Graded on a Curve: YoshimiO / Susie Ibarra
/ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Flower of Sulphur

If you’ve a hankering for unadulterated improvisation, the new record featuring the talents of multi-instrumentalist YoshimiO, avant drum titan Susie Ibarra, and multidisciplinary artist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe will likely sate that need, if only for a little while. Documenting the meeting of the three in performance in front of an audience at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Flower of Sulphur isn’t likely to convert those agnostic to improv’s qualities, but for ears just growing accustomed to abstract ambiance, it could prove inviting and ultimately satisfying as it reaches a bit beyond the style’s norms. It’s out February 23 on double opaque lavender vinyl and compact disc through Thrill Jockey of Chicago.

As a fan from back in the days of Boredoms, I’m eager to soak up any project with YoshimiO’s name on it, mainly because she’s yet to disappoint. Amongst other activities, there was U.F.O. or Die with Boredoms cohort Yamataka Eye; the indie supergroup Free Kitten, which teamed her with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Pussy Galore’s Julia Cafritz and later, Pavement’s Mark Ibold; and the ample discography her own group OOIOO. Last year, she debuted SAICOBAB, a quartet combining ancient Indian traditional music with contempo methods and sounds.

Unsurprising for an artist frequently identified as belonging to the jazz realm, Susie Ibarra’s appearances on record are considerable, though her discography is nowhere near as daunting as some of her peers. She’s played with David S. Ware, John Zorn, Wadada Leo Smith, Sylvie Courvoisier, William Parker, Dave Douglas, Eugene Chadbourne, Mark Dresser, Marc Ribot, and Matthew Shipp, in duo with Denis Charles, Assif Tsahar, and Derek Bailey, and to move outside the jazz/ improv zone, Yo La Tengo. Having witnessed her at the kit behind Prefuse 73, I can attest that she can kill it in a variety of contexts.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe first emerged through the post-HC band 90 Day Men, then lit out on his own as Lichens and eventually under an expanded moniker (initially, he went by just Robert Lowe). Like Ibarra and YoshimiO, his collaborations have been wide-ranging, including The Cairo Gang, Om, and Rhys Chatham, plus co-credited releases with artist Rose Lazar (’08’s “Gyromancy” and ’10’s Eclipses, both for Thrill Jockey) and the early electronic-proto New Ager Ariel Kalma (’15’s very cool We Know Each Other Somehow, for RVNG).

Lowe’s likely the least immediately recognizable name on the (back) cover of this 2LP, though due to his vocal contribution to the soundtracks of the Denis Villeneuve films Sicario and Arrival (both composed by the recently deceased Jóhann Jóhannsson) he’s surely the most widely heard. Along with YoshimiO, he also sings here, as everyone brings their primary instruments to Roulette; that’s YoshimiO on drums and percussion, Ibarra on the same, and Lowe on modular synth/ electronics.

Listeners familiar with Ibarra’s discography, but not with her counterparts here, might form an expectation of a certain improv thing. If so, they should resist the urge, as the instrumentation and this union of personalities fosters a unique feel, though one that should still satisfy regular visitors to the improv realm. Additionally, this stands as a first-time meeting of the three, though don’t get the idea that they just showed up, let fly, and hoped for the best, as everyone had played together previously in duo or with electroacoustic composer Tarek Atoui.

Across four sides and just a smidge under 65 minutes, Flower of Sulphur casts aside any notions of “two’s company,” but does so subtly, with Lowe’s electronics and vocals rising gradually in the opening section “Aaa.” Drums and percussion emerge in short order, as does YoshimiO’s voice, but for roughly the first half of the first section, the mood is largely mysterious, and at a few moments is reminiscent of avant-classical rather than the spontaneous assertiveness of improv.

Through Ibarra, a shift in intensity occurs, with more impassioned bursts of voice, percussive waves, and electronic interjections/ enhancements (notably on the vocals) following suit, though it’s not like they go pedal to the metal; certainly, flareups and longer passages of wildness do occur, but overall this meeting is concerned with textural abstraction more than cacophonous splat or free jazz flow, and that’s cool.

There’s also diversity of sound and instrumentation, as “Bbb” begins with an electronic-vocal blend, (what sounds like) wooden wind chimes, and then an electric keyboard, played either by Lowe or YoshimiO (lacking annotation as to who exactly played what when, I’m unsure, and this mystery adds to the appeal). This leads into a sweet section underscoring Ibarra’s prior study with drum luminaries such as the great Milford Graves; yes, she’s a goddamn powerhouse. However, the other two points of this triangle don’t fade into the background.

No, Flower of Sulphur is noted for its equality, as YoshimiO partakes in a swell short free vocal workout and then an extended portion featuring cymbals and mallet/ wood percussion. Lowe’s presence is enhancing and right in the thick of things simultaneously. While much of the performance resists easy comparisons, the drum-synth opening of “Ccc” did bring Sun Ra briefly to mind, and a little later, some of the vocals made me think of June Tyson engaging in some interplanetary scat.

Overall, this set is loaded with moments worthy of description (which is to say, this review could be a LOT longer), but it seems right to maintain the potential for surprise; it suffices to say that “Ddd” serves as a satisfying culmination, all while evading expectations as to how it will transpire. Naturally, all four sections flow together well when listening to the download, but somewhat unexpectedly, they also work well in isolation. So, if you’re worried about the vinyl format compromising the experience, don’t be.

Perhaps some editing was involved, (which happens more than one might think on improv recordings), so that means if you’re one of those hardcore anti-editing improv purists, try to forget I said anything; hey, soaking up Ooido Syoujou’s superb cover art in full size should help. But any way it’s approached, Flower of Sulphur documents three inspired individuals meeting in NYC for one night to produce a free, layered document that’ll surely stand up to repeated listens for many years to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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