Saturday, June 12, 2010

dawn of midi

i was contacted a little while ago by aakaash israni, contrabassist in (nyc/paris-based free improv trio) dawn of midi. i hadn't previously heard of the band, which is completed by pianist amino belyamani and percussionist qasim naqvi; they had just recently issued their first album and were contacting music bloggers to help promote it. so... having first established a few things - namely, that i'm not any sort of professional critic, don't usually review cds and don't have a large readership! - i agreed to check out the album. i've enjoyed listening to it, and if it's taken me this long to set down some thoughts on it... surely nobody needs to hear about the reasons for that again. pretty much everything seems to take me a long time these days :-S

the album consists entirely of single, fully improvised takes. nowhere to hide, hence a necessity from the outset to be serious - excellent! and the very first thing which greets the listener is a liquid, resonant contrabass*1 - and evidence of precision engineering; skittering percussion enters almost at once, and just like that it's established what the parameters are... that's the setup and the level (at which) we're engaging... now to see what these young tyros can teach us.

piano's first entry is around 0.43 - the piece, titled "phases in blue" has a definite urgency and tension about it, and the piano's muted, crabwise first entries very much reflect this - and end up definitively shaping it, as belyamani more or less takes control once he's in motion. as for that urgency again (those initial piano attacks are short, stabbing runs made one-handed, the other hand damping the strings by the sound of it; especially if considered as the player's first voicings on the album as a whole, they sound somewhat like a less declamatory descendent of cecil taylor; or perhaps (therefore) like marilyn crispell, a name i'm highlighting here both for the name's talismanic qualities as regards this blog {{{*}}} and for the even simpler reason that it came to mind on numerous occasions the first time i played the cd. because of the trio/improv context i found myself thinking back to this particular recording (but note *2) - a comparison which may turn out to be useful, since i am ultimately left on each listening with an impression of DoM playing not so much "classic" free improv as a sort of spontaneous free chamber jazz - that's really the overall vibe i get from the album, which is frequently lyrical as well as exploratory and expressive. *3

- and that leads me back to what may be the crux here, in getting a feel for the nature of the band's musical animus: something i've already mentioned, namely the pianist's taking control, directing the shape and texture of the music though not necessarily the flow. with all three players young, serious and enthusiastic, it's belyamani who comes across to me at this stage as having the most developed or "complete" voice - and his desire to make music which is lyrical or even (almost) melodic of course then governs to a fairly large extent the nature of the territories which the group ends up inhabiting here. ("of course", because it's hard for a piano, where present, not to dominate this sort of open playing context: its inherent suitedness to harmony - of whichever type - gives it control of a much wider space than contrabass and drum set - though those instruments can also control wide spaces in the hands of masters.) the other two players generally seem to slot in around whatever lead the piano sets up: israni is chiefly concerned with rhythmic exploration, at this stage not much concerned with the contrabass as a harmonising instrument at all, more seeing it as a propulsive engine offering a great variety of approaches; qasim naqvi plays in a style fairly reminiscent of classic free improv, with a scattershot, whole-kit-gets-busy attitude which reminded me, at least, of great european masters such as oxley, lytton, lovens... that sort of idea. the point is, the overall effect to which these individual approaches are put: and that, more often than not, seems to be that piano establishes mood, with the bass and drums providing a very open and free mobile backing. it works pretty well, because although israni comes across as a little diffident, reluctant perhaps to venture too far out across the fingerboard at any one time, his frequent low pedal tones never have the quality of harmonic shackles: his utterances are firmly received (by this listener) as rhythmic and timbral attacks rather than notes or pitches. hence, belyamani's brittle lyricism *4 takes the group right to the edge of actual tunefulness, but never right into any explicit tonality, as that's not somewhere the itinerary has in mind. the group's identity remains tied up with the sound of, yeah, i dunno, "chamber improv" (though i wouldn't want them to get stuck with that label..!).

the piano doesn't always take the lead, and the group basically sounds unified, even if there are times when the thread seems temporarily lost - but this is free improvisation, it's a process not a product, and precisely what's so fascinating about this sort of recording (especially from a group which is just starting out) is that it enables us to observe this process at very close quarters, understand somewhat how it is that a group mind coalesces and dissipates on such occasions (when everyone is paying close attention). there are also times when individual intention or artifice stands out clearly, an example being during tr. 4, "the floor": before halfway, the bass has settled on a rapid, repetitive rythmic figure which seems at odds with the sparse notes of the piano (belyamani at this point sounding almost like bill evans); and israni sticks resolutely at this, even though for some tense seconds it looks to be going nowhere, but in time he draws the percussion in and eventually the three of them do succeed in making something real out of it, finally creating a curious impression of motion and stillness all at once. this, then, is one aspect of the process at work.

some other things to mention... i particularly like tr. 6, "one", with its heavy use of sustain and plenty of low register, the bass and drums both very fully involved with this one also; tr. 7, "hindu pedagogy", fades in on a group pattern, clear evidence of some selective editing (if not a rare example of something prearranged); here belyamani conspires against himself, setting up tuneful structures with the left hand while maintaining a ruthless series of stabbing dischords with the right; and this continues to the end of the (short) piece. another very short one, "annex", reminds me somewhat of taylor, buell neidlinger and billy higgins playing "cindy's main mood" *5 - though without the straightforward rhythmic drive of the drums on that number: this vignette here is just a brief exercise in summoning up a slightly menacing, paranoid atmosphere.

the final track on the album, "in between", is also by far the longest at around eleven minutes, and is another example of a clear strategy put to use, albeit a very basic one: the piano effectively take a single note for a very long walk, worrying at it ceaselessly throughout the piece (the actual note changes at times and sometime is joined by a second or third, in addition to whatever's happening in the left hand) as we negotiate several different linked territories. at first there is a great deal of movement, bass and drums hammering away in support, israni producing percussive smacks as if knocking at a gate; a change of note brings a palpable sense of buildup, and yet the ambience by about four or five minutes in is hypnotic rather than climactic or cathartic... continuing to vary in intensity thereafter, the piece never resolves into anything straightforwardly melodic yet never sounds devoid of focus, the band managing to sustain the ear's interest right up until the close.


this group is not yet the "finished article", nor does it purport to be. i'd like to hear israni pushing himself a little further out of his comfort zone, really allowing himself the freedom to explore his instrument's capacities as a sound-making device: he seems to me to have a good touch on the bass and just maybe seems to lack a little bit of confidence at times. qasim naqvi, too, seems a touch deferential at times - sensitivity and reactivity are indeed essential qualities in a drummer in this field, but it's ok to be forthright and cogent about expressing oneself too. perhaps they are both a trifle overwhelmed at times by belyamani, who has so many ideas at his disposal - that brings me back to the beginning, "phases in blue" again: not (as the title might suggest) a soft, candle-lit ballad structure, not at all, yet the name is well applied since the piano does present us with a series of accents of the blues, albeit in this context they appear rather as specimens under a microscope; - so many influences and moods and strategies in that busy head of his, it'll be interesting to see what else he gets involved with over the years - and i'm assuming that all these players will get involved with other projects, as creative musicians do (film music might be an interesting area to explore...); but they work/play well together, and i hope they will continue to document their growth together as well as separately. i have no intention of grading this album, since i'm not attempting to pass judgement on it, but although the label which issued it (accretions) does not normally put out this sort of stuff, i can safely recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in free improv... just the musicians' honesty guarantees that.

* see comments

1 comment:

centrifuge said...

thinking about it, crispell's name has not really been mentioned much on the blog *yet*. it nevertheless *does* have talismanic qualities herein and hereabouts, for (crashingly) obvious reasons

now then:

1. actually, the very *first* sound which greets the listening ear very much resembles the decay of a cymbal - in retrospect, then, there is evidence right away to suggest that although the music has not been processed or overdubbed, it was very probably creatively edited, at least to some extent; some of the pieces are entirely self-contained. but basically that's a subliminal, you have to go *back* to the beginning really to catch that bit - the first thing to greet a new ear consciously will be the bass.

2. the *amaryllis* cd is not a particularly good reference point in some ways: most of the pieces on it are composed not improvised, only two or three of them being spontaneous outgrowths in the studio; and i'm sure that wasn't the first time crispell, peacock and motian had played together anyway (far from it, i think). it just happens to be the only recording i have of the three of them together, hence it's the one which came to mind. regular readers will not be shocked to hear that i don't own many cds on the ecm label ;-)

3. mmm, now that i think about it the (jarrett) standards trio is another fairly obvious predecessor for this music - on their free improv nights, naturally (perhaps some readers are unaware that jarrett and co ever play totally free, but they do, sort of, and there are several cds containing (some of) the results. and we're back to gary peacock again, not someone this blog would generally have much reason to mention - not that there's any shame in talking about a guy who bore witness when albert ayler got one of his first crucial opportunities to make some (long-lasting) holy waves...

4. this phrase kept springing unbidden to mind while i was first listening to the album, some time ago. that in turn suggests to me that i may have picked it up from someone else, very possibly in the context of ms crispell.

5. from *new york city r&b*. the "tune", credited as a free group improvisation, was neidlinger's idea (it was his date of course): just atonal vamping on (a heavily-deconstructed) "i got rhythm".