The handful releases from Rare Noise records I’ve received in the last couple years has presented a problem for organizing my music collection: as I sort albums into loosely defined genres I can’t figure out where in the hell to put them. Most of Rare Noise’s output that I’ve heard contains a mix of so many influences and genres that it’s really doesn’t make much sense to file them under any genre. The catalog is full of combinations and takes on metal, prog, electronica, musique concrete, free jazz, straightahead jazz, new/contemporary music, and so on. To get out of trying to best organize them, I decided the best solution would be to put them together. And so they all reside together on the same shelf. While sure, I’ve got plenty of albums that defy genre that have found homes, but putting all the Rare Noise releases together makes them easier to find.
These albums’ resistance to classification, as manifested in my organizational conundrum, is pretty telling as to what Rare Noise produces. While I don’t care for everything the label puts out, there’s several albums I really dig, all of which bend, or flat out ignore, genre conventions. Here’s the lowdown on a few of them I really enjoy.
That the Days Go by and Never Come Again, by Indigo Mist, is an Ellington tribute unlike any I’ve heard. The group consists of trumpeter Cuong Vu, pianist Richard Karpen, bassist Luke Berman, frequent Vu collaborator drummer Ted Poor, and several folks on live electronics. Four of the ten cuts are from Duke’s book: Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “Lush Life,” and Ellington’s standards “Mood Indigo” and “In A Sentimental Mood.” The tracks all segue, so as to make one long suite, and they vary in instrumentation, texture, dynamics, and mood. It’s also not always clear when one song begins and the other ends, and when combined with the free flowing and organic way in which the music grows, the album takes the listener on a winding journey. Along the way one encounters Karpen’s thundering left hand piano booms and dissonant clusters, a lengthy drum solo from Poor that dances around the stereo field, brief outputs of random sine waves, a piece that straightforwardly touches on swing and bebop before going sideways, and Vu’s plaintive recitations of “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “In A Sentimental Mood” wafting through the mist. That the Days Go by and Never Come Again is a gorgeous, far out, haunting, and evocative album. In a word: special.
One of my favorite albums of 2014 so far is the self titled album from Plymouth. This is a heavy album that imposes its will. The quintet includes Jamie Saft on organs, echoplex and Rhodes, guitarists Joe Morris and Mary Halvorson, Chris Lightcap on electric bass, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The three tracks on this beast are long – the “short” one (“Plimouth”) [sic] is thirteen minutes, the long one (“Standish”) almost thirty. Each cut follows roughly the same narrative arc: a relatively quiet and sparse beginning that is followed by a slow buildup in intensity, dynamics and polyphonic textures, and then concluding with a gradual decline. The buildup is not constant, however, as the players weave in and out of each other, contributing a new chord, huge swath of sound, short-lived rhythmic gesture, or melody. The sonic pallet contains a little bit of everything: spacey ’70s fusion, driving hard rock, crunching distortion, huge organ chords, and angular and penetrating guitar lines. Don’t bother looking for catchy tunes or hummable melodies. There are no stars here, as no player stands above the rest – just a guitar flourish from Morris or Halvorson here, a keyboard or drum kit intervention there. Listening to Plymouth’s music is almost like being able to watch the entire lifespan of a glacier: seeing it form, watching it gorge its way through a mountain, witness subsequent fall into the sea, and then being left to consider its power and complexity.
A second Saft-involved project is Slobber Pup, which released Black Aces in June 2013. Pretty much all you need to know about this album can be found in the title of the disc’s final track: “Taint of Satan.” Yup, Black Aces is Hard. Like Plymouth, this album also features Joe Morris. The quartet is rounded out by bassist Trevor Dunn-who was a member of The Melvins-and drummer Balazs Pandi, who played with Merzbow. [Morris and Pandi can be heard on the avant-garde free jazz album by tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman on Rare Noise entitled One.] Although Slobber Pup’s instrumentation is similar to Plymouth’s (only one guitar here instead of two) they’ve got a completely different sound. As opposed to Plymouth, there is a whole lot of space for soloists to stretch out. The members of Slobber Pup don’t take a whole lot of time to get started – they punch you in the teeth just about from the word go. Black Aces opens with the 27 minute long “Accuser,” and after a roughly two minute introduction in which Morris and Saft test the waters it’s on, as Morris unleashes some serious and lengthy shredding. In fact, the tune is basically one long vehicle for Morris, who navigates the changing grooves and textures by moving from long single note lines, to waves of distortion laden sustained or strummed chords. The last few minutes is a dark maelstrom of drums, organ chords, fuzzy guitar, and Dunn’s penetrating solo bass lines. Pandi is an absolute beast throughout the entire record; he is almost unbelievably active, and his drums thud with unwavering strength and authority. Check out the title track especially, which features some massive organ playing by Saft, to see what I mean. Pandi gives the music its drive and the group’s stomp on your neck swagger. He is, like Slobber Pup as a whole, a force to be reckoned with.
Prog fans would do well to check out the self titled album from 2013 by Mumpbeak. The group is led by keyboardist Roy Powell, and as is the case with many of Rare Noise’s releases, it includes contributions by heavy hitters from other prominent groups. King Crimson alum and bassist Tony Levin sits in on one cut, and King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto holds the group’s drum chair. The album also features bassist and producer Bill Laswell. Powell hitched a complex set of pedals to his Hohner Clavinet, teamed up with a few electric bassists, and proceeded to record seven tracks that are venues for him to explore his instrument’s sonic possibilities, get inside the spaces provided by the wide variety of grooves and tempos, and generally rock out. As is the case with prog, mixed meter and tricky rhythms abound. The compositions aren’t based around tunes; rather, they are grounded by Mastelotto’s drum patterns, melodic ostinatos, and particular colors and moods. Most of the record features simultaneous bassists, and the ways Powell uses his clavinet’s effects to sound like a variety of guitars and keyboards makes it seem like there are multiple soloists, which gives the album a range of timbres, new sounds, and ideas to check out. Mumpbeak surely isn’t for everyone, but it’s an intriguing, dark, ominous, and stimulating take on prog and other forms of improvisation-heavy instrumental rock.
I recently got a press release for singer Cyrille Aimee’s new album that featured the following blurb: “When you see Cyrille Aimée perform, you instantly fall in love with her—her voice, eyes, curls and the joyful spirit she invests in each song.”
The quote comes from a 2013 interview with Aimee by the singer Roseanna Vitro. Out of the four qualities Vitro praises, only one directly relates to skill and talent. “Joyful spirit” is related, but it reads fairly gendered to me (how many male singers would be praised for their joyful spirit?). What do Aimee’s eyes and curls have to do with her singing, or why you would want to listen to her music? Nope, nothing. What are two of the things that help make Aimee such a compelling performer? Her appearance. That this is the interview’s very first sentence immediately frames Aimee as a gendered and sexualized object, who also sings.
Perhaps, in this case, it’s ok that attention was drawn to Aimee’s looks because the writer was female. But it’s not – the sexualization of female jazz musicians by writers is not limited by the writer’s gender. What it shows is that the practice, especially in regards to singers, is so ingrained that it has become the modus operandi for writing about female musicians by most writers.
I haven’t heard Aimee’s new album, but I’m currently listening to her with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra on their Burstin’ Out! album. (If memory serves, it was my pick for vocal album of the year in last year’s NPR critics poll). It’s the only recording of her’s I’ve heard, and from the first listen I was really shocked by her great sense of rhythm, timing, natural shaping of phrases, and her great voice.
So I went and did some work on my favorite releases of 2014 page, check it out here. It comes with my rational for my new approach to listing my favorite albums by year, and some thoughts on a few of the albums. And check back to the page periodically, as I’ll be expanding the list and adding more thoughts about individual albums.
My S.O. said I couldn’t limit my thoughts on last week’s Django Gold’s satirical piece in the New Yorker about Sonny Rollins to five short sentences. I’m about to prove her wrong. In no particular order:
If you thought it was funny (I laughed at the Miles bit), cool; if not, also fine.
The response has been wayyyy overblown.
I mean Sonny taking to the web last night to discuss it?
Music shouldn’t have sacred cows.
If nothing else, lots of jazzheads need to channel their inner Dude.
TUM Records, based in Finland, is quickly becoming one of my favorite new labels. This is for several reasons: first, and most importantly, the music is all creative, fresh and forward looking, with nods to the jazz tradition and the avant-garde; second, the packaging, artwork and lengthy liner notes makes each release a complete package – in this way TUM is similar to ECM; third, also like ECM, the production, engineering and mastering is phenomenal, and every release I’ve heard on the album sounds great. While most of the label’s catalog focuses on the work of Finnish musicians, Americans such as Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang and Barry Altschul have recorded for the label.
Aside from the music, part of what gives TUM it’s distinctiveness is the artwork. Each release features visual art from a Finnish artist that is used for the front and back cover art. The liner notes conclude with a thumbnail of the complete painting and a bio of the artists. In this way, the label synthesizes music with art. This is especially the case when the album is by Finnish musicians, as the complete package offers a piece of multiple aspects of Finnish culture. In short, TUM is a label with a clear musical and artistic vision that consistently puts out a well conceived, executed and forward looking product.
Out of the several albums I’ve heard on the album over the last 24 months or so, here are five released within the last year, or so, that really struck me.
Barry Altschul: The 3Dom Factor One of my favorite formats is the tenor, bass and drums trio. Add The 3Dom Factor to the list of excellent albums in this format. It’s also one of the finest albums of 2013. The 3Dom Factor is Altschul’s first release as a leader in many years, and it features Jon Irabagon on tenor and Joe Fonda on bass.
There are several things that really stand out: first, Altschul’s compositions. They are tuneful and hummable, playful, rambunctious, quirky, and at times demanding. Many of the tunes are brief and folk-like, and remind me of Paul Motian’s writing. There’s also a mix of grooves and feels, “Papa’s Funkish Dance,” well, has a nice funkish backbeat (this isn’t Clyde Stubblefield drumming for James – it’s a left of center jazz date); “Oops” has a tricky mixed meter A section – if I had to play it along with Altschul I’d be saying “Oops” a whole bunch; and “Ictus” is a fast, angular and jaunty post-bop head: think of mid-90s Branford w/ Tain. The diversity of meters, tempos, times, etc. does is give the soloists tons of ideas and textures to use as inspiration, nooks and crannies to explore.
Second, the trio is super tight. Which as I’ve written in a previous post, pointing out how well a band plays together is a silly thing to say. But there, I said it anyway. I’m not sure how much is the nature of the charts, but there are moments where the music slowly goes in another direction, which feels a bit like being whisked away and taken somewhere new. If it’s improvised, it’s a tribute to the group’s musicianship and the trust they have in each other. If it’s written, then Altschul did a helluva job writing such seamless and spontaneous changes.
Third, and this is related to the writing – is that each player gets lots of chances to solo; this album isn’t dominated by one player’s solo voice. And for those who are thinking “great, several bass solos, gotta tune those out” (admit it, you’ve all hated on the concept of the bass solo before) – don’t, as Fonda is a great soloist. And I don’t need to mention how killing Altschul and Irabagon are.
Irabagon told me that the trio is heading back into the studio shortly (they may have already done so), and their second album for TUM will be out this year. If it’s anything like The 3Dom Factor, it will be phenomenal; I can’t wait to hear it.
Esa Helasvuo: Stella Nova This is beautiful and compelling solo album is the first by the Finnish pianist and composer (who has been an important figure in the Finnish jazz scene for decades) in many years. All but one of the pieces are improvised, which gives the music a completely organic feel. Helasvuo’s music is at times contemplative, he uses silence and stillness to great effect, his touch is gorgeous, and his playing is quite pretty (although a couple times it verges on being too pretty-but it’s never precious). The lengthy (9 minutes and change) title track is one of the album’s stand outs. He slowly – slowly is almost an understatement – builds up a head of steam, and when he gets going the forward motion is that of a train hurtling towards the inevitable. This is not to say that on this track Helasvuo manages to play above a forte, or that he gets raucous or wild – like the rest of the album his playing is restrained, well thought out and always has a direction. Those into any of the solo piano or piano trio albums on ECM – think of John Taylor or Keith Jarrett – will really like Stella Nova.
Kalle Kalima & K-18: Out to Lynch (The first thing to mention, is that I noticed in an ad in Downbeat that Kalima and his band are putting out a new album on TUM pretty quick – so my review here isn’t the most timely, but whatever)
Now on to Out to Lynch: usually when somebody describes contemporary avant-garde jazz/creative or new music/improvisation/whatever-you-choose-to-call it he or she, myself including, will use the term “out.” But really, if it’s similar to something that was developed 50+ years ago, how “out” can it really be? Kalle Kalima & K-18 really is out, I mean OUT, in every sense of the word. As the title implies, it’s dedicated to and takes inspiration from the work of filmmaker David Lynch. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I’m not familiar with Lynch’s work at all – which is something I plan on rectifying in the near future. The only thing I really know is that somebody killed Laura Palmer and that the question of who killed her is oft-asked (I was too young to watch Twin Peaks when it appeared, but it’s been something I’ve been meaning to dive into). I have not seen any of his movies. So, I’m not able to comment on how Kalima et al reflect upon or how they might take their cues from Lynch, but to repeat, they go OUT.
The music is often shocking and surprising. For example, the opening track, “BOB,” begins with a rock guitar solo from Kalima, but then Veli Kujala’s entrance on quarter-tone accordion (much of what makes this album so jarring is the accordion’s tibres and tone clusters) – which barely matches, if at all, from what Kalima was playing – upsets I was expecting to follow. The rest of the track features free jazz solos from saxophonist Mikko Innanen, Kalima and Kujala in which the soloists-sometimes playing alone or in dialog with a bandmate- are accompanied by out of time bass from Teppo-Hauta-aho, crackling guitar and percussion. Despite the thick and shifting textures, the tendency to avoid time or meter, there are some more grooving – albeit a pretty whacked grooving – tracks. “Eraserhead,” for example, is built on a short and catchy riff that’s played over an almost neck snapping groove. But by the two minute mark, things get strange; it’s an awesome contrast. As crunching, dissonant and angular as things get, there’s also more quiet, ambient, atmospheric and introspective moments – several moments on “Laura Palmer” serve as examples, despite the brief and occasional punctuated outbursts. When I played that track on my jazz radio show last year it was too out for my co-host, and I told our listeners during the stop set that by playing “Laura Palmer” we may have set a new record for how out the show got, which was quite a statement, because I brought in a lot of “out” music. But out of it all, “Laura Palmer” might have been the truly “outest.” In fact, Out to Lynch might be just about the “outest” contemporary jazz or improvised music can get.
Verneri Pohjola & Black Motor: Rubidium The first time I played this album I really only had it on in the background, and without really paying attention it sounded like a pretty far out record (see above). But…when I finally gave it the attention it deserved it turns out it’s not as out there as I had first thought, as Rubidium is quite often all about singable melody, a quality not usually associated with avant garde jazz. At first the “out” signifiers (Sami Sippola’s rough and burly tenor sound, which comes right out of the free jazz saxophone pioneers of the ’60s, and the stretching and occasional abandonment of time by bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Simo Laihonen) overshadowed the tunefulness of the compositions and solos. The quartet gives Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India” a bold and rhapsodic reading, and while Sippola’s tenor solo is right out of the free jazz tradition, there’s a nice balance between melody and snarl. Particularly fun is “Sax-O-Phun,” by the underecognized 1920s saxophone virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft. The short track begins with freeish solos before the band romps through the playful head (get your jazz hands going and pretend their on a serious dose of uppers). Edward Velsala’s dirge-like “Kynnyspuulla” is a lengthy lament and features lengthy and searching solos from Pohjola, Sippola and Rauhala. Like the album as a whole, the title track and “Old Papa’s Blues,” both by Pohjola, are fairly dark, a little brooding, are built on lengthy melodies, and are in minor.
While this band is clearly capable of turning the “outness” knob up to 11, they only do so when necessary (as on “Rubidium), which gives these forays into outer-space more meaning and significance. Don’t get me wrong, a whole lot of folks will probably consider the whole album to be pretty avant-garde, and in some ways I wouldn’t argue with that; however, there’s enough melody to counter those folks who think avant garde jazz is nothing but noise. Verneri Pohjola & Black Motor prove just that.
While the above albums are all around a year or two old, To Future Melodies by saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen came out April 15 of this year. It features the music of Finnish bassist and composer Antti Hytti, who wrote a lot of music for films and theater. (For liner note nerds – there’s extensive notes and photos here, bios of the musicians – Aaltonen’s bio is quite long, brief introductions to the album by Hytti and Aaltonen, and descriptions of the tunes.)
This is a pretty dark, moody and introspective album. From the first hit of the big piano and arco bass chords and the ensuing entrance of Aaltonen’s tenor, this album evokes later Trane – especially Stellar Regions. It doesn’t sound like Trane’s final studio album, but it is in that continuum. Perhaps this is because Aaltonen has a slow and wide vibrato just like Trane ahd on Stellar Regions, although Aaltonen’s sound has a slight brittleness to it that Trane’s didn’t. The music is full of polyrhythms and polyphony: that’s due to the two bassists (Ulf Krokfors and Ville Herrala), drummer Reino Laine, and percussionist Tatu Ronkko. Pianist and harpist Iro Haarla fills out the sextet. The five piece rhythm section provides a thick, thorny, and dense support for Aaltonen’s solos, and it’s function on this album is more to back Aaltonen than to provide soloists for every tune, although Haarla does solo. Like Aaltonen’s tenor sound, her tremolos and generous sustain pedal evoke Trane’s more meditative pieces from the mid-60s. Using such a big rhythm can run the risk of things getting cluttered or muddy, but that is not the case here, as each member picks and chooses their spots – the result is a rhythm section that sounds unified and adds complexity and interest, as opposed to one where its members are fighting to be heard. It’s quite impressive. Aaltonen plays flute on two tracks, but for me his tenor playing is most arresting. The title track is a great tenor feature that’s introduced by a bass solo. Aaltonen’s playing is bittersweet and heartfelt – it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful song. Although one hears a lot of references and similarities to the avant-garde scene of the mid and late 60s, there’s plenty new here to dig into, especially the playing of Aaltonen, who is one of the most important figures in the development of the Finnish jazz community.
For those such as myself who like hearing artists stretch out and try new things, and who really need a well done, great sounding and tangible product – as opposed to a compressed and context devoid mp3 – the TUM catalog is definitely worth digging into. It also gives Americans – or anybody else for that matter – an opportunity to get into the Finnish jazz tradition, which is probably not that well-known outside of Europe, and which clearly has much to say. TUM is creating a wonderful archive of Finnish musical culture, and with a few additions of Americans to boot. Definitely give TUM your attention.