Archive for the ‘Avant-Garde’ Category
Friday, August 24th, 2007
Well, my favorite current jazz musician, Tim Berne, has been pretty quiet this year, touring a bit and participating in David Torn’s Prezens project, but not releasing any new material (just a reissue of the great Science Friction stuff). Next year it looks like he’s going to be busy, going on four separate tours in the first four months of the year — including a reunion of Bloodcount!! It’s been a decade since that band has played together, and the best news for me is that since Michael Formanek is part of the group, they’ll be playing in Baltimore! I’m already getting excited for this show and it’s, oh, almost six months away.
Friday, June 8th, 2007
You can never have too much Nordic free jazz in your life, so last night I went with a few friends to see Zanussi Five at Twins Jazz: a five-piece consisting of three saxophones, bass and drums. The biggest name of the bunch is probably Kjetil Møster, who played mostly tenor, and whom I am familiar with through his involvement with groups like Crimetime Orchestra. The only one of the five I’d seen before live was altoist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, who played with POING when that ensemble played a show with Maja Ratkje last December.
I couldn’t find much online about this group, but what I did see compared them to The Vandermark 5 and Atomic, which led me to believe that they would play an energetic, relatively accessible form of avant-jazz. The first set they played last night, though, was anything but. What they played was more comparable to a much freer, unstructured brand of jazz that was as much about exploring pure sound and texture than it was about conventional rhythm and melody. Though there were plentiful hints of said rhythms and melodies, they were often just hints, and the result was something way closer to, say, The Electrics than to any Ken Vandermark group. Having invited a couple folks who are not really into the freer stuff so much as I was, I was a little too busy feeling misled about what this group was all about to enjoy their music. Too bad, because with the right expectiations I think I would have had a good time with that first set.
Regardless, though, their second set was much more along the lines of what I originally expected: avant-jazz chock-full of accessible melodies and rhythms, always on the verge of flying off the handle but never quite going there. This set was absolutely great, and I was bummed that two of my friends that I’d come with left after the first set — they would really have enjoyed the second. The band closed their set with a Fela Kuti cover; somehow it never occurred to me that a free-jazz combo boasting three saxes would be a natural fit to cover brass-heavy Afrobeat, but of course it worked and it was awesome. They also did an encore that was some kind of klezmer-polka-something with the rhythm section going nuts on an Eastern European folk dance rhythm… also awesome.
So all in all, Zanussi Five were a fun show, and one that really illustrates the power of expectations and how those expectations can shape experience.
Saturday, May 12th, 2007
Missed the Ahleuchatistas/Eyesores show. Had awful allergies and headache all day and something made me think that Ahleuchatistas would probably not make my head feel any better. Damn.
Amidst the news of labels like Tzadik leaving eMusic, here’s some great news: ReR USA has put up all the This Heat albums on the service. Considering I never dropped the cash to get the box set that came out a while back, I might go this route and download some of their stuff — although I admit that I really fetishize the ReR box set packaging. (The Art Bears box set is one of the most beautiful things I own.)
Wednesday, May 9th, 2007
Doh. There have been recent rumors about various indie labels being dissatisfied with eMusic — specifically its royalty system, which according to a post today at Digital Audio Insider pays less than 28 cents per song to be split between the label and artist (and that’s much higher than I would have guessed, frankly) — and today I noticed that all the Tzadik albums are gone from the service. Bummer.
eMusic is all over the place these days — in addition to the Ars Technica and Digital Audio Insider posts, I somehow just descovered eMusic’s own staff blog, 17 dots, which highlights new music and also features a very long philosophical post from eMusic’s CEO on the state of digital music distribution and the eMusic model. Also, the music/technology/business blog HypeBot started today a four-part series on eMusic, including coverage of recent label dissatisfaction; and an old thread at I Love Music has been revived with renewed discussion over eMusic’s business model.
Whether or not said model proves to be efficacious (and, much as I love the service, their scant payouts seem to make statistics like “eMusic receives on average more than $13 per subscriber every month. Compare this with the $7 per year that iTunes receives” less than relevant), it is undoubtedly at the center of the current debate regarding the future of music distribution, especially as regards indie music, and so I’ll be following it closely.
Friday, April 20th, 2007
Last night I made my first trip up to Sangha (don’t bother with their website, it’s pretty dysfunctional) in Takoma Park, Maryland, to see The Thing. It’s kind of amazing that somehow I’ve never been to Sangha before, as they regularly host Transparent Productions and other off-the-beaten-path shows there. The Thing offered up a good first show! Consisting of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, this is an avant/free-jazz trio with a penchant for covering pop/rock songs — in the set they played, they “covered” pieces by Lightning Bolt and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; their recorded output includes covers of PJ Harvey and The Strokes songs.
In this particular show, the covers were fairly opaque to me — it seemed like they were pretty much just improvising the whole time, playing loose and free until all of a sudden they were playing some ridiculous unison lines or coming to a full stop altogether, seemingly without any visual or auditory cues that I could discern. It was pretty amazing. I saw Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten with Atomic a few months ago, and they were equally jaw-dropping this time around; Nilssen-Love was on fire the whole time, hands all over the kit (he did play some more straightforward lines once or twice, and that was fun to see), while Håker Flaten’s thinking on his feet was really fun to watch, and he was absolutely fierce, punishing his instrument as much as he played it. I’ve been scared off by Gustafsson on record a couple times, but he was reasonably accessible here, and is one of the most physical players I’ve ever seen — at times dancing with his instrument, at other times fighting it, at all times moving his entire body with the flow of his music.
But it was collectively that these three guys were most impressive; I mentioned in my comments on Atomic’s show that it was fun watching their visual cues, but as I already said, I couldn’t discern any cues whatsoever with these guys. This kind of telepathy is neat when it’s with a group playing carefully composed pieces (say, Ahleuchatistas), but it’s even more impressive when it comes in the context of wild collective improvisation. The ease with which this trio went from dissonant improv with free-flowing rhythms to garage-rock anthems with pounding 4/4 drums, and then back again, was pretty great.
While I still prefer the more structured work of avant-jazz groups like Atomic, The Vandermark 5, or various Tim Berne groups, these last two shows I’ve seen (this one and Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller last week) have definitely been helping to build my ever-growing interest in the freer stuff.
Sunday, April 15th, 2007
As noted in the previous post, on Friday night I trekked up to Baltimore to the Red Room, which is a really neat concert space that’s basically a side room of a great little used bookstore. The room had probably 35-40 chairs and that was it — a very intimate setting for the very experimental music they tend to book.
Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller did not disappoint. The lineup was Brötzmann on sax, Marino Pliakas on electric bass, and Michael Wertmüller on drums. Brötzmann’s music is heavy and intense enough when he’s playing in an acoustic band — add in an electric instrument and all bets are off. I kind of knew what to expect here, both from the Outer Space Gamelan review I linked to below and because I got, from Dimeadozen of course, a recording of their show in New York a few days back. If you didn’t read the fantastic OSG review, here is an excerpt that describes well what I was in for:
Right from the git-go the chips are on the table with Brotzmann immediately laying down sloping mountains of the post-Ayler blowisms you’d never mistake for anything else, while Wertmuller adds the kind of frantic/restrained combo drumming one might expect to hear in a band like Ruins. Pliakas is the blue blood coursing through the veins of the unit, steering the band in every direction from speed-reading through and on to molasses lullabyes (but usually only for a brief instant)… I find this whole disc to have a very “metal”-like atmosphere throughout…then again Brotzmann’s always been more metal than half the jokers in the genre anyway.
So, uh, this was intense stuff. Brötzmann was at his most brutal, blowing hard almost throughout the concert’s duration; Pliakas was playing an unusual bass guitar with no head, and he had an unusual playing style to match, sometimes with his hands flashing all over the place, other times playing repetitive ostinatos, constantly playing punishing rhythms that went hand in hand with Wertmüller’s drumming. Wertmüller was a revelation for me — this guy was amazing, playing so hard and so fast I often couldn’t tell what he was doing at all, even though I was sitting in the front row like five feet from his kit. It was his drumming that made the trio sound like a free-jazz take on grindcore and extreme metal: lots of double bass drumming, fills and rolls everywhere, only the occasional attempt to actually hammer out a mid-tempo, comprehensible beat.
The result was a wall of sound that was immediately overwhelming but, over time, became totally exhilirating. They only played four or five pieces over the course of two sets — it was the kind of thing where fifteen minutes into a piece, I would think, “holy crap, they’ve been playing this hard for how long now?” and then they would keep doing it for another ten minutes. The endurance of these guys, especially Brötzmann (who is 66 years old!) was astonishing.
This was “free jazz” that would appeal more to noise-rock and extreme metal fans than your average jazz fan. Sadly, the band lost some of their gear and most of their merchandise on the plane to the U.S., so I was not able to pick up their album, Full Blast (an apt title if there ever was one). I’ll be hunting for it now, because this was a pretty mind-expanding show, even if at times it was incomprehensibly overwhelming.
UPDATE: Here’s another review of this same show.
Monday, April 2nd, 2007
Over the weekend I saw two big-band concerts: the 10-piece free-improv Instant Composers Pool Orchestra at the Library of Congress, and the 8-piece post-rock collective Do Make Say Think at the Black Cat. These were both excellent shows, albeit very different, of course. I think the latter was good enough that it’s destined to make my top 10 list by the end of the year, easily.
But first things first — ICP Orchestra played this gig of their 40th anniversary tour to a respectably large audience at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. I had never seen any of these guys before, but was familiar with Misha Mengelberg, Ab Baars and of course the ubiquitous Han Bennink. They surprised me by playing very accessible music clearly grounded in the jazz idiom — probably a function of the audience and venue. No need to scare everyone away at a free show, I guess. In any case, Bennink was completely nuts. I had no idea he acted out so much, but the dude was ridiculous. At almost 65 years old, it seemed like he had about three times more energy than the rest of the band combined, and in fact he kind of overpowered them at times with his playing (and his vocalizing would have made Keith Jarrett blush). He sat behind a single snare drum and eked all kinds of noises from it, but didn’t satisfy himself there — on several occasions he leapt out of his seat and played pretty much anything on the stage that struck his fancy, including chairs, music stands, the floor, his foot, and so on and so forth. Entertaining, to say the least.
Oh right, the rest of the band. The other nine were just as fun to watch, if for a totally different reason: it was neat to see their interplay, the little nods and hand signals present at any improv show, the way they would split into little mini-ensembles that would seemingly play in opposition to each other before coming together just as spontaneously. Again, for the most part the improvising stayed in relatively structured and melodic territory (and the harmonies that this large ensemble stumbled upon were often beautiful), but it was a pretty rewarding show nonetheless.
One last note about this show: by total random chance I sat next to the saxophonist from DC Improvisers Collective, whom I’d never spoken to but recognized from the one show of theirs that I attended a month or so ago. We had a very brief interaction in which he mentioned that DCIC might be playing as backup for Joe Lally, ex-bassist for Fugazi, something that sounds very interesting indeed!
Moving on, Sunday’s show at the Black Cat got off to a less-than-promising start, as the openers, death-country group Elliott Brood, cancelled with no explanation. But when Do Make Say Think got on stage, all was forgiven. My brief recap at the ProgAndOther list:
I think DMST are the most interesting current post-rock band, and the only one who doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same formula over and over again (don’t get me wrong, I tend to like that formula, but you know…). I too was struck by the diversity of instrumentation, and their compositions really take advantage of that diversity.
The sound at the DC show was definitely at earplugs-needed levels (I put mine in after the first song), but their soundman was fabulous and even at the high volume levels, little things really came through in the mix - especially the violinist. It seemed like a lot of the band’s modus operandi was to develop a repetitive, trancey beat with subtle ornamentation from the guitars, and then a beautiful melody would surface out of the murk, on violin or horns or gently picked guitar. Really gorgeous stuff.
The diversity of instrumentation I reference comes from the fact that many members of the eight-piece band played two or three different instruments over the course of the show. The “standard” lineup seemed to be two guitars, bass, violin, trumpet, sax, and two drummers (although admittedly the horns were used more for color and ornamentation than for melody or lead lines), but when called for, there’d be a third guitar, or there’d be some keyboard or marimba in the mix, or the guitarists would pick up horns to make a muscular four-piece brass front line. Every one of these guys, but especially the three who rotated on guitars and bass, are impressively accomplished musicians, with some of the more intricate guitar picking a consistent highlight throughout the show. However, it was the violinist who held it all together for me. While the rest of the band was jamming along to trancelike rhythms or blissing out to ear-splitting climaxes (one audience member’s good-natured heckle: “do you guys have any songs with, like, big crescendoes?”), she was more often than not playing gorgeous melodies that, thanks to the skills of the soundman, were clearly audible even above the din.
Highlights of the show for me were all the quieter pieces like “A Tender History in Rust” — no post-rock group does quiet and pretty better than these guys — and the polar opposite, the extroverted and energetic “Horns of a Rabbit,” which absolutely slayed. But the whole set was fabulous, and it ended with a good sign: the guitarist said, “See you in the fall,” seeming to indicate that DMST will in fact be touring again soon. This is one band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again, as their material is much more memorable live than on record (and I like their records).
Let me tell ya, Christina Aguilera (who yes, I am going to see tonight) has a lot to live up to. :-)
Thursday, March 22nd, 2007
Over at the Screwgun Records website, Tim Berne has been talking about a collaborative release with David Torn for a while now, but this is a surprise: the resulting album, Prezens, will be released on April 17 under Torn’s name and on ECM, despite the fact that Berne’s entire Hard Cell ensemble plays on the record (Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey)! I was definitely expecting it to be a Berne album on Screwgun — I wonder if this is going to be closer to Cloud About Mercury than, say, Feign.
There’s a very extensive press release/preview writeup at the group’s Myspace page. Sounds like there may also be a separate live album released by this lineup, which might sound considerably different. Well, I’m interested in both, given that anytime Berne, Taborn and Rainey are on the same record, I pretty much consider it required listening. I’ve already got the studio album on preorder at Amazon.
Thursday, March 15th, 2007
I’ve already exceeded my budget for CDs this month, but man, this looks delicious: the next best thing to a brand new Henry Cow live recording:
Fred Frith/Tim Hodgkinson/Chris Cutler
The Lost Weekend: Live NYC December 2006 [3 CDs + DVD]
Three members of Henry Cow re-united for the first time in nearly 30 years! Four amazing tour-de-force sets [early and late shows from both Sat 12/16 and Sun 12/17] from 3 master improvisors who resumed an intense dialogue as they though they had only left off the day before! The DVD is of the early show Sunday!
To be clear, that’s two sets of the three of them together, one Hodgkinson/Frith duo set (that’s the one documented on the DVD apparently; I wish the DVD was of the trio, but I can’t really complain!), and one Hodgkinson/Cutler duo set. The Frith/Cutler duo set that was performed the Friday before these shows is being documented on a separate release, The Stone: Issue 2, a benefit CD for the venue. This release is described as follows by Bruce at Downtown Music Gallery, where these sets are being sold for $40 and $21, respectively (though the 3CD/DVD set is not yet on sale):
This was the first of three nights of the much anticipated reunion of three former members of Henry Cow. The first set that night was a trio featuring Fred Frith & Chris Cutler with special guest Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper. It seemed too restrained in part and was a bit disappointing for some in attendance. The second set was just the Frith and Cutler duo and it was phenomenal! Although Fred & Chris’ musical relationship goes back the beginning of Henry Cow in the late sixties/early seventies, they have been doing duo gigs periodically since 1979. They have three previous live duo discs out, the last one is from 1999. The duo seemed primed for this particular set and it was an indeed an incredible occasion. Although Fred played an electric guitar with a variety of pedals and a small table of objects and Chris played a drum kit with even more assorted percussive objects, electronics and a small mixing board, when one is listening and even watching the duo play, it was and is difficult to tell who was doing what. The disc itself captures their entire nearly 51-minute set and immensely fascinating throughout and even throttling at times. It begins with a splash that sounds like magic and lets you know that something wonderful is about to take place. It sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that has you at the edge of your seat. Each sound, each gesture is filled a most compelling vibration. There is a great deal of discussion about “noise” nowadays… what we have here is some of the most well-sculptured and musical noise that I’ve heard in a long while. I am truly proud of the way the entire month of performances turned out and especially elated that way this disc has captured the magic of this set. Now it is your turn to dig in and enjoy the great journey within. Thanks to our friends Robert O’Haire for the recording, Scott Friedlander for the cover photo and to Fred & Chris for the music.
It’s going to be difficult to restrain myself from buying both of these things ASAP.
Tuesday, February 27th, 2007
New York’s Zs played last night in a little hole in the wall near what DC comically calls a Chinatown. I know of these folks from their debut album on Troubleman Unlimited (home of such pretty, happy music as The Flying Luttenbachers) and their 2005 EP on DC’s Planaria Recordings, Karate Bump. They are an aggressively ugly, wilfully repetitive, brain-achingly mathy chamber ensemble of sorts, in this instance boasting a lineup of guitar/sax/drums and one guy who alternated between guitar, bass and keyboards. I was at this show with Steve F. and another friend and wondered out loud about their setup, in which they were arranged in a square with the musicians facing inwards, such that the audience could not see all of them at a time. It soon became evident that this setup was efficacious because it allowed all four of the musicians to see each other at all times.
To make a long story short, Zs were crazy fun to watch because they were superhumanly tight. They were playing some seriously knotty compositions, rhythms shifting so fast they were practically impossible to keep up with, but somehow the band never missed a beat (literally). The drummer was the one I had the best view of, and for me he was especially fun to watch because you could tell that he was concentrating with all his might. And despite playing sick, intricate compositions, they managed to rock out in the process as well. The first song was absolutely brilliant, and Steve turned to me and said, “that must have been what it was like to see the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1970.” There was a song with vocals that I didn’t find quite so compelling — though the vocals themselves were, of course, a unison chant in some incomprehensible shifting meter — but then the last song was tremendous, sounding kind of like “Bump” off of Karate Bump, substituting the drums with hand claps and the whispering saxes with subtle guitar picking.
I should mention that Zs‘ music is eminently hatable. That is, they make almost no concessions to melody and absolutely none to consonance. If the classic minimalist composers raise your hackles a bit, these guys will make you want to kill someone. That said, while I dig their albums, I pretty much just adored them in a live setting. Getting to see them play these absurd compositions in the flesh was a real treat.
I bought their recent live release at the show and will be reviewing it shortly, so for more words about this fucking ridiculous band, stay tuned.
I should also mention one of the openers, FFFFs. This is a solo guitar/electronics project of Sean Peoples, who is a member of bands decently known in the DC underground like Hand Fed Babies and Big Cats. I saw Big Cats last year and basically they were three guitarists making a shitload of noise, so I was pleasantly surprised when, as FFFFs, Peoples instead played some pretty nice, soothing ambient stuff. Ambient music in a live setting has never really been my thing, but this was good stuff. It was a good night all around.