Jaimie Branch-Fly or Die: Album Review

Jaimie Branch’s debut is a longtime coming.  Having grown up in the heart of Chicago’s music scene and relocated to New York City, she’s had a role in improvising, hip-hop, and indie rock scenes for years and she’s also worked as a sound person, enjoying punk and underground aesthetics of all creeds—in interviews, she’ll mention everyone from Sun Ra to Matana Roberts to Show Me the Body.

“Fly or Die” didn’t come together in a conventional manner and it owes a little bit to each of the traditions that Branch has experienced over the years.  The record seamlessly incorporates post-production guitar ramblings, live set interpolations, and dubbed over trumpet trios without losing the sense of a single paint stroke.

Themes 1, 2, and “Theme Nothing” operate as major focal points.  After a 15 second snack of trumpet distortion, Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid, and Jason Ajemian combine forces to set the tone with a driving minor groove. Reid and Ajemian’s chemistry is immediate, as they trade off little pieces of bass line over Taylor’s melodic approach to the kit. Branch enters with an ascending line with a lot of room for reinterpretation, leading to a lot of interchange between her and Taylor.

One recurring theme on the record seems to be abstracting distinctions between solo and ensemble, written melody and improvised and this track immediately touches upon that. Branch leads the charge into the back end of the track, which eventually dissolves into a dramatic landscape aided by longing, bowed string melodies and some acoustic guitar ramblings from “guest artist” Matt Schneider.  “Meanwhile” then focusses in on Schneider, with Taylor eventually building back the energy for his final fill into “Theme 2.”  Although set-up a bit differently, the process somewhat repeats here with another fun, driving groove that gradually falls off into obscurity.

“Theme 2’s” end finds another important skill of Branch.  As I’ve said, the album is highly varied, but still feels like one paint stroke and part of that comes from the gradual introduction of the next melody at the end of the previous tune—a tactic that comes up all over the project.  Here, Reid and Ajemian paint a hectic backdrop and, as the dust settles, Branch introduces the balladic melody for the next track.

This first utterance of the “Leaves of Glass” melody gives off the impression of a ballad and the track initially has a sense of cleanliness to combat the violent end of “Theme 2,” but nothing is as it seems on a Jaimie Branch record and as the phrase repeats itself, the added trumpet parts lead the overall mood into another dystopian noise ploy.  It’s frankly amazing that Branch is able to move through these moods with such ease and her melodic knack helps ground each splash of emotion.

“The Storm” continues the noisiness and showcases one of the best examples of Branch’s use of recording technology.  After the “nose dives,” as Jaimie calls them, where each member of the band descends through the whole range of their instrument, a trumpet player spits out a bunch of biting, be-bop oriented lines.  This trumpet player is actually guest artist Ben Lamar Gay and Branch is making all of the static radio noise with extended techniques right up against the microphone.  This song is also taken from a live performance.

Had Branch not told me these details, I might not have even noticed–It really says a lot about a composer if their musical stamp is so ingrained in the work that even when they hand off the spotlight to another player on the same instrument, their personality reigns true.  After this tune, “Waltzer” dedicates itself a bit more to the notion of a ballad and “Theme Nothing” delivers another pulverizing groove to finish of the project.

As a whole, this record could appeal to a lot of music heads out there. There’s instances of blissful groove, but they get balanced out by distorted messes.  The production of the project is also impeccable and almost lends itself to the studio ideas of lo-fi folk movements from the late 90s by cutting and pasting all sorts of different ideas into one flowing collage of sound. Branch sounds poised as just about any other band leader out there right now and this album is a testament to her undying creativity and successfully carves out an exciting, unique position in the contemporary instrumental music realm.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Lauren Lee Interview

This week’s podcast is pulled from another episode of CKUT’s New Shit.  I speak to Lauren Lee about her Space Jazz Trio and their upcoming Montreal show at Cafe Resonance on May 20th.  Topics include songwriting strategies, influences, and some thoughts on the New York and Montreal jazz communities.

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Playlist:

Kara-Lis Coverdale- “Grafts” from Grafts

Lauren Lee Space Jazz Trio- “Voyager” from The Consciousness Test

Jessica Moss- “Entire Populations Pt. 2” from Pools of Light

Erik Hove- “Fractured” from Polygon

 

Album Review: Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, Whit Dickey-Vessel in Orbit

First 9/10 of the year folks, three legends keeping it straightforward with 48 spotless minutes of music.

“Vessel in Orbit,” the latest album from the great AUM Fidelity Records, features three greats doing what they do best in a neat, 48-minute package.  In terms of background, Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, and Whit Dickey are all names that most fans of improvisation are familiar with.  Last year, Shipp was featured on a re-release of sorts of old concert duets between him and the late-great David S. Ware.  Perhaps this combined with his biting “Cactus” album from the fall with Bobby Kapp puts him on a bit of a winning streak—of course it’s hard to say he’s ever NOT been on a winning streak.  For Dickey, this is a little bit of a return to the studio, although he also laid down some work with the freaky cornet player Kirk Knuffke last year, and violist Maneri has been active as ever, playing on Ches Smith’s “The Bell” in 2016.

From beginning to end, the album pulses with life.  These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times.  Dickey is a painter at the drums.  He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard.  “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track.  Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.

Also, the project is quite digestible.  Most of the songs run around five or six minutes, making them packed with activity and still, Shipp keeps his bashing bass sounds and freckled high notes contained.  Of course, these musicians aren’t compromising artistry or pandering to a mainstream audience, but this album might be a bit more applicable to any music fan with a pulse than their more stretched out, no-holds material.

Each track also maintains an individual identity.  With its bass pedal foundation and brief stints into bashing improvisation and reserved lyrical playing, opener “Spaceship 9” frames the project nicely without putting all the player’s cards on the table.  Longest track “Galaxy 9” features a great change in direction, first playing around with a squirrely little motive, before the spaced-out bridge leads into pulsing, brooding ending.  “To a Lost Comrade” might showcase the band at their highest commitment to delicacy, a term I’m using very lightly considering the rather big swell at the center of the tune.  Still, Shipp places a little bit of a sweetened emotional tone in the work and the ideas from all three remain a bit more lyrical than the mix on the other parts of the project.

Maneri and Shipp’s chemistry is truly uncanny.  Both of Shipp’s hands continuously deliver melodic ideas and Maneri also somewhat subscribes to that ideology.  As both hands spill over the bar lines on “Turbulence,” Maneri adds his own pecks and lines to the mix, the middle of the track crafting a mad house of melodic ideas before the ending also features charismatic back-and-forth tossing from the two.

Perhaps the trio isn’t carving out an entirely new aesthetic space—the acoustic, piano trio is fairly commonplace in 2017—however, some band outfits are never to die and certain musicians are gifted enough to remain fresh with each passing year.  “Vessel in Orbit” bleeds greatness from three tried and true veterans.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

 

 

The Uncoverables Podcast: Anna Webber and Erik Hove Interview

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Pulled from a live radio broadcast, this week’s episode features a double-header interview with Montreal-bred musicians Erik Hove and Anna Webber in anticipation of their joint gig at Cafe Resonance in Montreal.  The show also serves as an album release for Erik, so we speak specifically about his new single “Tessellation” as well as the album in general.

Playlist:

Eivind Opsvik-“IZO” from Overseas V

Anna Webber Trio-“Underhelmed” from Binary

Erik Hove-“Tessellation” from Polygon

Anna Webber Trio-“Tug O’ War” from Binary

Jaimie Branch-“Theme 002” from Fly or Die

Matt Maneri, Whit Dickey, Matthew Ship-“Galaxy 9” from Vessel in Orbit

 

 

Christian Scott-Ruler Rebel: Album Review

As showcased on 2015’s “Stretch Music,” New Orleans’s Christian Scott is apt at blurring the lines between jazz, post-punk, indie rock, and hip-hop, culminating in a pointed, afro-futurist aesthetic.  On “Ruler Rebel,” the first instalment of Scott’s Centennial Trilogy album series, Scott again excels at sonic architecture, but falters in melodic development and structure.

Each tune falls over a solid beat foundation, combining acoustic and electronic elements from a great deal of eras and traditions, but for the most part, Scott’s trumpet lines comes across as entirely improvised with little refrain to remember them by.  Perhaps the album could be an important moment in Scotts career in terms of relating his trumpet fusion chops to the hip-hop crowd with relevant sounding production, but the work alone doesn’t have enough substance to warrant deep listening.

The beats on the record are certainly notable.  “Ruler Rebel” opens with an ominous drone sound before some non-specific melodic ideas beckon in pulsing synth bass and a nice looped piano texture.  When the rhythmic beat comes full circle there’s a great deal of layers making for a soupy swell of sound to underpin the soaring trumpet melody.  “New Orleanian Love Song II” combines electronic drum sounds and hand-drumming with another hip hop-induced piano line; and “Rise Again” welcomes a bit of trap influence with rattling high-hats.  The production and overall sound on the album is exceptional—Scott should be an inspiration to any jazz musician looking to find a more relevant contemporary sound in the studio.

Guests luckily come here and there to offer a bit more communication with Scott’s trumpet work.  First is singer Sarah Elizabeth Charles on “Phases.”  Her vocals are relatively simple, but through sampling, the group plays around with mere sketches before revealing the full picture in the end.  With Charles’s neo-soul inflections in the midrange and Scott’s singing melodies panning left and right, the climax of this tune is certainly a high point of the piece.

On the backside of the record, prodigious flautist Elena Pinderhughes comes through on a pair of tracks to offer some biting solos.  “Encryption” also happens to have one of the more well thought-out songs in terms of structure.  Pinderhughes and Scott combine forces on a squirrely melody, before a metallic bass function heralds in the solo section.  It seems like when welcoming a melodic guest, Scott is under a bit more pressure to craft a song with room for development.

Scott’s trumpet work is obviously solid as well, it just covers a bit too much of the focus of the project without being tied down to a clear head.  The title-track rambles on for four minutes than fades out, before “New Orleanian Love Song” largely picks up where the last one left off.  Even the dueling trumpet sound of “The Reckoning” only offers a pair of phrases before veering into the solo territory.

Christian Scott is a hugely important creative force, but I’m hoping to hear more well written songs across the Centennial Trilogy that he’s working on.  “Ruler Rebel” is a great sonic work, but I don’t see it having a long shelf-life.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

Kneebody Anti-Hero: Album Review

As many contemporary jazz artists have been in the past handful of years, Kneebody were loosely connected to producer Flying Lotus through his Brainfeeder record label in 2015.  Joining forces with left-field producer Daedelus, the group managed to craft a relentlessly modern fusion sound, relatable to audiences familiar with both glitchy experimental hip-hop and 1970s long-form jam session records.  Having seen the group live, I can attest that they are an incredible crew of improvisers and entertainers, but up until “Kneedelus,” their studio sound was a bit too bright and chops-based to hold much relevance outside of the jazz circle.  Absent of Daedelus’s offerings, the group’s new record “Anti-Hero” doesn’t entirely return to their old sound, but certainly constitutes more of a step backward than one forward.

The album includes a reprisal of their 2015 track “Drum Battle,” which largely showcases the difference between the two albums.  At over 10 minutes in length, the group stretches out individual solos quite a bit more and the pace by the end reaches a frantic state.  In between each solo, both horns blast away this punching line, that after about the 8th repetition becomes completely tired and overwrought.  In comparison, the original “Drum Battle” valued subtlety a bit higher.  After Daedelus and drummer Nate Wood set their smoldering texture into play, trumpeter Shane Endsley and sax player Ben Wendel played through some punching and lyrical lines, but they didn’t crowd the mix too much, sounding distant when laying down the refrains at the end of the solo section and leaving a bit more space between their phrasing at the beginning of the track.

Again, in the live jazz world this sort of playing works well but, as exemplified by the many out-of-date guitar-sounding riffs (that must be carried out on Adam Benjamin’s keyboard?), the group sounds a bit out of touch with what’s working in the studio today.  “Uprising,” for instance, kicks off with a riff straight out of the Black Sabbath playbook, whereas “The Ballonist” gets a bit overly drowned in reverb during the solo.  These guitar sounds may have worked 20 years ago, but they sound a bit dated today and they don’t really make sense within the cleaned up context of the rest of the group.  Another issue is the drumming.  Too often Nate Wood is laying down an open snare/bass rock groove that sounds more akin to a college jam band then the usual array of light tom and cymbal work from a modern jazz outfit.

The record isn’t a completely out-of-touch loss.  The last handful of tracks work with space really well and mostly avoid the cheap funk sounds.  “Carry On” opens with some interesting communication between Wood and Benjamin, underpinned by this haunting soupy backdrop of drones and eventual long tones from the horns.  In the short solo section, Wendel works with this nice electronic effect that echoes his playing around the room.  Following is “Yes You” with some nice interplay between small pieces of the band.  Wendel and Wood throw some ideas back and forth before washes of guitar sound come into play to expand the sound space.  “Austin Peralta” caps things off with another victory as this distant vocal sound sings out a heart wrenching melody amongst the swelling instrumental mass.

Kneebody is a great band, but “Anti-Hero” doesn’t find them in the same relevant sonic world as their last effort.  If they want to continue to forge innovative new ground and stay in touch with the contemporary music world, they should seek out more collaboration with producers outside of the jazz community.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10

Craig Taborn-Daylight Ghosts: Album Review

Having first jumped out on the jazz scene as a leader in 1994, Craig Taborn is now a young veteran.  For his latest project on famed ECM records, he’s met up with some similarly established players—namely The Bad Plus’ Dave King, reliable sideman and leader Chris Lightcap, and the highly active Chris Speed—to craft a work that only four highly experienced players could.  “Daylight Ghosts” is masterful in its delicacy.  Even when Taborn gets busy with some of his bop-rooted piano lines, coupled with conversational plot points from Speed’s sax, Dave King’s lyrical drum approach keeps the work grounded in a sort of whitened aesthetic.  Through this delicacy, the work certainly catches a bit of the classic ECM sound which can have its negative side.  Overall, there’s not so much of a sense of raw, unadulterated passion, particularly on the work’s backside, and even with dance and latin rhythms coming in the equation, there’s a bit of over-refinement.  This isn’t a record that bores or takes a step backwards, but it’s hard to call it radical.

The compositions on the project are minimal, yet complex.  The title-track probably has the most lyrical melody and it gives off the initial impression of a ballad, but then Taborn takes it into a few different contexts.  After the sax introduction, Taborn’s descending, minor melodic answer is underpinned by a quiet, driving repeated note gesture and almost rock oriented drum sound, which takes the track to a bit more hard-hitting a place then initially expected.  On the backside of the track, Taborn switches gears to a blissful midrange piano texture that implies a bit more of a pastoral sound, before adding in some high note chords that add off-setting dissonance—again signifying an unexpected turn.  The track gets rounded out when Speed refers to the melody from the beginning and King builds up a wall on the kit.  None of the sections of the piece sound all that complicated on their own, but the relationships between them are intricately woven.

Taborn also offers unexpected changes in direction in setting time at the beginning of a few tracks for input from other players, which allows for a new tone color and personality to come into play.  On “The Great Silence,” Speed whips out the bass clarinet for the first time.  Naturally the new sound of clarinet is going to change how the band operates, but Speed also resorts to some sluggish, squirrely melodies in a newfound mode.  Up until this point, much of the album has had some sense of rhythmic drive, but the absence of drums along with Speed’s playing style open this track up to spacey ambience for a nice change of pace.

On “Ancient,” Chris Lightcap gets some room on the bass.  His work here gives a sense of the rhythmic drive that the track is going to have.  He repeats a relatively open ended interval that could serve as the foundation for a multitude of different jazz tracks.  By keeping it to just bass, Taborn allows for a lot of opportunity for change over the course of the track, while also imbedding this initial rhythm within each player’s psyche.

Improvisation works largely as a transitional tool.  Taborn’s pieces are certainly not over written and it occasionally sounds like a handful of melodic sketches with non-specific solo sections smoothing over the transitions.  On the opener, a short, angular melody kicks things off, then Taborn and Speed are sort of off to the races, trading improvised melodic lines, but the melody from the beginning sees a lot of reprisal seemingly whenever either Taborn or Speed see appropriate.  It’s a very malleable tune and the improvisation creates the constant drive.

The work is masterful in many ways, but the rawness of youth seems to be fading for these players.  Especially towards the end of the work.  The space on “The Great Silence” is sensible, but by the end the only sign of energy is still a bit too lightly tapped out on the drums.  It’s a great listen, but it’s impact is unlikely to be monumental and it lacks an awe-inspiring shock factor.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10