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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz For October Reviewed
Stewart Smith , October 24th, 2017 08:36

The world continues to tumble into the abyss, but jazz can help us on the way down. With Irreversible Entanglements, Vijay Iyer Sextet and Banana Oil.

Irreversible Entanglements photo by Keir Neuringer

As the hellscape of 2017 slowly grinds to a close, take solace in the imminent jazz season. There's no shortage of adventurous jazz festivals across Europe in the coming weeks: Jazz Jantar in Gdansk, JazzFest Berlin, Jazztopad in Wrocław, and Vilnius Jazz to name but a few. Utrecht's eclectic Le Guess Who? has an impressive jazz and improv strand, featuring the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Linda Sharrock, Han Bennink and Peter Brötzmann. Back in (not so) dear old Blighty, the EFG London Jazz Festival leans towards the mainstream, but there are plenty of outré gems alongside the big names. Complete Communion's ears are pricking up at the prospect of Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas’s Black Top leading a celebration of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the heavyweight UK free jazz quartet of Paul Dunmall, Liam Noble, John Edwards and Mark Sanders. Scandinavian skronk enthusiasts The Thing return to London hot on the heels of their gnarly free blues collaboration with harmolodic guitar legend James Blood Ulmer (out now on Trost), with support from Dee Byrne and Cath Roberts' London improv collective LUME. A rare club date from the great Norwegian vocalist Karin Krog, in a duo with saxophonist John Surman, intrigues, as does the show inspired by James Baldwin’s poem ‘Staggerlee Wonders’ featuring Debbie Sanders, Cleveland Watkiss and Neil Charles among others. But if you choose only one show, then it's a no brainer: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda performed by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers. Luaka Bop's compilation of Coltrane's cosmic bhajans is this year's essential archival release: to hear that music realised live by members of her spiritual community should be transporting.

Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible Entanglements
(International Anthem/Don Giovanni)

Camae Ayewa follows her extraordinary releases as Moor Mother with this stunning album of radical poetry and free jazz. Formed in early 2015 to perform at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event, the group also features saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes. The poetry and jazz format recalls Amiri Baraka’s incendiary collaborations with Sunny Murray and the New York Art Quartet, but Irreversible Entanglements have a distinctive sound of their own. The musicians create powerful settings for Ayewa’s queer black radicalism, from the barrelling drum rolls of ‘Chicago To Texas’, to the distorted industrial howls of ‘Projects’. Ayewa is a remarkable poet and performer, delivering her vivid imagery and fragmented narratives with a startling combination of rhythmic poise, rage and vulnerability.

The horns hold back for much of ‘Fireworks’, with Stewart’s bass riff and Holmes’ percussion accents building a momentum under Ayewa’s apocalyptic – and all too real – vision of an America where “they’ve moved every black body not hanging from a tree, not in prison, not shucking and jiving in the house of appropriation, out.” As Ayewa repeats “are you afraid?”, her tone moving from accusatory to uncertain, the horns break into a classic free jazz theme reminiscent of late-60s Ornette Coleman. The melody itself has a stately gospel feel, but the group play it with an urgency that tips elegy into anger. ‘Enough’ opens with Ayewa moaning and then screaming “Enough!!!” amid a hornet’s nest of trumpet and sax. Her words make the emotional labour of living under white supremacy explicit: “Even you, screaming resistance a thousand years into the future: tired, fed up.” As Ayewa drops out, the band unleash the fire music, with Neuringer’s anguished solo followed by a more reflective Navarro trumpet feature.

The album ends with the extraordinary 16-minute piece, ‘The Projects.’ The tracks opens with an eviction, the mother desperately insisting she can get an advance on her paycheck. The ironic refrain “we outside now, we got all this extra space” becomes all the more bitter as the family are stranded in a place where “motherfuckers got machine guns now, you can’t even kill a motherfucker and be done with it.” The narrator becomes increasingly fearful, speculating as to her brother’s whereabouts: “I ain’t seen him around, I think he got shot right in the head.” In the second section, the band move from free jazz to more abstract forms and extended techniques. The horns hiss and suck as Aweya enters into a complex meditation on the African-American church and the ever-present historical trauma of the Middle Passage. In a chilling subversion of the Biblical notion of America as the Promised Land, we hear that Moses has been lynched. The choir refuse to sing, and instead gyrate and moan, thinking about “all them dead bodies” floating in the bloodstained ocean. Ayewa’s horrific imagery is accompanied by brutal pounding on the tom, distorted arco bass and grey ghostly horns. It’s a harrowing listen, and one of the most powerful and relevant works of art you’ll encounter this year.

Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over

Vijay Iyer follows his beautiful duo set with the great Wadada Leo Smith (one of this column's favourite albums of 2016) with this fine sextet release. Although this ensemble has been together in one form or other since 2011, Far From Over is its first studio date. It was well worth the wait: Iyer has corralled together a top notch horn section (Graham Haynes on cornet, flugelhorn and electronics, Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor) with the impeccable rhythm section of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Iyer’s piano and Fender Rhodes frame the compositions, but he’s very much a team player, giving the horns many of the key themes and allowing the musicians’ personalities to emerge within his concept.

‘Poles’ opens with Iyer gradually building on dreamy piano triplets, before the abrupt entry of a jaggedly boisterous horn theme sets off a chain reaction in where swinging bop hurtles into avant-garde, as Lehman’s lightning-flash sax races ahead of Sorey’s thunderous tom rolls. Haynes' flugelhorn guides the piece into a more reflective second half, with Iyer switching to Rhodes for a fusion feel. Sorey's drumming balances delicacy and power, making sure the piece never drifts off into ambient reverie. The title track is a great example of Iyer's knack for complex but accessible writing, as modal horn lines cut oblique angles across a strident chord sequence. The structure allows space for a few tight solos, but the focus is on unison lines which gradually morph into polyphony. 'Down To The Wire' is hard driving modal jazz, with Iyer taking a rapid fire solo before handing over the reins to Shim for an extended canter through semi-quaver phrases and rasping codas.

'Nope' bears a certain hip-hop/nu-soul influence, with Iyer's Rhodes riding the rhythm section's poised swing, but the graceful urgency of the group playing gives the piece an East Coast anxiousness that contrasts with Robert Glasper's Californian easiness. 'For Amiri Baraka' is an elegant ballad in the contemporary style, tilted beautifully askew by odd chromatic shifts. On 'Wake' Iyer's delicate piano is embedded within an abstract atmosphere of wispy electronics, susurrus horns and extended percussion techniques, while 'Threnody' offers some of Iyer's most exquisite blues playing over Sorey's inventive cymbal colouration. An extended saxophone feature raises the intensity, leading to the stirring horn-led chorus that sees the piece out. On Far From Over Iyer brilliantly integrates avant-garde compositional leanings with contemporary pop flourishes and modern jazz. A gem.

John Chantler, Steve Noble, Seymour Wright - Front and Above
(1703 Skivbolaget)

Outer reaches improv from the freshly minted trio of John Chantler, Steve Noble and Seymour Wright. Best known for his solo synthesizer recordings and work with pipe organs, Chantler forms a strong bond with two of London's most adventurous improvisers, threading electronic tones into their patchwork of extended techniques. For the first half, he is a relatively subtle presence, allowing Wright's cutting-edge saxophonics and Noble's inventive percussion to set the mood. The performance sees Noble at his most abstract – he may be using a trap kit, but there's no free jazz torrent here. His focus on 'Front 1' is on metal objects with the drum skins providing a resonant surface for the scraping and dragging on cymbals and beaters. Wright squeaks and honks, getting into some weird vibrating metal zones which complement Chantler's subtle ringing tones. 'Front 3' opens with Wright and Noble both producing small mammal moans from their instruments, before drum taps and saxophone pops put the listener on surer ground. Wright intersperses his key taps with breathy static, further blurring the electro-acoustic boundaries. Under it all, there's distant shimmer and the occasional feedback tone that is most likely from Chantler's synth, but could easily be coming from sax or cymbals. Wright plays with saxophone feedback, drawing out sustained tones against Chantler's wheezing air-conditioner drone. Noble's percussive rattle and tap threatens to explode into a full-on barrage, but he soon dials it back so as to maintain the otherworldly atmosphere. 'Above 2' is one of the busier tracks, but rather than be some sprawling free-for-all, it's based on the repetition and intensification of simple musical elements. There's a whiff of gagaku to Noble's muted tom manipulations, which ebb and flow under Chantler's marimba-like oscillations and Wright's fire alarm sax. A terrific set that quietly opens a portal to a new world.

José Lencastre Nau Quartet – Fragments Of Always

v FMR continues its documentation of the vital Portuguese scene with this splendid leader disc from alto saxophonist José Lencastre. He's joined by Red Trio's Hernani Faustino on bass and Rodrigo Pinheiro on piano, with João Lencastre on drums. As a result, the music has a different feel to what a session with the Red Trio might have been like. That group's gifted young drummer Gabriel Ferrandini plays hyper-kinetic polyrhythms with light touch, whereas Lencastre has a gutsier, more expansive approach that recalls the wilder shores of spiritual jazz. On the opening 'Aphorism Suite' he clatters and rolls while tapping away on the ride cymbal, combining with Faustino's probing bass and Pinheiro's full-spectrum harmonies to create a lustrous torrent of sound. The saxophonist cuts through it all with a spicy, keening tone that lends itself to bold melodic statements and ecstatic yelps. While no one would mistake this music for African-American free jazz, the sheer energy and commitment of the players gives the opening suite an almost spiritual quality. Pinheiro's classical inclinations come through in his approach to harmony and rhythm, but there's nothing staid about his heady flights and complex voicings. The 17-minute 'Fragments of Always' is more antsy, the warm storm of the opening suite replaced with a spikier European free jazz feel. Pinheiro and Faustino elevate any session they're involved in, but the Lencastres are clearly artists to watch.

Banana Oil - The B.O.’s
(Winning Sperm Party)

Gotta admit I didn’t see this one coming: a jazz fusion supergroup from the Glasgow underground. The trio of Joe Howe (Ben Butler & Mousepad, Momus) on sax, Niall Morris (Sham Gate) on electric bass, and Laurie Pitt (Golden Teacher, The Modern Institute) on drums, aim to ‘sound like Mothers of Invention without all the toxic masculinity.’ From Zappa’s sexist ruins, Banana Oil salvage a wiggy tunefulness and playful sense of structure, channelling it all through the no wave jazz of James Chance and The Lounge Lizards, with a dash of the Minutemen’s febrile post-punk for good measure. Viewed from another angle, the group offer a scrappier take on the contemporary jazz of Polar Bear or Binker & Moses, taking their knotty themes and propulsive grooves into the garage. Those who find such acts a little too polished will appreciate Banana Oil’s punky energy, while the bare-bones production, courtesy of Scottish DIY stalwart Rob Alexander, adds to the tape’s subterranean charm. That’s not to suggest there aren’t more delicate moments: on ‘Zephyr Song’ Howe takes several bars to wander into mellower territory that suggests an affinity with Shabaka Hutchings’ South African and Ethiopian influenced spiritual jazz, while ‘Long Man’, both in its sax and organ versions, has a rippling groove under its jerky funk. ‘Kiss From A Seal’ is more than just a good pun: Morris’s squelchy bass really does sound like someone locking lips with a pinniped, and the piece is a winning combination of melody, skronk and groove.