Wolfgang Haffner: Kind of Tango

Kind of Tango

This album expands composer and drummer Wolfgang Haffner’s Kind of… series with its best-integrated offering. Not only because the rapport he shares with bassist Lars Danielsson and pianist Simon Oslender is as involuntary as breathing, but also because the music spinning out from that core trio is reflective of a bandleader who understands that comfort is born of experience.

Whether in the understated groove of “La Cumparsita,” the inward glance of “Respiro” or the somber farewell of “Recuerdos,” Haffner figures that every dance doesn’t need to be a competition. And he’s not afraid to let melodies awaken slowly, as on “El Gato.” But the tango is best drawn between a leap and a crawl, and the brilliance of Haffner’s tempi lie in that balance. Quintessential in both concept and execution is his handling of Astor Piazzolla. By wrapping the familiar strains of “Libertango” in mystery and the lesser-known neorealism of “Chiquilín de Bachín” in the warmth of an open fire, he brings out a blush of sanctity from the secular. What we end up with, then, is a welcoming examination of tango: something personal, fresh and unforced.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Fantastic Snakeoil

There’s something undeniably adhesive about Snakeoil, alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s uncompromising outfit of exploding singularities. From the inaugural line, catalyzing an angular yet strangely joyful romp through head-nodding territory, we’d be hard-pressed to find ourselves unattached to at least one motif, line or beat along the way. Lending further veracity to his enterprise are Berne’s usual suspects of pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith, adding to those guitarist Marc Ducret. One imagines the urban landscape moving in concert with these bodies ambulating through it, as if flesh, metal and concrete were all one assemblage to which this is the only logical soundtrack.

Despite the muscle behind much of the movement, passages of gargantuan sensitivity abound. Sometimes these are holistic, as in “Dear Friend,” which finds the band bowing its collective head for its composer Julius Hemphill. Other times, those moments are buried, as in “Surface Noise”—an accurate title, to be sure, but one that reclaims the term by severing its negatively connotative roots and replanting it in active soil.

The interplay between piano and alto saxophone is as oceanic as that between guitar and bass clarinet is amphibious, thus indicating a powerful array of duos throughout. Other notables include Mitchell and Ducret in the title track and “The Amazing Mr. 7,” Berne and Smith in “Rolo” and Berne and Noriega in “Third Option.”

All of this and more is summarized in “Rose Colored Assive.” At the touch of behind-the-scenes member David Torn, this concluding statement feels more like an opening one, its taste of fantasy whetting our palates for yet another new direction from one of the most exciting bands working in jazz today.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Sigurd Hole: Lys/Mørke

Lys:Mørke

Following 2018’s Elvesang (one of that year’s finest), Norwegian bassist Sigurd Hole returns with an even deeper solo session, recorded on a small island off the northern coast of Norway. Inspired by the surroundings, Hole often recorded with the studio door left open and sometimes even outside. As David Rothenberg observes in his liner notes, there’s something both primal and rare going on here—a willingness to speak with, rather than at, nature.

Although its 18 tracks are divided down the middle into suites of Light (Lys) and Darkness (Mørke), we could easily read one into the other. In Light, we encounter the inward arpeggios of “Skygge” (Shadow), just as in Darkness we stumble across the vast terrains of “Refleksjon” (Reflection). As dots in an aural yin yang, they are masterstrokes of one who intimately knows the inner life of his instrument. Aside from one traditional song, his subliminal folktales come from the heart.

Hole is a painterly musician in the truest sense—that is, one who isn’t afraid to call upon every brush and palette knife at his disposal. In most cases, he seems interested in examining the harmonic possibilities of the bass, drawing out hidden and elusive shades of color in the process. Prime examples include “Trestein” (Woodstone), “Årringer” (Growth rings) and “Bølge” (Wave), in which Hole opens his bow like a poet would a journal, setting pen to paper without filter.

Thus, Hole unravels until his emotions sing in a way that sidesteps the need for highlighted analysis. The more one listens, the more one feels each track as a vital organ of the whole. And while you may not walk away with discernible melodies on the brain, you will have in your possession something far more indelible: a feeling that you have known the texture of a soul.

(This review originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Ayman Fanous/Frances-Marie Uitti: Negoum

Negoum

This album is the first studio recording of two seemingly disparate virtuosi—Egyptian-born, New York-based bouzouki/classical guitar player Ayman Fanous and American, France-based cellist Frances-Marie Uitti—sharing a dialogue of traditions and their unraveling. In the former vein, Fanous brings his knowledge of taksim(a style of melodic improvisation prevalent in Middle Eastern music) and Uitti hers of classical precision while in the latter both seem to become increasingly connected as they drift further from canonical moorings. In Uitti’s duets with bouzouki, such as the opening 16 minutes that are “Adhara,” self-examination prevails. As for the tracks featuring guitar in place of bouzouki, one senses that something beyond magical is taking place. Rather, it’s a process of mental elimination, resulting in music of astonishing subtlety.

For half the program, Uitti employs a two-bow technique of her own innovation. But one might never know it because she plays with such an integrated mode of expression that her gestures are organic, soulful. Every line stands precisely where it should be standing and rests where it should be resting. Fanous approaches the primal pluck with two rural exhalations for every urban inhalation, blending Western and non- Western persuasions without fraying a stitch.

While highlights may be pointed out—among them the quasi-triptych of “Alnitac,” “Megrez” and “Alioth” at album center—what we have here is something greater than the sum of its parts. These are musicians far less interested in defining anything in particular than in cracking open the very concept of definition like an egg and frying it on the pans of their instruments until its savor curls up to the fortunate listener. Proof that dualism needn’t be a constant negotiation of dominance but rather a cyclical process of translation by which the original utterance and its re-rendering become indistinguishable to the point of nourishing a universal form of communication.

(This review originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Nils Landgren/Jan Lundgren: Kristallen

Kristallen

Trombonist/vocalist Nils Landgren and pianist Jan Lundgren unite for an intimate and, as its title implies, multi-faceted program. The single-vowel difference in their surnames feels appropriate, as their set list is comprised of two distinct yet compatible decks of cards shuffled into each other. One of those decks is instrumental, the other vocal. Of the former persuasion, Lundgren’s “Blekinge” introduces a windswept pastoralism. A canvas brushed and primed for itinerant melodies, it uses the listener’s attention as a palette from which to draw its colors. Amid a smattering of Swedish folksongs, including “Byssan Lull” and “Värmlandsvisan” (both reworked into delicate grooves), they plant the evergreens of “Norwegian Wood” and Keith Jarrett’s “Country.” Standing tallest among these, however, is Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding,” whose foliage glows with tender nostalgia before the snow sets in.

On the sung side of things, we’re treated to a bluesy take on another Beatles classic, “I Will,” wherein the duo gives us plenty of atmosphere to chew on. Standards “Didn’t We” and “The Nearness Of You” rub shoulders of equal height with Lundgren’s own “Why Did You Let Me Go” and “Lovers Parade.” The latter unfold with especial clarity, wintry and sincere. Landgren’s singing is every bit as brassy as his trombone is throated and lyrical: each informs the other.

Whichever lens through which we choose to view this album, we can be sure that these carefully chosen selections, cropped until their borders achieve a balance of definition and open-endedness, reveal a deeply personal sensibility at play. The result is an effect as inevitable as its pairing, a choose-your-own-adventure story in sound that asks of us only to take the first step.

(This review originally appeared, in condensed form, in the March 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Theo Bleckmann/Joseph Branciforte: LP1

LP1

This collaboration between vocalist Theo Bleckmann and electronic musician/producer Joseph Branciforte is their first album as a duo and the inauguration of Branciforte’s new Greyfade label. Bleckmann and Branciforte drew upon their experiences performing together with Ryuichi Sakamoto in 2018 before diving into this unscripted studio encounter. Using Bleckmann’s voice as foundation, Branciforte manipulated and mixed raw vocal elements into something greater than their sum, an entirely new entity that is both and neither, locus and void, present and timeless.

Outside references linger, but give us a portrait only of the music’s surface. One could easily characterize “3.4.26,” for example, as a haunting smoothie of Taylor Deupree, Nico Muhly and Tim Hecker. But to do so risks masking its unfolding into something entirely its own—a journey that would never exist without the input of its primary travelers. “4.19” is even more spatial, treating the voice as an architectural element of the cosmos, however the listener chooses to define it. One senses whispers and lullabies hiding in there somewhere, but only with the intention of half-sleep, lest we be robbed of messages yet to be conveyed.

The diamond rings of this eclipse shine in the opening and closing tracks. “6.15” unravels a breathy hope for melody. When the voice at last unclothes itself, we almost feel slain by its familiarity, as if it were the relic of a world that no longer exists except in shadow. “5.5.9” is molded by a more human touch, flesh and bone articulating cages of possible meaning around open syllables.

At just shy of 35 minutes, LP1 is a lesson in quality over quantity. This is music so intimate that it aches. Bleckmann’s voice never stops evolving and in Branciforte’s artistry it has found a lifelong partner.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Craig Taborn/Vadim Neselovskyi: Da’at

Da'at

The Masada songbook is a gift that keeps on giving. Since Book 1 was introduced to the listening world through a coveted decalogue of CDs released in the 1990s by DIW, John Zorn’s magnum opus has continued to grow. Like the city of Beijing, over the years it has added one ring after another as newer residents flock in search of an indefinable center. In this iteration we find two pianists—Craig Taborn and Vadim Neselovskyi—interpreting tunes in solo and duo configurations.

Taborn’s six unaccompanied tracks tell a range of stories, each more involved than the last. Generally, these fall into two modes, exemplified by the swirling motifs, colorful vistas and deeply personal riffs of “Penimi” and dreamlike patience of “Kayam,” which works into denser and denser weaves, from gossamer to burlap. “Setumah” comes up for air from turgid surroundings with gentle persuasion, proof that this music requires virtuosity of an emotional register as much of a technical one.

Neselovskyi’s triptych of solo offerings explores different chambers of the same heart. His expressive palette, while monochromatic by comparison, is no less dynamic for its range of textures, moods and effects. The fibrillations of “Orot” are especially blood-rich. In duet with Taborn, he unleashes darkness and light in equal measure, guided by a mutual trust to follow wherever the music leads. Theirs is an act not only of communication, but also of deconstruction, whereby the very nature of language cowers at the feet of gestural vocabularies.

The final three tracks feature Neselovskyi’s trio with bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Ronen Itzik. Across reexaminations of “Bohu,” “Kayam” and “Penimi,” they leap from the page with sentient assurance. The rhythm section, in combination with Neselovskyi’s colorful sensibility at the keyboard, makes for one of the most robust flares to come out of the Masada sun in quite some time. Turning these tunes like a facet, we find that each catches the sun just so, a signal for some future interpreter to spin as they feel moved.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Of Rain and Kinship: The Guitar Work of Charlie Rauh and Cameron Mizell

Since its inception, Austin-based Destiny Records has documented a range of artists in their natural habitats, but perhaps none so intimately as Charlie Rauh. On Hiraeth, his second solo album for the label, the guitarist peels back emotional transparency after transparency until only the glowing ember of his heart remains.

Hiraeth

The title is a Welsh word connoting one’s longing for a place to which one cannot return and which may never have existed in the first place. Fortunately for us, the music here is real and delineates a place to which we may return at any time.

Recorded in a wooden cottage during a residency for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida, these tunes take inspiration from two years of European travels. The title track is an invitation to share in the acoustic signatures that bind performer to listener. Rauh’s gentleness and near-spiritual dedication is palpable. Some tracks, such as “Patience” and “May Came In Accompanied by Rain,” feel like songs without words, dangled over a vast expanse of possibility, while others share a one-to-one correlation with the places and figures they describe. In the latter vein, “Fanø,” named for a Danish island, evokes listing waters and a foggy horizon while “Norma & Wallace” lets in the sounds of rain outside the recording space. The album’s deepest passages are found in “Eleven Seventeen.” Composed as much of bones as of the flesh around them, it bleeds with the inevitability of watercolors. “Observer” likewise blurs boundaries between notes until only a compound color remains.

Tempting as it is to characterize these as sonic postcards, they are better thought of as pages in a cinematic diary. The images move at their own speed and in service of memories whose only reason for existing is to be conveyed, soul to soul. In this respect they invite listeners to move along in real time, as if in a dance of regard and interpretation. The result of all this is more of a beginning than an end—an implication of something beyond the edges of the screen to which our ears have been directed in service of an interpersonal story.

What We Have In Common.jpg

If Rauh’s solo work is the darker side of a creative moon, then we find its sunlit counterpart in What We Have In Common. This companion album of sorts pairs Rauh’s acoustic guitar with the electric of Cameron Mizell. The atmosphere is indeed brighter and in the opening “A Thousand Faces” renders the kind of nostalgia one would only expect to find in a shoebox of aging photographs. Whereas “Dogwood,” “A Song About A Tree” and “You Are Missing From Me” shine with distinctive Americana, each a hypnotic regression through childhood, the rocking-horse arpeggios and unified harmonies of “Kuksa” reveal fresher sheen. Rauh’s “Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself” and Mizell’s “I Didn’t Find It To Be That, Exactly” are highlights for their nocturnal moods, as are two songs with vocalist Ess See, who adds her own lyrics to “All Along The Way” and “A Thousand Faces.” Both are tender examinations of faith in something greater than blood: the very kinship of lived experience.

For more information on ordering, and to hear samples, check out the Destiny Records Bandcamp page here.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Evans/Fernández/Guy: Free Radicals at Dom

Free Radicals At DOM

Recorded live at Moscow’s DOM Cultural Center in November 2017, Free Radicals documents the assembly of three master improvisers: American trumpeter Peter Evans, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández and British bassist Barry Guy. While all have unleashed their unquenchable fires in other contexts, this is their first album as a trio and the results are both exactly what anyone familiar with them would expect and yet enchantingly surprising.

Over the course of two tripartite sets, we fall into a conversational category of sound, whereby opinion and assertion blend to the point of indistinguishability and the purpose at the core of it all sheds its skin in search of jagged horizons. The piano’s innards are subjected to an especially fascinating surgery as Guy illuminates the operating table with his bass and Evans melts his trumpet down into a scalpel.

Where the first set isn’t afraid to throw some vinegar into the baking soda, neither does it shy from ponderance, treating quietude as a breeding ground of undiscovered order. The second set is even more substantive, achieving astonishing congruence at almost every turn. Moments in which bonds seem to crumble are those in which unity would come across as hypocritical and which by its very ejection leaves room for listener engagement. Part Two of the latter set is a suspension of disbelief that runs back and forth along the top of the proverbial fourth wall until it erodes to the ground. The encore is more of a beginning than an ending and by its suggestions of eternity rips off the “im” from “impossibility” and skips it across the pond of expectation until the final plop is heard on a shore too distant to see yet close enough to hear.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)