October Recordings 2000

October New Releases reviewed by Dan Warburton:
On Mode: David Felder
On Leo: Achim Kaufmann Quartet
Anthony Braxton Piano Quartet
Ganelin Trio: Poco-A-Poco
Duval / McPhee / Heward: Undersound
Eric Roth : Program 16
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David Felder
David Felder
a pressure triggering dreams

David Felder is Professor of Composition at SUNY Buffalo, where he has run the June in Buffalo Festival since 1985. The bio included with this disc mentions a Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1983, though no teachers are named (maybe someone should check dates to see if he crossed paths with incoming Brian Ferneyhough). The three works here are, as they used to say, inspired by Neruda and Nietzsche, though no texts of theirs are set; two are scored for symphony orchestra (plus added electronics in the title track), and one for smaller forces. Felder begins his own liner notes with a long and curious rant against composers writing their own liner notes, though his "circumstantial evidence" isn't all that far-removed from the "aesthetic position-paper" he criticizes others for – perhaps he should have asked someone else to do the notes for him (or better yet, provide none at all).
"Coleccion Nocturna" is a tricky piece for clarinet, piano and tape, well-rooted in the lingua franca of post-War new music as filtered through American academe (parts of it sound rather like Donald Martino). Though it at times outstays its welcome at eighteen minutes, it's not without its moments. At least it's intimate in its soundworld, unlike the two orchestral pieces which frame it on this disc. A word springs to mind listening to these: earnest. They're both very heroic, with loads of booming timpani, clattering xylophones and great striding brass themes, but proof yet again that almost every living North American composer who writes for orchestra is pathetically unable to escape the influence of Stravinsky and Varèse; throw in Ruggles and Shapey and you've got a standard recipe for the majority of new American orchestral compositions written in the last thirty years – whether it be the glitzy Disney of Torke, the Superman bombast of Daugherty or the pretty octatonic New Age reverie of Schwanter, fin de siècle American orchestral music owes megabucks to "Amériques" and the "Symphony in Three Movements". Of course, severe budgetary restrictions on rehearsal time coupled with the legendary who-gives-a-damn-for-new-music mentality of orchestral musicians and the conservative (too say the least) attitude of promoters and audiences rule out the kind of orchestral innovation that flourished briefly in Europe in the 50s and 60s (and which led to a few genuinely innovative orchestral masterpieces of the post-War period, by the likes of Ligeti, Stockhausen, Xenakis and Zimmermann). Related to this, the increasing complexity of contemporary compositional techniques coupled with composers' frustration with the above situation has led most of them to write more for smaller, more dedicated (more professional?) ensembles. Felder's orchestral writing is, then, impressive while being for the most part unsurprising (though there is a splendid passage of eerie glissandi in "a pressure triggering dreams" that deserved to be developed further). The extra electronics (processed flute sounds and sampler) add occasional touches of color, but once those 'bones and timps come crashing in, we might as well be back in "Arcana".

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Achim Kaufmann Quartet

Achim Kaufmann Quartet

Achim Kaufmann was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1962, into a musical family. Well versed in Bartok, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and pre-Baroque keyboard music, during his piano studies at the Cologne Conservatory he worked with (among others) Dave Holland, Steve Coleman, George Lewis and Muhal Richard Abrams at the Banff Summer Jazz Workshop in Canada (no surprise then that he is a terrific pianist as well as a thoughtful composer). Resident in Amsterdam since 1996 (but so far "uncontaminated" by the madcap antics of New Dutch Swing!), he's in first class company here: altoist/clarinetist Michael Moore is the perfect horn partner, faultless in his execution of Kaufmann's at times tricky heads, ever elegant and characteristically understated in his soloing; John Schröder is a talented multi-instrumentalist who alternates between guitar and electric bass, thereby adding great textural variety to the ensemble; John Hollenbeck adds deft touches of small percussion instruments to the customary drum kit. The resulting quartet sound is constantly fresh and appealing. Harmonically, that Bartok connection is significant, bringing extraordinary coherence to the many compositional games Kaufmann plays with pitch sets, while the pianist's exposure to the intricacies of M-Base provides his music with a sense of rhythmic structure too often lacking in today's progressive jazz. Certainly a name to look out for in years to come. Leo Feigin strikes gold again.

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Anthony Braxton
Leo Records CD LR 297/298

Anthony Braxton has always been a singular, if not controversial, figure; consciously eschewing the stereotypical image of the jazzman in favor of that of eccentric professor (complete with pipe, woolly jumper and opaque explanatory essays), he has produced an enormous body of work for small and large ensembles – not to mention recent forays into opera.
Like Ornette Coleman, who's also had to weather a number of critical storms over the years, he has a highly individual take on jazz/contemporary composition complete with abstract/abstruse theoretical underpinning, though while Coleman has finally been accepted as the maverick genius he is thanks to those gutsy street-smart album and track titles, Braxton's unpronounceable diagrams and the even more forbidding generic titles (Composition #1, 2, 3 etc.) still lead skeptical punters to talk of the "Emperor's New Clothes syndrome". Unlike Coleman, Braxton has often found the need periodically to dig up the garden and re-examine the roots (from "Seven Standards 1985" through to the magnificent Hat Hut double "Charlie Parker Project 1993"), though where his erstwhile AACM colleague the late Lester Bowie used to deck out the old chestnuts in accessible foot-tapping crossover garb, Braxton approaches a standard scalpel in hand, peering at its tiny details through those bottle-bottom spectacles as if to say "this may hurt, but you'll be much better for it when it's all over.."

|The difference between this album (and the preceding Volume 1) and the other Braxton standards-revisited projects is that he's featured exclusively on piano, and not because he couldn't find a piano player up to the job (Charles Mingus' reason for taking over the piano stool on "Oh Yeah"): no, Braxton's delegation of the instrument he's most often associated with – the alto sax – to someone else (Marty Erlich) is an essential aspect of the metaphor of the deconstructive process at work throughout these 104 minutes. It's also guaranteed to raise the hackles of the purists, though attacking Braxton for not being Oscar Peterson is about as stupid and useless as having a go at Picasso for not being Botticelli; Braxton approaches a standard as the cubists used to approach a still life, both as an object of cultural significance (its relationship to a recognizable body of work, a tradition of performance practice) and as a self-sufficient artistic entity in its own right. What irks mainstream critics is Braxton's reluctance to differentiate between the two approaches – for a generation or more of American academics (yes, folks, you can major in jazz in American universities..) anyone who dares call into question the integrity of The Tradition is branded at best as aesthetically and technically substandard, at worst as downright subversive (put on Braxton's wild reading of Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" and you can hear faculty professors' toes curling up in disgust).

So what about his piano playing? Stuart Broomer's notes describe it magnificently as " a strange and wondrous thing, a kind of fluttery cluster stabbing"; his solos as such aren't concerned with definable melodic line as much as contour, while his dense accompanimental comping generally follows the broad outline of the harmonic substructure though with adjacent pitches thrown in for good measure. It sounds rather like Erroll Garner playing with mittens on. When set against Erlich's crystal-clear and supremely lyrical horn playing (Broomer is spot on comparing Erlich and Braxton to Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor on the 1962 "What's New" album), this produces a disconcerting thickening of the texture, as if the real piece, the "standard", lies behind Braxton's Ivesian harmonic wall. If Taylor comes to mind – his distinct harmonic language is also due in no small part to his keeping hands and fingers in the same basic position as he flies up and down the keyboard, thereby guaranteeing a relatively fixed (though constantly transposed) harmonic content – so does Misha Mengelberg (another pianist of self-declared "limited technique" and unlimited invention).. and Sam Rivers. Rivers the pianist (woefully under-recorded on the instrument), whose muscular playing derives from a gestural approach to the instrument that perhaps only a horn player could come up with. That said, I have never heard Rivers tackle "Brilliant Corners", "When Sunny Gets Blue", "I Remember Clifford" and the other milestones (pun intended) of the "canon", but if he ever did, he could no better than hire Braxton's rhythm section here: Joe Fonda and Pheeroan AkLaff stride boldly along the clifftop ledge between straight post- bop and free, occasionally pretending to lose their footing and topple headlong into the void. It's quite a ride, and if you can only stretch to buying one Braxton album this year, this is the one to go for.

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The Ganelin Trio
Leo CD LR 101 (reissue)

Recorded live in February 1978 in Novosibirsk, "Poco-a-Poco" marks the beginning of what Steve Kulak refers to as "Year Zero" for the Ganelin Trio, and with it the birth of Leo Records itself. Twenty-two years on it's still a wild and joyous ride, though hardly as satisfying as the subsequent "Catalogue: Live in East Germany" (LR 102) or the excellent "Ancora Da Capo" (LR 108), perhaps because the abrupt fades between tracks often leave one frustrated, wondering how these three dangerous characters managed to extricate themselves from the musical predicaments they found themselves in (at least in "Catalogue" we get the whole set, warts and all). Kulak, in his typically excessive liner notes (which seem to imply, by the way, that "Catalogue" dates from 1979 whereas my battered old vinyl clearly states the recording date as June 15th, 1978) makes flatulent assertions such as: "had any of these albums been released by three white musicians from New York, the course of modern music could well have been catapulted into different time zones.."
Quite apart from that gratuitous and dubious use of "white", he later goes on to conclude that "to suggest the Ganelin Trio's music could only have been created within the context of a Soviet shadow is unarguable." Maybe someone will buy him his own red pen for Christmas; let's pass on to the music instead. And what a wonderful ragbag of stuff it is, from the the frenzy of track one (all tracks are called "Poco-a-Poco" and numbered from one to eleven) via the Don Cherry-esque double flutes of four and the toy soldier fun'n'games of five, to the modal jam of six (where there really do seem to be at least five musicians playing at once!) and the major scale workout of seven. And so on, Tarasov's wild drumming propelling the album breathlessly to its close. There's a sense of urgency here, though not one of anger (compare this to any track recorded by the – black, Steve – American expats on BYG Actuel); a sense of humour is never far from the surface – Russian humour: neither the sophistication of Haydn nor the urbane wit of Les Six, but a gutsy, rootsy sense of humour, the Shrovetide Fair of Stravinsky's "Petrushka", the disarmingly simple and ultimately ironic little tunes that Shostakovich was so good at. This is strong music, music that takes risks; it's hardly the apex of sophistication (nor did it ever claim to be as such) but it is a good introduction to the Ganelin Trio, Russian jazz and Leo Records in general, and it's nice to see it reissued.

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Program 16

Eric Roth Trio
RosCo 001
(both available directly from esroth59@hotmail.com)

These are two trio projects (sax/bass/drums) featuring Chicago-based percussionist Eric Roth. Juxtaposing "explosion" and "cerebral" is a clear statement of intent – the music of this first trio (Roth is joined by Matt Bauder on tenor and Zach Wallace on bass) sets out to illuminate rather than bridge the gap that is traditionally thought to exist between chaos and order, emotion and intellect, improvisation and composition, free improv and jazz (or any other yin/yang pair you care to add). That colon is significant – this is no attempt at fusion as such.

The opening (explosion) "Bangor" is entropic and rubbery – I'd hazard a guess that Bauder has checked out the work of that frequent visitor to the Windy City, Mats Gustaffson – while the following (cerebral) "Mayim Gadolim" sounds like it was torn out of the Masada songbook. "Again" builds steadily from Wallace's big, singing bass sound (shades of Charlie Haden) but never quite tips over into the ecstatic, and the only cover included here (Roswell Rudd's "Rosmosis" from the first New York Art Quartet ESP album) is cellular rather than linear in its development – perhaps Bauder needs another horn to bounce off: the sax/bass/drums line-up inevitably places extra stress on the sax player, and he tends to move digitally from "in" to "out" playing without exploring the cliff edge between the two. Perhaps intentionally so.

"Program 16" is a more rounded and satisfying listen, thanks probably to Dave Rempis, who's been honing his chops in the Vandermark 5 for some time and is now becoming a helluva player in his own right. His strong tenor and fluid alto seem to inspire Roth to greater heights than on the "e:c" album, right from the get go on "Move a Little", and elsewhere the interface between composed sections and improvised workouts is more skillfully handled. With Jason Roebke's meaty double bass violin (or so it's billed), it ends up just as convincing as Vandermark's recent excellent Tripleplay release on Boxholder. Chicago is, of course, a hotbed of activity these days, and the "is it jazz or is it improv?" debate doesn't seem to matter to the likes of Vandermark, Mars Williams and Michael Zerang. Eric Roth is inscribing himself solidly in that tradition, and I look forward to following his activities with great interest in the years to come.

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Dominic Duval / John Heward / Joe McPhee
Leo CD LR 295

Not only is Dominic Duval amazingly prolific these days, he's also busy in terms of sound, overflowing with ideas, and the recording here showcases the myriad of tiny nuances that go to make up his playing more successfully perhaps than his other recent Leo releases – probably also because he's not surrounded by string players: his sparring partners here are John Heward, an admirably tasteful free drummer with a feel for his instruments reminiscent of sixties Milford and Sunny, and the Pride of Poughkeepsie, Joe McPhee (not exclusively on soprano sax as marked: he's also featured on tenor). The ten tracks taken as a whole constitute a fascinating journey through the world of the sax/bass/drums line-up, from athletic and muscular playing to loving and attentive investigation of micro-sonority and timbre. McPhee is refreshingly different from the standard bellow and bluster associated with black American free jazz (hence perhaps his enduring popularity in European free improv circles) – his Aylerian roots are often in evidence but so too is a concern with miniscule fluctuations of breath and attack which has more in common with the work of Evan Parker or Michel Doneda. Duval is every bit as sensitive to such detail, and Heward's deft touches of percussion are the perfect complement –it's refreshing to hear the kalimba used imaginatively for a change (DJ Spooky go home!). Like much of Duval's work, it's not always an easy listen, but it's a damn rewarding one.

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Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic