Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Playing The Piano/Out Of Noise

Ryuichi Sakamoto (piano)
Playing The Piano/Out Of Noise (Decca; 2011)

Known to most music fans for his excellent soundtrack work on The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence among others, Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a prominent and revered figure in music for almost forty years. 

Hopefully some will remember him from his first outfit, the late 70s/80s electronic group, Yellow Magic Orchestra (essentially the Japanese version of Kraftwerk). If not, you may be familiar through collaborations with Iggy Pop, Thomas Dolby, David Sylvian and more recently some outstanding releases with electronic sound sculpture, Christian Fennesz.

But what most people don't always grab onto is, Sakamoto's emotionally powerful delivery at one single instrument--the piano. He is known for his masterful works electronically but in the last decade or so he has shifted between various styles. Delving into Brazilian themes with Jaques Morelenbaum or the aforementioned electronic work with Fennesz but at the heart it's still about Sakamoto's piano. His style is more angular yet remote. It has more to do with Debussy and Satie, than Monk and Jarrett.

His recent double release Playing The Piano/Out Of Noise is one of the best performances I have heard from Sakamoto in over a decade. This is why you fall in love with music. On Playing The Piano, he showers you with potent themes like the title piece to The Sheltering Sky. It rises and descends with grace and beauty that will cause both joy and despair all in the short span of minutes. "Amore" exudes the classic love/lost theme and might set forth those images of Debussy's writing in some listeners.

On one of Sakamoto's oldest pieces "A Thousand Knives" (in addition to "Tibetan Dance") is exquisite. Sakamoto's free flowing movement does cross both cinematic and jazz territories with great ease and effectiveness. It's always been a playful tune but its just connects more when heard as a singular instrument piece. Wonderful.

With Out Of Noise, Sakamoto starts off in the same vein with pleasant, unassuming numbers led by the tranquil and hypnotic, "Hibari." This calm aesthetic soon gives way to a more dynamic atmospheric tone on "Still Life" and "In Red" in which he balances both a delicate touch on piano with decomposing chords delivered by collaborators Fretwork and Fennsez, respectively. "Firewater" is a mountain of a piece that is as haunting as it is vast, like staring into a red sunset. Sakamoto produces a wall of sound that quickly washes over you. Not dissimilar to Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd actually.

"Composition 0919" is Sakamoto entering Glass/Reich-like territory with fast paced, repetitious patterns that stop/start and move from channel to channel. It's intoxicating and challenging. But that's what Sakamoto has always done. The tempo shifts quickly and the harmonics resonate with wonder and sweet agility. It's a solid way to close out the album and let the listner know that there's more to music than just the chords. This is thinking music for thinking people.

Playing The Piano/Out Of Noise are two of the best Sakamoto albums you are going to find in a vast catalog that I can't even count. It's also a great introduction to an amazing composer and performer. So if you haven't listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto's a good time to start.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Limbo Ensemble: Plebiscitu

The Limbo Ensemble
Plebiscitu (AudioTong; 2011)
Paulo Chagas (clarinet, field recording, electronics)
Karl Waugh (violin)
Fernado Simoes (trombone)
Bruno Duplant (bass)
Travis Johnson (cello)
Quincas Moreira (cello)
Paulo Durate (guitar)
Thomas Olsson (guitar)
Massimo Magee (trumpet)

Based on a series of individually recorded musicians combined with his own instrumentation, Paulo Chagas has constructed a unique and beautiful document in Plebiscitu. The music one hears lies on a different plane. In the same vein as recent minimalistic chamber music by Arszyn, Robert Kusiolek and even mid-period Kronos Quartet, Chagas probes and searches for sounds that have incongruity at heart but provide a sense of grey beauty.

The water atmospherics of "The Forgotten Echo" is wrapped and drenched in Chagas' clarinet and haunting string movements from Duplant and Waugh. "The Naked Ballerina" offers a small bit of Mideastern flavour while also exploring some interested soundscapes provided by Durate's guitar and Moreira's cello. There's a point very late in the piece where all the instruments rise in an extended crescendo that is just magnificent.

"Cherry Pits" sees Chagas taking up the oboe, with Duplant providing some very cool percussion. It's all improvised and has some humorous moments sprinkled across various sections. The double cello work on the closing number "The Book of Rejected Souls" is deep and powerful. Adding in Chagas' clarinet and field sounds sends the listener off with haunting after-effects.

I really loved taking the adventure with Plebiscitu. Paulo Chagas has done a terrific job of combining a mashup of sorts through various individual pieces put together into a harmonically dense chamber. Excellent stuff.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Doug Webb: Swing Shift

Doug Webb (sax)
Swing Shift (Posi-Tone Records; 2011)
Gerry Gibbs (drums)
Stanley Carke (bass)
Larry Goldings (piano)
Joe Bagg (piano)
Mahesh Batasooriya (piano)

The most important things about any group that has been/recorded together for long period of time is consistency and chemistry. In the case of Doug Webb, this consistency and chemistry came of the course of one long day which has given birth to three recordings including his latest, Swing Shift. These recordings represent a number of snapshots over those hours with various piano players. But the one constant is Webb's amazing direction and the groups ability to hold strong and sound blisteringly beauty on every piece.

Opening this set with brilliance, Webb features Larry Goldings on piano performing on the Mal Waldron classic, "Soul Eyes." It's a nice and uptempo version with a lot of a muscle and vitality. Webb's sound is bold and jumps out and takes hold. The connection the trio of Gibbs, Webb and Clarke have with each pianist throughout these sessions is amazing. Goldings playing, particularly towards the middle of the piece is like an elegant tap dancer.

While the opening minutes of the 22 minute epic, "Patagonia Suite" (written by Webb and Clarke)can be compared to Coltrane as far as performance, the material expands from that theme to Webb's own vision very quickly. The opening movement flies at a frenzy. Batasooriya delivers a resounding performance as he challenges the trio and they respond with crisp versatility. The second movement sees each member moving through improvised solos with Gibbs expressing himself through crazy timing that makes the piece more adventurous than it already is.

Webb offers a sense of spirituality as the "Patagonia Suite" moves into its middle section, which does feel like late period Coltrane but its extremely effective. The interaction between Clarke and Webb is fantastic. This is probably the most exciting I've heard Clarke in years. "Patagonia Suite" later resettles into a kind of hard bop mode as it travels towards its conclusion; including quiet but rich solos from Clarke and Batasooriya.

"Apodemia," another piece written by Webb and Clarke is a bright conclusion to the session. Joe Bagg sits in on piano. The band plays off Webb's vibrant yet cool performance. This has a nice live feeling to it. I'm really impressed with Webb's performances and writing throughout Swing Shift. "Apodemia," while based in the hard bop mold has a solid sense of modernism delivered by the musicians. Clarke adds a little bit of the funky groove for which he is known. Webb allows the band to really stretch on this piece. It's a relaxed, diverse and romantic all at once.

Webb's wild all-day session from four years ago still bears some excitingly fresh fruit. Let's hope there's more in the vault to come. Doug Webb has produced a superb bit of work with Swing Shift. If you've never listened to him before, this is definitely a disc worth seeking out.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bernocchi, Budd & Guthrie: Winter Garden

Eraldo Bernocchi (electronics)
Harold Budd (piano)
Robin Guthrie (guitars)
Winter Garden (RareNoise Records; 2012)

It's easy to describe this work as another successful collaboration between ethereal/ambient masters; but on Eraldo Bernocchi's latest, Winter Garden, you might find a little twist in the ambient theory.

Bernocchi, known as a multi-instrumentalist and sound designer of installations, has worked with a variety of musicians including Bill Laswell, Thomas Fehlmann (of The Orb) and avant garde jazz band Zu, to name just a few.

On Winter Garden, Bernocchi's direction starts out like previous collaborations between these three men. "Don't Go Where I Can't Find You" glides and swirls gently to Budd's delicately tempered notes and Guthrie's textured guitar lines. Bernocchi's adds a balanced dose rhythmic harmony just below the washes of sounds. "Entangled" is where Bernocchi takes a clearer direction. Beginning in a deeper register with a structure chordal baseline, effective bouncing against Guthrie's guitars and Budd's almost balladry approach gives this a shimmering and beautiful effectiveness.

"Stay With Me" is the more lyrical of the pieces on Winter Garden. Exploring a more dense prospect than the rest of the session, Bernocchi drives the tune along in pulsating fashion. Even providing a small bit of beats towards the end that could suggest the perfect point for an extended club version at some point (funny, eh?). "South Of Heaven" is an exquisite ballad that rides a high wave of sound and emotional impact that you may not feel until the piece has gone from your memory minutes later. Angled more by Bernocchi and Budd with Guthrie's guitar just underneath the mix.

Winter Garden is a very organic album. It moves slowly. Glides and grows in various directions but with one tonal harmonic message. It's a serene and well stabilizing session that admirers of all three musicians will love. But those of you who haven't heard these excellent musicians before are in for a sublime treat. For me, Eraldo Bernocchi has created one the his best albums of year. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Fusk (group)
Fusk (Why Play Jazz; 2011)
Philipp Gropper (sax)
Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet)
Andreas Lang (Bass)
Kasper Tom Christiansen (drums)

Fusk, are a captivating and exciting quartet that could easily be mistaken for one of many of the Chicago piano-less quartet. But this German quartet are no mirror image of their American counterparts. They set loose on an imaginative journey that at it's core has shades of Parker, Coleman, Mingus and Dolphy at their peak. And while American influences may lay within their interior there is a fresh European vibe to that shines on the exterior. It's a rollicking and creative good time. 

Fusk is essentially a supergroup of sorts. This a combination of a number of bands with diverse and dense perspectives. Whether its the fierce rock blend of Eder, the modernism of Quartz or the more dark sinister syncopation of Sonne, Fusk utilizes all those strengths to make for a well structured and brilliantly improvised debut. "Ein Kopf Kaffe, Bitte" jumps and bristles with agile yet twisting harmonics from both Gropper and Mahall. "November" is a shimmering little ballad with beautiful open spaces which Gropper and Lang filled with rich lovely tones. A piece that is resonates on all sides with subtle yet meaningful passion.

"Eins Zewi Polizei" and "Neun Zehn Schlafen Gehen" are where Fusk really start to improvise and fly willing upward with abandon. Each member swirls and creates their own pattern but somehow, somewhere they all meet in the end. It's an avalanche of sounds that stretches for long periods with moments of melodic bliss. Christiansen is spectacular during his improvised moments and provides a level of intrigue that the rest play off of amazingly well. Lang and Gropper move back and forth in raw yet light conversation which is definitely improvised but feels well charted like they had been doing this for years. "Berliner Bratwunder" returns Fusk back to it's more Coleman-esque origins as on "Ein Kopf Kaffe, Bitte". It's a great way to round out a session that has been filled with some diverse thoughts and tones.

Fusk is an album of multiple ideas brought in from previous group experiences. But where this quartet shines is; that they are thinking one step ahead of their some of their European counterparts in that once you've learned from your influences--what will you do with it. Fusk shows that you can do a lot. Enjoy...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Arszyn: Polymer

Topolski/Szwelnik (duo)
Polymer (Self Produced; 2012)
Krzystof Topolski (drums, electronics)
Tomasz Szwelnik (piano, guitar, electronics)

I stumbled into Krzystof Topolski's work as Arzyn last year thanks to Maciej at the great blog, Polish Jazz. Since then I have been devouring everything I could find with his name on it.

On his latest collaboration, Polymer, he has created another other-worldly concoction of found sounds and beautiful improvisations. Added by the Cage-ian work on keys by Tomasz Szwelnik, the duo set out on a path that is dense and expansive. Their use of space and soft, short notes develops a level of calm in the listeners ears as these two long pieces move through your speakers and your mind.

"Poly I" builds slowly with pops and subtle percussion's and kit brushes until midway where Topolski and Szwelnik deliver an abstract exchange of ideas with broken chord changes and interesting sound effects, leaving you wondering if you are experiencing a performance by The Necks. It's fascinating material that later moves a series of nature sounds aided by some light strumming from Szwelnik on guitar. A quiet yet haunting conclusion to an opening movement.

"Poly II" picks up on the haunting imagery with some echo chamber effects on the drums and stop/start pecking the piano. "Poly II" seems to be the more free formed of the two pieces. Each musician plays off the other uniquely with different instruments and layered effects/loops. Topolski makes great use on found instruments within the opening minutes as his percussion sounds almost like hard pulses on the vibes.

The atmospherics are revved up towards the middle as the sound become more deep and ominous. Almost turning into a groove before leveling off with a melody that emerges by Szwelnik's hands. This carries on for awhile before returning to a bass drum heavy with electro-acoustics and experimentation. The duo battle this theme out to the end wonderfully with chimes and counterpoints from all sides.

Polymer, like many of Krzystof Topolski's other combinations is an acquired taste. And like the chemical definition of the albums title, there are multiple streams occurring throughout this forty minute piece, but if you let your mind wonder through the darkness, you'll find this is yet again an unbelievable journey.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dan Tepfer: Goldberg Variations

Dan Tepfer (piano)
Goldberg Variations (Sunnyside; 2011)

The Goldberg Variations is considered arguably one of the most important classical works of all time. Originally conceived by Bach for his favourite performer, Johann Goldberg as a harpsichord piece, it has become more synonyms with the piano as a result of the legendary performance and recordings by Glenn Gould. Think of it in the same respect as Kind Of Blue, Time Out, Brilliant Corners, etc. for the jazz world.

It's never a surprise when a jazz pianist spins off to record a classical album (i.e. Keith Jarrett, Fred Hersch). It's usually more of a shocker when a classical musicians records jazz (ie. Friedrich Gulda or Nigel Kennedy). In recent years, one of my favourite versions of this piece was recorded by the great, Murray Perahia. But when a jazz musicians tackles one of the more challenging canons of the classical music world--you must take notice. And Dan Tepfer has done just that, with an amazing version of the Goldberg Variations.

Fusing his classical upbringing with his sublime improvisational jazz skills, Tepfer moves effortlessly through Bach's masterpiece. But Tepfer takes this homage one step further with a series of short improvisations that are sometimes rooted in classical theory but also bubble with jazz free thinking. The movements are so refreshing and invigorating that you don't realize when you listen to the original work and when you are listening to the improvised pieces.

"Variations/Improvisation IV- VI" are splendid examples of how this unity of reverence and modern thought unfold into something new and richly creative. Starting gently on its original theme and jumping centuries forward but maintained are the carefully crafted boundaries. This is something you could only get from a new vital talent such as Tepfer. I'm not even sure Perahia would have thought of this.

"Variations/Improvisations XXIII-XXV" springs with vitality and settles lightly with a romantic and lengthy theme by Tepfer. Tepfer closes this recital with an improvised and Bach associated "Aria." Both are touching and resolute. "Aria" as intended leaves a permanent footprint on your heart and mind as it fades into the background of your thoughts.

Goldberg Variations is a return to Tepfer's classical beginnings, but is also a remarkable look at how a classic and timeless document can be completely re-imagined. Dan Tepfer has been a star on the rise for many years. With Goldberg Variations, he has created a bridge for classical fans and improvisational fans alike. Highly rewarding and highly recommended.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jakob Davidsen: Kammerat Orkester

Jakob Davidsen (piano)
Kammerat Orkester (Gateway Music; 2011)
Peter Fuglsang (clarinet)
Jakob Munck (trumpet, tuba, trombone)
Lars Andreas Haug (tuba)
John Edhe (cello)

Jakob Davidsen has been on the Danish scene for a long time now. It's a shame that more people internationally haven't had a chance to experience this highly inventive and expressionist composer and pianist. I personally have only just discovered him in the last few months and I have been immensely impressed.

His latest, Kammerat Orkester (Gateway Music) is an buoyant mixture of complex melodies and biting humor that reminded me of some of the larger scale Charles Mingus pieces. But as you take the long journey through this session you realize this is a composer and performer on the upswing with a lot to say.

The massive suite, "Le Roi et Le Mendiant I-IV" burst with vivid textures and complexities that move fluidly back and forth. Davidsen allows the musicians a great deal of freedom to mingle and converse while he lays out the path for which they follow close but with a great deal of expression. This is a beautiful piece that is both chamber music and improvised jazz. In the second movement, Davidsen's playing moves from gentle and passion to fierce and explosive with ease. In the third movement Davidsen gives more space to Fuglsang and Edhe to create a melodic calm before it holds you through to the blistering and frenetic conclusion of the fourth movement in which the quintet are almost ragtime in nature but abstract in thought. Great stuff.

The hauntingly beautiful waltz, "Valse Bleue Et Verte" is led by the soft keys of Davidsen and some touchingly deep work by Haug. Edhe's cello just underneath the melody makes for a romantic setting and adds emotion to the ending movements.

The two closing numbers "Silvo Martinello" and "Jeg Holder Af Hverdagen" have a more experimental nature about them. Davidsen's direction to the group seems to be "find your own path and make it exciting." The quintet do this superbly. There are moments of reflection midway through "Silvo Martinello," led by an heartfelt performances by Munck, Haug and Edhe. This is topped off by some blissful yet quiet touches by Davidsen. "Jeg Holder Af Hverdagen" feels like a Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman piece in its minimalistic outset and seems to be a perfect way to close out this adventure. Lots of quiet chords and space that eventually pulsates to black.

Kammerat Orkester may not be the first stop for most newcomers to Jakob Davidsen but it is definitely the most adventurous of his outings. There are complex themes and melodies wrapped around some sublime performances. Kammerat Orkester is forward thinking music from a growing talent that deserve much wider recognition. A must listen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lama: Oneiros

Lama (trio)
Oneiros (Clean Feed; 2011)
Susana Santos Silva (trumpet, electronics)
Goncalo Almeida (bass, electronics)
Greg Smith (drums)

Susana Santos Silva has teamed up with fellow Portuguese bassist, Goncalo Almeida and Canadian drummer Greg Smith for Lama. This trio has seemingly conjured up one of the most superb debuts, Oneiros, in the last few months. Silva shows really diversity during this session which is more experimental and ethereal in parts.

"Alguidar" opens with a rousing Latin march beat from Smith which moves quickly into some breathy atmospheric work from Silva before the trio settle into calm melody which later sees some exchanges between Almeida and Silva. The piece then settles gently with crackles, pops and jagged notes into its conclusion.

"Overture for Penguins" starts off like something off an early Chris & Cosey album moving through a number of changes and tempos. All this while each musician demonstrates a rich and highly versatile sense of improvisation. Almeida delivers a lovely solo shortly before the end that is soft yet penetrating.

The melodic and touching qualities of Silva's playing and the calm pacing present by Almeida create an uplifting atmosphere around "Melodia Minuscula" that is refreshing as it is enveloping. There are moments where you could mistake this trio for John Zorn's Masada. The well crafted "The Chimpanzee Who Told" has an fast reverberating Eastern quality to that feels likes a bridge between the musical aesthetics. The piece builds quickly and then plummets into a kind of joyous romp that allows Greg Smith to have a great solo opportunity flying the group outward.

"Tarantino" is the most daring piece on Oneiros. Filled with electronics and muted effects its a great display of the diversity of this trio. Silva's trumpet is high in the mix giving a sense of rising climax to the conclusion of really wonderful journey. More seated in the drone sounds of indie rock than experimental jazz but highly effective indeed.

I've had Oneiros on sort of a revolving spin in my CD player for the last month. This combined with Santos Silva's debut has been a fantastic revelation for me. Both dense, diverse and exploring the unexpected. Oneiros is filled with ideas that will want you having Lama record together again and again on a regular basis. Let's hope so. I plead them. Highly Recommended!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Susana Santos Silva: Devil's Dress

Susana Santos Silva (trumpet)
Devils Dress (TOAP Records; 2011)
Ze Pedro Coelho (sax)
Andre Fernades (guitar)
Demain Cabaud (bass)
Marcos Cavaleiro (drums)

There's always that moment; whether it comes right out front or at the end of an album, when you realize you've just been blown away by some talented shit. That's the moment I had after being pierced by Susana Santos Silva and her hour long epic debut, Devil's Dress.

Susana Santos Silva is a young talent but deep, bold lyricism can match many of her more experienced contemporaries. "Devil's Dress" opens with a number of fearless performances by each member, notably Coelho and Silva who play off each other superbly. Fernades' guitar provides the raw energy and improvised tones these well composed pieces need, keeping you glued to each moving note. "Devil's Dress" combines brash, abstract indie rock themes with well balanced jazz tonalities into a lovely and harmonic siren call. The rhythm section force the issue here. With Cavaleiro leading the charge with some forceful and crushing cymbals. The piece later dissolves into spacial free forms with ethereal effects from Fernades and soft explorations by Santos Silva. It's a great ride that moves quickly and leaves you only with the memories.

You can feel these friends and bandmates having a great time on "Wishful Thinking." There's a jubilant banter between each musician with exchanges that are both electric and angelic. Santos Silva's tone at times reminded me of past and future (Freddie Hubbard/Arve Henriksen) throughout Devil's Dress but maintaining a modern focus. "Claudia" shows the quintet in a funkier light. The groove is augmented by some neatly placed stop/starts that allow "Claudia" to move from groove-laden to improvised very fluidly. Almost in a Donald Byrd style if you think of it as a fusion era piece.

Susana Santos Silva has created a document that is perfectly well rounded and exciting to listen to from track one to eight. Devil's Dress is diverse and Santos Silva's playing is expressive, clinical and opportunistic. Strongly Recommended.

This would later reveal itself in her next project, Lama...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sonore: Live At Cafe Oto

Sonore (trio)
Live at Cafe Oto (Trost; 2012)
Peter Brotzmann (tenor, alto sax, clarinet, taragato)
Ken Vandermark (tenor sax, clarinet)
Mats Gustafsson (baritone sax)

When this trio gets together you can always expect high decibels and sonic architecture. Live at Cafe Oto is probably the shorter but most palatable of the four albums this trio has recorded. There's still a lot to digest over the span of four songs  in just under 40 minutes.

Each musician attacks the notes with aggression but also a sense of beauty, as they softly create and destroy patterns. "Fragments For An Endgame" comes swirling down upon you like hail drops through a funnel. The tones are sharp and crisp with spikes that build and build. They hit there peak quickly before descending further into a overpowering arpeggio.  The trio is all the while improvising each note. But these three have played together so often they know each other movements and changes down to a tie.

"Le Chien Perdu" see Brotzmann rip through the scales at will. The piece has a perfect balance between Brotzmann's howls and improvised segues accompanied by subtle tones of Vandermark and Gustafsson around the edges. "Oto" is just sheer fire in the well. The trio let loose a wall of sound but shift effortless back and forth between blistering chords changes and gentle swathes of harmonics. Only to end with a resounding joyful call to arms, New Orleans style.

Live At Cafe Oto is powerful stuff and by far the best Sonore record to date. Highly Recommend.