CD List 3

Erhard Hirt, Gute Und Schlechte Zeiten (FMP/OWN-90003 CD)

The still under-recognised German guitarist Erhard Hirt (born 1951) came to improv via rock, blues and free jazz. Since the late 70s he's been specialising in improv, co-founding the King Übü Orchestrü in 1984: UK listeners might also have heard him in the as yet unrecorded trio with Phil Minton and John Butcher.

This collection of 18 short improvisations for solo electric guitar and guitar synthesizer provides an ideal introduction to Hirt's unusual soundworld. The appropriately titled 'Drone' sets up a static bass drone which is then embellished by a mesh of guitar synthesizer lines. The strangely beautiful, chiming quality of 'Slow Music' with its unpredictable pitch wavering and distortion is reminiscent of Hans Reichel's work; 'Klapp & Flap' uses synthesized percussive effects, and 'Flute' (you guessed it) counterpoints flute sounds with sharply plucked strings. Concise, sometimes embryonic, always bursting with unclassifiable inventiveness. (Chris Blackford)

Koch/Schütz/Studer/Demierre/Marti/Wittwer, Chockshut (Intakt CD 031 CD)

There's an increasing amount of genre referencing and cross-referencing forcing its way into improvised music these days, and much of it is pretty crass and has more to do with fashion than music. You can't say that of Hans Koch (saxes and clarinet) and Martin Schütz's (el. cello) all-star Swiss six-piece Chockshut, which manages all the idiomatic leaps and shuffles with an amazing dexterity that makes perfect musical sense, too. They're especially adept at working through detailed spiky improv, then suddenly locking on to some sort of catchy groove: on 'Lucky Can' it's Weill-like cabaret; on '5779' and 'Around Seven Corners' it's heavy jazz-rock and heavy jazz- funk with the excellent Stephan Wittwer (check out his solo World Of Strings on Intakt, too) doing his nut on electric guitar, propelled by stalwart percussionist Fredy Studer. Finding out how they get back to the improv again is another good reason for snapping up Chockshut. (Chris Blackford)

Metall-Assemblague, Jazzcore Meets The Freestyle-School (Metall 14 CD)

The album title wears its heart on its sleeve somewhat, but is indicative of the collision of genres you can expect to hear from this German five-piece. Heavy metal/thrash was one of the surprisingly successful (if rather milked) recruits to improv during the 80s - groups like Last Exit and Slawterhaus have achieved some of the most interesting results, and Metall-Assemblague sometimes remind me of the latter. The first two tracks are particularly aggressive with drummer Robert Gerlach as much a Cozy Powell as a Peter Hollinger; guitarists Josef Suchy and Oliver Steffan scar and scuff up the textures. These elements are maintained for 'Skivy Love' but crossed with a balladic jazz influence coming from sax and trombone. Thereafter it's usually the battle between these forces that produces the direct, driving improvisation. Later pieces effectively contrast fast rhythm tracks with an almost languorous melodic approach. Well worth making their acquaintance. (Chris Blackford)

Howard Riley & Keith Tippett, The Bern Concert (Future Music FMR CD08-071994 CD)

The British piano duo of Howard Riley and Keith Tippett has been running since the late 70s and has already come up with two fine albums: First Encounter (Impetus) and In Focus (Affinity). This third album comprises one hour-long improvisation titled 'Interchange', recorded before an audience for Swiss Radio in December 1993. Sound-wise, it's familiar ground - Riley's occasional Monk-like intervals, Tippett's characteristic cyclical right-hand flourishes and fascination with the muted sounds produced by tiny woodblocks. But it's the remarkable emotional subtlety and unity between the pianists that's important here, arising from their intimate knowledge of each other's styles, which on this occasion complement rather than markedly contrast with one another. There's no treading water, waiting for the next flash of inspiration, the piece unfolds with a craftsman-like precision that attests to their stamina and predilection for this type of extended improvisation (Tippett, especially, has recorded many of his long solo improvisations). And it's this unity of purpose, exhibited with such clarity on The Bern Concert, that takes the improvised piano duet to fresh heights of expressiveness. (Chris Blackford)

B-Shops For The Poor, The Wild Goose Chase (No Wave CDNW 005 CD)

Album number four from the B-Shops is another tense affair - a trio of tightly grouped, well-drilled saxes underscored by Jon Dobie's fiercely inventive guitar and throbbing double bass playing of John Edwards. Music credits again go to tenorist and drum machinist David Petts. The lyrics (a bit of a departure here) are by usual scribe Louise Petts (also an altoist with Adrian Northover) but this time based on The Wild Goose Chase a 1937 novel by Rex Warner. So, it's a kind of concept-piece, and Louise, who's not known for vocal histrionics, does inject noticeably more overt emotional presence into her delivery of these songs ('A Parallel State' and 'Mathematician', for example): and the songs feel better for it, too. The B-Shops' sound is by now instantly recognisable; each album a further refinement using a familiar palette of tone-colours. Neither rock nor jazz really, they're actually a group of fine improvisors who have found a way of tailoring the freedom that that implies to suit the 'constraints' of song structure. A significant achievement. Beneath their stern exterior these songs are alive with impassioned improvising which requires your close attention. It's high time B-Shops did some more gigs in the UK! (Chris Blackford)

Manuel M. Moto, Manual M. Moto (Ilinx Records objmm 001 CD)

This debut CD release from Portuguese guitarist Manual Moto is a maxi-single lasting just over 21 minutes, featuring one improvised piece for solo acoustic guitar. In the early stages he bows the instrument like a cellist, creating an abrasive, plangent drone. The sounds thin out and elasticate with the dry, rusty resonance of an Indian sarangi. Later on he experiments with note bending and percussive effects, always searching for the unexpected delights of indefinite pitch and scabrous timbres. If the squeal of fingernails across a blackboard excites you, so too will this album. It's the first I've heard of Manuel Moto, and I'd like to hear more. (Chris Blackford)

Ascension, Five Titles (Shock SX026 CD)

Titled numerically, from 7 - 11, these five improvisations by electric guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn and drummer Tony Irving are among the most ferocious I've ever heard from British musicians. Jaworzyn's lacerating guitar lines are matched by Irving's waves of percussive turbulence. The sheer fuck-you ebullience of this duo does have its appeal, I must say, and closer inspection reveals more intricacy and interplay than immediately assaults the ear. Like Americans Elliott Sharp and Buckethead, Jaworzyn is capable of producing interesting textural detail at high velocity and high decibels.

Invoking heavy metal as an influence here would be pretty simplistic and misleading, since neither guitarist nor drummer is interested in apocalyptic riffing or conventional pulse-based energy. Their concentrated pursuit of an aesthetics of noise is definitely an avant-garde phenomenon, and Five Titles will consequently find its audience among new music lovers, especially those with robust eardrums and tolerant neighbours. The relentless nature of this pursuit makes tough demands on the listener. Four of these tracks were appropriately recorded at London's Demolition Club. (Chris Blackford)

Elliott Sharp, 'Dyners Club (Intakt CD 036 CD)

This is the first time I've heard Elliott Sharp's electric guitar quartet, comprising Roger Kleier, David Mecionis and John Myers. Dense arrangements of Sharp's compositions: layers of what at first sounds like heavily strummed unisons, but after a few hearings you start to become more aware of the subtle pitch relationships in the higher register, of how one or two guitarists will gradually shift into more melodic playing and then return to the ringing staccato rhythms of the piece. Similar kaleidoscopic pattern-making has been created by Robert Fripp and his League of Crafty Guitarists using acoustic guitars. 'Zappin' The Pram', the longest piece at 17 minutes is arguably the most complex and, at times, also the most impressionistic when the separate strands converge in a persistent swirling drone that sounds like an air-raid warning. 'Chomper' celebrates paranoid fuzz; 'Kludge' is like a deranged musical box; while the repetitive patterns of 'Residue' recall passages of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint. But this is music of an individual character, crisply executed and resonating with all manner of timbral mayhem. Recommended. (Chris Blackford)

Elliott Sharp & Zeena Parkins, Psycho-Acoustic (Victo cd 026 CD)

Recorded at the same Baby Monster Studios in New York only several days after 'Dyners Club, at the beginning of 1994. For Psycho-Acoustic Zeena Parkins supplements her customary acoustic and electric harps with electronic percussion (check out her wonderful solo debut Nightmare Alley on Table Of The Elements), and Elliott Sharp's instrumentation includes dobro, Hawaiian guitar and bass clarinet. That percussive element creates a welcome rhythmic contrast to the often visceral attack of the electric versions of guitar and harp. The five miniatures which comprise 'Imitations Of Life' are for me the highpoint of the album. Like a series of caprices, these improvisations for acoustic harp and dobro (or maybe Hawaiian guitar? Sharp's technique is pretty radical) display a mixture of skittish, whimsical, febrile moods: a tweek of the blues and a flash of something koto-like and oriental. After these the mood darkens once again, the nerve-ends jangle. Traumatic flights of the imagination. Gritty, gripping stuff. (Chris Blackford)

COWWS Quintett, Grooves 'n' Loops (FMP CD 59 CD)

I haven't heard an agreeable, gently persuasive improv album quite like this one all year. Rudiger Carl takes the composing credit for the 16 pieces, which I suppose means that his are the "loops 'n' grooves" and the rest is down to the inspiration of his strong cast of co-improvisors - Irène Schweizer, Phil Wachsmann, Stephan Wittwer and Jay Oliver.

'Die Einführung' is the first of the grooves, set up by Carl's clarinet and Schweizer's piano, and then quickened by Oliver's warm-hearted double bass - a mischievous, jaunty figure that reappears with a different instrumentalist's embellishments each time it nearly gets squashed. Guitarist Wittwer sounds like he's about to lay down one of those twangy soundtracks to a Sergio Leone western, but 'Relativ Ewiges Lied' soon starts to lilt in a Caribbean way towards ska as Carl fans out the melody on accordion. You're just waiting for somebody to sing 'A Message To You Rudy' when the recording's editor steps in prematurely to order a sudden fade. 'Gunst I' offers a solo Wittwer the chance to demonstrate why he's at the forefront of improv's European, eclectic electric guitarists; here he bends, batters, wah-wahs and rips a rock riff to pieces. The string duet, 'Blue Goo', by Wachsmann and Oliver is another well-focused piece to savour, concluding with the viola's despairing tone accompanied by a shuffling, smudgy-textured bass ostinato. Jay Oliver died in Berlin in the late Summer of 1993, several months after these pieces were recorded: they now stand as a fitting memorial to his talent, and to the generous spirit of adventure that pervades this rewarding album. (Chris Blackford)

Bellatalla/Jenkins/Noble, The Shakedown Club (Babel BDV9403 CD)

11 smart, not smart-ass, improvisations from the versatile trio of Roberto Bellatalla (double bass), Billy Jenkins (guitar, keys) and Steve Noble (percussion). 'Crazy Dog' is Jenkins in glorious, jangly rockabilly mode, slip-sliding into bluesy licks and making the transitions sound so easy. The group also evokes many ambivalent, abstract atmospheres using small, well-spaced sounds poised between drifting calm and the threshold of nightmare: Noble's shakers, whistles and cymbal rubs, Jenkins' toned-down keyboard (a cross between cheesy stylophone and that ethereal organ playing in Herk Harvey's cult movie Carnival Of Souls) and Bellatalla's eerie pointillism. And boy, can they rockout, too! 'Flathead Social Dance' comes remarkably close to the fractured guitar fuzz of Fripp's King Crimson, with Noble driving the heavily accented tempi with bags of Brufordesque brio. Irony, parody, hyperbole, and the nostalgic beauty of revved-up Scalextric cars - it's all here. Lovely. (Chris Blackford)

Alan Wilkinson, Seedy Boy (Bruce's Fingers BFC 45 MC)

Saxophonist Alan Wilkinson is best known for his role in the British improv trio Hession/Wilkinson/Fell where his explosive playing has gained him quite a reputation. Solo work (and this album is his solo debut) is a wholly different proposition, however. Where, in the trio, Hession and Fell are wont to supply the necessary impetus for his gigantic leaps, the unaccompanied solos on Seedy Boy of course require self-generating and self-sustaining creativity. Wilkinson is magnificent when big gestures and blazing colours are called for, but less resourceful when the mood turns quiet and the search is for softer shades.

The opening 'Coming Out' is Wilkinson testing the alto's upper limit, leaping from rotund mid-range to howling, piercing cries that virtually dissipate under their own intensity. Likewise, his use of the baritone is remarkably powerful. On 'G-Force' he gives the sturdy horn the full blunderbuss treatment, showering the audience with a hail of split tones; mid-way he circumnavigates in a more thematic jazz-influenced vein, eventually leading to a surprisingly formal coda. Alan Wilkinson also has a boisterous sense of humour which crops up to good effect from time to time. His vocal improvisations are pretty darn weird. Consult a throat specialist before you try this at home. (Chris Blackford)

Günter Christmann & Paul Lovens, In Actu (Po Torch PTR/JWD 22 LP)

Now here's a good reason to get that old turntable down from the attic. German improv giants Lovens (percussion) and Christmann (trombone, cello) in a 1992 mixed media collaboration with visual artists KHR Sonderborg and Wolfgang Hannen, whose canvases were amplified by contact microphones for the occasion (I seem to remember Conspiracy and Gina Southgate doing something like this in London).

Lovens says he sensed a different sort of atmosphere between himself and Christmann, attributable to Sonderborg's presence; in fact, I can't recall ever hearing Lovens playing this sparsely for this length of time: 'The Blessed Dash 1 - 8' is 30 minutes of inventive cello and delightfully understated trombone wheezing and chordal sighs, with Lovens' occasional eruptions, but mostly crisply executed non-rhythmic gestures aware of the surrounding space, sometimes as refined as a horsehair bow delicately drawn across a cymbal. Side Two features Christmann on cello (sharp, grainy, fragmentary) in dialogue with the scratchy musicality of Hannen's nib. Some of the abstract artwork produced is impressively presented on the appropriately large gatefold sleeve. Sonderborg's contribution is spectacularly grotesque. (Chris Blackford)

Machine For Making Sense On Second Thoughts (Tall Poppies TP034 CD)

A dense text-based work from this Anglo-Australian improvising five-piece: Jim Denley, Chris Mann, Rik Rue, Amanda Stewart and English member Stevie Wishart. The aforementioned text (printed on the sleeve), written by Mann and Stewart (and sometimes delivered with David Moss-like rapidity), is an impossibly complex disquisition on language(s), epistemology and aesthetics: fragmentary, phonetic, surreal, self-parodic, enjoyably ribald, and sometimes bloody ludicrous - e.g. "The parrot that pretends to dream in narrative offers as a portrait of an event the fact Chairs don't think" Since shuffle-play is a listed suggestion, textual linearity can't be important, and even if it was it wouldn't make things simpler. But difficulty should not be a deterrent to enjoyment: better to relax and let the words canoodle, run rings round each other, or hold each other at knife-point, all of which they do so effectively.

Musically just as elusive, the flow of ideas is impossible to predict. 26 short tracks (the longest just over five minutes, the shortest 0:0) that wriggle from your eager grasp through concise, abstract exchanges to Rue's found-sounds and sample-collages: Hans Reichel's daxophone and Ikue Mori's drum machine are recognisable ingredients here. This is difficult work, no doubt about it, but to hear text being stretched with such imagination to meet the challenge of the most demanding improv, makes this challenge well worth meeting. (Chris Blackford)

Jeff Song & Matt Turner, in vivo (Asian ImprovAIR 0016 CD)

Jeff Song and Matt Turner are an American duo currently making strong connections between improv, ethnic and contemporary classical genres: what emerges is an elegant chamber music which at its best is more than the sum of its parts. in vivo sees a few instrumental additions since the duo's auspicious debut Love & Fear (O.O. Discs, 1992): Song has added bass guitar to vocals and kayagum (Korean zither), while Turner now plays piano as well as cello. There are also guest appearances from John Mettam (percussion) and Dean Laabs (trumpet). 'Bait' sees the bass in action laying down a rather too upfront funky rhythm track for my liking, which tends to dictate the flow of the piece; its use is more interesting on 'in vivo' where it's fuzzed up and distorted. By far the most arresting pieces are those for kayagum, cello and understated percussion, where Turner's bittersweet, classical lyricism provides a moving contrast to the kayagum's earthier timbres. 'Chejudo Lament' is rather special. (Chris Blackford)

Jeffrey Morgan & Joker Nies, Pair 'A' Dice (No Label MC; this recording has subsequently been released on CD by the Random Acoustics label) Köln-based, American alto saxophonist Jeffrey Morgan has been involved in improvised music since the mid-70s. He's especially persuasive in the instrument's high register where his control of overtones has a marvellous forward-moving urgency; not power-blowing exactly but a considered intensity. His German duo partner, Joker Nies, uses MIDI processing to send out squiggles, clipped phrases and atmospheric clusters of sounds in a most capricious way that takes a bit of getting used to (reminiscent of synth player Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levis, in this respect). Close attention will be rewarded. (Chris Blackford)

Barry Guy and the NOW Orchestra, Study/Witch Gong Game II/10 (Maya MCD9402 CD)

Two more substantial works from the prodigous talent of Barry Guy, featuring the NOW (New Orchestra Workshop) Orchestra, a Canadian answer to the LJCO, perhaps. Study at 16 minutes opens with a brief section for solo (possibly two) double bass, later swelled by the full orchestra's thickly textured, organising drone. Then follows a sequence of impressively staged crescendos, where the fortissimos are breathtakingly sustained. Separate instrumental lines emerge and then return to a central concentration of energy. After the final climax, the diminuendo restores that initial drone-like calm. In the desire for this type of resolution one still senses a kind of romanticism, but one that's tested almost to destruction.

Witch Gong Game II/10 is the third in a series of works inspired by the paintings of Scottish artist Alan Davie. At 52 minutes it's another massive Guy work which brilliantly integrates notated and improvised elements. Its polystylistic complexity (atonal composition, big band jazz and free improvisation) and awesome contrapuntal energy are the true successors to those stunning orchestral works of Charles Ives. And like Ives' work, Barry Guy's also fires the imagination and communicates directly to the heart with its breadth of mood and dynamics. The two pieces here, magnificently performed by the composer and the members of NOW Orchestra, will leave you emotionally drained. (Chris Blackford)

Full Monte, Spark In The Dark (Slam CD 209 CD)

Debut album from this British quartet. Seven improvisations that sometimes get close to fusion but wriggle away across more interesting terrain. Chris Biscoe's saxes and clarinet are richly melodic, boppish, at times lead from the front with a rising intensity into abstraction; bassist Marcio Mattos provides his usual undersung, robust textural activity, never content to merely run through routine rhythm section duties. Brian Godding's guitar synth is on the problematic side, its lush, fusion-like chords tending to overdetermine the complexion of some phases. Tony Marsh is brilliant throughout, never over-emphasizing tempo and quick to use cymbals and snare to expand the sound field. Their experience shines through. (Chris Blackford)

Tod Dockstader, Quatermass (Starkland ST-201 CD)

Tod Dockstader, Apocalypse (Starkland ST-202 CD)

These CDs have been around for a while, but not many people seem to have noticed. How do you think it feels when one of the most innovative and fascinating pioneers of musique concrète (organised sound, if you like) is totally ignored while talentless amateurs pontificate on nationally distributed magazines? It hurts, of course. We're talking about the re-release of the decade.

It's pretty much impossible to communicate adequately in print the beauty, the craft embedded in these works. It was the early 80s when Dockstader created these pieces by means of razor blades, splicing tape, crude equipment (you get the picture) at the studio where he worked as a recording engineer "while nobody was looking". Fantastic booklets, composer's notes, pictures, accurate digital mastering, excellent sound need I say more. With regard to his influence, listen to these CDs (distributed by RéR) then go listen to Eno's VCS3 intro to 'Gloria Gloom' on Matching Mole's Little Red Record. You read it here first. (Giuseppe Colli)

Sakis Papadimitriou, Piano Oracles (Leo CD LR 163 CD)

The sleevenote says that Papadimitriou is self-taught. Whatever his history, he has had the strength to fashion a new and fully rounded technique on the piano which combines preparing the strings, working percussively on the strings and just playing the keyboard more fluently than anyone else I've heard.

The two sections of this CD ('Alpha' and 'Beta') have been released by Leo before on different LPs ('Alpha' on an LP of the same name and 'Beta' on First Move), although this doesn't mean the LPs are superseded - the other side of First Move is superb. However, they are a good combination showing different strengths. 'Alpha', a suite of 11 short pieces, is partly composed, mainly melodic. The piano appears in many guises: as abstract percussive space or as the ghost of other instruments (zither, koto). The playing is restrained, controlled, sometimes astonishing: for example, the final track. 'Beta' is a 20-minute improvisation from 1985 which shows Papadimitriou's skill at sustaining large shapes, suggesting space. Above all it shows how far he has succeeded in taking piano technique beyond hitting or attacking the strings, how far he has gone beyond mere 'extensions' of technique and actually stepped into a wholly convincing but larger soundworld. (Nick Couldry)

Hession/Wilkinson/Fell, The Horrors Of Darmstadt (Shock SX025 CD)

Parker/Guy/Lytton, Imaginary Values (Maya MCD 9401 CD)

Unlike most improvising groups of their thirty-something generation, Hession/Wilkinson/Fell have a reputation which precedes them, a reputation for hardcore free jazz. 'The Horrors Of Darmstadt', the 32-minute title-track from their latest CD, quickly gives the throttle plenty of talk, and before long there's oil under the fingernails and a smell of petrol in the air (heightened by the grassroots live recording at the Termite Club in Leeds, 1993). 'Zabaglioni' sets up a new, exciting tension between the textural grind and machine-like noise of Wilkinson's sax and Fell's bass, and Hession's hyperactive, polyrhythmic drumming out of the Elvin Jones free jazz tradition (and reminiscent of Mujician's Tony Levin). It's a tension that's resolved on the corrupted sentimentality of 'Claggy, But In Love' but resurfaces for the concluding 'Chinary Ung'. Free jazz or free improv? Hession/Wilkinson/Fell are on the cusp of something really fascinating; a drive away from their current jazz influences towards the untrammelled pleasures of abstraction, however, would see the full flowering of this powerful trio.

The longstanding trio of Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton has the free jazz heritage at its fingertips, but has developed an original sound based on highly evolved personal vocabularies which fall outside identifiable idioms. Imaginary Values is a live set recorded at London's Red Rose Club in 1993 and reinforces the view that this trio is one of the very best at work in free improvisation. 'Form' is a stunning example of how cohesive the group has become with Parker's agitated phrasing cutting into Guy's arco smears and stormy rumbles; Lytton's role is never one of merely underpinning or filling out the sound, his redoubtable speed constantly shifts the textural emphasis from sheets of polymorphous activity to the gentlest pitter-patter of woodblock and snare, or gelid strokes of cymbal and hi-hat - and all in the twinkling of an eye. Parker drops out almost imperceptibly to show that a trio doesn't have to be three blokes playing at the same time all the time, and later rejoins to ease up the pace. This is an attempt to give something of the flavour of just one track: the other eight are just as astonishing. Imaginary Values is improv at its finest and most characteristically intense - teeming with the sort of subtle nuances of mood and timbre that you could never in a million years arrive at through notation. Credit also to Dave Bernez whose crystal recording brings out the sensitivity of these great improvisors. (Chris Blackford)

Keshavan Maslak & Paul Bley, Romance In The City (Leo CD LR 104 CD)

Keshavan Maslak, Loved By Millions (Leo CD LR 105 CD)

Although they have consecutive catalogue numbers, these two releases were actually recorded 13 years apart. LR 104 is a new release, while LR 105 is a re-release of a record from 1980. Taken together they provide an interesting insight into the development of Keshavan Maslak.

Despite recording since the late 70s, Maslak remains a rather hazy, mysterious figure. A US resident of Russian extraction, he has often employed the alias 'Kenny Millions'. If this indicates a quirky sense of humour, his work confirms that. On Loved By Millions he plays alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet and flute, and frequently adopts a tone which sounds gently mocking, even playful. Sometimes he sounds as if he could be laughing through his instrument. This is not merely out of jollity. He plays around with the form of the material, sometimes verging on parody and often adding ironic touches. For instance, the track 'Romance In The Big City' sounds as if it could be from a French movie soundtrack, but is gently sent up by Maslak's playing. This sense of mockery even extends to titles. So, a Maslak solo track is evocatively called 'When You Look At Me I Want To Vomit'! Throughout this record Maslak is superbly supported by Sunny Murray on drums and John Lindberg on bass. Both give flawless performances, with Lindberg on top form, from the walking bass line on 'Compulsive Lust' to his bow work on 'Loved By Millions'.

Leaping ahead 13 years, it is no surprise that Maslak sounds maturer; he is more prepared to play it straight when the occasion demands. Throughout Romance In The City romance seems to be the key word, and the mockery and irony are much diluted. Some passages are lush enough to be George Michael intros! The track 'Romance In The City' recurs from the previous record, but the treatment of it is vastly different. Here it is much mellower and more melancholy. Surely there is no need to say that Paul Bley is wonderful; these days he is rarely otherwise. He provides a solid underpinning when required, and Maslak sounds far better with him than without him. Although this album does contain a solo track from Bley and two from Maslak, these are less interesting than the duo pieces. (John Eyles)

Geoff Serle, Severe Test (Systems Collusion SCCD 8001 CD)

Earl Howard, Pele's Tears (Random Acoustics RA 004 CD)

Geoff Serle has collaborated widely over the past decade (including work with Jon Dobie of B Shops For The Poor) and this is a chance to hear work from many different collaborations (Dobie, David Cross, Mark Hewins, Francine Luce, Sheila Maloney, Chiemi Nagata, Elliott Sharp and Pat Thomas). Until now, his recordings have been mainly on the German label Ear Rational; Systems Collusion is his own label. Serle's electronics work under strict control, as instrumental voice or as mediator between other instruments, an ironic, disruptive element in the dance mix. The balance and poise is often subtle, above all on the track with Elliott Sharp (for me the best on the album) where Serle's "backward drums" are an excellent foil to Sharp's eloquent, floating guitar line. Even so, I found much of the album rather cold and flat, many of the tracks don't seem to move anywhere and the drum machine programming was dull to my ears. Given the quality of the line-up, it's disappointing.

Earl Howard's work belongs more to the musique concrète tradition: minutely detailed soundscapes which use electronics to try and construct an independent world where recognisable instruments survive as fragments, at best. Pele's Tears has three long tracks of straight electronics with many interesting moments. They conjure a slightly deranged world of musical boxes, mechanical bells, mangled fragments of organ fantasias (shades of Christian Marclay). But I did wish for a greater variety of sound textures, a less trebly, fuller sound. I also have doubts about whether the pieces work interestingly as structures: overall they seem a little static with not enough changes of pace. However, I forgot these doubts when I heard the two short group improvisations (with Frank Gratkowski, Melvyn Poore and Hans Schneider) which end the album. Here the electronics comes alive in a much richer context: abstract and austere certainly, but exceptionally dense and menacing. Schneider's double bass, in particular, cutting into the textures superbly. I want to hear more. (Nick Couldry)

Mal Waldron & George Haslam, Waldron-Haslam (SlamCD 305 CD)

A nicely-recorded studio set made in February 1994 when the duo were touring the UK. They reportedly struck up a rapport instantaneously, something which is borne out by this wonderfully intricate exchange. The most rewarding pieces are perhaps the two highly-structured improvisations which W&H approach with great poise and control. In fact, more of the same might have been in order - the tour round the beauty spots of 'If I Were A Bell' is all very fine, but not such an adventure. Haslam's baritone playing is spiked with the vigour to animate the languorous gravity of his instrument. His 'Vortex' (named after the London venue) is playful and eloquent. Waldron is a famously well-documented musician but remains fascinating to listen to as he's always ready to unearth the new in familiar contexts. The simple ingenuity he brings to the development of the 18-minute closer 'Motion In Order' (which could, perhaps, have given a title to the album) is superb. Ellington looms large throughout and there's one song by, and one for him. In the end, hearing the musicians listen so intently to each other is a joy. The chess analogy of the cover seems inappropriate: this is a dialogue with neither winner nor loser. (Will Montgomery)

Lol Coxhill/Steve Lacy/Evan Parker, Three Blokes (FMP CD 63 CD)

Summit meeting of three of the improvising world's major saxophonists who also happen to be soprano players. Four duets and a brief trio to conclude. Evan Parker's interest in lyrical, sometimes thematic playing is emerging frequently these days (check out the recent duo and trio releases on Leo Records with Anthony Braxton and Paul Rutherford, and the solo/multitracked album Process And Reality on FMP). 'The Crawl' between Parker and Steve Lacy is also recognisably melodic; often one musician initiating a melodic idea and the other picking up and rounding off the phrase. In full flight this incredibly intricate understanding has the ornate splendour of a baroque fugue. Lacy's occasionally 'pushy' tone, which grips certain phases of 'Backlash', nudging Parker into a role of recipient and embellisher of another's ideas, surfaces more strongly on the Coxhill/Lacy duet, 'Glanced'. Here the American's delightful, boppish vigour (with flashes of Monk) for a while begins to nudge Lol Coxhill, too, into a somewhat fragmentary supporting role to Lacy's bold melodies.

Parker and Coxhill, for whom melody is arrived at from more oblique angles, hit the album's highpoint: a 23-minute duet of staggering attunement to each other's idiosyncrasies. The mutual give-and-take is a joy to hear: there is always space for Coxhill's pinched, swooping melodies or Parker's hard-edged circumrotations. On 'Broad Brush' there are no supporting roles but a sublimely maintained interdependence of technique, emotion and direction. Individual liberties are taken and then justified in the context of the other's response. Pure gold. (Chris Blackford)

Slant, The Canning Town Chronicle (Sound & Language SLCD 0020 CD)

What they taped in best part of a day according to the recording credits on Slant's third album, and in some ways it shows - the sound is pretty taut and lively throughout. But then the work itself - a song cycle which, save for a cover of The Kinks' 'Dead End Street', is the work of Slant crew members past and present - developed over time and evolved through different processes to become not just music but also a performance piece and a book (the latter also available through Sound & Language). On CD The Canning Town Chronicle wraps its urban impressions around a mix of songform and avantists slants; it's probably the smoothest mix Slant has ever devised, moving from folk-style skits, both airy and coarse, to ambient soundscapes where Fourth World muses and trance-dance elements merge almost seamlessly. The idea of supplementing the core trio of performance artist cris cheek, ex-Kahondo Style violinist and vocalist Sianed Jones and turntable manipulator/post concrète sonic doctor Phil Jeck with various guests (guitarist John Wilkinson and drummer Nic Murcott appear here) has effectively brought Slant the best of both worlds: a singular aesthetic and a fulsome variety of attack. Recommended. (David Ilic)

Sylvia Hallett, Let's Fall Out (Mash CD 003-2CD)

Sylvia Hallet's first release on Mash, Skimming, was a beguiling collection of songs and instrumental pieces, full of intriguing moods and textures. Her newest displays similar variety (again including theatre and dance commissions), but with greater emphasis on her songwriting and singing. I have to confess I found this disc less rewarding, too melancholy in its overall effect, but there's still much to appreciate. Sue Ferrar contributes some violin, otherwise all violin and voice (along with keyboards, hurdy-gurdy, accordion and trombone) are Hallett's. The opening 'Bottled Visions' is trippy, almost dub-like; the closing 'Chopin's Mother' starts inside the piano before a mournful melody on the keyboard. In between come short vocal or vocal/violin pieces, plus 'One More Holiday' (the most 'conventional' song on display) and longer theatre pieces. Of these, 'Sweet House' is a dirge, special effects prominent, before trombone interjects a Weill-like melody; 'Fall In To Fall Out' incorporates a duo improvisation, builds with an unsettling drone and is resolved by a string melody; 'Spoilt For Choice' is an accordion tune that never really develops. Overall, a few more chances to glimpse into other lives, and worth the effort. (Gerard F Tierney)

Matching Mole, BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert (Windsong WINCD063 CD)

Van der Graaf Generator, Maida Vale/The Radio 1 Sessions (Band Of Joy BOJCD008 CD)

Come here, kids, Grandpa will tell you about an era when 'real time playing' was still called 'playing'. Live groups did not have an army of hard disks hidden under the stage, and drummers didn't trigger samples from pads. Sometimes groups even played (gasp!) in odd time signatures. And there was no MTV!

Matching Mole, a fine short-lived quartet, 1971-72. Agile, distorted guitar (Phil Miller), 'ugly' treated electric piano (Dave McRae - it's their second line-up), fine bass (Bill MacCormick), good vocal melodies (underfeatured here) by the man who also sat at the drums: Robert Wyatt. Listen how he drives the group from behind; his snare drum had a million ways of going trr-trr instead of the boring ka-bang you hear nowadays. At times he reminded you of Art Blakey, but he had his own concept. I'd recommend you get their two studio albums - Matching Mole and Matching Mole's Little Red Record - first, but these 25 live minutes are pretty intense.

Intense was also the name of the game for Van der Graaf. These are 'extended songs', well sung, well played, even adventurous; sometimes they missed the mark, but never for want of trying. Here we have the only official live release by their 'classic' line-up - Banton/Evans/Hammill/Jackson. Two songs from way back ('Darkness' and 'Man-Erg') plus six tracks from their second time together, 1975-76 ('The Undercover Man', 'Sleepwalkers', 'Still Life', 'La Rossa', 'When She Comes' and 'Masks'). It's still hair-raising at times: 'Still Life' will peel you like a grape. No long solos here; listen how the organ drawbars are subtly manipulated - everything at the service of the song. And watch out for a subsequent release of Peter Hammill's solo sessions for the BBC.(Giuseppe Colli)

Barry Guy/London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, Portraits (Intakt CD 035 2CD)

Few improvisors have taken up the challenge of mining the huge resources of the jazz orchestra with the same kind of sophistication that Barry Guy has shown in the last couple of decades. Recordings such as Ode, Zurich Concerts, Stringer, Harmos, Double Trouble and Theoria have forged a successful bond between the usually separate worlds of free improvisation and the classical avant-garde.

Portraits, a vast work (8 Parts, 6 Subsections) lasting nearly two hours, is in many ways Guy's tribute to his virtuoso LJCO pals who have remained pretty much the same crowd over the years. The work's pre-planned (by Guy) framework allows everybody to make solo and small group contributions, which are seamlessly woven into its expansive fabric, thus avoiding any structural predictability in the movement from individual to collective activity. For those who can follow these things, there's a diagram outlining the flow of events and personalities: early on Wachsmann's violin putting the gilt edge to the easy elegance of Rutherford's trombone; Parker's fiery Catherine-wheel of soprano lines sparking into an oncoming rush of brass and percussion; Malfatti and Phillips' supple and spacious duo with rapier thrusts from the reeds section. A few moments from a procession of marvellous encounters. And the LJCO swings high, too, ejecting impassioned solos from its syncopated rhythmic core in the big finale. You won't hear a finer, more innovative orchestra than the LJCO anywhere in the world. (Chris Blackford)

Mujician, Poem About The Hero (Cuneiform Rune 62 CD)

Firstly, let's clear up any lingering confusion. 'Mujician' was (used in) the title of three fine Keith Tippett solo recordings on FMP (the word is an amalgam of 'magician' and 'musician', coined by Tippett's daughter). The Mujician present here is a four-piece improvising band formed in 1988, notionally led by Tippett, with Paul Dunmall on saxes, Paul Rogers on 5-string double bass and Tony Levin on drums.

This, their second album, was recorded before a small invited audience, resulting in a live, spontaneous feel without intrusive audience noises. The music consists of five 'verses' of a 'poem' (This does not mean there is any recitation; the only poetry here is musical). The verses vary in length from a minute and a half to over half an hour. There is no obvious narrative structure linking the verses: this is no concept album.

All four players are vastly experienced improvisors. Their collective interplay often makes it difficult to separate out who is doing what. So, 'First Verse' slowly develops into a swirling mass of sound, created by all four, from which it is possible to occasionally identify an individual statement. Then, Dunmall's sax comes through loud, clear and strong with a squally tone. Fans of Dunmall's work with Spirit Level, Danny Thompson's Whatever or Elton Dean's group, will not be disappointed. His energy and invention are awesome. Yet to single him out seems wrong, as the same is true of the other three players. This is a collective triumph. (John Eyles)

Network, Volume One: 55 Music Miniatures (Discus 3CD CD)

Martin Archer's Network project finally comes to fruition. The brief given to composers/improvisors was to keep their creativity to approximately 90 seconds. A broad range of genres is on offer: classical, dance, avant-garde, improv, electronic/ambient, jazz, noise, pop, etc. In other words there's something here to satisfy most cravings. Lots of new calling cards (to me, anyway): among the interesting ones are Tonino Miano, Glen Capra, Nicky Heinen, Ian Harris, Siwula/Lang. A suspect few, bearing grim electronics clichés, sneak over the quality threshold (no names, no pack drill), but established folk like Alfred 23 Harth, Simon H Fell, Mick Beck, Richard Leigh, Chris Bywater, Primates, Alquimia, bring home the bacon. Compiler/editor, Martin Archer, is to be applauded for giving overall structure and flow to so many disparate elements. The start of an important project and the chance to make some useful contacts. (Chris Blackford)

Emily Bezar, Grandmother's Tea Leaves (Olio Records ORC599 CD)

Liking songs has gotten a bit risky these days: we mostly get stock chord progressions, inane lyrics, singalong choruses, bicycle pump vocalists. Then, of course, there's rap. Nostalgia, anyone?

Fortunately, we also have Emily Bezar's debut CD: a fine, rare example of a fascinating, captivating, mature musical vision; ten songs/instrumentals she has written, produced and partially engineered. It's easy, at first, to overstate her influences; that voice, that piano reminded this listener of the naked honesty of Joni Mitchell's Blue; but the intricate fabric of her melodies, the electronic splashes of colour, the fluid multi-layered contrapuntal quality of her arrangements show Emily Bezar to be her own woman, and an artist of today.

It's mostly a solo affair (the main exception being the fine string quartet of the title-track) but boredom is banished. Her compositional/poetic skills offer depth and variety; the 11-minute long 'Just Like Orestes' never falters under the weight of its ambitions. The short tracks are gems. Bizarre? Not at all. Original? Definitely. Wouldn't it be nice to have fine songs on the radio for a change? (Giuseppe Colli)

© Rubberneck

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