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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Alan Sondheim: Cutting Board (ESP-Disk')

Short because it was written to fit on one panel of a "digipak." Not included: how funny Alan is; how neurotic he is; how incredibly prolific he is, far beyond his discography of released albums. Almost every day he posts a track of freshly improvised music on ESP-Disk's Facebook page.

Alan Sondheim is the first artist from ESP-Disk's 1964-75 heyday to return, since it was revived in 2005, to issue an album of new material on the fabled label. We find it especially appropriate that he does so during ESP's second annual 50th anniversary celebration. It was in 1963 that owner Bernard Stollman recorded ESP's first album, Ni Kantu En Esperanto, which gave ESP its name; 1964 was when he first began recording the avant-garde jazz artists who would make the label famous, and these were first issued in 1965.

Sondheim joined the roster with a 1967 session, Ritual-All-7-70, then followed up with 1968's T'Other Little Tune. (Drumming on the latter was Joel Zabor; now known as Rafi Zabor, he reunited with Sondheim at ESP's 50th anniversary concert in November 2013.)

Sondheim got his musical start as a guitarist, but soon moved into a much more original sound utilizing a vast array of instruments from around the world. His instrument collection has only grown in variety all these decades later. Cutting Board, his eighth album, is his first instrumental group album; his other albums have always either been solo (and there are two solo tracks on Cutting Board as well) or, like this year's Avatar Woman with partner Azure Carter on the Public Eyesore label, featured female vocalists. His collaborators here intertwine saxophone lines that offer a relatively consistent set of timbres against which Sondheim's arsenal of sounds presents contrasting textures in music of great energy and variety.

Though he's a pure improviser, Sondheim rightly insists that he doesn't play jazz; even playing with two saxophonists, he's outside that tradition's spectrum. The eclecticism of the sounds he's working with sonically can tenuously seem to connect him to world music, but he doesn't play the instruments in traditional ways. And on rare occasions you can hear the blues lurking, but I wouldn't bet on Living Blues putting him on the cover. Maybe if somebody starts a music magazine (or website) called Beyond Category, then Sondheim can be a cover subject.

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