The Far-Out Jazz of Angelika Niescier

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THE BERLIN CONCERT / NIESCIER: Kundry. Like Sheep, Looking Up. 5.8. The Surge / Angelika Niescier, a-sax; Christopher Tordini, bs; Tyshawn Sorey, dm / Intakt CD 305 (live: Berlin, November 3, 2017)

This CD is a blast from the past in many ways, particularly the late 1960s when such avant-garde saxists as Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, late John Coltrane and Joseph Jarman ruled the roost. I never cared much for Ayler (too fragmented in his musical thinking and undisciplined in his improvisations for me), but early Sanders was very interesting and Coltrane, before he went off the deep end, was fascinating.

NiescierNiescier has much the same kind of fascination in her musical construction and improvisations as Coltrane and Sanders (who, when he first appeared, was hailed as “the greatest tenor sax player in the world” by Ornette Coleman). She comes at you from the very start of Kundry like a freight train, exploding with what sounds at first like a free-form bevy of notes, but as the music continues you begin to realize that there is a method to her “madness.” YOU may not know where she is going or what she’s doing, but SHE knows, and eventually the maelstrom of notes clears up, straightens out, and we reach the melodic construction of the tune at about the 7:30 mark, by which point bassist Tordini and drummer Sorey begin exploding themselves, eventually reaching a very rhythmically complex bass-drum duet (and then a drum solo) of fascinating proportions. More importantly, they swing, which is something you cannot say of all European jazz musicians, even today.

Indeed, as the track evolves, one hears Tordini playing in harmony to Niescier’s melodic line, and when she begins to deconstruct her own melody he plays fascinating counterpoint in the manner of Charlie Haden in the old Coleman quartet. Like Sheep, Looking Up opens with the bassist playing very high bowed notes on his instrument and Niescier playing long, distorted notes on the saxophone. This almost sounds like an extempore composition, made up on the spot based on a few sparse notes and ideas, with Sorey using cymbal washes and what sounds like mallets on his bass drum. At 5:57, however, the music picks up more of a regular pulse as Niescier moves into a more melodic line, albeit still with occasional distorted notes, later adding 16th-note flurries. Yet the extempore nature of the music continues. This is truly an imaginative piece that holds your attention, even when things sound fragmented, because it’s always going somewhere interesting.

The piece titled 5.8 is exactly that, music written in 5/8 time. It has an almost Latin feel to the rhythm, and here Niescier is a bit more lyrical and less experimental, at least in the opening. Very soon, however, she is playing incredibly varied figures above the main beat, stretching things out in new directions. Her playing again becomes increasingly complex in an atonal sort of way as well as emotionally powerful and inventive before suddenly getting quiet at the five-minute mark, a lull in which she plays repeated fluttering, serrated figures on the alto, then drops out entirely as the tempo relaxes for a bass solo of great imagination. Following this, Tordini and Niescier again play in imaginative counterpoint, the bassist here leading the saxist, before the piece suddenly ends.

The final piece, The Surge, is exactly what you would expect from the title, wild, imaginative music based on serrated figures played by the leader with the rhythm section falling in behind her. She then varies the rhythm subtly, shifting meter and stress beats around in an interesting fashion, before exploding in flurries of notes similar to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” The piece eventually becomes a maelstrom of sound, the trio backing her wild explorations with quite fiery playing. Warning: This is not jazz for relaxation or meditation!

Quite an album. My only complaint was its brevity, clocking in at a mere 40 minutes—but a more intense 40 minutes of music you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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