YULE News 2009 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, John Gill, Stephen Griffith, Marc Medwin, Natasha Pickowicz, Massimo Ricci, Michael Rosenstein, Dan Warburton:

In Print: Noise & Capitalism
Time and Anthony Braxton / Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life / Jah Wobble: The Memoirs of a Geezer
Nikos Veliotis: Cello Powder
On Mikroton:
Günter Müller / Kurzmann, Genovart, Courtis & Reche / Jason Kahn & Asher / Dafeldecker, Kurzmann, Tilbury & Wishart
Sunny's Time Now / Han Bennink Hazentijd
POST-SOMETHING OR OTHER: 39 Clocks / Black To Comm / Blues Control / Cardboard Sax & Wasteland Jazz Unit / David Daniell & Doug McCombs / Heavy Winged / Mouthus / Nine Rain / Nihilist Spasm Band & Sun Plexus 2
Rodrigo Amado / Luigi Archetti & Bo Wiget / Samuel Blaser / John Blum / Lester Bowie / Anthony Braxton & Joëlle Léandre / Peter Brötzmann / Christian, Milton, Prévost & Saade / Cremaster / Zé Eduardo / Agusti Fernandez, Derek Bailey & Barry Guy / Dennis Gonzalez / Groder & Greene / Grutronic / Barry Guy, LJCO & Irène Schweizer / Haptic
Vivian Houle / Sebastian Lexer / Manuel Mengis / Seijiro Murayama & soundworm / Lucas Niggli & Xu Fengxia / Mike Olson / Keith Rowe & Toshimaru Nakamura / Charles Rumback / Rupp, Pliakas & Wertmüller / Paul Rutherford / Ted Sirota / Wadada Leo Smith / Burkhard Stangl & Kai Fagaschinski / Yclept
Fernando Benadon / Olivier Capparos & Lionel Marchetti / Decentred / Bernard Donzel-Gargand / Christopher Hobbs / Kawaguchi & Yamaguchi / Phill Niblock / Roger Reynolds / James Tenney
Kim Cascone / Bruce Gilbert / Robert Hampson / Russell Haswell / Stephan Mathieu & Taylor Deupree / Ogrob / Paul Schütze
Last issue


I was sad to learn a month or so back that Bagatellen was finally shutting up shop – Al Jones threw in the towel at the end of summer, under the weight of various family commitments, and it seems Derek Taylor has followed suit. Maybe the fact that he's just got married (congratulations to him and his missus) has something to do with it. In any case, Bags was a great site and I enjoyed numerous online verbal fistfights there over the years with the likes of Joe Milazzo, Adam Hill, Michael Anton Parker, Joe Morris and Jon Abbey. The URL still works, and all the Bagarchives remain open for consultation, and I believe you can still post comments if you want, but somehow it won't be the same.
Meanwhile, Paris Transatlantic soldiers on into the second decade of the century, and, who knows, might even make it as far as the end of the world, which, as we all know, will take place on December 23rd 2012 (bang goes any chance I ever had of listening once more to all the albums in my collection). In the meantime, this issue welcomes aboard Natasha Pickowicz, bringing the noise from upstate New York, and special thanks go out once more to our man in Amsterdam, Bob Gilmore, for sitting down with one of my favourite composers, Clarence Barlow, for an extended interview (thanks also to Clarence for editing and supplying photographs). Bonne lecture et bonnes fêtes à tous.-DW

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Anthony Iles / Mattin (Editors)
Kritika 192pp
I was wrong when I described Guy Debord as a "much overrated Situationist maître penseur" in a recent Wire review, and reading Bruce Russell's Towards a Social Ontology of Improvised Sound Work – probably the best written and certainly the most informative of the eleven essays (plus an introduction by editor Anthony Iles) gathered together in Noise & Capitalism – serves to remind me of the fact. Russell's concise summary of the Situationist key concepts – spectacle, psychogeography and constructed situation – backed up with apposite quotations from Marx and Lukacs, is both clear and clearly relevant to his own practice as an improviser.

Eddie Prévost's Free Improvisation in Music and Capitalism: Resisting Authority and the Cults of Scientism and Celebrity, complete with de rigueur quotations from AMM playing partners Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury and sideswipes at poor old Stockhausen (once more the inevitable moans about the absurd excesses of the Helikopter-Streichquartett and the "composition" of Mikrophonie I) is a characteristically sober restatement of ideas previously elaborated at greater length in his books No Sound Is Innocent and Minute Particulars – if you haven't read those this will do just fine as an introduction to his thought, but if you have you might have a distinct feeling of déjà lu.

Indeed, there seems to be a bit of recycling going on here (though I imagine maybe the editors would prefer to call it détournement): Ray Brassier's Genre Is Obsolete originally appeared in Multitudes #28 in 2007, and Mattin's liner notes to Going Fragile, his 2006 Formed album with that well-known Noise musician Radu Malfatti, are reprinted in their entirety, with one additional paragraph. No point in recycling my own review of that album, then, since I stand by what I wrote back in July 2006.

Standing by what you write is the springboard Ben Watson uses to dive into a typically vigorous exposé of his ideas in Noise as Permanent Revolution or, Why Culture is a Sow Which Devours its Own Farrow. Taking issue with The Wire's Sam Davies for trashing an Ascension gig in Bristol in 1994 only to remember it fondly 13 years later (being able to change your mind and admit that you're wrong is obviously anathema to Ben's militant aesthetix), he comes up with some splendidly quotable lines (how about "the courage of youth enables it to look directly in the face of things.. [i]ts folly is to imagine that no-one else has ever done so" and "people who talk about the problems of modern music without talking about capitalism and commodity fetishism are themselves one of modern music's problems"?), though one wishes he'd spent more time explaining the subtleties of Giambattista Vico (see photo)'s Scienza Nuova – a work I'm not at all familiar with but for which this article has most definitely whet my appetite – than taking potshots, albeit amusing and well-aimed, at his former employers at Wire HQ. Watson writes well – he's one of the few contributors to this book whose voice you can really hear from reading his prose – but quite why Jaworzyn's Ascension is "THE answer to dilemmas facing anyone discontent with the musical ready-meals dished up by commercial interests" isn't explained, and what Tony Oxley, Fernando Grillo, Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram are doing in a thesis ostensibly about Noise is anybody's guess.

Matthew Hyland's Company Work vs. Patrician Raiders can be boiled down to its penultimate paragraph: "Thanks to Ben Watson and the late Derek Bailey for producing (amongst other crucial things) the book digressed from here. BUY IT!" Watson's Bailey biography has been discussed at great length in these pages already, and not surprisingly the best quotes in Hyland's essay are extracted from it. "When someone says they'd rather work in a factory than play music they don't like, it means they've never worked in a factory." Well, quite. If that weren't the case Mattin would still be making pies in Poole.

Howard Slater's Prisoners of the Earth Come Out! makes some interesting points, ironically many of them about silence, but to find them you have to wade through a swamp of abreaction, endocolonialism, bios and libidinal skin over which quotation marks swarm like mosquitoes. Actual discussion of music is thin on the ground and the vocabulary is sloppy: Slater might know what abreaction means, but phrases like "the overlong intervals of a Morton Feldman piece" indicate he doesn't understand what an interval is. And lumping together groups with very different histories and working methods – AMM, MEV and Morphogenesis – to make some point about the "real subsumption of labour" is as woolly as his prose style.

One of the central problems of this book is that it doesn't (can't? won't?) provide the reader with clear definitions of either Noise or Capitalism. The latter is tricky, for sure, but it seems clear that the word means something different now, in today's Googling, Twittering short-memory-even-shorter-attention-span world from what it did barely a decade ago. And depending on which article you read, Noise can be anything from Throbbing Gristle to Lendormin, from Merzbow (mentioned once or twice, en passant) to Nobukazu Takemura (!).

Mathieu Saladin's Points of Resistance and Criticism in Free Improvisation: Remarks on a Musical Practice and Some Economic Transformations is like his music: conceptually elegant but flat and dry. The quotations about music – Free Improvisation once more, not Noise – come mostly from Bailey (the inevitable "idiomatic" discussion from the indispensable Improvisation: its Nature and Practice in Music) and Cardew via Prévost, and are far less interesting than the extracts from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's New Spirit of Capitalism, a book I expected to see quoted more often in these pages. Instead, throughout the book, we get the usual suspects – Debord, Deleuze, Lacan, Foucault (one intimidating footnote refers us to page 1431 (!) of his Dits et écrits II) and Attali (not as much as you might expect, which is just as well as his Noise is – and here I'll stick to my guns – much overrated) – but, interestingly, no Lyotard (photo), one of the philosophers who actually talks some sense about music (check out Driftworks, Semiotext(e), 1984).

The worst offender when it comes to pretentious namechecking is Csaba Toth, whose Noise Theory contains several priceless passages like the following: "Noise, at the very least, disrupts both the performer and listener's normal relations to the symbolic order by refusing to route musical pleasure through the symbolic order (symbolic relations are defined here as an aggregate of guilt, the law, achievement, authority figures). We can call this musical pleasure anti-teleological jouissance, achieved by self-negation, by a return to the pre-subjective (the stage that precedes ego differentiation) – which, in our context, is a sonorous space." I seriously wonder how many people reading that can put hands on hearts and say they fully understand it. And that includes the author, especially when, two pages further on, you come across a gem like the following: "Noise music, in its many alterations, ruptures conventional generic boundaries: it is often not music at all, but noise" (you don't say!) and meaningless drivel like this: "if one intrudes into the program itself as Ikue Mori does, one can get totally inside the electronics behind the sound and thereby overcome routinisation (hollowing out) of her intervention and continually shatter the listener's expectations by not sounding one expects her to sound." [sic] Seems to me there's more missing in that last sentence than the word "like".

This vague waffle would be bad enough in some teen fanzine, but coming from a Professor of History at an American university, it's frankly inexcusable. Toth may be able to rap on in the college bar about jouissance, but he doesn't seem to have a clue about what Noise is, or if he does he's certainly unwilling to venture a definition. But in contemporary academe if you can't get over the barbed wire fence of hard fact you can at least decorate it with exotic plants and flowers (rhizomes, dispositifs, performative teleologies..) and pretend it's not there, by throwing in (out? up?) as many names as possible to blind the reader with science: Christian Marclay, DJ Spooky, Philip Samartzis join Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes and White Mice and Muslimgauze and Merzbow and Masonna and Einstürzende Neubaten and Throbbing Gristle and Z'Ev and.. you get the idea.

At least Ray Brassier, in his Genre is Obsolete, can cite specifics, though the two outfits he comes up with – Tom Smith's To Live and Shave in L.A. and Rudolf Eb.er's Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock (photo) – are hardly typical Noise acts, and both men, Brassier admits, "disavow the label 'noise' as a description of their work – explicitly in Smith's case, implicitly in Eb.er's. This is not coincidental: each recognises the debilitating stereotypy engendered by the failure to recognise the paradoxes attendant upon the existence of a genre predicated upon the negation of genre."

Brassier's text is a tough read, but a rewarding one: and he actually describes real albums and performances with enthusiasm and affection as well as extrapolating on their philosophical implications. But lines like "the lack of imagination that characterises much of noise music", "the crowd-baiting outright aggression (however ironic) of most power electronics" and the "slap-dash, jumbled-together mix of a misplaced genius-complex and self-absorption that characterises much of the Noise scene" in Nina Powers' Woman Machines: the Future of Female Noise make you wonder whether Ms Powers wants to write about the subject at all. Unlike Brassier, I doubt she'd find anything particularly jouissif about watching Randy Yau throw up into a contact-miked bucket, or Lucas Abela slice his lips to a bloody pulp on a pane of broken glass. Chucking in lines like "Jessica Rylan is the future of noise, in the way that men are the past of machines" would be fine if we were actually given some background information about who Jessica Rylan actually is ("tall, slender, politely dressed, bespectacled" doesn't cut it, sorry) and how her work relates to the Noise scene. But no, we're all supposed to know that already, in the same way that we're all supposed to have well-thumbed copies of Grundrisse, La Société du Spectacle, Philosophie der neuen Musik, Le Séminaire and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit lying around on our coffee tables.

It's a welcome relief then to finish the book with some real discussion of the issues involved – including free software and the dubious small print of the MySpace contract – in Mattin's Anti-Copyright: Why Improvisation and Noise Run Against the Idea of Intellectual Property (I never thought I'd see George Bernard Shaw quoted in a Mattin text – a nice surprise), but one still closes the book with a feeling of frustration, not so much for what it says but for what it doesn't. Instead of trotting out quotations from books we've all read (Bailey, Cardew, Prévost..) and many most of us are hardly likely to, I'd have preferred a probing interview with Carlos Giffoni on the politics and economics behind his No Fun festival, and a seriously critical discussion of how Noise is being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of trendy culture. Instead of waxing lyrical about squats, it might have been instructive for at least one of the writers to visit and report from one, explaining the day-to-day function of a viable alternative economic structure. And how about a detailed investigation of the technological détournement (sampling in Plunderphonics, the recycling of analogue instruments) and a serious analysis of the implications – moral, financial, aesthetic – of download culture? Above all, what's lacking most in this book is a musicologically coherent definition of what Noise actually is.

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Stuart Broomer
Mercury Press 176pp
Stuart Broomer has been turning out thoughtful jazz reviews for years, not least as an occasional contributor to this site, but he's typically at his best when taking the longer view rather than simply dealing with the immediate exigencies of the toppling "to review" pile on the desk. His specialty is a kind of speculative musical history, full of quietly audacious propositions about buried historical links and phenomenological implications, and drawing on his well-stocked but idiosyncratic trove of information and quotations. His old columns from Coda (from back in the days when Bill Smith never ran single reviews, commissioning massive review-essays instead) would be well worth reviving, but in the meantime it's a pleasure to finally have his first full-length work of music criticism in existence.
Anthony Braxton's music has long been a touchstone for Broomer – indeed, the only other living musicians he's written about with comparable persistence and empathy are Evan Parker and John Butcher – and many chapters here first appeared as reviews or liner notes. Yet the book doesn't feel like conveniently repurposed material: it simply reveals that these various writings were always part of Broomer's continuous, decades-long critical dialogue with Braxton's music, even as the latter developed in new directions, from his decision to explore standards repertoire in bulk (occasionally as a pianist), to the onset, efflorescence and eventual sublation of the Ghost Trance Musics, up to his yet-to-be-unveiled Sonic Genome project.

At one point in David Lodge's Small World the hero proposes writing a study, not of Shakespeare's influence on T.S. Eliot but of Eliot's influence on Shakespeare – thus pushing Eliot's own claim in Tradition and the Individual Talent that the really new work of art retrospectively affects the entire canon to the point of postmodern topsyturvydom. For Broomer, Braxton is a figure of that sort: the book's first section, "Groundings and Airings", is implicitly an attempt to reconsider the entirety of jazz history in light of Braxton's work. When he talks about Miles Davis's 1955-56 quartet, it's clear that Broomer hears it with ears equally attuned to the collaged themes and pulse tracks of Braxton's 1980s quartets: "The special genius of the Davis band was that it accommodated multiple styles (and times): the tensely anticipatory and restrained balladic time of Davis, the headlong rush of John Coltrane to the last note in the system of triadic harmony, the articulate pulse of bassist Paul Chambers and the celeste-like decoration of pianist Red Garland. The various members of the group often line up differently with Jones' rhythms, creating a composite kind of music" (p.22).
The book's main theme is time, the essential medium – or is it substance? – of music, and the nod in its title to Henri Bergson and Wyndham Lewis suggests both Broomer's range of interests and discreet sense of humour. His major achievement here is the way he puts such ineffable concepts in dialogue with the specifics of Braxton's music, with results that can be provocative, illuminating or even a bit overreaching (not necessarily a problem: the book is, in part, about the gaps between what we can say and what we perceive, what we can intuit versus what we can know). There's a remarkable passage on musical stuttering and its relation to Braxton's jazz repertory projects which is a good example of all three, perhaps:
"...at times Braxton will double-tongue every note against the rhythmic propulsion, creating a kind of stutter. In the stutter-line, each note seems to guess at its identity. ... It's also a conscious doubling of the improviser's line, the expression of time's duality of freedom and constraint; more specifically, it's a deliberated representation of the two-places-at-once involved in working through historical repertoire. ... What is most striking about the stutter is the way it seems to both double and interrupt Braxton's articulation – it is the thing both twice said and unsaid, marking both loss and recovery, the impossibility of repeating history and Braxton's own (apprehensive) apprehension of it. We are given a perspective on the tradition, but not a facsimile, Braxton's stutter step seeming to insist on the structural gap between ourselves and the past." (pp.52-53)

Like Braxton's own multidirectional compositions, this passage branches off into other themes that run through the book. An especially important one is jazz's relationship to a mechanized, computerized, incredibly sped-up modernity. The music has responded to that historical condition in turn by itself speeding up decade by decade, whether by slicing rhythmic subdivisions ever finer or layering further polyrhythms. In one cheeky five-page chapter, "Velocity: A Principle, or a Short Fast History of Jazz", Broomer sets out a history of speed, beginning with incredibly slow performances by (clarinettist) George Lewis, and then pursuing a lineage of virtuosos extending from Louis Armstrong to Evan Parker, all under the sign of Chuck Berry's demurral in "Roll and Roll Music": "I got no kick against modern jazz, / unless they start to play it too darn fast." Another musical collision between the human and the mechanical comes in the form of repetition – another kind of stuttering. Broomer's discussion of the repetitions of Ghost Trance Music expands to take in everything from the locked groove that ends Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill to the guitarist Grant Green, who had a "genius" for "repeat[ing] a phrase as exactly as possible against (literally in contradiction of) the moving harmony of a song... frequently managing to sound like a skipping record" (pp.128-29).

Broomer's survey is most luxuriantly detailed in its accounts of recent Leo releases, but it manages to cover all the major areas of Braxton's endeavours, and (more importantly) sketches out larger frameworks for thinking about them. Part Two, for instance, is a side-by-side consideration of the solo saxophone music from For Alto onwards (some of Braxton's earliest and most celebrated music) and its shadowy "other", the solo piano compositions he was writing at the same time, which went virtually unrecorded in their original form until the recent efforts of Hildegard Kleeb and Geneviève Foccroulle. Part Four's consideration of the classic 1980s/1990s quartet with Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway positions it carefully at a difficult moment of his career, following the termination of his extraordinary tenure with Arista Records and at the point where jazz was developing its own form of Reaganism in the neo-conservative movement of Marsalis et al. Braxton's solo piano compositions and orchestra works had little chance of being recorded in this environment; his response was to devise a collaged performance practice drawing piecemeal on these scores and many other materials. Broomer sees this as a "group practice that is very close to life writing, his group playing multiple compositions that, by 1985, had spanned at least 17 years, most of his adult life" (p.76). "The quartet music becomes an increasingly complex form of self-representation, a kind of multiple signature, while the individual identities of the compositions became at least temporarily less defined. ... These performances may stand as a radical form of autobiography" (p.80).

There's much more that could be said about the book, which is extremely succinct but has more useful – usable – ideas than many more ponderous volumes that have been (and will be) written on Braxton. Broomer is not given to showy prose – his most striking phrases are often in asides (like his casual encapsulation of Ayler's music: "heated, squealing, fog-horn improvisations on themes that sounded like major-key drinking songs") – but even the most abstractly ruminative excursions here always touch base with the listener's experience of the music. If you want a primer on Braxton circa 2009 – everything from his marching-band obsessions to the cultural significance of the cardigan – it's the ideal place to go.
–ND [photo of Braxton seated courtesy Ziga Koritnik]

Mark Miller
Mercury Press 224pp
Mark Miller's recent selection of his jazz criticism – drawn largely from his long tenure at The Globe and Mail – is called A Certain Respect for Tradition, a title that teeters between blandness and pointed irony: how much, exactly, is a "certain" respect? As a perusal of that book shows, he takes a dim view of the ways "the tradition" has become a deadening weight or promotional tag in the jazz world, and in fact his work as a historian in books like Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada, 1914–1949 (yes, there was lots of jazz in Canada before Oscar Peterson) and Some Hustling This! Taking Jazz to the World, 1914–1929 (on the early history of jazz expatriates) is a quiet rebuttal of Burns/Marsalis-style "Great Man" jazz history. The pianist Herbie Nichols (1919–1963) is perhaps modern jazz's quintessential "neglected genius", and while Miller, unlike his fellow Canadian Stuart Broomer (see above), tends to keep his larger themes implicit in his writing, his new biography of Nichols nonetheless suggests his continued preoccupation with questions about the ways individual creativity has been nurtured and recognized (or not) within the jazz scene.

The irony of Nichols' career is that while his deep knowledge of jazz history and classical music and stylistic adaptability were his making as a gigging musician, they also ended up – in combination with his quiet, unassertive demeanour – as something of a handicap when he tried to assert his own identity as composer and leader. Though he moved in the circles of New York's bebop intelligentsia and is the author of one jazz standard ("Serenade", which entered Billie Holiday's repertoire with her own lyrics as "Lady Sings the Blues"), Nichols rarely got the chance to perform his own music in public, instead spending most of his life toiling in obscure Dixieland and R&B bands. Professionally identified with an older style of music, but an adventurous modernist himself, he seems to have been nobody's first-call choice of pianist whatever the style of music. After ten years of begging Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records for a record date, he finally got his chance in 1955-56, setting down three albums' worth of trio sides that contain some of the most unusual (and hard-to-play) tunes in modern jazz, among them "The Gig", "2300 Skiddoo", "House Party Starting", and "The Third World". A further date for Bethlehem followed in 1957, but the records barely made a ripple among fans and critics, and he never recorded again as a leader before his early death from leukemia.

Nichols' life is sparsely documented; till now, everything known about him was via a handful of sources, notably A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business and the writings of the pianist's most dedicated protégé, the trombonist Roswell Rudd. Miller is an experienced sifter of archives, and has done fresh interviews with Nichols' surviving friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Despite the difficulties in writing about such an elusive figure, and the many remaining unanswered questions, Miller has produced a book that usefully fleshes out one's sense of the man and the music.
One key theme that emerges is Nichols' perpetual outsider status even among jazz outsiders. This began at birth: his parents were immigrants from Trinidad, and Miller discusses at some length the cultural tensions at the time between West Indians and African-Americans. Nichols' musical talents were evident early on, but his hankerings to make his name as a classical composer (Prokofiev was his first role model) eventually came up against the inevitable realization that a classical music career wasn't an option for a young black man at the time. A voracious reader, serious chess player, amateur poet and painter (the art is now lost, but Miller quotes several poems – undistinguished, alas, but the mix of whimsical Ogden Nashery and darker musings is revealing), Nichols seems to have felt out of place even among his jazz peers, not least because his abstemiousness was a mismatch for the drug-riddled bebop scene. He participated in jam sessions at Minton's and was part of Floyd "Horsecollar" Williams' band at Monroe's, bebop's twin birthplaces, but as the pianist noted in an interview, "I guess my playing was too far out for even [the beboppers], and most of them felt I couldn't say anything. ... Of course in those days I must have looked kind of like a professor, with a starched white shirt. I used to talk about poetry almost as much as I did about music." Saxophonist Sahib Shihab in 1945 remarked with perplexity after hearing Nichols play, "You sound like you're in a third world"; the pianist in turn repurposed the phrase as a personal motto, eventually using it as the title of one of his best-known pieces.
One sign of his unusual slant on the jazz scene was his brief career in the 1940s as a music journalist for African-American papers. If bebop was an insider's music, Nichols put himself in a virtually unprecedented liminal position by writing about it publicly – it was very rare for professional jazz musicians at the time to write about the music. His two articles on Thelonious Monk are fascinating reading, not least for the way they suggest a respectful but uneasy relationship between the two men. There's a curious aside in the first – "(Don't ever praise Monk too much or he'll let you down.)" – while the second details a visit to Monk's apartment, a friendly exchange in which Monk invites his guest to sit down at the piano; at the end, the pianists agree to swap arrangements of their compositions (though only Nichols fulfills his end of the bargain). Miller quotes judiciously from the various pieces, whose jaunty, free-associative, name-dropping prose gives a taste of Nichols' personality and occasionally offers a phrase worth considering in tandem with his music, as when he states that the "perfect jazz pianist" must have "a mad and grandiose sense of the dramatic value of a musical sound and phrasing."

Though the composite portrait of Nichols' personality that emerges here is clear enough, the details of his personal life remain somewhat obscure. He lived with his sister and her family in his later years, a situation that can't have been very happy, since they had no piano; he seems to have often simply wandered the city, riding endlessly on public transit or dropping in at friendly lofts and musicians' studios. He never married, and his lovelife seems to have been often hesitant or one-sided, judging from Nichols' remarks in liner notes and composition titles like "It Didn't Happen". Miller infers a brief relationship with the older pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams (who later debuted Nichols' compositions, recording four of them in 1951-53) from one intimate (though very ambiguous) letter addressed to her by Nichols. Miller's efforts at recovering the period from Nichols' formative years to his prime, when his native energy, optimism and talent all shone through, are especially valuable as a corrective to the portrait in Spellman and Rudd's accounts, which derive from his final years. The last section of the book is sometimes depressing reading – at one low point, Nichols tells a fellow pianist: "Music is a curse" – but I found myself simply admiring the man's ability to maintain his integrity and creativity even as the gigs degenerated into a perpetual round of scuffling.

Like many musicians of the bop generation, he seems to have felt both intrigued and threatened by the coming of free jazz in the 1950s. There's a revealing anecdote here about his visiting the bassist Buell Neidlinger's loft and witnessing Cecil Taylor at the piano. Neidlinger: "The look that came across Herbie's face! You know the look of a kid who has just gone in the water at the beach and all of a sudden a 10-foot wave hits him? That was the look: not only of surprise, but of physical dismay. He realized that once again he had been passed by." As Steve Swallow (one of the most valuable of the interview subjects quoted here) puts it: "Ornette had just arrived in New York, and Cecil was making his mark as well. Players were in a mood to throw off the shackles rather than deal with the constraints placed on them by a structure as demanding as what Herbie's tunes provided." Yet avant-gardists like Neidlinger, Rudd and Archie Shepp were drawn to Nichols, rehearsing his music with him during his lifetime and posthumously championing it.

Nichols' contribution to jazz extends well beyond the small body of recordings: numerous unrecorded compositions have come to light – Miller puts the total oeuvre at an astonishing 170 tunes, of which about 120 survive – and an increasing number of musicians have tackled the challenges of this repertoire, notably Misha Mengelberg and his ICP associates in Europe, and Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison and other members of the Herbie Nichols Project in the US. There's still more work to be done in recovering Nichols' legacy – I'd put top priority on getting whoever owns the Bethlehem archives to issue the six rejected titles from the Love, Gloom, Cash, Love session – but Miller's biography is an essential step in this process of recovery and celebration, consolidating and adding to what's known about one of the most compelling figures in postwar jazz.–ND

Jah Wobble
Serpent's Tail Books
A recent Wire review of a PiL live recording for the John Peel Show in 1979 claims that it sets a "high water mark" for what Simon Reynolds has allowed us to call "post-punk". This writer (and perhaps Simon Reynolds too) might claim that the likes of The Pop Group and This Heat were far better bellwethers for the extraordinary potential of the era, but as this almost recklessly candid memoir explains, PiL's wayward bassist was halfway out of the door already, and PiL themselves – at least the first, iconoclastic edition – were coming apart at the seams.
Wobble has been working on this text for some years now, and in conversations with this writer suggested that the original mss was perhaps twice or at least half as long again as what we see here. Whatever was omitted in the editing process – and this fan could have read more about what transformed the accidental bassist John Wardle (a drunken Sid Vicious gave him the nickname and it stuck) into the Jah Wobble who has played with Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit, Bill Laswell, Sinéad O'Connor, Harry Beckett, U2's The Edge, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Primal Scream and others – what we get is the authentic voice, pulling no punches, even when aimed at himself, and perhaps lining up a few pompous targets for brisk deflation.

If we don't get a sense of what turned him into the sort of musician who could earn the admiration of a Bill Laswell, perhaps that's because it was a largely intuitive process. His first feeling for the instrument, tantalized by the big bass noise of dub reggae, was feeling himself inside the sound the instrument made, and amping it up for PiL Version One and his own projects into a noise that could make buildings, well, wobble. Admiration and accident led him to the doors of Czukay, Liebezeit, Budd, Laswell, et al. Given that this text must have been read either by a libel lawyer or a libel-savvy editor, we can take as non-litigious his descriptions of the grisly, greed-and-smack-fuelled end to PiL I, his confessions to (continuing) tearaway behaviour, his alcoholism and his adoption of a DIY mix of Buddhism and Taoism, and, best of all, his run-ins with the upper class nitwits he meets in the music industry. Peter Gabriel, wearing his WOMAD crown, comes across as a disagreeable member of an arrogant pop squirearchy, while Wobble skewers Eno, with hilarious understatement: "there are no flies on Brian Eno".

Nor, it seems, on John Wardle, either, contentedly and creatively tending his own garden a quarter of a century after PiL I imploded. The faux Cockney voice (my London streetplan puts Wobble's Stepney birthplace out of hearing range of St-Mary-le-Bow Church bells in the City) is at times wearing, but this is Wobble writing in character for political reasons, and you can't help loving The Cheeky Chappie Who Could. It might just as easily have been titled Memoirs of a Survivor.–JG

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Nikos Veliotis
By now you've probably heard about Nikos Veliotis's Cello Powder project, but in case you haven't, and since I'm getting behind with my self-imposed reviewing schedule, let me remind you (quoting from http://www.cellopowder.com): "Cello Powder (The Complete Works for Cello) is a 'durational' project in two parts," Veliotis informs us. For the first part, the recording, "the sonic range of the cello is divided into 100 quarter tones. Every quarter tone is recorded for one hour. During this hour volume and timbre change from soft to very loud plus pure tone to noise and back. The 100 one hour drones will be mixed into one audio file – all 100 files will sound simultaneously – called The Complete Works for Cello and pressed onto a limited amount of CDs." In performance, "the cello used in the recording will be destroyed (turned into powder) in front of a live audience while The Complete Works for Cello is played back through speakers. The powder will be used to fill jars of approximately 250ml labelled, numbered and sealed. Every jar will be accompanied by a Complete Works for Cello CD. The number of discs available will be equal to the number of jars, the rest of the CDs will be destroyed in front of the audience."

I would have loved to attend the performance at the INSTAL festival back in April, and haven't received my little jar yet (not that I really want one – I feel the same way about Nikos's sawdust as I do about those relics you find in little display cases in dark corners of Gothic cathedrals, you know, a lock of the Virgin's hair, St Patrick's toenail, whatever..), but the CD(R) is one hell of a trip.

Anyone who's heard Nikos Veliotis play live will no doubt have been blown away by his ability to sustain a double, triple and even quadruple stop drone using his specially designed BACHbow, and his distinctive tones have graced several fine albums, both his own (Radial on Confront remains a favourite) and other people's (check out Headz CD The Harmless Dust with David Grubbs and, if you can find a copy, Radu Malfatti's Indiscrete Silences on Bremsstrahlung). But in these works the pitch field is easy to navigate, and the occasional slight irregularities of timbre and dynamic originating in the bow changes add depth and colour. In The Complete Works for Cello with a 100-note cluster, they're impossible to detect. You've heard about Wall Noise, I suppose? Wait till you hear this: its sheer overwhelming power has to be experienced to be believed. Imagine playing all your Phill Niblock records at the same time and you're still nowhere near. Even at normal neighbour-friendly volume, this'll have your furniture moving around the room; crank it up and it sucks all the acoustic life out of whatever space you happen to be in – try screaming out yourself and listen to your voice disappear. On (good) headphones it's the perfect travelling companion, totally blocking out the perennially annoying sounds of fellow voyagers' mobile phones and leaking iPods, not to mention all traffic noise (in short, I wouldn't recommend it if you're riding a bike – I've tried it and it's fucking scary..). And when it stops, suddenly, it's as if the ground has fallen away from under your feet. Then, miraculously, the ear, having been blasted open for a full hour, suddenly discovers the extraordinary world of sonic detail in the world around us. Curiously, then, Veliotis's 60-minute wall of sound ends up doing exactly what John Cage wanted his 4'33" of "silence" to achieve.

The little jars of powder are for the collectors out there (they were going for 60€ a pop, last time I heard), but I guess it's a worthy cause: Nikos has to pay for his instrument somehow. After all, unless he finds some rich benefactor, he's unlikely to spend the rest of his career grinding up cellos. Which makes The Complete Works for Cello all the more worth seeking out. I do hope he didn't destroy all those discs. Try and get hold of one, and change your life.

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On Mikroton
Günter Müller
"Cymbals and a singing bowl were recorded and processed during 2007-08, mixed, compiled and mastered in Autumn 2008 at Remisch Lupsingen. All music and artwork by Günter Müller." The title too, presumably – looks like Günter has caught the underscore virus from Norbert Möslang (Lat_Nc, burst_log, Header_Change, Sound_Shifting.. though the infection probably dates back to poire_z) – a limp pun worthy of Emanem that does this subtle and intriguing music something of a disservice. Müller's music in recent years has been somewhat overlooked by commentators (a slapped wrist here too – I haven't been able to review everything of his that's come my way, but I've enjoyed them very much), probably because there's been so much of it: compilations, boxsets and DVDs included, he's appeared on more than 80 releases since the turn of the century. Add to this the fact that, like his occasional playing partner down the road, Jason Kahn, he's not a musician who sets out to reinvent the wheel with each subsequent release, preferring instead to concentrate on a small area of expertise – electronic treatment of sounds sourced from percussion – and fine-tune what has always been an impeccable ear for detail. One criticism I've seen levelled at him is that his music is, to quote the ever watchful Richard Pinnell once more, "pretty and (god forbid) relaxing." "Pretty" is a rather damning-with-faint-praise adjective in my book, its adverbial connotations of "moderately" and "fairly" having rendered it more ineffectual and shallow than "beautiful" (it also conjures up images of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere which are best forgotten), but, leaving God out of it, I have no problem with "relaxing", provided it doesn't mean "switching off". Of course, all you have to do of course is listen – and there's a wealth of detail in these four tracks which, if played at the correct volume (quite loud), you'll find immensely rewarding.

Alan Courtis / Jaime Genovart / Christof Kurzmann / Pablo Reche
Christof Kurzmann has been a frequent visitor to Latin America for a while now, so it's no surprise to see him popping up on clarinet, voice and lloopp (Klaus Filip's Max/MSP application) in Buenos Aires for a studio session with locals Genovart ("recording, synth, soft" – go figure), Reche ("minidisc, ipod, alesis nanoverb, korg MS10") and Courtis ("homemade violin, contact mic, mp3, tapes and processing"). Palmar Zähler is a collection of six elegant, spacious soundscapes, a beautifully engineered and eminently listenable addition to the discographies of all involved, in which Kurzmann's plaintive clarinet chalumeau ("Uranio Agreste") and melancholy vocal détournement of pop classics – here the Rolling Stones' chestnut "As Tears Go By" in "Berilio" – serve to counterpoint the rather predictable swathes of gloomy feedback and digital rustle. The musicians seem to be more at ease when they allow themselves to stretch out, which makes one wonder why the decision was taken to edit three longer spans of music into six smaller tracks – to facilitate radio play, perhaps? In any case, "Einklang" and "Uranio", the only two that go beyond the ten-minute mark, are the choice cuts here.

Jason Kahn / Asher
If you're a Jason Kahn fan, the past few months have been cause for celebration (though perhaps your bank manager might disagree): in addition to the splendid Vanishing Point on 23five, he's inaugurated Bill Ashline's Celadon label with Ryu Hankil (Circles), teamed up with Richard Francis on another new label to watch, Monochrome Vision, and returned to Creative Sources with Olivia Block, Ulrich Krieger and Mark Trayle (Timelines Los Angeles) – not forgetting a pair of fine free downloads, Room to Room at Compost and Height and Stimmen over at Bagatellen (RIP). And there's this rematch with Asher – their Vista was one of the most enjoyable releases on the and/OAR label last year. If you're expecting me to come down in favour of one particular album, think again: they're all good. But if you're prepared to take the time and accept that there aren't likely to be any nasty surprises (this is Kahn, not Karkowski), Planes' assemblage of pale analogue synthesizer drone and drizzle and ever-so-discreet field recordings (birdsong and children's voices are identifiable, but, as is often the case with Asher's music, much remains mysterious) is a rewarding listening experience. And a moving one – there's something melancholy about this music, a late autumn / early winter feel of grey skies, bare branches and dead leaves trodden underfoot. Hard to imagine listening to it sitting by a swimming pool on a hot summer's day with a long cool drink.

Werner Dafeldecker / Christof Kurzmann / John Tilbury / Stevie Wishart
I'm always rather embarrassed when I re-read old reviews at how often I use the word "lugubrious" to describe the bass playing of Werner Dafeldecker, but it's still the first adjective that springs to mind on listening to these 2007 live recordings from Vienna and Wels, a quartet in which he's joined by Christof Kurzmann (once more), John Tilbury and Stevie Wishart. It's an intriguing line-up from the point of view of timbre, combining Tilbury's soft mid-register clusters (I'll refrain from calling them "Feldmanesque" again, in the light of the above remark, but, well..), Wishart's acrid whining hurdy gurdy, and Kurzmann (and Dafeldecker's) laptop hums and fizzes. Wishart tends to stand out in the mix, not only because of the distinctive sonority of the hurdy gurdy but because she's the only musician in the group to fully exploit her instrument's melodic potential, tempting Tilbury up out of the bottom octave on "Wien 1" to complement her lines with the odd forlorn arpeggio. The electronics are more in evidence on the second track, but Wishart's spidery drone still dominates the musical foreground. In terms of pace and event density this music is undeniably spacious, but it also feels strangely claustrophobic at times, as if struggling towards a common ground it knows it can never reach. Fred Frith once coined the phrase "tense serenity" for one of his pieces – I think I'll steal that to describe this. Makes a change from "lugubrious" anyway.–DW

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Antoine Prum
Paul Thiltges Distribution
By rights, I shouldn't be reviewing this double DVD at all, as I was involved in it myself (though my activities as "music consultant" – sounds awfully important, that – consisted merely of sitting down for an hour and half's chat with drummer Sunny Murray in the Plug In Studios near his flat in the XIIIème arrondissement of Paris), but it's such an outstanding piece of work I just can't resist. Luxembourg-based filmmaker Antoine Prum has produced an essential documentary, not only for anyone interested in Murray, the man and the musician, or in free jazz, but in music, full stop.

The secret of Prum's success, apart from his skill as a director and his passion for the music (both of which go without saying), is quite simple: money. The budget for his 108-minute film must have been pretty astronomical, allowing Prum, assistant director Boris Kremer and a whole film crew with a truckload of gear to follow Murray all over the place for over a year, accumulating footage of the maestro in action on no fewer than six occasions: a duo gig with François Tusques at Le Triton outside Paris, a sextet with Rasul Siddik, Richard Raux, Sonny Simmons, Harry Swift and Bobby Few at the Atelier Tampon, a date at London's Red Rose with Tony Bevan, John Edwards and Spring Heel Jack, a couple of gigs in Vienna with Fritz Novotny and pals, and, the cherry on the cake, a 12-piece Murray All Stars big band in Luxembourg with, amongst others, Sabir Mateen, Odean Pope, Grachan Moncur III and Henry Grimes (the budget for that concert alone would probably keep you in dope and booze for the rest of your life). Frustratingly but inevitably, not a lot of this live material actually makes it to the final film, and none of it makes it to the bonus DVD. Which means that Antoine, or someone in Luxembourg, is sitting on a goldmine of archive material. Let's hope more of it sees the light of day before we all die.
Meanwhile, the film also features interviews with, amongst others, William Parker, Cecil Taylor (scoop! munching crackers with Tony Oxley!), Grachan Moncur III (dig the story of Sunny being carried shoulder-high through the Half Note by Coltrane and Elvin Jones), Fritz Novotny, As Serious As Your Life author Val Wilmer, The Wire's Tony Herrington and Edwin Pouncey (not exactly essential, I'd say, but it gives Murray a bit of added street cred with the "young punks", as Herrington calls them), Robert Wyatt (a bit too much of him, to be frank – did we really need the background story to End Of An Ear in the film proper? there is after all a 39-minute interview on the bonus disc), and a whole host of French aficionados who got to know Murray and his music back at the end of the 60s, including pianist François Tusques, Jacques Bisceglia (who took many of the great BYG Actuel photos), Daniel Caux (who produced two albums featuring Murray on his legendary Shandar imprint and to whose memory the film is dedicated), Bernard Loupias and Charlie Hebdo's Delfeil de Ton, whose anecdotes of the mythic Amougies festival are truly hilarious.

And of course there's a lot of local colour: shots of punters in the Red Rose (is it my imagination or did I spot Chris Corsano in the crowd?), Richard Raux trying (without much success) to get the Luxembourg big band to rehearse his charts, an amazing couple of minutes of Henry Grimes on violin (no explanation given, and no explanation needed – the guy looks totally possessed) and two film extracts, one (uncredited) from Michael Snow's terrific New York Eye And Ear Control, the other from William Klein's terrible Mr. Freedom (Donald Pleasence as Dr. Freedom: "Let me tell you about the French – they are 50 million mixed-up, sniveling crybabies who haven't stood on their two feet since Napoleon, and that wasn't yesterday" – hmm, good job Mr. Prum lives across the border in a rich tax haven). The Murray interview footage is saved for the bonus DVD – and as I was technically responsible for that one, I'll refrain from comment – along with extended interviews with Wyatt and the late, lamented Daniel Caux and some scorching footage from the Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969.
The great thing about this film is that it doesn't bend over backwards to trumpet Sunny Murray's musical achievements (the archive film and comments from those involved do that perfectly well); nor does it try to view the man and his daily life through rose-coloured spectacles (witness the stories told by Val Wilmer, Cecil Taylor and Murray's son Oforie). Make no mistake: despite Edwin Pouncey's assertions that the future for Murray is whatever he wants it to be, Sunny is still scuffling to make ends meet. But, as Tony Herrington puts it so charmingly, he's still a motherfucker, and can still play his ass off – check out the Red Rose set. It's been a great pleasure and privilege to know him, and I sincerely hope that this magnificent documentary brings in enough work to keep him thrashing those cymbals for another 73 years. And an Oscar for Antoine Prum.-DW

Jellie Dekker
Jellie Dekker's 70-minute portrait of Dutch drummer Han Bennink goes nicely with Prum's Sunny Murray film reviewed above. In addition to numerous quotable interviews with Bennink's playing partners over the years (pianist Misha Mengelberg is notably absent – one imagines he was invited to participate and forgot to show up), there's plenty of splendid footage of the irrepressible drummer in action, both at home outside Amsterdam (check out his wonderful drum clinic for some local schoolkids) and abroad. The film crew follows Bennink – and Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra – to a residency in Banff, Canada, where Han coaches a snare drum class and knocks his own to the floor with impish glee, peers into boxes of sand outside people's houses and even approaches a screeching marmot on all fours in a nearby field. His ever shiny shoes and encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna are featured prominently, and his work as an artist and sculptor is also showcased to great effect, not only the inimitable ICP album covers but also the Max Ernst-like assemblages of doorknobs and drumsticks.
Dekker's deft montage shows how the distinctive imagery of his artwork is deeply rooted in Dutch landscape and architecture, with revealing glimpses inside Bennink's immaculate home and beautifully handwritten teenage scrapbooks, and a trip out on the local canals in his rowing boat. (Amusing anecdote: when Bennink, normally remarkable for his punctuality, failed to show up for a Wire jukebox prior to his concert with Sonic Youth and Peter Brötzmann at the Cité de la Musique here in Paris a couple of years ago, we called him up on his cellphone and heard the gentle splashing of water in the background – he'd mixed up the dates in his diary and gone fishing!)
I've always preferred Han Bennink the drummer to Bennink the showman – though anyone who's witnessed his onstage antics will be able to confirm that they're highly entertaining, and always closely related to the musical activity at hand – so the archive footage of him swinging his ass off behind Johnny Griffin in the mid 60s is a real thrill. There's plenty of live action in the bonus features menu: a Mengelberg / Bennink duo from 1980 (awesome!), a Toby Delius quartet cut from Le Dynamo in Paris in 2007 (I was at that gig and it rocked), two tracks with the ICP Orchestra, an all-too-brief duo with Guus Janssen and more. When we finally rescheduled that Jukebox, by the way, Han cycled 50 miles into Amsterdam to do it – not bad for someone who'd celebrated his 65th birthday that year – so get on your bike and cycle down to the local emporium and treat yourself to Hazentijd for Christmas. Or if you're as lazy as Misha, go to: http://www.subdist.com and order one online.

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39 Clocks
De Stijl
For a band as little-discussed (especially on the American side of the pond) as 39 Clocks, a quick Internet dig results in a hefty preceding reputation: unsettling Joseph Beuys at Dokumenta in Kassel in the early 1980s (no surprise, considering how cruddy Beuys' musical ruminations were), regularly getting kicked out of clubs for damaging property under a hailstorm of white noise, and the like. Though their shambolic twang and visual image – two lanky fellows in dark glasses and dark clothing going by the monikers J.G. 39 and C.H. 39 (Jürgen Gleue and Christian Henjes) – recalls the Velvets, 39 Clocks erupted out of the Hanover punk scene and their music was quaintly coined "Psycho Beat." A handful of LPs and 45s were released between 1981 and 1987 on tiny labels like Psychotic Promotion, No Fun, and Flickknife (home to some of Nikki Sudden's projects) before they went their separate ways. Though a CD retrospective did surface in 1993, The Original Psycho-Beat (What's So Funny About? Records), a fresh digital look had to wait until this year. In addition to Zoned's historical overview, Germany's Bureau B label has also recently reissued their debut Pain It Dark LP.
The most compelling tracks here might be the extended psychedelic-tinged jams culled from Subnarcotic (1982), cheap drum machines and keyboards supporting feedback-drenched guitar jangle and earnest chants on "Past Tense Hope & Instant Fears on 42nd Street" in a Messthetic paean to Lou Reed and Doug Yule. "Dom" recasts night-driving motorik a la Neu! into bleak claustrophobia; echoes of the most unsettling moments of Suicide are here, too, but the Clocks' "Dom" is far more severe. "Heat of Violence" is another nod, albeit clinical in its verbiage, to the S&M night-world that the Velvets evoked, albeit with a wash of musical slop. They seem more comfortable with pre-programmed drums; when a real percussionist sits in to drive the boat, things can quickly fall apart (as on "New Crime Appeal"). An entirely different sensibility casts itself on the darkwave chamber music of "Rainy Night Insanities," cello and clarinet doing their best surly Third Ear Band raga to accompany occasional vocal missives and keyboard drone.
The six tracks represented from Pain It Dark are perhaps a little more "primitive" than those on Subnarcotic, and the recording quality is rougher. "39 Explosion Heats" melds fuzzy jangle and slink with an obnoxious canned woodblock beat that's oddly compelling; "Psycho Beat" is a soiled, home-recorded variant on Dusseldorf pop minimalism whose lyric snippets reference "sunglassed hipsters in the room, crawling out of sewers" (that might give you an idea where their minds were). Rüdiger Klose's drumming on "Test the Beat" and "Shake the Hippie," provides an unwavering dry crack that results in the Clocks' most straightforward rock tunes, amazingly without a hint of disaster. The production values of their 1987 swan song, 13 More Protest Songs, are a slight affront – "My Tears Will Drown the World" is a Jacobites-esque busker accompanied by air raid sirens and marching jack-boots, while "You Can't Count the Bombs" is the Clocks' stab at bar rock – but ultimately, these later tracks are strong if dated efforts. If anything, Zoned whets the appetite for reissues of the entire catalog, as scouring the Internet rarities marketplace will quickly empty your wallet.–CA

Black To Comm
Hamburg-based Dekorder head honcho Marc Richter's latest offering under the Black To Comm moniker has enjoyed some well-deserved publicity lately, thanks presumably to Richter's description of its ten tracks as more song-based than his earlier more drone-inflected work, including a full-page pullout review in The Wire, no less. Not surprising perhaps since The Wire seems hell bent on redefining (resurrecting?) the idea of the pop song, though the term doesn't mean much to me any more, at least not in the area of music this magazine covers, and hasn't done for nearly two decades. Then again, you could argue that a song doesn't need lyrics – we can look as far back as Mendelssohn nearly two hundred years ago to back up that hypothesis – and it certainly doesn't need more than one chord, if that (examples too numerous to mention). Whatever you want to call them, these pieces are beautifully crafted and eminently accessible – you can even hum along to its dreamy pianos ("Jonathan") and tinkling metallophones ("Trapez"), so I guess they could qualify as songs after all – with discreet nods to everything from 1980s grand pianola minimalism ("Musik für alle") to gamelan ("Rauschen"), from the enchanted woods of Wolfgang Voigt (the veiled backbeat of "Forst") to Erik Satie (there's a distinct feeling of Gymnopédie to the closing "Hotel Freund"). It's lovely stuff, check it out.–DW

Blues Control
How deliciously contrary that Local Flavor, the third full-length record from American duo Blues Control, doesn't have any sense of regional specificity. In the final throes of preparing for a summer European tour – and shortly afterwards, a two month-long trek across the United States – Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse decided to relocate from Queens, New York, where they had resided for over a decade, to Richmond, Virginia, where Cho grew up. Geographically and temporally ambiguous, Local Flavor is a rich document of that transition.
The record benefits from its relatively speedy completion. Released in July on the Philadelphia noise-rock label Siltbreeze, it's the purest distillation yet of Blues Control's increasingly captivating space-jam aesthetic. They've had a few years to refine their style: the eponymous debut LP for Holy Mountain (2007), with its amorphous cat scratches of sound, contorted itself into a squiggle on a blank piece of paper. Their follow-up, Puff (Woodsist), was dotted with leitmotifs and contained by circular logic, sculpted like a glimmering ring falling into oblivion. Yet the terrain of Local Flavor plays like a single straight line – a 24-hour romp into the subversive mutterings of their guitar frets and junkyard players – and the linearity of this approach suits them well.
Local Flavor is roughly divided in half – daylight omniscience ("Good Morning," "Rest on Water") and nighttime creeps ("Tangier," "On Through the Night"). On the 1920s Weimar-esque cabaret manqué "Good Morning," Kurt Vile takes what may be his first unintentional Kurt Weill turn with a guest trumpet appearance (one of Vile's Violators, Jesse Trbovich, guests on sax). The opening track is barely a song, more like a blazing, maximalist vamp that bleats fiercely and then fades into the ether of "Rest on Water." A saxophone cleverly approximates the swells and pooling of water (Trbovich again), while undistorted Kay Gardener-esque arpeggios burble around swaths of drone like hives of drugged bees.
Cho and Waterhouse are as willfully anachronistic as they come, a tricky game in the current glut of lo-fi basement acts. But rather than appearing trendy, the result is a uniquely organic spectrum that radiates Tangerine Dream and ZZ Top alike. Crude drum machines blare alongside reverberating handheld percussion, while Waterhouse’s penchant for the leering guitar raunch of the 1980s aligns nicely with Cho’s hazy analog synth. The deviant Komische-conga splay of "Tangier" is pure magic – and potentially one of the catchiest non-songs of the year – and should be erected in the BC singles pantheon alongside "Boiled Peanuts" and "Always on Time."
A vertiginous, space-prog suite of the highest order, closer "Through the Night" is the album’s eeriest moment. As Cho's cathedral organs coalesce into a pitchbending drone – not unlike the roaring of a jet engine or, say, Morton Feldman by way of Gary Numan – the Doppler Effect dread is barely tolerable. Local Flavor is the aural rendering of hypnagogia, the trembling negative spaces that dance from wakefulness to sleep, yet the way Blues Control traverses the various states of consciousness is crystal clear.

Cardboard Sax / Wasteland Jazz Unit
Community College Records
Due in no small part to the influence of Wolf Eyes, woodwind instruments are making significant contributions to contemporary American Noise. In the Midwest, two of its most promising acts, Wasteland Jazz Unit and the John Olson-helmed Cardboard Sax, have spat out a split LP on the Ohio-based Community College Records, home also to Being, Body Collector, Swamp Horse and Plasmic Formations. An abrasive, hermetic vision of the possibilities of the saxophone (an instrument at which John Olson is no slouch), the record's single-mindedness rewards meditative listeners.
Comprising Olson, Daniel Dlugosielski and Holly Young, Cardboard Sax’s A side contribution is their first release outside of American Tapes, and their debut on Community College. Throughout, saxophones and electronics navigate a wintry terrain devoid of structure or predictable flow. To an inattentive listener the skeletal piece might feel incomplete, maybe one-dimensional, but despite its harsh textures, it's quite atmospheric for Olson (the post-apocalyptic haze of Dead Machines, his side project with wife Tovah, also comes close). Restraint nudges feelings of dread, loss and solitude to the fore: it's frequently quite scary, with howling winds, lost whale song and whistling gales punctuated by frigid interference like a lonesome radio tower struggling for a signal in Arctic tundra. Those seeking the hypnotic industrial frenzy of Wolf Eyes are advised to look elsewhere.
Wasteland Jazz Unit, the Cincinnati-based duo of Jon Lorenz and John Rich, think more about unrelenting positive space than the heavy-quiet dynamic of the A side. Drawing from euphoric free jazz as much as discomforting noise, their 15-minute piece (both tracks are untitled, as is the LP itself) shoots up obliterating walls of feedback like sulfuric geysers between the morphing pools of amplified sax and clarinet damage. It's far more amorphous and unvaried dynamically than the A side. Vaguely abusive, dense and all-consuming, good luck clearing your head long enough to figure out why you like it so much.–NP

David Daniell / Doug McCombs
Thrill Jockey
It's fitting that guitarists David Daniell (San Agustin) and Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback, Tortoise), who met in 2006 during a tour as part of Rhys Chatham's scaled-down guitar army, would find a collaborative calling somewhere in the landscape of instrumental art rock. Both players have perfected a clean sense of continental drift in their respective outfits. Tortoise, while likened to an endless rhythm section, really owes much of its textural deftness to McCombs' sharp tone and inquisitive pacing. San Agustin, while on the surface a dust-blown, improvisatory space-rock outfit, piles on atmospheres until they exert force and motion. Sycamore is the logical extension of both approaches. Though the central focus is the leaders' guitars and electronics, the four improvisations here are augmented by light, loose percussion from fellow Chicagoans Frank Rosaly, John Herndon and Steven Hess.
The active soundscapes here recall San Agustin, Brokeback, and Bundy Brown's Directions in Music (a beautiful and underrated entry in the post-rock canon). A sense of the wide-open is key – a pace that finds McCombs and Daniell inextricably paired across vast landscapes, knit together by rhythms and soft electronics. The fifteen-minute "Vejer de la Frontera" finds them in gauzy, hanging counterpoint, McCombs slowly peeling back thick groups of notes as Daniell's trebly flecks goad from afar. Hess and Herndon jettison the expected motorik for organic, gradual interplay, lobbing volleys in steady, deliberate motion. The washes that appear midway through threaten to steamroller the landscape, but the musicians' particulate density ensures that the thread-count, while steadily increasing, remains distinct. The lush opening of "Bursera" is almost symphonic: taut additive stammers and skitters enveloped by organ and crystalline daubs, while Rosaly adds overlapping detail. A burst of feedback and junkpile percussion is a brief reminder of Daniell and McCombs' rock background. But where Sycamore really shines is in its insistent clarity.–CA

Heavy Winged
Aurora Borealis
Since the group's inception in 2004, Heavy Winged have been steadily popping out records for cultish American labels like Not Not Fun and Three Lobed. Their last full-length, the acclaimed Alive In My Mouth, lurched between aggressive cave rock and metallic drone. Waking, Shaking, the trio's most recent LP and first for British noise and metal imprint Aurora Borealis (vinyl only, and in an edition of 500) is one of their warmest and most unrestrained works yet, unfurling over 45 minutes and divided into two instrumental pieces, "Tidal Blackness" and "Morning Flesh." Together, they represent a glimpse into the thorny, tangled sprawl of Heavy Winged's acid-forest noise.
Like many of their peers, improvisation is the spark and seed at the center of Heavy Winged's tundra-drone discourse. But Heavy Winged doesn't rely on the formal freedoms of improv, and happily forego noise clichés for a sense of willful expansion and controlled exploration. Fragments are built, and then dismembered; themes are inspected, and then abandoned. Psychedelia, Krautrock, No Wave skronk, instrumental post-rock, free jazz, and industrial noise ring around Heavy Winged like Stonehenge bedfellows, and Waking, Shaking at its highest crest summons a supreme elemental flow. It's startling how organically the album unfolds.
The trio's set-up is straightforward: Unstructured and wonderfully loose drums (Jed Bindeman) clatter behind dense guitar (Ryan Hebert) and bass drone (Brady Sansone). But Waking, Shaking has an intricacy and thoughtfulness that evades other improv-driven musicians. In "Tidal Blackness," buried melodies lurk within a whistling grove, while barely recognizable guitar moans whip around like the wind, beckoning like a siren call. Despite the drums, the atmosphere is strangely ambient, but as the 23-minute track develops, disorientation mutates into devastation, ending with a compelling clash of textures: imagine hordes of cicadas flying through clattering, popcorning shingles, a sequel to Sonic Youth's rain on tin. It's a magical moment.
"Morning Flesh" is weakened by a passage of earnest guitar riffage that drifts into questionable Metal territory. The appropriation of those tropes in the context of Aurora Borealis would be forgivable if we didn't know that both Sansone and Hebert can do far more intriguing tricks with stringed instruments. It's not nihilistic, but it feels more than a little hollow, and thankfully doesn't last, a Sightings or Mouthus-worthy matte-finish clangor reigning until the track grinds to a halt with the slow beep of a heart rate monitor. Heavy stuff, indeed.

Ecstatic Peace!
As listeners press pause to re-evaluate 2009, many will pin Mouthus' latest LP, Divisionals, as one of the finest works of the year, and a fine addition to their extensive catalog, which includes releases on nearly every contemporary noise label of worth, including Three Lobed, Troubleman Unlimited, Important, No Fun, Load and their own microlabel, Our Mouth Productions. It's the Brooklyn-and-Baltimore-based duo's second full-length LP for Ecstatic Peace!, the boutique label run by Noise's Vito Corleone, Thurston Moore, who discovered the pair in the roaring squalor of one of their shows on the NYC club circuit. "He came to see us in this basement in Bushwick," recalls drummer Nate Nelson. "The ceiling was only about seven feet high and he really had to stoop down there. There was a sewage problem, and there was shit coming out of the floor – toilet paper and puddles."
Mouthus' rising star in the last five years has led to a predictable fetishization of their subway clatter and fetid drone, but they plow through their popularity like moles, unseeing, burrowing ever deeper into the nasty sonic dirt the world has yet to hear. Unremittingly loud and unapologetically brutal, there's also a foreign grace at play here, perhaps residue from their 2007 psyche-rock masterwork, Saw A Halo (Load), which explored the relationship between traditional songcraft and abstraction with a sensitivity not seen before.
On Divisionals' four tracks ("The Duration Myth," "Rotary Sends," "In the Erase," "Telescoped Histories") Nelson continues to clarify his percussion arrhythmia with live electronic manipulation, while guitarist Brian Sullivan incorporates processed vocal chants, plucked bass lines and indecipherable loops into his heady drones as if he were standing before a loom, shuttle in hand. On "The Duration Myth," the percussion can be heard remotely, like doors being slammed four floors away. Nelson is performing aural construction work, pounding nails into a wall, hammering a building into existence: it's not destruction, but creation. As heavy breath exhales through gas masks at the start of "In The Erase," we're in more toxic industrial terrain, with sighing whistles, bittersweet bells and steam engine clouds cutting through fog like beams from a lighthouse.
For better or for worse, Nelson and Sullivan's approach to music has become increasingly deterministic. Seemingly randomly generated elements are actually governed by a set of rules, mathematical processes known to them, and secret from us. The fried drone can get occasionally ponderous – at worst, frustratingly opaque – but the adherence to their vision is almost monastic. As a listener, the game is sifting through the layers of abstraction in hopes of unearthing possible narrative. To quote Wallace Stegner: "He does not have to know, with his conscious mind, exactly what he is doing. He is fishing in obscure depths, he is a dealer in mysteries, a witch doctor not always easy with the forces he evokes but acutely aware of them while they are present." It's exhausting, but shouldn't it be?–NP

Nine Rain
Independent Recordings
Although the two have only ever been seen together live in their native Mexico, Nine Rain's imagined soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished 1930 film could, with luck, be lashed together with its subject by juggling the existing fragments of the film available on YouTube with this CD, as some pieces are virtually cued for specific scenes. (If you've noticed the absence of the Spanish opening inverted exclamation mark in the CD title, the film doesn't have it either.) Otherwise, whether you know the film or not, this works as a ghost soundtrack: you have to imagine the movie. Saxophonist Steven Brown has said that he would like to include more jazz and improvisation in his work, and this is the jazziest – and freest – Nine Rain recording to date, perhaps because here sound has to accompany vision. The wilder exoticisms of earlier Nine Rain recordings give way to more sombre moods, perhaps in reflection of the text at hand (Eisenstein's rather Orientalist reading of Mexico as a "kingdom of death", with Day of the Dead fiestas, bullfights, travelogues and the film's lengthy "Maguey" revenge tragedy section), although some feistier material is shipped in with earlier Nine Rain pieces such as "Rainy Jaranero" and "Alex's Torture Song". Tracks such as "Mexico Woke Up" have uncanny unintended political resonance with the film, but Nine Rain's lyrical and poignant contribution can work equally well as a stand-alone CD.–JG

Bimbo Tower
This riotously raw double album documents a memorable encounter between the Canadian free music pioneers of the Nihilist Spasm Band and the French group Sun Plexus 2, and comes with hilariously awful liner notes attributed to one Bruce Lee Galanter (yep, there's only one "l" there, lest you fall into the trap of believing that the Downtown Music Gallery's indefatigable boss could have written anything so horrendous), which describes with what Robert Wyatt once called "painful sincerity" the Frenchmen's intestinal problems on the way to the gig ("they have to stop every 50 kilometer because have piss and poo problem particularly Sun Plexus 2 because of infamous canadien food they make alot of diarrhoea inside the van" etc. etc.). Just as well they talk about that, as the music is, unsurprisingly, impossible to describe. NSB have been confounding expectations for more than four decades already, not so much breaking down as blithely ignoring any supposed barriers between high and low art, good and bad music, technical expertise and utter ineptitude, and will, it seems, go on doing so until they're all dead. "As long as you're angry, you're alive. When you stop being angry, you're dead!" intones Bill Exley on "Angry Old Men" – well, quite. When there's no longer anything to get angry about, there's no point going on, and there's plenty here to raise your hackles, even if you're not Bruce Lee Gallanter.–DW

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Rodrigo Amado / Kent Kessler / Paal Nilssen-Love
European Echoes
Rodrigo Amado / Miguel Mira / Gabriel Ferrandini
European Echoes
Does an aficionado of jazz need another tenor trio recording? If it's to hear something that expands the boundaries of the genre, the answer to that would probably be "No", but if the aim is to discover an interesting new voice in a setting that's proven ideal for showcasing improvisational prowess, these two discs on the Portuguese saxophonist's label might be for you.
The Abstract Truth, its title a homage to the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, is the follow-up to the live Teatro 2004 recording that marked the first time the trio played together. Listeners familiar with Kessler and Nilssen-Love's playing in Ken Vandermark's orbit shouldn't be surprised that they're very simpatico to a sax player who wends his way between rhythmic motifs. But that's only part of the story; Amado has a big warm sound, like Sonny Rollins in its fill-up-the-room expansiveness in the lower register, with huge smeary legato passages. He doesn't resemble Vandermark as much as his associate Dave Rempis in terms of fluidity, but even that doesn't paint the complete picture. The opening cut, "Intro/The Red Tower", begins with Nilssen-Love laying down a fragmented beat as Amado enters with trills and Kessler bows away. Gradually the trills morph into rhythmic lines as the drums and bass play a charging rockish beat until the sax drops out, leaving Kessler and Nilssen-Love to wind things down to a loping pace at which point Rodrigo returns to bring things to a satisfying close. Lots going on in a 4'42" cut. The longest of the eight songs is just 7'15" but they all contain enough shifts and turns to keep the listener engaged. The real treat is on "Universe Unmasked" when Amado breaks out the baritone sax, plumbing the depths of the big horn as if determined to break through to bass saxophone territory as Kessler and Nilssen-Love urge him on in a scintillating performance.
Motion Trio gets off to a rousing start with "Language Call" as drummer Gabriel Ferrandini lends a sparser but effective backing with nimble cellist Miguel Mira. The lighter sound of the cello seems to dial back Amado's tenor approach while still producing a feeling of barely contained tension, although he still cuts loose at the beginning of "Testify!" before a herky-jerky rhythmic interlude interrupts the momentum. "Radical Leaves" features an extended duet of rapidfire tenor lines against cello scrapings, with Amado never straying far away from deceptively familiar motifs. The remaining cuts seem more appropriate to an album with "abstract" in the title. Both of these discs are easy to recommend to anyone wanting to hear a new voice in a familiar setting; if forced to choose between the two, the baritone cut gives the edge to The Abstract Truth.

Luigi Archetti / Bo Wiget
Rune Grammofon
Luigi Archetti, born in the Italian city of Brescia but long resident in Switzerland, and Norwegian Bo Wiget have arrived at the creative summit of their partnership with the third instalment of the Low Tide Digitals series. Like previous chapters, the record explores the fertile grounds connecting the purity of acoustic instruments (cello for Wiget, guitar and mandolin for Archetti, whose surname ironically translates as "little bows") with the superimposition of now inhospitable, now ear-cuddling landscapes making restrained use of electronics, handled by both artists. The basic principles behind these investigations are clearly audible: movement is scarce, weak tranquillity suddenly destabilized by sepulchral hums and hollow spaces conscientiously probed in partially inimical atmospheres, with occasional stabbing distortion and dissonance woven in, as if Archetti and Wiget wanted us to appreciate their angelic creature's evil side. When these worlds are properly intertwined – as in the Eno-meets-lowercase broken silences of "Stück 26", the ravishingly undressed grace of the skeletal masterpiece "Stück 27", the shifting drones of "Stück 31" and the glorious ascension of "Stück 37" – we feel sheltered, privileged even.–MR

Samuel Blaser Quartet
Clean Feed
Pieces of Old Sky marks the second disc in barely as many years by trombonist Samuel Blaser's quartet. The only returning member is bassist Thomas Morgan; Blaser is joined on these seven original compositions by percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and guitarist Todd Neufeld. The trombonist's pedigree is strong – Swiss-born and working in both Brooklyn and Berlin, he's won the Benny Golson and J.J. Johnson prizes and occupied trombone chairs in the European Radio Big Band and the Vienna Art Orchestra. One would assume that the natural choice following those exploits would be to assemble a top-rank contemporary hardbop group and play the shit out of some Jazztet-like charts. Not so Blaser; in addition to this staunchly open (albeit not "free") quartet, he's also released a disc of extended solo playing in the tradition of 'bone abusers like Paul Rutherford and Günter Christmann, and performed in duo with veteran Swiss drummer Pierre Favre. Blaser's tone is crisp and clean, but he has a strong command of multiphonics and a tendency to work long, low tones like a bass trombonist or tubaist.
Neufeld's guitar playing here has a dustbowl sensibility suggesting filmic folk-rock, and stands in stark relief to the slush and poise of the leader's phrasing; the results recall the grainy distance of the Nels Cline Singers. The lengthy title piece offers a field of mournful strums, mallet wash and loose pizzicato outlines, a windblown landscape that sets the stage for an oddly precise bluesiness. Following the leader's cleaned-up "Everywhere"-like statement, guitar and bass draw around each other, teasing out Spanish-tinged moments and borough skitter. Sorey's suspensions and bombs are placed with muscular exactitude, a grand component of this modern tone poem. Blaser's sound is totally his own, rich and deep and with a curiously Latinate musk; his heady and romantic storytelling fills in the atmospheric holes left by the ensemble.
"Red Hook" is given a knotty run-through, before Sorey and Morgan untie those knots and make new ones of their own. Sorey is one of those drummers who changes moods with such deftness and speed that one might miss the initial structure of an idea, since it's quickly replaced by its reconfigurations. All that technique might be tiring if it weren't part of a larger purpose, and the duet he performs with Blaser midway through is full of such natural, song-like flutter that mere "exactitude" doesn't matter. "Mandala" returns to the approach of the opener, blues-rock flecks fleshed out with a bit of Mangelsdorff growl that falls away into spare, front-porch detail. Unlike a lot of young upstarts with jazz chops to spare, Blaser is equally convincing working in more exploratory, collectivist forms of improvisation, and the results on Pieces of Old Sky are thoroughly convincing.

John Blum
It's been seven years since pianist John Blum's solo debut Naked Mirror on the late, lamented Drimala label, and he doesn't sound better. Not better as a pianist, I hasten to add – technically, Who Begat Eye is pretty outstanding (though a more resonant acoustic and a less tinny instrument would have done the music more justice, in my opinion) – but better as in less anguished, less stressed-out. His ferocious assault on the keyboard reminds me of that old Gerard Hoffnung cartoon entitled "Boulez" that showed a pianist standing triumphantly above the wreckage of a grand piano, whip in hand. There are vestiges of long lost jazz piano tradition in there – a fondness for a kind of crazy stride, sort of James P. Johnson meets Giuseppe Logan, and some florid right-hand runs reveal distance traces of bebop – but by and large the attack is relentless and exhausting, fingers bunched together in fury (seconds and thirds abound, but you won't hear many sevenths and octaves). Maybe I'm reading this all wrong and it's a joyous, life-affirming experience, or, as Steve Dalachinsky says in his liners, "a celestial bridge we all must cross in order to beget music in its purest and most radical form" – but the unremitting intensity is, though easy to admire, hard to love.–DW

Lester Bowie
With Chuck Nessa's monumental (and essential) box set The Art Ensemble – 1967/1968 out of print, it's great to see that Nessa is now reissuing the core albums it contains. First up was Congliptious, credited to The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. Now comes All the Numbers, which documents the full sessions originally released as Numbers 1 and 2, which were recorded over two days in August, 1967. While credited to Lester Bowie (Mitchell was under contract to Delmark at the time), this was the first commercially released recording of the group soon to be known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The original LP was planned to document two pieces, each around 22 minutes in length. "Number 1," a trio improvisation with Bowie, Mitchell, and Malachi Favors, clocked in at just over 25 minutes. But during the quartet session that added in Joseph Jarman, the group performed a brilliant take of "Number 2," a Mitchell composition, which ended after just 14 minutes. After a break, the group convened for a wild free improvisation that led in to a reading of Mitchell's form. For the LP, Nessa and crew decided to edit the two takes together and this became the second side of the release. Here, as on the box set, the full takes are presented in their entirety along with a trio reading of "Number 2" an interrupted alternate quartet take, and a short warm up.
The trio collective improvisation is the embodiment of improvisation as collective ritual and discovery, building from magisterial long tones in theatrical crescendos featuring Bowie's trumpet blasts and smears, Mitchell's sputtering flute and insistent alto, and Favors' propulsive bass, along with vocal interjections and crashing cascades of percussion, cymbals, gongs, harmonica, and kazoo. Bowie even throws in some sweet ballad playing for good measure. The multiple takes of Mitchell's "Number 2" provide an opportunity to hear how the reed player's structuralism served as launching pad for spontaneous interplay, biting humor and loose melodic invention. The trio has a potent directness, but with the addition of Jarman's reedy bassoon yawp and multiple reeds, things are taken to a different level. This is particularly evident on the opening furor of the final take, a blaze of barely-contained energy. Forty years after its initial release, it is astonishing how fresh and vital this still sounds.–MRo

Peter Brötzmann
The cover shows a bulging burlap bag lying at the edge of the seashore like flotsam, though perhaps appropriately it also has a distinct resemblance to a severed tongue. Something's been lost, anyway, and something found, evidently – think of the title as a succinct way of describing the way this music swings between grotesque melancholy and sullen ecstasy. Unlike Brötzmann's previous solo discs, this one was recorded in concert; the austere exhibition of chunks of stylized aggression that typified a studio disc like No Nothing is replaced here with a freewheeling approach that can slip into frowsy serenades or fall into lengthy chains of scribbles that suspend narrative direction for a kind of frenzied tailchasing. On the tarogato feature "Universal Madness" the impression is of watching a moth beat itself against a lampshade: a seemingly endless series of frenzied, fluttering phrases, each lasting as long as a breath but articulated with disconcerting on/off abruptness. The other tracks weave such self-perpetuating intensities in and out of actual rough-hewn melodies, including some elemental blues choruses on "Lost & Found" (on clarinet) and a thoroughly unexpected (and uncredited) reading of Monk's "Crepuscule with Nellie" (tenor sax). It's wonderfully human music, at times forbiddingly obsessive in its musical fixations while at others (like the brief closer, "Turmoil") verging on total distractability, and Brötzmann's throaty sound conveys an emotional range rarely touched on in jazz of any kind, from the downcast to the sluggish to the outraged.–ND

Anthony Braxton / Joëlle Léandre
It seems hard to believe that Anthony Braxton and Joëlle Léandre had only performed together once before they made this live recording, since they have much in common. (That was back in 1988 as part of a Braxton sextet performance at the Victoriaville Festival, documented on Ensemble (Victoriaville) 1988.) Both are consummate listeners, constantly seeking out new settings in which to develop an encyclopedic strategy toward music making that encompasses through-composition, jazz tradition, and an open approach to improvisation. They've also both defined seminal improvisational languages which have influenced countless musicians.
This 2CD set contains two extended improvisations and a short encore captured at the Heidelberg Café in Loppem, Belgium in the Spring of 2007. The pair waste no time, diving in with Braxton's alto flurries over Léandre's churning bowed bass. Their distinctive voices come through at once, with the saxophonist's meticulous phrasing and melodic lines gelling perfectly with Léandre's rich timbre and formidable sense of line and pace. Braxton switches between sopranino, soprano, alto saxophones and contrabass clarinet like a pianist jumping across the octaves of a keyboard, and Léandre responds with dark tones, richly resonant arco and forceful pizzicato, adding occasional vocal colorations to extend the collective palette. The music is freely improvised, but melodic motifs are woven in to serve as structural guideposts throughout, with the structural mastery that can only come from improvisers of this caliber. Anthony Braxton has always been somewhat reticent about free improvisation, but when he does choose to play free, he's astute in his choice of partners, particularly in duos. This meeting with Joëlle Léandre is amongst his best in that vein.

Nicholas Christian / Matt Milton / Eddie Prévost / Bechir Saade
Al Maslakh
Eddie Prévost seems to enjoy writing about what he does almost as much as he enjoys doing it, and several recent releases, not only those on his own Matchless imprint, have come with copious and informative liner notes, this quartet outing on the splendid Lebanese Al Maslakh label with bassist Nicholas Christian, violinist Matt Milton and bass clarinettist Bechir Saade (the Lebanese connection) being no exception. Prévost's text gives reviewers like me (and others who enjoy quoting liner notes and press releases – call it laziness if you like, but I've learnt more about music from reading the backs of albums than I ever did in 14 years of music school) plenty to get their teeth into: in this case it tells the story of the genesis of his Friday night workshop, that hotbed of activity and breeding ground for new talent – including these musicians – in the already fertile field of improvised music in London, of whose importance much has been made lately.
"If it is becoming 'a church' (and co-incidentally the weekly London workshop takes place in the school room of a Welsh chapel)", the percussionist writes, "then it is extremely open and tolerant of all approaches. All it seems to abhor is unthinking responses and intolerance itself." Fair comment, though I do detect in this release – and in the series of CDR snapshots of the new London scene (I'll refrain from capitalising the "new".. we already had New London Silence and that didn't last too long) that Simon Reynell's Another Timbre released earlier this year – an emerging consensus, a search for a lingua franca. The emphasis is placed firmly on overall group sound, on fitting in, on being part of one of those communities whose virtues Eddie extols in No Sound Is Innocent and Minute Particulars, rather than in asserting an individual point of view.
I've recently been listening again, for the first time in years, to Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen cycle (prompted to do so by Richard Barrett's description of it in these pages as "one of the pinnacles of achievement in improvised music"), that rather notorious collection of hippy-trippy verbal scores dating from 1968 (when else?), and was pleasantly surprised by Kommunion the other day during a quiet lunch break at work. One of the instructions for that particular piece is "play or sing a vibration in the rhythm of the molecules of one your fellow players", but the contrast between the Stockhausen ensemble's 1969 recording and the communal activity of A Church, which, as alphabetical order would have it, was cued up to play right after it on the trusty mp3 player, was striking. While I have no reason to suspect that the members of Karlheinz's band weren't trying to follow his instructions as faithfully as possible (!), there's still a clear sense of individuals resolving (or not) their differences, a real musical argument, which is harder to find in Eddie's congregation. Not that Church is risk-free, pale and unadventurous – far from it: much of its texture is uncompromisingly rough – but one longs for more in the way of friction than Milton's scratches and Prévost's scraped cymbals. I know it's dreadfully passé and old hat these days to wax nostalgic over real notes, but the most aurally satisfying moments on this disc occur when pitch – either high-end, from the bowed metal, or low-end, from Christian's Scelsi-like bass – asserts itself, imposing a harmonic identity on proceedings and reining in Milton and Saade's coarser sonorities. At such moments one really feels the presence of a fifth member of the group: the group itself. You might call it playing in the rhythm of each other's molecules.

It's been a while since Ferran Fages ("feedback mixing board, pick-ups") and Alfredo Costa Monteiro ("objects on electric guitar") graced us with a Cremaster album – was the last one really as long ago as 2003? (Infra, on Antifrost) – but these four splendid slabs of raw electronic power and howling feedback, recorded between 2004 and last year and hammered into shape this summer, are solid proof that they haven't lost their touch. Where to draw the line between Noise and EAI is a question that's preoccupied many of us for a while now, and recent outings by the likes of Carlos Giffoni and John Wiese are making it ever harder to answer; Cremaster discs usually get filed away under "EAI" – though not in my house, where they sit in a teetering pile of things loosely referred to as "electronica" – but there's no reason why these lads shouldn't be tearing it up at No Fun next year. Listening, Carlos? Check it out!–DW

Zé Eduardo Unit
Clean Feed
The trio of bassist-composer Zé Eduardo, drummer Bruno Pedroso and powerhouse tenorman Jesús Santandreu has been active on the Iberian scene for the better part of a decade, primarily as a vehicle for the leader's arrangements of folk and popular song into open improvisational settings. Their Clean Feed debut, A Jazzar no Zeca (2002), was a setting of the anti-fascist songs of José Afonso; other recordings have focused on Portuguese cinema, and Live in Capuchos retains the cinematic tradition by including themes from cartoons The Simpsons and Noddy. I'll confess a slight gag reflex was triggered by seeing Danny Elfman's tune in the setlist, but it's rendered barely recognizable across the track's seven minutes, Santandreu digging into his Newk/Trane roots in a rollicking solo over a jolly, pliant bounce. There's a shade of Rollins' "I'm an Old Cowhand" here, and in fact the tongue-in-cheek trotting-out of a fairly insipid recent popular song is something Eduardo has in common with Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
"Grandola" opens with a weighty plod before bass and tenor soar in delicate interplay; Eduardo's bass takes a more central role than on previous dates, exhibiting affection for high-pitched pizzicato strumming, effortlessly shifting from fluttering abstraction to supple, folksy lilt. Pedroso, a longtime fixture on the Lisbon scene and a highly in-demand drummer, dissects marches into stabbing freedom, yet carries a loose backbeat just as easily. Thirty-odd years ago, a player cobbling together mainstream and free-jazz tenor influences wouldn't have been something particularly interesting, but somehow the honesty of Santandreu's approach is refreshing – especially because he's not a technical showman but a compellingly virile student of the music. His sand-blasted honks and blats in "Dartacão," coupled with fleet fingering and wide leaps, are an exciting reminder of what solid modern-jazz tenor playing is all about. Eduardo coined the verb "jazzar" to define what his group does – to make jazz, make immediate the legacy of popular and folk song, translating even the hokiest numbers into personal artworks. Live in Capuchos is a fine example of the Zé Eduardo Unit at work.

Derek Bailey / Agustí Fernández

Agustí Fernández / Barry Guy
Over the course of the last two decades, Barcelona-based pianist Agustí Fernández, despite a background in composition (he studied at Darmstadt with, amongst others, Iannis Xenakis), has been steadily building a reputation as an insightful and inventive improviser, working with such luminaries as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, Barry Guy, William Parker, and John Butcher. These two new releases show how resourceful and sensitive a player he can be.
The story behind A Silent Dance is a poignant one. Derek Bailey first played with Fernández in 2001 and the pair formed a close friendship after the guitarist moved to Barcelona in 2003. This live recording from May 2005 documents the guitarist's last public performance. Bailey, clearly slowed by illness, pensively doles out resonant craggy clusters with his inimitable timbre and timing, while Fernández's jangling, strummed and struck prepared piano intertwines with the guitarist's somewhat spare playing. Unable to use a plectrum, Bailey plays with softened attack, but his control of density and sustain is more acutely thought through than ever. Over the course of 45 minutes, the piece builds with intimate intensity, the improvisation developing at a sure and unhurried pace as notes and tones hang with pregnant tension. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the musicians begin to up the ante as their playing becomes spikier and more percussive, building to an explosive conclusion. The follow-up ten-minute improvisation picks up from there, bristling with prickly textures. While perhaps not one of the essential Bailey recordings (of which there are many), it's a fitting coda to his brilliant body of work.

Fernández and bassist Barry Guy have recorded together in a trio with Ramón López, a quartet with Paul Lytton and Evan Parker, and in Guy's New Orchestra and Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. But this duo outing, Some Other Place, reveals a different side to the pianist's playing, in ten pieces ranging in duration from three to nine minutes, each a study in balancing quiet lyricism and vigorous dynamism. Working from compositional forms, the two build thematic material, moving between lush melodicism and spirited freedom. This brings out the more lyrical side of Fernández's playing, and some of the pieces float along with a haunting beauty. But the pair also push things into areas of percussive, pointillistic intensity, with lines and textures hocketed back and forth in tight, conversational interaction. It's always great to hear Guy in intimate settings like this and his rich tone and impeccable sense of pacing are fully complemented by his playing partner.

Dennis González
Among the spate of recent discs by trumpeter/cornetist Dennis González this one stands out for its lovely, distinctive atmosphere: the scent of night blossoms, the slow pulse of blood. Free jazz as mood music? There's a certain ECM flavour (which is NOT a put-down) – pianist Curtis Clark has the requisite harplike touch and scrunchy voicings, the chords fanned out delicately note-by-note – but the music's a good deal more robust than that would suggest. González's lines are minimalist and drawn-out, his appealingly old-fashioned growl and vibrato suffusing everything with receding TexMex melancholy. He's central to these performances, less a soloist than a rock washed over by the rhythm section's waves. Veteran bassist Reggie Workman's contributions are amazingly elastic, more like a vocal line than anything resembling conventional bass accompaniment, a moaning, thrumming undertow that drags and clutches at the music. Michael T.A. Thompson's drumming (oddly but appropriately credited here as "soundrhythmium") is similarly impressive: loose and loping, relaxedly stretching Latin grooves out towards infinity while conversely packing them with fervent little beat-clusters. The principal tracks here build slowly and languorously over longish durations, but they're woven together with brief interludes by each of the players. It's an unusually well-structured album as a result, slowly accelerating the pace from the smoky balladry of the opener "Alzar La Mano" (written by González's friend, the Mexican saxophonist Remi Álvarez) and ending with a dive into the abyss, in a final stretch that compasses the Aylerian "Anthem for the Moment" and the whirling free improvisation "Chant de la Fée".–ND

Brian Groder / Burton Greene / Rob Brown / Adam Lane / Ray Sage
After taking octogenarian saxophonist Sam Rivers on one of the most exciting rides of recent years on 2006's Torque, trumpeter Brian Groder has teamed up with another iconic figure of free jazz, pianist Burton Greene, for nine magnificent musical adventures recorded, appropriately enough, in Greene Street Studios NYC in October 2007. Without wanting in any way to downplay the importance of Groder's limpid and remarkably inventive trumpet and fluegelhorn playing, or alto saxophonist Rob Brown's technically and musically outstanding contributions (there's no point in even saying that, as everything Brown has committed to record in his lifetime has been technically and musically outstanding), the date belongs to Greene, not because he deliberately pushes everyone else to the sidelines, but because his contributions as both soloist and especially accompanist are so startlingly original that they command attention, from the inspired octatonic riffery of "Landfall" to the inside-piano investigations of "Amulet", from the virtuosity of "Cryptic Means" to the spiky comping of "Nigh". Sometimes it's all a bit over the top ("Hey, Pithy, Can You Thropt the Erectus?" owes much more to Greene than its punning title), but, hey, I'd rather it was like that instead of some earnest MOR Clean Feed outing where everyone is so afraid of walking on anyone else's toes that nobody moves at all. Greene has worked before with bassist Adam Lane – notably on 2004's Isms Out (CIMP) with Roy Campbell and Lou Grassi – and it shows: Lane is acutely aware of the pianist's left hand, and its tendency to provide the low and mid-register harmonic information, and concentrates accordingly on the more melodic upper octaves of his instrument. Which is not to say the pianist rides roughshod over Lane when the latter takes a solo – far from it: Greene's ear and sense of space is as acute as ever. In such ebullient company, a flamboyant drummer (like Han Bennink) would probably sink the ship altogether, so it's just as well Ray Sage is on hand to keep the beats tight and the music on course to its final destination. This is a truly splendid album, easily the best thing Burton's released in years, and one of the freshest and most enjoyable releases of the year.–DW

English improvised music has always had a sly sense of humour. Not the wacky custard-pie-in-Monk-face humour of the Dutch, or the heavy (heavy-handed, more often than not) cabaret belly laugh of the Germans, but something stranger, more subversive. Think Derek Bailey's dry spoken commentaries on his own playing, the anarchic stylistic melting pot of Alterations, the disturbing weirdness of the Bohman Brothers and Hugh Metcalfe. Grutronic, a four-piece electro improv ensemble (Stephen and Nick Grew, Richard Scott and David Ross), augmented for the occasion by guests Orphy Robinson (vibes) and Paul Obermayer (sampler), have taken the last four decades of improvised music on board, swabbed the decks with it and served it up seven frothy pints of the stuff on what could be my favourite album of 2009. Quite simply, it rocks – not as in boom boom boom (though regular pulse is by no mean taboo here, and a few decidedly funky beatboxes box their way through the crowd from time to time), but in the same way that Rafael Toral's recent music does, with that wicked sense of asymmetrical swing that will have your feet tapping without knowing why. Put that down perhaps to the musicians' openness to other areas of new music – Nick Grew works with Ballistic Cabaret and Newvacuum, and David Ross has been the drummer in Kenny Process Team since the early 90s – and a willingness to experiment and, to use Derek Bailey's favourite word, play. The sounds are simply irresistible, not because they're "funny" or "silly" (though there are plenty of delightful squelches and swoops) but because they're put together with such affection and instinctive precision. I read in the liner notes that Ross "found a path to free improvisation, inspired by Ornette Coleman records, watching maestro Roger Turner and talking to Keith Rowe about Steely Dan" (ha! remind me to talk to Keith about Steely Dan myself next time we meet) – with such an impeccable pedigree, how could you possibly go wrong? Essex Foam Party is pure delight – get yourself a copy as soon as you can.–DW

Barry Guy / London Jazz Composers Orchestra / Irène Schweizer
In August 2008 composer and bassist Barry Guy talked to Bill Shoemaker about the ten-year hiatus of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra: "A year passed and another year passed, and people began to ask, 'What happened to the LJCO?' ‘Well nothing really.' And then ten years passed." It hardly seems like a decade since the group was last heard from; that's partly because in the intervening years, Guy convened the New Orchestra, a stripped-down but still massive-sounding unit. Another part of it – and Guy alludes to this as the basis for Radio Rondo – is that the participants still frequently work together in other, overlapping ensembles. In a way, it's not like the LJCO really "went" anywhere. But for the 2008 Schaffhausen Jazz Festival, Guy reconvened the 18-piece orchestra – with Irène Schweizer, a frequent LJCO collaborator, on piano – for a performance of the 1989 piece Harmos and the newly commissioned Radio Rondo. The resulting CD combines Rondo with a solo improvisation by Schweizer. The LJCO now incorporates all the players from the New Orchestra, including reedist Mats Gustafsson, tubaist Per Åke Holmlander, and trumpeter Herb Robertson; drummer Lucas Niggli was also present for the occasion.
Compared to Guy's earlier concertos for Schweizer and Marilyn Crispell, Radio Rondo is much more open-ended, though there's still a strong composerly sensibility in evidence. The piece hinges on contrasts between large masses of sound in either static or extremely vibrant motion, and smaller, sometimes hushed group interplay, frequently with Schweizer at the center. Opening with seasick full-ensemble trills, the piece shifts its centre, as motives flit between percussion, piano, flute and soprano. Woodwinds and brass then repeat and bend those motives into slushy cacophony before dying away into pinched harmonics. As the sound masses thin out, Schweizer has more room to stretch, working architecturally, stacking and repeating for emphasis. Her playing is often highly rhythmic, but it has a strong "tonal" romantic streak as well, which she and tenorman Simon Picard extrapolate for one of the prettiest moments of the piece. In the last twelve minutes, the orchestra expands out from and contracts back to lush pedal points at regular intervals, the textures ranging from popping detail to Rothko-like sonic envelopment. Conceptually, Radio Rondo is fairly straightforward once the piece's back-and-forth nature reveals itself, but the trades between orchestral mass and Schweizer's dynamic drive are a treat to listen to.
The pianist's solo piece – placed first on the CD – apparently actually followed the Rondo in concert, and to some extent seems to respond to the weight and measure of the full orchestra. Her trilling runs appear to be hauling a roomful of ghost improvisers along; the abrupt decelerations and shifts in tempo have the weight of an accompanying bass drum or reed-like whack. Not that Schweizer needs a band behind her – that rolling barrelhouse can handle itself well enough – but her jagged, upper-register chunks often suggest one side of a dialogue. And if there were a second musician, the occasional wry turn into a hearty Monkish ballad might throw a partner for a loop. After all, though she's often in the fiercest kinds of musical situations, Schweizer is one of the most lyrical of postwar European pianists, handling fleet action with glassine delicacy. Here, she's both orchestrator and orchestra.

This seventh offering from Chicago's premier exponents of EAI (hmm, let's see if anyone writes in to complain about that one), namely Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills and Adam Sonderberg, joined on one track by Sonderberg's elusive Dropp Ensemble playing partner, Salvatore Dellaria, is another finely crafted exploration of rich, predominantly low, slowly evolving textures. Containing just three tracks (the second and third of which are entitled "Three" and "Four" – pick up a copy of The Medium if you want to find "One" and "Two"), or rather two with a tantalisingly brief intro, as the opening "Counterpoise" disappears frustratingly after barely three minutes, it could be Haptic's most accomplished release to date. The title could refer to anything from a medieval siege tower to a ducking stool, a Marcel Duchamp readymade to an unwinnable position in a chess game, and how the music cunningly blends acoustic and electronic instruments and field recordings ("no helicopters were harmed in the making of this album," Hess notes wryly on Brian Olewnick's blog) is just as hard to figure out. Richard Pinnell, over at The Watchful Ear (it's always fun to compare his and Brian's comments, since they very often cover the same albums) wonders what the sound of a children's playground in the final seconds of "Four" might signify. I haven't the faintest idea myself, but it's a magical ending to a most impressive album.–DW

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Vivian Houle
Drip Audio
Jesse Zubot's Drip Audio imprint continues to document the activities of Vancouver's vibrant improvised music community with dedication and enthusiasm with this excellent set of duets pitting vocalist Vivian Houle against thirteen local talents, including cellist Peggy Lee, pianist Paul Plimley (on spectacular free stride form as usual), guitarist Ron Samworth (sounding rather Frisell-like, but we won't hold that against him) and Zubot himself on violin. Houle is a splendidly versatile performer, as good at actually singing as she is at producing the kind of demented twittering and gasping we've come to expect from improvising vocalists, and adapts her instrument to the character and timbre of her playing partners' with extraordinary virtuosity: spiky and taut with Zubot, silky smooth (and rather Annette Peacock-like) with pianist Lisa Miller, squeaky and throttled with percussionist Kenton Loewen, airy and evanescent with saxophonist Coat Cooke. The only time she seems to struggle is with (against, rather) Brent Belke's grungy guitar, but she redeems herself in style in the closing track with Stefan Smulovitz's atmospheric electronics. A great set, well worth checking out.–DW

Sebastian Lexer
It goes without saying that, for improvising pianists, John Tilbury casts a long shadow, not only as arguably the only pianist of his generation to pull the piano out of the orbit of free jazz (echoes of which continue to haunt the work of all his contemporaries) but also as an eloquent spokesman for areas of new music – and politics – that have assumed greater importance over the past two decades. It's inevitable that his name should come up in discussing Sebastian Lexer's long-awaited solo album, as he also provides (along with Eddie Prévost and Ian Stonehouse) liner notes for the set. But Lexer, as this collection of six pieces shows, is very much his own man both on and inside the piano, routing its sounds through a Max/MSP application of his own design (hence the "piano+" appellation) to explore nuances of pitch and timbre with scientific precision and painterly elegance. Along with Blasen, his Another Timbre duo outing with frequent playing partner Seymour Wright, it's Lexer's finest work to date. Get it.–DW

Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6
Swiss trumpet player and band leader Manuel Mengis's debut Into the Barn made many Best Of lists back in 2005. Then things went quiet for three years until the follow-up, The Pond, was released. So it's great to see this new one out so soon. The recipe is much the same: quirky tunes full of serpentine twists and turns nailed with aplomb by the trumpet, dual reed, guitar, bass, drums line-up. The leader's lithe trumpet and Flo Stoffner's skronky electric guitar are instantly recognizable, and Marcel Stalder's free funk electric bass and Lionel Friedli's feisty drumming propel the music through the hairpin time changes with spirited yet relaxed momentum. Newcomer Reto Suhner's alto and clarinet pairs with Roland von Flüe's tenor and bass clarinet, sneaking out for sprightly solos and weaving back in to the ensemble flow. Mengis's charts mix-and-match post-bop inflection, infectious rock-tinged pulse, sputtering angularity and smoky melodicism, with figures kicking off one piece and then slyly injected midway through another. He knows his musicians well enough to take advantage of their individual strengths, push them hard and still leave room for ensemble interplay. Manuel Mengis and crew continue to deliver.–MRo

Seijiro Murayama / soundworm
Nothing to do with Donald Byrd's 1975 rare groove masterpiece Places and Spaces, alas, but sound engineer Shoji Hiromitsu, aka soundworm (unfortunate pseudonym if you ask me, though maybe the association with fungal and parasitic infections – ringworm, tapeworm.. – is deliberate on his part) could be EAI's answer to Larry (or Fonce) Mizell. On the four "Compositions for Recordings" that form the centrepiece of this CD, he positioned microphones inside and outside (the studio?) at Koganei, Japan, switching them on and off according to instructions in Seijiro Murayama's score while the percussionist improvised in real time on top. The multiple mic set-up reminds us of numerous collaborations between Eric La Casa and Jean-Luc Guionnet, both of whom are frequent Murayama playing partners here in France (Guionnet and Murayama's Le Bruit du Toit, on Xing Wu, was one of 2007's highlights for this reviewer), and the montage of man-made and natural sounds is austere and impressive. As a percussionist Murayama belongs to the same crew as Burkhard Beins, Sean Meehan and Jason Kahn, preferring continuous sonority – bowed metal, notched dowels rubbed energetically back and forth across the edge of his snare drum – to traditional bang and crash. The four compositions are bookended by two extended improvisations recorded (by Vincent Rioux) in Le Corbusier's Monastery of Ste. Marie de La Tourette outside Lyon, whose resonant spaces sound as beautiful as they look. Christ, it's enough to make you want to take holy orders.–DW

Xu Fengxia / Lucas Niggli
Black Lotos is the first collaboration between Chinese-born guzheng and sanxian player Xu Fengxia and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli. Fengxia worked in world-traveler Peter Kowald's trio Global Village, as well as with Wolfgang Fuchs and Joe Fonda. Free music is part of her resume, though she may be better-known in contemporary composition and Chinese traditional music circles. Niggli's interests go far beyond the European Free Improvisation pages as well; he was born in Cameroon, his mother is Chinese-born, and his percussion ensembles draw on Asian and African influences.
The title track begins sparsely, primarily featuring solo guzheng with rumbling, knocking accents from skins, mallets, and gongs. Though forceful, Fengxia nevertheless exhibits coiled control of the instrument, as well as belting out vocals that are a cross between theatrical poise, poésie sonore and mountain ballad, outlining a range of vivid emotions more complex than English-weaned ears can easily parse. "Fish-Lips and Duck-Feet" finds her making broad impasto clusters, like a feral version of Alice Coltrane, while Niggli's scattershot brushwork is an update on Ben Riley. Fleet scribbling whirls on sanxian, in tandem with toms and guttural lament, open "Ride over Blue Sky," before the pair settles into a twangy groove that borders on soulful grit with its thin, galloping chant. Despite the hell-bent-for-leather power, the music is still as "accessible" as any Brotherhood of Breath recording. Black Lotos grooves mightily even when lopsided, ideas flowing faster than the tempo can hold, reckless but endlessly rejuvenating. When Fengxia and Niggli explore sparse, textural structures, their physicality and humanity comes through whether bowed guzheng strings are volksmusik or not. The results are remarkable and thoroughly uncategorizable music.

Mike Olson
Henceforth Records
Minneapolis composer Olson writes/assembles fragments for his ensembles, here an eighteen-piece of strings, brass, guitars, keyboards and rhythm section, which the composer then breaks down and reconstructs on his Mac, similar to the computer process music of Bob Ostertag. On this CD the pieces are like cinematic incidental music – hence the title – "because it reminds me very much of incidental music". The result is a storm of ideas ranging from a wild harmolodics-like opening, to wide-open airy Ligeti-ish string pieces, deep jazz-rock groove in the manner of early Weather Report, interruptions from hardrock guitar, big band buffoonery reminiscent of the Willem Breuker Kollektief or early Carla Bley, all treated through the composer’s computer and accompanied on his trusty Moog. What impresses most here is the ambition of Olson’s vision – as well as similarities to Ostertag, you can also hear Ives and Cage, as well as TV cop show car chases and ghost movie atmospherics – perhaps we have to wave hello to Holger Czukay as well. The whole may not entirely hang together (perhaps by the very nature of the "incidental" enterprise) but for sheer breadth and scope, it resembles a miniature, electroacoustic Escalator Over the Hill.–JG

Keith Rowe / Toshimaru Nakamura
ErstLive 008
All four of Keith Rowe's performances at the AMPLIFY 2008: light festival in Tokyo have now appeared on Erstwhile: one solo (ErstLive 007), and duos with Taku Unami (ErstLive 006), Sachiko M (Contact, which also features recordings made in the same performance space two days later) and, rounding off the set, this one with Toshimaru Nakamura. The decision to release them all was presumably taken well in advance of the festival itself, which isn't in itself all that surprising (these days most improv concerts are recorded, and many end up getting released, which is understandable when documenting the work of musicians who live hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles apart and who only get together and play once or twice a year), but must have put the musicians at AMPLIFY under a certain pressure – knowing that any sound you make will be preserved for posterity on one of today's most influential new music labels is not something I'd like to have to deal with myself, to be honest.
It doesn't seem to have been much of a problem for Keith and Toshi though, if this splendid set is anything to go by. Sure, there are a few odd dips, moments when I'd have liked the music to go in a different direction (not as many of them as in the Unami duo, in my opinion – but given this music's extraordinary resistance to objective value judgement and the fact that informed commentators on the scene frequently disagree about the merits or lack thereof of particular albums, I know many won't share that opinion), but the vigorous interplay and exhilarating texture of the set as a whole more than makes up for it.
Erstwhile's Jon Abbey is right to recommend that the four albums belong together (well, he would say that, wouldn't he?): it's as if Rowe, great lover of classical music that he is, had consciously set out to record a four-movement symphony: an epic Mahlerian first movement (the solo), a scherzo (the Unami duo), a slow movement (with Sachiko) and this ebullient finale. I know, I know, it's far-fetched, and the fact that the Unami set happened the day before the solo kinda fucks up the analogy (the slow movement usually comes before the scherzo too, but not always), but try them in the order I suggest and see what you think. In any case, you need all four, regardless of what order you choose to play them in.–DW

Charles Rumback
Clean Feed
There has long been an interesting cross-pollination between Chicago's younger jazz and improvising musicians and the "post-rock" scene that developed in the early 1990s, out of bands like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. Chicago's Thrill Jockey label has hosted releases from Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground projects and Exploding Star Orchestra (one of which was a collaboration with trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon), as well as veterans Fred Anderson and drummer Robert Barry. Stalwart Chi-town blues and jazz label Delmark has, likewise, released the music of Mazurek and Tortoise's Jeff Parker alongside more strictly "jazz" young lions. Less well-known than some of his peers, percussionist Charles Rumback (originally from Wichita, Kansas) is one of the busiest avant-rock sidemen in the area, playing with L'altra, Via Tania, and the ambient-improvisation duo Colorlist; Two Kinds of Art Thieves is his debut as a leader.
One might expect the gauzy, filmic textures of Colorlist to work their way into Rumback's quartet music, so it's somewhat surprising that Art Thieves is decidedly a jazz record, though the emphasis is on spare group improvisation. Rumback is joined here by alto saxophonist Greg Ward and tenorman Josh Sclar (and for two tracks, bassist Jason Ajemian) on six original compositions. Ten years ago, when Rumback was based in Lawrence, Kansas, his approach showed the influence of such diverse but equally intense sources as Brian Blade, Ben Perowsky and Han Bennink. The antics of bash have given way to a disappearing act, the drummer making laconic use of brushes and sleigh-bells, continually piling up economies around dovetailing alto and tenor. Sclar and Ward are an updated, free-time analogue to Warne Marsh and Gary Foster, cotton purrs and squeals merging into a singular voice. On "Manifesto," gooey long tones from Ajemian's bass bolster the pair as Rumback knits the air with mallets and bells. "Four Ruminations" merges slinky repetition in a dark groove behind the saxophonists' unkempt keening, Ward's alto rising quickly out of the ambience to chortle and declaim. One couldn't ask for a stronger debut, and Two Kinds of Art Thieves is a welcome addition to the landscape of young Chicago improvisation.

Olaf Rupp / Marino Pliakas / Michael Wertmüller
Though I'm as big a fan as the next man (or woman) of the traditional brain fry, and have in the past thoroughly enjoyed guitarist Olaf Rupp's exhausting workouts – Kernel Panic on Musica Genera with Joe Williamson in particular – and Pliakas and Wertmüller's appropriately-named Full Blast (2006) with Peter Brötzmann, not to mention Wertmüller's own fiendish New Complexity compositions on Die Zeit, Eine Gebrauschanweisung (2004), there's something about Too Much Is Not Enough that's, well, too much. Hard to say what it is, actually – the album is extremely enjoyable at dangerous volume through headphones if I'm trying to cycle my way through rush hour traffic, but somehow doesn't hold my attention when I sit down and listen to it carefully. It's not the electric bass, either as an instrument – I have no problems with Bill Laswell in Arcana with Derek Bailey and Tony Williams (though I know The Last Wave isn't often raved about by Bailey fans) – or as played by Pliakas, and Wertmüller's hyperactive timbale pummelling is thrilling, if exhausting. So I'm forced to conclude that Rupp is the weak link here, but that's a bit like saying John Cena is the weak link in a three-way dance with The Undertaker and Batista when he can still probably knock your brains out through your ears quicker than you say "Ein halber hund kann nicht pinkeln". Even so, it's to the higher-pitched instrument that the ear is naturally drawn, and sometimes Rupp has to struggle to make his presence felt over Wertmüller's rolling thunder and Pliakas's ecstatic scrabble. Funny, Sonny Sharrock never had a problem with this, even with Brötzmann blasting beery breath up his ass in Last Exit, and Bailey acquitted himself well against Williams and Laswell. Back in the realm of the living, Alex Ward slays in N.E.W. and Henry Kaiser can really give Weasel Walter what-for when he wants to. Anyway, whatever. Maybe that's why I find the quieter, sparer tracks (yes, there are a few: the menacing "Böller Ballade I" and the spiky "Stoppare" are my favourites) more satisfying, probably because Rupp sounds at times as if he'd be more comfortable on acoustic, but I doubt he'd last a minute in the ring with Pliakas and Wertmüller if he were.–DW

Paul Rutherford
More evidence of Martin Davidson's knack for digging out archival material of interest to fans of vintage British free improv, in this case four miscellaneous sessions by the late trombonist Paul Rutherford. Truth be told, only one of them is prime-cut Rutherford, a 1978 solo set performed in the unusual acoustic of Pisa's open-air Giardino Scotto Theatre. The density of event is extraordinary, the ideas cut into each other at a bruisingly rapid clip and every so often squashed down in half-strangled protestations, as Rutherford spars joyously with the quirky amplifying properties of his surroundings – though there's also a bizarre but fetching detour into a kind of grisly stasis, the trombonist's aggrieved moans peppered by microwave-popcorn sputters. Though there's already a lot of Rutherford solo material available on Emanem, this is as good as any I've heard.
The other solo set is a less typical performance, a 1981 London concert where Rutherford makes extensive use of electronics – self-controlled, apparently, though they often seem to have a daft life of their own. The computery bloops and whistles have a lo-tech charm but are maddening to listen to at length, and the penumbral ringing that's sometimes audible gave this reviewer tinnitus flashbacks. On the other hand, Rutherford is in really fiery form here, popping off brusque, unexpected sallies in a stop-start rhythm very different from his acoustic work. He also makes great use of the voice mic to amplify his hums and growls (it's the one electronic element here that really works). Wonderful playing – but it's still hard work unless you're adept at mentally bracketing out the more annoying elements.
From a few days later at the same event, the ACTUAL-81 festival, comes an equally unusual and more satisfactory session, a brass quartet of Rutherford and George Lewis (trombones), Martin Mayes (French horn) and Melvyn Poore (tuba). The all-out tug-of-war passages tend to be the best, with Lewis and Rutherford in particularly skittish mood, throwing off delightfully contrary ideas. The talky sotto-voce passages don't do a lot for me, but the queasy quasi-drone episodes and veering chorales are quite effective. The set also includes a 1982 studio session by Rutherford's trio with bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Nigel Morris, predating their sole album Gheim by a year. Rutherford is recessed in the mix, but his drolly inventive monologues are as pertinent and ideas-rich as ever. The engine-room balance seems a bit off though, with Rogers in total melodic/rhythmic hyperdrive and Morris hooking up with him only occasionally, but the three tracks are a worthwhile addition to the trio's small body of work.–ND

Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls
Like all of drummer Ted Sirota’s work with his band, the Rebel Souls, Seize the Time is politically engaged jazz, overtly paying homage to Max Roach and Charles Mingus’s fiery 1960s musical polemics, even if the results are rather less stormy. Indeed, the disc is essentially about exploring and celebrating the ways that music serves to lift the spirits in dark, violent or confusing times, whether it’s jazz or politicized pop music from all over the world. Tenor saxman Geof Bradfield made a splash a few years back with his trio disc Rule of 3, which also featured Sirota; he’s been a Rebel Soul since the band’s previous disc, Breeding Resistance (Delmark, 2003), and has become a key contributor to the book, notably a gentle arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” that makes ironic commentary on the current global downturn (as Sirota notes, this 1855 tune “might be the first hit song written about an economic crisis”). Indeed, the breadth of the repertoire here is refreshing. Sirota pays homage to his household gods in the form of Mingus’s twisty “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi USA” and a drum solo, “Viva Max!”, and his passion for reggae gets a showing on “Killa Dilla” – guitarist Dave Miller has a ball here, slathering spacey, reverberant overdubs across his spindly solo lines. Caetano Veloso, Miriam Makeba and even the Clash figure into the mix, the band turning “Clampdown” into a yearning epic. Bradfield and alto saxophonist/bass clarinettist Greg Ward make a superbly passionate and buoyant front line; bassist Jake Vinsel is a discreet presence, but Miller is a constant source of pleasurable surprise, brushing sharp little details into the music’s corners, and shapeshifting as occasion demands from fleet Kurt Rosenwinkelisms (“Clampdown”) to smoky Leslie-amped minimalism à la Ribot (“Little D”) to fuzzed-out McLaughlinesque rancour (“Polo Mze”).–ND

Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith has been well-served lately by the Tzadik and Cuneiform labels. Between the two, he has had the opportunity to document his constantly evolving ensembles on a fairly regular basis. This new missive is a 2CD set, capturing live performances by his (mostly) acoustic Golden Quintet and a (mostly) electric nonet titled Organic. The Golden Quintet has evolved from a quartet with Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors, and Jack DeJohnette to its current line-up with Vijay Iyer on piano and synthesizer, John Lindberg on bass, and the dual drums of Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye, a canny pairing that Smith leverages to build the music from the bottom up. The leader's plangent trumpet sings out over Lindberg's melodic bass, Iyer's shard-like clusters and flurries, and the roiling undertow of the two drummers. His muted musings are pointed and focused as ever, with each note placed with clear intention, tinged in places with subtle shadings of reverb. Iyer follows Smith's lead, fitting in his harmonic refractions with a sense of economy, filling the texture out with occasional synth flourishes. Lindberg plays as key a role in the thematic flow of the music as he does in its propulsive momentum. On the final "South Central L.A. Kulture" his elastic electric bass (harking back to his days with Bobo Shaw's Human Arts Ensemble) adds in an infectious sense of heady free funk to the mix as Smith drives the voodoo down over the slashing drums and piano stabs.
The Organic disc kicks off with the same tune, but this time Smith, Lindberg, and AkLaff are joined by four electric guitars (Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Nels Cline, and Lamar Smith), Okkyung Lee on cello, and Skuli Sverrisson on electric bass. Recorded in crystal clear detail at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT, this set recalls Smith's Yo Miles! project with Henry Kaiser. While the allusions to Miles Davis' electric bands are undeniable, this is more than just nostalgic knock-off; the pieces simmer and groove against the funk underpinnings, but the group also knows how to let things open up into coloristic abstraction. Smith's compositions provide a framework to build improvisations from shifting textures and melodic kernels. "Organic" slowly gathers force from the free tracers of electronics, as riffs are built up, hocketed between guitars and cello, and then exploded to leave the two bass players to stretch out. Check out how Smith's placid lines that open up "Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy" set the stage for guitars, trumpet, and cello to daub colorful smears over a freely looping groove. Spiritual Dimensions offers a welcome view into the current state of Smith's evolving ensemble vision.

Burkhard Stangl / Kai Fagaschinski
The title of this magnificent album, which could be the most accessible title released to date on Jon Abbey's Erstwhile imprint (excluding the two ErstPop outings, of which more below), is a reference to an album entitled Sehnsucht – Ein Porträt in Musik by Alexandra, née Doris Treitz, a German popular singer in the 1960s who died in an unfortunate car accident aged just 27. Not an album I'm familiar with, I'm afraid, but one I'm rather tempted to seek out, as guitarist / pianist / percussionist Stangl and clarinettist Fagaschinski are fond of slipping sly references to pop culture into their work: Kai's email address puns on Kylie Minogue, and one of the tracks on this album is a hilarious double homage to Prince and Morton Feldman (!), entitled, yes, "Sexy M.F."
Jon Abbey has confirmed that one of the reasons for not releasing this on his ErstPop sublabel, where it would have joined two other releases by Neuschnee (Stangl and Christof Kurzmann) and The Magic I.D., was the music's lack of lyrics, but as we've seen above with Black To Comm, that doesn't necessarily rule out these delicious pieces as Lieder ohne Worte. The ear for pitch and feel for harmonic progression – and stasis – is exquisite, and one could easily imagine one of Kurzmann's wistful vocals floating into earshot. But no; instead the real world makes a number of guest appearances, in the form of field recordings courtesy Klaus Filip, dieb13 and Bernhard Gal. Sehnsucht is hard to translate into English: "longing" and "yearning" are OK, but the Portuguese saudade comes closest, which A.F. Bell defined rather nicely as "a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist ... a turning towards the past or towards the future." This album is precisely that, the thing that "does not and probably cannot exist" being the EAI pop song (though I argued elsewhere that The Magic I.D. came close), and its search for musical beauty that is both rooted in the past but aimed resolutely towards the future is wonderful to experience.

Birgit Ulher / Ariel Shibolet / Adi Snir / Roni Brenner / Michael Mayer / Damon Smith / Ofer Bymel
Balance Point Acoustics
From the first meaty whoomph of Damon Smith's arco bass, one is keenly aware of a strong connection to bassists like Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall. There's a workman-like physicality of horsehair on strings, as well as a muscular and bodily presence that, despite its massiveness; is almost balletic in its motions. Oakland-based Smith readily acknowledges the influence of the German bassists; his first audio experience of freely improvised bass was Kowald's FMP LP Duos: Europa. With percussionist Weasel Walter, he's crafted an approach that balances perilously between careening expressiveness and exacting detail. But the "violent rage" that characterizes a Walter disc is only one facet of Damon Smith's work. Witness Yclept, his latest collaboration with Tel Aviv saxophonist Ariel Shibolet and Hamburg trumpeter Birgit Ulher, herself a master carver of miniscule brassy flutters and gut-wrenching wails. The three are joined across seven improvisations by a group of musicians little known outside Israel: guitarists Roni Brenner and Michel Mayer, percussionist Ofer Bymel and saxophonist Adi Snir. Groans, flutters and stuttering yelps jab and dive at one another across these sonic canvases, supported by long, crisp howls of bowed harmonics. Smith is the most identifiable colour here, a craggy yet humanistic brown amid the whitish-silver flecks of reed (?) chirps and brassy pops and clucks. The guitars seem to be prepared, contributing feedback and electrified plinks; like Bymel's snare and thick brushes, they fill the soundscape with spiky, pointillist gestures. The sixth section is certainly the most traditional, guitar scrapes and towel-damped toms shadowing urgent long tones. It's something ineffable that makes an "improv" recording (i.e., not jazz or free-jazz) sing – one just knows when that sweet spot gets hit. Yclept is definitely an example of the indefinable "it."–CA

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Fernando Benadon
Fernando Benadon is a composer, saxophonist and music theorist at American University whose academic interests bridge the divide between jazz and contemporary composition, as does the music on Intuitivo, his debut disc. Benadon recorded solo improvisations by seven musicians, each unaware of the others' contributions, then layered the results in an attempt to demonstrate synchronistic similarities in rhythmic and melodic approach. Such cut-and-paste techniques have little novelty value, but the results are quite engaging and often exciting.
The seven musicians were given no guidance, and Benadon did not subject their improvisations to the sorts of studio manipulations that would change their fundamental character. Consequently, the album has a live ensemble feel throughout; minimalistic elements are introduced, and the texture is often hectic, but commendable mixing and mastering ensures that even the densest passages exhibit remarkable clarity and detail.
The opening moments from "Vidrios," examined in depth, illustrate the relationships on offer which, as Benadon's liner notes aptly state, form a "spontaneously coherent whole." Rapid-fire arpeggiations shared by various ensemble members point to commonalities in rhythmic language and overall approach, such as Kurt Rohde's viola and Marco Mazzini's clarinet figurations that then give way to a similar duo exchange between bassist Michael Formanek and violinist Courtney Orlando. Their chosen tonal centers are related, and their sense of timing is so similar that it's easy to forget their disparate origins. Then there are the few pregnant pauses, such as the one where all the instruments hit a G and halt. This brief respite interrupts an intricate drum and clarinet exchange similar to those discussed above, the viola snapping the G for all it's worth and some tasteful reverb ensuing.
So many of these pithy moments occur that cataloging them would be futile. The music defies exclusivity, bordering on tonality and atonality while allegiant to neither. When "World" music or "free music" tropes appear, as they do simultaneously in the sparkling and transparent "Japanese Cups," they are nevertheless sublimated, no single gesture being overdramatized. There are solos of all lengths and varieties, such as the gorgeous bass passage that opens "Quim Font" or the motoric and constantly morphing violin work that underpins "Continuo," but much of the playing is collective. And collectivity, after all, is what Benadon highlights and seeks to redefine; in doing so, he creates music of interest, depth and beauty.–MM

Olivier Capparos / Lionel Marchetti
Lionel Marchetti's music, not only his collaborative projects with fellow composer and poet Olivier Capparos, has always been haunted by the past, particularly the radio – through which a whole generation of musique concrète pioneers discovered the sound world around them – in the form of what he calls "divers hasards radiophoniques". Sounds of childhood (a magical time, a voyage of discovery Marchetti took with his own children Adèle and Hadrien on last year's album of the same name) – chiming grandfather clocks, the wheeze of an old accordion, snatches of old chanson and movie soundtracks (here Grace Kelly and James Stewart from Rear Window – of course Marchetti is familiar with his mentor Michel Chion's essay on Hitchcock's use of sound in that film) – combine with Latin incantations, fragments of poetry (notably the rolling r's of Ezra Pound's Canto XLV) and the distant muffled sound of galloping hooves in 33 minutes of magnificently crafted musique concrète realised by Marchetti and Capparos in the studios of INA/GRM in Paris in 2001 and 2002. Marchetti has often compared his pieces to poems, so it's fitting that the disc comes with three of them by way of liner notes. Eric Vuillard's lines "the gallop of horses on the earth is like the first thought of man" and "the dreams of men are the decomposing thoughts of the dead" are curiously appropriate, as is Capparos's tale of a little girl sitting at a table in a clearing in a forest. "You're here at last. I was waiting for you. You're looking for the animal you have lost. I'm trying to create one." Masterly.–DW

Tom Chant / Angharad Davies / John Edwards / Benedict Drew
Another Timbre
This is a gorgeous and well-recorded disc that brings improvised and composed forms together in a satisfying way. These four musicians introduce eclecticism and insight to pieces by John Cage, California-based composer Michael Pisaro and to two purely improvised structures; the best part of it all is that their respective vocabularies are so distinctive and versatile that each work is delivered with insight and spontaneity.
The two quartet improvisations certainly contain many clichés of the Euro-free improv variety, but these are just as often supplanted by the lush electronic drones more often associated with EAI. Witness the rather chatty but still sparse opening of Activation, with its pointillist dialogue gradually falling silent as jagged high-frequency sustains come to the fore. The much more restrained long tones then become an integral part of the piece, informing the quicker exchanges on their return.
This permeability of tempo and dynamic boundaries is reflected in the juxtaposition of individual timbres and motives in all of the music on offer, whether improvised or composed. The album's centerpiece, the quartet's performance of Cage's Four6, has a structure open enough to incorporate both Tom Chant's rich multiphonics and Benedict Drew's remarkably varied and emotive electronics. Premiered in the summer of 1992, it constitutes one of Cage's number pieces, which were constructed of time bracket notation. Four6's score stipulates that each player chooses twelve sounds, with fixed overtone structure and amplitude. The freedoms inherent in the score can be abused—witness Sonic Youth's rather juvenile version which relies more on repetition and novelty than on the subtlety and interplay that defines Cage's music. This quartet adheres to its choices while also embracing the silence where appropriate, but each musician finds enough diversity to ensure that the music develops over its thirty-minute duration.
The Cage and Pisaro works complement each other beautifully, both relying on the use of indeterminate structures, developing sustains and relative silence. The three Pisaro duos presented here are taken from his Harmony series (2004-2006), which was initially inspired by James Tenney's Swell Piece. Comprising 34 pieces, each using a poem as inspiration and to determine its structure, the series is a vast and stunning exploration of the intricacies of sound relations that we call harmony, for lack of a better term. As with the Cage, the scores are meant to allow freedom of choice, but the instructions are quite detailed regarding the sorts of timbres that should be used and their placement. The results can be startlingly diverse, as with the brief Flux which ends the disc. It's a stark series of quasi-pitched alternations joining Drew's electronics with wispy utterances from Edward's, the two performers even managing to match pitches despite Drew's white noise! The duo realizes the last line of the verbal score effectively, matching noise and pitch with astonishing subtlety. By contrast, Reader, Listen presents declamatory pitch complexes that sometimes give the illusion of more than two instruments at work, exactly the intricate overtonal relationships that imbue so much of Pisaro's work.
The disc is well programmed, the constant contrast between the busy improvised pieces and the slowly morphing compositions lending unity to the whole. Better still, there is a sense of discovery throughout; as with Pletnev's recordings of Beethoven piano concertos, the composed material is presented with the freshness of improvisation, and I find these solutions engaging and persuasive.–MM

Bernard Donzel-Gargand
Monochrome Vision
Funny that you have to go via Moscow, where the splendid new Monochrome Vision label is based, to discover the musique concrète of Bernard Donzel-Gargand (he didn't even get a mention in Eric Deshayes and Dominique Grimaud's L'Underground Musical en France, which either makes him sub-underground or says something about that book, probably the latter), who's been quietly plying his trade in the picturesque city of Annecy in Haute-Savoie for quite some time. Not so sure about that "quietly", actually, as some of the music on this disc – eight pieces spanning a compositional career of a quarter of a century, from 1984's Ambivalence to 2007's Un Ailleurs Perdu – is quite boisterous. And, hardly surprisingly, very French, not only in its incorporation of the mother tongue, both sung (Par la main) and spoken (though if you're not fluent in the language it won't spoil your enjoyment of the music) and local colour (yes! frogs! accordions!), but in its evident familiarity with and loving recognition of the musique concrète repertoire. Pierre Henry gets a namecheck, but there's François Bayle's ear for shimmering digital precision and a flair for the dramatic worthy of Michel Chion and Lionel Marchetti. Eloge de la folie (1994) is terrific. "A lot of musicians who stopped by [Pierre Schaeffer's] Studio d'Essai in the early days said there was no future in musique concrète," said Eliane Radigue in our recent Wire Invisible Jukebox. Well, they were wrong: Donzel-Gargand's music positively sparkles with life and imagination, and I look forward to hearing more of it before too long.–DW

Christopher Hobbs
Cold Blue
As well as trying to listen to three or more albums of new music a day and watch as many films as I can get my paws on, I'm a compulsive sudokiste, as they say here in France, and was delighted to discover recently that fellow Paris-based composers Tom Johnson and Eliane Radigue (do forgive me for putting myself in such distinguished company) are too. To the best of my knowledge, neither of them has yet based a composition on one of those eternally frustrating 9x9 grids (though I bet Tom has considered the idea), but Christopher Hobbs, Scratch Orchestra vet and leading light of English Experimental Music for four decades now, has written no fewer than 125 (!) of them. That said, if you didn't know that this latest "maxi single" on Jim Fox's cool Cold Blue label was one, you'd probably not be able to guess – more on Hobbs's method later..
It's not hard to see why Sudoku might appeal to minimalists like Johnson and Hobbs (Christopher may well raise an eyebrow at being so described, but much of his oeuvre can be traced back to the unashamedly tonal systemic procedures of late 60s American minimalism that the English Experimentalists latched on to as a way out of the cul de sac of total serialism) – after all, doing a Sudoku puzzle is nothing less than composing by block additive process (swot up on your terminology here). And there's a potentially infinite number of possible ways to "translate" the numbers and their permutations on the grid into musical material. You could, for instance, assign a note – or a sound, or a duration – to each of the nine numbers, a pitch region to each of the horizontal rows, a dynamic or a timbre to each of the vertical columns, and still end up with a staggering number of possible realisations based on how you read the grid, from move to move.
Exactly how Hobbs has chosen to render the puzzle audible is, I'll admit, a mystery to me. "I choose the sounds I want and the overall duration, but then let the numbers determine what goes where," he writes (supposedly helpfully). You might expect a lot of silence, with all those empty squares, but this particular piece is scored for eight pianos (not eight pianists: it's Brian Pezzone playing with himself, if you'll pardon the expression), each of whose material is as delicately wistful as an old sepia photograph. You might spot the influence of Satie in there, which is not surprising when you recall that it was Hobbs and Gavin Bryars who gave Vexations its UK premiere – I bet if the maître d'Arcueil was still around, he'd be into Sudoku too.

Takahiro Kawaguchi / Shinjiro Yamaguchi
"There are three parts here: two tuning forks of slightly different pitch, which are bowed; and a single guitar tone. The parts use the same score, and begin a minute apart from one another. In each part there is a one-minute rest between sounds, and the duration of each successive sound is increased by one minute – a minute, two, three – all the way up to five minutes. After that the order is reversed – five minutes, four, three, two one – and the piece is over." So writes Toshiya Tsunoda in a brief liner-note essay that also manages to namecheck, though I'm not so sure why, Straub-Huillet, Cézanne, and a whole host of conceptual artists. A little misleading too, his explanation: it gives the impression that the five-minute section is repeated, whereas the actual structure, starting with a minute of silence (indicated here in parentheses) is: (1) +1 (+1) +2 (+1) +3 (+1) +4 (+1) +5 (+1) +4 (+1) +3 (+1) +2 (+1) +1 (+1). That adds up to 35, and as the three voices enter a minute apart, add two for a total duration of 37'00". You might not notice the additive / subtractive process on a casual listening, though you can identify the arch structure by listening to the guitar part: for his first minute, Yamaguchi plays his low F# every ten seconds, for his second two-minute section it's every five seconds, and so on, twice as fast each time, with the result that his central five-minute stretch (from 16'00" to 21'00") is a rather energetic Guitar Trio-like strumming. Kawaguchi's bowed tuning forks (a tone apart, E and F#.. musique spectrale, quoi) aren't capable of such rhythmic nuances, but, being bowed, their timbre does change slightly. Just as well: pale, stable sinetones à la Narthex in a piece like this would be deadly. As it is, Hello, like much of the Sugimoto / Encadre school stuff, is a pleasant listen, nothing more. And that's fine by me.–DW

Phill Niblock
Bill Meyer puts it very nicely in the December issue of The Wire: "It makes no more sense to play [Phill Niblock's music] on earbuds or little computer speakers than it would to look at a reproduction of a Rothko on your mobile phone screen." Allow me to replace that "Rothko" with "the Pyramids of Egypt" – Niblock's compositions are the sonic equivalent of those ancient wonders, huge, imposing structures that appear structurally straightforward when viewed from a great distance (i.e. played at wimpy musique d'ameublement volume level – dumb idea) but which on close inspection (i.e. as loud as you dare, moving around your listening space while you listen – great idea, but invite your neighbours to join you first) reveal a wealth of surface irregularities, angles, corners, nooks and crannies. And, once you venture inside, you'll find mysterious dark recesses and, if you're lucky, hidden treasure. I stuck my head in a corner of the living room I hadn't dusted for about a year and half and found a $20 bill! The three pieces on this fourth Niblock outing on Touch – Stosspeng (for Susan Stenger and Robert Poss's guitars), Poure (for Arne Deforce's cello) and One Large Rose (for the Nelly Boyd Ensemble of Hamburg, here consisting of violin, cello, ebowed bass guitar and bowed piano) continue to the follow the straight line that Niblock drew back in 1974 with 3 to 7 – 196, but, as PT's own Bob Gilmore (bless him) notes in the booklet, are different in conception, the latter being adapted from an extant orchestral work, Three Orchids, and consisting of four superimposed 46-minute live recordings. "An extraordinary achievement by the musicians," indeed. There is very little else to say, really: describing how a Niblock piece sounds is as daft as describing a pyramid.–DW

Roger Reynolds
This double disc brings together all of Roger Reynolds' music for piano – either as a solo instrument (disc one) or in chamber / orchestral settings (disc two): eight works in all, ranging in duration from 3'33" – the enigmatic miniature imagE/piano (2007), which bookends the first disc with its companion piece imAge/piano (2007) – to 35'07", the concerto-in-all-but-name The Angel of Death (2001) for piano, chamber orchestra and computer-processed sound. The recordings date from as far back as 1970 – Fantasy for Pianist (1964) and Traces (1968), both performed by Yuji Takahashi (along with flautist Karen Reynolds and cellist Lin Baron on the latter, which was formerly available on an old CRI LP), who also provides liner notes for the set, of which more later – and, despite impressive cleaning up by Joseph Kucera, are still a tad hissy, but that's a price worth paying for Takahashi's extraordinary virtuosity. At times he sounds so out of control you could swear he was making it all up as he went along (his recordings of Xenakis's Herma and Eonta are legendary), but no. But Takahashi isn't the only virtuoso in town: Eric Huebner and Marilyn Nonken are on splendid form too, as are Jean-Charles François and Delores Stevens on Less Than Two.
Reynolds' music is often gritty and uncompromising, but its dramatic character and strong sense of shape on both the micro and macro level makes it relatively easy to access. It's a shame though that, for once, the accompanying essay in the booklet, written by Takahashi, doesn't go into more detail on the compositional technique. Most people in whose hands this disc is likely to end up will have some basic grasp of serial-related theory concepts, and it would have been helpful to have some meat instead of sushi. But listen carefully to what's going on in Variation (1988) and despite the piece's ferocious complexity (check out the "textural plan" chart in the booklet, and get a magnifying glass before you do) you'll soon be able to spot recurring melodic fragments and hear how the composer develops them. As Joëlle Léandre said elsewhere, who says this is difficult music?

James Tenney
New World
Though James Tenney never intended the eight Spectrum pieces (the first five dating from 1995, the last three from six years later) to be played back to back as a set, here they all are, beautifully recorded and executed with customary consummate skill by Amsterdam's Barton Workshop, in the latest double whammy from New World. I wouldn't play them all in one go, though: as listening experiences go, this is a tough one, not because the music is overwhelmingly dense, texturally, or stuffed with notes, but because its microtonal nuances – the liner notes (by.. yes, Bob Gilmore!) explain the composer's tuning system clearly and in detail – need some getting used to. In order to get the tuning spot on (which often means pitching notes to within a hundredth of semitone.. Bob says it can be done, but I sometimes wonder), vibrato is verboten for the strings, the piano and harp have to be retuned, and the woodwinds sound, well, if not off, shall we say, unfamiliar at times. The music is predominantly melodic, the instruments weaving through the upper partials of the harmonic series, but I'll buy you a gold clock if you can sing along to it. In short, this isn't a disc I'm likely to want to play non-stop for the next six months, but I'll be delighted to find it on my shelves when I choose to return to it.–DW

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Kim Cascone
An intriguing proposition from Cascone, founder of Silent Records and former assistant music supervisor to David Lynch in Twin Peaks. Clocking at a perfect 27'50", Anti-Musical Celestial Forces is an enjoyable, occasionally inspiring release making selective use of treated field recordings, initially as a background for a spoken text describing nocturnal atmospheres and nightmarish visions. After about seven minutes, when the first doubts of potential boredom are starting to knock at the mind's door, Gary R. Weisberg's narration fades out, permitting the listener to focus undivided attention on the succession of evocative aural snapshots. The sources are fairly mundane – urban echoes and conversations from the other room – but Cascone assembles them with great skill, suffusing them with a murky haze that adds to the disc's inscrutability. The results are vastly superior to the depressingly predictable work of countless "go-around-the-town-with-a-minidisc" dilettantes. Choice episodes: a muezzin call amidst gathering seagulls and a short but splendid section based on a masterfully played cimbalom.–MR

Bruce Gilbert
Editions Mego
This record makes me recall the early stages of my naïve enthusiasm for esoteric ambient back in the early 1990s, when all that was needed for bliss was slow-moving repetition ricocheting amidst cavernous echo. Almost two decades later I find it difficult to get too excited about Oblivio Agitatum, which marks Bruce Gilbert's return to action as a solo artist after several years. Not that it's bad; it's just a little superficial-sounding, despite its attempts to probe the dark waters of cyclicality. The album's backbone is the lengthy "Zeroes", which immerses treated guitars and other ingredients in flanging reverberation and subjects them to a modicum of interference. It works for a while, but doesn't transmit much to the emotional system. The title track is an unkindly purring preamble of sorts, and the best chapter is saved for last: the three and a half minutes of "Isophyre" seem to breathe deeper, existing in an underwater world whose remote corners might well hide a nasty surprise. A shame that it's not developed at greater length. I'll have to stick with Soliloquy for Lilith when I want to revisit my innocent drone-loving youth. Too little Agitatum here, and definitely headed to Oblivio.–MR

Robert Hampson
The days of Main are long gone, that project having introduced receptive listeners to the delights of drone-informed guitar modification with several spellbinding milestones, Hz being perhaps the most praiseworthy. But Robert Hampson's music keeps radiating an enigmatic aura which is all the more perplexing – yet always most welcome – given his recent work's increasing use of concrete sounds. Vectors, arriving after a long silence, gathers three fine electroacoustic episodes from 2006-2008, two commissioned by Radio France, the third created for a festival in Poitiers. "Umbra" recalls the composer's past glories, a splendid piece that makes the room quiver with sympathetic frequencies, as unintelligible pseudo-biotic interferences induce a feeling of helplessness in the listener amidst miasmic damp and nocturnal doubt. "Ahead – Only the Stars" opens the lungs a little, luminous electronic wakes introducing elements of hypermodernity systematically intercut with sporadic intermissions of digital energy and subsonic threat. "Dans le lointain" is a succession of snapshots in which polychromatic figures are filtered by computer-generated settings, transforming everything into a black-white-and-grey nerve-racking unease. Impressive stuff, and the worthy conclusion to a tremendous record that testifies to Hampson's status as a master of the genre.–MR

Russell Haswell
Editions Mego
Snazzily packaged with extensive notes on how, when and where its fifteen tracks were recorded – they open out into a A2 size poster to stick on your bedroom wall – this is a fun collection of unadorned field recordings, whose titles in dramatic block capitals need little explanation (with the possible exception of High Force and Summerhill Force, which are both waterfalls in Teesdale, County Durham): "EXCEPTIONALLY LOUD PROPANE GAS CANNON BIRD SCARER", "JAMAICAN BLOWHOLE", "ANT COLONY (FEATURING EUROFIGHTER TYPHOON F2 FLYBY)", "WASP-WAR (FEATURING APACHE AH Mk 1 DUET)", "HELICOPTER TRIP (EDIT)", "A HORDE OF FLIES FEAST ON A ROTTING PHEASANT CARCASS (EXTRACT)", "ELECTROSWAT (PLAYLIST RE-EDIT)", "LOCAL GAMEKEEPERS SHOOTING A FEW FIELDS AWAY", "MISSING / HITTING BEER CAN TARGET", "ROCKET LAUNCH", "HIGH FORCE FROM ABOVE", "SUMMERHILL FORCE FROM INSIDE GIBSON’S CAVE", "TRAPPERS BAIT DIGITAL CALLER", "FALLING SNOW #4 +20dB (EXTRACT)" and "DRAMATIC WHINING WIND."
You can probably guess what most of these sound like already, but the ant colony, falling snow and electric fly swatter might surprise you, and if, after reading "WARNING: Extreme Dynamic Levels – listeners' experience may change during playback" (well, I should damn well hope so!), you're worried that the EXCEPTIONALLY LOUD PROPANE GAS CANNON BIRD SCARER might fuck up your speakers and blow you across the room to boot, don't. In fact it sounds rather tame. Unless you happen to be a pigeon, I suppose.
I'm fond of sticking my (crappy little Sony) mic into strange places too, but can't resist tinkering with the field recordings once I've got them on the hard drive. A bit of editing wouldn't go amiss here, methinks: some of these tracks, the ants and the wasps in particular, overstay their welcome somewhat (the latter presumably because Haswell also happened to be recording as two Apache attack helicopters flew over – hence the liners' helpful references to Apocalypse Now and The Thing). And, if you're a connoisseur of field recordings, you may experience a sense of déjà entendu too – Toshiya Tsunoda recorded bird scarers to great effect on his Lucky Kitchen masterpiece Pieces Of Air, and Chris Watson's highly-acclaimed Outside The Circle Of Fire featured the sound of vultures feasting on a rotting zebra carcass (in comparison, Haswell's decomposing pheasant seems rather low budget). But, who's complaining? In its cute little carrying case this is the ideal Christmas present for some unsuspecting small child.

Stephan Mathieu + Taylor Deupree
The story of this first collaboration (among 2009's highest points for this reviewer), including interesting technical specs and compositional hints by the artists, can be found over at the Spekk website. Originally intended for release on Taylor Deupree's 12k imprint, the album gradually accumulated further layers of material via Mathieu's laptop-processed array of old records and wax cylinders, to which Deupree added guitar and synthesizer textures. Knowing the process of construction though doesn't begin to explain how this piece touches such emotional depths; one could easily rave about the mysteries of harmonic stasis, or the gritty charm of the album's ever-changing halos of adjacent overtones and inexplicable hisses, but this would be missing the point. Transcriptions works transformations on a sonic substance originating many decades prior to our era, and whose fundamental essence is still available for manipulation – it's as if the duo is attempting to recapture the energy of a dying body without letting it dissipate, turning it into another, equally significant vital force. The music's hard-to-fathom moodswings – myriads of one-second eternities, spanning a range from quietly perturbed vacillations to ductile unorthodoxy – are but one of the various reasons for its psychic impact. The others lie within you, dear listener.–MR

There's neither space nor comma between the "o" and the "grob", so this is not a woeful exclamation bemoaning the disappearance of Felix Klopotek's record label, but rather "Borgo" spelt backwards, Borgo being Sébastien Borgo of Sun Plexus (and numerous other French free rock outfits) fame. And there's more to his work than bouts of diarrhoea on the tour bus with the Nihilist Spasm Band (see elsewhere in this issue for sordid details), as these fourteen soundscapes make abundantly clear. Spanning a period of 15 years, they run the gamut from coruscating grunge to eerie metallic drone (with one track, "Le Temple du Rock", featuring the snoring of a visitor to a 1994 installation – though how anyone managed to nod off to such music is beyond me), ending up in the sludgy rainforest of "Radio Onde Furlane", with semi-regular shortwave croaks and chirps sounding like malevolent nocturnal wildlife. Just before the end there's a snatch of fuzzy guitar (or is it harmonica?) which could be a clue as to what's going on, but it crunches into silence before we have to chance to figure out what it might be. Who cares? Sounds great to me.–DW

Paul Schütze
www.paulschutze.com downloads
This review should really have been subheaded "plus twenty-four others", as these two new releases spearhead a re-release in download form of some twenty of Paul Schütze's earlier, frequently hard or impossible to find, releases, as well as four free downloads of recent works. The free downloads include the electronic/ambient genius's piece for sculptor James Turrell's Roden Crater project, a five-hours-plus work here edited to twenty minutes of very slow listening inspired by the sonic resonances of Turrell's light-aperture sculpture carved out of a dormant volcano in Arizona.
Soundworks V.1 is a collaboration with Andrew Hulme of discreet avant moodists O Yuki Conjugate (Schütze also collaborated with Hulme on the exotic Fell of 1996), originally heard, in mangled form, as part of the soundtrack to the Channel 4 drama, Red Riding 1974. Like much of Schütze's work, this is music written on the edge of perception, drifts, pulses, booms and gongs heard across windy distances, sudden eruptions of tape carnage, icy sustained drones. Played quiet or loud, it's mesmerizing.
His subduction (tectonically speaking) of two Japanese concerts with collaborator Simon Hopkins veers closer to the Schütze we know from New Maps of Hell and similar works: hints of Eastern percussion, Pat-Metheny-at-16rpm guitars, slowly bowed strings, long bell tones and, late on, a sultry rhythmic workout casting an eye towards the funk alarums of his supergroup Phantom City.
With the twenty re-releases, dating back to 1990's Annihilating Angel, this is a timely point to consider the quarter-century or so of Schütze's work (his work with fellow Australians Laughing Hands dates back into the 1980s). He has always been candid about his influences, to the extent of punning on Can's Future Days for "Future Nights" on Site Anubis (1996), but what Schütze does with them is alchemical, marked by an uncommon subtlety, elegance and Zen-like cool. Never mind my earlier PT suggestion that he's a Brian Eno for the twenty-first century; Paul Schütze is the Gil Evans of whichever planet Sun Ra currently inhabits.

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