Saturday, February 25, 2012
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
This isn't the first time Tim Berne has appeared on ECM. He played on David Torn's prog-improv album Prezens in 2007. But this represents his first session as a leader for the landmark label. Anyone who has followed the label with any regularity realizes that producer Manfred Eicher gives his sessions a unique sound. (So unique that I was able to identify it when I heard an ECM album playing in a coffeeshop last week.) So too does Tim Berne have a singular approach, one that he has admitted to using repeatedly, changing up the musicians when it's necessary to keep it fresh.
And from the opening moments (ever notice that ECM discs always begin with at least five seconds of silence?), Snake Oil is an ECM album. Matt Mitchell's piano has than tranquil sound that evokes snowy European peaks (personal image). It doesn't sound smooth or new age-y, but sonically it's a far cry from Downtown New York, even if it was recorded there.
Berne's alto doesn't enter until three minutes into "Simple City," and when he does it's classic Berne - sharp-tongued and fiercy, jousting with drummer Ches Smith over the scene. Like his best compositions, the piece goes through many shapes and changes, though at 14 minutes, it might be considered a shorter work for him. Oscar Noriega, who rounds out the quartet and acts as the reed foil on clarinet and bass clarinet, solos in the final section, his clear tone fitting in with the ECM aura. Berne had Chris Speed double on clarinet in Bloodcount, but Noriega's parts and even his tone often echo the way guitarist Marc Ducret harmonized in his appearances with several of his groups.
At times throughout Snake Oil, the quartet sounds like Eicher took the edge off of Berne, who is known for screaming crescendos and extended pieces where structures morph into different movements as soloists blow over them. The saxophonist's proclivity for repetitious choppy lines remains ("Scanners") but sometimes the fluid, calmer parts just seem to bask in the mood of that moment. Smith might be playing in a manner like Jim Black but that unpolished crack doesn't quite across.
But the full depth of a Tim Berne album often doesn't come out until numerous, engrossed listens. Snake Oil continues in that way. Just when "Not Sure" doesn't seem to be moving beyond a free interlude of alto and bass clarinet, it shifts into a knotty theme, and Mitchell plays over the jerky changes, which is a new thing for acoustic piano is almost never been heard on a Berne album. I've listened to this a lot in the past two weeks, and I'm still getting surprised each time.
So maybe Berne writes variations on the same thing with different configurations of players, but there's still new discoveries with each excursion.
And no, they don't cover the great Tony Williams Lifetime tune "Snake Oil." Alas.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Lo and behold that's where the lovely Ms. Parkins and her European co-horts were to play. Before them, though Ben Opie and Matt Wellins performed a piece where Opie played clarinet and alto, and Wellins manipulated it through a bank of effects, turning the single tones into droning chords, swooshing stereo ping-pong percussive effects and repetitions of what Opie played seconds prior to it coming from the speakers. It was soothing but also engrossing.
Four guys were seated center stage around two snare drums, banging away. I'm not sure how long they had been playingwhen I made my way back because the jukebox was still going in the front of the bar. Each snare was shared by two of the guys, and they were getting this wild overtone that sounded like a guitar or bass. And there were guys onstage with both of those instruments - along with an organ, maybe a Farfisa - but they weren't playing anything yet. The sound was relentless: steady rhythms going on the skins without a break. Gradually the bass, organ and guitar started playing. They played one chord. For about 40 minutes. I think the piece worked kind of like a palindrome, with the instruments dropping out in the opposite order that they started. Can't say for sure because I was in the front of the bar, listening from a distance.
Writing about it now, it sounds pretty interesting. Sort of like Terry Riley for the stoner rock generation. I have to admire the discipline and stamina of the guys too. But Thursday night, I had to step away from the band. Not only was it unbelievable loud - they miked the drums for pete's sake - it just got a little claustrophobic after awhile. For those who haven't had the pleasure of visiting Gooski's, the back room where the bands play is pretty small and intimate. The pool table usually becomes a spot that people lean on to watch the bands, and the ping pong table is folded up in the corner.
Years and years ago, I saw a band of locals play something similar to this: I got there mid-performance as they were banging out an A chord, Velvet Underground-style. (I think narcotics might've factored into the set.) 10 minutes later they were still playing it. Five minutes later I left the room. Man Forever has more method to what he/they do, but it was still a little hard to take, especially after a few gin and sodas.
At the same time, I received an advance of his new album and I'm kind of intrigued to see what it sounds like.
Plasma Expander played first, all done up in hospital scrubs, complete with masks. The bassist hit his strings as they were taking the stage and it was so loud I think I jumped in my seat. Stuff like that usually doesn't faze me. They were kindred spirits with Man Forever: lotta one chord, dropped-tuned drones with the variations coming from the drums.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Punk rock bands do split singles and split albums all the time, so it's about time that avant garde cats took that idea and ran with it. This is one time that it makes sense to release a 72-minute disc than two 36-minute ones. Further, Engine's production sense (covers printed on recycled chipboard, complete with detailed credits) offers a different take on jamming econo.
Trio Caveat consists of bassist James Ilgenfritz, tenor/soprano saxophonist Jonathan Moritz and guitarist Chris Welcome. With an opening track titled "Clicks, Beeps, Buzzing," it becomes clear that the group gets into free improvisation, with a healthy attitude towards the sounds they create, if the titles are any indication. Things begin with each of them feeling the space, producing some plinking, bowing and blowing, with no one letting a line get too long. This is a subdued free improvisation.
Although Moritz blows almost as hard for quiet sections as the loud ones, this session is not a demonstration of extended techniques, where this reed style joins a steady stream of bows that scrape out extreme harmonics and guitars are ravaged beneath the bridge or over the pick-ups. In fact, "Introspective Athletics" the track glides along as if it were a composed piece, like a ballad that meets some tension along the way. At 6:57, it's also one of only two tracks out of nine that come in over six minutes. Most are five or under.
Not to write off the aformentioned type of extreme improv, but Trio Caveat balances the temptation for extreme free blowing with measured, empathetic interaction. Ilgenfritz and Moritz seem to naturally pull back in "Fractured Flakes, Torrent of Frantic" to let Welcome play a twangy solo that moves upward. The bassist has the spotlight for his own strong arco approach in "Mellifluous Chirps." Moritz works like the glue that holds it together, going from wild bird noises to more orthodox blowing. It's extreme music but it's very engaging.
Josh Sinton describes his solo saxophone and clarinet album as "a (poor) attempt at spiritual alchemy. I made it in the hopes that my own relived memories would not haunt my daughter Zosia." It's probably a good idea to keep these tracks from Zosia for a few years. Everyone else should check them out.
Sinton's axes of choice work well in the solo format: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. "Water for My Father" begins softly with a quiet, simple melody, only to explode as Sinton simultaneously blows and growls through his baritone. Perhaps in response that intense, visceral delivery, "The Earth for My Father" finds him firing off rapid arpeggios up and down his horn via circular breathing, as to prove to Pop he knows his way around the horn. Even though it's an exercise, Sinton makes it work as a performance too.
A track called "My Clarinet Teacher" begins with Sinton intoning, "Eeeeeeeesential principles of good clarinet playing," and going into some catchy bass clarinet licks that digress into nasty honks. Again, he balances out the wild and wooly with the pensive "I'm Still Trying."
By the time "Full of it... Love, That Is" comes around, it comes as no surprise that Sinton would dive into the contrabass clarinet's lower register for some ugly squonk. (Hell, I would too.) What's refreshing is his command of the instrument, which sounds like a cross between a gong and an industrial vacuum cleaner. For album closer "Through the Trees I Saw Stone Caves on a Beach," Sinton overdubs all three horns (some multiple times) to create a densely layered, somewhat repetitive, rhythmically loose but ultimately satisfying work that proves these big horns can float easily when given the right ideas.
If he sounds this good on his own, I'd like to hear him with a group.