Graded on a Curve: Five from Pyroclastic Records

Pyroclastic Records is on a tear. The label founded in 2016 by pianist-composer Kris Davis can perhaps be described as oriented toward contemporary progressive jazz, but as the music reviewed below by Cory Smythe, Eric Revis, Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell, Nate Wooley, and Junk Magic reveal, that assessment is, to varying degrees, limiting. What’s crystal clear is that Pyroclastic is an artist-focused label, and that this column is an early spotlight on some of the best recordings of 2020. All five are out now on CD with design and layout of unusually high quality.

Cory Smythe is a pianist of extensive experience, having played with Anthony Braxton, Ingrid Laubrock, Peter Evans, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Nate Wooley, and Hilary Hahn; with her, he won a GRAMMY in 2015 for the album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. That achievement reinforces Smythe’s abilities in the classical field, but with Accelerate Every Voice he combines elements of jazz with the fascinating and often hallucinatory contributions of five vocalists recruited from the a cappella, new music, and improv scenes.

There is also a lengthy dive into environmental New Age, but that piece, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation” (inspired by a work by Annea Lockwood), closes the record, and in this case, it’s surely better to start at the beginning. A tip-off to Smythe’s conceptual foundation here is found in the CD’s title, which references Andrew Hill’s splendid choral-infused LP of 1970, Lift Every Voice, and by extension, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-song that’s been long-known as the Black National Anthem.

The singing at times recalls straight a cappella action with direct ties to the Yale Whiffenpoofs channeling the brilliance of Shelley Hirsch, is at other moments like a mashup of the Gyuto Monks and the Swingle Singers, and in a few spots is similar to a pitch-shifted and speed-manipulated blend of scat-singing and speaking in tongues. Absorbed in combo with Smythe’s piano and electronics, the whole is definitely post-category, and with an added dimension of social commentary. Fuck, yeah. A

Eric RevisSlipknots Through the Looking Glass is far more easily definable as a jazz excursion, though that’s not to imply that the bassist’s eighth album as leader is a lesser experience than the more stylistically exploratory releases in this roundup. In fact, it’s necessary to stress that Revis is engaged with some boundary pushing of his own across the record’s 11 tracks (totaling just a smidge over 57 minutes). Opener “Baby Renfro” finds the band laying down some R&B-derived groove-heat, “SpÆ” exudes the aura of minimalism (think Reich), and “Shutter” is a flat-out jazz-rocker.

Yes, the band. Along with Revis’ robust lines, there is Kris Davis on piano, Bill McHenry on tenor sax, Darius Jones on alto, Chad Taylor on drums and mbira, and on two tracks, Justin Faulkner with additional drums. Unsurprisingly, the playing is superb, but it feels more appropriate to emphasize Revis’ compositional skills, as the record wields considerable depth in tandem with the aforementioned jazz range.

Save for “Shutter,” which is credited to Jones, and the Mingus-shaded “When I Become Nothing” from McHenry, all the pieces are his; “SpÆ” is a co-write with Davis and Taylor. The tunes are often as strong as Revis’ tone on bass, but the music is also flush with knowledge and nimble, as “Earl & The Three-Fifths Compromise” is a ’60s Blue Note-style crowd-pleaser without sounding like a throwback. Later, “Vimen” navigates toward outside realms while avoiding the schizophrenic. Which is fitting for a guy who won a GRAMMY with Branford Marsalis who’s also played with Peter Brötzmann. A

Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell How to Turn the Moon is an engaging disc of piano duets, with Sanchez heard in the left channel and Crispell in the right. Although this sort of four-handed endeavor is more often heard in the classical realm, this is in fact the second example of such in Pyroclastic’s still tidy discography; Octopus from Kris Davis and Craig Taborn came out back in 2018 as the label’s second release.

In Bradley Bambarger’s liner notes, Sanchez is quoted explaining the difficulty of leaving enough space in the music when undertaking a two-piano situation. Put another way, there is a danger of thunderous ivories bursting into a stampede of 88 tuned drums. A danger? Yes, that scenario might sound quite enticing, but the reality is that Sanchez and Crispell could’ve managed that feat on their own. Unless you have more ideas up your collective sleeve, doubling up and then merely throwing down risks overkill.

The energy level does get rather high at times, so worry not, though as related by How to Turn the Moon’s statement of purpose (“two pianos, kindred spirits”), it’s always in service of elevated interaction. The channel separation enriches the overall experience, especially when heard through headphones, and particularly during the warm melodicism that commences “Calyces of Held.” There’s also some inside the piano action in “Ancient Dream” that can momentarily register as a tandem of autoharp (or dulcimer) and percussion. Altogether, Sanchez and Crispell’s dialogues are sublime. A

Nate Wooley is one of the contemporary music’s true groundbreakers on the trumpet. And so, that he’s adept at extended techniques should be no surprise, but what has struck me as consistent across the releases featuring Wooley (his own and numerous collaborations) that I’ve heard is how his plays in service of a broader musical objective, rather than mere spectacle or musical athleticism. Still, it should be acknowledged that here and elsewhere in his work, Wooley is pushing to redefine the limitations of his instrument.

What’s vital is the avoidance of ego flexing in opening up new possibilities. Nowhere in my experience is this more apparent than on Seven Storey Mountain VI, partly because he is one element in a large ensemble that’s undertaking an objective of enormity, specifically a 45-minute piece incorporating amplified trumpet, the violins of Samara Lubelski and C. Spencer Yeh, the drums of Chris Corsano, Ben Hall, and Ryan Sawyer, the pedal steel of Susan Alcorn, the electric guitars of Julien Desprez and Ava Mendoza, and the keyboards of Isabelle O’Connell and Emily Manzo.

There is also a choir of 21 women led by Megan Schubert singing the words to Peggy Seeger’s “Reclaim the Night.” Succinctly, Seven Storey Mountain VI is a work protesting the acts of rape, murder, the denial of autonomy and the cultivation of fear, with this social aspect elevated by ensemble playing of uncommon power, including choral humming at the start, a stretch reminiscent of Terry Riley, and a liftoff bringing to mind Xenakis conducting Sonic Youth in jet engine mode. This eventually gives way to the choir and Seeger’s words, and with the intensity undiminished. An amazing, inspiring triumph. A+

Junk Magic was initially the title of a 2004 album by Craig Taborn, but since then has been converted into the name representing the pianist-composer’s blend of electronic textures and enhanced production techniques with elements of improvisation. Along with Taborn’s piano, keyboards and synth, new album Compass Confusion features Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Mat Maneri on viola, Erik Fratzke on bass, and David King on acoustic and electronic drums.

Taborn’s Junk Magic CD was released as part of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series, a long-running initiative that strove to shake up matters in the 2st century by placing avant jazz masters on the same plateau (and sometimes in collaboration) with progressive electronic and hip-hop aces; the catalog includes contributions from William Parker, DJ Spooky, Matthew Shipp, Spring Heel Jack, Roy Campbell, Antipop Consortium, David S. Ware, El-P, Tim Berne, Beans, and Pyroclastic’s founder Kris Davis with her 2013 disc Massive Threads.

All this background situates Taborn as part of a shared impulse, as Compass Confusion emerges in 2020 in close proximity to another electronic-oriented release from a musician predominantly affiliated with jazz, Signs by Gerald Cleaver, a noted collaborator of Taborn’s. The main difference is that Signs is a truly solo venture, while Compass Confusion is a group effort in spitting out sparks of beautiful individualism, but still firmly Taborn’s vision.

Everyone’s playing is sharp, especially Maneri and Speed (in “Sargasso” they stir up thoughts of Mancini and Ornette), but the record’s biggest positive is the blend of electronic textures, from flashes of electro and various earlier eras of hip-hop to rhythmic stutter and glitch reminiscent of John Oswald and David Linton to sheer heavy rock explosiveness. A-

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