Monday, May 18, 2015

Seeing Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot & ATS' 30th Anniversary

Lina Allemano came to town about a year and a half ago, playing one of the Space Exchange shows, the Tuesday night jazz/experimental/what-not night that's normally hosted by a few different local musicians at the Thunderbird Cafe. At the time, she was with her quartet (trumpet, sax, bass, drums), who played it straight but solid. Last week, her return was a little different. Known as Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot, the group includes drummer Nick Fraser (who was also in the quartet), bass guitarist Rob Clutton and keyboardist Ryan Driver.

The group was free all the way (so was the admission charge, so if you missed it, shame on ya). Allemano was blowing rapid clusters of lines, never really digressing into guttural smears or high splats, but definitely locking into flurries of notes. Fraser was a study in restraint, rarely looking at his kit straight on. He seemed to have his eyes closed most of the time, with an expression that meant he was listening attentively to where the music was going.

Clutton was sometimes hard to hear, plunking on a classic Fender but often getting lost in a wave of sounds from Allemano and Driver. The latter was the wild card of the night. He was playing a Realistic keyboard. Yes, Realistic as in the kind that Radio Shack used to sell. I can recall noodling around on one of those (and getting yelled at) in a Radio Shack about 35 years ago. It might not be the same exact model, because Driver seemed to be hitting more than one note at a time, while I think my version was monophonic. But he was doing a lot of knob twisting too.

For the second set, saxophonist Ben Opie (who helped bring Allemano back) sat in with the group. The addition added another level of excitement to the music. Things were still free but the conversation seemed to deepen a bit. If, by some chance, you're reading this entry because you googled Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot since they're coming to your town, be sure to check them out. And buy some CDs too. Their Kiss the Brain disc is really solid.

Around this time 30 years ago, I was going through some sort of existential crisis (although I didn't know it at the time because I had no idea what that meant) because I was a senior in high school and not sure what I was doing once I graduated. At that same time, Pittsburgh newcomer Josh Arnson was teaming up with local underground music stalwarts Evan Knauer, Mike Marcinko and Steve Heineman, and formed a band they dubbed ATS. This was the age of initial bands: DRI, GBH, NSFU, TSOL; though none of those bands have anything to do with ATS' music. That was also the age of cow-punk which ATS was somewhat-incorrectly described as, at the time. Jazz, Minutemen-style punk, real country and anything else they were listening to - it all got thrown in to the blend at some point.

The band marked their 30th anniversary this past Saturday, by playing a characteristically loooooooooong set at Howler's. Arnson and Heineman, if you don't know, left the band 25-28 years ago. Kip Ruefle replaced Heineman, and once guitarist Arnson left, they soldiered on as a trio, save for the occasional auxiliary horn player or extra guitarist that just showed up.

I've seen ATS umpteen times in all those years. Hell, the Love Letters played the band's 25th and 27th anniversary shows at the same venue. But I felt like I had to check this one out again too. The Full Counts opened the night, playing LOUD garage rock, fueled by a lot of power chords. Bassist Eric Vermillion (once of Gumball nationally and locally part of the Steel Miners, FOOD and a few others) fronts the band. While Mr. V has a gift for a raspy garage-band scream, the songs I caught proved that he can sing just as well. Mark Urbano, who played with Heineman decades ago in White Wreackage (and several others) also plays in the band, along with drummer Mike Quinlan (another scene vet who played in Da Shunts with Knauer; as well as FOOD). (Apologies to guitarist #1, whose name I didn't get.)

The core ATS trio of Knauer, Marcinko and Ruefle was expanded with Heineman on keys (that guy can play anything and do it well), saxophonist Tim Pollock and trumpeter Downtown Steve Brown. The joke about ATS' early days is that all of the sets were the same. You could set your watch to the cymbal introduction to "Helsinki Town" as the evening got started, never letting up until "Song for Alice" at the end.

A lot has changed in 30 years. The first two-thirds of the set were new songs, relatively speaking. Knauer even made some quips about "new" meaning they were written in the past six years. Time has done nothing to slow these guys down in terms of songwriting or performance. In fact the noodling that was part and parcel of some of those early shows has really been streamlined in recent years. And by the time they got around to riff-based "classics" like "Sepco and "Louise" at the end of the set, I was kind of craving them. Prior to that, the newer ones sounded as strong as the oldies.

Of course, by the end, I was nearly falling asleep on my feet. I stayed until the end, but it was trying, after that third drink.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

CD Review: Chris Potter Underground Orchestra - Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra
Imaginary Cities

Chris Potter didn't set out to do a concept album about the state of the urban landscape. But in some ways the music on Imaginary Cities does come off like a musical assessment of it. Any given piece of real estate, be it rural or urban, comes with many layers to it, geologically and historically speaking. The suburban sprawl that we see while driving, crammed to the gills with billboards, fast food establishments and the occasional Mom and Pop store - what did it look like half a century ago? Inner city communities still have buildings that was constructed in a period prior,  with storefronts commingling with houses, in various states of repair, still echoing a time when neighborhoods were self-sufficient and there was no need to hop on a bus or get in a car to go and do your shopping.

Where does it go from here? Was it better back then, or is it better to keep move forward? Maybe it's neither of the above, and better to just stare out at the vast sky and soak in the scope of it.

These visuals spring to mind on the tenor saxophonist's new album, which takes his Underground quartet (pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Adam Rogers, drummer Nate Smith) and adds two bassists (upright player Scott Colley and bass guitarist Fima Ephron), a string quartet and vibraphonist/marimbaist Steve Nelson to it. They create a rich sound, especially during the different sections of the four-part "Imaginary Cities" suite, "Compassion," "Dualities," "Disintegration" and "Rebuilding."

The names, when taken together with the music, conjure up images of various aspects of city life.  "Dualities" seems to depict the contrast between the minor strings and the bright sounding marimba. "Distintegration" is especially telling, where Potter's soprano and the strings move rather freely over a mix of acoustic guitar and basses, creating some eerie tension. Some of it sounds completely composed, while other sections give everyone space to move freely. Finally, to read more into the whole concept, Potter aptly ends by proposing solutions, not merely bringing up issues. "Rebulding" begins with Smith laying down a odd-time groove that Potter (back on tenor) and Nelson use to great advantage. The 11-minute piece goes through various shapes, holding down the groove before switching in the final quarter into a more midtempo section.

But that's only half of the album. "Lament," which precedes the title suite, features Potter's tenor playing over a yearning two-chord vamp towards the end which still has plenty of fire brewing, the strings giving the music a more expansive sound, never acting as a sweetener. The quartet gets as much frontline room as Potter on "Shadow Self," which is inspired by Bela Bartok. The closing "Sky" acts something like a final statement to the whole city concept of the album. The music is vast and expansive, as if trying to encompass the surroundings, again bolstered by the arrangement of 11-piece group.

Strings and jazz can make strange bedfellows. Even the way the strings are recorded can impact the impact of the music. Potter uses them in his music to alternately create tension and reinforce the beauty of his music. In doing so, new things are discovered with each listen, from the shape of melodies to subtle colors that Craig Taborn uses to add drama. It's a work that gets more meaningful with time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

RIP Bernard Stollman, ESP-Disk's founder

One of the most dramatic scenes in It's a Wonderful Life comes in the part where George Bailey has no identity and he sees his widowed mother running a boarding house. Frank Capra really plays up the pathos, filming half of Jimmy Stewart's shocked face at close view. Behind him, Clarence the angel says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

I thought about Clarence's observation when I heard that Bernard Stollman, the eccentric found of ESP-Disk records passed away yesterday at the age of 85. He lost a battle with colon cancer that had spread to his spine.

ESP was the first American label to give Albert Ayler due recognition. Even though Broadside initially issued the Fugs' debut album, ESP later reissued it and brought it to more people, and released their self-titled second album (which is arguably their best one). Pearls Before Swine. The Godz. Paul Bley. Patty Waters. The list goes on and on. And on. And it includes albums that maybe should not have been released. But they were. The world is a little stranger for it, in a good way. Who knows how many outsider artists were motivated to make music based on what they heard on that label?

It all comes back to Stollman's eccentric vision. He started the label because of his commitment to promoting the Esperanto language. (That's what the label's name represented.) The first album was Ni Kantu en Esperanto, an album of insipid traditional songs sung in Esperanto. I once talked to an ESP act and expressed a desire to hear it. He responded, "No, you don't."

It could have stopped there. But Stollman heard Ayler and put his support behind him, thus providing the first serious platform for what would be called free jazz. He released what was Henry Grimes' only solo album for decades. Giuseppi Logan. Marion Brown. Sunny Murray. Oh wait - I'm getting carried away again.

Stollman might not have been the best businessman, but I'm not here to discuss that. I'm here to give thanks to one man's crazy idea that inspired countless others in its wake. And to encourage others to do the same. You never know how many people you're going to reach when you put a piece of art out there. No, that's not the point, but it can be a significant side effect. So, thanks, Bernard, wherever you are. Ripozi en paco.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rob Mazurek, Geri Allen, Kathryn Calder, Vanilla Fudge

Right now I'm listening to music that I have to review so I can't post anything new. But I have written things in other places to let you know what I've been up to.

Here's a review of both the Rob Mazurek & Black Cube SP show at the Andy Warhol Museum, and Geri Allen & TimeLine at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. You might need to scroll down through a few stories to read it.

Today, Kathryn Calder - keyboardist and vocalist of the New Pornographers - releases her third solo album under her own name. It's self-titled too. My review of it appears on the Blurt website right here.

Finally, weeks after the fact, here's my Vanilla Fudge piece, also on Blurt.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Mary Halvorson & Stephan Crump - aka Secret Keeper - Slay Pittsburgh

Funny how these things work. Sometimes top-notch, adventurous jazz types come to Pittsburgh and a baker's dozen of listeners show up. Then last night, a guitarist who is arguably one of the most innovative in her field (definitely the most unique voice) and a dynamic, prolific bassist  - whose regular gigs include a spot in the Vijay Iyer Trio - come to town, totally flying under the p.r. radar, and they pack a loft, essentially selling it out, at least a week in advance. It's a tad ironic that the duo goes by the name Secret Keeper. But I'm here to celebrate, not castigate.

I found out that Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Stephan Crump (bass)  - aka Secret Keeper - were coming here almost by accident, told by a friend/publicist a while ago. The evening after I interviewed Mary for a Pittsburgh City Paper article, I heard that it was sold out. Luckily, Mary ensured that I got in. Which is good because if I hadn't, I would have had a five-alarm meltdown. ("Standing in the rain/ with his head hung low/ couldn't get a ticket/ it was a sold-out show...")

The only reason I'm editorializing is because it would have been cool if the folks who attend things like the Sound Exchange weekly events at the Thunderbird Cafe had known about it, so audiences could cross-pollinate. Mary is coming back for a residency in June/July with the band Thumbscrew. Hopefully everyone can come in contact then. We can be a welcoming people, us Pittsburghers.

So, yeah, I suppose I was sort of geeking out at the show. I really like Mary's music with her own bands, and love Stephan's many projects. But getting to see Secret Keeper in person, just a few feet away from me, was awesome. Halvorson's big, hollow body Guild guitar has a distinct, crisp tone to begin with, but she has a signature sound, built on a skillful use of pitch-bending pedals, delay and the occasional stomp of the Rat distortion box. Crump plays his bass viscerally, hugging it, singing along with it, generally working up a sweat as he did last night. (It got pretty warm in the room as the set proceeded.)

Emerge, Secret Keeper's second album, isn't officially out yet, but the duo has been touring in support of it for the past week, and last night's set was predominantly drawn from that album's tracks. It was fascinating to watch Halvorson play long, extended melody lines that kept flowing. In the coda of "Bridge Loss Sequence, she switched to chords that almost sounded like Freddie Green's riffing in a Count Basie piece - although the context was way different, and this was only a passing moment. But it shows how much contour can be found in their work.

Crump often sounding like he was operating on a different rhythmic plain than his partner, but it was easy to see that they were moving together even if they were playing parallel melodies (or to extend that metaphor, maybe it was more perpendicular). He bowed some deep harmonics and some rich double (and possibly triple) stops. Then the climax to a piece like "Disproportionate Endings" both of them pulled out some outer space harmonics. "Mirrors," originally an improvisation on their Super 8 album, had Crump playing his bass's frame percussively before Halvorson looped a bunch of guitar effects that sounded like sped-up piano noodlings.

The audience seemed to stay with the duo through the whole set, sitting in quiet, rapt attention (from what little I could pick up in the second row) and showing their enthusiasm with applause. Here's hoping we'll all see each other again soon at another show.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

CD Review: Anthony Braxton - Trio and Duet

Anthony Braxton
Trio and  Duet

Delmark continues their reissue series of albums on the Sackville label with a 1974 session that could have just as easily been called Two Sides of Anthony Braxton, due to the contrast between what appeared on Side One and Side Two. The side-length "Composition 36" finds him with his Creative Construction Company partner (Wadada) Leo Smith (trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion, small instruments) and Richard Teitelbaum (Moog synthesizer, percussion). Conversely, Side Two consists of Braxton and bassist Dave Holland tearing through standards like "The Song Is You" and "Embraceable You," never forsaking the chord changes but also maintaining their own musical identities.

"Composition 36" also blends elements of abstract, sometimes pointillistic playing with recurring melodic elements. It begins with Teitelbaum oozing out some metallic drones from his keyboard before a muted Smith and Braxton (playing only B-flat, and later bass, clarinet) state a long-toned theme that will reappear a few more times. The 18-minute piece never really falls into a full group improvisation nor do the players take typical solo spots. Overlap and support are key. Smith wrings life out from upper register squeals, the clarinet squeaks and grumbles through different registers. Teitelbaum creates noisy soundscapes but he also turns them into pedal notes that sound like a melodic vacuum cleaner, and he also unleashes some fast keyboard runs in a more conventional voice.

After hearing this on vinyl, one has the chance to ruminate on the contours of "Composition 36" while flipping the record over. With the reissue, we're propelled right into an upbeat, nearly 12-minute version of "The Song Is You" without much more than a chance to exhale. Holland's steady walking bassline keeps the structure in place, still leaving him time to solo. Braxton's alto has a delightfully gruff tone to it that treats the standards well. "You Go To My Head" is played a little more uptempo than normal, and not quite as legato; "Embraceable You" also sounds a little wilder and not quite as much like a ballad. "I Remember You" - one of two bonus tracks - takes liberties with the melody from the first measure, perhaps in homage to Lennie Tristano and his acolytes. As he continues, Braxton adds a few squonks to the tune, which might explain why this track was left off the original album (though length was also probably a major factor). In total, Trio and Duet offers a vast picture of the complexities that fueled Braxton's work.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Matthew Shipp & Michael Bisio Are Coming To Town

Pianist Matthew Shipp (left) and bassist Michael Bisio (right) are coming to Pittsburgh tomorrow night (that's Wednesday, April 1) and performing at the First Unitarian Church at Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues. I talked to Matthew a couple weeks ago, and parts of the conversation are appearing tomorrow in Pittsburgh City Paper as part of a bigger article about shows happening here this month. Considering how the show is tomorrow, and how Matt only gets a few good quotes in, I figured I'd run the whole interview here. Matt has a bit of a reputation as being a firebrand but he's always been nothing but nice to me. Plus, his performances are amazing. He and Michael came to town last fall as a duo and it was astounding. So if a few more people are motivated to check them out based on this, that will be a good thing.

Q: So did I read that you have an album coming out on ESP-Disk?

It’s the sax player’s CD [Polish tenor saxophonist Mat Walerian] but they put my name on it because it’s his first cd. And I have an Ellington album [To Duke] out too on a French label, Rogue Art.

Q: But didn’t you say I’ve Been to Many Places might be your last album.

I know what I said. Don’t listen to what I say when it comes to recording. [Laughs} I meant it. But I’m still in this vortex of recording. I just can’t seem to get out of it.

Q: Is it still fun?
Yeah. I love the process but I would rather….

Q: Why’d you say it?

I’ve been with [the label] Thirsty Ear for a long time. And I’m not going to keep doing it forever where I keep putting out Thirsty Ear albums now. And probably, when I end my relationship with Thirsty Ear, unless something sweet comes along, where it’s involved with some patronage type of thing, I’m not gonna keep generating albums on other labels too. It’ll be obvious when it’s time.  And I thought it was, but it wasn’t quite.

Q: How long you and Michael [Bisio, bass] been playing together?

The first gig with the trio was probably 5 to 6 years ago. We have a real feel for each other and a real friendship apart from the music. And a real feeling of destiny for this part of our life as far as being a team. We have a real sense of purpose with this. I feel it does show in the music.

Q: How does playing in a duo setting differ from the trio [which had included drummer Whit Dickey]?

It’s more intimate. The trio – this might sound weird – it’s more of a commercial jazz setting and people are more used to that format. You can kind of do it with the veneer that it’s a regular jazz trio no matter how modern the music is. And with the duo, you do away with that pretense altogether, just doing pure communication.

Q: How does playing with Michael compare with playing with William Parker?

It’s two different structures altogether. They both are utter monsters and they both are strong personalities. And they both are great bassists and they both are totally different also. i’ve been blessed to have both of them in my life. I feel very lucky.

Q: Do you still get to play with William?

I have breakfast with him most every day. I do stuff with him occasionally. I’ve done a couple different things that he’s been involved in, in the last year. I mean he’s so busy with his own stuff.

Q: So, the new album [The Gospel According to Matthew & Michael (Relative Pitch) with Bisio and violist Mat Maneri] – how spontaneous was that?

I want that to be the mystery. I’m not going to say. There are definitely some composed parts but it’s also a lot of improv. The percentage – I want to sit back and see what everyeone guesses with that….there’s definitely some compositions in there. This is an experiment for me. I want to see what people project on it. So I’m not going to answer that.

Q: Tell me about the Robert D. Bielecki grant.
In my case, he gives out different grants for different things but he just gave me a certain amount of money ($15,000) and told me to do whatever I want with it. I used some of this for this project. He’s a foundation and he gives away money to people he thinks will do something with it. And he happens to be a fan of my music. So that worked out well.

Q: How did it come together? Did you have to apply for it?
I knew he was doing a foundation and I put out feelers. I had seen him sneaking around at a couple of my concerts in the past. I started talking to him and he asked, If I gave this amount of money, what would you do with it? And I said, I don’t know… pay off credit card debts? [Laughs] But I used that money to fund this project. I haven’t done anything with Mat Maneri for a while, and I wanted to get back with him and do something with him also.

Q: How is touring going? Is your audience growing?
Every gig’s different in every place. We’ve had some really good turnouts for some things recently. I actually played at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was the Ellington project. We had two sold out sets. I recently played in Washington DC and the organization we played had the biggest audience they ever had. But on any given night, you can have an off night. Nothing is a straight line in this. But we’ve been doing pretty well on the road.

Q: How are shows in Europe?

I’m not going to say it’s dried up. But it’s not as rich as it once was.  But yeah it’s cool.

Q: A few days ago, you started a debate on Facebook at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Oh, that’s still going on. [Shipp’s issue was that a large number of performances during the festival were tributes to older artists or albums, like A Love Supreme, at the expense of current artists playing their own music]

Q: Well, here’s your chance to expound on it.

I would just say, ah… all jazz needs to be organic. And by organic I mean, just let people do what they do, whether it’s straight ahead, avant-garde…I would say there’s an over- degree of conceptualization going on in programming at major festivals that’s not conducive to having a beautiful organic evening. A lot of it seems to be very calculated – calculated for tourists. And in that way, it’s doesn’t seem to be a vibrant music. The way a lot of major festivals are presenting it, they got corporate sponsorships and it seems like they almost program things in ways that they think mirror the corporate sponsorship. There’s something so plastic about so much of it.

Q: That’s everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to add?

I’m just trying to play some music. I’m trying to really be organic these days and try to do my thing.