Music Reviews from the Staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House


November 23, 2020
Ten Musical Sanctuaries for 2020
There is a sentiment that 2020 is a year to forget. As of the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed at least 1.3 million people and infected over 55 million. In the United States of America, we are subject to the daily abuse of an immoral president attempting to destroy our democratic way of life. Members of communities of color continue to be killed by police officers at disproportionate rates. More than 500 migrant children, forcibly taken by the United States government, remain separated from their parents, because the federal government did not choose to maintain the records necessary to reunite them. Indeed, there is much to regret about 2020.

The staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House continued to find a semblance of equilibrium in music. In this review, they highlight ten records, containing various strains of non-idiomatic improvisation released in 2020, that might be acknowledged as bright points in an otherwise flawed year.


Of Things Beyond Thule Volumes 1 & 2 - Joe McPhee, Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, Brandon Lopez and Paal Nilssen-Love
Label: Aerophonic Records or bandcamp
Catalog #: Volume 1: 024 & Volume 2: 026
Country: United States
Release Date: Volume 1: February 18, 2020 & Volume 2: May 19, 2020
Media: Volume 1: lp only & Volume 2: cd & digital download Volume 1 & Volume 2 Volume 1 & Volume 2

Together these two separate releases document a single concert, which took place in Chicago in 2018. The lp (volume 1) and cd (volume 2), each with completely distinct content, feature the quintet of Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet & tenor saxophone, Dave Rempis on alto, tenor & baritone saxophones, Tomeka Reid on cello and a rhythm section composed of Brandon Lopez (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums). Historically, Thule has represented the farthest, most remote human settlement. To venture beyond Thule is to explore a strange and alien terrain. This music provides a tour of these environs filtered through the lens of a free jazz aesthetic.

We published a joint review of both volumes of Of Things Beyond Thule on the blog of the Poison Pie Publishing House on August 16, 2020. The link to the review is here.

As a way to supplement income during the lock-down in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aerophonic Records offered discounted prices on bundles of cds from the label. We took advantage of one such opportunity and sampled half a dozen albums, all of which featured saxophonist Dave Rempis in varying ensembles. There was much music to be enjoyed. Of Things Beyond Thule is the title that most appealed to us and the one that we elected to include in this admittedly arbitrary end-of-the-year list of highlights.


The Monkey In The Abstract Garden - Alexandra Grimal & Benjamin Lévy
Label: OVNI Records
Catalog #: OVN0003
Location: Paris, France
Release Date: 2020
Media: cdx2 entry

While the staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House was not entirely ignorant of the music of Alexandra Grimal in years prior to 2019, it was listening to the album of saxophone and contrabass duets, Désordre, on which Ms. Grimal partners with Joëlle Léandre, that flipped a switch in our brain and triggered the impulse to listen more carefully and to explore more fully the works of Ms. Grimal. (Our review of Désordre from December 19, 2019 is posted here.) This we did with our usual excess. We discovered in such albums as Kankū, Nāga and Bambú, a variety of musical delights that had not been hinted at in our previous exposure.

Released on OVNI records, which appears to be a label under Ms. Grimal's own curation, The Monkey In The Abstract Garden is comprised of two discs. The first contains a series of saxophone solos. The second is a different creature, with duets in collaboration with Benjamin Lévy on electronics. The duets feature Ms. Grimal largely on voice, although we think the saxophone does appear, with both spoken narration and non-verbal vocalizations, that span the gamut from airy melodies to gutteral growls to sounds that call to mind the cries of monkeys. The two discs are related, we suppose, only in the artistic sensibilities of the creators. Their difference suggests the breadth of Ms. Grimal's musical vocabulary. With The Monkey In The Abstract Garden we found an immediate likeability more suited to a pop album and a complexity that warranted repeated listenings.

Thus far in 2020, Ms. Grimal has released not only The Monkey In The Abstract Garden but also Down the Hill, a duet with pianist Giovanni Di Domenico, and an opera, la vapeur au-dessus du riz, earlier this month.

As part of the course, The Golden Age of Non-Idiomatic Improvisation, which we teach at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we invited Ms. Grimal to participate in an interview. She graciously agreed to share her thoughts on improvisation, creative music and the challenges of multiplicity. For those interested, the interview, The Effective Thought-Opener of Joy: An Interview with Alexandra Grimal is available from the International Journal of Exploratory Meta-Living on a free and anonymous basis: here.


Harbors - Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong
Label: Room40
Catalog #: RM4123
Country: Australia
Release Date: August 14, 2020
Media: lp or digital download entry entry

Since we first attended the duet of Ellen Fullman (long-stringed instrument) & Theresa Wong (cello) in the gallery of the Arts & Architecture Building on the campus of the University of Tennessee as part of the neif-norf festival in the summer of 2017, we have waited for a full album by the duet to be released. After three years, Harbors is that album. The music on this album justifies every day of the extended wait.

For those interested in more information, we published a review of Harbors on the blog of the Poison Pie Publishing House on September 23, 2020. The link to the review is here.


An Uncaught Bird - Køs (Maria Dybbroe, Valdemar Kragelund & Kristian Isholm Saarup)
Label: Forlaget Kornmod
Catalog #: no catalog number
Country: Denmark
Release Date: March 9, 2020
Media: lp (limited to 200 copies) or digital download entry entry

In the year 2020, we woke up to the music of Danish saxophonist, Maria Dybbroe. We listened to her work on An Uncaught Bird by the trio Køs as well as Under Solen by the quintet Caktus. Both albums were amazing. We previously published a review of An Uncaught Bird on the blog of the Poison Pie Publishing House on April 30, 2020. The link to the review is here. We also posted a review of Under Solen on October 24, 2020, which is located here. We chose to include an An Uncaught Bird in our year-end top ten, rather than Under Solen, because of the choice of instrumentation and perhaps because we heard it first and it served as our introduction to the sensibilities of Ms. Dybbroe.


Splatter - Roscoe Mitchell
Label: I Dischi Di Angelica
Catalog #: IDA040
Country: Italy
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Media: cd entry entry

The majority of this live cd is made up of a majestic duet, Breath and Pipes, performed by Roscoe Mitchell on saxophone and Francesco Filidei on church organ. It is a 45+ minute sonic monument not to be missed.

We published a review of Splatter on the blog of the Poison Pie Publishing House on November 6, 2020. The link to the review is here.


Tremble - Hermione Johnson
Label: Relative Pitch Records (bandcamp)
Catalog #: RPR1116
Country: United States
Release Date: October 16, 2020
Media: cd or digital download entry entry

A funny thing happened on the way to this review. We belatedly (as usual) discovered that there was a new series of saxophone solos released on Relative Pitch Records. The first two entries in the series were released in 2019 and the next two in 2020. They are as follows:

Well, we like saxophone solos and we trust the ears of the label's proprietor, Kevin Reilly, to direct us in fruitful directions, so one at a time we listened to all four records. Three of the musicians were already familiar to us and one (Erin Rogers) was new to us. All four of these releases turned out to be excellent. Then we were faced with the difficult task of trying to decide which one we ought to single out to represent the group on our end-of-the-year top ten list. When we had made the purchases, we had also ordered a couple other discs from Relative Pitch including Tremble out of curiosity. Weeks passed with repeated listenings while we tried unsuccessfully to elevate one saxophone solo over another. At the same time, Tremble remained in the play loop as well.

Finally, we realized that, although we remained fond of all four of the saxophone solos, the disc that made the deepest impression on us was Hermione Johnson's Tremble. We had never heard of her before. As far as we know, we had not previously heard of any musician from Auckland. On the Bandcamp page we read, "Tremble evokes the sound of a large Indonesian gamelan orchestra via the insertion of small chopstick-shaped rods at diverse angles, establishing different timbral zones, contraposed in imbricated, polyphonic textures." Well, as soon as we started listening to the cd, we heard gamelan orchestra! This description on Bandcamp happens to be quite accurate. What a delight to hear a prepared piano played in a way that we had never imagined with an unhurried aesthetic that was immediately appealing. Such unexpected delights as this don't happen every day, at least not to us.


Ajax Peak - Susan Alcorn & Tom Carter
Label: Drawing Room Records
Catalog #: DRLP00035
Country: United States
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Media: lp or digital download entry entry

We published a collective review of eight (!) Susan Alcorn releases, either new or reissued digitally in 2020, on the blog of the Poison Pie Publishing House on August 23, 2020. The link to the review is here. Half the releases were first time digital reissues of some long out-of-print recordings on Alcorn's Uma Records. Finding this treasure trove of music was a dream come true, because we had been searching for a physical copy of Touch this Moment for years without any success. There was also new music, including the split cassette release of In / Heaven with the A-side by Mark Trecka & Susan Alcorn. As was the case with the saxophone solos above, we took our time listening and relistening trying to identify which release most resonated with us, to high-light in this end-of-the-year top ten. We intentionally delayed long enough for the debut release of the Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal (meaning "flint"), featuring such luminaries as Mary Halvorson, Mark Feldman, Michael Formanek and Ryan Sawyer, to be released. After excessively judicious deliberation we settled on Ajax Peak. The languid duets of electric guitar and pedal steel guitar appealed to us greatly and, while the vinyl appears to be sold out, this wonderful music remains accessible in digital format.


Authority is Alive - Keiji Haino & The Observatory
Label: Ujikaji Records
Catalog #: UJI-017LP
Country: Singapore
Release Date: September 30, 2020
Media: vinyl ep or digital download entry entry

In the four years since January 1, 2017, the staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House has posted a new blog entry every day in a series that they affectionately call A Tetralogy: How I Survived the Presidency of Douchebag J. Troglodyte, A Daily Account. Once December 31, 2020 rolls around, they will have written 1,461 entries. Each entry was written while listening to a piece of music. In 2017 and 2018, we listened to music by hundreds of different artists--diversity of voices was an explicit goal. Indices documenting the recordings are available for 2017, 2018 and 2019. In 2019 and 2020, the staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House opted to listen to the music of Keiji Haino every day. (Since 1995, they have maintained An Unofficial Keiji Haino Website; over the decades they have accumulated 250+ officially released recordings and more than 450 live recordings.) That someone should spend 30 to 60 minutes before the sun rises every morning writing a blog to help them survive a disheartening and dystopian, if not entirely authoritarian, regime, while listening to the music of one man, may seem too narrowly focused. In our defense, we found time during other parts of the day to listen to other voices. Besides, as the indices indicate, Haino has collaborated with hundreds of other musicians. In any case, what can we say except the comfort of Haino's music hasn't lost it luster for us. This collaborative release, Authority is Alive is a live recording with a trio from Singapore. Before it was formally released, it was available as an unofficial live recording. For the curious, the blog entry that we wrote to this particular music is available on July 12, 2020 here.


I was born waiting at home - Kazuhisa Uchihashi
Label: Urbanguild
Catalog #: none
Country: Japan
Release Date: May 16, 2020
Media: digital files entry entry

In 1992, when Hans Reichel released his first daxophone operetta, Shanghaied on Tor Road, we were transported to a sonic world utterly alien and yet immediately appealing. Over the decades, we have never lost our fondness for the daxophone, though we have lost Reichel who died in 2011. Kazuhisa Uchihashi's first album with Reichel, Stop Complaining / Sundown predates Shanghaied on Tor Road. During Reichel's lifetime, Uchihashi became proficient playing the daxophone, and a couple live performances of the pair have been released. Since Reichel's death, Uchihashi has continued to include daxophone on many solo and collaborative recordings, such as saxophonedaxophone from 2015 with Junji Hirose and the solo Talking Daxophone from 2017. Numerous other Uchihashi releases containing daxophone in collaboration with various musical partners from around the world appear on his bandcamp page. To the extent of our admittedly limited knowledge, Kazuhisa Uchihashi is Hans Reichel's heir to the daxophone. We look forward to the rumored companion album to Talking Daxophone titled Singing Daxophone.

In the meantime, we contented ourselves with I was born waiting at home, which contains three guitar solos and a guitar/daxophone solo by Uchihashi. The guitar solos combine electronic tinkering and manipulation with atmospheric tendencies in a way that engaged us. Of course, the daxophone piece is our favorite for its charm and sentimentality. The release is part of a benefit series released during the pandemic to help the Tokyo live venue, Urbanguild, from closing.


1983 - Company
Label: Honest Jon's Records
Catalog #: HJRLP215
Country: United Kingdom
Release Date: February 7, 2020
Media: lpx2 entry

This double lp features previously unreleased recordings from the 1983 realization of Company featuring Derek Bailey (guitar), Evan Parker (clarinet), Joëlle Léandre (bass, voice), Peter Brötzmann (reeds), Jamie Muir (percussion), Hugh Davies (electronics), J.D. Parran (basset horn, piccolo flute), Ernst Reijseger (cello), Vinko Globokar (trombone, voice, flute) and John Corbett (trumpet, flugelhorn). This is the sixteenth release in the series by Honest Jon's Records of archival recordings featuring Derek Bailey, which began in 2017. Most of the releases are, as is the case with 1983, double lps, although one of them is a triple lp and three are single lps. Some of releases are reissues of albums long out of print and others, like this one, contain entirely unissued material.

We have read the opinion expressed by musicians whom we admire that there is an unhealthy morbidity to searching for recordings from years long past of musicians now gone. We accept this judgment without defense. In the case of Derek Bailey, we continue to seek out live performances that previously eluded us. That this particular double lp has him joined by giants of European free improvisation only increased its appeal. Nevertheless, we take the censure seriously and reserve only a single spot at the end of this list for such investigations. The recordings that make up the first nine entries of this list are from recent years, if not 2020, and hopefully balance out our penchant to hear new music from beyond the grave.




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