John Abercrombie Quartet: Class Trip

Robert R. Calder

John Abercrombie Quartet

Class Trip

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2004-04-27
UK Release Date: 2004-04-26

To replace any of the four men featured here with an abler musician on his instrument would be worse than tricky. Unless you wanted a different kind of music altogether, any such attempted substitution would be pointless: John Abercrombie on guitar, Mark Feldman violin, Marc Johnson double-bass, Joey Baron drums.

In a programme of improvisations based almost all on his own idiosyncratically complex compositions, Abercrombie includes one on "Soldier's Song", from his and my revered Bartok (the original was one of the set of 44 Pieces for Violin Duo). Bartok's easily pastiched, sometimes too easily by modern composers who'd rather not have sounded like echoes of him. Mock Bartok can be delivered like a mock "foreign accent" -- just slot in a few of the most distinctive harmonies as mannerisms. It's an alternative to the equally easy main drone of sounding dull and anonymous. Abercrombie neither pastiches Bartok nor does anything else easy (in the sense of cheap). Indeed, inclusion of the Bartok material seems almost something of a challenge, given the prospect of its performance becoming somebody else's, or derivative. It's the penultimate title on the CD, but any temptation to call it the standout is immediately dissolved by "Epilogue", whose composer credit is to all four musicians and may indicate a collective improvisation.

The second track's title is "Risky Business", and there is some risky business here, noticed by me on track three, "Descending Grace". There's an excess of restraint, of subduedness. These wonderful musicians know all too well that there's a fine line beyond which musical virtues are at risk, where a sudden blare or jar can mar or ruin. They stay too consistently within it, there is none of the cutting loose which Bartok could do as composer and/or performer (and he was an even greater musician than anybody here).

Was the music too new to these men? On "Descending Grace" Joey Baron alone seems not excessively preoccupied, seems relaxed, doesn't give the impression of working out what he's going to do when the big occasion comes. Perhaps the big occasion will be (and will have been) one and another live performance of this music on the "whirlwind tour" we are assured (April 2004) is impending -- to promote this CD? Quite an occasion it could be, with an audience to remind the musicians -- when they start to need reminding -- that there are concerns beyond listening to and marvelling at each other. I called this note extreme chamber music because at its purest string quartet playing is four people in a circle, playing to each other, playing the music -- not addressing in a mere half-circle the audience. That's what seems to have gone on with these guys last December in the studio.

Abercrombie is an astonishing master of electric guitar, in command of tone alike with dynamics. The naked gut/ nylon strings and pure timber of "classical guitar" have resonances electric amplification forfeits -- and yet Abercrombie applies fingers and finds these differentiations. Keeping the same time, he can chord like say Jimmy Raney or Jim Hall, and ping his notes. On "Cat Walk" he's pretty well dancing with a lute behind Feldman's fiddle. He can be at one with Feldman's violin, or with Johnson's murmuring bass, or the light ticking of Baron's operation on the pulse. Then again, each of these three has his own talent for rapport.

"Excuse My Shoes" may or may not be an allusion to the graceless footwear Feldman has been known to affect on stage, but his violin sound shows it can swell to an amazing fullness -- it would have made some more puritan European concert musicians of the past half-century feel (as some deserved to) downright ill. Hoorah!

I'm sick of reading how very different are the respective musics in which Feldman has taken part, but I'm not sick of hearing him play! On "... Shoes" heed also the guitar-bass interaction, each instrument strictly melodic with Baron doing an enormous amount intensely quietly. "Swirls" is wild but quiet, the sound or the acoustic (or something!) strangely remote. Feldman produces some downright viola sounds over drumming. Hark at the ensemble work on "Jack and Betty", and the enormous melody on violin. Ask yourself, as the title track wafts in, who's plucking what? Some of the miracles and some of the less important less interesting moments here suggest that Abercrombie's guitar and Feldman's fiddle are deeply in love. I did scrabble for the notes a couple of times, hearing what I took to be the entry of a flute. I don't suppose Feldman was trying to make his fiddle produce flute-sounds, there just didn't seem to be any other way that fine noise could have been produced.

"Soldier's Song" is as earlier suggested exquisite. Bartok's procedure with music often influenced by folk sounds, or bird or insect noises, was to begin with what seemed the aptest instrumentation, however eccentric at first look. He would compose for a slightly off-beam ensemble then revise for a mort orthodox instrumentation. "Soldier's Song" might be a draft for something a string quartet would subsequently do. Baron engages with featherlight percussion, spreading magic dust. Four seconds under three minutes, and this has been utterly spellbinding.

"Epilogue" perhaps means impossible to follow. Abercrombie begins with flutish delicacy, and then is in full-span sitar mode. Feldman comes into this Indo-Abercrombie fusion with his fiddle playing phrases on alto flute. Then it changes even as his hands are on it, and is all lightness and feathers and -- having become a lark -- ascending.

Are the last two titles themselves worth the price of the CD? There is a North American accent, but the music is generically not remote from the 44 duos of Bartok it samples. I did actually prefer the previous Abercrombie-Feldman ensemble with Dan Wall's wholly sinless Hammond organ and Adam Nussbaum's drums, for a greater variety and liveliness of music. The current quartet do get a shade too engrossed here. However: when they're good they're very very good; and when they're very very very good they're unbelievable.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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