Wednesday, October 26, 2016

CD Release: Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red - Baltimore 1966

Blue Mitchell & Sonny Red
Baltimore 1966

The New Thing might have been happening all over New York City in 1966, but 180 miles away in Baltimore, the Left Bank Jazz Society kept things straight and hard swinging. History shows that John Coltrane would make his final public performance with the Society a little more than a year later, but by and large the Society hosted groups like the quintet fronted by trumpeter Blue Mitchell and alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

Mitchell played with a bright tone that took inspiration from Clifford Brown. Not quite as fiery as Freddie Hubbard or groundbreaking a soloist or composer as Lee Morgan, perhaps, he still blew with a good deal of fire. After playing with Horace Silver's quintet on albums like Song for My Father, Mitchell released several albums for Blue Note during this time that fit in firmly with the label's post-Sidewinder sound.

Sonny Red, born Sylvester Kyner in Detroit, also recorded one album for Blue Note and a few for Jazzland, but never achieved even mid-level notoriety beyond the jazz connoisseurs. (My first exposure to him came with a questionable live CD by Bobby Timmons in the '90s.) It's a shame because, as this performance shows, Red was clearly coming out of the Charlie Parker mold but working beyond that template, putting on an exciting performance as he went.

With John Hicks (piano), Gene Taylor (bass, also of the same Silver group as Mitchell) and Joe Chambers (drums) in the rhythm section, this quintet was clearly having a good time on March 20 of that year. Only one of the five tracks lasts less than 10 minutes, with two surpassing fourteen. In Jimmy Heath's "All Members," Mitchell still sounds like he's warming up, staying largely in the mid-range of his horn. Hicks, who would go on to play with people like David Murray, sticks to chords in the left hand here and throughout the night, feeding Powell-esque ideas to his right hand. But Red's slashing lines pump this up and Chambers plays several machine gun drum rolls and makes his crash cymbal ring like a bell. Everyone must have inspired Mitchell because a song later, in his calypso "Fungii Mama," he plays some squirts and explores some choice riffs. His energy keeps increasing with each track too.

Red's alto has a beefy tone, with a thickness similar to Cannonball Adderley. Throughout the evening, he throws some outlandish quotes into his solos. In "All Members" he references Raymond Scott's "The Toy Trumpet," while he borrows from Horace Silver in "Fungii Mama." "I Can't Get Started," the altoist's solo piece, includes snatches of  "I Get Along Without You Very Well" (twice), "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Irish Washerwoman" which seemed to be a staple of hard boppers. While excessive quotes can get bothersome, it should be noted that Red is adding these to a lengthy solo, which he shifts into double-time, as something of a bridge between his own ideas, so they don't quite come off sounding hokey.

The disc ends with another ballad, with Mitchell getting featured on Nat "King" Cole's "Portrait of Jennie" (spelled "Jenny" here). Chambers sits this one out, but Taylor adds bounce to it and keeps it flowing, inspiring some more bright Blue lines, including a half-valve squawk. While live sets usually conclude with a rousing piece designed to bring the audience to their feet, Baltimore 1966 does the complete opposite, ending gently. But we're left feeling that this band of seemingly diverse players (if you look at the directions in which they all went) created something greater than the sum of their parts, so a big ending is not necessary. Uptown has continually unearthed "lost" performances where on any random night. as tapes were rolling, a band might have been simply working a gig, or they might have really lifted the bandstand. This one belongs in the latter category.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I Have the Best Idea for What Obama and Biden Should Do in January

After watching a link to Hillary Clinton and that bum both cracking jokes yesterday at Al Smith Charity Dinner, I started riffing with a friend of mine, taking ancient one-liners from the likes of Henny Youngman and updating them for the current candidates. This was inspired in part by the accusation that Drumpf plagiarized a joke about Melania plagiarizing her speech. (I don't know if I truly believe that. It's an obvious joke that would be easy for a lot of people to make. But that's not why I'm here.)

I started wondering if Orange Head would also say, "Take my wife, please," and act like it's his own.

THEN, I started thinking about how our current leaders - Barack Obama and Joe Biden - are both naturally funny and sharp, and I imagined them as Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on Laugh-In. It occurred to me that would be a brilliant thing for them to do once their out of the White House. Barack could smoke again. He could be the straight man, trying to talk straight talk while Joe acts the part of his screwball sidekick. Laugh-In was always slightly political, so who better to bring it back to life than the man who could be politically astute and funny at the same time.

Bernie Sanders would be the perfect to come and say, "Sock it to me." But Jennie had an even better idea: he could be the guy riding the tricycle that keeps falling over. AND FOR ONCE, IT WOULD BE FUNNY!

The part of Ruth Buzzi's Gladys character could be played by Madeline Albright. Maybe Capitol Steps could be guest stars and they could be blown up. Or arrested for being so unfunny it's a crime. Mark Russell could be one each week too, being blown up. (Although I do kind of like him.)

This thing's practically writing itself. If the president sees this, please tell him to contact me. He knows where to find me.

Say goodnight, Joe.

Goodnight, Joe.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

CD Review: Kris Davis - Duopoly

Kris Davis

For her newest album, pianist Kris Davis hit upon the idea of performing a series of duets with specific types of instrumentalists: two different guitarists (Bill Frisell, Julian Lage), two pianists (Craig Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), two drummers (Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore) and two reeds (saxophonist Tim Berne, clarinetist Don Byron). With each pairing, they played one composition (five by Davis, one by Sanchez, one by Thelonious Monk, one by Duke Ellington) along with one brief improvisation.

In remarkable display of sequencing, the compositions play in order of the performers listed above (and pictured left to right on the cover, between pictures of Davis' inverted face). The improvisations run in reverse order of performers, making the final album something like an artistic palindrome. For those interested in watching the music come to life, Duopoly comes with an accompanying DVD that was filmed by two cameras in the studio, one pointing at each subject.

At first blush, the DVD almost acts like a distraction. Not simply because of technical things - such as when the camera stays on Lage's face during "Surf Curl," cropping out his musical activities - or the questions it can raise - like whether Drummond's facial expressions come from his passion for the music or uncertainty about where to play. After watching the performances, though, a return to the CD felt more rewarding. This is often gentle music and the visual almost took away attention from what is being created.

The composed pieces often feel as skeletal as the improvisations (which are each titled for Davis' guests). The interplay between Davis and Sanchez on "Angelica Sanchez" betrays more connection and interlocking of ideas than "Beneath the Leaves," though the latter sounds equally lyrical. "Fox Fire," with Taborn, begins slowly, with the alluring suspense that he created on his Avenging Angel disc: Things might begin glacially, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded as things open up. This pairing is one of the best on the whole session. It should come as no surprise that they have played a few shows together, marking the release of this set.

The two non-originals get stretched out beyond simple recognition. Davis takes "Eronel," a song associated with Thelonious Monk that was actually written largely by Sadik Hakim and Idrees Sulieman, and breaks down the theme into choppy pieces, while Drummond gradually builds from cymbal splashes to the full kit, ending in tandem with her like he knew where he was all along. Byron joins the pianist for "Prelude to a Kiss" which also takes the romantic theme and slows it to molasses-esque pour, giving a new type of romantic quality.

All of the improvisations average around four minutes, give or take a few seconds. That length of time doesn't offer much chance to create more than some fleeting sonic imagery that would not be out of place on an ECM album. They're compelling, though they don't always offer something to latch onto. Lage, on acoustic guitar, provides one of the few moments of free frenzy, when he skronks on his instrument. Coming as the penultimate track, it's a welcome jolt and leads into the final statement with Frisell, right where we came in.

The evershifting sound of Duopoly provide a challenge to maintain focus, but Davis' own performance offers consistency and direction in the moments that often feel loose, whether she's plinking prepared notes, slamming the low end or echoing her partner's high octave plinks. Although the music, and the studio footage, might come across a bit serious, the additional shots of the musicians included in the CD booklet indicate that everyone was having a good time. Davis continues to be one of the most fascinating new pianists in adventurous jazz.

Friday, October 14, 2016

CD Reviews: Four Albums on OutNow Recordings

At the beginning of the year, this blog featured a review of Yoni Kretzmer's 2 Bass Quartet. A few months later, another package arrived from Mr. K, the Brooklyn-based tenor player, and it contained these four discs. All appear on the same imprint as Kretzmer's last disc, OutNow, which keeps the packaging spare, but artistic (all but one are done in black and white, only one features liner notes from the leader). The music resides in the more adventurous realm of jazz, with plenty of exciting free improvisation, along with some thought-provoking compositions that bring out the best in these players. While all eyes are usually on New York City for the best in this type of music, Out Now seems to be saying Brooklyn is Now, to rework Ornette Coleman's declaration (and answer his co-hort Don Cherry's question about the borough). 

Yoni Kretmzer/Jason Ajemian/Kevin Shea
Until Your Throat Is Dry

It wouldn't be surprising if this title came as a response to the question, "How long should I play?" Here, Kretzmer's wild tenor joins forces with a bassist and drummer well-suited for zero-to-sixty free improvisation. Bassist Jason Ajemian played in several bands in Chicago and released two albums for Delmark that showcased his compositions (The Art of Dying) and some spacey jams inspired by Sun Ra (Folklords). He also led an ensemble that seemed to gather everyone on the Chicago jazz circuit to play a sort of collision of free jazz and freaky folk music (the bizarrely compelling Who Cares How Long You Sink). Drummer Kevin Shea is the wild man of Mostly Other People Do the Killing and numerous other bands, who provides the closest link between Han Bennink and Animal from The Muppet Show.

The disc features four tracks of unadulterated blowing. As wild as it gets, the trio also shows restraint so that it never gets one-dimensional. Ajemian begins the set with a solo that he plucks so hard, the strings could come unwound. (I've seen him play solo bass sets, in which he's held his own, so he's well suited for this setting.) Kretzmer can wail passionately at either end of his horn's register, but his solos carefully work their way to the bottom or top, exploring all the possibilities in between first, using a low honk or high shriek as punctuation for what he's already played. Shea, in some ways, operates in much the same way - never slowing down as he works over his kit and any type of additional hardware he has along with him. 

Yoni Kretzmer

The track titles on Five imply a rudimentary reference, which would provide reference to another set of improvisations ("July 19," "Quintet I," "Quintet II," etc.). But while there's plenty of free blowing here, this quintet works off of a series of sketches that Kretzmer brought to the session. Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet) join Kretzmer on the front line while Chad Taylor (drums) and Max Johnson (bass) split time between playing vamps and acting as the rubato foil to the horns.

Sometimes they recall a more brass-heavy version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, creating infectious excitement as they wail. "Quintet I" has an almost conventional, albeit out of tempo, theme for the horns, while the rhythm section twists around it. "Feb 23" starts off with just Taylor and Johnson accompanying Kretzmer's gruff tenor. But the brass eventually comes in playing shout lines behind him. This type of structure shows up in other tracks too, giving the quintet just enough of a foundation to really lift their music. While the previous disc's wild abandon was fun, Five is even stronger while hearing the band move between inside and outside.

Ehran Elisha
Kindred Spirit: Quintets

In 2013 drummer Ehran Elisha recorded two sets of quintets each playing a different suite of his at IBeam in Brooklyn. Each set takes up a whole disc. "Kindred Soul" features his father Haim Elisha (piano), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Dave Phillips (bass) and Roy Campbell (trumpet), in what would be his final collaboration with Elisha. The instrumentation creates some intriguing sonic results. Despite playing a somewhat out-of-tune piano, the elder Elisha helps bring his son's free flowing ideas to life, alternating between meditative passages and Taylor-esque crashes. Campbell's clarion tone sounds authoritative, even as he plummets down into his instrument's guttural depths.

While disc one's quintet was familiar with Elisha's writing, disc two's "Spirit Suite" is played a group new to the composer/drummer's approach: Kretzmer, Michael Attias (alto and baritone saxes), Rick Parker (trombone) and Sean Conly (bass). Elisha finally gives himself a chance to solo, rolling and tumbling in multiple directions during the free "Two By Five," the second movement. Throughout the set, Kretzmer's tenor gets plenty of room and he frequently recalls Archie Shepp, thanks to the gruff tone he plays. To this style, though, he also pops on the reed, something Shepp never did. Attias' alto follows suit with him, but he spends more time on baritone, which he uses to blow long tones with Parker over the rhythm section's rolling boil in the opening "Spirit Serenade." The closing "Outrise" begins with a trombone solo over a drop-tuned bass, the whole thing getting low and ugly (in a good way) before coming to a calm resolve.

Frantz Loriot - Systematic Distortion Orchestra
The Assembly

If the previous three discs didn't suggest an idea of what to expect from labelmates known as the Systematic Distortion Orchestra, a glance at the instrumentation might offer one: The 11-piece group includes three drummers and two bassists, in addition to four brass, one reed and leader Frantz Loriot on viola.

That lineup seems like the type of ensemble to create dense, murky sound sculptures. That's exactly what they do. Some of the time. Two of the four compositions are credited to the whole group, but two are credited to Loriot alone. One of the latter is "Echo," which opens The Assembly like an eerie film soundtrack. The basses rumble in as the horns play a simple melody of sustained notes. Everything rises in waves, with the drums crashing behind them, and Loriot's viola (or maybe Nathaniel Morgan's alto saxophone) riding on top. A voice sings and yells briefly in the middle, and it's easy to see why. The fury this band unleashes is powerful. Nearly 10 minutes in length, it passes before you notice it.

Of the two group compositions, the title track works the same formula as "Echo," incorporating a heavy dose of extended technique and getting a little more dense in the process. "...Maybe...Still..." includes a spoken text by bassist Sean Ali, reciting a circular poem that complements that loose improvisation going behind him.

"Le Relais," Loriot's other "composition" goes heavy on percussion for its first three minutes, recalling more Art Ensemble shenanigans. Things begin slowly - none of the tracks on the album seem in a hurry to get started  - and the rest of the group enters in waves over the next 10 minutes. Loriot sounds, in some ways, like phantom bagpipes on the horizon, and the brass creates layers of kissing sounds and rumbles. The sound remains thick and hard to penetrate, but the momentum never stops.

Hopefully, the Systematic Distortion Orchestra can be found playing in some loft or DIY space in Brooklyn. In person, they could easily transfix a small but devoted group of listeners. The music on The Assembly  is best experienced in person, but this album maintains some of the electricity in the translation to disc.

All of these discs and more can be found at

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Destroyer at Club Cafe - Dan Bejar, That Is

There is something bizarrely fascinating about Dan Bejar's music that he's recorded under the name Destroyer. Sometimes his high voice and dramatic delivery make him sound like some bard who has just stumbled into some indie rock band's practice space and decided to join them. The Your Blues album put his words to some of the most synthetic of synthesizers, which really made for a challenging listen. Poison Summer, the most recent Destroyer album, includes a serious dose of strings and horns, for music that he himself is still trying to process.

This past Monday, though, it was just Mr. Bejar and his acoustic guitar onstage at Club Cafe. We had talked a few weeks earlier for an article that appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper. He mentioned then that he had a batch of new songs that he was going to mix with some of the 150 songs from the Destroyer back catalog that he could pull off in a solo set. For a little over an hour, he chose about 10-percent of that catalog, easily going from one song to the next, talking between songs in a voice so calm and gentle that it was almost too hard to hear him through the sold-out throng of people. Not that the crowd was rowdy. On the contrary, everyone was listening in silence with rapt attention.

Sometime into the set, an epiphany popped up. It doesn't really matter what chord progressions he's playing, when he singing these evocative story-song lyrics overtop of them. The fact that songs like "A Light Travels Down the Catwalk" or "Watercolours Into the Ocean" have sweet backdrops - like the latter's "Femme Fatale"-esque riff - adds to the allure of the strangely poetic nature of his words. One new song climaxed with the line "I'm working on the new Oliver Twist," which doesn't sound like it should fit comfortably into a pop song. Sure enough, Bejar makes it fit.

"Your Blood," from the 2006 album Destroyer's Rubies, got a little manic or overly dramatic in the original, but in concert it veered in the opposite direction, getting more quiet and inviting close listening. "Don't Become the Thing You Hated" left all the Your Blues trappings in the dust, and served as the rousing end to the set, with words to live by. Of course, there was an encore, this one being "Virgin With a Memory." This one too ended with a beautifully rhetorical question: "Was it a movie of the making of Fitzcarraldo/ where someone learned to love again?"

On a parting note, I have to mention the crowd, which as previously mentioned, sold out Club Cafe's 140-person capacity. Besides my co-hort Erin, I didn't recognize anyone there until after the set, when I ran into two people I knew. Where do these people come from? Are they diehard Destroyer fans who drove in from out of town? Do they live here? Do they check out local bands in local clubs? They shouldn't miss out on these opportunities.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Birthday Highlights

Friday, October 7 was my birthday. Typical of most days, I had a full  list of things to do, leading up to a show at the end of the night. Playing on my birthday seemed like a good idea, so why not.

The day started the photo below, which I saw when I walked into work:

Not one, but two cakes. And since they came from the place where I used to work, damn good cakes. But before I had a chance to really get settled into the day, the power went out in the office. That was around 10:45. Duquesne Light, when we were finally able to get through to a live person, said it could be close to 1:00 before it came back on. The staff said that if it didn't come on at 1:00, we could go home. 

After getting a cake, which we cut into soon after the power outage (luckily there are a lot of tall windows and it was sunny at that point so we weren't in the dark), getting a free day off would have been too good to be true, and too much to expect. And it was, because it came back on at about 12:15.

The rest of the day was a typical Friday: get home, meet Donovan at the bus stop, take him to his piano lesson. Grab a Mineo's pizza for dinner. It wasn't the OFFICIAL birthday dinner but a good one. Besides I had to run out quickly to see Mary Halvorson at a City of Asylum performance.

Mary is in town all weekend. Friday was a solo set, last night she played with Tomas Fujiwara's the Hook Up. Tonight she's playing with Thumbscrew, the trio with Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek. As a side note, Esperanza Spaulding was also playing in town the same night, just a few miles away. Ben Folds was also in town. In the wildest addition to that don't-tell-me-nothing-happens-in-Pittsburgh moment, the band ESG (yes, THE ESG with the Scroggins sisters) was playing here at the VIA Festival. 

But I was at the Halvorson show because I was asked to present her with an award for Guitarist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association. The call came a few weeks ago and at first it threw me off: On the same night as a gig, and the same night I had intended to celebrate my birthday with my family, I was asked to do this too? What's a guy to do? Answer: Do it, because I'd be stupid not to.

So I was told that, as Mary was making her way to the stage, I should follow her up and make the announcement. Never having done this kind of thing before, I felt funny, wondering how much she actually knew about this, if she remembered me from previous visits, interviews, etc, as the guy who'd be doing it. 

Then when I got up there, I was nervous, worrying about talking too much, getting too effusive and not making any sense. So I just ad libbed  a little bit, recalling seeing her for the first time with Anthony Braxton here in 2008, hopefully got the message across, made sure the JJA got some good props and handed her the award. 

Her set consisted of the music she recorded on Meltframe, a group of reimagined songs by everyone from Ornette Coleman to French guitarist Noël Akchoté. (She actually segued these respective composers' pieces together, "Sadness" and "Cheshire Hotel" respectively.) Other composers that she did before I left included Annette Peacock and Oliver Nelson. (I wonder what the latter would have thought of her fuzzy version of "Cascades.")

I was only able to catch about 25 or 30 minutes before heading back across the Allegheny to Hambone's, via a stop for coffee. A handful of better-suited words about Mary came to me as soon as she started playing, so I was feeling moody and caffeine was the only cure. After waiting for the family in front of me to get three desserts, trying to find a place to park near Hambone's and walking in the rain, the drink felt even better. (The good news was we were sharing bass amps at the show, so I only had to haul my bass, tool kit full of cables and various sundries.)

Good friends Will Simmons and the Upholsterers opened the show, which to me also means Instant Party. Those guys know how to balance solid pop hooks with some zany elan. In my honor, they covered two Monkees songs in a medley, "Randy Scouse Git" and "Love Is Only Sleeping." The latter is a pretty bold move since it hops from 7/4 to 4/4. 

The Love Letters' last few shows found us playing slightly shorter sets to make sure that everyone on the bill got their space. (Well, Britsburgh was a little longer, but that's a different story.) We decided to aim for closer to 45 minutes tonight, though we probably went a bit over, thanks to some good shtick at the beginning of the set. Furthermore, I caused some delay in a quest to find some lost equipment, which was right under my nose the whole time. (Sorry, guys.)

We threw in a fair number of covers tonight, some part of our regular set, some newer. The big one was one of my favorite songs from childhood, the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy." I think we did a pretty spirited version of it. There were some amp/guitar problems in the set, but we rebounded pretty well and I got to segue a few songs together.

Old Soles and Seedy Players went on after us. I hadn't seen them before but I knew keyboardist/vocalist Dan Styslinger from his guitar playing in delicious pastries. After hearing a few songs online, I thought they'd be cool. Normally they have a horn section, but on this night they were just a quartet. It was different from what I expected: these guys really have chops. Dan's keys unfortunately got lost in the mix a bit, but he was really going at it. Guitarist Frank had an octave effect pedal that he used during solos, which gave his instrument this weird, flute-like sound. The first time he did, I wasn't sure where the sound was coming from. I liked the way the rhythm section made the songs move because it kept the edge in it, so it didn't get too smooth. I want to check these guys out again because I'm still wrapping my head around them. And I want to hear horns!

Thursday, October 06, 2016

CD Review: Slavic Soul Party! - Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Slavic Soul Party!
Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Sometimes, making a comparison between a tribute/re-imagining album and its source material can cause some serious distraction, especially when the composers in question are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. (And especially when the reviewer isn't initially familiar with the original material.) The whole angle of the piece starts to be shaped before the words start hitting the page: What's more important, the way the new version compares to the original, or whether the new one stands on its own?

It's senseless to take the former approach, since anyone will fall like a house of cards when stacked up to Ellington's original. But a little bit of background is in order. Duke and his band participated in a "jazz diplomacy" mission in 1963 when they traveled through Middle East, South Asia and the Balkans, to now-treacherous places like Syrian, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Members of the band would later grouse that they played less for the everyday people of these countries and more for the high-ranking officials.

Ironically, they never actually made it to the Far East proper, as the tour was halted after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year. But the trip was enough to inspire the writing of Ellington and Strayhorn, who created a total of nine tracks for the 1966 album. It would be some of the last music Strayhorn would write before loosing a battle with esophageal cancer a year later.

Slavic Soul Party! originates in New York City, the product of a group of musicians affiliated with the experimental jazz scene who go back to the music of Balkan brass bands, injecting it with the adventure they've developed in their own circle of music. Their heritage, so to speak, brings Far East Suite full circle, back to the music that inspired it. Ellington's use of a full reed and brass section brought the music West. SSP!, on the other hand has only one reed player (Peter Hess, who doubles on saxophones and clarinet), five brass (two trumpets, two trombones, tuba), two drummers and an accordionist. The last instrument is particularly key in creating this Balkan feel, most notably in "Amad" and the closing "Ad Lib On Nippon," where Peter Stan gets some guttural noises out of his squeezebox.

"Isfahan" originally served as a feature for Johnny Hodges' regal alto sax. That role is taken by the trumpet (either John Carlson or Kenny Warren) which plays over a slinky beat  accustomed to a New Orleans marching band. That feeling pops up throughout many songs, especially when Ron Caswell's tuba plays some funky bass lines. He and his lower brass mates get pushed to the front of "Bluebird of Delhi" giving the song a more sinister feeling that contrasts with the light clarinet part (intact from Ellington) that represents the bird. Later on, the band adds some klezmer color to "Depk" though Caswell still keeps the Big Easy at arm's length.

This recording was made at Barbès in Brooklyn in front of an audience, which reacts enthusiastically to the performance. It's easy to see why: the energy never wavers, even when things get more reflection ("Agra"). In the end that means prior knowledge of Far East Suite is not required before checking out Slavic Soul Party!'s homage. Don't be surprised if it inspires curious listeners to search for the original, though, to prolong the pleasure.