My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Elisabeth Vatn’s intimate The Color Beneath. Click the image below to read and hear more.
My latest review for All About Jazz is of pianist Anat Fort’s superb performance at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, where her trio, along with Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, celebrated the release of her third ECM album, Birdwatching. Click the photo below to read on.
My latest translation into English, of the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Japanese author Yusaku Kitano, is now available! Read the description below and click the cover to be directed to Amazon, or click here to peruse the publisher’s page. If you are at all a science fiction fan, you won’t want to miss this.
What’s a cyborg turtle to do when his shell is torn in two?
It’s a fair question in the bizarre, compelling world of Mr. Turtle. Originally published under the name of its protagonist as Kame-kun, this English translation captures all the visionary integrity that won it the Nihon SF Taisho (Japan’s Nebula) Award in 2001. Acclaimed in Japan for his quirky brilliance, Yusaku Kitano explores notions of nonhuman life in novels as diverse as Crayfish Man (2001), Fox Possession (2011), and even a series of animal-themed picture books for children. His love of humor and the absurd only serves to emphasize the underlying seriousness of his work, which in Mr. Turtle plumbs its most cerebral depths. Kame-kun is a hero in a half shell of an altogether different sort, a killing machine designed for combat who wants to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life—working his blue-collar job, going to the library, and typing on his laptop—even as he is haunted by vague memories of a war on Jupiter. To determine his future he must piece together his past, navigating an unsympathetic society toward revealing the novel’s philosophical heartbeat.
A character study of surreal wit, Mr. Turtle mixes equal parts action and insight, all the while crafting an homage to its chosen genre unlike any other.
In the summer of 2014, Aaron Parks held a ten-week DIVA (Danish International Visiting Artists program) residency in Denmark. By then, at the age of 30, the American pianist had already achieved an independent sound, but on these two albums arising from his Danish tenure he thrives on the unsolvable riddle of collaboration.
When Parks released his 2013 disc of solo improvisations (Arborescence, ECM), he earned knee-jerk comparisons to fellow pianist and ECM stalwart Keith Jarrett. Yet while their styles could hardly be more different, they do have one thing in common: a genuine respect for melody. It’s this sense of song and structure that balances Parks’ youthful optimism with patience.
On Groovements, he shares a studio with bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk and drummer Karsten Bagge. Despite being the first time this trio had recorded together—playing tunes written especially for this session, no less—these virtual strangers make for a cohesive mesh.
As if in service of that point, the group improvisation “Shapes ‘n’ Colors” is among the more seamless tracks. No less groovy than its satellites, the tune hits all the right pressure points and is every bit as flexible as Parks’ distinctly New York-ian “Elutheria.” Fonnesbæk and Bagge contribute two originals apiece, the former’s “Winter Waltz” and “Forever This Moment” being special vehicles for the composer’s artistry while the latter’s “Alcubierre’s Law” and “A Rabbit’s Tale,” not surprisingly, capitalize on the rhythmic core. The trio does bare its traditional chops, however, when handling the swing of Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” and evergreen “You And The Night And The Music” with tact. Even the two surprises, Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Danish classical composer Carl Nielsen’s “Tit Er Jeg Glad,” proceed with confident logic.
Duets in June would seem to be the more intimate project on paper, but its unusual combination of guitar and piano reaches more broadly and adventurously, the pepper to Groovements’ salt.
Much credit goes to guitarist Thomas Maintz, who wrote all the music except for three improvisations. The latter are the highpoints of this date—exercises in unforced seeking from two musicians who don’t just react to, but converse with each other. Where the drunken “Absinthe” and photorealistic “East Village Waltz” are tongue-in-cheekily illustrative, “Six String Levitation” (featuring Parks on melodica) and ambient “Please Hum (A Hymn)” offer more cerebral delights. Maintz speaks most lucidly through his acoustic baritone guitar, as on “Nude in Red Armchair,” in which his adaptability comes to the fore. All that said, it is Parks whose underlying feel for mood and message rings truest. Whether singing at the keys in “Secret Hallway” or going solo for “Riddles Dressed in White,” he understands that tenderness in music is more than a pantomime. It’s a way of life.
(This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)
On 21 June 2016, clarinetist David Rothenberg, cellist Hank Roberts, accordionist Lucie Vítková, and guitarist Charlie Rauh played a concert at an unlikely time (5 a.m.) with (given the time) a less unlikely orchestra: a dawn chorus of birds at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the waxing light of a cloud-obscured sunrise, trees vibrated with winged singers: the primary constant among otherwise spontaneous contributions by human accompanists. If the latter’s utterances seemed random and responsive, it was only because the former’s were so ordered and communicative—though if the performance sought anything, it was to ensure these two currents of sound production became as indistinguishable as possible.
The patter on leaves of a passing shower was its own sort of twittering as Rothenberg and friends shed the skins of their respective training in favor of an unencumbered style of play(ing). As the human quartet eased its way into the soundscape, a catbird joined in from a nearby bough. Though the creature’s body was as hidden as its song was naked, a thread of continuity drew itself between Rothenberg’s reed and that rogue throat, enacting a form of nostalgia that must surely have captured our ancestors long before the technology required to tell their stories was conceivable. Of said technology Rothenberg has been an artful proponent, as proven by his tactful use of an iPad preloaded with birdcalls summonable at will.
While each musician was in fullest support of the others, Vítková’s microscopy added much to the feel of the entire event. Whether playing the accordion, a string attached to a can, or a hichiriki (Japanese oboe), her colors meshed particularly well with Rothenberg’s. Roberts meanwhile flitted in and out of frame with his sensitive array of pizzicato and arco textures. The arpeggios by which he opened the second of two improvisations were especially moving, pointing as they did back to the magic already around us. This half of the performance was jazzier in flavor, for it manifested the interspecies blues pumping through the heart of it all. Rauh, for his part, was the most painterly of the ensemble, rendering broader scenes into which the other three might dot in their figures and villages. More than anyone, he fed on the visual aspect of the setting, attuned to the sunlight as it gained sway over fading drizzle.
If music predates us, it also postdates us. It is the proverbial cradle in which our brief existence raises a few melodic cries before returning to eternal slumber. And in the harmony of this experience, at least, one knew that circles of life can and do pop up when least expected, and that such opportunities are to be savored whenever they arise. This music was, therefore, not so much conversation as conservation, a chance to blur the lines between literal and metaphorical flights toward an integrated whole of which those gathered were the smallest particles.
On 20 June 2016, bassist and dark-matter stylist Bill Laswell convened the latest incarnation of his Method of Defiance outfit at the Roulette performance space in Brooklyn to celebrate the Downtown Music Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Joining Laswell were Dr. Israel (beats, vocals), Garrison Hawk (vocals), D.J. Logic (turntable, laptop), Josh Werner (bass, keyboards), Graham Haynes (cornet), and Guy Licata (drums), along with special guest Mike Sopko (guitar). The latter’s avant-leaning tendencies threw fistfuls of sparks at the audience, surpassed in heat only by Hawk’s incendiary spit and Laswell’s embers. Yet behind them was an invisible ninth member whose contributions were palpable throughout—the reflection of some connective spirit that drew everyone into the same line of purpose.
Ever at the core of whatever they attend, Laswell and his bass were a binary force of reckoning. Together they prepped the space with characteristic sagacity. Werner’s electronic detailing gave first indications of landscape, discernible though not yet solid until Licata’s drum ‘n’ bass vibes hit the ground running. His wake left an open wound in the earth, revealing an igneous groove, while Haynes sprouted a tree for every leaf burned by the force of the environmental disruption.
In this, the first of eight songs, innovations and comforts bled themselves in search of hybrid hemoglobin. Israel’s vocals, wrapped in heavy echo, proved that the Dr. was very much in the house when he negotiated crunchy dub textures as might a chameleon revel in a rainbow. And when the other wordsmith took to the stage, showing that hawks are every bit as cunning on the ground as in the air, he tempered flames with descriptions of raw deals and rawer emotions.
Sopko’s sere guitar kept things randomized, and only served to emphasize the importance of every utterance, so that whenever a mouth was opened, so too were listener’s minds to receive its wisdom. Some of the most gripping portions of the set, in fact, found Israel and Hawk involved in deeply semantic transactions, each a firebrand of his own design, sandwiched between gray destruction and lavender rebuilding. All the while, Laswell’s bass undermined the fragile house of convention.
Not all was so apocalyptic, as ambience prevailed along the way. Whether in Werner’s triadic lullabies or the bandleader’s swooping improvisations, such tenderer moments were calls to arms for those without them. During one memorable tune, Logic intertwined griot sampling with Laswell’s harmonic equations while Haynes channeled messages from seemingly nonhuman sources.
At one point, Werner traded keys for bass (even the sun needs to recover beyond the horizon), provoking comparable head nods through a haze of guitar marginalia (Sopko resolving monumental tensions with Buckethead-like release) and tight drumming. And as Israel dropped his champion’s badge in the pond to distort the face of one who needed it not for validation, the risk of it all paid its ultimate dividends through an apparent axiom: A strong core, no matter how distorted the surface surrounding it, compromises for no one.
While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:
Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.
I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.
While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”
If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.
For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.
If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.
So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.
Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.
The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.
The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.
My first encounter with the music of Paul Giger was on his ECM debut, Chartres. Guided only by the album’s cover, which at first seemed an ancient petroglyph before I knew it to be the map of the eponymous cathedral’s labyrinth, my teenage brain swam with visions of some worldly phantom trekking with his violin across oceans and continents, drawing out music from the living rock. It was only when ECM released a follow-up solo album, Schattenwelt, that I knew Giger to be flesh and blood, as the booklet revealed a photo of him at last. And yet, cloaked in the shadows of his music, it was easy to nourish my young impressions of what and who he was. How rare it is, then, that we get to see the hearts behind the skins of those we think we know through their art. Paul’s son Ramòn enables just such a glimpse in his 2013 documentary, Karma Shadub.
On surface, the film walks us through a mounting of its title piece (which first appeared on Alpstein) at Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall. But this veneer bends the light to reveal a motive of emotional healing and conversation, becoming as it does a catalyst for sometimes-painful excavations of childhood, abandonment, and creation. This is not a film about music, but about where music comes from and how its progenitors live and act on either side of their art.
Karma Shadub was written for Ramòn around the time he was born as a celebration of life. In the context of that same child’s documentary statement all these years later, it serves as a looking glass into an uncertain past. The performance itself involves dancers, who under the choreographic direction of Marco Santi realize the corporeality of Paul’s music. The dancers also sing, mirroring the dialogic searching of the son, whose wondering and wandering of what might have been bleeds into the yet to be. Ramòn himself experiences a range of emotions when hearing the piece now: a binary star of pain and passion.
“When he asked me to make a film about this performance and the piece he had written for me,” says the filmmaker early on, “that was the moment I realized that I no longer know who he is.”
Ramòn, who calls Paul by his first name, seeks a relationship with this distant man—one who, much like the artist I’d imagined, takes pride in solitude. Ever his father’s son, Ramòn has taken on an artistic worldview. Yet where his father paints in sound, as director Ramòn does so in light. Before this he made made two documentaries as cameraman, the first being the portrait of a young autistic man and his relationship with the social worker who has become something of a father figure. A sign of things to come.
As both creator and a subject of the present film, Ramòn must confront a unique sort of exhaustion. Accustomed to teasing out the inner lives of his subjects, he was less prepared than he realized to do the same for himself. “I felt somewhat cruel, always demanding and taking from other lives, using them as the foundation of my work,” he humbly admits to me in an interview. “It’s different from music, where you have to dig inside yourself to create something.”
And dig Paul certainly did throughout Ramòn’s formative years, during which the father was often away for private excavations, though not without sending tapes from his travels. One of these, recorded at Chartres and including violin and ambient sounds of the garden, depicts a father reaching for proximity in defiance of physical separation. A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but one that sits complexly with its recipient. As a leitmotif of the film, the tape is at once an expression of paternal love and obfuscation of its lucidity. The process seems emblematic of Paul: speaking volumes by not being there, and leaving just as much open to interpretation when present. It’s a dynamic mirrored in Ramòn’s attempts to elicit information from his father about the unknowns of his upbringing, which tend to reveal themselves more through silence than obvious articulation.
Where Ramòn wants this to be an honest and personal project, Paul fears being used for something that he cannot stand up to. In their constant state of negotiation, the two manage to tap out a fairly reflective surface from unrefined metal as they forge an alloy of their own. Just as the violin is at once a part of Paul and its own entity, so too does Ramòn resound through their interactions. The son feels he is not being understood by his father—left out, so to speak, of the latter’s creative equation—even as he becomes more aware than ever about his own character by way of not being acknowledged. None of which is to suggest that the film is a challenge or accusation. It raises uncertainties out of genuine hope for their resolution.
Because his conversations with Paul are touch and go, Ramòn turns to his biological mother for solace (Paul is remarried). Despite the separation, she recalls those early years with a certain fondness, and the smile that holds her face indicates the steadfastness of a mature heart that has no time to dwell on ifs. But her son, like the viewer, is still grappling with images versus realities.
Of both, the camera offers plenty by directing strict aesthetic attention to surroundings. Indeed, the film is not only about people, but also about places. Ramòn recalls a rural, almost utopian, upbringing, as confirmed by a visit to his childhood home. Such snippets of nature add to the feeling that both father and son have walked their own paths and are now seeking intersections.
Camerawork and editing are significant enough to warrant symbolic interpretation. We get many shots, for instance, of Paul’s back, as if Ramòn were always trying to catch up to the man he follows. This yields another parallel, when Paul says, characterizing his struggles with the violin, “Where you try to undertake something real, that’s where life is happening.”
In this film, life is happening everywhere. In the music, both on and off the screen. In the solace of cathedral’s, both literal and metaphorical. And in the gift of seeing a world-class artist as a human being, knowing he is subject to the same complications as the rest of us.
Karma Shadub is available to watch on Vimeo demand here. Read on below for the rest of my interview with the director.
Tyran Grillo: One of the greatest values of watching Karma Shadub was how it made me think of myself as a parent. It was a reminder to treat my son’s childhood with even greater importance.
Ramòn Giger: People have experienced this film in very personal ways. Despite being just a very small story between me and my father, the feedback I’ve gotten has been massively varied. Some perceive it as you do, while others feel offended by it, but it always connects to the personal experiences of viewers in one way or another.
TG: The first scene, featuring you and a reticent Paul at the kitchen table, sticks out in my mind. The tension is real and relatable.
RG: He was very scared at first. Just as you had an experience of Paul’s music before you had a picture, his profession and what he does feed off a strong, mystical image. I now understand what he was afraid of. Having dedicated his entire life to achieving a perfect sound on this little instrument, he felt threatened by the mistakes I might expose.
TG: What was it like watching the film together?
RG: We watched a rough cut at some point. He also attended a few premieres with me. It was quite an emotional re-confrontation, which wasn’t easy for us.
TG: Have things changed in any significant way since the film?
RG: The changes weren’t as I expected them to be. I had more expectations of revealing secrets or having this total opening of my father toward me. After 50 hours of just talking about things in front of a camera, I realized in the end that I was the one creating distance in the relationship. I needed to act but not expect him to do something about it.
TG: You still have those cassette tapes he made for you. Do you remember how you felt at the time when you received them?
RG: I know that I loved them, and that I listened to them a lot. I can’t really tell how I felt back then; only as I perceive them today. I feel a lot of effort from his side, a need of being close to me and trying to give me a piece of himself while being away, but also a strangeness in how he talks to me. I also have the feeling that he doesn’t really take me seriously. So I guess, just as with the music, it’s different things at the same time. Being a father myself now, I’m more relaxed about it, because I know it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect about everything. My experience with Paul was not that he was away, but that he couldn’t admit that not everything was perfect, which used to confuse me as a child. I’ve grown up believing it’s important to make mistakes as a parent.
TG: Do you feel more empathy for Paul, now that you are a father yourself?
RG: It was my decision to leave this point open in the film, but in life we certainly got to a point where we feel much closer to each other than before.
Ramòn concludes our interview by telling me that Paul is someone who “lives fully in this world,” but we can also see the world living fully in him—which is to say, as an internal storm of contradictions. And maybe that’s all human beings, even at their best, can be.
Karma Shadub is available to either rent or download on Vimeo here.