Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CD Review: Josh Sinton - krasa

Josh Sinton

When Jon Irabagon released his album of solo sopranino saxophone performances in 2015 (Inaction is an Action), one scribe went so far as to ponder whether the challenging set of pieces represented the worst album of that year (unlike Irabagon's full-band album Behind the Sky, released at the same time, which the writer decreed as one of the year's best). Inaction was an intense listen, what with Irabagon's skilled extended techniques running wild on the pee wee horn. It seems only fitting that Irabagon's label would up the ante and  release Josh Sinton's set of improvisations on solo contrabass clarinet.

Sinton plays in a series of contexts, including Ideal Bread, a group dedicated to the music of Steve Lacy, in which he plays baritone saxophone. For krasa, which translates to "beauty" in Czech or "color" in Latvia, Sinton recorded at the studio Menegroth the Thousand Caves with metal bassist Colin Marston at the control board. On a few tracks, Sinton uses pick-up microphones and runs the clarinet through a couple amplifiers. This maneuver gives it the visceral sound of a free improv guitar, which only sounds more barbed as Sinton blows overtones and squonks on it. He even produces some feedback two minutes into the opening "Sound."

Without a doubt, krasa gets brutal, ripping a layer or two of skin as it proceeds. Sinton often luxuriates in long notes, enjoying the resonance of his instrument and what the amplification does to it. He also vocalizes through it. But anyone investigating to this type of music doesn't expect sweet lines and will discover the nuances of the performance. Shorter melodic blasts appear in "(prelude to)," which acts like an undistorted balm after the 16-minute opening of "Sounds." "And" starts soft and low, moving in waves before Sinton unleashes a sound like a bowed bass.

So maybe krasa isn't meant for casual listening, but it definitely makes for fascinating listening. The album contributes a new chapter to canon of solo reed albums, in the tradition that goes from Inaction is an Action back to Roscoe Mitchell's Solo Saxophone Concerts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Live Shows in Review: Ilgenfritz, Moran, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Code Girl

Playing right now: Mary Halvorson Quartet Plays Masada Book Two

Back when I started this blog, most of the entries began with the name of whatever I was listening to at the moment that I was writing. Back then I could fire off a set of words while music was playing in the background. These days, not so much. That's due in large part to the fact that I'm usually reviewing an album and I feel like I can't do that while listening to something else. Or even listen the album in question, because my cautious nature makes me feel like I might be missing something if I listen with half an ear....

Anyhow, I have a backlog of photos from the past few weeks of shows, so it was time to post them. First of all, back on Thursday, February 22, bassist James Ilgenfritz came back to town, along with drummer Brian Chase and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee. The performance was presented by Alia Musica and took place at the Mattress Factory.  

The space's high ceilings are hardwood floors served as a good spot, acoustically, for the trio. Unfortunately, I got there late and missed about half of the performance. Right as I was walking in, Lee was setting down an oversized recorder-type instrument. (Later that night, Ben Opie pulled out a picture of Michael Pestel playing such an instrument during the 2008 performance at the National Aviary with Opie, Anthony Braxton and a few other musicians.) 

Before the set was through, though, Lee also played some flute and sopranino sax. Chase, who has also played with local native Andrea Parkins and with groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has some great splatter effect moments on the drum kit. Ilgenfritz, playing a five-string upright bass (with a removable neck, to boot) played some great bowed drones and exciting runs all over his instrument. If only there had been a second set.

Nine days later, Jason Moran and Bandwagon played at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in a show presented by Kente Arts Alliance. The group began the set in darkness, with Moran setting up the introduction of "Feed the Fire," a Geri Allen composition. Having heard the trio on several albums, it was exciting seeing them live. Nasheet Waits is the type of drummer that propels any group in which he plays. Tarus Mateen, on bass guitar not upright bass, can play rapid lines on his instrument without ever overpowering the group or sounding too busy. Then there's Moran who like his mentor the late Jaki Byard, is well-versed in numerous styles of piano and can draw on any number of them at a moment's notice. Like Byard, this isn't mere mimicry either. He went from Earl "Fatha" Hines to Cecil Taylor and back throughout their evening.

During the set, and afterwards during the talk back with Kente's Mensah Wali, Moran's reverence for Pittsburgh's jazz history continued. "Pittsburgh takes care of its legacy," he said later, offering a reminder not to take the city's musical history for granted. His set included several originals but it also featured revised versions of some classics. He played Thelonious Monk's "Thelonious" with blistering speed. "Body and Soul," a song done umpteen times over the years sounded fresh and different, and nothing like any "Body and Soul" you've ever heard.

A short time later in Lawrenceville, the smaller room in Cattivo (aka the one right above where Goth Night was loudly taking place) was the space to catch the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This time drummer/percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played with trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. Wilkes has been a fairly regular member of the group on visits here, and though Harding came with the group once last year, this was my first time seeing him in Pittsburgh. Several years ago he knocked my socks off as a soloist in David Murray's Big Band at the Detroit Jazz Festival. (When I found out who he was that night, I realized he was a member of the group Grass Roots with saxophonist Darius Jones, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, who released a great album on AUM Fidelity.)

The evening combined straight ahead tunes like "Bebop," adapted to fit the stripped down sound of the trio, as well as El'Zabar standard's like "Can You Find a Place," where he plays finger piano and keeps a pulse with ankle bells, mixing spirituality with AACM-style soloing. Harding proved that deserves a lot more attention. He can utilize the low down weight of his instrument or lift into the upper register, creating light and graceful moments as needed. He did both that night. Wilkes was gets better and better each time he comes to town. (I took pictures but they got lost when transferring data to a new phone.) PS - Alex Harding is set to come back to Pittsburgh on Friday, April 19.

Mary Halvorson brought her Code Girl project to the Warhol Museum last Wednesday, March 7. The group, as stated in an earlier post, includes the guitarist's Thumbscrew bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), adding Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidanbi. 

The inclusion of vocals, which frequently veered into torrid wails similar to Shelley Hirsch or Jeanne Lee, occasionally felt a little too unhinged, Kidambi gave a dynamic performance. During "And" she unleashed a long tone with the power of an opera singer, an image that was confirmed by her stance at an angle in front of her microphone. As the set wore, Kidambi's voice seemed to function more as a third voice between Halvorson and Akinmusire, and she easily handled the task of standing between those two.

Akinmusire's part in "And" began with a warm tone that is typically heard from a flugelhorn. But he quickly traded that warmth for some intense tonguing. Later in the set, he straddled a sweet sound with one that sounded like it was coming through a fuzz pedal. I knew he was a great player, but he really blew the lid of the place.

As far as Halvorson herself, the set has to be one of the best performances I've heard from her, up there with her Septet's performance at the 2014 Winter Jazz Fest. (I've seen her other times in Pittsburgh and New York, but these were my favorites.) Her playing was especially intense, whether it was the finger picking of "Pretty Mountain," the indie rock-style of "Storm Cloud" or the raw solos she unleashed during the set. Code Girl was a heavy listen with changes coming at the ears left and right. But seeing the quintet put it all together live (the first show of the tour, to boot), it made a lot of sense.

Monday, March 12, 2018

CD Review: Sylvie Courvoisier Trio - D'Agala

Sylvie Courvoisier Trio

Sylvie Courvoisier dedicated each of the nine tracks on her latest album to nine individuals from different walks of life, including a French politician, artists, musicians and her father. As it often goes with these homages, it's not a requirement to hear the tracks as direct representations of the honoree. Although in some cases the similarity might seem a bit intentional.

"Bourgeois's Spiders," named for artist Louis Bourgeois' arachnid sculptures, features Courvoisier shifting the focus away from the keys of her piano. She plays the frame of the instrument, or the strings themselves, as Drew Gress (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) stealthily vamp beneath her, which evokes spiders.

Wolleson begins the eight-minute title track, dedicated to the late pianist Geri Allen, with a batch of arrhythmical sounds, which serve as ambiance rather than pulse. In the background, it sounds like a faucet drips, birds roost and what sounds like a rusty high hat cymbal adds irregular squeaks. (Some of that is pure metaphor.) In the foreground, Courvoisier and Gress play the rubato melody, the latter up the neck of his instrument. Though they move together, Gress follows a micro-second behind, giving it room to breathe.

At this point, D’Agala creates the temptation to scrutinize all the tracks, comparing and contrasting the way the pianist does or doesn’t evoke, for instance, Ornette Coleman in “Éclats for Ornette” (sort of) or the one-named honoree Charlie in the knotted “Pierino Porcospino” (who knows). “Fly Whisk” might not evoke Intakt regular Irène Schweizer (who’s recent Live! with drummer Joey Baron should also be checked out) but with quick staccato playing by Gress and Courvoisier, her labelmate would surely enjoy the track.

Bypass the names and D’Agala stands as a strong, varied set of music; all nine pieces explore different ideas, each as thought-provoking as the previous one. “Imprint Double” starts off with a low boogie riff (taught to Courvoisier by her father) with the rhythm of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” But before there is a chance to dig into either that song or to turn it more sinister, the trio moves onto something open and free. That ability to turn a corner and sustain focus, which a rhythm section that’s clearly in tune with her thoughts, makes Courvoisier’s latest effort a consistently rewarding listen.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Show Preview: Mary Halvorson's Code Girl +

Left to right: Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Ambrose
Akinmusire, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara 

This is the cover of the CD

Mary Halvorson - Code Girl
Wednesday, March 7
Andy Warhol Museum, North Side
8 p.m. $20 ($15 for members and students)

There's lots of timely things to be talking about now, but this one rises to the top of the list. Along with Jason Moran's show tomorrow (with a set by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble later at a different venue*) this particular show is one people should make serious plans to see. It marks the return to Pittsburgh by guitarist Mary Halvorson with yet another project. Also, the album Code Girl was released today and, for once, Pittsburgh happens to be the first stop on their tour.

The core of the Code Girl quintet is basically the collaborative Thumbscrew trio: guitarist Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. If there was ever a familiarity to that group, it evaporates thanks to the two additional members of the band, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Amirtha Kidanbi. Halvorson composed both music and lyrics for the album. No stranger to lyrics she's previously written and sung with People (a mangled jazz-punk project with drummer Kevin Shea) and in duets with violist Jessica Pavone.

The lyrics read like fragmented beat poetry, and following along is recommended (at least at home) because Kidambi often sucks on and savors vowel sounds, often making any underlying theme even more obtuse. Sometimes her vocalizing sounds like a darker version of Robert Wyatt's style, while at other times her melodic path recalls some of the more operatic moments on Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. And much like the latter album, so much is happening in the songs that any abrasive qualities are overlooked and placed to side for further investigation later.

That puts the attention on Halvorson and Akinmusire. The guitarist takes her signature clean-but-warped sound in a number of different directions. "Accurate Hit" strips the group down to just guitar and vocals. Halvorson bangs out a pattern that would sound like anthemic rock in the hands of the average joe. But her tone-bending pedal twists the standard sound at random moments, motivating Kidambi to respond in kind. By the final verse, she's wailing much like her accomplice's instrument. "Off the Record" begins in a tranquil mood, briefly shifting into a straight chord pattern than almost sounds like Count Basie's Freddie Green, finally featuring a solo where the delay pedal grabs the notes and bends them after they have left the guitar. It's a strange way in which Halvorson sounds like she's manipulating real time.

Akinmusire sounds quite at home in this melange of improvisation and arty composition. He and Formanek engage in a great duet to open "In the Second Before," with the trumpeter emitting some low smears and growls. His puckish tone is a driving force in "And" as well. There are other moments too when he and Kidambi seem to be inspiring and driving each other's work.

Usually Pittsburgh doesn't get a band like this so early into their formation. The young age of Code Girl (the band) isn't apparent by listening to the music, which is another reason to take advantage of an opportunity to see them in person. Hard to say when they might come back, especially considering how many other projects all of them have going on.

*For information on Jason Moran and Bandwagon's show on Saturday, here's a preview I wrote for City Paper. Also, Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays tomorrow night as well at Cattivo, 146 44th Street, Lawrenceville. Along with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, El'Zabar will have baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. I saw him play with David Murray's Big Band and he practically stole the show. Things start at 10 pm, following the Moran show. $20 at the door.

Monday, February 26, 2018

CD Review: Wayne Escoffery - Vortex

Wayne Escoffery

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's latest album was born out of the social/political climate of the previous year, as he is raising a young son in the midst of "an age of unconscious white privilege and empowered white nationalists, in an age of increased gun violence and brutality against children and young black men, and in an age where the people leading the country are the ones exemplifying  the worst in men and scaring youth rather than inspiring them," as he states in the liner notes. (One can only imagine how he felt two weeks ago, following the shootings in Parkland, Florida.) When Escoffery grew up, born in England of Jamaican descent and living in the United States, he dealt with issues of racism and not being "black enough," so the fact that he was having to deal with these issues all over again as a parent was troubling.

It makes an intense topic which Escoffery uses it to release passion and conviction in his playing. Vortex features his first recordings with pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. They have been playing together for two years, though the saxophonist also worked with Peterson and Okegwo in other settings.

The group's cohesion is evident in the album's opening moments. "Vortex" is propelled by a rapid tenor line. Both Escoffery and Kikoski seem right at home, firing off solos at this blurry tempo. The instrumentation for the majority of the album, as well as the musical execution, evokes the classic John Coltrane Quartet.  "Judgement," which serves as an intro to Peterson's "Acceptance," adds to that. Without sounding like an imitation to their forefathers, the brief rubato theme, with piano runs and loose drums fills, has a contemplative quality even as it pushes forward. "Acceptance" follow immediately, rolling along in 15/4, emphasizing one rhythm in the theme and another beneath the solos. The quartet takes to the groove naturally, revealing the depth of their unique rapport. Escoffery's solo features him taking a scalar line, reshaping it through repetition and pushing himself further.

For an update of "To the Ends of the Earth," a standard done by Nat "King" Cole," Escoffery consciously puts it in Coltrane context. Kikoski begins by playing the vamp from "My Favorite Things" to ground the melody. When the group proceeds with the theme, it recalls the way Coltrane himself reshaped "Out of This World" in a similar manner. It includes a few Trane-style wails in the solo but again, Escoffery uses them more as a tip of the hat on the way with his own solo.

Vortex also includes trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on "In His Eyes," adding warmth to a mid-tempo Escoffery original. The track is one of two where Peterson gives the kit over to young drummer Kush Abadey. The regular quartet is also joined by percussionist Jaquelene Acevedo on three tracks. Both Abadey and Acevedo appear on "The Devil's Den," a minor key piece inspired by the current administration. Heard in that context, the wails from Escoffery's soprano and the chord that the band punctuates at the end of each chorus both make sense. Which is another way of saying that the song's back story doesn't need to be known to fully appreciate it, but it can make the listener more conscious of the structure when it does. Tense times have once again created a strong piece of art.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Savage Young Dü Reminds Me Why I Love the Hüskers

Sometimes it takes a while for a band to get their sound together, figuring out their focus and what they want to achieve. The CD edition of Hüsker Dü's Everything Falls Apart album (their first studio album but second full-length release) included, among its bonus tracks, their debut single, "Statues" b/w "Amusement." Following the tight, sometimes violent songs from the album and the equally fantastic "In A Free Land" single, these early songs feature little of what was too come. Grant Hart's "Statues," presented in an uncut eight-minute version when the single version was already two minutes longer than it needed to be, sounded like PiL without the rumbling bass (Greg Norton was playing higher on the neck than Jah Wobble ever dared). Bob Mould's "Amusement" lumbered on for too many verses, angry without a way to channel it. Perhaps Hüsker Dü was just another band in their earliest days.

Boy was I wrong on that count.

Yesterday, after reading about it and hearing people coo over it, I picked up Savage Young Dü (Numero Group), the four-record and hardcover book box set that chronicles the earliest activity of Grant Hart, Bob Mould and Greg Norton. Maybe it's not Zen Arcade but the music here - and, full disclosure, I still have one more record to listen to - just pops with excitement. While their official album debut, Land Speed Record, made the band sound like a simple hardcore band, and Everything Falls Apart refined the sound, the trio already had plenty of ideas of what they could do from the early days. The poppier elements, which came to the fore on Flip Your Wig and the two Warner Brothers albums, were already in the mix from the early days. Mould's yowling approach to the guitar was already there, and he could straddle that with some sharp hooks from the get-go.

Some of the early songs might sound a little quaint at first blush. "Can't See You Anymore," with its age-old tale of "your Mom and Dad don't like me" is somewhat amusing, as are tracks like "Insects Rule the World" and "Industrial Grocery Store." But they're delivered with the same fire power that was the group's m.o. during their SST days, so it carries this music. The songs - and there are plenty here that the lads worked up only to scrap them just as quickly - convey the excitement a band feels when new songs are brought in and everyone realizes that they're on to something: Maybe things aren't totally together yet, but it's already clear that things will gel before too long. In the meantime, it feels really exciting.

I tried to get a shot of the spine to convey how thick the box is.
That's Record one on the side of it. Records 2-4 and the book are in the box.

Growing up in the early to mid '80s, I didn't fully discover Hüsker Dü until Zen Arcade. I knew about them and heard that they were more than a thrash band, but I hadn't gotten around to them yet. Of course I devoured that album and New Day Rising, which seemed to come out mere months after its predecessor. At the same time, they couldn't top the Minutemen, who seemed to be tuned into weirder stuff that struck a chord with me. Today, it's apples and oranges, of course. But the Minutemen also seemed to confuse most of the young punks I knew, which only sent me on more of a crusade.

Ironically, while the Minutemen were the ones who I wanted to be, there was no way I felt like I'd ever play the bass like Mike Watt. When I saw them live, I swore he didn't touch the E string for the first half of the set, so busy was he walking all over the rest of the neck.

Hüsker Dü, on the other hand, was the band that - to some degree - I felt like I aspire to be. I might be able to play bass like Greg Norton, simply but heavily. I could certainly yell like Bob Mould. And Grant Hart wrote the kinds of songs that I wanted to write, taking punk sensibilities and wrapping them in catchy hooks. There was hope for me.

The music reminds me of all of that. The story conveyed in the book tells how it came together, out of necessity and out of a huge desire to create. As their friend Terry Katzman says in the booklet, "They weren't onstage to talk, play games and tune their guitars. They were there to play, and play as smart and as hard as they could."

And to top it all off, in listening to "Statues" and "Amusement" amidst all the other songs, they have an urgency and power that I didn't catch on Everything Falls Apart and More disc. Good mastering job, guys!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jason Roebke In Pittsburgh, A Night of Brevity

The last time Jason Roebke played in Pittsburgh, he was on the stage at the Consol Energy Center (now the PPG Paints Arena). He was a member of Locksmith Isidore, a trio led by bass clarinetist Jason Stein, the brother of that evening's headlining act, Amy Schumer. This past Friday, Roebke was by himself in a more intimate setting - the White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, the neighborhood a few miles up the road the arena. 

The bassist was between shows. A date with Tomeka Reid was coming up in Cleveland so he was trying to pick up a few things in between and this one came together easily. Luckily a friend of mine got wind of it and told me about it in enough time that I was able to make it. Roebke is an incredible bassist, who has recorded with most of the Chicago players that I follow (Stein, Mike Reed, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank Rosaly). He's also recorded a number of great albums under his own name, including High/Red/Center and Cinema Spiral. 

The evening's performances were conspicuous in their brevity. Susan Kuo and David Bernabo opened the night was a set of quiet improvisation. And by quiet, I mean if everyone hadn't been sitting in silent, rapt attention, you might not have been able to hear it. Bernabo bowed and occasionally plucked an acoustic guitar. Kuo played a thumb piano and added some vocals. From the back row of folding chairs, it was hard to see clearly, which made it interesting to figure out what was happening.

Music took a backseat next, since the following two performers were authors. Matthew Newton read an essay about growing up in the mid-'80s in Braddock, the once-thriving steel town that was falling apart at that time. His story of getting picked up after school by his Viet Nam vet uncle and his wild friend told a was really evocative in its detail about his memories of that time, and poignant as well. Rachel Ann Bricker played an audio piece next that spoofed computer apps, this one about finding your inner child. It incorporated movie samples including the inevitable Star Wars reference. 

Then Roebke carried his bass out from behind one of the shelves of books, along with his bow. From the moment he started playing, Roebke was deeply involved in the creation. When he set his bow on the podium next to the stage, or reached to pick it up, he never took his eyes off his instrument, reaching almost blindly for what he needed, without slowing the performance. He sometimes looked agitated or upset, like he was trying to figure out the best move to make. At first, his playing was sort of spare, using the bow over and under the bridge. At one point, Roebke even wedged the bow under the A string (I couldn't get my camera out in time). His technique was astounding, producing all sorts of rich, somewhat roaring sounds out of his instrument.

But after about 20 minutes, it was over. In fact, he played for about 10 minutes and set his instrument down. Then he seemed to get a nod from someone in the back of the room that it was okay to keep going, so he went back for more. I've seen Henry Grimes go on for an hour or more with just a bass and a violin. I would had gladly soaked up another 10 or 15 minutes from Roebke. However, he's coming back in April with Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara. (The latter two are here in a few weeks at the Warhol with Halvorson's Code Girl band too.) So the pump has been primed.

There was a show happening down the street at Howler's so I headed down their next. That show was also a night of short, concise sets, as late., Clara Kent and Garter Shake (below) all played 30-minute sets.