Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-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


Listen on spotify:

Mich Cota-“To Destroy What is Left”_Ear Worms

Sapphic cover art


Mich Cota ponders ideas on their new project “Sapphic.”  Each song stagnates in a singular place for an undetermined period of time, developments occurring amidst the gradual looping of melodic ideas.  The album is best digested as an overall project as Cota weaves a tale from song to song, however, each track stands out with some not leaving their selected location for more than 15 minutes and others providing a brief jaunt around a small room.

“To Destroy What is Left” plays with the moods of optimism and uncertainty, first creating dark ambiance with little motion in the pool of sound.  Slowly, tapping synthesizers come into the mix generating a great deal of tension.  The song ends in a realm of optimism with bright melodies replacing darkness within the ambiance of the first portion of the song.   Although the song is somewhat divided, the two main moods seep into the background whenever the opposite mood takes center stage.  In the part of the song with constant, pressing synths, the underlying melody is along the lines of the optimism of the end.  Also, despite being more optimistic, the second half of the song takes some turns towards uncertainty with melodic ideas ending in unexpected ways.

As far as visceral ambiance goes, Mich Cota has clearly created a great piece of music on this album.  His sense of development is particularly brilliant and the electronic landscape serves him well allowing for ideas to echo and drone on for long periods of time encapsulating the listener.  Certainly worth sitting down and listening to in one sitting.


Aaron Lumley- Katabasis/Anabasis_First Impressions


Jazz bass is an often overlooked aspect of the idiom as it always finds difficulty in taking a melodic role.  In big band the task is nearly impossible and even in combo settings, bass solos always seem to be a bit forced as the rest of the band must bring their playing down to minuscule levels for the soloist to be heard.  On his newest solo album, Aaron Lumley tackles this issue head on, spending a lonesome hour with his upright, utilizing every technique in his tool shed to create musical excitement on what may be the most challenging instruments to do so.

One of the main aspects of this album is the use of a bow.  Lumley seems to be continuously pumping his arm back and forth, ripping every possible sound out of his instrument through every up and down of each piece.  The emphasis on strumming may explain the title of the work.  Both coming from Greek language, Katabasis and Anabasis are opposites with Katabasis being a retreat and Anabasis being an arrival.  The idea of retreat and arrival trading off puts the visual of a bassist’s in and out bowing motion into words quite well.  Also, the idea of retreat and arrival runs deeper than each in and out strumming motion of the bow as the ideas seem to develop in this manner as well.  Lumley is constantly building up into a climax or slowly fading away from one throughout each piece.  On “Psychopomp,” the pressing, high-pitched vibrations set the tone for the soundscape with low abstract melodies slowly developing into more extensive ideas.

Lumley maintains dynamic sound development by systematically  from his wide pool of extended techniques. Some of the tunes focus on continuous sound achieving a busy texture, whereas other tunes are left open for a more ambient effect.  Admittedly, the piece does loose interest here and there.  Lumley is obviously very talented, however, a solo acoustic work of this type, especially considering the overall length of the album, is always going to have some repetition.  There is little aesthetic change from “Mountain Goat’s Dance” to “A Pyriscent Green Man” and a non jazz listener may find the whole piece somewhat stagnant in overall sound.  Nonetheless, the album has certainly peaked my interest.

Overall, my first impression was quite good and I definitely anticipate playing some of the work on my next radio show.  I do understand that the piece may lack re-play value for those not use to minimalist acoustic music and even for those who are in-tune with those genres as well.  As I spend more time with the record, I may find myself either loving every minute of it or losing interest in some of the more repetitive pieces.


Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey-“Thunderbird”_Ear Worms

The year 2015 marked an astounding accomplishment in composition for Ingrid Laubrock.  With the release of “Roulette of the Cradle” and “Ubatuba,”  Laubrock provided the jazz community with two intriguing pieces of music that contrasted each other quite nicely.  On her new album “Buoyancy,” Laubrock has left composition by the wayside, instead electing to hash it out in a completely free situation with drummer Tom Rainey.

Generally speaking, the album contains a lot of ups and downs.  This is not to say that the way certain events unfold is completely predictable, however, the duo tend to juxtapose loud and soft with slow digressions and ascensions filling the space between.  On the final portion of the album, “Thunderbird,” something slightly different happens: the group plays with subtlety never fully leaving the territory of minimalism.  Laubrock repeats long drones on a single note growing from the sound of air to more concrete vibrations with tiny snare sounds accompanying her the whole way.

Rainey mostly plays the tonalities of his toms and cymbols during “Thunderbird,” but in one moment he transcends his subdued playing space with a small collection of spirited snare hits.  Rainey has a brilliant sense of musicality and his input on this quiet piece complements Laubrock perfectly.  By providing one specific moment of power, Rainey adds a perfect level of vivid imagery to the abstract soundscape.

With the addition of this particularly somber ending, the album leaves the audience with something to think about.  Instead of growing into one final climax with both members of the group playing as fast and loud as possible, the audience is forced to listen tightly to the nuances of abstraction.




Ofer Pelz et Preston Beebe-Whim_First Impression

Whim cover art

A sentence along the lines of “Kohlenstoff Records Debut” can yield a lot of different results. Kohlenstoff is a particularly avant-garde label in Montreal that has released projects consisting of sounds that most wouldn’t be able to fit into any musical archetype.  Ida Toninato fits somewhere in the ambient free jazz territory whereas Émilie Payeur looks to make sense of distortion in her particularly harsh interpretation of sound art. On “Whim” the idiom of jazz is brought into question by Ofer Pelz and Preston Beebe.

Beebe and Pelz weave dystopian tales in their barren sound aesthetic with prepared piano and extended percussion techniques.  Melodies and chords do not sing out in specific ways, rather sounds emerge from the dissection of traditional instruments.  The pieces are extraordinary in texture.  Both musicians pull sound out of their instruments that click and crinkle in fascinating ways making for a collage of constantly surprising sounds.

On “Cracks” it is very interesting to see how the two voices interact.  Although the origin of each sound is hard to distinguish amongst the pool of texturally appealing noise, there seems to be an ever-present sense of back and forth.   As the piece develops, ideas evolve into bigger and bigger territories with two distinct beings supporting one another.  “Melting Glass” may serve as the most traditional attempt at free jazz.  A pressing piano motive repeats and repeats leaving Beebe with space to fill with his extended drum techniques.

Although the duo achieve a very specific sound aesthetic from the beginning of the record, they somehow find varying ways to re-interpret themselves making for a very encapsulating experience from beginning to end.  My first impression of this album was very positive and I look forward to further listening down the road.


Thumbscrew-Convallaria_Quick 100

On their new release, Thumbscrew juxtapose well defined rhythmic space against flat, open planes with Michael Formanek and Mary Halvorson constantly communicating back and forth, both carrying a heavy breadth of expression in their respective voices. Halvorson’s quirky melodic interpretation is also complemented by Tomas Fujiwara’s textural drum articulations making for a truly collective effort.  Although the group could have easily fallen into the trap of rhythm, chords, and bass, their unpredictable song structures allow for each member to shine through at varying time intervals.  “Cleome” serves as a groove driven opener whereas “Trigger” embodies the melody of a semi-typical ballad and “Screaming Piha” floats off into the void.  Contrast shines through from track to track culminating in an album that surprises both in composition and interpretation from beginning to end.