Some Reviews

Between 1990 and 2004 I contributed hundreds of articles (mostly album reviews) working for The Wire, Q, Time Out, Resonance, BBC World Service and others. This sampling is taken from a 1992 series of very short reviews on the subject of rhythm. The full article is here

Warne Marsh “Jason’s Judgement” Two Days In The Life of Warne Marsh (Interplay) 1987
The saxophonist lived under the twin shadows of peer Lee Konitz and teacher Lennie Tristano for almost his entire career, appreciated by few, influencing fewer (exceptions; Braxton, Jimmy Halperin), his material familiar but his conception of rhythm and phrasing restless and extraordinary. Abstract and shifting accents working both inside and outside the rhythm’s codes; the simultaneous appearance of flight and stasis, acceleration and deceleration, certainty and doubt. Sometimes he almost seemed to play backwards. (RS)

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time “Song X” Jazzbuhne Berlin ’88 (Repertoire) 1988
Ornette’s own obscure pronouncements concerning Harmolodic Theory notwithstanding, his main contribution still lies in freeing rhythm. Here his saxophone is less dominant than usual, just another voice in the hallucinogenic mix of electric guitars and percussion. The instruments enter, each suggesting their own patterns and tempos which merge, drift and mutate throughout. Denardo’s drumming is extraordinary: intuitively finding logic in the most obscure orbits and pulses. Miraculously, clear and coherent patterns and multidimensional masses form, suggesting that the possibilities of rhythm in today’s music have barely even begun to be addressed. (RS)

Various Artists Voices of the Rainforest (Rykodisc) 1991
Not many human musicians on this eavesdropping collection of sounds recorded in Papua New Guinea, but those who do appear singing, playing and working against the backdrop of the forest with its million birds and insects sound to be in rare accord with their environment; a Jew’s Harp player jams with the sounds of the forest, listening, reflecting its sounds. The fundaments of rhythm – cycles of day and night, speech, walking and working, revealed in a context anything but fanciful or abstract. (RS)

Paul Bley/Gary Peacock/Barry Altschul “Virtuoso” Virtuoso (Improvising Artists Inc) 1967
One of the free-est and most magnificently abstract (yet ignored) jazz recordings of the 60s. Prefiguring much of the music on the ECM label it eddies and swirls with a shimmering intensity, stated meter not so much abandoned or avoided as genuinely transcended. Like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity the rhythm is indefinable, yet undeniable, flowing organically as a result of the unique friction between the minds and bodies of the players. (RS)

Tom Cora “Burning Hoop” Gumption In Limbo (Sound Aspects) 1991
cf: David Moss or Arto Lindsay or half of the other improvisors in New York (or Manchester for that matter). A sort of broken zig zag rhythm, fluent without being fluid, jerky, angular, narrative. Pinball, video-gaming, decision-making, crossed wires, the limits of coordination, self-contradiction, percussive interjections, interruptions, misunderstandings, arguments, stupidity. The decision both to make the next step and trip oneself up at the same time. (RS)

Maa Hawa Kouyate and Soundioulou Cissokho “Tuta Jara” Volume 2 (7008) 1980s
West African rhythm is not all drums; the strings – the kora and ngoni/halam – are equally important especially where song (as opposed to dance) is concerned. Soundioulou was an exceptional kora player; modest, minimal, quietly staggering, his accompaniments and brief solos expressing the same rhythmic subtlety and complexity as a six strong drum orchestra. His strings form the heart for Hawa’s exquisitely piercing voice and soaring melody rooted in a total grasp of the rhythm, echoing with a thousand miles of desert and bush. (RS)

Cabaret Voltaire “Western Mantra” Three Mantras (Mute) 1980
A remorseless machine-drive dirge. 12 years later it’s still as gripping as James Brown, as addictively sickening as a Martin Scorsese film. Cheap drum-box rhythms, distorted and fed through a dark inverted-funk-meets-Strockhausen mentality, create that sense of mechanical rhythmic intoxication so beloved of House-fiends and Technoheads, but also unexpected by-products; claustrophobia, nausea and horror. Human and machine in perfect disharmony. (RS)

and a few others taken from the The Wire’s 100 most important blah….

Evan Parker Monoceros (Incus) 1978
Free improvisation is not the most obviously successful of recorded forms. There are more important and wonderful musicians in the field than there are important and wonderful recordings. Simply speaking recordings have got almost nothing compared to the thing itself – the performance – with all its specific surprises, atmospheres, doubts, questions and impossibilities. Most improvisers view recordings merely as documents or sources of information, only rarely as things in themselves. However, the rarefied sphere of Evan Parker’s labyrinthine (difficult to discuss him without that word) solo saxophone improvisations seems to survive the transition. In fact its other-wordly resonances are emphasised when you can’t see him playing. Hardly possible to believe these epically, epochally vast circumterrestrial processes are the product of a single mind, body and (rather small) instrument. (RS)

Albert Ayler Trio Spiritual Unity (ESP) 1964
“To boldly go where no man…” Ayler was one of the greatest saxophonists to ever walk this planet, even though he hardly seemed of it. By no means virtuosic, his music is nonetheless not only impossible to transcribe – being of no known clef or stave – but virtually impossible to write (sanely) about. Maximum intensity screaming-in-tongues intuitive free group improvisation, peppered with folksy marching band tunes, of a physical force which should render it unlistenable and terrifying. Yet Ayler succeeded where many of his followers failed; to make this music human, organic, accessible, beautiful. This 1964 trio with Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock was his finest (recorded) moment. (RS)

Thelonious Monk Genius Of Modern Music Vol 1 and 2 (Blue Note) 1947-52
These early realisations of the pianist’s compositions cut between 1947 and 1952, are perfectly structured, infinitely repeatable little gems. Despite such perfection, history went on to show that far from being the final shapes the pieces would take, these were only possible versions of composition to which not only Monk, but Steve Lacy and a legion of contemporary instrumentalists and composers inside and outside jazz, would again and again return. These sides barely sound dated today; only Monk’s many neo-classicist mis-interpreters, both sides of the Atlantic, make him sound like an old composer. (RS)

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