Scott Worthington / Renato D’Agostin: Orbit

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Orbit titles the intersection of bassist/composer Scott Worthington and Italian photographer Renato D’Agostin. Worthington’s minimal approach to sound, like D’Agostin’s to image, reveals the hidden complexities of interaction between bodies and the contexts of their transit. With an atmosphere that recalls the self-refractions of Stephan Micus, “A Time That Is Also A Place” fleshes out the flute of Rachel Beetz like vanes to a feather’s shaft, funneling into a quill hungry for a universal inkwell. Long tones beget longer drones to form a space in which the body retreats into itself. As multi-phonic light cradles shadows with aged hands, drawing static from its slumber into the foreground, the monochromatic heart of reality beats in the slowest of motions, as if to mark the passage of time beyond grasp of all measure. The effect is such that when the ambient “Interlude” opens its eyes against the sunlight of a thousand sun, we understand intimately the imperfection of the soul against a cosmos dripping with unity.

If we began with a circle, then “A Flame That Could Go Out” is another linking to it, resonating in a moan for all matter. In this bass-heavy flame, one encounters not a single flicker, but a steady flow of suicidal oxygen quietly accepting its fate. Each respiration is a word without speech, a simulacrum of mortality restored like an ancient instrument cleared of its corrosion. This leaves only the tracery of experience to communicate who we once were in the music of who we can never be again.

scott worthington - orbit - iikki 005_book_orbit 01 (outside front)

That all of this feels so downright terrestrial is due in part to the captivation of D’Agostin’s images, which grace the album’s accompanying book with nomadic coherence. Their high contrast reveals a mutual contradiction of flesh and spirit, even as it fortifies the connective tissue of art between them. In this sense, the dialogue here is not between individuals but within them, steering the self into waters of deeper self until only horizon remains.

(For ordering information, check out the IIKKI imprint here.)

Uros Spasojevic / Bojan Marjanovic: V

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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “flow” as a oneness of performer and process, and on electric bassist Uros Spasojevic and pianist Bojan Marjanovic achieve precisely that. That said, the Serbian duo doesn’t so much combine forces as close the gap between them, like two hands from different religious traditions coming together in a single prayer.

Spasojevic is unique for drawing out the bass’ corporeal qualities. In his solo “North,” he opens the curtain in a gesture so holistic that it seems to inhale and exhale simultaneously. With a tone that’s rounded yet which pierces the heart, he drops higher notes into a blurry pond, every ripple like a newborn song in search of words. The piano’s entrance in “Senok” reveals, with quiet assurance, an underlying Ketil Bjørnstad influence. Yet while the Norwegian pianist-composer’s cinematic lyricism is paralleled, it’s filtered through a color scheme all its own. Such an association suggests an ECM connection, and by no coincidence, as Spasojevic—who writes all the music here—cites the label as a staple of his listening diet. Such respect is further enhanced by the fact that the album was mixed and mastered under the attentive hand of Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo’s famed Rainbow Studio, and by the familiar thematic fragment of “Water,” which seems to have been lifted sanctimoniously from Kenny Wheeler’s “Nicolette.”

The sonic footprint of Vis as non-invasive as it is expansive. In “Guide” and “Change,” it reaches deepest layers of emotional transference, rendering hidden dreams with the pigment of open realities. “Hope” is a prelude to the title track, of which a pianistic lattice offers its plot to Spasojevic’s melodic fruit. As Marjanovic heightens his freedom of expression in spiraling architectures, he uncovers more than the album’s mission statement, but a land without borders. “End of the hill” thus surveys the album’s most abstract territories, making use of electronic augmentations and spontaneous impulses, while “Sea” closes the circle with another lone journey, of which every step brings us farther from a destination, letting us float instead across a misty sea, thankful for the beauty of unknowing.

Kyoko Kitamura’s Tidepool Fauna: Protean Labyrinth

Protean Labyrinth

Protean Labyrinth is a tunnel burrowing into the linguistic soil from which we all sprout. It’s a sensation best expressed in a handful of tracks bearing the title “Push.” Of these, “Push Four” is the most emblematic, a spontaneous ramble, which, like the album as a whole, achieves coherence by virtue of its passage through time—pushing indeed against the temptation of meaning in favor of instinctive understanding. At the center of this aphasia is vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, who doesn’t so much lead the band as strike it like flint on rock. Tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Dayeon Seok are chemically bound to her at every moment, tasting the air of possibility like a three-pronged tongue.

Despite the guiding scores from which the music is drawn, the quartet undermines any purchase of exposition. What starts as a bright groove one moment might morph into throaty sinews of darkness the next. That such changes occur without force or hierarchical touch is testament to these musicians’ willingness to smash their compass the moment it’s calibrated. The finest turns are “Deadbolt” and “No Exit,” both masterful containments of wildness. Each is a glass house filled with vocal stones—not thrown but handled so much that they’ve become rounded with care.

Kitamura’s voice, brimming with fierce humility, is central to these goings on. In “Lure,” each of her utterances is an Ouroboros of potential meaning sacrificed on the altar of its own becoming and in “Slide” she breaks out the vocal champagne, bubbling and frothing her way through a subterranean mythos. This is the underside of language, a sonic entity that grows and moves of its own accord.

(This review, in its original form, appeared in the December 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Winged Serpents: Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor

Winged Serpents

If the music of Cecil Taylor was a continent, this album is a chain of islands. Divided in magnitude yet sharing the same creative waters, each of its pianists offers one of six eulogies in praise of an artist who knew no bounds and whose powerful life is held in the balance of interpretation.

Craig Taborn’s “Genuflect” plays out a dialogue between the ethereal and the earthly. His feel for texture is savory enough to be edible and recalls the soul-filling starches that were staples of the Taylor diet. This catharsis sits comfortably next to Sylvie Courvoisier, who brings her knowledge of the piano’s interior to bear on “Quauhnahuac” as a linguist would phonemes: that is, creating meaning out of elements that in and of themselves have none. Her anatomical precision elicits solace and strength in equal measure. The humbly titled “Minor Magus” finds Brian Marsella scraping away the dirt of grief in handfuls. It’s an unrelenting piece that speaks of a biography struggling to catch up with its departed subject.

“Grass and Trees on the Other Side of the Tracks” is Kris Davis’ song of spontaneity. By turns prayerful and spasmodic, it struggles to breathe of its own accord, like a pair of lungs fighting the influence of a respirator. Aruán Ortiz’s “Unveiling Urban Pointillism” may just be the body housing said lungs, pulling away from a dream so adhesive that one begins to question the value of waking at all. Anthony Coleman swings from the rafters of a written score (the album’s only). Its title, “April 5th, 2018,” dates Taylor’s death, veering into improvised corners of renovation. The most somber of the set, it is also the most traditional, sprinkling fragments of ragtime, swing, and pop into its brewing vessel. A fitting end to one whose posthumous legacy is just beginning.

(This review, in its original form, appeared in the December 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Uusitalo/Sloniker/Louhivuori: Northbound (feat. Seamus Blake)

Northbound-cover

Despite what its title would have you believe, Northbound hits every cardinal direction. At its core are Tuomo Uusitalo (piano), Myles Sloniker (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), who together form an indivisible unit of expression. Unlike some other simpatico ensembles, their rapport isn’t so much one of interlocking as hybridization, as evidenced by the free improvisations peppering the set. In these, the voice of each musician breathes through the same body. From the microscopic cartography of “Focus” to groove-seeking insights of “Awakening,” the music gels organically and with clarity of purpose.

Similar intuitions fortify the meat surrounding these bones, into which guest Seamus Blake blends the protein of his tenor saxophone throughout six originals. Each lends insight into its originator’s talents. Sloniker’s “Counterparts” and “Gomez Palacio,” like the bassist’s playing, balance arcs and angles, unraveling two knots for every one tied. Louhivuori offers a diptych of his own with “Forgotten” and “Song For Mr. Moorhead,” building in each a patient reach for consummation. The drummer bridges these with the free solo “Rumble,” evoking a distant storm, before Uusitalo rounds everything out with the album’s strongest compositions. “Pablo’s Insomnia” is a highlight for its composer’s right-handed solo and command of space while “The Aisle” builds to anthemic parting.

Regardless of the complexities of the mazes put before him, Blake navigates with his eyes closed and heart on autopilot. He emotes with boldness yet manages to be sensitive to his environment. Neither overpowering nor overpowered, he knows exactly when to unhinge himself with a screech of color and when to sing in monotone, thus embodying the rarest aspect of Northbound: namely, its gracious handling of every melody. There’s something sacred to be found here and respecting it demands full attention.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available to download here.)

Noa Fort Reviews for All About Jazz

I recently attended a performance in celebration of No World Between Us, the debut album by pianist and vocalist Noa Fort, sister of ECM recording artist Anat Fort. Noa’s songwriting is insightful and touching, and in a live setting reached new heights of expression. Click the cover to read my thoughts on the album, and the live photo below that to read my review of the CD release concert.

No World Between Us

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Maya Youssef review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Damascus-born qānūn virtuoso Maya Youssef’s Syrian Dreams, a heartfelt album of mostly original material evoking the tragic spirit of her war-torn homeland. Click the cover below to read more and listen to sample tracks off the album.

Syrian Dreams

Alon Sariel: Telemandolin

Telemandolin

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is the subject of this superbly realized album by mandolinist Alon Sariel, who has arranged the music on Telemandolin for an instrument that, while popular in the German composer’s day, was never one he wrote for. Much has been said, at times critically, of Telemann’s influence and prolific output, but in Sariel’s hands such debate is shed like a skin of unimportance by an undeniable vitality. The resulting program is many things: a self-styled greatest hits collection, a master class in historical charm, and, above all, a story to be told.

Sariel himself describes Telemann’s music as “a sea of colorful flowers,” and in this recording this sensibility comes across as fragrantly as the analogy would have it. This is reflected not only in Sariel’s role as soloist and the accompaniment of his brilliant ensemble, Concerto Foscari; it shows also in the ways in which the music interlocks like a sentient puzzle that solves itself.

Nowhere is this more crystalline than in the Mandolin Concerto (TWV 51:fis1) and the Sonata de Concert (TWV 44:1), wherein Sariel shows just how beautifully his forte is suited to Telemann’s sound-world. The mandolin’s short decay gives every note a crispness of articulation that more resonant cousins such as the lute are at pains to achieve. And while it may be stereotyped as a fast instrument, it reveals its delicacy in every Allegro while slower time signatures reveal its most robust evocations, especially in the latter composition’s heartrending Largo.

Another fine example of this tension may be found in Telemann’s forward-thinking suite, “La Bizarre” (TWV 55:G2), of which we are treated to the Overture (a decidedly French convention that some claimed Telemann did better) and closing Rossignol. Therein, playful allusions to inspiration epitomize both the technical and emotional sensitivity of Sariel as interpreter.

Alongside these grand extroversions, the intimate Fantasias turn our ears inward. Whether playing archlute on the Fantasia I (TWV 40:26) or returning to his mainstay in the Fantasia X (TWV 40:23), Sariel understands the push and pull that characterizes baroque music at its finest, as proven in his rendition of the Partita No. 2 (TWV 41:G2). With only continuo to accompany him, he evokes equal parts stone and glass with nary an errant scratch.

A few pieces by Telemann’s contemporaries round out the program. The “Hamburger Sonata” (Wq 133) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) casts a dreamlike spell that culminates in an awakening Rondo. A solo viol piece (WK 209) by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), played here on baroque guitar, unfolds with geometric precision. And the Lute Concerto (FaWV L:d1) of Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), via archlute, finishes with the flourish of a quill.

After listening to Telemandolin for the first time, my immediate reaction was to listen to it again. Such compulsion is rare for me at a time when I have more music than ever on my desk waiting to be reviewed, and speaks to the visceral impulses awaiting herein. What we’re left with, then, is more a beginning than an end, for its cyclical tendencies are part and parcel of Telemann’s genius. The sheer volume of his extant oeuvre, then, is to be seen not as an exercise in quantity over quality, but rather experienced as proof that music flows like breath out of only those blessed enough to channel it.

Bobby Previte: Rhapsody

Rhapsody

For the second installment of his Terminals trilogy, an ongoing ode to transit and migration, drummer Bobby Previte has convened a dream group. Although featuring musicians often found in electr(on)ic settings, Rhapsody unfolds a grand mise-en-scène by purely acoustic means. “Casting Off” and “I Arrive,” respectively, begin and end the album by threading the vocal delivery of Jen Shyu (whose erhu playing is another distinct color in this palette) through the netting of John Medeski’s piano and Fabian Rucker’s alto saxophone. As the center of the action, Shyu imbues Previte’s lyrics (a first for him) with theatrical punch, singing the role of an airplane traveler cycling through various stages of self-awareness until she reaches her unknown destination under cover of night.

That state of liminality—of hanging suspended between locations with only a thin layer of metal and composite between you and certain death—is beautifully rendered in Previte’s downright cinematic movements, each of which variously highlights the strengths of one or more of his bandmates. Medeski shines in “When I Land,” his precise syncopations seeming to chart every leg of the journey, and, in tandem with harpist Zeena Parkins, he renders the backdrop of tracks like “The Lost” and “The Timekeeper” while Ruckman carefully links his own chains of melody and abstraction. Hearing Parkins unplugged is an especial privilege; in this context, her crystalline beauty feels nearly all-consuming. Guitarist Nels Cline treads a parallel path and to highest effect in “All Hands,” in which his slide guitar sounds almost like a pipa. Previte himself completes the picture, playing an assortment of drums and percussion and, in “Last Stand/Final Approach,” autoharp and harmonica to boot. He treats himself no differently than his other musicians, letting his singular compositional voice ring over all, handing us a light to navigate the darkness in which he leaves us.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)