[Signor Scardanelli, our Man in the Attic, returns to his seat in cyberspace. Our dear colleague feels he’s sufficiently recovered from the fantods to resume his duties here. Ed.]
[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]
A DELIGHTFUL QUESTION OF KIND: WHAT ON EARTH IS IT?
A recent arrival on the Winter & Winter label restores a pleasant puzzle to mind. So far as I am aware, Stefan Winter’s Munich-based enterprise devotes itself to jazz, more or less. Yet Winter & Winter 910 044-2, co-produced with West German Radio, Cologne (WDR 3), reveals remarkably little of jazz’s customary plumage. Those feather which are there (and these can be debated) are at most fleetingly gestural.
The disc is entitled ENSEMBLE MODERN / FRED FRITH. The exemplary Ensemble Modern generally concerns itself with new art music, along with significant 20th-century work, e.g., on RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61730-2, heartily recommended, Paul Hindemith’s seven Kammermusiken (chamber concertos). Joining forces with this emphatically European, virtuoso band are three exemplars of the New World’s Downtown sensibility: Fred Frith, guitar and music director; Ikue Mori, drum machines; and Zeena Parkins, harp and electric harp. The chemistry of interaction yields the puzzle I speak of above. As in, What on earth is this stuff?
Easier asked than said. One hears all kinds of things happening. While certainly classical in the new-music way, well — sometimes it isn’t. When I think I’m hearing the sort of bright-etched idiom one would expect from this fine German band, one is reminded that Fred Frith’s name appears as composer, although this connection is less than absolutely direct. In the commendable event, we’ve a boxcar of talent doing nice, puzzling turns — puzzling, that is, if one sees his first responsibility to the reader as a kind of clearing house with regard to categorization. For long, raucous moments, the music sounds like An American in Paris Rerouted to Hell. At others, it’s a thinking person’s carnival. Even when the raucous climbs close to intolerable, we detect clear thinking and an absence of cliché. The program consists of Traffic Continues and Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora). Frith writes: “Traffic Continues consists of a number of cells of composed music which can be juxtaposed with improvisation of various kinds. The structure and precise content are determined spontaneously by the conductor [Fred Frith], with the help of the players … Traffic Continues II … was constructed in the immediate aftermath of [Tom Cora’s] death, around samples of [his] unique and extraordinary cello playing …. ” I’ve listened to this CD often without growing weary of, or to be honest, without entirely understanding it as I would, say, something more pointedly classical or jazz. An invigorating, multifaceted enigma, this, and certainly one of Winter & Winter’s important releases. I hope there are more such. The recorded sound is immediate and well detailed. What little studio gimmickry one detects serves serious musical needs.
A what-is-this-stuff handful of hatOLOGY CDs next. (The hatOLOGY handle replaces hatART Jazz Series. The label is Hat Hut Records of Therwil, Switzerland. I’ve been plugging Hat Hut for years, first in Fanfare, now here, as one of the music world’s more consistently interesting.) Guillermo Gregorio participates in three true beauties directly relating to our what-is-this-stuff topic: Ellipsis, hatOLOGY 511; Red Cube(d), hatOLOGY 531; and Background Music, hatOLOGY 526.
For Ellipsis, Gregorio performs on alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, and conducts Moholy 1, the fourth of eight numbers. For the disc’s full roster, we’ve Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim O’Rourke, acoustic guitar, accordion; Carrie Biolo, vibes; and Michael Cameron, acoustic bass. Red Cube(d) consists of a trio: Gregorio, clarinet and tenor saxophones; Pendelis Karayorgis, piano; Mat Maneri, electric violin. For Background Music, Gregorio (alto and tenor saxes, clarinet) plays with Mats Gustafsson, tenor saxophone; fluteophone; and Kjell Nordeson, drums, percussion. As different as these CDs play, it’s clear that Gregorio’s is the overseeing conceptual presence as an intense yet lightly applied hand. I value Gregorio most, I think, for the angst-free milieu in which these luminosities thrive. No music I know veers farther from any shared definition of jazz. Yet neither would one presume to call it avant-garde classical. (Thus one’s half-way tongue-in-cheek title, What Is It?) Gregorio’s conceptions are abstract in the main, as well as pointillistic: rather than protracted phrases, evocative harmonies, lengthy rhythmic footings, luminous fragments come and go quite independent one from the other, and yet we understand that the music proceeds as something other than randomly in classical’s avant-garde sense of the term. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Gregorio’s art is a staunch individualist’s having managed to discover instrumentalists capable of contributing to an obviously coherent yet novel vision. There are few discs in my collection I value more. That I shelve them among my jazz CDs may be seen as a matter of convenience. You might even call it cowardice. Good news too for the audiophile. All three discs more than meet hat’s high sonic standard. (Sound engineers who work largely in the classical domain could profit from the gorgeously detailed intimacy of the best jazz, near-jazz and supra-jazz recording technique. Small-ensemble recording awash in large-hall ambiance sacrifices immediacy, the quality we most value in music of this kind.) I’ll be returning to hatART often. Meanwhile, for a much fuller picture of Gregorio, see Art Lange’s interview in www.hathut.com.
Potlatch is a French independent with several humdingers to its credit. Fred Van Hove, whom I encounter here for the first time anywhere, is a Belgian pianist-improviser, which in this spectacular instrumentalist’s case is rather like saying that a single-malt Scotch is an alcoholic beverage. Critic-producer-sound engineer John Corbett wrote the brief and entertaining English-language note. Corbett’s attendance in any of the listed categories flags a potentially interesting release. Flux [Potlatch P 2398, 2 CDs] confirms. The program, recorded live in Montreuil, 1998, divides into two parts at 52:21 and 42:52: Dérive and Ruwe Riumte. My guess is that Van Hove is no stranger to the technically challenging mid-century keyboard music of Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, from which foundation he promptly takes off. Any attempt on my part to more accurately characterize what Van Hove does is like nailing Jello to a tree. I propose to cop out by quoting Corbett: “[Van Hove] is, simply put, one of the most accomplished and daunting figures in improvising, and his solo music has been in a class by itself since the ’60s. Emotionally exhausting and creatively exhilarating, these two set-length solos … are masterpieces of instantaneous execution. Staggering beauty, with unerring control of momentum, dynamics and details and a long-haul sense of structural architecture rarely heard in free play.” I would only emphasize Corbett’s take on the architecture as indeed a rare thing. I’d also remark that one’s ears have trouble keeping up with Van Hove’s fingers! Fine, up-close recording by engineer Jean-Marc Foussat.
Hauts plateaux [Potlatch P 498] features Daunik Lazro, alto and baritone saxophones, and Carlos Zingaro, violin and electronics. (Throughout this release the violinist’s name appears as “Zingaro.” Elsewhere, on CDs and my references, he’s an unpunctuated Carlos Zingaro. An email to Potlatch cleared up the mystery. Zingaro is a nickname. The official handle is Carlos Alves. Not exactly a stop-the-presses scoop but of some value to mavens perhaps.) This is another live recording, 1995, Marseilles. The disc’s unique magic inhabits the consonance between Lazro’s saxophones and Zingaro’s violin and electronics, the latter playing a significant and entirely authentic part in events. The duo’s range is extraordinary. The opening moments of Gravir la montaigne sounds indeed like some weirdly ethnic mountain music, out there where the werewolves dwell. It’s like that throughout — strangely evocative, marvelously inventive, and as a collaboration, unbelievably coherent. I’ve listened to Hauts plateaux at least a half-dozen times, each play more involving than the last. What better endorsement than that? The enormously talented and simpatico Lazro was till now a stranger to me and so remains to my reference books. As much of this music receives on the spot electronic manipulation, one’s evaluation of sonics by some audiophile standard must remain vague, as in: quite acceptable.
The edge-treading saxophonist Steve Lacy engages in two improvisational interactions, one with Derek Bailey’s electric guitar in live Paris sets, 1983. The release is entitled Outcome, Potlatch P 299. The other has Lacy performing with bassist Joëlle Léandre, No Waiting, recorded live at Montreuil, 1987, Potlatch P 198. I treasure the Zingaro-Lazro and Van Hove discs; these two somewhat less. I’m a great fan of Léandre’s but I’ve never responded to Lacy as I suppose I ought, and it is he whom I hear dominating events on both CDs. Lazro’s alto and baritone saxes can be as abrasive but he balances these moments by way of relief with others of contrasting texture. For Potlatch, try www. potlatch.digiweb.fr, firstname.lastname@example.org or BP 205, 75921 Paris Cedex 10, France.
Finally (mea culpa!) I’m getting around to a Tone Road Ramblers release. The label is Einstein, which connects to Roulette, the Tribeca (Downtown Manhattan) performance space under by Jim Staley’s directorship. The Tone Road Ramblers are Steve Butters, percussion; John Fonville, flutes; Eric Mandat, clarinets; Morgan Powell, trombone; Ray Sasaki, trumpet; and Jim Staley, trombone, with vocalist Phoebe Legere in the last of nine numbers. Excepting Legere’s winsomely glancing turns on Chatanooga Choo-Choo in Discola and a moment in C-U Rag when trombonists Powell or Staley seem about to break into Tiger Rag, the program plays as the sort of elegant yet mischievous abstractions only this band seems capable of. Be that as it may, it takes master players to comport themselves so. The disc’s name, The Ragdale Years [Einstein Records 012], refers to the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL, where the Ramblers have held an annual residence since 1993. It’s also where they recorded these sessions, between 1994 and 1998. The Tone Road Ramblers’ relatively ham-handed Intersections & Detours, Einstein Records 007, in no way prepares us for the insouciant grace of the CD here reviewed.
One of the Ramblers’ two trombonists, Morgan Powell — one hesitates to write “is the composer of.” Events, while obviously directed, again exhibit highly improvisatory characteristics. Let’s let it go with: His name attaches prominently to an Einstein release entitled Orphans on the Road, Einstein Records 013. Again the mood is feather light, inventive and Dada-droll, with feather-lightness as perhaps the most difficult posture to achieve in music of this kind. These collaborations are further enhanced by Phoebe Legere’s captivating speaking and singing voice (and accordion). Dorothy Martirano’s violin and Dan Anderson’s tuba add to the basic Ramblers mix.
Living in Fire, Einstein Records 014, features the Tone Road Ramblers’ flutist John Fonville in a program of his own works (the three-part Striae and Venus Noodles), along with music by Paul Koonce, David Dramm, Ignacio Baca-Lobera, Chaya Czernowin (whose Mode CD is a gem), and Hiroyuki Itoh, all of whom connect to the U. of California, San Diego. I’ve long heard John Fonville as a supreme virtuoso with taste (a virtuoso with taste! mine Gott!) and an adventuresome spirit. As gifted as he is, he’s likewise unflashy. I do no one an injustice in characterizing Fonville’s program as sunlight dancing on water, rippling and still. The magical moments are many. As to sidefolk: Fonville performs David Dramm’s by, for two amplified flutes, with Anne LaBerge. Rand Steiger conducts a small ensemble in Ignacio Baca-Lobera’s Mundos Interiores, for alto flute, violin, cello and two percussionists. Chaya Czernowin’s Ina calls for live bass flute and six pre-recorded bass flutes and piccolos. (As an ideal example of the magic abovementioned, begin here.) Vibraphonist Steve Butters assists in Fonville’s Striae. Paul Koonce’s Escape Tone and Fonville’s Venus Noodles are for solo flute; Hiroyuki Itoh’s Salamander (source the collection’s title), for solo piccolo. The contrast between Fonville’s musical biases and those of the Tone Road Ramblers is instructive, amusing, and best of all, a source of good and interesting listening. Well recorded.