Incredible Risks: Improvised and New Music
[August 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:1.]
Two of my favorite just-starting-to-be-heralded musicians came to New York to perform at Tonic on April 16. Satoko Fujii is a pianist with her own sound. Although she often plays lots of notes, she varies texture and style within her own pieces, so you never, when hearing a snippet of her playing, would say, “Oh, that’s Crispell, or Cecil, or Irène Schweizer playing.” If you need a correlation, perhaps Don Pullen without the gospel underpinning. She and her partner, husband, and brilliant trumpeter Natsuki Tamura have excellent discs on Leo. Joining her for the first half of her set was New York drummer John Hollenbeck, whom I’d never heard before, nor had Fujii. Along with New York-Boston-based bassist Stomu Takeishi, the trio sounded as if they had been together a decade, each playing off each other or doubling a note seconds after it sounded. Fujii began the first piece with slow chords, Hollenbeck playing his cymbals with that “goy-ng” sound that reminded you of the Peking Opera, and Takeishi setting a path with his electric bass. Fujii sped up, Hollenbeck crashed sticks upon sticks on the rim of his dreamiest, Takeishi thickened the texture and it was a loud, exciting music.
The second piece had a Monk-like quality to it, with a piano vamp that was beautiful but not pretty, and many changes of rhythm, Hollenbeck added a melodica to the texture, and the piece was very moving. Fujii followed with a brief solo, but the next piece really intrigued me. Tamura joined the group, and started with low mouthpiece squeals, drum rims joining in, and primeval low bass rumbles. It was haunting and brilliant and, for me, nearly spoiled by a quasi-funk rhythm that came in the middle. It was saved by exciting piano runs and Tamura’s unique trumpet, even when played very loud, a sound that is guttural and spitty. The piece returned to the earlier sound. Tamura again summoned sounds from the mouthpiece seconded by Hollenbeck on a mouthed plastic toy, the piece ending with Takeishi’s low, plinked bottom. Beautiful.
Fujii sent me a batch of her discs to review in La Folia. Past Life [Libra (Japan) 206-004, 56:33, 1998] is by her sextet, with Japanese-only notes. The title cut exemplifies the strength of this group. It starts with the piano exploring the space, Tamura’s trumpet comes in, and suddenly the piano, in the low registers, plays a bass line usually taken by an electric guitar or bass. The group come in, builds, and then: silence for a trumpet solo, plaintive then playful. The others join in slowly, and the piece builds. This is all cleverly and carefully orchestrated, yet the playing is very free. Tamura has lots of fun, even more so when he has his mute and plays a snake dance on the second piece, “Yami,” which got me up from my listening chair to wiggle around, even when the sextet went free.
Something about Water [Libra 202-002, 53:11, 1996] could be called “Reflêts dans l’eau Revisited.” Inside is a poem by Fujii which talks about the thawing of winter, and eight of these watercolors are duets with pianist Paul Bley are a sequence of tone-poems whose titles follow the poem, concluding with three solo pieces, “Waiting” more individual than the duets or solos. Meanwhile, Fujii’s Orchestra of fifteen winds, electric bass, piano and percussion, set Tonic spinning on July 2. More on that gig and her new Tzadik release next issue. Look for my interview with her in the November issue of Signal To Noise.
The set before Fujii’s, in Tonic’s April double-feature, was by French (now New York) pianist Sylvie Courvoisier in duet with master violinist Mark Feldman, known from many groupings, as well as pieces composed for him, and his work in the much-loved Arcado String Trio. The first piece began with dark piano chords echoed by a Semitic-Slavic violin cry, followed by impressionistic piano runs covered by Bartókian violin slashes; a wonderful combination of sounds. The piano then did a repetitive chord which had a Bernstein sonority, ending with a duo chase. Courvoisier then did a rhapsodic solo, with little Bachian figures.
The third piece, “Valse Noir,” did a charming stop-and-start that had an Weillish allure. It was busy and exciting and, as many of the pieces did that night, just seemed to stop rather than end. The best piece of the night was a free improv, with Feldman grinding, and Courvoisier playing inside the piano and from below, sometimes making firecracker sounds. The suite of “One Too” / ” Too Romantisch Too”/ ” Too Speedy” sounded like the titles and was charming. The excellent encore, “La Goulante de l’idiot,” seemed to begin as an improv, with Courvoisier playing inside the piano again, getting a beautiful harpsichord sound, to which Feldman added an ominous melody, then a banjo-like sound, and it ended with plinks.
This duo has a new release, Music for Violin and Piano [Avant AVAN 065, 61:44, 1998], with many of the pieces played in the concert. The designing of the package is strikingly, subtly beautiful, as is the playing. Subtle when called for, and wild, passionate, romantic without any cloy. The opening track, “Smoke,” has Feldman playing part Derek Bailey, part slurred koto, and part virtuoso soaring and sawing on his violin. The “Too” trilogy is gorgeous and exciting, a kind of sonata for violin and piano in the Fauré-Chausson-Roussel mode, which ends up in a wild chase between the two. “Dog Town Road” has the feel of an Appalachian ballad, with a folky violin melody and fascinating plucking, popping and pumping. Courvoisier plays inside the piano and pumps those pedals. “Valse Noire” appears here too, more like chamber music, but just as strong as live. Excellent work.
The Museum of Modern Art has a long-standing Friday afternoon jazz series that I only recently discovered. Roy Campbell, trumpeter-about-town, played there with his Tazz Band, one of a million bands he seems to have. Tazz is a strong mainstream-to-out band. The audience, comprised of museum-goers rather than regular jazz-sceners, responded wonderfully to the four extended pieces in each set. This fine band appeals to all kinds of jazz lovers. At this concert, dozens of audience members came up to greet Campbell and he sold dozens of discs out of the box.
The Knitting Factory’s JAM (Jewish Alternative Movement) Festival was a mixed bag. The first set of the three sets was best. Roy Nathanson and Anthony Coleman are a long-time duo, as well as partners in the larger ensemble the Jazz Passengers, with excellent CDs in both groupings. The duo has an easy rapport, and every single piece they played was inventive, clever, and enjoyable. They are fun and intelligent; the pride of every Jewish mother. The band of Matt Darriau, sax, and Brad Shepik, guitar, had excellent playing by these two, as usual, but the set never jelled, and had no apparent yiddischkeit. Darriau’s Paradox Trio’s new disc, Source [Knitting Factory KFR-237, 60:37, 1999] is far too respectful of the Balkan and Klezmer traditions it wants to explore, and doesn’t take off. I know too many of the original pieces and recordings to believe it should be this dreary. Lorin Sklamberg’s singing doesn’t help, being strictly earthbound but not earthy. Darriau’s earlier Flying at a Slant [Knitting Factory KFW-206, 65:03, 1997] embodies that tradition, but sings its own song. The cover photo of a ring of eighty people in a circle sitting on each other’s laps is a bonus.
Pianist Uri Caine (buy his Winter + Winter Mahler and Wagner jazz discs; they’re brilliant) was joined by cantor Aaron Bensoussan in a semi-jazz, semi-worldbeat ensemble that had your foot tapping often, and although too often the beat took over the substance, the Jewish Moroccan song Bensoussan sang was moving, and in the same style of song as the Muslim Moroccan extended songs so well documented on disc. This group, Zohar, just released its first CD, Keter [Knitting Factory KFR 236, 67:11, 1999]. DJ Olive provides a sound texture for these mostly-traditional songs, rich and natural sounding, but with a exciting resonance. Olive’s samples are taken from Caine’s prepared piano and Bensoussan’s voice, possibly from the concert above, but the notes are unclear if these recording “sessions” at the Knit were live. The performances on Keter are exciting, feeling like the best Algerian rai. Caine’s piano is sort of electric-Miles and fits right in. (He also plays acoustic piano here.) These three, plus Emmanuel Mann on bass, Adam Rogers on guitar, and Gilad on percussion, are an excellent combination, and much stronger on this disc than at the JAM concert. The bass covers all modes and Bensoussan’s voice soars. This record exceeds all expectations and I cherish it. I interviewed Caine about Zohar and his Mahler and Wagner experiences, and that will appear in the September issue of Signal To Noise.
Bensoussan has three CDs available. Each contains interesting material, and musical accompaniment that is not my taste, but might be yours if you like klezmer, worldbeat or schmaltz. Sepharad ’92 [Bensoussan Productions, 46:26] starts with a drum machine, but soon an Arab-Andalousian worldbeat band takes over. Some of the arrangements are clever, within the fixed style. The texts are credited to the singer, with arrangements by Eitan Kantor, and the CD is dedicated to the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain, 500 years before the date of this recordings. ¡Ole! is his third disc of Sabbath songs done in what the liner notes call a “samba/Moroccan” style. The arrangements by Yossi Pepo Levy are ethnic pop/generic. [Milk and Honey 7454-2, 30:25, 1994]. Joyous Chants [Milk and Honey 13953, 48:22, 1995] is the best disc of all. It’s more cantoral or operatic, accompanied by members of the Israel Philharmonic, arranged by conductor Shimon Cohen. The Moroccan ethnic sound is gone from his voice here, and at times his voice soars in a bath of strings; at other times the music sounds like the English pastoral school.
Bensoussan’s strengths are in the ethnic range and might do well to focus in this area, rather than romantic ballads and worldbeat. He also works well with improvisers, but again, would be stronger if he let himself go deeply into the spirit of the Moroccan tradition rather than adapting it to our synth-ballad times. His voice is remarkably adaptable and could do a capella chazan-ing as well as free improv; his range is broad, with strong melismatic skill, and his falsetto is moving.
Dance of a Thousand Heads, a new disc by Jose Halac’s Scream [Tellus TE-C004, 43:26, 1998], combines worldbeat and jazz, from an artist whose previous work has mostly been in the avant-garde category. Masahiko Kono’s trombone as well as Halac’s vocals add strongly to a disc which wouldn’t have initially disappointed me had I not expected the style and strength of Illegal Edge [Centaur CRC 2189, 52:20, 1994], his previous disc. Scream played at Roulette a year ago and, though Halac is a charming man to talk with, the music failed to move me. The disc, however, has been growing on me. The sound is pinned by Latin American percussion, and the texts, fortunately, come off better in Spanish than had they been in English. The two exceptions are the track “Deadline,” whose bilingual texts are just plain embarrassing, musically too, and the final, title track, which has a gratuitous rap. All the lyrics speak of love, sin, dance and the land. The previous disc and this one are dedicated to a nature reserve, Los Cordones, in Salta, Argentina, Halac’s homeland. Save the last two tracks at twelve minutes, this disc is not pseudo-ethnic world-ambient nonsense, and so is worth a gamble or audition.
Todd Capp has released his Improvising Orchestra’s Volume I: Quintessence [Lucky Tiger Discovery Series LT 10013, 58:24, 1999] twenty years after the fact, and in a time where every scrap of anything good or bad is issued, we have Capp to thank for this exciting 1978 performance, dated sound be damned. We get to hear an early William Parker, his bass a fulcrum (Capp’s word, by phone) for the piece, as strong as presence as he is now, with the exceptional ability to simultananeouly support command yet not dominate. Kim Starner’s guitar surprising calling to mind a cross between Derek Bailey and Bill Frisell; an amazing sound with electronic distortion. We also hear an early but strong Ray Anderson on trombone, and Rashied bakr on drums. A strong part is the percussion/drums trio. Kindly, Capp has trapped each section of the piece, all seven parts, plus the two pieces with commpleted the full concert. The thirty-nine minute opener, “You’re One, Too,” is an overlapping series of duets and trios. Humbly, Capp’s name is not on the spine, though that’s how I’m filing it on my shelf, permanently. I can’t wait to hear what he’s got for the promised volume two.
The Spontaneous Music Ensemble is one of Britain’s, and the world’s, first and best free improv groups. A new release, courtesy of producer Martin Davidson’s Emanem imprint, bills the SME, appropriately, as the Spontaneous Music Orchestra. As is Emanem’s wont, reissues of LPs are filled, not padded, with previously unreleased material from the same time-frame by the same artists. For You To Share [Emanem 4023, 65:11, 1998] is a thirty-seven minute performance with a twenty-eight minute “Peace Music” added. I began to read the notes as the disc began, but they began, “Please do not read these sleeve notes before listening to the record,” and though following instructions is contrary to my nature, I obeyed, and let my ears do the job. SME usually is a small group, however varying in personnel, and “For You To Share” begins with a segment labelled “Clicking Piece,” with the audience making clicking sounds, evolving into a chant, introducing Trevor Watts’ soprano sax arabesques and John Steven’s cymbal tattoo, accented with gongs and drum kit, playing off a beautiful drone of horns and voices. About twenty-five minutes in, Stevens and Watts drop out to a vocal drone, eventually joined by bittersweet sax improvisations. The sound carries the timelessness of a long gamelan or gagaku piece, and at about thirty minute in, indeed you hear gagaku sonorities. At the moment I thought to myself this drone of a slow march is just gorgeous, an audience member exhorts, “Yeah!” Vocally, like a tape loop, the audience calls, “If you want to see a vision…” with variations on that theme. It concludes with the sound of a car driving off.
“For You To Share” was recorded live at The Crypt, London, in May 1970. To Davidson’s credit, there seems to be no hiss reduction and no loss of the richness of the admittedly-erratic recorded sound, transferred to CD by Eddie Offord, Yes’s original producer, known for getting a rich sound from what he has available. The previously unreleased “Peace Music,” recorded four months earlier in the studio, is similar, beginning with a drone of saxes, with Watts and Stevens improvising over the background. Unlike many audience-participation pieces, this one is not only for those who participated. For You To Share is a most welcome and satisfying reissue.
From the SME small-group tradition comes nmperign, the name of the group, whose disc’s title 44’38″/5 is its length [Twisted Village tw-1046, 44:38, 1998]. Trumpeter Greg Kelley said, “Pronounce it any way you want,” then told me amother magazine gave the pronunciation, but “got it wrong.” On disc, soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey joins percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani (see last issue) to complete the trio. Via email, I asked if Bhob were short for Rhobert. He said, “No, it’s long for Bob.” The excellent and fine-sounding 44’38″/5 is processed with HDCD. The trio makes sputtering, splinking and clinking pointillistic sound with sax lines. “18’02,” of the same length, magically evokes the pace, drama and sonority of Japanese gagaku, the ancient courtly dance. The horns are blown, blown into, with or without mouth piece, sometimes just using mouthpiece. Nakatani uses the slightest shading of cymbal, or controlled lines of bowed cymbal, or intuitively placed use of the kickdrum. This trio is one organism, and an excellent place to try this type of music.
Live at the AlterKnit, July 3, nmperign performed with tonband-meister Jason Lescaleet taking Nakatani’s percussion spot. First same a sound like liquid turntable rumble. In squawked Kelley’s trumpet. Rainey offered long, soft tones, then clicks and slurps, as he sat in his chair, leg folded over the other. Behind them, Lescaleet played around with loose tape loops, placing a microphone various places including Kelley’s lap. Both horn players played mostly by aspirating through the tops of their horns, sans mouthpieces. There was a tape sounding like a foghorn, probably sampled from the trumpet. Many sounds were barely perceptible. There was a near silent break. Lescaleet lifted his amplifer up his shoulders and slammed it to the floor. The audience was thanked, and we thanked them in return for a spell-binding performance. Lescaleet wrote me afterwards, “It’s risky stuff, but very satisfying.” Glad to know he enjoyed it, but not as much as I did.
Mego is an Austrian label that puts out discs which quickly become collector’s items.
Two recent three inch discs, in tiny jewelcases, explore the electronic sound-world and are priced much lower than similar Japanese three-inchers. The music is a type of minimal, pointillist construct. Principio by Evol [Mego 018, 18:00, 1999] has eighteen tracks, the first one four seconds long. That one features silence and one sharp metallic squeal. Then silence, slap and squooosh. Rumble and the sound that feels like metal scraping on a tooth filling. Ratttles, the sounds of phones switching. Hiss. Cards flickering in a bike tire. A neat skipping sound, not like a defective disc skipping, but skipping like the rhythm of a jump-rope. Low rumbles. Squeaks that sound like bike horns with electrode tubes and the sound of your speakers popping when you pull the connector by accident. Of its kind, highly recommended. The End of Vinyl, by Pure [Mego 018, 20:53, 1999], starts with a rhythm of trains rattling away. The low hum of helicopters, the pitches cycling ever closer. Lots of low, low bass. The second cut has a low bass drone tremolo, with a high frequency sine wave, and flickering electronic bees and buzzes. Electronic castanets with the high frequencies lopped off. More ambient than the Evol, it probably is more accessible. Let’s stereotype unfairly: Evol is for Cagers, Pure is for Floyd fanatics.
The Male Comedy…der Traum vom kleinben Glück [Mego 025, 74:00, 1999] by the group F*head (fill in the expletive yourself), starts with soft electronic noise which sounds like a purring lion, and then large swirls of multilayered sounds whoosh you down a drainpipe. Eventually drums come in and heavy-metal type vocals, but the music is strong throughout. It pulls in everything from electronic pointillism to metal to sound-text, opera and collage. One of the six players is listed as using words, pressure, tonguing, scream, throat, absorption, damping and body. The group’s name, the title… you get it, and it’s good, if it’s your thing. The text is juvenile, the music is advanced, although a few tracks rely too heavily on beats. Zappaphiles are sure to dig, as well as black-metalheads.
The Willem Breuker Kollektief is an astounding ensemble that has been around forever, and while widely loved in avant-garde circles, needs to be better known to the general jazz audience. Breuker is a multi-reed player and madman, whose newest CD, Pakkapapèn [BVHaast CD 9807, 60:51, 1999] is typical of many of his discs: they are complete programs. Between each composition, there might be found little stories, musical entr’actes, Ellingtonian sonorities (Breuker, too, writes with his musicians’ strengths in mind: check the title tracks), and a seriously good time. When I first encountered Breuker live, in a park in Hanover perhaps twenty years ago, the band was insane, running around, chasing each other, trombones sliding into the other bandmember’s heads, pulling their clothes off to hang on the statues surrounding them, but within this slapstick adventure was some of the most adventurous and accessible music I has ever heard. They did a “Rhapsody In Blue” that I still remember, and they’ve put to disc. His “Pictures at An Exhibition” made me re-love the piece and throw away all those boring brass or organ transcriptions. Breuker excels in arrangements of others which takes nothing away from the original and adds a sense of humor and prismatic view of the potentials built into the compositions. Prior discs have tackled Weill, Mussorgsky, Satie, Ellington, Ravel, and I haven’t met one I would even consider parting with. Then there’s the packaging of recent releases. The one in hand, Pakkapapèn, is breathtaking: an all-vinyl four-fold with a pocket to hold the CD, silkscreened with a wonderful color collage of the musicians. It looks stunning, feels good in your hand, and musically, Breuker’s band and tunes swing fiercely. As I’m typing this, again playing Pakkapapèn, I get a call from Uncle Les, who is an opera-plus-40s big band person, asking “What’s that you’re listening to? It’s good.” Hee hee, another convert to the so-called avant-garde. After you buy this one, snatch up his brilliant Heibel [BVHaast CD 9102, 1991] while it is still available in its original edition packaged in a round, labelled, wooden cheese box. It includes a hysterically funny mini-opera Der Kritiker, The Critic. If he performs in your area, drop it all and get tickets immediately. [Flash: Just in on the email: Breuker and Co. are touring North America this fall.]
Tenor sax and clarinetist Chris Speed has a new disc with his group Deviantics [Songlines SGL 1524-2, 51:41, 1999], and indeed they play with one’s expectations. The opening track starts with a great drum lead-in by Jim Black, only to trick your senses by hitting a rock beat, then suddenly pulling back. Black knows how to tease; the four tracks which have rock-based rhythms are not consistently so and change tempos unexpectedly and with electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson provides rich support. Black turns in some fabulous performances on melodica, in whose hands it is not a toy, especially on “Eddie Cano,” a moody noir with trumpeter Cuong Vu and Speed doing a sexy horn twosome over Sverrison’s bed. My favorite tracks are the free and the balladic explorations, specially “Tulip,” by Sverrisson. On this disc, the stars are the two horns. Vu is at his best here, showing consistent melodic invention and interplay. Speed’s dexterity and and lines are always interesting, whether he’s the sideperson or, as here, the leader. The final track is a fun “East Europe Rundown,” avoiding the pitfalls of the faux-klez that abounds these days.
Ben Perowsky Trio [El Destructo/JazzKey 51002, 63:18, no date], by the trio of the same name, has given us a disc of a closely-knit ensemble, in low-key but tight live performances from the Knitting Factory. The title track has drummer Perowsky so in tune with Scott Colley, on bass, that the interplay is eerily reminiscent of the early Ornette band. Some pieces are beboppish, others freebop. Colley’s vamps and solos are nailed down solid; Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet alternately mingle with his friends, and take off on flights within the tradition, some of his sounds reminding me of traditional Sicilian music, as in “El Destructo.” His exploration leading into Duke’s “In A Sentimental Mood” is something that makes you sit up and listen. The final track is a slow vamp, strangely familiar, until Speed plays the head: it’s Pink Floyd’s “Money,” a surprising choice, and an effective one for improvisation. Colley plays it as a real slow drag, Perowsky doing clever rolls and kicks slighty off-time. The recording quality obscures the leader’s playing, sadly, as Perowsky is a tasty player, not a time keeper. Colley and Speed are more up-front in the mix, but a bit hazy. Get it for the music, not the audio, and catch all three players live, for they are rightly in demand.
Despite last issue’s review, Dorgon sent us a few more discs. 9 [Jumbo Recordings perhaps #9, 34:51, allegedly recorded in 1936 when the players were taking a break from touring with Sidey Bechet] is another Dorgon-William Parker duo disc of four, I assume, improvisations. Dorgons’s C-melody sax sounds like a mosquito seconded by Parker’s bass, or is it the other way around. The second track has Parker vamping like crazy, bass strings plucked and buzzing, and Dorgon plays and up and down melody til you wnt to shout, “Stop!” and then, amazingly, he does and plays as if he is a violin line perpendicular to the vamp. Deluxe packaging as usual: a plastic slip of a sleeve with a CD, a piece of cardboard with a 9 apparently written with lipstick or thick crayon, and a postage stamp-sized insert telling us, among other things, that Dorgon “performed in the Raymond Scott Big Band featuring Art Blakey on piano. He claimed to be blind but was really only very clumsy.” As is the phrasing: Is Dorgon or Blakey the klutz? These duets are amazing. They are not jazz, noise, drone or improv in any usual sense; there is a sawing of sound, an affinity of minds, and all jests from me and the artist known as Dorgon aside, this is a riveting, excellent disc, if for special tastes. I’m one of the lucky ones. Dorgon duets with drummer Laura Cromwell in a disc named after the infamous palindrome, Rats Live On No Evil Star [Jumbo Records MAR, 1999]. The disc sits sadly inside a normal jewelcase, but luckily with an insert too big for it, a Jumbo Book Mark, and more plaintive sax with empathetically weird drum patterns and brushstrokes. I like this too. More next issue. I keep saying that. Good.
Yazbeck first came to my attention with a three-song promo CD left in a local store. I played it so often I contacted What Are Records? to get a copy of the full CD Tock [WAR? WAR 670032. 39:39, 1998]. Clever like Bare Naked Ladies or Geggy Tah, but not as over-produced, and with more than three listenable songs per disc, Tock is a solid, entertaining listen-through. If you like Kramer and most Shimmydiscs, or even Michael Franks, chances are you’ll like this quirky pop record, which brings to mind folks ranging from Jad Fair to XTC, and indeed, XTC’s Andy Partridge joins in on one track.
Maceo Parker, most famous from James Brown’s bands, has been floundering since he left the fold. Although his Verve releases got critical plaudits, they were flaccid. His latest, Funk Overload [WAR? WAR 60032, 48:50, 1998], reveals an excellent ear for covers ranging from Sly Stone’s under-covered “You Can Make It if You Try,” Marvin Gaye’s over-covered “Inner City Blues,” and the beautiful, classic soul ballad “Going In Circles.” Parker is a super-talented r’n’b saxophonist, and in his late sixties and early seventies work with JB, approached the improvisatory heights of the great saxophonists, with Brown imploring Maceo to sound like “Trane!” in “Super Bad,” perhaps Maceo’s peak, even though he sounded more like Ayler. Unfortunately for me, here is lukewarm funk again, though those who like jazz lite will appreciate it and get introduced to some classic tunes. Don’t blame me; the lyric is printed inside: “Funk pure as a dove.” We need some sweat, boy!
Our illustrious editor somehow let his arch-enemy Scardanelli convince him all he needs for a good life is a CD player and some high, high-end equipment. [Master Koenig is misinformed. Signor Scardanelli is my faithful companion and guide. Never mind the gun at my head. Ed.] The poor devil has been gravely misled, although said editor admits to a weakness for high-quality sound. My advisor in all things, Kid Chango, has taught me that the spirit comes first and the sound will follow, and so, just as lovers of “golden age” singing, fiddling and bluesing all learn to hear beyond the low-fi and the scratch’n’hiss, so do we New Music freaks. A great deal of fine music is coming through only on cassette or vinyl in all configurations from Basic Black to colored to clear PVC pressed into all sizes from five to twelve inches. The packaging is usually more interesting than the typical CD, or so minimal you sometimes flail your arms figuring which all-black label fits back into which all-black cover. Thank the vinyl spirits for permitting matrix numbers and written slogans between the final groove and label. For those of you who don’t remember vinyl, one of the fun things about records was reading the “hidden” messages inscribed by the groups or mastering engineers.
There are things you can do with vinyl you can’t really do with CDs, even with the repeat feature. One is the lock-groove. A lock groove is a circle rather than a spiral and so repeats until you lift the needle (stylus, for our audiophile audience) from the groove. Some vinyl discs deliberately ended that way, such as the lead-out groove on Yoko Ono’s “Paper Shoes” from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band which has wolves howling, as Yoko says, calmly, “Don’t worry.” You won’t find that on the excellent Ryko CD reissue; though you should definitely get that masterpiece of avant-garde if you don’t already have it.
Unsure if the title is the catalog number or the subtitle or both, I highly recommend RRR-500: Various 500 Lock-Grooves by 500 Artists (RRRecords RRR-500, 1999). I don’t even try to figure who did which groove, though the 500 artists, um, tracks, um, loop, are listed inside, and include the famous with the unknown: Jad Fair, Sonic Youth, Contrastate, MSBR, Lull, Karen Finley, and even the Teletubbies and United Negro College Fund (I assume, from a commercial). Some are music, some are random or electronic noises, some have spoken word, but all are interesting, not that I’ve yet listened to more than 150 of the locks. They’re bunched in fours, should you care to count how many sections of the 150 per side you’ve passed to find a track you want. Seems silly. Drop the needle somewhere, listen ’til you get tired, do a dozen or so more, and then put the disc on again the next day.
Guitarist Alan Licht and DJ Spooky have released a 10″ split release (two artists sharing opposite faces of a vinyl disc, or half of a CD) called Backward Forwards (Manifold Records manv29, 45rpm, numbered limited edition of 1000; of which a further limited 100 come with a piece of the audiotape used and different packaging. 1999). The first track (6:00) of Spooky is a fine guitar distortion/feedback drone and loop piece, and the second (2:56) is beat-based, which at first irritated me (I tend to hate drum’n’bass, or what used to be called jungle before that was deemed politically uncool) but the slippery, tricky rhythms hold my interest, trying to catch when one beat slides into another. Licht is an interesting guitarist who often collaborates with fellow guitarist Loren Mazzacane, and his track starts which a looped guitar riff, gradually increasing and decreasing the texture with repeating and suddenly disappearing notes and finally, it falls into a steady, calming repetition until you get up and realize it ends in a, you guessed it, lock-groove, intelligently placed far enough from the center. Those of us with semi-automatic turntables get messed up when lock-grooves are too close to the labels; just as you notice one there, up goes the arm. The side-long track last seven minutes, or as long as you’d like it to.
Now for the weirdest vinyl excursion I’ve yet encountered, even weirder that one of my favorite vinyl artifacts, which (not counting the fluke “Hey Jude” single with the Apple label but no printing) is Null’s Erg/Sec, a clear vinyl seven-inch glued to an actual crosscut sawblade [Manifold manv24, limited edition of 105, 1998], which makes it nearly the most S&M release next to Richard Ramirez’ LP, but more on that later.
Unfortunately it is becoming trendy for most noise artists to use initials rather than names, I supposed to further deconstruct/decompose their identities as well as the source music. For example, the name MSBR is so dull compared to Molten Salt Breeder Reactor but I digress from the issue on the turntable, a.m.k.’s Needle Hit The Groove [Pinch A Loaf PAL-18, 1998.] This neat package contains a square flexi-disc plus a seafoam-colored vinyl LP, one side of which has another copy of the flexi, cut into four pizza slices carefully glued back together on one side of the LP. As Anna Russell would say, this is what you call the gimmick: The flexi has contributions by thirteen noise artists on its two sides, including jazz percussionist Gino Robair, Hands To, Crawl Unit, and Small Cruel Party. This flexi has no separate tracks, by the way. To recap: we have one flexi disc which can be played on either side although you don’t know what piece is by whom nor can you play one separately. You can also play the seafoam side of the LP, which has seven tracks which are “cut-up and montaged versions” of the pieces on the flexi. Finally, there is the pizza side, which, to the brave-of-stylus, creates all new pieces as you play it, and miraculously it does track, with the obvious thumps between the vinyl pieces and unlike lock-grooves, this plays continuously, either smoothly or bouncily from one shard to next spirally down to the spindle. As they say on tee-vee: Three, Three, Three Toys in One ! But the sounds are good. The LP’s montage/remixes on the smooth side are varied and well-sequenced, from a whoosh-drone which gradually adds the rhythmic thump of the needle hitting, not the groove, as the title implies, but the edge of the flexi-shard, and then softer, or varitextured pieces. I love this disc(s) and do play it often.
Richard Ramirez’s I Keep My Stuff Inside [Tesco 029, approx. 50:00, no date] begins with a organ-like drone with a whimpering guitar distortion. Then come guitar buzzes twanging in like a jaw harp. In comes winds of whoosh and a metallically distorted voice which seems like a radio preacher saying, “Give me your heart” and “Lead them to me,” and then all kinds of Satanist stuff, which in this setting creates a wonderfully scary twist. Play this for the impressionable children in your life. The noise is fascinating and although I usually detest processed voices in this kind of music, I’m fascinated by trying to figure the text during repeated listenings. Brilliant packaging which makes the title a triple pun: a triplefold-sleeve, but the disc is bolted and padlocked through the cardboard and drilled through the vinyl on the label. Oh, and there’s no key. I had to call Vince at Manifold to figure out how to actually get the disc from bondage. I won’t spoil the fun for you. When you give up, email Vince, or perhaps you’re better at problem-solving than I am.
Ramirez also appears on a split titled Alchemy of the 20th Century/Richard Ramirez Split LP [Recalcitrant Noise RN#7, approx 41:00, no date]. “…AIDS Related…” starts with a buzz like a malfunctioning air conditioner, and then adds guitar drone and metallic scraping sounds, and indeed, the minimal packaging states that this track uses a sound sculpture by Ramirez, with “metals/industrial work” by Rosie Pedraza. Ramirez has been part of the noise-anarcho-gay-punk scene for many years. This piece is the strongest of his I’ve heard to date. The second track, “Deep In The Brig,” starts with buzzing drones, goes to an almost beautiful whispering whoosh with flangeing, and back to the buzzing. Alchemy’s side is called “Shiny Objects pts. 1-3″ and also uses sound sculpture, by the Finn Mikko Aspa. There is a drone, with a repetitive, metallic sound like the dragging feet of robots, almost like the forge of the Nibelungs in slow speed. A higher-pitched synth sounds like aurora borealis via laser-show. Part Two adds twinkly sounds like cloud crystals, and alters the metallic scrapes, emphasizes the metal scrape, and the evolving drone and ambient sounds beneath. Part Three speeds up the scrape, adds bird-like squawk, and a circling midrange drone. This piece fascinates me. Minimal packaging: a slip of paper glued on the back of a piece of an old LP cover, in this case the Robert Shaw Chorale, in a plastic sleeve. Better with a subwoofer, which I don’t have.
From Finland comes a cassette featuring two different groups featuring Jani Salo on electric guitar and percussion by Janne Tuomi. The thirty-minute side by Duo Ikiturso is very strong. The twelve-minute “Kosovo” begins with a wandering electric guitar, dark brooding chords, and bowed cymbal. The guitar has a dark, rich tone, the playing more Loren Mazzacane than ECM-ish. The brooding drone is joined by an fascinating guitar line. Frith, Fripp, and Zappaphiles take note. The second track is “Pointing To The Moon Suite, Pts. I-IV,” with chunky chording on guitar, with a responding guitar voice; blurs and distorts coming out of silence. This is the feeling of discovering something in the vast of space. Side Two of the cassette is by Trio Agapé, which adds trombonist Kusti Vuorinen to the duo. The side starts with free-blowing, but when the trombone comes in it changes the flavor and mood immediately. The pieces are “Psalm #1″ and “Psalm #2″ and you hear the repetitive figure of a Christian hymn, with the guitar and percussion still playing free, but with focus, as the trombone leads the sermon with a rich improvisatory search. The three instruments achieve a power and sonority amazingly similar to large groups like Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. As usual, contact information is below, and I look forward to CD releases from these groups.
As soon as the Vision Festival ended (see article in this issue), the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival began. I selected a choice few, having already been sated by Vision. One of the smaller venues was the bookshop Lotus Lounge Café. Here a comfortably small audience heard high-quality small groups away from the zoo of some of the other venues. I chose the Ben Perowsky, Aaron Alexander and Steve Swell sets, all fine, exciting gigs. Perowksy is a drummer with an interesting set of bells made by Englehardt percussion, a five-branched set of cones. They had a wonderful sound and made great accents. With him was bassist Scott Colley and Chris Speed on tenor sax. As with most live performances, the first piece, here beginning with percussion and bells, warmed them up, and then it was full speed, no pun. The second piece also began with struck bells and a drum. Colley’s arco had an Eastern sound, and was rhythmically alluring, while Perowsky played bells and rim clicks. The music was physically and intellectually engaging, and this was a new piece for them. In time, it’ll be a smoker. In the third piece, Speed showed his talent for suddenly playing softly, drawing you in, in a way that could make even a generic piece riveting. “El Destructo” started slowly, and then Speed took off. When he was soft, Perowksy and Colley got deep, loud and witty. Both sets were excellent, and the highlight was an exquisite “In A Sentimental Mood,” which began with a Speed solo, all three playing free until the melody became recognizable.
Ben Perowsky Trio [El Destructo/JazzKey 51002, 63:18, no date], by the above trio, has given us a disc of a closely-knit ensemble, in low-key but tight live performances from the Knitting Factory. The opening track has Perowsky so in tune with Colley, that the interplay is eerily reminiscent of the early Ornette band. Some pieces are beboppish, others freebop. Colley’s vamps and solos are nailed down solid; Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet alternately mingle with his friends, and take off on flights within the tradition, some of his sounds reminding me of traditional Sicilian music, as in “El Destructo.” His exploration leading into Duke’s “In A Sentimental Mood” is something that makes you sit up and listen. The final track is a slow vamp, strangely familiar, until Speed plays the head: it’s Pink Floyd’s “Money,” a surprising choice, and an effective one for improvisation. Colley plays it as a real slow drag, Perowsky doing clever rolls and kicks slighty off-time. The recording quality obscures the leader’s playing, sadly, as Perowsky is a tasty player, not a time keeper. Colley and Speed are more up front in the mix, but a bit hazy. Get it for the music, not the audio, and catch all three players live, for they are rightly in demand.
Chris Speed, on tenor sax and clarinet, has a new disc with his group Deviantics [Songlines SGL 1524-2, 51:41, 1999], and indeed they play with one’s expectations. The opening track starts with a great drum lead-in by Jim Black, only to trick your senses by hitting a rock beat, then suddenly pulling back. Black always knows how to tease; the four tracks which have rock-based rhythms are not consistently so and change tempos unexpectedly and with electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson provides rich support. Black also turns in some fabulous performances on melodica, in whose hands it is not a toy, especially on “Eddie Cano,” a moody noir with trumpeter Cuong Vu and Speed doing a sexy horn twosome over Sverrison’s bed. My favorite tracks are the free and the balladic explorations, specially “Tulip,” by Sverrisson. On this disc, the stars are the two horns. Vu is at his best here, showing consistent melodic invention and interplay. Speed’s dexterity and and lines are always interesting, whether he’s the sideperson or, as here, the leader. The final track is a fun “East Europe Rundown,” avoiding the pitfalls of the faux-klez that abounds these days.
Between Perowksy’s two sets, I ran a few doors down to the MELA Foundation to catch a half hour of a performance called Dream House Mix by Michael J. Schumacher. You remove your shopes and enter a white room, folks sitting on the floor surrounded by four loudspeakers, Schumacher fiddling with wires and tubes in a piece creating random buzzes and drones, taken from some of his previous pieces. It was a bit too ambient for me, but I can’t judge the effect of the whole piece since I only heard a snippet. I went there because I had just enjoyed two of his CD releases,
Fidicin Drones is the enticing title of a disc by Schumacher, listed as guitarist and composer on the box [Colorful Clouds for Acoustics cloud019, 64:24, 1998]. It’s not that simple. The first and third pieces were made by “bowing the end of a thin wooden dowel, entwined in the strings near the bridge of the guitar, with a heavily rosined strong of the kind that’s typically used to cut clay.” This music falls into the category some call “drift,” a slowly evolving drone that you can meditate or get high, I mean space out, to. Most drift is bland and boring. I really like “Fidicin Drone,” the most interesting piece here, because it sounds like low-fi mid-bass electrical sputtering and rumbling with dark piano plunks. It’s titled after the street in Berlin where it was recorded, and was created by an e-bow (think email and you’ll understand) and wood placed on the guitar strings. The final track, “E flat Drone,” is thicker-textured drift sometimes sounding like a distant airplane which pulses and swells irregularly; this piece will not become sonic wallpaper.
The traycard of Schumacher’s CD-length Room Piece [Studio Five Beekman (no number), 71:12, 1998] says it’s “intended for low level listening.” I like it loud, although the composer’s intent seems to be ambience. It begins with a high-pitched computer-generated sound, which swells and adds layers of other high pitched. It sounds as if there’s a piano randomly plinking, as if it were drops from a faucet. The cover credits only voice, guitar, and “everything else by computer generator.” Bits of static, as if stylus were skidding on a groove; tones like an aurora borealis harp. Teawhistle. More plinks. Deep bass rumble. Permutations on the above. Electric hum, adding more tremolo. At about forty minutes in, Elizabeth Loninger adds her voice in varying pitches. Listen yourself for the full evolution, but the disc is fascinating whether you listen closely or have it as background. I like it very much. Schumacher runs a gallery near City Hall in downtown Manhattan, featuring sound installations. I missed the recent ones by Ron Kuivila (discs on Lovely Music) and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), but suggest a visit when his new season begins in September; his Website is listed below.
Drummer Aaron Alexander had a delightful quartet at their Lotus Bell Atlantic gig, with the always propulsive Stomu Takeishi on electric bass, and Jamie Saft on electric keyboards. Saft played the keybs as if it were a piano, not a synth going for effects. The first piece had an old-timey feel and turned out to be “Yon Piney Mountain,” a traditional ballad, with Peter Epstein playing a bittersweet sax line. “Padjuska,” a Bulgarian song, followed, and was a tasty duet, Takeishi picking tasty bass notes and Alexander hand drumming. They did an arrangement of a piece from Ellington’s “Sacred Concert,” and were especially sweet when the keyboard and sax doubled each other, Saft ending with a clever waver/sustain on the final chord. They played with time changes, false endings, and they had fun; the members of this totally cohesive unit were smiling at each other as they played.
The Steve Swell Bell Atlantic gig at Lotus was swell because I knew his name, but never heard the music of this swinging trombone man. This group was called Atmospheels, and joining Swell were bassist Wilber, Morris, Drummer Lou Grassi, and a special horn player, Will Connell on alto and bass clarinet. The set began with “Fruition,” a fanfare of sorts. The sound of trombone and alto was majestic. Connell’s solo was arresting from its first note. “Continental Drift” began with a bass rumble and a story-telling, slowly developing into a modal riff; a variant of “A Love Supreme.” Between sets, Morris told me with joy, “(Swell’s) compositions are wonderful. Look what he did there!” The heads were fascinating, weird keys, horns twisting around each other. In another piece, Swell’s trombone created loud swells, assured and splatty and lyrical. His whole body bent to the floor, pumping air from his body to his horn. Grassi played some twists, unexpected off-beat hits. His solo was propellent, but he was even better as a foil to the others.
Music lovers were debating all that week whether to choose Alan Silva’s Big Band at Context or to catch the 35 year reunion of the New York Art Quartet, the latter opening for Sonic Youth at the South Street Seaport Atrium for the Bell Atlantic Fest. Having seen the Silva band the previous week, I opted for the one I never saw. The New York Art Quartet had a classic ESP-disk, one cut featuring poet Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones. The quartet consisted of Roswell Rudd, trombone, John Tchicai, sax, Milford Graves, percussion and Reggie Workman on bass. Here, they had fun, especially Rudd who was invoking good spirits to the band with his hand gestures and rocking like he was calling in the Sabbath over candles, but it was nothing special; they all did what they did well, but it wasn’t the transcendant reunion we were dreaming of. Baraka read the same extended poem he did at the Vision Festival, so much of it seemed like a re-run, epecially Baraka’s crowd-pleaser facile texts: “Since the rich eat more than anyone else, it is reasonable to assume they they are more full of…” and so it went for the night. At first the Sonic Youth pop crowd was talking throughout, but eventually quiteded down. The NYAQ played to the crowd, but they also played to each other. The Sonic Youth experimental crowd (there are two overlapping camps) was enthralled. The security officers did nothing to stop smokers in this non-smoking shopping mall, the stage being a slight open space beside a food court. There were no seats, although I was told by those who attended that the first gig at the Atrium did have seating. The promoters did not answer my query. Those who heard the Silva band were not disappointed, according to all reports I heard.
Sonic Youth began their set with an unnamed, extended piece by Canadian composer James Tenney (discs on hat Hut and Artifact). They were joined by sampler Ikue Mori, who is becoming a stronger and stronger artist, and the textures she added here were such a strong complement to the basic SY jangle-drone that one is amazed that no one every thought to bring these two together before. I hope for a studio recording someday. The pop crowd waited patiently to get their pop tunes, but they got more noise pieces. The second piece bashed into a white noise stream until the percussion peaked to silence. The third had soft, shimmering guitar builds until the cymbals had to cut through a high screech. These were interesting soundscapes, but the people not up front were talking throughout. They finally announced, “And now we’re going to play a song,” I believe it was from Daydream Nation, and the crowd went wild with applause. The ones who went outside to wait it out came streaming back in. They indeed did that song, but without lyrics, performing a long, loud instrumental version which was very satisfying. Vocals never did appear that night. The couple behind me, in their 50s, complained, “That’s not rock’n’roll.” If they mean the form, perhaps they were right. I still define rock’n’roll as “that which makes your parents upset.” The audience was frustrated with the feedback and electric storms. I loved it, and SY ended with bashing and whistles and scrunching guitars.
Next installment: more electronic music from Metamkine, Mego, Meme and Manifold; live gigs in surprising places; concerts by Doran, Duval, Scianni, Whitecage, Malik, Manley, Mazzacane, McPhee, Mystic Widsom Ensemble, Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Marshall Allen, Bhob (that’s how he spells it) Rainey; the Boston-New York axis; the latest batches from Emanem, Knitting Factory and CIMP; and label reports on AUM Fidelity and Experimental Intermedia with corresponding performances.
Leaving you with the spirit of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I wish you “Bright Moments!”
Alchemy of the 20th Century: <www.sci.fi/~fifteen/freak-animal>; fanimal @hotmail.com
Aaron Alexander: <email@example.com>
Allegro Distributors: <www.allegro-music.com>
Anomalous Records: <www.anomalousrecords.com>
Avant Records: 61 East 8 Street, Suite 126, New York, NY 10003
Aaron Bensoussan: distributed by Tara Records, 1-800-XXXXXX
Black Label: P.O.Box 2344, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008-2344
BVHaast: distributed by North Country
Buzz Records: distributed by Allegro
Todd Capp: distributed By North Country and DMG
Sylvie Courvoiser: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dorgon: <email@example.com>; available from DMG
Downtown Music Gallery (DMG): <www.DTMGallery.com>
Dutch East India: <dutcheastindia.com>
Emanem: distributed by North Country, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Forced Exposure Distributors: <www.forcedexposure.com>
Satoko Fujii: US management, BandKComm@aol.com
Jose Halac’s Scream: <www.users.interport.net/~jose>
Leo Records: distributed by North Country
Libra Records: distributed by North Country
Manifold Records: www.manifoldrecords.com
MELA Foundation: <www.virtulink.com/mela>
Mego Records: <www.mdos.at>; fax +43.1.817.14788; Dutch East India distributors
Natsuki Tamura: US management, BandKComm@aol.com
North Country Distributors: <www.cadencebuilding.com>
Kayazuki K. Null: fax +81-462-52-0559
Pinch A Loaf Records: POB 4923, Downey, CA 90241; Anomalous and Manifold distributors.
Bhob Rainey: email@example.com
Recalcitrant Noise: 425 4th Street NE #2, Minneapolis, MN 55413
Richard Ramirez: 17010 Blairwood Drive, Houston TX 77049
RRRecords: 23 Central Street, Lowell MA 01852
Michael J. Schumacher: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tellus/ Harvestworks: <www.Harvestworks.org>
Tesco Organisation: fax +49(0) 6201-47-7175
Janne Tuomi (Trip Agapé; Duo Ikiturso): email@example.com
Twisted Village: distributed by Forced Exposure
Tzadik Records: 61 East 8 Street, Suite 126, New York, NY 10003
What Are Records? (WAR?): <www.war.com>