Thursday, April 9, 2009

Frode Gjerstad Trio - Last First

Last First
Falçata-Galia 2001


The great Norwegian king of free improvisation, Frode Gjerstad has gone through a few changes to his trio line-up working with the legendary William Parker & Hamid Drake to the lesser known British musicians John Edwards and Mark Sanders and on this release with two young musicians from his home country of Norway - Øyvind Storesund and Paal Nilssen-Love. One of the good things about this shifting line-up is the different approach the new musicians bring to the sessions and here there's that wonderful feel of energy, vibrant and vitalic. Nilssen-Love in particular (who seems to have emerged as one of the great all-time drummers) is nothing short of impressive with his abstruse rhythms, unexpected time changes and carefully placed press rolls and cymbal taps to keep things moving.

I don't know much about Øyvind Storesund, except that he doesn't seem to have done much outside of Norway, which is a shame because back in 1999 when the trio played this session, his bass playing is solid and well-balanced and he even manages to squeeze himself into the spaces left exposed by Nilssen-Love and Gjerstad. Just listen to the way he manages to burst through the tight rhythms of Nilssen-Love's drumming and Gjerstad's high trills on the saxophone on 'Part 3' - his bass really swells, swinging back and forth between the other two like a giant snake carefully winding its way across a densely covered forest floor, always keeping ahold on what's going on around him. This is intelligent playing even if he doesn't quite possess that dramatic daring of someone like William Parker who's really able to really tear things up.

Gjerstad for his part proves once again why he's becoming such a regular player on my stereo. Like John Butcher, he has a great range, his playing is dynamic and versatile, not just in terms of texture, but also colour as well. On 'Part 8' for instance, which starts off fairly mundanely for all of 20 seconds where he plays in short, sharp trills before Nilssen-Love's pulsating rhythms push him into flights of Eric Dolphy like abstraction, rising and falling between the highest register of his alto-sax and longer held mid-range tones. Perhaps less dynamic on alto-flute in 'Part 9', but the higher range acts as a nice counterbalance for Storesund's rich, wavering bass lines and produces probably the albums most melodious sections.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spontaneous Music Orchestra - Plus Equals

Plus Equals
Emanem 2001
Reissue from A Records 1975


What do you get if you add more musicians to the improvisational, avant-garde Spontaneous Music Ensemble outfit? Well like this album says - Spontaneous Music Ensemble + = Spontaneous Music Orchestra. More members equals more sounds, more variety, more unusual juxtapositions as the rattling drums of group director John Stevens cut sharply into the wavering strings of Nigel Coombes' violin like a rippling earthquake. The only thing is whether or not all that extra improvisational madness adds anything to the mix that the previous musicians weren't capable of. Does it push the direction of free improvisation further into a cacophonic nightmare of trills, squeaks, squawks and drumbeats in a taking no prisoners, all-or-nothing grand finale? The beginning of the end, or perhaps the end of the end, because where else can you go? How do you get out of this mess, if you want to call it a mess?

On albums like Withdrawal and A New Distance SME retained some semblance of structure, improvising around central themes, converging and then wandering off in various directions as each musician played in their own space for a while, still of course, well aware of how the other musicians were playing in their space - there was certainly no horrible playground-esque crash of boyish football into girlish skipping into a naive game of awkward kiss chase here. But this kind of play, this understanding between musicians falling into place, merging with one another without thinking is what makes albums like Withdrawal so exciting - spontaneous being the key word here. Which is perhaps why when the ensemble grows, you inevitably feel as though it's bursting or worse still burst at its seams.

Plus Equals isn't so chaotic. It's simply a little messier - there's a lot more going on and you really have to pay more attention and stay focused to get any sense out of it - if that's not besides the point of the album. Free Improvisation is a great idea, it's one of my favourite forms of music - the clash between different instruments of opposing styles can be really exciting and despite the removal of rhythm and tempo, there remains a faint structure, or perhaps more appropriately, there emerges a faint structure almost at random.

What's so engaging about listening to SME is their knack for dramatic shifts, from exploding clicks and splatters of short trills and taps to longer, sparser, more droning sections which rise unexpectedly through Evan Parker's or Trevor Watts' quavering Soprano Sax or plunge into some darker depths through Ian Brighton's rumbling, electric guitar. The title piece is a 40 minute journey through these shifts, evolving slowly with high horn sounds as the less experienced workshop musicians play John Stevens' 'Search and Reflect' composition. Five minutes in the more experienced musicians filter into the mix, playing droning, sustained notes climaxing with Evan Parker's soaring Sax about half way through before erupting into a powerful climax, lead by Trevor Watts. Everything is in flux, stasis is completely destroyed as if a huge rock has begun a long descent down an initially shallow decline before picking up so much speed it becomes relentless, unflagging and unstoppable.

The second piece on the album tumbles headfirst into that cacophonic nightmare - a mixture of manic Sax and Trumpet blowing, trampling on the strings which struggle to find their place in the confusion. This is chaotic. What emerges isn't the same sprawling descent into maelstrom that gave the title track its somehow graceful beauty, but a restless brawl of hyperactive, where Stevens ends up pounding his drums almost in frustration. Maybe this one's a matter of taste, or a test of patience to discover those wonderful passages of unexpected layers of sound or noise or drone - there are some, they're just not as noticeable.

SME have, I've recently discovered, a huge discography - but they were after all, one of the seminal European free improv groups that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s and along with AMM have had a long history (with plenty of line-up changes) of pushing avant-garde music into evermore new directions. Sometimes they miss the mark, but mostly they've always been able to amaze and surprise, constantly exploring the limits of music and further still of sound.


Starbird - Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North
Sloow Tapes – Hazuki 2007


Here's a nice bit of free-folk / drone to lose yourself in. A sprawling wilderness of infinite metaphors and that kind of thing with plenty of otherworldly percussion, ethereal bells, gentle cymbals, xylophones, enticing flutes etc. etc. It opens as if inside a chamber of echoes, carved in ice, sheltered from the chilling, wintry winds, sounds drift forwards and disappear leaving ghostly traces in the air as wildlife calls to one another in the distance.

In Inuit mythology, Nanook (ᓇᓄᖅ) is the master of bears, the word itself derived from the inuit for polar bear, and Nanook as master of the bears decided the fate of Inuit hunters, rewarding an observant and appreciative hunter following the applicable taboos with a rich bounty and punishing those who did not. In a 1922 documentary by Robert J. Flaherty entitled 'Nanook of the North' the filmmaker follows an Inuit named Nanook and his family as they hunt, fish and migrate across the Arctic. It is a cold and harsh environment.

That documentary is the inspiration behind Carson Arnold's album. Arnold's effort seems to breath in time with the life of Nanook and his family. Through careful observation he is able to evoke the difficulty, the beauty and the spirituality of Nanook's life from brief respite 'Somewhere the Sun is Shining Over Her' to mystical ritual 'Feathers in Smoke' to the constant journeying through harsh conditions 'Tracks'. 'Walrus Hunt' has a strong tribal drumbeat for the most part, before the guitar kicks in about half way through - the climax of the chase - waiting to make a move, then death as footsteps are heard in the final part of the track as if the hunter is dragging a dead walrus back to his home.

There are moments when you're completely caught up in that struggle for survival like half way into the album, lost deep in the depths of winter there is an overwhelming bleakness, a powerful sense of yourself trapped, death blowing across the tundra all around you as layers of reverb heavy sounds drone long through the night and drench the day with cold, cold, cold... An ominous rumble breaks the monotony, followed by a higher note, a clearing and a way out of the darkness of winter as 'Nanook's Vision' implies the start of a new year, freshness and the coming of spring.

And then there is the 'Edge of World'... The final drones of sound that wash away into the void, somewhere beyond the precipice, into the endless white. It's with albums like this one that somehow allow you to get carried away with grand metaphors about life, death and everything in between. It's a great accompaniment to the film at little under an hour it's just ten minutes short of the original documentary, but with a bit of adjustment you can play both simultaneously to great effect - only trouble is getting on a hold of the film - but of course there's always karagarga.


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