Incredible Risks: Jazz and Improvised Music

Steve Koenig

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

I’m using a slightly different format for “Incredible Risks” this issue. There are tons of discs flying in, many worthies, and I’ll be covering live gigs again in the next issue.

Fred Anderson Quartet. The Milwaukee Tapes, Vol. 1, 1980. (Atavistic Unheard Music Series UMS/ALP20-4CD, 69:32.) Five ten to twenty minute compositions by the now-Chicagoan tenor, with Hamid Drake, clearly a master percussionist even then, with Billy Brimfield on trumpet and Larry Hayrod on bass. The blowing here is not all wind; there are snaking lines with Drake’s African-inspired pulses. All seventy minutes are “on.”

Karl Berger and Edward Blackwell. Just Play. (Emanem 4037, 61:35.) Just a joy, this disc, taken from the rare 1979 Quark LP 9996, with an extra track. Berger is a consummate and overlooked vibraphonist, and director of the Creative Music Studios and workshops in Woodstock, NY. Here, Berger plays vibes, a balafon and darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum) in duet with master Edward Blackwell, on slit drum and a drum kit. Starting with a fifteen minute “Balafon Samba,” the Brasilian rhythms are insinuated and my seat began to move at first listen. The hour flew by and Berger changed to vibes, and this is one of those simple yet deep releases. Producer Martin Davidson recounts that Blackwell liked to be called by his full name, and that his intimates just called him Blackwell. In a large group context, I recommend Berger’s No Man Is An Island: A Modern Jazz Work In 9 Movements, just reissued on Knitting Factory Classics KCR-3004. I have the original European CD on producer Alan Douglas’ label DouglasMusic ACD4, the reissue in slightly airier sound. For the great Blackwell duet disc, find a reissue of Mu with Don Cherry, originally two LPs, most recently seen on a Charly/Affinity CD.

Willem Breuker Kollektief and Loes Luca. Hunger! (BVHaast CD 9916, 68:34.) Celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary as the hardest-working and most intelligently wicked band in showbiz, this most recent release is a treat. If you’re unfamiliar, picture Kurt Weill tunes by an orchestra that plays beyond the notes, plus knows how to improvise and would not consider a circus an inappropriate venue. (See previous columns for more on Breuker.) The title suite was commissioned for an artwork which has the score and premiere recording of the piece in a time capsule under a manhole cover which reads “Time Is An Empty Bottle of Wine.” Some of the familiar tunes are a jug-band style “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Boris Vian’s tune “Fais-moi mal, Johnny,” and a delightful parody of “Cavatina Figaro.” Singer Luca is a fine complement to the band, and by now, a longtime collaborator. Another package collectors like me go crazy for, Hunger! is in a thick cardboard folio the size of a thin trade paperback. I only wish it had a printed spine. One that does is a fat photo book celebrating their 25th anniversary, containing a pair of full CDs crammed with tracks from out-of-print LPs and in-print LPs and CDs. Willem Breuker Kollektief: Twenty Five Years (BVHaast) contains hundreds of photos plus complete personnel lists for each individual year of kollektief existence. distribution:

Eugene Chadbourne. Young And Innocent Days. (Swamp Room 301135, 2×10″ clear vinyl with color splotches, untimed.) The back of the color triple-folder this comes in clearly states “A Psychotic Chadhead Collectors Item” and the usual blah blah limited edition blah blah. Forget all this. If you’re a Psychotic Chadhead Collector as I am, you must get this. I know, we’ve all been overdosing on discs and performances by this wunderwiz wacko, but this one to get. Even Chadbourne lovers love him at least as much for his joy and attitude (politics?) but must confess that some of his tribute-to-other-artist discs are more loveable-because-you-love-him than they are good. This disc of 60s popsong covers is good. First off, the musicians are fun, and there are times Chad’s singing is actually beautiful. Zappa, Gil Scott-Heron, the Airplane, Ochs, Donovan, Rolling Stones; oh yeah, even Tull. The record is psychedelic, and I don’t just mean the beautiful slabs on vinyl spinning around. This doesn’t pay tribute; it embodies the spirit. I paid cash, and gratefully. I had no choice; it was on the ’table at Downtown Music Gallery and I heard the opening vamp chords to the “Overture” to Tommy, but when the lyrics began it was “Get Off Of My Cloud.” Brilliant.

Phil James. Already Gone: Six Variations. (Sparkling Beatnik sbr 0021, 46:52.) This is an interesting combo of genres: ethnic, trance, minimalism and noise. James plays shakuhachi, harmonium, pedal steel guitar, flute, electronics and more, and I assume it’s multitracked. The flute keeps it from the trance bag, the jangly guitars keep it from being new age, the unpredictable and sparse deep bass (which might be drum) keep the trance from being mindless. That’s only the first Variation. The second is a repeating ratchet and thump which sounds like a cross between a mill and stylus stuck in the leadout lockgroove. Variation Three rumbles turntables scratching like the subway with little voices coming out. All feature Native American flute, giving a subversive sweetness to the general noise textures. More than the sum of its parts. Fans of musics ranging from Randy Grief to Niblock and Glenn Branca, Douglas Spotted Eagle and musique concrète might be inclined to dig this one.

Joe+N. Exposure and Experience. (Carbon CR24, 49:03.) Joe Tunis is the operative here, and the first exposure is to the element of a short lived storm. The second is a sparse acoustic guitar musing, almost like Mazzacane without the moan. (After I wrote that, I saw that one track is indeed dedicated to the shamrocked guitarist, and it spookily and beautifully embodies Mazzacane Connors’ spirit.) Buzzing guitar into feedback with some voices peeping through. “Quantum Breakdown” for Katsuo Abe is an extraordinary eleven-minute mix of bicycle-horn saxophone, feedback and silences. Varied, yet of whole cloth. Extra credit for subtly beautiful packaging. Inexpensive, too. Note: On track 7, your machine is working; the CD skipping clicks are deliberate.

Thomas Lehn. Feldst’a’rken. (Random Acoustics, advance CD, 60:55.) Lehn is an electronics whiz I recently encountered in a magical evening of duets with percussionist Gerry Hemingway in composer Phill Niblock’s Tribeca loft Experimental Intermedia. Lehn gave me an advance copy of this due out of Goerg Graewe’s label, and it’s wonderful, though I miss the pleasure of watching him play with his gizmos. Lehn has a slew of new duet discs I hope to report on next issue. Each of the eleven tracks here has a different sound and structure. Some are spitting, scraping or rattling sounds, some staticky or violinistic; each one envolving into each other. The eleven-minute track 11is a very quiet, minimal piece with lots of silence, a la Bernhard Gunter. Others have knob-twiddling wind-blowing sounds. Some seem as if he’s duetting with himself. His toys are mostly analog and so this is no mere programming of sequencers. It’s free improv with switches, knobs and wires. Distribution:

Pengo. …climbs the holy mountain. (Carbon CR22, 30:36.) The bizarre cover photos give no clue to the music genre, although first guess would be a cross between progrock and dark ambient. It begins with small instruments and percussion, almost like an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance from Paris 1968, and indeed it is a fine thirty-minute free improv performance in Rochester, NY, by Jason Finkelbeiner, John Schoen, and Joe Tunis, to accompany a film. Soft to textured to loud to…whirrs and turntabled vinyl slurs. At this price, if you like free improv, I say go for it.

SQ (Speedqueen) / Hans Werner Henze. Monosite. (Carbon CR20, 19:03.) Using some of this nifty EP is a single track which starts with a little guitar and tunneling rhythm, reminding me a bit of Yoko Ono’s “Paper Shoes,” adds vocal wailing to the guitar feedback and drone which makes the seem like overtone singing. Lost in the music, I didn’t realize this was recorded clearly by a hand-held mono cassette recorder. Nifty is too twee an adjective; this is a passionate river of guitars, drums, keybs and electronics. The vocals are unintelligible text,which recall Tim Buckley’s StarSailor, and are taken from Henze’s book Musik und Politiken: Schriften und Gespräche 1995-1975. Stunningly beautiful picture label.

Fred Van Hove ’t Nonet . Suite for B….City . (FMP CD88, 68:67.) I first heard Van Hove decades ago on a then-OP FMP LP (say that six times fast) called Van Hove With Strings and was an instant fan. Although this from 1997, I picked it up a few weeks before Fred came to play in New York at Tonic with trombonist Johannes Bauer. <>. Van Hove plays piano and accordeon. This band recalls the tonalities of Carla Bley’s bands, but with his own, varied styles. “Names” include trombonists Paul Rutherford and Bauer, and John Butcher on saxes. Van Hove’s piano styles range from Cecil T to rag to romantic, depending on the context. The suite begins with a “Smooth Ascend and Bumpy Descend,” which achieves some of the sonorities and brassiness (pun intended) of Carla Bley’s Band. Annick Nozati (see below) contributes vocalise with a sound that combines the positive attributes of singers like Diamanda Galas, Shelley Hirsh, and Irène Aebi; a clear, rich voice with no aftertaste. She blends effortlessly into the texture of the group as a violin or horn would. Distribution:

Final Notes: I’d like to note the passing of two relatively young musicians, Annick Nozati and Glenn Horiuchi.

Nozati, beside being a member of Van Hove’s nonet, has her own fine disc of electronics and vocals on Vand’oeuvre 9712, Le Peau des Anges. Van Hove emailed us, “Since 1984 we worked together as a duo, from 1988 on as a trio with Johannes Bauer. She was also participating in ’t Nonet since its beginning in 1991. I think she is one of the most underestimated improvisers on the global scene. There were times when we didn’t see each other for months, but whenever we came together, musically it clicked immediately. An became really a friend of Mie [Van Hove’s wife] and myself, part of the family.”

Horiuchi was a pianist and great influence on the Asian-American music scene, encouraging fellow musicians to include their culture and history in the music by example. I find his work to be rich, and not polemic, recommending his Poston Sonata disc on AsianImprov AIR008. The title work is “about” the internment camps, but this work for piano and shamisen incorporates the “Asian” elements and what I discern to be some folk influences into a work so clear of vision I’m unsure how much is composed and how much improvised. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, his friend and collaborator in AsianImprov Records, emailed me, “Glenn Horiuchi was one of my closest friends, musical and otherwise, for the past 21 years…his passing leaves a large empty space.” I was told of Glenn Horiuchi’s passing via a great but private friend to the jazz community, Glenn Ito, who is now working with Franz Koglmann’s between the lines label in Germany. He reported, “Friends and family gave a nice memorial and spread his ashes into the Pacific Ocean.”