Alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos
has successfully made a deep impression on the improvising scene of NYC during what amounts to almost the last decade. Still youthful, his raging complexity and conceptual attitude have the backing of a dedication to finding gigs, or even promoting his own events, and of always seeking out unfamiliar players for adventurous encounters. Stylistically, it's virtually impossible to avoid mentioning John Zorn
as an attitudinal and tonal precedent.
Pitsiokos has already appeared on several occasions at the Moers Festival, leading various bands. In 2021, he brought over Strictly Missionary, who had an arranged electro-rockiness to their nature, but still holding a healthy ordure-pot of skronk. For 2022 (June 3rd-7th), Pitsiokos will appear in at least two settings. There's a new electro-improvising unit called CLCJ, and a duo with the Argentinian cellist Violeta García
. He's also likely to be involved in other sonic surprises, and probably the Moers Sessions, which present freedom-finders in groupings selected by the saxophonist Jan Klare.
Pitsiokos has recently moved from NYC to Berlin, quite possibly because he's doubtless getting more gigs here than across the ocean. "It's a good change for me. I'm still spending a fair amount of time in New York, but it's nice to have a new base. I think it's incredible. The improvising scene is stronger than in New York. I'll put it straightforwardly!"
CLCJ is something of a New York supergroup, also featuring Chris Williams
(trumpet), Luke Stewart
(electric bass) and Jason Nazary
(drums). Their roots lie in another combo called Bi Ba Doom, which has the same line-up as CLCJ, minus Williams. Their soon-coming album on the Astral Spirits label has its title track already available on Bandcamp, teasing the full release in August 2022. "Graceful Collision" is energised by freedom, but pulsing with regularity, coated in electronic textures, courtesy of all band members. This trio began in early 2020, but has already been superseded by CLCJ, who have also recorded new material.
"It's highly electrified. We're all playing pedals and synths, in addition," Pitsiokos enthuses. "That's how it's going to be at Moers, definitely. Chris Williams moved to New York during the pandemic. He's been active on the improvised music scene here [Pitsiokos was in NYC when this interview was conducted], in the last couple of years, and he's also playing with hip hop artist Pink Siifu. He's intersecting with the hip hop world too, which I think is a growing phenomena, at least as far as the New York scene is concerned. It's not something that I identify with personally, but a lot of the musicians that I work with are adjacent or tangential to hip hop, at this point. I feel like it's an interesting development, and it's very cool to work with musicians for whom this is important. It's a learning experience for me. It's a cool development that differentiates New York from certain other scenes, certainly from Berlin, in an important way."
Usually the crossover with rap music tends to lean towards artists who are biased towards a funkier kind of jazz, particularly on the LA scene. For a connection to arise between hip hop and extreme abstract music does seem more unusual, and would typically find a natural breeding ground in the dense urban shimmer of NYC. Pitsiokos continues to describe where CLCJ are at: "I would say it is improvised, but to me it doesn't sound like it falls into the genre of 'improvised music.' In general, the band isn't afraid of moving into more groove-based stuff, pulse or tonal material." Of course, repetition, riffing and relaxation are always welcome as aspects of improvisation, as The Necks would strongly suggest.
Pitsiokos and Garcia have also recorded together, releasing Uanmortaim
on the NYC label Relative Pitch in 2021. Garcia plays her cello through an amplifier, and the high treble of her sound can often be abrasively distorted into a very close relationship with similarly extreme high notes on the alto. When the pair play lines in parallel, they sometimes create the illusion of sounding electronic. Of course, Pitsiokos also uses his own synth-gear on a few cuts.
Pitsiokos feels like he has a strong connection to Buenos Aires, not even necessarily with players who are born there, but just that city's scene, generally. He describes it as an almost mystical, instinctive pull, towards the people and their music, which is becoming more of a diaspora scene, as many inhabitants have left this economically suffering city. Pitsiokos has long-standing connections with certain players, as he's toured South America on several occasions.
"I've known her for a long time," he says of Garcia. "She probably came to New York at first in 2015, around there. We've been playing as a duo for four or five years. We recorded the album in 2019. Now Violeta lives in Bern, so it's good to have her nearby, it's easier to work with her. The saxophone and the string family, particularly the cello, are similar instruments. There's definitely a kinship there. The saxophone has some more high frequency stuff going on, in the spectrum. The way Violeta plays, she's pretty shrill," he laughs. "It's a beautiful project. There's something very physical in what we do, particularly with the live performance. It's visceral and intuitive, and somehow has to do with the body. She's playing through an amplifier, and sometimes it does get pretty distorted, for sure..."