CD List 2
Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Karyobin (Chronoscope CPE2001-2 CD)
Karyobin was originally released by Island Records! It is one of the seminal recordings of freely improvised music, made in 1968 by British pioneers Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Personnel: Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Dave Holland and John Stevens. Also, Parker and Bailey's first record. An accomplished group outing it was, too. Wheeler and Parker provide the most assertive dialectical exchanges: the former still with a Cool ear for jazz heritage, the latter sculpting a new, non-idiomatic soprano sound, bristling with lightning flourishes. Bailey's textural smudges and icy chords are glimpsed above the restless, understated groundswell of Stevens' cymbalplay. Holland, though freed from rhythm section constraints, opts for a fairly conventional tonal role. Karyobin also makes a fascinating comparison with the following year's more abstract Music Improvisation Company release (Incus CD 12). (Chris Blackford)
Mike Osborne, Outback (Future Music Records CD07-031994 CD)
Alto saxophonist Mike Osborne was a star of British jazz during the late 60s and 70s until illness forced a premature retirement in 1980. Outback, his first recording as leader, finds him on top form and in the company of some of the key South African and Caribbean musicians who were then influencing the progressive elements of the British scene - Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Harry Miller and Harry Beckett. Osborne's characteristic intense tone is much in evidence on these two extended thematic improvisations of 1970. On 'So it is' he positively wrings out the emotion from the poignant main theme with Beckett's lithe trumpet offering suitable stylistic contrast. 'Outback' explodes from its punchy rhythmic opening into a freer, dissonant phase with Osborne and McGregor working off Miller and Moholo's impetus to reach a full head of steam. The current groups of Elton Dean, Paul Dunmall, Jon Lloyd and John Law continue to mine this rich free jazz seam. (Chris Blackford)
Ganelin/Tarasov/Chekasin, Catalogue - Live In East Germany (Leo CD LR 102 CD)
Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin, aka the Ganelin Trio, were a legend in the Soviet Union. The tape of this performance from East Berlin 1979 was smuggled out of the USSR by a German tourist and released on LP by Leo Records in 1981 with the following disclaimer: "The musicians do not bear any responsibility for publishing this tape." Catalogue made an instant impact among Western critics unaware of the maturity of the jazz and new music scene developing in the Soviet Union despite political repression. By the time Catalogue was recorded the Ganelin Trio had been together for eight years, and their mutual understanding is strikingly apparent in this structured suite lasting 46 minutes. Bop, free and folk inform the music which is always more than a miscellany of styles. The transitions from one section to the next are seamless, though audience enthusiasm tends to mask some of the subtlety with which they are executed. The variety and progression of ideas is remarkable and reveals three multi-instrumentalist virtuosi redefining the possibilities of the jazz trio. (Chris Blackford)
Robert Fripp/Brian Eno, The Essential Fripp And Eno (Venture CDVE920 7243 8 39045 2 5 CD)
21 years on No Pussyfooting (1973) remains a challenging album. Closer, in retrospect, to 60s' minimalism's appetite for repetitive pattern-making or AMM's densely textured soundscapes, than the avant-garde rock it was probably mistaken for at the time. Its release was delayed for nearly two years "and then effectively buried for several more," according to Fripp. Recorded in Eno's Maida Vale front room in 1972, 'The Heavenly Music Corporation' seems to have benefited most from this digital remastering; now there's more bite, more anguished buzz from the thick slabs of multi-layered Fripp guitar and Pedalboard effects; the sound field is more expansive and resonant. 'Swastika Girls' is also here, followed by 'Wind On Water' and 'Evening Star', the title-track of their second collaborative album (1975).
Most fascinating is the rarely heard 'Healthy Colours I-IV' (21.45) recorded in 1978 for an intended but unfinished third Fripp & Eno album. The African-influenced drum machine and bass ostinato could almost be Talking Heads, whose albums Eno had begun to produce, influence and guest on at that time. Fripp's guitar loop has a Byrne jangle about it, too. The pre-sampling found-voice manipulation would be taken further by Eno and Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981) and appear as "indiscretions" on Fripp's underrated Exposure (1979) and League Of Gentlemen (1981) projects. The general approach is one of understatement: several rhythmic and textural constituents looped and layered with humour and disciplined economy. A pity the currently fashionable drove of heavy handed ambient-minimalists didn't get to hear it in time. (Chris Blackford)
Trio Trabant A Roma, State Of Volgograd (FMP CD 57 CD)
This live recording from 1991 brings together two renowned multi-instrumentalists (Lindsay Cooper and Alfred 23 Harth) and a singer known for his multiple voices (Phil Minton) under the group title Trio Trabant A Roma. The editing wisely emphasises the relaxed atmosphere of the performance: this is an inviting, engaging recording with a dash of flamboyant cabaret.
It is also much more. A key feature is the superb control over its instrumental resources, divided between electronic and acoustic. Sometimes Cooper and Harth sustain a lucid wind duo against Minton's visceral rumblings; at other times, all three join in a melodic medley whose elements still disconcertingly seem to point in different directions. Most exciting to me are those sections where the different voices seem to be under the control of some other force entirely - breaking down, cutting out and letting mechanical hiss or chatter cut in. Throughout, the use of electronics is very interesting - emphasising, not disguising, its mechanical repetitive tendency, but with such force and energy that its strangeness is only heightened not weakened. This is where control and a certain distance in the playing pays off, enabling the set to grow from a cool irony through soured melody to a devastating and ferocious immediacy towards the end of track three, where maximum density is achieved and voice and machine fuse. Extremely powerful. (Nick Couldry)
George Lewis, Voyager (Avant Avan 014 CD)
A new work by George Lewis, at last! But those who remember him only as a former Braxton sideman/technically prodigious trombone player, are in for a surprise. Besides being an excellent improvisor/composer, Lewis has experimented with interactive computer programs for about a decade - check his work on Richard Teitelbaum's Concerto Grosso (on Hat Art) and on Daniel Scheidt's Action/Réaction (on Empreintes Digitales) - and that's what Voyager is all about.
The liner notes are pretty thorough, giving the reader a good idea of the hows and whys, so those among us who think that Midi parsing is the name of a dance are not necessarily in for a tough ride.
Lewis' software (the real composition here) is challenged by the trombone and by Roscoe Mitchell's saxophones (four titles each), sometimes, especially in the duos with Lewis, actively contributing to the action. Since the philosophy it embodies features some random elements which are instrumental in generating the output, this warrants a good deal of unpredictability.
Yes, but how does it sound? Stimulating, for sure; this listener slightly preferred the more dialectic stance adopted by Mitchell. And I almost forgot! There's also an excellent duo between the two 'humans'. (Giuseppe Colli)
Company 91, Volume 1 (Incus CD16); Volume 2 (Incus CD17); Volume 3 (Incus CD18)
Derek Bailey's description of Company Week as a "building site" where "we get together and make something that wasn't there before," seems an appropriate metaphor for these three volumes of selections from Company Week 1991 in London. To my knowledge they represent the most extreme recorded evidence of Bailey's interest in setting up challenging improvising contexts that include musicians from widely differing musical backgrounds, and with significantly differing experience of each other and improvisation itself: thus we have experienced improvisors Bailey, Paul Lovens, John Zorn, Paul Rogers, Pat Thomas and Yves Robert playing in various combinations with vocalist Vanessa Mackness (a relative newcomer at this stage), the classical violinist Alexander Balanescu and the American heavy metal/thrash guitarist Buckethead.
Mackness sets out her vocal 'repertoire' in the memorable opening duet with Balanescu (Volume 1) including some haunting folk-like flights and swoops, but thereafter seems not yet to have developed a sufficiently varied vocabulary to make a distinctive mark on the Week's proceedings. A year later, however, at the first LMC Festival with Barry Guy, her voice was sounding a whole lot sturdier and inventive at this level.
Buckethead's approach to improvisation divided the audience, and I was in the camp that found his generally strident, in-yer-face, sod-you-if-you-can't-hear-anyone-else-play mentality, a pain in the arse. I don't know whether somebody's been twiddling knobs to balance out the sound, or maybe examples of his brashness have simply been omitted, but here he sounds in remarkably tolerant and considerate mood. Even his video-game barrage in the explosive duet (Volume 1) with Zorn at full tilt is carefully deployed; he's arguably at his flexible best in the excellent trio with Balanescu and Rogers (Volume 2), where the latter's solid bass lines anchor the lacerating, and sometimes temperate, exchanges between guitar and violin.
Balanescu is nothing short of a revelation. This was his first high-profile improvising event and he was keen to be open-minded in his approach (see Rubberneck 9 for interviews with most of Company 91) by not excluding any influence that came to him during the performances. Moreover, he was not afraid to play melodically in the company of musicians who had moved further into abstraction, and avoided any possible temptation to dabble in extended instrumental techniques. His wealth of experience in contemporary composition, and even East European folk musics, surfaces in many of his contributions which bear the hallmark of a versatile virtuoso. I have no doubt that if he were to concentrate more fully on improvisation he would establish himself among the first class of violinists in this field.
The two duets between Yves Robert and John Zorn (Volume 3) are something special. The only thing missing from their incredibly integrated playing is the visual humour which was always allied to the music and not some kind of sideshow attraction. Zorn's adventurous alto playing is a sparkling break from all that mixed-genre juxtaposition stuff he's overmined. His natural ebullience is the perfect companion for the French trombonist's nonchalant resourcefulness. The transitions from quiet intricacy to high velocity multiphonics are executed with ease and never sound forced or meretricious. More from this duo would be much appreciated. So too, from the Thomas/Rogers/Lovens trio whose 15-minute piece opens Volume 2. And, of course, nobody who was there will forget the earsplitting, hilariously theatrical finale by Buckethead and Bailey (Volume 3). Hard hats on everybody - this is the cutting edge of improv! (Chris Blackford)
Georg Graewe, Chamber Works 1990-92 (Random Acoustics RA003 CD)
Frank Gratkowski/Georg Graewe, VicissEtudes (Random Acoustics RA002 CD)
Many players of free improvisation take a keen interest in twentieth century classical music. Sometimes this manifests itself in wishing to use compositional methods in organising the music. It's easy for this to become a brake on improv's specific alchemy of musical interaction. Pianist Georg Graewe makes the game worth the candle.
Chamber Works presents three pieces. '15 Duets', recorded in Cologne in March 1991, pitches six musicians against each other: Phil Minton (Goons-style vocals), Michael Moore (cool clarinet), Ann Le Baron (snappy harp) Georg Graewe (controlling piano), Hans Schneider (measured bass) and Gerry Hemingway (clicketty drums). Graewe studies Schoenberg, but - provided you have an ear for atonality - his music is pretty, amusing and light. 'Flavours A' is a trio with Phil Wachsmann (violin) and Melvyn Poore (tuba). Like Graewe, Wachsmann has long pursued twelve-tone improvisation; the results are delicate, displaying a rhythmic delicacy and precision which is quite unique, music as fine-boned as a frog's skeleton, but also blessed with the witty hops of the living creature. 'Variations Q' has Graewe's piano joined by Moore's bass clarinet, Horst Grabosch's trumpet and Ernst Reijseger's cello. Glancing, sparse music with an attractive poise and bright instrumental contrasts.
The duo disc with Frank Gratkowski, the alto saxist, is impressive but less likeable. Graewe's study of the Second Viennese School enables him to make beautiful combinations of instrumental colour: a restricted piano/alto format doesn't suit him. Gratkowski and Graewe are fleet, their rhythmic sense gobsmackingly refined, but you miss the weight of jazz expression. Filigree is all very well, but it comes out a bit tame and inadequate, like dressing in ruched organdie against a cold wind.
These compact discs come in nicely understated cardboard sleeves and there's an amusing sleevenote exchange between Graewe and John Corbett on VicissEtudes that has Graewe squashing Corbett's speculations about repetition. (Ben Watson)
David Moss Dense Band, Texture Time (Intakt CD 034 CD)
This is the third album by Dense Band and quite possibly the best. It more than recaptures the rhythmic drive and complexity of Dense Band (1985) that was lost a little on Live In Europe (1988), due mainly to the lack lustre amplification of some instruments. In particular, Texture Time signals a further development of Moss' use of live sampling and electronics to magnify the impact of that already dramatic vocal delivery: 'Society Of Niches' and 'Texture Time' are fine examples of multiple voice improvisations. In fact, those who braved a freezing cold November afternoon last year on London's Clapham Junction railway station, will already know how confidently the solo David Moss manages the technology which gives him that extra textural detail. But Texture Time is a group effort (the album recruits improv keyboardist Anthony Coleman alongside existing members Jeane Chaine, bass, and John King, guitar); only a cohesive, collective approach could produce tightly knit improvisations overflowing with this level of rhythmic and timbral variety.
Having said that, nearly all 15 improvisations spring from Moss' pre-arranged ideas, apart from songs like 'Those Were The Days' and 'Delilah' which overlap his My Favorite Things standards and covers project. Naturally, these are pretty harem-scarem versions of those songs, showcasing Moss' astonishing leaps from register to register and his ability to shape time like an origami master folds paper. No other improvising vocalist that I know of has created such an intense, idiosyncratic vocabulary. Texture Time is indispensable. (Chris Blackford)
David Toop and Max Eastley, Buried Dreams (Beyond Dreams RBADCD6 CD/MC)
The eye of your nightmare opens and you find yourself in a space that is partly familiar but escapes your attempts to make sense of it. In fact, a dense combination of spaces where close and far, large and small, are confused. Suddenly, in this vast space of the imagination, you hear human voices - as disorientating as the image of the geisha girl projected on to a skyscraper's side in Blade Runner's megalopolis, too large to seem fully human. After a long time, a new space clears in which a few sounds, some vaguely animal, some vaguely machine-like, are distilled and then fade slowly. This is the type of experience conjured by this excellent recording - an experiment in virtual space as much as in sound.
Toop and Eastley have worked together since the beginning of their careers: their work was featured on either side of New And Rediscovered Musical Instruments, a 1975 release on Brian Eno's Obscure label. In the 1990s they have worked closely again, performing at the LMC's swimming pool event in 1992 and touring Japan in 1993. Accompanied by a subtly designed and written booklet, Buried Dreams is explicitly an ambient album issued on a specialist ambient label. To my ears, it is more dense, more varied, richer in detail and more dramatically shaped than any other ambient recording I've heard. It points to an interesting future for ambient as it gradually mutates with other experimental musics. (Nick Couldry)
Mike Cooper/Viv Dogan Corringham, Avant Roots (Mash CD 002-2 CD)
If you've caught this duo in action you'll have a good idea what to expect, including the unexpected. Cooper started as an exponent of traditional country blues, but for over two decades has kept moving, exploring songwriting, the blues/free jazz amalgam of Machine Gun, Company and Hawaiian musics, all the while with a growing absorption in improvisation, guitar treatments and electronics. Viv Corringham makes a challenging musical partner with her understanding of, and passion for, diverse musics - notably Greek, Turkish and North African styles. Although some tracks here are highly experimental, with tape collages and sampling, there are more straightforward pieces included. 'Burning' shows the influence of Greek vocal stylings over electronic drum rhythms, before Cooper pops up on slide. 'Hard times killing floor blues' is Skip James with a little extra. 'Impressions of Africa' takes the music of Sonny Sharrock (his 'Blind Willy' and 'Portrait of Linda') as a starting point: there are occasional echoes of early Linda Sharrock elsewhere. 'White Powder is a desperate, morbid sound - push the random button and next might be a song with an African pop feel. It's the variety as well as the command of various idioms that makes this duo worth a listen. The title might seem weak, but probably sums the music up pretty well. (Gerard F Tierney)
The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, The Morlocks And Other Pieces (FMP 61 CD)
Will Alexander von Schlippenbach ever get his due? Dunno, but those who have missed his work with, say, Globe Unity Orchestra or his trio with saxophone player Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lovens (both men performing admirably here) can have fun catching up with the German pianist/composer by listening to this CD. It's the second title by this ensemble, but the first to feature Schlippenbach's music: in this case, six very different compositions, all of a very high quality, all accommodating - of course - a good deal of improvisation. Though individual players have their chance to shine (Nobuyoshi Ino, bass, Walter Gauchel,tenor saxophone, Henry Lowther and Thomas Heberer, trumpets, Jörg Huke, trombone) it's the big picture that really matters. The orchestra is tight but loose, Schlippenbach sharing his conducting/piano duties with the excellent Aki Takase. Personal favourite: the several layers deep jerky minimalism (best I can do) of the title-track. (Giuseppe Colli)
AMM, Newfoundland (Matchless Recordings MRCD23 CD)
The AMM improvising phenomenon approaches its third decade. The line-up for this 1992 recording from the Sound Symposium in Newfoundland is Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost. Instrument credits hardly matter any more, so do not appear among the sleevenotes. Like other AMM records this one places collective consciousness before individual virtuosity. Of course, virtuosity is at play here, but after many many years of collaboration it appears so instinctive that we might almost take it for granted. 'Newfoundland' lasts 76' 45"and is a masterwork. You will need to find the necessary uninterrupted time from your hectic, modern lives to give it the full attention it demands. Listing examples of what happens will only spoil the pleasure of its unpredictability, of the exquisite sense of concentrated, developmental flow. Unlike Howard Skempton, I'm happy to think of this music more in human terms, less in terms of landscape. This is collective creativity at the highest level. (Chris Blackford)
Etta James, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (Private Music/BMG 01005 82114 CD)
Etta James has waited 30 years to make this album. After Seven Year Itch and Stickin' To My Guns - heavy Memphis funk - you might think a change of direction would be refreshing. Unfortunately, as with Marvin Gaye's desire to make a Nat Cole-style stand-up-crooner album, you end up deciding that perhaps the singer's record company and managers did know what they were talking about. James hasn't got either the vocal flexibility or harmonic imagination to be a jazz singer. Whereas on her early R&B hits like 'Dance With Me, Henry' she's got an explosive raunch second only to Little Richard's, and on her mid-70s Chess classics she could wring your heart out by doing country-soul covers of Randy Newman songs, here your attention wanders.
Etta James has a unique voice that combines big mama power and a little girl plea with a canniness that's astonishing. However, she needs horns and a driving rhythm section to unleash her voice in its complete majesty. Fans of avant-garde music like to think that artists are forever being baulked by the moneybags of capitalism; this album shows that great roots artists can equally well be baulked by their own pretentions to 'higher' forms. (Ben Watson)
SA ZNA, Eurasia (LEO LAB CD 001 CD)
No, not the neighbours beating down the door, but 'Camelus Bactrianus' the percussive first track from the first CD in Leo Records' new LEO LAB project. SA ZNA are from Moscow where they (six of them) make some of their instruments "out of the detritus of our 'material culture' found on the streets"; others are objects transformed by context and creativity; they also use pianos, komungos (zithers), percussion, etc. Sonically they're mostly abstract texture-makers - somewhere between Conspiracy and Morphogenesis. Their improvising is patient, impressively aware of the space between sounds and the continuum of sound stretching out to silence. They also create an interesting sense of depth of field: voices and flutes close up, piano clusters approaching, receding, on 'Eurasia', for example. (Chris Blackford)
5uu's, Hunger's Teeth (RéR 5uu1 CD)
Imagine Jon Anderson fronting an American avant-garde rock group (but maybe he did get close to the edge on parts of Tales and Relayer!). Hunger's Teeth is the most exciting rock album I've heard this year. No, not Anderson exactly, but Robert Drake's vocals do bear a striking resemblance to the Yes man's 'angelic' tenor. Is this 'progressive rock' for the 90s? A celebration of intricately layered arrangements and polyrhythmic playing, effortlessly combining 70s grandeur with avant-rock, contemporary collage and computing - and only one track in 11 over six minutes! The musicianship (also David Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, plus guests) is superb, not showy, always at the service of the experimental approach to song structure - lots of convoluted instrumental passages that return almost miraculously to 'refrains'. Brilliant. (Chris Blackford)
Paul Dunmall, Double CD (SLAMCD 207 2CD)
I'm tired of magazine and radio journalists telling me that free jazz is currently 'unfashionable' when I've never been aware that it was ever to the contrary, especially in the UK. Lack of financial reward and publicity have always kept the numbers down to a hardcore of exponents seeking new ways of pushing jazz to the limits within improvised music. Midlands based reedsman Paul Dunmall is at the forefront of these exponents. On this generous collection you can hear him in quartet and trio combinations with regular UK collaborators Paul Rogers (bass), Tony Levin (drums) and Simon Picard (tenor), who are joined by Jon Corbett (cornet) and John Adams (guitar) for the excellent 25-minute sextet piece 'Apocalypse Now And Then'. 'Scramasax', especially, shows Dunmall and Picard's interacting tenors at their melodically serpentine best, with the characteristically effervescent Levin providing support. The trio disc features Dunmall on C melody, tenor, baritone and soprano saxes. Newcomers to Paul's work will find this double helping full of impassioned and approachable playing that doesn't give a shit if it's in or out of fashion. (Chris Blackford)
Wachsmann/Jacobsen/Brighton/Mattos/Taylor, Eleven Years From Yesterday (Bead CD01/FMR CD02-011988 CD)
I'm sorry to say that this is the first time I've encountered these British based musicians in this particular line-up. Eleven Years was recorded in 1988, 12 years after their first gigs as a quartet; pianist (and sometimes manic harpsichordist) Peter Jacobsen was the latest recruit, probably best known for his work with Bobby Wellins. These seven improvisations are of an evenly high standard. The subtle control of dynamics is one of their most impressive features: the sudden build up of dense, contrapuntal strands which seem to loosen imperceptibly for Trevor Taylor's vibes to apply bright, pointillistic dabs of colour. Sited at opposite ends of the sound stage, Phil Wachsmann's violin and Marcio Mattos' cello frame the proceedings; whether by frantic pizzicato or plangent, textural glissandi their rapport lends the music a special presence. Ian Brighton's restrained electric guitar forms the third part of the sensitive string trio at the heart of the group's sound. This is exceptional work from a quintet that deserves greater recognition. Somebody round 'em up again and record a new set! (Chris Blackford)
The (EC) Nudes, Vanishing Point (RéR N1 CD)
There's not much idiomatically that escapes the attention of The (EC) Nudes who comprise the considerable talents of Amy Denio, Wädi Gysi and Chris Cutler, with occasional help from Robert/Bob Drake (of the 5uu's). Vanishing Point, their debut album, moves comfortably from its experimental rock base to embrace folk, Latin, jazz and new wave styles. But this is not more facile eclecticism masquerading as innovation. Any genre-hopping that occurs, occurs within tightly structured songs that blend and twist their parts to attain a satisfying whole. The cautionary tone of Cutler's texts balances out well against the folky lightness of Denio's vocals, especially on 'Yippee' where there's even time for a spot of barn dance merriment. Gysi's electric guitar is an exciting, capricious personality, veering from measured rhythmic playing to blissful dissonance. Cutler, who is still one of rock's great undersung drummers, sounds as right and as unassuming as ever, bolstering the density of some pieces with radio and electronics manipulation. Adventurous dancefloor movers should also find something here to satisfy that craving. Avant-rock seldom sounded this imaginatively bright and breezy. (Chris Blackford)
Schweizer/Nicols/Léandre, Les Diaboliques (Intakt CD 033 CD)
19 short improvisations recorded in Paris, 1993. Maggie Nicols breathes an immediate humanity into this music. She's one of the relatively few improv vocalists who successfully combines jazz-influenced and extended vocal techniques with language(s) that carries social/political/personal poignancy. For example, there's a Scottish accent (she was born in Edinburgh) for conversational/youthful reverie, a pseudo posh one for ripping the piss out of toffs/Tories, and an ironic, theatrical tone for the homespun politicizing/philosophizing: 'Freedom' beautifully encapsulates the variety of Nicols-personas. Also expect snatches of popular song and phrases in foreign tongues - French being the most recognisable. Irène Schweizer (piano) and Joëlle Léandre (bass) provide the receptive and fertile instrumental contexts in which those personas dwell so effectively. Lyrical, wickedly playful, austere, their contributions, like Nicols', have that robust quality which tells you you're listening to experienced improvisors whose resources run deep. (Chris Blackford)