Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Oliver Lake Big Band at City of Asylum

Each September the organization City of Asylum hosts an event on the North Side that combines poets (who are usually exiled from another country) and jazz music (which almost always involves alto saxophonist Oliver Lake). In previous years, the event has happened on Sampsonia Way, the street that looks like an alley where museum/installation space the Mattress Factory is located. The street was closed off and a stage was set up at one end. This blend of close residential buildings and businesses made for an interesting production a few years ago. On the balcony of one of the houses, a Chinese poet shouted his prose in his native tongue while locally-born actor David Conrad translated across the alley on another building. Lake performed that year with the World Saxophone Quartet.

This year, the event was moved to Allegheny Commons West Park, right next to the National Aviary, where a huge tent was set up, with a pretty clear view of the stage wherever you sat, with numerous video screens all around the space too.

Lake brought his big band this time, who released a really solid album called Wheels about a year ago. Among other people, the band includes Darius Jones, the wild and woolly alto player who has released a few albums on AUM Fidelity and recently did a second album with pianist Matthew Shipp. I just reviewed the latter release so I felt like I needed to check out the show to see him in particular and also because I haven't gone to these events in probably about five years.

Knowing that I might be complicating things, I took my seven-year old son with me. He's no stranger to live music. A few weeks ago, he accompanied me to JJ Wright's local performance. And he did see Anthony Braxton perform at the Aviary at the ripe old age of 10 months (sleeping through a lot of it). Plus he has been to a bunch of Pittsburgh Symphony concerts for kids, and has headphones to wear when things get too loud. But all of that doesn't necessarily mean that he'll sit through a whole concert.

This marked the 10th anniversary of City of Asylum, which was given much fanfare to start the show. Then Lake came out and recited his own piece called "You Look Marvelous" which was an homage to the late Amiri Baraka. He called the band onstage by holding a droning note that everyone echoed as they made a procession through the audience to the stage.

"Plan" opened the set, letting everyone know this wasn't your typical big band. The stop-start lines of the theme gave way to a solo by Lake that was marked by some strong high shrieks that weren't always on mike.

Lake has cited Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington as influences and "Sometimes" bore that out. The horn voices sounded rich, slowly moving into a more soulful mood before moving into some heavy swinging by the end. The contrast between this more traditional backdrop and soloists like Lake and Jones made the whole thing sound more unique. Lake's World Saxophone bandmate David Murray also leads a big band too, but when they brought on Macy Gray as a singer (seen last year at the Detroit Jazz Fest) the band sort of reduced to a large scale vamp band. Lake did nothing of the sort.

Even when the band covered OutKast's "The Whole World," and the backbeat got a little rigid, the heat was still there. The same goes for "Is It Real," where everyone was taking a few bars to stand up and wail.

After the band played those four tunes, they took a break so some of the poets could get up and do their thing. It was about an hour into the show and by then the kid's mind was gone. Actually his focus never made it into the tent after he saw a playground a few feet away. While he's getting to be old enough to leave unattended at a playground, I wasn't ready to do that on the North Side.

So we took our leave, via that playground, as the sponsors was saying their thing and as the poets got ready to do theirs.

Friday, September 05, 2014

CD Review: The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers


The New Pornographers
Brill Bruisers
(Matador) www.matadorrecords.com

A review of the New Pornographers on this blog - it's like shooting fish in a barrel, yes? Search this blog and you'll find numerous entries mentioning them, and it might come close to fawning. Or maybe I'm giving myself too much credit.

Yes, I'm a fan but I'm not an everything-this-band-does-is-awesome-because-of-who-they-are fan. As much as The Electric Version restored, or confirmed, my faith in everything musical (part of it was the timing of the release and where my head was), which continued through Twin Cinema (with the still-amazing "The Bleeding Heart Show"), the albums that followed didn't immediately knock my socks off in the same way. I have grown to really like both of them, and to pick up on the subtleties at work on them. But Challengers was heavy on the mid-tempo songs and Together moved away from pure pop towards nuances that aren't exactly immediate.

But Carl Newman's so-so day still beats that pants of a lot of people's greatest days.

Most of the time, I feel like I have no idea what Newman (or Neko Case or Kathryn Calder, all of whom share lead vocal chores) are singing about. Phrases come to the surface but overall concept isn't always clear. Though maybe he's singing about the same thing. And maybe that same thing is the power of music. That's what it seemed like "The Electric Version" and "Out From Blown Speakers" were about. It always seemed like he was singing, "Just as long as it sounds right," in the former.

But each time I listen to the title track of Brill Bruisers, I change my mind about what the band is singing: is a serious on nonsense syllables or is it some approximation of "go back, b-b-back"? Also, I can't tell if all the articles that say the album pays homage to the Brill Building are accurate or just lazy journalistic connections.

The conclusion is, it doesn't really matter because this is the strongest New Pornographers album to come down the pike in quite sometime. It has the layers of arrangements that have built up on the last couple albums. Instruments come and go in an almost orchestral manner. "Wall of sound" doesn't really get to the heart of it. There's something richer happening. The back-up vocals and the guitar (acoustic? dobro? acoustic baritone?) solo in "Champions of Wine" don't fly right out into your ears. They sort of linger on the sidelines, waiting to be discovered. When that happens, it brings greater depth to the song. And it perks your ears to find more things like it.

Much of the album's initial strength relates to the songs having more pronounced guitar hooks. Dan Bejar's "War on the East Coast" (which has a darkly humorous, apocalyptic video) is built on chunky power chords. "Dancehall Domine" begins with a relentless synth beat with slashing accents from the guitars. "Marching Orders" has a marching beat and a bassline groove.



Synthesizers, of the bloopy, '80s variety, appear in a number of songs. But they aren't used as cheesy novelties nor are they exploited for their retro sound. In fact the arrangements almost give their sound more credibility.

Layers of harmonies are on tap too, most notably in the album's finale, "You Tell Me Where" which sounds like a sea of voices doing calls and responses. The blend of Newman, Case and Calder in "Wide Eyes" is pure Pornographers bliss, which also comes into play during "Backstairs." 

It's a keeper, especially on the vinyl format which, as seen above, has a beautiful design as well as a download code, which is sometimes good for bringing some clarity to the vocals that vinyl might miss. Which makes me wonder if I should have referred to that before writing.....

Nah.

(PS. Full disclosure: NPs bassist John Collins produced a couple songs for my band, the Love Letters. Though, if anything, this albums confirms why we wanted to work with him.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

CD Review: Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Janisch/Jeff Williams - First Meeting: Live In London Vol. 1


Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Jansch/Jeff Williams
First Meeting: Live in London Volume 1
(Whirlwind) www.whirlwindrecordings.com

Lee Konitz has a fairly limited repertoire for a guy who's been playing music for over half a century. But that doesn't mean his performances are stale or predictable. Much of the time, he skips past the theme of the song and heads straight to the improvisation. Sometimes what he plays walks such a fine line between solo and theme that it could very easily lapse from one into the other. But he never does. Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what song he's playing, or maybe more accurately, what he's playing off of.

While Konitz might be considered more of a straight-ahead player, there is a great sense of experimentation in what he does. Chestnuts like "Body and Soul" and "Along Together" are tunes that can easily win over a crowd, due to their familiarity. Konitz believes that there are still fresh ideas to mine from them, regardless of how many times he's played them before.

And if you're going to play them with him, don't talk about it. Don't plan ahead. Just get up there and play. That was his directive four years ago when he got onstage in London with his longtime piano co-hort Dan Tepfer, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams. The four of them had never been onstage together. No matter, they worked to let the music guide them and bring them together. And it did.

It's easy to feel the foundation of some songs, like when Tepfer and Konitz (on one of the three tracks where he plays soprano saxophone) play "Body and Soul" without the rhythm section. "All the Things You Are," has a familiar movement to it, even with Tepfer opting to sit out. "Billie's Bounce" actually begins the album with head intact, and manages to feel extremely loose while maintaining its blues structure.

But when the saxophonist sits out on "Giant Steps" the trio doesn't make it obvious that they're playing the John Coltrane classic. The rhythm gets a little more elastic, with Tepfer's left hand getting wrapped up in conversation with the right. The pianist begins "Stella by Starlight" with a series of quick cascading phrases that actually sound close to Cecil Taylor's earliest work on Jazz Advance. When he moves into the changes, Konitz enters in the upper range of his alto (to the point where it sounds like a soprano) and bends a bit out of pitch. Rather than marring the performance, it adds some rugged feeling to the mood. For nearly 10 minutes the pulse moves along freely but the quartet is clearly in tune with each other. Tracks like these could be used in Before & After tests to stump listeners.

Jeff Williams' approach to his drums recalls Paul Motian's loose-limbed feeling. While a tempo is set, he sounds like he's playing off of it, adding color rather than simply keeping time. Michael Janisch keeps the foundation on most tracks and gets a two-minute solo at the beginning of "Alone Together," which has a dynamic, searching quality that sets the tone for the 14-minute track, never losing energy that whole time.

First Meeting was taken from six sets recorded over a two-night engagement. Apparently there were moments, in addition to these tunes, where the quartet got even more experimental and adventurous. Although it would have been nice to hear those moments in tandem with the more grounded pieces, so to speak, this album's running order sustains energy like a strong set, even as dynamics and instrumentation shift slightly with each one. Hopefully Volume 2 will feature more of the outward moments from these performances.

In some ways, this group sounds like they're getting to know each other for the first time as they play, testing the waters as they go. But the fact that they can strike up a non-verbal kinship and develop deep discussions are qualities that speak to the power of these players. If it sounds noodly and aimless, you're not listening closely.


Friday, August 22, 2014

J.J. Wright In Pittsburgh

Listening to WDVE-FM right now, relieved that Randy Baumann is back on the air today. I was starting to worry that his "vacation" might be something more permanent. That's sort of how it played out when Jim Krenn left the station a few years ago, and after losing WJAS-AM a few weeks ago, I don't really trust the bean counters in commercial radio to do the right thing.

There is a series of jazz shows happening at the Frick Fine Arts Building on Pitt's campus. Wednesday night, it was pianist JJ Wright (seen here, photo from his webpage not by me). The day before his show, he released his album Inward Looking Outward on Ropeadope. His music has an understated quality to it, staying in one harmonic place for a while but really developing what he's doing.

Having heard the album a few weeks ago, it seemed like it would be okay to bring my son along with me. It wasn't going to be a Matthew Shipp thunderfest (he's coming here on September 15 by the way). I was right. We got there right as Wright and his trio were in their first song. Donovan had his soundproof headphones with him, just in case it got loud. It didn't, really, but he kept them on during everything except the quiet, solo piano passages, at which point he took them off and looked inquisitively at Wright. After about 20 minutes, he asked if I packed any snacks (I hadn't) and asked if he could play with my phone. That's still a pretty good length of time, for a seven year old.

The auditorium in the Frick Fine Arts Building has good acoustics and nothing was miked. Onstage, drummer Nate Wood's kick drum was almost over-powering Wright's piano. At first it seemed like Ike Sturm's bass guitar was the volume culprit because the kick drum was operating in the same frequency. The piano was audible but not completely clear all of the time. Wright also seemed to have a preference for the middle register of the instrument too.

Still, it was a great performance. The group was tight, the tunes were kind of lengthy, moving on through different sections, not relying on head-solo constructs, or at least nothing that was obvious. But there was a movement to it, which makes me want to go back and reexamine the album.  In addition to a five-part suite, which is not in numerical order and not in succession on the disc, the album includes covers of Jon Brion, Sufjan Stevens and - one that ended the set on Wednesday - Phil Collins' "Take Me Home." I'm not a fan of Phil (far from it, in fact) but it was a good number, with a groovy beat (sort of like "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover") that would appeal to the Bad Plus fans.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Uh Oh, Jazz is Dead Again...Wait - It's Not. But WJAS Is

Originally the title of this post was going to stop at the ellipsis, but I didn't get to post it in time. The last week included a wedding, a furious hunt for a CD that needed to be reviewed, some illness and finally, the writing of a couple reviews, which of course brings with it, a whole lot of listening.

So I'm merging a couple thoughts.

First of all, in the wake of the Sonny Rollins imbroglio, some wise-ass wrote a piece for The Washington Post about how jazz has become irrelevant and boring. The tone of the piece didn't exactly state, "The stuff in that fake Sonny Rollins piece was right," but that was the gist of it. Dude actually went to Wesleyan University and knew of Anthony Braxton, but he didn't really know Braxton. Or at least he didn't try to understand him. Or maybe Braxton failed him in class.

Rather than offer my own rebuttal to this piece, I'd rather you check out Chris Richards' response to the piece. He makes several really good points about why Justin Moyer's original piece is full of holes.

What I would like to gripe about is the fact that Moyer's piece went to print in the first place. There are a lot of underpaid, under-appreciated music journalists out there who are hell-bent on informing the public about the good stuff that's coming out. People who would love to have a mere 500 words in a place like The Washington Post. Why the hell are they letting schlubs like Moyer write lazy, reactionary pieces like this? (Said Shanley, who used to hate the use of rhetorical questions in print.)

There are a couple answers that can be given. First, since people don't read as much as they once did, the media has to get people's attention via trumped-up alleged hot-button pieces like this. Secondly, the internet needs a constant new stream of news to keep people's attention. Hence pieces like this or "What happened to those '80s tv stars you don't really care about" or "Let's Pick 10 Legendary Musicians and Say Why They Were Assholes." It's cheap, it's abundant and it'll get more hits than a review of a Steve Lehman album.

Part Two of the title

Last Thursday, I came home and put on the radio in our bathroom that's usually tuned to 1320 WJAS-AM. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh (who have never seen my ad nauseum mentions in other posts), the station features a playlist that runs from Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, along with Rod Stewart's American Songbook tripe, Celine Dion and Phantom of the Opera highlights. During the day, Pittsburgh institutions Jack Bogut and "Chilly Billy" Cardille added folksy announcements geared towards the blue-hair crowd. At night the playlist had cut-ins from John Tesh, spouting "intelligence for your life," rehashed from Redbook and Dr. Oz. (The latter is something I've often pointed to as a nail in the coffin of real radio. But my son gets some weird kick out of it.)

Instead of hearing afternoon DJ Chris Shovlin spinning tunes, the station was playing what sounded like an infomercial. Strange, I thought. They usually don't play this stuff until the wee hours of the morning. Was I on the right station?

Then it came.

An ad for Glenn Beck. Not JUST an add for him, an ad that threw salt on my rapidly growing wound, since the song "Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows" had a male voice intoning "Yummy yummy yummy" overtop the obnoxious sound collage. (I f***ing hate that word).

A quick online check revealed that my old WJAS was gone. In its place was conservative talk radio. A new company bought the station a few months ago and expressed the desire to get rid of "the old music," mentioning Patti Page specifically. Meanwhile, that part of the playlist made the station unique, fun to listen to and to some extent novel.

The Pittsburgh AM radio band is dying a quick death. Instead of trying to generate interest in a place that needs new life, all their doing is catering to the lowest common denominator. Between WJAS and WZUM (see a post from last fall), there was a chance that the AM could prove that there's still edge and excitement in this music, especially if you're hearing some of it for the first time.

But the owners care more about profits that innovation.

Fear and conservative talks shows sell revenue. Perry Como doesn't.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Sonny Rollins - Our Guru

Last night Sonny Rollins went live online to speak about the New Yorker piece that appeared last week, consisting of made-up quotes by him. (See previous post if you don't know.)

My first reaction to his talk was that I hope I'm that eloquent and deep when I hit my 80s. I know people 20 years younger than Sonny who aren't nearly as quick-witted as him. There he was, quoting Aldous Huxley ("one of my heroes") and comparing the New Yorker piece to something that would run in Mad Magazine, of which he's also a fan.

To just touch on the half-hour discussion, he made the good point that if you didn't know the piece was satire and made up - WHICH A GREAT DEAL OF PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW SINCE IT WASN'T MADE CLEAR UNTIL YESTERDAY, WHEN THERE WERE EXPLANATIONS PUT AT THE BEGINNING AND END - is that the piece could disillusion aspiring musicians, who could read it and think something to the effect of "if Sonny feels this way, why should I bother playing jazz?"

You came away feeling that Sonny's no fool, and he's wiser than you think.

So don't mess with him, even in the name of satire.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sonny Rollins Didn't Say That

On Friday, Sonny Rollins tweeted the following: "Hey, folks, this is some guy's idea of a joke." No explanation, no anger, just our beloved Sonny giving it to us straight.

You have to admire him for that because, as I finally discovered last night, he was referring to a piece that ran on The New Yorker's website a day earlier, an "In His Own Words" piece that consisted of several quotes attributed to him, all putting down jazz music and his career. The biggest one that keeps getting mentioned begins, "Jazz might be the stupidest thing that anybody's ever come up with." It goes on to disparage the way the music starts, then falls apart as people noodle around on their instruments. You know - the way non-jazz fans talk about it. All that's missing is the cliche "too many notes."

It's shocking. It's out of character, and --- it's not Sonny. The whole thing is made up. In case you don't see this - and a lot of people didn't - it's under the humor section of the website.

One other thing: it's not funny. That's not to say that jazz isn't above criticism or irreverence. There are a lot of things, and a lot of people, who should be taken down a notch just to give them a dose of humility. Sonny Rollins isn't one of those people. Read any recent article about him and what comes across is a guy who's really taken to his Zen-like studies, whose always reaching for something higher in music. In short he seems just as touched by the love he receives as his listeners feel about his music.

So, as one writer who I follow on Facebook pointed out, why throw this genuine 84-year-old example-of-what-we-can-all-aspire-to, under the bus? There are plenty of punching bags in jazz music, none of which I need to mention because my point is not to find someone to beat up. Pick your own. Sonny has never done anything, at least in recent times, to piss people off enough to deserve this treatment.

Besides, who is the article aimed at? Is the average New Yorker website reader going to get the piece? Are they going to get the references? Do they know much jazz beyond Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme and a Billie Holiday compilation they heard in college? OK, I'm getting into cheap shot territory...

One final thought: the author will probably defend himself with the casual, "C'mon, it's a joke" reply. I've found that when people throw that out there, it's often damage control for a lack of consideration. Kind of like "I'm sorry you got mad when I said those awful things about you." Not really an apology. Not really sorry.

The guy supposedly writes for The Onion, which does satire really well, but if that's the case, the piece should have run there. Context is everything. Stick with The Onion and leave the big dogs like Sonny Rollins alone. It makes you look cheap and petty.

And for those of you who want to see the offending train wreck and the level of carnage, here it is.