Monday, September 28, 2015

The twenty year history of Leap of Faith includes an eleven year hiatus that is noteworthy more for the cooperative's ability to seamlessly pick up the pieces than for an uber-extended break. Cellist Glynis Lomon—a one-time student of Bill Dixon—was working the Boston circuit with multi-reedist Pek in the 1990s. The two honed their far reaching technical skills taking them into the Leaping Water Trio, a precursor to Leap of Faith whose 1995 debut included trombonist Mark McGrain and occasional guests.

A rotation of group visitors, with PEK and Lomon always at the center, along with multimedia performances, marked the continued artistic development of Leap of Faith until 2003. PEK left behind his day-to-day music career while Lomon remained involved with other projects, most notably Dixon's Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009) along with brass masters Stephen Haynes, Taylor Ho Bynum and Rob Mazurek and bassist Ken Filiano. In early 2015 PEK and Loman reunited to perform with the original members of Leap of Faith while lining up a new formation to include saxophonist/clarinetist Steve Norton, and drummer Yuri Zbitnov.

Sharing the billing on Solution Concepts is trumpeter Thomas Herberer who adds significant contributions on five of the six tracks. The album was recorded live at the Downtown Music Gallery in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan on August 16th, 2015. Starting out and fits and starts like an extended warm-up, "Subgame" doesn't take much of its almost forty minutes to be convincingly harrowing. With barely the trace of a melody, the marathon number nevertheless captures some satisfying but inexpressible spirit of wild abandon. In very sharp contrast, Heberer joins the group on "The Great Hill," a study in finely developed improvisation with his solo cornet soulfully expressive.

"Teodoro" takes yet another tack as the experimental piece consists of noises drawn from the musicians pushing their instruments beyond their normal range and augmenting with distorted voices. The brief "Mongezi" and "Loose Ends" again feature Heberer and are less structured than "The Great Hill." Bookending the middle four tracks—all written by Heberer—is another extended improvisation, "Information Sets," clocking in at over twenty minutes. Ranging from a whisper to near-chaos, the piece is strangely musical with Zbitnov's thundering beat supporting approximations of bagpipes and ethereal voices.

Considering the relatively brief number of years that Leap of Faith were actively recording, their output has been prolific and varied. PEK and Lomon have worked in formations from duo to large ensembles. Heberer's presence on Solution Concepts makes it quite different from earlier Leap of Faith albums but true to the experimental vision that PEK and Lomon first realized more than twenty years ago. The music on Solution Concepts is probing, intelligent and—in some instances—poignant.

Track Listing: Subgame; The Great Hill; Teodoro; Mongezi; Loose Ends; Information Sets.

Personnel: Thomas Heberer: cornet; PEK: clarinets, tenor saxophone, piccolo oboe, voice; Glynis Lomon: cello, aquasonic, voice; Steve Norton: saxophones, alto clarinet; Yuri Zbitnov -drums, metal, voice.

Record Label: Evil Clown

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sonar: Black Light (2015)

Sonar: Black Light
By virtue of its experimental and often convoluted definition, progressive jazz seems to require an increasingly larger umbrella. Under that broadly encompassing category, the Switzerland- based quartet SONAR is a noteworthy and unconventional standout. Black Light is their fourth release (but only the second to be made widely available) and for those who have followed the artistic development of the group it is all the more revelatory an experience. SONAR has nuanced the more percussive tone of Static Motion (Cuneiform Records, 2014) to further emphasize contrasting rhythms and splintered meters. Black Light is an example of risk-taking that is visceral without going straight for the jugular.

California born guitarist Stephan Thelan, the principle composer of the group, is the practitioner of a democratic process of creation and participation. A PhD in mathematics with extensive classical training, Thelan studied with guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp, one of the most influential artists in progressive music history, and a founding (and ubiquitous) member of King Crimson, had a significant impact on Thelan and the halo effect of King Crimson's shadowy intensity looms large on Black Light.

Guitarist Bernhard Wagner, a software developer as well as musician, combines those skills in evolving repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. Wagner has worked as a backup act for Nik Bärtsch's Ronin for many years. Bassist Christian Kunter has strong ties to free jazz including having played with two of John Tchicai's groups. Drummer Manuel Pasquinelli has played in numerous regional bands covering an eclectic mix of styles from punk to chamber. The unique sound of SONAR is due, in large part, to the tritone tuning (C / F# / C / F# / C / F#) of the guitars and bass adding a surprisingly pleasant dissonant quality.

As Thelan relates in John Kelman's extensive liner notes, King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Island, 1973), is a particularly key influence on the content of Black Light. That said, there are other forces at work here, even if unintended. Listen to "Enneagram" or "Orbit 5.7" and there is more than a trace element of the late, great Esbjorn Svensson Trio, circa the Leucocyte (ACT, 2008) era, arguably, that trio at their best. Both aforementioned pieces emit a unique pulsing energy and mystery balanced with equal parts modern progressive music and sophisticated jazz. Positioned between those two tracks is the title track refers to the opposing forces of darkness and light rather than the familiar long-wave bulbs. Here—as on "Angular Momentum," "String Geometry" and "Critical Mass" the King Crimson impact couldn't be clearer though SONAR does not come off as emulating the classic band but rather as taking the band's vocabulary and technique to another level.

SONAR speaks to a wide-range of listeners with intelligently constructed tunes and an appealing blend of atmosphere, melody and process. Not surprising for a group whose name is a fractured acronym for "sonic architecture" and who craft compositions of surprising complexity without technical overindulgence. The music—written by Thelan with the exception of the Pasquinelli co-authored "Angular Momentum"—is difficult to describe but thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.

Track Listing: Enneagram; Black Light; Orbit 5.7; Angular Momentum; String Geometry; Critical Mass.

Personnel: Stephan Thelan: Guitar; Bernhard Wagner: Guitar; Christian Kunter: bass; Manuel Pasquinelli: drums.

Record Label: Cuneiform Records

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Julian Julien: Terre II (2015)

Julian Julien: Terre II
French composer/saxophonist Julian Julien has a growing fan base and a rich portfolio of work within his native country, reflecting a wide interest in genres, cultures and media. With his first composition of note coming in a 1993 Sorbonne University project, Julien went on to release his first EP album Tupperware et Bibelot (Self-produced, 1999). While he later travelled throughout Central and Southeastern Asia, he absorbed ethnic influences that would eventually be incorporated into his increasingly eclectic style of writing.

Terre II is less of a sequel to Terre (Priskosnovenie, 2000) than the name would imply. While many of the same musical influences are present (Keith Jarrett, John Surman and film composer John Barry), Julien now works more with silence in the midst of the nuevo-jazz, chamber music and soundtrack dramas of his previous recording. There is also a strong element of European folk music that is becoming increasingly present in the continent's modern music. Terre II is also a concept album where Julien has worked with photographers from Europe, Asia and North America to realize a collaborative musical cinematography of ideas.

Terre II opens with "Prélude," its otherworldly flute and a pulsing bass setting the stage for the title track, a homage to the physical and esoteric territory covered in Julien's previous release. Julien focuses on slightly detached patterns over consistent melody. "Iris I"—the first of six randomly dispersed interludes—leans more toward the European chamber mindset (with some subdued electronic enhancements), as do the ..."II" through ..."VI" variations. "Ailleurs" envisions a better, if not utopian place, where the engaging dialog of the baritone sax and flute direct the narrative.

More personal contributions to the collection are seen in "Une Attente" and "Doudou" dealing with different aspects of the human dilemma. "Non Sens—Nonsence" takes on the very current geopolitical plight of emigres and those faced with the prospect of waves of refugees entering into their society. The album closes with "Mr. John Barry," a tribute to Julien's previously mentioned soundtrack composer favorite; an appropriate conclusion to a collection that in and of itself has elements of a cinematic score.

Though a saxophonist by trade, Julien is credited on Terre II with programming and percussion while Michaël Havard takes on many saxophones and Rémi Dumoulin mans the bass clarinet. Siegfried Canto's flute and cellist Adeline Lecce add much to the chamber aspects of the album. Terre II is a pleasing outing played in a refined atmosphere and with occasional dissonance. It suffers only minimally from a sense of not quite breaking out when given the opportunity. Still, it is different and that makes it worth considering.

Track Listing: Prélude; Terre II; Iris I; Ailleurs; Iris II; Iris III; Une attente; Iris IV; Doudou; Iris V; Non-Sens; Iris VI; Mr. John Barry.

Personnel: Hélène Argo: voice; Guillaume Billaux: guitar; Siegfried Canto: flute; Médéric Collignon: cornet/voice; Rémi Dumoulin: bass clarinet; Michaël Havard: soprano, tenor, baritone saxophone; Julian Julien: percussion, programming; Adeline Lecce: cello.

Record Label: Self Produced

Friday, September 11, 2015

Ochion Jewell, Amino Belyamani, Sam Minaie, Qasim Naqvi with Lionel Loueke: Volk (2015)

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Ochion Jewell, Amino Belyamani, Sam Minaie, Qasim Naqvi with Lionel Loueke: Volk
From his Appalachian roots in Kentucky, saxophonist/composer Ochion Jewell was not the most likely candidate for a livelihood in jazz. With little involvement in the genre during his early life, Jewell was nevertheless exposed to more popular music from his parents as well as the Appalachian folk music that dominated the region. With those elements engrained, his formal training in classical saxophone at the University of Louisville and later education at California Institute of the Arts helped round out a rich background that serves him well both as a composer and musician.

As on Jewell's quartet debut First Suite for Quartet (Mythology Records, 2011), he is joined on Volk by pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Qasim Naqvi. Guitarist Lionel Loueke joins the quartet on two of the ten tracks. The core quartet has been working together for some time, having first formed associations at CalArts. Belyamani, Minaie and Naqvi improvise around Jewell with the expertise and finesse of a long established group; empathic yet independent, their give and take is unpredictable while feeling seamless. But it's Jewell who is bewilderingly adept across the fields of playing, writing and arranging skills, the latter of the three being the most impactful on this recording.

From a methodology perspective, Jewell's compositional approach bears some resemblance to that heard on Steve Coleman's Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings, 2015). While their music couldn't be more different, both composers incorporate distinctly different sound worlds and invent obscure lines of symmetry between structure and free form. This movement and association of sounds is critical on Volk and it seems to impart a slightly different experience with each listening. "At the End of the World, Where Lions Weep" is the lush opener that Jewell describes as an overture to the suite that makes up Volk. It crosses into "Pathos Logos," setting the stage for the improvisational blending of global influences that populate the album.

A traditional Finnish folk song—"Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi"—moves from the root melody to a controlled improvisation and leads to an Irish jig, "Give Us a Drink of Water." The traditional Celtic aspects of the tune dissipate as influences from classical to bop replace each other in an almost undetectable propulsion of change. "Pass Fallow, Gallowglass" marks a return to a more opulent sound only to open the door to Africa. "Gnawa Blues" and "The Master" share roots in the northwestern part of the continent and both incorporate elements of the blues. The traditional "Oh Shenandoah" is a respectful but modern reading and "Black is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)" closes the album with a return to Appalachia.

The musicianship throughout Volk is superb. Jewell's solo interpretation of the closing piece is a thing of beauty. Loueke's bluesy guitar on "The Master" sings with emotion while Minaie's multi-faceted bass maneuvers the many changes within "Pass Fallow, Gallowglass." Naqvi alternately thunders and nuances and can be particularly appreciated through the shifts in "Give Us a Drink of Water." Belyamani finds a broad range of expression with the piano, taking it through classically influenced passages to heavily percussive effects. This album is broad in scope and political significance while being weighed down by neither. With Volk, we have Jewell as a master craftsman and an artist of extraordinary and intelligent vision. This is one of the best releases of the year; music to be listened to repeatedly and savored.

Track Listing: At the End of the World, Where Lions Weep; Pathos Logos; Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi; Give Us a Drink of Water; Pass Fallow, Gallowglass; Radegast; Gnawa Blues; The Master; Oh Shenandoah; Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair).

Personnel: Ochion Jewell: tenor saxophone/composer; Amino Belyamani: piano; Sam Minaie: bass; Qasim Naqvi: drums; Lionel Loueke: guitar (7, 8).

Record Label: Self Produced

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mary Halvorson: Meltframe (2015)

Mary Halvorson: Meltframe
In a quietly forceful way, guitarist Mary Halvorson has cemented her place among the company of modern-day counterparts such as Eivind Aarset , Nels Cline and Terje Rypdal. The Brooklyn based composer/musician has performed with the likes of Anthony Braxton (both sharing credentials at Wesleyan University), cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum and the avant-garde group Trevor Dunn 's Trio-Convulsant. Halvorson has recorded with trumpeter Nate Wooley, multi-reedist Jon Irabagon and Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik. The consistent factor in Halvorson's career to date, is a commitment to a progressive examination of content and approach.

In the liner notes for Halvorson's Meltframe, El Intruso's Sergio Piccirilli makes note of the guitarist's ..."vision to imagine new worlds...with the build them." It's a fine definitive statement. The album consists of covers ranging from the golden age of Duke Ellingtonton to Halvorson's current cohort of colleagues such as bassist Chris Lightcap. Solo guitar recordings, while a new setting for Halvorson, are pretty commonplace, but the manner in which Meltframe opens may seem extreme to her followers and will certainly get one's attention.

Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" explodes in a brutal aggressiveness, more aligned to heavy metal than any genre and the melody and harmonies from Nelson's original from the classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961) obscured by Halvorson's thrashing electric guitar. Abruptly switching gears, Annette Peacock's "Blood" from I'm the One (RCA Records, 1972), loses both the brash bluesy element of the original and the opposing sensitivity of Marilyn Crispell's 1997 cover from Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock (ECM). In place of those treatments, Halvorson gives us technical mastery within her fast-paced and breezy playing, assigning an original feel to the score.

Halvorson uses some unconventional tweaking as she take the customary treatments of Ellington's "Solitude" and McCoy Tyner's "Aisha" along on her explorations, her fingerstyle acoustics brilliantly lighting up the pieces. Within the structure of Ornette Coleman's "Sadness" she interjects smeared notes and dissonant phrasing but doesn't stray too far from the core concept. The folky treatment of Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" is one of the standout pieces on the album and the most straight-forward arrangement.

Halvorson manages to traverse some fairly radical style changes within the pieces on Meltframe, moving from elusive acoustic fingering to bone-rattling power chords as she does on Lightcap's "Platform." Yet, most of the pieces return to their roots intermittently and the diversions are not idle sentiment but inquisitive probes. Whether distorted or poignant, Meltframe is a uniquely complex collection from one of our finest artists.

Track Listing: Cascades; Blood; Cheshire Hotel; Sadness; Solitude; Ida Lupino; Aisha; Platform; When; Leola.

Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar.

Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor: Tales of the Unforeseen (2015)

Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor: Tales of the Unforeseen
Barry Altschul made his mark on the musical world at a time of both turmoil and guarded acceptance. Charles Lloyd's quartet, with the unknown pianist Keith Jarrett, was bridging a gap with psychedelic rock at the Fillmore West; Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) along with the work of groups like Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana were blurring the line between increasingly progressive rock and even more progressive jazz in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A pivotal element of that new jazz sound was the quartet Circle who would be—in retrospect—a super group pioneering new directions.

The short-lived but very influential Circle, assembled by Chick Corea, included bassist Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton on a number of reeds and Barry Altschul on drums/percussion. While three-quarters of the group went on to be revered as jazz legends, the self-taught Altschul worked through the 1980s and increasingly added to the lexicon of drumming with his expanding kit and musical sensibility. And then he all but disappeared until early in the new millennium.

After a twenty-five year absence as a leader, Altschul reemerged as the leader of a trio whose personnel represents some of the finest talent in music. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Mary Halvorson's Quintet and own trio with Altschul and bassist Mark Helias, has been steadily working his way up the hierarchy reed players and composers. Bassist Joe Fonda is without question in the ranks of modern counterparts such as William Parker and Mario Pavone and worked with Altschul´s in the late violinist Billy Bang's FAB trio. Altschul, Irabagon and Fonda came together as the 3dom Factor on their excellent 2013 self-titled debut on the TUM label and reunite here for Tales of the Unforeseen.

Though the track titles would indicate a defined structure, three of the album's six compositions are free group improvisations, without charts or definitive concepts to work from. Starting, logically, with "As the Tale Begins," the twenty-six minute piece projects the openness of the trio dynamics. Altschul, while forcefully driving parts of the number, often trades leads with Irabagon and the two step back to give Fonda center stage about twenty minutes in. Extending the title of Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" with the preface "A Tale of Monk..." is not the only change to the often-recorded cover. While respecting the original style of the song, the trio takes a looser, somewhat muted approach, occasionally adding a more propulsive rhythmic touch.

The first half of "The Tale Continues" is a finely detailed Fonda solo that sets the stage for Irabagon and Altschul to raise the intensity almost to the breaking point. Annette Peacock's "Miracles" (again, with a 'Tale'-related prefix) is Irabagon at his best as he rides, uninhibited, over the rhythmic driving of Altschul and Fonda. Altschul's "A Drummer's Tale" is a remarkable solo piece demonstrating the leader's musical and technical proficiency on the kit and other percussion. The masterwork of Tales of the Unforeseen is "And the Tale Ends" with its fluctuating themes, tempo shifts and multiple instruments, it feels more like a sophisticated arrangement that a free improvisation.

It's good that Altschul's 3dom Factor is not an isolated experiment, or one would hope that this second release indicates some longevity. Free improvisation is often license for an abrasiveness that can obscure the substantial intelligence and effort involved in a project but Altschul, Irabagon and Fonda shine in this environment. Their objectives on Tales of the Unforeseen are clear and carried out with considerable refinement amidst all the intricacy.

Track Listing: As the Tale Begins; A Tale of Monk: Ask Me Now; The Tale Continues; Annette´s Tale of Miracles; A Drummer´s Tale; And the Tale Ends.

Personnel: Barry Altschul drums, percussion; Jon Irabagon: tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones, flute; Joe Fonda: double bass.

Record Label: TUM Records

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jon Irabagon: Inaction is An Action (2015)

Jon Irabagon: Inaction is An Action
Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, a central figure in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, guitarist Mary Halvorson's Quintet and leader of his own trio with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias is one of the most prolific composers and performers in music. Still in his thirties, Irabagon has amassed about eighty recordings as a leader, co-leader or sideman and his portfolio covers the breadth from big band swing to free improvisation. As his career has zig-zagged its way through diverse styles and formations, Irabagon has consistently been like a counter-culture rebel, determined to change and impact the system from within.

With the release of Inaction is An Action Irabagon takes on the solo saxophone traditions of some of his personal influences such as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell. There are, however, twists in his approach. Irabagon utilizes the sopranino saxophone; the small sax—tuned to E flat and at an octave above the alto—has a rich resonance comparable to a similarly tuned clarinet. Though the sopranino has been used on occasion by Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and a few others, it is a rarity in modern music. The other notable factor here is that Irabagon's eight original composition are highly experimental, closer to investigation of sounds than to melodic compositions.

The album opens with "Revvvv," clipped patterns that seem to be partnered with wind tunnel effects, it's hard to categorize but haunting in its own way. "Acrobat" consists of plaintive wails with the sax seeming to loop around itself; traces of melody only tease and never fully develop. Irabagon coaxes a remarkable range of sounds from the sopranino and on "What Have We Here" the sax literally speaks in a demonic voice. Similarly, "Hang Out a Shingle" adds haunted creaking and percussive effects to its eerie character. "The Best Kind of Sad" and "Ambiwinxtrous" are a bit reminiscent of Sam Newsome's solo soprano work on The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation (Self-produced, 2014) and both unexpectedly devote brief passages to more prolonged melodies. The rapidly paced "Liquid Fire" is loose and uninhibited while the closer, "Alps," is a whisper of sounds until its briefly frenetic conclusion.

The Zen reference of Inaction is An Action is open to interpretation in the context of this collection, but certainly from the perspective of what constitutes music (as opposed to what some would surely classify as noise), the allusion is both valid and challenging. Repeated listening is rewarded by the uncovering of complexity and nuance that may not be obvious at first. Irabagon works at times in near silence, at others in a mechanical din of sounds all while he reaches for the highest and lowest registers imaginable for the instrument. Inaction is An Action is clearly not for the faint of heart, but for those with a more exploratory nature, it is packed with new ideas.

Track Listing: Revvvv; Acrobat; What Have We Here; The Best Kind of Sad; Hang Out a Shingle; Ambiwinxtrous; Liquid Fire; Alps.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: sopranino saxophone.

Record Label: Self Produced