Sunday, July 17, 2016

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


Charlie Parker
Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes
(Verve/UMe) www.VerveMusicGroup.com

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!
(Rhino) www.rhino.com

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
s/t
(little(i)music) www.littleimusic.com

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) www.relativepitchrecords.com

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
(Latham) www.briangroder.com

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.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

CD Review: Jack DeJohnette/ Ravi Coltrane/ Matthew Garrison - In Movement


Jack DeJohnette/ Ravi Coltrane/ Matthew Garrison
In Movement
(ECM) www.ecmrecords.com

It might seem like some cross-generational meeting of the minds that was dreamed up in a p.r. office: Jack DeJohnette - a drummer with an illustrious career that includes a guest spot with John Coltrane during his later, adventurous period - teaming up with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matthew Garrison, the respective sons of Coltrane and his longtime bassist Jimmy Garrison.

But drawing that conclusion would be to underestimate the methods of these three musicians. Garrison lived briefly with DeJohnette, his godfather, and the three of them played together informally at a birthday party, then at a one-off concert in 1992. Years later, as Coltrane and Garrison evolved as performers, DeJohnette decided to bring them together in this trio.

In Movement lives up to its name, with a set of music clearly living for today, but begins with a nod to the past, and big shoes to fill. It opens with John Coltrane's meditative, troubled piece "Alabama." The trio unfolds it slowly, staying in rubato mode throughout and getting aggressive towards the climax, especially DeJohnette, who gets good and loud. Any attempt to compare Ravi Coltrane's playing to his father's falls by the wayside in the next track, "In Movement." Credited to all three musicians, it begins with a bass guitar solo so fluid, it sounds like an acoustic guitar. A one-note sample (Garrison is also credited with electronics and DeJohnette with electronic percussion) and a repetitive bass line eventually bring in drums and sopranino saxophone. Coltrane's playing reveals a unique set of phrases, never beginning or ending in a predictable manner. At first he plays in a short phrases of just a few bars, but he eventually extends his lines, as Garrison's double stops generate excitement.

"In Movement" lasts nine minutes, building all the way, followed by "Two Jimmys" which gets a little funky but meanders during its eight minutes. A more interesting take on funk comes with a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire," a deep-cut cover choice that finds DeJohnette using a dirty groove similar to the one in "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," before they break into a semi-free, fuzz-bass-driven improvisation towards the ending. Speaking of Miles, DeJohnette switches to piano and joins Coltrane (on soprano) for a duo reading of the Davis/Bill Evans ballad "Blue In Green," which also gets opened up and explored. DeJohnette's opening droplets of notes are riveting.

The album isn't limited to group-credited pieces and interpretations either. "Rashied" pays tribute to drummer Rashied Ali with a clipped, fast theme. "Lydia" is a gentle ballad for DeJohnette's wife which flows loosely but with more direction than some of the earlier pieces.

A recent article about the trio recalled that party at which all three played together for the first time. Coltrane and Garrison got a little tired after a few songs. DeJohnette on the other hand was unstoppable, telling them they were just getting warmed up. Hopefully that will hold true for this group too. It sounds like they've just begun to tap their capabilities as a unit.


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.