Parlor Walls-Opposites: Album Review

Armed with konked-out free jazz saxophone and no-wave punk sensibilities, Parlor Walls paint an emotionless, futuristic void to speak about modern mundanities, societal constructs, and relationship tensions.  Self-described trash-jazz musicians, the walls pit Alyse Lamb’s raucous vocal deliveries and scrapping guitar musings against Kate Mohanty’s screeching horn over open-faced drum grooves from Chris Mulligan in a number of different aesthetic realms.  Crime Engine Failure opens with a straightforward distorted landscape, but tunes like Me Me My and Cover Me jump into a more industrial realm, leaving the tumultuous jam session Teach Me Where to Roam out in left field as an outlier.  At this point in time, the lines between free jazz horns and punk-induced yelps have been drawn before, but Mohanty’s lyrics leave room for interpretation and the dynamic songwriting approach makes for a riveting experience.

The lyrics on the project certainly require a bit of interpretation, but Lamb’s way with words makes her lines particularly unique and enticing.  Crime Engine Failure opens with passing remarks: “cut it into little watches/I got the script you hear my voices/running images across the screen/scan for the one’s dear to me.”  The idea of running images across a screen is decently discernable as something to do with technology—Instagram?—and the script implies something rehearsed, whereas the last line touches upon emotional meaning.  I sort of draw this together as the faux-emotions of the internet where you almost have a script of things to do in order to convince your friends that you still care.  The chorus bursts out with “but you pulled the chord right out of me and now I don’t know how to call out,” which again touches upon technology as Lamb doesn’t know what to do when she’s unplugged.

Other areas on the album allude to various figures in Lamb’s life.  Play Opposites seems to be about gender, particularly when one’s parents feel as though their children didn’t turn out as expected: “Is this what you wanted mother/empty shells to fill your hole.”  The “play opposites” tag refers to some sort of binary, perhaps a childhood game in which brother and sister play opposite.

With pounding 7/8 in full swing throughout, Hesitation creates a particularly violent atmosphere for a dystopian take on having feelings for someone: “crawl through your infatuation/can you say my name.”  With a chorus about tearing down the walls between each other that gets delivered in complete anarchy: “welcome through I’ll leave my light on/rearrange my shade/we can imagine partition/see it fall away.”  The mood of the tracks is always reflected in Lamb’s words and although the line “burn it to the ground” seems to be rather all-encompassing for the record, there’s a great deal of variety throughout.

Sonically, the group is grounded in a certain aesthetic, but the subtle changes at the beginning of each track make for a new context for their improvisatory gestures.  On Teach Me Where to Roam, the cacophonous drums make for a particularly bleak environment.  Mohanty’s smoldering saxophone lines add to the haunting moodiness, trading ideas with the lofty guitar melodies.  Cover Me is even more daring in its improvisation as Mohanty’s manipulated saxophone unleashes idiosyncratic lines throughout, to match the brooding, looped electronic bass sound.

The instrumental, Carstairs, is brought to a much more mellow sound space with glistening, textured electronics.  Of course, Mohanty carries the track into a slightly more anxious place with her melodic climaxes, but it’s interesting to hear a bit more of a barren landscape for their gushing energy than the usual heavy riffs.

Opposites showcases a punk band that’s primed and ready to wreak havoc on DIY spaces all over the continent.  Parlor Walls certainly pay homage to the no wave era, but their integration of improvisation into the punk idiom is pristine and Alyse Lamb’s poetic lyrics inspire deep listening and contemplation.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Evan Shay and Kyle Hutchins (Run and Hide) Interview

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Evan Shay and Kyle Hutchins are Montreal musicians whom you may already know, but Run and Hide is a stark change of artistic pace for both of them.  Comprised of a pair of sax players, Run and Hide is a highly melody/improvisation driven work involving a lot of conversational playing.  On this episode we talk about improvisation, purple cows, and finding inspiration in and outside of the classroom.

Playlist:

Jessica Ackerley Trio-“Clockwork” from Coalesce

Run and Hide-“Which Way is the Highway? ” and “The Well Lit Road” from Run and Hide

Craig Taborn-“Phantom Ratio” from Daylight Ghosts

Jessica Ackerley-Coalesce: Album Review

Jessica Ackerley is a Canadian-born jazz guitarist who has since relocated to New York City.  On Coalesce, she seems to have completely accomplished her goals.  To quote her liner notes: “Coalesce is an exploration of the guitar trio. The compositions have been a three-year process of honing the perfect balance between compositional form and complete free improvisation.”  It’s clear that the songs on this record are structured and planned, but the group’s flexibility is impeccable.  Melodies melt into open sections of improvisation with ease; solos flip-flop between individual focus and collective conversation effortlessly; and the group finds room to embrace space and silence between their primal noisy jam sessions making for a record that offers constant surprises and a perfect balance between not only improvisation and composition, but anticipation and stimulation.

To some degree, the final track ‘merica provides the best summary of the group’s various dynamic levels and playing spaces.  As the longest track of the collection, ‘merica builds up from near silence to a heavy final vamp, touching upon all the levels of the spectrum in between.  Ackerley opens alone with wandering guitar melody.  The line is rather simple and alters between a small handful of notes, but the delivery—especially considering the pounding heaviness of the preceding track—is quite unpredictable, drawing the listener closer for every strum.  As the presence of drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Mat Muntz grows in the middle, the group offers some great textures especially when Muntz rips squealing high notes out with his bow.  Towards the end of the track, Fraser rounds out the sound with frantic cymbal work as Ackerley lays down dramatic distorted pillars of guitar sound.

On other tracks, the group takes a variety of different approaches to song form, but focusses a bit more on specific levels of volume.  The opener, Clockwork, offers a comfortable middle ground to introduce the band.  The structure of this one is rather straight-forward as well with the group diving from main theme into a ‘solo’ section, then back to the main theme.  Again, I use the term solo rather cautiously because the forms are still rather fluid and each player seems to be constantly changing their playing style to fit wherever the melody is headed.

Minneola opens with guitar solo before jumping into a head with a bunch of different sections.  The end of the track doesn’t revert back to the beginning, rather Ackerley transitions from her solo to a vamp to give Fraser room to play around for the last couple minutes of the track.  Because the head never comes back in full, the track has a highly improvised sensibility.

Snakes in the Grass is perhaps the most bombastic tune.  Ackerley opens with some heavy-handed chords, and although there’s a bit of a digression after the initial head, madness overtakes a great deal of the track.  The primal intensity of this track is well earned and keeps things pushing towards the end.  Perhaps my only complaint on this record would be that the middle of the track-listing can be a bit slow, but this track and the final come together for a rousing finale.

The album shows a mastery of guitar tone from Ackerley.  Her subtle array of effects always seems to place her perfectly within the context of each piece.  On the introductory Clockwork, Ackerley keeps it rather clean, but when given space to her own on the aptly titled Solo Guitar, she plays around with an echo effect to fill up the room a bit more.  Heavy numbers obviously inspire distortion, but as we see at the beginning of ‘merica, Ackerley also finds time to caress slow melodies with waving foot pedal action.

Coalesce is a sensible name for this project.  It’s an experience that blends everything together super well, resulting in a dynamic 48-minute block with shining standout moments as well as a cohesive flow from idea to idea.  New York is a crowded place, but Ackerley is sure to be one of the young stars around town in the coming years.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Classic Album of the Week: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet-Sound (1966)

On his first album as a band leader, Roscoe Mitchell gave the world a first glance at the music that the Art Ensemble of Chicago–of which Mitchell and a few of these musicians were a part of–would be enamored with throughout their illustrious career.  Coming seven years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Sound extended Coleman’s message with a more collective playing style and further dives into experimental textures. The aptly named opener Ornette follows the same melody-improvisation-melody formula that Coleman used so often, but The Little Suite follows with great deal of components, each of which tested limits of aesthetic and timbre with harmonicas and other texturally driven instrumental sounds.  At 20-minutes long, title-track Sound was certainly one of the most rebellious offerings of the 1960s.

Chicago was a town that always held an influence on jazz history as many New Orleans-born heroes had to flee to a less racist part of the country late in their careers.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago proved the importance of the city’s art music scened by pushing the idea of improvisation further than it had ever been with each performance.  Sound was the start of their rise and without it the fundamental ideas of free improvisation would not be where they are today.

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

Dek Trio-Burning Below Zero: Album Review (Ken Vandermark, Didi Kern, Elisabeth

Adding to the long list of Ken Vandermark collaborations, Burning Below Zero showcases an improvisation-driven sound that doesn’t stick to one mode of playing too heavily.  Much of the record features frantic, free-metered battle between Vandermark, pianist Elisabeth Harnik and drummer Didi Kern, but the group also takes dives into loose, punky swing ploys and even a bit of freakish back-beat funk grooves.  Keeping all this together is the group’s use of space.  As one idea fades out, the group takes their time with ambient noise and sketches of melodies, before jumping onto the next.  It’s an album that greatly varies in sonic content, but it’s also an album that values a natural series of events.

Things get off to an especially raw start.  Pops and clicks from Vandermark’s horn interact with rumbling drum phrasing, then airy phrases quickly turn to screaming melodies and Harnik’s piano phrasing reaches a heavy urgency to really fill the room with noise.  Eventually, Vandermark fades out of the equation, before returning to herald in a slight change in mood.  Although the energy and pace remains high, Kern’s choice to jump off the cymbals, coupled with Vandermark’s sparse phrasing makes for a much lighter attack.  Next, Vandermark gets left in the spotlight for some hefty melodic lines and Kern strong-arms the change in direction with a punky swing feel.

Within the first ten minutes (of a 30-minute track), the group has already taken some pretty big changes in direction, but what’s interesting about the first passage here is that each change in direction is directed—in a sense—by a player who’s rested for a couple minutes.  This becomes a really interesting tactic throughout the record as the group has a player just listening to the sounds of the room, then offering the response that dictates the next move; it makes for cohesive, yet unpredictable sound.

The swing groove of “Raj 1” sputters out around the 13-minute mark and the group enters a really ambient place.  Kern and Harnik take texture as their main focal point with cymbal work and extended techniques in the piano strings.  Vandermark’s return offers something of a rhythmic element with throbbing saxophone lines for the other players to interact with.  Somehow, the percussion section conjures this oddball drone sound and Vandermark gently transitions to a melodic role in anticipation of the final, haunting groove.  The second half of this track is much sound and space driven, but again we see a lot of sonic ground covered with some fantastic collective playing.

“Raj 2,” admittedly, features a similar series of events to the first edition, but there’s some especially special work here from pianist Elisabeth Harnik.  There’s a natural aura of drama that her piano melodies carry and this adds a lot of emotion to the abstractions that begin the track.  As Vandermark pecks out melodies, Harnik stabs out some brooding piano lines and slides before resorting to rumbling low range to notch up the intensity.  It’s work that’s not excessive, but it really drives the mood of the project at this point.

This track does also incorporate on of the coolest grooves on the record.  After complete madness, ensues around the ten-minute mark, Kern abruptly jumps into a quasi-funk groove with Vandermark and Harnik still gripping the atonal slosh the group just came out of.  It’s a really off-kilter moment and it’s great to hear so much raw passion in one place.

Considering that there’s two nearly 30-minute tracks, it’s certainly an album that takes a jazz head’s ear and a bit of patience, but this album is chock full of well executed material that feels very naturally crafted.  As I’ve said time and time again with acoustic jazz records, this album isn’t necessarily breaking new ground sonically, but it certainly proves that gritty improvisation still has something to say.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10