July News 2002 Reviews by Dan Warburton:
On ECM: John Abercrombie
On Red Toucan: Frank Gratkowski / Georg Graewe / John Lindberg
Achim Kaufmann 4
On Grob: SSSD
On Leo: Dempa
New from Brett Larner / Taku Sugimoto
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John Abercrombie
ECM 1770

In keeping with the new look upmarket image of ECM, where even jewel boxes come protected in cardboard outer sleeves, this state-of-the-art recording is accompanied by a 20-page booklet of seriously artistic photographs of the band (Manfred Eicher's never been all that fond of liner notes). From the first few brushstrokes, you know it's a classy package: "A Nice Idea" sweeps into its easy triple time ­ gently shot through with duple and quadruple cross rhythms ­ with the grace of a Randy Weston waltz; Joey Baron's silky-smooth brushwork and Marc Johnson's plump, velvety bass are the perfect cushion for John Abercrombie's guitar and Mark Feldman's violin to float on (just a tad too much sugar in Feldman's vibrato for my taste buds, but we'll let it ride..). "Convolution" intercuts a jaunty theme with exploratory forays out into free (a nod Zornwards?), and Abercrombie lets fly some terrific rock licks, but Baron's deft drumming never lets things get downright nasty. Feldman's touch on "String Thing" is so light you can hear the bow almost leaving the string. (There's a fluidity and relaxation to this music that's all too lacking in the genres of free jazz and free improvisation, where even the most extreme reductionist offerings are charged with a kind of brooding intensity ­ even if there is something of Abercrombie's laconic lyricism in the playing of Taku Sugimoto, for example.) Johnson walks steadily throughout "Soundtrack", while Baron's cymbal triplets and sporadic rimshots seem to want to break out into double time at any moment ­ here it's Abercrombie who keeps the exuberant drummer in check. "Third Stream Samba" (along with "Show of Hands" the only group composition on offer ­ the rest are Abercrombie originals) features some dazzling interplay between violin and guitar. It's certainly not a samba, but who cares? Baron lets fly with the funk in "On The Loose", but Feldman and Abercrombie soon steer the ship into choppier waters. Similarly the cheeky Ornettery of "Stop and Go" gives way to a veritable cadenza from Feldman (by now we've all heard his awesome Paganini triple-stop chops before, but they're still impressive) and a Baron solo worthy of Dannie Richmond. Though the introduction to "Show of Hands" is peppered with extended techniques, you get the impression Feldman couldn't bring himself to make a really nasty noise on the fiddle if his life depended on it. Things pick up about the three minute mark with Baron riding the cymbals and occasionally splattering the snare in what could almost be an oblique homage to DeJohnette, and by the 6'30" mark he's almost worked himself into drum'n'bass), but the music manages to restrain itself, and Feldman's floating harmonics guide the ship smoothly back into port. The only thing I don't understand about this superb album is its title.

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Frank Gratkowski / Georg Graewe / John Lindberg
Red Toucan RT 9320

This second outstanding Frank Gratkowski release on Red Toucan in recent times (after the magnificent "Kollaps", RT 9317), featuring the clarinettist/saxophonist in a trio with pianist Graewe and bassist Lindberg, presents a different kind of energy from that usually associated with free jazz (centrifugal ­ musical ideas sent spinning out into space/time with near abandon); every flutter from Lindberg's bass, splayed arpeggio and ornament from Graewe and arching phrase from Gratkowski seems to focus the attention inwards, while at the same time never losing sight of the larger architectural scheme of things. Instrumental virtuosity (not in short supply with these three musicians) is no longer a question of projecting outward, but rather spirals into the moment itself ­ the commitment is intense and the result thrilling. Genre definitions mean little ­ "Arrears" inhabits a space situated somewhere between free jazz and improv (not to mention contemporary classical: Graewe's pianism owes as much to Aloys Kontarsky as it does to Cecil Taylor) ­ let's just call this music. And very fine music it is too.

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Achim Kaufmann 4

Red Toucan 9319

Music doesn't often physically resemble the person who made it (fortunately ­ Morton Feldman would sound like Ralph Shapey), but in Achim Kaufmann's case it happens to do so: it's elegant, unassuming, highly sensitive ­ and stands tall. This is the third release from pianist Kaufmann, following 1998's trio "Weave" (Jazz4Ever, J4E 4737) and 2000's "Double Exposure" (Leo, LR 289), and like the latter features American ex-pat Michael Moore on clarinets and sax and John Hollenbeck on drums and percussion. Henning Siewerts provides bass and cello. For those familiar with the Leo album, "Gueule de Loup" will offer few surprises: Kaufmann's music remains poised, detached and cool (if he doesn't end up on ECM one day I'll be surprised), quietly negotiating its not inconsiderable complexity with consummate yet restrained virtuosity. Nobody puts a foot wrong, and this is perhaps the album's only drawback (along with Kaufmann's constant tendency to double Moore's melody lines ­ there's no need to prove to the listener how technically adept the musicians are, nor how difficult the music is: it's evident throughout). George Bernard Shaw once reputedly told Jascha Heifetz to play a wrong note every night before going to bed, "because the Gods are jealous of perfection" ­ blown away as I am by the superb musicianship and exemplary recording, I find myself longing for a quick blast of insanity, a sense of danger, risk, sweat and dirt. But Achim Kaufmann's not like that.

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Grob 431

Given that it's relatively easy these days to put out albums (that said, bijou labels such as Erstwhile and Potlatch are swamped with CDRs and musicians often resort to releasing their work themselves), the temptation is great to flood the market with product; relatively young artists such as Nöel Akchoté have already appeared on more albums than Coltrane, Dolphy and Rollins put together ­ and woe betide you if you're a Jim O'Rourke completist. "Home" is a beautifully recorded, musically sensitive and satisfying piece of work, but I wonder what it adds to the discographies of the four participating musicians, Taku Sugimoto (electric and bass guitars), Burkhard Stangl (acoustic and electric guitars), Martin Siewert (idem, plus electronics) and Werner Dafeldecker (e-bass and double bass). These guys (especially Sugimoto) are known for their gaunt reductionism; their work, though extremely quiet, creates a terrific tension between sound events and the surrounding silence, and Dafeldecker's austere compositional strategies (cf. his work with Polwechsel, also featuring Stangl) are, at times, downright disturbing. It's usually about as far from the spaced-out hippy trippy of the wonderful (and wonderfully overhyped) Angus Maclise as you can get, and yet it's Maclise that comes to mind listening to this album. It's a decidedly relaxed affair, the title track sounding not unlike the aimless doodling of O'Rourke's live "In Bern" outing with Loren Connors. Things even almost get into a groove at one stage ­ apart from those occasional acerbic dissonances, it could almost be an old Larry Coryell lp played at half speed. Is the Grob label making a pitch for the mainstream? Change the typeface here a bit and it would even look like an ECM album (but the title will have to go: there's already a "Home" in Manfred Eicher's catalogue). The lugubrious tritones of "Is" (the seven track titles together read "Home Is Where My Hard Disk Was" ­ cute, eh?) belong in a film noir soundtrack; "Where" and "Hard" are somewhat more unsettling, but their sheer continuity tends to remove the element of surprise. Indeed, perhaps the most significant thing about this album is that there's hardly any silence, that necessary counterbalance that makes this kind of music utterly compelling rather than simply beautiful.

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Leo CD LR 346

This distinctly fun outing pitting Aki Takase's piano against Aleks Kolkowski's violin and Tony Buck's percussion (all three also play live electronics ­ "Dempa" being Japanese for "electrical wave") recalls those happy times when improvising pianists such as Misha Mengelberg and Steve Beresford could shift styles and idioms as easily as throwing a switch. Mengelberg and Beresford are, of course, both still active, but the spread of improvised music across the western world, while to be welcomed for its discovery of new talents and the proliferation of small labels, has also led to the creation of several cliques and factions each pursuing their agenda with dogmatic intensity ­ one wonders whether anyone today could record an album as batty as Beresford's "The Bath of Surprise". Fortunately, Aki Takase's music has remained fresh and open ­ she can smash the hell out of the piano when she wants to, but can also deftly pick out Monkish lines, driving Bartók ostinati and dazzling volleys worthy of Boulez. In choosing Kolkowski and Buck as playing partners, she knows she's in for quite a ride. Buck, who I once saw tip a bucket full of gravel over his kit to devastating effect, is a worthy successor to Han Bennink (those theatrical antics are always grounded in rock-solid technique), and Kolkowski's violin playing moves effortlessly between disarmingly straight classical and totally off-the-wall electronic. Come to think of it, "Nine Fragments" is something of a bath of surprise itself.

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Brett Larner / Taku Sugimoto plus...

Sparkling Beatnik SBR0028
Various Artists
A Bruit Secret 101/2

Be warned ­ remove "Deluxe Nakamura" from its transparent plastic sleeve and you might not be able to put it back: Brett Larner has designed a cunning system of packaging that encloses the CD in four folded pieces of coloured cardboard which, once undone, takes some putting back together. If mentioning this seems somehow irrelevant in a CD review, you'll have to forgive me ­ the music itself, which consists for the most part of very quiet scrapings and scratchings interspersed with silence, can only retain your undivided attention if you listen to it through headphones at considerable volume. Moreover, unlike the music of Radu Malfatti (whose influence Taku Sugimoto readily acknowledges ­ the two men finally played together for the first time recently in Vienna), there's not enough silence here to invest the sounds with any authority as formal or structural events in their own right. Sugimoto has more or less given up playing discernible pitches on his guitar (in fact, on "Nakamura Wonderland 1" he abandons the instrument altogether in favour of "small objects") ­ a shame, considering his real talent for placing just the right note in just the right place (cf. his solo albums "Opposite" and "Italia"). Similarly, Larner could, to all intents and purposes, be playing a shoebox with a few rubber bands strapped across it instead of the majestic koto (if you need to remind yourself of how wonderful he is on that instrument, go back to 1999's Leo Lab masterpiece "Indistancing" or last year's "Itakadimasu" on Spool). Now that reductionism seems to have become a fully-fledged idiomatic music in its own right, it's beginning to lose the one thing that makes improvised music enjoyable ­ its capacity to surprise; recent offerings from Sugimoto, Toshi Nakamura, Sachiko M and their newfound European sparring partner Annette Krebs are, in their own way, every bit as predictable as Evan Parker albums.
Given the sparse nature of this music, distinctions between what is improvised and what is composed cease to be aurally relevant; the double CD on Michel Henritzi's A Bruit Secret label (previous ABS releases have included solo offerings from Sugimoto, Nakamura and Krebs) documents "composed music", but there is little discernible difference between Sugimoto's "Two of Them" and his aforementioned duets with Larner, apart from the fact that the former features sporadic sinewave beeps from Sachiko M and tiny crackles from Tetuzi Akiyama's turntable. There are some real gems here ­ Sugimoto's "Air for the E-string" and Mari Furuta's "Echo", both for three acoustic guitars, are as natural and wonderfully poised as a bird sitting on a treetop, and the gleeful turntable trasher himself, Yoshihide Otomo, contributes a glorious patchwork of buzzes and rattles for his Portable Orchestra, whose sixteen members "play" radios, cell phones, shavers, food mixers, gameboys and.. hair remover (!?). Elsewhere though, this fragile music of tiny gestures and barely audible sounds seems to be dangerously close to refining itself out of existence.

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Copyright 2002 by Paris Transatlantic