AMN Reviews: 03 – Trashumancia [Sofa 561]

On this second release by the international trio O3—Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach, Italian flutist Alessandra Rombolá, and Spanish accordionist Esteban Algora—the group return to the chapel of Ermita de la Anunciada in Urueña, Spain, where their debut recording was made. This new recording opens with two resonant and widely-spaced percussive thumps, gradually followed by the clink of ceramic surfaces in collision and the whoosh and scrape of objects finding their voices. It’s an appropriate introduction to the exploration of space and timbre that follows. O3’s work is a kind of abstract painting with sound—more Miró than Pollock—with splashes of color in irregular shapes occupying discrete zones of audio space. Although the sound textures tend toward a higher density the further the playing develops, the points at which sounds join tend to be permeable; so too are the spaces between individual pieces, with the seven tracks working together as a single, non-narrative suite of timbral events.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: ECM’s Early Avant-Garde Recordings

Last week’s launching of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records back catalog on a variety of digital music streaming platforms (including Apple Music, Amazon and Spotify) has generated some well-deserved attention. “Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP,” the label declared in a press release, “the first priority is that the music should be heard.” Listing several forms of online music piracy, the label argued, “It was important to make the catalog accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.” In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them on your own terms.

In its nearly fifty years of operation, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) has managed several remarkable achievements like few if any other independent labels. First, it attained a degree of commercial success, through recordings like Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Officium, that in turn enabled risks on less accessible projects. Second, and understandable for a producer like Eicher who cut his teeth as a recording assistant for the iconic Deutsche Grammophon label, ECM engendered a crossover between the genres of broadly improvised and composed music that succeeded in ways Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” approach could have only imagined. Third, it forged its unique aesthetic and approach to artist selection and recording methods that together yielded a characteristic “ECM sound” definitional in many ways to both an historical period and an ongoing style of music.

It’s also crucially important to recall how dire the straits were for jazz in the 1970s when ECM embarked upon these achievements–jazz in general, but avant-garde jazz particularly. Blue Note made a few mid-1960s ventures into the avant garde, like Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, but otherwise hewed closely to a hard-bop tradition central to the Ken Burns view of jazz history. With the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Impulse label struggled with flagging sales and failed efforts in quadrophonic LP releases. Most of the avant garde survived either in a DIY mode of performance and recording or else took to academia.

Thus in the early 1970s, while the trademark ECM sound and graphic design style were still emerging and shaping themselves, the label served as a significant forum for some of the most important avant-garde artists of the moment and beyond. So here are my selections of seven noteworthy ECM releases from the label’s first three years (only two of which also appears in the list of “21 essential albums” put together by the New York Times), including some undisputed classics as well as some overlooked or even forgotten recordings that deserve attention.

Marion Brown, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM 1004, 1970)

Brown is arguably the most criminally neglected saxophonist of his generation. Like his predecessor Ornette Coleman, Brown’s approach to the alto sax was both firey and lyrical, with a tone and harmonic sense steeped in the southern blues. An alumnus of Coltrane’s Ascension session, Brown went on to record and release leader dates with Impulse and ESP-Disk, then emigrated to Europe like so many of his compatriots in the late 1960s, returned to the States, reentered academia and ultimately took up painting. His back catalog of over 30 recordings as a leader or co-leader remains almost entirely out-of-print, many of which never even made it to CD.

Afternoon is not only unique in Brown’s catalog but is perhaps unique among the entirety of jazz recordings. I was certainly among those somewhat disappointed upon giving it a first listen years ago, largely because the roster of all-star performers–including Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Andrew Cyrille and Jeanne Lee–never seems to rise to the occasion. Many otherwise unknown names were included among the performers as well, and this was partly the point: Brown’s approach here is to treat large ensemble, broadly-structured collective improvisation as something akin to a regional folk music.

In the album’s liner notes, Brown describes the title piece on side one as “a tone poem [that] depicts nature and the environment in Atlanta,” and thus its nod to Claude Debussy should not go unnoticed. “Djinji’s Corner” on side two, as David Grundy explains in his thoughtful commentary, “adapts a practice from Ghanaian music, in which a core of skilled musicians is supplemented by community members with lesser ability.” The overall effect is, again, quite unique in the literature of recorded “experimental jazz,” as Grundy explains:

Brown’s music is very much preoccupied with feelings, and moods–all those subjective qualities which at once account for music’s sensual and unique power, and risk reducing it to something ephemeral and purely subjective–but it is preoccupied with these in a thoughtful way, as part of a theoretical, intellectual consideration that encompasses the social and the spiritual in a fairly direct manner.

Music Improvisation Company, ST (ECM 1005, 1970)

This group remains a real watershed in the history of British experimental improvised music. In July 1969, as Ben Watson explains in his book Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey was joined by Hugh Davies, Evan Parker, and Jamie Muir for a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, under the group name “The London Instrumental and Electronic Improvising Group.” (The performance was eventually released in 1975 on Incus Records run jointly by Bailey, Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley).

A year later, after a second (June 1970) BBC 3 radio session, the four were joined by vocalist Christine Jeffery to record for ECM (late August 1970), and the results remain today as a singular entry in the ECM catalog. While Bailey and Parker had cut their teeth in London’s 1960s improvised music scene, Davies and Muir had backgrounds in the visual arts, bringing together a unique collective sensibility. Bailey’s mature instrumental style and approach, focusing on what might be thought of as a rejection of nearly all traditional or conventional means of sound production on the guitar, were already formed by this point. Meanwhile Parker took a parallel approach to saxophones, deploying an arsenal of extended techniques that, as the 1970s progressed, he would selectively hone and augment to forge his highly original and celebrated style.

One crucial technique Parker had yet to develop at this point, however, was circular breathing, which he has since attributed to his time with MIC and the need he felt to compliment the sustained sounds Davies was producing in these group sessions. An electro-acoustic instrument builder, Davies played organ on the first BBC session but abandoned it for the ECM date to focus on electronics and live sound processing. Completing the mix for this session were percussion from Jamie Muir, who went on to a brief live performing stint with King Crimson (during the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic years), and Christine Jeffery, whose incredibly expressive range of vocals blends seamlessly with the other sounds generated in the group.

Part of what’s enjoyable about this kind of music are the moments where it’s unclear who or what is making a given sound. This is especially difficult to do with vocals, and Jeffery deserves special praise in this regard. There are, to be sure, extended moments of the quiet or near-silence characteristic of the later ECM sound, but again Ben Watson aptly summarizes why this is such an engaging recording and unique in the ECM catalog: “Everything the Music Improvisation Company play refuses the ‘gorgeousness’ offered by electronics–echo, automatic harmony, constant shimmer–instead foregrounding manual intervention, human decisiveness, collective activity, repartee.”

It’s also well worth noting that while the group was short-lived, it does mark the beginning of the evolving cast of players Bailey would go on to host for live performances and subsequent Incus releases under the abbreviated moniker “Company,” yielding 18 recordings from 1977 to 2001.

Jan Garbarek Quartet, Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1007, 1970)

Before he came to typify the “icy,” “ethereal,” or even “Nordic” ECM sound, Garbarek was a firey player whose solos often went into the tonal extremes of precursors like Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri. At the age of 20, Garbarek cut Til Vigdis, his debut record for the Norwegian Jazzforbund label, which featured a side-long cover of “Mr. J. C.,” a perhaps deliberate misreading of Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P. C.” Live recordings from that time also display Garbarek’s group covering the Pharoah Sanders compositions “Upper Egypt” and “Capricorn Rising.”

Recorded a year after but appearing a year before the George Russell Presents The Esoteric Circle session was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, Afric Pepperbird is thus the quasi-official debut of the Garbarek Quartet–with Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arlid Andersen on bass and Jon Christiensen on drums. It’s certainly a lineup that would become a Scandinavian super-group in relatively short order, featuring what would also soon become permanent members of the ECM artist family.

Stylistically though, while Garbarek would exhibit some extreme playing in his early days, he couldn’t be mistaken for a card-carrying “extremist.” Pepperbird’s A-side concluding centerpiece, “Beast of Kommodo,” is a perfect example of late-1960s, modal free improvisation, with Andersen’s 9-count bass line and Rypdal’s two-chord vamping setting the harmonic palette. Garbarek enters with some gentle, long tones in the upper-middle register of the tenor; in the tune’s first three minutes he only breaks into altissimos and polyphonics briefly, and much of the rest of his soloing is reasonably with the tune’s harmonic parameters.

Pepperbird is well worth the listen, alone and in the context of his other early ECM releases under solo or joint leadership: Sart, Triptykon, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere.

Robin Kenyatta, Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008, 1970)

Early in his career, alto saxophonist and flautist Kenyatta earned some important credits in his avant-garde pedigree, including recording sessions with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Alan Silva. He then flirted, like many of his peers, with more mainstream recordings in the 1970s, including a series of leader dates for Atlantic Records.

Girl From Martinique is Kenyatta’s one and only ECM release, a quartet session that includes the little-known Fred Braceful on drums (a friend of Eicher who, according to Evan Parker, facilitated the Music Improvisation Company session discussed above), Arlid Andersen again on bass, and German fusion keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner, who contributes some extensive workouts on the clavinet. Built by the German Hohner company (also famous for harmonicas), the clavinet was an electrified clavichord that Sun Ra pioneered early on. On a medium-tempo ballad like “We’ll Be So Happy,” for example, the interplay of flute and clavinet within a traditional quartet format is delightful and, to my ears, completely unique.

Circle, Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19, 1972)

Circle was not merely an avant-garde supergroup, but it also marks the return of Anthony Braxton to the world of performing and recording, without which he might have well continued that short period, after his time in Paris and upon his return to New York in early 1970, when he had given up on music and made his living hustling games of chess in Washington Square Park.

Although Braxton was a late addition to an already existing trio–Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on percussion, documented on an ECM recording from 1971–it’s useful to consider this group in the long history of Braxton’s quartets, in which he performed and recorded some of his most important work. One would have to begin charting this history with his two recordings for BYG/Actuel, which featured Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall–and only imagine what that quartet would have achieved had it been able to continue.

Still, this was clearly a group effort, with songwriting credits distributed fairly evenly (or tipped slightly in Holland’s favor), along with the inclusion of two standards: Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and the venerable “There is No Greater Love,” which co-author Isham Jones turned over to Woody Herman in 1936 and was covered as recently as 2003 by Amy Winehouse. And while arguably more experimental Circle ventures exist on other recordings, particularly on the two double-LPs Blue Note released a few years later under Corea’s name, Paris Concert remains the group’s definitive document before artistic differences (Corea found a more conventionally expressive group in Return to Forever) contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Paul Bley, Open, To Love (ECM 1023, 1973)

Not simply one of Bley’s best recordings in an extensive catalog of over 100 recordings as a leader (and another 100 as a sideman or co-leader), Open, To Love is perhaps one of the greatest solo piano recordings in any genre. It’s also worth nothing that by this time Bley had already released several recordings featuring his work on synthesizer. Nevertheless, Bley was always unique among his avant-garde piano contemporaries. Having come through the school of hard bop, he never embraced the pyrotechnics, virtuosity or athleticism that could aptly describe pianists as different as Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Instead he worked a lot with sustain, tone and touch, allowing melodic lines and even single notes to hang in the air and overlap each other, and thus making him a quintessential ECM artist. In this regard his nearest ancestor in the jazz tradition might be Thelonious Monk, with whom he also shares an interest in dissonant intervals while otherwise having a rather different approach to melody.

In an equally characteristic approach to song selection and repertoire, Bley here includes only two of his own pieces: of the remaining five compositions, three are by his ex-wife Carla Bley, and two are by his soon-to-be ex-wife Annette Peacock. Hardly unique among his recordings in this regard, and to give just one example, he performed Carla Bley’s hauntingly beautiful “Ida Lupino” on no less than ten different recordings between 1964 and 1995. One might see this as an obsessive inability to let go of the past, but I prefer to take it as a sign of acknowledgement and generosity: these are wonderful compositions that deserve every airing they can get.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference Of The Birds (ECM 1027, 1973)

Not routinely considered an avant-gardist, Holland of course has the virtuosity to excel in any musical context. Yet his one-off quartet project can be viewed through two different lenses: as a revamped Circle, with Sam Rivers replacing Chick Corea in the original lineup; or as a Sam Rivers Trio augmented by the inclusion of Anthony Braxton.

This latter view has more staying power: at the start of the 1970s, with his Blue Note recordings and some extensive touring with Cecil Taylor behind him, Rivers began to use the trio format as one of his preferred vehicles. Rivers initially worked through a variety of rhythm sections, until this recording brought Holland and Altschul firmly into the orbit to form his regular working trio by 1974. So memorable was this trio that Pi Recordings released a live two-disc 2007 reunion concert in 2012.

The opening moments of the lead track, “Four Winds,” make it obvious why Rivers stayed with this rhythm section: Holland and Altschul swing like mad, and especially at a blistering tempo. Like Braxton’s “Composition 23B” that opens his New York, Fall 1974 album, the free-bop of “Four Winds” shows how, contrary to its reputation for being too cerebral and serious, avant-garde music can be full of exuberance, delight and just plain fun. Rock critic Robert Christgau even wrote at the time, “the title cut is so exquisite it makes my diaphragm tingle.”

Conference is also noteworthy as the only recorded collaboration between Rivers and Braxton. With ample aesthetic affinities between them despite their clear differences in tone and style, one can only wonder at what could have resulted from further collaborations. Alas, we only have this brief slab or magic, particularly on the title track where, after an opening solo from Holland, Rivers and Braxton both state the theme on flute (an axe Braxton kept in his arsenal far less frequently than Rivers), with Braxton quickly moving to soprano saxophone and Altschul finishing the track on marimba.

— Tom Orange

AMN Reviews: Colossloth – Heathen Needles (2017; Cold Spring Records)

This is the second recording from Colossloth, who is as far as I can tell, an Englishman. And I will frankly admit that it is hard to believe this variety of sounds, noises, and harsh freaked-out melodies come from a single individual. Heathen Needles, released earlier this month, covers an impressive amount of ground. From dirty synths to distorted drones, speaking and screaming voices, feedback, acoustic piano and guitar, backward masking, noise walls, and undulating rhythms. Needless to say, this is not pleasant music in the normal sense of that phrase. Instead, Colossloth generates a veritable hellscape of aggressively-manipulated sounds.

The title track, as an example, begins with a grungy synth rhythms, interspersed with video-game fallout effects that melt away into walled noise. These elements are joined by IDM-styled keyboard chording, the echoing of which survives until the end of the piece. Compare that with the next offering, Lain Inert, which features slowly rolling synths with decimated samples, power chords from an electric guitar, and guttural voices. We Had a Pact is comprised of several layers of drones, walls, and noises, growling, post-industrial rhythms, and a deceptively charming melody made from the aforementioned backward masking. There Will Be Islands begins with distorted noise walls before adding a nearly ambient synth rhythm, then indecipherable spoken word elements.

Heathen Needles is fresh and surprisingly non-repetitive. Colossloth processes a number of familiar styles and techniques in a fashion that is unusual and unconventional. The result is a thoroughly twisted and enjoyable album.

AMN Reviews: Dina Maccabee – Tethered Music (2017; Minus Zero)

Minus Zero is a new label started by Vijay Anderson, Ben Goldberg, and Dina Maccabee. All of the proceeds from album sales are donated to Planned Parenthood. This is a review in an ongoing series covering the label’s releases.

Written for choreographed dance, Tethered Music is a four-track EP featuring Dina Maccabee on violin, viola, and vocals, with Jessica Ivry on cello. The pieces fall somewhere between folk and classical, with slight avant-garde twinges. Maccabbee makes heavy use of plucking in additional to contrapuntal bowed motifs. Only one track contains vocals, overdubbed into a duet, with Maccabee’s delivery resembling that of Bent Knee vocalist Courtney Swain. Perhaps the most interesting offering is the final track and its layered string drone. But at only one-and-a-half minutes, it is gone far too soon.

AMN Reviews: Arcana – Petrichor (2017; Cyclic Law)

Neoclassical dark wave music typically features ethereal and wordless vocals, heavy keyboard and string arrangements, as well as martial drumming. While influenced by medieval music, it uses modern electronic instrumentation. Think Dead Can Dance, but with less of an emphasis on singing.

Founded by Peter Bjärgö over 20 years ago, Arcana is one of the earlier examples of this genre. Petrichor is the group’s first release since 2012. Even though it is a compilation of music from the band’s EPs and singles, the album is still a solid representation of Arcana’s overall sound and feel – it does not stray far from well-anchored roots.

As an example, Part I-II-II, the longest track at 15 minutes, begins with deep synth drones and slow, haunting chants before a tribal drumbeat joins in. Blended male and female voices accompany a slow synth melody over this rhythm. Around the six-and-a-half minute mark, the track switches from the first part to the second, the latter featuring whispered vocals and subtle Middle-Eastern themes over bell-laden percussion. The third part includes complex repetitive drumming, more drones, breathy vocals, and prominent arpeggiated guitar chording.

The music of Arcana evokes something between the high fantasy, gothic, and horror genres. Sparse landscapes, ancient structures, and medieval atmospherics reign. Even if that isn’t your thing, there is a still a lot to like here. And though there are plenty of examples of neoclassical dark wave, Petrichor is not a bad place to start or to round out your exploration of the genre.


AMN Reviews: Nicholas Deyoe – “for Duane” [populist records PR013]

Nicholas Deyoe’s “for Duane,” a collection of recent work for small ensembles, opens up areas of expression that often take advantage of the incremental dissonances of microtonal sounds and the darker shades of low-compass instruments. Deyoe, a West Coast composer who studied with Roger Reynolds, teaches composition at the California Institute of the Arts’ Herb Alpert School of Music. In addition to his compositional work, he is an experimental electric guitarist and founder of the ensemble wasteLAnd, the Los Angeles new music collective featured on most of the disc’s performances.

Voice figures prominently throughout the collection. The first piece, the seven-part Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along (2016) is a setting of texts by poet Allison Carter for flute, trombone, cello, double bass and soprano Stephanie Aston. Deyoe floats Carter’s text, which includes incongruous images and free associations arranged alphabetically, over the sharp ends of notes clustered together in a close but brittle proximity. It’s a good match of music to words, as harmonic tension complements semantic ambiguity. Lied/Lied (2013) has violinist Batya MacAdam Somer speaking and singing her own text–at times surreal, at other times a fractured reminiscence—while playing a suitably fragmentary violin part that seems capriciously to underscore, punctuate, amplify, argue with and contradict the words, just as the title’s multilingual pun implicitly calls their veracity into question.

The instrumental 1560 (2016), a three-part composition for violin and viola realized by the Aperture Duo, is a performance piece with a spatial element: each movement calls for the players to take up a specified position relative to each other. The individual parts reflect this movement by matching up in unison drones and flurries of notes, or separating into lines rising and falling against each other. The underlying constant is a tight coordination between the two. Lullaby 6, also from 2016, is a two-movement concerto for amplified cello and nine-piece chamber ensemble that both closes the album and serves as its center of gravity. Dedicated to Deyoe’s recently deceased father, the piece is a lullaby in the way that a requiem is a lullaby for the dead. The orchestration is decisive in creating a charged ambience—it’s heavily weighted with a preponderance of low brass and reeds, giving the piece the gravitas it needs. Cellist Ashley Walters’s solo lines maintain the understated emotional intensity of the piece as the ensemble raises a dark curtain of sound behind her.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Scott Wollschleger – Soft Aberration [New Focus FCR 182]

Composer Scott Wollschleger (b. 1980) seems most interested in creating musical effects through a deliberately-chosen economy of means. He writes largely for chamber ensembles or soloist performers, and in fact Soft Aberration, the first album dedicated to his work alone, contains compositions for solo, duo, trio and quartet.

A couple of the titles of these works—Soft Aberration, Brontal Symmetry—are likely to call up associations with New York School composers, especially Morton Feldman. Wollschleger has acknowledged the New York School and Feldman as influences and exemplary figures; like Feldman, Wollschleger favors constructing pieces out of repeating fragments of pitches, timbres, or rhythmic figures. His method for building a full-scale work out of these basic elements generally consists of creating chains of semi-independent events or moments defined by a relatively simple pattern of pitch, color, or rhythmic relationships. One moment doesn’t necessarily implicate the next; Wollschleger’s stated aim in making continuous works from discontinuous, repeating events is to encourage the listener to reflect on the sounds’ different facets–as if they had been presented from different angles.

The long piece that opens the album, 2015’s Brontal Symmetry, was commissioned by the unorthodox piano trio Longleash, who perform it here; the work is an astutely-chosen opener, as it epitomizes some of the key aspects of Wollschleger’s aesthetic. The piece lays out its fundamental musical material from the start, as it begins with a staccato, deliberately square-rhythmed three-note motif on the piano. The motif is picked up on the strings, which reproduce its phrase profile more than its exact melody; the playing then dissolves into a simulacrum of chaos—of acoustic white noise carried on the frenzied bowing of the strings. This contrast of moods sets a larger, symmetrical pattern in which the piece alternates passages defined by the simple motif with chaotic or quiet passages.

The white noise of the strings’ unpitched moments in Brontal Symmetry is developed further in —and alluded to in the title of–White Wall (2013) for string quartet.  Played with the requisite subtlety by the Mivos Quartet, White Wall’s softly bowed, muted strings and whistling harmonics—broken on occasion by plucked or bowed stabs–largely exist in an audio environment notable for its low dynamics and dispersed texture. White Wall is a piece of extraordinary sonic delicacy that serves as the understated focus of the album.

The album’s other compositions—the title track, for piano and viola; America, for solo cello; and Bring Something Incomprehensible into This World, for the unusual duo of soprano and trumpet—give more evidence of a composer who can extract the expressive maximum from minimal musical means.

Daniel Barbiero