Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Michael Bisio - Preview for April 22 Show

With Caleb Gamble & Joel Kennedy (duo)
Saturday, April 22  
8 pm   $15
Distro, 4614 Liberty Ave, Bloomfield   412-682-0591

Bassist Michael Bisio and I talked by phone at the beginning of this week. Anyone who has seen Matthew Shipp over the past eight years or so probably knows Bisio as the pianist's right hand man, developing an amazing musical rapport that's both visceral and melodic. This Saturday, he comes to town with saxophonist Avram Fefer, who hasn't been to Pittsburgh since about 2005, when he came with pianist Bobby Few.
Michael has led an interesting life, as I found out from our conversation, which follows. I realize there are 1001 things happening tomorrow night, but this show is a good way to kick off the evening. And for anyone reading in other cities, there's mention below of other shows Bisio has coming up with Joe McPhee.
You’re originally from New York and then you went out west. Were you studying classical bass or jazz?

I started life as a classical player. Somewhat late as a professional player, I started playing when I was 17. My first teacher was a very inspirational guy, so I used to practice a lot. At one point after about a year or two, he said ,okay you’re ready to go up and study with Henry Portnoy, who was the principal bassist in BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] at the time.. I went up and auditioned. He accepted me but he scared the life out of me at the same time. I didn’t really grow up with that music. I took a lot of time into it in a very condensed space. 

So that summer I was on a scholarship to Chatauaqua Institution, which is on the western boarder of New York State. And I met and studied with the principal bassist of the Seattle Symphony [Jim Harnett], who not only was every bit as good as Henry —I mean, I don’t know if I can say that — but I got along with him. And I needed a change because of life habits I had. So I moved to Seattle. I studied with Jim Harnett.
Like I said I didn’t grow up with that music and there were a lot of social things I didn’t get.

What music did you grow up with?

Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. My brother was the local Hendrix clone. So I was around a lot of that music a lot of the time, and a lot of what were underground bands at the time like Ultimate Spinach and the Velvet Underground, I always knew who Mingus was. And there were some Albert Ayler records at that time which had a crossover audience. So I heard New Grass. It was a huge influence.

So I went out and studied with Jim. At the same time I studied composition and improvisation with Bill Smith. [Smith inspired Bisio’s CD with Kirk Knuffke,Row for William O] I studied with him and Stuart Dempster, the great trombonist.

When I graduated I was a sub in the symphony. I was a sub in the opera. I was a freelancer. And I was playing jazz music all along as well. Then I got a contract with the ballet. Then it came to a point where I really had to make a decision. Once I knew my family was cool, I walked away from that, in a way. Shortly after that, people couldn’t believe I actually had a career that way. I changed everything I could. In more recent times I’ve reintroduced some of that stuff in a different way.

When you say you walked away from that, was it in the early ‘80s? I know around that time you played with [trumpeter] Barbara Donald

Barbara was really the first person of note to take an interest in me. And Barbara was awesome. And so much so that I probably wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been. …She would fight with me a lot. I was stupid enough to fight back. [Laugh] I guess she heard something in me and she was trying to push those things.

You know, she was married to Sonny Simmons. [Note: Donald passed away in 2013. More info on her life can be found here.] When I played with Sonny…he would say things like, “You’re in the steel foundry of love and I’m going to work you to death, motherfucker!” Smart man, brilliant musician.
[fading in from another discussion} And I was a sucker for all that stuff anyway. A good story? Man, you got me. And Sonny had a billion good stories. 

But ultimately I just…I can’t deal like that anymore. I’m too old for it. I know what I want to do. If it could just be me, Matthew [Shipp, piano] and Newman [Taylor Baker, drums] my whole life, I’d be happy. Because you know what’s going to happen in a business sense, all the time. The music’s always new, always wonderful, always there. 

Which is musically how Avram and I operate too. It’s very stream of consciousness. The tunes we play are mostly Avram’s. He has quite a few memorable things we can refer to in the midst of a set. And so that’s what happens.

Avram and I met in Seattle but neither of us can pinpoint when or where that was. We’ve been playing a loooong time. And Avram was in my Bisio Quartet, when it was Jay Rosen (drums) and Stephen Gauci (saxophone) as well. There are for our five CIMP records with that configuration. Which is also around the time that the duo session happened. Because one time it was a combined session where there was one quartet record and one duo record. There are a couple records on some other labels too.

When you come here are you doing compositions or will it be strictly improvisation?

The compositions have a lot of open space for sure. Hopefully we’ll play a couple tunes of mine. But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t know why [laughs] but it does. So, in bass solos I’ll play my own compositions.

But it’s pretty open. I don’t exactly know what he has planned for this trip. But more times than not, we play in that suite format that Matthew and I do: Everything runs into everything else. You stand up and you start. There’s really no silences, except in rests. It’s not like I’m going to play a tune and stop it and tell jokes or something.   

When did you move back east?

August 2005. Avram and I had played in Seattle, and in the Northwest. Matthew and I met out there but we didn’t play until I came back. We played first in 2007, though I used to live just down the street from Matthew when I first got back.

Prior to moving back, were you doing a lot of traveling across the country, stopping in New York?

I was. Starting in the '90s I had this wonderful association with [saxophonist and trumpeter] Joe McPhee which is… I wouldn’t be me without Joe. He’s one of these people I am eternally grateful to, and is a pleasure to be around, every second of every day. We met about 1994, maybe. He started inviting me back and he would come out west. Starting in the '90s I did come back more and more. Around the time I moved back, my first marriage dissolved and my son was living in Brooklyn. So I was working more on the East Coast than on the West Coast so it made sense to move back.

Joe and I, last time I counted, we were on 18-20 records together. Now I live in the Hudson Valley, so I see Joe quite a bit again. When I get back, we’re playing this club with me, him, Joe Giardullo (saxophones), Billly Stein (guitar) and a painter, Nancy Ostrovsky, are playing on April 27 at the Falcon (find details here). And on April 29 Joe and I doing a memorial service for a children’s book author [Nancy Willard, at Friends Meeting House in Poughkeepsie]. 

Where does Avram life?

Avram’s on the Lower East Side. I live in Kingston, New York.

Do you get to play with him often?

We play three or four times a year. It depends, sometimes more sometimes less. He has a lot of interests. Some of his bands are more rock oriented. Obviously my commitment is to Matthew. That’s about it, as far as playing together.

When you get together is it easy to settle in with him, since you known him so long?

Well, Avram tells a good story, so it’s always pretty easy. Our history is so long that we know each other well. There are not a lot of bad parts about getting older. One [good thing] is the relationships you keep just keep getting stronger. That’s certainly the case with Avram and I. We don’t have to think. I sit at home and I think. And I like to practice. Not everybody likes to practice. Not everybody needs to practice. But I like to practice.

But when I get up to play, it’s not the same process at all. I think for some people it is, but to me it’s just about letting it go. The more I can do that, the more satisfied I am. I don’t even like people to put a lot of demands on me, unless… if someone is going to pay me $1000 a night, yeah they can say what they want. But for the money we’re making, it’s just get up and go. That’s what makes the best music too.

Rich Halley, a great, great tenor player from Portland, Oregon, was just here. Rich and I haven’t
played in 20 years, easily, though it’s probably more like 25 or 30. It was just like we saw each other yesterday. That’s what I look for. 

The choices I’ve made in my life, I’ve realized, a. are my choices, and b. it lead me to a point where I want to be, musically. I’m no longer a hired gun, haven’t been that in a lot of years. All that was doing was preparing me for this, but at the same time it was also teaching me how to hate music. 

My first wife used to say to me, “You always come home angry.” Of course that would just start a fight. But one day, sometime around 2010, I woke up one morning and I thought, Wow, I don’t remember the last time I was angry. So I called her up and I said, “You know what? You were right. I’m sorry.” 

I have this thing: I love music. Yet I hated going to work! And I hated it for various reasons, some of which I didn’t even know. My life has been about cutting things out until I just have this left, which is a whole universe as far as I’m concerned. And it’s great. I love to be able to do it. And I love to play. I’m lucky that I’ve lived long enough to [pause] say this to you! [Laughs] 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Concert Preview: Tobin Sprout in Pittsburgh, the Girlie Show

Friday, April 21
Brillobox, 4104 Penn Avenue, Garfield
8 p.m. $14

With so much happening this week, I have a lot I'd like to talk about. So I'm previewing some shows here.

I've used this comparison before, but it bears repeating due to the universal quality of it. A certain level of energy can be felt in a band that is hitting upon something. It could be a new song, it could be the right combination of people locking in with one another for the first time or it could be the feeling a group gets when it realizes that an audience is reacting positively to the music, when they initially thought no one was listening. The music might not be "perfect," whatever that means, but the feeling the band puts forth more than makes up for it.

This is the reason Skip Spence's Oar can sound so liberating. Fresh out of Bellevue, with no producers or bandmates leaning on him, Spence was free to create whatever he felt. It's the way a band feels in the practice space, on numerous occasions. Everyone is setting up and the first person to get behind the kit, or turn on the amp, hits on a riff. Slowly everyone picks up on it and it builds. It could be something pedestrian as the riff to "Gloria" or it could be "Little Johnny Jewel." Maybe half the people in the room don't even know the source material. Whatever it is, it belongs to them, if just for a couple minutes.

This same version of enthusiasm, this sonic je nais se quoi, bursts from the speakers in the opening seconds of Tobin Sprout's first solo album in seven years, and the first since he left Guided By Voices after the reunion of "classic lineup." "Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow" doesn't even begin neatly, since a second or two of guitar intro gets cut off. And it almost falls apart as it surges towards a coda, with lagging drums. But with a four-power-chord riff like this one, it doesn't really matter because it feels great.

Sprout, who now lives in Michigan, still utilizes the same lo-fi technique that he used on GBV records (the opening song was supposed to be a GBV song). Guitars overmodulate in some places, while others sound like they were recorded down a hallway, several feet from the microphone. That particular effect makes "I Fall You Fall" and "Tomorrow From Heaven" especially dreamy.

And then there's the piano, which factors into many of The Universe and Me's songs. The recording quality and use of reverb makes it sound like John Lennon's "Imagine" piano deep in the bathtub. Not only does this add to the hazy, dreamy quality of the music, it draws out the wistfulness of the lyrics. In "When I Was a Boy," Sprout tables his more surreal imagery for some honest reflection that dang near comes close to '70s mellow rock. Does that comparison make you uncomfortable? Don't worry, you'll like this. The man has moved into his sixth decade so he has every right to look back as he rocks ahead.

More than one writer has opined that Sprout was often George Harrison to Robert Pollard's Lennon and McCartney in Guided by Voices. His tracks were often an interlude between Bob's massive output, a nice riposte that made you yearn for more. In addition to the opening track, any number of these could have fit on a GBV album. But 14 of them in a row proves that, after all this time, Sprout can still hold his own. Hearing them live can only make them better.

PS In addition to Tobin Sprout's show, just down the hill and around the corner, Hambone's is hosting The Girlie Show: Olde Guarde, with Jenny Morgan, Joanna Lowe, Liss Victory and Sarah Halter. Morgan (who plays Americana) and Lowe (spoken word) founded the Girlie Show four years ago. Victory (of Victory at the Crossroads, playing solo acoustic tonight) and Halter (acoustic prog, also in the heavy Blue Clutch) are newcomers/heirs apparent.

This shindig starts at 9 p.m, with a $5 cover. Hambone's is located at 4207 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last Week: Peter Evans Septet, Jared Sims CD Release

Well, this week, everyone and their mother are coming to town. I'm checking out a lot of shows and previewing a few things in City Paper too. I'll also be preview a few things here over the next few days, so be sure to check back. 

But before I look ahead, I want to write about a couple shows that I saw last week.

Peter Evans, the adventurous trumpet player who played in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, came to the Andy Warhol Museum last Tuesday, April 11. He has recorded with a quintet on the recent Genesis disc, but they expanded to a sextet for the Winter Jazz Fest a few months ago. Now the group is a septet. Left to right in the picture below are Sam Pluta (electronics), Ron Stabinsky (keyboards, electronics), Evans, Jim Black  (drums), Mazz Swift (violin), Tom Blancarte (bass) and Levy Lorenzo (percussion, electronics).

Apologies to Ron, for being obscured in a panorama shot I hastily took at the start of the set. Tom was blocked out by music stands and stood at the back of the stage. But here's a better shot of Swift and Lorenzo. 

The Evans septet only played 45 minutes, but it was a dense set of action crammed into that time. Swift began the set, bowing her violin roughly and Pluta picked up samples of the instrument, twisting and turning it in a manner that look equally visceral and musical. The theater at the Warhol has ideal acoustics and it served the music well. The electronic samples were bouncing off the walls, making it hard to trace it to the source. Lorenzo toyed with Evans's trumpet sounds, which were vicious to begin with.

The music - which flowed as one continuous piece - often had Braxton-esque feeling, with multi-direction playing. But there were breaks in the intensity. Evans muted his horn and Swift added some gentle strums. A slow section featured a lot of reverberated tones moving across the stage. Black, whose facial expressions alternately implied surprise, frustration and fatigue throughout the set, utilized a bow for his cymbals and played, at another time, with a mallet in one hand and brush in the other. A solo that he took sounded like a composition more so than a spontaneous idea. Then again, it could have gone either way.

As a bandleader, Evans is not one to spend most of the time in the spotlight, although he's perfectly capable. He gave Pluta and Swift plenty of room at the start of the piece before the whole band jumped in, with his trumpet steering the course. Swift and Blancarte later played a duet which was equally intense, in part because it was hard to tell one from the other. One started calm, the other frantic and then both went crazy. Evans quickly explored all the sonic potential of his horns (he also played a four-valve piccolo trumpet) during the set, from pops and growls to beautifully rough melody lines. We could have used another 20 minutes of music after a short break.

Friday night I went over to James Street Gastropub to check out Jared Sims, whose CD I wrote about early that morning. He had a different band with him than the one that played on the album, which makes sense because he recorded it in Boston. But these guys were no slouches, to put it mildly. Drummer Brian Wolfe, who is also from West Virginia, played with Sharon Jones and replaced local Dave Throckmorton in Maynard Ferguson's band. Bassist Nathan Peck used to live here, and has lived in New York for over decade. I don't know much about Randraiz Wharton (keyboards) or Ryan Salisbury (guitar), but they were heavy players too. Wharton created some great Fender Rhodes and B-3 sounds on his keyboards, and Salisbury was equally sharp with solos and with chunky rhythm parts, especially when the group covered the Meters' "Cissy Strut." That song could easily loose its mojo if a band uses it to showboat or simply create a party mood. But this quintet stood still and burned, proving that you need precision if you want this to sound bad ass.

The two sets that I saw leaned heavily on Sims' tunes from Change of Address. "Seeds of Shihab" paid tribute to baritone forefather Sahib Shihab (who was also an alto player on one of Monk's Blue Note sessions), combining his playing with electric piano-driven heavy funk. But being a band that knows how to groove, Sims had them run through Lou Donaldson's "Alligator Boogaloo." Like "Cissy Strut" one set later, this group took this music seriously. Sims blew some serious lines, which were tongued, not slurred or honked (as tempting as that might be on the big sax). During Peck's bass solo he based one chorus on chords, moving up the neck with them.

I wished there had been more of a crowd for the Sims Quintet, but it didn't seem to phase them. They gave it their all.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A 21st-Century Look at Art Pepper's Straight Life

It took me about six weeks but I finally finished Art Pepper's memoir Straight Life, which he co-wrote with his wife Laurie Pepper in 1979. It's not that it was so dense that it took me six weeks to finish. My ability to pop open a book and plow through it is severely limited these days. And I'm one of those people who falls asleep while reading, which bugs the hell out of me.

But to sum Straight Life up in one word: zheesh. Pepper was a driving force on West Coast jazz during the 1950s, the premiere alto saxophonist of that scene. He was also the product of a loveless marriage by two people who really didn't know how to raise a child. And like many of his peers, he succumbed to a live of heroin addiction, which was interrupted by stints in the Los Angeles County Jail and San Quentin.

Pepper doesn't spare the reader of any details of his drug use, his sex life, his prison life or his attitudes about people (which get fairly racist and sexist). It's all there in graphic detail. I remember seeing my dad reading this book (chances are, he read the same copy, as we both checked it out of the Carnegie Library, and this copy still has the card pocket on the inside page) and it makes me wonder what Pop thought about all those graphic sexual escapades and drug use. And the anger. This was the '70s, back when men were accepted as toughs, who could freely admit the physical abuse they practiced on women. A particular target comes with Pepper's second wife Diane, who joined him in the world of drugs just to be closer to him. He repeatedly talks about the way she screwed up his life and screwed up on him. Frequent references are made to things that happened "before she died," without ever mentioning when she died, how or how he found out.

These days we're accustomed to the Behind the Music story arc where the fame precedes by a fall to rock bottom, followed by redemption and sobriety along with the greater perspective on what came before. Spoiler alert: that doesn't happen in Straight Life. (The name comes more from one of his best songs, more than his outlook.) It just kind of stops, with some final commentary from friends on how Pepper must have heart because otherwise he couldn't play the way he did. But really, years in prison, failed marriages, even cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia... none of stops him from getting a bottle on his way out of Synannon, back into the world, with more drugs on the way. In listening to his amazing Village Vanguard sessions or Blues for the Fisherman, the latter the sixth two-disc set that's part of Laurie's "Unreleased Art Pepper" series, I thought that he was clean by the time of the recordings. Maybe things had changed by the time of Fisherman (1980), but in the book he says he barely made it to the last night of performances at the Vanguard.

But maybe I'm looking at all of this with a 21st-century perspective on drug addiction. Maybe we know a lot more know about how to deal with addiction issues than we did back then. Maybe people didn't want to face them or really know how. Or to take into account the way childhood affects what comes after. I almost wish my dad, who worked in the mental health industry for a few years and hospital administration prior to that, was here so we could dissect it.

All that being said, one quote that really killed me and made me think, "What are you talking about," comes from drummer Shelly Manne at the end of the book:
"Musicians should really sit down by themselves and realize what a great life they have. They're doing something they want to do. They're being creative. Very few people have an outlet for their creativity. They're getting paid for it, and, when gifted, get paid very well for it. they can travel all over the world, expenses paid. They eat the best food in the world. They have it made, especially when they have talent and they're available and working. To destroy that by being irresponsible, unreliable, which are the main reasons that guys end up down the tubes..."

Say what?! Who is Manne talking about? Sinatra? Dave Brubeck? Miles Davis? Three Dog Night? Maybe musicians that played at Shelly's Manne Hole, the late drummer's club in California, got treated like royalty. But the stories I've read about every jazz musician who has fought to push the envelope, who has really worked on creating something new, always includes the unhappy tales of hustling for gigs, the shady record label people, club owners, managers, booking agents, to name few. Not to forget racial prejudice that is usually there too. Shelly seems a little naive, especially following all the candor that Pepper has laid down, up to this point, which comes about three pages from the end of the book.

In conclusion, the book has made me want to go back and listen to more of Art's work. Despite the demons he was fighting at any given time, he almost always manages to create some really amazing music. And I'm thinking of reading Laurie Pepper's more recent memoir, Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jared Sims CD Release Show - Friday, April 14

Friday, April 14
James Street Gastropub, 422 Foreland St., North Side
7 pm

Jared Sims keeps interesting company. While living in Boston, he roomed with Charlie Kohlhase, the top-notch composer and bandleader who plays the same instrument at Sims - baritone saxophone.While studying at the New England Conservatory, he and his mentor Allan Chase, formed a band called Blow-up, which is dedicated to the music of Serge Chaloff, who also played the big horn.A list of Sims' collaborators runs the diverse gamut from Han Bennink to Anat Cohen to the Temptations. On his last album, Layers, he kept himself company, layering a range of saxes and other reeds in a set of Ellington, Monk and Mingus.

Change of Address finds him in a more contemporary bag, but that's no slight against the man or the music. Again, he's in interesting company. Drummer Jared Seabrook is the sibling of guitar and banjo maverick Brandon Seabrook, and a part of Seabrook Power Plant. Bassist Chris Lopes plays with guitarist Jeff Parker in the trio that recorded Blue Light In Winter and Like-Coping. His also married to this album's organist, Nina Ott. Guitarist Steve Fell, another Boston resident, rounds out the group.

The core of Fell, Lopes and Seabrook start out keeping the sound lean and groovy, but they're not here to sit back and relax. They move with Sims, who comes up with a diverse set that takes advantage of the baritone's range, without spending too much time in the bottom end. Ott does an excellent job of straddling atmospheric tones and greasy chords.

The line to "Ghost Guest 1979" has a mysterious air that could have played on tenor. But the crisp baritone delivery gives the minor tune more bite, and makes a great contrast to Fell's wah-wah guitar line. Sims throws in a harmonic twist to the theme of "Lights and Colors" that's simple, but it bends the ear in a catchy manner that deepens the feel of the track. The meditative flow of "Leap of Faith" delivers the most compelling moment of the album, with a rubato baritone melody backed by guitar and organ - two instruments not usually heard in a loose setting - that sounds at times reversed and evocative of space transmissions.

The album title Change of Address refers to Sims' move back from the Boston area to his alma mater West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he serves as Director of Jazz Studies. Being so close to Pittsburgh, he might be on his way to becoming a fixture here. (Maybe he already is, and I've just missed him.) I'm not sure who will be with him for his CD release, but regardless, check it out.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Last Night: Non-Punk Pittsburgh, Rock Against Trump

Last night was a bit of a whirlwind, in which I started off feeling tense and anxious, but ended up feeling energized and positive about a number of things.

The "Non-Punk Pittsburgh" art show opened last night at the gallery SPACE in Downtown Pittsburgh. Curated by local musician Dennis Childers and photographer Larry Rippel, it featured blown up reproductions of photos that Larry and a cast of dozens took during the first wave of the local punk scene, from 1979 to about 1983. Many of the pictures appeared in a zine that Bill Bored aka Bill Von Hagen published back around that time. (Bill was in one of the earliest bands, the Puke, and later the Cardboards and the Cynics). At some of the RePunk events, slides shows were set up to show the pictures. But it was great seeing them in such high definition.

Plus, it's also great to see these photos again and to run into some of the people who were in the pictures. The friends that have died this year already have made me think harder about, and appreciate, works like this. It makes me think of how mortal we all are. In fact I was supposed to interview Dennis Childers earlier this week and he never showed up.At first, he didn't reply to my voicemail or texts. Thinking about some serious surgery he had last year, part of me started to worry a little. I hope he's okay and that there's nothing seriously wrong.

A few hours later, I received an apologetic text. Turns out he got hit hard by the flu bug, went home and fell asleep, missing our time. So it was serious, but not deadly serious.

There was some music provided by Zach Keim (of the Nox Boys, soon to be a solo artist on Get Hip) and a band featuring Childers, his former Carsickness bandmate Steve Sciulli and a few other people. But I had to get over to the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls to play a Love Letters show. Also, I had to get some food and coffee in me. Naturally I stayed at SPACE longer than I should have, talking to folks about the photos (pointing out my brother to people, one of whom said his youthful look resembles my son; see below), hearing stories about what these photos mean to people, and swapping stories about records from that era.

Prior to showing up at SPACE, as I mentioned I was edgy. I meant to bring a Love Letters record along to give to Gregg Kostelich (Get Hip/The Cynics) who was DJ'ing. When I realized I left it in the car, I was walking under an overpass and my expletive echoed down the street, and was probably heard by the folks coming out of the Amtrak lot.

The conversations at SPACE helped swing me in a more positive direction, though. From there, the drive across the Allegheny River and up Route 28 wasn't too bad or too long. But upon entering the Funhouse (the more intimate, upstairs room of the concert hall located in a former church), I was greeting by a weird sensory experience. In the past it was usually cigarette smoke that hit the nose upon entry. Last night, it was the smoke of cooked ground beef. Strange times.

The event was the first Rock Against Trump show, organized by Evan Knauer of ATS. Along with them and us Love Letters, the bill featured Raised by Wolves and Qlitterati. Jen Saffron, local activist and arts educator, served as our enthusiastic emcee. Raised by Wolves features Evan's wife Melissa and guitarist Chris Carnevali, who both played in the Fuzzy Comets, along with bassist Justin Brown (who I think might've been a Comet at one point) and drummer Tracey Whorton. Their music focused on Melissa's vocals, but the songs were pretty dynamic. Chris was playing an electrified acoustic, which sometimes wasn't loud enough to match Justin's bass, but it was a good time.

Our set went really well. I had thrown the idea to the band of seguing nearly the whole set together, making it more like a suite. That is, a suite inspired by the likes of the Minutemen or Husker Du. To hit a little closer to home in terms of style, my touchstone would probably be the Volcano Suns. I saw them several times and while they might not have played one big set like those other two bands, I always loved to hear their first song roar out of the gate, to be followed immediately by the next one. Those first two revealed a good bit of confidence and cohesion on their part, which set the standard for the rest of the set. And that's the way a good set should feel.

There were a few gaps amidst the songs we were trying to segue, but that still meant they came off as having minimal breaks in between. When I started the songs, they were definitely coming one after another. After our last show, I wasn't too sure how I was feeling about the whole idea of playing out again, but tonight made it worth it. We even had a decent crowd of people listening. Before our first song, Mike did a little introduction about how we're against Trump but we're also for a lot of other things. He mentioned Dave V and Karl Hendricks and the passing 24 hours earlier of Don Rickles. Along with that I was thinking back on seeing Evan play with Da Shunts at a Rock Against Reagan show in 1983. That in turn made me wonder how much of my writing and onstage delivery was inspired by seeing Evan with ATS during all those formative years.

While ATS headlined, the evening really belongs to Qlitterati, a supergroup of sorts featuring three charismatic vocalists - Phat Man Dee, Christiane D and Gena [there should be a tilde over the n, but I can't get it to work] Musica. Highly charged, politically and socially, their set was funny, racy, intense and really tight. One audience member thought some of the music was like Frank Zappa, which might be true, but it added the wild force of the Slits, in the vocal department. Add to that some incisive, wry observations that you'll only get in Pittsburgh, and you might have half an idea of what they're about.

By the time ATS hit the stage I think I was on my third drink, but even if I hadn't been, they still probably would've sounded great. With Steve Seel on board semi-permanently as second guitarist, and Downtown Steve Brown playing trumpet for most of the set, they banged out a bunch of newer songs, some written in the wake of #45 taking office. Plus, Evan pulled out "Dream Song," or whatever it's actually called. It dates back to Da Shunts but the surreal, apocalyptic/metaphorical imagery of the US Steel Building falling across the Allegheny River seems just as relevant today. 32 years after their inception, ATS is still writing new chapters.

Incidentally, Evan is organizing a Rock Against Trump show every first Friday of the month. The next one is Friday, May 5 at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

As I was writing this I realized that I never closed out my bar tab, so that kind of sucks, but oh well. I'll do it soon.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa - avantNOIR

Lisa Mezzacappa
(Clean Feed)

Maybe it can be attributed to a 21st-century perception of it, but the film noir genre holds a great number of charms: the stark quality of black and white cinema; the mix of characters, who are usually painted in broad strokes; the suspense that holds a story together; the ability of the characters to express a great deal in a minimum of words, a lot of it coming from facial responses. And when they talk - ooh, the sharp dialogue!

It lends itself to music, which can evoke much of the above characteristics with dry, vibrato-free vibes, honking saxophones, chunky guitars and propulsive rhythm sections. Lisa Mezzacappa immerses us in the thick of it on avantNOIR. She might live in the Bay Area, but the music would seem to depict pure and gritty Downtown Manhattan, where she grew up.

However, the eight tracks on the disc were actually inspired by novels, rather than the cinema. Further, Dashiell Hammett's 1920s crime fiction took place in San Francisco, so the images of private dicks scouring the Bowery is slightly inaccurate, at least for some of these tracks. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy also inspired the bassist's writing, although those stories were penned in the 1980s, years after the heyday of film noir. Regardless of their origins, Mezzacappa has used the source material to create the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet.

Along with her acoustic bass, Mezzacappa's gang includes Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics). The first four tracks are grouped together to feature characters and locations out of Hammett's work. "Fillmore Street" functions like an economical, opening salvo. It's followed by "The Ballad of Big Flora," which opens with a foreboding bass solo, evoking the notorious dame with a quality that puts Mezzacappa's instrument off in the distance, peeking out of an alley, before a stop-start mood begins.

Both of these tracks recall the equally sleazy undercurrent of the Lounge Lizards or the Jazz Passengers. Finkbeiner's guitar recalls Marc Ribot's dry attack, though his tone avoids the brittle, sawed off quality. And Mezzacappa's crew stakes out their own territory thanks to the inclusion of samples and electronics. The static in these tracks often adds a percussive quality to the music. And if you listen to "Medley on the Big Knockover" while driving, beware of the blaring car horn in the first 30 seconds. It's mixed in such a way that it sounds like it's coming right at you. Not since the opening scream in John Zorn's "Spillane" has a sound effect had such a deceptive feel.

"A Bird in the Hand" takes the connection to the source material a step further by including dialogue from The Maltese Falcon in the piece. Whether it's actually Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet is hard to say. But the inclusion serves a purpose. "Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue)" features Winant using one of those Foley effects - a manual typewriter (he also uses a rotary phone and hotel desk bells elsewhere). Together with the tune's slow, ominous spy riff, it creates the idea of the story - and by extension, the whole album - reaching a denouement, with a detective typing up his final reports. But it gets loud five minutes in, with Finkbeiner finding room to wail once more. And things aren't over until the group gets through "Babel," which features some disembodied backwards voices reminding us that noir usually doesn't end up wrapped in pretty bows.

While the sound of other dark lounge bands recur through the album, the comparison feels more like a mark in Mezzacappa's favor, proving her skill at storytelling through music. The band seems to be having a blast too. Saxophonist Bennett often gets to lay back and set the scene but "Quinn's Serenade" gives him a chance to cut loose. Winant continually works well with him and Finkbeiner, for that incisive noirish mood. Aside from her solo in "Big Flora," Mezzacappa stays out of the spotlight most of the time, offering strong support and letting the group as a whole get noticed.

The bassist plays in a number of projects in the Bay Area, of which I've heard two: Bristle, a wild chamber group; and Cylinder, a quartet with Darren Johnston (trumpet), Aram Shelton (reeds) and Kjell Nordeson (drums), who released an excellent album on Clean Feed in 2011 and are probably disbanded since Shelton left the country. More on her vast c.v can be found at Her latest effort shows the diverse of her skills as a writer and leader, and should be investigated.

One doesn't have to be fan of old time radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or tv classics like Darren McGavin's portrayal of Mike Hammer. But as a fan of both, I was slayed by these cats.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Live Shows in Pittsburgh from the Last 10 Days

This past weekend was relatively low key as far as shows that I got to see. But the weekend of March 10 was pretty full, with music and adventure. Allow me to hit "Rewind."

On Friday the 10th, Kente Arts Alliance presented the Whitfield Family Band, lead by guitarist Mark Whitfield. His son Davis played piano, with Mark Jr., on drums. Luques Curtis played bass, though he wasn't the bassist on the recent Grace album.

They work in a fairly straightahead style, heavy on energy and strong chops from all parties. Pop Mark excels at long, clear guitar lines, occasionally going into Grant Green-style locked riffs, though he does it a lot faster than Green did. Davis Whitfield was really impressive on piano, soloing over vamps in a way with heavy, chordal melodies. He frequently switched over to an electric keyboard for some Fender Rhodes ambience, but it never sounded pre-fab. Mark Jr., swings with a real elastic style, stretching the beat and giving it spark.

Local guitarist Mark Strickland opened the night with a classic lineup by Pittsburgh veterans Lou Stellute (tenor), Keith Stebler (B3 organ-via-keyboard) and drums (Roger Humphries). Their set had a lot of meat and grease, including a good choice to celebrate Thelonious Monk's upcoming 100th birthday: "Well You Needn't."

From there, I headed over to Gooski's for the tribute to Dave V(ucenich). Since Dave's funeral was closer to his hometown in Harrisburg, friends Eric Vermillion and Max Terasauro put together an evening that saluted him. In his spirit, there were DJs spinning garage and psych rock singles that he loved so much. Gregg Kostelich from the Cynics had DJ'd first so I missed him. Tara Dactyl was playing slow, heavy psych, one of Dave's favorite styles, according to Vermillion.

After awhile, Joe (drums) and Kurt (guitar) from Dave's former band the Mt. McKinleys got up and played a set. At their largest, the group was a quintet, complete with bass, another guitar and theremin. But on this night, they had all they needed to rip it up. It can be hard to play high energy music like that when there are reminders all around that your musical conspirator is gone. But Joe and Kurt played like their lives depended on it, living for the moment, pouring everything into it. And the mood was anything but sad while they did it. That's the way all shows should be, not just a memorial one.

Another part of the evening was an auction for Dave's Hofner Beatle Bass. That would have been so tempting because it's one of two basses that I'd like own in addition to my Rickenbacher. But I don't have the dough for it, and since all the proceeds were going to the Vucenich family (or to an animal shelter of their choice), it wouldn't have been right to skimp on the money for the instrument. Right before the McKinleys' set, the amount was up to about $300. Whoever got it really made out.

Distro is a new "space" located in Bloomfield, upstairs of a former beer distributor. And when I say "space," I do mean a room with some seats, a p.a., a big rug to designate a performance area and not much else. (There's a piano there too, but that's off limits, as some of us found out the hard way.) However, being there the following evening took me back to shows that I saw at CMU around 1991 or 1992. A bunch of folks were milling about, talking amongst each other, checking out music, cheering on the performers.

On Saturday night, the 11th, Distro hosted the Duke of Knee Festival: Unread Records Release #201. The Unread imprint has been around for 20 years, run from different cities by Chris Fischer, with 200 releases coming in the form of albums, 7"s and cassettes. In Pittsburgh (where Chris now lives), Will Simmons & the Upholsterers are but one act that's appeared on the label. Simmons took it upon himself to organize a show that brought Unread family members from as far away at Portland to our fair city to celebrate the imprint's 200th release. A three-cassette compilation was also assembled to mark the occasion. The label's homespun approach might be another reason why I felt transported back to the early '90s - it recalled the heyday of K Records, back when they'd print their catalog on newsprint and mail it out every few months. Several people had music for sale. One guy was even selling a delectable box of '90s indie rock for insanely good prices. I picked up the Meat Puppets for album for $3 and a Bitch Magnet album for $4. I would've bought more had I not been short on cash.

A total of 16 acts were slated to play on Saturday, each for a total of 20 minutes. What I caught while I was there stuck pretty close to the time limit. Chauchat was getting underway with a set of gentle acoustic indie pop, with random sounds floating over top of the harmonies. Andy Cigarettes - once he blew our eardrums with his accidentally too-loud backing tracks - sang a great set of new wave-y pop. For a guy who traveled all the way from the Pacific Northwest, he still looked sharp in a red suit (or was he wearing a red shirt with a black suit?). Will and the Upholsterers took the Husker Du/Minutemen approach and played 10 songs in 20 minutes. In fact he said they nailed them 18 minutes. Talk about jamming econo!

Monday evening, I headed over to Mr. Smalls, not to see Tortoise but to conduct a Before and After listening test with their guitarist Jeff Parker. I did get to hear a bit of their sound check and admire their stage set up: two drum kits center stage, flanked on a set of vibes at stage left, keyboard behind the other trap kit, table of laptops behind the drums, bass and guitar towards the back. Jeff and I made our way out to the tour bus after sound check, and sat for about 90 minutes listening to music and talking. We had a great time, which you'll be able to read about in a few months. Much as I would've liked to stay, I was back to Oakland to the Carnegie Music Hall for..........


As I made my way up the stairs to my seat, I could hear the chorus of "Gloria" spilling out of the concert hall. Between driving from Millvale and trying to park in Oakland, I felt damn lucky that I hadn't missed more. Have to say the tempo seemed a tad slower than the version on the album, but you know - Patti just turned 70 so again (to use my grandmother's phrase), we should be damn lucky she was there. And that we were!

I don't think I need to do a play-by-play of the show. Scott Mervis at the Post-Gazette already did that last week. And if you weren't there, reading about it might just make you sad you missed it. In my preview to the show, I mentioned in passing that Patti might draw on her love Johnny Carson in her between-song banter. (She has admitted to several people that she admired the Tonight Show host's delivery.) She did, to some extent. When she was feeling exhausted between songs, she chalked it up to the impending snow storm (which never came, by the way) and took a brief stroll offstage for some air.

"Birdland" has always been a special piece to me, for years before I related to the protagonist. I had to shush a friend sitting next to me for talking during this tune. First of all because, why would you pay $39 or more to see Patti Smith and talk through the show?! Second of all, hearing Horses in its entirety (played in order) is akin to going to church. Just listen. Soak it in. Thankfully, she did.

For her encore, she and the band ripped through the Who's "My Generation," which she first covered as the B-side to the "Gloria" single. As the song moved towards a free-for-all coda, Patti strapped on a guitar and played it the way I like to play it - like a noise maker. She also spat fire about her generation wanting to change the world with love, "and what do we get?! Donald F&^*ing T----!" You could have seen it coming a mile away, but who can blame her. Of course the audience roared. She eventually yanked what seemed like all six strings off her guitar, providing the fitting ending to the evening. I took a video of some of that, but it's just a tad to big to appear here. FIE!

Five days later, on Friday the 17th, bassist James Ilgenfritz came to Distro for a solo bass performance. That might sound like quite a specialized type of show, but he played four pieces by other composers that were written for him. He didn't say that the first piece required him to retune his instrument to get the arco drones of the piece just right, so it was really fascinating to watch what he pulled out of the instrument. The music seemed to go on for awhile but it got pretty hypnotic. I'll admit I was a bit exhausted by the end of the night but the set helped me relax and start to hallucinate sleepy dreams. (Luckily I didn't fall out of my chair.)

Ben Opie, who also played solo, joined Ilgenfritz for a few Anthony Braxton tunes after the bassist's proper set. (James released a disc of Braxton pieces for solo bass in 2012.) The evening also included short but sweet sets by the tenor/bass clarinet and drums duo of Snake Pilson and guitar/saxophone solo act Nevhar Anhar.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CD Review: Idrees Sulieman Quartet ft. Oscar Dennard - The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier

Idrees Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard
The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier
(Groovin' High/Sunnyside)

Knowing not only the names but the output of unsung musicians can put a listener in a rarefied group. Idrees Sulieman ranks as under-the-radar player. He might be best known as the trumpeter on Thelonious Monk's first Blue Note session, but he also recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Randy Weston before moving to Stockholm and later to Copenhagen. He worked with several studio orchestras there and the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band before he passed away in 2012. An inventive player in the Dizzy Gillespie style, he likely would have gone on to greater fame in the U.S. had he stayed here. He was also supposedly one of the first jazz musicians to convert to Islam.

Oscar Dennard didn't live long enough to secure his status as jazz pianist with the record buying jazz folks. But before he died at 32 due to typhoid fever, he made a great impression on Weston, Ahmad Jamal and Harold Mabern who knew him personally. Aside from a few recordings with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, this two-disc set is really the only document of his work as a formidable pianist.

The first of the two discs has been previously issued in Japan while the second sees the light of day for the first time. In 1959, Dennard was convinced by bassist Jamil Nasser to join him in a trio that also included Sulieman and drummer Earl "Buster" Smith for a tour of  Europe and North Africa. When they reached Tangier, Radio Tangier International producer Jacques Muyal quickly assembled a recording session with his friend at the competing Radio Africa Tangier studios. The seven tracks, recorded all in single takes on a single microphone, come from that session.

In the some ways, the raw quality makes the group come off like a typical bebop unit. They tackle two Charlie Parker tunes ("Visa," "Confirmation") with skill, trading fours just a little two long on the former. Two standards get worked over ("All of You," "Stella By Starlight"). The quartet swaggers through the slow "Tangier Blues," in which Sulieman displays his circular breathing skill, unfortunately less like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and more like Kenny G, since he merely holds one note for three choruses before he releases it.

But there are moments that reveal what Dennard might have been had he not passed away a year later. In "Stella by Starlight" his solo seems to combine Errol Garner's rapturous way with harmony together with a rhythmic freedom that would become the call of the day just a few years into the next decade. His chordal solo in "Tour De Force" also hints at an advanced rhythmic sense, akin to Dave Brubeck's big-handed approach. Nasser, who would go on to play with Jamal extensively, is under-recorded but should be turned up during his solos, including an out-of-tempo-into-funk intro to "Stella" and another groovy one in "Tour de Force." When Sulieman uses the mute, he really displays his Gillespie influence. Without it, his bright sound is infectious and clearly the reason he's cited as a big influence on Clifford Brown.

Disc Two was recorded at a party in New York before the quartet went on tour. It provides some revelations. Dennard's lengthy introduction to Branislaw Kaper's "Invitation" is arresting; in "Round Midnight" he seems to channel Charlie Parker as well as the tune's composer. But the recording quality, despite the liner notes' claim that it's been cleaned up, still sounds like one of the Dean Benedetti recordings of Parker - interesting for the historian but not too appealing for the casual listener. Further, knowing how skilled Dennard could be, it's frustrating that the closing "Piano Improvisations" finds him playing variations on "Three Blind Mice." The quality makes the opening seconds sound like a music box as well.

It's inappropriate to slag The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier since it stands as a singular document of this group, which thereby gives it some intrinsic value. Yet, it's sound quality seems like it might be of value more for historical purposes and not much for repeat programs.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Shows I Saw in the Past Few Weeks

I was on a good roll for a while, posting reviews and album purchases. Then it all fell by the wayside again. The past two months have been marked by various degrees of sickness (and the lack of motivation they bring on), as well as what felt like a healthy dose of winter doldrums. AND, I was one of the ringmasters behind a talent show at my son's school last week. No wonder my doctor told me my blood pressure was up last week. 

Things look better now. Besides, during all that, I did have a good run of articles in Pittsburgh City Paper. In fact, this week, I have no less than three things in the arts section: a profile of jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield; the Local Beat column, which mentions the salute to Dave Vucenich and the Unread Records show; and a preview of Patti Smith's Horses show. Follow the links and you can see what I'm talking about.

After seeing Battle Trance over the weekend, I realized I never mentioned anything about the last show I saw at City of Asylum's Alphabet City venue, which is now up and running in full effect. So here's a little something on both. 


Mostly Other People Do the Killing hadn't come to town since about 2009 or 2010. At that time, the group featured bassist Moppa Elliot, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans. In the studio, the band has grown to include pianist Ron Stabinsky, bass trombonist Dave Taylor and banjo player Brandon Seabrook. Evans has left the band, with Steven Bernstein assuming trumpet duties on the new Loafer's Hollow

When the group pulled up at Alphabet City on February 22, the lineup was reduced to the trio of Elliot, Shea and Stabinsky. After the frenetic interplay between Irabagon and Evans, not to mention the expanded arrangements with the larger group, the trio almost sounded like a different band. Even Shea, who specializes in careening drum crashes that always catch themselves before they fall completely down the stairs, sounded a little more subdued. This was a piano trio, albeit one that still lives life on the musical edge. 

And while the band's zaniness always made for a good time in the past, the new lineup gives more attention to Elliot's compositions, which have gotten more elaborate even as he chooses to throw a quote from "Mercy Mercy Mercy" or "Misty" into them. Now that they've been at it for over a decade, some of the "how dare they" dust has settled, and there is time to catch up with the back catalog and fully appreciate them. 

Last week was a banner week for touring bands that play adventurous music. Australia's the Necks came to town last Friday. I totally missed them due to the aforementioned Talent Show. But I did make it back over to Alphabet City to check out Battle Trance on Sunday. (Prior to the shows, I wrote a double-preview of them in City Paper.

Battle Trance played "Blade of Love,"  the same piece 45-minute piece that I saw them play in New York back in January. Hearing it again made me realize that I pretty much walked in to the New York show without missing much more than seeing them stand on stage quietly for two minutes, somewhat entranced, before the piece began.

Anyone who has gone to see a symphony and picked up on the full sound of, for instance, four upright bassists can understand the power of several musicians playing the same note. (The same can be said for works by Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham too, I'm sure.) The sound starts to swell and slight variations on it can make a big difference. Travis Laplante (the composer, on the far right picture) knows that and exploits it with their music. One of the best part of the piece came in the final third of it, where all four of them shifted from altissimos to high register wails, which they adapted with various levels of vibrato. The other favorite part for me, since I knew it was on the way, occurs about 15 minutes in, when all of their swirling arpeggios suddenly turn into low honks, which they land on together, seemingly out of nowhere. It was extra suspenseful for me, since I knew it was coming, but I wasn't sure exactly when.

A couple sitting in front of me left after about 20 minutes. Or they at least walked over to the restaurant section of the place. I was in the second row, so I can't say how many other people followed them. Granted it is intense music, that requires a little more patience and a willingness to explore the possibilities of sound, rather than following melody lines or chord changes. But you have to give it a chance.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Cruel Frederick and Greg Hawkes - Two Albums I've Needed for Awhile

In the past two weeks, I picked up two albums that have always intrigued me from a distance. One was an album that was hard to find. In fact, prior to purchasing it, I only saw a physical copy once, and that was in the library of WRCT-FM, the radio station at Carnegie Mellon University. (Who knows if the record is there anymore?) The other is an album I've read about and heard about from friends, who gave it mixed reviews: It isn't all that good, it's fun, it's OK. Nevertheless, I decided I could no longer live without it.

Here are their stories.

The first record I mentioned was Cruel Frederick's Birth of the Cruel. The band was something of an off-shoot of the San Francisco group Slovenly. They started life as Slovenly Peter, a character in a European folk tale that also included a character named Cruel Frederick. So it only follows that the horn section of Slovenly (Peter) would go off on their own, recording under the name Cruel Frederick.

The group consisted of Lynn Johnston (saxophones, clarinets), Jacob Cohn (alto sax), Guy Bennett (bass, trombone) and Jason Kahn (drums). Johnston continued to appear on Slovenly's albums on SST Records (which also released Birth of the Cruel). In fact all three of them got some blowing space in "What's It Called" on the triumphant We Shoot for the Moon album. They also guested on a couple albums by Universal Congress Of, the best of the punk jazz groups on SST, which also featured Kahn (also a member of Trotsky Icepick for a time) and guitarist Joe Baiza.

Birth of the Cruel came out in 1988 and didn't get much distribution by some accounts. Maybe Greg Ginn figured most college stations and record stores, wouldn't know what to do with it. It could be due to the fact that, unlike Universal Congress Of, this wasn't groove-based jazz. This was free jazz squonk, plain and simple. And it was delivered with punk rock aesthetics, meaning things were loose and kind of sloppy. In an overall sincere take on "Moon River," Johnson's alto flubs the melody in a way that casts it more in a minor key,  not really following the arc of the Henry Mancini classic. In "The East is Red" he attempts to blow the melody in the register above his horn's natural key - and doesn't quite pull it off.

But for all its frenzy, time has been kind to Birth of the Cruel. There is a great deal of fun to be gathered from the album. "Jukebox in the East River" takes its name from the item that was allegedly tied to Albert Ayler when his body was pulled from that body of water, and Johnston utilizes the wide vibrato approach of his forefather. (This melody also sounds remarkably like the unlisted coda on UCO's Prosperous and Qualified though I could be wrong.)

The group's cover material, more than half of the album, puts their influences on display. Along with Mancini, they tackle Ornette Coleman ("Lonely Woman"), two by Ayler ("Ghosts," "Bells") and an explosive "Amazing Grace." In some ways, these seem like obvious choices, the "greatest hits" of free jazz. But remember that back in 1988, this music wasn't all readily available. Ornette's The Shape of Jazz to Come was, but one had to dig for Ayler recordings, hoping to make a score in a used record bin or on a questionable import reissue of an ESP album.

A few years before the CD boom reissued everything, these tunes still had some faint allure. It was an indication that these.... cats... were hip to something a little more esoteric. They all strike a chord with me because, at the time, I was still weighing the idea of being an alto saxophonist with a punk streak. (As opposed to a bassist in a post-punk band.) I, too, knew how to play "Lonely Woman" and "Ghosts." Had I heard this album, I might've pushed more for the punk-jazz side, trying to find these guys and play with them.(A couple years earlier, Saccharine Trust came to Pittsburgh on their final tour and got stoked when Joe Baiza and I got into a conversation about jazz. To a 18- or 19-year old music school dropout, it was good to know he was a kindred spirit.)

Or maybe not. Nevertheless, Birth of the Cruel is a fun album, due in no small part to the way Jason Kahn keeps things in focus. When I saw the album on Discogs, I knew it was time to pick it up, especially since it was only $5, and in beautiful shape.

Every nine months or so, I get on a Cars kick and pull out one for their first three albums. Panorama is my favorite. I thought for sure I had done an entry about it, talking about how it's an unheralded classic, with Ric Ocasek taking a sharp left turn, going for the weird blend of lyrics, new wave ideas and rock hooks, before he cashed in his chips and went all pop with Shake It Up and Heartbeat City.

I got Panorama for my birthday in 8th grade, a few months after it came out. My brother Tom had the first two albums on 8-track (!) so I knew their stuff really well and felt like we were keeping up with them. By the time Shake It Up came out, my tastes were changing, it was low on my priority list and I never bought it. (I did buy in for $1 about 15 years ago, but never got around to listening to it.)

This is a lot of back story, but it's worth it.

During college, my friend Joel was on a Cars kick and he and my friend John got me to fully appreciate  Panorama for the artistic work that it was. Up until then, you could say I was just taking it for granted. As we expounded on it, I remember the subject veering towards Niagra Falls, the solo album by Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. I recalled a lukewarm review in Creem when it came out, and everyone in the room seemed indifferent to the idea.

Well, the Cars kick resurfaced several weeks ago, and was still going strong last week. Really strong, as in listening closely to these songs I've heard dozens of times (I pulled out the first album and Candy-O too) and marveling at the song arrangements. Greg Hawkes' keyboard parts really stuck out so on a whim, I looked him up on Facebook. Why not strike up a friendly - not creepy or smug - conversation with him. A quick search of youtube yielded a video interview where he seems pretty down to earth, and funny. HE PLAYS THE UKULELE!

Sure enough, he has a personal profile. But my hopes of being a friend were thwarted because he couldn't accept any more requests. FIE!

This course of events made me all the more curious to get a copy of his solo album, Niagra Falls. Surely Jerry's Record would have a copy or two of it. The answer is yes, but it took some hunting. In the Cars section - nothing. The H section - definitely nothing. I think I even scoured the new wave H section. One option remained - Back stock.

Sure enough, right next to Richie Havens, there was Mr. Hawkes, four copies of him in fact. And they went back to the days when Jerry priced his records at $2.83, since tax took it up to $3 exactly. I opted for the copy still in shrink wrap with a sticker on it (as seen in the picture.)

Time has also been good this record. While it might not be a gem that was unfairly neglected at the time, it's nevertheless a fun listen. Hawkes plays everything on the album - keys, a little guitar, drum machines, a few vocals, sadly no saxophones - but it's more than a bunch of sketches with a bunch of overdubs piled onto them (the solo album syndrome). These are instrumental songs. "Ants In Your Pants" has a bit of a videogame sound, but it's catchy too. The vocoder vocals on "Voyage Into Space" beg the question: Does Tobacco, the reclusive Pittsburgh musician who also records with Black Moth Super Rainbow, know about this album? Did it inspire him? If not, he should get up to Jerry's and grab one of the other copies.

Even the lyrics on "Jet Lag" ("Jet lag/ it's a real drag," and that's it) are forgiveable. While he might have been slagged at the time as "no Ric Ocasek in the lyric department," today it sounds more like Greg knew what he was doing. Part of the fun was that it was so ridiculous a couplet.

On the same day I bought Niagra Falls I found the Cars' reunion CD Move Like This at the library, which is also really great, just like one might hope. And I also finally listened to Shake It Up. It was time.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Bonus Tracks, um, I mean Bonus Quotes

You can't print everything. That's a valuable lesson I learned from a journalism teacher during college. It's something I think about a lot after doing a great interview and knowing that only a few, choice quotes will make it into the article.

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper ran my interview with Moppa Elliot, the bassist of the jazz group Mostly Other People Do the Killing, who are coming to town next week. With a 500-word limit, I could only put so much in the article, and tried not to delve too deep into technical details of their music. So I figured it's time to bring out some thoughts that were left on the cutting room floor. In particular, I wanted to spotlight Elliot's thoughts on Blue, MOPDtK's note-for-note recreation of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis' revered classic. In some ways, Elliot had a lot to say about it, but I also wish that I had gotten him to open up a little more, and that I had asked a few devil's advocate questions. I also included his thoughts on why he names his compositions after Pennsylvania towns (though not the "big" ones like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh). Details on the show can be found in the CP link.

Tell me about Blue. How did it come about? Were you guys just sitting around and somebody said that it was a cool thing to do?

Elliot: That's actually exactly what happened. We do a lot of sitting around talking about a lot of crazy random things to do, 90% of which we don’t do because they’re stupid. [Blue] was one where we came up with an idea and some time went by, and we brought it up again. Instead of sounding stupider and stupider like many of our ideas do, it sounded better and better. The more we thought about it, the more interesting it revealed itself to be. 

And it’s proven to be this never-ending wormhole of… I think it’s a really good piece of art in that it means all kinds of stuff to all kinds of people. And it facilitates all kinds of thinking about all kinds of things. Everywhere I go, that’s what everyone wants to talk to me about. And everybody wants to talk about it for a different reason. Which I think is a testament to the fact that it was a good idea. Everybody has a strong opinion and very few people’s opinions about it overlap and I think that’s all good.
We thought about it for years before we did it and it took us four years to do it. So that idea was floating around for a very, very long time. Which was part of making sure this was a good idea before we actually did it.

Why did it take four years - for accuracy?

Elliot: Well, that’s a whole angle right there, where it’s like, we could keep working on it the rest of our lives and it would never be right. It’s literally impossible to do.

The document that we released was as good as we could get it right then. We’ve also jokingly – and this does not seem like as good an idea as a joke -  of doing it again. It would be, you know, better but still not the thing. The thing that’s out, that people can listen to, is the document of the best we could do right then, given the constraints of time and having lives and the whole thing.

I wondered if it was supposed to be a piece of artistic commentary, relating to jazz as "America's classical music" and what that would mean if you really stuck to that idea.

Elliot: That is one very solid angle that I’ve thought a lot about: Taking certain aspects of the jazz world and pushing them to their logical extreme, and then everyone freaks out. And you you think, "Oh, okay, cool. So where’s the line?" At what point between here and, you know, Branford Marsalis redoing A Love Supreme or Chick Corea redoing Return to Forever, or …. I could list any number of tribute projects right here. Where does it stop being okay? That, I think is an incredibly interesting conversation because everyone will give different answers. But I think a lot of the other things I mentioned are equally stupid. But obviously not everyone agrees with me and that’s awesome!

Are you always going to name your songs after cities in Pennsylvania?

Elliot: I’m in no danger of running out. I think trying to give profound titles to instrumental compositions is a little bit silly. It’s a little bit manipulative because you're telling the audience what to think before they hear the music. Titles create association. I wanted to have something completely unrelated and arbitrary as a titling system so that anyone trying to read into meaning in the titles is clearly barking up the wrong tree because they’re just dumb names of Pennsylvania towns. So that way there is no connection and now we can just listen to music. Either that or you do the [Anthony] Braxton thing where you give [the compositions] weird codes and numbers that mean something to you but no one else. That’s another good strategy. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

CD Review: Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio - Desire & Freedom

Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio
Desire & Freedom
(Not Two)

"Freedom is a two-edged sword of which one edge is liberty and the other is responsibility, on which both edges are exceedingly sharp."

That excerpt from Jack Parsons' Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword appears on the liner of Rodrigo Amado's new CD. It was published was in 1946, a good decade and a half before free jazz of any type came into its own. Parsons most likely wasn't talking specifically about music when he wrote it, but of course it does speak directly to the music. While some might think disparagingly that free improvisation does away with any type of listening skills and just goes for broke, the best examples of it betray an unspoken understanding between the participants. They have a responsibility to each other and the music to use their musical liberation in a way that leads to some new conclusion.

Rodrigo Amado understands that connection. The tenor saxophonist is a native of Lisbon, Portugal where he's been an active part of the free jazz scene, taking part in the earliest releases on the Clean Feed label. (More biographical info can be found here.) I reviewed a previous disc by the Motion Trio that added Jeb Bishop back in 2014. They've also performed with trumpeter Peter Evans. Desire and Freedom features the trio - Amado, cellist Miguel Mira, drummer Gabriel Ferrandini - stretching out on three tracks which take their names from ideas in Parsons' treatise.

"Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword" sounds spontaneous yet it begins with Amado working on an idea that he reshapes and bends, returning regularly to a center. His tone is clear, not rough and noisy, but after about four minutes he starts blowing staccato altissimo notes. The trio never gets too frenetic, though Mira consistently plucks rapid countermelodies behind Amado, and Ferrandini does cut loose.

"Liberty" comes at it from a different angle. Cello and drums begin with upper register plucking and clattering respectively, while the tenor eventually slides in, ruminating with long, tender tones. The contrast between the rhythm section and the saxophone keeps things exciting. Eleven minutes in, the trio starts to get a bit wild but Amado still resides in a melodic area rather than going from shrieks.

"Responsibility," the longest track at 20 minutes, begins with a two-note tenor line that sounds vaguely reminiscent of an Albert Ayler theme. Amado doesn't go for that over-the-top delivery but the trio delivers the disc's wildest moments here. But even when they sound free, all their lines still feel connected, like their rapport can be heard, even on a recording. Interestingly, they sound like they reach a crossroads around 11 minutes, as if they could wrap things up right there. Instead they reconvene and assess - going back in for another excursion that includes a cello solo and more tenor wails. It was well worth it.

In addition to a compelling set, Desire & Freedom comes, like other Not Two discs, in a heavy cardboard gatefold sleeve similar to the layout of the US International Phonograph label.

Monday, February 13, 2017

CD Review: Ingrid Laubrock - Serpentines, Crump/Laubrock/Smythe- Planktonic Finales

Ingrid Laubrock

Stephan Crump/Ingrid Laubrock/Cory Smythe
Planktonic Finales

As I began this post last night, the Grammy Awards were being handed out. Downloads of music were reportedly greater than CDs sales over the past year. That means most people listen to the music in a completely different way than they did ten or more years ago. Albums don't really matter, and forget about cover art. That went out with the 20th centure.

Don't mention this to anyone in Europe, especially the jazz fans. On further thought, do tell them. I'd like to hear what their reaction is. They'd probably say we Americans don't appreciate a good thing, treating music like disposable, expendable bits of entertainment.

While record labels continue to be antiquated by the general public in the states, one label in Switzerland continues to churn out albums at such a rate that even their devoted supporters (Hi!) have trouble keeping up with them. A quick look at this blog will show that I get the chance to write about a release once in a while, but there are plenty more out there. Aside from the ones I reviewed in the past twelve months, I dug the Fred Frith Trio's Another Day in Fucking Paradise (for, among other things, a great album title), the Musical Monsters disc (which unearthed a 1981 performance by Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Irene Schweizer, Leon Fancioli and Pierre Favre) and Jim Black's The Constant. Black also just released a new electric project called Malamute (look for my review in an upcoming JazzTimes).

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock released her Serpentines project in November, followed this month by her collaboration with bassist Stephan Crump and pianist Cory Smythe, Planktonic Finales. Both discs complement each other while also showing different sides of the creative composer and improviser. Any label that will invest in an adventurous artist in that short a time period isn't going to have any regard for mass acceptance or sales anyway, just the music.

Serpentines puts Laubrock's tenor and soprano (and bits of glockenspiel) in the company of Peter Evans (trumpet, piccolo trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). Rather than utilizing a bassist, Laubrock brought in Dan Peck on tuba. Also along for the adventure are Sam Pluta (electronics) and Miya Masaoka (koto), who float in and out of the five tracks. Come to think of it, most of the players do that as well. The two-part "Pothole Analytics" begins with pointillistic sounds from the horns, jutting out without really cohering just yet. Things start to gel in part two, with soprano, trumpet, tuba and piano moving in parallel lines. Even Sorey, who can fit into any setting, seems to have a written part that drives things along. As quickly as things picked up, they also die down in the final minute.

"Squirrels" could have been banded into two tracks, like "Pothole Analytics" since the 15-minute piece has two distinct parts. After another rollicking soprano/piccolo trumpet conversation that appears to move from free to structured, the second half of the piece gets spare and open. Peck's tuba and Masaoka's koto create a pensive sound to which Pluta adds some electric static. Sometimes musical, sometimes noisy, it adds to sound and, at one point, makes the disc sound like it's defective. The rest of the band slowly eases in, with Laubrock casually joining the crew to close it up.

The group stretches out on the other two tracks with some fine moments, though things come up a little short. "Chip in Brain" is a dark tone poem built largely on low, long tones from Peck.  The combination of Taborn and Masaoko create some harplike sounds but as Evans moves from intermittent blasts to his own long tones, things never completely catch fire. The title track starts at a high level - with two minutes of free band blowing. Then things pull back to feature the piano and koto in an understated combination. It's engaging in its spareness but it doesn't end on any type of grand statement; it merely winds down.

Stephan Crump (who plays with Vijay Iyer and leads his own Rosetta Trio and quartet Rhombal) has released several intimate, free improvised discs for Intakt (with Steve Lehman and in Secret Keeper with Mary Halvorson). The seeds for Planktonic Finales were sown when Laubrock invited Crump and pianist Cory Smythe to her rehearsal space to play. Smythe has a background in classical music but played on Tyshawn Sorey's two recent albums, proving his flexibility as an improviser. The natural chemistry between the players worked so well that they attempted to recreate it - or perhaps continue it - by going into the studio.

In some ways, Planktonic Finales resembles Serpentines. It often moves slowly, casually, so as not to rush anything. "With Eyes Peeled" opens the album like an exposition, with each player figuring out the space between them. But more direction comes with each track, as if the whole set was originally recorded as a complete 54-minute piece and divided into 11 tracks later.

When Laubrock switches to soprano on "Sinew Modulations" her languid tenor sound is likewise transformed into a plucky attack, followed by some walking bass from Crump and some Monk-like interjections from Smythe. On "Through the Forest," the piano rises and falls, abruptly dropping out at one point, which gives the music a good accent. After exploring the space methodically for awhile, the trio finally cuts loose and wails on "Bite Bright Sunlight," but in another sly maneuver, they stop just shy of two minutes, knowing there are other roads to take.

Both of these albums keep the surprises coming. Some of them might not be discovered until you've made several returns to the disc. That type of approach might not be rewarded with statuettes, but as long as it keeps coming, let's consider ourselves lucky.