AMN Reviews: Shatner’s Bassoon – Disco Erosion (2018; Wasp Millionaire Records)

In pop culture, Shatner’s Bassoon refers to a fictional part of the brain that influences one’s perception of time. Alternatively, and perhaps more interestingly, Shatner’s Basson is also a five-piece art rock / creative jazz / Zappaesque group from the U.K. consisting of Oliver Dover on sax and clarinet, Craig Scott on guitar, Johnny Richards on keyboards, Michael Bardon on bass, and Joost Hendrickx on drums. This outfit romps through four idiosyncratic and playful tracks on Disco Erosion, an album scheduled for release on April 27.

The first piece, Derpa Days, begins with a bang. It features fractured rhythms from funky keyboards and bass overlaid with angular guitar and sax leads. The latter two instruments form roughly interlocking melodic structures, as well as split off for short solos. Darts begins slowly with quiet, atmospheric improv, but evolves into a sax-driven stop-start melody. On the other hand, Zuppa focuses on a deranged main rhythm that lends itself to frenetic sax soloing. The finale, You’ve Got to Play the Game, alternates between complex uptempo themes that approach free jazz, with an emphasis on keyboards. But the preceding descriptions just begin to scratch the surface – there are so many ideas in each track that it can be challenging to follow all of them.

Disco Erosion is a singular release that would have fit in with the avant-jazz that has been put out on the Cuneiform Records label. Perhaps lines can be drawn to other adventurous U.K. groups, such as Guapo and Led Bib, but Shatner’s Bassoon forges their own path and genre. Highly recommended.


AMN Reviews: David Grubbs – Now that the audience is assembled [Duke U Press: 2018]

An improvised music performance is a celebration of the contingent. It is a unique and telling way of being in a particular environment with all that that means in terms of the accidental qualities that come together to make it what it is, at this given moment: its physical makeup; the possibilities it offers and hindrances it threatens; the stimulation or indifference it inspires in us; and above all the presence of others within it. David Grubbs’ new book, the long poem “Now that the audience is assembled,” is an imaginative way of showing what it is like to confront these accidental facts and somehow make them into a work.

Now that the audience is assembled tells the story of a particular performance of experimental music. The musician, who plays an invented instrument she first must put together, is to work from a verbal score that begins “Compose a gesture that can be repeated.” While the music isn’t entirely improvised it virtually is so; there is a composer here, but one whose presence and role is, as Grubbs describes it in the poem’s Afterword, “vestigial.” Grubbs seems not primarily concerned about such theoretical matters as the relationship between composition and improvisation in largely indeterminate scores, or the relative contributions of composer and performer. He seems instead more interested in describing a performance from the inside—as something that a given person experiences in a concrete way. In fact the music itself plays a relatively minor role in the poem’s narrative; what comes to the forefront are the inner and outer experiences of performance and the way that they interpenetrate each other in the sensibilities of the people involved. Grubbs’ narrative voice moves between first- and third-person perspectives, but even when he writes from an external point of view, he shows what it’s like to be in the midst of the cluster of events and factors that, taken together, are the full experience of performing an improvised set: the set up and preparation of instruments and space; the ebb and flow of audience attentiveness; the interactions of the musician, the composer, an assistant, and the audience members who themselves temporarily become performers; and most engagingly, the musician’s emotional responses to the situation around her and the drift of her thoughts as the evening progresses.

Grubbs presents all this with a narrative immediacy that itself seems to coexist with the moment it describes. In truth, though, the book was carefully crafted over a long period of time—it’s a multi-year reflection on the kind of experience that takes place in real time and that can’t be gone back over and edited in the interest of finding the most felicitous way of meeting a momentary demand. Fortunately, Grubbs worked under no such time-bound constraints, and the result is a work that combines the directness of an actual improvisation with the well-chosen language afforded by after-the-fact reflection.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Philipp Gropper’s Philm – Live at Bimhuis (2018; WhyPlayJazz)

Do you like your free jazz loosely structured yet overflowing with ideas and changing at breakneck speed? Good. Because Philipp Gropper has your number.

As stated by the title, this effort was recorded live at the Bimhaus in the Netherlands. The group consisted of Philipp Gropper on sax, Elias Stemeseder on piano and synth, Robert Landfermann on bass, and Oliver Steidle on drums. Together, they lead the listener through seven adventurous tracks.

While the lineup (and at times their improvisational approach) is reminiscent of the classical quartets of the 1960’s, Gropper maintains a modern feel. Critical to this is Stemeseder – he mostly eschews standard chording and leads for percussive piano hammering and subtle synth lines. This provides a jagged and arhythmic foundation from which the rest of the group conduct explorations. But Gropper and company stop short of an extreme or totally outside modus operandi. Instead, they attack from the flank, providing enough melody to attract interest but not too much. Case in point, Gropper’s sax lurches from theme to theme and between styles with understated ease. The result is a near-perfect amalgam of the familiar and strange – the closer you listen, the more there is to hear.

The jazz quartet format has been done so many times over the years that it takes something special in that vein for us to raise our heads and pay attention. Here, we have mostly-conventional instrumentation blending in numerous unconventional ways to produce a gem of a recording. Bravo.

AMN Reviews: Eric Wubbels – being-time [Carrier037]

Composer Eric Wubbels’ being-time (2013-2017), a work for string quartet and quadrophonic electronic sound, is an essay in the effects of tuning on the experience of sound and through it, time. The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music of America for the Mivos Quartet, who premiered it in November 2015 at the Roulette in Brooklyn and who perform it on this recording.

Wubbels, who is a pianist and co-director of the new music ensemble Wet Ink as well as a composer, conceived the piece as a kind of investigation into how the resonances of detuned string instruments interact with the environment and the listener’s perceptions of pitch and rhythm and ultimately, time. Although Wubbels’ preparation for writing the piece included research into the physics and psychology of sound, being-time seems intended to be more the product of imaginative speculation rather than a proper scientific experiment.

The piece calls for a scordatura in which the instruments are tuned down to low pitches whose microtonal relationships create dissonances of varying degrees as well as consonances. The fluid movement back and forth between and within dissonances and consonances gives the piece its distinctive sound.

Although music like this probably has to be heard live to get the full effect, the recording does give a sense of its sound and structure. Overall, being-time creates the impression of an archipelago of microtonal chords separated by silences and electronic events. Most of the movement is carried by the incremental drift of the chords’ inner voices, which subtly changes their color. Although the piece features a range of dynamics, this seems a secondary factor relative to the ongoing recalibration of the harmonies. As with many long-duration works that use silence as a structural element, being-time delays and expands the listener’s sense of anticipation to reveal time for one of the things it is—an unmarked ground for music, a figuratively blank canvas on which sounds are arranged in dynamic relationships.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Hezaliel – Paradise Lost (2018; Eighth Tower Records)

Hezaliel is Belgian Steve Fabry, who offers a new album based on the epic poem by John Milton about the fall of Satan and the banishment of Adam and Eve. Musically, Paradise Lost is a 50-minute hellscape, with layered, grinding drones, incidental alien noises, and long-held keyboard chords. Between and around these artifacts are oppressive, dark walls. Brooding and ominous, lost voices cry out of the darkness within catacombs. While there are a few relatively bright moments, Hezaliel’s focus is on the bleaker side of Milton’s fallen angels and humans. To that point, the album ends with rolling synth waves accompanied by ethereal female vocals forming a plaintive and fatalistic call into eternity.

AMN Reviews: Scott Worthington – Orbit [IIKKI 005]

These three pieces by Los Angeles-based double bassist/composer Scott Worthington represent one half of a collaboration with Italian photographer Renato D’Agustin. The other half is D’Agustin’s book of photographs. While each half complements the other, each also provides a gratifying experience by itself and on its own terms, as Worthington’s contribution ably demonstrates.

Worthington’s three compositions can be listened to separately, but together they create a consistency of mood and dynamic that makes them best heard as an interlocking triptych. The first of the three pieces, A Time That Is also a Place (2015) for flute and electronics, was commissioned by flutist Rachel Beetz, who performs it here. Structured as a series of long tones on flute alternating with silences, the piece is a meditation on breath as a marker of time. Both the tones and silences are given the duration of a breath—a necessarily inexact but very human metronome. The tonal richness of Beetz’s interpretation is supplemented by an electronic playback system, which gives unintrusive support to the flute by supplying ghostly echoes and a quite surf of static. There follows a brief electronic interlude that builds and thickens some of the timbres set out in the first piece, and serves as a hinge joining it to the concluding piece. This latter is the dreamily paced A Flame that Could Go Out (2016) for two five-string electric basses, a sequence of slow and seemingly randomly-ordered chord tones that imply a hesitant movement between tonic and dominant. As with Worthington’s other two pieces, it weaves minimal raw material into something hauntingly beautiful.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mauro Sambo & Matilde Sambo – …sibilava tra i denti… [Plus Timbre PT066]

…sibilava tra i denti…–“hissed between the teeth”—is the work of two generations of Venetian experimentalists. Multi-instrumentalist Mauro Sambo, here on electronics, double bass, kalimba, gong and other percussion, is joined by his daughter Matilde, who provides field recordings and plays electric guitar and electronics. Both bring sensibilities formed at the crossings of sound and various other media—videography for Matilde, and the plastic arts for Mauro. As might be expected, their collaboration shows a sensitivity to the ways sound can imply and simulate action projected into a three-dimensional space—implication being the soul of their musical wit.

The single, nearly twenty-nine minute track is permeated by an atmosphere of acousmatic mysteriousness, as the sources of Sambos’ sounds seem reluctant to reveal themselves. Until they do, in the form of clearly-shaped guitar arpeggios, a struck gong reverberating in a void, or the skittering of a hyperactive kalimba. Throughout its changes of texture and timbre, the track gives rise to an almost cinematic sense of obscure but purposeful actions performed with the help of unknown means, and all of it taking place just at the threshold of comprehension.

Daniel Barbiero