Friday, September 14, 2018

CD Reviews on Intakt: Angelika Niescier, Joey Baron/Robyn Schulkowsky, Vandermark/Wooley/Courvoisier/Rainey

Keeping up with Intakt Records feels like an insurmountable effort. While U.S. labels wring their hands and wonder how to sustain themselves, this Swiss label continues to release, on average, two new albums a month. Whereas many labels and promoters have resorted to sending promotion downloads to writers, Intakt, bless their hearts, continues to mail out hard copies of each release across the ocean. 

The quality of the music is fairly consistent as well. Even with an album that doesn't really move me, I come away at least come away with an appreciation for what the performer was going for, which is a pretty good standard to maintain as well. As far as getting a chance to dig deep into the music and come up with ways to talk about it in depth, therein lies the challenge. It is one of many.

With that in mind, I've pulled out a few albums that they've released either this month or sometime within the past six months and decided to focus on them.

Angelika Niescier
The Berlin Concert

My laptop disc drive listed The Berlin Concert as an EP, an ironic assessment since the four tracks come out to about 40 minutes, the standard length for a vinyl album. But these days, that can be considered short for a jazz album.

Alto saxophonist Niescier was born in Poland but has spent much of her life in Germany, with trips to the US, where she started a trio with Christopher Tordini (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). She also performed in areas with heavy political tension like the Gaza Strip and Egypt. For reasons like that, she received the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize (German Jazz Award) at the time that this November 2017 performance occurred, during Jazzfest Berlin

The communication level between the trio members clearly runs deep. Tordini works as an anchor during "Kundry." Niescier produces fast torrents of notes but she still ends her phrases with a great deal of clarity. While that goes on, Sorey sounds like he's playing countermelodies on his snare. After holding things together, Tordini gets a chance for an unaccompanied solo.

After the bowed bass and alto duet "Like Sheep, Looking Up" (the title a variation on a John Brunner novel about environmental destruction), Niescier almost sounds Monk-like in "The Surge" because of the way she wraps around variations of the melody, except she's moving five times faster than usual. The freest track of the four, its musical ideas come fast and furiously. It confirms a quote from Niescier that opens the liner notes: "All three of us were at peak levels of communication and awareness, and in a state of maximum openness toward the music."

Joey Baron & Robyn Schulkowsky
Now You Hear Me

Solo instrument albums require some extra commitment from listeners. An album by two drummers/percussionist goes even further. Of course when the prolific Joey Baron (to narrow his c.v. to two names, all you need to know is John Zorn and Carmen McRae) teams up with Robyn Schulkowsky (who has worked with Cage, Xenakis and Feldman to drop just a few avant-garde composers), the program is not going to consist of mere grooves played ad nauseum.

The dynamic level on Now You Hear Me doesn't vary too much. But even when a track totals 32 minutes, these two get into some deep sound conversations. Both are credited with only drums and percussion, so it's possible that electronics don't factor into the music. But there are moments during "Passage" when a static noise blends perfectly with the closed snare and toms, sounding like sampling is occurring. Cymbal rolls imitate the surge of a tide or, later in "The Gaze," they approximate feedback. The tuned percussion in the latter track sounds like Harry Partch instruments which, repetitive as they are, create a trance feel.

Now Your Hear Me might not be something that's pulled off the shelf often, but Baron and Schulkowsky take some enthralling risks - such as playing on either metal pipes or bells before one of them eases over to the trap kit. With music this spare, it's best to realize how each tap on a drum has a greater significance.

Noise of Our Time

The quartet on Noise of Our Time consists of musicians all coming together for the first time although several of them had worked together in different capacities. Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley have performed extensively as a duo and in the group Shelter. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier is part of Wooley's Battle Pieces group and has improvised with drummer Tom Rainey.

Wooley, Vandermark and Courvoisier each composed three tracks for this album. Each player creates settings that allow their bandmates to reveal their full personality, to the extent that it's often surprising who wrote the tune, considering who leaves the biggest impression. The level of communication between the horns in Courvoisier's "Sparks" is jaw-dropping, as they volley honks and tweets back and forth between each other. The actual composition approximates a Monk theme that has smashed to pieces on the floor, with some remnants still held together by threads.

Wooley likes to use pregnant pauses for suspense, which can be heard in both "Truth Through Mass Indivduation" and the tone poem "The Space Between the Teeth." The trumpeter gives off some vicious noise in "VWCR" with some vocal grunts underneath that almost sound violent.

After the frenzy that comes with much of the album, it ends on a reflective note with Vandermark's "Simple Cut." This one has the melancholia of a memorial song with a rich texture that also sounds a bit foreboding. It makes an interesting contrast to what preceded it - a unit that is clearly working well together and will hopefully return to the studio again.

More info on these albums at the whole Intakt catalog can be found at


ma1co1m said...

Great reviews. I too, struggle to keep up with all the great stuff coming out on Intakt (a good problem to have though, right?). The new Gunter Baby Sommer album is fantastic too.

shanleymusic said...

Thanks! Yes, indeed I suppose it is a good problem. I've been meaning to get to that Gunter Baby Sommer album too! Stop back soon because I have a bunch of things I plan to write about.