Tagged: big band

Sad Big Band

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Kaze
Tornado
JAPAN CIRCUM-LIBRA RECORDS 202 CD (2013)

Kaze seem to me to be the Keystone Kops of jazz/improv. This album could be called avant-garde jazz for people who don’t like avant-garde jazz performed by over ambitious, over privileged, overly technical, overly clever musos; overall it is jazz that, to its credit, is aware of the existence of Otomo Yoshihide, but misguidedly and egotistically thinks it’s much better than him. Perhaps they think it’s easy.

The group, Christian Pruvost on trumpet, Natsuki Tamura also on trumpet, Satoko Fujii on piano and Peter Orins on drums, could be likened to a bunch of sprinters who, having entered a marathon, are desperately killing themselves trying to get to the finish line first. My wife agreed; “what a sad big band – like Bournemouth on a rainy Tuesday evening” she remarked over one evening’s carbonara. Final track, “Triangle” (oh dear, Bournemouth Triangle?), is particularly apt – nearly twenty whole minutes of abject humiliation in syncopated form. The musicians don’t even have the presence of mind to not resolve the piece in as trite a way as they can muster.

It is anaemic 21st-century bebop; clusters stolen from early Coltrane, Miles and Bird – track two, “Mechanique” (automated musicians, going through the motions), still thinks it’s 1958. The title track employs drum patterns which are nothing but a series of desperate empty gestures until some primal electronics make promises they can’t keep at 3:30, which in fairness did made me sit up and take notice, but then the following track, “Imokidesu”, is overblown, over indulgent and at around the five minute point the horns are playing an upward progression while the drummer comes over all unnecessary. And as for the pianist – playing with your fists is not big or clever, and it’s not always “avant-garde” either. In this case it’s just plain silly.

A word about the label(s): from the Libra Records website comes this: “Libra Records is an artist-owned record label founded in 1997 by pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and trumpeter/composer Natsuki Tamura. With 27 CDs so far, from solo, duo, trio and quartet to big band and orchestra formats, Libra is dedicated to the near limitless musical and creative vision of these two highly prolific and creative cutting-edge artists.” Sorry, cutting-edge how, exactly? And then, inexplicably; “…CDs feature beautiful original artwork on environmentally friendly paper covers.” It could be argued that whether you house your CDs in plastic or paper cases is irrelevant considering the amount of extra electricity we are all chewing through each year with all our electronic devices. Why don’t you think about how electricity is generated in the first place, before you sit there being so smug. What’s that? Plastic CD covers don’t biodegrade when you throw them away? You mean you want me to throw away your CDs??? Am I alone in thinking that all physical media – not just vinyl – is intended to be circulated from owner to owner and not just binned when you get bored of it. Oh dear, I’m back on to the BBC Radio 1’s concept of “indie-landfill” again, watch out. If you are interested, Kaze have released in conjunction with these two labels before their Rafale from 2011. Part of the reason for the current crisis/malaise in the jazz world is the aping of past styles instead of trying to push the form forward. It just don’t work. And unfortunately neither does this album in my view.

Heavily funded cultural experiments with throwing half-baked ideas at the “experimental” wall of commerce to see what will stick is not everyone’s favourite biscuit perhaps.

Circum Discs
Libra Records

Meaty, beaty, big and bouncy

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La Pieuvre et Circum Grand Orchestra
Feldspath
FRANCE CIRCUM-DISC CIDI1301 (2013)

Blimey, you wait for a large improvising ensemble to blast away the cobwebs and then two come along at once. The two outfits in question are La Pieuvre, an improvising orchestra and the Circum Grand Orchestra, an experimental jazz ensemble whose work ranges across improv, avant rock and free jazz, and they have been brought together by composer Olivier Benoit for this freewheeling large-scale work.

Benoit is no stranger to either of these bands. He is the conductor for La Pieuvre, coordinating their improvising activities, and he has composed works for the Circum Grand Orchestra. The aim with this new piece – created in three main parts, each broken down into several smaller movements and spread over two CDs – is to combine the differing approaches of the two ensembles, creating something that is neither wholly composed nor totally improvised, but which contains elements of each.

So, as Benoit says in his release notes, Circum Grand Orchestra plays music he has written, while La Pieuvre does its improvisational thing, conducted by Benoit. Sometimes the two ensembles play together, but usually they alternate. Occasionally, individuals from one or both of the ensembles play, a subset of the larger groups. Confused? Don’t be. The result is marvellous, fluid yet structured, with chunky rock-inflected grooves, airy free improv skitters and sinuous, solitary melodies. The best possible listening approach is to forget all the stuff about who does what and just go with the flow.

That said, you might want to skip the first movement of the first piece, Sanidine, a rather tedious vocal/noise workout, and head straight for the beautiful, mysterious clarinet and bass figure played by the Circum Grand Orchestra that ushers in the piece proper. As Sanidine progresses through its subsequent movements, we get a fragmented piano and bass mesh, woodwind and brass call and response, and several full-on eruptions of noise assault. It is dexterous stuff, capable of turning on a dime. And it is all the more impressive when you consider this is the work of over 30 musicians, playing live (the album is a recording of a live session in Lille).

There is a great sense of this dexterity two-thirds of the way through Sanidine, where an insistent, marching rhythm and massed chords slips suddenly into a loose jazzy jam, before widening out into a bludgeoning, off kilter wave of sound. Another striking moment comes towards the end of the piece, in movement 10. Benoit and the Circum Grand Orchestra summon up a precise and chilling woodwind and brass figure, its elegance highlighted by the seriously unhinged and abrasive experimental rock workout by the La Pieuvre crew following it.

This is dense, detailed music, capable of sudden changes of scale as well as tempo and style, with complex interplay between its constituent parts. In a flash the abstract noise rush at the start of Andesine – the second part of the overall piece, which kicks off CD2 – transforms into a propulsive, pulsing jam, the two ensembles playing together as horns weave around each other and a guitar carves a stuttering, curling line through the block of sound. Next thing you know, everyone has disappeared except for saxophonist Sakina Abdou and trumpeter Christophe Motury, who blow opaque, melancholic clouds, before the Circulum Grand Orchestra cruises in again, preceded by a wash of taped voices, for a modal jazz interlude.

As the second CD works its way through Bytownite – the final section of the piece – the players to cast off into a more light-footed realm. Movement 10 is measured, mathematical, a courtly dance, immediately followed by some cosmic vocal improvisations by Lune Grazilly, underpinned by staccato bass and brass laying down a creeping, prancing rhythm.

With Feldspath, Olivier Benoit and his players have created something that, even by the innovative standards of our cross pollinating, multidisciplinary, post everything times, is truly original. The dramatic shifts in scale and tempo, the interplay between the two ensembles and the talent of the individual musicians – not to mention Benoit’s own sense of space and rhythm – make this a thrilling ride.

Full Steam Ahead

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Martin Archer
Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites
UK DISCUS 43CD (2013)

By pure chance, I’ve recently been getting a hefty fix of seventies Brit prog jazz – written on a large scale – courtesy of the two Mikes (Gibbs and WestBrook). So, picking up on meta-musician and label magnate Martin Archer‘s Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites gives a rare continuity to my, ahem, listening regime. The rock fusion complexities of Martin’s more recent projects (Orch. of the Upper Atmosphere, Combat Astronomy) have taken a back seat for a while as Blue Meat… dives d-e-e-p into the world of the AACM-influenced, multi-directional jazz blowout. A less travelled route for sure.

Reuniting after a one-off gig a couple of years previous, this twelve-strong aggregation – made up of violin, vibes, piano, double bass, four percussionists and a wind quartet – finds Martin opting for a cameo role; eschewing the more common concept of the bandleader being at the very epicentre of the action. A perfect democracy is created where all the instrumental voices get more than a fair crack ‘o’ the whip. Though a special gold star must be awarded to violinist Graham Clark, whose lyrical and, at times, edge-of-seat bowing skills really do take this three-parter into other dimensions. All roads though, seem to lead to the vast machinations of the title track (don’t they always?), where twitchy free form dialogue seamlessly coalesces into a recurring theme that comes on like a twenty-first century homage to Johnny Dankworth’s “African Waltz” single from 1961. Strange but true.

So here’s yet another triumph from the Yorkshire quadrant. I’d defy you to name another label that consistently delivers a more solid body of challenging work than the house of Discus. And…as to the titling, I still don’t get quite why there’s an allusion to Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen’s Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favourites album of yore…country swing certainly isn’t on this agenda. Answers on a postcard please.

Exit! Pursued by a Flare

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Fire! Orchestra
Exit!
NORWAY RUNE GRAMMOFON RCD 2138 (2013)

Probably not a precedent, but interesting enough a concept is the power jazz trio that always amounts to more than three. Fire! comprises multi-disciplinary heavyweights Mats Gustafsson (sax, Rhodes and electronics), Johan Berthling (bass, guitar and organ), and Andreas Werliin (drums and percussion), and is typically an extra-curricular venting venue for the three mainstays. Their two previous outings were collaborations with Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke respectively, but Exit! sees them fortified by a further 24 Scandinavian jazz musicians and the group’s name is expanded in a manner commensurate. Given the injection of so much new personnel, it is unsurprising that this venture exhibits wilder, more chaotic personality traits than the preceding team-ups.

However, with small measures of bemusement and disappointment I found that in spite of this feral enhancement, Exit! frequently stops short of an all-out jazz attack on the listener, articulating an operation somewhat less excessive than it is an exercise in restraint. Mysteriously so in fact, for both of the album’s long-form pieces are themselves bisected into sections of only anecdotal resemblance, when the four tracks that served the predecessor so well might have worked better.

‘Exit! Part One’ adds a beat to the club-footed lope of the last track of the Jim O’Rourke collaboration, (‘Unreleased?’); adopting a self-assured strut, which is realised in rising triplets. Swiftly enough, a sultry chanteuse enters the scene, her piercing ululations signalling the entry of some blazing Batman brass, which flares and fades in succession like a fleet of passing Cadillacs driven by Sun Ra. The vocals recede and return, delivered almost atonally and lacking – alas – the meaty delivery that made June Tyson so much more powerful than her pugilistic namesake.

The lyrics – to my ears – (a further innovation) are nondescript and a tad too rarefied, relating to ‘the possibility of improvising in actual space, and the ties ropes and teachers in many online spaces and programs’. As a consequence, the musical space reserved for voice feels like it could have been put to better use. However, ten minutes in and things start to gel a little more: bass and drums adopt a slower, pendular swagger; shimmering organs and horns render a background full-bodied but non-intrusive for further post-modern ruminations, resorting to shrillness only in the energised, final few minutes.

‘Exit! Part Two’ begins uneventfully, but tension mounts with a urinary urgency that finds a delayed but welcome release as a cascade of shrieking brass, which obliterates all memory of the innocuous yelps leading up, which might well have fled from Bono’s throat during scale practice. The rocking rhythm that drives this one, ebbs, rises and expands even when punctured by stabs of saxophone.

Inexplicably, this titanic machine halts in the eleventh minute, to be usurped by one bleating soliloquy and then another. The searing backdrop that hitherto rendered such ululations palatable is now gone and a full five minutes is spent building steam from squeaky fluttering, only to spazz it again, in the absence of an appetite for vocal histrionics. Mercifully, a fireball booms out of the void and burns a giant cigar hole in the speakers with a comet trail four minutes long, affecting a tentative redemption in the album’s dying minutes.

The flaws (by my reckoning) in this album are quite unnecessary: the weak vocals and the peculiar structure, to identify the principal culprits. The sense arises that errors of judgement are difficult to undo on a project of this scale. A brave face is needed. Which is not to say the album is a dud – probably it will knock many listeners out – and in its stronger moments the band hits a mean stride, sounding unstoppable. I don’t get those lost minutes back, but I do know when to put the kettle on.

We Conquered The Mountain Horizontally!

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Ratchet Orchestra
Hemlock
CANADA DRIP AUDIO DA00820 CD (2012)

In Ken Kesey’s widely-read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the antagonist – the hatchet faced Nurse Ratched – is depicted as a spider, ‘in the centre of her web (of) wires like a watchful robot… with mechanical insect skill, (knowing) every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get what she wants…’. Just one letter (and much sadism) removed from this creation, the Ratchet Orchestra resembles a similarly organised regime.

As exercises in man-management go, this chamber jazz band is an ambitious proposition indeed. Having burgeoned from a handful to some 30 Montreal musicians of the first water over the last decade and a half, the logistical and democratic considerations of distributing them evenly over a mere 9 pieces (most of which hover around the 5-minute mark) fries my mental circuits. But the task is ably executed by leader Nicolas Caloia as he provides a showcase for all but preferential treatment to none. As a result of such exacting exigencies, there’s nary a moment wasted by this muscular unit: from careful canter to clattering cacophony, the only sound phenomenon left unexplored is silence, though you’ll probably look into that one once the CD has ended.

Being a big band jazz unit with an unabashed devotion to Sun Ra (they first celebrated his birthday in 1998), their sound will evoke little surprise: loping woodwinds provide a launchpad for the shriller excesses of the horn section; a soaring string section melts in the warm buzz and burble of a mute trumpet while an electric piano takes the stairs; a spidery, skittering fuzz guitar becomes swiftly serrated from climbing too many grass blades – hacks and slices at everything around it. Walt Disney is invoked and banished. Keeping shy of the minute barrier, a roustabout plays the cup & ball game with the words KICK, MAN & HABIT. Everything roars and fades with finality.

Though the musical motifs of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and the like are distinctive, this is not to say it’s an exercise in emulation – far from it. That said, if the group’s star-bound curiosity fails to ignite the transcendent inner dimensions of its forbearers, it’s precisely for the reason that it lacks the spiritual discipline: working to a timetable, no one has more than their allotted 5 minutes to shine, both as individuals and team players. The 9 tracks constitute a collection (a very varied one, albeit), rather than a narrative. Thus, the Ratchet Orchestra resolves itself as an exercise in short-term showmanship, in which respect it fulfils its mandate admirably. Appreciate this detail and you’ll walk away the winner.

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The Very Best of Ethiopiques: double set captures brief period of artistic freedom in Ethiopia

Various Artists, The Very Best of Ethiopiques, UK, Union Square Music Ltd, 2 x CD MantCD245 (2007)

For many years now Buda Musiques has been issuing a highly regarded archival series of CDs of Ethiopian jazz and pop music and the series itself has built up into a rather daunting set that can put off all but the very earnest or fanatical. To make the music more accessible to the general public, this compilation of music from across the series has been made available by Union Square Music Ltd under license from Buda Musiques. The music on offer from these two discs ranges from the soulful and rhythm’n’blues (as it was understood at the time) to big band jazz, choirs and folk, not to mention fusions of the different styles, and most of it dates from the 1970s during a period when the Emperor Haile Selassie was ailing, just before he was overthrown by Colonel Mengistu’s military government in 1974. The new government then cracked down heavily on society with censorship, curfews which killed off nightclubs and the music associated with them, harassment of musicians and other artists, and propaganda against malign outside influences.

Disc 1 contains 14 tracks, most of which are quite good so I’ll just pick out favourite tracks: these are track 4, “Enken Yelelebesh” by Girma Beyene, a dramatic, almost tempestuous song with flamboyant brass arrangements; track 13, Tlahoun Gessesse’s “Tchuheten Betsemu”, an emotive piece with big band backing dominated by blaring saxophone; track 9, Alemayehu Eshete’s “Tchero Adari Negn”, consciously leaning on James Brown for style of vocal delivery and music; and Eshete’s second track following immediately after, “Telantena Zare”, a much lighter and more exuberant piece with heartfelt singing that features a nimble lead guitar solo. These tracks especially seem to capture the spirit of the period: they combine the soul, pop and jazz influences percolating through Ethiopia’s music scene in the mid-1970s and mix optimism and a slight melancholy. On the other hand there are tracks that have me scratching my head as to why they had to be included for they don’t add much to the music overall: one such piece is the bland and heavy-handed “Muziqawi Silt” performed by The Wallias Band.

The music on Disc 2 is slightly less catchy and accessible for Western ears but probably more faithful to the musicians’ Ethiopian heritage. There’s not so much big band music featured and the songs are perhaps more personal and emphasise singing with solo instrumental backing. Singing itself can be very emotional and individual singers’ vocal ranges can border on the virtuosic. Stand-outs include “Bene mote” by Muluqen Mellesse and Dahlak Band for Mellesse’s unearthly yet beautiful androgynous voice; Tlahoun Gessesse’s moody noir piece “Kulun Mankwalesh” with the mysterious piano melody, sinister bongo and Gessesse’s unnaturally ululating vocal in parts; and Getatchew Mekurya’s “Shellela” for Mekurya’s distinctive singing sax style.

I’d like to know how the tracks were selected as there is only one female artist, Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou (Disc 2, track 1), featured and there must have been quite a few female singers in the jazz and pop music scene that flourished briefly in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. There is an information booklet that accompanies the two discs and gives plenty of detail about the careers of the musicians and groups who appear but it says nothing about which parts of the country they hail from so I have no idea if the artists represent most if not all of Ethiopia or only a sub-set of that country’s many ethnic and religious groups.

Nevertheless this set has very invigorating and joyous music, much of which was created in difficult circumstances, and in parts throughout captures the exhilaration that many Ethiopian musicians felt during that short period when artistic and cultural freedom was finally achieved.

Contact: Buda Musique, Union Square Music Ltd