|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Fred Frith
Unit Records CD Nr. 4435
Ten years is a long time, but it’s been that protracted period since the exceptional Swiss-British improvising ensemble Whisperings has put out a CD. Luckily this session rectifies the situation, quickly proving that the quartet’s sympathetic interaction has only intensified over the years. On these four instant compositions British guitarist Fred Frith plus keyboardist Michel Wintsch, drummer Lionel Friedli and soundsinger/electronics manipulator Franziska Baumann – all Swiss – demonstrate a luminous intensity that unites suggestions of rock, jazz, improv, notated and electronic music into a satisfying whole.
“The chemistry was amazing,” reflects Baumann, who is also a professor at the Berne University of Music. “The session was lots of fun but also profoundly serious. With our different backgrounds we were ready for the unexpected.” Equally proficient creating timed synthesizer pulses or clipping piano licks, as he demonstrates on “Alive But Lucid”, Wintsch has been in a rock band, composed for film and theatre, and been part of a well-regarded jazz trio with American drummer Gerry Hemingway. Friedli is an indomitable presence on the Swiss scene, while Frith’s experience ranges from his membership in the seminal art-rock band Henry Cow, to extensive improvisation plus compositions for creative ensembles, dance and films.
The band members’ compositional skills come to the fore during the tracks’ multi-faceted textural explorations and lightening quick transitions. Plus these tropes are blended with the musicians’ improvisational freedom and awesome technical virtuosity. On the title tune, for instance Baumann moves from child-like lyricism to dervish screams and hisses, while the guitarist bends notes and the pianist syncopates strongly. Meanwhile her vocals on “Alive But Lucid” move from bel-canto warbling to panting breaths, encompass aleatoric verbal gibberish and climax with heartfelt sentiments in English. “Black Body Radiation” even pairs grainy verbal cries with backbeat drumming and clunking guitar runs. Throughout all four selections, electronic wave forms come in and out of focus, while altered, doubled and overdubbed vocals pulsate in the background.
Besides his work at California’s Mills College, Frith now spends part of the year teaching advanced improvisation in Switzerland. This raises hopes for more Whisperings sessions. Certainly the excellent program captured here demands an encore.
Booklet Notes By Ken Waxman
(www.jazzword.com) Toronto February 2013
April 26, 2013
The Guelph Jazz Festival
By Ken Waxman
A spectre was haunting the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF), but it was a benign spectre: the ghost of John Coltrane. The influence of Coltrane, who died in 1967, was honored in direct and indirect ways throughout the five days of the festival which takes places annually in this mid-sized college town, 100 kilometres west of Toronto.
This year’s edition (September 5 to 9), featured two live performances of Ascension, Coltrane’s free jazz masterwork from 1965, one with the original instrumentation by an 11-piece Toronto ensemble at the local arts centre; the other on the main stage of the soft-seated River Run Centre concert hall featured the Bay-area ROVA saxophone’s quartet reimaging of the work, scored for 12 musicians adding strings and electronics to the basic ensemble.
Coltrane’s legacy was also apparent in the improvising of Reggie Workman, bassist in one version of Trane`s quartet, with the Brew trio with kotoist Miya Masaoka and percussionist Gerry Hemingway, as well as in the impassioned playing of alto saxophonist Darius Jones, whose duo with pianist Matthew Shipp split the bill with Brew during an afternoon concert in the River Run`s smaller concert hall. Coltrane’s commend of the saxophone was not only recalled in the wide ranging work of many other reedists present, including a trio of saxophonists in the jazz-jive-R&B Shuffle Demons band, one of the high points of the GJF’s 12 hours of free outdoor concerts in a large tent in front of Guelph City Hall, but in a more profound fashion by the incisive tenor soloing by Peter Brötzmann and Larry Ochs. Those two gigs were part of the more than six dozen other performances during the GJF’s third annual dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche extravaganza. The ghostly forms visible during Nuit Blanche, were those of festival goers moving at interval s among sites throughout the city ranging from art galleries, yoga studios to parks attending as many shows as possible.
True to the shape of the composition, Rova’s Electric Ascension – cornetist Rob Mazurek; saxophonists Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Bruce Ackley; violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman; guitarist Nels Cline; Fred Frith on electric bass; drummers Hamid Drake; Ikue Mori and Chris Brown on electronics – used prompts and hand signals to pilot Trane’s amorphous score. With Drake’s backbeat plus Brown’s and Mori’s processed oscillations and juddering vibrations constant presences, the performance frequently was transported from dense tremolo crescendos for all, to measured solos, duos and trios. An impassioned, double-time alto solo for instance would be paired with opaque guitar distortion and sluicing electric bass runs; or a phrase would toggle between Mazurek’s looped triplets and Raskin’s stretched tongue stops; or unison guitar and violin plinking would presage a cacophonous sound-shard explosion
Frith’s characteristically witty guitar playing was better exposed during a Nuit Blanche show at the intimate Guelph Youth Music Centre (GYMC). Instrument resting on his knees, bare feet manipulating effects pedals, Frith pummeled and bowed his strings more often than he strummed them; showed drum stick between strings and the neck and used an e-bow to create chiming vibrating while picking up snatches of local radio programs. Although processing as well, Masaoka was similarly restrained at the Brew set, relying instead on her koto command able to replicate anything from harp-like glissandi to isolated guitar picking on her multi-string instrument; she even used chop sticks on the bridge for different effects. Committed to three-way dialogue, Hemingway smacked, rotated, patted and tapped his drums and cymbals. Meanwhile Workman maintained pulsating, jazz-defining bass lines when he wasn’t rubbing his strings or bowing and stroking them in one fluid motion. At one point he achieved a rhythmic effect knee-slapping and foot-banging.
Rhythmic beats were present in abundance during a well-attended church-basement set by Norway’s Huntsville – guitarist/banjoist Ivar Grydeland, electric bassist Tonny Kluften and percussionist Ingar Zach – joined by Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Although there were sequences during which Kluften’s pedal point joined Grydeland, jangling guitar runs or bowed banjo twangs plus Zach’s contrapuntal tap, wiggle and pops on miscellaneous percussion gave new impetus to the buoyant folk-like melodies the trio uniquely reconstruction. Cline and Kotche may have spent too much time in rock bands. Flashy and busy in the guitarist’s case or overwhelming percussive in the drummer’s, the two exacerbated a tendency to leadenness only lessened when Kotche withdrew for Zach’s beat manipulation and Cline concentrated on vibrating a shruti box.
Simple, folk-like melodies were also prominent during a morning recital at the (GYMC) by Scheinman and pianist Myra Melford. Melford frequently also squeezed accordion-like tremolos from a harmonium as Scheinman used glissandi friction and flying spiccatto to build up dramatic sequences from what sometime threatened to turn into a hoedown. But the detours away from fiddle tunes with accompaniment towards compositions that allowed the pianist to exhibit spiky intonation and a slippery blues time sense were more notable. Melford’s 12-bar command also appeared 24 hours later in the same location as her encore following a rapturously received solo piano showcased was a pumped-up version of honky-tonk. Her skill digging into blues chord progressions was as obvious as her playing of a series of emotional miniatures she previewed, composed to reflect a series of artist’s sketches. Using assertive elbow pushes on the keyboard plus jocular stops and variously weighted climaxes, she composed a series of interludes that threatened to fragment into dissonance but never did.
Another pianist skillful in exhibiting the broad strokes of dissonance is Shipp. His recourse to glistening arpeggio runs, processional chording, kinetic patterning and waves of impressionistic color was notable in itself. Evolving in parallel fashion to Jones’ reed invention was another highlight. With his all-encompassing and fluid blowing approaching the intensity of late Coltrane, Jones often compressed distended cries and altissimo screams into aggressive almost impenetrable glossolalia; elsewhere he built solos out of key percussion, distended slurps and reed bites or churned so many splintered runs that Shipp relied on foot pedal pressure to meet him.
Ochs and Brötzmann were two other extenders of Trane’s spirit, the former in a duo with Drake in a yoga studio and the latter with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz at the (GYMC). Weaving his tenor or soprano saxophone above the packed crowd seated on the floor, Ochs mixed moderato and agitated tones as he slid from harsh reflux to shofar-like bays, swallowed breaths, vocalized altissimo riffs or nephritic cries. Connecting these disjointed vibrations, Drake used windmill-like patterning as he rapped on a wood block, strokes drum tops and cymbals with brushes and gauged exactly when to clobber his bass drum for maximum effect. If Ochs/Drake recalled Trane’s celebrated duets with Rashied Ali, then Brötzmann, who created an unparalleled Euroimprov variant around the time Ascension was recorded, boisterously pushed each one of its four horns to its limits backed only by an instrument he professed to dislike. Favoring four mallets, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz held his own however emphasizing his instrument’s chordal and percussive qualities. With marionette-like jerks, sometime balancing on one foot, the vibist rang out enough polyphonic chords or hard-hitting single notes to match Brötzmann, whether he was producing blues-based multiphonics from his alto, angled smears from his tárogató or stacking intense blasts ridden with even tougher split-tone shrieks from his tenor.
Like Coltrane or nearly every one of the featured performers at the 2012 festival, Brötzmann balanced absolute sound experimentation with sonic story telling. His breath-taking textural display helped pinpoint why the GJF has become a major international festival. Participants are now anxiously awaiting 2013’s edition to find out what the GJF’s significant 20th anniversary edition will highlight.
--For New York City Jazz Record October 2012
October 7, 2012
Live at the Metz Arsenal
Leo Records CD LR 631
Live at the Vision Festival
Ayler Records aylCD 124
Two high-quality CDs, recorded in a live setting with French bassist Joëlle Léandre as the unifying factor, are superficially similar in intent and personnel. Yet the multiple strategies each quartet brings to the extended selections demonstrate how unique sounds can result even in the most comfortable of surroundings.
Live at the Vision Festival captures the triumphant performance of what might be called Léandre’s New York quartet, filled out by trumpeter/flutist Roy Campbell, pianist Marilyn Crispell and violist Mat Maneri. Although recorded in France, Live at the Metz Arsenal, joins the bassist with two colleagues who teach at California’s Mills College – Alvin Curran on electronics and piano, best known for his notated work and membership in the MEV ensemble, and guitarist Fred Frith, whose entry into improv came through his Art-Rock bands like Henry Cow. Although MMM could stand for “MillsMusicMafia”, some Continental spice joins the West Coast greenery in the presence of Swiss soprano and tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, who has been in other bands with Léandre, including Quartet Noir which also included Crispell.
Fundamentally it’s the discursive oscillations plus conspicuous musical samples from Curran’s electronics plus Frith’s reshaped and flanged guitar distortion that define the interactions here with Léandre’s consistent arco swipes and Leimgruber’s circular breathing adding to the resulting polyphony. Sporadically unforeseen connections take place, as when the saxophonist’s staccato trills gradually meld with swelling and electronic pulses; or when chiming guitar licks and slurred, bagpipe-like drones from the saxophonist combine into a solid line; or when the bassist puts aside her stentorian string pumping for agile soprano-pitched yodeling, matching the snatches of broadcast vocals captured by Curran’s hardware.
Nonetheless Curran’s tremolo pianism is as essential to shaping the improvisations as his crackling and fluctuating wave forms. Should signal-processed delays or synthesized sequences not underlie the acoustic work, than sonic clues occasionally arise from string plucks or plucks emanating from the piano’s innards. Other times, swelling, sampled orchestral passages are met with percussive slaps and stops from both string players; while discordant output signals spawn equally discordant spetrofluctuation and multiphonic reed bites from the saxophonist. By the final variation, pastoral interludes are pushed aside as the mercurial sound development hardens into a squirming broken-octave finale replete with jangling electronic synthesis. Curran swiftly pounds his keys; Léandre buzzes sul ponticello runs from the bottom of her string set; Frith solidifies his chromatic rasgueado; and Leimgruber’s twisted shrilling turns to strained vibrations.
As acoustically balanced as the MMM Quartet is dependent on discordant electronics; the Stone Quartet still makes as much use of Crispell decisive comping as Curran’s skilled ostinato was put to use on the other disc. With Crispell alternating between a cushion of cascading glissandi and a series of strummed kinetic lines, the others are free to experiment. This doesn’t mean that the pianist doesn’t offer up measures of descriptive delicacy or that Léandre doesn’t occasionally step into the rhythmic breech with pressurized shuffle bowing. Still the scene is set for unfettered soloing which includes triplet-laden expansions from Campbell; angled yet avuncular string strokes from Maneri; and burlesque bel canto vocalizing from Léandre, often accompanied by strums and vibrations from all parts of the bass as well as Campbell’s flute asides. Following an interlude when Crispell asserts herself in a two-handed fantasia, before downshifting back to processional runs, the climax is reached with the melding of taut spiccato viola lines; snapping trumpet rasps and speedy glissandi from both the pianist and bassist.
Calling on the individual talents of two sets of trios, Léandre proves that satisfying improvisations can be created without pre-conceptions, but with ideal considerations of each member’s skills.
Track Listing: Vision: 1. Vision One 2. Vision Two
Personnel: Vision: Roy Campbell (trumpet and flutes); Marilyn Crispell (piano); Mat Maneri (viola) and Joëlle Léandre (bass)
Track Listing: Metz: 1. Part One 2. Part Two
Personnel: Metz: Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor saxophones); Alvin Curran (electronics and piano); Fred Frith (guitar) and Joëlle Léandre (bass)
September 16, 2012
In Situ IS 244
Just because Jazz introduced improvisation to the modern era – an approach rediscovered by so-called Classical music, and latterly adopted by Rock – it doesn’t means that notable sonic creations won’t arise from representatives of all three genres. At least that’s what happens on this CD.
Recorded in Besançon, during that city’s festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, contretemps etc… combines the talents of a trio of veteran players for a six-movement suite of unique sounds. Oldest of the three participants is Bordeaux-born percussionist Jean Pierre Drouet, 76, who besides composing for dance and theatre companies, works both with experimental musicians from the Legit – composers Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen – and Jazz fields. Guitarist Fred Frith, 63, who now teaches at California’s Mills College, has collaborated with Improv stylists such as saxophonist Larry Ochs, and yet is also known for his membership in Rock bands like the Art Bears. Meanwhile Lyon-based bass clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Louis Sclavis, 59, plays folkloric-inspired Improv, often in the company of guitarist Jean-Marc Montera.
Drouet and Sclavis use distinct techniques, such as the reedist’s split tones and glottal punctuation or the percussionist’s rubbing of his kit’s top and sides plus ratchets and ruffs, to define their soloistic and stylistic parameters. Frith’s often slurred fingering, encompassing throbbing organ-like riffs provides the backdrop. Occasionally though he slips into guitar-hero mode with shaking reverb and fortissimo single-string phrasing. Meanwhile the two Frenchmen contribute vocally to the performance. On aural evidence alone, it appears that true to his faux-folk roots Sclavis verbalizes a narrative of non-attributable words, while in Fluxus-like fashion Drouet sputters, mumbles and swallows a series of nonsense syllables.
Such parlando arrives during the fifth movement, where Sclavis’ fortissimo and pitch-stretching glissandi extend the realm of multiphonics and Drouet’s bumps and clatters become more intense and paradoxically more muffled, suggesting that the studio walls and floor have become percussion surfaces. Earlier bell pealing-like patterns and crunching guitar frails introduce Sclavis’ chalumeau obbligatos or fortissimo split tones which narrow into tongue stops and snorts. All-embracing sustain pedal patterns from Frith continue to create a distorted accordion-like undercurrent, infrequently breached by Drouet’s percussive ratchets, squeals and smacks.
A fourth movement, built from descending dulcimer-like pings and strokes mixed with reed slurs resembling those of a medieval bass recorder, lasts only until guitar twangs and squeezed contralto clarinet vibrations make the sequence more aggressive. It’s just a short jump to vocal and instrumental multiphonics and finally the conclusive “Sixième mouvement”.
It’s here that then percussionist’s strokes also become folkloric, taking on tambour and naker qualities and intermittently producing military-styled bangs. Sclavis responds contrapuntally in the form of snarling growls, unearthly cries and crackling tongue slaps, while bent and crying lead guitar intensity comes from Frith. Eventually the suite climaxes as Drouet mutes his strokes to metallic rim pressure; Sclavis’ soprano saxophone trills in a pastoral fashion; and Frith’s grinding flanges are transformed into blurry, acoustic fills.
Proving once again that improvisation is a pervasive concept that can be applied to measures from any sort of music, Drouet, Frith and Sclavis combined showcase an exemplary set no matter how you define the sounds.
Track Listing: 1. Premier mouvement 2. Deuxième movement 3, Troisème movement 4. Quartrième movement 5. Cinquième movement 6, Sixième movement
Personnel: Louis Sclavis (bass clarinet, soprano saxophone and voice); Fred Frith (guitars) and Jean Pierre Drouet(percussion and voice)
March 21, 2012
Intakt CD 132
Expanding the long-running Maybe Monday (MM) trio to seven musicians – most of whom manipulate electronics as well as acoustic instruments – adds an additional layer of polyphony to the proceedings, creating distinct and unique dimensions. Still, the five instant compositions here are only memorably realized because the septet members are canny enough to place waveform pulsation into an already established context.
Anchor for these tracks is the initial trio, which has been together since 1997. Voltage expression was organically introduced to MM before this CD, due to the electric guitar adaptations from Fred Frith plus the electronics linked to Miya Masaoka’s 25-string koto. Although sopranino and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs is the only acoustic hold-out, he has demonstrated his familiarity with electronic interface in his past orchestral works and often as a veteran member of the ROVA saxophone quartet.
Recorded in New York, since MM member Masaoka now lives there – Frith and Ochs are still in the Bay area – Unsquare’s guests impart a mixed East-West sensibility to their improvisations. Transplanted westerner fiddler Carla Kihlstedt, at points replicates the role cellist Joan Jeanrenaud filled in an earlier MM session – adding traditional string harmonies when her instrument is paired with the guitar and koto. Elsewhere however wave-form add-ons create the sort of spiccato runs and multiphonics that associate her instrument’s subsequent output with the pitch mutation and careening tones that are emanating from New Yorker Zeena Parkins’ electric harp and electronics.
Concentrating on her laptop and samples, fellow Manhattanite Ikue Mori – who fulfills equivalent roles in bands led by saxophonist John Zorn and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier – is firmly wedded to the transformative impulses created by her machines. It’s a compliment to the others’ instrumental versatility however that her electronic triggered flutters and drones often can’t be distinguished from the mutated electro-acoustic timbres of the other players.
Completing the bi-coastal interaction, is another easterner, percussionist Gerry Hemingway, whose comfort level with patches and signals has been expressed in other sessions involving synthesizer players such as Earl Howard and Thomas Lehn. Irregular thumps and splattering ruffs peeping through the humming and clicking drones on this session sporadically announce the percussionist’s presence. Eschewing time keeping and flashy solos, Hemingway busies himself with moving the proceedings forward using contrasting pulses or moderated rhythmic suggestions.
Layered and focused intonation appears most intricately and extensively on “Unturned”, which initially seems to cluster every electronic whoosh and flanged oscillation into one extended piercing chord. Luckily, soon afterwards, the miasma dispels enough to expose diaphragm-vibrating reed timbres and chromatic slack-key guitar runs, plus abraded tones that sound as if they’re produced by scuffling a collection of scrub brushes against the massed strings.
As the triggered pulsations retreat, Ochs introduces high-pitched split tones, Frith trebly, single-string snaps and Masaoka gentling runs. Cat-gut heft is added to the guitar-koto duet when Kihlstedt appends flowing fiddle harmonies. Meantime, Masaoka’s attempts to replicate the violinist’s single-string action is detoured by strident canine-like splutters from the electronics, with tuning static and just-out-of-earshot radio voices further interjecting unexpected timbres. Shoring up the koto’s output, Hemingway adds ruffs, bounces and pops from his kit, that are then checked-mated by triggered circuitry that eventually strips out their human-created textures and transforming them into further percussive impulses. Plugged in as well, one of the string players – perhaps Masaoka – bonds these signals with watery echoes that mirror similar timbres on “G”, the introductory track. A concluding postlude reintroduces fluttering electronic wave forms. But these oscillator-like hums soon take on the properties of low-frequency electric piano-like pulsations, music-box-like tinkling and machine-driven splutters.
Other tracks emphasize reed multiphonics, pressured guitar frails, plus fungible contrapuntal textures among the strings. For the duration of the CD, particular resonances lock into appropriate places in the performances. Overall however, the shifting spatial arrangement necessitated by the introduction of more instrumental sound patches suggests an uncompleted gelling process, and that MM’s definite sound is still in flux.
Still an expanded MM is an interesting departure for the group. Metaphorically as well, this CD demonstrates how varied note clusters and pulses from three established and four newly introduced players can merged in such a way that the result is more than un-square – more like a hip circle. Or as the saxophonist phrases it: “way cool music”.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. G 2. Nitrogen 3. Saptharishi Mandalam 4. Septentrion 5.Unturned
Personnel: Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones); Fred Frith (guitar); Miya Masaoka (25-string koto and electronics); Carla Kihlstedt (electric and acoustic violins); Zeena Parkins (electric harp and electronics); Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion and voice) and Ikue Mori (electronics)
September 13, 2008
Reasons for Moving
NotTwo MW 779-2
As well as trumpet solos which range from the elegantly muted to raucous plunger work, Burlington, Ont.-native Darren Johnston seems to have contributed sly local references to this notable co-op session, recorded in his new Bay area hometown,. Some of the tune titles are “Deep North”, “Distant Cities” and “QEW” [!].
Yet this CD of 10 instant compositions impresses even more, since the trumpeter’s skills are judiciously integrated among the trills, pops and honks of Larry Ochs’ saxophones; the crunching reverb and distorted runs from Fred Frith’s guitar; plus Devin Hoff’s thick bass chords and the rumbling back beat of Ches Smith’s drums.
On tunes like “Deep North”, Johnston is an oasis of measured calm. His minimalist and unfussy playing smoothly limns the theme, as saxophone trills wiggle and guitar lines ripple. “QEW” almost replicates the abrupt and unexpected lane changes on the highway, as Ochs’ irregular sopranino squeaks alternate with Johnston’s tremolo triplets. Other tunes, such as the bubbling “Biocarbon Man” add thumping drumming and triggered guitar wah-wah pedal peals to the trumpeter’s brassy smears.
Johnston’s double-tongued, staccato timbres lockstep with spacy reverb from Frith, above back beat drums and thumping bass to decorate Ochs’ snorting rendition of the title track. The musical alchemy produced confirms the statement expressed in the title and may even explain Johnston’s relocation.
-- Ken Waxman
-- For Whole Note Vol. 13 #3
November 2, 2007
FRED FRITH/CARLA KIHLSTEDT/STEVIE WISHART
The Compass, Log And Lead
Intakt CD 103
LEROY JENKINS DRIFTWOOD
The Art of Improvisation
Mutable Music 17523-2
By Ken Waxman
Welcoming a variety of non-traditional influences, both these string-oriented CDs confirm that 21st Century improvisation has become catholic enough to accommodate more than stereotypical roots influences.
While fiddler Leroy Jenkins is a long-time members of Chicagos Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), jazzs paramount musical collective; veteran Rich ODonnell is from the legit side of the fence, having spent 43 years as principal percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, been head of Washington Universitys percussion department and director of its Electronic Music Studios. Chinese-born Min Xiao-Fen frequently brings the classical textures of the pipa, or four-stringed Chinese lute to jazz and New music; while prepared piano player Denman Maroney adapts his percussive techniques and intervallic playing to jazz/improv with bassist Mark Dresser and elsewhere to notated music.
Meanwhile THE COMPASS, LOG AND LEAD features a Bay area trio that has bypassed so-called mainstream jazz altogether. British-born Fred Frith, who plays acoustic guitar, organ and violin here, has worked his way from the art rock of Henry Cow and the Skeleton Crew to improv with ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, among others. A member of the rock band Charming Hostesses, Carla Kihlstedt, who plays violin and the Swedish nyckelharpa here, also has associations with improvisers like clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Meanwhile British-born Stevie Wishart, who also dabbles in electronics, has brought her violin and medieval hurdy-gurdy to improv associations such as pianist Chris Burns Ensemble and duets with hard-blowing saxophonist Paul Dunmall.
On four longish selections, THE ART OF IMPROVISATIONs players utilize decisive strategies plus consummate instrumental techniques to create improvisations that reflect all their backgrounds and more as well as modulations that dont fit traditional schema. Thus some timbres mix deliberate node-twisting internal piano string resonation with sprightly fiddle melodies. Others maximize the pianos percussive friction, the better to intersect with concussive, wood resonating tones from ODonnell and spiccato from Jenkins. Mins four-strings and 30 frets allows her to produce harp-like glissandi to meet the violinists repeated counter tones or tautly flat pick as if she was playing a Bluegrass dobro to counter the fiddlers double stopping.
On To Live, the result is a New music Oriental hoedown. Slaps and scrapes from Min, Maroneys hand-stopped string coloration plus Jenkins distinctive sliding bow pressure reference a Chinese erhu, and the percussionists intermittent pops and taps cement the aural image.
Multifaceted and staccato, the curlicue tremolo tones that emanate from the four suggest electronic interface although none is present. At 18-minutes, To Sing is the most thematic tune with Maroneys sound board technique allowing him to not only create a legato melody, but also to seemingly duet with himself as the variations arise. Later, Jenkins swift, sul ponticello textures change the mood to add rigid string tapping. ODonnells contributions end up sounding as if hes banging pots and pans together or hitting an Inuit whale drum. Still, before the percussionist definitely sums up the situation with tam tam and tubar bell shaking and a final wooden pop, Min has turned her chromatic dobro-like picking to a caressing wind-chime-like tones as Jenkins fiddle lines conclude higher pitched and more abstract.
Superficially more folksy and acoustic, THE COMPASS, LOG AND LEAD has a literal electronic interface. Yet while Wishart may use that to extend her improvisations, much of the time shes manipulating her mechanical viol or hurdy gurdy, whose drone bass strings supply primitive amplification as well.
This strategy is most prominent on Postcard from the Back and Abstract Expressionism The former tunes squirming theme is outlined in cranked staccato lines as Frith rubs rather than strums his guitar and Kihlstedt provides contrapuntal asides. Outputting weeping near-Roma textures on the later composition, the fiddler uses wide sweeps to augment her vibrations to impressionistic timbres. Meanwhile, abrasively rasping the plectrum across the strings, the guitarist remains in the background strumming. Triggered sequences also add heft to Wisharts hurdy-gurdy, with the piece concluding with the crackling sound of the pick landing on a hard floor.
Elsewhere, sawing spiccato and plucked pizzicato lines from the violin struggle to not be disconnected from below-the-bridge and near-the-tuning-pegs guitar plucks plus string-tapping pitches. However despite the atmospheric interface elsewhere, there appear to be times when Frith could be marking time with laid-back strumming as if hes waiting for a folkie to begin singing.
Both improvised in real time, these CDs confirm the pleasures and pitfalls of that situation. Seemingly somewhat pre-organized, Jenkins Driftwood quartets four selections confirm the participants skills. Despite electronic oscillation and multi-instrumentation, Frith, Kihlstedt and Wishart dont fare as well, with coherence dissipated over 12 shorter tracks.
Track Listing: Art: 1. To Live Allegro Moderato 2. To Sing- Andante Cantabile 3. To Run Vivace 4. To Believe Pure Motion
Personnel: Art: Leroy Jenkins (violin); Min Xiao Fen (pipa), Denman Maroney (piano); Rich ODonnell (percussion)
Track Listing: Compass: 1. Time Comes Presto 2. A Beautiful Thing to Forget/får ej tåckas 3. Look at Sky Go 4. Dog-eared* 5. I am Buffalo Bill Today 6. Initially This 7. Postcard from the Back 8. I am Map 9. Abstract Expressionism 10. Dream as a Means 11. Aller Retour 12. Time Goes Largo
Personnel: Compass: Fred Frith (guitar, organ and violin*); Carla Kihlstedt (violin and nyckelharpa); Stevie Wishart (violin*, hurdy-gurdy and electronics).
August 21, 2006
Giving the symbolic finger to the museum-quality preservationists who make up most of jazz repertory companies, Rova, the Bay Area sax quartet, has audaciously created its own version of Ascension, John Coltranes seminal work from 1965. Then as further nose-thumbing to the crowd that prefers polite Duke Ellington or Miles Davis-Gil Evans style recreations, the band plus eight helpmates, has conflated the piece still further into a noise and electronic extravaganza.
Whats more, this is the second time the Rova crew has honored Ascension. In 1995, adding a rhythm section and additional stellar soloists such as trumpeter Raphe Malik and the late tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman, the band created a lengthy acoustic version of Tranes original suite. Still convinced that Ascension is a master work that deserves to be played even more often, Rova members Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin decided on another go round, radically changing the instrumentation without losing the compositions essence.
Nonetheless, nay-sayers may wonder why another run at the piece is necessary. No one seems to question the seemingly endless re-recordings of Beethoven symphonies and other classics of so called serious music. Then when it comes to jazz, recording more of Ellingtons, Monks Mingus or Goodmans most popular compositions doesnt seem to bother anyone either. In terms of Coltrane however, while different versions of Giant Steps and Equinox are de rigueur for many sax men, Ascension still frightens.
After all the recording was the only time Trane surrounded himself with a large group of younger Free Jazz improvisers and it signaled for the hard-bop sentimentalists that the John Coltrane of My Favorite Things and the BALLADS LP had changed forever.
As unable to remain complacent in its achievements as Coltrane was in his, the four members of Rova soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley, alto saxophonist Steve Adams, tenor saxophonist Ochs and baritone saxophonist Raskin have never shied away from a challenge and they meet this one with skill and equanimity. Replacing Coltranes ensemble of five saxes, two trumpets, piano, two basses and drums are Rova, Tin Hat Trio member Carla Kihlstedt on violin and effects; Jenny Scheinman on violin, Wilco and Vinny Golia associate Nels Cline on guitar; Fred Frith, who has worked with Ochs on many projects as a guitarist, on electric bass; and the Bay Areas paramount Free Jazz drummer Don Robinson, a longtime associate of Spearman. Additional rhythm and noise comes from New Yorker Ikue Mori on drum machines and sampler, Japanese-based electro-acoustian Otomo Yoshihide on turntables and electronics and Chris Brown, Ochs associate in the band Room, with electronics.
So whats the result? Well for a start, Robinsons offbeat patterning and percussion exploration is as important perhaps even more important for this Ascension as Elvin Jones drumming was for the original. Not a polyrhythmist like Jones, he nonetheless serves as this creations heart beat. As distorted echoes from the electronics mix with multiphonic vibratos from the strings and power shifting from the saxophones, its Robinsons accented bounces, ruffs and rebounds that serve as bonding glue.
Another standout is Raskin. With many of the sax passages and solos constituted in screaming altissimo here, his basement tones maintain their individuality, and theres even a point midway through, when his tremolo snorts mix it up with the rough snickering of Yoshihides pulsating sine waves to stretch the sound development. It sort of makes you wish a baritonist like Charles Davis or Pat Patrick had made the original date.
Definitely finding a place for themselves on this one are the violinists. Scratching and side-slipping, both fiddlers make full use of sul tasto and sul ponticello runs to mark their sonic territories, sometime adding to the slurred fingering of the other strings with pizzicato fills. Scheinman has a particularly satisfying exchange with Ackley at one point, as she turns from speedy multiphonic bowing to shrilling upper partials, while he works out sour soprano tone variations. All the while Frith is proffering a thick, steadying bass pulse and Robinson detonating disconnected drum cadences and bell ringing.
Distinctive in a sidemans role that gives him proper strictures, Cline contributes cascades of slurred fingering and pinpointed tones, infrequently using knob-twisting and whammy bar finesse to cut through the hiss and flutter of the electronics. His judicious use of distortion extends his flat picking, while the final section has him pumping out a melodic line which builds up to Spanish-styled rasgueado before the final appearance of the tunes head. Instructively, Adams use rapid-fire phrasing and split tones to make his point against Clines chromatic picking. But this is merely more double counterpoint, like Ochs squealing exchange with scratchy violin jettes.
Ochs himself has some irregular pitched, reed-splitting demonstrative outbursts, emphasizing the honking potential of his axe with glottal punctuation. Together the four saxes push the material every which way, though true to their role as preservationists, theme snippets appear every so often.
Anti-electronic traditionalists shouldnt despair either, since the most noticeable electronic interface occurs when curved oscillations from either Brown or Yoshihide answers Clines quivering semi-tones built up with delay and slurred fingering, or when Mori adds her drum-machine textures to the acoustic ones created by Robinsons kit.
As a postlude, drums and guitars produce longer and broader strokes, violins and higher-pitched electronics shrill like the missing brass of the original LP, and everyone joins with the sax choir to gather the disparate strands for a climatic finale.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Ascension, Parts 1 through 13
Personnel: Rova: Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone); Steve Adams (alto saxophone); Larry Ochs (tenor saxophone); Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone); plus Carla Kihlstedt (violin and effects); Jenny Scheinman (violin); Nels Cline (guitar); Fred Frith (electric bass); Don Robinson (drums); Ikue Mori (drum machines and sampler); Otomo Yoshihide (turntables and electronics) and Chris Brown (electronics)
October 10, 2005
Recommended Records ReR/FRO 07
Glimpses of the figurative talent that would later allow him to score films such as Rivers and Tides, ALLIES is a six-movement soundtrack initially commissioned from Fred Frith by Bebe Miller for her dance company in 1989.
Finally mastered in late 2004, the CD is short (just under 40 minutes), and closer to rock music than the sort of work Frith does today. Still its an engaging bagatelle, especially since it provides another look at what the guitarist was doing in his post Art Bears period, before he was as strongly committed to open-ended improvisation.
His co-conspirators here are three men then straddling the jazz and rock
not jazz/rock continuum. Drummer Joey Barron was more associated with Bill Frisells jazz impressionism at the point, though his hard-hitting (literally) work here presages his contribution to Masada. Then as now, leader of intelligent fusion group Curlew, alto saxophonist George Cartwright had employed Frith in his band as a bassist earlier in the decade. Cellist Tom Cora (1953-1998) was at the mid-point of his star-crossed career which saw him moving into jazz/rock/improv by the end of his life.
Essentially designed for dance cues, and with strong rhythmic elements, ALLIES is a cohesive suite, mostly dependent on Coras glissandi and spiccato movements to direct the musics flow, with Frith and Cartwright along to provide counter motifs. To that end, the saxophonists jagged screeches are used for surprise as much as punctuation, adding another layer of sudden scene shifting when he reaches full flight.
Frith, who through overdubbing plays guitar, keyboards, bass, violin, drum machine and manipulates tape, is on side where hes most needed throughout. At point on violin hell combine with Cora to boost the string section. On bass, hes a percussive, background anchor, adding to Barrons rhythm to solidify the tempo. Unattributed sounds that variously resemble a soprano voice, the scratching of LPs or a glass armonica likely arise from his tape manipulation as well.
As a guitarist his contrapuntal forays could come from two different players. Sometimes his powerful, reverberating riffs are in full rock hero mode, bludgeoning the themes into taking on a heavier back beat. Antithetical to that is his acoustic playing where finger-picking chromatic runs make Cora take on more of a country fiddler persona, with folksy cushioning adding a romantic overlay to the tunes.
Committed to theme and variation, the final track of the suite combines a polyphonic beat with interpolation of what has gone before. Summing up, the postlude is a series of church-like organ chords that get fainter and fainter, then fade away.
If theres an overall criticism about the CD, its that the performance is so dense that theres no room for breathing space.
No improvisational masterwork, its still a disc that will be welcomed by fans of any of the musicians involved.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Rifka 2. Small Mercy 1 3. Nenad 4. A rock and a hard place 5. Davor and Dzenta 6. Small Mercy 2
Personnel: George Cartwright (alto saxophone); Fred Frith (guitar, keyboards, bass, violin, drum machine and tape manipulations); Tom Cora (cello); Joey Barron (drums)
May 2, 2005
FRED FRITH/JOËLLE LÉANDRE/JONATHAN SEGEL
Tempted to Smile
Rivers and Tides
Winter & Winter 910 092-2
Of all the musicians with a non-jazz background who have embraced improv over the past few years, British-born, California-based guitarist/composer Fred Frith seems to have brought the most to the table by using freer impulses to amplify his own versatility.
During his 20-odd years in the United States hes forged alliances with musicians as different as East Coast saxophonist John Zorn and West Cost kotoist Miya Masaoka. A founding member of Henry Cow, Britains original Art Rock, band, he keeps his rock chops up playing with the likes of Canadian guitarist René Lussier, while his ongoing European connections have included compositions for film, theatre and dance.
RIVERS AND TIDES, the soundtrack for Thomas Riedelsheimer's film of the same name, is a definite chamber work written by Frith and performed by him plus a German trio of woodwinds, acoustic bass and percussion. TEMPTED TO SMILE on the other hand, is out-and-out free improv, recorded in Berkeley, Calif. by Frith on guitar, American violinist/guitarist Jonathan Segel and French bassist Joëlle Léandre, who was then teaching at Californias Mills College along with Frith. Léandre, whose talents as a contemporary composition interpreter were well established in the so-called serious music world before she turned to improv has followed a similar path to Friths, playing with everyone from American trombonist George Lewis to Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro.
Parenthetically, you wonder if during her apprentice years at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, Léandre ever imagined that one day she would share a recording date with two rock-identified guitarists: Frith, and Segel, whose history includes Camper Van Beethoven and Sparklehorse.
Speaking of the conservatory, it appears that Friths associates on the Riedelsheimer project -- Wolfgang Stryi on soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, bassist Karoline Höfler and percussionist Bernd Settelmeyer -- are New musicians rather than improvisers. Coupled with the actualities of running and bubbling water from the documentary, the three interpret Friths score, which he himself tints with additional samples and instrumental work on guitar, violin, piano, berimbao and one-string Afro-Brazilian bow.
Elongated rubbed abrasions and droning reverberations appear from the manipulations of the berimbaos thin string with a blunt object, with that buzz amplified by the basket shaker or caxi. Frith also adds bird-like violin string chirping, stately piano chords and what sounds like tiny percussion instruments rolled along the floor. In contrast, the others often sound as if theyre engaged in playing as a baroque chamber trio, creating a Triumph of the Will-like march or, with Friths string band input, a cheerful, dancing czarda. Its a rare juxtaposition of First World and Third World sounds.
VII provides a pointilistic climax for the CD and soundtrack, as flowing liquid timbres combine with reed shrills, expanded cymbal shimmers and low-pitched pedal point bass notes. Frith elaborates some folksy, Mountain music-style guitar picking, and what sounds like quivering accordion tones and sampled drones twitters that complement woodwind key pops and an almost-burlesque of Impressionistic keyboard literature. With berimbao scratches mounting in volume, water torrent resonance makes its appearance as well.
Deep in the heart of improv, the timbres, tones and pitches of the other CD arent as easily attached to sound sources. Considering Frith is described as playing etc. as well as guitar, theres the suspicion that samples and maybe even the berimbao make an appearance. On The Glass of Absinthe for instance, it appears that both Frith and Segel are on guitars, with the results including extended slackening of the strings in a Hawaiian manner coupled with bottleneck suggestions from the other gitbox, making the ethnic connections stronger. Here and elsewhere there are crashes and tugs on the six-strings as well as thumps from the four strings of the bull fiddle.
The Palace at 4 am highlights string-induced mosquito-like buzzing and flailing, chords from the guitar, splayed, Middle-Eastern tonal glissandos from the fiddle, and a solid continuum from the bass. Between the pitch sliding from all instruments, Frith assembles a Sandy Bull-like chromatic guitar fantasia.
Perhaps taking advantage of whats on hand, La Valise centres on a dialogue in French between Léandre and probably Frith, as a speedy collection of miniscule EuroImprov moves come to the fore. Expanding the dense, percussive rhythms --from the top of a suitcase perhaps -- the bassist seems to move from arco slashes to what sound like the reverberations of sticks placed horizontally between her strings. Segel squeaks out timbres and emphasizes pitches from the area near his tuning pegs, while Frith bangs the wooden surface as often as he plays the strings of his guitar.
Finally, the entire adventure is wrapped up with the appropriately titled Housecleaning at the Beginning of the New Year -- although the session was recorded in November. The caxi shakes and scrapes, a thwacking whip sound is heard, bells ring, bowls vibrate, a pennywhistle tootles, ping-pong balls ricochet and it appears as if Léandre is dragging her bass peg along the floor. As Frith appears to be creating new timbres by crumbling tissue paper, Segel shrills elevated tones from his violin.
Composition or improvisation -- take your pick, Frith et. al are able to do both with convincing precision.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Rivers: 1. Part I 2. Part II 3. Part III 4. Part IV 5. Part V 6. Part VI 7. Part VII 8. Part VIII
Personnel: Rivers: Wolfgang Stryi (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet); Fred Frith (guitar, samples, violin, piano, berimbao); Karoline Höfler (bass); Bernd Settelmeyer (percussion)
Track Listing: 1. From Ice to Steam 2. Portrait of a Boy 3. Sideshow 4. The Glass of Absinthe 5. Smell My Halo 6. The Palace at 4 am 7. Hey Sonny 8. La Valise 9. Goodbye Pop 10. Tempted To Smile 11. Housecleaning at the Beginning of the New Year
Personnel: Jonathan Segel (violin and guitar); Fred Frith (guitar); Joëlle Léandre (bass)
November 24, 2003
In the North
Between the lines btl 026/EFA 10196-2
Accretions ALP-030 CD
Usual and unique treatments of guitar sounds mixed with a forefront brass instrument plus others, characterize these two experimental sessions. Both are a long way from the standard six-string showcases and offer much to attract the truly adventurous. But both have downsides as well, when the apparent need to play something different moves past the exploratory to the self-indulgent.
In one way German guitarist Andreas Willers has a tougher job. IN THE NORTH is a tribute to American composer/teacher/saxophonist/clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, taking the visionary Yanks drummer-less group idea one step further: theres no woodwind player present either. Instead, on most tracks, Willers has the back-up of Horst Nonnenmacher -- who has worked with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Elliott Sharp --playing bass, a combo chair Giuffre never emptied; and Canadian pianist Paul Bley, who was part of the clarinetists influential trio of the 1960s. Willers takes the role Jim Hall would have had in another Giuffre configuration, while French improv trombonist Yves Robert, who has worked with the likes of woodwind player Louis Sclavis and cellist Vincent Courtois, is the only horn, filling the space both Giuffre and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer would have taken in that trio with Hall.
Unattached to anything more than pure improv, the other disc is a first meeting between one Seattle-based and three Bay area players, interested in seeing what would result from their interactions. Each brings a different sensibility to the mix. Known for his stint with Artrockers Henry Cow, British guitarist Fred Frith, now relocated to Oakland, Calif. has explored the limits of improv with jazzier types like saxophonist Larry Ochs and John Zorn. Mixing extended and prepared Rhodes electric piano stylings and electronics, Eric Glick Rieman brings his New music, ambient and classical interests to this CD and other bands with the likes of Frith and Zorn.
Seattle trumpeter Lesli Dalaba, who is also an acupuncturist, earlier played in Elliott Sharps Carbon, and the Balkan brass band Zlatne Ustne. Classically-trained, violinist Carla Kihlstedt has worked extensively with choreographers, appeared on CDs by Tom Waits and Mr. Bungle, and is a member of both the acoustic Tin Hat Trio and of the Art-rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. While rock, pop, ambient, classical and jazz inform this recording, sometimes the players seem so liberated from the need to conform to specific forms and rhythms that they go beyond freedom to formlessness.
Take Ant farm morning, at 16 minutes the longest tune on the CD. Here the
whistle of high-pitched fiddle lines and unidentifiable, ambient, electrco-acoustic sounds combine with long stretches of what appears to be Frith whacking his electrified guitar strings. As the squeaks, bangs and bell-like peals recede into the background, Dalabas seemingly double-tracked trumpet line appears, with her exhibiting profound breath control, holding each note for an extended period. Eventually this sound is met by distorted electric guitar lines, pizzicato plucks from the lowest of Kihlstedts strings and electronic swiggles that could be bubbling fish sounds.
It would facile to say that Dalabas acupuncture training unerringly allows her to pinpoint where each tone should be placed. But except at the very end of a tune like Worm anvils, squeals and note flurries seem to supersede surgical note placement. Elsewhere, her output seems buried -- or lost -- within the electronic miasma to such an extent, that you almost wonder if shes present. Meanwhile, on Worm anvils Glick Riemans ascending electric piano cadenzas fan out so that you feel hes going to burst into Riders on the Storm at any minute; the guitarists skronky screech sound like hes auditioning for the Yardbirds; and the violinist moves from squeals to aching Old Timey folk style.
Other times it appears as if Kihlstedt is making her points by shortening both her bow sweep and the swath of string real estate shes emphasizing. Alternately, her tone is so high-pitched, yet legato that she moves into flute territory. When the keyboardist doesnt sound as if hes busying himself testing power tools at a home handymans workbench, his otherworldly tones can reconstitute themselves as a replication of busy West Nile virus-spreading mosquitoes. The guitar work ranges from deliberate scratch exploration over the fretboard, up the strings to the pegs to fluttering amp contortions, single staccato strokes and the odd wavering tone that recalls Bill Frisell at his most folksy. Then theres Lucy has a new pet kitty, which showcases a cat-like yodel which could arise from a human throat, electronics or violin strings mixing it up with guitar strums, following an intro that resembles clunky Bo Diddley guitar strokes played just slightly flat.
Bo Diddleys guitar work doesnt feature on Willers disc, but there are points on the title track and Motif where his wavering guitar lines replicate one of blues guitarists resonating lonesome sounds. Elsewhere his tone appears to be just a little too legit, as if hes a classical guitarist merely trying out this improv thing.
That conception establishes the somewhat insurmountable task Willers has set himself up to here. Admirably not wanting to make this CD a neo-con recreation session, the guitarist covers very few compositions of Giuffre and his circle. Yet when he does so, the results are so attached to European New music stylistic ticks that you wonder why he bothered.
One of the clarinetists most famous pieces, The Train & the River, for instance, is so reconstituted with flamenco-like strummed guitar lines and single slide position breaths from Robert at the top, that the melody only peers through. Elephant- trumpeting vibratos from the boneman and circular fingerpicking dont add that much either.
Another Giuffre tune, Divided Man may have a less metaphoric title than he imagines. Basically the ponderous approach taken to it and some of the other material lacks the playfulness someone like Hall added to the Giuffre canon. Roberts plunger muted lines, Willers sprightly acoustic flat-picking, the thump of Nonnenmachers bass and the rubato fantasia Bley can produce at a moments notice seem at times to be divorced from one another.
Honestly, the best parts of the CD appear when salutes and tributes are forgotten and the four musicians get down to studio-created, instant compositions, a present day Bley specialty. So familiar with the pianos inner workings that he can sneak inside in such a away that he appears to be creating electronic effects, Bley also knows how to voice his catalogue of effects with Roberts silky plunger trombone and Willers output which can range from rhythmic comping to speedy, echoing single notes. Theres even a point where accentuated guitar notes circle around blowsy trombone lines, which surround tremolo piano parts which are complemented by flatish bass note strokes. Hows that for a replication of the wheel of life?
Both these guitar-centred quartets have to be commended for their willingness to try something different and praised for some of the unusual sounds they produce. But when each disc appear to run longer than its noted time, it implies that a tightened focus would have been better for both.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: DFGRK: 1. How light a potato chip 2. The distance that separates dreams 3. Spicule maneuver 4. Worm anvils 5. Shallow weather 6. Lucy has a new pet kitty 7. Ant farm morning
Personnel: DFGRK: Lesli Dalaba (trumpet); Carla Kihlstedt (violin, electric violin, Stroh violin); Fred Frith (guitar); Eric Glick Rieman (prepared and extended Rhodes electric piano)
Track Listing: North: 1. Variations on Yggdrasill by Jimmy Giuffre 2. Carla 3. Divided Man 4. Mood 5. In the North 6. Motion 7. Face One 8. Face Two 9. The Train & The River 10. Voodoo* 11. Glaswerk 12. Motif 13. Gotta Dance
Personnel: North: Yves Robert (trombone); Andreas Willers (electric and acoustic guitars, classical guitar*); Horst Nonnenmacher (bass)
August 25, 2003
Cuneiform Rune 167
Retrospectively Curlew got a raw deal.
When these tunes were briefly released -- only in Germany -- in the mid-1980s, the bands mixture of jazz improvisations, R&B licks and compact pop hooks was ignored in favor of music performed by groups more closely allied to any one of those idioms.
Listening to this vastly uneven collection, however, shows that the band made up of dedicated New York downtowners, was groping towards the sort of non-idiomatic fusion many younger, more sophisticated groups revel in today, whether they be from the so-called jazz or so-called pop/rock side of the equation.
Appending an additional six songs, recorded live and featuring a slightly different and even earlier Curlew line-up to NORTH AMERICAs original 13 tracks is even more instructive. Despite its downtown punk trappings, they show that the band members were also familiar with the blues and country music traditions. Over all, the 19 tracks show an evolving aggregation trying to conceive of the best way to mix the new concepts of jazzers like Henry Threadgill, Ornette Coleman and Butch Morris with a pop interface. Sometimes the musicians succeed; other times they fail -- spectacularly. But thats what make this CD interesting.
Tenor and alto saxophonist George Cartwright, who still leads the band today, and the late cellist Tom Cora (1953-1998), who later moved to Europe and collaborations with vocalist Catherine Jauniaux, are the only constants. The first 14 tunes feature a five man line-up with shifting drummers; guitarist Fred Frith, in between membership in art rockers Henry Cow and his present improvisational renown, plays bass, the same instrument he used in John Zorns Naked City; and guitarist Mark Howell, who later performed in Friths guitar quartet. The earlier quintet featured Cartwright, Cora, obscure bassist Otis Williams, who had an authoritative, light-fingered sound; drummer Anton Fier, after Pere Ubu and before his stint with The Golden Palominos; and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, who recorded a duo session with skronk jazz legend Sonny Sharrock and has since been associated with producer Bill Laswell. Still with the majority of songs from Cartwright, theres not much controversy about who is the leader.
The presence of Coras cello gives you some idea of the bands ambitions at that time. Most downtown punk bands didnt have any truck with someone able to play Pablo Casals instrument. Also of note is the fact that jazz cornettist Morris adds some muted trills on top of the relentless rhythm of the brief Knee Songs 2 and experimental violinist Polly Bradfield screeches a few strings on the first versions of Minks Dream (sic), which also has an Ornette Coleman-like obbligato from Cartwrights alto, as well as Moonlake, a partially acoustic countrynfusion hoe-down.
First Bite and Oklahoma are also performed twice. Listening to different versions you hear why Curlew members, while good at what they did, were never real jazzers. For a start, none of the drummers ever really figured out jazz polyrhythms as opposed to beating out the constant, smashing pulse that rock demands. Secondly, at that time -- hes since become more erudite -- Cartwrights grating tone seemed to be midway between that of Boots Randolphs yakety sax and James Chances rudimentary shronk punk. Coleman, Threadgill and even Albert Ayler performed by ignoring their original training; you get the feeling Cartwright lacked any.
Although Coras (over) amplified cello gives some respite from the standard beat group set up of guitars and drums, too many of the tunes are too short to let much interesting instrumental interplay develop. And nearly all have a pat structure, ending almost exactly as you would expect them.
Still comparing the different versions of the tunes, the jam session-like excesses appear to have been worked out of them by the time they were professionally recorded. Solos for the sake of solos have almost disappeared. While the unfettered openness is still there, arrangements make the end result more focused.
There are a couple of major mishaps as well, when Frith brings out a violin on The Victim, the resulting country pastiche sounds more like an outtake from WORKINGMANS DEAD than whatever the band hoped to show. More seriously, Frith and Cartwright sing on J.B. Lenoirs Feelin Good, transforming a blues into a simplistic country ballad. Novelty is good fellas, but theres a reason bands hire vocalists. Apparently both have learned their lessons though. No one outside of their immediate families has heard either sing recently.
All and all NORTH AMERICA is a fascinating document of a band gradually figuring out how to forge an individual sound. One could expect the ends to be tied a bit tighter and the instrumentation to move more towards improvisation than rock. But thats the way Curlew was nearly 20 years ago. Appealing to rock fusion fans, the disc will definitely on many Curlew fans holiday wish lists.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Ray!= 2. Oklahoma 3. Knee Songs 2@= 4. Person to Person~ 5. Time and a Half 6. Minks Dream$ 7. Two-day Till Tomorrow^= 8. Light Sentence 9. First Bite 10. Moonlake$ 11. 12a. Agitar= b. The Victim&= 13. Feelin Good* 14. Oklahoma 15. Shoats 16. Moonlake 17. Minks Dream 18. The Ole Miss Exercise Song 19. First Bite
Personnel: Butch Morris (cornet)@; George Cartwright (alto and tenor saxophones, vocal); Fred Frith ([tracks 1-13] guitar!, bass, violin&); Polly Bradfield (violin)$; Mark Howell (guitar [tracks 1-13]); Nicky Skopelitis guitar [tracks 14-19]); Tom Cora (cello, cello resonated objects, accordion^); Otis Williams ([tracks 14-19]bass); Martin Bisis (fake bass drum)~; Rick Brown= , J. Pippin Barrett [tracks 2,4-6,8-11,13]; Anton Fier [tracks 14-19](drums)
November 18, 2002
Altrisuoni AS 108
RecRec Music CD 75 EFA 05179
Swiss pianist Michel Wintsch posses a streak of romanticism thats a mile wide and just as deep. How else would you explain the inclusion on his trio session of tunes by chansonniers Jacques Brel, Gilbert Bécaud and other Continental sentimentalists?
Sure by the time hes finished with a tune like Bécauds Et Maintenant -- which English-speakers know as What Now My Love -- hes deconstructed it into a potent improv exercise. But many times at the beginning or middle of standards or his own lush compositions, he appears to be reigning in his emotions just before he stumbles into André Gagnon or Roger Williams territory.
Luckily, the Geneva-based pianists choice of playing partners here, American drummer Gerry Hemingway, and bassist Bänz Oester from Bern, who it must be admitted does do pop and chanson gigs, are solid enough to act like musical Viagara. Their presence stiffens up the performances before they dive into mawkishness. Thats what makes OPEN SONGS a memorable disc.
WHISPERINGS is notable for another reason. With the other musicians from a definite non-jazz background -- British guitarist Fred Frith is an improv/art rocker; experimental Swiss vocalist Franziska Baumann a specialist in electronically processed sound; and drummer Bernard Trontin is a member of Swiss sampling pioneers The Young Gods -- its usually up to the keyboardist to try to move the sound away from rocks version of sentimentality. Unfortunately he doesnt succeed as often as he should.
To deal with OPEN SONGS first, the trios nearly 16-minute version of the Bécaud tune provides an example of how the three treat the material here. Commencing with a simple, pianistic run-through of the melody, by the five-minute mark Wintsch is creating fleet-fingered variations, jockeying with the chords, pitch and tempos, slowing down and speeding up. Soon, as he begins exploring the left side of the keyboard with a weightlifters touch and massaging the pedals -- and before Hemingway bears down on his toms, snare and cymbals at a steam engine pace -- Oester has a short, understated solo. Soon you can hear Wintsch jabbing more sharply and more fiercely at the chords as the bassist produces some forceful flamenco-style strumming. Finally, at the bull fiddles highest pitch, Oester sounds out the theme.
A similar transformation occurs with Angel Cabral and Enrique Dizeos La Foule. Although it too is a slice of Euro-romanticism, the pianists playing is laser sharp so that the notes are separated enough to not allow the tune to fall into a mawkish, nightclub ambiance. After some two-handed variations on the theme, with the occasional locked hand accent, Wintsch indulges in some rococo double timing, rousing to applause the audience at the Swiss jazz festival where the track was recorded.
Conversely, the instant compositions such as Isablue recall some of the less histrionic improvisations of pianist Keith Jarretts Standards trio. As the pianist circles around the melody, the bassist tugs out a counter melody of his own, producing some bluesy asides as the drummer tries for a wavering shuffle beat. Other pieces include the sort of swing that most folks would designate as so-called real jazz. However, the brief 2 pm, rife with inside-the-piano rumbles and clink of bass strings, as if Wintsch and Oester were performing in a New music recital.
If there is a weakness here it relates to the soppy melancholy which is as generic to the chanson as profanity is to rap. Playing some of the melodies a little too straight sometimes leaves the listener with the feeling that he may have wandered into an all-instrumental concert made up of Barry Manilows or Peter Allens greatest hits.
No singer is present on OPEN SONGS, but most of the 11 murmurings on WHISPERINGS include vocalized interpolations from Baumann. Bern-based and someone who claims to have developed her so-called acoustic scenery through projects spanning several media, she has also recorded with other experimenters like violinist Charlotte Hug and drummer Fritz Hauser. Here though, the vocal product sounds like a weird amalgam of the styles of No waver Lydia Lunch, New Thing vocalist Patty Waters, disco diva Donna Summer and the Teutonic recitations of early Velvet Underground chanteuse, Nico.
On Purple line, for instance, her falsetto cries and reverberating screeches are straight from No Wave territory, as is her speaking in tongues. Someone -- Frith? -- seems to be creating pile driver, bandsaw-like, heavy metal guitar runs, which appear to bring forward a dance-like rhythm from Wintsch on electric keyboards. Similarly, despite his pedigree, drummer Trontin, apparently can produce nothing more than standard rock beats. Things are even less coherent on Reversed Bridges with the percussionist sounding as if hes replicating the drum machine from Herbie Hancocks Rockit, the pianist producing lazy electric piano washes, the guitar chirping like a cricket and the vocalists yodeling joined by French-accented mumbling from a male voice.
Elsewhere, some of the menacing electronic music with an overactive distortion pedal and echoing keyboard wooshes must have reminded Frith of his time with John Zorns avant-metal Naked City band. Considering the pure volume and density of some of the sounds, it would seem that overdubbing was used as well. Baumann tries some vaguely Arabic sounding vocalese at one point, then theres a section of Lunatic Fringe (sic), where the lyrics appear to be ga ga ga. Her buzz-like flute screeds also add little to the general conception, while the drummer often seems as likely to turn the beat around as to create constant repetitive hammering. Overall, it would seem that trying to transcend jazz-inflected improvised music has resulted in a conception of maudlin banality with overwhelming amplification and rhythms.
Perhaps if your preference is for rock-influenced, so-called experimentation, WHISPERINGS may rank higher on your hit parade. For the average improv fan, though, OPEN SONGS is the preferred disc here.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Open: 1. 1. Offret 2. La Plat Pays 3. Isablue 4. Ne Me Quittes Pas 5. Path of Rain 6. La Foule (Que nadie sepa mi sufrir) 7. Walking In 8. Et Maintenant 9. 2 pm
Personnel: Open: Michel Wintsch (piano); Bänz Oester (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums)
Track Listing: Whisperings: 1. Sleeping in a Dream 2. Lunatic Fringe 3. Candles Ahead 4. Reversed Bridges 5. Sirènes 6. Curés omelette 7. Operatic tchaess 8. Purple line 9. Curious grass 10. Nice giant 11. Two stars (instead of one)
Personnel: Whisperings: Franziska Baumann (voice, flute, electronics); Fred Frith (guitars); Michel Wintsch (piano, electronics, samples); Bernard Trontin (drums, percussion)
September 16, 2002
FRED FRITH/MAYBE MONDAY
Winter & Winter 910 071-2
Ozzy Osbourne to the contrary, its still possible to forge a creative life as a former rock musician, just as long as you maintain your proficiency and inventiveness.
British guitarist/composer Fred Frith, 52, is living proof of this. Now professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., hes arguably created more interesting music in the past 15 years as a free improviser than he did in his heyday as co-founder of cult bands Henry Cow and the Art Bears. Calling on the contacts hes developed during his time in England and North America, he now moves from writing for dance, film, theatre and musical ensembles to playing in a wide variety of contexts. He works as bassist in John Zorns Naked City, violinist in Lars Hollmers Looping Home Orchestra, and guitarist for folks as different as The Residents, Brian Eno and in his own Guitar Quartet.
More to the point, as this innovative disc proves, he has the chops and production skills to gather musicians from different backgrounds together for a group exploration. Two of the players here fill out Friths Maybe Monday trio. They are Miya Masaoka, with a background in ethnic and New music, who plays koto and electronics, and Larry Ochs on sopranino and tenor saxophone, one quarter of the always-evolving Rova Saxophone Quartet, with his free jazz and free improv interests. The fourth member here is cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who was for many years until recently, part of the Kronos Quartet that brought a contemporary sensibility to the stuffy string-quartet world.
Basically, with each of the participants a veteran group collaborator, the idea of DIGITAL WILDLIFE seems to be to allow each player to do what he or she does best and tie up what results into a package of group improv. Thus during the course of the five tunes, youll hear echoing Art Rock guitar runs, the gentle raindrop of koto chimes, free music sax trills and slap tonguing plus snatches of legit cello tone.
However that isnt all that happens. For one, the quasi power-chording is as apt to come from Jeanrenauds cello as Friths guitar, while Masaoka spends a lot more time coloring the proceedings with electronic swooshes and pseudo-percussion than studiously plucking the kotos 13 strings. Ochs, who has contributed memorable solos to bands led by the late saxophonist Glenn Spearman and bassist John Lindberg, often moves from raucous New Thing reverberation on tenor sax to delicate pure improv sonority on sopranino.
On Touch I Risk, for instance, Friths notes suggest both Spanish flamenco guitar and South Asian sitar, while Ochss solo is consumed with breathing out miniscule, almost inaudible note patterns. If Jeanrenauds uniform bass string patterns bring to mind rhythmic strokes from the washboard in a jug band, then the koto strings adorn them with a spring shower of notes.
Image In An Atom, on the other hand, finds heavy metal guitar riffs and The Who-like amp buzzes fighting for space besides sopranino sax squawks, the rumble of electric tones and bow scratches from beneath the cellos bridge. Later, as Ochs continuously works on a particular mathematical sax pattern, reverb buzzes and waxing and waning electronics allow Jeanrenaud to scrutinize all parts of her instrument, even pausing at one point to produce a so-called classical chord. With every axe exhibiting extended technique, youre not sure whether this tune should be regarded as a vain attempt to contact E.T. or as cleanup time in recital hall.
Elsewhere the noisy crash of an e-bow intersecting with strings can be heard, though whether its doing its job on guitar, cello or even koto is hard to ascertain. What is definite however is the gun-shot like pitches Masaoka gets from her 13 strings as Frith undulates reverberating notes up and down his guitar neck. At times -- shades of ELP (!) -- it appears as if someone is playing a mellotron, followed by the sounding of a high-pitched, Arabic, musette-like tone. Later Frith and Jeanrenaud combine their 10 strings to give Ochs a shimmering filament on which to bounce his repertoire of squeaky pitches.
Although Frith like Osbourne is married with a couple of kids, dont expect to see his family featured on MTV any time in the near -- or far -- future. Instead expect him to create more outstanding CDs such as this with these accomplished musicians and others.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Digital Wildlife 2. Image In And Atom 3. The Prisoners Dilemma 4. Touch I Risk 5. Close To Home
Personnel: Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophone); Fred Frith (guitar); Joan Jeanrenaud (cello); Miya Masaoka (koto, electronics)
July 6, 2002
It's A Brand New Day
Knitting Factory KFW-271
Tom Cora's death, at 44 in 1998, not only robbed music of one of its few improvising cellists, but also of one versatile enough to move seamlessly between jazz, rock, improv and something resembling "ethnic" music. But, after all, what would you expect from a musician whose playing partners including everyone from guitarists Eugene Chadbourne and Fred Frith to composer/saxophonist John Zorn and singer Catherine Jauniaux?
This memorial CD, made up of performances recorded at the New York's Knitting Factory between 1989 and 1996, highlights his versatility. And that's its strength as well as its weakness.
For a start, all the performances were recorded with a single audience mike and the sound ranges from good though distant, to echoey and loggy. The main victim is Jauniaux, Cora's widow, whose voice seems to come from somewhere just beyond ear comfort. Also, with French lyrics and tunes that appear to relate more to the folk tradition than out-and-out improv, Cora is reduced to one musician among many on those tracks.
Much better are pieces like "Andy's Fault" with the pseudo-Klezmer-style clarinet of Don Byron bouncing off against rock-style drumming, with Cora coming out with slashing guitar-like runs, and "Saint Dog", featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas. On the later, Cora gets a meditative solo section to himself, which them bleeds back into the bouncy jig-like main melody enlivened by some high register soloing from Douglas.
The extent of Cora's talents comes to the fore on other tracks though. A screeching rock-style trio outing with George Cartwright's Prime Time-like alto sax and Samm Bennett's relentless drumming, features the cellist ricocheting heavy-metal projectiles. Then there's "Elia's Hubcaps", the longest track on the disc, a duet with Frith, which allows both string players to alternately improvise and take turns as string "percussionist".
"Les Instants Chavirés" may be the crowning achievement here with both the cellist -- in his classical guitar mode -- and pianist Wayne Horvitz using the colors available with electronics to augment their improvisations.
Like the CDs of many other musicians, IT'S A BRAND NEW DAY shows a few lows and the some highs of Cora's career. However, it's too bad there won't be (m)any more documents of his work against which to compare it.
Track Listing: 1. Passing 2. High Sidewalk 3. Andy's Fault 4. Les Instants Chavirés 5. Saint Dog 6. Elia's Hubcaps 7. Ce Grand Neant 8. Hey, My Mosey Mose
Personnel: Tom Cora (cello, electronics) with different combinations of Dave Douglas (trumpet); Don Byron (clarinet); George Cartwright (alto saxophone) Fred Frith (guitar); Wayne Horvitz (piano, electronics); Zeena Parkins (piano); Hahn Rowe (violin or viola); Mark Dresser or Ann Rupel (bass); Samm Bennett or Pippin Barnett (drums); Catherine Jauniaux (vocals)
July 22, 2000