AMN Reviews: Grey Frequency – Ufology (2019; Bandcamp)

Declared “an audio exploration of British UFO sightings from the second half of the twentieth century,” the latest from Grey Frequency is a set of gritty drones and sparse ambient meanderings with dark textures and overtones. Each of the eight tracks explores a specific one of these alleged encounters. The driving force behind Grey Frequency is Nottingham’s Gavin Morrow.

In literature, TV, and movies, UFO lore combines aspects of mystery, horror, and science fiction. It often serves as a storytelling avenue for asking the existential questions of “Why are we here?” and “Are we alone?” While Ufology does not attempt to address the first question, it implicitly answers the second with the clear, “No.” The album’s brooding atmospherics, bleak constructs, and rhythmic and non-rhythmic patterns, evoke a sense of foreboding and tension. Morrow combines field recordings and synths with electroacoustic crumbling, crackling and snapping. Sequenced melodies accompany post-industrial echoing and machine-like humming. This creates a soundworld with rich acoustic imagery – fog-strewn fields, abandoned laboratories, mysterious structures, and alien artifacts.

Ufology is a refreshing blend of dark ambient waves with both structured and unstructured background noises. In a sense, it is a logical descendant of early 70’s space music ala Tangerine Dream, but with more than a few hints of modern digital compositional techniques.

AMN Reviews: Ensemble neoN – Niblock/Lamb [Hubro HUBROCD2601]

For their new CD, Ensemble neoN, a Norwegian chamber group dedicated to performing works of new music, chose to program together two conceptually and sonically dovetailing works by composers Phill Niblock and Catherine Lamb. Call it two perspectives on drone music.

Niblock’s To Two Tea Roses (2012), a paradigmatic work, is a long-tone composition for combined live and prerecorded orchestras. Niblock makes good use of nuanced movement within a solid block of sound, giving the piece the character of a sustained, suspended major chord with a fluctuating undertow of microtonal disquiet. Ensemble neoN’s realization employs an octet of winds, strings, piano and bowed vibes that fuses into a composite voice that has the ringing sound and subtle, cyclical dynamics of a particularly dense tamboura.

Catherine Lamb’s Parallax Forma (2016), like To Two Tea Roses a long-tone work, is less dense than Niblock’s and includes more overt harmonic movement. The piece’s foreground is dominated by singers Stine Janvin Motland and Silje Aker Johnsen, whose voices float ethereally over the seven-piece chamber orchestra.

AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agosto – Part II

By Irwin Block (
Photo credit: Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – The duo of harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer Brian Chase at the Jazz em Agusto Festival Saturday was a three-part performance, a mainly acoustic hour of sonic explorations. Chase began his segment with a covered snare drum on his lap. He held a single drumstick in his right hand and tapped out rhythms with his bare left hand, uncovering microtones. He then upped the intensity slightly, using two sticks, tapping wood on wood and drum surface, then with one mallet explored pitches on his cymbal, ending with a gong. It had a workshop feel but attentive listeners appreciated the nuances. Zeena Parkins took the stage to perform on a full-sized acoustic harp, playing with sounds and textures, bending notes, scratching and striking the strings with a mallet, alternating with two-handed lyrical sweeps, and rubbing the strings with a violin bow. The final duet was an intricate call-and-response as the musicians extended each other’s ideas.

The big draw Saturday night was trumpeter-composer Ambrose Akinmusire and his Origami Harvest project. The outdoor auditorium was close to sold out for this jazz hip-hop mix that spoke to the festival theme of resistance. This was not agit-prop – the music and lyrics were developed by Akinmusire to reflect the experience of being American in these times – especially for blacks. Rapper Kokayi’s range and majestic voice resonated with the depth and scope of that experience. It is a genre-busting ensemble with drummer Justin Brown, pianist Sam Harris, and the Mivos string quartet injecting a contemporary classical dream-like quality to the ensemble sound. The focus was on Kokayi, whose first raps rang out with positive keywords. Then the music and the word images turned darker and more urgent. The searing beauty of Akinmusire’s horn and pianist Harris’ two-fisted dissonance dovetailed with Kokayi’s word pictures – “Cut down, get down! … No, no, no, no, no … he said, she said … ID ID ID ID ID, gotta get him.” The concert was reaching a climax when the rain intensified and audience members began to leave, seeking shelter under nearby trees as others gathered on the stage to hear Kokayi call out the names of young and innocent victims – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant. He ended with a blast at the U.S. president, calling him “racist, homophobe, xenophobe.” The audience surrounding the musicians on stage in these closing moments was moving and memorable.

Sunday’s early show featured ERIS 136199, referring to the recently discovered “dwarf planet.” This improvising trio featured electric guitarists Han-earl Park and Nick Didkovsky and tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora. Their first piece, lasting 40 minutes, consisted of the guitarists experimenting with sound using techniques such as loosening and tightening the strings and striking the fretboard as saxophonist Sikora entered at the right harmonic moment to inject lyrical passages. The second piece was more free-wheeling but some audience members were not ready for this level of improvised music and walked out.

The final concert featured guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl project, a sextet that played her music and songs, performed by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. The idea is that the vocalist is a musician on equal footing with the ensemble. Though it was well-received by the audience who asked for an encore, the melodies and harmonies seemed repetitive. Kidambi sang with assurance and tonal clarity, often in tandem with saxophonist Maria Grand, who sang harmony. Kidambi has a powerful presence and displayed agility and an inventive spirit in her improv. But all the songs had a similar mournful feel. The saving grace were solos by trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and Halvorson whose guitar work was phenomenal. Unfortunately, with the exception of two pieces, she was overpowered by the band.

The format for this year’s festival was two, four-day segments that began Aug 1. Of the eight concerts Aug. 8-11, top marks go to drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his Triple Double formation and Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest.

AMN Reviews: Setola di Maiale Unit & Evan Parker – Live at Angelica 2018 [Setola di Maiale SM3880]

Crafting a musically cohesive, uncongested free improvisation with a small group is hard enough. It become much more difficult the larger the ensemble. Some large groups—the Variable Geometry Orchestra comes to mind—have been able to manage this nicely. Add to their number the Setola di Maiale Unit, an ensemble headed by percussionist Stefano Giust.

The Setola di Maiale Unit is a free improvisation group whose membership isn’t fixed. Many of the players are artists on the Setola di Maiale label, which Giust heads. For their appearance at the 2018 AngelicA Festival in Bologna the group, in addition to Giust, consisted of Marco Colonna on clarinets; Martin Mayes on horn and alphorn; Patrizia Oliva on voice and electronics; Alberto Novello on analog electronics; Giorgio Pacorig on piano; and Michele Anelli on double bass. Special guest Evan Parker sat in on tenor and soprano saxophones, while composer Philip Corner and dancer Phoebe Neville dropped to play a brief introduction on gongs. The performance was in part a celebration of label’s twenty-fifth anniversary—an auspicious landmark, and a fittingly fine set to commemorate it.

The hour-long improvisation is tracked into five sections prefaced by Corner and Neville’s introduction. Each section highlights some aspect of the group’s work, usually on the basis of the many subgroupings that emerge over the course of the set. What’s remarkable is that there was no conducting or direction; the changes in dynamics and density and the frequent interludes for solos, duos, and trios were arrived at spontaneously. Each player has some time as a leading voice if not a soloist; there are beautiful soliloquies for piano and drums, and instances of impromptu polyphony breaking out among the horns. It’s exactly the kind of playing one would expect from some of Europe’s most sensitive improvisers, and a happy anniversary indeed.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agosto – Part I

By Irwin Block (
Photo credit: Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – Resistance and the drive to identify political oppression is the theme of this year’s 36th Jazz em Agosto festival. It began Aug. 1 and continues until Aug. 11.

That spirit was at the heart of the 45-minute, hard-hitting avant-rock performance by ABACAXI, the French trio led by electric guitarist Julie Desprez, which kicked off the second half of this eight-day festival Thursday night. This is a tight and well-oiled music machine with Jean François Riffaud (electric bass) and the powerful and expressive drumming of German national Max Andrzejewski. Alternating light and darkness and heavy and loud with silent pauses, Desprez punctuated the first piece, called 1984, with a variety of sounds from his guitar and special effects, grating, rattles, and sirens, ending in calming long tones. The second piece featured some dazzling drum riffs including one segment when Andrzejewski stood behind his cymbals tapping out dramatic patterns. The third piece continued in a similar vein, dark but not morbid, angry but not desperate, conflictual but not without hints of harmony, ending in a wall of sound fading to silence.

French violinist Théo Ceccaldi and his sextet called Freaks later offered a more accessible program that was bright and lively, a mix that has been described as punk jazz because it combines punk-rock energy with avant improv and wild excursions that soar above the pulse. Ceccaldi loves to play melody in rapid-fire bursts reminiscent of French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, albeit with a more adventuresome outlook. Wearing black leotards and a white print shirt, Ceccaldi is the group’s energetic mainspring. The music was fun, upbeat, and the solos by a kilt-wearing Mathieu Metzger on alto sax and Quentin Biardeau on tenor sax were electrifying, with lots of dissonant elements that fit the overall musical scheme. The audience at the outdoor amphitheater – for the most part transfixed – demanded and received a double encore.

The drum-percussion duo of Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky was the opposite of a traditional drummer’s battle. Instead, they performed a lovers’ dance. They began tapping out rhythms with their hands in call-and-response exchanges, playful conversations, and tonal games. Baron might be tapping out patterns on his snare drum, while Schulkowsky contrasted with the sounds from her set of gongs. Their playful conversation explored sonic subtleties and microtones. Baron depended mainly on brushes and his hands rather than sticks, and silences were part of the soundscape. An exception was an Afro Cuban-style exercise in counter-rhythms that was applauded vigorously. Commenting on the festival theme, Schulkowsky told the audience that “resistance is every day, personal and private, and we must,” then offered a tribute to anti-segregation activist Rosa Parks, a gentle and loving exchange featuring clicks, bells, and ending with slow, long tones, delivered tenderly.

The most thrilling concert of the first two nights was delivered by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his Triple Double formation, featuring drummer Gerald Cleaver, electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. The interplay among those with similar instruments gave this concert a special flavor and intensity. It was compelling, artful, and possibly the most memorable in my experience as a jazz writer. I was blown away. Intriguing melodies, high-energy delivery, original solos that fit well into the overall development added up to a never-ending display of joyful creativity. Seabrook was on fire, playing standing up, punctuating the music with his sculpting attack and tonal explosions. Halvorson, with her guitar over her knee, was less audible in the mix although we did hear some colorful, melodic explorations from her. Bynum too was on fire, playing a leadership role in the band and injecting exploratory bursts into the mix while Alessi was more lyrical. A lengthy drum duet that was all about harmony and complicity was among the show’s highlights. The encore featured each musician playing a few bars in series.

AMN Reviews: Carl Testa – Sway Prototypes Volume 1; Sway Prototypes Volume 2 [Self-released]

In mid-2017, New Haven, Connecticut double bassist/composer Carl Testa began to develop a SuperCollider-based music processing system he called Sway. Testa envisioned an autonomous program that could take individual musicians’ sounds as inputs, perform signal analysis on them, and on the basis of the results obtained, respond by modifying them with a given effect. A two-volume set of four Sway-enhanced performances recorded between September, 2017 and October, 2018 documents how Testa implemented the idea over several iterations of his program.

As the tracks on both volumes demonstrate, Sway has been an organically evolving program, changing and adapting as circumstances warranted or as Testa wished. Each improvised performance featured the system at a different stage of its development–although all stages, even the earliest, show a high degree of sophistication in design and execution. For the earliest piece, Three Sections, recorded with the mixed ensemble of Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino, Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibraphone, and Testa on double bass and electronics, Testa conducted the players and triggered the processing himself. On the next piece, the hour-long Quadrants for the same group with the addition of vocalist Anne Rhodes, Testa eschewed personal intervention in favor of using a pre-arranged timetable to regulate the process of effects assignments. By the time of Emergence, also for sextet, Sway had evolved to the point where, in place of a set timetable, it could control the changes in sound sculpting through a more fluid, real-time interactivity with the instruments.

What Sway does exceptionally well on the three ensemble pieces is compose with color. Whether controlled by human input, timed sequences or real-time response, Sway moves instruments in and out of the foreground and mixes their voices in varying and unpredictable combinations. The closest analogy to listening to these performances would be to watching a multicolored Calder mobile set in motion. The timbral richness of the instrumental input—high-, low- and middle-compass strings; brass; mallet percussion; and voice—and the players’ evident skill in interacting with each other and the program, are both crucial elements in these performances.

Which is why the last piece on Volume 2, Bloom, a solo improvisation for double bass recorded in Hamden, Connecticut in mid-October 2018, is so interesting for what it shows of what Sway does given the limited input of a single instrument. The sounds fed into the system are more austere and consequently serve to lay bare with a dramatic clarity the metamorphoses, distortions and enhancements Sway injects into the flow of a performance. The spare lines and episodic structure of Testa’s improvisation dovetail nicely with the pacing of the program’s shuttling between, and overlapping of, granular synthesis, pitch alteration, delay and other effects. Here one can hear quite clearly how the system works: how it creates a dialogue with itself as well as with the instrument fed into it.

AMN Reviews: Louis Karchin – Dark Mountains/Distant Lights [New Focus Records FCR225]; Stuart Saunders Smith – Palm Sunday [New World Records 80813-2]

In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.

The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.

In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin—with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.

Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.

Like the music on Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, the music on Palm Sunday, a collection of works for solo piano by composer Stuart Saunders Smith, is primarily organized in terms of pitch relationships. Smith’s background includes the formative influences of teachers and mentors such as Sal Martirano, who affirmed the value of improvisation, and Ben Johnston, who encouraged Smith’s reliance on his ear and intuition in composing. Smith’s tenure as leader of the REDS ensemble, which performed graphic and other non-traditionally notated open works, is also significant and finds resonance in most of the work on Palm Sunday.

Four of the five pieces on the album—all except for the early work Pinetop, a boogie-woogie inspired piece–are semi-open scores that notate pitch conventionally but leave the specific values for parameters such as phrasing, dynamics and articulation up to the performer to choose. Smith composes melodies that can be knotty and harmonies that are complex, and in Palm Sunday (2012) calls for the pianist to hum, sing, and recite a text along with the music. Pianist Kyle Adam Blair, who realizes the works on this recording, has a long history with Smith’s music and consequently brings a deep understanding of Smith’s methods and expressive purposes to his interpretations. That depth of understanding certainly shows in Blair’s performances, which exert confidence and a strong sense of narrative development.