AMN Reviews: Wilhelm Matthies – Curtains-Live at Jefferson Park 3-3-18 [Pan y Rosas pyr255]

Milwaukee, Wisconsin experimental musician and visual artist Wilhelm Matthies is well-known for creating graphic scores of elegant design and legibility; these often feature fine brushwork and a grisaille palette that recalls East Asian ink painting. He also is the creator of a family of string instruments he calls mosesa, which he has been developing since 2012. The mosesa resembles something along the lines of a minimalist zither with flexible planking and resonating materials of various types, originally, plastic bottles; Matthies usually plays with a violin or erhu bow but the instrument can also be played directly with the hands. The mosesa featured on Curtains is the mosesa 9-CedarPlate, an instrument that employs cedar as its resonating material and features a single bridge (earlier versions of the mosesa had two bridges); in addition, Matthies augmented the basic sound of the mosesa with a chain of guitar pedals.

For the Jefferson Park set, Matthies interpreted his graphic score GC 1-19-18 (3). The most striking thing about the performance is the range of voices Matthies is able to elicit. Timbre predominates over pitch—the latter is rarely fixed and generally appears as a continuous gamut of microtonal shades, which Matthies produces through string-bending and bow articulation. At times this gives the mosesa a vina-like sound (the compass is reminiscent of the vina as well); at other times, it recalls the scratch and whine of the erhu. There is a vocal quality to much of the sound, a waxing and waning of range and intensity that mimics the dynamic cycle of an emotion; the electronic pedals serve to alter the textures and enhance the already considerable color variety inherent in the instrument alone.

Daniel Barbiero



AMN Reviews: John Zorn and Simulacrum at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago

John Zorn does not visit Chicago all that often, but last night was his first of two appearances within a month. Zorn was joined by his organ-driven technical metal band Simulacrum for 90 minutes of intensity at Reggie’s Rock Club in the South Loop. Prior to the show, there was some uncertainty as to whether Zorn would actually perform, and if so for how long. In the past, he has relegated himself to the role of composer and watched from backstage as others perform his works, maybe joining in for a few minutes of improvisation at most.

But at 9pm sharp, Zorn walked onto the stage alone, dressed in his usual camo pants with beat-up sax in hand, and broke into a rapid-fire wailing. After some banter with the crowd and the people running the venue’s sound about buzzing from the monitors, he continued through a solo set full of angularities and extended techniques. Then, calling Simulacrum drummer Kenny Grohowski out, the two performed a joint improvisation in the same style for several minutes. The band’s organist, John Medeski, then joined in. This seemed to trigger Zorn to switch to a more melodic and plaintive approach. After about 25 minutes from the start of the show, Simulacrum’s final member, guitarist Matt Hollenberg hit the stage. This was Zorn’s cue to leave, and the trio took over for the remaining 70 minutes.

Simulacrum plays Zorn’s compositions and arrangements, though this might not be apparent at first. The group certainly hit all the high points that a progressive metal or math rock outfit might focus on – heavy riffing, pounding rhythms, and rapid-fire leads. But as you peel the Simulacrum onion, differences emerge. The most apparent is the non-traditional use of organ instead of bass guitar. Medeski covered both basslines and swirling leads, not to mention sweeping chords. Placed higher in the mix live than on recordings, his contributions were more apparent. He and Hollenberg often doubled up on melodies but complemented each other as well. Grohowski was an octopus behind the drum kit, his casual bearing belying a near-overwhelming intensity. His non-stop action encompassed virtually every spare second with a break, fill, or muscular double-bass work.

But hidden within Simulacrum’s overpowering presence is Zorn’s distinctive writing. After the audience was flattened by a Medeski / Grohowski rhythm, Hollenberg would peel off a Middle-Eastern tinged melody that would fit into Zorn’s Masada or Book of Angels oeuvre. The group stuck mostly to the material on their self-titled first release from 2015, but included two or three tracks from their latter five albums.

After a brief encore, Zorn joined the trio for a bow to solid appreciation from the crown of about 120. As alluded to above, Zorn announced that he will be returning to Chicago for six hours of performances at the MCA on September 9, featuring 12 different ensembles that pair his varied compositions with paintings.

AMN Reviews: Future Usses – The Existential Haunting (2018; Pelagic Records)

Future Usses is an unconventional take on the traditional power trio that lands between post-rock and doom metal. The group consists of Sacha Dunable on guitar and loops, Derek Donley on drums, and Dan Wilburn on bass. The Existential Haunting is their debut. In addition to power chords and echoing picked motifs, Dunable uses various forms of processing and overdubbing to produce synth-like sounds from his guitar. As a consequence, the overall sound is thicker and richer than one would expect from a three-piece, often verging on the orchestral or cinematic.

While Dunable’s lead instrument is attention-getting, with its distortion turned up almost to the overdrive level, Donley and Wilburn are a more than competent rhythm section. Wilburn makes his bass growl, bounce, and pound through heavy patterns and subtle foreground efforts. Donley adds a generous dose of fills to his metal-styled drumming. This varied approach results in each track having its own distinct character. And especially toward the second half of the album, Future Usses explores atmospherics with sequenced interludes and the aforementioned synth elements.

As an example, Absolute Zero begins with heavily distorted and processed overdubbed guitar, then breaks into a slow-moving – yet soaring – melody accompanied by a rubbery bass line.  At about the halfway mark, the guitar is replaced in part by a choral patch. This prevails over a driving rhythm until it is ultimately rejoined by the guitar picking out, and then riffing out, a repetitive strain for the remainder of the piece.

The Existential Haunting is an exploration of timbre and texture as much as more customary rock stylings. While I would not call this album strictly avant-garde, it strays far enough from the beaten path to warrant a strong nod. Check it out on its release date of September 14.

AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agusto Festival Part 3

Zorn-dedicated festival ends in a shower of joy


Photo credit: Gulbenkian Musica_Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – With a mix of the new and the older, the ten-day Jazz em Agusto festival of avant and improvised music came to a close Sunday night.

It was a well-crafted celebration of the impact and continuing influence of the New-York based composer and multi-instrumentalist, with performances that included Zorn in three of the concerts, the others played by musicians who are part of his growing musical family, who appreciate his music invites improvisational development.

The early show Sunday night featured the pristine music of the Julian Lage and Gyan Riley guitar duo who played pieces they recorded in Midsummer Moons (Tzadik), the beautiful guitar music inspired by Shakespearean lunar imagery. Who would think that Zorn, with his image as an enfant terrible of convention-defying music, would come up with such idyllic music that reflects the order and symmetry of the European Medieval period? But there it was, with the two accomplished and highly motivated players playing in such well-managed tandem, in conversation, and in support of each other’s explorations. The standing-room crowd was enthralled, and apart from one baby’s initial cries, there was a magical quality to the way the music was played, and received. After half a dozen pieces, they switched the more complex harmonies, rhythms, and dynamics of Zorn’s Bagatelles series of 300 short pieces, and their pathways to spontaneous improvisation. In one of them, Lage seemed to impart an almost human quality to his guitar. At times it seemed to be talking to its audience. Having seen this duo playing Bagatelles in Victoriaville, QC. in 2016, I can say they’ve developed a remarkable synergy that makes them sound bigger and broader, with incredibly tight communication.

The icing on this musical cake was the late-night performance from the Masada songbook by the seven-member Secret Chiefs 3. They closed the festival with music from the same iconic series that Zorn on alto sax performed on July 28 with Dave Douglas (trumpet), Joey Baron (drums), and Greg Cohen (bass). This Masada, led by guitarist Trey Spruance, was an ear-opener with its fresh and sometimes explosive approach propelled by its two superb drummers, Kenny Grohowski and the energetic Ches Smith, who added percussive variety on vibraphone and by hand drumming. With Shanir Blumenkrantz on electric bass, the rhythm section provided a powerful dynamic framework to the Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and Klezmer melodies that are inherent to this music. It is a testimony to Zorn’s successful role in giving new life to these traditions. Along with keyboardist Matt Lebofsky, the lead melodist in laying out these lines was Eyvind Kang, playing soulfully on an amplified acoustic violin. It was a joyous and swinging ride, and in a country where the Inquisition took a fearful toll, a historic occasion to witness a capacity crowd wildly cheering Zorn’s creativity.

AMN Reviews: Douglas Boyce – Some Consequences of Four Incapacities [New Focus FCR205]

The music of composer Douglas Boyce reflects an eclectic set of influences and interests. He has turned pre-Baroque music for inspiration as well as raw material; at the same time, he is conversant with contemporary compositional language rooted in Modernism. On Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, Boyce presents recent work in a contemporary vein. The string trio 102nd and Amsterdam is a sonic portrait of an intersection in upper Manhattan: the energy of an urban crossroad translated into vertiginous glissandi, frantically pulsating rhythms and the often dissonant coincidence of independently moving voices. The rhythmic cohesion and propulsion of the string trio find a counterpart in Piano Quartet No. 1 for violin, viola, cello, and piano. The piece’s asymmetrical but regular rhythms and heavy chords wittily acknowledge—and reveal the congruence between—two of Boyce’s early influences: Bartok and King Crimson. The CD closes with the well-crafted, thirty-five minute-long Fortuitous Variations, a four-part composition for piano, violin, and cello.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agusto Festival Part 2

Amid the heat wave, Zorn’s music soars


Photo credit: Gulbenkian Musica_Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – The thermometer passed the 110-Fahrenheit mark in the last two days, but the heat only seemed to energize the musicians who tackled John Zorn’s compositions with energy and artistry in this Special Edition of the Jazz em Agusto festival, dedicated to the maestro.

The early concert Thursday featured the electric guitar quartet, Dither, the New York based ensemble who played some of Zorn’s improvisational game pieces, in which members signal changes in tone, tempo, or attack with hand motions. The group has been together for 11 years and these pieces are featured in their 2015 CD Dither plays Zorn, on his Tzadik label.

James Moore, Josh Lopes, and Gyan Riley alternated while Taylor Levine, who also uses effects pedal, remained on stage in groups of three as they played pieces inspired by the cut and thrust of hockey. They played an impressionistic “dry” version, and a grittier and more explosive “wet” version. The latter had a distinct cinematic quality, a loud soundscape that mimicked sirens drilling, and thunder, ending in a fadeout. The piece called Fencing opened cacophonic, devolved into silence, then picked up with snippets of sound, scratching, fragments and clusters, riffs and chords – a construct inspired by the cut and thrust of a fencing joust. The quartet played a piece Zorn calls Curling – “everyone’s favorite Olympic sport,” Moore joked – which began with moody long tones that established a spacey, otherworldly mood.

Insurrection, a new Zorn-inspired project, featured the electric-guitar explorations of Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg, with the versatile Trevor Dunn on electric bass and power drumming of Kenny Grohowski. They came out in full throttle, highlighted by the guitarists trading phrases, before shifting into ballad mode with Lage’s artful development. The band then moved into funky mode. Lage was the dominant figure with his shifting textures and melodic invention. At one point bassist Dunn had to carry the band because Hollenberg broke a string and Lage helped him replace it while Grohowski dropped a stick and carried on with only one. The concert continued with alternating ballads and avant rock-oriented pieces – a varied and energized 65-minute show where art and power happily co-exist.

Trigger, the early show Saturday, featured Will Greene (electric guitar), Simon Hanes (electric bass), and drummer Aaron Edgcomb. The group has been playing music from Zorn’s Bagatelles and Apparitions series for the past four years. They came on strong and powerful with a hard- rock edginess, playing ten Zorn melodies. The group is a sign that Zorn’s charts appeal to younger players and fans from the rock side of life, even as some in the audience walked out. These early concerts cost 5 euro and are designed to appeal to the broad public, some of whom walk out early perhaps expecting an easier ride.

The most enriching and rewarding experience for this reviewer came late Saturday in the double bill featuring pianist Craig Taborn solo, followed by pianist Brian Marsella, with upright bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer extraordinaire Kenny Wollesen. Taborn, 48, paid tribute to Zorn as “a hero of mine since I was 13 when I first heard his music” and proceeded to play five pieces in which you could hear his joy and revel in his artistry as he extended the themes like a skillful sculptor carves a shape out of stone. With a variety of techniques, including rapid keyboard runs, and a remarkable ability to plays chords and extended melody with either hand, or both simultaneously, Taborn’s artistry and warmth are a winning combination.

Marsella played his set from the Bagatelles songbook, up-tempo and beautifully sustained by the tuned in and turned on rhythm section. Dunn and Wollesen had some nice solos, but Marsalla’s engaged and inspired pianism was the outstanding element in the gig, his lyricism and ferocious action on the keyboard a thrill to behold.

The last two concerts will be reviewed early next week.

AMN Reviews: Jazz em Agusto Festival Part 1

Zornites celebrate the master’s music in Lisbon


Photo credit: Gulbenkian Musica_Petra Cvelbar

LISBON – The second half of this festival, a John Zorn Special Edition, began Wednesday with an incandescent performance by American Robert Dick, improvising with the contrabass flute, an instrument rarely heard in a solo format. The flute is equipped with what Dick calls the glissando headjoint, which he invented. It enables him to create what resembles oscillating sound waves, double tracking with the notes he taps out on the keys, injecting a simultaneous percussive effect.

It was a fascinating and engaging exploration for player and listener alike, a kinetic and all acoustic soundscape that reflects the spirit of the creative adventure at the heart of John Zorn’s work as a musician, composer, leader, and cultural entrepreneur. He is being celebrated at the 18 concerts of the annual Jazz em Agusto Festival here, sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Displaying his quirky humor, Dick remarked, “You never feel alone on stage with a contrabass flute,” his right arm wrapped around the instrument. It stands upright and towers about his head. He compared his improvisations to “a diary of the id and the unconscious.” The most minute sounds are picked up with six mikes extending top to bottom in front of his flute. The indoor hall was packed, part of the popular early evening series that attracts big crowds. Tickets are only five Euro.

The 18 concerts are dedicated to Zorn and he performed in three of them when the festival opened last weekend. Compositions from Zorn’s 300 Bagatelles were on the menu for Wednesday evening’s double bill, performed in the 950-seat amphitheater where the musicians emerge from an underground green room, with trees and shrubs a backdrop.

First, Kris Davis, the Canadian-born rising star of improvised piano, brought her quartet on stage – guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Playing from Zorn’s charts, this well-oiled chamber ensemble developed atonal and melodic pieces with panache. Davis laid out a bright and colorful palette, which Halvorson enhanced and the rhythm sections sustained. At other times Davis roamed over the keyboard with Cecil Tayloresque intensity – a true delight.

Next, John Medeski’s organ trio sounded almost apocalyptic with an immediate and furious attack as they interpreted and developed Zorn’s Bagatelle compositions in an avant rock format. The music was propelled with high-energy by the propulsive and hard-hitting drumming of Calvin Weston and the fluid and inventive electric guitar of Dave Fiuczynski. As he extends the melody and adds depth and contours to it, Fiuczynski is so agile and fluid, the music seems to emerge from his body. Sizzling!

Slow is Possible is the evocative title of the Portuguese sextet featured in the early set Thursday. Influenced by Zorn’s 1990 Naked City album, they began with long tones and minor chords. It was a foretaste of the hour-long hybrid of melodic and atonal pieces, with lovely folk-sounding tunes, blues, lots of pauses, a sludge rock and noise segment, then a slower pace, and the sounds of silences slowing it down.

Introducing the late-night show, Highsmith Trio drummer Jim Black said he, pianist Craig Taborn and laptop innovator Ikue Mori would spontaneously improvise an hour of music in the John Zorn tradition: “He’s all about intimacy and immediacy.” The set began light and airy as the musicians developed ideas and either enhanced what a colleague played or moved in a new direction. Taborn provided much of the color with his roaming keyboard, sometimes plucking the strings inside the piano. His playing was both inventive and enchanting. Mori enhanced with tone and texture and added percussive elements and bird-like chipping from her laptop, while Black made every effort to invent — rubbing the cymbals, using his hands rather than sticks, hitting drums with rags, and power drumming only rarely. It was a genuine collaboration and a unique listening experience.

Six remaining concerts will be reviewed next week.