Sunday, September 26, 2010

The interested viewer who knows anything at all about Gerhard Richter, that is, who has read his writings or interviews with him, is faced with something of a quandary upon entering an exhibition of his, especially one devoted to his drawings. There's currently one such at The Drawing Center in Soho, comprising about 50 works, mostly in graphite but also several watercolors and pen drawings.

Richter disdains drawing and all the adjectives piled on it since time immemorial: graceful, textured, felicitous, delightful and such. He resents and questions its relationship to art. He inserts a pencil into a drill bit in 1966 so as to eliminate human control over the marks that result. He scribbles and he copies photographs exactly, in the same month, attempting to negate the difference between them, to obviate any notion of beauty.

And yet.

One looks at these drawings and the overwhelming thing, the words that reverberate in one's skull are: This guy can fucking draw! No matter what he does, this extraordinary visual sense wins out, breaking past any barriers he attempts to place in its way. These drawings simply look stunningly beautiful.

There are 15-20 small graphite drawings done around 1999, about 8 x 10 inches, that one can't help but view as abstract landscapes or cityscapes (goodness knows Richter's done many a landscape in his realist persona) and to a one, they're amazing, could be looked at for hours. The variation in tone, the distribution of ultra-dark dots, often evoking musical scores, smudged grays, spidery lines and frequent use of erasures is just dazzling and extremely sensuous. They're all (I believe) horizontal, and often possess something of a horizon line, so that one sees essences of clouds, streetlights, grime, buildings, headlight halos etc., but in a kind of dream state, fractured, deflated or inflated, vaporized.

The four large drawings done in 2005, one of which is reproduced above, have a quasi-similar vertical structure, a very architectural feel, but also a vast amount of freedom, a strong sense that Richter felt free to introduce any element, any technique, that the underpinning was rigorous enough to support most anything. (More than once, contrary to, *ahem*, certain IHM posters, I felt a decided kinship to aspects of eai)

The watercolors are also fascinating, apparently created via the flow of thickly imbued water over smooth paper. He manages to keep things from muddying (no mean trick, that), resulting in a dense overlay of colors, almost foliage-like in effect.

But one keeps coming back to the drawings, reveling in the immense wealth of detail and the relationships between forms. There's an enormous amount going on in each; one stands there for 15 minutes looking at a single example and just sees more and more. So rich.

Perhaps the weight of art history simply overwhelms Richter, casting aside his objections, forcing his wonderful eye to the fore. No complaints from this observer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Christian Wolfarth - Acoustic Percussion vol. 3 (hidden bell)

The third in a series of four 7" vinyls (white, this time); two tracks, each almost seven minutes long. "Crystal Alien" involves a pair of cymbals bowed simultaneously, essentially generating both a high and low drone, though each has its own richness and throbs at a different rate, resulting in a very engrossing weave. It's "one thing", just sits there and pulses, but does so enchantingly. The second, "Amber", retains the bowed cymbals, adding styropor (the same, more or less, as Styrofoam, I think) rubbed on a snare, providing another layer though I found I slightly preferred the former, liking the kind of purity achieved.

Good recording, in any case. If you've been following Wolfarth's journey thus far, you'll want this one.

Wolfarth's site

Kassel Jaeger - lignes d'erre & randons (unfathomless)

A more jaded listener than I might be getting a wee bit tired of processed field recordings as such, but I have to say my ears are still open. I try to think of them just as one daily absorbs visual information--that walk to the subway is the same each day, but wildly different and fascinating as well. Which isn't to say that all recordings like this tweak my pleasure center--they don't--but I've yet to be put off by the prospect of listening to yet another.

Jaeger recorded at various locations in Europe: Berlin, Köln, Paris, the French countryside. Near rivers, amongst pipes, betwixt insects. Takes these captures home and assembles mutant creatures. The sounds themselves are rich and lovely, often eerie in the sense of being just on the other side of recognizability. One can easily lie back and bask in them, allowing them to flow and gently, sometimes urgently, tickle one's dermis. Listened to more closely, in search of some kind of interesting structure or ideas apart from the sound, I don't get as much. Which concern may be entirely beside the point for Jaeger, all well and good except that it will make this particular release difficult to distinguish, in years to come, from others in its general field. Not an awful thing--and the disc certainly has its enjoyable qualities--but not so noteworthy either.


I spent yesterday in Cold Spring, NY, a quaint (in danger of becoming too quaint, but as of now still quietly charming) village on the Hudson, some 60 miles north of NYC. Walked a couple of miles further north of town on Route 9D, discovering Little Stony Point Park in the process, new to me, a set of trails occupying a promontory jutting out into the river, with dense, wonderful forest and rough, imposing cliffs. Settled down on a rocky bank, sifting through the ground debris, finding old iron slugs (Cold Spring was the center of artillery construction during the Civil War. The cannons were test-fired across the river, into the flank of Storm King Mountain--the highest point on the Hudson--denuding its face,resulting in the wonderful, craggy visage one sees today. Every so often, they still find unexploded ordinance up there, closing the trails), drawing, reading (Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"--great, so far), looking at and listening to the Hudson.

Eventually back into town, hooking up with Linda (who had decided to come along, spending the day reading by the river), having a fine dinner at Le Bouchon (veal ravioli and blood sausage for me--highly recommended based on this single visit) and then ambling over to the Chapel of Our Lady Restoration, a fine structure perched atop a bank overlooking the river, for a concert by Trio X (Joe McPhee, Dominic Duval, Jay Rosen), which had been organized by recently transplanted Jersey City denizen, James Keepnews.

Longtime readers will be aware that my knowledge of Joe's music goes further back, I daresay, than most, having first heard him in 1971 at Poughkeepsie High School, of all places (as it happened, the day before he recorded his WBAI album), meeting him via Alton Pickens in 1975, arranging for his first NYC concert at Environ in 1977, etc. I try to see him every two or three years, though I think it had been longer than that this time--the last occasion, I believe, was with The Thing at Stone.

I guess I've scene Trio X as such once before, maybe more. There was a show at Merkin Hall a long while back, a suite dedicated to Pickens that Joe had written. In any case, I'm not at all sure of their normal approach. Here, as I'm guessing that a good portion of the audience (which numbered about 60, filling the small chapel) were locals who hadn't a clue about Joe's music or post-Coltrane jazz in general, they may have modified and softened their performance (I talked with Joe beforehand but didn't get a chance to afterward, so I could be wrong). In any case, it consisted entirely of standards and Joe took pains to explain to the crowd about the history of radical revisions of same. So they went through "medleys" of 'The Man I Love', 'God Bless the Child', several Monk pieces, a calypso (Rollins?) and closed with 'My Funny Valentine'.

Now, clearly, this concept is not my current flavor of choice and I can't say I was entirely able to suspend that segment of my consciousness which was screaming out, "Why bother?!?" But I did try very hard to sit back and enjoy it for what it was and, doing so, found several very beautiful aspects. First of all, obviously, Joe is an extraordinary musician. He played soprano, tenor and fluegelhorn this evening, all of them beautifully and soulfully. I've probably only heard Duval live a half dozen times or so (including with Cecil) but each time I do, I'm reminded that he's got to be one of the pre-eminent bassists in jazz, someone who doesn't get talked about nearly enough. He was quietly spectacular last night. Rosen is OK though really not my cup of tea, especially in this context. Joe's sound is so rich and Duval's so clean that, in a trio format, I want to hear a "wetter" drummer, someone in the Phillip Wilson mode.

Some highlights: Duval began the set with what I swear was Richard Davis' opening bass line from Leroy Jenkins' "Muhal" as played by the Creative Construction Company, but perhaps I was hallucinating. In any case, it was lovely. Interestingly, while Joe kept things reasonably straight for the most part in terms of horn-attack, the one time he seriously ventured out into breath and quiet squeak territory, on "'Round Midnight", it was stunning and moving. At his best, he brings a true and harsh emotional quality to his music that most others in the field can only dream of. That they played the piece was interesting to me--when I first met Joe, at Pickens' apartment in '75, he played a tape for me, a solo soprano version of the song in which, as I heard it, he played around the melody, using acoustic negative space to somehow clearly imply it without ever touching on it. The other notable moment was at the very end, during "My Funny Valentine", Joe (on soprano) facing Duval (arco) and engaging in a heartrendingly gorgeous dialogue, a wonderful elaboration of the theme, soft and intense.

It was encouraging to have those moments. All of the rest was fine, well-played if not so different than one might have heard 30 years ago. The crowd was enthusiastic (Linda enjoyed it as well, given its relative straightforwardness and melodic content) but I'd love to have heard the trio take it further along the paths indicated by the above moments. Perhaps they do elsewhere.

I should mention that, at 71, Joe looks ridiculously well and fit, a joy to see that as well.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chip Shop Music - You can shop around but you won't find any cheaper (Homefront Recordings)

There's a discussion going on at IHM currently on the state of improvisation which I inevitably thought of while listening to this release. Much of the focus is on "newness", also inevitable, and whether or not eai has reached a kind of dead end, if it's merely in temporary doldrums or if, indeed, there's any problem at all. I enjoy newness as much as the next geek and I'd allow that my real favorite music of the last 10-15 years has included that as a component (the oft-mentioned "motubachii" from this year is an excellent example) but it's also by no means a sine qua non for me. Richness, fluency of conversation, humor, solidity of conception, sonic depth, positioning of sounds in a complex environment--all these things and more can turn the trick for me, and this disc has them in abundance.

Erik Carlson, Martin Küchen, David Lacey and Paul Vogel don't redefine the territory of contemporary improvisation but they inhabit it thoughtfully and vibrantly. One salient characteristic here, as opposed to much in the field, is that the sounds are pretty much non-stop and always multi-plied; guessing, I'd say that at least three musicians are present at all times and playing at moderate volume. No stretches of silence or ppp. There's also the use, sporadic but often, of rhythmic kernels, sometimes thick taps, later on of a bell-like nature, that serve as knobby vertebrae on which to drape all the squeaks, rattles and scrapes. Within this, though, there's an overall semi-consistent texture. The specifics vary quite a bit and never sound forced; you get the impression that the quartet has a vast well of approaches yet feels no urgency to flit from one to another but will calmly (but intensely) dwell in one area for a while, knowing they have years to go to investigate others.

The struck metal, low pulses and high, keening sounds that occupy the second track, "the Great War", impart a somewhat ritualistic feel. If one were to quibble, I suppose the ringing metal might be thought of as too appeasing, too overtly beautiful, a convenient earhold allowing sanctuary from the other, rawer sounds. While I could understand that criticism, it bothers me not at all here, no more than the aforementioned parcels of rhythm. In portions of the final cut, "An Uncast Wind", those rhythms are more upfront, but they ebb and flow naturally enough to feel like welcome breezes, entirely natural. Special mention might be made of Küchen's contributions here: his saxophone, both breathed into and otherwise manipulated, blends in perfectly, supplying a ton of color.

Groundbreaking? Not so much, but I don't care. It's an absolutely solid release, every moment evincing intelligence and imagination. I could easily have listened to another 50 minutes, and more, of the same. Wonderful music, check it out.

available from erstdist

Monday, September 06, 2010

Well, this particular stretch of vinyl is hitting on some seminal items for me. First "'Coon Bid'ness", then Hendrix, now "Conference of the Birds" (I skipped over Andrew Hill and Billie Holiday, not thinking I could write anything remotely interesting about either, as much as I enjoy them)

But this was quite a revelatory release for me, I guess from the Spring of '73. It was recorded on November 30, 1972 and, even had I been far more aware of what was occurring in avant jazz at the time, I imagine this would still have come as something of a shocker. Holland, already coming from the entirely unreasonable dual association with Miles and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, forged a rather unique melding of the avant garde with some hard driving tunes (along with other, freer investigations, of equal merit to me). I believe there was a five star review in downbeat when CotB arrived that made these points, doubtless spurring my purchase.

It was the first time I'd heard Braxton or Rivers, a fact that immediately sent me off finding everything I could by those two. A great pairing, two very different sounds, the former smooth and sinuous even when a-roar, the latter all grit, spittle and impending hoarseness. But more than that, it's Holland's compositions and the balance with which they're arrayed here that still resonate powerfully. Three of the pieces are post-boppish, each with exciting heads; the two freer works are marvelously knotty, especially "Q&A" with its wonderful resolution, unexpectedly on first hearing, to a delightful theme; and then the title track which is the unique piece, the sublimely gorgeous, folk-like melody, the exceedingly delicate interplay of Rivers and Braxton on flute and soprano and, more than anything, Holland's incredibly song-like work beneath and between. Concentrate on his lines sometime--utterly beautiful and free.

I posted the cover photo on facebook earlier today and received a few comments referring to this album as "perfect" and "flawless". Within the parameters of new jazz in the early 70s, I do think this is about as close as you get in some respects. I may love "Les Stances a Sophie" more, but as an entirety, "Conference of the Birds" is extraordinary--everything about it works, it remains exciting, the beauty hasn't faded. It probably goes without saying that, for my money, Holland as leader never again came close to this.

But I say that for a good many releases from this period...still not quite sure if that's nostalgia talking or if it's at least semi-objective. But, for instance, did Sam Rivers ever put to wax anything more impressive than "Streams" (1973)? Not to these ears. Braxton is at least a partial exception--I haven't kept up for a good while, but I know, for instance, that parts of "Willisau (1991)" are as strong as anything I've heard from him. But for so many, that late 60s-early 70s period strikes me as bearing unexpectedly and uniquely luscious fruit.

I have Holland's solo cello LP, "Life Cycles" (1983) a well and gave it a spin earlier. Quite lovely, really, also holding up well. Should get more mention than it does. When he indulges in his more romantic and folkish side, there's often great beauty to be heard.

The only other vinyl here with Holland as leader is his first quintet album for ECM, also from 1983, "Jumpin' In", with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester and a youthful Steve Coleman. I suppose it's fine (and I bought three or four more of this incarnation on disc in subsequent years) but it's tough for me to listen to now, too routine, too much a kind of avant answer to Wynton and that crowd, "Look--we avant guys can swing too!" Too bad.