Free improvisation—and relatedly, solo performance—is one of those genres that’s both self-explanatory and defies classification. As you can imagine, the setup is pretty simple: one or more musicians performing improvised or composed music, to varying degrees. Yet, our understanding of most genres is defined by multiple musical motifs and instrumentation coming together to establish a distinct, purposeful sound. So while free improvisation and solo performances are usually lumped in with either free jazz or modern classical depending on their melodic sensibilities, the style is truly an art form all its own; a distinct form of expression outside of standard genre parameters. Whether completely improvised, partially pre-determined or entirely composed, the work of solo performers or small groups has produced some truly exceptional and sound-bending music. Trost Records alone has released two future classics in the past few years with Melt from Brian Chippendale, Mats Gustafsson and Massimo Pupillo in 2016 and Sex Tape from Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh last year. The style is off to another great start in January, with two albums and a lead single painting an enticing picture of what inventive players and their instruments of choice will accomplish this year. If the following pieces are any indication, 2018 is going to be yet another fantastic year for new, experimental music.
Lea Bertucci – “Patterns For Alto” from Metal Aether (solo alto saxophone, electroacoustic, modern classical)
Metal Aether has been one of my most anticipated releases of the year since it was announced last December. Burlington, VT-based experimental music label NNA Tapes has consistently added exciting young talent to a roster of unique and forward-thinking musicians, and NYC-based composer/reedist Lea Bertucci is no exception. I first discovered Bertucci while browsing for vinyl at Bull Moose in downtown Portland, ME. Her collaboration with cellist Leila Bordreuil, L’Onde Souterraine, caught my eye with its gorgeous artwork, and the blind purchase paid off when I hear Bertucci’s excellent improvisations for bass clarinet. What’s most impressive about Bertucci’s playing is her mastery of organic amplification and extended techniques; she produces electroacoustic music with the electronics, conjuring patterns, drones and choruses of her own natural volition.
Though Metal Aether includes manipulated tapes of prepared piano and vibraphone, the core of the album revolves around Bertucci’s mastery of the versatile and commanding alto sax. I debated waiting to cover the album when it releases in February, but I just had to jot my thoughts down after hearing “Patterns for Alto,” yet another prime example of why Bertucci is such an exciting young composer and performer. She unleashes the power of a quartet with a combination of overtones, microtones and psychoacoustic effects, using the recording space as an additional instrument that absorbs and cascades sound down on her from all angles. The effect comparable to the music of tenor sax quartet Battle Trance, except Bertucci is the sole guide of her compositions, evolving her vision from short melodic bursts to grandiose, crashing sheets of notes. And to think, “Patterns for Alto” is just a taste of what Metal Aether will have to offer; a primer alluding to greater things to come.
Thomas Johansson – Home Alone (solo trumpet/flugelhorn)
The mark of a truly great improviser is their ability to spontaneously create music that feels composed and meaningful. After all, improvisation as both an element of jazz and a style all its own is meant to extrapolate art from existing musical prowess. Home Alone is not only a shining example of this, but also a self-reminder for me to keep a close eye on Thomas Johansson‘s career moving forward. The Norwegian trumpeter has actually played on some albums I’ve enjoyed over the past few years, namely Satan In Plain Clothes by All Included. With an experimental focus accented by bop phrasing and energy, Johansson’s playing is refreshing and particularly sharp and vibrant on Home Alone.
Each of the ten improvisations on the album shows Johansson’s dexterity and inventiveness. He alternates between punchy burst, looping patterns and elongated passages reminiscent of modal jazz, all tied together in impressively complete songs. What’s perhaps most impressive about Home Alone is how individualistic each track feels; whereas some free improv albums blend together, each song sees Johansson bringing fresh ideas to the table and remaining consistently engaging throughout. He may have already proven himself as an asset in an ensemble setting, but Johansson demonstrates his own individual talents on an album that’s just as fresh as exciting as his work in larger settings.
Josh Sinton – Krasa (solo contrabass clarinet, electroacoustic)
One of the most fascinating developments in modern music is the way in which musicians have contorted and extrapolated the sound of their instruments. Particularly in experimental jazz and classical, composers and performers have found a myriad of ways to create entirely new sonic landscapes with centuries-old instruments; it’s hard to imagine early tuba and baritone sax players could imagine the brass and woodwinds being played the way they are on an album like Colin Webster‘s Melt, let alone with the addition of turntables and added effects. This level of sonic exploration is on full display the moment Josh Sinton opens up Krasa with furious, abrasive bursts of contrabass clarinet. Fun fact: my parents wouldn’t let play sax in the school band unless I started out on clarinet, and I said no because I thought the clarinet was lame. If 10-year-old me had heard Krasa, he would have swiftly changed his mind (after the initial shock and awe).
What’s truly incredible about Krasa are the tools at Sinton’s disposal; with just a metal contrabass clarinet and a small arsenal of electronics, he unleashes a torrent of bestial bursts that sound more like distorted walls of beefy guitars. The effect is alluring and all-encompassing, like staring straight into the jowls of the abyss. The fact this Krasa recorded in two long takes speaks further to the power of unbridled, endlessly inventive free improvisation. With no overdubs or studio trickery, Krasa is truly a manifestation of Sinton’s creativity and a testament to how far musicians can go when they let their ambitions fly free. Krasa is easily the most challenging piece of music of this batch of recommendations, but it’s worth diving into for listeners with an adventurous spirit.