Here we go!
Digging into sounds from Chicago, Stockholm, New York, and Copenhagen through the lens of Berlin
Last December a new Chicago- and Queens-based digital label called Party Perfect!!! launched with a compilation that was actually four separate albums packaged together as PP-01, clocking in at a cumulative two-hours-and-forty-five minutes. I still haven’t made my way all the way through, as much of the music is decidedly harsh and often relentless. Michelle Lou, Stefan Maier, Michael Flora, and Other Plastics (the duo of Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles, who are also the folks running the label) each present jarring, noisy electronic sounds using a variety of synthetic means. I’ve liked it, but that’s a lot of sound to absorb at once, especially when many of these pieces might be better digested one-at-a-time.
More recently the label released Personal Watercraft by Technical Reserve, with Brown, Coles, and the cellist T.J. Borden (Mivos Quartet, Ghost Ensemble, and collaborator of folks like Luke Martin, Kyle Motl, and Patrick Shiroishi), which runs for almost 35 minutes. Stupid or not, that recording has fit my schedule more easily, but I’ve also dug it a bit more than what I heard on the label’s debut offering. Obviously there’s a ton of interesting activity in eggheaded, visceral electronic music today, where systems and cracked processes often trump the end result. That’s nothing new, of course. Experimental music is about trying shit and seeing what happens. Yet there’s plenty of that experimenting happening with Borden, but his cello-and-electronics improvisations, fed into and manipulated by the rigs (or whatever what they’re using is called) of Brown and Coles, present a genuine interplay between the musicians, and for me that almost always feels more human and risky. Most of the pieces are bite-sized tremors that writhe and sizzle before going silent, but there are some more, uh, measured excursions.
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Aesthetically it’s in the same ballpark as the compilation, with spasmodic, jagged, squirming, sparkling, and piercing electronic tones colliding, bending, and imploding, but the presence of the cello (or maybe it’s just the guy behind it) throws things more out-of-whack, so the leaps, turns, and stops that occur feel almost acrobatic. Borden’s pizz thwacks, striated bowing, and gestural tones convey the natural grain of his instrument, but whether the sounds are processed and plugged into pedal effects or are purely acoustic—or, who knows, maybe Borden is triggering the what the computers do!—the pull between those sounds is utterly compelling. The music often moves at breakneck pace, but the interactive sensibility is never lost. Definitely one of the most convincing free improv sessions with real-time processing I’ve heard since discovering Sam Pluta years ago. Check out a piece called “power forward #91” below.
I’m really excited to return to Stockholm next month to attend Sixth Edition—Festival of Other Music, where, among other things, Ellen Arkbro will premiere new large scale work drawing upon experimental musicians from Berlin, where she lives now, and Stockholm, where she’s from. There will also be a premiere of a new harpsichord work by the exciting composer Kristoffer Svensson (to say nothing of performances by Christer Hennix, Dewa Alit, Kali Malone, and Uday Bhawalkar). Since I last visited in 2019 it seems that Stockholm has become one of the deepest and most exciting centers for improvised and experimental music despite a depressing dearth of performance venues, which I think might partially account for the fact why what’s happening there isn’t more well known.
On February 20 Fönstret, a new label started by John Chantler, who runs the Edition Festival, will release Ephemeralds, a dazzling piece by a quartet led by guitarist Finn Loxbo called Kommun. The group features musicians who are all well-versed in improvisation and experimental practices: pianist Lisa Ullén, double bassist Vilhelm Bromander, and percussionist Ryan Packard. Loxbo’s meticulously charted composition still relies on spontaneous interaction, using a limited array of pitch material. The musicians are wildly active despite the quiet restraint, seeking a unified timbre. The chamber-like piece eschews long tones, instead creating an almost gamelan-like sound world—although rhythmically and melodically it’s not even close. Indeed, it’s remarkable how such disparate instruments are controlled and manipulated in such a way that they wall feel like kin. The musicians inhabit this humid, mysterious sonic location with total commitment, as if navigating a dense forest by sound and touch, and rather than traversing a forward path they occupy themselves exploring every potential nuance within a tightly fixed area. Every utterance feels borne of heightened listening. You can hear the whole work below, but don’t cheat yourself by listening while doing something else.
Loxbo, Packard, and Ullén also turn up on another recent recording, this time with composer and bass clarinetist Erik Blennow Calälv called Bi, In yo & Iwato on Insub. I don’t know much about Calälv apart from his beautiful contributions to two skies, a sublime trio album on Thanatosis with Svensson and cellist Maya Bennardo (weird that another Mivos Quartet member gets mentioned in another section of today’s post, in much different part of the world), and there’s not much info on the Bandcamp page for the recording. Apart from some biographical details for the musicians, we learn the three pieces are “based on traditional Japanese scales,” a subject I know nothing about. But I think that framework is more important to the music’s conception than it is for appreciation. Unlike Kommun, each instrument here more closely resembles its normal self and the form isn’t as audacious, but the level of interaction and attention to sonic detail is no less impressive. Every sound and gesture feels loosely sculptural, like a Calder mobile, with individual phrases or tones hanging thick in the air, moving slowly in changing perspectives which sometimes produce an unexpected harmony with another instrument. The general approach isn’t delivering anything novel, but the sense of time and space is astonishing, particularly in the stunning waves of harmony that pour in during “In yo.” I’ve only heard this one a couple of times, but I look forward to checking it out again within the context of Kommun, exploring where things overlap and where they don’t. Below you can check out the exquisite opening piece, “Bi.”
I was surprised that the second album from East Axis, a quartet with bassist Kevin Ray, pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and reedist Scott Robinson (who replaced Allen Lowe, the reedist that played on the group’s 2021 debut Cool With That) appears on the Mack Avenue label—an imprint that’s made its mark with straight down-the-middle post-bop and light fusion, with toe-tapping faves like Christian McBride, Aaron Diehl, and the Yellowjackets. There have certainly been some solid releases on the prolific label, but I can’t think of any quite as open as No Subject, the quartet’s new one. That first album was issued by ESP-Disk, a decidedly non-commercial venture. The players in East Axis all have serious jazz bona fides and much of the music is certainly more swing-driven than a lot of other projects Shipp and Cleaver are part of. Naturally, there’s a million through lines, and just because there’s a steady pulse and recognizable compositional forms, with a strong blues thrust much of the time, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of exploratory improvising. Shipp, in particular, is fantastic, showing off a brisker, bouncier step that we usually hear in his own, often dark projects.
Robinson, like his predecessor Lowe, is a phenomenal saxophonist of great range. He recently played with Roscoe Mitchell as the big opening reception of the latter’s painting exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago, but he also plays in the Mingus Big Band and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s a true student of jazz in most of its manifestations, so he can deftly bridge all kinds of gaps—check out his blowing on “Decisions Have Already Been Made,” below, where the way he blares jarring intervals conveys the intensity and influence of someone like Mitchell. It’s also on a track like this one where you realize East Axis isn’t watering anything down here. It’s the best inside-out jazz album I’ve heard so far in 2023. I still don’t know much about Ray beyond his role in this quartet, but he’s a steady, tasteful presence that seems to enforce a certain structure. That leaves us with the deep connection of Shipp and Cleaver, who both sound remarkable, moving in and out of swing time, pushing and pulling with that kind of assurance that nothing will ultimately go wrong.
Nowhere Street Presents
The next Nowhere Street concert happens on Friday, February 24 at KM28 at 8 PM, with the sublime Danish trio of pianist Søren Kjærgaard, bassist Jonas Westergaard, and drummer Peter Bruun. These musicians have a deep history going back to 1999 when they were all students at Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. They bonded and developed a committed workshop practice, endlessly rehearsing and growing in the shed. The trio called itself Fuchsia and played around town regularly, but the focus was on internal progress, not notoriety or financial remuneration. After school they all spread out around the world, engaging in many fruitful musical partnerships. But they remained friends, and often played together in different configurations. I first heard Kjærgaard and Westergaard with Danish drummer Kresten Osgood as the rhythmic section in reedist Michael Blake’s excellent but unfortunately named Blake Tartare back in 2004 at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. Beginning in 2016 they began to play a low-key, improvised concert every year at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.
Eventually they felt so strongly about the music they were creating they began to build new music together. Westergaard rearranged a suite of music originally composed for and played by a septet and a gorgeous, measured recording of the music surfaced in 2021 at Positioner/Positions. As this was happening Bruun was slaving away his own set of music for the trio, THĒSAURÓS. They’re operating in a way that makes me think of the +2 crew from Rio de Janeiro, where Moreno Veloso, Kassin, and Domenico Lancellotti each wrote a set of songs and recorded the music with the same lineup, yielding wildly diverse albums by Moreno + 2, Domenico + 2, and Kassin + 2. Kjærgaard is slated to write his own book of music for the trio, but Bruun’s compositions have already been beautifully recorded, and I imagine they will serve as the repertoire for this intimate concert. Please consider coming out. You can hear “Kinesis” below.
February 14: Lucy Railton and Michiko Ogawa with Joe Houston/Sam Dunscombe, 8 PM, KM28, Karl-Marx-Straße 28 12043 Berlin
February 19: Ustad Bahauddin Dagar - Rudra Veena, 8 PM, Petersburg Arts Space, Kaiserin-Augusta-Allee 101, 10553 Berlin
February 20, Harri Sjöström’s Up and Out (Tony Buck, drums & percussion, John Edwards – double bass, Elisabeth Harnik– piano, and Harri Sjöström– soprano & sopranino saxes), 8 PM, Panda Theater Knaackstraße 97 (i.d. Kulturbrauerei, Gebäude 8) 10435 Berlin
February 21, Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa XL, 9 PM, B-Flat, 10178 Berlin-Mitte
February 26, Stefan Schultze Large Ensemble, 2:30 PM, Industriesalon Schöneweide, Reinbeckstraße 10, 12459 Berlin
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