"Sextessense" — Reviewed by Nic Jones, All About Jazz

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Musicians: Bennet / Bryerton / Butcher / De Gruttola/ Kaiser / Smith

Reviewed by Nic Jones, All About Jazz

Anyone for an antidote to repertory? On Sextessense: A Tribute To John Stevens and the SME, the musicians involved are acknowledging what through sheer persistence and longevity has become a part of the tradition (one that is still likely to have the reactionaries foaming at the mouth, which, of course, gives them something to do with their time). The musicians paying tribute are at the same time stating the case for renewal and creativity, which is as it should be. An inherent risk with tribute records arises in the comparison between the celebration and the music being celebrated, but in a sense the presence of John Butcher, a one-time member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and a sonic explorer in his own right, negates the issue. Moreover, the Ensemble went through so many instrumental configurations that pinning the music down is a happily difficult task. This throws numbers like “So What Do You Think About John Stevens?” into such stark relief that the listener has no option but to deal with the music on its own terms, with the potential and, indeed, need for comparison entirely negated. Here the only common factor is perhaps the music's rise and fall in volume level, although even in this respect it cannot be taken for granted such increases and decreases automatically equate volume with activity; as per the Ensemble itself, the correlation between volume and activity is profoundly undermined. Besides which, musicians like Henry Kaiser on guitar have long since fashioned their own identity; on “Has Duration” his sparse, arid playing is in marked contrast to John Butcher's soprano sax, which by Butcher's standards is relatively expansive. It makes for something close enough to unique as to be not worth quibbling over, especially as Jerome Bryerton's percussive palette is at odds with that of Stevens and entirely his own. Perhaps the only thing that unites the music across the years is this group's appreciation of dynamics. Even at its most frenetic the SME was profoundly at odds with, say, Cecil Taylor's evident fear of inactivity, and the volume level here is often such that it draws the listener in, enticed perhaps by the thought of coming to terms with the music's essence, as per the title track. Overall, this album calls the commonly understood meaning of a tribute into question. Fortunately, the music is much more worthwhile than the notion of a tribute implies, perhaps because the cold, clammy hand of reverence has no place here.

Trio Concert in Chicago" Players: — Reviewed by Bill Meyer, Chicago Reader

Trio Concert in Chicago" Players:

Musicians: Guillermo Gregorio/jerome Bryerton/Damon Smith

Reviewed by Bill Meyer, Chicago Reader

JEROME BRYERTON, DAMON SMITH, AND GUILLERMO GREGORIO With his rich tone and unerring technique, Bay Area double bassist Damon Smith sounds equally apposite tracing ghostly harmonics around Birgit Ulher’s agitated trumpet on the trio record Sperrgut, underscoring Richard Thompson’s melancholy guitar on the soundtrack to Grizzly Man, or asserting order against the woolly, anarchistic playing of reedist Vinny Golia, guitarist Henry Kaiser, and drummer Weasel Walter on the Albert Ayler tribute Healing Force. In this otherwise local trio, which has a couple recordings in the can but no releases yet, he straddles the fault line where improvisation and composition meet. Clarinetist and alto saxophonist Guillermo Gregorio is an old hand with graphic scores, not just as a performer but as a composer and conductor, and here he plays all three roles: in the studio the group has worked from his graphs, Christian Marclay’s deck of cards, and the Roscoe Mitchell piece “Cards.” Smith and Gregorio play isolated shapes as starkly demarcated as architectural drawings, and percussionist Jerome Bryerton—one of Smith’s longtime collaborators—creates a sense of ceaseless motion with his restrained, jazzy flourishes and arrhythmic crashes. The Hats headline and Blink opens. 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $7. —Bill Meyer


"Cruxes" — Reviewed by Nic Jones, All About Jazz


Musicians: Josephson/Leandre/Smith/Blume

Reviewed by Nic Jones, All About Jazz


Here's music the realization of truly collective endeavor. Each of the participants is acutely aware of the needs and demands of the moment, and the music they fashion is accordingly free of overt precedents at the same time as it works the seam of free improvisation in trenchant fashion. The nature of the forces deployed Aurora Josephson's voice, two basses and drums—perhaps pejoratively focuses the attention on the first of these, but Josephson is astute enough to know that non-verbal communication in this area best serves the needs of the music. On “Praxis” for example, she brings her knowledge of technique to bear in a way suggesting she abides by Bill Evans's dictum with regards to learning technique and then forgetting about it. This piece also serves notice that both Joelle Leandre (bass) and Damon Smith (bass) are acutely aware of the tonal and timbral variety the double bass has to offer. ”Siberia Of The Mind” is a similar case in point and also one of the infrequent occasions when the music gets frenetic. Taken as a duo by Leandre and Smith, at less than three minutes in duration it serves as a microcosm of what the quartet's music is all about. It amounts also to an element of it being displaced and thrown into stark relief, with both players combining to give the music an impetus and at the same time a less reflective air. Duration here happily serves far from obvious ends, however. “Un Soeur De Charite” is one of four live tracks and the duo of Josephson and Leandre fashion an other-worldly lyricism. That's in marked contrast with the following “Tableaux Imaginaires / Cadres Imaginaire” where the trio of Leandre, Smith and Martin Blume (drums) achieve a level of interplay that's only remarkable. The cohesiveness of the whole is helped in no small part by Blume's instinctive knowledge of percussive color, and there are times when the smallest sound comes as the biggest surprise. If there is a shortcoming here, it lies in the fact that so much of the music is put out by groupings smaller than the full quartet. Whilst there is no discontinuity between the full group's efforts and those of the smaller groupings, it's kind of frustrating. That said, the free improvisation genre's seemingly infinite capacity for self- renewal is emphatically stated, as is the creative validity of music fashioned so profoundly 'in the moment.'

"Ausfegen" — Reviewed by Jon Dale, Signal to Noise

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Musicians: Hartsaw/Aspelin/Smith/Bryerton

Reviewed by Jon Dale, Signal to Noise


"Thierry de Duve one called Joseph Beuys "the last of the proletarians." In his discussion of the relationship between capitalism and creativity, Duve refers to Beuys's democratic formations--social sculpture, his claim that "everyone is an artist"--as manifestations of an "actual political economy" with creativity as its "anchor point." While inherently problematic, as Duve convincingly argues in his article, there's something to be said of Beuys's benign naivety. If one of improvisation's key discursive formations in the post-DIY era is a kind of blithe "anyone can do it (but they don't)" relativism, then players like Paul Hartsaw, Krisdan Aspelin, Damon Smith and Jerome Bryerton become artists whose practice represents the possibilities latent inside of "everyone/anyone." On Ausfegen, they play beautifully, and while the interaction can feel a little desiccated, there's pleasure in their insect-like chatter and hyper-aware responses. In his liner notes, Joe Morris puts it perfectly when he claims Ausfegen is "made by a group of focused musicians who function in a small community creating music using a vocabulary of rarefied materials to express themselves in a contemporary way." Further to this, by defamiliarizing their instruments--in this case, playing the guitar with a shop broom, in reference to Beuys's Ausfegen performance, where he swept Berlin's Karl-Marx-Platz--the players quietly bring art history and politics to bear on a music that offers an emancipatory potential, if not a liberated actuality." Jon Dale

"Jus" — Reviewed by Massimo Ricci, Bagatellen

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Musicians: Jacob Lindsay / Ava Mendoza / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter

Reviewed by Massimo Ricci, Bagatellen

A rather uncomfortable, half-pungent-half-refined improvisational proposition from a quartet of receptive-minded musicians whose inclinations and - at least to some extent - reputations should supposedly encourage full use of runaway blasts, critically reprehensible user-unfriendliness and hectic free-for-all. Curiously enough, the music ends up in sounding pretty much controlled for the large part of the program instead, countless perturbations notwithstanding. Apropos of this, a loud volume playback is suggested; the perennially non-complying scrutinizer decreed that the six tracks work satisfactorily in the lower regions of auricular sufferance as well.

Lindsay performs on various kinds of clarinet (Ab, Bb, bass and contrabass), negotiating the possibilities of a fair trade between absent restrictions and unrehearsed discipline, which causes his instruments to go furtively unnoticed in certain sections, only to suddenly emerge as the lead voice of sorts in the involuntary architecture, gorgeously misshapen secretions and a brawny timbral individuality in constant evidence. Mendoza - not at all times at the forefront in the mix, which is a plus in comparison with the proverbial egotist attitude of many guitarists - represents a hardly definable, yet still attention-grabbing factor, her mistreatment of the instrument applied with a leg on each side of Frithian tampering (please don’t hit me, Weasel) and spectroscopic imagery of electric humming, string resonance made hostage by the tendency to quietness that the players remarkably exhibit, and regularly too.

Smith, featured on 7-string Ergo bass and Lloopp software, appears as a silent prime mover behind the whole concept, gritty physicality and probing studiousness underlying an ever-conscious approach to the art of stealthy rendezvous in the obscure quarters of instrumental interaction. If there’s some measure of regular bass somewhere in there, I struggled to notice; inflexible abrasiveness and obdurately anti-tonal jarring premeditation, yes - all the way through. From time to time Walter sounds unusually detached but - more frequently - his drumming is as effective as pure caffeine, alternating sharp fragmentations of the rhythmic flow and asymmetrical nervousness to abrupt impetuous enlargements of the dynamic organs (that’s right, this description is spam-influenced) while maintaining an inimitable escapologist personality as far as the exact collocation of a fashionable percussive method is concerned.

Replete with unspeakable shrewdness, this album necessitates of lots of conscientious tries before starting to commit to memory even a single joint of its complicated articulation.

~ Massimo Ricci

"Thoughtbeetle" — Reviewed by Bill Shoemaker, Point of Departure

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Musicians: Bertram Turetzky/Damon Smith

Reviewed by Bill Shoemaker, Point of Departure

By the time Damon Smith was born in 1972, Bertram Turetsky had permanently expanded the role of the double bass in new music through watershed recordings like The Contemporary Contrabass (Nonesuch; ’70). By the time Smith, inspired by Peter Kowald’s Duos: Europa (FMP), left punk and art rock in ’94 to focus on the double bass and improvised music, Turetsky was frequently improvising with Vinny Golia and others. Smith’s rise in the past 15 years has been impressive, both as an improviser and organizer; the scope and the impact of his Balance Point Acoustics imprint increases with each release. There's grit to the music of Smith and his cohorts that is very much of its time and place (the latter being the Bay Area, though BPA releases have included musicians from throughout the US, Europe and Israel). Though his persuasive technique is, to some degree, attributable to occasional studies with Turetsky (who, during his distinguished tenure at UCSD taught Mark Dresser and others), that grit is central to Smith’s slant on what is now commonly called extended techniques; it goes a long way in parsing Smith's sensibility from Turetsky's, who first tested the capacities of the instrument outside a tradition-based genre or practice, and understanding the quality of the music on Thoughtbeetle. Granted, Turetsky's experiments are now central to the lexicon of the improvising bassist; but, their original context is now afield from current applications like Smith's. In this regard, Turetsky's energy in playing to and playing against Smith is endorsement enough. But, these seven improvisations – five of which were recorded in studio, while two are from a concert – convey a larger, heartening message about the long-term prospects for improvised music. –Bill Shoemaker

"Jus & Ausfegen" — Reviewed by Ken Waxman

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"Jus & Ausfegen"

Musicians: Hartsaw/Aspelin/Smith/Bryerton & Lindsay/Mendoza/Smith/Walter

Reviewed by Ken Waxman

Like most other generalities, the differences between so-called European and so-called American free music are more purported then real. Especially in the 21st Century when jet planes, the Internet and other advances have shrunk inter-continental chasms, the gulf between the two proposed by musicians like Derek Bailey – who often had an axe as well as his guitar to grind – seem fanciful. Take these two notable quartet sessions for instance, united by the presence of Bay area bassist Damon Smith. Although Chicago-based Paul Hartsaw, who often works with keyboardist Jim Baker in his home town, brings jazz’s most characteristic instruments – his tenor and soprano saxophones – to the date, his subtle reed bites and blows wouldn’t be confused with the style of Windy City heroes like Johnny Griffin. Chicago-based drummer, Jerome Bryerton says he’s equally influenced by American and European drummers and has played with stylists as difference as Berlin-based multi-reedist Wolfgang Fuchs and Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop. Furthermore the subtitle of Ausfegen, Dedicated to Joseph Beuys, refers to the work of the late [1921-1986] German Conceptual artist; with one track in particular a direct musical homage. Conversely, while the instrumentation – clarinets, guitar, bass and lloopp and percussion – on Jus may appear more overtly European, the sonic results are as all-American as the microtonal electro-acoustic experiments that have taken place in Northern California since in the early 1960s. Not only that, but Smith, (with guitarist Henry Kaiser) guitarist Ava Mendoza, (with band leader Moe! Staiano) and hyperactive drummer Weasel Walter (with just about everyone) have also been known to play high-velocity rock music as well as more delicate sonic expressions. Additionally, the Ab, Bb, bass and contrabass clarinet improvisations of Lindsay – a long-time Smith-associate – are fully in the tradition of other West Coast reed polymaths such as John Carter, Jimmy Giuffre and Vinny Golia. More overtly, tapestries of microtonal and adumbrating silences are woven into many of the tracks on Jus. “Quadrophobia” for instance, which unrolls at a pace slower than largo, revels in atonal peeping and chromatic probes from the clarinetist, tick-tock drum pacing and shattering wood-block smacks and blurry electronic looped passages. Eventually as the rasgueado guitar work and intermittent string plucks subside, the tune’s ultimate variant contrasts pure air currents with strident clarinet pops and wind-tunnel puffs that could arise from Walter’s bagpipe-chanter or Smith’s col legno bass strokes. Overcoming a variety of unconnected timbral movements and reed tongue stops, “Winter Lights” is similarly sonically diffuse. As the growling undertow from the contrabass clarinet remains almost static, a sequence of pitch-sliding string movements takes centrestage. Adagio in tempo, Mendoza’s finger-styled picks and multi effects link up with Smith’s seminal string shaking and Walter’s rolls, pops and drags until the interface fades into intermittent silences. Almost as low-key, the defining track on the other CD would seem to be “Broom with Red Bristles”. Celebrating Beuys’ own ausfegen when used a broom to sweep Berlin’s Karl Marx Platz, Aspelin strokes his guitar strings with a shop broom and Smith slides two bows on top of prone prepared double basses. Some movements are barely audible, other seems to warble with chromatic string exposition; and all are contrasted with circular breathing from Hartsaw and pitter-patter snare work and reverberating cymbals from Bryerton. Earlier on, unattached cymbals seem to be vibrating by themselves as the strings scratch abrasively – from beneath their respective bridges – and the reedist outputs strained split tones Even more expansive is the last track, “Pamphlet Printed on Plastic Bag” – which may be another art reference. No echoes of paper or plastic are audible. Instead you hear metallic clatter and bell-ringing from the percussionist; hearty slaps and rustling string motions from the bassist; guitar filigree; plus multiphonic timbres from the saxophonist, that make it appear as if he’s playing both his horns at once. Following an antiphonal middle section – which redirects the tempo – the four mesh for a contrapuntal finale of slurred and chiming fingering from Aspelin; sul tasto bowing from Smith; bell-popping and kit quivering from Bryerton; and tongue slaps and spetrofluctuation from Hartsaw. Europeanized or North-Americanized free music, the breath of inspiration on these discs may confound identification. Perhaps both should just be labeled as good music and let go at that. --Ken Waxman Track Listing: Dedicated: 1. Vitrine 2. Sand 3. Copper 4. Garbage 5. Stone 6. Paper 7. Broom with Red Bristles 8. Pamphlet Printed on Plastic Bag Personnel: Dedicated: Paul Hartsaw (tenor and soprano saxophones); Kristian Aspelin (guitar and broom); Damon Smith (bass) and Jerome Bryerton (percussion) Track Listing: Jus: 1. American Current 2. Translucency 3. Quadrophobia 4. Blown Out 5. Discrete Flower Symmetry 6. Winter Light Personnel: Jus: Jacob Lindsay (Ab, Bb, bass and contrabass clarinets); Ava Mendoza (guitar); Damon Smith (7-string ergo-bass and lloopp) and Weasel Walter (drums, percussion and bagpipe chanter) July 19, 2009

"Yclept" — Reviewed by Reviewed by: Johan RedinOriginally in Swedish on

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Musicians: Ulher / Shibolet / Snir / Brenner / Meyer / Smith / Bymel Yclept

Reviewed by Reviewed by: Johan RedinOriginally in Swedish on

n addition to the duo with Gino Robair, Blips and Ifs, yet another album with Birgit Ulher has recently been released: Yclept, together with the American bassist Damon Smith and a bunch of Israeli musicians: Ariel Shibolet and Adi Snir on tenor and soprano saxophones, Roni Brenner and Michel Mayer on guitars and Ofer Bymel on percussion. The recording took place in Tel Aviv last year and proves to be an outstanding set of musical creativity. It is in other words quite a large ensemble and there are many things happening on all fronts. But there is room enough for everyone, with a fine balance of higher and lower register (the record is by the way exceptionally mastered). Smith plays a very physical bass; he knocks it, wrenches its strings, so you get full aware of its body. Ulher’s trumpet clicks and hisses on its distinctive way and the fact that there are two guitarists also turn out with great success I think. The mixture of wind and strings increases the intensity in such a way that any uncertainty produces ideal opportunities for the development. The effect is short and long passages that generates a sort of inward and outward movements to the improvised music, something that is quite difficult to manage in larger ensembles, and especially since this is their first get together. Ofer Bymels plying also impresses me, sparse and suddenly explosive in the tradition of Paul Lovens, but with individuality and innovative moves.

Yclept is a meeting of Tel Aviv, San Francisco and Hamburg – quite an unusual map with many cultural differences. But, as Klaus Janek emphasize in his liner notes, it is as evident as it is incredible that they all speak the very same language, instantly. For those who doubt this, just listen to the fifth track (they have no titles) where an almost frightening timing and perceptiveness develops into a musical discourse where all voices are of equal importance and all gestures immediate.

Originally in Swedish on 2009-11-06 --



"Ausfegen" — Reviewed by Peter Margasak

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Musicians: Kristian Aspelin / Paul Hartsaw / Damon Smith / Jerome Bryerton

Reviewed by Peter Margasak

For the 2007 release Ausfegen (Balance Point Acoustics), this transcontinental quartet—bassist Damon Smith and guitarist Kristian Aspelin from the Bay Area and saxophonist Paul Hartsaw and drummer Jerome Bryerton from Chicago—set out to pay homage to German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. But as Smith explains in the liner notes, they weren’t sure it was worthwhile to simply claim they were inspired by Beuys, so they decided to make the connection more explicit. For the art piece he called Ausfegen, Beuys swept Berlin’s Marx-Engels-Platz, then encased the broom and all the detritus he’d collected in a vitrine. On the album Ausfegen, the cuts have titles like “Garbage,” “Sand,” and “Paper,” and for one track Aspelin laid his guitar flat and played it with a broom. Of course that’s not to say the listener needs to know any of this to appreciate the group’s tensile and tactile free improvisation. The clanging and clattering commotion is daubed with terse, fluid phrases—a postbop gesture by Hartsaw, a rumbling arco flurry by Smith—and each player manipulates fast-flying extended technique in carefully calibrated communication. —Peter Margasak

"Yclept" — Reviewed by Clifford Allen - Paris Transatlantic

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Musicians: Ulher / Shibolet / Snir / Brenner / Meyer / Smith / Bymel

Reviewed by Clifford Allen - Paris Transatlantic

From the first meaty whoomph of Damon Smith's arco bass, one is keenly aware of a strong connection to bassists like Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall. There's a workman-like physicality of horsehair on strings, as well as a muscular and bodily presence that, despite its massiveness; is almost balletic in its motions. Oakland-based Smith readily acknowledges the influence of the German bassists; his first audio experience of freely improvised bass was Kowald's FMP LP Duos: Europa. With percussionist Weasel Walter, he's crafted an approach that balances perilously between careening expressiveness and exacting detail. But the "violent rage" that characterizes a Walter disc is only one facet of Damon Smith's work. Witness Yclept, his latest collaboration with Tel Aviv saxophonist Ariel Shibolet and Hamburg trumpeter Birgit Ulher, herself a master carver of miniscule brassy flutters and gut-wrenching wails. The three are joined across seven improvisations by a group of musicians little known outside Israel: guitarists Roni Brenner and Michel Mayer, percussionist Ofer Bymel and saxophonist Adi Snir. Groans, flutters and stuttering yelps jab and dive at one another across these sonic canvases, supported by long, crisp howls of bowed harmonics. Smith is the most identifiable colour here, a craggy yet humanistic brown amid the whitish-silver flecks of reed (?) chirps and brassy pops and clucks. The guitars seem to be prepared, contributing feedback and electrified plinks; like Bymel's snare and thick brushes, they fill the soundscape with spiky, pointillist gestures. The sixth section is certainly the most traditional, guitar scrapes and towel-damped toms shadowing urgent long tones. It's something ineffable that makes an "improv" recording (i.e., not jazz or free-jazz) sing – one just knows when that sweet spot gets hit. Yclept is definitely an example of the indefinable "it."–CA

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter" — Reviewed by MASSIMO RICCI. TOUCHING EXTREMES

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"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter



The first adjective that comes to mind while listening to the sonic fusillades fired by this trio is “succulent”. This happens when three hyperactive improvisers are determined in showing to the listener what’s inside their arsenal without restrictions, and – a sadly overlooked issue by myriads of warts-and-all manglers – choose to show the fruits of their sessions in a very high quality standard of recording detail, which surely helps in the comprehension of the procedures. The positive consequences are evident: one, almost 80 minutes of interaction (a duration that usually causes an “oh, no!” exclamation here) are gulped, digested and entirely assimilated with ease, with beneficial effects for the synapses. Two, our faith in the ability to being engrossed by the sheer quality of complicated instrumental activity is strengthened. Three, the possibilities of finding genuinely fresh-cut stuff in this field improve dramatically.

Sandy Ewen is a new name for this reviewer. A guitarist interested in extended techniques without exaggerating with the number of appliances employed to achieve her goals, she possesses admirable insight and definitely knows the value of discipline, even during sections that would suggest the opposite. Controlling feedback, cutting the strings with the pick, emitting chipmunk destruction by working the pickups, letting the involuntary noises stay where they aren’t supposed to be, making silence where silence is due. All of this, and much more, is a part of Ewen’s jargon. The physicality evoked by the socialization with Damon Smith’s 7-string bass and Weasel Walter’s ever-reproducing fractions of already disunited tempos on the drum set is nothing short of astounding, especially because there’s no interest whatsoever – particularly on Smith’s side – in keeping the activities confined into the usual timbral palette (certain arco flights in the overacute area of that beast would make many chugging idiots armed with Strats envious). Attempting to anticipate Walter’s moves is like trying one of those “test-your-reflex” games: you never know what’s next and just get ready to react, systematically beaten by the (human) machine.

There’s no hint of impracticality around, though the action is firmly directed to what the press release rightly calls “structural disruption”. Everything transmits consistency, dynamic cognition and will of concretely translating instantaneous concepts into something worthy of being remembered (and replayed). If label-less music gifted with heart and brain is all you need, look no further.

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter" — Reviewed by Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter

Reviewed by Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery


Featuring Sandy Ewen on guitar, Damon Smith on 7-string electric upright bass & laptop and Weasel Walter on percussion. "Whoa! This is a breath-taking, bizarre and immensely brutal/brittle trio! Weasel was right when he dropped this on us and said to watch out. Newcomer (for us), Sandy Ewen hails from Houston, Texas and plays guitar in a band called the Weird Weeds. I hadn't heard of Ms. Ewen previously but I am certainly glad to make her sonic acquaintance. Former Bay Area bassist Damon Smith is now living in Texas just as his cohort from Oakland, Weasel Walter is now based in Brooklyn. Although this disc is pretty long (78+ minutes) and completely improvised, I found myself at the edge of my seat through listening closely to the mystery as it unfolds. This disc is well-recorded and obviously close-mic'd and this music bristles with intense, focused energy throughout. One of the finest improv dates in recent memory. - BLG

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter" — Reviewed by Reviewed by: Clifford Allen, One Final Note

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"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter

Reviewed by Reviewed by: Clifford Allen, One Final Note


No matter what angle one is approaching creative music from – and I’ll include oddball rock music and modern composition as well – and no matter how deep one digs, there will always be an underground. This sense of obscuring refers not only to DIY labels and concerts, but also the mere fact that if an artist doesn’t move within certain circles, their work might not get recognized. Take this trio disc from Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen, Houston-via-Oakland bassist Damon Smith, and Brooklyn-via Oakland/Chicago percussionist Weasel Walter. To put it mildly, the eight improvisations here are overarchingly dense and incredibly abstract, often garish and resoundingly physical blasts of heat, noise, and vocabulary extensions. All three of the musicians on this disc (recorded at New York’s WKCR in one, uninterrupted swoop in November 2011) are – even with the visibility afforded by the internet and Walter’s sizable ugEXPLODE catalog of releases – rather far outside the free music mainline.

Though this recording is Ewen’s first to potentially catch the ear of free improvisation aficionados, she’s been quite visible in Texas music for the better part of a decade. Her guitar and voice comprise one fourth of The Weird Weeds, an open-ended and minimalist avant-rock quartet founded in 2004; she’s also worked in Spiderwebs with Texas/NYC psych guitarist Tom Carter and in a wide array of unrecorded and unclassifiable outfits. It’s interesting to think of her as a “fresh face” on the broader stage of improvised music, though I suppose her work just hasn’t had the chance to cross over until now. Walter and Smith were almost inseparable as a rhythm section during the former’s time in the Bay Area (2003-2009), and the drummer has – despite playing high-octane, energy-based free music both in the first half of the 1990s (with the Flying Luttenbachers) and extensively over the past decade – remained a “rock” musician in the eyes of the critical establishment.

This CD follows in the footsteps of Walter’s improvised collaborations with guitarists like Jim O’Rourke, Kevin Drumm, and Henry Kaiser, and while Ewen’s approach is very much her own (chalk slide, violin bow, cat brush, and pedals enter into her palette), the results are in keeping with a brutal hum of activity. Adding to the trio’s spidery wall is Smith’s curious setup, which includes laptop and field recordings in addition to a seven-string electric upright bass, played horizontally. Ewen doesn’t approach the level of phrasal logic that Kaiser or Mary Halvorson (another frequent Walter collaborator) put forth, which lends the music a somewhat more anarchic vibe. But that’s not to say that her strokes and wiry aggregates aren’t clear or that her actions don’t “flow,” because intent and listening are in the forefront of Ewen’s contributions to this recording. Walter has a way of playing “quietly” with terse acuity, so that passages of improvisation with a lower volume and instrumental sparseness retain momentum and palpable density. Were it not for the directness of attack that cuts through the trio’s playing, the eighty minutes of unruly electrified clatter on offer here might flag, but continually refined accents and concentrated unpredictability make the tooth and noise part of a spry and engaging set. One final note: though this is far from “free rock,” as with Masayuki Takayanagi’s “Mass Projections” and music of that ilk, this disc benefits from being played very loud. –Clifford Allen

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter" — Reviewed by EYAL HAREUVEN

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"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter


This uncompromising set of free improvisation challenges the very basic concepts of what music is. As seminal improvising guitarist Henry Kaiser writes in his illuminating liner notes: "forget about melody, harmony and rhythm for the moment and listen to everything else that you can hear going on." And there is much going on in terms of structural, timbral, spatial and conceptual complexity in these eight non-idiomatic, on-the-spot improvisations. Houston-based Sandy Ewen experiments with the electric guitar with various enhancements and preparations, as well as contributing art work to the booklet and cover; prolific improvisers, bassist Damon Smith and percussionist Weasel Walter, add their urgent, inventive ideas. All three have highly personal approaches and extended vocabularies on their instruments: Ewen uses amplification, feedback and distortion in an organic manner; Smith has mastered extended techniques on the bass and adds alien field recordings; and Walter's restless and anarchistic rhythmic sense defies all logic. All the improvisations disrupt any attempts at linear patterns or coherent structures. The sonic spectrum does not register as coming from regular instruments, especially Ewen's guitar and Smith's electric upright bass, and often produce sounds akin to noise. There is never obvious tension-building and tension-releasing in these improvisations; all of these hyperactive, wild abstractions assume that music asks questions, rather than providing answers. This kind of music cannot be notated in any Euro-Western musical system. Still, this trio creates arresting, otherworldly musical forms and sounds, honing its own immediate, extreme and unpredictable interplay as it expands methods of constructing and deconstructing musical ideas. Focused and uncompromising, weird and radical yet varied, often playful and always interesting. Track Listing: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8. Personnel: Sandy Ewen: guitar; Damon Smith: 7-string electric upright bass, field recordings, laptop; Weasel Walter: percussion.

"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter" — Reviewed by Ken Waxman, JazzWord

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"Ug 53 Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith / Weasel Walter

Reviewed by Ken Waxman, JazzWord

Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith/Weasel Walter
Die Dicken Finger
Offroad Core
Gligg Records 012
With more-or-less the same instrumental line-up as a customary Rock power trio, these ensembles nonetheless stretch the expected timbral concord into experimental territory without sacrificing the speed and power associated with Hard Rock.
Cunning in its subtle distortion of electric guitar-electric-bass-drums motifs, the German trio Die Dicken Finger (DDF) or in English “The thickness of the fingers” could likely sneak onto a bill at a Heavy Metal festival until the realization dawned that the all-instrumental band was playing riffs just a little too sophisticated for the show. Committed to interjecting unexpected improvised asides into their music, the Americans on the other CD proclaim their individuality with the miscellaneous percussion brought to the gig by New York’s Weasel Walter plus the laptop and field recordings utilized alongside his 7-string upright bass by Houston’s Damon Smith. At the same time Sandy Ewen, another Houston resident, busies herself creating the expected electric guitar riffs and distortion. Berlin-based, the members of Die Dicken Finger also have impressive credentials working with more Jazz-oriented players. Guitarist Olaf Rupp for instance is in bands with the likes of trombonist Matthias Müller and drummer Tony Buck; bassist Jan Roder with bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall; and drummer Oli Steidle with pianist Aki Takase and Mahall. Those associations have to be set aside during the six tracks on DDF’s CD since this is Heavy Metal Jazz at its zenith – or most bombastic – if you prefer. Steidle’s pop, ruffs and forceful backbeat plus cymbal slaps are always audible; Roder’s sluicing bass rumbles plug any holes left in the performances; and Rupp’s guitar lines either twang like they’re trying to reach the top row in a sports arena or vibrate with reed-like sophistication. Throughout whether upfront are slurred fingering, crunching licks or press rolls, the focus is on kinetic coloration – damn the delicacy. At the same time, when the trio is fully immersed in its particular improv variant as on the more-than-10½- minute “Tilt Shift Capital”, a brutalist subtlety is present as well. Studding the dense sound mosaic is dramatic rasgueado from the guitarist that holds fast to the melody, as the bass and drum somersault through changes in tempo, rhythm and intensity. By the finale the staccato evolution seems as cleansing as it is unstoppable.

Similarly unstoppable, but much less wedded to expected Metal tropes are Ewen, Smith and Walter (ESW). Least known of the three is Ewen, a member of the rock band Weird Weeds, who has also played with improv trombonist David Dove. Initially from the Bay area, Smith has worked with many improvisers including pianist Scott Looney and saxophonist Wolfgang Fuchs; while Walter has gigged with just about everyone ranging from trumpeter Peter Evans to multi-reedist Vinny Golia.
Crackling and scrubbed guitar runs coupled with fuzzy electric bass shuffles or sul ponticello plucks plus unexplained rhythms on unnamed percussion constitute the trio’s game plan on the CD’s eight untitled selections. Nevertheless ESW traffics in less easily identifiable timbres than DDF. With the interface on tracks such as the fourth scurrying from Free Music-like dissonant rustles and rubs to Heavy Metal styled pressurized thumps, the beat is in contrast sometimes arrhythmic. Textures that could be old-time cash registers pinging, ancient doors creaking or signal-processed whistling leech into the improvisations. Here it’s Ewan’s slowed down claw-hammer licks and Smith’s hand pressured strokes that define the piece. Walter’s ratamacues as well as plinks and pops on vibes-like bars define the succeeding track, although it appears that Ewen and Smith are detuning and shaking different string combinations as they dart in and out of the narrative. Blurring the sound picture are static and pre-recorded voices slowed down, sped up and run backwards via Smith’s field recordings. Finally the percussionist’s bravado bounces and rolls knit the parts together. While aviary cries and metallic thumps appear elsewhere at odd intervals on the disc, ESW gets to expand its strategy to its threshold on the more-than-17½ minute sixth track. Used for idea expression not showy excess, both industrial sound reflections and experimental techniques are taken to logical conclusions. Consequently when a sudden burst of guitar fissure meets over-amplified spiccato plucks from the 7-string, it leads to descending twangs and frailing from Ewen, matched by Smith’s hand-heel hammering. Swelling to an ear-splitting screech that combines frenetic guitar strokes as buzzing bass pops, the narrative is further complicated as blurry laptop oscillations are laid on top of those timbres. Finally using bass drum smacks and hollow conga-like pats, Walter connects the others’ broken-chord improvising long enough to create an ending. Never to be confused with either a mainstream Jazz guitar-bass-drum trio or a Black Metal trio, each of these bands has created a CD which provides original variants on the sounds usually produced by this instrumental combination.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Sandy: 1. (9:48) 2. (11:37); 3. (9:25); 4. (11:08); 5. (7:51); 6. (17:31) 7. (4:09) 8. (7:19) Personnel: Sandy: Sandy Ewen (guitar); Damon Smith (7-String electric upright bass, laptop computer and field Recordings) and Weasel Walter (drums)
Track Listing: Offroad: 1. Optimus Prime 2. Carla Munksolm 3. Simsabaling 4. Tilt Shift Capital 5. Bumblebee 6. Gone Forever Personnel: Offroad: Olaf Rupp (guitar); Jan Roder (electric bass) and Oliver Steidle (drums)
February 17, 2013

"Not a recording , Damon talking about Cy Twombly" — Reviewed by Molly Glentzer

"Not a recording , Damon talking about Cy Twombly"

Musicians: Damon Smith

Reviewed by Molly Glentzer

By Molly Glentzer July 21, 2013 When double bassist Damon Smith was invited last year to play a concert with one of his idols, the British guitarist Keith Rowe, he didn't prepare by practicing his instrument. He headed to the Menil Collection's Cy Twombly Gallery with a timer and his iPod. He wanted to sit for an hour with Twombly's monumental painting "Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)." Smith specializes in improvisation, a form that is to music what Twombly's works are to visual art: brazenly abstract, precise, sometimes cacophonous and sometimes silent, always dynamically propelled. But Smith, who typically performs in 20-minute sets, thought he needed to ratchet up his attention span for Rowe's slower, longer-form improv. Underappreciated : New book offers insight to Twombly Gallery Because Twombly tinkered with the painting for more than years, and it stretches across three canvases totaling about 13 feet by 52 feet, "there's time and scale within the work," Smith said. Newcomers to Twombly's world might think they've stumbled onto the scene of a raucous paint-gun party when they approach "Say Goodbye, Catullus." One's eyes light first on the painting's riotous right side, crowded with oozy bouquets of vivid colors. Stick with it a while, though, and many other elements emerge: the loosely drawn boats at the far end, floating in open space, implying an epic crossing; a whirling dervish of black near the center; scrawly text, including the whited-out phrase "Anatomy of Melancholy," which at one time was the painting's title; references to stories about the passionate Roman poet Catullus and the Greek god Orpheus, trying to retrieve Eurydice from Hades. Then there's the tactile material business - dense layers of several types of paint applied barehanded or dribbled or piled or smeared, plus messy text and skinny marks that appear so random you'd think Twombly's pencil slipped. Smith sees even more. Where some might see a swath of white abstraction, he sees a powerful compositional moment. Mayra Beltran, Staff Delana Bunch stands guard at the Cy Twombly Gallery Focusing intently on "Say Goodbye, Catullus," he said, gave him a way to sustain his music longer. "If I could live next to this …" Since the dawn of free improvisation in the 1960s, many musicians have looked to Twombly and others seeking ways to handle abstract sound. They also read the same poets he admired, including Catullus, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rumi. It's partly about getting collaborators to abandon traditional music techniques such as chord changes, Smith said. "You want to put out material they can't respond to in a canned way." His devotion seems extreme. Smith, 40, moved to Houston from Oakland, Calif., three years ago with his girlfriend, Melissa Venator, a doctoral candidate in art history at Rice University, because it meant he could live near the Twombly Gallery. Mayra Beltran, Staff Musician Damon Smith finds inspiration in the work of artist Cy Twombly. Smith moved to Houston from California with his Rice University doctoral candidate girlfriend to be closer to Twombly's work. "It was a big decision. There's only certain places in America where I can do this music. But I felt if I could live next to this, I'd work at a gas station. Now I'm working at a Texas Art Supply warehouse, which is about a step up from a gas station," he said, grinning. Living a few blocks away, he visits the Montrose gallery at least twice a week. Sometimes he just pops in to view a painting or a mark. "It's not just that I'm coming here and taking ideas for my music," he said. "It's grown into an appreciation of the work itself. I'm experiencing it in a deeper way, for its own sake." During a recent visit, he noticed a puddle of pink near the boats of "Say Goodbye, Catullus" for the first time. "Why and when did that happen in the 21-year process? One day he's in there thinking about these boats and that mythology, and another day he's thinking about getting to that white-light pink situation," Smith said. "The thing about coming here all the time is, the work is different depending on the time of day." Elements of Twombly's paintings fade and recede as the daylight washing softly through Renzo Piano's sailcloth ceiling changes. "A lot of times I'll come in and ask Delana what looks good," Smith said. Delana Bunch, the Twombly Gallery guard, may be the only other person in Houston as obsessed with Twombly as Smith. "I've read all the books, but she's got some information," he said. Twombly, who died in 2011 at age 83, affectionately called Bunch "the girl," even though she was older than 40 when she came to work at the museum 15 years ago. She feels like she's in heaven each day at work and plans vacations around Twombly exhibits. She didn't immediately appreciate it, she admitted. "On the first day on the job, I laughed out loud all day long, 'You call this art?' That's how green I was," Bunch said. Now she can be moved to tears trying to explain Twombly's genius to museum visitors. "Precision of making a mess" As a teen in California, Smith was into freestyle BMX cycling, punk rock and electric bass. But his mother taught piano, and with the Bay Area's busy improv scene, it wasn't long before he found John Coltrane and German free jazz. He studied classical bass first because it was the easiest way to learn how to play, then unplugged for good because improv offered composition more radical than punk's. He discovered Twombly through the liner notes of the CD "When the Sun Is Out You Don't See Stars," an improv classic. That led him to the catalog for Twombly's 1995 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art - the first book in what's now his full library of Twombly reference materials. "Something just resonated aesthetically and compositionally and a lot of other ways," he said. He immediately understood Twombly's ideas about unconnected marks in space. "I liked that you've got these sparser places, then a density built up by the disparate marks or different textures," he said. Smith aims for music made out of sounds that are really cared for, he said, and though Twombly sometimes blobs on the paint, all the draftsmanship around it is precise. "That appealed - the precision of making a mess," Smith said. Twombly's dexterity with art-history references and symbolism also inspired Smith to be fearless in referencing classical composers. "The goal is always to make a painting or an artwork. It's never to tell you that story because you can find that story somewhere else," he added. Smith found a way to riff on George Frideric Handel's "Water Music" a few years ago for his composition "6 Collages to Cy Twombly," a duet he and bassist Thomas Helton played across two rooms at the gallery. (You can view it on YouTube; one of the rooms is Gallery 7, with Twombly's series of green-and-white paintings influenced by the watery impressionism of Claude Monet.) Studying Twombly's grounded aesthetic over time, Smith has also embraced his own aesthetic principles, so he's not always chasing something new. Twombly's palette has influenced him, too. He often composes his scores first as collages, and the covers of the CDs he produces through his label, Balance Point Acoustics, are often Twombly-inspired. For DiverseWorks' current exhibit, "L'espirit de l'escalier," he created an installation with 10 small collages of scores that respond to videos of music by 10 of his favorite artists. "Those are very precise. Those sounds are what I would play and the techniques that are demonstrated," he said. Smith has played internationally with greats including Peter Kowald and Mike Watt. In Houston he typically performs at bars and social events, condensing his compositional ideas into 20-minute sets. "That engages the audience more than if you're barraging them with three hours of music," he said. Smith said he never thought he'd get to perform with Rowe, one of the first improvisers to place his guitar on a tabletop to play it; although their friendship was probably inevitable. Rowe, too, is a fan of Twombly - as well as Mark Rothko - so he's drawn to Houston's Menil Collection. After Nameless Sound presented him in concert here a few years ago, he and Smith connected at the Alabama Ice House. "We should play together," Rowe told Smith and his frequent collaborator, Sandy Ewen. Houston's supportive music community helped make it happen at 14 Pews in October. Smith brought along a copy Twombly's big, 10-panel work "Fifty Days at Iliam" as the score. They improvised live for 35 minutes, then made a 45-minute recording Smith hopes to release soon. When reminded that some people still find Twombly's work hard to decipher, Smith quoted John Cage: "You don't have to call it music if the term offends you." "That complexity is what allows this permanent installation to continue to be rich," he added. "If you come and deal with great work, you have a better chance of doing it yourself."

"BPA -1 Background Information" — Reviewed by Steve Jansen

7.RUINS.9 bandcamp

"BPA -1 Background Information"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith

Reviewed by Steve Jansen

This online release on Damon Smith’s label features the Houston-based double bass player and laptop sound adder/field recorder teaming up with Houston-based Sandy Ewen and her prepared guitar amblings. The four entirely improvised tracks were recorded in 2011 over three sessions and are "pure" -- meaning, there are no overdubs or effects, save for Ewen’s pan pedal.

The first track (each tune on the four-track album is named 1, 2, 3, and 4) begins with Ewen’s scratchy, jangling guitar that pans left and right. In the background, Smith’s laptop-scapes includes something that sounds like it’s coming from the inside of an auto mechanic’s shop. Later, a recording of a bleak factory or a droning industrial strength air conditioner. Overall, the tune, which goes nowhere fast (but not fast enough), is interesting for maybe five minutes, but not for the 21-minute-plus run time.

On the following number, Smith ditches the laptop and plays bass that coaxes a feeling of uneasiness. Ewen adds little paper crumpling sounds before taking a beautiful chalk-guitar solo, with Smith providing a rumbling bass footing. It's the album's best moment.

The third tune is a sonically fuller piece compared to the sparse/minimal directions of the previous tracks. There are equal parts of coming together on guitar, bass, and laptop, and periods of white space. The finale of the 2013 album listens like a sound study that one might come across at a conceptual art gallery or a college campus music building.

"BPA -1 Background Information" — Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

7.RUINS.9 bandcamp

"BPA -1 Background Information"

Musicians: Sandy Ewen / Damon Smith

Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith - Background Information (Balance Point Acoustics)

This release is unusual, for me, for a couple of reasons. One, I'm writing about it based on downloaded sound files heard over my Macbook, something I prefer not to do for obvious sound quality reasons but, that's how it was presented so all caveats therein apply. Second, the duo, guitar and bass with objects, laptop and field recordings, at least abuts on an area that I'm less than comfortable with, the more fervently active area of free improv, that space where my subjective sense iis one of claustrophobia, where, despite the appellation 'free improv' there exist entire worlds of sound that simply won't be admitted. I don't know Ewen's work as near as I can recall, but I've heard an amount of Smith's over the years and have noted that he often straddles these fussy divides, working with Rowe here, Kaiser there, etc. So I was intrigued. As is usually the case, matters are more complicated than easy preconceptions.

The first of four tracks indeed begins in that scratchy realm, the pair sounding as though irritating their strings with combs or other thin, plastic objects. It's an active, prickly 'scape, the sort I often lose patience with. about midway through its 21 minutes, however, the pair ratchet things down just a tad and it's enough to veer the music (to my ears) into a much more enjoyable area, one adjacent to the quite/rough work Rowe has been doing in recent years (with Sachiko M on "contact", for example). Later, some plucks acquire a crystalline aspect that's quite appealing, though the agitative approach also regains sway; an interesting, expansive track though, even if it gave me some agita. The second track begins even more forthrightly in the scratchy zone before veering abruptly into some deliciously sour dronage; again, a half and half experience for this listener. Similarly, even more so, for the next piece, ranging from more extreme assertiveness to delicate plinking over distant, tolling tones; I want to hear more space--the guitar especially, in those otherwise very attractive latter moments, feels intrusive and inconsiderate though, again, the very last sounds, over Smith's rich arco, are delightful. The final cut doesn't stray far either, more brutally rubbed strings here--you can feel catgut straining.

There's a sameness of surface that nags at me here. Every time I pick up Smith's beautiful low playing, I want more and I want it surrounded by either simply the room or adjacent to a companion who's willing to lay out more than Ewen. That approach, though, is very much in keeping with a certain method of attack and it's done quite well; it's just not my particular cuppa. As is, there are nuggets to extract here and "Background Information" is worth hearing, even by those who share my inclinations, if only to shake it up a bit. I'm guessing Smith is quite aware of these issues, perhaps doesn't consider them issues at all. Listened to as a kind of counter-argument to my preconceived notions, it's good, wry fun.

Burns Longer — Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

BPA 2 Burns Longer BC

Burns Longer

Musicians: Fred Van Hove/Damon Smith/Peter Jacquemyn

Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

Fred Van Hove/Damon Smith/Peter Jacquemyn - Burns Longer (Balance Point Acoustics)

Van Hove is another old master (about 71 at the tome of this live 2008 recording) with whom I have only partial familiarity. The early FMP sides, sure, and I had a relatively hard to find (in the US) Musica Libera Belgicae LP that dated from the mid 70s, iirc. There may have been more hearings, not sure. In any case, here, on both piano and accordion, he's joined by bassists Smith and Jacquemyn, the latter also new to me.

The music on this date is more along the lines of that which no longer interests me. Van Hove, on piano, is certainly able but I both don't hear very much to separate him out from any number of free pianists (particularly Europeans, that gargantuan debt to Cecil still weighing heavily) and, moreover, it sounds fairly indistinguishable in essence from much quasi-similar work over the past four or more decades. It's very well played, don't get me wrong, but imparts a bit of "going through the motions", something that the prior recording somehow lacked. On the first of three tracks, the trio create a non-stop torrent for 28 minutes, the bassists bowing aggressively, filling the space and producing (in me) the claustrophobic feeling I get from much similar music; what many find "ecstatic", I find cloying and self-involved. The ten minute second track is only slightly less dense but again, I get that old sense, a la Malfatti, that one isn't any longer permitted to "not play". When Van Hove whips out the trusty squeezebox for the first few minutes of the lengthy final piece, things are mitigated somewhat, the relatively long wheezes coming as a relief, perhaps inducing the bassists toward less freneticism as well. It's my favorite cut here but still, the de rigueur relentlessness that eventuates becomes tiring. I always pick up a closing of doors rather than an opening. Of course, your mileage may vary but I find it instructive, if difficult to quantify, that I really don't pick up more than a trace of the same in the Fielder session, one that strikes me as far more "free" in a fundamental sense. I should mention that these are digital-only releases and I've been listening over my Macbook which, while not too bad, surely negates some of the richer sonics (especially, I'm guessing, that from the basses). Still, it's the structure that seems important to me and while I hear most of the first as flexible and, for lack of a better phrase, aware of the outside world, the Belgian recording hits me as overly hermetic. FMP nostalgists will doubtless disagree. See for yourself.


"BPA 015 From-To-From" — Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

BPA015 FromToFrom CVR BC

"BPA 015 From-To-From"

Musicians: Alvin Fielder/David Dove/Jason Jackson/Damon Smith

Reviewed by Brian Olewnick , Just Outside

Alvin Fielder/David Dove/Jason Jackson/Damon Smith - From to From (Balance Point Acoustics)

Readers know my problematic relationship with jazz post-1980 or so, especially that branch which styles itself as "free" but to my ears is often anything but, rarely recapturing the excitement, visceral and intellectual, of the AACM in its prime, Taylor, what-have-you. I understand exceptions will always exist and while I operate under the assumption that, all things considered, it's not worth wading through that particular morass on the off-chance of locating a jewel, things wend their way to me and I'm usually more than willing to give a fair listen. Sometimes you get lucky.

Though I've only encountered his post-60s work sporadically, I've always enjoyed Alvin Fielder. Fielder strikes me as the spine of this quartet (with David Dove on trombone, Jason Jackson on alto, tenor and baritone and Damon Smith on double bass). 77 years old at the time of the recoding, his work throughout is consistently alove and inventive,, "free" in non-obvious ways, nothing routine. His sensibility often recalls Blackwell, always a great thing for this listener. The music itself ahres much of this conception as well; themes arise, though they tend to do so subtly, but usually dissipate into group playing. There are solos, more or less, but you never get the sense of the kind of stagnant theme/solos/theme structure that I've heard all too often in much purportedly free music of the last couple of decades. Jackson will begin playing only to find, less than a minute later, that Dove enters in. As well, Fielder and Smith don't engage in "support"--that age old idea of Ornette's that rarely receives more than lip service, where the rhythm section is on equal footing with the horns, is always the case here. Again though, for me, it's Fielder who keeps things moving, who stirs the kettle so that nothing stick to the bottom. Jackson, apparently a fairly young player, wears his influences openly on the one hand (I hear Shepp and McPhee among others) but also has his own sound, a wide, roaring one, like a more soulful Gustafsson. I don't recall if I've ever heard Dove's trombone work before (I know of him more as a music organizer); Rudd is clearly in his sound but he also creates his own world and has a good knack for note distribution. This is busy music, no doubt, but manages to remain very fluid (Fielder again), never really treading water. There are moment, like midway through the title track, where I'm reminded of an old favorite band, the mid-70s Shepp group with Charles Majid Greenlee, Cameron Brown and Beaver Harris (where's Burrell?). I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment--I think generating that level of music in 2013 is no mean feat.

A solid, all around vigorous and enjoyable recording