Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wadada Leo Smith is Deep

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper is running my preview/interview with Wadada Leo Smith. He and I had a great conversation about a week ago, where it became clear that music is closely connected to everything he does in his life. We probably talked for about five minutes before we even started talking about playing and writing music because he was telling me the inspiration behind his latest suite, which salutes some of our country's national parks.

Not only can you read the feature article here, I also assembled a Q&A section from parts of our conversation that weren't used in the context of the article. They appear on City Paper's music blog, which can be found here.  Together, they're a lengthy read, but I think what he has to say is worth the effort. Hopefully it makes sense to readers who weren't on the phone with him, like I was. And don't forget, he's appearing in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon FOR FREE along with Vijay Iyer. For a reminder of what their latest album sounded like, you can go back to my review of it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Show Tonight: Ben Goldberg & Michael Coleman, Ben Opie

Since the Thunderbird Cafe closed for renovations, I've really been missing Space Exchange, the Tuesday night series hosted by Ben Opie (saxophones), Dave Throckmorton (drums) and a few other musicians that have come and gone out of Pittsburgh. Each week one of the guys would present a different group (which often included one of the other SE hosts) that might not have been pure jazz but were rooted in improvisational music.

In addition to the music, it was a cool community of musicians and listeners who frequented it - a good way to catch up with everyone, and I know I got at least two ideas for articles from hanging out there on a regular basis. Plus it's always cool when the bartender sees you coming and starts making your drink without saying a word. I'm not exactly sure when the Thunderbird will reopen but hopefully Space Exchange will be part of it.

Until then, I have to catch as catch can. Tonight Ben Opie is opening for Ben Goldberg at Howler's. He's playing a solo set, which may or may not incorporate electronics and computer stuff/noise into it. So I'm going to be sure to get their on time to catch him and hopefully catch up on things.

Then there's the headlining duo of Ben Goldberg (clarinet) and Michael Coleman (keyboards). They came to town twice last year in a trio. Last March I previewed Goldberg in City Paper. Tonight they're performing Hocus Pocus (Book H of Practitioners), a series of etudes that Steve Lacy wrote for solo soprano saxophone. They've, of course, adapted it for clarinet and keyboards/electronics, which should be well worth exploring.

When they came to town last fall, along with drummer Hamir Atwal, they played a strong set that segued easily between free improvisation and written works, including a version of Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue," which can get really lugubrious if the players aren't careful. They were. Coleman did a great job of balancing keyboard work and bass duties. And Goldberg's approach to soloing was astounding.

They appear together on an album credited to Schimscheimer Family Trio. Goldberg was credited more as a guest, while Coleman, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen and drummer Jon Arkin were the main "family." Each of the three were also credited with electronics, which added a unique, somewhat vintage synth/video game effect to various tracks.

Goldberg - who always has a handful of projects going at once - also released an album on Relative Pitch a few months ago as part of a trio called the Out Louds. He, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara make up the group which engaged in some spry improvisations that were loose but still strong.

Come to the show tonight and bring a few extra bucks to pick up one of these discs, or any others they might have. For what it's worth, there's an ATM in the bar too. Howler's is located at 4509 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. Cover is $10. Doors open at 8 p.m.

Friday, June 17, 2016

CD Review: Lesley Flanigan-Hedera

Lesley Flanagan
(Physical Editions)

Experimental vocal music can be a dicey medium, whether the performer works within a band context, goes it alone with no effects or expands and builds on a voice through the use of pedals. Natural echo can make long notes resonate with a warm quality. Percussive sounds, conversely, can bring back memories of the kid at the junior high lunch table that was skilled at burping the alphabet, or stereotypical imitations of Tourette's Syndrome.

Lesley Flanagan's previous recordings combined her strong voice with feedback that emanated from her hand-crafted wooden speakers. The results lead one writer to call 2009's Amplifications "a snowstorm of a record," which sounds like an ideal compliment.  Hedera features just two tracks, the twenty-minute title track and the five-minute "Can Barely Feel My Feet."

"Hedera" begins with a rapid percussive beat, generated by a malfunctioning tape deck. Despite its origin, the unceasing 16-note "riff" has a strong, visceral quality to it. Once that's established, Flanagan begins layering long vocal tones on top of it, building chordal harmonies that twist and wrap around one another. After seven minutes, she starts pulling them back and soon the music takes an Eno-esque break for some tranquility. The quality of the notes here fall into a strange middle ground between human voice and synthesizer. The beat is still part of it, but it sits far back in the mix, acting more like a reminder than a participant. It eventually reemerges and the music works towards something of a climax with layers of Flanagan swirling around each other. As the piece fades, the beat finally goes away, and all the variations in the voices sound clear. It also has a more human quality that was overshadowed by the relentless beat, which kept the piece more in the realm of electronica. If Flanagan had added more variations to the sound of the groove, or simply removed it for a bit, the whole piece might have felt more emotionally engaging. Nevertheless, it maintains an alluring quality.

"Can Barely Feel My Feet" does away with a beat completely, leaving the listener in the presence of ghostly voices that rise and fall, moan and coo repeatedly. Some sections have a warm, hypnotic quality while one voice adds an eerie quality in the way Flanigan moans.

To a first time listener, Hedera serves as a good introduction to Lesley Flanigan, leaving you intrigued about what will come next and how the preceding releases compare.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

CD Review: Richard Poole/Marilyn Crispell/Gary Peacock - In Motion

Richard Poole/Marilyn Crispell/Gary Peacock
In Motion

In Motion undoubtedly describes this trio's performance, but it's hard to see the names of Marilyn Crispell (piano) and Gary Peacock (bass) and not think of the title as something of a reference to their late co-conspirator, drummer Paul Motian. His musical strokes complemented Crispell's exploratory keyboard work and Peacock's probing, rich bass lines so exquisitely that their recordings should be regarded as some of the best works of modern piano trios.

Of course, drummer Richard Poole's name appears first on the album cover, so it wouldn't be fair to simply talk about him only in reference to his predecessor. While he might borrow some tips from Motian - such as knowing when a gentle cymbal is worth a dozen rolls - he reveals his own personality and works skillfully together with his compatriots. "Dichotomy" serves as the best introduction, wherein the tranquility of Peacock's measured, opening bass solo is shattered with explosive drums and a chaotic piano attack the likes of which Crispell hasn't unleashed in years. The pattern repeats itself and between the performance and track title, it evokes joie de vivre.

By contrast "Serakunda" finds the trio in a completely different setting with a bright, folky melody anchored by Peacock, whose tone and attack vibrates with authority throughout the whole album. The bassist's "Gary's Theme" is the one track not attributed to the trio, and the one that wasn't a spontaneous invention. Crispell develops on the author's lead by adding short lines, while Poole holds a pulse, and takes a brief solo.

Much of the album moves in a manner that implies time without actually stating it or abiding by it. How the trio uses it makes all the difference. "Isle of Nowhere" is a delicate ballad that sounds composed, with rolling cymbals and Peacock working like a second voice, rather than accompanist. "Ahzân" opens gently with piano notes hanging in the air before the bass takes the lead and Poole plays what sounds like hand percussion. The title track is pure freedom, with Crispell's percussive tendencies leading the way, though Poole and Peacock provide the perfect reactions and counterpoints to the piano.

Crispell, Peacock and Poole chose accurately chose an album title that reflects what they do, and whether their cutting loose wildly or keeping things gentle, the music stays in motion. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

CD Review: Roswell Rudd/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balazs Pandi - Strength & Power

Roswell Rudd/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balazs Pandi
Strength & Power

Octagenarian trombonist Roswell Rudd shows no signs of slowing down. He recently released August Love Song, an album with Heather Masse, a vocalist known largely as a regular on A Prairie Home Companion. While Rudd fits comfortably in a more conventional setting like that one, he still claims ownership to a bold, brassy sound attack that excels in free settings.

That's exactly what happened when he teamed up with Jamie Saft (here on acoustic piano), Trevor Dunn (bass) and Balazs Pandi (drums). At Saft's home studio, the tapes rolled, the band cut loose and Strength and Power reveals the results. The pianist opens the session and the title track with some gentle probing lines. Rudd begins in the background, adding commentary with a wah-wah mute as Dunn and Pandi create suspense. Eventually the mute comes out, and while Rudd expounds mostly in short phrases, they come in authoritative bursts. Throughout the 18-minute track, the group investigates the space between each other, often playing in parallel lines, but the mood is still joyous.

Saft adds to the drive of "The Bedroom" by manipulating the strings of his instrument, creating some strong percussive clatter. "Luminescent" presents evidence that free improvisers can create a ballad with delicate beauty. The opening 30 seconds especially create some strong electricity between the musicians. Rudd later makes a rhythmic suggestion that could have sparked more band synapses, but Pandi - who would have been the person to follow it - doesn't take the bait. The music still delivers fire, but it again seems like the quartet is playing together but they aren't always reacting to one another.

By album closer "Struttin' for Jah Jah" they seem more in tune, mentally. Operating with more of a pronounced 4/4 pulse, Pandi toys with a free bop and a New Orleans shuffle while Dunn dances around him. Saft stabs at chords, coming off like Jazz Advance-era Cecil Taylor. Then there's Rudd - breathing fire that has a vocal quality to it, which is accentuated by the "yeah" he wails on a break between lines. It proves that a veteran player can match wits with three 30- and 40-something players. While things could be a little more pronounced, Strength & Power still has plenty of strong moments. And it appears that Rudd is hopeful for both a follow-up and some live work, so keep an eye on this conglomeration.

This album is available on CD and double-vinyl, as well as other digital formats.

CD Review: Twin Talk

Twin Talk
Twin Talk

The term "twin talk" comes from the phenomena of cryptophasia, and refers to a secret language that many twins develop at an early age. The Chicago group that uses that term as an identifier actually consists of three people, Andrew Green (drums), Katie Ernst (bass/vocals) and Dustin Laurenzi (tenor saxophone). Nevertheless, the concept make sense when considering the way musicians communicate through music.

Twin Talk's sophomore release features a set of originals where all three interact, often beginning with simple melodies that lead into improvisations which build alternately on straight vamps and rhythmically challenging ones. Laurenzi, who penned all but three of the tracks, likes to volley two- to three-note licks off of Ernst's bass. This happens in the opening "Colorwheel" and "One Foot in Front of the Other," though both tracks yield different results. The latter adds Ernst's voice to the mix, blending with the saxophone like a languid fourth instrument. The repetition gets a bit unnerving at first, recalling Patty Waters at her more tranquil moments, but it eventually breaks into a steady groove that merits the anticipation. "Colorwheel" by contrast is bright and staccato from the get-go.

Ernst sings two of her own songs, which provide greater contrast to the set. "Living Room" is the more unique of the two, where she bows long tones over equally languorous tenor lines and double-time brushes from Green. The one-chorus lyric sounds like a abstract poem that accentuates the melody. "Hush Hush" seems a little closer to a folk tune, perhaps, but neither piece fits easily into any expectations of jazz vocals, which makes both of them work.

For the rest of the album, the trio comes up with pieces that grab the ear either through their ease with odd grooves ("J.J.", "Eleven," the bridge of "Teddy") or strong sense of interaction ("Rupert," with its ascending bass double-stops and use of toms and climactic fills). Ernst demonstrates a particularly thick tone on her instrument, opening her "Martha" with a solo that recalls Charlie Haden's pensive voice. Laurenzi plays with a sense of economy, using a strong narrative to make points without the need to show flash. That role is filled by Green, who doesn't exactly chew up the scenery so much as adds incisive accents that boost the music in all the right places.  In some ways, Twin Talk evokes JD Allen's trio, who can take riffs and put an amazing shine on them. But it's easy to feel a greater sense of adventure just below the surface with these three, such as when they move into free territory or add vocals. Follow this band.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Urinals Hit Pittsburgh

The past Wednesday night, the Love Letters got to play a show with first-generation LA punk rockers the Urinals. They debuted sometime in the late '70s, released a few 7"s and changed their name to 100 Flowers, as their abilities improved and their songwriting evolved. That band released an album and EP before breaking up around 1983. In that incarnation, they were one of my favorite bands during my early stages of songwriting and playing with Bone of Contention (albeit a few years after their demise), thanks to their blend of chopped-up lyrics, punk attack and a strange bit of pop sense that lingered around the edges.

As it happens, right as I was really absorbing all that music, realizing that I could never be like Mike Watt but maybe I could be like John Talley-Jones, Trotsky Icepick showed up with the album Poison Summer. Ex-100 Flowers guitarist Kjehl Johansen started that group with ex-Last organist-turned-guitarist Vitus Matare (who needs punk names when you have great names like those?). As I was wearing that that marble vinyled album out, I did what you did back then, and I wrote the band a letter. Vitus replied by sending me the first Poison Summer album, by Danny & the Doorknobs. The album title stayed the same, but the band name changed, get it? Long story....

Anyhow, to get back up to this week, in a few steps: Trotsky Icepick finally came to Pittsburgh 25 years ago and played with Bone of Contention. Friendships were established. Talley-Jones later released an EP by the Pundits, a band of which I was a member. The Urinals reunited when all old punk rock suddenly had a new audience. They've released two new albums since then, the most recent being Next Year at Marienbad. 

A mini-tour with the Love Letters didn't exactly pan out, but we were able to set something up with them this past Wednesday at Howler's, which is just around the corner from my place. I shouldn't say this was a dream come true, but it was exciting to see John Talley-Jones for the first time since 1991, meet drummer Kevin Barrett and guitarist Rob Roberge (Johansen left the fold a while back) and to hear some of these songs in person for the first time ever.

It's a thought-provoking prospect, if you ask me: when you're known for music that's over three decades old, how do you co-mingle that with the new stuff, keep people interested and not seem like a nostalgia act? The answer is you treat all things equal and just plow through all of it with abandon. That's just what the band did on Wednesday. They started with "Hologram," which consists of two chords hammered away, Wire-style. Without stopping for much of a breath, Barrett clicked off "Shut Yr Trap" from the new album, which segued right back into "Sex" (an early one that can be found on the complete comp Negative Capability...Check It Out).

It helps that the Urinals' newest material is just as solid as the early stuff too. In a way, they do Wire better than Wire does these days. Roberge didn't take leads per se but he plays more than just power chords. Covering "Little Johnny Jewel" takes guts, and these guys delivered. Plus they were loud.

The Love Letters played as a trio that night because our guitarist Buck was out of town. Normally I might pass on a gig without him, but this was a special occasion, so we played as a trio. It was Mike Prosser's first time being fully shoved into the spotlight but he's assumed a pretty firm position in the band now. We're playing a few of his songs, which I really like a lot, and hope to record someday (at least one of them). Following a show we played at Gooski's about 10 days prior (with Buck), which also went really well, I felt like we are on a pretty good roll.

Since we jumped onto a show that had already been reserved at Howlers, the opening act was a New Jersey punk-influenced rapper who went by the name J-E-double-F. He was pretty intense, looking a bit like Danzig, but kicking it old school with a sampler and breakdowns between verses. He played for about 20 minutes which was just the perfect length of time. I hope he didn't mind being on an odd bill with us, but I think it worked.

The Urinals stayed at my house, so before and after the show we got to socialize a bit. I wish I could've showed them more of the city but they were on their way to Chicago the next morning. At least we had time for breakfast and a few photos, as seen below. For those who don't know, that's me on the left and John Talley-Jones on the right. I look like I don't have a spine but I do. I was between bites of a bagel.

My next wish, to have Trotsky Icepick come to town for my 50th birthday show in October 2017. their new album should be out by that time. And Kjehl has already expressed approval online, so we'll see....

Sunday, May 15, 2016

CD Review: Keefe Jackson (& friends), Peter A. Schmid (& friends too)

Keefe Jackson/Jason Adasiewicz
Rows and Rows

Keefe Jackson/Josh Berman/Jon Rune Strøm/ Tollef Østvang
Southern Sun

Peter A. Schmid
Chicago Conversations
(Creative Works)

Tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Keefe Jackson never seems content with just one music project. Or two. He's released albums with the cooperative Fast Citizens (a group of Chicago-connected musicians who take turns in the leadership role), a series of quartets and the larger ensembles Project Project and Likely So, the latter an all-reed septet. There are more than I'm either forgetting or leaving out for no reason other than to turn attention towards his latest escapades: a duo session with a longtime Chicago friend; a quartet with another Chicago pal and two Norwegian players; and an album by Swiss multi-reedist Peter A. Schmid which features Jackson and several other musicians engaged in improvised duets and trios. 

Quite simply, Jackson and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz are deeply ensconced in the Chicago jazz scene, individually and collectively. But that doesn't mean they won't push and challenge each other, or the unsuspecting listener. Rather than rolling the tapes and just blowing, they work through seven compositions by Jackson and three by Adasiewicz which rely on freedom with bits of themes to hold it together.Rows and Rows features a mix of material, from noirish moods to free, choppy moments and even a theme or two that sound like Blue Note abstractions.

"Questioned, Understood, Possessed" begins with some wild sax blowing over vibes that create a dreamscape, before things slide into a tenor melody that Adasiewicz punctuates on the bars. Jackson plays bass clarinet appears on several tracks, which always guarantees an exciting blend of guttural eruptions and wails. It begins "Where's Mine," in a choppy unison with the vibes, which Adasiewicz uses to create some percussive clanks by clicking the frame and resonators. In "A Rose Heading" he plays chords behind the bass clarinet, followed by "Swap" which is exactly what they do: Adasiewicz takes the lead while Jackson riffs.

Switching back to tenor, Jackson reminded me of the Andrew Hill composition "McNeil Island," a brief out of tempo tune with a prominent theme that featured Joe Henderson. One of the most distinctive tracks of the whole set comes with the hypnotic "Cannon [sic] from the Nothing Suite," whose eerie, repetitive form sounds ripe for a crime scene on The Naked City.

Cornetist Josh Berman has been the brass foil to Jackson in numerous projects that both have lead or co-lead. Southern Sun puts them together with Norwegians Jon Rune Strøm (bass) and Tollef Østvang (drums), who founded the Stone Floor Records label in their home country. The group rapport is immediate. The American players both contributed three compositions while the rhythm players each wrote one. Everyone sounds right at home with the music.

Berman released "Blues" just a few months ago on his Delmark trio album A Dance and a Hop. With a saxophone foil, the Ornette feeling becomes a little more noticeable. The composer gets low and gravelly in his own solo, dispelling any notions of direct homage. His "Cold Snap" has a similar stop-start feel, though this time the whole quartet "plays" the melody, and Berman starts and the bottom register and works up to some shrill notes. 

Strøm's meditative "Melted Snow" has a rubato feel where the horns intertwine, leading to a pensive bass solo that feels understated, though it climaxes with the firm plucking. Østvang's "Blowing in From" closes the album with some of the strongest moments on the session. After the loose-limbed theme, Jackson blows unaccompanied, then the rhythm section dives into a chordless 4/4 mode, setting the scene for Berman to take off. This group should convene more often. The release might be a challenge to find, as the website redirects interested customers to a Norwegian distributor. But maybe some copies have floated into the states.

Some quick research reveals that Swiss multi-reedist Peter A. Schmid enjoys the sonorities of low-end reed instruments. of which he plays a few here: bass and contrabass clarinets and baritone sax. But he also plays sopranino saxophone, albeit very briefly and in a very percussive manner. 

The 24 tracks on Chicago Conversations feature a who's who of the Windy City's free improvisers, all joining Schmid for several tracks of sonic exploration. A few last less than a minute and only two come in around five minutes or a tad beyond. Some performances offer the most extreme examples of free improv, like when Schmid's contrabass clarinet and percussionist Michael Zerang sound like sea monsters scraping fingers nails on a chalk board. 

But at other times, Schmid, Jackson and Waclaw Zimpel (alto clarinet) present different facets of a clarinet trio, from moody long tones to quick percolations to multi-hued conversations. Schmid reveals himself to be a master of percussive slap-tonguing in several of them, sounding less like a reed than a musical PVC pipes. Jackson duets with Schmid on tenor late in the set, which often feels pointilist quality but are always intriguing. Other guests include Berman, percussionist Frank Rosaly (together with Zerang on a few tracks), trombonist Nick Broste and bassist Albert Wildman.

While all but diehard free improvisation fans might be turned off by Chicago Conversations on first blush (I felt like was revealed on the first listen until I went back to it a few times), there are qualities to this music that come out as the album is explored further. The way the various instruments are paced throughout the album helps too, presenting variations within variations to the sound.