or so years, from solo works to duos with Mary Halvorson to contributing on pieces by Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith.  In the Action is her third solo viola release and clocks in at only 27 minutes. But she packs a lot of ideas into its short duration, and re-thinks the role of her instrument along the way.

Oscillatory Salt Transport begins this offering with a plaintive folk melody that evolves into discordant wails and jagged bowed sawing. and Maybe in the End is an even more experimental piece that combines plucked chords with heavily distorted processed waves of sound. Look Out – Look Out – look Out takes it one step further, with rapidly oscillating and crackling walls of noise that reach down into low frequencies. Without liner notes, it would likely be impossible to identify the instrument from which these sounds originate. The title track rounds things out with something of a return to normalcy. Pavone again invokes a rustic playing style, albeit with an intervening fuzzy loop underlying minimalistic patterns and some overdriven amplified playing toward the end.

As far as I can tell, In the Action is just Pavone, her viola, and a bunch of effects. Regardless, combining a smattering of conventional playing with a large amount of unconventional exploration, the album remains engaging throughout.

Stephanie Richards – Fullmoon (2018)

Stephanie Richards is a Canadian-born composer / improviser whose armament of choice is the trumpet. Now a resident of New York, she has collaborated with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, and John ZornFullmoon is her first release, a solo effort with live samples from Dino J.A. Deane.

As far as I can tell, all sounds on the album are derived in some fashion from Richards’ trumpet. But she does not play the instrument in the conventional sense – instead, she explores her ability to create drones, percussion, and resonance, using varied extended techniques. Yes, she does provide a melody or two, but in a non-repetitious, improvised sense. Deane’s contributions build up Richards’ pieces with overdubbed layers of the samples, often resulting in an electroacoustic feel. These processed acoustic sounds emulate not only percussive elements but even string instruments.

Richards refers to her approach as re-composition, where she breaks down each recording and then builds it back up from constituent parts. This is a lengthy process, as it took her over two years to finalize the nine pieces of Fullmoon. As a result, this is a singular release. Both harsh and alluring at the same time, this album will make you unthink what you know about the structure of music.

Nate Wooley – Battle Pieces II (2017)

With Nate Wooley, the journey is more important than the destination – in fact arriving at an intended location (or any particular outcome for that matter) is not required. Battle Pieces II, which will be out September 15 on Relative Pitch Records, is a follow-up to Wooley’s 2014 Battle Pieces recording. Featuring the same lineup (Wooley on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, and Matt Moran on vibes), this sophomore effort was recorded live at The Loft in Köln, Germany after the group had had a chance to refine and expand the original material.

Not unlike its predecessor, this album is based on a musical system. Notably, over 100 snippets that exercise the textural and timbral aspects of each instrument and groups thereof. The result is something that is not free improv, but a spontaneous composition formed according to a set of rules. The arrangements focus on one or two lead instruments, with the others filling in the gaps and providing accents. There certainly are melodies and harmonies on these four pieces, but they are short and fleeting. The lead instrumentalist is given room to express him or herself, and it should be no surprise that these four do so in an “outside” fashion. Still, the pieces tend to move slowly and in an atmospheric manner, even when the playing gets frenetic.

After a few listens to Battle Pieces II, one cannot help but think that Wooley is not so much a composer, but an architect of musical language. Similar to Anthony Braxton (one of his mentors and a clear inspiration), Wooley designs meta-musical constructs that set forth particular constraints within which a group can explore and experiment. Wooley and company could exercise these elements every day for a year and never repeat themselves. Let’s hope this journey continues regardless of where it ends up.

Corsano / Courvoisier / Wooley – Salt Task (2016)

This supergroup comes together for the first time on Salt Task, a free improv offering. Spanning four tracks of varying length, drummer Chris Corsano, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and the trumpet-wielding Nate Wooley combine for a tasty set of creative music.

Courvoisier plays in her signature percussive style, with thick chords, disjointed rhythms, and undulating soundscapes.  Wooley utilizes a host of unusual mouth and extended breathing techniques to obtain distorted textures. A good portion of the time it is hard to tell that a trumpet is being played, as he makes it squeal and generate noise walls. Corsano offers rolls and staggered, yet delicate, rattling and pounding. Nothing close to a steady beat emerges – he plays the drums as a lead instrument.

Rather than staying together for the entirety of the album, the trio also trades off solo and duet sections. This allows each to make their own unique contributions to the mix. For instance, the 20-minute title track provides numerous breaks involving just one or two group members expressing themselves. Still, Corsano, Courvoisier, and Wooley are at their best when playing as a collective – there is no shortage of textures and themes, as all three take idiosyncratic directions and make liberal use of musical left turns.

But if the title track is about aggressive exploration, group and otherwise, Stalled Talks, the final offering, is a more densely atmospheric piece. With Courvoisier strumming strings (piano strings?), Wooley sustaining wavering notes, and Corsano playing in a completely free fashion, the trio sums up their contributions in a compelling manner.

This isn’t jazz, free or otherwise. It is another animal entirely. Despite its near-complete lack of traditional structure, Corsano, Courvoisier, and Wooley provide a harsh yet appealing 45-minute journey of creativity. One can’t help but think that if these intrepid explorers record another album together, it would be very different but just as good. Strong recommendation.

Joe Morris – Solos Bimhuis (2015)

I’ve always felt one of the downsides of the CD medium is the amount of data they can hold.  Many performers feel the need to maximize the content…stuff that silver disc to the gills with as much binary crappola as technologically possible.  Never mind the fact that 50% or more is useless filler, if they have the darts, they gotta throw em all at the dart board.

Luckily for the listener of Joe Morris’ Solos Bimhuis collection, the filler factor is pretty much absent.  What we have here is 7 long pieces, ranging from 6 minutes to a ginormous 26 minutes.  One man, one acoustic (sounding) guitar…and a whole lot of notes.  Listening through this huge set, I was constantly amazed at the frequency of ideas that must have been pouring out of JM’s head.  The fact that he seemed to be able to process these ideas faster than a Cray astounded me.  There was some serious number crunching happening.

Using a multitude of extended picking techniques…moods, atmospheres, hell, even fully fleshed-out novels were seemingly created in an instant.  Some that he showed us early on were revisited, only twisted and turned inside out creating yet further ideas.  My experience with all this was one of surrender, letting go, and finally full engulfment into the sonic maelstrom.  Spanish themes occasionally popped their heads up only to be quickly supplanted by what sounded like a vicious bowing technique of a first violinist.  The latter being done on a guitar made it that more stunning…and that barely scratches the surface of this grand design that Morris was building.

The whole proceeding was one giant instant gratification after the next.  I was exhausted after it was over…but like any good box of chocolates…you are going to return again and again.  The replay attribute on this release is high.  Grokking it all on one listen is futile.  I’m looking forward to riding this wave again.

Michael Eisenberg

Tomas Fujiwara Trio – Variable Bets (2014)

Tomas Fujiwara is a drummer who appears on so many good recordings that it is difficult to keep up with his activities. Mostly known for being part of New York’s current creative jazz scene – an artistic landscape that combines free jazz with modern composition – he often records and plays with compatriots Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum, among many others.

This, his first album as leader of a trio, features Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Brandon Seabrook on guitar, and was recorded live last September. It consists of eight tracks, from 2 to almost 14 minutes in length. At first blush, Variable Bets comes across as more experimental than many of Fujiwara’s efforts. The tracks cannot be pigeonholed into any category, much less jazz. Perhaps the guitar / trumpet / drums lineup contributes to that notion, along with each player’s reluctance to settle on the conventional.

A few particularly high points include when Alessi and Seabrook simultaneously improvise jagged, uptempo melodies over Fujiwara’s agile drumming. Seabrook often lets loose with speed picking and grinding out walls of noise, invoking a cross between Nels Cline and Derek Bailey. Fujiwara is so adept and subtle at times, that it is easy to ignore how much he adds to the music. Alessi combines serious chops with a flair for the unpredictable.

Even of those familiar with Fujiwara’s works, there will be some surprises here. Though confined to the trio format, the musicians use a broad palette to explore and create. Whatever they do, they do very well.

Mary Halvorson – Reverse Blue (2014)

While Mary Halvorson has been active in the creative jazz scene for over a decade, she has truly come into her own in the last three or so years. It is not just that she has appeared on eleven recordings in 2013 alone. Her recent releases Imaginary Sea (AMN review here) and Thumbscrew (AMN review here), for example, both exhibit a new level of compositional maturity for the guitarist. Reverse Blue, officially releasing in October, continues that trend.

Her group on this quartet recording includes Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Halvorson’s deliberate, prickly guitar-wielding is on display, with characteristic bent notes and unexpected directions. For instance, her heavy riffing and soloing on the opening track, Torturer’s Reverse Delight, is offset by a more introspective and jazzy approach on Hako, as well ominous falling tones on Rebel’s Revue.  All four musicians contribute equally to these efforts, often collaborating in contrapuntal lines and dissonance.  Another keeper from Ms. Halvorson.

Jack Wright and Ben Wright – As if Anything Could Be the Same (2014)

Saxophonist Jack Wright has been a force in free improvisation since devoting himself full-time to that discipline in 1979. During those thirty-five years he has taken an expansive view of what improvisation can be, and what kind of sound world a saxophone can create. His earlier efforts arose as a natural response to and continuation of the expressionistic free jazz of the 1960s, but a collaboration with Bhob Rainey in the late 1990s led him to reduce the volume and density of his sound, though not, paradoxically, the passion. Rather than abandoning one style for another, he has conserved and retained the sounds of all of his musical incarnations, with the result that he has been able to fashion a broad sonic vocabulary to draw on in any number of different improvisational contexts. He has also devoted himself to developing the music by reaching out to listeners, potential listeners, and fellow musicians through his frequent performances at venues of all sizes throughout the world.  In this CD, a collaboration with his son Ben on double bass, his ecumenical approach to improvisation is on full display.

The disc opens with an energetic, texture-heavy statement on the bass, which is quickly joined by staccato notes from the soprano saxophone. The piece is full but at the same time is full of space. Here as in the other pieces the improvisation doesn’t follow a narrative arc but instead has more of the kind of color-based dynamic that painter Hans Hofmann described as “push-pull”: layered timbres creating a sense of sonic depth and movement. This can be heard to full advantage in Be, which overlaps squealing, popping, and grunting sounds from the saxophone and struck strings, overpressure-bowing and brightly articulated tremolo from the bass. But despite the preponderance of color as a shaping element, a trace of expressionism can be found running throughout all five tracks as a kind of subterranean stream irrigating and feeding the growth above ground. But at times it comes to the fore, as in the plangent alto and overtone-laden bowed bass on the second track, or the moaning of both horn and bass at the beginning of The Same. Conversely, the kind of reductivist sound shaping that Wright has become known for is by no means absent from the disc. Nearly all the selections feature it to some extent, though it dominates the closing track.

What is notable about the Wrights’ approach to sound is the way it makes audible the physical confrontation of player and instrument. In fact, much of this is music that directly signals its origin in the body. The physicality of sound production—for example the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, the undertow of voice and the sonic signature of the lips which are so prominent in Could—makes itself felt at various points throughout the set. This is a fine recording and comes very highly recommended.

Daniel Barbiero

FPR (Gratkowski / Greenlief / Raskin) – All At Once (2013)

No surprise in comparing this release to the Rova Sax Quartet. It features Jon Raskin, a founding member of that ensemble, as well as fellow saxophonists Frank Gratkowski and Phillip Greenlief. Recorded on two dates, one in 2007 and the other in 2010, this intrepid trio gives their instruments a workout across nine tracks.

Honestly, limited-palette releases like this can be hit or miss. But in the right hands, three saxes can offer a broad range of pitches and textures. Such is the case for All At Once. Whether improvised or composed, and it can be hard to tell how some of these tracks came about, FPR attacks each effort with gusto and poise.

Little from this recording might be mistaken for the conventional, with squeaks, drones, and contrapuntal melodies throughout. But nothing sounds thrown together or offered for convenience. A subtle and engaging release.