Dominik Wania: Lonely Shadows (ECM 2686)

Dominik Wania
Lonely Shadows

Dominik Wania piano
Recorded November 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 18, 2020

After contributing so beautifully to two albums—Unloved and Three Crowns—as part of the Maciej Obara Quartet, pianist Dominik Wania offers this studio recording of solo improvisations. While Wania notes a range of influences drawing from his classical background, including Satie, Weber, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Messiaen, he seems to have taken cues from these composers as emotional rather than technical suggestions. In doing so, he unravels a trajectory that feels fresh yet familiar in the sense of reuniting with a friend one hasn’t seen in decades. Thus, the light step with which the title track opens seeks the future as if it were the past. As the atmosphere builds and more notes enter the scene, a narrative structure suggests itself. And yet, the characters seem not to know each other. They walk by without acknowledgement, meshing in their indifference.

“New Life Experience” is the first among a handful of expository wonders. If this and the sharper attack of “Relativity” feel more jarring, it’s only because they speak of a musician unafraid to examine himself. Each agitation unpacks itself with philosophical rigor. And if “Think Twice” and “AG76” are heard as darker autobiographies, then “Subjective Objectivity” and “Indifferent Attitude” reveal a playful side. The latter is especially virtuosic but uses its acumen to tell more than show.

To my ears, Wania understands that music is nothing if not a reifying force. Despite the ephemeral implications of “Melting Spirit” and “Liquid Fluid” in titles alone, their lyrical charge makes them fully present as entities in their own right. They guide us “Towards The Light” by reminding us of the fleshly struggles of which life itself is composed as we now search for something divine in a world bogged down by cloud of a pandemic. Opening our eyes to a brighter tomorrow, “All What Remains” suspends itself in prayer, the requiting of which will never materialize until we close our mouths and open our ears.

This music is a sentient river acknowledging the obstructions that define its winding trajectory. It would be nothing without impediment, each rock and fallen tree a challenge to redefine itself at every turn. This is precisely what Lonely Shadows can be at its freest moments—a continuity through the traumas we carry inside before the ocean of mortality swallows them whole.

Zeena Parkins: Interlacing

(Photo credit: Claire Paul)

It’s tempting to draw a connection between ancient meanings and modern practice. In the case of LACE, an ongoing project from harpist Zeena Parkins, such connections become more tangible than any etymology ever could be. The word “lace” is derived from the Latin laqueum, meaning “a noose, a snare,” but any negative connotations of such parlance turn to a cloud of dust that Parkins draws, particle by particle, into light. LACE began with an invitation in 2008 from the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio as part of its “Music Mondays” series. “There was an impending deadline,” she recalls, “and most of my compositions at the time would have taken months to learn. I had collected fabrics over the years and I just grabbed some graphic-looking pieces of lace and made conditions for improvisers to read each piece as a score. It worked.”

Since then, she has created an action card-based game piece, recently recorded by percussionist William Winant, a project for her band Green Dome—with Ryan Sawyer (percussion) and Ryan Ross Smith (piano and electronics)—based on transforming the lace knitting patterns from the Shetland Islands into scores and a fourth movement, entitled “Stitchomythia,” performed on an anamorphic carpet designed by Nadia Lauro. If anything, Parkins does not tie snares but unravels them in hopes they might reach the soil of the ear and grow without forsaking their precise comfort.

Such impulses have been a running thread of her ethos since 1993’s Nightmare Alley. Across the terrain of that formative album, a near-catharsis unfolds, as if the very zeitgeist from which it arose were crying in search of change. Parkins cites it as an important turning point in her career. “I felt a need to do a solo record, lay my gauntlet down and take a place. It’s not like I had a manifesto, but I was really at the beginning of a process of determination to do something that I hadn’t heard exactly the way I was doing it. My mission was to do something with the harp that was unfamiliar to me.” To be sure, it was just as unfamiliar to the audience who came to hear her play at New Langton Arts, curated by visual artist Nayland Blake in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. “I hadn’t done that many solo shows and they didn’t have an acoustic harp available, so I played with my electric harp. The gallery had rake seating fanning out from the center—and it was packed. I was in a state of shock. Inspired and excited, I just improvised. That’s when Table of the Elements approached me and asked if I would be the first artist on the label. It was a special way to start.”

Besides introducing listeners to a voice that needed hearing, Nightmare Alley revealed the harp’s multifaceted potential. Though the credits list “electric and acoustic harps” as its material resources, the album was a revelation of immaterial forces that betrayed next to nothing of their origins: “I’m very connected to the harp,” notes Parkins, “but not in a way meant to convey technical virtuosity.” Trained in the rigors of classical piano yet aware that it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow, she encountered the harp while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “They took pity on us pianists for being isolated in our practice rooms, so they assigned us orchestral instruments to get us out there performing. The school had many orchestras and I was willing to give it a try. Walking into a back room without windows and seeing eight concert harps was the most unexpected situation I could ever have imagined myself in. I totally fell in love with the instrument; it made total sense to me physically. When I realized that I was really going to seriously be involved with harp, I trained privately knowing I wasn’t ever going to play it live in a classical setting.” Out of that training emerged a musician who understood the corporeal math needed to bring forth a sound that translated her inner equations into a language that we on the outside could understand.

It wasn’t long before her interest in developing that language opened a portal into the harp’s very soul, pulling from that formless void a second heartbeat in electric form. The earliest version of her electric harp was built by late cellist and Skeleton Crew bandmate Tom Cora and visual artist Julian Jackson in 1985. The following year, it was remade by luthier Ken Parker as a freestanding instrument allowing her to play standing up. Next, sound artist and clandestine instrument builder Douglas Henderson added, among other things, new pickup placements and an ebony strip along the whammy bar side, which Parkins praises for a certain physicality, noting that it “profoundly changed the instrument, creating a fingerboard-like environment for me to develop different kinds of playing techniques.”

At the same time, there is a deeply metaphysical aspect to her work that has continued to evolve from one setting to the next. For Parkins, however, it’s less of a dichotomy than a spectrum: “The physical can become metaphysical because gesture and materiality are so important. It’s about presence, which is very much a part of how I am as a performer. Not just the body, but also one’s intention and absence of intention, desire, expectations, failures—all these things help.” A case in point is her latest album, Glass Triangle (released in February 2021 on Relative Pitch Records), for which she joins Mette Rasmussen (alto saxophone) and, again, Sawyer. Despite having played together only once at The Stone Series at Happylucky no.1 in Brooklyn, the trio made the studio its crucible. What ensued in the freely improvised session was reverse alchemy—not turning lead into gold but breaking down the latter into its constituent parts, each no longer precious alone yet all the more authentic for having been liberated. Thus, what begins as a fragmentary coalition gathers around the campfire of an intimately connected excursion. Sounding at times like an electric guitar, at others like a voice dying in its attempts to communicate from behind the wall of noise erected by recent politics, the harp hoists a protest sign for a generation woefully uncertain of the future, as if some gargantuan lie were morphing into truth. In this space, magic is outed as a restless muse that would sooner destroy its adherents than enable a miracle. Between dips into sustained beauty, one encounters the profundity of “The crystal chain letters,” a track that references Bruno Taut, whose legendary correspondences with kindred architects imagined a future in which urban planning welcomed rather than dictated human behavior. The letters were also, more importantly, a honeycomb around World War I, the traumatic effects of which begged not for utopia but for an ability to use the rubble of the past as material for mosaics of the future. This sensibility is broken and rubbed into the skin of Glass Triangle as if it were a necessary armor for the road ahead.

In light of this historical awareness, Parkins reflects on her beginnings as an artist as follows. “I was myopic then in thinking about the future, just living in the moment. Growing up with an immigrant father and a first-generation mother, I was encouraged to be practical, to be good in school, to do music on the side but focus on a career. But I just wanted to be in the world of music, to be surrounded by a community of musicians, to hear things I’d never heard before. I wanted every experience.” Under the current circumstances, one would be remiss to ignore this motivation. The need for community seems to have grown in proportion to the world’s tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of isolation. Such concerns were already on Parkins’ mind before the pandemic, when questions of safety and practicality prevented her from touring with the electric harp. The mindset of quarantine rekindled her relationship with the instrument. With the help of her partner, filmmaker Jeff Preiss, she began shooting solo performances as a means of reaching out. As she sees it: “You put a recorder up and instantly it’s more than just you in the room.”

Seeking other channels through which to foster a sense of community, including a virtual book group, has allowed connections that might not normally have crystallized to take root and flourish: “This situation we’ve been enduring is like a combination of patience and faith, but also the understanding that there need to be points of correction, a sense of urgency for transformation. It gives us a new way to look at our world with brutality and honesty, knowing that we are faced with a different kind of time.” What a sonic blessing, then, that we can wield the lanterns of her creations to show the way. As justice shines like a constellation above a horizon that only seems to recede the more we approach it, we need all the light we can get.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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.)

Amao Quartet review for All About Jazz

My latest CD review for All About Jazz is of the Amao Quartet’s self-produced Improcreations. A beautiful example of free improvisation (here featuring four Brazilian electric guitarists) that is neither overbearing nor confrontational. Click on the cover to discover!


Keith Jarrett: Radiance (ECM 1960/61)


Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett piano
Radiance, Parts I-XIII
Recorded live, October 27, 2002 at Osaka Festival Hall
Radiance, Parts XIV-XVII
Recorded live, October 30, 2002 at Metropolitan Festival Hall, Tokyo
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Assistant engineer: Yoshihiro Suzuki

“We are all players and we are all being played.”
–Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett is a composer without a score, a melody with a body. He is a soul in constant transition. Such is life.

In his liner notes, Jarrett tells us he was trying something new with these solo improvised performances (his first in 15 years after an illness-ridden hiatus), forging paths for the most part devoid of melodic and motivic footholds, and fragmenting the epic journeys for which he’d come to be known. Durations of tracks—ranging from from a minute and a half (Parts IV, XI) to 14 minutes (Parts X, XIV, XVII)—speak to the program’s cellular makeup.

Parts I through XIII are cumulative, in the sense that each could not have existed without the other. Jarrett: “I was slightly shocked to notice that the concert had arranged itself into a musical structure despite my every effort to be oblivious to the overall outcome.” That such structure emerged at all is testament to his soul, which lives and breathes for the communication of his art, and to the music he unearths, all the more everlasting for being unplanned. One can hear him thinking through the notes as if they were words in a James Joyce novel, skimming just enough meaning off the top to tell a story but also leaving behind so much to discover during future listens. Passages of controlled frustration blend into heavenly resolutions, though one is always quick to succumb to the other. This is especially true in Part I, which sets a precedent for open reflection, shuffling honesty into a deck without spades.

Occasional mechanical rhythms (Parts II, VIII, and especially the vampy XII) demonstrate the unpredictability of Newton’s clockwork universe, sometimes digging so deep into the earth that they come out the other side and continue onward toward neighboring galaxies. Reveries, on the other hand, are fragrant and abundant (Parts III, VI, IX, XIII). In these Jarrett wanders like the traveler whose satchel has been emptied of its material artifacts yet which overflows with spiritual relics of the journey that emptied it. He takes in the sights along with the sounds, folds each into his tattered scrapbook, and stores their energy for the next concert. As effective as these snapshots are, even more so are the abstract and beguiling ones. In this respect, the heavily sustain-pedaled Part V is a masterful stretch. Here Jarrett turns the keys into putty and flexes the piano’s infrastructure to a breaking point. Part X, for its breadth and sheer melodic force, is another highlight that combines reverence with fearless distortions.

Parts XIV through XVII are excerpted from the concert recorded in full on ECM’s Tokyo Solo DVD, and demonstrate the vignette-oriented Jarrett to clearest effect. There is playfulness in these concluding acts, a dramaturgy of detail and respect for spontaneous character. So easy are they to get swept up in that the urge to sing along may be almost as strong as that which compels Jarrett to emote in just that way. That song becomes our tether to land as the tidal currents of Part XVII take us back to the Mother Ocean, where swims our shared love for the sounds that kept us from sinking in the first place.

Improvised Choral Music

In 2004 a close friend, Mary Porcari, passed away of ovarian cancer. In my grief I contemplated writing a requiem for her, but as I sat before pages of empty staves I found my mind devoid of music. Instead, I opened a simple mixing program on my computer and, with the Latin text in front of me, improvised the full mass at one sitting. I later transcribed the piece, which received its world premiere performance in Mary’s honor at Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 5 of the following year. I have since continued to compose choral music in this same way, letting each text guide me where it will. Because this music is straight from the heart, it inevitably has drawn from much of what I listen to daily. In this regard the music of Arvo Pärt and the performance style of the Hilliard Ensemble have been undoubtable inspirations. I have recently created a MySpace page where one can hear my music, unrefined as it is. Seeing as it would not exist without ECM’s vital presence in my listening life, I felt it appropriate to post here.

Incidentally, Grady Harp has been kind enough to share the following thoughts on my music:

It seems close to impossible to believe that the music of Tyran Grillo is limited to his MySpace blog site.  Happening onto this music was almost an accidental discovery.  This is music that travels direct from one man’s heart and soul into the manipulation of sound and space that weds to some of the most exquisite, ethereal otherness this listener has experienced.  Apparently Grillo’s only instrument is his voice and he records directly into the computer without first writing notes on a staff of music paper or recreating the sounds in a way that other musicians can perform them.  According to the composer these ‘melodies’ came out of an experience of loss of a loved one, and if that is the fact then we have in our midst a man who has an incredible future should he decide to transform his vocal manipulations of his own voice (a voice that comfortably rings through a wide range) into performable format.

To this point there are ten compositions at his site: Magnificat, Stabat Mater I, II, and III, Rorate Coeli, Kyrie eleison, Officium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Lacrimosa.  If pushed to the book of category these works are related to chants, but not the medieval chants that have lasted through the centuries and are heard at high holy days. No, these harmonies are very informed by Eastern music: some of these sound like mystical choirs hovering in the past of Egypt or Greece.  The lines do not repeat but instead hang in the air like vaporous transient clouds, like the afterburn of incense.  They are holy, they are sacred, they are from somewhere we have not been – except inside our souls.

This is important music, not a compilation of distant memories from other times, but very original murmurs of the heart.  I can only urge listeners to become acquainted with this work.  Hopefully someone will fund the production of this music on CDs so that more people can be transformed by this magic.