Thursday, December 22, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Pianos, Theatrics and Two-by-fours

Leah Kardos: Feather Hammer. 2011.

Leah Kardos: piano, electronics

Leah Kardos cites a diverse range of influences that go into Feather Hammer; Bjork, the prepared piano music of John Cage, Amon Tobin, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Graham Firkin and Brian Eno just to name a few. The qualities of those forebears are crystal clear in the music. And yet there's a complete lack of emulation of any of these musicians standing in the way of the deeply personal sound and identity wrapped up within Feather Hammer. This is a studio recording that carefully crafts a piano-centric world with multiple layers of sonic manipulation. And yet for all its post processing and carefully crafted grooves and textures there emerges this amazingly heavy lightness to the whole recording. The craft and the ideas in this music run deep without overwhelming the sound. It's a startling quality and it's one that invites multiple listening to an expression that explores new directions in studio composition. Leah Kardos is a talent to keep an open ear for.

Various Artists: High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music: 10th Anniversary DVD + CD. 2008. Recorded: 024.

Greg Kelly, Evan Rapport, Jerry Lim, Tom Boram, Neil Feather, Michael Johnsen, Katt Hernandez, Ben Manley, Daniel Carter, Nate Wooley, Michael barker, Edgar Um Bucholtz, Chiara Giovando, Dan Breen, John Eaton, Bhob Rainey, Charles Cohen, Sean Meehan, Will Redman, Scott Moore, Todd Whitman, Michael Johnsen.

A celebration of ten years of the High Zero Festival in Baltimore released just ahead of the 2008 incarnation of that unique celebration. That year happened to be my last High Zero as I moved out of Baltimore in early 2009. But in my time there I did soak in the vibrant and active experimental improvised music scene and can easily see the beloved Baltimore-isms that this DVD and CD explore. Though I am struck by just how theatrical and dramatic the music from this scene actually is. I hadn't focused on that aspect of it while living there, but the interviews on the DVD and the musical sets drive home the role of theater in this music. Like much of the music, the theatrics is like an antidote to nearly all other entertainment. It is music and theater that revels in its own discomfort factor, rather than being a commodity that is calculated to appeal to a target audience in the way so much media is produced and marketed. The High Jinx street performances are often geared specifically toward knocking the unsuspecting public out of their comfort zone. And the nights and days of concerts that are part of the yearly High Zero experience are often challenging both sonically and socially. And yet every one of those live shows are sold out. There is an audience hungry to be challenged and appreciative of art that doesn't pander. There is, for lack of a better word, a "market" for this music that thankfully evades marketing. The documentation presented in audio and video form here actually falls short of the delirious energy that pulsates through the communal experience of a High Zero Festival. But it does give an honest account of so much of the good that this "fringe" community in Baltimore has supported in this overwhelmingly positive way.

Michael Gordon: Timber. 2011. Cantaloupe: CA21072.

Slagwerk Den Haag:
Fedor Teunisse, Marcel Andriessen, Niels Meliefste, Pepe Garcia, Juan Martinez, Frank Wienk: percussion

I picked up this disc at a live performance of this piece. Harboring some doubt about the recording doing full justice to the visual presence of six percussionists wailing away on two-by-fours with contact mics attached. It turns out that a great piece of music is still a great piece of music even without the idiosyncratic presence of these performers. It doesn't hurt that this one is so well recorded. The near-minimalist formula of carving out a singular timbral space as the sonic universe for an hour long work brings its own unifying qualities. As a study of wood as media, Michael Gordon focuses on rhythm, pulse and dynamics. The qualities that make his compositions so compelling - rooted in the Bang on a Can embrace of totalism and minimalism - are completely audible. In many ways, those qualities are more transparent with the stripping down of timbral materials to such an elemental, percussive sound. It's the amplification from those contact microphones that allows this material to soar. The limited range feels anything but limited given the wide berth of variations that emerge from the microscopic details of vibrating boards. It turns out that the recording packs as much (if not more) thrill as the live experience.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Oldies Station

Shonen Knife: Happy Hour. 1998. Big Deal: BD 9055.

Naoko Yamano: lead vocals, guitar
Atsuko Yamano: drums, bass, vocals
Michie Takatani: bass, vocals, keyboards

A quick blast from the period when Shonen Knife's shtick was starting to wear a little thin. Even as Happy Hour does deliver on much of the light subject materials of food, cloned sheep, parties and dreaming it does fall short from the chaotic, crazy promise of the opening track "Shonen Knife Planet." A place where one must wake up in time not to miss happy hour. After the initial production (and deliberately "bad" sounds) of that initial wake up the rest of the disc settles into the familiar, punk inflected language of Shonen Knife. Not necessarily a bad thing, just a let down after being jolted into the early promise of a concept album. Their cover of the Monkee's "Daydream Believer" does bring a smile even if it isn't exactly a sterling rendition. Happy Hour does manage to cleanse the aural pallet of heavy listening that goes into the rotation.

Jan Kotik: drums, percussion
Thom Kotik: prepared bass
Elliott Sharp: guitar, bass clarinet, processing

This offering has aged surprisingly well. Much of it built on the early timbral soundscapes that inspired me back in the day. Now it strikes my ears as a chance to hear Elliott Sharp's electric guitar playing over a seriously rocking rhythm section that is locked into Sharp's musical direction. The titles for these pieces have aged less gracefully than the music they're associated with. "Optimize My Hard Disk, Baby," "Command Z" and "Heapfix" strike an ironic, geek humor pose that simply isn't reflected in the music that remains undeservedly neglected.

Dave Douglas: trumpet, keyboards, voice
Jamie Saft: keyboards, loops, programming
Marc Ribot: electric guitar
Karsh Kale: tabla, additional drums
Joey Baron: drums
Romero Lubambo: acoustic guitar
Brad Jones: ampeg baby bass, acoustic bass
Ikue Mori: electronic percussion
Seamus Blake: saxophone
Chris Speed: saxophone, clarinet
Craig Taborn: fender rhodes

This is an enormously important recording in the Dave Douglas catalog. It's his equivalent to Miles Davis' On The Corner and one day it will be revered as such. The electronic layering, the funky grooves, the explosive turns and the high production values bring an immediacy to this recording that nearly blinds one to the fact that the musical basics of melody and humanity are still at the foundation of this beautiful cacophony. "November" is as beautiful and soul filled as any melodic composition. It would slice to the heart if it were played by Dave Douglas playing over a simple jazz rhythm section or the electronic percussion of Ikue Mori as it is here. Freak In is a reliable thrill ride from start to end that continues to reward the listener with its depth and polish every time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Letting Go

Interplay: Apology to the Atonists/Tritone Suite. 1990, 2006. Porter Records: 4009.

Elliott Levin: poetry, flutes, saxophones
Rick Iannacone: guitars, electronics
Keno Speller: flute, vocals, percussion
Ron Howerton: cuica, percussion
Ed Watkins: percussion

The extended, improvisation driven Tritone Suite is the focus of this collection. Taking up all but the opening five minute Apology to the Atonists. The two performances separated by sixteen years retain a remarkable continuity. With Levin's poetry drifting well out of the foreground it occupied in the shorter work and allowing for the free form materials to evolve along more abstract lines. The longer movements of the Tritone Suite develop along remarkable lines and are the most interesting of the set. While the percussion heavy sound does meander a little bit, the performance as a whole holds together even as it drifts into some decidedly psychedelic territory. This disc did not leave a particularly deep impression on its first time through the rotation. But on this return listen I'm finding plenty to like about this music.

Tom Rainey: drums, percussion
Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone
guest Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone

There's a lot going on with this incredibly solid free jazz outing from Mark Helias' Open Loose. First off, it's a saxophone trio with the bassist leading the group. Giving this music a slightly different focus even as Tony Malaby's chops and improvisations are focal points at many times along this recording. But the pulse and compositional force of this trio is clearly with the bassist. There is also the often remarked upon (in this blog) "Tom Rainey effect." The two laws of the "Tom Rainey effect" are 1) there are no bad recordings with Tom Rainey, and 2) Tom Rainey makes every group exceed expectations (which are already high, it is Tom Rainey in the group after all). The Tom Rainey effect is in full force on this set. The fact that the guest tenor saxophone for one of these tracks is Ellery Eskelin (one of the best, in my opinion) indicates what kind of talent pool Mark Helias is swimming in. All of this quality shows up on Atomic Clock. But the real gem of this listening experience is the original compositions that Helias brings to the set. Many of these pieces practically beg to be interpreted many different ways. Leaving me wondering of any attentive ears have caught on to a track like "Chavez" or "Momentum Interrupted" and felt the tug to realize their own performance of this music. I'm contemplating working up a piano interpretation of "Chavez" myself.

Stephen Drury: piano, toy piano, prepared piano, electronics, organ

In a Landscape (1948)
Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947)
Souvenir (1983)
A Valentine Out of Season (1944)
Suite for Toy Piano (1948)
Bacchanale (1938)
Prelude for Meditation (1944)
Dream (1948)

At some point the music of In a Landscape entered into my bloodstream. It became a deeply familiar piano work from an earlier Cage obsession. Stephen Drury gives this tranquil work an exquisite interpretation. One that reaches the through the veins and arteries to find the pulsating heart of the music. A similar quality found in all of the performances on this disc. Some of them are familiar works. Some of them are revelations. I was less familiar with Souvenir - a solo organ piece of haunting, introspective beauty that traces a continuous line between the serene pieces of John Cage in the 1930s and 1940s and into the 1980s. Also remarkable is how the temporal distance between the Bacchanale and Prelude for Meditation is surprisingly small. That the alluded act of wild abandon and meditative contemplation both reference the same qualities of letting one's self go. All told, this is a fantastic set of keyboard works given just the right balance of discipline, dedication and love that allows this music to resonate.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: The Ear That Was Sold To A Fish

Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris: Testament: A Conduction Collection [disc 2]: Conduction 15 - Where Music Goes II. 1995. New World Records: 80480-2.

Arthur Blythe: alto saxophone
Thurman Barker: vibraphone, percussion
Marion Brandis: flute, alto flute, piccolo
Vincent Chancey: french horn
J.A. Deane: trombone, electronics, live sampling
Janet Grice: bassoon
Bill Horvitz: electric guitar
Jason Hwang: violin
Taylor McLean: percussion, glockenspiel
Brandon Ross: acoustic guitar, octave guitar
Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris: conductor

Part of the attraction of hearing these Conduction pieces - especially this early set from a period when the process of conduction was being discovered and explored - is the collection of improvised musicians that participated in this performance. While it is possible to pick out the characteristic timbres and phrases of a Brandon Ross on guitar or Zeena Parkins' harp sound and the electronic sampling antics of J.A. Deane, it remains startling just how sublimated the individual parts are. It's as if Butch Morris composed a work using the improvised materials provided by these players and molded into something that is clearly a Morris creation. Somewhere along the way a new kind of sound is realized through the fusion of these individual parts. Arthur Blythe's solo in part III of Conduction #15 is one of the rare points along the way where the full personality of the individual emerges from the texture. And yet even that idiosyncratic identity is flawlessly layered into the larger sonic picture. The excitement and dedication given to these Conductions is well founded. These documented performances are a gift to behold.

Thelonius Monk: piano
Art Blakey: drums

The ears travel barely two notes into "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" before registering the fact that the Thelonious Monk obsession is entirely justified. His attack on each note along the piano is identifiably his own. There are those who can emulate, but few pack the full force of the genuine article. This first disc focuses on Monk's interpretations of standards. Leaving the true devastation of hearing his takes on his own compositions for later in the set. The solo take on "Solitude" alone is worth the price of this entire box set. "Honeysuckle Rose" lays bare the Fats Waller and ragtime influences that play a large role in Monk's playing. This particular interpretation of "Caravan" is nearly definitive. And while "Darn That Dream" is a ballad that is tough to love under the best of circumstances, this trio does indeed present one of those "best of circumstances" to hear the languid, melodic contours of a show tune that has long ago receded into the distance. This was a piano trio that was both at the bleeding edge while still drawing inspiration from deep roots extending back to the birth of jazz. This is music with more than enough substance to sustain further study and obsession with this master.

Darren Johnston: trumpet
Aram Shelton: alto saxophone, b-flat clarinet, bass clarinet
Lisa Mezzacappa: acoustic bass
Kjell Nordeson: drums, percussion

There just aren't enough recordings of Kjell Nordeson's percussive flights from behind a drum kit. The timbral and rhythmic inventiveness of this improviser is the sound that propels this incredible quartet for my ears. The range of muted and resonant percussion sounds combined with the rapid fire pulse changes and near-harmolodic sense of space elevates this session to a new level. It doesn't hurt that the rest of the ensemble is filled out with members who are equally compelling in their own right. And each individual contributes original compositions and material to a focused set built upon the deep improvisational talents of this quartet. Darren Johnston's cadenza in "Sink Town" is incredible and makes for a strong argument for paying attention to this emerging player. Clean Feed is establishing itself as the Blue Note of this current era and Cylinder is well above average, even for a label that is consistently excellent or better. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

HurdAudio Rotation: Balancing Introversion with Extroverted Expression

Marilyn Crispell: Vignettes. 2008. ECM: 2027.

Marilyn Crispell: piano

A solo recording by one of the best improvising pianists on the planet realized with all the attention to production and recording detail that one expects from the ECM label. It's no surprise that this is a great record. Drawing upon Marilyn Crispell's current "lyrical period," though she insists that the lyricism was always present in her music since the beginning of her career. Which is true. But at some point she hit upon a sense of restraint and an ability to tap into something finely balanced between simplicity and technical virtuosity that is astonishing. This radiant sound is on full display on Vignettes. Realized here as seventeen short pieces that also show off her sense of ending. Pieces that end with a satisfying tranquility. Each sent into this world with a fully realized sense of form above and beyond the considerable aural creativity of this incredible talent.

Jen Baker: trombone, voice

With a tone composed of voice and trombone unified by a singular breath, Jen Baker explores a timbral interplay that transforms her instrument into an organic entity rich in musical and organic possibilities. Baker traverses a range that growls with humanity before taking more lyrical turns. At times hinting toward Tuvan throat singing, at other times developing its own internal counterpoint. Jen Baker sustains this recording with her improvisational ability and sense of rhythmic balance. Not to mention her impressive musical chops. This is an expressive and honest solo recording that exposes a refined and truly engaging and imaginative extended technique.

Phil Dwyer: composition, conductor, piano, tenor saxophone
Mark Fewer: strings conductor, violin soloist
Mark Ferris, Robin Braun, Jason Ho, Jennie Press, Toni Stanick, Yi Zhou, Karen Gerbrecht, Anne Cramer, Cam Wilson, Ashley Plaut, Angela Goddard, Rick Dorfer: violins
Neil Miskey, Isabelle Rolans, Henry Lee, Reg Quiring: violas
Joseph Elworthy, Zoltan Rosnyai, Olivia Blander, Charles Inkman: cellos
Dylan Palmer: double bass
Walter White, Derry Byrne, Henry Christian, John Korsrud, Ingrid Jensen: trumpets
Ian McDougall, Al Kay, Jeremy Berkman, Sharman King: trombones
Chris Gestrin: piano
John Wikan: drums, percussion

Naming the four movements of this suite after the four seasons of the year may suggest a nod toward Vivaldi. But the richly modal orchestral jazz writing draws much of its inspiration from Gil Evans. The performances and arrangements of this wildly varied work by Phil Dwyer is nearly flawless. His seemingly easy access to the substance and humanity of a century of jazz influences is translated here into a work of relentless beauty (that also manages to swing). Changing Seasons is notably devoid of any gimmicks. Each parameter of this music is carefully constructed. Each solo reinforcing the overall sweep of this music. It won't grab a passive listener and overwhelm them with the layers of materials and ideas that went into this music. At the same time it rewards the active listener with its seemingly endless transitions as they unfold with unreserved beauty. The "change" of the Changing Seasons is the key to this ambitious piece.