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


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


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


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


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


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.)

ECM Book Now Available Worldwide!

I am thrilled to announce that my book, Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer, is now officially available for purchase!

Colombian publisher Rey Naranjo and I spent years putting this together, and we truly believe it will enrich the experiences of all ECM listeners. Get yours now while you can, as it is destined to become a collector’s item.

Click the picture below to be redirected to the publisher’s website, where you’ll find more information, including a book trailer, and a link to order via PayPal. The price is set at $40, which includes shipping to anywhere in the world.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this labor of love.

Cover copy


Julia Hülsmann Quartet: Not Far From Here (ECM 2664)

Not Far From Here.jpg

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
Not Far From Here

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: November 1, 2019

Fans of pianist Julia Hülsmann’s work will find familiar flavors enhanced by the unique spice of tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff being added to her long-running ensemble. He’s most vividly showcased on “Le Mistral,” one of two tunes contributed by bassist Marc Muellbauer. What begins with a quiet stirring develops into a freely interlocking sound—one honed by years of experience and held together by the band’s open-ended circuitry.

The poetry of Kempendorff’s playing is forthcoming, and the same holds true of his writing, even as “Einschub” is harmonized enigmatically. Most of the composing credits, though, go to Hülsmann. From the opening caress of “The Art Of Failing” to the masterful “No Game,” she treats every instrument as a vital ligament of the same appendage, pointing and flexing to the rhythms of emotional desire. With the tenderness of morning light gaining slow but steady purchase on the corner of a bedroom window, she follows a natural order of things.

Drummer Heinrich Köbberling throws a couple of his own coins into the proverbial fountain, including “Colibri 65,” which furthers the bandleader’s apparent mission of summoning placid, distinct airs.

The set is upheld by two versions of “This Is Not America,” a song written by David Bowie in collaboration with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. With broken nostalgia, it winds a melodic tangle from which escape is an easy but deeply unattractive option.

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

Maciej Obara Quartet: Three Crowns (ECM 2662)

Three Crowns.jpg

Maciej Obara Quartet
Three Crowns

Maciej Obara alto saxophone
Dominik Wania piano
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: October 25, 2019

After their 2017 ECM debut, Unloved, Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara and his quartet make their return with Three Crowns. In addition to six new tunes from the bandleader, the album features improvisational renderings of music by one of the most significant composers of the 20th century: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933–2010). Though Górecki’s work has been subjected to improvisational treatments before, these renditions bear special distinction for being sanctioned by his family, whom Obara came to know while living in Katowice, where the composer once was based. The first Górecki interpretation, “Three Pieces In Old Style,” is so beautifully reimagined that it sounds as if it’s emanating from another world. Pianist Dominik Wania opens in a deeply respectful mood, allowing Obara’s incisive tone to keen overhead, while bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen roam a rain-kissed landscape below.

“Blue Skies For Andy” is among the stronger Obara originals—not only for its melodic strength but also its patience. It has a classic sound that feels warm to the ears, as precise as it is free. Other highlights range from the savvy urbanism of “Smoggy People,” notable for Wania’s postmodern swing, to the more geometric “Glow,” which recalls the tightly knotted compositions of fellow altoist Tim Berne. Obara’s bandmates grow in real time, though nowhere so maturely as on “Mr. S,” an homage to trumpeter Tomasz Stańko that rolls in on a wave of melancholy and sunshine in equal measure. Like the title track, it’s flexible and always attached to something pure and knowable. There is no mystery here. Only life.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)