Essential New Music: Decoy With Joe McPhee’s “AC/DC”

Photo by Dawid Laskowski

AC/DC has performed “Back In Black” many times, but Joe McPhee, who was born before any of those guys were, is back, black and looking quite fine in any classic-rock T-shirt that he pleases. On May 10, 2019, just six months before his 80th birthday, his chosen attire happened to be an AC/DC shirt, but it also said “Iron Man,” and you can be quite sure that he had the legacy of Eric Dolphy in mind when he picked it out. 

Like Dolphy, McPhee brings a variety of horns to any gig; for this one, it was a pocket trumpet and a tenor saxophone. And like Dolphy, he plays them fluently, wildly and lyrically enough to sing along with the birds. While no winged creatures joined him onstage at London’s Café Oto that night, Hammond organist Alex Hawkins represents their voices quite persuasively at several points during the two complete sets reproduced on this marvelous album.

Hawkins opens “AC” with insistent, pecking notes while McPhee, bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble loft streams of sound dense enough to baffle ground control’s radar in broad, banking arcs around the organist’s ground zero. But because flight means that you don’t stay in one place for long, they barnstorm through a quick history of jazz and its sibling sounds, taking in muscular modal bop, starburst free-form interludes and unabashedly swaggering blues. Like Dolphy’s Iron Man, this music makes no apologies for its ambition, erudition and passion. And like AC/DC, it kicks ass. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: 3 Musketiere’s “Abflug”

There are plenty of reasons why the Ex has been characterized as a punk band. There’s the group’s roots in Amsterdam’s squatter’s scene, which provided shelter and opportunity to many a punk; its uncompromising independent ways of working (which are guided by never-coopted politics); like the Ramones, the band members went by first names; and the rawness of the band’s sound. But given the breadth of the Ex’s music, the label was inadequate even at the best of times. When the group needed a new drummer at the end of 1984, they did make it a priority to find another woman. But they turned down one who had developed her chops playing with the circus and another who was a hardcore punk. Instead they picked Katherina Bornefeld, whose idiosyncratic but utterly solid playing provided an ideal platform for trying anything they wanted to try, then and today. 

3 Musketiere is the band that Kat played in before she moved to Amsterdam and joined the Ex three and a half decades ago. Her wide-open, nondoctrinaire approach to music is already on display on Abflug. The album revives the eight songs that comprised the trio’s one release, an edition-of-30 cassette recorded with borrowed gear in their practice space in Stuttgart, Germany. Kat drummed and sang, and her German-language vocals articulated punk-congruent, anti-establishment sentiments. But her drumming is more varied, already evidencing the array of colors and inclination to repeat long phrases instead of simply keep a beat that she brings to the Ex to this day.

The band’s lineup also pushes back against any sort of loud, fast rules. Not only did the trio comprise an electric bass and a violin, the violinist was Kat’s mom. The main reference point for their instrumental sound would be pre-C&W Mekons, but Kat’s clarion singing, which gives as much voice to exultation as defiance, already sounds like no one else’s.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Califone’s “Echo Mine”

Echo Mine constitutes a new partnership, a farewell and a reunion. It’s the name for a dance choreographed and performed by Robyn Mineko Williams in remembrance of Claire Bataille, who was a founder of Chicago’s Hubbard Street dance troupe. Originally, it was going to be a collaboration between Bataille and Williams (her former student), but Bataille was diagnosed with cancer early in the piece’s development. After she died, Williams completed a work intended to honor the artist who had mentored a generation of modern dancers. 

Williams tapped Tim Rutili—the sole constant member of long-lived, occasionally Chicago-based combo Califone—to score the dance. Rutili formed Califone in 1997 from the detritus of Red Red Meat, and he has always understood it to be flexibly composed, allowing him to collaborate with different musicians. But some of those folks stuck around for years at a stretch, and the partings weren’t always smooth. He made the music to accompany Echo Mine with percussionist Ben Massarella and engineer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Brian Deck. Both men were in RRM, and together they fashioned the first Califone LP, Roomsound. But each has also spent years away from the project.

While the returnees’ presence likely gives old fans a warm feeling inside, the sound of Echo Mine is not so much a wander down memory lane as it is an attempt to use shared tools to pave new road. As usual, Rutili’s rasping voice, slithering slide guitar and opaque-yet-resonant lyrics are constants. And Massarella’s instincts for finding just the right vivid textures and constructing creative, functional rhythms can always be relied upon to enrich the music, making the familiar seem novel in reassuringly familiar ways.

But Deck is professional recordist who’s in a milieu that conspires to make his skills and craft redundant. So while you can hear a Crazy Horse-like gesture here and a Basement Tapes-meets-Remain In Light moment there, you’ll also hear vocal treatments and a malleable sense of space that reflects a handiness with contemporary tools. This is especially evident during the instrumental passages, which are way too propulsive to be characterized as ambient music, but are just as focused on the treatment of sound itself as material. Echo Mine may be assembled from guitars, hand drums and drum machines, but it feels like the synthesis of groove and light. And it’ll get you in the gut when both elements fade near the album’s end. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Large Unit Fendika’s “Ethiobraz”

One quality that Paal Nilssen-Love has sustained across decades of work in improvised music is transparency. No matter who he plays with and regardless of the presence or absence of pre-arranged structures, his musical ideas are absolutely clear. This transparency is a foundational virtue of Ethiobraz. 

The Norwegian-born drummer has been visiting Ethiopia for more than a decade and Brazil since 2013, and the influence of both nations’ rich musical heritages is clear in his playing. Those years correspond with Nilssen-Love’s shift from being the drummer to play with if you want to be tested by the best into a bandleader in his own right. He’s devoted considerable time and resources to Large Unit, a big band composed of (mostly) younger Scandinavian jazz musicians, touring it around the world in a time when most ensembles that size are doing pretty well if they can hold down a monthly gig in a single town. 

Recorded live at the Molde Jazz Festival in July 2018, Ethiobraz documents the moment when Nilssen-Love put it all together and brought it all back home. For one night, the Large Unit was augmented by a pair of Brazilian percussionists, Ethiopian traditional song-and-dance troupe Fendika and guitarist Terrie Ex, and transformed into a gloriously unbridled dance party.

The task of getting musicians from three continents and disparate musical traditions to work cohesively is daunting, but Large Unit’s exuberant horns keep their footing atop the tri-continental grooves and make space to clearly hear Ethiopian stringed instruments best suited to intimate cabaret performances. Brief, fiery solos pepper the tunes, turning the heat up by degrees, affirming the Unit’s roots in free jazz. Ex’s guitar playing performs a double function; his deep background in playing Ethiopian music helps keep certain songs on the rails, but his gleefully chaotic solos fuel the wildest moments. Special credit goes to singer Nardos Tesfaye, who soulful delivery transcends the language barrier. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: En Attendant Ana’s “Juillet”

Is any topic better suited to being rendered in a non-native language than love? You want to make yourself clear, but you can’t quite get through. Did you really hear what you just thought you heard? You like the sound of that voice, but what it’s saying doesn’t seem to mean what it’s saying. 

En Attendant Ana (“waiting for Ana”) is a Parisian quintet, but vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Margaux Bouchaudon sings all 10 of the songs on Juillet (“July”) in English. She’s certainly more skilled with the language than, say, the president of the United States. But misunderstanding remains the topic of many of these tracks, because hey, they’re about young love—and can you really make sense of things when desire takes over? Even when Bouchaudon delivers her lines with absolute confidence, there are still moments when the words might make you scratch your head. Hopefully you can do that and tap your foot at the same time, because there’s no denying the band’s musical fluency.

The melodies that get passed between Bouchaudon’s voice and Camille Fréchou’s trumpet ride cresting waves of trebly electric guitar and crisp, unstoppable rhythms. A name-dropping record collector might suggest that En Attendant Ana sounds a bit like mid-’90s Cannanes fronting late-’80s Stephen (David Kilgour’s combo between episodes of the Clean), but it’s also possible that Bouchaudon and Co. have never heard those bands and they’ve just tapped into the same vein of pop gold. 

—Bill Meyer