08 December 2009

Natsuki Tamura
Natsuki Tamura 006
trumpet - memory - dreamscapes

Any musician with talent, imagination and the desire to create something unique through their art winds up, I believe, making a concerted effort to expand the palette of their instrument or voice. Sometimes they choose to remain within their chosen genre (be it classical, jazz or whatever field in which they find their true expression) – others strain and push the limits of style to the point of bursting the envelope that attempts to contain them, giving artistic birth to something so new and different that they find themselves in a realm of their own invention. The work of Japanese trumpeter Natsuki Tamura falls variously into both of these categories. His work with his wife, renowned pianist Satoko Fujii, shows that he’s quite capable of performing in a jazz / free-jazz context, whether it’s in duo recordings with her or in her quartet or big-band ensembles. His own work, either with his quartet (which includes Satoko) or as a solo artist, tends to be more experimental and challenging. Every recording I’ve heard involving either or both of these two is a rewarding experience. Both of the releases I’m addressing here were recorded in 2003. Looking at the credits, one might imagine them to be completely different – they are at first listen, but as one allows this music to more deeply penetrate the psyche, certain elements can be recognized as shared properties.

Natuski Tamura Quartet

Natsuki Tamura Quartet - Exit
Libra (Japan), 2004

On Exit, Tamura is accompanied by Takayuki Kato (guitar), Satoko Fujii (synthesizer) and Ryojiro Furusawa (drums). The sound generated by this tight unit is very much in line with the cd cover image – the double-exposure combining inside / outside components, seemingly offering an exit from this world to another, is very evocative of the music itself. Tamura’s trumpet starts the first piece, appropriately entitled ‘Entrance’, with cascading echo-lines, with Satoko adding tuned percussive sounds from her keyboard along with angular, forceful punctuations from Furusawa and Kato. There are vocalizations as well – I’m guessing they’re coming from Tamura, but there is no mention of them in the notes – they add to the overall feeling of displacement and resurfacing memories and dreams that pervade not only this track, but most of both of these recordings. These feelings rise and fall with the sounds that conjure them, much in the same way that actual memories and dreams nudge their way into and out of our consciousness. I suspect that this is a purposeful attempt on Tamura’s part to evoke these feelings, to draw upon the effects of them in order to connect with not just his listeners, but with himself as well. It’s extremely effective – listening to this music for the first time, I had an underlying feeling of connectivity with its core that is otherwise unexplainable. ‘Endanger’ is led off again by Tamura’s trumpet, with the other instruments entering the arrangement in more subtle ways, creating a palpable surrounding presence that is vaguely threatening, the mood of the piece reflecting its title accurately. Tamura’s trumpet lines become more agitated, with bursts of lines that, again, evoke something perhaps once heard, perhaps mirroring an individual’s natural instinct of drawing upon something familiar and known when faced with the unsettling, possibly dangerous unknown.

‘Eliminate’ is a lengthier piece, clocking in at over 26 minutes, allowing the group to work through their ideas and stretch out with them – and they do so very well. Tamura’s trumpet coos, warbles, sings and screams over the bubbling background provided by his bandmates. Voice-like sounds are added to the mix – whether they’re generated live or drawn forth from samples is hard to determine, but they’re an effective addition to the mix. Melodies are touched upon in snatches; lines appear and disappear over the very effective foundation laid down by the others, whose melodic offerings are sometimes brought to the fore also. The churning rhythms of the opening section of the piece begin to fade around 7 minutes in, giving way to a more reflective section featuring Tamura’s trumpet sounding as if its tones are reaching the ears of the listener across an expanse of water, perhaps through fog – more audio equivalents of memory and dream elements, at times more felt than heard. The other instruments whisper and crackle in the background, giving the vivid impression of movement through space and / or time. Just after the half-way point in the piece, the others grow more insistent, finally charging back in to raise the energy level to a point even higher than that with which they began. Satoko’s synthesizer reasserts itself as a lead instrument, suddenly dropping out to leave the drums as the main voice – the others contribute accents, followed by the insertion of more vocalizations, then more trumpet, until everyone re-enters to close out the piece in a maelstrom of sound.

‘Expired’ is a more low-key affair overall, with Tamura’s echo-upon-echo trumpet lines offering the main trail through its darkness, with fine support from the others. His melodies zigzag over the musical landscape, with sounds (some of unknown origin) again surrounding the listener. It’s a little like seeing glowing eyes in the darkness when walking through a forest – they could be real or imaginary, benign and curious or quietly plotting. Organ-like sounds from Satoko’s synthesizer combine with Kato’s guitar in the middle section, brought to heightened reawakening by the trumpet and drums, a churning passage that gives way to the more reflective mood of the piece’s beginning to bring things to a close. The shortest track in the set, ‘Exit’, fittingly ends the album – staccato vocalizations are accompanied by a sporadically repeated melody line on the synth here and there that brings to mind ‘The girl from Ipanema’, which disappears again to allow the voice and percussive effects (drums or synthesizer) to bubble up here and there. The piece ends with echo-layered voices and a droning bass chord from the keyboard.

Natsuki Tamura
Ko ko ko ke

Natsuki Tamura - Ko ko ko ke
Natsat / Polystar (Japan), 2004

Ko ko ko ke is a true solo recording – Tamura produces all of the sounds himself with his trumpet and voice. The mood of this album is less frenetic than parts of Exit , but the effect of the music is no less insistent, drawing the listener into the audio world created by the artist. The elements of memory and dreams are present here as well (the cover photographs represent it beautifully visually), perhaps even more vivid in the less-populated audio canvas. Tamura is very obviously drawing upon his own memories here – not just directly, by way of tunes that he perhaps heard in his childhood, but in mood as well. The hazy, in-and-out-of-focus realm of time distance is recreated in an incredibly effective way here. There are snippets of songs – some tracks are performed solely as vocals – and evocations of traditional Japanese instruments (the shamisen and the taiko) as well. The album is as far as I can discern performed and recorded as heard, with no overdubs – it’s a process that leaves the artist literally naked before the listener, with no place to hide…but the honesty and sincerity with which Tamura presents these pieces adds a quality to the music that no amount of technology could ever match. He’ll play a few lines of melody on his trumpet, presented here with very little if any alteration, then sing a bit. There’s a childlike innocence and openness to not only his voice on this album, but to the entire project – it’s as if through the music he’s recorded here, he’s presenting his innermost self to the listener…and it’s a very moving experience, as well as being one that is incredibly satisfying on an artistic level. The album has a feeling of intimacy that permeates every single track – it’s almost as if he made this recording for himself. I’m very glad he chose to share it.
Natsuki Tamura 005
These recordings are a little hard to find in the US – but with a bit of online exploration, they can be found, along with his other works and releases by Satoko Fujii, all of which will give a more complete picture of two artists whose compositions and performances are as challenging as they are rewarding.

Natsuki Tamura on MySpace

Natsuki Tamura profile on Libra Records’ website

16 November 2009

Valentin Silvestrov
Fleeting melodies

Valentin Silvestrov - Fleeting memories  (2008)
Rostok (Ukraine), 2008

In the booklet for the 2004 ECM release of Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa, music journalist Steve Lake began his essay: ‘Time in Valentin Silvestrov’s music is a black lake. The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place.’ An apt image for the stillness present in so many of Silvestrov’s compositions – a sense of motionless repose is palpable, couple at the same time with a feeling of connection with things past, ever present in a rather Proustian way, a remembrance that exists beyond the ordinary boundaries of thought and memory, leaving its mark on the multiple, mica-fine layers of the human soul and psyche.

Valentin Silvestrov
Valentin Silvestrov

The music on Fleeting melodies is described by the composer as ‘…a large cycle, comprised of seven works, which are performed without interruption – as one large text…the expanse in which melodies exist on the boundary between their appearance and disappearance…’ There is a direct reference in the title of some pieces to Tchaikovsky, as well as Silvestrov mentioning Bach’s The art of the fugue in his brief notes – but the listener also hears / feels wisps of echoes from other sources: Schumann, Mozart, Webern…nothing that is so blatant as a copied phrase or passage, but newly created lines that vividly demonstrate the love and understanding that Silvestrov has for the historic composers he admires…those who have preceded him on the path he travels.

Bohdana Pivnenko + Valeriy Matiukhin
Bohdana Pivnenko & Valeriy Moatiukhin
The performers on this disc – Bohdana Pivnenko (violin) and Valeriy Matiukhin (piano) – show, in turn, their love and understanding of Valentin Silvestrov’s work. His interpretative instruction, which they execute brilliantly throughout the album, written in the score to one of the pieces, ‘While listening, this music must sound light and clear, distant…’, could apply to just about all of his late work – it settles on the ear of the listener like a mist that is barely there, a whisper from another place, another time…delicate, but not to be ignored. More than any other contemporary composer whose work I’ve experienced, Silvestrov’s music sings – with or without a vocal component. There is so much more at work here than mere saccharine melodies that amount to ear candy – the beauty in these pieces carries meaning and emotion felt on the deepest level, wrapped in music that appeals to both the heart and intellect. Pivnenko and Matiukhin weave their lines in and out of each other, rapt in their interpretation and at the same time sensitive to the voicings offered by their partner – there is not a single failed nuance or overplayed line. It’s like listening to liquid flowing – the recording’s generous 72 minute length is over before one expects it to be, and repeated listenings follow as naturally as one breath follows the next.

This recording is only available, as far as I know, from UMKA in Kiev (link below). For those who might be hesitant to use a credit card to order, know that their online storefront is a company based in the US that accepts PayPal, a safe and secure method of sending money that doesn’t expose your credit card number to any seller. Coming from the Ukraine, with shipping, the disc is understandably a little pricey – around $35 – but well worth it. I received my order in about 12 days, much sooner than I expected. It comes in a DVD-sized digi-pack with beautiful artwork, albeit with brief notes by the composer and a moving dedication by Bohdana Pivnenko to her late husband.

Valentin Silvestrov is a treasure among composers, contemporary or otherwise – his works are imbued with a beauty that springs from the universal human spirit, singing in a wordless language that touches the soul with grace and truth…a touch we could all use.

Fleeting memories at UMKA

09 November 2009

La silence de Lorna
(The silence of Lorna
or Lorna’s silence)
written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
2008 / Belgium / France / Italy / color / 105 minutes
French with English subtitles
DVD (region 2) from New Wave FIlms, UK
US release (region 1) from Sony Pictures (scheduled for January 2010)

The Dardenne brothers
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

When a viewer takes in a film by the Dardenne brothers, there’s work to be done. The Belgian auteurs don’t lay everything out in an ‘a + b = c’ order like so many directors – one has to pay attention. It’s not as if their films are overly obtuse or ‘difficult’ – they reflect life, and the pieces of life rarely fit together like an entry-level jigsaw puzzle. The details of characters and plot are there to be discovered / uncovered as the film progresses – it’s a process that places more responsibility on the shoulders of the viewer…but it’s more than worthwhile, engendering an interaction that, like a good exercise session, has an invigorating effect and leaves a sense of involvement and satisfaction in accomplishment in its aftermath. The process also embeds the film and the mica-like layers of thought that engendered it in the mind of the viewer, encouraging a reflection on what has been experienced that is as natural as that stimulated by events in the real world. The world depicted in the Dardennes’ films is a very real one indeed – as real as that created by the great French director Robert Bresson in his work. Their work is by no means derivative of Bresson’s, but he’s an obvious influence – they’ve taken bits and pieces of his philosophy of cinema and added them to their own ideas and goals, moving the art form forward as only those who create from their soul can do. I think Bresson would admire their work – I don’t think he’d feel as if they had copied him.

Combining these techniques with actors who have the ability to transform themselves into their characters with an incredible ease and naturalness, captured on film and brought to the screen with their almost instantly recognizable ‘invisible’ photography that places the viewer in the scene with the characters, participating as a witness, rather than simply watching a film, makes for one of the most unique experiences in contemporary cinema. Their films are works of high art that can instantly be appreciated by any viewer who offers attention – the depth of character and situation that is embodied in them can invest a depth of empathy in an audience that is a rare thing indeed.
The silence of Lorna - 06
How else could filmmakers take such characters as a junkie and a woman who has allowed herself to be involved with petty criminals in a marriage-for-citizenship scam and make us care about them, experiencing and recognizing the humanity in these far-less-than-perfect people? The titular Lorna (exquisitely portrayed by Arta Dobroshi) is a recent immigrant from Albania to Belgium, where the film is set. She has entered into a marriage with Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier, veteran of two other Dardenne films, La promesse [1996] and L’enfant [2005], as well as works by other directors) in order to achieve Belgian citizenship. Claudy is a junkie, and has been chosen by Fabio, a petty criminal working as a cab driver, as an easy target for the game he is playing. Fabio is in league with the Russian mafia – the long-term plan calls for Claudy to be killed, leaving Lorna a widow and free to remarry a Russian who is also seeking citizenship. Everyone gets a cut of the money involved, including Lorna's boyfriend Sokol…except of course for Claudy, who is viewed as disposable – ‘He’s only a junkie,’ says Sokol.
The silence of Lorna - 07
The very first scene of the film shows money being exchanged, Lorna apparently depositing a sum into an account. Currency changes hands so much on screen that it almost becomes another character – but on careful observation, it’s actually multiple characters…or at least possessing multiple personalities depending on its source, destination, and purpose. Sometimes it is a negative force driving characters apart – sometimes a positive one that has the potential of drawing them together.
The silence of Lorna - 04
The silence of Lorna - 08
The scheme seems to be foolproof…until Lorna begins to see Claudy not as a disposable pawn, but as a human being. The emotional process through which she passes is one of subtle shifts, but it is every bit as gut-wrenching as Claudy’s attempts to rid himself of his drug habit, desperate to reclaim his life. She agrees to help him stay clean if he will agree to a divorce, freeing her to move on to the next step in the scheme being directed by Fabio. The cab-driving would-be crime magnate, however, is not interested in any change of plans – and the conflicts deepen and become more complicated. All of this begins to play on Lorna’s conscience and psyche, the colors of her emotions shift and change hue, imperceptibly at first – and she also begins to see that those with whom she is playing this game are less concerned with her long-range plans than she first thought. As the plotline circles become tighter and tighter, the tension naturally increases, leading to a conclusion that I won’t reveal…but one that is unexpected, as are so many conclusions in life itself. Her ‘silence’ is multifold – information given by her is doled out frugally…to herself as well as to others.
The silence of Lorna - 05
There are some noticeable differences between this film and the earlier work by the Dardennes – but their style is intact, merely showing their growth as writers / directors, as well as employing some ‘improved tools’ such as the use of 35mm cameras instead of their usual 16mm. There’s even a bit of music at the end of the film, a conscious decision they made in order to allow the mood to fade slowly, much like a sustained note on a piano that ends a piece with a lingering, languid decay. The in-your-face shots are still here, along with camera work designed and executed in such a way as to enhance the viewer’s sense of true presence in the film. Working from their script with their actors, they’re willing to listen to ideas from the cast, implementing some if they feel that the film is improved by their inclusion. It’s a nice combination of a give-and-take process over which they maintain ultimate control – and one about which they speak at length in one of the interviews (the other being with Arta Dobroshi) that is included as an extra in this, the UK edition of the DVD (it’s due to be released in the US by Sony in January of 2010 – hopefully the same extras and image / sound quality will be present). These elements are hallmarks of their style, placing their work on a higher plane than most contemporary cinema – a level that, thankfully, they manage to meet and surpass with each release. Experiencing their films can bring one into closer contact with one’s own humanity by virtually inhabiting the characters created and brought to life on the screen: art that promotes empathy and understanding, which has a value far beyond that of mere entertainment.

Of their other feature films, Le fils (The son) (2002) and L’enfant (The child) (2005) are the only two available in current release in the US; La promesse (The promise) (1996) is out of print in this country, although some rental outlets might still have it. Rosetta (1999), as far as I’m aware, has never been available in this country. All of these are in print in Europe – if you have a region-free player, they’re out there and they’re not all that expensive. Each one is a modest, yet extremely enriching, satisfying masterpiece of film art – and they’ll no doubt cause your expectations to be raised where cinematic creation is concerned.

With the film currently in limited theatrical release in the US, Sony Pictures have a website for it, where you can read more about it as well as view a trailer – click here. If it comes to a theatre near you, I strongly recommend seeing it on a big screen – if not, by all means find a copy of the DVD. It’s an unforgettable experience, one that should not be missed. It won the award for best screenplay at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival...and it very much deserves this sort of recognition.

22 September 2009

Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian - Neharót
ECM New Series, 2009

Violist Kim Kashkashian has shown, over the course of her recording career at ECM, that she seemingly has a magic touch when it comes to programming her albums. Her choices come from the ‘expected’ realms of classical music (her recording of Brahms’ sonatas for viola and piano, with Robert Levin) to composers whose work, while exceptionally thoughtful and beautiful, has not enjoyed the exposure of more ‘known’ composers, most likely due to its challenging nature and more obscure inspirational sources (her previous recordings of the work of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, as well as this current release, falling into this category). It’s a shame – I know her work is highly regarded and much appreciated by both critics and listeners, but the wider listening audience is missing out on something very special indeed if they pass on her work simply because they don’t recognize names.

For Neharót, she draws from the oeuvre of four composers – Betty Olivero (Israel), Tigran Mansurian (Armenia), Komitas (Armenia) and Eitan Steinberg (Israel). The works offered here draw from the classical tradition, but also from other, age-old sources such as Armenian chant, laments and Hasidic melodies. She takes these melodies to the deepest chambers of her heart and transforms them, using her instrument as few musicians can, giving voice to their soul – and when I use the word ‘voice’, I do so very consciously, for there is a voice-like quality to her playing that brings depth of emotion and a living warmth to her music. Her tone, in her capable hands, can be pristinely intellectual or (as described by Paul Griffiths in his well-written notes to the disc) ‘earthy’ as needs dictate. She truly sings these pieces through her viola – it’s a marvel to experience.

Griffiths speaks of ‘memories we did not know’, referring to the chords struck within the listener on hearing this music – and his description is a perfect one. One can debate the validity of so-called generational or inherited memories – but few people are without the experience of feeling a sense of familiarity with something they’ve never before heard, as if the remembrances are carried in the blood, or DNA. Cultural tendencies and customs are taught, but think about that feeling of an emotion or action simply being ‘right’ touches our thoughts on a subconscious level, many times without being aware of it. These pieces – thanks to the skill of the composers and that of the performer – ring that memory-bell with a delicacy that belies the strength of deeply hidden layers of past experience.

Betty Olivero’s ‘Neharót, neharót’ opens the album – Kim’s viola leads a small ensemble (accordion, percussion and taped voices) and is accompanied by the Münchener Kammerorchester. Accordion, strings and delicate percussion lay down a dirge-like drone, with the viola serving up a melody that is a prime example of the ‘vocal’ qualities I mentioned. Just as with our internal memories, it’s easy to get lost in this piece. The title means ‘Rivers, rivers’, and is a reference to the flood of tears evoked by the seemingly continuous suffering under the yoke of wars in the Middle East. Along with the qualities of a lament, or mourning, however, are undeniable and unquenchable strains of the hope that allows people to survive as human beings in such a time and place. Olivero draws on traditional melodies from Kurdish and North African sources – taped voices of two professional singers, Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia, are used to great effect, enhancing and enriching the voice-like qualities of the viola.

Next up is Tigran Mansurian’s ‘Tagh for the funeral of the Lord’ – the sense of lament continues in this beautiful piece, with Kashkashian being accompanied by some amazingly sensitive percussion work (vibraphone, Thai gongs) by Robyn Schulkowsky, who was worked very effectively with Kim on previous recordings. This is a piece I can easily imagine hearing under darkened skies, perhaps even total night – the sounds have a gentle but firm penetrating quality, again with the quiet insistence of a voice that will not be denied expression. A piece by Komitas (1869-1935), which also appeared on Kim’s Hayren recording, is adapted by Mansurian, who performs it here, solo on piano. It’s a heart-rending, achingly lovely melody – Griffiths notes that it ‘reminds us how close are the genres of lullaby and lament’, and once again he has described the work perfectly. There is a palpable feeling of quietude, especially in the ending of the piece.

A trio of Mansurian works follows, ‘Three arias (sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)’, dedicated by the composer to Kim Kashkashian, who is accompanied here by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Gently swelling strings usher in the viola, which takes the melody firmly but delicately, almost physically handing it to the listener. Turning again to the notes, Griffiths writes, ‘The emotion…is one of longing, a feeling not so far from lament – of longing, in particular, for ancient Armenian sites that are now over the border in Turkish territory. Mansurian imagines these arias as sung out through windows looking towards the holy Mount Ararat, the mountains of Sasun and the ruins of Ani, where thousand-year-old churches testify to the splendour of a city, once one of the world’s greatest, that has been abandoned for centuries.’

Completing the bookending of the shorter pieces (along with the opening work by Olivero) and ending the recording is a longer composition by Eitan Steinberg, originally composed as a vocal work based on a traditional Hasidic ceremony, re-configured here (at Kashkashian’s suggestion) by Steinberg as an instrumental piece. Conveying the emotional impact of the now-missing words to the listener was a challenge for both the composer and the performer – Steinberg notes that Kashkashian ‘managed to cry the prayer from within the strings, to murmur the sacred text with no words’. It’s a stunning accomplishment on both their parts, and one whose result will move the listener deeply, whatever their spiritual orientation might be – emotions and feelings cross all such artificial barriers with great ease.
I’ve enjoyed Kim Kashkashian’s work for years – with each new release, I look forward to hearing composers I’ve never heard before, music performed with warmth and sensitivity, delicacy and strength, always left with the feeling that her viola is ‘speaking’ directly to me. This could well be my favorite recording of hers – but it’s hard to say, with so many of them ranking so high in my esteem, and so dear to my musical heart and soul.

24 August 2009

Don Cherry’s Multikulti
Don Cherry's Multikulti  (1991)
1991 / Germany / color / 57min approx.
DVD from Kultur / NTSC / all regions

Don Cherry (1936-1995) was an incredible jazz innovator, working with Ornette Coleman early on in defining ‘free jazz’ and forever exploding the envelope in which the genre had been contained. They were not alone in this noble pursuit, of course – but they were among the first. After working with Ornette regularly, off-again and on-again, Cherry continued to erase genre boundaries with his music – and in doing so helped break down the walls of fear and ignorance that rise up between cultures across the globe, illustrating through his work that music and art are universal languages, wielding immense power to touch common ground and intertwine hearts and souls. Multikulti is the name he gave the band / project under which he was operating when this incredible concert document was filmed, in Germany before an enthusiastic audience, in 1991, just 3½ years before his untimely death at the age of 58.

Cherry was known mainly as a trumpet player – specifically the pocket trumpet, usually relegated to the ‘practice instrument’ category until he brought it to the fore as a serious solo instrument – but he was a true multi-instrumentalist, a natural-born seeker drawn to make music on whatever fell into his reach. In this appearance, he performs on trumpet, pocket trumpet, keyboard, melodica, flute, various percussive devices and the doussin gouni, a type of folk-harp from western Africa (particularly Mali), similar to the kora – and he also sings, sometimes using words, others in a wordless manner that nevertheless conveys great emotion and evokes wondrous images. He is joined here by three other amazing musicians – Peter Apfelbaum (piano, keyboards, tenor saxophone, flute); Bo Freeman (electric bass, percussion); and Joshua Jones (drums, percussion).

There are no compositional credits in the DVD package, but from comments made by Cherry during the performance, it’s clear that Apfelbaum wrote both ‘Walk to the mountain’ and ‘When the rain comes’; ‘Rhumba Multikulti’ and ‘Trans love airways’ are either Cherry compositions or co-compositions; and ‘Bemsha swing’ is one of Thelonious Monk’s best-known works. In the case of ‘Bemsha’, it’s enthralling to watch Cherry and his bandmates take Monk’s tune, break it down and re-set it, filtering it through their own musical personalities, much the way Monk would do when he assayed standards or even lesser-known compositions by others.

For that matter, the whole concert enthralled me – Cherry calls the shots, but everyone in the band makes meaningful and thoughtful contributions to the process, and the results are wonderful. Apfelbaum and Cherry switch between various instruments almost seamlessly, and are unselfconsciously adept at all of them. Freeman and Jones execute hard-driving funk, rhythms that approach reggae in their stagger-step beats, and passages drawn with delicate, fragile beauty – all with a natural skill and ease that belie the depths of their abilities and concentration. The introduction to ‘Bemsha swing’ is unrecognizable as a Monk melody – but as soon as familiar piano comps and later sax lines flow, the audience picks up on the tune and responds audibly, bringing a beaming smile and a nod from Cherry. Later in the tune, with Apfelbaum moving to tenor saxophone, Cherry strolls over to the piano and eases into the arrangement. And lest anyone think he’s tinkering when he addresses the keyboard, let them witness his work on this piece – if you watch carefully, you can even see him gently adopt some of Monk’s trademark splayed-fingers keyboard attack.

The sound quality is first-rate throughout – no fancy 5.1 surround sound here, just crystal-clear two-channel stereo accompanied by fine multi-camera video work. The director (Ulli Pfau) and her crew are sensitive to their subjects and the music they’re creating, much to the benefit of the home viewing audience – the camera angles and choices of view are thoughtfully chosen and very much in tune with the pieces being performed.

This is a great video for anyone who loves jazz or world music – the two meet here in respect and mutual admiration. Cherry and crew illustrate that they are cultural chefs, cooking up a stew that is built on innumerable ingredients brought together tastefully to nourish the mind, heart and spirit of the listener – and it’s easy to see that the players are having a wonderful time as well. It’s infectious. The DVD is readily available through the usual sources – Amazon, CD Universe, Mosaic, &c – at reasonable prices (easy to find new copies for under $20) – check it out.

08 July 2009

Akio Suzuki :
a journey of joyful discovery
Akio Suzuki on hillside
Sometimes sound summons the world
with more certainty than my verse…
secretly, like twilight,
the world seems lost in listening,
trying to validate itself in each solitary sound.
– Shuntaro Tanikawa

In the notes to Akio Suzuki’s 2007 release, k7 box, Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa poses a couple of questions that go to the heart of understanding and appreciating his body of work: Does Akio Suzuki create music? Or is he only making noise? To anyone who hasn’t heard Akio’s music, these might seem a little insulting – but to the artist himself, I’m sure they bring only a wry smile. Akio Suzuki is a sound artist who approaches his work as what might be termed ‘serious play’ – his methods and the pieces he creates are thoughtfully assembled, but with a sense of ‘play’ that is as natural and filled with delight as that of a child. The joy that he finds in his work – in the world, for that matter – is something tangible, and he communicates it well through his art.

There are no inorganic elements in his music – no computer-altered sounds, no synthesizers, no tape loops. What you hear when listening to one of his recordings is pure, unadulterated sound – some of it produced by instruments that are traditional in nature (such as the stone flute he uses from time to time), in other instances by ones that he has designed and created himself. At times he employs objects such as stones, toys, or the naturally occurring sounds of wind or water. He has also conceived devices that alter and target sounds, but (as far as I’m aware) without the use of electronics beyond a minimum amount of amplification. He has created installations in galleries in Japan and Europe that are as compelling visually as they are in the audio sense.

One of his original creations, the analapos, is, simply described, the audio equivalent of mirrors that are set up facing each other, thus reflecting their images an infinite number of times, combined with sound-carrying tubes. The device captures sounds and enhances and amplifies echoes – sometimes random noises that occur within the performance space, sometimes sounds that Akio produces, on instruments or otherwise. The effect is more complicated than my poor description can convey – here’s a more eloquent explanation, again from the notes to k7 box, this time from Shin Nakagawa, a professor at Osaka City University: The echo is the crucial element in Akio Suzuki’s sound. However…Suzuki’s use of echo does not involve listening to the reflection of the sound…Suzuki tries to hear the echo as it passes beyond the surfaces. Accordingly, his echoes drift through the infinite reaches of cosmic space – which is why listening to Suzuki’s music can feel like being swallowed up in boundless darkness. There are of course varying types of darkness – some inspire fear and insecurity…the darkness of Akio Suzuki’s music is (at least for me) more likely to surround the listener with a comfortable, entirely non-threatening sense of both contemplation and exploration. There is an atmosphere of solitude, of naturalness, discovery and calm, with a thread of joy / play drawn from the very act of creation running through all of it.
Akio Suzuki with De Koolmees
Akio Suzuki with De Koolmees, above and below
Akio Suzuki - LVF 04  (2004)
Another instrument that is obviously not an off-the-rack item is his De Koolmees, a sort of glass harmonica made up of glass tubes on a wire frame – he taps, rubs, touches, and (apparently, from the picture below), breathes on and / or vocalizes in close contact with the glass in order to produce sounds. Turning again to Shin Nakagawa: The coil of the analapos and the glass surfaces of his De Koolmees glass harmonica, each begins to vibrate quietly before they are touched by his fingers. He listens to that gentle vibration and, softly, he amplifies it…Suzuki is listening to sound that has eclipsed its creation. Now, Suzuki is merely present in the space where sound appears.
Akio Suzuki - Stone
Stone (1994)
The album Stone features the stone flute I mentioned above, as well as several tracks on which Akio creates sounds / music by rattling / rubbing stones together, knocking them against each other, &c. This description sounds about as un-musical as it could possibly be – but in his hands, born of his spirit and intellect and love of nature, there is a music to be found there that is as calming and reassuring as a walk down a gravel path in a Japanese garden.
Akio Suzuki - Na-gi
Na-gi (Lull in the wind) (1997)
Na-gi is a document of two sound creations recorded on a bay north of Kyoto – the sounds of the waves and the wind are heard throughout, providing the perfect setting for Suzuki’s audio art. In his own words, from the notes, Akio reveals a little of his artistic philosophy: ‘Throwing’ sounds into nature is like putting a cut flower into a vase. If one follows these sounds, one finds the original music of nature. On this disc, he utilizes De Koolmees, analapos, stone flute, voice and found stones and other objects – along with some of the naturally-occurring echoes of the cave in which it was recorded. One can hear the water dripping and waves lapping, along with the wind – it’s one of the most serene, yet stimulating things I’ve ever heard.
Akio Suzuki - Tubridge
Tubridge 99 – 00 (1999)
Tubridge is a bit different, at least in the location chosen for the performance…which of course lends its own color to the pieces. Rather than a gallery or pastoral outdoor setting, the sounds on this disc were captured in a traffic tunnel in Kyoto. It sounds like a simple concept – au contraire…see the diagram below (from the CD booklet, followed by an explanation translated from the German)…
Ako Suzuki - Tubridge diagram
The concept of Tubridge

Three flexible tubes x, y and z are installed. The sound of area O will transfer x by the tube into the area Q. The sound of area P is carried by the pipes y into the area R. The tube z connects sounds from both Q and R. If one places an ear by the tube’s opening, one hears in the area Q the three-dimensional sound of R, in the area R the three-dimensional sound of Q.

If one is completely quiet in area Q or area R, one can observe how the sounds blend themselves. The three-dimensional sounds of the two areas behave like liquid in the communicating tubes – the resulting audio conglomerate does not belong to either specific area acoustically, and one cannot differentiate between the two, or from which area either one originates.

This is however only an assumption…

But still, no artificial electronic alterations are applied – all of the effects heard in the recording are achieved by the means described above: organic sound manipulation and assembly. It’s astonishing work, and extremely effective and compelling.
Akio Suzuki + David Toop - Breath taking
Breath taking (2003)
Breath taking documents a live performance given by Suzuki in collaboration with English musician / composer / 'curator' David Toop at the sound323 space in London in 2003 – the two are credited with a wide array of ‘instruments’. Akio performs on kikkokikiriki (which I’m guessing is one of his instruments, I have no idea what it might be beyond that), small flute, small stones, pan pipe, ireba, and silent toy; David’s arsenal includes flutes, bone whistle, dog whistles, stones, whistling pot, organic materials and feedback device (the closest thing to what I would consider ‘electronics’ on any recording I’ve heard by Suzuki). The disc is presented as a single 37-minute track, and is one of the most incredible live recordings I’ve ever experienced – to capture the delicate sounds generated by these two artists and transfer them to a playable medium must have been a Herculean engineering effort.
Akio Suzuki - k7 box
k7 box (2007)
k7 box – Suzuki’s latest offering at the time of this writing, about which, he said before it was formally issued, he was ‘more excited than any other he’s released’. Three of the tracks were commissioned to be played at the opening and closing of the Yokosuka Museum of Art. The nine selections are titled according to the instrument / device used in creating them – four for the analapos, three for the De Koolmees, one that involves both of these, and one simply entitled ‘Bottle’ for reasons that become obvious when listening to it. This was the first disc of Akio’s that I held in my hands, the first into which I found myself sinking deeper and deeper with each successive hearing – and it’s one of my favorites in his catalogue. The recording quality of all these CDs is very high – the material presented practically demands it, with the dynamic range involved – but it’s especially crystalline on k7 box. Its near-one-hour playing time seems to fly by each time I hear it – I’m so completely immersed in the sounds this master artist is creating that I’m never ready for it to end. David Toop describes it this way in his notes to this recording: Human music can become tiring to our sensibilities, our overloaded memories, but somehow, these simple sounds by Akio Suzuki stay alive for me, always as new and enduring as wind in the chimney, heard when I was a child, or the woodpecker chicks I heard in their nest this morning.
For that matter, everything I’ve heard by Akio Suzuki bears repeated listening – whether the ideas and execution behind the recordings are simple (as in the case of the Stone CD and many parts of the others) or incredibly complex and carefully prepared (those presented on Tubridge), each time I hear them more seems to be revealed. Subtleties unfold, sounds previously unheard or unnoticed become clearer, moods and intuitive understanding deepen. This is amazing music. There is a calmness and serenity projected by Akio Suzuki – in his music, his art, in his writings and musings about his creations, his life and the world in general – that is rare in this age of complication. It has a grounding effect – at least on me – that is sorely needed to offset the stresses of our lives.

Check out his website below – there is information there in Japanese, English and French, with a profile and upcoming events available. The other link leads to a profile on the Resonant Spaces site, with a couple of sound samples available, so you can get a better idea of what this music sounds like than my poor words can convey. Erstwhile Records currently has Breath taking in stock – Mimaroglu Music Sales has k7 box as well as a couple of print items. At the moment, Soundohm in Italy has the most number of items available – they show k7 box, Tubridge 99 – 00, Breath taking, Na-gi, a double-CD called Odds and ends, and a museum-released book / CD combination (rather pricey, this one, at €28 plus shipping across the pond!). I’ve dealt with all of these sources in the past, and I can vouch for their integrity and reliability.

Akio Suzuki – official website

Resonant Spaces – Akio Suzuki profile

Erstwhile Records

Mimaroglu Music Sales (a sound sample here as well)


06 July 2009

Thôt, blurred
This is a great example of a band whose sound hooked me from the very first notes – Stéphane Payen’s alto saxophone introduction to ‘Toum-té’ drew my attention like an audio magnet, before the rest of the band entered into the arrangement. When the guitar, bass and drums came in, I knew I was doomed – Thôt’s music is the sort of stuff to which I find myself addicted once I’m exposed to its wonders. The music is a stunning example of a perfect blend of the exploratory urges of free jazz coupled with tight, incredibly intelligent and thoughtful scored compositions – I haven’t heard anything that mixes these elements with such skill, verve and sheer joy since the first album by Henry Cow blew my mind back in 1973. That’s not to say that Thôt’s music is derivative of HC (or of anyone, for that matter) – this is breathtakingly original stuff, full of lateral, horizontal and vertical movement. The precision with which these players execute the demands of the charts has to be heard to be believed – the tendency is to think that most of this music is improvised, but after only a bit of careful listening, it’s clear that the parts are mostly written. The inclusion of charts as pdf files on Work on axis confirms this.
Thôt (Quoi de Neuf Docteur, 2000)
The four musicians who make up the core quartet (with some very able contributions from four guests) are some of the best I’ve heard – and I had never heard of any of them before their self-titled debut disc. The interplay between the elements is amazing – Gilles Coronado’s guitar and Stéphane Payen’s alto weave a musical rope so tight in ‘Toum-té’ that it’s easy to imagine one could actually climb it. Hubert Dupont’s bass and the drums / percussion of Christophe Lavergne repeatedly perform feats far beyond the call of duty assigned to most rhythm sections – given the complexity of this music, it’s natural that they should be featured as equal partners with the sax and guitar, and they’re more than equal to the task. Coronado plays with a wide variety of tones, proving himself to be a master of his instrument – there are times when he sounds like he just stepped out of a rock band, others when the delicacy of his playing is nothing short of beautiful. There’s nothing sloppy about his work, or that of any of the participants, for that matter – there’s not a wasted or unnecessary note anywhere. Choppy counter-rhythms abound, guiding subtle shifts in tempo, punctuating passages by other members, constantly moving the music forward with confidence and a palpable sense of purpose and direction.

Gilles Coronado’s guitar begins ‘Clin d’œil (à Heptases) with an extended solo section – it sounds to me as if he’s fingerpicking while apparently holding a pick, as he combines his plucking with strumming when the drums, then the bass and sax enter the arrangement. The guitar in this tune in particular seems now and then to echo a line from the aforementioned first Henry Cow album – perhaps a small hommage…? – which is picked up in turn by the bass and the alto sax. It’s a wonderful touch, not overplayed one bit – nor does it detract an iota from the originality of the piece. ‘Enaïd’ follows, entering with a vengeance, the guitar distorted and the horns punctuating their lines like someone poking their finger into your chest as they make a conversational point. The arrangement moves through some energetic changes before settling into a quieter mood with Coronado’s guitar again playing a primary role. ‘[ΣtΣrmΣdzo] (intermezzo)’, the next track, at only 0’47 in length, is far from being mistaken for tossed-off filler – Payen’s alto line sounds as if it would be at home performed in a chamber quartet setting, with the other three members seemingly urging the mood back toward a more jazzy sound. The beginning of ‘Scabellum’ features Coronado extracting what sounds like chicken clucks from his guitar, alternating with choppy chords, then combining the two before kicking up the sustain and launching into a duet with Payen – all the while driven constantly forward by Dupont and Lavergne, operating in such tight tandem they seem to be of one mind.

I could go on and on about each and every track on Thôt – there’s not a weak tune or throwaway track in the bunch. This is one of those discs that winds up seemingly locked into my player for days at a time – I can listen to it over and over and not tire of it a bit. Music like this thrills and delights me – it’s exploratory, intelligent, acknowledging no fences or boundaries…absolutely fearless and brilliant. ‘Conversational’ might well be good word to describe this band and their work, regarding the relationships between the participants – or perhaps it’s more of a ‘dialogue’, since the scores are so tightly drawn. With all of the great playing going on here, it’s a tribute to the arrangements / compositions as well as to the spirit of cooperation and musical sharing embodied by the members that at the end of the recording, the listener is left with the firm feeling that no single member dominated the session – both albums are shining examples of some of the most truly ‘communal’ playing I’ve ever heard.
Work on axis
Thôt Agrandi – Work on axis (Quoi de Neuf Docteur, 2004)
With Work on axis, the band expands its lineup to an eleven-piece unit, with a name change to Thôt Agrandi effected to reflect the growth. The great sax player Guillaume Orti, a member of the wonderful ensemble Kartet and a guest on the first Thôt disc, is here, along with one of the finest drummers I’ve ever heard, Franck Vaillant, a member of Print (along with Thôt alto man Stéphane Payen) – and unlike almost every album I’ve ever heard featuring two drummers, the two featured here never try to outplay one another, working in artful tandem throughout the recording. An expanded wind section includes Pierre Bernard on assorted flutes, Laurent Blondiau on trumpet, Michel Massot on tuba and trombone, and Antoine Prawerman on clarinets. A second guitar is provided by Pierre Van Dormael. If this sounds like a crowded house, worry not – the arrangements are thoughtfully scored for a larger group, and the spirit of community and a shared workload are carried over from the first album with such a natural ease that it’s easy to recognize these traits as central to the Thôt ethic.

Work on axis starts off with the generically titled ‘Work 1.1’ – as much as I had enjoyed the first disc, couldn’t wait to hear the enlarged group, and I wasn’t disappointed. The staggering rhythm that begins the piece, carried by Coronado and Lavergne and punctuated by the paired drummers, leads into a section of incredible windwork, with several soloists vying for attention but never dominating one another. Can a seeming cacophony of voices be beautiful? It certainly is in this case – more wonderful musical conversations from this band. ‘Miniature 7’ is next, beginning with staccato sax and clipped guitar notes that are soon joined by longer phrases from flute and saxophone, the arrangement filled with meaningful meanderings that are simply awe-inducing. ‘Attitude’ begins with some fairly straightforward cymbal and drumwork, with some faint voicing from one of the reeds in the background and what sounds like amp static from one of the guitarists – as with any Thôt / Thôt Agrandi piece, nothing is static, with the winds joining the chart. Ideas are laid out and expressed, changes drift into the arrangement – statements are never belabored, and the piece wraps up in just over three minutes.

‘Miniature 4’ follows – and this piece is one that almost always causes me to hit the ‘repeat’ button. The melodies, colors and accents of this composition, along with the shifts in rhythm and mood, are nothing short of incredible. It begins as what sounds like a wind quartet, with the drums entering almost as background elements – tensions are built with wonderful skill as the percussive elements seemingly attempt to take over as the engine of the arrangement…which ultimately occurs, about three minutes into the track, but in a slightly different, more driving yet loosely configured pattern than earlier. Players duet in tight tandems, pair after pair, the two drummers and Dupont pushing everything along like a relentless engine. There’s even a drum duo about halfway through, illustrating once and for all, with no remaining doubt allowed, that Lavergne and Vaillant are working as a ‘team’ in the truest sense of the word – the same goes for Coronado and Van Dormael on guitars, executing some sparkling interplay. The entire group slams into the chart with its full force and power once more before the tune winds down, with elements dropping out, until the drummers have the last word with some extremely delicate cymbal taps.

Three shorter pieces follow this extended workout. ‘Work 1.2’ is a more wind-driven extrapolation of the ideas presented in the opening track, with the flute and saxophones calling out to each other over the bass and some restrained drumwork. Next is ‘Next’, appropriately enough – a subdued trombone (I think) plays over the double batterie, with accents from the other winds, before the full band swings into audio view…and swing they do, behind the more free-blowing sounds of the flute, with one of the guitars alternately comping and playing bits of melody alongside them. This track is followed by ‘Next 3’, similar in its mix of rhythms and voices, but a different tune altogether – nothing with these guys is ever repetitive unless it’s purposely intended to evoke a theme from elsewhere. ‘Work 1.3’, the album’s longest track (twenty minutes and some small change) follows – it begins with the same figure as ‘Work 1.1’, but employing a more ‘distant’ field of audio focus on the guitar and bass. The Pierre Bernard’s flute is the first featured instrument as the musicians take turns stepping to the fore – Michel Massot adds some thoughts on trombone in the background, with the other winds sweeping through periodically. As the listener should expect at this point in our journey, nothing remains the same for very long – trumpet, saxes, guitars, other brass elements, all have their say. The album draws to a close with ‘Next alternate’, at under two minutes the shortest offering – buzzing lines on the tuba accompanied by the drummers and bursts of wind accents seem to be assaying the project in retrospect, discussing everything that has occurred from first note to last. With all of Thôt’s material, the times of the tracks belie the content – it’s amazing that so many ideas are included in each one, at the same time surprising that the track is ‘already over’ when it ends. It’s a razor’s edge tightrope walk journey through these arrangements – frightening and thrilling, invigorating and draining…but always satisfying.
Thot (band)
There are so many varied elements contained in this music – Payen (who authored all of the tracks on both albums save two group efforts and one co-written with Guillaume Orti) is obviously a serious composer with immense talent. But no one should think this music is made up only of dryly intellectual exercises in theory – there’s a good deal of tangible humor to be found here, in the music itself, in some of the titles, the graphics (the cover of the first disc, an image of an empty CD tray, is great!), even in the name of the band’s label, Quoi de Neuf Docteur, which translates as ‘What’s up, Doc?’ These guys are having fun as well as exercising a deep spirit of artful creativity that seems to literally burst from every one of them. Stéphane Payen is a very busy fellow – click on the link to his website below and you’ll see what I mean. The projects with which he’s involved are numerous – Thôt, Thôt Agrandi, Print, and several others keep him well occupied. The other members of the band – and their guests – are all similarly active in assorted ensembles and as soloists. Thôt reportedly have a pair of releases scheduled for 2009 – I can’t wait to hear what they do next…

Stéphane Payen – official website
Manuel Mota :
patient improviser
Manuel Mota 002
I first heard Manuel Mota’s work through his associations with the amazing trumpet player / composer Sei Miguel – as I began to investigate the guitarist’s own material, I realized rather quickly that I had discovered something very special indeed. There are countless players out there working as experimental improvisers – many of them could be considered masters (Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Taku Sugimoto and Fred Frith come to mind…there are of course others), but few have the individualism of sound and originality of spontaneous composition exhibited by Manuel’s body of work. Instead of attempting to impress the listener with lightning-fast flurries of notes, Manuel takes his time, patiently. Unlike someone pounding and chiseling at stone in order to produce an image, he’s more like a woodcarver or an artist who moulds clay, holding his medium in his two hands, searching for the form within. As a result, his work is enveloped in a much more intimate atmosphere – the listener is left with the feeling of being witness to a private act of creation. It’s little wonder that Derek Bailey was so impressed with him.
Manuel Mota -- Sings
Sings (2008)
Manuel seems to literally coax sounds from his instrument – nothing comes across as forced. It’s like making a friend comfortable enough to reveal the thoughts being held inside. If one listens closely enough, melodies begin to make themselves known here and there – not as ‘licks’ stated in a standard manner, but as partners to the overall sound experience. The notes he plays are usually either muffled or cut off, only occasionally ringing further than their first breath – his hands fret, pluck, tap and rub both the strings and the body of the instrument, leaving no territory unexplored in the search for completion of a musical thought. He generally utilizes an electric guitar, but it’s played at an incredibly low volume level, with the minimal amplification being one more tool in the box. On half of the double-disc Outubro he uses an acoustic guitar – the tone is slightly different, naturally, but his approach seems to be similar in intention.
Manuel Mota -- Outubro
Outubro (2006)
Manuel Mota -- Leopardo
Leopardo (2002)
When I saw the title to his latest solo recording, Sings (Headlights, 2008), I had no idea how perfect a description it was. I listened to it only fleetingly for a couple of days, until I had a chance to devote some uninterrupted time to it – I must have played it through completely 3-4 times before I took it off. The music is that captivating. To the casual, ‘in passing’ listener, I can see how this music would seem to be like overhearing a guitarist warming up before a show, or practicing at home – but there’s so much more going on here than that, which anyone who gives this a thorough listening will discover. Completely freed of the constraints of playing ‘songs’ affords Manuel the freedom to gently explore musical paths and translate inner processes and ideas into sound – his constructions are like thoughts made audible, deliberately and without undue haste. Single notes, chords and clusters, strummed, bent and at times literally squeezed out of the guitar combine into a whole that is breathtaking in both originality and its own form of beauty. The results are unique among anything I’ve heard.
Curia (2007)
Balancing the quieter side of Manuel’s music, documented in his solo recordings, are his outings with other players – notably the improvising quartet Curia (Alfonse Simões, drums; David Maranha, Hammond; Manuel Mota, wah guitar; Margarida Garcia, bowed guitar) and the trio Dru (David Maranha, organ; Manuel Mota, electric guitar; Riccardo Dillon Wanke, electric piano). Curia’s music (their selftitled disc released in the US by Fire Museum, 2007), while presented with more volume than the solo discs, is not the assault on the senses that one might expect – these musicians are talented, sensitive improvisers, keenly listening to their co-players ideas as they’re laid out, responding in thoughtful musical conversation that makes the experience interesting and involving from first note to last.
Dru -- L'aiguille du dru  (2008)
L'aiguille du dru (2008)
Dru’s approach is more low-key and subtle – the musical waters here are dark and at times murky, with palpable currents carrying images into range and then out again. The guitar and organ seem to be more ‘in front’ as far as the sound picture goes, but the electric piano is more of an integral part of the mix than might be apparent at first listening – its sound seems to be altered in some way, or perhaps it’s simply being played at such a low volume level, with measured restraint and quietude. One can almost feel the music on L’aiguille du dru (Headlights, 2008) growing like a living organism. Rhythms emerge gently, accented and expanded melodically by each of the instruments in turn and in tandem – a gentle wash of sound, like dipping your hand (or head) into unknown, almost-still waters.
Rodrigues / Mota / Paiuk -- Dorsal
Dorsal (2004)
Manuel Mota -- Quartets
Quartets (2004)
He has been involved in other collaborations as well. I mentioned Sei Miguel already – there’s also Dorsal (Creative Sources, 2003), a recording with Ernesto Rodriguez (viola) and Argentine minimalist Gabriel Paiuk (piano); Quartets (Headlights, 2004), a collection of his compositions performed by Manuel (electric guitar) with Fala Mariam (alto trombone, a constant collaborator with Sei Miguel), Margarida Garcia (a Curia member, here appearing on electric upright bass) and Cèsar Burago (carillon, another Sei Miguel associate, one of the most incredibly inventive percussionists I’ve ever heard), arranged and produced by Sei Miguel. There are other solo recordings that are out of print or extremely hard to find (at least for me here in the US…I’ll keep searching) that I haven’t heard – I doubt seriously that I’ll ever find myself disappointed with anything he’s done, or with any project with which he’s associated.
Manuel Mota 001
Manuel’s releases on his Headlights imprint are available directly and he accepts payment through PayPal, a method I’ve found to be extremely convenient (link to this, as well as to other sources may be found below) – having ordered from him multiple times, I can vouch for fair prices and prompt shipping. Curia is available from Forced Exposure as well as from the US label that issued the disc, Fire Museum. Mimaroglu Music Sales carries quite a few Creative Sources titles – I got Dorsal from them, but checking just now they seem to be out of anything on which Manuel appears (hopefully a temporary thing) – I’ve included a link anyway, just to offer another avenue of exploration. Creative Sources does direct electronic ordering as well, so that’s another option – I have no experience with them, but I’m planning to place an order next payday.

For anyone even remotely interested in improvised music, Manuel’s work is something that should be experienced. His music is constantly reaching for new sound colours and methods of expression, at the same time being intrinsically ‘listenable’, with many moments of exquisite beauty…beauty of a different sort, but beauty indeed. I’ve listened to these discs countless times over the past few months, and I discover new life in them each time – there’s a freshness to them that seems unlikely to fade.

I’ll end with a video of Manuel performing solo at the Where’s the Love festival in Lisboa, May 2006, nicely shot by Nuno Moita…

05 July 2009

Akosh S. Unit
feel the fire…

Akosh S. Unit -- Vetek
Universal (France), 2003

Nap mint nap
Akosh S. Unit -- Nap mint nap
Universal (France), 2004

I love discovering music that starts out by taking me by surprise – with any or all of its qualities – and then leads me off into territory that is unknown, unexpected, challenging and (usually the case when these characteristics are found working together) rewarding. It was around three years ago that I first came across the work of Hungarian reed player Akosh Szelevényi (saxophones, metal clarinet, voice), whose creative spirit in composition, arrangement and performing I’ve come to appreciate more and more with every release. I have several recordings by Akosh – with his group, as well as with other collaborators and as a solo performer. I’ll concentrate on two here : Vetek (2003) and Nap mint nap (2004), both released under the group name, Akosh S. Unit – and both albums of staggering depth and quality.

Vetek begins with ‘Alkalom’, which leads off with a beautiful passage played on clarinet – it’s a minor-key melody with eastern European ethnic overtones (a motif appearing quite often in Akosh’s compositions). Before long, the bass clarinet joins in, adding another voice to the conversation with some lovely interplay. The soprano sax (possibly the metal clarinet) joins in, and things get a bit more…active…(a hint of what lies in store for the listener as the album progresses through its seven tracks, then beyond to later releases). The piece calms down quite a bit toward the end, echoing the mood from the beginning. ‘Mandala’, the second track, features the ney of guest musician Mokhtar Choumane, with the double-bass laying down a steady heartbeat – other winds enter, along with percussion, and the melody takes over nicely, evoking the traditional music of Akosh’s native Hungary with hints of the middle-eastern heritage that is also present in that region. The piece becomes filled with more competing instruments as it nears its end, never straying far from the mood set early on.
Akosh -- stage
For that matter, most of the pieces on Vetek don’t get too deeply into the atonal / free blowing / improv territory one has come to expect from practitioners of ‘new jazz’ – there are moments approaching cacophony here and there, but for the most part the energy level remains moderate throughout the recording. That being said, there’s little danger of a first-time listener thinking this is mainstream jazz – there’s an edge to it that’s unmistakable, and the exploratory feeling, combined with the incorporation of ethnic elements as well as some of Joe Doherty’s violin work leave little doubt that this is envelope-stretching music. The interplay between the band members is close and remarkably well-executed – even the improv-tinged solos stick close to the body of the tune. There are flashes here and there – wilder moments – that might well be read as portents of things to come, of fences broken down, of horizons widening. Throughout the album, Joe Doherty (violin, clarinet, alto saxophone), Bernard Malandain (double-bass) and Philippe Foch (drums, tabla – also a member of genre-benders Les Amants de Juliette), along with guests Mokhtar Choumane (ney) and Nicolas Guillemet (soprano and alto saxophones), fill out the arrangements wonderfully, with opportunities to solo as well as providing stellar backup to Akosh as he leads them.

Nap mint nap finds Akosh working with a completely different lineup. Gone is Joe Doherty’s violin (he departed to concentrate on composing music for the theatre) – in its place, completely changing the sound and adding its own distinctive voice to the music, is the hurdy-gurdy (sometimes identified by its French name, ville-à-rouenot an instrument usually associated with jazz) of András Vigh. The reedy sound of this mediaeval instrument sounds like some sort of portative organ at one moment, a violin or viola the next, even a bagpipe here and there, with its combination of drone and melody strings – in the context of Akosh’s music, it seems to fit perfectly. Rounding out the band on this recording are Quentin Rollet (alto saxophone), Christian Brazier (double-bass) and Gildas Etevenard (drums). For his part, Akosh adds the bombarde (a Breton reed instrument) to his arsenal of saxophones and metal clarinet. The playing on this album is even tighter than that on Vetek – and the mood, whether brought about by the compositions themselves or the presence of the hurdy-gurdy as a partner to the reeds is decidedly more forceful, both rhythmically and melodically.
Still present in the melodies are wisps and echoes of eastern European / Hungarian melodies – but there’s an almost indescribably more ‘risk-taking’ feel to most of the tracks. There are extended solos for various instruments on several tracks – whether its Akosh’s reeds or Vigh’s vielle-à-roue or some simply stunning work from Brazier and Etevenard – combined with some tight, intriguingly arranged, at times downright beautiful ensemble playing, all of which add up to a memorable, extremely satisfying recording. ‘Lât’ is a great case in point – a long reed solo open the track, finally joined by the bowed double-bass and sporadic percussive elements, with the bass taking over the melody just short of the halfway point of the piece. Brazier executes some brilliant moves here, illustrating his mastery of his instrument’s dynamics wonderfully, utilizing its full melodic range as well. As he finishes his solo with some beautiful harmonics, Etevenard’s kit comes back into play, sending sonic sparks flying, and suddenly the listener is confronted with what sounds to my ear like Vigh’s hurdy-gurdy, soon joined by one of the saxophones in a duet that becomes a trio with the entry of the other reed, with everyone joining together to bring the number to an energetic close, led by Akosh’s tenor. At almost eleven minutes, this is the longest track on the disc and gives everyone a chance to spread out. Akosh’s ending tenor line leads right into the next track, ‘Van’, and the high energy level charges right ahead.
Akosh S. Unit -- stage
Things calm down a bit as the next track, ‘Amig’, begins with a beautiful sax line – the melody is evocative of older times and far places whose names might well be forgotten, remembered now only by the music itself. A chanted / sung vocal line in the background adds to the feeling of other-worldliness, with the chords struck by Brazier on the double-bass laying a foundation of rhythm and melody that will continue throughout most of this track, echoing the opening sax line (which returns to end this piece) and resurfacing later in the disc’s closing track, ‘Akar’. In between lies ‘Tesz’, which starts off with more great tenor work from Akosh (solo for over two minutes), becoming more insistent as it develops into quite the free-blowing fest until the hurdy-gurdy returns, featured for an extended section, allowing Vigh the opportunity to show how his instrument can indeed work in a jazz context. He relies mainly on the melody strings for this part, eschewing the normal accompanying drones – it leaves the listener with the sense of hearing a mad violinist silencing a room with the power of his playing. There’s an old folktale in France about a piper saving both himself and a flock of sheep by mesmerizing a marauding wolf with his playing – after hearing this, I think a hurdy-gurdy might do the trick as well. As Akosh’s tenor acted as the bridge between ‘Lât’ and ‘Van’, so András Vigh’s cranked conveyance leads us from ‘Tesz’ to ‘Akar’, with more great work from Brazier and Etevenard and Rollet, with Akosh taking the lead again at last over the double-bass figure from ‘Amar’, and the track – and the album – wind down almost to whisper for an ending, an effect that left me literally holding my breath until I was sure they were finished.

These are powerful, moving recordings – the covers hint at the energy and spirit within, with their illustrations suggesting darkness, force and a touch of madness – but the music must be experienced beyond its packaging, beyond any expectations that might arise out of reading the credits, reaching further than any intuitive sense of what is held in the hand. Find these – put them on – turn them up. They can leave the listener breathless with their power as well as their beauty – like any soul-motivated work of art in any medium, there is a force here that is far greater than the sum of its parts, driven by the urge to touch the audience…and the world…with innovation.

Akosh Szelevényi – official website

14 June 2009

Madeinusa DVD
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
2006 / Peru / color / 103 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD from Film Movement

Madeinusa opens with a black screen bearing white script, a Spanish version of a graveyard admonition seen in various forms around the globe :
You passing, look and observe how wretched you are,
that this land imprisons us all the same.
Mortal, whoever you are, stop and read.
Consider this : I am what you will be and what you are, I have been.

The black screen gives way to live action color, and we see a young girl, Madeinusa, fourteen years old, preparing a meal, singing a hauntingly beautiful Andean folksong – those of us who have listened to a good bit of international music will recognize the melody…but the words are foreboding and prophetic :
Day and night you sing, saying ‘Oh, Mama! Oh, Papa!’
while running through hills and valleys,
Waychawcituy of the highlands, you who sings to nightfall –
perhaps your mother has left so you can be like me,
for you to be singing.
When ‘Holy Time’ comes around, I will stop and I will go –
over the hills and valleys I will run like you.
Waychawcituy, Waychawcituy, when my beloved father cries,
you will tell him not to, saying you will be back,
saying you will return…
She drops the last of the beans into the pot, and the camera closes in on her dark eyes – they are achingly beautiful, but full of secrets…and seem to be looking far, far away.
Madeinusa 09
As she is depicted going through her apparent daily routine, we see Madeinusa trailing powdered rat poison in a ring around the family’s small home – dead rats, we learn, are good luck. Her sister Chale, it’s plain to see, doesn’t seem to hold up her end of the chores. The girl’s mother has gone – it’s never explained why or exactly to where, but she believes her mother has gone to Lima. In a heartbreaking but not overplayed scene, Madeinusa looks through a box of keepsakes she has hidden away, relics of her mother – on the cover of a magazine (or perhaps a graphic novel) depicting a woman holding a child in her arms, she writes her name across the top, over the original title. The implication, made stronger as the film progresses, is that the mother was driven away by a combination of life in a poor village and the personality of her husband, the girls’ father, who is also the mayor. In an early scene, he arrives home drunk and crawls into bed between the girls, making his incestuous intentions toward Madeinusa very clear – she reminds him that ‘Holy Time is not here yet – it would be a sin…’

Holy Time, we find, is the local observation of Easter weekend – through their isolation, and combining Catholic mythology with the beliefs of their pagan ancestors, the villagers believe that after the crucifixion, god is dead until the resurrection. During the time in between, literally, anything goes – there is no such thing as ‘sin’ during Holy Time. A festival is celebrated each year, during which the people engage in all manner of debauchery that would not be tolerated otherwise – drunkenness is rampant, women choose new partners with whom to couple, thievery goes unpunished, and more. The mayor has obviously been eagerly awaiting Holy Time, in order to pursue his sexual intentions with his daughter – and from comments made by an older woman (perhaps an aunt) later in the film, it’s a practice that is not uncommon.
Madeinusa 04
An unexpected visitor from out of town – significantly named Salvador – disrupts the villagers’ anticipation of Holy Time. He is a geologist from Lima is stranded by a trucker who had given him a lift and then refused to travel any further. Generally untrusting of outsiders in the best of times, the townsfolk are insistent on the man being locked up for the duration of the festival, lest he interfere with their customs. The mayor puts the young man under lock and key at his home, explaining to him that ‘…it’s for your own safety’. Madeinusa is instantly intrigued by the stranger – and he is pretty obviously smitten by the innocent beauty of the young girl. She immediately sees him as her way out of the stagnant life of the village, and plots to leave with him when his ride returns after the weekend.
Madeinusa 01
One of the annual customs played out during the Holy Time festival is a contest to choose the prettiest virgin from the town’s young girls – Chale, who is evidently older than Madeinusa, should get the prize by rights, but she knows that her younger sister is their father’s favorite, and expects her to win the contest. It is very apparent from early in the film that Chale is very jealous of Madeinusa receiving the bulk of their father’s attentions – even his incestuous ones, which normally would be shunned.
Madeinusa 07
At 3pm on Good Friday, the hour at which Christ is supposed to have died on the cross, the villagers have gathered in the tiny church – a life-sized crucifix is at the center of the altar, and at the appointed time, the head of Christ droops, signifying his death. The figure is taken down from the cross and placed in a glass coffin. The designated virgin, Madeinusa, kisses him and gently places a white cloth blindfold across his eyes – the festival has begun. The blind Christ is paraded through the streets, and the liquor begins to flow. Meanwhile, Salvador has broken out of his makeshift jail cell – not too difficult a task, actually – and is observing the festivities. During a rendezvous with Madeinusa, she exacts a promise from him to take her away…and we see that the armor of her ‘knight’ is not as shining as she (or the viewer) had imagined.
Madeinusa 05
The isolation under which the people live not only keeps them from being educated and knowledgeable about the world, it has engendered twists in a belief system imposed on them from colonial times that have led to an almost complete moral breakdown…although of course, they don’t see it as such. As the film works its way to its climax, betrayal, selfishness and violence rear their heads – and perhaps Madeinusa is not as innocent as we first thought. The circle winds up completed, its ends joined...but not at all as expected.

The film is beautifully photographed and framed – the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, forests, lakes and meadows stand in stark contrast to the drab lives of poverty and ignorance led by the people of the town. It’s amazing to know that this is Claudia Llosa’s first film – the skills she demonstrates here portend great things from her. Most of the actors are non-professionals – the exceptions are Ubaldo Huaman (Cayo, the girls’ father and mayor of the town) and Carlos De La Torre (Salvador) – the naturalness with which they address their roles is refreshing and very believable, giving a deeper life to the entire film. Llosa’s script – and her direction – remain sensitive to the humanity of her characters, avoiding direct judgment or looking down on them. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism and the imposition of a foreign belief system, even centuries ago, has left emotional, psychological and cultural scars that remain – and the similarity between ‘Madeinusa’ (an actual name that is popular for girls in the region) and ‘Made in USA’ is openly acknowledged in a scene where the young girl, released from a mutual embrace with Salvador, says, ‘My name is on your shirt’, having read it on the label at the back of his neck.

This is a film that will evoke strong emotions, no doubt – the incestuous father will awaken anger and discomfort in many, and could be triggering for those who have been unfortunate enough to be the recipient of such ‘attentions’ – but the story is a touching one in many ways, beautifully filmed, with lessons and insights to be gained by thoughtful viewers. Overall, it’s a beautiful, moving experience – pass it up at your peril. The film should be readily available for rental or purchase – I’ve included a link to the Film Movement site below as well…they have a number of fine offerings there.

Here’s a trailer…

Film Movement website