Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Incidentals (ECM 2579)

Incidentals

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Incidentals

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet
Ryan Ferreira electric guitar
Matt Mitchell piano, electronics
Ches Smith drums, vibes, percussion, timpani
David Torn guitar (tracks 1 & 5)
Recorded December 2014 at “The Clubhouse” in Rhinebeck, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant: Bella Blasko
Mastering at MSM Studios, München by Christoph Stickel
Produced by David Torn
U.S. release date: September 8, 2017

French philosopher Roland Barthes once faulted music criticism for relying on adjectives. The music of Snakeoil is such that adjectives do leave much to be desired. In that spirit, purged at the outset are choice adjectives that could be used to describe it: slipstream, epic, implosive, chameleonic.

For this ECM leader date, number four for Berne, the alto saxophonist reteams with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, guitarist Ryan Ferreira and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. In the fray is producer David Torn, contributing his guitar to two tracks. “Hora Feliz” showcases the craftsmanship of everyone involved, through which electronics nestle against acoustics as mountains meet sky. Torn sets the scene before the theme jumps into frame. Such awakening, a Berne staple, keeps listeners in check. As the interconnectedness and independence alike of these musicians develop, one comes to see shadow and light in Snakeoil not as opposites but as twins.

Smith is a wonder. He lends no credence to grooves, taking his time, as in “Incidentals Contact,” to mark a beat, thereby furnishing Noriega with a fulcrum. He extemporizes at the margins while Noriega flaps his wings with abandon. “Stingray Shuffle” is another metropolis of sound, which, like “Prelude One/Sequel Too” (the album’s closer), keeps Ferreira’s fire in play around a reverie of higher notes before Berne commands his way to the finish line. But it’s “Sideshow” that gives us the goods and then some. Being the conclusion to a piece that began with “Small World In A Small Town” on this album’s predecessor, You’ve Been Watching Me, it has a past from which to draw. Mitchell does most of the lifting throughout its 26 minutes, responding as much as anticipating. Poetry shares breath with prose at every turn. Whether in Noriega’s sensitivity or Berne’s physicality, Smith’s blast of timpani or Ferreira’s finesse, the band demonstrates the ability of jazz to open doors you never knew existed. The truth of mastery lives on.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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Live from Denmark: The Copenhagen and Aarhus Jazz Festivals (2017)

If jazz is about freedom of expression, then it is also about expression of freedom. Both philosophies were alive and well in Denmark’s coastal cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, as if to quell the tide of social unrest that is our zeitgeist.

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival (July 7-16) boasted an overwhelming 1,400 concerts over 10 days. For the three I was there, Denmark’s capital was bursting at the seams with music. Whether catching tenor saxophonist Jens Erik Sørensen swinging with his quartet in the central square of Café Sari, drowning in the torrent unleashed by French guitarist Nina Garcia and Danish trombonist Maria Bertel outside the city’s Jazzhouse or reveling in the Dixieland delights of reedplayer Henning Munk and Plumperne on the postcard-perfect Nyhavn canal, there was something fresh to be sourced in nearly every quarter.

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(Garcia and Bertel)

Anticipation was largely met by the festival’s bigger draws. On the beautiful stage of the Royal Danish Playhouse, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias presented her tribute to the samba with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata. The trio bobbed and weaved through meaty arrangements of Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Donato, Roberto Menescal (an epic take on his “Você” being a highlight of the set), João Bosco (his “Coisa Feita” being another), along with a smattering of the tried and true, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of three encores.

Erykah Badu plied her soulful trade to a boisterous audience at Tivoli Gardens, where she preached some of the jazziest creeds of the festival. Decked in ebony from head to toe and with a drum machine ever-present at her left hand, she and her airtight band dipped healthily into the songbook of her New Amerykah duology. She allowed plenty of room for improvisation and her bandmates even took part in one of the legendary after-hours jam sessions at Copenhagen’s La Fontaine later that night.

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(An eager crowd swoons to Erykah Badu)

Higher expectations, however, made for lower returns in the case of guitarist Jakob Bro, who offered an even-keeled set with a sizable band that included drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Mark Turner. But while the music showed artful restraint and Cyrille proved his mastery in a memorable solo, Bro never really acknowledged the audience. Furthermore, Turner’s presence felt wasted, as his brilliance was subdued in favor of breathy long tones in a role that was rarely more than supportive.

It was on the wings of Copenhagen’s local talents that the most surprising flights took place. Whether in the blues-tinged art rock of guitarist Mikkel Ploug and his tight rhythm section or the appropriately named I Think You’re Awesome, led by bassist Jens Mikkel and standout guitarist Alex Jønsson, pleasant surprises abounded.

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(Mikkel Ploug)

Vocalist Mads Mathias was another noteworthy act. Though often compared to Harry Connick Jr., Mathias showed refreshing lucidity and a sense of humor all his own.

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(Mads Mathias and his band)

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Denmark’s diplomatic relations with Japan and the festival did its commemorative part by inviting a range of Japanese artists, including MoGoToYoYo. This brilliant project of drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, by its deft balance of play and patience, was on par with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an obvious influence.

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(Yasuhiro Yoshigaki)

The Aarhus Jazz Festival (July 15-22) was an altogether different experience. Bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb, backed by pianist Magnus Hjorth and drummer Snorre Kirk, set the tone for the Aarhus journey, making the city’s sunlit Concert Hall foyer that much sunnier. In addition to playing tunes off her 2016 tribute to Johnny Mercer, Beyond the Moon, Korb gave insight into her globetrotting personal life, belting out life-affirming energy with tact and hospitality. Two days later, singer/songwriter Madeline Peyroux headlined in the Concert Hall proper with guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori, slinging a politically savvy program by way of her sly yet heartfelt delivery.

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(Kristen Korb)

The choicest action went down under the auspices of 12 Points, a roving festival-within-a-festival. Featuring twelve acts from as many countries, it was a veritable cross-section of the future of European jazz. Danish pianist Lars Fiil kicked off 12 Points with his aptly named group, Frit Fald (Free Fall); much of the music was through-composed, but gave leeway to free interpretation. Other composition-leaning groups were Norway’s Significant Time (a hodge-podge ensemble featuring wordless vocals); cinematically inclined Marie Kruttli Trio from Switzerland; Louis Sclavis-inspired Post K of France; and SCHNTZL, a keyboard- and-drums duo from Belgium.

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(Kirke Karja)

The atmospheric Kirke Karja Quartet from Estonia was especially on point. Featuring the Terje Rypdal-esque stylings of guitarist Kalle Pilli, the quartet played mature arrangements of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Waage (Libra)” and Bill Frisell’s “Hangdog,” as well as original tunes. Other groups were more improvisation-heavy. The Francesco Orio Trio from Italy, for example, built Giovanni Guidi-like bodies around fragmentary organs of melody. The best balance between these two soft extremes was struck by chuffDRONE of Austria. Backed by the intuitive drumming of Judith Schwarz and brought into unexpected directions by soprano saxophonist Lisa Hofmaninger, chuffDRONE achieved a welcome balance of cloud and sky. Another highlight was Tommy Moustache. This savvy quartet of unabashed Dutch gentlemen brought verve and high-octane precision to their humorous yet rigorous blues.

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(Francesco Orio)

The remaining bands were rooted in noisier soil. These included Ireland’s Big Spoon and Lithuanian outfit Sheep Got Waxed. The latter trio of alto, guitar and drums (along with an array of electronics) was another zenith and brought about an energy rarely produced since the heyday of John Zorn’s Naked City.

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(Simonas Špiavičius of Sheep Got Waxed)

The festival closed with a set from UK act Taupe, another fierce trio of similar makeup balancing blast and groove with clear punctuation.

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(Two thirds of Taupe)

Despite being separated by a three-hour train ride and thematic divergences, Copenhagen and Aarhus were cut from the same dynamic cloth. Depth of appreciation was palpable across the board, further emphasized by a variety of child-focused programming at both festivals. Such outreach to a growing generation of jazz lovers and creators served as assurance that jazz is healthier than ever and that we are fortunate to lend an ear at its cusp.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Bruce Williams review for The NYC Jazz Record

Private Thoughts

Bruce Williams isn’t afraid to loosen his seams and let rawness seep through, and nowhere is this so true as on the alto saxophonist’s fourth album. In the opening punctuations of “Mata Leon,” the organic nature of his compositional grammar is revealed, as are his interlocking relationships with a roving cast of bandmates, shuffled throughout to fit the needs of individual tunes. While the initial vibe is fragmentary and searching, the title track that follows has a brighter, classical energy actualizing the album’s core concept: squeezing hardship until essential oils of affirmation drip into the bell of his horn. Likewise in “Premonitions,” which, despite its airiness, speaks incisively through the leading voices. Williams on soprano and trumpeter Josh Evans spin webs of future possibility, only to sever them with ferocious retrospection.

Williams is unafraid to ask probing questions metaphorically, but also titularly in “Forever Asking Why?” Such is his quest for resignation by means of a tone so razor-edged that even in the most brooding passages, it cuts to the quick. “The Price We Pay for Peace” and “Last Visit in the Mirror” are further examples of this characteristic. The latter opens with a cultivated intro from pianist Brandon McCune, cushioning a soulful awakening from Williams. Here is the heart of this album—numerically, emotionally, spiritually.

The jauntier “Old Forester” levels darker weights on the fulcrum of trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. “The Void” unfolds in kind and finds Williams belting out his inner world as if it were an improvisational assembly line. Guitarist Brad Williams and core rhythm section of bassist Chris Berger and drummer Vincent Ector are vivid comforts, as are the meatier “I Still Carry On” and “View through a Sheet,” which balance straight-from-the-gut extemporizing and mystery before the smooth landing of “Past Tense.”

Though haunted by memories of a father who took his own life nearly 30 years ago, this is music of survival when all the heart wants to do is curl up in obscurity.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Petros Klampinis review for The NYC Jazz Record

Chroma

The title Chroma evokes the colors of human experience. Recorded live in December 2015 at New York’s Onassis Cultural Center, bassist Petros Klampanis’ Motéma debut allows said colors to intermingle in utterly lyrical ways.

Klampanis takes much of the composing credit, starting off on the rightest of feet with the album’s title track. Its trim opening, replete with tuned percussion, eerily recalls the postmodern minimalism of Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile before the guitar of Gilad Hekselman and bow-work of a top-flight string section make it clear that we are in far more extroverted territory. Klampanis possesses a relativity all his own when it comes to crafting melodic cages in which to improvise. His multifaceted rhythm sectioning with drummer John Hadfield, artfully gilded by percussionist Keita Ogawa, gives just the right amount of uplift to maintain an uninterrupted aerial view toward the final vista, “Shades of Magenta.” The latter’s Brazilian pulse and Nana Vasconcelos-esque vocals (courtesy of Klampanis himself) offset a smooth highway with soulful detours.

“Tough Decisions” eases the listener into a patient unfolding. The bassist’s soloing spotlights his refined approach, in which every note feels like a necessary leaf in forested surroundings. For its surprising reveries and groovy resolution, “Little Blue Sun,” with its oceanic vibe, comes across as the most dynamic piece.

Hekselman contributes “Cosmic Patience,” introducing it by way of starlit guitar and expanding the possibilities of his interactions with the bass like heat lightning personified: distant yet glowing with colorful immediacy. Pianist and frequent Klampanis collaborator Spyros Manesis is behind “Shadows,” another prime surface for Hekselman’s warm touch.

If you’ve ever woken up from a dream with beautiful music in your head, only to forget it as the day goes on, Chroma will make you feel like you have recaptured some of that spirit.

(This review originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Smith/Taborn/Maneri: The Bell (ECM 2474)

The Bell

The Bell

Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, timpani
Craig Taborn piano
Mat Maneri viola
Recorded June 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016

After sideman appearances with Robin Williamson and Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, percussionist Ches Smith presents a bounty of original compositions on his first ECM album as leader. In the hands of his cosmically capable bandmates and label stalwarts—pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri—Smith’s material behaves as exactly that: a substance to be formed and reformed with cymatic detail.

The title track opens the album, appropriately enough, with chimes. Microtonal harmonies from Taborn and barest caress of viola strings build anticipation over resonant vibraphone touches. From the piano arises a sweeping cinematic landscape as the mist resolves into clearer bow lines and forceful drumming. This piece shares breath with other such delicacies as “Isn’t It Over?” and “I Think.” In both, Smith treats grooves like rocks in his shoe—which is to say, as ephemeral yet memorable. And in these metallic core samples, striations of exactitude are unnecessary. As if in response to an underlying declaration of freedom, Maneri works his songcraft like a master boatman who has lost his oar but not his sense of propulsion, moving along the water with ease by power of thought instead. The effect is such that by the time Smith brings traction, the shoreline has already been confirmed as an illusion. Whether in the microscopy of “It’s Always Winter (Somewhere)” or the angular reverie of “For Days,” each member of this trio paints a halo of deference around the others’ heads, so that even the mischievous “Wacken Open Air” emits a near-palpable blast of respect.

The Bell Trio
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)

“Barely Intervallic” is the first of the album’s two deepest wells. This one is Maneri’s knot to unravel. The combinatory textures of Smith and Taborn allow every note from the violist a chance to speak. The monochromatic color scheme of “I’ll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth,” on the other hand, is Taborn’s chamber of intimacy. Maneri and Smith are minimal here, the latter’s tracery is especially poignant as a lunatic origami ensues at the fringes of cohesion. In this medieval blues, distilled from the future to meet in the blessing of the here and now, Smith and his bandmates forge new understandings that suggest themselves by their very coexistence.

As in my review of Avishai Cohen’s Into The Silence, I feel compelled to note the beauty of seeing this trio at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, and how much more attuned I felt experiencing its wonders in a live setting. Perhaps it’s the blush of first exposure, but I would encourage anyone reading this to seek out the trio in person wherever and whenever possible. Not that the studio album is unworthy—just that, like a perfume, there’s only so much you can learn about its scent through the hearsay of this or any other review before getting a bottle of it to your nose.

Hamasyan, et al.: Atmosphères (ECM 2414/15)

Atmosphères

Atmosphères

Tigran Hamasyan piano
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Eivind Aarset guitar
Jan Bang live sampling, samples
Recorded June 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: September 9, 2016

As is common to ECM’s finest recordings of this century, Atmosphères represents the spirit of producer Manfred Eicher through its seemingly inevitable unfolding. Eicher is a listener above all, and his ability to coax that same level of regard from and between musicians in the studio, when it works this well, is marvelous. The label’s penchant for unprecedented collaborations, surprising yet organic by gentle force of suggestion, plays out here in the quartet of Tigran Hamasyan (piano), Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Eivind Aarset (guitar), and Jan Bang (live sampling, samples).

Those familiar with Hamasyan’s work won’t be surprised to find the Armenian pianist planting seeds of his homeland’s most celebrated composer, Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), into this album’s otherwise spontaneous field. The beloved melodies of “Garun a” and “Tsirani tsar” especially highlight the synergistic core of Henriksen (whose tone often leans toward reed-like registers) and Hamasyan, although it was the latter’s collaborations with Bang at Norway’s Punkt Festival in 2013 that prompted Eicher toward this project’s realization. Concerning Bang’s sampling, whether banked or real-time, in combination with Aarset’s airbrushing it adds depth and vision to the overall soundscape at hand.

Komitas aside, ten freely improvised “Traces” make up the bulk of this two-disc album, and are where the possibilities of this quartet achieve fullest life. The ambience of “Traces I” opens the album on the softest of feet, swelling ever so gradually into audible life. Whether in the intonations of “Traces IV” or the misty layers of “Traces X,” each musician speaks to the other in whispers, true to the album’s titular spirit. Not all is mist and drift, however, as tracks like “Traces II,” “Traces VI,” and “Traces VII” speak of underlying tensions and earthly forces at work in powerful harmony. This restlessness is always at the mercy of some distant prayer, one cradled as a candle from night to dawn, while its flame dances frantically in the wind of unanswerable questions.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Sabîl review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of the third studio album by oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisc, known together as duo Sabîl. Fans of Anouar Brahem are sure to find much to admire. Click the cover to read my full review and listen to samples.

Zabad