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2019 17 Feb

Big Ears Festival 2019

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This has to be one of the most exciting and most cutting edge music festivals I have ever come across in the US. It’s a staggering lineup this year, including a significant group of ECM musicicians in celebration of the label’s 50th anniversary. I would definitely have made this show, but we’re all set up to go to the Kongshaug Festivalen in Oslo, our Big Trip for the year. It will torture my significant other with Arild Andreson’s latest trio and other more “out” groups, as well as delight her with Mathias Eick’s Quintet. I will also be a reporting Manafonista on this diverse festival that goes beyond ECM artists exclusively.

But back to the Big Ears Festival this year – a formidable and diverse event worthy of Manafonistas. And of all places, it’s in Knoxville Tennessee. Check out the lineup

 

 

 
 
 

I stumbled across this 2016 gem through a Tidal search recently, and was surprised to find out about a very talented artist working in the World Jazz field who I’ve never heard of. Fred Soul grew up in France and was drawn to both classical and world music. He is both a pianist and percussionist. He doesn’t seem to have a great many recordings, but even if he only had one, La Comedie des Silences should’ve been enough to put him on the map. It is an unassuming one of a kind little miracle of recording, blending jazz, western classical elements, Brazilian jazz, middle eastern and African influences into a completely coherent artistic statement.

There are a number of talented vocalists representing the above cultures. The music often plays with one cultural reference, then another, sometimes combining the two. One piece is pure Brazilian, then halfway through takes a detour through north Africa. There are side trips to the Middle East as well. Somehow, due to Soul’s exquisite musical tastes and compositional prowess, it all works beautifully.

Vietnamese French guitarist Nguyen Le also guests on a few tracks, bringing a distinctly southeast Asian vibe. This is Le at his most gentle and subtle, employing volume pedal, delays, whammy bar and other simple guitar tricks to transform his instrument into a Danbau, at other times a delicate, floating butterfly of sound.

This is also a very beautiful, attractive recording. It’s one of those all enveloping mixes, where every instrument seems to have it own place, in which the soundstage is so detailed and balanced it almost feels like a 3D aural experience.

The writing is deep and developed – the arrangements, lush piano and cello, layered percussion guitar and gorgeous voices in call and response makes this a sensual and soulful listen. Yet with all that’s going on, the music is surprisingly uncluttered, cushioned in a luscious atmosphere of space.

Les Comedie des Silences is dense in musical nutrients yet immediately accessible – delightful ear candy for body, mind and soul. Highly recommended.

 

 

 
 
 
I didn’t know Aaron Parks had a new release until I accidentally stumbled across it a few days ago on Tidal and was happily surprised to see the title, Little Big, which happens to be the title of one of my very favorite novels. Apparently it’s one of Parks’ favorites as well.

Little Big the novel was an allegory of life, a fantasy about a peculiar family, an exploration of relationships and karma, and a blend of mysticism and magic set in a sort of parallel Macondo deep in the heart of New England. Little Big was a fairy tale for adults, populated with visions of an alternate reality as filled with mysteries, paradoxes, and conflicts between light and dark as the world we inhabit.

Little Big the album (Ropeadope,) takes us on a journey that is at first deceptively simple, but a closer listen reveals deep roots under the soil. It grooves, lopes, and meanders along with its own logic, at times sounding like a Bruce Hornsby tune without words, at other times like an early Jarrett solo piano piece, at various times melding and synthesizing influences as disparate as Phillip Glass and Stephen Foster, Return to Forever and Procol Harum, an indie soundtrack vibe a la Sufjan Stevens, occasional forays into ‘70s fusion, and even hints of EDM. Every so often, Parks ratchets up the energy into a near frenzy of good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll. Yet regardless of the detours it takes, the sound of Little Big is decidedly Parks’, and always remains distinctively American.

Clocking in at about 80 minutes, it’s a long ride. I admit that at first I didn’t quite get the moderate tempos, stacked up one after the other after the burning opening track, but then I let the music wash over me and began to settle in for the trip.

Parks is a sure-footed conjurer of unique sonic textures. He needs far less notes than most to evoke these tonal hanging worlds, and the band seems to fully understand their job: Like Parks’, it isn’t to grandstand or show off their chops. Rather they are all entirely in service to the music and the particular spaces and stories Parks is invoking. Indeed, in a way, this music is entirely focused on storytelling; Parks and his band are all about the telling of the tale.

Some of compositions are long-form, while some consist of not much more than a repeated hypnotic ostinato. Odd time signatures appear as do phrases that require an extra measure or two, but these devices are never self conscious or employed to merely be clever; clearly these are the kinds of things that came unforced and organically, right out of the fingers and the heart. They have that fresh, newfound sense of joy that only seems to flow from genuine, improvised discoveries.

This is a very well recorded album of a simpatico band playing beautiful, accessible music. Go ahead- turn it up; Much of it is meant to be played loud. It’s not intellectual music per se, yet it certainly is intelligent. It is far less a jazz album than Parks’ fine ECM trio album, Find the Way, and more aligned with his first Bluenote release, Invisible Cinema. Parks is mining his roots here, while keeping his head high in the sky.

2018 13 Dez

Netflix: The Good Place

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At first The Good Place seems silly, shallow and slapstick. And yes, the broad humor was off putting at times, but then I quickly became aware of the astute and incredibly smart writing, not to mention the lightening fast delivery of the lines by Kristen Bell, who reminds me of one of those smart 1940s actresses who can deliver her pithy one liners so off the cuff that it feels as if she just made them up on the spot. In fact the whole show has a throwback feel to the era of the kind of screwball comedies that relied on smart, snappy dialogue. The pace is quick, the jokes come one on top of the other. Not everything works and there are a few missteps here and there, especially early on. But as the show finds its footing, the edgy writing consistently redeems itself.

The cast is strong. Two of the main members have never acted professionally, yet deliver their lines like seasoned professional comic actors. Ted Danson is a standout as well. This is a plum role for Danson and he’s obviously having a ball. His depiction of the architect of the world the humans inhabit is alternately absurd, endearing, hysterically funny and at times, genuinely touching.

Yet at the same time as being immensely entertaining, the Good Place has a deeper ulterior motive: it wants to combine this ridiculous depiction of the afterlife with a somewhat surprisingly serious consideration of moral philosophy. On top of that, the characters each represent various wounded aspects of the human psyche, but they are not mere two dimensional symbols: as the show develops, the individual characters grow in substance and the show succeeds in winning the viewer over to the point of developing a genuine affection for the 5 main characters.

The Good Place walks the edge of a sword: too many philosophical ruminations and it could become dull – too much silliness and it could easily devolve into a mindless, corny sitcom. But for the most part it hits its target dead on, time and again.

Perhaps best of all, on top of the surreal world building going on, the writers aren’t afraid to “blow the show up.” There are surprises and reveals along the way that keep it fresh and keep the audience guessing. To those who find it sophomoric, I would urge them to hang in and see where this show takes you. I promise you, it’s a wild ride, but a ride with a higher purpose than one might expect at first watch.

In such a dark age as this, it’s refreshing to find a comedy that isn’t afraid to flirt with moral philosophy while making us giggle. We binged watched it right through the end of Season 2.

Aaron Parks – Little Big

Moksha – Ivo Neame

Bay of Rainbows – Jacob Bro

Enamon – Wayne Shorter

Adam Holzman-Truth Decay

       

David Crosby-Here If You Listen

John Surman – Invisible Threads

Where the River Goes – Wolfgang Muthspiel

The Height of the Reeds – Arve Henricksen

Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

ECV- Sticks and Stones

Romaria- Andy Sheppard 

An Ancient Observer/for Gyumbri-(2 albums) Tigran Hamyasan 

Helsinki Songs – Trygve Seim 

Contra La Indecision – Bobo Stenson 

Perfectly Unhappy – Espen Ericksen 

The Dream Thief – Shai Maestro

Ravensburg- Mathias Eick

Absence – Kristjan Randalu 

Frisell – Music Is

Gogo Penguin- A Humdrum Star

Ambrose Akinimusire – Origami Harvest

Keith Jarrett – La Fenice

Kim Kashkashian – Bach: 6 suites for Viola Solo

 

 

Surround Mixes/reissues:

Beatles – The White Album (5.1 Blu-ray)

Both Directions at Once – John Coltrane – the Lost Album

Weather Report – Talespinnin’ (2018 Dutton Vocalion SACD -quad- finally!)

 

 

 
 
 

Jon Balke’s latest Batagraf album is a bit different from others I’ve heard from this loose knit musical collective, conceived some 15 years ago. The albums have always featured world music influences with an emphasis on percussion, and in that regard this one is no different, but whereas the ECM albums were looser compositionally and more texture oriented, this Jazzland recording focuses on tighter, shorter compositions, and even has a few songs with lyrics.

Jon Balke, Helge Andreas Norbakken and Snorre Bjerck are still the core members, but they have added a few remarkable guests here, which include Mathias Eick on trumpet and Trygve Seim on sax. 

The album is a very mixed bag. The opening track, Tanuka, reminded me of Weather Report, with its folky African roots, that is, if Eberhard Weber helped write it. There’s another song that is totally homage to Bobby McFerrin’s work, particularly Medicine Man. Then there are the gauzy vocals of Emilie Stoesen Christensen, Ingeborg Marie Mohn, and Julia Witek, who together with Balke’s chameleon-like writing, obliquely bring to mind tracks off of Eberhard Weber’s classic Fluid Rustle. On the other hand, there’s the surprisingly quirky indie vibe of “A Roof, a Floor”, that sweetly yet insistently implores a friend/partner to “Make some room for me, make some space so I can go to sleep. Don’t need much, just a place where I can dream.”  From the Nordic chorale-like creaminess of  the title track to the wild abandonment of Gleamer, there’s a broad palette of moods to explore.

But ultimately, besides the wonderfully fresh and playful writing, it’s the ambience and bold mix that are the real stars here. The percussion is daringly placed very upfront, and the panning is often quite extreme, making for a very wide stereo image, making it a lot of fun to listen to on headphones.

This is an album that intrigues and seduces- it’s total ear candy. The only downside is that at 38 minutes, it leaves you wanting more. So, in light of that, I just spin it again. It grows on you-quietly addicting stuff.

 

Jon Balke (percussion and keyboards)

Helge Andreas Norbakken and Snorre Bjerck (percussion)

Emilie Stoesen Christensen, Ingeborg Marie Mohn, and Julia Witek (voices)

Mathias Eick (trumpet)

Trygve Seim (saxophones).

 

 

 
 
 

Arve Henriksen’s new release, The Height of the Reeds is a soundtrack for the mind and heart, cinematic in scope and like much of his work, evocative of dramatic natural landscapes, although the mental images of frozen tundras spreading out to the horizon, or endless dunes fading away into infinity, seem to originate in another dimension.

I took the journey while exploring the new Jenner Headlands on the Sonoma Coast coast. Jenner, a small, charming village with a population of 135, sits right on the mouth of the Russian River, and is one of the most beautiful spots on the California Coast. Stopping off for a coffee at the local Cafe Aquatica, I sat and watched for seals while I fueled up on the poor man’s Prozac, then made my way north to the just opened 6300 acre preserve. Slipping on my trusty Audeze isine 20s and chewing on a microdose of a gummy infused with THC, (oh the joys of legalized cannabis,) I went up the Sea to Sky trail, which soars high above the coast.  With its dramatic rocks and ocean views, it turned out to be the perfect place to experience this music. 

The Heights of the Reeds is a work of great mystery. Conceived around the idea of combining the recordings of found sounds on a bridge with improvisation and composed orchestral passages, the project is open and evocative, which ultimately transcends a specific locale and time.  At times, its brooding aural edifices bring to mind the score for a yet to made sci fi film. With Henriksen‘s plangent trumpet, Eivind Aarset’s atmospheric guitar, Jan Bang’s deep sound design and Jez Riley French’s eerie field recordings (which have been known to include the crackling recorded sounds of  electronic devices,) the listener is immersed in a sonic landscape that is at times ecstatic, transcendent even – at other times so inhuman and otherworldly as to feel bleak, dangerous and yes, vaguely threatening – programmatic music from an alien world. 

As on other recordings, most notably A Place of Worship,  live symphonic orchestra is integrated into the music to create expansive, neoclassical textures. Still at other times there are simple bass clarinet-like drones or French horn sections mixed with foreboding rumbling that made me look around for a hidden nemesis. Then suddenly, out of the dark, malignant mist emerges a triumphant choir of angels – perhaps all will be well after all – perhaps better than well – we are once again swept up in the quiet ecstasy of Communion with the Holy (Or was that the cannabis kicking in?) Then out of a fog of angels, that signature fragile solo Henriksen choirboy voice enters, now with the full orchestra accenting the spaces between phrases. But what are those guttural, gurgling, earthy sounds creeping into my consciousness? Perhaps even the ecstatic can be a dangerous place. Unexpectedly, it morphs into exquisitely ambient music for Debussy lovers, a boys choir rocking back and forth over a pedal point. But it only lasts for a moment, and once again, we’re back in the land of abstract guitars, ambiguous harmonies and always, space and silence. 

I have been exploring Henriksen’s work for some time now, and this new album looks to become one my very favorites. He keeps on expanding his musical palette, refining and growing. On this album it all comes together in a coherent whole. The Height of the Reeds is a mature work in a logical artistic progression of one of the finest artists in a genre which is hard to define. Is it ambient, ambient jazz, electronica, neoclassical? It is all of the above and none of them. Henriksen incorporates elements of all of these to build gossamer castles of ice, sand and clouds that slowly appear and then melt away before your ears.  

 

 

 
 
 

The new Trygve Seim album, Songs from Helsinki, is an exquisite gem and a standout in what has been a banner year for the ECM label.

While listening to this album, comprised entirely of ballads,  Seim’s smoky tone almost reminded me of a European Stan Getz. However, Seim possesses a tonal range that gives him the ability to add a lot more colors, sounding at times like a Bulgarian duduk, at other times deploying passionate screeches and squeals in the upper registers, (although except for the last tune, he reins in his wilder musical instincts in this predominantly restrained session.)

Seim’s sense of melody is virtually unerring in both his writing and his soloing. Understated, sensitive, even when skirting the edges of unabashed sentimentality – a lesser player might regress to the saccharine – somehow Seim has an unflagging intuitive discipline that avoids the obvious cliches. 

Since the very beginning as a leader, Seim has been a risk taking artist who approaches every project with a beginner’s mind, constantly reinventing himself, coming up with unique concepts and approaches for each new recording. Thus far, I haven’t heard an album from him as traditional sounding as this one is, in terms of a straight ahead quartet setting, and it succeeds brilliantly.

One more thing: After listening to this recording several times, I’m  utterly convinced that Kristjan Randalu is one of the best “new” pianists around (I’ve had his solo piano album for several years, so he’s not really new to me, but new to the world stage perhaps.) I love his brilliant first ECM record, Absence, as well as his amazing duo album Equilibrium with Ben Monder on guitar. His playing here is the perfect embodiment of support and taste in the role of sideman. His phrasing reminds me a bit of Jarrett at times, but make no mistake, he’s definitely his own man. I would be hard pressed to name a jazz pianist today with the degree of classical technique he possesses, and he puts his prodigious technical skills to good use – always in the service of the music. Randalu’s touch is for this listener at least, absolute perfection, like a mixture of butter and honey. His solos here are worthy of study – an improvisational touchstone, a how to manual for playing through changes in a contemporary European jazz setting.

In many ways, this is the Seim album I’ve been waiting for. I listened to it 3x yesterday, something I almost never do. Like a snifter of good cognac, it goes down easily, smooth yet complex. Pure listening pleasure, to be savored again and again.

 

 

 
 
 

Saturday night’s performance of Iranian master singer Mahsa Vahdat with the Norwegian SKRUK choir and Tord Gustavsen (piano/arrangements,) was incredible. One of the more memorable concerts I have attended in recent years … or maybe ever.

The heart of this project is Mahsa Vahdat’s amazing voice, which melismatically keens, swoops and uulates, bringing out all the beauty, longing and nuance of the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, (sung in Farsi – the choir sings in Norwegian.)

The concert also introduced me to two albums, both of which I purchased on the spot. The album that represents this project is SKRUK & Mahsa Vahdat, i vinens spiel (KKV label) and it’s available on most streaming sites and on CD. Besides Tord Gustavsen, ECM artist, bassist Matts Ellertson (Thomas Strønen, Mathias Eick etc) is on the album. There is also another album (Mahsa Vahdat, Tord Gustavsen and a percussionist,) called Traces of an Old Vineyard, (also KKV) which was also represented that evening when the choir left the stage and the trio performed pieces from that recording.

I bumped into Tord Gustavsen after the show. He told me there will be a new trio album in the fall and extensive touring, even a visit to Northern California. I am happy to hear of a new trio album; for all the other contexts I have heard and seen him in, I still love his trio albums best of all.

SKRUK also performed a cappella, including a mind blowingly beautiful Kyrie written and arranged by Gustavsen (unfortunately not yet recorded.) The choir surrounded the audience for that one. It truly felt like I had been transported to heaven. A transcendent musical evening.

 

 

 

 

Thomas Strønen is an imaginative drummer, arranger and composer and it’s clear that his artistic intentions are very serious. Even the name of the band is serious: it comes from the first line of the poetic novel, Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels. Like the novel, the band too can sometimes be a difficult but rewarding “read.”

With so little European jazz coming to San Francisco (SF Jazz is not going to stage their ECM festival this year), I wasn’t going to miss out on Time is a Blind Guide’s surprising visit to the intimate Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco last night. I really liked their eponymous album a lot. I was hoping they would play some of that material, but alas, (for this listener anyway,) almost the entire show was culled from the new album Lucas. I had listened to Lucus a few times, some of which really spoke to me and some of which was perhaps a tad too loose for my tastes – at times I found myself growing impatient, waiting for something to happen during some of the free sections. But then, that might say more about me than the music.

Seeing these great players live however, was a different story. The band started out with a long, free piece that had character and gravitas-and was quite the opposite of treading musical waters: lots of droning strings, no-pulse drumming and virtuoso bass bowing by Mats Ellertson, who I had seen perform in Tord Gustavsen’s quartet (with Tore Brunborg), as well as admired on Mathias Eick’s last album Ravensburg.

Although I’m not as familiar with the new material, It appears the balance of improvised music in relation to composed music is more equal on this release, making the live performance very compelling, as the group is given a lot more freedom to explore.

The violinist, Håkon Aase, was also familiar to me from his performances on both Mathias Eick’s Midwest as well as Ravensburg (one of my picks for 2018’s best releases). He’s a very eclectic player who obviously has the classical training but sounds very folky at times, using drone strings whilst playing melodies above them. One can also detect a middle eastern interest. He was no slouch in the more avant garde pieces, whether playing ensemble parts or improvising freely. At times he played arpeggios on both violin and hardanger at once. He also doubled occasionally as a hand drummer.

The cellist is not the one on the album and I didn’t catch his name. He was more than up to the task, but didn’t stand out as much as Hakon did. Pianist Ayuma Tanaka played a somewhat austere role in the proceedings to the point of being somewhat underutilized, and was only given one solo spot in which she played exceedingly sparingly – nothing like the stretching out she did on the first album. Also, there were times when the Pleyel upright wasn’t up to the task and was  nearly  drowned out by the rest of the band.

One of the most enticing aspects of this group is that they are all obviously virtuosos, but rarely show off their prodigious chops. I suspect this is an aesthetic choice on the part of Strønen and it pays off  – there was a muted, suspended feeling most of the performance, the music rarely rising above a quiet whisper.

It’s no small thing to play drums with unmiked strings and piano and still allow everything to be heard. Strønen’s performance was a perfect balancing act that few drummers could pull off. Occasionally, he put down the brushes and picked up his sticks to let loose the raw power that he kept contained most of the evening. In those moments, the  band rose to a polite roar and the room filled with the clamor of wild, albeit somewhat restrained freedom.

It was a small room and the group played it well. The audience of around 30 people were very appreciative, and afterwards, many lingered to talk with the musicians who happily signed Lps and cds. An evening of quiet rapture.


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