Thursday, November 16, 2017

Matthew Shipp Trio & Thoth Trio at the Andy Warhol Museum

$15 for a national touring jazz group, with a strong local opener. Imagine that: $7.50 for the Matthew Shipp Trio and $7.50 for Thoth Trio. (One could say you're paying for Shipp and getting Thoth for free, but that sort of shortchanges the locals, implying the "hey, I can't pay you but imagine the exposure you'll get" idea, which WAS NOT the case anyway). What a deal!

And people came to the Andy Warhol Museum for it, selling out the room within 30 minutes of the start of the show. I felt bad because one of my friends to whom I sent an email, telling them about it, was one of the folks who had been turned away. But it was encouraging that there were around 130 people who came out to check out the music. (The couple next to me left after about 30 minutes of Shipp's set, so maybe a few people didn't get into it, but getting bodies in seats is arguably most of the battle.)



Shipp comes to town with bassist Michael Bisio on a fairly consistent, annual basis, but it's been several years since he played here in the trio setting. And it's been 10 years since he played at the Warhol. (That 2007 appearance was a solo show.) Last Friday was the first time he came with both Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, who has played on his last two trio discs. They sat down without a word, dove into the music and didn't stop for an hour, playing a set drawn from his original material, seguing each piece into a long suite. 

The pianist strikes the keyboard using his whole arm, making it look more physical that most pianists. Even with that method, his sound remains graceful, able to go from delicate phrases to hard thunder easily, but always with the same amount of exertion. During the snaky "Instinctive Touch" he played with head down, barely looking at the keys, still managing to product an endless flow of thoughts. 

Baker is an ideal third piece of the Shipp puzzle. Beginning on brushes, his style added an extra sound that almost served as a melodic addition to the music. Anyone who thinks this music doesn't require communication between the players would have changed their mind during a moment later in the set when Shipp and Baker hit The One together, in the middle of what sounded like wild, free bop. Listen closely and the conversation becomes clear.


The moment when Shipp pauses and Bisio gets a chance to stretch out always stands as one of the highlights of the set. The bassist offers strong support during the group interaction but his solos call attention to the grace and lyrical qualities at the root of his playing. Without an amp, and only one microphone on his instrument, Bisio filled the room (even creating a loud, but still appropriate, scrape when his bridge made contact with the mike), especially when he took the bow off of his belt (see the picture above) and drew it across the strings. 


I could only shoot Baker at the very end of the set due to the cymbal obstructing my view, and even then the blue lights in the room made it a challenge. It turns out, Baker had played with Billy Bang when he came to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater back in 2008, which was right around the corner from where the trio stayed after this show, at the Ace Hotel.


Hopefully someday some bigshot label rep will come to town and realize that they need to release the next Thoth Trio CD. Until then, it's good to know that a sold-out crowd got to check out their set of material. Saxophonist Ben Opie told me a few days later that several people asked him about the ballad in their set, a slow, thoughtful line that some mistook for an Ornette Coleman piece.


Unlike Michael Bisio, Paul Thompson amplified his bass and there were times when it was hard to hear it, especially when Dave Throckmorton was rolling across his toms. I could feel the bass though, and picked up on Thompson's accents. He also cranked it up a bit as the set moved on. Throck, much like Newman Taylor Baker, was hard to capture on film, his head being obscured by a cymbal.

Hopefully some of those in the crowd who had never heard the trio will check them out again. In fact, all interested parties should go to City of Asylum this Sunday at six. The trio, plus guitarist Chris Parker, will be playing an all-Ornette set. It's free but they request online reservations to make sure they can seat everyone.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

DL/LP Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition - Agrima



Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition
Agrima
(Rudreshm) www.rudreshm.com

Speed isn't everything. Many people can play spray a bushelful of notes at listeners and not say anything. When a musician can combine speed with intriguing melodic lines, and tweak those ideas as they're taking shape, that's the sign of a gifted player. Rudresh Mahanthappa's performance has been developing to such a degree that he is now arguably one of the most creative alto saxophonists to ever blow that horn. (Yes, up there with the big guys.) The way he manipulates pitch and executes with an often acidic tone definitely makes him the most unique alto player to come along in quite awhile. He often emits a rapid-fire arsenal of notes, which serve to expand his ideas, never stopping to grandstand. This has been going on for a while in his music, and the approach is on full display in his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with guitarist Rez Abbasi and tabla player/trap drummer Dan Weiss.

The trio's debut, Apti (2008), combined jazz improvisation with ideas from traditional Indian music, stripping it down to bare essentials. Weiss played tabla exclusively, Abbasi worked double-duty as soloist and keeper of the groundwork, and Mahanthappa surged forward. For Agrima ("next" or "following" in Sanskrit), Weiss incorporates the drum kit into the music with his tabla. The approach offers surprises throughout the album. Sometimes they come in simple ways, as cymbal crashes punctuating his tabla parts. In "Snap" he begins on tabla and cymbals, only to reemerge on drums following Abbasi's solo. "Showcase," which begins sounding like a blues riff, recreates the approach Weiss used in live performances, having the tabla and drums together.

Mahanthappa wanted the trio to imagine they were making a rock album as they recorded Agrima, homing in on group interaction as opposed to thinking about combining Indian music with western music. The suggestion worked because they play with a visceral passion. Both Abbasi and Mahanthappa get a little maniacal with their complexity in "Rasikapriya." The saxophonist's double-timing lines in "Revati" are jaw-dropping, though never short of serious substance.

Electronics have shown up in the saxophonist's work since 2011's Samdhi, and they creep up here as well. "Take-Turns" includes effects that echo the alto saxophone note for note, turning it into a buzzing replication of Mahanthappa. "Agrima" begins with a Philip Glass-style loop, which gets swallowed by Abbasi's heavy power chords. This piece veers perhaps a little too close to progressive rock, introducing a flowing theme and then restating it at half-time as a slow funk romp. But the force of the band's performance keeps it from stagnating. It presents one of several moments where they sound bigger than a trio. Here especially, Abbasi's guitar effects always give his attack extra edge and color.

Agrima is available exclusively as both a download (for just $2.50!) and limited edition double LP. The latter comes in a beautiful, full color package with a gatefold sleeve and liner notes by the saxophonist. Downloads are fine, but anyone who has a turntable should take the plunge for the vinyl. A download card comes with it and besides, it gives Mahanthappa some positive reinforcement for a strong effort and for self-releasing an actual record.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Pere Ubu in Pittsburgh

David Thomas waits while Michele Temple pours the foundation.

"We're not legends. We're myths," David Thomas said. "I was born a myth."

Pere Ubu is one of those bands that attracts rabid fans. They're the type of fanatics that think nothing of yelling to the band between songs, telling them, "You're legendary." That happened earlier this evening at Club Cafe, and Thomas responded immediately and sharply with the above quote. Another guy yelled that he loved the band - but that he was leaving. As if everyone needed to know, because it was all about Dude. Thomas replied to that one by wondering what someone that loves him would do for him. A song later he apologized for the crassness of his comment, and he went on to regale us with the story of how he met his girlfriend, who was working the merch table. Kirsty (I believe that's her name, though I can guarantee the spelling) approached him after a spoken word show and told Thomas his performance was so good, it made her cry. He responded, "Why should I care what you think." (She corroborated the story from the back of the room.)

My advice to Pere Ubu fanatics - shut up. Thomas doesn't really care what you think, either. We were lucky because he seemed to be in a good mood tonight, and he let the banal comments slide. Except at the start of the set, when he was getting situated onstage and a casual, "Alright," garnered a too-enthusiastic "Yeah!" from someone. He didn't like that.



The six-piece version of Ubu played for roughly 70 minutes, leaning heavily on this year's album 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, a fine batch of material. It lets the band do what it does best, churn out heavy no-nonsense riffs, which actually do rock pretty hard. Michelle Temple is still a solid bassist, straddling the foundation of the songs and playing thick double- or triple-stops across the neck. Guitarist Gary Siperko was joined by pedal steel player Kristof Hahn (of the Swans). When the latter botched the beginning of a song, Thomas swore he wasn't mad at Hahn, jabbing him playfully. But he did make the band repeat the song.

On top of it, longtime Ubu member Robert Wheeler wreaked havoc on the EML-101 synthesizer, as well as a theremin, adding the eerie quality that's been as much a part of their music as Thomas' voice. It should be mentioned though that, these days, Thomas shows a great deal of variety from song to song. Sometimes he has the naive man-child squeaks of the early days, but sometimes he takes inspiration from gravelly-voiced blues singers. Though his patter can sometimes seem nasty or gruff onstage, it seems like he's going more for comic relief when he yells or barks at a band member.

Before the encore portion of the set, he wanted to step outside of Club Cafe and grab a smoke. That idea was dashed apparently, when he nearly fell off the stage as he tried to step down. He yelled some obscenities and quoted James Brown, of all people, as if to regain his focus. Next thing we knew, the five-minute interlude before the last few songs had been erased. The evening ended with "I Can't Believe It," a song which dates back to the band's very early days, heard on 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo. Other than "We Have the Technology," from 1986's The Tenement Year, it was the only song in the set that went deep into the band's earlier archives.

Johnny Dowd opened the show, though I arrived late and missed most of his set. Had I seen it all I might have appreciated the five-minute take on "Freddie's Dead," which didn't seem to have much loyalty to Curtis Mayfield's original. Other cities get to see Minibeast, which features Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott. When I heard that, I felt shortchanged.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review of the 47th Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert - Remembering Geri Allen

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tia Fuller, Kenny Davis, Nicholas Payton
In an interview to preview the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert, Ravi Coltrane told me, "I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, 'Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music [and for all the] music that you put in to the world."

That sentiment was repeated many times during the concert this past Saturday, although Coltrane was absent, having cancelled due to an illness. The eight remaining musicians and emcee S. Epatha Merkerson each recounted anecdotes about Allen as a performer and an educator. A brief video was also shown, which included comments from musicians like Coltrane, Teri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding as well as Pitt faculty.

For the first time in 47 years, the evening wasn't directed, passively or otherwise, by the university head of jazz studies. Under Dr. Nathan Davis, the concert (which usually concluded a week of seminars, talks and films on campus) operated like a jam session, with a wealth of A-list jazz musicians coming to town, blowing a few tunes together and breaking off into smaller groups that would spotlight individuals. Allen continued the basic template when she took the reins in 2013, but mixed new elements in with some of the well-trodden standards. (The most memorable moment was the opening tune in her first year, Nathan Davis' "If" which was a 20-minute, swampy, Bitches-Brew-style arrangement that heralded Allen's arrival.)

Saturday's performance, consisting predominantly of works by Allen, had a loose quality and felt somewhat more casual that the usual organization of these events. After the video, Nicholas Payton sat down at the piano and, without a word, began playing a riff. As he played, a recording of Allen's voice came over the sound system, as it did several times throughout the night. The rest of the musicians took the stage as Payton (who played trumpet later in the set) vamped: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Kenny Davis, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, alto/soprano saxophonist Tia Fuller and drummers Kassa Overall and Victor Lewis. Written by Payton, "Geri" was a mid-tempo meditation that set the mood appropriately, though his chanting of the late pianist's name and the call for the audience to join him, felt a little cloying.

Between every couple songs, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to back-announce or introduce song titles (which is a good way to explore Allen's work further) and to share a story about their time with her. Tap dancer Maurice Chestnut talked Allen's group Timeline, which put his talent on equal ground with Davis and Overall. Harris recalled meeting Allen on the bandstand, where he had to immediately jump into a take on "I Got Rhythm" changes in B-flat - in which no B-flats were played. That unspoken message of "You better swim" has stayed with him, as his solos were some of the most dynamic of the evening, in terms of complex melody and rhythm.

Harris also created an arresting sonic blend with Fuller's alto and Payton's trumpet on Lewis' "Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter recreating the joyful snap of a group like Cannonball Adderley's band, augmented by vibes and tap dancing. Chestnut, lest anyone doubt it, moved like percussionist, reacting to the band, doubling and tripling the beat with a performance that added to the music.

With Pitt Ph.D. student Irene Monteverde on piano (alto saxophonist Yoku Suzuki, another Pitt student, also sat in earlier), the group ended the evening with another Allen piece, "In Appreciation." Its hard bop drive, and solos that included Harris attack on his marimba with reckless abandon, turned the room into revival meeting. But Fuller, who had already conjured a bright-toned, bluesy solo earlier in the song, wasn't done yet. As the rhythm section played a descending riff, she read what could only be called an invocation, beginning as a call to women, repeating with intensity, "This space is a sacred space." She made the audience join with the closing credo that came from Allen: "Jazz is a way of life, a way to be in the world but not of the world - walking, seeing and feeling time." This call for audience participation felt necessary, a way to carry Allen's vision with us, after the last notes had evaporated.


Saturday, November 04, 2017

Ravi Coltrane Extras

Last week, I was able to get some time with Ravi Coltrane, who is coming to town tonight for the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. Most of our conversation can be found in this article from City Paper. But there was some good stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor including one topic in particular. 

When I saw Coltrane at the Detroit Jazz Festival several years ago, he played a few songs on the sopranino saxophone. The last time he came to town for the Seminar, he didn't bring it, but said that he might "next time." Turns out that subject served as a good ice breaker for our talk.

First question - are you bringing the sopranino this time?

Coltrane: [Laughs] It's possible. I've been traveling with it pretty regularly. Did I have it last time?

No, but you told me that you'd bring it when you came back.

Well, I guess it's a must!

You don't see many people playing it, outside of Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton. There's someone else, but I forget who.{I think Jon Irabagon was the name that was escaping me.] What do you like about it?

I bought the instrument from Roberto’s Winds in New York, kind of on a lark. I was in there for either some repairs or reeds. And Roberto, who I’ve known for decades, asked me if I had ever played a sopranino before. He had just gotten some horns in. I tried it in the shop and thought it was fun to play. It was so difficult to play it in tune that it never left my house for about five years! It was just something that I had around the house to noodle on. I remember having a jam session at my place and taking it out and trying it with the group and immediately putting it back down! The intonation was very difficult to play in tune. But I always play it, I play it for fun.

The first time I played it in public was with Jack DeJohnette and Matt Garrison. The situation was almost calling for it. It was a trio setting, right at the beginning when we started working together as a trio. Jack wanted a lot of different sounds and elements. Matt was using some electronics and Jack had a few electric drums. I didn’t want to show up with just one instrument, show up with the tenor. I ended up bringing the sopranino with me to the rehearsal at the Matt’s club, the Shape Shifter, here in Brooklyn. I had a chance, playing without a chordal instrument, to kind of fudge the tuning a little bit. But there was something about the projection of the instrument. It felt like I was playing a trumpet or something. It had a very brassy, brash kind of …. It’s not a fancy instrument. It has some grit to it. It rattles a little bit, and squawks and has some balls to it. I started playing it in Jack's group and I started playing it in my own group. And the intonation starting coming together!

You can hear the difference in it. It's distinct but I'm not sure exactly how to describe it.

Squirrely!

Yeah, that's it!



CD Review: Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor - Live in Krakow


Barry Altschul & the 3Dom Factor
Live in Krakow
(Not Two) www.nottwo.com

I once decided that I would limit myself to a hyperbolic outbursts just once every six months. If I was going to foam at the mouth about a musician or a band, it had better be good, and I wanted to prove that someone that good doesn't come along more than twice a year, if at that. While that motto still stands, the need for hyperbole hasn't been used much over the last year or two. (Maybe these blog entries say otherwise.)

My main goal in getting so wound up about a particular album or artist is not merely to satisfy the hyperbole quotient, but to motivate someone to action. Rather than just reading some words and having them give the one-handed brush-off, the hope is that a person will say, "What?! Just a second, let me hear that thing." After they take a listen, hopefully the person would conclude one of the following: "Well, I wouldn't go that far with your assessment, but - yeah - it's pretty damn good." Or [taking a line from a '40s film character], "Say, this IS some pretty amazing stuff."

Either way, I made you look. Listen, that is.

Live in Krakow is the album worthy of the superlatives this time around. In truth, the previous two albums by drummer Barry Altschul's trio (with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda) have all been worthy of such high praise. The reason for the kudos falls squarely on the members of the trio themselves. The interaction between these three creates a feeling and a sound that puts them in the ranks with some of the best working jazz groups around. Why this particular trio isn't heralded as one of just a few bands that will knock you on your posterior is hard to fathom. They possess the fury that drove the best bop bands, playing with the same kind of conviction that knew the music was important and that no corners were cut in the presentation. They also play free because that's where the music leads them, before it might bring them back to a structure.

Altschul has been around the musical block so many times, he should own a share in the real estate. The album opens up with a three-minute drum solo, which might alienate radio programmers but will make true listeners sit in rapt attention. Like a pianist, he uses quiet space in his solo to build the energy. Outside of the late Paul Motian, Altschul is probably the only drummer who make a statement with just a cymbal tap, letting it decay before he continues. By the time the solo concludes and Fonda begins the riff for "Martin's Stew," things are moving at a fast pace, and the group is cruising at that tempo.

There are plenty of saxophonists who have gone through the conservatory and, simultaneously, digested and memorized as much classic jazz as they could. Many of them play pretty well too. Jon Irabagon stands beyond the the pack because he plays like he's lived in the music. He knows the classics, he knows the tone but most importantly he seems to constantly be thinking about how to take all of these ideas and use them to take the music one step deeper. Irabagon's discography proves that, but without even having to binge on his back catalog, his scope can be felt here. Monk's "Ask Me Now" can be a potential minefield for any musician, with its constant chord changes and the need to maintain its slow tempo. Irabagon's phrasing in the theme takes liberties with the rhythm, but he feels right in sync with Altschul's rolls. The saxophonist only takes a brief solo on this track. When he does, he never loses site of Monk's angular personality, a crucial part in any Monk interpretation. He also plays his sopranino on a couple tracks, including the lovely "Irina" where the little horn fits right in.

The other two give Joe Fonda plenty of room. Being a modern trio, he takes a wealth of solos, from an easy going mood, punctuated by double stops in "Ask Me Now" to one that includes moments of resonance from his instrument and even a bit of low feedback in "The 3Dom Factor." In some ways, he serves as a frontline foil to Irabagon, but he never neglects his rhythm section responsibilities, prodding Altschul to take his work to greater levels of intensity. The way Fonda starts "Martin's Stew" on the path towards its theme reveals the take-charge level of his work.

There's probably a reason 3Dom Factor isn't topping polls or making headlines already. Maybe they're simply not out there playing as often as they like. But now there's no reason to bypass their albums. This is one of the year's best.


Wednesday, November 01, 2017

CD Review: Black Butterflies feat. Gato Barbieri - Luisa


The Black Butterflies ft. Gato Barbieri
Luisa
(Self-released) mercedesfigueras.com/release/luisa/

Mercedes Figueras reveals a few different personalities on the alto saxophone. Sometimes she plays with a thick, brawny tone, preferring the horn's mid-range. A song later, she reveals a clear, crisp delivery normally heard in the work of a classical saxophonist. Her music has a festive, happy mood that acknowledges her South American upbringing. (Figueras hails from Argentina.) But there are moments on Luisa when she's ready to break off into some wild blowing, especially when she shares the front line with the late tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. She also sings on the title track, in a whispered voice that almost sounds raspy and a bit spooky despite the heartfelt lyrics. The saxophonist covers a lot of ground here.

Figueras moved to New York in 2007, playing for a time with drummer Kenny Wollesen and vibraphonist Karl Berger. While there, she formed the Black Butterflies, which included both of them, along with saxophonist/percussionist Tony Larokko. For Luisa, recorded in 2013, the group invited fellow Argentinian Barbieri to stop by. The session marked a reunion of sorts with Berger, since he and Barbieri played together in Don Cherry's mid '60s group that recorded Symphony for Improvisers and performed at the Cafe Montmartre (which were recorded and are now available on ESP). He appears on three of the seven tracks.

The veteran tenor saxophonist picks up on the upbeat mood of "Gato's Hat," displaying his trademark vibrato, adding a few squeaks, perhaps unintentionally, which nevertheless energize the already vibrant mood. "Merceditas" begins out of tempo with a gritty tenor line before Figueras and the group joins in. The two saxophonists dance around one another, with Berger adding to the exotic quality by switching to melodica. The only setback is that the percussion section (Larokko, Wollesen and percussionists Bopa King Carre and Fred Berryhill) doesn't feel as prominent in the mix as they could have been.

Larokko switches to soprano saxophone to join Figueras in an infectious take on McCoy Tyner's "Love Samba," in which Berger also stretches out. The drum-and-sax man also kicks off the album with a brief take on the ancient "Hambone." Figueras' response to his lyrics make a little more sense once she segues it into the second half of the opening medley - Astor Piazzolla's slow, tango "Adios Nonino." It feels inappropriate to say it sounds sensual, since it was written in homage to the composer's late father, but it is. This track also features one of the best of Figueras' solos on the album, especially in the second half where she bends and blasts some tart notes. Another tango, "Por Una Cabeza" closes the album, with Berger's melodica serving as a good substitute for an accordion. This time, the percussionists make their way to the forefront too.

Figueras has relocated to Spain since Luisa was recorded, which might make this the final chapter of the Black Butterflies. If that's the case, considering that the three songs with Barbieri were his last studio recordings, they ended things on a celebratory note.