Kihnoua / The Sybil's Whisper

Larry Ochs, Tenor and Sopranino Saxophones / Dohee Lee, Voice / Scott Amendola, Drums, Electronics / Wilber DeJoode, Bass


Track Listing: Flutter (13:36); Grip Bone (12:47); Erase The Sky (18:06); ...In Progress... (15:31); Recorded at NIR Studio, Emeryville, CA on October 20, 2011 by Eli Crews. © 2011 Ochs, Trobar, ASCAP, administered by BUG Music.


The Sybil's Whisper Album Review One

Singing is the “face on Mars.” We’re hardwired to pick out the human presence, even in alien places. A painter like Claude Lorrain puts a few mythological characters in a landscape and it’s not just “staffage,” a device for showing scale; the landscape organizes itself round the human forms. Same with music. It’s hard to hear a voice as part of an ensemble, particularly if there are comprehensible lyrics. Some improvisers have managed it. One thinks of Norma Winstone’s work with Michael Garrick and with Mike Westbrook, which in part reflects her still underrated ability to sing for rather than merely with the band, but it also reflects their ability to hear her instrumentally rather than as a libretto vocalist. Ran Blake has a genius for integrating singer and piano in such a way there is no longer a distinction between “vocals” and “accompaniment.” Other examples suggest themselves, but Larry Ochs is onto something special with Kihnoua, in which singer Dohee Lee plays a key part.

My instinct is that drummer Scott Amendola is the group’s engine, an impression reinforced by Ochs’ previous work with his Sax & Drum Core, a nicely punning title that is more obviously functional than Kihnoua, which appears to be derived from the Greek for “difference.” I’d suggest this has less to do with a jazzer’s “somethin’ else” shrug at categories and more to do with, say, Charles Babbage’s “difference engine” or with that ‘80s favorite of the graduate schools, Jacques Derrida’s dee-fay-ronce, which contains an implication of deferral as well as separation. Ochs and Lee create music which seems at moments to work according to certain procedural algorithms, but which also defers any easy take on its psychological or expressive landscapes. The places this music takes you to are peopled, but in disturbingly unfamiliar ways. The cover shows a trio of mannequins with a couple of spare limbs; it’s a good metaphor for what happens inside.

“Flutter” is a quiet opening wager, with Lee at her most becalmed, attended by Ochs. The saxophonist has taken time to understand the workings of Korean music, which tends to alternate ethereal, beatless textures with episodes that can sound violent to a Western ear. On “…in progress…,” that lineage seems quite obvious, and the jazz element least so, and yet this is a piece that seems to me to take most from what might be called post-Miles jazz, quite minimal in conception but with an edgy quality, too. It starts with sopranino and bass and suggests an unusual (for this music) degree of tonal gravitation. “GripBone” is dourer and the vocal element more overt and detached. There is a whiff of Pacific Overtures here, a sense of “ethnic” differences being satirically aired and then negated. “Erase the Sky” is again very much driven along by Amendola but gives a lot of foreground to bassist Wilbert de Joode who completes the group on record as Trevor Dunn has on tour. Reports vary on their respective contributions and merits, but there is some consensus that de Joode whiskers it for musical interest and that’s borne out on this track which features an extended roll-out of his arco playing, pitched inside and across the grain of a vigorous meter.

The group’s earlier recording Unauthorized Caprices (Not Two) had guest spots from Fred Frith, Joan Jeanrenaud and Liz Allbee, all of them fascinating. The Sibyl’s Whisper seems to me to bespeak a more confident group identity and an impressively sustained balance of structure and improvised elements. Ochs has sent out notes on the music to potential reviewers. He suggests that these are in some measure narrative works, each of them observing some kind of arc, and that Dohee Lee’s theatrical background is important to the music. The point is taken, but they’re all ensemble pieces in the fullest sense, collectivized, simultaneous in a way that some Asian drama avoids linearity and alternation of speech. Above all, it’s very effecting and involving music, one of the most interesting and fruitful releases of the year so far. One sees the human figures in the landscape and wonders vaguely what they are about, but there are so many possible stories one tends to enjoy the possibility of narrative rather than insisting on one particular interpretation. Like the “face on Mars,” everything depends on the angle, and like the “anomalies” at Cydonia, the inhuman landscape is every bit as interesting.

The Sybil's Whisper Album Review Two

— New York Jazz Record March 2012

The quartet Kihnoua is a loose and surprising affair. Open and airy (it seems there’s rarely a moment when all four are playing), the group is marked by Dohee Lee’s soprano vocalese and the electronic effects that supplement Scott Amendola’s percussion. Lee has a strong range both in pitch and emotive force and Ochs often seems to be sharing her space, supplementing the wails and interjections. Amendola is fantastically all over the place and bassist Wilbert de Joode is ever deep and solid. The Sybil’s Whisper is fairly mad with no shortage of excitement, free-for-all and shared discovery. Maybe that’s the release Ochs needs to keep his ROVA focus so tight. Or maybe it’s just we listeners who need the release.