Sunday, April 25, 2021

CD & DL Review: New Works from the Out Of Your Head Label

In a fairly short time - I'm talking two years and change - the Out of Your Head label has managed to release a handful of strong physical albums as well as a batch of digital-only live releases, all of which document some exploratory jazz musicians. The name originated from a series of concerts that bassist Adam Hopkins first staged in Baltimore, and the releases have focused on up-and-coming players and peers that he and co-curator Scott Clark have know. But OOYH has also released works by Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell, as well as bassist Michael Formanek, as seen here. Sometimes it's hard keeping up with them, but then again, that's a good challenge to have. 

Below are two recent physical releases and two more digital works from the Untamed series. All can be found on the label's website ( or their Bandcamp page

Michael & Peter Formanek 

Michael Formanek has been pretty prolific on his own lately, what with a new album by the trio Thumbscrew, a new solo bass album and this series of duets with his son, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Peter. Father and son both compose for this session (four tunes by Pops, two by Sonny Boy) with the remaining seven tracks attributed to both of them. Those tracks sound like spontaneous works where family ties help the musical conversations take on a deeper meaning, such as when they both take a slow descending line on "How Was the Drive." 

Of Peter's compositions, "Two, Not One" begins with a rubato melody and goes into a strong groove. "After You" is a bit like a call-and-response where the rhythmic center seems to volley between the tenor and the bass.  He possesses a strong, inventive voice on tenor, able to make a line ebb and flow with drama. But his clarinet playing offers some of his best moments on the disc. Thick and brawny, he imbues it with the same weight as his saxophone. Considering the clarinet isn't heard enough with this type of music, he could really find his niche if he continues to devote proper album space to it. 

The intimate setting gives Michael a chance to reveal his vast technique moreso that he might in some of his other groups. The recording feels relaxed and emphasizes the clear, driving attack on the bass. His "Ballad of the Weak" is full of emotion and in "Wavy Lines," his bowing beautifully mimics feedback or altissimo horn sounds.

As a side note, the Formaneks performed in Pittsburgh just a few weeks before recording Dyads. They played in a quartet that also featured saxophonist/clarinetist Patrick Breiner (a Pittsburgh resident who has played in groups like Battle Trance) and drummer Carter Freije. Tragically, Freije, who sounded excellent that night, took his life not long after the performance. Below is a photo of the group from that evening. 

Christopher Hoffman
Asp Nimbus

On one hand, the instrumentation on Christopher Hoffman's Asp Nimbus feels unusual - the leader's cello together with vibes (Bryan Carrott), bass (Rahsaan Carter) and drums (Craig Weinrib). (Pianist David Virelles appears on "Dylan George" where his own inventive lines push Hoffman in a frenetic, exciting direction.) Hoffman frequently stays in the background, plucking a bit while Carrott takes center stage. At other times, the group sounds like the Out to Lunch rhythm section if a cello took the place of the horns - and the music had a bit more of a conventional groove to it.

But this is a cellist who has spent a great deal of time in Henry Threadgill's various ensembles, understanding and bringing life to the composer's intensive material. For Asp Nimbus, Hoffman took inspiration from Bobby Hutcherson's Oblique and Threadgill's Every Mouth's a Book, which results in eight relatively brief compositions that take melodically dense ideas and blend them with infectious sense of swing. The introductory vibes part that opens "Discretionary" sounds downright conventional, until Hoffman makes his entrance, plucking a counterpoint to the vibes, before he bows a rapid melody. Later, "Angles of Influence" finds him producing a lovely melody brought to life with some slow bowing.

Like a Threadgill album, the layers to the music become clearer with close, repeated listens. But unlike the work of his musical boss, the character of Hoffman's own writing leaps forward enthusiastically. And, with very little in the way of breaks between tracks, it keeps coming for a solid 32 minutes. This album will likely be on a lot of year end lists.

Goldberger/ Jermyn/ Maneri/Cleaver
Live at Scholes

Live at Scholes consists of a 36-minute performance by Jonathan Goldberger (guitar), Simon Jermyn (electric bass), Mat Maneri (viola) and Gerald Cleaver (drums) at the Scholes Street Studio. (An additional four-minute excerpt also came in the download.) In general, the group is just as likely to improvise for an extended period as they are to throw short composed ideas into the mix. Whether they're combining the two here isn't exactly clear, but that's part of their appeal and it speaks a great deal about how cohesively they play.

A groove gradually takes shape in the first third of the performance, which feels like it a borrows a bit from the randomness of harmolodics and the focus of prog rock. Goldberger (who has played with Adam Hopkins' projects and lead several of his own, one of the best being the Visitors album with JP Schlegelmilch and Jim Black) again proves himself to be a guitarist that more people need to hear, getting noisy and aggressive in an exciting manner. 

Eventually the groove gets a little self-conscious and slowly melts into some knob twiddling, or maybe it's just viola scraping or guitar scratch. Maneri uses effects but he also plays clean and crisp lines early on that present a candid glimpse to his technique. The only sonic setbacks come in the latter section of the track, where one of the electric instruments sound like it's playing through a broken speaker, adding an unsettling amount of buzz to certain blasts of the music. The rhythm section could have benefited from a little more body in the mix.Cleaver in particular can be heard but he isn't felt as much as he should be. Regardless, the piece keeps progressing. Just as it seems like they're winding down in a long coda, the quartet builds things back up again.

Nick Mazzarealla/ Quin Kirchner
See or Seem: Live at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Last September, most of us were still sitting at home, wondering if the quarantine was going to wind down any time soon. In Chicago, saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and drummer Quin Kirchner set up safely at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and played to a small but seemingly enthusiastic crowd. The results now exist for the everyone to hear. 

If the desire for things to get back to normal and the wish to interact with a group of people could both be translated into a musical performance, it would sound like what these two played on September 27 last year. Mazzarella blows some tight melodies, partially in a spirit that recalls Ornette Coleman's early work, though he gets into something more complex on a tune like "Axiom." Kirchner drives the music, reinforcing the saxophonist's ideas and adding sparks to it, which in turns elevates Mazzarella's playing to higher levels. The recording sounds a tad lo-fi, but no matter, the power of the performance comes through clearly. Thinking in terms of tension and release that fuels music like this, the pandemic had already presented plenty of tension. Mazzarella and Kirchner deliver the release.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Jon Irabagon Quartet Live in Pittsburgh: A Recap

The Jon Irabagon Quartet breezed into Alphabet City/City of Asylum last night for a livestream performance. Booked a year ago, the quartet's tour dwindled from a two-week jaunt down to six nights of performances. Of course, any live performances anywhere are a treat these days so we should salute the band for doing what they're doing this week. And thanks to the good folks at Alphabet City for allowing this member of the press to check out the show from a safe distance in the same room.

Irabagon, who has played saxophones ranging from alto to sopranino and the rare mezzo-soprano, stuck to tenor last night. Chris Lightcap, who is also skilled on upright bass, played bass guitar (and even used a pick on a couple songs!). The group was rounded out by pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Dan Weiss. Overall - four players who are strong leaders in their own rights, as well as top notch support players. 

The quartet played a batch of new material, which they will be recording once this tour is over. The opening "Sundance" could have been a suite of a few tunes segued together but it was actually one extended work several different parts. The opening rhythm was taut and staccato, as Irabagon sailed rapidly over the rhythm section. What originally sounded a little tense eventually became a little more slinky, as Lightcap held down the groove. Irabagon always likes to keep listeners' attention, and Weiss' delayed accents on the ride cymbal, later in the piece, helped with that. The drummer really heated things up as Irabagon started to pull things towards a conclusion.

Weiss, whose own group Starebaby reveals that he's one of the most exploratory drummers in improvised music, threw some more off-kilter fills into "Rising Sun" as if he was trying to throw Irabagon off. Naturally it didn't work but it was fun hearing the interaction. In person, Lightcap's bass overpowered the piano a bit, but it didn't seem to deter Mitchell, who got a little eerie in the freer section towards the start of the piece. There were moments when Lightcap's finger work brought to mind Hugh Hopper's work in Soft Machine, with a dexterity that make those knotty ostinatos seem easy. 

When Irabagon played in the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing, they often thumbed their noses at jazz stodginess even while embracing the music's history. So it wasn't a complete surprise to hear Irabagon play Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop." As the saxophonist tore into that tune's rapid theme and kept the velocity at a high level, it served as a reminder of how varied and consistent his career has been so far, encompassing both noisy sopranino recitals and solid straightahead sessions.

"Mammoth" started off with another slinky bass groove that eventually morphed into a 5/4 vamp at the end. In between, Weiss played with the snares on his drum turned off, so things never got too heavy. The group wrapped up the evening with "Alliance," another knotty tune that reached a peak when Mitchell cleverly wedged a couple quotes from Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie" in sideways during his solo.

Hopefully it sounded just as good on computer speakers as it did in person. Looking forward to the new album. (If I heard Lightcap correctly, the group has a few more tunes they didn't get to play last night.)