Living as we now do in a world that feels orphaned from its ancestral histories, there’s no more appropriate space to cry out for resurrection than the womb-like expanse of traditional Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Saxophonist Archie Shepp turns this melody inside out as salvific blood drips along the keys of Jason Moran’s piano.
Thus, the duo establishes the rhythm of a hymn trapped somewhere between Earth’s crust and the magma churning beneath. If we don’t already feel the words coursing through our ears from the first note, we find them unraveled in Shepp’s own singing voice, of which hints of reed hang in the air like a signature fragrance, as also in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and another traditional spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” In both Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” and Moran’s “He Cares,” the listener is greeted by truth while John Coltrane’s “Wise One” unfurls a territory limited only by our imagination to map it. Here, voices of the past hit the open air of the future, only to find they need oxygen masks just to inhale. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” reminds us that only in the darkest hours can our thoughts churn in an ocean free of pollution—water for its own sake, primed for the vessels of our attempts to make sense of it all.
In light of all this preaching of ebony, ivory and everything in between, it would be unwise to think of the album as a catharsis, for a catharsis implies that we have transcended the bonds that necessitate thoughts of escape. No. We must gaze upon the fetters and chains until they burn after-images into our brains, so that we may never forget what the world would have us deny: many had to die for us to stand here, poised on the cusp of a tide that could just as easily turn in our favor as against it. Though still a long way from home, we strive to see that candlelight in the window telling us: Just one more leg of this journey and the doors of relief will spread their wings to receive you. At least here, we have a feather to hold to our hearts as we press on.
(This review originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
As COVID-19 continues to occupy the foreground of our collective mind, even as its primacy is under threat by the tumult of political schadenfreude, bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger give us just what we need in this curated selection from their weekly collaborations, live-streamed throughout the pandemic as sonic scripture in a time of foolish doctrines.
The duo dives into the swirling waters of Alice Coltrane’s “Gospel Trane,” throughout which schools of hopeful fish swim in synergy. This is the language of the here and now, wrung dry of all animosity and rehydrated with love, flipping the dynamic of social distancing to reveal a creative intimacy—fierce and inextinguishable—beneath it all.
Subsequent repertoire spans the gamut from Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Pharoah Sanders to Kate Bush, Sting and The Carpenters. With so much to chew on, we are reminded of how much beauty we’ve lost access to over the past year, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of national sentiment, dialogue, and, above all, listening.
In tracks like John Coltrane’s “Equinox” there is an abiding sense of duality, slipping one hand out of our zeitgeist toward the past and another toward the future. Thus, each instrument brings its own histories to the table, hashing out the lingering oppressions of colonial and plantation mentalities until only indistinguishable molecules are left to dissipate in the air.
Sanders-Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is the heart of this quest, which by the end has only heart left to give. That same blessed hope is outwardly expressed in Joe Raposo’s “Sing.” If God is in the details, then here we are served one heaping plateful after another of them. While like-minded joy overflows its cup in Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Toilet Paper Romance” (an original with which they ended every show), it bends a knee in the shadow of inward turns like Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” by validating the safety of dreams.
It’s all there in the title, which in everyday usage means an irresistible compulsion yet which in legalese connotes unforeseeable circumstances preventing the fulfillment of a contract. If the latter doesn’t describe the moral loophole of 2020, what does?
(The article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Oh, come to me in dreams, my love! I will not ask a dearer bliss; Come with the starry beams, my love, And press mine eyelids with thy kiss. –Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Disrupted: that is what we are at this moment in history, a time when roads extending from places both dark and bright cross in a divisive tangle of possible avenues. In such a mess, it can be difficult to know which trajectory to follow, which promises hold water, and which means of metaphorical transportation will get us to a place of rest. Music, however, has offered and sustained a viable way of navigation, if only because its territories are more often intangible and therefore primed for the lanterns of interpretation. Wherever we choose to hang those lanterns, we know there will always be shadows hungry for their illumination.
This is what it feels like to wander the nuances of The Waking Dream, the latest album by French singer Muriel Louveau. Based in Paris, Louveau grew up on a farm in Brittany, where she dove into fascinations with literature, singing, and poetry. Having since worked in a variety of mediums, including theatre, modeling, and music, she has treated every stage of development as an opportunity for self-reflection and, more importantly, development of a language uniquely hers. Thus, her vocal work takes on as much in the way of the body as of the soul. Regardless of her chosen outlet, music has always been the blood of symbiosis running through its veins.
Although Louveau’s influences range from Kathleen Ferrier to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, the flora she cultivates can be found in no other soil. I recently spoke with her via video chat to gain insight into the multifaceted lens through which she views the world and her place within it. To the question of what currently defines her as a singer, she professed her love of poetry. With all the question marks hanging over our future, it’s one place she can find answers—or, at the very least, more productive interrogations. Her latest album is, in fact, inspired by the writings—poetic and otherwise—of Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was penned in 1816, a “year without summer” beset by famine, global pandemic, and the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.
In addition to quoting Shelley, Louveau weaves extra-linguistic impulses, drawing breath through throat like thread through needle in ambient environments—not necessarily to connect the then and the now, but as an empathetic process. One feels this sense of unease (if not also disease) acutely in the album’s two “Incantations,” wherein water and machinery serve their purposes as the connective tissue of experience. Held in the embrace of a rhythmic chirr, her singing evokes physical contact to relay metaphysical messages (or is it the other way around?). Dancers Mei Yamanaka and Emily Pope have internalized this music to delineate the realm of the self as palimpsest for natural wonder:
“Les Limbes” likewise treats the voice as gravity-laden and the corporeal self as buoyant, turning the vagaries of human experience into a reflection of their own inability to articulate mourning. Hence “Mirroring,” in which the ink of mortality runs dry on the paper of its denial.
“Making this album had a cathartic function for me,” says Louveau. “It was a work of transition, connected to this moment. While the material existed in some form before the pandemic, as I wrote, I took it as an opportunity to dive deeper and explore my fears. Sometimes, artists can have intuition, and in my case it was about feeling tragedies. What pushed me to complete and release this album was the loss of my mother last year. The tsunami of grief that followed prepared me: there was a synchronicity to this loss and external events.”
If fear of pandemic is internal, then this album reflects that inner experience as a mode of living. In “Silent Steps,” for example, Louveau’s breath acts as a cyclic presence, the very foundation of cognizance. Melodies whisper as if to mock us with their unrequited song, a typewriter no longer functioning and thus left to embrace the solitude of quarantine. Even the birdsongs in “What is a poet?” turn the forest into a mirror rather than a doorway, so that we are left regarding our own reflections as reminders of the rivers at our backs.
As Louveau says of the creative process, “I sometimes have these premonitions in dreams and don’t always understand them. It takes time to realize the connection with events taking place in reality.” Said mysteries are the figures that populate and animate our subconscious, where the cricket melodies of “Spirits” sing a lullaby for the self, for the world, for the stars without a voice.
The album’s title is therefore a prescient one, as it illuminates in sound what Shelley in words rendered as “Psyche’s lamp.” In its light, feeling dictates language. It is not a matter of being forced by circumstance but allowing old souls to carry the secret of their age in peace. It is also about taking the absence of light seriously. “If you face the sun,” says Louveau, “it can blind and kill you. There is a geography of the dark.” In much the same way, this music is born within and without words. Both are as ambiguous as they are true. And so, in these sounds one can find a home knowing. “Especially now,” she adds, “I don’t think the birds sing differently, but maybe we hear them differently.” Perhaps, then, we can look at these vignettes as more than ephemeral experiments, but as indelible knee-prints of a world deferring to nature. Because silence is also a form of singing.
The Waking Dream is available on bandcamp here. Be sure to check out her 2008 album Skana, which I review here, as well.
This World brings together a new quartet of seasoned players. Recorded after a string of shows given in 2019 by Mike Nock (New Zealand, piano, who turns 80 this month), Hamish Stuart (Scotland, drums), Julien Wilson (Australia, tenor saxophone and effects) and Jonathan Zwartz (New Zealand, double bass)—all four of whom are based in Australia—the album glistens with music written especially for this studio session around a core of unmistakable experience. Said experience translates not into mountaintop pontificating for the fortunate few but rather into a grounded message that all can understand. The album’s title, like the Zwartz tune after which it is named, is therefore more than an anthem; it’s a mission statement from a group of musicians content in forgoing the flaunt in favor of the flavor.
Other examples of the bassist’s writing are “And in the Night Comes Rain” and “Home.” Where the latter comes across as being less about being home than about returning to it after a long time away, the former is a highlight of the set for its collective pause in anticipation of a storm. Instead of thunder, we get the gentle kiss of autumn as prelude to a soulful dance that goes from solid to liquid and back again.
These scenes highlight the evocative abilities of Wilson, who adds two parts blues (“Riverside”) and one part groove (“We Shall Rise Again”) to the compositional brew. As performer, the saxophonist renders a painterly wisdom that is fully integrated into its surroundings and is enhanced ever so subtly by an application of electronic effects. Whether lending sparkle and shine to “Any Heart” (a cinematic montage by Stuart in which the drummer’s vacillation between skating and dancing is equally wonderful to behold) or tempering the edges of Nock’s swinging “Old’s Cool,” he excels at unpacking vivid dreams beneath the surface of things.
The pianist, for his part, wields the most multicolored pen of them all, delivering the persistence of “The Dirge” with just as much conviction as he does the blush of “Aftermath” with gentle persuasion. Regardless of mode, he and his cohorts prove that at a time in history when division is the order of the day, four souls crafting melody together can abide by a deeper principle of love and listening.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Most of the material on this record was captured at the first performance in 2010 by David Torn (guitars and electronics), Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxophones) and Ches Smith (drums and electronics). Known since then as Sun of Goldfinger, this power trio opened a sonic can of worms to be reckoned with that’s only now seeing the light of aural day.
Featuring three tracks of hefty proportion, the album opens with “Bat Tears,” in which alto, sampled in real time and cast into the active volcano that is Torn’s looping guitar, gives way to a skronky baritone, ending in a mix of drone and catharsis. Following this, “Coco Tangle” dances as if its pants were on fire (though, to be sure, this is honest music rendered in tough love). Sampling does the trick again this time around while arpeggiators and percussive accents from Smith fill in every pothole. That said, no roads herein stay smooth for too long and even the thickest tires of expectation will find themselves beautifully compromised by the terrain ahead.
Despite the fact that Sun of Goldfinger can break out the big guns when it feels so inclined, there’s a distinctly meditative heart beating at the center of it all. One hears this especially in the final and title track, where a train crossing signal-like guitar stretches over head-nodding drums before alto kicks in the door bearing gifts of awakening. The sheer depth of coherence that ensues is a balm to behold in these wounded times.
(This article, in its original form, appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Stern Reason is to judgment come Arrayed in all her forms of gloom: Wilt thou my advocate be dumb? No, radiant angel, speak and say Why I did cast the world away;
Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run;
And on a strange road journeyed on Heedless alike of Wealth and Power— Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower.
These verses, which come to us by way of Emily Brontë and the history woven into her surname, light candles in a shadowy world. She and her sister Anne are the subjects of this wordless tribute, evoked through the strings of Charlie Rauh’s acoustic guitar. Recorded in the very home where he learned the instrument, The Bluebell is more than a collection of miniatures (each track averages about a minute and half) inspired by poetry. Rather, they are devotionals bound by the metaphysical leather of tribute, meditation, and emotional transference.
Two versions of the title track, one drawn from the veins of each sister, are as genetically distinct as they are seamless. Not only do we feel the stem, leaves, and petals of this bulbous hyacinth, but are more importantly lured by its fragrance. Indeed, scent abounds in the source texts, which Rauh inhales as inspiration and exhales through the compact wonders of “Watch Through The Darkest Hours Of Night” with nary an errant note.
Whether channeling doubts of biblical proportion in “Though Weak Yet Longing To Believe” or donning the protection of divine assurance in “Faith Shines Equal Arming Me From Fear,” the sentiments at hand show that such armor, known only to the God in whose name it is worn, is hidden from view, girded as it is about the soul. And so, if the feelings of uncertainty we encounter in “Careless Gifts Are Seldom Prized” are indicative of anything, it is that wisdom is made manifest in holy illumination. And as reflections of time in “We Were Not Once So Few” spread horizontally into the vertical regard of “With Purpose Pure And High,” we find ourselves alone yet unafraid. Only in that state of openness can we accept “A Little And A Lone Green Lane” as a reminder that our flesh is but the garment of pilgrims passing through.
And yet, the bluebell still stands, head bowed as if in prayer, holding on to its hymn of persistence. Thus, these melodies stare poignantly into the eyes of decay and smile as if to say, “It’s easy to hear music in the poetry. Let us never forget to hear poetry in the music.”
The eighth album by Gato Libre, since 2015 a trio consisting of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (who turns 69 this month), Yasuko Kaneko on trombone and Satoko Fujii on accordion, is a minimal and delightful context for the patient charm of Tamura’s compositions. By turns mysterious and whimsical, improvisational elements bring out the rapport of the trio, one built on deep listening, while prewritten material exploits their ability to hone in on what is most essential.
In that respect, the album’s title (Japanese for “kitten”) gives some insight into the blend of mystique and playfulness one experiences in these eight feline-themed scenes. Each track, in fact, is named for a different kind of cat. On the one hand, we encounter programmatic gems like “Ieneko” (domesticated cat) and “Bakaneko” (silly cat), both of which sport a range of textures and emotions while exhibiting Tamura’s painterly brilliance, as well as the avant-gardism of his formative years. On the other hand, we join the “Noraneko” (stray cat) and the “Yamaneko” (wild cat) on their nocturnal adventures, rendered in exquisite detail by Fujii’s starlight, Kaneko’s slinking motions and Tamura’s restless energy. Together, they wander through favorite haunts in search of sustenance in the spirit of survival. The latter tune feels like a folk song developing in slow motion and finds Kaneko in a particularly soulful mode.
Each musician, but especially Tamura, is content coloring both inside and outside the lines, allowing quiet atmospheres to unravel as they will until the closing “Kanbanneko.” The term refers to a cat that hangs out in a store (often seen sleeping in the window) and is well known by regular customers. Like its namesake, the music seems to insist on being left alone in a corner as the hustle and bustle of commerce hums in the background. And because the recording is only subtly processed, allowing for instruments’ natural reverberations to shine through, we can be sure that every meow is heard.
(This review originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Free improvisation can be many things: challenging, abrasive and meandering among them. This spontaneous act of creation between Frances-Marie Uitti (cello) and Elliott Sharp (Dell’Arte Anouman acoustic guitar and soprano saxophone) is none of those things. Rather, it’s welcoming, cartographic and focused. Sharp has always had a tactile approach to the guitar, one that emphasizes skin and organs alike and which embraces natural resonance as a portal to understanding the mathematical certainty of decay. The same could be said of Uitti, who digs into her cello as if it were a plot of land and pulls up every root around which she can curl her fingers.
In “Avior,” the relationship between these two signatures is so complementary that one almost feels a new strand of archaeology at play. Not in the sense of tearing up sacred land for the bastion of science, but of letting the past speak for itself. Thus, when Sharp sheds the guitar for a soprano saxophone in “Ainitak” and “Algieba,” he invites an earthen language to rise to the surface. In tandem, Uitti renders her instrument a giant ear to capture those utterances before they fade.
Given that in the past Uitti has been mislabeled a mere provider of drones, this reviewer challenges any listener to discover anything but complex shades of meaning in her sound. In that respect, both musicians are translators of energies that could otherwise go unacknowledged. Sometimes, as in “Mizar,” Uitti brightens the foreground while at other times, as in “Mintaka” and “Arcturus,” Sharp wraps us in the garland of a minstrel’s weathered muse. And while it is tempting to label their music as cathartic, in these times of distance one can’t help but read it as a form of proximity.
As organic as it gets.
(This review originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
In this 2019 live set from The Sultan Room in Brooklyn, alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Nasheet Waits connect a 49-minute Möbius strip of improvisational wonder. Composed of two free outpours, “Tensile” and “5see,” the performance is a barrage of ideas, which, despite their thickness of description, leave plenty of room for our imagination as listeners to run wild in tandem. With an immense freedom of spirit and catharsis of expression, the duo breaks down one wall after another until all expectations end up in a free box at the side of our mental road. Without a map, we are left to roam the subtler implications of their interactive cause. The ending of each statement becomes the beginning of another, leaving us with a string of words barred access to orthography. The ebb and flow between clarity and obscurity is as cohesive as the connection between bodily organs.
Berne plays with intense lucidity of communication. He tells stories not for the sake of a reaction but in the interest of filling in blanks the rest of us may be afraid to touch in the Mad Libs of life. His incisiveness fires arrows of indisputable meaning into the air. Waits likewise pulls out the rug from under us not out of a desire to break our equilibrium but to reveal an even more stable surface beneath it. Like Peter Pan, he cuts away his shadow in search of a land without rules, only to realize that connections of a higher order can never be broken. Such is the depth of their rapport as each defers to the other until the geyser of creativity grows too hot to contain. And so while we might end up with more questions than answers, we are all the better for having asked them.
(This review originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)