Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


From Punk to Free Music: Damon Smith

Bandcamp Daily’s Brad Cohan certainly piles on the adjectives in this story, and seems a little lost when bassist Damon Smith connects the dots to show how his present improvising involving Free Jazz and Free Music had its roots in early Noise and Punk bands. But while explaining what the bassist is doing on his Bandcamp page, Cohan delves into Smith’s history and how the bassist’s “imposing and beefy techniques” has enlivened scenes first in his Bay area hometown, then in Texas and now in Quincy, Mass. A few of Smith’s sessions on his own Balance Point Acoustic label are linked, and the bassist has space to expand on his musical philosophy, which after study with improv bassist Lisle Ellis, has allowed him to move into situations where he has collaborated with a variety of unique players in the US and Europe, ranging from reedists Kidd Jordan and Wolfgang Fuchs to drummers as separated stylistically as Weasel Walter and Alvin Fielder. READ

Victim of the Internet: Cuneiform Records

Although the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Cuneiform record label has released a clutch of important contemporary Jazz and avant-Rock CDs over the past 30 years, label owner Steve Feigenbaum tells The Washington Post’s Mike Janssen that the label is going on hiatus – for at least a year, if not longer. The reason: the availability of free music on the internet. Cuneiform has been associated with some streaming services, but says Feigenbaum “made nothing”, since consumers have become used to not paying anything for their music. The situation creates a gap that had been filled by a label that during its history released sessions by, among many others, pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, drummer John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, projects featuring trumpeter Rob Mazurek or guitarist Mary Halvorson plus trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks, a 2017 record of the year according to many observers. READ

Sylvie Courvoisier: Mixing Fundamentals and Free Form

Although Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier has lived in New York since 1998, her methods and concepts of playing date back to her conservatory training in her native Lausanne. While this article by The Village Voice’s Michael J. Agovino mostly deals with her new CD, recorded with the long-standing trio of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen, he also cites her other influences as well. Besides formal training, there was the recently deceased pianist Geri Allen, who Courvoisier first saw perform in Switzerland when the later was 16. In the United States, Courvoisier: has also developed performing relationships with more exploratory so-called downtown New York players like violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Tom Rainey and electronics manipulator Ikue Mori. READ

Defining Improvised Music: Scott R. Looney

As part of an on-going series of interviews exploring the whys and wherefores of improvised music, Köln-based tuba player Carl Ludwig Hübsch speaks to Bay area musician Scott R. Looney, who is equally proficient as a pianist and using electronics. Looney’s concepts when it comes to quality improvisation, encompass the theories of communal creation, distinctive choice, understated humor and how to meet listeners' challenges. One master of these attributes, he declares, is veteran AACM saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell.  Meanwhile, two local associates he singles out who understand how to deal with in-the-moment timbral modifications are electronics manipulators Tim Perkis and Chris Brown. READ

Val Wilmer Speaks about Jazz and Photography

Starting in the late 1950s, British photographer Val Vilmer became a vital part of the Jazz scene in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, capturing on film what could be called the face of Jazz. Along the way she photographed just about everyone who was important in improvised and other forms of Black Music, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Joe Harriott and Sun Ra and on to Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. This two-hour talk/interview, recorded at London's Cage Oto, guided by The Wire’s Tony Herrington, encompasses her experiences taking photographs in the Jazz community; her stories about the musicians with whom she interacted and became friendly; the mechanics of photography; and as an ardent feminist, the challenges facing women in the male-dominated worlds of photography and music. READ

Does Baltimore’s Peabody Institute discriminate against Jazz?

That’s the situation which the Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley investigates, following the recent acrimonious resignation of the school’s founding chairman, saxophonist Gary Thomas. Thomas, a native Baltimorean, who previously played with his own groups, the likes of trumpeter Miles Davis and many other bands, has claimed that resources for the Jazz program were consistently underfunded, and that scholarships for deserving students were less than those in the so-called Classical program. One of the three instructors who have left Peabody in the past 18 months, the saxophonist was also the first African-American department chairman in the conservatory’s history. Some students say Thomas’ on-the-job experience was the only reason they attended the school, while trumpeter Dave Ballou, who teaches at Towson University, maintains that in general there is often subtle disdain for Jazz players in many post-secondary music school environments. READ

A Love Supreme leads to Traditional Judaism

Jazz history includes some players whose faith induced them to stints as Muslim or Christian clergy, but saxophonist Greg Wall is one of the few improvisers who is also a rabbi. This article by Westport News’ Justin Papp describes Wall’s present-day routine, which blends his rabbinical duties at a local synagogue with weekly Jazz gigs. Known for his co-leadership of the Hasidic New Wave band with trumpeter Frank London, and affiliation with saxophonist John Zorn’s projects, Wall, who originally studied with drummer Max Roach and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, says that it was his admiration for tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and the latter’s seminal A Love Supreme LP that a couple of decades ago re-awakened his Jewish sensibility. Soon he was mixing traditional Jewish melodies with other influences into his music, made a decision to stop gigging on the Sabbath, and eventually to begin studying for the rabbinate. READ

So far Jazz is full of possibilities for Lisa Mezzacappa #2

Ostensibly an interview about Bay area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s recent large-scale multi-media project Glorious Ravage, Point of Departure’s Troy Collins manages to range far afield in the discussion. Highlighted are the apprenticeship and acceptance of women instrumentalists in Jazz; the lifespan and particular parameters of Mezzacappa’s various projects; and the differences between live and recorded contexts for the composer/bassist. Interestingly enough, Mezzacappa who is from the eastern US finds that many of her closest collaborators – with the exception of Californian Michael Dessen – are transplants such as bassist Mark Dresser, flutist Nicole Mitchell and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, all of whom spend much time elsewhere. However Mezzacappa despairs about the immient death of physical product. “It’s not enough to have my work only live online,” she states. “I don’t like that it has to be mediated by a corporate entity and … I don’t like that people end up listening to the music in a distracted or lo-fi state.” READ

A Personal View of Sunny Murray

British bass saxophonist Tony Bevan worked steadily with American Free Jazz drummer Sunny Murray (1938-2017) in the twilight of the latter’s career, from 2002 to 2017. In this piece in The Wire he remembers the drummer as a consummate musician and improviser. Even though it had been many years since Murray made him reputation in the then-revolutionary groups of pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler in the 1960s, Bevan recalls that the drummer was always able to enthrall the audience at any venue in which they played – even if it was anything but a so-called Jazz crowd. With Murray connecting one-on-one, sometimes verbally, with every audience member, all Bevan, and the other musicians involved, usually bassist John Edwards, had to do, was just follow along. READ

Muhal Richard Abrams: Visionary and Community Builder

Reflecting on the then-recent death of pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum tells the New Yorker’s august readership about the contributions of Abrams, acknowledged as the guiding force behind Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) from 1965 on. Besides expressing an admiration for Abrams’ seminal orchestral recordings from the 1980s and 1990s and acknowledging his “spiky yet subtle touch” on piano, Bynum commends Abrams as a community and consensus builder. The trumpeter’s experience attending an AACM concert where Abrams was selling tickets at the door, can be related to the pianist's  willingness to take on even mundane tasks to strengthen the AACM, plus his skill in organizing and keeping together an association whose members, including Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, had widely different ideas on how improvised music could be interpreted. READ

Trying to define Improvisation: Lisa Mezzacappa #I

Honesty, generosity and being in the moment are attributes of creating a successful improvisation opines Bay area bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa in this cerebral exchange with Köln-based tubaist Carl Ludwug Hübsch. Part of Hübsch’s ongoing series of musician-to-musician discussions about creativity, Mezzacappa also notes that while there is a “heightened sense of removing yourself as an improviser”, another important construct is connecting with other performers and the audience “and whether it sounds different in Berlin or in Berkeley”. Honesty about what is one’s life’s work is also necessary says the bassist who has played with many Free Music practitioners and composed thematic projects as well. “As improvisers there’s… the memory of everything you’ve done… heard done .. (and) seem done.” Additionally, while she insists there are “fantastic recordings of improvised music … the recorded experience really doesn’t come close for me in most instances, because of missing that being there in the moment as it’s created.” READ

One Week of Inspiration: Paris, August 1969

Subsequent years have revealed shortcomings, but as Red Bull Music Academy’s Britt Robson points out, at least 12 classic Free Jazz LPs were recorded for one label in Paris between August 11 and 17 1969. Organized by the fledging BYG record cpmpany, numerous American avant-gardists then domiciled in Paris, were given free hands – and a bit of money – to plan and record their own dates, with many musicians playing on each other’s sessions. Robson runs down some of the ground-breaking records, including three headed by tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, plus important statements by, among others, pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva, drummer Sunny Murray and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, featuring saxophonists  Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and trumpeter Lester Bowie. BYG however over-reached and definitely overspent itself, so that the label went bankrupt a couple of years afterwards. While a legacy of exceptional recordings remains, so do tales of unpaid royalties, unauthorized reissues and embittered musicians, especially Murray.


Sun Ra – and the Arkestra – are discovered by the Pop Music crowd (again)

Composer/bandleader Sun Ra may have been on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, yet the magazine’s Brad Farberman now chronicles his legacy and the Arkestra’s continued existence because of all the pop stars who claim his influence today. Name-checking a collection of arena-fillers ranging from Solange and Lady Gaga to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Phish's Trey Anastasio, Farberman rounds up enough quotes to explain how Ra’s music continues to influence others. At least he also manages to tell part of Ra’s saga and that of the Arkestra, which continues to tour with 93-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm and featuring members like saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who joined the band in 1967. Additionally, saxophonist Scott Robinson’s Heliosonic Tone-tette CD, which salutes Ra’s Free Jazz period, is mentioned as a jazzer's response to Ra's music. Still,  Allen himself appears less than impressed by the sudden Ra fascination. “When you're a little bit ahead of your time,” he notes. “those people got to take a minute to get around to understanding where you’re at.” READ

Lou Gare: neglected AMM co-founder

An appreciation as much as an obituary, London-based saxophonist Seymour Wright writes in The Wire about the recent death of exploratory tenor saxophonist Lou Gare (1939-2017), who was less acknowledged than his fellow members of the pioneering British Free Music group AMM.  Perhaps it was because as a saxophonist with a Jazz background, Gare played the instrument associated with that music, from which other early AMM members  – drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe, and pianist/cellist Cornelius Cardew – were trying to distance themselves. But Wright also insists that Gare's multi-layered sound and organic style of playing was as much a part of the AMM sound as the others’ contributions. Gare left the band in the late 1970s, after spending half a decade in a duo with Prévost. Additionally Wright notes he personally has spent many years since he first saw Gare play – on a rare reunion gig with the AMM drummer and guitarist in 1989 – trying to figure out the contours of Gare’s playing and how he could adapt to it. READ

Jason Stein is a Jazz Bass Clarinet Crusader

Although Chicago-based bass clarinetist Jason Stein, 40, received media attention last year because his Locksmith Isidore trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride was actually playing Jazz as opening act for comedian Amy Schumer, he tells The Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak he has no interest in moving into big-time show business. Schumer, who is Stein’s half sister, had been urging him to work with her for years. When he finally agreed, her shows were taking place in large arenas. Still, Stein played music no different than he would in a typical set in small clubs. Someone who only started playing the bass clarinet at 22, Stein’s proficiency soon had him gigging with multi-reedist Ken Vandermark in a band with drummer Tim Daisy, and bassist Nate McBride. Since then, with no doubling on any other reed, he’s managed to work regularly with locals such as saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bassist Joshua Abrams, pianist Paul Giallorenzo and drummers Mike Reed, adding to his income by giving private music lessons. Although the Schumer gigs allowed him to give up teaching, now that they've come to an end, he has no regret  returning to club work, playing uncompromising Jazz with new and older associates. READ

Author Geoff Dyer Loves The Necks

Acquainting the readers of The New York Times magazine with any improvised music group, especially one as accomplished as the Australian trio The Necks, is something to be noted and praised. But one wishes that Geoff Dyer, described as  the author of many books, would have spent more time speaking to The Necks individual band members –pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton  – about their view(s) of the music  and less about his own feelings and experiences. As it is, besides cursory glimpses into the group’s 30-year history, first as an Aussie unit and then getting world-wide gigs, Dyer appears more obsessed with recording the many times he saw the band and heard its CDs and how he felt each time about the music. Considering he compares the trio’s work to variously the Krautrock of Neu, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way's electric period, and asserts that he now looks as forward to each new CD from the Necks. (as) “ I felt waiting to hear London Calling by the Clash, Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan, or, going even further back, Electric Warrior by T. Rex", perhaps someone with more knowledge of improvised music would have provided more insight into the group's appeal for the Times’ audience . READ

Dave Rempis defines Ballister’s Individuality

Away from his Chicago home base, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis is prodded by Lexington Kentucky’s Herald-Leader journalist Walter Tunis to define the differences between his Ballister trio and the other nine-odd groups with which the saxophonist is involved. Rempis, whose other bands include aggregations featuring drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly among many others, says Ballister, featuring fellow Chicagoan, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is a free energy band that aims for mutual expression rather than just being three separate people involved in on-stage improvisations. As someone who plays about 300 concerts annually, Rempis also says this trio, like his other groups, is based on the interaction of specific personalities. READ

Irène Schweizer is a Swiss woman who plays Jazz

That might seem like a bland statement in 2017, especially for long-time followers of improvised music. But The Village Voice’s Michael J, Agovino appears awe-struck by the concept. Luckily he traveled to Zürich to interview Irène Schweizer on her home turf. The 76-year-old pianist, he finds out has been part of the European Free Jazz scene for more than 50 years, playing and recording with everyone from drummer Günter Sommer to bassist Joëlle Léandre. Agovino touches on her versatility and some of the problems she has faced being a woman in the macho Jazz world, but he’s most impressed that she’s actually recorded a new duet session with an American – New York drummer Joey Baron. Considering that she has for years recorded many similar CDs with percussionists like Sommer, Pierre Favre, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Louis Moholo-Moholo, maybe the piece may prod more Americans to investigate her other work. READ

Michael Bisio Comes Home

Although reporter Lauren Halligan of the (Troy, N.Y.) Beacon appears more interested in bassist Michael Bisio’s connection to his home town when previewing a recent concert  there with his accordion-based quartet the Accortet, she does briefly outline his career. It’s also pretty obvious that the writer and publication would prefer to recount details about how many local relatives and friends of Bisio will be at the concert, plus his earliest musical experiences in the city’s school system where he discovered the acoustic bass, than discuss the music itself. However, Halligan mentions in passing Bisio’s close association with the likes of saxophonists Joe McPhee, Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp, and there’s even a link provided to Bisio’s own website. READ

Acknowledging Roscoe Mitchell as a Major Composer

On the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of which he has always been a member, and the release of his new small group CD, the New York Times’ Seth Colter Walls tries to position multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell as a composer in the western tradition. While Mitchell, who  also teaches at Oakland Calif’s Mills College, discusses his compositions for large and small, contemporary and so-called classical music ensembles in North America and Europe, he says he actually sees this work as an extension of the sounds he’s been creating in a Jazz context for many years. Citing how associates such as his students and players experienced in both improved and notated works like percussionist William Winant and James Fei on electronics help transcribe and convert major improvisational pieces so they can be interpreted by more formal groups, he also relates his concepts back to the work of venerable Jazz masters such as saxophonist Benny Carter.   READ