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