Monthly Archives: May 2008

All About Jazz review by Troy Collins

Empty Cage Quartet – Stratostrophic (CF 103)
Stratostrophic is the Empty Cage Quartet’s third official studio album. Formerly known as the MTKJ Quartet, the adventurous young West Coast-based ensemble features Tim Mears (alto saxophone, clarinet), Kris Tiner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ivan Johnson (bass) and Paul Kikuchi (drums, percussion). A cohesive mix of exuberant free jazz, angular post-bop, stark chamber aesthetics and propulsive post- Braxtonian structures all figure prominently in their singular sound.

Balancing extended episodes with brief sketches, Mears and Tiner (the principal composers) demonstrate a newfound versatility in their writing. Their previous reliance on long-form compositions is now offset by the inclusion of concise miniatures which provide periodic interludes to a handful of prolonged excursions.
Five years together have imbued the group with a deep rapport. Mears and Tiner demonstrate their close-knit partnership as they weave expansive contrapuntal melodies and harmonious voicings with sonorous density. Mears’ keening cry and brash multiphonics orbit Tiner’s half-valve smears and muted refrains as they alternate collective and individual statements.

Johnson and Kikuchi pilot the band through thorny time signatures with subtle forward momentum that expands from aleatoric whispers to pummeling grooves. The formerly all-acoustic ensemble now dabbles in electronics, with Kikuchi adding nuanced kaleidoscopic accents.

The quartet’s sympathetic accord is palpable as Kikuchi and Johnson dance around variable tempos while Mears and Tiner fire onomatopoeic salvos that sizzle and burn on “Again a Gun Again a Gun Again a Gun.” Racing in unison to the finish, soaring horns provide an ascending climax as bass and drums thrash unfettered in the undertow.

Inspired by assorted styles, they draw on punchy hard bop for the intervallic counterpoint of “Old Ladies” and the freewheeling “Through the Doorways of Escape Come the Footsteps of Capture.” Conversely, “The Power of the Great” and “Aurobindo” elicits shadowy atmospheres with obtuse angles.

The 17-minute finale, “Don’t Hesitate to Change Your Mind,” offers a wide range of dynamics, veering from soulful lyricism to volatile expressionism. Their adept listening skills, self-effacing interplay and respect for structure are displayed in a variety of settings, from austere soliloquies to fulminating collectives.

Their most diverse and expansive album to date, Stratostrophic is proof of the Empty Cage Quartet’s rightful place in the pantheon of creative West Coast jazz.

New York Times review by Nate Chinen

Kirk Knuffke Quartet – Big Wig (CF 107)

Since moving to New York from his native Colorado in 2005, the trumpeter Kirk Knuffke has found solid footing: he works with both the avant-garde composer
Butch Morris and the pop tunesmith Josh Ritter, and he’s a member of Ideal Bread, a collective devoted to the music of Steve Lacy. But Mr. Knuffke hadn’t released his own album until “Big Wig,” now out on the Portuguese label Clean Feed (

If he was taking his time on purpose, more power to him, because this is a smartly self-assured debut, stocked with appealingly scrappy original tunes. Mr. Knuffke connects deeply with the trombonist Brian Drye, and likewise with the bassist Reuben Radding and the drummer Jeff Davis. Together these musicians make “Big Wig” feel more rugged than heady, steeped in free-jazz protocols but organized like a hard-bop

Free Jazz review by Stef

Anthony Braxton / Joe Morris – Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (CF 100)
Congratulations to the excellent Portuguese label Clean Feed, not only because this is its 100th release, but also for their continuous effort to bring new avant and free talent into the spotlight, while at the same time managing to publish albums with vested names like Anthony Braxton and Joe Morris. Many (young) artists would not have received the possibilities they get now without Pedro Costa’s ongoing attention. And sure, not every album is a hit, but for me personally, some of the Clean Feed albums are in my list of most appreciated records of the last years : The Nu Band, Dennis Gonzalez, Mark O’Leary, Herb Robertson, Stephen Gauci, The Lisbon Improvisation Players, Carlos Barretto, Vinny Golia, Tony Malaby, Steve Lehman, Raymond MacDonald & Gunter Sommers, Adam Lane, Rob Brown, to name just a few.

Back to Clean Feed 100 : it brings four CDs of each one hour of free improvisation. And I must admit that I had my opinion about both Joe Morris and Anthony Braxton before putting on the first disc. I like Joe Morris’s sense of adventure, and I also think he has composed wonderful music (King Cobra for instance), yet I prefer him as a bass player than as a guitarist, because on the latter instrument he lacks lyricism, usually creating sounds as if his guitar is speaking rather than singing, or even reproducing the musical equivalent of background chattering. Braxton I like at times, but I find him often too abstract and intellectual.

But what you get here, goes totally against my opinionated prejudices. Maybe because the two musicians never played together, maybe because it’s entirely improvised, without prepared themes, melody, structure : it works beautifully. Morris’s soft-toned parlando style little guitar sounds seem to have an incredible effect on Braxton who is lyrical as I’ve seldom heard him. Both musicians listen extremely closely and actually compose on the spot, moving these long improvisations through different moods and musical landscapes, but then of the low and hilly kind, without high peaks or deep chasms. The music is fragile, sensitive, deeply emotional and vibrating with life and musical joy. This is disciplined, controlled, warm and creative music, and as free as it can get. You would think that four times one hour would be the perfect recipe for boredom, but it’s not : the four improvisations offer music with the same coherent focus, yet they are different, and there is even some kind of evolution to be noticed. On the first improvisation, both musicians start from their own comfort zone, easily recognizable as Morris & Braxton. On the fourth improvisation, the music sounds as if preconceived, with Morris playing arpeggiated figures and Braxton actually playing something close to a melody, including almost playing patterns and repetitions, but then not, just touching on them. And while Joe Morris keeps his guitar sound throughout the four improvisations, Braxton changes his instrument on a regular basis, using the whole sax range from sopranino to contrabass saxophone. And only when Braxton uses the latter, does Morris give his guitar a little more of a high-pitched tone. In the hands of amateurs free jazz tends to becomes cacophonic noise. Free jazz in the hands of masters is the ultimate form of music. This, this is sublime. This record is absolutely stunning.

Village Voice review by Tom Hull

MI3 – Free Advice (CF 098)
Spaceways Incorporated bassist Nate McBride sets up a steady, rolling platform for Pandelis Karayorgis’s flights of pianistic fury by fetching seductive riffs from Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Hasaan ibn Ali. This Boston trio was originally formed to play in a rock club, churning out punk-Monk fusion with electric piano. Now, with the piano unplugged and McBride continuing to develop as a subtle (and grooveful) bassist, they’ve moved into something new: free-jazz boogie-woogie? A

Free Jazz review by Stef

Kirk Knuffke Quartet – BigWig (CF 107)
Although the Clean Feed label changed the design of its CDs (gone are the complexly folded brown cardboard sleeves), they have not changed their ability to spot new talent and to give them a chance. And that’s the case with the Kirk Knuffke Quartet, the first CD of the trumpeter as a leader, although he has already recorded several albums with amongst others Butch Morris and Kenny Wollesen. Knuffke sought out band-mates Reuben Radding on bass and Jeff Davis on drums, initially for a trio recording, but after he met trombonist Brian Drye at a concert he invited him to join. After many live gigs they now have their own album, of what can be called “free bop”, with influences of Ornette Coleman but also of more traditional swing. The music is rhythmic, with nice themes, great improvisations and wonderful interplay, and – surprisingly – relatively compact. The 12 tracks are on average 5 minutes long, and that’s short compared to most free jazz albums. This is of course straight-ahead music, with no other goal than to bring a nice tune, play with it, explore it, juggle a little with it, bounce it around among the four musicians and bring it to a close, before they start doing the same with the next tune. This sounds disrepectful, but it is not : the themes themselves are often complex, as are the rhythms, the exploration, the juggling and the playing are excellent, a joy to hear and probably fun to play too, or that’s at least how it comes over. Great debut.

GAZ-ETA review by Tom Sekowski

Elliott Sharp – Octal: Book One (CF 002)
Second part of his Guitar Series for Clean Feed Records, Elliott Sharp this time around switches over to an electro acoustic “guitarbass”. Basically, a custom-made instrument, which is more or less a hollow body electric guitar with an additional two bass strings. “Octal: Book One” is in fact more manageable than Sharp’s take on Monk covers. His idiosyncratic ideas get filtered through a sharply-sounding instrument that gives off a rich variety of diverse sounds. Certain moments, you get an impression you’re hearing a violin, while at others, you may mistake it for a strangely-tuned bass. His rapid, finger-snapping, psychotic slaps are fired off in random succession. Sharp wanted to allot a live, improvised feel to the record and the limited takes he allowed with every track worked their magic. Another proof of staying power of one, seriously under appreciated, master musician.

All About Jazz review by Matt Longley

Herb Robertson NY Downtown Allstars – Real Aberration (CF 096)

Alípio C Neto Quartet – The Perfume Comes Before the Flower (CF 093)
Trumpeter Herb Robertson’s NY Downtown Allstars is a band of bandleaders: Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), Mark Dresser (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). For Real Aberration, a two-CD live recording made at the Casa Da Musica, in Porto, Portugal in 2006, Robertson wrote all of the material, but his compositions aren’t overly concerned with detailed ensemble structures or tightly negotiated heads. His art is to make these pieces feel like fiery improvisations, his works sounding like guiding structures rather than controlling charts.

Disc 1 features “Sick[s] Fragments,” which are certainly not episodic in nature. Instead, they develop very gradually, allowed ample time to make a measured procession from one section to another. There are virtually no breaks between the six tracks, the whole piece imbued with the character of a suite. Dresser is by turns brutal with his strings, then delicate, dominating for nearly ten minutes before the drums enter for their own statement. The horns take their time to begin their bustling and there is a similarity to Cecil Taylor’s build-up of contrasting phases, with Courvoisier providing exotic Far Eastern chime-tones to this miasma of sound. The second disc presents “Re-Elaboration,” a single extended work, which also has a very gradual developmental curve, with Dresser percussing, Courvoisier tentatively entering, while Robertson and Berne blow almost silently into their tubes. Dresser initiates an obsessive clunking and Rainey responds, the horns starting to riff, piano alternately sprinkling and thundering. Momentum gathers until a drumming tattoo threatens to close this slightly inconclusive composition.

Ironically, the precise brilliance of Robertson’s soloing and his fully crackling tone are more in evidence on the Brazilian tenor saxophonist Alípio C. Neto’s The Perfume Comes Before the Flower, recorded in Brooklyn with Ken Filiano (bass), Ben Stapp (guest tuba) and Michael TA Thompson, who describes himself as a soundrhythium percussionist, but actually sounds as though he’s mostly playing a regular kit.

Neto’s pieces also possess a strong improvisatory feel, their vocabulary harking back to the ’70s loft scene, with fleeting themes giving way to extended bursts of shaped chaos. Robertson’s trumpet and cornet solos are the complete embodiment of brassiness, his ripping tone always bright, gutsy and on the attack. He works well with Neto, supporting the leader’s squalling multiphonics, commenting and underlining. At one stage, both of them alternately keep up a flute twitter while the other solos on their regular horn, cowbells shaking and nimble tuba making its first appearance, adding a quality that’s reminiscent of early Arthur Blythe. Energy levels are kept high throughout the entire disc and both of these albums effectively address the tensions between composition and improvisation, the best stretches often ensuing when each sounds like the other.

Jazzthetic review by Olaf Maikopf

Scott Fields Freetet – Bitter Love Songs (CF 102)
Elliott Sharp / Scott Fields – Scharfefelder (CFG 003)
Two new CDs from Chicago guitarist Scott Fields, who for the last five years has lived in Cologne, appear on the Lisbon label Clean Feed, which specializes in interesting improvisers. Fields is known from his work with Joseph Jarman, Hamid Drake, Mat Maneri, Marilyn Crispell, Michael Formanek, and Jeff Parker, all published on such small labels as Black Saint, Delmark, and Music and Arts. Sorry, I do not find the title Scharfefelder, the German translation of the surnames Sharp and Fields, the two guitarists, really funny. But perhaps this strict one-to-one translation is also absolutely serious, because this “new chamber music” is mostly provocative. There are many enjoyable sections that recall (in the most absorbing moments) Larry Coryell’s playing on “Spaces” and sudden chords that bring to mind medieval lute music. Extensive passionate improvisation exchanges, played exclusively on acoustic guitar, wild exuberance, delicate sensuality, abrupt breaks — probably this is meant to be provocative and is intended to challenge the listener. But, except for improvisation-obsessed guitarists and hardcore fans of the two whirling-dervish string-players, would someone find the introverted journey through Scharfefelder interesting? After nearly seventy minutes of this orgy of “crazy strumming” I began to feel the effort.

Quite different, on the other hand, is the effect of Bitter Love Songs. Also in the broad discipline of improvisational music, it captivates from the start. Fields is consistently dedicated to free-form jazz, as established by Ornette Coleman with his former guitarists James “Blood” Ulmer and Bern Nix. Its Harmolodic system was probably the model for these six pieces of organized disorder. Fields moves through steep and descending flight paths through linear interval series in this tradition of “reinterpretation of the method.” His two technically excellent colleagues Sebastian Gramss and the Portuguese João Lobo accompany the guitarist, overlapping with subtle, lively communications. This music is free, but also fascinatingly melodic, with strong blues roots — incredibly exciting.

Chicago Reader review by Peter Margasak

Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore – A Calculus of Loss (CF 104)

Critic’s ChoiceJASON STEIN’S LOCKSMITH ISIDORE Since making a splash in the quartet Bridge 61 with Ken Vandermark, Jason Stein has become a steady presence on the local improvised-music scene. While many important reedists have found distinctive voices on the bass clarinet—Eric Dolphy and David Murray among them—Stein is one of the few to play the instrument exclusively, and on A Calculus of Loss (Clean Feed), the new six-track album by his trio Locksmith Isidore, he refuses to accept its limitations. “That’s Not a Closet” moves from tiptoed pointillism to bluesy swing to turbulent free jazz—with Stein’s ax sounding as much like a tenor saxophone as the unwieldy thing can. On the texture-oriented “Caroline and Sam,” his control of the instrument’s upper register combined with cellist Kevin Davis’s harmonic bowing and Mike Pride’s undulating vibraphone creates a gorgeously restrained atmosphere that reminds me of the great Swedish trio Gul 3. For this and other upcoming performances bassist Jason Roebke replaces Davis.

Tomajazz review by Pachi Tapiz

Empty Cage Quartet – Strotostrophic (CF 103)

Este bagaje previo se nota fuertemente en la música de su última grabación. Su propuesta artísitica incorpora elementos provenientes de diferentes estéticas dentro del jazz. Estos pasan desde un bop más o menos free (“Old Ladies”, “We Are All Tomorrow’s Food”, “Beedie And Bob”) hasta formas contemporáneas (especialmente en las composiciones más extensas como “Again A Gun Again A Gun Again A Gun“,“Through The Doorways Of Escape Come The Footsteps Of Capture” y “Don’t Hesitate To Change Your Mind”, que sin que se indique explícitamente aparecen planteadas a modo de suites). Sin embargo, el aspecto más relevante de la grabación es que la escucha de la música deja la presesencia de una voz común, muy trabajada y llena de recursos tanto colectivos como individuales por parte de los cuatro músicos.

Stratostrophic es una grata sorpresa por parte de un grupo no muy conocido, que gracias a obras como la publicada en Clean Feed bien merecería comenzar a alcanzar un mayor reconocimiento entre los aficionados al jazz.