Sunday, August 21, 2016

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey - The Inner Spectrum of Variables

Tyshawn Sorey
The Inner Spectrum of Variables

Improvising musicians (I'm intentionally avoiding the word "jazz" here) have been attempting for decades to incorporate styles far removed the standard jazz format of horns and rhythm section/solo-over-changes style. Some most famously did away with chord changes. Third stream attempted to bring a classical sensibility to the music, where more was composed. Fusion, at its best (before that was a viable category) combined the visceral quality of rock with the ability to tear up chord changes.  World music tries to bring together musics from other countries. Sometimes these experiments worked, sometimes it watered down the original idea into something that left out the vital parts of the music in question.

In the past couple of years - maybe up to the past four, really - musicians affiliated with jazz have been earning recognition for playing music that would rankle the purists and some of the more adventuuous types, due to its use of things like samples, more modern rock aesthetics or an even more avant approach to the avant-garde. What makes recent albums by people like Marcus Strickland and Esperanza Spaulding succeed is the fact that they're not approaching it from a path of either naive experimentation or dilettantism. They're playing from their own experience. And to ask them simply follow the path of John Coltrane or Jaco Pastorius would be as ridiculous as expecting Miles Davis to just play like Cootie Williams. The runaway success of Kamasi Washington last year indicated that people are in the mood for something that draws on different styles with adventure.

Drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey's work also reveals a mind that has incorporated a wealth of music and uses that experience to come up with works that explode with creativity and adventure. After having established himself as a drummer that can swing in the most remote, unswinging time signatures, he has simultaneously (!) earned a masters in composition from Wesleyan University and is currently working on a Doctorate in Music for Composition from Columbia University. Last year, Wesleyan appointed him to a tenure track position where he replaces retiring professor Anthony Braxton. The seat is a telling one, because it answers the question of who could succeed Braxton, bringing with it all the necessary perspectives on music and its avenues. Sorey is clearly the one for the job.

For clues to the way Sorey can shape the minds of students in a university setting, drop into any section of The Inner Spectrum of Variable, a two-disc, two-hour composition in six movements recorded by a double trio: Sorey's trio with Cory Smythe (piano) and Christopher Tordini (bass) with violinist Chern Hwei Fung, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Rubin Kodheli. When some experimental composers utilize a string section, it yields a heavy amount of drones from the low strings and atonal, whining scrapes on the top end. It's an extreme example of melody, but one that doesn't sound fully mature. Not the case here.

The strings on this piece can get harsh at times, but Sorey doesn't let them simply grate at on the ears. In fact, one compelling quality of Inner Spectrum is how it keeps reshaping itself, never sticking long enough in one place to burn an idea out. The strings turn contemplative, melancholy and even dance on top of a tense two-fisted piano riff, grounded by the rhythm section. Sorey's previous album Alloy leaned largely on ideas of suspense and the slow evolution of a composition. With this album, he cites the influence of Braxton and improviser/composer Lawrence "Butch" Morris - the latter known for his "conduction" technique that involved both improvisation and conducting. But Harold Budd, Ethiopian jazz, the AACM and Brahms also inspired this writing.

Having said all of that, it would be too laborious to dissect the entire composition. In some ways, my ears are still settling into the music, picking up more nuances with each listen. There are many and they all have a tantalizing quality. Suffice to say that even when a section lasts just a few minutes within the space of a 20- to 30-minute movement, it sounds like a part of a greater whole, not simply a quick sketch that's stitched into a bigger piece. "Reverie," which opens the second disc, begins with an extended solo by the composer on a variety of cymbals and other percussion, create rich sustained drones and acts as something of a pause between movements. Sorey probably could've made a longer piece all by himself, but this reverie also ushers in the strings, making something with more depth.

In the opening paragraph I intentionally avoided using the term "jazz musicians." Sorey can be called a jazz musician of course. He shows up on a remarkable number of modern jazz discs as a sideman. (Talk about living the good life - composing, working at a university, playing with a wealth of great musicians! Lucky so-and-so.) But The Inner Spectrum of Variables isn't really a jazz. It's a style of music that hasn't received a proper name yet. So don't bother with such things right now. Let students of Sorey's students worry about that in a generation or two. In the meantime, get in on the ground floor.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

CD Review: Catherine Sikora & Sylvie Courvoisier/ Mark Feldman/ Ikue Mori/ Evan Parker

Catherine Sikora
(Relative Pitch)

Another double review, connected by a common thread, which I'll get to at the bottom of this review....

Tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora was born in West Cork, Ireland, but now makes her home in New York City, where she's played with people like Eric Mingus and Ross Hammond. On this disc, she headed into the studio alone, armed with just her tenor.

Jersey is one of those solo albums that makes the listener wonder what the performer hears while she performs. Are these sketches? Are they solo compositions or does Sikora hear a rhythm section playing beneath her, in her mind? These may be rhetorical questions but they indicate that the music sounds inviting, engaging the listener who can then get inside the music.

"Ripped" begins the session with some long high tones, but Sikora isn't a minimalist, content to let slight vibrations hang in the air. Although she seems interested in exploring the sonic contours of the tenor - using the sound that comes when switching between keys, teasing out overtones without fully lapsing into them - she ultimately sounds more interested in creating spontaneous compositions that simply blowing visceral sound. That focus results in plenty of variety through Jersey's 13 tracks, whether it's "Barn Door Open" which, to these ears, makes a nod to Coltrane or Rollins, or "Speedbag Swivel," where her fingering technique almost sounds like a backwards recording. The space between tracks doesn't last long, making everything segue together like an extended piece. But a delineation can't be felt between them, which speaks legions about her approach. It also provides a good lead-in to our second offering....

Sylvie Courvoisier/ Mark Feldman/ Ikue Mori/ Evan Parker
Miller's Tale

Some free improvisers can hit the stage (or hit "record"), and operate at the same dynamic level with each piece,  the break between acting as little more than a chance to take a breath. The skilled free improvisers understand how to really sustain a performance, employing an array of dynamics, moods and even break-out groups within the whole ensemble.

These ideas were running through my head while listening to Miller's Tale, a September 2015 session that coincided with a performance the Roulette in Brooklyn. This came a year after saxophonist Evan Parker's weeklong residency at the Stone in New York, where he invited violinist Mark Feldman, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and electronics whiz Ikue Mori to perform with him.

The album title and separate tracks are borrowed from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman which takes place in Yonkers, where Miller's Tale was recorded. Rather than revel in the bleakness of the classic play, though, this music bursts with optimism, albeit the type that comes with wild, free improvising. Everyone moves so quickly and confidently in the music, it often becomes hard to tell who's playing what. The percussive thump in "Death of a Salesman" must be Courvoisier since there's no percussionist and she's not playing the keys at the moment. The sound of electrified faucet drips could be Feldman plinking away, but it's likely Mori, whose electric textures add great dimension to the set. The music rises and falls and begins with different ideas in each track. Courvoisier takes some time to stretch out during "The American Dream," expanding on droning low note that leads to a vast, Taylor-esque dance across the keyboard.

After five tracks of quartet interaction, Parker (who plays both soprano and tenor saxophones) plays duets with each of them, followed by a brief dialogue between Mori and Courvoisier. Whether the tracks flow past the 10-minute mark or keep it short, the musicians always seem to know how to apply variations to it, balancing the exciting frenzy of sounds with a wide dynamic range.

The liner notes to Sikora's Jersey (uncredited) talk about playing the album for Evan Parker while driving him to a show in Connecticut. The veteran saxophonist had nothing but compliments from the relative newcomer, saying her playing is free of cliches, adding that she "is both two seconds ahead and two seconds behind, which is the way you music play if you're going somewhere." That interpretation can be taking both literally and metaphorically, really.

But the biggest surprise - shock, even - comes in the last paragraph. After listening Jersey, the crew of the car then put on Steely Dan, "one of our guilty pleasures."

That's right - Evan Parker, legendary, sometimes-hard-to-get-into-but-always-pushing-it saxophonist Evan Parker likes the slick stylings of Steely freaking Dan. And I thought Anthony Braxton's fondness for Johnny Mathis was weird.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Thoughts on RePunk 3 - Belated but true

Playing right now: Tim Berne - Five Year Plan (which I won in an auction last week, for a decent price!)

It's been over a week since RePunk 3 happened, but it was followed by a week of interviews for an article, the ensuing task of transcribing, some actual job application work, the current part time work and the heat in general. So today is really the first day that I've had a chance to write about it.

The origins of RePunk go back a decade, which, much to my surprise, I didn't blog about at the time. Of course I was even less diligent about this blog than I am now. But back in 2006, my brother John - who had been in the first punk band in Pittsburgh (the Shut Ins) - and Stephanie Vargo (of the Deliberate Strangers) contacted a bunch of people he knew from the late '70s/early '80s music scene, and talked about having a get-together in Pittsburgh. This was about a year before Facebook was the monolith it would become, so emails and discussion groups were the way to connect back then.

The idea took off, and a two-day event was staged. The first night was at the Quiet Storm coffeehouse, where people could eat, and people got up and played. The evening highlight was my brother, the man once known as Johnny Angola, tearing through a choice set of covers like "TV Eye," backed by members of the Five. But there was also poetry, free improvisation and... me, accompanying John's one-time roommate and musical adviser to me, Michael Butscher. The following day, a cookout happened at South Park, with more music and a screening of Debt Begins at 20, a film that captured those early days of the music scene through a combination of live footage and semi-scripted drama.

A low-key RePunk 2 was held a few years later, but #3 was organized by someone who has been in attendance at a lot of shows over the years but was never in a band and hadn't been to either of the previous RePunks and thought there should be another. (I'll omit her name from her only because she didn't want it mentioned in other media outlets, so I'm following suit.)

At first it seemed like pipe dreaming, but things really took off on a grand scale this year, with a whole weekend full of events. It included: dinner at Zarra's, the site formerly known as the Electric Banana; an exhibition at the Irma Freeman Center full of pictures, flyers and zines from years gone by;  an afternoon cookout/show in Schenley Park; an evening show at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern; and a screening of Debt and a plethora of videos of bands from way back when.

Personally the biggest part of it for me was the reunion of Bone of Contention, the first band I ever played it, and one that dates back 30 years to an inauspicious debut at the Banana (although it was a BIG DEAL for me, the kid who had wanted to be in a band of any sort since grade school). The group drifted apart 21 years ago, when my two bandmates both got pregnant within a few months of each other. I've secretly hoped for about the last six years (when our debut album was 20 years old), that we would reunite someday. When it was first brought up, a few of the players seemed lukewarm, at best, on the idea. So I didn't get my hopes up.

But Barb, our drummer, was involved in early conversations about RePunk and must have mentioned having us possibly play at it. When that got around to the guy who was helping to organize the shows, I decided to step up to the plate and poll everyone. Barb and guitarist Lila - who were in the band the whole time, along with me - both lived in Pittsburgh. But guitarist Sean and his successor Bart were both out of town, though they're still in touch with us. I figured if I asked both, I'd be sure to get at least one of them to do it. Turns out, they were both up for it.

Not only was my dream coming true, my dream to be Moby Grape - a band with three guitarists and five people who all wrote and sang - was sort of coming true.

Before our first practice I did have a rather involved anxiety dream with a few "chapters" in it. The one that is easiest to explain  involves my counting off Deep Purple's "Child In Time," which I was supposed to sing. As the intro started, I realized that I couldn't do any of the high-pitched shrieking that Ian Gillan does in the original. By then, it was too late, though. I WAS TRAPPED!

In reality, nothing like that happened. We got in several practices, even doing two a week, just like the old days! Bart was in town a few weeks prior for one of them. he night before the show, we had one with me, him and Lila (Barb was out of town). it caused me to miss the art show, but hey, duty called. Sean - who can pick up everything with just a cursory listen - got into town Saturday afternoon and met us onstage ready to rock. As usual, he didn't disappoint.

We were preceded by Buster B., a wild singer who was once in a band with my brother (at the time that Johnny was playing the bass that I now own!), as well as the Shakes, one of the best bands of the early days. I felt so lucky to be playing with them because their hopped up edgy pop went well with us. I caught them at RePunk 1, but they didn't an even fuller set this time.

Of course there were some hurdles along the way to the stage, much like the anxiety dream: running home to get another mike stand and a keyboard for the Shakes, which I luckily found out they needed as I ran to my car; the original drum kit that was mediocre which may or may be replaced but we weren't sure at first (it was); feeling rushed to get onstage to make sure we didn't have to cut anything from our set; choosing my introduction words carefully only to turn around and realize Lila was counting off the first song before I had a chance to introduce ourselves.At one point I read the set list wrong too.

Did I mention that I had consistently been drinking cold brewed coffee all day, which might've added to the intensity?

But once we hit - it was wild. It was loud, frenzied and pretty cohesive all at the same time. One thing about this band, in retrospect I feel like we always had a good idea of what to do and where we were, musically. There were never any second thoughts, at least onstage. No looks of "where are we?" Some of the set was a bit of a blur because it takes a while for me to get situated into a set, getting my ears adjusted to the stage volume, not to mention the feeling of being onstage with these people for the first time in over two decades, more than 25 years in the case of Sean.

I fully expected to go through a little bit of post-gig letdown the next day. All that work and anxiety, all for 40 minutes - and then it was over. There was a little of that, but not as much as I thought. Plus I had the videos of bands to check out at Filmmakers on Sunday afternoon. It was good, but loooooooooooong - two hours, in fact. I guess I noticed that because I was hoping to see more footage of Buster and brother John live with Gates of Wrath. Oh well, good times nonetheless. But I had to split before Debt started. 

Thanks to all who had a hand in this.

And I'm hoping that the Bone, as we call ourselves, we reunite again for my 50th birthday. The die has been cast.

Addendum - Since this post originally went up and I saw Stephanie's comment (which resulted in a revision), my mind went back to a particular moment at the cookout. Stephanie and her husband Tom Moran were doing songs, and she introduced one that she used to sing with "Scratchy," aka Erin Hutter, who passed away in October 2014. Hearing the song, and their whole set, took me back to the early days of the Deliberate Strangers. It was so great seeing a guy who I revered as a teenager now playing this new thing - and with Stephanie's and Erin's vocals, they were doing this music the right way - feeling, respect and knowledge of tradition, as well as their own stamp.

Then sometime last week - maybe even a day or two after RePunk for all I can remember - Erin came to me in a dream. Nothing elaborate, more like a quick greeting you might give to someone you see in passing. But she looked happy. The Irish fellow in me can't help but think there's a deeper meaning in there.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

CD Review: Charlie Parker - Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes

Charlie Parker
Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes

During his lifetime, Charlie Parker didn't release all that many alternate takes of his music. The concept of presenting both masters and alternates came about with the advent of long playing records, which happened in the years right around his passing. (This isn't definite evidence, but Blue Note's release of three takes of Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" on one album likely gave credibility to the concept).

One thing that can be said about Parker and alternate takes, though: No musician warrants the intrigue and excitement for alternate takes the way Parker does. The one exception here might be John Coltrane, but what I'm about to say applies to him as as well. Having digested all the groundbreaking master takes by the alto saxophonist, what fan wouldn't want to go back and hear how they took shape? While Parker is deserving of accolades like genius, he was still a human being. Therein lies the appeal - hearing the process such a mortal uses to take notes and sculpt them into astounding works that continue to captivate listeners over a half century later.

This Verve collection presents a treasure trove of unreleased takes - some incomplete, some complete - recorded over the course of Parker's time working with Norman Granz's labels Clef and Mercury, 1949-1952.  (Granz didn't launch Verve until after the saxophonist's death). They encompass a wide range of settings, from Machito's Latin orchestra, several small group dates (including the one with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk), the "South of the Border" groups and a big band set. To offer a full picture of each tune, the released master is also included.

Casual jazz fans might fan a set like this a bit tedious. Indeed, it opens with five tracks of Machito's ensemble roaring through "Okiedoke," in which Bird doesn't emerge for the first 60-90 seconds. "Blues (Fast)," from a 1950 quartet session with Buddy Rich (drums), Ray Brown (bass) and Hank Jones (piano) goes through seven tracks (some blown takes are banded together) including the master. But this track in particular provides key elements to the value of the whole set. The "theme" begins as a tossed off lick that bears a trace of Thelonious Monk's approach to syncopation. By the master, Bird has developed it into a mature opening statement.

And then, there are the solos

Parker had expressed the desire in later years to look beyond the bebop structures, and who knows where his muse would have taken him. But while he walked the earth, the saxophonist worked within a limited harmonic framework of blues, ballads and "I Got Rhythm" changes, working creatively within them. In doing so, he had his trademark licks which have become ingrained in saxophonists who have studied him. This set reveals how he worked over a tune, making sure that, if he was going to use some challenging group of notes, that it made harmonic sense. It wasn't merely for show. One amusing aside in that regard comes during "Mohawk" from the Gillespie/Monk session. Realizing the take has broken down, Parker emits one of his familiar bluesy lines, with the thickness of the reed clearly audible, revealing how easy it was for him to just toss off such a tough line.

A 1949 session brings out numerous version of tracks that were mislabeled as "Segment," "Passport" and "Diverse" upon their initial releases. Using the correct labeling that came in the 1988 Complete Charlie Parker on Verve 10-disc set, Unheard Bird follows the "Tune X, "Tune Y" and "Tune Z" terminology. Listening to these in a row, one is hard pressed to wonder what make takes break down, or why one was chosen or another as the master. (With "Okiedoke" the decision is clear, as the master begins with more of a charge than what preceded it.) Parker sounds inspired throughout these takes. Perhaps a little unsure of exactly which path to follow in his, but he always plays with focus. Substandard Bird still trumps most of his followers' best days.

Unheard Bird doesn't yield many new bold revelations, although it might finally put the 1950 session with Gillespie and Monk in a slightly better light. This set, which yielded five originals and a version of "My Melancholy Baby," has been dismissed as a disappointing reunion of the three cornerstones of bebop (along with bassist Curley Russell and drummer Buddy Rich). It sounds fine if it's viewed more along the lines of a pick-up session or informal jam session. Parker comes up with some challenging melodies to play over blues changes and everyone digs in. Rich's bombast sounds like a plea for attention (the same goes for his playing on the "Blues [Fast]" session), but it's manageable. Fanatics might like to know there were no additional takes of the workout "Leap Frog," to go with the previously released 11 takes. Likewise, the "South of the Border" sessions don't include any more takes of "La Cucaracha," a novelty yes, but a personal favorite.

Additionally, fans of between-song banter, who love hearing Bird's voice, will enjoy the brief highlights, including one where guests in the studio are admonished by the leader and by Granz for getting too loud. (Mentioning track names will spoil the surprise.) Phil Schaap, the world's foremost expert on Charlie Parker, provides all the necessary insight to accompany listening. He describes obtaining these tracks from the estate of the late Norman Granz and where they fit in the big Bird picture.

This set might be more of a boon to hardcore fans and scholars, but it does do more to show the human side of Charlie Parker, whose work ethic and vision helped to generate someone who is often reduced to a series of myths and legends. Perhaps that's a 21st-century way of looking at things, but if it provides a greater understanding of this complex man, I think he'd appreciate it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

CD Review: The Monkees - Good Times!

The Monkees
Good Times!

Side Two of More of the Monkees, the band's sophomore release, was dicey territory for me as a kid. The incredibly catchy "Look Our (Here Comes Tomorrow)" was spoiled by the line "Mary, out what a sweet girl/ Lips like.... strawberry pie." (Years later, I don't see any problem, but at the time it was mush. I think I might've misheard it as "looks like strawberry pie.") "Laugh" was also an atrocity, for reasons to numerous too mention. My young ears probably took the "ha-ha-ha" backing vocals too personally.

But I had to take action against "The Day We Fall In Love," the strings-and-12-string-guitar/spoken word piece that Davy Jones recited dramatically. (His Manchester accent turned it into "The Day We Fool en Luff," but I'm sure the teenyboppers swooned anyway.) Even though no one else would probably see my copy of the record, I had to post a warning about this piece of mush.

With pencil in hand, I crossed the song out (not very effectively) and wrote "Boo" next to it.

Regardless of who was writing their songs back in the '60s, be it a member of the band or one of the crack songwriting teams which they employed, the Monkees were likely to move back and forth between direct and elusive. There might have been a deeper meaning to "The Porpoise Song" but it didn't matter because it sounded so beautifully lush. To prove that I'm not going to trash all of Davy's songs (the above offenders all featured him), his "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" is direct and irresistible, all in less than two minutes.

So when surviving members Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork get together for a new album, and they go back to original Monkess formula of employing other songwriters for material - AND the list of composers includes Andy Patridge (XTC), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), the expectations are high. The band's previous reunion album Just Us, was admirable because they handled all the instruments, but the songwriting was lacking. Maybe their musical offsprings can bring something to the Monkee table.

And they do, without a doubt. The songs are filled with major/minor hooks, 7th chords played on twangy 12-string guitars, layers of harmonies. They leave me swooning like a Davy fan hearing "The Day We Fall In Love." The lads sound strong too, including Tork, whose battle with throat cancer has dropped his voice down a little lower, giving it more rugged quality that still befits the music.

But the lyrics threaten to derail some of these tracks. "I'll bring the chips and the dips and the root beer/ even though dark purple rainclouds are near...." "She makes me laugh/ she makes me smile/ And I could hang out with her all day and night/ she makes me laugh/ she makes me cry/ and I would like to be with her for awhile."

Typing them out, maybe they aren't quite as awful as they were on first blush. But the first line comes for the pen of Mr. Patridge - you know, the guy who wrote "Senses Working Over Time" and numerous others. The second comes from Mr. Cuomo. I think I was writing lyrics on that level when I was a tween, and didn't really know how to write songs.

Having said all that, this is the strongest album produced under the band's name since Head, what I consider to be their last consistent album. They made a bold move by taking a backing track of a song Harry Nilsson gave them in 1968 and fleshing it out, leaving the composer's voice in for a duet with Dolenz. Now the title track, it doesn't have any Nat "King" Cole/Natalie Cole qualities to it, nor any of the bad elements of the Beatles' post-mortem work with John Lennon tracks. "Good Times" might be a little basic in the lyric department, but Dolenz still has the pipes to kick some excitement into it.

In order to keep the deceased Davy Jones in the fold, the group dusted off Neil Diamond's "Love to Love." The song, touted by Rhino as unreleased, actually appeared on 1996's Missing Links Volume 3. But this version adds more backing vocals (by all three surviving band members) which gives it some more weight. It serves as a fitting homage to the late Monkee.

Nesmith, true to his own Monkees material, must have called dibs on the more elusive songs. Gibbard's "Me and Magdalena" has both a beautiful country/folk quality and some of the stronger lyrics, which go beyond the usual love song territory. The big surprise, not just for Nesmith but the whole album, comes with the song that doesn't seem to be pushed by the label as much as the others. "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" is credited to Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher (!), and is filled with psychedelic phase shifting, traded vocals between Nesmith and Dolenz and a three-note recurring interlude which, if it wasn't inspired by Pink Floyd's "Matilda Mother," is an insane coincidence.

Tork states in his liner notes that he wrote "Little Girl" for Davy, envisioning it as a good followup to "I Wanna Be Free." It's a catchy song, but couplets like "Little girl, don't you hang around/Stand up, we'll go town/go for a ride/ I'll be your guide," sink it. Better is his version of Carole King's "Wasn't Born to Follow." Already recorded by everyone from the Byrds to Dusty Springfield, the song gets new life from Tork's resonant voice, which adds more depth to the message behind the song.

The final verdict - anyone who has ever loved the Monkees needs this album. Sure, it's flawed but there's plenty of qualities that make up for it. The fact that they had the wherewithal to enlist their progeny to work with them speaks legions for Micky, Mike and Peter. Let's hope they do it again.

Speaking of which, in looking up Adam Schlesinger (who not only wrote but also produced and played a lot of the backing tracks), I discovered he's only about three weeks younger than me. So if the band is looking for other songwriters to work with, people of a similar, refined age - or if they just want to bust one writer's chops and ask what he can do - you know where to find me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

CD Reviews: Jon Lundbom's Big Five Chord - Three EPs

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord
Make The Magic Happen
Bring Their 'A' Game
Play All the Notes

Jon Lundbom doesn't stop, churning out a new release practically every year. And why should he, since the 13-year old Big Five Chord, which has maintained a steady lineup within that whole time, continues to do exciting things with the guitarist's sometimes audacious compositions. Along with Lundbom, the group features Moppa Elliot (bass), Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone), Balto Exclamationpoint (the nomme de squonk of Bryan Murray, explanation forthcoming) (tenor, prepared tenor and balto! saxophones) and Dan Monaghan (drums).

So far this year, the quintet has released three EPs, which each have three tracks - two Lundbom pieces and one Ornette Coleman tune. One more EP will be released in September. Each is currently available digitally from Lundbom's website, or they can be pre-ordered and bundled in either a digital pack or in a physical pack, which comes in a boxed set. If the idea of four EPs rather than a disc or two seems frivolous, keep in mind that this is almost a two-hour set that works well in succinct blasts. The format also allows the chance to hear Big Five Chord explore their different moods. 

Make the Magic Happen reveals the band's sly qualities. In this case, putting a classic bebop element right under the listener's nose where the connection could be missed. The rhythm section in "Ain't Cha" sounds like understated funk (which it is) but Elliot's vamp comes from the intro to "All the Things You Are" that is virtually connected to the song, thanks to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In front of them, the saxes lead together and Lundbom comps and adds countermelody. Then Mr. Exclamationpoint (Murray, that is) steps up with his balto! saxophone, an alto fashioned with a baritone mouthpiece. The horn set-up lets certain notes through cleanly, while others overload, and our hero exploits them for all their worth. Lundbom follows with a distorted solo that builds in intensity, while bass and drums still play it cool for the most part.

In "La Bomb," things stay a little more subdued at first, with Lundbom playing pensively in the low range. This time the wild saxophone noise comes from Irabagon, whose alto always sounds ready to twist a note into a growl or evoke guitar distortion.

"Law Years," the album's Ornette offering, consists of a series of phrases that always seem to flow randomly over a rubato pulse, not catching up until the final message. Jazz punks Universal Congress Of once played a rip-roaring version of this. BFC puts a different spin on it, with Elliot taking a long, meaningful solo before Exclamationpoint stirs up a fuss. This time he blows a prepared tenor saxophone, fashioned with a thundertube which is connected to a drum head and 17" spring at the other end. Much like the balto!, this contraption can "play normal" sometimes, while certain notes can send it into vibrational overdrive. It sounds like a shtick, but it makes a great solo. Once it's done, BFC continues a tradition held on their previous records and on the other two tracks: they simply stop without playing the theme once more.

Compared to "Law Years," Irabagon and Murray/Exclamationpoint sound like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh on "Wrapped," which opens Bring Their 'A' Game. Bass and drums speed up and slow down behind a long, flowing saxophone melody. After a clean "B" section, Lundbom takes over with a bright, but edgy solo, marked by sharp accents. The two saxophonists return, taking turns soloing, not so much trading as egging each other on, with no respect for barlines. That pesky rhythm section starts toying with tempo again as well.

Lundbom plays chicken scratch beautifully, just off-mike, in the opening of "Worth" while the saxes play a raunchy, long-toned theme with a sensual edge. Irabagon's solo features a segment where he holds one note and slowly raises the pitch, bending it upwards like a snake charmer. He also produces some delightful flutter tongue blasts and vicious slap-tonguing before returning to the note-bending act. The echo on Lundbom's guitar makes him sound like the ghost of Jim Hall dropping by for a look-see and getting puzzled. Monaghan's brushes work especially well here, alternately swinging the beat and going up against it.

Coleman's "WRU" closes this set. (For those who never heard the explanation of that album's initial-based titles, this one is short for "Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious.") Again the saxes have that clean sound, playing in unison on the theme. Murray (I'm going to use his real name from here on out; I can't take the pseudonym) plays a solo on tenor. No gimmicks or effects, just solid blowing that gets unhinged at the right time. Lundbom jumps in for another lean, taut solo, with the horns piggybacking on his lines.

The title Play All the Notes might imply busy music in which all the notes come in a flurry. Turns out there's no prepared saxophone noise or chaos, though it's not exactly straightahead either. The quintet does sound focused, getting down to business right away. The 10-minute "Comedy Gold" bypasses a theme and focuses mainly on solo exchanges between Murray and Irabagon. They start off individually, each one gradually getting further off the ground, Murray creating melodic thoughts faster than his hands choose to execute them (intentionally, it seems), and Irabagon eventually flying over the rhythm section and alternating between crisp and rugged tones. The rhythm section lingers, playing a 5/4 pattern to keep things in check.

"Period" evokes the knotty writing of Tim Berne, with counterpoint between the tenor and alto, and an uneven number of notes at end of a bar line. But the rhythm section sounds more languid than a Berne group. Elliot's roaming bass line sounds like a counter solo beneath Lundbom's own picking, which continually returns to the opening riff, making this the closest to a track where the theme is restated. "Humpty Dumpty," which the Coleman quartet recorded on This Is Our Music, serves as the album's closing statement, with guitar and alto solos and the usual sudden ending.

Although the discs are technically released by Hot Cup, Elliot's label, the best place to find them  - and any BFC releases you might have missed - is Lundbom's personal page, as the imprint's webpage is in bad need of an update.

Monday, July 11, 2016

CD Reviews: Brooklyn Blowhards, Michael Bisio & Kirk Knuffke, Brian Groder Trio

"So little music, never enough time," I told myself a few days ago, while rooting around in search of a particular CD and finding two more that I wanted to play immediately. That thought epitomizes the past weekend in Pittsburgh. The Bad Plus played in town Friday night, at the family-friendly outdoor area South Park Amphitheater. (I interviewed BP's Dave King here, also.) Friday and Saturday, the Deutschtown Music Festival presents a total of 180 bands in the neighborhood for which it is named. (See the previous post for a re-cap.)

This particular entry was started about three times this weekend, with the days and times in the last 'graph rewritten about three times. Several thoughts were discarded since I elaborated on them in the Deutschtown post. Now I'll get back to the opening sentence. Since it relates to new releases, I have decided to group some recent CDs together because they have a thread that runs from the first to the second, and another one going from second to third. 

Brooklyn Blowhards

Jeff Lederer dreamed up a crazy idea for the group Brooklyn Blowhards, that ultimately sounds pretty profound: Put compositions by Albert Ayler side-by-side with traditional sea shanties. To render them appropriately, get a few horns (Lederer on tenor and soprano saxophone, Petr Cancura on tenor, Kirk Knuffke on cornet and slide trumpet, Bryan Drye on trombone), an accordionist (Art Bailey) and three drummers (Matt Wilson, Allison Miller, Stephen Larosa) who play an array of concert percussion, ship bells, chum buckets (the world needs more of those) and chains. 

Without a bass to ground the music, the group comes off like a rollicking marching band, or a more original redesign of groups like Slavic Soul Party who bring traditional folk music into the 21st century with all the original parts intact. In fact, if this octet weren't already a group of busy creative improvisers and composers on their own, they could probably make a killing by playing this music at hipster weddings all over Brooklyn. 

Ayler's "Bells" launches the album with a jolly mood, but his material is drawn largely from the Love Cry album, which included several direct, folk-like melodies. "Island Harvest," not on that album but performed live at the time, originally featured vocalist Mary Maria reciting some childlike philosophy between choruses almost like a calypso singer. Mary Larose, who sings on five tracks, fills that role here, making the best of a rather sophomoric work. She also sings on a version of "Shenandoah." Guitarist Gary Lucas (the one-time bandmate of Captain Beefheart) brings his resonator guitar to three tracks, adding to the party atmosphere. Even when things get more pensive, the percussionists maintain that festive mood, with double snare drums and thundering bass drums driving the mood.

The true test of Lederer's concept comes when traditional shanties like "Santy Anno" and "Black Ball Line" sounds like they could have come from Ayler's Live In Greenwich Village album, and when his work evokes images of seafaring gents (and dames, for that matter) hoisting the main sails. The distance between these musics suddenly doesn't sound so distant.

Michael Bisio & Kirk Knuffke
Row for William O.
(Relative Pitch)

Cornetist Knuffke, one of the Blowhards, has played with bassist Michael Bisio before. Last year, he appeared on the bassist's excellent Accortet album on Relative Pitch. On Row for William O., they're on their own, conversing in a few compositions by Bisio, an improvisation and a piece by the album's namesake, the clarinetist who has composed several modern classical compositions, following a stint with Dave Brubeck in the 1940s.

Pre-conceptions about a person connected to classical music and Brubeck fly out the window with the stop-start melody of his "Drago," which opens the album. The title track starts with a written structure that eventually leads to an unaccompanied bass solo which reminds these ears that, as much as I enjoy Bisio with pianist Matthew Shipp, a greater appreciation of his technique and writing comes across when he steps away from the individualistic pianist.

The music is grounded, not free and wild, but that nevertheless generates close listening. Sometimes Knuffke and Bisio play in an in-between place which doesn't feel like the bass is echoing the cornet. But they're not really playing on parallel plains either. "Oh See O.C." presumably, is inspired by Ornette Coleman, and this melody, with its high leaps for Knuffke in the beginning, but Bisio reshapes the scenery as they proceed, starting with a chase, scuffling up close together, then moving slower. "December," the one piece credited to both players could have been a spontaneous invention, or a starting point that they created together. It works so well among the other pieces that it's hard to uncover its origins.

Brian Groder Trio
R Train on the D Line

Trumpet-led trios can be a challenge, in terms of maintaining dynamics and momentum, but Brian Groder has proven his skill with this set-up. Reflexology (2014) was a solid album of original compositons with Michael Bisio and drummer Jay Rosen helping Groder keep things going. It was one of many albums that would have been written about here if there would have allowed.

Groder (who also plays flugelhorn) often has Bisio playing the compositions in unison or harmony with him on R Train on the D Line, the second all-original set from the trio. This arrangement occurs in both "Retooled Logic" and "Drawing in to Pull Away," with different results surrounding the music. In the former, Bisio bows a long solo, before Groder returns to go on a fast, free run and things wrap up. Rosen begins "Drawing" with solo using mallets all over his kit, building in dynamics until his comrades introduce the angular melody. Rosen also punctuates the songs with bells and cymbals, creating more excitement. In "Asterix" bass and drums go wild while Groder holds things together.

The trio is adept at this type of Ornette-ish chordless music (one track has a line that inspired me to compare it to "Peace" in my notes), but they also sound stunning when they strike a calmer pose. Long brass tones and bowed bass make "Isolating the Why" a penetrating statement, and one of the shortest tracks on the album, which leads me to believe it was written-through with no improvisation. Later in the set "Whispered Sigh" delivers a mood of tranquility.

Although Bisio played with both Groder and Knuffke, these brass players each have an approach that's hard to be pin down technically and impossible to really compare to one another. Both favor a rugged tone, but that's really where it ends. Better to just revel in the strength of their ideas at the moment.

There you have it: three album, all connected in some ways, but all very different.

Deutschtown - Bar fights, tiny venues and Happy Ending featuring Weird Paul

I started an entry reviewing three CDs, and went back to it about three times without finishing it. But before that actually gets completed, a report from one corner of the Deutschtown Music Festival seems to be in order.

For the fourth year in a row the event took place in the area of the North Side known, at least at one time, as Deutschtown. 180 bands played between Friday and Saturday, on 28 stages, some outside on the street, some in the park, most in bars spread out all over this place.

This is the story of one of those bands. My band, the Love Letters. I'll start at the end, which came happily, lest anyone think I'm just complaining about stuff. And it didn't come in the wee hours of the morning either. More like 1:00 am, but by that time all the equipment had been returned to the practice space, so all the work was done and it was time for fun.

The thing about an event like this is, how are you supposed to see all those bands? I mean obviously, you can't see 180, but... let's quarter that. 45 bands....still.... The ideal situation for a band playing this event is finding a new audience, the people who stay behind after their fave's/friend's set, hear your music and think, "Wow, who ARE these folks?"

When we played last year,  Jenn Jannon-Fischer of the Park Plan and a few other local bands caught us, and introduced herself to me a couple months later by mentioning our set. That was a cool moment in part because she - and her bandmates - are really great people, and we've shared bills since then. But up until then, I wouldn't have known and just figured that no one who had been there for the previous band (a crowd that made it hard to move around), stayed around. Which is sort of understandable, because there's so much to see.

Last night, we were at a joint called the Double R Cafe, which is located on East Street, a one-way street which runs parallel to I-279. We thought there was a back door that we'd be able to access when we loaded in. Not only was there no back door, there wasn't much space between the bar and the wall to maneuver equipment along patrons as we tried to load in. The "stage" was actually a room in the back where speakers were set up pointing out towards the bar. As we attempted to load in - squeezing stuff in before the next band went on, people were shoving past us to get outside to break up a fight which had spilled from Double R into the alley next to it.

The band before us, There You Are, was a guitar/drums duo. They cranked up a good noise that reminded me a few of the raw guitar/drums groups that were big over the last 15 years, but my bandmate Mike kept poking holes in my theory. They were tight and threw themselves into the music. They seemed to have a bit of a crowd, including a dude in his 50s, wearing wraparound shades and sitting at the bar playing air drums. We are NOT going to go over well with this crowd, I thought.

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.

We got set up in just about the amount of time suggested (15 minutes), and we were ready to roll. By then a few friends had shown up, the kind of folks that put you in a good mood and inspire you to put everything into it. The guitarist from There You Are said he was deaf after their set, and by the second song of ours, I was too. There were no monitors so singing on key was a guessing game. In a way, though, it was just like playing at home in the basement. Though we have SOME insulation and it's not all tile floors, and sound bouncing all over. But we were pretty tight, moving ahead without worrying about how it might sound and concentrating on how it felt.

By the time we closed with "Thermos Full of Hemlock" it was dizzying. Literally. Between Buck's and Mike's amps, I was playing with distortion and it was so loud it was making my ears vibrate and making me dizzy. (This has happened before. A friend took a video of the song [it's on Facebook] and I'm jumping around like Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz to keep from getting afflicted by the vibrations.Before you ask, it was too late to turn down. After our set, a few strangers complimented me on the set, including a middle-aged gent who had been sitting at the bar most of the night. Later in the evening, we even sold a record. (One record sale sounds pathetic, but at an event like this with everyone being pulled in all directions, any sales are welcome.)

I wanted to be sure to see Weird Paul, so we loaded up all the equipment immediately, dropped it off at the practice space and doubled back. I was able to catch about 10 minutes of Byron Nash and Plan B too, which sounded really great - a blend of solid rock, R&B, soul and maybe some jazz.

At last year's Deutschtown, Weird Paul had gotten the shaft more than anyone else I knew. From what I was told the venue told him to turn down and they also made him cut his set short. I could only wonder how this year would go for him.

The answer is that I need to have a little more faith.

Not only did he get a warm reception, he had a virtual throng of admirers cheering him and singing along. And throwing a beach ball around the room too during a song named for that object. A tiny bar might not be the best place for such monkeyshines, but the crowd didn't care and, thankfully, the bartenders were good sports about it too.

While talking to a friend later in the evening, I heard there was a second barfight during the evening. This one seemed a little more docile because the two guys went outside, had it out and then came in and bought each other another round.

So all my paranoid feelings were unfounded. Everything was great. Thanks, Deutschtown. There were some tireless folks putting this thing all together and from my perspective they did a great job. Glad I was part of it.