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Brandon Seabrook and John Scofield
Guitarists at opposite ends of the spectrum
Brandon Seabrook gets weirder:
Later this week guitarist and banjo whiz Brandon Seabrook will lead his excellent trio with drummer Gerald Cleaver and diddley-bow virtuoso Cooper-Moore in a handful of European shows, including a couple of gigs at Moers Festival this weekend. Sadly, they won’t be playing in Berlin. Last week Seabrook led his wild new octet Epic Proportions in concerts in New York and Philadelphia in support of the band’s wonderfully bizarre new album brutalovechamp (Pyroclastic), which drops on Friday. I’ve been listening to the record for several weeks now and I’m still trying to get my head around it.
Seabrook seems to be at the peak of his game recently. The above-mentioned trio released its fantastic second album, In the Swarm (Astral Spirits), last year, and the guitarist’s still expanding versatility has brought loads of ideas and contrasts to fine recordings by Ingrid Laubrock and Tomas Fujiwara recently. But this new album pushes things further than ever, simultaneously tapping into his penchant for brutal prog flavors alongside an emerging talent as a composer.
He leads a knockout line up heavy on strings and beats, fleshing out the proggy experiments of his 2016 sextet album Die Trommel Fatale (New Atlantis) with a far more expansive sonic palette and more advanced writing. Most of the original line-up has remained—Sam Ospovat on drums, Chuck Bettis on vocals and electronics, Marika Hughes on cello, and Eivind Opsvik on double bass—and the roster has grown in size and power with the addition of Nava Dunkelman on percussion and voice, John McCowen on reeds and recorders, and double bassist Henry Fraser.
The epic title piece album opens with a recorder and mandolin duet (another tool in the leader’s arsenal), with a kind of jaunty rhythm that suggests radically remade renaissance music, but we’re quickly disabused of an early music notions right away, when the rest of the band kicks in and Seabrook moves to guitar. The lengthy piece leapfrogs between discrete neck-snapping passages, with extreme dynamic shifts, see-sawing moods and modes that reflect the leader’s broad stylistic interests. Apart from the quasi-baroque opening there are extended passages for solo percussion, tightly-would ensemble sections where the prog tendencies flourish, and stretches of almost ambient calm, some of them recurring, with all of them essayed with remarkable dexterity and liquidity. The band sure seems to have had this material down cold when they went into the studio.
There is no shortage of the technically demanding, whiplash arrangements that have marked much of his playing, such as his early work with the Seabrook Power Plant, but I’ve never heard such tenderness and repose from one of his own projects before. In his liner note essay he writes, “When I wrote this music, my personal and artistic lives were in drastic flux, and I felt the need to find meaning in that chaos. To mirror, amplify, and transform that state, this sound world intentionally disregards any familiar chronology or form.” Indeed, I’ve been trying to parse the turbulent shifts and swings this music creates and I remain puzzled. But it’s the best kind of confusion, and rather than repelling me, the album keeps sucking me in, whether it’s the dolorous low-end long tones—two basses, contrabass clarinet, and cello digging into earth like a backhoe—in the middle of “I Wanna Be Chlorophylled II: Thermal Rinse” or the jazz Manouche bounce that drives “The Perils of Self-Betterment” and the way it’s brilliant pierced by the snaking, rheumy lines of McCowen. (Check it out below).
I don’t love it unconditionally. I’ve never been a fan of Bettis’ operatic howl, and nothing has changed in that regard here, but these intrusions feel relatively minor in context, and, like most things with the album, pass by quickly. It’s worth sticking around for it all.
Solo-Duo Sco in Berlin:
I have to admit that I had grown a bit tired of the band albums made by guitarist John Scofield, as they increasingly tilted toward jam band aesthetics, all rollicking, feel-good grooves and guitar playing that presented few surprises. Honestly, there aren’t many challenges or surprised on his most recent album, his 2022 eponymous debut for ECM, unless you count the fact it’s a solo effort. At the same time, he remains one of the most influential and authoritative guitarists in mainstream jazz. The repertoire certainly reflects Scofield’s general trajectory, with some old standards like “It Could Happen to You,” where he tips his hat to the octaves of Wes Montgomery during one chorus, and “My Old Flame” mixing with originals, the brief Keith Jarrett opener “Coral” and some rootsy classics like “Junco Partner” and the Hank Williams tune “You Win Again.”
Scofield uses a looper here and there, allowing him to sculpt multiple parts, but by and large the performances are quite direct, highlighting the singular signposts of his playing—like the ever-so-slightly twangy dissonance that tweaks certain notes within his liquid phrasing, as on his own composition “Honest I Do,” which you can check out below. It’s a lovely collection even if it feels predictable, but at least there’s no low stakes shuffling rhythms sashaying beneath his lines. He’s playing Thursday night, May 25 at Pierre Boulez Saal at 7:30 PM, playing a solo set to open the evening and joining with pianist Gerald Clayton for the second set. I recently heard the pianist in a quartet with guitarist Bill Frisell at Big Ears in early April, and I was struck by how selfless and supportive his playing was. It’s rare to hear such a well-known musician in mainstream jazz bring such humility to the bandstand, as was clearly more invested in making the group sound good that in showing off his own chops.
Recommended concerts in Berlin this week:
May 23: Gulfh of Berlin (Antje Messerschmidt, violin, viola; Gerhard Gschlössl , trombone, sousaphone; Gebhard Ullmann, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Johannes Fink, cello, double bass, Jan Leipnitz, drums; Michael Haves, live sound processing), 9 PM, Kunstfabrik Schlot, Edison Höfe, Invalidenstraße 117, 10115 Berlin
May 23: Danish String Quartet (Schubert, Thorvaldsdottir), 7:30 PM, Pierre Boulez Saal, Französische Straße 33D, 10117 Berlin
May 24: Beam Splitter (Audrey Chen & Henrik Munkeby Nørsetbø) and Black Top (Pat Thomas & Orphy Robinson), 8 PM, Morphine Raum, Köpenicker Straße 147, 10997 Berlin (Hinterhof 1. Etage)
May 24: Jessika Kenney & Eyvind Kang, 9 PM, Arkaoda, Karl Marx Platz 16-18, 12043 Berlin
May 24: Omer Klein Trio (with Haggai Cohen-Milo, bass; Amir Bresler, drums), 9 PM, Zig Zag Jazz Club, Hauptstraße 89, 12159 Berlin
May 25: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra plays Olivier Messian’s Turangalîlia Symphony (Simone Young, conductor; Cedric Tiberghien, piano; Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot), 8 PM, Berlin Philharmoniker, Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, 10785 Berlin
May 25: Audiovisionen: Hanno Leichtmann + Valerio Tricoli, 8 PM, Kulturraum Zwingli-Kirche, Rudolfstraße 14, 10245 Berlin
May 26: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra plays Olivier Messian’s Turangalîlia Symphony (Simone Young, conductor; Cedric Tiberghien, piano; Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot), 8 PM, Berlin Philharmoniker, Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, 10785 Berlin
May 27: Hápax Kollektiv play breathe into the forest, into the bird, into the song by Ángeles Rojas, Caleb Salgado, 8 PM, KM28, Karl-Marx-Straße 28, 12043 Berlin
May 27: Still House Plants, 13YC, 9 PM, West Germany, Skalitzer Straße 133, 10999 Berlin
May 27: And/In (Heather Frasch & Koen Nutters) with Eva-Maria Houben and Seiji Morimoto/Ian Douglas-Moore & Paul N. Roth, 8:30 PM, Ausland, Lychener Str. 60, 10437 Berlin
May 27: Fabian Willman Trio (with Arne Huber, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums), 8:30 PM, Donau115, Donaustraße 115, 12043 Berlin
May 27: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra plays Olivier Messian’s Turangalîlia Symphony (Simone Young, conductor; Cedric Tiberghien, piano; Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot), 7 PM, Berlin Philharmoniker, Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, 10785 Berlin