The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue

Playing the Room

Avram Fefer.  Photo courtesy the artist.
Avram Fefer. Photo courtesy the artist.

The sculptor Donald Judd famously never accepted the category of “Minimalism” for his artworks. Instead, he coined the term “specific objects” to describe the boxes, shelves, and other plainspoken but forceful pieces he created. Judd wrote:

It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful. They are not diluted by an inherited format, variations of a form, mild contrasts and connecting parts and areas.

I’d like to consider a parallel concept for music: particular relationships. Musicians are always playing off one another, and their own sounds are altered by these different contexts. Guitarist Grant Green sounds very different on two separate recordings of “My Favorite Things,” one with the low-slung, stepped-back style of pianist Sonny Clark, another with the ethereal modal reach of pianist McCoy Tyner. And these particularities are not limited to the musicians, but to the spaces in which the music is played.

Saxophonist Avram Fefer has taken this idea a step further with his Resonant Sculpture Project, in which he performs solo improvisations in consort with enormous, twisting sculptures by the artist Richard Serra. These Cor-Ten steel works are environments unto themselves, and Fefer’s interactions with them bring out different aspects of their character; now it swirls, now it stomps. Fefer has performed this open-ended work in and around several of Serra’s cavernous spaces across the world, capturing different resonances in each setting. As he walks around the works, he stops to bend low, playing into the different angles and apertures the sculptures create. With this project, he is not only responding to the setting, but letting it consciously shape his playing—not just playing the music, but playing the room.

Fefer has made his mark in lots of different settings, with a special penchant for large groups, from David Murray’s Big Band to his late friend Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. His most recent recording, though, Juba Lee (Clean Feed Records), features a quartet with previous collaborators bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor, along with new addition, guitarist Marc Ribot. As its title suggests, it is an unabashed celebration of freedom, interaction, and sonic possibility.

The band combines a visceral, searching quality with in-the-pocket swing. Fefer, playing both tenor and alto, always evinces commitment, and Ribot adds a voice that is both muscular and subtle. Together, the group melds all kinds of influences, from the Middle Eastern overtones of “Bedouin Dream” to the Ornette/Prime Time love of “Gemini Time.” “Brother Ibrahim” pays tribute to the perpetually under-sung South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim by invoking his gift for simple melody and rolling groove. The elegy for Tate, “Sweet Fifteen (for G.T.),” is so unlike the raucous energy of the critic and composer’s “hella bumpy” style, with the tune’s softly strummed strings, but the spirit of its subject still manages to come through.

Fefer’s is one of the releases from the end of this year that delves deep, exploring not just songs, but the nature of making sound. Bassist Dezron Douglas has studied with Jackie McLean, played at length with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and standard-bearer drummer Louis Hayes, sent out—via Zoom—charming duets from home with his wife, harpist Brandee Younger, in addition to performing with his own group. On ATALAYA (International Anthem), he is joined by saxophonist Emilio Modeste, pianist George Burton, and drummer Joe Dyson Jr. for a unified sonic exploration. As Douglas states in a cri de cœur from the liner notes: “Mysticism, Magic, Faith, Love, Power, Discernment! These are words that embody the creative process of Music.”

Along with those loftier concepts, discernment is definitely a hallmark of Dezron’s playing. The chalky tone of his acoustic bass, as on “More Coffee Please,” conveys elegance, but he is also at home in an effects-driven extended electric solo on “Octopus.” The title cut best conveys the group dynamic in action, surging in time or freed from all constraints. I saw Douglas perform with his quartet at Jazzmobile over the summer, and with the urgent, present quality of their sound, they lived up to what their press notes proudly declare: “This is the band you hope is playing every time you walk into a club.”

Pianist Surya Botofasina is a devotee of the music of Alice Coltrane—not just in the sense of being an admirer, but as one who grew up in Coltrane’s California ashram (his mother is the harpist and Coltrane collaborator Radha Botofasina). His debut album Everyone’s Children (Spiritmuse Records) centers on immersive waves of sound, occasionally surmounted by ecstatic vocal cries and recitations. The movement in his compositions is deliberate and unhurried. Like the recent Pharoah Sanders/Floating Points recording Promises (Luaka Bop) that drew acclaim, it seems to speak to the deep need for peace in stressful times. Sanders added his tenderness and gravitas to that recording, while Botofasina keeps his keyboard tone light and shimmering.

“Sun of Keshava” unfurls at a leisurely pace, its minor-key vamp punctuated by unexpected major interruptions and sometimes resolutions, with long tones acting as connectors. The piece was written for his young son, and it exudes a sense of discovery, of opening outward. On “Surya Meditation,” he passes on some of the wisdom that was conveyed to him in his upbringing. “Every day should be meditative, not just the time of meditation,” intones the voice of a spiritual guide, who later, sounding surprised, remarks “The world is becoming blessed!” The recording casts a lingering spell that you don’t want to shake.

California producer Carlos Niño is someone who has traveled in the same orbit as Botofasina (the two are playing together at Public Records in Brooklyn on December 10th). He also has a new collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Photay out called An Offering (International Anthem). Niño first found acclaim as the host of the radio show “All at One Point” on KPFK, which gave birth to the influential “Spaceways Radio.” He has pushed out into making his own recordings through the collaborations of his ongoing “& Friends” series. Here he works with a young electronic music artist known for his original takes on sound; a previous recording, On Hold (Mexican Summer), used telephone hold music he captured as its raw material.

Their starting point is water, that increasingly elusive material in our alternately parched/saturated word. Water sounds open the recording, taking us back to our primal source and resource. In between are free-form explorations with single-word titles: “CHANGE,” “MOSAIC,” and so on. These rubrics allow for forays into a broad range of sonic textures, many suggestive of emergence. The final track, “EXISTENCE,” closes on an oddly hopeful (or at least accepting) note. “If you exist now, you have always existed, and you always will exist,” repeats a voice, suggesting the illusory nature of our temporal dimension. Sounds of water return, lapping and overlapping one another. Since we are all here for all time, in one form or another, there is one prescription: “...Relax!” the spectral voice says, laughing. “Enjoy the show.”


Scott Gutterman

Scott Gutterman has written about art and music for Artforum, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, and other publications. His most recent book is Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, 2015). He is deputy director of Neue Galerie New York and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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