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Music Briefly Reviewed, August 2010


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The duo of composer and sound artist Olivia Block and reedman/multi-instrumentalist and composer Kyle Bruckmann has been in the offing for a decade, though Teem is the first iteration on disc. Because of Bruckmann's 2003 relocation to the Bay Area (Block resides in Chicago), the possibilities of real-time duets were extended to a cross-continental collaboration, one which took place over five years. Composition and the notion of instantaneousness—whether real or perceived—are funny things. Certainly, in this instance, there is both a real-time and a broad spatial concept of collaborating, and though fragments of “actual" duo improvisation are woven into Teem's final fabric, much of the material was formed from a process of co-editing and mixing separately formed sounds/actions into the whole. That being said, the overall feel of this record and its four subdivided movements is very cohesive—collisions of close-miked scrabble with occasional piano clusters and Bruckmann's high, split-toned oboe and cor anglais wail seem to occupy a common environmental impulse. Areas of contrast seem natural, such as the yawing horn, oboe and clanging (set to an almost baroque poise) fronting a scrim of piercing overtones and glitchy rustle in the first movement. It wouldn't be an either/OAR release without the presence of field recordings; the label's mode (or part of it, anyway) is the presentation of environmentally-derived sound sources, and both Block and Bruckmann include naked and processed nods to human, animal, and industrial in gauzes and terse asides to their electro-acoustic webs. Rarely does Teem approach “noise," though there's a dense introduction to its second movement. The sounds collected, presented and organized here are environmental in the truest, most non-ambient sense of the word, derived from relationships and experience, and that's a wonderful thing.


Oomcycota is the second release on Steve Silverstein's Wodger label to feature his own outfit, Christmas Decorations, which despite geographic challenges has been making music for the better part of a decade. Initially taking cues from post-punk, they have slowly morphed into an unclassifiable atmospheric/organic improvisation ensemble. In addition to Silverstein, the group features Nick Forte (ex-Rorschach), Peter Kerlin and Kurt Knuth. All three members work with a diverse range of electronic and acoustic instruments, though picking apart who does what isn't really the point. While the improvisations are shorter and more condensed than on the preceding Far Flung Hum, Christmas Decorations' approach remains curiously folksy, a front-porch or communal aspect that doesn't always imbue contemporary electro-acoustic music. Zither, guitar, harmonica, contrabass, no-input mixing board, loops and percussion commingle in long, droning forms with occasional surges of activity, sometimes building into a rickety ramble as on the reverb-heavy toe-tap/clunk of “Notochord." Christmas Decorations occupy a curious place in the pantheon of underground improvisation—they're not naively throwing shit at the wall as, say, Tower Recordings or Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, but their vaguely rock-informed verve sets them apart from the post-Bead Records aesthetic pool (which their improvisations sometimes recall). Still, there's a decidedly on-the-sleeve glee of rattling collegno, patchwork electronics and mouth buzz, a discovery of both the oddness of sounds and ways to organize them into something cohesive, that is clear from tracks like “Hispid" or the shuffling goo of “Shale Hermit." Music like this is what the small-run LP (as Wodger does it), CD-R, or cassette was made for—documentation of what lies around and underneath the left field. Hopefully, some people will pay enough attention that these documents remain heard.

To Fly to Steal

Pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier is one of those rare musicians who can bridge any perceivable gaps between open improvisation and contemporary classical music. Though the audiences for both seem to overlap, the academy hasn't taken much notice (still), and to a point that's perfectly fine. Courvoisier's music (and that of regular musical partner, violinist-improviser Mark Feldman, also her husband) dovetails with post-serial composition while retaining a sense of structural organization that hits upon both freedom and arch rigor. To Fly to Steal adds the rhythm section of drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Thomas Morgan to the Courvoisier-Feldman duo, and among its seven pieces are three group improvisations as well as two each by the co-leaders. There's a telling sign in Courvoisier's opening “Messiaenesque," its orchestral crash buoyed by a frantically eliding piano-violin line, group improvisation hinging on pizzicato snaps and collective clang. Feldman's “The Good Life" merges an Eastern European rondo form with a swinging tempo section and a pointillist pulse, combining Bartok with Braxton. As precise as Feldman's choices of “classicism" might be, leading to a staggering level of technicality, there's an underlying slink and warmth to certain lines that recalls Leroy Jenkins. Courvoisier follows with a merging of insistent upward trills, clunky post-bop interpretations and a few classic Cecil-like rhythm-clusters. Rather than being an aesthetic entwining, Courvoisier and Feldman complement one another along a path of poised, dynamic execution and the genuine motion of immediacy. Romance and glacial events intersect in “Five Senses of Keen," delicate strum and micro-prettiness supported by cymbal tap and woody pluck in a pensive disappearing act, peppered with odd-interval spikes. Ultimately, this is an excellent set of music and, for those who appreciate clear lines of organization in their abstraction, a most accessible entry into the worlds of these Downtown improvising composers.

Transition One: Solo Piano

Pianist and improviser Joel Futterman engages an extremely broad sense of the piano's history and possibilities on Transition One, the seventh disc of solo piano music that he has released himself, following the six-disc set Creation (2008). Futterman is based in Virginia and is probably best known for his small-group collaborations with saxophonists Kidd Jordan and Ike Levin, and drummer Alvin Fielder, throughout the last two decades. Naturally, this is not that—solo piano music (or solo music of any stripe; and Futterman has also recorded solo music for soprano saxophone and Indian flutes) requires a dedication to exploring one's own lexicon independently of immediate conversation. Futterman explores sound and the instrument in much the same way as he talks or deals with words—drawling romanticism, punchy barrelhouse, and passages of explosive density that nevertheless espouse a sense of utter clarity. Each of the three pieces here is completely improvised, without—as Futterman would tell it—any preconception.

Composing in the moment is, for some improvisers, a reworking of one's art with a set structure to work within. For someone like Futterman, it is a blank-minded exploration of a lifetime of experience, craft, and performance. Assemblages of interdependent single-note thoughts eddy and dance, forming sharp rivulets and painterly crags, moving from sentences to paragraphs to words and isolated statements in a resoundingly physical conversation with the piano. Futterman is keyed into the tradition, and snatches of post-bop phrasing and lush, gospelized inflection imbue this piano-chase. Though logic is a part of Futterman's freedom, surprise is an equal bedfellow—the closing four minutes of the opening movement being a case in point, as the pianist explores a viscous ballad, swirling maelstroms, and rolling fragments of Jaki Byard-like stride. Transition One is a tour de force of solo playing from one of the staunchest individualists in contemporary pianism.

Aerial Age
(Allos Documents)

Vox Arcana is a two-year-old trio and, though billed cooperatively between percussionist Tim Daisy (Vandermark 5), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and clarinetist James Falzone, this Chicago-based group is essentially Daisy's first foray as leader and sole composer. On the standard kit, his approach has gotten more sensitive, as well as expansive, over the years, with an appreciation for sound dynamics and repetition that show a kinship with Swedish percussionist-composer Sven-Åke Johansson. While drawing from the New York School of composers and artists of years past, Aerial Age is most certainly a set of contemporary improvisation and exploits the considerable range of its participants as both soloists and group players.

“The Number 7" toys with minimalism, its initial salvo a short ascending phrase initiated by clarinet, and followed by cello and marimba. It becomes an inverted and slightly jumbled proposition broken up by terse, hushed micro-statements, followed by overlapping harangues of repeating forms and tone rows. Falzone is an excellent clarinetist, building upon Daisy's written material in a way that both accentuates its rigor and follows a personal phraseology. One hears the high trills of modern classical foundations as well as the bent trills and dives of a player like Perry Robinson. The solo drum section that closes “Blue Space" is an indication of where Daisy's improvisations are heading, drum-choir density mated to a compositional sense of restraint that recalls such diverse influences as Johansson, Pierre Favre and Thurman Barker. The tightly-wound mechanisms of “The Silver Fence" erupt into darting triple-play, at first clearly structural and at second glance (when cello and clarinet stretch over Daisy's fluttering brushes), a conceit derived from openness and individuality. The oddest juxtaposition, however, is a loose third-stream swing that connects to a Mingusian push-pull midway through. While a contemporaneous trio like Vandermark's Free Fall might loosely take as its model Giuffre, Bley, and Swallow, Vox Arcana curiously merges different threads of the composing-for-improvisers axis, bringing together modernist mobiles with a crisp and informed, freewheeling élan.

Can Walk on Sand

Where's Africa (Intakt, 2006) was the first documented collaboration between Swiss saxophonist Omri Ziegele and the pianist Irene Schweizer in a program of music that reflected the diverse worldwide sources of creative music from Dollar Brand and Don Cherry to Ellington and Monk and beyond. Now, Ziegele and Schweizer have added South African drummer Makaya Ntshoko (a veteran of Brand's early groups) to the equation on this latest set of originals and reimaginings. Brand and Gershwin enter the program, as do Mal Waldron, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Ornette, and Oliver Nelson. Though she's known more for her place on a post-Cecil axis and as one of the founding figures of continental European free jazz, Schweizer's volcanism is tempered for clean, delicious swatches of post-bop and high life in Brand's “Tyntiana," taken at a fast and sunny clip with Ntshoko's loose crack and the curling, breathy alto of Ziegele (who reminds one of Carlos Ward, albeit more sputtering in his loquaciousness).

“Soul Eyes" is a duo of parallels, opening with an extended, oblique alto cadenza, Ziegele's piling trills obscuring thematic referents until Schweizer enters and they explore a push-pull of tripled cadence and wistful measurement. The pianist's unaccompanied feature voices modern stride a la Solo Monk, but with a crystalline touch and sneaky arpeggios. The title track, as well as the two Dyani covers, feature fellow Swiss saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder, who adds a sugary pensiveness derived from a rather individual interpretation of Steve Lacy, to Ziegele's peppery approach. It would be interesting had the set been a little more interwoven, because shorter themes like “Butch and Butch," Ornette's “Giggin,'" and McGregor's wonderful “Andromeda" theme (rarely heard in such a stripped-down context) could do well in a Cherry-esque ragtag suite, not to mention Ziegele's nutty alto-and-vocal take on “Summertime." Can Walk on Sand is a finely uplifting slab of modern creative music, drawing from a mulitiplicity of traditions but remaining solidly its own.

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