Category Archives: New Listen

album review series

New Listen: Manu Katché’s ‘Touchstone for Manu’

[NOTE: I also talk a bit about this album and review on today’s episode of Matt Borghi’s The Sound Traveler Podcast, which you can find here. Also, as expected, I gush over Tore Brunborg‘s playing.]


Artist: Manu Katché
Album: Touchstone for Manu (2015, US; 2014, EU)

This is a bit of a different review, as it’s technically not a new listen for me, though it is a new release. Touchstone for Manu is part of ECM’s retrospective series the label has initiated for its more notable, frequent, and/or core artists. The retrospectives have included various forms: the :rarum series (Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek), box sets (e.g., Jack DeJohnette, Eberhard Weber), or non-:rarum compilations (e.g., Manu Katché, Anouar Brahem). Katché’s addition — along with Brahem’s — to that lineup helps to usher in a younger generation.

It shouldn’t surprise longtime readers of this blog that I’m a fan of Manu Katché. 2010’s Third Round not only led to my writing this site’s first album review, but it also quickly led me into the Katché catalogue. It was also through Third Round that I came to know the playing and library of Tore Brunborg, who I now consider one of my favorite living saxophonists.

Touchstone for Manu draws pretty equally from Katché’s four albums as a leader on ECM: 2005’s Neighbourhood, 2007’s Playground, 2010’s Third Round, and 2012’s Manu Katché. (1992’s It’s About Time [on BMG] and 2014’s Live in Concert [on ACT] aren’t included.) Chronologically, these albums go from an acoustic aesthetic rooted in more straight-ahead jazz to involving some electric and electronic elements as well as more pop grooves and/or devices. You can certainly hear this in the compilation’s selections. And this should be no surprise, as Katché has one foot each firmly planted in jazz and pop. Aside from the aforementioned Jan Garbarek, he’s also extensively played behind the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Joni Mitchell. His upcoming studio debut on ACT looks to get funky with a full horn section, which I can’t wait to hear.

As a composer, one thing I appreciate most about Katché work is the way he structures a piece. It’s a constant throughout his oeuvre. Instead of heavily relying on the typical head-solo-head[-outro] format that permeates so many jazz albums, Katché often includes segues, countermelodies, and other devices to maintain interest. (Of course, he’ll sometimes use the head-solo-head format as well, but it’s great that it’s not a crutch for him.) Sometimes it’s not clear if the lead line is improvising or playing a defined part — if it’s the melody or a solo.

Briefly, the lineup for each album (as represented on Touchstone, as some personnel don’t make it) is:
Neighbourhood includes the rhythm section of Katché (drums, percussion), Marcin Wasilewski (piano), and Sławomir Kurkiewicz (double bass) with the frontline of elder heavies Jan Garbarek (sax) and Tomasz Stańko (trumpet).
Playground keeps the same rhythm section but features a younger frontline of Mathias Eick (trumpet) and Trygve Seim (sax). Another acoustic quintet.
Third Round has the rhythm section of Katché, Pino Palladino (electric bass), Jason Rebello (piano), and Jacob Young (guitar), with Tore Brunborg (sax) as the solo horn.
Manu Katché is a pared-down quartet of Katché, Jim Watson (piano, Hammond B-3), Brunborg (sax), and Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet & effects).

Touchstone includes some nice variety. The first half features the acoustic bands with the electric ones in the latter half, allowing the listener to hear the stylistic evolution over his first decade as a leader on ECM. Another thing worth noting is that, for a drummer to be leading an instrumental band, it’s remarkable how restrained Katché’s playing is in the studio. While there are some active and/or funky tunes (e.g., “So Groovy,” “Keep on Tripping,” “Running After Years”), the drums never really let loose. Katché’s happy to lay down a groove and to let the band play with and off each other as opposed to bathe in the spotlight. Over the course of the album’s eleven tracks, you hear Katché’s sound (through his band and compositions) really come into its own. From the straight-ahead numbers (“Take Offs and Land,” “Song For Her”) to the more pop-oriented (“Swing Piece”) and a synthesis of both (“Running After Years,” “Slowing the Tides”).

Touchstone for Manu is a great place to start for the uninitiated. With an even mix of albums and styles, it’s a nice primer and reference point for his output as a leader on ECM. Highly recommended.

ECM link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

[If you’d like to see a more fiery performance, I can’t recommend this video enough. The lineup is largely a transition band between Playground and Third Round, featuring some personnel from both albums. Similar gusto is also present on Live in Concert.]

New Listen: David Torn’s ‘only sky’

[NOTE: I also talk a bit about this album and review on today’s episode of Matt Borghi’s The Sound Traveler Podcast, which you can find here.]


Artist: David Torn
Album: only sky (2015)

David Torn’s only sky is a wonderful addition to, and a unique artifact within, the ECM Records catalogue. While I don’t necessarily agree with the “New Age” genre classification that automatically appeared in my iTunes window when loading it to my library, Torn’s music certainly and quickly transcends jazz and classical labels and notions – however broad – within the album’s first few minutes.

only sky is my first foray into David Torn’s work, at least as a solo artist. Aside from being peripherally aware of his past ECM releases, I was keen on this release because of the cross-promotion he’d been doing with saxophonist Tim Berne, a longtime associate of his and someone whose own playing I’ve come to know and admire these last couple years. (Berne also released a new album on ECM this year – You’ve Been Watching Me, produced by Torn, which is quite good. Relatedly, Berne is credited with some of the photography in the Torn liner notes.) And, to put an oddly selfish point on it, before purchasing the album I was struck to learn that Torn performed at Baltimore’s The Windup Space on only sky‘s release tour, which is a small, hip arts venue where Matt Borghi and I performed during last year’s east coast tour. As much as I love ECM and not-so-secretly aspire (in vain, admittedly) to one day join its ranks myself, part of me just wanted to know why such an artist would play a venue suitable for the likes of me (i.e., someone of much lower status). However, having absorbed Torn’s solo work on only sky, I can say that his intimate approach must’ve been a perfect fit for that room in Baltimore.

only sky is a solo album, featuring Torn on guitar and electric oud along with myriad real-time effects and processing. So, even though it’s just one performer and his instrument, Torn creates a sonically expansive universe riddled with nine unique, engaging soundworlds. Improvisation is key, with each piece being heavily if not fully realized on the spot. The first track, “at least there was nothing,” is perfectly emblematic of this. The desolate, calm beginning includes multiple layers of sound. Without the liner notes, one wouldn’t even immediately know that a guitar is the source. This textural – almost ambient – approach continues for a while, with an electric oud eventually entering with the album’s first monodic statements after over five minutes.

Lest you think the whole album is one meditatively ambient work, each tune explores different sonic territory. “spoke with folks,” the next track, changes course and heads in an almost Americana direction. Beginning with a diatonic, folk-like melody, Torn speaks through various iterations that gradually add distortion and head into psychedelic territory, which opens the door for the more rock-based explorations in “ok, shorty.”

“was a cave, there…” returns to the ambient-friendly aesthetic of the album’s opening. But where “at least there was nothing” is like sinking into a warm bath, “was a cave, there…” is like exploring the cold, unpredictable realms of space, featuring dissonance, processing, and effects. Torn then turns your attention from cosmic considerations to those of the Delta blues in “reaching barely, sparely fraught.” Over the rhythmic ostinato of open harmonies, Torn plays a blues that often borders on the swampy. Just as with the previous selections, he’s venturing into new sonic and stylistic grounds. The near devolution into distortion and processing at the very end of the track foreshadows what’s to come in “i could almost see the room.” Here, Torn uses what I’ll call aggressive “harmonic processing” that sound more akin saxophone multiphonics than solo guitar. (I’m not a guitarist, so that’s all I’ve got. Sorry, gunslingers.) This piece features a rough ABA’ form, with with some soloing over self-accompaniment falling in between the multiphonic-like sections.

The title track is a contemplative ballad of sorts, cleansing the palette of the more dissonant and tense playing immediately before. In fact, one could consider this the beginning of the album’s descent, as only sky‘s golden section occurs within the aggressive “i could almost see the room,” suggesting a gradual coming down through the rest of the selections.

The peaceful “so much what” features a lot of washy, strummed chords that eventually give way to almost whale-like calls. This fades into an angelic sound bed, which decrescendos to make room for one of the few instances of “pure” (in tone) guitar soloing to close out the track. It’s a rare glimpse into what Torn may sound like before being fully plugged in. Finally, “a goddamned specific unbalance” picks up where its predecessor left off, with some more soloing, though this time with a more affected tone and starting out in a monodic fashion. This is one of the few instances of arguably jazzy riffing throughout the album. Almost as an inverse of the first track, the soloing eventually transitions to more robust textures after several minutes, eventually moving along and fading into the ether as skies often do.

As I mentioned at the outset, Torn transcends stylistic labels here. Furthermore, there are only a couple instances in which his playing reminds me of others, be it explicitly (though I doubt intentionally) or otherwise. For example, there are a couple brief seconds in the jazz-like soloing of the final track in which I hear shades of John Abercromie (specifically when playing with Charles Lloyd, though his work with Gateway could also be considered sonically related), and a couple of the quasi-ambient passages remind me of Matt Borghi‘s guitar work. No doubt allusions are made to Robert Fripp in various reviews, but, to me, Borghi’s more “orchestral” and arguably un-guitar-like approach to the instrument sticks out as more sonically related. Matt often refers to parts of his guitar work as “contemplative microsymphonies,” a term that, along with an extra dash or two of rock, safely applies to much of only sky.

If you’re looking for something different, thought-provoking, and intimate, I highly recommend this album. I’m glad I took the plunge; you will be, too.

ECM link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

[Hear me discuss the album on today’s episode of The Sound Traveler Podcast here.]

Sean Madigan Hoen’s ‘Songs Only You Know’


Title: Songs Only You Know: A Memoir (SoHo Press, 2014)
Author: Sean Madigan Hoen

I occasionally review albums here, but this the first dedicated to a book. And while I’m not out to review it per se, I do want to highly recommend it to all readers of this blog. Songs Only You Know is the debut memoir of Sean Madigan Hoen, a now good friend of mine whom I met through music and mutual friends two years ago. Sean has appeared on this blog a couple of times but not by name – see mentions of his projects White Gold Scorpio and Your Skull. On top of his writing talents, he is also a tremendous songwriter and musician. (See albums under his own name and otherwise, including the bands Thoughts of Ionesco, The Holy Fire, Leaving Rouge, White Gold Scorpio, and Your Skull.)

Sean now resides in Brooklyn but he’s originally from Detroit, which provides the backdrop of Songs Only You Know. The book chronicles a ten year span from Sean’s late teens to late twenties, during which time he became a fixture of Detroit’s hardcore rock scene while, separately, he and his family dealt with the devastation caused by his father’s crack addiction. Throughout the story Sean details his struggle not only with the two aforementioned scenarios, but also in doing his damnedest to keep both worlds separate. On its surface, one could write the book off as being either a tale of rock music debauchery or a quasi-self help pamphlet chock-full of advice. There are plenty of debaucherous anecdotes, but they’re neither glorified nor condescended upon. Instead, Hoen’s lucid narrative and unwavering honesty about his family, friends, and himself, give the book a lot of heart. This isn’t a “rock book” or a “drug book,” but rather a compelling story about family, music, and growth.

The book is more a series of scenes connected by the threads of family strife and musical conquest than a grand narrative. The musical struggles are about rock in this instance, but the aspirations and challenges transcend style: staying true to (and sometimes failing) one’s aesthetic principles, endlessly driving from gig to gig, alternately playing to packed houses and empty rooms, navigating interpersonal connections with bandmates. Regarding the music, poet Diane Wakoski said it best in her discussion with Sean at a reading in Lansing, MI: that while she still dislikes that style of music, the book helped her to better understand the music’s appeal and scene/lifestyle. Similarly, the tale of his family’s struggle isn’t just for those who’ve experienced addiction or depression firsthand. No family is perfect, and learning how to grow alongside – be it away from, toward, or both – and understand and empathize with family is universal. It’s a dark book, no doubt, but it’s not cynical. It’s hopeful throughout, and the catharsis one feels at the end is quite moving.

Songs Only You Know is a taut, lean 384 pages. Sean’s economical writing leaves no fat, and in turn he packs in a lot of substance. Because of that, you’ll have a hard time putting the book down. A number of people I know – Sean’s friends and otherwise – read it in very few sittings, myself included. So do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s available at independent book stores nationally, all Barnes & Nobles locations, and of course Amazon.

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Singing Gobi Desert’


Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Singing Gobi Desert (2014)

The recently-released The Singing Gobi Desert showcases PRISM Quartet in collaboration with Music from China. Here they are also joined by guests conductor Nové Deypalan and sheng soloist Hu Jianbing. Don’t be fooled by the billing of Music from China as “Guest Ensemble” – this is a true musical partnership. It’s better to think of this recording as performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments as opposed to a binary orchestra. The album is a follow-up to 2010’s Antiphony (my review here), PRISM’s first outing with Music from China.

The Singing Gobi Desert is a natural successor to and evolution from Antiphony. The first album had somewhat of an “East Meets West” ethos, and was even billed as such to a certain degree – e.g., the album title itself. (Thankfully, it was tastefully executed and avoided Third Stream traps.) Here, however, this sophomore release displays a true “fusion” – in the best sense of the word – of styles and cultures. While Chinese and Western influences no doubt reign supreme here, the end result transcends both sources, resulting in a new stylistic language that speaks to all listeners of that catch-all category known as “contemporary music.”

On the whole, Gobi features fewer but meatier works than its predecessor: four compositions ranging from 14 to 20 minutes each. They are, in album order:
Bright Sheng‘s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012) for erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion
Lei Liang‘s Messages of White (2011) for saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and percussion
Fang Man‘s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011) for saxophone quartet and four Chinese instruments
Huang Ruo‘s The Three Tenses (2005) for pipa and saxophone quartet

All four pieces have an orchestral quality that blend PRISM and Music from China into a unified whole that sounds much larger than the sum of its parts. One way in which this is achieved right off the bat is by the title track’s heavy use of the sheng, a mouth organ. That, coupled with myriad percussion as well as long, flowing melodies, gives the piece a thick, lush texture. Extended techniques abound here and throughout, but they are written and implemented tastefully and with purpose. Messages of White, on the other hand, employs a similar instrumentation but to strikingly different effect. Instead of lyrical passages, Liang’s emphasizes rhythm and harmony, focusing on stark, repetitive staccatos juxtaposed with subtle, often nebulous harmonies.  Dream of a Hundred Flowers takes the listener back toward a vocal space, but one quite different than Gobi. Here, Fang Man guides the musicians to “imitate Peking opera speaking voices.”1 The drama unfolds in manners both cacophonous and whispered, with the coda taking on an almost electro-acoustic quality. (It’s no surprise that Man studied at IRCAM-Paris.) Rounding out the set is Ruo’s The Three Tenses. Even though it is for a pared-down ensemble, it again transcends “saxophone literature.” (Because of its minimal instrumentation, it perhaps helps that it’s last on the album and sonically buoyed by the first three pieces.) The pipa’s extensive presence and the multitude of extended techniques also lend an orchestral quality to this quintet composition – a tribute to the composer.

Arguably the album’s greatest triumph is that the compositions take center stage, not simply the blending of instruments and styles. Antiphony was a valiant and substantive first step for such artistic exploration. The Singing Gobi Desert, however, opens up a wider and more comprehensive world of sonic and aesthetic possibilities, making this “novelty” instrumentation seem like anything but. I highly recommended this album.

Innova link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

1. [Schaefer, John. The Singing Gobi Desert. Liner notes, p. 7]

New Listen: Scent of Soil’s ‘Scent of Soil’


Artist: Scent of Soil
Album: Scent of Soil (2011, HUBRO Music)

I’ve had Scent of Soil‘s self-titled album on repeat for the last week, and I don’t foresee that ending anytime soon. As is the case with most “New Listen” entries, this album is new for me but itself a couple years old. Shame on me for not finding it sooner. One of my initial thoughts during my maiden listen was: Where has this album been all my life?

Hyperbolic? Not by much. The band’s self-titled debut scratches me right where I itch. As mentioned in my last post, I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with Tore Brunborg after the recent Tord Gustavsen Quartet performance in Chicago. I’ve been quite a fan of Brunborg in particular for a few years now, following his work with various ECM artists as well as his work as a leader. Unfortunately, at the time of our meeting I hadn’t yet dug into Scent of Soil, his rock-meets-jazz hybrid project with vocalist Kirsti Huke. I corrected that a couple days later and remain under the album’s spell.

Scent of Soil is fusion in the truest sense of the word. This isn’t simply a rock album with sax and keys, or a jazz band playing straight eighths, but instead a quintet of top-shelf musicians synthesizing their various backgrounds and strengths to serve the music. It’s rare to hear such a balance between the rock and jazz (and more) aesthetics, especially when dealing with songs. In that regard, the band reminds me of the one and only Joni Mitchell. It’s not that they sound like Joni, but rather the spirit of what they’re doing is reminiscent of her. (Though songs such as “Trøndervise” have airs of The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.) Given all that and my own dual-comfort in rock and jazz worlds, this album seems tailor-made for me. Granted I started out with an initial bias because of my fondness for Tore’s playing, but I love this album for reasons far nobler than any fanboy notions.

Scent of Soil are fronted by Brunborg and Huke, who both wrote the music and lyrics and also play keys on top of their primary instruments of saxophone and voice, respectively. Filling out the lineup are guitarist Petter Vågan, bassist Rune Nergaard, and drummer/percussionist Gard Nilssen. Though that may seem like a “Brunborg/Huke + band” arrangement, this is indeed a group effort, with the rhythm section creating not only a solid foundation but also a variety of textures and soundworlds in which the songs come alive. Petter Vågan’s electric, acoustic, and steel guitars provide much more than harmony and melody, but also walls of sound ranging from ambient to arena- and noise-rock. Nergaard and Nilssen are a strong yet tasteful rhythm section. Looking at the resumes of each of the musicians, one may expect the bass and drums to wander and showboat, but they both stick together and lay it down the grooves right where they belong: in the pocket. The music and lyrics for these nine selections are original, save for some adapted text for “Breeze” and “Necklaces” by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, respectively.

Musically, the album appears to be divided into three parts, each with three songs. “Breeze” begins the album beautifully. Flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and vocals are supported by an ambient layer of bass and electric guitar. Eventually the full band kicks in to a dreamy half-time groove, continuing the ambience throughout, the layer of which is all that’s left standing once the drums, voice, and horn fade die away. This opening song is a warm bath drawing the listener in for a wondrous journey. Once lulled, a toe-tapping-but-calm groove from the drums and bass kick-start “Ocean,” with the electric guitar now providing a shimmering ambient layer for the rest of the rhythm section. With the hazy vocals and treated horns, It’s a groove finding its way through a fog, finding the clear halfway through. with Tore’s (and the album’s) first real solo, leading to danceable pop rock. Thought it builds some, the band saves their energy for, oddly enough, “Ease.” A ballad-esque 6/8 from the bass and drums is accompanied by muted, whale-like guitar bellows. During the second verse, this song builds as Tore begins to soar, giving way to a four-on-the-floor groove that really unleashes the band for the first time, including fast sax runs, high and fast guitar, and additional layers of keys and guitars. Coming full circle, the 6/8 returns at the climax, allowing the tension to gradually deflate.

“Necklaces” is an unexpected palette cleanser after the rock trajectory of the previous songs, beginning the more meditative second act. It features some lovely percussion work by Nilsson, including brushes and bowed cymbals. That, coupled with the mildly dissonant harmonic backdrop of bass, guitar, and keys, offer a haunting setting for Huke’s adaptation of Dickinson’s Summer Shower. “Trøndervise” is a wordless number in which Brunborg’s compositional and melodic skills shine through. His horn and Huke’s vocables float above the rhythm section’s staccato, almost tribal groove and Vågan’s acoustic work. “Floating” is another slow 6/8 number, though much more intense than “Ease” (and without the meter change). To use a recent reference from a few entries back, the slow intensity reminds me of the intro to Zwan’s “Mary Star of the Sea” – not a “rocking” tempo, but definitely a rocking intensity. (Gilsson’s not as manic as Chamberlin on the drums, but the overall vibe is there.)

“Bin” offers another reset of sorts, with light percussion and guitar harmonies and vocals (and eventually the full band) slowly building to a gently joyous ending. Just like Sisyphus, however, the crescendo gives way to the rhythmic but quiet guitar/sax ostinato that begins “Go Charm!” After about 90 seconds of light groove, the drums, guitar, and then bass introduce cacophony out of time, finally finding a pocket over which to let the band unleash their inner arena-rock stars circa 1995. Brunborg and Vågan battle it out before Huke returns to close the song. I want to don a pair of old Dr. Marten’s at the end of this number, and that’s a complement. The album then ends with the title track (which is also the name of the band, putting them in elite company alongside Black Sabbath). “Scent of Soil” is another slow burn that gradually builds upon itself, this time over an organic 7/4. Tore unleashes one final, full-throated solo before the final verse and the slowly-decompressing outro which fades into silence, gently bringing the whole work full circle.

Unintentionally, this turned out to be a much longer “New Listen” than the others, but this album is definitely worthy. A big reason for that is simply my enthusiasm for this great release. I also want to get this album in front of some more eyes and ears, as its little-known, at least here in the US. The band calls this “boundary-defying music,” and it’s most certainly that. Elements of rock (pop, indie, and otherwise), jazz, and more experimental elements combine to yield a compelling but accessible collection of original songs. Despite the partial jazz billing, the solos are limited defined, with the overall focus being the songs themselves. And the songs are great – catchy, musically interesting, and aging well through repeated listens. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts here, and each of those parts offered a high bar to start with. Scent of Soil is a solid debut from a group I want to hear more of.

Album Links:
HUBRO (record label)