Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue

Sounds and Cries of the World

 

Sounds and Cries of the World is the latest recording from experimental jazz vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, who is best known for carving out new improvisational terrain for the voice through integrating traditional music discovered through rigorous research and fieldwork.

A 2014 recipient of the prestigious Doris Duke Impact Award, Shyu is well-respected for her uncanny vocal precision and formidable musicianship. She is perhaps best known as a member of influential saxophonist Steve Coleman’s band Five Elements – most recently on the critically lauded Synovial Joints (Pi 2015).

Her new release is a culmination of her travels through East Timor, Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan, where she has spent months to years in each place immersing herself in the language and under-recognized music of various indigenous cultures.

Utilizing specific musical forms, dream-like narrative, and language of these various cultures, her work is utterly unique.

Her peripatetic itinerary is not arbitrary: her focus is on music that is rarely heard outside of their regions, especially narrative storytelling from women and shamanic chant from ritual ceremony. What arises from her is an authentic offering that is both grounded in its solid foundation and ground breaking in its singularity.

Sounds and Cries of the World is an intimate reflection of Shyu’s absorption and study of all of these musical traditions and revelations. Singing in English, Korean, Indonesian, Javanese, and Tetum – she is also fluent in Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish – her lyrics evoke a range of emotions from plaintively wistful to emotionally anguished, with imagery that is by turns brutally explicit and fantastically surreal.

Much of the music has a free-floating feel progressing via internal cues in a system that Shyu was developing before going to Indonesia and further solidified after her Javanese gamelan studies of palaran, in which the form follows the sung melody.

The music sounds free across a steady pulse, but in actuality, everyone including the singer must listen and be perfectly aware of the order in which all the instrumentalists’ cues fit together before they move forward. Helping her carry out her vision are the remarkable contributions from Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Dan Weiss.

Derek Mahon

 

After The Titanic

A Life of Derek Mahon

By Stephen Enniss

This first comprehensive biography boasts that Mahon is Ireland’s greatest living poet, which is disputatious, as I believe Paul Muldoon has the stronger claim.

What is indisputable, however, is that irrespective of his undoubted merit as a poet, with greatness scattered throughout his Collected Poems, Mahon, the enfant terrible of the Northern poets in the 1960s, emerges throughout the 260 pages as both a bad drunk and a bad egg.

Though devoid of the electrical hum of connection with those he wreaked emotional damage on, something about him earns the steadfast support of fellow poets, like Longley Seamus Heaney and the saint-like Peter Fallon.

And yet, for one who took more than he gave, his tendency was to bite the hand that fed him. Generosity of spirit is not always reciprocated. Heaney is unswerving in his endeavours to keep Mahon in funds by writing testimonials and letters of recommendation.

But when Heaney wins the Nobel Prize, a small-minded peevishness surfaces in Mahon: he is quick to put space between himself and Heaney, at the receiving end of a post-Nobel backlash in literary Dublin, because he is the anthesis of Mahon’s poete maudit.

Baudelaire, an early hero of Mahon, defined the poet maudit as untouched by the suffering he experiences, but Mahon could be untouched by the suffering he caused, and much of it avoidable. Enniss diligently records Mahon’s quarrelling over trivialities, often conducted when he is off the wagon, though it wears thin as an excuse when he is sober.

Petulantly cruel in his treatment of his elderly and widowed mother, which amounts to disdain, only after her death does Mahon manage to acknowledge any feelings for her. He has no hesitation, however, spending her generous legacy.

For many who grew up with his poems, the Mahon who emerges from this biography, a seer and visionary to his admirers, is short of the milk of human kindness and, when it is needed most, charitable empathy. After The Titanic was not, I imagine, a labour of love to write.

Gunnar Halle

Istanbul Sky

 

Music, said pianist Krystian Zimerman, is using sound to organise emotion in time, and this is manifest in this eclectic collection by trumpeter Gunnar Halle in Istanbul Sky, his solo debut on the Ozella label.

This is undoubtedly Halle’s most personal project to date, a leap into the unknown for a composer who refuses to be bracketed by any single movement or style, and so Istanbul Sky is a motley assembly of new work, which took root in Istanbul, but flowered in Oslo.

There is much shifting of mood and tempo and so, unusually for a debut collection, some tracks do not seamlessly segue. The electronic-pop opener, Istanbul Sky, with Halle on vocals, doesn’t reflect the peaks to follow, and the mood alters significantly by the fourth minute with Port, with Halle back on familiar territory, a sumptuous horn solo, and soft percussion from Knut Finsrud,

Less an homage to Europe’s crucible of musical trends, Istanbul Sky is Halle’s reworking of his many influences – jazz, jazz fusion, pop – but structured by his passion for contemporary electronics: Lordag, a hybrid of early Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Jethro Thull, stops and starts, a pedestrian crossing of twists and turns .

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t: Snoting exudes the acoustic ambient sonorties of Halle’s plaintive and haunting horn, an age away from the aforementioned Lordag, a coming together of self confident and reverential light rock meets funk. The former is indisputably Scandinavian, and the latter West Coast Americana.

However, Halle, whose careers includes playing on seventy albums, is his own man, and throws whatever takes his fancy into the stew, which is why Port refers to both a gate in his garden and Portishead.

You can’t help but indulge Weightless, maybe because it is reminiscent of the mood of Groove Armada’s At The River, but it is nonetheless gorgeous, and is the ideal example of Halle’s starting point, a flowing coalition of all his different influences, from Louis Armstrong to John Tchicai. Istanbul Sky will put a smile on your face.

Takashi Hiraide

The Guest Cat

Hiraide, about whom I know not enough, is a Japanese poet in his 60s, but the impression lingers that The Guest Cat is set three decades earlier, and is partially auto-biographical.

Chibi is the cat from next door who doesn’t recognise boundaries and slowly becomes acquainted with the new young couple, a writer and a proof reader.

This is a novella in which change is constant, and Hiraide alludes to the impermanency that we are all subject to with simple vignettes, which nonetheless work.

His writing has the patient discipline of a tanka, such as this description of winter: ‘the faded purple of the garden’s saffron was now waning.

It is a story of change, bookended by the arrival of a cat, and its departure. Cats will always come and go, whether they stay a week or ten years.

Nothing becomes a cat like the manner of their arrival, so sudden, and their departure, equally so. A cat is never owned. It owns. The economy of a cat’s movement is reflected in Hiraide’s prose.

Anybody who understands our feline friends will acknowledge and relish Hiraide’s descriptions. Chibi ‘seemed to find pleasantly comfortable the combination of this twilight nook with its human smell and the softness of the cushions.’

As someone who lives with cats, Hiraide’s profound story, devoid of any garnish, reads wonderfully and truthfully. If you prefer dogs, the empathy may not transfer as successfully.

For those who have been bereaved by a cat and have aural memories of their breathing whilst sleeping, this book might be an ideal unguent to salve the pain of loss.

Drifter

Flow

Flow opens with the glorious Crow Hill, an Alexi Tuomarila number, which is ironic because it is airlifted by the exploding thermals of Nicolas Kummert’s aeolian saxophone.

I was certain it was a saxophonist’s composition but no, Tuomarila, responsible for four of the nine tracks, is never less than harmonically edifying in what he does, and Flow is sublime.

Some recent recordings, such as Songs To the North Sky by Tim Garland, and Colorfield by Romain Pilon (with Walter Smith III on tenor sax), open with similarly bright and bountiful sax lines, and they are a terrific hook for the listener.

The genesis of Flow is complex in the telling: the Alexi Tuomarila Quartet was one of many bands left high and dry when, without warning, Warner Jazz ditched all its recording artistes.

A decade of performing and recording later, Tuomarila, from Finland, and Kummert, from Belgium, felt the time was right to reunite the original quartet.

So Flow is the marriage of the original quartet’s youth and vitality and the intervening years’ experience of touring and recording with other musicians.

The fresh compositions encompasses all that is synonymous about the first quartet: shifting time signatures, rhythmic interplay and ebullient turns of phrase, with Axel Gilain on double bass and Teun Verbruggen on drums

All of the compositions, bar Sting’s King of Pain, an arrangement not a million miles in tone from Brad Mehldau’s repertoire, are by Tuomarila and Kummert, who even supplies the vocals on Nothing Ever Lasts.

With echoes of Keith Jarret’s European Quartetet, the writing, and Crow Hill, Lighthouse and Breathing Out My Soul are high points, is vibrant and fresh, the hallmarks of both originality and experience: this is a tight unit, combining both riffs and melodies seguing the improvisation of Tuomarila and Kummert.

 

Liberty Ellman

 

Radiate is the long-anticipated new release from guitarist Liberty Ellman, his first since 2006’s critically acclaimed Ophiuchus Butterfly. One of New York’s most imaginative and unorthodox guitarist/composers, he has chiefly been known in recent years as a key member of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, a collaboration that has been ongoing for almost 15 years.

Ellman has worked with a number of the most original figures in jazz, such disparate artists such as Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano, Myra Melford, Jason Moran, Greg Osby, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris, and the standout vocalist Somi.

Now, nine years after his last release, Ellman finally steps into the leader’s role again with a stunningly visceral release that puts his multifaceted artistry in full view.

Ellman spent his youth and most of his 20s in the Bay Area, a free-wheeling scene where he was able to develop his own distinctive approach to playing. There he also formed deep, lasting relationships with pianist Vijay Iyer, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and a close-knit circle of other like-minded players.

Since returning to his native New York in 1998, he has staked out his own turf with uncompromising vigour. His first release on Pi, Tactiles (2003), which featured Osby as well as tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, was proclaimed by Gary Giddins in The Village Voice as “original and subtle…

At once highly controlled and recklessly inventive.” Its follow-up, Ophiuchus Butterfly (2006), was called “complex, meticulous and challenging… but also groovy, contemporary and sleek” by The New York Times.

In recent years Ellman has also become one of the busier mixing engineers on the scene, working on projects with Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Sam Rivers, Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, Gregory Porter (Grammy Nominated), Wadada Leo Smith, Tyshawn Sorey, and many others.

Still, nothing has occupied more of his artistic output than his ongoing collaboration with Henry Threadgill in the band Zooid, the longest running ensemble in the alto saxophonist/flutist/composer’s long and illustrious career.

The diverse collection of eight originals on Radiate display a broad versatility. The opener, “Supercell,” is hard hitting and infectious, whereas the empathetic, lush trio play of “Moment Twice” betrays delicate communication and suspense. “Enigmatic Runner” engages Ellman’s ongoing interest in the electro acoustic world, mixing the live performance to create the illusion of programmed material. Ellman’s own playing is conversational, melodic, and rhythmically charged. He favours warm and subtly changing tones on his instrument, and his solos tumble forth beautifully while remaining remarkably free from clichés.

He uses both acoustic bass and tuba giving the music a strong bottom, which helps emphasize the groove, but also offers expanded textural possibilities. Each piece has its own personality but Ellman’s signature designs are present throughout. It’s likely that it is his long association with Mr. Threadgill that gives Ellman such an uncommon ear for polyphonic counterpoint and rhythmic convolution.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabete

The Kilkenny Arts Festival lived up to its billing as one of the great centres for musical experimentation and exploration with this long awaited concert by Toumani and Sidiki Diabete in the Set Theatre, a cavern-like venue which, unfortunately, is not insulated from the delirium of Hen and Stag parties on the street outside.

Such is the dichotomy of modern day Kilkenny: a beacon for both the aesthetic and the thrashy.

Father and son, freshly arrived from Paris, conducted a conversation with the capacity and largely reverential audience via the kora, a 21-string West African harp. The ties binding Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté are particularly profound and evocative, as they are descended from a line of griots – custodians of the ancient oral traditions of West Africa’s Mandé people stretching back seven hundred years.

The Kilkenny gig was intimate, all too brief, but genuinely one for the annals. Their repertoire is derived from neglected kora pieces as viewed by two contemporary musicians, who exude a telepathic communication whilst playing with verve and wit. This was musicianship shorn of hubris or excess or any of the usual rubbish you find in most clubs. It was humble, pure and exquisite. No frills. Just brilliance.

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