Tagged: jazz

Space is still the Place

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The Holistic Worlds of Wintsch Weber Wolfarth
POLAND MONOTYPE RECORDS MONOLP010 (2013)

Space, its acoustics and landscapes are foregrounded in this striking, improvised set by Swiss ‘jazz’ trio of Michel Wintsch (piano, synth), Christian Weber (double bass) and Christian Wolfarth (drums). Probable cause is provided: most titles reflecting at least nominal inspiration from the cosmological legends of El Sonny Ra, and the musicians – while not directly influenced – demonstrate a singular self-possession while stood amidst architectural ruins of mysterious provenance.

The Holistic Worlds is the trio’s second recording (of, at present, three), recorded once again in their home country (they appear unwilling to record elsewhere), where they comport themselves with the precision of a compatriot timepiece’s rotating innards (though never sounding mechanical), while entrancedly attracting planetary influences from the likes of those inhabited by the likes of Supersilent, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and the aforementioned Saturnian emigrant. And while this isn’t to suggest we’re dealing with a tribute project, astral allusions to the great jazz satellite are nonetheless audible, be it in the garbled, synth-gilding around Wintsch’s oblique piano lines in ‘Singin’ Joe’, or in those of the ‘Mercury Tears’: an impressionistic rendering of gently cascading water that Debussy mightn’t have frowned upon. And then there are the amorphous, alien vistas akin to those beamed in on treasured recordings such as Nothing Is and The Heliocentric Worlds (the ostensible inspiration for the current album title), which are orchestrated via astringent plains of plucked piano strings, Wolfarth’s crisp, jagged drum rolls somehow both frenetic and absent, and all illuminated by solar swells of Wintsch’s synthesizer, which he seems to be playing in tandem with the ivories.

While he overshadows no one, I must confess a predilection for Weber’s stark alphabet of extended techniques for double bass, primarily for having witnessed an intense, distilled recital at a Schimpfluch showcase a couple of years ago. Though taxing for those concentrating, his inspiration and perspicacity were nonetheless remarkable, and here are perhaps better served by the complimentary company he keeps. I’m certainly grateful for the benefit of a chair this time, from which I enjoy the group’s patient structural development as it unfolds naturally into quite unnatural formations without hint of haste. The trio has since recorded again, at Willisau Jazz Festival (hatOLOGY 725, 2013), further indicating preference for home ground. Having enjoyed the material here, I should be interested in acquainting myself with the subsequent steps they’ve made.

A Walk in the Park

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M Vlatkovich / C Lee / K McLagen
Succulence of Abstraction
THANKYOU RECORDS MV015 CD (2013)

Last time I reviewed Michael Vlatkovich my ears were tuned to his ‘Pershing Woman’ – a live recording of his ‘Tryyo’. It seemed to find the group careening up staircase and down in search of a ticking bomb in the building: apt behaviour for an area known as ‘Grand Rapids’. For all its drive and virtuosity though, I did feel the performance suffered from a smidge too much emotional detachment, further expressed in its lengthy track titles, which oddly enough evoked word-playful west coast jazzmen such as Graham Connah. Well, Vlatkovich still favours titular verbosity, but here he exudes more of that west coast whimsy – not least in his decision to work through his set list in alphabetical order – even with his group stationed in Albuquerque for the occasion.

The south-western city certainly seems more spacious than Michigan: no longer do the musicians sound as if they’re playing cheek by jowl, and the resulting sound is open and leisurely. For the most part, Vlatkovich parps along jovially at Saturday morning pace, with occasionally plangent, reflective turns of mind, as on the anomalously short-of-title ‘Know I’. He is accompanied on his stroll by the warm, resonant walking/jogging bass of Kent McLagen and the sparing, almost ornamental cymbal taps and snare rolls of drummer Chris Lee. These fairweather companions exude a positive, ‘day off’ nonchalance in remarking on the generous dimensions of their surroundings, even as they compliment their leader’s oft-elongated notes with impressive rhythmic and tonal precision. And in spite of the novelty ordering of the compositions – something of a posterity effort for Vlatkovich, who doesn’t go in for multiple recorded versions it seems – there is a very natural arc to the performance.

In his notes, Vlatkovich remarks on the trio as his favoured format, offering equal measures of challenge, flexibility and concision: ‘the music dictates a certain path; it is the trio that brings the path into focus’ he explains. And though ‘Succulence of Abstraction’ only constitutes the present trio’s second recording together, the discipline and restraint they demonstrate suggests a more familiar, intuitive and longer-term grouping than one so ‘recent’ in its establishment. A bonus of sorts is the fidelity of the recording (an improvement on my last experience), sounding more like a studio effort than one captured on stage. It was evidently a fruitful endeavour for Vlatkovich, so let us hope he sees fit to keep McLagen and Lee in steady employment for the foreseeable future.

Kwjaz (self-titled): lush soundscapes of Sixties / Seventies psychedelic nostalgia

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Kwjaz, self-titled, Not Not Fun Records, CD NNF 238 (2012)

Originally released on cassette, this self-titled debut from one-man project Kwjaz had to be issued on vinyl and CD due to the attention it garnered in the musical underground. Easy to see why too because even on first hearing I was instantly transported away into a hidden universe of strangely soft-glowing ambient colours and lush forests of shrill glittering sound and light textures. Kwjaz is the brain-child of San Francisco native Peter Berends so one presumes that this is the music project he was called upon by Kismet to direct; with his background steeped in the popular music and culture of that fair city, and that cornucopia of fine sounds Aquarius Records located not far from his neighbourhood, he really had no choice. The CD version of the album comes with the original two 20+ minute tracks plus two bonus pieces. (Dontcha just hate that when you’ve already bought the cassette?)

“Once in Babylon” ranges far and wide in musical inspiration and influence but the most interesting part comes about the 8th minute with a languorous beach-combing rhythm strolling by while space-lounge tone effects flutter about and a trumpet trills overhead. Our beach-comber soon reaches a discotheque and from there on it boogies sedately along the dance-floor. Little spaceship noise squiggles wobble high in the pulsating atmosphere and trumpet tones parp-parp by. Next think you know, you’re underwater in a funny sub trawling along the sea-floor while gloopy green currents of water slide past the port-hole. The track seemingly describes various experiences that inhabitants of a Golden Age of Mass Culture and Consumerism enjoyed over 40 years ago: there’s plenty of muzak and elevator music to pig out on.

Needless to say, “Frighteous Wane” is the flip-side to “Once in Babylon” in concept as well in the album’s original cassette format: it’s queasily psychedelic, a bit cold and clinical in parts – it’s the music that might delineate the hangover that comes from too much consumption of the most banal and mediocre experiences and material goods of the decades in which restraint, good sense and taste, and foresight were prominent by their absence. Nightmarish drones of a deliriously deranged kind are beguiling in their own way and even though you know you’re going to feel a bit sick, you can’t help but follow the music where it will. Withdrawing would give you anxiety attacks. You know you’ve made the right decision because the music does take you into some wondrous dimensions of jewelled sound and mood melody, all veiled with a slightly sinister atmospheric veil. The best moment comes about the 15th minute with a detour into an odd world of childhood tinkle toy jewellery box nostalgia and kitsch Oriental gardens of neat pagodas, little bridges over artificial streams of goldfish and carp, and cherry trees in perennial blossom. The whole vista is a little nauseating.

Of the bonus tracks, the unexpectedly short “A Certain Sprout” dallies in Sixties lounge nostalgia with analog synth melodies made a little creepy with touches of cold ambient space tone. “Elevation: Elation / Jah Wad” consists of a chain of various musical snapshots that might have come straight from an old-time late Seventies radio station playing songs straight through with no station announcements or commercial breaks. Overall though the bonus pieces don’t add anything new to the album that we don’t already know from the original pieces and some of the music on “Elevation …” echoes “Once in Babylon” with its mixture of beach-holiday ambience, lazy tropical rhythm and wistful nostalgia.

This album is the most intriguing of journeys into a realm that initially seems very familiar and nostalgic but threaded through with uneasy-listening elements that force you out of your comfort zone to confront perhaps some very uncomfortable truths about what the world you grew up in really was like. The best moments of the album are its most alien, the darkest and most ambivalent.

The Butterfly That Stamped

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Erb / Baker
Bottervagl
SWITZERLAND VETO-RECORDS-EXCHANGE 006 CD (2013)

If you’re perusing this on a Monday, it’s highly probable that on the evening of said day, avant jazz pianist Jim Baker (a compatriot of Fred Anderson, Rob Mazurek a.o.) will be a-pounding and a-probing the ivories at a residency at The Beat Kitchen, Chicago with the Extraordinary Popular Delusions collective. And as to the activities of one Christoph Erb (Tenor Sax/Bass Clarinet); touring/van life with bands like Lila, Veto and erb_gut and recording sessions with Paul Lovens, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Daniel Humair will certainly nail that mystery of the age.

In the earlier stages of 2012, these two left of field improvisors combined their considerable chops (another example of Veto Records’ cultural exchange deal between the windy city and Lucerne) with the release of the Bottervagl CD, its title being the German for Butterfly.

The track titles too like “Tximelata” and “Gwilwileth” are butterfly-related (in tongues foreign), though I don’t quite see why, as none of the tracks on offer are particularly delicate or indeed fluttery creatures. Instead you’ll find a pretty wind ranging spectrum of edgy outrospection and mysterious/nail-biting moods. These merge with slightly more stately thematics, while, at some other stray moments, Erb’s breathy tones are found knocking at the door of the vapourous antics of Martin Kuchen, master of the almost nearly, hardly there kingdom. Baker’s piano meanwhile, comes on so angular, it surely must have been built and designed by a mad cubist, bent on world domination.

Certainly, these skittering motifs can become jagged and neurotic in a trice but I would say these occasional heated exchanges never really reach the unholy plateau of high energy skronk. No Sir. Nevertheveryless Bottervagl presents us with a duo who appear to be perfectly at ease with themselves in developing their own peculiarly spikey free jazz vocab.

Oh! and there’s three more of Erb’s Chicago sessions to come…

Veto Records, Luzernstrasse 4, CH-6206 New Church, Switzerland

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Insect Jazz

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David Rothenberg
Bug Music
USA TERRA NOVA MUSIC TN 1309 / GERMANY GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 122 CD (2013)

Now this is a new one for me. I’ve heard a few insect field-recordings: Chris Watson and Sublime Frequencies being two suppliers that spring to mind; and I’ve reviewed a modest number of improv recordings, but ‘insect jazz’? I don’t think even Derek Bailey went there. The last recording entitled ‘Bug Music’ was – to my knowledge – Don Byron’s suite of Raymond Scott cartoon soundtrack (to-be) covers. Though he sported a clarinet like David Rothenberg does here, the sound was a world apart: post-colonial jazz caricatures of orientalised cultures with titles such as ‘War Dance for Wooden Indians’. There is of course Graeme Revell’s 1986 LP The Insect Musicians, which provides a starting point for the present offering, being a meticulously organised taxonomy of different insect sounds and their potential integration via technology.

And so it is – following on from entries dedicated to bird and whale song – that Rothenberg now turns entomologist, ushers in swarms of winged and multi-limbed musicians including cicadas, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers and water bugs, from which he manages to coax a pleasant panoply of rhythms and resonations; insect idioms including stridulation, scratches, clicks, chirps and thwooms – some on site, some looped or stretched in the studio; proving once and for all that fact can be flightier than fiction. For more seasoned seekers of the unusual, there is also a turn from a beetle that vibrates its penis violently underwater. The insects, in turn, prompt a sensitive musical response from Rothenberg and co., yielding a delicate palette for the production of precious musical miniatures, which amount to a reflection on relations ‘twixt man and nature, and signalling well the sonic subtleties one’s perceptual filter might ordinarily omit.

Additional performers include Robert Jurgendal on guitar (whose work with Fripp and Eno shows through), singer Timothy Hill and Umru Rothenberg on ipad. So as not to overshadow the main attraction, homo sapien headcounts are kept low throughout, whether live in situ or otherwise, and no effort is spared in underdoing things, as in ‘What Makes Them Dance?’ where ‘a wash’ of sampled katydid hum emerges unhurriedly from the slow spaces between gentle wind, piano and percussion, or ‘Treetop’ wherein Rothenberg’s clarinet ascends to the eponymous summit 1 only when permitted by breaks in the subsonic rumble. Only in the final track, ‘The Year of Insect Thinking’ does Rothenberg cut loose, blended with upbeat electronic percussion that falls on the tasteful side of Bill Laswell’s ethnographic dabbling. As he postulates in his liner notes, ‘human music (likely) evolved out of the millions of years of listening to the sounds of bugs’, which notion has prompted his decision to consciously ‘learn’ from this in his own approach to composition/performance. The patient approach to performance within signals a degree of success in this enterprise.

Indeed, however intricate the expressions of the exoskeletal extras, Rothenberg’s accompaniment is always sparing and sympathetic: the work of a curious and well-attuned ear and a desire to accentuate the unique. Listeners should find the pieces agreeable, though I would qualify this remark by stating that it perhaps requires careful listening in shorter sessions, so as to do it justice. It was released in tandem with a book of a similar name (Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, St Martins Press), and is available in an edition of 1000 copies, thus in no foreseeable danger of extinction.

  1. Actually, it refers to the name of the insect, the three-humped treehopper.

Fraudulent Jazz & Loony Tunes

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The JazzFakers
Here Is Now
ALREALON MUSIQUE ALRN043 CD (2013)

The first time I heard about ‘fake jazz’ it was John Lurie’s description of his Lounge Lizards outfit. Word had it that jazz purists were irked, though I was bemused by the idea of sensibilities offended by the cool cohabitation of its smooth (by No Wave standards) jazzy contours and Arto Lindsay’s barbed guitar strangling. That was my first love in ‘jazz’: one that has developed over the years. Much has changed in the world of NY jazz too, if the (latest incarnation of) JazzFakers provide trustworthy testimony. Low on goose honks, but high on something I’d rather not try; the above stylistic demarcations have haemorrhaged heavily, and rockier tendencies – those found in ensembles such as Dr Nerve or This Heat – impregnate Here Is Now, along with all manner of unnameable scrap suggested by the sleeve. Here and now, it all swirls together like a melted radio.

Propelled by sax and keyboard man, David Tamura – something of a mover and shaker in the NY underground scene it seems – The JazzFakers max the volume on their effects boxes and shred with abandon. ‘Fake jazz’ gestures are absent, but there are lots of distorted guitar runs, bassy plinks and plonks and wave upon wave of treated, nauseating noise. It’s a New York native and no mistake. Such self-intoxication and avowed alienation of structure will likely distance lovers of straight melody and (even) avant-skronk, which is, I suppose, as ‘punk’ as one can hope for in this post-everything point in time. Simply put, everything explodes in all directions and cares not for your acceptance, nor mine. Ten out of ten for attitude; but points off for the carsickness.

I prefer the moments when the iridescent morass coagulates into something ‘musical’ – as on the energised bass and sax run on ‘Nowhere Is’ (the oblique Sun Ra reference suggesting a sly wink, possibly conceit) and ‘Weise Horn’, in which the sea of distortion encroaches like a tar flood that washes the band away. By ‘Horse Wine’ the addition of a stable, skinned rhythm to the mix establishes a sound one could click fingers to, provided amphetamines were within easy reach.

In case you hadn’t noticed, track titles are all anagrams of the album title – a trait that further contributes to the album’s sense of hermetic self-containment, in which every idea is indulged to fruition. The trend culminates in the aptly titled ‘Hero We Sin’- the biggest beast at nearly 13 minutes – perhaps an implied tribute/apology to the hardy few to brave the waves of ugly sound between every milestone of rubbery jazz, by drenching ears in a distillation of everything this album is.

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The Black Neck Band Of The Common Loon
The Fleshing Beam
UK FOOLPROOF PROJECTS prj030 CD (2013)

Dandruffy ‘freak-folk’ flecks fall from the shoulders of this multi-man behemoth – The Black Neck Band of the Common Loon – which lumbers in a manner more akin to psychedelic troubadours Sunburned Hand of the Man or Volcano the Bear, with a hint of Tom Waits’ old boneyard rhythm section. This open-door cast ensemble hails from Brighton – to my barbarian ears seemingly well graced by strange and interesting artists these days – and is driven by Foolproof label don Andy Pyne and mysteriously monickered multi-instru-mentalist Blue Pin, accompanied by a Jason Williams on (correct me if I’m wrong) tenor sax and a rather angry electric guitar. Going by Blue Pin’s (darkly) illuminated cover one might anticipate something along the lines of a Constellation release: atmospheric and emotive long-form rock orchestrations. Such a notion wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate, though the sound of this earthy anomaly is far from as streamlined as much of what I’ve heard from the respected Canadian label.

Clattering clumsily into being on most of the eight tracks, the group lurches in a manner menacing by virtue of its disregard for passers by. For the most part, it’s warbling woodwinds, screeching strings, saw-toothed guitar and steam train percussion – thundering slowly towards God-knows-where, like a nightmare carriage glimpsed in a protagonist’s blind spot in a Thomas Ligotti story. Of particular note is ‘Open Mouth Mounting’, which sports rhythm and rambling vocals suggestive of an esteem for the more driven, psycho-ethnic improvisations of Sun City Girls – particularly those on Kaliflower or early Carnival Folklore entries. From charcoal to abysmal, every track is a different shade of black, and the violence – though often implied – is jarring and intrusive. This manner is most successful when individual elements do not encroach, though there are times when the relentless shredding becomes a little overwhelming. Still, there’s a time and place for such scorched-earth antics.

Souvenirs From Shows You Shouldn’t Have Missed

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John Butcher / Tony Buck / Magda Mayas / Burkhard Stangl
Plume
UNSOUNDS 35u CD (2013)

Four high-profile improvisers capitalise on their connected histories, which found them webbed-in to one another via a confoundingly complex array of formations large and small; and stepping into the present arrangements via – one assumes – a mutual and long-term esteem and/or chemistry. From the start, the sense of atmospheric cohesion is as sincere as the signature sounds of the participants: Tony Buck’s unmistakeable cymbolic shimmering as adhesive as sea foam; Butcher’s full sonic scrapbook given voice and breathing space: every tongue-twitching trill and sharpened honk served with nonchalant mastery; Burkhard Stangl’s guitar is rubbed down to raw, regular plinks, like a skeletal bridge that precariously spans a yawning chasm. From Magda Mayas’ fists erupt dense, resonant note clusters, as though Cecil Taylor’s hands were ripped into a black hole, feather-punching through the innards of her chosen instrument like a gory Manga murder. One and all: abiding ever in awareness, issuing forth a supernatural gestalt of their collective potential.

These two performances were recorded in London venues four years apart (2007 and 2011), thirty and forty minutes respectively, Buck and Butcher comprising the core; the three-human headcount providing a further element of consistency; the other being the lustrous sound summoned up on both occasions: one that blends visceral gestures with a perpetually softening ambience. It must have been warm in those venues – by the end at least. The aforesaid signatures socialise succinctly across a spectrum of collective possibility; the music traverses gaping gulfs of narrative space, foregrounding not a single ego, but responding intuitively to evolutionary permutations introduced at regular, if imperceptible junctions. Sound quality is first-rate, too. The minutes fly by.

It’s a sobering consideration that modern consumer listening dictates that recordings such as this – which would still be blowing minds today if recorded half a century ago – now likely constitute but a financial afterthought at a nice show at the Barbican. Still, it sounds so good you might feel you were there.

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Webster / Holub / Anorak
Languages Live At Vortex
GAFFER RECORDS GR037 CD (2013)

Also of the ‘wish I’d been there but this will do’ species (though a markedly different specimen), is this compact live set from a trio of Colin Webster (sax), Mark Holub (drums), and Sheik Anorak (guitar), captured midway through a 3-date tour of southern England. It immortalises their incendiary antics in four sections, presenting a performance that pits the three in Houdini-mode, prying themselves apart while a universal magnet has them tied in knots.

The first leg witnesses Webster barking gutturally and pulling ugly faces in playful riposte to Sheik’s primitivist six-string lunges. Holub holds back somewhat, perhaps sensing rhythmic sufficiency in the guitar work. Mysteriously, the exchange halts six minutes in and resumes as a fluttering twitter-fest, one newly liberal in the application of cymbals albeit. Such cutaways wouldn’t happen if this were not a ‘document’ perhaps (nor would the lengthy between-track banter!). Still, the reptilian monstroid matures, becomes sandpaper-skinned, horned and mobile in next-to-no time and resumes its rampage – the three elements increasingly charged and stunningly synchronised. It would have been quite a treat to be one of the two hands present to applaud this fiery spectacle.

From then on the sound simmers slowly from languid beginnings into tectonic trembling – exhibiting an impressive mastery of a palpable tension, suggesting a familiarity between musicians that does not impede a joyful pursuit of new discoveries. Bass in absentia, Sheik’s crunchy, centipede guitar compensates by providing structure for flaming acrobatics of his playmates. Wisely though, the trio skirts the temptation to simply explode into a chaotic free-for-all, and in doing so distinguishes themselves as a controlled but compelling unit. By the final piece, they have spent their voluble energy and operate on a more sparing and astringent manner: the space between them (and their notes) seemingly greater; they make their main mission before packing up to deconstruct the detailed music they’ve so assiduously assembled. But not without a final roar of blistering bravado. “Up to standard” as an old friend of mine would have said.

People Go into the Stratosphere

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The Martin Archer all-you-can-eat buffet is open for business…better bring a big plate and an extra fork…we received the self-titled double CD set by Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere (DISCUS40CD) on 19 November 2012, and it’s a real grand bouffe 1. This is another grand scaled project organised by Martin Archer in Sheffield and released on his own Discus label. Archer, highly conversant with saxophone and electronics, has been a past master of small and intimate group situations involving those instruments, but increasingly these days he is thinking big; there’s a large number of gifted people involved in this ambitious project, and while the core Orchestra itself – mostly keyboards, electronics, synths and percussion – comprises just five players, there are also performances from La Garotte String Quartet, The Divine Winds (a saxophone and woodwind group), and Juxtavoices, the unique singing choir whose work is also represented on this label on the record Juxtanother Antichoir From Sheffield released this year. With this small army of musicians, this lengthy album presents a cosmic sprawl of massed organ drones and electronic doodlings, enhanced with jazzy brass blasts and free-style vocal episodes from the choir. Think of Tangerine Dream to the power of ten, joined by an early incarnation of the Mike Westbrook Band and the Scratch Orchestra – an early 1970s music fan’s dream come true!

On ‘Seen From Above Parts 1 and 2’, the Orchestra create a truly enormous and cavernous sound, occupied by detailed passages of free playing; it’s a remarkably sustained effort to keep the space as nebulous as possible, without allowing the work to collapse into a sludgy mess. Philip Glass saxophone arpeggios leak into this open-ended gaseous billow of Gong-esque organ and synth drone. ‘The Opposition Effect’ should appeal to anyone who enjoys the work of the John Aldiss choir on side one of Atom Heart Mother (and I know not many Pink Floyd fans do), with Juxtavoices chanting their clipped syllables in a strident manner to the backing of a lumbering rock beat, solid organ chords and flipped-out sax squawkings. “It’s a 25-voice choir that works on the premise that any 25 note chord is probably going to be OK,” is how Archer described the choir to me in 2011, reflecting on the mixed abilities of the singers in the group. “It’s more about text and performance and maybe experimental poetry.” That side of the choir is also to the fore on ‘An Open Vista Is Revealed’, an excellent short piece on the second CD, with the voices whistling and whispering in mysterious manner against a very restrained and open-ended instrumental backdrop. There’s more of their free-form poetry chants on ‘Star Procession’, which when combined with the dissonant string sections and electronic drones produces a heavy-duty dose of out-there weirdness.

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Archer has stressed that he isn’t out to experiment with variety just for the sake of novelty; rather he regards his multiple approaches as different ways of solving the same problem. This double CD set abounds with experiment and innovation, exploring ways to make these group combinations work. On ‘Almost Unrecognisable But For Its Surface Markings’, the string quartet wander an alien landscape in amazement, while percussion clatters around them in tiny explosions. In that case, the keynote is uncertainty and doubt, but not so on ‘Duty Music’, a big-band escapade with the strings and brass creating a very forthright and upbeat mood. ‘The Umbral Length of Shadows’ is an extremely bold attempt to use most if not all of the musicians in one collective blast; a somewhat lumbering beast results, which misfires in places and gives us almost too much to listen to as it tramps along its path propelled by a faux-funky beat; but you’ve rarely heard such remarkable combinations of unusual sounds, timbres and pitches. And at 20 minutes, ‘Nimbus’ is another major showcase for noodling keyboards, heavy drone and errant string solos creating unearthly effects, only slightly let down by the rhythm section providing an unimaginative drum and bass beat which somehow falls short of the best moments of Can. That said, Can never used strings and brass to such powerful effect on their records.

With titles such as ‘Anti-Crepuscular Rays’, ‘Rainforest Tension’, and other titles quoted above you’ll have noticed the meteorological and sky-gazing themes of this release 2. It’s a promise that is borne out by the very airy and open sound the Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere are capable of generating with their competing frequencies and strange juxtapositions, at their best achieving the ethereality of the air itself. As to the music, which incidentally has taken three years to complete, the press notes make explicit aspirations in the direction of Terry Riley, Stockhausen, Alice Coltrane and Krautrock – which should give you sufficient orientation. I think this is an exceptional work, which testifies to Archer’s very sociable and outgoing approach to making music; he simply likes people and likes to gather them around him so he can perform music with them, and I would estimate that a significant percentage of this album is performed live or in real time. Certainly the electronic effects are kept to a minimum, with only a few audible foot-pedals to tweak the organ drone, and acoustic instruments abound, holding their own against the amplified section of the Orchestra. And the sheer length is mightily impressive. In duration alone this would have occupied a four-LP box set in the old days, a generosity that pays off even when the music does sag in places (‘Coherent Backscattering’, a rather formless and laboured piece, is one notable failure) and the work overall might have benefited from a little editing or a more selective production strategy. The major disappoint to me is the utterly unprepossessing cover art, a grainy image of hideous browns and blacks which eventually resolves itself into a murky treated photograph of the band playing a concert in a venue. The cosmic Theta on the back cover is a good notion 3, but this powerful sign has had its energy somehow sapped by digital imaging, and it floats vaguely against a bitty background of artefacts when instead it should pulsate with all the mystical power of the black monolith object on Presence 4. The cloud photos printed on the discs are slightly better and fit the concept of the record. But overall I believe the strength of the music is seriously under-communicated by these poor visuals. This plaint aside, Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere makes good its printed claim to “propose an alternative reality”, and is warmly recommended.

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  1. I refer to the film of this title directed by Marco Ferreri and released in 1973.
  2. For perfect conceptual unity, the record really ought to have been pressed at Nimbus, who manufactured most of the releases for Recommended Records.
  3. Theta is used in meteorology to represent potential temperature.
  4. i.e. the Led Zeppelin LP. The puzzling cover art is one of Hipgnosis’s best, in my view. Storm Thorgerson appeared on a recent TV documentary about the making of Wish You Were Here, and neatly summed up Hipgnosis’s cultural achievement; he was simply fed up of rock album covers that were no more than photographs of old geezers.

Ectoplasm and Adrenaline

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Ken Hyder / Z’EV / Andy Knight
Ghost Time
HINTERZIMMER HINT 16 CD (2012)

As initial reactions go, the question “what is this scary music?” is certainly auspicious, offering assurance that I’m playing something interesting. The group goes by the name of ‘Ghost Time’, and is an ethereal, instrumental trio of overlapping interests, all peripheral to jazz. Most (in)famous of the three performers is Z’EV, known for his molten, multi-kulti-meets-industrial approach to percussion. In these four post-mortem ‘jazz’ pieces he is joined by composer and fellow percussionist, Scotland’s Ken Hyder, whose predilection for prog/jazz fusion puts him on first-name terms with the likes of Tim Hodgkinson, Phil Minton, Keith Tippett and Elton Dean. Finally – and most enigmatically – Andy Knight is, according to the group’s website, simply ‘an English trumpet player’. The group’s moniker offers ample indication of what to expect: ghostly, post-mortem ‘soundscapes’ steamrolled by sub-bass and streaked with spaghettified phantom yowls. The formula may not be rare, but the product permits little more than a passing acquaintance: depersonalising all participants and foregrounding none into the bargain.

The tracks are largely cymbal-led, shimmering with glassy, growling backdrops coloured by a faint pull of pocket trumpet. Though potentially generic to casual listeners, the riches of this dark ambience will be revealed to the patient. The press claim that there is ‘a feeling of something you felt before… A hint of music you might have caught on the wind, off the water, in your sleep, or in someone’s eyes’ is not inaccurate, though by the same token, specific influences such as Canntaireachd (‘a vocalisation of bagpipe playing’), Tuvan Khoomei singing and Tibetan ritual percussion playing will be evident only to ‘those who know’. Not until ‘Faint’ are we treated to any significant tonal variation, where a more menacing air of rolling snares and guttural sub-bass enshrouds the careful listener, while in ‘Glimpse’, a sharper strain of muted trumpeting pierces the atmosphere like it does the ‘Silencio’ scene in Mulholland Drive.

Generally, there’s little to differentiate one track from another, as all possess the same ingredients and ideas, leaving us with a subtle, longform exercise in theme and variation. Not that there’s anything wrong with this of course. The music can be easily enjoyed, especially if one assumes a horizontal position and surrenders to the near-darkness it articulates.

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Terrie Ex / Paal Nilssen-Love
Hurgu!
PNL RECORDS PNL012 CD (2011)

On the other side of the jazz divide we find – in this exclamatory effort, ‘Hurgu!’ – Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and guitarist Terrie Ex (of Dutch troublemakers, The Ex) in singularly confrontational and uncompromising mind-states, both in jazz-flag burning mode. Little need be said about proceedings other than the fact that they are a) loud and b) fast. However, lest the reader experience apprehension at the appearance of yet another jazz-rock wank-fest, I hasten to add that it is c) completely captivating from start to finish.

The recording rocks and rolls with an itch that begs for relief: like two lion cubs tumbling playfully in the savannah, Ex and Nilssen-Love tussle with dental intent. In ‘Harar’, Ex’s guitar is edged and muscular, withstanding every pummelling beat of Nilssen-Love’s relentless percussive rejoinders. The mood becomes more jagged in ‘St. George’ – Ex chipping off chunks of flaming scree, which Nilssen-Love volleys with thundering skin rolls and searing cymbal smashes, the two colliding like masochists in a moshpit. Initially of a more sinister species is ‘Bedele’, which begins with a bassy rumble and a rant of agitated strings, but soon enough becomes another high-pace terminator chase through a collapsing metal works. Not until ‘Meta’ does the blistering meter relent, slowing to an agonizing howl of abrasive growl and angular twang: atonement expressed with the most depraved definition of ‘grace’. This comedown comes across like one of DNA’s primal scream therapy sessions hijacked by an enervating lecture on entropy. Utter perfection.

A Petit Pair and a Prolix pfMENTUM

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Jean-Luc Petit / Mathias Pontévia
Pha
FRANCE PETIT LABEL FREE 006 CD (2011)

A Google translation of the French press statement for this recording by monsieurs Petit et Pontévia (tenor/baritone sax and drums/percussion respectively) provides a worthy epigram: a saxophone abandoned, lost, wandering between shadows and ghostly and spectral glow, sometimes brutally reincarnated in furious ultra physical flights you take guts. While kinetically vivid in imagery, the mechanical translation’s oblique solecisms – a faint reminder of Burroughs’ poetic cut-ups – are as immediately intriguing as any of the sonic collisions that occur between the musicians. One could pontificate all manner of inventive images to describe the range exhibited over this hour-long recording. Or simply listen. Given the scarcity of this edition (limited to just 100 handmade copies), decisiveness is probably paramount.

Petit and Pontévia’s mutual sensitivity and rapport suggests they are a long-term pairing, one ever the other’s foil. By way of illustration, in ‘Pha’, a softly smoking tenor finds itself sandwiched between a strident, metallic whine from (what sounds like) a bowed cymbal and some abrasive electrical interference. A more aggressive turn of mind defines ‘Le Tube, Le Câble’: thundering rolls (and tinny taps) on all manner of solid objects front up to a sax squeal so sticky it sounds like plasters ripping off skin. While swinging between states of almost-forced and catatonic, once in motion, the piece’s relentlessness is easily relished, and though consistent rhythms seldom cohere, rarely does richness not result from the pursuit of dynamic equilibrium. The silkscreened black and red cover image of a dense, knotted treetop offers a decent idea of the disc’s bi-polar and dynamic disparity.

For improv aficionados, this non-idiomatic pairing will likely yield few surprises, but between the two exponents the manifold mysteries of the likes of AMM are at least mentioned. Ultimately, satisfaction is a more realistic reaction than astonishment.

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Lebrat / Boubaker
Quasi Souvenir
FRANCE PETIT LABEL SON 012 CD (2011)

Bowing and scraping before others is behaviour widely regarded as beneath human dignity. In a musical context it can be engaging, but too much of it can suggest a gloomy squat with peeling walls and squeaky doors. It depends, I suppose, where one’s aesthetic threshold is situated. And so is the case with this duo recording for saxophone and cello from Soizic Lebrat and Heddy Boubaker. The title indicates that this recording is more than a mere ‘document’ (one limited to just 100 copies incidentally), but not quite the memento of a special time abroad. Wherever it happens to be that this duo dwell, one assumes that clouds and rain are never far away.

The bow of the cello is, as suggested, pulled so painfully slow throughout these seven cuts that each seems most determined to emit – whether high or low – the most eardrum-rattling frequencies of all. The standard format for each vibratory performance appears to be a slow, exploratory warm-up that establishes a mood somewhere between morose and agitated, which then becomes an interlocutor in an improvised role play. The saxophone is a satisfying counterpart, with its careful curation of slow, low blows, delicate, virtually yogic breathwork and low register chatter. Tensions that arise at any given point are swiftly spent, and developed anew.

Recording quality is of unimpeachable clarity, capturing well the dynamic subtleties and timbres of the instruments, as well as the sense of open space and – indeed – the subtle expressiveness of the musicians. To top things off, the astringent blue card sleeve really does the music justice: the silkscreened medical illustration of an eye operation on one hand recalls the infamous scene from Bunuel and Dali’s phantasmagoric Un Chien Andalou, while on the other indicating that suffering is ever at hand.

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Vlatkovich Tryyo
Pershing Woman
USA PFMENTUM CD071 CD (2012)

In ‘intimate’ musical settings, there seems to be little accounting for the power of a performance. Often, the special secrecy of an experience shared by just a handful of cognoscenti leads to legends, while on occasion a tiny turnout sparks just a distant, disaffected performance. On the recorded evidence here, both the audience and the Vlatkovich Tryyo – probably equal in number – are on fine, fiery form; the latter working up a storm ex nihilo as though it were second nature, preserving the triumphant occasion (recorded in Grand Rapids, Michigan) for posterity on this disc.

Doubtless owing in part to the history and pedigree of the three musicians present (Michael Vlatkovich on trombone, Jonathan Golove on cello and Damon Short on drums), the group appears resolved to deny admission to even a moment of silence: in Vlatkovich’s compositions, from the rip-roaring get-go, everything is event: the trombone firing tight, tethered phrases, deftly shadowed by Golove’s plucked cello, and underpinned by Short’s cymbals, which swing with the best – a meter he carries through much of the album. Sometimes soaring, though sometimes sober and even sombre, the group’s vibrant, full-bodied racket engulfs every inch of venue space. At its most upbeat, it bears traces of Henry Threadgill’s melodic exuberance; elsewhere some of Sun Ra’s more oblique, atonal colours enter the palette, especially when ties are loosened and fingers are freed.

Despite the Tarkovskian cover photo depicting a woman’s silhouette striding through a foggy landscape (which might analogise the not-quite-crystalline recording fidelity), the mood of the music – mainly monochrome – is far rougher, more unrelenting than the doom jazz one might anticipate. At times, the darkness is so wintery one imagines doggedly ploughing through piles of metaphorical snow, being housebound by climatic inhospitality, or succumbing to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the more solemn, later tracks. On occasion, the joylessness smacks of intellectualism over emotion, a notion compounded by unwieldy track titles such as ‘Our Costumes Should Tell Us Who We Are And What We Should Think’, and a structural disinclination towards climax, which is usually nice after a long workout. These are minor gripes however, for anyone with a thirst for dynamic, driven performances will drink their fill here.