Adventurous Spirits

The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians. 

Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet

A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand.  Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.  

This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.

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On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space. 

On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly. 

Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)

paulwilliamson.bandcamp.com

 

Wind & Wire: Alan Brown solo piano

‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements. 

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The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales. 

In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.

alanbrown.bandcamp.com

 

Trouble Spots: Ivan Zagni/Steve Garden)

A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?  

The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan. 

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Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.

So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight. 

rattle-records.bandcamp.com

 

 

‘Composure’ (Alan Brown)

a1384163851_16.jpgAs Alan Brown moves in new directions, he is leaving some extraordinary musical documents in his wake. Hot on the heels of his recent Alargo collaborations he releases a second solo album, ‘Composure’. Again, this is an ambient album and like Alargo it is meticulously crafted. It is a solo piano album but much more. Here, the minutiae of the sonic world are revealed and important ambient sounds which are often overlooked.  In our busy modern lives, we drown in sonic overload. Here in Composure, the very essence of sound is explored, nurtured, curated, given wings.  There is an incredible floating quality to these tracks and the effects are otherworldly, but this is a world beginning at Brown’s fingertips. A world that exists inside a Steinway D piano, an empty concert chamber; in places overlooked. There are faint sounds of the street present and other ‘found’ environmental sounds. These are present as breakthrough sound, loops or drones, adding texture and depth.

It is tempting to think that the pieces arose from written charts or pre-existing motifs, but they didn’t. This is spontaneous composition and formed in reaction to the sounds and the atmospheres of the moment. With the exception of the Scape drone effect on ‘Form of a Dream’, all other effects have been added after the exploration. The material in this album was recorded at the same time as ‘Silent Observer’ and this is a worthy successor. This music has no preconditions attached and the listener should engage in whatever way they wish. There are incalculable benefits from slowing our lives down and when we do we become deeper listeners, more nuanced in our approach to the frenetic world about us.

I have added the first track ‘Form of a Dream’ as a Bandcamp sound clip. I urge everyone to set up a free Bandcamp account – I do much of my listening there. You can buy physical albums, get high (or low) fidelity downloads, or stream. The artists also get a greater share than with other platforms. The Composure album is available from alanbrown.co.nz  or from alanbrown.bandcamp.com

 

 

Alargo – Primacy / Roberto Magris Sextet

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Alargo has been around for several years now and Primacy is their second album. The first Alargo album, Central Plateau, was great, but Primacy has that real wow factor. It is a testament to the extraordinary imagination and musicianship of Alan Brown and Kingsley Melhuish. They have created a world just beyond our grasp, but palpable for all that. The idea that two musicians can create such a cornucopia of sound is astonishing. It is divine trickery; it is music that lives everywhere but nowhere; it is quite wonderful.

This fulfils every requirement of a good ambient album: it references many genres and many moods but never overemphasis one aspect over another. It floats and shifts like moments in a dream and above all, it invokes an etherial sensory imagery. The kaleidoscope of patterns may elude the conscious mind but the subconscious mind will form its own associations. This is the philosophy behind ambient music.  Perhaps its most valuable attribute is its evanescence, that elusive quality where images fade shortly after they are fixed upon. This is the stuff of quantum physics and of good improvising musicians. This is the essence of Primacy.  Alargo2.jpg

The first track opens with a drone which pulses gently. As the modulation shifts the rhythms shift with it – subtly at first, and then as more voices are added you find yourself lost in the journey. This is an Alice like a dreamscape, but there are no bad-tempered queens down this rabbit hole. The sensation of floating is constantly enhanced, as snippets of music come and go; disembodied voices hinting at places as far-flung as the Himalayas, an old European cathedral or the South Pacific; mesmerised we follow. This piece and those after taking you into deep space (or an interior somewhere very much like it). Anyone who enjoyed Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ will love this. The sound clip I have posted is the first track titled ‘Vocale’.  

If you are a fan of ambient improvised music you should rush to grab a copy of Primacy. If you are unsure, then listen to the sample clip, close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. This album is as good as the best of the Nordic Ambient Albums and I’m sure that Manfred Eicher could not have improved on the mixing and mastering. Two Nordic Jazz Musicians visited New Zealand recently and we spoke about artists like Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. This form of live improvised music is very popular in Scandinavian countries and Jazz audiences are on board with it. I hope that Primacy reaches the European continent. I am certain that it would do very well there.

Kingsley Melhuish features on: vocals, trumpet, Ocarina, Koauau, Tuba, Conch Shells, Percussion, Loops, iOS effects. Alan Brown is on: Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops, iOS synths/effects. The album is available from Primacy-Alargo-Bandcamp.

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The Roberto Magris albums came to my attention some years ago as I have an interest in Italian and Mediterranean Jazz forms. While his albums fall into the straight-ahead Jazz category, a careful listening reveals his strong Mediterranean and Latin influences. His latest album ‘The Roberto Magris Sextet live in Miami’ is his most recent release and it has a distinctly international feel. This is partly down to the classy lineup but more to its edgy Latin-tinged hardbop vibe. Magris is a pianist in the classic mould – wearing his influences on his sleeve and unashamedly so. In interviews and in previous albums he has cited pianists like Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Duke Jordan and Sonny Clark. He has an abiding fondness for the bop and hardbop swingers but stylistically he incorporates much of his own journey as an Italian pianist. He is extremely well recorded and has been a sideman for luminaries like Kai Winding, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Sal Nistico. Of interest to me is his association with the west coast alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Magris is flawless in his articulation of ideas and his albums and his compositions don’t disappoint.   

Given the above, it is unsurprising that Magris chose Brian Lynch in a leading role. The American born but outward looking Lynch is a significant presence in the Jazz world and particularly so on Latin projects. He has recorded extensively, has travelled everywhere and is a Grammy-winning artist. His solo’s here are impeccable, and like Magris, he favours a hardbop approach. This gives him an air of real authority.  IMG_0376

On tenor saxophone is Jonathan Gomez, on bass (the renowned) Chuck Bergeron, on drums John Yarling and on percussion is Murph Aucamp. Magris is the musical director of a Kansas City based label ‘JMood Records‘ and this album and others can be sourced from there. I have put up a short clip ‘Blues for my sleeping Baby’, which reminds of the earlier East European pianist, Krzysztof Komeda. Magris is from Trieste, a once important free port on the Adriatic; a haven for great poets like Rilke and Joyce and now nestled quietly on the edge of faded empires. I visited there once and loved the place – I will certainly go again and when I do I will endeavour to track down a Magris gig.

This post and all on this site are by John Fenton, a photographer, videographer and professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.