CD List 1
Tenko/Ikue Mori, Death Praxis (What Next? WN0011 CD)
Catherine Jauniaux/Ikue Mori, Vibraslaps (Rec Rec RecDec 52 CD)
If, like me, you don't associate the drum machine with much expressive and rhythmic subtlety, then these two albums (in some respects companion pieces) featuring Japanese drum machinist Ikue Mori, now a stalwart of the New York improv scene, should cause you to revise that preconception. Mori's approach to this instrument is by far the most sensitive I've heard. Crisp and decisive, her ideas unfold swiftly from tiny Oriental repetitions to sudden, dramatic timpani crescendos. Although she uses three self-programmed machines simultaneously the sounds are structured with a remarkable clarity and sense of space, providing a stimulating counterpoint to two very different and distinctive vocalists.
Tenko, another Japanese improvisor based in New York, draws on Japanese song and an almost childlike simplicity of phrasing to give Death Praxis a sometimes eerie, ethereal quality. Her vocals are mostly multitracked and nowhere more atmospherically arranged than the brooding, chiaroscuro interiors of 'Glow Worm'. 'I Know You', a delightful, romantic-sounding song is guaranteed to have you humming long after the amp cools.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Jauniaux/Mori duo at the LMC Festival in 1992. Vibraslaps, a NYC studio recording (the same studio used for Death Praxis), captures the same kind of fast-flowing excitement of that live set. Jauniaux (from Brussels) lives up to that "human sampler" description, theatrically touching on Piaf, Eisler and Weill as well as achieving near-operatic grandeur on 'Mentira' and a cartoon cuteness on 'Betty Boop'. Don't choose between these albums - get both if your pocket permits, for two outstanding vocalists and the best drum machinist around. (Chris Blackford)
Martin Archer, The Venona Breaks (No Music No.1 MC)
Despite the editor's misgivings (Wire 114), sound on this chrome tape is excellent, better than the last Hornweb vinyl disc (though Chris Blackford is right to moan about Arts Council support not stretching to distribution and tours). You need this digital finesse for Archer's glittering and distinctive music. Percussionist Roger Turner is simply astonishing, his jetstream of timbral variations admirably setting off ensemble horn-charts (James Brown meets Richard Strauss) and free bravado.
There are some drawbacks. I'm not sure the symphonic scale works: themes are nicely broached and returned to, but there is so much light and shade in every section it is hard to make out any overarching structure. In 'Snow At Sea' it occurred to me that, to achieve the BYG starkness he's aiming for, Archer hadn't exacted enough fervour from his horn-players (his own soprano is as acute as ever). However, if you are intrigued by the idea of improvisors caught in the arc-light brilliance of Edgard Varese or Michael Finnissy, a listen to this is essential. (Only available from Discus, Box 658, Sheffield S10 3YR, England) (Ben Watson)
Billy Jenkins/Vanessa Mackness/Tony Messenger, Actual Reality (VOTP VOCA AR1 2MC)
Maybe you did as Brian Eno said and turned the record player down so low you could hardly hear it, or rigged up a third 'ambient' speaker, or even flipped the TV on its side to watch Thursday Afternoon. You did? Then you're just the sort of person who'll want to experiment with Billy Jenkins' instructions for Actual Reality.
Take two cassette machines. Place two pairs of speakers about three metres apart. Pop in the two cassettes, and play simultaneously. It mainly hinges on the likelihood that your machines will drift out of sync like Steve Reich's loops did in the mid-60s. Not that the music on the cassettes is identical, though I assume some passages were timed to occur simultaneously, so that when they don't you catch the drift, so to speak. Jenkins has used material from three of his previous albums, plus newly recorded contributions from Vanessa Mackness (vocals), Tony Messenger (sampling), Martin France (groove drums) and himself (keyboards). I found it cute, disturbing, sexy, silly, powerful: a surging Mexican Wave as one machine follows the other into aural chaos. I tried it with two ghetto blasters. Those of you with four ears should try it with two Walkmans! (Chris Blackford)
Peter Kowald/Werner Ludi/Butch Morris/Sainkho Namchylak, When The Sun Is Out You Don't See Stars (FMP CD 38 CD)
Sainkho Namchylak, Letters (Leo CD LR 190 CD)
Sainkho Namchylak, Lost Rivers (FMP CD 42 CD)
Siberian-born, Sainkho Namchylak, first came to light as an improvisor in 1989 with the Russian group TRI-O (see Document review in Rubberneck 12). Subsequent touring throughout Europe has convinced some that she is one of the most exciting and challenging vocalists now working in improvised music. Words like 'exotic' and 'other-worldly' are pale attempts to describe the unusual and decidedly non-Western sound colours she creates in her performances. These three releases also demonstrate that there is a lot more to Sainkho's art than just Tuvan 'throat-singing', though that does have a special fascination.
When The Sun Is Out is a superb blending of US/European talents; blend being the operative word here because for much of the time everybody stays dynamically and texturally close together; not imitating each other (as one reviewer mistakenly put it), but individual statements swelling out and upwards from a drone-like core, given solid cohesion by Kowald's darkly resonant bass. Sainkho's vocals, far from being the exotic wild card, actually highlight how far her colleagues here have travelled outside conventional notions of Western tone colour and harmony. 73 minutes is a generous helping of richly detailed improvisation.
Letters is probably the best place for newcomers to start, offering the variety of Sainkho in duo and group combinations with members of the six-piece Kieloor Entartet, and an opportunity to experience her extraordinary unaccompanied solo work. 'Letter 1' is straight-ahead jazz improv with Sainkho embellishing Sten Sandell's lyrical piano lines; 'Letter 3', with bassist Joelle Leandre, begins lightly, is twisted, then arrives at a curious passage where Leandre produces something akin to an ill-tempered motorcycle.
For a complete immersion in the solo Sainkho try Lost Rivers. At 74 minutes it's best absorbed in manageable doses. 'Night Birds' features some astonishing plaintive, bird-like cries and shrieks, delicate warbling and nocturnal hooting. 'Tovarishi' cackles and captures childlike emotions through infant gibberish; 'Dream of Death' borders on the maniacal, disturbing with its asphyxiated gasps. You'll either be drawn in and utterly fascinated by these 13 pieces (as I am) or find them impossible to cope with. This is extreme, uninhibited vocal work which deserves your attention. (FMP: distrib. Cadillac 071 278 7391) (Chris Blackford)
Rova Saxophone Quartet, From The Bureau Of Both (Black Saint 120135-2 CD)
Roscoe Mitchell & Muhal Richard Abrams, Duets And Solos (Black Saint 120133-2 CD)
Two excellent jazz titles for those who reach for the garlic when they see the word "Marsalis". Having successfully integrated new alto player Steve Adams, the California-based Rova offers a further convincing demonstration of some of the ways in which improvisation and composition can be beautifully interwoven and I mean compositions, not "heads". From the propelling riffs of 'Swang' to the lyricism of 'Pinnacle', from the ante-mortem Cage tribute of 'Cage For John Cage' to the closing 'Streak', everything is of a very high calibre; even the 18-odd minute long 'The Floater' doesn't outstay its welcome. Personal favourite is baritone motormouth Jon Raskin, but it's the whole group beautifully recorded and wisely placed in the stereo field that's very good.
Duets And Solos is the kind of record it takes minutes to like and ages to penetrate; two masters of colour and nuance (and structure!) are reunited in a very clearly recorded live setting (New York 1990). The two solo tracks are merely very good: 'Scenes And Colors' for piano, with its subterranean sense of the blues; and 'Star Night' for (what I believe to be) a curved soprano, with its accurate, discreet, typically anti-virtuosic performance. What's astounding is the degree of mutual empathy of the duets, where flute, other saxophones and synthesizer are added to the palette. This is one of the rare instances when one can believe that each and every note really matters. Required listening? Sure. My record of the year? You bet. (Giuseppe Colli)
Derek Bailey/John Stevens, Playing (Incus CD 14 CD)
Playing is the first duo album by pioneer improvisors Derek Bailey and John Stevens in their 25 years or so association. Fiercely non-idiomatic, it's also one of the most demanding albums I've heard this year. Bailey on electric and acoustic guitars, John Stevens, a restricted drum kit of two small high-hats, children's snare and a few cymbals, plus mini trumpet. Nine tracks teeming with complex, seamless transitions the choppy, abbreviated phrasing of Bailey's guitar set against Stevens' rapid-fire snare rolls and shuffling, scuffed-up cymbal sounds. Only 'Reflecters' and 'D Baby' indulge in anything remotely like regular pulse and then only fleetingly. The interplay is concise and to the point; ideas are stated, then nipped back as new shoots spring up. After a few hearings one becomes attuned to the percussive and rhythmic nuances of the guitar playing and how they interact with the more conventional percussive sounds. 'The Instance' is that mini trumpet blown shrill, ragged and finally delicately, underpinned by the slenderest of electric guitar tones. A benchmark recording in duo improvising. (Chris Blackford)
Barry Guy, Fizzles (Maya MCD 9301 CD)
Time was when the double bass player stood at the back of the stand plunking through a series of routine chord progressions while, to use Paul Rogers' words in Rubberneck 8, "the horn players wank in front doing their ego-trip". But in improv's non-hierarchical forum the double bass has blossomed into a fully developed instrumental voice capable of the most remarkable sensitivity. Barry Guy has been one of those principally responsible for this transformation and Fizzles, his new solo album, is a marvellous example of where progressive bass playing is currently situated. In fact, such is the register range achieved by his innovative techniques, that he appears to have absorbed the soundworlds of related instruments like violin, viola, cello and even some guitar mannerisms such as those employed on the splendidly rocky 'Hilibili MeetsThe Brush'. 'Invention The Bird of Infinity' entertains elegant flashes of flamenco and for the last of the 'Five Fizzles' (which are dedicated to Samuel Beckett) he deals out a frightening percussive assault on the instrument. Barry Guy's desire to break down the barrier between instrument and musician is best experienced by hearing Fizzles on headphones, which will bring you closer to/inside the instrument's gigantic vibrating body. This is virtuosic technique at one with a highly expressive imagination. (Chris Blackford)
Unknown Public, Volume 2: Common Ground (UP 02 CD/MC); Volume 3: pianoFORTE (UP 03 CD/MC)
Music for flugelhorn and organ (Ian Carr and John Taylor) recorded in what was Shakespeare's parish church the subject is The Tempest, and recording is interrupted by a torrential thunderstorm. Meanwhile marimbas of slate (made by Will Menter) are played to an audience 200 feet underground in a Welsh slate cavern.
These are two of the pieces on Unknown Public 02, whose theme is Common Ground, or the musician's response to place. The CD magazine is into its third issue now each one contains about a dozen recordings of contemporary "creative music", including regular features like the Scratchpad (one minute snatches) and the Contemporary Classic (Trevor Wishart and Graham Fitkin).
The most striking music here features the multitracked trombones of Fayyaz Virji, inspired by the Indian flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia. There's also a three minute gem by Kevin Duggan, to be played on small organs as found in remote Scandinavian churches. Like something out of Babette's Feast, Duggan is the organist on the Danish island of Aero.
The magazine is not just a CD there are detailed notes on each piece, and some short essays, though the designer has worked hard to make these look like surrealist poetry. One that is still legible is Billy Jenkins' macabre notes on "crap pianos": "Do not attempt surgery. Enjoy a prolonged lingering death."
Issue 03's theme is pianoFORTE not only tickling the ivories but loud vs soft. So we have Graham Fitkin's 'Loud' for six pianos, Alquimia's tapeworming travels through the womb, and a preview of Michael Nyman's pseudo-Victorian soundtrack for Jane Campion's film The Piano. The two piano improvisors are both excellent, Alex Maguire admirably compressing his usual 50 minute epics to 9' 55", and Benoit Delbecq creating a subtle world of creaks and taps for the becalmed 'Bateau'. But I'm afraid the best piece is the one with me on it Jan Steele's 'Gamelan Disco', a big sparkling thump for sax, tin whistle, two pianos and tuba. (Clive Bell)
Ned Rothenberg, The Crux: Selected Solo Wind Works (1989-92) (Leo CD LR 187 CD)
Not having paid much attention to Ned Rothenberg's career in the past, I'm pleased to say that The Crux has turned out to be something of a special discovery for me. It features the New York reedsman on alto saxophone and bass clarinet as well as one suitably windswept piece written for shakuhachi. With circular breathing playing an important part in a few of these improvisations, I suppose there is bound to be at least a 'family resemblance' to the solo soprano work of Evan Parker, in particular. The opening 'Intimations' for alto uses this technique to support a compelling multiphonic piece which adds to and interweaves its melodic lines in ways reminiscent of Philip Glass' work. Perhaps this school of complex saxophony has more in common with popular minimalism than we might care to admit? And that might be an interesting promotional angle for this so-called 'difficult' music
Anyway, Rothenberg's album contains some passionate music, regardless of whatever else we decide to call it. 'The Crux' steps up several gears from its gorgeous, languorous opening section and takes on a rhythmic drive close to Balkan folk or even new wave. There are tributes to Monk, Maceo Parker and NR's shakuhachi teachers Goro Yamaguchi and Katsuya Yokoyama. Ned also writes the illuminating sleevenotes. (Chris Blackford)
Phil Minton and Roger Turner, Dada da (Leo CD LR 192 CD)
Lindsay Cooper, Sahara Dust (Intakt CD 029 CD)
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to hear Phil Minton at two very different gigs in the space of a week. The first with percussionist Roger Turner, where the duo just outnumbered the audience, and the second in performance with Lindsay Cooper's Oh Moscow group. What came across most emphatically from this experience was just how interrelated Phil's abstract/improvised and scripted/jazz-ish singing is; how plausibly one mutates within milliseconds into the other Cooper's work with composed and improvised elements is, of course, the ideal place to hear this interrelationship in action. Dada da, however, is the more 'extreme' abstract context with Turner. 10 tracks phonetically titled ('la dee da', 'la la', etc.), packed with microtonal detail. Turner's nimble cymbal rubs and scrapes emphasising the metallic textures of his percussive armoury; Minton exploring a complementary, virtually wordless terrain where tiny overtones crackle and sigh with a wonderful intimacy. Also, humanity, flowing from the physicality of both musicians' techniques. Sometimes traditionally 'ugly' or 'banal' sounds reshaped and given a liberating syntax within this context. This is a vital duo with lots more ground to explore.
Phil Minton is also the vocalist on Lindsay Cooper's latest five-part song-cycle Sahara Dust (lyrics by Robyn Archer). His role here is more conventional, though there are opportunities to exercise the throat muscles in other directions when the six-piece meanders off into space allocated for improvisation. Dean Brodrick's and Elvira Plenar's acoustic and electronic keyboards expand the soundscape in line with the general theme of private tensions in global village Earth: the vastness of the world, yet the mediatising of it brings distant events like the Gulf War to our living rooms, or rain bearing particles of Sahara sand lands on our doorsteps the latter being the work's central metaphor. Familiar Cooper reference points like East European folk music and art cabaret are woven with jazz and chamber composition into memorable themes. Sahara Dust is a real treat for those who enjoy a resonant text coupled with an adroit amalgamation of composition and improvisation. One of the year's great genre-busting works. (Chris Blackford)
Frisque Concordance, Spellings (Random Acoustics RA 001 CD)
Frisque Concordance is John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones), Hans Schneider (double bass), Martin Blume (drums) and leader/instigator Georg Grawe (piano). Spellings is a concert performance which took place in Bochum (Germany) in 1992 and was only the second time this improvising quartet had played together, although its members have performed in various other combinations. The results are spectacular, but achieved in a refined manner; the group seldom goes for out and out power-play. In painterly terms Butcher and Grawe apply the lighter tones, Schneider and Blume the darker, textural shading.
Grawe's performance here is markedly different from the near impenetrable School of Cecil Piano Duets with Marilyn Crispell, released last year by Leo Records. Spellings displays his more lyrical side, an open rolling style which gives much of this music its unfussy elegance. Butcher is impressive too, and, at risk of repeating myself, is not only the key European improv saxophonist of his generation, but also one of the major sax innovators (of any generation) now working in this field. He plays with customary poise, achieving barbed tension and melodic flourishes, like the delightful flute-like sonorities on soprano on 'Spelling B', with notable economy; he has also found a way of making the usually hermetic, circular-breathing-multiphonic-mode receptive to group improvisation. To use an expression currently fashionable among the boxing fraternity Frisque Concordance is "focused". Georg Grawe couldn't have hoped for a more auspicious start to his newly-founded Random Acoustics label. (Chris Blackford)
Heiner Goebbels, Shadow/Landscape With Argonauts (ECM 1480 513 372-2 CD)
If you know Heiner Goebbels' past work with fellow-German composer Alfred 23 Harth and/or his earlier ECM collaboration with German writer Heiner Müller, The Man In The Elevator (1988), you won't be surprised by the ambitious eclecticism of his latest album which started out as a New Work for Radio commissioned by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The Shadow in its title refers to a parable by Edgar Allan Poe whose atmospheric literature has also been the stimulus in recent years for Diamanda Galas and Peter Hammill, and most recently Philip Glass. Landscape With Argonauts is another text by Heiner Müller. What unites these texts is a theme of catastrophe: an ancient one in Poe's case, whereas Müller's splintered narrative poem evokes a nightmarish urban scenario with echoes of J G Ballard.
The 16-part work (52 mins) moves from text to text in fairly leisurely fashion, without an urgent need to build tension by unexpected crosscutting between texts. Intertextual resonances are established over time rather than forced upon the listener. Shadow is sung and read by Iranian-born Sussan Deihim whose marvellously, husky-sensuous and forbidding intonation is the most dramatic feature of the work. Goebbels multitracks her voice to splendid effect. Landscape is 'read' by 100 inhabitants of Boston, USA, recorded in the local streets. Here, the multitracking and rapid montage structure leads to some humorous and self-parodic metatextual moments when the locals wonder what the hell they're being asked to read. There's a non-Western flavour to some arrangements while others incorporate elements of funk, rap, rock, jazz balladry, etc. Instrumentalists are René Lussier (guitar), Charles Hayward (percussion, tipan), Christos Govetas (clarinet, chumbush, gardon) and Heiner Goebbels (keyboards, programming, accordion). This is an adventurous work, a potential recipe for pomposity in the wrong hands, but Goebbels' proven skill as a disciplined arranger of highly eclectic material keeps the project on the rails. (Chris Blackford)
Anthony Braxton/Evan Parker, Duo (London) 1993 (Leo CD LR 193 CD)
Evan Parker/John Stevens, Corner To Corner (Ogun OGCD 005 CD)
If you're expecting a gigantic workout between these two giants of the modern saxophone then you could be in for something of a surprise. Far from rumbustious or combative, this set recorded at the Bloomsbury Theatre as part of the 1993 London Jazz Festival principally speaks of common ground geniality. John Fordham refers to Warne Marsh in connection with Evan Parker in the sleevenotes, and it also seems appropriate to mention one of Marsh's 'cool' colleagues, Lee Konitz, since many parts of these five improvisations suggest the breezy, elegant rapport those saxophonists attained. Details of the instrumentation are not spelt out, but it's my guess that Braxton is on alto and Parker switching between tenor and soprano. It really is a joy to hear two musicians known for their technical/cerebral weight playing with such an affecting warmth of expression, sometimes toning things down to a serene murmur or locking into thrilling, circular breathing passages where melodic fragments spark and burn bright momentarily. The 'coda' to the final piece is as gruff and aggressive as they get. If you haven't yet been smitten by either of these players then this is the place for a timely conversion.
Corner To Corner finds Evan Parker in the company of another stalwart improvisor and long-time associate, percussionist John Stevens. The two go way back to the 60s where they pioneered the approach in the seminal British improv group SME (Spontaneous Musical Ensemble). Stevens plays occasional trumpet and the same restricted kit as the one featured on Playing (Incus, 1993); and if you have that album or are going to have it, I daresay you'll want this one, too. Parker's playing is certainly not as overtly melodic on Corner To Corner as was the case in the aforementioned Anthony Braxton duets. These seven pieces with Stevens are essentially non-idiomatic and like Playing involve a great deal of intricate interaction. The point at which the two musicians meet is usually hard to pin down; sometimes one senses that it's a general mood that's being mutually felt and shaped; and sometimes the common ground has more to do with the shape of the space between the sounds. One identifiable motif that crops up in a few places is Stevens' use of sustained trumpet tones on which Parker embroiders a little soprano multiphonic magic. Steve Beresford unhesitatingly declares in his sleevenotes: "Free improvisation is certainly the UK's most important recent contribution to the music world." Corner To Corner confirms the validity of that statement. (Chris Blackford)
Chris Burn, A Henry Cowell Concert (Acta 7 CD)
American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) is regarded as one of the outstanding early innovators of 20th Century music, though I suspect that most followers of experimental music (myself included) will be more familiar with the work and reputation of his pupil, the late John Cage. British pianist Chris Burn has previously recorded piano music by both composers (see A Fountain Replete, Acta 2) but here mainly concentrates on what is perceived as Cowell's most exploratory years of piano composition 1915-1930 (19 of the 21 pieces played come from this period). Burn's lucid sleevenotes provide an excellent introduction to Cowell's inventive playing techniques which included strumming, plucking, scraping and stopping the strings; he also developed the use of note-clusters produced by the performer's fist, flat of the hand or forearm(s) "an action akin to a karate chop."
A number of the pieces on A Henry Cowell Concert were inspired by Oriental musics and Celtic mythology, such as 'The Trumpet of Angus Og' where the melody is virtually hammered out percussively at the top end of the instrument; 'The Fairy Answer' uses a strumming motion to produce a distorted echo of the conventionally played theme. 'Sinister Resonance' achieves its strangely dislocated ambience by plucking the strings; most mysterious, however, is 'The Banshee' where Burn creates the disturbing wail by some atmospheric rubbing and scraping inside the piano. Elsewhere, 'The Tides of Manaunaun' involves thunderous clusters which gradually subside Burn deploying the required extended techniques to subtle effect. Improv devotees unfamiliar with Cowell's work should be pleased to discover the relevance of the composer's pathbreaking experiments to subsequent developments in improvised pianistic technique. Chris Burn, who is also a first-rate improvisor and who performs these pieces with the necessary vitality, is the ideal person to establish such a link. Highly recommended. (Chris Blackford)
Iggy Pop, Wild America EP (Virgin Records America 7243 8 92106 7 5)
People are wary of the absolute release of inhibitions implied in Iggy's stance until they witness it. When they do, they agree: there's no performer to touch him. 'Wild America' has the inspirational soda-jerk stupidity that characterised Soldier and Party; 'Credit Card' combines chugging rifferama with patent romanticism; 'Come Back Tomorrow' balances the absurdist caterwauling of Zombie Birdhouse with doomy echo-rock from the The Idiot; 'My Angel' is husky and caressing and undemanding. Iggy's pared-down starkness gives the lie to the rationales of the rock charade. You don't need the back-catalogue to appreciate these songs, just ears for a voice without bullshit apologetics, without tedious myths and without fear. (Ben Watson)