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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: February In Jazz Reviews By Stewart Smith
Stewart Smith , February 20th, 2017 09:06

From nervy skronk all the way to occult gamelan rituals via the hiss, splat & clang of a cyborg wrestling match, Stewart Smith is back with the jazz reviews

Matthew Shipp live photograph by Barbara Januszkiewicz

'The Quietus is a bit weird,' opined one denizen of Tory Twitter late last year, 'apparently you can't write about jazz or Keith Floyd unless you parade your adherence to Left-Liberal politics.' Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint our conservative followers, so let me begin the first Complete Communion of 2017 by saying that the new Matthew Shipp album is quite brilliant, and that Theresa May and Donald Trump are racist pieces of shit.

My jazz year got off to a glorious start with Art Ensemble Of Chicago's residency at Café Oto. The sound of Roscoe Mitchell's saxophone spiralling around Don Moye's free-swinging drums is a truly wondrous thing: levitation achieved. For those who missed them – or want to do it all again – the legendary avant-jazz outfit have just confirmed a second residency at the Dalston venue for October. Highest possible recommendation! Art Ensemble leader Roscoe Mitchell will also be appearing at Tectonics Glasgow in May, performing solo and with an orchestra. The festival, curated by Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell, also features Australian trio The Necks in collaboration with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Their latest album is reviewed below, alongside new music from George Lewis and the Splitter Orchestra, Sex Swing sax botherer Colin Webster, John Irabagon and his Danish brothers in noise, Matthew Shipp Trio, Ingrid Laubrock, Yazz Ahmed, and a Portuguese-Dutch improv supergroup. Dive in comrades.

Matthew Shipp Trio - Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)

Matthew Shipp is arguably the most important free jazz pianist of the past three decades. From his essential work with the great David S. Ware and William Parker, to his innovative collaborations with the likes of Spring Heel Jack, EL-P and Antipop Constortium, he's been a continually vital presence. At 56, he's announced his retirement from recording as a leader or soloist, making Piano Song his official studio swan song. Happily, he'll continue to play live and curate Thirsty Ear's boundary-pushing Blue Series.

On first appearances, Piano Song might not sound like one of Shipp's most radical projects, but it's a quietly dazzling example of the pianist's ability to fold the lyrical and the abstract, the grooving and the jarring, into a distinctive language. Newman Taylor Baker is one of the most swinging drummers Shipp has worked with, but his grooves are elastic, with an internal architecture that reworks itself continually. All this gives Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio multiple options: take the groove head on, come at it from different angles, bypass it altogether.

Breezy and urbane, 'Cosmopolitan' could almost be contemporary straight-ahead jazz but for the increasingly complex harmonies and rhythms Shipp works into it. Yet this is no puerile act of mainstream subversion; Shipp is making a genuine enquiry into how far he can push the language without losing the composition's basic shape – there's a delightful moment where he tip-toes back to the changes, revelling in the simple pleasure of landing on the tonic.

'Flying Carpet' could be read as an avant-garde response to the hip hop influenced acoustic jazz of Robert Glasper, although its tense groove owes more to RZA and Mobb Deep than Dilla. Shipp lays syncopated jabs of stacked chords over Baker's jittery hi-hat and low-slung pulse beat, before the trio turn the pocket inside out in a miasma of discordant clusters and collapsing rhythms. 'MicroWave' and 'Gravity Point' are great examples of Shipp's knack for slightly demented clockwork chromatism, while 'Blue Desert' explores ambient textures, with Shipp reaching inside the piano to play spindly dulcimer-like tones over distant squalls of bowed bass. 'Scrambled Brain' is a winning showcase for the rhythm section, with Bisio half-quoting Charlie Haden's solo from Ornette's 'Ramblin' as he strums bluegrass chords over Baker's pat-a-cake frame taps. The title track finds Shipp at his most lyrical, bringing his recording career to a sweet conclusion.

George Lewis & Splitter Orchestra - Creative Construction Set™
(Mikroton Recordings)

One of two new albums from Berlin's Splitter Orchestra (the other being Shine On You Crazy Diagram with Felix Kubin), Creative Construction Set™ is a collaboration with AACM member, trombonist and computer music composer George Lewis. Splitter Orchestra brings together composer-performers from the Echtzeimuzik scene, an improvised and experimental music network which emerged in the mid-90s. Lewis has his roots in free jazz and new music, but with the Splitter Orchestra he operates beyond any recognisable idiom. I could call Creative Construction Set™ electro-acoustic improv, but that threatens to reduce it to a series of now-familiar practices and sounds. This performance succeeds in transporting the listener to an alter-dimension. That's partly down to the skill of the musicians in rendering familiar elements uncanny through extended techniques and electronic manipulation, but it's also down to the expert use of space, texture and dynamics: this is a fully realised soundworld, rather than a loose aggregation of effects.

It begins faintly, with Lewis breathing through his trombone over a sliver of a sine wave. This impressionistic tone painting gradually becomes busier and noisier, until we're in the midst of the hiss, splat and clang of a cyborg wrestling match that's gotten out of hand. There's the clatter and squelch of flesh on metal as bodies are flung against the ropes and slammed down onto the canvas. The umpires step in with ray guns and electric cattle prods, subduing the warring parties with juddering zaps of high voltage. As this stramash continues, a plangent piano figure plays faintly under it all, like exit music intended to pacify the crowd. The second half offers fleeting glances of guitar buzz and twanging strings, but is mainly characterised by the interplay between sustained brass and woodwind tones, and ragged bursts of electronics and percussion.

The Necks - Unfold
(Ideologic Organ)

The CD may be an unloved format these days, but it's the ideal medium for The Necks' immersive music, which tends to work best over an hour-long stretch. But how might the Australian trio adapt to vinyl? Unfold, their first album for Stephen O'Malley's Ideologic Organ and a double LP set, answers that question over four 15-20 minute long tracks. In some respects, Unfold can be seen as a logical development of the approach taken on 2015's excellent Vertigo, where improvisations were edited and overdubbed into a dense and stormy narrative. There's more light and space here, with Chris Abraham's pellucid piano figures and glassy organ setting the tone of 'Rise' and 'Blue Mountain'. With its soul-jazz Hammond organ licks, 'Overhear' is almost funky, while 'Timepiece' is a fantasia of glistening Fender Rhodes and clockwork percussion. But as with all the best Necks music, there's an animating tension between darkness and light, with Lloyd Swanson's double bass and Tony Buck's rattling-chain percussion threatening to drag Abrahams' impressionistic motifs down into dank caverns. Unfold might not offer the extended trip of a regular Necks album, but it's a successful experiment, sculpting their formidable blend of minimalism, free jazz and post-rock into relatively compact forms.

Govaert/Reis/Vicente/Martinsson – In Layers
(FMR Records)

Portugal is home to one of the freshest contemporary jazz scenes in Europe, with musicians such as Susana Santos Silva, Rodrigo Amado and Gabriel Ferrandini making waves internationally. A creative summit between emergent Portuguese and Dutch players, In Layers brings together trumpeter Luis Vicente and guitarist Marcelo dos Reis with drummer Onno Govaert and pianist Kristjan Martinsson. Weaving melodic fragments and rhythmic patterns into their investigations of timbre, texture and tone, the four musicians achieve a fine balance between abstraction and form. Reis and Vicente are highly distinctive, with the former adding flamenco flourishes to his deconstructed chords, and the latter offering a stream of bleats, snuffles and muted fanfares. The inventive Govaert generates a great deal of energy around resonant metallic tones, while Martinsson adds vivid colour and rhythm with his busy clusters and graceful repetitions. Anything but run-of-the-mill, In Layers breathes new life into European free improvisation.

Ingrid Laubrock - Serpentines

Ingrid Laubrock is among the new generation of New York-based players working at the intersection of avant-jazz and New Music, combining rigorous compositional strategies with the spontaneity of improvisation. What makes Serpentines so successful is the way Laubrock tailors her writing to the brilliant improvising musicians she's assembled here. Each piece pivots on the relationship between a particular combination of instruments – piano and koto, brass and electronics – while building a larger ensemble sound around it all.

'Pothole Analytics Pt. 1' opens with a series of introductions from Laubrock's crack ensemble: a electronic tone, a deflated sax, a snare hit from Tyshawn Sorey. Instruments begin to pair up, some directly echoing the other, some complementing each other in a more oblique manner. In 'Part 2' these little cells mutate and grow until the speakers are teeming with detail – toots and trills from the horns, compressed rolls and cymbal taps from the drums, flickers of piano and koto. It gradually settles into a more lyrical mode, as a thousand flowers break through the asphalt.

On 'Chip In Brain' Dan Peck's electronically-treated tuba purrs like a sleeping lion, while Peter Evan's trumpet sounds long, clean tones. Sam Pluta sweeps in like a late 90s Puff Daddy video, all helicopter sounds and car alarms, before tuning into Peck's tuba with a throbbing generator hum. 'Squirrels' is more playful still, capturing the manic energy of the cheeky wee furballs scarpering around the woods and nibbling on acorns. Unlike your standard issue avant-jazz herky-jerk, it has a freshness and freedom that's utterly beguiling.

Jon Irabagon, John Hegre, Nils Are Drønen - Axis
(Rune Grammofon)

New York-based saxophonist John Irabagon appeared on one of last year's finest albums, Mary Halvorson's Away With You and is a member of the Mostly Other People Do The Killing, whose mischievous note-for-note cover of Kind Of Blue sent up the jazz-as-classical-music brigade by taking their transcription-based approach to its logical conclusion. Axis finds him in fully-improvised mode, cutting it up with guitarist John Herge and drummer Nils Are Drønen of Norwegian noise outfits Der Brief, Public Enema and Jazzkamer. Next to his noisy Nordic brethren, Irabagon is almost the straight guy, his supremely focussed virtuosity contrasting with their wilder approach. As a trio, they make the most of that dynamic, with Irabagon pulling things together when necessary, before throwing it all off the cliff.

On the Berlin cut, Herge makes like a shoegaze Sonny Sharrock, blurring his furious fretboard scrub into a reverb-heavy thrum. As the piece reaches its conclusion, ringing steel drum tones break through the clouds, illuminating the earth.

'Fukuoka' starts on the down-low, with Iragabon's key taps and tongue slaps given minimal shading by Herge and Drønen. The saxophonist slurs and rasps as if he's slightly hungover. After some scratching around he rallies some energy, spitting out mouthfuls of vinegar as Herge stacks up loops of crabby prog riffage over Drønen's fizzing cymbals. The saxophonist attempts to impose order with a strident Coltrane-like theme, before leaping back into the fray with altissimo twitters and rowdy hyucks. Bags of fun.

Birchall/Cheetham/Webster/Willberg – Plastic Knuckle
(Raw Tonk)

Colin Webster's Raw Tonk label celebrates its fifth birthday with a ragin' all-dayer at London's And Hundred Years Gallery in March. In the mean time, why not catch up on their releases, all of which can be checked out on their Bandcamp page. Plastic Knuckle is the label's 22nd release and brings the London-based saxophonist together with three key players from Manchester's vibrant jazz and improv underground: guitarist Dave Birchall, drummer Andrew Cheetham and bassist Otto Willberg, all three of whom play in freeform psych outfit Desmadrados Soldados de Ventura.

Like many operating at the noisier end of free jazz, Webster and his collaborators are looking to escape the dead end of boring macho blare. Their approach is lean and agitated, as the players attempt to contain their ecstatic urges on the fidgety title track, and negotiate an uneasy calm on 'Ghost Dance'. The latter sounds like an occult gamelan ritual, with Webster's baritone sax prowling around the resonant chimes of Cheetham's cymbals and Birchall's behind-the-neck guitar. Rather than build to an obvious freak-out, the piece develops in a more rhythmic direction, with Cheetham moving in concentric circles around his cymbals. Willberg's bass walks 'Low Level Curlew' back to the jazz citadel, but its progress is harried by razor wire guitar traps and saxophone strafes.

Birchall/Smal/Webster - Drop Out
(Astral Spirits)

Webster and Birchall hook up with Dutch drummer Rogier Smal on Drop Out, the latest tape from Austin's Astral Spirits. The nervy skronk of the first side has Webster spitting out staccato phrases, while Birchall switches between high-end slide squall reminiscent of Borbetomagus's Donald Miller, and lunging stoner riffage. Smal ramps it all up by hammering at his snare like a speed-addled carpenter, before dialling things back for a twitchy and atmospheric passage that ultimately takes off like peppercorns on a hot skillet. Side two sees the trio in a more contemplative mood, with Webster laying sustained tones over Smal's pygmy percussion. The underlying tension explodes in the second half, with Birchall scrabbling around the fretboard as Webster's sax stutters and jabs.

Led Bib - Umbrella Weather
(Rare Noise)

The official line on Led Bib is that they're purveyors of wild and impassioned jazz-rock. The wildness I'm not so sure about – these are tightly structured compositions in which any improvisation remains in the pocket – but there's no doubting the energy or commitment of the players. This is high-octane fusion, rather than baws-oot skronk, and on that level Led Bib are without parallel, at least within the UK. In certain respects Umbrella Weather recalls the approach of rock-influenced US jazzers like Donny McAslin, but there's less emphasis on showy soloing and a welcome absence of EDM covers. The wiggy themes and taut riffs chart a mathematical trajectory from Ornette's Prime Time to Tim Berne's Snakeoil, but swap tricksy algorithms for prime numbers, making for a catchy, driving sound in which the horns, keys and guitar are pushed forward by the rolling thunder of Mark Holub's drums and Liran Donin's electric bass.

Yazz Ahmed - The Space Between The Fish and The Moon (La Saboteuse Vol. 1)

The Space Between The Fish and The Moon is the first instalment of Yazz Ahmed's four-part La Saboteuse project. By issuing her music in this way, the British Bahraini trumpet and flugelhorn player seems to be taking her cues from dance music. The four tracks here certainly fit into that DJ-friendly vein of cosmic jazz and fusion – Gilles Peterson will be all over this – but Ahmed has a distinctive compositional voice, working Arabic scales and rhythms into dreamy Fender Rhodes laced grooves. 'Jamil Jamal' is a tight little tune driven by Shabaka Hutching's toothsome bass clarinet ostinato, while the title track features Ahmed's flugelhorn over Lewis Wright's vibraphone and shimmering electronics. It's a little on the tasteful side – a little more cosmic freakiness wouldn't go amiss – but it'll be interesting to see where Ahmed goes next.