07 Frothing MorseFrothing Morse
Audrey Chen; Phil Minton
Tour de Bras TDB904 (tourdebras.bandcamp.com/album/frothing-morse)

Phil Minton, just turning 80, may be the world’s most creative vocalist. Elsewhere his repertoire can include The Cutty Wren, a Peasants’ Revolt song about eating policemen, and Lieber & Stoller’s Jailhouse Rock lyrics applied to a serial melody (both to be heard on the recent Ways for an Orchestra with Veryan Weston and a Bologna chamber orchestra [i disci di angelica]). If you want, however, to hear a human approximation of a tone arm bouncing across the surface of a vinyl LP of a cat screeching, Minton, the free improviser, is also your man; his duet partner, Audrey Chen, similarly in possession of titanium vocal apparatus, might very well be your woman, and Frothing Morse is the place to hear it. The two have been singing together for a decade, previously releasing both duet and quintet CDs (on Sub Rosa) and there’s a recent COVID-lockdown performance on YouTube.  

Recorded at an Italian festival in 2015, the single 37-minute Frothing Morse covers extraordinary ground, from madness to code, the two singers following or diverging from one another’s inspirations, whether they’re Chen’s whistling highs, abrasive choking and ringing throat-singing tones or Minton’s machine and animal impressions, yodelling, babbling and multiphonics. Their work is usually surprising, often visceral, strangely moving, but most significantly, liberating, a crash course in the sounds that can come out of humans’ mouths with barely a trace of speech, a panoply of emotion in a moment.  

08 PedernalPedernal
Susan Alcorn Quintet
Relative Pitch RPR1111 (relativepitchrecords.com)

Over the past 20 years, Susan Alcorn has emerged as one of the most creative figures in jazz and improvised music, brilliantly exploring the sonic resources of the pedal steel guitar, especially the pitch bending and shifting possibilities little explored in its country and western home. In Alcorn’s hands, the instrument is a self-contained orchestra, able to suggest the elegance of Astor Piazzolla, the wandering mysteries of Harry Partch, the cosmic majesty of Olivier Messiaen or the raw energy of Ornette Coleman. 

Here Alcorn introduces her compositions for a mostly string quintet with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Ryan Sawyer. Named for the Pedernal Mesa in New Mexico, the CD’s compositions abound in geographical references. Along with the personnel and general musical quality, it suggests another recording: Nate Wooley’s 2019 masterpiece, Columbia Icefield, on which the trumpeter debuted a quartet with Alcorn, Halvorson and Sawyer. 

Alcorn’s melodic and textural visions come to the fore on the title track, the extended Circular Ruins and A Night in Gdansk. There’s an affinity with Morton Feldman in the rich sustained tones, and a near twinship with Halvorson, whose pitch-bending guitar hardware can ambiguate the source of some burbling, microtonal washes of notes. The concluding Northeast Rising Sun may allude to Maryland highway signage, but the music is a playful romp, beginning with clapping accompaniment then combining a Sufi refrain with elements of an Irish community dance. It’s delightful stuff.

09 Yannick GebildeGebilde
Yannick Chayer
Small Scale Music SSM 023 (smallscalemusic.bandcamp.com)

A dialogue from a single musician, Montreal’s Yannick Chayer has designed this CD’s ten tracks so that his soprano saxophone is constantly reacting to or against programmed samples of reed improvisations and other intonations propelled by his synthesizer. Rife with static crackles, noises and pauses, the results are as changeable as if he were duetting with another player. 

With advances in programming, timbres from the synthesizer take on multiple identities from bagpipe-like tremors to plastic kazoo-like screeches; yet most frequently, organ-like motifs serve as several tracks’ continuum. Meanwhile Chayer’s parallel acoustic tone is snarly and metallic, dedicated to high velocity fluttering or calm multiphonics. 

Extended tracks such as Organisation Off and Master Forgery play with the implicit plasticity of the program. For instance, the former positions a biting reed solo atop massed saxophone timbres and climaxes as the soloist squeals past altissimo with key percussion echoes below. The latter track balances calliope-like patterning that remains unchanged as vibrating reed split tones expand to twitters and trills, sometimes vamping roughly against one another. 

Like a Pimp may be the defining track however, as newer samples keep being added to the stop-time exposition so that a simple melody is present from a singular reed line along with electronic flanging and reverberating tongue pumps. 

Chayer’s stated aim is creating reed programs that move between analog noise and musique concrète. Adding a hearty dose of improvisation, Gebilde proves that he has attained this goal.

10 Barre PhilipsThirty years in between
Barre Phillips
VICTO cd 132/08 (victo.qc.ca)

Proving that an old double bass soloist can still learn new tricks isn’t the point of Thirty years in between. Instead, coupling a genre-defining 1989 solo disc from the now 85-year-old American bassist Barre Phillips with a new set of live solos from FIMAV 2019 makes clear how mature savvy has replaced adroit swagger. Not that the 1989 tracks aren’t dazzling, as Phillips was pioneering a novel approach to soloing. With fluid variation at both ends of the timbral spectrum, he maintained a warm expansive tone, whether he was pummelling pumping variables from the bottom tones or using hard-edged spiccato to extract narrowed multi-string squeaks,

By 2019 however his strategy has been distilled to its essence. Pared away from sometimes baroque-like formalism and showy staccato runs, he concentrates on moody narratives. Mellow in his echoing tones, Phillips still makes use of col legno slaps and spiccato reverberations, with some passages taken prestissimo. But by keeping most interpretations at a low simmer he isolates rubs and pops then plays up the suppleness of variously angled string sets and the instrument’s woody reverb. Animated with harsh stropping when needed, as on Abate? Arise?, silences are also prominent. The concluding A new take strings together old and new techniques. Alternating between cultured sweeps and gaunt shrills, a display of triple stopping is followed by thin moderated slides to the finale. Obviously Phillips was a master solo bass player three decades ago – and he retains that skill.

11 Tom GuarnaSpirit Science
Tom Guarna
Destiny Records DR-0030 (destinyrecordsmusic.com)

Renowned jazz guitarist Tom Guarna, often named alongside greats such as John Scofield and Bill Frisell, has released a delightful record, taking the listener on a pleasing and progressive journey through a spacious jazz world; each track like a different chapter of the trek with its own distinct moods and soundscape. All tracks are penned by the guitarist himself and feature an all-star group of musicians including Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone and bassoon, Aaron Parks on keyboards, Joe Martin on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums. Such a unique instrumentation only serves to further highlight Guarna’s compositions and breathe an additional energy into them. 

The album has been mentioned as having a cohesive theme that is inspired by “the science of sacred geometry” which is reflected in each piece; while singular instruments meander on their own set melodical paths within the songs, they come together as a satisfying and coherent whole that calls to mind a geometric shape. Specifically, in Metatron’s Cube, this organized progressiveness is noticeable, with the rhythmic groove and distinct bass melody lending structure to the piece while soaring sax, guitar and piano solos create the sense of spaciousness and freedom. Crossing over seamlessly between progressive rock and traditional jazz, the album is a must for fans of either genre that are looking for a fresh perspective on how Metheny-esque synth and electric guitar use can be taken a step further into a new and unique dimension.

12 Django ShiftDjango-shift
Rez Abbasi
Whirlwind Recordings WR4762 (whirlwindrecordings.com)

In 2019, commissioned by California’s Freight and Salvage’s Django Festival to present a Django Reinhardt-centric recording project, skilled Pakistan-born and NYC-based guitarist/composer Rez Abbasi was challenged by his desire to present Reinhardt not only as a unique, mesmerizing and beloved guitarist, but also as a composer. He plumbed the depths of Reinhardt’s considerable catalogue and came upon seven stunning Reinhardt tunes, as well as two more that were strongly associated with the magical, Roma-Hungarian guitarist. In order to bring his present-tense, genre-blending vision to life, Abbasi called upon the uber-talented Neil Alexander (organ, synthesizers and electronica) and Michael Sarin on drums.

Abassi’s rhythmic, 6/8 arrangement of Django’s Diminishing feels like a tip of the hat to the great Thelonious Monk – and Abassi freely admits that Monk’s odd, juxtapositional style influenced several tracks. Abbasi’s organic understanding of complex rhythmic patterns and his exquisite guitar technique defines this standout project, and longtime collaborators Alexander and Sarin have jumped down the proverbial rabbit hole right along with him – never missing a nuance. 

Of particular innovation is the invigorating use of organ and synthesizers (including guitar effects), coupled with the contiguous, pulsing drum work by Sarin. Reinhardt’s classic Swing 42 is barely recognizable here, but this new perspective on the tune brings an unbridled urgency and the gorgeous ballad, Django’s Castle, displays the fine trio at their lyrical best. A favourite of Django’s, Anniversary Song (Ivanovici), is arranged here as an odd-metered funky trip and one of the most compelling tracks is certainly Abassi’s take on Kurt Weill’s melancholy September Song. Abassi’s sumptuous tone and emotive interpretation of this classic are beyond compare.

13 You Me ColeYou Me & Cole
Noa Levy; Shimpei Ogawa
Belle Records BEL-002 (noalevylive.com)

Over the years, there have probably been as many Cole Porter jazz renditions as there have been people on the planet. However, against the odds, vocalist Noa Levy and bassist Shimpei Ogawa manage to deliver a truly fresh set of Porter classics on their new release. Firstly, to set the obvious aside, a bass/vocal duo coming out with a songbook album is a rare sight indeed. Trying to play and improvise over standard changes without anything resembling chordal accompaniment is no simple task. This particularly rings true when dealing with contrabass and voice, as those may be the two instruments in the jazz idiom where tuning is of the biggest concern. In spite of the challenge, Ogawa’s intonation is spotless to the point of being superhuman and Levy’s ability to adapt to these circumstances is nothing short of incredible. 

The biggest draw of this album is how beautifully the arranging talents, diverse musical backgrounds and novel ideas of the duo converge. Levy and Ogawa season the proceedings with pinches of everything from klezmer to Bach, and the brightest moments come with their shared fluency in tango. Their chemistry is something to marvel at, as they constantly take unexpected risks and play in seamless dialogue together without so much as a misstep. Renditions are also sprinkled with charming gifts to the listener, including overt Mingus and James Bond references. Refreshingly fun.

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