10. Mariel Roberts, Cartography (New Focus)
New York cellist Mariel Roberts is best known as a founding member of the adventurous Mivos Quartet, but she’s achieved her greatest feat thus far with the bracing solo recital Cartography, which consists of four works written specifically for her. The album opens with “Gretchen am Spinnrade” by Wet Ink Ensemble pianist Eric Wubbels, named after a lied by Franz Schubert that’s arguably the first art song; Wubbels’s piece bears little surface resemblance to Schubert’s, instead colliding and snapping apart its charged lines in an intense, electric dialogue. The record never quite recovers—if that’s the correct word—from the furious brilliance of “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” but the works that follow (by Cenk Ergün, George Lewis, and David Brynjar Franzson) are almost as rewarding and less draining. Roberts plays with a serrated tone and diamond-sharp precision when that’s called for, but she’s just as effective with ominous overtones and icy, ringing upper-register flurries (on Franzson’s “The Cartography of Time”) or percussive pizzicato passages that ping and pop (on Ergün’s electronics-saturated “Aman”). Her performances are dazzling technically, but the cellist isn’t just a virtuoso—she’s also a fearless explorer with a keen curatorial mind-set.
Denver pianist R. Andrew Lee has proved his mastery of hyperminimalism and durational music, and he tackles both on his recording of this three-and-a-half-hour opus by New York composer Randy Gibson. Like Ellen Arkbro (see below), Gibson is a disciple of minimalist icon La Monte Young, and he particularly shares the master’s interest in just intonation. That tuning system requires a piano to be thoroughly retuned, though, and because Lee wanted to be able to take Gibson’s piece on the road, the composer developed a technique whereby subtle amplification and electronics could achieve a similar effect without mucking endlessly with the strings. The Four Pillars uses only one note of the scale (albeit in all seven octaves of the keyboard), but its variety of rhythmic attacks—single tones separated by chasms of silence, for instance, or rapid tones that pile up overtones like billowing smoke—prevent it from growing tedious. The music stays in constant motion, exploring decay and harmony, and the closing movement, “Roaring,” digs into the piano’s bass register in a thrilling, thunderous climax.
Vancouver singer Julia Ulehla and her husband, adventurous jazz guitarist Aram Bajakian, collaborate with cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff to present sorrowful 19th- and 20th-century Moravian folk songs in a variety of styles: art-rock, folk, even archival recordings by the singer’s grandfather Jiri. (Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a biologist by trade, was also a passionate ethnographer who wrote a key book on the folk music of his region, which is the source of the songs on this remarkable album.) The arrangements are sometimes delicate, sometimes punishing, but the beauty of the songs always comes through powerfully. Ulehla careens, sails, and shimmers through the varied interpretations with penetrating strength—her singing is sometimes heavenly and ethereal, sometimes gruff and earthy, as though she were channeling the spirit of a hardscrabble village woman who’s known these songs her whole life.
Few computer musicians have developed an aesthetic as instantly recognizable as that of Ikue Mori, a Japanese expat who got her start in the late 70s playing crude but inimitably original drum parts in the great no-wave trio DNA. For most of the past few decades, however, she’s focused on electronics, developing a wonderfully liquid sound suggestive of chiming bells, chirping insects, and dripping water—a constant stream of shifting, globular tones. She’s used that approach in many improvisation-oriented contexts, including the prolific duo Phantom Orchard with harpist Zeena Parkins, but until recently she’s tended to stay inside her comfort zone in these collaborations. In 2017 Mori released two albums that pushed her out of that space: a duo with pianist Craig Taborn called Highsmith (Tzadik) and a tune-oriented quartet recording with cellist Okkyung Lee, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and drummer Jim Black called Obelisk. Both are excellent, but the latter really blew my mind. Mori’s laptop manipulations alternate between sinister and whimsical within arrangements that combine rhythmic ferocity, melodic whimsy, timbral surprise, and atmospheric ambiguity. The pieces include plenty of improvisation, but their relatively strong compositional frameworks bring out new dimensions of Mori’s creativity.
6. Ellen Arkbro, For Organ and Brass (Subtext)
Young Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro, known previously for her work in underground rock circles, claims as mentors Canadian composer Marc Sabat, minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, and Young’s wife, Marian Zazeela—and she’s surely made them proud with this beautiful, meditative album. On the album’s three pieces, she guides organist Johan Graden and Berlin-based brass ensemble Zinc & Copper through harrowing microtonal alleyways—because she wrote in meantone temperament, for the recording she found a 17th-century church organ in Tangermünde, Germany, that used that tuning system. The musicians move among a handful of sustained pitches, generating clouds of overtones that shimmer outward from tight note clusters. On “Three” the brass players operate on their own, foregrounding the interaction of French horn, tuba, and trombone—every subtle change in pitch creates thrilling collisions of sound, as if new instruments were produced by each combination. The writing is simple and mesmerizing, relying on a continuously cycling tone progression, but the way it’s orchestrated makes it feel timeless and profound.
Reedist Chris Speed’s trio with drummer Dave King and bassist Chris Tordini places his velvety tenor saxophone front and center, and the group’s second album, Platinum on Tap, feels like a major statement. The volatile rhythm section maintains an energetic swing even when it fractures time, forcing Speed to weave through the shards—and even at those moments, the reedist’s tone never loses its cool. His sound has never been more glorious—a kind of hazy pastel marbled with a serious grain, it’s both airy and substantive. Sometimes he almost seems to be playing from under a blanket, but instead of muffling him it creates extra intimacy. Speed wrote most of the music on the new album, but the two tunes by other people say just as much about him. When he dances through the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Stardust,” it’s as if he’s reinvented its melody, shrouding it in darkness. The other cover is a killer version of Albert Ayler’s “Spirits,” which Speed sprints through as though it were a bebop number—he departs from the composer’s gospel-steeped vibe in order to break the melody apart and reassemble it into a mosaiclike abstraction. Album opener “Red Hook Nights” is a tender ballad where Speed uses his elliptical, beautiful style to elaborate on the tune with luxurious patience. Even when the group turns up the heat, as on “Buffalo 15,” he hangs on to his chill approach, applying his horn to the roiling rhythms almost like a balm.
This French improvising quintet are responsible for one of the loveliest, most mysterious, and most peculiar releases of the year: a double album whose four side-length pieces employ a highly unusual set of instruments and develop with organic, unstudied ease. They recorded it in the Saint Pancrace Church in the tiny Alsatian village of Dangolsheim, and the church’s organ dominates all four pieces. The ensemble engage in a deliberate but obscure subversion of liturgical music, sprinkling their shape-shifting improvisations with Baroque violin, tin whistle, and uilleann pipes, often played in unconventional ways—and complemented by an arsenal of homemade and toy instruments. Despite a few traces of Baroque pastoralism, the group most often build richly textured, constantly evolving drones. During a lull in the second piece, the sound of children playing seems to seep into the church—and into the improvisation—but generally the musicians create such serendipity themselves, adding new colors, harmonies, and rhythmic eddies as though they’re just as spellbound by the possibilities of their many instruments as we might be. They seem totally, precisely in control of their choices and simultaneously unbound and spontaneous. I hesitate to guess whether this group can bottle this lightning again—Pancrace could be an ephemeral, in situ musical miracle. In either case, it’s the kind of thing most ensembles spend their entire careers trying to achieve.
3. Circuit des Yeux, Reaching for Indigo (Drag City)
Chicago vocalist Haley Fohr has matured in leaps and bounds since the release of her breakthrough album, 2015’s In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey), but nothing could have prepared me for 2017’s Reaching for Indigo (Drag City). Early on, Fohr convinced me that she had lots of ideas, but she also seemed to struggle to choose a destination or a path to get there. Now she’s in full command of her talents as a songwriter, singer, and arranger, having forged an approach that reconciles several of her abiding loves: art-song experimentation, expansive folk, and psychedelia. Produced by Fohr and Cooper Crain of Bitchin Bajas, Reaching for Indigo frames her arresting voice brilliantly—her authoritative lower register becomes a howling operatic force on “Black Fly,” and on “Paper Bag” she uses the top end of her range to shape minimalist patterns that evoke classic Philip Glass. Fohr clearly takes inspiration from the likes of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, and Nico (whose Chelsea Girl she covered at a concert in October), but her new album isn’t derivative. Album opener “Brainshift” is a delicate, hymnlike meditation that aims to convey the feeling of a sudden, all-encompassing transformation with the help of a swell of massive brass by trombonist Nick Broste. On the galloping “A Story of This World Part II,” Fohr flings herself into some of her most daring vocal experiments so far, mixing wordless howls and melismatic whoops with a focus and precision missing from her earlier work. As exciting as I find what she’s done on Reaching for Indigo, I’m looking forward to the next album even more.
Tenor saxophonist JD Allen threw a couple of wrenches into his process when he made Radio Flyer. Not only did he enlist inventive guitarist Liberty Ellman (also of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid) to augment his long-running trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, he also wrote the album’s seven originals as loose-limbed modal vehicles free of chord changes (a la Ornette Coleman), presenting them to the musicians in the studio with little time for rehearsal. After so many years working together, Allen, August, and Royston have practically wired their minds together, and they hit their stride in every tune; Ellman follows suit, providing extra tang and harmonic fog. In the album’s liner notes, Allen explains his artistic choices as a reaction to the political moment: “This is not a time of structure—it’s a time for all of us to use our wits and figure out how to cope and then to build new structures.” Radio Flyer illustrates Allen’s investment in tradition and devotion to exploration more clearly than anything he’s done yet. Ellman is the perfect foil, sometimes stating the melodies in loose unison with Allen, sometimes playing against him, but never reverting to predictable chordal comping. On the title piece, Ellman initially uses effects to give his tone a washed-out feel, so that it seems to puddle around August and Royston’s probing rhythms; then he switches to another pedal for a jarring harmonized sound, creating an ambiguity that Allen’s Coleman-esque phrases have to power through. While Allen’s earlier trio records give you the sense that every element is precisely where it should be, this one seems to ask why anything should be as it is—the results aren’t vague or tentative, but instead push against your attention, demanding engagement.
British singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Dawson is a brilliant improviser, capable of playing jagged, astringent lines worthy of Derek Bailey. But he’s also fascinated by British folk traditions, drawing on them for his epic original songs—which he belts out in a soulful, spellbinding voice that’s as earnest as it is imperfect. On Dawson’s previous records, as good as they are, those two seemingly incompatible approaches have collided only occasionally, but on the new Peasant he goes all-in, fusing them with a cohesion he’d only hinted at before. He packs his ebullient, unkempt folk-rock tunes with fanciful phrases and bizarre imagery, helped along by colorful harmonies from harpist Rhodri Davies, violinist Angharad Davies, horn player John Davies, and a raucous chorus. Dawson draws on folkloric language but adds a biting sense of humor: he opens “Weaver” with the lines “I steep the wool in a cauldron / Of pummeled gall-nuts afloat in urine / And river water thrice-boiled with a bloodstone.” No matter how absurd his language gets, though, Dawson sells it with his voice—he’s never been more precise and emotive, keeping a tight rein on his outsize howl but leaving in the wrinkles that make him sound so richly human. His music already stood apart from almost everything else I’ve heard, and on this masterpiece he matches the vivid originality of his imagination with the expertise of his arrangements and performances.
Marc-André Hamelin, Morton Feldman: For Bunita Marcus (Hyperion)
Arek Gulbenkoglu, Three Days Afterwards (Penultimate Press)
György Kurtág, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM)
Bellows, Strand (Shelter Press)
Arca, Arca (XL)