13 April



Lao Dan — Functioning Anomie (2018, WV Sorcerer Productions)


For many a listener hailing from Western Europe or North America, China is not the first nation to spring to mind as a hotbed of improvised and experimental music(s) (this fact is astutely gibed in the title of New Zealand label End of the Alphabet’s superlative compilation containing Chinese artists, There is No Music from China). Enter Lao Dan, alto saxophonist from Nanjing.

Lao’s forthcoming solo debut cassette on Chinese/French label WV Sorcerer Productions, Functioning Anomie, is a work that showcases the many sides of a skilled altoist. Lao’s timbre, though at times unrepentantly caustic – recalling the coarseness of Mats Gustafsson or Peter Brötzmann – also manages to reflect inward: a musical ellipsis that resignedly undulates into an evanescent question mark, that starts to disappear as soon as it is penned. Whilst capable of all the freewheeling charivari of both the aforementioned Gustafsson and Brötzmann, Lao possess a flowing, seductive side that eludes the former players, even in their most restrained moments.

One of the most fascinating elements of Lao’s debut is that the listener can hear the artist’s curiosity and fascination with the sound of his instrument in space. On both sides of the tape, one audibly discerns Lao’s acute understanding of the environment’s effect on the produced work. The result is an interesting exploration of timbre, tone, and dynamics, all of which are captured far from the sterile environment of the studio (and so often the theatre or club). Recorded in Hangzhou’s Qinglongdong Tunnel, the extraneous sounds and cavernous reverberation do not merely serve as a layer of “field-recordings” or texture in the mix, but rather help the space assume the role of actant-cum-phantom instrument.

“Riou,” the opening track on side-B, is perhaps most illustrative of Lao’s range and prowess. The first third of the tune spectrally glides from dusty blues into melancholy ballad, before Lao hums into his mouthpiece, signaling a brisk departure into new territory. For the remaining ten minutes, Lao blasts rollicking sonic sidewinders that at numerous points threaten to blast holes in the listener’s headphones from the sheer intensity (a feeling underscored by the artist’s subdued screams in the closing minute). The closer, “Doppelganger & Immateriality,” features prominent use of sultry flute lines, which makes for a heady, meditative closer on a fantastic solo debut.

Fans of darker, more abrasive strains of free jazz would be wise to check out this release, out April 30, 2018.

31 August


Fire! and Oren Ambarchi — In The Mouth – a Hand (2012, Rune Grammofon)



Don’t yell it in a movie theatre, but Fire! (Mats Gustafsson, saxophones/Fender Rhodes and live electronics; Johan Berthling, bass/guitar/ organ; Andreas Werliin drums and percussion) are a heady and paroxysmal ensemble, whose 2012 release featuring Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – a Hand, is archetype of what contemporary psychedelia should be. At times reminiscent of Mats Gustafsson’s work with Italian experimental rockers Zu, this quartet effectively bridges the gaps between contemporary improvised music(s), the free jazz of the 1960s and 1970s, and the pulsing hypno-psychedlia of the MC5 in their most incendiary moments or early counterculture kosmische. Throughout the record, moody bass grooves, taken straight out of UFO’s Guru playbook combine with hypnotic, in-the-pocket drumming, flowing strokes of guitar feedback, and Rhodes keyboard fragments to create works that are immersive, immense, and generally relentless. The psych-rock of yesteryear always remained firmly moored within the idiom of rock music, but this quartet have no inclination to do so. They are content to use the tools and motifs of 1960s psychedelia, but use them instead to traverse a landscape more consistent with Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders’ frenetic playing on Om than with the insipid neo-psych drivel in the contemporary rock zeitgeist.


4 July

Paul Flaherty — Aria Nativa (2008, Family Vineyard)



Not as thick or throaty as Peter Brötzmann and not as course or orotund as Mats Gustafsson, Paul Flaherty is just as spirited and verbose in his playing. With a timbre that is nasally and brisk, but at times utterly soulful, Flaherty will definitely appeal to most fans of the iconic Ornette Coleman. The opening trills of “Woman in the Polka-Dot Dress” give way to Flaherty’s nasally almost whistle like shards of sound. “Weren’t There Two of Them” opens with a violin like chords and changes direction into a claustrophobic fit of skronky, buzzy playing that at times sounds is mistakable for human screams. Flaherty’s rollercoaster whirlwind mellows and hardens — expect sharps turns, kettle whistles, and even some more relaxed melodic bars interspersed. The digital release of this album closes with Ken Delpointe reading his political poem “No More America.” The poem graces the back jacket of the LP, both providing the songs with their names and in essence, frames Flaherty’s music. It’s unfortunate that the reading of this powerful poem is excluded from the physical version of the record, but this may have been necessary given time/space constraints of physical media. While it doesn’t in anyway detract from Paul Flaherty’s playing, the closing statement that is the poem provides the listener with an entirely new reflection and understanding of Flaherty’s point of origin. A good solo record by Flaherty, however, the digital version with DelPonte’s poem, should be favored over the LP.

20 June


Chippendale/Gustafsson/Pupillo— Melt (2014, Trost)


For five minutes, the kids resolutely try to pry open a can of apoplectic bees. At some point, with the flick of wrist and roll over the trap set, Rhode Island’s Keith Moon, Brian Chippendale, pries the lid off and all hell breaks loose. Drums go all Indiana Jones running from a boulder in Temple of Doom. Massimo Pupillo’s (Zu) bass explodes in the open air while Mats Gustafsson’s keeps the sax sheathed, instead opting to season the dish to taste with a liberal twist of electronics. Admittedly Melt, for all its promise, at times disappoints. Chippendale seems to be a major driver within this particular ensemble resulting in a group which sounds like less muscular Lightning Bolt, which is curious given the trio’s numerical superiority. On top of that, Gustafsson’s harsh riffing is conspicuously absent and instead traded for electronics for the bulk of the record. Those times when the Swede shifts from knob twiddler to valve tickler are some of the albums most interesting and confrontational moments. For all of its disappointing elements, Melt is like a ride on a haunted merry-go-round. The horses snort sulfur, the carnival’s amiable atmosphere falls away, and a surreal hell starts to impose itself onto your psyche. When you finally get through your hail marys and muster the courage to dive off into the abyss, you awaken from a long (the two longest tracks are 32 and 46 minutes, respectively) strange dream. You come to feeling like you’ve just encountered a slurring drunk who is insistent on describing a Jodorowsky film he saw once when he was stoned —and he’s leaving out the good parts. The remnants of banal anecdotes about someone seeing Metallica as a teenager still echo in your head. Melt, despite a fairly reputable line-up, leaves a lot to be desired.


18 June


Mats Gustafsson and Craig Taborn – Ljubljana (2017, Clean Feed Records)

Listen [first track, youtube stream]


This live meeting between Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and American pianist Craig Taborn at the 2015 Slovenia Jazz Festival is both brooding and frantic, yet remains a transcendent affair. The opening scrapes on the piano’s inner workings on “The Eyes Moving. Slowly,” quickly give way to some coarse and droning lines by Gustafsson which more closely resemble an oscillator on an old synthesizer than a reed instrument. Taborn dives into the fray and the two riff on one another, strangling the chords and notes as they escape from their respective instruments. Around the 3:30 mark, Taborn’s piano playing begins to take off; shortly thereafter, the piano goes into full flight with Debussy-esque lines, tethered to earth only by Gustafsson’s pleading, vibrato-laden bursts. The duo dip on the Geiger counter as Gustafsson’s unrelenting playing, well, relents. Tabor’s melodies flirt with the upper-reaches of the stratosphere, before Icarus’ wings burn up in the sun’s shafts of light and the tattered, windblown remnants coast back down to Terra Firma and humbly rake across the stage, back in the Slovene capital. Cecil Taylor would be triple e eee-lated at what happens next: the duo emulate a mouse running through a maze, seeking some savory fromage on the other side, with their instruments in a wholly Taylor-esque manner. Brusque and feverish as it may be, one still gets the impression that humor and joy underpin the duo’s gritty machinations. The second piece, “The Ears Facing the Fantasies. Again.” is far less interesting than the opener. The number begins with tentative piano stabs before Gustafsson sputters and squeaks to life, yelping out in between. Jarring at first, one cannot help but admire the Swede’s rhythmic scrupulousness. Gustafsson’s rough and tumble playing is nothing less than what one acquainted with his work would expect; his boorish tone and tempestuous approach perhaps make him an obvious heir to Peter Brötzmann, but alongside Taborn’s show stealing chops, Gustafasson’s playing feels a bit tedious. In all, the duo’s playing makes for an interesting —though certainly not quintessential— listen.