Tagged: free jazz

The Road To Red

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Red Square
Rare And Lost 70s Recordings
SPAIN MENTAL EXPERIENCE MENT003 LP (2016)

Here’s another excellent item from Mental Experience, the sub-label of Guerssen who also brought us the two reissues of Circle, the lesser-known 1980s post-Krautrock band. Red Square were an English art-rock free-jazz combo who were first active in the 1970s, and had a serious political edge to boot. The name Red Square refers not to the plaza in Moscow, but to the work of the Constructivists painters (especially El Lissitzky), but I’m sure these Marxists found it was a good way to signal their intentions to promoters and organisers alike. Nothing like booking a commie pinko band to play to the radical young students of the day, who wanted some light relief after a hard day occupying the University faculty with their sit-ins and strikes. They also made a grand old racket, as is evidenced by Rare And Lost 70s Recordings, an album which salvages a studio session from 1978 where they played live to create four blistering cuts, and another three recordings from a gig at Lindisfarne Hall the same year.

It’s fairly clear Red Square had at least one foot planted in the rock music enclave, as the guitarist Ian Staples heaves out a delicious heavily-amped swirl of noise, proving he fears neither loud amplifiers nor feedback effects, and makes few concessions to conventions of free jazz (or rock, for that matter). In fine, by 1978 Staples had already evolved himself into an English Sonny Sharrock, which isn’t bad going if you consider that Monkie Pockie-Boo was only 8 years old at this time, and I sincerely doubt if many people in England had even heard that record. Then you’ve got the drummer Roger Telford, who has a fairly relentless attack…I usually don’t care for drumming that attempts to fill in every available space with unnecessary rattles, bangs and triple-notes, but for some reason this maximalism is just perfect here. Manic, excessive drumming appears to be a big part of the Red Square sound. One might even say it’s the lifeblood. If nothing else, Telford’s bass skins do give the band their “bottom end”.

Then there’s the woodwind player, Jon Seagroatt, also a member of Comus and sometime performer with Current 93, who plays bass clarinet and saxophone and may at times seem to be in danger of being wiped out by the guitar noise, but retaliates with everything he’s got in his lungs, heart and liver. While he too may have picked up some of hell-for-leather sensibilities of the all-out free blowing such as you find on the 1969 BYG records, Seagroatt has also somehow evolved his own English take on the genre. There may be anger and fury bubbling under the surface, but whereas Archie Shepp and Clifford Thornton directed their anger against white racism in America, here it’s channelled into an audible Marxist dialectic, laying out a sustained critical argument against the iniquities of society in 1970s UK. At any rate, that’s my take on the matter. I invite the listener to hear for themselves and see if they agree.

All of Red Square’s music carries this particular directed energy, so the music is not just an exercise in “free blowing” or “extended technique”; they were probably young idealists itching for change, and I would suggest they intended to pass on their restless state of mind to the listener, and thereby activate the brains of the audience towards critique, towards questioning. I have often expressed the same view regarding certain Post Punk bands, most notably This Heat. It’ll come as no surprise when you learn Red Square played with Henry Cow, and were part of a movement called Music For Socialism. On the other hand, while I can imagine Chris Cutler personally welcoming Red Square as fellow Marxists, I’m not sure how far they went with participating in the Rock In Opposition thing. For balance, we should also point out they shared bills with other jazz and jazz-rock combos with no discernible political agenda, such as National Health and Lol Coxhill. There’s also some vague allusion in the press notes here to general conflicts which arose in the band’s lifetime: “their extreme sound and attitude were too much for both audience and record companies”, an evasive remark if ever there was. “Too much”? What happened? Were there audience riots? And could you be more specific about why they didn’t get a record deal?

Even if you’ve no interest in politics, which can be a jolly boring subject, the music will energise and amaze you. At their best Red Square created a kind of fierce tidal wave of sound, which was absolutely untrammelled by any tedious conventions such as rhythm, metre, structure, chord changes, or any of that stuff that gets in the way and restricts movement. Yet they did not simply spew out a hideous, self-indulgent racket, and the internal dynamics of this trio must, I assume, be something that these three men alone were capable of creating together. The press notes blither on about how Red Square were pioneers of things that “have become common practice today”, and doing this before Sonic Youth, Last Exit, and contemporary noise combos like The Thing, as though these “common practices” were fixed values and fixed goals, and “getting there first” was the important thing. I take issue with such lazy thinking. Such thinking also assumes that all these bands and musicians are all trying to do the same thing, which might not be correct. I realise we all need these labels like “noise” and “avant jazz” to help us get our bearings, but we shouldn’t trust them to the extent that we fail to listen to the music itself, and appreciate the real differences between things. Music is a living culture, not a map pointing to things we already know. And while I’m prepared to grant pioneer status to any brave musician in history who took risks and followed their instincts, I don’t think it’s helpful to see musical evolution as some sort of race to the finish line or a competition to invent something “new” before everyone else. But there I am criticising the press release, which is a bad way to write.

Red Square existed from 1974 to 1978; apparently they created two private press cassettes at this time, probably for selling at gigs, and as far as we know no “official” records from this period exist until now. However, they reformed in 2008, and albums were released on FMR Records and Fo Fum from this date, including a document of s gig at the Vortex released in 2010. Very happy to hear these fragments of buried treasure from 1978 and this record is highly recommended. From 18th April 2016.

Swift Satellites

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Urs Leimgruber / Alex Huber
Lightnings
SWITZERLAND WIDE EAR RECORDS WER018 CD (2015)

This is probably a pretty exciting live recording for fans of saxophone and drums duos, which its press release posits as “A journey through natural tones and tribal music, mixed with free jazz…”. Off-kilter atmospheres hint at deviant electronics initially on the first piece “Swift” briefly, but then the free jazz hits you pretty much immediately with terminal force. As far as “tribal music” goes though, having listened to this album a lot over the past few weeks, I’m not sure I got that memo. Not that it’s important.

Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber has been active since 1983. He has recorded with many others including notable Brits Evan Parker on their 2010 duo long player, Twine, and with Roger Turner on 2012’s The Pancake Tour. Alex Huber is responsible for drums and percussion on Lightnings and is somewhat of a polymath as far as I can ascertain; as well as recording, producing, mixing and mastering this release himself, he also happens to be the co-founder of Wide Ear Records, and is a committee member of WIM Zurich; an organisation which provides a “working space” in the city for improvising musicians. Huber has had the privilege of performing with musicians such as Tristan Honsinger, Achim Kaufmann, Tobias Delius, Matthias Schubert and Christian Weber.

All the pieces presented here have a melodic component; some more than others. “Swift”, “Shaped” and “Resistant” all showcase’s Urs Leimgruber’s hard blowing style while “Resistant” and “Struck” get more into an eastern vibe possibly referencing John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders’ more “spiritual” output. You might see this as a parallel to the UK’s Nat Birchall perhaps, with split tone techniques from Leimgruber, piles of agitated percussion and beaters in place of sticks in Alex Huber’s hands. Birchall’s work is more faithful to the concept; Leimgruber and Huber may have the chops, but I don’t think they feel the music in quite the same way. Their approach on “Struck” is more abstract than “Resistant”; there’s less of the emotionally overblown sax; in fact it sounds like the saxophone is allowed to influence Hubers’ pile of percussion in an interesting way around four minutes in. When “Resistant” ends, it is with a melodic flourish rather than the resolved exploration promised by its beginning. Great as this sounds, after these casual nods to the type of sound-making that is more often found in EAI, by the end Leimgruber has predictably resorted back to a melodic approach and the album as a whole ends just as it began.

Overall, the sound and mood of Lightnings is fairly dry and I might even go as far as to speculate whether Huber’s almost total technical involvement was a good idea. I understand how easily one can become emotionally attached to a project, but sometimes, more than one pair of ears is helpful. Certainly, it is possible for a work to suffer under the stresses of control-freakery or egotism if one person is allowed to dominate too much. I’m not necessarily saying that this is the case here, but I wonder if a third party had been sought for the mastering job at least, the result might have sounded that bit tighter and more powerful.

Bad Uncle John

Dikeman Parker Drake

Dikeman / Parker / Drake
Live At La Resistenza
BELGIUM EL NEGOCITO RECORDS 041 CD (2015)

Cracking date at this venue in Ghent, Belgium; nicely recorded with every gesture and breath crisp and clear. A hard blowing man, that Dikeman, although without the sheer prolonged violence you might expect from the playing of someone like Mette Rasmussen who is my current favourite free jazz saxophonist. I’m being very specific about incuding the term “jazz” here when I talk about “free” playing. Personally I’m more of a “free” free-playing enthusiast; I prefer to listen to John Butcher over Ken Vandermark any day (although as I’m sure you know, Butcher cannily keeps one foot firmly in the jazz realm – a decision which presumably allows him to make an adequate living from performing).

John Butcher was famously quoted as saying he thought all “experimentation” should be kept contained in the rehearsal space rather than displayed for all to see and dissect on stage. I’m not sure that applies in this case. What really excites about this document is the sound of the three musicians trying anything; bouncing ideas off each other and playing in the moment. Having missed them (theirs was the final performance) at Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival in September of 2015, I’m very pleased to hear this and can confirm it is of the highest order as evinced by my friends who did witness them at BAJF. Perhaps not quite as overtly “spiritual” a performance here as the one in Brighton according to more than one report, but in no way lacking the sensitivity, cohesion and group understanding you would expect from practitioners of their standing.

Dikeman claims full ownership of the “compositions” presented here – according to the sleevenotes – which seems a little disingenuous to me, considering the nature of this type of music, but then, not being au fait with the methods necessary in the production of free jazz myself, I am forced to conclude that Dikeman must have brought the most to the table in terms of ideas at rehearsals, I guess. Drake and Parker both have long careers behind them and are historically important musicians, so it would come as a surprise to me to learn that they had minimal input into the material this trio presents. Putting all this detail aside, I would say that if you’re beginning to explore contemporary jazz I would recommend this as a great way in. If you are a part of the current jazz scene, you’ve most likely scored yourself a copy of this already.

Vinyl Seven Glom Part 1

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Three singles from Andy Pyne’s Foolproof Projects label from 18 August 2014. We’ve heard full-length recordings by all these acts…Pyne drums on all of them. Map 71 is Lisa Jayne’s poetry rap set to Pyne’s drumming and synth performances. One of the more unusual offerings from this label. Lisa Jayne usually injects a thrill somewhere between repulsion and alienation with her vaguely alarmist tones, and her sharp voice brooks no nonsense. She always sounds like she’s about to be turfed out of a council flat by the bailiffs, and is set to give ‘em Hell in return. It’s often bothered me how, on their records, Map 71 can’t always get the voice and noise and beats to match up harmoniously, but on PRJ033 it’s not too bad. ‘Standing’ works quite well – if you hear it as a competition between the two fighting for air space in the studio. It’s a thick and heavy noise and the vocalist has to resort to the vocal equivalent of shoving and punching her way to the front. On ‘Specimen’, there’s something more secretive and fragile at stake, and she has to whisper it.

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Aeolipile is a jazz trio featuring the sax blurt of Jason Williams and impolite bass playing of Tom Roberts. We’ve had Mapping The Diaphragms Of Drowning Cats thrown at us in 2015, a quite good energy burst thing. Today it feels like the formula isn’t quite cohering, and the music they play is neither rock nor jazz, even as it flounders about trying to claim the liveliest chunks they can snarf from both genres for their own use. Williams doesn’t have the articulation or subtlety that would mark him out as a notable jazz player, but if you like abrasive sax textures and rude honking smeared on your morning rolls, then this is the cafe for you. Roberts’ bass is amplified, and he comes across as more of an aspiring Hendrix sideman than a performer on Bitches Brew. Two tunes ‘Glut’ and ‘Paused Pregnancy’ manage to roll forwards like a cart with irregular wheels on PRJ035, but the playing feels disorganised and muddled.

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Kellar is the duo of Pyne with guitarist Dan Cross, whose full-length The Even Keel we noted in 2015. Kellar always disappoint me. The combination of FX-ed guitar noise with drumming should be a noise-rock delight, but Dan Cross lacks the stamina and chops to produce anything of value. ‘Sunrise City Flux’ on PRJ034 is a weedy effort, where the FX pedals do nothing to conceal the timid and unadventurous guitar playing, and the duo tread water in a pointless four minutes of tentative dribbling. ‘Exit Via Ocean’ is more acceptable for its chaotic elements and Cross is making a bit more of an effort to push himself over to the wilder side, but they still run out of time before they manage to achieve a healthy ejaculation of noisy spunk. For the real thing, tune in to Rudolph Grey / The Blue Humans, or Ascension.

The Hills Have Eyes

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Kosmose
Kosmic Music From The Black Country
BELGIUM SUB ROSA SR394 2 x CD (2015)

This double-CD release rounds up all known private recordings of Kosmose, a lesser-known Belgian band who made their own form of free-improvised cosmic music in the 1970s. Some of its members may be known to you through later Belgian bands: for instance the keyboard player Alain Neffe and the drummer Guy-Marc Hinant went on to form Pseudo Code in the 1980s, whose work has crossed our path very tangentially; and Neffe went on to create the Insane Music cassette label, home to all sorts of unfathomably strange Belgian art music (often involving his own contributions), by I Scream, Human Flesh, Cortex, Bene Gesserit, and others – and at least 25 volumes of the series Insane Music for Insane People. But before that, there was a band called SIC founded in 1969, just at the dog-end of the hippy culture’s height, which was led by Kosmose’s bass guitarist, Francis Pourcel and the guitarist Daniel Malempré. SIC grew into Kosmose as more members joined, including Alain Neffe, and “attempts at home-made and experimental music” were made in 1971. However, what’s represented here is 11 tracks of free-form trippery from 1974 to 1978, made on an open-reel tape recorder; and most of the music is performed by the core trio of Pourcel, Hinant and Neffe, with occasional guitar solos from Malempré or Paul Kutzner when present; however, Kosmose want to stress they were a collective and had “no specific leader”.

The label proposes this music was consciously influenced by Kosmische Musik from Germany and evolved into “a purely improvised form of noisy free jazz”. I found it heavy going. Despite some moments where the combo manage to lift themselves off the ground, the music trudges and plods where we’d prefer it to soar in the air and glide through outer space. There are superficial resemblances to Gong, Pink Floyd, and Tangerine Dream, which unfortunately only serve to remind us how much better these commercially-successful bands did it. Kosmose’s improvisations are rather dull, staying in the same key for long stretches of time, and the lead instrumentalist generally struggles to find an original or unexpected statement that might lift the band out of their self-made quagmire. The sound of the band has few surprises, too; the guitars, bass and drums sound much the same as many other workaday third-division prog clumpers from the period, and Neffe’s unimaginative use of strings organ and synthesiser routinely fails to provide any excitement to the music. The comparisons to improvisation and free jazz don’t really stand up; there is little evidence that Kosmose understand extended technique, or were aware any of the adventurous ground-breaking work that was done in UK improvisation in the mid-1970s. Terms like “improvised” and “free jazz” are used carelessly these days. The most we can say for Kosmose is that they shared a collaborative form of playing open-ended rock music that didn’t depend on rehearsals or charts or 12-bar boogie.

The “Black Country” of the subtitle refers to Charleroi, a municipality of Belgium where the band originated, and from which they didn’t budge; the dozen or so concerts Kosmose played did not venture outside the Charleroi area. It used to be a thriving city of heavy industry, called the Black Country because of the coal basin, and the workers produced steel, metal and glass; but these industries were starting to fail in the 1970s, leading to economic depression, unemployment and crime in the 1980s and 1990s. The parallels with my own country’s coal industry (and that of others) are sadly all too apparent. However, if members of Kosmose felt any disaffection or political unrest, it’s certainly not reflected in their music, which is solipsistic to the point of being vacuous. None of the tunes have any titles, and they are pretty much vague abstractions, whose central purpose is about the band burrowing into themselves, taking comfort in the warmth of meaningless free noodling. I would say this attitude is clearly shown in the sleeve notes which contain many paragraphs of reminiscences by the band members; but what they talk about is how they rehearsed, played, interacted with each other, speaking of “a silent form of alchemy made its way through our music-playing bodies”, and similar guff. I’d like to learn more about how (if) they assimilated and learned from the music culture of the 1970s, but that is not discussed in much detail; they appear to have absorbed it all by osmosis, and then spent their musical career feeding off each other. They never signed with a label and never had a record released.

Not unpleasant to listen to, nor do I begrudge them two CDs of materials – they clearly needed 18-minute sprawling jam sessions just to get warmed up. But the stunted ambitions of this group don’t make for a rewarding spin. A rather disappointing set of flabby, introspective music by not very distinguished musicians. From 31 December 2015.

Blast Beats

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English free jazz is alive and well in the capable hands of West Hill Blast Quartet. We first noted them on the Blast #2 CDR from Andy Pyne’s Foolproof Projects label in 2015. Since then whey have played at London’s Cafe Oto, a document of which is now in our hands. Live At Cafe Oto (PRJ041) once again features the able blowing of vintage player Ron Caines working what sounds like a soprano sax and issuing flexible, shape-shifting lines at tremendous speed. As ever I am struck by how agile and ingenious his lines are, without ever appearing aggressive, overdone, or show-offy. Nor does he do anything to make his tone seem angry or disaffected, for instance the sour snarling of Evan Parker or the hurt growlings of an Archie Shepp. He’s supported in this plan by Dan Spicer, blowing many friendly clouds of joy into the air and here acting as Don Cherry to Ron Caines’ Ornette. Bassist Gus Garside comes to us from Static Memories, and drummer Andy Pyne tirelessly runs this label from Brighton. An energetic and rewarding set. The under-nourished cover art isn’t quite a successful update on Ornette’s seventh LP (Atlantic 1378, 1962), but the spirit is here. From 16 September 2015.

Whirled Galaxy

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The great Martin Archer released Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites in 2013, a terrific album reckoned by Steve Pescott to be a “deep dive into the world of the AACM-influenced, multi-directional jazz blowout”. This trend continues with a seemingly unstoppable flow of energy on Bad Tidings From Slackwater Drag (DISCUS 50CD), which offers an entire double CD set of such music, and Archer is now so assured of his theme that he recycles the name – and credits the work to Martin Archer & Engine Room Favourites. The huge-scaled ambitious sound of this album is what first grabs the listener, after which one reads the printed credits and does a double-take to find that only 11 musicians are making this sweeping, grandiose, orchestral noise. Robin Downe is the technician credited with capturing the superb sound from this live recording, although Archer added some overdubs in his studio; long-time collaborator Hervé Perez is co-producer, and did the mastering. On today’s spin, I am convinced I am personally fed up with minimal and inaudible improv, no matter how advanced or modern it may be; maximal, juicy, skillful playing is the way for me.

Archer admits the strongest influence on this avant big-band jazz project is his personal love of the Chicago school called The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and he singles out the music of Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton (we could also have included Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette and many others). Specifically, he likes the deep blues roots which fuelled many of the players’ exploits in Chicago, even when the music became incredibly far-out and abstract. Improvisation remained at the core, and Archer loves the possibilities offered by the “considered, spacious and open” nature of your basic AACM framework. It’s worth remembering that AACM musicians exerted themselves and found their own way out of several free jazz dead-ends, for instance by the practice of blending “music, geometry, painting, and ciphers” (according to Wikipedia) in their works. If Archer is claiming AACM as somehow overlooked or under-valued heroes in the culture and history of free improvisation, I’m 100% on his side.

As to the music on Bad Tidings, the team of Archer, Mick Beck, Graham Clark, Laura Cole, Corey Mwamba, and Seth Bennett create astonishing abstract-art canvasses of rich music, on a bed of percussive effects and exciting cross-rhythms supplied by the team of of Peter Fairclough, Walt Shaw, Johnny Hunter and Steve Dinsdale. Yes, you heard right…four drummers / percussionists…only by thinking on the scale of a contemporary Hollywood soundtrack composer can Archer realise his ambitions, and propel his music into the freedom of the open skies. In terms of drummer head-counts, he’s even gone one better than the Bitches Brew sessions. When it lifts off, the music here just floats; yet it also creates the impression of a huge Noah’s Ark filled with living creatures, teeming with energy. Did I use the word maximal yet? See above. Today’s sentiment still applies.

Stylistically, listeners will in places be reminded of Alice Coltrane’s fabulous orchestral works such as 1972’s World Galaxy, an influence to which Archer freely owns in the title to the first track ‘Song For Alice Coltrane’. The first disc alternates rich, melodic, uplifting and complex interlocking improvisations that swing beautifully, with the slightly more dissonant and uncertain avant-garde explorations of abstract space, such as the album title track – a percussion-heavy journey into the improvisational heart of darkness, where lone instruments like saxophone or violin are left to issue their lonely plaints against very spartan backdrops of abstract noise. On the second disc, the album-length ‘You Will Never Know Me’ (36 minutes!) expands into a showcase for everything this exceptional combo are capable of playing, moving from quiet, posed dynamics, to loud free-for-all blasts; the whole pathway explored with assurance and vigour and a confident swagger, with no apparent conductor in sight.

The compositions are credited to all the players; their teamwork, rapport and telepathy must guide the shape of each piece. Frank Zappa (whose music some of this material might be said to resemble) could only get to the same place by force of his own will, producing complex compositions in isolation, and then bullying the players into obedience through his narrow insistence on perfect sight-reading. The sheer social power of Martin Archer’s projects beats that hands down; Engine Room Favourites do it through friendship, collaboration, respect; ten seconds of their improvisation beats 20 minutes of post-serial composition; and the energy and warmth is passed directly into the music. The final track ‘The Hard Blues’ ends the release on a high note, paying tribute not to Chicago or the AACM, but to Texas-born Julius Hemphill who composed the original. (He did work with Braxton though, for trainspotters who want to keep the purity of the theme). Once again this is an exceptional piece of excellent British jazz / improvisation; it remains a mystery to me why Archer is not better known across the whole UK. From 23 February 2015.

Jazz Advance

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We’ve had a lot of time for the Norwegian free-jazz / improv band Lana Trio (basing our assumptions on just two excellent releases), so it’s great to hear from their trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø, a talented young fellow who also adds his lungs to As Deafness Increases. On Oslo Wien (VA FONGOOL VAFCD014), we’ve an entire double-CD of recent live performances from March 2014 with another Nørstebø side-project, where he’s supported by the Swiss bass player Nina de Heney and the Swedish percussionist, Raymond Strid. It’s great to hear a band like this really have the room to stretch out, and with five long tracks from Oslo and two even longer tracks from Vienna, you’ll have the time to savour the interplay of this very successful unit.

The two main strengths of all this music have already been identified in the useful press release, but let me try and re-explain them in my own words. (A) the ability to do the “tension and release” thing. This refers to the way the trio can remain locked in near-stasis for long periods of time, playing very little or playing virtually nothing, yet still keeping the music going somehow; then suddenly erupting into passages of great hyper-activity and high-energy freeform playing. (B) The fact that while they do this, nothing is sacrificed in terms of the music’s intelligibility or clarity. “Small details almost always can be heard,” Henrik points out helpfully. Both of these claims are fully borne out by what I hear on this strong record.

I think with (A), it’s incredibly hard to do this in a live environment without wanting to break character, move on, and start to make yourself heard with your “brilliant” contributions; the restraint of Nørstebø, de Heney and Strid is therefore impressive. Likewise to be able to do this “telepathically”, and make it into something repeatable, is surely the golden ideal of most musicians who play improvised music. Would it be going too far to wonder if we’re hearing the promises of Company Week and Incus made good at last? As to item (B), I’m sure we’ve all heard any number of free-jazz explosions and improvised blart-fests where the players are just getting in each other’s way, and (despite the pledges made in the name of ego-less music) there are one too many superstars on the stage wanting to seize their moment. Net result: listener can’t make out a thing, but is at least aware of a cloud of dust resulting from the punch-up. Again, our Norway-Switzerland-Sweden axis seems to have overcome this particular blight, and I defy any listener to find evidence of a single fudged note or overcrowded moment on the entire two discs.

Of course we could add that the music does have a “Nordic” flavour that you won’t find in Afro-American free jazz or any of its derivatives, and this is a sombre, monochromatic listen in places, tending towards the introverted and contemplative. None the worse for that, though. Recorded by Thomas Hukkelberg in Oslo and Alexander Yannilos in Vienna, with mixing-mastering by Giuseppe Ielasi on disc one. Add to this a Lasse Marhaug cover, and it’s an irresistible package, one of the finest free improv recordings you will own. From 9th March 2015.

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Transfigured Time

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Very impressed by Kompleta (ICI D’AILLEURS / MIND TRAVELS MT04), a composition of liturgical music and song by the Polish composer Stefan Wesołowski. Inside a framework of stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello) playing continuous drones in a minor key, he and singer Maja Siemińska perform psalm-like responsories in a fittingly solemn manner. All the old-school gloom and Catholic guilt you could wish for; all it needs is a censer burning to complete the devotional effect. Wesolowski has also done similar things assisting the electro-acoustic composer Michał Jacaszek, for instance 2009’s Pentral recorded in various churches in Gdańsk, for which Stefan did the vocal arrangements and performed on the record too. Amazingly, he composed Kompleta when he was only 21. He may have some way to go if he wants to beat Penderecki, but this is a moving and sincere work. From April 2015.

Ultrasonic Bathing Apparatus

Another grand piece of sombre, rich drone music from Italian latterday Industrial creator Simon Balestrazzi. His Ultrasonic Bathing Apparatus (SINCOPE SIN031) proposes a deep dive into cold psychological waters, and with its titles such as ‘First Immersion’ and ‘Second Immersion’ even supplies its own metaphorical interpretation, such that we can’t help hearing this as “music for the diving chamber”. He does it with a combination of field recordings, tapes, acoustic instruments and analogue electronic devices, passing all the recorded results over the loom of processing equipment which he keeps in NeuroHabitat – a zone which I presume is his secret underground mixing lair. The claustrophobic sense of deep pressure and airlessness he manages to achieve at times is impressive. A nice departure from the usual spirit world / occult themed records we usually hear from this fellow. From 24 April 2015.

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earnear are a Portuguese trio producing superb free acoustic jazz-improv materials on their self-titled album released by a label in Quebec (TOUR DE BRAS TDB9012cd). The viola of João Camões is to the fore most of the time, and a truly demonic squeely line he produces, one that’s so razor-sharp you could use it to peel your own skin like a potato. But the piano of Rodrigo Pinheiro introduces tones of uncertainty with his minimalistic, mixed chords that resemble the bones of a beached albatross, while underpinning the two is the modest cello work of Miguel Mira, who murmurs dark oaths with a surly frown. While ‘Imprint’ and ‘Theoretical Morning’ are quite lively, they are also salty and somewhat pessimistic in tone, as though a Leroy Jenkins LP woke up after a night out with Cecil Taylor and is now passing through a hangover the size of Passaic. Exploratory tunes such as ‘Dream Theory’ and ‘Time Leak’ are not only more introverted and quieter in tone, but they also pass on terrible feelings of metaphysical doubt, even through their very titles. Dry, precise, and unsentimental acoustic music. A fine recording. From April 2015.

Titan Moon

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Saturn’s Rival (PFMENTUM PFMCD079) is the eponymous album by a group of five players, most if not all of whom appear to be prominent in the Los Angeles area; at least two of them, the guitarist Maxwell Gualtieri and the pianist Richard Valitutto are also composers as well as improvising jazz musicians, and the saxophonist Ryan Parrish (not the rock drummer) has also played in the large-scale free-for-all combo Atomic Ape, a band who play an unimaginable sprawl of music that embraces everything from soundtrack records to psychedelic rock by way of Gypsy Jazz. Completing the ensemble we have the harpist Susan Allen and the drummer Anjilla Piazza; Allen’s an accomplished performer who has “done” John Cage, among others, on an intriguing record of new harp music for 1750 Arch Records released in 1982.

Together, Saturn’s Rival produce four lengthy workouts of mostly acoustic all-improvised music in these 2011 recordings, released in 2014. I’m already terrified by the prowess and skill of these intelligent polymath musicians, and if I could over-simplify for a second it seems to me they’re mostly coming to improvisation from a background in serious music study and composition, rather than from a purely “jazz” direction – but that’s a particular dichotomy which has been contested and wrestled over since the early days of AMM, and I’m not even sure if it has much currency any more. Besides the complexity of Saturn’s Rival’s music, there is also a certain preciousness in the playing, a precision and attention to detail which occasionally gets in the way of the music’s forward flow. At their best however, they can create a strange and unusual combination of sounds that produces a palpably alien atmosphere which I assume is their collective aim.

But they don’t really “cut loose” enough for me. It’s interesting to compare these West Coast geniuses with the current New York crop of improvising-composer types such as Sam Pluta and Wet Ink Ensemble; the New Yorkers are energetic, concise and incredibly dynamic; Saturn’s Rival have the complexity for sure, but they are largely more relaxed about the performance, conveying the information at a languid rate, and frequently using the occasion to inform us about how proficient they are on each particular instrument. Only Track IV satisfies my lust for unkempt noise during its six glorious minutes, but even here it’s not crazy enough – it’s like a control-freak’s idea of how noise music ought to be, restrained and careful, too much detail and somewhat over-ordered. In like manner, Sean Tully’s limp cover art is a dismal attempt at abstract expressionism with virtually no force or conviction behind the splodges of impasto paint. From 19 March 2015.