March News 2001 New Releases
reviewed by Dan Warburton:
Pierre Boulez: MESSAGESQUISSE and more
Nachtluft BELLE-VIEW I - IV
Rashied Ali / Peter Kowald / Assif Tsahar
Bill Cole & the Untempered Ensemble
Frank Gratkowski Trio: QUICKSAND
Charlie Kohlhase / Matt Langley: YOU START
David Rosenboom: INVISIBLE GOLD
Noah Howard Quartet, Live
Last Month
More March (Part II)

Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon

“Sur Incises” (1998) joins a long list of eternally-reworked compositions - throughout his long career, from the early piano “Notations” right up to the new works on this album, Boulez has found it necessary to revisit and develop old pieces (i.e. extend them - none of his revisions has ever ended up more concise: compare 1965’s pristine and terse “Eclat” to the forty-odd minute mud-spattered juggernaut of “Eclat Multiples”). “Sur Incises” is scored for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists, and belongs to the same Boulezian clangorous sound-world as “Eclat”; listening to it is like visiting an old school friend you haven’t seen for twenty years and finding (s)he’s still wearing the same clothes and listening to the same albums. Play this back to back with “Messagesquisse” (1976), and they sound like they could have been written at the same time: slow, almost painstaking introduction of basic material - rarely has the composer rendered his pitch procedures so aurally evident as in these two pieces - eventually giving way to extended metrical chug-a-lugging. (Boulez evidently picked up more from Messiaen than he’d care to admit.) The Ensemble InterContemporain’s playing, as you might expect, is seemingly faultless - the pitch transformations are so crystal clear that there’d be no problem spotting a bum note - but at 37 minutes, “Sur Incises” begins to try your patience, whereas “Messagesquisse” is over and done with relatively quickly. Scored for solo cello and six celli, this latter has become something of a Boulez standard. The hexachord derived from the name of the work’s dedicatee, Paul Sacher, is presented emblematically at the outset and and undergoes the inevitable athletic workout. When it gets going, one has the impression that Boulez is just trotting through all the imaginable arrays of inversions, transpositions and retrogrades, and, far from being a thrilling hi-speed ride, it reminds me of that guy who got into the Guinness Book of Records by reading the soliloquy from “Hamlet” (yes, that one) in seven seconds, or something equally daft. After several minutes of seemingly endless volleys of notes, my eventual reaction is “Et alors?” (“So what?”) - composed by someone who once proclaimed he was moving music “out of the world of Newton and into the world of Einstein”, this is a dry and dusty as the weighty old tomes Sir Isaac used to pull off the shelf in his library in Cambridge. The real revelation of this album is “Anthèmes 2”, for violin and “dispositif électronique” (“dispositif” is a wonderful French word meaning anything from “equipment” to “strategy” to “gadgetry”: quite why the piece couldn’t be billed as being simply for “violin and electronics” is a question that should perhaps be addressed to the guys at IRCAM). Boulez, working in collaboration with Andrew Gerzso as technical adviser (in the early days of Elektronisches Musik they used to call these studio slaves “Tonbandmeisters”), has produced a 20 minute tour de force - the violin writing (and playing: hats off to Hae-Sun Kang!) is scintillating, and the electronics deftly illustrate the intricacies of the composer’s pitches while also adding depth and color. Like the earlier “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double” for clarinet and, ahem, dispostif, “Anthèmes 2” reveals a real feel for the live electronic medium in terms of both its ability to elucidate the compositional argument and its intrinsic sonic beauty. Exactly how the gadgetry works is another matter, and I’m probably running the risk of getting barrelfuls of indignant e-mail if I dare to suggest that the likes of Jon Hassell were using live electronics just as effectively back in the early 80s, but even so, this album is worth the asking price for “Anthèmes 2” alone, and, as the latest dispatch from an undeniably major figure in modern music, it’s strongly recommended.

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Atavistic UMS/ALP 208 CD

Are we to thank Jim O’Rourke for pushing for the reissue of this 1987 album featuring Günter Müller and Jacques Widmer on percussion and Andres Bosshard on cassette machines (and a mysterious fourth member simply billed as “metal” on the original sleeve)? In his typically infectious enthusiastic liner notes, O’Rourke relates with nostalgic pleasure how he acquired the original Unit records vinyl (original sleeves and labels reproduced here) through the RRR catalogue. Nachtluft means “night air”, if my minimal German is correct, but if you come to this expecting the nocturnal spaced-out minimalism of Müller’s later “Table Chair and Hatstand” (with Voice Crack and, yes, Jim O’Rourke), you’re in for a mighty shock. This is 1986, Eastern Europe is beginning to split at the seams, the tidal wave of HipHop and Techno is still to break, and New Wave is dying on its feet. Nachtluft’s dense polyphony of klangs and crashes has more in common with Einsturzende Neubaten than the electronic percussion of Paul Lytton. It’s a no-bullshit music of strong gestures, as committed and intense as Xenakis - whose “Persephassa” and “Pleiades” come to mind on a number of occasions - and O’Rourke is on the ball when he compares it to AMM and the Music Improvisation Company. Since this was recorded, Bosshard has concentrated on sound installations and Müller has become a major player on the improv scene both as electronic percussionist and label boss (For4Ears). I have no idea what became of Jacques Widmer - perhaps someone out there can enlighten me - but on the strength of his playing here, he should be locked up somewhere. The fourth member of the group, metal, is apparently alive and well, if a little bent out of shape.

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Rashied Ali / Peter Kowald / Assif Tsahar
Hopscotch HOP 6

After recently having the pleasure of catching a burning set featuring Tsahar and Kowald in Mulhouse (France) with percussionist L Quan Ninh, I was looking forward to this release with bated breath. As it turns out, and maybe because Rashied Ali’s on the date, Tsahar sounds like he’s been dusting off his “Interstellar Space” chops (despite the fact that when he really lets fly, his terse rubbery tenor sounds more like Von Freeman than Coltrane). Elsewhere, his delicate ballad work on “Hereafter” also recalls Coltrane’s lyrical playing -- no negative criticism this: to my mind Trane’s exquisite mid-60s ballad work has been unjustly overlooked in favor of those heroic excursions into free blowing. Kowald’s pizzicato is velvety and rich (or is that the rather boxy recording?) and his bowed work is, as ever, a wonder to behold -- when Tsahar takes up the bass clarinet to play along, things really cook (on “Isotopes” especially). As for Ali, who at times seems to be so relaxed he’s almost bored (his occasional spats with the snare drum recalling more than ever the debt he owes to Sunny Murray), when the toms and hi-hat finally get going he sounds like a free version of Art Blakey. This is a good album but one that somehow doesn’t quite take off, and I’m at a loss to explain exactly why, though the problem (if that’s the word) seems to lie with Ali -- though the strength of his work with Trane and subsequent early-70s excursions with the likes of Frank Lowe and Blood Ulmer (happily now reissued on Knitting Factory Works) is indisputable, his recent outings have never quite managed to smoke my shorts. Tsahar, even though Kowald manages to push him hard, doesn’t manage, for all his athletic wrangling, to summon up the testosterone.

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Bill Cole & the Untempered Ensemble
Duets & Solos Volume 1
Boxholder BHX011

This collection of five duets and two solos (I leave it to you to judge to what extent that qualifies being billed as an “ensemble”) featuring multi-instrumentalist Bill Cole and guests William Parker, Cooper-Moore and Warren Smith was recorded in front of an invited audience in Brattleboro Vermont on November 21st 1999. Cole’s arsenal of ethnic instruments includes a bamboo flute from Ghana, an Australian didgeridoo, an Indian shenai, a Chinese sona, a Korean piri and a Tibetan trumpet, and he seems to handle them all with considerable aplomb (though the didgeridoo and Tibetan trumpet demand lungpower rather than virtuosity in the traditional sense). Cooper-Moore jams along merrily on two tracks on his Horizontal Hoe-Handle Harp and Diddley Bow, this latter a funky one-string bass guitar played as a percussion instrument, though things really take off when Cole teams up with drummer Warren Smith on “the moment one sets out” and with the ubiquitous Parker on “The Dove finds everywhere comfortable”. This is an enjoyable though hardly earth-shattering set of pieces, fondly recalling Sonet-era Don Cherry as well as Cole’s erstwhile mentor Clifford Thornton, lovingly recorded and well-appreciated by those present.

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Frank Gratkowski Trio
Meniscus 007

Perhaps it’s just a bout of free jazz nostalgia on my part, but I’m more tempted to compare this sax/piano/percussion trio line up to the Jimmy Lyons/Cecil Taylor/Sunny Murray unit that brought avant garde jazz to Europe in the early 60s (a move that’s guaranteed to offend hard-line purists of free jazz and improv, but so be it) than to the venerable Brötzmann/Bennink/Van Hove outfit of the early 70s. Gratkowski’s limpid tone and graceful agility are closer to the stylings of a Jimmy Lyons than to the earthy roar of a Brötzmann, pianist Georg Graewe has the same feeling for tiny, exquisite pitch collections as Taylor did before he launched an all-out attack, fists and forearms, on the keyboard, and percussionist Paul Lovens displays the same impeccable taste in his choice of instrument as Sunny Murray did back at the Montmartre in 1962. Of course there are as many differences as similarities - unlike Murray, who has always sought to keep his kit down to the absolute minimum, Lovens travels the world with a beat-up traveling case full of assorted bric-a-brac (including his legendary musical saw), most of which gets thrown on and off the standard kit in the heat of the performance, but the standard kit is always there, and the recognizable timbres of snare, toms and cymbals are constantly present. (On-the-ball readers will also be aware of the fact that, until recently, Lovens was CT’s drummer of choice for his European Unit..) Gratkowski is as at home on the alto sax as he is on the clarinet and bass clarinet, and while he’s at his best working with constellations of notes - there’s an uncanny empathy with Graewe in this respect - his occasional forays into extended techniques are executed deftly and with consummate musicality (the way the opening track “Showers” descends into bass clarinet darkness after a flurry of fluffy key-clicks and percussive splatters from Lovens is a wonder to behold). Meanwhile, Graewe it seems goes from strength to strength at each outing: his agile fingerwork and command of register is the perfect bridge between Gratkowski’s arching lines and Lovens’ metallic fireworks. This is good, strong and well-crafted music (who cares what pigeonhole you file it under?). I’m sure Cecil would agree.

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Chico Hamilton Quintet
Pacific Jazz 7243 5 24567 2 7

It all started when John Cobley was browsing through vinyls in Recordland, Brighton, England, and came across a copy of the “Ellington Suite” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, featuring Jim Hall, Buddy Collette and Paul Horn. On returning home to Canada he pulled out a record with a handwritten label UNRELEASED TAKES CHICO HAMILTON ELLINGTON SUITE 8-22-58, which didn’t sound like Paul Horn at all. It was in fact an earlier version of the “Ellington Suite” recorded by Hamilton’s then current line-up featuring Eric Dolphy on reeds, John Pisano on guitar and Nate Gershman on cello, a master tape Michael Cuscuna had been searching in vain for in the Blue Note / Pacific vaults since 1975. Here then, cleaned up and 24-bit mastered is the “Original Ellington Suite”. As a Dolphy nut myself, I admit to getting a thrill comparable to John Cobley’s when I came across this CD recently. Upon closer listening, however, it’s not all that difficult to see why this version didn’t see the light of day at the time -- whilst there are moments which duly hint at the mature Dolphy to come, I can’t bring myself to share Cuscuna’s unbridled enthusiasm. The playing is at times lacklustre, and the great Dolphy even manages to fluff the tonguing on his flute solo on “I’m A Lucky So and So”(fast forward to his first Prestige session on April 1st 1960 and check out his mastery of the instrument on “April Fool” to appreciate the difference). While it’s a spine-tingling wonder to hear his soaring alto on “In A Sentimental Mood”, Coltrane’s later version with Duke is still for my money untoppable: here Eric seems to be still coming to terms with Parker and Hodges, and the intensity of his later reading of “Stormy Weather” with Mingus is still some way off. Elsewhere, his intricate post-bop stylings can seem curiously at odds with Pisano’s straight-ahead guitar comping and Gershman’s schmaltzy cello. Dolphy’s work with Hamilton is still best represented by the “Gongs East” album, recorded a mere four months later; the “Original Ellington Suite” is best left to Dolphy (and Hamilton) completists.

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Charlie Kohlhase / Matt Langley
Boxholder BHX007
Mitch Seidman / Charlie Kohlhase / Jeff Galindo
Cadence CJR 1118

The opening “Julius” (Hemphill, of course) sets the tone of “You Start” admirably, trading solos in a flowing, stream-of-consciousness manner the late master would have been proud of. Kohlhase and Langley’s saxophones breathe the whole history of the instrument -- not only Hemphill and Lacy (explicitly cited), but from Shepp, Jarman and Lyons through the bop stylings of Golson and Griffin to the warmth of Hawkins and the lyricism of Trumbauer. Two of the ten tracks are solos, two are “totally improvised” and six are compositions, though the flexibility built into these leaves ample room for the players to stretch out in. While they enjoy taking the time to explore breathy harmonics, they conspicuously avoid the sonics-for-their-own-sake trap into which many younger players all too often fall; you get the impression that notes matter (with all that implies: melody, phrasing, interval, theme and structure), and if you think that went out of style a couple of decades ago, listen to this and change your mind.
A sax / guitar / trombone line-up inevitably recalls (for me) Zorn’s Blue Note-revisited “News for Lulu” project, but Kohlhase / Seidman and Galindo studiously avoid the hard bop repertoire in their choice of covers -- instead we get sensitive readings of Albert Mangelsdorff’s “A Certain Beauty”, the Basie/Young chestnut “Dickie’s Dream” and, once again, Hemphill’s “Pensive”. The only cover that doesn’t take off is Monk’s “Misterioso”, a theme that constructs its own melodic/harmonic prison with deadly precision, a confined and awkward space into which Seidman’s chordal comping unwittingly leads the other horns and out of which they never quite manage to escape. Between them these guys have worked with figures as diverse as Herb Pomeroy, Artie Shaw, Clark Terry, Ray Charles, Gunther Schuller and John Tchicai, and the album’s originals (three out of five written by Kohlhase) leave plenty of room for them to showcase their wide range of influences.

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David Rosenboom

Pogus 21022-2

For over a quarter of a century David Rosenboom has been at the cutting edge of research into the interface between the human brain and live electronic music systems, but these two seminal -- and I do not use the word lightly -- works, “Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones” and “On Being Invisible”, have been long out of print. Hats off then to Pogus for reissuing them (but also a slap on the wrist for the truly hideous cover art worthy of a cheap supermarket disco compilation). “Portable Gold” uses brainwaves captured from four performers (from the group Biome, recorded at London’s Roundhouse in 1972) to trigger responses from the Holophone, a bank of resonant filters designed by Rosenboom which regulates the overtone content of pre-installed stable tones. The resulting spectral harmonic and melodic interplay is quite simply gorgeous, irrespective of the quasi-magical circumstances of its creation; about three quarters of the way through the piece the drones settle on a rich consonance and suddenly, miraculously, all four “voices” just take off like birds into a clear sky -- it’s like a quiet, slowmotion orgasm, and surely one of the great epiphanies of electronic music along with certain spectacular moments in established masterpieces by the likes of Xenakis and Stockhausen.
“On Being Invisible” sets up a feedback system whereby sounds generated by Rosenboom’s computer programs are transformed both by the system itself and by the brainwaves of a solo performer (here the composer himself, recorded in 1977). The banks of Buchla synthesizers are augmented by customized sequencing devices which produce some thrilling counterpoint about halfway through Part I. Though Rosenboom (wisely) doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail in his liner notes, preferring to focus on the music’s socio-philosophical implications, there are a few clues to be gleaned as to how this magic is produced: “touch sensors are also used to direct the software and initiate a few sounds in counterpoint with the brainwaves..” A-ha! So there is still some human (compositional) intervention, just in case you thought the machine was going to take over altogether.. Part II uses a similar synthesis system, this time triggered by “small sounds” made “at carefully chosen moments” by the performer (using Tibetan finger cymbals, a monkey drum and a snake charmer’s horn..). Though it’s fun trying to identify the source sounds and follow their subsequent evolution, the attention does begin to wander after a while (could it be that human brainwaves are far richer than instrumental timbres as potential for musical transformation?), but the overall impact is still most impressive. Now that these pioneering works are once more available, can we expect more buried treasure (how about Alvin Lucier’s “Chambers” or “Quasimodo the Great Lover”?) to be unearthed by Pogus?

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Noah Howard Quartet

Ayler AYLCD 001

Altoist Noah Howard produced two fine ESP albums in the mid 60s and went on to work with Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, Arthur Doyle and others before recording one of the great free albums, “Patterns” in 1971, a work which brought Great Black Music and nascent European free improvisation into open confrontation with astounding results. Though resident these days in Belgium, Howard recorded this album in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago in 1997, with a rhythm section consisting of long-time associate Bobby Few on piano, Wilber Morris on bass and Calyer Duncan on drums. The surviving figures of the 60s free jazz scene are, it seems, still trying to come to terms with the monumental cultural heritage bequeathed to them by Coltrane and Ayler -- from the very first notes of this concert, Trane’s ghost appears and proceeds to haunt the rest of the album, even more so when Howard takes up the tenor on “Lightning Rod”. We might as well be back in 1966, and the sound quality of the album is almost as dodgy as the old ESPs: under-recorded bass, drums too upfront, fuzzy piano sound (though that may be due to Few’s apparent reluctance to lay off the sustain pedal). As a stylistic genre exercise it’s fine: why not play 60s-style free jazz in 1997? After all, Marsalis still plays 60s-style hard bop, the Breckers 70s-style fusion, the Glenn Miller band is still swinging, and those good old boys down in Crescent City are still trotting out “When the Saints..” The point is though that free jazz as a musicological genre (if indeed it could ever be codified as such) did not come to a benign end when Coltrane’s coffin was lowered into the ground, nor when Ayler’s body was fished out of the East River -- considering their milestone works as somehow unassailable masterpieces, summits of achievement that no other mortal may ever be expected to reach again, is the fastest way to killing “the tradition” stone dead. One senses here a great and understandable sense of reverence for Coltrane (we are, after all, in the Unity Temple), and Howard’s quartet is manifestly tight and experienced, but it all soon begins to sound tired and predictable. Duncan is swingingly competent but he’s evidently not in the same league as Elvin Jones, Morris’s bass is unfortunately too far back in the mix to influence what’s going on, and Few’s arpeggios and arabesques (he seems to have combined the most tedious aspects of both McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane’s pianism) quickly saturate the harmonic space, making it almost impossible for Howard to break out of his modal prison and play interesting notes. Compare this with his amazing work back on “Patterns”, where the confrontational “fuck you” piano playing of Misha Mengelberg, an avowed Coltrane-hater by the way, pushed him into dangerous territory he hasn’t dared set foot in since.

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Copyright 2001 by Paris Transatlantic