February News 2003 Reviews by Dan Warburton and Walter Horn:



Guillermo E. Brown
Christopher Willits
Just In Case You Are Bored. So Are We
Essay: SET SAIL FOR THE SUN: a critical appraisal of Matthew Shipp's Thirsty Ear albums
Darin Gray
Cage, Feldman and de Alvear on OGRE OGRESS
Anthony Braxton
Grand Mal
Jason Bivins / Ian Davis
GAP
Noël Akchoté
Hecker
Walter Horn flashes back to Evan Parker on ECM
Last Month



Guillermo E. Brown
SOUL AT THE HANDS OF THE MACHINE
Thirsty Ear Blue Series THI 57118.2
by Dan Warburton
"Regardless of genre, music trends are showing a growing complacency to challenge convention. Feeling frustrated by this stagnancy, I realized that by creating a series of records marrying jazz's many languages, perhaps a new form could arise. The Blue Series attempts to do this in a way that will, hopefully, challenge, probe, excite and perhaps even anger listeners as we try to strip away conventions with a new convention." Guillermo E. Brown's "Soul at the Hands of the Machine" raises some key questions about the above-cited mission statement from Thirsty Ear's Peter Gordon. How far can one move outside the accepted framework of jazz (its instrumentation, performance and studio conventions, concept of repertoire) and still claim to be "jazz", as opposed to merely "jazzy"? Can "jazz" include slamming techno kick drum beats and ProTools mangled vocals, and if so, in what context? Brown, as a versatile and widely-read musician familiar with stylistic developments across the board, is obviously in his element here, throwing as many delicious ingredients into the gumbo as he can find, but is the dish served up at the end of it all going to be able to take its place on the soul food menu of the jazz restaurant? For example, one of the innovations of dub reggae that was enthusiastically seized upon by techno / trip hop / ambient was the splitting open of form made audible by taking what would normally be considered as "background" (bass, drums, horn arrangements, backing vocals..) and catapulting it to centre stage by mixing down - even deleting - the "foreground" (lead vocal). Whereas it took early dub masters such as Lee Perry, Keith Hudson and King Tubby literally hours of painstaking studio work to achieve, there are today throughout the world thousands - maybe millions - of people with enough equipment (synths, samplers, software) in their bedrooms to put the old Black Ark studios to shame. Of course, what Guillermo Brown might cobble together in his bedroom is far more interesting and musically cogent than something turned out by some spotty teen in the middle of nowhere, but it runs the same risks. Taking Daniel Carter's sax and placing it way back in the mix (with reverb to boot) on tracks such as "Manganese" seems to be an attempt to import dub methodology into the sphere of jazz production, but ignores an essential difference between the hierarchical assignment of roles within a jazz combo as opposed to a reggae band - in jazz, the soloist is up front and centre stage, but the relationship between soloist and rhythm section behind is more flexible (dialectic if you will), more subject to change than that between a pop vocal and its accompaniment (likely as not overdubbed after the vocals were laid down). The impression given by many of the tracks on Brown's album is that the fragments of flute and sax are relegated to the status of mere embellishment - it's those dense pulsing rhythm tracks (Brown's powerhouse drumming is more often than not backed up by FLAM's hefty programming and mixing) that constitute the core of each piece. Brown's lengthy thanks to all and sundry involved on the inner sleeve, from girlfriend to grandfather, reads like any run-of-the-mill hip-hop album, and tracks like "Inside the Purple Box" are just crying out for someone to pick up the mic and start freestyling on top. It's all very impressive stuff, and reveals a deep knowledge and understanding on Brown's part of the wider world of popular music from 808 State to Inner City to Ninja Tune, but surely "stripping away conventions with a new convention" means going deeper into more dangerous territory than this.


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Christopher Willits
FOLDING, AND THE TEA
12k 1021
by Dan Warburton
If a sound played in reverse is analogous to a piece of paper being folded back upon itself, and the gentle click of colliding soundfiles represents the crease that marks that fold, then Christopher Willits' album is a veritable origami manual. With the exception of "Scrims." (and that period is essential - punctuation is all-important here), all the tracks on "Folding, And The Tea" revisit the same territory, guitar lines looped back upon themselves to form intricate and disarmingly pretty cats' cradles of unashamedly tonal harmony. The fragmented surfaces of Daniel Lentz often come to mind, as does the sheen of Stephan Basho-Junghans (when the guitar is more identifiable as a guitar), but a more recent reference - and inspiration, it would seem, for dozens of laptoppers - is Fennesz's "Endless Summer". It's all surface, folding, clicks and cuts, but strip that away and you're left with rather bland eleventh and thirteenth chords, and little else. Just as the most beautiful piece of origami can be unfolded to reveal itself as a perfectly ordinary piece of paper.


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JUST IN CASE YOU'RE BORED. SO ARE WE
dieb 13 / Pure / Siewert
JUST IN CASE YOU'RE BORED. SO ARE WE
dOc 004
by Dan Warburton
Is it too early to nominate this as Album Title Of The Year? Further proof that Vienna is still where it's happening, this collaboration between turntablist dieb13, guitarist Martin Siewert (both members of Boris Hauf's Efzeg project) and Mego's Pure, here billed as "mobile computing", is a superbly crafted example of what that great city seems to be very good at these days: predominantly slow-moving, rich (as opposed to merely dense) and rewarding electro-acoustical improvisation. Though the cover art montages images of Death Valley (Zabriskie Point, if I'm not mistaken), the Kansas of John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" comes to mind.. This is a listening experience analogous to that feeling you get looking out of the window during a long train journey - fence posts and wires close to the track fairly whiz by, while buildings and trees in the mid-distance seem to drift along at a leisurely pace and those mountains on the horizon hardly seem to be moving at all; it's all a question of which plane you choose to focus on. Like Death Valley, it seems to be arid and forbidding until you suddenly realise that there are literally millions of things to experience. But you can, if you prefer, gaze at the distant mountains. Unlike some of the more claustrophobic recent offerings from Grob and Erstwhile, this music admits the idea of relaxed (I hesitate to use the word "ambient" though it did come to mind) listening as easily as repays any attention you care to lavish on it. Just in case you're interested, so am I.


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SET SAIL FOR THE SUN : MATTHEW SHIPP'S THIRSTY EAR ALBUMS

by Dan Warburton
The assumption of the generation of jazz musicians who cut their teeth in the 1950s was that the free players did what they did basically because they didn't have the necessary chops to cut it with the bop cats (remember Charles Mingus' magnificent tirade stating that if they put their minds to it, he, Clark Terry and Duke could come up with a free jazz album that would blow Ornette and the others out of the water?). While that may or may not be true (and begs the question as to why Mingus thought a grounding in basic technique and repertoire was an essential prerequisite), several musicians who emerged on the scene as free players in the late 60s / early 70s have frequently felt the need to go back to The Tradition, either to give it a friendly, irreverent kick in the pants (Misha Mengelberg) or to recontextualize it as part of a larger lifework's continuum (Braxton), but more often than not to prove to the wider public that they can also play legit as well as the others if they choose to. The problem is that most of them can't. Since the teaching of jazz became legitimised as a professional career option in the USA at the end of the 1960s (a move subsequently widely emulated outside the States), American universities and colleges have been producing literally dozens of technically outstanding musicians each year, young cats who can sit in with any established band in town and trot out the Real Book in any key the leader chooses to name on the count of four. Of course, none of these characters has more than an ounce of genuine originality, and couldn't (wouldn't dare, wouldn't even understand why they should even try to) produce music as extraordinary and on-the-edge as, say, Frank Lowe's 1973 "Black Beings". And that's fine - it takes all sorts to make a world, and if you're a painter and choose to spend your time churning out godawful daubs of Notre Dame de Paris to sell to gullible tourists in the streets of Montmartre, you probably don't feel any pressing need to turn out a Pollock or a Rothko merely to prove you're hip to what's happening in the avant-garde. And yet, coming from the other direction, we have the pathetic spectacle - pathetic in the real sense of the word, as in inducing pity - of free jazz veterans thirty years on getting hopelessly lost trying to play standards.
The question I'm getting at, which is the central preoccupation of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, is where does jazz go from here? Now that a whole new generation of kids are getting into free improvisation (thanks in part to the boundless enthusiasm of high-profile figures like John Zorn, Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke), kids coming from a resolutely non-jazz background who are more likely to be hunting for a copy of "Alabama Feeling" than "Money Jungle", what does it mean to be a modern jazz musician in America (or, for that matter, anywhere) today? The answer - one possible answer - is to return that Tradition and try to reclaim it from Wynton Marsalis, whose smooth retro nostalgia for suits, ties and mid-60s Miles has incensed a whole generation of musicians as much as it has delighted the play-it-safe bourgeois marketplace and the major label sharks who patrol it.
"Regardless of genre, music trends are showing a growing complacency to challenge convention. Feeling frustrated by this stagnancy, I realized that by creating a series of records marrying jazz's many languages, perhaps a new form could arise. The Blue Series attempts to do this in a way that will, hopefully, challenge, probe, excite and perhaps even anger listeners as we try to strip away conventions with a new convention." So writes Executive Producer Peter Gordon in a text printed on the inside of the back tray card of each release in theThirsty Ear Blue Series. Pianist Matthew Shipp, as curator of the Series, is acutely aware of the risk involved, and his own output on the label - five albums so far: "Pastoral Composure", "New Orbit", "Nu-Bop", "Equilibrium" and "Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp" - has approached the problem from different angles, with, as we shall see, varying degrees of success.
"Pastoral Composure" (Thirsty Ear THI 57084.2), recorded on January 6th 2000, opens with "Gesture", whose G flattened-second tonality (which could come straight out of Zorn's Masada songbook, another path Downtown jazz chose to follow a decade ago and one curiously bypassed by the Blue Series) becomes nothing less than a harmonic prison whose walls Shipp and bassist William Parker seem content to shore up with oppressive pedal points underpinned by Gerald Cleaver's militaristic drumming. Trumpeter Roy Campbell is as inventive as one can be under the circumstances, but when he finally runs out of ideas, well, so does the piece. It's a curious and unsettling way to start an album. The ensuing "Visions", a straight swinging D minor blues, could quite easily have been penned forty years ago by Coltrane, and Shipp, after kicking off his solo with a clear nod to Duke ("East St Louis Toodle-Oo" in fact), pursues a resolutely boppish path throughout; the heavy left hand reiterating the same chordal configurations coupled with darting right recalls Don Pullen (who was able to move from bop to funk to free more easily - Pullen recorded several outstanding minor mode blues workouts with the quartet he co-led with George Adams). Behind it all, Parker's walking lines are solid but nowhere near as varied as what a Mingus or a Chambers - or even the Adams/Pullen quartet's Cameron Brown - might have come up with, and Cleaver sounds rather wooden in comparison to an Elvin Jones or a Dannie Richmond. One suspects that had this selfsame recording been submitted to Thirsty Ear by four unknown musicians from rural Slovenia, it might have been frisbeed into the out tray after one listening. But this is Matthew Shipp, one of the most talented and original pianists of his generation, and William Parker, arguably the most well known (and certainly the hardest working) bassist on the scene. What conclusions can be drawn, then? As irony doesn't seem to be involved (there's no place for cheeky subversives like Mengelberg and Bennink in this band), we're forced to assume that these guys are playing it straight.
Shipp's take on "Prelude to a Kiss" is equally revelatory; whizzing through the theme with its time-honoured chord voicings in almost peremptory fashion, he takes the melody line and subjects it to a brief contrapuntal workout before his trademark left hand thunks put a stop to proceedings. He sounds almost relieved to rediscover the theme and get out of there. In a way, there is a distancing involved here that was not apparent in "Visions" (and Shipp is as good as Misha at dismantling an old chestnut when he wants to be - I cherish fond memories of a mind-blowing "Take The A Train" with William Parker and Rob Brown at a concert I attended three years ago); rather than appropriating the standard, making it truly his own (Monk's 1955 Ellington covers inevitably come to mind), it's as if he's standing back from the Tradition as an observer - here it is, I can play it straight and will do so just to prove it, but.. what should I do next? The title track finds Shipp in more familiar territory, piling up fourths and octaves to carve his Aeolian mode out of the living rock of Parker's turbulent bass and Cleaver's washes of cymbals and tom-toms, while Campbell's flugelhorn soars above. While "Progression" returns to mid-tempo swing with walking bass, the harmonic complexity of its elegant head (Andrew Hill comes to mind) gives Parker and Shipp more room to move about in, unlike the blues straightjacket of the earlier "Visions". Then, surprise, the old traditional children's canon "Frčre Jacques", which Shipp underpins with a relentless mid-register D pedal until Campbell takes him way out. Here the theme is as well known and recognisable as one of Albert Ayler's classic heads ("Ghosts", "Spirits"..) and functions in precisely the same way, as structural demarcation. It's intriguing that, after this, the full quartet is not heard again - and the trio freebop of "Merge" is like a breath of fresh air; freed from rhythmic constraints, Parker and Cleaver shuffle along joyfully, providing the perfect supple backdrop for Shipp's inventive soloing. Campbell sits this one out, but returns on "Inner Order" to duet with Parker, before Shipp concludes proceedings with a brief but eloquent solo, "XTU".
If "Pastoral Composure" is an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to come to terms with a wide range of sub-genres within The Tradition (Coltrane's blues, Hill's hard bop, Ayler's free gospel), Shipp wisely chooses to narrow the focus on "New Orbit" (Thirsty Ear THI 57095.2, recorded on September 14th 2000). The line-up is the same, except that Campbell is replaced by Wadada Leo Smith, whose glorious wide-open tone seems more adapted to the proceedings. This time the whole album is carefully structured, with the opening title track returning three times ("Orbit 2" and "Orbit 3" are solo readings of the theme, the first by Shipp, the second by Parker, the closing "Orbit 4" a bass/piano duet), and the Lydian G mode that permeates all four "Orbits" looks further back in time than George Russell's celebrated concept - Shipp's solo reading of the theme is almost medieval in its tonal austerity (re-record in cavernous acoustic of Rainbow Studios, add one Jan Garbarek and presto! ECM hit record). Fortunately Shipp intersperses his orbits with material of a more diverse and challenging nature: on "Paradox X" he remains inside the piano, accepting all the inherent risks that can pose (unless you spend a couple of hours chalking the strings, you're never quite sure exactly which note you're plucking inside there). Smith comes sailing back on "Chi" (seems recording engineer Carl Seltzer was more enthusiastic with the reverb than he was on "Pastoral Composure"), and after Parker's brief tremolo orbit, things really take off on "U Feature". Shipp sits this one out, but returns in pensive mood on "Syntax", another lyrical modal reading that would have Mr. Eicher reaching for the phone. Smith's languid vibrato, perfectly supported by the reverberant acoustic, is ideal for a piece that unfolds with gentle but implacable determination as if it had all the time in the world to do so. There seems to be no pressure for the musicians to compete here, neither with each other nor with serried ranks of the jazz forefathers; this music creates its own space - and inhabits it fully. The brief "Maze Hint" that follows is the perfect foil (maybe you were expecting another "Orbit"?), providing the necessary breathing space before the penultimate "Paradox Y", which, thanks to Parker's intense bowed drones and Smith's razor-sharp muted work, takes the album to new heights of intensity. The brief epilogue of "Orbit 4" stands not only as milestone to show how far we've travelled on this wonderful journey, but also loops us back to the beginning if need be to relive the cycle. The pianist could not have chosen a more appropriate title than "Orbit".
Well over a year went by before Shipp's next outing for the Blue Series, "Nu Bop" (Thirsty Ear THI 57114.2), on which he was joined by the ubiquitous Parker, saxophonist Daniel Carter, and drummer Guillermo Brown (Shipp's stable mate from the David Ware Quartet) on drums, and, last but most definitely not least, Chris Flam on synths and programming. If, on "New Orbit", Shipp was happy to float through space and time, "Nu Bop" brings him crashing back to the street. You'd be hard pressed to find a Radio Raheem walking the streets with anything from "New Orbit" blasting out of his boom box, but tracks like "Space Shipp" and "Nu-Bop" might just cut it.
Let's just be clear for a moment here: if you're going to use synth and drum programming on an album featuring musicians of the calibre of William Parker and Daniel Carter, you probably shouldn't just plug the boxes into a socket in the studio and hit the RECORD button. There are two ways of doing it, the first being laying down the instrumentals first and sticking the beats and scratches on top later. Risky, this: real life musicians are nowhere near as accurate as drum synthesizers when it comes to keeping time. (Don't believe that? Take one of the world's greatest rhythm sections, Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond, in one of their most outrageously hard-swinging recordings, "So Long Eric" from the 1964 "Live at Town Hall" album, stick it on your hard drive as a .wav file, establish the opening tempo as accurately as you can, programme in a straight 4/4 click track in that tempo to coincide with the opening of the piece, press play and see who finishes first.. try it.) The other way is to lay down rhythm tracks in advance and then put live stuff on top, which is what I suspect Matthew Shipp and the team on "Nu-Bop" opted for (this might explain why the rhythm tracks cut out before the instruments on several cuts). Whether that's the case or not, the fact remains that the rhythmic subtleties of real drummers the calibre of Guillermo Brown are infinitely more complex than what can be programmed into a machine - and there's still the question of dynamics to consider: once those titanic beats are up and running (in the title track, even more so in "D's Choice") there's no way (short of remixing when it's all over) that a musician can suddenly drop the volume and take his colleagues in a different direction. There are glimpses of human life here - Carter's flute and Parker's bass interlude, "X-Ray", for example, but for the most part the beat is omnipresent and suffocating, if seductive and foot tapping; there seems to be little room for genuine dialogue. If musicians can find ways to combat hip-hop's relentless periodicity by superimposing more complex metres that introduce rhythmic ambiguity and perceptual danger, all well and good (Shipp achieves this in his solo on "Rocket Shipp", but he's got some distance to go if he wants to compete with Steve Coleman: a track like "D's Choice", with its interminable pentatonic crashing chords - Bobby Few was doing this thirty years ago with Frank Wright - doesn't seem to go anywhere). However, if the resulting polyrhythm itself becomes just as much of a prison as the groove it set out to subvert, then nothing much is gained: it doesn't take long to figure out that the closing "Select Mode 2" is nothing more than a 20 + 8 beat cycle (16 measures of 5/16 plus 2 of 4/4). Instead of trying to solo over the cycle, Shipp remains firmly anchored to the riff, leaving Guillermo Brown to throw in a few energetic fills and runs. It's not only a disappointing way to end an album, but a rather distressing one, as it would seem to result in just the "stagnancy" that Peter Gordon's mission statement set out to avoid. Then again, as Gordon warned, I might just be one of those listeners who are angered rather than excited by what they hear.
Matthew Shipp has threatened to go into retirement before, and is doing so once more. The aptly-named "Equilibrium" (Thirsty Ear THI 57127.2) - Shipp deserves special credit for coming up with thought-provoking and relevant track and album titles - seems to indicate that he's at one of art's fabled crossroads, torn between taking the well-lit street of hip-hop or the rubble-strewn back alley of free jazz. The ordering of the tracks here deliberately juxtaposes the two styles, acknowledging the fact that Shipp feels equally attracted to both. The beautiful, crystalline modal fluidity of the title track (surely the most gorgeous vibes / piano interplay since Gary Burton took on Keith Jarrett 31 years ago!) is immediately challenged by the hefty low-end groove of "Vamp to Vibe" - but behind the apparent contrast of style and rhythm, there is harmonic common ground between the two. The following "Nebula Theory" is a mysterious and melancholy landscape, with Parker's mournful bowed lines supported by eerie clangs from Khan Jamal's vibes. But why is Shipp sitting out so soon? He's back in action on "Cohesion" (another purely modal harmonic structure - this time Phrygian), but once again his right hand sounds to be trying - in vain - to break out of the regular sixteenth-note grid imposed by the beat, even if FLAM's programming is more discreet and supportive of the drummer (Gerald Cleaver here) than it was on "Nu-Bop". Cleaver exchanges sticks for brushes at the opening of the elegant "World of Blue Glass", but even this apparently straightforward ballad is not without its surprises.. What is that clang from the piano top F at 1'03"? Did the pianist leave something inside the instrument or is it FLAM sniping from the wings? The tempo remains relaxed but there's a steadily building, almost scary intensity here, reinforced by Parker's bass line and Shipp's dense left-hand voicings. Why the next track, "Portal", made it to the disc is a real mystery - this snippet of a jazz waltz (only 1'13" long) seems little more than an introduction to a vibes solo from Jamal that fades out before it even gets going. Leaving question marks hanging in the air, it's the perfect introduction to the next track, "The Root", in which Shipp finds himself right at the crossroads, layering his trademark dense polytonal harmonies over an insistent percussion groove. Jamal's soloing jazz, and Parker walks behind him, steadfastly refusing to play Bootsy, but that percussion groove is most definitely funk. Not surprisingly perhaps, nothing is resolved, and the track ends with Jamal's chords floating in space. "The Key" once more finds the pianist absent, and while Parker and Jamal keep the jazz home fires burning, there's a nagging edge to Cleaver's swing that seems to be trying to break out of the matrix. The final track, accordingly, is entitled "Nu Matrix", and opens with some disturbing loops echoing into what sounds like a deserted subway station; Shipp's piano is flanged and modulated into something truly strange. Very few albums end so ambiguously; if Shipp is asking us (and one presumes himself) where jazz goes from here, "Equilibrium" provides no clear answer, but rarely has question been posed so eloquently.
Rewind to Peter Gordon's mission statement. If the Blue Series' highly acclaimed Spring Heel Jack and DJ Spooky projects represent one challenge to convention, by fragmenting and reconfiguring it, another way of reclaiming jazz from the middle-class middle-income middle-aged market is to take it back to the youngsters. That means either going techno or going hip-hop, and, as SHJ's "Masses" and "Amassed", impressive though they may be, are hardly techno propositions (imagine the look of horror on the faces of those who bought them expecting a return to the sleek drum'n'bass of "These Are Strings" and "68 Million Shades"!), that leaves hip-hop. Shipp, as we have seen, had already taken (tentative) steps in that direction on "Nu-Bop" and "Equilibrium".
Marrying jazz and hip-hop is nothing new; it's been on the agenda of several musicians (and no doubt on the mind of numerous profit-hungry record company executives) since Miles came back from the dead and started covering Michael Jackson. Once DJs had exhausted the back catalogues of James Brown and George Clinton for material to sample, they turned their attention to the funky organ grooves of Blue Note, creating a whole new movement (the unfortunately named "Acid Jazz") and an unprecedented demand for original vinyls by Groove Holmes and Charles Kynard - I know, I was one of those buying - backed up by slick little slogans like "you gotta know Blue Note to dig Def Jam". The generation of jazz musicians who grew up in the 1970s (i.e. with JB and Parliament/Funkadelic ringing in their ears) took to funk like fishes to water: Steve Coleman (and the various members of his M-Base collective, including Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson and Robin Eubanks) was able to incorporate duple-time funk beats into his music without compromising its complexity (try transcribing "Ice Moves" on 1990's "Rhythm People" and you'll have a hell of job - but you'll be damned if your feet don't stop tapping for a moment), and the funk gradually displaced the jazz (a critical shift for Coleman was when he replaced drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith with Gene Lake), until the moment finally came when the rappers themselves took to the stage. Coleman's 1994 EP "Tale of 3 Cities" marked a key moment in the genre, but in retrospect perhaps neither the jazz public nor the mass market was ready for the verbal skills of Sub Zero, Kokayi and Shahliek. Rap at the time was descending from the lofty heights of Public Enemy and Eric B into the gutter of gangsta's stupid and offensive expletives (and was to stoop even lower before picking itself up just a couple of years ago - only the Wu Tang seemed to keep it alive during the dark years of the late 90s), and die-hard M-Base fans had a hard time hearing Coleman's dazzling irregular metrics replaced by solid four-in-a-bar grooves the rappers wouldn't get lost over.
Now that hip-hop has shaken off some of the MTV glittery trash of Puff Daddy and Notorious BIG and Tupac lie quietly at last beneath their tombstones, the re-emergence of intelligent lyrics and creative producing means the time is about right to try again and reintegrate it into the long-forgotten family home of jazz. "On the face of it," commented Shipp in a recent interview, "free jazz and hip-hop are just things you would never consider being together. But if you really look beneath the surface, there are points where they come together." Perhaps somebody could persuade him to be a little more specific here, for although the latter's antecedents in funk are clearly audible, there would seem on the face of it to be little musical common ground between the two, neither rhythmically (there don't seem to be many hip-hop producers queueing up to sample Sunny Murray and Milford Graves) nor melodically (when Public Enemy's producer Hank Shocklee wanted a blast of screaming "free" sax, he sourced it from James Brown, not from Albert Ayler or Frank Wright). So how has Matthew Shipp fared?
For those who have been waiting with bated breath for the long-awaited collaboration between a major jazz figure once more threatening retirement and arguably the most innovative hip-hop group of the past five years now officially celebrating their own demise, "Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp" (Thirsty Ear THI 57120.2) is something of a disappointment. The opening "Places I've Never Been" samples Shipp's piled up fourths and fifths and locks them into a regular four-bar two-chord harmonic cycle that goes round the block eight times before the piano cuts out to leave just the bare bones of a hip-hop track, bass, beats and a dab of spacey synth. We're waiting for something to happen - and it doesn't; the title presumably refers to what the music is searching for rather than what it actually finds. On "Staph" the rappers check in, but Shipp's contribution is once more limited to looped samples of his right hand chords - the fabulous harmonic ambiguity of his left hand that dynamized dozens of albums with David S. Ware apparently has no place here. Maybe the Consortium had problems with "dissonance" and asked for something more mainstream to rap over; if so, Shipp provides it on "Slow Horn", which revisits Miles' "All Blues" (hardly free jazz!), abandoning the triple time of the original in favour of the inevitable 4/4 plod of hip-hop in the process. On "A Knot in Your Bop", a 12/8 cycle of arpeggios goes round and round until a somewhat unimaginative synth bass pops up half way through the track. Not much else happens. "Sup" belongs to APC (Parker's bowed intro sounds as if it was grafted on as an afterthought), but the rappers lay out on "Coda", an elegiac if slightly sombre ballad improvisation for Shipp and Parker. After some imaginative wordplay on "Stream Light" (incorporating the same Shipp samples used earlier in "Staph" - a quest for global coherence, or proof of paucity of material?), "Monstro City" starts out with a muscular Shipp solo, once more built over a two-chord jam, and when the rap kicks in one gets the impression that the real album is at last finally underway, after several extended introductions. "Real is Surreal" is equally encouraging, but a casual glance at the CD player reveals that, with "Free Hop", time's up. This last track is more bop than hop, and it's unclear what part APC have played in the proceedings, apart from scrambling things up on the hard drive at the mixing stage. Khan Jamal's vibes, normally so clear and evanescent, sound particularly strange, and Daniel Carter's trumpet is sent through several cavernous pans and echoes, but despite such seemingly unnecessary post-production, the track still rocks and actually manages to generate a head of steam (it's also the longest piece on the album - by some one and half minutes) until the cute "this-is-just-a-recording" trompe l'oreille of the ending pulls the plug. One can hope that more sparks will fly on Shipp's forthcoming release later this year with ex Co Flow rapper El-P.
"There have been people that combined jazz and hip-hop and stuff in the past, but I think actually trying to take the real hardcore essence of free jazz and the real hardcore essence of beats and hip-hop and organically combine them, it seems like a fresh frontier," Shipp commented in November 2002 to journalist Andrew Dansby, a quotation that goes to the heart of the matter. What is the real hardcore essence of beats and hip-hop? Presumably, at least, beats, i.e. more or less regular rhythmic periodicity (it doesn't have to be basic and binary either, as Steve Coleman's work has showed, even though it more often than not is). And what, more crucially from Shipp's perspective, is the real hardcore essence of free jazz? The problem with this latter (and surely one of its strengths and most treasured values) is that the words "free jazz", unlike "bebop" or "swing" or even "jazz rock" do not describe one musicologically coherent and classifiable idiom, but a multitude thereof. There is a world of difference between the tightly organised composition of Cecil Taylor's "Unit Structures" and the ecstatic blow-out of Arthur Doyle's "Alabama Feeling", between Coltrane's "Olatunji Concert" and Anthony Braxton's "3 Compositions of New Jazz", between the pastoral composure of Marion Brown's "Afternoon of a Georgia Faun" and Art Ensemble's "Urban Bushmen". Shipp is, of course, correct when he acknowledges that others have combined jazz and hip-hop: want to hear a superb piano solo in a rap context? Try "Driveby Miss Daisy" by Compton's Most Wanted. Elegant recontextualising of Ellington samples? Try "Destination: Bakiff" on Jon Hassell's criminally neglected "Dressing for Pleasure". Intelligent and virtuoso rapping over complex funk metres? Steve Coleman's "The Way of the Cipher". None of these albums are all that recent, which would seem to indicate either that the objective of fusing jazz and hip-hop has already been realised and the results deserve to be put on pedestals (and I'm not prepared to accept that), or that there remains work to be done. There is much to admire on "Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp", but the abiding impression is of a series of sketches for something that might one day become a finished painting. To return to the above hypothesis of Shipp's being torn between two contrasting aesthetics, groove and freebop, regularly cycling harmonic changes and melodically determined structures, the street of "Nu-Bop" and the sky of "New Orbit", it should be clear from the above which direction I believe he should be going in - as the man said, "Space is the Place".


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Darin Gray
ST. LOUIS SHUFFLE
Family Vineyard FV17
by Dan Warburton
This splendidly rugged solo bass album is a distant cousin to Mike Bullock's acoustic (well, sort of) bass outing "Initial" (on his Chloë label), in that both manage to transport their instruments so far away from their traditional habitats as to render them almost unrecognisable, and thereby fresh and challenging. However, whereas Bullock's music emerges gradually from background chatter in the genteel surroundings of an art gallery, Gray's vicious monster has to be confined to the relative safety of a home studio. For those out there who think solo bass means Jaco playing "Portrait of Tracy", think again. That said, if their titles are anything to go by, many of these nineteen brief tracks would appear to be portraits. But if they are, they're portraits Francis Bacon style, with garish colours, exposed twisted grins and enough teeth to do a shark proud. "T.S. Eliot" starts out as lugubrious and dismal as the writer became in real life, though there would seem to be little biographical event in his life to correspond to the burglar alarm maelstrom that explodes halfway through Gray's track. The bassist sometimes favours long bowed sonorities, sometimes basks in the dark reverberant gloom of low-end feedback ("Kate Chopin") but more often than not goes for all out attack - and yet the silence he inserts between his ecstatic splinters is just as electric as the noises themselves. As a former Brise-Glace sparring partner of Jim O'Rourke and Kevin Drumm, and frequent collaborator with Loren Connors, it's clear Gray didn't pick up his phenomenal technique from playing along with Stanley Clarke. Imagine a cross between Taku Sugimoto and Black Woman-era Sonny Sharrock. Impossible you say? Well, check it out. Solo electric bass albums are few and far between, and they rarely come as good as this.


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OgreOgress
John Cage
THREE2 / TWENTY-THREE / SIX / TWENTY-SIX
OgreOgress UPC 643157094623
John Cage ONEviolin
OgreOgress UPC 643157094425
John Cage FOUR4
OgreOgress UPC 643157094524
Morton Feldman VIOLIN AND STRING QUARTET
OgreOgress UPC 643157069027
Maria de Alvear FUERZAS
OgreOgress UPC 643157112921
by Dan Warburton
"It was part I thought of a movement in composition away from structure into process, away from an object having parts into what you might call weather," John Cage wrote of his later music in the 1988 mesostic "Composition in Retrospect". A casual glance at the enormous Cage discography reveals numerous recordings of the so-called "number" pieces, which might give the impression they're in some way "easier" (to execute) than some of his monumental earlier scores. However, there's nothing more complex than weather, and truly great performances of these at times austere pieces are thin on the ground. These releases on the OgreOgress imprint provide ample proof that violinist / violist Christina Fong and percussionist Glenn Freeman have succeeded where several have failed in rising to the works' aesthetic challenges.
"Three2", originally written for Michael Pugliese in 1991, doesn't specify instrumentation; Freeman's choice of long-resonance metal instruments (mark tree, suspended cymbal, flexatone..) lends the piece an eerie, frosty sheen. "Twenty-Three" dates from 1988, and is scored for thirteen violins, five violas and five celli - hats off to Fong for patiently multi-tracking eighteen parts (and to cellist Karen Krummel for taking care of the remaining five) - whose sustained vibratoless tones combine to producing a glistening microtonal icon not unlike the earlier works of Horatiu Radulescu. "Six" (1991), only previously available (in two different takes) on the much-trumpeted Sonic Youth double "Goodbye 20th Century", finds Freeman's percussion adrift on an ice floe in a three-minute Arctic thunderstorm, chilling out with sleigh bells, bowed gongs and cymbals and ghostly rumbles. One small gripe: a few more seconds' breathing space would have been nice before Fong returns to the attack with "Twenty-Six", for no less than twenty-six violins and lasting, yes, twenty-six minutes. Attack, in fact, is absolutely the wrong word to use to describe how these exquisite washes of sound appear; one wonders if Cage, great student of Zen that he was, had the sound of the Japanese sho (mouth organ) in mind.
"Oneviolin" finds Fong negotiating the physically exhausting long tones of 1990's "One6" with patience and rigour. Patience is what's required for the listener too: the work was originally designed to accompany tiny pebbles falling off a melting ice sculpture by Mineko Grimmer, and it's a shame Fong couldn't have incorporated that added element of quiet danger in her version. For convenience's sake the forty-six minute work is indexed as three tracks, though exactly why a listener might want to skip forward through this music is unclear (it's a bit like deciding to run a marathon and then accepting someone's offer to give you a lift halfway to the finishing line). "One10", one of Cage's very last works, is, if anything, even more austere: the violinist is called upon to play only natural harmonics. Every tiny nuance of the sound as the bow passes across the strings is laid bare, every miniscule and inevitable fluctuation of pitch exposed as bow direction is changed. Take it from a violinist, this stuff is not easy to pull off. The word is naked, which might explain the elegant photography of Fong on the album cover (though what Cage would have made of it is perhaps another question).
"Four4" was written for the four-man Amadinda Percussion Group from Hungary (who released their version of the piece on Hungaroton in 2000), and its four parts contain respectively 22, 16, 10 and 15 time-brackets each. Instrumentation is not specified but numbered - the performer can choose which instrument a given number represents - and Freeman has once more opted for sustained sounds, not only the obvious gongs and cymbals but also rolled drums and rattles. It's beautifully done, but you need time and concentration to get the most out of it.
With the world-premiere recording of Morton Feldman's 1985 "Violin and String Quartet", featuring Fong and the Rangzen Quartet, all of the composer's monumental late (post 1981) works are now available on disc for those with the time - and budget - available to appreciate them. Each of these pieces has its own special colour (to borrow an analogy from the world of painting he loved so much) deriving from a kernel of harmonic material; in "Violin and String Quartet" the whole tone (and its inversion, the minor seventh), particularly pitches A and G, is the work's central motive, and the harmonic language is accordingly less chromatic than in other late Feldman works (though it should be said words such as "diatonic" and "chromatic" are pretty useless as adjectives to describe harmony that is effectively both). Compared to the beautiful but rather frosty readings of Feldman's string pieces by the Ives Ensemble on hat[now]Art, Fong's discreet but wistful vibrato and occasional use of portamento imbues the music with a twinge of Romanticism that might not appeal to some po-faced purists, but it serves both to differentiate Fong's playing from the other two violinists and to underline the warmth and humanity of the composer's work (both all too often overlooked). The rich soundscapes of "Violin and String Quartet" are welcome proof that truly top-notch performances of American experimental music do not have to be dry and ascetic to succeed fully.
With typical razzle, the Village Voice's Kyle Gann describes Spanish-born Maria de Alvear as "the most original young composer in Europe" (quite a claim, and one we could happily discuss over several pages). "Fuerzas" is a sixty-six minute span of unbroken melody written in 1994 (the composer's stated interest in automatic writing leads one to suppose that the notation of the work's eternally flowing homophony was improvised, as it were), exquisitely performed by Fong on viola. De Alvear's quest for shamanistic and the spiritual imparts a timeless quality to this music that is beautifully enhanced by the warm and resonant acoustic of the Basilica of Saint Adalbert (Grand Rapids, MI) in which it was recorded. Deceptively simple but utterly haunting.


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Anthony Braxton
TRIO & DUET
Sackville SKCD2-3007
by Dan Warburton
The welcome reissue of another page in the Sackville back catalogue - between 1974 and 1980 Bill Smith's label curated key releases by Don Pullen, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill and Anthony Davis - features two distinct sides (literally so on the original vinyl) of Anthony Braxton's groundbreaking work. "Composition 36", on which he teams up (on clarinets) with Leo Smith's trumpets and Richard Teitelbaum's Moog (all three also double on percussion) is an intricate and elegiac exploration of timbre, acoustic and electronic, that sounds as fresh and surprising today as it must have back in 1974. While this fabulous piece extends the jazz / improvised music tradition by stretching it into the leftfield towards contemporary classical, the original B side showcases Braxton's other attitude to tradition, namely the pleasure of jumping right back in there and pulling everything to pieces from the inside. Partnered by Dave Holland (outstanding as ever), Braxton - on alto alone - takes apart "The Song Is You", "Embraceable You" and "You Go To My Head" with exemplary precision. His phrasing cuts beautifully across conventional barlines and subsections as delineated by the form of the standard (Stuart Broomer is right to compare these duets to Eric Dolphy's work with Richard Davis) and Holland is with him every step of the way. A joy.


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Grand Mal
PERFECT FIT
Unsounds 03
by Dan Warburton
Grand Mal is a three-piece electronic improv trio consisting of British-born percussionist, sound designer, sculptor and educator Justin Bennett, Anne Wellmer on keyboards, drum machine and Powerbook, and vocalist Stephie Büttrich, and the sixteen tracks of "Perfect Fit" (ranging in duration from 1'33" to 6'52") form an accessible and thought-provoking introduction to the diversity of their work. Büttrich's multi-lingual texts range from strangled sound poetry ("Moeilijke bijeenkomst") to breathy and beautiful jazz (a wonderful cover of Charles Mingus' "Eclipse"), sometimes in the same song ("Peel me a grape"). "C" (excuse my computer's inability to reproduce the encircled "c" indicating "copyright") finds her reading extracts of copyright law over a gradually assembling triple time techno beat, while on "Schat" she sounds like a bizarre Dutch hybrid of an angry tomcat and Donald Duck. On "707" her standard airhostess safety routine speech, becoming progressively more feral and insane - imagine Laurie Anderson morphing into Shelley Hirsch - will have you running for the emergency exits. Not surprisingly, Wellmer and Bennett's percussion runs the stylistic gamut from the abstract to the tribal, and the electronics they lay down point all over the new music map from Bennink splatter drumming to Erstwhile-style electronica, tablas, zithers and ARP synthesizers combining to produce intriguing and highly enjoyable music. "Perfect Fit" is a fine and superbly recorded album that richly repays repeated listening, but if you organise your record collection along the same lines as I do (distinct sections for jazz/improv, rock/electronica and contemporary classical), you're going to have a hard time deciding which shelf to put it on. Get a copy now and worry about that later.


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Jason Bivins / Ian Davis
BENTHIC
Family Vineyard FV20
by Dan Warburton
In the never-ending quest to "make it new", musicians who play instruments with a long and varied tradition of performance practice are often forced to choose between referencing that tradition (and accepting the inevitable comparisons with past masters) or trying to go beyond it into the uncharted waters of "extended technique". For a drummer, that means coming to terms with the best part of a century of jazz and thirty-odd years of improvised music, while an electric guitarist has the awesome back catalogue of rock to contend with, not to mention a whole string of innovative improvised guitar albums by the likes of Alan Licht, Rafael Toral, Hans Tammen and Kevin Drumm (to name but a few). But why choose when you can have both? Percussionist Ian Davis, whose Micro-East Collective has produced some of the most varied and wide-ranging ensemble improvisations to have come out of the US in the past decade, is equally at home playing tight cellular structures (the opening "Diving Bell" is a case in point) as he is working with unorthodox playing techniques, and Jason Bivins (who also plays with Micro-East) makes no deliberate attempt to avoid the electric guitar's rock ancestry, but instead incorporates it effortlessly into the broader context of his work. Curiously enough, Bivins' meaty power chords and Davis' attention to polyrhythmic detail recall Tony Williams' Lifetime on a number of occasions (minus organist Larry Young, of course, if that's possible), as well as their later incarnation as Arcana (with, you'll recall, Derek Bailey ousting John McLaughlin and Bill Laswell replacing Young for added weight). At times these guys build up such a head of steam you wish they could be joined by both Laswell and Young. Elsewhere, on "Cold Seep" for instance, Bivins makes exciting use of additional electronics, while Davis concentrates on bowed and scraped sonorities - friction, rather than percussion - but the fact that at the opening of "Bathysphere" bows are once more to the fore doesn't stop Bivins from unleashing some tasty blues licks later in the piece. Davis propels him forward with some agile stick work that owes as much to Ed Blackwell as it does to muscular free players such as Michael Zerang and Mark Sanders. All in all, it's a rich and rewarding journey into the past, present and future of guitar and drums, and another fine vintage from the cellars of Bloomington Indiana's Family Vineyard.


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GAP - Gruppo delle Azioni Progressive
GAP
PLAYS THE MOST REQUESTED SONGS
Anubis ACD 029
by Dan Warburton
This is not, alas, the long-awaited move into experimental music by the international clothing manufacturer (though I wish they'd sponsor some of the shit): "GAP" stands for Gruppo Delle Azioni Progressive and is a scorching Croatian free jazz outfit founded by reedmen Luka Peršic and Jerko Valdevit in 1996 (joined here by cellist Jasen Chelfi, bassist Dejan Potkonjak and drummer Borna Šercar), who've been busy drumming up interest in improvised music in Croatia ever since - in recent years their concert series has invited musicians as diverse as John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Anthony Coleman, Joe Morris and Charles Gayle, who insisted on sitting in with GAP on a visit last year. Morris paid the group a fine compliment when he wrote: "The present generation of saxophone players is mostly screaming at each other, whereas your language is different: it has dialogue, polyphony and structure [..] rarely heard [these days]". As you might expect, the music on this album reflects a whole range of influences: raging free jazz ("Albert is Back" - though he never went away), elegant Downtown-inflected braziliana ("Sambo do Algiers", indeed!), plaintive Third Stream chorales ("Hrvatska Balada", "59"), plus a couple of traditional tunes craftily arranged by Peršic and Valdevit. Chelfi's cello taps into the rich vein of folk-inflected jazz left unmined since the death of Tom Cora, and Valdevit's continuing interest in contemporary composition imbues his works with a keen awareness of form and structure often lacking in the multi-directional free-for-all that improvised music has become in recent times. Having said that, John Butcher's passage through Croatia three years back left Peršic with a taste for extended sax techniques that he explores to the full on "La Notte Chiara 2", and the twenty-five minute tour de force of "Duo 3B" explores nothing less than the whole world of improv, from the multi-instrumentalism of the AACM to the wacky toy piano funhouse of Alterations. There must be some damn fine record shops in Croatia - albums as rich as this make you want to go and check the place out.


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Noël Akchoté
PERPETUAL JOSEPH
Rectangle Rec AL2
by Dan Warburton
Four years after it kicked off with "Alike Joseph" (and two years since the appearance of "Simple Joseph"), "Perpetual Joseph" marks the end of guitarist Noël Akchoté's solo trilogy - trinity, according to the press release, which mixes straight-talking fact, poetic extremism and delicious downright pretentiousness in a way only Akchoté knows how. Once more the venerable instrument is laid on the ground, with Akchoté hovering over it like a reluctant surgeon (no lighter fluid, please, this is 2003), conjuring forth slow, drifting clouds of irresistibly beautiful feedback. We've moved on a bit from the grainy scuzz of "Alike.." and the gentle schizophrenia of "Simple..", where the guitarist seemed torn between playing Sachiko M or David G, to a world of ineffable bliss where pure black hearts float gently across a snowy white field. Akchoté once said he was interested in the concept of the disposable record - use once and throw away - I'm hanging on to my copy of this one, Noël.


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Hecker
SUN PANDÄMONIUM
Mego 044
by Dan Warburton
After Kevin Drumm's awesome "Sheer Hellish Miasma", here's "Sun Pandämonium" - seems the good people at Mego HQ are well-prepared for the apocalypse and have decided on a pre-emptive strike themselves - the cornerstone of Florian Hecker's album, "Stocha Acid Zlook" (21'22" - over half the total album length) is right up (down?) there with Drumm's "Inferno", starting out innocently enough but soon metamorphosing into a seething, swirling volcanic mass of glissandi that Iannis Xenakis would have been proud of. If Hecker had been invited to take part in Asphodel's recent shoddy "Persepolis" remix project, he'd have made a better job of it than the other "stars". On the recent magnificent 10CD box "Improvised Music From Japan", Yasuhiro Otani contributes a piece for no less than fifty iMacs (!), but Hecker can blow him away with just one.. After this central track, the remaining pieces (the longest of which clocks in at a mere four minutes) inevitably come across as afterthoughts, but are nonetheless fascinating and accomplished glimpses at what the future of electronic music might hold. You'll also be glad to hear that the album comes with a twelve-page glossy olive-green booklet with absolutely nothing at all in it, so you can amuse yourself making paper planes to throw at your neighbours while you blast them to Baghdad with "Stocha Acid Zlook". Rock'n'roll to go!


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Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
TOWARD THE MARGINS
ECM 1612
DRAWN INWARD
ECM 1693
by Walter Horn
On both of these absorbing albums, the brilliant British saxophonist Evan Parker, is joined by violinist/violist Philipp Wachsmann, bassist Barry Guy, percussionist Paul Lytton, and the real-time electronic metamorphosis and regurgitation of the sounds made by these gentlemen. The electrical alchemists here are, along with Wachsmann, Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, and (on "Drawn Inward" only) Lawrence Casserly. Real-time electronic manipulation of acoustic sounds is not exactly new (think of Laurie Anderson's voice, George Lewis' "computerized duets", and Boulez's phantom orchestra in "Repons"), but it is advancing in sophistication at about the same speed as computer chess programs and children's scooters. On these two disks (released, respectively, in 1997 and 1999), the results are, generally, lush and satisfying. It is noteworthy that the earlier, and in my opinion, better, recording, "Toward the Margins", provides more examples of what sound like carefully designed ensemble pieces. There are not only fewer concerto-like pieces on that disk, there is also nothing with the off-putting sound of an early Davidovsky or Luening tape piece. About half of "Drawn Inward" is very beautiful, but it suffers from the fact that where there is no "out front" player there are dry spells. These weak patches are usually pleasant enough, but they aren't memorable. It is only on the deeply mysterious "Phloy in the Frame" that one finds a stirring example of what might be called a "democratic vision" on "Drawn Inward". With Parker's softly wheezing khene, it's like a night in a Louisiana swamp: all that's left of the former Cajun residents is that ghostly labored breathing. The other disk highlights have clear leaders: Wachsmann's lovely plainsong on "Serpent in the Sky" and his romantic flourishes on the title tune; Parker's patented circular chirpadoodledoo on "Collect Calls", and "At Home in the Universe"; and Guy's lovely take on a Gibbons/Dowland consort on "Reanascreena". The soloistic aspects give "Drawn Inward" recording a slightly more traditional, if never "jazzy" feel. In fact, during "At Home in the Universe" there is even something like a patch of trading fours and twos (Parker takes the fours and the electronics get the twos). In contrast, on "Toward the Margins", there is usually no obvious leader and absolutely everything is consummately beautiful. It may be that the newness of the technology had worn off in the two years between the release of these disks, so that it became easier to produce relatively nice stuff on automatic pilot. Or it may have been that an intense melancholy had settled over this talented group during the recording of "Toward the Margins": so many of the pieces on it are not only haunting, but extremely sad. There seems no equivalent over-arching emotion connected with "Drawn Inward". Only on "Reanascreena" and "Serpent in the Sky" does one senses the same sort of georgeous all-consuming pain that infects all of "Toward the Margins". On other cuts from the later release there is more of a meandering electro-acoustic ambience found on so many recordings since Mr. Wuorinen won his Pulitzer. In addition, the variety of warm (i.e. not Luening-style) sonorities is broader on the "Toward the Margins". To give just one example, Parker's gong on "Field and Figure" seems transformed into something like a baritone horn. Finally, the earlier release comes with an extremely well-written and informative 24-page booklet by producer Steve Lake on many of the facets of the musical avant-garde in the latter third of the 1900s. Both disks are shot through with enveloping niceties, but while about half of "Drawn Inward" doesn't reach much beyond pleasant washes and plonks, because of its consistent quality and delicate, plaintive beauty, "Toward the Margins" seems to me one of the most important documents of electro-acoustic music of the last decade.





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