Tagged: Africa


So It Falls

Free avant-rock Dutch band The Ex have been making tours of Ethiopia for ten years. Their guitarist Terrie Ex has nothing but warm and positive reports on these explosive and exciting events, where free jazz and improv mix freely with The Ex’s brand of anarchic punk rock and, on many occasions, the music of great Ethiopian musicians such as Getatchew Mekuria, Indriss Hausen, and others. The puffing steam engine that is sax player Mats Gustafsson, affectionately known as “Lungs” McGrew, joined in on the 2010 excursion and can be heard unleashing his hot primitive blasts on Baro 101 (TERP RECORDS IMPROV SERIESA AIS-19). He’s joined by drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and this pairing alone could have resulted in an improvising document of considerable force, but the secret active ingredient here is the Krar player Mesele Asmamaw, who summons astonishing new sounds from this traditional bowl-shaped lyre instrument. For portions of this two-part session recorded in a hotel room, Asmamaw can supply powerful bass riffs in souped-up rhythm section fashion, but he’s at his most exciting when he saws and strums the strings to create a choppy wah-wah like pattern that sounds deliriously beautiful, and also throws the rest of the combo out of whack with its graceful, non-Western rhythm. At times even Gustafsson has to stop dead in his tracks just to listen to this beautiful African playing, and then has to try and find his place again. Asmamaw makes many other wonderful sounds also, and at times you almost wish for a slightly more restrained musical environment where his delicacy could be better exhibited. But it’s that very combination of the earthy and airy elements that makes this such a distinctive release. Recorded with a pulsating, electrifying “you-are-there” presence, this is a raw and bleeding document of a memorable musical encounter.

On Treasure Hunt (TICONZERO TCZ019-1), we hear an all-star international lineup of players creating a dense and gooey electro-acoustic music mish-mash using percussion, pianos, vocals, sound sculptures, and lots of live processing and electronic music. Ikue Mori, Maja Ratkje, Simon Balestrazzi, Sylvie Courvoisier and Alessandro Olla met up in Cagliari in Italy and recorded most of this in the TiConZero studios in September 2010, before playing live at the SIGNAL festival a few days later. Some of these sessions may have a slightly “sprawly” and shapeless feel, but they have been carefully edited and assembled, and at their best the team create quite amazing effects when they’re piling everything into the sonic sandwich. It can superficially resemble elements of 1960s musique concrète, but imagine it performed at tremendous speeds instead of painstakingly created from magnetic tape. It’s also mixed up with wild stabs from prepared pianos (what John Cage could be like after two bottles of Jolt Cola), and crazy vocal gibberish from the lovely Madame Ratkje. The graphic design of the package uses “map” motifs to indicate the city of origin of each of the players (the maps I recognise include Berlin, Oslo and New York), but also use these images to suggest something appropriate to the treasure hunt theme. Maps to find buried treasure, or even maps for a dérive, quite fitting given the rather “meandery” nature of these sessions.

Here’s a silent hissing beauty of brushed steel from the team-up of John Butcher and Toshimaru Nakamura. I wondered if this was the first time they had played together as it instantly feels like the perfect combination of personalities, but they have teamed up before in 2004 on Cavern With Nightlife (WEIGHT OF WAX). On Dusted Machinery (MONOTYPE RECORDS MONO041), the English saxophonist applies his rigid, unwavering manner with soprano and tenor saxophones against the equally iron-like pitches of Nakamura, the Grand Inquisitor of controlled feedback. What results is a very clean and pure music, sometimes slightly roughed up with edges of noise and imperceptible slips in the feedback balancing act. While ‘Leaven’ is a cruelly minimal episode of unblinking and near-brutal tones, the pair get a bit more frisky on ‘Maku’ with its noise-like textures. Nakamura belches up rude intestinal rumbling from his death-dealing board of mystery, while Butcher carries on a one-man conversation with himself about extreme weather systems and how they affect the course of nature. This rumbly portion does secede to bird-like twittering and closes with meditative long tones, while the pair do their best to seek out all those tiny dissonances in their combined tones that will rattle your fillings loose and stuff your mouth full of old copper pennies. On ‘Knead’, it’s a return to more basic planes of minimal three-dimensional puff and buzz music, with plenty of meditational space for the listener to contemplate his or her own self-made cages of the mind. Lastly there is the 12-minute ‘Nobasu’, where Butcher plays feedback saxophone. I’ve always wondered about this particular device, this “engine” if you will, and I gather it involves inserting microphones into the bell of the instrument where it can capture resonances directly from the column of air being blown into the instrument. When said setup is used to create feedback, the musician is then in the position of being able to control it by use of the valves on the sax. Listeners will want to tune straight to this track, the most “musical” of the batch, to hear the fascinating repeated patterns and miniaturised Terry Riley arpeggios generated by “Butch”, but also to marvel once again at his vice-like grip on the brass, intense breath control, and overall command of the situation. By contrast, Nakamura projects a Buddha-like figure, squatting behind his desk with a stern expression affixed to his foreboding visage. In all, Dusted Machinery is an exemplary work of subtle yet startling electronic music, and a fine document of two master improvisers conversing in grand and stately manner.


Cosmic Beauties

Wadada Leo Smith is an Afro-American free jazz major player whose work is lamentably under-represented in my so-called collection, outside of his appearance on the Creative Construction Company LP of 1975. In the 1970s he played with experimenters Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Marion Brown, and many others; then the 1980s saw him making explicit musical statements and celebratory fanfares about the African experience, such as Rastafari in 1983, Human Rights in 1986, and Procession Of The Great Ancestry in 1989. At all times his music never lost sight of (a) the blues, which he considers to be at the root of everything he plays (Louis Armstrong is his chief progenitor) and (b) the importance of nature, as reflected in titles like ‘The Flower That Seeds The Earth’ and ‘Grainery of Pure Earth’. All the above themes continue to unfold and develop in Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (TUM RECORDS TUM CD 023), a new set of compositions for his trio Mbira, featuring the drummer Pheeroan akLaff and the Chinese musician Min Xiao-Fen who plays the pipa (Chinese lute-like object) and sings on the album. Her astonishing and other-wordly sounds are showcased all over the album, but especially on the title track where she intones the lyrical content written by Smith, indirectly inspired by Amiri Baraka’s prose-poem about the life of Billie Holiday – to whom this dance ballet piece is dedicated. ‘Zulu Water Festival’ expresses the ongoing Africa and Nature themes, intended as a near-cinematic vision of ’60,000 Zulus dancing’ alongside a 50-mile wide lake. And ‘Mbira’, another creative dance ballet work, draws its influences from the spiritual music of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe. That’s a lot of resonances and layers of cultural meaning to digest, and probably tends to make the music appear more complex than it actually is. Fundamentally, this is is a trumpet and drumming album of remarkable directness, with Leo Smith blowing his uncomplicated notes on top of a very dynamic percussive framework. Balancing out the bluster and assertiveness of the two males in the group, Xiao-Fen inserts her delicate and graceful notes in the spaces that remain, as surely as a spider spinning cobwebs of silk. Another well-recorded and handsomely presented release from Petri Haussila’s Finnish jazz label, which arrived 20 December 2011.

Roil is the trio of James Waples (drums), Mike Majowski (double bass) and Chris Abrahams (piano), all Sydneysiders who formed their jazz improvisation group in 2007. Frost Frost (BO’WEAVIL RECORDINGS WEAVIL42CD), recorded in 2010 and 2011, demonstrates their unique approach to playing together – mixing up atonal, scrapey and noisy improv with more melodic moments that at times hark back to Bill Evans or even Oscar Peterson. They sometimes do this genre-hopping within the same track and are not afraid of being accused of eclecticism or stylistic diversity. ‘The Swinging Treatment’ displays some high energy Keith Tippett-eseque piano runs mixed up with some slightly more melodic fills, and ‘Super Vicim’, while starting off quite bright, colourful and upbeat, ends on a more ambiguous note as the pianist rummages around the lower registers like Cecil Taylor in a very bad mood, while the bassman grumbles in sympathy and the drummer’s obsessive noisiness comes in very handy. My personal taste is for these darker excursions, but they are rare – mostly the record leans towards melodic and modal doodling, embellished with percussive effects.

Found another one from the Inam Records label, which arrived 14 November 2011. The label’s own Olekranon (Ryan Huber) joins forces with the Greek electronic glitcher-fellow, P.S. Stamps Back (Iason P.). Nine tracks on PS Stamps Back & Oelkranon (INAM RECORDS 097 / TILT RECORDINGS), of which six are actually collaborative – done by the file-sharing method. It’s an unsatisfying blend of elements – over-familiar sounds, detuned drones, off-key pitches, sequencing, beats, filters, and general noodling around without really getting anywhere. Olekranon’s penchant for over-amplified and distorted noise is occasionally allowed to surface, but it’s mostly a collection of unappetising electronic tones. The collaboration never really takes off; the ideas do not gel, the pieces do not fit together.

Ryan Huber also records as Sujo, and he made Eilat (QUIET WORLD NINETEEN) for Ian Holloway’s Quiet World label. This little release is notable for its monstrous title track – ten minutes of insane stoner rock mixed with coarse electronic droning keyboard elements and zombie-styled drum-pounding, this recording uses amplification and distortion to tremendous bludgeoning effect. A fine work of remorseless doom, only beaten into submission by its follower ‘Caliphate’, a beast which is another exemplar of distorted and silted-up noise but is lighter and faster on its hind paws. The need for expression is almost being stifled under the weight of its grandiosity – this ten-headed monster breathes much smoke and fire and nearly sets us alight in the process. ‘Jakarta’ alternates guitar-noise excess with thick and heavy drones, chanting voices, and bleak synthoid landscapes, pulling uncertainly across many stylistic territories; the extreme dynamics of loudness and quietness are overpowering, and the same device is used on the unsettlingly shrill ‘Yatom’. It’s a wonder Sujo can breathe when he’s making these suffocating multi-layered recordings, as he strives at times to out-sludge Nadja in the dangerous game of overdubbing and stacking. Grand stuff. But I sometimes wish Ryan would do it in a recording studio some time; his rich work can’t quite transcend the limitations of home recording equipment.