Okkyung Lee and Christian Marcklay-Amalgam: Album Review

Amalgam is a tightly-knit jam session for the future between improvised-music cellist Okkyung Lee and turntablist Christian Marclay.  Opening with a particularly dense five minutes of music, the album takes a series of rather unpredictable ups and downs with various textures and rhythmic ideas coming into play over the course of the single, 36-minute track.  Although Lee is, arguably, outmatched by the sheer magnitude of Marclay’s fire power, the project thrives on the certain singularity that the musicians find in the sonic landscape.  Rather than battling it out to make the most noise, the duo confides in one another at every turn almost sounding like a single instrument.  The resulting work successfully merges the electronic-music notion of avant-garde with the jazz-rooted instrumental realm making for an intriguing sketch of possibilities for future intersections of these idioms.

The album is bookended by the two heaviest sections of the session.  First off, squeezing and scratching sounds come into play from both sides with a huge range of pitch making for a brick of sound.  Besides the depth of sound, Lee quickly engages in rapid back and forth bow strikes to completely put the listener on edge.  This section gives a full glance at the sound-making possibilities of the duo and although specific sounds are explored in more depth in the middle portions of the piece, the audience is left waiting for another full out climax until the very end.  At around the 30-minute mark, the duo reaches near silence before Lee’s raw cello tone slowly picks up steam with crunching electronics emerging from Marclay’s set-up.  The end of the album does contrast the beginning a bit—in particular the longing melody that comes into play beneath the surface of chaos.  This creates an interesting juxtaposition as the end of the piece both epitomizes the general tension so rampant on the album, but also finds some inner peace to tie up the session nicely.

Between the two sections with the most firepower, the duo plays with the listener quite a bit, suddenly building up tension then quickly releasing it before the listener is ready.  Soon into this unpredictable landscape, Lee and Marclay trade ideas on some angular high-note melodies.  Obviously this reaches an intense state, but what differentiates it from the chaos of the beginning is the lack of foundation; high and wiry, this section avoids the “brick of sound” in the beginning of the piece.  Lee later gives us a taste of her rhythmic sense in an oscillating back-and-forth melody that she rips from her cello.  This base gives Marclay a great deal of space to play with textures and melodies, but just before the groove becomes a full-fledged loop, the whole structure is lost to the abyss.  In another instance, Marclay plays around with beats quite nicely.  First, a quirky, playful beat accompanies Lee’s quick melodies, then a drastic change comes with a rugged, industrial beat taking over.  This midsection shows how versatile each of the musicians are and—when considering the bricks of sound at each end of the piece—it’s interesting to hear how the duo is able to throw all of their sounds out there at once, then spend more time developing specific sounds on their own.

Another success of the album is the improvisational feel to it.  Although the incorporation of electronics in an improvised-music idiom is not an entirely new concept, Amalgam captures the real-time interaction of free jazz in a way not often heard in this type of duo.  Instrumentalists—when they develop extended techniques—maintain the ability to quickly return to their original state, but for turntables this is a bit more difficult.  Whereas Lee is put at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of sheer sound-making ability, Marclay—I would argue—is put at a disadvantage in his ability to quickly jump between his arsenal of various sound effects.  Making up for this requires a great deal of talent from both sides and it seems that Lee helps the process by sticking to one aesthetic framework for long periods of time.  For example, in one section, Marclay introduces a crackling bass foundation with a higher electronic melody.  Lee matches this by constantly bowing a lower string and interrupting with brief melodic ideas higher up on the instrument.  The end result also contributes to the singularity that the duo achieves.  Because both musicians must find enough room to develop ideas within a general aesthetic, it sounds a bit like one entity is making the decisions; a real relationship is formed on this record.

Amalgam doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The structure of the record is very good for maintaining a high level of intrigue and anticipation.  Also, the ability of the duo to find a sort of common ground to develop their ideas makes for a unifying overall sound that can be sometimes lost in duets between melodic instruments.  I look forward to hearing more from this duo—and others like it—in the future.


-Donovan Burtan


Daniel Ruane-Incandescent: EP Review

Got an advance copy of this album.  Definitely work checking out when it drops next Friday.

On his new EP, Daniel Ruane showcases his knack for building up tension in an ambient setting that also hints at dance-able electronic beats for rhythmic drive.  Comprised of four songs, the work flows by quickly and primarily showcases Ruane’s strategies for building up sounds into rousing climaxes.  Although this may seem like a relatively straightforward concept, Ruane surprises in the way the elements he develops come together.  Rather than slowly building on a foundational idea, Ruane circulates various melodies in and out in rather interesting fashions making for a solid overall effort.

“Incandenscent” emerges from a scene indicative of the hustle and bustle of lunch in a crowded food court.  Large bass movements begin to take over the attention with pulsating rhythms replacing the texture of chatter.  As the piece moves forward, a certain aura encompasses the witness as various synth sounds circulate with glitchy electronic sounds attacking the left and right side.  The song opens the collection well, introducing Ruane’s chilling emotional impact and his balance of rhythmic DJ-mixing and sweeping ambient work.

“Codon” follows with a heavier emphasis on rhythm. Pressing synths swell throughout with deliberate punches constantly being added to the equation.  After a rather large climax on the track, Ruane favors a slightly more stripped back approach on “Amino.”  Opening with what sounds like a field recording in a barren industrial landscape, the track thrives on space with distant bassy sounds surrounding the echoing rhythmic centerpiece.  As the piece fades out, the brightness that began it begins to fade into bleak darkness, which leads into the final component of the work “Exo.”  Dramatic drones slowly emerge into the dark space that envelopes the track, ending off the album with a final push of intensity.

Ruane offers a great deal in terms of layering.  Each piece obtains a wide sense of space with massive, low-frequency pulses complimenting the main focal points.  Atop his foundation, Ruane builds a great deal of rhythmic and melodic components and constantly circulates focus making for a highly contrasting experience.

It’s also nice to hear an ambient piece with so much attention paid to rhythm.  Oftentimes, ambient music focuses a bit too heavily on developing melodies and textures, but Ruane occasionally approaches dance music with punching beats coming into the equation.  Now, there are more spacey instances with a seeming absence of rhythmic drive but, whether directly or indirectly, Ruane maintains some conception of rhythm through every crevice of the work.

This, of course, is not an entirely new concept, yet by virtue of the constant circulation of focus, the dance rhythms are a bit more concealed in the grand scheme of the album.  Whereas DJ Shadow and Aphex Twin make dance music more introspective with ambient leanings, Daniel Ruane drives his ambience forward with quite tributes to the electronic dance DJs that have come before him.

The work is certainly a bit formulaic.  Every song is seven minutes and some change with a general build-up being the basic developmental structure.  Considering that it’s an EP, the work still functions well, but the success of his next full-length may be contingent in his ability to achieve a bit more unpredictability and contrast in his developmental structures.  Nonetheless, the album is a fitting re-imagination of the ever-changing landscape of musical ambience.

-Donovan Burtan


I’m intrigued, hope to hear a slightly more unpredictable full-length at some point

Wadada Leo Smith-America’s National Parks: Album Review

On America’s National Parks, Wadada Leo Smith adds another chapter to his United States history-based collection of compositions that first saw release with Ten Freedom Summers in 2012.  Having been heavily involved in the free-jazz community since the early 1970s, there’s little left to be analyzed in Smith’s handling of the horn, yet his voice continues to remain at the forefront of avant-garde instrumental music with each passing year.  Perhaps the success of this album hinges on the logical relationship between Smith’s practiced understanding of improvisation and the impactful cultural resonance of the subjects he has chosen to honor through this music.  The title is not entirely misleading as a majority of the songs are named after actual National Parks, however, Smith has stretched the underlying idea of National Parks to also include cultural landmarks and people who have achieved a National Park level of significance.  These monumental landmarks combined with Smith’s own “landmark” level of importance in his own community combine for a blissful album that breathes life through every massive peak and ominous valley.

From the first downbeat, “New Orleans” encompasses a certain swagger.  The open-ended bass groove leaves room for Smith to push and pull the rhythm with longstanding melodic lines and pointed accents of syncopation.  Although the piece hearkens back to the origins of jazz in New Orleans with these grooves, Smith remains true to the Golden Quartet’s sound with dramatic developments over the 20-minute span of the piece.  Bassist John Lindberg is left alone in space to break up the stagnation of the meter and trade ideas with cellist Ashley Walters—a new addition to the ensemble.  On “Eileen Jackson Southern,” a certain delicacy remains central.  Each fragile melodic fragment spills into the next as each individual maintains a certain isolation in their ideas.  “Yellowstone” contrasts this individuality with spaced out, unison melodies and slightly more swing-rooted solo sections with specified bass lines and drum patterns.  In adding the subtitle “The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem,” Smith nods to the various sections in the piece.  The spaced out unisons float along in high registers like mountains, whereas fiery solos constantly build tension to represent the intensity of the park’s geothermal activity.

The second half of the record fills even more space with “Mississippi River” spanning 30 minutes.  Although maintaining intrigue over the course of this long of a period of time is a momentous task, Smith compensates by spanning the widest dynamic range of any of the tracks up until this point.  Within the first couple minutes, the ensemble is enthralled with spastic improvisations.  As time moves on, however, certain ideas fade out, leaving drummer Pheeroan akLaff in wide open spaces for anticipation-driven cymbal crashes and tom hits.  At six minutes in length, “Sequoia” is obviously much more condensed, but the Golden Quartet manages to sneak in a couple memorable moments leading into akLaff’s final phrases in “Yosemite.”

The addition of Ashley Walters is certainly a welcome one.  In terms of mechanics, the cello works well because it finds a nice melodic niche between the Lindberg’s foundation and Smith’s atmospheric trumpet work.  Walters’ linear playing style also works into Smith’s sweeping style quite nicely.  Although Smith himself often plays quick, angular melodies, his liking to large spaces naturally suggests a slightly sluggish tempo.  Having a cello lets these moments flow forward as Walters continues to hold onto melodies with subtle changes making the space a bit livelier.  Walters also participates in the album’s rawer moments, gripping her bow tightly and unleashing unrefined beauty to match the daring intensity that Smith rips out of his horn.

Smith’s greatest attribute may be the continuity that he so naturally taps into whenever he plays.  Through each up and down, it feels as if Smith knows exactly what to do and when to do it.  Occasionally when things approach a stand-still, Smith blasts out a high note to usher in a complete change of pace.  Next, he’s holding onto melodic lines until the last possible second before disappearing entirely. He also lets the music breathe quite a bit, dropping out of the playing space whenever his presence seems unnecessary, which allows for logical developments and contrast to take place as different members of the ensemble find themselves in the foreground.

It’s clear that Wadada Leo Smith is still at the top of his game.  National Parks continues to show his many sides both as a composer and a band leader.  The ease with which his ensemble finds common ground allows for huge spaces to be filled with excitement, a quality that must come from the many years that the musicians have spent together.  Sometimes the urgency of youth makes for the most cutting edge musical accomplishments, but Smith presents an argument for the legitimacy of legacy.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10 Wadada Leo Smith’s mastery continues.

Bobby Kapp and Matthew Shipp-Cactus_Album Review

On Cactus, pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Bobby Kapp find a level of musical kinship nearly unmatchable in the modern jazz lexicon.  Although both are confined to standard playing techniques on standard instrumentation, their raw talent and ear for jazz repertoire guides the listener through a contrasting program of improvisations with biting energy that drives the piece forward with each passing track.  Perhaps one of the advantages of the confinement to standard acoustic practice is the natural, human element that remains central, especially considering the rhythmic connotation of the two instruments at play.  When two melodically focused instruments improvise, it can hard to push ideas forward as the energy provided by rhythm is often lost.  Partially due to instrumental selection, this is not a problem for the duo.  On top of this, the musicality and chemistry that seeps in each area of high-activity remains prominent in the more ambient, quiet sections making for an experience that never falters in intrigue.

Aptly titled “Overture” provides a quick-witted display of melodic piano lines amongst the textural effort of Kapp’s drum set.  The piece successfully frames the work to follow by introducing each player at their most straightforward. “Before” continues the straightforward playing by somewhat hearkening back to cool jazz with loose swing undertones.  In terms of harmony, Shipp finds a slightly more ominous aesthetic, which carries over to the next track “During.”  Here, the record really emphasizes tension with fast-paced, circulating rhythms in the high notes and dramatic, spacey chords to end off the tune.  “Money” signifies another relatively straightforward tune for the duo, leading into the most esoteric track on the record.  Reaching into the piano strings on “Cactus” is essentially Shipp’s only use of extended techniques making the already barren sonic landscape stick out.  On the second half of the album, the duo continues their slew of ups and downs with the elusive moods of “The 3rd Sound” fading out into silence to end things off.

One of the aspects of Kapp’s and Shipp’s relationship is the astounding back and forth that they exhibit.  On many of the tracks, time intervals of one to two minutes will come and go where one of the musicians takes center stage as the other cedes the playing space to them.  Upon re-entrances, a clear trust is exhibited as the musicians leave no direct cue to their partner, yet the choice to come back into the equation remains logical.  This comes into play towards the end of “Good Wood” where Matthew Shipp fades out of the equation, leaving Kapp to solo.  The timing of this brief interpolation is key as the music reaches a relatively stagnant place just before and Kapp’s playing provides a slight instance of contrast to usher in a change in mood for the track.

When playing together, the chemistry also shines.  Kapp takes a rather quiet approach to the drum kit overall and he has an astounding ability to provide some abstract sense of meter while also reacting to each of Shipp’s melodic lines.  On the other hand, Shipp also manages to remain on the same general wavelength of meter by providing fast rhythmic lines as an outline.  To contrast his rhythmic focus, Shipp will occasionally find space for longer melodic lines to give Kapp space to play rhythmically.

Perhaps the album does suffer a bit sonically as there are quite obvious limits to each instrument and very little extended techniques at play.  Those more intrigued by albums that test sonic parameters may be less inclined to enjoy the record because despite some obvious changes in musicality, the aesthetic of the album is essentially the same throughout.  Nonetheless, the duo’s heart remains out on the line enough to inspire further and further listening especially for the modern jazz crowd.

Cactus just never loses its drive.  It’s an easy front-to-back listen with a strong collection of tracks that flow into one another in a rather cohesive fashion.  Bobby Kapp and Matthew Shipp clearly work well together and the combination of their logical trading of ideas and complimentary approach to collaboration make for a highly varying experience.

-Donovan Burtan




Solange-A Seat at the Table: Album Review

Just in time for the SNL performance haha

Solange Knowles has truly come into her own on “A Seat at the Table” and although her character arch avoids the grandeur of her sister, her message remains no less powerful.  A 21 track neo-soul masterpiece, the album follows an extraordinarily well-constructed narrative with a fair share of standout tracks providing peaks of excitement amongst Solange’s intimate minimalism.  Biting political messages come to surface as Solange discusses her various intersectional experiences as a black woman in the United States.

The flow of the album thrives heavily on Solange’s poignant narrative.  General themes reign throughout, but the ideas presented generally flow into one another making for a logical progression.  “Rise” kicks off the album with simple vocals Solange’s confidence in her own success.  Next, “Weary” provides a slight rebuttal to the message of “Rise” as Solange discusses the necessity to avoid naivety and remain “weary of the ways of the world.”  The first interlude hearkens slightly back to “Rise,” again emphasizing a self-confidence, thus somewhat wrapping up the first theme of confidence amongst adversity.

“Cranes in the Sky” may be the first hint of stand-alone appeal, with a heart wrenching chorus complimented by somber synths and a particularly animated pallet of backing vocals.  The introspective theme rides along Solange’s many attempts to make herself happy to no avail.  Sadness then turns to anger with an interlude about the circumstances that drive black people to be angry at the world that has been presented to them.

Bluntly titled “Mad” builds on this theme with Solange breaking down the archetype of the “angry black woman” by justifying her frustrations.  In particular, Solange discusses the tendency for people who do not understand her struggle to accept her anger, but only in the right circumstances: “You got the right to be mad/But when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way.”  This is certainly an important message today as people—especially in the United States—are generally willing to recognize racism, yet certain lines are drawn when people of color actually try to take action to reverse the damage of the past.  Once again, Solange pulls a bit of this idea and incorporates it into the next track, “Don’t You Wait,” which addresses white audiences of her music.

Based on an interview with Saint Heron, Solange’s alternative/indie-tinged sound on her last EP led to accusations of “biting the hand that feeds” from a reporter on a New York Times Podcast after Solange had commented on the way white audiences digest and write about R&B.  Solange directly addresses this comment in the song and reminds her audience of the black influence on pop culture: “Now, I don’t want to bite the hand that’ll show me the other side, no/But I didn’t want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no.”  This response also emphasizes the fact that Solange is going to include messages about the black experience even if they may seem to oppose white listeners.  Whereas “Mad” showcases white people accepting Solange’s anger about the world, but not her actions; “Don’t You Wait” shows how white audiences digest black music, but disregard the political messages that inhabit the artists that make it.

The rest of the album continues the cohesive flow of ideas and message with “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U,” and “Don’t Wish Me Well” standing out as highlights.  Lead single “Don’t Touch My Hair” depicts a specific microaggression faced by black women, who are oftentimes confronted with compliments about their hair, which are followed by people touching their hair without consent.  Considering the historical context of black hair, this action can have really negative consequences.  The anthemic ending aims to uplift with the question “what you say to me” looping over a bouncing bass line and luscious horns.

Following a tune about gentrification and an interlude about black excellence and self-worth, “F.U.B.U.” makes a statement about black culture.  The title of the song has a double meaning, one being “for us by us” with the acronym “Fubu” referencing a brand heavily associated with black communities.  A chorus reading “this shit is for us” suggests that certain things are meant to resonate with black people.  Also, considering the anti-gentrification message that precedes the track, the emphasis on specifically black culture may serve to counter white interference, suggesting that black communities are beautiful on their own and although non-black people may appreciate them, interfering can result in problematic consequences.

Sonically speaking, the album can be a bit monochromatic.  The instrumentals are—to some degree—all put together in the same way and Solange is certainly a quite figure, remaining in the same dynamic place on many tracks.  Perhaps this is a bit due to the interludes, which help to push along the narrative of the work, but occasionally obstruct the momentum of the sonic material.  Their elimination would obviously change the experience a great deal, however, bigger climaxes might arise with more stand-out dance hits.  As it stands, the slight sonic monotony doesn’t completely hinder the emotional impact of the work.  Solange’s emotions are truly all out the line throughout and although her backing track can be a bit open, her personality still commands the entirety of the work.

“A Seat at the Table” is an expansive glance at the Solange’s life.  Chock full of spoken-word interludes, the album somewhat requires a front-to-back experience, but the dependence on narrative still leaves room for dance-able singles and memorable hooks making for a solid addition to the neo-soul experience.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10 Solid Album