06 Erik HovePolygon
Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble
Independent (erikhovemusic.com)

Montreal-based alto saxophonist and composer Erik Hove is a musician of startling persistence and ambition, as ready to challenge himself as his listeners. In 2014 he released Saturated Colour by his ten-member Chamber Ensemble, a well-rehearsed group playing complex compositions that merged the microtonal methodologies of spectral composition à la French composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail with a jazz rhythm section and improvised solos, an approach also pioneered by New York-based saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman.

Now, simply put, Hove has done it again, with just three personnel changes in the ensemble of four reeds (including flutes, clarinets, oboe and saxophone), trumpet, string trio, bass and drums. He has an increasingly assured and innovative command of his complex materials, happily mixing microtonal chords, machine-like arpeggios and complex rhythms. On Metal Clouds, Hove, flutist Anna Webber and violist Jean René solo with aplomb, matching their own quarter-tones with those of the accompanying chords. His gifts as an orchestrator come increasingly to the fore as the program continues, with Inversions developing eerily sustained mixes of strings and reeds.

Hove uses improvisation selectively and structurally: Inversions is already a well-developed piece before it welcomes a passage of collective improvisation, while Tetrahedron begins as a feature for Andy King’s jazz-fueled trumpet, eventually evolving into a composition for full ensemble. Hove’s finest moment as an improviser comes at the end as he solos on the brief Octagon, lifting its evanescent textures while adding further mystery.

07 Stir Tour de BrasStir
Yves Charuest; Agustí Fernández; Nicolas Caloia; Peter Valsamis
Tour de Bras TDB 9021cd (tourdebras.com)

The group involved in Stir begins as an unrecorded Montreal-based trio called Still that consists of alto saxophonist Yves Charuest, bassist Nicolas Caloia and drummer Peter Valsamis, then adds the titanic Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández. It’s a collective performance by a compound ensemble devoted to free jazz, but there’s also a sense of traditional roles, with Charuest and Fernández frequently in the foreground.

Charuest runs counter to expectations for free jazz saxophonists, his playing consistently lyrical, often understated, his brief, sometimes elliptical lines conveying intense passion and thought, but rarely cascades of notes or distorted timbres. His original models likely included Lee Konitz, but Charuest, who began his career in the 1980s and spent a creative stretch in Europe, long ago sublimated his influences into a distinctly personal style. Charuest’s meeting with Fernández can suggest some of the David-and-Goliath dialogue of Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor, but the telepathic interaction practised by the two is remarkable, with even short, simultaneous phrases sounding like they might have arrived via manuscript paper.

The collective improvisations Stir presents here are titled (Un)fold I-VI, and range from brief episodes (the delicate I and the pensive VI) to extended forays. The group’s raw power and investigative reach explode on (Un)fold II, while III is a foray into sounds in which Caloia and Valsamis, always creative in support, come forward, sometimes mingling indistinguishably with the interior of Fernández’ piano. This is free jazz of the first order.

08 Trouble Kaze JuneJune
Trouble Kaze
Circum-Disc HeliX LX009 (circum-disc.com)

Kaze first launched in 2011 as a quartet of Japanese and French improvisers, matching the husband and wife team of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii with trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins. That brassy instrumentation may suggest an overdose of trumpet pyrotechnics, but Tamura and Pruvost’s virtuosity includes extended techniques, radically altering their palettes, while the band’s invention and energy create real excitement. Trouble Kaze expands the group to a sextet with the addition of two more French musicians, pianist Sophie Agnel and drummer Didier Lasserre, the name punning on the resultant triple duo or double trio.

The five-segment performance eschews formal match-ups for a loose, intuitive shape with a meditative and ceremonial character. Parts I and II have a serene and distinctly Asian quality, combining small cymbals with the sounds of prepared piano strings; as the work progresses, it literally engages the sound of its space, allowing instruments to approach and even reach silence or, alternatively, to make dramatic and singular sonic gestures. Part IV has a lengthy and lyric muted trumpet solo, likely Tamura, a rare occasion for a familiar trumpet timbre, while Part V begins with a fine approximation of a crying baby. By its conclusion, the piece has become isolated drum strokes, trumpet blasts and piano chords along with what sounds like a beeping alarm endowed with the ability to change pitch.

It’s more powerful than any description might suggest.

10 DuoCD0021Trandans
Duo Baars Henneman & Dave Burrell
Wig #25 (stichtingwig.com)

Having played together in many contexts for more than a quarter century, Dutch reedist Ab Baars and violist Ig Henneman are like draft horses, so long in harness that they can respond to each other’s motions before they even happen. Although this mixture of strained, sul tasto resilience from the fiddler and outpourings that range from shrilly atonal snarled blares to mere breaths, depending on Baars’ use of clarinet, tenor saxophone or shakuhachi, would be distinctive in itself, they up the ante on Trandans by playing with veteran American pianist Dave Burrell, with whom neither had previously recorded.

As meditative and whimsical in his hunt-and-peck narratives as the other two are penetrating, as demonstrated on his mostly solo musings on Korsekebacken, Burrell’s basso-directed fills are low-key in both senses of the word. Yet as tracks such as Fyllevägen and Laggareno demonstrate, his unflappable keyboard command adds a certain formality when involved in counterpoint with the duo. Especially illustrative is Laggareno, since the harshness engendered by the fiddler’s tempered-blade volatility, in broken octave concordance with altissimo reed shrieks, is warmed to a finer-tuned narrative via the pianist’s even-tempered chording. On their own as captured on Rassel runt Brunnen, the duo follows multiphonic paths the way a grizzled guide uses trail markers. They’re never lost and are constantly interesting, since Baars’ crying split tones or lows from the tenor saxophone’s bottom notes help regularize the near-atonal exposition, even as Henneman brings her own spiny individualism to the tune.

11 HeadsCD0071Heads or Tails
Hamid Drake; Sylvain Kassap
RogueArt ROG-0072 (roguart.com)

Facility, rhythm and invention unite in the playing of Chicago’s Hamid Drake, one of the go-to percussionists in improvised music. That’s because Drake is both Clark Kent and Superman: able to power the most extravagant free-blowing ensemble as well as use subtle beats to advance a narrative. At his best in small groups, the drummer is absorbingly paired with a reedist of equal skill on this 2-CD set.

Parisian Sylvain Kassap, master of almost every clarinet extant, slides fluidly between playing notated and improvised music, with detours into theatre and electronics. Heads or Tails is illustrative of this duo’s art, with one CD of extended performances and the other of 13 studio sessions. Putting quick-change artists to shame, the duo demonstrates faultless command of moods and inferences throughout the second disc. Whether it’s temple-bell-like resonations atop a buzzing reed ostinato on Everyone Holds Its Breath, the clarinetist’s agile slide from bagpipe chanter to flute-like timbres on Stubborn Old Folks, Drake craftily shifting drum vibrations from irregular to steady on Heavy Traffic, or a piquant duet in near-swing rhythm on Downtown Riots, singly and together the two are as in-sync as trapeze artists.

Discerningly titled Mutual Respect, CD 1’s over-24-minute showcase could be termed the 3D version of the standard films on the other disc. Enthusiasm is maintained with an ever-shifting landscape, with watery trills or sweet puffs on Kassap’s part succeeded by hard slurs or separate melodies from a deconstructed clarinet, aptly paced by Drake’s rolls, paradiddles, frame-drum throbs and pauses.

Although the keyboard may challenge it for top spot, the guitar may be the most popular musical instrument in the world. Think of any genre from pop to so-called classical and there’s a six-string player associated with it. Especially when electrified, the guitar’s adaptability gives it this popularity, and nowhere is this more evident than in improvised music. These five guitarists, matched with musicians playing five different instruments, demonstrate this.

01 LePageCD0061Cheating a bit, Québécois guitarist René Lussier and clarinetist Robert Marcel Lepage have the backing of Quatuor Bozzini on some selections of Chants et Danses…with Strings! (Tour de Bras TDB 900019 CD tourdebras.com), but all the strings do is create backgrounds from which Lepage and Lussier’s sounds rise like the contours of a raised-relief map. Wedded to folk and blues, Lussier makes use of long-lined strumming or curt bottleneck-like phrasing to make his point on tracks such as Comment faire de l’argent avec une clarinette where Lepage’s riposte varies from Morse code-like bites to trills. On Le sextour hors position, any strings-added romantic inferences are quickly swept aside by catgut flanges and buzzing reed vibrations, with the guitarist outputting countrified mandolin-like twangs from his instrument and the clarinetist specializing in an unvarying flat-line solo. With Chants et Danses’ 13 tracks specific to its time and place, the tunes which most clearly highlight the duo’s individuality and societal concerns are those such as Vers un capitalisme à visage humain, which works string whacking and reed bites into a jazz-like call and response; or Comment garder le feu sacré sans brûler son capital, where a near light-music introduction is subverted by multiphonic bedlam with the clarinet horking and snuffling like an elderly man with asthma and Lussier’s heightened string rubs sounding as though created by sandpaper instead of fingers. The sonic narrative on track ten, whose 18-word title begins with Comment remettre l’éthique en politique… sums up the duo’s interaction most succulently, politically and meaningfully. While Lussier’s bottle-neck whines may upset the exposition, Lepage’s moderato lines ensure the track is as buoyant as it is discordant.

02 MucheCD0051In a divergent relationship with a horn and the guitar are two Köln-based improvisers, trombonist Matthias Muche and guitarist Nicola L. Hein, whose five extended improvisations on 7000 Eichen (JazzWerkstatt JW171 jazzwerkstatt.eu) are dedicated to German sculptor, installation and performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). Only as programmatic as Chants et Danses, the duets here are more representational in title than application. However, Beuys’ Fluxus-affiliated disdain for convention could have influenced them. Like sculptures that reveal antithetical aspects when viewed from different angles, Muche and Hein are more interested in what seemingly non-brass-like and non-string-like timbres their instruments can produce, rather than conventional tones. This is where the guitar’s adaptability is exhibited. Throughout, using thumb pops, hand taps and slurred fingering, Hein’s rhythmic accompaniment could be from percussion, instead of from a stringed instrument. As on the introductory Stahlwille, though, he can still take a shrill undulating solo with the crunch of Johnny Ramone and the tautness of Sonny Sharrock. As for Muche, like any auto racer, he’s unafraid of speed, buzzing out one set of arpeggiated notes after another. Not only does he bend grace notes with brassy adroitness, but on tracks such as Zwitschern he digs deep into the instrument’s bottom range. At the same time, his relay-race-like concept ranges from staccato to slur, as if he’s manipulating two trombones; this is showcased best on Dick Vermummt. 7000 Eichen’s defining track is the last: Künstlerhaus II. The architectural plans for this “second artist’s house” gives the duo almost 15 minutes to cogitate. Over a backdrop of patterning from Hein as pervasive as the sound of a hamster’s wheel, Muche outputs crying, plunger and burbling tremors which intensify as the piece evolves. Reaching a climax when ringing flanges and strums from Hein match Muche’s emotional release in the track’s penultimate minutes, a detour into a grotesque variant on Taps leads to one perfect growly note which both output simultaneously, as if reaching mutual euphoric satisfaction.

03 NoiseCD0081Euphoria is the main attribute you ascribe to Noise from the Neighbours (Setola di Maiale SM3160 setoladimaiale.net), with the performance more concerned with fun than ferocity. Still, Italian guitarist Enzo Rocco and tenor and baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Carlo Actis Dato are sophisticated comedians, never letting guffaws get in the way of musical excellence. With their frenetic string chording, fluid reed vibrations and overblowing, plus frantic melodies, they could be court jesters, but like those clowns they also speak the truth. That’s why a series of tarantella-like tracks are followed by Briciole, where bent plucks from Rocco and rugged honks from Dato add up to an Italian blues. This transition from silly to serious and back again permeates the album, reaching its zenith on the extended Kumano. As the saxophonist bellows a low-pitched continuum, the guitarist contorts his string technique to sound like a sitar or a banjo. Later adding a blues sensibility, the two are like halves of a walnut, keeping the rhythm going as Rocco scrapes at his strings and Dato blows animated air every which way. The following La Ronda del Visconte has a jolly, circular and instantly memorable melody. This convivial noise goes on for all 12 tracks, ending with Rumbabamba confirming the duo’s smarts. It begins low-key and cool and ends with pointed rasgueado strums, plus tongue slaps and guffaws from the reedist.

04 ShadowsCD0041More pointed and stinging is Shadowscores (Creative Sources CS 368 CD creativesourcesrec.com), since Berlin-based guitarist Olaf Rupp and cellist Ulrike Brand’s improvisations emphasize harsher interactions. Despite supposed limitations in tone, the two, like scientists who discover a new compound by ignoring convention, come up with a series of multi-sectional works whose performance minimizes electronic and acoustic property as well as the gap between foreground and background. A track such as Moorkolk, where Brand sequences parts that could have come from a multi-cello sonata and Rupp scratches and scampers with withdrawn pressure, proves the duo’s capability to improvise at the slowest possible tempo, while  tracks such as Labeling Approach and Quellmoor demonstrate the exact opposite. Soon after Brand’s Paganini-styled spiccato creates a vivid exposition on the first tune, Rupp’s knob-twisting reveals a thumping ostinato that resembles cymbal crashes. Off-handed picking and string buzzing from the cellist is lubricated by rubs and tugs by the guitarist, leading to rugged below-the-bridge responses from Brand and, eventually, multiphonic flanges from Rupp. (All this while maintaining the theme on top of the cellist’s shifting continuum.) Any of Brand’s attempts at long-string romanticism on Quellmoor are quickly subverted by rocket-like interjections from Rupp. Moving forward and back like square dancers, the two continuously change places, with scrubs and plucks from Brand meeting string twangs or barks from Rupp. Rupp sneaks in the odd rock riff, and Brand adds some passages that would be elegant if not so high-pitched and strained. Chamber music with a difference, these improvisations show what conventional instruments are capable of when utilized to their limits.

05 KontaktCD0031The story is similar with Kontaktchemie (Boomslang LC 09496 traps.at), as Swiss guitarist Christy Doran and Belgian drummer Alfred Vogel demonstrate the versatility of common jazz or rock music configurations. Of course, their setup is less than traditional since Doran also uses an FX box, whose sound-card input adds effects, while Vogel has a double drum set and an electronic Octopad with patches allowing for sound triggering, modulation and pitch blending. Throughout it appears as if the two spend time deciding whether their function is outputting the most hushed free music or the most grandiose jazz-rock. But while tracks are sometimes noisy, heavy-metal head-bangers will be disappointed. The changes appear Janus-like on most tracks. Fremdeinwirkung begins with slippery moves up the guitar neck, followed by drumming clanks and clatter, which eventually turn into faster cascades joined by flying flanges and intimation of an electric bass line. The key track in this style is Das Gelbe vom Ei, where a feeling of late-night summer silence is interrupted first by percussion clanks, detailed guitar theme exposition and finally a moderated drum backbeat - the perfect verdant backing for string storytelling. With spacey sounds available from the add-ons, which often take the form of organ-like patterning, Kontaktchemie actually comes across as the most traditional of these discs, since psychedelia is now part of the tradition. Aus Zwei wird Eins, the final track, even includes a throwback-to-the-sixties sonic jape. After four minutes of guitar rasps and drum shuffles accelerating to a freak-out climax, ten minutes of silence follow, then suddenly an additional nine minutes of free form improvising becomes audible with buttery slides and drones from Doran, plus crackles and clips forged into a steady beat by Vogel. That track title translates as “From Two Will Be One.” On evidence of the complementary creativity on all these discs, it could be applied to any session here.


13 Jimmie GiuffreBremen & Stuttgart 1961
Jimmy Giuffre 3
Emanem 5208 (emanemdisc.com)

Arguably one of improvised music’s most underappreciated pioneer groups, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio of the early 1960s with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, toured infrequently, made poorly selling LPs and finally called it quits when a door gig yielded the members 35 cents each. Yet more than a half-century later the foundations of sophisticated chamber jazz characterized by Keith Jarrett and the dissemination of now-classic Carla Bley compositions can be traced back to the trio.

Mostly cleanly recorded by German radio during a 1961 tour, this two-and-a-half hour, 26-track, 2-CD set collects material previously released on separate discs, plus six unreleased tracks and two bagatelles from a New York date earlier in the year. New tracks, including Thelonious Monk’s Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues and Ornette Coleman’s Compassion for P.B. are piano-bass duets with Bley’s nimble interpretations the equivalent of putting these advanced concepts into a blender ending up with sonic smoothies that are low calorie even as they preserve motion and cunning. Giuffre’s almost exclusively contralto- and higher-pitched clarinet make compositions like his own Cry, Want seem excessively piercing. But Swallow’s solid thumping and Bley’s sprightly chording, as well as the reedist’s innate sense of swing, mitigate most musical alienation.

Two versions of C. Bley’s Jesús Maria, P. Bley’s Carla and Giuffre’s Cry, Want, Venture and Whirrrr confirm how the trio’s cohesive timbre-mingling allows the members to create radical variants on those then brand-new pieces, the last of which is performed hard and heavy in one city, fleet and ambulatory in the other. Meanwhile Venture is an unpretentious instance of two-part invention in a jazz context with each player balancing entrances and exits around a steadying continuum. Tellingly both renditions of the clarinetist’s Suite for Germany skip through variables of speed and near stasis, with piano-string plucks and elongated reed tones confirming the stillness and strength of an improvisational concept more than slightly ahead of its time.

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