Posts Tagged ensemble

The Inner poetics of Tord Gustavsen

Coming out of the shower a bunch of components, nothing exotic but combined in a ratio that would be impossible to intentionally replicate, created an ambient perfume. It called forth not specific memories but more an emotional abstract which was familiar. The futility of memories, smoke that briefly takes on the shape of something else, blowing back apart as one tries to hold it in their hands. This is yesterday’s tomorrows, now already spent up.

The city of light, she was everything to me and too soon I would once again be temporarily leaving her. Perhaps that was one of the reasons for my unending desire to always return; I never got to gorge myself to the extent that I thought that I was capable.

Once I was down to a day or two before leaving I could not sit still as my body was caught up in contrary motions, not wanting to leave but also with an encroaching time of departure looming, wishing I could just get it over with. I had been invited over to Margeaux’s for a last dinner. Under the best conditions I was a finicky eater with home cooked meals made by others and that was not taking into account my current nerves. I actually liked cooking as I found it meditative but I did not want to offer up that idea as I was trying to use up what was left in the refrigerator and a dinner guest would mean more food shopping. The logistics of the whole thing was beginning to feel an inconvenience to me, especially as when not taking my final turn as a flâneur, all I wanted to do was sit around in my bathrobe eating eggs and listening to some Jelly Roll Morton while devouring every inch of my arrondissement with my eyes as to have total recall of even the smallest brick when away from it all. I tried to beg off, offering up vague promises of a drink somewhere.

Knowing   the way I operated she insisted that we meet for dinner as otherwise she could miss me until my eventual return or find me surrounded by too many other well-wishers at one of my favorite watering holes. What could I say?

She liked to wear the little hat that she had bought in Italy with the dark green veil as she felt this gave her the gift of prophecy. Too late to warn Icarus to change his flight she headed to Saint Michelle, bringing her smaller pocketbook since she need only carry her keys and some money for drinks.

I had grumbled to myself all day about our dinner date but on the way there, the lights spilling out into the streets, the plaques which I now knew so well, each denoting which artist had lived in a building, worked to remind me of how wonderful even the commonplace in this city is. Aside from the obvious of one last long walk all around the neighborhoods that go from mine down to the Seine I now wanted an act of communion and valentine with the city. The only solution was to order everything on the menu and hope that she saw the sensuality of it. We talked and ate, one act spurring the other on. I helped her on with her jacket, she turned around and held me in an embrace as we kissed goodbye. There was now an undertone of the gastronomic in her perfume. Of course we would write or at the very least mean to.

I take my walk. I pass a small bar, it is crowded but I feel compelled to go in. Once inside there is just enough room to blink. At the far end of the room is a kid standing on a spot of floor playing an alto saxophone. He is accompanied by an upright bassists who must dip his instrument like a tango partner anytime someone needing to use the restroom or the waitress goes by.

They are young but play with feeling and a clear understanding of the bop genre. All the people crowded into the place generate a heat yet there is none of that rude aggression as can be found in such situations elsewhere. The front of the bar has two sort of bay window alcoves that normally house small café tables which had earlier been moved to the side of the bar to serve as a staging area for the dirty glasses accumulating. These empty alcoves allowed more people to come in and stand in the tables spot. I stay for a few songs, Bud Powell and Bird. I could not have left even if I had wanted to as there was a score of people now behind be. All the heat and bodies, the windows begin to bulge outwards a ship catching the wind and about to set sail. More people come in; one girl by the door thinks she sees some friends ahead and to the left of me. As the people try to part to make way for her I swim towards the door before the small tributary closes.

The cool air revives me. Tendrils of music make their way out onto the street, lingering over the crowd smoking by the door waiting their chance to squeeze in. I begin one of my last walks back, taking the long way that brings me by one of the edges of the Luxembourg Gardens. I know I will not be around for it but I stop to look at the concert schedule for Le Petite Journal anyways. It is mostly Dixieland bordering on hot, jazz.

The small program taped to the door gets me to thinking. From what F. Scott Fitzgerald tapped his toes to, all the way into the late 70’s fusion which some wish had never happened, jazz in all its incarnations is alive and well in Paris. A few blocks away were the kids listening to bop who tomorrow may be here listening to some Bechet or over in Montmartre to dance music under the flashing neon in a club. Of course distinctions are made between the myriad of genres but the fans here seem to have more open ears, not limiting their listening habits to any one specific style.

The musical choices available and the dichotomy of people’s listening habits here get me to thinking. When writing about jazz, just as a point of reference labels must be attached to a work/musician. As practical as this practice is, there is a certain level of stagnation about it as once something is labeled, the verbiage creates a specific set of expectations and artistic limitations.

Musically there are some interesting things going on stateside which one could call underground, not necessarily because of musical obscurity but from lack of interest or promotion by major labels and more importantly, the availability (exposure) to the more casual listeners who do not often seek out what is not right in front of them.

The term mainstream now carries a pejorative connotation as it conjures up all things plebian, fare for the lowest common denominator not in the know. Founded in 1969 by Manfred Eicher, the label ECM has always had a roster of artists whose work not only straddles genre boundaries but often ignores them. ECM is mainstream not for lacking substance in what they offer but in that works on the label are readily available almost anywhere. The music and the distinguished cover art often receive awards worldwide. Talent aside, part of the labels success is in the diversity of work offered up which renders irrelevant the question and the importance of asking “is it jazz”. Much of what is on the label could comfortably be considered world or modern classical.

Extended Circle is the new offering from the Tord Gustavsen Quartet. Often if an album is not comprised of standards or covers, I like to listen to it the first time without having read the liner notes. A measure of artistic success is if one listens to a work and the emotions and inner visions experienced while listening match up to the artist’s intent. Extended Circle is a programmatic work which incorporates aspects of Scandinavian folk art, gospel and choral works. Immediately even when the source material of folk songs such as the traditional Norwegian song “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg” is transmuted into Tord’s own vernacular the overall sense of emotional unity for the album comes clearly through.

“Right There” is a personal favorite. Stripped of any mysticism, déjà vu is said to be the recognition of an emotional response one has had before, usually triggered on subconscious level by stimulus of a similar nature to the original thought or reaction. There is something vaguely familiar about the chord progression and the lyrical way in which the music quietly undulates. This could be some of the components of source material which Tord drew from, many choral and spiritual pieces sharing at least some sonic commonalities. There is a sense of tension achieved in how the music builds organically and slowly akin to the sun starting a new day. There is a lyricism prevalent throughout the entire album and of which this song perhaps is the most indicative of.

The piece begins with the piano gently stating the theme but not so delicate as to make it ever lapse into muted abstractions. It is bolstered by the pulse of brushed drums which serve to underscore the melody. The introduction of the double bass which plays the theme but not the exact melody in sync with the piano is akin to a dialogue between the two. Not so much as duet but as two people talking about the same thing as they comment on different aspects of it. The song ends on an ethereal note with the fading out of the final ringing notes of the piano.

The album is all original songs predominantly written by Tord with the exceptions being   “Entrance” and its variation which was a collective effort, “Bass Transition” by bassist Mats Eilersten and the previously mentioned “Eg Veit..” which is a traditional song , here arranged by Tords. As always with any ECM release, the sound is pristine.

“Silent Space” with its soft (solo) tinkling piano has a contemplative spirituality. With its circular pattern, it feels a reflection about what one may occasionally muse upon, the soul and that which feeds and inspires it, which are forever locked into a similar circular pattern of give and take. This piece really shows off the richness of the production. The fullness of sound achieved by the lone piano is timeless not in regards to the era it belongs to but in the space it occupies from a clock’s point of view.

“The Prodigal Song” has a similar cadence to the first piece, both nicely bookending the album to further an overall suite like feel to the songs. There is an encompassing spiritual aspect to this album whose power is non dogmatic, the importance being not on a specific place or recitation of words but one of contemplation. Spirituality, different for us all but arising from the commonalty within each of us, to let our thoughts wander to the infinite.

Musically, there is no longer any wars, one need not take sides, bop versus the moldy figs or the free jazz(ers). No longer do any musical adherents of a specific genre care if one strays in their listening habits. This combined with the far easier availability of diverse and obscure works via the internet should free everybody up to explore. Load up your MP3 player or tablet with unknown works and become sonic Magellan.

The morning of my departure, instead of the gentle singing of the bird in my window box which I had grown accustomed to and which along with the sound of the bakeries grates sliding up served to herald the start of a new day, there was a crow perched atop the utmost corner of a building screaming at the dawn. A pagan ritual for leaving to replace that of the daily start.

Maxwell Chandler


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Moscow Does Not Believe in Monkeys: Karl 2000

The record playing era is, aside from a sub culture of aficionados, largely over. The mainstream & casual listener now mostly purchases their music via digital downloads. This trend is also making extinct two interconnected aspects of what often made a great record even better, the art of the album cover and that of the liner notes. Of course there is still some image, usually in thumbnail, of the album cover when purchasing a download but it is not the same as having one of those old Blue Note Francis Wolf cardboard sleeves in hand. There was that tactile pleasure to it, a similar phenomenon as with the actual browsing without purpose in a record shop, which is how I have made some of my favorite artist discoveries. One can buy some obscure albums digitally but you must know in advance what you are looking for.  There is none of that magic of happenstance in coming upon a previously unknown gem. As for liner notes…some labels will digitally include them but it seems only the truly geeky, such as myself will bother with the extra mouse clicks to read them and getting someone to write something who is not in the band is becoming the rare exception to the rule.

Ironically when CDs first came out I had not been happy about the shrunk down image done to fit the packaging. I receive in the mail rather a lot of CDs each week which I still prefer over digital downloads even with their smaller than record covers. It seems like a lot of new acts, or people for whom making art is only one part of their lives, eschew the digital download album opting for the older CD format. It could be too that they do both and send critics and columnists the CDs as to avoid making us take up valuable space on our computer’s hard drive where the words should go.

My junk scientific method of taking CDs from my slush pile varies. I know that at least to the artist, every one of them is important. Usually if there is a form letter or no note specifically addressed to me I do not bother. And just as a mall glamour shots looking cover can instantly turn me off from its cheese factor, once in a while a cover can compel me to pick up the CD and give a listen.

Despite decades of a steady stream of technical innovations, space still smells like dirty pennies and seared steak *. The cold war was largely the progenitor behind the space race, the propaganda value of “winning” being worth more for a theological way of life than, with the technologies then available, any real practical applications of a space station or moon base.  The former Soviet Union launched monkeys and dogs into out of space, probably more than will ever be officially owned up to, not that they were by any means alone In this practice.

The eponymous album cover by Karl 2000 has the striking color scheme of red and gold. The aesthetics are reminiscent of old soviet propaganda posters if they had been done by one of today’s street artists, featuring a monkey wearing a soviet starred beret. Before even listening to the CD, I decided that this Soviet simian had somehow made his way back from space. This was Karl, cosmonaut hero. On the strength of the cover alone I grabbed this album from the pile with no idea what to expect.

The band is a New York based trio comprised of saxophone, bass and drums. The band goes for emotion over technique. That is not to say that they are not good, they are. One would have to be to have such tight but loose interplay as this trio. Overall they awe and please with how they play, not what. There is a punk(y) energy to them but not in a self-conscious hipster way of a jazz trio covering Nirvana or Radiohead. There is energy to the trio but they let it burst forth in just the right discordant amount which keeps the listener from becoming desensitized to it.

Drawing inspiration from a Russian folk melody, “Meadowlands” starts off with a sort of martial march bass and drum beat; comrades going out for morning maneuvers over which the bleary eyed saxophone staggers into formation line after a night of leave. The cadence of the song has a sort of late night downtown sound meets klezmer feel to it. The song is quick but how much must one say if they really mean it?

“A Cliff on the Volga” is also inspired by a Russian folk melody. It starts with an exclamation by Daniel Rovin’s saxophone, the dramatic declamation as can sometimes be heard in processional music (such as the Spanish Saeta).  The bass soon takes over in a deep rich solo statement until the saxophone comes back, softer this time.  It would be a misnomer to call this a ballad but it is slower and softer, yet they manage to keep their edge. Throughout this album one is reminded how gentile jazz has become. In all its myriad forms it is still enjoyable but the anything can happen, in the moment, component has been sort of pushed into the background. Of course I speak in broad generalities but people going to supper clubs drinking their top shelf cocktails as a band play really do not want to witness an artist experimenting or stretching out. They are willing to accept just the right amount of extra choruses in a song because it is live but the pieces should be a close approximation to what they are used to. The turn off to current jazz audiences with the in the moment aspect is that it could make for a bad show, an off night and the bottom line must win out. This trio brings back the discordance and chance elements that can make for memorable shows. The album has a live feel; live in the way jazz should be by a band making their bones.

The album is made up of originals and covers. There is the seemingly odd choice of covering The Partridge Family “I Think I Love You”. Here it is done with no irony but a straight read in the bands voice sans gimmick. Toward the end the horn gives a higher register almost vocalese of the song’s melody as drums and bass trade off propulsive bursts. Dave Miller’s drumming shows a hard bop muscle while also creating complex polyrhythms which are in line with some of the free/progressive elements hardwired into the bands DNA. In performance the band does allow space which they utilize for tension and coloration within their interplay. The sound of the album is pristine but with an ambient warmth so this works to great effect.

“Chocolate Wonderfall” starts off a frenzied piece serving up slabs of speaking in tongues funk. A club in Brighton Beach, it is the dance floor and stage slick with perspiration and whatever has dripped down the sides of everyone’s glasses. The saxophone squawks, a call to revelry as the drums and bass boil over.

“Derrrrr” Has a strolling bass. Austin White has a great tone light but not delicate. There is brightness along with a bit of bar surface dark woodiness. There is no flagging of intensity which can occur by musically trying to be all things to all people. The band is not repetitious in execution. Their influences and likes are diverse but they have a definite sonic identity and stick with it. There are Russian elements to some of their melodies but they are not seeking to fuse ethno-world music to jazz. It is one of many things they like, it is a part of them and it is authentic in that way without seeking out or the proclaiming of a formalized structure.

The album closes with “We’ll Meet Again” taken at a brisk pace. It has a sort of vintage sound to it with the percussion being produced by toy drums. It is the bitter sweetness of saying goodbye to a friend who then does something silly yet endearing as you turn around for one last look. The whole album is free of gimmick and engaging. There is no dichotomy between the organically occurring energy of the band and the studio. One could almost imagine friends and well-wishers in the booth, drinks in hand watching and cheering them on. I look forward to hearing more from them.

The tiles were black and white making the floor look like a chess board. I should have gone out but instead spent the day sitting on the couch contemplating the game. Finally I was shamed by the sounds down below of people coming and going swimming in the stream of an urban tide. I would run out at least for a drink.

It was not too busy and I managed to get the stool right next to my favorite one. I made some small talk but mostly listened as I wished they would either turn the music up or off. Looking out the window a monkey wearing an ushanka walks by a paper bag from which a bottle protrudes tucked under his arm. The monkey’s paws are gimp from the cold but they hang loose ready for action all the same. He no longer dreams of the glory days but will now settle for an afternoon of shadows and fur.

* A recent scientific journal article interviewed astronauts from several different eras who all commented on the fact that space had a distinctive scent. I am guessing at its bouquet.

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Elephants on Parade

The Japonize Elephants is more an ensemble than a group. There is a subtle but important difference between the two. With an ensemble the roles and evolution of creation tend to be less static, facilitating an ongoing freedom. One could almost categorize them as an orchestra except that some of the meat of the body of the ensemble encompasses ethno/world/root instruments, forgoing those of the formalized Western orchestral tradition. The ensemble’s name, like their latest album Mélodie Fantastique, embodies  a sort of chance logic akin to the word game created by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard “Exquisite Corpse”.

“Eye Wrote This” has a frenzied Gitane (gypsy) & klezmer feel to it. Structurally, the song is made up of a series of fast runs carried out but several smaller groups within the group. A bolero beat makes an appearance before the vocalese chorus that ends the song. There is the urge to drink and then dance like an inelegant bird unsure of whether it wants to fly. To some extent this song may serve as the ensemble’s calling card in that it seamlessly melds several genres’ music utilizing a full, unique sonic palette to do so. There is some definite quirk to this group but never to the point of distraction nor as any kind of crutch. I am all for humor in music whether in its execution or composition but too often it lapses into gimmick or novelty. The ‘Elephants completely sidestep such dangers with top notch musicianship and compositions which embrace the occasional quirk but never rely upon it.

“Melodie Fantastique” initially has the slurred tongue of the violin which a song earlier had been urging on some kind of dance, playing over a sort of pulsed beat. It takes on a nasal-mid eastern cadence, the temptation of Faust as embodied by the hypnotic gyrations of a belly dancer. Then with the entry of banjo the song morphs; it is an Appalachian get together or the fireside entertainment of a roving band of travelers. The song again morphs (2:30) becoming the sort of aural fanfare that could have been birthed from the head of Nino Rota. Plucked strings singing out as a diverse cast of characters each most likely speaking a different language, cross their arms over each other each hand clasping that of the person on either side of them, the long line snaking out the door of the nightclub heading down the cobblestone street in black and white as the band is left playing to itself and a lone balloon which has fallen at the foot of the stage. The various percussion and vocalese propel the piece forward; the song gets softer, hushed plucked strings and spoons as the line moves further down the street and out of sight.

If Esquivel had been asked to score a Connery era James Bond film it would sound like “End Times, The Theme From Bat Boy”. Vibraphone lays down that cooler than cool pattern over which muted horns pop up before another central figure is introduced by a trebled guitar, the frenzy of someone making love to one of Leo Fender’s Strats. There is not a care in the world as he will get the girl, and dispatch the baddies with a terrible pun. All while being indifferent to the fact that his number, red thirteen, has come up on the wheel.

“Breusters” changes things up with country twang and vocals. The ensemble are all actually very good musicians and on some of the slower more acoustic pieces this really rises to the fore. There is a beautiful lap steel solo in the middle of the song. The vocals are well done; there is that lone star desolation in the two entwined voices that manages to be beautifully blue. It is Tom Joad now a member of a live in the van indie band witnessing a vanishing Americana of honky tonk bars where hipsters are not allowed to order mixed drinks or check their iPhones and every midnight is the start of a new day.

Being a short but sweet track; “An Evening With A thumbtack” is a lone piano murmuring a bluesy minor chord cakewalk which ends with the sound of libations being poured out and sipped. One could almost imagine a small stage with the rest of the band about to take a quick five or return to continue the show. The sound throughout the album is pristine. On the tracks with vocals, when one listens with headphones there is a sonic intimacy as if the artists are standing in the same room.

I highly recommend this CD it is fun; it is art; it is an orgy of sound.

I am in my cranberry colored bathrobe, the sleeve bleached a bubblegum pink from the time I helped Chili dye her hair, I am painting in the garage in an olive green jump suit like Picasso wore during his Ripolin phase, I draw three concentric circles at the bottom of the paper then let all the extra words burn off in the atmosphere. There is a fecundity of ideas to be found in this album, a lopsided joy carried out via excellent musicianship. Three circles upon the paper, through an open window one could almost imagine hearing the Japonize Elephants music playing as they parade down the street, stumping for the circus come to town that escaped E.E Cummings condemnation*.

*“Damn everything except the circus.” E.E Cummings

This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (

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