AMN Reviews: No Base Trio – s/t [Setola di Maiale]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Undirheimar – Heljarrúnar (2020; Cyclic Law)

Undirheimar is a mysterious outfit. Promo materials and some casual Googling do not identify the musician or musicians behind the moniker. But that context is ultimately not too important. What matters, of course, is the music.

What we have here is a set of dark, ritualistic drones with martial percussion and throat-singing. The percussion consists mainly of repetitive, pounding drums that border on the overwhelming. The drones are similarly aggressive while the voices are guttural and invoke a set of mantras. Less obtrusive pieces are meditations or ceremonies with steady beats and slower growling voices.

Ultimately, the sound and feel are that of an amalgam of Nordic and Far Eastern folk styles, but with a heavy dose of imagination. Thus, cuts from Heljarrúnar might serve well as part of movie or television soundtracks in which Viking hordes – cloaked in the evening mist and hyped up by shamanic rites – descend on hapless villagers.

AMN Reviews: Thumbscrew – The Anthony Braxton Project (2020; Cuneiform Records)

Thumbscrew is guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who also doubles on vibes), and bassist Michael Formanek. All have extensively performed or recorded with Anthony Braxton over the last couple of decades. Therefore, it is no surprise that they would collectively decide to provide an album of “covers” to celebrate Braxton’s 75th birthday. But there was no intent to make this release a best-of about Braxton’s more well-known pieces. Instead, Halvorson stated that “[t]he idea was for us to choose compositions of Anthony’s, mostly early compositions, which hadn’t been previously recorded (or, in a couple cases, recorded only once or twice).”

Going by Braxton’s opus numbers, most of the selected pieces are numbered less 70, which would place their years of origin before about 1975 or so. And indeed, even as someone who has listened to a great deal of Braxton (though will not claim anything resembling encyclopedic knowledge) few of these compositions seemed familiar upon first listen.

That is, while Braxton’s signature knotty rhythmic structures may suggest the composer, only one of the pieces screamed “Braxton” to these ears. This was Composition 61, which begins by the group exploring variations on a 5-note theme before it breaks out into controlled improvisation. Halvorson, Fujiwara, and Formanek add their own favor. Halvorson provides speed picking and note twisting, while Fujiwara’s supple yet intense snare work is a canvas upon which Formanek explores the extent of his bass without establishing a clear rhythm.  The three go in and out of synch with each other in a masterful fashion, such that the richness of this three-minute offering makes it seem much longer.

To that point, the sheer diversity of the structural and textural elements at play across these 11 pieces can be overwhelming.  Composition 68 features slow atmospherics, almost in a twisted folk style.  Composition 35 is outside-oriented with Fujiwara on vibes and winds up with an intricate and percussive modern chamber feel.  Composition 14 is presented three times, once for each instrumentalist performing solo. Of particular note is how Fujiwara makes his take harken to Varese yet captures Braxton’s playfulness.

Needless to say, trying to comprehend Braxton’s intellect through these recordings will keep you up late at night. Luckily, the compositions – and the performances herein – operate on many levels, and can be enjoyed on their face with further enlightenment achieved through repeated active listens.  With Braxton75 performances on hold worldwide for the moment, The Anthony Braxton Project is a more than a suitable substitute to get your Braxton fix. Very strong recommendation.

AMN Reviews: Xerxes the Dark – Final Crisis (2020; Zāl Records)

Tehran’s Xerxes the Dark is a project of Mohamadreza Govahi (AKA Morego Dimmer and Nyctalllz) that has released more than a dozen recordings, as well as being featured on various compilations. While ostensibly in the dark ambient vein, Final Crisis is better thought of as an electroacoustic release, with sounds sculpted into strange shapes, textures, and colors.

This is a concept album, wordlessly telling a story of parallel universes. As a consequence, Final Crisis has a cinematic sci-fi feel, with layered soundscapes, background crackling and rattling, and subtle processed rhythmic elements. An exemplary track is Parallel Disturbance, which begins with a deep, spacious drone. Patterned metallic friction and machine noises slowly join in, as the drones become more bass-oriented and begin to rumble. By the halfway point of this 10-minute piece, the drones have become oscillations and the machine noises have smoothed to resemble distant thunder and bells. This trend continues as the drone slowly fades and the bell-like sounds continue to echo. On the other hand, Theory of Nothing is more organic, with a sparse keyboard melody, repeated burbling, and synth waves.

As a whole, Final Crisis uses familiar components but in an innovative and absorbing fashion. This is a more than welcome effort.

AMN Reviews: Patrick Brennan, Maria do Mar, Ernesto Rodrigues, Miguel Mira, Hernâni Faustino & Abdul Moimême – The Sudden Bird of Waiting [Creative Sources CS 674]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Peter Brotzmann / Moukhtar Gania / Hamid Drake – The Catch Of A Ghost (2020; I Dischi di Angelica)

There is an interesting history to this release. Longtime collaborators Brotzmann and Drake recorded and performed with Mahmoud Gania, the late brother of Moukhtar Gania, over 20 years ago. Both Gania brothers are considered maters of the guembri, a 3-stringed bass lute of the North African Gwana people. This trio teamed up at the 2019 AngelicA festival in Italy for a 70-minute outing.

If anything, the energetic Brotzmann is somewhat restrained on The Catch Of a Ghost. His tones are still harsh and his lines are complex and relentless, but he gracefully shares the mix with Gania and Drake. Gania evokes a rounded set of sounds from his instrument, which sounds like a bouncy bass guitar. His rhythms are both solidly-structured and adventurous. Gania also sings and chants in the tradition of his region, which has a distinct Middle-Eastern flavor. This provides a stark yet serendipitous contrast with Brotzmann’s free blowing. As always, Drake is nothing less than a phenom, as he shifts seamlessly between more traditional percussion roles, circular rhythms that link up with Gania, and the open-endedness that goes along with being on stage with Brotzmann.

As Brotzmann stated, this grouping provides “three names, three cultures, three continents, three different concepts of time and timing.” The result is a tuneful and challenging set of songs and improvisations. Thumbs way up.

AMN Reviews: Anthony Braxton & Jaqueline Kerrod – Duo (Bologna) 2018 (2020; I Dischi di Angelica)

As his 50-plus-year career continues to progress, Anthony Braxton’s releases are taking on more of a longer and retrospective form, with boxed sets, operas, and reissues of older recordings. But every so often, a recent performance is memorialized, like this duet with harpist Jaqueline Kerrod from the 2018 AngelicA festival in Italy.

Over the course of five tracks of various lengths, Braxton and Kerrod explore the ranges of their respective instruments as well as the spaces in between. This can take the form of Braxton droning over rolls and trills from Kerrod, or the former playing his signature undulating runs while the latter splits her time between clearly plucked notes, chords, and more adventurous sounds. Kerrod is a fearless improviser and experimentalist, using extended techniques in a fashion that would sound like mistakes in less sure hands. She rubs strings or strikes them in a muted way that makes vibrations against the harp like a missed note. But this can be followed by sweeping flourishes or motifs with a Medieval or celebratory feel. Braxton switches up between alto, soprano, and sopranino, varying his mood and textures from calm to anxious to ominous. He also goes outside, squeaking, wailing, and gurgling.

Like many improvisations, there is no beginning or end here, Instead, we have a dialog between Braxton and Kerrod that reflects a degree of comfort and trust with one another. Indeed, when one is pushing the boundaries, the other might be doing the same or the exact opposite. But they make all of these journeys work, and together produce an unresolved but compelling tension between beauty and discord.

AMN Reviews: The Jerry Granelli Trio – Plays Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison (2020; RareNoise Records)

Hear me out with this one. It is not our usual fare.

Drummer Jerry Granelli will turn 80 soon, and over the course of his long career he played as a studio musician with numerous groups. The most notable piece that he contributed to is the Peanuts theme song on Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even my kids know that tune. Mose Allison, who if anything was more influential on musicians than Guaraldi, is less well-known to the public. Both partook in a form of listenable blues-oriented jazz that combined deep musicianship with tunefulness.

On this tribute album, Granelli is joined by pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Bradley Christopher Jones. They play through ten tracks, half roughly written by each of Guaraldi and Allison. Not being terribly familiar with the source material, I cannot say how close (or not close) these covers are to the originals. But I can evaluate them on their face – and there is much to like.

Granelli, Saft, and Jones play with a relaxed virtuosity. Indeed, the catchiness of the music can hide the level of mastery with which it is performed. Saft, in particular, adds a tremendous amount of color with his lyricism. Jones is active in the background and comes forward for subtly energetic solos from time to time. Granelli offers accents and motifs atop what otherwise could have been straight playing. In other hands, these tunes could have been vanilla – but Granelli, Saft, and Jones color slightly outside the lines to liven the mix. High points include the driving melodies of Cast Your Fate to the Wind from Guaraldi, and uptempo angularity of Your Mind is on Vacation from Allison.

Granelli and company take a few left turns to create a very enjoyable 50 minutes of music. Don’t hesitate.

AMN Reviews: Sly & The Family Drone – Walk It Dry (2020; Love Love Records / Feeding Tube Records)

The UK’s mystery free-skonk outfit Sly & The Family Drone is back with a new album, featuring their signature stylings and a few new directions as well. The rhythm section sets down grooves in and about its improv meandering and overbearing pounding. Present as usual are the wailing, droning sax and harsh electronics.

But differences from the group’s previous offerings emerge, especially when comparing Walk It Dry to their last couple of releases. Swearing on the Horns is an oddly-timed combination of rock-and-roll beats with echoing effects. Sunken Disorder begins with dark ambient synths that meld with discordant sax tones as the drumming introduces a rumbling soundscape. Indeed this less-than-all-out approach encompasses about one-quarter of the album, and is both spacious and haunting.

In general, the tracks are short on Walk It Dry – they get in, say their piece, and then step aside. But there is no lack of the musical extremism that we have come to expect and appreciate from Sly. Well done.

AMN Reviews: Samuel Andreyev – Iridescent Notation (2020; KAIROS)

Samuel Andreyev’s new album release, Iridescent Notation, comprises works that span his entire compositional career, from his first published work to his most recent work Iridescent Notation, a cantata featuring the poetry of Tom Raworth.  The album is characterized by shifts between pure, ethereal passages, like mobiles or paintings, and noisier passages that evoke urban scenes.  For context, the ‘ethereal’ sections share similarities with Boulez’s Notations for Piano, or Takemitsu, while the ‘noisy’ sections are more comparable to Varese’s Ameriques.  This stylistic difference acts in symbiosis with Raworth’s poetry: while Raworth often writes about the commonplace, his poems simultaneously have an introspective quality and an outward profundity.  

The pieces in this album are often multi-layered and complex, while also retaining a great degree of clarity and conciseness.  This has just as much to do with Andreyev’s compositional technique as it does with the excellent balance and sound spatialization executed by conductor Luigi Gaggiero, the performers of the Ukho Ensemble, and sound engineer Andrii Mokrytskyi. 

The compositions in Iridescent Notation prioritize interactions between instruments, with an acute sensitivity to timbre and spatiality.  While some of the pieces in the album have a somewhat large instrumentation, one is never presented with a muddy orchestration, or an impermeable wall of cinematic-sounding orchestral music.  Instead, each instrumental detail serves a specific role and occupies a part of the musical space.  In this way, pieces like A Propos du La Conciert de la Semaine Derniere and Iridescent Notation are similar to Webern’s Op. 10.  Broadly, the pieces are gestural and mesmerizing on the surface level, and it generally takes multiple listens before one can comprehend the trajectories and interactions between passages that allow each piece to fully manifest itself.    

Some pieces make reference to Andreyev’s other works, both by localized sonic moments and in a broader, structural sense.  A dichotomous organization in I. The inventor Projected, recalls his piece Verifications: I., which is arranged in a diptych that juxtaposes a rapidly shifting passage with a more drawn-out, restful passage.  This sort of organization has a unique psychological effect on our time perception–the presentation of differing rates of novel information literally affects how we perceive time.  While this effect is certainly a striking feature of the music, the more lasting quality is one’s complete immersion in the music, and a sense of the music living.  The presence of the Casio SK-1 keyboard in Iridescent Notation creates another parallel with Verifications, Andreyev’s only other piece to use the instrument. 

Soprano (Maren Shwier) and first violinist (Rachel Koblyakov) are particularly commendable performers in this album.  Shwier shows control and expressivity throughout Iridescent Notation.  Her performance in VI. Come Back, Come Back, O Glittering and White is extremely beautiful, and she handles the wild juxtapositions in movement IV. with ease.  Koblyakov breathes an organic, timbral instability into sul ponticello harmonics in V. Pressing, Turning and manages to make runs of notes expand and bulge in a surreal way.  Dina Pysarenko’s performance on piano in A Propos du La Conciert de la Semaine Derniere must be mentioned as well.  Her sense of balance–making notes appear as inflections of others, as well as her ability to make a sustained note carry through a phrase and resurface–brings out details that are essential to this piece.  

As a fan of Andreyev’s music for many years, Iridescent Notation is one of his most captivating pieces yet, and the Ukho Ensemble gives vibrant performances of his previously-recorded pieces.