Graded on a Curve:
Eight from 577 Records

Tagging 577 Records as a free jazz label frankly short shrifts the enterprise run by saxophonist Daniel Carter and drummer Federico Ughi. While improvisation is vital to 577’s state of affairs, creative branching out is frequent, as evidenced by recent releases from Matthew Putman and Michael Sarian, the Cyclone Trio, TEST and Roy Campbell, Cooper-Moore & Stephen Gauci, Rachel Musson, SHIFA, Sarah Bernstein, and the Telepathic Band, all considered below. Diligent in making the music promptly available, all of 577’s wares are purchasable digitally, exclusively so with their sublabel Orbit577, as others get limited vinyl and CD editions. Bernstein’s Exolinger arrives November 6; the rest are out now.

Matthew Putman and Michael Sarian’s Improvisations Vol. II is the first of two Orbit577 releases covered in this piece, recorded in July of this year at Studio Hicks in Brooklyn. Keyboardist (and noted scientist) Putman has played on more than a half-dozen 577 releases including four from the Telepathic Band (reviewed below), but never in duo until now. The results, three selections totaling a little over 17 minutes, are enlightening, as he partners with trumpeter and fellow New Yorker (by way of Argentina and Canada) Sarian, who has released a handful of albums leading considerably larger bands.

As the timeframe and locale should indicate, this is a Covid-19-era recording (Vol. I, cut a month earlier, has been issued digitally on Bandcamp by the ears&eyes label), with the specific intent to keep the creative juices flowing during quarantine (Studio Hicks is in fact the trumpeter’s home). It delivers my introduction to Sarian’s playing, which is often warmly lyrical, a characteristic mingling with the bell-like tones of Putman’s electric keyboard to suggest a pair a really strong players cutting loose in a near-empty lounge shortly before last call. Their interaction gets intense, but beauty is a constant. A-

Cyclone Trio is tenor saxophonist Massimo Magee, drummer Tony Irving, and drummer Tim Green. Earlier this year, 577 released Magee and Irving’s outstanding Vitriol & the Third Oraculum, a nearly 50-minute dive into post-Fire Music thunder and skronk, with moments bringing Albert Ayler and Charles Gayle to mind, as it extended from the template established by Interstellar Space and Duo Exchange, both essential documents in the free jazz trajectory.

The addition of Green (previously heard with Magee and Joshua Weitzel on the Orbit577 release Live at Salon Villa Plagwitz) to Cataclysm… Live at Cafe Oto (recorded on March 10 of this year, the last gig at Cafe Oto prior to lockdown) naturally increases the expressive rumble, but Magee’s lung scorch surfs atop the fray with fervor and poise; at no point in the nearly 40 minutes is he audibly straining, and there are even a few stretches of melodicism that only increase similarities to the heyday of Impulse, ESP, and BYG/Actuel. And yet, Cataclysm isn’t beholden to the past as it blazes a trail for the future. A-

TEST and trumpeter Roy Campbell’s eponymous effort for 577, currently available on CD in its second edition (200 copies), differs from the label’s norm in that it is an archival release, specifically of a 1999 performance held in The Hint House loft of the No-Neck Blues Band, with the occasion a benefit in aid of repairing NNCK’s van. Along with TEST and Campbell, the participants included John Fahey, Lee Ranaldo, and NNCK themselves.

The well-intentioned nature of benefits often results in folks sharing the stage for the first time, and to pleasant but modest result. Although this recording documents the only known performance of TEST with Campbell, the contents are vibrant and gripping through familiarity. As the notes by Matt Mottel (who also recorded the music) illuminate, TEST, which is multi-horn men Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter, bassist Matthew Heyner (also of NNCK) and drummer Tom Bruno, were a working band, often playing outdoors and in the subway of NYC.

It should also be noted that Carter and Campbell played together in the exquisite leaderless quartet Other Dimensions in Music, and furthermore, that the collectively improvised free jazz they play is a discipline, the result of practice, alone and together, and of cultivated relationships and understandings. And then, the spark of spontaneity, with the music heard on this CD the end goal. It is ecstatic, immersive and inspiring over 20 years later. A+

Cooper-Moore & Stephen Gauci’s Conversations Vol. 1 is the first of a two-part vinyl installment of the pair’s session from October of 2019 at Sear Sound studio in NYC, which was itself a byproduct of a seven-month residency held at the Happylucky No.1 Gallery in Brooklyn. It further underscores the power of improvisation as elevated dialogue through Cooper-Moore’s piano and Gauci’s tenor sax, with tangles of rough and wild brilliancy interspersed with passages of relative calm and jazz-taggable introspection.

Cooper-Moore has been on the NYC scene since the 1970s (as Greg Ashton, he played on Alan Braufman’s recently reissued loft-jazz classic Valley of Search), while Gauci first hit the city around the turn of the century. In terms of energy, there is no trace of the generational divide. Right away, Gauci is squawking up a storm as Cooper-Moore’s note repetition suggests an album he might’ve cut way back in the ’70s for the Chatham Square label. Elsewhere, he explores pre-bop jazz piano models, as well as Cecil Taylor. Gauci’s sheer force is reminiscent of Charles Gayle, but his tenderness is distinctive. A-

Rachel Musson’s CD I Went This Way finds the London-based tenor saxophonist unveiling her own compositions, which feature eight musicians (including Musson), plus the voice of Debbie Sanders, as spoken text figures prominently in the scheme. The words are Musson’s however, and as they relate to improvisation and reflect upon her process of making music, the result differs from the possible expectations one might have regarding the combination of jazz and text.

To elaborate, as Musson utilizes a semi-notated score, I Went This Way isn’t a deep dive into spontaneity with accompanying word flow, but instead has something of a chamber-jazz feel, as the lineup, captured live at Cafe Oto, includes violin (Sarah Farmer), viola (Richard Scott), and cello (Hannah Marshall), along with bass and drums (Chris Mapp and Mark Sanders, respectively), two tenor saxes (Musson and Xhosa Cole) flute (Cole) and alto (Lee Griffiths).

Right from the “Start” Musson’s method gets sweetly established, but it is the final two selections, “For Pauline” and “A Note,” that drive matters home, totaling over half of a nearly 80-minute runtime. The playing is uniformly sharp (including Cole’s fluting, some of the best I’ve heard in a while) as Sanders’ reading hits an appealing mid-way point between verbal precision and emotional thrust, but maybe what’s most impressive is how I Went This Way never feels like a exercise in creative overstatement. That is, while rigorous in excursion, nothing registers as extraneous. And the tenor sparks do fly. A

SHIFA features Musson and Sanders with pianist Pat Thomas, so if tenor sparks are what you desire, Live In Oslo is a sonic feast at 34 minutes, available on vinyl and compact disc. On one hand, this set, which follows SHIFA’s 2019 LP Live at Cafe Oto as the trio’s sophomore effort (captured at Sweden’s annual Blow Out Festival), is another dose of advanced free improv with moments of exquisite full boil, but the playing also holds more contemplative moments, plus a stretch of riveting tension from Sanders and Thomas. When Musson reenters the conversation, the sparking and the simmering are plentiful. A-

Sarah Bernstein is a violinist, a composer and improvisor, and a poet. Last year, 577 issued Broken Life, her fantastic duo record with drummer Kid Millions (of Man Forever), their second collaboration following 2017’s Tense Life. It made my list of 2019’s best new releases. Exolinger captures Bernstein in truly solo mode on violin, voice and electronic effects, all recorded live in January of 2020 at Seer Sound, save for vocals on two tracks, “Tree” and “We Coast,” which were added later, while in quarantine.

Notably, the title of the CD is also Bernstein’s solo performance handle, which establishes that’s she’s been honing this method of simultaneous violin (often distorted), wordless vocalizations, spoken texts, and electronic textures for a while now, experience that has no doubt sharpened the impact of an undeniably experimental endeavor. At times, Exolinger dishes racket that should be downright pleasing to denizens of the noise music underground, but the vocals lend distinction, and the palpable undercurrent of control drives home that it’s all the byproduct of Bernstein’s imagination. A-

Telepathic Band is a moniker of shorthand, and multifacetedly so, as that specific name doesn’t appear on Telepathic Mysteries Vol. 1, or on any of their prior records, for that matter. The music is created by Daniel Carter, here on saxophones, clarinet and trumpet, Patrick Holmes on clarinet, Matthew Putman on piano and keyboard, Hilliard Greene on bass, and Federico Ughi on drums. Obviously, the Telepathic Band is a handle of concision, especially after cutting four albums as an improvising quintet.

But the adjective telepathic, or telepathy, or the Italian word Telepatia, does figure in the title of every release from this unit thus far, which gets to the heightened nature of this relationship.  It’s a circumstance of familiarity traveling to the border of intuition, and in that regard is similar to what transpired at the Hint House with TEST and Roy Campbell back in 1999. And yet, in the hearing, the music, cut in May of 2019 and released now on vinyl and CD, is quite different.

Telepathic Mysteries Vol. 1 offers stretches that register as serene, and at a few points even get to the border of meditative, a quality that’s well-represented by the photograph on its cover. This is not to suggest that the improvising isn’t robust, or that there aren’t passages of forceful interaction, as opener “Nun Zero” effectively establishes the verve of the undertaking. But more prominent throughout is a sense of peacefulness from this collective that is therapeutic in a year that feels like perpetual war. The Telepathic Band’s latest is healing music: for the participants and for the listener, now and forever. A

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