2019 In Jazz/Experimental

Ya, these should be two separate pieces. Maybe next year.

Fri Jan 03 2020

Let’s start with the Mueller report (sorry, Jon), because somebody’s gotta keep you up to speed. He featured on at least four albums that I know of that came out this year, beginning with a mesmerizing collaborative album with Aidan Baker (of Nadja) and Faith Colaccia (Mamiffer) entitled See Through, which defies easy description but brings to mind some other recent wordless progressive ambient releases such as Darkside’s Psychic and BardSpec’s Hydrogen, only more starkly representative of three individuals’ distinctive styles. Mueller also contributed to Mamiffer’s The Brilliant Tabernacle, a gorgeous, meditative suite of enigmatic folk. Mueller collaborated with artist Jeremy Popelka, who fashioned the actual instruments (glass bells) that Mueller plays on Clarity Cycles. This is a morning-coffee record or a meditation record or a calm-yourself-at-work record, but I wouldn’t call it background music; part of its power is how it demands your attention without necessarily a tune or even a rhythm. Finally, Codex Intueri, a solo record that features some of the most memorable actual songs Mueller has ever built purely from drums. Oh, and I almost forgot: House Blessing, the gong album, featuring four tracks of about nine minutes each, which I plan to utilize as a pale surrogate of Mueller’s periodic gong baths, just as soon as I find the free time (finishing these articles will surely help).

My history with Xiu Xiu (an indie rock band?) goes back to 2006’s The Air Force, which floored me, opened up my world, that sort of thing. I still feel like as much as the future sucks, it has bright spots like allowing Jamie Stewart to have a viable career doing this. He’s not entirely unlike Don Van Vliet, a couple of anti-iconoclasts, in everyone’s face, daring you to hate them or write them off, patiently working towards artistic triumphs that take equal patience to fully appreciate. I think Girl With Basket Of Fruit might be my favorite Xiu Xiu album since Air Force, but I’m saying this mid-binge, so I’ll probably change my mind when I listen to some of their other albums again, and obviously this doesn’t include the Twin Peaks record which is untouchable. But the title track and “It Comes Out As A Joke” and “Pumpkin Attack On Mommy And Daddy” are such gorgeously bizarre songs, it seems like years since individual songs have jumped out of the miasma of a (non-Twin Peaks) Xiu Xiu album and stuck in me this deeply.

Slipping more into jazz now with another Jamie I mean Jaimie (Branch that is), her second proper album, FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise, strikes me, an admitted non-expert on jazz, as a thing that could help push the world of unmistakably straight-up jazz into new and exciting territories as well as further back into cultural prominence, not based on virtuosity or any other sense of spectacle but in terms of songwriting and character. You get the thrill of freshness mixed with undeniable signifiers reminiscent of past masters like Miles and Gil and Pharoah and it is a heady concoction. Branch’s playing has a distinctive personality and her songs are boldly catchy though often unnerving, a quality that I’m coming to associate with the International Anthem label. Labelmate Ben LaMar Gay (his East Of The Ryan is decidedly less catchy than a lot of his other work, no harm done) makes an appearance in “prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2”; making track 2 the centerpiece of the album seems wacky but I think that’s just this modern sensibility of expecting an album like this to go deep late. Branch knows that the great jazz albums are about the songs, and damn these are good. By the time you get to the end of “love song”, you will be blown away that yet another person has written a song with that title that is absolutely inappropriately instantly classic.

Of course I have to mention The Comet Is Coming’s Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery. For one thing, it’s the rock-crit jazz darling of the year, and for another thing, Kate Tempest is on it. The song she’s on, “Blood Of The Past”, gets my vote for Song Of The Year, in fact. It’s fucking mad perfection. Anyone who’s not moved by it should be exiled to Delaware. As I mentioned a week or two or whatever ago, the problem is that after seeing this band live this album sounds kinda weak, like a handful of anise seeds after you’ve already tasted the absinthe. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, blah blah blah.

The intro track to Robert Glasper’s Fuck Yo Feelings “mixtape” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard on a jazz record, and there’s plenty of humor throughout, but it’s also subtly an activist album, and a powerful instrumental testament. It’s not here to bowl you over with radical solos; Glasper and his ensemble are more about creating nebulous moods and obscure paths into nothingness, even when the guest vocalists are absent, and you have to let your brain relax and go with it. It’s all over the place, and every MC who shows up (this truly could’ve gone in the rap section) gives their all, from Denzel Curry to Rapsody to Yasiin Bey. Whereas FlyLo just did his usual thing plus LOOKIT ALL MY AWESOME GUESTS, here the flow never gets interrupted; it’s this beautiful seamless singular piece with awesome guests casually dropping in from time to time. It’s become one of my favorite jazz/hip-hop hybrid albums I’ve ever heard, still showing me new things every time I let myself get immersed in it.

We’ll end this section with Lingua Ignota, who’s gotten a lot of love from the black metal community, which is one of the most heartening developments in that genre’s problematic history. There are occasional elements of black metal strewn throughout Caligula but it could never be so easily defined. In an age when we’re starting to realize as a society that we need the fiercest, most shocking expressions of feminist rage possible in order to tip the scales of history towards any legitimate sense of justice, this is one of the few prominent albums of 2019 doing the work the hard way—i.e., a woman excavating her own trauma to harrowing effect. Musically, it’s more of a classical album, ambushed periodically by metal and other noisy idioms, and it’s Kristin Hayter’s voice that is the driving force behind the whole thing. You owe it to yourself to at least find out if you can handle this album. I don’t think there’s ever been another one like it.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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