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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Alan Braufman - Valley of Search Music Album Reviews

A 1974 recording from a largely forgotten downtown artist loft space captures some fierce players putting their talents toward a questing, incandescent strain of jazz.

In 1974, after Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins slagged their fellow Berklee alum David S. Ware in newsprint, a few musician friends residing at a little-known artist loft space at 501 Canal Street goaded Giddins with mimeographed posters. If he really wanted to hear what was happening in downtown jazz, they taunted, he should visit the building’s first-floor performance space. Giddins took the bait and caught reedsman Alan Braufman’s band, writing a positive review that noted the group’s “kaleidoscopic densities.”

By the early 1970s, those incandescent strains of jazz, as exemplified by John Coltrane, were in sharp decline. While plugged-in fusion acts were topping the charts, forward-thinking players practicing “black creative music” were no longer drawing bar-friendly crowds to clubs. For players and fans who deemed such music “as serious as your life” (a phrase subsequently used as the title of Valerie Wilmer’s excellent book about that era) they began to gravitate toward downtown loft spaces like Ornette Coleman’s spot on Prince Street, Sam and Bea Rivers’ Studio Rivbea on Bond Street, and late Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali’s own Ali’s Alley. But there’s little documentation of what was cooking at 501 Canal Street save for the lone record credited to Braufman, 1975’s Valley of Search.

There’s nothing to suggest that Valley of Search, the second release on the revered India Navigation label, attained grail status among collectors or was heavily in demand, and Braufman never released an album as leader again; there are no canonical drum breaks fetishized by latter-day beat producers, though Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden did slot “Rainbow Warriors” in his Just Jam set in 2013. But with players like Kamasi Washington, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, and Makaya McCraven initiating a groundswell of interest beyond the confines of the jazz community, the moment is ripe for rediscoveries.

While the sleeve denotes nine selections, Valley of Search really moves as two sidelong suites. Across these large-scale pieces, the first takeaway might be that Braufman is often eclipsed by his excellent sidemen. That’s no knock against him: The album features one of the 1970s’ most formidable bassists in Cecil McBee, a nimble and foundation-deep heavyweight who could be both lyrical and primal as he held down the low end for Pharoah Sanders, Jackie Mclean, Andrew Hill, and Charles Lloyd. The extra percussion and whistles that add to the din come from Ralph Williams, a future collaborator of Wadada Leo Smith.

Making Valley of Search especially noteworthy for jazz historians is an early appearance from Gene Ashton, known today as Cooper-Moore, who continually adds curious new textures throughout the session. Soon after the recording, Ashton decamped to Virginia, but he reemerged in the late 1980s as one of the most electric and eclectic players on the downtown scene, playing with artists like William Parker and Susie Ibarra. Here, he shows flashes of his multifaceted genius and acts as a catalyst for the album’s unique energy. His dulcimer playing gives opener “Rainbow Warriors” its uncanny African folk edge; his chanting of the Bahá’í prayer “God sufficeth all things above all things” leads to a fiery outburst from the band; his dense, choppy piano chords power the climactic “Love Is for Real.”

Braufman’s alto and flute provide the emotional resonance on the album’s final two pieces. His careening, drunken playing on “Little Nabil’s March” is a fine foil to the lurching martial beat behind him. On “Destiny,” he and his band muster a lucidity that is perhaps not as dense as Valley of Search’s other chaotic peaks but quite evocative, drawing on the roiling emotions of something like John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” luminous and sorrowful at once. It verifies Giddins’ impressions in that early press clip and reveals Braufman’s sense of the kaleidoscopic.

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