richard abrams | levels and degrees of light (1967)

levelsanddegreesoflightMuhal Richards Abrams has always been a key figure for the AACM. One of the Chicago-based group’s co-founders, he was also a mentor and inspiration for many of the city’s younger musicians in the ’60s and beyond. Levels and Degrees of Light, recorded in late 1967, was Abrams’ recorded debut as a leader, but he’d been active in the Chicago music scene for a long time before this, first in the ’50s bop scene and later as the organizer of the Experimental Band, a workshop/rehearsal group that was one major antecedent for the AACM itself.

Abrams was of an earlier generation from most of the musicians who gathered around him and formed the core of the AACM. He had been an active bebop pianist as a young man in the ’50s, gradually drifting away from bop as he tried to develop a new music of his own. It was Abrams’ increasing emphasis on writing and composition that would help set apart the AACM from both the roots of ’60s jazz in bop – which minimized compositional elements to place the emphasis on extended solo improvisations – and from most contemporaneous free jazz. Continue reading

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joseph jarman | song for (1966)

songforFollowing Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, alto saxophonist Joseph Jarman was the second AACM member to enter the studio with Delmark Records’ Chuck Nessa, emerging with Song For, his own contribution to the collective’s early legacy. Jarman’s band, as captured here, was one of the major regular working groups within the late ’60s AACM, along with Mitchell’s sextet and the Anthony Braxton/Leo Smith/Leroy Jenkins trio. Within a few years, Jarman would join the core of the Mitchell group to form the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and increasingly that group would become the public face and most popular manifestation of the AACM’s ideas and influence. In 1966, though, the collective was still mostly undocumented and unknown, especially outside of their Chicago hometown, and various regular and ad hoc groupings within the larger AACM were stretching out in all sorts of varied directions. Continue reading

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roscoe mitchell sextet | sound (1966)

soundSound was, and is, a tremendously important recording. It was the first document of the then-young Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), among the first recorded appearances for most of these musicians, and a first step towards the formation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago a few years later. Sound began the process of spreading the AACM aesthetic beyond Chicago, initiating what would become one of the most influential currents in jazz in the next decade. And though the AACM was by its nature aesthetically broad and eclectic, Sound does provide a satisfying cross-section of many of the innovations, ideas, and sounds that this collective introduced to the jazz lexicon. Continue reading

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musica elettronica viva | friday (1969)

mev_friday Musica Elettronica Viva was an odd and amorphous group whose vision of collective free improvisation, like that of their British peers AMM, presaged many of the developments of avant music in the ’70s and beyond. The group’s membership shifted constantly around a core of American expatriate composers living in Europe: particularly Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum. MEV had been active, in one form or another, since 1966, when they were formed in Rome by Rzewski, Jon Phetteplace, and Allan Bryant, with Curran and others joining soon after. Although initially an ensemble dedicated to performing compositions by the various members, they soon evolved towards free improvisation, playing live music that mixed primitive electronics, conventional instruments, and non-musical objects and devices. Continue reading

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anthony braxton | 3 compositions of new jazz (1968)

3compositionsofnewjazzAnthony Braxton’s debut LP introduced an unconventional, often controversial new talent whose career – spanning decades and still going, without nearly enough attention, today – has been one of the most fascinating in jazz. At the time this was recorded, Braxton was just under 23 years old, an affiliate of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which had been active (but barely documented on record) since 1965. The boldly titled 3 Compositions of New Jazz was among the first statements of the group, preceded by AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light (on which Braxton made his first recorded appearance; his own debut was his second) and some of the albums that would lead to the formation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with records by Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman featuring the extended AACM family.

3 Compositions resonated with the aesthetic being forged on these late ’60s albums. This was a radical new sound in free jazz, paring back the unrelenting energy and frenzied blowing sessions that had become de rigueur in favor of space, extreme dynamics, humor, and versatility in both instrumentation and style. Continue reading

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marc baron | hidden tapes (2014)

ImpressionMarc Baron has entirely remade himself as a musician over the last few years. Once an improvising saxophonist, his uncompromising 2012 solo album caught him at what must have been the end of a transitional period. A resolutely abstract and confrontational work, it alternated uneasy silences with tones played on both sax and electronics, adding incidental noises of mostly uncertain origin. Minimal and unsettling, it could not easily be described as saxophone music of any sort, so it’s not entirely surprising that Baron has now given up the instrument. His latest album Hidden Tapes is a work of tape collage, assembling found cassette tapes, movie excerpts, and bits of sampled classical music into a mysterious, constantly evolving patchwork. Continue reading

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spontaneous music ensemble | karyobin (1968)

karyobinThe Spontaneous Music Ensemble was one of the first flowerings of a fertile British improvised music scene that would flourish through the ’70s and beyond. The SME was a loose collective centered around drummer John Stevens and, in its first decade, saxophonist Trevor Watts. Stevens was partially inspired by the example set by his contemporaries in AMM, but in forging his own take on improvised music, he deliberately did not go as far as AMM in rejecting his jazz background. SME music was freely improvised, without reference to underlying structures or overt jazz idioms, but the overall sound nevertheless retained a connection to jazz – and to the conventional ways of playing acoustic instruments – that ran counter to AMM’s ideas.

Even so, Stevens was an innovator and a radical in his own right. Continue reading

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michael pisaro | melody, silence (2015)

melodysilenceHere’s a solo guitar composition from 2011 by Michael Pisaro, performed with great sensitivity by Cristián Alvear, a Chilean guitarist who’s quickly establishing himself as one of the great interpreters of modern avant music. This piece is fairly typical of Pisaro’s work in that it is, paradoxically, serene and spacious yet dense with ideas. This is a work of seemingly simple beauty and elegance, but hidden in its structure are complexities and gentle twists that prevent the music from being merely a placid background listen. Continue reading

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amm | ammmusic (1966)

ammmusicThis extraordinary debut has become a legend, and with good reason. The importance of AMMMusic is difficult to overstate, particularly when considered as a prescient forerunner to certain strains of electroacoustic improvisation that would develop at the end of the 20th Century and the dawn of the 21st, with AMM’s guitarist (and shortwave radio operator) Keith Rowe serving as an elder statesman and frequent collaborator with younger musicians. This is ground zero, or close to it, for so much of the music that came after it. Continue reading

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éric la casa / taku unami | parazoan mapping (2015)

parazoanmappingHere’s another challenging, provocative album from the recent Erstwhile Records batch. Like a lot of records in this area of late, it’s a tricky blend of styles and approaches, seemingly highly conceptual in nature but without spelling out what its concepts are. That makes it an enjoyably confounding and surprising listen, an album that keeps revealing new pleasures and new details every time I put it on.

Parazoan Mapping consists of 15 untitled tracks, all of them fairly concise (the longest is the first, at just over six minutes). There’s a great deal of variety here, and the sound field often shifts abruptly, but the tracks nevertheless flow seamlessly into one another as a fluid collage. The CD sleeve credits the musicians jointly with “recordings” and “devices,” which makes sense given their respective histories: La Casa works primarily with field recordings, while Unami is an unpredictable figure who, among other things, has assembled handmade motorized noisemaking gadgets. Unami is as always tough to pin down, and in addition to providing recordings of his own may be responsible for any of the odd, often unclassifiable sounds that work their way through the mix across these tracks. Continue reading

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