January News 2002 New Releases
reviewed by Dan Warburton & Guy Livingston:
On AUM Fidelity: David S. Ware Quartet
On Mode: Giacinto Scelsi
Snorri Sigfús Birgisson: piano music
JAMES FEI on: Organized Sound
The world of Paul Flaherty: PRANA / THE ILYA TREE /THE HATED MUSIC
On Crouton:
Folktakes 2 (Jon Mueller/Bhob Rainey/Achim Wollscheid) / Telecognac / Aranos/Mueller/Rosenau

On Mode: Henry Cowell
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David S. Ware Quartet
Aum Fidelity AUM 019

Having dropped David S. Ware like a hot potato just as they did Blood Ulmer nearly two decades ago, the powers that be at Columbia must be kicking themselves. If they're still looking for proof that free jazz can remain true to its basic principles and (p)reach out and convert the masses (presumably the reason why they signed Ware in the first place), this must be it. Even so, "Corridors & Parallels" has prompted some strangely misguided reviews based on a couple of spurious notions as to what jazz should or should not be/do, which are worth listing so you can spot them in case you come across them yourself at a later date:
"Synth = Sellout: Serious Jazz Pianists shouldn't mess around with electronic keyboards." Diehard fans of the much-lauded Matthew Shipp have been horrified to hear him playing a Korg. Big deal! Tell that to Herbie Hancock. OK, so the sounds Shipp gets out of it may not be of IRCAM-level sophistication, but since when was that the goal? What about the nasty gritty Hammond sound of Larry Young's work with Lifetime? Nobody batted an eyelid - the music Young was making made such petty criticism seem as small-minded as it evidently was. And if you're still sleeping with your old vinyl copy of the Köln Concert under the pillow in homage to Papa Jarrett's oft-cited remarks extolling the virtues of acoustic as opposed to electronic instruments, I'll bet you whatever you like that his scorching electric piano work with Miles will be still changing people's lives long after the last copy of his umpteenth volume of squeaky-clean ECM standards has found its way to the local yard sale.
"Real Free Jazz shouldn't swing, let alone groove." Some Ware purists bemoan the departure of Susie Ibarra's fleet stickwork (hell, there are some who even regret the departure of Whit Dickey before her..) in favor of Guillermo Brown's Brazilian inflections. For those people who won't touch a Pharoah Sanders album from "Black Unity" onwards, here's a question to consider: what kind of albums do they think Coltrane and Dolphy would have been making had they still been around in the days of Blaxploitation movies? The cosmic groove of "Corridors & Parallels" is right up there with "Hornets" and "Khalid of Space Part Two". As for great free drummers who can groove you into the ground, Shannon Jackson, Hamid Drake, Cody Moffett.. need I go on?
Thank goodness David Ware isn't doing hideous Marvin Hamlisch covers anymore - the self-explanatory "Mother May You Rest In Bliss" is far more emotionally direct because its gospel-saturated harmony comes right out of Ayler's church. The sheer accessibility and drive of this magnificent album seem to be something of a finger to Columbia waved out of Ware's sports car as he speeds into the future. Too bad if a handful of snotty journalists can't stay with the pace.

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Giacinto Scelsi
Mode 102

All but two of the works on this disc date from between 1953 and 1957 (the exceptions being "Ko-Lho" from 1966, and 1970's "Three Latin Prayers"), but while his younger contemporaries Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono were still thrashing out the ideology of total serialism and agonizing over whether to include Cageian chance procedures in their work (they eventually did, but ended up excluding Cage himself), Count Giacinto Scelsi had gone way beyond the confines of dodecaphony and arrived at an utterly unique, intuitive and inspired compositional aesthetic. Scelsi was, to quote his longtime friend Joëlle Léandre, "not a card-carrying Communist", and spent much of his life in total obscurity - not poverty, though: the family fortune from Sicilian olives allowed him the luxury of being able to devote himself totally to composition. Though perhaps best known for his extraordinary orchestral meditations on single pitches ("drone" is far too static a noun to describe his work), Scelsi's writing could be extraordinarily playful and light when he wanted. The clarinet pieces "Preghiera per un' ombra" (1954) and "Ixor" (1956) and the solo flute work "Pwyll" (1954) are delightfully supple, almost improvised in feel - Léandre is convinced that Scelsi's piano works were often transcribed from his own piano improvisations, and the same might be the case for these wind pieces. In later life, Scelsi worked closely with his interpreters - clarinettist William Smith introduced him to certain microtonal inflections in the 1960s (used to great effect in "Ko-Lho"), and Carol Robinson, the performer here, worked with the Count during the final years of his life. Her readings of his works are authoritative and utterly convincing, as are the contributions of flutist Clara Novakova and oboist Cathy Milliken. While many of the pieces played at Darmstadt back in the fifties now sound hopelessly dated and dusty, these magnificent little vignettes are fresh enough to have been written yesterday.

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Snorri Sigfús Birgisson
Seven Portraits
SMK 12
email badtaste@saga.is

Noted with interest:
Icelandic pianist Snorri Sigfús Birgisson plays his own works on this expressive CD of seven portraits. Working with the visual artist Halldór Asgeirsson, he performs in art galleries. One such performance is beautifully documented in the elegant program book. The artist drops colored dyes into a large tank of water, and indeed the music's restrained cragginess seems to complement the swirling clouds of color, infused with a more sinister underpinning of storms and icebergs at sea, perhaps. Also, some of the (very skillful) piano writing reminds us of the softer, more fluid moments of the Boulez First Sonata.
reviewed by Guy Livingston

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Quarterstick Qs80cd

Back in 1981 Lester Bangs wrote: "The Mekons are [..] the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities, rarefied as a glimpse through a butterfly's wing.." (He went on to say they were "better than the Beatles, Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes" .. but never mind.) Greil Marcus hailed "Fear and Whiskey" as maybe the best pop record of 1985. The Mekons were - and presumably still are - outstanding live, but have remained relatively little-known outside a cluster of wildly enthusiastic fans (don't take my word for it, go visit their websites) and a handful of cognoscenti journalists. So why didn't they get as big as The Clash? OK, they can't sing to save their lives, but neither could Joe Strummer. Why did the Pogues make it big as a "folk punk" outfit and not the Mekons? (Possible answer: Shane MacGowan's teeth..)
The reissue of this album now that Blair's Cool Britannia has metamorphosed subtly into 1970s-style Toryism and BritPop has become as bland and bloated as Noel Gallagher is a timely reminder of what popular music is all about: finding the RIGHT words and the RIGHT music to express powerful sentiments (from the personal to the political). It doesn't matter in the slightest that the voices are shaky and often out of tune - the keys these songs were written in were chosen more to accommodate the open strings of Susie Honeyman's violin than the tessitura of Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford's voices - this is pop music, not "bleedin' opera", and I'll trade Tom and Jon's cracked from-the-gut delivery any day for the studied false emotion of Luciano Pavarotti. Not only are the lyrics spine-tingling in their honesty and pain ("I saw your face in a crowded bar / Excuse me please at least I thought it was you / Now I just don't know where you are / All I can remember as I walk down the street / Is the rain and tears on your face") but they scan with the music to utter perfection ("You disappear like a fist when you open your hand"). Though it's maybe the fiddle that imparts the folk feel, there's still plenty of the tribal energy of punk, and like that other criminally neglected masterpiece of mid-80s pop, the Stockholm Monsters' "Alma Mater" (how about a reissue, Tony Wilson?), there's something here that drives deep down into what music, politics and humanity are really all about: "Darkness and Doubt" is quite simply one of the Perfect Pop Songs of the period (along with "Love Comes in Spurts", "Boredom", "Partyline", "She's Lost Control", "Teenage Kicks", "This Charming Man"..). Put another way, Lester was right.

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Organized Sound 1
Organized Sound 2

Following on from his superb and (as is often the case) overlooked album "Solo Works" (Leo Lab 059), multi-instrumentalist James Fei's new imprint Organized Sound releases his work on tiny 3" CDs, the first of which slipped out last year in a limited edition run of 125. It contains just two tracks, the first featuring Fei playing the sax with a paper card reed and sending its signal to a gated fuzz box (it ends up sounding like one of Alan Licht's more noisy solos), the second instructing the player to sing the melody of "Camptown Races" into the bass saxophone (pitched at a constant C), producing a haze of grainy harmonics. Coming as he does from the world of Anthony Braxton, you'd expect there to be a healthy dose of concept involved, but Fei's lo-fi innovations are accessible both musically and aesthetically, revealing an all-too-rare sense of humor as well as a genuine experimental approach, which is also found on the more recent release "Maestros", with David Novak. The title and the deadly serious photo of Fei and Novak standing arms folded in front of a forbidding bank of switches and gadgetry are to be taken somewhat tongue-in-cheek; "Maestro" refers as much to the Maestro Rhythm'N'Sound guitar effects box as it does to Fei and Novak. Most of the sounds here are deliciously primitive and delightfully home-made; in addition to the effects box, Fei and Novak customize a Marantz 4-track, a telephone amp and a kids' toy, exploiting their noise potential à la David Tudor by turning them into feedback loop machines. In "Fireside Chat" they attach Piezo pick-ups to their throats (again, shades of Cage who caused quite a stir when he did this forty or so years ago) and record what sounds like a conversation - it's clear that the sounding result has its origin in speech, its pitch and inflections, but somewhere along the line the lo-fi recording process transforms it into something more abstract, even sinister. There are lots of fun moments to be found amongst the 14 tracks, my favorite being "Electricity and its Double" which sets Novak's bassoon against the modified toy with intriguing results. The screwed-up doo-wop of Novak's "Holy Land" and the 30-second romp of "Early Music" (for bassoon and sax without mouthpiece) are evidence of something rare these days in New Music: a sense of humor - I haven't had so much fun since Steve Beresford's "The Bath of Surprise". And the gatefold double 3" CD is a collector's treasure.

See the website at: www.jamesfei.com/organizedsound

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Paul Flaherty
Paul Flaherty / Richard Downs
Zaabway 2007
Paul Flaherty / Greg Kelley / John Voight / Laurence Cook
Boxholder BHX 016
Paul Flaherty / Chris Corsano
Ecstatic Yod e#Ib/fypc 16

Good things are worth waiting for. "Prana" was recorded back in 1989, and features Manchester Connecticut's Paul Flaherty on alto sax, with a keening tone at times reminiscent of Byard Lancaster. This is supple and lyrical free jazz, the enigmatically-named Froc studiously avoiding wild extended guitar techniques à la Sharrock, instead anchoring Flaherty's most extreme blowing with choppy comping and occasional Joe Morris-like flurries of notes. Bassist Richard Downs and drummer Randall Colbourne seem more than happy to take off into high speed bop on "Across a Great Distance", while Flaherty waits for the tempo to slacken before soaring in with long lyrical lines worthy of Noah Howard. One gets the impression that the rhythm section doesn't always know what strategy to adopt behind Flaherty's endless arabesques (specifically on "Decending (sic) into Matter"), but group unity isn't in doubt on the final pastoral - in both senses of the word - "Everything is Forgiven", which rounds off the album most satisfactorily.
Flaherty describes the seven pieces on "The Ilya Tree" as "spontaneous compositions" rather than free jazz, though John Voight and Laurence Cook's track record with the likes of Jemeel Moondoc speaks for itself. Trumpeter Greg Kelley -a committed avant-gardist if ever there was one (see reviews elsewhere) - finds plenty of room for his phenomenal extended techniques. It's easy to forget that Kelley, like that other hero of new trumpet technique Axel Dörner, can play the hell out of his horn - check out his awesome solos on "Space In Which We Live". Flaherty, whose playing, especially on tenor, is terse, rubbery, but ruggedly lyrical - is on splendid form throughout. Replacing the harmonic input of a guitar with Kelley's trumpet makes "The Ilya Tree" a craggier, more intimidating mountain to climb for the listener, but the views from the summit make it well worth your while.
If like me you devote your life to teaching your neighbors, whether they like it or not, to appreciate new music, Flaherty's duo album with Chris Corsano is just what you need (Byron Coley's typically ecstatic liner notes reveal the same penchant for pedagogy, by the way). "The Hated Music" is an absolute tour de force, superbly recorded and positively spitting fire from beginning to end. Taking its place in the canon of magnificent sax / drums collaborations starting with Coltrane's "Interstellar Space" and Frank Lowe's "Duo Exchange" (both with Rashied Ali on percussives), "The Hated Music" can stand its ground against these two classics without fear. God knows what these two guys had for breakfast the day they cut this album (tiger steaks?), but the music they made was absolutely inspired. If this record doesn't go platinum, I'll be forced to conclude there's no justice in the world.

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On Crouton
Jon Mueller/Bhob Rainey/Achim Wollscheid
Crouton Crou012
Crouton Crou011
Crouton Crou010

Percussionist and writer Jon Mueller's design for Crouton - exquisite packaging, additional text, unconventional formats, limited editions (all hand-numbered) - is typical of the aesthetic of the new "cottage industry" labels. Each volume of "Folktales" (Volume 1 featured Chris Rosenau, Hal Rammel and John Kannenberg, and is now almost out of print) consists of three 3-inch CDs (and accompanying text) designed "to explore the literary aspects of sound and performance". On Volume 2, "How I learned to breathe" finds Mueller on standard kit, with additional cymbals, played entirely using small hand held fans. As such, it sounds nothing like standard kit: his Swiss namesake Günter comes to mind, as does Berlin's Burkhard Beins - in the hands of these skilled practitioners percussion instruments rediscover their mysterious inbuilt acoustic properties as resonators: Mueller has found a way to go beyond his free jazz past and take the world of instrumental virtuosity into the 21st century. The same can be said of soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, whose "Sweet Sonk" consists of five impressive tracks (all brief, except the fourth) exploring his range of extended techniques with obsessive precision. Sound artist Achim Wollscheid contributes the third chapter, "X-excerpt", a nineteen-minute journey (and a very accessible one) through various selected CDs, tapes and albums revisited on Wollscheid's laptop (shame this one isn't on vinyl: I was tempted to play bits of it backwards to find out what some of the original (piano?) music was).
"Memory" features Mueller along with frequent partners Scott Beschta and Chris Rosenau, sampling and looping music both original (by Mueller, and also the earlier Telecognac project with Jarboe, "Over" (Crouton 007)) and by others (including Arvo Pärt, Mueller seems to recall). The juxtaposition of reverb-drenched classical strings, processed children's music boxes and odd, spastic flurries of electric percussion is strangely disturbing and instantly unforgettable - this music gets under your skin right away and you won't be able to dig it out. (The album title is significant - even at first listening you have the strange impression you've heard this before some place.) Add to this the quiet surrealism of the accompanying six printed texts - amuse yourself by reading them in different combinations with each of the six musical tracks - and the exquisite photography and packaging, and you've got one of the best releases of the year. Strongly recommended.
Given that Mueller's concerns transcend the purely musical to incorporate the literary and the artistic, it's hardly surprising to find him collaborating with Czech-born painter and multi-instrumentalist Aranos. "Bleeding In Behind Pastel Screens" is the result of a series of CDs mailed back and forth between Milwaukee and rural Ireland (where Aranos currently lives, like his friend Steve Stapleton, whose Nurse With Wound releases "Acts of Senseless Beauty" and "Santoor Lena Bicycle" he also appears on). Once more, like in Stapleton's self-styled "Nurse" music, edges blur and genres morph imperceptibly into each other - the rich inflexions of Aranos' violin are unmistakably grounded in folk, and his bass playing would nearly rock out altogether were it not for Mueller and Rosenau's sweeping washes of guitar and percussion color which transport the entire album into a world of its own. I know it's a journalistic cop-out to quote the press release, but for once it's right on the money: "three perspectives that combine melody, song structure, and total oblivion into a cohesive, yet avant-garde presentation." Check out Crouton Music.

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Henry Cowell
Mode 101

Though undeniably an important figure in the nascent experimentalism of early 20th century American music - his fame rests upon pieces such as "The Tides of Manaunaun" and "Aeolian Harp" (written when he was in his teens) and the later "Mosaic Quartet" - Henry Cowell (1897 - 1965) remained deeply attached to the classical roots he sprung from. This engaging but admittedly lightweight disc brings together previously unrecorded works intended for collaborative ventures with choreographers (Doris Humphrey, Bonnie Bird, Martha Graham and Charles Weidman) and is a welcome addition to the scant Cowell discography. Don't expect earth-shattering modernity though (we're a long way from Ives' "Central Park in the Dark" and Ruggles' "Suntreader"): most of these small-scale chamber works are quite content to stay within the confines of the Western tradition (Bach, hymn tunes, Irish folk). There is scope for innovation (number of repeats left to the performer to decide, etc.) but what little dissonance there is (the "wrong note" hymnody of the "Suite for Small Orchestra", the strange wails and whoops of "Atlantis") is interspersed with relatively conventional and somewhat stilted vignettes. If you haven't started collecting Cowell yet, start instead with Mode's previously released and indispensable double album, "Mosaic" (Mode 72-3).

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Copyright 2002 by Paris Transatlantic