Catching Up with Leo, Part 1

Leo Records was founded in 1979 by Leo Feigin, a Russian who had emigrated to England. Early in its history, back before the glasnost era, it was most noted for releasing avant-garde Russian jazz at a time when government authorities discouraged the style. As Alexander Alexandrov of Moscow Composers Orchestra says, "What the authorities really hated was free jazz and improvised music – for the reason we loved it, because it was a powerful symbol of individual freedom." Although somehow the Ganelin Trio's first album came out on the official Soviet record label, Melodiya, it was the group's many albums on Leo that earned both the band and Leo world-wide reputations.

Eventually Leo expanded enough that it even had offshoots: Leo Lab for new artists, Golden Years of New Jazz for vintage material. Especially notable from the latter are four superb four-CD sets comprising a series entitled Golden Years of the Soviet New Jazz; these are must-have items for anyone interested in the topic.

In 1997-98, I was the editor of the book MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide. After having previously received only occasionally mailings from the label, his earned me a spot on the Leo publicity list, so as to have its albums better represented in the second edition. Occasionally I reviewed some of the many Leo CDs I received (upwards of 40 per year) for magazines or websites, but many were just set aside, waiting for that second edition. Well, here it is 14 years later and the second edition seems a very distant hope. Recently I've been consolidating and organizing my collection, spread out across many boxes and shelves in my apartment, and in the process I brought together in one place many unreviewed Leo CDs. It's such a great label, with such an interesting range of aesthetics, that I feel driven to improve my coverage. Time to do some catching up (which does mean I'm not re-reviewing anything).

Had I reviewed these CD by CD on their releases, each would have been covered in greater depth, but the artist overview format that this more condensed process yields has its advantages, both for readers (I hope) and for my immersion in each, making comparisons and the charting of artistic evolution easier. Consider this the first of an indeterminate and occasional series. I start -- perversely, perhaps -- not with one of the label's more famous artists (I have, after all, more often covered their work, however spottily) such as Anthony Braxton or Joe Maneri, but with an English pianist I've never reviewed before. Dates in parentheses after album titles are recording dates, where listed; if not available, then years of release ("p." for "published"), along with a notation designating release on one of the subsidiary imprints.

Carolyn Hume is a pianist who sometimes also plays synthesizer, electric piano, and (less often) recorder -- the flute's ancestor, not a tape machine. Though dark moods dominate, her track titles show a sense of humor.

Carolyn Hume/Paul May
Zero (Lab, 10/99)

I could be wrong, but this sometimes sounds like an attempt to create a hybrid of jazz and drum'n'bass. Or at least that's what May's drumming suggests, though at other times he lays down a less agitated beat. What makes it work is that, though I had never thought of this before, there's a certain similarity between drum'n'bass drumming technique and free-jazz drumming, though of course the former is much more structured than the latter. Hume's piano playing is often more gestural and less melodic here than on the duo's later albums, and there's a lot less synthesizer. On two tracks, they are joined by clarinetist Duke Garwood; on one of those, "Black Clouds," bassist Neil May also makes a guest appearance. This is twitchy, edgy music of great originality. Best titles: "Pet Moth" and -- for the album's last track -- "Prelude."

By Lakes Abandoned (Lab, p. 2001)

May is a little more Tony Williams here at times, and thus a little less drum'n'bass. Hume's increasing electric piano/synth use can border on cheesy because she frequently uses clichéd timbres, but May generally balances these moments by switching to his most hyper style. Garwood is present again, with "Furreging" a showcase for his most evocative free playing,and Sonja Galsworthy joins on "Meld unt Shift" with a pretty wordless vocal. The wittiest title is a Bill Evans reference, "Waltz for Debris."

Flames Undressed by Water (p. 2002)

Galsworthy's on "untitled" and "Praising Buds," guitarist Berndt Rest is on "Haunted Taurist" and "Imagined Beastly Idyll," and Marcus Cummins adds soprano saxophone to "Pot Meth." The switch from Garwood to Rest and Hume's increasing electricity use pushes those tracks into the fusion zone, not a bad place to be when May is switching up the style enough with his nervous drumming to avoid any sense of retro recreation. On some tracks I wish the synthesizer settings weren't smoothing things out quite so much, but this is still a nicely moody experience. "Lummox" even finds Hume playing acoustic piano in a heavier, denser, more aggressive style, though given its title that might be part of the joke.

Wet Map (p. 2003)

On their fourth album together, the duo took their music to a new level, a little gnarlier than their two previous collaborations if not as strikingly original in concept as Zero. On four of the ten tracks, a guest joins: Rest on "Assembly Point," violinist Lewis Gibson (with what sounds like overdubbing) on "Surviellant" and "Signal to Snails," and Galsworthy on the spacey "Red Ice." "Spaghetti Gangster" includes uncredited trumpet and either vibraphone or a synth setting that closely approximates one. Hume's cool synthesizer washes might make some tracks sound a bit New Age-y (the epic "Ghost Rider" even includes whale sounds) if not for May's doses of polyrhythmic variety. He's still happy to lay down beats, often syncopated, but he breaks them up more often and sometimes goes in for longer stretches of skittering free drumming. Nonetheless, Wet Map is perhaps more suited for Dark Ambient fans than jazzbos; I could imagine Projekt issuing it.

Come to Nothing (Spring 2009)

The duo's fifth album is their first guestless outing, and a drastic shift in style even by their standards. No more does May provide energy to counter Hume's ruminative bent; his playing provides color but not momentum, and at times he doesn't even play. Nor does Hume retain much connection to jazz. On the surface, it may seem like easy listening now, yet if one is paying careful attention, Hume's piano style here -- and she does largely stick with the acoustic instrument, with no electric piano and hardly any synth -- is profoundly haunting, even at times psychologically disturbing, and May's interjections are chilling. "Part 4" (the clever track titles are gone too) in particular is a masterpiece of sinister suspense. On the occasions when Hume's spare playing could be considered merely pretty, May does toughen up the sound just enough to keep things edgy until, with the brief final track, we are given a quietly majestic sort of benediction. Here's hoping this collaboration continues.

Carolyn Hume

Below the track list is a Schopenhauer quote: "In spite of time, death, and decay, we are still all together." It fits an album that's even more shadowed and brooding than her work with May, favoring a dark, harmonically rich lyricism.. At times it's not too far from something Paul Bley might have done, minus his blues aspect; Mal Waldron's late work occasionally comes to mind as well. Hume doesn't go in for virtuoso flourishes, but she's got an exquisitely delicate touch and her phrasing flows beautifully. (And, minus the electric instruments, the New Age echoes largely vanish.) Perhaps, had jazz never even been invented, Hume could have evolved the same style from classical antecedents.

Gravity and Grace (p. 2008)

Galsworthy returns, and cellist Oliver Coates joins (overdubbed lushly on some of the several tracks sans vocals), and Hume writes actual songs, a few with lyrics, though I doubt any cabaret singers will be adding them to their repertoires. I know it's lazy to quote other critics' characterizations, but this one's too good to go unnoted: The Independent's Phil Johnson called it "sort of Erik Satie meets David Sylvian round at Nick Drake's place." I'm very sympathetic to this record because it has the same anti-virtuoso simplicity that I have been aiming for in my own composing for the past few years (though even more stripped-down). Almost all ties with jazz have been cut (a few harmonic changes whisper its memory), but it's quality that matters, not genre, and as haunting and gorgeous as this is, it nearly creates its own category.

Carolyn Hume/Katja Cruz

I may not be the best person to review this album, as the improvising vocalist approach of moaning wordlessly and flitting through other timbres for variety tends to strike me as silly -- and, over the course of an entire album, becomes annoying. That's my limitation, not the artists'. Katja Cruz (whose other releases I will ignore in this survey) is one of those singers, though at least not too enamored of the style's weird noise-making aspect. (In contrast, I enjoy Galsworthy's contributions on the above albums because she has a purer singing style.) But of equal concern is that this unrehearsed first encounter, apparently freely improvised, is not a context that brings out the best in Hume. There are flashes of beauty, but those are merely small islands in a sea of vagueness. Since this seems like a one-off collaboration, I look forward to Hume's return to what she does best.

Fourth Page

A bit of a footnote. Hume is also a member of this band (which released an earlier album on another label) with singer/acoustic guitarist Charlie Beresford, bassist Peter Marsh, and May; the composition of every track here is co-credited to all members and is probably all improvised. Beresford, though not gifted with a particularly strong or accurate voice, sings occasionally; his light, almost reticent voice and enigmatic lyrics move this into late Talk Talk territory, an intriguing move.

Sainkho Namchylak is one of the most remarkable vocalists around. She combines a seven-octave range, imagination and taste, and an ability to sing multiple simultaneous notes using the traditional throat-singing technique of Tuvan culture, which -- women were discouraged from using it for public performance, even from studying it -- she bravely learned and then extended into realms where it had never been applied. As I mentioned above in regard to Katja Cruz, I'm not especially tolerant of avant-garde singers, but this Tuvan woman is so far above the competition that my misgivings don't apply. She's even greater than Yoko Ono (another exception for me). While listening to her I never feel, as I do with so many lesser avant singers, that anybody could do it or that it's gimmicky. Leo has 16 albums that Sainkho (she often goes by that single name) sings on, over two-thirds of which she is leader or co-leader of. I previously reviewed her collaboration withTri-O for CultureCatch.

Nomad (compiled 2007)

Feigen felt that no single album displayed all the facets of Namchylak's musicality, not even all the styles she has worked in, so to celebrate her fiftieth birthday he put together this compilation including material licensed from other labels. Hearing her traditional singing juxtaposed with her avant-garde work would definitely be an eye-(ear?-)opener for anyone familiar with only one side of her talents, and this is clearly the best one-CD introduction to her artistry. Only three of the fourteen tracks are from Leo albums, one track is previously unreleased, and most are from labels hard to track down in the U.S., so even long-time devotees may find this album useful.

Moscow Composers Orchestra featuring Sainkho

There are MCO albums where Sainkho has a bigger role; here she functions like a member of the band rather than a frontwoman. Unfortunately there are no booklet notes here to fill us in on what story might be behind the opening track, "Two Tone Tuva II," where she makes crying noises, or the title track (who's Peremsky? who's been keeping him from dreaming?). Those tracks are, respectively, 14 and 12 minutes; the only other track is trumpeter Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky's 35-minute "Brief Meditation." Equally at home in dense charts or free improvisation -- these tracks seem to mix both -- the MCO (with a dozen instrumentalists) is highly recommended regardless of Sainkho's participation; long-standing avant-jazz big bands are uncommon, and this is one of the best.

Sainkho Namchylak/Roy Carroll

I'm not as fond of this album. It goes along okay for the first three pieces, stumbling over some English texts and at times seeming self-consciously avant-garde in reaction to Carroll's electronics. Then comes the three-part Madness of the Night, specifically Part 1, "Anger," where Carroll's electronics become more active, including a second lo-fi Sainkho juxtaposed with the "live" one, and some annoyingly insistent wordplay. The rest isn't so bad, but it's less imaginative than usual.

Sainkho Namchylak/Jarrod Cagwin

Even when Namchylak's "singing" is just breaths and glottal stops, as on much of "Darkness, tender wind, and silence," and the accompaniment just one frame drum, as often is on In Trance, this is absolutely riveting. That, ladies and gentlemen, is pure musicality. Of course, she does much more than that, and her throat singing (in several styles) can be heard with extra clarity in this context. The inspiration is "the great paintings of Dunhuang caves in China," a series of grottos built from the Fourth to the Fourteenth centuries, and the music is suitably, ritualistic and primal and -- the art is primarily Buddhist -- simultaneously spiritually elevated yet bound to the simple complexity of Nature. As much as I love Namchylak's work with avant-jazz musicians, this album is the purest expression of her artistry that I've heard.

Moscow Composers Orchestra featuring Sainkho

This started as a projected devoted to Russian writer Daniil Kharms, a victim of Stalinist paranoia, but then came to also be about Russian jazz promoter/club owner/MCO founder-manager Nick Dmitriev, who died suddenly in 2004 while the project was in process. It includes three poems by Kharms with music written by MCO pianist Vladimir Miller, six texts by Namchylak with her own compositions accompanying, and two texts by Erich Fried also set by Namchylak. Even though not all the texts, which are in Russian or German, are translated, so transfixing is Namchylak's singing -- and even speaking -- that they transfix the listener on music alone. The instrumental accompaniment is polystylistic, ranging from percussion solos to all-out free improvisation (or so it seems) to woozy tonal tunes, while Namchylak sings "normally," recites, ululates, and displays her mastery of multiphonic singing. A man could not ask for a more stirring tribute to his memory.

Sainkho Namchylak/Dickson Dee

I'll take Sainkho's word for it that tea and the Chinese culture that revolves around it inspired this album, but as far as the second word of the album title, this is not an opera with a libretto -- nor any narrative, despite the tracks being titled "First Story," etc. Dickson Dee's electronics are generally less grating than Carroll's (above), unfolding more organically. Though including a fair amount of hums and clicks and buzzes ("Third Story" could be mistaken at times for an old tape-music piece from the '50s), they are sometimes constructed in a more traditionally musical fashion; at times, especially on "Second Story," they even establish a steady rhythm. Also notable is that "Fourth Story" includes an actual melody sung "straight." Whatever tea has to do with it, the effect of Dee's electronics and Namchylak's vocalizations is purely abstract, and infinitely stimulating.

Sainkho Namchylak with Wolfgang Puschnig and Paul Urbanek

This is a big departure, but works stunningly well. The accompanists -- Urbanek on piano, Puschnig on a variety of reed instruments plus flute -- stick to tonality, but a sort of spontaneous seeming tonality that still has plenty sense of adventure. When Sainkho is singing words, it's more often in a folk style than a pop style; when she sings less unusual melodies, it's with a wide range of frequently shifting timbres. This is as accessible as she's ever been, at least that I've heard, but rather than sounding like a compromise, it sounds utterly exuberant. This is 58 minutes of unfettered joy.

Sainkho Namchylak/Nick Sudnick

More like "not nearly": Any qualms the title might inspire about the contents of this album are eradicated by its aggressively confrontational timbres. Oh, there are a few moments of tonality when the extremely versatile Sudnick ("electro-acoustic sound objects, reeds, accordion, composition") uses a chord progression and gives Sainkho a melody (the tracks mix composition and improvisation), but there are far more when clangs and clanks support her vast array of startling timbres -- this is more far-out than Terra. At times, even with no words, she conjures non-abstract feelings; this album is more about psychological moods and less about pure music than some of her Leo work. While some may prefer to hear her in freer contexts, and to hear her do more throat singing, she excels in this "inside/outside" setting as well.

One last group before I wrap up this installment:

George Burt/Raymond MacDonald Sextet featuring Keith Tippett

I'd never heard of George Burt (guitar) or Raymond MacDonald (soprano and alto saxophones) before, but I'll happily listen to anything pianist Keith Tippett plays on! They are joined here by drummer Alyn Cosker, bassist George Lyle, and on a few tracks, singer Nicola MacDonald (who also plays melodica). The program's a bit schizophrenic; there are both songs and free improvisations, and the style shift is a bit jolting. On the other hand, how often does one have the chance to hear Tippett in the role of music-hall accompanist on prepared piano?! Not that he's the only attraction; the Scots (for it seems that everybody but Tippett's based on the Isle of Mull) hold their own, and "Ito's Vanity," with just sax, guitar, and melodica, is one of the highlights, and so is a sax/bass duet. It's a fair guess that Burt, with his atonal, anti-melodic style with its extended techniques, is an admirer of Derek Bailey. The improvs are invigorating, the songs are fun in their way, and I'm happy to have made the musical acquaintance of these intrepid Scots. BTW, boohoo fever is the same as dengue fever.

I will try to put up a batch of Leo reviews every month this year. - Steve Holtje

Hotel California - Eagles

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.

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