"The Voice Imitator - BPA 006" — Reviewed by Bill Shoemaker - The Wire

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"The Voice Imitator - BPA 006"

Musicians: Gratkowski, Frank/Bryerton, Jerome/Smith, Damon

Reviewed by Bill Shoemaker - The Wire


Although the German saxophonist/clarinettist Frank Gratkowski runs with somehigh profile improvisers, his most promising collaboration may be with two emergent players, percussionist Jerome Bryerton and bass player Damon Smith. Documenting two 2002 Bay Area gigs, Voice Imitator is free ranging improvised music with a strong, innate sense of design. In his sleevenotes, Smith provides part of the answer in stating that he and Bryerton "are a section of some kind"; their foundation-laying, yet non-subordinate approach accounts for much of the music's cohesion. Their approach accomodates both the deliberative and explosive components of Gratkowski's playing. This is egalitarian trio music.

"The Voice Imitator - BPA006 (ALSO REVIEWED - The Welsh Chapel - GJERSTAD/EDWARDS/SANDERS)" — Reviewed by Ken Waxman

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"The Voice Imitator - BPA006 (ALSO REVIEWED - The Welsh Chapel - GJERSTAD/EDWARDS/SANDERS)"


Reviewed by Ken Waxman


What do you get when you put a German and two Americans together in a small room or unite a Norwegian and two Englishmen? While those situations may sound like the set up for a joke from the Second World War, the correct answer, from the evidence of these CDs, is exemplary improvisation.

The Norwegian-British concord involves veteran Nordic alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad --who at one point led a band featuring the late British drum pioneer John Stevens -- and two players from a younger British generation. Singly and together Londoners bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders have played with many of the United Kingdom's reed heavy hitters: John Butcher, Paul Dunmall and Evan Parker. When they connect with Gjerstad on these five instant compositions the result is superior free jazz.

To grasp the distinction between free jazz and free music all you have to do is listen to the second disc featuring another woodwind player with the initials FG. German reedist Frank Gratkowski never reaches the ecstatic heights of Gjerstad's improvising, but his carefully modulated output meshes with that of his rhythm section to produce low-key group music. Gratkowski spreads his improvising among the alto saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet. His American confreres -- Bay area bassist Damon Smith and Chicago percussionist Jerome Bryerton -- are also closer to his age than the Brits are to Gjerstad's. Furthermore the Yanks' singular or collective experience with European reedmen such as Wolfgang Fuchs, Tony Bevan and Butcher has led them to synthesize European aesthetics in their work. You can hear this most clearly on �Profound and shallow", The Voice Imitator's almost 25-minute core composition, which clocks in at more than twice the length of anything else on the CD.

Probably the most abstract of all the tracks, it features Gratkowski's amplification of a single, growling reed whine on bass clarinet gradually reconstituting itself into a replication of the practice scale heard through the prism of sheets of sound. As swifter and swifter reed tones slide into one another then dissolve into bird-like squeaks, Smith holds things together with impressionistic bowed bass lines. Limiting himself to single note excursions, Bryerton splashes out a pressure point on orchestral metal, ethnic percussion and Chinese cymbals, often emphasizing his points with mallets. At times, Gratkowski sounds a sonorous clarinet note that is echoed by the drummer's cymbal top and strummed by the bassist. No one tries to outplay the other, though. All three are sidemen or all are soloists. Closely follow a single rhythm section solo phrase for example, and suddenly you realize that the bass and drums have turned to accompanying the reedist, who is warbling out a series of high-powered split tones.

Throughout the disc, silences are as important to the output as concentrated notes. Gratkowski hisses colored air through his mouthpiece then concentrate on mouth pulses, until occasional notes escape in between the air and spit tones. He overblows to expand his tone and mixes his output with reed kisses, tongue slaps, Bronx cheers, monkey-like gibbering and basso snorts that could come from a baritone. Moving in-and-out of false registers, he uses many of the techniques he's developed for solo playing in this group situation.

Meanwhile Bryerton counters with rumbling drum rolls, abrasive scratches on his ride cymbal, shimmering sizzle cymbals and bull's eye whacks on his Chinese gong. Some timbres seem to result from rim shots on the side of his drums or on wood blocks or from sounds created by hitting the cymbal holder or clamp rather than the instrument itself. More often than not on purpose, his time is beveled rather than operating in a straight line.

The dense blanket of pulses the bassist creates is used by the others as a launching pad for their improvisations. Sometimes, in fact, Smith even plays standard jazz time. Rarely, though, does he have a chance to display the sort of spectacular virtuosity he has shown on discs with Fuchs and the late bass master Peter Kowald.

The set up is a little less democratic on The Welsh Chapel, where, without slighting the contributions of the rhythm section, it's definitely the saxist's show. Moreover, the sort of side-slipping, screeching alto tone Gratkowski sometimes exhibits on the first disc is stock in trade for Gjerstad in his many solos. Irregular honks, prolonged squeal, a Rudy Wiedoeft-wide vibrato and playing entire passages in dog whistle territory are favored.

Not that he's an empty show-off though. On the rare occasions when the energy music subsides to a less frantic pace, a strain of Nordic melancholy infects his solos. The Norwegian has played clarinet and bass clarinet on other discs, and while he's listed as only playing alto saxophone here, some of the more vehement, tone-sliding passages sound like they may come from those wooden horns.

�The Welsh chapel: Part 3" has more than enough space to indicate how the trio setting plays out. With a wheezing bass line and drum and cymbal brush work underneath, Gjerstad first begins mutating and bending his alto work from trills to clenched squeaks and hollow whistles. The crack of a drumstick on the snare introduces speedier altered and slurred tones, violent triple tonguing and honking. Cycling through many keys and pitches, the saxman introduces a feeling of constant motion, using glosolalia as extreme as anything blown in the energy music years. Cymbals and cowbell pressure from Sanders and a vamping ostinato from Edwards move the accompaniment up a notch, as Gjerstad plows on regardless. Wiggling raw excitement, his staccato phrasing and foghorn honks seem to consume the music in one gulp.

A resonating bass solo plus indirect cymbal pings calm the presentation. Here in this lower-pitched, more pacific output is where Gjerstad sounds as if he's playing a bass clarinet. With the rhythm section occupied with passing tones, he slides chromatically further down the scale, ending with a crescendo of trills matched by the drone of arco bass strings.

Perhaps due to the recording process, there always seems to be an echoing drone emanating from Edwards' strings, unlike the clear sound of Smith produces form his axe. Be that as it may, the Englishman still produces timbres that range from ones that resemble Charlie Haden's foursquare work with Ornette Coleman to steely, Dobro-like finger picking. Sanders, who isn't adverse to exercising his cowbell, sometimes produces tones that sound as if miniature cymbals have been placed on top of his ride and sizzle cymbals. At times he also appears to be using his hands on the snare skin for a more African-style sound.

As for the Norwegian, between his swirl of shrieking high notes and wet bubbles of clearly emphasized split tones -- among other reed exercises -- he exposes a constant fount of ideas, confirming his leadership here, as well as his long tenure as an outside musician in his native country.

Choosing between two woodwind players with the initials FG who both work with bass and drums is impossible. In their hands-across-the-sea meetings both reedists expose two equally valid ways of creating improvised music on these fine CDs.

Track Listing: Voice: 1. Three character attacks: Photographers; 2. The prince; 3. Profound and shallow Two instances of libel/one memory lapse; 4. Increased (a); 5. Increased (b); 6. Impossible Track Listing: Welsh: 1. The Welsh chapel: Part 1; 2. The Welsh chapel: part 2; 3. The Welsh chapel: Part 3; 4. The Welsh chapel: part 4; 5. The Welsh chapel: part 5 Personnel: Voice: Frank Gratkowski, alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Damon Smith, bass; Jerome Bryerton, percussion Personnel: Welsh: Frode Gjerstad, alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; John Edwards, bass; Mark Sanders, drums


"Mirrors-Broken But No Dust - BPA 001" — Reviewed by RENT ROMUS, Transbay Calendar/Jazz Steps

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"Mirrors-Broken But No Dust - BPA 001"

Musicians: Peter Kowald, Damon Smith

Reviewed by RENT ROMUS, Transbay Calendar/Jazz Steps


Mirrors-Broken But No Dust -Balance Point Acoustics
Peter Kowald double bass
Damon Smith double bass
From the newest upstart D.I.Y. musician run label Balance Point Acoustics, comes Damon Smith, a blasting, bombastic bhrama bull of a bass player joining stellar forces with bass master and iconoclast Peter Kowald to produce a sonic gem of a recording. Normally, I would not have been into listening to a recording with only strings but the tonal concepts displayed here warrant a good hard listen. The recordings took place both live at the now defunct Gallery 2310 and the studios of Miles Boisen. The interaction of the two massive double basses is to say the least, impressive. Massive walls of sound and textures bouncing and playing off each other like the rushing of a waterfall come to mind. Here on these dates the two are definitely in their element and firmly on the same page of surreal landscapes. They utilize the instruments to their fullest capability everywhere from percussive tonal slapping to elongated solemn bowing. The most amazing aspect is the music holds my attention by pulling in so many e (Incomplete)

Mirrors Broken but No Dust - BPA 001 The Sale of Tickets for Money Was Abolished - BPA 002" — Reviewed by Derk Richardson - SFWeekly

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Mirrors Broken but No Dust - BPA 001 The Sale of Tickets for Money Was Abolished - BPA 002"

Musicians: Peter Kowald, Damon Smith & Tony Bevan, Damon Smith, Scott R. Looney

Reviewed by Derk Richardson - SFWeekly


In the Bay Area's tight-knit but internationally networked creative music community, few have worked harder at mastering an instrument and boosting the scene than bassist Damon Smith. His willingness to throw himself into every available context, even when he's in over his head, has accelerated the advancement of his technical skill and his on-the-spot creativity. On the first two releases from yet another local label dedicated to documenting the extemporaneous encounters that occur where only a fraction of the population is willing to go (in terms of both musical ideas and the physical spaces where they're played out), Smith exercises burgeoning talents to absorbing effect.

Mirrors is a set of contrabass duets with German virtuoso Peter Kowald. The first half of the CD captures an April 2000 live performance at Gallery 2310 in Oakland, a half-hour-long musical conversation with extended bowed and pizzicato techniques as the vocabulary. Five days later the pair went into an Oakland studio and recorded seven shorter improvised encounters. What these uncannily like-minded musicians explore is far removed from jazz bass solos that skitter up and down the neck with fluttering runs and tricky double stops. They are immersing themselves in a vast moment in which listening and instantaneously responding are one, with fascinating, rich textures and sonic landscapes as the result.

The Sale of Tickets is a set of 10 instant compositions performed in a two-hour session that took place between the two Kowald-Smith encounters. The instrumentation — Englishman Tony Bevan plays bass sax and local new-music activist Scott R. Looney plays prepared piano and electronics — generates a different, often more pointillist field of sound, but the feel of simultaneous urgency and focused attention is similar to that on Mirrors. Investigating a world opened up by Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Bertram Turetzky, and others, these musicians give us the chance to renew our understanding and experience of music.


Three October Meetings BPA 003 — Reviewed by Bill Smith, Vancouver Jazz

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Three October Meetings BPA 003

Musicians: Wolfgang Fuchs, Jerome Bryerton, Damon Smith

Reviewed by Bill Smith, Vancouver Jazz


Article before review added for your reading enjoyment.

Compact Discs in review

The echoic whispers of ghosts, howls from hidden vanished places. (WhereDead Voices Gather - Nick Tosches). Jazz has a substantial documented history, providing quotable references in abundance, often repeating facts that are merely hearsay and often untrue. The six CDs under observation are not "jazz", are not American and are not referenced by that lineage. Four of the participants have been part of my own personal performance history.

Spoken language seems to be a pertinent factor in improvised music, the dialects and colloquialisms creating natural inherent sound and rhythmic structure. The rhythm of the American spoken language, for example, is a major element in the idea of swing. The music under review is influenced by the language systems of Europe and Britain.

Up Deaf Cat Lane, far enough away from even a country road, the chattering classes' endless urban noise is absent from my everyday life, replaced at worst by the occasional whine of a chain saw or the warning bark of a dog, presenting the opportunity of quietude often augmented by the melodious musical calls made by birds and insects, allowing me to relate to the sound of improvised music from another perspective, often appearing as an extension of this natural order.

Having always been a great lover of tunes, especially those of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, and half-a-century of fanatical devotion to jazz music, it is clear that European improvised music is not a natural extension of that art form, and it cannot be described utilising the same criterion; certainly past academic reasoning. To play improvised music demands a formidable technique, great attention to detail, and an outstanding imagination, as there is no standard support system to lean upon. Only the moment, a moment that is occurring for the audience and performers simultaneously. All hearing it for the first time. The experience is not the simple minded notion of pleasure, although that could be enough, but rather the stimulation of senses, an awakening to a music spontaneously conceived. The CDs under review are a duet and five trios, possibly perfect configurations, allowing an unrestrained familiarity to develop.

Trombonist/cellist G�nter Christmann appears on two of the recordings; in duet with vocalist(!) Phil Minton ("(for) friends and neighbo(u)rs" - concepts of doing cod 008/explico 12) and in trio with Serge Baghdassarians (guitar & electronics) and Boris Baltschun (sampler & electronics) (mal d'archive - concepts of doing cod007/explico 11). (

The duet presents two highly experienced free improvisers at the top of their form � quite my favourite improvised music CD of recent times � illustrating the level of diversity and interaction it's possible to achieve; their dialogue never just casually conversational. Serious wide-ranging topics are clearly apparent. Christmann's arsenal of trombone techniques vocalize their own accord; pops, slurs, squeals and squeaks � a certain grumbling, gathering together with close listening purity. His cello a little more scrabble scratch. There are trade-mark Minton effects; the lunatic opera singer, and Mickey's friend Donald makes a brief appearance. They emerge occasionally sanctified, small chills creeping from darkly shadowed ominous corners, a certain casual danger, only to burst forth into uproarious laughter.

G�nter Christmann's musical journey began in 1968 and embodies a variety of disciplines which include a tenure with the legendary Globe Unity Orchestra. From the late seventies on he developed a series under the generic name VARIO working and touring with an international who's who of musicians; once even in Canada (1979). His fancy has seen him working with dancers, actors and acrobats, and in live performance with film; some of which he himself creates. He has also mastered the difficult art of solo trombone playing.

The second CD has a quite different feel, more minimalist in character with spikey, brittle and somewhat edgey results utilising the current language of electronically generated sound sources, the 15 short pieces (1:44 - 8:04) seemingly tightly contained, often creating an unsettling urgency, or in contrast carefully restrained and overly fastidious character refinements.

Drummer/percussionist Roger Turner, an accomplice of both Christmann and Minton, appears on two trio CDs, Konk Pack - Big Deep - GROB 102 ( with Tim Hodgkinson (flat guitar, electronics, clarinet & alto saxophone) and Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer), and PUT - Umlaut - NURNICHTNUR CD 1000425 ( with Birgit Ulher (trumpet) and Ulrich Phillipp (double bass).

As with Minton, Turner and Hodgkinson come from a British history with the influential language of two 1950's shows; the Goon Show on radio and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men on television. Both revolutionary programs that utilised an incredible array of sound effects, much of which has found its way into everyday language. For example The Flowerpot Men's language, officially called Oddle Poddle, was notable for being almost completely incomprehensible: "Waddle oo tikoo dop? Gloob a waddle a hop" for example, translates as "What do you think of that? Gloves as well as a hat".

The inclusion of percussion, or indeed dissimilar combinations of instruments, immediately alters the music's personality, and with Konk Pack percussion appears as its centrepiece, with Turner's facile, fleet and focussed contribution giving the music an internal rapidity. Unlike many free improvisers his history begins with strong sixties jazz roots, a love of music performed by Ornette, Mingus, Coltrane et al, often giving this music an original element of "swing". As a trio they demonstrate a visceral integrated music, the end result a recognizable collective character. Over the course of the six pieces � each with a different personality � the dynamic/aural range and the vast array of electronic and rhythmic combinations allow us to experience the possibilities available. The longest piece (not head only in - 18:41) is a superb example of how interest is sustained in improvised music; moving about, developing from minimal flutter-click-clatter to a powerful surging "composition" � dare I say: "swinging like the clappers" � always creating an unhesitant linear story. In contrast there is the quietly abstracted; or elongated wave forms creating great drama, imagining other bodies, a mime perhaps. Bursts of energy from a landscape of tiny tinny squiggles, pushing jerkily forward. Occasionally a skittery clarinet, the odd jolly moment, but certainly not a joke. And not a music of high-tech electronics � even an old radio might do it. The finalé approaches roar with a most dramatic ending of abrupt silence. Quite my favourite band at the Victo 2000 gathering, and the first example of electronically integrated music to catch my fancy.

The final 2 CDs, the above listed Umlaut, and Three October Meetings - balance point acoustics 003 ( with Wolfgang Fuchs (contrabass & bass clarinets, and sopranino saxophone), Jerome Bryerton (percussion) and Damon Smith (double bass), could superficially imply that the inclusion of bass and drums would steer the results toward jazz, create a rhythm section. This of course is not the case, not the intention, for even with this configuration the music is collectively created.

Umlaut gives us a continuous series of mostly miniatures, a series of dramatic vignettes in the form of sound sculptures � textural, pointillist portraits � each containing a certain delicacy among its brusque phrasing. A tad secret with a Zen sensibility, relying on a listener's certain mood. I believe it was Gerry Mulligan who said of Monk's music � "it is the silences as much as the notes", and in this music, so far removed from American history, it is often the silences that guide its course.

The recording with Wolfgang Fuchs finds him in the company of two younger Americans born in the same year that he began performing in public. His journey is well documented, his founding and leading the King Übü Örchestrü in 1983 an important stage in the ongoing language of Improvisation. This music, although with American partners, is much in his customary style; buzzy, insistent and often densely forceful. The snakey, sliding, somewhat brittle sopranino, popping, squealing, manipulated with fleet of tongue technique; the lower clef clarinets burbling away. The three meetings, two live and one in a studio, vary from brief forays to more extended works, and have an inclination toward obliging.

Are these replications of life sound, of everyday experience? Does it matter if it's rural or urban? In the end it's written language describing sound, sounds for which other ears may hear other voices.


"Mirrors - Broken but no Dust - BPA001" — Reviewed by Paul Sharpe, Double Bassist

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"Mirrors - Broken but no Dust - BPA001"

Musicians: Peter Kowald, Damon Smith

Reviewed by Paul Sharpe, Double Bassist


On their new recording, Kowald and smith take improvisation to levels of artistic and technical virtuosity rarely encountered, and the fresh, stimulating and exploratory quality of their improvisations are well preserved here.

The disc is comprised of nine unnamed tracks. The first two are actually one 31-mintue improvisation recorded live. Something that marks the entire recording is an extremely dense and intense texture, and it took me several minutes to accept that only two basses were playing. The pace is generally frenetic, but never lacks direction, and the pieces range from brutal and explosive to ethereal.

The interplay between both artists is symbiotic, and it seems to spring from one source rather than two. The bassists exploit the complete palette of technique, color, register and noise, producing a gripping collage. Every non-traditional technique used not only fits the music perfectly, but it also portrays the eclectic tastes of both artists. The double bass with it's resonance, range, versatility and expressive power, is the ideal instrument for this sort of musical exploration.

The high-quality of engineering of this recording helps to fully experience this music. The quality and closeness of the sound are very similar to what one hears while actually playing an acoustic instrument, which makes the music and it's effect very direct and visceral for the listener.

"The Voice Imitator - BPA006" — Reviewed by François Couture, All Music Guide

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"The Voice Imitator - BPA006"

Musicians: Gratkowski, Frank/Bryerton, Jerome/Smith, Damon

Reviewed by François Couture, All Music Guide


In October of 2002, Frank Gratkowski took a trip to the US West Coast, where he teamed up with the rhythm section ("it would be difficult to call us a rhythm section, but we are a section of some kind," writes Smith in the liner notes) of bassist Damon Smith and drummer Jerome Bryerton. The Voice Imitator chronicles two concerts performed on consecutive days in San Francisco and Oakland, CA. The first difference setting this disc slightly apart from Gratkowski's other albums is that the music is 100% freely improvised. The second difference is that he plays more clarinets than saxophones. The first concert, titled "Three Character Attacks" offers the widest range of dynamics and is overall the more enjoyable of the two. It features some of the reedsman's trademark extreme dynamic leaps, moving very quickly from a rapid-fire, Fire Music-inspired section to moments of rigid asceticism. The third piece from that concert is memorable. Halfway in, Gratkowski sticks to Spartan gurgles and smacks while Smith answers him with slaps from his loosened bass string. Bryerton works subtle miracles in the background to lead to a new build-up that will inspire the reedsman to pick up his saxophone and start blowing post-bop style -- the only occasion where one hears traces of a jazz background and a distinction between soloist and rhythm section. The second concert, "Two Instances of Livel/One Memory Lapse," follows a very different path. More homogenous, the music remains textural, occasionally getting very close to the drone. The focus is kept on deep listening, eschewing excitement in favor of complex instant harmonic and textural relationships between the players. A bit less engaging, it still offers an interesting listen, but the concerts are better approached as separate entities.

"Dessert Sweets - BPA004" — Reviewed by Randal Mcllroy - Coda

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"Dessert Sweets - BPA004"

Musicians: Mark Weaver, Biggie Vinkeloe, Damon Smith

Reviewed by Randal Mcllroy - Coda



Through reviewing for this organ your man had the good fortune to be introduced to the music of swedish alto saxophonist/flautist biggi vinkeloe through "One Way Out" and "Slow Drags and Interludes" trio records with Peeter Uuskyla and either Peter Kowald or Barre Phillips on bass that offered short succint reports fro quizzical blues to vaguely folkish fluting. the Dessert Sweets trio continues the economicla programing-- 22 tracks in one hour!--- but pits her against the lower voices of tuba/trombone player Mark Weaver and bassist Damon Smith. While the trio is balanced exquisitely with weaver doing things you dont expect a tuba to do and Smith conjouring rimshot on the bass when nessesary, Vinkeloe remains the magnet. Her alto playing refers to Ornette's blues, but less excitbly, while her flute conjours echos of some lost culture's folk music.

"The Sale of Tickets for Money was Abolished - BPA 002" — Reviewed by Robin Stowell, Double Bassist

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"The Sale of Tickets for Money was Abolished - BPA 002"


Reviewed by Robin Stowell, Double Bassist


The sleeve note declaration that this recording was made in two hours with only one small edit may raise some doubts about the artistic significance of it's content. Further doubts may be fuelled by: the comment that the performers 'were pressed for time since tony had to catch a plane'; the 'instant composition' nature of the recorded fare; and the fact that the titles of the 10 tracks were determined after the recording sessions with reference to Jorge Luis Borges The Babylon Lottery.

Nevertheless, the manner in which Damon Smith and Scott Looney tap a wide range of extended techniques here is astonishing, while bass saxophonist Tony Bevan frequently acts as an intermediary and runs the gamut of grinding, growling, groaning, quacking and singing - notably in the most extended improvisation 'Debris of a Mask Factory'. In the two duo items, Bevan combine with Smith in 'An Adverse Drawing Might Mean Mutilation or Death' and finds Looney in scintilating form in 'To Accept Errors is not to Contradict Fate'. 'The music poses new questions if you are willing to hear them,' says Rubben Radding somewhat puzzlingly in his sleeve note. Perhaps I was merely listening and not 'really hearing'.

Three October Meetings live concert review — Reviewed by Scott Hreha, One Final Note

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Three October Meetings live concert review

Musicians: Fuchs / Bryerton / Smith

Reviewed by Scott Hreha, One Final Note


Sitting inside a dark theater on the first truly beautiful spring evening in Minneapolis wasn't exactly the most enlivening prospect; but then again, it's not every day that we get the opportunity to see a multi-national trio in concert without making the 300-plus mile trip to Chicago. Billed as Three October Meetings, Wolfgang Fuchs (reeds, Germany), Damon Smith (bass, Oakland) and Jerome Bryerton (percussion, Chicago) set up shop in the small theater attached to the Acadia Cafe and proceeded to spin two sets' worth of delicately filigreed free improv for a small, but rapt audience.

Fuchs' choice of reeds was the group's most notable departure from the standard horn/bass/drums trio format; and even if the distance between his favored bass clarinet and sopranino saxophone left a lot of uninvestigated middle ground, the degree of engagement he elicited from his collaborators more than justified his extreme taste in tonality. I'd have to give Fuchs' bass clarinet work the edge, if only for the piece in the second set where he dropped into an overblown exploration of the instrument's lowest registers, making it sound more like one of Sun Ra's farthest-out Moog solos than a member of the woodwind family. His sopranino playing, on the other hand, focused a bit too sharply on the small horn's inherent chirpiness, but still managed to make some impressive statements via circular breathing.

Bryerton's set-up fell in line with what has become increasingly stock-in-trade for improv drummers: A minimal trap kit enhanced by a dumbeck, bowed cymbals and a small army of percussive gadgets. Although Bryerton relied perhaps too heavily on his bowed cymbals over the course of the evening, he did display remarkable discipline in terms of the volume normally associated with that extended percussive technique. Conversely, he used a small Tibetan gong in combination with the snare and toms to wonderful effect throughout both sets, damping its tone in proportion to the music's intensity.

Bassist Damon Smith proved to be the group's linchpin, adjusting his contributions to fit the sonic flow with confidence and expertise. It's no small feat for an unamplified bass to maintain equal footing in a mix that includes percussion of any sort, but Smith was perfectly audible for the entire show. And while his pizzicato work was solid by any definition, it was his dexterity with the bow that really stood out—particularly his ability to coax a myriad of harmonics from beyond the neck of his bass.

Together, the trio constructed its music with an incredible amount of restraint—an element that's so often lacking in freely improvising ensembles. The first set had its share of strong moments, but the group really seemed to connect for the second set's three distinct pieces—to the point where the musicians themselves were surprised by the level of communication they had achieved. But that's the beauty of creating music in the moment—sometimes it's brilliant, sometimes it falls flat on its face. This trio looked, despite its geographical challenges, like one of those singular groups that understands itself well enough to stand upright under just about any circumstances.

"The Happymakers - BPA 008" — Reviewed by Andy Hamilton, The Wire. Issue 247

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"The Happymakers - BPA 008"

Musicians: Fuchs / Lindsay / Smith / Baghdassarians / Baltschun

Reviewed by Andy Hamilton, The Wire. Issue 247


In his sleevenote, Lisle Ellis comments that clarinetist Jacob Lindsay and bassist Damon Smith represent a new generation of American improvisors whose models are Derek Bailey, Evan Parker ad Peter Kowald rather than the Jazz masters. Born in 1972 in Spokane, Washington state, Damon Smith's main teacher was Ellis, but he also has a classical background. When he heard Kowald's Duos: Europa he sold his Fender bass and concentrated solely on acoustic bass and free music. The presence of live electronics - in the persons of Serge Baghdassarians and Boris Baltschun, both from Berlin - is another contemporary development in Improv.

Partly because this approach to musical creation is so intuitive, it's often easier to recognise its quality than to know why it's good. Here, the precision and concentration of effects and the players' evident instrumental mastery - Wolfgang Fuch's sopranino saxaphone, antagonistic and abrasive, is a particular delight. Through 11 tracks named simply "Ma(r)ker 1-11", these edgy, intense and often emotional collaborations make for a really outstanding album. A major plus is the vivid recording - no free players' hangups about hi-fi from these guys.

Zero Plus BPA 007 — Reviewed by Ken Waxman for &


Zero Plus BPA 007

Musicians: Josephson/Waschmann/Lindsay/Smith/Blume

Reviewed by Ken Waxman for &

Brimming with a sensibility that comes from both so-called serious experimental music and free improv, ZERO PLUS adds a vocal component to the work of Bay-area bassist Damon Smith, who has taking a Cook's tour of Euro-centred improv over the past half-decade.

Adding American know-how -- and local associates -- to recorded meetings with such accomplished EuroImprov practitioners as German multi-reedman Wolfgang Fuchs and Swedish-based saxist Biggi Vinkeloe, the bassist now tours with Fuchs. Not content reaching one plateau, Smith is part of many other bands, including the triple d trio, expanded by the clarinets of young Jacob Lindsay, a member of Marco Eneidi's American Jungle Orchestra and the wordless vocalizing of Aurora Josephson. Besides working in free improv contexts, Josephson has performed with some of the more open-minded contemporary composers such as Alvin Curran and Christian Wolff

This CD mixes the Bay area trio, with two longtime EuroImprov collaborators: British violinist Philipp Wachsmann -- who often works with reedist Evan Parker-- and German drummer Martin Blume. The drummer's interactions have included work with multi-directional British players as reedist John Butcher.

Overall, strategy seems to be to meld Josephson's tones with one or another front-line instrument, while the other players fill in the gaps. One exception to this rule is "Two men in Straw Hats/Big Fleas have Little Fleas" where the linked titles may be the clue that the tune's first couple or so minutes are a duet between the bassist and vocalist.

Lindsay then enters with harsh tongue slaps that angle up to intermittent squeaks and flutter tonguing, a style that owes as much to Vinny Golia as Eric Dolphy. With a powerful bass interpolation, drum rumbles and cymbal smacks, the space is cleared for Wachsmann to extend his fiddle plucks with electronic loops. At the same time, the vocalist tries on many sound guises from dog barking to strangled yelling. As the piece accelerates to multi-counterpoint at cross-purposes, it takes circular string sections, segmented drums rebounds and a woody split tone from the clarinet to ease it to a finale.

"Scissors Cut Paper", the inaugural -- and at more than 13 minutes -- longest track sets up the situation from the beginning. Working off descending violin spiccato, rattling bass drum bops and bass clarinet buzzes, the tune evolves into a examination of broken harmonies that ricochet between aviary crackles from the reedist and panting breathes from the vocalist. Soon the violinist's and bassist's legato lines coalesce then soften into deconstructed squeaks, clicks and cries. Switching partners -- and with Smith sounding a sul tasto line -- Josephson first warbles, then yawns, then growls. Lindsay and Wachsmann together are soon on the case, the reedman with echoing vibrations and the fiddler with squeaking ponticello. As Blume rolls over the skins, Wachsmann produces frailing banjo-like pizzicato, climaxing in arco unison with Josephson's voice.

Banjo-like, mandolin-like and other pizzicato approximations aren't the veteran violinist's only ruses. On "Long Tail on a Ghost", his double and triple stopping sound as if they're coming from a Chinese guzheng. At best they perfectly match Blume's rattling nerve beats and snare raps that could come from a Chinese dulcimer hammered with bamboo sticks.

Elsewhere, Wachsmann's electronic ponticello loops are most useful on "Table Z", as backdrop for Lindsay's most extensive reed showcase. Twittering-bird like tones, body tube resonation and fluttering vibrations are expelled, at points meeting up with Josephson's verbal peeps.

As for the vocalist, sometimes she warbles like a lyric soprano with feathery whippoorwill cries. Or in contrast she keens like a grieving widow, constructing a portion of her solo out of panting obbligato. She giggles, sniffs and expels semi-orgasmic cries other places. But -- and hopefully this isn't misplaced gallantry -- it's one of the males who supplies the evil growls, cartoon pirate cackles and Bronx cheers. Overall, her timbres fit tongue-and-groove with shuffle bowing and sul tasto string parts, emphasized chalumeau reed portions and speedy fragmented drum patterns.

ZERO PLUS is an interesting change of pace for Smith and the others, but at nearly 69 minutes, the feeling remains that some judicious cutting would have resulted in a far more satisfying CD. The youthful Californians have proven that they can work in the company of the veterans. What else they do will be worth hearing.

Track Listing: Zero: The Hairy Heel of Achilles 1. Scissors Cut Paper 2. Tiger, Tiger! 3. Long Tail on a Ghost 4. The Deadly Tube La Tricoteuse: 5. Two men in Straw Hats/Big Fleas have Little Fleas 6. A Bird with a Wing Down Zerotables: 7. Facts or Figures 8. Table Z 9. Zero Minus 10. Zero 11. Zero Plus

Personnel: Zero: Jacob Lindsay (Ab, Bb and bass clarinets); Philipp Wachsmann (violin, electronics); Damon Smith (bass); Martin Blume (percussion); Aurora Josephson (voice)


"Sperrgut" — Reviewed by Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy




Reviewed by Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy

BIRGIT ULHER - DAMON SMITH - MARTIN BLUME Sperrgut (Balance Point Acoustics, bpa009): Damon Smith (*1972, Spokane, WA) verdankte Mike Watt 1991 den Kick vom BMX-Bicycle-Freestyler zum Fenderbassisten, bevor ihn 1994 die Bekanntschaft mit der Musik von Peter Kowald zum Kontrabass wechseln ließ und damit erneut zum Freestyle. Seitdem war er vor allem im Kontext mit dem Altosaxophonisten Marco Eneidi zu hören, mit Gianni Gebbia und auch Kowald persönlich oder auch im Emergency String Quartet und im Dave Tucker West Coast Project (beides BA-einschlägig). Seit einiger Zeit widmet sich das BPA-Label in Oakland speziell seiner Musik, mit der er auffallend häufig Begegnungen mit Musikern aus Germany sucht - neben Kowald etwa Wolfgang Fuchs, Frank Gratkowski, Serge Baghdassarians, Boris Baltschun oder Martin Blume (Zero Plus, bpa007). Erneut mit dem Bochumer Drummer und mit der Trompeterin Birgit Ulher, beide im Oktober 2004 auf musikalischer Stipvisite an der West Coast, gelingt Smith eine exemplarische Reihe von Soundclashes, geradezu fiebrige Stenographien aus geräuschhaften Kürzeln, die durch ihre Quickness und spritzige Fülle am ‚expressiven‘, besser, am dynamischen Pol der Plinkplonkskala herum wirbeln. Rasende Molekularbewegungen, so schnell und funkelnd, dass die Lautpixel bei aller Kompression und Reibung soviel ‚Luft‘, soviel Zeit und Raum zwischen sich lassen wie die Sternenmilch und der Satellitenschrott im Makrokosmos. Sperrgut ist ein schönes deutsches Wort und lässt anklingen, dass sich darunter noch allerhand Brauchbares finden ließe, statt es zu zerschreddern und in Müllheizkraftwerken durch den Schlot zu jagen. Sperrig ist die schnarrende, spuckig zerstotterte, schabende, rappelnde, mit erstaunlichen Saitenverbiegungen aufwartende Ästhetik des Trios insofern, dass sie nicht glatt ins Ohr rutscht, dass sie aneckt, kratzt, kitzelt, irritiert, manchmal zu winzig für das Auge, oft zu schnell für das Ohr. Dass zwischen Sperrgut und Müll Platz für ein riesiges Kulturindustriegebiet bleibt, ist freilich nicht gerade eine Neuigkeit. Bad Alchemy Rigobert Dittmann Franz-Ludwig-Str.11 97072 Würzburg

"Sperrgut" — Reviewed by Massimo Ricci,




Reviewed by Massimo Ricci,



Currently in a very prolific phase of her career, here Birgit Ulher joins forces with bass player Damon Smith and percussionist Martin Blume in a lively trio which applies various methods to concoct a lively expressiveness, enhanced by the musicians' fine technical abilities. At times almost jubilant, the enthusiastic incitement of these conversations becomes a reflection on contrasting vibrations, enriched by emphatic twists and percussive knots which keep the attention level quite high. The reciprocal responsiveness shown by the participants throughout the nine tracks of this album is particularly significant: Ulher's trumpet maintains - not without difficulty - a strong sense of denial of everything that could be defined as "common", while Smith and Blume's division of the low-frequency range creates additional substance, thus contributing to the transformation of this music from a complex miniature to a dedicated exploration of challenging languages.

"Cruxes" — Reviewed by Dan Warburton, Paris Transatlantic

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Musicians: Josephson/Leandre/Smith/Blume

Reviewed by Dan Warburton, Paris Transatlantic

This latest offering on Damon Smith's Balance Point Acoustics imprint, like its immediate predecessor Sperrgut, features the Bay Area bassist in the company of German percussionist Martin Blume. They're joined by Aurora Josephson on vocals – her linocuts also grace the album's back tray and booklet – and French bassist (and occasional manic vocalist herself) Joëlle Léandre, who was paying a return visit to Oakland's Mills College when this was recorded in October 2004. Léandre's background in contemporary classical music, which included notable friendships with Giacinto Scelsi and John Cage, will be familiar to readers of these pages, and, in conjunction with Josephson's occasional well-rounded soprano, it adds a touch of conservatory gravitas to Cruxes, notably on the drone that opens the closing "Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi!", one of four tracks recorded live at the Berkeley Art Centre. Three of the eight studio takes recorded the day before are duets – the Smith / Léandre bass battle on "Siberia of the Mind" is particularly exciting – and Blume sits out the trio, "Scriabin the Derailer", which begins with Smith and Léandre slashing out into space with their bows. A fitting metaphor for the two bass jousts that characterise the album as a whole. It's a subtle, supple set of pieces, but despite the fact she has a pretty voice I'm not entirely convinced by what Josephson is doing when things really get swinging on "Tanglefoot Flypaper". She sounds more at ease on the live cuts, which also feature some splendid arco interplay between the bassists – and don't fall for that dumb old line that Léandre's the "classical" player and Smith the "jazzman", because it doesn't work like that – as ever tastefully accompanied by Blume's meticulous pointillism.–DW

"Elengans - Nuscope 1017" — Reviewed by Bruce Galanter

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"Elengans - Nuscope 1017"

Musicians: Biggi Vinkeloe/Damon Smith/Kjell Nordeson

Reviewed by Bruce Galanter


"This is another extra-special trio offering from the consistently excellent nuscope label featuring Ms. Biggi Vinkeloe on alto sax & flute, Damon Smith on contrabass and Kjell Nordeson on drums & vibes. Commencing with the somber, "Today, The Sun is Blue", the sax and bowed bass softly drift together. All but one of the 14 pieces is under 5 1/2 minutes, so that each piece remains focused on a few ideas at a time. The title piece is the only one that passes the 7 minute mark and the pace starts to speed up a bit, as the trio slowly ascend and swirl together modestly. Biggi's warm tone and careful placement of notes make this one of the most dreamy of any improv discs I've heard for quite some time. Kjell's spacious, hovering vibes also add a most subtle haunting vibe to the proceedings. Damon also does some fine work by adding exquisite punctuation a note or two at a time, making each one count, never too busy, yet always helping center what is slowly revealed. At times, I hear Ornette's "Golden Circle" trio from the mid-sixties, played almost in slow motion, yet they remain fascinating and quite restrained simultaneously. I hear the ghost-like spirit of Jimmy Giuffre in there somewhere as well." Bruce Galanter, Downtown Music Gallery

"Cruxes" — Reviewed by Marc Medwin

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Musicians: Aurora Josephson/Joelle Leandre/Martin Blume

Reviewed by Marc Medwin

I admire both Jöelle Léandre and Damon Smith for their ability to adapt convincingly to whatever situation presents itself. This new disc is a particularly strong case in point. All members of the group prove malleable without necessitating any sacrifice or creating negative tension. Of course, there are the most readily apparent meldings, such as the finest moments of “Un Souer de Charite”; Léandre and Josephson become a single instrument as the latter switches from shrillings and raspings to a beautiful full-voice that blooms rather than simply swelling. Léandre reacts—precipitates?—with arco tremolo in thirds or seconds, all elements meshing in a kind of static “third space”. As wonderful as such occurrences are, it’s even more spectacular to hear how the two basses joust, react and merge; there’s some extraordinarily intense listening going on, every moment realizing one combinatorial possibility only to leave myriad others satellite, yet the results are almost always satisfying. The other “pitched” musicians indulge Smith’s penchant for tonal passages with alacrity, Josephson swinging the gamut from Mintonesque gurgles and screeches to full-throated Patty Waters-inflected blues. Far removed from it’s “French” counterpart from the live material, “Imaginary paintings/Imaginary Frames” becomes a song without words as Josephson slides, swoops and glides over it, Smith, Léandre and Blume providing a rock-solid and immensely sensitive landscape through which she travels. As with many improv discs, it is sometimes difficult to tell precisely who’s responsible for any given sound, Martin Blume being partially responsible for the confusion. He is superb, and this project, as well as his other work for the label, make me eager to hear as much from him as I can. He strikes with force, rattles and shimmers with wisdom and clarity, changing timbre if not style from piece to piece. “The Elusive Basilisk” finds him at his most transparent, and are those whips he’s woofing around? The studio half of the disc bristles with as much energy as do the live portions. The recording is first-rate. Another fine disc from what is becoming one of my favorite improv labels. ~ Marc Medwin

"Sextessense: A Tribute to John Stevens & SME " — Reviewed by Bruce Galanter

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"Sextessense: A Tribute to John Stevens & SME "


Reviewed by Bruce Galanter


JOHN BUTCHER/HENRY KAISER/AARON BENNETT/DANIELLE DEGRUTTOLA/DAMON SMITH/JEROME BRYERTON - Sextessense: A Tribute to John Stevens & SME [Spontaneous Music Ensemble] (Balance Point Acoustics 11; USA) Featuring Henry Kaiser on guitar, John Butcher & Aaron Bennet on saxes, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Damon Smith on acoustic bass and Jerome Bryerton on drums, plus Kurt Newman on guitar on one track. John Stevens is perhaps the most influential and most beloved of all British modern "jazz" drummers, he certainly cast a large shadow on the entire European avant/jazz scene since his the mid-sixties. As a leader or co-leader of so many diverse and influential ensembles, Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), an original member of Company, Amalgam, Detail and John Steven's Away, his playing embraced so many different streams, free/jazz, Ornette-like grooves, fusion, South African and rock-like groove-space. He played in duos and trios with Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Frode Gjerstad, John Butcher and Gary Smith. He worked with musicians as diverse as Bobby Bradford, Dudu Pukwana, Alan Holdsworth, Julie Tippetts and John Martyn. So, it makes perfect sense that a musicians like Henry Kaiser, John Butcher and Damon Smith, would want to do a tribute to this great man, spirit, teacher, drummer and multi-bandleader. Much of Stevens' best work was done with the legendary SME, which le led for nearly thirty years (1967-1994), with changing personnel on almost every recording. Although SME were known as a "free" ensemble, it is Steven's direction that made them so cohesive and often so magical. I get the feeling that the same vision or direction was used to guide this extraordinary session. Henry has chosen some like-minded players here and although I am unfamiliar with Mr. Bryerton, Mr. Bennet & Mr. Newman, everyone fits just right into the often nimble, yet focused world of directed improv. Most carefully recorded so that one can swim within sea of rich details. This is one of the finest improv dates I've heard in recent memory, you get the feeling that there is some close listening and responding going on here. Nice to hear from the wonderful cellist Danielle DeGruttola, whose playing can only be heard on a few other discs with Henry. An extraordinary session on all accounts. - BLG

"Ghetto Calypso" — Reviewed by Paweł Baranowski

"Ghetto Calypso"

Musicians: Eneidi / Kowald / Smith / Spirit

Reviewed by Paweł Baranowski

Eneidi / Kowald / Smith / Spirit - Ghetto Calypso Krakowska Not Two od kilku lat zaskakuje jazzfanów w Polsce, pokazując, że może w naszym kraju istnieć wytwórnia płytowa, prezentująca nagrania czołówki światowego jazzu. Tym razem, do czołówki na pewno zaliczyć można Petera Kowalda, zaś Marco Eneidi, moim skromnym zdaniem, to jeden z najciekawszych, wciąż chyba jednak niedocenianych saksofonistów. Od dłuższego czasu, Marek Winiarski, prezentuje muzykę raczej dla świadomych odbiorców, o dość ściśle sprecyzowanych gustach. Przyjąć należałoby, że kolejne płyty Not Two, trafią raczej do świadomych odbiorców awangardy współczesnego jazzu, niż staną się przyjemnością słuchaczy lżejszych jego odmian. Nie inaczej jest z "Ghetto Calypso". Firmowana przez czwórkę instrumentalistów: Marka Eneidiego, Petera Kowalda, Damona Smitha i Spirita, muzyka już samym składem instrumentalnym wskazuje, że artyści chcieli pokazać coś oryginalnego. Bowiem kwartet, kwartetowi nie równy. Tutaj saksofon altowy i perkusja wspomagane są aż przez dwa kontrabasy. I choć tego typu "wzmocniona" sekcja rytmiczna jest wypróbowywana przez coraz to nowych muzyków, trudno powiedzieć, by zadomowiła się na stałe. Zawsze postrzegana jest w kategoriach eksperymentu. Dość często, w składach z dwoma kontrabasami, jeden z nich wykorzystywany jest jako instrument rytmiczny, drugi raczej jako harmoniczno-melodyczny. Tym razem, w wielu partiach płyty, ani Kowald, ani Smith nie zapewniają żadnego rytmicznego kontekstu dla muzyki, pokazując raczej kolorystyczne możliwości swych instrumentów. Zresztą taka jest ta muzyka. Jeśli nawet nie w całości, to w olbrzymich partiach, przypomina raczej dźwiękiem malowany obraz. I choć obecnie (nawet w chwili nagrywania tej muzyki, co miało miejsce w roku 2000), nie dziwi już muzyka pozbawiona praktycznie całego rytmiczno-melodycznego kontekstu, to w dalszym ciągu postrzegana jest jako awangarda. Prawdopodobnie tak będzie także z "Ghetto Calypso". Nagranie prezentowane przez kwartet na pewno do łatwych nie należy i wymaga od słuchacza dość dużej uwagi i skupienia. Prezentując swobodne free, na pewno nie jest płytą dla każdego. Osoby, które chciałyby jednak się z nią zaznajomić czekać będzie kolejna lekcja pokory, bowiem muzyka zagrana przez Eneidiego i kompanów potrafi rozszerzać horyzonty myślenia. PS: W opis płyty wdarł się mały błąd, albowiem Marco Eneidi gra na saksofonie altowym, a nie, jak podano, na tenorowym. Paweł Baranowski

"Sperrgut" BPA 009 — Reviewed by Brian Olewnick, Bagatellen


"Sperrgut" BPA 009

Musicians: Birgit Ulher/Damon Smith/Martin Blume

Reviewed by Brian Olewnick, Bagatellen

The specific meaning of terms migrates over time. “New School” inevitably becomes “Old”, not that the phrase should necessarily take on a pejorative aspect. The three other discs featuring Damon Smith’s playing could, I think it’s fair to say, be described as post-Parker/Bailey improv (Evan and Derek, not Charlie and Buster), music that’s relatively active and given to short flurries, pointillist rather than spatially oriented. It’s also characterized, to an extent, by something of an insular quality, much more self-referential than outward looking, for instance tending not to incorporate sound/music from without the free improv ambit. Absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course, and I’d strongly encourage those for whom that area holds general attraction to check them out, but some listeners, myself included, prefer hearing such music produced when the very notion carried with it more of a sense of explorative excitement. Smith, in his writing, has shown himself to be quite open to various other modes of improvisational expression, but it was only on “Sperrgut” that I received a sense of this being translated into sound. To be sure, it’s not a decided break from the previously mentioned discs but there’s something—one assumes it might largely revolve around the presence of Ulher—that breathes extra life into this session, that expands it well beyond any whiff of hermeticism. As seems to be the rule on these releases, the tracks are shorter than normally encountered in this area, here nine spread over about 50 minutes, but unlike elsewhere where I often wanted to hear ideas expounded upon at greater length, the durations on “Sperrgut” feel just about right. Ulher brings out the more liquid side of Smith’s and Blume’s playing largely by dint of her own deliciously wet sound as the trio slides and slithers through the pieces (all titled with what appear to be measurements for some arcane purpose, e.g. “0.30 x 1.60 x 3.25m”) with abandon, the stops and starts possessing a great sense of being embedded in an underlying continuum rather than sputtering in isolation. The three work together beautifully, percussionist Blume actually providing a good deal of the more “melodic” content, allowing Smith to salt the brew with some needed, more astringent palate cleansing, though he works in a good deal of lovely, rich, low arco in several of the tracks as well. Although they’re actually quite varied, the improvisations feel very much of a piece, excerpts from an ongoing conversation. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch; an excellent effort.

Brian Olewnick on April 23, 2006 07:41 AM