First of all, I just want to say that I am in no way affiliated with Leo Records in a professional capacity, and it is not my intention to present anything like a 'press release' here.
However, I am an avid fan of the English record label, which has been releasing some of the finest creative jazz and improvised music internationally for the past 30 years.
Helmed by the Russian expatriate Leo Feigin, who co-produces every album recorded at his studio (and, as he says himself, "almost every CD is a continuation of friendship"), this small operation manages to put out an average of 25 releases annually on its various imprints: Leo, LeoLab, Golden Years, feetfirst, & Long Arms/DOMA. Feigin seems to be upping the ante this year--at the moment of writing, he's cranked out 22 new discs since January. Originally created to showcase the most adventurous music from Russia's underground free jazz scene, the label is still pushing the envelope in terms of breadth and originality of material.
Despite some extraordinary new work on Leo by Anthony Braxton, Ivo Perelman, Sainkho Namtchylak, Simon Nabatov and others, I've chosen five releases from the past 6-8 months that stuck out to me for two reasons: 1.) my complete unfamiliarity with any of the performers, and 2.) the frequently bizarre and singular quality of their music. Obviously, with such an enormous output, not everything on Leo is to my taste; but much of it is, and I wanted to share what are likely to be some of the more overlooked entries in Feigin's catalogue, as well as some of the oddest.
[MP3s, videos below the jump.]
Zuppa Inglese (Italian for 'custard', 'trifle') is lapslap's third release for Leo, though I haven't heard the previous two. The group is made up of multi-instrumentalists Michael Edwards, Martin Parker, Karin Schistek, and 'long-time collaborator' Mark Summers. Like so many others, these improvisers have sensed the future of their art in a dissolution between binaries like acoustic and electric, live and recorded, original and copy. It seems frivolous to even ask who does what, and when, in one of lapslap's compositions, particularly when they themselves describe it thus: "arg is a discursive improvisation between two instruments and two computers. It is hard to tell where the instruments start and the processing ends... Or did we play it backwards?" The quartet creates busy and densely textured aural fabrics lightened by their unique choice of tonal colorings: ocarina, flugel horn, and viola da gamba play prominent roles in the mix. Much like a trifle, in fact: aery in the whipped layer, thick and moist when one reaches the cake.
Aliquid is a meeting between electric and acoustic instruments, a combination which is nothing if not common in today's improv scene. However, the album stands our for its brashness in throwing these two elements together in a head-on collision. Jean-Marc Foussat has been playing his VCS3 analog monosynth in French avant circles since at least the early '80s, though he is little known in the states. The name Sylvain Guerineau yields almost no English results on Google, though several videos on Youtube (see below) feature his tenor sax improvisations. My guess is that he is a relative newcomer, and Aliquid is certainly his first recording as a leading player. This excerpt from "Loin de la Pologne" (the original is 28 minutes) begins with a dense cloud of synthesizer rumblings before being joined by the brass, which itself gets electronically treated in the form of echoes and distortions. As the album reaches its moments of white-hot intensity, one senses the two elements bleeding into one another, as if the VCS3 could become more supple and lyrical, and the saxophone more abrasive and uncompromising. It's challenging stuff, but never boring. A teeming world of fauna in the garden of the machine.Histonic Hysterique II
Okay. The concept behind this one is just weird. Soundmapping the Genes is a "research-based artistic project, using DNA code sequences in music. The complete code-sequence of the H1 histonin protein of the rainbow trout is translated into MIDI language and can be used simply as a melody--consisting of 642 notes--or as information..." I don't pretend to understand what that means, or where its theoretical importance may lie. (But as Thoreau would have said, what is the value of human music when compared to the roar of the sea? of a handwoven rug when viewed beside the natural tapestry of the autumnal forest?) Composers and musicians have long imitated the noise of the animal world, but working directly from the creature's DNA is a truly radical attempt to get at 'the thing-in-itself'. Anyway, Fredrik Soegaard is a guitarist and composer of MIDI algorithms, and his group features Claus Gahrn (laptop) and Henrik Strandfelt (percussion, electronics) as fellow-travelers. Soundmapping is their third release. The two tracks I've selected are representative of the album, which runs the gamut from ungodly noise to rather intricate percussive-ambient soundscapes: a colorful and vibrant music that sounds like a 25th century gamelan ensemble, bubbling and percolating with a knowledge both ultra-contemporary and as ancient as the world itself.
Free Tallinn is probably only the second Estonian group I've ever listened to, and certainly the first Estonian free improv group to grace my playlists. Though the cover art reminds me of Everquest and would normally deter me from ever listening, I'm glad I did, as the music is incredible and rather unique. (CD design tends to be a mixed bag for the label, but Feigin defends it on the following grounds: "Musicians absolutely
loved it and I have to respect their feelings. My philosophy is that a musician should like his/her CD. I am trying not to be a dictator. There are enough of them in the record business.") A trio composed of Anne-Liis Poll (voice), Anto Pett (piano), and Jaak Sooäär (elec. guitar), Free Tallinn plays their own strange brand of operatic improv. Pett and Sooäär create highly dramatic soundscapes around Poll's polarizing vocals, which rival Ratkje in their bestial contortions--soaring high above the crashing piano and roaring guitar, or chattering with the quiet urgency of a madman's private ramblings. The set was recorded live at the 2008 Moers Festival in Germany.
Masashi Harada is a bit of a Renaissance man--musician, painter, dancer, educator. (The image to the top right is from his series of 'ice paintings'--paint dripped over frozen puddles in industrial buildings and then photographed.) Breath, Gesture, Abstract Opera coincides nicely with another recent release on the label, a lovely duet with guitarist Joe Maneri. His music fits no previously defined genre; rather, it rushes breathlessly ahead to map out a new territory, which it inevitably forgets about anyhow in the course of improvisation. "If you're using an element that's been used many times, why improvise?" he writes. This album features Harada on percussion, Glynis Lomon on cello/voice, and James Coleman on (!) theremin. Indeed, this is the only time I have ever heard the latter instrument used in an improvised context; in some ways, with its lack of clear boundaries between chords, it is the perfect instrument for this sort of constantly-evolving squall. Both Lomon and Coleman, who are from Boston, have performed in Harada's 'Condanction' Ensemble, a group he conducts with dance moves. This album features them in solos, duos, and (as in 'Prologue') trios, creating go-for-broke energy music with a sci-fi tinge.
Some pertinent videos I found on Youtube (I particularly like the one in 3-D, despite not having glasses with which to view it):