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Short Take on Rachel Musson’s Tatterdemalion

I hadn’t encountered Rachel Musson‘s music until a few months ago when I found two tracks she posted on Sound Cloud, as a foretaste of her new album Tatterdemalion (on Babel, available through bandcamp.com); these tracks are a pair of live recordings of extended electric free improvisations from a set at the Vortex in London by her trio with keyboardist Liam Noble and percussionist Mark Sanders. The performances are electric in more than one sense: they’re charged up and plugged in, but they’re also electrifying to hear. Musson’s edgy confident tenor saxophone lines cut across thick noisy substrata, layered swathes of electroacoustic rumble and skirl produced in tandem by Noble and Sanders. Their music instantly caught and kept catching my attention, with its whelming surges of volume and space, of scrabble and hum. The studio recording on CD retains plenty of the tattering energy of the live date. As I listen through the album, I find myself more and more convinced that I am hearing an important and powerful collaboration emerging into the open. 
From the outset, Musson’s overtone-rich tenor hews closely to the kinds of searching tonalities that Evan Parkeror John Butcher have been pursuing, but she evinces a more deliberate sense of melodic line than either of them might. Noble and Sanders create gradually thickening surges of sound underneath Musson, who has a tendency to worry at discrete phrases and figures, repeating them with incremental shifts in pitch and pace, as if she were trying to secure successive fragments of melody within an unruly welter of electronic buzz and percussive thrum. At times, the trio recalls Ellery Eskelin‘s longstanding group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black. Sanders is less polyrhythmically driven than Black, less figurally definitive, his sense of pulse more distributed, organic and unresolved. A number of the intenser passages throughout the record invoke the more voluble moments of Paul Motian’s trio with Joe Lovano – Musson’s saxophone timbres are sometimes remarkably close to Lovano’s depth of horn – and Bill Frisell’s feedback-soaked, obliquely dissonant guitar: I hear echoes of “One Time Out,” for example. I know Liam Noble’s playing from his collaborations with Ingrid Laubrock or from his 2009 trio outing Brubeck, an excellent tribute to the American jazz icon. But he deploys electronics here in ways that shift his personal idiom considerably, I think.  The admixture of bent sine waves, feedback and what sounds like an electric piano recall some of Chick Corea’s more radical forays on the Wurlitzer in Miles Davis’s 1969 quintet. Musson plays tenor on most of the seven tracks, taking out her soprano for the third piece, “The Blue Man.” While the album’s title suggests raggedy dissipation, the procedure for each section of what feels like an extended improvisational suite is similar: “The Blue Man,” for instance, begins fairly muted, the musicians coaxing their instruments forward and feeling their way into a shared soundscape. As the work expands, noise and texture start morphing into discernably shaped – shaping – sound, finding bits of intersecting, if contingent, musical form. At times meditative and withholding, as on “The Blanket Feels Woollen,” but more often building to an assertive density, this is vigorous, confident, restless, searching, extemporaneous music of a very high order.

stones that need not: Short Take on Colin Stetson & Mats Gustafsson

I’m starting out this post on my mobile phone app while waiting in line for Red Cat Records to open on this April Saturday morning for Record Store Day. So it seems like an appropriate occasion – standing iPhone in hand to pick up some new vinyl – to write about the copy I received by mail-order, yesterday, of the Rune Grammofon LP stones, a live recording of an improvised duo performance at the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival by saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Colin Stetson. It was their first meeting in this configuration, although both have played for years in similar alt-music circles, and seem to share a sensibility for mixing post-punk and avant-jazz in their playing. They also both have a well-established thing for low horns: on this occasion, Stetson plays alto and bass saxophones, Gustafsson the tenor and baritone. The concert itself was fairly brief, a 45-minute set at a packed Performance Works (there was no admission charge) on Granville Island, on a Sunday afternoon in late June. And I was there, too.
The four pieces on the record – which clock in between five and twelve minutes each – have been titled retroactively, and presumably by the Swedish Gustafsson, with fragments “inspired by” (adapted from?) the poetry of his compatriot, the modernist Gunnar Ekelöf: “stones that rest heavily”; “stones that can only be”; “stones that need not”; stones that only have.” I don’t recognize the references, but I don’t know Ekelöf’s poetry well enough, not at all. But even as a set of post hoc cues, the titles not only lend the slightly-edited set on record the feel of conceptual coherence, which it actually has, but also suggest something of the improvisational aesthetic at work here. I haven’t been able, with a cursory search, to locate any of the source-texts for the titles, but stones are a recurrent image in Ekelöf and are associated with enthropy and death, a trace perhaps held over from his early-career “suicidal” poetics, as in these lines from “The Sea is the Greatest Sculptor” (translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg):
The sea and death
There is no stone so jagged
the sea won’t rub it smooth
or grind it to sand
or finer
But I don’t hear in the duo’s music either lapidary patience or worried foundations. The emphasis on low fundamentals, the long drones and overtones with which the first and longest track on the record begins for instance, gives way to tongue flutters and plunked finger-pads, vocalized growls and arpeggiated counterpoint: interruption and cross talk, as much as the meditative convergence of lines. The music is essentially dialogic, but that conversation is driven by antithesis as much as it is by accord, the verso of Ekelöf’s poetic, his “Non Serviam,” a biblical phrase which can translate a duplicity, a contradiction, meaning both I will not serve and I will not transgress, an amalgam of refusal and deference. Or, as Ekelöf frames this disavowal poetically, as a fraught relationship to identity and belonging,
I am a stranger in this land
but this land is no stranger in me!
I am not at home in this land
but this land behaves as if it where at home in me!
[. . .]
I cannot live in this land
but this very land lives like venom in me!
A version of this admixture of contrariety and ecstasy informs Stetson and Gustafsson’s interplay. The second track moves through echoes of Harry Carney-like Ellingtonia to sonic gesticulations at Roscoe Mitchell‘s angularities. The stuttering upper partials at the opening of the third cut recall Pharoah Sandersin Coltrane’s “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” while fragments of a Mancini-like caper theme cycle through the fourth. The music is live, in situ and a little noisy; people murmur, a child speaks, other music from a distant outdoor stage thumps softly underneath one piece. But the duo only seems to draw more energy from the hubbub. They take possession of their bandstand, committed and aggressively vital, making the place speak, making it happen. Not as homecoming, no, but as an evocation of creative estrangements, the coincidence of resonant differences: the audible collisions of what need not and can only be.

Evan Parker Live at the Western Front

It was a privilege to hear Evan Parker play last night, Friday March 22nd, at The Western Front. The concert was a return to a venue that has become a Vancouver landmark for the avant garde, presenting cutting-edge music, dance, film and visual art for 40 years. It also marked the release of Vaincu.Va!, an LP version of a recording from The Western Front’s archives of Evan Parker’s first solo concert there on November 8, 1978, which was the last performance in his North American tour that year,  a tour that Alexander Varty credits as “the first of its kind to be undertaken by a European improviser, paving the way for an invasion of exciting new music.”  In the unfolding of this music, its trans-Atlantic dissemination, last night’s concert was a significant moment, reinvigorating an important improvisational archive, making a history happen. Again.
Evan Parker played two sets, each under three-quarters of an hour: one, an extended solo improvisation on soprano saxophone (echoing the 1978 concert), and the other in an improvising trio with Gordon Grdinaon electric guitar and oud and Kenton Loewen on the drumkit. The Front’s recently refurbished Grand Luxe hall, upstairs, was packed to capacity; there must have been close to 150 people in the palpably supportive and expectant audience, a mixture of neophyte listeners for whom this would be a first experience with Parker’s music live and others who had been following Parker’s music for decades, some of whom I even overheard saying that they had attended the first concert there 35 years ago. I felt a very real sense of a listening community, not only because I was able to reconnect with friends I’d first encountered years ago at events like this, a fairly dedicated long-standing following for improvised music in Vancouver, but also because, before the concert and at the set-break, people seemed genuinely keen to talk with each other, not just about the music they were hearing, but about themselves; it seemed to me that, whatever the aesthetic gifts and challenges that this particular music offered us, it also occasioned a sense of bonding, a coming together, however briefly, of good shared human energy.
The solo soprano set was a single continuous piece that was sui generis for Parker. “Well,” I think I heard him say quietly before he began, “here we go.” Hearing his solo soprano music feels to me like stepping into a thick stream of layered arpeggios, intersecting torrents of 32ndnotes and harmonics that Parker sustains without pause through circular breathing for half an hour or so, at which point he stops; when he plays he doesn’t produce a finished work so much as enter into an ongoing process, a rivulet of shared aural time. The rapid shifting among at least three registers on his horn produce a kind of counterpoint not unlike the compositional practices of Steve Reich (who, like Parker, acknowledges John Coltrane as an early influence), but where Reich’s music seems marked (and this is not a criticism, but an observation) by sculptural calculation, Parker’s polylinear music seems to me not so much an effect of abandon or looseness, but more accommodating than Reich’s to the unpredictabilities and small excesses, the momentary remainders and overflows, of body and breath. I could hear, I could fell the fleeting intensities of those cascading lines resonate and pulse in my ear canals. Resonance: that’s exactly the right term, I think, for what Parker’s solo music seeks, and moment by moment what it finds. He stopped playing as unceremoniously as he had begun, just taking the horn out of his mouth (as Miles Davis had told Coltrane to do back in the heyday), and was met with huge applause for that small room. I have never attended an Evan Parker performance that was less than great, but this short improvisation felt tremendous. He returned to the centre of the stand for what seemed like an encore, but instead of more, he played a 20-second head of a Thelonious Monk tune – I’m not sure what it was, maybe “Ugly Beauty,” though I’m sure that’s wrong – during which his tone shifted markedly, more rounded and plainspoken; he was hearkening back, if only for only a passing instant, to Steve Lacy. At the set break, James Coverdale (I was sitting beside him and Lynn Buhler) said he thought of Lacy too, and that it was something like an invocation to Lacy’s spirit, Lacy who has played the same room so many times, solo and in duo with Irene Aebi and others, in the past. Again, he had sounded an improvisational historicity, in the present, in our presence.
At the beginning of the break D. B. Boyko, the Western Front’s artistic director, presented Parker and artist Eric Metcalfe with copies of the LP, which they autographed for each other. (Metcalfe’s artwork adorns the album cover. He mentioned that he was one of those present who had attended the original concert.)
The second set consisted of two improvised pieces by the trio. For the first, Grdina on hollow-bodied electric guitar sometimes traded flexible lines with Parker, now on tenor saxophone, and sometimes provided resonant string texture; his tone, I thought, was sometimes reminiscent of Joe Morris, although his melodic and harmonic conception was certainly all his own. Kenton Lowen’s percussion – speaking of echoes and allusions – recalled for me the multi-directional playing of Sunny Murray (as on his sixties recordings with Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler). Loewen started the second piece with sparse bowed metals (although I was back in the audience and couldn’t actually see what he was doing with his hands). Grdina switched to oud, and the idiomatic character of the instrument seemed to affect the playing; Parker offered what I think were largely Phrygian lines, a sort of Spanish-Moroccan tinge: lovely, moving, instantaneous world-music. There was no encore.

lovellevellilloqui: Short Take on Thomas Chapin

Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of Never Let Me Go, a three-disc compilation of two performances by Thomas Chapin‘s nascent quartet (with Peter Madsen on piano, Kiyoto Fujiwara [’95] or Scott Colley [’96] on bass, and Reggie Nicholson [’95] or Matt Wilson [’96] on drums), a recording of some of Chapin’s last concert appearances before his illness the following year and his death in 1998. The recordings are good, and seemed to have been clarified and cleaned up a little; the first two discs, sets from Flushing Town Hall in NYC in November 1995, are reminiscent acoustically of a high-end bootleg: the music is present and immediate, but there are still a few recalcitrant rough edges. The piano, for instance, sounds a bit rubbery, like a poorly tuned upright. Not that I’m complaining: I think the sound suits the vital exuberance of the playing all round, its ardent velocities. (In fact, on the better recorded Knitting Factory gig, the upper register of the club piano is also pretty detuned, but Madsen makes a virtue of necessity, on “Whirlygig” for example, producing metallic percussive textures as if this were a “prepared” instrument.) This quartet as I understand it was a new and evolving formation for Chapin; principal reference points for this music include post-Coltrane hard bop — Madsen’s left hand plumbs the lower registers and jabs at chord substitutions much like late-60s McCoy Tyner, and also Jaki Byatd — but the group also takes up Chapin originals, some penned for his long-standing trio. (I really like their version of his “Sky Piece,” with a terrific solo intro by Colley.) Chapin’s alto seems at times to find its lineage from Charlie Parker sieving through Eric Dolphy, maybe with a touch of Lou Donaldson, but his most obvious influence here, if influence is the right word, is Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Like Rahsaan, Chapin is a virtuoso of excess: he never has anything short of too much to say, too many more notes to play. His improvisations are flush with as much music as he manage, and his saxophone tone is reedy, robust and fully blown. He enacts extemporaneously, in track after track, what Giorgio Agamben variously calls resto, excess, remainder, outside, the open–a kinetic space of vital negotiation between animal Eros and creative will, aisthesis and aesthetics, feeling and making, body and soul. In a word, his sound strives to express. The quartet’s version of Rahsaan’s “lovellevellilloqui ” (originally from The Inflated Tear) both re-enacts and bears witness to, as a now-posthumous recording, what made and makes Thomas Chapin’s music so important to hear: its virtuosity of abundance, its intensely sounded love.