Saturday 17 January 2009

JIM MCAULEY - The Ultimate Frog

Drip Audio

In the ideal world of astute journalism a writer should never use personal implications while reviewing a record, but there’s something in Jim McAuley’s The Ultimate Frog that puts into instant comfort mode, a “that’s right” sensation accompanying this listener ever since the very first track. The 2-CD set is a collection of solo pieces for guitar (classical, steel-string, 12-string, dobro, “prepared Marquette parlor” and “marxophone”, to be precise) and, especially, duos with the likes of violinist Leroy Jenkins, percussionist Alex Cline, double bassist Ken Filiano and fellow guitarist Nels Cline.

Talking about comfortableness, McAuley is that specimen of musician whose open-mindedness makes you feel at home whatever the subject of his creativity that he decides to deepen. When improvising, a theoretical configuration is still available for the mind to clutch at, shutting mystifications and infertility out of the room; contrariwise, approaching a solitary Towner-esque piece on the classical, infinitesimal fissures in the general architecture of the composition transform a possible stiffness into a delicate portrayal of fragility. McAuley interacts splendidly with his comrades, too: the duets with Jenkins range from tenderly embracing to nearly impenetrable, the intricate conversations with Nels Cline often touching semi-pernicious topics (always with an ironic wink at the end, though). Jazz is barely present – at times, Filiano tries to lay some serious swinging in there, yet the Carter/Hall duo this ain’t – and the percussive universe of Alex Cline is more functional to the protagonist’s voice when things remain on the ethereal side.

The quality of the recording is often so good that we can almost put the finger on the musicians: the nails on the strings, the tiny imperfections, above all the deep breathing characterizing intense moments of near-silence. Overall, what remains after these two discs have ended their spinning cycle is the picture of an extremely perceptive artist who elevates the art of making music to a level where having to do with the profound aspects of creation equals the feeling of sitting in peace while watching your cat playing. An intimate experience that surpasses any kind of vacuous virtuosity one might encounter and get fooled by.

Tuesday 13 January 2009


Clean Feed

The record’s title, pronounced “ghe-well”, means “griot” in the language of the largest ethnic group in Senegal, Wolof. Harris Eisenstadt devoted a considerable portion of his recent artistic research in the study of the Sabar, which fuses dance and drumming to celebrate important events of the local life, by going to Dakar in 2006 and taking lessons with Malick Faye, a master drummer and ensemble leader. The music of Guewel mixes traditional Wolof rhythms and transcriptions of Mbalax tunes, the latter a style of Senegalese pop that got international recognition in the 70s; the five pieces were all constructed in the same way, namely a Mbalax song inserted in customary Sabar metres. Eisenstadt, who arranged the entirety of the tracks, is accompanied by Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Mark Taylor (French horn) and Josh Sinton (baritone sax).

Of course there are copious doses of improvisational outbursts, whose character ranges from garrulous contrapuntal interweaving through grimace-eliciting dissonant lawlessness; yet the greatest feel of “euphoric hymn to existence”, which is typical of certain African manifestations, has to be found in the themes, which – despite being clearly developed upon well defined drum patterns – contain the germs of an energetic fillip which delivers the execution from the bounds of stiffness. This sense of collective happiness is perceivable throughout the record and represents its most significant asset, the relative digestibility of large segments of the material not implying any vituperation of the purity of Eisenstadt’s intents. True spiritual bonds symbolized by a quintet of enthusiast virtuosi who love directing their nosiness towards dangerous peripheries, ending their trips in glory every time. Contagious stuff, to say the least, and an admittedly difficult-to-learn lesson for those who talk about “interior growth” and “deep personal troubles” while living in disproportionate wealth.

Sunday 4 January 2009

TRIO SOWARI - Shortcut


In their ear-stinging adherence to the rules of regimented severity as far as the absence of cuddling timbres is concerned, Trio Sowari (Phil Durrant, Bertrand Denzler and Burkhard Beins) are an inflexible unit, uncompromising representatives of non-indulgent perception working with software samples, treatments, tenor sax, percussion, objects and “small electrics”. Shortcut begins with a programmatic declaration of sorts, five razor-sharp pieces aptly titled “Piercing” which, despite the extremely short duration, point to a field of activity where a cold impassiveness in front of any kind of emotion is the rule to comply with. Freezing whispers, tiny lacerations of silence and articulated pops revealing the exact diameter of the originating conduit are put adjacent to practically invisible percussive gestures; movements comparable to someone who, wide awake in the dead of night, decides to start fiddling the insides of a miniature vessel with the poise and the calmness necessary to avoid waking up the rest of the family.

Rarely the presence of an uninterrupted sound can be appreciated, if you happen to consider the harmonic features of a two-minute buzzing hum as such. Let’s not forget it: a well placed drone puts inexplicable mechanisms of our consciousness in motion; the cause is still to be exactly determined, but there must be a reason if so many artists are drawn to that type of secretion. In “Triton” the deficiency of rhapsodic fervour is denoted by empty simulacra of desolateness, the sources combining in swelling surges of petrifying subterranean vibrations and reticent frequencies, while “Trespassing” echoes the sterility of humanity’s fruitless seeking for divine attributes in their insignificant existence through dampened bumps and soft bounces amidst barely variable currents of unmusical resonance. “Dots #2” shuts every door to any residual hope of comprehension, impenetrably inhuman vestiges of what we used to call “notes” diffusing a rational pressure in the environment, undetectable poisoning fumes in an only apparently clear sky.

Thursday 1 January 2009



Here’s an interesting, if not entirely rewarding release in a limited edition: 300 copies hand-painted by Michael Renkel (mine shows a series of deep-blue tempera splats variously placed on a folded white sheet of light cardboard). Four 3-inch discs are contained, all of them absolutely devoid of names or titles so we understand what is what exclusively by the total time indicated by the CD player as, providentially, the durations are specified on the sleeve. Aubry presents three “generative compositions for computer” involving “chance operations and feedback systems”, whose temperament ranges from hypnotically occlusive to unevenly faddish; pleasant sensations overall, but nothing really pioneering. The shortest piece – about 15 minutes, by Krebs – is also my darling: a potion of “pre-investigated materials” spiced with earth loop humming, harsh saturation, stifled drones, prying radios and, in the main, an agreeable logic of appropriate occurrence at the right moment.

On the contrary, the instalment by Schick - constructed upon overlaid strata of organ pipes, “marocan raita” (sic) and bowed turntable notes plus “harsh object sounds and electronic noise” - is perhaps the one that overstays its welcome a little bit: the original plan may have had its appeal, yet after a while this writer felt like plagued by kids playing with whistles in a nursery school situated in close proximity to an industrialized area. Ermke works quite well with field recordings and self-made rattling-and-scraping; among other things, conversations between Italians - a happening that tends to leave me befuddled when listening to allegedly investigational matters – are found. Still, despite the pseudo-contentment deriving from certain settings and combinations, I’m again compelled to archive this episode in the “been there, heard that” vault.

In general, Berlin Electronics is a fine enough but not exceptional collector’s item encompassing a few intriguing incidents in the middle of a basically average level of electroacoustic resourcefulness. All four artists can surely do much better than what’s heard here.


Creative Sources

As per Neven Usumovic’s liners, “…it is very difficult to foresee what Mezei will do next: his jazz is genuinely inspired by the great achievements of modern classic music (Bartók, Lutoslawski) as well as by the original folk tradition”. Sivatag – which means “desert” in the composer’s idiom – is in itself a one-hour condensation of the numerous ideas inhabiting the mind of this fertile young man, another essential factor to be monitored in the progression of such a kind of art being the “dramaturgical” aspect of these scores – he’s in fact a regular contributor to theatrical performances, his sister Kinga herself an actress and stage manager.

The three movements are orchestrated for a tentet subdivided in pairings: flutes, clarinets, brass winds, strings and rhythm section (double bass and percussion). “Warszawa Sketch” is an ashen improvisation where the physical features of the instrumental mechanics stay at the forefront of the sonic picture; yet the piece terminates its existence with an awe-inspiring collective glissando, halfway through the declining of a mirage and the dying phase of human illusions. Vizfény (észak)” is a sombrely brooding slow walk across the innermost craters of contrapuntal transience, the Ensemble obeying to a logic of indistinct pre-demise feverishness which results as upsetting as the last tearful embrace between two lovers before a forced severance. “Sivatag” brings back Mezei’s typical superimposition of reflective-if-dissonant linear motions and harmonic enucleations, almost 34 minutes in which the scarcity of definite hierarchies debouches in a now inhospitable, now subdued kind of superior understanding, exalted by the utilization of severe-sounding thematic drafts accentuated by a slight measure of self-collected soloism.

CHRISTOPHER MCFALL – All For The Terror That Sings Sweetly To You In The Night


Just like his recent artistic associate Asher’s, Christopher McFall’s music has been progressively swelling around of late, its prominence constantly increasing with each outing. McFall is proving himself to be one of the best elicitors of psychophysical responses through the use of raw materials typically taken from the urban environments of the place where he lives. In this case, the title refers to the disquieting noises produced by the “black birds that routinely roost within the building architecture in the downtown district of Kansas City at night”. Those sounds are wholly modified by an uncompromising processing and mixed with pre-existent recordings, to give birth to a disconcerting setting of wailing spirits and reverberating clatter, occasionally close to post-industrial territories dimly indicative of entities such as Cranioclast yet still endowed with the mesmerizing metropolitan fragrance representative of this composer’s work. Particularly spellbinding in that sense is “Endurance”, whose initial cyclical bewailing calls to mind the cry of a damned soul for being helped out of hell. A 20-minute, 3-inch CD release which is more than adequate to underline, once again, the abilities of this artist.



Saxophonist and composer Ken Field - one of the most dynamic men in Boston’s music scene - is especially known by yours truly as an affiliate of Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic, a group that I’ve always deeply respected. Nothing could set me up for this release, though, as Revolutionary Snake Ensemble are by all means a New Orleans-style marching band spiced with modern jazz and funk: saxophones, trumpet, trombone, an acoustic bass and a couple of drummers, everybody performing in multi-colour Mardi Gras masks. The repertoire is predominantly based on Field’s rearrangement of time-honoured traditional songs, yet can comprise – as in this case – covers of Billy Idol’s “White wedding”, Ornette Coleman’s “Chippie” and the world-famous “Que Sera Sera” by Livingston & Evans.

RSE are definitely amusing to hear, spreading optimistic vibrations all over the place; they play with serene abandon, altering parts of the tunes with a degree of improvisational shrewdness, falling on their feet when the moment of returning to order comes. In spite of the project’s name this stuff is not exactly radical, yet there was no problem in repeatedly letting my foot do some energetic tapping along those bouncy vamps. The only minus is a version of “Down By The Riverside” sung by a rather hesitant Gabrielle Agachiko, but the rest is more than OK for almost a hour of semi-complex divertissement informed by impressions of an ancient spirit.

FENNESZ - Black Sea


The return of Christian Fennesz after Venice is a fine enough outing whose title and sonic texture seem to allude to the consequences of an oil spill (as plainly shown by Jon Wozencroft’s splendid-as-ever photos on the sleeve); other reviewers have hinted at the geographical side of the issue, writing about the element of demarcation (between Europe and Asia) represented by the actual Black Sea. Independently from the acceptation, those already acquainted with Fennesz’s music are not going to stumble on too many diversities in the overall sonority of the record, as a matter of course constructed via processes of timbral decrepitude wearing away at rather clear-cut harmonic progressions (often really uncomplicated and slightly epic, as heard from here), the whole developed through “acoustic and electric guitars, synths, electronics, lloopp and computers”.

If this kind of compositional methods pays high dividends in the emotional department – indeed there are some highly riveting moments such as “Glide” featuring fellow Touch artist Rosy Parlane, a farfetched segment of soiled static threat alone worth of half the CD – it’s also apparent that the digital oxidizer from Austria seems to have definitively found his own “placid sea” to sail across, neither excessive winds of renewal nor perilous currents to follow in sight. All adeptly envisaged, scarred by a well-known computerized corrosion, even eliciting sentiment in a few instances, yet “cinematically expected” as the newest movie of an esteemed director which doesn’t introduce innovations but remains something to be examined considerately and, eventually, filed. Unless one’s in a particularly starry-eyed mood, that is.

NOAH CRESHEVSKY / IF, BWANA - Favorite Encores


On paper this could appear as an improbable coupling: the meticulously detailed, painstakingly assembled “hyper-realist symphonies” of seamed-and-altered samples of Noah Creshevsky versus the ostensibly low-budget, ceaseless search for the “previously unheard disconcerting differentiation from the canons” of Al Margolis/If, Bwana. Yet in the tangibility of this album - which basically alternates pieces from the two composers without joint efforts - everything works. The four tracks by Creshevsky are pure stimulus for the brain, representations of frames of minds bathed in semi-liberal compositional smartness. Cloned violins get transformed into spills of mocked commonplaces and joyously rapturous apartness, while the combination of a chuckling woman and bionic orchestral cadenzas (such as the exceptional “Shadow Of A Doubt”) is the means to enjoy the best of both worlds, prickly paradoxical irony in a polymorphic gatecrash of academic sterility’s forbidden rooms.

Margolis, on the contrary, appears as the “restrained constituent” of the record - but only on a superficial listen. His radiation is evolutionally cancerous, in that it seems to implant cells of awareness in the psyche of a listener who’s ready to absorb the expected but really can’t handle the different reactions derived from a confrontation with the bitterness of uninviting, if meaningful secretions. In those hands, a piano becomes a small factory emanating fumes of metallic poisons, an improvising voice looks like an element of disturbance rather than a coherent presence - yet that very incidence is exactly what defines the memorisable meaning of that context.

What remains at the end is the broken-frame portrait of two atypical musicians, unclassifiable experimenters whose sonic art refuses that sugar coat of certainty which prevents progress from following its apparently illogical itinerary.

COSMOLOGIC - Eyes In The Back Of My Head


There are groups that, despite playing materials whose roots are firmly planted in the grounds of definite genres, defy an easy tagging due to a multiplicity of motives. San Diego’s Cosmologic, the quartet of Jason Robinson, Nathan Hubbard, Michael Dessen and Scott Walton, are precisely one of those units. Arrived at the fourth album, this mixture positively stands on a jazz pedestal yet the junctures in which they don’t sound like that are countless, the exploitation of a vastly proficient improvisational sagacity shifting the solidity of the interplay more towards a coordinated kind of self-government than run-of-the-mill structures, with allowances to vamp-based vigorous drive (as in the opening “The Rumpus”). Even when theoretically performing without restrictions a sort of inherent format seems to materialize, which represents both the heartening trait of this CD and the factor that prevents the music from conquering the peak altitudes typical of the most stretchy idioms.

On the whole, this is an archetypal specimen of technically complex Cuneiform project: the instrumental rank to which the act belongs is far above the ground, the boundary between the members firm. Robinson is an efficient reedist, his parallel actions with Dessen’s trombone engendering ever-remarkable, often unanticipated contrapuntal juxtapositions halfway through atonalism and chamber music. Percussionist Hubbard and bassist-cum-piano Walton preserve the right equilibrium of instant resourcefulness and sharp moderation, acting as robust branches for dozens of thematic ideas to mature on.

In all likelihood this is a sleeper destined to grow with every listen; a methodologically prominent record, indubitably rewarding for educated ears.

PYLÔNE - Grounded Hands

Sound On Probation

Under this moniker hides French electronic composer Laurent Perrier, of whom we reviewed As Far As last month. Grounded Hands shows the more mechanical facet of this artist’s music, based on reiterative rhythms and pulses more than anything. This kind of mechanism does possess a heart, although camouflaged under an apparent coldness: Perrier devises in fact sonic radiations that definitely furnish the record with an analogical (but not anachronistic) aura, its five tracks linked without interruptions just like in a suite. This “warmth” is indeed much welcome, especially in the sub-bass frequency sector that represents a cocoon-like wrapping under which the listener’s certainties get some comfort despite a few not really expected occurrences.

The general stance is one of “techno-minimalism” scarred by a degree of abstractness, with several enjoyable episodes that might vaguely recall the “easiest” components in the work of sound sculptors active in the area of labels such as For 4 Ears (Günter Müller, Norbert Möslang), with a sort of sugary decoration over the top and, in general, a simpler compositional structure. This didn’t prevent me from listening to the CD three or four consecutive times as, in any case, this is a well-conceived release.


Clean Feed

A lot of improvisations are ruined by someone s’ try to outguess and often outmanoeuvre the companions, in the attempt of sticking a “me, myself and I” label on what should ideally be considered a collective effort. Those are the moments in which a being – especially a so called artist - reveals its negative nature, despite the apparent accomplishment of a sonic consequence. This sense of anti-hygienic virtuosity is nowhere to be found in Belle Ville, a 2-CD set by the all-star quartet of Evan Parker on tenor sax, Sten Sandell on piano, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums recorded live at the namesake venue in Oslo. The music, subdivided in two sections of about 45 minutes each - named “Belle Ville” and “Ville Belle” (d’oh!) - belongs to that neighbourhood of jazz whose products stimulate the proper kind of zip both under conscientious scrutiny and via a hassle-free approach to the listening.

For the occasion, Parker bargains the large part of his everlasting roundabout tumults for a stout semi Braxton-esque jargon, an attitude explicated by beefy spurts and stalagmite-like excrescences, ears perennially open to any proposition turned up by the rest of the team’s brainwaves. Sandell’s pianism is frequently uncharacteristically neat, even contemplative in parts; yet the hazardousness of some of his solutions is probably among the most distinctive traits of the album, a lesson in free-climbing on the spiky rocks of erratic rigorousness. Håker Flaten and Nilssen-Love determine the ebb and flow of the session, at times leading the dynamics towards a quasi-static kind of suggestion, otherwise driving the essence of the interaction through the unsafe waters of swinging freedom without losing the hub of rhythmic repercussion, as always the hardest assignment for a role as important as theirs is.