Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Historic Meeting of Some of the World’s Greatest Improvisational Minds

The new release Flow States, a highly entertaining, frequently thrilling improvisatory session recorded in 2015, speaks to the imperiled state of music in 2020. After the lockdowners banned musicians from playing onstage and earning what had essentially become their sole source of income, artists around the world have been flooding the web with all kinds of incredible archival recordings. Desperate times, desperate measures – and the quality of this material reminds us of what we stand to lose if we continue to allow ourselves to be locked down.

This session has special historical value for being the very first time that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell had played with either the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s iconic Marshall Allen, or with Milford Graves, the polymath drummer, cardiac medicine specialist, sound healing pioneer and musicologist. Multi-reedman Scott Robinson pulled the session together. While the session was in an open studio with no separation, the individual voices of this hall of fame lineup are distinct and everybody gets plenty of chances to give the listener goosebumps.

Allen is in the left channel, mainly on alto sax. Mitchell is in the center, beginning on soprano, sometimes shifting in one piece from sopranino to bass or alto. Robinson is on the right, moving from tenor to bass to contrabass and then alto, mixing it up as usual. And you should see Graves’ kit, with all those toms, delivering a majestically boomy, mysterious groove. Who needs a bass when you have that guy in the band?

Mitchell’s rapidfire melismas are so otherworldly and bagpipe-like throughout the first number, Vortex State, that it’s almost as if he’s playing the EWI that Allen has used for so long in the Sun Ra band. Meanwhile, Graves goes to his mallets for a deep, spacious river as Allen and Robinson carry on a lively, sharp conversation from the edges.

Track two, the aptly titled Dream State, floats over Graves’ magically shamanic, muted, steady pulse, sprites slowly popping up amidst the mist. Allen first goes to the EWI in the trio piece Transition State for a woozily amusing contrast with the droll strutting and foghorn sonics from Robinson’s bass sax as Graves builds a hypnotic sway with his cymbals.

Steady State, a duo piece for Graves and Mitchell’s Balkan-tinged sopranino, is arguably the album’s most relentlessly adrenalizing interlude. Allen picks up the EWI again for the wryly spacy warpscape Plasma State, another duo with Graves. Altered State also has ridiculously funny moments, whether it’s Robinson’s heavy-lidded lows on contrabass sax, or Graves sounding the alarm.

Variable State, a conversation between Mitchell and Allen (back on alto), has plenty of jokes too good to give away, but just as much daunting extended technique. The full quartet close with the title track, which with its relentless traffic jam ambience could be called Garden State, where the album was recorded. More auspiciously, a vinyl release is planned, including extra material that wouldn’t fit on this one.

November 27, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

November 26, 2020 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Pensively Conversational Improvisations From Josh Sinton’s Latest Project

The trio What Happens in a Year is a serendipitous meeting of minds, three guys who are great listeners and conversationalists. Formidable and incredibly mutable low-register multi-reedman Josh Sinton first brought guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Giacomo Merega into a rehearsal room to whip up some ideas he could flesh out for an album. Their rapport turned out to be so strong that Sinton decided simply to go with the trio’s spontaneous interactions as his first-ever full-length, completely improvised album, Cérémonie/Musique, streaming at Bandcamp.

As you would expect from Merega and Neufeld, the music here tends to be on the quiet side. As you would expect from Sinton, especially, it’s entertaining, not merely a pattern book to inspire other free jazz dudes. In the album’s opening number, La Politique des Auteurs, Sinton plays spare, rather wistful baritone sax phrases, Merega responding with one of his signature devices, spacious chords. Neufeld enters the picture with skeletal motives and lingering, distant menace. A bustle develops beneath Sinton’s airy lines; Merega’s bubbles evince jarring slashes from the guitar.

Sepulchral ambience punctuated by the occasional cry is the central premise of Algernon, a magically austere soundscape. Change of Scene is much the same: lingering bass clarinet from Sinton, spare volume-knob swells and brooding figures from Neufeld and shadowy low end from Merega…all of which hardly telegraph the sotto-voce revelry to come.

The dissociative low-register prowl from Sinton – back on baritone sax – and Merega in Sleepwalk Digest is spot-on, Neufeld adding unexpectedly wary, skronky accents and menacingly steady, slow chordal cascades. The guitarist’s morosely tolling lines take centerstage over his bandmates’ floating, flitting, ghostly presence in Untethered.

The group follow the same pattern, but even more spaciously and skeletally, in Netherland, at first the most haunting yet ultimately the funniest piece here. They close the album with Music From a Locked Room, an extended, triangulated pitch-and-follow scenario. What a beautifully enveloping headphone album: you’ll undoubtedly see this on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.

November 6, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast Rapture and Playful Scrambles From Brilliant, Individualistic Pianist Eunyoung Kim

Pianist Eunyoung Kim plays improvised music that draws as much on 20th century and contemporary classical music as it does jazz. Her technique is daunting, and she has a rare fluency for orchestrating on the spot. Themes and variations are big with her, as are close harmonies. She flirts with twelve-tone ideas without being tying the knot with them. Her new album, Earworm – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

The first number – each of the album’s tracks is untitled – has a steady, playfully dancing rhythm with hints of swing, tango and the baroque disguised behind close harmonies. If Louis Andriessen played jazz, it might sound something like this.

Track two is a vast, otherworldly, minimalist soundscape, akin to Federico Mompou at a tenth the speed, maybe. Kim returns to playfully rhythmic mode with the tune after that, an increasingly thorny series of curlicuing phrases and variations that grow more murky and hypnotic.

Track four reflects the spacious minimalism of track two, but more somberly and intricately: it brings to mind Satoko Fujii’s most brooding solo work. Blippy, leapfrogging phrases and staccato insistence mingle in the piece after that, down to a striking interlude fueled by stern quasi-boogie low-register work.

Track six begins as a synthesis of the bounciness and the moody minimalism that Kim has been shifting between so far; then she romps toward Monk and gospel music. She finally goes under the piano lid for her seventh improvisation, a momentary return to somber stillness.

With Kim’s steady, bracing modalities and steady, incisive attack, track eight reminds of Keith Jarrett’s 1960s work. Next up, Kim clusters and jabs with breathtaking speed and articulacy: that she waits this long before cutting loose with her chops testifies to her commitment to making a statement rather than showing off.

The album’s tenth track is increasingly hypnotic variations on a wry, loopy modal phrase. Kim closes the record with an approximation of a Monk-ish wee-hours ballad. Like all the albums on the new Mung Music label out of Korea, this was recorded live to a vintage Tascam cassette recorder before being digitized.

October 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High-Voltage Piano/Bass Duels and Conversations From Eunhye Jeong and Minki Cho

Pianist Eunhye Jeong’s previous album The Colliding Beings was an epic live recording of ancient Korean pansori themes reinvented as free jazz. Her latest album, Abyss, is a series of duo improvisations with bassist Minki Cho, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s somewhat less expansive: no 25-minute songs this time around.

There’s a persistent good cop/bad cop dynamic between the steady, purposeful bassist and the restless pianist. Unearthly tones, whether keening in the harmonics of the upper registers or the stygian lows, come to the forefront in the duo’s first number, Head Sea. Jeong goes under the piano lid before she moves in, hard, on the piano’s low midrange, while Cho bows and then holds the center, motorboat riffs against a scurry.

Purple Beans has flitting piano accents against a calmer, more circular bass center. The two coalesce, then diverge tensely through a series of tritones, Jeong growing more frantic until Cho centers the music.

Surface Tension begins with churning, rattling atmospherics, Cho running loopy bass variations as Jeong hammers and circles; this time it’s her turn to break the spell. Thumbnail Sketch, the closest reference to swing here, begins with jaunty lowrange flourishes and insistence from the piano against steady bass. The two musicians rise to a coy parody of fanfare and then an anvil chorus which finally gives way to a deadpan, stern conclusion.

Kindred has funkier rhythms, some particularly explosive moments from Jeong and also an unexpectedly icy, terse duet midway through. The closing number, Dokdo 1696 is built around minimalist, suspenseful variations on an octave bass riff, up to some tasty Messiaenic upper-register piano and another anvil chorus, Cho playing voice of reason again. The album also includes a couple of spacious solo bass miniatures.

October 24, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade the early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

October 16, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Otherworldly Korean Improvisation From Baum Sae

Some of the world’s most fascinating and strange music has been coming out of Korea lately. Upstart record label Mung Music are fixated on bringing some of these amazing sounds to a broader audience, not only digitally but also on limited edition cassette and 10” vinyl with original artwork. Perhaps the most individualistic and fascinating of the initial crop of releases is the new ep, Embrace, by Baum Sae (Korean for “Night Birds”), streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine Morphine at their most stark and surreal, with a woman out front singing in Korean: and that’s only a small part of the picture.

The offbeat cicada-like exchanges between pansori singer Borim Kim and geomungo bass lute player Gina Hwang in the first song, 여름 (Summer) reflect the lyric’s pastoral melancholy. The melody strongly evokes Moroccan gnawa music, at least until Kim goes up the scale toward melismatic drama.

The second number, 화 (Anger) is a duet between Kim and drummer Soojin Suh. It’s shorter but much more dramatic and closer to traditional pansori, recounting the execution of a brave individual who dared secondguess a bellicose Chinese emperor. The final cut, 가느다란 선 (Thin Line) slowly and spaciously rises from Suh’s temple bells and Hwang’s suspenseful geomungo, through rather brooding variations on a traditional work song from the Jeju Islands. For all its shadowy ambience, those basslines are catchy!

You will be hearing more here about several other artists on the label in the near future.

October 14, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Improvisational Sorcery From XNN

“Can we remain curious and open to new perspectives while standing firm in the principles that make us who we are? To what extent can we sincerely consider an idea that challenges everything we think we believe?

What better training to play improvised music than to deal with these questions!”

That’s drummer Dan Kurfirst, on the new recording by free jazz collective XNN, whose new album Dance Chaos Magic is streaming at Bandcamp. The bandname is a variant on CNN, referring to how the group would reinterpret the news, real or fake, after convening in the rehearsal room. Ben Cohen plays sax, as does Daniel Carter, who quadruples (is “quadruples” a word? It is with this guy) on flute, clarinet and trumpet. Eli Wallace gets seemingly every texture and timbre that can be struck from a piano: it is a percussion instrument, after all.

The album is a single, roughly 39-minute improvisation that hits a genuinely spellbinding point at about the 25-minute mark. Ghosts flit playfully amid Cohen’s overtone-laced sustain as Carter begins the jam on flute. Wallace has muted, strangely zither-like fun under the piano lid (or else he’s prepared it). Kurfirst moves from his hardware and climbs steadily from a muted thud.

Carter’s shift to distant, regally muted trumpet is matched by a seemingly qawwali-influenced, subtly circling groove from Kurfirst. A move to sax by Carter – the elder statesman here – signals a bubbling interweave that brings the group together with what comes across as a deviously implied, floating swing.

Wallace playing popcorn on the muted upper strings, inside the lid, is a hoot, and eventually lures Cohen down the rabbit hole as Carter’s trumpet hovers pensively. Kurfirst lowers the anchor and then raises it, drawing spare, somber modalities from Wallace and similarly uneasy, microtonal tectonic shifts from Cohen. The transformation to balmy lyricism and then a triumphantly clustering bustle seems easier than it probably was to play, testament to the depth of the group’s repartee. May this be an omen for what the world has to face the rest of this year and beyond.

October 5, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Volcanic Harlem Jam Rescued From the Archives

Considering what happened to live music in this city this year, it’s heartbreaking to think back on the free improvisation scene here in 1999. CB’s Gallery was still open. So was Tonic, along with a Harlem loft space called the Hint House, where the quartet TEST joined with trumpeter Roy Campbell for a pyrotechnic jam on April 16 of that year. The Hint House is long gone – as seemingly every music venue in town may also be at this point – but the band had the good sense to record the show that night. And in keeping with the vast deluge of rare archival material being released this year, this uninterrupted, roughly 47-minute improvisation is streaming at Bandcamp.

The energy is through the roof, rising and falling, with individual horn solos drawing the rest of the lineup back in. Much of the time the rhythm section keeps a rapidfire swing going, more or less, in a Sam Rivers vein; other times the drums drop out for more spare, looming bass, even while the horns keep the cauldron blazing.

Campbell generously shares the spotlight with Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, trumpet and flute, Sabir Mateen on those same reeds and also clarinet, Matthew Heyner on bass and Tom Bruno on drums. A fanfare quickly coalesces – Bruno’s thump signals the rest of the horns to chill while Campbell plays a wildfire, trilling, thrilling solo. “God!” exclaims an audience member (or bandmate).

The rhythm section takes a momentary lull but in a flash they’re back out of it. It seems Carter takes the next solo as the bass bubbles upward and the drums cluster, then Campbell squalls and shrieks his way in and the crazed triangulation begins again. Is that Mateen taking that valve-torturing, squealing break?

Subtle shadowing, counterrythms and as much calm as could possibly exist under the circumstances follow in turn, well past the halfway mark. The murk clears a bit for resonance and lyricism, particularly from Carter and Campbell: Heyner’s spaciousness and use of spare chords make a good foil to Bruno’s smackdown riffs. There’s a sudden fade downward to haze and wisps instigated by the bass, Bruno deciding to get the show back on the road while the reeds play baroque-tinged spirals. The chugging, rumbling inferno that follows is the high point of the set: obviously, none of this was planned.

September 14, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Radical Japanese Firestorm Back in Print After Forty-Five Years

On September 5, 1975 guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit played a marathon concert at Yasuda Seimei Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Any kind of jazz beyond traditional swing was considered radical and frowned on by the authorities at the time – and by pretty much any standard, this is utterly fearless, often completely unhinged  music.  The performance was eventually immortalized on two albums, but never in the exact order of the setlist, such that there was a setlist. Finally, this landmark performance of transgressive improvisation has been reissued just as it was played, titled Axis/Another Revolvable Thing, streaming at Bandcamp and available courtesy of the folks at Blank Forms.

The first album comprises just three tracks: two group improvisations and a drum solo, none of which offer any idea of the carnage to come later. The conversational rapport between the players is obvious as the thicket of staccato in the opening segment coalesces in a flash: Takayanagi joined by Kenji Mori on flutes and bass clarinet, Nobuyoshi Ino alternating between bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on drums. This is a jungle, a brisk worker ants’ round-robin of short exchanges. extended flurries and jaunty echo effects punctuated by Mori’s leaping flute. Takayanagi plays without a hint of effects, mostly cello-like pizzicato. never really approximating any kind of traditional melody. It’s as playful as it is purposeful. Gabor Szabo in especially terse mode comes to mind. No wonder the band saw fit to release it.

Devious poltergeist accents and coy humor pervade the second improvisation amid lots of space. The colorful drum solo is basically a synopsis of what’s happened up to this point, and as quickly becomes clear, Yamazaki has tuned his kit to continue a couple of simple, catchy two-note themes from the previous piece. Drama and suspense prevail, no small achievement.

The second disc is where the inferno starts, both Takayanagi and Nobuyoshi conjuring evil sheets of feedback, often receding back to a Shinto temple of the mind for minutes on end. It’s basically the shadow side of the first record, with toxic white noise from Takayanagi’s wah pedal, Yamazaki walking a tightrope expertly between mystery and mayhem. Ironically, Mori, the adventurous sprite of the first album, holds the center blithely as all hell breaks loose around him. Finally, he breaks free with one shriek after another.The feral 23-minute coda is to die for, if you like this kind of noise.

A sonic portent for this fall’s lockdowner blitzkrieg when it’s clear that COVID-19 is gone and is not coming back, and the lockdowners have to find a new excuse to keep us imprisoned? We have a choice in this, folks: it’s time to take off the mask and take our society back. or else.

July 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment