Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ken Vandermark & Nate Wooley at the Warhol

I thought the wax in my ears was playing tricks on me. When Nate Wooley and Ken Vandermark started playing together at the Andy Warhol Museum's theater, their first piece placed both of them in the high, upper register, and my ears responded by hearing a lower note beneath theirs. Talking to a few people in the days following the show, I deduced that it wasn't me, but the room creating that extra note as the high pitches bounced off the walls. Further, Vandermark does this with a performance, "checking the room" to see how possible it is.

It's been eight years since saxophonist/clarinetist Vandermark dropped into Pittsburgh. I remember it well because it was a wintry night when the Vandermark 5 played the same stage, and I was still a few months away from parenthood.

While that 2007 show featured a full band, last Wednesday (January 21) was an evening of solo and duo sets. Wooley came on first, armed with a trumpet, mute and narrow piece of sheet metal. When he emitted his first super-soft long tone, it threatened to turn into one of those minimal performances where the note is less important than how it gets manipulated. But it shifted into high gear quickly. Wooley created two tones by getting the metal to vibrate against the mute. He also scraped the metal on the bell of the horn (if you hate the sound of metal on metal, cover your ears). After squirting around his horn's upper register, he easily shifted into the warm, middle register, finally ending with a relaxed tune.

Wooley was quiet and rather serious during his set, compared to Vandermark who spoke to the sizeable crowd between pieces. "It's alright if you want to go," he said towards the door as one patron apparently had enough after a clarinet piece dedicated to filmmaker Michael Snow, marked by slap tonguing and long tones. Switching to tenor, he kept a rhythm going by hitting the pads so precisely that it almost sounded like a digital loop. Strapping on his mighty baritone, he explored the whole register of the horn, concluding with a rhythmic groove that evoked Sun Ra.

After an intermission, Wooley and Vandermark returned to the stage together for a series of duets. They paid tribute to the trumpet-reed duo of John Carter and Bobby Bradford by playing a few of that pair's compositions among their own. Carter's "And She Speaks" started the set and gave the first ear-harmonic twist.

There's value in seeing a group like this on the final night of their tour because they've had numerous sets to grow as a unit, and Vandermark and Wooley were in sync with each other. Wooley's "Best Coast" (hopefully that's right; it was an homage to the Pacific Northwest) featured trumpet smears and growls against clarinet slap tonguing. His trumpet imitated an analog synthesizer during Vandermark's avant "Call the Numbers."

Despite a healthy amount of squonk and squealing (which, admittedly, made me hold my ears at times) the duo also delivered many delicate moments too. "Killtown" started off almost like a Gerry Mulligan tune and "General Sherman" ended the evening with a brief ballad.

Seated in front of me in the Warhol theater were two women with a girl who seemed to be about tween age, playing one of those candy games on the phone prior to the start of the show. Throughout the night, one or both of the women looked at the girl with expressions that said, "what do you think of that," in response to the music. Some cynical people might expect the response to be eye-rolling and fidgeting in the seat. But actually, the girl responded with wonder and amazement. She might have thought the sounds were crazy, but she clearly dug them. The three of them stayed for the whole show as well. Hopefully they'll make it to other performances like this and who knows maybe the young lady will be part of tomorrow's experimental music scene.

Monday, January 19, 2015

LP Review: Áine O'Dwyer - Music for Church Cleaners, Vol. I and II


Áine O'Dwyer
Music for Church Cleaners, Vols. 1 and II

If you had unlimited access to a church's pipe organ, what would you play? Scary movie music? "Baby Elephant Walk" and "Alley Cat"? An imitation of Keith Emerson or Jimmy Smith? 

It might be tempting to simply hold down a chord or two and bask in the rich swell of the sound emanating from the pipes, pulling drawbars in and out to see how the tone changes and reverberates around the room.

Áine O'Dwyer, who normally plays improvised music on the harp, had this golden opportunity at St. Mark's Church in Islington (United Kingdom). The pipe organ was being cleaned so she was able to sit down and the keyboard and basically tinker with it. She recorded everything and originally released on a cassette, presenting a personal field recording. Vacuum cleaners whir in the background as she plays, as do children's voices. Most entertaining is an exchange between O'Dwyer and a church employee on "An Unkindness of Ravens," the seventh track.

Woman: A request from the ladies...
O'Dwyer: Oh. Stop playing?
W: (warmly) No, no, no. When you hold it on one note for a long time, can you keep it quiet? Or can you just not... stay on one note for a long time? 
O: Okay, yes.
W: Okay? Sorry.

O'Dwyer does enjoy pedal point drones (the first track in fact is titled "Pedal Danse") and the lady quoted above returns later in the album to again remind her that her sustained notes can be felt throughout the building. But most often, her choice of tempo is slow, akin to the hymns that might be played normally on the organ,, with the same kind of harmonic framework. This isn't noisy, free improvisation by any means. The combination of background sounds and drones make it more like meditation music.

The sound of the organ is rich and beautiful, and O'Dwyer does get takes the sounds of Bach into the realm of post rock and occasional psychedelia. But 91 minutes of these drones can be hard to take all at once. (The original cassette release was half this size.) After awhile, the conversations and ambient sounds become almost more interesting that the music itself. 

Yet that was O'Dwyer's goal - to document it with the approach of John Cage, letting all found sounds become part of the music. Further, the reissued, expanded version is coming out on vinyl (limited edition of 500), so it comes with three built-in breaks during the program. (My advance copy came as a download of the whole set.) Hearing it that way, or in its original cassette form, can make all the difference. In bite size pieces, it sounds enthralling.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Willie's Country Roadhouse and me

When I finally heard "Green Green Grass of Home" all the way through, listening to all the lyrics and not just thinking of it as some cornball song delivering by someone like Tom Jones, I started to think of it like an O. Henry story After it gets to the spoken part about "I was only dreaming," it becomes clear that it isn't just some "I want to go back home" song. Then there's the double metaphor about how he'll touch that green green grass again - from beneath it. It's great writing.

I've been thinking of that a lot lately. At the end of November, I bought a new car and it came with a three-month trial of Sirius XM radio. A few weeks ago, my son was fiddling with the Sirius dial and came across Willie's Country Roadhouse, a station "hosted" by Willie Nelson that plays nothing but "Classic Country." And they're right about that. I've heard folks that I know and others that I've only seen in print: Kitty Wells, Del Reeves, Buck Owens, Stonewall Jackson, a whole lotta Waylon Jennings (I think they play him once every hour), Hank Thompson, Charley Pride.

The thing that I love about this music is that these people know how to spin a yarn. They sing about the same topics: lovin', drinkin', loneliness, the Good Book, cheatin'. But they manage to put original spins on it each time. Charley Pride has a song called "Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger" and it's not until the end of the first verse - which follows an opening chorus - that you get the whole plot line, as it were: His wife is going out to the shows without him, which is cool, but she's leaving her wedding band at home. Rather than asking, why are you cheating on me, he asks the title question, saying he can get it adjusted at the jewelry store.

When was the last time it took a whole paragraph to outline a Kenny Chesney song?

Another great aspect of this station is they have a really vast playlist. I'm still hearing new songs and when they play songs that I've already heard, there is usually a period of several days in between the overlap. While the djs probably record their breakers in advance, it has a live feel. Plus their downhome delivery is infectious.

There's also a lack of pretense in the music. The arrangements are often similar, with a meowing pedal steel playing in the intro, but everything works towards the message of the song, not sounding slick. The only time I felt like things started to sound bland was during an Oak Ridge Boys song that I heard a few nights ago. "Y'all Come Back Saloon" sounded like it was focused more on the group's voices to the exclusion of the storyline itself, which got a little muddled. When the chorus repeats that much, you're going more for crowd-pleasing singalongs than storytelling, and showing a line to more "modern country."

I'm sure I won't subscribe to XM radio once the free trial is up, but it's almost tempting.

But music like this is what's keeping me from listening to, and writing about, more music here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

CD Review: Lennie Tristano - Chicago April 1951


Lennie Tristano
Chicago April 1951
(Uptown) www.uptownrecords.net

During his piano solo on the uptempo "Palo Alto," Lennie Tristano plays a chorus that rolls on for at least 12 bars without a break in the melodic development. It's the equivalent to a horn player blowing for that long without stopping to take a breath. Tristano rattles off a rather even set of eighth notes, perhaps a little straid compared to what his pianistic peers were doing at the time, but the ideas at the foundation of it are startling, in length and continuity.

Tristano's legacy has its fair share of followers, who rabidly champion his teachings. (He was one of the first serious teachers of post-war jazz.) Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh were two of his most famous students, but pianist Connie Carothers also carries the Tristano flag in her solid work.

Yet he isn't always talked about in the same pantheon of other post-war jazz pianists, due in part perhaps to his reluctance to take the usual jazz musician track of playing nightclubs to the often less-than-appreciative audience. (This disc includes one such example of Tristano giving a snarky-yet-professional rejoinder to someone wanting to hear "Tennessee Waltz.") While the music was rich in melodic extrapolations, there are times when it could come across as a bit academic, with the rewritten themes to standards coming off a bit like complex practice routines. (See Warne Marsh's Intuition album.) Tristano also liked his rhythm sections to play it pretty straight, leaving the heavy lifting to him and the horns.

Having said that, this album presents all the strong points of Tristano's legacy, and then some. Recorded fairly well at Chicago's Blue Note Jazz Club, the pianist leads a group not only with Konitz and Marsh but trombonist Willie Dennis, perhaps best known for his appearance of Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um, and another student of the maestro. Buddy Jones and Mickey Simonetta round out the group on bass and drums, respectively.

Though Tristano calls the tunes, acts the leader and clearly presides over the music, many of the songs come from Konitz and Marsh, who write their own heads for jazz standards. What comes across most significantly is the way the horns handle this rocky terrain so gracefully. While the saxophonists were brothers at arms, Dennis fits in tightly with them, the resulting harmonies recalling the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions, in which Konitz participated a few years prior.

The depth of the rhythm section doesn't always come across in the recordings, so it's often hard to try and follow the harmonic cues the musicians are using. Jones plays steady walking bass lines virtually throughout the whole package and Simonetta is solid but restrained.  When the chord changes get a little blurry, the focus moves to the solos themselves. It's easy to get lost in them, so expansive are these guys. The two-disc set includes many of the major works that Konitz had recorded for Prestige and New Jazz at the time: "Sound-Lee" (a rework of "Too Marvelous for Words"), "Palo Alto" ("Strike Up the Band"), "Tautology" ("Idaho," the basis for Tristano's "No Figs" as well). Marsh contributes "Background Music" (based on "All of Me") and gets credit for two versions of "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me Variations." Both horn men penned "Sax of a Kind."

Chicago April 1951 can arguably be placed with those original studio recordings considering there are few documents of the group playing them live, and none with Dennis in the fold.


Monday, December 22, 2014

CD Review: Phil Haynes-No Fast Food - In Concert



Phil Haynes - No Fast Food
In Concert
(CornerStoreJazz) www.philhaynes.com

Drummer Phil Haynes drew inspiration for the No Fast Food trio from Elvin Jones' post-Coltrane trios, which featured bassist Jimmy Garrison and saxophonist Joe Farrell. On two albums, that trio kept one foot on the ground while pushing the limits of piano-less, horn driven jazz. 

The name No Fast Food implies that these guys aren't going to settle for mass producing something lacking in quality ingredients or nutrition, which would be easy to consume and forget about once that moment is over. Quite the contrary. If names alone establish credibility, saxophonist David Leibman (who played with Elvin Jones a few years after said albums) and bassist Drew Gress (a leader as well as one-time bandmate to Tim Berne, Fred Hersch and Ravi Coltrane) take the cake. Together with Haynes  - himself a 30-year vet who has worked with Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas and others - these guys operate on the same plain, with the ability to shift from pensive to wild, ballad to free squonk. 

Most of the two-disc set was recorded at Rochester, New York's Bop Shop, with a few tracks coming from Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks in Millheim, PA. (It's good to know that a place like that caters to this kind of adventurous music. The audience seems to agree.) Haynes receives credit for all the compositions, but many could very easily have been spontaneous group efforts. "Zen Lieb" opens the second disc with a bowed bass and wooden flutes, making it one of the more esoteric pieces of the set. Haynes sounds content to keep his efforts to the cymbals, rolling and bowing as needed, making the whole thing a unique tone poem. 

The leader's unique approach to his kit factors into the music's impact. In "West Virginia Blues," his mix of kick drum accents and stick work almost sounds like two drummers intertwined. Liebman, who projects authority from the first note he plays, whether on disc or in person, begins the track with an unaccompanied tenor solo. The jagged melody that cues in the group recalls Tim Berne's Bloodcount, establishing order out of limitless freedom. 

Gress is one of those musicians who shows up on numerous albums by an array of leaders, and In Concert offers plenty of reasons why. "Together," which probably comes the closest to those early Elvin Jones trio sides, has a bass solo marked by some fine double-stops. On his own in "Out of the Bowels," Gress produces some wonderfully jarring harmonies, that shift into fast runs and bits of disjointed melodies that actually convergence into a richer picture. 

Despite coming from two different sources, the music on In Concert was recorded only two days apart and the whole thing has the feeling of two complete sets. From the moment the trio hits on the first track, the engagement of a live performance comes across.





Saturday, December 20, 2014

Me and the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

For about the past five years, I've been polled as part of a national survey of jazz critics for the best albums of the year. The results have run on a few different websites, and this year, it's on NPR. The results were posted this past Friday, and can be found here.

Often times, I feel like the odd man out. The albums that top the charts are ones that I either haven't heard yet or that fly under my radar. Not so this year. Four of the Top 10 albums were things that I picked, including #1 and #2! Does it mean that I'm keeping up with the big guys, or that my tastes are finally gaining wider acceptance? I'll let you answer that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I'll Have a Bland Christmas...

I've never really cared either way for the holiday perennial "Santa Baby." Eartha Kitt's original version was fine, complete with male "ba-boom" vocals in the background and Henri Rene's sly swinging bachelor pad accompaniment. Recorded in 1953, when Ms. Kitt's shopping list ('54 convertible, yacht, a big fancy ring) was mildly amusing, as few gals really expected to get that. Still as far as Christmas songs about riches go, I prefer Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money," for its sheer audacity, not to mention the singer's easygoing honesty, as opposed to Ms. Kitt's iciness.

When Madonna covered "Santa Baby," it came as no surprise. After all she was known as the Material Girl, and who better to make like she was entitled to the fancy wish list (or should that be "demand" list.). From what I recall, her version is pretty much a carbon copy of the original, which begs the question, what's the point?

But, it's all in the delivery, right?

Now, granted I'm behind the times by about seven years on this. But I was forced to hear Taylor Swift's version of "Santa Baby" recently, not knowing it was her or that it'sold news. Yes, everyone does a Christmas album these days, because it practically guarantees that no matter how bad your career goes, you at least get some airplay one month out of the year. (I"m talking about you, Wilson Phillips)
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The thing that's so annoying about Ms. Swift's "Santa Baby," is that the modern country arrangement of the song was done completely by the numbers. They got the chord changes right. But there's no feeling. There's no camp to this song. There's not even any, um, sexy quality to it. Swift was 18 when the song came out, so she can be excused for not giving it that quality.

So all we're left with is a big-voiced gal belting out a shopping list for Santa, which in post-millennial years doesn't sound as outrageous because we expect to see pop stars with all sorts of bling, like a fancy ring and a convertible. And Taylor already has the deed that gets mentioned in the song. Which is probably why she doesn't sound any more believable singing this song than some 7-year old big voiced kid who you'd find on America's Got Talent. But she really doesn't (or didn't) have the credibiliy to pull it off. She would have been better off singing "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

But then again, what do I know? I never get tired of the Singing Dogs doing "Jingle Bells."