Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Casablanca, Morocco - 25-27/05/2007

[Last week-end, we spent a harried 32 hours in Casablanca for a reason that was no fun at all. That aside, a few notes and photos.]

We almost had to leave a member of our group behind at the airport, because she had only brought an ID card, rather than a passport. That's enough if you have proof of a hotel reservation, but I hadn't thought to print it out. So we scrambled frantically on two fronts: getting the passport to the airport and printing out the hotel reservation. The former involved calling up her parents, the latter consisted in me running around the (fairly small) Charleroi airport in search of someone friendly with an Internet connection and a printer. Not an easily-found combination, but I managed it, only to be stymied by a reservation system that asked me to log into an account I had no recollection of having created. In true movie style, the passport arrived mere minutes after the check-in had officially closed, but they let her on anyway.

When we got to our hotel, I wondered how they handled the online reservation and payment system I had used: they had no record of our reservation (and I still didn't, either). In fact, they didn't seem to have a computer at all. They let us stay the first night anyway and I managed to print out the reservation voucher in a cyber-café the next day, so all was well.

One thing we did do a lot of in Casablanca was take taxis. The little red Peugeot 106-type cars gave us an up-close look into the particularities of the local driving style. Lanes are fluid concepts: three may be marked on the ground, but they'll spontaneously become four or five as cars attempt to squeeze between each other. Pedestrians are strewn all over the street, as it makes no difference to their safety whether they cross on the green or in-between, on a zebra crossing or not. Perhaps I've lived a sheltered life, but I'm used to relatively orderly driving, one that doesn't demand the kind of constant 360-degree awareness that appears to be so basic a survival skill over there that's it's probably on the driving exam.

king of bongo

As an addendum to the previous post, another excerpt from my sister's music-oriented Brazil update:

On a brighter note, I went to an amazing percussions festival last week, and met Giovanni Hidalgo one of the world's greatest bongo players (so I'm told. I'd never heard of him before, but he's a lovely man. Short and chubby like a human teddy bear, and he shouted with delight when he caught me and my friend Marcos stealing his fruit backstage). Also got to observe groupies in action. I'd never been backstage for anything, so seeing these girls throw themselves at the musicians as soon as they stepped offstage was a trip.
In case others don't know Hidalgo, a demonstration of his prowess (via The Jazz Clinic):

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

baile funk is a fact!

My younger sister (who happens to be named after a certain John Coltrane ballad) is currently on an extended trip to Brazil. Somehow or other, she's managed to start working with a local NGO in a favela. Here's part of the last email she sent:

In other news, I went to my very first Favela Party, what is known as a "Baile Funky".
Welcome to the jungle.
There are no words to describe what it was like. I felt like I was in a gangster movie.
This is a party where the entire hill takes to the streets, speakers piled together in a huge wall of sound, playing '"novo funk" music at a volume that had all my insides vibrating. There are banners displaying the prices of extasy, cocaine and macounha (weed), and salesmen with large sacks of this merchandise beckoning for clientele like fishmongers in a food market. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are grinding away to the extremely rude music in barely-there outfits,and young men toting pistols and guns the size of small children march up and down the street wearing the air of importance their weapon seems to instill in them.
While everyting was new and entertaining and crazy in my eyes, it was an insight into the daily reality of the people who live in the favela, and who hardly ever leave it, from fear of the police, who are as corrupt and bloodthirsty as the drug dealers who run their community (if not more so. an American tourist was killed in cold blood by a Policia Militar just the other day). Kids of 6 or 7 are hooked on crack, and women latch onto any man who can provide a semi-decent future, through any means necessary.
I don't think that was the kind of news our mother was eager to hear...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Battles - 15/05/2007@AB, Brussel

Tyondai Braxton - g, kb, voc
Ian Williams - kb, g
Dave Konopka - el b, g
John Stanier - d

So this is math-rock? I'd always expected something more... boring to fall under that genre heading. I mean, it wasn't all that mathematical: people were dancing - furiously - as tightly-coiled motifs locked together like funk and fell out of phase, like minimalism (one four-handed keyboard passage was almost worthy of Nico Muhly). There was a welcome confluence of electronica's obsession with constructing grooves out of improbable sounds and mutating loops and free-funk's desire to hew rhythm out of noise.

They swerved sharply from one section to another, but also frequently stopped to pound a frenetic groove into the ground. Some naïve, percussive keyboard melodies from Ian Williams and Tyondai Braxton's heavily distorted and upwards pitch-shifted singing and whistling brought a wild edge. If there was a sense of abandon, it was a meticulously-constructed one.

A comment on the crowd reaction in Nate Chinen's review intrigues me: "Near the base of the stage some fans bounced happily on their heels. That may not seem like much of a response, but it was." No, it wasn't. The Ancienne Belgique crowd was doing a lot more than happily bouncing on its heels. Then again, we can't compete with the elder Braxton turning up for the gig.

Coca-Cola Met God (met means with in Dutch; Coca-Cola and God are self-evident) is a duo with a guy from Millionaire on guitar, laptop and vocals and Eric Thielemans (last seen at a memorable Maak's Spirit concert) on drums that opened with a 30-minute set that was rougher and wilder than Battles': harsh and squealing, but fun, too. Their abandon was savage rather than meticulous and slightly surreal: when the singer donned a large white Venetian carnival mask and a draped himself in a large green cloth, it made his incomprehensible, massively distorted rantings, which ranged from screaming to proto-rapping, seem all the more superbly deranged.

Thielemans, in short red shorts and an appropriate sweater (pictures of both members' get-ups are displayed on their MySpace page), started with thudding rhythms that seemed simple but constantly reshuffled the beat, keeping the power high and the groove alluringly elusive. The second of three "songs" built up slabs of guitar noise and a chaotic undertow, then stutteringly blew it all apart. The final piece brought the volume down with tranquil looped guitar picking and incomprehensible vocals that evoked the distressed sound of the voice of a long-lost bluesman emanating from a barely-functioning 78 rpm record.

Some cool photos from the event.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Anouar Brahem - 10/05/2007@Vooruit, Gent

Anouar Brahem - oud
François Couturier - p
Jean-Louis Matinier - acc

It's only last January that I first heard Anouar Brahem. A friend played Astrakhan Café and I immediately loved it. Its lyrical melodies, intimate atmosphere, gently dancing rhythms and seeming simplicity are so seductive that it almost feels like it should be a guilty pleasure. Like the Astrakhan Café trio, that of Brahem, François Couturier and Jean-Louis Matinier evokes Arabic aristocracy and scented gardens and reflects how Arabic architecture is ornate on the micro-level but clean and capacious on a larger scale. The Alhambra in its heyday came to mind.

The presence of two harmonic instruments was handled in such a way that they collectively opened up space, rather than forced each other to jostle for position: the trio regularly became a duo or a solo and François Couturier deftly manipulated delicate sound masses and rippling textures and used florid appogiatura to reproduce a Middle-Eastern sound, while Matinier regularly accompanied the oud with only a barely audible drone. The result was a sublime and intimate hush: despite their timbral differences, the three instrumental voices melted into one.

The concert began with compact songs made of slow melodies, only the barest hints of rhythm, a delicate balancing of dynamics and carefully distilled notes. Within this limited palette, every nuance of instrumentation, volume and register was magnified. The music became progressively more expansive; as its surfaces became less polished and hermetic, concision was replaced by depth and weightless evanescence. Over time, the point of this method was revealed: by starting with the simplest and clearest elements, such as chord progressions that inevitably generated poignant melodies, they could then regularly introduce new sounds and loosen the forms.

In this more open context, Brahem could allow himself to delay a phrase's resolution for an achingly long time, like a hanglider dipping down to land, only to pull up again and again. The moment of change was signalled by an extraordinary unaccompanied solo by Matinier. The accordion is often nicknamed the poor man's piano, but in his hands it became more of a mobile church organ, as he dramatically explored the timbral nuances of the entire range and deftly manipulated the instrument's equivalents of an organ's stops. I'd never before heard an accordion sound like it.

piano solo continues 48

There's a cottage industry in "Giant Steps" animations. Darcy brings another:

And in a more abstract style:

And then , there are the robots:

And now, even faster! (also, the comments are hilarious)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007

Christian Marclay's Screen Play - 06/05/2007@Vooruit, Gent

Writing music inspired by a film is fairly common; making a film to inspire music is much less so. Christian Marclay's Screen Play is subtitled "To be interpreted by a small group of musicians" and the Vooruit brought lined up three different groups to do so, one after the other (yes, that means we watched the half-hour film three times in a row).

The film itself was an assemblage of old stock and movie footage upon which bright, solid-coloured lines, dots and squares were drawn (see photos). Sometimes they interacted with the images, as when a wavy blue line was laid over ocean scenes or the characters' eyes followed the drawings' movements. Marclay didn't shy away from laughs or sentimentality and constantly set up sequences that tricked you into thinking there was a narrative. A favourite moment was when a conductor's hand left an elegant, curvy white scribble that ended up drifting away when someone blew out a candle. To underscore its role, the film ends with a woman closing a piano's keyboard lid.

Tetuzi Akiyama, Stef Irritant, Ignatz

The three guitarists (acoustic, electric and slide) played a restful accompaniment that remained totally detached from the frenetic pace of the on-screen action. They started with a rustic, almost countrified feel and later slipped in some Indian tampura-style drones, but kept a slow-moving, ambient feel throughout. For the first half of the film, simple melodies with a trembling, evanescent charm emerged. When they shifted to a less focused form of improvisation, things seemed to wander and lose inspiration.

Jason Lescalleet, Greg Kelley, Bhob Rainey

This set interacted slightly more with the film: Rainey went so far as to mirror Marclay's humour by playing a circular pattern as a ballerina spun. Rainey and Greg Kelley belong to some of the most exploratory reaches of improvisation, but their contributions were somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Jason Lescalleet's set-up, so I'd like to hear them in a duo context. He produced rumbles, static, partial beats and samples of voices and even of a symphony. The latter demonstrated the organising power of Classical music over movies in general, as the disparate images immediately took on a new sense of order. In terms of trio balance, it was only when Lescalleet abandoned most of his gear and swung an object of some sort around on a cord in front of a microphone that everyone felt on the same plane.

Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Paul Lovens

This was the most free-jazz-like set, becayse of the reaction time, variable dynamics and drama, and therefore the one that most interacted with the film. Paul Lovens was actually the only musician to look at the projection screen at the back of the stage rather than the TV set up at the front. It was also a little more old-school, as Steve Beresford operated as an electronic musician, producing sci-fi buzzes and tones, as opposed to Lescalleet's more deejaying approach. Lovens's sense of humour found plenty of occasions to express itself: he was like an old-fashioned sound effects man, mimicking galloping horses and rolling cars.

I was happy to see John Butcher at some length for the first time (I had to leave a concert of his with Phil Minton a few years ago because I was with friends unappreciative of that kind of music). Like Kelley and Rainey, he has developed a sonic language that pushes back the boundaries of his instrument's soundworld. Of late, I've been wondering about what avant-garde jazz could mean today. This might not be it, but it reassured me that there was plenty of Crazy Experimental Freedom happening, just like thirty years ago.

Given that I had just come from the Jimmy Cobb concert, I couldn't help but think about how many degrees separated Lovens, Butcher, Kelley and Rainey from Cobb. Lovens is quite clearly a jazz drummer, or at least he has been when I've seen him with Aki Takase and Alexander Von Schlippenbach, directly descended from those of the 50s and 60s, with perhaps, like Han Bennink, a lingering fondness for the exuberance of the Swing era drummers.

I tend to think of sound-based improvisers such as the other three as expanding on what I call the "in-between" sounds inherent in jazz: slurs, attacks, flourishes and exclamations expanded from transitions to destinations. It seems to me that all this is at least partially germinated from, for example, Don Cherry, in the way his lines struggle against all these parasitic sounds. This sound orientation is not per se an avant-garde thing: 50s Miles Davis, Lester Young's false fingerings as he honked on one note, or more blues-based players from Stanley Turrentine to Archie Shepp all developed this in-between vocabulary that had more to do with texture and vocalisation - pure sound - than harmony, or whatever. It's not a narrowing, either: the exploration of the in-between creates its own new space that expands into its own vocabulary and ends up recombining with other things. So I kind of want to believe that they are no more than three to four degrees away from Cobb, through his association with Coltrane, for example.

Pichl Engel Cobb - 06/05/2007@L'Archiduc, Bruxelles

Bernharnd Pichl - p
Rudi Engel - b
Jimmy Cobb - d

The crowd was surprisingly young, and predictably included a number of drummers like Lionel Beuvens and Toon Van Dionant there to learn a few lessons from a master. Philip Catherine dropped in on a peer. I even saw rocker and alleged Archiduc regular Arno for the first time.

For a long time, I knew Jimmy Cobb only from Kind Of Blue and thought of him as a "soft" drummer. So I was pretty shocked by his aggressive playing on a pair of live Parisian recordings with the 1960 Miles Davis Quintet, one with John Coltrane (notable for the strongly divided crowd reaction to Coltrane's breathtaking playing), the other with Sonny Stitt. I recently got a 2003 Cobb's Mob album, a pleasant straight-ahead date featuring Eric Alexander and Peter Bernstein, that showed Cobb to still be going strong.

I kind of wondered about the psychological state of the other two members of the trio. The pianist seemed to be the formal leader, as he studiously gave detailled historical background on every repertoire choice. However, it was clear that nobody in the crowd particularly cared about the non-Jimmy Cobb musicians. Instead of seizing the opportunity to surprise, they gave in to the situation, playing cocktail jazz devoid of personality.

The drummer, however, never conceded an inch to the passive mood. He manhandled Charlie Mundell's ballad "Emily" with brusque brush manners, pushed "Love For Sale"'s Afro-Cuban beat and gave a frenetic edge to an uptempo tune early in the second set, before thundering into his solo. He equally enlivened the quieter moments, restricting himself to cymbals to create a lighter-than-air feel on "For Heaven's Sake" and letting individual ride hits hang in the air on a slow blues. A far cry from hearing him at the Olympia in 1960, though.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Festival de Jazz à Liège - 05/05/2007@Palais des Congrès, Liège

The anonymous and soulless location, the concomitant oppressive over-abundance of "Jazz!" signifiers, the frustrating simultaneous concert format (quantity over appreciation) and an overall experience that's usually better on paper than in the flesh explain why I hadn't come to Jazz à Liège since the first day of the 2004 edition. This time, I attempted to focus on a few concerts that I really wanted to see. Still, after four hours of music, it's difficult, for me at least, to continue to be entertained without feeling tired and force-fed.

Dave Douglas Keystone

I still haven't heard the original Keystone album, but I like the Live In Sweden version. The "Fatty And Mable Adrift Suite" it starts with gives the music time to work its way to a buoyant groove. Here, the group jumped into that groove right away, superposing Gene Lake's drummed beats and DJ Olive's sampled ones for a sort of acid jazz feel. Overall, the concert felt very much like electrified hard bop: Dave's interventions were consistently excellent, whether blazing or restrained. The perverse side-effect of this consistency was that the stand-out moments came when saxophonist Marcus Strickland really got going and married his matte sound to torrents of slippery yet visceral lines.

Two such moments occurred. First came a brief, unbridled and ferocious percussion work-out by saxophone, bass and drums. Later, the intensity level was set even higher as trumpet and saxophone solos were broken up into little chunks by punchy brass fanfares. It was a good example of the way in which Dave stretches traditional jazz composition, weaving it in with improvisation in unusual ways.

Manu Hermia Quartet

I'd never seen Manu's acoustic group before, and I was really surprised by how good it was. His latest CD, Rajazz, presents his attempts at reconciling the completely different worlds of jazz and modal Indian music (there are detailled explanations on his website, along with other interesting writings). He brings to this endeavour a beautiful, rich sound and a lyrical bent and a sense of group construction influenced by John Coltrane.

The title track is a sort of westwards trip: it began with the alto alone presenting the equivalent of an alap, then playing a volubile solo over Lieven Venken's churning polyrhythms, before Erik Vermeulen evoked McCoy Tyner to a swinging walking bass pattern, the whole thing tied together by an urgent riff. It's a shame that the way the festival is set up meant that this excellent concert started with a full room and ended with a nearly empty one.

Brewed By Noon ft. Marc Ribot

This pot-pourri of an all-star group (Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Mat Maneri, Marc Ribot, a second guitarist and an African singer/percussionist) played drummer/leader Sean Noonan's compositions. They brought together African rhythms, Irish melodies, prog-rock drama and let them all be blenderised by improvisers who could play sleek lines, infectious funk, shredded rock or all-out noise. By this point, I was kind of tired and fidgety, so I walked in and out of the concert, despite its combative spirit.

Noonan regularly got up to give signals or simply exhort his troops as he pounded the toms, which allowed us to see that he was wearing boxing shorts. After the concert, he played up the Irish-American thing to the fullest, walking around wearing a canary yellow boxer's gown with black trimmings and his name on the back. I'd never seen anything like it.

Jan Rzewski/Fabian Fiorini

Probably the best set nobody saw. The Jazz à Liège public is generally recalcitrant at the possibility of dissonance, so the small room stayed unfortunately empty for a great set. Knowing Fabian mostly with Octurn, this spare context really revealed to me what a dazzling pianist he is. Jan Rzewski, last seen sitting in with Anthony Braxton, is fairly close to Steve Lacy.

Mingus's "Peggy's Blue Skylight" provided Fabian the opportunity to provided rich, full-bodied, varied accompaniment. The originals were light-hearted and elaborate. They trod multiple paths, perhaps starting as harsh, noisy improvisation and ending up as a dance, after a number of seamless permutations.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Ben Allison Quartet - 04/05/2007@De Werf, Brugge

Ron Horton - tp
Steve Cardenas - g
Ben Allison - b (website | myspace)
Gerald Cleaver - d

Over the last couple of years, I'd forgotten how much I loved Ben Allison's music. The advantage of rediscovering a lost love is that you can be surprised, or at least charmed, all over again by things you already know. The misleading groove of "Respiration"'s superposed meters was as simultaneously hypnotising and startling as I remembered it, with bass and drums hitting downbeats together in unexpected places. I sang along again to "Green Al"'s lazy lope, to which Gerald Cleaver gave a slow, hip hop-inflected groove. Buzz, the album those compositions appear on, is a gem.

Most of the night's repertoire, however, was taken from Allison's latest CD, Cowboy Justice (you can hear three of its tracks on his website). Like the CD, the concert began with "Tricky Dick." The recorded version showcases the busy propulsion so clean-cut that it would sound anally-retentive if it wasn't so damned great that is Jeff Ballard's specialty. Gerald Cleaver is a very different drummer. Ben Ratliff described his group Uncle June as "dense, woody, tangled," and that could go for Cleaver's drumming, too. The density and tangle don't come from an abundance of notes, but from lingering sounds and textures, and a certain rhythmic float. On "Four Folk Songs," while Allison maintained steady waltzing arpeggios, Cleaver glided into a light, bossa-derived beat so evenly flowing that it became impossible to tell what meter he was, if any.

Whether playing old or new tunes, Allison's music is first and foremost based in song and the group cohesion necessary to create it. At the intermission, IVN told me that she liked the trumpet because it made up for the absence of the human voice in much jazz. Ron Horton's role as singer was clear on John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" and John Barry's Midnight Cowboy theme. The originals found their own ways of rooting the solos firmly in each one's melody and overall mood as much as on its harmony. The former being more concrete and personal than the latter (thankfully for jazz, you can't copyright a chord progression), this, along with arrangements that are diverse and careful without being fussy or gratuitous, gives each piece a cohesion that don't make them feel like head-solos-head throw-aways. Allison's own solos were brilliant, both lyrical and rhythmic.

There were incursions outside of mellowness, too. "Emergency" mutated a loose, quicksand groove to a slow, head-banging riff for Horton to soar over. Most impressive was "Blabbermouth." It started wwith gentle, kora-like arpeggios, added intrusive, out-of-tempo guitar and trumpet interjections and climaxed with a variation on the old trading fours formula: drum solos alternated with full band collective improvisations, each louder and more aggressive with every iteration.

It would be easy to qualify Allison as mainstream because his music is not abrasive, but I love how he integrates extended techniques, such as plucking with both hands below the bridge to evoke a cross between a kora and a gamelan, or "Emergency"'s outbursts, into a highly melodic sensibility.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Octurn - 02/05/2007@Jazz Station, Bruxelles

Bo Van Der Werf - bs
Magic Malik - fl, voc
Guillaume Orti - as
Laurent Blondiau - tp, flh
Fabian Fiorini - p
Jozef Dumoulin - Fender Rhodes
Nelson Veras - g
Gilbert Nouno - laptop
Jean-Luc Lehr - el b
Xavier Rogé - d

After Dimensions (De Werf) in 2002, Octurn remained silent for several years, performing sporadically and struggling to find a solid identity. In mid-2006, 21 Emanations (Yolk) definitely assured the group's creative renaissance, in part thanks to the help of two outside forces: drummer Dré Pallemaerts, who produced the album's second disc by remixing the first to startling effect, and flutist Magic Malik. Malik has now become a permanent member and, with founder and leader Bo Van Der Werf, its principal co-composer and brings a lighter, less tense sound and more playful feel. Octurn's forthcoming CD, Experience, is mostly made up of Malik's work. I attended the first of two semi-public recording sessions last September.

Experience will complete a trilogy of sorts, of which the second part is the sublime North Country Suite, composed by Pierre Van Dormael. The album is stunning and surprising for its sheer beauty and melodic concern. After the density of most of 21 emanations, hearing Laurent Blondiau's fluegelhorn clearly intone a heart-rending lead, or the band expose, abandon and reconstruct a disco-funk groove, was not exactly the expected thing.

Earlier in the decade, Octurn had tried and failed to sustain two drummers and two bassists, so now its attempting a slightly different thickening strategy. This time, the discrete Nelson Veras and regular guest Gilbert Nouno brought light touches, the latter underscoring instrumental solos with hums, clicks and droopy tones while also sculpting the instruments' sound in various ways. Xavier Rogé subbed for Chander Sardjoe. He's kind of a Stéphane Galland understudy, so while, naturally, he didn't have Sardjoe's smiling authority, the fit was fine. Through the changes, the basics remained: performances that move unpredictably in a complex web of interconnected compositions, arrangements, collective improvisations and solos, the rhythm section's exploitation of the mobility of second-line funk more for its mathematical implications than for its exuberance, while the horns maintain a more poetically ambiguous relationship to rhythm. Jean-Luc Lehr explained to me that rhythm section and horns often play totally independent material (in terms of chords and meters), so an element of chance is liberally sprinkled throughout the music.

On the first piece, in typical fashion, slow orchestral swells under a trumpet solo became a dizzying array of sounds coming from all directions at once. The second piece began by highlighting how Malik has changed the band's expressivity, as he played a slow melody that had a strange, moonscape beauty to it. Guillaume Orti's work also burned particularly brightly throughout the concert. He projects an outward passion while maintaining the laserbeam focus of his jagged, Braxton-ish lines.

Compared to the last time I saw Octurn, they were more low-key, but also less dense. The music gained in unhurried limpidity what it lost in overwhelming energy. "Flash," a tune of Malik's that's on its way to becoming a theme song and characterised by a variable-tempo ascending riff, typified this: it first appeared with winds-only soft-focus delicacy, and later in a more propulsive context, but without turning into the all-consuming drum'n'bass monster it had back in December. There were still some moments of blissful release, though. One came during Jozef Dumoulin's only solo, the exuberance of which was worthy of Alice Coltrane, as the others locked into a kind of Octurn-ised gospel euphoria. Later, Fabian Fiorini picked up some earlier melodic material and played it like it was Schubert. A particularly restful reading of the "Flash" motif indicated that its basic melody could have been lifted from a church hymn. It's those seemingly limitless possibilities and ability to surprise that keep me coming back for more.