Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Ken Thomson’s Sextet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Naomi White.

Ken Thomson’s music dances at the crossroads of contemporary classical and jazz—filled with boundless verve, blistering improvisations, and contrapuntal complexity. When he’s performing, his energy shines onstage—and when he’s writing music, it leaps off the page.

Though the clarinetist and saxophonist is perhaps best known as one of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Thomson’s new album of original compositions, titled Sextet, features him performing alongside a hand-picked cast of jazz all-stars: saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Daniel Dor.

The album begins with Thomson’s own arrangement of György Ligeti’s melancholic Passacaglia Ungherese before spiraling through a collection of six original groove-driven compositions that float freely between the rigor of through-composed music and the spontaneity of improvised solos.

We’re excited to premiere a track from the brand new album ahead of its September 7 release date. Click below to hear Thomson’s “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”

Learn more about the music from the performers themselves in the trailer below!


Ken Thomson’s Sextet comes out September 7 on New Focus Recordings. Click here to pre-order the digital album.

ALBUM REVIEW: David Kechley’s A Sea of Stones

by Brendan Howe

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David Kechley, indisputably the most technically challenging composer of music for guitar and saxophone, has released his latest three works for the unlikely combination – Points of Departure, Bounce, and the eponymous Sea of Stones. Granted, although Kechley was the first to specifically pair the guitar and saxophone together in 1992 with his album, In the Dragon’s Garden and has composed virtually all of the genre’s canon, Sea of Stones stands on its own as a magnificently complex, engaging, inventive work that also effortlessly achieves accessibility – no small feat in contemporary instrumental music.

It is important to note that Kechley’s compositions are heavily influenced by time spent in Kyoto, Japan, and that during his initial collaborations with saxophonist Frank Bongiorno and baroque guitarist Robert Nathanson for Dragon’s Garden they paid particular and meditative attention to the famed Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple – an experience that so inspired Bongiorno and Nathanson that they began calling themselves the Ryoanji Duo.

In both title and concept, Kechley derives Sea of Stones from the “controlled randomness” of the rock garden – fifteen boulders arranged in groups of two, three, and five, such that the maximum number of boulders visible from any angle is fourteen, the fifteenth revealed upon enlightenment. As Kechley asserts, his album is filled with motifs “that repeat, but don’t” – they maintain a familiar atmosphere while adding new perspectives for a sense of enriched understanding.

Points of Departure differs from other Kechley works for guitar and saxophone in that it consists of five discreet movements, as opposed to movements that flow directly into one another. Saxophonist Laurent Estoppey, who recorded Departure with Nathanson, opens the work in Prologue and Dramatic Exposition and closes the work in Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation with two temple bells struck over Nathanson’s urgent, augmented, arpeggiated seventh and ninth chords, as the opening and closing of ceremonies.

Each movement of Points of Departure is titled to match its character. Kechley’s signature sharp contrasts are readily apparent in the tempo and dynamic shifts of Dramatic Exposition. Estoppey’s soprano sax at one moment frantically trills over Nathanson’s rapid attacks of nylon strings, and the next moment both release and slow to a pill-induced slumber.

The second movement, Quirky, makes heavy use of large and unusual staccato intervals intermixed with short, halting soprano sax phrases. It draws to mind images of ground squirrels doing what ground squirrels do – an impressively unique aesthetic that demonstrates Kechley’s versatility in writing for the two instruments.

Departure’s remaining movements – Chorale, Cadenza and Slow Dance, Relentless, and finally Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation – each offer wonderfully varied shifts in tone and style, and create a brilliant narrative arc that returns to its starting point, but carrying a profoundly changed perspective.

The second of the three pieces included on Sea of Stones is Bounce: Inventions, Interludes, and Interjections, and was recorded by the Ryoanji Duo as a single 14-minute track. Kechley explains that the instruments build upon a single opening motif, inventing new forms as they go, with strategic interruptions that cause us to “stop and take a breath” at certain points throughout the piece. Lyric interludes also serve to build the structure of the piece. It becomes more continuous, intense, and organic as it evolves, before reaching the end of the cycle exactly where it began.

The latest of Kechley’s works, for which this album is named, brings in a unique orchestral element behind the Ryoanji Duo, here performed by the Polish Sudecka Filharmonia. The first movement, Awakening, opens with a steadily increasing, reverberant drumroll as a call to ceremony, similar to what would have been heard at Ryoanji Temple in the 15th-19th centuries. Diverse percussive instruments, evoking a theatricality akin to Kabuki, punctuate the melodic alto sax and guitar lines. This awakening is precise, crisp, and energized.

Kechley begins Dances and Reflections with the flute, then guitar, then horns, and finally oboe echoing the main sax motif, showing in brilliant resolution the stark perspective shifts that come from reflecting one event in different instrumental voices. The result is heartbreaking and mesmerizing. As the instruments join forces to flow into Arrival, they bring their divergent points of view into a single dramatic narrative.

So as to not give too much away, suffice it to say that the remaining four movements of Stones will not disappoint listeners who are eager to hear the rest of this beautifully crafted experience. Dialogs and Meditations initially breaks cleanly from the perpetual motion of instruments sharing with one another, the sax diving deeply into its own thoughts while the guitar drifts from whimsy to action. Return and Last Light come full circle with familiar motifs and percussion. Though the album concludes almost subconsciously, it leaves the listener with a sense of awakening.

ALBUM REVIEW: Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee by Matana Roberts

by Maggie Molloy

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In the world of music, the saxophone represents many things. It is classical and jazz, it is woodwinds and brass, it is melody and military—it is sexuality and it is soul. And given its multifaceted role in American musical traditions, it is also a fascinating lens through which to explore America’s complex political history.

Composer, saxophonist, and sound experimentalist Matana Roberts does just this in chapter three of her massive, 12-part “Coin Coin” series. Gigantic in scope, the series is a visceral musical exploration into the sounds, the stories, the history, and the legacy of the American slave trade—a panoramic sound quilt piecing together the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora.

Each album in the series features a different configuration of instruments and sound textures—the first featured a 16-piece ensemble, the second a sextet, and the third? Just a single performer: Roberts herself.

“Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee” weaves a rich musical tapestry of saxophones, songs, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and spoken word recitations—all composed, performed, and carefully layered by Roberts.

So what does it sound like? Well, it’s sort of like a surreal sonic dream—a musical merging of ritual and spectacle. Roberts’ influences are a melting pot of jazz, improvisation, classical, and the avant-garde, and her album is a vivid wash of colors and sounds, wailing saxophones and spoken word, field recordings and folk music.

But aside from the idiosyncratic sax solos, one of the most striking elements musically is Roberts’ voice. She flows just as easily from mournful singing to spoken texts, folk song fragments to vocal improvisations. If “river run thee” is a one-woman opera, then Roberts is the star, viscerally experiencing each twist, turn, and tragedy.

Her voice brims with a gritty, earthy, urgent soulfulness, echoed by saxophone moans and static swells. Oscillating tones, ghostly whispers, and eerie electronics providing a foreboding accompaniment—and each track bleeds into the next as she paints a vivid and unflinching narrative, a tragic history of civil rights issues in the U.S.

“I have a particular fascination with history as narrative and how narrative constantly gets cut up and changed and completely taken out of context, or put in context and taken out again,” Roberts said in an interview with Bomb Magazine. “To me history is not linear; it’s on this constant, cyclical repeat.”

Roberts recorded the album in the same Montreal studio she used to mix the first two albums in the “Coin Coin” series. For this third installment, she played the “river run thee” tape back over and over again, responding to what she’d already recorded and adding new musical layers in real-time from start to finish—thus injecting the energy and spontaneity of improvisation directly into the album.

But for all the intensity and intimacy of this one-woman album, “river run thee” is actually an entire symphony of sounds and stories. Roberts took her source material from across generations and geographies, amassing historical and documentary information through interviews, site visits, field recordings, and travels—and for that reason, the album is so much more than just a personal reflection on the state of race relations in America. It is critical musical analysis of our nation’s art and politics: past, present, and future.

“One thing I love about history in the making is that it has shown time and time again that there is resolution,” she said. “It won’t be a permanent resolution, because this country still hasn’t fully acknowledged that it is built on denial. I sense that this is not going to change soon; therefore it’s important for American artists to make work that reminds us of our responsibility for progression. The choices that I make as an artist have a lot to do with that.”

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: November 1, 5, 6

by Maggie Molloy

Whether you’re looking for an otherworldly saxophone quartet, a genre-bending septet, or an avant-garde piano soloist, this week’s music calendar has something for everyone.

Battle Trance at the Earshot Jazz Festival

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The Earshot Jazz Festival has no shortage of talented saxophonists; however, this weekend one group of musicians is taking saxophone to a new level. Battle Trance is a tenor saxophone quartet that combines the best of contemporary classical music, avant-garde, jazz, black metal, ambient, and world music.

The result is a surprisingly spiritual soundscape that immerses its listeners in dense textures and whirling musical motifs. Through techniques such as multiphonics, circular breathing, ethereal melodies, and innovative articulation, Battle Trance seeks to erase the barrier between audience and music, transporting their audience into a new musical world where the listener and the sound are intricately linked.

Battle Trance will be performing this Saturday, Nov. 1 in the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. The concert begins at 8 p.m.

NOW Ensemble at Town Hall

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If you’re looking for the latest in contemporary classical music, what could be more current than an ensemble titled NOW? True to their name, NOW ensemble is a dynamic seven-member group committed to pushing the boundaries of the classical chamber music tradition, often crossing into new genres and artistic media.

With an eclectic instrumentation of flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano, the ensemble is unlike any septet you have heard before (though admittedly, there aren’t very many septets out there to begin with). The group cements its status as a unique and innovative ensemble by infusing their sound with elements of indie rock, rap, hip hop, jazz, pop, minimalism, and other musical genres.

NOW ensemble will perform at Town Hall next Wednesday, Nov. 5 as part of the Town Music series. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

….and you can listen LIVE on Second Inversion! Partial funding for this broadcast is made possible by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

Nils Frahm and Dawn of Midi at the Showbox

Nils Frahm

Berlin-based contemporary composer Nils Frahm is a classically-trained pianist with a musical approach that is anything but traditional. The experimental composer has made a name for himself internationally as an introspective composer, a captivating performer, and an imaginative improviser. His music has captured the ears and minds of many fans with its gentle, calming soundscapes and soft melodies.

Next week, he will perform in Seattle in promotion of his new live album, “Spaces.” Unlike most live albums, “Spaces” was filmed over the course of two years in different locations and on various mediums including old reel-to-reel recorders, cassette tape decks, and more. The recordings were then pieced together into an album, capturing the magic, spirit, and distinctiveness of each location.

dawnomNils Frahm will be joined by Dawn of Midi, a Brooklyn-based trio composed of bassist Aakaash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani, and percussionist Qasim Naqvi. Their minimal, acoustic music is strikingly rhythmic, fully immersing the listener in each groove and each carefully-crafted sonic landscape.

Nils Frahm and Dawn of Midi will perform next Thursday, Nov. 6 at the Showbox Market as part of Decibel Festival. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the concert begins at 9 p.m.

MUSIC ON THE MAP

by Maggie Stapleton
John Teske

Seattle composer John Teske takes inspiration from nature and space in a lot of his compositions, including his upcoming premiere topographies (along with Andrew C. Smith’s Topology (A/∀)) to be performed on Saturday, March 22, 8pm at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space.  The work is composed as a set of graphic scores based on a topographical map and will be performed by 2 saxophones, cello, double bass, & percussion.  This should be a great catalyst for musical discovery – John is curious to find how the performers carve their own path.. both alone and together.

Here’s a conversation between Second Inversion’s Maggie Stapleton and John Teske on the inspiration behind this piece (including which particular map inspired this piece), his approach to collaboration with performers, educational outreach, and his overarching love of space and seas in his compositions.

To tide you over until March 22, here are some of John’s recent recordings with introductory comments: