Friday, October 14, 2016

CD Reviews: Four Albums on OutNow Recordings

At the beginning of the year, this blog featured a review of Yoni Kretzmer's 2 Bass Quartet. A few months later, another package arrived from Mr. K, the Brooklyn-based tenor player, and it contained these four discs. All appear on the same imprint as Kretzmer's last disc, OutNow, which keeps the packaging spare, but artistic (all but one are done in black and white, only one features liner notes from the leader). The music resides in the more adventurous realm of jazz, with plenty of exciting free improvisation, along with some thought-provoking compositions that bring out the best in these players. While all eyes are usually on New York City for the best in this type of music, Out Now seems to be saying Brooklyn is Now, to rework Ornette Coleman's declaration (and answer his co-hort Don Cherry's question about the borough). 

Yoni Kretmzer/Jason Ajemian/Kevin Shea
Until Your Throat Is Dry

It wouldn't be surprising if this title came as a response to the question, "How long should I play?" Here, Kretzmer's wild tenor joins forces with a bassist and drummer well-suited for zero-to-sixty free improvisation. Bassist Jason Ajemian played in several bands in Chicago and released two albums for Delmark that showcased his compositions (The Art of Dying) and some spacey jams inspired by Sun Ra (Folklords). He also led an ensemble that seemed to gather everyone on the Chicago jazz circuit to play a sort of collision of free jazz and freaky folk music (the bizarrely compelling Who Cares How Long You Sink). Drummer Kevin Shea is the wild man of Mostly Other People Do the Killing and numerous other bands, who provides the closest link between Han Bennink and Animal from The Muppet Show.

The disc features four tracks of unadulterated blowing. As wild as it gets, the trio also shows restraint so that it never gets one-dimensional. Ajemian begins the set with a solo that he plucks so hard, the strings could come unwound. (I've seen him play solo bass sets, in which he's held his own, so he's well suited for this setting.) Kretzmer can wail passionately at either end of his horn's register, but his solos carefully work their way to the bottom or top, exploring all the possibilities in between first, using a low honk or high shriek as punctuation for what he's already played. Shea, in some ways, operates in much the same way - never slowing down as he works over his kit and any type of additional hardware he has along with him. 

Yoni Kretzmer

The track titles on Five imply a rudimentary reference, which would provide reference to another set of improvisations ("July 19," "Quintet I," "Quintet II," etc.). But while there's plenty of free blowing here, this quintet works off of a series of sketches that Kretzmer brought to the session. Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet) join Kretzmer on the front line while Chad Taylor (drums) and Max Johnson (bass) split time between playing vamps and acting as the rubato foil to the horns.

Sometimes they recall a more brass-heavy version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, creating infectious excitement as they wail. "Quintet I" has an almost conventional, albeit out of tempo, theme for the horns, while the rhythm section twists around it. "Feb 23" starts off with just Taylor and Johnson accompanying Kretzmer's gruff tenor. But the brass eventually comes in playing shout lines behind him. This type of structure shows up in other tracks too, giving the quintet just enough of a foundation to really lift their music. While the previous disc's wild abandon was fun, Five is even stronger while hearing the band move between inside and outside.

Ehran Elisha
Kindred Spirit: Quintets

In 2013 drummer Ehran Elisha recorded two sets of quintets each playing a different suite of his at IBeam in Brooklyn. Each set takes up a whole disc. "Kindred Soul" features his father Haim Elisha (piano), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Dave Phillips (bass) and Roy Campbell (trumpet), in what would be his final collaboration with Elisha. The instrumentation creates some intriguing sonic results. Despite playing a somewhat out-of-tune piano, the elder Elisha helps bring his son's free flowing ideas to life, alternating between meditative passages and Taylor-esque crashes. Campbell's clarion tone sounds authoritative, even as he plummets down into his instrument's guttural depths.

While disc one's quintet was familiar with Elisha's writing, disc two's "Spirit Suite" is played a group new to the composer/drummer's approach: Kretzmer, Michael Attias (alto and baritone saxes), Rick Parker (trombone) and Sean Conly (bass). Elisha finally gives himself a chance to solo, rolling and tumbling in multiple directions during the free "Two By Five," the second movement. Throughout the set, Kretzmer's tenor gets plenty of room and he frequently recalls Archie Shepp, thanks to the gruff tone he plays. To this style, though, he also pops on the reed, something Shepp never did. Attias' alto follows suit with him, but he spends more time on baritone, which he uses to blow long tones with Parker over the rhythm section's rolling boil in the opening "Spirit Serenade." The closing "Outrise" begins with a trombone solo over a drop-tuned bass, the whole thing getting low and ugly (in a good way) before coming to a calm resolve.

Frantz Loriot - Systematic Distortion Orchestra
The Assembly

If the previous three discs didn't suggest an idea of what to expect from labelmates known as the Systematic Distortion Orchestra, a glance at the instrumentation might offer one: The 11-piece group includes three drummers and two bassists, in addition to four brass, one reed and leader Frantz Loriot on viola.

That lineup seems like the type of ensemble to create dense, murky sound sculptures. That's exactly what they do. Some of the time. Two of the four compositions are credited to the whole group, but two are credited to Loriot alone. One of the latter is "Echo," which opens The Assembly like an eerie film soundtrack. The basses rumble in as the horns play a simple melody of sustained notes. Everything rises in waves, with the drums crashing behind them, and Loriot's viola (or maybe Nathaniel Morgan's alto saxophone) riding on top. A voice sings and yells briefly in the middle, and it's easy to see why. The fury this band unleashes is powerful. Nearly 10 minutes in length, it passes before you notice it.

Of the two group compositions, the title track works the same formula as "Echo," incorporating a heavy dose of extended technique and getting a little more dense in the process. "...Maybe...Still..." includes a spoken text by bassist Sean Ali, reciting a circular poem that complements that loose improvisation going behind him.

"Le Relais," Loriot's other "composition" goes heavy on percussion for its first three minutes, recalling more Art Ensemble shenanigans. Things begin slowly - none of the tracks on the album seem in a hurry to get started  - and the rest of the group enters in waves over the next 10 minutes. Loriot sounds, in some ways, like phantom bagpipes on the horizon, and the brass creates layers of kissing sounds and rumbles. The sound remains thick and hard to penetrate, but the momentum never stops.

Hopefully, the Systematic Distortion Orchestra can be found playing in some loft or DIY space in Brooklyn. In person, they could easily transfix a small but devoted group of listeners. The music on The Assembly  is best experienced in person, but this album maintains some of the electricity in the translation to disc.

All of these discs and more can be found at

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