Published Nov 30, 2011Listen to our Best of 2011: Improv & Avant-Garde playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
Given the diversity and depth of the improv and avant-garde scene, instead of ranking and rating releases, we've asked regular contributors to discuss their favourite 2011 albums from the far corners of the scene.
Motion Sickness of Time Travel
Joel Rubin / Uri Caine
Dead Cat Bounce
Motion Sickness of Time Travel Luminaries & Synastry (Digitalis)
Despite cutbacks in outer space research and programming, human beings are more fascinated with the concepts and physics of space than ever before. The invention of the electronic organ in the '50s bred a whole new fascination with the association of music and space ― see producer Joe Meek. Rachel Evans, who's solo work as Motion Sickness of Time Travel, is pushing this fascination to the most modern corners of sonic spatial exploration. In combination with Evans' droning vocal swoons, metallic synthesizers and reverb-drenched arpeggios define Luminaries & Synastry as a psychedelic record suitable for escaping a slow-motion apocalypse via space shuttle. Despite the record's relatively similar track-to-track formulas, the combination of vocal harmonies and textured electronic melodies evoke different emotions with every song ― pushing the listener's brain into patterns of thought previously reserved exclusively for the unconscious. "Day Glow," for example, opens with a rather unpleasant glitchy arpeggio, but the pastiche of slowly attacking synthesizers and space-laden vocals calm the listener to the point of appreciating the arpeggio in a new light ― shedding new perspective to sounds that are strictly bound to context by more close-minded musicians. A minute into the track, the arpeggio sounds as if it were at home ― the track would sound incomplete without it despite its original brash introduction. Tracks like "Moving Backward Through The Constellations" and "The Walls Were Dripping With Stars" pay direct homage to Evans' spatial-fascinations. Both tracks evoke imagery and emotion that would be perfectly suitable to the actions of their titles. Patience is arguably one of the most enlightening virtues for those who have mastered it, and in music, records like Luminaries & Synastry find listeners teaching themselves about things lyrical and narrow-minded verse-chorus-bridge music conditions them to neglect.
Philip de Vries
Joel Rubin / Uri Caine Azoy Tsu Tsevyt (Tzadik)
With the demise of JDub records and its roster of progressive Jewish musical expression, John Zorn's Tzadik label is once again alone at the vanguard of Jewish diasporic music in the world. The label has released everything from jazz to classical to salsa, which in a sense makes Azoy Tsu Tsveyt a conservative record with a straight-up, though heartrending, focus on klezmer. When Rubin and keyboardist Uri Caine dive deep into the music they plunge into a deep and wide ocean of sonic possibilities. On the one hand, Rubin's clarinet work is gorgeously ornamental on top of already melancholy phrases. He builds statements so deftly you hardly notice the asymmetry of what he's doing. Caine on the other hand is in a parallel universe, capable of striding hard and heavy like barrelhouse pianists of old (if they played electric piano) but also geeking out with tense, close harmonies nasal tones which duel with Rubin's more full toned playing. The electric piano has such strong associations with Afro American R&B and jazz of a certain era; Caine both realises this and plays upon it. Stylistically, he swirls Fats Waller's stride into Chick Corea's galactic dissonance and garnishes that with a touch of 12-tone madness. Whether traditional material, original compositions for film or nu-Klezmer covers this album covers a lot of ground historically, too.
Loscil Coast/Range/Arc (Glacial Movements)
Vancouver-based sound sculptor Scott Morgan doesn't make bad albums. Working as Loscil, he's developed one of the most trusted and consistent names in modern ambient composition. There was a four-year gap between his 2006 effort Plume and 2010's Endless Falls, but rather than let that happen again he quickly returned with Coast/Range/Arc earlier this year. Hardly a throwaway collection, the album stands on its own as one of Loscil's most engaging yet. Inspired by the vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the six-track release is comprised of enormous compositions that slowly breathe in their long playing times. The result is another stunningly engaging batch of material that ebbs and flows, revealing new crevices of sound with each repeated listen. A grandiose statement blanketed in subtlety, Coast/Range/Arc is a quiet winner.
Lukas Ligeti Pattern Time (Innova)
The term "game-changer" has been tossed around for years and has, for the most part, blown its credibility through over use. Then again, there is this cd by Lukas Ligeti called Pattern Time. Ligeti (and yes he is the son of the late master composer György Ligeti) has assembled an ensemble featuring Aly Keïta on balafon, Benoît Delbecq piano, Gianni Gebbia alto sax, Michael Manring electric bass and Ligeti himself on drum kit and toy balafon. The music itself is a blinding sheet of math and African minimalism but where it gets really interesting is in a "free improv" aesthetic that seems to bloom throughout. This result is not without precedent. Many of the most inspired jazz improvisations on the standard repertoire have pushed past the breaking point of form while still retaining the feel of the song. What is truly inspiring about this recording is the way it can charm and engage in the midst of jaw-dropping musicianship and compositional skill. Where the body language of a lot of music converges is in the permutation of groove; whether you 're into Meshuggah, Sonny Rollins, Feist, Muddy Waters or Doc Watson, it's rare to hear something that is not only musically virtuosic and conceptually far-reaching, but that is also as friendly as a nursery rhyme. Ligeti's Pattern Time does it all beautifully.
Nicholas Urie My Garden (with poems by Charles Bukowski) (Red Piano)
Jazz and poetry are soul mates. Since the live club sessions that paired writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg with jazz adventurers, and before, the two art forms have informed, supported, enlivened and challenged each other to higher expressiveness. From poetic firebrand Jayne Cortez to cerebral jazz/poetry synthesist par excellence Steve Lacy, the range of moods and subjects covered is panoramic. Saxophonist Archie Shepp once said that jazz was the lotus that grows in spite of the swamp. And barroom bard Charles Bukowski "grows" beautiful blossoms of poetic verse, in spite of his harsh surroundings and chronic alcoholism: his garden is a place of conscious contemplation of life's grating contradictions beatified. Bukowski's poetry finds in jazz composer/arranger Nicholas Urie an empathetic respondent, who creates jazz "flower beds" for eight poems to flourish. His pieces serve to expand the poems core qualities by bonding them with jazz orchestral works played a crack 12-piece band and vocalist Christine Correa. There is a film noir feel to tunes, especially "Slaughterhouse," featuring outstanding soloist soprano saxist Jeremy Udden. Bukowski's knowing humour makes an appearance in the robust "Round and Round," wherein Correa vibrantly and repeatedly declaims, "You have my soul and I have your money." Urie's juxtaposition of street roughness, bedroom intimacy and razor-sharp sonorities make My Garden an organic, sonically rich greenhouse of poetry-and-jazz flowers.
Nils Frahm Felt (Erased Tapes)
While it might only be a rule by inference, it's one that Nils Frahm breaks ― he has recorded an "inside" piano album that leaps free of the instrument at several turns. Felt is so named elementarily for the thick layer of material Frahm installed atop the strings of his piano to facilitate late night / early morning play and recording. The latter was achieved by close placement of microphones at high gain near the swaddled strings. This sensitivity to sound additionally captured the mechanics of the piano, the pedal and key depressions, Frahm's breath and other extraneous room sounds as well. That liveliness, beyond the notes, arrays each piece in a much more physically and imaginatively rich context. For "Less" Frahm is content to leave the pure occurrences unadorned and complete. Elsewhere, as on opener "Keep," he builds layers upon layers of staccato performance and adds other instruments to fully fill in a chorus of sounds. "Unter" plays it for mystery as the piece devolves into a cavernous space where the piano falls away leaving muted background noise and lonesome whistling before melting into the concertina that opens the following track, "Old Thought." Through all its diversions Frahm manages to create an album that's still all of a piece, and one that focuses on the beauty and occult possibilities the piano still has enclosed.
Tim Hecker Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
This year's Ravedeath, 1972 was Tim Hecker's sixth official solo album and without a doubt among his most accomplished work to date. Powerful, enigmatic and haunting, it is hard to hear the album without picturing slow-motion Herzog-like scenes of natural disasters, such as the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland, where Hecker recorded the central performance that forms the backbone of the album. It is a powerful suite of unsettling ambient drone that consists of layers of dissonant electronics and washes of static intertwined with the deep, resonant sound of an old church organ in an intense, ever-shifting push-pull interplay. Allegedly conceived as a comment on the disposability of music, the titles are tongue-in-cheek wordplays on this topic and the album artwork features an evocative archive image of the M.I.T. piano drop stunt. Hecker has always explored the nexus of the organic and the processed but here he takes this further than before, seamlessly melding electronic and organic sounds and adding multiple layers of processing to both. Later in 2011, Kranky also released Dropped Pianos, a companion album consisting of electronically treated piano and organ sketches that Hecker brought to Reykjavík and improvised with for the final piece. Ravedeath is a superb work that sits comfortably alongside recent classics in the oeuvre such as William Basinski's Disintegration Loops.
Jóhann Jóhannsson The Miners' Hymns (FatCat)
A stream of dripping suspense flows through The Miners' Hymns, the striking soundtrack by Icelandic musician, composer and producer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It's not the kind of "Bernard Hermann shower scene from Psycho" suspense, but rather the kind of cancerous, ominous, we-are-all-gonna-die-but-we-must-keep-going kind of suspense. Where Jóhannsson's recent works heavily featured strings, The Miners' Hymns utilizes more military sounds, from the rare marching drum to the use of trumpets, care of a specially assembled 16-piece brass ensemble, as well as the massive Durham Cathedral organ. This lends immeasurably to the feeling of duty and dread Jóhannsson evokes with these recordings, suitably commissioned as the accompaniment for the 2011 documentary by American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison about the now-extinct mining industry and culture of Northeast England. This influenced Jóhannsson to get back to writing for brass, since this region was traditionally rich with colliery brass bands. The Miners' Hymns almost sounds like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack given the "800 percent slower" remix treatment. The brass ensemble produces unearthly drones, accented by Jóhannsson's subtle electronics on which repetitive melodic lines and fragments are layered. Yet, the dynamics ebb and flow as if breathing, sighs giving way to heaves then returning to relative stability, while the pacing stays essentially static, bending time and space around it. Indeed, this soundtrack is immensely dense, and truly worthy of the adjective cinematic if ever a recording was. (FatCat Records)
Colin Stetson New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)
No artist living in Canada had a bigger breakout year in 2011 than Montreal's Colin Stetson. The ingenious musician, best known for playing reed instruments like the bass saxophone and clarinet and employing a circular breathing technique, rode a wave of acclaim for his Polaris Music Prize short-listed album, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, which was arguably the least accessible short-lister in the award's six-year existence. While his impressive list of collaborators includes Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Bell Orchestre, Timber Timbre, and Bry Webb, Stetson really is a mighty force unto himself. He needs no one to lean on because he's this pillar of creativity and power, making his remarkable album at Montreal's Hotel2Tango studio in single takes, with little to no overdubs or loops (aside from effective vocal turns by Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond). You might not believe this when you hear pieces like "Judges," but this is all the work of one amazing man, working furiously within some intense moments in time. The term "otherworldly" can be so imperfect and lazy but, when spending time with Stetson's music, one is hard-pressed to determine where on Earth we've heard a sound like this before.
Dead Cat Bounce Chance Episodes (Cuneiform)
Along with Paradoxical Frog, Dead Cat Bounce might be one of the best names of any band in jazz. Matt Steckler, the leader of this Boston-based sextet, writes in the liner notes to Chance Episodes that "the end result is less about establishing a particular 'sound' for the group and more about narrating through sound a timeline of human experience." But I think he's doing himself a disservice there. Dead Cat Bounce has four horn players ― Steckler, Jared Sims, Terry Goss, and Charlie Kohlhase ― and the wonderfully rich and layered voicings they produce, with a range of saxophones and clarinet and flute, make the album great. The group is like a little big band. I can see what Steckler means, though. These songs are episodic ― see "Silent Movie Russia, 1905" or "Salon Sound Journal" ― and "Far from the Matty Crowd" reminded me of the evolutionary symbolism in Pithecanthropus Erectus, a Charles Mingus album. But the sound of Dead Cat Bounce is unmistakably particular. Drummer Bill Carbone deserves special attention; he plays simple rock and funk beats without sounding glib, forming a sturdy connection with bassist Dave Ambrosio. He also uses a cowbell. And it's very refreshing when a horn solo happens. In "Tourvan Confessin'," a sultry track the speed of a dangerously slow heart beat, Jared Sims emerges out of the chorus, on tenor, with an earthy, gutbucket scream. All the grit and colour and steam of Sims's sound is so sharply delineated that, for me, it was like looking through a macro lens.