Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Tracing a Journeyman’s Musical Journey: Michael Formanek

From his days as a Bay-area teenager playing gig with local saxophonist Bishop Norman Williams to his present high profile in bands with the likes of saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, 63, has been constantly busy. In this Q + A with Point of Departure’s Troy Collins, the bassist, who also taught music at the conservatory level, points out that his adaptability playing sounds from big band to straight-ahead to Latin to so-called avant-garde has always allowed him to work. Formanek, who in 1983 made a decision not to take work on electric bass, admits  that the more ‘avant-garde’ the music I play is perceived, the smaller the touring world has become.” Still over the years he has worked in music as different as that played by saxophonist Dave Liebman and flutist Herbie Mann. There was even an extended European gig where a band he was with had both Cool Jazz’s Jon Eardly and sound explorer Markus Stockhausen on trumpets. Formanek, is a fan of physical media, sincepeople like taking something home with them after a concert they enjoy”, says that over the past 20 years most of his touring has been in Europe. Explaining that the political situation and the pandemic has recently altered the music scene, but he continues to follow his own ideas. “My goal was always to make the music the best version of what it could be, period”. READ

Brass Echoes: A Quick Guide to Tomasz Stańko’s Recorded Music

Although the thrust of Culture.Pl’s Filip Lech’s survey could be better informed, he examines many crucial albums by trumpeter/flugelhornist Tomasz Stańko (1942-2018), arguably Poland’s best-known exploratory musician. Beginning with early sessions the tyro trumpeter recorded with Polish modern Jazz pioneers, pianists Krzysztof Komeda and Andrzej Trzaskowski, he highlights the brassman’s first leadership disc in 1970 that featured other young local musicians such as alto saxophonist Zbigniew Seifert, who later made his name as a Jazz violinist. Moving through Stańko’s detours into recordings that focused on Rock, Reggae or Middle Eastern rhythms, Lech suggests hearing the trumpeter’s collaborations with European improvisers of his generation, like his 1976 meeting with British. bassist Dave Holland and Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. Finally, he delineates Sańko’s late career flowerihg in the 1980s, 1990s and aughts when he recorded either with the backing of New York pianist David Virelles, bassist Ruben Rogers and drummer Gerald Cleaver or a Polish rhythm section of Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Sławomir Kurkiewicz bass and Michał Miśkiewicz percussion. READ

I don’t particularly enjoy rules, golden or otherwise: Zeena Parkins

Should you be able to work your way through the thickset of ads and coming attraction on the Quietus’s main page, Claire Sawers’ article on American electric harpist Zeena Parkins does offer some insights about her experience and her expectation when performing. Parkins, who has collaborated with numerous exploratory musicians including Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and British guitarist Fred Frith, insists that in performance she doesn’t “batter” the harp or piano when she plays them/ Instead,  explains that the instruments are "being approached and sounded in unconventional ways" as part of a reconsideration or expansion in relationships among performers listeners and the spatial qualities of a particular space. The harpist, who has also played with artists unconnected to improvised music such as Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham, fuithermore says she’s open to working with anyone who hears things and reconsiders materials in alternative ways. READ

Musical Curiosity, Record Collecting and Mats Gustafsson

Dedicated to the seeking out as much recorded music as he can, Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s interview with Perfect Sound Forever’s J. Vognsen often come across as a record collectors guide. But Gustafsson, who over the years has recorded numerous important Free Jazz records, says he needs to constantly listen to music for sanity and inspiration. He explains that he listens to music every day in a concentrated way, but also while cooking and even driving, but not sounds that get him“too carried away emotionally ... risking the lives of other drivers,” he cautions. He also states that “nothing compares to going on a vinyl hunt with your best discaholic buddies” and he’s always adding to his record collection which he admits at this point is getting close to weighing three tons. While musical genres like schlager, electronic dance music and muzak him sick, physically “like an allergic reaction”, he claims, sounds from saxophonists like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Frank Wright or early Peter Brötzmann makes him feel great. He adds: “Almost every day there is a reason to play Rahsaan Roland Kirk and early Sun Ra makes me smile and dance.” READ

I am a born collaborator: Nels Cline

Perhaps it relates to the fact that the earliest music making California-born guitarist Nels Cline made was in collaboration with his twin brother drummer Alex Cline, but he’s continued to bring his talents to different collaborative efforts ever since. In this somewhat cerebral Q+A from the Fifteen Questions Website, Cline, who has played with everyone from saxophonist Vinny Golia to Wilco explain that his first and second “ah ha” moments that made him become a guitarist and then a free improviser were hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and then saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Africa”. Mostly sidestepping the somewhat pretentious questions about philosophy and studio techniques asked by the anonymous interviewer, Cline, who modestly thinks of himself as an arts worker, rather than an elevated artist, traces how his musical interests have evolved past the psychedelic rock bands of his youth. Today they encompass appreciation for bands like Sonic Youth, Indian ragas, Brazilian rhythms and West African-inspired grooves; composers like Harry Partch and improvisers such as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; plus what he calls the compelling forces of unconventional guitarists like Fred FrithHans Reichl and Keith Rowe. READ

From the very beginning I wanted to follow my own voice: Satoko Fujii

Now acknowledged as a major composer, player and band leader, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii describes her musical apprenticeship and creative methods to Fifteen Questions' unnamed interviewer. Dealing with more cerebral questions that most Q+As, the pianist admits that even after years of playing it was when she studied with Canadian pianist Paul Bley that she became comfortable with herself and her own creativity. Now she sees music as an essential part of life. She and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, spend every morning until noon composing and practising, and do even more of that later if they feel the need. To her, composing and playing are like cooking, cleaning or having a conversation and she can do both while involved in these other activities. With what she calls her special way to hearing, her compositions which involve time, sound and silence can be influenced by many things from a flower, to a breeze or just her imagination. Fujii, who has recorded in configurations from duo to big band, says her most important large ensemble work is “Fukushima”, dealing with the 2011 Japanese nuclear power plant accident, that she had to wait five years before being able to calmly compose.   READ

Musical Retirement into Radio Presentation – UK Division

After following a decade-long curvilinear Jazz career, a combination of poor working conditions and what he calls “barely perceptible, surgical and very well-mannered” British racism caused UK vibraphone player Cory Mwamba to retire from full-time music a couple of years ago. But as Point of Departure’s Bill Shoemaker notes, Mwamba's decision soon tuned into a full-time job, as host of his own BBC Radio Jazz show. Although the story is disjointed, as the writer injects record reviews into the narrative, it tells how the child of educated Zambian immigrants, who had never heard those sounds before, decided to play Jazz after hearing “Mood Indigo” on the radio and later seeing British vibist Opry Robinson in person. Despite organ lessons and some drumming experience Mwamba felt he could best express himself as a vibist. With a chemistry as well as a music degree, Mwamba was also employed elsewhere, but managed to work and record with the likes of saxophonists Martin Archer, Tom Ward and Jason Yarde among others. He does say that his decision to live and play in Derby instead of London affected his decision to quit as much as “working in places that were, disrespectful and hateful, where you’d get called out by someone in the audience.” READ

Free Jazz verses Forced Comedy

A minor brouhaha in a beer mug occurred last month when American late night TV host Jimmy Fallon achieved some cheap laughs by playing an excerpt from German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Nipples album. According to Stereogum’s Peter Helman, the sniggering Fallon, who seemed never to have heard Free Jazz before, was excited as a child repeating the 52-year-old album's title, then after playing a brief section, commented that it sounded like a guitar shop  on a busy Saturday. The audience guffawed. What was Brötzmann’s response? “The world is full of ignorants and stupidos, one more or less, who cares," he said. "This little snippet I got from friends all over the world and my reaction was laughter. The only thing that annoys me a bit is that this 1969-made piece is a milestone in at least European free music history.” So much for culture on American TV. READ

Trying to Understand Free Jazz through Film

Supposedly informing readers about director Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire Music, which deals with the origins and spread of Free Jazz, the Guardian’s Jim Farber takes up more space listing the music’s negative reception than its wide appeal. While he does touch on some of the music’s initial major figures – alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, tenor saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane and pianists Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor – he appears to relate all the revolutionary sounds to the 1960s and 1970s or as to how the music influenced Rock musicians. Name checking pop stars like Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney and younger Rock musicians such as Thurston Moore who were supposedly influenced by Free Music, Farber seems ignorant of the many other bands that followed Free Jazz's development. Furthermore, except for throwaway mentions of pianist Keith Tippett and the AMM group with guitarist Keith Rowe and drummer Eddie Prévost, the wide influence Free Jazz subsequently had on European improvising musicians isn’t noted at all. Maybe the best idea is just to see the film. READ

The Artificial Intelligence of Jean-Luc Guionnet

  Sunik Kim’s Zoom-conducted interview with French improviser Jean-Luc Guionnet for the Tone Glow blog is close to amateur. But it does get across how the musician who studied musique concrète and artificial intelligence applies those concepts to his solo saxophone playing and improvisations on church organ. Discussing his newer conceptions for spoken words and for the large ONCIEM orchestra, directed by his Hubbub associate pianist Frédéric Blondy, his idea is to transform electronic concepts to acoustic ones and to reach an arbitrary sonic position. Although he’s concerned with philosophy and politics, Guionnet states he dislikes music that is subservient to its message, political or personal. Instead he’d like to work with the capabilities of various microscopes and in the studio creating artificial electronic music. While the Q+A sometimes gets bogged down in overlong abstract theorizing, Guionnet notes he still has a connection with Jazz – and an admiration for American alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe – and these influences often come out, especially when playing saxophone with someone with similar interests like Australian percussionist Will Guthrie.   READ

Analysing a Practice Routine: Anna Webber

While some may find the dialogue a bit too detailed and inside, the answers from Anna Webber to News from the Shed’s Jake Wunsch’s questions about her practice routine are revealing. The British Columbia-born, New York-based  tenor saxophonist and flutist has generated praise for the music she’s created in a big band with fellow Canadian-in-New York Angela Morris, who also plays tenor nor saxophone and flute, and with her so-called Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. But she insists that such skill comes from what she calls “hyper-organized practice time.” Dividing her time between her instruments and working on various aspects of her playing she practices two hours a day, using her cell phone as a metronome. This is a steep drop from the eight to 12 hours daily she used to practice as a student. As for composing, she also does that every day, whether she’s inspired or not. “Just remember that every great composer did not write great music all the time,” she explains, “and not every piece needs to see the light of day.” READ

Violin saved his life: Billy Bang

Turning from despair and urban terrorism to improvised music re-energized the life of Vietnam veteran Billy Bang in the late 1960s after he found a violin in a pawn shop while buying guns. At least that’s what Bang (1947-2011), recounted to Bandcamp Daily’s Andy Thomas. A survey of the violinist’s recording career, with embedded examples, the article recounts how Bang’s musical skills were subsumed in bitterness and substance abuse following a stint in Vietnam. Then the pawnshop violin “calling” him brought Bang back to music. Studying with pioneering Free Music violinist Leroy Jenkins, Bang was soon part of, and then a band leader in, New York’s so-called Loft Scene playing regularly with the likes of bassist William Parker, clarinetist Henry Warner, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and during a 10-year stint in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. While utilizing his gritty sound to lead or co-lead a series of groups over the few years, early in this century he finally recorded two CDs reflecting his time in Vietnam. One was with fellow American advanced players like tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe and trumpet Ted Daniel, and the other, on-site, with local Vietnamese musicians. READ

The Back story of Understory

Reflecting on the first collaborative improvisation of Understory, a series of virtual programs, trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud violinist Parmela Attariwala and percussionist Germaine Liu explain the new monthly series’ background and goals to I Care If You Listen’s Padideh Aghanoury. Curated by Rampersaud, Understory aims to use technology to build a fertile creative community within Canada, welcoming participants from throughout the country whose background encompasses experience in many genres of music including Jazz, notated and ethnic. “It’s an artistic situation that reflects the reality of life in the Canadian polity,” says the trumpeter. Since the online format creates a level playing field, discussion that wouldn’t happen in a real-time, in-person performance can be broached and addressed. Coming together virtually means the performers' imaginations help create new systems of creativity. Understory will take place once a month, every month until January 2022. READ

Creating with Alternate Tones: Hafez Modirzadeh

Equally influenced by Persian traditional music, the compositions of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk, and the mystical side of JS Bach, California-based tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh creates hyper-original music which is a mélange of these influences. Also a music professor at San Francisco State University, Modirzadeh tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Jeff Kaliss how it took many years to get musicians trained in the Western tradition of just intonation to play his compositions. His work is based on eight tones from the scale's middle register that depend on microtones and original tuning. Still these concepts have been adapted to the piano by Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn, the stylists who play on his most recent CD, despite that instrument’s association with colonialism and capitalism. As for playing thismusic on the saxophone, Modirzadeh says it was Sonny Stitt, of all people, who first showed him alternate saxophone fingering. “You’ve got all these keys and sound holes, and just by opening or closing a tone hole, you can create a shade, or a muted sound,” he explains. READ

When John Tchicai played with John Lennon

Already known for his work in the US on saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension LP and co-leading the New York Art Quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd, alto saxophonist John Tchicai returned to his native Denmark in the late 1960s and organized the large Cadentia Nova Danica band. Its success, according to Margriet Naber, author of a book on the saxophonist excerpted in The Wire, led to a 1969 invitation to an avant-garde concert in Cambridge, UK. Besides committed international free musicians such as saxophonists Willem Breuker, drummer Louis Moholo and bassist Barre Philips, vocalist Yoko Ono was also invited. With John Lennon playing feedback guitar, Ono performed a brief set, finally pushed at the end towards some melody by Tchicai’s saxophone lines and John Stevens’ drum beats. Both players are heard on the LP Ono and Lennon subsequently released of that concert, although neither was ever paid. Later, back in Denmark Tchicai put together multiple pro-amateur free-form ensembles which featured and inspired younger local free-form players like guitarist Pierre Dørge. READ

Ari Brown: Giving a Jazz Journeyman his Due

One of the many high quality tenor saxophonists plying their trade as part of the Chicago Jazz scene, Ari Brown, 76, isn’t as high profile as some of the others, past and present. But in this Chicago Reader feature Steve Krakow succinctly outlines Brown’s career which has included appearances on over 75 albums; multiple Jazz, Blues and R&B gigs; and teaching at both secondary and post-secondary levels. Initially a pianist, Brown switched to tenor saxophone and began concentrating on Jazz improvisation around the time he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1971. He has led his own bands since the 1980s, but wasn't featured as a leader of his own session until 1995. Before and during that period he also toured as part of drummer Elvin Jones’ band and was a founding member of percussionist Kahil El'Zabar’s local Ritual Trio. Still recording and gigging regularly, he's often featured in many Windy City clubs and concerts. READ

A Fine Appreciation of the late Burton Greene’s Artistry

Written for Jazz Times, Michael J. West’s detailed obituary of American pianist Burton Greene (1937-2021) who died in the Netherlands last month, avoids all of the usual hipster and fanboy clichés. Instead he evaluates the Chicago-born pianist’s place in Jazz history. Someone who evolved from playing mainstream Jazz to the so-called New Thing, Greene first developed his career in New York in the mid-1960s in tandem with bassist Alan Silva  – who later also expatriate, but to France  – and made the requisite ESP Disks. A racially tinged attack on him by Amiri Baraka, and general dissatisfaction with the lack of collective spirit on the American Scene, made him decide to decamp for Europe in the late 1960s. Eventually settling on a houseboat in Amsterdam’s harbour, Greene spread his musical ideas all across the continent and infrequently in North American, recording regularly for a wide variety of labels. His associates ranged from drummer Sunny Murray and clarinetist Perry Robinson to cellist Ernst Reijseger. Starting in the late 1990s, he also began fusing avant-garde jazz with Klezmer playing in groups with Syrian drummer Roberto Haliffi.   READ

Quentin Rollet: I play with the guts

Although you have to put up with personal asides and opinions from Continental Riff’s James Graham, this interview reveals the philosophy of idiosyncratic French saxophonist Quentin Rollet. Born hearing Free Music since his father Christian Rollet is the drummer of the Workshop de Lyon (WdL), a pioneering Free Jazz band of the 1970s, Rollet has never played any other way but free. However for someone who has been featured on more than 70 albums and run two record labels, his collaborations are very broad. While influenced by free improvisers WdL saxophonist Maurice Merle, as well as French saxophone iconoclast Daunik Lazro and American multi-reedists Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman, Rollet doesn't limit himself musically. He also works with avant-rock bands like Red Krayola and Nurse with Wound and is a member of Paris-based Mendelson, a local group dedicated to interpreting melancholy French songs. No matter what, though, the saxophonist insists that “I do the same thing with every project I play in. I only improvise.” READ

Pat Thomas: From Dubstep to Durable Jazz

A rather truncated profile of Oxford-based keyboardist Pat Thomas by Jazz Times' Dave Cantor. But at least it introduces non-Britons to a stylist whose inventive playing first came to prominence about 30 years ago. At that point he played with older British improvisers like guitarist Derek Bailey and soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill. But now Thomas, whose instruments of choice include piano and electronics, is allied with such younger players as alto saxophonist Seymour Wright, bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal. Although some of Thomas’ more recent projects are more populist than explorations of pure improv, he rejects the suggestion that they’re in any way connected to the UK’s so-called Grime sounds which mix hip-hop with Caribbean rhythms. Starting out Thomas was in groups that played Grime’s precursor Dubstep along with Rock, Funk and Reggae, but he sees the new genre as marketing rather than music. After all as a young musician he turned from playing so-called classical music to immersion in Jazz after seeing Oscar Peterson on TV awakened him to the music’s African and American traditions. READ

Evan Parker’s Strange Views on Covid-19, Brexit and the European Union

One of the most respected figures in the international Free Music community, British saxophonist Evan Parker has recently been making statements that as he says make him appear to be  “a conspiracy, tin-foil hat, swivel-eyed loon”. As The Wire’s Tony Herrington reports, Parker has given odd interviews to Jazzwise magazine, to the Sons d’hiver (Sdh) festival and as part of a CD launch at Cafe Oto. At Oto he suggested that biologist Lynn Margulis deserved a Nobel Prize. Margulis claimed HIV was not an infectious virus, didn’t cause AIDS and also that 9/11 was a US government plot. During an Sdh interview Parker praised Kary Mullis another scientist/HIV sceptic, adding that “these statements ... were concerned with the AIDS epidemic, but they are precisely appropriate to the current Covid nonsense.” In Jazzwise Parker described Covid as a “sham”, “complete and utter bollocks”, intended to “harvest DNA and sell vaccines”, while the vaccine itself was “a piece of software they are injecting into you”. Parker added that the pandemic was the work of billionaire eugenicists “looking for massive depopulation, by hook or by crook”.  Earlier he linked his support of Brexit by stating the European Union (EU) is “a self-appointed oligarchy” and suggested reading The Nazi Roots of The Brussels EU, which claims that EU architects were Nazi-era technocrats and the EU resembles Nazi plans for a postwar Europe.  Followers pf Parker's distinctive music are perplexed. READ