DAYS ON A SUMMER'S JAZZ
V/A: Juneteenth (Catalytic Sound), Blacks' Myths, Ben Hall's Racehorse Names, Bonnie Jones, Luke Stewart, Heart of the Ghost w/Dave Ballou
VARIOUS ARTISTS Juneteenth: A Catalytic Sound Compilation in Support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (CATALYTIC SOUND) I got pretty deep into contemporary creative music (aka jazz?) during this pandemic summer, in no small part because of the work of the Catalytic Sound collective, especially their all-remote all-virtual 2020 Catalytic Sound Festival, which took place this July. Also, this year Juneteenth fell on a Friday, a Bandcamp Friday no less, one of those Fridays when the premiere digital music platform of the underground waives their usual 15% fee, and on June 19th, the Catalytic Sound label released the various artists compilation Juneteenth, with all the album’s proceeds to be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. A fine cause, and the music looked good too, so I bought one for $10, which is well worth it, because the damn thing is like 7 hours long. (Actually a little over two hours, which is still hella long, but I guess 135 minutes of music fits on a double CD, so there ya go.) First track “Keep Going” is by Joe McPhee & Hamid Drake, Joe doing more vocals than trumpet, Hamid laying it down heavy as always, both a burner and a blaster. Then Chris Corsano blasts a 4-minute solo drums piece, followed by Sylvie Courvoisier Trio doing a real nice 7-minute ambient/melodic/misterioso tune, then Yannis Kyriakides & Andy Moor (never heard of ‘em) doing a wild guitar skronk against severe sputtering electronics duo piece that basically says “death to false illbient.” It’s been a great comp so far, and yet when the next track comes on, a solo track by bassist Luke Stewart, I feel like for the first time on the whole comp, and to be honest for one of the few times in several years, I’m truly hearing a new concept. Like maybe you don’t call this jazz. I’m not quite sure who Luke Stewart is… okay, looked him up, he’s also in Heart of the Ghost and Irreversible Entanglements. I know those bands a little, and they’re both fantastic too. This is all starting to make sense. Stewart plays stand-up bass, often in a classic ‘jazz bassist’ style, but he’s just as often pushing the instrument somewhere else, using effects pedals, noise, loops, reverb, overtones, harmonics, and ostinatos, or using electric bass for even more multivalent purposes. Within thirty minutes after hearing this comp track, I had ordered an LP by another one of his projects (Blacks’ Myths, but I’ll save that for the next review). Continuing on after Stewart, gosh there’s just so much, and would you believe I got lost and went backwards, and listened to that Sylvie Courvoisier Trio track again, and damn, how could I not think that was a new concept too? The way she plays both inside and outside the piano, and blends noise with classical with jazz-I-guess, all in a natural flow? Probably because, in the meantime, I watched her archived live set from the 2020 Catalytic Sound Festival, seeing her inside/outside playing style in action, and now I have a better understanding of what I’m hearing on the comp track… ah forget it, I can’t finish this review, it’s long enough already, and it’s already been waylaid by several new concepts, particularly those from Stewart and Courvoisier, and there’s lots more on this comp. Just know that I did listen to everything else at least once, some of it more than once, with other standout tracks by the Kuzu trio (Dave Rempis/Tashi Dorji/Tyler Damon), Elisabeth Harnik, Ikue Mori, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jaap Blonk, Ben Hall/Mike Khoury duo, Nate Wooley, Tim Daisy, Ken Vandermark, lots more.
BLACKS’ MYTHS I LP (ATLANTIC RHYTHMS) Jazz duos are usually horn and drums, maybe piano and drums, but how many bass and drums duos have there been? Any records? Why can’t I think of any? (Avant-rock duos like the Ruins or Lightning Bolt don’t count.) I honestly can’t name another jazz bass/drums duo record right now, certainly not one with a concept as evolved as Blacks’ Myths I, which is Luke Stewart (Irreversible Entanglements, Heart of a Ghost) on bass and Warren G. “Trae” Crudup III on drums. Stewart lays down huge ostinato/loop/resonance/feedback foundations, and Crudup gets in the pockets with grace, energy, humor, subtlety, push, and pull.
BEN HALL’S RACEHORSE NAMES The New Favorite Thing Called Breathing (RELATIVE PITCH) So I thought I discovered Ben Hall’s music way back in 2006 when I saw him play live at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, and even bought a couple CDRs from him at the merch table. He was the drummer in the Graveyards trio, with John Olson of Wolf Eyes on reed instruments, and Hans Buetow on cello, on that particular night joined by C. Spencer Yeh (aka Burning Star Core) on violin to form a quartet by the beautifully ad hoc name of Burning Graveyards. They were reeeeaaallly good that night at the Bottle, in no small part because of Hall’s knack for developing pieces over long stretches of time, he and his drums creating the entire canvas so that Olson and Buetow (and that night Yeh) could take their time and find particulary esoteric color schemes and narrative pockets. Not long after that show, I realized I’d heard Hall play drums even before that, on those Khoury/Shearer/Hall trio CDRs on Public Eyesore, starting around 2001. (Also mentioned in a recent column due to a Theo Parrish connection…) After the Graveyards moves of 2006-2008, I kind of lost touch with Hall’s music, certainly noting his work in a duo with Don Dietrich from Borbetomagus, thinking “bet that’s crazy” but never actually hearing it, and more recently seeing him post drum videos on Instagram that I can’t find now, and show up for a great interview with Jeremiah Cymerman on the latter’s 5049 Podcast, and now here’s a 2018 album release by a project called Ben Hall’s Racehorse Names, which, well, speaking of new concepts… damn. I don’t know what kind of music this is. It definitely sounds like it comes out of jazz, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard another jazz album like it. Strange large-ensemble instrumentation: one guy on electric piano and organ, another guy on electronics, the aforementioned Mike Khoury on violin and viola, along with a sax player, an auxiliary percussionist, and, as a special guest making it a sextet plus one, Joe Morris himself on electric guitar. What they do is needling, ongoing, obsessive, somehow both cool and distanced and yet hot and fiery as hell; spiky, poky, bristled, all sensations rippling and cyclotroning on low boil… Turns out there’s a lot of new concepts flying around the jazz world these days after all, and/or the creative music world, and/or the improvised music world. (Should I not be using “the j word”?) It’s not just Luke Stewart and Sylvie Courvoisier who have new concepts, it’s Ben Hall, et al, y tal vez tu tambien. (I get it, my scope on concepts must always be recalibrating and refocusing, hopefully always trending towards higher resolution.)
BONNIE JONES An Hour is a Sea (AMPLIFY 2020) Only know of her from, once again, this year’s 2020 Catalytic Sound Festival, her trio performance on Night 3 with (the aforementioned) Ben Hall and Luke Stewart, as well as a panel discussion earlier that day, but she had been living and working in Baltimore for over a decade before that, chopping it up with the freaks and academics and other movers and shakers in that town, making these amazing long-form small-sound but extremely heavy compositions. Is the only reason I haven’t heard of her before because she never recorded for Ehse? Or did she record for Ehse?! I don’t know, but I do know that this Bonnie Jones album An Hour is a Sea is very recent, post-quarantine, recorded on 3/30/20, and another very powerful 48-minute composition. Not “jazz,” btw. How did this review get into a jazz column, anyway? (Because Catalytic Sound willfully crosses experimental music subgenres as curators, and I strive for the same as both listener and writer.)
LUKE STEWART Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier (ASTRAL SPIRITS/MONOFONUS PRESS) Hardcore noise/texture compositions (improvisations?) that are what they say they are. “Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier Pt. I” and “Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier Pt. II,” released on cassette in 2018 by the happening Astral Spirits label. When Stewart goes into this mode, he seems fully willing to commit to pure gesture, pure sound, pure texture.
HEART OF THE GHOST WITH DAVE BALLOU Live at Rhizome LP (DAGORETTI) My goodness, just in case you thought Luke Stewart only played new-concept avant-noise soundscape bass, listen to him lay it down in a traditional ripping and burning ESP-Disk style with his band Heart of the Ghost. They have a few previous releases on Dagoretti as well, mostly as a trio (Stewart on bass, Ian McColm on drums, Jarrett Gilgore on saxophone), definitely all rippers, but the addition here of Dave Ballou on trumpet takes it to another level. It makes me realize how important the quartet concept is to jazz; the trio of bass, drums, and horn is elemental, as is the trio of bass, drums, and piano, but adding just one more harmonic/melodic instrument to that elemental trio, whether you have a horn and a piano, or two horns, or a horn and a cello, whatever, quickly opens up so much more harmonic/melodic territory, creating the elemental quartet. The interplay, the tones, the extra chordal harmony, the extra timbral harmony even… it’s why we love Ornette’s original Atlantic Records quartet so much, it’s why we love the self-titled New York Art Quartet album on ESP-Disk, it’s why we love everything by the 4-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago, it’s why we all love all of that. (POSTSCRIPT You could read my Luke Stewart reviews, or you could just read this: https://tuskis better.substack.com/p/so-you-wanna-get-into-luke-stewart.)
And one more POSTSCRIPT, since I’ve been questioning the word jazz in this article, and I just came across some good words on this from Joel Ross, another Chicago jazz musician, in this interview: “The more I’ve been playing, and talking, and learning from people, the more I understand how jazz music is more flexible than the name implies. As for the word ‘jazz’ itself, I use it to introduce people into the space that we’re in. And then once I get them in the door, I want to show them how big that space really is. But we can use the word to start the conversation. Jazz music falls under a term that I agree more with - Black American Music.” The interviewer responds: “That’s encouraging, because I was hoping to use the word ‘jazz’ throughout this interview. Like with anything in language, if everyone knows what you’re talking about, then the word holds value.”