New Beginnings, or a continuation
Stumbling into the present
I set up the Nowhere Street newsletter more than a year ago, intending to share materials related to a book about the community of rock, jazz, and experimental musicians that thrived in Chicago between 1992-2002 (those communities have continued to thrive beyond this imposed end date). I’m finally making my first post, and it doesn’t revolve around the proposed subject matter.
I get stressed out as every year ends and most of the publications I write for request year-end lists. I love reading those lists because I invariably discover lots of things I hadn’t heard or wasn’t aware of. I have always understood how arbitrary these lists are, for many reasons. When those choices are made one’s mood might impact what sounds great, as noted above there are so many things that went unheard, and how the fuck can anyone honestly produce a list of the best music. I’ve always used the phrase “my favorite recordings” when engaged in this pursuit, but the inevitable ranking that I’ve participated in has become rather silly. It’s stressful and it goes against the grain of how most people I know relate to music.
Nothing motivates what I do more than sharing, and the possibility that my enthusiasm can introduce new things to hear has always been a driving force and pleasure. As in previous years I selected forty albums, but this time they’re listed in random sequence. (If people really need to know the rank of my ten favorite albums it’s out there). Over the next two posts I’ll share them.
So why am I finally making this post? Well, this week I found out that I lost the most consistent platform I’ve had to write about new jazz and improvised music recordings. I revived the Complete Communion column previously penned by Stewart Smith—over at the Quietus in April of 2020. The UK seems to be in dire straits in all kinds of ways—still waiting for some mail sent from England months ago!—and it’s clearly impacted the sustainability of the Quietus. Sadly, jazz almost always seems like the first thing to go when there’s belt-tightening. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have pushed some of this stuff into an editorial mindset that leans in a much different direction.
So I’m gonna start covering that music—and other music, too—on Nowhere Street. I’m hoping to publish a new post weekly, and I also plan to establish a guide to upcoming live performances here in Berlin, hopefully as a modest service both to people living here and readers who might want to get a taste for what’s occurring in this sprawling city. The amount of music in Berlin is bonkers, but it’s impossible to find out about everything that’s happening here. There’s no single concert calendar to share the info. The ones that exist, especially the great echtzeitmusik and Field Notes, are quite specific, so they routinely miss or exclude things. There are so many one-off events or erratic presenters that there’s no way to really get a grip on what’s out there. I certainly don’t have the time, resources, or connections to do that myself, but hopefully I can make some useful suggestions. I will also use this platform to draw attention to other activities including concert programming, such as the upcoming 2023 edition of Frequency Festival in Chicago. More on that in some later posts, but please check out this year’s line-up.
I’m not charging anything for Nowhere Street. I know my own blogging habits in the past have been erratic, so we’ll see where it all goes.
The first two posts are comprised of the forty albums I mentioned above and then we’re off. I hope this proves worthy of your time, and if you dig, please subscribe and let others know that it exists.
Forty of my favorite albums from 2022, part 1
Silvia Tarozzi & Deborah Walker, Canti di guerra, di lavoro e d’amore (Unseen Worlds)
Violinist Silvia Tarozzi and cellist Deborah Walker have worked closely for years in contemporary music, but with this ravishingly beautiful album they unveil a shared passion for folkloric songs from Northern Italy, particularly the work songs of the female rice pickers known as the Mondine. They freely interpolate original material, improvisation, and extended technique within their rapturous arrangements, including some dynamic vocal performances. They bring tradition and invention together as powerfully as anything I’ve heard in recent memory, reducing such categorization to an afterthought.
John McCowen, Models of Duration (Astral Spirits/Dinzu Artefacts)
Another giant leap into sonic fuckery, contrabass clarinetist John McCowen sculpts walls of ultra-active sound—marbled with beating, gut-punch modulations, and psychoacoustics—that utterly defy real-world analysis. You just want to get lost deep within, and hopefully, find your way out, altered. He already seems to move on to a new area of exploration, disrupting the drone with some fascinating possibilities.
Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis/Belladonna (Nonesuch)
In recent years guitarist, bandleader, and composer Mary Halvorson hasn’t so much jumped from strength to strength so much as she’s accumulated ability and depth. These companion albums began with material for a fantastic new sextet with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, trombonist Jacob Garchik, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, bassist Nick Dunston, and vibist Patricia Brennan, but Halvorson’s interest in string quartet music let a set of compositions written for herself and Mivos Quartet, featured on Belladonna. Amaryllis features the sextet, with Mivos added in a few pieces—fully integrated, not some elegant window dressing. It’s astonishing how sure-footed, memorable, and driven this stuff is, and I can only imagine what can happen when she really hits her sweet spot with these players.
Casual Dots, Sanguine Truth (Ixor Stix)
I’ve been a hopeless adherent of just about everything Christina Billotte has ever done: Autoclave, Slant 6, Quix*o*tic, and this trio with drummer Steve Dore and guitarist Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill fame. In all of them she’s nonchalantly toggled between post-punk minimalism, doo-wop melodies, and garage simplicity in shifting combinations, with most of her tunes featuring indelible hooks that get the job done with little notice or fuss. Casual Dots made one great album back in 2004, and then kind of vanished, so this return was as welcome as it was unexpected.
Dei Kjenslevare, Kjenslevarulv (Motvind)
There seems to be no bottom to the creativity of contemporary Norwegian music, and this elusive album points to another burgeoning field of activity up north, where local fiddle traditions collide with unusual tuning systems. This behemoth is well versed in both traditions, and I’ve consistently been lifted by enveloping harmonies that rip[le through these meditative pieces—it all feels ritualistic, raw, and utterly transportive. Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Rønnekleiv of the excellent Sheriffs of Nothingness are at the core of this ensemble, which includes no less than six Hardanger fiddle players, but many of the players were new names to me in 2022.
Oren Ambarchi/Johan Berthling/Andreas Werliin, Ghosted (Drag City)
Four extended ostinatos meted out by double bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin (who have the same roles in Fire! with Mats Gustafsson) grooves serve as a canvas for texture-oriented excursions by Oren Ambarchi, who takes his time shaping, tailoring, and stratifying gauzy layers of sound vibrating from the churn of a Leslie cabinet. The great Christer Bothen adds some donso n'goni twang on the opener, carving out extra depth, but the trio alone guides us through one expansive, extended ride.
Jacob Garchik, Assembly (Yestereve)
Trombonist Jacob Garchik is the kind of a musician with such a firm grasp on the way music works that he needs to challenge himself to keep things interesting. In lesser hands that could produce something interesting but chilly, where music is an intellectual exercise to be solved rather than something that can move us. But Garchik always backs up his far-flung ideas with soul and ardor. He leads a superb quintet with drummer Dan Weiss, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsom, pianist Jacob Sacks, and bassist Thomas Morgan through a set of strategies/tunes that bring a technologically and structurally convoluted hall of mirrors to bear on music that’s technically rigorous, musically heady, and emotionally satisfying.
Greg Davis, New Primes (Grayfade)
For anyone looking for a quick-dip into the mind-expanding pleasures of just intonation I’d recommend this sine tone excursion through prime numbers by Greg Davis. His vision isn’t purist by any means, which has allowed me to experience the trippy array of beating patterns that vibrate through every piece. Davis rolls through the possibilities with an unusual concision in a soundworld that most people deploy in extended durations, or, at least, microscopic detail. New Primes isn’t precious about sharing its secrets, making it both generous and seriously functional. Nothing wrong with that!
Immanuel Wilkins, The 7th Hand (Blue Note)
The second album from saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins profoundly impacted my understanding and appreciation for what working within a tradition can really mean, and over the last couple of years an increasing number of jazz artists have embraced a totality that feels new and powerful, where ideas strewn across the music’s vast and rich history can be endlessly reconfigured into something new. This furious suite contains multitudes, and considering that Wilkins is only 24 years old I can’t wait to see where he goes next, and then where he takes us after that.
Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone, Xaybu: the Unseen (Pi)
On the second album from his futurist jazz-hip-hop project Sélébéyone alto saxophonist Steve Lehman carried forward with keyboardist Carlos Homs, further stripping down the reeds, beats and rhymes at the core of his work to a bare minimum. Instead, the leader unleashed more samples and synthesized bits, but the focal point remains the brilliantly off-kilter rapping of HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic, the saxophonist’s slashing interplay with Maciek Lassierre, and the insane drumming of Damion Reid, who continues to make MPCs cower.
Ellen Arkbro & Johan Graden, I Get Along Without You Very Well (Thrill Jockey)
Johan Graden and Ellen Arkbro (photo: Miki Anagrius)
I was wary of the stories I heard that Ellen Arkbro, a minimalist with a magical harmonic imagination, was making a pop record. I assumed it would be a synth-pop album—because that always seems to be where such things end up—but this collaboration with keyboardist Johan Graden was something else entirely. It’s a mournful break-up album that rhapsodizes emotions at a rapturous crawl, and Arkbro’s warm, unadorned voice glides through the resonant arrangements until every now and again she’ll deploy a nasality that sinks into the levitating brass with a but-punching sting. I don’t hear this as a pivot or some kind of career shift—this was clearly within her all along, and I’m delighted to observe it all unfold.
Joan Shelley, The Spur (No Quarter)
Made during a time of devastating uncertainty and darkness, beginning with the election of Donald Trump and ending with the arrival of Covid-19, Joan Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg—her partner in life and music—made this stunning album as they committed to one of the great acts of faith, deciding to have a child together. The songs collide fear, confusion, and trust, believing in goodness and hope in a time when both seem in short supply. The empathy and honesty that course through these songs, expertly produced by James Elkington, has provided well-needed assurance.
Eiko Ishibashi, For McCoy (Black Truffle)
In my increasingly sketchy memory Eiko Ishibashi created a sterling series of recordings that emerged as the months of lockdown piled up. It seemed like every month or two she would release some subtle psychedelic masterpiece, beginning with the 2020 album Hyakki Yagyō and rolling through the following year, with one online title after another, which is how For McCoy first surfaced. Oren Ambarchi of Black Truffle recognized the kaleidoscopic beauty of this one, and after Jim O’Rourke remixed it, giving it greater depth and clarity, it finally got released on vinyl this year. Otherwise, Ishibashi was fairly quiet—although I did finally get to hear her play live in November, in Berlin—but this album served as potent reminder of an incredibly fecund period. I can’t wait for the salvos to resume.
Jan Martin Smørdal & Øystein Wyller Odden, Kraftbalanse (Sofa)
This long-form piece by Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal and artist Øystein Wyller Odden makes a salient point about the instability of the technology-driven world we find ourselves in, building a foundation with a piano tuned to the pitch of a European electrical current of 50 Hz. The piece experiences little bumps and blemishes due to the fluctuations of the current, which translates into a fully immersive sound experience when fleshed out with a phalanx of string players who follow and respond to those minute changes in real-time.
Richard Dawson, The Ruby Cord (Weird World)
Richard Dawson concludes his centuries-spanning trilogy, settling back into a folk-rock vibe, with superb instrumental support from violinist Angharad Davies, harpist Rhodri Davies, and drummer Andrew Cheetham. At first blush I think the return to vaguely familiar stylistic confines—if a 40-minute single counts as conventional—prevented the continued eloquence, beauty, and imagination of Dawson to fully register, but months later it feels like another triumph from one of the genuine greats of our time.
Catherine Lamb, Aggregate Forms (Kairos)
The psychedelic power that emanates from Catherine Lamb’s music has never been so meticulously played as by JACK Quartet, a string ensemble with the rigor, skills, and genuine ardor to bring numeric ratios to life. They do an excellent job on Lamb’s first string quartet “Two Blooms” from 2009, but it’s the epic divisio spiralis where everything coalesces. The composer sees the music as a kind of three-dimensional spiral, and while I struggled to make direct connections until quite recently, there’s no doubt that it all inspires my mind to experience the sounds in starkly physical terms. As Ryan Dohoney wrote in his well-observed liner note essay, “Her tones do not simply fill the space. They compose space.”
Frédéric Blondy, Éliane Radigue: Occam XXV (Organ Reframed)
Éliane Radigue’s Occam continues to yield new treasures every year, and this recent iteration, XXV, composed for the French organist Frédéric Blondy—who she previously worked with in his role as conductor for ONCEIM—is among the best. I could listen to the first few minutes on repeat, with lowest tones of the organ at the Union Chapel in London fluttering like a massive heart, palpitating a physical sensation as much as an aural one. Naturally, the composer finds so many enthralling patterns and shapes within the gorgeously levitating core that the slow incline toward a fuller register is no less sublime.
Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, The Zürich Concert (Intakt)
This jacked-up piano trio with keyboardist Kaja Draksler, bassist Petter Eldh, and drummer Christian Lillinger remains one of my favorite working groups in jazz and improvised music, a fleet combo that treats rhythm like a three-dimensional object. This recording, taped live during the Unerhört Festival in Zurich in 2021, reinforces how fluid the group’s material can be, with each participant pushing and pulling against forces of propulsion and melody. Depending on the piece the trio generates an avalanche of polyrhythmic invention strong enough to pull anyone down with its ferocious undertow, while elsewhere they let things blossom, ceding glimmers of explication before moving on to make the listener wonder what they’re hearing, yet again. Michael Brändli’s crisp engineering gives the music a beautifully tactile snap and elusive sonic depth.
Josephine Foster, Godmother (Fire)
Josephine Foster has never made a bad record and over the last couple of decades she’s regularly changed-up her practice. On first glance it might seem like Godmother was a low-key retrenchment, building her characteristically idiosyncratic melodies with the sparest of means; an acoustic guitar. But then gurgling analog synthesizers begin to snake into the sound field, beautifully complementing the singer’s fragile warble with gauzy shadows, weird arpeggios, and gliding countermelodies, occupying a crucial presence in these gorgeously dialed down performances. It might be the best album she’s ever made.
International Nothing, Just None of Those Things (Ftarri)
The Berlin microtonal clarinet duo of Michael Thieke and Kai Fagaschinski have quietly emerged as composers deploying gripping sustained tones, psychoacoustic flutters, and haunting melodic shapes, transforming a deep investment in extended techniques and heightened listening into something far more profound, ambitious, and human than anything they’ve previously accomplished. As with some of my favorite music lately, the music takes you somewhere alien, it’s rolling episodes carving out shifting new landscapes.