Saturday 22 August 2009

Past Echoes, Remote Memories, Sweltering Heat

With temperatures nearing 40°, even listening to music becomes more of a difficult task. Does that prevent this sweating man from typing? Not yet, but it’s getting increasingly hard these days to perform regular everyday activities. Here’s a consistent grouping of not-exactly-recent releases that I finally managed to spin and properly evaluate. Some of them date from 2007 (!), although they were received last year or so. These reviews are just another pitiable attempt to catch up with the enormous delay caused by the constantly mounting quantities of recordings that get sent to me, for which – as always – I’m thanking and apologizing at one and the same time, especially considering that many labels have probably seen their catalogue flourishing in the meantime. Jeez.


Vivid reminiscences evoked by a series of field recording sessions conducted with proverbial mastery by Watson in the occasion of Sound Threshold, a manifestation occurred in Northern Italy in July 2008 which, in the words of curators Lucia Farinati and Daniela Cascella, aimed to explore “the visual, natural, literary and acoustic landscape of the Trentino region in conjunction with the latest research in the fields of ecology, technology and archaeology”. Watson collected several suggestive aural snapshots from Monte Bondone and Parco Di Paneveggio (Pale Di San Martino) - the places where he spent his residency - starting from higher altitudes to gradually “descend to earth”. Needless to say, listening to the roaring boom of the winds, the tantalizing liquefaction of snow, the breathtaking hush of the night always gives a measure of ecstatic suspension, but – once more – birds are the ones who steal the show: a black grouse heard in “Bucaneve” has nothing to envy to a modern analogue synthesizer, tawny owls sound majestically melancholic in “Le Crone”, and the nightingale that seals the package with a solo performance in “Valle Dei Venti” is the nearest thing to perfection a human being could ever listen to. Do something to get a copy of this obscure nugget - and if, after doing that, you can enter a wood and really learn to pin your ears back that’ll be even better. At least before the fires voluntarily caused by the lesser race called “man” end destroying any shrub left standing. (Sound Threshold)


Two lengthy improvisations for solo piano by Demierre, whose work was alien to me until this afternoon. “Sea Smell” is a rumbling, literally booming attack to the lower regions of the keyboard via continuously percussive hammering, almost 24 minutes of deeply resonant clangour rather close to the most recent things heard from Charlemagne Palestine (inclusive of his last collaboration with Christoph Heemann, Saiten In Flammen on Streamline). Amidst the huge jumble of fluctuating upper partials and chaotic low-frequency ebullience, extremely rare “chords” are at times perceived, a bit like watching fishes jumping out, and immediately returning into exceptionally turbulent waters. In regard to variableness I prefer the other track, “Land Smell”, an exploration of the inner parts of the instrument that – although not really breaking new ground – introduces a welcome element of diversity in an otherwise too monotonous recipe. In particular, Demierre extracts lovely harmonics by hitting the strings with what could be a mallet, or by some alternative kind of preparation, generating sections in which a peculiar tolling lets us forget about the actual source of this music, rendering the sound more akin to that of a stifled bell; the rest is classic “zip-clink-and-twirl” nitpicking inside the big box. Moderately interesting record, especially in the second half - but definitely not a perfect shot. (Creative Sources)

DWELLING – Ainda É Notte

First piece of a three-CD promo packet received last year from Equilibrium, a label from Lisbon specialized in “neo-classical, folk, world and ambient music, inspired both classically and traditionally, often presented in acoustic form and bringing to live an intimist (sic) setting”. This disc comprises materials quite distant from the stuff I usually write about, but Dwelling – from Portugal, too - play well, with taste and sincerity. Two violins, different types of guitars and basses and a decidedly non-virtuosic female vocalist, Catarina Raposo, singing in Portuguese and English, peaceful songs bracketed by intriguing pseudo-medieval counterpoints and absolute – at times excessive – harmonic simplicity. Madredeus meets Penguin Café Orchestra, anyone? Everything very consonant with just a little spice every once in a while, generally due to an intelligent bass line. Nice dialogues between the guitars, skilfully and gratifyingly intertwined. Suitable for melancholic afternoons when one feels doing nothing. (Equilibrium)

HEXPEROS – The Garden Of The Hesperides

A quintet from Italy mainly fashioned after Dead Can Dance. That should spell “enough” for me, who already consider the originals overhyped; I went on and listened anyway. The instrumentation includes flute, double bass, guitar, keyboards, harps and two violins, and the female soloist and co-founder Alessandra Santovito (not always impeccable as far as intonation is concerned) sings in Italian-accented English or modulates in pseudo-operatic, at times hilarious style; while we're on the subject, anything Anglophone contaminated by Latin inflections means sacrilege in this house. A semi-synthetic mishmash of gothic and medieval echoes with occasional exotic percussion, rather postcard-ish in its polite implementation. Indeed the group plays decorously, but the whole sounds mostly mildewed. Workstation-tinged electronics amidst the acoustic flavours frequently represent an avoidable out-of-tune element. The Lisa Gerrard-like nuances are often (voluntarily?) kept soft in the mix, which in general appears a bit inhomogeneous to these ears. It’s not a nauseating record yet it results quite lifeless, outdated and, in some cases, comparable to an Ed Wood soundtrack (“The Warm Whisper Of The Wind”, “Artemisia”). (Equilibrium)

LES FRAGMENTS DE LA NUIT – Musique Du Crépuscule

Third and last offer in this Equilibrium triptych, Les Fragments De La Nuit are a French group led by pianist Michel Villar and violinist Ombeline Chardes, people actively involved in the business of movie and documentary soundtracks. Of the three ensembles reviewed in relation to this label, this is the one that plays the more technically advanced music, the instruments interlocked in often spectacular garlands of repetitive figurations or murmuring in delicately passionate harmonic modulations. Obvious influences are Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, flagrantly reproduced in sporadic passages; other tracks made me recall (to some extent) Belgian favourites Julverne. There’s no question that the quality of the musicianship is high, and – considering what kind of boredom both the aforementioned composers have subjected my ears to in various circumstances from the late 80s on, we might even be willing to accept a fine replica of the originals. Let’s just say that this quintet sounds extremely professional, the components gifted with indubitable talent; but uniqueness, alas, is a gift an artist is born with. (Equilibrium)


Völker is an accordionist, Sheridan plays different flutes. Theirs is indisputably improvisation, yet not according to the canons one might expect in this day and age. There are structures at work here, no protracted silences (although segments featuring intense quietness are present), no surpluses of air without notes – in a word, no reductionism. These strong-minded women are academically trained, and their inclination seems in effect to reside in the investigation of a field where the instances of modern classicalism and instant intuition meet, usually via a complete exploitation of full-grown timbres and technical solutions that do not rise above orthodoxy in a truly revolutionary way, despite the disentanglement from the unexciting sensations currently spreading across well-known “soundless” circles. Quite often these recordings situate the listener in a somewhat tense setting typical of a hesitant wait: the resolution is perhaps behind the corner, but seldom materializing manifestly. It’s not a type of listening experience that could be defined engaging or easy to swallow; and, every once in a while, the intelligence shown throughout the large part of the instrumental interaction leaves room to moments of slight stagnation, especially due to the not always functional combination of the separate voices. The duo is definitely competent, though: it surely takes several tries to acknowledge an incontestable maturity and, for the music itself, to reveal numerous degrees of temperament and profundity – and, in truth, a little dispassionateness - that attributes a distinct individuality to the whole venture. (Valve)


Searching for a remedy against the lethargic exhaustion deriving from years of listening to pedestrian jazz? In Minnesota they do well with Kelly Rossum, who – besides looking like the nicest of the guys, halfway through a démodé punk and myself (just kidding Kelly, but we do actually share a tiny bit of facial resemblance – I hadn’t realized last time…) – possesses one of the most beautifully clear-as-crystal trumpet voices heard in a long while. Family, who was published a year ago (a-hem), is a highly enjoyable effort, comprising material supplied by the leader, pianist Bryan Nichols and bassist Chris Bates, plus three covers. The drumming duties belong to JT Bates, who didn’t contribute with compositions. Difficult to say why a record noticeably rooted in tradition sounds this captivatingly unsullied; hearing this music makes you smirk for no apparent reason. Maybe it’s because Rossum and his comrades are reciprocally fine-tuned in a such a way that their instrumental moves elicit an aura of sorts, directly referring to a glorious past which they probably haven’t even experienced first-hand, given everybody’s relatively young age. The pieces are straightforwardly energizing, swinging with gusto and, when the tick is right, utilizing a correct dose of discursiveness that shows the technical ability of the participants, minus the showing off. And when introspection kicks in (as in Nichols’ splendid “Interlude”) we’re ready to put everything down and listen transfixed, thinking to itineraries of ineluctable occurrences perfectly coincident with our fleeting predisposition. The trumpeter governs the quartet without an iron fist, a performer endowed with inquisitive ears and a sense of intelligent altruism which literally renders this album a longed-for joyful intermission amidst so many bad news and worse vibes swallowing us up day in, day out. Thank you very much, boys – you’re a veritable breath of fresh air, and my wife has asked me to leave the CD available to her for repeating the session also when I’m absent - now, THAT really means something. Among the finest jazz albums of 2008: shame on this reviewer for coming to it late. (612 Sides)