Monday, August 12, 2019

Shane Parish & Wendy Eisenberg in Pittsburgh

Just got back from seeing Shane Parish and Wendy Eisenberg play at Acoustic Music Works, a music store in Squirrel Hill.  I've been intrigued by Wendy's playing since I first heard her albums The Machinic Unconscious and Its Shape Is In Your Touch last fall. (Read about them here.) There's a lot more that she's done before and since those two albums and I haven't had the chance to keep up with it, but that makes me all the more intrigued. So I was pretty stoked that she was coming to town on a night that I wasn't working. (She breezed through town in the Flying Luttenbachers a few months ago, and the only reason I found out was when some friends posted it on Facebook.)

Shane Parish's name is new to me but clearly these two work really well together and I wish I had been able to pick up both their duet album and a solo Wendy album, but I only had a enough for the latter.

Free improv guitar can get lost in the visceral qualities of the act of playing but these two really flowed well together. Tonight there were no electric guitars in sight. The duo's tour stayed in keeping with the name of the space. The set began with Wendy playing softly, with Shane joining her after a few seconds. They kept the volume low in these opening moment, prompting one Acoustic Music Works guys to turn off the air conditioner when it came on and threatened the muffle the sound.

The dynamics got louder as they played, not in a gradual build but shifting quickly when it felt right. Shane hit a loud chord but it was a pronouncement along the way instead of a cue to go someplace else. Even when they seemed to be playing in opposite directions, their guitars still worked together, making them almost feel like sounds in nature that do their own thing independently, while creating music together at the same time. Wendy stopped playing a few times to simply caress her instrument, getting sounds from the wood. Or maybe this is her way of taking a pause. Shane didn't quite do that, but he did tap on the instrument and got a similar feeling going.

By the end of the set, the ten or so of us that were there all forgot that the air conditioner had been turned off.

Eric Weidenhoff, Jeff Weston and Jim Storch opened the evening with a free improv set on cello, bass and percussion, respectively. Equally quiet and restrained for most of it, the music got pretty spare and open at times.

Monday, August 05, 2019

When Will I Get to Play All Those Records?

Okay, maybe no one else notices but it's gotten ridiculous in terms of how long it's been since I posted here. A month?! Jiminy crap. Not a day goes by when I don't think about an album I'd like to write about or a show that I went to, or an article that I wrote about. And I just joined the Jazz Journalists Association at long last too. What kind of flake am I?

A busy flake, let's just say.

Since the last post, I finished a story on Joe Fiedler, the Pittsburgh native and Taylor Allderdice grad (who, it turns out, was there as a senior when I was a freshman) who is now a musical director on Sesame Street. Earlier this year he released an album called Open Sesame, interpreting some prime (read: from the '70s) tunes from Sesame Street in a jazz quartet/quintet. I listened to that on the way up to Winter Jazz Fest and knew I had to write something about him. I filed the piece with JazzTimes and I think it might be going in their October issue.

I also started working on a piece about flutist Nicole Mitchell who is now the head of Jazz Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Several interviews have been conducted on that subject and I have to start transcribing and getting my thinking cap on soon as to how the piece will go. That's also going in JazzTimes, in their education issue.

Throughout that time, I still wrote a couple stories for Pittsburgh Current on local folks like Weird Paul and Madame Dolores (aka Christiane D). I missed the Deutschtown Music Festival because of work, since I close at work all the time. But the crowds sounded pretty huge at that event so maybe it was just as well.

But there was another big thing that happened in July. One that I've been rather guarded about, at least at first. I bought a record collection. A fairly sizable one of quality stuff too. It's something I always wanted to do but never really had the opportunity. It belonged to a guy who was a colleague of a friend of mine. They were both lawyers and my friend was the lawyer for this guy's estate. (He passed away sometime last year, I think.) A lot of the things in the collection look like they might have been played once or twice and then shelved, especially the singles, which almost all date back the first wave of punk rock. They don't have the early British punk stuff (Pistols, Clash, Damned) but there is a lot of weird New York stuff and some other things from the Pacific Northwest that are only remarkable in my mind because they include a guy who went on to play in the SF jazz group Splatter Trio.

When I first saw the collection I didn't take the time to look through everything. There were certain things that sealed the deal for me: Impulse Records spines, some Blue Note stuff ('70s pressings), prog rock, Mosaic boxes, a single by Pittsburgh's the Five. So when I got it home, I was still making new discoveries a few days, and sometimes a week, later.

Why be so secretive about this, one might ask. It's quite the coup. The answer to that is twofold. For one thing, the paranoid part of me knows that records can make people crazy. Crazy driven by desire. The desire to want some of the action.

But the other thing is, I bought this collection with the idea of reselling a lot of that. I have been selling records off and on for over a dozen years now. The earliest posts here chronicle trips to estate sales and some of the things I picked up. I rarely posted about reselling things because I didn't want to look like a big shot and I didn't want to get on the bad side of local used store people. Or people who like to have some of the things I sold.

As a record buyer, I have mixed feelings about reselling too. I don't like the way the price of used things has skyrocketed in the last 15 years either. I don't want to be part of the problem. I'm not going to rationalize my selling by saying, it's okay because it's me, a nice guy trying to supplement my family's income, rather than some guy who travels across the country paying a dime a dozen  for records owned by widows and selling them for obscene prices.

Which leaves me........ in the middle, I guess. I am a Libra, after all. That's when the hording feeling comes in. Or wait - it's not hoarding if I think that I'm holding onto them as a reference that I might need sometime when I'm writing an article and need to hear Willem Breuker (yes, one of his albums is in the collection). And maybe I'll need to someday figure out if my CD of Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures sounds better than the '70s vinyl pressing. Same goes for Mingus Plays Piano. That reissue I bought sounds nice, but that Impulse label sure looks good. And all those Henry Cow records? Maybe I should see if I do really like them.

But what to listen to now?  Something from the collection? Maybe something I want to blog about. But what? Then the frustration sets in.

So that's why I haven't blogged in a while. Hopefully this post will get me back in gear.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Recap of the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

My dispatch from the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival is up and readable on the Pittsburgh Current page, so please check it out.  Since there wasn't enough room to post a ton of photos on the site, here are a few good ones from the event.
Sean Jones (right) sat in with Butcher Brown, featuring Marcus Tenney

Warren Wolf gave a history of the vibes

Keyon Harrold played an emotionally-charged set. 

Captain Black Big Band, led by Orrin Evans, who's hidden, stage left at the piano

Jessica Care Moore, who started Black Women Rock

Nona Hendryx brought the house down at Black Women Rock

Charles Lloyd played flute and tenor sax, with bassist Reuben Rogers

Friday, June 28, 2019

CD Review: Nature Work

Nature Work
Nature Work

The term "nature work" comes from bass clarinetist Jason Stein. To reach a certain point in improvisation, a musician needs to shut off the conscious mind and let the subconscious take over. By seeing the subconscious as a natural expression, therefore, playing music can be considered "nature work," according to Stein. So don't let the album cover fool you. This is not pastoral music representing all creatures great and small. This is free thinking music that still knows how to swing, born on the vibrant streets of Chicago, with some influence coming from Brooklyn, Berlin and Los Angeles.

Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward have worked together in numerous setting in the Windy City, most recently on a tour with Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone group. Both of them composed pieces for this quartet, with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jim Black. The group itself came together for two performances earlier this year, with the recording session coming quickly thereafter. Maybe the group was just excited to document material that was so new, or maybe the comfort they felt with one another gave them the ease to really make it fly. Either way, Nature Work is full of fire.

Jim Black has always been a spastic drummer who's ready to utilize his entire kit - and random percussion artillery - at all times. "Zenith" centers around him in the theme, where his drums get punctuated by the horns instead of the other way around. Stein seems totally inspired by the drums, wailing in the upper register before Ward joins him in a new closing theme. Revis (a member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Tarbaby) feels right at home here, and in pieces like the free floating "Opter Fopter," where he straddles bow scrapes and dynamic plucking. When a tune requires him to keep it simple ("Cryptic Ripple"), Revis holds down the riff, until of course things go wild in the end.

Both reed players sound extra inspired, perhaps because of being in each other's company. In "Tah Dazzle," Ward doesn't lock in with the rhythm section, but he has some internal rhythmic ideas that he puts out that still blend right in with the bass and drums. When the pattern in blowing section shifts into a chord change, Stein leans hard into it, which adds to the excitement.

There are plenty of other examples of this on the album, blending uninhibited blowing and sly themes ("Hem the Jewels," "South Hempstead") as well as jerky themes that leap the forefront immediately ("The Shiver"). Considering the far-flung residences of the band members, it's hard to say when they'll reconvene, so listen to this often.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival - Prelude to a Recap

I'm going to write a whole report for Pittsburgh Current on the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, which took place last week. In the meantime, I figured I'd do a teaser with a few very Pittsburgh-centric photos from last Friday. 

Last Friday, the festival hosted a Jazz Crawl in Downtown Pittsburgh, where several venues presented local musicians during Happy Hour. The Original Oyster House - a Pittsburgh institution - hosted the Tony Campbell Quartet, with Mr. Campbell on alto saxophone, Dr. James Johnson II on piano, Tony DePaolis on bass and John Korpiel on drums. There was no better way to dig this group but to take them in while having a Famous Fish Sandwich for dinner, which is just what I did.

But there was more to the set. Fred Pugh, who is something of a catalyst around town when it comes to music events (he was the one who got me to the Crawford Grill in the early '00s and he has his own FP3 Promotions now) got up and sang "Bye Bye Blackbird" and a few others in his rich voice. It was a great way to start the weekend. After thinking about doing this for several years, I finally requested to have the whole weekend off to check out the event.

Friday, May 31, 2019

My Dinner with Roky or RIP Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson has passed away. May he rest in peace. His life seemed to be a series of steep ups and downs, but it appears that in his final years, he got to do the thing he liked best of all: play music. He might not have been a rock superstar but his music inspired a lot of people who took inspiration from him and did it themselves.

I got to meet and hang out with Roky on a few occasions when he was living in Pittsburgh with his brother Sumner. Roky was getting his life back on track and while it was far from a rock and roll experience, it gave me some things that have stuck with me ever since.

I had heard about the 13th Floor Elevators since I was a teenager. Being fascinated with all sort of '60s rock, I wanted to hear the band. When I discovered how rare their original albums were, it made them even more appealing to me. Easter Everywhere wasn't the best introduction for my ears. When I finally did hear it, on a reissue in the '80s, it felt a little too wordy to me. There weren't enough crazy guitar solos like Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly (my two heavy psych references at that point). During college, when I finally heard their debut Psychedelic Sounds of... and also Bongwater's covers of "You Don't Love Me Yet" and "Splash 1," I had the background to appreciate them. The Dylanesque trip of "Slip Inside This House" left a better impression too.

Then we had dinner together.

The year was 2001, maybe 2000. Sumner lived in Pittsburgh where he was a tubaist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Roky was living with him for a time, getting his life and his mind back in order. My friend Grant knew Sumner, who said that Roky liked to get out of the house while he practiced the tuba. Grant suggested that he, Roky and I go out for dinner together. At the time, I was on staff at InPittsburgh and I thought this would make a great story: Psychedelic Rock Originator Living in Mt. Washington! I understood that Roky might be a little fragile and not ready for a proper interview. And I certainly didn't want to write something that would come off as exploitative. But I figured it'd be good to get to know the guy. Hell, meeting him would be cool!

We made plans to pick him up at the house where the brothers lived in Mt. Washington. Sumner took us in the house and called Roky, who answered from the top of the steps in a Texas drawl. Instead of the wild and woolly guy I had seen on album covers for the past 15 years, the man who finally came down had short hair and neatly trimmed beard and mustache. Maybe not exactly like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti, but somewhere in the vicinity.

"Good t'see y'again," he said a couple times when we were introduced. Maybe he had met Grant before but this was the first time he and I ever crossed paths. Still, when he said those words, the enthusiasm was infectious and it put me at ease. It also gave me a phrase that I've repeated since then with a few friends who are in the know.

We went to a Mexican restaurant in Oakland where Roky had become a regular. The owner greeted him at the door with, "Hey, amigo," clearly recognizing him from previous visits. He surely had no clue that this happy-go-lucky fellow was one of the originators of Psychedelic Rock, but it didn't matter. Roky just seemed happy to have friends that greeted him like that. During dinner there were periods where he would get quiet and just keep to himself, and Grant and I had our own conversations. But at one point, Roky brought up the name of Red Krayola, an Austin band that was a contemporary of the 13th Floor Elevators. Up until that point, Roky seemed like he either didn't want to talk about his past or his memory of it was a little fuzzy. When this happened, it came out of the blue and it was cool.

Roky and I had one more dinner date after that. I still felt wary of being exploitative and anyway InPittsburgh went out of business in the fall of 2001 and I never got to write the article. We never saw each other again. Sometime a year or two later there was a benefit/tribute concert for him at the Rex Theater, where he was in attendance. One friend who was there said he looked kind of uncomfortable, like the crowd was a little much for him. A few years later - my details are fuzzy on this part - he moved back to Texas.

A few documentaries were made about him, one apparently showing him in a rather radical type of therapy that helped him get his life back in order. I always wanted thought I should watch it, if nothing else to see where he was coming from. But time slipped away.

A few years prior to meeting Roky, a filmmaker came to town to screen a doc that he had made about Roky. I was enlisted by the then-editor of InPgh to put a band together that would play a few 13th Floor Elevators songs before the screening. (I wound up playing drums for that band instead of bass.) It was cool except that the filmmaker fronted the band  and his rhythm guitar was cranked up louder than anything else onstage, including the lead guitar playing of my friend Rob, who still bitches about it if the subject comes up. (Rob is an amazing guitar player, so I don't blame him.)

Then again that type of situation might be indicative of Roky's life: a little scattered but stuck in your mental draintrap all these years later.

Good t'see y'again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

CD Review: Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt - Live in Santa Monica

Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt
Live in Santa Monica

Trumpeter Samantha Boshnack hails from rural New York, but after studying at Bard College, she made her way to the Pacific Northwest where Seattle has been her home base for the past 15 years. She has received several commissions and residency spots, and has worked with Wayne Horvitz (himself a Northwest resident), drummer Jim Black and the late Butch Morris, to name just a few collaborators. She has also lead groups of varying sizes. B'shnorkestra is a 14-piece orchestral ensemble, while the Sam Boshnack Quintet toys with more avant-garde jazz. 

Seismic Belt represents Boshnack's attempt to combine both of these stylistic qualities in one group. Along with a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, it features the leader's trumpet in the company of a  saxophonist alternating on baritone and tenor, and two string players. The music, commissioned by the California-based 18th Street Art Center's Make a Jazz Fellowship (and sponsored by the Herb Alpert Foundation), is inspired by the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped region around the Pacific populated with most of the world's volcanoes and which experiences 90% of the world's earthquakes. 

Like the multiple layers of the earth's strata, the music has several interlocking parts. Drummer Dan Schnelle and bassist Nashir Janmohamed hold down complex ostinatos, occasionally joined by pianist Paul Cornish when he isn't moving with the rest of the group or adding another counterpoint. 

Lauren Elizabeth Baba (violin, viola) and Paris Hurley (violin) add a frequently eerie, uncertain quality to the music, which Boshnack matches with a tone that expresses the inquisitive feeling that inspired this song cycle. She favors the warm, middle range of her horn, never getting overly animated except during "Churo." Baba and Hurley take care of that, often following the trumpeter with solos that get more frantic. Saxophonist Ryan Parrish also kicks up dust on tracks like "The Summer That Never Came" where Hurley picks up further on the idea.

Although the melodies provide the main focus on the album - and Boshnack reels off solos like the one in "Subduction Zone" that feels like an elaborate thought - the rhythm section sounds comparably subdued, at least on the recording. Schnelle offers a strong solo on that same track, but too often he and Janmohamed settle into the background, offering support but not really driving the music. The approach means that the dynamics on several tracks and don't provide enough to distinguish them from one another. The closing "Submarine Volcano" makes a break, with a call and response section between Cornish and the rest of the band, followed by a strong Parrish solo on tenor. But if the group had kicked the energy up a notch earlier, it would have elevated Boshnack's writing even further. 

CD Review: Stephen Gauci's Live at the Bushwick Series, studio session with Cooper Moore

Stephen Gauci/Sandy Ewen/Adam Lane/Kevin Shea
Live at the Bushwick Series

Chris Welcome
Beyond All Things

Cooper Moore/Stephen Gauci
Studio Session Volume 1


If you happen to be in the New York area on a Monday night, get on over to the Bushwick Public House on Myrtle Street in Brooklyn. For the past two years (June marks the second anniversary), tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci has been hosting the Bushwick Series, a weekly improvised music event. Six different bands play from 7:00 pm to 12:30 pm, each week. (While that number seems a bit crowded, the Series seems to run smoothly, with everyone getting to play a short but full set.)

In an email he sent to me earlier this year, Gauci said he envisioned the night as a hybrid between a jam session and a concert series, giving the music a proper venue, with hopes that it would become a place for musicians to hang rather than simply play and split. It seems to have met his hopes. Not just younger musicians but a handful of more established players frequently drop by each week. At a time when any series might have trouble surviving and when improvising musicians struggle to find an audience, this event should be commended and supported.

Gauci live-streams sets each week on his Facebook page so folks outside New York can see what they're missing. The entire set of over 500 video performances can be found here as well. Two of these three releases on his label document live sets. The saxophonist plays each week with his trio of bassist Adam Lane and drummer Kevin Shea. On the night their CD was recorded (no date is listed) they were joined by prepared guitarist Sandy Ewen.

The three-track disc begins with an everyone-for-themselves feeling of free blowing. Gauci begins with some upper register wails over the skittering rhythm section. But the whole set features variety in their approach. In track two (no song titles are listed on any of these discs), the tenor gets loud a few times but he generally holds it down, playing some simple melodies while his partners run wild behind and around him. Shea gets particularly spastic, clattering at times like Tony Oxley. The final 22-minute track begins with some rapid plucking from Lane and goes on to alternate between free sections and themes presented by Gauci. Ewen's prepared axe adds percussive color through most of the set, but in the final seconds, she adopts a surfy twang as she and Gauci take things out.

Guitarist Chris Welcome is involved with several groups in New York, including Hot Date (a sound collage duo) and Chaser (a harder group), which both feature bassist Shayna Dulberger, who played with him on Beyond All Things. This 28-minute continuous performance also includes Jaimie Branch (trumpet), Kirk Knuffke (Bb & Eb cornets), Anthony Ware (alto sax), Sam Weinberg (tenor sax), Ben Gerstein (trombone, percussion), Mike Pride (drums, percussion). It begins with a joyous blast of gong crashes and horn blasts, not unlike the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the opening moments of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance from more recent years. The horns eventually play a loosely structured theme, with pedal drones still resonating beneath them. The whole piece sounds cohesive and spontaneous but a few count-in directions can be heard during the performance, implying that some music was written-down or pre-determined. The recurring themes feel a little dissonant or minor compared to the initial one. Yet moments like the interactions between Gerstein and Welcome (who must be using effects that often sound like primitive synthesizers) give the music plenty of energy and keep the mood rather festive.

Mike Watt of the Minutemen used to say that records were like flyers, meaning the recordings were meant to motivate listeners to come to the next show. That's exactly what these two discs do. Both have good sound quality, capturing the natural feel of a band in a room, without any production effects added to clean it up. It can make you wish you were there.

Incidentally, on Monday, June 3, Welcome's 10:45 set serves as a CD release show, according to the schedule. Judging from the personnel listed for that evening, it celebrates Beyond All Things. If I'm wrong that means he's already put out something new, in which case, more power to him.

Studio Session Vol. 1 breaks with the Bushwick Series setting, placing Gauci's tenor in the recording studio with pianist Cooper Moore. Together they create uninhibited energy music which moves loosely but also shows their high level of communication. When Cooper Moore introduces a subtle piano figure, Gauci responds in kind, figuring out what direction the music should take, harmonically. The saxophonist's altissimo range is particularly strong and he frequently uses it less as a method of wild punctuation and more like a vehicle for peeling off some intense melodies. His partner's work includes everything from fragmented arpeggios, notes hanging alone in the air and percussive sounds that could either be pedal manipulation or ten fingers rapping on the keys. While things get a bit raucous, especially during the final 11-minute track, the energy and rapport never dissipates during the album.