CD List 4

Pierre Berthet/Frédéric Le Junter, Berthet - Le Junter (Vand'Oeuvre VD09407 CD)

A French duo who design and build their own instruments, Berthet and Le Junter sometimes sound like a couple of enlightened buskers in a scrapyard. Their songs (by Le Junter) are deliberately unpolished, gruff chants underpinned by rudimentary percussive rhythms, woodwind and string drones - all of which are surprisingly catchy after a few hearings. 'Troc 'n' Broc' sets up a relentless punkish riff on homemade electric guitar along with appropriately strangulated vocals. That's Part One; Part Two is two lengthy sound installations (by Berthet), the first pulsating with the kind of unusual percussive energy generated by British groups like Bow Gamelan and Echo City who also specialise in the use of invented instruments; the second, 'Trompe et ressort', is almost ambient, murmuring with expansive wind drones, wrapped in dark hues. And judging by the photographs and sketches the instruments are as intriguing as the music itself. (Chris Blackford)

Paul Downing, Flight Through Cloudless Sky (Paulos Records PD PR01 CD)

14 short, solo cello pieces by Paul Downing. All but one were recorded in two churches, and their contemplative atmosphere appears to have influenced the mood of the performances which are agreeably understated. There's a refined 'classical' feel to several pieces, whereas the title-track and 'Cloudscape #2', the most dramatic with its abrupt arco sweeps, seek out grainier textures. The rather haunting theme of 'Suzanne' is my favourite. The CD runs for just over 25 minutes, but it adds up to a quietly uplifting experience. (Chris Blackford)

Somewhere In Europe, The Iron Trees Are In Full Bloom (These Silences TSCD1 CD)

With a dozen or so track titles sounding as sepulchral as anything contrived by the late Joy Division, Somewhere In Europe (Andrea James and David Tiffen) employ guitars, synths, "found sounds" and vocals to create a mostly interesting hybrid of Gothic indie rock, concrète soundscapes and minimalist electronics. The compositional elements are relatively straightforward and usually easily identifiable, but of course the skill is in knowing how much repetition and gradual development deliberately limited constituents can bear. 'Festival Of The Oppressed' uses an effectively traumatic synth repetition against snatches of backwards voice-over, and 'Pursuit Of The Elusive' creates a swirling soundscape teeming with manipulated gull and human cries, juxtaposed by drum machine. However, when SIE overreach in search of the dramatic (eg, 'Shadow And Flesh'), portentous turns pretentious and the music quickly descends into the quagmire of Gothic cliché. Happily, the duo gets it about right most of the time. (Chris Blackford)

Joseph Celli, Organic Oboe (O.O. Discs 1 CD)

Reissue of this collection of compositions performed by experimental woodwind virtuoso Joseph Celli. 'Sky: S For J' (1976) composed by Celli features five English horns played without their double reeds. A strangely enchanting, sometimes unsettling gauze of animal-like whimpering and hooting. Celli gave the American premiere of 'Spiral' (1968) by Stockhausen in 1973 where the performer responds to shortwave radio events with an electronically treated English horn, plus oboe, kazoo and voice. Elliott Schwartz's 'Extended Oboe' (1973-74) uses more conventional oboe sounds in opposition to an electronic tape. The piece constantly fluctuates in tempo and register, and while the oboe playing still sounds fresh and penetrating, the electronic parts have not aged well. Finally, 'A Summoning Of Focus' (1977), for me the highpoint of the collection, composed by Malcolm Goldstein for Celli, is a piece for oboe asking the performer to improvise in circular-breathing mode for 11 minutes, while always transforming some aspect of the sound produced. Celli's tour de force performance (one of the earliest I've heard using this breathing technique for this duration) grows in intensity and complexity as he shapes the buzzing, squealing multiphonic layers. (Chris Blackford)

Lutz Glandien, Scenes From No Marriage (ReR ReRC LG1 CD)

This is the first release in ReR's new Contemporary Classical series (ReRC), and if the quality of future CDs matches this one then we are certainly in for a treat. These five electroacoustic pieces by the East German composer Lutz Glandien reveal his superb integration of acoustic instruments with taped electronic music. 'Die Abgestürzt Sind: For Percussion And Tape' (1993) involves glassy glockenspiel clusters and ripples, disturbed by sudden electronic swells. The delicacy of some of the percussion passages is reminiscent of the Prologue and Epilogue sections of Gavin Bryars' Three Viennese Dancers. 'Weiter So: For String Quintet And Tape' (1989) opens impressively with ferocious, staccato electronic rhythms which the strings match with a percussive intensity. Again the dialogue between pre-recorded and played constituents is achieved with great sensitivity. The two other compositions on the disc are 'For Piano And Tape' (1992) and 'For Drums And Tape' (1991); here the drums are played by Chris Cutler who brings a welcome rock-rhythmic sensibility to the piece. If, like me, you find much electroacoustic music technically fascinating but not emotionally engaging, you'll be pleased to discover that Lutz Glandien's exciting work offers the best of both worlds. (Chris Blackford)

Hugh Hopper Band, Carousel (Cuneiform Rune 67 CD)

Fusion has got itself a bad name - for slick virtuosity, for contrived and superficial blends of jazz and popular genres. Nevertheless, Hugh Hopper's Anglo-Dutch quintet is doing it with dignity - well arranged jazz-rock without the self-indulgent, fiddly frills. Hopper's fuzzed bass still loiters with intent; the title-track is the most texturally ambitious, two others are free-fusion. It's Cool, elegant, boppish, studded with memorable tunes like 'Lock, Stock And Barrel', and it'll grow on you. (Chris Blackford)

Organum, Veil Of Tears (Matchless Recordings MRCD 24 CD)

Listening to this CD I was reminded of David Jackman's general interest (Unsound Magazine (USA) 1989) in creating "something really ancient, like something from the very beginnings of music making." This is especially apparent on the captivating 'Veil Of Tears' Parts 1 & 2, where elemental 'musical' sounds of definite pitch (wind and electronic drones, chimes, shouts) merge with and subtly shape, thus giving musical context to, environmental (rain?) and human-generated noises (metallic objects, buckets (?) and the like thrown about) which have a greater textural, than precise pitch value. The beauty of this piece lies in its inextricable tangle of controllable and uncontrollable sounds - not being able to see the soundsmiths (Jackman, Dinah Jane Rowe and Michael Prime) at work makes it all the more fascinating. Equally beautiful in its scratchy, ruminative unfolding is 'Delta' (with Roger Sutherland), recorded at Recommended Records' tiny shop (now These Records) in busy Wandsworth Road, London, though you'd never guess this from its expansive, spectral soundscaping. Jim O'Rourke and Robert Hampson also contribute in a remix capacity. This is stunningly crafted, atmospheric improv. Spellbinding. (Chris Blackford)

46,000 Fibres, Emanates (MTB 018 CD)

Emanates uses improvisation as a means to making connections between rock, techno, avant-garde electronics, ambient and noise genres. What sounds like a recipe for a potentially unwieldy, eclectic mix, turns out to be handled expertly by this London-based five-piece: RW Clark, Eddie Green, Leon Maurice-Jones, Nick Rowan and Tonal D. Some phases are driven by a strict techno-like pulse, but that is constantly undercut, brutalised or partially masked by a plethora of unpredictable guitar abrasives, electronic meshes and wandering radio signals. The fourth piece unleashes a powerful, racing rhythm track reminiscent of Pink Floyd's old VCS3 in 'On The Run'. They draw incandescent soundscapes with much aplomb, too.

This is an exciting direction for improv to be taking, and demonstrates that in the right hands feverish eclecticism can produce striking results. (Chris Blackford)

Mike Osborne, Shapes (Future Music Records FMR CD10-021995 CD)

If ever a reminder was needed of how strong and independent (from US free jazz) the early 70s, British free jazz scene was, here it is! Hard to believe that this previously unreleased session from 1972, featuring some of the key improvisors of the time, has been 'lost' for so long. The powerhouse frontline attack of altoist Mike Osborne, John Surman (soprano and baritone) and Alan Skidmore (tenor), who would form the acclaimed SOS trio the following year, are on blistering form, robustly supported by two bassists, Harry Miller and Earl Freeman, and drummer Louis Moholo.

'Shapes', at just under 20 minutes, consists of superbly controlled, fiery freeplay between the saxes, smoothly reuniting for the uplifting thematic unisons. 'Double It' sees Moholo's ubiquitous, crisp cross-rhythms buoy up some sturdy soloing by the saxists. The weaving and unravelling of the harmonic tapestry still sounds fresh and persuasive. (Chris Blackford)

Jin Hi Kim, Komungo 'Round The World (Korean Music Source KMS 001 MC)

With so much opportunistic ethnic pick 'n' mix about these days, it's a pleasure to hear a recording where intercultural exchanges amount to more than mere fashionable condiment. Jin Hi Kim has been at the forefront of Korean musicians who have brought a traditional Korean sensibility to Western improvised music and made the two into something else. Here she is joined in duet improvisations by Adam Plack (didgeridoo), Rahul Sariputura (sitar), Hideaki Kuribayashi (bass koto) and Mor Thiam (Sengalese djembe and dogodrum hand drums).

Each piece reveals a different dimension of the komungo: a lithe percussive quality against the didgeridoo's deep swirling patterns; subtle, vibrato inflections created by note-bending which accelerate in tempo with the sitar. The duet with bass koto is the most mysterious and abstract, using space to sustain tension and uncertainty. Finally, the crisp accents of the Sengalese hand drums develop a strong rhythmic dialogue with the komungo's supple tone quality. Repeated hearings reveal the beauty and inventiveness of these duets. (Chris Blackford)

Edward Vesala/Sound & Fury, Nordic Gallery (ECM 1541 CD)

Few jazz composers and arrangers have, in recent years, received the same kind of generous plaudits as those heaped upon the work of Finnish percussionist/composer Edward Vesala and his ensemble Sound & Fury. There again, indispensable albums like Ode To The Death Of Jazz (ECM, 1990) and Invisible Storm (ECM, 1992) set new standards of excellence in eclectic jazz ensemble writing and performance. In terms of its writing and execution Nordic Gallery matches its predecessors, but in terms of extending the existing soundworld it offers few surprises. When one hears such a talented and brilliantly cohesive ensemble like this, one starts to hope for something different on each new album.

Even so, the close harmonic layering of saxes, flutes and Matti Riikonen's elegiac muted trumpet is as lustrous as ever, and particularly elegant on 'The Quay Of Meditative Future'. Accordion, harp, koto, tamboura and angklung bring carefully deployed folk elements to the jazz, while Jimi Sumen's angry electric guitar roughens the textures with a rock influence. Finns being ineluctably drawn to a tango or two, expect some Latin dance material to creep in and lighten the mood - 'Bluego' is rather gorgeous. Yes, Nordic Gallery is indispensable, too. (Chris Blackford)

Hal Rammel, Elsewheres (Penumbra CD001 CD)

A collection of fascinating compositions and improvisations from American instrument inventor/builder Hal Rammel. Elsewheres features his electroacoustic "sound palette" - a painter's palette mounted with wooden rods, (amplified by a contact microphone) which can be bowed, plucked or disturbed by other objects (such as a wine glass). The sounds are fed through digital processing and delay units to give multitrack, microtonal soundscapes. Rammel eschews obvious linear development in favour of a more environmental approach where sounds appear to come and go with a leisurely randomness - rattling, rippling, chattering, crackling, rising and subsiding. 'Secret Tangent' recalls the strange wheezing of a daxophone. Rammel's immense but understated skill at sound manipulation sustains the interest throughout. (Chris Blackford)

The Tony Oxley Quartet, The Tony Oxley Quartet (Incus CD15 CD)

Perhaps it's the collision of styles: the finely-tuned non-idiomatic understanding between Oxley and Derek Bailey - their deft empathy in creating space or fragile textures - that seems at odds with the electronics and tape switchboard cut-up world of Pat Thomas (more of his piano playing, please!) and Matt Wand. The opening 'Quartet 1' has its moments, but unfortunately the thrown-in TV and film fragments sound clumsy and clichéd (too much unfocused, hyperactive noodling, not enough interesting textural surfaces/environments here). The gritty, angular 'Duo TD' by Oxley and Bailey is undoubtedly the summit, interspersed with passages of icy calm, and marred only by a fade-out 'conclusion'. (Chris Blackford)

Jean-Paul G Noguès, Attention (Viva Voce VV 4007 CD)

The sopranino saxophone still awaits a full-time, specialist exponent to establish the instrument's reputation in improvised music. Perhaps Frenchman Jean-Paul G Noguès is the player to do just that. Attention showcases his exploration of the instrument's striking sonic capabilities. One 41'48" improvisation is a daunting prospect for the listener, but Noguès' virtuosic playing makes the effort worthwhile. Less nasal than the soprano, the sopranino has a thrilling, piercing tone which Noguès commands to great effect. The melodic phrasing has a folk inflexion; the split tones buzz and drone like a bagpipe; Noguès keeps the listener alert with sudden pauses or rapid scalar movements across the upper register. Like the sopranino, Noguès deserves your attention. (Chris Blackford)

Dislocation, Carve Another Notch (Scatter 01 CD)

Derek Bailey, Drop Me Off At 96th (Scatter 02 CD)

Welcome aboard Scatter, a new improv label based in Glasgow. First up is Dislocation, a Japanese four-piece firmly rooted in that country's burgeoning noise/improv scene. Two pieces; the second a mighty 58'30". Exciting sax, electric strings and electronics abstraction, thankfully without very much of the Japanese taste for pastiche and mixed-genre sampling. Their carefully constructed, tense atmospheres are not unlike British group Conspiracy's. Drop Me Off is two sessions from 1986-87 of solo Derek Bailey - as charming, eccentric and idiosyncratically 'lyrical' as Solo Guitar Volume 2 (Incus). Essential for Bailey buffs; newcomers will marvel at the maturity of this unique guitar vocabulary. (Chris Blackford)

CHW-Trio, Serendipity (Hybrid HMP CD7 CD)

German trio at the centre of a busy improv scene in Bremen. Trombonist Paul Hubweber shows occasional similarities with Alan Tomlinson's clipped, sometimes humorous phraseology; Hannes Clauss' drums are non-rhythmically energetic; guitarist Hainer Wörmann supplies the angular, pointillistic slashes of colour to their mostly non-soloistic creations. They're not derivative, but well within a European improv school that favours collective texture-making above idiomatic gestures. Solidly workmanlike, if currently lacking that extra sparkle to make the top drawer of this school. (Chris Blackford)

The Invisible String Quartet, Entomic (Slam CD 210 CD)

Briton Dave Draper is behind this mysterious epithet. Debut CD solo improvisations using self-built guitars in tandem with samplers and electronics. Always master of the technology, Draper creates impressively structured, multilayered pieces that integrate industrial, rock, jazz, abstract electronics, Frippertronics styles. Never merely a miscellany, though. Dave Draper is a distinctive guitar explorer who merits wider recognition. (Chris Blackford)

Jérôme Bourdellon, Trajet Solo (Khôkhôt K192 CD)

Multitrack, polyphonic compositions as well as single instrument improvisations. The 10 pieces display a high level of imaginative playing, exploring a host of ethereal and ghostly sonorities on various flutes and piccolo. Meditative, elusive and dissonant. Investigate this compelling performer. (Chris Blackford)

Zeitgeist, Plays Rzewski: A Decade (O.O. Discs 15 CD) The result of a 10-year collaboration between US composer Frederic Rzewski and US chamber ensemble Zeitgeist. Four very approachable pieces by Rzewski: 'Wails' (1984) was inspired by an ancient Greek text and involves a primordial poignancy in the writing for sopranino amidst glockenspiel clusters and steel drums; 'Spots' (1986) is lyrical, almost pastoral and 'The Lost Melody' (1989) has a memorable, Klezmer thematic basis. Finally, 'Crusoe' intersperses brief, quirky, melodic instrumental passages with spoken and sung text based on Defoe's novel, amounting to a kind of psycho-drama of the shipwrecked hero. Throughout, the ensemble's performances are delightful, conveying the wit, charm and vivacity of Rzewski's compositions. A fine collection. (Chris Blackford)

Brötzmann/Kondo/Parker/Drake, Die Like A Dog (FMP CD 64 CD)

Brötzmann/Drake Duo, The Dried Rat-Dog (Okka Disk OD12004 CD)

Subtitled 'Fragments Of Music, Life And Death Of Albert Ayler', Die Like A Dog is more in the spirit of Ayler than merely variations on his themes, though some are woven into the fabric of these four superb improvisations. Against the impeccably sure-footed rhythm section of Hamid Drake (drums) and William Parker (double bass), Toshinori Kondo (trumpet) and Peter Brötzmann (reeds) produce a riveting frontline dialogue: fiercely intense powerplay, off-centre thematic lyricism - Albert would have loved it. The Dried Rat-Dog is another stunner. Drake's splendidly deft use of tablas and toms eases Brötzmann towards his most appealing, quietly edgy performances of recent times. Tracks 2 and 3 are simply marvellous. (Chris Blackford)

Prima Materia, Peace On Earth: Music Of John Coltrane (Knitting Factory Works KFW158 CD)

Tribute albums risk relegation to subsidiary status, worthy worship at the vacant shrine. It's sad to see someone like Pharoah Sanders - paradoxically, least tainted by imitation when actually playing in Coltrane's band in the 60s - replicate late 'cosmic' Trane, as he did on his English tour in 1994. Jan Kopinski negotiated this no-go area by developing a comparable intensity and collective uplift in another genre, that of funk; Peter Brötzmann by insisting on a highly individual ugliness; Derek Bailey and Lol Coxhill by subverting any hint of monumentality whatsoever. Players as strong (and various) as Gerd Dudek, Paul Dunmall, Courtney Pine and Marilyn Crispell, though, can fall into the trap: they are all at their weakest when echoing The Master.

Prima Materia are one of the few tribute bands to work. This is largely due to the presence of Rashied Ali, drummer in Trane's last band. His magisterial playing underlies the best recordings by David Murray and Blood Ulmer (in other words, Ali helped realise some of the most important music of the 80s). His brutal force and metric expansion - an intoxicating blend of kettledrum and knittingneedle - ensure Prima Materia never sound replicant; his 'Brazilia' drum solo is an object lesson in torrential sensuality and organisational reserve. Two basses (William Parker and Joe Gallant) emulate a late Trane line-up; their percussive attacks mesh with Ali's toms and bass-drum into a relentless polyrhythmic matrix, almost a drum orchestra. The saxophonists are at their best when least Trane-ish: Allan Chase's derivative soprano is irritating, while Louis Belogenis' tenor - all squalls and distortion, no attempt at Coltrane's muezzin transcendence - is chunky and fulsome. John Zorn guests on two tracks, his trademark cry offsetting the group's warm churn with a welcome tartness. Best of all when all three play at once, spattering us with updown kaleidoscopes.

Prima Materia recall the integral impact of Coltrane's music, a much needed reminder when Mike Brecker's limited take on some of his mid-period sax stylings is lauded as the summit of excellence. The concluding 'Alabama' is majestic in its splendour and melancholy. Applause at the end is enthusiastic, but comes from a tiny audience: a sad indication of the fact that, despite the way Coltrane has been plundered by record companies and heritage mongers, this authentic rendition of his protest against a racist atrocity has been relegated to one of the smallest (if most courageous) venues in the States. (Ben Watson)

Houtkamp/Beukman/Prins & Johannes Bauer, Metslawier (X-OR CD 05 CD)

Hans Reichel, Lower Lurum (Rastascan Records BRD 016 CD)

Luc Houtkamp (b. 1953) is maybe Holland's best-kept secret. Each of the three well-recorded CDs he has released on his own label shows a different side of this saxophonist/comprovisor/serious practitioner of computer music. The Songlines (1991) emphasises his innovative playing techniques and his attention to timbre in a solo context. The Rule Of Thumb (1993) shows various collaborations: a duo with George Lewis' trombone, a live dialogue with Richard Teitelbaum's devices, and a long, beautiful piece for saxophone and tape co-composed with the late Tony van Campen. Two tracks for saxophone and computer show the depth and originality of Houtkamp's explorations.

Metslawier (1994) is a quartet recording. Houtkamp and trombonist Bauer play admirably: they're bold, funny, original, but it's the rhythm section that gives this group its distinctive flavour and whose driving motions delivered in dry tones propel the front line (and since you've broken into the piggy bank also get Gene Carl's Gray Matter, for piano and electronics - same label).

Speaking of well-kept secrets, how come that I often see long lists of fine guitarists and Hans Reichel's name isn't there? Kudos to California-based Rastascan for releasing his new CD. 27 tracks, mostly brief, mostly improvised (for more on the man see Rubberneck 16). Those already familiar with Reichel's work will find the usual excellence: the tasty sonic explorations, his classic sense of beauty, his melodic ruminations - so clear, so familiar, yet always ready to throw the listener a curve.

Lower Lurum presents a variety of instrumental combinations. Those who enjoyed the daxophone operetta Shanghaied On Tor Road will find here the multitracked moods of Reichel's peculiar invention; those who prefer him in his guitar builder/player mode will get plenty of it. Newcomers are in for a surprise. (Giuseppe Colli)

Zentralquartett, Plie (Intakt CDO37 CD)

The problem that besets British jazz - from Ray Noble and Ronnie Scott to Barbara Thompson and Andy Sheppard - is light-music, 'Radio 2' gentility; in Germany it is what Michael Kator (describing the results of the Nazi ban on "hot Jewish music") called "the bane of German jazz, the dreaded 'um-papa' sound" (Different Drummers, p116). Here, four free music veterans from East Berlin (Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, alto; Ulrich Gumpert, piano; Connie Bauer, trombone; Günter Sommer, percussion) have decided to ease up, let some 'dance music' in. Unfortunately, this opens the door to "the bane of German jazz": despite Carla Bley-style sarcasm, the jokes are too clumsy (and the arrangements too unplanned) to save us from 'um-papa'.

From the ideological squirmings of Christian Broeking's German sleevenotes (the translation into 'English' by Susan Kaufmann-Guyer is impenetrable), the musicians seem to regret the collapse of Communism and the lack of opportunities for lucrative 'protest music' tours since the Wall came down in 1989. This is to put the cart before the horse with a vengeance: some free jazz players might have found a niche during the Cold War, but that is hardly reason to wax nostalgic about nuclear standoffs and the Stasi! Still, like the difficulties encountered in the 90s by the Ganelin Trio and Sergey Kuryokhin in Russia, such protests at least demonstrate that the market has not been quite the cure-all promised by the British press during the Velvet Revolutions.

As usual, Connie Bauer plays gorgeous trombone, though one misses the embattled strenuousness that stretched him to the limit in previous ensembles. Sell out by all means, gentlemen, but not to the Bierkeller. (Ben Watson)

Paul Dunmall/Tony Levin, Spiritual Empathy: Duets 1994 (Rare Music RM024 CD)

Paul Dunmall/Paul Rogers, Folks (Slam CD212 CD)

As their titles make clear both these new CDs featuring Paul Dunmall wear their allegiances on their sleeves, if you'll pardon the pun. Which means whether you enjoy them is probably a matter of black and white.

The Spiritual Empathy duets look back very clearly to Coltrane in their soundworld, their musical form and even their titles. Both Dunmall (alto and tenor saxes) and Levin (drums) are superbly fluent performers, able to sustain peaks of energy and invention for very long periods, and (even more impressive) sustain an overall shape, demonstrated by the remarkable sense of completion at the end of, say, tracks 1 and 5. They create a feeling of continual flow and are then suddenly able to focus it, and explode out again without any hesitation or awkwardness. Levin's drumming on track 5 is to me particularly magical, an outstanding use of the classic drum and cymbal kit.

Folks, I have to admit, left me cold. I feel that the folk idiom has been mined in jazz with much greater conviction by John Surman or Jan Garbarek, to name just two. The short pieces on this album (mostly compositions by either Dunmall or Rogers, with an enjoyable but brief performance by singer Polly Bolton on one track) generally seem studied, even in the 'free' passages. The recordings also sound a little on the dull side. They move around between jazz and folk without convincing me, at least, what direction the disc finally is moving in. Only in the Paul Rogers composition 'Lament 4' does the folk territory spring to life, with enough harmonic interest and enough ambiguity to make this a very moving piece, though all too brief. Both Dunmall and Rogers are inspirational players - it's a shame to hear them reining themselves in with limited material. (Nick Couldry)

Something Else, Start Moving Earbuds (Discus 2CD/Bruce's Fingers BF10 CD)

Akemi Kuniyoshi/Russell Lambert/Paul Moss, ARP Music (Leo Lab CD 004 CD)

Something Else are Mick Beck on tenor sax, Simon H Fell on double bass and Paul Hession on drums and cymbals. This disc consists of live tracks recorded in 1993 in Manchester, Luton and Southampton, and follows their 1992 Rear Quarters cassette. Although recorded in concert, the six tracks play straight through, uninterrupted by applause.

The name Something Else is employed to indicate that this is different to their work with other people. In particular, those of you familiar with Fell and Hession's trio work with Alan Wilkinson (foom! foom! and The Horrors Of Darmstadt) should note that this is very different. Beck employs a much greater dynamic range than Wilkinson. At times he does adopt a furious, headlong approach, as on the opening 'Manchester Bus Station'. Elsewhere though, his playing can be barely audible as he produces very lightly blown passages, or playfully rhythmic and melodic, as on Fell's 'Jumbo's'. Fell and Hession support, goad and complement Beck, playing the role of rhythm section to perfection. Hession's credit - "drums and cymbals" - is significant; his use of a variety of cymbals as punctuation is truly innovative. This is fresh, exciting music that holds the attention and fires the imagination; even 'Norman', the longest track here at over 20 minutes, whizzed by.

Leo Records chose Kuniyoshi's trio as one of the inaugural releases on Leo Lab, its new experimental subsidiary. Kuniyoshi has recorded for Leo before, both solo and in a trio with Eddie Prévost and Marcio Mattos, but this is her first release with Paul Moss and Russell Lambert, despite the fact that their partnership dates back over 12 years. Lambert and Moss play an astonishing array of instruments between them - Lambert's are essentially percussive and Moss' predominantly reeds but including brass and guitar. Between them they lay down a shifting backdrop over which Kuniyoshi adds her very distinctive piano. Her playing, which is clearly rooted in a classical training, has a clarity, precision and logic which commands attention whatever Moss and Lambert are playing. A fine start to Leo's new venture. (John Eyles)

Billy Jenkins, Entertainment USA (Babel BDV9401 CD)

A Billy Jenkins disc reveals new levels of thought and irony on each listening. At first, Entertainment USA is pleasant but curiously flat, pattering on with its basic formats, almost like a Hank Crawford or Boots Randolph album. However, Jenkins injects his Anglo-MOR with two lethal spikes: absolutely bravura guitar, and a highly developed awareness of the socio-politico implications of schlock. You can sit around and ponder these musings on Reagan, Manson, Elvis, etc., for hours. In other words, Jenkins has cunningly confected the ideal domestic soundtrack: Country enough to make the average ambient snob turn purple, it's also great dinner-party/cannabis music - just as everyone's starting to get out of it, bizarre insights and brilliant guitar vault out of the subliminal. Sublime.

NB: Buyers of this album should be warned that due to a series of predictable coincidences (involving Babel advertising campaigns; astrologer and poet Don Stallybrass; the asteroids Fides and Zappafrank; bikini-designer Laetitia Allen; and the Portsmouth telephone directory) the number 42 may well become an unavoidable presence in your life. (Ben Watson)

Christian Marclay/Günter Müller, Live Improvisations (For 4 Ears CD513 CD)

Eddie Prévost/Marilyn Crispell, Band On The Wall (Matchless Recordings MRCD25 CD)

Conversation, the two-way exchange, has always exerted a special fascination in improvised music. From the days of the Parker/Stevens SME, through such events as Bailey 'n' Braxton and Cecil Taylor's Berlin concerts, to more recent things such as the Elliott Sharp and Zeena Parkins pairing, the impurity of dialogue, with its imperfect democracy, has epitomised the sensitivity and risk of spontaneous music.

The Marclay/Müller is the more disputatious of these two quite different collaborations. Müller pits his percussion and electronics against Marclay's faintly Luddite turntable proto-sampling. Listening to Marclay manipulate other people's music rapidly is clearly supposed to be a radically dislocating experience, but in the end it's more like an inspired heaping up of detritus that defiantly goes precisely nowhere. Valuable as a destabilising ambience perhaps, but listening hard throughout isn't one of the uses I'd put it to - I'd simply lose interest. There's always another scratchy bit of kitsch around the corner. Müller brings a fevered percussive imagination to the music, beats to rough up the cut-ups, but in the end it's a very unfocused sort of energy. Maybe the most engaging thing about the album is the sheer speed of invention of the two protagonists, just the sort of response to proficiency they'd find deplorable. Great for doing the housework to, though.

The Crispell/Prévost duet is a recording of a concert recorded at the Band On The Wall club in Manchester in May 1994. Piano and drums: in some ways a more limited palette than that available to Marclay and Müller, but it's an infinitely richer album, blowing all the irony and pessimistic relativism of M&M sky high. Crispell gets better and better and Prévost seems the perfect drummer for her - there's a propulsive force at work between them that pushes the music into ever more fertile territory. It's an incredibly balanced exchange and it simply doesn't let up (the brief, punctuating solo pieces work as a part of the main action). It would be false to characterise it as music from the gut, but there is a kind of charge that this music carries that's extremely hard to pin down. There's absolutely nothing thrashy or indelicate about the way the two work up this electricity either; it's a buzz but helluva developed one. When I'm next burgled (burglar: are you there?) I hope this one gets left behind, because it's one of the most vital pieces of improvised music (or any music for that matter) I've ever heard. (Will Montgomery)

Mike Keneally, hat. (Guitar Recordings/Immune 9714-99303-2 CD)

Mike Keneally, Boil That Dust Speck (Immune Records IMM 1005 CD)

Is 'intelligent rock' an oxymoron? Does 'progressive rock' equal 'Jurassic rock'? Whatever your answer, check these CDs by Mike Keneally, a thirtysomething American guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist (you may have seen/heard him with Frank Zappa's last live band or in the well-meant but shoddily presented CD tribute Zappa's Universe).

Keneally's universe is an original, strange dimension where European influences - say, XTC, Albert Marcoeur, Gentle Giant's lyricism and knottiness - mingle with American rock and pop (not to mention Zappa). It must be said that Keneally never uses his considerable guitaristic abilities as an easy way out. He has a lot of humour (how could one resist a song like 'Eno And The Actor'), and these very long CDs are almost devoid of weak moments. Between the more pop-orientated hat. (1993) and the more convoluted Boil... (1994), it's not an easy choice. Snap 'em both up. (Giuseppe Colli)

William Hooker/Lee Ranaldo, Envisioning (Knitting Factory Works KFW159 CD)

Lesego Rampolokeng with The Kalahari Surfers, End Beginnings (ReR Recommended LRSCDI CD)

These two albums provide contrasting combinations of music with the spoken word. Still a comparatively rare phenomenon outside of rap, the successful fusion of poetry and music relies on the two complementing and enhancing each other. Both these recordings achieve this - but there any similarity ends.

William Hooker's album with Lee Ranaldo follows his earlier collaboration with Thurston Moore and Elliott Sharp. The 50 minutes on offer here were recorded live at the Knitting Factory in May 1994. Unfortunately, the album gets off to a weak start with a stumbling, rambling recitation about a Richard Avedon photograph, which has little point to it. Things improve from there, as the performers get into their stride and feel comfortable with the audience. The combination of poetry and music falls into the Jim Morrison/Horse Latitudes tradition, with the instruments providing an abstract backdrop, commentary and sound effects. Ranaldo's guitar and synth combine with Hooker's fierce drumming to produce soundscapes which vary between hypnotically rhythmic and wildly free. Content of the verse ranges from deeply personal, highly specific vignettes, to portentous, metaphysical observations on life, the universe and everything. Often the words have been chosen for sound, rather than to convey meaning, and this becomes tiresome. By the end, I wanted to hear more of the music without the words.

Rampolokeng's poetry is a total contrast to Hooker's (maybe highlighting the difference between living and writing in South Africa and in the US). Hard-hitting, politicised and pithy, it is rooted in the struggle against apartheid and comes across like a telegram from the frontline. Yet, the poetry avoids being agitprop, constantly alluding to the struggle in its use of language rather than describing specifics. Unfailingly rhythmic, the recitation style is occasionally reminiscent of Linton Kwesi Johnson while being clearly South African. The Kalahari Surfers produce bubbling, driving backing, frequently propelled by the bass. Sometimes their playing shows the influence of dub effects. At all times the music is perfectly suited to the poetry. A very happy marriage of words and music. (John Eyles)

Lisle Ellis, Elevations (Victo CD027 CD)

Kaiser/Kimura/O'Rourke/Oswald, Acoustics (Victo CD025 CD)

Two engaging but very different releases from Victo, the Quebec-based label, connected with the Victoriaville Festival. Elevations brings together musicians from Canada and USA in compositions by bassist Lisle Ellis, who works in San Francisco. A fairly controlled grouping: 4 saxes (Christopher Cauley, Glenn Spearman, Larry Ochs and Joe McPhee, who also plays trombone) plus Donald Robinson (percussion) and James Ruthier (electric guitar, on three tracks). The spirit of Albert Ayler is present throughout, reflected above all in the fantastic energy and dialogue of the wind improvisations, held tightly together by Ellis' strong, ever-alert bass line. It's very well recorded, with a sharp edge to all the individual contributions. And there's plenty of humour, too. The discipline of the whole production spills over into some excellent short free improvisations (tracks 4 and 6) - edgy, but always well-focused. An enjoyable disc.

Acoustics is music it's extremely difficult to write about directly. Both Henry Kaiser and Jim O'Rourke play acoustic guitar, Mari Kimura is a violinist from New York and John Oswald (of plunderphonics fame) appears in the slightly less familiar role of saxophone player. The recording is vivid - it needs to be when the crucial detail is at the level of small whispers. Whether in the quartets (the bulk of the album) or the duos with Kimura and the two trios, the playing is devastatingly 'accurate'; listen, for example, to the two-guitar interplay at the end of track 4 or the uncanny, almost disembodied way in which O'Rourke's guitar seems to shadow Kimura on track 7. The interplay works both in slower and in some astonishing fast material. A fine CD whose main quality that I could put into words is openness to silence, to stillness, even in the midst of frenetic activity. But writing about it is fairly pointless - you have to listen. (Nick Couldry)

Soixante Etages, Revolutionary Suicide (33REVPERMI 9404 CD)

Etage 34, Exorde (33REVPERMI 9505 CD)

Soixante Etages is 10 years old but this is my first brush with the French six-piece, here augmented by guests Michel Henritzi (guitar) and ace improv alto saxist Daunik Lazro. Although the nine tracks are credited to individuals, there's a strong emphasis on spontaneity - the amplified firepower of rock and the textural free-for-all of free improv. Tapes, electronics, percussion, electric bass and two guitarists, one of whom, the wildly inventive Dominique Répécaud, also uses prepared guitars. They work incredibly well off sturdy back beats on tracks like the opening 'Gunfights' and the deftly-titled 'What's The Fuck Being In Hell (With You)!'. The mix is dense, the mesh of guitar distortion and tape-noise overlay, raw. But it's not all menace: 'Not A Losing Battle' is a ruggedly melodic instrumental and 'A Little About Mr Plum' and 'Revolutionary Suicide' are essentially rock songs with improvised texture-making at the edges.

Etage 34, as the name implies, is a splinter group of Soixante Etages and no less ferocious when it comes to density and amplification. Its trio of members, Daniel Koskowitz (drums), Olivier Paquotte (bass guitar) and Dominique Répécaud (electric guitars), are also all members of Soixante Etages. Once again the terrain is free rock - the bludgeoning rhythms of the latter, the off-kilter sonic experimentation of the former. Répécaud, especially, takes the most liberties in leaping from the pulse-based energy with lacerating, textural slashes of guitar frenzy. Paquotte lays down some formidable fuzzed-up bass riffs and supplies the 'melodic' dimension to the 11 tracks, while Koskowitz's surround-sound percussive drive holds everything together. There's gritty excitement aplenty here; above all a remarkable control and sense of direction at high volumes that make both Revolutionary Suicide and Exorde powerful listening experiences. (Chris Blackford)

Evan Parker, 50th Birthday Concert (Leo Double CD LR 212/213 CD)

Evan Parker in clover, in action first with Alex von Schlippenbach and Paul Lovens and then with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton. With Parker's music the weightiness of such an occasion doesn't make any difference to the flood of intensities that is his music. There's no "and this is a particular favourite I wrote when I was just starting out" of course; instead of celebrating moments from the past this is a celebration of the moment itself, a flow of Evanescent happenings where memory plays its part but the present is constantly turning what came before on its head.

Among percussive pianists Schlippenbach's a relatively melodic player and the fascination of the first disc is following the ways in which he plays underneath and against Parker. When Parker lays out time stretches and Schlippenbach adopts larger frames for the music. When they play together speed becomes a guiding principle, not in terms of playing fast, but in terms of immediacy of communication. Lovens provides subtle and apposite commentary.

Marvellous, but then the rate at which ideas are chewed up and spat out by the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio is something else again. Anyone who's seen the trio over the 15 or so years of its existence will know that there's nothing to touch it. Pointless perhaps to talk about progress with such music, but there is a sense in which the band have refined what it is they do. So this set is similar in terms of texture but slightly denser and more animated than something like 86's Atlanta. There's no parallel I can think of anywhere to the rapport these three share. Parker's firing on all 12 cylinders at 50 - let's hope it continues for a long time to come. (Will Montgomery)

Charles Gayle/Sunny Murray/William Parker, Kingdom Come (Knitting Factory Works KFW157 CD)

Initial excitement with Gayle after exposure to a FMP recording with Parker and Rashied Ali was tempered by witnessing a colourless set with Hilliard Green (bass) and Michael Wimberley (reputedly he's a sax player; his drumming was hardly a revelation) at London's Disobey Club last year. Writing in Resonance, Michael Ritchie enthused about the resulting disc (Live At Disobey, Blast First, BFFP100 CD), but to these ears its scope was limited. Ritchie liked the "structure": maybe as part of a smorgasbord that includes Glassy minimalism, Techno and plunderphonics it's passable, but to anyone addicted to the special high of free jazz it sounded thin, a sound-alike ghost of free jazz rather than an interactive process that "lists everything under the sun" (Blood Ulmer).

In this company, though, he can hardly go wrong. His tenor reveals a fine, rough-hewn edge and a tender, soulful core. Sunny Murray (one of the inventors of metre-free drumming) and William Parker (kingpin of happening NYC jazz) provide fabulous support; Gayle's likeable rhapsodies are pressed into state-of-the-art jewel-cases. While the blowing never hits the peak the genre demands, it's consistently engaged - even Gayle's amateurish, sub-Cecil piano provides welcome textural contrast to his zigzagging saxophone. (Ben Watson)

Various Artists, Step To Another World Music (RecRec ReCDec 50 CD)

This is not a 'collectors' special' full of previously unreleased material, but a thorough overview of some 15 years' existing releases from the always adventurous RecRec label of Zurich, and available at about £4 in the UK. This compilation is not all wacky avant-rock bands, that's for sure, though a liking for accordions is probably advisable. You may find all sorts of fun and games that you'd somehow overlooked: I certainly did, having previously been unaware of the playful instrumental work of Die Knodel or Il Gran Teatro Amaro, for example. There are plenty of names that are perhaps more familiar, among them Camberwell Now, The Ex/Tom Cora, Tenko, and Jauniaux/Mori, and above all there's plenty of Fred Frith, in a variety of settings - you do have to appreciate his ah, distinctive singing. Personally, I couldn't abide The Jellyfish Kiss piece, and thought the Debile Menthol one never got going, but diff'rent strokes and all that There's even a little Schumann by pianist Werner Bärtschi. Good accompanying notes and striking packaging, as well Be warned, the first piece, a 15-second assault by Bob Ostertag, is likely to have the unwary checking their CD machines for some disastrous malfunctions. (Gerard F Tierney)

Joan La Barbara/Kenneth Goldsmith, 73 Poems (Lovely Music LCD 3002 CD)

Renowned American experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara's latest recording is an interpretation of poet Kenneth Goldsmith's collection 73 Poems. La Barbara's compositions actually run to 79 sub-two minute vocal arrangements of the texts (the shortest piece is just three seconds). The dexterous, three-dimensional sonic architecture is established by an array of multilayered vocal moods which keep the overall shape of the work full of surprises and interesting contrasts. The presentation is conversational and song-like, including fragments of everyday speech, references to American culture and rock music; from intimate reverie she'll sometimes expand into mysterious soundscapes alive with disturbing resonances that employ a range of extended vocal techniques. That this album consists entirely of vocal sounds makes it all the more remarkable, reminding us that the human voice is a complete instrument in its own right, and capable, when the vocalist is as outstanding as Joan La Barbara, of an unequalled emotional sensitivity and subtlety. (Chris Blackford)

© Rubberneck

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