On The Monthly: February 2017

Best of February. No Particular Order.

Sampha-Process

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Sampha has been lurking in the shadows for years as a songwriter and collaborator; Kanye, Frank, and Solange look good on a resume, but this album was Sampha’s chance to jump out into the spotlight.  On all accounts, Process is a victory.  Perfect instrumentals fill every corner of the work from modest piano/voice tracks to risky drum charts and sweeping backing vocals.  Sampha’s words are heartfelt throughout, addressing everything from the importance of his mother, to the tough aspects of relating to one’s family members and a few tunes about overcoming heartbreak.  It’s an emotional journey that also happens to include some early contenders for best single of the year.

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Priests-Nothing Feels Natural

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Stormzy-Gang Signs & Prayer

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Stormzy will tell you himself that this debut record was a long time coming.  Since gaining recognition as best grime act in the 2014 MOBO awards, he’s been a bit aloof, releasing only singles, mixtapes and music videos.  The air gets cleared quickly on Gang Signs & Prayer as each of the first three tracks hit hard and emphasize—convincingly—that there’s nothing to worry about—Stormzy is clocked in a ready to go.  He also quickly convinces us that he’s not one dimensional with a gospel number and later features offered by Kehlani and Nao.  Perhaps the album is a bit of a mixed bag and perhaps a few too many tunes gush with excess, but this record showcases a dynamic songwriter who commands each and every minute with his striking personality.

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Julie Byrne-Not Even Happiness

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There are certain formulas that have stood the test of time and the folk singer/songwriter equipped with acoustic guitar is clearly one of them.  Although the pillars of the 1960s and 70s—Dylan and Mitchell—might still be the ones truly at the tip of your tongue when the topic is brought up, Chapman, Elliot, and Sufjan have carried us on to modern day.  Aided by some blissfully subtle decisions from producer Eric Littman, Julie Byrne has carved out a nice niche for herself on Not Even Happiness.  The album’s transient landscape effortlessly maintains a natural sensibility, while also tapping into some gorgeous electro-acoustic findings.  Byrne’s lyrics are beautifully introspective and focused so the album reads as a personal journey with words of wisdom for all people.

Full Review

Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR

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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.

Review

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The Uncoverables Podcast: Nick Fraser Interview

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This week’s episode (is four days late….) features excerpts from an interview I did over the summer with Canadian Improvising Drummer Nick Fraser.  We spoke a bit about his philosophies surrounding improvisation and the process behind his latest album Starer which you can find at nickfraserthedrummer.bandcamp.com!  New music from outside the jazz world included after the interview portion.  Tune in!

(photo credit: Christer Männikus)

Playlist (artist-“tune” from album)

Nick Fraser-“Sketch #20/22” from Starer

Gintas K-“Minmi” from Under My Skin

Sarah Davachi-“Ghosts and All” from Vergers

Sneaks-“Inside Edition” from It’s a Myth

The Courtneys-“Silver Velvet” from II

 

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

8/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Ingrid Laubrock Interview

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This is a revamping of my 2016 interview with German-born, Brooklyn-based composer/musician Ingrid Laubrock.  We speak a bit about her compositional strategies and her playing relationships with Mary Halvorson and Tom Rainey.

Playlist:

Lisa Mezzacappa- “Fillmore Street” and “A Bird in the Hand” from avantNOIR

Ingrid Laubrock- “Pothole Analytics” (part 1&2) from Serpentines

Philippe Lauzier- a portion of “Far Side” from DÔME

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

7/10

Listen on spotify:

Looking Ahead: Week of January 16th

Here’s some great new music with reviews in the works!

 

Austra presents icy, minimal electronic music with soaring vocals and lyrics about the dire state of contemporary affairs.  Listen today in full over at NPR.

This album is a bit stagnant, but the massive, shimmering drones and subtle, underlying rhythmic ideas combine for a grabbing experience.

Some really mature improvised music from some of the world’s best.  Might not be one of the year’s most memorable projects, but music from this crowd is certainly always welcome.

Life and Other Transient Storms-Life and Other Transient Storms_Album Review

            Headed by Portuguese trumpet player Susana Santos Silva, Life and Other Transient Storms present a dark sonic landscape on their self-titled album.  Brooding melodies unite the entire group with brief side conversations shedding light on specific sections of the ensemble.  The album is completely driven by improvisation with two huge periods of time leaving plenty of room to explore.  Although the ensemble is of a traditional quintet set-up with Lotte Anker on saxophones, Sten Sandell on piano, Torbjörn Zetterberg on bass and Jon Fält on drums, their relentless energy and chemistry combine for a memorable free jazz release with surprising textures and developments entering the mix throughout.

Beginning with tense playing from each band member, album opener “Life” collages many different sonic capabilities of the band ranging from explosive chaos to more barren dives into textural ambiance.  One-on-one improvisation within the ensemble allows for quiet breaths of intimacy to break up the huge walls of sound.  Drummer Jon Fält has a particular knack for complementing the improvisations of the more melody driven instruments in the space, first bouncing ideas off of Torbjörn Zetterberg’s bass noodling before finding a connection with Sten Sandell’s piano work.  The second piece begins with Silva alone, her rhythm section eventually joining her before the entrance of Anker’s sax.  Silva’s playing is generally very clean with modest extended techniques complementing her angular melodies. As the piece develops, the volume grows, particularly when Lotte Anker finally enters on sax.  Perhaps a product of her selected instrumentation, Anker becomes the main energy force on the album, her massive capacity for sound pulling life out of the players that surround her.  Being the shorter of the two pieces, “Other Transient Storms” operates essentially as one big build up.  Even amongst certain digressions from the overall explosive soundscape, the focus of the piece pushes forward, contrasting the more fluctuating mood of the first piece.

The album is wholly cloaked in a dark sound aesthetic.  Each melody thrives on minor tonality with a certain anxious pressure coming from the approach of each ensemble member.  For saxophone player Lotte Anker, blaring repetition of vibrato-ridden low notes adds to the overall tense mood.  On piano, Sten Sandell places his phrases on the edge of a cliff with a certain burning urgency jabbing at each played key.  Perhaps all of the un-ease accomplished by the players is what warrants the length of each piece as the listener is kept on the edge of their seat, anxiously awaiting resolution.

As far as experimental extended techniques go, this album is more subtle than many of the free jazz releases in today’s market, which presents a bit of give and take as the record is made more impressive by its ability to maintain intrigue off of traditional musical techniques alone, but it also somewhat fails to offer anything groundbreaking sonically.  It would certainly be fair to say that a record sounding like this could have feasibly been created a couple years ago on clean feed records and acoustic free jazz of this nature will ensue for years to come.  Perhaps the band could have benefited from some unique production tactics or electronic additions to their sound.  On the other hand, sometimes the addition of an electronic element or an extremely vast collection of experimental sounds cheapens the effect of the music as a whole.  At the end of the day it is up to the musicians themselves to take risks and push themselves in new directions, it just cannot go without saying that staying comfortable with the way things are done today can lead to musical stagnation tomorrow.

Life and Other Transient Storms is a solid free jazz release.  The ensemble comes together with a great deal of chemistry and their impressive feats of musical prowess entertain and shock throughout.  As far as pushing boundaries go, the group does not seem to be pushing themselves into a completely unknown territory, however their talents make up for the lack of shocking modernity.

Very solid work all around with room for sonic improvement: 8/10

-Donovan Burtan

**Review to be published on http://music.ckut.ca/ this week**