Music, no lyrics

Like the title implies, this set of reviews covers albums with little to no vocals.

Mylab, Mylab

Wayne Horvitz’s 4+1 Ensemble is one of his oddest — piano, trombone, violin, bass and electronics. That’s not the making of a traditional jazz ensemble. But it was Tucker Martine’s electronic embellishments that made 4+1 truly distinct.

Mylab is pretty much Horvitz and Martine with a lot of a guest players dropping by, including but not limited to Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb, and various members of Horvitz’s other groups, Pigpen, Zony Mash and even the President.

The results are pretty scattershot, but in that organized chaotic way where manipulation of sound is the main instrument. The collage of programmed samples and live performance occupies that nether world between studio-built structure and unpredictable improvisation.

On first listen, it’s a disconcerting mess. With additional listens, it’s a fascinating game to peel back the layers.

I’m not sure if Mylab has much long-term potential, but as a one-shot project, it’s a really good shot.

Wayne Horvitz, Sweeter Than the Day

While still busy with the organ-driven Zony Mash, Wayne Horvitz wanted to record a piano album. He invited different players to sit in, but eventually, he wound up using his bandmates in Zony Mash.

Horvitz recorded an album in 2001 titled American Bandstand, but the title was changed to Forever after some legal wrangling with Dick Clark. Sweeter Than the Day is the second album by this same group, which adopted that title as its own name when Horvitz decided to retire Zony Mash.

Both groups have all the same members. Yeah, it’s a bit hard to keep straight.

Horvitz completists will recognize the title track from the 4+1 Ensemble album, From a Window. “Julian’s Ballad”, also from the same album, appears here as well.

In fact, both pieces set the tone for the album. Both Sweeter Than the Day and From a Window are introspective works that sometimes venture into sonically challenging territory.

The swing of “LTMBBQ” and “In the Lounge” sounds conventional next to expressionism of “George’s Solo” and “The Beautiful Number”. “The Little Parade” is a tender piece, while “Waltz from the Oven” is darker.

Sweeter Than the Day lives up to its title by offering some quietly beautiful pieces. Some are pretty, while others are disturbing. But none of them rise above a whisper.

Craig Armstrong, Piano Works

If there were a musical equivalent to Fametracker’s Hey! It’s That Guy!, Craig Armstrong would probably make a really good entry.

Armstrong can be heard just about everywhere, although you wouldn’t really know it. His highest profile gig was co-writing “Protection” and “Heatmeister 2” with Massive Attack. He’s also written film scores for William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Love Actually and Ray.

Armstrong’s third solo album, Piano Works, is accurately titled — to a point.

On a number of tracks, he manipulates his real-time piano playing with electronics, creating some nice textures on “Diffuse” and “Hidden”. “Fugue” is the center piece of the album, a pointillistic piece reminiscent of Louis Andriessen.

But most of the album is dedicated to recorded improvisations and arrangements of film music. Armstrong’s playing isn’t prodigiously flashy, opting for sparse arrangements. Like his orchestral work, Armstrong’s music is dark but without the Romantic-era melodrama.

Piano Works is a nice album to put on for a quiet evening, but it’s got enough personality not to be relegated into the background.

Explosions in the Sky, How Strange, Innocence

Explosions in the Sky is something of a one-trick pony, but the trick it performs is a nice one. How Strange, Innocence pretty much has everything that’s expected from an Explosions in the Sky album — expansive pieces, organically structured, slowly building momentum to a dramatic crush of sound.

As far as one-trick ponies go, it takes a lot of work.

How Strange, Innocence is a reissue of the band’s debut album in 2000, and while its compositional style was set early on, the album shows some greenness. The tracks on the album are mostly effects free, giving the pieces an immediate feel.

They’re also shorter on average that the band’s later work — How Strange, Innocence packs a whopping seven tracks, compared to five on The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place.

The classicism that could be imposed on The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place isn’t easily applied here, but that doesn’t diminish the album’s ambition and scope.

Dirty Three, Cinder

The biggest difference between this album and previous Dirty Three albums is quantity. Cinder contains 19 tracks, whereas She Has No Strings Apollo from 2003 contains only seven, the usual cut-off number for a Dirty Three opus. (Ocean Songs clocks in with 10 tracks.)

More tracks means shorter songs, which means fewer long-winded improvisations. The trio even went so far as to invite Cat Power to sing on “Great Waves”.

But for all its differences, Cinder still prominently features the band’s signature sound — stripped-down, introspective instrumentals with slow-burning but fiery improvisation.

A number of tracks finds the band getting incredibly extroverted — “Doris” gets downright noisy, while “The Zither Player” hastens along at a quick pace.

But if you liked the seething performances of Dirty Three before, you’ll like it again on Cinder.

Dirty Three can get away with recording the same album again and again because it’s the dynamics between the players that draws people back. And yet, Dirty Three isn’t considered jazz. Why is that?