Satoko Fuji Tokyo Orchestra-Peace: Album Review

Satoko Fuji is perhaps Japan’s most notable Free Jazz composer.  Having played with the likes of Myra Melford, Tony Malaby, and Mark Feldman, Fuji has managed to set-up big bands on different continents and string together a handful of duo and trio recordings across her 20+ year career.  On Peace, there’s no shortage of fantastic improvisation and intriguing compositional choices.  The album kicks off with portraits of duos and solos within her Tokyo-based big band ensemble, with huge messy interpolations from the whole band stringing everything together.  Then we get a bit of impressionist pentatonicism, an especially chaotic number, and a cool modal piece.  There are certain aspects that make the album a bit of a tough listen.  The four tracks don’t necessarily relate to each other all that well and the first track is a bit excessive and doesn’t come to an especially satisfying resolution.  Still, Fuji’s band shines and her place in the jazz community is clear.

At 32-minutes in length, “2014” is naturally a going to have smaller microcosms within the overall mass.  First, we get some textural trumpet experimentation from—I think—Natsuki Tamura.  Harsh noise is wrenched from the instrument, immediately filling the track with tension.  Eventually drummers Akira Horikoshi and Peter Orins enter to interact with the solo, gradually adding a notion of meter to the room.  Then, the band buds in with a dramatic, rising melody as Tamura finally enters a more straightforward trumpet playing space to utter some heavy hitting hard-bop lines.  At around the seven-minute mark, the cycle repeats as the band recedes to full silence to yield attention to a duo of saxophone and trombone, with drums and bass also taking hold of the spotlight later on.  The time on the track is exceptional.  The band maintains immense forward momentum in both completely free time and straightforward 4/4 with the drummers providing a sort of spectrum between the two.

The issue I find with this track is that each of these components don’t necessarily resolve, which is intentional as Fuji is crafting a larger narrative to the track, but even the ending bass solo sort of just stops.  So, again there’s not really a resolution.  Thus, the track just ends up being a sort of circulating timeline without a feeling of closure.  Even the flow from one idea to the next is a bit questionable.  Although the drummers are able to connect the dots as the band transitions from open to free, the return to space is not nearly as gradual.  To hold a 30-minute track together, there needs to be a strong development and a logical series of events leading to a final conclusion, I feel as though this one missed the mark.

The other three tracks on the record are much more concise.  “Jasper” is an undeniably beautiful piece of music featuring some breathtaking work from Sachi Hayasaka on soprano sax.  Hayasaka’s tone is so pure that in places you can’t even discern the identity of the instrument.  The track thrives on pentatonic scales, which yield picturesque tone color.  Completed first by subtle drones, Hayasaka is able to work with subtlety and motivic development.  Later the track digs in a bit with stinger chords in the trumpet section coming at a lethargic quarter-note pace, allowing Hayasaka to show off some flashier licks.  Fuji’s ability to orchestrate while maintaining an emphasis on improvisation shines here.  There’s a pleasant simplicity to the work she gives her band that only uplifts improvisation without dictating too much of the natural flow of for the moment sound.

“Peace” takes a pretty maximal approach to improvisation with complete madness setting in at the first downbeat.  At first, you get the impression that a screaming saxophone player is going to attempt to take on Fuji’s double drum set-up, but then another sax takes a crack at it (and so on).  This is why the track works though.  The ideas bounce from player to player to match the natural frantic edge that music at this speed is going to have. Rather than having one guy spit as much out as possible, you get some input from a bunch of players making for a really interesting piece.  This track also does a bit of a better job than the first in transitioning from a huge wall of sound to open space.  Instead of a complete fade out the band almost folds back the curtains leaving a saxophone line—one that’s already occurring—in open space.  This technique might have made the “2014” a bit more cohesive.

Another possible issue with the album is the flow from track to track, which is most apparent at the last track. “Beguine Nummer 3” is a bit of a floating modal track that really comes out of nowhere considering the Avant garde edge of the rest of the work.  Of course, the music is well executed and Tamura delivers another especially musical solo, it just really comes out of nowhere.

Peace is not a perfect album, but I didn’t come away feeling entirely unsatisfied.  Players of this magnitude are never going to fully disappoint and despite some issues with flow, the vigor with which Fuji inspires her ensemble to approach every waking moment of her composition inspires focus throughout.

-Donovan Burtan



Mere-Mere II: Album Review

Toting Bass Clarinet, Drums, and Guitar, Mere showcase a mastery of space on II.  Their album begins in a completely open environment with sparse pieces of sound bouncing around each member of the ensemble.  Eventually, huge, raw grooves come into play with subtle changes driving the music forward for large swaths of all-encompassing material.  Even when the group is at the very beginning of a track, setting the foundation for large ideas in the future, there’s an immediate presence in their sound.  This presence guides them through a 20-minute track that takes things down to near silence before ever-so-carefully building up back into their wall of sound to end things off.  There’s a meditative quality to this work that keeps the listener enthralled from beginning to end.

After interacting in space to kick off the record, the trio sort of builds a pulse.  Not necessarily moving within a regular meter the pulse is crafted with each player gravitating in and out with tiny crescendos and decrescendos.  Of course the track does grasp onto a steady 4/4 rhythm later on, but this idea of pulse is key to blending the two extremes together.  As far as the groove goes, it’s nice to see a sensible juxtaposition between Gareth Davis’s unrefined, raw clarinet lines against the somewhat stagnant offerings from Thomas Cruijsen and Leo Fabriek.  Granted, the guitar and drum are far from slick, but having the wild clarinet going on really brings out the human element of the group.

The second track, “V,” is the most condensed track on the record.  The raucous groove is immediate and still finds a way to fly off the rails; it’s smart to get a break from the more barren landscapes by offering something unrelenting between them.  Perhaps this track exposes a bit of weakness melodically, as the clarinet doesn’t work a whole lot with motivic development.  Davis works with small ideas in reaction to what’s going on around him rather than crafting his own musical storyline.  On their next effort, it might be good to think about how the melody is developing along with the groove.

“VI” finishes things off with a huge track that completely earns its length.  At the start, a contender for the messiest groove on record comes through with everyone testing the metric constraints.  Slowly the clarinet shapes some beautiful melodies over the top and the track comes to a standstill before building everything up again.  All of the changes to the soundscape are incredibly subtle, but again the group encapsulates the audience throughout—it’s truly an exciting 20-minutes.

We also see a nice change in hierarchy of the ensemble on this track.  Particularly in the beginning, it feels like the guitar sort of serves a rhythmic role and the drums come to the foreground with solo-worthy material.  Even the clarinet takes a bit of a subordinate role with droning long tones far off in the background.  This adds to the dynamic quality of the work as there’s much more than a single set-up in which the group operates.

Sonically, the album feels fresh.  Tapping into the constellation records ambiance, with an improviser’s flavor, Mere take an eclectic collection of ideologies to new heights.  In the future, it would be nice to see a bit more melodic and motivic development, but the dynamic quality of this work certainly provides for a fascinating listen.

-Donovan Burtan


Classic Album of the Week: Sonic Youth-Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation is one of those records that came at the end of a decade and gave the world a taste of every sound that was about to explode all over a genre.  The band looked to DC hardcore and threw in some lengthy, Patti Smith spoken word art rock and also purely innovated new ideology.  The general brooding darkness–a byproduct of alternate guitar tunings and heavy distortion–would be all over the Seattle scene, whereas experimental moments–like the ambient track “Providence”–would influence the likes of Bark Psychosis and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

Raucous riffs dominate, on some tracks underlying a fun vocal delivery before pounding the listener for huge swaths of time with a switch into minor yielding a noisy finale.  There’s a sense that the band came up with little, simple song structures, but they come at an irregular pace.  We open with Kim Gordon’s hazy spoken word, before a fun, marching tune sets in; “The Sprawl” ends with a spacey instrumental, then the singers don’t show up for another two minutes at the beginning of “Cross the Breeze.”

The lyrics capture the moods of the 20s with laying them out to obviously for you.  “I’m over the city, fucking the future” suggests mild arrogance; “I remember our youth, our high ideals” tells us about how the magic gets pummeled out of you.

When you take a step back, you see an 80-minute record that many consider a masterpiece, but the listening experience is never overly daunting and flies by with each stroke of that cheap guitar.

The Uncoverables Podcast: Jesse Beaman Interview (My Empty Phantom)

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This week’s episode features an interview with Jesse Beaman, who writes music under the stage name My Empty Phantom.  His album “Collection of Memories I/II” was reviewed on positively underground last year and we’re excited for it’s partner album due for release this year.

The episode also features and handful of exciting new rock releases.

Priests-Nothing Feels Natural from “Nothing Feels Natural”

Tim Darcy-Still Waking Up from “Saturday Night”

My Empty Phantom-Reflection and Forever from “Collection of Memories I/II”

Real Estate-Darling from “In Mind”

Parlor Walls-Play Opposites from “Opposites”

FJAAK-FJAAK: Album Review

Berlin’s FJAAK certainly take the city’s club scene under their wing, however, their album is much more than an electronic dance record.  Rather than building their songs atop some sort of bassy beat foundation, FJAAK only use their pummeling beats as a sort of stabilizing agent, sometimes to tie together sparse melodic ideas and other times to cut through an icy, ambient environment.  Also, besides the few relentless pummeling tracks, FJAAK channels the likes of Oval for some beautiful, shimmering moments.  There’s even less of the constant up and down action of dance music records as FJAAK spends huge swaths of time subtly changing beats before stripping down to a barren place or sucking all of the air out of a tune to smash speakers with some brooding bass.  The album might not be the most emotionally heavy work, but it definitely offers surprises throughout.

The record first spouts some rather sporadic electrified sound effects, before a nicely textured rhythm comes into the equation to solidify things.  It’s interesting how the two main elements of the song are isolated then thrown together in the same space.  This helps the group achieve a dynamic sound without having to rely on huge fire power as tension is resolved by putting pieces together rather than turning up the volume.

“Wolves” moreso hits you over the head with intensity as a huge, brooding bass beat runs throughout.  Still, the group provides a stark shift in mood at around the halfway point, when the track dives into a short ambient sprawl.  The gloomy synthesizer backdrop of the bridge makes the second half of the track shoot into a much darker emotional direction than the bright beginning.  Again, there’s a large amount of contrast in the track without turning to cheap strategies.

“Fast Food” takes the idea of compartmentalizing to extreme heights as the track seems to either isolate a steady, climbing pitch or a hard-hitting beat. Perhaps this track even provides a bit of commentary on the EDM community as entire minute-long sections of the song are dedicated to this heightening pitch that really puts the track on edge before delving into a dance-able beat.  The beat also doesn’t really punch at a super steady clip, more interacting with the bouncy electronic elements above it; it feels a bit ironic to have such a huge build.  Next, the group gives the first full-fledged shot at ambient music with twinkling, programmed synth opening for “Snow.”  Again, we see a beat coming into the equation to sort of ground everything around it, but here the beat is very much influenced by the environment that it’s jumping into.  Rather than the deep, pounding beats of previous track, “Snow” sort of touches a light-hearted mood with rhythmic elements rooted in a slightly higher register.  We see in these two tracks how much risk the group is willing to take.

“Sixteen Levels” and “Gewerbe 15” are probably the most brutal tracks on the record.  Both punch heavily throughout and tap into the idea of sucking all the headspace out of the room to completely focus on darkness.  Still, FJAAK leave enough room for some beautiful melodic moments as we see towards the end of “Gewerbe” with this nice beam of light over the bleak atmosphere.

“Offline” gives the listener some relief with a bit of Oval-induced, subdued texture.  What’s interesting here is that the record spent the past two songs hammering home such stagnant beats, but this track never really finds its footing.  The idea of tension remains it’s just more rooted in structure than in outward violence.

The final two tracks on the record touch upon some completely different sounds.  “Against the Clock” begins with the most instrumental sounding beat on the record as we’re treated to a sort of funk, backbeat drum kit.  Over the course of the seven minutes, the track sort of molds into the band’s synthetic atmosphere, but the slight acoustic lean remains present.  On “Fjkslktr,” Modeselektor jumps in and gives a bit of a Daft Punk melodic sound for a final reorganization of the band’s sound.

Perhaps the strongest attribute of FJAAK is the variation that the group is able to achieve.  Every track offers something different, while also falling back on the group’s beats to tie up the loose ends.  Emotionally, the group could offer a bit more.  This project is certainly more about experimenting with electronic music form than throwing together some lyrical melodies, but the occasional beautiful moment comes through, making for a memorable effort.

-Donovan Burtan



Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Ned Rothenberg-In Cahoots: Album Review

In Cahoots features three mainstays of the free jazz community doing what they do best.  Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and Violinist Mark Feldman combined forces on one of my favorite projects from last year—Miller’s Tale which also included Ikue Mori and Evan Parker—and although this album involves less exploration of extended technique and uncharted aesthetic space, their musicality combines nicely with Ned Rothenberg for a biting artistic journey.

Much of the project feels anticipatory for something huge.  Opening track “Light and Variations” plays with anxiety ridden aesthetics as quiet, combative melodies are pitted against each other throughout, implying an incoming explosion.  This sort of sets the tone for the first half of the record.  Admittedly the lack of drums somewhat limits the group in terms of fire power, so the explosive material comes in the forms of tiny blips on the radar.  Take the track “Inter-State,” for example; here, each player kind of dives right in with rather out of control melodic material from Feldman and Rothenberg, complimented by pounding piano work from Courvoisier, but the track is only six minutes in length and the explosive material still finds quite a bit of time to cool down towards the end.  For an album that’s been building for 6 lengthy tracks the climax seems relatively short lived, yet the group somehow uses this to their advantage.  Time tends to move fast when you’re expecting something and by only satisfying the tension on occasion, the group really puts their work on the edge.

The group seems to be altogether unaffected by the lack of drums rhythmically.  Much of the project features all three of the players hanging in a contrapunctal state with pecked piano notes, plucked strings and spiraling clarinet—see the beginning of the title track.  Othertimes, one player will obsessively repeat a simple melodic figure and slowly spin out of control, while others sit in a more pitch-driven space. Rothenberg showcases this on the track “Epic Proportions,” first crafting a metric groove, before abandoning any real sense of meter and tapping into a more emotionally driven sound.  To contrast, Feldman can offer longing violin melodies, or Rothenberg can make a track really breathe with his Shakuhachi flute playing.  The album represents a mastery of internal time-keeping.

The space on the project doesn’t necessarily have a hierarchy and every musician sort of plays every ensemble role at one point or another, but there are certain habits at hand.  One in particular is the parts of the project where Courvoisier plays an emotionally affectual role to change the context of Feldman and Rothenberg’s melodic trading.  Referring again to the title track, when Courvoisier leaves the room for a couple minutes, Feldman and Rothenberg take a step forward as the main focus area, but then Courvosier seemingly taps one key and changes the track completely.  This really helps the ensemble achieve contrast in a cohesive way by leading the group down a different path without losing track of the starting point.

Aesthetically, this is an album that comes out every day in the jazz community, so it’s hard to say if this specific project is ever going to get name dropped after this year, but the musicians do more than just throw it on auto-pilot.  The project flies bye as a product of the tension the musicians maintain.  Rothenberg and Feldman constantly interact in intriguing ways, while Courvoisier selects new moods for them to jump into and rhythm—although not rationed to any one musician—constantly pushes the momentum forward.  In Cahoots is certainly a work worth listening to.

-Donovan Burtan


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The Uncoverables Podcast: Janu-scary 2017 Experimental Mix

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This is the second half of my radio show from last week featuring new and upcoming music from January 2017.

W Zabarkas: “Autumn Invades the House” from The Origin of Dreams

Aaron Lumley and Jasper Stadhouders: “Lapis Philosophorum” from Strung Out

Mere: “V” from Mere II

Astvaldur: “Flesh” from At Least

Daniel WJ Mackenzie: “Abandonment II” from Everytime Feels like the Last Time

Julie Byrne: “Natural Blue” from Not Even Happiness