07 NecksVertigo
The Necks
Northern Spy Records NS 067 (northernspyrecords.com)

Members of the Australian trio, The Necks, habitually construct mesmerizing CDs consisting of one extended improvisation. As committed to their musical vision as ensembles such as the Beaux Arts or the Lyric Arts trios were to theirs, after three decades as a band, pianist/keyboardist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and percussionist Tony Buck can still alter the overall interpretation in such a way that it becomes like an aural kaleidoscope offering novel facets on each playing.

Unlike earlier creations which relied on Swanton’s unvarying plucked tone to buoy the improvisation, with Vertigo it is Abrahams who sets the pace. After an initial piano showcase that finds him channeling David Tudor-like minimalism and Professor Longhair-like exuberance, he bares the connective theme, variations of which resonate throughout the 44-minute program. Exploring the acoustic piano’s low-frequency continuum plus internal strings at points, he concurrently coaxes rasping timbres from electronic keyboards that seem to emanate from a revved-up harpsichord or replicate billowing pipe-organ-like quivers. Or does he? Because one of the attainments of The Necks is that generally a sound can’t be ascribed to a specific instrument. Certainly temple bell-like clatters, metal rim-like clunks and remote resolute thumps come from Buck’s kit; while winsome stops, twang and infrequent connective drones arise from Swanton’s instrument. But what is the genesis of the whip-like snaps that echo throughout the piece, as well as the vibrations audible from what could be steam-whistle blasts or vocal chorale-like bellowing?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Like a dwelling built on a flood plain which gradually becomes waterlogged as the sea level rises, the strength of this sonic mosaic is how easily the sounds blend into a multiphonic mosaic. Vertigo won’t cause you to lose your balance except in a positive way, as you’re knocked out by the many-sided skills that went into producing this session.

Preserving Rediscovered Free Music Classics

Fully grasping the intricacies of musical history often depends on the availability of recorded documents. That’s why many musical histories are re-evaluated once hitherto little known performances become accessible. This is especially crucial when it comes to completely or mostly improvised sounds. Reissued and/or rediscovered sessions, which preserve ephemeral moments, confirm the music’s wide dissemination. More importantly they add the equivalent of additional sentences that provide a fuller understanding of the free music story.

01 Braxton BaileyConsisting of almost 78 minutes of music, First Duo Concert (Emanem 5038 emanemdisc.com) is particularly relevant because it captures one dozen interactions between American multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and British guitarist Derek Bailey. Recorded in 1974, it displays the similarities, and as significantly, the differences between free music concepts. Even at this early date Bailey and many of his London-based colleagues rejected the idea of playing anything but in-the-moment music. But as true to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) ethos as Knights Templar would be to their creed during the Crusades, the saxophonist/clarinetist brought not only familiarity with the blues form, but also an interest in semi-composed material and extended explorations in certain techniques to the date – concerns that remain with him more than 40 years later. When the completely improvised Area 3 (open) is reached, congruence turns to cooperation. What originally could have been the jolts produced when two blindfolded players collided with one another turns into a motley garment whose patchwork can envelop grinding string buzzes and harsh clangs as well as resonating timber wolf-like saxophone snarls and moderated bass clarinet ostinato. If gating banjo-like reverb plus internal body tube puffs and renal-like vibrations from his reed collection on Braxton’s part still disturb the evolving continuum like pointed flecks in rough wood grain, then his unexpected peeps and pops lessen as both aim towards measured expression. Allowing each partner’s full expression during single unaccompanied tracks, the duo reaches the zenith of mutual understanding on the extended Area 11 (open). While each still tests the limits of the other’s convictions with the zeal of a small child taunting the family pet, harsh, oblique strums and quivering, aviary-styled peeps from the clarinet finally dovetail enough so that aggressive string thumb taps fit into an accompanying groove, as later circular tweets from sopranino saxophone, clarinet and flute settle uneasily next to guitar strokes. The concluding Area 12 with its corkscrew reed squeaks and rugged string quivers gives notice that neither improvisational philosophy has bested the other. But the framework for future reciprocal idea exchanges has been set.

02 BrotzmannThree years earlier the protean trio of German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink was constantly touring the continent confirming that a bellicose interpretation of free jazz wasn’t confined to Americans. The CD 1971 (Corbett vs Dempsey CD 020 corbettvsdempsey.com) reissues the band’s justly famous, furiously unyielding set at that year’s New Jazz Meeting, but adds an additional almost 16 minutes of sound recorded four months earlier that demonstrate the hair-trigger-like technical skill that goes into what initially seems like relentless bombast. Like the proverbial tough guy with the gentle interior, Van Hove for one uncovers elegant near-romantic phrasing on Filet Americain, which he expands with harsh clanging, sounding as if he prepared the piano with thumbtacks. Bennink confines himself to clattering reverberations and Brötzmann blows with a burr-like tone. I.C.P. No.17 is more aggressive, with the saxophonist’s subterrestrial exposition echoed by Bennink probably honking through a Tibetan radung or long metal bass horn. Just For Altena the 26-minute final showcase then shows how a palpitating rhythm can be maintained even as the players push techniques past expected instrumental limits. Spelled by the percussionist’s smashing cracks, horn blowing and yells, Brötzmann’s virtually endless honks and glottal punctuation sound as if he’s soon going to be pushing blood out of his horn as well as air. Still he manages to work in quotes from Bavarian marches, polkas, Mexican hat dances and limitless free-jazz glossolalia as he plays, often unaccompanied, reaching beyond the highest imaginable altissimo slur. Like a hyperactive canine, Bennink is also in motion, shoving everything from a conga-drum interlude to bass drum resonation to gong and cymbal clashes into his accompaniment as if boiling a potluck stew. Van Hove marathon-runner-like glissandi share space with crackling kinetic expositions that whack the keys and strings as frequently as they play them. Is it any wonder that at this time this trio could challenge any electrified rock band for pure excitement?

03 Willem BreukerAnother band that could do the same was the Willem Breuker Kollektief (WBK), like Bennink, part of Amsterdam’s fertile improv scene. Mixing anarchistic stunts, parody, constant motion, classic tune recreations plus free-form playing with top-line musicianship, the nine-piece group led by saxophonist/clarinetist Breucker (1944-2010) was the epitome of post-modernism. Yet unlike more academically oriented Fluxus or Dada experimentalists, the WBK was so entertaining that this two-CD set recorded live in France, Angoulême 18 mai 1980 (Fou Records FR-CD 9&10 fou.records.free.fr), ends with the raucous audience demanding three successive encores. A European equivalent of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but infinitely less serious-minded, here the group mixes the precision of Glenn Miller’s band, the romping swing of Count Basie’s and the humour of Laurel and Hardy. During the concert modern jazz originals, a tango, Kurt Weil’s Song of Mandalay, Les Brown and his band of Renown’s theme song Sentimental Journey and finally the hokey I Believe – to disperse the crowd – race by at record pace. Additionally, following Big Busy Band where the group’s solid brassy power is broken up by Rob Verdurmen’s flashy drumming à la Gene Krupa, plus bassist Arjen Gorter playing Blues in the Closet, Breucker exposes his inner Benny Goodman and tenor saxophonist Maaren van Norden outscreams Big Jay McNeeley. Eventually an episode of pseudo-show-biz banter introduces March & Sax Solo with Vacuum Cleaner where Breucker does just that, improvising in tandem and in opposition to the whining household appliance. Like a squad of quick change artists the WBK is capable of taking on any persona, with pianist Henk de Jonge for instance, comping like a bopper, knocking out stride piano asides, beginning and ending Flat Jungle with romantic flourishes and extravagant glissandi that could be Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin, channels Cecil Taylor’s contrasting dynamics in the song’s centre and mocks the saxophonist’s appropriation of the highest altissimo notes in existence with studied, flamboyant quotes from Rhapsody in Blue. Gorter’s bass line and Verdurmen’s back beat ensure that foot-stomping elation is always present, even if the rhythm team may sometimes feel like extras in a Marx Brothers movie with all the musical mayhem going on around them. Still any band that on Potsdamer Stomp mocks rock music’s overwrought yakety saxes via dueling solos from Breuker and baritone Bob Drissen, at the same time as playing Name That Tune, as fragments of everything from Chick Corea’s Spain to the Marine Hymn to circus music loom into earshot, confirms that these discs do a lot more than fill in a three-year gap in the WBK discography. They’re a jubilant listening experience on their own.

04 FrictionsIf music’s value is judged by its pervasive acceptance, then the tracks on Frictions/Frictions Now (NoBusiness Records NBCD 79 nobusinessrecords.com) are as notable as the better-known efforts by Breuker, Braxton-Bailey and Brötzmann. Independent of other connections, members of the Free Jazz Group Wiesbaden (FJGW) developed a caustic and punchy free music variant, which mixed musique concrète and chance notions from notated music, folkloric instruments and tropes plus improvisation that went beyond freebop into sonic intoxication. Recorded in 1969 and 1971 and released in limited edition, the German band members eventually pursued other paths. Like Quebec’s Walter Boudreau, who went from leading the Zappa-esque ensemble l’Infonie to become a composer and artistic director of Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, trumpeter Michael Sell abandoned improvisation for fully notated work in the 1980s; saxophonist/pianist/flutist Dieter Scherf played with major German free jazzers later in the decade before abandoning music because of dental problems; drummer Wolfgang Schlick and guitarist Gerhard König’s histories are even more obscure. However the three tracks here demonstrate the band’s originality. Coming across like a spiky combination of Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock and Earl Scruggs, König’s chord-shredding flanges insinuate into whatever spaces the horns leave open with a style that includes surf music intonation, single-string finesse and preparations that could come from double bass. Schlick’s coiled rumbles and consistent thumps range from martial to miasmatic; he doesn’t swing but keeps the pieces moving notwithstanding, even when slamming his metal bracket for unusual rhythms. Squeezing death rattles and hunting-horn-like blares from his trumpet, Sell’s tone resembles those of ur-New Thing players like Earl Cross and Don Ayler. Yet when he unites with Schlick they harmonize enough to approach contemporary jazz, and even flutter out rounded grace notes on the final Frictions Now Part II, to reach a meandering, delicate tempo. Leaping among his instruments like an unsupervised child in a music store, Scherf brings something different to each one. On alto saxophone, obviously influenced by the atonal techniques of American free jazzers, his honks, snorts and blats include crying vibrations that add an unconventional Teutonic melancholy. Brief shenai and oboe interludes introduce World Music allusions to the middle of the extended Frictions, while his inner-piano strums join with König’s finger-style ornamentation on the same piece for stark tonal outlines, finally climaxing with a moving motif that appears to judder from cadence to cacophony and back again.

Like crate digging in a second-hand vinyl store, reissues like these can reveal unexpected values. They confirm the talents of the known or introduce unfamiliar stylists who should have been better known first time out.

01 Allison AuForest Grove
Allison Au Quartet
Independent AA-15 (allisonau.com)

Saxophonist and composer Allison Au’s aptly titled Forest Groveis a lush and inviting recording that takes the listener on a journey through a suite-like series of tunes. The compositions retain a remarkable unity of purpose despite the obvious sonic and stylistic differences between them. Au’s writing embodies an approach that blends arrangement with improvisation in a way that seems perfectly natural. One idea flows seamlessly into the next, regardless of whether the ideas are improvised or composed. The addition of vocalist Felicity Williams on three of the nine tunes ties the record together and helps to deepen its compelling mood.

The opening track, Tides, establishes many of the hallmarks of Au’s writing and the band plays through them with ease and assurance. Complex harmonies are played over unexpected rhythmic shots and melodies are doubled with bass and Fender Rhodes piano. Drummer Fabio Ragnelli and bassist Jon Maharaj mesh effortlessly on the tricky arrangement, providing both groove and conversation. Au solos confidently, displaying a rich alto tone and a sophisticated linear concept.

Bolero features bassist Maharaj, improvising a lyrical solo over Au’s and Williams’ ethereal melody. The post-bop-tinged Aureole showcases the band’s convincing, hard swinging up-tempo chops. Au’s strong sense of the tradition is highlighted by Todd Pentney’s bluesy B-3 playing. They Say We Are Not Here closes the journey with Felicity Williams’ voice spinning textures over its gorgeous, hypnotic, two-chord vamp.

02 Linsey WellmanManifesto
Linsey Wellman
Independent (linseywellman.com)

Recent publicity suggests that alto saxophonist Linsey Wellman is at the pinnacle of his improvisational powers. That remains to be seen (he may scale greater heights in the future) but even if he never achieves anything better than this album he has ample reason to be proud. This set of seven songs, Manifesto, carves its own niche in the realm of solo alto saxophone performances. The opener, la culture is a joyous, dancing piece which engages you and gets the album off to a decidedly flying start. It is followed by dans laquelle on investit (literally, In Which It Invests) a profound, slow and slightly mysterious ballad edged with a rueful feel. This chart features some thoughtful, melodic soloing by Wellman as does avec laquelle (With Which), which reminds me a little of the work of Greg Osby, another great and unjustly overlooked experimentalist.

The fact that the titles of the songs in French and English have a distinct phrase-like abruptness to them suggests the interconnectedness of the music on the album. This extraordinary linearity continues to intrigue and delight as Wellman rings in the changes in mood, structure and tempo, making for a constantly interesting program. The degree of balance, integration and melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition is impressively maintained throughout the program. It’s a manifesto that truly sings.

03 Linton GarnerThanks...
Linton Garner
Cellar Live CL062402 (cellarlive.com)

The late, great pianist Linton Garner spent the last 30 years of his life as a beloved and respected member of the Vancouver jazz scene. Garner relished his younger brother Erroll’s success, but focused his own musical career on orchestral, ensemble and small venue performance work – often sharing the stage with jazz luminaries, including Billy Eckstein, Nancy Wilson, Lester Young, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis – all the while acting as a treasured teacher and mentor to several generations of Vancouver-centric jazz musicians.

This superb project is the brainchild of Don Fraser, who acts as producer here. Fraser enjoyed a long professional and personal relationship with Garner and was the drummer in his trio for more than six years. Thanks…is a labour of love for Fraser, and as Garner would have wanted – all proceeds from the project are earmarked for the Linton Garner Scholarship Fund at Capilano University in North Vancouver.

The album itself is comprised of remastered CBC recordings, from 1993 through 2002 (featuring Fraser on drums, Stewart Loseby on sax and bassist Peter Trill) as well as live tracks from a memorable B.C. concert performance (I Never Said Goodbye) dedicated to Garner’s late brother, Erroll.

Highlights of this fine recording and tribute include the gospel-infused piano solo Pittsburgh Blue; the evocative I Never Said Goodbye and the elegant trio tune Won’t You Come Dance With Me. The final track on the CD is saxophonist Loseby’s deeply moving Lament for Mr. G, which features Miles Black on piano and was recorded following Garner’s passing in 2004.

04 Ches Smith The BellThe Bell
Ches Smith; Craig Taborn; Mat Maneri
ECM 2474


Ches Smith is a young American percussionist/composer whose CV criss-crosses a musical landscape in which jazz, rock and experimentation have tumbled into one another, working with musicians like John Zorn, Tim Berne, Mark Ribot and Mr. Bungle. For his ECM debut, his musical language is shaped by impulses from post-serial classical music to free improvisation. He’s joined here in his longstanding trio by pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri to play a series of pieces that consistently blur the lines between the composed and the improvised.

From the opening clang of a bell on the title track, there’s an air of high drama and mystery emerging from the muffled undercurrent of the piano and Maneri’s vibrant sustained tones. Repeating motifs may temporarily stabilize the pieces, but it’s an illusion, as patterns either disappear or build to menacing intensity amidst a maelstrom of sound. The furies loosed on I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth give way to the subtle, almost random prettiness of the vibraphone and piano beginnings of I Think. Moods turn subtly from joyous to pensive in a piece like It’s Always Winter (Somewhere).

Smith’s music succeeds on its mix of unlikely elements and its own internal tension patterns, its successively reimagined drives to order and freedom, but it could only arise from the trio’s instrumental brilliance. Smith can wittily deploy assorted rock and jazz beats, as well as reveal the beauty of a bowed vibraphone; Taborn can bring a precise and distinguishing touch to individual notes in the most complex flurry; while Maneri practises an exemplary combination of passion and control.

05 Wes Montgomery One Night in Indy CoverOne Night in Indy
Wes Montgomery
Resonance HCD-2018 (resonancerecords.org)

In October 1959, Wes Montgomery recorded his debut LP, The Wes Montgomery Trio, for Riverside Records. It would rapidly make him the most eminent guitarist in jazz, famed for his sheer invention and drive as well as his unorthodox thumb-picking and improvised lines in unison octaves. The previous January, when this was recorded, Montgomery was a 35-year-old Indianapolis factory worker who regularly played in local bars and astonished visiting stars. Documenting a performance in an unnamed venue put on by the Indianapolis Jazz Club, a loose association of fans, One Night in Indy presents the Chicago-based trio of pianist Eddie Higgins with Montgomery as a special local guest.

Passed down by members of the club until it reached Resonance Records (even the name of the bass player is unknown), the tape documents a great set of club jazz from a year when the modern mainstream was in full flower. It’s a joyous meeting of musicians who speak the same idiom with fluency and imagination, no doubt with spirits raised by the sheer surprise of Montgomery’s creative energy and distinctive approach, complete with runs executed in chords. The program begins and ends with standards – Give Me the Simple Life, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – and relies on classic jazz anthems in between, delivering liquid beauty to Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss and plenty of momentum to Stompin’ at the Savoy and the Basie hit Li’l Darlin’.

It’s all carried forward by the masterful drumming of Walter Perkins and that solid, anonymous bassist, with Higgins and Montgomery matching one another in swing, invention and sheer elan. One of the most special moments comes on Thelonious Monk’s subtly dissonant ballad Ruby, My Dear, with Higgins supplying an abstract, bell-like introduction.

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