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Short Take on Thumbscrew Live at Ironworks (Vancouver, 7 February 2015)
|Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara (obscured behind people and a post)|
Thumbscrew offered up two provocative and powerful sets at Ironworks on Saturday night. Building mostly on compositions from their eponymous album (released on Cuneiform last year), the trio’s music combines infectious come-and-go grooves with rhythmically angular, kiltering melodies and collaboratively deconstructive improvisations to create warmly engaged yet restlessly exploratory performances. Mary Halvorson’s guitar alternated between keening warbles and electrified growls, mixing bendy Johnny Smith-like chords with harder-edged Hendrixisms, cross-purposed and glassily recursive loops with tensile, open mellifluence. Her focus and calm demeanour on the bandstand seemed almost belied by the metallic, clarion fierceness of her sound. Michael Formanek’s firm, resonant bass prodded the trio forward, pushing at the leading edge of the beat. He frequently smiled, looking back and forth between his bandmates as his he drew reverberant, lithe lines from his instrument – which underlined the joyful intensity of their collaborative playing. Tomas Fujiwara’s drumming danced in and out of the pocket, by turns muscular and fleet, turbulent and tight. His body angled slightly back from his kit, he tended to face away from his bandmates, eyes closed, but only to increase what felt like his closely attentive, kinesthetic enmeshment in the group’s shared sound, their collective pulse. A few of the pieces were counted in – 1, 2, 3, 4 – but, still palpably embedded in a fixed metric, they were able to pull and surge and suspend and attenuate the beat to the extend that time itself became organically elastic, fluid, distal.
The first set list, as far as I could make out from their announcements, started with “Line to Create Madness” (Halvorson), followed by “Buzzard’s Breath” (Formanek), “Nothing Doing” (Fujiwara), a fourth piece the name of which I missed, something called (I think) “Barn Fire Slum Brew” (Fujiwara) and “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” (Formanek). After the break, they returned with “iThumbscrew” (Formanek), “Falling Too Far” (Halvorson), “Goddess Sparkle” (Fujiwara), a new piece by Mary Halvorson called “Convularia” – which she said had been named at her father’s suggestion after a “sweetly scented and highly poisonous plant,” the contrariety suggesting something of the tensions between the lyric and the spiky in her own and in the trio’s playing – followed by a fifth piece that might have been “Fluid Hills in Pink.” They were called back by an enthusiastic audience to play an encore – “we have exactly one more song” in their repertoire, they joked – which was an edgy ballad, to close a terrific evening of music by a brilliantly innovative trio.
Short Take on George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Joelle Leandre Live in Prague
Tonight as part of the Agosto Foundation’s vs. Interpretationsymposium and festival at the NOD arts space in Prague, we heard a freely improvised performance by the trio of Pauline Oliveros (Roland V-accordion), Joëlle Léandre (double bass and voice) and George Lewis (laptop, trombone). This morning, George Lewis gave a talk on the prehistory of improvisation studies, making a case for approaching improvisation not as a study of criteria or constraint but of what he called “conditions,” which seemed to me to be a call to attend to the diversity of generative circumstances, and their intersection in historically situated performances. He was arguing, gently, against defining improvisation as such, and instead asking his audience to consider how improvising might open up possibilities for self-aware creative practice. The concert this evening was introduced by, I believe, Cynthia Plachá of the Agosto Foundation, who reiterated something Joëlle Léandre had said at a workshop this afternoon, that when you improvise “you must be prepared for the unprepared.” Both of these assertions – around the conditional or situated sharing that improvisation enacts, and around the paradoxical acuity involved in improvisational practices – informed the trio’s collaborative music-making.
They performed one 45-minute piece, recorded by Czech Radio for broadcast, which apparently Pauline Oliveros had named “Play As You Go” ahead of time, although there wasn’t any pre-planning. Joëlle Léandre’s playing had a firmness of touch and such a strikingly clear sense of line or trajectory, her tone consistently full and resonant. Pauline Oliveros’s electronified accordion shifted between foreground and background, often supplying aural textures that were by turns cohesive and disruptive, simultaneously braiding into and fraying at the trio’s combined sound-palette. George Lewis layered samples from his laptop, many of them having a certain digital brightness that he subsequently often pulled and muddied, electronic sheen mitigated by the more closely corporeal sounds of breath and lip, particularly when he used his blue (!) trombone as both a sampled sound source and as an unmodified instrument: his characteristic fierce blatt, at the few moments when he did seem to dig into his horn, was instantly recognizable. But this wasn’t a music of solos or singular voices so much as of organic reciprocity and co-creation.
There were some passing moments – when Joëlle Léandre started to sing lyrically about the slightly oppressive heat in the performance space (“It’s hot, it’s hot . . . “) or when Pauline Oliveros echoed a cough from the audience by jabbing her right hand at the accordion’s lower keys – of humour and irony, suggesting how all sonic resources, high and low, occasional and musically dense, could be repurposed into interactive soundings. The music didn’t so much progress or develop as trace its way through a loose series of temporarily sustained, situated idioms – sometimes meditative, sometimes contrarian, sometimes melodically assertive, sometimes coevally plural: layers of shifting texture, refigurings. This was a brilliantly sui generis music, and we left the concert feeling energized, enlivened and moved.
Short Take on Thumbscrew (Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara)
For the last four weeks or so, since its release on the Cuneiform label on January 21st, I have kept returning to the eponymous debut CD by Thumbscrew, a collective trio of Mary Halvorson, guitar, Michael Formanek, double bass, and Tomas Fujiwara, drums. It’s a consistently great album, offering up music that collides warmly responsive interplay with infectiously kiltered grooves. The opening track, a Fujiwara head called “Cheap Knock Off,” alludes texturally– you can listen for yourself and decide if this makes aural sense – to the early John Scofield trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum, or, given the bell-like tone at times of Mary Halvorson’s guitar, even to the Jim Hall trio of the mid 1970s with Terry Clarke and Don Thompson.
But – despite the title – this is hardly derivative or imitative; it’s more of a music keenly aware of precedents and precursors but pushing forward along the leading edge of its own present tense. What emerges sonically in these nine tracks is the trio’s shared practice of bending and unfolding time; they co-create in each piece a motile amalgam of historicity and futurity, gesturing (at least to my ears) at a rich set of musical antecedents from the jangling two-steps of Son House to the poly-intervallic melodies of Henry Threadgill, while simultaneously opening their improvised lines outward, palpably reaching, as Robert Browning once put it, to exceed their grasp. Michael Formanek’s big tone and rhythmic conception remind me of Johnny Dyani or Henri Texier: what’s remarkable is how he – and how the whole trio – manage to synch up with such metrical acuity (listen to those unisons) while driving so fiercely forward, right on top of the beat, meeting it head on, ahead. This trio, tightly together, gives the impression of an elastic looseness, a surge and release that’s a hallmark of the best kind of collaborative improvising. For instance, the toe-tapping shuffle of Fujiwara’s stick-and-brushwork on Formanek’s “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” gives way to a raucously dehiscent free improvisation, as if the trio had momentarily lost its footing, only to reassert its cogency as melody at a slightly slowed tempo, transformed and tugged apart and then refolded onto itself again through Halvorson’s taffy-pull lines. Countable time comes unglued, seems to stretch and then reasserts its urgencies. Thumbscrew offers a music that moves, and that moves us along with them, listening: theirs is a remarkable and important record.
Short Conditional Take on Anne Carson
If I attended “An Hour with Anne Carson,” at the Vancouver Writers Festival yesterday.
If Aislinn Hunter introduced her, using the unlikely but nifty words “betweenity” (purloined from the Brontës’ letters, she said) and “blacksmithery” (source unclear).
If Aislinn Hunter spoke of Anne Carson’s writing’s “fierceness, a fearlessness framed in exquisite craft.”
If Anne Carson then said she had never had an introduction that used the words “betweenity” and “blacksmithery.”
If her miked voice had what seemed to me to be intensity in restraint.
If Anne Carson said she was glad to be back in Canada if only to get a proper bran muffin.
If she then read an essay written in a kitchen in Ontario in winter.
If it was called “Merry Christmas from Hegel,” and if it was, post Nox, a meditation on stillness.
If she admitted, perhaps untruthfully perhaps not, to not understanding Hegel.
If she said she will paraphrase Hegel badly.
If the essay described, with what seemed to me to be aching restraint, what she called “snow-standing” amid the stillness of conifers.
If the text only mentioned Hegel briefly.
If she wrote something like, “The world subtracts itself in layers.”
If she also described that subtraction as something like, “shadow on shadow in precise velocities,” which might be an image of Hegelian negation.
If she said afterward that she wouldn’t be able to answer any questions about Hegel.
If people applauded because it was a beautiful essay and her reading was very beautiful.
If she then read an essay on a painting by Betty Goodwin.
If the essay was called “Betty Goodwin Seated Figure with Red Angle,” and if it was written for an issue of Art Forum.
If the right title is “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin (by Anne Carson).”
If Anne Carson said, “The form is kind of whacked out.”
If by form she meant her essay not the painting.
If she also said that she wanted to find a form or a syntax that suited her own inability to have an opinion about Betty Goodwin’s painting.
If she never said, Ut pictura poesis.
If the form she chose was to write the whole thing in conditionals, seventy-three of them she said, including mention of horses and Freud, each of the seventy-three beginning with the word “if.”
If the idea was to open up to the sentence “the space in your mind that is prior to opinion.”
If I heard in her sense of “opinion” what Plato calls pistis, “belief,” a subordinate form of doxa, “opinion,” but she did not say this, and I may be both pretentious and wrong.
If she said her conditional essay “was fun to do but will be intolerable to listen to.”
If no one believed her when she said this.
If it wasn’t intolerable, not at all.
If she wrote, “If body is always deep, but deepest at its surface.”
If this made me think.
If she also wrote, “If artists tell you art is before thought.”
If by that she meant Betty Goodwin specifically, but I also took it to mean herself.
If everyone applauded again because she was wryly brilliant and provocative.
If she went on to read from Autobiography of Red and red doc>.
If there was more heartfelt applause.
If she took a bow.
If people asked her questions.
If she took another bow.
If she autographed my book, “Respectfully, AC.”
If I could thank her.
Short Take on What I Like Most about The Avett Brothers
Go back a little more than a year and a half ago, and I hadn’t even heard of The Avett Brothers. My wife had started listening to their music on the recommendation of a friend, and she found something they’d done earlier on for NPR, maybe a Tiny Desk Concert. I’ll have to look this up. Within a few days, and after a few repeat listens, she was definitely hooked, and so was I. We bought and/or downloaded a stack of their albums, and their tunes were on heavy rotation on the stereo. Their sound is obviously based in Carolina roots music and bluegrass; their core instrumentation – to which they strip down in concert, or else around which they build their band – is a trio of banjo, acoustic guitar and upright bass, played by Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford. Joe Kwan’s cello has also added a key texture to their aural palette since the early days of the group’s existence, and when they perform the four of them tend to position themselves in a line across the front of the stage, Seth and Scott at the centre, flanked by the other two.
We were given tickets to an Avett Brothers concert in June 2012, when they appeared as a headliner for the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. (Their music has little to do with mainstream jazz, apart from a few commons threads in Americana and the blues, but most jazz fest programmers these days rely heavily on non-jazz acts to bouy up revenues and draw in audiences. I actually ended up missing a Wayne Shorter gig to hear their show, but it turned out to be worth it.) We had great seats, a few rows from the stage. From the moment they hit, the energy in the house was through the roof. This was a couple of months, I think, before the release of The Carpenter, and they were testing out some of the more rock-oriented material from that album. It was my first experience of them live, and I have to say that I was unprepared for the exultant, keen and impassioned drive of their performance. They blew us wholly away.
In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Scott, Seth and Bob talked at length about the band’s evolving sound, positioning them amid what Scott calls “the changing form of somewhere between rock and country and folk.” They refer back to a phrase coined by Scott – “young wonderment” – to describe the tenor of many of their lyrics, their music’s message maybe, but “young wonderment” also encapsulates the impact of their performances on an audience. There are certainly moments at an Avett concert of entrancing delicacy, something of “sparkly-eyed” grace and artful “shine” that their songs often both embrace and disparage: it’s what they want to make happen, but they also articulate a suspicion of being taken in by it, seduced by phony glitter and stagecraft. Still, despite the relentless apologies and self-recriminations in those songs – the admissions of failure and loss that seem pervasively to inform their writing – their performances take up a genuinely hopeful and affirmative trajectory. The youthfulness to which Scott refers isn’t a nostalgia for innocence or naïveté but a raggedly passionate energy. On Thursday night, seeing them for a second time at the Orpheum in Vancouver, I could feel the force of their convictions, their belief in what live music could accomplish. They jumped and thrashed, they caressed and kicked, they stroked and stomped. Sometimes rough, sometimes intimate, they drew from their twangling instruments a tangible sense of commitment, of being right here, in the moment, that moment, giving it whatever they could. The wonderment of the Avett Brothers has nothing to do with passive awe or amazement and everything to do with vitality and vigour, a fierce and embodied poetry. One review noted the “joyful buzz” they produced in the audience emerging onto the street after the show had ended. That feeling, that liveliness, the life-force they and their music seems to offer us as a gift, keeps going.
Double Short Take on Two Guelph Gigs: Indigo Trio and KAZE
|Robert Kerr introducing Indigo Trio, with Hamid Drake and Harrison Bankhead|
There were a number of standout performances at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival, but for me two gigs in particular really made something happen, small concerts by Indigo Trio and by KAZE. I’d like provisionally to map my own reactions, even at this slight remove in time, to those moments, because they have stayed with me, and will for a while. (These sets both took place last week – one on Thursday night, and one Saturday morning.) Both performances modeled and enacted improvisational listening practices, modes of attention not only to aesthetics – the practiced formal tactics of shaping sound into music – but also to the sociality of audition, to how human beings empathize with one another, sense each other’s embodied co-presences, at the level of texture, resonance and pulse. The kinds of immersive listening into which an audience is invited by both of these ensembles are not, for me, a way of losing yourself, of becoming absorbed into and overwhelmed by their music, but present instead opportunities and openings for intersubjective moments, as our ears focus and refocus on the interplay and divergences of line and shape that occur as each performance unfolds, live and spontaneously both before us and with us.
|Indigo Trio, from the back of the room: Nicole Mitchell, Hamid Drake, Harrison Bankhead|
Indigo Trio –Nicole Mitchell, flutes, Harrison Bankhead, bass, and Hamid Drake, drums – offered two extended extemporaneous suites Thursday night, September 5, in the re-purposed hall of St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph. I have been avidly listening to them since their first album appeared, on Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label, in 2007, a recording I think of their first performance as a trio in Montreal in 2005. As then, their music remains rich, warm, flexible, free, accessible and dynamic: a paradigm for collaborative co-creation. I don’t know which composition is which, but each suite gave the impression of morphing or evolving forms, particularly around the loping, deep grooves Harrison Bankhead set up on his big upright. I thought, as did a few others there that night, that we could hear traces of the firm, warm sound of Wilbur Ware or of Malachi Favors Maghostut in his playing, echoes of departed mentors and colleagues, but also of a Chicago sound-palette that imbued his playing with a powerful historical dimension. Harrison Bankhead’s predilection for danceable lines, for groove, coupled with Hamid Drake’s strong sense of rhythmic pockets – what I’d describe as his sanguine, organic feel – drew the audience into the trio’s playing, and kept them rapt: toe-tapping, hip-swaying and happy. Nicole Mitchell played a shattering solo on piccolo, but rather than disrupt the flow, it only intensified the room’s commitment to what was happening. Each improvised “suite” concluded with Nicole Mitchell singing, in a bell-like soprano, what seemed like Afro-futuristic lyrics – two song forms, the first of which I think was a hymn of praise to Gaia, while the second, concluding piece affirmed the entwining of strength of purpose and of the embrace of difference that shape Indigo Trio’s music:
When you find the truth you will realize
You’re a stranger in a strange land
But you’re not alone
You’ve got to stand strong
What I hear, here, is a call to community in difference, community of difference: strength among strangers, audience.
|KAZE: Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura, Christian Pruvost, Peter Orins|
KAZE is a collaborative quartet that has been in existence since at least 2011, pairing the longstanding duo of Satoko Fujii on piano and Natsuki Tamura on trumpet with two members of the French MUZZIX (sounds like “musiques”) collective, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and percussionist Peter Orins. Nominally (on the programme) Satoko Fujii’s band, the group operates more as a collective, showcasing compositions and concepts from each of its four members. I had never heard them play, either live or on CD, before Saturday morning at the River Run Centre in Guelph, although they have already recorded two albums as an ensemble: Rafale (2011) and Tornado (2013), both released by Circum-Disc in collaboration with Fujii-Tamura’s label, Libra Records. I have to say that I was blown away by their collective virtuosity and by their kinetic interaction, from the first notes they played. The two-trumpet line, in some ways, hearkens back to Louis Armstrong and Joe Oliver, and there are echoes of the playfulness and smart-aleckry of early music, although there is little in their work, in my view, of the subversive. They play with sounds, the trumpeters ebulliently incorporating “little instruments” and percussive sound-makers into their arsenals of sound-sources, but the idea is never to undermine or interrupt: disruptions are creative, centrifugal, happily unruly, both provocative and strangely supportive. All four appear to celebrate and to uphold each other’s contributions to the collective: no cutting, no ego. At the same time, both trumpeters self-evidently have technique – extended technique – to spare. Tamura and Pruvost are masters of their instruments, and then some. And, well, if you like your trumpet by turns limpid and wicked, seductive and fierce, this is the music for you. Satoko Fujii’s virtuoso piano formed an integral part of the ensemble, negotiating between polydirectional rhythms and entwined melodic lines, sometimes subtending the performance harmonically, sometimes offering percussive counterpoint. Her playing is dynamic, ever-present, but also open and responsive; she is never at a loss for something to add in, but also never crowds at her cohorts: a paragon of give and take, of response listening. Peter Orins’s drumming was, for me, a revelation: he has a way of propelling a performance forward, while striking each tympanum with an attack that somehow individuates and momentarily savours, pulse by pulse, the elastic beat-patterns he conjured. His style of improvising at the drumkit reminded me at times, if this makes listening sense, of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s definitive touch.
The group played two or three extended suites – akin in structure, though not in idiom, to the Indigo Trio’s set – combining, I discovered afterward, most of the compositions featured on their recent disc. (I think they recombined “Wao,” “Tornado,” “Imokidesu” and “Triangle,” although I’m relying on memory here.) Each of their forays began with quiet hiss and suck from the horns, breath feeling its way into tone, gradually ramping toward more organized thematic statements or unisons, then negotiating a series of polyglot interchanges and exchanges toward the next composition way-point. The group operated as a living assemblage, an organism pursuing not so much coherence or closure as open-edged symbiosis, a generative, sustaining autopoeisis. Each piece did, of course, reach a tenuous end, but it felt that, even after the concert was done, KAZE’s generative soundscapes still kept roiling and resonating in our minds’ ears.
For me, hearing both of these groups had an epochal aspect, an impact not unlike, say, hearing the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, or Wayne Shorter’s recent quartet, or Charles Lloyd’s “New Quartet,” or one of David S. Ware’s quartets; they seemed to represent something of the power and possibility of distinctive new directions in creative improvised music. A greatness.
Julian Arguelles Quartet at Ironworks: a Live Short Take
The Julian Argüelles Quartet played a warm, uplifting set at Ironworks last night, the second of three North American jazz festival dates. This new group, which has yet to record, features a rhythm section of emergent next-generation British improvisers: pianist Kit Downes, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer James Maddren. (Maddren is also a member of Kit Downes’s current trio, and plays on Downes’s recent quintet record, Light from Old Stars, just out on Babel.) The quartet instantly demonstrated their responsiveness to each other from the get-go; the first tune, “Mr Mc,” had a calypso-like feel loosely reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, and, although Argüelles’s approach to tenor seems to me a little more angular and restrained than the colossus, his improvisations clearly drew on the thematic tactics that (according to Gunther Schuller’s reading) Rollins pioneered in the 1950s. Argüelles dedicated the piece to South African expat Chris McGregor, which might also explain what sounded like its (again, loosely) Afro-Caribbean leanings, but it also showcased Argüelles inclination toward odd meters (11/8?) and off-kilter phrasings. The quartet negotiated complex, prime-number pulses with alacrity, and teased out vamps and grooves that drew their audience in and held them, heads nodding, feet tapping. The music was thoughtful and sophisticated, but also contagiously dynamic, and I don’t think the drummer stopped smiling through the entire eighty-minute set. The second number, which Argüelles said was a “twelve-tone piece” called “A Simple Question,” started with Downes playing solo reminiscent of Paul Bley (whom he name-checks on his own CD’s second cut, “Bleydays”); Argüelles also offered lyrical and measured solo playing, but as the quartet entered the music took on a Phrygian feel and things morphed into what he described after as something “half Spanish” – his composition “Unopened Letter.”
But it was the fourth tune – called “Redman,” he said, and dedicated to “what could only be one of two saxophone players,” who turned out to be Dewey not Don – which clarified the influences on Argüelles’s conception of this group. I was hearing what I thought were echoes of Kenny Wheeler’s melodicism and – especially in the piano – of John Taylor’s latter-day harmonies, but “Redman,” both in the composition and in the improvisations that followed, hearkened directly and unabashedly to Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The resonances were almost uncanny. I’m not charging Argüelles with derivativeness, but rather suggesting that Jarrett’s quartet music presents a lineage, and a potential, in quartet music that rarely if ever gets taken up by recent players. The groundwork laid by Jarrett’s group in the early 1970s brilliantly drew together groove and edginess, form and freedom; Argüelles seems to me, at least in part, to be taking up the provocations offered by the American Quartet in ways that are musically compelling and still, even this many years later, forward reaching. (Both “Mr Mc” and “Redman” were recorded in 2009 with an NYC trio – Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey – but those earlier versions seem to echo less the Jarrett group than Redman’s work with Ornette Coleman. The addition of Downes’s piano makes a huge difference in the overall texture of the music: Downes is among a youngish set of British pianists, including Liam Noble, Gwilym Simcock and Nikki Iles, who seem to me variously to have appropriated and repurposed some of Jarrett’s more open – and more polydirectional – musical trajectories, an inside-outside conception parallel to and even filtered though the work of longer-established players such as Paul Bley, John Taylor and perhaps even Stan Tracey.)
Of the remaining numbers in the set, “Phaedrus” seemed to draw on the idiom of Steve Kuhn’s ECM quartets with Steve Slagle, while the waltz-like ballad “A Life Long Moment” was affectingly lyrical. The alternately falling and lifting cadences of the oddly-monikered “Lardy-Dardy” produced a sinewy, organic swell and flux. “Triality” was built around a Dave Holland-like freebop line, while the quartet’s encore – called “Pick It Up,” I think – offered a floaty, looping shuffle. The concert felt like witnessing the emergence of a historically savvy, formally propulsive and musically progressive ensemble. It was a warm, involving and affirmative performance.
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.
Short Take on Interviewing Anne Carson
For my academic work, I have been trying to clean up and organize my curriculum vitae, which can be a depressing enough task, sorting through the welter of what I have done and what I have failed to do, what’s still available and what’s slipped from view. I interviewed Anne Carson for Canadian Literature in 2003 (ten years ago!), as part of a special issue on her work I was editing for the journal (number 176). I had been googling myself (embarrassing enough to admit) to see if I could find some electronic, on-line and/or accessible versions of any of my publications I could link to, and I came across UNSAID, which bills itself as “The Journal of New and Lasting Writing.” There you go.
And, in its issue for September 11, 2012, they have reproduced my interview with Carson, “Gifts and Questions.” You can check out the original issue of the journal here, too. It’s gratifying to come across things like this again. I remember Carson as gracious and wry, a real pleasure to speak with. And smart.
A Short Take on Barry Long, Freedom in the Air
Freedom in the Air is a powerful suite for quartet, improvised to accompany a projection of iconic, historic photographs (by James Karales and others) of events in the American Civil Rights movement. A group led by trumpeter Barry Long, and including saxophonist David Pope, bassist Joshua Davis and percussionist Phil Haynes, performed the music at the Campus Theatre of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on 23 February 2012; the performance was recorded on video, which can be viewed online through the university’s website. The compact disc or download is available for purchase from bandcamp.com. It’s a great recording, well worth buying.
The music is ekphrastic; sounds are keyed to visuals, sometimes providing auditory allegories – as in the fifth section, “Fifteen Minutes in Birmingham,” when the racial violence depicted in the photographs draws discordant, harsh responses from the players – but more often acting as reactive contemplation, a kind of aural commentary. For musical source material, Long draws on spirituals and protest songs, many of them from African-American religious and social traditions from the southern states, many of them performed by participants in the marches and protests to which the images bear historical witness. (Two pieces come from elsewhere than the American public domain, but both are deeply enmeshed in the civil rights soundscape: John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” – posthumously issued on his album Cosmic Music – and the song that provides the suite’s title, “Freedom in the Air” by Bernice Johnson Reagon.) Watching the video, you can see how attentive to and how focused on these images the members of the quartet remain, throughout the performance. The photos act not so much as score but as timbral palette, setting the tone.
Without the visuals, the music still works incredibly well, but as a meditative rather than a contemplative tone-poem. Things open with Long solo on flugelhorn, intoning Reagon’s melody as an autumnal taps, framing what follows from the quartet in a largely elegiac register. The music on the whole is consistently measured and self-aware, rarely venturing beyond a medium tempo, but it’s also deeply evocative, entrancing, awash in genuine pathos. I have been trying for a few days to think of an analogue for this group’s sound, and the closest I can come is, perhaps, Paul Motian’s trios with Charles Brackeen (whose firm, deliberate tenor saxophone tone David Pope sometimes seems to echo). Phil Haynes’s drumming can occasionally be subtly unruly, gently but firmly disrupting easy agreements. Collectively, the quartet tends to refuse sentimentality or nostalgia in favour of a lyrically incisive and open-eared historicism, giving difficult episodes in a shared national past a present-tense relevance, a contemporaneity. Improvisation creates a set of contingent segues between what’s been done and what still happens, and invites us to consider, to reconsider, how negotiating these cultural challenges can vitally matter to us even now, especially now.
The manoeuvres between the contemplative and the meditative, between the reactive and the expressive, that this performance undertakes can be better addressed, I think, by looking at the video, and paying attention to the intensity of the musicians’ focus – how they themselves look at the on-screen images. Three of the four members of the quartet are academics, and two hold doctorates: I mention this fact to suggest that, if this music is to be understood as scholarship, there is no sense of clinical detachment or analytic objectivity here. The historical engagements they undertake are, instead, consistently creative, vital and moving. It’s also worth noting – although it’s a bit presumptuous on my part – that none of the musicians appears to have a visibly African-American heritage; given that they are playing through such thoroughly racially-inflected terrain, they might tend to be positioned as outsiders or onlookers. But Long’s point in presenting this music, I’d say, is to suggest that we are all – regardless of where we might think we come from or how we look – implicated in this cultural history, and that we need not only to be self-aware of that enmeshment, but also to actively negotiate our social subjectivities, building communities not necessarily through unproblematic identifications – such as similarities of appearance or background – but through our encounters with difference, with our own inherent differences. Barry Long’s music makes one such set of encounters sing. The video ends with a minute-long spontaneous silence that the CD can’t include, but it’s also one of the most powerful musical moments in the performance: a space of thoughtful, respectful exchange onto which this fleetingly profound music opens, helps us open.