Thomas Strønen / Time Is A Blind Guide: Lucus (LP, ECM, January 2018)

This may be a foolish thing to say — I am far from an expert — but this strikes me as a very ECM-ish record. The line-up is strings, piano, and drums (Time Is A Blind Guide are the band; Thomas Strønen takes the writing and percussion credits). It is, for the most part, relentlessly sparse and brittle, triangulating a point somewhere between a highly abstracted strain of modern classical, what I’m choosing to call minimal jazz although I still don’t know whether that’s actually a thing, and the plangeant tones of early music. At times it even sounds like it’s already been through Villalobos & Loderbauer’s Re: ECM treatment. If that makes it sound terribly po-faced then I apologize, because this has a real lightness of touch and even a playfulness in places. I must admit that there a few of the more full-on moments which strain my jazz-tolerance, and one track (Wednesday) that exceeds it (this is my problem, not the records; but this is my blog, so I get to complain about it anyway). But it’s mostly a very pleasant listen, and there’s some real magic in the quieter moments.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Jazz / Fusion.

St Francis Duo: Peacemaker Assembly (LP, Trost Records, April 2016)

I don’t even pretend to be able to keep up with the output of Sunn 0))) main-man Stephen O’Malley. I happened across this, though, and it’s smashing. St Francis Duo are O’Malley and his old mucker Steve Noble. The LP consists of two tracks, clocking in at just under twenty minutes each, of intense, doomy work from O’Malley on guitars (and “amplifiers”) and loose, clattering, jazzy percussion from Noble — a really successful combination. The A-side is thick and dark, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously, they sound like they’re just enjoying the sounds they’re making together. The B-side starts off in a somewhat sparser manner (although it’s not exactly light) and builds slowly, which actually makes it the more ominous of the two tracks. Fresh, meaty, and very very good.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal.

Tord Gustavsen, Simin Tander, Jarle Vespestad: What Was Said (2xLP, ECM, February 2016)

I got slightly obsessed with this record, and I’m not quite sure why. I don’t normally get on with jazz, and know little about it; and I buy very little in the way of proper songs, especially by singers who sound trained in any kind of formal classical tradition. But this is amazing! I don’t know whether minimal jazz is a thing, but I think this might be it. (I was reading someone on a jazz forum talking about the sparseness of Gustavsen’s music and describing how the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes itself. Obviously, this is something which I approve of, and think the genre could do with a great deal more of. Most genres could, actually, but jazz especially.)

Anyway, many of the songs — and many of my favourites — are dominated by Tander’s vocals. She is German–Afghan, and the lyrics are a collaboration with the Afghan poet B Hamsaaya: they include Norwegian hymns translated into Pashto, Sufi poetry by the 13th century Persian mystic Rumi translated into English, and one setting of proto-Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth’s “No!” (as “I Refuse”). A common pattern, as on, say, the lovely “Imagine The Fog Disappearing”, is for the song to have two phases: first the vocal accompanied very gently by Gustavsen on piano and Vespestad on percussion (and occasionally a barely noticeable electronic wash); followed by an instrumental response where Gustavsen lets himself go a bit more. The effect is, for the most part, pretty spell-binding, with an emotional depth which is moving without ever seeming soppy or manipulative. Tander’s voice is astonishing, whether she’s singing lyrics which few people could get away with (a favourite of mine, perhaps in small part because it reminds me of Dylan Thomas, despite being one of Rumi’s: “What was said to the rose, to make it open / Was said to me here in my chest”, which she makes magical rather than cheesy, and which gains a kind of spine-tingling immediacy when a few lines later it slips into the the present tense for “that is being said to me now”) or making me feel like I sort of know what she’s saying despite singing in a language I know nothing of (as, say, on “Sweet Melting”). The accompaniment is basically perfect, too. There’s only one off note on the whole album, for me, the instrumental “Rulls”, which I find disconcertingly upbeat in this context (and just a tiny bit Film ’92 theme tune).

So, yeah: slightly obsessed. I’ve been putting off writing this to see whether the effect wore off, but it hasn’t really. I never thought I’d be saying this, but this is my find of the year so far.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Jazz / Fusion.

Mätisse: Kairos (CD, In Paradisum, January 2016)

Sometimes, I really don’t make life easy for myself. It’s very hard to know what to say about this record. There are two 18-minute tracks, but each is in several apparently unrelated parts. Along the way it incorporates (in no particular order) melodic synth music, sparse modern classical using a variety of different piano sounds (from the close-miked and intimate to the echoey slightly dissonant), abstract acoustic bass noodling, buzzy drone ambient, post-rock guitar, some weirdly resonant plucked instrument I can’t place, a combination of humming and bowed resonant chimes and throaty chanting seemingly suited to some kind of meditative ritual, jazz xylophone (!), aleatoric percussion, heavily processed chanting, and a dozen other styles and instruments which I either can’t remember or can’t name. Often, we get two of three of these at the same time, in frankly surprising combinations. Sometimes, things will seem to come to a climax and then peter out; other times, they’ll simply come to a halt. There’ll be a pause, and then something different will happen, with no obvious sense of progression. It’s all very strange, really. But here’s the strangest thing of all: somehow, they manage to make this all not just work, but sound quite natural. Not only are all the elements satisfying individually, but the whole thing manages to combine an elegant lightness of touch with a kind of almost devotional intensity, and I found myself keeping on coming back to it — and after four or five listens, I started to convince myself that there’s a sort of fractured subconscious logic to its structure. An early contender for the hardest-to-categorize record of the year, but an immensely rewarding one.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic (which is, frankly, a cop-out).

Erik K Skodvin: Flame (CD, Sonic Pieces, June 2014)

I have to admit, this isn’t what I was expecting. I’ve heard Erik K Skodvin in contemplative mode as half of Deaf Center, and in doom-drone mode as Svarte Greiner. This is a much looser business, with open, clattering percussion, abstract cello scraping and clarinet tootling, half-prepared-sounding piano, and on the one-minute-long near-title-track Flames a big reverby guitar roar like some kind of psychedelic blues. There’s something about the structure and composition of these tracks which make me want to call them jazz, although the sound is often from a richer classical palette. This takes elements of things that are familiar and appealing to me and does something new and interesting and hard to pin down, and that has to be a good thing.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Modern Classical / Ambient.

Dictaphone: Poems From A Rooftop (CD, Sonic Pieces, April 2012)

This record has a wonderfully fresh take on the modern classical template, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it’s doing. We get sonorous chimes, tinkling pianos, and atmospheric strings. We get some jazzy touches, like the soulful reed instruments and the percussion’s tendency towards soft brushes and hand-claps. We get a subtle washes of static, and snatches of samples. (There is one straight-forward vocal track, Rattle, and I have to say I find it jarring in this context.) The whole thing is gently propulsive, which makes a change, and there are some interesting tonalities at work. Whatever it does, I think it’s smashing. (Also, I approve of the film-geek-friendly track titles.)

I bought this directly from the label.

Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer: Re: ECM (2xCD, ECM, June 2011)

Dance remixes of classical music can be an ugly thing. Just think what William Orbit did to poor Sammy Barber, my dears. We would expect something rather more subtle from Messrs Villalobos and Loderbauer, and subtlety is what we get in spades. This is a quiet, refined minimalism, never repetitive but with a structure which is just barely there: in its more abstract moments, it teeters on the brink of sounding like they’ve dozed off over the live mixing desk, or perhaps entered some kind of trance. When there are beats, they are mostly skittering brushed snares, as if played by a drummer in the corner of a smoky jazz club who is distracted by doubts about whether they’re actually meant to be somewhere else. Now fragments of soaring string melodies float in and out, now horns parp, now something that sounds like it may be a dulcimer idles for a while and then wanders off. It does have its more together moments: in their reworking of Alexander Knaifel’s Blazhenstva, for example, the distant Ligeti-like atonal chorus and the whispering solo violin work in a recognizable counterpoint against the softly beats of the foreground, though even then as the track progresses this formation is gently degraded by a touch of post-processed crackle. This is like a half-forgotten dream of music, and I find it very easy to get caught up in, the sparseness and evident precision leading me to wonder why that note, where there in the mix, why now? This was clearly a labour of love for its creators, and it is hugely rewarding. (I apologize if the pretension levels in this post have exceeded even my normal elevated standards. All I can say is that you should see the liner notes.)

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek: Bird, Lake, Objects (CD, Faitiche, March 2010)

The most obvious thing going on here is the layering of found sounds, presumably the work of Jelinek. It’s densely textured, a very accomplished piece of production. Over that we get Fujita’s chiming vibraphone: at some times playing tinkling (improvised?) melodies, at other times just chiming away in the distance. I found it very evocative: at one point I was lying at the bottom of a pit, with my eyes shut, inside a huge echoey cave, and there was a beach outside, a couple of kids playing, and boats on the beach with their shrouds clanking against their masts… Nice, eh? It ends with a superb climax of buzzing. I was first drawn to this record because I think that Bird, Lake, Objects is a fantastic title. A silly reason, perhaps, but I’m very glad for it.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Jazz / Related.