Complete Communion: Jazz For November Reviewed By Peter Margasak

Strong new albums from Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain, and New Hermitage nonchalantly reach beyond the language of jazz without abandoning its fundamental improvisational core, says Peter Margasak

Mary Halvorson portrait by James Wang

As I write this on a typically grey Berlin day, a second lockdown arrives tomorrow, ending three glorious months where live performances returned to the city. I love listening to records at home, but when I finally got out and heard groups like Die Enttäuschung and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik in the flesh I was viscerally reminded of what I had missed between March and July, when venues were shuttered. Now it begins again and I take solace by immersing myself in recorded music.

I’m happy this column purloined its name from a classic Don Cherry album, because few other musicians pioneered the erasure of jazz as a sacrosanct genre like the brilliant trumpeter, who inadvertently invented “world music”.

While jazz clings to its history, legacy, and conventions to produce wonderful music that transcends time, I can’t help but notice that a lot of the stuff that most excites me eludes categorisation, mashing together disparate approaches not as a novelty, but because its makers have big ears and strive to trust their guts.

Artists reviewed here like Nate Wooley, Mary Halvorson, and New Hermitage are not only unafraid to colour outside of the lines, but they’re fine sweeping the whole framework off the table.

I.P.A. – Bashing Mushrooms

Over the last decade this agile Scandinavian band, which grew into a quintet with the addition of Swedish vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl in 2014, has quietly become one of the world’s most satisfying post-bop units, and on Bashing Mushrooms they sound stronger and more versatile than ever, drawing upon various templates from the 1960s with concision, tang, and cohesion that sounds as fresh any nearly anything I’ve heard in 2020. The group doesn’t hide the influence of folks like Eric Dolphy, who weighs heavily on the driving ‘Go Greta’, Ståhl’s salute to climate change activist Greta Thunberg, with the tune’s steep intervallic leaps, or the classic Miles Davis Quintet on reedist Atle Nymo’s moody, vaguely Arabic ‘Horus Øye’. The group also includes the resourceful drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen, trumpeter Magnus Broo and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten — the second two both key members of the long-running quintet Atomic — who excel on the high-velocity title track. As the band toggles between a machine gun-like unison staccato theme and a furiously swinging exposition, it’s distinguished by the former’s solo, which smears post-bop fundamentals with free jazz expressionism, and the latter’s imperturbable low-end drive. The most rewarding quality of I.P.A., however, is the intense interactive quality that imbues each tune, with arrangements that feature overlapping statements and sharply injected licks that propel the soloists, affirming the endless possibilities of a locked-in post-bop combo.

Luke Stewart – Exposure Quintet
(Astral Spirits)

Luke Stewart, the Washington D.C. bassist, activist, and concert organiser, seems to be everywhere these days, bringing musical heft and community-driven ideals to his many endeavours, which include playing in Irreversible Entanglements and Black Myths. In a sense this sprawling new double album is his first as a bandleader, yet in his liner notes he stresses that it’s a collective endeavour. The band was actually assembled by reedist Dave Rempis for the Exposure Series he organises in Chicago, drawing from the city’s deep pool of veteran players — reedists Ken Vandermark and Edward Wilkerson Jr., pianist Jim Baker, and drummer Avreeayl Ra — and the music they perform here was assembled from themes that draw on transcriptions of improvised passages of the band’s first performance. The material is deliberately loose, providing the participants with plenty of space and points of departure, which they all eagerly embrace. On the opener ‘Awakening The Masters’ a hypnotic bass ostinato ushers in heightened interplay between the multi-generational ensemble, particularly Vandermark and Wilkerson who cajole and intertwine their individual attacks into an irresistible yin-yang blend, prodded and caressed by the elastic, probing rhythm section, while a piece like the rip-snorting ‘Brown And Gray’ aplies the thrust of Charles Mingus to the ecstatic sounds on vintage ESP-Disk releases. The music can’t help but evoke a Chicago aesthetic rooted in the blues and wide open spaces, but the defining quality is communal, with a locked-in intensity and empathy that affords the sort of trust required of unbounded exploration.

Ron Miles – Rainbow Sign
(Blue Note)

Through his comportment, personal style, and music trumpeter Ron Miles projects meticulous consideration. His new slow-burn album — the second he’s made with a sublime quintet including pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Brian Blade — is a model of precision and finely etched emotion, coloured by the leader processing the passing of his father, who was dying as the trumpeter composed the music. The album opens with a tense air of rumination on ‘Like Those Who Dream’, with the music hanging rhapsodically unresolved before breaking into a chill stroll where the threads elegantly align into a sleek, lyric meditation, with Frisell unleashing a gorgeous solo steeped in blues language and Miles toggling between smoky tenderness and abraded abstraction. Moran maintains a restrained presence, masterfully joining Morgan and Blade as a supple, coolly propulsive, and elegant rhythm section, but on a ballad like “Average” his personality bursts in a stunning solo marbled by percussive stabs and a tonal quality that pierces the overall soft focus timbre. ‘The Rumor’ is a pretty ballad steeped in the hushed atmosphere of 70s soul, while ‘Custodian Of The New’, a direct homage to his father who worked as a janitor in his final years, as well as a biblical reference who worked as a custodian, uses sophisticated interactivity to suggest the closeness Miles achieved with his father at the end of his life.

Nate Wooley – Seven Storey Mountain VI

The latest, most ambitious, and best iteration yet of trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project continues its semi-accretive process, using a sound file of the previous instalment — embedded with bits of sound by percussionists Paul Lytton, Chris Corsano, and Will Guthrie — as a compositional foundation, layered with evolving time-blocked sequences by an expansive cast of instrumentalists, and, for the first time, singers. A recurring motif borrows lyrics and a melody from the Peggy Seeger song ‘Reclaim The Night’, a bracing indictment of patriarchal abuse, while another extended section, driven by keyboardists Emily Manzo and Isabelle O’Connell channels the cycling minimalism of Terry Riley, with a counterpoint of trumpet, the violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski, and the guitars of Eva Mendoza and Julien Desprez that is utterly psychedelic. But dissecting the various episodes misses the holistic brilliance of the performance, which flows between meditative, ecstatic, and cathartic with uncanny power and richness. Susan Alcorn’s ghostly pedal steel guitar haunts skittering brushwork — percussionists Corsano, Ben Hall, and Ryan Sawyer all play on the album — setting a pregnant tone early in the piece, which builds organically toward a dense, furious crescendo, with the singing of Yoon Sun Choi, Mellisa Hughes, and Megan Schubert, reprising the Seeger tune, seeping out of the fading organ din. The singers then repeat a line from a different folk song, Bobbie McGee’s ‘Union Maid’, firmly and defiantly insisting, “You can’t scare me.” It’s a goddamned masterpiece that’s only grown more resonant with each spin.

Steph Richards – Supersense
(Northern Spy)

New York trumpeter Steph Richards insists music isn’t experienced only as a sonic phenomenon, considering how each human sense can contribute to how we absorb and feel sound. So for this beguiling quartet recording she enlisted Detroit perfumer Sean Raspet to develop a variety of unusual scents, including one redolent of cricket exoskeletons, that she incorporated into the scores for each of the album’s nine pieces, giving the musicians bringing the work to fruition — pianist Jason Moran, bassist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Kenny Wollesen — an extra layer of sensory input, in part, to shake-up the usual processes at hand. For those listening to the album at home she included a scratch-and-sniff card in physical copies of the album. I don’t have the CD, so I can’t say if the smells impact my perception, but I can attest it’s not necessary to appreciate the seriously tactile music on Supersense. The band digs deep into various extended techniques, like the percussive prepared piano hammering of Moran and her own flatulent growls on the opening track ‘Underbelly’, or her unpitched whinnies and pops, and the whistling whirly tubes of Wollesen on ‘Sleeping in the Skyway’, but the quartet consistently employs such features in service the contours of the leader’s writing, which eschews any borders between tunes and pure sonic exploration. Many of the tracks move among those poles effortlessly, as atmospheres either humid or sere, and textures both abstract and viscous can snap into a pithy groove on a dime.

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
(Firehouse 12)

The second album from Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl brings several changes: the superb Adam O’Farrill replaces Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, and the addition of Maria Grand, on alto saxophone and vocals, expands the group to a sextet. Somehow the leader also convinced the inactive Robert Wyatt — a huge influence on her music — to lend his singular warble and phrasing to three tunes. But the biggest difference is that Halvorson has added stunning new dimensions to her composing and arranging for the project, with gorgeous vocal harmonies, stronger melodies and a more unified conception. She wrote her allusive lyrics first, experimenting with eight different poetic forms, such as the double tanka on the tender opening track ‘The Lemon Trees’, where Wyatt’s voice is haunted by wordless coos from Grand and primary singer Amirtha Kidambi, or the haibun in ‘Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh)’, a Japanese melding of prose and a haiku, and then created musical settings. Rather than serve as a limitation, it expanded possibilities for her predominantly abstract texts, although there’s no missing the intent of ‘Last-Minute Smears’, with words taken from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s divisive 2018 Senate testimony. The arrangements masterfully swivel between compact song forms and extended improvisational passages without a hiccup, allowing the remarkable band — which also includes drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek — to embroider and reshape the tunes in real-time without surrendering the art-pop poignancy at the heart of the project. A knockout.

Matana Roberts & Pat Thomas – The Truth

This first-time meeting between multifarious saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts and the criminally overlooked Oxford pianist Pat Thomas, recorded live at Café Oto in December of 2018, produces immediate sparks. During this freely improvised performance the pair quickly establish a sympathetic connection, with the reedist’s innate lyricism blending beautifully with the keyboardist’s more outward bound machinations. Of course, there’s more to each of their games than a single dynamic, and their quicksilver adoptions of a quickly morphing sonic landscape keeps listeners on their edge of their seats. On the brief ‘Part 2’ Thomas unleashes some needling, rhythmically churning patterns that elicit a feverish response from Roberts, who slaloms and slashes against the hammering keys like a fearless surfer, and when the encounter ends you can hear the saxophonist chuckle (or gasp, I’m not sure) in wonder about what they just produced together. Thomas contributes gritty yet peripatetic, rhythmically insistent sallies, but Roberts isn’t cowed by his forcefulness. She adapts on the fly and answers back with tart-toned challenges of her own, and both musicians play for keeps. There’s nothing tentative or unsure about their spontaneous dialogues, which pulsate with a real sense of community. While I enjoy the three succinct pieces on side A, it’s the 15 episodic minutes on the flip, where you can trace their jousting and commingling more fully. Here’s hoping for more meetings.

T.ON – Plays Matthias Muche

This resourceful trio from Cologne, Germany delves into compelling compositional forms to inspire rigorous improvisation, using pieces by its trombonist Matthias Muche to foster high-level interaction. The opening piece ‘Punkt Linie’ is based on an interactive video score by Sven Hahne, where abstract shapes and lines morph in real-time and in reaction to sounds produced by the musicians. Muche, bassist Constantin Herzog, and percussionist Etienne Nillesen — who plays the “extended snare drum,” using that single device to generate a dazzling world of texture and movement, and who is the one member of the trio who operates outside of the strictures of the scores — unleash a richly varied array of gambits. They impart extended silences, playing both pointillistic splatters and long curved lines, and churning low-end friction that suggests a ship battling through rough waters. ‘Glocken’ uses traditional notation, but without fixed time, so each participant sets the tempo for their individual reading of the score, albeit in spontaneous coordination with one another. A good chunk of the piece features different kinds of long tones — Muche’s fat, arched glides, Herzog’s low-register growls, and Nillesen’s high-pitched friction — but there are also passages that seem to simulate dub-like qualities, with staccato trombone flurries and nimble bass pizz. The closing piece ‘Gleiter’, which is dedicated to Christian Wolff, is the most heavily notated work, unfurling a steady stream of discrete episodes, but will leaving plenty of space for improv.

Peter Hess Quartet – Present Company

New York is chockablock with musicians like saxophonist Peter Hess, who spend most of their time working in ensembles led by other musician. At present he belongs to ten different groups, including the Philip Glass Ensemble, Slavic Soul Party!, and JD Parran’s Dance Clarinets. Yet despite his standing as a sideman, this fantastic new quartet album reinforces his mettle has a bandleader. He’s joined in the frontline with another such musician, trombonist Brian Drye, and they display an easy rapport built over two decades of working together in many different contexts. Grounded by a propulsive, hardy rhythm section featuring bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Tomas Fujiwara (well known for his extensive work with Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum, among others) the band delivers a rigorous strain of post-bop informed by influences like Paul Motian, Charles Mingus, and Ed Blackwell, but despite such clear antecedents the music is sparked by an interactive generosity and give-and-take that feels timeless. The two horns play an improvised, densely intertwined introduction on ‘Echolocation’, for example, with Drye blowing froggy staccato tones as Hess glides around him with striated long tones and breathy flutters, suddenly coalescing a minute later into the tune’s slinky theme over march-like patters from the drummer. The band produces a subtle kind of heat, with the frontline frequently improvising on the attractive melodies with breathless multi-linear acuity. Hopkins and Fujiwara consistently embroider the swinging grooves with accents and displacements that feed the horn players on-the-fly variation, generating a richly satisfying high-wire performance rooted in trusty post-bop verities.

New Hermitage – Unearth
(New Hermitage)

Most of the eleven soft-focus pieces on the fifth album by Canadian quartet New Hermitage are fully improvised, but the group’s fragile, gauzy chamber sound pushes against what you might expect from such an ensemble. Sounds sigh, arch, and shimmer in meticulously pitched blends that soothe as much as they stammer, evoking images suggested by descriptive song titles: ‘Boiling Off, Collecting Vapors’ presents translucent sounds floating and commingling before dissolving into the ether, while the brief ‘Wind Rustles’ summons the way an intermittent breeze activates random creaks and flutters. Reedist Andrew MacKelvie, cellist India Gailey, harpist Ellen Gibling, and guitarist Ross Burns — on both acoustic and electric — prefer gentle articulation, each plucked, breathed, and bowed utterance hanging in space to collide and meld with one another in a delicious slow motion dance. Most of the pieces feel like miniature studies, exploring a specific tone or timbral combination with an appealing concision — most of the tracks clock in at around three minutes. Gailey’s ‘Pine Bottle Skylight’ is one of two composed works, yet while a more concrete structure is discernable, the way Mackelvie’s alto saxophone drifts over the fixed string patterns in aqueous puffs and delicate melodic lines, feels utterly apart from the purely spontaneous creations.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today