MMM Quartet are so called because each of its members is or was a professor at Mills Music College in California. But if you expect the music of this group of improvising eggheads to be drily pedagogical, you’re way wrong. MMM are a puckish bunch.
It’s a group with rare pedigree: French double bassist Joëlle Léandre, British guitarist Fred Frith, American pianist/electronic musician Alvin Curran, and Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber.
Léandre was a confidante of Boulez, Cage and Scelsi; Frith was a founder member of Henry Cow and splinter group Art Bears, and later played in John Zorn’s Naked City and Massacre; Curran once studied with Elliott Carter, and co-founded first-generation synth group MEV; Leimgruber’s solo recordings and a trio with Léandre are among the choicest fruits of decades of incessant activity.
Oakland/Lisboa (Rogue Art) presents MMM’s 53 minute improvisation at Jazz em Agosto, Lisbon, Portugal in August 2014.
“Belem” (15:36) is mostly a scree of slithery, skidding and juddery string scrapes, and irruptive hard-disk glitching, pecking sax, and the occasional glint of piano – a nest-bed of constant agitation that, once established, the quartet use like a pool, dipping in and out with curt cross-cut gestures. Individual players’ emphases carve out distinctive patterns, but are immediately caught up in the communal roil. When Curran drops in a few shards of halting speech, he precipitates even greater ferment, but somehow grabs a coda duet with Leimgruber that’s pure texture.
This is quick-witted, inventively unruly improv.
“Millsmont” (12:35) is quieter; similar, but slower; torpid, even, with many seemingly time-slowed gestures, and everything gets kinda gauzy, as if experienced through a narcotic fug. It’s already a strange brew before Frith essays some approximate throat singing, and Léandre counters with chanting. After that, the piece settles into a slowly looping whirl of taut bowings – a sonic seascape of saxophonic gulls and percussion breakers against a background seethe and spume of strings.
After such depths: Curran’s bounding piano duet with Frith’s mercurial electric guitar on the short (3:51) “Bario Alto”, and their quiet, introspective ending after a brief break-in by Léandre.
“Maxwell Park” (13:17) builds into a crunchy, rhythmic number. It’s resolutely abstract, but there’s a collective uplift based on repetition and melody that, as the set winds down, they seem loath to abandon. But abandon it they do, for an outro of competing solos and duo alliances in which everyone reaches for light or loam – music as a dynamic ecosystem.
This music is more changeable and complex than description permits.
There’s a cartoonish boldness to “Alfama” (7:45), as it springs into life with a jaunty vamp, then breaks down as Curran drops a bomb of piano trills and car horn samples, fragmentary sounds echoed by sax and (I think) Léandre’s ersatz operatics. But again there’s a sea change, and a quiet resolution on a rare diminuendo, and the faintest impression of a siren fading to nothing. Cue a deserved round of applause.
What this improv is, is a real-time montage of ceaseless gestural invention. If you don’t give it your full attention, it will drive you nuts. Great stuff.
Joëlle Léandre double bass; Fred Frith electric guitar; Alvin Curran piano, synthesizer, samples; Urs Leimgruber tenor and soprano saxophone.
Fred Frith and John Butcher – The Natural Order.
Fred Frith with Christian Marclay, John Edwards, and Mark Sanders at Cafe Oto, 6 &7 July 2012.
Charlemagne Palestine – Ssingggg Sschlllingg Sshpppingg.
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