CONTACT TRIO: “Double Face” *****

Recorded 1974-1975

 

 

In late 1960s, drummer Michael Jüllich and bassist Alois Kott launched the concept of a trio straddling the “border” erected by the media between the rock and jazz scenes.  Continental Europe had none of the race divisions that were still determinant for the development of separate musical trends on the other side of the Atlantic.  The openly avant-gardish evolution of German rock music in the following years allowed Contact Trio to develop into a tight unit incorporating explorations into jazz improvisation, contemporary composition and ethnic percussion.  Contact Trio really took off when Evert Brettschneider joined on guitar in 1973.  

 

The band’s parsimonious tapestries were an antidote to over-orchestrated pedantry and calculated, aseptic guitar races that began to dominate derivative jazz-rock by that time.  Rather, the members of Contact Trio opted to nourish a mutual intrigue, but always foiling a full-blown arousal.  Their reed-less style, sometimes compared to Giger-Lenz-Marron or to Electric Circus, remained diagrammatic and introspective.  Despite the unquestionable quality of their music, their records never accrued the type of cult following that did many of their contemporaries. 

 

 

 

Rumpelstielzchen

The first sound of Contact Trio is that of a marimba, adroitly handled by Michael Jüllich.  It breaks the ice for a fast ostinato courtesy Alois Kott on acoustic bass.  Kott tees up for Evert Brettschneider on acoustic guitar, but the marimba appears to question this.  The full configuration offers an initial response, but both string instruments will now proceed more cautiously.  As the marimba and acoustic bass tiptoe along, an electric guitar introduces shreds of suspense; first intimate and delicate, then sharp and anguished, leaving us on tenterhooks.  The bass indulges in thorny, crumpled vibrato and the guitar leaches improvisations laid out perfectly within the tonal range of the marimba.  Brettschneider scatters some rugged flashes, but never races ahead.  Even though his guitar does occasionally bring to mind Dzyan’s Eddy Marron, Contact Trio’s arrangements are more transparent and permeable.

 

Double Face

The title track unfolds slowly with strings scraped along the body of the guitar.  Porous, bowed bass adds another pole of wiry attraction.  The strumming of the guitar could be a sign that the atonal intro is over.  Instead, the guitar sets an irregular time signature, still scraping the end of the notes, chucking them into a deep echo.  From that abyss emerges the flute (Jüllich), organically endearing itself to the bow.  The wind instrument seems to be instantly magnetized by the guitar-stressed bars.  Whereupon, the theme ceases…  In an ambiguous moment of self-doubt, the guitar and bowed bass refuse to meet on the scale, even though they seem to be aware of each other’s meter.  Jüllich’s tabla wakes them up, issuing an invitation to multivector explorations.  This improvised trio is hermetic, but legible, scraggly but sprightly.  Instead of a monsoon, the guitar calls on a whiff of Brazilian breeze.  To the ostinato of acoustic bass ostinato and tabla, Brettschneider spreads his wings, cruising above the multi-metric transom with ease.  His selection of pace, loudness and proportion is impeccable.  After a short melodic interlude from the bass, the tabla is left alone.  Most probably frowned upon by subcontinental purists, this parched, solo meditation bolts forward and perfectly sews into the fabric.

 

Englestanz

Brettschneider struts in, on a mystical electric guitar, with immanent delay and micro-distortion.  This daring, graphic ode is also our first introduction to electric bass and drums.  When the guitarist switches over to Toto Blanke-like fusion runs, the band is literally wrapped in glimmering cymbal ribbons.  Wah-wah bass blabbers something behind as the guitar mesmerizes us with its vitality.  Back to the illuminative march of the opening seconds, the trio crafts a forgotten classic of tri-modal jazz-rock avant-garde.

 

Sonate

A very presto entrée reminds us of some of Association P.C.’s memorable moments.  When the guitar loses its way, the exuberantly sparkling cymbals encourage Brettschneider to pick up speed.  Which he does, but fails to schlep along the rest of the band.  Contrary to naïve expectations, this now appears to be a prehensile improvisation for bipolar guitar and cymbal shimmer.  The second movement is played largo with mallets gently laid on the drums.  A neurotic, psyched-out guitar glides over the dreamlike bass steps.  This highly addictive guitar play is rather unusual in the jazz format (if it is jazz at all, a big ‘IF’).  With a slight echo thrown into the mix, the guitar self-observation gains plenty of transcendental freedom.  The third movement of the Sonata is devoted to repeated striking guitar salvos, always abandoned on a higher note.  The cross-chord technique would several years later be adopted by Henry Kaiser during his flagship atonal period.  Here, Alois Kott’s bubbly bass germinates goofily.  A molar drum solo purports to perform a rondo, but none of this is allowed to linger for too long.  Sharp, incisive cuts from the guitar catalyze the Sonata’s ending. 

 

 

***

 

Several years later, the trio returned with an equally exciting statement.  On their last LP Michael Jüllich was replaced by Peter Eisold.  The group continued to perform for several years without leaving any recorded traces.  All the three albums are recommended for the lovers of continental jazz-rock (?) avant-garde. 

 

CONTACT TRIO: “Double Face” (1974-1975)

CONTACT TRIO: “New Marks” (1978)

CONTACT TRIO: “Musik” (1980)

 

One later track can be found on festival LP entitled “Umsonst und Draussen – Papenburg”. 

Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 7:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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Don BRADSHAM-LEATHER: “Distance Between Us” ****

 

Recorded 1972

 

 

Without getting involved in a speculation who this British keyboard player was, one can easily admit that the “Distance” between the legendary status of this recording and the actual quality of the contained material is less than in many other cases of overhyped “classics”.  Don Bradsham-Leather bequeathed a double LP of precocious mellotron and piano explorations, exhibiting knowledge of Stockhausen’s taboo-bending studio manipulation and imagination limited only by the congenial, but somewhat unwieldy keyboard instrument routinely associated with the sounds of the 1970s. 

 

“Distance Between Us” is a one-off – or rather a one-off among many other solitary statements left over from the axial era of unprecedented musical experimentation (1969-1972).  Often considered an island on itself, it rather forms part of an archipelago that stretches from Bruce Palmer, through David Stoughton, Joakim Skogsberg, Cro-Magnon, Friendsound, Red Noise, Min Bul, Zweistein, Komintern, Frolk Heaven, Haboob, Syrius, People, Triode, Kokezaru Kumikyoku, Walter Wegmüller, Fille qui mousse, Surprieze, Gruppo d’Alternativa… All these names disappeared after recording one, usually highly idiosyncratic album.  No wonder they are highly sought-after.  Importantly, many of these records have aged better than “Distance Between Us”. 

 

 

Distance Between Us, p.1

The dark, mostly minor-scale set begins with a poorly recorded pianist, deeply focused on the left-side of the keyboard.  Seconds later, he will shift from the drenched, earthbound chords, through exalted concerto style and over to a repetitive delirium.  This oscillation between the three piano styles will remain a recurrent pattern on the album.  It will be augmented by a heroic mellotron with alternating “reed” tones.  The molten piano jerks and yanks, but it is slowly, ineluctably drowning in the faux reed aquifer.  When it resurfaces, the intense piano figure is accompanied by hand drums, multitracked on both stereo channels – another trademark of “Distance…”, probably novel at the time.  In the meantime, the panoramic mellotron swaps its “reed” tones to magniloquent “strings”.  The hand drum beat is saved from tedium by gravimetric tympani accents, giving the mellotron tune a quasi-dance quality.  But soon, the drumming speed accelerates and demolishes the meter.  This makes space for a Hammond organ solo, with the rhythmic support from the surviving hand drum beat and a gasping piano working hard to catch up.  The deadpan, curvilinear organ spirals conservatively and the overall perspective is retained when it comes to the fore.  When it stops, the triumphal concert piano returns solo.  After a welcome moment of vacuum, the simple hand drum beat re-injects some life into the form with tambourine.  The last 4 minutes mark the most diverse and accomplished fragment on the album.  It begins with a rhythmic acoustic guitar redolent of German hippy communes, but rendered nobler by female vocalization and some unorthodox vocal clicks and grunts.  The piano moves away from the Homeric overdrive and improvises within scales dominant in Spanish zarzuelas.  The rhythmic gesture is aptly framed into an illusion of horse riding. 

 

Distance Between Us, p.2

The second part opens with solo piano, quickly condensed into an ominous, obsessive ostinato, not dissimilar from the manner later adopted by Alvaro.  Hollow hand drums are concealed somewhere in the mix.  But we are still in 1972 and the mellotron has to reappear in its string form – introspective and brooding.  It will occasionally venture into other pre-recorded tones (consolatory flutes and cellos).  This multi-tracked “trio” of acoustic piano, mellotron and discrete hand drum will concentrate on mood generation, rather than melodic progression.  When the mellotron strings unfurl their wings, and the first signs of its majestic choral sound appear.  The oniric tone becomes gradually more intense, until overlaid by a nocturnal piano etude, continually hesitating between serene romanticism and convulsive ostinato.  When these two paths are fused, an unexpected baroque figure looms up with trills, much to our relief. 

 

Dance of the Goblins

Intimidating waves of libidinal mellotron lurk behind the unconscious horizon.  Its menacing ferocity is compiled by the dynamic shifts and a largely indecipherable hand drumming endlessly vacillating between the stereo channels.  The atmosphere is one of foreboding augur.  But where Jasun Martz several years later exploited the pathways leading to an eventual oxidizing climax, Bradsham-Leather’s procedure concentrates on tension build-up and build-up only.  On occasional sharper arêtes, the instrument’s “organ” sound spikes, in vain.  After another failure to reach the imposing peak, the expedition revisits a romantic melody, sketched forlornly on mellotron’s “reeds”.  After such sumptuous exploration, inscrutable percussive clusters surge forward.  Their lifespan is limited.

 

Autumn Mist

Distant, bereaved piano solo cuts an unattractive, circular theme.  The tremendous mellotron swells again, forcing the piano to define itself in modal terms.  The dynamic contrast here is stronger than on previous tracks and halfway through the composition, the track almost ebbs into nothingness.  It is rescued by a slovenly piano and reedy mellotron.  The mythomaniac piano will continue its Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 – wannabe drivel.  The mix-down is extreme, as if suffocating the keyboardist’s efforts to assert himself.  Until the closing sections of this arcane musical wrestling, it will remain a heroic tussle opposing the Babylonian mellotron, the narcotic piano and the totalitarian mixer. 

 

***

 

This is Don Bradsham-Leather’s only known recording.  Many search for this LP due to its legendary status as the ultimate mellotron galore.  Although directly unrelated, Jasun Martz’s “The Pillory” (1978) and Niemen’s “N.AE.Katharsis” (1976) offer a good proxy. 

 

Don BRADSHAM-LEATHER: “Distance Between Us” (1972)

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 10:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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EMBRYO: “Invisible Documents” *****

  
 
 Recorded 1974

 

So much has been written about Embryo that bringing it onto the pages of Sonic Asymmetry could even be deemed superfluous.  Spanning almost 4 decades, the creative persona of Christian Burchard, a drummer and vibraphonist, has inspired two generations of artists from several musical traditions.  From Morocco to India and from Nigeria to Turkey, Embryo never ceased to look for that perfect cocktail of polymetric narratives, timbral exoticisms and figurative improvisation.  These valuable efforts have invariably bathed deep inside a cauldron of spirited pancultural communication and cross-pollination. 

 

Influenced early on by the unlikely combination of Mal Waldron’s exile jazz and Munich’s wacky improvised rock scene, Burchard was fortunate enough to agglomerate a core of fellow travelers who contributed hugely to the band’s immortality.  Guitarist Roman Bunka, and saxophonist and violinist Edgar Hoffmann were the key forces that managed to propel the caravan in times of recurrent and well-deserved fatigue.  Charlie Mariano, a well-known jazz figure, further enriched Embryo’s heritage. 

 

The record presented here, published only several years ago, documents a hitherto unknown phase of the band at the crepuscule of its vintage inventiveness.  These live recordings were taped only two months after the first perilous “sell-off” LP – something that major labels imposed on the most talented bands in the wake of the first oil (and therefore vinyl) shock.  “Invisible Documents” is a testimony to the creativity of the underground band that was forced, for several years, to come out in someone else’s skin whenever appearing over-ground.  Happily for Sonic Asymmetry, that unlucky period did not last long and Embryo’s re-birth was spectacular.  We will certainly come back to its epiphenomena one day.

 

 Invisible Documents

We are in Hamburg’s “Fabrik”, September 1974, watching a rump Embryo.  Just as we walk in, a repetitive, almost cavalier jazz guitar à la Lifetime fends off advances from a strangled soprano sax.  Very early on for a public performance, we are served with a drum solo and then a drum and percussion duo – skins courtesy Christian Burchard and bells from Roman Bunka.  Edgar Hoffmann’s soprano saxophone injects short squeaks into this well-behaved racket.  Bunka puts in some Latin accents on the dull, non-resonant bells, poles apart from an almost cymbal-less drum galore.  The duo climaxes and ends unusually, with orientalizing violin from Hoffmann.  Two or three phrases leave us with little doubt that Hoffmann must have enjoyed Indian sarangi playing.  This is surprising – at that time Embryo was yet to embark on its first venture into India.  The violin loses its distinctiveness in higher registers, where Hoffmann often penetrates.  Meanwhile, Norbert Dömling’s bass is unobtrusive and will remain so throughout this concert, but it does help Burchard with articulation.  A nervous high-hat squashing and guitar crescendo will eventually drown the violin.  Unimpressive vocal calls allow the machine to accelerate and Bunka to proceed in solo mode.  The fast pace of his guitar solo spans the rock and fusion formats, engraving a territory of his own.  The bass becomes more prominent and quasi-melodic, whereas the effects from the gritty guitar are now more diverse, with a slower release.  The rhythmic groove flows organically until the soprano sax ushers in the closing section.  The locus is the theme that we hardly recall from the intro.  Guitar and sax etch this plastic matter, sometimes in holistic unison, sometimes as a cluster of separate strokes.  Here the track ends as if the Revox reel had run out of tape…

 

Minaret

This half-an-hour improvisation unfolds slowly from a forest of shakers, brake drums and cabazas of nearly Art Ensemble of Chicago – like density.  Finally, a small-toned marimba will apportion equatorial temperature, clearing the veld for an agitated saz.  This long-necked, fretted instrument of Turkish origin has a fuzzy, muddled flavor, even though Bunka always appears keen to hammer down the expressway of his chordal exploration.  In the meantime, an always collectively-minded Burchard opts for a very simple figure on marimba.  An alluvial flute forces its way into this interplay, compressing the saz part into hallucinogenic micro-helixes around the robust core of marimba.  Throughout his pyrotechnic exposé, Bunka stays obediently within the metric code provided by Burchard’s gradated idiophonic attractor.  When the flute briefly vanishes, the duo between marimba and amplified (?) saz enters a tawheed territory.  The flute later returns, but misses the point completely, failing to rise to the religiosity of the occasion.  With the change of guard, the drumset replaces the marimba and the soprano substitutes for the flute.  Quieter, snaky passage leads into a dark corridor where the origins of various sounds are of uncertain origin.  We can only surmise their epidermic, valvate or diodic provenance.  Scraggy, porous, cinderblock soprano disambiguates this enigma and enters a new space within its lukewarm, low base register.  An almost invisible Dömling intones a familiar ethno-funk bass phrase (probably from “Holy Ghost”).  The others follow, in an elliptic, potentially endless fashion.  The electric guitar is, naturally, the most nimble of all the participants in this 8-beat long, revolving structure.  Later Dömling reprises the figure at double-speed and the soprano squawks in a fidgety manner, as if to avoid full involvement.  Cut.

 

Singing

This is a type of jam that Embryo, groping for direction, perfected from mid-1970s onwards; it is based on a sequence of various bass figures, with little logical or diachronic connection.  Early on, a very basic drum’n’bass flow gives us some misleading cues for the daunting 36 minutes to come.  The soprano sax flounders under some crunchy accents from the guitar.  This now will be Dömling’s only moment in the limelight on this recording, as elsewhere he is usually squeezed into a basic ostinato between a very expansive drummer and an occasionally greedy guitarist.  His cameo appearance in Embryo saga was sandwiched between Uwe Mullrich and none other than Uli Trepte, and so his shyness shows here.  Twist, shake and we are in a plunky funk mode with recurring time signature shifts around the refrain – somewhat of an Embryonnic trademark.  Burchard’s indistinguishable vocalizing and soprano saxophone squeals alternate for a while.  Hoffmann’s is a Bb soprano, pitched an octave below the Eb variant and much warmer in the middle register that he typically prefers.  But nothing lasts here.  The way the ungainly sub-sections connect brings back the memories of live rock medleys from before the sampler era.  The next part is more jagged and overdependent on the saxophone and the guitar, leaving too much vacancy.  This is a tendency that Embryo unfortunately perfected in its least innovative era between 1975 and 1978.  Regrettably, this is also the least inspired moment of this recording, but it soon segues onto a “song” and ends on a higher sax note with a more relaxed wah-wah guitar.  Then the drummer speeds up.  Bunka picks up cowbells.  The sax quacks, distinctively edgy, almost shrill, and occasionally muted (a cup?).  A melodic guitar/bass rock theme crashes in.  Clearly, the loop pedals were not yet available because when the guitar goes solo, the background is occupied squarely by the hard-working bass hand.  The dynamic ebbs a little, just enough to cramp some rarefied lyricism from the guitar.  But the morphology of this musical body is a medley.  Faster time keeping will provide a different easel for Bunka’s improvised art.  One or two bass themes later, the “vacant” part returns.  It is problematic.  There is simply too much space, devoid of proper use of silence, syncopation, or a properly amplified and articulated bass figure.  Luckily, Bunka graces us with several valuable seconds of his guitar orientalism.  His knowledge of Middle Eastern string instruments makes him a natural heir to (US) Kaleidoscope and Orient Express.  There is even that short Cippolina quote in which the sustained twang is allowed to scale up to the instrument’s top pitch in little more than a second.  And from there, we are back in a de-clustered funky land.  Hoffmann is back on his suffocating soprano and, for a moment, a guitar and drum duo exposes its mellower jazz side, pruned as fast as it appears.  The endomorphic closing is formless, and seemingly exhausted, but the guitaris will strike out a farewell that prefigures his solo exploits several years later.

 

Riad

Roman Bunka’s masterful oud solo explores the Nahawand mode.  The notes are occasionally bent, except in skilful run-ups, with limited reverb.  Hoffmann’s flute operates in a more familiar, Western scale, but the roles are not clearly distributed between the two instruments.  It is like a casual, hushed conversation in the early afternoon when everyone is seeking shade and daily activities slow down to absolute necessities.  The flute silences it all in an almost baroque Rameau style.

 

Shine of Walt Dickerson

Post-bop vibraphonist Walt Dickerson died three weeks ago (May 15, 2008).  His most memorable contributions were with John Coltrane and Sun Ra.  It remains to be established how strong his influence was on Christian Burchard.  Walt Dickerson R.I.P.

 

The track opens with a solo vibraphone, poised, exploratory, clean, but not crystallographic.  The vibrato is well controlled.  Burchard is comfortable with tremolos and grunts occasionally, but white noise glissando is almost entirely absent in his play.  After a while, Bunka’s guitar thickens shadowy harmonic background and Hoffmann joins on low-key soprano in low register, while Dömling takes care of muted agogo bells and shakers.  Once the entire quartet is back alive, Burchard moves over to cymbals, generating succulent overtones.  The guitar/soprano unison is quite unique, with the more mobile guitar making shorthand commentaries on saxophone’s soaring lines.  Here again, the bass is very sparse, almost imperceptible in this exchange between guitar and soprano.  Hoffmann’s tone color is excellent, but he avoids rapid skips – so tempting on this instrument, and leaves ramp-ups to Bunka.  Here the recording ends abruptly. 

 

***

 

Embryo’s discography is extensive, though mostly dominated by immortalized live jams, many of which are of highest quality.  With the possible exception of the quirky indo-funk period (1975-78), and possibly the heavily “African” recordings in the mid-1980s, most of their output is highly recommended.  Positions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9 best document the young band’s exploratory transition from an early rock format to a unique ethno-jazz concoction.  Position 15 documents their legendary voyage to Central and South Asia (also on dvd).  From the later recordings, positions 18, 21, 22, 23 and 30 are of highest quality and blend many other Asian and neo-psychedelic styles. 

 

1. EMBRYO with Mal WALDRON: “For Eva” (1968)

2. EMBRYO: “Opal” (1970)

3. EMBRYO: “Embryo’s Rache” (1971)

4. EMBRYO: “Bremen 1971” (1971)

5. EMBRYO: “Steig aus” (1971, 1972)

6. EMBRYO: “Father, Son & Holy Ghost” (1972)

7. EMBRYO: “Rocksession” (1972)

8. EMBRYO: “We Keep On” (1972)

9. EMBRYO: “Invisible Documents” 2CD (1974)

10. EMBRYO: “Surfin’” (1974)

11. EMBRYO: “Bad Hats and Bad Cats” (1975)

12. EMBRYO: “Live” (1976)

13. EMBRYO: “Apo-calypso” (1977)

14. EMBRYO: “Anthology” (1970-1979)

15. EMBRYO: “Embryo’s Reise” 2LP (1978, 1979)

16. EMBRYO & KARNATAKA COLLEGE: “Life” (1980)

17. EMBRYO: “La blama sparozzi” (1979, 1981-1982)

18. EMBRYO: “Zack Glück” (1984)

19. EMBRYO: “Africa” (1985)

20. EMBRYO: “Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra” (1985)

21. EMBRYO: “Turn Piece” (1989)

22. EMBRYO: “Ibn Battuta” (1990-1993)

23. EMBRYO: “Ni hau” (1992, 1995-1996)

24. EMBRYO: “Istanbul Casablanca” 2CD (1998)

25. EMBRYO: “Live in Berlin” (1998)

26. EMBRYO: “One Night in Barcelona” (1999)

27. EMBRYO: “2000, Live vol.1” (2000)

28. EMBRYO: “2001, Live vol.1” (2001)

29. EMBRYO: “Hallo Mik” (2002, 2003)

30. EMBRYO & NO NECK BLUES BAND: “EmbryoNNCK” (2004)

 

Some unique tracks are available on concert compilations, such as “Umsonst und Draussen” (1970s), “F/E/A/R This” (1980s) and “Open Air Herzberg” (1990s).  They have a high documentary value for all Embryologues worldwide. 

 

 

Published in: on June 7, 2008 at 7:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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POCKET ORCHESTRA / KNEBNAGÄUJE: “Pocket Orchestra / Knebnagäuje” *****

 

Recorded 1978, 1979 and 1983

 

Sometime in mid-1970, Tim Parr from Phoenix AZ brought together several musical soulmates to listen to Rock in Opposition movement’s groundbreaking records and to improvise around stylistically related ideas.  Parr on guitar, Bill Johnston on cello, Bob Stearman on drums, Craig Bork on keyboards, Tim Lyons on bass and Joe Halajian clarinets and saxes evolved together under several monikers, including the unpronounceable Knebnagäuje.  After moving to Washington State, the band made its first recordings – a testimony of eventful elaborations into the non-homogenous RIO style.  The musicians changed the domicile several times, and recorded more tapes as Pocket Orchestra. 

 

Despite their uncanny ability to string together a plethora of intricately subsumed sets with disorienting complexity, the band failed to publish any of its output before its eventual disintegration in mid-1980s.  They never got back to play together again, but their music was rightfully resurrected by the now defunct MIO label. 

 

 

 

Imam Bialdi

A brooding introduction is only a camouflage for the heavily connectionist exploration of multitracked saxophones, piano interludes, electric guitar races and a guest violin courtesy Craig Fry of Cartoon.  The vitalist tempo shifts with woodwinds that fall short of spasmodic big band romps are closer to the legacy of Moving Gelatine Plates than Willem Breuker.  Other influences are aplenty.  Bob Stearman’s signature percussive “scattering” proves that he studied assiduously how Chris Cutler made accents fall between beats.  On the other hand, the augmented “wind section”, multitracked to perfect unison recalls the Muffins – then the most perfectionist of RIO-like bands in the country.  Unlike any of these predecessors, however, Pocket Orchestra’s sonorities are more extreme, especially in high register pinpointed by squeaky clarinets and silicate acoustic guitar. 

 

R.V

Hearing Bill Johnston on misty cello buttressed by bass and clarinet we may be expecting a more coherent story development.  But although the somber mood evokes more Noetra than ECM, discontinuity reigns.  After several seconds of a swinging piano, keyboards schlep along a fusion theme, equipped with a nearly Canterbury-tinged optimism.  This is Craig Bork’s composition and his keyboard grandstanding will dominate the rest of the piece.  The pattern becomes more choppy, with high-pitched keyboards, harmonic guitar and repetitive lines from the saxes.  Here the Bob Stearman’s work is more reminiscent of Arti e Mestieri’s Furio Chirico’s fast-paced oscillations.  He was many a proghead’s drumming hero. 

 

Regiments

A somewhat spuriously delinquent composition, restlessly meandering between varying time signatures and moods, piling up interesting ideas but then segmenting them in a codified, linear fashion.  After clarinet’s opening line, the harmonic cues come from the piano.  Slowly the tension builds up staccato until the softer side of the band opens, with more reflective moments for acoustic guitar and piano.  They are in turn interrupted by more daring parts with winds, electric guitar and piano/drums ascensions.  The structure is unstable and becomes semi-abstract when the clarinet and multiplied percussion intervene.  Somehow, the keyboards always pull everything together and allow the drummer to resume his endothermic, metric role.  A snippet of a theme appears, eagle-spread between comical bass clarinet and a celestial piece from mellotron (?).  The colorful use of acoustic guitar dredges up deposits from both the Italian and UK progressive tradition, but some of the organ passages are quite suspect in the conventional, regressive application of the chords.  On the whole, the composition defeats itself.  Despite the disorienting multiplicity of ideas, the heavily composed 13 minute track is practically devoid of any recognizable structure.  The short parenthesis that opens and closes the piece was supposed to single-handedly carry the fleeting ledgers of its formal scaffolding.  This was a risky proposition.

 

Letters

Craig Bork penned these alternating moods between atmospheric intrigue, Montmartre lyricism and a hurried jazz-rock run.  Almost a latterday Nino Rota – style mystery creeps in on piano and saxophone.  The best moment gushes when the cello, played pizzicato, encounters a solo piano.  Soon, a pretentious electric guitar and saxophones slowly approach from a more familiar terrain.  Sibilant organ will languish, as if making commentaries on the attempts by the saxophone and the rhythm section to escape from this formal cul de sac.  Instead, they will have to circulate within a very finite domain.  Soprano saxophone will introduce a romantic note with the ease of Steve Lacy, while the piano/organ/drums/bass neoclassicism could almost come from Cartoon – a band Pocket Orchestra befriended.  Unfortunately, the track buckles again under the weight of its inveterate non-linearity. 

 

Blueing

Although the piece starts in abstract territory, its high pitched guitar and rhythm sections will soon re-emerge, forging ahead in choking staccato, and breezing, not without problems, through sparse percussive distractions.  Later a more straightforward guitar/organ theme will appear with the hyperactive drummer rushing presto vivace ahead of the soloing anti-melodists.  For the first time on this record a consistent melodic theme makes its appearance – a guitar paints a memory of the first exhilarating springtime walk after months of self-imposed exile. 

 

White Organ Meats

Joe Halajian’s multitracked saxophones and a guitar timbre stolen from Henry Cow’s larder open for a composition which, as all the others, would surprise us by not surprising…  Tempo reversals, skating lines, slow-ups and speed-downs alternate in various orders.  Solid bass rumble and electric piano will support the ascensions and descents by the saxophone and guitar combo.  There is, finally, a recurrent theme, only metabolized by refined drum rolls.  Tim Parr’s guitar comes to the fore and prances around satirically, eventually absorbed by bubbly electronic effects. 

 

Grandma Coming Down the Hall with a Hatchet

All children know this circus fanfare.  Here, it will derail sardonically.  Still, applying humor to the RIO format was the prerogative of Rascal Reporters so Tim Parr & Co do not persist.  Instead, we are served with a quick succession of illustrative themes for saxophones, a be-bop fragment, a microrhythmic tabla (Warren Ashford).and a downy flute successfully resurrecting the spirit of Ian McDonald (Steve Parr).

 

Bagon

The final, 16 minute-long composition is Knebnagäuje’s tour de force.  This is a tri-modal structure privileged by early Muffins: theme-development-abstraction-theme-development-abstraction…  A very pleasant electric piano slowly opens with competent support from Tim Lyons’ bass.  When the clarinet rises, a different track unfolds – an allegedly cosmic synthesizer, an overdrive guitar, and Aylerian saxophone.  This speculative structure soon collapses and we are left with the ubiquitous improvisation for electric piano and the drummer’s light but supersonic touch.  The saxophone would occasionally howl until the main theme returns.  In the second development, the squadron of saxophones, keyboards and guitar issues a very strong warning of an approaching challenge.  Acceleration.  Deceleration.  Another abstract moment brings forth electronic feedback and unorthodox fiddling with the keyboard.  Suddenly, the unbelievable happens – a shockingly Iberian quote from Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta”.  The electric piano and the drums follow the original surge even though the melodic line will not surface here.  Habituation is out of question – the swirling soup of electronic keyboards, velvety tenorsax and reactive drums will strut towards the end of the collection through various landforms.

 

***

 

Tim Parr and Tim Lyons passed away several years after Pocket Orchestra disbanded and later Bob Stearman suffered a stroke.  To date, only one archival collection has been made available and it has been presented here.

 

POCKET ORCHESTRA / KNEBNAGÄUJE: “Pocket Orchestra / Knebnagäuje” (1978-1983)

Published in: on June 4, 2008 at 10:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Alain MARKUSFELD: “Le monde en étages” ******


Recorded 1970

  

Born into a musical family, this French artist burst into the post-1968 scene with two chefs-d’œuvre which did not age well, because they did not have to.  The music remains the testament to the era which left behind scores of adventurous recordings.  Markusfeld reveled in combining the then unlikely elements – barely nascent rock sensitivity, sensual chanson, very un-pop choral arrangements, and early stage exploration into modern instrumental textures.

 

There was little continuity in Markusfeld’s output and it is hard to gauge today the extent of his popularity at the time.  With very few exceptions, the accompanying musicians are not known, although his second LP was produced by Laurent Thibault of Magma fame. 

 

A sidenote.  His first LP, described here, sports Pieter Brueghel’s “Babel” on cover (I do not recall if this brighter original is now in Vienna or in Antwerp).  The 16th c painter enjoyed something of a revival in late 1960 / early1970 record collections, not least thanks to Pearls Before Swine. 

 

 

Musique fatidique pour nuages fatigués

The LP begins with a frontal assault by strident acoustic guitar and an inconsequential vocal part, instantly juxtaposed with a choir and a quaint electric guitar.  This is a truly puzzling intro and gives little clue as to what we should expect next.  We believe to be helped by the rhythm section, which alludes to a putative “rock record”.  But then we notice acoustic piano, immersed in deep echo, tuneful harmonics from the guitar and a chorus.  When the track becomes more organized, it is almost over. 

 

Dans la glue moyenâgeuse

This time the acoustic guitar is scintillating, engraving the appropriate scale for a breezy flute.  There is little doubt that the track was written with the guitar in hand.  When the proper song finally begins, Markusfeld is supported by the chorus, emphatic organ and pastoral guitar.  There is something of the medieval mood we expected from the title, bu the morceau will stagger between dynamic extremities.  Markusfeld shouts and hums and it’s the slowest moments that are played fortissimo.  Conversely, the faster the fragments, the deeper they are mixed down.  There is no time to get accustomed.  Several themes evolve sequentially, apparently with little or no linkage between them.  A bluesy hoedown here, a faster hard rock there.  No respite. 

 

Dors! Madère

A more traditional song format here – with lyrics about a country of drunks.  The instrumental backing is typical for European soul of that époque – heavy on the organ part.  In refrains, Markusfeld is supported by the light-hearted female choirs, just as Japanese or Eastern European “modernizers” would do back in 1970.  His vocal is slightly distorted by a vibrato, but his overall manner is reminiscent of contemporaneous Melmoth/Dashiell Heydayatt’s recordings.  Piano and guitar alternate in keeping the serene melodic content in this otherwise tight and well thought-out composition.  It eschews the overkill of effects that invaded our auditory system on previous tracks.

 

La terre se dévore (partie 1)

Good, unpretentious guitar-fronted rock courtesy Denis Lable makes this an instrumental passage of surprising tonal strength.  It is rhythmically too complex and chromatically too harsh to fall into a jazz-rock category, and it remains remarkably competent without being flashy.  Within this basic idiom, there are not many recordings from 1970 that have defied obsolescence thanks to the wealth of chord shifts and unstable velocity. 

 

La terre se dévore (partie 2)

The supposedly 2nd part of the above track has a very different rhythmic structure, a less sturdy guitarist (Markusfeld himself) and more flowing thematic development.  But then unexpectedly the demonic, female voices throw at us the choral avalanche as if hijacked from J.A.Caesar’s or Tokyo Kid Brothers’ early days.  It is an eerie experience.  One has to keep staring at the record cover just to remember that this is a French, not Japanese record. 

 

Les têtes molles…

The liquid guitar intro seems to be a brief quotation from Hendrix’s “Burning the Midnight Lamp”.  Other fragmentary tributes will appear later (Jerry Garcia)…  Against a slender pillar of decorative flute and acoustic guitar, Markusfeld’s chant is here more in line with the French tradition that privileges voice over the instrumental content.  Still, this will remain an exception on this album.  Excellent Hammond organ (Jean Schulteis) has a timbre redolent of the Nice or Egg, but there is not place here for any baroque intrusions.  Piano tuning reminds of the first “Renaissance” (then one year old) and will lead us towards a romanticizing theme of a typically Parisian mode.  This is a very pleasant moment, but only for those who do not mind 3 minutes of melancholy in their avant-garde ears.  Well written and well executed.

 

Actualités spatio-régionales

Markusfeld opens with a recitation delicately posed on a tenuous link between electric guitar and organ.  They are replaced by sinewy acoustic guitar and busy cymbals, until J-C.Michaud’s bass line steps up the tension.  In a parody of a sci-fi newsreel Markusfeld yelps out nonsensical “news”, entangled within the coils of cavernous guitar, rueful piano, granitic organ and sepulchral choirs.  Messianic declamation alternates with flaccid 12-bar codas and the band will keep on until Bernard Duplaix’s bassoon offers us the only 10 seconds of musical comedy. 

 

***

 

Markusfeld followed up with his second opus in a slightly more somnambulant manner and then disappeared.  When he returned 5 years later, his recordings became less naïve, more crisp and instrumentally accomplished, but the innocuous charm of his debut was gone.  He apparently continued to produce into 1980s.

 

Alain MARKUSFELD: “Le monde en étages” (1970)

Alain MARKUSFELD: “Le son tombé du ciel” (1971)

Alain MARKUSFELD: “Le désert noir” (1977)

Alain MARKUSFELD: “Platock” (1978)

Alain MARKUSFELD: “Contemporus” (1979)

 

Published in: on May 27, 2008 at 9:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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Jacques THOLLOT: “Quand le son devient aigu, jeter la giraffe à la mer” *****

Recorded 1971

 

Originating from the 1960s’ French jazz scene, Jacques Thollot left a string of unclassifiable recordings ranging from free neo-expressionist explorations for keyboard and percussion to ornate, carefully arranged baroque jazz. But Thollot’s imagination was too rich to enclose him within jazz idiom. His instrumentals, proportional and highly inventive, are often fragile and elusive. His rich arrangements were as lofty as they were airy. Formally impeccable, they were never academic.

 

Were it not for his first LP, issued on a highly collectible Futura label, Thollot would have probably remained virtually unknown outside France. He deserves a much wider renown among adventurous listeners worldwide.

 

Cécile

The record starts with a dry, obsessive, bell-like piano stuck in high register, with a subordinated, more full-bodied acoustic piano at the back. The repetitive figure’s percussive sounds and flat hi-hats leave haunting after-images. The percussive keyboard is gradually arpeggiated. When the sound suddenly clears we realize that all we have heard thus far was deeply muffled. Now the screen is gone and we are fronted by a full percussion kit, a marching drum, and a guiro. The hypnotic, circular theme bathes in an aura of mystery and the increasingly brittle arpeggios prefigure Florian Fricke’s notorious “Ah!” a year later.

 

Position stagnante de réaction stationnaire

Contrary to the title, this polyrythmic, but subtly melodic drumming evolves into a tremolo, slowing down, then up, then down again. Most membranes are high-pitched and some sticks touch the frames instead. This will be Thollot’s trademark technique throughout this record.

 

Enlevez les boulons, le croiseur se désagrère

Liquid sounds from a tone generator (this is 1971 and Thollot does not operate here a fully-fledged synthesizer) are followed by several figures from the piano, then a sound of lower manual harpsichord, all too soon distorted into a poorly projected, faint music box ersatz. The tinny sound alternates with another keyboard that rushes with the speed of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano. Occasional entries by electric organ close this chapter.

 

Mahagony extraits

Lukewarm, low-resonance piano solo intones Kurt Weill’s 20th century European classic. There is some dissonant quality to the timbre of Thollot’s instrument and its tuning recreates an aura of an abandoned ballroom, filled only with the performer’s early morning loneliness.

 

Qu’ils se fassent un village ou bien c’est nous qui s’en allons

Here the piano is in a more heroic mood, supported by drums and megaphone voices echoing in a large hall. This filtered noise gains numerical superiority over the struggling instruments.

 

Aussi long que large

Thollot was, first and foremost, a drummer and this drum solo, probably electronically processed, is characterized by an extraordinary fluidity and dexterity. There are moments of premeditated hesitation, although Thollot does not employ negative spaces or straightforward silence. The tempos are additive, but irregular and the dynamic range is quite extreme.

 

Quiet days in prison

Futura’s original is not telling us who plays the mournful cello solo to the piano’s delicate accompaniment. As the mystery player alternates between D and A strings, the composition retains a very lyrical, romantic quality.

 

De D.C. par J.T.

Thollot’s rendering of Don Cherry’s theme is built around a high-baroque scale progression, albeit with more anthemic openings. His trademark, ever-shifting percussive support competes for space with the domineering piano. The latter will end on a chime-like set of notes.

 

Virginie ou le manque de tact

Purposefully, the composition provokes disgust by exposing us to a braying child’s eerily low voice. We then hear again Thollot in another drum solo with most elements from earlier tracks – bright passages rattled over the full range of drums, but almost no cymbal work. The unpleasant, sobbing voice recurs, and when the tape accelerates to its natural speed for a moment we have no doubt that the intuitive recognition of a brat was correct. The drum solo will close this section…

 

N.G.A.

…only to open this one. A speedy piano repetition is never too far behind, with occasional supra-harmonic assistance from an organ. This is a very fast-moving piece.

 

Aussi large que long

The most abstract track yet will also be the longest on this record. Its coarse texture relies largely on the exploration of fast damped piano chords and percussive brushwork. In higher registers, the pianist allows for a slower decay, quite against the natural capacity of the instrument. The perspective in this non-representational composition is unusually flattened. Pattern recognizability seems to be of no concern to Thollot. The result is best reserved for those who delight in the raw juxtaposition of piano and drums, devoid of expressive bass lines.

 

Quand le son devient aigu, jeter la girafe à la mer

The title track opens with a very New Orleans-sounding piano line, but a high-pitched keyboard unexpectedly transports us to 1970s Italian soundtracks. Double keyboard and drums will, with some trouble, oscillate around this annunciatory melodic line. This part segues awkwardly into another free passage for piano and drums. The keyboard attack is more pronounced than on the previous track and the drums stick to a purely demonstrative role.

 

Marche

Yes, this is an urban march complete with the hacking meter and the proud piano line.

 

A suivre

A far too short coda picks up where the opening “Cécile” left off 40 minutes ago – a piano-organ-drums interplay, as if to invite us for a second listen.

 

***

 

After this very free debut, Thollot opted for a string of more melodic recordings. Fragments of his tunes could be found interwoven in new compositions, most recently in mid-1990s. But he probably reached his creative climax on “Cinq hops”.

 

Jacques THOLLOT: “Quand le son devient aigu, jeter la giraffe à la mer” (1971)

Jacques THOLLOT: “Watch Devil Go” (1974, 1975)

Jacques THOLLOT: “Résurgence” (1977)

Jacques THOLLOT: “Cinq hops” (1978 )

Jacques THOLLOT: “Tenga niña” (1995)

 

There are certainly other recordings that I did not have a chance to hear. Jacques Thollot should not be confused with the much younger François Thollot who early this century created two highly acclaimed avant-prog collections.

 

Published in: on May 24, 2008 at 8:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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