Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips: Sankt Gerold

Maurice Bottomley

Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips

Sankt Gerold

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2001-05-27

I am always a little over-awed by ECM recordings. They sound as if they should be listened to in a large, loft apartment (with minimalist furnishings) on a system that costs a year's salary. There is also a suspicion that they operate using a Masonic musical language to which only the true initiate is privy. The spirit of twentieth century abstract art is everywhere. If high modernism is dead then news of that event has not reached the citizens of ECM's lofty citadel, who are still fiercely loyal to the late monarch. Consequently there is a generally humourless dedication to all things complex, atonal and unfunky that teeters at times into self-parody. A good for instance is that this set is recorded in an Austrian monastery (oh the silence, the spirituality) and that there is nothing as referentially vulgar as a song title to be found- just Variations (one to 12, in fact). However, keeping an incipient Philistinism firmly in in check, it has to be admitted that this is a pretty impressive set -- with an abundance of fine, if unashamedly highbrow, music.

The featured trio are major figures on the advanced music scene. A cursory website check threw up about 300 albums in which they have had some involvement. Now veterans -- Bley and Phillips are in their sixties, Parker a decade behind -- they bring a wealth of talent and history to their playing and are the genuine article. There is barely a single, significant experimental musician that this bunch have not locked instruments with and, unsurprisingly, they ooze confidence and assuredness. Canadian-born pianist, Paul Bley is probably the best known and his involvement from way, way back with Lenny Tristano and Jimmy Giuffre put him in contact with the original antecedents of this particular type of improvisation. That fifties' classical-plus-jazz movement was termed "Thirdstream" and Sankt Gerold is part of its post-Ornette Coleman incarnation. Chamber music with a Free Jazz frame of reference sums it up.

Bley has a reputation, even within modern jazz circles as an overly cerebral player, which is mind-boggling enough. Add the fact that Evan Parker -- from Bristol, England -- is one of the more dogged exponents of wild atonalism and the seekers after melody are in trouble. Yet something rather pleasant takes place in the course of these encounters. Bley -- or perhaps it was the monastic setting -- seems to calm Parker down somewhat, whereas Parker's ceaseless stretching of sound brings out a more emotional quality in Bley's work than is usually the case. With Californian Barre Phillips unable to make an ugly noise even in his most vanguardist mode, the combined result is often rather poetic and lovely. Whether this is intended, I have no idea, but I, for one, am glad of it.

The answer may lie in the fact that this album was recorded (in 1996) after a long tour, based on the success of their first outing for ECM -- Time Will Tell (1994). There is a relaxed and easy relationship between the participants, ample space for solo pieces and an unhurriedness about the various duo and trio exchanges. Bley becomes almost Chopinesque at times and even Parker's weird "circular breathing" exercises have a fragile quality about them. Phillips, as I have mentioned already, is grace personified. The album has all the regulation parps, squawks and cacophonous interludes (I recommend Variation 10 for clearing your home of unwanted guests) but that is what they seem -- interludes. The dominant mood is contemplative and less dependant on the jagged edges associated with this genre. Not easy listening by any means but not as painful as some will imagine.

As for the Variations -- five are ensemble pieces, Bley and Phillips get two each and Parker three. Parker's contributions are the most demanding or, according to your tastes, the most irritating. Personally, I have always found the Spontaneous Music Ensemble -- the British free jazz movement of which he was a key part -- the least attractive of free jazz collectives. One cannot help, though, marvelling at his technique and the sheer variety of sounds he gets out of the reeds. That said, Variations six and seven (featuring Phillips) are my favourites as they offer an evocative but still adventurous journey through the instrument's whole range of possibilities. Yet if Phillips is consistently the most impressive, it is Bley who sticks in the mind the longest. With stately phrasing and layerings of melancholy chords, he proves himself to be nowhere near as dry and academic as his reputation suggests. Variations one, two and nine show him to best effect.

Regular ECM buyers will know what to expect and probably will lap it up. To the less smitten I would suggest that a background in post-Schoenbergian classical music will equip you better than a knowledge of Kansas City tenor men in dealing with the "jazz" on offer here. A general feel for modernism in any of the arts will serve you best of all. I don't know how much more mileage there is left in this free end of the musical scene but this set is full of conviction and vigour. There is not the slightest hint of anyone simply going through the motions. They are among the best at their particular game, these three, and they know exactly (well, exactly as is permissible in such an open-ended form) what they are doing. I can offer no such certainty but enjoyed the ride anyway.

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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