Calling either Kafari’s “Knockturnes” or Micromasse’s “Anthropocene,” two new albums from a Portland solo artist and a Portland trio, respectively, by the simple genre name “jazz” is a bit misleading. Yes, they are both “jazz,” in the sense that jazz in the larger sense is encoded in both albums’ DNA and foundational to their existence. But both find ways to break down those genre tropes into something unique and compelling — and both could not be more different from one another.
“Knockturnes,” from Kafari, a.k.a. Ahmad Muhammed of Portland, by way of Cincinnati, is a dreamy, atmospheric, carefully crafted album, in works for over a year and a half, based around samples from recordings of the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As Muhammed said on his Bandcamp page, “Each song is based on a single two to four-second repeating loop taken from a Bill Evans Trio recording. As the loop for a particular song cycles continuously, a keyboard controller is used to alter the register of the loop in real time – this changes not only the pitch of the loop but the tempo as well, giving rise to a new chord progression, melody, and time signature within the modulated sample.”
Whether you’re a Bill Evans expert or are only slightly familiar with him, the overall effect of Muhammed’s album is hypnotic and, often, fascinating. Like other musicians that seamlessly weave electronic music, jazz, and sometimes hip hop together (Four Tet, Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73), the personality of the album is not in the creator his or herself — it’s in the abstract soundscapes and patiently assembled samples, layered on top of one another. Though it is sometimes hard to tell one track from another within the 14 tracks on the album — almost all of which are under three minutes long — “Knockturnes” is nevertheless a rewarding and, often, beautiful listen.
Micromasse’s “Anthropocene,” on the other hand, is as brash and loose-limbed as “Knockturnes” is studied and subdued. Micromasse, comprised of organist Peter Dugas, guitarist Max Cantlin and drummer Chris Sweet, intentionally recalls the “organ trios” of the mid-20th century, like Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott, but with a much wider swath of influences contained within. Most often recalling Afrobeat and the bright, melodic guitar lines of West African High Life, as with album opener “Impination” and “Ranglin,” there’s also a bit of a Latin element in places, and some actual rock as well, as on “Dimanche de Noir,” a hard-driving rager that appears ten tracks in.
It’s hard to resist the often euphoric feel of some of the songs here, like the Grateful Dead-inspired “Children of the Sun,” or “For Hugh,” a seven-minute funky raveup. An effective and very, very pretty cover of Glen Campbell’s classic “Wichita Lineman” anchors the first half of the album, while title track “Anthropocene” belies a bit of Allman Brothers-esque soulful jamming. There are 15 tracks in total here, with the album stretching to around 90 minutes in total — a double album, essentially, and one of the more ambitious releases from a Maine band this year. It’s a testament to Dugas, Cantlin and Sweet’s skill as musicians that I cannot pick a standout among the three; they’re all excellent, and seem to work together effortlessly. Though “Anthropocene” is a very, very good album, by closing track “Chimera” I’m left most wanting to see the band live. If it sounds this good recorded (yet another Halo Studios project), imagine what it sounds like in person.
Kafari will perform with Henry Redman on Aug. 27 at Blue in Portland. Micromasse will perform at Riverwalk Cafe & Bar in Nashua, NH on Aug. 4.