spring 2021

Ghost Light, Akropolis Reed Quintet (April 9, New Focus)

Ghost Light is more than an elegy. Sure, death is the common denominator of this Detroit-based ensemble’s fourth album, which continues Akropolis’s commitment to world-premiere recordings by living composers. Taken together, however, the works on Ghost Light set aside doleful hand-wringing in favor of a fundamental truth: One of our most powerful weapons against death is storytelling. That includes stories about death, like Stacy Garrop’s undulating, propulsive Rites of the Afterlife (per her interest in various cosmologies, this one’s on the Egyptian belief in a journey to the underworld) and Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s harrowing Firing Squad (my favorite track on the album, and inspired by the opening sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). 

But narratives come to the fore most pointedly, and poignantly, in Jeff Scott’s Homage to Paradise Valley, a tribute to Detroit’s razed Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. In it, he evocatively renders city landmarks, like a bustling, then slackening Hastings Street in the second movement and the long-gone Paradise Theater in the fourth. Writer–historian Marsha Music recites spoken interludes, referencing neighborhood stalwarts like her father, pathbreaking record executive Joe Von Battle. (Ghost Light’s cover art nods to his eponymous record store.) “Our own Black Wall Street here was born, despite the animus and scorn,” Music says. Like so many Black neighborhoods systematically upended, then and now, it would not remain. But, as Scott’s quintet and Music’s powerful poetry attests, ghosts are all around—and they have stories to tell.

Sud Des Alpes, Dave Rempis Quartet (April 13, Aerophonic)

I’m pretty sure Dave Rempis never sleeps. The inexhaustible saxophonist is an omnipresent fixture in Chicago’s improvised music scene: He plays in more ensembles than there are days of the week, curates Elastic Arts’ jazz series, works in operations at Hyde Park Jazz, and, since shelter-in-place, performs weekly al fresco concerts at Margate Park (see COVID Tapes, below). Since 2013, he’s released music every few months on his label Aerophonic; that release tempo accelerated to nearly a record a week last spring and summer, in the thick of shelter-in-place. 

Rempis brings that Energizer-bunny energy to this overflowing record, sourced from a 2019 concert in Geneva. Rempis’s quintessentially unbridled sax is front and center throughout, but compatriots Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly on drums—sounding at turns industrial and atmospheric—elevate this record to a full-body experience. The gig is split into three tracks, but it’s all part of the same endlessly self-referential train of thought (no locomotive puns intended, despite the album’s liner notes). The coalescing “There’s a Jam on the Line” opens the gates for a second track, which adapts the Art Institute of Chicago’s descending “Odwalla” tune; the motives Rempis spun out in his opening account weasel their way back between in the Gatling-gun bursts of “Late Arrival.” Be warned: side effects of Sud Des Alpes may include seething envy at one’s inability to attend that Geneva show live. 

Hearkening Etudes, Angel Bat Dawid (April 14, Longform Editions)

Hearkening Etudes is part of the superb rout of 2021 releases by Australian label Longform Editions, whose albums focus on single—and single-minded—musical explorations. (The Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop also contributed an album, February’s leanly sensuous Spelling.) Dawid’s 18-minute track fuses together three etudes for clarinet and keyboard, each in a different time signature. They’re also in radically different styles: the first sounds like a singerly chamber work, the second a minimalist meditation, the third a fantastical sonata with whiffs of Mieczysław Weinberg. Each is underpinned by ghostly percussion and wood flute ostinati; none, however, is like anything I’ve yet heard from Dawid. Hearkening Etudes packs the punch of a much longer release—expect many fruitful, mind-nourishing playthroughs.

Nocturnes, fantasias, Joan Arnau Pàmies (April 16, Sideband)

Of the albums I’ve heard recorded in shelter-in-place, Nocturnes, fantasias’s conception of time felt the truest to me. In the latest release from Chris Mercer and Hans Thomalla’s year-old Sideband Records, Pàmies collapses entire eras and generations like an accordion file. The album leads with an evocation of Schoenberg’s sparse Op. 11, No. 1, seasoned with electric guitar, and ends with a harpsichord punching out power chords at the back of a one-man rock band. Pàmies, a Northwestern composition grad who recently returned to Catalonia, typically employs notation as both mechanism and muse for his works. The pieces off Nocturnes, fantasias represent a departure: Instead, they use improvisation as a generative seed, with Pàmies recording a riff and building out a work around it. In doing so, he cooks up collisions that certainly couldn’t have come out of my brain, like the above. Most of all, though, Pàmies evokes the dusk-hued stillness that unmoored us from a timeline to begin with. Listen to how the arid, Iberian strains of “Malpais” ease us into the rapturous “Pulse, verticals”—a handoff as tender as a sleeping child trading arms, and always as thoughtful.

Sun Beans of Shimmering Light, Wadada Leo Smith, Mike Reed, and Douglas R. Ewart (April 16)

Speaking of gig envy: This miraculous triumvirate united at Constellation in June 2015 to record what would become Sun Beans, the last in a series of reunions instigated by Smith in 2012. In the ensuing 45-ish minutes, new growths sprout constantly, then lace into unexpected figures. In some ways, it’s Smith’s show: His Homerian trumpet solos tend to get the numbers rolling, and, in many cases, flip them on their belly. (I always crack a smile when Smith chirpily cuts through Reed’s roiling mallets in “Super Moon Rising.”) But that undersells Ewart’s role, which sees the reedist generously embrace—and sometimes anticipate—his compatriots’ ideas. The album opens with expansive counterpoint between trumpet and bassoon; when the music heats up, Ewart switches to sopranino sax and hurtles heavenward from Smith’s solo as though by BMX ramp. Constellation honcho and drummer Reed takes a somewhat deferent role to the elder AACM statesmen here and throughout the album, but his subtle transitional command betrays an authoritative architectural vision. A rascally “Dark Tango” brings this sometimes enigmatic, always surprising record to a close.

Exoplanet, Rob Frye (April 23, Astral Spirits)

Nine times out of ten, I’d rather creatively poison myself than invoke Richard Wagner. Much to my surprise, however, one of his verbal oil spills floated to the top of my mind as I listened to Exoplanet—his Zukunftsmusik, or music of the future. The details of Wagner’s vision don’t apply; it’s more that the moniker is appropriately lofty for this musical supernova, led and composed by Rob Frye. He’s joined by Bitchin Bajas compatriots Cooper Crain and Daniel Quinlivan, who serve as keyboardists and engineers on the album, as well as a whole host of singular Chicago artists: Ben Lamar Gay steps in on cornet and wurlitzer, and Ohmme’s Macie Stewart plays violin on three tracks. 

But this future-music has deep roots. From 2012 to 2016, Frye worked as a field biologist for the Institute for Bird Populations; as the liner notes tell it, the experience inspired him to “slow down” and transcribe birdsong, à la Olivier Messiaen. The bucking melody of “XC175020” derives from those transcriptions, but its aesthetic—with post-bop brass fills and old-school wurlitzer funkiness—is all Arkestra. Fittingly, sci-fi furnishings abound on this album, but were I to describe this intergalactic voyage to someone else, I’d wax poetic about the stops along the way. The sparkling opening track, “Sunrise on Pruhina,” seems to constantly inhale as though before a monologue; the throat-clearing soon tells a tale all its own. “XC222182,” featuring Brazilian sound artist Edbrass Brasil’s fructuous vocals, is similarly static—or perhaps less static than scenic. But Exoplanet springs from “XC222182’s” repose straight into the practiced vivacity of “Lightship Sgr A Star,” and we’re off again. Whether stopping, starting, or streaking across the sky, Exoplanet’s flight is groovy and gorgeous.

RES, Strife of Permanence (May 21, American Decline)

About four years ago, Cologne-born and Edgewater-based Robert Stokowy (RES) found himself separated from his sound equipment. Seeking a creative outlet, he took up printmaking, initially drawing from the minimalist sensibilities of his compositions. In Strife of Permanence, Stokowy’s visual and aural artistic practices cross-pollinate beautifully. Inspired by what he calls “the radical simplification” of printmaker Käthe Kollwitz—whose idiom transformed from ornate etchings to bluntly expressionist woodcuts—Stokowy picked up guitar chords through a transducer, reduced them, then stacked up the preened layers to create soundwalls both massive and meticulous. You can hear Strife of Permanence’s seeds in the searching guitar strains of Stokowy’s Causeway Series and the process-forward method of Car Radio Pieces, both released in 2019, but this snarling, suffusing album is a noteworthy departure from both. It’s maximal and minimal; it teems with the outsized energy and subatomic precision of a controlled nuclear reaction. Listen to the third track—the pureness of the initial attack, the multiphonal streaks washing over (and washing out) pedal tones, the terrifying tangle that closes out the whole project. Unlike its sonic materials, Strife of Permanence can’t be readily reduced (listen to the whole thing!), but those exhilarating 20 minutes best sum up the album’s uncanny multiplicities.

ragenap, Thankrupcy (May 28, American Dreams)

Thankrupcy was recorded last Halloween, and somehow that feels just right. As ragenap, Joel Berk has recorded solo guitar works and droning minimalist forays in the tradition of Terry Riley for more than two years, but previous records have been packaged largely as irreverent one-shots—vaporwave-y album art, meme references, and all—with reverent ends (proceeds for recent releases go directly to Milton Graves’s memorial fund).

So, the experience of listening to Berk’s first full-length album against the rest of his discography is not unlike listening to the usual ragenap in new clothing, kaleidoscopic ear intact. Thankrupcy was captured wholly at Berk’s home with no overdubs; to me, the resulting sound is one of an artist turning his gaze inward. Chordal intimations and a richly resonant descending melody coalesce from a humming electronic soundscape. New shapes continue to emerge from the texture, like shadows beyond the deep, and we imagine we’ve heard them all along. It’s slow-developing music that’s worth the wait.

The COVID Tapes, Dave Rempis, feat. Joshua Abrams, Tomeka Reid, Tyler Damon, and Tim Daisy (June 15, Aerophonic)

“I don’t usually like playing outdoors,” Rempis writes in his liner notes for The COVID Tapes. It’s a surprising admission from an artist who, as mentioned above (Sud Des Alpes), has swiftly made outdoor concerts a pillar of his artistic practice. This two-disc album is all about the ways Rempis and co. expanded their horizons in impossible circumstances, interspersing Rempis’s solo standard takes (a routine he began while promoting last year’s stream of Aerophonic releases) with those fully improvised outdoor performances. 

That constant duality—between indoors and outdoors, solitude and togetherness—is precisely what makes The COVID Tapes feel so immediate. Rempis’s muscular tone sounds even more potent in the tight acoustic of his closet-sized practice space. His interpretations have a plangent quality to them; one moment that captures this for me is his phantom vibrato in “B My Dear,” undulating long after his pitched tones have died away. The effort comes to the surface, as does the emotion. Every in-person collaboration on COVID Tapes creates new alchemies, whether it’s Tyler Damon’s gamelan-bright colorations in “Glitch” or Tomeka Reid and Joshua Abrams’s litanies-turned-motors on “In the Wild.” It was bittersweet, if not surprising, to later learn that “Toron” is a snippet from Rempis’s first in-person gig, at a bar patio in Milwaukee. After a pensive opening, there are moments when Rempis can’t get enough out of his saxophone, torrents of words one never knows they’ve swallowed until they find the right interlocutor. Daisy is just that, holding down an understated but elastic presence on the kit.

Quartet (Standards) 2020, Anthony Braxton, Alexander Hawkins, Neil Charles, and Stephen Davis (June 18, Tri-Centric/New Braxton House)  

Anthony Braxton has regularly recorded standards since In the Tradition, averaging about two albums a decade. His most recent go-around was recorded when he and this fabulous British quartet bounced around European cities in January 2020, just before COVID-19 clobbered the continent. I listened to Quartet (Standards)—all 13 discs of it—not long after covering the similarly gargantuan 11-hour 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017 for the Chicago Reader. I found myself musing upon the philosophical parallels of his ZIM notations—intentionally impossible brambles that require soloists to be choosy about what notes get played—and how we define standards. How much melody, for example, ought to be retained for it to be a standard? How many changes; what rhythms?

This sounds like I’m setting up Quartet (Standards) to be twelve hours of extreme abstraction. For the most part, it’s not. The standards here are largely recognizable, and—if this is at all a helpful descriptor—largely hummable. I find generalizations fall flat when it comes to Braxton’s music, but if pressed, I’d add that, generally, his playing on this album is less busy and outwardly virtuosic than his previous standards projects, instead focusing on the essence of each tune. However, the way the standards refract, splinter, and curly-que bespeaks a rebellious streak, not to mention an awe-inspiring synergy between Braxton and his band. I was consistently astonished by Hawkins and his chameleon keywork; the Taylor Ho Bynum collaborator cradles a century’s worth of styles that he can thumb through and deploy at will, all with a quicksilver inventiveness. 

Some tracks careen off familiar rails (check out their “Alfie,” with prepared piano, and the extended duo between Braxton and drummer Davis in an upbeat “Virgo”); some start in the underbrush, like a jagged take on Thelonious Monk’s already angular “Evidence.” One of my favorite numbers of the whole set, “Thanks for the Memory,” begins unmoored from any melody, familiar or not. When the head unexpectedly cuts through the murkiness—like a sunbreak in the middle of a rainstorm, illuminating every drop and mirrored puddle—it sounds more rapturous than I’ve ever heard it. Quartet (Standards) 2020 is utterly essential, and somehow not nearly long enough.

CAN’T MISS: Hush Harbor Mixtape Vol. 1 Doxology, Angel Bat Dawid (June 19, International Anthem)

I was a few hours away from publishing this roundup when I saw Hush Harbor had dropped. After one listen-through, it was obvious: Any list of experimental albums from the past few months is sorely incomplete without this release. Sonically and philosophically, Hush Harbor underscores Dawid’s spacetime-bending perspective on Black American life and spirituality—the album’s name references the places where enslaved people worshipped in secret, in defiance of slaveholders and patrols—and its “Volume One” designation implies that this release is merely the exposition of an unfolding epic.

Dawid’s already capacious musical universe expands with each new project (hi there, Hearkening Etudes), even as her distinctive clarinet-and-voice signature stays the same. As in 2019’s The Oracle, Dawid is solely responsible for everything you hear on Hush Harbor, experimenting with techniques to degrees unprecedented in her discography—auto-tune, pop stylings, collage, and more. Even when the elaborations are unfamiliar, the gestalt is something that could have only come from Dawid’s mind. Right off the bat, Dawid’s throbbing processed vocals (“Corn-Rowzz”) transport us to a timeless plane; later, the womblike succor of “Husband of the Queen of Wolo” and “Negroes Leaving Their Home” remind us anew of her boundlessly imaginative approach behind the keyboard. “Heathen Practices at Funerals” is a soul-lifting benediction that ends with a vision of “grow[ing] to be a beautiful Black family”—a radiant sentiment that recalls Dawid’s declaration on last year’s LIVE that “the Black family is the strongest institution in the world.”

Sometimes, when Hush Harbor stops churning, a solitary, forlorn harmonica rises from the quiet. It sounds as though it’s staring the past in the eye and singing anyway.